After spending an hour in the large bath and putting on our yukatas, both Sudō and I took a bottle of free mineral water from the refrigerated case in the changing room and poured it down our throats with our hands on our hips. The cool water soaked into our burning bodies.
“I'm... Ready for this, Ayanokōji.”
“I guess this means it's time to go.”
His face was slightly red, perhaps because he was still a little flushed from the long bath. Or perhaps it was because he was nervous about what was to come. It was time to tell Horikita how he felt. Sudō gulped down the half-full water in one go.
“Phew! Let's go!”
He slapped both cheeks simultaneously to fire himself up, as if he were about to enter a basketball game.
“So? What exactly are you going to do?”
It was just past 9:30 p.m. Most of the students were probably in their rooms, relaxing with their friends. I doubt anyone was already sleeping. I can't imagine them having fun or making noise together, but I wouldn't be surprised if Horikita was watching them with a warm gaze.
“Anyway, yes... I'll try calling her on her cell phone.”
Clutching his phone, he walked through the warm room and exited the men's bath... and immediately started calling.
“...Oh, hey, it's me. Where are you?”
He asked in a hurry, as she answered the phone without wasting time.
“In the lobby? Okay, just wait there for a minute. I'll be right there.”
Sudō hung up and looked at me as he walked away, breathing heavily.
“There's a small corner in the lobby of the ryokan that sells souvenirs, right? I heard she's there.”
“Don't confess right away, okay? It’s easy to be seen in the lobby. Horikita will be in trouble too.”
“I know, I know.”
A confession is a big event that requires consideration of not only the one confessing, but also the recipient.
“But where should I confess...?”
“If it's in the hallway leading to the backyard, no one will be coming at this time, right?”
There was a little wooden deck with a nice view if you headed up the stairs leading from the backyard to the higher ground.
However, after 9 p.m., you couldn't go out to that backyard, so there should be no one there.
“As one would expect from you, Ayanokōji, you're a good friend to have.”
He said with a thumbs up and a smile. It was a stiff, nervous smile though.
When a restless Sudō arrived at the lobby at a brisk pace, Horikita stopped browsing souvenirs, waiting nearby. I, on the other hand, kept my distance and stood in a blind spot.
In the lobby, there was one employee and several students looking at souvenirs or sitting on chairs chatting, allowing me to realize once again that this wasn't the right place for a confession.
Somehow, while gesturing with his hands, Sudō seemed to have succeeded in calling Horikita to the hallway leading to the backyard, and the two of them started walking in that direction side by side.
If that was the case, I should probably stop chasing them at this point, but it would also be troublesome to have Sudō chastise me. I followed them to watch his heroic figure while trying to minimize the sound of my footsteps.
Soon after, as I had expected, signs of people disappeared, and I stopped in the middle of an empty corridor.
Horikita turned around and wondered. Her hair was glossy, so much so that even in the dim light I could tell she had also been bathing not long beforehand.
Sudō, whose imposing demeanor was his main selling point, was perhaps too nervous in front of the member of the opposite sex he liked–something that was made clear by his low voice.
At night, the ryokan was a quiet place with subdued background music and quiet chatter, so unexpected loud noises were to be avoided, even in an unpopular area. That being the case, his voice was suitable.
Horikita tilted her head curiously at Sudō's stuttering.
The two weren't particularly irritated or rushed at this point.
This may have been another indication of the trust Horikita and Sudō had built between them.
When they first met, Horikita would’ve rushed him to state his business, no questions asked.
At this point, my cell phone started vibrating.
Even though I had it on silent mode, there was a possibility that they could hear me in the quiet environment.
Therefore, I immediately powered my cell phone off without checking the screen.
It seemed that she didn't notice me. That's a relief for now.
“Hey, Suzune. Am I... Changing?”
I thought he was going to make his confession, but Sudō asked something else, as if he was squeezing the question out of himself.
“I was wondering... How much difference there is between me now and when I met you.”
“Are you still worried about what people think of you?”
“Yes, that too.”
It was a topic that would keep the two occupied while Sudō’s courage to confess built up.
At the same time, it seemed that Sudō himself continued to be conscious of this.
“That's right. Objectively speaking, you’ve changed more than anyone else. Not for the worse, but for the better. I've been standing by your side for a long time, and I can assure you of that.”
Those were Horikita's true feelings.
No, it would be an opinion that many other students would agree with as well, not just Horikita.
“Oh, I see.”
“But don't become prideful. You originally started out, if I may say so without reservation, in a more negative state than those around you. Don't think that just because you have accumulated positives since then, that easily makes you a more accomplished person than others.”
The great rebound from the misleading initial negative impression was highly valued by others.
However, as Horikita said, the accumulated negatives hadn't gone away.
“Yes, that’s right. No, I seriously think that's true.”
Sudō nodded his head in acceptance, depressed due to the harsh words, but resolutely accepting them.
“That's not good. I've been a fool myself.”
The tardiness and absences, the lowest ranking on the written exam, the abusive language, and the immediate violence.
No matter how many times he looked back, the past never changed, and he was ashamed of the path he had taken.
“You seem to have a firm and humble heart.”
He nodded, and then Horikita gently squinted her eyes at him and smiled.
He probably didn't realize it, but Horikita changed a lot.
The magnitude of that change was probably not much different from Sudō's.
“You don't needlessly hurt or annoy others anymore. It's okay.”
Apparently, Horikita interpreted this as Sudō asking her for advice due to being unsure about his own growth and past. This must have been conveyed to Sudō, who shook his head hurriedly.
“No, no, no, Suzune.”
Perhaps remembering what he had declared to me, Sudō quickly held out his right hand.
But the words didn’t follow the actions, only the outstretched and spread hand remained in front of her.
“What? What is this?”
Horikita was about to inquire about the meaning of his right hand since she didn't understand.
“I love you! Please go out with me!”
He was able to free himself from the shame of trying to hold back and said the words clearly.
His voice was loud, but... I'll ignore that for now.
If someone was in range to hear it, I could detect it and prevent it.
Horikita, who had never expected a confession, froze as if she was shocked.
“If you'll go out with me, I want you to hold my right hand in return!”
“Hey... Is that seriously...?”
Horikita was about to ask back, but quickly retracted her words.
It must be some kind of joke, right? Since she could tell that Sudō's passion, enthusiasm, and thoughts were so genuine, she understood that it would be impolite to say such a thing.
Horikita stared at his right hand and closed her lips.
I thought she would respond immediately, but Horikita remained silent, staring at his right hand.
The longer the silence continued, the higher Sudō's heart rate must have soared.
It was likely a painful wait, not at all comfortable.
However, Horikita should’ve been given time to consider it.
A confession cannot be made while only considering one party's feelings.
Horikita's mind must have eventually come to a decision, as she began to speak slowly, as if choosing her words.
“I have never once thought that I would be the one to receive a confession from someone.”
How will Horikita answer Sudō's passionate feelings?
Will she accept or decline?
Or will she put the matter on hold?
As the silence dragged on, Sudō's right arm seemed to gradually begin to tremble.
It wasn’t due to numbness in his arm, but nervousness and fear.
It was a feeling of frustration at not receiving a response, wondering if he would be accepted or not.
Still believing that the hand he held out would be grasped, Sudō continued to bow his head.
“Sudō-kun. Thank you for liking someone like me.”
She expressed her gratitude.
However, Horikita didn't make a move to take his right hand.
“But I'm sorry. I am... Unable to answer your feelings.”
That was the conclusion Horikita drew after considering it.
“Yes, well, if you... Like, can you at least tell me... Why?”
Unable to lift his gaze, Sudō said that with his right hand going rigid.
“Reason... I guess. It's not that I'm dissatisfied with you...”
She started to speak, but then stopped.
“I'll be honest, I've never been in love with another person before. I don't have those feelings right now, and I have no idea what it's like. I thought that if I went out with Sudo-kun, who told me he liked me, there might be a chance that I could fall in love with you over time. But... I decided I don't want that kind of inducement. Maybe I'm waiting for the moment when I naturally fall in love with someone.”
As if to confirm her feelings, Horikita told Sudō so.
That was why she refused.
A desire to keep waiting for her first love.
It was surely a hidden feeling that she would never let an unrelated stranger hear.
“Well, thanks for...For telling me.”
Perhaps because he had been told so resolutely, Sudō didn't try to bite back.
“Your courage and your feelings–I got the message very clearly.”
Horikita said this, and as he was about to lower his now lifeless right hand, she hurriedly grabbed it.
“I certainly received your feelings. Thank you for liking me.”
Sudō's trembling right hand said it all.
I decided it was time to turn around and go back to the souvenir shop to wait for their return.