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Hayasaka Akari

Birthday: December 3
Horoscope Sign: Sagittarius
Blood Type: O

A close friend of Natsuki’s. In the Art Club. Has an easygoing personality, and her friendly smile has gained her many fans, but in reality, she’s actually pretty shy.
 

—–
 

practice 4

The first weekend of summer vacation started off hectically.

Natsuki had been strangely too nervous to sleep the previous night, but by the time she’d finally fallen asleep, her alarm clock was ringing. She couldn’t remember what happened after that, and when she opened her eyes the second time, it was an hour before the meeting time.
 

“Shoot… I wanted to wake up early to spend time picking out what to wear, too…”

Natsuki tried on one outfit after another in front of her full-length mirror, but she just couldn’t decide on which combination to go with.

‘I’m going to meet Yoshida-sensei, so I can’t look too sloppy….!’

The text that she’d received from Koyuki after school that day had been an invitation to a signing event with the mangaka who Natsuki was a huge fan of. It wasn’t going to be at the amusement park, or the aquarium or anything, but naturally, a large bookstore in the city.

Since she’d be anticipating where they’d be going, at first she’d been a bit taken aback after reading the text, but truthfully, she was very excited to be meeting the mangaka who she admired so much.

Natsuki had hurried to book her own reservation for the signing event, and waited for this day to come.
 

“I’ll just have to go with my best clothes….!”

From the mountain of clothes piled at her feet, Natsuki picked up a dress with cute lace down the chest area.

She’d fallen in love with it at first sight and bought it when she’d gone out with Miou and Akari.

“I’ve never really worn these kinds of clothes before, though… I wonder if it’ll be okay.”

Holding the dress up in front of her pajamas, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. She felt like it made her look much more clean and proper than usual.

“It’s kinda like… a limited-time only thing, I guess?”

Smiling wryly at that simple way of putting it, Natsuki grabbed the bottom of her T-shirt.
 

“So, an invitation for a date, huh?”
 

She suddenly remembered Miou’s words, and her hands froze.

‘There’s just no way….’

Koyuki had never said that it was a date, and anyway, they were going to a mangaka’s signing event. Even if they did share the same interest in manga, he probably wouldn’t choose something like that for a date.

In the first place, he’d never even confessed to her, so she was definitely just over-thinking it.
 

Beep beep! Beep beep!

As if to interrupt her thoughts, the cell phone that she’d left lying on her bed starting ringing.

“Oh, right, I set an alarm.”

She hurriedly checked the time, and saw that there were only thirty minutes left.

There was no time to waste. Slapping both of her cheeks, Natsuki gracefully took off her T-shirt.
 

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
 

“Heeey, Natsuki! I’m here to return your game!”

As soon she came out the front door, the person standing in front of the gate called out to her.

The moment they made eye contact, Yuu, who was holding a strategy guide and the game software, came running up.

“Sorry, I’m just about to go out. Could you leave them in the shoebox?”

“Going out with Aida and Hayasaka?”

‘….H-Huh? But, doesn’t it look like I’m dressed really nicely today?’

Feeling a bit uneasy under Yuu’s gaze, Natsuki shook her head.

“No, I’m going out with Koyuki-kun today.”
 

The moment she answered, it felt like the air around them had frozen.

A crease formed between Yuu’s eyebrows, and he stared at Natsuki with a sharp gaze.

“Wh-What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Is Haruki fine with that?”

Yuu’s voice came out as a low growl, drowning out Natsuki had said.

She had no idea why, but it was clear that he was angry.

Angrier than she’d ever seen him before.
 

Resisting the urge to take a step back, Natsuki stared back at Yuu.

When she saw his slightly shaking hands, the way he bit down on his bottom lip, and how his eyes twitched as if fighting something back, Natsuki realized that she’d misinterpreted him.

‘Yuu is… trying not to cry?’

He might not have been aware of it himself, but along with anger, there was another emotion lurking there.

When she realized that, she lost the will to give a strong reply.
 

“It’s been decided that Akari’s going to be the one drawing for the movie. So it’s not like I have to meet up with Haruki now or anything. Anyway, Koyuki and I are just going to hang out. It’d be the same if I were to go with Mochita.”

“You weren’t chosen, so you’re just giving up?”

When he immediately asked her that unexpected question, Natsuki held her breath.

It wasn’t like she’d given up or anything. It was just that it’d already been decided that Akari would be the one drawing the pictures. She was sure that Yuu knew this, so why was he asking something like this now of all times?
 

“I don’t… really get what you’re trying to say….”

“You didn’t answer my question. Even though you seemed so happy about Haruki praising you… I’ve never even seen you look like that before.”

Even when she’d honestly said she didn’t understand, Yuu continued to press her for answers.

In all of her confusion, there was just one thing she was certain of.

‘I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about!’

Had something happened that Natsuki wasn’t aware of yet? No, there would have been a text about it, and she was sure that Yuu would also be explaining it to her right now, if that were the case.

‘Then, what? What is it? What’s going on here?!’
 

As Natsuki held her head in confusion, Yuu let out a sigh.

Wondering what he was going to say next, she lifted her head, and saw a large hand fill her vision.

She tensed up on instinct, but Yuu only patted her head with the palm of his hand.

“Eh? Yuu….?”

With her mouth hanging open, she looked up at her childhood friend’s face.

He was standing them, looking almost like an entirely different person with a mature smile on his face.
 

“Sorry, that wasn’t really my place to butt in, was it?”

See, this was exactly why I can never figure out what you’re angry about, or what’s bothering you.

Even though things would probably turn out fine as long as she replied with that, somehow, she couldn’t find the strength to.

Yuu patted Natsuki on the head again, like he’d do for his little sister, Hina.

“After all, I’m the one who said I’d cheer you on no matter who you like,”

The words that Yuu muttered so quietly, rang clearly in Natsuki’s ears.

However, she still couldn’t bring herself to say anything in response, and could only stand rooted to the spot like she was paralyzed.
 

“Shouldn’t you get going soon? You don’t wanna be late. Oh, right, this goes in the shoebox, right?”

Waving his hand, Yuu opened the front door of Natsuki’s house.

Even though it was something she was so used to seeing, for some reason, it made her chest hurt terribly.

‘Will Yuu and I always stay as just childhood friends…? Are we going to be like this forever?’

Ever since she’d started doing the confession rehearsals, Natsuki would tell him “I like you” at the end of every day, instead of the usual “See you tomorrow.”

And with each time she said it, she kept thinking about how she should just tell him for real already.
 

‘What’ve I been doing all this time….’

All she was doing was running away from him. Using their relationship as “childhood friends,” and the “confession rehearsals” as a safety net, and building up a wall so that she’d never have to get hurt.

Even though she’d tried to keep that up, in the end, tears of regret threatened to spill.
 

“I’m so useless….”
 

Natsuki’s voice was drowned out by the cries of the cicadas, reaching no one’s ears and left unheard.
 

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
 

“Enomoto-san, are you alright?”

“….Huh?”

Her shoulders shook in a reserved fashion, and Natsuki looked up at the other with slow movements.

She blinked, and Koyuki, who was sitting there looking worried, came into focus.

A moment later, the surrounding sounds came back as well. She could hear the voices of other people talking from around them.

‘Where is this….? The signing event…. Right, it already ended.’

The ice in the glass between her hands made a sound as it shifted, and she remembered that she’d ordered an iced cafe au lait. Since she’d left it alone for so long, a puddle of water had formed on the table underneath the glass.

“You don’t seem like you have much of an appetite, huh. Is it because of the summer heat?”

“No, it’s nothing like that! I think I’m just worn out from all the excitement of meeting Yoshida-sensei. Sorry for spacing out like that,”

Because the words just came out so naturally, even Natsuki was convinced that was the reason why.

However, Koyuki still looked puzzled, and continued to look at her inquisitively.
 

“….Did something happen between you and Setoguchi-kun?”

That question instantly made her heart waver.

Like a ripple of water, the sensation spread throughout her whole body, and she nodded weakly.

“It’s not a big deal or anything, though… It’s just, I don’t really get what Yuu’s thinking lately.”

“Have you talked to him about it?”

“Of course not! There’s no way I could just bring that up.”

“But why? It’s bothering you, right?”
 

Natsuki was at a loss for words at Koyuki’s quick and sharp reply.

What he said made sense, but what bothered her was the fact that she didn’t know how to say it.

And what bothered her even more was that Koyuki had so easily figured out her situation.Of course, he was smart enough to score in the upper levels in the nationwide mock exams, so that thought process of his was to be expected.

Once he’d figured it out, he’d just gone ahead and said it outright…

‘Like aiming for the front first thing, instead of stalling around, huh.’
 

“Koyuki-kun… You’ve really changed a lot. Not just with the way you look, but you’ve gotten more aggressive, like with the way you talk.”

“Do you… think so? If I have, then it’s because you gave me that push from behind,”

As if he was telling her a secret, Koyuki lowered his voice.

“Huh? Wait, huuuh?! Me? But I haven’t done anything!”

“Ahaha! I thought you might say that,”

Koyuki seemed to find something hilarious, and bent over the table in a burst of laughter.

When he lifted his face again, he wiped the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes, leaving Natsuki bewildered.
 

“Did I really say something so funny….?”

“No, I was just thinking about how completely opposite it is.”

After taking a drink from his iced tea, Koyuki continued talking calmly, like he was giving the solution for a mathematical formula.

“The reason I changed was because of you, Enomoto-san. But to you, the specific reason that caused me to change was something so ‘natural’ that you didn’t pay any particular attention to it. So that’s why you don’t remember.”

“Is that… really how it is?”
 

Unable to follow his explanation, Natsuki couldn’t honestly say that she understood.

However, Koyuki quickly clarified.

“That’s how I think it is. Applying it to your situation with Setoguchi-kun, since the two of you are childhood friends, it was ‘natural’ for you to understand what the other is thinking. On the other hand, that might’ve caused you two to lose the chance to talk to each other about your feelings.”
 

Talk to each other about our feelings…

As Natsuki repeated the phrase to herself, she felt the fog that been obstructing her vision begin to clear.

‘….I see. So I got too used to what was “natural.”’

She felt like she didn’t understand the conversation, but she’d hesitated in taking another step forward.

Up until now, she’d never felt the need to talk about her feelings, so she had always interpreted things in a way that made it convenient for herself, and become afraid to face the truth again.

‘All this time, we’ve put off confirming each other’s feelings.’
 

As Natsuki sat there in silence, Koyuki responded by lowering his head.

“I’m sorry. As an outsider, I shouldn’t just be assuming things….”

“Ah, you don’t need to apologize! Honestly, I think that’s how it probably is, too.”

Waving both of her hands frantically, Natsuki suggesting they continue with their lunch.

“More importantly, let’s eat the pasta while it’s still fresh!”

Koyuki looked back up, and seemed like he still had something to say, but when Natsuki looked at him questionably, he only shook his head. The expression on his face looked just a little sad.
 

‘Did Koyuki-kun get tired of me….?’

After all, the reason they’d just had that conversation earlier was because she’d been spacing out.

To top it off, she felt like Koyuki-kun had helped solve the problem that had been bothering her, but since it was such a personal matter, she couldn’t really tell him the details about it.

‘Once I tell Yuu how I really feel, that’s when I’ll thank Koyuki-kun properly, too.’

If it was Natsuki that had given Koyuki a push from behind, then this time, it was Koyuki who had given her that push she needed.

When she thanked him, she’d let him know just how grateful she was for that.
 

At that time, she believed that it wouldn’t be too long before that day would come.
 

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
 

‘What do I do, we’re already at the park….’

Natsuki let out a quiet sigh next to Koyuki, whose eyes were shining unusually bright.

She was happy when he’d said he would see her off, but she didn’t think he meant all the way to her doorstep.

She’d been surprised enough that he’d accompanied her to the nearest train stop, but when Koyuki started to walk ahead, casually saying, “Come on, let’s go,” Natsuki had been too stunned to do anything but follow after him.
 

‘Even when I said I’d be fine since it’s still light out, he didn’t listen to me at all.’

Koyuki had been surprisingly stubborn.

After worrying over it long enough, Natsuki boldly stopped in her tracks.
 

“Koyuki-kun, really, you don’t have to walk me all the way…. You won’t remember the way back to the station, right?”

“….Alright. I don’t want to be a bother to you, after all.”

Natsuki smiled wryly at the honesty of Koyuki’s words.

‘He’s been like this the entire day….’
 

Koyuki had always been polite when speaking, but today, he’d acted just like a butler or a knight would. He’d treated Natsuki just like how a upper-class lady or a princess might be treated, so she couldn’t help but feel shy about it.

‘I mean, Koyuki-kun really took care of everything.’

As if it were only natural, he’d held open every single door for her, along with pulling out her chair, and even walked on the side of sidewalk facing the cars.

‘I felt bad when he said he’d pay for lunch, since he was the one who had invited me out today, though.’
 

Koyuki really was a nice person.

Even if she tried to return the favor in some tangible form, he probably wouldn’t accept it.

That was why, for now, Natsuki simply faced him with a smile showing all of her gratitude.
 

“Thank you for today! I had a lot of fun.”

“No, thank you. It was… like a dream.”

“Ehh? Quit exaggerating, Koyuki-kun.”

Giving an embrarassed laugh, Natsuki playfully hit Koyuki’s upper arm, just like she’d do to Yuu or Haruki.

Although his arms looked thin and soft, she felt muscle there when she hit him.

‘Well, duh, Koyuki-kun’s a guy too, after all….’
 

“Enomoto-san!”
 

Koyuki suddenly called her name, and took hold of her wrist.

Seeing the serious expression on his face, Natsuki held her breath.

‘Is he the type that doesn’t like being touched?’

She was used to more rough skinship with Yuu and the others, so it’d slipped her mind. It was possible that Koyuki wasn’t very comfortable with physical contact.
 

Just as she was about to apologize, she heard the sound of a bicycle going by right behind her.

She flinched on instinct, and Koyuki immediately let go out her hand.

“S-Sorry! Did I hurt you?”

“No, I’m okay. Actually, I’m sorry for hitting you.”

As she apologized to Koyuki, Natsuki watched the bicycle from the corner of her eye.

It was a perfectly ordinary ladies’ bicycle, with supermarket bags in the basket in the front. The person riding one was a woman, too, and not who she’d thought it was.
 

“Enomoto-san? What’s the matter?”

“Ah, I was just remembering how this is his usual route….”

She seemed to have caught Yuu’s habit of leaving out words, and saying things without context.

But for some reason, Koyuki understood exactly what she meant, and replied by saying, “Oh, you mean Setoguchi-kun’s.”
 

How did he know that?

Before she could ask, Koyuki grabbed her wrist again.

He pulled her towards him, and her head smacked right into his collarbone.

‘Ouch, that must have hurt….!’

Those were her first thoughts, but Koyuki seemed unfazed. Instead, he wrapped his other arm around her back, holding her against his chest.

“Do you know what kind of face you made just now?”

She heard his voice at her ear, and tried to shift her body around to look up at him.

However, Koyuki’s arms were stronger than she thought, and the most she could do was turn her neck.
 

‘Koyuki-kun, what’s gotten into you….?’

Between her confusion and uneasiness, Natsuki couldn’t register what he meant by that question.

As if impatient with her silence, Koyuki continued.
 

“If it were me, I would never give you reason to make such a sad face. I would try hard for you, with only the best of intentions.”
 

The pounding of Koyuki’s heartbeat rang clearly in her ears.

Natsuki’s own heartbeat sped up as well, restless like she’d just done a sprint.

So much that it hurt.
 

“So, instead of Setoguchi-kun–”

“Instead of me, what?”
 

She heard a voice from behind her, cutting off Koyuki’s speech.

There was no mistaking that voice she was so used to hearing.
 

“…Yuu….”

Pulling away from Koyuki, who had loosened his grip, she turned around with slow steps.

With the sunset directly behind him, Yuu’s face was cast in shadow and hard to make out.

But strangely, it was obvious that he was angry. The atmosphere was strained, so much that it was painful to be standing there.
 

“Say, Ayase,”

Yuu acted like Natsuki wasn’t there, and glared only at Koyuki.

Koyuki didn’t even falter, and simply nodded with a smile on his face.

Feeling the tension inevitably rise, Natsuki clenched the hem of her dress nervously.
 

“Have you ever heard of the term, ‘TPO’? It means being mindful of how to act when it comes to certain times, places, and occasions. This is a public place, where neighborhood residents like myself could just come walking by. If you’re so casual about things like that in public, you’ll cause trouble for Natsuki.”

“‘Things like that’?”

Whether he really didn’t understand, or if he was just testing him, Koyuki immediately asked Yuu what he was referring to.

Yuu clicked his tongue, something he rarely did, and stepped closer to Koyuki.
 

“I mean, if you have the time to be acting like her boyfriend, then at least think about her feelings more.”

“….Shouldn’t you be following your own advice first?”

“No need to.”

When Yuu gave a quick reply, the smile disappeared from Koyuki’s face.

His eyes widened as if surprised, and then narrowed into a glare.

Unable to keep up with the two, Natsuki could only watch them in silence.
 

“May I ask why that is?”

“It’s because Natsuki and I are childhood friends… Even the neighbors can confirm that.”

“Ahh, childhood friends. I see.”

Koyuki seemed to scoff, and Yuu became even more visibly annoyed.

Even to Natsuki, it looked like Koyuki was trying to provoke Yuu.

‘Why is he acting like this? Is this… really Koyuki-kun….?’
 

She knew that she had to get between the two of them, but her legs wouldn’t move.

Even when she tried to yell, which was the least she could do, her voice wouldn’t come out.

The more impatient she got to do something, the more she felt her throat tightening.

‘Please, don’t fight….’

She stared at them, hoping to convey that message. Yuu was the first to notice. When their eyes met, he looked startled, and gradually, the wrinkles between his eyebrows increased.
 

‘B-But why? Did it backfire?’

Could it be that he thought she was trying to stand up for Koyuki?

Despite the panic that Natsuki was currently in, Yuu took another step in front of her.
 

“In any case, I won’t forgive anyone who makes Natsuki cry.”

It was clear by Yuu’s indifferent voice that he hadn’t given into Koyuki’s taunt.

Letting out the breath she was holding, Natsuki felt something cold and wet drip down around her collarbone.

‘What was that….? Rain?’

She looked up at the sky, but before she could find any clouds, her vision blurred over.

As she weakly lifted her hand to rub at her eyes, she felt a dampness at her fingertips.
 

“….H-Huh?”

“That’s how it is, so let’s go.”

Without waiting for a reply or even bothering to ask her opinion, Yuu wrapped his arm around her shoulders and started walking.

She tried to tell him to wait, but all she could do was sniff.

‘Stupid, this isn’t the time to be crying….’
 

I have to apologize to Koyuki-kun.

I have to clear up Yuu’s misunderstanding.

Despite these thoughts, the tears just kept falling, preventing her from speaking.
 

“It isn’t fair of you to do this if you aren’t going to compete!”
 

She heard Koyuki yell after them, but it wasn’t for them to stop.

To top it off, she wasn’t sure who his words were directed at.

When she looked up at her childhood friend walking beside her, he had a dissatisfied look on his face.

‘Then… that was meant for Yuu?’

However, he gave no reaction whatsoever, and his mouth remained glued shut.

After that, Koyuki didn’t say anything else, and she heard the distant sound of his footsteps as he ran off.
 

‘Why….? Why did things end up like this?’

Holding back her sobs, Natsuki repeated this answerless question in her head.

 

The sunset that day was a terrible strain on her eyes.


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