Our Legendary Volume

Table of Contents

1.

What was the first manga I ever read, I wonder? It happened when I was so young that I’ll never be truly certain, no matter how many possible titles come to mind. All I warmly remember is how absorbed in it I was.

In my home’s living room stood a single bookshelf, and on that bookshelf sat only dust-covered encyclopedias and literary anthologies that I had never even seen so much as taken out of their cases—there was no manga at all. I had my first experience with it because of my aunt, my mother’s sister. She had a crude house made of steel, as rough as it was ugly, but it contained bookshelves of dizzying heights, filled to the brim with books, around half of which were volumes of manga from all ages.

It became a daily routine of mine. I would drop off my little backpack at home after returning from a day at elementary school and then immediately go on over to my aunt’s house, reading manga until I eventually went home for dinner. Whenever I visited, my aunt, the polar opposite of my mother, would always smile and pat my head, saying, manga maniac Maya-chan’s here again!, before leaving me to my own devices. Thinking back on it now, she probably moved the manga with unsafe scenes to the top shelves, beyond my elementary schooler arm’s reach.

The turning point came when I was in third grade. As far as I can remember… I had just finished reading “Phoenix,” by Osamu Tezuka. It might’ve actually been “Wild 7” or “Toward the Terra,” but at any rate, I was reading, eyes glued to the pages, like I always had been when my aunt unexpectedly walked in and offered me a snacks. I was a light eater as a child, so she normally refrained from feeding me anything that might make me lose my appetite for dinner, but on that day, she had been given some high-quality watermelon and apparently wanted me to try some as well.

“You should have some watermelon too, Maya-chan,” she said to me. I feel bad saying it, but I don’t remember its taste one bit. What did stay with me, though, was something she said as she talked absentmindedly during our snack.

“Books are strange, aren’t they? It doesn’t matter the least bit who you are. To think that anyone can write them…”

I have no clue where that thought of hers came from. It could’ve been that she was talking about how even though driving cars and operating machinery required licenses, it was interesting how writing a book could be done by anyone. With that single phrase, however, something incredible dawned on me.

I see… There’s no reason someone like me couldn’t draw manga.

As I realized this, the floodgates opened, and I immediately started to draw that very evening. I had never disliked drawing itself, and to add to that, I often got the highest scores possible in my art class. I was certain of it: even I could draw manga! How long did it take for that confidence of mine to crumble, I wonder. Ten minutes? Fifteen? As I look back now on the terrible drawings I did back then, I can’t help but cry. At the time, it was so frustrating, so miserable… The words, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” formed behind my clenched teeth. I softly cursed at myself as tears dropped onto the paper below, and then at last, my resolve solidified with a final cry of frustration.

Ever since that day, I’ve continued to draw unrelentingly.

 

The monthly manga magazine, La Shin, was originally sold as an extra volume to the similarly purposed Shin Soh. The name apparently derived from the Japanese onomatopoeia for lots of silence, but the contents ended up being pretty different. Unlike the mainly shounen Shin Soh, La Shin was more neutral, or to put it differently, the kind of magazine that seemed to welcome anyone of any age, as long as they liked manga. There were quite a number of magazines out there that I wouldn’t mind slapping the “For all manga lovers!” label on, but La Shin specifically didn’t really cater to any one niche, I guess, and they generally didn’t publish anything too difficult for the average person to get behind. Even if I didn’t have the pocket change or the time to read every manga magazine as they came out, I would still make sure to buy the latest issue of La Shin every month without fail on its release day, the 18th.

Like many other magazines, La Shin accepted manga submissions and also offered an award for newcomers called the New World Prize. It is handed out four times a year, and in addition to the chosen work—itself published in that month’s issue—the titles of twenty or so other runner-ups each receives an honorable mentions shout-out with a short comment.

The 18th of February fell on a terribly cold Sunday. As snow fell tirelessly and without rest, continuing to bury the city, I headed, scarf wrapped around my ears and covered head-to-toe in cold-resistant clothes, towards the Kobundo bookstore next to the highway. Even I didn’t really want to be out on an accident-prone day like this one, but it was for the latest issue of La Shin, after all. That said, even though I bought each issue every month, that didn’t necessarily mean I had to get it the very day it came out. The thing was, though, today’s March issue was a different story altogether.

I plodded, step-by-step, through the ankle-deep snow, and after I finally arrived at Kobundo—my journey taking five times longer than it usually did—I took a second to relax and deeply inhale the warm interior air. I carefully went over every inch of my clothes to brush off the snow, and once I was certain I wouldn’t accidentally get any of the books wet, I went over to the magazine shelf.

From a results perspective, all of my efforts were in vain. The latest La Shin issue hadn’t arrived yet. According to the shop employee, the shipments sometimes moved forward or back a day if the official release date fell on a Sunday. There was nothing I could do about that, so I simply had to trudge my way back home.

After school the next day, I managed to get one of my friends to cover for me at the library and left the campus as fast as possible, going to neither the Manga Research Society nor the Classics Club. I ran as quickly as I could along the snow-cleared sidewalks and finally burst into Kobundo. I grabbed an issue of La Shin, tied shut with plastic string to prevent anyone from reading before buying, held it close to my pounding chest, and headed towards the cash register. I’d seen the girl behind the counter here before, and in her usual sweet voice, she asked, “Would you like a bag?”

“Yes, please,” I replied, nervously swallowing as I did so.

“Would you like me to cut the string for you?”

My cheeks burned up as I wondered what she must’ve been thinking of me. Her expression contained nothing out of the ordinary, however, so I replied, “Yeah,” and she went to take out some scissors and did just that.

I went outside with the bag and immediately pulled the magazine out. There probably weren’t that many people who’d start reading their purchase the second they left the shop. Although a bit concerned about being seen by anyone I knew, I shuffled through the pages.

14th New World Prize winner: “Tanuki Counterattack” by Mamoru Mamiana.

I’ve never heard of him before. I hope it’s good.

I went to look at the other notable selections. Each of them had a single panel published in the magazine, but none of them looked familiar… In other words, mine wasn’t chosen.

I looked up at the clear winter sky; the breath that escaped my long sigh turned white.

The participation awards went to… Ichitarou Tasaka, MILULU, Kinsuke Shouda, Satou Georgia, Kaoru Yajima, Kazuru Ihara, Enma Haru…

“Wait, wha…”

A strange noise came from my mouth. A man walking into the store glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, but I didn’t feel even a shred of embarrassment.

“No… way…”

Kazuru Ihara! “The Island with the Tower!”

It was published! My story with my drawings was published under my pen name in La Shin!’s March issue.1

I closed the magazine and then, trembling, opened it a second time. Maybe it was some kind of mistake, I figured. Maybe, once I opened it again, the contents would change.

But they didn’t.

 

2.

It was a sunny Monday in May, and I headed to the school library after homeroom finished. I belonged to the Manga Society, Classics Club, and Library Committee, and although I normally only worked there on Friday, Monday was when we were training the new recruits that joined in April, so I figured taking care of the returned books was the least I could do. I finished putting all of them away without a hitch, but there was still some time left in the day. I figured it might be a good idea to drop by the Manga Society, but instead I walked to the very end of the special wing’s fourth floor, towards the Classics Club.

Upon sliding open the earth sciences lecture room door, I was instantly greeted by familiar, cheery voices.

“Hey, Mayaka! Perfect timing. Come look at this.”

Seeing Fuku-chan in the center of the room, beckoning me over with his hand, my mouth subconsciously curved into a smile.

All of the sophomores were here, but it looked like the freshman didn’t come today. Satoshi Fukube and Eru Chitanda—Fuku-chan and Chi-chan—were sitting side-by-side, looking at some kind of pamphlet spread open on their desks. Oreki was in a seat some distance away, staring outside the window with a sour face.

“Yeah? What is it?”

I dropped my bag on a nearby desk and walked over to the two, and Chitanda held up the pamphlet for me to see, her face brimming with a wide smile. The cover read “Kamiyama City Book Report Contest Results.”

“It’s from four years ago, but I happened to come across it as I was cleaning my room yesterday. I opened it up out of curiosity and saw an unexpected name,” Chi-chan said. She opened the pages with her slender fingers, and I looked at the contents:

First place: “My Opinions on ‘Blue Bird,’ by Ami Kojima”

Second place: “My Opinions on ‘Salamander,’ by Jirou Miyama”

Third place: “My Opinions on ‘Run, Melos!’ by Houtarou Oreki”2

Four years ago meant we were in 6th grade at the time.

“Mayaka-san, you were in the same class as Oreki-san, right?” asked Chi-chan.

Right. As regrettable as it was, I was in the same class as him for all of elementary and middle school, so I vaguely remembered he got an award in some book report contest. I never read his submission, though. I had no idea it’d been recorded in the pamphlet.

“Melos, huh. Doesn’t seem like something Oreki would write about.”

“Come on, Mayaka. Do you honestly think Oreki would pick a story about friendship like that? It was probably just a topic that was assigned to him,” Satoshi said.

Chitanda pondered a little bit and then started to speak.

“When I was in 7th grade, I’m fairly sure I had to read Alex Hacke’s Little King December for the summer vacation book report.”

Now that she mentioned it, I feel like I had to read the same one.

The three of us fixated our eyes on Oreki at the same time. He turned away but eventually gave into the silence and let out a small sigh before turning back to face us.

“It was one of the recommended books at the library… Besides, it was short.”

Oh. It made sense if that was the reason.

Fuku-chan smiled gleefully, clearly having a great time.

“So anyways, Mayaka. This book report is quite the masterpiece, you see. It really brought tears to my eyes; you can definitely imagine it was written by the 7th grade Houtarou.”

Chi-chan nodded and also piped in, “I was also very fascinated by it. I could never write something like this.”

Hearing them talk about it to that extent made me a little curious as well, but I figured I’d at least ask Oreki about it first.

“Can I?”

Although he looked back with a sullen, dissatisfied expression, he responded, “It’s not like that pamphlet belongs to me.”

Instead of replying with a simple “I don’t want you to,” he said it that was public information, even though he might’ve not liked that fact, and implied that he couldn’t say no… I swear, he never changes. I thanked Chi-chan and happily took the pamphlet from her hands.

I’m sure the original was handwritten, but it was converted into print for the pamphlet.

 

My Opinions on “Run, Melos!”

Houtarou Oreki

 

I read “Run, Melos.” It was interesting. I was glad that Melos was able to save Selinuntius. I was also glad that King Dionys had a change of heart. I thought it would be nice if that change lasted for a long time.

Originally, there was no need for Melos to run at all. His village and the castle were only ten Chinese miles apart—or forty kilometers in today’s terms—so even if he walked, it would only take him around ten hours. The reason Melos ran at the start was to force himself to cut ties with his home, so when he was far enough away from the village, he started to walk like normal.

However, there were two reasons why he had to run with everything he had at the end of the story. The first reason being the bridge was washed away due to heavy rains the previous day. The second, and the more pressing reason was he was attacked by bandits. Although he was completely surrounded, he was able to defeat at least four of them and escape. I thought he was very strong. A normal person couldn’t do that. Because Melos became very tired from that and fell asleep, however, he had to run to make it in time.

Melos had nothing valuable on him. Not only did he say from the start, “I have nothing with me save for my life,” it was probably obvious just by looking at him. What were the bandits trying to achieve, then? They answered that question themselves. When Melos told them, “I have nothing with me save for my life,” the bandits responded, “It’s that very life we’re after!” Essentially, they were less bandits, and more assassins. Weak assassins, granted. As for who ordered the assassination, Melos himself said, “In that case, the king must have demanded it,” to which the assassins didn’t respond. I thought it was very good of them to not betray their client.

The question is: was Melos correct in assuming it was the king who sent the assassins after him?

I don’t think so. No matter who you might think wanted Melos dead, the king was the only person who it absolutely couldn’t be.

King Dionys didn’t have faith in anyone, so he didn’t believe that Melos would return, at all. It was exactly because he thought it wouldn’t happen that the shock in seeing Melos return caused such a change of heart in him. There’s no way that someone who thought Melos wouldn’t return would also send assassins to try and prevent that return.

Then who sent them? Who would’ve been happy to see the assassins succeed in killing Melos?

Let’s try to imagine what would’ve happened had the assassination gone well. Without Melos arriving before sunset, Selinuntius would’ve been executed, and the king would have exclaimed with a sad expression, “This is exactly why people can’t be trusted.”

If Melos’ corpse had been discovered after, it would get out that the king executed a man even though the person who was supposed to arrive had been killed by highway robbers. While the king’s subjects may have feared him, deep down, they would also chastise his decision. If Melos’ body was carefully hidden and never found as a result, the king would continue to believe that Melos had run away according to his expectations. He would’ve lost his chance to believe in people and continued with the executions, further destroying the country from within.

Essentially, had Melos been assassinated, the country would’ve suffered regardless of what happened after. Thinking about it like this, the person who sent the assassins must have been someone who didn’t want the king to reform himself against all odds through the arrival of Melos, thus earning the support of the people. When Melos did successfully return, I bet he was yelling on the inside.

On another note, when Melos was running back to the castle, he met a man named Philostratos who was Selinuntius’ disciple. Even though Selinuntius hadn’t actually been executed yet, he told Melos, “You’re too late! Please stop running!” Philostratos didn’t sound at all like he wanted to save Selinuntius. Wasn’t he his disciple?

It’s likely that he was sent by the same person who hired the assassins to at least try and talk Melos out of it before he ended up reaching the castle.

In the book, it was written that “King Dionys couldn’t trust anyone.” I think that distrust was founded. The king had enemies. However now, because of the incident with Melos, it would be even harder for him to figure out who those enemies were. In order to pit the king against his people, the person who targeted Melos would likely continue to go to whatever lengths necessary to prey on his distrust.

I was glad that King Dionys had a change of heart. However, after I finished reading “Run, Melos!” I thought that change may not last for such a long time.

 

I brought my palm to my forehead.

“Oreki…”

I had no clue he’d submitted a book report like this. I looked back at him and saw he was facing the other direction again. I can imagine how difficult it must’ve been to have something you wrote four years ago read next to you like that.

Fuku-chan, who had crept up next to me at some point, excitedly said, “The thing that gets me especially is that it represented Kaburaya Middle School in the contest and even got an award, albeit third place. Honestly speaking, when you’re assigned a book report, I figured everyone just wrote what they thought the teacher would like the best, not what they actually thought. I’ve learned the error of my ways! This kind of thing is pretty good too!”

“I’m pretty sure it usually doesn’t work out like that. Our Japanese language teacher in 7th grade was Mr. Hanashima, right? He was a little off,” I responded.

I could still remember him pretty clearly. He was always really insistent in saying “There’s no need to think about the author’s intent.”

I’m pretty sure he continued like this: “They were probably thinking something unsavory anyways. Even if they were thinking ‘I just want to get drunk and fall asleep already’ when they wrote their sentences, we can still examine those sentences for meaning. That’s what language is. For example, Matsuo Basho wrote, ‘The months and days are eternal travelers, and the years, coming and going, similar wayfarers.’3 If we look at this passage honestly and without preconceptions, we can see that Basho considers the years not as something that simply passes, but as something that comes and goes. Essentially, this points to Basho being a time traveler.”

…Yeah, he really was a strange teacher. If we were talking about Mr. Hanashima, I would have no trouble believing he’d submitted Oreki’s.

“I wonder what happened to King Dionys after that. What do you think, Oreki-san?” asked Chi-chan, to which Oreki briefly responded, his cheeks somewhat flushed, “Who knows.”

I flipped the pamphlet over and noticed something.

“Hey, Oreki. Your’s was pretty long, wasn’t it?”

“Hmm?”

Thrown off guard, he glanced over at me.

“The other ones are a bit shorter. Isn’t yours at the max character limit?”

“Oh, that.” A small, uneasy smile formed on Oreki’s sullen face. “I thought it said the report had to be more than five pages, so I did exactly five. It turned out that it was actually no more than five pages. It sucks that, even though I tried my best to only do the bare minimum, I actually did more than I needed to. I was thinking about cutting out some parts after.”

“Cutting out stuff after finishing it doesn’t really sound like doing ‘the bare minimum,'” I said, resigned.

Satoshi nodded deeply. “I can understand where you’re coming from, though. If it were me, I might’ve cut out some stuff too.”

Not cutting corners in order to cut corners? That makes sense to you? This question showed in my expression as I turned to ask Chi-chan, but she looked equally clueless. Her reaction only made sense. How would anyone have any idea what they were talking about?

Our boys were both all kinds of strange. We exchanged glances and giggled.

Well then… I looked at my watch and then got up from my chair. I couldn’t spend too much time here.

“You going home, Mayaka?” asked Satoshi.

“No, I have to go to the Manga Society. I haven’t really gone much recently.”

As I said this, I noticed Fuku-chan’s expression seemed to darken a bit. I nodded once, doing my best to show him I’d be alright, and picked up my bag.

 

Ever since last year’s culture festival, the Kamiyama High School Manga Research Society has been in a state of disrepair.

Thanks to an assortment of incidents all happening around the time of the culture festival, the two factions in the club—those who wanted to try their hands (experienced or not) at drawing manga and those who didn’t, instead only wanting to read—began to view each other as enemies. I thought it was pretty simple honestly; if you want to draw manga, then draw it, and if you only want to read, do just that. At this point, though, neither side cared about manga anymore. There was no end in sight.

I was partially to blame. Before, the reading faction was much, much larger, and the drawing faction had no choice but to wait in the shadows. During the culture festival, however, a girl from the reading faction spilled dirty water on me, a member of the drawing faction, and that caused the rest of the drawing faction to come out of the woodwork and get angry at the other side, saying they took things too far. Sure, the girl may have disliked me, but I personally think that it was just an accident. Of course, at that point, what I thought didn’t matter at all.

As the new term rolled around and the new student recruitment period also ended, something happened that affected the situation between the two factions. Kouchi-senpai, the actual leader of the reading faction—despite the fact that she drew wonderful manga herself without letting the others know—quit the club earlier than the other seniors normally would. The drawing faction took this as a sign of victory at first, but it quickly became clear that Kouchi-senpai’s presence was something like a dam; nothing good came about with her being gone. Back when she was still around, there were lots of times when the factions would say mean things indirectly about each other or only suggest their insults, but now, as we entered the month of May, club members hurling spiteful phrases at the other side became a familiar scene. I’d even be fine with this so long as it was still an argument stemming from a discussion about manga itself, but it only ever started with someone saying something like “you’re so annoying” or “stop being so stuck-up.”

In the first prep room, the one used by the Manga Society, the reading faction grouped up near the front while the drawing faction gathered at the back. Since there was a door at each side of the room, these were also split up between the factions. I knew everyone saw me as the representative of the drawing faction, but it was all just so ridiculous that I ended up using whichever door was closer. I guess that also came off as me trying to provoke the other side.

That Monday after school, I sat down in my usual seat next to the window and started to jot down some ideas in my notebook for my next manga. Recently, I’ve only been writing stories that take place in modern Japan, so it probably wasn’t a bad idea to switch it up and think of something I don’t normally experience. Keeping that in mind, I wrote down some random words as they popped up into my head—things like “steam computer,” “big clock (really big),” “automatic egg cooker used by the entire city,” and so on. A shadow suddenly appeared over the page, so I looked up and found myself face-to-face with a sophomore, Asanuma-san, standing before me.

“You have a sec?”

I wasn’t shy about the fact that I’m planning a new manga considering I was in the Manga Society clubroom, but I closed the notebook out of habit anyways.

“Sure. What is it?”

“So, here’s the thing. There’s something I wanted to talk with you about.” Her voice was a bit hushed.

Asanuma-san had a slim face and narrow eyes, and her voice was a little high-pitched. She also drew manga, probably for a long time now since her strokes were quick and confident like she was really used to it. I got pretty jealous sometimes, because I was so slow in comparison, but on the other hand, part of me imagined the manga itself would probably be happier if she took a little more care with it.

Although I butted heads with Kouchi-senpai during the culture festival, Asanuma-san was the one who took the drawing faction’s reins afterward. If I had to guess, it was probably because she wanted to change the Manga Society—a place where even picking up a pen would attract a bunch of cold stares—into an environment where eventually anyone would be able to draw manga to their heart’s content. It was something I could never do, since I always tried to avoid dealing with people like that and preferred to create manga by my own rules, so I couldn’t help but be impressed by her resolve.

Asanuma-san got straight to the point. “I’m going to self-publish a manga. I wanted to ask you for your help.”

I instantly looked around to see if anyone was nearby, but it looked like no one was paying attention. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. Sure, I’d self-published my own manga before, but I had never once paired up with Asanuma-san in the past.

“A manga… what kind?”

Asanuma-san furtively looked around the preparation room like I had and then responded in a bitter tone. “At this rate, we’re going to end up only having opinion pieces again for this year’s culture festival too. Joining the Manga Society and not being able to write manga is completely stupid, any way you look at it. We might as well just make one ourselves at this point. Don’t you think so too?”

“Do you mean creating a separate club?”

She shook her head. “That’s not it. There’d be no point in doing that… I’m saying we write a volume in secret, using the Kamiyama High School Manga Society label, and then sell it over summer break. With that, we could show that it’s possible to write manga in the— Actually, scratch that. We’ll show how the club is essentially meant for creating manga.”

I couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was saying something dangerous. If she were to use this surprise attack to force her opinion on the club, leveraging it into an advantage for the drawing faction, wouldn’t that basically be a coup d’état? Although it’s true that this club’s sad condition went on 24/7. It had never crossed my mind that simply drawing your own manga could be used as an attack against the reading faction. Thinking about it some more, I guess I could understand how the act of creating a manga alone would look like I was trying to make some kind of point in the current Manga Society… Who am I kidding? “I guess I could understand” is the understatement of the century. It’s obvious it’d look like that. Maybe I was being too naive up to this point.

“Who else is going to be in on it?” I asked. She listed some names, folding a finger for every one she mentioned.

“Me, Tai, Nichiyama, Harigaya, and then there’s you. I haven’t asked the others yet, though.”

All of them were in the drawing faction, certainly enough, but as far as I was aware, Asanuma-san was the only one who had actually drawn anything substantial. Tai was a new student, so I didn’t know much about her, but I remember her saying she hadn’t drawn manga before and she wanted to practice it in the Manga Society. Nishiyama-san and Harigaya-san were both sophomores, and I was pretty sure neither of them had drawn anything outside a panel or two.

“Will they really be able to write something long?” I asked. Asanuma-san lightly chuckled.

“I doubt it, but we don’t have to make it that long. Four or five pages are enough. You know, even a two-page spread is fine. The important thing is that we get as many people as we can involved.”

It was pretty rude to assume Nishiyama-san and Harigaya-san couldn’t draw just because they made next to nothing for the club. I really wanted the answer to be that they would be able to do it. What Asanuma-san said to me showed that she didn’t care whether or not they could. Though, to someone who was only thinking about the results, I guess it wasn’t that surprising…

Asanuma-san’s voice took on a softer tone, maybe noticing how uncomfortable I was getting.

“I’m not going to ask you to do everything yourself. The topic’s already decided, so just throw together whatever you can.”

Although it might’ve been too early for an amateur like me to take pride in my work, I wanted to tell her that my manga wasn’t something I just “threw together” like that. For someone like Asanuma-san, who I’m sure understood this, to say it like that, I guess it went to show how desperate she was.

I figured I’d at least ask.

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s going to be be: ‘Manga Society.'”

I couldn’t help but groan a little. Asanuma-san started to speak more strongly.

“If we don’t do something like that, then we won’t be able to release the manga. I won’t lie and say what we’re doing doesn’t have any immediate use, but if we graduate before we can take the chance to represent the Kamiyama High School Manga Society name and communicate that to people, then we’ll never get another chance. I can’t stand thinking about that. Don’t you feel the same way, Ibara?”

I didn’t really feel up for representing the club’s legacy or whatever, but if I was able to get even one or two people to read my work… then I guess I would be happy.

“So? How about it?”

My heart was drawn in two directions. I really didn’t like the thought of my manga becoming a tool in the club’s faction warfare, but it did boil down to me simply wanting to draw manga and have it be read by others. If I had to say it, I might not even care about the circumstances leading up to it as long as it was read in the end.

Possibly seeing a glimmer of hope in my hesitation, Asanuma-san continued in a more relaxed tone. “If you do accept, tell me how many pages you’ll draw beforehand.”

“Huh? You want me to decide on the number of pages before I tell you my answer?”

I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t have much experience teaming up with others, but it was much more common for groups to first decide on the number of participating members before they decided on a page count, and sometimes they didn’t even bother going to the trouble of establishing a page count in the first place. It was the first time, for me at least, to hear about a group that wanted to decide on the number of pages first and foremost.

“Yeah. I need to get an estimate for the club expense form, after all.”

“Club expenses? Aren’t we going to pay for it ourselves?”

“There’d be no point if we paid out-of-pocket. I’ll go talk with the general committee about it and get what we need from the club’s budget, even if push comes to shove. I’ll need accurate numbers at that point, right?”

Was it really okay to do that, though? The club budget was for the entire club, so everyone—or at the very least, the president, Yuasa-senpai— would have to be on board, or else we’d be basically embezzling the funds. I don’t even think the general committee was the group responsible for club fund distribution in the first place.

“You’re going to talk to the president, of course. Right?”

Yuasa-senpai had almost nothing to do with any of the antagonism happening in the Manga Research Society, instead flawlessly taking care of the mundane tasks required in running the club, like filling out the club recruitment and expenses forms. Not only did Asanuma-san’s plan feel unstable at best, but it’d be a good idea if the president was also involved so we won’t make the club’s situation even worse.

“Yeah… I guess. I guess I have to tell her,” she murmured dissatisfied, her mouth almost completely shut.

This whole thing was a bit scary, but I’ll just leave it to her. I had to start thinking about my own manga.

“Yeah, I can’t really decide right away on the page number. I’m happy for the opportunity, but I don’t know where to go with the topic ‘Manga Society’ let alone how many pages it would end up being. I’ll start by making a rough draft and then use that as the basis for the page count, so would you mind waiting?”

A small frown formed on her lips. “Well, that makes sense, I suppose. How long do you need?”

Today was the 14th, and I still needed to brainstorm some ideas and formulate the plot. If I only needed to gauge the page count, then the rough draft didn’t have to be very detailed, which meant…

“Friday, maybe?”

“Got it. Until then, I’ll be searching for more girls who’re willing to draw.” She then made sure to add, “Keep this between us, yeah?”

 

3.

My parents didn’t say much to me about my drawing manga. They were neither disapproving nor supportive of it; as long as I studied hard, they gave me the leeway to do whatever I wanted in my free time. The “as long as I studied hard” part implied that I was free to draw manga only on weekends and holidays. My mom and dad always looked a little worried when they saw me drawing manga on the weekdays, so I stopped doing it. I of course had other plans as well on my days-off, so I often ended up being really pressed for time.

Asanuma-san told me about her plans on Monday, and I needed to get back to her on my decision by Friday. Although it was true I hadn’t drawn anything yet, I didn’t want to break the unspoken promise with my parents to not draw anything at home on the weekdays, so I decided to work on it at school.

The problem was where. I had to keep Asanuma’s scheme a secret, so there was no way I could do anything related to it in the Manga Society clubroom. I wish I could’ve used the earth sciences lecture room—where the Classics Club met—but I didn’t want to drag them into the utter mess that was the Manga Society’s problems. I was similarly uncomfortable with using the library room as a member of its staff for something completely unrelated, so with all of those crossed off the list, I had only one more option. I decided to open my notebook in my homeroom, Class 2-C.

I can’t speak for others, but at least personally, it’s really difficult for me to draw manga with people around. Especially doing so at school, surrounded by classmates, was out of the question. All I was doing at this point was jotting down ideas, so it couldn’t have looked like I was doing anything more than studying hard from the side. To add to that, I even had a textbook open to further camouflage my manga brainstorming. It was a disguise so perfect that not even God or Oreki would be able to see through it.

 

After school on Tuesday, I sat up straight at my desk in classroom 2-C, opened my world history textbook, and started to write down some ideas.

This was my first time ever using a theme from someone else, so I guess I was a bit unsure about what I was doing, but I’m confident it wasn’t impossible. While Asanuma-san did say the theme was “the Manga Society,” she never specified that it had to take place in Kamiyama High School’s Manga Research Society. A group that researches manga… I see. How about a story set in the future? In a world where civilization has collapsed, a group of people come across the ruins of a Manga Research Society and try to figure out what exactly it was. Would that be too convoluted?

I scribbled down ideas like these into my notebook with a mechanical pencil, but my thoughts started to get scattered and I found myself unable to concentrate, the reason being a couple of girls still in the classroom. One of them was Maki Hani, a girl with a name that rolled off the tongue so well that it made me always want to say the entire thing when I called out to her. She looked mellow, despite her bold cosplay choices during the culture festival, and she seemed pretty smart. To top it all off, she was a member of the Manga Society. At the moment, she was happily chatting away with some other girls about their summer vacations.

I usually don’t really try to learn every little detail involving the club conflict, but I could tell just by watching that Hani-san was technically with the so-called reading faction. That said, it was pretty clear that she never actively supported them, and when the two sides started to insult each other, she always stayed quiet, even though she sat with the reading faction. It could be that she was like me, and got wrapped up in one of the sides while thinking the whole thing was stupid at the same time. I never talked with her in the clubroom, but our conversations in class were pretty normal.

I was pretty sure Hani-san wouldn’t tell anyone anything, even if she did somehow find out about Asanuma-san’s plan, but she might be able to figure out I was outlining the plot to a manga by looking at my notes. That would be more embarrassing than anything, so I stayed in constant alert.

I might’ve just been paranoid, but who was to say for certain? I labored over my notes, constantly writing and rewriting, and then suddenly looked up. Hani-san was facing away from me, talking as carefree as she had been when I’d started.

“What, no way! Our baseball team totally sucks.”

Hearing her say this, among other things, meant that she was at least participating in the conversation, I guess, but then why couldn’t I shake the feeling that someone was watching me? Even if she did somehow figure out that I was putting together the plot to a manga, what was the point in watching from a distance?

…Though, there was something about Hani-san that bugged me.

She was on really good terms with Kouchi-senpai, who had quit the club. It wasn’t the typical senior-junior relationship you’d see in most clubs. I’d noticed them talking really naturally, like they were old friends, tons of times before. Kouchi-senpai was really popular with the other girls as well, so their relationship was a pretty common topic. From the bits that I picked up on, it looked like the two of them lived close by, and they played together a lot as kids. Maybe she was observing me, the possible instigator of a drawing faction coup d’état, as a friend of the reading faction’s leader? Well, I guess I couldn’t rule out the possibility completely, but it really did sound like something straight out of a manga. But if that wasn’t the case, then I really was at a loss. Why would she be watching me?

As these thoughts crossed my mind, Hani-san looked at her cellphone and then stood right up to leave the classroom. I guess it really was in my head after all, I thought, embarrassed.

 

The next day, however, Hani-san stayed again in the classroom after school ended, and just as I started to wonder about it, she began to look at me. The only ones in the classrooms were three boys talking about soccer, Hani-san, and I, and I concentrated on my notes as she silently read a book. It was getting tough, but I had to finish the rough draft quickly or else I wouldn’t make the deadline.

It might be a little different from how others do it, but when I draw manga, I write the dialogue first. I end up having to do it first in order to get a good feel for how everyone talks and what they would say in each situation. I’m not really sure if this way is efficient—actually, I usually have to shorten the lines when I try to put them in the speech bubbles for the first time, so it’s probably safe to say it isn’t… There’s really nothing that can be done about that, though. Drawing the rough draft at school would be way too embarrassing if I added the dialogue at that point, so I had to resort to desperate measures.

I wrote the first line of the dialogue I had carefully thought about over the past two days into my notes. I wasn’t too thrilled about the chosen theme, but as I wrote more and more, the story started to move surprisingly well.

I thought back to the criticism I got in La Shin. A professional manga author participates in the selection process for the New World Prize and even writes short comments for the winners of the participation awards and up. The one who did it this time was Yutaka Niiro, and his comments to me were this:

“Great point: climax pacing. Okay point: art. (You can do it!) Bad point: the lines were too long. You’re getting better and better, so good luck on your next submission!”

I’d never actually heard of Niiro when I first read his comments, but the day after I did, I used up all of my spending money to go out and buy tons of his volumes. Even before he mentioned it, I knew vaguely that long lines were my Achilles heel, so I took painstaking care to figure out what words I should cut and which ones were effective as I filled up the notebook.

As I was completely engrossed in this, a voice suddenly called out to me.

“Maya-cchi”

It was Hani-san. I looked up and noticed that the boys had disappeared at some point, leaving her and I the only people left in the room. She wasn’t looking at me, but down at the phone in her hand. I responded, nonchalantly closing the notebook.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked up and faced me, not a trace of emotion in her expression.

“They found out about Asanuma’s plan.”

There was no reason to play dumb, and it wasn’t really that surprising either. Asanuma-san said it was a secret, but it looked like she was going to ask anyone who looked promising to help with the project, so I figured it was just a matter of time before the truth got out. With this in mind, I guess Hani-san really was observing me after all.

“I see.”

With us being exposed, there was probably no way we could continue drawing the manga using our club’s budget. Even from the get-go, however, there was a problem with our plan of talking to the club president to get our funds that way. Releasing the manga by pooling together money from the people involved was probably a more clear-headed approach, and it might’ve been a good idea to stick with that from the start.

Hani-san sighed with a look of resignation as she watched me.

“Maya-cchi, you’re a little calm, don’t you think? It’s looking like it’ll get pretty nasty.”

I glanced down at the phone in her hands. I’m guessing someone sent her some kind of message. Something nasty… I had an idea of what she was talking about.

“Did something happen in the Manga Society?”

She nodded, and her face turned into an exhausted grimace.

“It looks like they’re giving Asanuma a lot of hell. Well, it’s pretty obvious they would…”

When she said “obvious,” was she talking about that being the obvious result for someone who tried to do something so shady behind everyone’s backs, or was she sympathetic of Asanuna’s determination even though she knew the reading faction would definitely get angry? I had no way of knowing. I didn’t even know where I stood on the issue.

“Yeah, I guess,” I agreed as I started to put away the notebook on top of my desk. Hani-san looked a little shocked.

“You’re going? You’d be better off if you stayed clear…”

I was happy to see Hani-san that worried about me, considering we didn’t really talk much, but you know… What can you do?

“It’s not like I decided to help her with her book yet, but I can’t bring myself to ignore it either.”

Hani-san chuckled slightly and responded, “Gotcha. Sorry, but I’m going to go with you.”

The fact that Hani-san, member of the reading faction, was going meant that she didn’t want me to add myself to the side under fire and upset the current balance. She probably said sorry with this in mind.

“Maya-cchi, let’s give each other our phone numbers. If anything happens, I’ll send you a message.”

I nodded and pulled my phone from my bag.

 

The Manga Society clubroom was on the second floor of the main building, in the first prep room, and my 2-C classroom was in the same building on the third floor. The walk wasn’t very long, but to tell the truth, I took my time in getting there. Was it even possible for me to hurry to a place where I knew I’d be yelled at? Hani-san followed right behind me in that state.

We finally arrived at the clubroom, and as I slid open the sliding door, I started to regret not running. It became clear with a single glance that everything had already ended. Asanuma-san, Harigaya-san, and Tai were all surrounded by a crowd of girls in a semicircle around them. Tai was sobbing pitifully and Asanuma-san stared at her feet, silently taking it all. Directly in front of the three was the sophomore, Shinohara-san. Her arms were crossed, and as I entered the room, she looked at me and sneered.

“Ibara, huh? Were you waiting for us to finish up before you came? Pretty sneaky, aren’t you.”

“That’s not it. I didn’t know about it is all.”

“Sure you didn’t,” she jeered, and then proudly turned to point at the three silent girls in front of her. “Then I’ll spell it out for you because you’re so late. We know everything. You were planning on stealing our club funds to make your book, and then you were going to chase out everyone who couldn’t draw manga. Seriously, how dirty can you get?”

After Kouchi-senpai left the club, Shinohara-san was the one who stepped up more or less to be the reading faction’s leader. That might’ve been how she saw the plan, but she was going way overboard.

“You’re completely wrong. Asanuma-san just wanted to create a manga without the Manga Society giving her a hard time. She said she was going to get permission to use the club funds from the president, Yuasa-senpai. Please don’t call it stealing.”

“The president?” Shinohara-san muttered and a huge smile grew across her face. “She already left the club. Needed to concentrate on her college exams, apparently. Didn’t you hear?”

“What…?”

I looked around, scanning the clubroom for Yuasa-senpai’s presence. She was nowhere to be seen. Not only her, but all of the seniors were missing.

“So that’s what it was,” I quietly said to nobody but myself.

Just as Asanuma-san was planning on taking the initiative by creating this manga, Shinohara-san and the others were set on getting the neutral Yuasa-senpai to quit the club, leaving the position of president open for them to fill. It was reaching the time of year when most seniors quit their clubs, so there was nothing strange about it happening now. Sometime yesterday or today, without a doubt, the president had stepped down without me realizing it. Look at me, getting all worried about whether or not I’d draw manga in the Manga Society while this was going on… What the heck was I doing?!

Seeing my expression grow conflicted, Shinohara-san continued without a second thought. “What do you even mean ‘giving her a hard time’ anyways? You might as well be describing yourself at that point. You act all high and mighty, laughing at people who can’t draw manga but want to join the club, and then get such a victim complex when we ask you to not do stuff like that on your own. Cut the crap. We just want to enjoy what we think is fun. Just by saying we like manga, our parents and teachers treat us like we’re idiots, so why do we have to go through the same crap in our club, too?!”

The club members surrounding Asanuma-san all had their eyes fixated on me by this point. All of their gazes were so cold and bitter. In the silence that followed, I could tell that they all agreed with Shinohara-san’s words, resenting both Asanuma-san and I.

I hadn’t ever treated them like idiots. All I wanted was to draw manga. Sure, it’s not like I ever apologized for being able to, but I never once looked down on those who couldn’t.

—Was that really true?

Was it possible that, without realizing it, some nasty part of me surfaced and did something to them—like a strongly worded sentence or annoyed attitude?

No, get a grip. I’ve never thought anything like that. Being able to draw manga is just another talent. It’s no different than being able to swing around on a high bar or remembering all the periods in Japan’s history. It might be important to the person herself, but I’ve always thought that bragging about something like that to others was completely dumb. You can’t be doubting yourself, Mayaka.

I had to stop myself from getting worked up by those cold stares. For now, I needed to take things slowly and figure out what was going to happen.

“So? Who’s the new president?”

Shinohara’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “You don’t know?”

I guess that response meant it was someone I knew. There’s no way it’d be Asanuma-san, right? Shinohara-san raised her arm and pointed at me.

“Me?”

“Yeah right. Behind you.”

I turned around.

Standing there was my classmate, a girl who looked timid despite not being so, who had entered the clubroom after me. It was Hani-san. She held up a hand in slight apology as I stood there dumbfounded.

“Sorry, Maya-cchi. It wasn’t easy to tell you.” She then walked next to Shinohara-san and asked, “Did they accept?”

“All of it.”

“Good. Tell Maya-cchi, then.”

They were probably talking about something like the terms of surrender. With a calmer attitude than before, Shinohara-san started her explanation.

“We decided on it before you got here.”

“We’re not allowed to draw manga, I’m guessing,” I said.

“If you want to do it, we won’t stop you.”

Taken aback by her response, I turned to Asanuma-san without thinking. However, her expression remained listless. It looked like there was more to her terms.

“The manga in question is probably going to fall flat anyways. Although you guys think you’re all that, Ibara’s the only one who’s even made anything in the first place. Do whatever you want, though. How about we even help you fill out the club expense form too? If you can’t manage to finish it in the end, we’ll all have a good laugh at you. You’ll also have to take responsibility for wasting the club’s budget and quit.”

She then retracted her index finger and placed her palm on her chest.

“In the one-in-a-million chance you do make something worthwhile… well then, good for you! We’ll let you guys do whatever you want with the club. We’ll make our own club so we can do what we want as well.”

So that’s what it was. The time finally came.

I’d had the feeling for some time now, but it looked like the rift between the two factions had already become too deep to repair. By taking out money to make her manga, the club would be split into two.

Hani-san clapped her hands together to bring me out of my daze.

“I’m sure you understand where this is going, Maya-cchi. Sorry about all this. Let’s do what we have to, now.”

Shinohara-san brought out a piece of paper and waved it in front of Asanuma-san.

“As for the club expense form, we’ve actually already filled one out. We’ve even got our signature down and talked with the club adviser. It’s up to you to write the amount and purpose, Asanuma-san.”

Hearing her name, Asanuma-san finally looked up and stared wearily at the form, but in the end, she shook her head slowly.

“I don’t know how much it’ll cost. We haven’t even decided on the page count…”

“Oh, come on! Don’t worry about that! If it’s not enough, we’ll just submit another one. Let’s go for 10,000 yen. Starting is the most important part!” Hani-san replied.

As if being lured in by her cheery voice, Asanuma-san shakily approached the two of them and took the form. Shinohara-san even had a pen at the ready, and she handed it over as well. Asanuma-san looked at the pen cautiously, but just as she was about to start writing, her entire body froze up as if being held back by something.

“What’s wrong? Too scared?” provoked Shinohara-san, and I felt like I could see something like a flash of anger run through Asanuma-san’s eyes and she immediately started to write.

I only watched as this happened, unable to come to my senses. I knew something was off about all this, but I couldn’t think straight at all. Maybe too much had happened for me to process. Finally, a single question started to take form in my consciousness: why was Hani-san in such a hurry to fill out the club expense form? What would change if we filled it out? We’d be able to work on our manga? No, that wasn’t the issue…

What was Shinohara-san saying earlier? I desperately racked my head, mind full of muddled thoughts, for the words. I’m pretty sure it went something like this.

—We’re going to have you take responsibility for the funds you wasted and make you leave the club.

“Wait!”

I quickly blurted that out to stop Asanuma-san, but she’d already finished filling out the form like she’d been asked by that point. She turned around, flustered, when she heard me say that, but Hani-san immediately pulled the form out from under her palm.

There was only way to prevent the Manga Society from splitting into two. We would have to give up on our plans to create the manga, still in its developmental stages, and promise the others we wouldn’t go off on our own to do something like this in the future, making up with them in the process. Now that there was a club expense form involved, however, we wouldn’t be able to use the excuse that the manga wasn’t even started yet. Even if we didn’t touch a single yen, they could still accuse us of “wasting club funds” and prevent reconciliation.

I’ve never genuinely hated the reading faction. I mean, I didn’t even really consider myself a proper member of the drawing faction, after all. Yet, their tactics this time around were just so cruel. If they wanted to split the club from the start, they should’ve just quietly left themselves or even told Asanuma-san and I to quit outright. And yet, they were doing all this to purposely try and humiliate us as much as possible. I glared at Hani-san, but she was no longer facing my direction. She carefully placed the form in her bag and left the room with a simple, “Alright then, good luck with everything, okay? I’m going to get the teacher’s signature now.”

If I were to chase after her right now, slap her across the cheek, and grab the form from her bag, would I be able save the club then?

…It would only make things worse, I guess. In the freshly silent classroom, all I could hear were the silent sobs of the freshman, Tai, until she finally started to speak, forgetting who was around her.

“I’m so sorry, senpai. I’m so sorry!”

 

4.

Why did I draw manga in the first place, again?

After school on Wednesday, even though Asanuma-san was cornered by Shinohara-san and the others and looked almost lifeless, when I asked her if she wanted to abandon the project, she responded with a clear “No.”

“If we finish the manga, Shinohara-san will quit. That’s okay with you?”

There was no point in asking her that. If we didn’t finish it, we’d be the ones forced to quit instead. It was a lose-lose situation. As she listened, Asanuma-san started to smile stiffly, and she responded, “Sounds perfect to me. If she’s willing to kick us out, then I’m fine with returning the favor.”

I didn’t draw manga to kick Shinohara-san out of the Manga Society. Though, if you did ask me why I did it, I wouldn’t be able to give a good answer.

It’s so strange. Up until yesterday, I thought I knew why.

 

Even then, the preparations for the manga continued as planned.

The story was all but finished, and for the most part, the dialogue was complete as well, and yet no matter how many times I looked it over, I couldn’t be satisfied by what I had. I got a weird sense of déjà vu from it—probably because the story was basically about me—but I feel like I didn’t enjoy the process of creating it. Of course, if I refused to draw the manga until I perfected the ultimate story, then I’d probably be at this for another ten years. My only option was to play the cards dealt to me.

I started the manga’s rough draft on Thursday after school. Though the budget was pretty much decided already, you couldn’t really make a book with only 10,000 yen, so the original plan to settle the page count ahead of time didn’t change. More accurately, Asanuma-san hated the idea of changing her original plan to match the situation forced onto her by Hani-san. Also, I honestly wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to write something good enough to publish in Asanuma-san’s book until I made the rough draft.

Though it was a little messy, the preparations for the rough draft included splitting the pages into panels and then adding speech bubbles before I started to draw the images. Now that I was at this step, both my classroom and the library were out of the question, and I didn’t want to worry my parents by doing it at home, either. Drawing it in the Manga Society clubroom would almost definitely be seen as me challenging the reading faction, so the only option left to me was the Classics Club’s earth sciences lecture room. I really wanted to leave the Classics Club out of the Manga Society’s drama as much as I could, but, well, it wasn’t like it was the first time I used the lecture room to draw manga.

Fuku-chan was the only one who showed up this time. Normally I’d be over the moon at this, but I had a mission today, and it looked like he was busy with his own work as well.

“Hey!”

“Hi.”

This smiling exchange was all that really took place, and I sat at a desk a little far away and took out my notebook. Doing the rough draft on manga manuscript paper was normally the ideal option because it made doing the actual thing much easier, but because the paper itself was really bulky, difficult to carry around discreetly, and—above all—expensive, I settled on doing it in a normal notebook.

It was time to begin.

Almost as if each stroke was a prayer, I carefully started to draw the panels. Please turn out interesting. I know I’m still an amateur, but I’m trying as hard as I can. So much of the manga I read before you was so very interesting. You should be able to become the same. Please…

The seasons continued its slow transition from the spring into summer. A peaceful breeze wafted in from the wide-open window. The lines I drew without a ruler were straight, and the circles I drew without a compass were smooth. With the simple appearance of the story’s cast, each one of them with only circular eyes the shape of a rain doll, I would now decide how everything would unfold.

I did mess up a bit. Without thinking, I started the rough draft in the same notebook that contained the dialogue I planned earlier. I tend to do everything in one notebook, as I hate having to carry a bunch of them around school with me. It didn’t affect me much at first, because I had a clear idea of how I wanted to start the story, but as I got to the third and fourth pages, I started needing to flip back and forth through the notebook more and more to check the dialogue. It really was becoming a hassle; I’ll make sure I definitely split the drafting and planning into separate notebooks next time.

While my mistake did slow things down, I continued to make progress. Unfortunately, as I did, the sense of unease that I felt when Asanuma-san first gave me the vague “Manga Society” theme slowly grew larger and more tangible with every page. Yet, the thought that this story might be used to oust Shinohara-san from the club never crossed my mind. When I reach this point, I forget about everything aside from manga. It’d probably all come rushing back the second my hand stopped moving, though.

I continued to draw, flipped through my notes to check the dialogue and flipped even more to check the story, and then continued to draw some more—how long was I at this, I wonder. My hand stopped as I heard a slight vibration.

Someone had messaged me. I opened my bag and took a look at my phone. It was from Hani-san, surprisingly, and her message was only one short sentence:

Come as fast as you can.

If Hani-san sent it, then that meant something probably happened in the Manga Society clubroom, and she wanted me to come there. I had any number of ideas about what might’ve happened, and none of them sounded good. I couldn’t stop imagining the possibility that a fight might’ve broken out and someone got hurt. I stood up immediately, making a loud sound as the seat slid back.

“Ah! You scared me!” I heard from across the room.

He wasn’t the only one scared. I’d completely forgotten he was even here.

“I’m sorry, someone messaged me,” I said flustered, as if it was a proper excuse. I quickly closed the notebook on top of my desk, and, thinking I was better safe than sorry, I added, “Watch this!”

As I did, he looked back at me with a confused expression. “You want me to look at it?”

As if!

“No, I mean look after it.”

“Look after it?”

I guess that would be a confusing request to have thrown at you all of a sudden. My wording probably wasn’t the greatest, but I didn’t have any time to spare. I ran out of the earth sciences lecture room as fast as I could.

 

I quickly made it to the first prep room, but nothing was wrong.

The reading faction was sitting in the front of the classroom like usual, and the drawing faction was gathered in the back, everyone reading manga or talking with each other. There wasn’t the greatest atmosphere, but it looked like nothing terrible had happened at least.

Shinohara-san was sitting at a desk in the center of the reading faction, laughing with her friends. Asanuma-san, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she still hadn’t recovered from her experience yesterday, or maybe she had something to do—I don’t know. The rest of the drawing faction didn’t seem that depressed, so it probably wasn’t likely that she’d gotten chased from the classroom or anything.

I had to find Hani-san first. After I scanned the room, though, I finally realized she wasn’t there. Shinohara-san spotted me looking around and asked, ‘Looking for someone?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Asanuma’s not here.”

One of the nearby sophomores snickered, “She’s probably off crying somewhere,” but Shinohara-san didn’t turn around to acknowledge the comment. I was looking for Hani-san, but it might not be good if I said that right now. I’ll just play along, I guess.

“I see. Thanks.”

I turned around and heard giggling behind me. I wasn’t certain, but it didn’t sound like Shinohara-san had joined in.

If Hani-san wasn’t in the clubroom, then the only other possibility I could think of was that she meant our Class 2-C homeroom. Both of us were in the same class, after all, so I guess I should’ve assumed it was that one first. Just to be safe, I sent her a text.

Accidentally went to the Manga Society. Where should I go?

I walked some ways away from the first prep room and waited a couple minutes for a response, but nothing came. I figured it’d be faster to just go there and check for myself, so I climbed the stairs and headed towards the room.

When I got there, however, I still couldn’t find her. There were around five students in the room, some of them from other classes, but they were each sitting down at a desk. Some of the girls were talking near the entrance, so I asked them, “Hey, have you seen Hani-san?”

“Honey? We’ve been here for a while, and we haven’t seen her.”

I had no idea she was called Honey. I honestly don’t think it fits her quiet appearance at all.

But anyways, something’s not right. If she wasn’t in the Manga Society or our classroom, then I had no idea where she wanted me to go. I work in the library, so that’s a possibility, but I really doubt it.

“You looking for Honey?”

“Not really. She called for me.”

“To come here?”

“I don’t really know. It’s okay, I’ll look somewhere else. Thanks.”

I left the classroom and looked down at my cellphone. Still nothing. I was really curious about what happened, but if I can’t get ahold of her, then there’s probably nothing else I can do. I should’ve gotten her number.4

“Might as well work on my rough draft, I guess.”

I walked to the Classics Club room, completely at a loss.

 

Back in the earth sciences lecture room, I let out a small scream.

“Where’s my notebook?!”

The book that I’d left sitting on top of my desk was missing. That’s completely ridiculous! Where could it have gone?!

Fuku-chan was still sitting at his desk, facing his work, but he dropped the mechanical pencil he was holding when he heard my voice.

“You… you scared me. What’s wrong now?”

Before I left, I asked Fuku-chan to look after my notebook, but my wording wasn’t perfect. He mistook my request for me giving him permission to look at my notes. I’m pretty sure I corrected myself, but there might’ve still been a misunderstanding.

“Hey, Fuku-chan. Do you have the notebook I left here?”

“Nope, I don’t.”

“Then where is it? This is weird.”

As I started to rummage through my bag, he started to talk with a bit of worry. “Um… were you by chance not the one that asked for that notebook?”

The blood drained from me. I raised my head, defeated. There wasn’t a single thing in his expression that showed he was joking.

“I wasn’t.”

“…Oh.” He lowered his head suddenly. “It’s my fault. A girl came here and took the notebook, telling me you asked her to get it for you. You even told me to look after it, and I still didn’t question her.”

So someone stole it?

“When was that?”

“I was working on this stuff, so I’m not really sure… I’m pretty sure it wasn’t too long after you left.”

“Who would do something like that?!”

“I didn’t get the best look at her, but it was someone I didn’t know. She came in a rush and asked me if your notes were here.”

It was Hani-san. There was no doubt. She sent me a message to lure me out and then took it while I was away. It didn’t even cross my mind that she might go after my notebook, so I carelessly left it an easy target.

“It was a quiet-looking girl. I figured something must’ve happened, so I pointed at your desk. I was such an idiot.”

It wasn’t his fault… No one could’ve predicted this would happen. There was the time when my chocolate was stolen, but we figured out who did it and why pretty quickly, so it wasn’t a huge shock. He also made up for it after. This time was different, though. I strongly shook my head.

“It’s not your fault, Fuku-chan. In fact, I’m thankful you were here, because now I know who took it. Sorry for yelling when I came in.”

I pulled out the chair next to me and sat down unsteadily.

Hani-san was in the reading faction, so we were on different sides in the Manga Society, but we’d always talk normally in class. It’s not like I trusted her or anything—the word “trust” is too strong to describe our relationship. She didn’t even tell me that she was chosen to be the next club president, so she probably felt the same way. And yet, she did something like this.

In order to get me out of the room, she needed my phone mail address. I gave it to her yesterday, after she told me what was happening in the Manga Society clubroom and suggested we exchange contact information. So basically, what if she’d been watching me and planning ever since then on how to get my notebook?

Why, though?

Why did she have to steal my notebook?

I can only think of one reason.

Hani-san wants to sabotage Asanuma-san’s manga. She laid a trap for me and tricked Fuku-chan, all because she didn’t want me to finish it!

All of it spun around in my head—the pointless conflict between the reading and drawing factions, the weaponized manga, the club president coup d’état, and now this theft. Why? Why did everything turn out this way? Why was I dragged into the middle of it all? Losing the notebook itself wasn’t all that bad; I could just rewrite everything. The thing that hurt the most was that Hani-san stole it. It’s not like I trusted her. We weren’t really that close. But the lies!

“Mayaka. Mayaka!”

I snapped back to my senses. Fuku-chan was bent over my desk, staring at me.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to bawl my eyes out and have him comfort me, but it was too soon to give up.

I took in a deep breath and slowly let it back out. My feverish mind tried to convince itself this was all just some kind of lie, dream, or misunderstanding, but unfortunately, I knew that wasn’t the case.

“It looks like that notebook was really important to you,” Fuku-chan said with a serious expression.

“The notebook itself isn’t really… I was drawing manga in there, so it’s just that I didn’t want anyone else to see it.”

“She stole a manga?”

I shook my head. It wasn’t a manga that was stolen. It was only the lines, story points, and part of the rough draft—but how do I explain that to him? As I stayed silent, Fuku-chan pulled back and placed a hand on the desk. “I’ll go get it back. Do you have any idea who she is?”

“I’m positive she’s someone I know, but… it’s okay.”

“I won’t go saying it’s my responsibility anymore, but it really bugs me, and I can’t let it slide. Who is it?”

I shook my head softly. “It’s not your fault, and things might get bad if the others find out… I don’t want to get you involved in all this.”

I really shouldn’t have worked on the manga in the earth sciences lecture room. Just look at what became of it. As I stared at the floor, he finally said, “Mayaka… I want to be involved, though.”

“I know…”

Fuku-chan stared intently off into space but finally said, “I know I might not be a lot of help, but please tell me what’s going on. I understand it won’t be good if I confront her now, but let both of us try and figure out another way to get it back for you.”

I probably had a bit of a sad smile then.

“You really do feel responsible, don’t you?”

“Yeah, guess so. Even though I was fully aware of how messy things were in the Manga Society, I still let myself get duped like that.”

I never really intended on telling him about the current state of the Manga Society. I just didn’t want him to worry. Funnily enough, though, now that I pretty much had to tell him everything, I felt strangely at peace.

 

5.

With that, I told him the gist of what had happened up until now. About how Asanuma-san asked me to join her project last Monday. About how her manga was going to be used as a tool in the Manga Society’s faction warfare. About how I, in order to figure out the page count, asked for some time to figure things out.

I told him about how, on Tuesday, I felt like Hani-san was keeping an eye on me while I worked in my notebook in the classroom.

About how, on Wednesday, I learned that Asanuma-san’s plan was discovered. About how Hani-san had become the club president before I even realized what was happening.

And now today, about how I left the classroom because of Hani-san’s message, leading to my notebook being stolen while I was away.

After I finished speaking, Fuku-chan stayed silent, deep in thought. Even I was trying to put everything into order in my head as I told him what had happened. Finally, he smiled bitterly and said, “I guess you were followed, huh.”

I think so too. Up until yesterday, I was preparing the manga in classroom 2-C, and yet, even though I switched to the earth sciences lecture room today, how was she able to pinpoint me here? The only thing I could think of was that she had followed me.

“If I continued to work on it in the classroom, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Fuku-chan said, his arms crossed. He mulled it over in his head for a bit and then continued, “You said that on Wednesday, too, you were following what Hani-san said, right?”

“Yeah. She told me that Asanuma-san was getting cornered by the others, so I went to the Manga Society. She was telling the truth then.”

“At that time, I’m guessing you left your notebook out in the classroom, right?”

Did I? I tried to think back.

Although I hadn’t drawn anything yet, I wouldn’t leave my notebook with the manga’s story in it out on my desk like that. I’m pretty sure I remember putting it in my bag. After that, I probably took the bag with me to the clubroom.

Wait, no. I’d planned on coming back to the classroom, so that’s not what happened.

“I put the notebook in my bag, but I left my bag in the classroom.”

“That means she had the chance to steal it yesterday, then.”

I see. That hadn’t occurred to be, but he was exactly right. Not only that, but we were the only two in the classroom at the time. All she had to do was wait a little bit after I left for the Manga Society, and stealing my notebook would be a piece of cake.

Before realizing it, I muttered under my breath, “Then why…”

Fuku-chan nodded deeply. “That’s exactly it. ‘Why.’ Why did she have to steal your notebook today?”

“To sabotage Asanuma-san’s manga, right? Why else would she do it?” I responded, a little spitefully.

Fuku-chan, however, shook his head. “I’m not so sure about that. I started to think about something while you were telling me that story. Doesn’t it seem similar to Houtarou’s thing a bit ago?” he said quietly.

Oreki’s?

What does he mean by ‘a bit ago?’

Fuku-chan and Chi-chan… that’s right, we were reading Oreki’s book report. That was pretty fun. It feels like it was already so long ago. If I remember correctly, it was done on “Run, Melos,” and it was about who was trying to stop Melos from reaching the city. I had no idea what about it was similar to my situation, though.

“What’s the same, exactly?” I asked.

“The part about Dionysus and the bandits.”

“Dionysus is the god of wine.”

“Oh wait, you’re right. I mean Dunamis… actually no, that’s an angel.”

“Really?”

“I think he’s an angel of power? Anyways, let’s just call him the king. When I heard your story, it reminded me of the passage in Houtarou’s book report about the king and the bandits.”

In his analysis, I’m pretty sure Oreki disagreed with Melos’ theory that it was the king who hired the bandits to kill him and impede his progress to the kingdom.

“How is it related to me?”

“Do you remember his point? Houtarou wrote that because the king genuinely believed Melos wouldn’t come back, there was no reason why he’d try to prevent his return. That kind of reasoning is just like him. I definitely got a good kick out of it.”

I also smiled.

He continued, “So this is what I think, personally. Even if Melos managed to make it to the kingdom, the king doesn’t lose anything. Melos probably wouldn’t return, but even in the one-in-a-million chance that he did, the king wasn’t in a position to really be affected by that. That’s why, even if you look at it from this perspective, it’s clear that the king wasn’t the one who hired the bandits.”

I can see how that made sense. If the king wanted to continue believing that ‘you can never trust anyone’ no matter what, and it was possible that Melos might challenge that conviction, I could see how the situation would change, but in the actual story, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case.

“Now with your situation,” said Fuku-chan, “Hani-san seems to genuinely believe that there’s no way Asanuma-san will complete the manga. And the thing is, even if it is successfully completed, I’m thinking it wouldn’t bother her at all.”

“What do you mean? If the manga is successful, then she and the others will have to quit the club.”

“Hani-san proposed that herself, though, didn’t she?”

Well yeah, but…

Fuku-chan lightly scratched his cheek. “I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about the Manga Society. Now that I’ve heard your account too, I’m starting to think that there’s no longer any way to keep the club from splitting. All this talk about stalking, spies, and a coup d’état… there’s clearly something messed up about this situation, even if you compare it to the rest of the strange clubs at this school. As far as I’m aware, the Manga Society is a pretty massive group with over thirty people, if you include the freshmen. Even if you split it into two, both groups would still be larger than the average club. I think your club president, Hani-san’s goal was to make it possible to do this and to make two normal clubs… What’s your take on this, Mayaka? Am I off?”

Fuku-chan’s always been interested in lots of different things; no matter the subject, he always devours everything he possibly can. Ever since he joined the general committee in high school, though, I feel like he’s gotten more and more keen, especially about things like procedures and official organization, as well as about people’s true intentions. Take Oreki for example. He doesn’t work well with others, so while he’s aware of the concepts, he doesn’t really fully grasp things like emotional facades and the self-justification people use to protect themselves. Fuku-chan sees through all of it, and even then, he never changes in the process. I think that’s really amazing.

If Fuku-chan said there was no saving the Manga Society, then there might truly be no more hope after all. Sure enough, the internal feuding had already reached the point of no return. I’ve never once thought that the club was better off splitting in two, but I can’t say the same for Hani-san. Maybe she—

No, wait, there’s a problem with that.

“If that were the case, wouldn’t it be better for her to just quit the club without doing all this? Why doesn’t she just take the fact that we were planning to make a manga and use that to kick us out without all the hassle?”

“I’m not so sure about that. If she left without a word, wouldn’t that look like she was running away with her tail between her legs? She has to keep up appearances. On the other hand, if she wanted you guys to leave the club, it’d be virtually impossible for her to force your resignation using just that fact that you guys wanted to draw manga. If they went and cried to the club adviser about it, they’d be the ones getting yelled at—not you.”

That’s true. That’d be a pretty insufficient reason.

“I don’t really know a lot about it,” he continued, “but if the condition for you guys is to make any kind of manga, then that sounds like a pretty easy task, right?”

“I guess so, yeah. It’d be easy to make one if all we had to do was print it from any old printer.”

“If the book is successfully completed, then Asanuma-san and the rest get to regain the honor they lost and everyone gets to break up on good terms. If the book doesn’t get finished, then the fault lies entirely on Asanuma-san’s group, and that becomes a reason to make them resign.”

I understand his reasoning, but I can’t see what comes after that. I started to raise my voice a little.

“But if that’s true—if Hani-san’s just like the king in Melos’ story—then doesn’t that mean she stole my notebook for no reason at all? If she stole it for fun, then doesn’t that just make it bullying?”

I’m not saying it’d be okay if she had a reason, but if it really was out of pure spite, I wouldn’t be able to sit still.

Fuku-chan stared at the floor and quietly muttered, “You’re right. That’s the one strange part. It really is frustrating… If it were Houtarou, he’d be able to think of something, no problem. Why did she do it? She shouldn’t have anything to gain from taking your notebook.”

Every now and then, Fuku-chan says something ridiculous like: “A database can’t draw conclusions.” He knows a lot about various topics and always knows about the latest rumors, but he’s convinced it’s because of that that he has a hard time finding the truth. All that sounds like to me is that he’s already given up before he even starts to try.

Right now though, he was seriously trying to figure it all out. Instead of saying his usual catchphrases—things like “I have no idea” or “There’s nothing I can do about that”—Fuku-chan was completely still, focusing all of his effort on finding the answer.

I was also racking my mind with him, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but stare at him in silence.

Finally, he started to speak with an uncharacteristically furrowed brow. “We’re definitely going to get your notebook back, Mayaka, but—and I can’t exactly explain why I feel this way—how about we try to wait and see what happens?”

Speaking from a realistic standpoint, no matter how hard Fuku-chan tried, and no matter how close to rage incarnate I became, there probably wasn’t any way we’d be able to get the notebook back today, considering Hani-san had likely already gone home. If she did steal the notebook just to harass me, then it was probably already in some trashcan, up in smoke, or in the river on its way to the sea by now. If that wasn’t the case, then there was still a chance to get it back, but Fuku-chan wanted to sit back for now.

“I’m glad you’re so confident, but why do you want to wait?”

Fuku-chan was terrible at getting his point across clearly.

“I’ve seen you draw your manga before, and I’m pretty sure it’s not like you can’t continue drawing it without that notebook, right? I understand you’re pissed off, of course. I can’t let it slide either, but if we approach this as objectively as possible, all you need is the time to rewrite what you lost.”

He wasn’t wrong. The notebook was pretty much only for my preparation, and it only took three days to make. Putting aside my emotions for now, it was nothing I couldn’t salvage if I had three more days.

“If that’s the case, then maybe Hani-san’s goal was to buy time, don’t you think? Maybe she wants to do something with those three days. Think about it; whenever someone gets kidnapped in one of those thriller novels, people always end up waiting for the culprit to contact them first. Let’s try to wait and observe how things turn out a little more before we decide on what to do.”

“Sure, but I feel like it also might better to stop her as soon as possible in case she’s planning on doing something terrible.”

“Yeah. If that happens, I’ll protect you.”

… It was pretty much impossible for me to not wonder if he’d be able to do anything like that in the first place, but then again, by that logic, I guess it was also pretty much impossible for there not to be part of me that completely trusted him. I nodded resolutely.

“Okay, I understand. I’ll give it a little time. Is it better if I don’t say anything to Hani-san tomorrow?”

“That’s a difficult one. I get the feeling that she’ll contact you if she has any demands, but who knows. I swear. I really wish Houtarou was here at times like these.”

It’s true that if Oreki were here, he might be able to connect the dots better than we could.

The thing is, I haven’t once wished he was here instead. Thanks.

 

6.

It was Friday, May 18th. Although it was a date I used to look forward to, everything weighed far too heavily on my mind.

I forgot my handkerchief while leaving the house and ended up later to school than normal, and although Hani-san was in the classroom when I got there, she casually ignored me like I was a random passerby, even though our eyes met. I guess I could always grab her shoulders and shake her around, yelling, “Give me back my notebook!” but I decided to trust in Fuku-chan’s advice. Besides, things would get even worse if I accidentally ended up hurting her, so I guess I’ll sit still for now.

Telling Asanuma-san about my progress was even more nerve-racking than confronting Hani-san. Although I told her I’d decide whether or not I’d participate and how many pages I’d have by Friday, I wasn’t able to make the deadline. I did have her email address, but you really got to do these kinds of things in person, so I waited until lunch and then headed to classroom 2-A to talk with her.

There, only around two or three students were still eating. The rest of them had already finished and were doing other things. It’s kind of strange—even though it’s not against the rules, I found it a bit uncomfortable to go to another classroom. While I hesitated at the door, a slim, pretty girl noticed I was there and called out to me, “Looking for someone?”

“Um, yeah. Asanuma-san.”

“Oh yeah? I wonder if she’s here.”

The girl glanced back really quickly and found Asanuma-san sitting by the window. She walked over to her and started to talk about something. The girl pointed over to me, and was probably telling Asanuma-san how I was looking for her. The second she noticed me, Asanuma-san’s expression darkened a little, and she started to walk over to me with heavy steps.

“What’s up?”

Her voice was listless—she must also be in a terrible mood. It felt absolutely terrible to kick her while she was down like this. All it did was revive my anger towards the person who stole my notebook.

“I said I’d get back to you on Friday about my decision, right?”

“Yeah.”

As she responded, Asanuma-san started to look furtively to her left and right. Maybe she was uncomfortable with talking about the manga in the classroom, or maybe she was just being cautious of anyone listening in after what happened when her plans were leaked. Seeing her like that made me speak in the same quiet volume.

“Sorry, but can you wait a little longer?”

Her eyebrows rose.

“What? What do you mean? Weren’t you the one who told me it’d be today?”

I knew she wasn’t going to be happy or anything, but I didn’t expect her to react this strongly.

I’d already decided that, no matter what happened, I wouldn’t tell her about Hani-san stealing my notebook. I didn’t have any proof, and if the others learned that it was a possibility, it might fan the already raging flames of conflict between factions in the broken Manga Society. Of course, if I can’t get the notebook in the end, I’ll be pouring a gallon of gasoline on those flames, but for now, I’ll stay quiet.

“I’m really, really sorry. I thought I could finish it by now, but the rough draft isn’t finished and all…”

She sighed loudly and overtly.

“Okay. I hope you’re not planning on jumping ship.”

There was understandably a lot of venom in her voice.

“What do you mean?”

“Tai cried and ran away, and Nishiyama was the one who betrayed us and told everyone. And now here you are, telling me you want me to wait even longer. I think it’s pretty natural for me to assume you might be trying to abandon the project too.”

Although she started the whole thing, I guess I really did feel a little sorry for her. Everything aside, the fact of the matter was that I didn’t keep our promise, and that was my fault. I lowered my head again.

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, you’re going to do it with me, right?”

I understand why she’s so desperate, but it’s a little too much.

“I came here to apologize to you. Don’t you trust me?”

She sighed once more, this time much more naturally.

“I’m sorry, I’m just a little on edge.”

“Me too. It’s okay.”

“So, how long do you need?”

I was halfway through the rough draft already, so if I managed to get the notebook back by Monday, then I could probably finish it by Tuesday. If I wasn’t able to retrieve it, though, then I’d have to start all the way back from writing the dialogue. If I worked on it over the weekend, assuming that I wouldn’t be getting the notebook back…

“Wednesday… Yeah, next Wednesday.”

Asanuma-san nodded, her eyes cast somewhat downwards. “Got it. Sorry Ibara. Sorry this all got so complicated…”

It’s true she was the one that organized this all, but I was also happy when I first heard I’d get the chance to draw. There was no reason for her to apologize. Without saying any of that, though, I simply responded, “See you,” and left the classroom.

When I got back to my own class, lunch break was almost over, and most of the students had already gotten back into their seats. Fifth period was PE. I walked back to my own desk, almost thankful that I’d be able to get some exercise, and suddenly noticed the sound of footsteps coming towards me. I turned around and saw Hani-san, not a shred of worry in her expression. She started talking in a cheery voice that was very much the same way.

“Maya-cchi, you free after school today?”

I wonder how I would’ve responded had I not prepared myself emotionally. Would I have yelled, “Don’t mess with me!” at her, or would I have been afraid at what she meant by that? In reality, neither was the case; I was actually a bit happy that what Fuku-chan had predicted came true. Thanks to him, even I was able to remain calm as I responded, “I have library duty until 5:00. I’m free after then, if that’s okay. Is something wrong?”

For a brief moment, Hani-san stared closely at me—maybe she thought I’d be more shaken up—but she quickly reverted back to her smile.

“Sorry, but could you come with me somewhere after school?”

I artificially tilted my head in thought, and said, “Umm, I’m not really feeling today. What’s going on?”

“I wanted to return something, and I’d rather do it sooner than later.”

I really wasn’t good at all this feeling each other out stuff. With every hollow word, I felt my cheeks getting hotter and hotter, and I could only barely hold back my anger.

“You’re right. Sooner the better. What do you want me to do then?”

Hani-san nodded satisfied. “Do you know that shop, Byron?”

“The cake shop next to the culture center?”

“Yeah, that one. That makes this quick. There’s a small tea cafe section inside. You can sit there, even if you only order tea—did you know that? I wanted to meet you there at 5:30. Does that work for you?”

I could be wrong, but it sounded like she wanted to do some kind of hostage exchange with the notebook. She made it out to be some kind of equal-footed conversation, but in reality, I was completely powerless. I wanted painfully to turn it back on her and flat-out refuse, but I restrained myself and instead returned a smile.

“Of course! Can’t wait.”

“I know, right? See you at 5:30, then.”

Although it was a date I used to look forward to, everything weighed far too heavily on my mind. The bell rang, and all the girls in class started heading towards the locker rooms to change.

 

I left the school grounds at 5:05, and as I walked briskly towards the shop, a lot of things circled around in my head.

First was about how Hani-san came to me first, just like Fuku-chan had predicted. He’d told me to wait for a while, but all it took was a single day for the situation to change again. What on earth was she trying to do? Did she steal my notebook to use it as bait and make me meet with her? I doubt it. We weren’t especially close, but if she did want to talk, I would’ve agreed without making a scene. There’d be no reason to steal anything.

Maybe she wanted to look inside, to see exactly what kind of manga Asanuma-san was making? If Hani-san had asked me to let her look at my notebook, I probably would’ve found some reason or another to refuse. I mean it’s embarrassing. Wouldn’t stealing it be the only way for her to do so?

No, I don’t think that’s likely either. Just because I was certain I’d be stubborn and refuse doesn’t mean Hani-san would be as well. For her, it’d make more sense to ask first. There’d be no reason to use such a heavy handed tactic from the very start.

It’s started to feel more and more like I was trapped in box, trying to figure out what Hani-san wanted, so I decided to try and think about something else. I’ll probably end up feeling really terrible by the time I eventually sit down and talk with her at Byron.

Actually, now that I think about it, there’s no guarantee that it’ll only be the two of us. I have no idea how many people will be there. What should I do if I go there and I find the rest of the reading faction waiting for me with nailed-in bats, saying, “So ya did come. Guess we can congratulate ya for yer balls before we bash yer head in!” Well, probably not.

If they wanted to gang up on me, then doing so at school would probably be easier, so that probably wasn’t it. The fact that it wasn’t limited to Hani-san alone was still possible, though. I wish I could go with someone else, like maybe Fuku-chan, Chi-chan, or Asanuma-san. No, this is my problem, so I’d like to do as much as I can by myself.

Because the time we agreed on was thirty minutes after my library duty ended, I couldn’t stop by the book store on the way. I’d been excited—or rather anxious—for this day for a while now, but I couldn’t really ask anyone else to do it.

I did genuinely want to do this as soon as possible, but 5:30 in the evening was a bit rough for me. My mom wouldn’t say anything, even if I was late, but she always makes such a disappointed face. I sent her a message saying I might be late because of library duty and a club meeting, but I really wanted to get home before dinner, if at all possible.

I also didn’t like the fact that she chose Byron at all. Kamiyama’s a small city, so there aren’t really a lot of western sweets shops. Byron’s considered one of the only ones, and its cakes are always the talk of the town. When I was in elementary school, my parents would get me a Byron cake for my birthday every year without fail, and the stuff we brought to Chi-chan’s house the other day was also from the same shop. It was difficult for me to think up a shop that both Hani-san and I knew and was good for high school students to hang out in in the heat of the moment, but I didn’t want to have such a depressing conversation in a place I only had fond memories of.

But I guess there was no avoiding it. In the time that I spent thinking about those things, I ended up in front of the white walls and nary roof tiles that distinguished Byron. I looked at my watch, and saw the time was 5:27. Barely made it. As I got here kind of fast, my breathing was a little ragged and it felt like I was also sweating a bit. I took a couple of deep breaths and dabbed my forehead and neck with my handkerchief.

Well then, now that I’ve come this far, there’s no point in getting worked up. I don’t care if there are lions or tigers waiting for me. I’ll beat them up, get my notebook back, and then be on my way home. I lightly slapped my cheeks and walked inside.

Colorful cakes were lined up inside the shop’s refrigerated cases. It was the time of year for peach, and almost that for cherry blossoms. My eyes wandered over the strawberry and chocolate cakes, but I couldn’t feel excited. The shop assistant’s uniform was a solid black dress, save for a white trim along the collar, and a matching black hat, and she almost looked something like a nun. With a relaxed voice and smile, she said, “Welcome.”

“Umm, I wanted to use the cafe.”

“Of course. It’s further inside.”

I’d never gone this far back in Byron before. I continued to walk through a narrow, dimly lit hallway in the direction she pointed at, and then suddenly found myself in a large space.

The ceiling was high and the windows wide, and there was a large grandfather clock sitting by the wall over the room’s wooden floor. Hani-san called it a small section, but it felt more like an event hall. I figured it was a bit late for tea since there was hardly anyone there. There was only one customer—a girl in a sailor uniform with her back turned to me. She slowly turned around, maybe hearing my footsteps.

“Glad to see you came, Ibara.”

My entire body froze. I couldn’t say a thing.

I said I didn’t care if there were lions or tigers, but I had no idea this one would show up. It was the Kamiyama high school senior, the former Manga Research Society member, Ayako Kouchi.

She smiled softly and continued, “Don’t be so scared. Didn’t Hani tell you anything? Oh, don’t worry about this. I’ll cover the bill—I’m your upperclassman after all!”

The conflict between the reading and drawing factions in the Manga Society first started during last year’s culture festival, but things really took a turn for the worse when Kouchi-senpai, the de-facto leader of the reading faction, decided to quit the club earlier than the rest of the seniors. Once they lost the person who acted as a lid on the conflict, the club began to tear apart.

That very person was here right now, mentioning Hani. I couldn’t make sense of anything, and I was suddenly seized by the desire to turn right around and make a break for the door. Kouchi-senpai beckoned me over with her hand.

“Don’t just stand there with your mouth open. Come over and sit down already.”

Her words were calm, but it felt like there was a bit of tension in her voice. It didn’t seem like she was picking a fight, but I couldn’t figure out what was making her sound like that as I cautiously approached her table.

In front of her was a cup full of black tea, a teapot decorated with flowers, and a single notebook. On the empty seat next to her was a paper bag with something the thickness of a manga magazine resting inside. There were no menus on top of the round table, but the nun-like shop assistant from earlier came by and gave one to each of us.

I didn’t have an appetite, so I ordered black tea.

Once she returned back through the hallway, Kouchi-senpai and I were the only ones left in the room. I suddenly remembered what Fuku-chan had said earlier about my situation being similar to Oreki’s book report. The report itself hinted at the person pulling the strings not being the king, and it looked like in my case, there was a puppeteer behind Hani-san as well. Though, I did know the two of them were close friends.

Kouchi-senpai brought the cup of tea to her lips and then returned it to the saucer with a small clink.

“So? How’s everything been with the Manga Society recently?”

“Terrible.”

Maybe she wanted to start off with a little small talk, but I couldn’t help but blurt out the truth. How long had it been weighing on my mind?

“Everyone’s insulting and harassing at each other. I’m absolutely sick of it. Why did you quit, senpai?”

Had Kouchi-senpai only put off quitting for a little while longer, the club may have been able to recover before it turned out like this. I don’t hate her for it; everyone should be free to join or quit their club whenever they want. It’s just that I can’t help but think it was because she left that all of this happened.

“Yeah, well… yeah…”

She drew out her response, and then picked her teacup up to refill it with black tea, looking as if she were trying the avoid the subject.

Soon after, the shop assistant came out again and brought me my own black tea. “I recommend waiting two minutes before you drink it. Would you like sugar?” she asked.

Normally I did prefer sugar with my coffee and tea, but this time I felt like drinking something bitter.

“No, thank you.”

The assistant left the room one more time. I couldn’t stand the silence, so I was the first one to start talking.

“Did you have my notebook stolen, senpai?”

Her eyes were fixed on her teacup, she responded, “Yeah, pretty much.”

I was on the verge of asking her why, but there was something else I needed to do first.

“Give it back.”

Before anything else, I refuse to talk with her any longer until I get my notebook back. Her expression looked strange, as if forcing a small smile, and she responded, “Of course,” before placing her hand on top of the notebook. “But don’t go running off the second you get it.”

“Are you going to force me by taking that hostage?”

“I guess you’re mad after all. Well, it’s not like I can blame you.” She let go of the teacup and then slowly bowed in front of me. “I’m sorry. It was all my fault. I really want you to hear me out, though.”

I wasn’t planning on forgiving her. Although, that said, I knew basically nothing about what it was I wasn’t going to forgive. I hardened my voice, and said, “Alright. I’m not exactly happy yet, but I’ll listen.”

“Thanks.” She pushed the notebook over to my side of the table and continued, “I didn’t look inside.”

As soon as the notebook was in my hands, I subconsciously brought and held it close to my chest. I wanted to check if everything was okay inside, but doing so would probably look like I didn’t trust what Kouchi-senpai said about not looking, so I decided to hold off for now. In it was nothing more than a couple notes—nothing that couldn’t be replaced—but the second I placed it in my bag, the fact that I had gotten it back finally became real to me, and I could feel the tension draining from my body. I have to tell Fuku-chan I got it back when I get home so he doesn’t have to worry.

I poured some tea into my cup and took a sip. I slowly gulped, the warm tea filling my stomach with strength, and then looked directly at Kouchi-senpai.

“So? What did you want to talk about?”

“Yeah.” Her eyes regained their original intensity as she returned my stare. “Ibara.”

“Yes?”

“Quit the Manga Society.”

So it came to that.

I paused for several seconds and then responded.

“So you stole my notebook to threaten me like that?”

“A threat, huh? I’m the one in the wrong here, so I guess I can’t really argue with that.” She sighed and her head dropped slightly, a faint smile appearing on her lips. “You’re overthinking it. That’s not what this is.”

I didn’t respond. She looked up once more.

“I heard what happened with Asanuma. One of the girls she asked chickened out and told Hani everything. Hani asked me for advice, so that’s why I know what went down, more or less. She also told me that Asanuma asked you to join as well. You seemed to be pretty on board.”

I wouldn’t say “on board” was the best way to describe it…

“As long as I can draw manga…”

“Then you don’t care where? You should care, for heaven’s sake.”

I stayed silent at her firm disapproval. Kouchi-senpai brought her right arm on top of the table and leaned forward a little.

“Do you really have enough time to be playing around with that kind of pointless stuff? All Asanuma wants is to fight over control of the club—you do realize this, right?”

I wanted to argue that Asanuma-san really did care about manga in her own way, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had never read her manga, nor did I even know what kind of manga she liked. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever even had a proper discussion with her about manga in the first place. Her wording really bugs me, though.

“Why don’t I have enough time, then? Is there something else I should be doing instead?”

“You need to be improving your own manga. If you go along with Asanuma’s plan and work on some dumb project, you’re basically wasting time, right?”

I was shocked. I don’t think any of it showed on my face, but Kouchi-senpai continued passionately, as if she could tell how I felt. “Nothing good will come of it if you continue working on that.”

“…”

“The Manga Society’s just holding you back.”

Of course I’m aware of what’s going on. There had been times when I’d fantasized about all the interesting stories we could’ve made had everyone not been at each other’s throats—no, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t imagine that possibility at every second I was in the club. But even after admitting that, I definitely don’t think they are holding me back in any way.

And yet, my response was so pathetically weak.

“That’s… not true.”

Kouchi-senpai noticed it as well.

“Are you trying to stick up for your friends? Or is it that you feel like quitting now would mean you’re giving up halfway? Then let me add this: just like the club’s not doing any good for you, you aren’t doing any good for the club. You might not be the whole reason all this happened, but you’re definitely part of it.”

She was probably talking about when I had the dirty water spilled on me during the cultural festival, the result of our argument. I mean, sure it further divided both of the factions, but it was an accident, and there was nothing I could’ve done about that.

“You don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, do you. Our baseball team’s pretty weak. Don’t you agree?”

The topic suddenly switched, and for a moment, I was speechless.

“Yeah… I guess I heard something like that.”

“It’s no surprise, really. Kamiyama High’s just a feeder school, so it makes sense that our baseball team is on that level too. This kind of situation is pretty typical. So now, what if a once-in-a-generation athletic genius—the kind that would rise to the top, even in powerhouse schools—joined our team? What do you think would happen then?”

She gave me a second to consider it, and then continued.

“The rest of the team would be inspired to practice more and more until they finally became stronger? Yeah right. That kind of thing only happens in manga. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be all too aware of their limits, and the most they’ll amount to is a thorn in the genius’ side.”

I guess she was talking about the current Kamiyama High School Manga Society.

“I’m…” I started with difficulty, “I’m nowhere near a once-in-a-generation genius.”

“Yeah, I agree calling you that is going overboard,” Kouchi-senpai immediately agreed. She quickly added, however, “But the thing is, you have the smallest trace, the tiniest smidge of genius in you. At the very least, you’re as talented as I am.”

I’d read Kouchi-senpai’s manga before.

It was called “Bodytalk.” I thought it was good. Really good.

“You’re much better than I am,” I said.

“Well, that’s because I’m your upperclassman. Listen, being humble is fine and all, but you’ve got to start looking at yourself objectively.”

She brought the teacup to her lips and made a soft noise as she gazed down at the tea. The cup shook slightly as she held it up, and she spoke as if whispering, “I… want to become a professional. I suck now, but I really want to get better.”

Hearing the words “I suck” come out of Kouchi-senpai like that made me lose my mental composure. A lot had happened between her and I, but that never caused me to enjoy her manga any less. She has an incredible sense of humor, and whenever I read it during tough times, it always puts a smile on my face, while if I read it when I’m happy, it can even make me feel sad.

“I wasn’t able to quit the Manga Society,” she said, “And just like you, I wasn’t able to draw manga while surrounded by all of the fighting. I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to stay, for God knows what reason. I couldn’t leave any of it behind.”

She looked directly into my eyes, as if trying to convince me of something.

“I really regret it. I used up two of my three years at high school in that place.”

In the silence that followed, she seemed to be drilling it in that I’d also used up one of mine.

Her hand clenched into a fist.

“I needed to be drawing more. That’s why I quit. I also have talent in me—it might be a tiny, near-worthless scrap of it, but I needed to hold it sacred regardless.”

To hold your talent sacred…

It’s so difficult, though, senpai. It’s so incredibly scary to turn your back on your friends like that and start placing all your trust in this unreliable talent of yours. Is that what she’s doing? Is that what she wants me to do?

Suddenly, Kouchi-senpai’s voice became strangely cheerful.

“You should quit too, Ibara.”

“But…”

“Quit the Manga Society, and work with me.”

I was speechless. Did I hear that correctly? She continued on without repeating herself.

“You remember ‘A Corpse by Evening,’ right?”

There was no way I could forget. I bought it when I visited the Kamiyama High culture festival as a middle school student; it was really important to me. The realization that a high school student could create something incredible like that made me change fundamentally, and I joined the Manga Society without a second thought right after I entered high school as a result. I realize now, of course, that I should’ve given it a second thought after all, as the author of “A Corpse by Evening” wasn’t actually in the club.

As she brought it up, Kouchi-senpai’s expression seemed to darken slightly.

“It was legendary. I couldn’t even read it, and it blew you away too. Now it’s my turn. Mine… and yours.”

A chill ran down my spine.

She raised a single finger.

“Two things will come out of this. First, unlike going along with Asanuma’s plan, this will give the both of us valuable experience. From what I’ve seen, your dialogue tends to get pretty bogged down because you try to say everything. As for me—how can I put this—my manga doesn’t really excite people. I have some pretty bad habits. The both of us will definitely be able to gain something from this.”

Then she raised a second finger.

“Plus, just like ‘A Corpse by Evening’ did, it’ll inspire new students for years to come. The Manga Society is in a miserable state right now, but we’ll be the ones to pass down its tradition.”

Is she serious?

“You’re going to sell it at the culture festival?”

She nodded. “That’s right.”

Doing that was probably against school rules, but there was an even bigger problem.

“Won’t everyone in the club hate us if we do that?!”

I didn’t hear anything about there being trouble with the author of “A Corpse by Evening” not being from the Manga Society, however if I not only quit the club, but also sold my own manga at the culture festival, then I’d be basically picking a fight with every book sold.

She kept her composure.

“That’s why I’m saying you should quit—if you keep on trying to look out for them, you’ll never be able to draw what you want. Of course they’ll hate us. So what? It’s not like they’re going to beat us up or anything. Actually… you think they might? Oh well, one punch shouldn’t be too bad.”

“All I want to do is draw manga, though.”

“It’s a little too late for that. Just by wanting to draw manga, you’re already the odd one out, and lots of people already can’t stand you. If you don’t like that, then you have to choose one of two options: either you give up drawing or you get better and shut them all up.”

It’s not like I didn’t understand; it’s just that it’s difficult to hear it so blunt like that.

“And honestly speaking,” she continued, “no one in that club even read any of the manga you put your heart and soul into in the first place. It’s fine. It’s fine. If we just ask someone to sell it for us, no one will find out.”

Now that she mentioned it, in the Manga Society, there was a bunch of fan works going around. There were four months until the culture festival, and if I worked with Kouchi-senpai on it, the design would probably be pretty different than what I normally did too, so I guess… it might be okay?

I drank some tea to calm my nerves. “But that means I have to tell Asanuma-san I won’t help her… I don’t know if…”

“If you can? I hate to break it to you, but when she was trying to recruit people for her project, she was telling them you were going to be the one to compile it all.”

That’s news to me.

“Listen, you’re just being used. Are you still going to be loyal to Asanuma after all that?”

I guess I’d also known vaguely that was the case, but thinking back to today at lunch, I couldn’t just turn my back on her.

“I asked Asanuma-san to wait for me. I absolutely can’t quit the club and refuse to work with her after doing that.”

She let out a deep sigh.

“I guess there’s nothing I can do about that. You did four pages for the culture festival last year, didn’t you? You did it for the anthology that we ended up not making because of what happened.”

I did, actually, now that she mentioned it. I did some four panel strips that introduced the Manga Research Society, under no real obligation to do so, but the anthology was scrapped soon after because of a disagreement, so I stored it away.

“Just give her that,” she continued, “Even if you tell her you wrote it last year, I’m sure she wouldn’t complain.”

I see… I’m surprised she remembered that—even I forgot.

Before I give her my answer, there’s something I need to ask.

Maybe Kouchi-senpai was helping me out because I was so entangled in what was happening in the club. Or maybe she just wanted to make manga with her barely capable underclassman. Either would’ve made me happy, but at this point, I still haven’t found anything that made me want to forgive her.

I refilled the now-empty teacup to the brim and let it sit for a moment before taking a sip. Taking a deep breath, I looked up at her. “Okay, I understand. Just one question, senpai.”

“Hm?”

“Why did you steal my notebook, then?”

When I imagined all of the grief and anger this person put me through yesterday after school, I lost my ability to trust and work with her more and more.

Kouchi-senpai’s eyes darkened.

“I heard you were on the fence when Asanuma asked you to help make her manga, so I got a little worried. If you ended up agreeing to help, I would’ve lost my chance to convince you. You’re so stubborn like that. You would’ve refused to quit the club, and you wouldn’t have teamed up with me. That’s why I asked Hani to do something to stop you from giving your answer by Friday evening.”

She sighed a little and then continued.

“Please don’t hate Hani. She only did it since I asked her to. If it’s any consolation, I had no idea she’d do something like that either. If I had explained the situation better to her, then she might’ve done something less drastic, but a lot of it is difficult to tell her…”

I’m guessing she didn’t tell Hani-san anything about wanting to pair up with me to release a manga for the culture festival. If we were going to do this, we’d have to be sneaky about it. The less people she told the better.

I followed Kouchi-senpai’s explanation well enough, but there was still one thing that didn’t fully make sense.

“Why by Friday evening?”

She probably heard that I was going to give my answer to Asanuma-san on Friday after school, so the only way she could buy time was by messing with my rough draft. Putting aside how I felt about that, her reasoning at least made sense. What I didn’t understand was why she wanted to delay it until that evening.

“That’s because, well…”

Kouchi-senpai blinked several times, looking at me like I’d just asked her the most obvious thing in the world. She then muttered, “Oh, that’s right,” under her breath and went to grab what was inside the paper bag on the empty seat next to her.

In that instant, my entire body stiffened. In her hand was the June issue of the monthly manga magazine, La Shin, the cover of which was illustrated by Yutaka Niiro.

“Because today’s the release day.”

It’s true today was May 18th, the day when La Shin hits the shelves. Not only that, but the June issue was the one that had the results of the New World Prize. Because I was so motivated by last time’s results, I also submitted another one this time around, so I was really looking forward to getting it today. And yet, why was I looking at it now?

A small, teasing smile showed on her lips—she probably enjoyed seeing me flustered like this—and she said, “Congrats on your participation award last time, Kazuru Ihara.”

I accidentally let out a small yelp. She continued, almost sounding fed up with me.

“Don’t be so surprised. How many times have you submitted stuff under this name? You even did it at that event in Ohsu, didn’t you? I also read La Shin, you know. Of course I’d notice.”

Who could’ve imagined she figured it out.

Kouchi-senpai stared at the cover of La Shin.

“I saw your name come up in the March issue, and it made me ask myself what the heck I’ve been doing with my life. Well, everyone in the club started going at it the second I left, so I guess you could say I was pretty important in keeping the peace in my own way, but I didn’t have the time to be doing things like that. The second I realized it, I quit.”

She placed her hand on top of the magazine.

“Because I saw that ‘good luck on your next submission’ in your evaluation, it dawned on me that you’ve probably been sending in submissions for a long time now. So, I was thinking—though, honestly, I figured the chances were slim—that if you’d managed to get the top prize in this issue, then there was no reason for you to waste your time pairing up with me. Of course you should try and go pro as soon as you can. That’s why I wanted to wait until the release day to talk with you about it. If we agreed to be partners earlier on, and it turned out that you got the award, I figured you’d probably try to stick with me out of obligation.”

My eyes were glued to the June issue of “La Shin” in front of me. I barely heard anything I was being told. She smiled slightly, and pushed the magazine towards me.

“I guess you’re pretty curious. Want to read it?”

“Yes, please.”

“I’ve already seen it.”

“H-how was it?”

She smiled silently back. I picked up the copy of “La Shin” and flipped to the last page to check the table of contents. Not even able to pretend I was relaxed, I opened it to the page that announced the winners.

15th New World Prize winner: “The Strange Tale of the Cold Sea” by Enma Haru

I looked for my name in the runner-ups… and there was nothing.

I looked under the participation awards, and…

I wordlessly placed the magazine back down.

“It’s tough. I know,” she said in in a soft voice, the kind that only someone who had gone through the same experience before could manage, “So, will you team up with me?”

“…Yeah.”

“Good.”

Ayako Kouchi-senpai nodded firmly.

“Ibara, we’re going to create a legend. A legendary volume that will continue on in Kamiyama High School. And then…”

“We’ll get even better. Right?”

The smile that appeared on her face was the best one she had ever showed me.

 

I quit the Manga Research Society.


Chapter 3Main PageChapter 5


  1. “Kazuru Ihara” is a reference to the Edo-era poet/novelist Saikaku Ihara (1642-1693), who has a similar surname to her. (One of my favorite poets!)
  2. “Run, Melos!” is an extremely well-known short story by the similarly famous Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). Read the translation here before continuing: http://www.geocities.co.jp/HeartLand-Gaien/7211/kudos16/melos1.html
  3. Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694) is considered the father of haiku. This passage is the opening line from his “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” an influential collection of stories and poems that chronicle his famous journey through Japan.
  4. Cellphones in Japan use a phone address for sending messages, rather than the phone number.