In the same location, like always, Hiori is reading a book next to me. I open my eyes after some shut eye, and I look at her side profile.
“……What’s wrong, Tsubaki?”
Maybe feeling bothered by my gaze, she knits her eyebrows in discomfort. Then, she pauses reading and looks at me instead. From what I see, she doesn’t look so well.
“You look down today. I’m worried.”
“I’m the same as always.”
“But, it’s showing on your face, you know?”
“…Aah, it must be because I didn’t sleep much yesterday after getting myself engrossed in a book.”
As if to signify that the conversation is over, she turns her face away from me and returns to her book. After getting indirectly rejected like that, I have nothing else to say. I give a sidelong glance to the sight of her reading a book silently, and I breathe a sigh.
Hiori has been looking strange lately. She’s acting like usual, but after being with her for so long, I can tell that something’s wrong. Although it doesn’t show in her attitude, there are times when I would be hit by a slight sense of discomfort. Out of my worry, I ask her indirectly if something’s troubling her, but she skillfully gives the slip every time. Since she’s smart, and I’m an idiot, she’s always one or two levels above me. I’m not bragging about the fact that I’ve never won an argument against her, not even once.
(What should I do about this…)
If she’s really troubled with something, I want to help her. But, I know that there are some things that she doesn’t want me to get involved in, so I’m hesitating to carelessly get deep into it.
“……What is it?”
Hiori, with her gaze still on the book, calls my name. It feels embarrassing whenever she calls my name like this, I wonder why.
“Are you studying properly? You have a test approaching, don’t you?”
“You… know about it.”
“You informed me the other day yourself.”
Aah, that’s right. Since there are many parts of the subject that I’m poor at, I ended up grumbling about it to her. Although, I usually hide it from her because she will nag me to study if she knows that I have a test coming. Besides, it’s pathetic of me to make Hiori worry about my studies even though she’s younger than me…. Well, it’s too late for me, anyway.
“You’re going to have your university exam this year, so please take it more seriously.”
The way she talks may sound cold, but I’m aware that she’s really worried about me in her own way. Although I feel pathetic about it, her roundabout, clumsy kindness still makes me happy.
“You should pay more… attention to yourself.”
By the time I realize it, Hiori is already looking at me in earnest. Her gaze feels more intense than usual, which makes me flinch in reflex.
“You’re always worrying about someone else while ignoring your own well being. You should be thinking about yourself first and foremost.”
“That’s not true. I’m always thinking about myself, you know?”
“In that case, stop worrying about someone like me and think about your exam instead.”
“There’s nothing going on with me. I’m telling the truth, there’s nothing going on at all.”
And so Hiori appeals to me. Against her frantic request, I can do nothing but nod wordlessly. It bothers me why she is so desperate about it, but I can only give up now that she’s said that. I let her convince me, and decide to do my best studying for the exam.
(…That’s not it.)
To tell the truth, I’m scared. I’m afraid that she’ll end up rejecting me if I try to touch the deepest part of her. That’s why I can never ask her forcefully, only putting a set distance without realizing it. Our current relationship might crumble the moment I approach her carelessly, and it scares me.
Hiori told me that I’m always worrying about someone else while ignoring my own well being. But, that’s actually not true. I’m an awful and egotistical person who can only think about myself. I take advantage of her kindness and pretend not to know anything. I’m weak. If I were stronger, if I were an adult, I wonder if she would’ve relied on me.
I want to protect her from anything that may befall her. I want to make a place where she can truly feel safe. I want to give her days where she can smile from the bottom of her heart, every day.
But, I don’t have the strength, nor the wit, nor the courage. I’m frustrated by the fact that I’m so pathetic.
I call her name. Then, I take her hand, which is colder than mine, and I grasp it tightly. Tightly, so tightly, like I’m trying to pass my body temperature to her. Without saying anything, she squints, looking at me like she’s happy about something.
——I’ll do what I can for her sake.
“Hey, let’s make a pinky swear.”
I gently entwine her little finger with my own.
“If there’s anything that troubles you, or pains you, you will swear that you will tell me about it. Anything, okay?”
“If you don’t, I’ll get too worried to study.”
She reluctantly agrees to it, and stiffens her pinky finger. I shake our hands slowly and start the rite of promise.
“Pinky swear, whoever tells a lie will swallow ten thousand… actually, that’s a bit unrealistic… ah, that’s it. Whoever tells a lie won’t get any snacks for a while!”
“That punishment does sound like a trouble for you, but it’s quite trivial to me, in fact.”
“Ugh, you’re right about that…. Then, Hiori, if you break the promise, I won’t come to meet you for a while.”
“That’s… more painful than having to swallow ten thousand needles.”
“……Eh?! Ah, r-really?”
Uwah, that really took me by surprise. When she says that so smoothly and earnestly, it makes me stumped from embarrassment. I think my face is red all the way to my ears. She usually wears a sour look on her face, so it’s hard to tell whether she’s enjoying or hating it when we’re together. It really makes me happy to know that she actually wants to meet me. Actually, she chased me out the moment she saw my face when we first met. That was really intimidating. Compared to the past, I feel that she’s showing more emotions now.
“A-anyway, it doesn’t really matter as long as you keep your promise, right? Punishment exists for that reason, you know! Yup!”
“…Can’t you think of a different punishment?”
“No—pe. You have to keep your promise, okay?”
It seems that the punishment that I thought up has quite the effect on Hiori. With this, I’m sure that she’ll listen to my words. Actually, this punishment is hard not only to Hiori, but to me, too. I’ll be really troubled if she doesn’t protect her promise properly.
“It’s a swear.”
I release our entwined little fingers, and so our rite of promise——has concluded.
“…Don’t you think it’s about time you return to the mansion?”
“We still have time. It’s all right.”
Hiori doesn’t seem physically well, either. This cold wind isn’t good for her health. I think it’s better for her to warm herself in her room earlier. Although even if I tell her, I’m sure she won’t listen to it. She’s smart, dignified, beautiful, and calm, but she’s stubborn, obstinate, and she never listens to others. She’s my… cute, childhood friend.
“Just a bit longer then.”
To shield her from the cold wind, I hug her from behind. Ooh, she feels really soft and warm.
“W-what are you doing?”
“Well~ it’s getting colder because the sun has gone down. I’m searching for warmth….”
“Stupid! Let me go!”
She’s making quite the strange reaction coming from her, she’s betraying her own composure. Huh? I thought this level of skinship is quite normal, but does she really hate it? Now that I think of it, have I ever act this close to Hiori before? Although she resists for a while, she concludes that I’m not letting go no matter what, so she resigns herself to it.
“A-are you angry?”
“Geez… do as you like.”
She turns her blushing face away from me, and answers with a jaded voice. It’s making me feel guilty about it.
Although, I’m still not letting go. I don’t want to part from this gentle warmth that feels so kind and soothing. Although I was hugging her to warm her up, I feel that I’m actually the one who gains from it…. Besides, I could have just lent her my coat. W-well, it’s already too late for that, so forget it.
Still in a huddle, we both look up at the sky. Maybe she’s pouting, since she’s not saying anything at all. But even so, the time that I spend with her feels really comfortable that I can’t help it.
I wanted to always, always stay with her like this… forever.