Seishun Buta Yarou Series Volume 4 Chapter 1 part2
Consecutive white flashes filled the TV screen with harsh light.
“I apologise deeply for causing such a disturbance on this occasion,” said a former idol, now a married woman that had been found to be having an affair with a younger male model, as she bowed her head deeply.
There was a short silence, a full ten seconds. She finally raised her head again and was once more blamed mercilessly by the onslaught of shutter sounds and flashes.
As Sakuta watched the scene absentmindedly, he thought, Celebrities have it tough.
If you were to go around the entirety of Japan, he was sure that you would find many people engaged in affairs. But they didn’t have their shame bared on national networks. They didn’t have insults hurled at them like ‘hedonist’, ‘slut’, or ‘lust monster’.
Honestly, and without looking at the camera, the woman falteringly answered the reporter’s questions. When that was over, she repeated her apology and bow again.
Apparently, society must not be disturbed. However, with all of the reporters and cameras crammed into the press conference, and spilling out as well, he wondered if society actually rejoiced in these disturbances. In which case, the reporters should thank her for offering herself up for criticism like this.
The people that she should be apologising to were her husband and the people her withdrawal had caused issues for amongst her co-stars and agency staff… then to her real fans and that should be enough. Bowing her head to society just made people wonder who ‘society’ was supposed to be, and made it sound as if it wasn’t an apology to anyone.
Regardless, it didn’t matter to Sakuta. Some actress’ he’d never met having an affair with someone was of no concern to him.
Honestly, this was no time to worry about the end of a former idol in her thirties’ career, there was something else he should be worrying about.
Sakuta was currently in his girlfriend’s home, Sakurajima Mai, who was a year older than him. It was on the ninth of ten floors of the block of flats.
A robot vacuum had set off across the clean floor. It seemed to work somewhat bravely, and he watched over its progress from the sofa.
Mai was sitting on a sofa opposite him. Their eyes met for a moment, but Sakuta looked away without saying a word. It wasn’t that he was being shy, he was looking at the other occupant of the room to ask them something.
Sat next to Sakuta was a girl with shining golden hair, the same age as him.
“So, Mai-san, what exactly is happening here?” Sakuta asked the blonde, even though Mai was ‘opposite’ him.
Neither Mai nor the blonde questioned his odd actions. In fact, the blonde girl that Sakuta had called ‘Mai-san’ answered him.
“Like I said, this girl and I have switched bodies,” in exactly the same tone as Mai would use.
To understand why Sakuta was in this situation, we must rewind time a little.
That day, Sunday the first of September, was the end of the roughly forty days of the summer holidays, and the first day back at school. Sakuta had headed off to school looking forward to being able to see Mai.
She had been exceedingly busy after returning from such a long hiatus, so they had barely seen each other. On top of that, her agency had forbidden them from dating, and even in the short time they had been allowed, they hadn’t been able to do anything like a couple.
Before Sakuta had been able to pay his respects to Mai in swimwear, the second term had arrived. That had been how his summer, which ought to have been so enjoyable, had gone.
So when Mai told him, “We’ll be able to see each other normally at school,” it had meant that this was the first time Sakuta had welcomed the first of September in his life. Mai had even called him the night before and said that she would see him tomorrow.
But once school began, Mai hadn’t been in the opening ceremony. When Sakuta went to her classroom after homeroom, he still hadn’t been able to find her.
Her bag wasn’t there, and there wasn’t even a single sign that she had come to school that day, so Sakuta had given up and headed home.
As he was returning home, alone and downcast, someone had left the building opposite his own, Mai.
Of course, Sakuta had called out to her in joy, but her response was entirely unexpected.
“Who are you?” She had looked questioningly at him as she shook his hand off her shoulder. “I asked who are you?”
Her blunt questioning had been nothing like the usual composure she displayed being a year older than him.
“As you are aware, I am Azusagawa Sakuta, in a pure and loving relationship with your good self, Mai-san,” he had answered.
“Huh? There’s no way a dead-eyed guy like you would be Onee-chan’s boyfriend,” she had replied definitively, as if talking to a fool.
Her appearance was certainly Mai’s, but her tone was of someone completely different. Calling what he felt a ‘bad feeling’ didn’t do it justice.
“Who are you?” He asked, his feelings unchanged. The one that answered him was not Mai from in front of him.
“This is Toyohama Nodoka,” a voice had told him from behind. He turned to face the source as the door to Mai’s building opened and a girl stepped out.
She had walked straight forwards and approached Sakuta’s side.
The first thing Sakuta’s eyes focused on was her hair, it was a magnificent blonde. The hair was tied up only on the left side of her hair, like a hostess at a bar. It was a voluminous looking hairstyle. There was makeup around her wide eyes and she did indeed give a playful impression from her appearance.
She was 160 or so centimetres tall. That was the average for girls, but next to Mai, who was rather tall, she looked short.
She was slim and seemed like she would invite jealousy from other girls of her generation. From the perspective of a man, she might seem a little too thin, but she seemed to do some sort of exercise and didn’t look dainty and fragile. She wasn’t just slender, her legs had a healthy tautness to them where they peaked out from her shorts.
“Toyohama Nodoka?” He had mused to himself, sure he had heard the name before. Actually, he remembered having seen the blonde before as well.
Where was it? He had wondered to himself.
He had looked hard at the girl and the answer snapped into place.
It was from a manga magazine cover. He had missed the chance to throw it away and left it in his room for several months.
An idol group had been adorning the cover, with the name ‘Sweet Bullet’. One of the members was the blonde in front of him… who should have been Toyohama Nodoka.
He remembered because he had looked over her profile and seen ‘Sakurajima Mai’ under ‘Favourite thing’ so Sakuta had ended up with some familiarity to it.
“No, you’re Toyohama Nodoka, right?” Asked Sakuta, pointing at the blonde girl.
“Don’t point at people.” She said, grabbing his finger and forcing it down.
Somehow, her way of speaking, and her behaviour towards Sakuta… Even though this was the first time they had met, she was acting like they knew each other well. If he had to say, it was just like Mai…
“Right now, I’m Sakurajima Mai,” the blonde girl had claimed clearly, “and she’s Nodoka,” ‘Toyohama Nodoka’ continued, pointing at ‘Mai’. He could understand what she was telling him, but nonchalantly accepting it was another matter.
“I think it’s Adolescence Syndrome,” the blonde had whispered, stretching up to speak into his ear as he made a conflicted expression. Her voice and appearance were different, but words that Sakuta associated with Mai hit his eardrum.
Normally, people didn’t believe in the mysterious phenomenon of Adolescence Syndrome, they laughed it off as a mere urban legend. People that believed in it were probably limited to those that had experienced it.
“Though it seems rather different than when I was vanishing,” she had emphasised. Those were the conclusive words. Mai had been vanishing from people’s memories, and even her existence itself was fading during spring. The only people that would know that were Sakuta and Mai… and his friend Futaba Rio, who he had consulted about it.
“You really are Mai-san,” he said.
“That’s what I told you,” said the blonde with a soft smile, even as she disparaged him. That expression itself was definitely one that Sakuta knew well from Mai, a loving smile he couldn’t mistake. “Nodoka, you come back inside too, this isn’t a dream.”
“Huh? It’s gotta be.”
“Even though I’m you and you’re me?” Nodoka in Mai’s form had spoken, using glass in place of a mirror to look at her self, patting her face and body down, “No no, this is definitely a dream.”
“Even though you can feel things so clearly?” Mai had asked in turn, prompting a silence from Nodoka before she continued, “It’s really not a dream, it’s like one though.”
“No way… but if it’s not a dream…”
Nodoka, in Mai’s body, had begun to quiver, her lips trembling. She was trying to say something, but the words wouldn’t come and she was soundless, wordless. She was just shaking her head over and over, as if denying reality. Finally, she finished in a strangled voice, “This… can’t be…”
Those were the girl’s plain feelings in this unbelievable situation. When people were truly lost, they were often like this.
After that, Sakuta had visited Mai’s home to hear the details. The lift took them up from where it waited on the ground floor to the ninth where Mai lived in a corner flat.
It faced to the south, so it had a good aspect for the sun and was a large home for one person to live in, with three rooms, a living room, a dining area, and a kitchen. It was that living room that Sakuta was led to.
There was a fashionable island-style kitchen, and in the room were sofas, a table, and a TV, the bare minimum household furniture. They were all a calm wood-colour, and there was a robot that looked like a UFO, going across the floor and cleaning it.
“Mai-san, how much is the rent here,” Sakuta had asked.
“I bought it.”
“Ahh,” he said in understanding.
Mai was a widely popular actress who had been in show-business since she was a child. She boasted nationwide fame and had been in movies, TV shows and adverts, being able to buy a flat was nothing strange.
“That’s your only impression?” Asked Mai, looking at him in surprise, “I thought you’d be happy I let you into my home.”
“If we were alone, I’d have already charged for your room.”
“Don’t be so silly with such a serious expression on your face.”
“Well, I was being serious,” he had defended.
“Just sit down, I’ll make some tea.”
With that, Mai had opened the fridge. So with no other choice, he had sat on the sofa. After a moment, Mai… no, Nodoka in Mai’s body, had sat on the sofa opposite him.
There was a long silence, Nodoka didn’t seem to have accepted what had happened to her and was looking disbelievingly at her reflection in the glass table.
Sakuta had decided that it would be best to leave her be for now, and so to fill the silence, he had reached for the TV remote. On the screen was a news report, stubbornly reporting on a former idol that had been found to be having an affair.
After watching the TV for a while, Mai had returned with a tray holding three cups of tea. Returned in the form of an energetic looking blonde girl.
She had placed the three cups of barley tea on the table and immediately sat next to Sakuta. She might look different, but the emotional distance between the two of them was definitely that which he had with Mai.
“So, Mai-san, what exactly is happening here?” He asked.
“Like I said, this girl and I have switched bodies.”
Once more, he looked between Mai and Nodoka, though in this case, he should probably say ‘Mai’s body’ and ‘Nodoka’s body’.
“Well, accepting that is…” That lack of acceptance wouldn’t progress anything, “What kind of relationship do you and Toyohama Nodoka-san have?”
Mai called Nodoka by name, and Nodoka called Mai ‘Onee-chan’, so inferring the answer was simple, and that inference was probably correct, but the situation being what it was, Sakuta decided to check for sure.
“I’ve told you before, haven’t I? She’s my sister from another mother.”
Mai’s father had remarried after his divorce and had a daughter… that was what she was talking about, they had the same father but a different mother.
It was just, when Sakuta had first heard that, he didn’t think said younger sister would be so old. If he could trust her profile he had seen, Toyohama Nodoka was in her second year of high school, the same year as Sakuta. In other words, only a single year behind Mai.
“Apparently, her mother became pregnant whilst mine still was,” Mai told him, his thoughts apparently showing on his face.
“And why is she here?”
“She suddenly showed up late last night.”
“It was past twelve I guess.”
“And again, why?”
“She said she didn’t want to go home.”
Sakuta looked at Nodoka out of the corner of his eye. She was still staring at her face in the glass of the table, holding her head and saying things like, “No way…”
He’d thought he could ask her herself, but that seemed unlikely.
“So in this situation… what do we do?” He asked Mai, her being the only one he could.
“We need to think about some way to go back to normal, but we should also take precautions in case we can’t do so right away.”
Mai, having experienced Adolescence Syndrome before, was calm.
“Well, that’s true.”
They didn’t know what they should do or when things would go back to normal, nor why this had happened; that was all to come.
If it was for two or three days, they could stay away from school, but that wasn’t workable for a longer time. If they did that, the school themselves would come to investigate, so Mai was right, they would have to live as each other with their bodies switched as they were.
They should also look for methods to return to normalcy.
“Say,” spoke Sakuta, making Nodoka look up with only her eyes. Mai wouldn’t do so, so even though she looked like ‘Sakurajima Mai’, the action made Sakuta deeply uneasy.
“What?” She asked in Mai’s voice. However, the way she spoke was different. Her tone was guarded and thorny, while Mai spoke with more composure.
“Do you have any idea?” Sakuta asked her straightforwardly.
“About why you and my Mai-san swapped bodies.”
“Who are you calling ‘my Mai-san’.” Came with a merciless pinch at his check from the side. She might look like a blonde girl, but this sensation was definitely Mai, and it eased his heart.
“I’ve got no idea.”
“I see,” said Sakuta, not particularly disheartened because he hadn’t been expecting anything.
Sakuta made a soft questioning noise and Mai looked at Nodoka in question as well.
“Why’re the pair of you so calm?” Nodoka’s gaze, that had been focused on Sakuta turned to Mai in search of an answer. Their eyes met and it seemed that Nodoka realised something and then reworded herself more politely to Mai, “…Why are you so calm?”
She seemed to have remembered herself and changed her attitude, acting more formally, with a tension in her expression.
“I don’t get what you mean,” Mai answered in her normal tone.
“B-but you know? We’ve switched bodies! Completely! Utterly! Isn’t this bizarre!?”
Even as she agreed with Nodoka, Mai’s calmness remained as she lifted her tea to her mouth like there was no problem.
Her actions made Nodoka blink in surprise.
“Onee… Mai-san, are you really okay leaving it with just ‘yeah’!?”
“For better or worse, this is how things are. We don’t know how to go back to our own bodies, and we’ve just got to think of what we should do in the meantime.”
“In this bizarre situation, people wouldn’t believe us even if we talked to them about it, and even if they did, it would just mean the media would do as they would, then grow tired of us and abandon us. You don’t want that, do you?”
“So until this is solved, I’ll have to live as you and you’ll have to live as me.”
Nodoka gave no reply.
“Did I say something strange?” Asked Mai.
“…No, you didn’t,” Nodoka replied, her eyes downcast. It might be someone else in the body, but it seeing Mai downhearted was a precious sight. He wanted to take a picture to commemorate it, but unfortunately didn’t have a smartphone so had no camera at all.
“So, let’s check our schedules. I’ll go get my notebook,” said Mai, standing.
“Ah, wait, Onee… M-Mai-san.”
Mai seemed to realise something about Nodoka correcting herself but also seemed to decide not to touch on it and completely ignored the change of address midway through as well, apparently letting her sister do as she would. It niggled at him, but Sakuta followed her example.
“Before we check our schedules, can we check one other thing?” Asked Nodoka, her eyes travelling between Sakuta and Mai. Because of that, he could guess what she would ask. “Are you really dating?”
And he was proven right, though the scorn in the gaze she sent his way was greater than he had expected. It seemed almost like she wanted to kill him.
“Yes, we are,” answered Mai smoothly, making Nodoka’s expression grow even more displeased.
“That’s impossible! I could maybe accept Adolescence Syndrome, but he can’t be your boyfriend!”
“Am I that unrealistic?” Sakuta asked.
“A guy with a dead-looking dull face like yours being Sakurajima Mai’s boyfriend is a complete fantasy.”
Her politeness had vanished, perhaps carried away with her emotions. Apparently, he was like dirt to her.
“I’m happy to be an inspiration for boring guys across the country,” he said, somewhat shocked from such a denial from Mai’s face.
“Nodoka,” said Mai, unhappily.
“…Right,” she answered, subsiding and shrinking in on herself. Her tone had instantaneously returned to its previous politeness.
“Don’t say that people’s boyfriends have dull faces,” Mai scolded her with a slight pout. She seemed to be about to argue the point for him, so his expression relaxed. Then as if that irritated her, she pinched his thigh tightly, causing a dull pain, “It’s true that Sakuta has a dull face, but there are things you should and shouldn’t say.”
“Mai-san, I’d rather you put that in the shouldn’t say group as well.”
His happiness had been brief before being readily pushed off.
Mai was satisfied with messing with him, raising him up and then letting him fall. It really was the queenly behaviour so typical of her.
“Back to the schedule then.”
“Right…” Nodoka nodded reluctantly. She glared at Sakuta for a while as if he was the subject of a blood feud. Having someone with Mai’s appearance do so was awfully troubling, and his body enjoyed it.
“You stop your grinning,” Mai scolded him, smacking him on the head before going into the next room. Sakuta thought that she would let him go with her and moved to do so, but she headed him off before he’d even stood up completely, “you sit there.”
“I was going to content myself with just opening the wardrobe.”
“You wouldn’t content yourself at all.”
“That kind of thing is for when we’re alone,” she said with a sigh, utterly aghast. She wouldn’t even spoil him a little, what a shame, even after he’d visited her home…
Ignoring his depression, Mai strode swiftly to and from the room, holding a notebook with a bunny on the front.
“Um,” said Nodoka to her.
“Hmm?” Mai answered.
“You mentioned this earlier, but it’s impossible for me to pretend to-”
“I think any of your good friends will notice that something is off right away,” she said, an appropriate concern. However, she didn’t need to worry about anything like that with Mai.
“That’s… not a problem at school,” Mai mumbled somewhat reluctantly.
Mai fell silent and Sakuta answered in her place, “She doesn’t have any friends.”
“What, you’re just the same,” Mai glared at him in dissatisfaction. Maybe she didn’t want to let Nodoka know that.
“I have friends, three of them even.”
“Isn’t that one more than before?”
“I’ve got Kunimi and Futaba, then recently added Koga to the list.”
Mai made a disinterested noise of understanding.
“What? That’s it?” Sakuta asked.
“Well a man going out with me wouldn’t cheat.” She said, completely at ease with herself, fitting for her queenliness. Then again, it was the truth, so all he could do was nod honestly.
“Back to the point,” she continued, “it’s easy to pretend to be me at school. Go there, take my seat, sit quietly through the lessons, then just go home when they’re finished. You don’t need to talk to anyone.”
“…R-right,” Nodoka nodded in disbelief, apparently having had a much different image of Mai. Perhaps that being in show-business as they both were, she would be popular within the class…
“Um… it’s the same for me,” she admitted.
“I had my debut last year, so I didn’t have any time to hang out with my friends at school… At first, they filled me in on what I missed, but it wasn’t fun spending all our time on that every day… then in my second year, we changed classes and I dyed my hair over the spring holidays and got cut off completely… so it’s fine.”
“You started at Ouyou Academy for high school, right?” Mai asked.
Even Sakuta had heard the school’s name before, it was a famous school in Yokohama for girls from well-off families. He seemed to remember it being an integrated system from middle school to high school. If she had taken the entrance exam and started attending in high school, she’d probably be fairly academically talented. Being in a school like that with blonde hair certainly would see you singled out and cut off too.
“But still, I dunno how to say it,” Sakuta started unintentionally, really not knowing how to put his thoughts.
“What?” Mai demanded.
“It’s just too pitiful, both sisters don’t have any friends.”
“Just so you know, I might not have any at school, but I do through work,” Mai said as if excusing herself, making Nodoka nod too.
“What exactly do you think of me?”
“Who are they by the way? Do I know of them? I won’t be happy if they’re handsome actors though.”
“The ones I get on the best with are probably the gravure model Yamae Yurina and the general model Kamiita Millia.”
Perhaps as should be expected, the names that Mai chose were ones that Sakuta knew. Yamae Yurina was adorning some magazine cover nearly every week, and Kamiita Millia was a half-Japanese model that was often on variety shows recently.
“We text nearly every day,” she continued, “We had lunch together when we had a break the other week and they’ve stayed here before. Does them not being handsome actors put you at ease?”
“Don’t make any male friends from now on please,” he said, moving his gaze to Nodoka as he did. She seemed strangely sensitive to the gaze and glared at him with a face that seemed that she wanted to say things herself.
“I have lots of friends from middle school, we hang out a lot and I went to stay at their house the other day,” she defended, once more similarly to her sister, “I get on well with the other members, got a problem with that?”
“I don’t have a problem with it. Well, not having anyone at school is convenient now at least, so I guess that’s fine.” Sakuta summarised, earning a prod on his forehead from Mai, “What’s that for?”
“You were being cheeky so I had to discipline you.”
“That’s fine then.”
“Ya fine with it…?” Nodoka frowned slightly, like she was looking at filth.
“So school is fine… the problem is work then.”
The issue at hand was the schedules for the actress, Sakurajima Mai, and the idol, Toyohama Nodoka.
“This is all I have,” said Mai, spreading out the notebook on the table, showing mostly empty pages. Compared to her packed August, it seemed almost impossible, there was only a fashion shoot, and a few interviews, coupled with a recording for an advert. “I limited things in the second term since somebody was getting lonely.”
“Even if I can see you, we’re not allowed to date so it’s pointless.”
Mai ignored Sakuta’s complaint and moved the conversation on, “I think you’ve had photoshoots before, so you should be fine, right?”
Sakuta had wanted to flirt a little more, but Mai wasn’t having it and focused on Nodoka.
“Yes, probably…” she replied, somewhat nervously.
“The interview questions should be sent to you beforehand, so if you prepare you should be fine.”
“But, the advert…”
“This is the script and storyboard.”
Mai placed a sheaf of six or seven sheets of paper on the table, held together by a clip. Nodoka didn’t move to take them so Sakuta flipped through them out of curiosity.
“Oh,” he said in surprise, recognising where it would be filmed. It was a station on the Enoden line, which Sakuta used to get to school, the station before Sakuta got off at Shichirigahama… the one by Kamakura High School.
“The director follows the script, so you should be fine if you get ready for it. You were part of a theatre group before you became an idol after all.”
Nodoka gave a shallow nod, seeming to curl in on herself. Her expression was gloomy and almost tragic, her eyes saying that even if she had acted, telling her to take the place of Sakurajima Mai was too much.
Sakuta had noticed it, so he was sure that Mai must have too, but she didn’t pay it any mind and moved on.
“It looks like it’ll be tough for me until I learn the songs and dances.”
Toyohama Nodoka’s schedule certainly did seem gruelling. There were practically daily song and dance lessons as a member of the ‘Sweet Bullet’ idol group. Every weekend they had mini-concerts at shopping centres and exhibition centres. Each one had two or three songs, but even so, that meant that Mai had to learn at least three songs and dances each week.
On top of that, on the final Sunday of the month, they had an independent concert at a live house in Shibuya.
“Wait, you can dance, Mai-san?” Sakuta asked.
“Nodoka, do you have any practice videos?”
“I do,” she said, rummaging in her bag at the corner of the room. It was a big sports bag that also looked to have several changes of clothes in. From within she withdrew a transparent case containing three discs, “These are the ones.”
She proffered them formally, in both hands.
“Thank you,” said Mai, rising as she took them, putting a disk into the player. Sakuta used the remove to turn the TV on, garnering a look of praise from Mai as he switched inputs.
Voices came from the speakers:
“Is it working?”
“Let’s give it a go.”
After a moment, the pitch black screen brightened to show some studio with a wooden floor like a gymnasium. The one wall was covered in a mirror.
The group, including Nodoka, were lined up in front of the camera and all took a deep breath.
An upbeat tune began to play and the seven of them coordinated between them and danced along to the rhythm.
Watching them, Mai took light steps, waved her hands and bounced around. She was a beat behind as she was checking herself against the example, but she danced through the entire song skillfully enough that she utterly eradicated Sakuta’s concerns.
There was a light sheen of sweat on her forehead, and her chest was heaving as she caught her breath, but she still looked back at him triumphantly.
“The real thing was livelier,” he said.
“You were surprised at it though.”
“No kidding, I’m in shock.”
That really was true, Mai was normally grown-up and calm. Even if it seemed like she would be late for her train, she wouldn’t rush and run after it, he’d never seen anything like that. So he had never even considered her dancing to an upbeat idol song like that.
“We learnt how when I was in the theatre group,” Mai smiled, happier than she was letting on.
“So it wasn’t just acting.”
“We did dance too, and sung while I was there. We even did a musical.”
“Ahh, I see.”
Mai wiped the sweat from her forehead and drained her cup of barley tea before suddenly telling Sakuta, “Ah, you can go home now.”
It really was too sudden and he wasn’t ready for it at all. He’d finally gotten to visit Mai’s home and wanted to take in the atmosphere for as long as he could, even a single extra second, to see the other rooms.
“I’m sweaty and want a bath,” Mai told him.
“Maaan, I want to see you just out of the bath.”
“This is Nodoka’s body, so no.”
“If it’s you inside, I’m completely fine with that body too.”
“And I’m saying that it’s not fine, so just go home already, Kaede-chan’s waiting for you isn’t she?”
Looking at the clock, he saw it was nearly noon, time for lunch. Just as Mai said, his younger sister Kaede would be waiting for him with an empty stomach. Sakuta gave up on seeing Mai just out of the bath and stood from the sofa.
“Wait downstairs tomorrow at ten past seven.”
“Yeah, I should take Toyohama-san to school,” he said, making arrangements for the next day as he moved to the entrance, “excuse me then.”
As he finished, he put his shoes on and stepped outside before heading towards the lift.
“Sakuta,” Mai called, stepping out wearing sandals and closing the door behind her.
“Here for a goodbye kiss?”
“Just, what if, Sakuta…”
Mai looked away uneasily.
“Even if you never change back, I’ll bear with you in that body for the rest of my life.”
“Don’t call catching an active idol ‘bearing with’,” Mai laughed tiredly, the unease in her eyes completely gone as she looked at Sakuta. “Just so you know, I won’t let you lay a finger on Nodoka’s body.”
“You’ll bear with it for your life, right?” Mai smiled mischievously, the same relaxed smile she always had when teasing Sakuta.
“That’s a different way of ‘bearing with’,” he protested.
“Don’t sweat the little things.”
“No, that’s a big thing.”
“Look after Nodoka tomorrow,” she said, returning to seriousness. Sakuta had only one answer to that request.
“When you’re back in your body, give me a reward please,” he said as they walked to the lift. After that reply, they boarded the empty lift when it arrived several moments later.
“When I’m back,” she replied meaningfully. Her words were slow and emphasised, almost like she didn’t think they would go back to normal quickly.
Even so, she watched Sakuta leave, a gentle smile on her face. The lift doors closed and it carried Sakuta down to street level.
“If Mai is the one in the body, could I date an idol?” He asked himself in the lift.
As the lift arrived at its destination, he answered himself, “…I could.”
In reality, Mai had changed to look like Nodoka, and he couldn’t help but worry about it, but worrying wouldn’t solve anything. If he was going to worry regardless, he should worry about something with more meaning, like what he should do for lunch today.
The lift chimed as it let him out.
“I guess Chinese style rice today?” He said, remembering the large amount of leftovers in the fridge.
The next morning, Sakuta was woken by his pet cat, Nasuno, treading on his face, apparently she was hungry.
Kaede, seeing waking Sakuta up to be her raison d’être, seemed shocked at Nasuno stealing a march on her and pouted as she mumbled something about wanting to become a cat; but when she was able to make the scrambled eggs that Mai had taught her the recipe for, regained her cheer with a, “I’m in a good mood this morning!”
Watched by her as he left, Sakuta headed out slightly earlier than usual to keep his promise with Mai.
After riding the lift down, Sakuta heard a soft exclamation of both surprise and nervousness.
“Good morning,” greeted the slight girl with a polite bob of the head to Sakuta. She was about 150 centimetres tall, standing a little ways away was Makinohara Shouko, wearing her middle school uniform, that still seemed new.
“Morning,” returned Sakuta, earning a happy smile from her as she pattered over like a puppy.
“Don’t run so much,” he told her, momentarily worried because he knew of her heart condition.
“I’m okay,” she said, straightening pridefully as she looked up at Sakuta, “I was discharged, so I’m doing well.”
“Thank you for worrying about me though,” she added with a smile.
She had a healthy colour in her cheeks, so she really did seem to be doing well.
“Did something nice happen?” Sakuta asked.
“Why do you ask?” She answered in turn, tilting her head in puzzlement at his sudden question.
“I… I am?”
Perhaps embarrassed at it being noticed, she rubbed at her cheeks and dodged answering.
“Is Hayate doing good?” Sakuta asked.
“He is, he enjoyed his food this morning.”
The white cat was probably happy to be being cared for by Shouko even if his environment had changed and would be growing quickly.
“Oh yeah, I guess you always come this way.”
Shouko didn’t seem to understand his meaning and blinked blankly.
“You’re going to school, right? That’s why I figured.”
“Ah, yes, no,” she said quickly, immediately following the affirmation with a denial.
“Huh, you’re not going to school?”
He didn’t think that was the case seeing as she was wearing her uniform, but…
“Ah, the ‘yes’ was about school, the ‘no’ was about always coming this way.”
He had thought that the direction Shouko had told him her house was in would make this a long detour on the way to the station.
“How come you are today then?”
“I thought I might be able to see you.”
“Yes, and I did see you,” she said, smiling again.
About three seconds of them smiling at each other passed, Shouko’s face growing redder each second that passed, her neck and ears flushing red.
“U-umm, I’ll be late, so I’m heading off!” She suddenly panicked, hiding her face between her hands and running off.
“Take your time!” Sakuta shouted after her, making her turn back and wave. He answered in kind and watched her leave.
“Morning,” came a familiar voice from behind him where Mai and Nodoka were standing.
“Morning, Mai-san,” he said to the blonde girl. He had maintained the faint hope that they would go back to normal by the morning, but that didn’t seem to have happened, “how long were you watching by the way?”
“Since Shouko-chan went red when you looked at her,” she answered emotionlessly. It was that kind of reaction… where you weren’t sure if she really didn’t care, or if she was actually angry.
Asking to make sure would just be digging his own grave, so he changed the topic. Conveniently, Mai right now had plenty of things he could point out. With Toyohama Nodoka’s appearance, Mai was wearing a school uniform, Nodoka’s uniform. It was a plain and simple sailor uniform. The skirt reached her knees and immediately gave off the impression of a rich young lady. Her hair, up at the side of her head, coupled with makeup that made her eyes stand out was absolutely incompatible with the image the uniform gave her, giving a permanent sense of imbalance.
“What are you smirking about?” She asked with narrowed eyes.
“I just thought you looked nice and eccentric.”
Regardless of his praise, Mai just wordlessly trod on his foot.
“Wait, she had her uniform?”
That was rather well prepared for running away from home. Maybe it wasn’t the first time she’d done so. Unconsciously, his gaze moved to Nodoka.
With Mai’s appearance, she was wearing the familiar summer uniform of Minegahara High School. Despite the lingering summer heat, she was wearing black tights, albeit thin. Mai had once told him that they were to prevent sunburn. Actresses had it tough.
Nodoka didn’t seem to be used to wearing tights in the summer and was constantly adjusting them around her crotch. It was somewhat erotic, and he couldn’t tear his gaze away.
However, he was immediately subject to a sharp “Sakuta,” and a tight pinch on his cheek.
“Whatever is it, Mai-san?”
“You were thinking something perverted, weren’t you?”
“It was about your body, so it’s fine, right?”
“That’s Nodoka now, so no.”
“Then I can think perverted things about you?” He asked the blonde, clad in a posh school’s uniform.
“Of course not.”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” He demanded.
“Don’t ask that with such a serious face, just bear with it.”
“I can’t do that.”
“If you don’t want to, work hard to make sure we go back to our own bodies.”
“So long as it’s you inside, I don’t really mind you looking like this,” he said.
“Nodoka and I do though.”
As they talked, they headed off to Fujisawa Station.
The station was right in the middle of a town with forty-two-thousand people, and was right in the middle of the morning rush of commuters.
This was where Mai would part from them on her way to Yokohama. She would be using the Tokaido line; Sakuta and Nodoka would be using the Enoden to get to Shichirigahama.
“Ah, Sakuta,” called Mai as they parted at the JR ticket gate.
“What is it?” Sakuta asked, stopping in his tracks to the corridor between the Enoden and normal networks, leaving Nodoka there and heading back to Mai.
“I have a request,” she said, looking up at him. In comparison to Mai, Nodoka was much smaller, so the same action felt completely different. Mai was 165 centimetres tall so could only really ‘give upturned eyes’, but Nodoka wasn’t even 160 centimetres tall so it was literally ‘looking up’ at him.
“I’d have rather you said that with your own looks.”
“It’s because your charm makes me an idiot.”
“It’s about Nodoka,” she said seriously, instantly stopping Sakuta’s playfulness, “I can more or less guess… but I want you to ask her what happened.”
“She ran away, so it’s probably something with her parents.”
“That’s true, but…” she said with a troubled expression before stopping and looking slightly away before continuing quietly, “I might be the cause of it.”
“Because it’s tough to have a nationally famous elder sister?”
And not just an elder sister, from another mother as well.
“Wouldn’t that just be self-consciousness?”
“Well, having you as a sister would be tough in several ways, you’re the worst person to be compared to.”
And in Nodoka’s case, they were both in the entertainment business, so that would be even more evident.
“Be a little more considerate,” Mai said with a pout.
Sakuta pretended not to notice, denying it would be simple, but Mai herself wouldn’t think so, so just paying it lip-service would be meaningless. A problem shared was a problem halved after all.
“Well, her mother’s… womanly pride, probably weighs heavily on her.”
“I told you before, didn’t I? My mother pushed me into showbiz to spite my father when he started seeing another woman.”
After her magnificent debut into television, ‘Sakurajima Mai’ had continued to be active within the sphere, and now boasted a nationwide level of recognition. Showing this had been both Mai’s mother’s ‘spite’ to her ex-husband, and her ‘pride’. Showing yourself happily going about your life to make someone else feel worse certainly wasn’t incomprehensible, and was a type of revenge that could become a driving force.
However, it was probably unbearable for the children to have their parents’ circumstances pushed onto them like that, particularly when they were young and wouldn’t be able to understand the reasoning behind it.
Sakuta glanced to the side, where Nodoka was waiting.
“I said about her having been in a theatre group yesterday, didn’t I?” Asked Mai.
“You did,” he answered.
“It was a different group to the one I was in… but when we were small, we met at an audition for a role.”
That kind of situation would make things all the worse. Neither of their mothers would be able to be calm about it, and the audition would become a front for the mothers to argue through, a proxy-war with Mai and Nodoka as the pawns, if you would.
And, the results of that war were as night and day. Mai was known throughout the country, and Nodoka had given up on theatre and become part of a new group of idols that just moved between small venues.
Those humiliating days would have probably warped the relationship between Nodoka and her mother, and that might be why she had run away from home.
“Well, it’s something you’ve asked me to do, I can’t not listen.”
“Thanks, by then,” said Mai with a small wave, disappearing past the ticket gate.
Sakuta himself returned to a waiting Nodoka.
“Sorry to keep you,” he said as they walked along the corridor. The huge department store was in front of them, and the ticket gate to the Fujisawa Enoden station was next to it.
“What were you talking about?” Nodoka asked as they went through the barrier.
“Hm?” Was Sakuta’s reply as they walked onto the platform.
“Curious?” He asked, dodging the question, not thinking now was the right time to bring up the truth of the matter.
“Lame,” she replied absently, before looking away and offering no further questions.
The two of them stood right at the back edges of the platform, and it was actually Sakuta that asked the next question.
“Oh yeah, is it alright to just have Mai-san head off like that?”
“Ain’t the idol Toyohama Nodoka just riding the train like that going to cause a stir?”
“Are you mocking me?”
“I’m just concerned.”
Nodoka fell silent for a moment, looking intently at him as if to divine his true intentions. Mai herself wouldn’t have shown such blatant doubt, and it highlighted all the more that the person inside was someone else.
“It’ll be fine,” she answered with a sigh, “no one knows about me.”
As she spoke, Nodoka’s gaze moved away, the subtext of ‘not like my sister,’ clear within her words. Maybe it was to distract from that that she continued, “Anyway, I should be the one worrying, can I really just wait for the train like this?”
“When you get too famous, it gets that people won’t approach.”
Though that said, there was a great deal of attention on her. Particularly since she had announced that she was leaving hiatus he had heard people saying things like “H-hey, look!”, “Woah, is that really her!?”, “Go talk to her.”, “No, you go talk to her.”
Those reactions were far better though, and Mai never showed any sign they bothered her. Though she didn’t mention it, what did bother her was the photo-taking. She would reply happily to the people that asked to take a photo with her, but people taking candid shots from afar were a vast majority and they seemed to bother her more.
Even now, a suited man with a phone in his hand was glancing at Mai’s body and as the train arrived, the lens pointed their way.
“Mai-san, here,” said Sakuta, placing a hand on her shoulder and switching their positions, standing between them so the man couldn’t take a photo. A brief second later a shutter noise played, alerting Nodoka and making her glance past Sakuta towards the man, who was now pretending to film the retro carriages of the train.
Nodoka seemed like she wanted to say something.
“This much isn’t going to make me accept you,” she settled with, not being able to pretend she hadn’t noticed.
“It’s not like I need to be accepted by you,” replied Sakuta as he boarded the train through the foremost door. He guided her to next of the inner door, the carriage wasn’t full but the one to many empty seats on a morning train. Sakuta stood in front of Nodoka and held the strap.
Finally, the bell sounded and the doors closed. As the train moved off, the view from windows changed, large station building was enough soon out of sight and a quiet residential neighbourhood replaced it.
Nodoka was gazing fixedly out of the window, her expression listless. She didn’t seem to be paying attention to the other passengers and ignored the interested gazes on her.
As long as she looked like this was the real Sakurajima Mai. It was unthinkable that someone else was behind her face. Nodoka had completely internalised how to act as Mai.
With repeated stops and starts, the train approached Shichirigahama station by station.
“The next stop is Enoshima, Enoshima,” Came the familiar announcement voice, a calm, somewhat nostalgic female’s voice.
“It’s like a bus.”
“Hm?” Asked Sakuta.
“Just now,” she said, making him realise that was indeed the case.
As they left Enoshima Station, the train moved to narrower rails. After some time, it reached the next station, Koshigoe, the train was almost weaving between houses.
“It is okay for trains to go through here?” Asked Nodoka. Outside the windows and entrance to someone’s house. Did the owner enter and leave his house with a train right in front of them? This was the second year that Sakuta used this railway, but he still hadn’t solved that mystery.
While she sometimes showed interest in things in front of her, she soon hid those feelings and schooled her expression back to Mai’s usual expression.
“I guess you can do this is your like that,” Sakuta said, honestly impressed at seeing her behave like Mai. Even the way she lifted her hair was like Mai did.
“I acted like her a lot when I was a kid,” she said, even her tone like Mai’s, “I was proud of her and… looked up to her.”
There was probably a reason that was in the past tense, and he wondered why she muttered it as if she was bored. The question as to when that was passed through Sakuta’s head, but Nodoka gave a small exclamation before he could ask. The train had passed between a pair of houses and was now right on the coast. The horizon between the sea and sky drew out a line through the window. The sky shifted from white to blue and the even deeper blue of the sea shone in the sunlight, the perfectly straight line of the horizon, showing the limits of the view.
This was the only time she showed a different expression than Mai would have. The smile that made its way onto her face was considerably more childish. As she gazed at the sea, the train arrived at the station serving their school.
They alighted from the train at a small station without a proper ticket all barrier. The station seemed to come out of nowhere, and after descending a small set of stairs, you had already left the station. Even seeing the place for the first time, Nodoka kept a prim expression on her face as she walked next to Sakuta. However, the slight movements of her eyebrows were probably because the salty air was new to her.
It didn’t take five minutes to reach the school from the station, and after all going over a single railway crossing, the school entrance was right in front of them.
“Hey, everyone’s staring at me,” said Nodoka quietly as they passed through the entrance.
“Well yeah, Mai-san’s famous.”
“That’s definitely not it. Do I look weird?” She asked as she looked nervously down at herself.
“You look like Mai-san at a glance, don’t worry.”
“Then what is it?”
“Well, it’s probably that,” said Sakuta, only having one idea, a similar thing happened yesterday as the term started.
“What you mean, that?” She said with uncomprehending expression. It was the first time she had been in this atmosphere, so that was understandable.
“The people here know that Mai-san and I are dating.”
“Well, we were on holiday until yesterday.”
“They’re probably deeply interested in whether we’ve taken a step along the path to adulthood.”
Nodoka didn’t react immediately. After a little thought, it seemed like she had realised and she spoke in a strained voice, “S-So… You mean that?”
“That?” Asked Sakuta, feigning ignorance out of amusement.
“Y-you know… I mean that…” She continued, getting quieter out of embarrassment at the topic. He could barely hear the last word and her even ears were bright red.
“I don’t know, what?”
“You know… S-” just as she was about to say it, Nodoka went absolutely crimson.
“S-s… Like I could say that!”
She punched him angrily on the shoulder, it hurt a fair bit, even though it was obvious he was playing around, Nodoka couldn’t even say ‘sex’ out of embarrassment.
“Watch what and how you say it,” Sakuta told her in a quiet voice, the people around looking at them because of the sudden shout.
Seeming to realise, Nodoka quietly lowered her fist. Her eyes were still unhappy with Sakuta though, and even somewhat shy. She was probably wondering if he and Mai had. Yes, that was probably it.
“I said we had a pure relationship yesterday, remember?” He asked.
“Th-then, how far have you gone??”
“Haven’t you asked?”
Of course, he meant, haven’t you asked Mai, but he didn’t say that because it would seem strange.
“She said to ask you.”
“Don’t be smug about it, I need to know how to act with you.”
“Well, just act like we’ve been dating for two months.”
“Two months… Two months… So, holding hands?”
“Are you in middle school?”
“Ah, you idiot.”
The second yell made the students walking near them look at them quizzically.
“Uwahh, I’m sorry Mai-san, don’t be so angry,” he deflected their attention.
“A-as long as you understand.” Nodoka glossed over it, feigning calm. Until the attention abated, they will walk in silence for a while.
“S-so… a k-k-k-”
“Are you trying to crow like a rooster? Good job.”
“I was saying kiss, you idiot!”
Sakuta was silent.
“H-have you then?”
“We haven’t, we haven’t,” he lied calmly to avoid the commotion that admitting it would cause. Despite her original appearance, Nodoka herself was fairly innocent compared to others of her age.
“How far then?”
“W-who’s the middle schooler?”
As they discussed the specifics, they arrived in the entrance hall. Pretending to spoil her, Sakuta guided her to Mai’s shoe lockers. Once they had both changed their footwear, they headed up the stairs to the classrooms.
Sakuta’s classroom was on the second floor, and third years were on the third floor, so the two parted on the second floor.
“You’re in class 3-1,” reminded Sakuta.
“I know. And I sit in the second seat from the back, neck window,” she answered, apparently having had pounded into her yesterday. “Then, all I need to do is sit in my seat and stay quiet through classes.”
“If you need the toilet, don’t just sit there, actually go.”
“Do you think I’m an idiot?”
“I think you’re someone that jokes don’t end up connecting with.”
Nodoka just glared unhappily at him, a face saying she was well aware of that. Maybe someone had told her that before.
“If anything happens I’m in class 2-1.”
“Got it, later.”
The surrounding students in mind, Nodoka quickly masked herself with Mai’s expression. She gave a small smile and waved at Sakuta, that reaction itself was very much like Mai.
“Azusagawa, you’re in the way,” came an unhappy voice as he watched her leave, a girl wearing a white coat spoke to him she climbed the stairs. This was one of Sakuta’s few friends… Futaba Rio.
Her long hair was gathered up behind her, and her eyes looked dispassionately at Sakuta from behind the lenses of her glasses.
“Futaba, good timing, I have something I wanted to ask you.”
At his reply, Rio became more displeased, proof she had some idea what he wanted to talk about.
“Azusagawa: why don’t you go for an exorcism?” She asked.
“The amount of bothersome situations you get involved in, you don’t seem to realise you’re bad luck.”
“Thinking I was bad luck would just be me thinking too much of myself. I’m sure things like this happen to everyone.”
“If you want to think that…”
Rio’s eyes, despite having stopped mid-sentence, told him that he’d better not drag her into that misfortune.
“Forgoing and exact analysis of what exactly is happening, at least as far as this case is concerned, the solution is clear isn’t it?”
This was the first thing Rio said when Sakuta came to the physics lab at lunchtime.
Sakuta was sat opposite her across a table, his cheek stuffed with a yakisoba bread he had bought from the bakery woman that came of a lunch. There was a beaker atop a Bunsen burner between them, the water within it bubbling away. As it reached a boil, Rio poured the water onto thin starch noodles within a cup.
“On a diet?” Asked Sakuta unconcernedly, whereupon Rio glared at him for some reason.
“It’s because a certain somebody who wears insensitivity like an outfit said I was heavy.”
“And who would that be?”
“You, when you had me on the back of the bike.”
“… I see.”
He remembered it now that she mentioned it, it had happened during the summer holidays when he called Yuuma late at night and went to the beach for fireworks, Sakuta certainly had had Rio on the back of the bike.
“It would be a disgrace to live with you thinking, ‘she’s fat’,” she said, apparently she held a significant grudge. He should change the topic quickly.
“So, what you mean by the solution is clear?” He asked.
“You really got a good personality, Azusagawa.”
“Why thank you.”
“Going by past trends, the approximate cause of Adolescence Syndrome can be defined.”
“Hmm,” noised Sakuta.
“I feel that it is when people have an unstable mentality that bizarre phenomena are brought about,” Rio began.
“I agree with that,” Sakuta said.
He felt it was certainly easy to apply to the past cases… Particularly Rio’s and Tomoe’s.
“In which case, you just need to remove the cause of their instability.”
“Well, that follows.”
“I can imagine the rough cause, so I’m sure you’ve already noticed, right?” As she spoke, Rio showed her phone screen to Sakuta. Displayed on it was a compilation of all the activities of the idol group ‘Sweet Bullet’.
Their debut was roughly a year prior, and they were formed from seven members chosen in an audition to discover new talent. Since then, even though they had released five singles they hadn’t sold well. Only one had even reached the top twenty in the charts on the week it was sold. Their concerts were mostly collaborations with idols from the same office, With many at hole-in-the-wall live houses. Their biggest audience was around 300 people.
They had few TV appearances too, and those that they did have mostly on local stations.
Within her group, Nodoka was about third or fourth in popularity, right in the middle of the seven people, and her nickname was ‘Doka-chan’.
Modern age sure was convenient, with being able to instantaneously find so much out using a single smartphone.
“By the way, this is for Sakurajima-senpai,” Rio said, turning the phone back around and fiddling with it for a moment before showing it to him again. The record stretched out, topped with her splendid morning drama debut, and running to the present day. Many hit movies and titles of TV shows were neatly joined by frequent prizes she had won, it was tough just to look over them all.
Just as Rio had said, the reason was fairly clear.
Put simply, she had a complex centred on her successful sister. No, perhaps that would be better put as her too successful sister.
“But how d’you fix something like that?”
“She just needs to become a nationally recognised idol,” Rio said with an intent look.
“I was asking seriously,” protested Sakuta.
“And I was answering seriously,” said Rio as she slurped her noodles from a plastic fork after removing the lid. He was hoping she would say something else, but Rio didn’t even smile until she had finished. So this was the treatment you could expect if you said a girl was ‘heavy’, Sakuta thought to himself, resolving to be more careful in future.
Throughout his afternoon classes, Sakuta considered how to best heed Rio’s welcome advice and raise Nodoka to being a top idol. However, not being a skilled producer, Sakuta couldn’t really think of anything. Realising it was fruitless, he resigned himself to listening to the lessons and the afternoon passed as usual. Considering it properly, it wasn’t too late to ask her herself. Until now neither Mai nor Sakuta had heard from Nodoka herself why she had run away from home.
After school, Sakuta headed to the third year classrooms to meet Nodoka, came across her on the landing.
“Ah, it must be fate,” Sakuta said.
“What’s fate about this?” Nodoka returned in disgust, her Mai-ishness having increased since that morning, perhaps because of the influence of acting as Mai for the whole day. In that case, considering there was no one close to her within the school, none of the students should feel that Mai was out of place. “Come on, we’re going home.”
At Nodoka’s urging, they descended the stairs side-by-side from the third landing to the second. Then, as they were heading from the second to the first, Nodoka murmured, “I didn’t really believe it.”
“That she really didn’t have any friends at school.”
“I wasn’t there myself, but apparently it’s because Mai-san had work for the entire first term and didn’t come to school at all.”
She had completely missed the chance to integrate with the school… part of a group in class, part of the school’s atmosphere. Mai had been in the world of show business she was a child, and according to her she had not been able to integrate into elementary school or middle school either, so overcoming that late start was an impossible feat for her. Because until now she had not known a ‘normal’ friendship…
“That’s sort of too ordinary.”
“It’s the cause, of course it is.”
“… Well, guess so,” Nodoka replied after a few seconds, an odd certainty contained within her words, perhaps caused by memories of not being to form friendships of her own at high school either.
As they left through the gate, the alarm on the railway crossing in front of them was sounding.
“Railway crossings, that takes me back,” Nodoka murmured aimlessly to herself.
“Are you boasting about being a city girl?”
Recently there have been a lot of work converting trains to run overhead and the number of routes without crossings was increasing.
“That’s nothing to be proud of.”
As they talked, the train leaving Shichirigahama Station trundled past them, slow enough they could make out the individual faces of the passengers. They even spotted some Minegahara High School students that had left early.
The klaxon petered out as they watched the train leave from behind, the area suddenly fell silent as the barriers slowly rose. The students waylaid by the crossing set off in groups, Sakuta and Nodoka crossing the railway as one of these.
The gentle slope stretched out before them, joining Route 134 as it passed the hill, beyond that there was nothing but the sea, sparkling in the setting sun.
The brisk wind carried the scent of an ending summer.
“The sea…” Said Nodoka she came to a stop while the other students took a right into the station.
Sakuta saw that, and having turned towards the station, reoriented himself towards the sea.
“Want to drop in?” Sakuta asked and without waiting for a reply headed towards Shichirigahama beach. A moment later he heard Nodoka’s footsteps from behind him as well.
After crossing Route 134, the crossing having taken its time to go green, Nodoka quickly descended the stairs and stood upon the beach.
“It really is the sea,” said Nodoka.
“You can see the sea in Yokohama,” Sakuta pointed out.
“It’s better with a sandy beach,” Nodoka returned.
Nodoka seemed to be enjoying even not being able to keep her footing.
It was a weekday so barely anyone was on the beach. The only people visible were families that had brought small children, university students that were still on holiday despite it now being September, and windsurfers that were sporadically visible on the surface of the water.
It even seemed somewhat melancholic compared to the height of summer.
“Can I go in too?” Asked Nodoka, her eyes fixed on the children playing at the water’s edge.
“Well yeah, you don’t need permission-” Answered Sakuta, but before he had finished speaking Nodoka spoke over him.
“I’m going in then, I’m melting to death.”
“And what are you going to do about them?” Sakuta asked pointing at black tights she was wearing.
“Huh? I’m going to take them off, obviously.”
As she spoke, Nodoka’s hands disappeared up the sides of her skirt, and after seeming to squirm for a few seconds, the tights dropped smoothly to her knees. She pulled the bottom half off each leg while supporting the rest of herself with a hand in the breakwater, making a turning motion and lifting each leg separately behind her.
It was a skilled motion, an excellent technique that made it seem like you would be able to see up her skirt but without allowing it. That in itself was awfully exciting.
“Seeing a girl take off her tights is kinda erotic,” Sakuta said as he watched.
“D-don’t look, idiot.”
“I’m your boyfriend, after all, let it pass.”
“Whether or not, there are still things you shouldn’t do!”
Having removed both legs from her tights, she scrunched them up and put them in her bag before leaving Sakuta behind and rushing to the water’s edge.
“Ahh~ it feels so good, the sea’s the best!” Nodoka exclaimed as she frolicked in the breaking waves.
“The… sea… certainly is the best.”
There were Mai’s bare legs, the dazzling bare legs that he rarely got to see. This was probably the first time he got to pay them their due respect in her school uniform.
“W-what, why’re you just looking at my legs?”
“Don’t look perversely at Onee-chan’s body!”
“I wanna be between them.”
Nodoka just recoiled in disgust, there appeared to be some mistake.
“Just so you know, I mean my face,” Sakuta clarified.
“Like meaning your face makes it better, you weirdo. Seriously, drop dead.”
“That’s when Mai-san would say, ‘putting a younger boy’s face between them would be nothing’.”
“…Onee-chan, what do you see in him?”
Sakuta just looked at her.
“What’s with those dead eyes, got a problem?” She demanded.
“Not a problem, a question.”
“Why’d you never call Mai-san ‘Onee-chan’ to her face?” For some reason, she always corrected herself to ‘Mai-san’. Nodoka didn’t reply. “You start being semi-polite too, way too different from how you treat me.”
“Of course I do,” she said, averting her gaze as if to hide her emotions, staring fixedly at the waves lapping around her feet, “she’s a veteran in show business.”
“Is that it?”
“Then why did you run away to her house?”
“Normally, when you run away from home to get your composure back, you wouldn’t rely on someone you couldn’t even call ‘Onee-chan’, would you?”
Nodoka remained silent.
“I’d go to someone I was more comfortable with.”
Nodoka herself was the one that had said she had many friends from middle school in her neighbourhood, she could have stayed with one of them.
“You and I are different.”
“Was it because you had something to say to Mai-san?”
Nodoka let out a small noise of shock and her shoulders began to tremble. She might look like Mai, but unlike her Nodoka seemed to have a poor poker face, splendidly going along with Sakuta’s guidance.
“Maybe something like, ‘I hate you’.”
“No!” Nodoka denied, speaking over Sakuta’s words, before repeating herself in a mumble, “no…”
But those words sounded like nothing other than the opposite. A strong denial became affirmation, or at least that was the only Sakuta could see it.
“That’s fine, ain’t it?” Sakuta replied, his voice, complete odds with Nodoka’s passion. She glared at him, trying to divine his intentions. “You’ve already run away from home, so you’re obviously arguing with your parents anyway.”
She nodded wordlessly.
“And if the reason for that is Mai-san, then yeah, of course you’d hate her.”
Apparently was right on the money, as Nodoka’s eyes went wide and she gave an inarticulate cry.
“What… what’s with you!?”
“So apparently girls really do blame the other woman when their boyfriend cheats.”
Though in Mai’s case, she would doubtlessly thoroughly torment Sakuta…
“I didn’t say anything!” Nodoka insisted.
“You didn’t need to for me to get that much. Mai-san’s got a decent idea too.”
“That’s a lie…”
“True, that’s what she stopped me for this morning.”
“…I-it’s got nothing to do with you!”
“Then give my Mai-san her body back.”
Nodoka’s gaze didn’t falter as she glared, probably displeased with Sakuta’s attitude. But that went for him too, so she’d just have to deal with that.
“Are you the reason?” Asked Nodoka after a short silence.
“The reason that Onee-chan came back to show business,” Nodoka clarified with a serious look.
“I’m not,” he answered.
If Mai had been asked the same question, she would have undoubtedly answered yes. However, Sakuta didn’t think this was the case and was of the opinion that it was nothing more than a matter of time, all his meddling had done was make it happen sooner. Mai really enjoyed her work on the TV, so she would have returned to it sooner or later.
Nodoka looked doubtfully at him. Ignoring that, Sakuta picked up a stone from the beach and threw it towards the sea.
“I get it, her coming off hiatus sparked the fight with your mother?” Sakuta asked.
Immediately after return, Mai was already going through several scripts. They were all one episode appearances offer special episodes, but there were many important roles. Backspace, Gia played them as you would expect, with her presence keenly felt. She was in multiple adverts too and if you watch the TV for an hour, you’d probably see her at least once.
Following his question, Nodoka didn’t say anything. Honestly, he might say that she brought it on herself.
She put on her shoes again and strode off in displeasure along the beach. Sakuta, with no choice, followed.
“Don’t follow me!” She demanded.
“We got the same route home, let’s not fight, it’ll make it awkward.”
“You’re the one that started it!”
“Ah~ this is a bad atmosphere, huh.”
This time, Nodoka really didn’t say anything back. She really was angry this time it seemed.
In the end, until they returned home, Sakuta and Nodoka didn’t speak. Sakuta did occasionally break the silence Nodoka didn’t give a single word of acknowledgement, nor did she even meet his eyes. As far as the contest of patience went for the thirty minutes it took them to make the journey, Nodoka was the winner.
“Once you’re back, speak to Mai-san properly,” Sakuta said to Nodoka as they parted in front of the buildings they were living in.
Still, Nodoka was silent. She didn’t even look towards him, so he just raised his hand and said, “bye then.”
“Wait,” came unexpected call as he turned to leave.
“…I don’t want to go back,” she said, still looking away from him.
“Can I stay also while?” She asked, finally looking at Sakuta with upturned eyes. “You found out pretty much everything… I can’t stay at Onee-chan’s any more.”
Certainly, having the circumstances she was keeping secret found out by the person she was staying with would make things awkward.
“Don’t worry about me having found out. Anyway, Mai-san already knows.”
“That’s why can’t! And I can’t go anywhere in this body…”
Her logic was sound in some ways, but not in others.
“And how do I explain this to Mai-san?” He asked in turn.
“You didn’t think of anything, huh?”
“… Tell her something clever.”
“And that’d make her angry with me.”
“And if you don’t let me stay it’ll bother me.”
“No way, that’s annoying.”
“It’ll be fiiiine!”
“Oi, you’ll bother the neighbours, don’t shout in front of the buildings,” came a voice from behind them. It was a blonde haired girl returning from the station, Mai.
Nodoka didn’t answer Mai’s question, rather she couldn’t answer, her gaze dropped and only silence followed. At that point, Mai’s gaze shifted to Sakuta. Of course, her eyes were asking him the same question, now how should he answer? Honestly, it wasn’t a matter of interjecting into someone else’s business. Even though Sakuta just happened to be in that position, it will be better to be said by Nodoka, it was a matter that would be better solved by the people involved themselves.
However, expecting Nodoka to break her silence was unlikely to achieve anything, so while it may be a drastic measure, Sakuta would have to make the opportunity himself. No progress would be made from standing head bowed in silence.
Besides, Sakuta had an expectation that Mai might be able to react well to Nodoka’s emotions.
“Because a lot of things between the two of you, Toyohama-san wants to stay at mine,” Sakuta explained.
Nodoka glared at him like he had betrayed her. He was unhappy he had been misunderstood, but Sakuta was always on Mai’s side.
“The reason?” Mai asked the natural question disinterestedly.
Nodoka didn’t answer and kept looking away in silence, there was no progress to be made here.
“Well, you see,” Sakuta began in her place.
“Wait…” Nodoka began falteringly, “…I’ll say it myself.”
Apparently, if Sakuta was going to say it anyway, she would rather speak herself. In that case, there was no need for him to interfere.
“…I’ve,” after a moment, Nodoka began speaking heavily, “I’ve… Always been compared to you.”
She began haltingly.
“Ever since I was small…” she continued, “Even if I went the auditions, you will want that got the role, and every time mother would be angry, she’d say, ‘why can’t you do what Mai-chan can?’…”
Mai didn’t say anything, she simply looked steadily at Nodoka.
“Then you went on hiatus… And I finally debuted with Sweet Bullet. She was a little kinder, she praised me… But then, but then, you came back!? You got a good role in a special! You got loads of ads! And every time I look at a fashion magazine, you’re on the cover! Why are you getting in my way!?”
Mai still remained silent.
“You just jumped right over everything I’d achieved… Everyone is always looking at you, even my mother! Don’t just ignore everything I worked for!”
Mai still said nothing even in the face of Nodoka’s tirade. Her expression didn’t change, and if anything, Nodoka was the one that looked more distressed even though she was the one ranting. Regardless, Nodoka can stop now and kept her eyes on Mai until she finished.
“I hate you…” She let out in a shaking voice. Her earlier passion had cooled and her eyes were now calm, “I loathe you, Onee-chan.”
The tension the air seemed to muffle the sound around them, like a physical thing. The world itself desiccated and lost colour; the first words within that ashen world were from Mai.
“I see, I’m glad,” Mai said in relief.
“Eh?” Nodoka let out, not seeming to understand her meaning. However, Mai’s continuation was a bitter pill to swallow.
“Because I hate you too,” she said frankly, her frankness having an awful chill about it.
Of course, Nodoka had stiffened, when Mai had said she was glad, she had relaxed a little. Her pale face was basically shocked and hurt. Honestly, Sakuta himself was surprised by Mai’s reaction.
“You’re the one that said you hated me first, why are you surprised?”
The statement itself was correct but Nodoka hadn’t been expecting a return attack, so it had gone right through her defences. Her face was utterly pallid, and though she seemed to be trying to say something, the quivering of her lips made it impossible to understand. So with her gaze focused on Nodoka, because she was, Mai continued.
“The child my father had with some other woman after abandoning me is nothing to do with me,” again, her point was correct, they normally shouldn’t have even met. “It’s all because of my father’s insensitivity. In leaving, and us meeting both because of that.”
Nodoka couldn’t even look at her face, she just focused on a point on the asphalt as the knife-like words rained down upon her.
“It’s not that I dislike your behaviour, I’ve just got my reservations about you.”
How should you answer something like that? It was a strange thing to understand and agree with, but conversely, disagreeing with it would make things even more complicated.
Perhaps the correct course of action was to do was Nodoka was, remain looking down and silent. There are many things in life that couldn’t just be divided into black-and-white
A drop of sweat plopped into the previously silent surface of the water as Sakuta relaxed in the bath. He suddenly came back to himself.
He had been in the bath for a long while, evident from how his body was essentially boiled. If he stayed in for any longer he’d end up swooning. It was still thinking things through but he got up in the bathtub, besides, he was just thinking in circles about things he wouldn’t get an answer for even after thinking for hours.
He didn’t think Mai and Nodoka’s feelings towards each other could be summed up so easily with words like ‘hatred’ and ‘loathing’, there was a deeper problem. It was a family matter that was becoming complicated precisely because they were close. It wasn’t something outsider should meddle in.
“If Mai-san and I got married in the future, would it be a family matter?” Sakuta talked himself seriously while drying off. When he was done, he pulled on a pair of shorts and exited the changing room, his top half still bare as he headed straight for the living room.
There was a person in the room, a blonde haired girl sitting in front of the television. She was holding a remote and flicking through the channels, while she looked like Toyohama Nodoka under the surface this was actually Mai. They couldn’t be made to stay together after that big fight, so Sakuta had been asked by Mai to let her stay.
Kaede’s reaction when she had come to greet Sakuta at the entrance was blunt. She had been scared of the blonde girl that he had brought with him, and scurried off to her room.
“O-Onii-chan has awoken to hedonism,” Kaede had said.
“No, haven’t,” he had replied.
“You’ve become a gigolo.”
“And how exactly do you figure that?”
“You brought yet another new woman home.”
“I see, so that’s it,” he had said in understanding. Over the past few months, he had brought Mai home, then followed by Shouko and Rio, and finally Nodoka. Enumerating the names like this, he couldn’t find fault with Kaede’s reasoning.
“B-but, it’s okay!” She had reassured him.
“What are you on about this time?”
“I’ll keep it a secret from Mai-san.”
“Right, thanks, Kaede.”
“You told me that men need adventure before, Onii-chan.”
Sakuta’s justifications had been in vain, and Mai pinched his arse hard from where she was standing behind him, making him let out a strange cry.
Kaede, having caused that much chaos, seemed to already be asleep and wasn’t in the living room. When he looked at the clock it was nearing twelve o’clock, so children should be in bed.
“You took a fair while, were you thinking of me?” Mai asked him teasingly.
“I always thinking of you.”
“So what was it really then?”
“I just got distracted playing submarine.”
She looked at him in a mix of contempt and resignation.
“Oh my, do you know a kind of game that is?” Sakuta asked.
“If you don’t change the topic right now, I get angry.”
She looked serious, so Sakuta zipped his lips. Instead of talking, he took a sports drink from the fridge and drank it. It was one Mai had starred in the advert for. Their eyes met and she smiled happily, but as soon as she did…
“They haven’t faded,” she said, referring to the claw marks carved into Sakuta’s chest. The snaking discolouration was still there, unchanging after two years.
“Will you touch them?” He asked.
“Why?” She returned.
“Because I want you to touch me,” he replied.
“Stop being stupid and go put a top on,” she said, suddenly turning away.
“It’s no big deal, look as much as you like.”
“I can’t let the image of a naked man get seared into Nodoka’s eyes.”
“She’s not a kid either.”
“She is still a child.”
“And just who fought with that child?”
“I…” Mai began, reflexively protesting but fell silent. She uncomfortably avoided committing to her words and pretended to watch the TV. There was a sports news segment being shown, giving the highlights of pro-baseball as the pennant race reached its final stages, but the information probably wasn’t even entering Mai’s mind, she didn’t look like her heart was in it.
“Were you trying to say that’s not what you meant?”
“I meant it,” Mai answered immediately, “that’s what I felt from the bottom of my heart, and what I feel now.”
There was no sign of a lie, neither in her voice nor her face.
“But that’s not everything, is it?”
This time she didn’t answer, but it seemed like she was agreeing with his words.
“There’s many kinds of ‘hate’, after all,” he said, having put on a T-shirt and sat down next to Mai, close enough their shoulders almost touched.
“Don’t be so close,” she said pushing at Sakuta’s shoulder and moving slightly away.
“Am I not allowed to sit next to you?”
“It’s like you’re coming on to me.”
“If you do something like that to Nodoka’s body, I’ll make it so your body can’t play submarine any more.”
Mai’s behaviour in that respect had remained the same. From the beginning, she wouldn’t allow Sakuta to touch Nodoka’s body, and even if she said she hated her, she still addressed her familiarly calling her ‘Nodoka’.
“No, not my only source of entertainment for the bath.”
“Hahh, why you such an idiot, I wonder?”
“All guys do it.”
“I could get it if you were in middle school… Anyway, we can’t talk about this. It’ll stain Nodoka’s mouth.”
“You were the one that brought it up.”
Mai looked unhappily at him. He didn’t really think she was finding fault talk about playing submarine. She had had a fight she didn’t want to and hurt Nodoka, hurt herself. So she was probably telling him to say something different… Something kinder. Probably…
“I think it’d be best to be honest.”
However, those were the words Sakuta chose. While her attitude asked him for kind words, she would surely be in a bad mood if Sakuta gave her empty consolations. Sakuta knew she was strict to herself like that.
“I don’t want to hear your logic.”
“You’re super cute when you’re sulking,” he told her.
“So you’re calling Nodoka cute?”
“Uwahh, what a pain,” he replied without reservation accepting that it would make her angry.
Mai glared wordlessly at him, but her expression soon lost its edge.
“I’m a bit more self-aware now,” she said with a bitter smile, “now then… I’ll borrow your bath.”
She stood fluidly. Sakuta watched a walk towards the dressing room, and just what she entered she turned around and said, “If you peek, I’ll stab you.”
“If you’re going to stab me, please wait until you’re in your own body.”
It was to be the last thing he saw, he’d want the view to be its best.
“Moron,” she said with a half smile, firmly closing the dressing room door.
After a while, he heard the shower come on.
“I hope things are back to normal tomorrow,” Sakuta mumbled hopefully to no one in particular from where he was left in the living room.