The Reader (Me), The Protagonist (Her) And Their After. Chapter 6/
The Reader (Me), The Protagonist (Her) And Their After. Chapter 6
Chapter 6 – Being With You in This Irritating Place Heat haze was swaying above the polyurethane floor tiles.
July. The air was so hot and humid on the roof during midday that it felt viscous.
The blazing sun was so violent that even as I was sitting in the shade under the water tower the wind carried the heat to me, so I had to wipe the sweat forming on my brow.
There wasn't anyone other student around. Even if until recently this place was so popular that everyone was fighting for it during lunch break, now that the summer really started, n.o.body wanted to come anymore.
As I opened the bag of the pan I bought earlier, I looked at the club building.
Inside the dim music room, art room, calligraphy room were a few club members either practicing or eating their lunch.
As I was thinking they were people from a different world than me,
I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket.
I took it out and checked the display.
However, there wasn't any notification.
I guess I imagined it.
A week pa.s.sed since I stopped receiving messages from Sudou and Shuuji.
Since that day with Hiiragi, I severed all contacts with not only Hiiragi, but Sudou and Shuuji too.
At school, I didn't speak to Hiiragi who was in front of me, and if Sudou and Shuuji come to the cla.s.sroom, I leave until they do the same.
When they manage to take hold of me, I say a few vague things then quickly leave. During lunch break, I go to places no other people come, like now.
At first they sent me many messages each day.
──Sorry, it's my fault for saying things I shouldn't have… I want to talk, so please answer…
──Could you tell me what happened? I think it'd be a shame for things to continue like that.
──It's fine if you're angry at me, but can't you at least continue to get along with Tokki…?
──Sudou and Hiiragi feel really down. Can't you come back?
Based on these messages, the three of them are still together. perhaps they even eat together at lunch. On the other hand, looks like Hiiragi didn't tell them the details about what happened.
Also, apparently Sudou was feeling responsible for what happened. Sudou being Sudou, she must have realised that what she said was the trigger to this situation. Though actually, there isn't a single thing she should feel responsible about.
As for me, I totally ignored their messages.
I didn't have anything to say to them, nor did I want to say something.
Like that, I received messages less frequently, and by last week I received nothing.
"Come back, huh…" I unintentionally let out those words as I remembered Shuuji's message while eating my sweetened bun.
I almost couldn't feel the taste because of how gooey the cream became with the heat.
How could I even come back?
How could I speak with Hiiragi again after hurting her like that?
In the end, everything went back to how it should be.
Living quietly without being involved with anyone. What i hoped when I entered high school. After going through something really painful, I finally realised what was my place.
I stuck the straw in the carton of my juice while sighing.
However, I didn't manage to break through the elastic part, and the straw broke in the middle.
"Hey, been quite a while."
On the way back from school.
As I was reading a book in the bookstore I stopped by on a whim, I heard a voice I knew from my back.
Surprised, I turned around. A tall woman with a body br.i.m.m.i.n.g with woman sensuality wearing a black dress and light brown sandals, that is to say Hiiragi Tokoro, was standing there.
I stepped back and reflexively looked down.
Currently, "14 Years Old" was the symbol of a painful memory. So running into its author was quite awkward.
"Nice coïncidence there, I've been wanting to meet you for a while," Hiiragi Tokoro said with really delightful smile while looking at me. "I mean, you didn't tell me your address or a way to contact you. Only that you loved books. So each time I came to this bookstore I've been fidgeting at the idea that you could be here."
I wonder why? Her tone already totally pa.s.sed the point of being in a good mood, she sounded like she was in really high spirits.
"… You seem to be enjoying yourself, though."
"Of course, you noticed. Indeed, after all, I like this store. I feel happy just by being here, you could even say I love this store."
Hiiragi Tokoro spun around as if dancing, making the skirt part of her dress wave.
"Just look around. From old masterpieces to new works, even recent hits are on these bookshelves You can only feel love towards the books from this selection."
"… If you say so."
"What's more, this store…" started Hiiragi Tokoro, then approached me, her mouth near my ear, and whispered. "They put my books on the side of the cash register to make them more noticeable to the clients…"
"… Haa," I sighed reflexively.
With the current situation, talking to someone in high spirits like that was kinda tough. Well, we don't have anything to talk about, so I should just leave quickly.
"Well, I'll be going then…" I said, trying to pa.s.s next to her.
"Fufufu, wait a second."
Hiiragi Tokoro blocked the pa.s.sage
"Didn't I just say I've been wanting to meet you for a while?"
"… Do you need me for something?"
"Of course, more than anyone. Do you have a little time after this?"
"… I do, though unwilling."
"How cold… But you know, I have something important I want to talk about."
"An important talk?"
"Indeed. Something related to my work. So I hope you can give me an hour of your time."
If she says that, of course it'd me difficult for me to refuse.
I'm still reluctant, but perhaps I should at least listen to what she has to say.
"Well, if it's just an hour…"
The moment I reluctantly agreed, Hiiragi Tokoro raised the corners of her mouth, making a crescent moon shape.
"That's the spirit."
She started to walk towards the exit of the store.
"Come. I'll treat you for tonight's dinner."
We were now in a cosy Italian restaurant in the residential area.
There weren't even ten seats, and the interior was illuminated with warm colours. Aside from us there were three other clients.
Apparently Hiiragi Tokoro was a regular here. After lightly greeting the shopkeeper, she gave me the menu.
"What do you want to drink? I don't mind even if you want a beer or wine."
"… Err, I'm minor, you know."
"I know, it was a joke. Here is the menu for soft drinks. You can also have cold water."
"Then cold water…"
Hiiragi Tokoro ordered wine and a few things to eat.
"Well then, cheers to our reunion."
I knocked my gla.s.s half heartedly, and picked a cracker amongst the appetisers brought to us.
It had liver pâté (or some kinda paste) on it, and the taste was something I never tasted before.
"And so, without delay," started off Hiiragi Tokoro with a red face just about when the dishes were brought to us. It seems she was already a little drunk.
"Today I want to confirm something, and talk about something with you."
"… About what?"
"First, the thing I want to confirm," she said, looking at the wine in her gla.s.s. "I heard from Tokiko that you're keeping your distance now."
… Of course, she would ask about that.
I expected it, but still, just hearing her name pained me.
"… That's right."
"It's such a shame. And here I thought you liked her…"
"… Sorry for not living up to your expectations."
"Why did you decide to distance yourself?"
"… Hiiragi didn't say anything?"
I was sure she told her everything. When I met her last time she showed how much she doted on her little sister, so I thought she would meddle in if she saw Hiiragi acting weird.
And actually, just as I thought,
"Of course she did," Hiiragi Tokoro said as if it was nothing. "But I want to hear it from your own mouth."
… Why is she so eager to gouge out my feelings like that? I have a hard time understanding what she thinks.
Well, I guess she can't just agree like that as the older sister. Then I have the duty to talk. And she's treating me to dinner, I can't just stay silent as if nothing happened.
"… It was impossible for me to begin with," I said, thinking it was quite a menial thing to say about myself. But it was what I truly thought. "I liked Tokiko… the one from '14 Years Old'. That's why I couldn't bear watching Hiiragi change… I really did something bad to her."
"Hmm," Hiiragi Tokoro took an olive, "well, you're right, Tokiko is changing. In a way you could say it was the limit of '14 Years Old'. It could only be about her '14th Year'. What's more," Hiiragi Tokoro threw the olive she picked in her mouth, "what I wrote in the novel was only a part of her. There are many sides of her that I wanted to write about but couldn't for the sake of the story."
"… For example?"
I was a little interested.
When I met her, at least, Hiiragi was just like Tokiko in my eyes. If she still had a side of her she was hiding, then as a reader of "14 Years Old", of course it would rise my interest.
"For example, she's quite sloppy."
"Indeed. I'm sure she never showed that side of her in front of you, right?"
It was just as she said.
Hiiragi was delicate and well-mannered… She never looked like she was sloppy.
"A while back, you and your friends went at our house, no? Well the day before was quite a disaster. usually her bedroom is just a messy as mine. Even though I had to prepare myself for my meeting, she made me help to tidy up her room."
"Also, I bet you think she's taciturn, don't you?"
"But the truth is that, when she talks, she really talks. That's why, since she entered high school I heard a lot of things about you. 'Hosono-kun said that', or 'we went there with Hosono-kun' and such. I couldn't bear with how charming she was as I listened…"
From my point of view, she was the type to read a book silently sat on a chair. Not interacting with anyone, and when someone did approach her she wouldn't show much reaction. I can't imagine her talking that much with her family.
"There are other things. For example, she has childish tastes. She likes cheap ice creams, mayonnaise, bananas and such. Also, she doesn't read just literature, but quite a lot of manga too. She often comes to my room to borrow some. Speaking of, she often asks some selfish things too. Like pestering me to go buy her something to drink in the middle of the night. Also…" Hiiragi Tokoro grinned widely. "She has quite an interest in lewd things, you know."
I didn't know how to react.
Of course it surprised me and I lost my composure, but I can't show it on my face.
"Fufufu… Surprised, aren't you? She looks neat and clean, but she's actually kind of a closet pervert. She leaves just as quickly as she came when she borrows a manga with that kind of cover. … Anyway, back to the subject, I didn't write about these sides of her in '14 Years Old'. And Tokiko herself did her best to hide them. Just to make you see her as Tokiko and continue to get along. In fact, she started to wear her jade hair ornament everyday even though she didn't before, and perhaps as a kind of revision she read and reread '14 Years Old' many times too," she said, laughing.
"… She did these kind of things…?"
"Indeed. That's why, don't you think that when she was in front of you she was unnaturally too Tokiko-like?"
Listening to that, I started to remember.
As she said, Hiiragi showed me that she was Tokiko at every opportunity, going as far at to say similar words.
──Saying she was selfish when asking for my help that day.
──Always using the park in the residential area when meeting up.
──Saying that that knowledge would let her monopolise when I revealed my past.
──Being taken to an old j.a.panese-styled café during our date.
That's wasn't all. Many times she showed me that she was Tokiko, and I didn't doubt her.
"That's why, as long as the two of you used Tokiko from '14 Years Old' as an intermediary to get along, it was inevitable that a divergence would appear."
I'm sure Hiiragi was anxious too.
What I wanted wasn't Hiiragi but Tokiko. That's why, instead of appearing as herself, she continued to play the role of Tokiko in front of me.
Now I finally understand why Sudou said our relationship was dangerous.
"… Just as I thought," said Hiiragi Tokoro looking at me who was biting my lips. "Of course you would make that kind of face hearing that."
"… Of course I would."
It's impossible for me to not feels bad after hearing all that.
What kind of face does she think I should make?
"Just as I thought, it's getting complicated. Well, I guess it's understandable… But you know," Hiiragi Tokoro put down her gla.s.s and smiled, "I know a way to easily solve your problem."
Her eyes looked straight at mines.
While the shape of her eyes was the same as her little sister, I felt like they had an absolute confidence that the other doesn't have.
Still, I just couldn't believe such a way existed.
My relationship with Hiiragi is warped from the start, only using Tokiko as an intermediary, there is no way to solve that "easily".
Still, I thought.
Still, this person is a witch. She's a witch with strange powers who imprisoned the 14 years old Hiiragi Tokiko in a novel.
So, maybe, she really know a way to solve our problem…
"… How?" I asked resolutely.
"It would be easy to explain. After all, it's a very simple solution," said Hiiragi Tokoro, not hiding her dominating smile while putting on airs. "But it would be useless to do it. After all, it's meaningless if you don't find it yourself. That's the kind of way it is."
"… You won't tell me?"
"I won't, do your best to find it."
What a terrible letdown, I can't even sigh.
In the first place it might be wrong to expect something from her. Maybe she invited me to dinner just because she has fun toying with me.
"But I really hope you'll find it, you know. For my sister, and for you yourself… Anyway, that's it for what I wanted to confirm. Now, about what I wanted to talk."
"… What is it?" I answered roughly as I quickly wanted to go home.
"I finished the draft of the ma.n.u.script for the sequel."
I reflexively reseated myself hearing that.
In fact, it was always in a corner of my mind. The sequel of "14 Years Old", Tokiko's life after entering high school. How is the ma.n.u.script going?
"… Ah, maybe you don't understand what I mean by draft. You see, the '14 Years Old' series uses a little special writing procedure. Normally, you write the general plot and once the editor gives the OK you can write the ma.n.u.script. But this series is using Tokiko's life as a model. So first I need to hear the things that happened to Tokiko, then amongst them choose what I'll use. Then from that I make a story matching with Tokiko's mental state. That's what I meant by draft. I show that to the editor and Tokiko, and if they're fine with it I can start writing."
In short, right now Hiiragi Tokoro has a draft about "everything that happened to Tokiko from entering high school to recently".
I wonder what kind of thing it became.
Last time she said I would appear in the sequel. Then considering the actual situation, I wonder what kind of cruel guy I was depicted as.
I get gloomy just imagining it.
"You don't need to make such face," laughed off Hiiragi Tokoro seeing me hanging my head. "Don't worry, I didn't write you in a bad way. It's just that like I said last time, I can't continue without your permission. You're a key character, so if you're against it I think i'll have to rewrite everything. That's why I want you to read the draft and give your permission before I get to the next step."
"So, can you do it? At least, I think it's worth a read."
I think it's a great honour.
To appear in the work of your favourite author, and even have the right to read the draft. It's the kind of thing a book lover could only dream of.
Still, I just couldn't get enthusiastic about it.
I understand that Hiiragi Tokoro needs my permission as one of the models of the characters.
But, what would I gain from reading it?
I have severed my ties with Hiiragi. What's more, because of that I can't even enjoy "14 Years Old" as much as I did before.
Considering that, I don't see any reason I should go out of my way to feel bad by reading a story about my failure.
"… Could it be…"
"You're trying to make me reconcile with Hiiragi by reading that?"
"… Oh," Hiiragi Tokoro raised her right eyebrow, "what do you mean?"
"… The reason I severed my ties with Hiiragi is because she changed from when she was Tokiko. So inversely, if Tokiko becomes like her… If she becomes the current Hiiragi, then you think we could go back to our past relationship?"
True, perhaps we could do that.
If Tokiko became the current Hiiragi, by reading it, perhaps we could go back to our meeting in April. By knowing Tokiko, I can use that knowledge to interact with Hiiragi. Like this, we might be able to get back to our past relationship.
"That's not a normal relationship."
If it's now, I can clearly a.s.sert it.
That kind of relationship isn't healthy.
"If there is a need to have a story just so that we can understand each other feelings, then I'm sure one, or both of us will get hurt on day. So if your objective is to reconcile us with it, then I can't read it."
"… I see. Well, I guess you would think that in this situation," she said, taking a sip of her wine. "But don't worry, I'm not expecting that. Tokiko too wouldn't like it either."
"Well… Yes, you're right."
"However," she started, smiling, "I do hope you'll understand what it means to have interacted with Tokiko herself by reading it. And, I, myself, want you to read it. I have to say I quite like what I did this time. At least, I think it's my best work."
It felt like she was removing my reasons to refuse little by little. If it continue, I'll really end up reading it.
However, there was another thing on my mind.
"… What about Hiiragi?" I asked nervously. "I'll once again get to know Hiiragi's feelings through this novel, right? Her true feelings that she didn't express. You got Hiiragi's permission for that?"
"Of course," Hiiragi Tokoro nodded unexpectedly readily.
Then she continued,
"'We met thanks to the story' she said," Hiiragi Tokoro said slowly with a loving, yet pitying smile. "'We met thanks to the story, so our parting should be done with it too'."
These words pierced my heart.
There were clearly words Hiiragi would say. And the "parting" amongst them…
I could easily imagine Hiiragi when she spoke these words.
"She says some cute things," said Hiiragi Tokoro. Her expression wasn't the bewitching one she had until now, but like that of a mother thinking about her child. "That girl is just so adorable and precious to me. That's why, as her sister, I'm asking you. This time too I wrote while carefully talking with her. I revised it many times until she herself said that it perfectly showed her feelings as they were. Of course, I don't think I wrote everything about her, I'm not that conceited. Still, I'm sure it'll accomplish its role as a parting letter. So please──"
I raised my face and looked at Hiiragi Tokoro.
For the first time, I saw her make a serious and earnest expression.
"Could you read it?"
After parting with Hiiragi Tokoro, I went home, took a bath, and when I went back to my bedroom it was already 8pm.
I sat down on the chair in front of my desk while sighing. I looked at my everyday scenery, the phosph.o.r.escent clock on the wall, the bookshelves with natural colours, the chest with tons of stickers pasted on it, the pipes in a gutter form at the foot of my bed.
To busy myself, I picked up Shishamo who was rolling the floor and started patting her on my laps. But she wasn't in the mood apparently, Shishamo groaned then fled from me below the bed.
No homework to do, and tomorrow is sat.u.r.day, so I don't need to prepare my bag.
I already read all the books on my bookshelves, and I don't have any TV programm I want to watch.
No web site I want to check, and of course, no notification from LINE.
So in short, I don't have anything else to do aside from that.
Resigned, I took a deep breath then opened my laptop on my desk and checked my emails. At the top of the inbox was an email with an attached file from an address I didn't know. I clicked on it to read it.
Hey, good evening. It's Hiiragi Tokoro. I sent you the file. Enjoy.
I opened the attached doc.u.ment file. There were 40 pages in a two pages spread format. After checking if there was enough paper and ink, I printed it.
After five minutes it finished printing, resulting in a good chunk of paper. I took another deep breath.
"15 Years Old – Draft ver.1"
Was the t.i.tle of the file written on the first page.
The story of Tokiko's life after turning 15.
The story fundamentally faithfully retrace what happened to Hiiragi, but there was one point completely different. In the story, Tokiko isn't the heroine of a book, instead she lost the diary where she wrote about her everyday, and a certain boy find it and read it.
What will happen after I read that.
The heavy bundle of paper in my hands made me feel a strange uneasiness.
Most likely, if I read it, a big change will happen inside me. I don't know if it'll be a positive one or a negative one. Still, if I read it, there will be no turning back, that's the kind of hunch I had.
However, I shouldn't run away anymore.
I should read it.
If Hiiragi thinks of "15 Years Old" as a parting letter destined to me, then I want to read it.
I took yet another deep breath, then I turned the first page with the t.i.tle written on it.
This is the story of my everyday life, where still nothing special happens.
Even I believed in the common illusion that something will change when entering high school.
Maybe I'll become a little more adult. Maybe i'll get wiser and understand things better.
However, my expectations were in vain, and I lost my diary on the first day of school.
I write everything that happened to me and what I thought in my diary each day. I didn't write my name, nor other people's names, so it shouldn't be possible to determine that it's mine.
Still, because of that, it was impossible for it to be returned to me. I cursed my stupidity.
My everyday life was just an extension of the life I had in middle school.
I can't talk well with my cla.s.smates, and I pa.s.s all the break times reading books.
I thought that's was fine. Everyone doesn't need to be cheerful, nor do I want to be like that. It's just that I feel sorry to dampen the mood of my cla.s.smates who try their best to talk to me.
I didn't have much of an impression about that boy.
He made a plainer self-introduction than anyone else. His height was average. His hair was a little unkempt, and his looks weren't standing out. Really, that was all there was to him.
"Is your favourite novel 'Wanderings in the Realm of the Seventh Sense' from Ozaki Midori?"
When he asked me that, I became fl.u.s.tered.
And that wasn't all,
"You have an oil painting you received from your grandmother in your bedroom?"
"Every week you listen to the radio broadcast made by some university students?"
"Do you think that you want to live beautifully?"
After hearing that much, I finally understood. He found my diary.
Even after going back home I couldn't stop thinking about him.
To think he would sympathise so much with me, it was the first time someone so zealously expressed their goodwill to me.
However, we probably won't talk again. We both aren't the type to interact with people. As I thought that, I noticed something that surprised even myself.
I didn't want to stop.
I wanted to talk more with him.
As I expected him to, he helped me many times when I was troubled during a conversation with someone.
He's the first person besides my family with whom I talked that much.
However, I felt guilty too.
In truth, I didn't care about not being able to talk with my cla.s.smates.
And yet, because I wholeheartedly wished to talk with him, I used his good intentions for myself.
From here now, I thought I should get closer naturally.
I already lied once, but I was reluctant to use even more deception to get closer to him.
However, one morning, a pair of a boy and a girl came to see him and my composure went away.
I was shocked. They a.s.sertively talked to him even though he didn't want to, and though they were angry to be ignored and treated coldly, they still continued to talk to him. From what I heard, it seems these two are his childhood friends.
I thought I shouldn't do it.
However, it wouldn't be enough to just wait to get closer to him naturally. Then I have to approach him more a.s.sertively too.
On the way back from karaoke, I noticed how much I was exhausted. Acting as someone different than my true self really wore me down mentally.
As I was totteringly walking back home, I remembered about my smartphone.
Earlier LINE was installed on it. Even though I only used my phone to check the new publications, now it became a connection between us.
Then I thought. If I exchange some messages with him, maybe I'll regain a little of myself.
If I had to give a reason for inviting them to my house, it would be jealousy.
They knew each other since they were little, including each other personal things.
But I almost didn't know anything about him. The only thing I knew was that he liked my diary. The asymmetry of our relationship was really painful to me.
I was really glad I got to talk with these two.
I understood they were good people, but I just couldn't feel like I could get closer to them.
In the end, I was just jealous that they were his childhood friends.
I was envious they possessed everything I didn't have, and that they could easily approach him.
But the truth is that they're the same as me. They weren't some carefree popular people. Just like me, they had their own worries about their family, ordinary high schoolers.
As I looked at him talking about his past, my heart beat so fast I thought my chest would burst.
His failure when he was a child. Then the change that happened inside him.
He told me, and only me, about the things that happened to him until now.
The surrounding scenery never looked so colourful to me until now.
Even though he was talking about his painful memories to me.
When he finished talking and I saw his smiling face, I realised.
I want to hold hands with him.
I want to touch him.
I want him to embrace me, I want him to kiss me.
I want him to think of me preciously just as much as I think of him dearly.
──I love him.
I chose a café with a good ambiance near my house for our date.
I went a few times to inspect the café and check the menu. They have books I think he would like, so I'm sure he'll enjoy himself.
I kept secret the fact I already went there. I'll have to act like it's the first time I come.
What's left is to manage to naturally talk about romance during our conversation, just like my sister advised me.
As I read next to him at the counter seats, I wondered what he thought about me.
I don't think he hates me. After all he really praised my diary, and we're both here going out together, so he must at least have some affection for me.
But I don't understand if it's the same kind of affection that I hold for him.
So I wanted to verify. Even if I had to be a little reckless.
Maybe falling in love made me become hopeless.
I became selfish, and I'm only thinking about dirty and sly things.
I can't live beautifully anymore.
It's his fault.
If I didn't met him, I would never have know that feeling.
"I could become your girlfriend."
The instant I resolutely said that, my heart throbbed so strongly I thought it would burst.
I think that anyone hearing that would only hear a confession. If it were these two for example, I'm sure they would even see through all the feelings hidden behind these words.
However, he's dense so he might not have noticed.
After all, even though I tried my best until now, he never noticed my feelings. I'm sure he isn't really good to notice things.
Either way, by seeing his next reaction I should be able to guess his feelings for me.
Does he only think of me as a friend? Or does he see me as someone from the opposite s.e.x?
And as I was thinking that.
"I can't be with you anymore."
It felt like time stopped.
I couldn't breath. And yet, my heart continued to throb strongly as if it was a lie.
Is this a dream? Or an illusion?
I thought that, but when I tightly grasped my hand, I felt pain from the nails against my palm.
"You changed from the you in the diary."
"That's why, I can't be with you anymore."
I thought it was my punishment.
The punishment towards me who used my diary and his kindness for my sly love.
I deceived him.
To be liked by him, I made myself look sympathetic.
By acting like the Tokiko in the diary, I took advantage of him.
It was my just desserts for what I did.
I stood up from the bench and said him goodbye.
The moment I started to walk, tears overflowed from my eyes.
My first love, this precious relationship, the high school life that I looked forward to for the first time.
I had a hunch.
The evening of the same day, I felt like he waited at the park we usually met.
I changed from my dressing gown to something that could barely count as outside clothes, put my sandales, took a small bag and left the house. I headed towards the park in the street at night.
As you would expect, of course, he wasn't waiting for me at the park.
The park, illuminated by the street lights and the weak moonlight, was empty. I thought it was just like how I felt right now.
By meeting him, I obtained many feelings.
Happiness, joy, anguish, sadness.
And now, by losing him, it felt like everything went away.
I sat down on the bench where he waited for me for our first date.
Then I took out my diary from my bag and put it gently on my side.
Just like you would with a bottle containing a letter where you wrote your feelings when sending it to the sea.
When I looked up, the pale moon was shining in the pitch black sky.
My hands were trembling as i finished reading.
What the h.e.l.l is this?
I couldn't understand the unexpected development of the story.
It was a story about Tokiko meeting a boy at high school, falling in love with him, then separating from him.
Hiiragi Tokoro's new work, the continuation of Tokiko's story, that is to say "15 Years Old", was a love story.
That alone was already pretty confusing, and yet,
"… That's… me…?"
The boy in the story, the one Tokiko fell in love with, no matter how much I thought about it, I could only get to the conclusion it was me.
My brain overheated, and yet it continued to think in circle. I want to admit, I don't want to admit, I want to believe, I don't want to believe. There was a single truth. "15 Years Old" taught me the truth I didn't notice.
Hiiragi liked me?
The moment I thought that, my heart tightened so much I thought it would stop.
It felt like I was going to suffocate, so I took a deep breath.
She tried to change. Everything she did was to get closer to me?
She changed because of me?
I wanted to doubt it, but there were no mistaking it.
Hiiragi Tokoro is the one who wrote that. The witch who transcribed a part of Hiiragi in "14 Years Old".
In that case, this "15 Years Old" too is certainly transcribing a part of Hiiragi too.
After an instant, an extraordinary swirl of emotions gushed out from my chest.
Confusion. Bewilderment. Happiness. Anguish. Regret. Self-hatred.
What the h.e.l.l. Really, what the h.e.l.l was I doing?
I loved her. She loved me too.
And yet, not being able to be with each other, we separated.
Then… What do I do? What should I do?
What should I do now that I know the truth?
I didn't know. The problem between Hiiragi and me was still unresolved.
Tokiko isn't Hiiragi. If I forgot that, the same thing will happen again.
Why did Hiiragi Tokoro want me to read that? Did she want me to regret? Did she want to teach me how stupid I am? Or is it something else?
The questions kept multiplying, getting out of order.
I couldn't understand what I thought and what I felt anymore.
And yet, inside the complex swirl of emotions, a certain desire started to rise little by little.
A simple feelings surpa.s.sing reason and logic.
I want to see Hiiragi.
I want to see her and talk with her.
I want to hear her voice, I want her to talk to me.
I want to hold her hand, and if possible I want to embrace her tightly.
What I wanted wasn't the Tokiko on the other side of the pages, nor the unchanging heroine. What I wanted right now was the changing Hiiragi Tokiko, the one making expressions I never saw before, the one who can be a.s.sertive.
I couldn't keep still and reflexively stood up from my chair.
It was 10pm. Hiiragi was probably still awake.
If I run, I should be able to meet her tonight.
But as I started to move, I thought.
No, not yet.
I still couldn't meet Hiiragi.
Before that… There's something I really have to confirm first.
After thinking a little, I took out my phone, opened LINE, selected the person I wanted to talk to and pressed the call b.u.t.ton.
"Sorry for calling this late! Where are you right now!?"
"W-why did you call us so suddenly…?"
"Yeah, it's pretty unusual… For Hosono to call us like that…"
Ten minutes later.
I dashed from my house to Sudou's, which was in the fourth floor of an apartment building alongside the Zenpukuji River.
Sudou's bedroom was so different from Hiiragi's you wouldn't think they were the both the same high school girls.
There was a light green carpet looking like a lawn, and a string going from a wall to another had photos of Sudou and her friends hanging on it. On her desk cosmetics, writing implements, sweets and medicine against headache were put haphazardly. A kind of chandelier was hanging from the ceiling. Thinking back, she said on LINE a while ago that she bought it on a whim while boasting.
And here I was, confronting Sudou and Shuuji, dripping with sweat.
There was something I really had to ask them.
"Sorry for, calling you, so late at night… But, I have something, I want to ask…"
As I said that out of breath, Sudou reacted awkwardly.
"Nh… No problem, what is it?"
She looked far more nervous than I've ever seen her. It seems she was still feeling responsible about back then. Shuuji was looking more uneasy than puzzled about the situation.
To these two, I said "It's just a what if, but," as preface before continuing.
"What if, by not reading the mood, I ignored someone's feelings and said something hurtful to them… In that case, what would you do?"
I guess they didn't understand my intention as they were making faces as if someone poured cold water on them.
"S-something hurtful…? E-err, I would be angry… I guess…"
"… Yeah, though it'd depends on how hurtful…"
"Then, if it's something really cruel? Something like crushing the other person's feelings, something you wouldn't say normally."
"Hmm, well… If it was said to me I'd get really angry, and if to someone else, I'd give you a really good preaching… I think."
"Yeah, same here…"
Shuuji agreed to what Sudou said.
Still, I wasn't satisfied with that.
"That's it? You won't… I don't know, do other things?"
"Yeah, like, for example…" I thought a little, then said what I thought was appropriate. "… Sever your ties with me, or get more distant."
"Eeeh, of course I wouldn't go that far…"
"I don't think I would either…"
They both denied what I said naturally.
… I see. Well, of course these two would say that.
Even thought I was pretty cold to them, they never went away.
And that was the main point I wanted to ask.
"… Why?" I asked them. "Why would you keep being friend with me if I did something like that? In fact I've been a real pain to you so far, no? Treating you coldly and all."
"… Well, can't deny that," Shuuji said with a wry smile.
"Then, why won't you take some distance from me?"
I want to see Hiiragi.
But that would mean that maybe I would hurt her again.
I still don't understand other people's feelings. No matter how careful I am, there's a high chance I'll hurt Hiiragi again one day.
As long as Hiiragi isn't Tokiko, that she's someone who I don't understand the feelings, I'll keep being anxious about that.
And yet, is it fine for me to want to see her? To want to be with her?
Do I have the right to wish to stand once again by her side?
That's what I wanted to ask to the two who never gave up on me even though I treated them coldly.
"Hmm…" Sudou crossed her arms, thinking with a serious expression. "I never thought about that…"
"Same here. In the first place," Shuuji turned towards me and said as if stating the obvious, "that what interacting with people is."
"… What do you mean?"
"Not only you, but even I, Sudou or anyone can't understand other people's feelings. By polishing your communication skills you can get to the point where you can choose words that won't hurt more easily, but that won't always be the case. That's why, in the first place, the premise of interacting with people is that you will hurt each other, or that what I think at least…"
"… Even you two have hurt someone?" I asked, surprised.
"Well, of course even us──"
I was shocked hearing the heavy tone of the voice of Sudou who cut in.
Looking at her, Sudou was hanging her head, tears in her eyes and biting her lips
"Even I… Even I couldn't understand the feelings of someone, saddening and hurting them…" Tears fell along Sudou's cheeks. "After all… because… because I of what I said… Hosono and Tokki… Tokki has been feeling down since then, and you wouldn't come back, Hosono… All that because I poke my nose in your affairs…"
I was bewildered, my mouth wide open.
It was the first time I saw Sudou crying. That I saw her talk like that, full of regrets.
However, I immediately came to my senses.
"W-wait a second!" I bent myself towards the sobbing Sudou. "You don't have to feel responsible for that… After all, what you said is right… You didn't say anything wrong…"
"But because of me…"
"I'm just getting what I deserve, you don't have to feel responsible…"
"… See Hosono," I turned towards Shuuji who was making a troubled smile, "that's the thing. Here Sudou is feeling down thinking it's her fault. And in fact, you took your distance from Hiiragi-san because of what she said, no?"
"That's what happen when you a.s.sociate with people. You hurt them and they hurt you. Be it your own fault, or not, you can't avoid being influenced by others."
"… Then why?" I asked them what I never understood. "Why would the two of you… not think that you would rather be alone? Why would you still want to be with others even though you know you will hurt them…?"
"… Because I like everyone," said Sudou still sobbing, the contour of her eyes black due to wiping her tears too much. "Even if I know that… I like Shuuji, Tokki and you, Hosono, so I want to be together…"
"… Is there even anything to like about me?"
"… Hey," Sudou wiped her tears once again, "there was that thing with Ashiysan, no?"
I felt a sharp pain in my chest hearing these words.
Ashiya. The girl I hurt.
The former cla.s.smate who is the reason I gave up on a.s.sociating with people.
"That time, you told a.s.shi… Ashiysan that she was really just like a boy. It's because of that, right? That you stopped talking to other people…"
… So they noticed.
Because they never said anything I thought they didn't notice.
"Well yeah, at that time I thought you made a real blunder, you could have said something better and that you were an idiot. In fact, everyone in the cla.s.s was angry. But… the way you were feeling down back then was really terrible. You looked so terrible that even Ashiysan herself felt bad about it…"
After what happened, I immediately stopped to talk with other people.
So I didn't know what happened with Ashiya after that.
"Yep… Of course, she was feeling down for a while, but after a month she, and the whole cla.s.s too, laughed again when she was treated like a boy. Everyone already forgot about it. And yet, only you build a wall around yourself, and secluded yourself…"
"… You serious?"
"I'm saying the truth. That's why, what happened back then wasn't so terrible you had to sever yourself from people like that… In fact, sometimes a.s.shi even send me a message on LINE asking if you're doing well."
I couldn't believe it.
I was certain that Ashiya would hate me her whole life.
And I thought I had to live my life while bearing the responsibility for it.
"But you know," Sudou looked straight at me, "I thought that you, who acted like that, was really kind."
An adjective not really appropriate to describe me.
And yet, Sudou was saying that to me in all seriousness.
"True, you can't read the mood, Hosono. You say things you shouldn't, hurting and troubling others… But I believe you're kind at your core. That's why I like you and want to keep being friend with you."
"Same here," Shuuji nodded. "Look, around our age most people start getting more skilled at reading the mood, guessing other people's feelings, using appropriate words and such. But that's not always for other people they do that. They do it to make themselves look better and be popular. In fact we do it too."
"Eh… you're like that too?"
"Yeah. But contrary to acting kind, I think that you yourself are kind, Hosono. So as long as you don't lose your kindness, I won't mind being hurt by you."
"… I see."
I finally felt like I understood Sudou and Shuuji's feelings.
People hurt each other. There isn't any relationship without pain.
And yet, people want to be together. As long as they like each other, I'm sure anybody can be together.
So, what I need is──
What I need to be with Hiiragi is──
Sudou smiled looking at my face.
Then she said,
"Did you get the resolve to hurt and be hurt?"
"… Yeah," I nodded and stood up. "Thanks to you two."
"Nah, we didn't do anything special."
"Yeah, no need to say thanks. After all," Shuuji made a gentle smile, "we're friends, no?"
Then feeling empathy from the bottom of my heart with these two for the first time, I nodded.
"Yeah, you're right."
The clock in the park was pointing 10:32pm.
Out of breath, I sat down on a bench.
The park was illuminated by the weak street lights. The playground, trees and the sandbox submerged in darkness looked totally different from how they are during the day, it kinda made me think of an aquarium at night.
I took one last big breath, then took out my phone from my pocket.
I opened LINE, then my conversation with Hiiragi, which hadn't been updated in a while, and after hesitating a little I sent a simple "I'm waiting" to her. Without even waiting for the conversation to show a "Read" I put my phone back into my pocket.
There were countless things I wanted to tell her.
I wanted to apologise. I wanted to thank her. I wanted to tell her my thoughts and complaints about "15 Years Old". I wanted to explain myself, and to tell her my feelings.
All these desires were fighting against each other to be on top, making it impossible to put everything together.
And yet, I thought that was fine.
It's not like I would suddenly become a good talker.
That's why I should just expose all my thoughts and feelings without a single lie to Hiiragi.
That's what I wanted to do.
A few minutes later, I heard someone coming half running.
It was plain to see that Hiiragi, who appeared at the entrance of the park, came here in a hurry considering and rough appearance.
Her bob cut was disordered, she was breathing heavily, the T-shirt she wore as a dressing gown was wrinkled-up. The cardigan on her shoulders had some lint. Her beach sandals were worn out and the strap looked like it would break down any moment now.
I never saw Hiiragi so defenseless before. A living girl was in front of me.
When she saw me seated on the bench she made a mixed expression.
Her flushed face showed bewilderment, anxiety, fear and confusion.
The reason was obviously me. The guilty feeling felt like a body blow in my stomach.
"… Sorry, for calling you so late," I said standing up. "But there is someone I really want to say to you, Hiiragi…"
"… H-hmm," she nodded, nervously entering the park.
She came towards me, sometimes looking away, and stopped at a few steps distance.
I was finally confronting Hiiragi Tokiko after a long while.
A black bob cut and a face with looks so well-ordered you could think you saw wrong.
Countless stars were glittering inside her pitch black eyes, which were looking at me now.
Her thin lips were nervously firmly closed down, her white cheeks looked stiff, and her well-shaped eyebrows were frowning uneasily.
The feelings I was suppressing were gushing out from my heart.
My reason was breaking, I wanted to touch her now.
Still, I somehow managed to restrain myself and said:
"… I read '15 Years Old'."
Hiiragi's shoulders trembled.
"… I see."
"As usual… it was the best. Hiiragi Tokoro is really amazing. The way she reconstructed what happened, as well as the way she expressed thoughts and feelings was perfect… With that '14 Years Old''s fans will be satisfied. Also it has a clearer story, so I think it'll sell more."
"… I see."
"I'm also interested in what kind of cover it'll get. I want to read the book version. I'm sure I'll read '15 Years Old' many times too.'
Hiiragi bit her lips not answering.
Looked at her like that, I understood.
Just now, I hurt Hiiragi.
Praising "15 Years Old" meant that I praised Tokiko and not Hiiragi, thus hurting her.
Yeah. I'll always hurt people.
I'll always hurt and sadden people with my careless words and my selfish att.i.tude.
And I'll never forgive myself for that.
"And yet," I continued, "I… I thought it was too incomplete."
Hiiragi slowly raised her face.
She made an expression as if everything she was holding in would break out if I continued.
"Seeing Tokiko think about many things during her everyday life… well, yeah, I really empathised with her. It was still my favourite novel and my favourite heroine. But…" I took a deep breath and looked at Hiiragi's eyes. "The one I wanted to meet was Hiiragi, no Tokiko."
Hiiragi's expression shook with bewilderment.
She didn't understand what I meant, nor how to take it. That kind of expression.
"… Hey, Hiiragi. You think I'm dense, right?"
Hiiragi seemed hesitant for an instant, but she made a small nod.
"I think you're right. I didn't notice you thought that way about me at all. To Sudou and Shuuji it seems it looked obvious, but to me I really didn't get it. I guess I really can't understand people's feelings… But you know," I couldn't restrain a small smile as I continued, "you're the same, Hiiragi."
"I mean, you didn't notice, no? That I was really happy when you asked for my help."
"Eh…?" Hiiragi opened her eyes wide. "… Really?"
"Yeah. And did you notice that I was reluctant to say goodbye to you when we went back home after the karaoke?"
"What about the time we went to your house and you were so pretty I pa.s.sed my time looking at you? That while I was happy for you to get along with Sudou and Shuuji I also felt lonely? That I was really happy to talk about my secret to Hiiragi? Did you notice how fl.u.s.tered I was when we b.u.mped into each other?"
Hiiragi's eyes were full of tears on the verge of spilling.
"And when it happened, did you notice that I became aware of the fact that I like you, Hiragi?"
My body became hot after declaring that.
My heart was beating at an absurd pace. The sweat on my palms was feeling disgusting.
I don't know if it was because of the excitement or because of nervousness, but my lips were trembling and I couldn't close my mouth properly.
"… No way," Hiiragi looked at me with her hand covering her mouth. "At that time… you were…"
"And it was the same after that too. I always wondered how you thought about me, was nervous when we held hands, thought about lewd things when we b.u.mped into each other, I became useless. You didn't notice at all, right?"
"… B-but, that's… not about me, but about Tokiko…"
"I thought that too at first. But after reading '15 Years Old' I realised. I want to know how you'll become, Hiiragi. You might change and not be Tokiko anymore, but I want to be with you."
I couldn't keep it anymore.
I took Hiiragi's hands in mine, startling her.
She looked at me, her face bright red.
Looking at her, I──
"I like you," I said, unable to restrain my feelings. "Not Tokiko, the one I like is you, Hiiragi, the one in front of me. So let be stay by your side. Let me see you change."
A tear fell from Hiiragi's eyes.
Then as if a dam broke, her eyes overflowed with tears
Something that Tokiko would never show, Hiiragi Tokiko's raw emotions.
Hiiragi took a short breath and wiped her tears with the cuff of her T-shirt.
Then, looking straight at me,
"… Then me too," she started, smiling. "… I relied on the story again. Moreover I used it to express the things I should have said directly with my own mouth… But with this, it's time to stop being sly. So please, listen to me."
Hiiragi straightened herself and cleared her throat.
"… I like you, Hosono-kun," she said with a clear voice. "I don't want to just like you, I want you to like me too, Hosono-kun. Not Tokiko, but the me before your eyes."
"So… Please, look more at me. Next to me, and forever."
I nodded, firmly grasping her hands.
"Yeah, I will."
I could feel the warmth of her body through her hands.
It wasn't like the pages of a book, it was Hiiragi Tokiko's warmth.
I didn't want to let her go. I wanted to hold her hands forever.
Just when I thought that,
Hiiragi suddenly crouched down, as if her knee grew weak.
"H-hey! What's up, are you okay!?"
"Y-yes… Sorry, I'm fine. My legs trembled and I couldn't stand anymore…"
Hearing her I finally noticed.
Hiiragi entire body was trembling a little.
"Haa… I wondered what would happen. I was so nervous thinking about why you called me here. I thought I might die…"
"… You were worrying about it that much?"
"… It's your fault, you know, Hosono-kun."
Hiiragi looked up at me resentfully.
However, maybe because she was relieved now, her expression was far more relaxed than earlier.
"If you weren't so kind and a more disagreeable person, I wouldn't feel like that, Hosono-kun…"
"… Yeah, my bad."
Hiiragi used my hand and unsteadily stood up.
Then looking at the clock in the park,
"Aaah… It's already this late. I rushed out of the house so Mom must be worried…"
"Must be, yeah, sorry… For now I'll take you home."
Still holding hands, we started to walk.
Her moist, sweaty hand was firmly grasping mine.
Looking at the pale moon shining in the night sky, I thought:
I guess that right now, this is the prologue of my story with Hiiragi.
──That's why, my first love starts after the epilogue.
(15 Years Old/Hiiragi Tokoro - Machida Edition)