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Chapter 4 – Say It Before You Regret It

I couldn’t stand the chirping of the cicadas.

On the morning news, the short-sleeved weather lady announced that “My, oh my,” today was going to be yet another stinking hot summer day in the Japanese archipelago. “My, oh my.”

“Substitute y for x… right. Then, uh… with z you uh… ummmm… I don’t understand this at all. Lend me your advice, Hentai Prince.”

“Are we making paper planes with this handout? Awesome, let’s start a tournament. Making paper planes fly is my specialty.”

“I’m asking you seriously! How about I do the questions on the back of the sheet and you do the ones on the front, good sir? Then we’ll swap.”

“Nice try, Ponta. There are no questions on the back.”

Oh man, I thought. I wanted to race out of school and sit under the air conditioner at home.

You’d think that once the end-of-semester exams were over, the long holidays would start. It was practically D-Day for us. And yet here we were in the peak of summer, stuck in a classroom taking supplementary maths classes.

It all started when we received the notice.

“During your exam break, we are giving out free coupons for a family restaurant as compensation for studying so hard. Go finish your duty before you stuff yourselves, idiots.”

It was on the “Life is short, so we’ll forgive you even if you rebelled against the entire system” level of leniency.

I chanted “There are no rebels without reasons” as I went to school, but there was no one to hear me, only the printouts that were left for us on the teacher’s desk. There were no free coupons, just self-serve supplementary lessons.

“It might not be the North-South Divide,” said Ponta, “but isn’t this a little unfair? Hentai Prince, won’t you sing a song for spring?”

“Spring already ended. We’re in the depths of the rainy season now.”

“Tut tut tut, that doesn’t do it for me. Is that how far you’ll go pretending not to know? In the one-two-three years that I’ve known you, you haven’t once gone on a hot date like the other day. I have a witness testimony to prove it.”

“…I get the feeling you just made that up like in a game of Chinese Whispers.”

“Whaaaat? I would never do anything like cheating. Good sir, do you not understand the extent to which the other guys wish despair and poverty upon you?”

Whether it was because of the heat, Ponta was doing his best to get on my nerves today. He prodded me with his pencil relentlessly.

“I thought we were best buddies… since when did you start drifting away from me? First, the Tsutsukakushi sisters and now Azuki Azusa – it’s like a royal Arab harem. What kind of trick did you pull to get them to hang out with you? I’m about to cry with jealousy here, man.”

“Didn’t you lose your horniness, Ponta?”

“Tut tut tut, that’s another matter entirely. That doesn’t stop me being jealous of you. Whenever I see one of the masterpieces by Van Gogh, Millet or Monet, I want to pick it apart and appreciate how it’s crafted.”

“Uh, it’s nice to hear you put me on the same level as a picture… hey, did you mention the Tsutsukakushi sisters just now? Ponta, you knew that the Steel King had a sister?”

“But of course! I only needed to see them from a distance to know. The little sister looks exactly like the older one – or were you too stupid to realise?”

“…you’re right,” I sighed. “Anyone who’s been with someone all this time but never even looked at her properly is beyond stupid. If it happened once, it’ll just keep happening over and over again.”

Although the formulas were right there on the front of the sheet, I didn’t write a single number in the blanks. My hand stopped moving entirely.

It had been three days since our fight at the arcade. I hadn’t heard from Tsutsukakushi or Azuki Azusa since that day. The reason was simple: I still didn’t know what I should say to them.

Azuki Azusa wasn’t an angelic fairy from some painting – she was a normal girl. Tsutsukakushi was no different. She had feelings just like Azuki Azusa did, and more emotions stewed around inside her than she could ever show on the surface. I didn’t understand like the idiot I was.

By being so fixated on getting my façade back, I was only ever able to see their outward characteristics, as if they were characters from a game. I thought solely in terms of tactics like “how about I make her return to her peasant form?” or “how can I make her abandon her façade?” and in doing so, I had kind of overlooked the single most important thing.

That is, how would a girl feel, being deceived by the boy she was dating?

“I don’t mind at all,” Azuki Azusa had said. But that wasn’t the truth. Her lies didn’t help her. I was sure that look she had on her face back then was that of a dog abandoned by its owner. It wouldn’t stop haunting me.

And the cause of her withdrawn reaction – it was what those girls had said to her. About transferring, about her friends. Maybe it wasthat kind of problem.

I didn’t want to think so deeply about something like that. I wanted to think about girls in swimsuits instead. I wanted to think about things like the magic of leggings or the insides of skirts, to live life without ever facing the difficult things.

But the more I tried not to think about it, the more my head hurt. I couldn’t help but keep seeing Azuki Azusa in my mind’s eye.

In the end, I never got anything done on the supplementary homework.


It was lunchtime soon after. I had to go hand in my blank sheet of paper to the teacher. “Oh man… what should I do…?”

“You just gotta tell him straight up. Say that you were skipping class so you didn’t understand the questions and tell him it’s his fault you’re not motivated because he’s a crappy teacher.”

“Ohhhh, I see. Okay. I’ll tell him that…”

“Wait, you actually took me seriously?! …hey, you’ve been staring up at the ceiling all day. What’s wrong? Something worrying you?”

“I guess you could say something’s worrying me. I don’t know why I’m worrying, so I’m worried.”

“What’s that, you say?” A question mark floated over Ponta’s head.

I really couldn’t speak my mind right then. As a cool character would say: “There might be discrepancies in the transmission of data.”(1)

I passed through the corridor and into the maths prep room. The maths teacher, who had a face like a gnome, did a double take when he saw us.

“What? It’s just you two?”

“We were the only ones here from the start,” said Ponta. “We had ample time in this stinking heat to sweat it out and discuss the various problems around the world-poverty issue, that is-”

“If you hit your head, go to the nurse’s office. Oh, wait, I already said that to Azuki…”

Wait, what? My heart stopped upon hearing those unexpected words. “Sensei. By Azuki, are you talking about Azuki Azusa?”

“Hm? Ah, yes. She got around a twenty for her score, so I asked her to come up here, but she wasn’t sounding too good and wouldn’t say a word.”

“Hahaha, Azuki-san is a surprisingly bad student,” laughed Ponta.

“Like you can talk, you pinhead.”

As the teacher scratched his round, bearded face, Ponta clapped his hands together. He quickly met my eyes. “In that case, someone has to deliver the handouts to Azuki-san’s house.”

“Huuh? Um, that’s, uh…”

“Have no fear! There must be someone among us who is in an intimate relationship with Azuki-san and knows where she lives.”

Oh come on, I thought. What was with that suspiciously specific statement?

Ponta nudged me with his elbow. You don’t need to thank me. Just go forth and fix those worries of yours, good sir. He was caught up in some strange misunderstanding.

“High schoolers these days sure grow up quick. Why can’t I get in an intimate relationship with someone? How irritating,” the teacher remarked in a laid-back tone before he went on to give me instructions. “There should be a handout left on my desk. Now get going and give it to her.” Then he looked at my homework. “What’s this? You’ve only written your name! Did you really intend to hand this in?”

“I didn’t understand the questions because you’re a crappy teacher… is what Ponta said.”

“Uuuuurk! I told you not to take me seriously!” Ponta whined.

“…you two are to be back here for supplementary classes tomorrow,” the teacher said with a sour face. “Bring Azuki too.”


But, well, Ponta was right. Thanks to my work with the Azuki Azusa Observation Squad, I knew where Azuki Azusa lived.

“I see how it is,” Ponta said to me. “Anyone who gets in the way of the power of love should get his ass kicked. No need to thank me!”

The power of love. I was pretty sure I didn’t like Azuki Azusa that way, though. Ponta had misunderstood.

After I parted ways from him, I headed straight for the station. Although this whole “delivering your true feelings” thing was just Ponta’s hare-brained scheme, a part of me still did want to see how Azuki Azusa was doing. No façades involved – just my true and honest self.

After a few stops, the train jerked to a halt at a commuter town, where a handful of condominiums stood all bunched up together. I struggled through the scorching midsummer heat, all the way up to the fourth floor of Azuki Azusa’s housing complex. I stopped in front of room 403, where the name Azuki was written on the doorplate. When I spoke into the intercom, the door opened, and I was greeted with a familiar voice:

“My, oh my, look who it is! You’re that boy I talked to on the phone.”

“Um, yes, I’m Yokodera. I’m from Azuki Azusa’s school.”

“So you really came to visit. Come in, come in.”

Like her daughter, Azuki Azusa’s mother didn’t have much in the way of a chest, which was a strike against her, but she made up for it with her friendly, affable attitude. She could have passed as Azuki Azusa’s long-lost sister.

“Ohhh, so you are just like my daughter said,” she said, peering at my face in the hallway. “I can see for it myself. You are like a little doggie.”

“Um.”

“My, my, never mind me. You heard nothing.”

She bounced her way through the entrance hall with small, sprightly steps. As I tried to make up my mind whether she acted young because she looked young, or if she looked young because she acted young, I ended up following her all the way into the living room.

It was a bright and clean house. There was a fish tank against the wall. As a sign of the owner’s vast, unending love, it was half-filled with transparent water, and it was neatly laid out with pebbles, bricks and seaweed. But I couldn’t see a single fish inside.

As if noticing what I was looking at, Azuki Azusa’s mother tilted her head to the side. That small gesture was such an Azuki Azusa thing to do. “Oh my, is something wrong?” she asked.

“Er, uh… I have two questions.”

“My, my, if it’s something I can answer, why don’t you go ahead and ask me?”

“Right, so for starters, what’s that?”

Azuki Azusa’s mother held a blanket around something in her arms. Something was pushing against the fabric from the inside. It looked like a creature’s head.

“It’s a green turtle. Could you call her Victor, please (2)? Her face is a lot like my daughter’s, don’t you think? She hates the cold, so I have to warm her up like this.”

That explained the empty fish tank. Upon hearing its name called out, the palm-sized Victor poked its head out, looking annoyed, before immediately retreating into the blanket once again.

“…okay, so here’s my second question,” I continued. “What’s with the room temperature?” The Azuki house was crazily cold – you wouldn’t think it was midsummer in here. By the time I sat down on the couch, my sweat had all dried up. “Sorry, I think your air con works too well.”

“Oh my, I’m so sorry about that. I thought when you’re cooling down someone with a fever you have to lower the room temperature.”

“That has the opposite effect…”

“Oh my, why’s that?” Azuki Azusa’s mother asked vacantly as she cut up an apple.

She carved it into the shape of a rabbit’s head. Was that another way of combating the cold? I wondered.

As I fell silent, Azuki Azusa’s mother looked at me suddenly. “My, oh my, that reminds me. Rather than talking to me, shouldn’t you be speaking to Azusa right now?”

“Um, uh, I wasn’t really planning-”

“It’s fine. Azusa’s always talking about you. About how you’re an overzealous little doggie. She’s always saying how much of a pain it is when you confess your love to her, but she doesn’t seem too against the idea.”

“M-my love?!”

I didn’t remember saying any such thing! I almost spat out the apple in my mouth. But then I realised:

Azuki Azusa had put up her façade even in front of her family. She had been unable to say that I was her pet. So she’d pretended we were in love, because that was easy to understand. Maybe.

“But I’m so sorry to disappoint you after you came all this way. Azuki Azusa still hasn’t recovered yet,” Azuki Azusa’s mother said as she nonchalantly tore the apple into pieces.

“She hasn’t recovered? What do you mean?”

“Oh my, so you didn’t come to see how she was doing? She has a cold. It seems Azusa has been sick ever since she came home from her date with you.”

“I see…”

“She might have caught it on her date. She took a lot of time off work and she couldn’t get into the mood to study for her exams. She must have been looking forward to that date a lot.”

A calendar hung on the white walls of the living room. I noticed that the date of our outing together was marked with a red pen.

“A lot of things happened at her last school, you see,” Azuki Azusa’s mother went on. “That’s why she got caught up in things. She’s hard to get along with – I think that makes it difficult for everyone. She’s a kind girl deep down, so it’s nice of you to go out on a date with her.” Azuki Azusa’s mother shrugged like she was a kid herself. Then she said, “Yet oh my, if you didn’t come to see how she was doing, why did you visit at all? Oh dear, did you really come to see me? My, oh my! That won’t do! My heart already belongs to someone else!”

“N-no! Uh, I just came to deliver a class handout.”

“A handout? Oh my, you went to school on a holiday?” This time, she shook her head, bemused. Before I could answer, she snapped her fingers. “My, I’ve got it. You want to talk with Azusa. Sorry I didn’t realise what you were thinking. Even though you have no classes, you say you have a handout for her, ufufufu. How cute.”

“Th-that’s not it! I was asked to do this!”

“Come now. You really are like a little doggie. I’ll bring you to Azusa’s room. I don’t know if she’ll open the door, but I’m sure she’ll cheer up when she hears your voice.”

Azuki Azusa’s mother pushed me into the hallway past the living room. She took me all the way to the end of the passage, and then with a wink, she retreated back into the living room and closed the door. “Enjoy!” she seemed to be saying.

“…I can’t believe this,” I muttered. It was the same as with Ponta. Azuki Azusa’s mother had misunderstood me.

Even without a façade, people didn’t really change, I thought.

Azusa was written across the plate on the door in front of me. The door was locked. The chilly air from the living room had drifted all the way over here. I wondered if even the light bulb was busted, because the surroundings were coated in darkness.

Now what was I going to say?

As I looked around uncertainly, I noticed a bookshelf, which had blended into the general gloominess. The books were lined up in a row, and I could see the titles on their back covers: Vegetables Basket, Mackey Mouse, Princess Godzilla, Kimba the Black Lion, Paradogs… all of them were manga about animals (3). But one title felt off.

As I went quiet, I heard a voice from the other side of the door. “Why are you here?”

It sounded very close. I suspected Azuki Azusa had been listening with her ear pressed against the door. She was surprisingly active for someone who had a cold.

But she didn’t speak with her usual terse voice – it was the voice of someone who had cried for three days and three nights, until she had no more tears left to cry.

“Er, uh… you have a cold, right? Are you okay? I came to deliver a class handout,” I said.

“You’re lying.”

“I-I’m not lying! It’s a handout from the supplementary maths class! You got a notice on your cell phone yesterday, didn’t you?”

“You’re lying.”

“…I swear it’s the truth.”

“You’re lying,” she said suspiciously. She just wouldn’t budge.

As proof, I slipped the handout through the gap between the door and the floor. “Look at this. See? The gnome’s signature is on there. To tell you the truth, I also needed supplementary lessons. So the gnome asked me to give this to you.”

“…so, if you’re telling the truth…” I heard the sound of sniffling from the other side of the door. “You could’ve asked anyone. They’d say Azuki Azusa is an idiot who takes supplementary classes for maths. They’d think I couldn’t study because I was too busy mucking around with someone else… oh no, I get it. It’s because you asked me out on that date that I lost my concentration and couldn’t study.”

“H-huh?”

“And then I got such a bad score. Now everyone’s laughing at me for being on the same level as a chimpanzee. Right, that’s how it is. You took so long to see me because you don’t want to look at my face every day. You think I’m weird.”

“…um. Azuki Azusa?”

What was this girl saying?

“I predicted aaaaall of this,” she said haughtily. “You didn’t trick me – I let you trick me. I let you go on a date with me. I’m not an idiot. I’m not hurt at all. I’m tired of rejecting so many people who are so beneath me…” She sniffed again.

What was this wet stuff in my eyes? It had nothing to do with the coolness from the air conditioner. I didn’t want to be here. This whole place stank like a war zone!

…no matter how much I tried yelling out what I was feeling, my mouth wouldn’t move like it could before. I didn’t understand my own true feelings. There was no way I could speak the truth to her when I lied so much, even to myself.

“How do I say this? Uh… you’ve got the wrong idea about everything.”

“There’s no room for misunderstanding. You guys are all beneath me. Only friends can stand on equal terms. Hmph, but you aren’t my friend,” she went on gloomily. “You just ran as far away from me as you could…”

The negative thoughts poured out of her like heavy, oppressive rain. This girl, who had built herself up as the centre of the cosmos with her façade, was now left to drown in her own weakness. She had made all the mistakes and now she was suffering the consequences, taking all those extra hard lessons.

The most beautiful girl in our year level – the composed rich girl – was not in control of herself at all. She blamed herself too easily and she got frustrated over that. Where had the rich girl Azuki Azusa gone? She was like a totally different person now.

“Uh, I just wanted to say something!”

“…what?”

“Uh, that is…”

I’d yelled out my feelings, but then I hesitated. I didn’t know what I wanted to say.

Don’t say such stupid things. Cheer up. Let’s be friends like we used to.

Your façade is slipping. Now’s the time to return it to me.

Which was the right option? What was I meant to say to Azuki Azusa? What feelings were the true feelings I wanted to convey to her?

While I was still caught in indecision, I heard her voice from behind the door. “Huh. Go away, then,” she said wearily. “I told you to keep your nose out of my business.”

After that, there was nothing more to say. She never said a word back to me.

At length, I went back to the living room. It was as cold as midwinter. As she welcomed me back, Azuki Azusa’s mother nonchalantly gave her apple to Victor. I think she seriously thought dogs and turtles served the same purpose. Not that I really cared either way.

“My, oh my, you’re leaving already? I hoped you’d stay here till nightfall. Is Azusa feeling better?”

“…I don’t know.”

“My, is that so? If her cold got better in the hour since you came here, that has to be through the mysterious power of love.”

“Haha…”

“But my, I still got my hopes up. I thought if there was anyone who could get her to show her face again, it would be you,” she said in a low voice. She was crestfallen. “Azusa’s been in her room ever since she told me she had a cold. I have no idea how she’s doing and I’ve been worried sick.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t want you to worry about her, ma’am. She has her pride.”

“I suppose so… and after I told her she could rely on me.”

Azuki Azusa’s cheerful mother dispelled the atmosphere around that dark and gloomy hallway. So the darkness didn’t carry on over to me, nor did it get in the way of our conversation.

As she waved me off at the entrance, Azuki Azusa’s mother bobbed her head up and down. “Thanks for coming today!” she said eagerly. “I’m really glad she transferred to this school. Her classmates at her old school would never have dreamed of checking up on her every day on their vacation.”

“It’s no big deal… wait, ‘every day’?”

“Mhmm. A girl came to see how she was doing yesterday and the day before that. My, my, how do I describe her…? She had a long surname I can’t remember and… she was so very small, cool and cute.”

“Are you talking about Tsutsukakushi?”

“Yes, yes! That’s her name. Please don’t let what happened today discourage you either, so come again to visit sometime.”

Waving, I made my way down the stairs of the housing complex. Outside the maddening chilliness of the Azuki house, the level of heat from the summer sun felt particularly strong. My back was instantly coated with sweat.

I’d been thinking too hard about so many different things since morning. Now my head hurt.

At a time like this, I wanted someone to help me. And that someone was a small, cool and cute girl with an icy gaze. She was the only one who could handle all the confusing things.

I wanted to see Tsutsukakushi.


Ipponsugi Hill was dyed orange. The wind had died down sometime before nightfall.

I thought I could meet Tsutsukakushi again here. It was just my intuition – I had no way to be sure of it. Yet I believed in my intuition, because it told me that it would become a surety. There were many things I was ignorant about, but somehow I felt like I understood Tsutsukakushi, and Tsutsukakushi alone. It was like that night I met her – I just knew she had wanted to take a walk in her own company.

So when I spotted her small figure on the overgrown trail, I was not surprised. I waved my hand in her direction. “Heeeeey!”

“…hey. Do I say ‘hey hey’ or just ‘hey’?” Tsutsukakushi asked. She was clutching a paper wrapper in her hand. A pork bun.

As we sat down lazily at the base of the cedar tree, I stretched out my hand. Tsutsukakushi sat next to me, clutching three pork buns. She placed one of them in my hand to begin with. The paper around it was still hot.

Tsutsukakushi put the next pork bun on her lap. She laid down the last one at the feet of the cat statue as an offering. Together, we made our obligatory visit to the shrine at Ipponsugi Hill.

“…the Stony Cat sure got big,” I remarked.

“Indeed,” she said. “But its face would make a child cry.”

Hearing that, I peered at the cat statue. Today, its expression was sorrowful. I don’t know if real cats cry, but the cat statue looked ready to burst into tears, to say the least. Its wooden eyes looked haunted and its mouth yawned wide, etched with despair. I had never realised Japan was such a spooky place to be.

“Looks like it’s sad about something,” I remarked.

“I do not understand. Does the cat statue have emotions too?”

“I don’t know either, but I think it does have a soul.”

The rumour of the Stony Cat’s divine power was only spreading further. This was the giant pork bun-shaped cat statue, which had the power to take what you didn’t need. Seeing as it could mysteriously change its size as well, the rumour was that much more believable. This children’s playground had suddenly became a sacred place of worship.

A swath of offerings was placed at its feet: old clothes, a bunch of flowers, cheap trinkets you win playing pachinko (4) – odds and ends, mostly. When it granted your wish, the Stony Cat was meant to take away the offering, but perhaps these worshippers hadn’t prayed with all their heart. Or maybe the Stony Cat didn’t know which offering was which.

“…say if it does have a soul. I still find it hard to believe that it is a god,” Tsutsukakushi insisted, shaking her head. As she stared without any emotion at the cat statue that had taken her expressions away, she picked at her pork bun.

She wasn’t the only one. I stuffed my mouth with pork bun, and the meat juice oozed out of my mouth.

“Senpai, why did you come here today?” she asked me.

“Uh… well, see, I just wanted to ask you a bit of advice on something… hm? You’ve already finished eating?”

“Not yet.”

The pork bun in Tsutsukakushi’s hand was depleting fast. She nibbled on the pork bun like a hamster until her cheeks were bulging. Then the entire bun went down the hatch and she swallowed. The magic trick was complete. She pretended not to notice that she had just eaten the pork bun which was supposed to be given up to the cat statue. This little girl sucked up everything like a black hole. It was like she had been planning to eat the two pork buns herself from the very start.

“You want my advice?” She paused. “Is this about Azuki-san?”

“Got it in one.”

“I can read you like a book, senpai.”

“I-I see. So, Tsutsukakushi, can you read what I randomly thought just now? I was thinking how weirdly sexy you look with meat juice glossing your lips.”

“…pervert,” she sighed. She wiped her lips with a handkerchief, which was kind of a shame.

“Haha… oh yeah. I’m glad you’re being yourself.”

“…thank you for asking. I am doing okay.”

“The Steel K- I mean your sister… did anything change?”

“Not really. I suppose our relationship is incapable of changing anymore,” she said, correctly reading my unspoken question. “More importantly, what is your problem with Azuki-san?” she asked as she played with her ponytail, twirling it around her finger. Whenever the Steel King was brought up in conversation, she got obstinate, it seemed, and refused to say anything more.

Thinking of that time in Azuki Azusa’s cold room, I felt exhausted. But Tsutsukakushi was listening attentively, so I mustered up my energy. “You went to Azuki Azusa’s house to check up on her too, right?”

“Yes. I wanted to tell her that what happened that day was not just because of you, senpai,” Tsutsukakushi said evasively. “My sister was part of the cause, but-” She spoke with evident difficulty.

“I made a mess of things too. Just like Azuki Azusa said, I didn’t go out on a genuine date with her. The truth is that I just did it to get my façade back. Even now, I still want her to return it. When I went to see her, a part of me was hoping she’d give her façade to me right then and there… I guess.”

“And somehow, you could not admit that to yourself?”

“Yeah. That sounds about right. Never mind whether I like Azuki Azusa or not – I can’t tell my real feelings from a façade. I don’t know what to do. It bothers me so much.”

if Azuki Azusa wasn’t so flat-chested and instead had a huge rack, I wouldn’t have minded so much, I thought.

The lengthening shadow of the cedar tree cast a long line dividing the hill in two. It symbolised the eternal battle between small breasts and big ones, I bet.

As I peered vaguely at the shadow and pondered deeply, Tsutsukakushi coughed loudly. “Senpai. Changing your behaviour towards someone according to their breast size is something a pervert does.”

“Huh? …Wait, did I say something?!”

“Just a Freudian slip.”

“Urk. I mean, those were my true thoughts, and those were good thoughts. But I have thoughts that really bother me, too.”

“Your thoughts bother me more than they do you.” She stared at me coldly. “You should study female emotions more.”

Ouch, that stung.

I handed up my half-eaten pork bun to her as a sign of truce. She looked closely at the teeth marks I still had on me without smiling. Then, with a purr as if to say it couldn’t be helped, she latched onto my peace offering. Slowly, Tsutsukakushi the cat opened her mouth.

“Senpai, you said you did not know the difference between your façade and your true feelings. Is it really that necessary to distinguish between them?”

“Well, you’ve got to know yourself. You can’t always do what you want straight out. When you’re borrowing a DVD at the rental shop, you slip the DVD with the hot girls between the foreign movies everyone else likes so that it’s camouflaged, you know?”

“That is not what I was talking about. In that case, I have no pity for you.”

“Sorry…”

“…you are such a handful. Listen. I think you are overthinking the matter of your true feelings and your façade.” As she patted her own chest, she went on. “Senpai, the things you are saying now are not calculated. Are they not your true feelings? Human emotions cannot be so neatly labelled. Why not let both your façade and your true feelings guide you and just act according to what you say?”

“What I say isn’t the truth. And plus, words are useless when it really comes down to it. I never know what I’m supposed to say at the important moments. If I do what I say, I’ll end up regretting it…”

“Even if you think about lofty things like what you are supposed to say and what you are not supposed to say, you cannot help it, so you may as well not worry about it. I also cannot tell whether what I am saying right now is a reflection of my true feelings or a façade. I might sorely regret meeting you and Azuki-san. Yet I will not stay silent. Even if my true feelings cannot be seen, I still have my words. And even if my words are mixed up with other things besides the truth, I can only keep going forward.”

“Oooooh, so you’re the type who says something and makes a mess of things.”

“I am the type who says it before I make a mess of things,” Tsutsukakushi said, continuing to pat her chest.

Her words struck a chord somewhere deep inside of me. I didn’t understand what my own reaction meant, and it troubled me.

It doesn’t matter – just say it anyway. You can’t begin to change if you don’t take the first step.

Basically, to quote a foreign actress on the other side of a screen: “OH YES. YEEEES.” Now while those meaningless words got me all pent up and excited, I’d have greater empathy for someone who spoke Japanese, using words that I could understand. I was sure that was what Tsutsukakushi was talking about.

“…you are thinking about perverted things again,” she said. I got the feeling she was disgusted.

“H-how did you know?!”

“From your expressions and the way you talk. I believe they are highly accurate indications.”

“I see… how illuminating!”

“I was not complimenting you.”

Tsutsukakushi’s expressionless, unapproachable aura was drifting away. I could make a fair guess at what she was thinking through the subtle way she raised her eyebrows and from how she pursed her lips. I would never have learned to read her so carefully if it wasn’t for the cat statue, though.

“Hey, you know, Tsutsukakushi, lately I know how you’re feeling about fifty percent of the time. I’m developing my ability to read you better. My dream is to get an eighty percent batting rate, see.”

“I see.” She patted her chest once again. “I am also developing…” she murmured, as if talking to herself.

Somehow, I got the feeling we were not on the same wavelength, but whatever. That was another matter. The fact that we, who had our façade and true feelings stolen from us, could communicate with each other at all was something to be proud of in itself.

I mean, well, someone who had no façade couldn’t not get their feelings across. Okay, that was pushing it, but it was how I thought of it.

As soon as Tsutsukakushi and I parted ways, I texted Ponta.

I’m skipping out tomorrow. Azuki Azusa’s not coming either, so make sure you tell that to the gnome, okay!

His reply was instant:

Okey-dokey. I’ll cover for you during all the sup classes, so don’t sweat it. Give it your best shot!

Thank you, Ponta. You’re a bro.

I didn’t know how he was going to break it to the teacher, but I figured I should treat Ponta to some pom juice next time I saw him. I bowed towards him, wherever he was.

Then I set out to do what I had to do.


It was common knowledge to anyone who played the crane game at arcade.

When you couldn’t get the prize you were aiming for despite pouring a certain amount of money into the machine, all you needed to do was look up at one of the staff members and say, “I used a thousand yen, but I still can’t get that~ oh noooo, what do I doooooo~?” When you begged, they’d open up the case for you.

However, if you didn’t get your two cute female companions or a glamorous older woman to ask for you, the staff will just tut and snub their nose at you. “Yeah, but it ain’t none of our business,” they’d say, using the kind of vocabulary Ponta did in his text message.

But common knowledge changes by the day. This time, when I tried asking for a prize at the arcade, they gave me two in response. What a coincidence that I met the same two staff members who were working part-time there last time. What a coincidence that they conspicuously corrected their slang talk when they caught sight of me. What a coincidence that they showed me their unusually good sides, as if they had just encountered something made of metal – no, steel.

And so I had a chat with those girls about Azuki Azusa.

We didn’t talk about anything much. These cute girls were talking to a boy, so they really changed their attitude from how they would talk to their classmates. Since I was a boy, and girls like them flirted with boys, they did their best to convince me that they were not bullies.

“B-but ya know, I totally thought we did get along.”

“We might’ve taken things a bit far, but I thought we were friends.”

However, one time on their school trip, the girls played a prank. They told Azuki Azusa, who often took days off from school, that the destination of their school trip was to Hokkaido, so they had to meet up at the local airport. Azuki Azusa was determined to come, so she waited all alone at the northern airport. Her classmates never appeared. The real destination had been Okinawa, as it turned out.

“We thought Bean Sprout might come along to the school trip if we told her we were going to Hokkaido. She really likes the foxes from up there.”

“We were totally gonna spill the beans when she got to Haneda airport. We didn’t think she’d take the flight two hours before our meeting time. She was one step ahead of us.”

“We didn’t mean anything bad. We wanted to apologise to her, seeing how it was our fault she transferred.”

That was what Azuki Azusa’s self-proclaimed friends said to me.

I hadn’t considered that it was a practical joke that had blown up to such an extent. Now I understood.

Tell that to her face, you morons.


9:00 am the next day:

Although I’d only been to visit the day before, Azuki Azusa’s mother cheerfully let me in at the door. She was clutching the blankets containing Victor the green turtle. “My, oh my, so you came. Have some milk. Which would you prefer to have with it: meat or fish?”

“Huh? I, uh, didn’t come here to eat.”

“A loyal little doggie like you deserves any reward you like. Have a cookie?”

“Oh, sure…”

And so I ended up taking a lunch break in that Antarctic living room. Azuki Azusa’s mother grinned as she watched me eat. I had the feeling I was being forced to eat somehow.

Once again, we had a little chat about Azuki Azusa. We talked about many things: her old school, her current school, and the manga on the bookshelf down the hallway.

“Thanks for the meal. So right now, is Azuki-san still…?”

“Yes, she’s still shut up in her room. The North Wind and the Sun wouldn’t get her to come out.”

“The North Wind and the Sun? Are you talking about one of Aesop’s Fables?”

Azuki Azusa’s mother held up one of her fingers. “My, I wonder,” she said secretively.

Today, the house was still freezing. If I were a pet that lived here, I wouldn’t feel overly compelled to stay cooped up indoors all day.

I peered into the hallway. A stubborn silence exuded from that closed-off space. I wondered if she was still hiding under her blanket. Geez, I couldn’t make up my mind whether she was being strong-willed or weak-willed.

“Hey, mind if I borrow your daughter for a bit?”

“My, oh my, you’re quite a forward little doggie. Do as you like.”

We’d established our rental contract before you could even blink.

I went into the hallway and took a deep breath in front of the massive bookshelf. Then I knocked on Azuki Azusa’s door.

“…I keep telling you to go away,” a hoarse voice answered immediately. Just like yesterday, she might have been straining her ears to hear me.

The one thing that stood between us was the locked wooden door.

“That’s not how it’s going to be,” I said.

“…like I said, if I forgive you, you’ll just leave me all alone again. I’m not letting you trick me anymore. Hmph. The last thing I’ll do is open the doo- Huh?! Hold it! What are you doing?!”

“Right. I’m unlocking the door.”

“W-what did you say?! What’s going on?!”

My master key was a picklock. I slipped a coin into the space between the handle and twisted it like you do when you’re trying to get a capsule toy. The door opened without any difficulty.

I pulled against the doorknob with all my might. As I did, a figure dressed in a soft pink nightie tumbled into the hallway.

“Good morning, Azuki Azusa.”

“Ugh!” a red-faced Azuki Azusa spluttered, her mouth hanging open like a goldfish. “I-! W-what…?!”

Her hairstyle was dishevelled beyond all recognition. There was not a hint of her fine, soft curls in those long, chestnut-coloured tangles. Her posture when lying down was as horrible as ever. Her peach-coloured pyjamas revealed a bare spot between the front of her neck and her collarbone. Oh, yes, MARVELLOUS.

“Right, let’s head off, then.”

Azuki Azusa shook her head frantically. “What?! Where?! Why?!” She had just woken up in a complete state of disarray and was now yapping like crazy. That, along with her clunky choker, made her look like a pet dog that didn’t want to go on a walk.

“If you don’t want to walk, I’ll carry you.”

“Eeek! Eeeeeeeeek! Mama! Mama! I’m being assaulted by a pervert again!”

What an impudent remark. “I’m not assaulting you!” I was only forcefully carrying her on my back. “We’re just going out for a little walk!”

She was still lethargic, so picking her up was not a problem. But she kept throwing her head around, so it was difficult to carry her for any distance. Incidentally, her mother was leisurely taking her time returning Victor to her fish tank and setting the air conditioner temperature back to normal.

“Let me go, let me gooo!” Azuki Azusa yelped. “I’m not going out for a walk!”

“You know what they say: it’s not good to stay indoors all day, never to see the light of day! You’re young, so you need your exercise!”

“That’s not what I’m worried about! It’s my pyjamas! My face! My hair! How can I go out like this?”

“Oh, sorry for the inconvenience.”

As we passed through the living room, I bowed to Azuki Azusa’s mother. She smiled and cheered. Betrayed and alone, the daughter groaned. “I thought you understood me, mama… I won’t struggle anymore, so can you please at least let me brush my hair and change my clothes…? That’s all I’ll do, I swear.”

“No can do. I have a theory that your façade will make you shut yourself indoors.”

“It’s not a façade! It’s my true feelings! Who would want to be seen in this getup?”

“Your façade controls everything you say, Azuki Azusa. Well, off we go!”

“Have a nice trip!” Azuki Azusa’s mother said cheerfully to my back as I stepped out into the hallway of the housing complex.

“Nooo…” Azuki Azusa moaned.

“You’ll be fine. No one’s really looking. I don’t care either.”

“You pervert! Oaf! I care…” Azuki Azusa trailed off suddenly. She really didn’t want to be noticed by her neighbours, it seemed. She managed to hide her face somehow by burying her head against the back of my neck. I felt the tip of her nose touching me. It tickled.

Thanks to her no longer struggling, she was easy to carry.

“I really, really don’t like where this is going…”

“Oh, pish tosh!”

“Then what if I take revenge? You won’t want to mess with me…”

But even though she blew her nose and got snot all over my back, I went on walking.

It wasn’t as if this was one of those exposure videos. Was it really that disorienting to go outside in your nightwear? As much as I hated seeing a girl cry, I knew that if I quit now, she’d lock herself back up in her room. It wouldn’t solve anything.

We reached the stair landing where nobody could see us. As I comforted Azuki Azusa, I called a taxi on my cell phone. This whole venture was costing me quite a lot, in every sense of the word. As Tsutsukakushi would say, a girl’s heart is hard to understand.


“As a mere driver, I can do nothing more than pray for the safety of your new victim…”

The taxi driver was a familiar face. He sure liked practising his lectures on me, huh? I only realised after I got in the car that Azuki Azusa wasn’t wearing any shoes.

HenNeko-197

 

With her wrinkled pyjamas and her bare feet, my prisoner looked as if she had just woken up out of bed. She sat on the seat and hugged her knees as if she was in gym class. I could picture her as a timid dog with drooped ears and a tail. Only the choker which looked like my belt was in neat condition.

“Don’t give me that look, Azuki Azusa. It’s not like I’m taking you anywhere weird.”

“You sound like a wolf trying to trick a rabbit. I can’t believe there are people out there who would go this far…”

“You don’t have to believe me right now. At least sit up straight like an elegant young lady.”

She buried her tiny face in her knees. Maybe she didn’t want to see my face. This wasn’t good. “I-I got it. By young lady, I mean like Princess Godzilla (5). I also read that manga when I was a kid. Princess Plasma pulverises her evil bullies – it’s a great action story for loners!”

“How did you…?”

“It was on your bookshelf. It was mixed up with all this manga about animals, so it caught my eye. Do you like that story?”

“…what does it matter that I’m all alone? I can read what I want. Leave me alone…” Azuki Azusa retreated further and further into herself.

I knew it was a mistake to bring up that line of conversation, but I’d said too much to change course now. It wasn’t like I could control what came out of my mouth.

But in spite of – no, because of that – I could say what I wanted to say.

“I’m here because I can’t leave you alone. Get that through your head, at least.”

“Oh…”

“I’ve gotten to know you, Azuki Azusa. You’re overly sensitive. You cry easily and you shut yourself away. You modelled yourself on manga like Princess Godzilla, right? The main character is a high-and-mighty rich girl who overcomes bullying. You changed your hairstyle to be like hers, and you work night and day, dressing yourself up with money. And you pretend you don’t need any friends or a boyfriend.”

“Y-you’re wrong… I really do like being alone, I swear.”

“You’re lying.”

As her pet, I was closer to Azuki Azusa than anyone else. So I was confident I could tear down the web of lies she’d built around herself.

“W… what makes you think you can say that?”

“When you hung out with us, it looked like you had a blast. I’d never seen you look like that at school.”

If that cheerful, energetic Azuki Azusa from the arcade had been her true self, then the girl at school could only be a phony. It was as scripted a performance as the so-called pure girls on late-night idol programs. Would’ve been nice if she wore a bikini, though!

“I thought you were making out you were better than everyone else, but I was wrong. It was because you were telling yourself that you didn’t mind being alone that you came up with things like Reward Time. You demanded too much from others and it made you hard to approach.”

“…oooooh.”

“And then in the end, your high-and-mighty princess façade made you even more alone. You’re an idiot.”

“Y-you didn’t have to put it like that!” Azuki Azusa rubbed the corner of her eye against her knee. She looked about ready to cry, as if I had struck her mercilessly without any feeling for her whatsoever. If I pushed her any further, she’d start crying a fountain. Enough to get the seat wet. “Trying to deceive people with words… people are liars, not like Victor is. What would you know about getting bullied…?”

“How can I not know what it’s like to get bullied? I’m the Hentai Prince! Don’t you know how I was singled out as the black sheep by every single girl in my class? They moved seats on their own and left me in exile. When it was time to hand out the test papers for end-of-semester exams, they passed it to me through magic. They were four metres away from me!”

“B-but I was tricked by those girls I thought were my friends. They left me waiting…”

“You weren’t the only who was tricked. I was so looking forward to the day the girls took their measurements, but the year-level coordinator made me count all the grains of sand on the grounds. They may as well have put up a sign saying ‘Trespassing Forbidden’ inside the school. It was like they were quarantining me for the whole day!”

“Isn’t that what you get for being a pervert?”

“Yeah. It was all my fault. But everything is your own fault to begin with. We all start off getting bullied and crying easily. You captured our hearts and turned them upside down when you treated us like playthings. Yes, yes, you know how to get into a boy’s heart. No one else in the class stood out as much as you did.”

“…c-captured your heart?” Azuki Azusa stiffened, evidently taken aback. She was like an infantryman who had been ambushed, forced to swallow bullets from a sight unseen.

“You didn’t notice? You know how straight after you transferred to our school, someone confessed to you? And since you distanced yourself from them in such a weird way, you only attracted weird boys. You looked like one of those stuck-up rich girls. Plus, there was your Reward Time. You’re naturally cute, so you didn’t need all that extra stuff. It was a bit much.”

“H… huh? You think I’m cute?”

“You can’t get what you need from others. Your strength has to grow from within you. I think if you acted normally, people would like you naturally. I also like you better as a normal girl, Azuki Azusa.”

“Like… you l-like me…” Azuki Azusa stammered for a while, half in tears. “Ooooohhhhh…”

I didn’t see how she couldn’t have known. If a hot girl with a strict face sits behind the counter at the bookstore, her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. All the perverts who buy adult magazines with weird covers gather around her, hoping to get abused. Wasn’t that common knowledge?

As Azuki pondered whatever she was thinking about, I pondered how much fun it would be to buy an adult magazine that way. Meanwhile, the taxi slowed to a crawl. Soon enough, we would arrive at the base of the hill. As the car finished settling down, the door opened.

“…I’ve got no shoes,” Azuki Azusa said.

“Oh, okay. I see.”

“…piggyback.”

“Huh? Oh, sure.”

It was quite a stroke of luck, carrying Azuki Azusa on my back again. She clung to me timidly. It seemed she had mustered an infinite amount of courage compared to how she had been in the taxi.

I was so glad. So glad.

There was no trace of any soul at Ipponsugi Hill. Only the face of the sun and the tears of the cat statue were there to greet us.

As I carried the pyjama-clad girl further towards the summit, it got harder to move my feet. They say you shouldn’t mention body weight at a time like this. Even I, who was clueless about girls and their emotions, knew that much. But still, I could feel her soft touch against my back, and the scent of her perfume went straight to my head. I shook my head to dispel the unbidden thoughts that came to me. They had nothing to do with anything, I told myself.

“I brought you to this hill,” I told her. “I wonder if you’ve ever seen the Stony Cat.”

“Never, but I know about the rumours… why do you ask?”

“I have something important to tell you about your façade. This is the only place I can tell you.”

A cool wind rustled the leaves quietly around us. As she took a deep breath under the shadow of the cedar tree, Azuki Azusa played with her hair behind me. She had come to a decision. “Um, before you tell me that, there’s just one thing I want to make certain.”

“Like what?”

“W-well, it’s already obvious and it’s too late to change it now. I just want to know how you feel about me,” she said hesitantly, her arms tightening around me. She pulled herself closer to my neck. Leaning forward, she peered directly at the side of my face. It was an action that seemed strangely intimate. “About what you said before… i-if I threw away my façade and acted normally, would that make you like m-m-me more?”

“Nope.”

“…huh?”

“I’ve been thinking this for a while, but when it comes to liking you as a love interest, I don’t have those sorts of feelings for you. I think. You’re not the only one who makes my heart throb, after all.”

As I said that, Azuki Azusa’s grip on me slackened. She drooped, all her momentum seeping out of her.

“Er, but if you’re talking about whether I’d like you better if you act normal, what I meant is that people in general would like you more if you acted like yourself! I want you to be popular with people besides me – that’s what I was getting at!”

“…you liar,” she sighed deeply. She was keenly depressed.

We were at the cedar tree, and suddenly she didn’t want to go on. Now what?

“H-hold on! The rumour about the cat statue I was asking you about before – that’s it over there! I dunno if you heard about this before, but see how that cat is crying? Doesn’t it give you a sense of unease?”

She said nothing.

“It didn’t have that kind of face before. It had no expressions. It took them from Tsutsukakushi,” I went on, undeterred by Azuki Azusa’s silence. The words guided me, and I told her about everything that had happened until now. About me and Tsutsukakushi. About facades and true feelings. About everything in-between.

It was a fantastic tale. I wouldn’t have been surprised if her first impulse was to deny it or to blow up at me.

But Azuki Azusa’s reaction was neither one of those.

She accepted the facts straight up, only making a mildly disbelieving grunt once. She swallowed the whole story as if she had more important things on her mind than whether the rumour of the cat statue was true. As she listened, she gripped my arm hard.

All of a sudden, she pushed herself away from me. Stumbling a few steps as she tried to regain her footing, she stood up on the ground barefoot.

“So you were lying to me the whole time,” she said with a sharp sideway glance.

“What did I lie about?”

“Even though you didn’t like me, you went out with me so you could get at my façade, perv. I got the wrong idea about everything. That’s what it was all about.”

“Yeah… when you put it like that, I can’t deny it.”

“…I’m such an idiot,” Azuki Azusa said bitterly, looking up at the sky. Her thin shoulders trembled slightly.

Azuki Azusa was determined to take the damage, trying to hide her weakness with her façade. Right now, she was a flower fairy, fading away into the black. It was the face I had seen on her when we parted ways at our date.

But this time, things were different. I still had things I wanted to say. “Listen.” I stooped and bowed before her. “I’m sorry for lying to you. I hurt your feelings.”

I finally understood now what I had wanted to say at the arcade but couldn’t.

I had wanted to apologise.

Ever since I was a grade schooler, I’ve only said proper things to go along with proper occasions. Because of that, I had forgotten how to apologise with more than just words. And now, for the first time in a long time, I uttered those long-neglected words.

Azuki Azusa’s eyes widened. She gazed at me with misty eyes, and before I knew it, large teardrops trickled down her face.

“Q-quit it! Don’t say any more.” She hiccoughed. “You’ll just make me miserable…!”

“I really am sorry. But y’know, I want to be your friend for real without anything like façades getting in the way. As long as it’s okay with you, that is.”

Azuki Azusa shook her head like a petulant child. “No!” she sobbed. “I don’t get it. Go find your own façade!”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, hanging my head in acceptance. Me and my big mouth, going on about façades. Azuki Azusa cried even harder as she slapped me in reproach. I went on, “But I didn’t have ulterior motives for staying with you after that. Those were my true feelings.”

As I looked upon the crying face of Azuki Azusa, bawling like a child at the top of hill, I suddenly remembered the girl from before. The girl who really had cried because of what I did to her at Ipponsugi Hill. The girl who was no longer capable of crying.

Those two girls were so different they were like parallel lines that never intersected. Yet deep down, they were the same.

Tsutsukakushi wanted to hide her true feelings because she was a crybaby.

Azuki Azusa wanted to mend her problems with her façade because she was a crybaby.

They had both wanted to change themselves, and so they made a wish. One prayed to the cat statue, the other remade herself as a rich girl.

And yet…

“Relying on your façade is a mistake. You’re just living a lie. It’s better to be yourself, you know? If you compare that to those who can’t or just won’t express their true feelings, it’s so much better.”

“I-I don’t want to hear that from you.”

“I can say it because right now I don’t have a façade. I might need a façade, but you don’t.”

Azuki Azusa’s face was drenched with tears all the way down to the collar of her pyjamas. She stepped through the undergrowth with chilly, bare feet. You couldn’t call her an elegant rich girl even to flatter her, but even so, she seemed as cute as a fairy. At the moment, it was her only charming point for sure.

“I know that you’re a crybaby and you get mad easily, Azuki Azusa, and that when you cry, the snot and tears just come gushing out of you. I know that you have a terrible sleeping posture. I also know that your belly button is crooked. I know many things about you. But I want to be your friend. Being with you and being friends with you for real – that has nothing to do with whether you have a façade!” I exclaimed.

I was reminded of what Tsutsukakushi had said. I said what I felt and “made a mess of things”. But at that moment, all my self-doubt about whether that would ruin everything disappeared from my mind. Still, if I were the main character in a game with lots of girls in it, I could have said something cooler.

I shook my head at myself. I could only blurt out what I was thinking.

Azuki Azusa, on the other hand, could only blurt out what she wasn’t thinking. Her mouth opened and closed, and then opened again. She sobbed, and then she bit her lip to stop herself from sobbing, and then she sobbed some more because she had bitten her lip. Rinse and repeat.  Azuki Azusa was being a huge brat. For a while, I just went on stroking her head.

I kind of regretted not watching videos about girls who did things besides smiling the whole time. There hadn’t been enough data inputted into my brain to tell me what to do at a time like this. Was I meant to embrace her or comfort her or what? I had no idea.

So instead, I whispered into her ear: “You’re cute. Cute enough for someone to make a pass at you. You should have more confidence in yourself. You know what they say: ‘To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.’”

“Uh…”

“They also say that ‘Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.’ You should live more simply. I want to support you and remove that burden of a façade of yours.”

“Er…”

I went on and on. Incidentally, all those quotes were from Oscar Wilde. The wise master within my heart had good things to say after all.

The shadows had lengthened by twenty degrees by the time Azuki Azusa had cried her heart out. She lifted up her stained pyjamas and used it as a towel, dabbing her face clean. As she did so, she looked at me with runny, inky black eyes, like those of a newborn puppy.

“Can I really trust you this time?”

“Yeah. I really meant it when I said that you don’t need a façade. That was no lie.”

“…but it’s also not a lie that you want me to return your façade to you, am I right?”

“…yeah.”

“You’re a cruel pet,” she giggled softly. The winds had changed, bringing the sunniness back to her voice. “Ahh, an owner who keeps getting tricked by her pet,” she said, wiping her eyes once again. “It’s a never-ending story.”

I opened my mouth to apologise, but she pressed her index finger against my lips.

“Next time, tell it to me straight. If I ever find out you’ve been doing things behind my back, I’ll get mad.”

Azuki Azusa turned her back to me and faced the pork bun-shaped cat statue. She began to pray so softly, I wasn’t sure I really heard her.

“I pray to be rid of my useless façade.”

Behind her, I stretched out my hand towards her neck. Azuki Azusa’s body seized up as if she was being tickled, but nobody was touching her.

I put my hand on her grubby leather choker. I’d actually tried to take it off her once before. At the time it wouldn’t come off at all, and she’d misunderstood me for trying to sniff her neck.

But this time, it fell neatly into my hand as if it had always belonged to me. A small jolt of electricity ran through my whole body. It was not an unpleasant feeling. It was as if I were a disconnected light bulb producing light again.

It wasn’t something I knew – it was something I felt.

My façade had returned to me.

Azuki Azusa’s sturdy, burdensome choker. And my belt, made for tying up Barbara and my photo stash to easily hide them away. They both served the same essential purpose. They were symbols of our façades, restricting our true feelings.

That same object was offered up to the cat statue, and it had ended up being exchanged between us. It was such a trivial thing and I remembered it in such fine detail. For a moment there, I basked in my sense of achievement.

“…hey,” said Azuki Azusa, turning around to face me now that she had finished praying. She pointed down at the obese cat statue’s feet. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Yeah, it is. Yesterday, I fought hard and won it. Neat, isn’t it?”

It was the prize from the crane game – the giant turtle plushie. It was a present from the cat statue, wrapped up with a ribbon. The arm from the crane game had been too weak, so no matter how many times I went at it, it was impossible to pick it up through conventional tactics. And so I had made use of the “common knowledge” of the arcade.

But after so many days of saying nothing but the truth, I opened my mouth and uttered a lie. “Even a chicken that can’t fly can do it if it flaps its wings hard enough. But you’re more than a chicken – you’re human. If you work hard enough, you can do anything. That’s the reason why I’m giving this to you, Azuki Azusa.”

“You’re blowing this all out of proportion… but thank you. I’m really happy.”

Azuki Azusa’s smile was like a flower frayed around the edges. Only a trace of her tears remained on her face, and soon enough, it would be gone too. The simplest, most common sense thought occurred to me then.

A girl was at her cutest when she showed her true feelings.

HenNeko-210


 

TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

(1) A quote from Nagato Yuki, a character from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
(2) Even though ‘Victor’ is a boy’s name, Azuki Azusa’s mother explicitly refers to the turtle as female. Just to clarify.
(3) The references are to Fruits Basket, Mickey Mouse, Princess Sarah, Kimba the White Lion and Parasyte.
(4) Japanese slot machines. Children can play them too, but not for cash.
(5) Literally Princess Gamera in Japanese. A gamera is a kind of kaijuu (giant monster) that became popular in the 1960s.

 

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