For the Love of Akira

Chapter 1 - A Bitter Taste, My Sweet

To Akira, Valentine's Day had customarily been considered a major nuisance. Not usually one to socialize much, she therefore always dreaded when the commercially created holiday rolled around. At least in countries like America, the male counterpart in a relationship would typically be the one to bear the burden of bestowing gifts upon his sweetheart. Not so in Asian countries like Japan. Apparently some shrewd corporate bigwig decided to put a spin on the Western custom and hit upon the idea of obligating only women as the gift givers, chocolate being the gift of choice over ninety percent of the time. However, the recipient wasn't to be limited to only their husbands and boyfriends. Oh no, this tradition also dictated that they offer some treat to not only their male friends but to their male co-workers and other casual acquaintances as well. Giri-choco, or obligation chocolate, is what they would give to such individuals and is usually inexpensive in nature but can quickly begin to add up depending on the number of recipients. Honmei-choco, on the other hand, is much more expensive and reserved specifically for that very special someone in a woman's life. As a further sign of love and affection, a man should consider himself very lucky if the honmei-choco he receives is homemade.

Not quite satisfied with the large windfall in profits that they reap from this holiday, the confectionary industry in Japan introduced White Day in 1978. Celebrated on March 14, this man-made holiday requires that men now reciprocate the gesture of their female counterparts from the month before. On top of that, the value of the gift is expected to be more expensive, usually two to three times that of the original. The types of gifts typically given are usually chocolates, flowers, jewelry, and even lingerie.

Akira couldn't abide this custom, and yet, looking at it from a business standpoint, she thought it rather ingenious of the various companies involved that use this as a way to boost their sales. And since her family was heavily invested in numerous such industries, she had no right to criticize. Lately, however, her attitude on the matter had started to soften somewhat, or, more precisely, it began changing right after she had met Takumi.

For their previous three Valentine's Days together, Akira would spare no expense, presenting Takumi with some of the finest imported chocolates from Europe and then taking him out to dinner at an exquisite restaurant thereafter. This year, however, she was determined to add a more personal touch to her gift by making the chocolate herself. And even though her amateur cooking skills had vastly improved over the years, thanks in part to Takumi's guidance, she still knew next to nothing when it came to candy making. But, she wasn't about to let that stop her.

"Hey, Hajime, wait up!" Takumi called out, running to catch up with his friend on their way to school one morning.

"Morning, Takumi," he unenthusiastically responded. "Shouldn't you be meeting up with Akira by her dorm right about now?"

"She called earlier this morning to let me know that she was running a bit late and to go on ahead without her. But never mind me," he said with concern, "you sound kind of down. Something wrong?"

"Ooh, it's Kyoko," he lamented. "She called last night and told me that she won't be able to make it over here today because she has exams scheduled in two of her classes tomorrow and is going to be cramming for them all day today. I mean, I understand, of course, but it just sucks that it had to fall right on Valentine's Day."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Hajime. But you knew when Kyoko left for university that the two of you were going to be facing long periods of separation."

"Yeah, I know. It's just lousy timing, that's all."

"Well, try not to let it bother you too much," Takumi attempted to console. "After all, this holiday is just something thought up by big corporations to try and make a buck."

"Jeez, when did you get to be so cynical? You're starting to sound like Akira."

"Hey, don't get me wrong, I like Valentine's Day just as much as the next person. I just meant that you shouldn't fret over it so much. So what if you don't get to see her on this particular day, you'll see her tomorrow then or the day after that, and she can give you her gift at that time. So relax, you're basically getting yourself all worked up over some store bought chocolate."

"Homemade actually," Hajime corrected, sounding rather pitiful. "The chocolate she made me last year was simply heavenly and just melted in my mouth. I was so looking forward to that today."

"Hajime, it's just chocolate!" Takumi frustratingly pointed out. "I'm sure she'll make it up to you on another day."

"Yeah, but…"

"No buts! Look, it's just for a few more months. You've already been accepted to the same university as her so you'll get to see more of her then. Honestly, I'm trying to cheer you up here. Help me out a little, will ya?

Finally cracking a smile, Hajime was forced to confess, "Sorry. Guess I must have sounded pretty pathetic to you just now."

"No more than usual," he jokingly replied, giving him a friendly slap on the back.

"Thanks, Takumi," he gratefully replied.

Their little male bonding moment was suddenly interrupted by an overexcited girl's voice that was heard coming up from behind the two. "Takumi-san!"

Turning around, Takumi struggled to recall the rather attractive blond-haired girl's name.

"Ni… Nishizawa-san," he eventually recollected once she stood directly before him. "How are you?"

Too nervous to respond, the over anxious young girl simply extended her arms out while bowing her head, presenting Takumi with a small pink bag that she unsteadily held in her cusped hands.

"I… I made these just for you," she said with a shaky voice.

"Why thank you," Takumi appreciatively replied. "That's very kind of you."

"Please enjoy them!" she loudly announced before abruptly running off.

"Excitable, isn't she?" Takumi amusingly observed as he reached into the bag, taking a quick bite of one of her confections. "Mmm, that is good. Want one?"

"I hate you," Hajime expressed with envy.

"Huh? What'd I do?"

"Nothing, that's just it," Hajime said in disgust. "Apparently all you have to do is stand there looking pretty while cute girls fawn all over you and shower you with gifts."

"Oh, Hajime, stop exaggerating. You know that's not true."

"Isn't it? If I recall correctly, last year at this time you came away with over ten pounds of chocolate from over twenty different girls. And to top it off, the majority of that chocolate was homemade; not exactly what I'd consider giri-choco."

"Well what do you want me to do? They all pretty much know that I'm in a relationship with Akira, so it's not like I try to encourage them. In fact, if anything, I try and dissuade them."

"Yeah, I know," Hajime frustratingly admitted, then humorously remarked, "I guess you just can't help being a chick magnet."

"Oh, please," Takumi embarrassingly replied. "But you seem to forget, come March 14th on White Day, I'm going to have to return their symbolic gestures threefold. And with that large number of girls, that can get pretty expensive real fast. You're lucky you don't have that problem."

"What, because girls just aren't as attracted to me?" Hajime seemed to take offense at. "Gee thanks."

"Oh come on, you know I didn't mean it like that."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he reassuringly said. Then, with a bit of a shrewd expression on his face, he cunningly advocated, "But you know, as a friend, it wouldn't exactly kill you to make a few sacrifices and send a few of those babes in my direction."

Shaking his head in amusement, Takumi remarked, "You know you're lucky Kyoko isn't around to hear you say that."

"Ooh, Kyoko," Hajime once again bemoaned. "How I miss her."

"You're hopeless," Takumi laughed.

"Takumi-kun!" came the high-pitched voice of yet another girl, excitedly approaching the two and carrying a small package.

Sighing heavily as he shook his head, Hajime thought to himself, "It's going to be a loooong day."

Several students, particularly the girls, made it a point to show up a few minutes earlier before the start of class, affording them the extra time to hand out their Valentines to their close male acquaintances in addition to that extra special someone in their life. And, as Hajime had predicted, the gift bags as well as boxes of homemade sweets had already started to amass on Takumi's desk, and the day was just getting started.

"I wonder where Akira could be," Takumi inquired of his friend, who was currently leaning up against the desk beside his. "She's usually never this late."

"Maybe she's handing out chocolates to all of her teammates in the Kendo club. I'll bet they're excited, especially Yuji-san. Have you seen the abs on that guy? Better hope that's not one of Akira's turn-ons otherwise you could be facing some very stiff competition there, my friend."

"Very funny," a not too amused Takumi replied.

"Oh boy, here comes another one," Hajime noted, referring to an approaching bespectacled girl with shoulder length dark-hair. To his surprise, however, Takumi wasn't to be the recipient of her offering, he was.

"Uh, Moriyama-san," she timidly spoke, "I uh, made these especially for you."

Usually rather outspoken, Hajime now found himself speechless when the girl presented him with a rather sizeable red box adorned with white lace.

Takumi was forced to give his rather dumbstruck friend a little nudge, which then finally prompted him to nervously acknowledge, "Uh, th… thank you, Ka… Kawasumi-san."

"I hope you enjoy them," she excitedly said, bowing before him before rushing back off to her desk.

"Ooo, looks like Akemi-chan has a crush on you, Hajime," a feminine voiced teased from behind.

"Oh, morning, Hiromi," Takumi greeted their good friend and classmate while Hajime was a bit slow to note her presence, still in somewhat of a stupor. "Don't mind him, he was just in a bit of a funk this morning because he found out that Kyoko won't be able to make it over here today."

"Aww, that's a shame," Hiromi sympathized.

"Yeah but it looks like Akemi-san's homemade chocolates may have snapped him out of it," Takumi indicated.

"I guess she figured that with Kyoko no longer around," Hajime boasted, "that I once again became 'available'. Looks like you're not the only one with a fan following, my friend."

"Unfortunately," Takumi sighed, "it's given him a swelled head in the process."

"Listen, Romeo," Hajime countered, "You're not the only one who…"

The two now suddenly found their friendly little debate interrupted by an outbreak of laughter.

"Hiromi? What's so funny?" Takumi inquired.

"You guys crack me up," she said with a hand over her mouth, trying to contain herself.

With an initial look of puzzlement as they observed her reaction, Hajime and Takumi then looked to each other and couldn't help but join in as her laughter became contagious.

Wiping away a tear as a result of their recent hilarity, Hajime then observed Hiromi's boyfriend, seated two rows over, being presented with gifts by two girls, one right after the other.

"Well, would you look at that, Wataru seems to have become quite popular lately. Guess that's what having a girlfriend will do to you," he noted, shooting a smile at Hiromi. "Better keep an eye on him, Hiromi. Some of the girls in this class can be downright vultures."

"Oh, I'm not worried. He's too sweet and innocent to ever fall for that, much like Takumi."

As he witnessed Takumi blush over her comment, Hajime argued, "Hey, what about me?"

"Sweet and innocent don't exactly describe you, my friend," Takumi humorously declared. "More like naïve and perverted."

"Very funny," an unamused Hajime said with his arms folded.

"Oh, you two," Hiromi chuckled.

"You know it's funny," Hajime seriously noted, "for the longest time girls never seemed to take much notice of us. But once we eventually find a girlfriend, we suddenly seem to become more desirable in other girl's eyes. It's like as soon as we become off-limits, as it were, they suddenly seem to want what they can't have. I don't think I'll ever understand girls."

"And you never fully will," Hiromi said with a smile as she playfully rubbed the top of his head.

"Ahh, Hiromi!"

As Takumi enjoyed watching his friend's reaction of momentary discomfort, Hiromi then proceeded to hand each of them a small red and pink gift bag.

"Here you go, hope you enjoy them."

"Thanks, Hiromi," they gratefully said in unison.

"Don't mention it. But it looks you're going to need a box by the end of the day to carry all of yours, Takumi. That's quite a haul you've got there."

"Yeah, well, what can I say," he proudly stated.

"Now who's got a swelled head?" Hajime mumbled under his breath.

"Huh? What was that?"

Putting a hand up to her mouth as she shook her head in amusement, Hiromi then announced, "Well, I better go give Wataru his Valentine's Day gift before any more 'vultures' swoop down on him. Behave, you two."

Watching as she headed over to Wataru's desk, Takumi then made a quick scan of the room and continued eyeing the entrance of it, prompting him to worriedly wonder aloud, "What could be taking Akira so long? Class is about to start; I hope she's alright."

"I'm sure she's fine," Hajime assured him.

"Although, now that I think about it," Takumi recalled, "she did sound a bit frazzled when I talked to her earlier, like she was in a hurry."

"She probably just overslept," Hajime concluded. "But if you're that worried, why don't you try calling her again?"

"Yeah, I think I will," Takumi decided, retrieving his cell phone from inside his desk.

Yet before he even had a chance to put the receiver up to his ear, he spotted a rather fatigued looking Akira entering the classroom.

"Told you she'd make it, although, she doesn't look too good," Hajime remarked.

Ignoring his friend's comments, Takumi just continued to witness as she set her book bag, along with a medium sized canvas tote bag, down alongside her desk. He then immediately rushed over to her side just as she plopped down into her seat.

"Akira, where have you been? I was worried about you. Is everything alright?"

"I'm sorry, Takumi, but can we talk about this later," she wearily requested of him, barely able to keep her eyes open. "I promise I'll give you your Valentine's gift during lunchtime."

"Don't worry about that, I just want to make sure that you're okay. Didn't you get any sleep last night?"

"Not really. Look, I promise that I'll explain later," she tiredly assured him, yawning as her eyelids struggled to remain open.

"Oh, okay, that's fine," he understandably said, then offered, "Listen, don't worry too much about staying awake during class, I'll try and cover for you and then later you can just copy my notes."

"Thank you…" she gratefully replied, closing her eyes as she then began to lay her head in her arms upon her desk, "…Takumi."

All throughout the morning, Takumi volunteered when he could, and of course if he knew the answer, whenever the teacher posed a question to the class or asked them to comment on the subject at hand. Luckily, the diversion seemed to work as the teacher never did call upon Akira, who was resting most peacefully. Therefore, when lunchtime finally rolled around, she seemed much more alert.

"Akira, slow down," Takumi implored as he watched her scarf down the bento that he had made for her. "You're going to give yourself a stomachache."

"Mmmph. Sorry," she said with her mouth full, "you'll have to excuse me. I didn't exactly eat anything this morning, or last night for that matter."

"What? Why not?"

Before answering him, Akira reached down into her tote bag and pulled out a large box of chocolates, wrapped in a very fancy gold package with various ribbons and other adornments, and presented it to him.

"Aww, thank you, Akira. But I hope this didn't have anything to do with your lack of sleep, or eating for that matter."

"Uh, not exactly," she hesitantly replied.

"Well what then?"

As she was about to explain, Akira became distracted as she overheard some snide comments being made two seats over from them by Miyuki, one of the class' so-called popular girls.

"Disgraceful," she crassly remarked to two other girls that were seated alongside her, wannabes to her clique. "Trying to buy his love with that expensive store bought chocolate. Any real girlfriend would have put their heart into making chocolates from scratch rather than taking the easy way out."

"I'll bet he dumps her by White Day," Hazuki, one of the other girls, rudely commented.

"Don't listen to them, Akira," Takumi advised her. "You know I could care less about whether you give me store bought, homemade, or even anything for that matter."

"Yeah, I know," she despondently replied, "but I care. And in a way, they're right. That's why I was up so late last night. I really wanted to present you with some homemade chocolates for a change. Unfortunately, I ran into a little trouble. Actually, a lot of trouble. I don't know what I was doing wrong, but somehow I kept screwing it up. And then of course I had to go into town several times for more ingredients. I even bought myself a double boiler so that I wouldn't keep burning the chocolate. On my last trip though, I made sure to pick you up that box of chocolates just in case my next few attempts didn't turn out either, and it's a good thing I did too."

"Oh, Akira, I'm sorry. But I really wish you hadn't gone through so much trouble just for me."

"Look, it was no trouble," she steadfastly insisted, but then timidly added, "Besides, this was something that I really wanted to do for you."


"Anyway, it was my fault for thinking that it would be easy to make and then waiting until the last minute on top of it. So I really have only myself to blame for that. Eventually though, after the last failed attempt, I finally called it quits and went to bed after deciding to just go with the store bought chocolates yet again. I was so mad at myself and it bugged the hell out of me so much that I had trouble sleeping. So because I couldn't sleep, and since I had just enough ingredients left, I decided to get up early and make one last ditch effort. They came out a little better than the last few times, but it still didn't taste quite right and wasn't the right consistency either. Anyway, that's why when you called this morning I probably sounded a bit stressed out to you."

"Oh, Akira, why do you do this to yourself?"

"Idiot! I did it for you, at least, it was supposed to be anyway."

"So did you… save any of it?" Takumi reluctantly asked.

"Actually, I was debating on whether or not I should just toss it, but, knowing you, I kind of had the feeling that you'd be curious about it, so, I brought some of that last batch with me."

Pulling a small white paper bag out of her tote, Akira hesitated for a moment before finally setting it down in front of him.

"Thank you, Akira," he appreciatively said as he enthusiastically reached inside the bag and proceeded to take a bite out of one of the heart-shaped chocolates, which had a very uneven texture. "Akira, this is…"

"Oh, Takumi-kun, you shouldn't be eating that," Miyuki objected, now approaching the two and proceeding to present Takumi with a gift of her own.

"There she goes again," Hajime said, rolling his eyes, as he sat with Hiromi and Wataru eating lunch while observing the little soap opera that seemed to be unfolding before them.

"Unbelievable, that girl just never learns," Wataru commented. "I mean you'd think that after four years she would have gotten the hint by now."

"She's persistent, I'll give her that," Hajime remarked.

"What are you guys talking about?" Hiromi inquired.

"Miyuki-san," Wataru began to explain. "She's apparently had a crush on Takumi for quite some time now, but once he started dating Akira, she kind of freaked out. She just somehow could never quite fathom those two together. So for awhile there she did everything in her power to try and break them up; nothing ever worked of course."

"But even though she's kind of given up on trying to split them up," Hajime added, "she still resents Akira for stealing her 'precious' Takumi away from her. So from time to time she'll still try to get under Akira's skin. And Valentine's Day is like open season for her."

"I see," Hiromi comprehended, now standing up at her desk and appearing somewhat annoyed. "Excuse me."

"Where are you going?" Wataru curiously asked.

"I'm going to put my foot down."

"Uh, Hiromi?" a confused Wataru could now only helplessly watch as she stormed off.

"Hey, you ever see a catfight before, Wataru?" Hajime facetiously asked.

"A catfight? Uh, no."

"Well, my friend, this may be your lucky day."

"Lucky? Somehow I kind of doubt that," Wataru said, perplexed by Hajime's strange sense of exhilaration as he then worriedly remarked, "I have a very bad feeling about this."

As Hiromi approached the three, she witnessed Miyuki blatantly hand feeding Takumi a piece of her own homemade chocolate, right in front of Akira.

"There now, isn't that better than anything she's ever made you?" Miyuki impudently asked, coming up directly behind Takumi and brazenly pressing her breasts up against the back of his head.

Observing the spiteful look that Miyuki was giving her, Akira was about ready to pounce on her until she recalled the promise that she had made to Takumi, agreeing not to get into any more confrontations with her. On top of that, because she was already feeling rather unsure of herself, Akira simply excused herself. "Excuse me, but it's getting rather stuffy in here."

"Uh, Akira," a concerned Takumi called to her.

Attempting to go after her, he found himself detained by Miyuki who continued to hug him from behind his chair.

"Oh, let her go," Miyuki callously remarked. "Wouldn't you rather spend some time with me for a change?"

"No, he wouldn't!" Hiromi sternly announced as she came up from behind Miyuki and grabbed her by the hair, forcefully pulling her away from Takumi.

"OOOWWWW!" Miyuki screamed out in pain.

"That'll be quite enough of that!" Hiromi declared.

"Ow! Damn, that hurt!" Miyuki angrily cried, holding her hand to where Hiromi had grabbed her. "What the hell is your problem, bitch?"

"My problem? You're the one with the problem! Can't you see that you're making him feel uncomfortable? He obviously wants nothing to do with you."

"Says you!"

"Uh, girls, please," Takumi pleaded.

"Takumi, why don't you go see how Akira is doing," Hiromi suggested.


"Don't worry, I've dealt with her kind before back in Osaka."

"My kind?" Miyuki took offense at. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Ignoring her, Hiromi simply turned back to Takumi and gently persuaded, "Go on, she's waiting for you."

Nodding, Takumi then got up from his desk, making sure to first grab the bag containing Akira's homemade chocolates. Before departing however, he looked over at Miyuki, bowed, and then quickly expressed, "Uh, thank you for the chocolates, Miyuki-san."

Shaking her head in amusement as he ran off, Hiromi commented, "I swear that boy doesn't have a mean streak in his entire body. Still so polite even after all that."

"Maybe that's because he actually has feelings for me. Did you ever think of that?" Miyuki argued.

"You're delusional."

"No, you're the one who's having delusions of grandeur if you think that you can just muscle in on my territory."

"Territory? Oh brother, I take that back then. You're not delusional, you're mentally insane! Now if you know what's good for you, you'll leave him and Akira alone."

"Listen, blondie," Miyuki threatened as she came directly up against Hiromi's face, "don't you dare try and tell me who I can and can't associate with. And for your information, Takumi happens to enjoy my company, although I'll never understand what he sees in that dreadful ninja girl. But I suppose that it's just a matter of time before he sees that she's all wrong for him. He just needs a little… persuasion."

"Wacko," Hiromi uttered under her breath while rolling her eyes.

"Oh I know what's bothering you," Miyuki surmised. "You're still not over when Takumi dumped you last year."

"What the hell are you talking about? We've never been anything other than really good friends, so there was never any 'dumping' involved."

"Uh huh, you just keep telling yourself that. You're probably just upset because you know that you can't have him. What's the matter, your current boyfriend not doing it for you?"

"You bitch! Don't you dare bring Wataru into this?"

"Uh oh," Hajime elatedly commented to Wataru, "they're going to start fighting over you now."

"That's it, isn't it?" Miyuki continued to goad her on.

"I'm warning you, you'd better leave Wataru out of this!"

"Or just maybe, you're the one who's unable to fulfill his needs."

Enraged, Hiromi now raised her hand and slapped Miyuki across the face, yelling, "Shut up!"

"Oh, you are so dead!" Miyuki now threatened, reaching up and feeling her cheek.

"That's enough!" Wataru shouted, jumping up out of his seat.

"Wataru," a startled Hiromi softly expressed. Now coming over to them, she began to feel somewhat ashamed of her actions as she looked to him and confessed, "I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me. I know I probably shouldn't have interfered, but…"

"You're damn right you shouldn't have interfered!" Miyuki shot back.

"But at the same time," Hiromi continued, angrily clenching her teeth after being interrupted, "I couldn't just stand by and watch as she glommed onto Takumi."

"Don't worry about it," he reassuringly said. "Ordinarily I don't condone such actions, but she's been going on with that fowl mouth of hers for so long that I can't say that I blame you much. In fact, I'd say she's had it coming for quite some time now."

"Oh sure, defend her," Miyuki arrogantly replied. "Well what about me? I'm the victim here. You should be…"

Becoming startled as Wataru abruptly shot a most stern look in her direction, Miyuki suddenly began to recoil.

"I don't get you," Wataru endeavored to comprehend, shaking his head in disgust at her. "Do you enjoy making other people's lives miserable? I mean, is this like some kind of hobby for you? And what's it going to take for you to realize that Takumi doesn't have any feelings for you? Leave the poor guy alone already. Jeez!"

"How dare you talk to me like that! I don't think you realize who you're dealing with."

"On the contrary. I'm dealing with some spoiled little stuck-up brat who, just because her father is rich, thinks that she can have whatever the hell she damn pleases. On top of that, she wields that power in front of others believing that they'll somehow look up to and worship her as if she were royalty or something. Well, sorry to burst your bubble there, princess, but that little act's not going to fly with me. I can see right through you."

"Well! I never!"

"Well maybe it's high time that somebody knocked you off that damn pedestal that you seem to have built for yourself."

"I don't have to stand here and take this kind of crap from you and that, that… that whore you call a girlfriend."

"HEY!" Wataru furiously shouted and took offense at. "Now you can say whatever the hell you want about me; I could care less. But don't you EVER," he yelled directly in her face, "ever, let me hear you say anything like that about Hiromi or Akira ever again!"

"Wataru," Hiromi softly spoke, truly touched by his chivalrous actions.

"You just made a big mistake," Miyuki threatened. "Because you're Takumi's friend I was going to invite you, Moriyama-san, and a select few others to join me after graduation at our family's exclusive private beach resort. Well, you just lost that privilege, mister."

"Wow!" Wataru said in disbelief. "I don't even know how to respond to that."

"I told you not to mess with me," she conceitedly said. Turning then to Hajime, she warned, "And if you know what's good for you, you'll stop associating with this low-life, lest you'd care to join him and miss out on such a privileged excursion."

"That's okay, sweetheart," Hajime sarcastically commented, "I have other plans that week anyway. And those involve my real friends, not the wannabe kinds who follow you blindly around, who seem to make up your adoring fan club."

"Humph!" she pompously exclaimed, turning her nose up at him as she then redirected her attention to her two associates. "Come on, girls, we're leaving!"

Promptly jumping up out of her chair, Hazuki quickly joined Miyuki by her side, while her friend, Akemi, remained seated, seriously pondering what Hajime had just pointed out.

"Well, Akemi-chan?" Miyuki impatiently snapped, standing by the classroom's entrance with her arms folded. "Are you coming?"

"Uh, she's coming," Hazuki said, looking over at her friend. "Right, Akemi?"

"N… no," Akemi timidly replied.

"What?" Miyuki angrily shot back.

"She, she's just kidding," Hazuki nervously reasoned. "Come on, Akemi, quit joking around. Let's go!"

Glancing over at Hajime, who was smiling at her, trusting that she would make the right decision, Akemi asserted herself as she then confidently proclaimed, "No!"

"No?" Miyuki said rather taken aback, warning, "Akemi-chan, you're making a very big mistake."

"I… I'm sorry, Miyuki-chan, but I can't do this anymore."

Observing as Hajime gave Akemi a supportive thumbs-up, Miyuki then incredulously sputtered, "Wha… what do you mean you can't… uh… Fine! Let's go, Hazuki!"

"C… coming, Miyuki-chan," Hazuki hesitantly responded, glancing momentarily back at her friend who didn't seem to be regretting her decision.

Not having too far to look, Takumi had finally managed to locate Akira, who had just emerged from the cafeteria and was munching on some taiyaki.

"Akira, there you are. Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she said, taking another bite of the bean-filled, fish-shaped cake. "I told I was hungry. And besides, I don't think I could stand being around her for one more second."

"Oh. Well, if you're still hungry, you can have the rest of my bento if you want."

"You're not going to finish it?"

"Actually, I was kind of saving room for this," Takumi indicated, holding up Akira's bag of chocolates.

"Takumi, you… you don't have to eat that just for my benefit."

"I know," he said, placing a piece into his mouth, "but I really want to."

Momentarily observing a cringe inducing expression upon his face when he first bit down on it, Akira implored, "Takumi, please, you've made your point, now just spit it out. I know that it's probably pretty bitter tasting. I'm sure that the ones that Miyuki-san made for you are way better than anything that I could ever make, so just eat hers; I really don't care."

"But I don't want hers," he professed, popping a second piece into his mouth and seeming to relish it. "I mean, sure, I'll admit that hers do taste better and have a smoother texture."

"That's what I'm saying, so just eat hers."

"You don't understand, Akira, it's not about taste or texture, it's about the ingredients that went into making them."

"The ingredients?" Akira tried to comprehend.

"Right. You see, there's one particular ingredient that hers, along with all the other girl's chocolates, is severely lacking in, but which yours contains an abundance of. Love."

"Takumi," she softly expressed, deeply moved by the loving sentiment.

"You stayed up late, sacrificing food and sleep, and worked tirelessly to make this for me. And in doing so, that means that you had to have poured an immense amount of love into the process. That's why right now I'm going to savor every last morsel of this very special chocolate that you chose to lovingly make especially for me."

Watching in awe as he began to indulge himself with yet another piece, Akira could no longer contain herself and finally just threw her arms around him.

"Oh, Takumi," she happily cried upon his shoulder.

"I love you too, Akira," he affectionately expressed, caressing her in his arms.

As Miyuki slid open the classroom door and began to storm out, she ran smack dab into Takumi on the opposite side, who was now returning with Akira.

"Oomph!" Takumi painfully exclaimed. "Excuse me. Oh, Miyuki-san," he then recognized. "Uh, is something the matter?"

"Oh, Takumi-kun," she cried, shamelessly throwing her arms around him and seeking comfort. "Your friends were being so mean to me."

Keeping his arms by his side, Takumi somewhat skeptically replied, "Uh, somehow I doubt that."

"You… you don't believe me?" she helplessly said looking into his eyes, managing to force a few tears.

"I… I'm not saying that," Takumi uncomfortably attempted to explain. "I'm just saying that you probably overreacted. After all, you do have a tendency to exaggerate from time to time."

"Oh, Takumi-kun, how can you be so cruel?" Miyuki then ran off crying, followed closely by Hazuki.

"Oh, Takumi-kun, you're so cruel," Hajime mocked in a high pitched voice. "Hahaha, still breaking pretty girls hearts, I see, and on Valentine's Day no less. Don't worry, my friend, she'll get over it, like in about two seconds, because that's how long it takes for her to turn the ol' waterworks off or on. Hmph, the big faker."

"Uh, okay," a confused Takumi expressed, looking to Akira who also had a clueless expression on her face. "So how about filling us in on what happened after we left."

"Dude, it was amazing! You should have seen…" Hajime paused suddenly in his elated retelling when he happened to notice the worried look on Akemi's face, sitting all alone behind her desk. Excusing himself, Hajime walked over to Akemi, placed a supportive hand upon her shoulder and extolled, "Way to go, Akemi-san! That took a lot of guts to say no to her."

"Uh, thanks," she meekly replied while blushing profusely, but then fearfully added, "Of course now she's probably going to start telling all her friends not to associate with me anymore."

"Hey, you don't need friends like her anyway. And those that blindly follow and are in her elite circle are phonies anyway, most of whom are destined to get hurt. You know why? Because they're sheep, and sheep get slaughtered."

"Hajime's right," Wataru chimed in.

"And we certainly can't have that happening to a pretty young thing such as yourself," Hiromi then added as the five friends began gathering around her desk in a show of support.

"Now even though I'm not fully aware of what just went on," Takumi confessed, "I'm sure that I speak for everyone when I say that we'd be honored to have you as one of our friends."

"Absolutely," Akira acknowledged as everyone else nodded in agreement.

"Oh," she happily sniffled, "you guys. Thank you."

"Man, you should have seen the look on Miyuki-san's face when Akemi-san refused to budge," Hajime excitedly described. "It was classic! I don't think she's used to hearing that word too often."

"Really? I would have loved to have seen that," Akira eagerly admitted.

"Then you really would have loved it when Hiromi grabbed her by the hair and then later slapped her across the face."

Looking over at Hiromi with a stunned expression on her face, her mouth agape, Akira incredulously asked, "You did that?"

"I'm afraid so," Hiromi acknowledged, not seeming too proud of herself. "I know it was wrong of me to have…"

"Do you know how many times I've wanted to do that?" Akira confessed.

"You have?" Hiromi was surprised to hear.

"You have?" Takumi seemed even more startled to discover.

"Hell yeah! She's been riding me ever since I started dating Takumi and has even made several passes at him, which irks me to no end. I've wanted to put her in her place for some time now but have held myself back for Takumi's benefit."

"Wow, I had no idea," Hiromi was shocked to realize.

"I've just gained even more respect for you," Akira declared. "You're my hero."

"Uhh…" a humbled, yet speechless, Hiromi uttered.

"Jeez, Akira," Takumi commented, "I know you've held some animosity toward Miyuki-san, but I had no idea that it was bothering you this much. Still, I appreciate you restraining yourself all this time and, and…"

Observing a sudden glazed-over look in his eyes as he seemed to lose his train of thought, Akira concernedly asked, "Takumi? Are you alright?"

"Yeah," Hajime added, "you look a little pale."

"I think it's probably from something that I…" Takumi began to speculate but was then forced to abruptly place a hand over his mouth while then hunching over slightly.

"I told you you didn't have to do that," Akira scolded. "You could have at least waited and finished it when we got home."

"Sorry," he apologetically offered, his hand still cupped over his mouth. "Excuse me."

"Oh my, I do hope he's alright," Hiromi apprehensively expressed as she watched him swiftly dart out of the room.

"Don't worry, he'll be fine," Akira smilingly assured, shaking her head while appearing somewhat amused by it all. "He just had a little too much… love."

"HUH?" everyone shockingly expressed at Akira's revelation, who couldn't help but smirk, finding her little misconstrued statement rather humorous.