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Chapter 3 – Little Miss Fairy Won’t Get Mad

At this point, let’s consider the concept of a façade.

There’s some long-winded entry in the dictionary about how it means “to act according to society’s expectations” or “to be noticeably different in public than in private”, but it’s really not such a hard thing to understand.

A façade is about protecting yourself by hiding what you really think. Or rather, it’s about not being able to show your feelings. Like, if you got sexually harassed by a Hentai Prince from your school, you’d only pretend to forgive him next time you saw him. That would be a façade. Screw apologies, what you’d really want to do is beat him up.

Still, while there’s a link between what we think and what we say out loud, our actions aren’t set in stone.

Here are some examples:

On one hand, we have type #1: the worrywart teenager. The shy girl who always cries herself to sleep after someone sexually harasses her. As she sniffles in her bed, she wonders why she can’t put on a braver face. She hates how she’s such a weakling and so she thinks, “Geez, I don’t need this façade!”

On the other hand, we have type #2: the lovesick maiden. The violent girl who lashes right back at someone who sexually harasses her. Looking in the mirror, she gets depressed and wonders why her crush never notices her. She hates how unladylike she is and so she thinks, “Argh, I want to hide my true feelings!”

“Man, isn’t hitting on girls such an intelligent strategy!” I thought aloud.

“Uh huh.”

“It’s sexual harassment for a great cause! Don’t you think that’s so cool?”

“Could it be that you want to be hated by every single girl in the world?” Tsutsukakushi asked with a straight face. (She always had a straight face, though.)

Her words cut deep like a razor blade. I shut up without a murmur and started counting the stains on the ceiling.

It was lunch break and we were alone in the nurse’s office, which smelled like disinfectant. It was like we were playing at doctor and patient. In this case, the doctor was Tsutsukakushi, who sat at the side of my bed. The nurse must have gone to a meeting or something because we couldn’t see her around anywhere. So without any instruction, Tsutsukakushi prepared an icepack for me instead.

As she pressed the icepack against my swollen cheek, she let out a deep sigh. “So the first thing you did was blurt out what you were thinking to the one person who would beat you senseless.”

“No, you’re wrong! You’re making me sound like someone who enjoys pain. It’s not like I was waiting around to get punched!”

No matter how you looked at it, making a pass at the Steel King was an act of suicide. I valued my life too much for that.

But maybe – just maybe – I thought, the Prez might confide in me about how she had trouble expressing her emotions. There was the possibility that I could turn the Steel King into a lovesick maiden just by talking to her! There is no such thing as an unwinnable heroine!

That was the subject of our morning discussion.

“Good morning, Prez! Nice weather today, eh?” I turned my face towards the Track and Field club members, watching them go about their morning practice routine. As I did, I asked my next question. “What year of elementary school were you in when you started growing those huge knockers of yours?”

It was the question I had always wanted to ask.

As if on cue, my fellow club members surrounded us. “The Hentai Prince is challenging the Steel King to a duel! He’s challenging her to the throne!” they exclaimed, and so on. I had no idea why they put it in such colourful terms. It wasn’t as if a fight was about to start.

Meanwhile, I stared at the ground, mortified about the question I had just asked. I had plenty of opportunity to scream in horror as I did a 100-metre race. You see, the instant I spotted the Steel King making a mad dash towards me, I ran away like the wind. Don’t underestimate an active Track and Field club member (on hiatus).

…except the Steel King was faster than me. It was kind of odd since her specialty was javelin-throwing.

“That was the most outrageous greeting I’ve heard in all my years since middle school,” she remarked. “Now I’m giving you three options. One: I flay you until you have no skin left. Two: You cut open your stomach and apologise. Three: I bury you and recycle you. Now choose. You’ll take them all? Right then.”

Just as she was on the verge of catching me at the school gate, I spoke up.

“The great 19th century author Oscar Wilde said this: ‘We all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.’ Prez, your boobs have grown lately, haven’t they? I don’t just want to ogle your boobs, I want to live with them too. I want to measure how big they grow and fondle them. Is this what they call art for art’s own sake?”

She punched me in the face.

“I can’t believe your illness has progressed this far. What’s the word for what I’m feeling right now? Er, right, I’m shocked. The most I can do is punch your teeth out – the least I can do is wait until you’ve been cured. So take your time and rest up well before you return to the Track and Field club.”

“…I am deeply moved. Your heart is as big as your breasts. It’s enough to make me cry-!”

She punched me in the face for the second time.

Because of that, my cheek was swollen as a tomato, and from morning till noon I lay in the nurse’s office groaning in pain.

“I pretty much figured this would happen,” I said with a grimace. “Well, I can say for sure now that the Steel King has no problem expressing her emotions.”

Tsutsukakushi shook her head. She was awed and dismayed in equal measure. “…I see she is very strong. If I saw what happens when you say your perverted things, I would cry straight away.”

“Y-you’d cry? You don’t like my plan?”

“It leaves much to be desired. Plus, I am – was a crybaby,” Tsutsukakushi hastily corrected herself as she wiped her cheek with her palm.

There was nothing wet on her cheek; her emotions had dried up.


It had been one week since we had clasped hands on the top of the hill.

No matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find anyone who had received Tsutsukakushi’s true feelings or my façade. Instead, my reputation as the Hentai Prince only deepened further. Now all the girls in my class won’t come within a two-metre radius of me. It was like they thought they would get pregnant just from looking at me. It was unfair. I had the right to choose which girl to impregnate, after all. When I mentioned that, the two-metre radius got wider.

Never mind becoming the next club president. At this rate, my life was on the line. It was checkmate. I couldn’t tell if the Steel King was incredibly kind or incredibly thick for letting me stay in the Track and Field club even after all of this.

“Now that you mention it,” said Tsutsukakushi, as if suddenly remembering something, “I have been skipping out on my club too.”

She sat on a round stool by the bedside and ate her bento without much appetite. The bento was stuffed to the brim with all sorts of food. I wished she would feed me. But my cheek still hurt, so I couldn’t eat anything anyway.

“What kind of club are you in, Tsutsukakushi?” I asked.

“The Child-Minding club.”

“…ah, so you’re the type who visits nurseries and playgrounds, huh?”

The Child-Minding club was about giving kids a healthy childhood by playing tag with them and putting on puppet shows… at least I thought that was the idea. Her choice of club caught me off guard. It was a bit peculiar, to say the least.

“My voice is too monotone for playacting,” Tsutsukakushi said woodenly. “And if I never smile, the children will feel uncomfortable. How can I smile for them?”

“It’s funny how you’re in the Child-Minding club. It’s like a kid taking care of other kids. You probably have to put up with lots of crap since there’s nothing to distinguish you from the other kids.”

“You think it is funny? Is that how it is?”

“What?! Th-that’s not what I really think!”

She kicked me smartly. “Thank you for the honest feedback.” Her small feet looked like they could have belonged to a grade schooler. “This boiled potato is very appetising, but I have decided to give you exactly none of it.”

“…well, I’m hardly in any condition to eat it, but you don’t seem like eating it yourself, Tsutsukakushi.”

“You make a good point. But you are still not having any.”

“Hahaha… better change the subject. What did your family say about what happened?”

If a teenage girl suddenly stopped laughing, that would be a cause for concern, I thought.

The hand which held the chopsticks suddenly stopped moving. Tsutsukakushi’s cold gaze drifted down the table. “My family… is not particularly bothered. There are other things keeping them busy.”

Then she went on eating as if nothing was wrong.

I found it hard to believe that nobody worried about a girl who had suddenly lost her emotions. I read in a magazine that everyone gets along really well in families with a girl in it and if they didn’t know what to do, they could always count on papa.

Tsutsukakushi, who had turned her attention back to her bento, began piling the food into her mouth with a vengeance. It was impossible to get a word in, what with her eating so much faster than before. It was like she was telling me not to ask.

But I just had to do it! While I didn’t have any interest in solving mysteries, I loved juicy gossip!

“Hey, Tsutsukakushi. Tell me more about your fam-”

At that moment, I heard someone shuffling around behind the curtain partitioning the bed. Tsutsukakushi swung around and my words died on my tongue.

I hadn’t known someone was over there. I’d been nursing my cheek for the last hour, but had someone come here before then?

Tsutsukakushi snapped her bento shut. Holding the icepack with one hand, I lifted my head off the bed. The timing to ask Tsutsukakushi about her family seemed to have slipped away.

The person who appeared on the other side of the curtain was a drowsy girl who looked like a dainty fairy.

“Ugh, it’s the pervert.”

It was Azuki Azusa. Although she was yawning and rubbing her eyes, she broke out into a spectacular groan as soon as she got a square look at me. I wondered if rich girls were supposed to look the way she did. From the way she showed her disgust, it was hard to tell whether she had a problem linking her feelings to her expressions or whether she just had a problem with me.

Azuki Azusa covered up whatever she was thinking with a fake cough. Then she spotted Tsutsukakushi and did a double take. “Good afternoon. You are a first year, I presume? If you need that bed, then go ahead and take it.”

She acted as if I didn’t even exist.

Without answering, Tsutsukakushi looked from me to Azuki Azusa with her wide, solemn eyes, as if trying to work out the relationship between the two of us. Not that there was anything to tell. The answer was simple: I was the object of hatred of every girl in the school. They shunned me.

Incidentally, no matter what Tsutsukakushi said, her default expression was as cold as ice. An antisocial kouhai who stared at you without saying a word would unnerve anyone at their first meeting. Azuki Azusa was no different. She physically recoiled and retreated to the space between our beds. The atmosphere heightened with tension.

Right. It was up to me to break the ice.

“Hey, Azuki Azusa. Had a nice nap?”

“…don’t talk to me, you perv. What’re you asking me that for, you perv?”

“You’ve still got drool on your face, that’s why!”

Azuki Azusa went bright red in an instant, as if she had been scalded by hot water. Reverently, I held out a tissue for her, which she snatched from me before I could even blink. She wiped her cheek and tried to hide her face from me.

“But when you’re a rich girl,” I went on, “drool is just another fashion accessory, eh?”

“T-that’s right! But of course! You’re a keen observer of the obvious, huh? Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Yeah, yeah. So what’s with all the bedhead? The open button on your blouse? Why is your skirt lifted up, I wonder? Your sleeping posture is so bad it makes me wonder if you’re seducing me. That’s the feeling I get. Better not be so obvious about it, eh?”

Azuki Azusa’s face went from red to blue, then back to red again. I was amused by how much she resembled a set of traffic lights (1). She straightened her frazzled hair, which was twisted like a screw. At the same time, she scrambled to hide her chest, smoothed down the hem of her skirt over her legs and threw her arms around in a panic. Only when she had done all that did she think to hide herself behind the curtain.

“Seeing how a lady always checks how she looks, it must be intentional,” I remarked.

“Huh?! …w-well, yeah… You didn’t have to put it so bluntly!”

“Yep yep, gotta preserve your modesty. But that’s not the vibe I’m getting here. You’re seducing me again.”

“Urk… you perv…” Azuki Azusa said, grimacing. Although her voice trembled with her persistent sleepiness, she refused to acknowledge it. I understood why people would put up a front, but I thought this girl would one day lose something important to her because of her haughty pride.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting something,” Tsutsukakushi broke in suddenly, in an infinitely level-headed tone. “I was curious what sort of relationship you have with senpai – Yokodera-senpai.”

The only thing Azuki Azusa and I could be was enemies. But judging from how Tsutsukakushi timed her question, I had to conclude that between being a sadist or a masochist, she was probably a sadist.

…what I didn’t understand was why she stared so unblinkingly at my face, as if I were the object of an interrogation. But hey, it wasn’t like it was the first time I couldn’t read Tsutsukakushi’s expressions.

“O-our relationship?!” Azuki Azusa yelped. “With this perv…”

“Oh, come now! If we were total strangers, there’s no way a rich girl like you would be out to seduce me.”

“With this perv… urk… um, right! It’s kind of like we scratch each other’s backs!” Azuki Azusa answered frantically. It was what you would call an act of self-implosion.

She kept on fumbling over herself as she dressed herself, and when she was done she sprinted out the nurse’s office. She had glared at me with a face that was bright red all the way up to her ears, but I couldn’t help but think that half of that was her own fault anyway. Had she really wanted to protect her rich girl image that much?

“I see,” said Tsutsukakushi. “You scratch each other’s backs, huh?”

“Tsutsukakushi, stop kicking the bed for no reason! When she says she scratches my back, she means she’s trying to hurt me with her claws. It sucks for me since she’s got so much pride.”

As I adjusted the ice pack on my cheek, I sat up in deep thought. I had the strong feeling that my life would be so much happier if I just stopped pissing people off. That way I wouldn’t get beaten up time and time again.

For a while, Tsutsukakushi glanced at me sideways. “Her pride might have something to do with it…” she muttered, “…but are you sure you are not dating?”

“It’s true. There’s nothing going on between us. If we were alone together and I said that to her, she’d rip me to shreds.”

“In that case, you were joking with her, senpai.”

“How do you say it…? I was trying to piss her off…? Yeah, that’s how you say it. Now what do I do?”

“Ah, then that makes sense. That girl just now was speaking with a façade, was she not?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, we looked at each other.

Q. What were we looking for?

A. Someone who had been given a façade.


The Azuki Azusa Observation Squad commenced operations the next day. The commanding officer was Tsutsukakushi. The chief of staff was Tsutsukakushi. The secretary was, once again, Tsutsukakushi. I was the cannon fodder.

“Azuki Azusa is in class 2-2 and her seat number is 2. Her star sign is Aquarius and her blood type is A. She is not affiliated with any club. She transferred to this school in April as a second-year student. She arrives at school every day in a black car, her favourite kind. She always arrives at a different time every day. She receives a considerable number of love letters. The number of boys she has turned down is also high. Lately, her manner of rejecting people has become quite a spectacle. No boyfriend. No friends either. Although she has no illness or misfortune, she does not have a very strong physique.”

Tsutsukakushi noted down each fact I had investigated. On our table, there were two glasses of water and a packet of curry rice.

“This might be a stupid question, but where’s your lunchbox, Tsutsukakushi? Didn’t you make lunch today?”

“I already ate it.”

“So what’s with the curry?”

“It is for my second stomach.”

“There’s no such thing as a second stomach!”

Just where did she fit all that food in her skinny body? Or, more to the point, why did she never get any fatter? Her body was one of the deep mysteries of the universe.

Tsutsukakushi constantly switched between holding a pencil and spoon in her tiny hand. As if unknowingly realising how much she ate on her own, she held out her spoon to me. I shook my head in reply; my cheeks had started stinging again.

Tsutsukakushi laid the spoon down and picked up her pencil once again. “Putting it all together, we appear to have come across a formidable opponent,” she said curtly, peering sideways through some decorative foliage.

Azuki Azusa, the target of our research operations, was eating all alone right in the middle of the cafeteria, perfectly calm and composed. You could indeed spot the princess in a crowd at a busy time of the day just through the shape of her soft, flowing hair. I could glimpse her expensive ring and an even more expensive wristwatch, and those were just samples of her accessories.

Azuki Azusa rounded her mornings off with a session of Reward Time. As a result of all this, talking to her had become a task of the utmost difficulty.

…which was why she was always alone. It was hard to tell whether she herself was aware of that. She lapped up everyone’s silent stares. It was no metaphor that the world revolved around her. She stood out radiantly amongst all the others.

A girl as cute and rich as her would probably be popular with everyone if she kept her insults to a minimum. She had no tits, though.

“Come to think of it, my curse compelled me to tell that chick she was flat-chested.”

“You were compelled, you say? I see you are a pervert.”

“But I didn’t say a single bad thing about her. Isn’t that unnatural? Still, she looked so bothered about her tiny tits.”

“It could also be that she did not want to hear any disgusting talk. That is exactly what it looks like to me.”

“Hahaha, that’s harsh! What a lame joke, Tsutsukakushi!”

“Except I was not joking in the slightest.”

“Uh, why are you standing up, Tsutsukakushi? Wait, hang on. It’s not what you think. I was talking about how it looks like Azuki Azusa covers up the parts of her that wouldn’t make a good impression. She didn’t even yell at me in front of everyone. Like that time in the nurse’s office, she has to protect her rich girl image when she’s with other people. But a façade that strong just isn’t normal. And look at that.”

I pointed at Azuki Azusa’s choker. It accentuated her lovely nape and made it look even better than it normally would. It was stiff and sturdy, and it looked like a pet’s collar.

“Doesn’t that belong to me? It looks a lot like the belt I lost at the Stony Cat’s place.”

Tsutsukakushi dropped her pencil. She blinked. “Huh?”

From my tireless observations, that was the conclusion I came to. The size had changed somewhat, but it was the same principle that was behind the cat statue taking on the shape of a pork bun.

“Ponta’s horniness and his body pillow were both pushed onto me. Tsutsukakushi, the Stony Cat took your ability to smile and your pork bun as a set. Azuki Azusa has my leather belt. Which means that…”

It was a matching game. By process of elimination, the answer was simple.

“The reason why that girl doesn’t say what she really means is because she received my facade. If you ask me, lately it was getting to the stage where she couldn’t shake off the guys who were used to being spurned by her, but in this past week, she’s been ripping a new hole into them. It’s like she levelled up.”

“…is that so?”

Tsutsukakushi picked up the pencil again and doodled sloppily over her notebook. She looked up, as if she were pondering my words deeply.

“Your façade… was given to her, senpai. That is not good news.”

“How come?”

“Azuki Azusa received your façade because she needed it. If that is the case, she has more things worrying her than an ordinary person. I do not think she would let go of the façade that easily.”

“…no waaaaaay!” I slammed my fist against the table reflexively. As Tsutsukakushi’s gaze returned to me, I went on. “It’s common sense to give back what you’ve taken!”

“Is that how you see it? Do you realise what you are sayi-?”

“I’ll be right back!”

“Senpai, what are you-?”

I stood up from our table. I knew what Tsutsukakushi said was right. Of course Azuki Azusa was no pushover. I suspected that ordinary methods wouldn’t make her give back what she had taken from me.

But so what?

Here I was, working tirelessly to get my façade back and copping so much physical and verbal abuse in the process, and Azuki Azusa had the nerve to take my façade away from me and live the high life! I couldn’t forgive that flat-chested pipsqueak!

Pushing the plants to the side and bumping my way past the students surrounding me, I jumped out right in front of Azuki Azusa, my sworn nemesis. I inhaled deeply into my lungs.

And then I screamed.

“Azuki Azusa! Give back what you’ve stolen from me!”

The cafeteria fell into a stunned silence. Everyone’s eyes were on the two of us. Even with all that, I couldn’t stop my rage. My cheek stung and half of it was Azuki Azusa’s fault.

“I’ve always, always been watching you! And then I realised! You’ve taken everything from me, Azuki Azusa! I can’t live like this! Only you can save me from all this pain and heartache! Take responsibility!”

“Wha…?” Azuki Azusa’s eyes widened like saucers. As she stared, she flushed bright red from the choker around her neck all the way up to the tip of her forehead.

The pause that followed stretched beyond any natural length. The next instant, the silence burst into chatter.

“…the Hentai Prince is hitting on his next victim!” “He’s switched from the Steel King to the rich girl.” “I thought he was checking Azuki-san out.” “Man, the Prince’s confession is really something else.” “What a complete perv!” “I’m getting goosebumps.”

So was I. I wondered what I would do when I got out of this dream. How would I deal with Azuki Azusa’s Reward Time…?

“W-what are you spouting, perv…?!” She glared furiously at me. Geez, if looks could kill. But then, aware of all the eyes that were upon her, she coughed. “W-weeeeeell, I suppose I can understand the pain and heartache even a guinea pig feels.” I had no idea what she was trying to say. I thought she had been trying to pick a fight with me. “More importantly, is there perhaps something I can do for you…?”

She had lovely lips that were like petals and she acted like a benign princess. Deep down inside, what she probably really wanted to do right now was wring my neck savagely. She was using a façade, the façade that belonged to me.

“Damn it! Look, the thing is, Azuki Azusa, I want just about every part of you!

“E-e-e-every part?!”

“I won’t be that unreasonable, though. Azuki Azusa… at least let me stay by your side! I’ll be with you twenty-four hours a day – wherever, whenever! Open up your body and soul to me, Azuki Azusa! We can do it right here right now, if that takes your fancy. We can share something precious!”

“W-w-whaaaaaaa…?!”

“You said it yourself before, that feelings should be expressed through actions! It’s what you wished for!”

I supposed that if I tried to hold Azuki Azusa’s hand, she would dodge me with superhuman speed. Her true feelings were slipping out. But giving up on her was out of the question. Pursuing her hand would be like punching it for her.

“…stop it!” Azuki Azusa yelped. “I-I get it! You don’t have to say it again!”

It was as if she had lost all patience. With a glance, she saw all the onlookers in the cafeteria holding their breath in anticipation. As she glared daggers at me, she weighed up her dignity against her desires.

“That’s such a joke, having a pervert for a boyfr… toy. There is an order to these things. I understand your feelings, such as, for instance, er… right! You’re good for some things, like carrying my bags and warming up my shoes… er, wait, that would just turn this perv on… a pet! Right, you’ll be my pet! A pet is exactly what I wanted. As long as you serve me as a pet, you can stay by my side. But really, this is so like y-”

“Woof!”

I raised my hand above Azuki Azusa’s knee and curled it like a paw. I held that as my pose.

“W-what?! What’re you doing? You’re my pet! Do you hear me?!”

“But of course! Woof! I’ll become your dog, just so I can be by your side!” I intoned, as if swearing a vow.

I held the speechless Azuki Azusa’s hand and barked once more. I was so happy to be Azuki Azusa’s pet. Woof woof.

It wasn’t as if I wasn’t embarrassed by any of this. But between the choices of “trying to get façade back” and “suffering the humiliation of being Azuki Azusa’s pet”, my heart was making me choose both options at once, and somehow things had escalated from there.

Azuki Azusa spoke as if she was trying to fight down the words that came out of her mouth. “Y-yay… you did it… I’m so happy I could cry…” She leaned back, depleted. Her chestnut-coloured ringlets had lost their lustre.

“…what just happened?” “The princess just raised the white flag.” “I confessed to her so many times, but.” “Ah, me too.” “After getting beaten up so many times, the Hentai Prince found true love.” “What a touching story!”

Someone slowly started clapping from somewhere. Soon enough, the whole cafeteria broke out into a wild applause.

That was the day I changed my job from a prince to a dog.


July 2 Thursday – Mostly sunny.

7:00 – Got out of bed. Waited outside school gate today like usual. Heard people say “How loyal!” “He’s just like Hachiko! (2)” etc.

8:20 – Saw Azuki Azusa get dropped off. Greeted her. She ran away again. Looked for her till homeroom started. Couldn’t find her.

Recess – Went to Azuki Azusa’s classroom. Didn’t see her. Scoured Master’s desk. Discovered what brand of strap she uses on cell phone. No numbers registered. Added mine as first.

Recess – Went to nurse’s office. Didn’t see her. Went to rooftop. Looked at water tower. Saw her sleeping in shade. Was drooling. Terrible sleeping posture. Stuck letter next to where she was sleeping: “I came to report on your condition. You were drooling.”

Recess – Went to rooftop. Sleeping posture was even worse than before. Was strange. Could see belly button. Woot. Did some graffiti on Master’s stomach with permanent marker. Took photo just in case. Called it “Pom Poko Raccoon Dog and the Moon” (3). Sent it to her.

 

HenNeko-101

Lunchtime – Azuki Azusa came to me. Was grinning. Took me on friendly walk. Everyone was smiling. I was smiling. Was very grateful for walk. Arrived at back garden. Was strangled. Cell phone confiscated. Photos deleted. Number erased also. Master got pissed. Strangled me some more.

Recess – Went to Azuki Azusa’s class. Said sorry. Got no attention. Knelt on ground in front of her. Said, “I won’t ever mess with your stomach ever again.” Caused uproar around me.

After school – Went to Azuki Azusa’s class. Master went home early.

On the way home – Read dirty magazine. Worked out plan. Thought of good idea. Track Master. Cheer Master up. Run away with  swimsuit in mouth, for example. Master will be happy.

Around 1:00 – Bedtime.

“So you have fun being a pet, you say? I see. You are a pervert beyond saving.”

“Th-that kinda stung.”

“It is just your imagination,” Tsutsukakushi said icily. “This is how I sound when you cannot see how I really feel.”

Her expression was the same as usual, but I couldn’t help but think that Tsutsukakushi had gotten crabby at me lately. She wouldn’t admit it to herself for sure, but she was like a cat in a bad mood.

It was a languid, humid Sunday afternoon, and it looked like a downpour was just around the corner. Since we’d gone through all the effort of meeting up for our second interim report, we decided to take a trip on the local railway into the next town.

The train was so empty I had to wonder how the private railway made any money. There were only seven people on board.

Tsutsukakushi and I sat next to each other on one of the seats. “It’s not like we’re on a date…” I muttered. This was merely a meeting to discuss our battle strategy. I totally got that, but with Tsutsukakushi wearing a cookie-shaped cap and a chocolate-coloured, pleated skirt, she had to be the cutest resident of the candy world.

I wanted to casually drape my arm around her shoulder. I couldn’t do that, though. If I did, she’d give me that cold “Watch where you put your hand” look and snub me even further.

“…what nonsense are you thinking of now?” Tsutsukakushi asked.

“H-how rude! I wasn’t thinking about you that much!”

“You thought about me… I see.” Tsutsukakushi clacked the heels of her boots together with a light rhythm. As usual, I couldn’t read her expression.

It seemed I had lost track of the conversation before she got mad. “Oh yeah,” I said. “About me being a pet, I actually don’t think it’s like that at all. I thought it would be more along the lines of me being all ‘Master, woof woof!’ and she’ll whistle and be all ‘Lie down! Have a reward! Brush my teeth and get in the bath with me!’”

“Just what were you expecting? Pervert.”

“W-well, I kinda thought Azuki Azusa was a rich girl, you see… like she had a really sheltered existence. Her sleeping posture is, kinda, well… It would be good if she warned someone about it.”

“How many times have you watched her sleep to talk about her like that?”

“It’s not about how many times I’ve seen her. She’s been doing her best to avoid me.”

Azuki Azusa had a façade. But the image she showed to everyone didn’t apply to how she treated her pet. It wasn’t like she had any obligation to act nice towards me. Besides, she was different in class. At best, I was only able to go see her and play with her at recess or thereabouts. In the mornings and after school she ran away from me like the plague.

“That’s why there’s been no major progress. Still, if she hates me more now, then she’ll start thinking she doesn’t want her façade anymore. Leaving things hanging would suck for both of us.”

“So what are you going to do this time?”

“I wanted to talk to you about it, Tsutsukakushi. Got any ideas?”

“How about giving up on Azuki-san?”

“Retreat is not an option! There’s no reason why she should have my façade without even knowing where it came from!”

Tsutsukakushi sighed deeply. “…is that really all there is to it?”

Before I could ask her what she meant, the train arrived at the station. She walked off without me, so I had to hurry up and get off at the terminal by myself. That made me sigh. It really wasn’t a date after all. If we were a real couple, we’d be joined at the hip. That was the impression I got from watching dramas.


Yes, there was an actual reason why we went all the way to the next town for our strategy meeting.

The reason was right in front of us.

“Oriental… Animal Café?” Tsutsukakushi said questioningly.

“I looked up this place and I think it has a pretty good reputation, so I wanted to come here with you, Tsutsukakushi.”

Our destination was a brick building hidden in a back street off the main road from the station. It had blended into the background, so we hung around trying to find it in the rain. The sign above the door had a chic design with cat and dog footprints. As she propped herself under a polka-dot umbrella, Tsutsukakushi read the written description aloud intently.

In this shop, customers are served by cats and dogs. Feel free to eat tasty sweets with them to your heart’s content. 

Tsutsukakushi nodded with approval. “How nice. Shall we go in?”

It didn’t escape me how she bounded inside and stood on her tiptoes. Girls usually liked small animals. This little-known date spot had the Internet’s seal of approval and was guaranteed to make a girlfriend happy.

The reason why I took Tsutsukakushi here was to improve her mood and to work out a plan to capture Azuki Azusa… or at least, that was how it looked on the surface. Actually, I just wanted to ogle the waitresses. They wore frilly maid outfits which were fitted with animal ears and a tail. And if you asked them to, they even said stuff like “Woof woof! Welcome back, master!” or “Meow! Open up wide!” as they spoon-fed you. It was like a dream. I figured I should invite Ponta here sometime.

One thing was for sure: I wouldn’t be telling Tsutsukakushi that I’d done all this research beforehand.

“…I see. You came here for the waitresses,” she said.

“H-huh?! I didn’t say anything!”

“Senpai, I can tell just by looking at you.” She had figured me out as soon as we walked into the café.

We were directed to a table and took a seat. Tsutsukakushi rested her chin on her hands and stared at me somewhat coldly.

“You would not come here in the first place if it had nothing to do with girls, senpai.”

“N-no… that’s true, but… the cats and dogs were a part of it too.”

The puppies and kittens nudged my leg. They curled up into fluffy balls, making cute noises. As you might expect from she who was without emotions, Tsutsukakushi brushed the furballs off her shoulder without any reaction whatsoever.

“That was a joke,” she explained. “This is a nice café… I also think the waitresses’ outfits are cute.”

“I know, right?! Everything about them is just so soft and cuddly – their paws, their ears, their aprons – but the weird thing is that when they’re sitting still, they look like they come from some ancient Japanese fairy tale.”

“I do not know what you mean by ‘fairy tale’, but I would like to try wearing one of those outfits at least once.”

“I also want see you cosplay at least once!”

“If you only want to look then maybe.”

“There’s a 100% chance I’ll do more than just look!”

“There is a 100% chance I will not wear it.”

As the two of us bantered, a waitress walked out from the kitchen holding a tea tray close to her chest. As I checked the waitress’s body out, I noticed that she was wearing a short skirt and knee-high socks. She also wore animal paws for shoes, a blouse that was spotted like a leopard’s and large tiger ears. Her long, chestnut hair glowed and looked really pretty to me. Her choker looked like a collar worn by real animals and her apron was covered entirely with white frills. She had a wild and domestic image, all rolled into one package, which really enhanced her appeal.

What I didn’t say aloud was that it would have helped if she didn’t have such a small chest. She looked just like someone I knew.

She gasped. “W-w-whyyyyyyyy…!”

Right, right. A girl who’s easy to understand through her expressions…

Oh wait.

“You’re the real thing!”

“What are you doing here, you perv?!”

Dumbfounded, Azuki Azusa tipped the tray upside down. The teacup fell off the tray altogether, creating a puddle of barley tea all over the carpet. The puppies scampered away.

“Senpai… did you know she was here?” Tsutsukakushi asked.

I shook my head furiously. “No way! What a coincidence!”

I was the one who was surprised. I would never have dreamed a rich girl would be working part-time at a place like this!

Azuki Azusa, currently neither human nor animal, was experiencing an existential crisis. Her animal paw gloves shook along with the tray. “How could you coincidentally come all the way here?! I thought I’d seen the last of you at school! It’s because you’re a perv, right?! A big, fat perv!”

I was surprised to see tears welling up in the corner of her eyes.

“That is hard to deny,” Tsutsukakushi said calmly. “Now that we have established that, it would be a good idea if you picked up the teacup.”

As it turned out, not being able to show any expressions had its uses after all. Tsutsukakushi had the best handle on the situation out of all of us. Incidentally, I wondered just what was so hard for her to deny.

The café owner wasted no time cleaning the mess on the floor. “How rude of you, Azuki-chan,” he reprimanded her. “Smile! Smile for the customers!” And with that, he left.

As if under a spell, Azuki Azusa bent her knees and bowed as if she had done it a million times before. “Good afternoon, Master. Please give your pet an order.” Her striped tail fluttered lightly as she bowed.

It was painful to watch her, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away. All the subtle movements of her ears and tail stood out like crazy. It was a shame she sounded like she was reciting from a manual and that she couldn’t keep the blush off her face, but oh well.

“Okay, then… I’ll have the Japanese-style cutlets with the ‘Animal Maid Spoon-Feeding’ service.”

“H-huh?! You bas- I mean, Master, that is…!”

“Problem? I mean, you are the maid and I am your master… ouch!”

Just as I was getting into the whole role reversal thing, someone kicked me under the table. The boot of justice didn’t belong to Azuki Azusa, though, even if she was on the brink of explosion. It was Tsutsukakushi’s. I hadn’t known she hated these kinds of jokes.

“We will have one rice cake (4) and a sandwich, thank you,” she said.

But how could she only order food she could finish off in one bite? I thought Tsutsukakushi was a glutton. Since I’d come all this way, I wanted to have my eye candy too.

“Understood, meow.” Azuki Azusa lifted both her hands, beckoning like a cat, as the situation required of her. “I will do my best for my Master’s sake… meow… ugh,” she moaned.

She fawned all over me – it was like the complete opposite of her Reward Time. I wanted to take her home with me.

…but really, Tsutsukakushi’s order was the right thing to say in this context. I figured this café was a tough place to work in.

With a murderous look on her face, Azuki Azusa slammed the new cup of tea on the table. For a moment there, I thought she was about to hurl it at me. Then, while Tsutsukakushi petted the puppies and kittens, Azuki Azusa stepped on my feet at least once every three seconds, as if she believed that I would immediately pounce on the animal maids if she didn’t.

Well, geez, I thought. Be like that. It was like she didn’t even trust me. I couldn’t think of a single reason for why I would move one inch from where I was sitting.

…wait, why did I come here again?


“I never thought we would talk to Azuki-san in that café,” Tsutsukakushi sighed as we left the shop.

As it turned out, we only stayed at the Oriental Animal Café for ten minutes. Yet somehow, Tsutsukakushi still had the time to scarf down the rice cake and sandwich.

“So Azuki-san was working in this vicinity all along…” she went on, musing aloud. “Senpai, have you forgotten our original purpose for coming here?”

“I don’t have the foggiest clue! I was only thinking about seeing you in an animal maid outfit!”

“…uh huh.”

She sighed again. She only ever seemed to sigh when she was around me. It made me feel kind of guilty.

“B-but you know,” I added, “I’m glad we found out Azuki Azusa’s secret. We’re probably the only ones who know the princess has a part-time job.”

“Care to explain the evil grin on your face?”

“Now we can milk Azuki Azusa for all she’s worth. Part-time jobs shouldn’t be allowed by the school rules. The princess should learn to look before she leaps! She thinks she can keep a human as a pet, huh? Well, the oppressed commoners will always strike down the snobbish elite!”

“I won’t fault you for recognising the historical significance of the Russian Revolution, but what are you actually planning to do? You will not tell the teacher about her, will you?”

“Hmmm… I was thinking something like enlarging the photos of her in an animal maid outfit and hanging them on the rooftop.”

“That has nothing to do with her façade. That is just sexual harassment.”

“Urk…” The words died in my throat.

My plan was foiled. My brain was fried. There went my hopes and dreams for the future.

The rain was pouring heavily now, and even though it was summer, I was left shivering. Rain pelted me everywhere. It was like getting kicked while I was already down.

The falling rain painted the world grey, making the brick walls of the Oriental Animal Café and the asphalt in the back alley look dull and colourless. A billboard flashing primary colours blatantly stood out among everything else. Uh oh, I thought, shaking my head. It looked very suspicious to me.

Tsutsukakushi turned her gaze to our surroundings. “This will do,” she sighed, pulling on my arm.

She led me towards the building with the neon sign. The sign had “Take a break” written on it with love hearts around it.

Wasn’t this one of those places? I thought. Where men and women get in a good mood and come together in union, even while they’re avoiding each other’s eyes? One of those so-called love ho-?

“Huuuh?! What the-?! What the hell are we doing here?!” I demanded.

“Shhh. Not so loud, please.”

“I-I don’t even! Aren’t we still high school students?! You need to be in love to do those sorts of things!”

“I have heard that line from somewhere. What do you mean by those things?”

Unruffled, Tsutsukakushi took me to the door. There was no one around and the place reeked. Shady advertisements were plastered all over the grimy walls. But the entrance itself was covered with the kinds of phrases you’d see at any proper reception area: “4000 yen for two hours, food and drink included. Vending machine and lotion service provided.”

At that point, my brain imploded. Was I about the climb the stairs to adulthood in one leap? Was I Cinderella and Tsutsukakushi Prince Charming?

“I-I-I’m inexperienced, but… I’ll do my best…” I said numbly, as if I were a robot.

“What are you babbling about?”

Tsutsukakushi only pretended to walk into the reception. Instead, she leaned her entire body against the large emergency door to the side. The rusty door creaked open. I was greeted, not with the stairs to adulthood, but with the stairs to the fire exit.

“…huh?” I said dumbly.

“There is a roof here, so we can shelter from the rain.”

“Oh, a shelter…? Wait? What? Why? I was so sure you and I would-”

Tsutsukakushi shook her head vigorously.

BAM. It was a sucker punch to the gut.

“What do you mean you and I ?” she asked. “Actually, on second thought, spare me the details. I hope you observe some basic form of ethics in your fantasies about me. Otherwise, I will not be amused.”

As she said that, she lost her footing and tumbled halfway down the stairs, landing on her backside on the bottom step. Her folded umbrella pointed to the other side of the road, where I spotted the red bricks of the Oriental Animal Café ahead.

“Here, we can stay out of the rain and wait for Azuki-san,” Tsutsukakushi went on. “A little while ago, I went to the toilet in the café and saw the timetable for all the shifts posted in the kitchen. Since it seems her shift will be ending soon, it would be good if we can catch her when she comes out and talk to her then.”

“Talk to her… a-about what?”

“About how you threaten to tell on her to the school. Although I feel it would be mean to actually go through with it, I think you can get her to talk by doing that. If that is the case, I would not mind if she hated you more for it. Perhaps if she keeps encountering you because of her façade, she will get fed up with it and wish to be rid of it.”

“Ahhhh…”

If I tried to talk to her at school, someone might ask questions or we might get interrupted. And besides, it would be more fitting if we caught her red-handed.

There was some truth to what Tsutsukakushi said. She had a point, but…

“You should’ve told me your plan earlier! I totally thought we were going into the hotel, so I got all excited.”

“…you were excited? I see.” Tsutsukakushi closed her mouth.

An uncomfortable silence rose between us. Not this again, I thought. I couldn’t see what Tsutsukakushi was really feeling. I never had any idea what this girl was thinking about.

We sat side-by-side in the emergency staircase. Neither of us uttered a word as we watched over the café. There was me, the plain old average Joe, and then there was Tsutsukakushi, whose outfit could have been smuggled from the candy world. We were supposed to be looking in the same direction, but I felt like we perceived two entirely different worlds.

Time passed, and the cold rain only fell harder.

I didn’t think I was a bad person. Yeah, I was quick to jump to conclusions and maybe I was a pervert. But still, wasn’t it natural that I would get the wrong idea if she pulled on my arm without saying anything? Sure, she couldn’t change her expressions, but she was a cute younger girl.

I glanced at the side of Tsutsukakushi’s face. She had long eyelashes like a doll, and the texture of her white skin looked like it was moulded from clay. Peeping at her through the corner of my eye, I felt the urge to give her a kiss. If she were my little sister, any guy hovering around her would get the death sentence. It wasn’t my fault if I got excited from being around a girl like that!

I got more agitated the more I thought about it. I wondered if it was okay to tell Tsutsukakushi about the one big problem I had with not being able to read her expressions. I’d just made up my mind to tell her when-

“Oi, what’re youse doin’ here?”

A red-haired young man with nose piercings appeared at the fire door.

“You ain’t allowed here! Can’t you brats read the sign? Screw you!”

He was one of the hotel staff, judging from how he was dressed in an apron and held cleaning tools in one hand. His other hand was wrapped around an umbrella. As he spoke, he tutted in displeasure. He had quite a scary face and his arms were as thick as logs.

“Are youse students? Hangin’ round here when you got no dough makes you a goddamn pain in the arse! Screw you! Screw you a hundred times over!” He made a big show of kicking the fence outside the emergency stairs with his heavy, iron-rimmed boots. There was a dull echo.

Tsutsukakushi clung to my arm tightly. Her palms were shaking imperceptibly. She was scared out of her wits. As soon as I realised that, it was like the scales came off my eyes. Oh yeah, she was a girl – just a normal girl.

Weirdly enough, I wasn’t afraid of the red-haired man. A thousand death threats didn’t faze me. The only thing that felt real to me was the girl standing next to me.

“Kids oughta stay indoors! Stop showin’ off! I get rejected by all the chicks and I’m stuck workin’ my ass off Sundays at a goddamn love hotel. Do youse get how I feel, changin’ all them soiled sheets? No, ya don’t, since yer a couple. I hope yer dick falls off! Damn fool…”

By the end of his rant, I felt like he was talking to himself. He wiped the rain out of his eyes, sniffling. It was like he had forgotten our existence or even (maybe) what he had come to do in the first place.

While he was distracted, we escaped from the hotel site. Panting, we ran and ran until we reached a place where we were safe.

When Tsutsukakushi and I looked at each other, I smiled. Tsutsukakushi didn’t smile back, but at least she tilted her head as if she didn’t find me unpleasant. It was strange to see her react so nervously over such a small thing. Whatever it was that rattled her so much, it didn’t matter to me. I felt the kind of happiness you only feel on a Sunday where you don’t have to work.

“Oh, good. I thought for a moment you’d tell him we weren’t a couple and that you hate the idea of having a boyfriend too.”

“I was thinking of saying ‘This person is assaulting me. Please save me!’”

“You’re so mean!”

“That was a joke,” Tsutsukakushi said with a straight face. Unconsciously, she tilted her small head to the side. “Do we look like a couple?”

“I wonder about that. What do you think?”

“I have no idea. I have never had any male friends, so I cannot tell the difference between friends and lovers.”

“You’ve never had a single male friend? Not even in elementary school?” It wasn’t like I had any experience with girls, either. It occurred to me that having no friends of either gender would be the very definition of an untainted childhood.

“My father passed away when I was too young to understand it, so even now I have never been able to understand the existence of boys. Talking to boys is embarrassing for me, so I have only ever ran away from them.”

“I get it… so what about now? Do I make you feel awkward?”

Tsutsukakushi sighed.

That got me thinking. This girl constantly sighed deeply, but it wasn’t just out of disgust or weariness. I thought there was probably a different meaning to it.

“I might feel awkward, but I cannot show strong emotions,” she explained. “It is the same principle as hiding a tree in a forest. It is the only thing I feel grateful towards the Stony Cat for.”

I peered at Tsutsukakushi closely. She lowered her eyes. Even so, I didn’t look away. No matter how much I gazed at her delicate face, I found myself marvelling at the depths in her wide eyes.

Somehow or other, I felt like I understood Tsutsukakushi a bit better now.

“…what is it?” she asked.

“I was just thinking how you’re kinda like a cat,” I said frankly. I was only capable of saying the truth.

“A cat, you say?”

“Mhmm. You’re as tame as a cat. You look as if you’re unconcerned by everything you see around you, even when your true feelings are different or when you’re really in trouble.”

“That is not what ‘tame’ means,” Tsutsukakushi said indifferently, turning the other way. “And also, I do not understand what you are saying.”

Unable to help myself, I smiled at her again, and Tsutsukakushi shifted her eyes further and further away from mine.

…as I was about to say something else to her, the back door of the café opened and Azuki Azusa emerged. It killed the moment.

Before that thought could even register in my brain, Azuki Azusa broke out into a sprint. She ran as if she had business so important her life depended on it.

“C’mon, let’s chase after her!”

 

HenNeko-118

I grabbed Tsutsukakushi by the arm and ran. Her hand was much warmer than I thought, and holding her hand warmed up mine too. I could keenly feel her breathing next to me. By then, the rain had completely cleared up.

Hearing a girl pant so hard was kind of arousing. But if I said that aloud, she wouldn’t hold my hand anymore. She’d probably claw it instead.


We lost sight of Azuki Azusa as we got close to the main road.

I figured she could have entered someone’s house. A construction site was blocking up everything in the vicinity (which is also bad for the environment, by the way). It was such a long detour to the residential area, though.

We walked around for a while, but we just couldn’t find any leads. Just as I was about to give up and go home, a bunch of people dressed in work clothes appeared near a prefabricated building. Trucks and cranes moved around the area. It looked like people were doing construction work today as well.

Someone stood in the corner of the area directing the traffic in this sudden beehive of activity. It was this person’s role to hold up a red stick and guide the vehicles along so that they wouldn’t take any unnecessary detours.

“…hey,” I said to Tsutsukakushi. “Have you ever had a dream in broad daylight?”

“…no. I dream when I am in bed.”

I kept rubbing my eyes, but I wasn’t mistaken. Azuki Azusa was over there. Dressed in a crude blue jumpsuit and a reflective vest, she was waving a traffic baton around with a completely straight look on her face.

“That’s kinda hard work for a rich girl.”

“In that sense, it is not much different from her animal maid job.”

“…this has gotten kinda bizarre.”

I strained my eyes looking at Azuki Azusa. Her helmet looked catastrophically awful on her. What kind of rich girl does all the hard work without relying on her family? This had to be one of those rags-to-riches stories.

Azuki Azusa and construction work – at first glance, you wouldn’t link those two words together. So just what was behind all of this?

“Senpai. Have you figured something out?”

“Hmm… her construction work clothes really stand out and I reckon you could use ‘em as a light if you get it on outside in the dark.”

“I regret asking you. As usual, you are a hopeless pervert.”

“So don’t ask me questions! I always blurt out what I think even if it’s not on purpose. Honestly, I’d rather get chewed out by Little Miss Doggie in her Reward Time.”

“I see you are an irredeemable pervert,” Tsutsukakushi said coldly. Although she spoke with the same volume as she usually did, I had come to understand that the nuance was not the same.

By that, I mean I was screwed. I was majorly screwed. Her voice was as cold as a blizzard, so to speak.

“W-well, let’s put that aside for now. After all, a man should never shirk his duties. I will elegantly reveal the solution to this mystery!”

That way I could salvage my reputation… or was it restore myself to my former glory? I forgot what the right phrase was in this situation, but whatever, my point stands.

-0-0-0-0-

Azuki Azusa’s mornings start early.

She delivers newspapers on her scooter while everyone in town is asleep. Although she has a slight tendency to crash into things, she is used to the job. She throws a newspaper into a mailbox from a ten-metre distance and gets it in for a goal. From time to time during her deliveries, someone’s dog hits the newspaper back at her with its tail. Azuki Azusa giggles and gets really into it when she plays catch with these mischievous rascals. Playing with cats and dogs brightens up her day.

Azuki Azusa lives on the fourth floor of an ordinary apartment building. Pets are forbidden. Her mother likes to say that if you want a pet, you should go have a baby. Azuki Azusa is depressed just thinking about it. It brings up traumatic memories. Her mother never dreamed of saying anything like that back when daddy, who was a hot air balloonist, was still alive.

Azuki Azusa is still drowsy by the time school starts. She always catches up on her sleep in the nurse’s office. After school, she has many things to do and she has to leave the classroom straight away. When homeroom seems to take too long, her trademark technique is to escape by pretending she has anaemia.

She chose to work at the Oriental Animal Café because she thought that no one she knew would see her if she went all the way to the next town. After she’s done scrubbing the floors, she immediately heads off for the construction site. As usual, she’ll be up all night directing the traffic. Azuki Azusa isn’t bothered over being a night owl. As she waves her traffic baton around in the summer night sky, she looks up at the stars.

My chest may be small, but my dreams are as big as daddy’s hot air balloons. One day, I’ll reach for the stars! That’s-!

“…how rich she’ll be! And that’s one day in the life of Azuki Azusa. The end.”

It was after school and we were in the AV room. My presentation included a bunch of slides with photos on them, and at the end of it, a second -0-0-0-0- flashed up on the screen. If you ask me, I did a pretty good job of it. I accomplished it all while procrastinating on studying for my exam.

For a short while after my presentation, a heavy silence came over the room. I wondered why. I clenched the microphone in my hand, looking around for applause.

Instead, I heard a voice. “So basically, you stalked me for a whole day?”

“Stalking isn’t that big a deal, Azuki Azusa,” I replied. “In order to get closer to you emotionally, I had to get closer to you physically first. Think of it as one-way communication.”

Her reaction was instantaneous. “That’s called stalking, you perv!” she screeched.

I had called out to Azuki Azusa, telling her there was something she needed to see before she went to work. She seemed less than impressed by what I had to show her. Whether it was because she wasn’t compelled to put up her rich girl façade or because it was just the two of us, she laid her true feelings completely bare before me.

“What’s this I hear? I was just trying to spend time with my master like a good pet and all you’re doing is complaining about it-?”

“Why are you making it out like it’s my fault?! No one in the world would want a pet like you! And what’s with the narration? Why would I ride a hot air balloon?!”

“It’s romantic. Like you’ll fly in the sky one day.”

“I’m not asking about your future plans, you perv! That’s not my daddy’s occupation – and he’s not even dead in the first place, for that matter! He has a normal job! Ugh, you’re so melodramatic! Mummy doesn’t have any weird sayings, I don’t deliver newspapers and throw them in for goals, and I don’t play with dogs!”

“But I did get the gist of it, right, O Flat-chested One?”

“Don’t call me flat-chested, you perv! It was all wrong from A to Z, you rotten perv! And besides, it wasn’t like I was trying to get rich off my part-time jobs.”

“But y’know, it’s no lie that you’re not really a rich girl, that you work part-time and you live in an ordinary apartment building. That’s what the story was about.”

Azuki Azusa suddenly went quiet. She glared at me hurtfully, as if my words had sent her reeling.

The most beautiful girl in our year level – the fragile princess – was just an ordinary girl who worked her butt off at an ordinary job and lived in an ordinary house. The school life she led was one of deceit. Underneath her rich girl façade, she constantly used the nurse’s office to catch up on her sleep.

That was all I was trying to say. This sort of thing wasn’t so different from a gravure idol lying about her age. But for Azuki Azusa, having her secret exposed meant the end of the world. She opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, leaving it hanging. Her usual scathing remarks died in her throat.

“The owner of the Oriental Animal Café said so, you know. That you work hard and that you have fun helping out the cats and dogs. I asked if you had any other jobs and he said that you didn’t just concentrate on one job and that you were still a big help, anyway.”

Azuki Azusa’s lips moved soundlessly. If she said something like “Shut up” or “It’s none of your business”, I couldn’t hear it.

“I reckon it’s excessive for a rich girl to have such nasty part-time jobs,” I went on. “Isn’t it kinda stupid to do all that hard work so you can wear some expensive brand of watch and some dumb accessories? You don’t have to put up with so much crap just to show off how much better you are than everyone else.”

I had struck a nerve. “I’m doing what I want to do, so leave me alone!” Azuki Azusa fumed. I didn’t know just what had pushed her buttons, but in any case, she was livid. Thanks to that, she could finally muster up the words to speak.

“…but it’s not like I’m here to complain about your hobbies,” I added. “Is it really that fun turning down confessions of love and pretending you’re from some privileged class that looks down on everyone else?”

Azuki Azusa stood up from her seat. “Yeah, and so what?” she retorted. “You’re standing there like some high-and-mighty baboon and you’re trying to lecture me?” She clasped her schoolbag in her hand and swung it over her shoulder. “I didn’t know you’d call me out here just to tell me such crap. I’m leaving.”

“Stop right there! We’re not done talking yet.”

“We’re done talking as of now,” she said scathingly. “If you were perhaps trying to blackmail me, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. If you want to tell everyone, go right ahead. I always knew you were a lowly flea.”

The way she tried to shun me was kind of adorable. What a splendid and magnificent façade she had put up.

…but, well, it was just words.

As she tried to walk away, Azuki Azusa got tangled up by a nearby desk. Her legs wobbled like crazy and it looked like she was about to topple over any second.

“…you know, Azuki Azusa. If you’re having trouble, you should just say so.”

“M-me having trouble?! Like anything a perv like you could say would s-s-scare someone like m-m-me… meep…!”

I didn’t know if I should tell her how much her teeth were chattering.

The dainty fairy bit her trembling lips until they went white. Lacking any support, she wobbled violently from head to toe, and she looked at me with the wide eyes of a frightened virgin.

Geez, having more pride than others led to nothing but pain. Yeah, it was all my fault, but it would still be good for her if she got rid of the façade.

“And anyway, I think you’re getting the wrong idea,” I said. “I wasn’t trying to threaten you at all.”

“R-really? …N-no, I already said you’re a stalker!”

“I apologise for that. But like I said before, Azuki Azusa, it’s because I’m your pet. I know my master is always tired, so I thought I’d just investigate why.”

“…I said you’re a perv,” Azuki Azusa said uncertainly. She looked at me from head to toe, as if she was trying to work me out.

As I watched her extricate her arm from where it was stuck, I shivered. I never had any intention to blackmail her. I think I’ve said this before, but I prefer videos with smiling girls over the ones where the girls are assaulted.

“Do you remember what I said at the cafeteria?” I asked.

“…hmph, that was when you were harassing me.”

“I wasn’t harassing you. Those were my unmistakable true feelings. I am the kind of person who cannot tell lies. You stole something precious from me. Whenever I look at you laughing so innocently, my heart starts pounding so hard I can’t stand it!”

I especially feel that way when I see your choker. It looks so much like my belt. I’m convinced that the symbol of my façade hangs around your neck. It causes pain in my chest and it makes me want to tear it off you.

I said that last part quietly, but it didn’t seem like Azuki Azusa was listening. Her eyes widened, and just when I thought her colour was returning, she went bright red in the face. She blinked forcefully and waved a hand fan back and forth in front of her chest, trying to blow away the hot air she felt from somewhere.

“Er… um. What? You’re very forward, you perv. That’s not something you say with a straight face…”

“I say it because that’s how I really feel.”

“E-enough already! So what are you getting at?”

“Anyone can see you overwork yourself, Azuki Azusa. It sucks not being able to stay by my master’s side after I went through all this effort to become your pet. So after the exams, will you go on a date with me?”

Azuki Azusa promptly imploded.

“D-date-?!”

“If we can’t date, we can always take a walk or go to the dog races or to the petting zoo! Anyway, if I can go out and play with you, you’ll get to know my good points and I’ll get something out of it too. It’ll make us happy, Azuki Azusa!”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, pervert…”

“No good?”

Azuki Azusa blushingly avoided my eyes.

Then she said, “I’ll go.”

She glanced at me sideways as I cheered and threw a victory pose. Then she took a few shaky steps away from me. When she got to the door, she looked back at me.

“W-well, isn’t it a master’s duty to reward her pet dog?” she said shrilly, as if trying to convince herself.

It was just her façade playing up again, I guess.

As soon as Azuki Azusa was out of earshot, I made a signal. Tsutsukakushi poked her head out from the shadow of the projector. “…what are you planning to do?” she asked.

“Just what I said. Azuki Azusa seems to yearn for the high life. She thinks it’s necessary ‘cos of her façade. That’s why I’m gonna show her how nice it is to be a peasant and do peasant-like things with a peasant like me. If she gets used to getting her hands dirty, she just naturally won’t need a façade anymore, I bet. I think it’s a realistic approach since I can’t act like a dog.”

“So you wanted to go on a date with Azuki-san? I see.”

“Huh? Didn’t you hear what I was saying?”

Tsutsukakushi looked at me unsmilingly. Her eyes sucked me in. She had a hard, uncompromising expression on her face. I thought that I’d finally come up with a great plan to salvage my reputation (that was the right word, right?), so why did Tsutsukakushi have to look so displeased?

She was sulking.

That was the word to describe it. Although I didn’t think she was deliberately trying to be mysterious this time, she was acting a little strange, come to think of it. Tsutsukakushi was usually so expressionless; today, she wasn’t acting like herself.

“I will tag along on the date,” she announced.

“Huh? I don’t really mind, but I thought it was just between me and Azuki Azusa.”

“No arguing.”

“Uh, okay…”

Well, whatever, I thought. I figured it would just do my head in if I thought too hard about it.


The pressure on a high school kid is strong. And it just keeps piling up every day. I especially felt that way just before the end-of-semester exam. The whole time, the desire to play video games was carved into my very soul.

The other thing I thought long and hard about was what kind of date spots were for peasants. I asked Ponta about it as we played a death match in Super Mario Brothers and he told me I should try the arcade.

“The arcade? Strip Mah-jong may be Japan’s greatest invention, but I don’t think a girl would wanna play it. Don’t you have any common sense, Ponta?”

“Oi, don’t blame me for your idiocy. Why would you play Strip Mah-jong at an arcade? And wait, hold on a little. What did you say there, Hentai Prince? You’re going on a date with a girl? What are you talking about? Is the world ending? I won’t forgive your sins for as long as I live!”

“What about your dreams of world peace?! It’s not gonna happen if you keep beating me up in the game!”

…and with that, Ponta and I let our button mashing do the talking. Since I was so busy fighting, I didn’t tell Azuki Azusa when our date was supposed to be – or anything else, for that matter. I kind of thought I was forgetting something. Uh, was it my exam? That was already game over for me.

I only remembered to contact Azuki Azusa the day before we went out. I rang her house, trying to ask her out to have lunch at one o’clock or thereabouts, but it was her extremely enthusiastic mother who answered the phone instead.

“My, oh my, you’re the boy who’s always helping Azusa out!” “It’s no big deal, ma’am.” “No, really. Azusa’s always talking about you.” “Uh… what does she say?” “Oh, this and that. By the way, I also love dogs, you see.” “Uhhhh.” “Please come over next time!” “Uhhhh.” “Ufufufufu!”

We ended up chatting for longer than I thought, which was why I ended up forgetting to tell Tsutsukakushi about tomorrow.

Finally, the exam break arrived. When I got to the entrance of the fashion building outside the station, Azuki Azusa was already there.

“Sorry, did I keep you waiting? …I always wanted to try that line at least once.”

“…what’s this about lines?” Azuki Azusa asked. Then she said, “I only just got here. It wasn’t like I was waiting for you. And it wasn’t like I was looking forward to this date or anything.”

“Sounds about right.”

“But putting that aside, why did you take so long to call me?  I had to study for my exams and I had my jobs and I had to mentally prepare myself, too. I didn’t have the time since you only told me the day before. Just what were you thinking, making me wait? I was worried you forgot! You’re just asking for it, you long-necked giraffe!”

I had no idea what she was on about. This has nothing to do with anything, but I got there thirty minutes early.

“And after I went through all this trouble to come here for you,” Azuki Azusa muttered. “Well, since I’m taking you on a date, I order you to go up the escalator! That reminds me, where are we going today? You never told me at all.”

She checked her reflection against the glass on the building and pulled on the hem of her flared skirt, as if giving herself a last-minute makeover. The tint of her orange blouse matched her chestnut-coloured hair. The previous image I had of her as a high-maintenance, aloof fairy was undergoing quite a change. She was more like a sunflower that had grown up straight and tall from being in the sunlight all summer.

“Those clothes look good on you,” I commented.

“W-whaaat?! What are you saying so suddenly? I-I mean of course! I’m surprised you’d say something so obvious…”

“But ya know, there are clothes out there that would look even better on you. Like that.”

I pointed to the side of the fashion building, where a big window display faced the street. The manikins were wearing what every girl longed for: a pure white wedding dress.

Our first destination was the bridal shop.

“…huh?” said Azuki Azusa dumbly.

“I thought that we could chill out in this shop, first of all.”

Since Ponta kind of didn’t tell me what to do, I did a bit of my own thinking. What was so good about being a peasant and how I could tell Azuki Azusa about it? After all, wasn’t marriage the biggest source of happiness for a peasant? If you were a rich girl, you had to take things like your partner’s family pedigree or their political standing into consideration, but if you were a peasant, you didn’t have to worry about marrying someone you didn’t like. You could marry the person you love. I wanted her to ask a professional married person about it and realise that kind of happiness.

I pulled Azuki Azusa, who was stiff as a statue, across the road and into the bridal shop. The store revolved around the pure white aesthetic. A wide variety of wedding dresses were displayed in the shop, standing out in all their glory. On the display rack hung a cross, which I think was a church motif. A small bell and a doll shaped like an angel hung on the rack too.

“Excuse me,” I said to one of the staff members, who was dressed in a suit. “The two of us were thinking of getting married.”

He smiled in a very practiced way. “Congratulations. I wish you the best of luck on your engagem-”

“Eeeeeeek!” Azuki Azusa yelled behind me in a high-pitched voice.

Before I knew it, she had pulled me out the store. I had no idea she had so much arm strength. She ran a whole hundred metres down the main street, dragging me by the scruff of the neck.

After she pulled me away from the bridal store in an exaggerated fashion, we could finally stop and smell the roses.

Azuki Azusa flicked the sweat off her hair. She was blushing all over. “That’s too soon! Way too soon!” she insisted.

“Huh? You think?”

“D-don’t you do that kind of thing after you get to know each other better?! I’m not your guinea pig when it comes to love. Think before you act!”

“I did think about it… I thought it’d be great if you knew about the things peasants like me do. Don’t you want to wear a wedding dress, Azuki Azusa?”

“That’s got nothing to do with it!” She shrugged. “You have to take it one step at a time, not that we have that kind of relationship or anything. And not that I’m saying I want that kind of relationship…” she trailed off in a small voice. She rubbed her bright red ears with both hands and blew into her palms, as if trying to cool a burn.

I suddenly got the feeling that someone was watching us from the other side of road.

Although I had a pretty good idea who it was, I knew I had to stick to the plan. “It can’t be helped,” I said to Azuki Azusa. “If marriage is out of the question, let’s move on to the next item. There’s some truth in what you say, that we should take it one step at a time. I intend to reach for the stars, so for now, will you leave things to me?”

“If you reach for the stars, you’ll die from lack of oxygen! Why do you have to pick the next place too?” Azuki Azusa fumed, fighting and resisting my arms.

Thanks to that, she arrived at our second destination looking even more ill-at-ease than she did at the bridal store. At the corner of the intersection on the main road, there stood a multi-purpose building. Inside, there were shops, offices, restaurants – the works. A huge, flashy billboard caught my attention.

PLANNED PARENTHOOD CLINIC

After marriage, people have babies, of course. It was a universal human happiness. This time, it was no exaggeration to say that having babies was a foolproof plan.

“…nrgggh,” Azuki Azusa grunted, halting in her tracks.

She stood bolt upright as if to shake herself out of the brink of collapse. Steam shot out of her ears like she was a kettle.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Let’s hurry up and go in. You’ll damage your precious body if you just stand there like that.”

She did not reply.

“I know how to take responsibility like a man,” I said. Since it was a hot day, we’d probably suffer from a heat stroke if we stayed outside. I would much rather stay inside an air-conditioned hospital and discuss the happiness of childbirth with some experienced personnel. If a million sketchy things happened between us, this was the go-to place to take responsibility and have it all explained to us.

Azuki Azusa, whose feet were glued to the spot, started trembling.

“You pervy perverted pervert perv idiot pervert! Beast! Cur! Are you in heat?!”

“Whoa, what’s got your knickers in a knot?”

“Shut up! I can’t believe you, you idiot pervert!” she wailed distractedly. “When?! When did you do it?! When I was sleeping?! It was my first – my first time! What’s gonna happen to me? What are you gonna do? HOW ARE YOU GONNA MAKE THIS UP TO ME?!”

The kettle had boiled over. She was absolutely seething. Up until now, she had never done anything resembling a track and field activity, but now she swung my body around like the hammer-throwing event.

Azuki Azusa’s ears were as red as a beetroot. I laughed giddily at how cross-eyed she went. This kind of bodily experience was also a first for me.

A high school girl challenged the world record of boy-throwing outside the entrance of a planned parenthood clinic, attracting the attention of all the people around her.

“Young people these days.” “They waste their youths getting up to mischief in the summer.” “They just never think ahead. So many idiots in this world, eh?” “Oh yes, so many idiots.” “And this is the result.” “What a despicable pervert.”

And so on and so forth. I was being criticised from every angle. It was woefully regrettable. I could only think that all these people who didn’t know a thing about me were jumping to conclusions.

That is, until a girl I knew very well joined in. “You really, truly are a lowly, sleazy, womanising pervert,” she said.

She wore army pants, a newsboy cap and carried a pochette (5). Her clothes made her look like she was a toy soldier about to cheerfully go off to war. Tsutsukakushi had finally come out into the open.

I knew she had been tailing us from the start. The stare I felt earlier had been hers. But she had kept exactly ten metres behind us, and it never seemed like she was getting any closer, so I had to wonder if she was a walking compass. I was concerned for her. I didn’t want her to follow me around and watch me get pummelled to the ground. She was still just a kid, after all.

“Hey, why aren’t you carrying your cell phone, Tsutsukakushi?”

“That is for summoning the policeman with. Is it a realistic approach to tell him where there has been a rape? I think you should stay in a prison cell and consider the weight of your crimes.”

“R-rape?!”

I take back what I said. Tsutsukakushi was no child. Her face was the ultimate form of blankness and she accused me in a listless monotone, as if she were reading a recipe out of a book. The warmth in her eyes was so far below freezing point I was sure it was absolute zero. Her gaze was like a blade, piercing my already battered body to the bone.

“What are you imagining?” I whined. “I’d only do something so awful in a dream!”

“You are not doing it in reality? Ah, I see,” said Tsutsukakushi knowingly. “So you do it in your dreams?”

“Well, duh! I have to do nice things in reality!”

Azuki Azusa stopped throwing me around suddenly. She was still blushing faintly.

“…I have no idea what you’re saying,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me. It made her look like the daughter of the yakuza. But her voice was as cold as tundra, so if anything it was like she had connections to the Siberian underworld, not Japan.

“Basically I’m saying that I am always a gentleman!” I insisted. “Surely you understand me, Azuki Azusa!”

“I understand that you have perverted dreams, you perverted perv. But there’s still something I don’t get.”

“You don’t understand at all! That has nothing to do with what we were talking about!”

“Whatever-! Just come over here for a bit!”

Round one of the girl-throws-boy-like-a-hammer event went to Azuki Azusa.

She had hurled me into a back alley. It was an artificial closed space, cut off from the gazes of those passing by. That was kind of a positive. I’d been fantasising about this kind of rosy scenario. It was just like the setup of an R-18+ video. Boy, did this situation escalate quickly.

As soon as I thought that, I got strangled.

“…hey. Who’s that girl?” Azuki Azusa asked roughly.

“Haven’t you seen her before? She’s Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko, from our school. It’s okay, she knows what’s going o-”

“That’s not what I’m talking about! And why does another girl know we’re on a date, anyway? Just why did she have to tag along?! What are you thinking?! It’s just as rude as petting a stray cat in front of your pet dog!”

“So you’re the same as a dog, Azuki Azusa… I guess you are bothered by it? Also… can’t… breathe…”

“H-huh! I’m not bothered in the least! I knew this wasn’t anything like a real date right from the start. Right. That’s right. That’s exactly right! My idea of having fun is to get the dirt on you by letting you take me to perverted places and talk about perverted things! It wasn’t like I was tricked by you! The idea I would mark this date on my calendar is sheer idiocy! Now your nose will be as short as an elephant’s, do you hear me?!”

Nope, she made even less sense than before.

Also, not being able to breathe was an entirely new feeling for me. I started to hallucinate about the late Sir Oscar Wilde, who lives in a flowerbed beyond the sky.

“Sorry,” Tsutsukakushi interjected. “Senpai is not a bad person. I implored him to let me come along to your date.”

My heavenly saviour had arrived. It was a good thing no senpais were harmed in the making of this date.  I had always believed in Tsutsukakushi’s kindness. I had really misread her, huh?

“To begin with,” Tsutsukakushi said, “being friends with senpai has left me with a terrible burden. I see you must feel the same way, Azuki-san. Senpai is dangerous if left to his own devices.”

“So you’re saying you’re his watchdog, huh? I appreciate the sentiment and all, but it’s fine. I already knew that a pervert is a pervert, no matter what. He doesn’t need two people to watch out for him on a date.”

“Incorrect. You do not know the true pervert that lies within him, Azuki-san.”

…Tsutsukakushi was not kind at all. Azuki Azusa had tossed me aside, but Tsutsukakushi wouldn’t spare a glance my way either. It was like sparks were crackling as the two girls stared each other down. Well, the main one who was seething was Azuki Azusa.

 

HenNeko-139

“Uh huh! You talk big. The true pervert – eh? So you mean how he puts his arms around a sleeping girl and sniffs her neck in the nurse’s office? Something like that, hm?”

“So senpai is into that kind of thing, too…”

“He thinks necks are kinky. And, let’s see, what else? Did you know that when you’re sleeping, he whispers things like, ‘I wanna see you in a swimsuit when you wake up’ over and over and over again in your ears?”

“…ooh. I see. Well, then, are you aware that he writes letters to the student council every day using a different handwriting, asking to triple the funds for the girls’ swimming club for its so-called ‘expansion and development’?”

“Wha…? So any girl in a swimsuit would turn him on?”

“Furthermore, he is full of schemes to get his ideal school swimsuit worn by all the girls in the school. He even approaches swimsuit retailers about it.”

“What’s with his sense of priorities? It’s like he can only see swimsuits. How indecent! Talking about him makes me so mad!” The blush was back on Azuki Azusa’s cheeks in full force. She had taken damage from Tsutsukakushi, who was cool as a cucumber.

From where I was standing, it was already obvious who had won the match.

“Quit fighting over me, you two!”

“Shut up, perv!” Azuki Azusa yelled. “Nobody asked for your opinion!”

“We were never fighting to begin with,” Tsutsukakushi added. “We were merely sharing our collective impressions of you.”

It was my complete, utter defeat. As soon as they realised that, they banded together to torture me.

I crouched in the lonely back alley in the foetal position. Why did these things keep happening to me, I wonder? What did I ever do wrong? Was society at fault? The country? The earth? The sun? Was the sun too bright for this world?

“Th-that’s right,” I said shakily. “It’s too hot today. Let’s continue our conversation somewhere cool.”

“If you take me to another planned parenthood clinic, I’m gonna make you wish you’d never been born,” Azuki Azusa said.

“If you went to a nursery or a kindergarten or somewhere like that, you would end up in court,” Tsutsukakushi said.

“Why do you have such little faith in me?!” I whined. “When I said let’s go to a cool place, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind! Have some common sense, you two!”

“Common sense, you say?” Tsutsukakushi and Azuki Azusa snorted in perfect harmony.

They glared at me with the same fury, groaned with the same exasperation and shook their heads at me with the same feelings of frustration in their hearts.

What a beautiful friendship those two had.


I thought it was a good idea to move somewhere else so that I could break up the uncomfortable atmosphere. I swore I could hear police sirens from somewhere. As it turned out, it was the right move.

Lo and behold! Ponta had been right all along. Nobody played Strip Mah-jong at the arcade. “So they have the UFO Catcher game here…” I mused. In the downtown arcade, brand new games coexisted with retro ones, so high schoolers from around here considered themselves gaming connoisseurs.

Even though I’d been here countless times before, I stood spellbound in the middle of the revolving doors.

The first floor of the arcade was packed with all sorts of crane games. You could win just about anything, from plushies and sweets to cell phone straps and figurines. But no matter how much I looked around, I couldn’t see an underground strip corner.

Azuki Azusa pressed her forehead against the glass cabinet of a crane game close to the entrance, tugging vainly on the controls. “C’mon… just a little bit more! Argh! This sucks! Damn it!” The prize she was aiming for was a turtle plushie big enough to wrap your arms around.

The crane hovered over the soft, cuddly shell, wobbling precariously. Back and forth, back and forth. She couldn’t have been worse at handling the controls if she were drunk.

As Azuki Azusa was putting her umpteenth hundred-yen coin into the machine, I grabbed her hand. “Uh, you know…”

“What?” she demanded.

“You’re the worst I’ve seen at this. I can’t believe how clumsy you are!”

“Sh-shut up! It’s my first time trying this, so what do you expect? Even a bird can’t fly right after it’s hatched!”

“That’s most birds. Chickens go their whole lives without being able to fly.”

“Urk… well, it’s not like you can do any better, you perv!” she retorted.

At first, I got irritated by what she said, but then I decided to just let it go. I would’ve had more confidence in myself if this was a Strip Crane Game, though.

“Whoa! Whoooa!” I exclaimed, after I put one coin into the machine. “It keeps slipping off the claw!”

“See what I mean! This game is so hard you can’t even get the octopus or the squid!”

“Something tells me it’s not the number of arms the toy has that matters.”

It was just a matter of skill, I thought. I looked to Tsutsukakushi for help. But Tsutsukakushi wasn’t beside me. Just where had she gone?

I looked for a tiny girl with a newsboy cap, but I found a candy hunter in her place. Her arms were loaded with snacks, and, without any expression on her face, her eyes flitted rapidly between machines, greedily looking for the next crane game to win from. She gauged the arm claw’s strength and how easy it was to pick up the items inside. Then, with a steady hand, she punched her money in and aimed for the kill. She was a crane game pro. Just looking at all the snacks she had won made my stomach growl.

“…whoa,” I said. “Hey, since this one’s no good, how about you try a different game?”

“No! I said I want that!” Azuki Azusa insisted, reluctant to move away. She pursed her lips and pointed to the turtle plushie. Since there was no money in the machine, the button wouldn’t work, but she kept on pressing it anyway. She was like an overgrown toddler.

In the end, not even having one of Tsutsukakushi’s biscuits improved Azuki Azusa’s sour mood. It was only when Tsutsukakushi told her that the arm was too slack to work properly did Azuki Azusa reluctantly concede defeat.

Geez, I thought. From the way they acted, you wouldn’t know which one of those two was actually the older one. When I said that, Azuki Azusa predictably exploded with rage, while Tsutsukakushi’s reaction was barely noticeable.

At that point, we occupied our time doing random things. Time flies when you’re having fun.

After we finished playing the crane game, we went for the whack-a-mole game on the second floor. We made a big ruckus that kind of went like this:

A: “Let’s stop already. This is boring!”

T: “Why are you crying, Azuki-san?”

Y: “I never thought I’d meet someone who actually feels sorry for the moles.”

A: “N-no I’m not!”

On the third floor, we played the drum game, and we made a big ruckus that kind of went like this:

A: “Bam! Er, wait, uh… whoosh! Huh, where do I hit it? Heeyah!”

T: “Please calm yourself.”

Y: “Man, you’re so clumsy, Azuki Azusa.”

A: “Hmph.”

T: “Hm. Next is my turn.”

Y: “…why do you have your own drumsticks?”

A: “Your hands move like a blur, Tsutsukakushi-san!”

We went down to the basement floor, and we made a big ruckus that kind of went like this:

A: “Ugh, the lighting’s so dim.”

T: “It smells of cigarette smoke.”

Y: “The new Mah-jong game just came out! Oho! So this time I’m playing the nurse, huh?”

A: “So, onto the next place, huh?”

T: “Indeed.”

Y: “Don’t leave me behind!”

A&T: “Shut up.”

I’ll say it again: time flies when you’re having fun.

Before I knew it, it was evening. The moon was just starting to rise in the east sky. We ploughed our way through every floor, until finally we flopped down on a bench on the first floor.

I’d only come here to temporarily distract the girls from bitching me out, but playing at the arcade took up the whole day. What happened to our date? Speaking of which, did this even still count as a date?

“This was my first time coming to an arcade, but I ended up having more fun than I thought,” Azuki Azusa said, twirling her fingers like a child. She was munching on gum and sipping on the ramune (6) Tsutsukakushi had won at the crane game.

“I know, right?” I said. “It’s so fun, right? The peasant life is WONDERFUL, right? The peasant life is EXCITING, right? The peasant life is ALL YOU NEED, right?!”

“…what’s with the sales pitch? Sometimes, perv, the things you say are beyond perverted and just plain weird.”

“Hahaha… you’re getting cookie crumbs all over the place.”

“Y-y-yeah, I knew that, kind of! It was accidentally-on-purpose!” Azuki Azusa answered sourly, shoving her finger into her mouth.

I had this thought when we were playing games earlier as well, but if it wasn’t for the accessories on her body, you wouldn’t think she was a rich girl at all. She had lost her haughty pride. Now she acted just like a normal girl. Not that her being such a kid was necessarily a bad thing.

Just what was she supposed to do now, though? If she had always been a peasant from the start, this didn’t really count as throwing away her façade.

Incidentally, the reason why Tsutsukakushi, whose help I needed at times like this, was not saying anything was because she was munching on her snacks. It made me very envious. Man, I was starving after all. Tsutsukakushi was just like a house mouse, always nibbling away on something with her small mouth. It was like she would die as soon as she stopped eating.

“I have the feeling you thought something very rude,” she said.

“What do you expect?” Azuki Azusa replied. “The perv is always thinking about rude things. If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”

“You are right. I was rude to you, senpai. I apologise for senpai’s rudeness on his behalf.”

“…you two get along so well.”

Tsutsukakushi, who had just finished demolishing her own snacks, stared unblinkingly at the ramune left in Azuki Azusa’s hand. Her shoulders shaking from her giggles, Azuki Azusa gave Tsutsukakushi one swig at a time, as if feeding her. It was a charming scene.

“You know, it’s nice how girls make friends with each other so quickly,” I remarked. “It’s like you’re sisters.”

My words had an immediate effect.

The two girls stopped in their tracks. They went completely stiff, as if I had dropped a bombshell on them. My words were that explosive.

“Huh? Did I say something strange… maybe?”

It looked like they got along well on the surface, but their true feelings weren’t like that and they quickly looked away from each other. In that moment, I got a glimpse of how hesitant and confused the two girls really were.

It was too real for me. I wanted it to stop.

The first to open her mouth was Tsutsukakushi. “Ah, no,” she said evenly. “I was also vaguely thinking how nice it would be to have Azuki-senpai as an older sister. You just surprised me.”

She spoke nonchalantly as if to prove she had no evil secret in particular.

“Come to think of it,” I said. “Tsutsukakushi, you’re an only child, aren’t you?”

“Actually, I have an older sister. But now, she is… well…”

Well, what? I wasn’t able to repeat my question, though.

“Who said we were friends…?” Azuki Azusa broke out suddenly in a strange voice. “Don’t decide that on your own.”

Her tone was restrained, but it still betrayed her obvious discomfort. She sighed heavily, unable to hide her irritation.

“It’s true that we’re hanging out right now. But that’s just because I’m letting you pull the wool over my eyes. It’s not like I want friends or to hang out or anything.”

“…does the word ‘friend’ really bother you that much?” I asked.

“I like being alone, okay. It’s the same as a cheetah in a savannah. It’s a pain meeting up with friends. They only get in the way.”

It was true that Azuki Azusa was always alone. She was able to meet me as her pet, but no one around her was normal. Of course, that was partly because of her Reward Time, but despising those around her was her own choice.

…but still.

“It’s not very persuasive when you say it so cheerfully.”

“W-what part of me looks cheerful to you?”

It could have had something to do with how she gripped Tsutsukakushi’s hand, dancing around for joy on her tiptoes. Just a wild guess, really.

The words Azuki Azusa said under her façade were impressive, but her actions and expressions didn’t match her words in the slightest. As she spat out the words denouncing her friends, she blushed like a naïve maiden. What a strange girl – she was a mess of contradictions.

“So, if we aren’t your friends, Azuki Azusa, what are we to you?” I asked. “Do you really hate us that much?”

“Er, um, uh… that’s not exactly what I-”

“Oh, then what? How do you feel about Tsutsukakushi? What does her existence mean to you?”

Azuki Azusa abruptly stood up from the bench. “I’m going to the toilet for a bit,” she announced.

“You went just before. It’s cowardly to run away.”

“I-I’m not running away! I’m bursting! I’ve been holding it this whole time! You don’t have to wait for me, either! I’m perfectly okay! You’re not my friends – you’re obviously just trying to trick me. Of course I’m all alone in this world!”

“All alone?”

I’d heard this kind of line from somewhere. Wasn’t it something you said when you’re a hard-core masochist who loves emotional pain? If she was into that kind of roleplaying, shouldn’t she go to a specialised store and look for a specialised partner for that?

Azuki Azusa clenched her fists.  “I’m not a masochist, you perv! Geez, I told you already that we’re not friends…!” she yelled like she was pouring out her soul.

Throwing down the candy, she sprinted off like the wind towards the toilets. Her face was as dark as her sunflower-coloured blouse was bright. I could tell just by looking at her that she was about to cry. As Azuki Azusa tore past two female shop assistants, they looked at her with confusion.

I knew it, I thought. That girl was paying a dear price for her façade.


“So Azuki-san does not want us to play with her,” Tsutsukakushi said to me accusingly as soon as Azuki Azusa’s sunflower-coloured back was out of sight. As usual, she blamed me for everything. “I can understand why you’d bully a girl if you were in grade school. Why would you keep doing it when you are a second-year high school student?”

“…I’m sorry.”

She got mad at me like a grade schooler, and I apologised like a grade schooler. Then Tsutsukakushi sighed out of long practice.

Unlike the stony Tsutsukakushi, Azuki Azusa’s reaction had been so easy to tell, I thought. I could never get tired watching her. As that thought went through my mind, though, I shivered involuntarily.

Tsutsukakushi had been just as expressive in the past. It wasn’t like she had no emotions. I just couldn’t see them.

If I forgot about that, it would most certainly come back to haunt me one day.

“Just about any normal person would find it hard to answer what their relationship to another person is,” Tsutsukakushi went on. “I want you to tell me how you really feel-”

How you really feel. As soon as she uttered those words, Tsutsukakushi stopped. She closed her mouth awkwardly.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

I looked where she was looking. Ahead of us, there was a photo booth. Looking at it reminded me that we never took a photo together to mark this day. So Tsutsukakushi was into this kind of thing. She had a cute side to her, I thought blithely. But when I saw who came out from behind the booth’s curtain, I almost jumped out of my skin.

It was the Steel King.

There was a hard glint in her cool, shapely eyes. Even though there was no school today, the Steel King strode around outside with her uniform on, looking no less majestic than she usually did. She was dragging along two of her hapless victims: first-year girls from the Track and Field club.

It wasn’t like the high-and-mighty King had developed a taste for the vulgar activities of those beneath her. I’d heard about her chivalrous deeds. Part one of the Steel King’s heroic saga was her beating up the biggest delinquent in town at the arcade.

That was then and this was now, though. As for why the Steel King would be prowling around downtown, she was checking if the club members weren’t slacking off on their self-training. She also made sure no one was up to any lovey-dovey business. There was no such thing as a rest day in this dark, dark club. That was the Track and Field club for you.

The two first-year students looked like lambs being led to the slaughter (7). “I will reflect on my actions from the bottom of my heart!” one of them said, and the other said, “I will go home and vomit blood!”

They left the arcade dejected. The club president had sent them packing without having to say a word. I felt sorry for them. They deserved to have their fun sometimes, too.

As the Steel King scouted for fires, she glanced our way. Then she looked at us for the second time. The third time, she stared right at us. Her eyes widened – she had locked onto her target.

“U-uh oh, I got a bad feeling about this! I dunno, let’s scram!” I yanked on Tsutsukakushi’s arm, but she wouldn’t budge.

Like an army boy, she stood her ground and stared right back at the King, as if waging a war against her.

The King’s appearance was as awe-inspiring today as ever. She could turn people to mush just by looking at them, just like how Moses parted the Red Sea. She swaggered forward one step – and then another – until I thought she was right in our faces, towering over us.

I was puzzled, though. Since I was taking a break from club activities, wasn’t I safe from her lecture? As that thought went through my mind, I came to a sudden realisation.

The Steel King hadn’t looked at me even once.

“Tsukiko. What are you doing in a place like this?” she demanded.

“…I am on a date,” Tsutsukakushi answered in her usual flat tone. Her expression was as wooden as ever.

What? I never heard about this.”

“Indeed. You never asked.”

“What did you just say…?”

The two of them exchanged curt words. It was like they were sizing each other up as they spoke.

The climactic showdown between the Icy Maiden and the Steel King had arrived. Icy wind cut through steel rock. Tsutsukakushi held up her calm exterior no matter what, like she was the one made of steel. It was an evenly matched battle between two very similar people.

HenNeko-151

 

No way, I thought. They couldn’t be-

Something clicked in my head.

It was something I’d never thought about before, but the Steel King obviously had a surname, just like everybody else. That meant she had a given name too. I suddenly remembered that when I first saw Tsutsukakushi’s face in the light, I thought she looked like someone I knew.

How did I not realise this sooner? Although their expressions were different, the colour of their eyes was exactly the same: so blue they sucked you in and so bright they made you shiver. They were like two peas in a pod.

“…Tsutsukakushi. So about that ‘older sister’ you mentioned-”

“Indeed. She is the president of the Track and Field club, Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi,” Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko admitted without a flicker of expression on her face. Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi said nothing to deny it.

The Tsutsukakushi Sisters. I would never have imagined they came from the same household. It was true that when you held them up next to each other they looked alike, but was this really the kind of conversation two sisters would have with each other? I wondered. I had an older sister too, but I never spoke to her so coldly. I thought sisters were supposed to have a sweet relationship and do things like drink tea while Maria-sama watched over them (8).

“Yokodera,” said the Steel King, snapping me out of my reverie. “I thought you were still recuperating.” She looked straight at me. “I see you have been engaging in a love affair…”

“Er, uh, that is…”

“Hm, I see. So that’s how it is. You need this as part of your recovery,” the Steel King said in that loving voice I had heard so often lately. I don’t know where she pulled it from. “I hear modern maladies are mysterious things. They are not so simple that they can be cured by a layman. It is not as if I can understand them myself.

“However, the one part of this I cannot overlook is Tsukiko. Why did you choose her as your partner? My sister has just turned sixteen. Seeing boys at that age is out of the question. I’ll be frank with you – you better not be screwing with me.”

…I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.

Was it because of the Steel King’s pressure? What a farce. When I saw how much she thirsted for my blood, everything I’d been subjected to so far was nothing but child’s play in comparison.

Her body and hair gave off the same impression. I’d seen the Steel King’s angry face before. That was her default expression. But I never remembered feeling this afraid. It was the same feeling you might get from seeing a demon from hell. Ah, so this is how I die, I thought.

“Y-you’re mistaken, Prez-! Yes, it’s a date, but you see – there’s actually another girl,” I babbled. I was paralysed with fear, but I still blurted out what I was really thinking.

I uttered the inconvenient truth.

“Oho? So you’re a two-timer. I’m impressed.”

“D-d-don’t be absurd! I was really aiming for the other girl-”

“So you led Tsukiko on just for fun? What a pleasant turn of events,” said the Steel King, frowning thunderously. “Do tell me more.”

“…you have no right to speak to him like that, Nee-san,” Tsutsukakushi interjected stonily. “It has nothing to do with you, for a start.”

She was adding fuel to the fire.

“Nothing to do with me, you say…?” The Steel King’s voice shook with anger. She swung around decisively, switching her attention to her sister-

Before I could think, my feet started moving quickly.

Run. Just run. Run like the wind. Run like your life depends on it.

“Senpai, what are you-?”

I grabbed Tsutsukakushi’s hand. “Hurry up and run!”

I began to sprint towards the exit. My frantic heartbeat drowned out everything: from the younger Tsutsukakushi’s protests at my side to the older Tsutsukakushi’s furious yelling behind me. I dropped the sweets and our bags, and escaped with Tsutsukakushi in tow.

I didn’t let go of her hand. I felt like our souls would no longer be connected if I did.

…it was a cool-sounding line, but I’d ripped it off from somewhere without thinking about it. It’s a really good game. I recommend it to all the readers! (9)

When I got out of the arcade, God, who usually caused me so much misery, turned dere for me. An unoccupied taxi drove into view right before my eyes. The instant the door opened I leaped inside and shoved my wallet into the driver’s hand. “Go as far as this money can take us!”

“Senpai, that-”

“Heh, don’t worry about it. I’m getting my pocket money soon.”

“That is not what I m-”

“It’s fine, Tsutsukakushi. Keep quiet! Now, c’mon, get in the car quick!”

She pulled her small body down. Strangely enough, the comment she had been originally trying to make died in her throat. Maybe she didn’t want to run away from her older sister, but it’s written in the Constitution that a citizen’s freedom of speech was restricted in the case of a national emergency.

The Steel King chased after us, and we saw her pass us by through the car’s back mirror. I could feel the pressure exuding off this horrifying demon from inside the taxi.

After a pause, she grunted. “Tch!”

With extreme anxiety, the driver eyed Tsutsukakushi, who was struggling on top of my knee. “I thought this might be a kidnapping. Indeed. However, to think this unfortunate boy finds this so stimulating…”

Even as he launched into his lecture, he put his foot on the pedal and drove us as far away as he could take us.

Driving in a taxi without a destination was awesome. I can’t deny that this whole venture was extremely hard-boiled. As the darkness of the twilight sky filtered in through the car window, I hummed the tune of the Rickshaw Man (10). At the same time, I thought it probably wasn’t so good to romanticise the experience.

But no matter how much of a positive spin I put on it, Tsutsukakushi had other ideas.

“-nom nom nom.”

“Oooouch! Why are you always biting me?!”

She didn’t have to bare her teeth at me! As I nursed my palms, she looked at me with a level-headed gaze. I wondered if biting things was a force of habit for her. Was she a cat that needed training? I couldn’t get her to stop biting me on my own – she was the one to let go first.

“…whew. That should be enough pain.” After breathing out heavily for what felt like days, Tsutsukakushi forcefully got off my knee. “Why are you always so reckless?” she asked.

“Well, the Steel King is your sister and all. It would be tough on her if she killed us and had to attend our joint funeral.”

“You exaggerate too much, senpai. Nee-san might be a wild animal, but she is not a bulldozer. She does not do bad things, so I am fine with the way she is.”

“You might say that because you’re siblings, but… how come you never really told me she was your sister? I was really surprised.”

In all this time, I had never once thought of the Steel King as someone’s sister. She had always been that person. Or Prez. Learning about the relationship between the two sisters cleared up any need for vague pronouns like that. I didn’t know if I could talk to her without thinking about what I was meant to call her now.

“I always thought that, despite how much she scared you, you knew the president’s surname since you were in the Track and Field club. And besides, senpai…” Tsutsukakushi avoided my eyes, hesitating slightly. “I thought this topic would not interest you after you have just had a fight with a friend. That is how I would feel about it. Even now, I do not think it is very important.”

“It’s not unimportant. It’s the main issue!”

“No. It is unimportant. Do you think this is more important than Azuki-san?”

“Ah.”

My blood went cold. Just how much time had passed since we had left her downtown? I took my wallet back from the driver and paid him for the mileage he had driven. Between Tsutsukakushi and I, we were broke.

The taxi dropped us off on the national highway. It was about four or five kilometres back to the main street. There was no train close by, and we had left Tsutsukakushi’s bag in the arcade. I’d gotten Azuki Azusa’s cell phone number, but thanks to that weird photo incident, it’d been deleted. Just as I thought, God was a tsuntsun.

“…w-we gotta run back!” Before I finished speaking, Tsutsukakushi was already trotting down the wide footpath on the side of the national highway. I chased after her. That warm feeling I’d gotten from holding hands with her never lasted. Now I felt torn up on the inside.

I think I’ve only ever run away from things. I’ve looked everywhere for a sign telling me what to do, but all I’ve ever done is stray off the beaten path.


Five kilometres was not such a great distance for an active Track and Field club member (on hiatus), but it was a long haul at best for someone in the Child-Minding club. Tsutsukakushi refused to drag her feet right to the end, but it still took us thirty minutes to get back to the main street. When we entered the arcade, dripping with sweat, Azuki Azusa was still sitting on the same bench as before.

Great, we made it in time, I thought, relieved. But then all the apologies I thought of died on my lips.

Azuki Azusa was not alone. She was sandwiched between two girls, who were laughing bawdily.

“Like, omigosh, it’s been ages, Bean Sprout (11)! What’s up?”

“You changed your hairstyle – you seem so different! Is this your first time at the arcade? You’re really trying hard.”

Azuki Azusa’s self-styled princess-like hair fell down over her face. She didn’t say a word.

“So, like, have you made any new friends at your new school?”

“She probs doesn’t want anyone to know she came to the arcade by herself.”

“Oh, whoops! Eheheh, sorry I said that.”

From the clothes the two talkative girls wore, I guessed they worked at the arcade. And from their height, I figured they were probably high school students working part-time here. That was all I could figure out.

I sweated. I didn’t understand what they were saying – I didn’t want to understand.

“Bean Sprout, if you still have no friends, you can totes come back to our school.”

“It wasn’t our fault you transferred, ya know. You had us worried.”

Without sparing a glance at the small handbag Tsutsukakushi had forgotten, Azuki Azusa gripped the wrappers of the sweets she had been nibbling on. She had a hard expression on her face and it was easy to see why her blue lips trembled. The girls showed no difficulty or restraint in bullying her. They laughed as they did it.

It made my blood boil. They were the bad guys. I had no reason to hate them, but I did.

“-oh ho,” a familiar pony-tailed girl interrupted me suddenly. “So you’ve admirably returned to face your execution, Yokodera. I’ve been waiting for you. Now about you and Tsukiko…”

“I don’t give a crap about that right now! Move aside, you idiot! …no, I’m the idiot! Aaaargh, how’d it all end up like this? How could I have been such an idiot, forgetting something so basic?”

“Wha-? Uh? Eh?”

“Idiot, idiot, I’m such an idiot! You’re an idiot too! You’re in the way, you idiot!”

“Hold on – ah!” I pushed her out of my field of vision. She was distraught, but I had no way of knowing that. “An idiot? Me? Why?” she demanded shrilly.

While I was hindered by obstacles, Tsutsukakushi rushed over to the bench. “What are you doing to Azuki-san?” she asked flatly, staring up at the girls without any fear.

They laughed again. “What, is this your friend, Bean Sprout? She’s kinda awkward. How old is she? Oh no, we’re not laughing, I mean you gotta treasure your first friend ever, amirite!”

“Good for you! You couldn’t make friends at high school, but at least you could, like, make friends with an elementary schooler. We’re happy for you!”

This time, it was Tsutsukakushi’s turn to tremble with rage. Her small body shook at all the injustice. She spoke without any fear – at least that was how it looked like. But only I could see how much her puny legs trembled with fright.

As soon as I realised that, I grabbed the girls by the arm. “You bitches!”

“Huuuh? Who’re you?” the first girl asked.

“We’re talkin’ to Bean Sprout here, so, like, move it!” said the second girl.

“Shut up, you fools! Everyone’s a fool! Stop saying foolishly foolish things like a fool and shut the hell up!” I roared.

I wondered why I was so mad over someone else’s business. Because they’d made fun of Azuki Azusa and Tsutsukakushi? No, that wasn’t it. Because we couldn’t finish our date? No, that wasn’t it either. So why was I so mad?

“Aaaargh, screw it! Why can’t I say what I want to say?!” I didn’t know what my true feelings were. Even though it was something to do with me, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t understand myself, and so I yelled in my frustration.

“Huh…? Are you for real? Aren’t you, like, gettin’ carried away?”

“You’re frickin’ annoying. Oi, there’s, like, a weird guy here.”

The girls waved their arms for attention, but no one looked their way.

Instead, a heroic figure appeared. “You called for me? I despise being in bug-infested places.” The Steel King held the two girls with one hand each. “I met my worthless sister at this worthless place, only for my worthless sister to worthlessly run away from me. But what gets me the most is being called an idiot by the boy she was going out with. It’s unreasonable. It cannot be more unreasonable. By the way, you’re responsible for making my worthless sister upset. At least I’ll share with you how unreasonable you’ve been. It’s best if you accept it without complaints.”

She dragged the two girls out of the arcade. Then I heard cries of pain and agony.

I didn’t care what happened to them. It was just background noise to me, as trivial as whether an idol’s photo shoots were taken in Hawaii or not.

What I had to do now was-

“…see. You get it now, don’t you?” Shaking her head slowly, Azuki Azusa stood up from the bench. “We’re not friends. I wasn’t expecting anything at all, really.”

In her hand, she held the wrapping paper of the sweets. As she tossed the remnants of our fun times into the rubbish bin, a hollow, thin smile came upon her face, like she was letting something go.

“N-no… I know it was bad of us not to wait for you, but we had reasons.”

“That’s right. Everyone has their own reasons. So, there’s one thing I want to ask you: can you explain why you asked me out on a date?”

“I told you before. I wanted you to see my good points…”

If only she could just yell at me like she usually did, I would have felt relieved.

“Is that the only reason? You’re not telling the whole story. You had an ulterior motive, didn’t you?” Azuki Azusa said without any emotion at all. Her eyes were dull as she spoke those ambiguously self-deprecating words. She was like a sick dog that couldn’t deal with its problems without scratching itself.

And so I couldn’t lie to her. I couldn’t kick a dog when it was down.

“Y-you’re wrong. Well, you’re right, but only kind of. I did have another motive, but there were reasons for that too.”

“More reasons? Huh, I can imagine. Just like how you fooled me by saying we’re on a date. Or how you got a girl I don’t know to come along. Or how you made me let my guard down and kept me waiting. Or how you forced me to meet people from my old school. You had reasons for plotting everything like a sly snake, I’m sure.”

It had been thirty minutes at most. But those thirty minutes had changed everything.

What had she thought as she had sat alone and helpless on that bench? Just how did she feel, having to withstand the words from those girls, waiting for all that time?

It was just like that time I showed her my information report. What should have been a slight pain for her was multiplied a hundred times over, as if it was the end of the world. And her tiny, frail body took the entire beating.

“I knew you were out to get me. No matter what I say, you’ll just laugh at me. You said we’re friends, but the two of you are just making fun of me. That’s all you met me for. Why…? I knew the whole time, but I feel like such a fool.”

Why? Why did she have to say such a thing?

Tsutsukakushi shook her head. She shook it fervently over and over. Her expression never changed, but I could read her emotions.Oh right, I thought inappropriately. This was how Tsutsukakushi had once been.

“No. You are wrong. That was never our intention-”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to make excuses. I’m not bothered at all. There’s no reason I would be bothered.” Azuki Azusa bit her lip. Her façade had risen up like a snake responding to a snake charmer’s flute.

I knew that expression of hers. I knew what it meant when her knees shook beneath her. It was when Azuki Azusa couldn’t say how she really felt with words.

But at the same time, I knew – Azuki Azusa was unable to get rid of her façade.

“Please wait,” Tsutsukakushi coughed, clinging to Azuki Azusa’s arm as she turned her back on us. “We apologise. But please, please listen to u-”

But Tsutsukakushi’s body was too scrawny to stop her. Azuki Azusa didn’t spare her a single glance.

“Ah…” I couldn’t find the words I should have said. The true feelings I would normally have blurted out remained bottled up inside of me, unable to come out.

“…move,” Azuki Azusa intoned, pushing Tsutsukakushi’s arm out of the way. “You’re all… you’re all just liars. Why do you have to deceive people? You’d be better off talking to a parrot.”

The floodgates had opened. She had finally lashed out at us. But still, she trembled faintly. And so did her voice. She desperately tried to cling to what remained of her pride, and yet her eyes blurred with tears. That was the kind of expression she had on her face.

Before she left, she turned around and faced us. “Never talk to me again, you hear? You’re about as interesting as a bug. You don’t know me at all, so just crawl off and do your own thing…”

I’d heard her say those words before, but never to us. Something had awoken from within the depths of Azuki Azusa’s soul. We had opened Pandora’s Box.

“Azuki-san-” Tsutsukakushi called out to her flatly. She couldn’t show her pain and regret, nor could she show her sincerity. The only thing she could do was let out her voice without any emotion on her face.

Her eyes downcast, Azuki Azusa disappeared into the bustling street. She was a sunflower that had been withered by tears. Only her façade kept her stem upright.

As we stared at her back, we did nothing but stand there like fools. We had reached a critical bypass, but the important things were left unsaid. That was how things were. Even if there was no façade to get in the way, nothing would change.

…the three of us were the same. We were imperfect beings.

One whose true feelings could never be seen, one who refused to show her true feelings, one whose true feelings were all that he could express.

None of us would ever be happy.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

(1) Japanese traffic lights have blue lights instead of green ones.
(2) A reference to a famous dog that remained loyal to his owner, even many years after his owner’s death.
(3) A reference to the 1994 Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko, which features unflattering raccoon dogs.
(4) Literally daifuku, a kind of Japanese confectionary made of mochi.
(5) A type of handbag.
(6) A popular Japanese soft drink.
(7) The Japanese is a direct reference to the “Donna Donna” song, a Yiddish theatre song about animal sacrifice. It’s full of black humour, as you can imagine.
(8) A reference to Maria-sama ga Miteru (lit. The Virgin Mary Watches Over You), a light-hearted yuri series about Catholic schoolgirls who refer to each other as sisters.
(9) A quote from Ico, an obscure PS2 game.
(10) An old Japanese film about a rickshaw man who becomes the surrogate father of a widowed woman.
(11) In Japanese, they call her ‘Komame-chan’. I wanted to follow a translation familiar to those who watched the anime. Crunchyroll uses ‘Little Bean’, which doesn’t particularly sound like a term of endearment, so I went with Eveyuu’s ‘Bean Sprout’.

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