■Chapter: Takane Saki■
Saki Takane, 15 years old, in her third year of junior high school.
I wasn’t born and raised in a particularly wealthy family, and the only reason I started attending Kamimura City’s Kamimura Higashi Middle School was that it was conveniently close to my home.
However, this place had a slightly… okay, maybe more than slightly, bad reputation for its safety.
“Damn it, that baldy! Acting all high and mighty just because he can afford to eat out!”
One day, as I walked down the hallway, I heard a furious voice and the sound of something being kicked from behind. I immediately hid behind something.
Peering from my hiding spot, I saw two male students in disheveled uniforms exiting the staff room. The tall one was Kawariku Arakawa, and the shorter one was Tatsuki Iwasawa.
They were infamous for all the wrong reasons even at Kamimura Higashi Middle School, and today seemed to be particularly irritable.
That noise earlier must have been the sound of Iwasawa kicking the staff room door.
“Hey, Tatsuki, stop it! I don’t want my parents being contacted again.”
“Damn it! Should I report that bald guy to the PTA for what he did to the summer intern last year?”
“…Huh!? Seriously!? That glasses guy? The busty college student?”
“Yeah, seriously! Don’t underestimate my network… Oh, I’m so annoyed that I’ll spill the beans now! The staff room everyone…! Class B’s homeroom teacher, Nuno-san, is having an affair with the intern!”
“Whoa, you idiot!”
Before the staff room door opened with a red-faced Nuno-san, the two of them burst into laughter and dashed down the hallway. I watched their antics from the shadows at the hallway’s corner.
…Well, that’s the extent of the security issue here.
Other incidents included broken windows, chairs falling from upper floors, and students freely roaming the hallways during class, among others.
This was the everyday life at our Kamimura City’s Higashi Middle School.
I should clarify from the beginning that it was just a slightly higher proportion of such people, not everyone in Higashi Middle School.
As expected, I was one of the students who didn’t fit that description.
And for those who didn’t fit, there was an important mission: ── figuring out how to survive these three years.
It was May, after school.
“Saki, you’re late…”
I was suddenly called over by my classmates and ran to the back of the school building. Trying to catch my breath.
“S-Sorry… I got stopped by a teacher.”
I forced a smile, not a genuine one, not a natural one, not a smile of friendship. It was just a strained, pathetic smile.
“Ignore the teacher~, Saki. Our friendship is more important, right~? And I always tell you to leave when I call, right?”
“Come on, Ai-chan, that’s harassment!”
“Saki, you should apologize again. Ai-chan gets angry so easily!”
They were teasing me, and I went along with it.
“Ehehe…Ai-chan, I’m sorry.”
Among the many survival strategies, I had chosen this “smile”.
It was like a flag of total surrender, where I didn’t assert anything, didn’t stand out, and simply conveyed that I had no hostile intentions with this smile.
It was my way of navigating through as an inconspicuous middle school girl, neither an asset nor a liability.
They weren’t monsters, either. If I raised this white flag, they would…
…Sure, I might get teased a little, but it wouldn’t be that bad.
They would even let me into their group.
Today, Ai-chan invited me to the back of the school building, saying, “We’re going to do something fun.” But what could be so fun?
“–Oh, Saki-chan’s here?”
A too-familiar male voice came from behind, making me flinch.
I didn’t realize it until just now, but he’s definitely…
“…You, the one from Class A, Haruto Miyanoshita, right?”
I hardly knew any boys, or rather, I didn’t know any at all. However, I knew him.
Haruto Miyanoshita, 3rd-year Class A.
Probably because he consistently ranked at the top of the regular exams, was the ace of the soccer team, and, not to mention, had good looks.
He had been a frequent topic of conversation among the girls.
“Oh? Saki-chan knows me? I’m thrilled! Let’s take a commemorative photo.”
Haruto suddenly pointed his smartphone’s camera at my face and took a snap.
“Isn’t it nice? This smartphone has a super high-quality dual-camera, wireless charging capability… and it’s in an elegant champagne gold color!”
I actually wanted him to delete the photo…
But that wasn’t my character. I simply put on that “smile” again to play it cool.
“Hey, Haruto, enough with the smartphone show-off, okay? I brought it just like you told me.”
Maybe Ai-chan didn’t like the situation where Haruto was paying attention to me.
She said it in a sweet voice.
Come to think of it, I think I heard somewhere that Ai-chan liked Miyanoshita-kun.
“Oh, my bad, my bad. Let’s get started then. It would be a hassle if a teacher comes by.”
“Seriously, be careful! I stole it from my brother. Um…”
Saying that, Ai-chan rummaged through her enamel bag.
…I had actually sensed it faintly for a while now.
In this deserted corner of the school building, away from the teacher’s gaze, they were going to do something “fun”.
I had sensed it but lacked the courage to run away.
“Each person gets one, no more, or we’ll get caught.”
Ai-chan took out a small paper box about the size of a palm.
Even I could tell it wasn’t a box of snacks.
“Saki, hold onto this. I’ll look for the lighter.”
“Um, but this is, well…”
Ai-chan’s forceful words left me no choice.
Feeling pathetic, submissive, and cowardly, I reluctantly replied,
Even though what Ai-chan handed me was just a cardboard box, touching it made me feel like I had become a criminal in an instant.
I shivered all over, wanting desperately to let go of it and escape back to my usual daily life.
But my body wouldn’t move.
“Oh, found it!… Yep, it lights up. Saki, give one to everyone.”
I knew very well that this was a bad thing to do, but…
I was scared, terribly scared.
If I dared to oppose Ai-chan, my position would be…
“What are you doing? Hurry up.”
With the lighter in hand, Ai-chan urged me on.
I forced my usual submissive smile…
“Um… Can’t we stop this?”
──For the first time, I rebelled against Ai-chan.
Ai-chan’s voice grew low and menacing.
Trembling with fear, my already strained smile grew even more forced, but I continued.
“Um…haha, I have a tendency to have shortness of breath, and, uh, besides, I’ve heard that things like this are bad for your health… and for your beauty… and, you know, it’s all harm and no benefit. And, if, by any chance, a teacher finds out about this in such a place…”
“Huh? Hey Ai-chan? That’s different from what I heard, isn’t it?”
“Mi… Miyanoshita-kun, even though you have good grades… doing something like this could hurt your recommendations, couldn’t it?”
“…Saki, give it quickly.”
“S-should we stop…? Right…? I…”
Ai-chan’s furious voice left me paralyzed with fear.
—And then, it happened.
From outside my field of vision, something large and rod-like flew towards us.
It rotated violently as it passed between me and Ai-chan.
With a deafening crash, it shattered one of the school building’s windows.
Everyone was suddenly speechless and frozen by this unexpected event.
Peering from beyond the shattered glass was a girl in gym clothes, the one who had thrown the tennis racket.
“Oh dear, it slipped right out of my hand.”
She said this with a nonchalant tone as Ai-chan was the first to regain her composure.
“You…! What the h*ll are you doing, you almost…”
“─Senseeeeiiii! I’m soooorry! I was practicing hitting the wall with my racket, and it just slipped and broke the window!”
“What the…! You idiot!?”
Although Ai-chan was visibly irritated, the girl’s unexpectedly loud voice left even her surprised.
Ai-chan’s face contorted in frustration, but she eventually snatched the paper box from my hand.
“Tsk… Let’s go, everyone!”
She led the group of girls, including Miyanoshita-kun, as they hurriedly fled the scene.
And so, there I was and the shattered window glass…
And only the petite girl, who I didn’t even know the name of, left behind.
“Aren’t you going to run away?”
“My… My legs gave out.”
She chuckled innocently, her laughter contrasting with the recent window-shattering event.
“Oh, you’re Saki Takane, right? You’re always hanging around that brat.”
I had never heard anyone refer to Ai-chan in such a way.
I couldn’t imagine saying such a thing about Ai-chan, even when she wasn’t around.
“Instead of always giggling like a fool, you should express your own opinions sometimes. I can’t go around breaking glass all the time, you know?”
“Did you… help me?”
“Not really. I was looking for a ball I accidentally hit out of the court, and my racket just happened to slip.”
“It just happened, heh?”
She leaned in closer and peered into my face.
“W-what is it…?”
“…You look pretty cute when you smile normally.”
“Anyway, I needed a partner in crime.”
She said, pointing at the shattered window, her expression mischievous.
“—I’m Yuka Senami from the Soft Tennis Club. Let’s go apologize to the teacher together, Nihihi.”
And that’s how, Yuka-chan and I became friends in the short time it took for the teacher to rush in, face bright red.
Since becoming close with Yuka-chan, for some reason, Ai-chan’s group never bothered me again.
Maybe it was because Ai-chan got caught stealing her brother’s property right after, or perhaps it was because Yuka-chan and I had earned a certain level of respect among the troublemakers.
Various reasons crossed my mind, but one thing was certain: this was the most peaceful time I had during my three years in middle school.
…Until that day.
It was the midst of the rainy season in Kamimura, where the constant drizzle made my short-sleeved blouse stick uncomfortably to my skin.
I remember this particular after-school moment vividly.
I was frozen in front of my shoe locker when Yuka-chan approached.
“──Oh, Saki Saki hasn’t gone home yet?”
I hurriedly hid what I was holding behind my back as she approached.
It was Yuka-chan who called out to me.
“? What’s that?”
“Uh? Oh, um, Yuka-chan, what are you doing here!? Isn’t it time for your club activities1?”
“Club activities~? Saki Saki, you’re such a funny one. What month do you think it is?”
“Uh… It’s July.”
“The last July of our middle school life, right? Our small and weak tennis club has long been eliminated from the district qualifiers. The third-year students have all retired.”
“Oh, that’s right.”
“It’s the same for most clubs. There aren’t any clubs with potential anyway, except maybe the karate club. They’re going to the national tournament next month… Anyway, speaking of rumors, look who’s coming.”
Yuka-chan leaned towards me and pointed to one of the male students coming from across the hallway.
…He seemed like a rather intimidating person.
Was he in a bad mood, perhaps? He furrowed his brow and glared ahead as he passed by.
Was that ….?
“…Who is that?”
“Huh!? You don’t know, Saki Saki!? He’s engo Mashima, the captain of the karate club!”
Seeing my reaction, Yuka-chan let out a sigh.
“Kengo Mashima, he’s like a famous guy around here. To put it simply, he’s a bit of an oddball, but he’s unbelievably skilled in karate. He’s the one who led our weak karate club to the national level for the first time.”
“Wow, he’s such an amazing person, isn’t he?”
“Saki Saki, you should try to be more interested in other people… and maybe make some friends besides me. Seriously, what will you do in high school?”
“I’m going to the same high school as you, Yuka-chan, so it’ll be fine! Ehehe.”
“Ehehe isn’t going to cut it.”
If Yuka-chan was with me, a fun high school life was practically guaranteed.
“Well, let’s get going, shall we? They say the rain will get heavier in the evening…”
“Ah… I’m sorry, but I just remembered I have something to do for a teacher. I need to go to the staff room.”
“Oh, really? Are you sure you’ll be okay? Do you want me to come with you?”
“No, no, it’s okay! Please go ahead without me, Yuka-chan!”
“Alright then, good luck!”
“Thank you! Goodbye!”
After bidding farewell to Yuuka-chan, I didn’t head towards the staff room as I had claimed.
…I’m sorry, Yuka-chan. This was the first lie I had ever told.
Instead, I went to the third floor, to the classroom of Class A.
As expected, by this time of day, there was no one else in the classroom.
…Except for him.
“──Oh, Saki-chan, you’re here! Let’s take a commemorative photo.”
An empty classroom.
He was the only one sitting at a desk. He immediately snapped a picture with his smartphone when he saw me.
“…Miyanoshita, it’s you.”
“You remembered me? I’m so happy~.”
Since the incident with Ai-chan, we hadn’t had a chance to exchange words, but he spoke as if we were old friends.
…To be honest, I didn’t have a very good impression of him.
I really didn’t want to see his face. But… I forced a humble smile.
“What… there was a letter in my shoe locker… What was this important matter?”
──After school, about an important matter in Class 3A, come alone – Haruto Miyanoshita.
That’s what the simple letter, just a folded loose leaf, said.
“Yeah, it was an important matter, an important matter.”
Haruto Miyanoshita jumped down from his desk and approached me.
I put on a strained smile and prepared myself.
If necessary, I was ready to raise my voice.
“──Sorry about the other day. I wanted to apologize to you directly, Saki-chan.”
I was completely taken aback by the turn of events, which was completely different from what I had expected.
Miyanoshita-san was bowing his head to me.
“I really regret what happened the other day. I think I scared you a lot, Saki-chan.”
“Actually, I’d never done anything like that before. I just did something stupid because I really wanted to get to know Takane-san.”
I couldn’t even speak in response to this unexpected turn of events.
W-Wait a minute!
Apology is fine, but getting to know me?
Could it be…
“──Saki Takamine, I’ve liked you for a long time. Would you go out with me?”
I felt a shock as if lightning had struck my brain.
Confession, confession, confession!
I had always thought I would never experience such an event, but it was happening right here and now!
“Umm, w-wait a minute. I mean, it’s so sudden…”
“Saki-chan, I was serious.”
I was taken aback by Miyanoshita’s earnest gaze.
W-What should I do!?
It seemed that Miyanoshita was genuinely remorseful about what had happened before.