11. Together

Music track: Nocturne

I am shocked awake by my phone's blaring ringtone.

I reach out and try grabbing it without having to climb out of bed, but my arm is just a couple of inches too short. With a yawn I get to my feet, throwing a sleepy glance at the clock: it's 1:30 in the morning.

My body is mostly on auto-pilot as I pull the charger cable out of the phone and slowly put it to my ear. "Hello?"

"It's about time you picked it up. Don't tell me a child your age is sleeping at this hour? Don't you have anything useful to do? Slothful."

A deep, gruff male voice tells me this in place of a greeting.

Normally, it'd take me a moment to recognize it, especially since its owner is not someone I know very well, but this time, his name occurs to me instantly. Jigoro Hakamichi is not a person you can easily forget.

I'd like to ask him how he managed to track down my number, but I already know where that would lead, so I decide not to press the issue. "Can I help you with something?"

"No, not really. I definitely don't need help from lazy brats like you." He sounds like he's offended by the very idea itself. Does that mean he just called to annoy me? "You would be better off asking for my help, but you clearly lack the wisdom to recognize your betters. So the answer is no, boy - I called you because I want you to take responsibility."

I had a retort on the tip of my tongue, but his last sentence robs me of my ability to respond.

…That's why I hate him. He might talk like some buffoon, but he can still render me speechless with a few words if he really puts his mind to it. How he always manages to find the sensitive subjects like this, I'll never know.

Worse still, the person I should really be angry at is myself. After all, the reason he got to me like this is that I do have a lot to answer for.

Probably interpreting my hesitation as consent, Jigoro goes on.

"I made a mistake. A huge one."

"…Sorry?" I mumble blankly. I must be incredibly tired, because I'd swear I've heard him talking about making a mistake - but surely that can't be possible.

"My huge, fatal mistake was listening to the mindless drivel you threw my way when you barged into my house and made a mess of my fishing equipment." He's speaking, well, shouting even louder now, even though he wasn't very quiet to begin with. "Thanks to you, I made some overly broad and easy-to-abuse commitments and now I am forced to face the consequences. Infuriating."

What…? Am I half-asleep already or is he making no sense at all?

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't. You probably don't remember telling Shizune to call me if she needs anything either, do you?"

Oh, come on.

"But… it was you who told me to do that to begin with…!"

"That's unimportant. The reason I came to that godforsaken school for a visit was your insufferable prattling, so everything that took place during the visit was obviously your fault as well." Great. Only a man like him can say that in an entirely serious voice. "But don't try to change the subject. Exactly six days ago, on Sunday, if you're too lazy to count, my daughter, who never calls or sends me text messages, sent me a novel-length text asking me to arrange her transfer from your school to somewhere else. Not only was I forced to read it, even though I hate reading novels on my phone, but I had to spend much of the day talking to your scatterbrained principal and other even more simple-minded officials to fulfill her request."

He momentarily falls silent; I'm not sure if it's for dramatic effect, or because he expects me to say something, but I don't feel like doing so either way.

"But that's not all of it. A few hours ago, just when I was nearly ready with all the paperwork, my daughter sent me yet another insanely long message asking me to call everything off." I involuntarily draw a sharp breath. "It's not that I am overly interested in your crazy affairs, but considering all that happened, I do have one question to ask: What in the world is going on over there?!"

I have to hold the phone away from my ear at the end of his rant, and I can still easily hear every single word.

But what am I supposed to tell him?

"We… the three of us had a… a falling out," I mutter in a voice laden with guilt. "But I hope we managed to patch things up yesterday… mostly thanks to Misha, I think."

"Really? And I'd guess this whole commotion was, again, your fault?"

I hate him, I hate him, I hate him. Especially when he's right.


"Predictable." After another short silence, he continues in a slightly lower voice, "Well, finding another school for Shizune has been a hassle anyway. I suppose I won't mind too much if she stays there with you and that other girl. Make sure this never happens again."

With that, and without any sort of proper farewell, he hangs up.

I put my phone down with a sigh. As before, the conversation with Jigoro proved to be a debilitating experience. No surprises here.

What I don't understand is… why do I have this small, stupid smile on my face?

…I better get back to bed.

Music track: Afternoon

It's already well into Saturday afternoon when I finally manage to leave the classroom. Mutou specifically drafted me into cleaning duty, which I normally get a pass on, and even made me help him with some paperwork afterwards. He didn't say a word about it, but I suppose this may be a kind of punishment for the stunts I pulled yesterday.

Well, it's fine by me; I owe him a lot more than this. All things considered, I still got off pretty lightly, anyway.

So, what now? My legs give the answer before I can, carrying me towards the council room with swift steps. Old habits die hard; I remember that it took conscious effort from me not to go there after classes during the past month.

I feel a bit silly. And nervous. I think I'm mostly feeling silly because I'm nervous.

"Hey there, man!" someone calls out to me as I reach the bottom of the stairs on the ground floor.

Yeah right, someone. His identity couldn't be more obvious.

"How's it going, Kenji?" I wave at him as he walks towards me with a spring in his step. "You look to be in high spirits today."

"You bet I am. We won an important battle yesterday, Hisao, against all odds!" he boasts.

"We did? I thought the elections were cancelled…?"

"Come on, man, think! Why else would the feminists call off an event like that, if not because they were afraid that I'd win?"

Err, I think I'll let that pass.

"If you say so. But that means you still didn't actually win in the end, did you?"

"Heh, and so what? Sure, a couple of months as council president would've been nice, but that's not the most important part at all." Kenji easily brushes my comment aside. I don't think I've ever seen him so optimistic. "You know what really matters here? This result means there are plenty of sane people at Yamaku who'd fight for the good cause. People who can take over our work when we're gone. That's awesome, man! I never expected that, and… it sort of makes the shit I went through all these years all worth it. Even without us, the battle goes on."

Finished with his speech, he appears to gaze proudly into the distance - and while he's actually just staring at a fire-extinguisher on the wall, I'm sure that in his mind, he sees an army of anti-feminists gathering together, lining up to take the field.

As ridiculous as he looks right now, for some reason I can't find it in me to make fun of him. All too often during the past month, I think he greatly outranked me in terms of common sense.

"Well, have a nice weekend then, Kenji." I briefly put a hand on his shoulder as I walk by. He still gazes relentlessly at the wall. "And thanks."

All it takes is a couple of seconds, and I'm standing in front of the door leading inside the council room.

I have no idea why I'm hesitating. I know the door isn't locked; they told me they'll wait for me to catch up with them once I'm finished with my after-class duties. Still… I haven't been in this room for almost a month. I haven't been part of the council, I haven't been with Shizune - it's understandable if I'm anxious a bit, right?

Gathering my will, I reach for the handle - but the door opens just before I could grab hold of it. I instinctively back away in alarm.

"Huh…? Lilly?"

She steps through the threshold with a smile. "Oh, it's you, Hisao. I'm sorry if I startled you."

"It's okay, no harm done. It's just… well…"

"Yes, it's rather unusual to see me around the council room, isn't it?" She guesses my thoughts while closing the door behind her. Her smile gets a tiny, barely noticeable speck of guilt to its curve. "The truth is, I've come because I wanted to apologize. Shizune and I may not be on the best of terms, but my actions during the past week did not help matters for anyone, and I do feel regretful about that."

"Well, I… didn't exactly make things easier for anyone myself," I mutter in a hesitant tone, hoping to forestall a possible repeat of her apology in my direction. Few things would make me feel more miserable right now, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, Lilly either didn't plan on it, or managed to take the hint. What am I saying? Lilly can always take a hint.

"The last few days made me reconsider a lot of things, to be honest," she continues. "The lunch break we've spent together a little over a month ago, for one. Remember how I reproved Shizune for trying too hard to make up with Misha? …My goodness, I was being such a hypocrite."

That's a strong word, especially coming from her. "What do you mean?"

She tenses up for a moment, as if realizing that she might have said too much. "I suppose this would need a bit of context. You see, Hisao, for a long time my sister Akira and I had been living by ourselves, as most of our family lives in Scotland. This summer, however, my parents asked us to go and live in Inverness with them, permanently."

Greatly surprised, I try to recall our fishing trip together during summer break. I think Akira said something about the two of them leaving "for a while", but she also said that she has to leave her car behind for good. What does this all mean?

"After much thinking, I decided not to follow their request for the time being," Lilly announces without much fuss or fanfare. "My reasons were manyfold, but one of them, without a doubt, was that… I have a dear friend here who I do not want to leave behind. Some might very well call me thoughtless or selfish, but this was my decision nonetheless, one I did not regret making." She smiles gently once more. "I have told this to Shizune as well: despite what I might say about no one standing up to her, I'm glad that she is part of a circle of friends who look out for each other the way you do. In the end, I think this is what matters the most."

"I… see." Exasperated at my inability to form a more coherent response, I'm almost happy to hear an uncertain voice coming from further down the corridor.

"Um… hello. Sorry, uh… am I interrupting something?"

It's Hanako. Her voice is not only uncertain, but more like a half-whisper - and still, the mere fact that she came to us like this catches me by surprise.

"Oh, not at all." Lilly takes a step in her direction, before momentarily turning her head back towards me. "Thank you for hearing me out, Hisao. Take care."

I give a nod, realizing a bit too late how pointless that is. "See you around, Lilly."

She nods as well; strange as it may seem, now mine doesn't look as pointless after all.

Lilly catches up to Hanako in a few moments, who waves at me sheepishly before the two leave arm in arm, lightly conversing along the way.

"So, how was the newspaper club meeting yesterday?"

"It was nice… I think. Naomi said she likes the… the layout I've made for the front page on Wednesday."

"My, that's some splendid news. I know you worked quite a lot on that."

"Y-Yes. It was pretty fun though…"

Their voices slowly fade into the distance, robbing me of my last excuse to stay put. It was a lame excuse anyway, considering eavesdropping like this isn't the most polite thing to do.

With a sigh, I open the door and step inside the council room.

Music track: Lullaby of Open Eyes

Shizune rises from her seat when she notices me, and… and nothing. There's no one else here but her.

But if Misha wasn't in the room when Lilly dropped by, how could they… Oh.

So they really do have some way of talking to each other. It's not that I doubted Misha's word, but this obvious, if indirect piece of evidence still manages to give me pause.


Shizune greets me with slightly awkward motions. She must also be aware of the peculiar one-month gap that left this situation feeling both natural and odd at the same time.

I try my best to look less nervous, although I fear I might as well try walking on the ceiling.

[Hi. What happened to Misha?]

Obviously expecting the question, she throws me a disapproving glance while leaning slightly forward - a pose that feels a bit artificial but also very effective.

[She was hungry, so I told her to go ahead and have some early dinner. We already finished everything ages ago, and were bored to tears waiting for you to show up.]

[Yes, sorry about that. Mutou had me help with administration after cleaning duty.] I sign quickly, nearly embarrassed. Yeah, that glare is effective indeed. [Are you sure there's nothing left I can help you with?]

The question isn't as meaningless as it might seem. Simply put, I've learned that when Shizune says "we're done", it doesn't always mean that everything's truly finished. Sometimes she simply feels content with pushing the rest to the next day - or she thinks we helped enough, and plans on doing the rest on her own.

When she turns around and heads towards a desk at the wall filled with stacks of paper, I already know which is the case here.

[Help me get these sorted.] She is gazing at me expectantly; I suspect she's ready to add "you asked for it" at the first sign of disappointment on my part.

She won't be seeing any of course. [Okay, I'll get right to it.]

I take a seat at the desk while she sits down at another one further into the room to continue whatever she's been doing when I arrived. We start working, pausing only to exchange a few sentences every now and then - it's nothing special I suppose, but still… it manages to put my mind at ease. The sensation is partly surprising but very much welcome: it feels like the trials of the past month have already begun to fade, as if they were nothing but a strange, unpleasant dream.

No, wait, that can't be right. It's not true that everything is the way it used to be: a month ago, Shizune and I were dating. Am I trying to say that except for that one scene in the guest room, we might as well have been nothing more than close friends?

There's no way I can believe that.

[Right, I wanted to ask you something. Do you know a person named Kenji Setou?] Shizune puts down a sheet of paper to state this troublesome question, snapping me out of my thoughts.

[Yes, he is my next-door neighbor at the dorms.] I answer cautiously. [Why?]

Better test the waters first. I'd rather not reveal more about Kenji than absolutely necessary, now that I think about it. The thought of him and Shizune having a honest conversation while I'm forced to play the role of the interpreter is a greatly disturbing one.

[I saw him only once or twice before, but now he keeps coming here all week for one reason or the other.] She explains with a thoughtful look. [You probably know that he's been a candidate, but there seems to be more to it than that. Just a few minutes ago, he barged into the room, pointed a finger at me, held up a huge sign saying 'we shall meet again' with about a hundred exclamation marks, and then stormed out before I could even give a proper reply. It was really odd.]

Odd doesn't even begin to describe it, but that's nothing unusual. What's truly embarrassing, however, is that Kenji used to be a lot less willing to take the initiative like this, and it was me who talked him into changing his approach.

Shizune seems to be expecting some sort of reply, so I give a small nod. She looks somewhat disappointed by that, but goes on a second later.

[He always looks pretty confident about what he's doing though, and that's interesting. Maybe I'll re-read that 'declaration' thing he gave me on Tuesday; I barely skimmed through it earlier.]

Another small pause. I still don't know what I should be adding to the conversation.

[If you're here the next time he appears, could you introduce us properly? You must know him better than I do.]

[…Alright, if you insist.]

I turn back to my work, but I'm already regretting my curt answer. What made me so distant all of a sudden? Sure, I'd prefer to keep her away from Kenji, but that's starting to feel more and more like some excuse…

I feel a light tap on my shoulder. Turning around, I notice that Shizune is now standing right behind me.

[What's wrong?]

I wish I knew. I really do.

[It's nothing. Sorry.]

My reply can merely delay her next question a few tense seconds. I can't say I didn't see it coming.

[…Are you sure you're okay with this?] Her expression is troubled, becoming even more so when my puzzled look shows that I'm not sure I understood her. Or more like I've become pretty good at pretending. [Are you okay with ignoring everything that happened? Starting over with a clean slate? It's… it's something I'd like to do, but I'm no longer sure if it's really a good thing to hope for. I realize now that most people can't do something like that out of nowhere… or don't want to.]

I gaze at her in silence, and slowly but surely realization forms within my mind.

Most people… including you, Shizune. You might compartmentalize everything that happens around you, but you can't ignore the past completely: you wouldn't worry about this the way you do now otherwise.

I'm really grateful that you do, though.

[You're right, it's not easy for any of us… But as far as I'm concerned, yes, that is what I would like to do.]

But at the same time, it's impossible. Like I said, things are not how they used to be. There's no point in downplaying it: something of value was certainly lost between the two of us - after all, if it wasn't something precious to me, it wouldn't have driven me as crazy as it did in the past month.

She's right, something is wrong, and it's the fact that I'm trying in vain to ignore the obvious. I have to accept, or at least recognize what has changed, or there won't be any closure for either of us.

[But… Shizune… I'm sorry to bring this up out of the blue, but I need to tell you something.]

It takes every ounce of my willpower to keep holding her inquisitive gaze.

[Misha and I… we're dating right now.]

Every passing second feels like an hour as I lower my arms and rest them in my lap.

A single blink. That's all the reaction I see from her, before her hands move to reply.

[I know.]

I see just a few simple, straightforward signs - but they take a good couple of moments to sink in.

She knows. I'm shocked, even though part of me is aware of the fact that I shouldn't be. Misha and I made no great secret of our relationship in front of anyone. Perhaps the reason why I didn't expect Shizune to know was my foolish conviction that she was going out of her way to ignore us recently. However, while on the surface she might have tried to do something of the sort, I can see now that was never really true.

That said… I still feel sort of melancholy, somehow.

Shizune's lips curve into a faint smile. That surprises me even more.

[Speaking of whom, you better catch up with her. Looks like you just finished with this anyway.]

A snap my head back to the stacks of paper on the desk, intending to argue, but to my bafflement, I see that she's right: I finished sorting moments before and didn't even notice.

[Misha told me she'll be waiting for us at the rooftop. So go ahead; I will join you a bit later.]

I reluctantly rise from my seat. [But you will really come, right?]

I'm not even sure why I asked that. The worry in my voice must have sounded absurd.

Shizune seems to appreciate it, however. [Of course. I just have a few more things to take care of, and I'll be right there.]

The odd feeling in the pit of my stomach subsides.

[Okay then. We'll be waiting.]

I walk out of the room, slowly closing the door behind me until I hear a sharp click.

It's more than that, I know. I'm also closing the door on an aspect of my life here at Yamaku. On something I cherished, on something I felt was a decisive part of the person I've become here.

It's not easy, it's not happy - but from here on we can all begin things anew.

Music track: Romance in Andante II

I can hardly call this a "once in a lifetime" event. I probably have seen the sunset from the rooftop before, even if I can't recall anything about any of those occasions. But one thing is for sure: no matter how many times I've seen it so far, it has never been as beautiful as this.

The dying sun's reddish-orange rays hit me immediately as I step out of the stairwell, blinding me for a moment before I shield my eyes and take a look around. It's like the entire rooftop has been painted crimson: the fence, the small pebbles on the ground, the worn benches and tables near the edges - and even the hair of the girl sitting on one of said benches with her back to me, the light breeze ruffling her short locks.

If I didn't know she was here, I might not have recognized Misha like this, with so little pink and so much red.

I'm almost next to the bench by the time I realize that this would've been the perfect occasion to sneak up on her. Well, it's possible that she didn't notice me yet…

My plans are immediately ruined by the pair of crutches lying on the floor, which get in the way of my feet and almost make me fall on my face. Pretty sloppy of me; I didn't see those at all.

Startled by the noise, Misha quickly turns in my direction. "Oh, hi, Hicchan. I didn't hear you coming."

Really? Hey, what do you know, in the end I surprised her after all. Although it's not really having the effect I was hoping for…

Thankfully, the smile returns to her face quickly enough. "Have you talked to Shicchan yet~? She said she's going to be super mad if you make her wait for much longer…"

A light chuckle escapes my lips. "Hey, Shizune wasn't that mad. I just came from the council room, she told me where you are, actually. She says she'll join us in a bit."

I plop down on the bench to Misha's right. My eyes linger on her face, bathed in the glow of the setting sun.

"Aren't you going to ask why I'm late?"

She seems to be confused for a second, before breaking out in laughter. "Wahahaha~! Okay-okay, Hicchan, why are you so late~? Were you doing something interesting?"

"Well, actually no, nothing to write home about. I guess it just felt a bit weird that you didn't ask where I've been after waiting so long."

Misha ponders on that for a moment. "Maybe~. But Shicchan already scolded you for that, and you're here now, right~?"

Heh, can't argue with that.

I chuckle with her and reach out, pulling myself closer to her on the bench until our shoulders touch. Even such small physical contact feels soothing, washing away some traces of the unpleasant feeling that struck me before I left the council room.

"You know… I can still hardly believe it," I mutter, leaning back to make myself comfortable.

"Hmm~? Believe what~?"

My gaze wanders towards the horizon. "That things turned out the way they did. That Shizune and us are friends again, and we can sit here looking at the sunset like this. It sounds almost too good to be true, and yet… here we are." I turn back to her, and take her right hand in mine. "Thank you, Misha. I really mean it. This is all thanks to you and you alone."

Her face turns one shade closer to the color of the setting sun. Looks like I've rendered her speechless to the point that she won't even laugh or giggle or anything - I don't think I ever managed to do that before.

This is not the time to pat myself on the back though. My shoulders droop slightly. "And also… I'm sorry. About a lot of things… like about not telling you that Shizune was trying to transfer from Yamaku. And about not believing in you in general, I guess. Honestly, it was like I went out of my way to sabotage everything. I'm really sorry about all of that."

Misha finally finds her voice, although still has difficulty putting her thoughts into words. "Hicchan, you don't have to… I mean I'm not… Hahaha, I mean I didn't do that much, I just… um…"

"Yes, you did. You told me I looked strong when I waited before your door back then, right?" She manages a feeble nod. "Well, that was nothing compared to the last two weeks. Really, I still don't understand how you found the strength to see all of this through."

She cocks her head to the side. "But Hicchan, I already told you that too~. When I decided to try talking to Shicchan, remember?"

Yes, I remember, even if I did not give it much thought before.

With me, she can be strong as well, she said. My mind revisits the memory of the hospital last Sunday, when Misha practically begged me not to leave her alone with her efforts, and then jumps to Kenji's video again, recalling her sudden change in mood and demeanor after a few kind words from Shizune.

I can tell the three are connected, yet I feel like I can't see the forest for the trees.

"But~! Maybe this started a bit earlier, I think…" Misha interrupts my musings, eyeing the railing at the edge of the rooftop, as if the events in question were carved into it. "That little tour around the school with you was really nice, Hicchan. For a lot of reasons, like how you made me see how bad it would be to give up being friends with Shicchan… But that's not the biggest one, you know~."

I watch as her eyes close, paying excruciating attention to her every move and word.

"I was thinking in a… well, in a really, really selfish and stupid way back then. I thought everything that was happening was happening between me and Shicchan. I thought that even if I left, it could hurt the two of us, but no one else would mind much… and you would still be there for her, anyway. But~! When we talked that day, I realized that's not true at all." She takes a slow breath, a tiny, uncertain smile lifting the corner of her lips. "There's no 'two of us' anymore, Hicchan. The Student Council has three people, right~? So all three of us are friends, together. If someone quits, it's not going to hurt just one person, it'll be painful for everyone. You were worried about me, and… it's silly, but that felt really nice, you know? It made me happy. And the more I thought about things, the more I believed that as long as we can stay together; you, me and Shicchan… everything is going to be okay in the end."

All that's left of the sun is the tip on the edge of the horizon. It only takes a second - and it's gone.

I can sense something is not quite right when Misha's hand slowly slides out my grasp, her head lowered. Her eyes re-open, and I glimpse an indecipherable emotion within as she addresses me once more.

"So, Hicchan… even if you go back to Shicchan now, that'll be okay too, I think." The strengthening breeze picks up her words, carrying them far away. My mind is blank, as if the wind took my own thoughts with it as well. Long, empty seconds pass, before I hear Misha's voice again. "If I were in your place… I really, really don't know what I would do…"

Music track: -


My brain struggles to comprehend what I just heard. Why would she even bring up such a thing? Was it something I said…?

No, that has nothing to do with it. I could feel that something was off from the very beginning; Misha has been trying to find a way to get this off her chest ever since she noticed me standing next to her at the bench.

The bigger question is: were her words an offer or a suggestion? Her last sentence, however mildly put, seems to point towards the latter…

So… is this it then…? I thought it possible that Shizune's departure would drive us apart… The opposite… that never occurred to me for a moment.

But why? Did she see all that happened between us as nothing more than some "temporary fix"? Something she did out of necessity… or guilt?

Just what are Misha's real feelings towards me? Does she believe that in her heart, I can never compare to Shizune at all? Or perhaps, does she think that… she could never compare to Shizune in mine…?


I know all too well where this would lead… and thankfully, I'm so very-very tired of it. Maybe it would be well within my rights to be angry about this, but what's the point? I'm fed up with how I keep finding reasons to be upset, especially when I have no way of telling whether I'm right or wrong - since, let's face it, no matter how long I speculate, it will still remain nothing more than that: speculation. Which is also known as the sure recipe for disaster, I've learned that well enough now.

I cannot tell how Misha truly feels - but after coming all this way, I'd better be sure about where my own heart lies. And if I am, I'd do well to let her know. Perhaps then we'll both be able to see more clearly.

I awkwardly clear my throat.

Music track: Aria de l'Etoile

"Well… I guess it's strange, but… I don't think I've ever told you this before…"

My voice comes off as rather nervous, but there's no helping it. I put a hand on her shoulder, trying to get her to look at me, but so far to no avail.

"You know, there is someone I love."

Now that did the trick. I can't help but smile as I gaze into her widening golden eyes.

"We're very different people, she and I. Sometimes I underestimate her… sometimes she fails to understand me. Still, at the same time, I get the feeling we're oddly alike here, in the way we came to live, study and make friends at Yamaku."

My thoughts once again linger on her words about strength, on the hospital, on that year-old video… and suddenly a new memory joins those three: Shizune standing on the rooftop, almost at the same place we are now, her arms spread wide.

"Hey, maybe we also have something else in common. It's nothing groundbreaking I guess, but I just realized… how should I say this… Those close to us make us better people. We treasure the ones who let us into their lives and help us feel like we belong somewhere… Okay, maybe that sounds a bit overblown, but… to me, she's definitely one of them. I love her, and… I would not give her up for anything in the world… that is, if she feels the same way." Despite the tension, my smile widens into a silly grin. "Maybe you know her? She's supposedly called Shiina Mikado, even if that name doesn't see much use within the school walls…"

That evokes a small laugh from her, in direct contrast with her hand rubbing her left eye. "Hicchan…"

"I know, I'm too wordy." I lift my arms and gently cup her cheeks in both palms. "Then how's this for an answer?"

I slowly lean forward, not wanting to be rash but also refusing to show any hesitation, and after what feels like minutes of anticipation, our lips finally meet.

The kiss doesn't last long, merely a couple of seconds at most, but after an ambiguous start I can still feel it becoming something more than just a one-sided effort on my part. Though Misha won't jump into my arms, her hesitant, almost shy reaction is honest and pure, without pretense - and for me, that is more than enough.

Her eyes flicker towards the fence one more time. "But… you should be careful, Hicchan~. I've heard she's a really weird girl, so…"

She trails off, finishing her sentence with a small, timid chuckle instead.

"Not at all…" I state in a soft voice. My head feels heavy, and I tip more to the side to lean against both the back of the bench and her shoulder. "…Not at all."

Or if she is, then so am I. And Shizune of course. Let's not forget about Lilly and Hanako, not to mention Emi and Rin; I don't think I need to explain why. Then there's Mutou. I mean just look at the guy: he's weird in this weird scientist sort of way. Kenji? No comment. And you know what? I think Iwanako was weird too. Why else would she fall for such a patently weird guy like me…?

In the end, if you think about it… this world is filled with nothing but weird and even weirder people. Heh. Hehe. Hahahaha…

I'm hit by another, even stronger wave of exhaustion. Like when you untie the string at the bottom of an inflated balloon, and the air comes gushing out all at once, leaving only a wizened piece of rubber behind. With my body similarly devoid of strength, I find myself lying down on the bench, resting my head in Misha's lap.

Man… it feels like it's been days… or even weeks since I've truly lain down to rest…

Misha does not argue anymore; instead, I notice her hand resting gently against my cheek. Her legs feel soft and warm, and I soon begin to drift off; I don't fall asleep completely however, walking the blurred line between wakefulness and dreams for quite a while. I don't actually want to sleep, no matter how tired I may feel; I'd like to experience this moment of serenity to its fullest.

"I can see the stars, Hicchan…" Her bright voice helps my consciousness resurface. "You were right… They really are amazingly shiny~."

My eyes open wide, and I peer at the darkening sky in wonder as Misha runs her fingers gently across my hair. The few visible stars above the fading red streak on the horizon sparkle like brilliant, faraway diamonds.

I am finally at peace.

Music track: The Student Council

[Hey… Are you sure we didn't go overboard a little?]

I sign hesitantly to Shizune, my gaze sweeping across the student council room and its newest additions once more.

As expected, she looks entirely unfazed as she adjusts her glasses in a businesslike manner. [Not at all. When one has so much to do, recreation is very important! We absolutely cannot let the current or the future Student Council get burned out by work!]

[You're right, and I don't think anyone minds all the board games here, but… just what are you going to write into the monthly budget report about these…?]

On the floor next to a nearby desk, there's a piece of equipment, well, actually a game controller, which vaguely resembles a drum kit. On the desk itself, lined up in a neat row are three conventional controllers, one guitar-like thing without strings but with five color-coded buttons on its fret, one microphone, a projector and a brand new gaming console to which all these are connected.

Needless to say, this stuff was not cheap by any definition of the word. We didn't actually buy the projector at least, but borrowed it from a nearby classroom.

Before I can get too preoccupied with trying to remember the price of each, however, a thunderous finger snap hits the air.

[Don't worry, we're not going to write anything; officially, this was part of the election expenses. We can call it post-election recreation!]

I give a small sigh.

Alright, I think my worrywart quota is filled for today. I was there when we bought all these, anyway; I guess I just didn't realize what I was getting myself into until I saw everything lumped together in one massively expensive pile.

That explanation of hers is pretty fishy though. Election expenses, she says… I doubt the budget was big enough for this to begin with, even if we didn't spend a single yen on anything else. Every time I spoke with the principal about the budget, she always went on and on about how little money the school has left to spare, so any sum above zero would count as an achievement in my book.

The only possibility I can think of is that Shizune added some of her own money into our funds as well, something she'd no doubt refuse to admit. I can't help but wonder if this was the first time.

…Okay, fine, I actually did that too. It was just a five thousand yen bill though, dropped into that small purse when she wasn't looking, just when we were next in line at the cashier.

It's all for a good cause.

Today is the 1st of November. Incidentally, it's also Thursday. The council elections are finally over; they were still held earlier than originally planned, but postponing them for months didn't seem fair to all the candidates after the previous incident, when they were forced to get their act together in less than a week. The results are encouraging so far: the new Student Council will be a lot bigger than ours, with a good number of first-year students in it. The fact that we'll still be running most things for a while can also give them time to ease into their roles; as Shizune so aptly put it, "a gradual transition is important".

Well, it's probably also true that she's reluctant to let things go. In a way, we all are.

Today however, even if it's also the day of the "after-election party" Shizune had been planning for a while, will be about something completely different. And when I say completely different, I mean-

"Hicchan~! Are you and Shicchan in there? The door seems locked for some reason~!"

…Yeah, it's locked, but that doesn't keep Misha from trying to get in anyway. Following my gaze, Shizune regards the rattling door for a moment before our eyes meet. For once, I'd say we both look equally shocked.

[I thought you gave her a list of groceries as long as the Great Wall of China…!]

Already slightly miffed by the turn of events, my frantic signs don't help my fellow conspirator's mood one bit. [Don't be stupid, of course I did! There's simply no way she could have bought them all already…! Some of those ingredients are impossible to get in any nearby store!]

[Are you sure about that? Did you really check every single place she might know about…?]

Shizune does not answer, merely crosses her arms in front of her chest and stares at me pointedly, daring me to ask the question again.

I… think I'll pass.

It's more likely that the opposite is true: Misha doesn't know nearly as many stores around here as her, and now she came back to tell us that she couldn't find some of the stuff we asked. Or she just couldn't understand something on the list. Or her bags were feeling heavy, and she came to give us the things she bought so far before heading out again - considering the cast on her foot was only removed two days ago, that wouldn't be a surprise.

It is beginning to dawn on me that our plan has more holes in it than Swiss cheese - which is especially embarrassing considering I was the one who came up with it.

Too late to worry about that though. Shizune turns towards the desk full of gaming accessories thoughtfully, before abruptly spinning around to face me again.

[Talk to her at the door, but don't let her in. Buy me some time.]

With that, she whirls around yet again to grab the projector, not giving me the chance to respond. Honestly, I don't think I could have replied with something more meaningful than "well, okay, I'll try my best" anyway.

"Just a sec, Misha, I'll be right there!" I call out, and then make my way to the door with loud but absurdly slow steps, like some humanlike robot in a cheap sci-fi movie.

I also try fiddling around with the lock as long as I can, even "accidentally" dropping the key to the floor once. Still, the time soon arrives when I simply cannot delay opening the door any longer without coming off as suspicious, if I'm not suspicious already.

I decide to open it just wide enough to poke my head out to the corridor. Misha stands there with a stuffed white shopping bag in each hand, grinning from ear to ear.

"Wahahaha~! I knew you're here~!"

"Yeah, sorry about this, we got really busy and locked the door because the room is … in a bit of disarray right now." I try to come up with a usable excuse without actually lying. It's hard. "So, you've got everything from the store?"

"Not yet~! But~! I brought you this!" She puts the bags down, grabs a small packet from the top of the left one and offers it to me.

Uh-oh. Chocolate coated almonds.

Lately Misha seems to have taken upon herself to make me join the parfait-eating side of the Force, which in turn meant defeating my distaste for praline. She only got as far as chocolate coated almonds for now, but I can in no way deny that I absolutely love these.

"I brought something for Shicchan too~!" She hands me my gift, then snatches another packet from the bag and pushes at the door to open it wide. The almonds work so well as a distraction that I almost move out of her way before I realize what I'm doing.

"Wait, hold on! I wasn't joking when I said that the room's in total chaos. I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to go in right now. Shizune's got her hands full, so… she might not be happy that we're distracting her."

Misha merely laughs at my objections. Okay, I guess that's not saying much. "It can't be that bad, Hicchan~! Shicchan said she'll be cooking for us today~, but we don't have to turn the room upside down just for that… I'm not sure why we have to cook in the council room, anyway~…"

"Shizune came up with it, not me. She seems pretty passionate about it." This is entirely true. It might've also served as a handy reason to lock ourselves up here, but Shizune does want to make dinner for the three of us. This room being a less than ideal place for cooking, however, I don't think we'll see her go beyond ready-made stuff from the store, for which a simple portable stove will do just fine.

"Yeah… She's really excited, isn't she~?" Her smile only falters the smallest bit, but I notice it anyway. The truth is, Misha was never very enthusiastic about the so-called "after-election party" - I was the one who talked her into taking part. To her, the whole celebration has something of an "early goodbye" feel to it, which obviously doesn't sit well with her. I can only hope we'll be able to turn that around.

For that, however, we need more time. "Look, just let me take your bags and I'll give everything to Shizune, okay?"

Mimicking Shizune's earlier posture almost perfectly, Misha crosses her arms. Her cheery expression and sing-song voice are the only things that don't fit, but those differences don't necessarily mean anything. I wonder if I've made her mad.


Man, this isn't good. "Um… Please?"

"Wahahaha~! Nope~!" Well, at least she's not mad. "You're hiding something from me, right, Hicchan~?"

On the other hand, I'm completely screwed. "…Why would I be hiding anything from you…?"

"Hmmm~… No idea!" She leans closer, until most of my field of vision is obscured by pink hair and two sparkling orbs of gold. "But I think you know~!"

"I… don't think I… Whoa-!" Misha suddenly grabs onto me while simultaneously charging forward, using all her weight to push me back inside the room.

There's no way for me to stop her from getting in, but that doesn't mean I'm beaten yet. The moment I manage to regain my balance, I wrap my arms around her and trap her in a similarly fierce hug, her head surrounded by my arms and chest from all sides. To my relief, she doesn't try to wriggle free.

"Hey~… Hicchan, I can't see!"

"Yeah, that's exactly the point," I reply in a slightly smug voice.

"That's not fair~!" Despite her words, I can tell that she finds the situation somewhat amusing as well. With the crisis temporarily averted, I look around the room, searching for Shizune to see how she's doing.

I do a double take as, instead of seeing her running around in a frenzy, I find her standing next to us with a gentle smile on her face.

[You can let her go now.]

That was fast… With a small shrug, I do as she says, and Misha and I take in the rearranged council room together.

Yes, rearranged is no overstatement: most desks have been pushed towards the wall, leaving more open space in the center, where the drum kit has been placed along with the table with the rest of the gaming equipment. The console itself is now on the floor, while the projector is balanced precariously on a pile of books and board games on top of the desk, throwing a slightly shaky image on the wall. The curtains are pulled closed, which makes the projected letters clearly visible in front of the green background.

Still, I think I'll read them aloud anyway.

Music track: Generic Happy Music

"Happy Birthday, Misha."

I sign my words as well, and Shizune quickly follows my lead.

[Happy Birthday. We wanted to do this after the party and the cake, but I guess there's no harm in giving you your present a bit early.]

Yeah, like she says, the original plan was to go after Misha once the preparations were complete here and take her to the Shanghai, where Yuuko is already waiting for us with our delicious pre-ordered cake. Hopefully this change of plans won't prove to be a problem… I mean I don't know how it'd be a problem… And it's not like I'm nervous or anything, just… well… you see…


I only catch the last word of a sentence so quiet that I have to wonder where it came from. There's only the three of us in the room, it can't be Shizune, it can't be me…

"Err, sorry?" I stare at Misha like she just somehow proved to me that all the laws of physics are wrong. I notice a watery shine in her eyes that wasn't there moments ago.

"Thank you." Her voice is still barely more than a whisper, but this time around she also signs what she says, and Shizune replies unaware of the phenomenon that left me completely dumbfounded.

[Don't thank us yet, save your praise until you ate some of my homemade dinner! I worked very hard to get those recipes just right. It's going to be delicious!] Her prideful speech is cut short by a second of hesitation. [Anyway, it's only natural that we celebrate your birthday. I actually feel a little bad that we didn't do something like this last year.]

It took me a while, but I finally manage to stop gawking like an idiot. "You've heard the council president. So, want to give the game a try?"

The next thing I know, I nearly fall to the floor as Misha lunges at us, using the fact that Shizune and I stand close to each other to try embracing both of us at once.

[Hey! Don't just-] The rest of Shizune's signs become incomprehensible as she also struggles to stay on her feet.

"Wahahaha~! Thank you-thank-you-thank you~!" Now that's more like it. "All right! Let's do a song~!"

Unfortunately, hugs and sign language do not mesh too well, and Misha is forced to step back to repeat the sentence in Shizune's direction.

[Okay, but we can't stay for too long, it wouldn't be right to keep Yuuko waiting. The owner of the Shanghai is already doing us a great favor again by letting me use the kitchen.]

Wait a second. "You're going to cook there?"

[Where do you think I made all that food the last time? You know it's forbidden to use a stove in the classrooms, and I didn't ask Misha to get me all these ingredients for nothing.] Well, that makes sense. That said, Shizune can still amaze me with her connections. [By the way, I call dibs on the guitar.]

"What…? Damn, I wanted the guitar too."

Shizune gives a satisfied nod, like she just beat me in a game of chess.

[Well, too late; the early bird catches the worm. No more worms left for you!]

Oh, now this means war.

"Looks like you're really eager to get your hands on that guitar. Don't tell me someone's been practicing at the arcade…"

She throws me a not very convincing glare, but before I can bask in the glory of getting the last word…

"I call dibs on the drums~!"

Gah! Now I'm left with nothing but the microphone! Then again, I guess this was inevitable: Shizune can't sing, and Misha… well, let's not get into that.

"Don't worry Hicchan~! I know you have really, really nice singing voice!"

I do?

"…And just where did you hear me sing?"

"In the shower of course! Wahahaha~!"

Do you really have to say, and, well, sign that out loud?

[Then it's time we put that talent of yours to the test. But make no mistake, you will not be singing just for your own amusement - give it everything you've got! Our pride as musicians is at stake, and the Student Council Band will not tolerate the lead singer slacking off!]

Oh boy… Right, I surrender, I surrender. Let's just get on with this before I kick the bucket out of sheer embarrassment, okay?

Music track: -

Shizune quickly grabs the guitar; just the way she's holding it makes it obvious already that she has some experience under her belt. Misha hops behind the drums, twirling a stick in each hand in a pretty impressive display of dexterity with a huge grin plastered across her face. I have no choice but to pick up the microphone… and try to look at least half as cool as them. I don't think it's working.

We all gaze expectantly at the projected image of our in-game avatars on the wall as the song we picked out begins to the thunderous applause of the virtual audience.

The intro starts off with a few chords from the guitar. We forgot to lower the difficulty setting from "normal", but Shizune makes the whole thing look ridiculously easy: even if she can't hear the results of her efforts, she can undoubtedly feel the rhythm, playing each color combination the game presents at exactly the right time.

The drums soon join in, with Misha alternating between the three main pads at a speed you'd never expect to see from her - that is, if you didn't witness her playing the taiko drums in the arcade for hours, putting any and all competition to shame.

She does not laugh as that would interfere with the music, but you can literally feel the waves of joy radiating from her, inspiring me to look forward to my own part as well. Because I know: her happiness isn't only about the song, or the drums alone. It's about what we can create together.

I glance at the lyrics of the upcoming verse like a mountaineer at the towering peak in front of him, guitar and drums melding together in a gripping melody to aid my ascent. They will help me, and I will help them. We will reach the top as one.

I draw a deep breath, a smile playing in the corner of my lips.

Here goes nothing.

Music track: Romance in Andante