In just one day, with just a few words, your life can change dramatically.
But in order to make that change a reality, you need courage.
“I finished the manga, so I’ll be confessing today!”
Natsuki had said to Akari and Miou, and boldly headed for the battlefield.
And with that happy announcement, she taught them that courage can change everything.
She’d told them about how she’d been pretty nervous even during the confession rehearsals, so the real thing was sure to be at least ten times worse.
In any case, the one Natsuki would be confessing to was her childhood friend that she was next-door-neighbors with. It wasn’t something Akari wanted to think about, but in the case that her feelings were rejected, there was a risk of their friendship being lost, as well.
‘But Nacchan didn’t run away.’
It probably wasn’t because she was confident about her chances of success. She simply went to see Yuu with her chest full of her feelings for him.
”I’ll tell you guys the details tomorrow at school.”
With her heart pounding over the last line in the text, Akari had trouble getting much sleep that night.
This morning, her alarm clock had stopped ringing long before she had rushed out of the house with barely any breakfast. She didn’t want to miss a single second of what Natsuki had to say.
But, even so….
The situation had taken a turn in a direction outside of Akari’s expectations.
Hearing the chime for lunch, Akari exchanged looks with Miou.
As with anything, it was always the first stages that were most important, and after what they’d seen of Natsuki and Yuu since that morning, the two were overcome by an indescribable uneasiness.
“Miou-chan, should we go to the art room today? Or the prep room?”
“I dunno…. Won’t she realize right away?”
As they leaned close together and spoke in whispers, they felt someone come up to them from behind.
Akari felt that she shouldn’t turn around, so instead, it was Natsuki that spoke first.
“Are you guys talking about where to have lunch? It’s so nice out today, so why don’t we go to the courtyard?”
Something terrible had happened. No, it was still too early to give up all hope just yet.
Akari awkwardly turned her head, and confirmed with Natsuki subtly,
“You mean, with the three of us?”
“Eh? ….Ah, sure! Are you inviting anyone else?”
Nacchan, you’re the one that’s supposed to invite someone else!
Holding back the urge to make that rebuttal, Akari glanced over at Yuu.
It looked like Yuu was heading to the cafeteria with Souta, as well as Haruki, who had come over from the class next door.
’H-huh? Wait, even Setoguchi-kun….?!’
With her face paling, Akari looked at Miou for help.
But Miou had her eyebrows furrowed as well, seemingly in the middle of thinking of a way out.
At this rate, Natsuki and Yuu would end up eating lunch separately.
’No, anything but that! I have to do something!’
Making sure that she was loud enough for Yuu and the others to hear, Akari asked Natsuki,
“N-Nacchan, isn’t there someone else besides us that you want to eat your bento with?”
“Th-that’s right! Think reaaally hard, okay?”
Thanks to Miou being quick to pitch in, it seemed like they’d succeeded in getting Yuu and the others’ attention.
Relieved to hear them stop walking, Akari continued in order to get Natsuki to realize her point.
“Like, for example…. Y-your boyfriend?”
Far from being a straight ball, it was a pitch as wild as a hard fastball.
Though she hadn’t planned on just spelling it out like this, it was too late now.
As expected, that was enough for even Natsuki to catch on, making her expression freeze in place.
“Is that why you guys have been acting weird since this morning?”
Speaking as quietly as possible, Akari and Miou took hold of each other’s hand.
“I mean! Both you and Setoguchi-kun are acting the same way around one another as you always have!”
“Nacchan, I know you’re probably just embarrassed, but if you’re with us, it’ll probably be harder for Setoguchi-kun to come up and talk to you….”
Now that it’d come to this, they had no choice but to tell her everything, but Natsuki only squared her shoulders stubbornly.
“I-It’s fine! For Yuu and I, this is normal!”
The other three that were watching from the sidelines also seemed to have figured out what Akari was trying to say.
Haruki burst out laughing, Souta was holding back his laughter, and Yuu had turned red up to his ears and was looking at the ceiling.
“Didn’t I tell you? That playing it off like that was just going to cause misunderstandings?”
Haruki pointed this out seriously, but he was clearly grinning as he did.
“It’d be pretty lame if people started thinking you were breaking up the very next day after you guys got together.”
Souta added with a meek look on his face, but the corners of his mouth were twitching, as well.
“Yeah, yeah, say whatever you want.”
Yuu seemed to take their words pretty harshly, as his face was still as red as before.
It was obvious that he was as embarrassed as Natsuki was.
’Haha. It’s all kind of heartwarming somehow.’
Pressing a finger to her face as it naturally broke into a smile, Akari gazed contently at the scene before her.
But Yuu soon turned in their direction next.
“Same goes for you, Hayasaka. And you too, Aida.”
Both Akari and Miou answered at the same time when they were called out.
And just like you’d see in a manga, they even did a little jump on the spot.
“Aww, what a bully~ Yuu’s picking on the girls~”
“Don’t say that, Haruki. Yuu’s pretty traumatized from being scared like that too, you know.”
“Hmm, I don’t remember raising him to be such a scaredy cat, though.”
As Haruki and Souta joked around without restraint, even Natsuki joined in.
They were completely in sync as childhood friends.
“You know, it’s a real pain dealing with you guys fooling around so much on top of it all! Just let me focus on one thing at a time, would you?!”
“Setoguchi-kun kinda of reminds of a mom.”
“Ah, same here.”
Miou muttered, and Akari agreed in an equally quiet voice.
Both of them started laughing at about the same time. Yuu overheard them and pointed at Haruki and the overs accusingly, exclaiming, “See?”
“Even Hayasaka and Aida are fed up with you guys!”
“Yeah, yeah. Quit making that sorry face and say what you wanna say already.”
Although it was forceful, Natsuki had brought the conversation back on track, so Yuu took a deep breath before speaking.
Since Yuu had turned back around, Akari looked up at her classmate of 180 centimeters, feeling a bit nervous.
“I know you guys are worried, but we’re fine. Um, how should I say this…. Even though we’re dating now, we’ve always been childhood friends before this, so it’s hard to suddenly change. Well, I guess it’s more like I’m fine with how close we are now, so….”
Akari was stunned at how Yuu spoke so hesitantly.
Being someone who was so sensitive to other people, Akari knew that Yuu usually chose his words carefully when speaking. Paired with Natsuki, who was always straightforward about saying what was on their mind, Akari found them to be a good team.
’But…. Something isn’t right about this….’
Glancing over at Miou, Akari saw that she seemed lost, as well.
As for Natsuki, who was standing beside her, she was staring silently down at the floor.
‘Yeah, this is no good!’
Maybe she was just being nosy, but she couldn’t just stand and do nothing when one of her closest friends was so disappointed.
Taking a step forward, Akari stared up at Yuu, who was about to keep making excuses.
“Setoguchi-kun! Have you talked about this with Nacchan?”
Akari took Yuu’s surprise as a confirmation to her suspicions.
’I knew it! So he really /hasn’t talked with Nacchan….!’
Suddenly overcome by sadness, Akari was struck by an uneasy feeling in her chest.
“You should listen to what Nacchan has to say! Even if she doesn’t say it, I’m sure that Nacchan wants to eat lunch together with you. The same with walking home together after school, and holding hands…. Oh, and going to eat cake together sounds nice too!”
Akari blurted out as this great idea came to her, before coming back to her senses.
Natsuki, Miou, as well as all the guys, were quiet.
’Oh, how embarrassing….’
Feeling awkward now, Akari dropped her gaze to the floor.
’Was that too much? I mean, the second half was just full of things that I would want to do….’
“Yuu, that was a girl’s insight just now. Make sure you put it to good use.”
There was the sound of someone clapping Yuu on the shoulder, followed by Souta’s voice.
Taking that as a cue, Haruki and Natsuki also began to chatter.
”So basically, don’t hold back and go show off as a boyfriend.”
“But if Yuu and I held hands in front of Haruki just because he said that….”
“He’d probably tell us off like, ‘What’re you guys being all flirty for?’”
While Haruki spoke seriously, Natsuki and Yuu joined together in teasing him.
“You two just don’t get it, do you? Acting flirty with each other while everyone else makes fun of you is the best part, right?”
“Shut up, Mochita.”
Again, both of them were perfectly in sync.
Encouraged by the lively voices around her, Akari slowly lifted her face.
From the looks on everyone’s face, no one seemed at all unhappy right now.
In fact, they were all laughing and smiling cheerfully instead.
’Wh-what a relief….’
As she rubbed her nose, someone reached out to tug at the sleeve of her blazer.
Looking over, she saw Miou, who smiled wide and leaned close to whisper,
“Don’t worry. I thought it’d be fun to hold hands walking home, or go on an after school date, too.”
“….M-Miou-chaaan! I love you~!”
Unable to contain herself, Akari threw her arms around Miou in a hug, and for some reason, both Haruki and Souta looked alarmed.
Before she had any time to react to that, Akari felt a weight on her back.
“No faaaair! I love you girls too, you know!”
Seeing Natsuki’s sulking face, both Akari and Miou couldn’t help bursting out in laughter.
“Watch out, your girlfriend’s already cheating on you.”
“….That’s fine. I’ll just prove to them who’s her real boyfriend.”
“Woah! Go for it, Yuu!”
Hearing the conversation between Haruki and the others behind her, Natsuki’s face turned beet red.
While on the brink of tears from happiness, Akari let go of her friend’s hand, who still seemed to be having trouble being true to herself.
“Go on, Nacchan.”
Her voice was barely higher than a whisper, but she had definitely nodded.
After that, she took Yuu’s hand, and the two left the classroom together.
’They’re so dazzling…. Ah, is this what ‘hope’ is like?’
The missing piece that she’d been looking for so all this time had fallen right into her hand.
She clenched her hand into a fist as if to hold onto it, and moved quickly towards the door.
If she didn’t hurry and draw it now, she felt it might escape from her.
“Hold on, Hayasaka! Why don’t the four of us have lunch today?”
“….Huh? The four of us….?”
“Hayasaka, Miou, Mochita, and me.”
Pointing to himself at the end, Haruki flashed a toothy grin.
“I’m not so sure….”
Akari mumbled, almost as if talking to herself, causing Haruki to tilt his head in confusion.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling unwell?”
As Haruki pushed for an answer, Akari pretended to glance at the clock on the wall to check on Miou.
‘Miou-chan looks troubled….’
Before, Miou would probably have happily accepted the invitation to eat together.
But ever since she had found out that Haruki had someone he liked, it seemed like she was trying to keep her distance from him.
That was why when Haruki greeted her the other day, Akari wound up accidentally ignoring him, as well.
Although the two weren’t dating, the way they walked home from school every day made it seem that way. If Haruki wasn’t aware of this, that just made things all the more difficult.
’Serizawa-kun seemed like he was struggling with how to act towards Miou-chan, and yet….’
“It’s like I’m suddenly the only one left out….”
Souta muttered out of the blue.
It was unclear who the statement was directed at, but it didn’t sound like it carried a very positive nuance.
Worried, Akari looked over at him, but when their eyes met, Souta smiled gently back.
’Did I just mishear that?’
Before she could ask to be sure, Souta wrapped an arm around Haruki’s shoulders.
“Sorry to disappoint you, Haruki, but we still have editing work to do on the movie. Since we told Yuu that we’d finish up the rest, we’ve got to keep to our word, right?”
“Ugh…. Can’t we at least have a lunch break….?”
“‘At least’? When we could be using this time to work, instead? Don’t underestimate how much you can get done during a lunch break! It’s valuable time, so let’s make the most of it.”
Souta grinned and pulled Haruki along before he had a chance to protest.
As the only ones left behind, Akari and Miou simply stood there in silence for a while.
“….Haruki-kun seemed really excited, huh?”
There was something melancholy about Miou’s words.
She might know the reason why Haruki had been in such high spirits.
Hearing this, Akari realized for the first time that that was the case.
“Ah! That’s right, weren’t you about to go somewhere, Akari-chan?”
When Miou spoke again, she was her usual self again, as if some switch had been flipped.
But as Miou looked up at Akari with eyes that glistened slightly, Akari immediately grabbed her hand.
“Miou-chan, why don’t we eat in the art room today?”
♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
About a week after that, Akari was called to the Career Guidance Office after school.
Feeling reluctant, every step felt heavier than the last as she made her way over.
The school had asked her to help with a certain task, but she didn’t feel like she was very capable for it.
’I knew I should have turned them down, after all…. But even Eri-chan-sensei asked me to do it….’
No matter how slowly she walked, eventually she would reach her destination.
‘Now that I’ve come this far, I guess there’s no turning back. And besides, they said I wouldn’t be doing this alone!’
Akar took a deep breath outside of the Career Guidance Office, and bracing herself, she opened the door.
“Hey, Hayasaka. So the other person was you, huh?”
Haruki must have been looking out the window a moment ago, since he was standing by the window.
Seeing Akari enter the room, he moved away from the window and approached the long table in the center of the room.
“The teachers said they’d be late, so let’s go ahead and have a seat while we wait for them.”
Akari answered instinctively, but then realized how awkward the situation was.
’Maybe he isn’t bothered by what happened the other day, though….’
It was possible that Haruki had completely forgotten about Akari ignoring him before.
Akari hesitated about where to sit, before finally deciding on a seat directly across from Haruki.
Haruki folded his arms behind his head, and leaned his weight back on the chair in full-on relaxation mode. No matter where he was and who he was with, his behavior never changed.
’….But, he always seemed to be enjoying himself the most whenever he was with Miou-chan.’
Remembering what Miou had told her during lunch in the art room last week, Akari’s naturally lowered her gaze.
Once the two of them were alone, the tears had started pouring from Miou’s eyes. She must have been holding them back all this time, seeing how surprised she’d been at herself over how much she was crying.
”When I first heard that Nacchan started going out with Setoguchi-kun, I was really happy. I was genuinely glad for them….”
Miou bit down on her bottom lip, hesitating over her next words.
”Miou-chan, what’s wrong?”
”….I’m…. such a bad person. At first, of course I was happy that Nacchan got to be with the person she likes, but I…. I was also happy because that meant Haruki-kun wouldn’t be able to….”
Not wanting her to say anymore, Akari pulled Miou into an embrace.
If she were in Miou’s shoes, she probably wouldn’t be able to help thinking that way, either.
’When the person you like likes someone else, of course you won’t be able to cheer them on.’
But she knew that if she said that out loud, it would only make Miou cry even more.
In the end, all Akari had been able to do was stay by her side.
“I’m not sure how I feel about having photos of us on the pamphlets, though.”
Haruki talking to her suddenly brought Akari back to reality.
She blinked to bring her vision back in focus and saw Haruki resting his chin in palm of his hand unhappily.
“They said that the photos would be small, so I think it’s fine. I’m more worried about the interview….”
Perhaps due to Haruki’s laidback attitude, Akari found herself speaking without reserve, as well.
“Ugh, I forgot about that.”
As Haruki grimaced, Akari couldn’t help laughing a bit.
The school had asked them to be featured in a pamphlet that would be handed out to incoming students interested in enrolling at Sakuragaoka High.
”We want to show that our school is active in not only academics, but also the arts and other extracurricular activities. So that’s why we’d really like it if you would take part in this, Hayasaka-san!”
Matsukawa-sensei had said to her, but Akari was beside herself with worry.
She only kept drawing and participating in the Art Club because she liked it as a hobby. She had no idea what she was supposed to talk about to show off like the school wanted her to.
“Well, we don’t really have to think so hard about this. It’s not like we’re giving them advice on their entrance exams or anything. Let’s just show them the fun parts about high school and raise their motivation a bit.”
Upon hearing Haruki say the words that she had wanted to hear the most, Akari felt her uneasiness fade away.
And the way he gave her that carefree laugh made Akari’s heartbeat quicken.
’….Miou-chan, I’m sure I’m a much worse person than you are.’
There was something she was hiding from each of them.
She hid from Natsuki the fact that she had seen Haruki confess to her.
She hid from Miou the fact that she had found out who Haruki liked.
And she hid from herself….
Hearing Haruki call her name, Akari nodded with guilty, downcast eyes.
Haruki had corrected his sitting posture, and was staring straight at her.
There had been another time before that he’d looked at her with such seriousness it made her skin prickle.
It had been during the meeting they’d had before summer vacation in the Art Preparation Room.
”Say, what color do you think ‘love’ is?”
Haruki’s voice had been as casual as if he were only asking the weather that day.
But as he waited for an answer, his piercing gaze made for a strong contrast.
“Thanks for that picture.”
“You know, the picture with the cherry blossoms. The one you painted for our movie.”
With his tone, gaze, and words being so mismatched, Akari found herself at a loss for words.
Seeing Akari quietly shake her head, Haruki’s eyes softened a little.
“After seeing your picture, I changed the last scene. At first, I planned for it to end with their unrequited feelings. Both the heroine and her senpai having feelings for each other, but being unable to say them.”
“….What made you change it?”
Akari asked, but she had a feeling she already knew the answer.
A part of her was in denial, saying that couldn’t possibly be the case.
But if it was just as she imagined, then—
“When you look at that picture, you just feel a certain way, you know? It’s like you can see a ray of hope, and there’s no way I could end it like a tragic love story after that.”
The way Haruki said it made Akari want to cry. Like there was no other way to see it.
’My picture really was able to change the ending….’
And when he told her how he saw that “ray of hope,” it felt like she’d found her way out of un unending tunnel.
That “ray of hope” had been what she’d been searching for for so long.
“….Hayasaka. It looks like you figured out what ‘love’ is.”
As Haruki uttered these words, a variety of different emotions emerged in his expression.
Like colors; somehow sad, happy, bewildered, all of them blurred together, and then disappeared.
In the end, what remained was his sharp gaze again.
“If you had to choose between time to have a relationship or time to draw, which would you choose?”
Just like before, he pitched her a question.
Since no one else was here, she couldn’t wait for someone else to answer first.
Akari closed her eyes, and answered with what she saw when she did.
“Before, I think I would have set aside everything to be able to draw.”
“Oh? So what about now?”
“Now, I…. I want both.”
Haruki widened his eyes, as if he hadn’t expected this kind of answer.
“I thought that you would have definitely picked drawing. But that’s all in the past now, right?”
’Serizawa-kun…. He seems kind of sad….? Or, more like he’s upset?’
Maybe he thought that she didn’t care much about drawing anymore.
Hoping that it wouldn’t sound like she was just making excuses, Akari started to speak again.
“That question you asked…. Even if it wasn’t between drawing and a relationship, I still don’t think I would have only chosen drawing. Because drawing is already a part of me.”
After Akari explained how drawing couldn’t be compared to anything, Haruki muttered a quiet note of understanding before falling silent.
He looked away, scratched the back of his head, and laughed slightly.
“So we really do think the same way.”
Seeing that smile, Akari felt a pleasant feeling spread through her.
It was something that she’d never felt before.
’It’s strange. It makes me happy to be understood, but….’
The last time someone had agreed with her, it had felt more painful, like her heart was being clenched.
“Yuu, that was a girl’s insight just now. Make sure you put it to good use.”
She recalled Souta’s voice from when they were in the classroom last week.
She hadn’t felt anything at the time, but now, for some reason, her chest started to hurt.
’Huh….? Huh? What is this feeling….?’
Akari felt like she probably knew the reason, the name of the bud that made her heart beat faster.
But she decided that she wouldn’t say its name aloud just yet.
There were still so many things she had to do before that.
Haruki answered with wide eyes, surprised by the sudden volume and being called by name.
’Come to think of it, Mochizuki-kun also said, ‘Aka…. Hayasaka-san’ once.’
Fondly recalling that memory, Akari looked straight at Haruki.
“Please be friends with me!”
A silence fell between them, and Haruki blinked several times in a row.
During that whole time, Akari held her gaze steady and continued to stare at him with her bright brown eyes.
“Um, but I thought we were already friends….”
The answer he gave her was a fairly anticlimactic one.
Akari felt all the strength leave her body, and slumped back to lean on her chair.
If she had told him this sooner, maybe things would have ended differently.
Akari shook her head from side to side, chasing away that passing thought.
’A lot of things happened, a lot of tears, and hurt feelings…. But because I didn’t give up despite all that, I’m standing here right now.’
“Eh? Wait, was I the only one that thought we were friends?”
“No, that’s not it…. Thank you!”
Akari said, with all sorts of emotions in her words.
This bud hadn’t been able to bloom, but that didn’t mean it had gone to waste.
She was sure it would become the strength for a new flower to sprout.
’I wonder why, but I really want to go and see Mochizuki-kun right now.’
With just a bit of space between them, they’d walk down the hill road to the station.
And then they’d go to the Hoshiya by the station, and share their favorite cakes with each other.
And then, someday—