The moment Haruki passed inside, a hand reached out from the shadow of the entryway, grabbed his right arm, and shoved him against the wall.
The right hand of the boy in question grazed Haruki’s left ear before striking the wall.
“I need to ask you something.”
Sigh. “I believe I told you to be more courteous when asking people questions, Iizuka.”
“Yeah, sorry, sorry. But, y’know, there aren’t a lot of people around here, so it’s not really a problem, right?”
“I’m not really into being approached by guys.”
“You’re no fun.”
Takeya removed his hand from the wall and took a step back.
“Sorry you got dragged into that bullshit.”
“What do you mean?”
“The catfight with Mika-chan and Io.”
“You were eavesdropping again? Is this a hobby for you?”
“C’mon, Mr. Class Rep, why couldn’t you have just explained all of that to me before?”
“What part did you hear it from?”
“From around the time that you started preaching.”
Haruki sighed very deeply.
“Answer me. No smokescreens this time, okay?”
“If you heard it all, I guess it can’t hurt. Io asked me to keep it a secret from you.”
“She didn’t want you to be put in an uncomfortable position because of her. That’s what she said. So, she didn’t want you to know about it at all.”
“What the hell?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.”
Haruki looked Takeya straight in the eye.
“I’m not really one to talk romance. But I think I get the picture pretty well in this case. This would mean you and Io have mutual feelings for each other, wouldn’t it?”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
“Of course, the friendship you fostered in middle school is also very strong. But it looks to me like you both have some feelings that go beyond that.”
“When something is asked of me, I take the responsibility to do it thoroughly. If something like this happens again, and someone shows up to pick a fight with Io, I’m going to intercede. However, regardless of what romantic feelings you and Io may have for each other, if your continued stubbornness ends up pulling other people into the mess, the story will be different. And I have no interest in playing along with a farce.”
“It’s not a damn farce.”
“When we were on our school trip in our third year of middle school, I told Io that I liked her. Guess what? She turned me down flat. And she has every time, ever since…”
It was between spring and summer of their third year.
Io’s best friend at the time was in love with Takeya.
Io, unable to sort out her own feelings for Takeya, put a lid on them. She helped out by acting as a go-between.
Meanwhile, at that same time, Takeya had become aware that his own bittersweet feelings for Io were those of love. Therefore, he was less than happy about Io trying to set him up with another girl.
And in June, the third night of their school trip…
There was nowhere for them to talk alone about Io’s friend, so he had gone to Io, in the girls’ room.
The other girls were going to be away, visiting the boys in their room.
But those girls came back.
Io and Takeya, who assumed they would be leaving shortly to go back to the boys’ room, hid in the closet.
But the girls didn’t leave.
Within the cramped closet, a heat came into their shoulders where they touched.
They heard each other breathing.
The lightly salty smell of sweat.
Before long, the girls’ discussion turned to Io and Takeya.
‘Those two are totally into each other, right?’
With this talk, this atmosphere, sweeping him along, Takeya made up his mind and confessed.
He held Io’s hand, and murmured sweetly in her ear, his voice so low that only she could hear.
(I like you.)
(I always, always have.)
(You’re the only one I’ve ever wanted.)
(I’m in love with you. Will you go out with me?)
But Io cut him down ruthlessly.
“What the hell, Takeya?! We’re friends! Best friends! But, to me, you’re always gonna be the little Iizuka-kun that you were when we first met. I don’t see you as a guy. You’re not someone I’d consider dating. Nope, nope, nope. Sorry, that’s just too much. Ahahahaha!”
“Sheesh… She’s brutal.”
“Anyone would think so, hearing her. And, because of that, she wound up not having any girl friends at school.”
“I get it now. I came on too fast. She’s a sporty girl who dedicates all her energy to basketball. She doesn’t know anything about love yet. Asking her out at a time like that was a screw-up on my part.”
She could have been afraid that once you started going out, your relationship would change. Maybe she valued her as her best friend too much, Haruki thought.
But he was hesitant to say as much to Takeya.
Because he might end up continuing with, Sometimes married couples who used to be close end up divorcing after big nasty disputes. Like my parents did.
“So, summer break started, and I started dating that friend of Io’s. Which did make me feel better for a little while. But at the end of the break, she moved to Kyushu, and we broke up… I was depressed as hell, and right when entrance exams were the last thing on my mind, Io provoked me.”
“What do you mean, provoked?”
“She said, ‘Let’s both take the exam for Houjou, and whoever gets in can order the other person to do one thing. Anything.’”
“That’s… an awfully risky gamble to take with a healthy pubescent boy.”
“So, the day the results were announced, Io checked my test number before hers, and she was so happy she cried. It made me think, ‘Maybe she really does like me.’ I almost said, ‘I’m willing to wait as long as it takes for you to fall for me.’ But before I could, she added, ‘We’ll be going to school together again, buddy.’ There I was, the mood was perfect, I was ready to confess again, and she stopped me in my tracks.”
Haruki thought, You think Io deliberately pulled off some kind of stunt there? Couldn’t she just have been happy to get to go to high school with you?
“And you heard what she friggin’ said back there. ‘Date, fall in love, do whatever you want.’ I guess that’s about how she feels…”
At this, Takeya turned his handsome face aside, dropping his gaze.
“May I ask you something?”
“The way you’ve been messing around with all these other girls. Is it some kind of spiteful move toward Io?”
“No, it’s not. It’s… kind of pathetic, actually. If I don’t go on like this, I start feeling like I really will be ‘little Iizuka-kun’ forever. When I’m with other girls, it helps me feel a little more like a man. Makes things easier.”
A sorrowful look came into Takeya’s face.
Watching him, hearing him say these awful things, Haruki thought, For crying out loud, just how much does this guy love Io?
This was the only response Haruki could manage to give, looking at Takeya’s expression.
This is way too complicated. It’s far beyond anything I can handle.
He couldn’t help reaching this conclusion.
Talking romance isn’t my thing in the first place, and this is an extraordinarily tangled situation.
“So… I’m sorry, but, if this kind of shit gets stirred up again, help Io out, will you?”
“Yes, since I made a promise to her. But I have my own life to deal with, too. I can’t babysit you two around the clock.”
“I know. I’m gonna quit messing around.”
“And I’m gonna quit hanging out with girls who just want to mess around, too.”
“From now on, I’m looking for girls who are serious, quiet, refined, not the kind who’ll mess with Io.”
“No, hang on, that’s not what I meant. If you want to solve this problem, you should approach things more seriously with Io.”
“Although, with a serious, quiet girl, it might be harder to draw lines… If I don’t make sure she understands everything before we start dating, and do everything right when we break up, it could actually turn into a bloodbath… Hmm. I’ll need to do some research.”
“Hey. Snap out of it. Don’t get yourself into any more trouble than you already have.”
“Don’t be like that, buddy. I’ll find a cute girl for you, too.”
“What was that? ‘Buddy’?”
“I like you. I wish you’d ease off on the preaching, but I like how responsible you are. So, I’ve decided you’re my new best friend. Now there’s you and Io.”
“I didn’t ask for this.”
“Hey, no complaining. Just accept it. Be grateful!”
Takeya wrapped his arm around Haruki’s shoulders.
This guy is strong. He’s no beanpole.
“Anyway, come with me.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I’m busy?”
“We’re gonna wait for Io to finish practice and call her up.”
“You’re calling me by my first name now?”
“If Io wants this whole thing just now to be a secret from me, I’ll go along. I’m gonna pretend I don’t have any idea what’s going on between you two. You’d better play like you didn’t tell me anything, either.”
“I’m not interested in lying. I’m telling Io everything.”
“Settle down. I’m just telling you to be quiet. And what’s wrong with telling a little lie if it’ll make somebody else happy? C’mon. All you have to do is not say anything. All right? Ha-ru-ki?”
“No, you’re not roping me in…”
This is a nightmare, Haruki thought.