Gekkou:Volume 1 Bitter Chocolate
I had to admit it: Youko Tsukimori was indeed a perfect girl.
It was naturally me who was assigned to mentor her, being in the same class and all. At first I was rather sour about that cumbersome task, but I soon learned that it's quite enjoyable to teach someone who's good at remembering things.
Only two weeks had passed since Tsukimori had started working at Victoria, but she was already able to do any work related to waiting the tables on her own, such as attending to the customers, taking their orders and operating the register.
In terms of handling the customers, she might have even surpassed anyone else in this café. Furthermore, thanks to the customers who would visit only to enjoy her in a waitress uniform, sales were on the rise, too.
The manager and the other employees were quite impressed with her abilities, while it was no surprise to me since I knew her from school.
What was a surprise, however, was that Tsukimori and Mirai-san were on very good terms. I would have been able to understand it if they had been like cat and dog, but in truth you could even say that they turned out to be a good match.
"I was convinced you wouldn't like her type of person," I addressed Mirai-san.
"It's the opposite. Women like Youko can't stand me."
Mirai-san flashed the kind of smile you would expect of the leader of some wicked organization that schemes to conquer the world.
"Why is that?"
"Conjurers don't like audience that sees through their tricks. And you see, the tricks of those women don't work on me." Indeed, Mirai-san's intuition was queerly sharp. "There's this gal in university who's quite popular with the guys because of such tricks. Well, once I was kinda pissed off by her attitude—okay, my mood had hit the rocks during that period in general—but anyway, I cut her down to size in front of all the others. And when I was finished with her, she wept and wept... such a pain."
"Right? She always runs away right when she spots me ever since. As if I was the bad one!"
Mirai-san seemed pleased about having my assent, but my condolences naturally belonged to the poor young woman who had made Mirai-san her enemy.
"But Youko's nothing like that. She seems to be unfeigned, without any tricks or pretenses."
Mirai-san turned her gaze towards the tables where Tsukimori was serving the customers.
"I was keen to blow her cover, but no matter how fiercely I observe her, she shows no openings. Heh, at first I was excited about the arrival of a powerful opponent and was like, 'Don't think you can deceive me forever!', but—"
Mirai-san made a short pause to sneer.
"—Lately, I've come to think that this is how Youko really is."
I followed her gaze to Tsukimori.
Indeed, she was always dignified, so I couldn't even imagine her whining. Even with this cross-grained personality of mine, I considered that gleam of hers pure and not some trick.
She had even managed to tame the "beast". No wonder that the "humans" around her would be captivated by her.
"What I like most about her is definitely that she isn't scared of me," said Mirai-san, who then turned around to the kitchen and suddenly shouted: "SARUWATARI!"
"Do your work properly!"
"I...I will! I will do it so properly!" cried Saruwatari-san, and moved even faster than before.
"See? Any other guy's like that, right?"
"Are you a devil?"
"You moron! It may not look like it, but Saruwari actually has a crush on me, you know?" Mirai-san tapped my forehead with her index finger. "Though I just don't have a thing for such timid guys."
"You are a devil."
I was speechless, only rubbing my forehead.
"Anyway, the point is I like her. Even if it's just some faked mask. It's my loss!"
"Is it as simple as that?"
"It is. However vicious Youko may turn out to be, I won't be able to dislike her so easily anymore. It's the same as my fondness of chocolate, which I can't stop though everyone babbles that eating too much isn't good for my health."
The self-proclaimed chocolate addict Mirai-san sat down on an edge of the counter, took a block chocolate out of her pocket and threw it in the air just to catch it with her healthily red tongue.
"My, that is bad manners Mirai-san! Don't always try to snack on chocolate when the shop manager is not watching. He told me that certain story about you, you know? Once, you collapsed because you wouldn't eat anything but chocolate," scolded Tsukimori, who had come over to forward an order, with the attitude of a class officer towards a delinquent.
"Speak of the devil!" countered Mirai-san in a daunting tone that sounded like nothing but a perfect example of delinquency.
"You were talking about me? Not badly I hope, right?"
"Why, of course not. We were praising you, Youko."
"Very well, I will take your word for it this time."
In contrast to what they said, they both seemed to enjoy talking to each other.
"You like me, don't you?" asked Mirai-san out of the blue.
"Yes, I do," replied Tsukimori in a split second with a giggle. "You also like me, right?"
"Without saying." Another immediate reply. They looked almost like old friends. "See? That's what I was getting at."
There were still some points that didn't make much sense to me, but I understood roughly what she wanted to say.
"—You really resemble each other in a way, huh," murmured Tsukimori suddenly.
Mirai-san and I looked at each other.
"Such an uncharming guy and I?"
"I'm not that frank, you know?"
Our denials were in sync.
"You don't flatter anyone, you don't go with the flow. 'You have your way', so to speak. I am actually quite jealous of that character trait of yours."
I paused for a moment before answering her, "Mirai-san is holier-than-thou to the core, while I simply take to going at my own pace. Unlike her, I am able to adapt and gladly follow superiors if necessary."
"I am always honest and not scheming like you," objected Mirai-san sharply.
"You ought to realize that sometimes the truth can hurt others more than a lie."
"You really are a cheeky fellow without any charm, Nonomiya."
"I don't need that from an indelicate bully like you!"
I sneered, whereupon Mirai-san stood up with glaring eyes.
"All right, Nonomiya!! You just overstepped your bounds! Let's take this outside! I'll bend that warped nature of yours into shape with my fists!"
Tsukimori, who had been watching us, suddenly started to giggle.
"You are like siblings."
"—Nonomiya, my brother?"
She let go of my collar and evaluated me from tip to toe with her gaze.
"Sis," I tried teasing her. To me it sounded like nothing but a Yakuza's way of addressing his female superior.
".........what a nightmare."
Whether it was because Tsukimori had spoiled her appetite for argument or because she was disgusted with the way I had called her, Mirai-san disappeared into the kitchen, holding her head.
"She may not look like it, but Mirai-san likes you, Nonomiya-kun," whispered Tsukimori. "I think she was actually fairly pleased that you called her 'sister'. I am sure she only escaped because she was embarrassed."
I gazed at her.
"What's the matter? Why that wondering face?"
"Even though you have spent much less time with Mirai-san than me, you seem to understand her pretty well."
"I have an eye for people. I knew we would get along well at first glance," Tsukimori told me, seeming very pleased with the compliment I had given her.
"But your eye for men needs some serious polishing."
Apparently, her mood was good; all I got in return for my cynical remark was a sugar-sweet smile.
"I really don't think so? You will surely become my dear life partner."
She skillfully put a cup of coffee onto the tray and headed with light steps towards a table.
I didn't intend to go along with her plans, so it was safe to assume that she had no foundation; but upon seeing her self-confident smile, I couldn't help but think that her words would come true.
Still, I had no plans of trusting her off-handedly like Mirai-san.
She wouldn't have stopped doubting Tsukimori so easily either, if she were in my position.
Because I knew about the murder recipe.
After Tsukimori started working at Victoria, Usami also became a frequent sight at the shop.
With her being very communicative, it didn't take long until she was well-liked by both the staff and the manager, and by now she was a proper regular. Thanks to that I was permanently on tenterhooks, afraid that Mister Kujirai might offer her a position.
"Hey, Nonomiya, Nonomiya, listen!"
Since she usually came after her club activities, she mostly arrived just before evening when the number of customers started to drop. She would then happily tell us about "that day's events".
"I was selected as a regular player for the next match!"
"Congratulations. Let me treat you to a drink to mark the occasion."
"Yay!" she shouted out so vigorously she almost jumped to her feet. "Um, in that case... can I ask for one more thing?"
She suddenly got flustered and peeked up at me with embarrassment. Her big, round eyes reminded me of a pygmy marmoset.
"If it's within my power."
"Can I take a photo of you?"
"Why? We see each other almost everyday. There's no point in specially taking a photo, is there?"
"Yes, there is! I want you in your garçon outfit!"
"I see." I pretended to ponder about it. "No."
"Why not! There should be no prob with it! It won't hurt!"
It was so amusing when she became angry and acted like a willful child.
"I'm not very fond of photographs and the like."
That was no lie. I meant it.
"But your garçon look has rarity value; it would be a shame, I tell you! Come on, just one!" she passionately tried to persuade me.
"Well, since you've finally become a regular player and want it so much—"
"Eh? You'll let me?"
Usami's eyes sparkled with expectations.
Which I gladly belied.
"Because I don't want to have my soul sucked out."
"That's a silly superstition!"
Teasing Usami was a life task of sorts for me. Because watching her reactions was like getting the crisp and shrill sound of a bell, I couldn't stop being mean to her.
"Geez! You miser!"
"Say what you want but my answer remains 'no'."
"I'll just take one secretly then..."
"As you just told the person in question, it's not going to be secretly at all."
Usami adopted drastic measures: she pointed her mobile phone at me and tried to shoot. I instantaneously turned from her.
"Aaah! W-Why did you turn around?!"
"Taking photographs is prohibited in this establishment. If you do not abide by this rule, I will have to request that you leave," I explained in an official-sounding tone, whereupon Usami puffed up her cheeks and stowed her phone away into her bag, but not without hissing: "Miser!"
A laugh accidentally escaped my lips.
"Cheer up, Usami. I can't consent to the photograph, but I'll treat you to dessert instead."
Her sour look moved me and made me want to spoil her. That's another form of carrot and stick, I guess.
"...an ice chocolate and a mango tart."
"Certainly," I answered her with the best smile I could produce and headed towards the kitchen to forward the order.
I couldn't keep my expression from loosening, which was only reasonable. Usami's straightforward reactions had a sort of stress-alleviating effect on me—probably because I had to deal with peculiar, to say the least, persons during my usual day.
"You're like a child that's playing with its favorite toy." With her chin propped up on her hand, Mirai-san grinned lopsidedly.
"Why, I would never think of her as a toy!" I answered while arranging the bills after I had communicated the order to Saruwatari-san.
Naturally, Mirai-san with her sharp wits had already noticed that I was fond of Usami. I didn't mean to hide it anyway.
"But I would love to have a pet like her at home."
In my mind I pictured a pygmy marmoset trying its best to munch on a mango that was as large as itself.
"No big difference."
"At any rate, it's true that I'm quite fond of her."
"How rare for you to admit something that easily." Mirai-san stared at me, surprised.
"It all depends on who it is about! Her straightforwardness causes me to be honest as well."
"Heh, great! Make her your girlfriend and have her fix that twisted personality of yours!"
Mirai-san laughed out loud, bending forward.
"That twisted personality you mention all the time would surely be twisted even more if you were my girlfriend," I thought without actually saying it.
"—That sounds quite realistic to me." Before I knew it, Tsukimori was standing next to me. "As far as I see, Chizuru is interested in you, too, Nonomiya-kun," said Tsukimori with that mature smile she was so good at.
"Oh? So she's not averse, either? I didn't know Nonomiya was such a lady-killer."
Mirai-san gazed curiously at Tsukimori. In my gaze, however, was nothing but suspicion.
What was she scheming?
Unlike Mirai-san, who didn't know that Tsukimori had asked me to go out with her, I completely failed to understand why she would encourage a relationship with Usami.
"Why don't you just go for her?" Mirai-san didn't miss out on that delicious chance.
"It's not my place to decide on that. Or am I just ignorant and love involves only one person?"
"Hey, didn't Youko just say that your chances are good?"
My snappish words made Mirai-san frown.
"You're no better, either, Tsukimori. I don't appreciate that you're trying to spur us on without reason. Careless remarks like these are rude towards both Usami and me."
I realized that I was irritated. Not angered, but irritated. Not like fire, but like "smoldering embers".
"You are right, Nonomiya-kun. I wasn't supposed to say that. I am sorry."
Tsukimori readily admitted her mistake and bowed in apology.
"Er, yeah, sorry. I didn't expect you to be that serious about it," Mirai-san awkwardly scratched her head, following Tsukimori's example.
"...no, it's up to me to apologize. It's just that I'm not used to such talk."
I showed them some kind of self-deprecation, which was the best I could do to varnish over my irritation.
Unable to keep the conversation going, we shared a few seconds of silence.
Then Mirai-san lost interest and disappeared into the kitchen, seeking an outlet for her vexation: "Saruwatari!!"
Tsukimori, however, had turned away from me and was standing still—an indecisive attitude that didn't match the image I had of her.
On my part, I was still uncomfortable, sensing a bitter aftertaste on my tongue even now that the conversation was over.
It wasn't irritation that originated from the earnestness towards Usami that Mirai-san had mentioned.
Sure enough, a part of me disliked it when people rashly meddled in others' love affairs. However, such situations were common and nowhere near rare, and I would have been able to dodge or adapt respectively, hiding my feelings as I used to do so unhesitatingly until now.
Just now, however, I had disgraced myself by exposing my feelings, which was not like me at all. It was probably the first time I had ever had such an experience.
Why was I so irritated? It was a nasty feeling; while I knew that it was there, I didn't know what the cause was.
At that moment, I heard a murmur.
"...I am sorry," whispered Tsukimori with a tiny, sore voice that was easily drowned out by the ado in the shop. I could not see her face as her back was still facing me, but I somehow sensed that her words weren't an "apology" but rather "remorse".
I never would have thought that Tsukimori regretted her words that much. Concurrently to surprise, I also experienced a strong feeling of pacification.
I had found the cause for my irritation. I still did not clearly know why, but it seemed like the cause was Tsukimori.
Why was I irritated by her?
Another question arose.
I chose to do a reset of my feelings and bring Usami her order because I thought I would only waste time if I got lost in a labyrinth of thoughts.
However, there was one discovery I had made: a new kind of emotion towards Tsukimori was about to be born.
I didn't know the name of that emotion yet, though.
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