Mar 4, 2019

Riku and Chise Chapter 4

Chapter 4 - The Boy She Knew Not Of


The canvas on the stand depicted a serene, slender girl with long hair. Her apprehensive eyes were looking towards Riku.
 
Riku added glasses to her face, emphasizing her introverted, pure look.
 
Last Monday, the morning after the rain, he had a conversation with the girl at the villa. Ever since then, he had been focusing wholeheartedly on drawing her image.
 
Before that day, the more he wanted to do her justice, the harder her introverted, serene smile became to grasp, leaving him extremely anxious.

That morning, Riku went out on his newspaper round with a gloomy look.

And like usual, the girl exited the villa grounds apprehensively.

She did not wear her glasses this time. Her hair was tied into twin tails, and she was wearing boots with a water droplet pattern.

Once she saw Riku, she smiled bashfully.

Seeing her face without the glasses made him a little disappointed. The girl seemed to notice that, her smile froze, and she appeared to be at a loss as to what to do.

Riku hurriedly handed the newspaper over. The girl, looking a little nervous, reached out with her hands as usual, but added with blushing cheeks, “My-my contact lenses fell off, so I had to wear glasses until I got a new pair.”

Seeing her like this hit Riku hard, just like when he saw her wear glasses for the first time.
 
She was clearly not wearing them now.
 
But her whole appearance now was as cute as when she had been wearing the black frames.
 
Her shy look, a little on the immature side, was so pure that Riku’s heart fluttered.
 
It appeared to him now that he was too focused on the balance between the eyes and the face; all his problems ended up amounting to just a question of a minor touch up.

Her appearance was simply that of an ordinary girl’s.

And thus, no matter how Riku tried to capture her likeness, the image on the canvas could be nothing but that of a rather unremarkable, common girl.
 
But if he could somehow add a little natural, inner charm...
 
Surely he would be able to draw her well now, the girl that made his heart flutter!
 
Riku felt enlightened and just muttered, “ah, okay,” in reply.
 
As per usual, the girl cautiously received the newspaper with both hands.
 
“Thank you.”
 
Also as usual, she lowered her head in gratitude.
 
She looked so apprehensive, so serene.
 
This time, Riku felt certain that he would be able to draw her well.
 
Even though she was not wearing her glasses, though she was wearing rain boots, and though she looked a different kind of cute with her long hair tied into twin tails draped down her chest. Despite all the changes to her appearance, the pure presence surrounding her remained unaffected.
 
He should request her to be a model after all.
 
Riku felt an irresistible urge to ask the question aloud, but the moment he opened his mouth to speak, he only managed an, “erm…” He stammered for quite a while, and the remaining words withered away stuck in his throat.
 
(Don’t get too greedy,) he warned himself silently.
 
He held the bicycle handles firmly, and stepped on the pedals.

“The glasses...do suit you well.”
 
He hurriedly pedaled off with these words still hanging in the air, not wanting the girl to see his burning face.
 
Riku never got the girl to be his model and said the most embarrassing line of his life, but he never regretted it.

His heart was aching, but he was feeling calm. He believed that, as he was now, he would surely be able to draw the girl well.
 
He was alone in the arts clubroom, drawing the girl on his sketch pad to his heart’s content.
 
The girl wearing the glasses.

The girl with twin tails.
 
The girl wearing the straw hat.
 
The girl looking up at Riku timidly.
 
The girl with her eyes wide with shock.

The girl holding the newspaper with both hands, looking apprehensive.
 
The girl watching him with fear.

Riku continued to move the pencil, giving form to the image in his mind.

The different variations of the girl appeared on the sketchbook as if it was alive.
 
(Not enough...)

Riku could add more charm to her. The image of the girl filled his mind, and he wanted to draw out her presence from within.

There were various noises coming from the other end of the gym, including the clashing sounds of the kendo club’s bamboo swords, and the bouncing balls of the basketball club. But Riku remained undistracted as he dismissed these noises, and continued to draw.
 
At this moment, the sliding door of the arts clubroom suddenly opened, and Suzuka appeared at the threshold.

“Again you’re here. It’s like you’ve moved in here recently. Don’t you have any interests other than drawing, Arimura?”
 
Suzuka skipped towards Riku, and leaned over to take a peek at the sketchbook.
 
He closed it immediately to the girl’s displeasure.
 
“Ehhh, you’re making it seem like what’s inside is really improper,” she grumbled.
 
“Anyway, you’re probably drawing those boring things again, right? All the grass, trees, fruit... Don’t forget I said I’m willing to be your model. Blame yourself for saying no.”
 
Riku said nothing.
 
“It’s too late for regrets now, you know?”
 
Riku’s expression remained cold and he himself remained silent. Seeing that, Suzuka pouted and raised her eyebrows high.
 
“Hmph! Even if you kneel and beg to let you draw me, I’m going to ignore you!” she said in a deliberately loud voice.

Riku just hoped she would hurry up and leave. The sooner, the better.
 
If he stayed at home, there would be his mother slobbering around all day, painting her fingernails, calling men on her cellphone.
 
And once he started to draw ──
 
“You’re really gloomy. Do you really want to continue with this boring hobby?”
 
—she would tease him, and start to grumble about the lovers who abandoned her.
 
“You mustn’t become that kind of man,” she would say.
 
That would invariably lead to a longer rant. She would get agitated, say something like, “you’re going to abandon me anyway, aren’t you!? Why else aren’t you smiling when you’re with me?” and end up crying her eyes out once more.
 
For that reason, to avoid his mother, Riku had been spending more time in the quiet clubroom. Only to end up encountering Suzuka, the exact same type of person as his mother, who would harass him too. It was really frustrating.
 
He was already glowering at her in silence trying to convey that she was a bother and should leave him alone. For some reason, however, the fouler his mood appeared to be, the closer to him she leaned.
 
Suzuka’s appearance and personality were pretty striking, and she was popular with the boys. Perhaps she was miffed that her charms had no effect on Riku, and took his indifference as a challenge?
 
There was no way Riku could feel attracted to Suzuka. For a moment, he wondered if he should be frank with her.

He rejected the idea. If he did so, Suzuka would surely involve the other girls and cause a fuss. This would lead to a long period of frustrations for him.

It appeared his only choice was to remain silent until Suzuka left in a huff. So he remained seated on the chair, with his head turned aside unhappily. Suzuka put herself back in front of his eyes.

She held a ticket and waved it before his nose.

“Arimura, I have a goal for this summer vacation!”

She showed an impish smile.

Riku did not want to know.

But before he could say it, Suzuka’s eyes sparkled, and she declared,

“I’m definitely going to make you smile, Arimura!”

This time, Riku was truly dumbfounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” he muttered.

Unexpectedly, Suzuka showed a hearty smile,

“Well, you’re always frowning,” she answered. “Arimura. I want to see a smile only I can see!”

And then, she hastily corrected herself,

“E-erm, what I mean by that is, well... Hmph! You realized it already, haven’t you!? It’s so obvious already. Don’t tell me you don’t understand? If you say you don’t, I’m going to kiss you right here!”

She yelled all that out at once with a completely flushed face.

The revelation left Riku utterly speechless.

There was no way he did not know. Of course, he did. Suzuka was pursuing him.

He maintained this cold demeanor precisely because he did not want Suzuka to misunderstand. And yet she decided to play her hand like this!

If Riku remained silent, Suzuka might really kiss him. He could only sigh, and say, “I get it, Ozaki... but I have no intentions of pursuing anything like that right now. I’m already busy just trying to earn money for my living expenses. I don’t intend to go out with anyone, you included. I hope you understand.”

Suzuka gulped loudly and lowered her head.

“...Don’t you have the time to draw?” she muttered half to herself.

Then, she firmly looked straight at him again, raised her dropped shoulders, and shoved the ticket in her hand right in front of Riku’s eyes.

“This is a ticket for a band performance at the outdoor stage in town. My friend will be going there and gave me this. Come with me! Arimura, just give me one chance to capture your heart!”

Suzuka challenged Riku staring straight at him, but soon her eyelids dropped uneasily and tears started to glisten in her eyes. He just looked back at her bitterly.

◇◇◇

It was morning a few days after Chise had begun to work on her new dress.

Riku behaved a little strange when he came by to deliver the newspapers today.

He was no longer looking at Chise’s eyes and, as he handed the newspapers to her, he seemed even more distant than before.

(Did I...do anything rude to Riku-kun?)

His back seemed to move even farther away from her eyes, and her heart ached as she watched him leave.

Even when she returned to her room on the second floor and laid out the newspaper on the floor, she was no longer as excited as she used to. All the same, when the smell of ink filled her nostrils, the anxiety in her heart seemed to slowly afflict all her body starting from the fingertips.

(Was Shiori-san this lonely and uneasy when she longed for her lover who returned to Tokyo...?)

Chise would now reread Shiori-san’s diary before she slept. It had become a habit for her.

Her mind was always thinking of Shiori-san and her lover. She was unable to rid herself of that fixation.

Such blissful were the words that narrated the days they spent together.

The surging sweet and sour feelings.

The sacred promise.

But this promise was ultimately unfulfilled. Shiori-san died alone in this house…

(No, the ache in my heart grows the more I think about sad things. Must think of some happy things instead.)

Chise put the newspaper aside and prepared the sewing tools.

Next, she laid out the incomplete dress, and a piece of blue sky unfurled on the green carpet pouring balm on the restless heart.

(Once the dress is done, I can go out in it. Surely it will be fun. It would be so much better if it was with Riku-kun...)

Having a dream never hurt anyone so Chise imagined herself wearing the handmade blue dress, walking alongside the aloof-looking boy.

Filled with bliss, she began to work on the dress.

She started by holding the cloth down with a pin so that she could cut it and sew the pieces together with thread. The little white traces of thread she had chosen streaked across the blue cloth, like cute wisps of rainy clouds.

Chise kept working the needle, over and over again. Only when Andou-san informed her that the breakfast was ready did she go down to the living room.

Breakfast consisted of homemade cornbread and yogurt, with summer-orange jam, green peppers, sour-flavored herring, and sweet ketchup on an omelet. Chise finished her breakfast, brought the utensils to the basin, washed everything with the detergent-soaked sponge, and then wiped it all clean with a dry cloth to a high polish.

Once done, she scrubbed the basin, mopped the floor, and scrubbed that too. After all the housework was done, Chise felt like her heart was purified as well.

She returned to her room and resumed the work on the dress.

She had agreed with Andou-san that they were going to bake a meatloaf pie later. She also planned to finish her assignments today and write letters to her friends and family.

There was still a lot of things to do.

(It is good to be busy.)

Chise beamed as she tied a loop. She cut off the tip with a pair of round, cute scissors.

The meat pie was well done. When the kitchen knife pierced the thin, crispy outer layer, it immediately cracked with a whiff of buttery fragrance. The meat filling within released strong, rich of aroma. The prepared meal had a gentle smell and tasted delicious. Chise munched it together with green pepper salad marinated in yogurt salad sauce.

In the afternoon, Chise went to town to buy things.

Her favorite pastel-green marker pen had run out of ink, so she went to the department store’s stationery department to buy a new one and, at the same time, replenish her stocks of postcards, envelopes, and the like.

Once she was done, Chise went up to the roof terrace and bought a lemon-flavored ice cream soda at the café, with black tea ice cream and a mint leaf as the topping. She ate while resting. At this moment, a group of middle schooler boys holding trays of takoyaki and cola approached, chatting loudly.

(Those uniforms...really look the same as the one Riku-kun had on.)

The uniforms in question were simply ordinary white shirts and black pants.

Andou-san had mentioned before that there was only one middle school in the area, though. It was therefore likely that Riku too studied there.

(...I do have that little urge to look at Riku-kun’s school.)

This notion arose within her quite suddenly.

(I shall go and have a look.)

It was summer vacation so there should be few students around. If she just took a peek from the outside...

It might be rude to ogle a school one did not attend... but...

After a moment of hesitation ──

(Yes, I shall have a look.)

— Chise finished her ice cream and soda and stood up.

She took the bus back to the village and alighted at the stop marked XX Middle School, right in front of the school gates.

This school looked perfectly ordinary. The baseball club members were training at the sports field, and next to a four-story main compound there was a gym with a swimming pool.

But ──

(So this is Riku-kun’s school.)

— Chise smiled nonetheless, mesmerized by the sight in front of her.

(The track is paved... The gym is big... Ah, so many sakura trees there. There are tennis courts too...)

Chise navigated down the fence and had a good look at the entire school.

(So this is where Riku-kun studies...)

Chise recalled him in uniform, and her heart fluttered all the more. The last time she saw him dressed like that, he was soaking wet in the rain. However, she was sure that the simple white shirt and black pants combination suited him well.

She made a full circle around the school compound, eventually reaching the gates again to stare blankly at the entrance once more. Suddenly a girl dressed in a plaited miniskirt and a white blouse with the school emblem on passed by Chise from behind.

She looked pretty. Tall, neatly cut bright-brown short hair, vibrant red lips glossy with moisture.

She was probably a student here.

The girl looked at Chise nonchalantly.

And since Chise stood in the middle of the school gates ──

“Sorry.”

— she whispered an apology and hurriedly moved aside.

The girl sized Chise up, studying her from head to toe. Then, with an unhappy look on her face, she passed Chise by and headed into the school.

She might have thought of Chise as someone suspicious.

Embarrassed, Chise left the school gates.

Since next bus was still a while off, Chise took a stroll back to the villa.

◇◇◇

Riku sat gloomily on the chair in the clubroom, flipping through the sketchbook. The pages were full of the drawings of the girl at the villa.

The bashful girl was like a white flower on the yellowish pages, giving off an adorable, yet transparent charm.

He felt that he had done a good job on those.

Riku had done his best to bring out the girl’s charm. He didn’t succeed fully, but he managed to capture a fair bit of her qualities.

That didn’t seem to have filled the hole in his heart, however.

He was delighted that the girl would wait by the postbox every morning.

Seeing her bashful smile, hearing her whisper, “thank you,” all that cleansed and soothed his heart. Every dawn turned into a precious moment to him and he was always looking forward to the next one.

But at this point, seeing the pure, innocent face of the girl started to bring him in pain.

It was definitely because Suzuka Ozaki, his classmate, had confessed to him.

Riku could not possibly clearly explain to the girl that Suzuka really resembled his mother and the torrential outburst of anxious emotion that accompanied the confession shook him to the core. That it had caused him to realize that, for him, the girl at the villa was such a fleeting, otherworldly existence.

Suzuka was the reality, the girl at the villa was anything but.

Maybe, if they kept having conversations more frequently, the distance between them would shorten. However, as things were, the relationship between the two of them remained nothing more than her receiving newspapers in the morning.

Neither that girl nor Riku would ever take it any further.

While Suzuka had invited Riku to a concert, that girl definitely could not do it. And neither could Riku invite her.

He did not even know the girl’s name.

At first, he had thought this kind of relationship was enough, but before he knew it, he was starting to be unsatisfied. Even though he did understand that it was to be expected...

So he turned back on his own expectations towards this girl and let the days just pass by.

(If I ask for more... all I am going to feel will be pain...)

He should feel fortunate just to be able to draw her.

And while he attempted to convince himself with such thoughts ──

“Arimura, I brought something to cheer you up!”

— Suzuka entered the clubroom with a brazen smile, flashing the plastic bag in her hand.

“I made steamed cocoa bread. Try it!”

She pulled the chair next to Riku, sat down, and laid out the bread.

"...I said I won't be going to the concert, didn’t I?"

"Hm, yeah."

"So..."

(Just go back already?)

Riku wanted to get straight to the point, but Suzuka stole the initiative as she stared at Riku, grinning.

"Eat it, and you might just change your mind. I haven't gone all out yet and I'm not going to give up that easily"

—Arimura, just give me one chance to capture your heart!

Those had been Suzuka’s words from just a few days ago. She had spoken with a grim determination only to break down into anxious tears.

—That's impossible.

That had been his response then.

He had not intended on giving Suzuka the chance. He had turned her down, plainly and unambiguously, but she had just once again declared that she would keep it up until she was given a chance and would never give up. The conversation left Riku all the more perturbed.

That unbridled passion made his determination falter slightly. After all, his heart was devoid of any passion at all.

Right now, Suzuka, ignoring how gloomy he was looking, unwrapped the packaging from the steamed bread and started eating.

"Hmm... Pretty nice. The cocoa's sweet, and the bread soft. Yeah, it’s great! Too bad you don't get to eat this, Arimura."

Her resilience was really impressive.

Maybe if he went out with her for just a few moments, she would give up after a while…

After all, Suzuka had never been able to read the mood and Riku was tired of shooing her away all the time by now.

"Speaking of which, about the house that 'fairy' granny stayed at,” she said out of the blue as if she recalled something.

Riku was quietly alarmed by the words.

"Isn't there a girl staying there? Heard it's the granny's relative."

"..."

"I met that girl at the school gates."

Riku's heart jolted.

The girl Suzuka spoke of was the girl at the villa, the very same that Riku had been meeting every morning.

Suzuka met her at the school gates?

Why was she here?

"She was gawking at the school like she never seen one before. Does she think that a countryside school is a rare sight or something?"

Suzuka's words echoed in the emptiness of his mind.

Did that girl come to see him? No, that was impossible. Surely, it was a pure coincidence she happened to pass by.

Riku's heart wanted this to be true and false at the same time. His throat felt parched. He deliberately maintained his usual tense expression, not wanting Suzuka to notice how rattled he was.

In the meanwhile, his classmate continued to chew and talk.

"It's soooo obvious that she's a rich kid. I have heard already that the princess has long black hair, but her skin's so white too. It’s like she never suntanned in her life. She looks thin and graceful, you know? She's like a person from another world, completely unlike us."

Riku's head immediately cooled down.

He was so firmly in control that the lapse of heart from just a moment ago seemed like a lie.

(Yeah, she's different from us.)

Just as Suzuka had said, she was someone living in another world.

"..."

A sense of futility was slowly growing within him.

(What exactly am I hoping for?)

Riku was merely a newspaper delivery boy. The girl was simply a princess living at the delivery location. That was the extent of their relationship.

He callously grabbed the steamed bread from the table. Suzuka looked up at him in surprise.

Ignoring that, he unwrapped the food and bit into it quietly.

The rich sweetness and texture were threatening to stuff his throat.

He scowled.

"...When does the concert start?" he asked with a growl.

◇◇◇

"Today, I went to Riku-kun's middle school. I walked around the walls, looking for Riku-kun."

It was nighttime and Chise was writing on a letter paper with a floral pattern she had bought earlier. The message was meant for Riku.

It was the seventh such missive, neither of them had an address.

The six previous ones had all been put in similar envelopes and stored inside cookie jars. The cookie jars were gold and blue, very pretty.

“There are rows of sakura trees on the school grounds. When Spring comes, the petals will dance with the wind. It will definitely look pretty.”

“Right now, I am imagining Riku-kun reading there, eating a bento, chatting with friends. The thoughts I kept thinking, they were all about you, Riku-kun.

“I brushed past a female student at the school gates. She was pretty with a nice figure. She looked about the same age as you, Riku-kun. If only I were studying at the same school as you… I do feel a little lonely thinking about this.”

Chise folded the letter cautiously and inserted it into the envelope.

(If I do end up studying at the same school as Riku-kun, I may have more chances to talk to him,) she thought quietly while putting it away.

If both of them could be in the same class, they could probably enjoy school activities together, things like sports, the culture festival, and so on.

Or she could end up being her usual timid self, only daring to watch him from afar.

But even so, surely, it would be a ‘pleasant’, ‘wonderful’ experience to be together in the same school as Riku-kun...

Chise laid on the bed, and closed her eyes, continuing to imagine these scenes, feeling very blessed.

Again, she quietly recited the poem in her mind. The lines Shiori-san wrote inside in the sky blue diary with a white flower sewn onto it.

“The sun darkened because of him.”

“Who exactly is he?”

“A deliverer of mysterious letters.”

“Who exactly is he?”

“My heart is about to melt.”

◇◇◇

The following morning, it rained.

Chise wore her blue rain boots and held a red umbrella as she awaited Riku’s arrival.

The boy appeared soon, dressed in a black hooded raincoat. Once he saw Chise standing by the postbox, he frowned.

“Go-good morning. It is raining. Must be hard on you,” she spoke.

“Not at all,” he growled in reply.

Then, he bit his lips lightly, averted his eyes, handed the newspapers over, and immediately pedaled off.

“Thank you.”

And even as Chise thanked him, he did not look back.

The raindrops landed upon the umbrella with a quiet thrum. Chise heard them and felt sad, her heart turning into a frozen block.

Riku was shunning her after all.

(I suppose me coming out to wait for newspapers... caused him trouble after all...)

That must have been why he was unwilling to look Chise in the eyes.

She lost all strength and returned to the villa dejectedly.

She remained in the room on the second floor and, even as she flipped through the pages reading the reports, her heart remained cold and heavy. She started to wonder about the reasons for Riku’s behavior.

(Maybe me talking to Riku-kun is obstructing his work, or maybe he found it a bother than I am personally receiving the newspaper from him every day?)

Midway through, Chise gave up on reading and instead started up the sewing machine to continue the work on the dress.

While sewing, she felt the needle stab at her chest too, so very painful and sad.

The rain continued for several days.

Every day, Chise, with the umbrella in hand, was waiting for Riku who would deliver the newspaper with an unchanging scowl and pedal off. Chise was feeling spent just from thanking him.

The unfinished newspapers lay in a growing stack in a corner of the room and the dress was midway done. Even when Andou-san was teaching Chise housework, the girl had been listless.

Andou-san had assumed that Chise was like this because her parents could not come.

Chise’s parents had left her at the villa so that they could discuss divorce. It appeared Andou-san had known about this, probably directly from them. She really sympathized with Chise’s plight, always trying to cook her favorite dishes, or inviting Chise along to make cookies and pies.

Chise stopped writing to her family and friends. If she tried to continue, she would simply end up venting. Receiving such letters would only make everyone feel uncomfortable and cause them trouble.

She had to smile, but she could not.

She had lots of summer plans, but nothing to actually do so she kept spacing out by the bedside, listening to the raindrops.

There were lots of frozen melon buns and baumkuchen in the freezer. She ate one of these desserts to kill time.

Chise had expected the frozen bread to be rock hard but the opposite to be true. The moment she bit into one, the filling would flow around her teeth.

The rain caused the temperature outside to drop gradually. The cooling air, coupled with the frosted desserts, left her freezing cold, but her mouth at least was filled with sweetness. Surely, the marvelous taste would but all the more delicious if she ate it while it was hot.

Then, while she was sitting in the kitchen downhearted, Andou-san gave her a ticket.

“The department store organized a firefly exhibition. The season for them has passed already, but there still should be many photos of them on display. You’ll definitely enjoy it.”

She would only cause Andou-san to worry if she kept lounging around like this so she tied her hair, put on her knee-length dress, and left for the village.

The rainboots really did not match the clothing. Thus, Chise wore the brown shoes instead of the sandals so that the mud stains on them would not be obvious.

The event was held at the roof of the department store.

The space was larger than Chise had expected. The title of the exhibition was ‘Firefly Village’.

Besides the photos of the fireflies, there were many others depicting the daylight sceneries. Just as Andou-san had said, one could see the various scenes of this village here.

Chise recognized the brook, the path, the forest.

In the photo, the fireflies rested atop the fine leaves, giving off a tender glow and looking really pretty.

There also were a few photos depicting fireflies dancing above the water surface, looking really fleeting. Chise paused next to those and was immediately mesmerized.

(So pretty...)

They resembled dancing stars.

And of all the photos, the one Chise stopped at for the longest time was that of a marsh surrounded by forests with the dazzling fireflies fluttering above.

Countless fireflies illuminated the surface of the water causing it to dazzle. She couldn’t tell if it was the effect of the camera or not.

Shiori-san’s diary too mentioned that the first time she met her lover had been near the swamp.

At night, many fireflies seemed to gather there. But back then, under the bright afternoon sun, the only living thing visible was a white-skinned man with tender eyes, seated by the water, reading.

(Maybe the swamp in the photo is the place Shiori-san met her lover?)

Chise looked at the tagline of the photograph.

“The Cowherd and the Fairy,” it said.

Chise was startled.

(Fairy?)

Andou-san once said that Shiori-san was called the ‘fairy’.

It might have been a coincidence. But at the same time, even though the tagline seemed unrelated to the photo of the fireflies, there certainly was a special connection.

Sweet images appeared in her mind one by one, and Chise’s heart raced.

She imagined the multitude of fireflies flickering, fluttering about, their lights fading in and out. And under such an ambiance Shiori-san watched her beloved with a happy smile on her face.

Chise had never met Shiori before, but her mind was somehow able to visualize the aunt’s appearance so clearly.

Perhaps it was because the diary mentioned, “he praised me, saying ‘You’re so small and cute, Shiori. I love the large round eyes and the low nose. The red kimono today suits you very well.’”

A petite girl in a red kimono, looking innocent with a shy smile on her lips. Yes. Surely, Shiori-san was such a person.

Chise looked at the photo and felt her chest throbbing, her cheeks burning, her thoughts in unison with Shiori-san.

She had really loved him. That was why she had gone to the marshes, to meet him as he had been always reading there.

Initially, Shiori-san was sighing in bliss just from the glances of him she had caught from behind the trees.

Shiori had always been scared of stepping out into the open. Until, on a certain day, he had suddenly taken the initiative and spoken to her. That had elevated her to cloud nine.

“I guess that is what it means to be on cloud nine. I started to fall in love with that man, unable to stop.”

“Thinking about him, my heart has only space for fluttering fireflies. I am really, really, really happy to think that I can meet him again the next day.”

Chise’s could almost hear Shiori-san’s voice in her ears.

The sickeningly sweet voice filled with delight.

(Shiori-san might have never gotten to be with her lover... But she really loved him...)

Chise started to think that this much was enough.

Like in the ‘Cowherd and the Fairy’. If she could ever fall in love, experience a pretty, warm, fairy-tale-like romance, surely she would be really blessed. So blessed, in fact, that she could ask for nothing more.

At this moment, Chise suddenly thought of the tanned, aloof face that filled her world whenever Riku handed over the newspaper to her.

Her heart immediately turned cold.

(Riku-kun and I are not friends, let alone lovers...)

Shiori-san had only dared to hide among the trees, watching the object of her yearning read at the swamp. Like her, Chise dared not to take the first step.

No, that wasn’t true. She had taken that step once, and felt their hearts got closer.

But as things were, Riku was drifting away from Chise again.

If she dared to take another step, would the distance between them shrink once again?

Did she want to do so?

Half of August had passed already.

Chise could stay in the villa only for another week or so.

(I might have done something to annoy Riku-kun. But... It will feel lonely if I have to leave like this...)

What should Chise do to get Riku to look at her once again?

What should Chise do so that Riku would be willing to talk for a short moment, just like before?

Just this should be enough to satisfy her.

Chise purchased an exhibit book and left the venue. Absentmindedly, she visited the animestation, the stationery store, and the local food shops. She purchased some jelly for Andou-san. By the time she left the department store, it was evening and the skies began to darken.

The rain stopped. Surely, the weather tomorrow would be fine.

(Thank goodness...if it rained, Riku-kun would have a hard time delivering newspapers...)

She would try to converse with Riku this morning.

While she waited for the bus at the stop, she browsed through the book.

It introduced the portfolios of a few of the photographers whose works were on display. The one who took the photo titled ‘The Cowherd and the Fairy’ was already dead for at least ten years. The tagline was borrowed from a novel written by Kanoko Okamoto.

(I shall have a look at it next time...)

Right at that moment, she heard a girl chatting and laughing away.

The sound came from the other end of the street, from where a boy and a girl of roughly the same age as Chise were slowly approaching.

The boy was pushing the bicycle and looked quite gloomy. The chatty girl was walking next to him, holding the boy's hand. The boy attempted to shake her off, but she just said ──

“It’s fine. We’re out on a date anyway.”

— and latched herself onto the boy’s arm once again.

At that moment, Chise’s and the boy’s gazes met.



(Riku-kun...)

Chise’s eyes widened from shock and Riku too looked surprised.

The girl latching onto Riku was the one Chise had met in front of the middle school, the one brushed by her. Chise vividly remembered her pretty looks and nice figure. This evening the girl was dressed in a very alluring combination of tank-top and shorts.

(Is she Riku-kun’s girlfriend? Did he have one?)

And she looked so pretty, with a lively personality to boot. She was the complete opposite of Chise...

Riku was mature, it would not be strange for him to have a girlfriend. However, Chise had never considered this possibility before.

With reality suddenly laid out before her, she realized that her emotions were simply innocent delusions. The shame and disappointment left her ears red.

She shriveled, lowered her head, and looked at her feet. Riku did not walk up to talk to her.

“Before we go to the concert, I want to have a hamburger.”

The girl’s sweet voice wormed its way into Chise’s ears as the duo passed the bus stop by.

Chise held onto the book firmly and kept praying, hoping that Riku and his girlfriend would leave quickly.

◇◇◇

“That girl waiting at the bus stop was the Princess from Tokyo. Do you know her, Arimura?” asked Suzuka, looking displeased.

The duo ordered a hamburger set at a fast food restaurant and she asked the question with a pout the moment they sat down.

Until they entered the shop, she had been grabbing onto Riku’s arm, rubbing her face on his shoulder, leaning her body against his. But now even her voice turned frosty.

“You do, don’t you?” she asked again, furious, before he could even answer.

“I can tell that you’re acting strangely, Arimura. You and that girl. That girl was waiting for you outside school because she wanted to see you, right? What’s your relationship with her?”

“...I just deliver newspapers to the villa every morning.”

Riku was scowling, his tone sounding grim.

“Nothing else...other than that.”

His expression and tone remained icy, stiff even. Suzuka seemed a little intimidated by that and said nothing more, just watching him with worry in her eyes.

But just containing his frustration right now took a massive effort and Riku was in no mood to bother about Suzuka.

He never expected that the girl would see Suzuka walk with him hand in hand.

But he had accepted Suzuka’s invitation out of his own will. The girl from the villa lived in a different world from him. He would never be able to comprehend her kindness and innocence.

Surely the girl would treat anyone as earnestly and innocently as she had been treating Riku.

This had been how he kept trying to convince himself while trying his best to avoid contact with the girl.

But, just now, the girl had seen Suzuka holding Riku’s hand and she had seemed stunned by the sight. Seeing her like this had rattled him greatly.

He felt as though the ground was slipping from under his feet. Various excuses swirled in his mind, but his throat was stiff and he was unable to speak up.

No, if he did utter an excuse, that would only make him all the more despicable, false.

The girl from the villa was neither Riku’s lover nor a friend.

He knew that very well but, all the same, there seemed to be a strange presence within his body that kept destroying his inner peace, never allowing his frustrations to subside.

And while he was struggling with his feeling like this ──

“You’re kidding... You’re really dating Arimura? That’s amazing, Suzuka-chan!”

— a few of his female classmates suddenly appeared.

This group of girls had always been tight with Suzuka, of a type that also garnered lots of attention.

“Wait! Why are you...”

Suzuka panicked and stood up.

“Why? Suzuka-chan, didn’t you send us all a message-full of emoticons with the bombshell that you’ll be going out on a date with Arimura? We were at the game center nearby anyway so we thought we should have a look.”

“Yeah, yeah. I ain’t believing that you’re wooing Arimura unless I see it with my own eyes. I always thought you wouldn’t pull it off.”

“Same here. I thought that even if it’s you, there’s no way you could get Arimura, Suzuka-chan.”

“That’s Suzuka-chan for you. You boasted that you’ll get Arimura this summer and you certainly did it.”

“Ehh, looks like Suzuka-chan’s the only winner in the end.”

Her friends were teasing her full-force —

“E-enough. I’m not... Eh! Anyway, just leave. Don’t disturb us!”

— and she tried to shoo them off when she heard a chair being moved.

She looked back at Riku and saw he had stood up without a word.

“Arimura...t-that, this...”

Riku dropped the ticket Suzuka gave him onto the table.

“I just remembered I had something else planned. Go bring a friend along,” he hissed before turning away.

Suzuka’s friends started to yap over one another.

“W-wait, Arimura, you’re angry?”

“It’s over.”

“What? Didn’t you want to listen to this, Koyama-chan?”

Suzuka hurried out of the shop after Riku.

“Arimura, wait...! The bet was, just my carelessness... For a long while now, I... Arimura ──”

She desperately grabbed Riku’s arm but he shook her off adamantly, leaving her dumbstruck.

“It just doesn’t feel right whenever a female touches me. You should leave me be, from now on. I’ll do that too.”

With these words, Riku hopped onto the bicycle and sped off.

The bicycle smashed through the warm breeze as Riku pedaled hard. Pure rage was roaring in his throat, ravaging his body.

Was the source Suzuka and her friends? A disgust towards himself? Riku could not tell.

He knew well that Suzuka had been trying to get him interested in her because he showed no interest in girls. Her friends often joked about romance. Riku himself had no feelings for Suzuka and did not feel that he was somehow fooled.

He had understood her intentions. He deliberately chose to accept her invitation.

But it had undoubtedly come at the worst possible moment. Riku was dissatisfied with his current situation and disgusted at his useless mother. While he had swallowed Suzuka’s bait, he had always thought of Suzuka as a bad person and ultimately ran away. In the end, he had no idea of what he wanted. His own incompetence appalled him. The ugly jumble of emotions brought the urge to curse everyone on this world.

The damp air gripped his throat and arms.

He struggled for breath.

His boiling head would not cool down.

The evening sky got darker and Riku raced head-on into the embrace of the looming darkness. Before he realized it, it arrived in front of the old villa overgrown by ivy.

The room on the second floor was lit up. He looked up at the window. His heart seized up.

It was the girl’s room.

Thank goodness... She made it back home safely.

The shine was vaguely making it through the curtains. Riku looked up at the gentle light, his mind slowly going back to normal, his maddening heart calming down. What replaced the frenzy was sadness rising up from the depths of his heart.

He wanted to see her.

Once he did, he wanted to apologize for his standoffishness, to explain why he was holding hands with Suzuka.

But even if he did apologize and gave his justifications, what then? Riku could hear his own admonishments ring in his ears. That girl was the Princess from the Villa, someone different from him. She had parents. Once the summer ended, she would return to them.

(Are you going to corrupt that girl with those ugly emotions of yours?)

At dusk, the girl had been standing at the station, eyes widened, in shock at what she had seen him do.

When Riku and Suzuka, hand holding hand, passed next to her, she gripped her book tightly and in sad silence lowered her eyes.

Riku did not want the girl to make that face ever again.

That girl, and only her, was the single person in his life Riku did not want to hurt.

Full of apprehension and hurt, Riku kept staring at the light in the girl’s room.

◇◇◇

The following morning, while the sky was still a little dark,
Chise stood next to the postbox looking a little sleepless and a little red around the eyes.

The previous night, after she had returned home, she switched the lights on in her room and, lying sprawled on the bed, thought about Riku.

Riku had a girlfriend.

He would be annoyed if Chise kept waiting for him like she had.

But when she received the newspapers from his hands, it always warmed her heart.

That day, when she had received a call from her mother and learned that her parents were going to divorce, it had been thanks to Riku, who had delivered the newspapers the following morning, that Chise was once again able to smile.

For that at least, until the very end, Chise wanted to thank him.

She would not hope to be closer to him ever again. She just hoped to be still able to personally receive the newspapers while she was here.

Thus, she was going to play dumb in front of him.

At least she had convinced herself she would do so while looking in the direction Riku always came from.

And when the light shone from behind the peak, Riku appeared on the bicycle as always.

Chise took a deep breath, motivating herself.

(I have to...give a proper smile.)

Her cheeks were tense, though, unable to move. This would not do.

Riku stopped the bicycle in front of her.

Chise was worried that Riku would mention what had happened the previous day. However, he kept his mouth shut, silently drew out the newspapers, and handed them over.

Chise received them gladly, lifting the tips of her lips up.

“Thank you.”

She bowed.

Riku too lowered his head slightly.

Then, he turned his eyes aside and pedaled off.

(I just about managed to receive the newspapers without incident... but I cannot be smiling weakly like that. I have to offer a happier smile tomorrow...)

Chise gently brought the newspapers to her face. There was still some lingering warmth there.

◇◇◇

On the following day, and the day after, their interaction remained awkward.

Riku would keep his mouth shut, handing over the newspaper with a grim look on his face. Chise would receive it with a stiff smile, a lowered head, and a simple, ”Thank you.”

Then the boy would bow and depart slowly.

The heavy atmosphere would not lift for as long as Riku could be seen. Chise could muster nothing more than her thanks.

(...I guess I caused trouble for Riku-kun after all. I made him unhappy...)

It might be better for her not to keep waiting.

In the past, whenever Chise had seen Riku, her heart would feel fuzzy. Now however, seeing him just caused it to suffer spasms of pain.

She was in no mood to read the papers.

Chise returned to her room, feeling downhearted as she flipped through Shiori-san’s diary. The romance recorded in there was bright and clear like the summer sunshine. It captivated her heart.

But unlike the previous times she had read it, today Chise found a white envelope within the sky-blue cover of the book.

She removed the missive and had a look at it. It was blank, no recipient’s name or address was written.

Initially, Chise felt the same kind of apprehension as when she had first opened the diary and hesitated for a long time. But in the end, she could not restrain her curiosity and opened it. There were two letters inside, both filled with Shiori-san’s handwriting.

“To the dearest you:”

Those words opened the missive. Chise held her breath as she kept reading.

“This Summer, you have taught me lots of things.

How pretty the color of the evening sun was as it set down between the mountains to the West. How passionate the scent of the green grass in the blooming summer could be. How the gentle colors of the starry night were all too dazzling. I knew nothing at all until this Summer came.

I did not even know that there is such a beautiful place in this village I grew up in.“

This was a letter Shiori-san had written to her lover.

There was no address on the envelope because she had most likely never intended to have it sent.

Just like the several letters Chise had written to Riku that had never been posted.

She simply wanted to store her overflowing emotions somewhere, to store them... like this...

“The world is so vibrant, and I have found everything in it so moving, but all I saw in those eyes all this time has been your lonely self.

During this Summer, we were always together,

Like Vega and Altair, so pure, so full of bliss.

And even though the memories in my heart will stay forever,

Summer is about to come to an end.”

(The Cowherd... and the Fairy!)

These words were the same as the tagline for the photograph of the firefly swamp. Chise’s heart jolted once she saw this.

Maybe, the person who took this photo was Shiori-san’s...

“Thus—“

The first letter ended with this line. Chise had a look at the second and gasped once again.

There was just one line of words on the page.

“We shall have to say goodbye.”

The warmth in Chise’s thoughts suddenly boiled over the top of her head. She was so shocked by these final words that she was unable to move.

When had Shiori-san written these letters? When her lover had been about to leave the village? Or when she had stopped waiting for him to return? Chise would never know.

But from the line ‘we shall have to say goodbye’, Chise felt various emotions tugging at her heartstrings...

At the same time, Chise realized that her own farewell was imminent.

(Once the summer ends, I will never get to see Riku-kun again.)

It was inevitable. But surely, if she was to give Riku a frosty smile for that farewell, she would surely be left with much regret.

Surely, she would be neither able to read the newspapers Riku delivered nor the clippings in the sketchbook with much enthusiasm.

Chise once again began to work on the half-made dress.

Every day, little by little, she worked at the machine, sewing the seams, adding lace to the sleeves, affixing buttons. The dress was nearing completion.

Her interactions with Riku remained awkward. However, on her last day, she wanted to wear this sky blue dress and receive the newspaper from Riku’s hands with a genuine smile.

It was time to put on the straw hat again.

For that memorable hat was what had led to their encounter.

◇◇◇

Riku would spend his afternoons in the clubroom and only return to the cramped apartment for the night. He kept drawing the girl. On the sketchbook, on the backs of the adverts, on marketing printouts. Over and over again.

It had been a while since he had spoken to the girl. Whenever he handed the newspapers to her, he would avert his eyes to avoid looking her in the eyes and leave promptly.

Whenever he returned from school, his drunk mother would always await him in the apartment filled with the foul stench of booze.

“I love you,” she would say, clinging to him. “I really do love you. Just you alone, Riku.”

She would repeat this ad nauseam.

“Why aren’t you smiling? Why aren’t you kinder towards me?”

One time, she clawed marks into Riku’s shoulders with her fingernails, before wailing in agony.

“You really despise me. You really hate me, don’t you? You just think of me as a bitch who gave birth to a kid not knowing who the father is, right?”

Riku never waved off his mother’s arms but never refuted either. He merely emptied his heart and let her do as she pleased. Like a puppet.

Ever since Riku returned the ticket to Suzuka, the girl had never returned to the clubroom.

Thus, he remained secluded in that quiet place, just drawing.

He did not need to know the name of the girl from the villa.

For that girl, he was merely an aloof newspaper delivery boy.

But even so, he could continue to draw her.

That was enough.

For as long as she remained there, he just wanted to draw more of her. Even if that would be one more picture.

◇◇◇

Summer was ending.

And the day of farewell crept close.

Two days before she was due to return home, Chise finally finished the dress.

“Done.”

Chise knelt on the floor, her hands laying out her handiwork.

The refreshing blue color looked like a piece cut from the sky when illuminated by the ceiling lights. The white lace on the sleeves and the puffy frills were pretty, the buttons glittered happily.

Chise got up, stood before the mirror, and measured the dress against herself.

The gather at the waist curled into a pretty wave.

(Thank goodness...I made it.)

Recently, the smile on her lips had been pretty forced. Even on the mirror’s surface, her happiness looked rather unconvincing.

“Ah, but what if the size is wrong?”

Right, the dress remained incomplete until she tried it on.

Chise fumbled about attempting to undress when an uplifting melody rang from the cellphone on the desk.

She put her half-removed indoor garments back on again and picked up the handset.

(Father...)

At that moment, her heart went cold.

When her mother had called the last time, she had said, “I will you get that man to call you.”

She wanted Chise to decide whose family name she was going to take.

──You are an adult. You can decide on your own.

The harsh words returned to her with the force of a pitch black torrent.

Chise had never forgotten those words and, on the rare occasions they had come back to haunt her, she had felt her heart being squeezed out.

Ever since that day, her parents had never contacted her. She had assumed that once she returned home, the three of them would have a meeting together and she would be told her straight to the face.

She thought that as long as she stayed in this villa, she could feel some relief.

She had to hurry and pick up the phone.

But a shiver rose all the way from the hand holding the handset, to nape of her neck. She felt a momentary impulse to toss the phone out.

She did not want to hear those ugly words... Not in this place filled with warmth.

But the phone kept ringing. With trembling fingers, Chise pressed the button.

“Chise? This is father.”

Chise shriveled. That terrifying, vengeful growl grated in her ears.

“Two days from now, in the evening, I’ll send for a car to collect you. The divorce settlement has been submitted today.”

A sharp stab of pain pierced through her heart.

Her father continued and it was clear he was furious.

“You shall not see that woman again. She hired men to move out all the furniture she liked. She also said that she was not willing to raise you. That since you do not need a mother at this age, I can raise you myself.”

The words griped Chise’s heart in a brutal vise, crushing it to bits.

── You are an adult. You can decide on your own.

These had been her mother’s very own words, yet she was unwilling to take Chise along. Instantly, the world turned dark in front of the girl’s eyes.

“She threw the daughter at me. Dared to hire a lawyer. The... nerve of that woman.”

Her mother dumped Chise’s care on her father and the man was seething.

Chise was simply baggage to both her mother and her father!

“That woman sought the divorce now because she was waiting for this chance, the moment when she could squeeze the most money from me. I had intended for the house you are living at to be used as a resort, but now I have to sell it to raise funds for the settlement fee. All the effort put into the renovation went to waste just like that.”

Her father’s words crushed her over and over again.

She knew the relationship between her parents was beyond frosty.

She knew they despised each other.

But her father had never ever lambasted her mother so brazenly in the open before.

She did not want to hear any of this.

(And this house... will be sold!)

There was no way she could ever return.

She had hoped to return to this village for the next Summer, that she might be able to meet Riku again. And now, this wish was cruelly crushed. The future scenery of the morning sun faintly peeking from behind the peak, of the skinny boy riding a bicycle, was fading away, vanishing into the darkness.

Once her father hung up, despair came like a black tide, savaging her heart over and over again. She fell to her knees, unable to get up.

Once her parents got divorced, their family of three would disappear!

She would never be able to return to this warm place again!

◇◇◇

Once Riku finished delivering the evening newspapers, he found the door ajar when he returned to his apartment. His mother had disappeared. Again.

The place was full of scattered cutlery, bento bags, and shoddily discarded worn female garments. However, the stacks of branded cosmetics and nail care utensils, once lying all over the floor, had vanished completely.

Seeing this familiar scene, Riku realized his mother had left home. Again.

She found a new man. Again.

Just the previous night, she had clung to him firmly and wailed, “Riku, I love you.” The scratch marks still lingered painfully on his shoulders and arms.

── I love you. I really do love you, just you alone, Riku.

He had never believed those words.

But whenever his mother left, there would be an incorrigible emptiness sweeping through his body. His heart would turn parched like the desert, hollow.

He lacked the strength to clean the messy room, so he slid down the front door, and sat down on the floor.

This was surely going to repeat itself many, many times. Until one of them died...

◇◇◇

Like fish washed ashore, flopping, Chise was gasping for breath. She sat before the desk, intending to write a letter to her friend.

Her mind was filled with ‘enjoyable’, ‘wonderful’ memories, ‘very happy’ thoughts. She was looking forward to the end of summer vacation, eager to see her friends at school...

But the moment, she prepared the pink envelope and the colorful pens, she could not put any strength into her fingers, and she was unable to even grip the pens.

(Smile.)

It would be troublesome for everyone if she made a gloomy face.

(I must smile.)

She kept trying to force the lips to curl, but she just could not.

(Why am I unable to smile? I have to. If I do not, I am worth nothing!)

Perhaps her smile was just frozen right there on her face.

She simply hoped to maintain that smile but, in reality, she just could not bring herself to do so.

That was why, even when she was with her parents, the house was often dark and gloomy and could not comfort her parents’ hearts.

(That is why... Father and Mother do not need me.)

Chise’s heart felt like it was being cut by a thousand blades. She could only reproach herself over and over again.

(Even though I am their child, I cannot bind them together!)

◇◇◇

Riku laid out the sketchbook in the dirty room, but his eyes remained hollow, his heart parched and frosty.

The sunlight had once shone upon his world but, at this point, it was like a newspaper page, grey and crude.

Once again, he was abandoned by his mother.

When would she return again? He did not know.

Perhaps she might never do so.

But there was nary a tinge of sadness in Riku’s heart, just nothingness, and creeping ice.

Color was fading away from his world.

He could not draw.

All that he wanted to draw, those beautiful things, was gone to him.

◇◇◇

Chise remained in the room covered behind the grassy-green curtains, her arms sprawled on the desk as she brooded in silence.

Even her parents, blood of her blood, did not love her. Was anyone willing to love such a child?

She couldn’t make even a humble smile. Was there anyone who really needed her?

Just one person would do.

One such person might be able to soothe this lacerating pain.

She might have once thought that she was a needed person.

But that person from her thoughts had never existed.

(Because I have been lying. I did not want to smile, but I still did. Everyone knows... Everyone has already noticed that I am just a liar.)

Why was it that even in such a moment, she was unable to cry?

Why was it that even though she was in this much agony, she intended to smile?

Why did she delude herself, thinking that if her smile was perfect, people would love her?

That was impossible, to begin with.

“But... I cannot cry... I cannot cry at all... The tears are not coming out...”

Riku leaned weakly on the sliding door covered by brown stains, looking down at the white, pristine sketchbook that was tossed away onto the tatamis, and fell into quiet contemplation.

Even though he was abandoned by his mother, he felt nothing. Was anyone willing to love this cold-hearted boy? Would he be able to meet a person, just one, a mere thought of whom could cause his heart to flutter? One who would cause his heart to soften? One he would not want to lose?

Could he really find in himself a sincere smile for such a person?

No matter how he tried to visualize it, his heart remained unmoved.

His mind was simply thinking about himself. He was in the middle of an endless desert, stone-faced, walking on like a doll.

No matter how much he was begged for a smile, he just could not.

“...I’m definitely destined not to smile in this life.”

A figure, a tanned boy, appeared in Chise’s eyes amidst the dazzling morning light. He was riding a bicycle, delivering newspapers with a stoic face.

The long, slender arms handing over warm newspapers...

There was an apprehensive girl with long black hair, standing bashfully next to the postbox, waiting for Riku.

She would cautiously receive the newspapers from Riku’s hands. With her soft, delightful voice, she would offer thanks and bow elegantly...

(Riku-kun is different from me. He works to help his family financially, and his mother needs him...)

(That girl is different from me. She’s born to a wonderful family, an innocent princess with good parents raising her.)

(Riku-kun must be living together with his mother, enjoying their life together.)

(That girl definitely lives in a kind and stable world. Her family must really love her.)

Once such thoughts crossed their minds, they felt redeemed.

No matter how cruel the worlds they lived in were, no matter how useless she was, how flawed he was, this life was not all cruel, dark and distorted. There existed kind, pure people. There still were people who were needed and loved by others.

(I hope Riku-kun,—)

(I hope that girl,—)

(—will be happy. I really hope so.)




As long as 'he' was happy, she could have hope, could believe that there was God in this world, who had various delights and wonderful things prepared.

As long as 'she' was happy, he could believe that this world still harbored beauty.

She was fine with living a tragic life.

He was fine with being flawed.

And so, s|he hoped that the other would be free of pain, sadness, and be surrounded by tenderness and love.

On the brink of collapse, Chise thought of Riku and Riku thought of the girl at the villa. They silently prayed for each other's happiness. The cold night passed, just like that.

◇◇◇

The following day was so cold that it felt as though Autumn had arrived early. The dark clouds were as heavy as lead. It was raining. The rain too was very cold.

Chise spent the entire night sprawled over the table and then collapsed onto the bed with a fever.

Her face was searing, her breathing frantic. Andou-san took the icy towel and put it over Chise’s forehead.

“I’ll go buy some fever patches from the pharmacy. It’ll be easier for you to turn around in bed.”

Chise apologized feebly.

“It is fine. It doesn’t seem like flu. Have a good rest, and you’ll feel much better tomorrow when you return home.”

Andou-san narrowed her eyes gently and left the room.

There was a newspaper laying on the little bedside table.

Andou-san knew that Chise had always been looking forward to the content of the newspaper. She brought it to the room for Chise so that the girl could have a look at it once she felt better.

(I can only stay for another two days… yet I could not receive the newspapers from Riku-kun today...)

If she was not around, what would Riku think?

Maybe he would feel relieved.

The rain kept pouring and even the sound it made seemed so cold.

(Is Riku-kun done with delivering the newspapers...?)

If it kept raining, Riku would end up drenched, and the bicycle tires would be slippery. It would be dangerous. She hoped the rain would stop before tomorrow.

(God …please do not let Riku-kun suffer.)

Chise closed her eyes and kept thinking about Riku.

◇◇◇

(Didn’t see her today.)

Once he was done delivering the morning newspapers, Riku returned to the shop and removed his drenched raincoat. The shop owner appeared and informed Riku that the following day would be the last time Riku would deliver newspapers to that villa.

The next day, the Princess living there would be returning to Tokyo.

The estate agent said the villa might end up being sold.

Those two messages left Riku’s heart in a lurch.

So that girl did not wait at the postbox because she was preparing to return to Tokyo?

If the villa was to be sold to someone else, he might not get to see the bashful, gentle silhouette ever again.

“You seem to be getting on well with the Princess?”

A certain person might have seen him talk to the girl, and informed his boss. 

“She’s not someone you can just reach for. You’ll have to deliver to that place for the last time tomorrow, but you must cut yourself away from her,” warned the man without flinching.

“...”

Riku understood that well.

“...I have nothing to do with her.”

His voice was flat.

◇◇◇

(Tomorrow...will be the last day I get to see Riku-kun...I have to wake up early, and personally receive the newspapers from his hands...)

Chise’s face and body remained hot throughout the night.

The lights were switched off and the room was dark. Chise kept looking towards the clock at her side from time to time.

(I have to smile...and thank him...for the last time...)

Before she knew it, Chise fell asleep. Once she opened her eyes however, the bright sunlight shone through the curtains by her bedside, illuminating the entire room.

In a panic, she jumped from the bed.

She opened the grassy green curtains aside and looked towards the courtyard. The sun had already risen.

She looked towards the clock, and once she saw the hour hand pointing towards 7, she gasped.

Seven in the morning!

It was long past the newspaper delivery time.

(I did set the alarm at 4.30am. Why!?)

Did she oversleep and accidentally mute the alarm clock?

In the past, she had used to wake up before it rang.

Chise draped a coat over her pajamas, put on her glasses, opened the door, and hurried down the stairs.

Her body was still heavy, and she was a little hot.

Chise slipped on her shoes, and ran towards the postbox, nearly tripping along the way. Once she saw the newspaper stuffed into the postbox, her heart turned cold.

(I did not make it...)

She never got to receive the last newspapers from Riku’s hands.

(I will never get to see Riku-kun again...)

Chise choked, her legs wobbled.

She timidly withdrew the newspapers from the postbox. It had long turned cold.

She returned to the villa, holding the newspapers like a corpse.

Andou-san welcomed her in the hallway.

“Oh dear, Chise-san. Why did you run out while dressed like this? If you really wanted to read the papers, I could have retrieved it had you told me.”

So she said, and touched Chise’s forehead, before finally looking relieved.

“Looks like the fever has subsided. I have prepared most of your luggage, Chise-san. You can spend the time until the evening however you want. Breakfast is fine, no? I’ll prepare it for you then. You should go wash your face and change your clothes…Chise-san?”

Chise hugged the newspapers, shivering. Andou-san immediately frowned.

“What’s the matter? Chise-san, are you feeling unwell elsewhere?”

(I want to see Riku-kun...)

(In any case, I want to meet him, and thank him.)

(I know this will only cause him trouble.)

(Even so... Just one last time...)

The hands clutching the newspapers suddenly clenched tight and she eked out a request.

“Andou-san...please tell me where Riku-kun’s house is...!”


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