‘I can’t go home with you today. Go without me. I’ll get in touch later.’
After homeroom, Takeya pulled out his phone and stared at Mika’s message (which in reality had a lot more hearts and stars and things sprinkled into it).
Something was irritating him. And he knew what it was.
There, in a corner of the classroom which fell within his field of vision, was him, nagging someone who hadn’t turned in all his documents yet.
“He,” of course, was the class rep, Haruki Kitahara.
Every time Takeya caught sight of him, it pissed him off.
The guy who had carried off such a flawless speech at the entrance ceremony.
The top of the class, who had made the highest scores on the start-of-year proficiency tests.
The honor student who had been president of his class since the school year began.
A guy who could be relied upon to do anything perfectly, from administrative work to homeroom coordination.
He had plenty of sides that drew backlash, as well—he was overly nosy, for example, and he took his verbal arguments too far.
But, no matter what resistance he might face, his expression never changed. He kept on pushing and persuading in his matter-of-fact way, cornering, forcing surrender, winning over.
On the flip side, he listened to any troubles or worries his classmates might bring to him one by one, giving them suggestions toward the solution. When it was something that the person in question simply couldn’t handle, he took it upon himself, even if it was accompanied by some grumbling.
There was no discrimination in how he spoke to people. High-caste or low-caste, jock or geek, cute girl or so-so girl.
God, he’s like somebody’s old man.
That was Takeya Iizuka’s appraisal of Haruki Kitahara.
Not that he was like a middle-aged man, specifically.
But that he was like a father.
He would give you a drawn-out lecture as soon as look at you, butting in everywhere, constantly.
But when his children were in trouble, he would help them without hesitation.
Whether that child was a model or a delinquent, it made no difference.
A father overflowing with love, who commanded love.
So why was he being so evasive?
Something murky and unpleasant was billowing up in Takeya’s mind.
They’re not… really dating, are they?
No… This is Io. Her brain is a basketball. She doesn’t have any remote interest in guys or know anything about love…
But maybe Kitahara’s the kind who seems quiet and uninterested, but actually drives girls crazy… Maybe he’s dangerous…
Nah, not likely. Not with an average face like that.
He’s a preacher, is what he is.
And they never talk at all in class.
But they could just be hiding that they’re dating.
Io’s definitely the type who wouldn’t want people to know about it. Augh! God dammit!
His irritation was intensifying. Takeya nonchalantly opened up the message screen on his phone again.
Anyone I can hang out with besides Mika-chan today?
Michiko-chan, or Kayoko-chan, or Eri-chan, maybe?
He realized that all three of them had also sent messages saying they weren’t available today.
Amid his bafflement, he heard someone in the corner of the room say, “Yes, I’m free!” It was the guy who hadn’t turned his papers in yet.
“Where’d Kitahara go?”
“Dunno. He just saw some message on his phone and flew off. Lucky me, right?”
What the hell is he up to?
“What’s the deal? I don’t have anything to say to you four.”
Io had been called to meet with a group of girls behind one of the buildings after school.
One of them was Mika, the one with whom Takeya had been spending so much time lately.
“There’s just something we wanna ask you, Mizusawa. You’re dating Kitahara, right?”
“What do you mean, what? Don’t play dumb.”
“Mika saw you and Kitahara being all lovey-dovey in Onjuku.”
“Saw you confess to him, too. And he said yes.”
Io sighed heavily. “And if all of that were true, what the hell does it have to do with you?”
“I’m just saying, if you’ve got some other guy you like, you’d better back off of Takeya.”
“Like we told you, Mika and Takeya are really getting somewhere.”
“Yep, yep. And we have a lot of fun hanging out with him, too.”
“So stop snuggling up to him, just because he’s nice, or because you went to middle school together or whatever.”
“Well, if you understand, that makes things easier.”
“That’s the way it is. Stay away from him.”
“You think I care?”
“What was that?”
“You think I give a damn what any of you say? Takeya is my best friend. What’s wrong with talking and hanging out with my best friend?”
“Pff…ff-ff-ff. Your best friend?”
“Are you kidding?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“A guy and a girl? Friends? Best friends? That’s too much. I can’t.”
“You’re not funny. You’re just into Takeya, it’s so obvious.”
“Even though you’re dating another guy!”
“And it’s the class rep! I’m gonna die.”
“What the hell is wrong with your taste?”
“Y’all really only look at everything in terms of romance, huh. That’s all you can ever think about.”
“That’s funny coming from you, Mizusawa. Slut.”
“What did you… Say that again!”
Io grabbed Mika by the collar with her left hand, her right hand raised.
“That’s enough, Io.”
“Kitahara…” “C-Class Rep…”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Now, Arata, Yoshino, Eda, Okuda… Er, which one of you was seeing Iizuka?”
“That’d be me.”
“You, then. Listen up. As high school students are right in the middle of the second stage of puberty, it’s understandable that your mind would turn to members of the opposite sex. However, you must also understand that the ultimate duty of a high school student is to study.”
“Uh… Where’s this going?”
“Equally important is the formation of interpersonal relationships. Higher education is not compulsory. However, it is filled with boys and girls at an age of insufficient character development for entering society. In other words, this is a place to practice building amicable relationships with others.”
All four girls stared blankly.
“With all of that in mind, once you enter society, you’ll have male neighbors, friends, colleagues, in your private life and in your workplace, with whom you’ll have to get along well. In that regard, there are things more important than romantic sentiment—formal correspondence, easy reliance, respect, friendship that transcends position.”
“What… What are you talking about?”
“All of which is to say, you’re all going about this wrong. It’s not as though Io is preventing you from entering into a romantic relationship with Iizuka.”
“Except she totally is.”
“Here’s a question. If you and Iizuka were to get married, but you didn’t work in the same place, what would you do?”
“I haven’t exactly thought about marriage.”
“That’s why I said ‘if.’ Would you neglect your own job and go to monitor wherever Iizuka worked? Would you tell him, ‘Don’t talk to any of the women you work with’?”
“Seriously, I’m so not even thinking about that right now!”
“What’s funny, Io?”
“You’re just… reacting exactly like I thought you would…”
As Io laughed, she let go of the stunned Mika’s collar, then walked over to Haruki’s side.
“You listen, too. What I’m saying is, in society, there are a variety of potential relationships between men and women that can’t be swept into the ‘romantic’ category. Even so, that’s difficult to understand when you’re going through late puberty. Therefore, you should take a step back, learn how to value friendships and fellowship that go beyond gender…”
“Class Rep, are you trying to pick a fight?”
“Huh? Have you been listening to me? What on earth would lead you to that conclusion—”
“You’re obviously siding with Io because you’re seeing her.”
“Seeing? Meaning, in a romantic relationship?”
“What the hell else would it mean?”
“We aren’t seeing each other in that sense. We’re just friends.”
“See? Haruki said so, too.”
“Are you kidding? You were there on the platform in Onjuku. Mizusawa asked you out and you said yes.”
Haruki sighed heavily.
“I assume you were with Iizuka at the time?”
“So, erm, I don’t know exactly how you two heard that conversation, but…”
“Ugh, I can’t deal with this…”
Io tapped her right forefinger to her forehead.
“There are so many girls like you. Every one of you goes, ‘I’m in love with Takeya, you need to break up with him, don’t get in my way,’ whatever. You could just live your own life, but you always gotta come at me. I’m sick of it. The blood goes to my head and I start wanting to hit people, like just now. But, if I let myself get violent, I wouldn’t be able to keep playing basketball, which is what I love most.”
“All she asked me was to come along if she got called out like this. It sounds like you just misheard.”
“I knew that if I had Haruki here blabbering on, I’d get bored enough to calm down.”
“You could just say the part about calming down.”
“That, and he’s got, like, zero interest in girls. I figured there wouldn’t be any misunderstandings.”
“I don’t need interest in girls. I’m in high school.”
“Anyway… Point is, if she likes Takeya, and Takeya likes her, I’m not gonna say anything about it. Date, fall in love, do whatever you want. But I’m not letting you stop me from hanging out with my friend. And stop coming at me with petty shit and starting fights. That’s all.”
“And there you have it. Are we understood?”
“One more thing… From what I’ve seen of him, in spite of his appearance and behavior, Iizuka values his friends. If he were to find out that you troubled Io like this, I doubt he’d be very happy about it.”
The four girls exchanged glances among themselves, the spite drained from their faces.
“Fine. I won’t bother with Mizusawa any more. It’s a drag for me, too.”
“Well, if Mika says so, then…”
“And I’m sorry I grabbed you. I shouldn’t have done that. Um, so, can I go to practice now?”
“Let’s disperse, then. By the way, if you four ever have any trouble, just let me know. I’m happy to give advice on anything other than romance.”
And the girls went off, one and four, in opposite directions.
“Hey, what was that? You were acting like his number one.”
“H-His number one? N-No, I wasn’t. Shut up.”
“His number one… Well, maybe that’s not… too far off.”
Haruki, having tarried for a moment, finally returned to the entrance of the school building.