The next day, Monday…
Someone suddenly grabbed Haruki’s right arm from behind and shoved him against the concrete wall of the stairway landing.
The boy’s right hand grazed Haruki’s left ear before striking the wall.
His eyes stared straight into Haruki from mere inches away.
“Got a question for you… Are you seeing anyone right now?”
Haruki knew his name.
Takeya Iizuka, his classmate.
Hair dyed brown, attention-grabbing vibe. Always messing around with several of the girls in their year at a time.
Rumors had it that something unsavory—something people hesitated to say aloud—had gone on between him and the girl he’d been dating in his third year of middle school.
He had a well-featured face. At the moment it was slightly flushed, and showing a tension that ill suited it.
“When you have something to ask someone, you ought to be more courteous about it.”
“Ah… Sorry, but I’m not chill enough for that right now.”
“I need to get to my next class, myself. Let me go, please.”
“I have something else to ask you.”
“Hey, could you… back up a little? Let me go.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. I did my usual closing-in trick.”
“You do this regularly? You’re going to get complaints.”
“I don’t leave room for complaints. I go through all the right steps with girls.”
“I’d think you should go through all the right steps regardless of gender. And, frankly, the ‘right steps’ shouldn’t lead to this.”
“Hey, relax. Anyway, my question. What’s your relationship with her? Care to tell me?”
“Who do you mean, ‘her’?”
Takeya whispered the name directly into Haruki’s ear.
His voice was shaking faintly with irritation.
“Whoa. You’re just calling her by name? Just like that?”
“What business is it of yours if I call my friend by her name?”
“It is my business.”
“Is that the ‘romantic relationship’ you’re asking about?”
“Oh, uh, not exactly…”
“She does seem a bit different from Okuda and Eda and Yoshino and Arata and all the other girls you play around with.”
Haruki pushed against Takeya Iizuka’s shoulders.
“Let me go. We’ll draw too much attention here. I’m especially worried about how some of the more excitable girls might look at us.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah…”
“We can talk later. Here’s my number and email address.”
“Why do you have cards with this info already written on them?”
“Io asked me the same thing. I’m not explaining it again. See you later.”
“Why are we going to Goodies, Iizuka?”
“Why not? It’s cheap and the food is good. And you don’t see a lot of Houjou students here. Oho, there’s a real beauty eating pudding at the back there… Never seen her before.”
“What did you want to talk about?”
“Kitahara, you were out on a date with Io in Onjuku on Sunday.”
“It wasn’t a date.”
“A guy and a girl walking around town is a date.”
“Iizuka, are you aware of the etymology of the word ‘date’? It comes from ‘date’ as in a calendar, and refers to a boy and a girl deciding on a day and time in advance to go out. Also, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A sociable or romantic appointment.’”
“I didn’t ask for a damn wiki article.”
“She called me up without warning and made me go with her. That’s it. There was no romantic sentiment involved.”
“Oh, you were dragged along, huh? She’s fallen for you one-sided, then?”
“For god’s sake, stop looking at everything in romantic terms.”
“You know, you didn’t exactly look like you were hating it.”
“Iizuka, have you been stalking me?”
“I just… spotted you in Onjuku, that’s all.”
“While you were on a date?”
“You don’t see anything wrong with shifting your attention to another girl in the middle of a date?”
“You clearly like Io Mizusawa a lot, if you’re willing to stalk her.”
“Shut up. And tell me why she suddenly called you up.”
“There’s no point in you dawdling around here trying to pick up information. If you like Io, tell her directly, and ask her to date you. But you’d better break things off with your other flock of girls first.”
“Seriously, you’re driving me crazy. Stop lecturing me. It’s getting annoying.”
“I’m used to being called ‘annoying.’”
“You are annoying!”
“What, do you not like Io? In that case, what does the nature of my relationship with her have to do with you?”
“She’s been my best friend since middle school.”
“My only really close friend, and my only female friend.”
That much was true.
Io and Takeya met in the spring of their first year of middle school.
Takeya had played soccer up until middle school. He left his seniors behind, and became a regular in autumn of his first year. As central midfielder, he won the admiration of teammates and opponents alike with his killer passes and dazzling shots.
Likewise, Io became a regular on the girls’ basketball team in autumn of her first year. While playing as point guard, she deftly made shots in the mid- to long-range.
Which of them approached the other first? Which of them acknowledged their friendship first? Takeya couldn’t remember that now.
They recognized each other as figures who stood out in the gymnasium and on the playing field. As they were in the same class, they naturally started talking to each other.
When they talked, they realized they had a lot in common.
When they hung out, it was fun.
Though they fought sometimes, they always made up quickly. Every time they made up, they liked each other more.
It was in summer of their second year that misfortune visited the two of them.
During the Koenji Cup preliminaries, Takeya took a violent slide from a rival player. The clash fractured and sprained the ankle of his left foot—his pivot foot.
He was in treatment until winter, and then returned to practicing. But if he moved his leg for too long, it got too heavy to stand firm.
As his condition failed to improve, he endured a constant dull pain. And he saw Io, constantly looking worried and frustrated for him.
When it got to be too much, Takeya quit playing soccer altogether, and decided to focus on the student council and studying for entrance exams.
And, during the third-year school trip, Takeya…
“A-Anyway, the point is, we’ve been good friends for a pretty long time. And she’s always focused on basketball, so she doesn’t exactly have much dating experience. I can’t just sit by and watch her go out with some mystery guy who might trick her or hurt her.”
“I don’t really see myself as shady enough to be called a ‘mystery guy.’”
“You don’t have any romantic feelings for Io?”
“Then what were you two doing on a date?”
“I told you, it wasn’t a date.”
“What was it, then? You keep sidestepping the damn question!”
“What, Mr. Class Rep can’t bother dealing with a girl-crazy moron like me? Is that it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Never mind.” Takeya stood up and grabbed the sales slip. “Just stay away from Io.”
“And you’d better not tell her what we talked about today.”
“What? Hang on, you’re contradicting yourself—”
“Shut up. We’re done talking.”
Muttering something under his breath, Takeya left Haruki behind and departed Goodies.