[In The Café]
All of a sudden Tsukimori came to my desk and said, with a smile as warm as sunbeams s.h.i.+ning through the leaves of a tree and a voice as soft as a gentle summer breeze:
"Shall we go then, Nonomiya-kun?"
Time stopped in the noisy cla.s.sroom. At least, my train of thought did.
Everyone suspended what he or she was doing and looked over to us. Usami was the first to regain time.
"...eh? Youko-san? Are you tagging along with Nonomiya? Why? Eeh?"
Her bewilderment made her look like one of those automatons that jump out of striking clocks every hour.
"I wanted to pay the café Nonomiya-kun works at a visit since I heard it's very comfortable there. And as you know, I have been quite busy lately, so I was a little tired and thought about relaxing there while enjoying a cup of tea. Well, that's why I asked Nonomiya-kun!"
Tsukimori was obviously taking into consideration that we were being watched by our cla.s.smates.
"Is that true, Nonomiya?"
I had already expected that I would be the next target to be questioned.
Thus, I somehow managed not to reveal my discontent.
"Maybe I should join you..."
I almost blacked out upon hearing her murmur. Tsukimori alone was already enough trouble—I couldn't manage both of them at the same time.
"Aren't your club activities waiting for you?"
Usami was in the volleyball club. She was gifted with strength in her arms that didn't suit her small body: her spikes made the guys look old. I remembered all too well how relieved I was to be on the same team after witnessing her spike during PE.
"Don't. Didn't you say only recently that you were on the brink of becoming a regular player? It would be foolish to skip your club activities during such an important period."
Usami pressed her lips into a line and grumbled with a frown.
"Let's go together some other time, Chizuru. I will memorize where the café is for you, today. Okay?"
Tsukimori admonished her gently like a caring sister, whereupon Usami obediently nodded, "Okay."
One problem solved. I then went on getting rid of the remaining issues.
"It's really just you who's coming, right? If the whole bunch were to come along, I'd have to refuse because that would only cause the café trouble."
That was a prompt. I indicated to Tsukimori that I would only give my consent if she cleared that condition.
"Don't worry, our cla.s.smates are so kind, they would never cause anyone trouble," she ensured with a ladylike smile, "See you tomorrow, everyone."
She elegantly waved her hand at her cla.s.smates.
They would have jumped at that chance for sure. The guys, among them Kamogawa, and the girls who admired Tsukimori put their disappointment clearly on display. But not one of them would even think of betraying angelic Youko Tsukimori's trust.
But equally, I was not capable enough to do something against the situation she had induced. I had no choice but to unwillingly go along with her.
Tsukimori walked with light steps towards the front gate.
"What are you up to?" I asked her delicate back, without hiding my bad mood.
Tsukimori turned around, making her long hair flutter in the wind.
"I am so curious about the café you work at," she said, without hiding her good mood.
"Answer me! You should know that I don't like standing out."
"Which is why I tried to prevent a commotion, didn't I?"
"That doesn't change the fact that we attracted attention."
"Well, tough luck."
"And whose fault is that...?" I was irritated by her out-and-out undaunted behavior. "Who told you that I work at a café anyway?"
"I heard it from rumors!"
It was well-known that I work part-time somewhere, but I hadn't told anyone at school that I was working at a café.
"What are you after?"
"What do you think I am, Nonomiya-kun? It is not strange at all to desire to learn more about the person in my heart, is it? This is what you call a pure girl's heart."
"You claim to be a pure girl? Laughable. Let me a.s.sert this for you: you are nowhere near as harmless as that."
"You know, looking so mature can be a real bother at such times. I am still just a seventeen-year-old girl. Besides, I have only recently lost my father, so I think you ought to be gentler to me, Nonomiya-kun," pouted Tsukimori. I was surprised that she could make such childish expressions, too.
But that was as far as it went. Of course I felt sorry for her, but in the end it was still none of my business.
"See you tomorrow."
I accelerated my pace and put some distance between me and Tsukimori.
"Where are you going? There's the back gate."
"Unlike you, I commute by bicycle and not by train. If you can keep up with my speed, I shall take the special trouble and guide you to the café?" I was deliberately cold. I couldn't be bothered to adjust to others. And I cared even less to have someone enter my territory without authorization.
"Yes, let's go with that. I just hope my back will not hurt from it, but well, I have always wanted do that once."
However, Tsukimori was even less harmless than I had expected. Before I knew it, she was walking next to me.
"...what are you thinking?"
"I have always wanted to do that at least once! Riding a bicycle à deux."
"When did I say I'd let you?"
"Don't worry. I should not be too heavy."
"That wasn't the question."
I was annoyed. As she showed no restraint I decided on saying my piece without restraint as well.
"I admit that I should be gentler to you as you've just lost your father. However, I don't feel like dancing to your tune like the others, not in the least. Not everyone is considerate towards you, keep that in mind. At least now that I know your true nature, I might still feel sympathy but I am certainly not favorable towards you," I rebuked her.
"Mmm! That's how my Nonomiya-kun has to be," Tsukimori nodded strongly, making a somewhat contented face. "I love this unashamed att.i.tude."
My words had achieved the exact opposite effect. Wanting to put her off, I accidentally attracted her all the more.
Seeing my loss for words, she showed me her occasional big-sister-like smile.
"Won't you give me a chance? I have realized by now that my confession yesterday was overhasty! Just like you don't know how I really am, I don't know you well yet, either. I think it is necessary for both of us to deepen our mutual understanding. It's not too late to make a decision after coming to know each other better, right?"
Her opinion was fair enough.
But when I looked back at what had happened so far, I didn't feel like believing her words blindly.
I peeked into Tsukimori's eyes.
What was she thinking?
She did not avoid my glance in the slightest. In her big, almond-shaped eyes I could clearly see my own reflection.
It was I who gave in at last. I released her from my gaze and mounted my bicycle.
I heard her cheerful voice.
After she had gotten on the carrier, I took off. She was light, just as she had said herself.
"Promise me that you won't do anything that would bring me into focus anymore like today."
"I'll do my best."
"No, not just your best, promise it."
"Nonomiya-kun, the wind feels so pleasant. Riding a bicycle together is even better than I thought."
I spotted our reflection in a street mirror. Tsukimori was holding her skirt down with her right hand, wrapping her left arm around me, and smiling dazzlingly while watching the town's scenery pa.s.sing us by.
Completely unable to complain any more to a girl who entrusted her body to me, I just answered: "...Lucky you."
I kept on riding the bike while channeling all my unvoiced discontent and displeasure into pus.h.i.+ng the pedals.
Be it because of envy or jealousy, I sensed some intensive gazes from other students on their way home. It was clear whose fault it was since I had never experienced anything of this kind when cycling alone.
I was riding a bicycle with Youko Tsukimori on the back.
This was one of those sweet moments that are worthy of being called a memory of adolescence. I, in the midst of this period of life, was probably supposed to pride myself on such an event that anyone would envy me for.
To tell the truth, I was proud enough to have a certain sense of superiority, believing that there was no one else who had something as n.o.ble as her on his carrier.
Well, this only lasted for the short while during which I forgot about her troublesome personality and the murder recipe.
During the following hours I would definitely turn into her toy, so I needed to be emotionally prepared.
I had accepted Tsukimori's request. The reason was simple: I was interested in her.
Apart from that, call it a property of mine or just a preference: I enjoyed these thrilling conversations with her.
I changed into my waiter uniform in the staff room; I put on narrow black slacks, did up the b.u.t.tons of my white s.h.i.+rt and the black vest above, slipped into a pair of wing tip leather shoes and lastly I wound a rather long ap.r.o.n around my hips. After checking my appearance in front of the mirror, just to be sure, I headed to the kitchen.
The instant I entered the kitchen, my nose was tickled by the aromatic fragrance of coffee beans—a smell I was fond of.
The reason why I had chosen to work in this British-style café "Victoria" was, as a matter of fact, because the best coffee in the vicinity was served here.
Upon spotting me, my colleagues greeted me.
"Mister Kujirai?" I addressed the broad back of a man who was grinding coffee with a hand mill. The st.u.r.dy bespectacled addressee turned around with a warm smile. I continued, "I would be in charge of waiting the tables today, but may I change to the kitchen staff?"
"What's the matter?"
"It's a personal one, I'm afraid, but to tell the truth, a cla.s.smate of mine has come today."
"Eh? Why would you want to change your post then?"
"Well, I wouldn't be able to keep my cla.s.smate company. And besides, isn't it quite embarra.s.sing to be watched while working?"
As if I would let her watch! I knew that my resistance was childish, but this was my last stand after having failed miserably at turning her down.
There was someone apart from the shop manager who reacted sharply to my words.
"Hey, Nonomiya! Is it a guy or a gal?" asked a woman who was clothed like a pastry cook and was putting some fruit on a parfait right beside me. "If it's a guy I'll switch with you. As long as he's my type, of course!"
The whole staff grimaced as if they had taken bitter medicine when they realized that Mirai-san's bad habit had appeared again.
Her full name was Mirai Samejima. Mirai-san was the oldest face among the people at Victoria, and even the manager took his hat off to her.
According to her, she was still in university, but looking at how she behaved more important than the manager on some days—no, make that "everyday"—she gave me the impression of being older than that.
"Sorry to let you down, Mirai-san: it's a girl!"
"Hmph. Well, the fact that you brought a gal along gets me interested just as much."
With skillful movements Mirai-san quickly finished the parfait and, after throwing a piece of block chocolate into her mouth, tripped to the counter from where she had an overview of all the tables.
"Who is it? Come on, spill it."
She scowled over the counter into the shop while rolling the piece of chocolate in her mouth. The other staff members, too, didn't miss the chance and scanned the café from behind her.
I was hoping someone would remonstrate with them about their snoopy behavior, but even the one who was in the position to do so—the shop manager—was peeking with a face gleaming with curiosity.
Giving up, I admitted: "It's her," and pointed at Tsukimori who had taken a seat at the window and was sitting there like an unworldly, well-educated lady.
A cheer arose among the staff; the positive reaction of the guys was so blatant that I would have felt like an idiot if I had claimed that I had expected it.
"d.a.m.n! What a beauty! Way too good for you, Nonomiya, that's for sure!"
Mirai-san was apparently irritated with something and ran her iron fist into the pit of my stomach.
"...does anybody know why I deserve to be punched?"
My trembling question was only met with pitiful glances.
"You always act as if you didn't care two figs about love, but you do your thing in the background, huh, you sneaking lech!"
Apparently, Mirai-san mistook Tsukimori and me for lovers.
"...Mirai-chan and her new boyfriend haven't been getting along lately, you know," the manager whispered into my ear.
"So it's only a matter of time until they split up, I suppose?"
"...Probably," he nodded after backing off again.
Mirai-san could be categorized as pretty if she kept quiet. As a matter of fact, she was often approached by the other s.e.x. However unfortunate, her looks were spoiled by her unyielding personality, which was also the reason why her relations.h.i.+ps never lasted long. I knew of none, at least.
"Mhh!? Saruwatari!? Gotten all lovestruck or what?!"
"I-I haven't! I'm not lovestruck or anything!"
"Then you better stay that way!"
Today's sacrifice was Saruwatari-san. Mirai-san's sharp kick landed straight in his b.u.t.tocks.
At times when she didn't get along with her boyfriend or when she broke up with one, her mood would take a free fall.
And we at Victoria just called that ill-humored Mirai-san "the beast". Unfortunately though, there was no hero in disguise at our café. As soon as the beast went berserk, there was no solution but to weather the storm.
"Mister Kujirai, I'm off waiting the tables."
"O-Okay, good luck."
Discretion is the better part of valor after all.
The kitchen resounded with the cries of the poor man who had become the prey of the beast.
Our café was not too big: there were eight tables and six counter seats. The staff consisted of a total of 5 people, two of which attended the customers while the others worked in the kitchen. But I very much liked that relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
The mood of this British-style café was supported by appropriate antique tables and chairs. The various well-chosen decorations were apparently selected by the manager's British wife. Apropos, the name of the café was taken from his wife's first name.
With Victoria being located on the first floor of a multi-tenant building near the station and having an interior that should please the fairer s.e.x, there were comparatively many young women like office ladies or college students.
When I came to take her order, Tsukimori scrutinized me from head to toe.
"Your garçon outfit looks handsome."
"Waiter" would have been the proper way to address the staff here, considering that it was designed in a British style, but "garçon" is apparently more common here in j.a.pan.
Since I judged it to be too much a trifle to correct, I only thanked her casually with a smile, "Thanks," and added, "and a café goes well with you."
Tsukimori smiled back at me and replied "Thank you."
I was quite honest. A beautiful girl in a café always makes for a good picture.
"The staff are quite lively, aren't they?"
She moved her gaze towards the kitchen.
"You could hear the commotion from here? That sure is a problem for a shop in the service industry."
I placed a gla.s.s of water and a wet towel on the table.
"But it looks fun."
"I wonder about that; some even start crying once in a while. At any rate, I have confidence in our coffee. And none of our dishes are half bad."
"I see. I would like a cup of that good coffee then. And please add your recommended confectionery to the order."
"Then how about our recommended blend plus the owner's hand-made apple pie?"
Since Tsukimori nodded, I bowed respectfully and said "Certainly."
I forwarded the order to the kitchen staff.
"You sure are an unfriendly guy."
Mirai-san was there making a frown instead of food.
"You think so? Actually I am trying to be more amiable when I attend guests, though."
"When does that happen? To me, there's no difference. Seriously, what does she like about a guy like you?"
Her eyebrow raised, she sceptically mustered Tsukimori.
"I forgot to mention, but she is not my girlfriend."
"No. Just a cla.s.smate."
"Then tell me what a beauty and mere cla.s.smate wants from you."
"It's not me, it's the café. Apparently she is a fan of cafés."
Since there was no merit at all in telling her the truth, I just made something up.
"That's all? Boring."
"As always, you are so self-centered it's almost refres.h.i.+ng. I'm dead sure you would have been irritated even if she was my lover."
"It's refres.h.i.+ng because I'm honest! To begin with, I think there must be something wrong with those that are delighted about other people's happiness. Every one of them is either a hypocrite or just scheming something."
"A lovely opinion loaded with prejudice, I have to say."
I wasn't as dismissive as I may have appeared, though. In fact, in my mind I even had to agree with her–is it because of that warped personality of mine?
I felt inclined to ask her, who was "honest" by her own judgment and "erratic" by everyone else's, for her opinion regarding a certain question.
"Mirai-san, may I ask you something?"
"Mh? What is it?"
"What do you think about someone who doesn't grieve over their misfortune?"
"Sounds fishy to me," she answered quick as a shot. "Misfortunes are called that because you they make you sad, right? If you don't get sad, then you can't call it a misfortune."
"I see," this time I actually put my agreement into words.
I darted a sidelong glance at Tsukimori.
Tired of waiting or just interested in the café's decoration, she was looking around the shop. Apparently, the white ceramic cat and black gla.s.s cat set was to her liking; she stood up and examined it up close.
Who in this café would have guessed that she was in fact a hapless girl who had lost her father only recently?
I reckoned n.o.body.
One could never observe a stirring of extreme emotions in her. She would always appear calm and mature.
I didn't know whether she purposely controlled her feelings or just simply wasn't the type of person to show them, but she didn't look sad at all to me.
Of course, it wasn't unthinkable that she just didn't want to unsettle the people around her and was thus desperately hiding her sadness. Or that might actually be the normal reaction of a girl after such a mishap. After all, the deceased wouldn't return, and mourning forever can't be called very healthy either.
But those are just pieces of theory. Is it really possible to deal with one's feelings in such a short time? Especially if it's sadness?
I recalled Mirai-san's words.
Indeed. It seemed fishy.
The dessert was able to satisfy Tsukimori's tastes.
"It's delicious," she praised while happily finis.h.i.+ng up her coffee and apple pie without leaving anything over.
I headed to her table to clear up.
"Has everything been to your liking?" I asked, whereupon Tsukimori darted a discontented glance at me.
"Are you telling me to leave?"
"I see you are quick on the uptake."
"I really like this café."
She flashed a smile as if she would start to hum any moment.
"Aha. Pleased to hear that. But don't forget that there are lots of different cafés in the world. You ought to try them out as well."
"I really like this café," repeated Tsukimori with exactly the same smile and exactly the same words.
"I see sometimes you aren't quick on the uptake," I mostly repeated myself as well.
Suddenly Tsukimori stood up and walked further into the shop, apparently towards the kitchen. When I followed in wonder, she was giving the staff a natural greeting and smiling like a blooming flower.
"Pleased to meet you."
It was obvious at a glance that her rosy greeting got the staff fl.u.s.tered. Apparently all of them were quite excited about her. Well, except for Mirai-san who remained unimpressed.
"I am Youko Tsukimori, a cla.s.smate of Nonomiya-kun's," she introduced herself with polite manners.
"Ah, yes, Nonomiya-kun told us," answered the manager respectfully despite being way older than her.
"I have to say this is such an adorable little café."
"Thank you very much!"
The manager blushed slightly, moved by her radiant smile.
"I am so jealous of everyone—"
The staff looked at her in surprise. A girl, who seemed to have anything one could be jealous of, was jealous of them.
"—Because you have the privilege to work at such a wonderful café."
Youko Tsukimori looked plainly stunning, set aflame in the twilight. Although that was probably due to the backlight from the sunset. In that very moment, everyone was fascinated by her exceptional aura.
"I can't even imagine what bliss it would be to work at such a wonderful place."
Being the person in this room that had the most resistance against her, I smiled wryly at her star-like att.i.tude. I also found that she had gone over the top with that exorbitant exaggeration.
However, the manager's next words erased the smile on my lips.
"...um, Tsukimori-san, you said?"
"Would you like to work here?"
I couldn't keep silent. I wanted to keep him from committing a grave mistake. Faust, you are bargaining with Mephistopheles!
However, someone seized my shoulder and held me back. The smell of chocolate was in the air.
"Just watch," Mirai-san said with a mischievous smile. Here we had another devil.
"Err, actually, there is a vacant post at the moment. And since you are Nonomiya-kun's cla.s.smate, we don't have to worry about your background. So, if you'd like, we would gladly welcome you, Tsukimori-san."
The other staff members nodded their heads in agreement, too.
It was just like group hypnosis. They must have been mesmerized by the devil and lost their minds.
"I am really happy about your offer, but... can you really make do with me? To tell you the truth, I have never worked anywhere before," answered Tsukimori hesitatingly after wavering for a short while.
"No no, don't worry! Everyone has to begin somewhere. Besides, I'm positive that you, as someone with outstanding manners, are suited for this kind of business!"
Sure, her acceptance among the customers would be outstanding! They can only see her superficial side after all.
"I'll gladly accept your offer then if you have so much confidence in me," replied Tsukimori with a bright smile.
Everyone welcomed her warmly with a smile as well. I was the only one who made a sour face, while feeling awfully removed from that ring of blessings.
Because I knew better.
I knew that a bold and determined character lurked beneath her surface, which showed only a beautiful girl of excellent character who was thus loved by everyone.
To make things worse, bright Tsukimori was well aware of her own attractiveness. And just now I had learned that she also knew how to use it correctly.
"Why are men just so weak against pretty girls?" whispered Mirai-san into my ear after she had pulled me by the shoulder, the counter between us.
"A good question. After all, the guys in this café are all 'weak' against you as well," I answered casually.
"It feels just wrong when you're giving compliments. But it's no bad feeling. Let me pet your head as a reward."
Mirai-san's palm approached my head, but I refused gloomily. "I'm not in the mood. Please don't confuse me any further."
"No need to be reserved! If you want, I may even give you one piece of my chocolate?"
"Are you okay with it? Aren't you against the employment of Tsukimori?"
"You want me to object, don't you?"
"Well, only your objection would be able to put an end to this welcoming mood."
"Can't be bothered. There's no reason to object."
I was surprised that Mirai-san would allow such a farce.
"Because it's d.a.m.n funny to see you protest so blatantly when you usually act so cold!!"
"...you do realize how awful your personality is?"
"You're worse off than I am, right? If my intuition doesn't fail me, Tsukimori isn't the type of woman a helpless guy like you could handle."
"Doesn't bother me. I don't plan on making a move on her."
"You may think so, but what about her?"
Mirai-san narrowed her eyes and peeked searchingly into my face from close up.
"No use punching me, for your information."
"Yeah yeah. Looking forward to the next few days."
Without caring about my strong rebuff, Mirai-san waved her hand and toddled back into the kitchen.
It felt like it was just a matter of time until she would get wind of our odd relations.h.i.+p—a woman's intuition?
I told myself that I had to make sure Tsukimori wouldn't say any unnecessary things to Mirai-san.
"I work here now."
The girl in question, Tsukimori, approached me merrily in spite of all the headaches she was causing me.
"It's still not too late. Won't you think it over again?"
My reply was cold, but my heart was colder.
"Thank you for worrying about me. But since the manager was so kind to offer me this position, I will try my best!"
She cutely clenched her fist, full of confidence.
"I'm not worrying. I am bothered."
"I am looking forward to working with you, colleague."
Tsukimori's smile hadn't cracked even once.
Mirai-san had mentioned that I was not someone who could handle her.
I found myself right in the course of experiencing just how spot-on she was.
The next morning in the cla.s.sroom.
All of a sudden, Tsukimori came to my desk and said with a smile as warm as sunbeams s.h.i.+ning through the leaves of a tree and a voice as soft as a gentle summer breeze to Usami:
"I have been employed at the café Nonomiya-kun works at."
Time stopped in the noisy cla.s.sroom. At least, Usami did—like a clock whose battery had run dry.
"...eh? Youko-san? You work together with Nonomiya? Why? Eeh?"
Her bewilderment made her look like one of those automatons that jump out of striking clocks every hour.
It was like a déja-vu of yesterday.
"The shop manager asked me to help them out because there was a shortage of staff. I am a little anxious because, well, I have never worked anywhere before. But the manager a.s.sured me that I will be fine," explained Tsukimori unaffectedly.
"You should talk! ...You're the one who made him say that."
It was me, naturally, who spat out those words in a volume no one could perceive.
"Maybe I should join you..."
"Don't skip your club. You have to do your best and become a regular player." I was able to predict the direction this conversation would take, so I put a stop to it in advance.
"Why don't you stop by this weekend, Chizuru? I may not be able to keep you company since there's still a lot I have to learn, but there's still Nonomiya-kun. Right, Nonomiya-kun?"
I glared at her smiling face for the brink of a second. She tilted her head slightly, asking "Hm?" and retaining her unbreakable smile.
"Yeah, you're always welcome in our café, Usami."
I swore to myself to complain to Tsukimori afterward.
"Okay! I'll drop by! I'll definitely drop by!"
Usami rejoiced grandly, her eyes sparkling. Her straightforward reaction made a good deal of my gloomy mood just flow away.
But there was a serious problem. Judging from the looks of my cla.s.smates, it was obvious that they would raid the café this weekend. And this time it seemed quite difficult to stop them.
"Listen up, everyone! Nonomiya is giving us some explanations!!"
Kamogawa came clapping me on the shoulder with a disgustingly gentle smile. Behind him stood a group of guys with the same disgusting smile on their faces. It was the guys-alliance, and they demanded justice from the one who had stolen the march from them.
It was sickening.
"I am so going to protest to Tsukimori," I swore determinedly.