Despite his resolve to try, Sakuta was unable to apologise the day after angering Mai. His hopes of running into her on the train in the morning were resoundingly dashed. He had then thought that in that case he would go to her classroom in the short break after the first period, but he hadn’t found her anywhere. When he spoke to the third-year girl near the door she made a slightly confused face, and then said:
“Sakurajima-san? Hmm, did she come in today?” And then returned to her conversation with her friends with “Well, she was yesterday.”
The classroom she was absent from was filled with the laughter of the boys and the giggling chatter of the girls, the atmosphere of break time didn’t change that much between second and third year. When he imagined Mai, isolated within it, his chest tightened somewhat.
“Where’s her seat?”
“Eh? Ah, over there.”
The girl pointed at a seat in the second row from the windows, at the very back of the room. Seeing that her bag was on the isolated desk, Sakuta returned to his own classroom.
Each break after that he traipsed to the third year classroom, but Mai wasn’t there. Her bag remained and the next subject’s books were arranged on the desk, so he was certain she was in school, but each trip ended as a wild goose chase.
His last hope was now when school ended, and with the end of homeroom Sakuta rushed to the entrance. He looked around for Mai, searching for about twenty minutes. Once he knew he wouldn’t find her there, he left the school and went down the road to the station. Of course, she wasn’t there; he couldn’t find her even on the Shichirigahama platform.
In the end he couldn’t even meet her today, let alone reconcile with her.
This continued for three days, after which even an idiot would have realised she was purposefully avoiding him. The problem was that her completely enforced attitude didn’t relax even after that.
Two weeks had somehow passed since then, and she was still avoiding him perfectly. Yesterday on his way home he’d lain in wait at the station, but even that hadn’t borne fruit. It seemed that she had walked to the next station and caught the train from there, she hadn’t appeared even after an hour of waiting.
At any rate, she was making it difficult. She was probably using techniques she had learnt in the world of show business for avoiding news cameras, disappearing like the mist sometimes.
“I guess I touched an absolutely massive nerve.”
That thought had strengthened as day after day went by with Mai’s stubborn behaviour. It was suggesting that she return to that world which had caused her anger, and the specific trigger was probably the word ‘manager’.
This made him think that there was a reason she had taken a hiatus and that she was hesitating to return, even though she wanted to. When he used a school computer to look it up the only kind of reasons he could find were worthless rumours, gossip like ‘overwork maybe?’, ‘somethin’s got to have happened with her producer’, and ‘it’s got to be a guy’. It had gotten to the point where the only thing he could do would be to ask her directly, but she was still perfectly avoiding Sakuta, so there was nothing else to do.
After school that day, Sakuta had decided that thoughtless pursuit was worthless and changed his approach a little. Once he had finished with cleaning duty, he walked over to the physics lab.
To meet his other friend.
He lightly knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a response.
“I’m gonna intrude.”
He entered and closed the door behind him.
“You’re intruding, so get out.”
And was immediately assailed by relentless words.
There was a single student within the large lab, who was preparing an alcohol burner and a beaker on the teacher’s desk. She didn’t even look at Sakuta as he entered.
She was petite, 155 centimetres in height and wore glasses. The white coat over her uniform drew the eye and her straight posture was kind of attractive.
Her name was Futaba Rio, a second-year student at Minegahara High School. She had been in the same class as Sakuta and Yuuma last year and was the sole member of the science club. She was known as a weirdo that sometimes caused power outages or small fires while performing experiments for the science club. The fact that she constantly wore her lab-coat was another reason that she drew attention.
Sakuta took a nearby chair and sat down in front of her, with the desk between them.
“How’ve you been?”
“Nothing has happened I’d report to you, Azusagawa.”
“Tell me something fun.”
“Don’t drag me into the conversations of high-schoolers with too much time on their hands.”
Rio raised her gaze and glared at Sakuta. Maybe she really did think he was intruding.
“We really are high-schoolers with too much time on their hands, we can act like it.”
Rio ignored Sakuta’s attempt at continuing the conversation and lit the burner with a match. She set it under a beaker full of water, she probably intended to do some kind of experiment.
“How have you been, Azusagawa?”
“Well, I’ve not really got anything to report.”
“Liar. You’ve been obsessed with a popular child actress, haven’t you?”
Without even thinking about it, he knew she was talking about Mai.
“She’s graduated from being a child actress long ago, she’s an actress, performer, or an entertainer.” Or maybe he should call her a normal person while she was on hiatus. “Anyway, who’d you hear that from?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Well, it’d only be Kunimi.”
Yuuma was the only one that knew about things Sakuta was involved with. He was also, of course, the only one along with Sakuta that would speak to Rio, singled out as a weirdo as she was for always wearing her lab-coat. That was it, QED.
“I’ve been worrying that you’ve been sticking your nose into strange places again, Azusagawa.”
“What’s with that ‘again’?”
“Worrying about such a good-for-nothing as you… Kunimi is too kind.”
“If you get how that works, go ahead and tell me.”
He thought the phrase ‘a nice personality’ existed for Yuuma, from the bottom of his heart.
When the rumours had spread about the hospital incident last year, it was Yuuma alone that didn’t change his behaviour. He hadn’t taken the rumours as read, and had asked Sakuta upfront when they were paired for PE.
“Of course not.”
Kunimi had smiled.
“…You believe me, Kunimi?”
Frankly speaking, it had been a shock. Most of his classmates believed the rumours, and had distanced themselves from him without finding out.
“Well, you didn’t, right?”
“Then rather than rumours from who knows who, I’ll believe you standing in front of me, Azusagawa.”
“You’re the worst, Kunimi.”
“Huh? How’d you get to that?”
“Even your personality’s handsome, you really are the enemy of all men.”
That had happened a year ago, and he had often spoken with Yuuma since then.
He looked at the flame with an unfocused gaze.
“The world is unfair, isn’t it?” And then she gave a somewhat rude glare. “That people are so different.”
Rio was clearly looking at Sakuta pityingly.
“Stop comparing me to Kunimi.”
“I’m just mocking you, don’t worry about it.”
“Obviously I would. Well, people like him hide all kinds of unspeakable perversions, thus the world’s balance is maintained.”
“You’re as socially awkward as ever.”
Rio spoke with a sigh.
“Calling your friend a pervert behind his back when he’s worrying about you.”
Rio’s statement was irrefutable.
“…I think I just thought of a difference with Kunimi.”
Rio drew out her introduction.
The water began to bubble within the beaker.
“You got over Makinohara.”
“…Why do you and Kunimi bring that up?”
“Don’t you get it better than anyone, Azusagawa?”
Rio asked, before she extinguished the burner and transferred the boiling water to a mug, following it with a spoonful of instant coffee. Apparently, it wasn’t an experiment.
“Give me some too.”
“Unfortunately, I only have one cup. Well, you can use this measuring cylinder.”
Rio calmly held out the thin, thirty-centimetre long glass cylinder.
“If I drank out of that, it’d be gone in a single sip.”
“You need to experiment to check if your hypothesis is correct, Azusagawa. Besides, there’s nothing else you could use.”
“Did it not occur to you to use the beaker you boiled the water in?”
“That was boring, too obvious.”
Even as she complained, Rio added instant coffee to the remaining water in the beaker.
“I don’t take any.”
Rio removed a plastic bottle from a drawer and thumped it down in front of Sakuta. Manganese dioxide was written on its label.
“Is this okay…”
“It’s probably sugar. It’s white after all.”
“Even I know there’s a lot of white powders.” He also knew that manganese dioxide was black. “Let’s try a little first.”
Sakuta ignored Rio’s realistic advice and took his black.
Her face grew somewhat regretful at that, and she once more lit the burner. He thought that this time she was indeed going to experiment, but she set a metal gauze over it and started to warm some dried squid and their tentacles curled up.
“Give me some too.”
He hadn’t thought it would go with coffee, but the smell made him want to eat. Rio tore of a single tentacle and gave it to him.
As he chewed on it, Sakuta brought up his main question.
“Hey, do you think things can become unsee-able?”
“If you’re worried about your vision, why not go see an optician?”
“No, that’s not what I mean… not being able to see things even though they’re there, like the invisible man.”
Mai also had the symptom of being inaudible, so it was a bit different in reality, but… he wanted to get the basics down first.
“And what, sneak into the girls’ toilets?”
“I’m not into scat, so let’s leave it at the changing rooms.”
“That’s you all right, a low-life.”
Rio reached a hand out to her bag, and took her phone from its pocket.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police won’t do anything before a crime happens.”
“That’s true.” Rio returned the phone to her bag. “Back to your earlier question, the mechanism behind sight is in the physics textbook. You just need to study light and lenses.”
Rio put a physics book in front of him with a thud.
“That’s boring, so I’m asking you.”
Sakuta politely returned the book. Rio ignored it and chewed her squid.
“Light is the important thing. It hits the object and is reflected off it, entering the eye, allowing people to see shape and colour. You can’t see things in the dark where there is no light.”
“If you don’t get it, think of echolocation, you should have heard of dolphins using ultrasonics.”
“Something about measuring the distance between them and an obstacle by listening to the reflected ultrasonic waves?”
“That’s right. It seems they can also distinguish the shape of things as well. Sonar on boats is the same. When it’s hard to image with light, it’s generally because there isn’t enough light to sense the brightness, or there’s no sensation of light entering the eye.”
“So things that don’t reflect light like transparent glass are hard to see.”
“Ahh, I get it.”
Then it would be light not hitting Mai. That happening to just a single performer on hiatus is so unlikely it wasn’t even funny. Or maybe he could think of it like light not reflecting from her like glass… but there were a lot of ways that didn’t fit. Her voice, and the fact that there were people that could and couldn’t see her. It was a complicated situation.
“I kind of get what you’re on about.”
She looked at him doubtfully.
“You must think I’m an idiot.”
“Not at all.”
“Then you think I’m a super idiot?”
“I think you’re an annoyance that goes out of his way to say something like that when he can guess what I want to say.”
“You’re the annoyance.”
“I think you’re the unpleasant kind of person that pretends he doesn’t get what’s going on, even though he does.”
“My bad, stop gouging at me, would you?”
“You would be able to get out of it so easily.”
Rio slurped her coffee, unimpressed.
He should bring the conversation back on track.
“Umm, then I’ll put some conditions on it. Is it possible for you to not be able to see me anymore when I’m just sitting in front of you like this?”
“If I close my eyes, yes.”
“With your eyes open, looking straight at me.”
Rio’s answer was the exact opposite of what he imagined, and came so readily too.
“If I was concentrating on something and zoned out, I wouldn’t notice you anymore.”
“No, it’s kind of different from that.”
“Well, going through it fully, from a different point of view than light… ‘seeing’ is influenced much more by a person’s brain than physical phenomena.” Apparently, she had finished her coffee, and filled another beaker with water and put it above the burner. “For example, I might look small to you, but a middle-schooler would call me big.”
“No, you’re big. You’re always wearing the lab-coat and guarding yourself but you can even tell through that.”
His gaze fell to her full chest.
“D-don’t talk about my breasts.”
Rio covered herself like a girl.
“Ahh, sorry, did it bother you?”
“You don’t have any sense of delicacy, or shame.”
“Maybe I dropped it somewhere.”
He looked around searchingly.
“Go away if you’re not going to take me seriously, the lecture is over.”
Rio stood from her seat.
“Sorry, I’ll take you seriously. I won’t look at your breasts either.”
“Like I said, don’t talk about my breasts.”
He actually wasn’t sure that he could avoid looking. His gaze unconsciously gravitated there, and putting it into practice would be hard without changing him on the genetic level. He put his coffee to his mouth and avoided it.
“So things that are visible become subjective?”
“That’s right. A person’s brain is able to not see things the person doesn’t want to see.”
Just like there were the phrases ‘pretending not to see something’, ‘not considering something’, ‘paying no notice to something’, and ‘not focusing on something’, there were many ways to say it, but he could agree with a lot of it.
It was just, Rio’s suggestions were all completely denied by Mai’s situation as he saw it. Putting it crudely, he felt that she was playing the role of ‘the atmosphere’ and was invisible to her surroundings, and thought there was a cause with Mai, but Rio had only talked from the point of view of the one who saw. In other words, it had nothing to do with the one being seen or the place.
“There’s also something called observation theory.”
He just repeated the words he hadn’t heard before.
“Putting it extremely, it’s that everything that exists in this world ‘first has its existence defined through the observation of someone’… it’s an unthinkable theory normally.” Rio spoke rather unemotionally. “You should have heard of a cat in a box, Schrödinger’s Cat.”
“Ahh, I’ve heard the name at least.”
Rio took an empty cardboard box from under the desk and placed it in front of Sakuta.
“You put a cat in here,” as she spoke, Rio first put a beckoning cat money box in the cardboard box. It was one the physics teacher used to save 500 yen coins, but it seemed fairly light, “and then you place a radioactive source that has a probability of emitting radiation within an hour…” she continued, putting the beaker she had boiled water in inside, “and put a container of poisonous gas that will open if it senses that radiation with it. If it opens, the cat will breathe the poisonous gas and die.” Finally, she added the plastic manganese dioxide bottle into the box. “You then close it and wait thirty minutes.” So saying, Rio closed the lid. “Now then, here’s one that’s been waiting for thirty minutes.”
“Is this a cooking show?”
Rio ignored his interruption and continued.
“What do you think happened to the cat?”
“Hmm, there’s a probability of it emitting radiation once in an hour? Then, the poison gas container detects that and opens?”
Rio nodded namelessly.
“And thirty minutes is half of that, so… it’s a half probability?”
“I’m surprised, you understood.”
“If I didn’t get this much, I’d either be a proper idiot, or not have been listening.”
“So then, is that cat alive or dead?”
“It’s fifty-fifty, right? You can just shake the box.”
“The box is metal and can’t be moved.”
It was a cardboard box in front of him.
“Then, I’ll believe it’s alive.”
“Whatever guess you make, it doesn’t matter in this situation.”
“Then don’t ask.”
“There’s nothing to do to ‘define’ the cat’s state other than look.”
“That’s a pretty normal method.”
Rio opened the box and, of course, the beckoning cat money box, the beaker, and the manganese dioxide bottle were inside.
“The instant the box is opened, the cat’s fate is defined. In other words, until you open the box and check, the cat is half alive and half dead. In the world of quantum mechanics at least.”
“What’s with that logic. What if it died after ten minutes? Wouldn’t the cat have been dead even if you didn’t have the extra twenty minutes before opening it?”
Or at least for the cat, its person-hood would be over. No, it’d be cat-hood in this case… either way, the result was the same.
“That’s why I said it was an unthinkable theory. Well, even leaving explaining quantum mechanics aside, I think the way of thinking about things itself has some truth to it.”
It was unquestionably suspicious.
“People see the world as they expect it to be. The rumour about you is a good example. People give precedence to the theory even over the truth. If you were the cat in the box, and the other students are the observers, you could think of reality being substituted, no?”
It seemed she was trying to say… it wasn’t the circumstances within the box, it was the subjectivity of those that saw it afterwards that mattered. It had nothing to do with Sakuta, the person in question, the image of Sakuta was decided by the observers.
“That’s not even funny…”
However, it was hard to reconcile it with Mai’s situation. Sakuta could see her and others couldn’t, and he didn’t get what kind of conditions becoming invisible would require. It had been interesting, but he had the feeling that the pieces didn’t quite fit. Besides, a fake phenomenon like Adolescence Syndrome might not be able to be explained physically. It seemed like some of their conversation would be clues, but discussing it with Rio seemed to have made it more difficult.
Just returning to show-business might not solve Mai’s problem, and that unpleasant feeling settled in Sakuta’s chest. Rio had talked about the people seeing from beginning to end, so… a change in Mai’s mental state alone might not be any help.
“This is supplementary, but there are physical examples of observation changing the outcome.”
“There’s something called the double slit experiment… Talking only very simply of the conclusion, observing the experiment through its course and only observing the results cause the results to change between each case.”
“So, it’s like… if the Japanese football team have a match and if I just check the news then they won, but if I went and watched they lost?”
“What I’m talking about is only applicable to particles… the microscopic world. Before it’s observed, a particle’s position is probabilistic, and it’s a waveform, not matter. Observing it confines it to matter.”
“But when you put all that micro stuff together, it makes people and things, right?”
Even Sakuta knew that people and things were made up of molecules, atoms, electrons, and various other things.
“If what I was saying occurred in the macroscopic world, your explanation would be fine. Also, you should never watch football again for the sake of our team. Don’t look twice.”
He got some helpful advice from Rio when the school intercom sounded:
“Would Kunimi-kun from class 2-2 please come to the staffroom to see the basketball club’s adviser, Sano-sensei.”
“Did he do something?”
“He’s not you. Besides, it’s probably confirming their training schedule.”
She didn’t seem interested, but Rio sided with Yuuma. As he looked at the speaker he checked the time, a little past three.
“Ah, I have work, so I’m going home.”
“Thanks for everything, the coffee was great too.”
“If you’re going to thank someone, thank the physics teacher, it’s not mine.”
Rio picked up the coffee jar and showed him the name on its lid.
“Well, he won’t notice a little missing.”
He said and stood, putting his back on his shoulder and walking out. As he touched the door, he suddenly remembered something and looked back. Rio was tending a gas burner flame like she really intended to do an experiment this time.
She only acknowledged him verbally and kept her gaze on the pale blue flame.
“Are you alright about Kunimi?”
She looked at him with wavering eyes, and soon said.
“I’m…” then stopped in mid-sentence. She had probably meant to say ‘I’m fine’ and failed, her voice sounded empty, and her usual expression of concentration tightened. “I’m used to it.”
She gave up on saying she was fine and gave a weak smile.
Sakuta couldn’t do anything, he could do nothing but watch her unrequited love from the side.
“You’ll be late for work.”
She gestured with her chin for him to leave, and then watched him go as he left the physics lab. Closing the door behind him, he unconsciously muttered.
“‘Used to it’… you haven’t given up at all.”
“Azusagawa-kun, take your break before we get the dinner rush.”
Sakuta went into the space that doubled as both the men’s changing area and break room at those words from the family restaurant manager. Yuuma had just finished changing and left the shadow of his locker, even though he’d already had club activities, he showed no sign of being tired. Yuuma noticed Sakuta.
Sakuta replied bluntly to Yuuma as the latter fastened his apron.
“Are you on break?”
“I’d be in the hall otherwise.”
He’d neatly tied his apron and was checking his appearance in front of the mirror.
“Ah, right, Sakuta.”
He spoke to Sakuta again, as if remembering something.
Sakuta sat on a pipe chair and poured himself some tea from the pot on the table.
“You’ve been hiding something from me.”
“What’s with that phrasing, are you my girlfriend?”
For a moment, he was startled, thinking it was about Rio’s one-sided love. But it was a different name that left Yuuma’s mouth.
“It’s not a joke, it’s about Kamisato.”
Sakuta looked away as he relaxed. That itself wasn’t something he wanted to touch on. But apparently, Yuuma knew about Kamisato Saki calling him up to the roof. He’d probably heard from the girl herself. There was no avoiding it now.
“Your girlfriend is amazing.”
“Right, she’s my wonderful girlfriend.”
“She told me not to talk to you.”
“She wants me to herself, she loves me that much.”
“Apparently I’ll make you look bad. How bad are you now?”
Yuuma put his hands together and bowed his head.
“You’re amazing too?”
“She’s so inciteful and you won’t say a word against her.”
“Well yeah, I’m going out with her because I love her. She sometimes comes across a bit fierce, but she’s a good, honest girl.”
He had a feeling she was a bit too honest…
“You sound like a wife getting abused by her husband.”
“What, the ‘he’s sometimes kind’ type? Don’t be stupid.”
“Well, don’t worry about me. Whatever she says won’t hurt, or even tickle.”
“That’s complicated itself.”
Yuuma smiled with a troubled expression.
“More importantly, I’m sorry.”
“What brought this up?”
“It can’t be fun to hear me complain about your girlfriend.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s not fair to Kamisato.”
“Ah, that’s true.” Yuuma gave a carefree smile. “Anyway, it’s fine. And Sakuta, don’t pay too much attention in future, avoiding me will just make me angry.”
“I’m not taking responsibility if you get in a fight with her.”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it… I sorta feel like she’ll be more focused on you, so it’s fine.”
He spoke of an annoyance so easily.
“Oi, wait a minute, hey!”
“If it doesn’t hurt or tickle, it’s fine right?” Yuuma smiled triumphantly. “You’re just something else, being able to ask a girl ‘are you on your period?’. What’s your heart? Is it made of iron?”
“Ah, crap, it’s time.” Kunimi hurriedly swiped his time card as he caught sight of the time. “Clocking iiiin.”
And then he headed out into the hall.
But, before even a minute had passed, he was back in the break room. Maybe he’d forgotten something, though Sakuta couldn’t see anything he would have.
Yuuma’s gaze fell on him without hesitation, and he looked like he wanted to say something.
“That woman’s here again.”
Yuuma’s expression was closed off, and there was a hint of worry mixed in with the seriousness upon his face, eloquently telling Sakuta that it was a customer that he should greet.
Sakuta ignored his break and went out into the hall, heading to an inner table. In the booth sat a woman in the latter half of her twenties. She was wearing a knee-length skirt and a short-sleeved blouse that had a touch of a fresh spring day about it. She had natural looking makeup that held off from gaudiness. She seemed somewhat intellectual, and like a presenter. She was an actual presenter though…
“May I take your order?”
Asked Sakuta, stubbornly business-like.
“It’s been a while.”
“Who would you be again?”
“I see, that’s how it is. Well then, it is nice to meet you, this is who I am.”
The woman held out her business card with polite movements.
The TV Station logo, her position as a presenter, and in the middle was her name, ‘Nanjou Fumika’.
He’d spoken with her in that way, but he really knew her. He had met her when his sister was bullied and Fumika was doing a piece called ‘On the Problems of Bullying in Middle School’, and it was nearly two years since then.
“What do you want today?”
“I came to do a story on raw whitebait and I’m free this evening, so I came to meet you.”
Sakuta’s expression remained unmoving in front of her forced cheeriness. He knew what she was after, when she was covering the bullying, she knew of and had an interest in Adolescence Syndrome. Of course, she didn’t outright believe an urban legend like that. She was dubious and sceptically, but it could have been a big scoop if it was real, so she couldn’t give up on it, and Fumika herself had spoken indifferently about it since then.
“If you’re free, why not invite a baseball player on a date? That’s like a presenter.”
“It’s a charming suggestion, but the first teams are all working seeing as it’s baseball season.”
It was six PM, and matches would be being played.
“Besides, I can have a date here.”
Fumika turned a suggestive look on him.
“I don’t have any interest in older women.”
“A kid like you just doesn’t know an adult’s charms.”
She looked up at his face as she held a finger to her cheek.
“I know that you’re fatter than when we met three months ago. Your upper arm’s looking pretty bad.
“…kh!” Her eyebrows jerked upwards and she sat back in her chair, somewhat poutily and said. “You’re not cute.”
“You could at least say handsome… your order?”
“One Sakuta-kun to go.”
“You seem somewhat ill, so I’ll order an ambulance.”
He returned dully.
“I’ll take the cheesecake and drink set, with a hot coffee.”
She ordered without looking at the menu. Every time she came here, Fumika would order the same thing. How would he put it? It was kind of like a man’s action.
“Is that all?”
“Do you still not feel like talking about the incident?”
Fumika took out her smartphone from her bag and started checking her e-mails.
“I just want a photo of the scars on your chest.”
She scrolled the screen with her finger.
“Then will you let me take a picture of you naked, Nanjou-san?”
“We have a harlot heeere.”
“Just for personal use, okay? I’d be fired if it found its way onto the internet.”
It seemed that talking with her any further would be stupid, and Sakuta left without replying.
But, after two or three steps, he suddenly thought of something.
He returned and spoke to her.
She replied absently, still looking at her phone.
“Nanjou-san, do you know Sakurajima Mai?”
He said, with a slight hesitation before the name.
“Is there anyone that doesn’t?”
Fumika’s gaze was still focused on her e-mails.
“Do you know… why she took a hiatus?”
He knew that Fumika worked as a variety show assistant and did coverage on show-business.
“…” She looked at him in puzzlement, probably wondering why he was asking about Sakurajima Mai. But her face quickly took on another expression. She was interested that he’d ask that, but even if that showed on her face she didn’t say it. “I think I know some things normal people don’t at least.”
“So, is this a request as a child? Or a negotiation between adults?”
“Stop treating me like a child.”
“In that case then, I can’t just tell you for free, can I?”
“You can have a picture.”
“Fu fu, we have a deal.”
She returned the phone to her bag, and as Sakuta urged her onwards with his eyes, he arrived at the table of adulthood.
Sakuta stopped by a convenience store on his way home, after working until nine o’clock. There were few people on the streets as he trudged through the residential areas for about ten minutes until he reached his building. The lift went up to the fifth floor in one go, and as he approached his door, he noticed someone there.
It was Mai, sat against the wall and wearing a Minegahara school uniform, with her knees up and her arms around them. She was sat like a girl in PE, with both her knees and thighs together, and only her lower legs separate. She had probably followed someone in through the self-locking doors below.
She looked up at him reproachfully as he approached.
“You’re finally home.”
“I was working.”
“At the family restaurant by the station.”
First, he made a gesture like he was frying something for ‘pan’, then he put his hands into a T shape for ‘ties’, followed by hooking a finger into an R for ‘are’, and then held out his hand, palm up, for ‘showing’.
“What are you playing at?”
She looked at him like he was an idiot, apparently, she hadn’t noticed that her pure white panties were visible through her black tights, she was way too defenceless.
He had no other choice.
“I can see your panties.”
He told her bluntly. Mai panicked and checked herself.
“I-it’s not like I care if a younger boy sees my underwear.”
As she spoke, she put a hand between her legs and pulled her skirt down. He wondered why it was that her trying to hide them was more erotic than them being completely visible.
“Even though you’re bright red?”
“T-that’s because I’m excited!”
“Uwah, there’s a harlot here too.”
“Who’re you calling a harlot!”
Mai glared at him.
“Well, you should just stand up for now.”
He reached out a hand to her. Mai reached back until they were nearly touching and then as if she had rethought things, withdrew it, standing up herself with a ‘hmph’.
“I don’t want to touch a boy’s hand, I don’t know where it’s been.”
She smiled triumphantly, apparently enjoying herself. However, her triumph didn’t last long, as her stomach growled.
“You sound hungry.”
He followed, monotonously.
“You have an awful personality.”
“Eh, I know.”
Sakuta took a cream roll from the convenience store from his bag. After some slight hesitation, she reached her hand out. It felt like he was feeding a stray cat.
Mai opened the package and bit into the cream roll.
“When did you turn into the hungry character?”
“…” She continued chewing silently and after swallowing said. “I can’t shop.”
With a tone that made it sound like it was Sakuta’s fault.
“Ahh, I see.”
Other people couldn’t see her, so she couldn’t do what she had planned. Just like he’d seen happen when she tried to buy a cream roll from the bakery in the station and the woman seemed to ignore her. It was a pitiful scene.
“There have been many more places where I’ve become invisible. The area around Fujisawa station is completely gone, and even if I buy things online, I can’t receive the parcel so it’s the same thing.”
“So, will you come in?”
Sakuta took out his key and gestured at the door.
“Treat me to food.”
“That’s a weird way of putting it.”
Mai glared steadily at him, but was unfortunately not scary in the slightest, in fact, it was cute.
“I’ll do so then.”
“No way, going into a boy’s room so late is just begging for something to happen.”
“I see, so that’s consent from you, I’ll remember that.”
Mai hit his head with the edge of her hand.
“Don’t be stupid, just come shopping with me.”
“Ah, then wait a bit, I need to tell my sister I’m home.”
“Got it, I’ll wait downstairs.”
Mai turned her back on Sakuta as he turned the key, and headed to the lifts.
It took fifteen minutes to convince Kaede, and another fifteen to pacify Mai after she waited for fifteen minutes. It took ten minutes to travel and when they then finally arrived at a supermarket near the station the clock had long passed ten PM.
The shop was open until eleven and had a fair few customers, young men in suits scattered around. They probably lived alone and were shopping on the way home. It was the store that Sakuta usually used, but it was rare for him to come at this hour, so it was a somewhat invigorating feeling.
And then, invigorating him further was the fact that he wasn’t alone, he had Sakurajima Mai with him. She was slightly ahead, picking out food. Pushing the trolley along behind her was sort of fun, and his face relaxed naturally.
“This definitely makes us look like a couple.”
“Did you say something?”
Mai looked back, holding a carrot in each hand.
“It’s okay, besides, no one can see me.”
Apparently, she did actually hear it.
“I wonder if this is that situation where a girl stops over for the first time and cooks for me.”
“If you just keep having stupid delusions, you’ll end up stupid.”
She returned the carrot in her right hand to the shelf with a disparaging look.
“Then I’ll be serious.”
He could tell that her tone was completely disbelieving.
“What does that carrot look like to the people that can’t see you, is it floating?”
“It seems like it’s invisible.” Mai answered immediately, she’d probably already experimented. She then waved the carrot in front of a passing worker’s face and he had no reaction. “See?”
“So it does.”
“I tried taking the shopping to a cashier before, but that didn’t work either. Besides, they can’t see my clothes either, can they?” That was true, it was completely different to just Mai herself becoming invisible. “I wonder if things become invisible if I touch them.”
“By that logic, the Earth would be invisible.”
“That’s thinking big.”
“I’m a big guy.”
She brushed it off.
“Then… what would happen if you touched me?”
“Is that an indirect way of asking to hold hands?”
“No, just an experiment.”
He’d already experienced touching her, when she went into his room and touched the scars on his chest, and when their shoulders touched so she’d ‘get pregnant’ while they were on the train. But Sakuta hadn’t become invisible. He’d probably be able to checkout with the things in the trolley if he took them to the cashier. If he had to say, he wanted to know what would happen while they were touching.
“I won’t hold hands for that.”
She walked briskly over to the meat.
“I was hiding my embarrassment by calling it an experiment, I really just wanted to hold hands.”
He spoke to her back as he watched her.
Mai smiled in enjoyment over her shoulder.
“Please give me, having never even held a girl’s hand, my first.”
“That’s a tad disgusting… but well, you pass.”
Mai waited for Sakuta to catch up with her and then warmth enveloped the right side of his body as she put her arm in his. He was, of course, surprised and his heart raced.
Mai’s face was right beside his because of her height, she was close enough to count her every individual eyelash.
As time passed he became more and more aware of the soft sensation of her chest pressing into him. He’d known when he saw her in the bunny girl outfit, but for her slender body, she certainly had some curves. Her faint fragrance made his head swirl.
“You’re thinking something perverted aren’t you.”
“Something a hundred times more perverted than you think.”
Mai suddenly separated at his honesty.
“But well, an adult like you would be fine with that.”
“That’s right. A younger boy imagining perverted things is n-nothing to me.”
Mai stubbornly held to his arm.
He couldn’t help but let out a strange noise. Because of that, a nearby worker looked at him quizzically. Their eyes met and the man could definitely see him. But he didn’t seem to notice Mai, she was still invisible.
“Is this not enough.”
“I’m sorry, this is my loss. Any more will make it hard to walk for certain reasons, so please let me go.”
“This is your punishment for provoking people.”
Mai was amused and didn’t move away from him. Apparently, she was gradually becoming immune to that kind of statement. That said, Mai’s act wasn’t at all a punishment, it was too enjoyable and was more of a reward.
“Ah, that reminded me, aren’t we fighting?”
Mai had been smiling gently and now moved away from Sakuta in apparent boredom. The speed with which she changed her attitude was surprising, and he didn’t know if she was serious or acting. He thought it was a bit of a shame, but still got plenty of enjoyment the rest of the shopping.
There was a slight amount of unease remaining, but the food Sakuta was carrying was all paid for. He paid normally and packed the vegetables, meat, and sweets into bags.
Sakuta left the store with a bag in each hand and walked home alongside Mai. Though that said, Sakuta didn’t know where ‘home’ was.
“Mai-san, where do you live?”
Going shopping at Fujisawa station would mean that she would live within walking distance.
She said disinterestedly, and Sakuta just followed her obediently. They were currently heading in the same direction as Sakuta lived.
“I’m looking forward to seeing your house.”
“You’re not coming in.”
She refused flatly, with a serious expression.
“Don’t whinge like a child. Besides, we’re fighting aren’t we?”
“That’s because you’re not honest.”
“Huh? Did I say something I shouldn’t have?”
“You keep going even though you want to go back to acting.”
“Don’t bring up things that don’t concern you.”
She spoke quietly, but strongly. It was more than a denial, it was a rejection, as she coldly refused him.
“Is it because I don’t know anything?”
“That’s right, don’t open your mouth if you don’t know anything.”
“What a shame then, I do know. At least why you took a hiatus from show-business.”
Mai smiled indulgently.
“It’s the photo-book that came out in your third year of middle school.”
The composure vanished from her face.
“Even though you said that swimsuits were out of the question, there was one sold with them in, and your manager, your mother signed the contract.” Until then, even in the gravure photos, she hadn’t worn a swimsuit, even though there was more than enough demand. If anything, she’d established a position of not showing skin, and been fine with just showing her beauty. “And then, you fought with your mother and got your revenge with the best way to shock your mother ‘withdrawing from the world of show-business’.”
“But that was worthless.”
“Throwing away your own desires at the same time is meaningless.”
“No, you’re the one that should be quiet, you’ll disturb the people sleeping…”
As he spoke, a slap flew into his left cheek and resounded through the street.
“I was obviously really worried!”
“I was still a middle schooler you know!? And yet they presented me with a swimsuit in the studio, and there were only adults around… I was told the contract was already signed, and even though I hated it, that I’d have to do my job, that I had to wear it… that I had to force a smile!”
If she had more normality, she might have spoken for herself, thrown a tantrum and refused. But she was Sakurajima Mai, who had worked professionally in that world since she was six, amongst the adults…
She wouldn’t be allowed to cause a scene at the time. She had to read the atmosphere and choose cleverly. She had to act like an adult, even though she was a child.
“She used me, she didn’t see me as anything but a way to get money.”
She practically spat the words, hoarsely. And so Sakuta noticed that that was the first reason, to rebel against her mother that just saw her as a product. He wouldn’t say he understood those feelings, he didn’t in the slightest, but there was one thing he was sure of.
“That’s why I think even more that you should return to show business.”
“Just leaving it with those unpleasant feelings just mean that you’ll stay with those unpleasant feelings.”
“If you want to do something, don’t hold back, just do it. Even I know that, so you should definitely know.”
Mai looked down, as if her burning rage had cooled.
Ten seconds passed in total silence.
“I’m sorry for hitting you.”
She apologised quietly.
His cheek was still throbbing in pain.
“Do you normally hit people that are carrying your things?”
“I didn’t punch you at least.”
“…Thank you very much.”
He thanked her honestly, but tonelessly.
“You don’t sound thankful at all.”
“Well yeah, you slapped me. Ahhh, it hurts, it huuurts~”
“It hurts so much I might cry. Only a beautiful senpai’s caress can heal me.”
“You reap what you sow.”
“Eh, where did I sow anything?”
He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong here.
“And just who was it that purposefully made me angry?”
Mai denounced Sakuta with her dissatisfied eyes.
“What do you mean?”
It was too late to play dumb now, but he wouldn’t admit it here.
“You were trying to make me say what I really wanted by making me emotional, weren’t you?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“You’ve really got a good personality.”
Mai’s hand reached out to his cheek, and when he thought she’d caress it, she gently pinched it, and then pinched the cheek she hadn’t slapped and pulled her hands apart.
“Incidentally, Sakuta-kun.” Mai had completely returned to herself and turned questioning eyes on him. “Who did you hear about that from.”
He looked towards the sky.
“Look me in the eye.”
She tightened the grip of her fingers.
“So, who was it?”
She wouldn’t let him stay silent, and trying to fool her probably wouldn’t work either. Mai herself would know that it wasn’t information most people would know. After all, it hadn’t come out until now.
“I’ve got an acquaintance that’s an announcer from when things happened with Kaede.”
“You know her?”
“She’s been an assistant on that afternoon variety show. She’s helped me too.” The word ‘helped’ was, of course, not said in a good way. “So why do you still associate, the thing with your sister was two years ago, wasn’t it?”
“When they were doing the news piece, she had an interest in Adolescence Syndrome. She saw the scars on my chest and sometimes shows up wanting to do a story on it.”
Incidentally, she had said that what she was telling him about Mai was part guesswork, and that there was pressure from several sources not to go public with it.
“And so, what did you tell that woman to get the information about me.”
Mai looked at him with sharp eyes.
“Not a thing.”
He answered calmly, even as his heart raced.
“Liar, that woman’s a reporter, besides, the media won’t just give information for free, you must have had some sort of agreement.”
Mai was far and away more knowledgeable about the world of television, of course, he couldn’t continue the lie, and she probably wouldn’t let him remain silent. Sakuta accepted the situation and confessed.
“I let her have a picture, of the scars on my chest.”
He’d keep quiet about having gone into the toilet with her to take it, it would definitely be better to not say that her sweet scent had put him in a slightly aroused mood.
“You really are, what are you thinking!?”
She glared at him in rage, showing her real anger.
“Well, of you.”
“I really am.”
He couldn’t look her in the face out of fear and looked off to the side.
Either disgusted or exhausted, Mai let her hands fall from his face and released him, but he could still feel her glare.
“Your scars will become a bad memory for you, and might even hurt your sister.”
Mai looked at him seriously.
“I’ll protect Kaede from it.”
“If they did a piece two years ago on bullying, they might notice something about her too?”
“Well, I can’t really help that.”
Mai then suddenly held her hand out as if demanding something. He hadn’t the slightest idea what she wanted, so he put both bags in one hand and stretched his hand back.
But she slapped it away before they touched.
“I told you to give me her contact details.”
He thought back, but couldn’t remember her saying a single word.
“Infer it from the circumstances.”
“You’re too much like a queen, Mai-san.”
“You’re too naive about the media. Naive enough to be careless. If the media gets an interest in you, you’ll be surrounded by reporters you know? Imagine that, cameras trained on your house.”
He imagined it just like she said, the harsh spotlight on someone involved in a scandal, the flash of cameras, the rude questioning… putting himself in a movie that he had watched in the past.
“…I feel sick.”
The colour drained from his face.
“You’ll feel a hundred times as sick if that actually happens.”
Mai gave a vicious final blow. Sakuta began to think that he might have done something he couldn’t take back, and felt a chill down his back.
“Be more careful, okay?” Even though she was irritated, he didn’t feel any unpleasantness from her. She seemed warm, even though she was angry, Sakuta realised that it was probably because she was actually worried about him and scolding him. “Your answer?”
“Right, I get it. I’ll be careful. But the photo’s already…”
“That’s why I said.” Mai held her hand out again. “You should have her contact details, right?”
Sakuta took out the business card she had given him earlier and handed it to Mai. She looked at the front and then immediately turned it over.
“She wrote her mobile number on the back, disgusting.”
For some reason, she condemned Sakuta.
“I do like older girls, but not that much older.”
Still displeased, Mai punched the number into her phone.
“Hey, Mai-san, what are you doing?”
She put the phone to her ear and turned her back on Sakuta. Apparently, she picked up immediately.
“I apologise for such a sudden call, I am Sakurajima Mai, you helped me at work before. It’s not a prank, so don’t hang up please… Yes, that Sakurajima Mai. It has been a while. Can we talk now?” Mai moved the conversation along quickly. “You spoke with Azusagawa Sakuta today, and gave him your details. He’s in the year below me. Yes…”
Mai’s calm tone on the phone made her seem strangely like a dependable adult.
“I’d like you to not publish the photo of his scars. I would also like you to refrain from asking specialists if you could… Yes, of course I wouldn’t ask it for free, I’ll give you a scoop in exchange.”
He thought he knew what she was going to say and panicked, thinking that she was going to offer herself up instead.
Mai turned over her shoulder and put a finger to her lips like she was telling a child to be quiet.
“Yes, I know. It’s suitable information, so rest assured.” She turned her back on him again and continued. “I will be coming back to show-business soon. I’ll give you and your company exclusive rights to it… yes, of course, I know that wouldn’t be enough, but I’m sure you’ll agree when you hear this.” She then paused, and spoke words that seemed almost rehearsed. “I won’t be returning to my mother’s agency, I will be returning with another.”
Sakuta was probably more surprised than Fumika at that. Just the other day, just the other moment… they had been fighting about this, with Mai fighting against Sakuta’s suggestion to return… And yet she was saying precisely that. If this hadn’t surprised him, nothing would have.
“I think that this will be a far more effective story than what you have from Azusagawa-kun that will make people doubt your sanity, don’t you? I hope you’ll consider it.” For a while, she just answered with short phrases like ‘yes’, ‘right’, and ‘I understand’. “Then we have a deal. I look forward to working with you.”
Having maintained her politeness to the end, Mai hung up and immediately turned to Sakuta.
“And that’s that.”
“Why are you apologising?”
“You’re pretty cute when you’re sad.”
For once, he didn’t have anything to come back with, and couldn’t raise his head. The chill of being surrounded by cameras was nowhere to be found and he was filled with a sense of security. And, without a doubt, Mai was the one that had given him that.
“But, you said you’d return.”
And she had even said she would change agency.
“I thought you were right.” She pouted like she didn’t want to admit it. “I enjoyed working in TV shows and movies, it’s worth doing and it was fun. I always thought I’d like to carry on doing it. I can’t help it, even if I lie about those feelings… is there a problem?”
“There is, a big one.”
“W-what, this is where you forgive me.”
“You say that after avoiding me for the past two weeks?”
“I just helped you, didn’t I?”
“This and that are separate things.”
“Uuhh… I’m sorry for being stubborn, okay?”
Even as she looked annoyed, she admitted her error and apologised.
“Please forgive me, I regret it.”
“That would have been perfect if it had been shy and with upturned eyes.”
“Don’t get carried away.”
Mai pinched his nose.
“Uwah, whad are you doink?”
His voice was more muffled than usual and Mai laughed at it. It was then that he realised why she had come to his home. She’d come to tell him she was returning to show-business. It had nothing to do with his issues with Fumika, it was something Mai had decided for herself. He was a bit regretful about it, but also happy.
“The world keeps turning, huh.”
“What did you say?”
“I was talking to myself.”
They walked alongside each other, and their steps were much lighter than before. All that remained was for Mai’s determination to clear her Adolescence Syndrome.
Three minutes later, Mai stopped and said.
They were stopped in front of the building Sakuta lived in.
“Yeah, I’m over here.”
Mai pointed at the building opposite. It was so close that he wouldn’t need to see her home, but it was a surprise she lived so close. Today was a day of shocks, and he was even more surprised than when she said she was returning to show-business.
“Thank you for carrying them.”
She said as she took the bags from him, unfortunately, it seemed she really wouldn’t invite him in.
“That’s right, Sakuta-kun.”
“What is it, my Queen?”
“Go out with me this weekend.”
Her words were strangely fitting because he called her a queen.
“When I return, I’ll be busy and won’t have time to play around. And even though I’ve lived here for two years, I’ve never been to Kamakura, it’s strange, right? So I want to go at least once.”
“Can you get work that easily?”
He looked at her doubtfully and she naturally replied.
“I am Sakurajima Mai.”
It was amazing that she didn’t sound haughty when she said that, and all the more refreshing for it. Despite that, it felt realistic, and he felt that with Mai being who she was, her schedule really would fill up fast.”
“Ah, but Sunday’s-”
“Do you have something more important than my invitation?”
“I have a shift in the morning until lunch on the weekend.”
“Switch with someone… well, I won’t tell you that.” And just who was the one actually saying it so bluntly. “I sort of have the feeling that you’d prioritise the work over me and that’s irritating.”
“It’s until two, so after that is fine.”
“Well, that works.”
It seemed as she stood on his foot that she didn’t agree in the slightest, but said that she did. He didn’t know whether to call her an adult or a child. Rather than that, she was a mix of the both, he thought.
“Don’t smile so much.”
“You asked me on a date, how could I not?”
“Ah, it’s not a date.”
She shot that down immediately.
“Would a date be that good?”
He nodded energetically.
“We’ll do that then.”
And of course, took a triumphant pose.
“Are you that happy about it?”
“Then I’ll be waiting at the ticket gate to Enoshima Fujisawa station at five past two.”
“I did say that I finished at two, didn’t I?”
“That’s why I said five past.”
“Please give me a bit of leeway for if the restaurant is busy and I can’t leave right away.”
“Two-thirty then, if you’re even a second late, I’ll leave.”
And thus, Sakuta unexpectedly gained the process of his first ever date.
That day, in the Azusagawa household’s bathroom, a happy roar could be heard.