Today, it is common knowledge that there is more than one perspective to any topic. In this age, it is impossible to survive as a middle school student while being unable to consider the opposite viewpoint. But then again, if you take this one step further, that would mean that while we are under the impression that we know the things around us like they were flesh and blood, we just can't say for sure, and that is exceedingly bad for our psychological stability. So instead of pursuing the truth, we go for plan B, which is not looking into the authenticity of things above a certain depth, or in other words, we believe. This way, we can finally shake off the evils of duality and lead a perfectly normal life.
But recognizing everything in one's surroundings yet disregarding all inquiry would be a totally different problem. While believing in something is unavoidable, we should not accept things blindly. This is also common knowledge. To not accept it is unforgivable. While my personal principle does not draw a clear line regarding that belief, I wouldn't look down on people who do.
This was my follow-up to the tongue-tied Satoshi's lame excuses in this crucial moment. We were at a stairway entrance in Kaburaya Middle School after the day's lessons had ended. It was a little late, so there were only a few sparse figures of students. It had already turned dark on the other side of the open glass door, and the cold February wind blew in intermittently. Satoshi turned to look at me as if I had just saved his life, and gave me a thumbs-up.
"Ah, Houtarou, you do understand, right? The phrase 'To not accept it is unforgivable' was really interesting. Because, look, what if it were home-made cookies? You can't simply buy some cookies over the counter, decorate it with fresh cream or something and say, 'Voila, home-made cookies!', right? That's why, I basically, um, don't harbor any ill intentions, but..."
It was not every day that you could see something cause Satoshi to be so incoherent. Fukube Satoshi. He's someone I've known sinec I entered middle school, and our friendship is quite deep. He's short, gives off a weak image, and has a face that does not exude dignity or strength in the slightest, but in reality he's quite a courageous guy... But not this time. The opponent's too strong.
The person who had ambushed and cornered Satoshi was a small female student who could pass as an elementary school student. Her name is Ibara Mayaka. She has been in the same class as me since first grade in elementary school. This is only my opinion, but her appearance has not changed one bit in the nine years I've known her, if you discount the changes in her size. In addition, while we may have strong affinity, we have exchanged close to zero words with each other. Even now, Ibara doesn't listen to my words. With her head cast downwards, her left hand on her waist, and her right hand holding a present wrapped in red wrapping paper, Ibara let out a sigh and spoke in a low voice.
"Basically, you're trying to say this: For something to be called home-made chocolates, they have to be made from cacao beans. A chocolate plate that is melted in hot water and reshaped is not counter as home-made chocolate. So my Valentine chocolate is not home-made. That's what you mean, right?"
It was the 14th of February, 2000 AD. Saint Valentine's Day. It's the day when chocolate sales skyrocket, and it is absolutely ordinary for advertisements to be manipulated if there is profit to be earned. In fat, doing it in February is a smart move. I'm sure that many people would like to believe that the last chance to confess one's love is right before the season of farewells1. They certainly wouldn't think that this arrangement was planned.
This wasn't Ibara's first time confessing her feelings to Satoshi. In each of her previous attempts, Satoshi simply evaded the subject. But with today being Valentine's Day, that was impossible. Ibara was serious about it. Having been hit by Satoshi's careless words, she was seething with anger.
Her demeanor was still fairly stable, but I wonder what kind of light those downcast eyes were holding. Those were eyes that would even scare off a fierce god, I thought, but then again, I'm only having these nonchalant thoughts because I'm not involved in this. Satoshi, being the person concerned, took the full brunt of Ibara's stare, but he still managed to give a reply.
"I wouldn't go that far, but..."
"But that's what you wanted to say, right?"
"Well, put simply, yes."
Ibara raised her head, as her rage spewed forth.
"I see! So that's what you're trying to say! I, I took all that trouble... Just for Valentine's Day! Fine! I get it! If that's what you want..."
Without pause, she ripped apart the red wrapping paper in one breath to reveal a heart-shaped chocolate wrapped in cling film. She then tore up the cling film, opened her small mouth as wide as she could, and chomped down on the chocolate, which had gone hard due to the cold February wind. With a crack, the pointed bit at the bottom of the heart was bitten clean off and chewed noisily by Ibara.
"I'll definitely do it, got that?"
Both of us were taken aback by Ibara's unexpected actions. A few male students who just happened to pass by peered at us, probably curious about what was happening, but then soon retreated, knowing full well to let sleeping dogs lie. With the chocolate she had taken great pains to make destroyed, Ibara glared at Satoshi. She now had a scary expression that was neither anger nor sadness, just pure burning combativeness. Ibara thrust the broken heart at Satoshi.
"Remember this, Fuku-chan, I mean, Fukube Satoshi!"
Stunned, Satoshi asked without thinking. Ibara replied with a sonorous declaration.
"Next year! The 14th of February, 2001 AD! I'll make a masterpiece that even you'll accept, and cram it right into your face! You better remember it!"
Beginning to cry, Ibara rushed down the corridor. Her retreating figure faded at the staircase and soon disappeared. When I looked back, I saw that Satoshi had an awkward expression on is face, but he shrugged as if that was usual. I asked,
"Is that alright?"
"Perhaps I was a little mean..."
"Wasn't she crying?"
"Mayaka? Nah, she'll be fine."
Satoshi said as he removed his shoes from his locker. I did the same and shrugged, deciding to forget about Ibara. Her caustic words were probably just a channel for her to vent her grief, I thought, but then again, I'm not involved in this matter.
More importantly, Ibara was planning to give Satoshi home-made chocolate next year, but I wonder if that would really work out. After all, there are only a few days to the high school entrance examinations. Both of them are aiming to get into Kamiyama High School, but if one of them messes up, they'll be separated, and as they say, out of sight, out of mind. However, I also have to prepare for the exams, and I don't have the luxury to worry about them. The cold February wind blew in onec again, causing me to shiver uncontrollably.
... That's what I remembered about what happened last year.
Come to think of it, I was slightly more indifferent about it last year compared to this year. It's most probably because Ibara and I were really estranged at that time, so it couldn't be helped.
All three of us graduated from Kaburaya Middle School and entered Kamiyama High School together without a hitch. Then, for some reason, all of us chose the same club activity. I think of Satoshi as a friend, and Ibara obviously liked Satoshi, but the three of us are fundamentally not a close group of friends who would hang out together. The fact that all of us entered the mysterious, meaningless Classics Club one after another would be, if put poetically, a practical joke of fate; if put prosaically, the end result of a course of events.
Speaking of the club known as the Classics Club, just the three of us would be absolutely inadequate for its activities. In the Geography Lecture Room, which the Classics Club borrows, there are four members. The last one is the most hard to please.
That difficult person raised her voice, breaking my peaceful reminiscing.
"Eh? What did you mean by that? I'm curious!"
I turned back, and the first thing to come into my sight was long, black hair. I couldn't see her face since her back was facing me, but I could still tell what facial expression she was having right now. When she says the usual "I'm curious!", her large eyes, the only part of her that betrayed the impression of a Yamato Nadeshiko2, would widen even more, and her cheeks would become slightly red. Thanks to her extreme curiosity, the Classics Club has been able to function as a club without boredom over the last year. Since I would actually prefer boredom to work, that troubled me to no end.
Chitanda was having a face-to-face conversation with Ibara in the middle of the classroom. I was flipping through a book nearby, but probably thinking nothing of me, the two of them were exchanging words at their usual volume. If I hadn't shifted my attention to the matters of the past, I would be directly receiving the contents of their conversation. Not that I wanted to eavesdrop, but I could hear Ibara's reply.
"I mean, chocolate remained as a drink for 4,000 years not because the South American people did not have any ideas, but because they lacked the technical means."
Seems like those two have been conversing about chocolate this whole time. It would be more accurate to say that Ibara was lecturing Chitanda, though. That's probably the reason why I suddenly remembered about Valentine's Day last year. Last year..., yes, about one year has passed since then. It was now February in the year 2001 AD. To conserve electricity, the heaters in school could not be set about 16 degrees, leaving much to be desired. While I must commend their efforts to save energy, I hate being cold.
But as if thrusting aside the cold, Ibara was talking with ever-increasing amounts of enthusiasm.
"After the Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to Europe, some time was needed for it to spread as a luxury grocery item. That's because after pulverizing cacao beans, all that could be produced was a sticky liquid with more than 50% fat content. In a time when coffee was readily available, they didn't want to drink something like that."
"I cannot tolerate caffeine, so I cannot drink coffee, but..."
After a short pause, Chitanda continued.
"A drink with a 50% fat content does not seem to be good."
Well, it seems like she's tried drinking mayonnaise before.
"It was actually quite bad for digestion."
"But it still spread, right?"
"It became really widespread after people started adding sugar to it. It even became a drink superior to coffee for the English. Moreover, because of its high caloric content, it was often used for medical purposes. It was quite a high-class beverage at the time."
"It was used as medicine?"
"Yes, as an aphrodisiac."
I could sense Chitanda tilting her head.
"Eh? How do you spell that?"
Ibara was about to answer, but then she stiffened, and the conversation stopped temporarily. I raised my head, which was buried in my book, to take a peek at Ibara's expression, and noticed a distinct flush on her face. She was having a hard time trying to spell the word she had brought up without thinking.
"To hold a meeting3, then..."
"To hold a meeting, then?"
Ibara forcibly changed the subject. I was about to laugh at her disconcerted manner, but somehow managed to stifle it. I know how to spell it, I think.
"For the chocolate drink to be edible, it wasn't enough to simply squeeze the oil out. A method to add an alkali had to be developed in order to neutralize the acidic content and cause the oil to break down."
This technical discussion seems to have piqued Chitanda's curiosity, so Ibara's attempt at changing the subject was a success.
"Alkali? I've never heard of adding that to food... except for Chinese noodles."
Ibara continued in a somewhat relieved manner.
"However, even after doing that, the beans still had a crunchy texture, causing it to be distasteful, so they had to be crushed even more. Chii-chan, how small do you think the grains are?"
The diameter of chocolate grains? I've never considered it before. The book in my hands suddenly seemed uninteresting, and I started thinking about Ibara's question, but I couldn't imagine how small they would be.
In contrast, Chitanda hummed quietly and answered the question.
"I see. I've only heard this from the people who sell what at home, but the diameter of wheat flour is 40 to 50 micrometer. Are chocolate beans that small?"
But Ibara shook her head as if she prided herself on having this knowledge.
"I've heard that they're actually 20 micrometers in diameter!"
"... That's amazing!"
Is that a figure I should be surprised at? With no means of comparison, I could not understand at all. Is 20 micrometers that different from 50 micrometers?
... Ah, is it because there's a difference of 2.5 times?
Chitanda nodded a few times with eager admiration.
"That sounds like a difficult number for a mortar and pestle."
"Just like how you can't make ice cream without an ice cream machine, it's impossible to make chocolate from cacao beans using household equipment."
"That's a shame. Fukube-san wants chocolate made from cacao beans, right?"
Ibara let out a small sigh upon hearing those words.
"I didn't know last year that chocolate was so difficult to make, but neither did Fuku-chan, so it's fine."
"It's fine, you say..."
As Chitanda gave her reply, a smile appeared on Ibara's face. No, not the refreshing kind. To exaggerate, it would be something like this: "As her throat rumbled, I shuddered, and couldn't stop cold sweat from forming on my back. A dark enthusiasm caused twisted pleasure to spread on her lips." With clenched fists, she looked up at an oblique angle and announced,
"I'm going to make the best home-made chocolate ever! If Fuku-chan still complains, I'll lock him up and slowly explain all this to him with additional data. If that doesn't work... I'll just shove it into his mouth!"
One shouldn't incur a woman's enmity. If it's wrong to generalize about women, then I would say that I wouldn't want to provoke Ibara's resentment. Her words might be exaggerated, but they can't be treated as a joke. Unfortunately for Satoshi, the little joke that he used to reject the chocolate last year is still hanging over his head, and now it has turned out like this. Well, as they say, you reap what you sow.
As expected, Chitanda had also been pulled in by Ibara's tenacity, and was using her hands to soothe Ibara. She then asked a question to return the conversation to its original track.
"So what are you making? I know many types of candies you could make with chocolate, but..."
Having decided a long time ago, Ibara answered immediately.
"I plan on making one with a heart-shaped mold."
"Eh? But that's..."
"I know that it's quite plain, but last year's was a failure. I'm going to make sure he accepts this time."
Just when they had finally gotten to the main point, Ibara suddenly leaned forward. Chitanda also responded by drawing closer, such that it was as if their foreheads were about to collide.
"So, I want to make the best chocolate. I'll need things from a Western-style confectionery. Chitanda, do you know of any shops that sell that kind of stuff?"
For some reason, Chitanda lowered her voice and answered,
"Let's see... There should be a store that sells ingredients for professionals near the wholesale market. We could try that place."
Ibara also replied in a small voice.
"Could you take me there?"
"Of course. Would this Sunday be fine?"
"It's settled, then... and make sure you keep this a secret from Fuku-chan."
"My lips are sealed."
And thus the two girls shared an unbreakable promise.
I'm fine with it, but I'm a guy, and on top of that I'm also Satoshi's friend... If they deemed me trustworthy enough to refrain from informing Satoshi, I certainly wouldn't feel bad about it, but either way, it seems that I wasn't counted as one of the room's occupants. As I was having this thought, Ibara called out, as if having just noticed my existence.
I answered as if I had also jut noticed Ibara. Without minding my tone, Ibara gave a rare gentle smile.
"Make sure you don't say anything either."
"If you do..."
I already agreed not to! So please, stop staring at me with those eyes!
After school the next day. Ibara and Chitanda were holding another discussion about chocolate in the Geography Lecture Room. Not wanting to eavesdrop, I decided to head home.
I exposed the front of my trench coat to the February wind and joined the flow of people going home from school. Come to think of it, last year, when I was still in middle school, I would immediately start my journey home after school, no matter how early the lessons ended. My everyday life was devoid of purpose. I would reach home early, but I wouldn't have anything to do. I tried to think of ways to spend the time after school, but to no avail. Actually, with regards to the characteristic of a daily life lacking in purpose, this year was exactly the same as last year.
Following the crowd to the main street, I left the narrow footpath on the bridge and entered the shopping district. The winter sun, which was weak at the best of times, became even more unreliable when it came to evening. only now did I realize that the figures of my schoolmates had grown sparse. It's probably not because of the cold, but there were simply no people around. Instead, there were only cars driving past continuously.
With a sidelong glance at a dry goods store, a boutique, and a hairdressers', I proceeded along the tiled walkway. The sound of the flowing wind was mixed with the sound of electronics. I had gotten to the game center next to the hairdressers'. I was just walking past when I suddenly realized something. Out of all the bicycles lined up outside the shop, I recognized one of them. There was no doubt that this mountain bike, which had a worn-out cloth added to its left grip, belonged to Satoshi.
I checked my watch. It's not like I wanted to go in and have a few games, but I had no reason to hurry home. According to my motto, which is "If I don't have to do it, don't do it. If I have to do it, make it quick.", there was only one course of action... I should continue my journey home.
But the automatic glass door in front of me suddenly opened, and out came Satoshi. He probably noticed me inside, so he came outside to intercept me. Wearing his usual inextinguishable smile, he lifted a hand.
Taking a glance at my expression, Satoshi spoke.
"Hmm, you don't seem to be in a rush."
Since that was obvious, I didn't reply. Satoshi pointed at the game center.
"You passed at just the right time. How about it? A game for old times' sake? I've created the sure-kill Satoshi Special, but it just isn't the same playing against the CPU."
He was challenging me to a game. I yawned.
"I haven't played for such a long time, though."
"Me too. But Houtarou, according to a report by the Central Education Commission of Inquiry, kids these days seem to be playing games all the time. If so, it would be a educational problem if one doesn't have an interest in games as a child."
Shrugging at that joke, I advanced to the shop. I had no reason to refuse.
The game center, which I hadn't been to in a long time, was illuminated way too bright, as if that was part of their plan to promote their image. I remembered it as a place heavy with cigarette smoke, but there didn't seem to be any smoke at all now. In exchange, there were also fewer people around. The small machines had been pushed to the back of the shop, while larger machines that I hadn't seen before were throwing their weight around in the center.
It's been a really long time. I wonder how long it's been since the last time I was here. I've almost never entered the game center on my own. That would mean that the last time I came here, I was most likely with Satoshi. We used to play here often last year..., no, it was two years ago.
I didn't recognize all those games displayed on the monitors. Well, it's understandable for someone who hasn't gone to a game center in two years. As if having entered a strange land, my eyes kept wandering about. With a backward glance at me, Satoshi smoothly advanced to the inner region of the shop, and turned around when he reached a game machine.
"How about this? You remember this, right?"
Satoshi had chosen a game that even I had seen before. To be precise, I used to play it with Satoshi quite often. There were two machines designed to look like cockpits placed next to each other. It was a game that simulated a robot battle. Even after two years, or an even longer period of time, this machine was still here. Satoshi held both his hands wide and raised his voice.
"Spraying shells and shooting beams! This is definitely a man's kind of romance, so I can't invite Mayaka."
"She probably wouldn't join you even if you invited her to some other game. Right, I'll accept your challenge. Although I don't think I can control it well."
"Nah, you'll remember it immediately. Please go easy on me."
With those last words, Satoshi smoothly slid his small figure into the cockpit. Shortly thereafter, I could hear stirring techno music coming from inside the machine.
I placed my shoulder bag outside the machine and removed my trench coat to reduce my weight, and entered the other cockpit. I inserted a 100-yen coin into the slot, and challenged Satoshi to a match. Satoshi's robot was the same as the one he used two years ago, a robot which specialized in mobility and was exceptional in aerial combat. It had a sleek form, a cannon built into its right arm, and a beam cannon protruding out of its body. I also chose a robot that I used in the past, one that followed the Battleship Giant Cannon Principle4. It was a bulky machine with a low center of gravity. It held a smooth-bore cannon in its right hand, and had two laser guns on its shoulders5.
After the two machines had been displayed on the monitor, the computer automatically selected the stage. It was the deck of a flying aircraft carrier. According to my vague memory, this stage had few obstacles, making it disadvantageous for Satoshi, whose robot was based on evading attacks. Well, that still doesn't make up for my two-year handicap.
"Get ready," a synthesized voice announced. The interface consisted of two joysticks and five buttons. "Go."
The match was made up of three rounds. In the first round, Satoshi was probably showing some consideration, and I was somehow allowed to spend the first half of the allotted time to get used to the controls. When there were only ten seconds remaining, I pressed a button at random, and a laser unexpectedly scored a direct hit on Satoshi's robot, which was in my direct range. At that moment, I heard some strange sounds like "Pikyaa" or "Higyaa"6 coming from the next machine. There might be no other customers around, but it's still quite embarassing. Satoshi's light-armored machine stalled after taking the hit, and the round was over.
Before the second round began, Satoshi quickly emerged from his cockpit and thrust his face into mine.
"So how is it? You still got it?"
"Yeah, I remember most of it. Let's go."
"OK, I won't go easy on you!"
I heard Satoshi slip into his seat as the second round began. Satoshi's machine disappeared from my line of fire immediately, meaning that he was serious now. At that instant, I made my machine move forward, and a blue flame erupted at my previous position. I rotated around to search for the enemy machine. I squeezed the trigger as soon as I saw a figure appear right behind, and fired the cannon on the right arm. But before the projectile hit, the target disappeared from my field of vision yet again. His machine's speed was incomparable to mine.
Yeah, it was always like this, I recalled as I took evasive action for the time being. To be precise, I was making my machine move in one direction. Satoshi's robot was now flying in the sky. Machine gun bullets rained down like in an air strike. It's alright if I get hit, though, since my robot has thick armor.
When we were middle school students, there were only two ways for the fight to end. My machine would either decimate Satoshi's at the beginning of the round, or Satoshi's mobile robot would run circles around my machine until the time ran out. Satoshi would win most of the time, and he would often laugh and say, "You were trying to end the match too quickly, Houtarou."
For an instant, I could see the enemy machine right in front of me, flying in the sky. With the situation worsening, I naively aimed and fired the lasers, but the target dived down, avoiding the laser. While I was in the firing position and unable to move, Satoshi pointed his robot at me and used his strongest beam cannon. It was, of course, a direct hit. He then took the initiative and sprayed me with the machine gun to end the fight.
The third round.
As the metallic voice shouted, "Go", I immediately dashed forward to reduce our distance. Satoshi, in an unguarded moment, retreated without a plan. If I took this chance to continuously fire the smooth-bore cannon, I should at least hit once. That would deal a fair bit of damage to Satoshi's weakly armored robot.
But Satoshi was not the average player. I thought that he was focused on escaping, but he actually stood his ground and fired his beam cannon. Our distance was too small, so I couldn't react in time. My robot took a shot and toppled over.
While I was trying to get up, Satoshi seized the opportunity to bombard me with all his equipped firearms. An aggressive play. I could either dash out of the barrage or use my thick armor to withstand it.
As I hurriedly moved the joysticks, I suddenly felt that something was off. Was it like this when I played with Satoshi the last time?
No, it's clearly different.
Satoshi's play style wasn't like this. Now, we were wearing out each other's armor with our respeective firepower, as only a small it of time remained. Satoshi read me and pulled off an amazing dodge on my cannon shot. At that moment, Satoshi's robot was closing the distance between us. I could see a slender form approach rapidly on my monitor.
But with that straightforward movement, I could easily hit his machine with my laser. I readied my finger on the trigger. At that moment, I remembered.
That's right, Satoshi's play style was "Victory Above All". He would do anything in order to win, and when he was in a disadvantageous position, he would retreat and wait for an opportunity. When he could win just by stalling for time, he would only run away, but when it was his turn to attack, he would go all out. That's not all. He would also sometimes use system faults and bugs. Anyway, Satoshi was a person who only wanted to win. When he lost, he would blame his bad luck, sulk without concealing his rage, and be really sore about it. The reason why I distanced myself from the game center was largely Satoshi's implacability, but it would be unpleasant if I told him that to his face.
What's the meaning of this head-on charge, then? ... Could it be a trap?
But I had realized it too late. I had already squeezed the trigger, causing my robot to go into a laser-firing position. If Satoshi stopped, escaped to the skies and fired his beam cannon, it would be game, set and match.
But Satoshi didn't take that course of action. Instead, all I could see on my monitor was a sword of light sliding out of his machine's right arm. A melee attack? A reckless move, to charge at me from so far away to try to cut me down.
Before the blade scythed down my robot, the laser connected at point-blank range. Satoshi's machine flipped and was blown away.
The set count was 2-1. I won.
Before the words "You Win" disappeared from the monitor, Satoshi unexpectedly peered into my cockpit. I was wondering what kind of expression he would have on his face, but it was just an anti-climatic, usual smile. He talked on and on excitedly.
"Man, that was a good game. Was it really two years since you last played, Houtarou? That was some amazing joystick handling back there. They say you'll never learn how to ride a bicycle, swim or ride a horse, but controlling a robot should be added to that list too, right?"
That's how Satoshi is, always having something frivolous to say without pause. Not unhappy at winning, I smiled.
"I really hadn't played in such a long time, so I became a beginner again. That victory was just luck."
As the winner, I was given the right to play against the computer. Satoshi pointed at the monitor, indicating for me to continue with the game. I played half-heartedly and lost appropriately.
With a backward glance at the Game Over screen, I was about to exit the cockpit when a can of coffee appeared before my eyes. I looked up from my half-rising posture and noticed that the owner of the hand holding the coffee was Satoshi. He said,
"Here's your prize. Enjoy!"
That can of coffee was a can of hot black coffee. Without hesitation, I accepted it and pulled the pull tab.
"What's up with the generosity toady?"
"It's also compensation for unreasonably forcing you to accompany me."
"Were you really concerned about that?"
A can of coffee would definitely be hot, but I'm actually not very good with hot things. I leaned on a nearby machine and sipped just enough coffee to wet my tongue.
Satoshi wasn't being unnatural at all. Rather, he was in a good mood. However, that Satoshi-like behavior ran contrary to my memory. He's being like this even though he lost a game. Why that was the case, I had no idea at all.
"Hey, Satoshi. At the end of the third round."
"Hmm? Yeah, you totally got me there."
"Why didn't you fly up? If you had attacked me from the air, I would have lost... or rather, why go melee?"
Satoshi shrugged in a frivolous manner.
"When using giant robots, melee battles are the ultimate romance. It really feels good when you see them clash and slash at each other, you know? Well, being countered by a giant laser also makes a good picture, so I'm satisfied with the result."
Satoshi spoke nonchalantly. If that was true, Satoshi chose romance over victory... or in other words he lost in the name of fun.
That was a Satoshi-style loss. A suitable defeat for a spurious man of the world who pursues fun instinctively. It's not at all strange for the Satoshi I knew.
But then what was that recollection I had earlier?
"Right, moving on to the Satoshi Special 2! I'll show you the legendary yakuman7 'Iipinraoyue'!"
I continued slowly sipping my coffee, while Satoshi inserted a coin into the mahjong game next to me. As I watched Satoshi try to force a single-colored hand8, two images appeared in succession at the back of my mind.
One was of Satoshi hitting the machine after losing. The other was of Satoshi giving a can of coffee to the winner.
Judgment day had arrived, even as many humans fervently wished for its delay. Time doesn't stop, and neither does the calendar. If you refuse to accept it, you could just travel at the speed of light. No one's stopping you.
It was the 14th of February. The phrase "Saint Valentine's Day" was written clearly as the day's event on the calendar that I had received from a nearby shrine on New Year's Day. I woke up in the morning and noticed a decorated box placed outside my room. Guessing that it was another of my sister's lame jokes, I opened the lid and found a bar of chocolate, as well as a note with untidy scrawl inside the box. I read the memo... "I present to you one bar of chocolate. From Oreki Tomoe with warm and tender pity."
Out front kick. I gave the box a good kick towards my room and headed to school.
There was no change from the usual at Kamiyama High School. Since students were allowed to wear their cold-weather clothes, the road to school looked livelier compared with other seasons, with people sporting coats and jumpers. I entered the school, which was not filled with the smell of sweets. It was a calm start to the fateful day.
During lunch, I was thinking about buying some walnut bread, so I headed to the canteen and entered the gigantic crowd of people. After securing the last loaf of bread, I escaped from the crowd, and that was when I noticed that Chitanda was also buying something alongside all those jostling students. Regardless of personality, her looks fulfilled the conditions for a daughter of a wealthy family, so it was amusing to see her mix with the common crowd. Probably having noticed me, Chitanda pushed her way through the mass of school uniforms. Eventually, she emerged and called out to me.
As Chitanda adjusted her scarf, I noticed that all she had in her hand was a drink in a paper pack. Although I should mind my own business, I was interested, and asked,
"Chitanda, is that all you're having for lunch?"
Chitanda cast her eyes down shyly.
"No, I had prepared a bento. It's just that... recently, I have been quite hooked onto this.
She held it out for me to see, and it appeared to be a green tea milk drink. Putting aside the strange combination, I wonder if there's any caffeine, which Chitanda cannot take, in green tea... I suppose there's the placebo effect. I should keep quiet about this.
It would be a bother for us to loiter in front of the canteen in the middle of the chaos, so we walked away. Our classrooms were just next to each other.
In the tedious walk back, I asked about Ibara.
"So what happened to Ibara's chocolate in the end?"
A slight smile surfaced on Chitanda's face, as she answered with pride.
"We decided to use Cote D'or. I thought using Nestlé would be good enough, though."
We continued walking in silence for a while. Seeing that I wouldn't be getting an explanation, I asked,
"What are you talking about?"
"...Ah, sorry. We decided to use a Belgian brand. We were thinking about using the Swiss one."
"It was a really difficult choice. We bought all kinds of chocolate from the store, and tasted all of them. It was a rare experience, but there was just so much chocolate! To be honest, I would like to avoid chocolate for a while."
She giggled. I imagined Chitanda and Ibara facing each other in the Geography Lecture Room and biting into chocolate piled on a table, and smiled. I bet the chocolate mountain which was almost touching the ceiling would fall down to earth in a twinkle.
"After indulging in so much chocolate, wouldn't you two get acne?"
"I was fine. Ibara had one on her cheek, but she hid it with a plaster."
An then Chitanda spoke as if she was seeing a dream.
"Mayaka-san made the heart-shaped mold all by herself. I never knew that she could make such handicrafts! And she even added a detailed engraving. Although Cupid is facing the wrong direction, it's still really cute! Unfortunately, the wooden frame is not very compatible with chocolate, so the texture might not be so good."
"It seems that her experience in the Manga Research Club has honed her skills to the point that she can make smooth cuts. I never used you could use a chisel for this, though."
"Mayaka-san has amazing concentration. So that's what it means to put your heart and soul into something... Isn't it lovely?"
As far as I can tell, Ibara's strong point was definitely her ability to pour her heart and soul into something, or in other words, her concentration. If Chitanda is the person to be absorbed in something, Ibara would be the one to specialize in it. By the way, Satoshi is a guy who finds satisfaction in pursuing many interests at the same time, and needless to say, I hardly show interest in most things. Moreover, to Ibara, this chocolate was her revenge match, so she would work really hard for it.
"So has she given the chocolate?"
Chitanda shook her head in response to my question and frowned slightly.
"It's quite a shame. It would be better for her to give it to him herself, but... Mayaka-san was planning to pass Satoshi the chocolate after school in the club room, but she could not draw out of the Manga Research Club."
"She's going to leave the chocolate in the club room and call Satoshi there, I guess. Even if it is not done after school, the Valentine ritual will be complete as long as it is on the 14th of February, so I thought that there would be another way, but..."
Hmm. Chitanda was constantly feeling disappointed about it, but throwing out the chocolate as if it was nothing seems like quite a refined method. I"m sure that Satoshi would prefer it that way.
Chitanda suddenly turned around, as if having just thought of something. I faced Chitanda, who had a serious look on her face.
"Ah, right, Oreki-san. It's Valentine's Day today."
She lowered her head airily. When she looked up, clarity had returned to her expression.
"In my family, we do not give year-end gifts or Bon Festival gifts to those we are truly close to. So I apologize for failing to pay my compliments with a Valentine chocolate."
...Is that so.
I had never imagined that anyone would group Valentine chocolates and year-end gifts together.
Probably having overheard our conversation, a passing second year student quickly overtook us with a face that betrayed a smile. As I watched his figure recede, I was actually thinking of kicking his ass as hard as I could.
After school, as I was stuffing my shoulder bag with my textbooks and other miscellaneous items, I was visited by Satoshi. The drawstring bag he always carried around had been filled until it swelled into the shape of a right-angled parellelepiped. What does he even put in there? He swung his bag around in a circle and asked,
"What are you going to do now, Houtarou?"
I decided not to go to the Geography Lecture Room as it would be absolutely foolish to do so. I wanted to get home as soon as possible, and I was about to answer as such, but when I looked out the window, I saw that the sleet that had started earlier was increasing in intensity. My boots and coat were both waterproof, and I did bring an umbrella, but...
"I'll wait until the sleet stops or turns to snow."
I thought for a while. The heating had been turned off, so it was cold. Furthermore, a person waiting for the weather to improve and killing time alone in a classroom on Valentine's Day after school would probably be a bother to others who might have other purposes for the room. Even I could be considerate for something like this. Even so, as I mentioned earlier, it would still be really stupid for me to go to the club room.
"Nah, I guess I'll head for the library."
As if he had been waiting for me to say this, Satoshi nodded, retrieved a book from his bag and handed it to me. It was a duodecimo-sized9 hardcover, and is title was one that was popular ages ago. If my memory isn't mistaken, its story went like this: A man and woman were leading an ordinary life, but a small malaise soon escalated into a catastrophe from which there was no return, as the shadow of death swept through the streets! I'm not a fan of horror, though.
"You sure are reading weird books... I don't feel like reading it even if you recommend it, though."
"I never told you to read it. Just help me return it, please. It's almost due."
Instead of answering, I inserted it into my bag along with a loose leaf. Without stopping my preparations for going home, I asked,
"You're going to the club room, then?"
"Yeah, I suppose," he replied absentmindedly. Finding this strange, I spoke.
"Seems that Ibara isn't going."
Not having expected me to know that, Satoshi put on a surprised expression.
"Wow, you caught wind of that fast... was it because of Chitanda-san?"
I muttered in response,
"Apparently, she had to go to the Manga Club."
"That's what I heard."
"Chitanda was feeling really disappoint about it, that Ibara..."
Satoshi interrupted my words and went into a monologue.
"Currently, the Manga Club is having a little internal discord. The latent antagonism was actualized after the Cultural Festival, and now the Manga Research Club is split into two factions fighting for leadership: the impressionists and the naturalists. If the conflict gets worse, it would be difficult for the Manga Research Club, which has a long tradition, to avoid splitting into two. The naturalists are outnumbered by the impressionists three to one, and that's kind of sad, in my opinion. Mayaka's the ringleader of the realists, so today's meeting is probably related to that conflict."
I felt that the forced change in subject was rude, but paying it no heed, I asked about the unfamiliar terms.
"Impressionists and, what was it again?"
"Naturalists. The two factions are also known as the character-oriented group and the story-oriented group. Apparently, they're arguing as fiercely as clashing swords. I would totally like to join if I could.
He was speaking as if he was really enjoying himself. You could say that he was much more interested in this scandal compared to the event of February 14th. Well, in any case,
"You just made up the names of those two factions, right?"
Satoshi shrugged mischievously.
"Some might say that the admiration for the proponents have not yet stopped."
With that line, he swung his completely shrivelled drawstring bag. I quit Satoshi's company, and left the classroom carrying my shoulder bag and trench coat. Satoshi followed after me. Since the pathway to the Special Block and the road to the library were at opposite directions, we would part outside the classroom.
"See you next time, Oreki-kun."
Satoshi said in a theatrical tone. I responded with a little joke.
"Whatever for? Seriously."
It's obvious. For the opponent of the return match, of course.
The library was surprisingly empty. I was expecting it to be filled, with it being after school in bad weather.
I inserted Satoshi's book into the return box and placed my shoulder bag on a nearby seat. I headed for a bookshelf to search for a suitable book I could skim through to kill time and returned with a collection of photographs taken at scenic and historic places in South America. There were also collections with pictures from Europe and Central Asia, but I chose South America as a form of respect to the place of origin of chocolate.
First were the usual Mayan pyramids. In the Guiana Highlands filled with greenery, the countless cavities drilled into the pyramids were a strange sight to behold. I turned the page, and the next picture was a weird plant with fruits you could mistake for human faces attached to the trunk. The caption read, "Theobroma Cacao. Theobroma means 'food of the gods'." The book didn't mention what language that word came from.
As I examined the photograph, I unexpectedly noticed that I was actually aware of the significance of this day. But, if I'm caring about Valentine's Day, it would be a lie to say that I wasn't interested in Christmas. Then again, I have no recollection of having such thoughts on the 24th of the month before last. If I were to think back on whether there was anything impressive on Saint Valentine's Day, it would be my casual interest in Ibara's return match, as well as receiving a chocolate first thing in the morning. It might be thanks to it that I became aware and wondered if it was the 14th today.
But I can clearly proclaim that this doesn't mean that my expectations of receiving chocolate was higher this year compared to last year.
So, for example, let's assume that right now, as I'm looking at a photograph of the remains of Machu Picchu's drainage system, a person with a flushed face approaches. That imaginary person would be a female student, of course. She says, "Please accept this!" and presents a heart-shaped chocolate. How would I feel at that moment?
Naturally, I would undoubtedly be ecstatic.
But I believe that joy would be akin to the happiness one would feel when being unexpectedly recognized as a singular human being. That feeling is not materially different from having one's crudely drawn picture win a prize at a citywide competition by chance. To express it more eloquently, it would be like saying, "I don't entirely understand what's so good about it, but I'll accept this public acknowledgement with thanks."
I can only say that I doubt I would feel happy over the development of so-called "love".
My main belief is in energy conservation, with my motto being, "If I don't have to do it, don't do it. If I have to do it, make it quick." That belief gives me my laziness. But apart from that, it also gives me a trifling point of view of human relationships.
The reason why I feel at ease at the Classics Club is that Satoshi, Chitanda and Ibara don't cling to one another. Even if Chitanda does destroy my tranquility with her curiosity, she wouldn't go so far as to pull me along forcibly if I seriously don't want to be involved. In fact, during last year's "Hyouka" incident and "Empress" incident, Chitanda didn't say that she needed my cooperation no matter what. She is certainly good at pressurizing me, but she wouldn't push to have her own way. If she said something like "That is your duty" or "It is natural that you do that", or cried while pleading and pestering me to help, I would have probably quit the Classics Club.
But how do you handle a love affair with that attitude? Would one be able to expect that style or force it from the subject of the love affair?
......It is a common saying that living organisms exist to pass their genes on, or in other words, to bear offspring. Love would then just be the sublimated desire to propagate. From that point of view, I could be said to be incomplete as a living organism. But since I'm also a human being, I don't need to go out with someone just because of biological needs. That's why I don't worry about myself being an incomplete organism.
Speaking of desire, it would be enough for me to say that I desire the chocolate. I like spicy things, but I'm relatively fine with sweet things too.
I was thinking about this while looking at a bright orange poisonous frog which inhabits a dense forest.
"I've finally found you, Oreki-san."
Having my name called all of a sudden, I turned around to see Chitanda's face being surprisingly close. After colliding into the line of vision of her huge eyes, I looked away without thinking.
My throat hurt in the dry winter air. I coughed once.
"Now that you've finally found me, do you need anything?"
Chitanda took a glance at the deserted library and spoke.
"I thought that if you were here, Fukube-san would be here too."
So she was looking for Satoshi, huh?"
"We don't stick together forever, you know."
"That was what I thought, but... Do you know where Fukube-san is now?"
As I was about to respond to the question, I realized that something was strange. Satoshi was heading towards the Geography Lecture Room. But if that was the case, Chitanda wouldn't be here searching for him.
"He didn't reach the room?"
Chitanda nodded slightly.
"He seemed to be a little late, so I came here to check on him. Since this concerns Mayaka-san, I don't think he would forget, but perhaps something happened..."
Hm. I checked my watch. I don't remember the exact time, but I think it hasn't been thirty minutes since Satoshi announced that he was going to the club room and parted with me. The time now is a little before five. The sun was starting to set, so I understand Chitanda's anxiety.
But that's just Fukube Satoshi. It's inexcusable to make others wait, but it's just like him to wander off for half an hour or so.
I flipped a page of the photograph collection and answered with a distant view of Mexico City in front of me.
"He's quite loose with time, but he did say that he was going to the club room. You should wait for him a little longer."
"The exact time was not decided, so I cannot say that he's late. I understand, I will try waiting for him."
The soft ending of Chitanda's sentence seemed to project her worry, but with that, she turned her black hair around and left. Damn that Satoshi, he just can't let anything proceed smoothly. I was thinking that it was about time for me to go home, so I looked out the window, but the sleet wouldn't end. Having no choice, I pushed my chair further in and proceeded to the next page.
The sleet only ended after I had completed my simulated experience of South America from Mexico City to Rio De Janeiro. I returned the photograph collection to its bookshelf, and was about to put on my white trench coat when a visitor arrived.
The sliding door was suddenly flung open.
With an improper level of energy for a library, where one should be quiet on principle, Chitanda drew nearer. I was about to tell her to not make so much noise, but when I scanned my surroundings, I found that the only people left in the library were myself, the student librarians and the head librarian, Itoigawa-sensei.
Chitanda's countenance was different compared with the last time she was here. Now, her lips were pursed tightly, and her eyes, which were huge even under normal cicumstances, were wide open. Seems like something bad has happened. Satoshi also appeared from behind Chitanda, swinging his drawstring bag. He had a drained expression, and I could feel that his usual high tension had cooled down quite a bit.
"Houtarou, you're still here?"
"I said that I would be here until the sleet ended, didn't I?"
I looked at the two of them one after the other, and said to Chitanda,
"It seems like you have something for me this time, but I'm just about to go home."
Chitanda nodded once slightly, then nodded once more deeply.
"Ah, yes, I understand that it is quite late. But I would really appreciate your help."
"Sorry, but can't it wait till tomorrow? Whether I help you or not, you can tell me about it tomorrow."
I said and was about to leave the library.
But before I could, Chitanda blocked my path. I unconsciously frowned, and Chitanda spoke with downcast eyes.
"I apologize, but at least hear me out... It's my fault. I carelessly left the clubroom door open. I've done something horrible to Mayaka-san..."
...... It appears that this isn't simply a manifestation of Chitanda's usual curiosity. Her fists were clenched tightly, and her originally white skin had become all the more pale. Perhaps because she was disconcerted, or due to some other reason, her legs were also trembling slightly.
I asked Satoshi a brief question.
"Well, it's not really anything significant, but..."
Chitanda's voice, which was supposed to over Satoshi's words, was small and weak.
"Mayaka-san's home-made chocolate was stolen! And she put in her utmost effort to make it!"
I looked at Satoshi. He shrugged, as if to say "This sure is troubling" and nodded.
Ibara's chocolate? Stolen, you say?
Ah, I see.
...... It's been 10 months since I entered Kamiyama High School and joined the Classics Club. Over that period of time, I've been coerced to act as an intermediary for Chitanda's problems, which was probably comparable to three years' worth of middle school troubles.
My experience in dealing with all that has not crushed my energy conservation motto. But it's true that I have gained a degree of adaptability for when I have to move.
I probably looked as if I had consumed a bitter bug. With that expression, I put my arms through the sleeves of my trench coat and said,
"Let's go. We'll look for it."
Ah, and the sleet has already stopped. But this would be the social obligation of a livelihood, I suppose. In my case, Ibara and I aren't close, even though we've known each other for such a long time. I wonder what kind of expression she would have if she found out that her chocolate got stolen. I definitely wouldn't want to see that!
After all, I'm not a fan of horror.
We crossed the connecting bridge and moved towards the Special Block.
The Geography Lecture Room was on the fourth floor. As we were about to go up the stairs,
A voice rang out, stopping me in my tracks. Satoshi thrust his palm out at me.
I didn't even get the chance to wonder what the problem was, for the flight of stairs I was about to ascend had a yellow and black vinyl rope strung across it. For the past few days, various places in school were being waxed sequentially. Under the rope was a note that said, "Just waxed. Usage of the staircase is prohibited."
There are twp staircases. We went to the other one and ascended it. As we were moving from the third floor to the fourth, a first year student with a perm called out.
"Excuse me, is this level?"
It seems that he had been sticking a poster to the notice board. It read, "Handicrafts Club Graduation Works Exhibition. Venue: Communications Building Classroom 1-C" I half-heartedly answered that it was fine and was about to hurry on, but Satoshi spoke up behind me.
"It's too low."
Now that I think about it, the right side does seem to be lower. Behind Satoshi, Chitanda also gave a response.
"That poster is trapezoidal, but that is intentional, right?"
The craftsman... I mean the handicrafts club member10 took a step back from the poster, stared at the poster fixedly, then spat out in a small voice,
"Oh, what the hell."
He then took out a cutter knife and a ruler, tore off the poster and sat on the floor. His skillful work thus began.
Praying for his success, I headed for the Geography Lecture Room.
The door was unlocked. I stopped upon entering the room, and tried to endure the cold. It's probably so cold because I was in the warm library for a long time, but even so, it's freezing here.
Chitanda approached a chair that was in the middle of the room, and put her hand on the table in front of it.
"It was placed here."
I see. Indeed, there was no chocolate on the table now.
Before I said anything, Chitanda summarized the situation straightforwardly.
"The chocolate was wrapped in red wrapping paper. There was no ribbon or anything like one tied around it. As for its size... it was heart-shaped, so it took up a large space."
She held out her hands to show the chocolate's width, increasing the gap little by little until it reached the size of her waist. She then tilted her head and reduced the size of the imaginary chocolate by just a bit.
"It was this big."
It seems that Chitanda not only had keen senses, unfailing memory and excellent observation skills, but also possessed extraordinary spatial recognition. Even so, that's a gigantic chocolate.
"What about Ibara?"
"I have not told her yet. It may seem cowardly, but I plan to try looking for it first before telling her."
Chitanda continuously stroked the table, as if doing so would cause the chocolate to return.
"The chocolate was here when I went off to look for Fukube-san. In other words, it was here until 4:45 on my watch. I returned to the clubroom when it was a little past 5 o'clock. If only I hadn't left the door unlocked for those fifteen minutes..."
Her last sentence was so inaudible that I almost could not catch her words. This is pretty natural for the kindhearted Chitanda, but it seems that she has taken quite a shock.
"But, well, Chitanda-san, you aren't the manager of Mayaka's chocolate, so you don't have to agonize about it so much."
"But I feel that it's inexcusable to Fukube-san..."
"As I said, it's not your responsibility. If you're in the wrong, then I'm even worse for being late."
That was unexpected. I thought that Satoshi was the cold-blooded type of guy, unable to show this kind of consideration. As for me, while I'm a person with a hot heart and not a cold-blooded person, I decided not to add any awkward words to the exchange.
I surveyed the room. The Geography Lecture Room did not possess any special equipment. As for normal classroom objects, it had a teaching platform, a blackboard, tables, chairs and cleaning equipment. With only these items, it would be easy to search for anything.
However, there were over forty tables. I knocked a nearby table with my fist.
"Are you sure that it isn't in this room? What about the drawers below the tables?"
"Nope, I checked this room with Chitanda-san earlier. There's no doubt it isn't here."
Yeah, I thought so.
But wait a minute.
"Didn't Chitanda confirm that the chocolate was missing on her own?"
In response to that question, Chitanda answered.
"I found Fukube-san while I was returning to the room so we entered together."
"It was in that staircase. I met Chitanda-san on the landing between the third and fourth floor."
I see. That staircase, huh.
...... A flash of inspiration hit me. I turned around my trench coat. I don't like walking round and round, but our destination was close. Chitanda asked a question as I was leaving the room.
"Where are you going?"
"How long has that craftsman been there?"
I spoke as I left the clubroom. The two of them followed behind.
"Who do you mean by craftsman?"
"Oh, that guy with the perm. He was sticking the poster on the wall."
"... You mean the Handicrafts Club member."
There was a slight pause as Chitanda thought for a while.
"He was just unrolling the poster when I met Fukube-san."
Satoshi probably understood my purpose with that sentence, but I'm not sure about Chitanda, who can be unbelievably slow. Just to be sure, I added,
"If the craftsman was there the whole time, he'll probably remember the people who used the staircase. Because of the waxing, this staircase is the only way up here."
"Ah... That's true!"
Chitanda's voice, which sounded quite depressed earlier, sprang out like a shining ray of light. But in contrast, Satoshi was solemn.
"Any possibility that the crasftman was the thief?"
"Would anyone loiter around the area worrying about the straightness of his poster after committing a theft?"
We went around the girls' toilet and down the stairs. The craftsman was still in front of the notice board, using his cutter knife. When he noticed us, he unrolled his poster.
"How is it now?"
Chitanda took one look and cut him town mercilessly.
"It now looks like a parallelogram with no regular angles."
"More importantly, we have a question for you. Do you remember who passed by since you started work?"
The craftsman seemed intimidated by Chitanda's earnest look. He turned to the two of us, who were at the back.
"Did something happen?"
I was wondering about how to answer him, but Satoshi gave a quick, easy reply.
"Just some trouble. We suspect that those who passed by here might be the culprit."
It seemed like he didn't comprehend that explanation, but the craftman answered without caring about it.
"Yeah, I remember."
"H-how many people were there?"
The craftsman grinned at the enthusiastic Chitanda.
Three people? That means...
"Who were they?"
Erm, that's really slow of you, Chitanda. I tapped her shoulder. After the young lady turned around, I pointed at the both of us in succession.
"Two of us with Satoshi makes three."
I looked at the craftsman to confirm that statement, and he nodded.
"Are you certain about that?"
The craftsman assured Chitanda,
"I'm pretty good when it comes to remembering faces. It's also not like I was so focused on sticking the poster that I didn't notice anyone passing by."
I turned around, and Chitanda tilted her head.
"What does this mean?"
I stole a glance at Satoshi and answered.
"It means what it means. The person who stole the chocolate was on the fourth floor, and is still on the fourth floor... Satoshi."
"Mm? What is it?"
"What clubs use the classrooms on the fourth floor of the Special Block?"
Satoshi was puffed up with pride.
"So you're finally using me as a database. That's nice of you. Hmm, there's the Classics Club, Light Music Club, Acapella Club, Astronomy Club, as well as... Yeah, the Philosophy Club should also be on the fourth floor, although it has zero members."
"Seems that you're actually serious about this. That's rare."
I considered yelling, "I'm doing this for your sake, you ungrateful bastard!" but I was tired, so I relented. Furthermore, Chitanda was also there, so I definitely can't say all that.
"So we should be able to get it back, then... But why would they do such a thing?"
Chitanda asked, probably having some room for curiosity after feeling hopeful. Now, that would be the biggest problem.
But for now...
"For now let's be utilitarian; save your questions for later. Now let's check out the remaining clubs, it might turn out to be smoother than expected."
"That would be great."
Chitanda nodded, and politely expressed her gratitude to the craftsman before going up the stairs.
We checked out which clubs were still here, and it did turn out well.
The light music club was borrowing some hall somewhere and were preparing for their live performance without hesitation. As for the Acapella Club, it was customary for them to practice in he Courtyard. Moreover, it's probably impossible to move their tongues in this cold weather, so they could have just all gone home. Nothing needs to be said about the Philosophy Club, so the only clubs currently on the fourth floor of the Special Block were the Classics Club and Astronomy Club. Chitanda frowned.
"So the Astronomy Club did it......"
"Let's see how it goes."
I said as we heaeded to the Astronomy Club's room, Electives Room 5. Satoshi muttered en route,
"The Astronomy Club, huh. That person might be there."
"Do you know someone there?"
Satoshi nodded to Chitanda's question.
"It's someone both of you should know. Sawakiguchi-senpai is in the Astronomy Club."
"Oh, you mean her, That is reassuring... right?"
That would make the situation even more delicate, I think. Sawakiguchi Misaki. I remember that name. She was involved in the "Empress" incident which occured in the final stages of summer last year. After that, she was in the Astronomy Club team which faced off against the Classics Club during the Cultural Festival, but they self-destructed. I'm pretty certain that she tried cooking bananas in dashi11.
There was only one classroom surrounded by the Geography Lecture room and Electives Room 5. If the Astronomy Club members really stole the chocolate, it wouldn't even take them twenty seconds.
We stood outside the classroom and we could hear raucous laughter from within. The three of us looked at each other. Chitanda nodded and knocked the door.
"Hmm? Come in!"
I recognized the voice that responded.
Chitanda opened the sliding door.
We were greeted with warm air blowing on our faces. It was against school regulations for students to change the temperature settings on the school's heaters, but with this stirring warmth, you could tell that the Astronomy Club didn't know about that rule. A bespectacled guy's vision would turn complete white immediately upon entering the room.
There were a few students sitting in a circle. One, two, ......, five people in total. They had stuck some tables together, and had scattered some sort of paper on it. For some reason, there were also ten dice lying nearby. The boy to girl ratio was 3:2. In the summer-like warmth of the room, all the boys were wearing their uniforms, and one girl was wearing her sailor uniform.
The girl not wearing the sailor uniform, and the apparent owner of the voice, was, as Satoshi mentioned, Sawakiguchi. She must like that hairstyle a lot, since her hair was, like all the other times I've seen her, done up in dango shapes on the sides of her head. The dango were caramel brown and were wrapped in stylish black laces. But, she was wearing the unrefined school regulation jersey.
When Chitanda's eyes met Sawakiguchi's, her head lowered by about fifteen degrees, and she smiled.
"Good afternoon, Sawakiguchi-san. Please return the chocolate."
I was wondering if I should cover Chitanda's mouth, or slap the back of her head, but thankfully, Sawakiguchi apparently did not catch that erratic opening.
"What about the chocolate? Hm, if I remember correctly, you're Chitanda, right?"
"Yes, I'm Chitanda Eru."
"You here for?"
Just when Chitanda was about to blurt out something weird again, Satoshi swiftly cut in.
"It's an emergency. We were calling on Senpai in the hopes of receiving your assistance."
It was a ludicrous way of putting it, but a childlike smile spread on Sawakiguchi's face. I guess it's easy for the two weirdos to communicate with each other.
"Hmm. Will this take time?"
"We should be done in three minutes."
During that exchange, I examined the interior of the room once again. The bags and winter clothes of the Astronomy Club members were randomly strewn around the group of tables. They came in different shapes and sizes, but there were five bags and five sets of winter wear. There was also a sack, but based on past experience, it belonged to Sawakiguchi. The Astronomy Club members were all staring at me with dubious expressions, probably wondering what was going on. It seems that we intruded at an interesting moment, for there was a guy with an unreservedly sullen face.
Sawakiguchi lightly nodded two or three times, then made an announcement to the Astronomy Club members.
"I'll be gone for a while. Before charging in, if the draw difficulty is three and below, you can buy it for an extra 50%."
Sawakiguchi got up from her seat and was showered with booing from the Astronomy Club members.
"Three and below, but there's nothing left to buy..."
In response, Sawakiguchi spoke.
"Shouldn't you be grateful that I'm allowing for resupplies at this crucial moment? If anyone cheats, he'll take the penalty and pay double the price."
She waved her hand and went out into the corridor. Chitanda bowed politely again.
"I apologize for troubling you at a busy moment... but what were you doing?"
Sawakiguchi gave a short reply.
In addition to my casual question, Satoshi asked,
"It's called Star Fighter12, I think. In any case..."
Sawakiguchi threw a glance at me, tiptoed until she could see the top of my head, and folded her arms.
"That trench coat's pretty cool."
Satoshi followed her lead.
"That's right, senpai. As expected, you do have quite the eye! That's Houtarou's one good set of winter clothing, and it looks as if it could be concealing a Thompson machine gun! Frightening, isn't it!"
I would hide one if I could. It would come in handy when I'm playing the straight man to your dumb jokes.
Chitanda politely called out at Sawakiguchi, who was still staring intently at my coat.
"Ah, right. So? Did something happen?"
Chitanda nodded and turned back to glance at me.
By putting on the brakes here, Chitanda has shown that she has changed a little over the last ten months. She's not good with saying things indirectly. This straightforward approach has come to fruition quite a few times, but right now, we're suspecting the Astronomy Club members of theft. Accusing them directly might turn the situation sour. Aiming to prevent that outcome, I stepped forward.
"Excuse me, Sawakiguchi-senpai."
"You're... Yeah, you're the detective Oreki-kun."
I was slightly displeased by the baseless nickname, but I swallowed it down and pointed to the Geography Lecture Room.
"Actually, we've had a Valentine chocolate stolen from our room."
Sawakiguchi's gaze became stern. But, this is where the deception begins.
"So, we are searching for anyone who saw the thief. Did anyone use the corridor from 4:45 to 5 o'clock?"
I couldn't tell if the petty trick of sidestepping the search for the suspect and instead looking to gather eyewitnesses worked. With an interested smile, Sawakiguchi spoke.
"A stolen Valentine chocolate, huh? It shouldn't be a love thief, but there are people who would do this kind of elegant things, right?"
What exactly is so elegant about this? I wish I could show her Chitanda biting her lip in regret after the chocolate got stolen.
Sawakiguchi turned her head.
"4:45 to 5 o'clock? Sorry, but we were really fired up just now, so I don't remember the time at all. However, some of them left their seats... Nakayama, Yoshihara and Oda, I think. I was the one who told them to, though."
Three out of five people, huh. I could sense Chitanda's expression clouding over.
But there's still one more thing to narrow down our search.
"Was there anyone who packed their bags and left to go home?"
"Why do you ask? No one did that."
"Ah, is Oda-san that girl over there?"
"That's girl's Nakayama."
As expected, even Sawakiguchi seemed sullen after the succession of questions. While preserving the playful atmosphere, she put her hands on her hips and glared at me.
"For your information, no one here came in with a chocolate. You can think that it's a lie, Detective-kun, but that would be a little unpleasant, right?"
Sawakiguchi declared, and suddenly opened the door to the classroom. She then raised her voice and asked the people inside,
"Did any of you guys catch a glimpse of something that looks like chocolate in this room?"
Laughter rose from the male members of the Astronomy Club.
"Senpai, could you not ask something so depressing?"
"Wish I could say I have!"
Sawakiguchi pointed to them, indicating that they were the proof.
"So, is that all you wanted to ask? Are we done?"
As I had expected, she had stopped being friendly. Even with that small trick, we still drew her suspicion in the end. Well, I have no choice but to say that I can't do anything about that. Based on my beliefs, I tend to dislike quarrels, but...... Seriously, this is such a troublesome conversation.
I at least managed to maintain my civility and bowed to Sawakiguchi-senpai.
"Thank you for your help, senpai. I apologize for saying something so rude."
With those words, Sawakiguchi went back to Electives Room 5 without turning back. I don't know if it was my just my imagination, but the sound of the closing door seemed louder than usual. Shortly thereafter, a remarkably cheerful voice shouting, "Alright, let's continue!" could be heard from the room.
Chitanda looked at the closed door and me with a sorrowful expression.
"Oreki-san...... Sawakiguchi-san is mad at us, right?"
"Of course she's mad."
"......But! We have to get Mayaka-san's chocolate back!"
I turned around. Even Satoshi's expression was clouded over. His usual smile had almost disappeared, and had somehow taken on a self-deriding tone.
It seems that he wants to tell me something.
Paying him no heed, I suggested heading back to the Geography Lecture Room for the time being. It was getting pretty dark outside. I guess it's time to bring this to an end.
The Geography Lecture Room was a corner room with windows on three sides, so it's easy for cold air to steal in. I lowered my head as the oppressive coldness seemed to exert a force from above.
I muttered without thinking and received some warm replies.
"Is that so? I feel that it's fine."
"You're the only one here snugly wearing your coat, and you're complaining about the cold?"
No, it's seriously freezing here.
I glanced at the window and found that it was white outside. I thought that the sleet had stopped, but it had turned to snow. I've heard of White Christmas, but would this be called a White Valentine? It somehow sounds like a brand of white wine.
I sat down at a nearby table. Standing in front of me, Chitanda spoke with a voice that betrayed her fatigue.
"What should we do, Oreki-san? I don't want to believe that the Astronomy Club did it, but..."
Instead of answering, I replied with a question.
"Is there any way to reach the fourth floor besides going up that staircase?"
Like me, Satoshi sat on a table, placed his bag on his knees and shook his head.
"It's certainly not impossible. One could use the emergency staircase or evacuation chute. However, using either would be a serious matter. Using the waxed staircase on the other side isn't out of the question, though. You could still use it if you wanted to."
"But there were no traces of anyone using it. If anyone went up those stairs, they would leave footprints. There's also a staircase to the roof, but it's usually locked. Students can't go to the roof without a teacher's supervision."
That would mean that the staircase with the craftsman would be the only route. Of course, if you went on a helicopter and tried rappelling down, you would probably succeed, but I wouldn't think that Ibara's chocolate contains a secret so huge that it needs to be obtained at all cost, to the extent that one would use spy-like methods to steal it.
... But wait a minute. Ibara was using a Belgian brand of chocolate. It's common knowledge that Belgium is a member of the EU. What if Ibara's chocolate somehow contained a microchip that would harm the stability of Europe? That would explain the rappelling and hovering.
"No, it's nothing."
There weren't any helicopter sounds earlier.
Where would the chocolate be? I stared at the snow, and hit upon another possibility.
"So, when you were searching for the chocolate, did you look below?"
"Below, you say?"
Moving my fingertip in a half parabola, I asked,
"If the chocolate was thrown out of the window, it would fall to the ground, right?"
Chitanda shook her head.
"If that was the case, I would have seen it."
So she hadn't overlooked that. But what about this?
"Have you checked the girls' toilet?"
I was met with flabbergasted replies.
"What did you say?"
"The girls' toilet. In that fifteen minutes, there was nowhere to go on the fourth floor of the Special Block besides this room, Electives Room 5, and the girls' toilet. Furthermore, the chocolate is neither here nor outside. Therefore, don't you think that there is the possibility that someone hid it in the girls' toilet?"
Without waiting for me to finish speaking, Chitanda fluttered her skirt and stepped forward. Noticing that I wasn't moving, she said reprovingly,
"I didn't think of that. Let's go!"
"Let's go," she said. How absurd.
"Sorry, but you can go by yourself."
"Oreki-san, having more hands would be..."
"If this floor's toilet was a boys' toilet, would you be able to rush in?"
It seems that Chitanda wasn't really aware of her surroundings. "Ah," a sound escaped from her lips as she blushed, bowed her head twice and hurriedly left the room. By the way, the first and third floors of the Special Block had boys' toilets, while the girls' toilets were on the second and fourth floors.
Satoshi watched Chitanda leave with a smile. Dangling his legs, he asked,
"Do you really think it's in the toilet?"
I answered without bothering to hide my boredom.
"Nope. Not even a chance in 10,000."
"A chance in 10,000 means 0.01%. Is it that unlikely?"
I released a sigh.
"I was just throwing an idea out. Just shut up for a bit."
"... I see."
With that, Satoshi closed his mouth. It seemed that his unextinguishable smile had gone out. It would take about three minutes for Chitanda to return. The Geography Lecture Room was silent.
Chitanda returned, her shoulders dropping weakly.
"It wasn't there..."
I nodded and spoke.
"Then, there's only one possibility."
Chitanda, who had been hanging her head in shame, looked up. The moment that we had been putting off finally arrived.
The door of the Geography Lecture Room opened, and that person entered. Wearing a beige jumper over her sailor uniform and donning a knit hat was Ibara Mayaka. The band-aid on her left cheek was to hide the pimple she got from trying out too much chocolate. Ibara looked at all of us and gave a bewildered expression.
"Huh, why is everyone here?"
I could hear the slight trembling in Chitanda's murmur. However, Ibara, not noticing Chitanda's expression, took off her hat and spoke in a lighthearted tone.
"Ah, so how was my chocolate?"
So she asked about it right off the bat, huh. Well, it's her biggest concern, so it was obvious that she would do so.
I quickly looked at Satoshi. However, he was looking at Ibara with a vague, expressionless face. It didn't seem like he was going to say anything.
Since it had come to this, I thought that I should at least say something I opened my mouth, but probably noticing that, Chitanda raised her hand, causing me to stop. I think she wanted to say it by herself, so I had no choice but to stay silent.
Chitanda stared seriously at Ibara.
"Mayaka-san, I am very sorry."
This time, I could not feel the quavering in her words. It seems that she had resolved to tell Ibara the truth. On the other hand, Ibara had a quizzical look on her face.
"What for? There isn't anything you should be apologizing about, is there?"
She was still hesitant to say it.
"When I left the classroom without locking the door, your chocolate was stolen... I'm sorry."
Chitanda said this with a firm voice and an unreserved attitude, but her eyes had turned red.
Then, having received this confession, Ibara responded with an unexpected attitude.
All she did was mutter a few words.
"Hmm. I see."
After a brief pause, a troubled, bitter smile appeared on her face.
"So it was stolen, huh."
With that expression, and with those words.
I couldn't believe that Ibara was reacting this way. Knowing her, I thought that she would spit out words with unconcealed rage. That's how it should have been. Regardless of how estranged I am from matters of love, I wouldn't let this pass if I were Ibara.
But she remained calm. Inversely proportional to that, Chitanda's feelings were overflowing.
Ibara turned to Chitanda and shook her head.
"Don't look so sad, Chii-chan. Are you worried about not having locked the door? There's no way that you would have known that someone would steal a Valentine chocolate."
"Even if someone else's at fault, I wouldn't blame Chii-chan. Not at all. Actually, I don't even remember asking you to look after the chocolate. I feel like I've done something wrong. You helped me so much, and I wasted your efforts."
As she spoke, Ibara put on the hat she had just taken off. She looked away from Chitanda, sighed, and muttered.
"Yeah, but, it does hurt a little. I'll be going home for today. Chii-chan don't fret over it, okay?"
With that, she turned on her heels and exited the Geography Lecture Room with a composed gait. No one called out at her retreating figure.
Chitanda, Satoshi, and I. There was no doubt that all our thoughts differed as we watched Ibara walk away.
After Ibara left, Chitanda waited for her figure to disappear down the stairs before stepping forward resolutely. Reading her intentions, I got off the desk and went in front of Chitanda. Without hesitating, she proceeded until the tip of her nose was about to touch me. Only then did she finally stop.
"......Please step aside."
"What are you going to do?"
She was way too close. I took a step backward as I spoke. However, Chitanda stepped forward in response to my retreat.
"Even if I have to use forceful measures, I will find Mayaka-san's chocolate. If I do not do this, I will not be able to face her tomorrow."
"As everyone has said, it's not your fault. Even a lawyer would agree. It was beyond the scope of risk prediction.
"I don't know anything about the law. I simply cannot forgive myself. Today was supposed to make Mayaka-san happy, but now it has turned out like this. I cannot just stand here without doing anything!"
She tried to slip past me.
My right hand reflexively shot out and grabbed Chitanda's right wrist.
Her hand was warm.
Since I was holding on to her wrist, I could feel from her chordal movements that she was focusing her strength in her fist. Should I let go, or should I continue holding on? While I was undecided, I spoke out.
"I can't say that I understand your feelings. I don't feel things as strongly as you. But please, leave this to me. I'll definitely pass Ibara's chocolate to Satoshi by the end of the day."
I'd never thought that the day when the energy saver, Oreki Houtarou would say, "Leave this to me" would ever come.
Chitanda's huge eyes widened ever more. However, she did not release the energy in her fist.
"...... I'm happy that you would say this, but if that's the case, I will search for it with you."
I shook my head.
"No. I've thought of something but I can't do it with you around."
A temporary silence descended. Chitanda asked in a small voice,
"You have an idea?"
I let Chitanda's hand go. Perhaps I had been exerting pressure with my hand without knowing it, for Chitanda lightly stroked the wrist that had been gripped.
Since it had come to this, I had no choice. I slowly nodded.
"Who did it?"
"There can only be one person holding on to the chocolate right now. It's her."
I let out a sigh.
"Nakayama from the Astronomy Club."
A table clattered. Satoshi was half-rising to his feet, but I ignored it for the moment.
"Based on the craftsman's testimony, we were the only people who went up the stairs from the third floor. Based on Sawakiguchi's testimony, there are only three Astronomy Club members who could have stolen the chocolate."
"Oda-san, Nakayama-san and Yoshihara-san, right?"
"Let's assume that one of them came in and tried to steal the chocolate. But if you were the thief, how would you do it? Ibara's chocolate is pretty large."
Chitanda nodded, and spread her hands to show a size slightly smaller than her waist.
"It was about this big."
"There's no way you can hide something of that size. Since they didn't hide it in the toilet or throw it outside, they could have only brought it with them into Electives Room 5. However, Sawakiguchi said that no one came in a with a chocolate. The other members said so as well. It would be a different matter if the whole Astronomy Club was in one it, but it would be weird if that weren't the case."
I pointed at myself and Satoshi.
"It's impossible to hide that size of chocolate in a school uniform. They could hide the chocolate in a bag if they had one, and I could probably fit it in the pocket of my coat. However, none of the Astronomy Club members left to go home. They didn't leave the room with their bags or winter wear. Furthermore, the pants pockets are too small, and even if they hid it in their clothes, the bulky chocolate would cause their movements to be unnatural and make them noticeable."
Next, I pointed at Chitanda.
"However, it's possible with a sailor uniform. If the chocolate was attached to her thigh with tape, it could be hidden by the skirt... I have no idea what that Astronomy Club member, Nakayama, was thinking when she stole Ibara's chocolate. Perhaps both of them have some feud unknown to us. But putting aside the question of why, since Nakayama is the only one who could have hidden the chocolate, I can only think that she has it right now."
After a short pause, I spoke again.
"I'll pass Ibara's chocolate to Satoshi today. Although I have absolute confidence that it is right, you being there would trouble me. So don't worry, and just go home for today."
Chitanda looked into my eyes.
......I instantly averted my gaze, showing just how much of a pathetic guy I was.
But even so, a small part of Chitanda's smile returned to her face.
"It's rare for you to go so far as to say something like that."
"Is that so?"
Actually, I also thought so. It was pretty much asking the impossible from myself.
"I understand. I do not know what you plan on doing, but since you said that it's better this way, I'll take your word for it."
The tension drained from my body. My expression probably became more relaxed as well.
"Right. I'll call you if it succeeds."
Chitanda said that she would be waiting for my call, and bowed.
Chitanda left, leaving behind me and Satoshi.
Looking at the pitch-black exterior, I frowned at the fact that it was still snowing, and shouldered my bag.
"Well, let's go."
In response to those words, Satoshi got off from the desk he was sitting on.
"Yeah, let's go."
I made sure that I didn't forget to securely lock the door.
The road home at night. Headlights and tail lights flashed by. Snow fell on the front of my coat.
The wind was cold, so I buried my neck in my trench coat. Satoshi was walking next to me, with a drawstring bag on his arm and a backpack on his back. The only thing protecting from the cold was his vest.
"The Valentine chocolate was stolen by tying it to her leg, huh?"
I muttered the words I had said earlier, and burst into laughter.
"That's impossible, isn't it?"
"And I thought that stood to reason."
Satoshi said as he swung his drawstring bag around. I also laughed at that statement.
"No, it doesn't."
"The female student wouldn't have been able to learn that Ibara had decided to leave the chocolate in the club room. Even if she somehow did, Chitanda was looking after it, and she couldn't have predicted that Chitanda would go out and look for you."
"She could have, I think."
"Alright, let's assume that she knew everything. Even so, the chocolate would melt due to contact with human skin. When chocolate melts, it gives off a unique smell you can never hide. And more importantly..."
The pedestrian signal started to flicker as we got to the middle of the crossing. We jogged across the road, and Satoshi turned around.
"...I can't imagine an honest person stealing a Valentine chocolate."
Satoshi gave a cynical laugh.
"There's no guarantee that Nakayama's an honest person."
"Since an indecent person has been involved from the beginning, of course you would doubt her."
A thin layer of snow had accumulated on the walkway. A sharp squeaking sound could be heaerd with every step I took. Strong winds blew for a while. I resisted the wind by hugging my shoulders and waited for it to die down.
"I suppose I should fulfill the promise."
Satoshi was silent.
"...Pass me your bag."
I could hear a laugh coming from Satoshi's throat as he followed my request. I received the drawstring bag, and gave it a strong vertical swing. "Crrk". A sound was produced. It sounded like broken pieces rubbing against each other.
I returned the bag to Satoshi with a disagreeable politeness.
"That was amazing, Houtarou."
Satoshi may have smiled, but I could only see it as a mere habit or a bluff.
The person who stole the chocolate was Satoshi.
I had already concluded that Satoshi was the only possible culprit after Chitanda said that the chocolate had been stolen. Even without that prediction, Satoshi would still be the only suspect by the process of elimination. After striking out the Astronomy Club, the only person who could have stolen the chocolate was someone who went up from the third floor. According to the craftsman, three people used that route: Chitanda, Satoshi, and me. I'm obviously not the thief, and Chitanda is out of the question since she's the victim. Thus, this leaves only Satoshi.
Satoshi probably hid in the boys' toilet on the third floor after we parted and he told me that he was heading to the club room. The toilet is right next to the staircase, and the third floor toilet is for male students. Satoshi waited there for a while, knowing that Chitanda would leave the room to search for him sooner or later.
Confirming that Chitanda had passed the staircase, Satoshi headed for the fourth floor. On the way, Satoshi was seen by the craftsman. It's also possible that he was asked about the straightness of the poster. If my memory isn't mistaken, when the craftsman asked for our help earlier. Satoshi's reply was "It's too low." If he hadn't said something like "Move the right side down." earlier, he wouldn't have used those words.
In the empty club room, Satoshi appropriated Ibara's chocolate. But to his surprise, he found that it was enormous. He had planned to hide it in his drawstring bag, so he was at a loss. Satoshi's bag could barely fit a duodecimo-sized book. No matter how slim Chitanda's waist is, it's definitely bigger than a book.
If he just took the chocolate and ran, he might bump into Chitanda at the staircase, and that would be the end of the chocolate game. So what did Satoshi do?
The street lamps had already lit up. The road was reaching the bridge soon. it was a narrow bridge meant for pedestrian use. If two people were to walk side by side, they wouldn't be able to pass each other. With nothing to block the wind, the sound of the blowing wind grew even stronger.
"Did you hesitate at all when you were breaking it?"
My small voice was caught up in the wind, so Satoshi probably didn't manage to hear it. There was no reply.
Satoshi broke the chocolate. He probably did so by bringing his elbow down on the wrapping paper. If he had been aware that it was the heart-shaped chocolate that Ibara made, he might have folded it neatly. But the result is the same. The heart-shaped chocolate was made into a size that could fir inside the drawstring bag.
And then Satoshi left the club room. He met Chitanda on the landing, and probably gave some excuse like "Hey Chitanda, sorry for being late, I was too engrossed in something." Chitanda then brought Satoshi to the club room, only to discover that the chocolate was gone.
I wonder what Satoshi thought as he saw Chitanda become flustered?
We reached the middle of the bridge, and I stopped. Satoshi followed suit.
So that the wind wouldn't extinguish my voice again, I raised my voice quite a bit.
"Now we're even."
Satoshi answered with a faint laugh.
"For what favor? It's not that incident on New Year's Day, right? If I had to choose, I would say that I don't really care about this sort of thing."
"I'm talking about April last year. You created a story to help me escape from Chitanda13."
It took some time for Satoshi to remember. "Ah," he muttered.
"Oh yeah, that's right."
"At that time, you played along with my plan."
"Yeah, I suppose. I'm surprised that you actually remembered about that."
"Of course I would."
I clenched my teeth.
"That was a terrible thing to do. I did something stupid."
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
I'm sure of it now thanks to today's events. I've been made to clearly realize the meaning of deceiving others with cowardly tricks. Unexpectedly, or perhaps inevitably, the one who was deceived this time as well as last time was Chitanda.
"But that was a graceful story."
"When the energy-saver Houtarou realized his intentions, no one got hurt... except for Houtarou himself."
All of a sudden, the wind surged, causing the dancing snow to form eddies in the night sky. I adjusted the collar of my trench coat again. I cast my eyes down and asked,
"You could at least give an explanation, right?"
"An explanation, huh..."
I have no idea why Satoshi acted this way. But I thought that he would have a reason for doing so. You could say that I believed in him. That's why I came up with a fictitious deduction for Chitanda to accept, and acted to close the situation. On a day when I say something like "Because I felt doing it", it wouldn't be impossible for me to get mad. But because I wasn't asked, I kept silent. In the end, in order to convince Chitanda and get her to calm down, I had no choice but to make an absolutely unrelated student the scapegoat. There was probably a better method, but I couldn't find it. From now on, that girl will spend the rest of her school life with Chitanda's misunderstanding.
I did all that because I believed that Satoshi had a good reason for his actions. But what if...
"If you say you did it as a joke..."
"If I did?"
"Then I'll have to hit you. For Chitanda and Ibara as well. With my fist."
Satoshi shrugged in a exaggerated manner.
"I sure don't want to be hit."
"By the way, if you want to keep silent, you'll have to apologize to Chitanda, and while you're at it, tell her that it was your doing."
"That's even worse. I had no intention of getting Chitanda involved in the first place."
Satoshi looked up at the sky. A long breath escaped from his mouth.
After some silence, he slowly spoke.
"I really don't want to say it. It's not something I want to talk about. But I can't keep silent, can I?"
"I don't know what you were thinking. You didn't only think, but acted on it."
"That's right, it's exactly as you said. I don't regret it, I really don't, but..."
Satoshi's gaze fell from the heavens to the ground. As if he had resolved himself, he began speaking, albeit in a faltering tone. His voice wasn't very loud, but I could still hear him over the wind.
"Houtarou, do you think of me as the obsessive type?"
I thought for a while and answered.
"Yeah, I guess. You're also quite the hobbyist."
"That's where you're totally mistaken."
Satoshi leaned on the railing of the snow-filled bridge.
"Hobbyists and obsessive people devote themselves to something. They don't want to lose to anyone in their respective fields, and their daily lives entail study and discovery."
"Aren't you like that?"
"Nope. Have you forgotten the 'Empress' incident? I said that I couldn't be number one at anything, didn't I? But to be precise, I've given up on reaching the top.
"You played a game with me earlier."
He was talking about the match we had at the game center. I won with a set count of 2-1.
"At that time, didn't you think that something was weird? I wasn't obsessed with winning.
"We used to play that game a lot two years ago, yeah? The me back then looks like a pretty deplorable guy now. I used to win for the sake of winning. If I lost, I would quibble and find fault with the rules. It wasn't limited to games. When there was a guy who was well-informed about Takeda Shingen, I fished around for books so that I would know even more than that expert. At one point I also hopped on the train mania bandwagon. I simply wanted to win.
"I was obsessed with so many things. I can't remember what exactly I was into, but it could be anything, like the arrangement of colors on clothes, or the correct stroke order of kanji. Even when I went to a conveyor belt sushi bar, I would be engrossed in the correct order of assembling the sushi toppings, and I wouldn't notice the delicious food right under my nose."
Satoshi laughed at himself in an extremely strange fashion.
"To put it plainly, it was boring. Since I wanted to win so much, it wasn't interesting even if I did win, and I couldn't bear that end result. At that time, I couldn't understand why I felt that way, so I thought about it a lot. I was such an idiot. Would things be fun if I didn't have a fun way of winning?
"So, one day, I grew tired of it. I gave up on being obsessed. No, that's not it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed. I've forgotten the exact cause.
"And after that, Houtarou, every day was truly entertaining. Today would be cycling, tomorrow would be handicrafts, and then I would read up on the US-Japan Security Treaty, postal life insurance, and classical music. With enough determination to spice it up but not so much as to be fixated on it, I dabbled in a variety of subjects. There was one time when you used the phrase 'shocking pink' to describe my lifestyle, right? That was a clever description."
Satoshi had already stopped directing his words at me. I caught his gaze, and continued his reminiscing monologue.
"But even in those comfortable days, one problem remained.
"I became obsessed with not being obsessed, and became at ease with this life. I don't have a clue how far your energy-saving belief supports your life, but my lack of obsession is quite a critical point for me. Without it, I would probably go back to being that pathetic guy.
"But then there's Mayaka."
I could sense Satoshi clenching his fists.
"Mayaka's great. You probably don't know how good she is, but she really is. There's no girl like her. If Mayaka said that she wanted to be with me, it would be like a dream.
"But then, would it be alright for me to be obsessed with Mayaka?
"I had decided to not be fixated on anything, but could Mayaka be an exception?
"I thought that it was a really simple thing. By doing whatever I wanted, I acquired my current level of comfort. And I really wanted to be with Mayaka, so I thought that I should perhaps just follow my wishes.
"But then, Houtarou, that was impossible. Absolutely impossible. Because I wanted, I didn't become obsessed with anything and because I wanted, I obsessed over Mayaka...... Mayaka was a problem, but ignoring her would be a terrible policy. I should fix the situation, but how should I do it? Perhaps I'm mistaken in thinking that I can come up with the solution myself. With this Zen dialogue, I wonder if I've become a person who cannot hurt Mayaka.
"While I was still searching for the answer, last year's Valentine's Day came. Don't you think that the Valentine chocolate could be taken to be a sort of symbol? If I accepted Mayaka's chocolate, it would be like announcing that I would obsess over her. And I hadn't even found my answer yet."
"So that's why you didn't accept it?"
"Yeah. It's the same for this year.
"You can call me a blockhead. It's been a year, and I still can't give an answer!
"In that situation, I wondered if there was any way to refuse the chocolate that I couldn't accept, other than making it disappear. If there was...... Yeah, I guess there would be some merit in giving me a punch."
But that was supposed to have nothing to do with Chitanda.
"But you hurt Chitanda."
I said, and Satoshi responded with a sorrowful smile.
"...... My plan didn't go as smoothly as yours, Houtarou. I had no idea it would turn out this way."
"Then how did you expect it to turn out?"
"We had an agreement. Mayaka would leave the chocolate in the club room. If I was ready to accept it, I would take it. If not, I would leave it there. With that promise, that was what I had planned to do. I'm not saying that Mayaka is at fault, but she didn't factor that into her calculations. That Chitanda, who helped her in making the chocolate, would want to see through the accepting of the chocolate..."
So it was a collaborative plan by Satoshi and Ibara?
"Then, have you told Mayaka all this?"
"Of course I have! Isn't it obvious? If not, I would be manipulating Mayaka under my own terms!
"...... Hmm, actually, that's exactly how it is.
"Last year, after I rejected Mayaka's chocolate, we had a talk. It was one that lasted a few hours and was even more detailed than the one we're having now. That sure takes me back. It's already been a year since then. I was scolded pretty harshly back then. In the end, Mayaka didn't say that she understood my situation, but said that she would wait. The next Valentine's Day would be a teset.
"Mayaka still stayed calm even after she learned that he chocolate had been stolen, right? That's because she probably understood that it was a sign that the thief still hadn't been able to find his answer. That's what I think, anyway."
Ibara realized that Satoshi was the one who stole the chocolate. That's what I had expected. But then I thought that Ibara would be enraged about it afterwards. Since this year's chocolate was rejected like last year's...... I didn't even know if that would be a reason for her to be angry.
If that's the case, Ibara's Manga Research Club business would probably be a lie as well.
Satoshi spread his hands out wide. His uniform sleeves were stirred up by the wind and fluttered around.
"So, Houtarou, that's all I have to say. My actions weren't just a practical joke, and I didn't keep quiet about it. What are you going to do?"
... The snowfall increased in intensity.
I straightened the collar of my coat. It was too cold to stay on the top of the bridge. As I walked, my feet made crunching noises on the snow.
Satoshi followed behind.
"I can't tell this to Chitanda, can I?"
"Definitely not. I would rather get punched."
That's what I thought. Even if Satoshi did speak frankly to Ibara regarding this topic, this would still be guys' talk. Likewise, Chitanda and Ibara would probably be having some girls' talk too. Since the contents of their discussion has not been leaked to me, and Satoshi hasn't told me everything yet, I, too, shouldn't reveal everything to Satoshi.
No, I wonder about that.
My motto is "If I don't have to do it, don't do it. If I have to do it, make it quick." That's all. I don't have anything that needs to be disclosed. I suddenly recalled what I was thinking about at the library while I was looking at the photograph collection. An energy conserver cannot deal with a love affair. The same goes for Satoshi's motive for breaking the home-made chocolate. But the two things are falsely similar. I definitely made a mistake. Satoshi hesitated because of Ibara.
As I crossed the river where the cold winds blew fiercely, I felt troubled. Although he was the one at fault from the beginning, I've made him say something that he probably didn't want to. Should I make it up to him? Should I say to him, "Sorry, I guess I didn't know much about Fukube Satoshi"?
With my back facing Satoshi, I gave a small, bitter smile.
Well, guess I can't say that.
The bridge wasn't that long. Right before we reached the other side, I asked,
"So, is there the prospect that you'll be able to answer?"
I turned back to a serious face that cannot be seen under normal circumstances. Satoshi nodded slightly.
"I'm almost there, just a bit more...... I just can't put it into words yet."
I hit his shoulders.
"Sorry for making you say all this in the cold. I'll buy you a can of coffee."
With that, the usual smile returned to Satoshi's face. He swung his bag around, and I could hear the broken pieces of chocolate making cracking noises inside.
"All right. Since you're treating, I'll have a red tea, then."
Once I got home, I brewed some tea to warm up my cold body. After drinking half of it, I called Chitanda.
I told her that it ended uneventfully, that I handed the chocolate to Satoshi, and that any friction or future conflict had been completely cleared up. I wonder if Chitanda was happy with this. Not knowing how long her words of thanks would last, I forcefully stopped her and hung up.
I told a lie. Perhaps I've become defiant, but no one can blame me for what I've done.
I returned to my room, lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling.
Besides...... it's not impossible for Chitanda to be lying to me. It's common knowledge today that there is more than one perspective to any topic. Anyhow, I don't totally understand Satoshi, who can be said to be an old friend of mine. Even if no one was lying, it's also possible that someone had a misunderstanding, or that the other person misconstrued their words.
In any case, it's impossible for Ibara to not realize that Chitanda would want to witness the accepting of the chocolate. Does Satoshi understand this? That Ibara might have used Chitanda as a strategy to get Satoshi to accept the chocolate? Or could I be looking to much into it?
I don't know. Not that I tried to find out. If that Astronomy Club member, Nakayama really stole the chocolate with the physical trick I mentioned earlier, I wouldn't be spending my time staring at the ceiling like this.
A bar of chocolate lay on the floor. That was the single piece of Valentine chocolate I received this year.
I picked up the chocolate that seemed like it was made overseas, tore off its cover and peeled off the foil. I bit into the black chocolate that appeared from under the foil.
The taste of chocolate spread in my mouth. It was intensely sweet, then bitter, as I had expected. The taste gradually faded and disappeared, leaving only its impression.