Kengo lived in a house on an old residential street. I’d been invited there two or three times while we were in elementary school. I was wondering if I would get lost on the way there, since it had been so long since I last visited, but our journey there was unexpectedly smooth. It was a house that was less than a meter away from its neighbours, with a concrete-block wall surrounding the two-story building that dominated the landscape. When I pressed the bell, Kengo immediately appeared. He was in a shirt and jeans, a comfortable attire.
“Hey, so you came.”
Kengo said as he tried looking over my shoulder, where Osanai-san was hiding.
“Nice to see you, Osanai-san.”
She gave a little nod in greeting.
“Well, come in.”
Following his suggestion, we went through the entranceway into a wood-panelled corridor. I’d never thought it to be a big house, but now that my body had grown, I felt it was remarkably small. While the living room that we were led to was only about six tatami mats in size, it had few items and large windows, causing it to give off a sense of openness. Also, the air conditioner had been turned on, which I was quite grateful for. The three of us surrounded a table that was a little large, whereupon Osanai-san and I sat down on floor cushions with a checkered pattern.
“Wait here for a while. There’s some delicious cocoa.”
With those words, Kengo left the room.
Osanai-san muttered in puzzlement, probably because the images of the stern Kengo and sweet cocoa didn’t fit with each other. I was thinking for a moment that there could be some roundabout humor hidden here, but I immediately realized it was impossible. Kengo was too straight-laced for that.
After we waited for a brief moment, Kengo returned. He had a tray in his hands, which held cups with cocoa in them, filled to the brim. Taking care not to spill anything, Kengo placed the tray on the table. Each person held out a hand and grabbed the nearest cup.
“You said that this cocoa is delicious, right?”
“Yeah, it’s Van Houten1.”
Isn’t that normal cocoa, then? You can probably find these lined up on the shelves in a supermarket next to Morinaga2 products. I’ve never done a taste comparison, but it’s nothing special. However, I kept silent, not wanting to crush Kengo’s confident proclamation. I glanced to the side to see Osanai-san with blank look on her face.
And thus, we drank hot cocoa in an air-conditioned room on a sweltering day. The cocoa didn’t seem that hot when I brought it to my lips, but when it actually entered my mouth, it was really hot, above the suitable temperature. Thinking about it, or even without thinking about it, I would have definitely preferred something cold. Well, I can’t say something so choosy since I’m here on his invitation. Furthermore, the cocoa was in fact quite delicious. I’m surprised that Kengo can make such delicious cocoa.
“You melted the cocoa powder in hot milk, right?”
“It’s melted well. This is pretty good.”
I don’t have a sweet tooth like Osanai-san, and I’m not a cocoa connoisseur as a matter of course, but I could tell that this cocoa was way better than what I can make. What I usually don’t like about cocoa is the powdery feeling it leaves behind, but I felt no such thing after drinking Kengo’s cocoa.
“Do you know how I made it? I can tell you the trick, if you want.”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
“Well, listen anyway. The taste changes quite a bit with one procedure. With one cup of cocoa, I realized that cooks are indeed craftsmen.”
You shouldn’t have asked if you were going to tell us to listen anyway.
“Procedure? Like putting in salt after sugar?”
“Oh? There’s a way of making cocoa that involves salt?”
Not that I know. I looked to the side to see Osanai-san quietly blowing on her cocoa, since she had a cat’s tongue. Osanai-san would probably know the method that Kengo was talking about, but she had curled up shyly and was seemingly intent on blowing on her cocoa. I decided to obediently play the role of the listener.
“So, could you tell us?”
“Listen well. Put the cocoa powder in a cup and pour hot milk inside. The trick here is to be moderate when pouring the milk.”
“If you add a tiny amount of hot milk and scrape the cocoa powder, it will turn into a paste.”
He made an action that resembled grinding something at a pestle.
When the cocoa powder has completely turned into paste, pour in hot milk again, but only the amount that you want. Put in an appropriate amount of sugar, give it a good stir, and…”
This time, he moved his hands as if he was stirring with a muddler.
“It turns out like this.”
Kengo said as he pointed at the coffee cup. I studied the contents of my cup again. “Oh,” I said as I nodded.
“I see. As you said, there is such a big difference with just one procedure. That was interesting, thanks.”
While I frankly conveyed my gratitude, Kengo had an expression on his face that was hard to describe and seemed to swing between displeasure and confusion. “Hey Jougorou,” he started, but swallowed his words. He cleared his throat, then continued in a conspicuously loud voice.
That was an awkward way of changing the subject. Kengo turned so that half his body faced Osanai-san.
“It was a great help when you lent your knowledge for that case back then.”
He bowed. As the lower half of Osanai-san’s face was hidden by the coffee cup, she stiffened.
“That also helped to reflect credit on my seniors. Thank you for that.”
Looking closely, he was actually retreating slowly while in the seiza position. That’s some deft footwork. Is the main point based on how he uses his big toes?
“I really wanted to give my thanks earlier, because Jougorou and I both don’t know the slightest about paintings. Thankfully, the two of you were acquainted with each other.”
With part of her face still hidden by the coffee cup, Osanai-san sent me a signal with her eyes, probably wanting me to put a stop to this.
“Ah, Kengo, about that time…”
But there was no effect.
“Jougorou was explaining about it so triumphantly, but you were the one who cracked the case without even seeing the actual paintings. I was wondering if you could tell us how you managed to find the key to solving the case…”
Osanai-san finally placed the cup down.
“I need to use the washroom.”
She stood up while speaking. With a disheartened look, Kengo replied.
“You’ll find it if you turn left by the entranceway. Did you get that?”
“I can find it, I think.”
Osanai-san left the room in haste. I apologized to her retreating figure in my heart for not being able to support her.
The footsteps on the wood-panelled corridor grew distant. Kengo, who seemed like he had been listening to those footsteps to confirm that Osanai-san was going the right way, suddenly looked at me. Surmising that he had something he wanted to say to me, I broached the subject.
“So? Do you have anything you want to talk about for inviting me here on a Sunday?”
“Not really. Nothing worth talking about, anyway.”
“You mean to say that you called me here in middle of my walk just to lecture me about delicious cocoa? I can’t exactly say I’m thankful for that. Well, I’m happy that I’ll be able to enjoy delicious cocoa from now on, though.”
I said that in a joking manner rather than in an argumentative one. However, Kengo seemed satisfied with that.
“Hm, it seems that you haven’t lost your edge.”
“What are you talking about?”
Kengo released his grip on the handle of his coffee cup.
“I’m not good with beating around the bush.”
“I’ll ask you clearly, then. Did something happen to you in middle school? The atmosphere you give off now is too different. Where did the old Kobato Jougorou who wouldn’t die even if he got killed go?”
“Really? For example?”
I feigned ignorance.
Kengo’s tone was unexpectedly calm.
“For example, you ask? Everything. Even now. You were only taught the method of melting cocoa powder, and you say, ‘That was interesting, thank you’?”
I sipped my cocoa. As I thought, I would be happier with something cold on a hot day.
“I don’t know. What would my past self have done?”
Kengo glared at me, though he wasn’t worked up. Man, that brings me back. Kengo and I used to often stare at each other back in the day.
“What I know is that you wouldn’t be satisfied if you didn’t get to say everything you wanted to say. If someone knew something that you didn’t, you would use malicious language and be unwilling to admit defeat.
“But now you’re even more vicious than ever, though you’re much gentler when you talk. You’ve become the type of bastard with a horrible mouth and personality, but hides an ulterior motive behind a smiling face.”
…That’s a bummer. Do I really look like that? Even when I’ve spared no effort to become a petit bourgeois who can force a smile on his face and heart. I’m the worst at handling headlong charges when I’m not prepared for them. Osanai-san, who should cut in to help me out, isn’t here, a resounding consequence of me being unable to assist her earlier. I wracked my brains for a plan to somehow avoid Kengo’s interrogation, but no solution came to mind. In the midst of my thinking, I suddenly grew annoyed with it, and spoke softly with a smile still affixed to my face.
“To summarize your question, you’re asking if anything happened to me in middle school, right?”
“I suppose you could put it that way.”
I took one more sip of cocoa, then placed the cup down and lightly raised both my hands.
“It’s simple, then. Nothing happened. I might have been like what you said I was when I entered middle school, but I naturally became like this when I graduated. Like a petit bourgeois.”
Kengo stared at me with a sharp gaze.
“…I don’t believe it.”
“That’s up for you to decide.”
“As they say, the soul of a child of three stays the same. That Jougorou wouldn’t have become like this unless something significant happened.”
“They also say that a man changes after not seeing him for three days. Even more so when you haven’t seen me for three years. It’s just that you’ve changed too little, Kengo.”
I averted my eyes away from Kengo. I’m no longer suited for staring contests. Kengo sighed.
“I get pissed off whenever I hear you say, ‘That’s right’ or ‘Exactly’, since you don’t think that way. You’re a guy who hasn’t ever deemed the word ‘Yes’ to be acceptable, after all.”
That’s not true. I do aim to obediently listen to what others have to say, though I may not be able to do that well yet. Even so, I’m still in practice for that, so please let me off the hook for this.
I could sense that my tone of speech was becoming gradually colder.
“If it pisses you off, you’ll have to get used to it.”
“I phrased that badly, but you should understand what I’m talking about.”
I shrugged and answered quickly.
“Yeah, I understand. But Kengo, you were expecting me to have had some sort of trauma that made my change easy to understand, right? Don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing. Not at all. I have my own reasons for aiming to be a little citizen, don’t I? I might as well ask about your reasons for being a good-natured person. Is that all you called me here to talk about? If so, I’ll…”
That was when it hit me. Even with that sharp retort, I couldn’t go home yet, because Osanai-san hadn’t returned from the toilet. Come to think of it, she’s taking quite a long time, isn’t she?
Once again, I softened my expression. Kengo looked disappointed.
“Ah, I’ll use the toilet.”
“…Do as you like.”
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher, Slush56, _Maki
Assistants (Tier 1) : Karen Kronenberg, Anna, Definitelynotme, Rolando Sanchez, Kevin Kohn, Jaime Cuellar, Yazmin Arostegui, Mikaell
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