‘Has it already been three years since I last passed through this immigration gate…?’
Since graduating from high school seven years ago, I’ve only come back to Japan from America a handful of times.
Even after I’d graduated from college, I only came back to Japan to celebrate New Year’s. But these past couple years, I’ve been too busy with a film project to even go back for that annual visit.
This time, I’ve been half-forced to come back to attend the wedding of a childhood friend.
‘Natsuki’s been calling to constantly remind me like she’s been possessed by a demon, and Yuu and Mochita sent texts saying that they’d uncovered a video of my dark past and I’d better come and get it if I didn’t want it sent to everyone…’
I’d already been planning to attend in the first place, but they pressured me to take time off before and after the ceremony too, just in case.
I know exactly why the three of them have been so persistent about this.
Even once I’ve come back to Japan, I don’t contact anyone other than family, and haven’t ever bothered to meet up with them.
‘Although, it’d be more accurate to say that I couldn’t meet them…’
I narrowed my eyes behind my sunglasses and looked at the single Boston bag of luggage I had with me.
I rummaged inside of it as I sat in a chair in the lobby and immediately found what I was looking for.
A thick, worn-out red notebook with the words, “Sakuragaoka High School Class 2-3, Aida Miou,” written on the cover.
Each design captured a piece of the world with delicate brush work, just as neatly as the words on the cover were written.
“It doesn’t feel like they were drawn very carefully, but just… naturally.”
No matter how many times I looked at them, strangely, I never got tired of her works. Every time I turned the pages, it felt like the very first, but at the same time, nostalgia would sweep over me.
“….I wonder how she’s doing.”
I hadn’t seen her since graduation, but I always remembered her with her gentle smile.
When I close my eyes, my memories of high school come back in vivid detail.
The memories of days where I couldn’t pull through with my own feelings, but still always gave it my all.
Birthday: September 3
Horoscope Sign: Virgo
Blood Type: B
In the Film Club.
Sensitive, and is often teased by his friends.
He really likes Akari, but….
“I have something to talk to you about. At 4:10 after school today, could you wait for me in this classroom?”
Catching Akari just after she’d come back from switching classes, Souta had his second conversation with her.
Although, Akari hadn’t said anything in reply, so it was hard to call it an actual conversation.
Still, he was certain that she had nodded in answer to what he’d said.
Even after short homeroom and clean-up had ended, there was still time before their arranged meeting.
‘I thought I’d leave some time to settle down before going, but it ended up having the opposite effect.’
He couldn’t keep still, and kept glancing up at the clock.
After talking to Akari, he hadn’t been able to focus on the lessons at all, and his heart just wouldn’t stop pounding noisily.
‘At this rate, it feels like I’ll collapse before I even get to confess to Akarin….’
Souta jumped in his seat as the alarm he’d set on his phone went off.
“C-Crap… Feels like my heart’s going to explode….”
The hand he held his phone with was shaking, making it difficult to turn off the alarm.
‘Get it together, Souta. It’s times like these that you’ve gotta keep calm….’
Closing his eyes, he breathed in and out, over and over again.
Akari’s smile, which he always saw from a distance, crossed his mind.
Up until now, it had only been one time that she’d ever smiled directly at him.
Unless he mustered up his courage, he couldn’t even hope for a chance of that happening ever again.
He patted his cheeks with hands that had gone cold from nerves.
‘Okay, I’m ready.’
Looking at the clock, he saw that hour hand was about to reach four.
It was still a little early, but he couldn’t make her wait when he’d been the one to call her out.
Souta started walking and headed for Akari’s class, the place for their meeting.
His heart pounded with each flight of stairs he went down, and each step he took through the halls.
By the time he was standing in front of the door, it felt almost painful.
‘Just a little longer, just need to hang on for a little longer.’
He pressed a hand to his chest and told his heart that seemed on the brink of exploding at any moment.
He glanced at his wristwatch, and saw that it was now 4:05.
‘Just five more minutes…’
He usually never paid it much attention, but right now, his heart was noisy with anxiety, uneasiness, anticipation, and a bunch of other emotions. It seemed that people fell in love not just with their head, but their entire bodies.
‘I want to change. I want to become strong enough to tell Akarin my feelings.’
Closing his eyes tightly, Souta said these words to himself for motivation.
He took one final deep breath, and reached out for the door.
‘Here I go.’
Sliding open the door that felt heavier than usual, he took that first step towards change.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
‘Having to deal with this bright summer sun after pulling an all-nighter is torture….’
It was bad enough that he had soccer class on Monday mornings, but this blinding sunlight and heat were too much.
The consciousness of Mochizuki Souta, who had been watching DVDs until it was nearly dawn, was always fading away.
‘I knew I should have stopped after the first one…. Wait, I feel like that’s what I said last time, too.’
He knew the consequences, but he had also promised himself that once he pressed the play button, he wouldn’t move away from the TV until the movie ended, ending credits and all.
In any case, last night he had been watching the works from his favorite director, and had gotten sucked into watching several in a row.
A single love that lasts forever, they call that “unrequited love.”
The character from the movie had said this line during a pretty depressing scene.
Although the circumstances of the character from the movie were completely different from Souta’s, for some reason, that line really struck him and remained lodged in the back of his heart.
‘It’s probably because of the fact that no matter who you are, love is something you just can’t ignore once you’ve found it….’
He had a feeling that he’d just said something pretty good.
As Souta forgot all about the heat and his fatigue and nodded in satisfaction, someone slapped the back of his head with a clean “smack” sound.
“Mochita, do your job!”
Souta turned around, and soon heard the shout of the one who’d just given him such a clean smack on the head.
He immediately recognized the voice as Haruki’s.
“You’re only going to feel hotter if you shout like that, y’know.”
Only after hearing Yuu try to calm down Haruki beside him did Souta finally realize what had happened.
‘Crap, I missed a goal!’
Looking around the field, he saw that everyone was just standing around; the match had been put on hold. Seeing how the the ball had already been brought back to the center circle, it looked like it’d been a while since the goal had been scored.
‘Ack, how long have I been spacing out for….?’
Quickly flipping the panel on the scoreboard, Souta hastily bowed in apology towards the court.
“Sorry! One point goes to Team A!”
“Took you long enough, geez! Well, I guess I can’t blame you with this heat.”
His classmate, Mimura Masahiro, flashed him a smile.
“Mahiron, you’re so nice…!”
“But it happens again, you’re taking over for my cleaning duties, got it?”
“Ehhh?! I-I’ll be more careful from now on….!”
There was a roar of laughter all around as Souta panicked.
Thanks to his classmate backing him up, the unpleasant mood had vanished.
As Souta breathed a sigh of relief, Haruki looked over at him with a sharp gaze.
“….Mochita, if it’s too hard on you, then say so, alright?”
“But I don’t think Mahiron really meant it.”
“I don’t mean the cleaning duties. I mean if it’s too hard even just standing there, just head to the infirmary.”
Overwhelmed by Haruki’s forcefulness, Souta unconsciously lowered his gaze.
He knew full when that he was only saying those things out of concern, but whenever he heard Haruki’s “sensible arguments” while he was already feeling down, it felt like he was being blamed. Was it because Haruki looked and sounded so confident in himself when he spoke?
“Haruki’s right. If you’re not feeling well, we’ll carry you there right now.”
As Yuu said this jokingly with a laugh, Haruki’s eyes softened a little.
“Let me know when you do. I’ll record it.”
“Whaaat? But you’re so picky about composition and all that. We’ll have to keep redoing it until the pose meets your expectations. I’m not strong enough to keep carrying him for that long.”
“Hah! Guess I’ll be recording you being crushed from the weight, then.”
Haruki finally laughed out loud after a mental picture of the scene formed in his head.
In an instant, the topic had changed, and the mood between the three of them had lightened up.
Yuu was good at reading what the situation was, and balancing things out between people. He was like a cushion amongst his childhood friends, which consisted of himself, Souta, Haruki, and Natsuki.
‘But that’s exactly why I can’t keep relying on him all the time…’
Souta took a deep breath and looked straight up at his two childhood friends.
“Sorry for worrying you two. But honestly, I’m fine now.”
Haruki and Yuu looked like they wanted to say something else, but Souta ignored them and went on.
“In the first place, I already asked to switch places with scorekeeper because running around as the referee was too tiring, so I should at least do this job properly.”
“….Alright. We believe you when you say you’re fine.”
“But as soon as you’re not feeling okay, you have to tell us right away!”
Nodding firmly back at the two that believed in his words, he sent them back to the playing field.
‘Ah, there’s a bit of a cool breeze blowing….’
“Eh?! You don’t like the prince type?”
He heard Natsuki’s voice carried over by the wind.
Looking over, he saw the three of them chatting by the tennis courts. Miou and Akari were practicing swings with their rackets, but Natsuki was completely immersed in the conversation.
‘Wah, it’s Akarin! Her smile is so bright today, too…’
Long, glossy hair that almost reached her waist, and light, fair skin. Her bright laughter and almond eyes that were always sparkling had relentlessly captured Souta’s heart.
No, it wasn’t just him.
Hayasaka Akari was like the idol of Sakuragaoka.
She could be shy, but she never took a curt attitude.
With Natsuki and Miou, who she’d grown close to as classmates and fellow club members, she smiled bright like a sunflower. Another reason for her popularity was probably because she wasn’t really conscious of how pretty she was.
In addition, Akari was also a regular finalist candidate in art contests.
Perhaps because of her artistic talent, apparently she had a unique sensitivity to things, as well. All these traits could classify her as being too “mysterious,” but there were countless guys who secretly worshipped her smile from afar.
‘But when I talked to her, I got to see her bashful face!’
It had happened nearly half a month ago, on the day that Souta had gone to the class next door first thing in the morning to return the dictionary that he’d borrowed from Natsuki.
He had bumped into Akari in front of the door, making him stop in his tracks.
It wasn’t something to brag about, but he had never spoken to her even once before then. Just at the thought of her even looking at him was always enough to make his mind go blank.
He’d been about to hurry off, but “that” had caught his eye.
And as soon as he’d noticed it, for some reason, his mouth had just opened on its own——
“Good morning! Um, you have a bit of a bed head.”
As Akari reached up to touch the back of her head in surprise, Souta lifted up his own bangs to show her where.
“It’s… sticking up a bit…. like this….”
Most of his words trailed off towards the end. As soon as he realized who he was talking to, he couldn’t get the words out like he’d planned them out in his head.
But it didn’t end there. There was an ever bigger shock waiting for him.
Akari seemed to relax once she knew where the bed head was, and her expression softened.
And then, she pressed a long, slender finger to her lips and whispered,
“Don’t tell anymore.”
An electric current ran throughout Souta’s whole body at her embarrassed face and voice.
Feeling like he was about to make some unwanted sound, he quickly covered his mouth with his hand. His reddened face went slack, and he silently muttered words that he absolutely couldn’t let Akari hear.
‘This is unreal! What is this adorable creature?! It’s Akarin, Akariiin!’
Even remembering it now made his heart pound noisily.
Still, that was the last time he’d ever talked to Akari face-to-face.
He hadn’t been able to use the opportunity to create the next one, and had wound up going back to watching her from afar.
‘But I’m sure that that was a big step for me, no mistake!’
Looking up, he caught sight of Ayase Koyuki doing his best to chase after the ball.
They were in the same class, and he seemed like the type that was bad at sports, and definitely wasn’t one to actively participate in matches during P.E. class. But recently, he often saw him running around the field with all his might.
‘Keep at it, Yukki! It’s one-sided, but somehow, watching you gives me courage.’
Like with “Akarin,” Souta fondly called him “Yukki” in his mind, but they weren’t actually very close or anything. Although they were in the same class, they only had the chance for direct confrontations during P.E. class or cleaning hours.
But even Souta’s had noticed Koyuki’s dramatic transformation.
Around July, Koyuki had changed his appearance drastically. He had cut his hair that made him look like a girl at first glance, and switched out his glasses for contacts.
“Ah, Ayase-kun? You cut your hair!”
Passed by Koyuki in the hallway, Akari smiled at him as she said this.
Souta, had been walking right behind Akari, remembered that he’d nearly crushed the milk box he’d been holding when he saw this happen.
After making sure that Akari had gone, he quickly approached Koyuki.
“You cut your hair, huh? ….So, what were you talking about just now?”
“Eh? Um, you mean with Hayasaka-san? Just the same thing you told me, Mochizuki-kun. About how I’d cut my hair….”
Although he looked surprised at the sudden question, Koyuki looked straight at Souta as he answered.
He’d been so busy seething with jealousy, he hadn’t noticed it right away.
But now that he made direct eye contact with Koyuki, without his long bangs or glasses in the way, it made him catch his breath.
It made him wonder if they’d ever had the chance to talk like this before, face-to-face.
‘He hasn’t only changed his appearance, but his attitude, too.’
The only time he ever used to hear Koyuki’s voice was when he was exchanging manga with Natsuki during break hours.
But even they seemed to be having a nice chat over a common hobby, he usually only heard Natsuki’s voice, and whenever Koyuki spoke, it was only to comment on something that Natsuki had said. He was soft-spoken, and not very talkative.
That was the impression that Souta had of Koyuki.
However, after changing his appearance, he would initiate greetings on his own, and even raise his hand during class. He acted like a completely different person.
He was treated like an idol by some of the girls, and Souta would often see him surrounded by them during his Gardening Club activities. Although they could see that Koyuki was clearly bothered by this treatment, apparently they just found his reactions to be “So cute!”
At first, Souta had been confused, thinking it was a little too late to have changed himself for his high school debut, and too early for summer vacation.
But, he soon realized the reason for his transformation.
Koyuki was in love with Natsuki, and that was why he had changed himself.
’…That must be why Yukki looks at Natsuki the way he does.’
He looked at her in the warm and familiar way that you would towards friend, but there was a certain passion mixed in there as well.
Souta realized that he probably looked at Akari in the exact same way.
‘There was a poem like that in 100 Poems by 100 Poets, wasn’t there? No matter how much you try to hide your feelings for someone, it shows up on your face right away.’
Souta knew one other person that looked at someone in the same way.
He was sure that Natsuki had a crush on Yuu.
He also had a feeling that Yuu felt the same way towards Natsuki, but at the time, neither of them realized the fact that their feelings were mutual.
The two continued to have a frustrating relationship as mere childhood friends, growing neither closer together or farther apart.
Haruki and Miou often walked home together, but they didn’t seem to be dating, either.
Whenever he tried asking Haruki about it, he always just answered with something like, “We just get along for some weird reason.”
'As for Akarin… I haven’t really heard much.’
There had been countless courageous men who had confessed to Akari and been honorably rejected. There was even a rumor about a brave soul who had asked her, “Is there someone else you like?”
After thinking honestly about the question, she had tilted her head to the side and answered,
“Oh, I don’t really know.”
Souta looked over at the tennis courts behind him, where he saw Akari chatting cheerfully with the others while waiting for their turn to play.
Judging from the snippets of their conversation carried over by the wind, they were talking about which manga they recommended.
Natsuki must have gotten excited then, because for a moment, her voice was the loudest.
“Wait, so let me get this straight. Akari, the one that you start to have a crush on is your type?”
'Wha… Wh-wh-what good timing!’
Thanking Natsuki reverently in his mind, he focused all of his concentration in hearing every last word.
There was a short silence, and then he heard Akari’s soft voice loud and clear.
“Yeah, I guess so?”
'Ehhh?! The one that she starts to have a crush on is her type?! That’s the hardest type to figure out the strategy for….!’
Souta immediately held his head in defeat, but realizing something, he laughed bitterly.
How could he already be so shocked when he didn’t even have the courage to confess in the first place, and couldn’t even be counted amongst the competition yet.
‘Honestly, what a joke…. But, my feelings for her aren’t.’
He wasn’t going to wish for something as shameless as wanting Akari to like him back.
For now, he was fine as long as she didn’t already like someone else.
Realizing what he’d just thought, Souta became crest-fallen again.
Although he couldn’t wish for something unreasonable, instead, he wished for the worst thing he could wish against another person.
He couldn’t ever have anyone knowing the things he thought.
‘I’m such a weakling….’
He knew there was no point in comparing himself to someone else, but thinking about how much initiative Koyuki had, a self-scorning smile crept onto his face.
As if to cut him off from any further thoughts, the sound of the whistle rang out.
The first match was over, and preparations for the next match were starting. Haruki and Yuu changed the numbers hanging on their shirts and lined up at the center circle so that the referee could switch out the players.
“Mochita, hurry up and get over here! Today’s the day we beat Yuu once and for all!”
“That’s my line. Haruki, I’m not going to let you make even one shot.”
Souta waved back in response to his two childhood friends who had started their pre-match banter.
‘Instead of getting caught up in these messy thoughts, I should get moving!’
In a forced attempt to get his mind off of things, he went to join the others on the sunny field.
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
The two teams clashed with each other repeatedly, but with Yuu and Haruki being the main players and equally matched in strength, neither team was scoring any points.
The first half of the match had progressed without any decisive blows, and the second half was soon approaching.
‘Ah, he intercepted the ball again! Looks like Haruki’s in good condition today too.’
Yuu was on the offense while keeping a wide view of the opposing team’s movements, but it was clear that Haruki’s unpredictable moves were frustrating him.
“Akari, hold that position….!”
“Nacchan, that was so cool!”
It sounded like the next tennis match had started as well, and he could hear Akari’s cheerful voice.
She was paired up with Natsuki for doubles, who was displaying outstanding reflexes and being excellent support for Akari.
‘Akarin doesn’t look like she’s that good at sports, but she sure isn’t cutting any corners….’
Souta was so dazzled by the effort she was showing that he ended up watching her match instead of focusing on his own.
“Mochita, look up!”
“Heeey, watch out!”
Just as he was responding sluggishly to Yuu and Haruki’s voices, it hit him.
The moment he looked up at the sky, the ball came flying right at Souta’s face.
Pain seared through his nose, and losing his balance, he fell over on his back.
His vision was filled with stars, and tears started to form against his will.
‘Ugh, this is so lame…’
There were roars of laughter all around him, and he could hear the voices of the girls from over at the tennis courts, too.
Now that such a commotion had started, he was sure that even Akari had noticed.
‘To think that I was so captivated by the girl I like that I’d take a ball to a face….’
Even if he couldn’t shoot any goals, he was certain that he could have showed off with intercepting the ball, or making free kicks. Being hit in the face with the ball was nothing to be impressed about.
‘It’s probably punishment for wishing that the girl I like doesn’t like someone else….’
Feeling more tears coming on, he hid his eyes with his hand.
Yuu and the others must have seen everything, as they spoke in rather cheerful voices.
“Don’t cry just from a face-block.”
It sounded like an offensive comment, but Souta knew Haruki’s real intentions. He was trying to make it sound like he was crying because of the pain from being hit with the ball.
“Yeah, that was some nice play!”
Yuu casually caught on as well, and held out his hand with words of encouragement.
Souta hesitated for a moment before deciding to take his hand.
“Don’t mention it. Anyway, you’re actually pretty heavy. I don’t think I’ll be able to manage it on my own.”
‘Hm? Manage what?’
“….Guess I’ll lend a hand then.”
‘Hm? Lend a hand with what?’
He had a bad feeling about the conversation that Yuu and Haruki were having.
He was scared to ask, but if he just went along with it, who knew what they were going to do with him.
Ignoring the all-too-familiar warning signs, Souta hesitantly asked them,
“Um, you guys.… what exactly are you talking about?”
“Carrying you, duh.”
The two of them answered at the exact same time, and lifted Souta up in one quick movement.
Haruki was supporting the upper half of his body, with Yuu holding up his legs, and they were making a sound to imitate something taking off.
‘I-Isn’t this the pose… we’d always do to pretend to be airplanes when we were kids?!’
It was a lot of fun back then, but Souta was a third-year in highschool now.
Their classmates all roared with laughter as they watched the three of them.
“Oh shoot, Mochita’s being carried off!”
“Hey, I wanna try that too!”
Souta bit down on my bottom lip at the guys’ teasing.
‘Ugh, we’re attracting all this attention….’
Unable to stand it, he averted his gaze, and saw that the soccer ball that had assaulted his face had rolled off towards the tennis courts.
When the ball finally stopped moving, long, slender fingers wrapped around it to pick it up.
There was no way they’d make eye contact from so far away.
He knew this, but he still couldn’t help looking away.
If, by any chance, she had a disgusted look on her face, he would never recover from that.
“…I’m so jealous of that ball….”
His true thoughts ended up spilling from his mouth.
But before those regretful words could reach anyone’s ears, they were erased by the sound of Yuu and Haruki’s footsteps.
Somewhat discouraged by this, an indescribable gloom spread in his chest.
‘I’m so uncool….’
As if to allude to poor weather in the afternoon, cumulonimbus clouds were beginning to form overhead.
The stark contrast of blue and white only made his chest feel tighter.