I’d decided on the contents of the conversation, but the problem was where to have it. Having it in school would be the most convenient, but both of us would definitely become reticent if I chose a bad location. On the other hand, having the conversation in a café with delicious coffee might make me seem too pretentious and rub them the wrong way.
At the end of my contemplation, I decided to borrow Kengo’s classroom, Class 3E, after school. As usual, I had a deep feeling of discomfort being in a classroom I didn’t belong to. While sitting in Kengo’s seat, I fidgeted restlessly, unable to keep calm.
Fortunately, I did not have to wait for long. As expected, the conscientious Kengo brought along the requested person right on the dot.
That was a key person in this case, a second-year student in the Newspaper Club, Itsukaichi-kun.
The striking thing about Itsukaichi-kun’s appearance was his deep-set eyes. He was not that short in stature, but with his hunched back, he looked seedy when standing next to Kengo. Then again, people whose physique could be compared to Kengo’s were few and far between, even in the athletic crowd.
“I’ve brought him.”
Kengo announced in his usual rough voice, while I put on a smile that was more gentle than normal. Itsukaichi-kun clearly displayed his unease, asking a question that he had probably asked a few times before coming here.
“Erm, President, I mean senpai, may I ask what you need me for?”
Kengo gave a short answer, seemingly mildly annoyed.
“I don’t know either… but this guy has something to discuss with you.”
That was troubling. I needed Kengo to become my ally and support my words. In fact, it was inaccurate for him to say that he didn’t know, since I had properly explained it to him already, though perhaps I hadn’t told him enough.
Well, there was no point lamenting his boorishness at this point. With a smile, I motioned Itsukaichi-kun to sit down.
“Just take a seat for now. Sorry for calling you after school.”
“I’m Kobato. I’ll just need to ask you a few questions as part of Kengo’s request. What a horrible guy, huh? Acting like he isn’t involved in this.”
I shrugged and noticed that Ituskaichi-kun’s expression had become a little more relaxed. That was good.
“Come, sit down.”
I motioned once again, and he finally sat down. Itsukaichi-kun and I were now face to face. Probably because he hadn’t gotten permission to sit down, Kengo was standing upright next to us.
I calmly broke the ice.
“You’re a second-year student, right?”
“And you’re Itsukaichi-kun.”
“And a member of the Newspaper Club.”
With a string of questions that he could only affirm, Itsukaichi-kun’s mouth would start to loosen. It was a basic conversation technique. Now I would joke around to lighten the mood.
“It’s tough with Kengo being your club president, right? He’s completely inflexible, inconsiderate, and he can’t take a joke.”
Offended, Kengo cut in.
“Did you call Itsukaichi-kun all the way here just to say that?”
“There you go, he can’t take a joke at all. Anyway, this is just a preamble.”
“That’s unnecessary. Just move on to the main topic.”
“And as I’ve always said, that’s not an effective method. You must have had a hard time with this, right?”
I flashed a grin, and I noticed that Itsukaichi-kun was forcing himself to hold back his laughter. That was good. Could Kengo have possibly known all this time and deliberately took on the role of the funny man? No, that can’t be it.
But Kengo was right. I should indeed get to the main topic soon.
“Actually, Itsukaichi-kun, the thing that Kengo requested is regarding the arson case, the one that the Newspaper Club has been pursuing for a while.”
I could sense him tense up as I mentioned the phrase “arson case”. It was probably a topic that he didn’t want to touch on.
“But perhaps it’s inaccurate to say that it’s the Newspaper Club that has been pursuing the case. According to Kengo, the one obsessed about it was apparently the new club president. His name is, uhh…”
“Yes, Urino. I think it was two days ago when a new arson attack occurred, under the elevated railway at Ueno Town, 1st District. It turned out to be quite a huge fire again, right? I heard that a good number of bicycles was set on fire, but thankfully no one got injured. Urino-kun must have been proud that his prediction was on the mark again.”
But Itsukaichi-kun gave an unexpectedly strong reply.
“He was frustrated. He thought that we would have definitely been able to catch them.”
“Catch? You mean the culprit? That would certainly be tough. Don’t tell me you all did a stakeout…”
“Yes, that was what we did, with almost all the club members…”
That was information that I didn’t have. I glanced at Kengo, who shook his head.
I knew that Urino-kun held a great deal of interest in the arson case, and that he was a proactive person. That meant that instead of simply predicting the location of the next attack, he would eventually try to directly approach the culprit. Funado Monthly had hinted towards that. I wasn’t actually shocked, but simply pretended to be so.
“You went that far! That must have been really rough.”
“But you didn’t manage to catch the culprit.”
Itsukaichi-kun nodded, then peeked at my face with upturned eyes. He was probably trying to figure out my intentions.
I spoke frankly.
“Actually, we’re also thinking of catching the culprit.”
Rendered speechless, Itsukaichi-kun turned to look at Kengo, as if on reflex. While standing with his arms folded, Kengo received Itsukaichi-kun’s gaze and gravely nodded.
That could turn into a misunderstanding if left unchecked.
“I’ll say this just in case, but Kengo and I aren’t doing this to go against the Newspaper Club. I have no relation to Urino-kun or his club. It’s just that Kengo wants to stop the criminal. Fire is dangerous. Up till now, it’s been only small fires that you can get playing house, but it should be stopped before it escalates any further. I think so too. What about you?”
With the question thrust upon him, an awkward expression crept up onto Itsukaichi-kun’s face. I could tell that he was looking left, right, and all around.
“This is a third-year classroom.”
With that line, I indirectly appealed to him that whatever he said would not be repeated to the new club president, Urino-kun. Understanding that, Itsukaichi-kun finally spoke.
“…I think it’s a job for the police.”
“I’ve always thought that if Urino knows something that the police does not, he should report it to them. Even if the police has already figured it out, he should still do it just to be sure. But he keeps going on it being a scoop, and only thinks about becoming famous through that… He’s taking it too easy. And we’ve all been caught up in it, so who knows what will happen if we get called up by the police…”
He was gradually getting more agitated.
“In the first place, it was dangerous to do those patrols. There was one first-year student who got caught by the police while he was patrolling on his bicycle. Fortunately he managed to get out of it because his house was nearby, but he ended up being so shaken by the incident, yet Urino does not follow up on these things. It’s such a detriment for entrance examinations to get an official reprimand, but he does not consider that at all. If he wants to do it, he should do it on his own!”
“And yet you still went with the patrols.”
I’d intended to praise the underclassman for his courage in supporting his club president, but Itsukaichi-kun interpreted it differently.
“Yes… it was difficult to refuse with that atmosphere…”
I’d just discovered a mentor in life.
He did not want to be involved in anything dangerous. Even if he did get involved, he could tell the police and leave it to them. Of course, he would feel resentment if he knew something and did something outrageous like keep quiet about it. And yet with all those thoughts and a frown on his face, he did not report it to the police himself.
I could feel my cheeks loosen. Was that not the position of a petit bourgeois? I was also apologetic for my last line. He simply could not refuse because of the atmosphere. What perfection! Should I not treat Itsukaichi-kun as the ideal version of myself?
I was about to instinctively ask him to be my mentor, but now was not the time. We still had not completely ruled out the possibility that Osanai-san had been going around and starting all those fires. In that unlikely case, we would have to hand her over to the authorities… and that would open up a long, drawn-out war.
But how could I persuade this little citizen, Itsukaichi-kun? His cooperation was necessary.
In the midst of my quandary, a gruff voice cut in from the side. It was Kengo.
“What you’re saying is understandable. That was what the Student Counseling Department was worried of.”
“Right? I can’t follow Urino-kun anymore.”
“However, I have a favor to ask of you.”
This was probably the first time Kengo said those words to him. Itsukaichi-kun was stunned for a moment, unable to speak.
“I can’t say anything definite since there’s no conclusive evidence, but I’ll tell you this. I and Kobato here suspect that an acquaintance of ours is the arsonist.”
A startled expression clearly ran across Itsukaichi-kun’s face.
“It’s just a possibility. That is why we’re looking for the criminal separately from the Newspaper Club. We want to stop them, and at least get them to turn themselves in. For that, we would like you to help us. You also want this case to stop, right?”
That was an argument very much like Kengo to make.
If Itsukaichi-kun were a little wiser, he would have realized that this contradicted Kengo’s earlier statement that he didn’t know what I’d called him for.
“You’ve always done well. I always thought that you should have become the club president, to put the brakes on Urino.”
Since it was Kengo, that was not a lie, and not just words of flattery. Itsukaichi-kun’s countenance was starting to slowly change.
“What Urino is doing is dangerous, but isn’t fundamentally wrong. But if this case continues the way it is, what will happen to him? What will happen to the Newspaper Club? If you lend us your strength, we can stop this.”
Just as I trusted Kengo, it seemed that Itsukaichi-kun also trusted him. All his uncertainty had not disappeared, but he still replied.
“I understand. I’ll help if I have the ability to.”
Kengo did not give any grandiose words of gratitude. All he said was “Sorry.”
And thus, the previous Newspaper Club president and the current Newspaper Club member swore to fight together. While I was observing this scene from the side and thinking that it was quite the moving development, the two of them turned to look at me.
“Umm, so what do I do?”
Be that as it may, the minimum requirements for the solution had been met. There was a variety of things I wanted Itsukaichi-kun to do, but I first had to ask him a question.
“For now, there’s something I need you to tell me.”
I cleared my throat and put on a smile.
“Has Urino-kun been properly doing his job?”
After sending Itsukaichi-kun away, Kengo took up the space in front of me, with an expression on his face that could be said to be grim. He seemed to want to say something, so I took the initiative.
“That was impressive. You managed to persuade him so well. That’s something I can’t do.”
Even though I’d praised him, Kengo didn’t seem to care for it at all, and still wore his scary face.
“That’s Itsukaichi. What do you think?”
“What I think?”
I thought for a while. Honesty is a virtue, but everything depends on how you look at it. It would be best to sugarcoat my impression of him.
“He’s an obedient underclassman.”
Staring at me, Kengo nodded.
“Exactly. He’s timid, but obedient. His personality never allows him to refuse any favors you ask of him, to the point that you could feel sorry for him. That’s why, Jougorou…”
“…What is it?”
“Don’t take advantage of him.”
Ah, so he was worried about that.
I dramatically shrugged and put on a grin.
“I won’t do something like that.”
For some reason, Kengo’s gaze turned cold. He probably didn’t trust my words. Now that was certainly unexpected. Feeling a little annoyed, I replied.
“I think you might be misunderstanding something, but I’m not exactly competent at this in the first place. My powers of persuasion weren’t even that good, right?As I said, I won’t take advantage of him.”
He couldn’t have been pressured by that, but Kengo got a little flustered.
“That’s, well, I suppose. I thought you would have used a more obscure style of speech.”
“I don’t know what you think, but cajoling and appeasement are not my areas of expertise. They’re…”
I started, but hesitated at the end. No matter how you looked at it, what I was about to say would be considered as backbiting.
“What’s the matter?”
“No, it’s nothing.”
…They’re Osanai-san’s areas of expertise.
Comforting people and gaining their trust, using others while pretending to be used.
I recalled the case of the spring-exclusive strawberry tart from when we were first-year students, which made me feel a little nostalgic. During that case, Osanai-san received some decisive information from Kengo’s elder sister, whom she met only once. And just last year, the people who had a hand in her plans didn’t even realize it, unfortunately for them.
It was a quality of Osanai-san that I didn’t get to clearly observe in middle school, but had gradually become apparent since we entered high school. Osanai-san had the ability to manipulate information.
It was unclear what role she was taking in this recent string of arson attacks. The only thing clear was that the Newspaper Club member Urino Takahiko was related to Osanai-san.
I could have gotten Kengo to call Urino-kun. If he himself was willing to cooperate, we would instantly have the solution in our hands.
Yet I called Itsukaichi-kun instead, and that was for no reason other than me not liking the idea of Urino-kun transmitting information to Osanai-san… I would be at a disadvantage in a war of information, after all.
With those thoughts, I smiled wryly.
We’d just separated last summer, but it seemed like I was about to face her again. Then again, the thing between us now was a serial arson case rather than an extremely sweet dessert on a plate.
Just when I took a deep breath, my mobile phone in my pocket vibrated.
“…What’s the matter?”
I’d sent out emails to only two people. Since Kengo was right in front of me now, I could tell whose email it was without looking at it.
I pulled myself together.
“Well, anyway, let’s put the plan into action. The cooperation of a current Newspaper Club member is essential, after all.”
I’d blatantly changed the subject, but Kengo did not persist in the matter. In fact, he asked a question, as if he had been waiting for that.
“About that, all I’ve heard from you is that we need Itsukaichi to smoke out the arsonist. But that’s what I feel uneasy about. What are you going to make him do? And what did you mean when you asked if Urino was properly doing his job?”
His tone was severe. As expected, he was worried about his junior getting caught up in the situation. What a good senpai. Perhaps I should have joined a club as well.
“It’s exactly as it sounds. Whether Urino is working hard in his job with Funado Monthly is an extremely important factor.”
I retrieved a clear file from my bag.
“In the previous discussion, Urino-kun mentioned that the Kira City Disaster Prevention Plan was the key to this case, and the precincts’ areas of jurisdiction that you showed me the other time formed the culprit’s direction, right?”
“…Yeah, that’s right.”
“Kengo, cajoling and appeasement are not my fields of expertise. By the way, I would say that I’m not good with steadily investigating the material as well. That’s why I’d have wanted you to do it, if that were possible.”
I used a roundabout manner of speech this time.
As expected, Kengo frowned.
“What, you’re saying that I didn’t do something I should have?”
“Exactly. You didn’t do it, but it’s not just you.”
I placed the clear file on the table. After taking a glance at it, Kengo was visibly shaken.
“The Newspaper Club should have investigated it. You have to properly verify the given information.”
In the file was a copy of the Disaster Prevention Plan.
“First, I went to the City Hall. I couldn’t find a corresponding department or something like that, and perhaps because I’m a mere high school student, I didn’t get anywhere with that. So I gave up, went to the library and easily found this… The case continued from last year, so the first thing I copied was last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan. Take a look.”
Kengo seemed relatively grumpy, probably because I’d just pointed out his negligence. Even so, he extended an a hand to pull it near him, and his expression immediately changed again.
“Oi, Jougorou, this is…!”
It is important to doubt the evidence. This was written in last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan.
|(Kira City Disaster Prevention Plan, Page 11)|
Overview of Kira City Fire Department Headquarters
Kira Fire Department HQ
Kira South Fire Department HQ
Kira West Fire Department HQ
Overview of Kira City Fire Department Precincts
Hinoki Town Precinct
Ueno Town Precinct
Mount Kazan Precinct
“Exactly. The new Disaster Prevention Plan does not mention the precincts’ areas of jurisdiction at all.”
Kengo frantically scoured the copy, as if doing that would cause the lists of areas of jurisdiction to appear. Unfortunately for him, I had no recollection of applying any invisible ink.
“That’s a copy of last year’s Disaster Prevention Plan. The areas of jurisdiction were not written in the plan from two years ago, and even three years ago. At some year, they stopped writing it in, though I don’t know why. Perhaps there was some objection that the areas of jurisdiction should not be decided in advance to allow for more flexible firefighting operations. In any case, this is real.”
I took another copy out from the clear file. It was almost the same as the previous one. Even the page number was the same, just that the areas of jurisdiction were listed.
“You can’t find the areas of jurisdiction unless you go back six years. And the Koyubi Precinct didn’t even exist seven years ago.”
With the two sheets of paper in front of him, Kengo vacantly muttered.
“Six years ago…”
I felt bad for interrupting his train of thought, but there was still more information.
“It seems to be the truth that each fire department precinct has an approximate area of jurisdiction. That is probably recorded in some documents other than the Disaster Prevention Plan, but none in the order of Kanou Precinct, Hinoki Town Precinct, Harimi Precinct. According to the information I found, they are all quite jumbled up. In other words, you can only see this order in the Disaster Prevention Plan.”
He groaned, a grave look on his face.
Since he was grimacing, I was worried that Kengo had not understood. There were things I didn’t need to say, but I summarized my earlier statements, just in case.
“Basically, only someone who has seen the Disaster Prevention Plan from six years ago could have linked the order of precincts to their areas of jurisdiction.”
“I know. I know, but…”
Irritation was mixed in Kengo’s voice.
“What does that mean?”
The question came to me clearly. Urino-kun had apparently obtained a copy of the Disaster Prevention Plan from his house, since his older brother was a firefighter. That must mean the Disaster Prevention Plan on a shelf in the Urino household was the one from six years ago. That was all.
But this also hinted at another interesting fact.
However, I did not feel like immediately revealing this fact. It was quite fun to watch Kengo’s confusion, after all.
Instead, I said this:
“Well, it’ll take a long time to talk about the plan. For now, we have one month before the results start to show. After that, it would be ideal if I could borrow Yoshiguchi-san’s strength one more time.”
Though the information fee would become expensive if I relied on her too much.
“In the meantime, shall we take it easy and study for entrance examinations?”
My score for modern Japanese had increased, but now my English was unstable. I never thought that I would be confused by relative pronouns at this point.
I wonder why.
There are four or five weekends in a month. And in three or four of those weekends, I would meet with Nakamaru-san on a Saturday or Sunday. Since we suddenly started going out in September, that pace had almost never been broken, though it was a different story for the winter break and spring break.
It was the last week of May. As per the usual pattern, we were to meet outside the station at one o’clock. With it almost being spring, the weather had become warmer. Thinking that it would be unattractive to be drenched in sweat, I decided to go out in a short-sleeved T-shirt.
That turned out to be the correct decision. The weather forecast had not mentioned anything about it, but the sunlight was especially intense. After noon, the temperature steadily rose, with not a single cloud in the sky and almost no gusts of wind at all. Since the area in front of the station was made of concrete, heat could not escape, so I went closer to the fountain in pursuit of some cool air. It was already past the meeting time, but I had already taken into account that Nakamaru-san would be late by 5 to 30 minutes.
Today, she was late by 20 minutes, an average amount of time. As she lightly waved her hand in front of her chest, we had our usual exchange.
“Sorry, did I make you wait long?”
“No, I just arrived.”
Nakamaru-san looked at me and laughed.
“It seems cool over there, how nice.”
She was still using spring fashion. The pastel yellow cardigan she was wearing was the one she had bought during one of our previous dates. It had a good color combination, but with today being so warm, it probably wasn’t the most fitting.
“It’s fine in the afternoon, but it’ll still be cold at night.”
After my comment, Nakamaru-san’s face clouded over.
“Ah, you know, about that…”
“Hm? The cold?”
“No, about the night. Sorry!”
She put her hands together.
“I have to get home early today. I’m really sorry for ruining our special time together.”
Oh, was that it?
“It’s fine. That’s your curfew, right?”
I replied with a smile, then added another line.
“…Still, it’s quite a shame.”
At first, neither of us would say, “Let’s go home,” no matter how late it got. If we met on a Sunday, there would be school on the next day, so we would cut off our date responsibly, as a matter of course, but we would never worry about that on Saturdays.
However, at some point in time, probably right before or after spring break, Nakamaru-san mentioned that she had a curfew. Apparently, she was being taken to task for her late night jaunts. I thought that it was a little late since we’d gone out so much already, but I had no intention of saying something unreasonable like that out loud. That was why I did not expect her to not have a curfew today.
But a more complicated expression showed on Nakamaru-san’s face.
“The thing is, it’s a little different today. I can only stay till evening.”
It was almost half past one. I couldn’t say what time evening would be, but we didn’t have much time left. Under normal circumstances, we would start by going around some clothes stores and general shops.
“I see. Shall we go, then?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I have to go early today?”
Ah, yes, of course.
“I thought you had an errand to run.”
Nakamaru-san’s eyes swam around to such a degree that made me question if she was doing it intentionally, and she replied.
“We’re almost at the real entrance examinations. Even I’m feeling the heat because I’m not smart.”
I had no idea what her grades were actually like, but I could get behind the reason that the real entrance examinations were just around the corner. I didn’t have a problem with what she could realistically achieve by cutting short a Saturday date by a few hours, but if she was going to tell such a blatant lie, what was the point in making me ask that question?
Well, perhaps that’s what you call the product of a delicate maiden’s mind.
Nakamaru-san looked up at me for a moment, trying to peek into my inner recesses. Seeing that I wasn’t going to ask any more questions, she placed both hands on her stomach in a playful manner.
“So, one more thing, but I haven’t had lunch yet. Shall we go in somewhere?”
Of course. I laughed and nodded.
Had I known that it would turn out like this, I would not have eaten a ginger fried pork lunch set.
The arcade in front of the station was big but deserted, and there were many stores with their shutters down. That said, it was not so desolate that you wouldn’t be able to find lunch on a Saturday afternoon.
For example, right in front of us was a hamburger shop. You could get a good view of the bus terminal from the counter seats there, an ideal spot to monitor someone, whatever the reason.
“How about over there?”
I suggested, but Nakamaru-san went, “Hmmm” and didn’t nod. While she wasn’t particular about food, it was understandable to feel that it would be sad to simply get a burger for a meal during a special date.
Thus, the two of us started walking on the street.
I had other ideas besides the hamburger store, but I didn’t dare to bring them up. Indeed, it was on this very street, Sanya-dori, where I was berated for “having flickers of my previous girlfriend” when I suggested a shop with sweet, delicious coffee. Thinking about that made me wonder if the consolidation of our plans was progressing at all. To put it in broad terms, there were only two types, the “walking along Sanya-dori outside the station plan” as well as the “going to a cinema complex plan”. Visiting Panorama Island that time was fun, but neither of us had brought up going there again. I would never suggest going to the driving school out of town or the gymnasium that was soon to be demolished, but I could probably put in more effort in thinking up places to go.
I’d gone down this road many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a Chinese restaurant. With its narrow and inconspicuous entrance, as well as the fact that I had never walked down Sanya-dori to search for Chinese food, it must have not registered in my consciousness. I gave her a look to ask suggest going in, but an exasperated expression appeared on her face.
“Nah, no way.”
From the dirty glass door it was possible to see that some middle-aged men were sitting in a line, hunched in their seats amid the dense cigarette smoke. It might be possible for Doujima Kengo to go into such a shop, but definitely impossible for Nakamaru-san.
However, we couldn’t take it too easy.
“The stores are probably going to close at around two, though.”
“That’s what I just thought, too. Hmm, isn’t there anywhere we can go?”
I brought out my phone to check the time. It was almost 1:40. Well, if there was no other choice, she could just buy something from a convenience store… but eating a hamburger was certainly better than that. I looked all around, searching for any suitable store.
A few shops here and there that looked to be izakayas1 caught my eye. But we couldn’t enter one, and they were not open in the afternoon anyway. Ouan would have been great if not for that unnecessary restraint, I thought. The hot sandwiches there looked delicious.
Nakamaru-san pointed at the opposite side of the street.
“Ah, isn’t that place over there good?”
I looked over to see a banner. It was a family restaurant. I knew that there were a few along the bypass, but I never knew that there was one in a place like this. Or perhaps it recently opened?
“Look, it says there’s a fair. It’s hot, so some cold pasta would be perfect.”
With no wind, the banner did not flutter at all. It had “Cold Pasta Fair” written on it and said that “White Mushroom Pasta” was going at 800 yen. I see.
“Kobato-chan, is that fine?”
“Yeah, why not? Seems like it has a self-service drink area.”
Nakamaru-san questioned me with an astounded tone.
“You’re not eating?”
“Yup, I’ve eaten already. But it wasn’t much, so I was thinking that I could get something light. A family restaurant is just right.”
“I see… sorry about that.”
She had an unusually apologetic look on her face for some reason. Up until now, we would take lunch beforehand if we were meeting at one, but… why was she feeling blue about something so small today? That made me feel a little uneasy. If she was troubled about something, I could probably give her some advice.
For now, we should enter the shop, and I could start asking if there was something on her mind.
“Shall we go, then?”
I started moving off, and Nakamaru-san silently followed.
I thought that it was quite late for lunch, but there was still a good number of customers in the restaurant. While I had been expecting air-conditioning, it did not seem to be turned on, so the restaurant interior was not particularly cool. Well, although it was unusually hot today, we were still in May, so there was no helping it.
A group of four women were laughing loudly together at the table nearest to the entrance. Perhaps due to the noise, it took some time for a waiter to notice us. A woman wearing a white apron approached us with quick steps. On her apron was a name tag, and on the name tag was a badge that openly said “In Training”.
“Welcome. Table for two?”
“Would you like to sit at the smoking section or the non-smoking section?”
There was really no point asking that question, since we were visibly underage. Well, not that I didn’t know any people of the same age who had a taste for cigarettes, but alcohol and smoking were strictly prohibited until the age of twenty for the common petit bourgeois.
“This way, please.”
The seats we were led to were deep inside the shop, where the laughter of the four-women group could hardly reach us. With a smile, the waitress-in-training said, “Please press this button when you have decided your order,” and retreated. If she put it that way, it should be possible to decide what we want to order, but no matter how I searched the table surface, there was no menu. Thinking that it could be under the table, I peeked underneath, but all I saw were Nakamaru-san’s feet. What should we do now? I racked my brains, when Nakamaru-san asked me a question.
“Hey, so… Kobato-chan, you’re not hungry, right?”
She was looking down. Did she care about it that much?
“Yup. It’s fine, though.”
“And I was late as well today. Didn’t you wait for me, Kobato-chan?”
“Not for much… I don’t really care about it, anyway.”
I was a little surprised that she was considering tardiness to be a sin. She hadn’t said anything when we first met, so I always thought that she had no qualms about it.
I looked at Nakamaru-san again.
I somehow hadn’t noticed it earlier, but she had an obviously gloomy expression on her face. Or rather, she seemed to be hesitantly waiting for my response. Why? Wondering if she’d spilled some grilled ginger sauce on her face, I unconsciously scratched my face.
“The same goes for me. Anyway, did something happen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t know, and it probably wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
Nakamaru-san placed her elbows on the table, looking uncomfortable to no small extent.
“I’ve thought this for a while, but…”
“Kobato-chan, you’re quite a kind person, aren’t you? You’re a lot kinder than a normal person.”
My heart was not prepared for the sudden praise. And what was a normal level of kindness, anyway?
“Is that so?”
“Yes, you are!”
She asserted. That’s fine, then. She spoke up again, as if she had just thought of something.
“Hypothetically speaking, and this is all hypothetical, but will you forgive me no matter what I do, Kobato-chan?”
“…That’s a weird question to ask.”
“As I said, it’s just hypothetical.”
Could this be another instance of her delicate maiden mind?
I usually refrained from self-evaluation, so I had no intention of voicing an objection when Nakamaru-san called me kind. I did think, “What are you talking about, Miss hare?”2 but I wouldn’t say it out loud.
Anyway, that was quite a difficult question.
What was the correct answer to this question? What could I say that would fit her image of me?
“If you did something totally illogical, I wouldn’t forgive you for that. For example, if you suddenly poured water on me.”
“No, not something like that.”
I understand. Come to think of it, we had not been served water yet. It seemed that the waitress’ in-training badge was not just for show.
“If not something like that… I think I would forgive you in the end no matter what you do. But that’s normal, right? People who can’t forgive are few and far between.”
That said, there is probably a difference between those who forgive immediately after an apology, those who forgive after some time, as well as those who only forgive after seeking gratification in revenge.
But Nakamaru-san had not listened to the second half of my utterance.
“So you will forgive me, because you’re kind.”
Why today of all days… She certainly never said something like this last week and before. In any case, I was feeling a little uneasy, and since her words were incoherent and incomprehensible, I tried evading the question.
“But I can’t forgive not having a menu. I’ll call the waitress.”
After pressing the button we were supposed to press after deciding what to order, a chime sounded, louder than I’d expected. Nakamaru-san was about to say something, but due to the chime’s intensity, missed the timing to do so.
The waitress-in-training had nerves of steel. Even after I said, “There’s no menu. Also, could you serve us water?” she did not display the slightest hint of panic. Instead, she calmly replied, “My apologies. Please wait.” and retreated.
The menu was made up of three pieces of thick paper and was too much for one hand to hold. While placing the menus on the table, the waitress added a line.
“We are sold out of the cold white mushroom pasta.”
I definitely did not expect the main attraction shown on the banner outside to be sold out.
“Please press this button when you have decided your order.”
As the waitress spoke, I realized that I was feeling a little peckish. Looking at the menu, I saw that there was an “avacado creamy sandwich”. To be honest, I could feel my appetite slipping just by reading the phrase “creamy sandwich”, but they did also have a coffee set, and on top of that, it was cheap.
“I’ve decided what to get.”
It took quite a while for Nakamaru-san to decide.
“Hmm… They’re out of the white mushroom, right?”
She mused as she looked at the menu that said “The Height of Summer Cold Pasta Fair!” It was difficult to read the upside-down letters from my end, but I could make out a couple of phrases, “Cold white mushroom pasta” and “Flavorful, ripe tomato salad pasta”. In fact, there was nothing else on that menu. What was the meaning of having a fair with only two choices, and with one being sold out? In the first place, why use “The Height of Summer” in the middle of May? What excuse could they give if this menu continued all the way till July in its wretched state? Call the manager, I’ll give them a stern talking to!
As I reveled in the delusions of a petit bourgeois, Nakamaru-san spoke.
“Can you show me that menu?”
Upon passing it to her, she glanced at it for a moment before immediately muttering, “I’ve decided.”
“You’ve also decided, right, Kobato-chan? Shall I call her?”
I nodded. Nakamaru-san pushed the button, and another loud chime reverberated around the shop. Even though I knew it was coming, I was still surprised. Could it be that the volume was intentionally set high so that the part-timer in training could hear it more easily?
The waitress in question appeared again, clumsily pressing the buttons on a machine that looked like a calculator. Only her voice was bright when she spoke.
“Yes, may I take your order?”
“I’ll have an avocado sandwich coffee set.”
“Alright… please wait for a moment… Umm… yes, that’s fine.”
Was it really? Looking at Nakamaru-san, I noticed that she had an anxious expression on her face.
“I’ll have the salmon hot cream pasta.”
“Yes, salmon… pasta… alright. I’ll repeat your order. One avagado sandwich coffee set and one salmon cream pasta.”
It’s avacado, not “avagado”.
But I did not say that aloud.
“That’s correct, thank you.”
“Please wait for a short while.”
As the waitress retreated to the kitchen, Nakamaru-san and I exchanged looks and chuckled. In the first place, the floor should not be staffed by only one person, so why did that same waitress keep appearing?
…Putting that aside, that was a weird conversation we just had. A touch of chaos had slipped into our orderly world.
With her cup in hand, Nakamaru-san took a sip of water, then spoke, still smiling.
“By the way…”
“We’ve been together for quite long already.”
That was true. That after-school scene still in my memory actually occurred way back in September last year. I tried counting the months on my fingers.
“9 months, huh. Indeed, that’s quite long.”
“It feels a little late to say this, but we’re quite a good fit for each other, right?”
With a calm countenance, I nodded.
Nakamaru-san looked away for a while, then continued with a faux nonchalance.
“But there are quite a lot of people who don’t know we’re going out, right?”
“I know those who know, though.”
And you don’t know those who don’t know? Not knowing what she was getting at, all I could do was provide vague, short responses. Her face still maintained its smile, but it was lacking in spirit and seemed strained.
“There are also those who are extremely informed about it, right? Those types of people that make you wonder how they find out about such things.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’?”
“Were you listening? I was talking about this.”
She was referring to the fact that the two of us were going out, huh. All of a sudden, Nakamaru-san met my eyes.
“Kobato-chan, don’t you know people like that?”
She was trying to probe me for something. Since I could tell that I was being probed, it meant that Nakamaru-san’s technique was not up to scratch.
I tilted my head in bewilderment.
“Can’t say I do. I’m acquainted with the former club president of the Newspaper Club, but he’s an unrefined guy, so I doubt he would be informed about it. Are you looking for that kind of person?”
“That’s not it…”
She replied ambiguously, then lapsed into silence.
The one who broke the silence was a waitress. It was still the waitress-in-training from earlier.
“Thank you for waiting. May I know who ordered the salmon cream pasta?”
“And here is the salad from the set.”
She placed a small plate of salad on the table. It had shredded lettuce, julienned cabbage and tomatoes cut into eighths. The white-colored dressing was probably Caesar salad dressing.
“It comes with a salad?”
“Yes, it is part of the lunch set.”
The waitress had not brought any cutlery. I thought it was another mistake, but before I opened my mouth to protest, I noticed that the box at the side of the table held more than just knives.
I handed Nakamaru-san a spoon and fork, while I took one fork for myself. Ignoring her words of thanks, I extended the hand holding the fork.
“I’ll grab a tomato.”
I aimed for a tomato segment in Nakamaru-san’s salad and speared it. With lightning-quick fork handling, I put the tomato in my mouth as she responded.
Interestingly enough, she looked stupefied.
“Eh? That’s fine, but did you want to eat a tomato, Kobato-chan?”
After gulping it down, I responded.
“Not exactly, but it’s because you don’t like tomatoes.”
With a face that looked like she had just been thrown a profound question, Nakamaru-san stared fixedly at the salad.
She asked a question while wearing an expression that showed her incomprehension.
“What made you think that I hate tomatoes?”
It was a really simple reason, one that I hardly needed to think about. It was something that did not need to be said, but since I was asked, I decided to reveal it anyway.
“When choosing the restaurant, you said that ‘cold pasta would be perfect’, right?”
Nakamaru-san meekly nodded.
“But you actually ordered hot pasta.”
That was the very definition of abnormality. She went into the store to get cold pasta, yet she ordered hot pasta. She went from a cold temperature to a hot one. It was like the irreversible growth of entropy.
I had no choice but to resist it.
“I wondered why that would be the case. Sure, the cold white mushroom pasta shown on the banner was sold out, but there is still another cold pasta. It is a tomato pasta, but you didn’t order that. You went into this restaurant to eat cold pasta but ended up ordering a hot pasta, so I thought there had to be a reason for that.”
I calmly pointed at the ceiling.
“It wouldn’t be strange to lose your appetite for cold food if the air conditioning in this restaurant was operating, but it isn’t, and I would have to say that it’s rather hot here.”
Nakamaru-san quietly replied.
“Oh, is that why?”
“Yup. The reason you decided to give up on cold pastas despite the heat had to be the remaining option, that you hate tomato pastas. That’s why I thought to help you eat the tomatoes.”
Once again, I smiled.
Because Nakamaru-san seemed to be brooding about something, I’d assumed that some sort of problem had cropped up. However, that did not seem to be the case, and it turned out to be just a roundabout show of restraint. My first thought was that it was quite a boring thing to do, but then again, I was showing consideration to my lover because I could handle tomatoes.
Nakamaru-san looked at me with a considerably exasperated face.
“Kobato-chan, you do say the weirdest things and the weirdest places sometimes. And you seem to be enjoying yourself, too.”
“That’s better than saying it with a bored look, don’t you think?”
“But the thing is…”
Nakamaru-san looked at the salad that had been picked clean of tomatoes and spoke.
“I don’t really hate tomatoes.”
I couldn’t believe it. My detailed deduction borne from my desire for the restoration of order had just been rejected.
Stricken with the sense of defeat, I asked.
Now, let’s listen to the frightening truth of why Nakamaru-san gave up on her initial target of cold pasta!
She gave her explanation.
“The cream pastas looked more delicious than the tomato pastas from the photos in the menu.”
“Also, they were 100 yen cheaper.”
Well, I suppose that’s reasonable enough.
Nakamaru-san did not say anything after that. It was as if her willingness to speak was extinguished after suffering a disappointment while being in an excited state of mind. I enjoyed my avocado sandwich, while Nakamaru-san partook of her cream pasta.
Of course, I knew what she wanted to know.
She wanted to know if I was acquainted with anyone who had detailed information regarding the relationship status of the boys and girls in Funado High School. Naturally, that was referring to Yoshiguchi-san, whom Kengo had introduced to me before. Nakamaru-san was trying to check if I knew Yoshiguchi-san.
I would have answered, “I know her,” if she had asked me directly, but for some reason she was beating around the bush and was obviously hiding something form the way she spoke. Feeling bad for her clumsiness, I tried to change the subject. I suppose it went well to a certain extent.
After eating, Nakamaru-san ordered coffee. The waitress-in-training assured us that she would treat it as the drink from the lunch set, but based on her unsteady handling of the device, I couldn’t be sure if that was done properly.
With the coffee in front of her, Nakamaru-san murmured.
Her voice was bright, but she was looking down.
“Hey, Kobato-chan… what do you like about me that you would go out with me?”
There were many different answers to that question.
But just as how I would reply with, “No, I just arrived.” if my girlfriend was late to a date and asked, “Sorry, did I make you wait?”, I had already prepared a response to this question. Wiping off some avocado paste stuck to my thumb with a paper towel, I replied.
“Trying to verbalize the reason for being with someone seems somewhat wrong, in my opinion. You understand that, don’t you?”
Nakamaru-san silently took a mouthful of hot coffee, then looked up and laughed.
“Not at all.”
Editors (Tier 2) : Joshua Fisher
Assistants (Tier 1) : Rolando Sanchez
Thank you very much for all your support!
- Casual drinking establishments that serve alcoholic drinks and snacks, similar to a bar.
- From a children’s song, The Tortoise and the Hare, in which the hare calls the tortoise to laugh and him being slow, to which the tortoise replies, “What are you talking about, rabbit?” and proposes a race with the rabbit, leading up to the events of Aesop’s fable of the same name.