When I was walking back to the dormitory with Himeno, I found Kei sitting on a bench holding her cell phone.
“See you later.”
Himeno, reading the mood of the moment, left my side and started to walk quickly.
She lightly bowed to Kei as she walked back to the dormitory.
“What are you doing here? I thought you went back to your room.”
“What am I doing? What does it look like I'm doing?”
“Waiting for someone.”
“Correct. Then, who am I waiting for? One, Ike-kun; two, Minami-kun; three, Kiyotaka.”
With each option, she raised a finger and quizzed me sarcastically.
“That’s an extremely difficult question. One seems to be the most likely answer…”
“If you get it wrong, there’ll be a punishment game.”
“Before I answer, let's hear what the punishment game is.”
“I guess. I'm going to write 'Love from Kei-chan' on your forehead with a magic marker, and then we'll go to school.”
“Alright, let’s go with number three.”
“What? You don't want to be punished that badly?”
A little angry, she got up from the bench and lined up next to me.
“So? The girl I just saw was Himeno-san, right? Why was she walking with you?”
She had a smile on her face, but there was a strong pressure behind her demand for an explanation.
“I told you that I was meeting with Kanzaki, and Himeno was one of the people in the group.”
“Himeno was one of the people in the group? But Kanzaki-kun and the others weren't with you.”
“We separated at once. And I just happened to meet Himeno on my way back and we had a small chat.”
“Hmm? Hmm? Well, since I'm your girlfriend, I'll believe your explanation for now, okay?”
Although she said so, she didn't seem to have any doubt at all.
“You seemed to be getting along well.”
“I doubt you could tell that much in the dark.”
“Um... yes, that's true, but... I just felt something! I don't care!”
She wrapped her arm around mine as if marking the seat next to her as mine.
“Let's talk about something fun.”
“Let's go to Keyaki Mall together tomorrow. Christmas is coming soon.”
She invited me to go with her and smiled at me. ‘You know what I mean, right?’ That was what the expression on her face told me.
“Since Sudō's confession didn't go so well, it's only fair that he gets a Christmas present, right?”
“That's right. A surprise present isn't a bad idea, but going shopping with your boyfriend for what you want isn't a bad idea either.”
I was sure she’d be more pleased than if I'd thought of it on my own, so that was a big help to me.
“I'd love to fulfill your expectations, but I can't do it tomorrow. Can we do it next week, please?”
“What? Did you make another appointment?”
Kei had been informed that I would meet Kanzaki and the others in advance. Since Kei wasn’t connected to Kanzaki and the others and was unfamiliar with my relationship with them, she was curious but didn’t pay any attention to it…
“Can't you spare even a little time? What do you have going on tomorrow anyway?”
Spending time with Ichinose. It was easy to avoid telling her and deceive her. However, the disadvantage of keeping it a secret was as great as the disadvantage of telling about Kanzaki and the others.
Ichinose's presence alone was conspicuous, and if I was next to her, there would be disturbing rumors.
Besides, Kei had a lot of friends, and those students would be her eyes and ears.
Kei stopped in her tracks with a distinctly different reaction than when she was told Kanzaki was meeting with me.
“Who else is there? Kanzaki-kun or Himeno-san?”
“There's no one else so far, just Ichinose.”
“It's just Ichinose. I'm a little confused. Are you alone with a girl on your day off?”
I could see that her mood had clearly turned sour, but I suppose that was understandable.
In the opposite situation, a normal boy would’ve reacted in the same way.
I watched Kei's reaction carefully and met her glare with my own.
“Usually, you should explain the reasons and all, like, 'we're meeting, but don't misunderstand, it's not that kind of situation.' It's no good to make your girlfriend anxious, right?”
“There are several reasons to meet with Ichinose. One of which is that Kanzaki and the others asked me to.”
“...Kanzaki-kun and the others asked you? Is that correct?”
She was a little relieved to hear Kanzaki's name mentioned here.
“It's not public yet, but Ichinose has resigned from the student council. There's a lot of confusion about that right now.”
“Wait a minute. Is that so? I don't understand what's going on.”
“You're wondering, right? Kanzaki and the others want to know the truth. Belonging to the student council has a positive effect on the class in its own way, so it’s understandable that their classmates would be upset if she were to leave the student council instead of gaining as many points as possible now that they’ve dropped to Class D.”
Even with this explanation, Kei couldn’t understand the anxiety Kanzaki and his classmates felt.
“But Kanzaki and the others are afraid to ask Ichinose directly why because they can't bear to hear from their leader that she’s given up on the idea of aiming for Class A.”
“So… You’re going to ask her why instead?”
“That's what I'm going to do.”
“I understand the situation, but… why are you involved in Ichinose-san's class? Why don't you just leave them be? If you help them out, they might become rivals again.”
It was natural to wonder why I was involved in Ichinose-san's class. This wasn’t something Horikita and others could hear.
“There are reasons to send salt to the enemy. But I can't tell you why either.”
“You can't tell me…? You think I might tell someone?”
“No, I don’t. I know you're very tight-lipped. I just don't think I'm ready to tell anyone about what I'm trying to do at this point.”
Kei's expression tightened a little at my stern and dismissive tone.
But Kei was Kei, and it was only natural that she couldn’t take it in stride.
For a moment, she tried to hold back, but then her thoughts came pouring in.
“I know you have a lot on your mind. I know that you’re helping the class without my knowledge and that you’re trying to find out from Ichinose-san what’s going on for Kanzaki-kun and the others. But, you know… it's not nice to… meet with a girl alone on a break, isn't it? At least there are other ways to do it, like at school or just during lunch break.”
Kei's lips pouted and she turned her head in the opposite direction as if she was sulking.
It would be easier if I told her I was sorry and that she was the only one who mattered.
I had already learned that it was important in a relationship to tell someone not to worry.
Then, what if it was the other way around? Even if you had an idea of the answer, you couldn't say that you understood it unless you actually tried figuring it out.
“Then, do you want to interrupt me? You can just barge in on me while I'm meeting with Ichinose on my day off.”
“You wouldn't, would you? There’s no merit in doing so. Then we're done here. We'll go shopping for Christmas presents together next week, and there should be no problem.”
The atmosphere could change so heavily in an instant just by not speaking kind words.
The happy Kei who had been waiting for me under the cold weather had disappeared.
“You have your own ideas. I have no right to say anything about it.”
Not only the expression on her face, but even her emotions were distant from her.
“I'm going to stop by the convenience store. You go home first.”
With those words, she ran toward the convenience store without looking at me.
However, Kei's stride seemed both fast and slow as she left, and I could see from her back that she was expecting me to come after her.
All I had to do was to immediately run after her and tell her that I was sorry and that I would think of another way to meet up with Ichinose.
That would put her back in the mood she was in just before.
But I decided to break my gaze from her back and go back to the dormitory.
This would only deepen the rift between us. I wondered how Kei would react, what kind of attitude she would show, and how I would feel and act in response. It would be a good opportunity to experience all of that.