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Shiro sank in his chair, wanting to disappear. As luck would have it, Mr. Azuma was his homeroom teacher. He’d make this year difficult for sure. Shiro didn’t really believe in bad omens, but if he did, this certainly made the cut.
“Hey man, don’t sweat it.” He felt someone pat his shoulder.
“Yeah, Ishida. It happens to the best of us.” Another student comforted him.
It didn’t put him at ease comparing themselves to him. He wasn’t like them. He wasn’t average. There was more expected of him than the common student. He put on his signature smile. “Yeah, thanks!” is all he could think to say.
“Psst.” He heard someone call to his right. “Ishida, over here.”
Shiro turned toward the direction of the voice. Makoto Hamada smiled as if she was greeting an old friend. At least there was a familiar face in the class. Although many knew his name, he was almost embarrassed that he never learned theirs.
Makoto was an acquaintance from two summers ago. At a point in his life, he allowed himself the luxury of friends.
“Ms. Hamada, it’s nice to see you again,” Shiro whispered.
“Are you alright, Shiro? That was brutal.” She glanced back and forth between him and Mr. Azuma.
“Heh, yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s my fault.” Shiro rubbed the back of his head. He didn’t like to be late for class and bring unwanted attention to himself. But it couldn’t be helped.
“Are you excited about club activities?” Makoto squealed.
“Y-yeah, are you ready for it, Madam President?" Shiro bowed his head to the girl who’d be his club president for his final year.
She covered her cheeks with her hands at the compliment. “I’m glad we’ll be in a club together again this year.” She grinned. “I understand why you rejected the Vice President position though, with graduation and all. So, don’t worry. No hard feelings.” She pouted.
“I appreciate that. “He replied.
“But I do have a small favor to ask…” she said shyly.
“O-oi!” Azuma’s voice interrupted their quiet conversation.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Scolded for the second time in one day. Shiro stood from his chair and bowed, “S-sorry, Prof—”
“Do you know what time it is?!” Azuma’s voice rumbled throughout the classroom.
He was sure everyone could hear it on the second floor. Shiro didn’t dare look up. He didn’t have a response.
“I got lost.” Replied a female voice.
Shiro didn't have to look to recognize the voice. The same girl that called his name just moments earlier. He made his way back to his chair. No one noticed his outburst. Everyone’s eyes were on Mr. Azuma and the girl with the reddish-brown hair.
Is this… real? Shiro dug his fingernails into the skin on his arm. He winced at the pain. She’s… here. Shiro felt nauseated. The room spun and his throat burned. “Kei- “
His hand came up to his mouth on its own. Holding him back from saying the name and willing the contents of his stomach back down his throat.
“That’s no excuse!” Azuma’s voice shook.
This must have been the first time a student had challenged him. He was sweating and loosening his tie.
Shiro knew Azuma well. With him being the only business professor in the school, he’s had enough interactions with him to predict his actions. Azuma was not the type to be rattled, especially by a teenage girl.
Keiko flipped her hair away from her face. “The first day of class should be about getting to know our peers.” Her voice grew louder. “What is there to be late for?” Keiko folded her arms across her chest. “This isn’t even a real class, it’s homeroom!” Keiko smirked at the man, whose fists were clenched into balls.
“You little —”
“Mr. Azuma!” a man yelled out in the hall.
Azuma calmed himself enough to speak to the man.
Keiko’s eyes darted around the classroom. For a second, she and Shiro made eye contact. She quickly looked away and took an empty seat by the window in the front of the class.
He stared at her for a long time, waiting for her to turn into someone else, anyone else.
Why? He clenched his jaw, fighting the urge to call her name. His headache threatened to return as he suppressed every and any emotion that tried to force itself on his face. Why did she come back?
“Who does she think she is?” Makoto glared at the new girl.
“I know, right? Where does she get off talking to Mr. Azuma like that?” said another female student.
“Anyway,” Makoto tried to continue their previous conversation.
Shiro wasn’t able to hear most of what she said. He was still fixed on Keiko. He didn’t know what to feel. He didn’t expect to see her again. Though he’d given a lot of thought about how he’d react if he ever did. His goal was indifference. Try to hold back the anger and be civil, but uncaring. He never expected to feel this… curiosity. What had she been doing all this time? Did she recognize him? Did she even remember him at all? When did she get back? And most importantly, how did she get past the three-year rule? What the hell was going on?
He clenched his fists. He was disgusted with himself. He had so many questions, but he refused to let himself dwell on them. He didn’t realize he’d been digging his nails in his arm again until he felt a bruise forming. Tsk! Dammit! Shiro cursed himself.
“Ms. Matsuda!” Mr. Azuma didn’t look at the girl when he approached her. “Why don’t you have a seat next to Ishida over there,” he pointed at the empty seat next to Shiro. “You were both tardy. You must have a lot in common.”
The girl didn’t protest. She didn’t look his way. Not even once.
“Here, since you missed the entrance ceremony.” He handed her a black pin that symbolized her third-year status in the school.
“Th-thank you.” She seemed just as surprised as everyone else was with his change of attitude.
“Well, that’s a first.” The student behind him said.
“Mr. Azuma has met his match!” Chuckled another.
Shiro tuned out their teasing and focused his attention on his teacher. He didn’t dare look to his left, where Keiko pushed her chair as far away from him as possible. She was practically in the aisle.
He spent the rest of the class so focused on avoiding her, he’d almost forgotten about Makoto. The bell rang before he could apologize to the girl who was still rambling on.
“Is that okay with you, Shiro?” Makoto’s voice picked up again.
“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Not having a clue as to what he just agreed to.
“Great!” she hopped out of her chair and swung her bag over her shoulder. “I’ll bring her by to see you Friday afternoon, during our free period.”
She was out the door before he could ask for more information.
“Her?” He questioned, though she had already gone.
X X X
The rest of the week went by smoothly, all things considered.
Mr. Azuma didn’t give Shiro a hard time during his regular classes. In fact, he seemed more relaxed than usual.
As for Keiko, she missed more days than she attended. The days she did attend, she came in late. Her lack of presence in homeroom helped a lot. He barely had to see her.
Shiro glanced to his left at the empty seat beside him. She was a no-show again today. She arrived late yesterday, and it’s already almost lunchtime, so he was sure today she would miss entirely.
Good, he thought. It will be a smooth day.
Shiro’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He glanced down to read the message.
Same to you!
Has she said anything?
He didn’t bother replying. He knew he meant Keiko. He immediately regretted bringing her up, but he couldn’t talk about it to anyone else.
He heard a quiet gasp to his right. Makoto rolled her eyes and went back to taking notes as Keiko slipped in at the last minute. Shiro waited for another confrontation between the girl and their teacher, but it never came.
He avoided looking in her direction as he had done somewhat successfully the entire week. He could hear her scribbling in her notebook. She seemed to be in a hurry. He checked his watch. Three minutes for the bell.
His curiosity got the better of him, and he glanced her way. She was writing notes down from today’s lecture. Her eyes darted back and forth between the blackboard and her sheet of paper. Shiro followed her gaze to the front of the class.
The board was covered in notes from the day’s lecture. Shiro tried to remember if they’d always been there. In the years he had Mr. Azuma as a teacher, the man never spoon-fed anyone lecture notes like this. This seemed out of character for him.
The bell rang, and as quietly as she had entered, the girl disappeared.
“I’ll bring Ishimoto by to meet you before the lunch period is over.” Makoto shoved her notebook in her bag.
“Sounds good,” Shiro answered, still unsure of who he was meant to see and why.
Makoto hurried out the door and Shiro realized then that he’d forgotten to bring his food. He had had little to no interaction with his siblings since the incident with Saito. He didn’t even have time to greet them this morning before he left since he had another late night and didn’t want a repeat of Monday morning. He’d have to apologize to Aya later for wasting the meal.
“Ishida!” Mr. Azuma dropped a bag on Shiro’s desk. “Your sister dropped off your lunch this morning.”
Shiro’s hunger became unbearable at the smell of pork. “T-thank you!”
“Mm-hmm,” Azuma grunted.
Shiro rounded up his things while his phone vibrated in his pocket. He knew his colleague would want to hear about his week, but he didn’t want to ruin his appetite thinking about it. Instead, he exited the class and made his way to his usual lunch spot. The library. His favorite place, surrounded by his favorite things.
X X X
“What a week.” Shiro sighed, stretching his arms. He stacked his lunch box and wrapped it in a cloth. He pulled his phone from his pocket and read through his messages. Most of them were about Keiko.
You did the right thing avoiding that girl.
He didn’t like talking to anyone about it. But if there was anyone he could talk to, it was Kenshin. Kenshin didn’t attend Bura Bura, and they didn’t have any mutual connections. It couldn’t hurt to vent to him every now and again. They’ve never met in person, anyway.
I found a few errors in the last update.
When you’re free later, let’s work on these.
Kenshin included a screenshot of several errors in the work Shiro had turned in last week.
He worked as a Jr Programmer for his father’s company. He started working his freshman year to pay for Bura Bura Academy’s tuition. It wasn’t expensive, a part-time job could easily cover it. And would probably be less hassle than his current employer. But working for his father’s business associate was part of their deal. He wouldn’t have been able to enroll here otherwise. Though he regretted every minute he attended.
Promise me… His old friend’s shaky voice echoed in his mind. He held out his hand like he’d done in his dream
“I promise.” He mouthed. Repeating the words that had sealed his fate back then. The ones that tormented him even today. He stood to grab a book on programming from the shelf. There was no use letting it bother him now. He didn’t have much reason to complain. He had his life set up for him. He just needed to live it.
Besides, it was wise to learn the field that would be the rest of his life. Shiro found programming a little dull. He wasn't great at it on a good day and this week was rougher than most.
Shiro put his head back and let out a sigh. “So much for a relaxing weekend.” He made efforts to stop working late, and this is where it got him. His father would be ashamed. Good thing he wasn’t around to see his son failing the business.
Kenshin was very understanding, though. He didn’t report errors to his father so long as they were dealt with in a timely fashion.
Thanks for looking out. It’s been a rough week.
No problem. What are friends for?
The word almost made him sick. Friends. He repeated in his head.
“You’re causing me a lot of grief, you know that?”
He heard a male voice nearby. He tried tuning it out and searched for another book.
“Do you know what it took to get you enrolled here?” he heard the voice say.
“It wasn’t my fault!” said another voice he could recognize anywhere.
He slid a couple of books aside and peeked through the cracks, trying his best to not make a sound. He could just barely make out two figures. One was Keiko and the other looked like a man, but he couldn’t tell who it was. Shiro leaned in closer to hear their conversation.
“They called from the hospital. She had another...episode.” Keiko explained.
“I heard.” The man responded coldly, “I made Azuma aware of our circumstances.”
Circumstances? Shiro squinted his eyes, as if that would help him hear more clearly. What are you involved in, Keiko?
Shiro’s imagination ran wild. What if Keiko was a spy, and she was sent off to train on a secret base this entire time? That would explain a lot of things. It would also be entirely impossible.
Control your imagination, you idiot. He scoffed at his own stupidity.
“Ishida?” called a voice from behind him.
The couple turned in his direction, though they couldn’t see him through the bookshelves. The man took the stairs while Keiko made her way to the main exit.
He turned toward Makoto and another student as they walked toward him.
The girl was petite, with short, light brown hair. Makoto was of average height and even she towered over the girl. Shiro was almost double her height. She reminded him a little of Aya. They even had the same hair color.
“This is the girl I was telling you about. First-year, Hana Ishimoto. She’ll be joining us in Paint Club temporarily.” Makoto said, with both hands on the girl’s shoulders.
“U-um, good afternoon, Ishida.” The girl bowed.
She wore a single white pin on her vest. She clutched her bag so tight her knuckles were white. Her hair was covering most of her face, so he couldn’t see her expression.
“Good afternoon, Ishimoto.” He said back, a little embarrassed.
“Ishimoto is the Gardening Club’s second chair. They need help with marketing, so she will be shadowing you until the collaboration is over.” Makoto explained.
Shiro noticed Hana had a bit of rice stuck to her cheek. He reached out unconsciously, plucking it off. The girl stared up at him through her bangs, her eyes hidden behind her hair.
He hadn’t realized what he’d done until then.
He bowed his head as low as he could to hide his flustered expression. “M-my apologies, Ishimoto!” Shiro couldn’t look at her face. “It’s just, you reminded me of my little sister with your face covered in food...”
Hana’s eyes grew wider, her face turned a shade of bright red.
“N-no, I didn’t mean...” he tried to explain.
He could only watch as the girl ran out of the room.
“S-sorry...” he repeated.
Makoto covered her mouth, clearly having been laughing to herself. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to laugh.” Makoto said.
Her words and actions contradicted each other as she let out a giggle. “Did you see her face? She looked like she was going to faint!” Makoto teased.
“Will she be okay?” He rubbed the back of his head.
He felt guilty for scaring the first-year off. Even if he did think she overreacted.
“Don’t worry about her. She’ll come around.”
Makoto didn’t seem too concerned about Hana. He felt a ball in his throat. He’d apologize to her when he sees her again. If he sees her again, that is.
X X X
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Hana ran from the library and leaned up against the wall to catch her breath.
She reacted so childishly, but she couldn’t help it. She just gets flustered around Shiro.
“But of course, he didn’t remember me.” Hana smiled something sorrowful.
Why would he remember you? You are nothing to him. Her inner voice taunted.
Her vision blurred, and she felt her body go numb. Oh no, it’s happening! She put her back against the wall and shut her eyes.
Hana felt a hand wrap itself in hers and another over her shoulder. Her eyes popped open as the foreign touch quickly brought her back to reality.
“Just breathe.” Said a girl with long wavy hair. Concern spread across her face. “You’re okay, you’re safe. Breathe.” She repeated over and over.
Her voice was loud and not exactly soothing. But it worked. Hana was too shocked to continue her meltdown.
The girl let go of Hana’s hand, sensing that the moment had passed. “My mom gets panic attacks, too.” She rested her hand behind her back and leaned on the wall beside her.
All she could do was look down in shame. No one’s ever noticed her episodes before.
“Was it that obvious?” Hana’s eyes fixed on the floor.
“Nah, I’m just good at sensing these things.” Keiko winked, standing directly in front of her.
She was tall for a girl, at least a foot taller than Hana was. She didn’t have the body of a high school student either, though she was wearing a uniform. Her curvaceous figure could easily be mistaken for an adult.
Hana noticed she only wore one black pin on her vest. At orientation, she learned the pins represent your year. Black pins are for third-year students.
“Are you really a high school student?” Hana accidentally said out loud.
“S-sorry!” Hana said, turning away from the girl.
The redheaded girl giggled to herself. “Well, what’re you apologizing for?” She bent down to Hana’s height.
Hana didn’t reply. She felt herself turning red again.
“Stop that!” said the girl, folding her arms against her chest. “You’ll get eaten up alive if you continue that way.”
The girl brushed Hana’s caramel-colored hair out of her face and clipped something on each side of her head.
“There.” She stood up when the bell rang. “Don’t hide those pretty eyes anymore.”
The girl walked away and waved goodbye without looking back.
Makoto walked out of the library. “Let’s get to class.” She called for Shiro to follow.
The two walked past her, not noticing she was there. It’s the same as back then.
When they were children, Shiro would often walk past her. She could never work up the courage to speak to him. Even though they went to the same elementary school and the same middle school after that. He was always just out of reach.
“Ishida,” Hana said, too low for him to hear. She reached out for him and grabbed the back of his shirt without thinking. “Ishida!” she said again, this time loud enough to catch the attention of several other students.
Shiro and Makoto both looked back at her. Their expressions were both startled and confused.
For a while, Hana kept silent. Embarrassed by her outburst. Her body went numb again.
Just breathe, the redhead’s voice echoed in her head. You’re okay.
“L-let’s have a good year,” Hana said with a bow.
She didn’t stand or look at him.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. He bent to her height. “Yeah,” he smiled at her.
She returned his smile as her heart threatened to pop out of her chest. It was beating so hard she was sure he could hear it.
“I’ll see you in class,” he waved in Makoto’s direction.
“C’mon, I’ll walk you. If you don’t mind.” Shiro gestured for Hana to lead the way.
She willed her legs to move. When they did, she couldn’t be sure they were going in the right direction. She led him up the stairs to the third floor.
“Paint club is pretty straightforward.” Shiro broke the silence. “Makoto is the President. She makes all the decisions about what we will be painting. Mostly watercolors.” He explained.
Hana nodded along, though she was mostly too afraid to look at him at all.
“We are expected to bring our own supplies, which can be a little pricey. But you won’t have to worry about that.” She heard him say. “Since you won’t be around long, anyway.”
The words struck her like a knife in her chest.
“M-maybe I’ll join the paint club too.” Hana mused.
“The student body president implemented a one club per student rule this year.” He countered, “Besides, it’s better if you stick to one club. You’ll have more time to focus on your major.” Shiro smiled a strange, forced smile.
“I see,” she stopped at her class. “If the promotion goes well, I may just transfer to paint club, and you’ll be stuck with me.” She tried to joke, but the words sounded weird coming from her.
When he didn’t respond, she looked up at his face. He looked horrified.
“I-I didn’t mean — “
“Ms. Ishimoto!” her teacher called out to her, “Have a seat.”
The door closed on Shiro before she could thank him for walking her.
How could I mess this up? She sat in her seat and prepared for the panic to set in.
X X X
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Shiro went about the rest of his day on autopilot. After school, he waited at the bus stop as usual. Luckily. there were no other students waiting to board. Many of them probably had weekend plans with friends. He was happy to have the time alone to think.
The man Keiko was involved with turned out to be Hana’s teacher. That explained the special treatment she was receiving for Mr. Azuma.
Is Keiko really that kind of girl?
If the school finds out, she’s risking expulsion. Not to mention costing two teachers their jobs. Is she really that reckless with other people’s lives?
Shiro thought back to the Keiko that was his best friend. The one who spent hours reading his stories and decorating his notebooks. The same Keiko that abandoned him six years ago without saying a word.
“I guess she is.” Shiro didn’t know what kind of person Keiko was now. But one thing was certain, he couldn’t avoid her forever.
“Time to rip off the band-aid.” He stood up and boarded the bus.