When Sakuta opened his eyes, it was to find a white cat, Hayate, right in front of them . He had jumped up and was playing around on top of Sakuta . At least he seemed to be growing up well .
Sakuta got up and looked around . He was in a familiar room, his own living room, having been asleep on its floor .
Finally, his brain started working and he remembered coming home that morning . He looked at the clock and saw that it was approaching six o’clock in the evening so he had slept for about twelve hours . Even so, his body was heavy and he still felt sleepy .
Regardless, he realised he still had to prepare dinner and stood up, first taking a shower to wash off the sweat . The cooling shower felt great and by the time he left the bathroom, he was fully awake . As he went back to the living room in his boxers, Kaede came out from her room .
“Good morning, Onii-chan,” she greeted him .
“Evening, Kaede . ”
“Good evening . ”
“Is Futaba in her room?” He asked, his own room having completely turned into Futaba’s for now .
“No, she’s not back yet . ”
“Huh? She went out?”
“Yes, she said she was going shopping right after you got back . ”
Sakuta had gotten back at around six that morning, and going shopping that early was bizarre . Most traders would be stocking at that hour . Sakuta opened his, now practically Rio’s, room . It was oddly tidy, and there wasn’t a single item of Rio’s left, and there were even signs she’d cleaned up .
A cold sweat ran down his just-washed back .
“That idiot,” he said to himself, following the instincts from the core of his body and running out of the front door . However, he soon stopped . He had no idea where to go . Besides, he was still only wearing his boxers . It might be the time of the year for business casual, but society in general probably wouldn’t allow his outfit . He was about ten years too early for that, he’d have to wait until the advent of dangerous business casual .
Sakuta returned to his room and put on a pair of three-quarter cargo trousers and moved in front of the phone as he put on a T-shirt, dialling his friend’s mobile number, Rio’s phone number .
No matter how many times it rang, she didn’t pick up, and when she thought she did, it was just the voicemail .
“It’s me, Azusagawa . Where are you? Are you not coming back? Call me when you hear this, do it,” he left a message, even though he thought it was pointless, and put the receiver back down . He then picked it right up again, intending to call the other Rio . However, when he went to dial her number, he realised he didn’t know her home phone number . There was the class network back in elementary school, but he hadn’t seen anything similar since starting high school, and there hadn’t been any real need to know until now .
“Kaede, I’m going out for a bit,” he told her .
“Right now?” She asked .
He placed his hand on her head as she looked lonely .
“Sorry . ”
“N-no, it’s not your fault . I’ll be fine!”
“Thaw some curry for dinner . ”
“I will . ”
“I’ll probably be back late, so you don’t need to wait up . ”
“I’ll wait as long as it takes,” she insisted, prompting him to rub her head before leaving .
Sakuta raced through the streets astride his bike, first heading to Fujisawa Station where he was going to switch to a train to go to Honkugenuma Station by Rio’s house before deciding that a single stop would be quicker on the bike so continued pedalling .
The wind against his body was oddly warm, and soaking wet, and having lived this long, Sakuta had a good idea of what that meant, a typhoon was nearby .
He continued pedalling without slowing as he looked up at the sky to see it blanketed by a thick layer of dark clouds . They writhed as if they were living things, flowing northward as they undulated and shifted strangely .
“Come on, don’t . ”
The instant he opened his mouth, a large drop of rain fell from the sky, followed shortly by a second and third striking his body . It grew stronger quickly, soon turning torrential, heavy enough that the entire area around him seemed white .
“No way,” he cried out, his T-shirt sticking heavily to him with water .
He thought of heading back, but he’d still be soaked either way .
“This is the worst, fuck!” Sakuta yelled in displeasure, still pedalling desperately away .
By the time he arrived at Rio’s house, he was soaked through to his skin . Bluntly, it felt awful, but this wasn’t the time for complaints .
He touched the button on the intercom . With both of her parents out, he thought it might be meaningless, but Rio answered .
“Azusagawa?” Came her voice from the intercom .
“How could you tell?”
“The camera . ”
“Huh, high-tech . ”
“They’re not that rare nowadays, come in . ”
The gate opened and Sakuta took his bike through . It still had its aura of richness that Sakuta would never get used to, however many times he came . It seemed to reject Sakuta, even scruffier with being soaked .
Sakuta stopped his bike and Rio opened the door, looking out in her cute and fluffy pyjamas .
“What’s wrong?” She asked .
“Futaba’s gone . ”
“She was there when I got back, then I crashed… when I woke up, she’d completely gone, her things and everything . ”
“Just so you know, I don’t think we’ve gone back to one . ”
“I figured . ”
Somehow he had thought that would be the case, there was no reason for them to .
“Do you have any idea where she would have gone?” He asked .
“…Maybe the school,” Rio answered strongly without much hesitation . She seemed somehow certain of it . “If the other me is intending to disappear from us… I think she’d probably do that, I’d go to the place I was finally not alone at the end . ”
“Got it, thanks . ”
Then, there was a thunderclap, shaking the air .
“Kya,” Rio screamed in surprise, covering her ears .
“So you make that kind of noise as well . ”
“I-it was just so sudde- kya!” In the middle of her excuse, the sky lit up again, soon followed by the sound from nearby .
Sakuta looked at her for a moment .
“I’m fine,” she insisted .
“If you get scared on your own, call Kunimi . ”
“I won’t call him . ”
“You could go ‘I’m scaaared’ and cling to him though . ”
“I wouldn’t say something like that . ”
“If you manage to get him to come on to you, he’ll take responsibility . ”
“I don’t want to get together like that . ”
“Well, do your best normally then,” Sakuta answered and swung his leg back over his bike .
“I’ll come too . ”
“You stay here . Ah, tell me your home number too . ”
Rio went back inside and then came out with a piece of paper which she gave him .
“I’ll call if I find anything . Also…”
“She might come here,” Rio preempted him . Her gaze was nervous and she was probably thinking of the doppelgänger legend where you would die if you encountered your own . There were actually two Rios right now, so that couldn’t be ignored . No one knew what would happen if they met, and Rio’s hypothesis also included that .
“If she does, talk to her calmly . ”
“I intend to, but…”
He knew what she wanted to say, they didn’t know how the other one would react, and they couldn’t discount some suspicious developments being the reason she left . If the two couldn’t become one again, only one of them could live as ‘Futaba Rio’ . They had to consider the possibility of both of them vying for the same place .
As he considered that absolute worst case, Sakuta once again rode off, needing to search for Rio as quickly as possible .
He had thought to return to Fujisawa Station and ride the Enoden to school, but he soon rejected that idea . He was already dripping wet, so would cause issues riding the train one way or another, and it would definitely get in the way .
The wind was his next concern, it was fairly strong, possibly gale-force, and that coupled with the heavy rain might interrupt the train service, and force it to halt .
So Sakuta left Rio’s house and headed towards Enoshima . He took route 134 along the coast . Taking that road, it was about two kilometres to Shichirigahama .
The wind from the sea was strong and the sea looked pitch black, towering waves assailing the usually peaceful beach .
Squinting through the driving rain and wind, Sakuta pedalled onwards past Enoshima . He couldn’t even see the hanging lanterns that would usually be shining at this time of year, they’d probably been taken down in preparation for the storm .
The wind beat against his body repeatedly, nearly knocking him over on several occasions . The road saw a lot of traffic, there were dangerous spots and the cars passing him drenched him in spray .
“Ah, dammit, this is so annoying!” He complained to no-one, the rain drowning out his voice . “It really is!”
He still didn’t stop yelling though, and he didn’t slow down . He stood on his pedals, Shichirigahama in sight, and sped up even further .
Shichirigahama was a familiar sight to him, but looked completely different . The waves were favoured by surfers from the beginning, but they seemed like they would swallow you at a single glance now . Turning his back on them, Sakuta put on a final burst of effort towards the now-visible school .
“Hahh… Ah, I’m gonna throw up, I’m gonna,” he said, swaying as he stopped at the gate .
He climbed over the shut gate and entered the school premises .
There wasn’t a sign of anyone . There were the Obon holidays from the thirteenth to the sixteenth of August, so students couldn’t come to school . There might have been some teachers, but Sakuta couldn’t see any signs of them, and of course, the entrance was closed .
“If she’s not here now, I’m gonna cry,” he complained as he went around the school to the outside of the physics lab .
The other Rio had recently told him that the window lock was broken on the second one from the inside .
“This one,” he said, putting his hand on the glass and easily slid it to the side .
He put his foot on the window frame and entered the room .
“Futaba, you here?”
There was no reply .
“You not here?” He asked .
Of course, there was no reply .
He took his shoes and socks off, moving over to the sink and taking his shirt off before wringing it out . A ridiculous amount of water poured out . Then he did his trousers, and because no one was there, his boxers as well, the amount of water making it seem like he’d practically upended a bucket .
He didn’t want to hang around school in the nude, so pulled on his still unpleasantly-wet clothes . It felt awful, but he had to bear with it . The bigger problem was that Rio wasn’t in the lab . When the other Rio had suggested the school, Sakuta had assumed that this was where she meant .
However, she wasn’t here, maybe she wasn’t even at the school .
When he thought that, Sakuta spotted a familiar thing on the table by the board, a smartphone . When he picked it up and used it, he soon found that it was Rio’s .
She had definitely been here, so he’d have to make that she wasn’t still .
Trying to shake off his unease, Sakuta stepped out into the corridor to search for her, walking off randomly . For now, he decided to go to the second-year classrooms, maybe she’d be in her own classroom .
As he headed towards the stairs, Sakuta passed by the first year classrooms . All of the year classrooms were on separate floors, the first-years on the first floor, the second-years on the second, and the third-years on the third .
Class 1-1’s door was half open .
Sakuta paused .
That was the classroom he had had last year, with Rio and Yuuma .
He opened the door fully and entered .
The sound startled the person inside .
Rio was sitting in the furthest seat on the window side, holding her knees as she sat, staring wide-eyed at Sakuta as he entered the room .
“Man that was a pain,” Sakuta said as he slumped into a seat a fair distance away from Rio, right in front of the teacher’s desk . This was where he had sat in the third term last year, the board was easily seen from there .
Rio’s gaze stabbed into his back, letting him keenly feel how guarded she was . He pretended not to notice and opened his mouth .
“I forgot to ask you something yesterday… actually, I guess that’d be this morning . ”
“Want to come to the fireworks next week?”
“Eh?” Asked Rio in plain surprise, that probably having been the last thing she expected to hear .
“The ones at Enoshima, we went last year, right?”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said, somewhat angrily, annoyed at what he was doing .
“Kunimi’s coming too,” he told her .
Rio was silent for several moments, so Sakuta continued .
“We’re going to watch them from Kugenumakaigan like you said last year . ”
“You’ll come too, right?”
“…I won’t . ”
“Already have plans?”
“I’m going to disappear from here,” she said, her emotions suppressed from her voice, “I’m going to disappear away from you, and from this town . ”
Her voice was quiet and cold .
“What’s that supposed to be?” He returned lightly, ignoring the mood .
“This world doesn’t need two Futaba Rios . ”
That was what the other Rio had said . They were the same person so they said the same things, that obvious thing somehow put Sakuta at ease, they really were both Rio .
“If I’m not here, that will solve everything . ”
“Will it?” He asked .
“The other me has stopped with those indecent photos . ”
“Yeah, she said she would . ”
“And I’m sure she’s living in that big, empty house as Futaba Rio, right?”
“Right . ”
“She comes to school every day and does the club activities properly as well . ”
“Well, she sometimes goes in to watch Kunimi practise . ”
“She’s living perfectly well as Futaba Rio,” she said quietly, removing any objections and narrowing down her own existence . She had completely closed her heart off and was trying to vanish . What on Earth must that feel like, he wondered .
“The first-year basketballers think she’s cute as well . ”
“Then she’s being an even better ‘Futaba Rio’ than I am,” she said, another piece fitting in, a piece of despair… “She’s already part of this world, living happily as ‘Futaba Rio’ . ”
The puzzle was nearly complete . Actually, it was already complete, all that was left…
“If I vanished, it would solve everything . ”
Was to throw away the left-over pieces .
“That’s definitely wrong as a solution,” answered Sakuta with no hesitation, just the same as always…
“It’s not wrong at all, it’s a completely correct answer . ”
“It’s utterly wrong, right from the start . ”
“Then why!?” Rio stood with a clatter, “Why did you show me that picture!?”
Sakuta’s eyes dropped to the phone in his hand, with the background of him, Rio, and Yuuma . It would be cliché, but there was something extra in the picture that you couldn’t see . He was sure that if you put the word ‘friendship’ into a thing, it would be this picture .
“There’s nowhere for me to go anymore!” Rio cried out in a shaking voice, “What else would I think when you showed me a picture like that!?”
He heard a sniffle from behind him .
“Obviously you don’t need me anymore… You, Kunimi, you both have that me!” That was why he thought she was crying, crying right from the bottom of her heart, ready to lose everything… “You’re so insensitive!!”
Rio’s words were offensive and piercing, and in this moment, she hated him, and feeling that was the only thing that hurt him about this .
“You moron,” Even so, he laughed those feelings off, “Why are you saying that now, Futaba?”
“I already know I’m insensitive, you’ve told me often enough . ”
“…That’s what I mean! Being able to say stuff like that in this kind of situation! That’s why-!” Rio tried to continue, but Sakuta just calmly spoke over her .
“So yeah, half six at Kugenumakaigan Station on the nineteenth . ”
He was speaking in the same tone he always used when they chatted in the lab, in the same tone as he used when teasing her about her feelings towards Kunimi .
Rio was completely lost for words .
“That’s all I had to say,” he spoke, putting the phone in his pocket and standing up . Still looking at the board and not turning around to Rio at all .
The rest was up to Rio . If she wouldn’t grab the offered hand, there was nothing more Sakuta could do . You couldn’t save someone from despair on your own, he wasn’t so prideful to think he could .
There was no reason for him to stay here, so he went to walk away .
It was at that moment that his vision blurred and his body swayed . When he realised it was dizziness, he was already falling unconscious .
“Azusagawa!?” He heard Rio’s strained voice from far, far away .
His vision was completely black, and he couldn’t see anything . For a moment he thought he could, but it was just the pattern of the floor tiles . They might be dirty, he thought before finally falling completely unconscious .
His body was being shaken, something was clattering underneath him and he could feel a sway to the left and right .
When he noticed that, he also realised someone was speaking to him .
He slowly tried opening his eyes .
An unfamiliar ceiling greeted him, but it was a ceiling he had seen once before . He also remembered the sound of the sirens . The other things he could hear were the rain pounding against the windows and the regular sweep of the wipers .
“Are you awake?” Asked a man in his thirties, peering at Sakuta’s face, wearing a paramedic uniform .
“Azusagawa,” Rio said worriedly from next to him .
“Ah, did I collapse?” He asked, remembering the awful dizziness . Everything was black after then, and he only realised now .
“It looks like you were dehydrated . The fainting appears to be a symptom of light heatstroke,” said the paramedic, using words you often heard on the news at this time of year . Sakuta had never thought that would happen to him . “Does anything hurt? You may have bumped yourself as you fell . ”
He considered himself, nothing really hurt .
“Nothing hurts, no . ”
“She says you may have hit your head, so when we arrive at the hospital, I think you’ll be examined . ”
“Right,” Sakuta answered in agreement, thinking feigning toughness after collapsing was foolish himself .
After ten minutes, they arrived at the hospital and Sakuta was taken to a fairly normal examination room . He had somewhat expected to be taken in to an emergency care room like you saw on medical dramas, but apparently not .
A doctor in his late twenties examined him .
“Just in case, we’ll take a CT scan,” he said, and they moved to another floor . Just as the doctor had said, Sakuta’s head was put in the big machine and a scan was taken before they returned to the initial examination room .
“We’ll put you on an IV, just in case . ”
It was a disquieting way to put it, but he’d just have to trust the doctor . He was put in a bed and a needle put in his arm and an IV drip put at the side of the bed and connected to Sakuta by a tube .
“I’ll come when it’s finished,” said the doctor before hurrying off . Maybe there was someone more urgent he had to see .
Sakuta quietly watched the IV as it dripped . Then became comfortable and drifted off to sleep .
When Sakuta woke up, it was because of a discomfort in his cheek . It was a strangely stiff feeling, like someone had been pinching his cheek .
Overcoming the languidness filling him, Sakuta slowly opened his eyes .
“Morning,” came the voice of a woman looking unhappily down at him . It was her fingers that were pinching his cheek .
For now, he just looked steadily at her .
“What are you so fascinated for?” She asked .
“My amazingly beautiful senior is right there, couldn’t help it . ”
“I suppose you’re fine then, judging by that . ”
Sakuta heaved himself up . There was no dizziness accompanying the motion, and the IV bag was completely empty and had been disconnected at some point, replaced by a patch of gauze on his arm .
“So, Mai-san… what’s this punishment for?”
Mai’s fingers still hadn’t left his cheek .
“It’s a punishment for the older brother who made Kaede-chan worry before sleeping there happily . ”
“I see, understandable,” he said in agreement, “I’m sorry . ”
“It’s Kaede-chan you should apologise to, go phone her now . ”
“Right,” he answered, about to ask to borrow Mai’s phone, but then worried about whether he should use it in a hospital and decided not to . A hospital should have plenty of payphones, “Oh yeah, how come you’re here?”
“Futaba-san called me . ”
He had called Rio from Mai’s phone before, so her number was in the call history he guessed .
“But is it alright to come here?” He asked, thinking of her manager saying they shouldn’t meet for a while . He hadn’t heard anything about that being rescinded .
In this examination room, they weren’t in public view, but the corridor connected to other rooms and the doctors and nurses going backwards and forth had all noticed Mai . A white-coated man earlier had made a noise of surprise, and the nurse that had come to check his chart had looked twice . There were also younger doctors that had taken pointless trips past to look at her .
“Before all that, isn’t there something you should be saying to your girlfriend after worrying her?”
She asked unhappily as she stood from her stool .
“I’m sorry for worrying you . ”
“Do it over . ”
“Ehh . ”
“Do it over,” she repeated, more and more unhappily . This would just continue until he told her what she wanted to hear, and if he couldn’t get there quickly, she’d start treading on his foot .
“I don’t want you not to be able to work because of this . ”
“You know,” she said sulkily as he still wouldn’t say what she wanted, “I do like work, it’s fun, and I want to keep doing it, but . ”
She finished with a clear division, her eyes seeming to urge him . He more or less got what she wanted to say, he did, but he wanted to hear her say it if he could .
“But?” He asked with an innocent expression .
“You already know, right?”
“No, not at all . ”
Mai pouted slightly, but opened her mouth in surrender .
“Work is important, but… I want to look after you if you get a cold, I want to have dates on my days off,” she looked sulky, her face blaming Sakuta for making her say it, “I’m only working again because of you, it’s pointless if it means I can’t see you . ”
That whole thing was so destructive, the words cute or happy didn’t do it justice .
“Mai-san!” He exclaimed .
“Can I hug you?”
“Why?” She asked guardedly, leaning back .
“I want to show you how happy I am . ”
She paused to think for a moment, and then said with a smile, playing tough, “Three seconds . ”
“Ehh, I need at least a minute . ”
“If you hugged me for that long, I’d get pregnan- kya!”
As she spoke, Sakuta hugged her tightly, putting both arms around her back . Her body was soft and warm, and she smelt nice .
She put both hands on his chest as she shrunk in his arms .
“That’s three seconds . ”
“Give me an extension . ”
“You already have things you need to do . ” She said .
He had to phone Kaede and thank Rio for calling the ambulance and riding with him to the hospital .
“When I’m done, can we carry on?”
“It’s already been more than ten seconds, so no . ”
“Ehhh . ”
“It’s your fault for not keeping your promise,” she said, making him immediately move away .
“Too late,” she added, poking him in the forehead .
He pleaded desperately with his eyes .
“Looking at me like a dead fish won’t help . ”
“I’m looking at you like an abandoned puppy . ”
“Hurry up and go, I’ll listen when the doctor comes back for you . ”
“Please do,” he said, leaving her in the room and heading out into the corridor, “First I need to phone Kaede . ”
The nostalgic green phones were next to the closed and unlit shop, to the side of four vending machines .
He put in a ten yen coin and dialled his home number, the answering machine picking up the call .
“Kaede, it’s me, are you still up?”
“Onii-chan!?” Kaede’s voice came from the phone after a few seconds .
“Yeah, it’s your Onii-chan . ”
“Thank goodness, you’re still alive…”
“Don’t go killing me off . There’s still some things to do here, so I’ll be a little longer before I’m back,” he said, looking at the clock on the wall and seeing it was ten PM, He’d prefer to return home today, “You don’t need to wait up . ”
“I’ll wait,” she insisted .
“I see, well, don’t push yourself,” he said, sure she wouldn’t listen even as he said it, so he carried on, stopping her from answering, “Kaede . ”
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry for making you worry . ”
“I’m your little sister, of course I worry about you!”
“Well, thank you for always being my sister then . ”
“R-right! I’ll keep doing my best!”
“Later then,” he said, putting the receiver down .
As he did so, he suddenly noticed how quiet it was, and then a chime of a lift arriving broke that silence from just past the vending machines .
The doors opened and a girl stepped out .
“Ah,” said Sakuta, because he knew the girl’s face .
“Eh?” She was still looking at Sakuta in surprise . The girl that had appeared in pyjamas and slippers… was Makinohara Shouko . “U-um… Why are you here?”
She asked, casting her gaze about as she tried to maintain herself, with that particular expression you have when you’re seen somewhere you don’t want to be .
“An ambulance brought me here after I collapsed from heatstroke . ”
“A-are you okay?”
“The symptoms were light, and they gave me an IV, so I’m even better than normal . ”
“You need to keep yourself hydrated,” she said, finally looking at him properly and speaking to him as an older sister would, “and you need enough salts too . ”
“Yeah, guess so . ”
The conversation paused for a moment .
“Uhmm, why are you here, Makinohara-san?” He asked, unable to avoid the question after an encounter like this . Not asking would look unnatural, and Sakuta was honestly concerned .
“I caught a cold,” she answered flatly .
“Let’s see,” he said, approaching her and putting his hand on her forehead, “doesn’t look like you’ve got a fever . ”
“R-right . ”
“Your voice is the same as normal too, no cough?”
She was silent .
“Doesn’t look like your nose is running either,” he said, cutting off her avenues of escape one by one .
“I’m sorry, I lied,” she admitted easily .
He’d known that from the beginning . She was in her pyjamas and slippers, and the hospital wasn’t open to out-patients this late . If she wasn’t brought in by an ambulance like Sakuta, then there was only one possibility left, she was an in-patient .
“…What’s wrong?” He asked, not sure whether to ask, but when he saw her forlorn expression, he started to talk .
Shouko opened her mouth, but then immediately closed it again .
“If you don’t want to talk about it, don’t force yourself to . ”
“No, I think I should tell you,” she said, looking up at him with a resolute gaze .
They sat on a bench by the vending machines and Shouko told him about her illness in a slow, calm voice .
He had never heard the name before, and had no idea how to write it, but he was able to understand it was some kind of heart disease .
At any rate, it was a serious disease and Shouko’s condition was worsening as she grew . She told him that there were several methods for prolonging her life, but the only way to properly treat it was a transplant . However, there were far fewer child organ donors than adults, and they had apparently not been able to find one . Because finding one would mean that someone else had met with misfortune, Shouko had a complex expression as she talked about it .
She wanted a donor to appear, but at the same time, felt like that meant she wanted someone else to suffer so it pained her .
“What happens if they can’t find a donor?” Sakuta asked .
“When they realised what illness it was, the doctors said it might be difficult for me to graduate middle school . ”
Shouko spoke relatively plainly about her own final moments, and her expression even seemed relieved, which Sakuta didn’t understand at all .
However, there was something he did understand .
“So that’s what it was . ”
“I finally got it . ”
“Remember when we were talking about Hayate? You said that if you told your parents ‘I want to get a cat’, that they’d definitely let you . ”
Without a donor, Shouko might only live to be fourteen or fifteen . There was no way her parents would turn a deaf ear on her words in that case, they’d naturally try and do everything for her that they could . If Shouko said she wanted something, then they’d do their best to buy it for her, if she said she wanted to do something, they’d do their best to make sure she could .
“They’re both very kind to me,” she said .
Sakuta just waited .
“They’re so kind… If I ask for something, they just say ‘sure’, no matter what it is . It makes me really happy, but it’s just as painful . ”
“Yeah,” Sakuta returned, just to let her know he was listening without interrupting her too much, he couldn’t say that he understood their feelings .
“After she says ‘sure’, she’ll definitely apologise when I’m not there… for giving birth to me with this body…”
“So… I still haven’t talked about Hayate,” she said, her expression shadowed . Sakuta noticed it, and realised what was causing it, so he wordlessly pinched her cheek .
“W-what was that for?” She asked panickily at his unexpected action .
“Punishment for blaming your mother,” he answered .
“If you ask for something with such a gloomy face, of course your mother would feel sorry . ”
Before she could say anything, Sakuta pulled at her other cheek as well .
That was probably supposed to be ‘Sakuta-san’, he guessed .
“Makinohara-san, as long as you feel sorry for being ill, that won’t change . I’m sure your parents have noticed those feelings of guilt, don’t you think harbouring those feelings of sorrow towards you is the most painful for them? Your mother feels sorry for giving birth to your body like that . ”
“…That might be true,” she continued in slight agreement and a quiet voice, “But what should I-”
“Makinohara-san, what do you think of your parents? You don’t want them to feel sad and apologetic, do you?”
“I love them both, I adore them,” she answered without hesitation, doubtlessly honestly .
“And have you told them that?”
“…I haven’t . ”
“Rather than being told ‘I’m sorry’, it makes me happier to hear ‘I love you’ . Something like ‘I adore you’ would put me on cloud nine . ”
“Ah…” She said, finally seeming to understand what Sakuta wanted to say .
“Someone once told me that ‘thank you’, ‘you fought hard’, and ‘I love you’ were her three great lovable phrases . ”
Sakuta let go and she stood up .
A moment later, the lift arrived, a married couple in their late-thirties stepping out . He could tell from their reaction on seeing Shouko . They had come to look for her when she hadn’t returned .
“Mother, Father,” she said, trotting quickly over to them .
“Ah, Shouko, don’t ru-” Shouko buried herself in her mother’s chest as she worried over her, “Oh my, what’s wrong?”
She was taken aback, but still gently hugged her back .
“Mother, Father, thank you for everything . ”
“What? What’s wrong?”
Her parents exchanged looks .
“I love you both, I utterly adore you . ”
“We both adore you too,” answered her father, softly stroking her head .
“That’s right,” answered her mother .
“I’m glad that you’re my parents,” she said, looking up at them from where she was still hugging her mother, a smile in full bloom on her face .
“Shouko…” Her mother said before choking up, tears glistening in her eyes . Her father looked away slightly as well, wiping tears from his own face . A warm atmosphere enveloped them, full of the caring of a family between each other .
“I… have a request,” she said .
“What is it, Shouko?”
“I want to get a cat,” she answered, still with her bright smile . They both accepted that with a gentle expression .
“That sounds good, let’s do it . ”
“Azusagawa,” came a voice from behind him as he watched Shouko leave again, hand-in-hand with her parents . It was Rio, possibly having been there for a while, “Should you be on your feet already?”
“Even if I collapse again, I’m already in the hospital, so it’s fine . ”
“You’re a troublesome patient aren’t you?” Rio asked, a sigh mixed in with wry amusement .
“I caused you trouble too, sorry . ”
“That was just cheating,” she scolded him, her eyes unhappy, “I couldn’t just leave you there . ”
“It was worth it then,” Sakuta said, sitting on the bench, Rio doing likewise, with two people’s worth of space between them . “Thanks for calling Mai-san . ”
“You’d better be thankful . ”
“That’s why I said thanks . ”
“Not to me, to Sakurajima-senpai . ”
“…Was she really worried?”
She hadn’t shown even a hint of it when they were talking earlier, but she had rushed over here for him, so she must have been more worried than he thought .
“She was holding your hand the entire time since she got here . ”
“Did you get a picture?” He asked .
“Of course I didn’t . ”
“Uwahh, I really wanted to see that . ”
“You really are an idiot,” she said with an astounded laugh . That dry sound echoed around the corridor .
They stopped talking, the quiet air of the late-night hospital seeming to increase, the quiet hum of the vending machines filling the silence .
Rio looked at her stretched out toes, seeming to search for the next thing to say…
“If you’re going to say something like ‘I’m not necessary anymore’, ‘everything would be fine if I wasn’t here’, or ‘but I’m really scared and don’t know what to do’… then don’t bother . ”
Rio’s utter silence was enough to let him know he was completely right .
“You can hate yourself if you want,” he said, his voice filling the quiet corridor .
There was another long pause before he added, “I just think ‘well, that’s how it is’ as I live . ”
“That’s just like you,” she said with a small laugh, “isn’t this where you say ‘you can come to like yourself a bit at a time,’ or ‘you have lots of good points’?”
“That kind of optimism is exhausting . People that love themselves are annoying . ”
Forcing yourself wouldn’t make you love something you hated, trying to do so would just cause friction and pressure, making it worse . If that would just hurt yourself, giving up preemptively was one method . Sakuta had learnt that doing so could save you two years ago with Kaede; fighting wasn’t everything, and that was fine .
“You’re the worst, Azusagawa . You are, but… that kind of helps . ” Rio’s face relaxed like some demon had been driven out, “It really does help . ”
If they were kept taut, a thread of emotion would eventually snap . You should relax every so often and let them have some slack . Things would be much better, and that slack could change how you saw your surroundings, like with Rio now…
Rio needed that slight latitude with what she had stashed away inside herself, just a little bit of relaxing .
Those were Sakuta’s thoughts as he watched Rio’s slack face from the side .
“Say, Azusagawa,” Rio said hesitantly after a while of silence .
“…The fireworks . ”
“Can I come too?”
“No . ”
Rio fell silent again .
“Not if you’re asking like that . ”
A sigh of consideration left her mouth, but all she needed was a few seconds .
“I-I want to go see the fireworks as well,” she said, unusually hurriedly for her, having trouble showing her honest emotions with how unused to doing so she was .
“You’re telling the wrong person,” he said, flipping his remaining ten yen coin . The coin traced out a gentle parabola before being caught two-handed by Rio, her eyes naturally going towards the phones .
She stood up alone and walked over to the phone . She lifted the receiver and put the coin in, dialling a number . Sakuta listened from behind .
He could hear Rio’s nervous breaths . He could tell the phone was immediately answered as she took a slow breath in .
“It’s me… Yeah, I met Azusagawa . Also, um… I have a request . ”
She stopped talking for a moment and took another long breath, then continued with feeling, “I want to go to see the fireworks too . ”
Nothing followed that . Her breathing itself seemed to have vanished . Then he heard a clatter .
He turned around to look .
He saw a completely ordinary payphone, the receiver swinging from it . He looked to the right and left, but there was no one there, just the long corridor . As far as he could see, there was no one else there .
Standing, Sakuta picked up the receiver and spoke somewhat playfully, “Hellooo . ”
“Go back to the examination room, Sakurajima-senpai is waiting for you, isn’t she?” Were the words that answered him .
“I’ll finally be able to play around with Mai-san . ”
“I didn’t ask about that . ”
“You should, just a little . ”
“More importantly, the fireworks?” Rio forcibly changed the topic . “Don’t be late, Azusagawa . ”
“You can be a little late though, Futaba . It takes a while to put a yukata on . ”
“Do I really have to wear one?”
“There’s no point in going to the fireworks if there’s no girls in yukata . ”
“I see… then I guess I have to promise,” she said, her voice somewhat cheery .