Koharu: Sun After Storm
“All right, does everybody have their drinks? Great, then let’s get this party started! Sugiura-san, welcome to the Kaiou Graph editorial department! Cheers!”
“H-hey, hang on, Matsuoka! I’m the boss! Why are you ignoring me and taking the lead yourself?!”
“Listen, if we let you handle the toast, Hamada-san, all the froth would disappear…”
In a certain famous izakaya chain, on the sixth floor of a certain building in the Onjuku shopping district…
In this commonplace establishment, precisely the sort that a completely disorganized coordinator would frantically pick on the day of the occasion, everyone lifted their glasses together with this energetic toast declaration—not to be drowned out by the hustle and bustle all around—and began their banquet.
“Now, Kohacchi, give us a few words!”
“…Um, I’m sorry, Suzuki-san, but would you mind not using that nickname? I don’t think it gives a good impression.”
“Come on, don’t be so stiff. Look, all eyes are on you now.”
And so this girl, suddenly given the overly-friendly nickname of “Kohacchi” and feeling a little flustered by all of the attention, nevertheless coughed once to clear her throat, stood all the way up…
“Um… Everyone, thank you very much for holding this party for me today.”
And, with a seriousness in her face and voice that were completely unsuited to this laid-back venue, she began her extremely stiff speech.
“I am still only a newcomer, and a part-time worker, so I won’t be of much use, but I want to learn quickly on the job so that I can be helpful to everyone, so please, train me as strictly as you can. Thank you very much, and I look forward to working with you all.”
After ending with a very deep bow, the girl sat back down on the floor, and bowed her head slightly once more.
To the end, her speech was overly sincere, subdued, with no playing around—altogether lacking in flair, in a way that seemed at odds with her charming looks and mannerisms.
“We’ve got high hopes for you, Kohacchi. Lately, none of our part-timers have stuck around for more than a week…”
“Don’t say stuff like that, Suzuki-san. You’ll make us sound like a sweatshop.”
“What are you talking about, Matsuoka? In times like these, with publications in such a slump, no publishing company could survive without being a sweatshop.”
“Do you have to affirm that so readily, Kizaki-san…?”
But, well, whether it was because they were more experienced members of society as her seniors, or whether they were all just completely irresponsible, the others present let her formal attitude wash right off of them and got swept up in their own lively conversations.
The name of this stiff but lovely girl—no, woman—who seemed somehow to have been received favorably by her new colleagues, was Koharu Sugiura.
A first-year at Aoizumi University, and, as of yesterday, a new part-time worker in the editorial department of Kaiou, a mid-level publishing company.
With her hair in a ponytail, showing more than enough of the innocence left over in one who had only recently turned twenty, she sipped her beer, screwing her face up slightly in distaste.
“Come on, Sugiura-san, chug it all down.”
“Th-thank you… Although, I was thinking I might switch over to a sour cocktail soon…”
“Gotcha, gotcha. Here, take a look at the drink menu.”
Once the general greetings were out of the way, the food had been brought out, and the time had come for pleasant chit-chat, Matsuoka, the young editor who had coordinated today’s get-together, snagged the spot next to Koharu and began talking to her with great energy.
“But what made you think about getting a part-time job with us, Sugiura-san? Is this the kind of field where you want to be employed in the future?”
“Um, yes. I have three reasons… First of all, as you said, I do have an interest in this industry.”
“I see, I see… Once you graduate, you should definitely come our way, by all means.”
The Kaiou Graph editorial department had few women (none of them his type), so now that Koharu, their first female part-timer in a long while and objectively cute, had appeared on the scene, Matsuoka had no reason not to go after her.
“And, well, I want the money, of course. Being a university student is a lot more expensive than I realized…”
“Yeah, for sure. And what’s the third reason?”
“The third reason… is that I want to expand my world, more and more.”
“Well, all I know right now is my school. My current surroundings are only an illusion of the whole world, right?”
“I-I mean, I guess?”
“In that little world, whenever discrepancies arise, it feels as though the whole world has turned on you, or like you can’t trust anything any more—you end up having sad feelings like that on both sides.”
“Y-you think so…?”
“So I made a promise with a friend of mine, who lived in that small world with me—that we would both gain bigger worlds for ourselves, outside of each other.”
“I thought, if I could find an adult relationship, that was open and straightforward like the ones I’ve known, but just a little bit different, that would be wonderful… Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to go on about myself so much.”
Realizing that, at some point, the senior worker sitting next to her had begun to look a little bit lost, Koharu curled in on herself somewhat sheepishly, hurriedly cut off the conversation, and hid her face in the menu in an attempt to gloss over all of it.
But, at this moment, there was no helping that for Koharu…
Because, for the past year, she had never spoken of that oath, and certainly never been able to just spill it out with an ambiguous smile.
Winter of her third year at Houjou High School, with graduation only a few weeks away…
Most people, reluctant to part with their friends, would be dedicating their minds to hopes for trips and the like, but Koharu was on a bed of needles the whole time.
Misunderstandings gave rise to further misunderstandings, and in the end, it was all overwritten by the truth.
She betrayed her best friend in the event, and ultimately, she betrayed her best friend with her own resolve.
She was exposed to attacks out of ill will from those around her, and ultimately, she exposed herself to that ill will deliberately.
She lost everywhere she belonged except for one place, and ultimately, she offered everything up to that one place, and sought it out.
That was why, at present, Koharu Sugiura was a first-year at Aoizumi University.
She could have been a second-year at Houjou University, but she and her friend, though they still acknowledged one another mutually, differed both in university and in school year.
“Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean! You know, I had something happen like that once…”
And so, Matsuoka, completely failing to understand Koharu’s grim resolve, still attempted to appeal to some nonexistent sympathy, and shortened the distance between himself and Koharu yet again.
“Wow, that’s wild. Y’know, you’ve got a pretty solid way of thinking, huh?”
“O-oh, no, I wouldn’t say that.”
He was following the sort of method one learned from one’s respected seniors—“If you want to take advantage of a girl’s troubles to make a pass, the first step is to affirm everything”—to the letter, which was a brave move, in its own way.
But whether that bravery reached its target, Koharu, was extremely doubtful.
“Y’know, I can’t just see you as some stranger. I’m here to give advice, so ask me anything at all. Oh, and do you think I could start calling you ‘Koharu-chan,’ like Suzuki-san…?”
Then, just as Matsuoka was attempting an even more overbearing attack…
“…I don’t think you’d better call her that, Macchan.”
Sitting across the table from them, Suzuki, the only woman present apart from Koharu, muttered meaningfully.
“What? What do you mean, Suzuki-san?”
“Well, Kohacchi, she may look serious, but in fact… No, she has an extremely serious boyfriend, exactly as she looks.”
“Ggh…?! Hack, hack…”
The one who choked on their half-drunk beer in response to this bombshell statement was not Matsuoka, to whom it was ostensibly directed, but rather the one to whom it was actually directed.
“A-a boyfriend? Really?”
“Oh, yes, a very bothersome boy. He’s got a job, he’s completely inflexible, and he certainly wouldn’t hold back against his superiors. You might throw down the gauntlet at first, Macchan, but he would turn the tables on you with a lecture, and then the fight would be settled.”
“Wait, that sounds weirdly like that perfectionist junior of mine who always gets on my nerves… Huh?”
And Matsuoka, suddenly having an excruciatingly clear idea of what Suzuki was getting at with her metaphorical speaking, gasped and whirled around to look at Koharu.
“…Suzuki-senpai, why would you say something like that without any proof?”
Koharu, completely ignoring Matsuoka, retracted her admirable attitude completely, and simply glared coldly at Suzuki.
On top of her own inflexibility, this strong attitude with its tendency to incite enmity in others had hurt her any number of times, but where that was concerned, Koharu would never feel any regret.
“Umm, well… I have three reasons, you see…”
“…Are you trying to start a fight? You are, aren’t you?”
Unable to keep up with this suddenly explosive atmosphere between the women, Matsuoka looked at each of their faces in turn, but it was clear that he was no longer anywhere near their field of vision.
“First, ‘Graduate of Houjou High School’ was written on your resume.”
“But I was three years younger, so we were never in school together.”
“Second, no one has said anything yet, but you definitely just indicated a very specific person.”
“And, third… I saw you yesterday. You were having an argument with Kitahara-kun on the platform at Onjuku Station…”
“Perhaps you decided to show up at his same workplace unannounced? And then he scolded you, and it turned into a fight… You certainly are the type to go too far and make a big mess of things when you think too hard.”
“…That matter has already been resolved, so there is no longer any need for you to worry.”
To be sure, they had wound up in a massive fight the night before, but for two people who were as mutually inflexible as they were, this was an everyday occurrence…
Winter of her third year at Houjou High School, with graduation only a few weeks away…
Koharu had met a university student three years her senior, fought with him, worked with him, somehow been unable to get along with him, somehow found herself getting interested in him because of that, fallen in love with him before she knew it, and at some point, wished that she could stay by his side even if the whole world turned against her… And so she realized for the first time what an inflexible woman she was, from the bottom of her heart.
That man was, and always had been, Haruki Kitahara.
Koharu’s inflexible lover, three years ahead of her at Houjou High School, her senior at her former part-time job, and, as of yesterday, her senior yet again in the Kaiou Graph editorial department.
“K-Kitahara again… How many more times does he have to get his hands on the things I can’t…?”
“Wellll, mostly that’s just you getting what you deserve, Macchan, but in this case, I suppose there’s a little room for pity.”
Reeling from the truth and impact of this new part-timer’s words, Matsuoka was crushed by an even deeper sense of defeat, picked up the sake that had arrived at some point, and chugged it in one gulp.
His voice and attitude had lost the light of one aiming for his prey, and now his eyes were the clouded eyes of a dejected loser, his voice hoarse and strained.
“That son of a bitch… Always the first to complain about private life being brought into the office, and yet off he goes to work so gracefully, with his girlfriend waiting on him…”
“You say ‘gracefully,’ but he showed up two hours earlier than you.”
“You’re right… That’s why he skipped out on this drinking party, saying he was gonna be out collecting material tonight. Damn him…”
It wasn’t hard to imagine that, had Haruki been present, the current state of affairs would have been even more difficult to bring under control.
“…I would like to make it clear that this job is completely unrelated to my private life.”
Koharu continued with her usual stiffness, in a tone that did absolutely nothing to relieve the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over the group of young people.
“I came here to work. While I am working, whoever I may or may not be dating is completely irrelevant.”
“You may say that, Kohacchi, but, you know… Even if your initial intention is to do your job, can you be absolutely certain that you won’t gradually start to show your true colors, or start getting flirty at work, before you know it?”
“Yes, I’m certain! If you must insist upon doubting me, then from now on, I won’t utter a word to Haruki-senpai while we’re in the workplace, so please be at ease!”
“I don’t think that’s a viable work method…”
Koharu Sugiura, the new part-timer at Kaiou…
This tactless girl, with her inflexibility, her strong, inflammatory attitude that had hurt her any number of times, and her complete lack of regret where that was concerned, drained the last bit of beer remaining in her glass, and for some reason ordered a shochu on the rocks rather than the sour cocktail she had mentioned earlier.
“Hey, so, uh, what’s the true story here?”
“How am I supposed to answer a question with no subject?”
“I’m talking about your relationship with Kitahara-kun, obviously. You can tell me everything, every single concrete minute detail. No need to keep any secrets.”
“That would serve no purpose for me. Also, it’s redundant to say ‘minute detail,’ isn’t it?”
“…Kohacchi, are you sure you’re not actually Kitahara-kun’s clone, rather than his girlfriend?”
Ignoring Matsuoka, who had long since withdrawn from Koharu’s side and was now sulkily pouring himself a drink, it was now Suzuki’s turn to go into inquiry mode.
“When did you meet? Where? You weren’t in high school or college together, right? So was it in cram school, or at work, or…”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I keep my work and private life separate?”
“This is a drinking party! It’s completely private! As a matter of fact, work talk is out of bounds!”
“I don’t believe that’s a legitimate argument…”
In the beginning, Koharu had intended to remain silent, but her nature limited her ability to feign ignorance for too long, and so she wound up responding to every little thing.
“Fine, fine! At least just tell us when you met! Say, before the summer of two years ago, or after?”
“…Why are you mentioning such a specific period?”
“Well, there’s a certain immature young lady who is just dying to know whether you’ve known him longer than her…”
While Suzuki conversed with Koharu, she poured beer with her left hand and fiddled with her phone with her right hand, sending somebody an email—this was a level of multitasking even beyond what she did at work.
“Regardless of how private the occasion is, there are things one talks about readily with other people, and things one does not.”
“Hmm, hmm, I see. In other words, the start of your love affair with Kitahara-kun was so dramatic and romantic that you couldn’t possibly tell anyone.”
“Please don’t let your imagination run away with you.”
Koharu was extremely curious to know the recipient of this email, but she was also so serious about everything that she couldn’t apply it, so even though her eyes were drawn to Suzuki’s phone, she focused on nothing but the conversation.
“All right, next, I want you to tell me what kind of event took place between the two of you back then. All you have to do is answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’!”
“I’m not going to answer. I’m not answering anything.”
“I see… So was there some kind of trouble surrounding your future paths in life, for example?”
“I said I’m not going to answer…”
“Or a conflict between friendship and love?”
“A love triangle?”
“One of you was already in a relationship?”
“Why are you interrogating me like this?!”
This accusation, to anyone who knew Koharu, would probably be like a boomerang, demonstrating an astonishing level of insistence upon playing innocent, but she just couldn’t keep quiet.
“…Don’t tell me I hit the mark?”
“Not at all! Not even remotely! Not even this much!”
…in the sort of voice used to praise someone for giving the perfect answer.
“Please, just give me a break already, Suzuki-san.”
“Ahaha, sorry, sorry.”
The peak of the welcome party, the table that had reached the point of complete informality…
On top of which, within thirty minutes, Koharu had lined up five glasses of shochu and was letting loose with her complaints.
The number of glasses was a fair match to the number of times Suzuki had hit the “send email” button in the same thirty minutes, but it seemed as though she had now been blocked, and a disparity was gradually starting to open up.
“Look, we may be working in the same place now… But it’s still only second day we’ve known each other.”
“Well, but we’ve already been associating with Kitahara-kun for over three years.”
“What does that have to do with…”
“Sorry, Sugiura-san. To sum it up, Suzuki, or really all of us, have been using you as a way of investigating Kitahara.”
At this voice suddenly cutting in, Koharu raised her face and fixed her eyes right in front of her…
“He hardly ever talks about himself. After we’ve known him for so long, there are things we wish he’d confide in us or rely on us for, even on a private level…”
At some point, two veterans of the Kaiou Graph, Hamada and Kizaki, had turned to Koharu with friendly gazes.
“And suddenly we find Kitahara’s girlfriend? Now there’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, especially for that rumor-mongering busybody of a woman.”
“Oh, that’s harsh. You were the one who came up with this strategy in the first place, Hamada-san.”
“But I never told you to barge into that territory so blatantly.”
“You may as well have, the moment you said we would use Suzuki.”
“Hey, Kizaki, whose side are you on?”
Now, under the circumstances—the secret spilled, a targeted attack instigated by everyone except Matsuoka—Koharu couldn’t simply force a smile, but stared dumbfounded into their three faces.
“Well, ah… Sorry about that. We got a little carried away.”
“I’m sorry, Kohacchi.”
“N-no, it’s not really that…”
Still, she couldn’t find it in herself to blame them, either.
Because, two years earlier, she had done exactly that.
She had met a university student three years her senior, fought with him, worked with him, somehow been unable to get along with him, somehow found herself getting interested in him because of it…
Run around to every acquaintance she could find, gotten angry, sulked, all for the sake of learning about his past.
And so, two months later, when he finally told her about his high school heartaches, the regrets he still held, and the people who were constantly in his heart, how happy she was…
Because she remembered being so happy that she fell in love, a love that was forbidden in every possible sense.
“You know, back in the day, there were some things about Kitahara-kun that made you kinda nervous just looking at him.”
“Yeah, like almost a self-destructive tendency—working without any real consideration for himself.”
“We didn’t notice it at first, but his boss at his first job had a sharp eye for that sort of thing.”
“Didn’t have much of a sense of the way other people were looking at her, though, that Mari-san.”
“But now, Kitahara is completely different, a lot calmer. It’s nice.”
“…Does he seem that way? Can everybody see that?”
“So, this change that got us all wondering whether he might have found himself a really great girl is because of your appearance on the scene.”
Listening to this nosy yet pleasant conversation between the three people, Koharu felt her cheeks flushing, and it wasn’t because of the alcohol.
She was actually so happy that she thought she might cry.
To know that her lover, the one she worried about more than anyone else, the most important person to her, had had an open-hearted space like this.
That Haruki was able to help Koharu two years ago…
That the two of them had been able to make it through without being crushed, without mutual destruction…
Had been because he had a place like this, supporting him.
Now, Koharu felt confident that what she was trying to do hadn’t been a mistake.
“So, Hamada-san, that means we don’t have to worry about Kitahara any more, right? If he’s got a gal like this waiting for him to come home…”
“Wait, you mean you were serious about that?”
“What, Kizaki-san’s business trip to Europe? Didn’t that end up conflicting with your engagement gift exchange?”
“Oh, are you getting married? Congratulations… By the way, what was that about Haruki-senpai?”
While Koharu gave her utmost polite blessings, she was keenly interested in a few key words that had just cropped up in the conversation.
“Well, see, since I couldn’t go any more, I recommended that Kitahara go in my place, but Hamada-san doesn’t seem to agree.”
“Listen, all things considered, he’s still only in his first year.”
“He’s right, Kizaki-san. Macchan aside, you’ve got me, at least. Actually, I’d love to go!”
“No, if we gotta send a substitute in, Kitahara’s definitely the only option… It’s just a matter of language proficiency.”
“What?! That’s cold, Hamada-san!”
“Feel free to complain after you’ve made an A on the TOEIC…”
Hearing Haruki made the subject of a conversation that was out of her reach both in name and in substance, as someone who had just started her job the day before, Koharu was elated.
It may have been a work-related conversation that she couldn’t follow at all, but regardless, Koharu listened to the trio’s discussion in a pleasant mood.
“And actually, when it comes to this particular Europe trip, Kitahara might be more qualified than I am in the first place.”
“Truth is, it was the Ensemble editor-in-chief who approached me about this. Said there was someone he wanted me to interview in Europe…”
“Ensemble… That’s a classical music thing… Someone from an orchestra somewhere?”
“No, a pianist. Look, there’s this super promising young Japanese player, right?”
“Oh, you mean…!”
“Exactly—Kazusa Touma. She’s the daughter of Youko Touma…”
“Ah, gotcha. Then, she would have been in the same school year as Kitahara…”
“Touma… What did you say?”
In that instant, in spite of their moderate drunkenness, the trio felt a strange chill in the air, as though they had suddenly been kicked outside in the middle of winter.
“You’re… sending Haruki-senpai to meet with Kazusa Touma…?”
“What are you saying…? What did I just hear you all say…?!”
It took several seconds for them to realize that the true source of this chill was an unexpectedly low, intense voice, emitted from the lovely girl sitting before them.
And the next thing Koharu said only invited them into further confusion.
“Huh? What? Where?”
“To Europe, obviously. What are you talking about?”
“That’s what we’re trying to ask you…”
“Sending Haruki-senpai to Europe… to a dangerous place like that? I refuse to let him go!”
“Wait, it would clearly be more dangerous for you to go, wouldn’t it?”
“I’ll be fine! I went to Europe for my graduation trip!”
“That’s not the problem here…”
“What, my language ability? Fine, I’ll take the TOEIC before the trip! And I will be given an ‘A’!”
“Hey, what’s going on with you?!”
“I, I… I’ve cried a lot up to now, you know! And I’ve caused a lot of tears myself!”
“Kohacchi, that’s not even remotely an answer!”
The image of a weeping face at the window rose up in Koharu’s mind.
“So… I can’t… I don’t want…”
The weeping face of the one who had been Kazusa Touma’s best friend, Haruki Kitahara’s girlfriend, wrapped in memories that had never left her mind—heart-achingly beautiful, and yet sorrowful.
“No, I don’t want this… I don’t want Haruki-senpai to go… I don’t want to let him go… I… I… augh…!”
“H-hey, whoa! What are you doing?! You two, do something!”
“You don’t care, do you? You don’t care about me! Because you’re the one who made me cry, Kizaki-san!”
“Kitahara! Somebody call Kitahara!”
Up to this point, she had been responding normally, so nobody realized it…
But, at this moment, Koharu Sugiura was already fully, out-of-her-head drunk.
The bright morning light shining in through the window… exacerbated Koharu’s headache more and more.
It was the day after that feast of pandemonium.
Koharu woke up to a familiar ceiling, one that she knew from seeing it about once a week… She was in Haruki’s room.
Next to her in the bed slept Haruki, looking dead exhausted for some reason.
She checked the clock. It was 7:30 a.m.
When Koharu tried to think of why her lover, who normally would have long since woken up, would be this fatigued, the numerous reasons caused another headache to assail her, and she rushed to the bathroom in an attempt to escape.
And now, it was eight o’clock.
Having showered, Koharu faced her towel-clad reflection in the mirror, and made the same anguished face that she had just seen on Haruki.
She couldn’t remember very clearly what had happened… oh, if only that were true.
Forcing the members of the editorial department to sit down when they tried to leave, spending half an hour telling them about how she and Haruki got together, weeping and clinging to Haruki when he finally came to get her, begging him to carry her on his back… She wished she couldn’t remember any of that.
“This job is completely unrelated to my private life.”
This all-too-false declaration ricocheted around the back of Koharu’s head like a boomerang.
…And the email from one of her kind-hearted seniors, who had take all of these declarations down as though keeping minutes at a meeting, just made Koharu feel more and more like running away this early in the morning.
“…I can’t go to that job any more.”
She didn’t feel that much regret over embarrassing herself, or causing embarrassment for Haruki.
It had never been one of her primary concerns to make a good showing in the first place, and her relationship with Haruki was past the point where this sort of thing would put any strain on it.
What hurt more than that was what she had been hiding… no, what she had been trying to hide, this whole time—the intensity of her womanhood.
The one reflected in the mirror was, of course, Koharu herself.
Showered, wrapped in a towel, her hair undone…
Seeing herself, with her sleek, naturally flowing long hair, forced her to remember her violent emotions from the day before.
She had never let Haruki see her hair like this.
At this point, she couldn’t say whether it was consciously or unconsciously…
But, most likely, she would continue to keep herself from showing him this style.
Forcibly shaking her still-aching head, Koharu began gathering her hair together, and in her mind, she retracted her own words from moments before in an instant.
Of course she would go to work today.
And she would apologize to everyone.
And, and… From now on, she would give it her all in that place… together with the one she loved.
Her seniors might still be angry.
If so, if she apologized with all her might, and it turned into an argument…
Then, in the end, she would work fervently to reconcile with them.
Come on, that’s enough.
I mean, I’m pretty intense.
Intense enough that I would secretly show up with no warning at senpai’s workplace.
There’s… no reason that my seniors wouldn’t know that.
“There… all done.”
The usual ponytail in the mirror.
This was the true Koharu Sugiura.
The completion of this shameful, deeply jealous, foolish woman, who belonged to Haruki alone.
“Good morning, senpaaai…”
With a bright, cheerful voice that gushed forth from her heart of its own accord…
Koharu flung away the bath towel, and slipped smoothly back into the bed where Haruki slept.