Snail's pace, but at least we're moving along.
The man brought Romiemarigana to a bizarre, silver house.
Though she could not smell anything with her nose, the house was somehow filled with a scent that set her mind at ease.
The man provided Romiemarigana with food she had never seen before. They were uncomfortably sweet, but they more than appeased her hunger.
Who is this man? — Romiemarigana thought to herself.
She has never met anyone outside of her tribe. However, they did know that in the world they named "Grando", there existed other tribes as well. Her fellow tribe-mate Pegii-Iliziya used to boast about his encounter with another tribe and how they drove him away.
That made her think all other tribes were a source of danger to hers.
However, the man before her was incredibly cordial.
<Romiemarigana's Expanding World>
On Friday, there wasn't much interaction between me and Shinonome when I reached school.
She was doing her normal thing where she would read non-stop without even looking at me once. For a while, it felt like the talk we had yesterday was all just a lie. Come to think of it, though I was asking for Shinonome's autograph, it was her stand to keep her identity as an author a secret. She probably won't touch on the topic while there are other students around us.
As I rested my chin on my hands and listened to the boring history lessons, I began recalling the conversation I had with Shinonome yesterday.
"However, can you listen to a request of mine?"
What will that request be?
"There's this bag that I always wanted."
There's no way she'll say that, obviously. It doesn't feel like she's a materialistic person. Moreover, with her novels published in the magazines, she should be receiving quite a bit of royalties from them. She's probably much richer than I am.
Still, I have zero idea what Shinonome would want from me. I have no idea how tiring it is for an author to sign an autograph, but there's no way she'd go to the extremes and say things like "The sight of you is revolting, so just die" — I hope.
The lessons continued on without anything noteworthy happening, and soon lessons were over for the day.
I ignored the students who were preparing themselves for their co-curricular activities, packed up my stuff in a jiffy and stood up to prepare to leave. I could very well wait for the crowd to clear instead of rushing if there's nothing waiting for me, but today's not the day to do so. Shiina-san would handle the counters by herself while waiting for the committee members to show up at the library, but I'm sorry to say that Shiina-san's not really somebody you can count on. She'd forget to scan the barcode due to a brief lapse of concentration. Then she'd get flustered when she realized her mistake, resulting in things like being repeatedly unable to scan the barcode. So actually, she's would cause a long line to form before the counter.
As I inadvertently turned my head, I realized Shinonome was standing as well.
It wouldn't be great to just head to the library by myself, so I matched my pace with Shinonome's and left the classroom with her. I couldn't chat with her due to the other students around us. When we reached the staircase to the highest floor where the library was located, I, after making sure no one else was around, finally broke the silence.
"Oh yeah, I've read it already. Shinonome's story."
Upon hearing that, Shinonome stopped in her tracks to look at me.
I wasn't expecting any happy emotions from her. In fact, I thought I would be receiving some sort of cold response like "Oh" or "Thank you". It was me who was flustered instead.
"Ah...... what's wrong? Should I have not read that?"
"That's...... not what I meant."
Shinonome then resumed her steps, so I followed suit.
"Urm, to be honest, I don't quite understand the story."
"Mmm, I get that a lot."
"But still, it's really incredible. You have a story that's published."
I remembered the editor I met yesterday - Aikawa Youji. He was hoping I could convince Shinonome to work on a long story.
"All Shinonome has written up 'til now are short stories?"
"Yes, just short stories."
I then remembered our earlier conversation about short and long stories. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should avoid the topic.
Upon hearing that my preference was long stories, Shinonome ended the conversation rather unhappily. Should I bring the topic up now, there's the chance I'll get on her bad side.
After much pondering, I chose to start things off with:
"Shinonome, do you love short stories?"
Once again, Shinonome stopped in her tracks. I followed suit.
We happened to stop at the stair landing, which made the scene look as if there were a guy who chose to confess to a girl at a location where there'll be no one around. How very awkward.
"Rather than saying that I love them......"
Shinonome finally spoke, but she tilted her head halfway into her sentence.
"There're actually plenty of reasons behind it......"
"Lots of reasons?"
Shinonome didn't address my doubt. Instead, she continued to look at me as she said,
"Minami-kun had once said that you prefer long stories, am I right?"
I was deliberately avoiding the topic, but Shinonome chose to bring it up anyway.
"I did say that before, but...... you know? I was asking about Shinonome's love for short stories—"
Shinonome extended her two hands towards me, as though she were trying to cut me off. Upon seeing me with my mouth shut, she lowered her head and said,
"Urm...... you may find what I'm about to say weird, but do you mind listening to me anyway?"
I nodded my head.
"Has Minami-kun ever wondered if you're actually living the life of the main protagonist?"
That was quite a weird question coming from her, so it was my turn to tilt my head in bewilderment this time.
"The main protagonist......? Me......?"
Shinonome ignored my questions and continued.
"Actually, I think everyone has imagined themselves as one at least once. Imagining themselves as the protagonist in a huge epic story, encountering all sorts of situations, meeting and separating with all kinds of people — and the story would continue on and on like that. To put it into perspective, it would be very much like a huge tome of an epic."
That was not all Shinonome had to say.
"However, that's not what I think. Human beings are insignificantly tiny. Going back to the analogy I made earlier, it would only fill up about fifty to sixty pages worth of content — the length of a short story."
What Shinonome just said were some really philosophical stuff; stuff miles away from what an ordinary person like myself would have in his mind. Since I couldn't outright agree or disagree with her, my best course of action was to nod my head hazily in response.
"Minami-kun mentioned this before, haven't you? That short stories do not sell as well as long stories do."
"I think you are right. Long stories take up a majority of the bestsellers, and that must be because most people prefer reading longer stories. On the other hand, that means that short stories are lacking in content, or perhaps the characters are not that interesting to the audience."
"Is that...... so?"
"Though I'm not too sure if this is true...... but I do wonder if it has something to do with what I said earlier. Everyone hopes to be the main protagonist of some epic, but that's not how things are in reality...... that's probably the reason why people yearn for a lengthy story. They resort to thick novels to do things they could not have done in real life."
I did understand what Shinonome was trying to say, but not to the point where I could agree conclusively. So all I did was stand and continue listening to her.
That was the first time I saw Shinonome being so conversational.
"Therefore, I wanted to show everyone how wonderful the idea that 'life's like a short story' is, and let more people experience that feeling. Short stories are indeed brief, but there are plenty of stories you would want to read again and again. We may not be living a life worthy of an epic, but we still can appreciate it thanks to its interesting snippets found everywhere."
I could finally begin to understand what Shinonome was trying to convey. Well, barely.
"So that's the reason why you write short stories?"
I watched in surprise as Shinonome gave a hard nod.
This once again made me realize how difficult it was to write a novel. So you pretty much have to attain some sort of twisted enlightenment before you can decide on the length of the story you'll be working on. As someone who has never once thought of writing a book, understanding her reasons is no walk in the park.
"That's just...... incredible."
I gave a perfunctory reply. Shinonome resumed her pace in silence with her head lowered.
If only she had said things like:
"I write because of the money."
"Long stories are too troublesome."
Or stuff like that. I would've accepted those explanations easily. Then I could have responded with things like: "Ahh, I see" or "you're actually right".
However, Shinonome's 'reasons' were mind-boggling. They sounded more like preaching you'd hear from a zen monk.
While I was musing to myself, we reached the library. As expected, Shiina-san had entered into a state of fluster during my brief conversation with Shinonome.
"Ah! Hurry up, you two! Quickly!"
Shiina-san waved her hands immediately after catching sight of us. After taking a detour past the snaking queue and reaching the counter, we began working on the borrowing and returning of the books.
Standing behind us was Shiina-san, who heaved a huge, exaggerated sigh—
"Ah, thank goodness...... I don't know what I'd do if you two don't show up."
She grumbled. Honestly, I'm quite doubtful whether there's another librarian in this world who can't even handle the tiny crowd before us.
When we were done with the queue of students before us, Shiina-san told us she has to continue her work on <Books Info>, as usual. So she disappeared into the small room.
Come to think of it, you can't exactly call taking a whole week to work on some small publication efficient, even if it is done by hand. Should that be done by another person, he'll probably take half the time required to finish it all by hand.
And as usual, most of the students in the library are there to borrow books, so Shinonome's sitting beside me reading. The cover of the book was no different from the ones she read before, but ever since I came to know of her true identity and listen to that mind-boggling speech of hers, she somehow looked really elegant while she's reading. Intriguing.
As the number of visitors began to die down, I remembered the thing I had planned for today. And so, I reached for my bag which was placed in a corner and fished out the magazine.
Shinonome stared at me blankly as I passed her the magazine and a marker pen, which was followed by a wry smile.
"...... So you still remember. I thought everything you did yesterday was at a spur of the moment."
Bulls eye. I then replied with,
"Mmm, you're actually right...... but this isn't something you'd see everyday. I mean, how often can you get your classmate to do an autograph for you?"
"Rather than calling it an autograph, it's more like me writing my name on the magazine. Are you okay with that?"
"Of course, it's not like it matters. An autograph's an autograph, yeah?"
With that said, Shinonome slowly flipped open the magazine. I stopped her in a hurry when I realized she was planning to sign on the back of the cover.
"Please hold on. It would be much better if you can sign on the page where your photo is."
Shinonome showed me what was probably the most repulsed expression she could possibly muster.
"Come on, it'll look way more like an autograph that way."
With a displeased expression, Shinonome scribbled a tiny 'Nishizono Yūko' on the page. It looked more like a note than an autograph though, no thanks to the minuscule size of the words. However, it's not like I'm in any position to complain about that.
After confirming that the ink was all dried up, Shinonome closed the magazine and returned it to me.
When I received the magazine from her, I remembered Shinonome's 'request'.
"Right, what's your request, Shinonome?"
Upon hearing my question, Shinonome lowered her head and replied,
"Let's leave that for later."
"Mmm, later. When we're going home."
I had no choice but to agree since that was what she wanted. Still, it's not like there's anyone around us, so there's no need for her to worry about being heard by someone else.
Shinonome stole a glance at me as I was sitting down.
"Are you okay...... with reaching home a little late?"
Shinonome said no further.
As most of the students were at the counter to borrow books, I had no time to think about anything else other than work.
But whenever I was done with work and resting, I couldn't help but think.
What on earth is she about to ask from me?
My heart was hit by a pang of uneasiness. As for Shinonome, she paid not the slightest amount of attention to me and continued to read her book. I had no clue what she had in her mind.
Even though it had been more than a month since I became a library committee member, this is the first time I'm walking home together with Shinonome. It was normal for us to leave without waiting for the other. We weren't that close to being with, so there was no reason to.
Even if we were to leave the library together, I would deliberately change the route I take home. I mean, you'd have to find a topic to converse on if we head home together, or else we would be in for an awkward situation. A situation which I hate. Moreover, it's a pain in the rear to find a topic to break the silence as well.
Still, there are exceptions to everything, and today happened to be the day when I cannot avoid walking home together with Shinonome. Ultimately, I was the one who asked Shinonome for an autograph, so I'm obliged to respond to her 'request' the moment she agreed to mine. Problem is, our main protagonist Shinonome hasn't filled me up on that 'request' yet.
"In any case, please follow me to the station."
That was what she said.
Just as expected, a long, awkward silence lingered between us while we made our way there.
Just as I was pondering on whether it would be better to keep the status quo or if I should initiate a casual conversation, Shinonome spoke.
"I've told you earlier...... about the reasons why I write short stories......"
"Ah, yeah. So?"
"Aikawa-san...... he's the editor by the way...... he said he prefers me working on a longer story."
I nodded. That was what he said to me on our very first encounter, so that should be true.
"I had already told him my thoughts on this matter...... but he said it'll be better for me to write a long novel. It won't be too late to revert to short stories when I have gained more popularity."
"Is that so......"
"To be honest, aside from the reasons I mentioned to Minami-kun earlier, there's another reason why I'm not willing to write long stories—"
We reached the entrance to the shopping street just as she was saying that. Halfway through her sentence, she turned around to look at me and asked,
"...... Would you mind if we head to the cafe?"
That was the question.
"Sure...... but just a second."
I fished out my wallet to check if I had enough cash on me. Shinonome gave a tiny laugh when she saw that.
"I'll pay for you."
"That's not necessary. How can I have you do that?"
"It's fine, since I'm the one who's making the request. Moreover, it's not like I'm penniless with the royalties I received."
Despite all her words, I took a glance into my wallet anyway. But there wasn't even a thousand yen note to be found inside. There were some loose change here and there, but just barely. Should I have known earlier, I would have taken some money from Keisuke under the pretext of cash for my takeaway dinner. Generally speaking, I'm not a huge eater, nor do I indulge in any hobbies. I'm used to not having much money on me.
"Thanks...... for the offer then."
I felt really useless to be treated by a girl. It would have been better if she were a lady who's older than me, but this is a classmate we're talking about.
"You don't have to mind, really."
As she said that, Shinonome put on a smile yet again.
With our conversation grinding to a halt, Shinonome led the way and brought me to a cafe. It was the cafe where I met Shinonome and her editor. This was my first time visiting the cafe. The gaps between the tables were really spacious, so it was indeed a conducive place to have a discussion.
We were led to a corner seat by the waiter. Shinonome ordered a cup of hot coffee.
"What about you, Minami-kun?"
"Ah...... I'll have the same thing."
I was planning not to order anything, but that'd feel really awkward as well, so I ended up with that answer.
Shinonome said not a single word while we were waiting for our coffee.
We're getting nowhere with the way things are, so I was preparing to start a conversation. However, the cellphone in my pocket vibrated just then. I took out the phone and realized it was a message from Arumi-san.
"We'll be having sukiyaki tonight, so come home as soon as you can."
I'm not a huge fan of sukiyaki....... while thinking of that—
"I may be slightly late, so you and Keisuke start without me."
I typed that into the phone. The reply came in less than thirty seconds.
"Is that a date? Are you on a date?"
I chose to ignore the message and slipped the phone into my pocket.
Perfect timing. The waiter came with our coffee. Shinonome added a spoonful of sugar into her coffee, while I added nothing into mine.
"So, where were we?"
Asked Shinonome as she stirred her coffee.
"On how there's another reason why Shinonome doesn't want to work on a long story."
Shinonome nodded when I was done with that statement.
"So that means other than wanting your readers to understand more about the beauty of short stories, there's something else to it?"
I repeated the stuff I heard back at the stairs - thank goodness I heard nothing wrong - and urged Shinonome to go on. Shinonome puffed at her coffee once and took a sip before continuing.
"Without the relevant knowledge or experience, it's incredibly difficult to work on a long story......"
I was mentally prepared for some sort of weird reason from her, but what Shinonome just said was surprisingly ordinary. Something which I felt I could understand.
"Urm...... and so?"
"However, I am barely sixteen, and I possess no unique experiences in me....... To be honest, it's very difficult to come up with something satisfactory."
"So that's why you write short stories instead? But why can't you just expand the short stories to something much longer?"
"That will not work. A short story is fundamentally different from its counterpart."
I don't quite understand everything, but it should be true since it came from the mouth of Shinonome, who's an author. Still, I don't quite feel that has anything to do with Shinonome's 'request'.
"So, about that request of mine......"
"I've been thinking — about trying my hands on a long story...... The points brought up by Aikawa-san were reasonable as well. Since I'm an author whose works are already published in the market, I should try working on a long story at the very least."
"Oh...... That's not bad."
Considering her displeasure on our previous discussion on the different types of stories, it was surprising for Shinonome to come up with a decision like that. Still, it's not like I could stop her from writing one. It must be for the best that her editor urged her to write one.
"So I was thinking of seeking Minami-kun's assistance in gathering materials......"
Shinonome was having some difficulty saying that.
"Ah, so that's how it is."
Finally, I could understand what she's trying to convey. I nodded to show my approval.
"Sure, if that's all there is to it."
Shinonome stared at me in surprise when she heard my answer. I was expecting her to be happy, but that didn't seem to be the case. As always, I couldn't read her emotions just from her expressions alone.
"Is it really...... fine with you?"
"I'm more than willing to help you out if that's all there is."
Shinonome sipped on her coffee and heaved a sigh of relieve.
She then lowered her head and said,
"Aikawa-san said it'll be better to look into romance for long stories."
Though I wasn't too familiar with books, I could more or less accept that idea when I thought of how Arumi-san read romance novels despite being uninterested in reading. I guess it's way easier to sell romance novels.
"Romance huh...... that's pretty good."
"But I have never fallen in love before....... so I don't quite understand......."
Ah, so that's how it is — I thought to myself. To a bystander, Shinonome has an aura like she's not the type to fall in love.
I told Shinonome it would be fine not to obsess over writing a romance novel, but Shinonome shook her head.
"I would like to work on the genre since I'm challenging myself anyway."
"The genre you're referring to....... is romance, right?"
With her cup in hand, Shinonome nodded.
"But you've never fallen in love before, have you?"
"That's why I need your help."
I could almost see where our conversation was headed. My movements froze just as I was sending the cup of coffee to my mouth.
"What sort of help?"
"With things....... to do with love......"
"H-How should I go about doing it?"
That was when Shinonome cleared her throat and looked straight at me.
"Please go out with me."
Just as I had expected, Keisuke and Arumi-san still didn't have their dinner when I reached home.
"It's so late already, Eita...... you feeling hungry?"
Asked Arumi-san with a pout. As for Keisuke, he was nonchalantly reading the papers in the living room.
"I did send you a mail telling you two to go ahead on without me, didn't I?"
I grumbled. As she hurriedly prepared the table, Arumi-san said,
"Because the food will taste better if everyone's eating together, won't it?"
That thought was probably due to her losing both her parents when she was young. Keisuke and I have never experienced anything like that. Even when our parents went overseas, we brothers would eat in silence without any pangs of loneliness or unease.
After ushering me to my seat, Arumi-san began taking the bowls out while looking at me with a grin.
"It was a date, wasn't it?"
I was rendered speechless as her question triggered the memories of Shinonome's request.
"I-It's nothing like that......"
And in actual fact, it wasn't. I think.
I panicked when I heard Shinonome asking me out. No has has ever asked me out in my whole life, and the fact that it was Shinonome who did shook me even harder. However, Shinonome said,
"Not in the real sense...... we just need to pretend to be a couple. Like going somewhere on a date....... things like that. There are places where it's too inconvenient for me to go alone, and I'll never understand how a date would feel like if I don't experience it with someone else......"
That's how it is.
To be honest, it's nothing more than research gathering.
The price I have to pay for the 'autograph' is to become Shinonome's pretend boyfriend. That's all there is to it.
Still, I could hardly contain my embarrassed nervousness when Arumi-san called it a 'date'.
"That fluster of yours is really suspicious...... so? I won't laugh at you, so do tell."
You're practically laughing at me with the way you're speaking to me, no? I held back the retort. It's not unlike Arumi-san to be an airhead.
"It really isn't a date."
After insisting my stand with a feigned composure, Arumi-san dropped the issue.
She then called out to Keisuke to join us for dinner.
Even while we were eating, Arumi-san does most of the talking. Keisuke's silent by nature, and I'm already used to the way he is. Therefore, it's not a habit of mine to start a conversation.
I stood up when I was done with my meal. Arumi-san, who was beside me clearing the table, said to me,
"Eita, be sure to tell onee-chan about it if you really have a girlfriend, okay?"
I was disheartened by her way of speech.
Arumi-san would always address herself as 'onee-chan'.
The reason, I'm pretty sure of. Since Arumi-san is Keisuke's girlfriend, she'll become my sister-in-law sooner or later if their relationship continues as it is. And with that, there's no doubt she'll truly become my 'onee-chan'.
But as of now, I'm finding it difficult to do what she just said.
I don't want to call you 'onee-chan'.
What an airhead.
I used to think that Keisuke and Arumi-san were pretending not to realize my feelings despite knowing my crush on Arumi-san.
But as we mingled together longer, I noticed—
The two of them didn't notice my feelings at all. That's incredibly dense of them, and just about the only similarity they share.
Back in my room and on my bed, I took out my cellphone in an attempt to erase the melancholy inside me.
What I was staring at was the number of Shinonome, stored fresh in my phone just not too long ago.
"In any case....... how about we exchange our numbers and mail addresses?"
I did as she suggested. Still, in a situation like that, I should have been more aware, and instead, took the initiative to ask for her number and mail address, right?
If we're actually going out for real, I might have gone all out.
But sadly, that is an 'if'.
Ultimately, my mission is to 'assist Shinonome in her gathering of materials'. As a result, I had agreed to be her pretend boyfriend and do things that lovers would do. Moreover, I am absolutely clueless about what it's like to 'be like a pair of lovers'.
"I don't get it at all......"
I grumbled subconsciously.
I dwell on the subject again and again. Shouldn't the editor's job to assist the authors in their research? That Aikawa dude happens to be in his twenties as well, so it's not like he's unsuitable to be her pretend boyfriend if he wanted to. And since he's way richer than I am, he should have gone out with a girl or two before.
I have no such experience.
Shinonome mentioned she has never fallen in love before. I'm not too different from that either.
My first love is Arumi-san, a love which never bore fruit. Needless to say, I have zero experience when it comes to dating.
I shook my head when I realized my thoughts were racing towards a rather dangerous direction.
I'm trying my hardest not to think too much into things, but it's really unnerving for me since she's always around the house. The fact that she's an airhead just makes things worse. I'm not someone you'd call pure, but it's depressing nevertheless.
Still, the awkwardness could have been much worse than the way things are now.
It's rather rude to Shinonome, but I chose to text her then in order to take my mind off the matter. I was soon at a loss over what I should write.
"It seems like things are taking a rather strange turn, but I'll do my best to assist you."
It was a message I came up with after much hesitation, but it only served to unsettle me even further instead.
And so I added that in.
I was then reminded of Shinonome's autograph, so I walked to Keisuke's room to return the magazine to him.
There was no one in the room. Keisuke's probably taking a bath or something. I put the magazine in the pile of books it was originally in. I received Shinonome's text when I got back to my room.
"Thank you. Goodnight."
A message with no cute pictures, no smileys, nothing. It was indeed very Shinonome. Arumi-san's messages, or the occasional ones sent by my mother — all of them had smileys in them.
However, how on earth should I go about helping Shinonome with the way she is?
The autograph which I had asked from her on a whim has resulted in a rather intriguing development.
I shut down my cellphone, stood up and stretched myself.
I then opened the windows of my room. As my skin came into contact with the moisture of the plum-rain season air, I took a deep breath in.
Keisuke should cut down on the cigarettes. Seriously.
It's so freaking hard to breathe the moment I step into his room.
I felt much better after a few deep breaths, so I shut the windows.
Then came the voice of Arumi-san through the door calling me to take a bath, which caused me to sink into a melancholic mood once more.
She'll probably be staying overnight today. That's usually the case on the weekends.
And she'll once again appear before my eyes in that defenseless, after-bath look.
Sigh, what an airhead she is.
While walking briskly towards the bathroom, I suddenly imagined Shinonome bathing. A wry smile appeared on my face. I find it really weird to be thinking about such things at a time like this, but the Shinonome in my imagination looked pretty damn good.
Her skin was as smooth as a baby's — but of course, I have never seen it before. Definitely not.