“By the way, Kodaka-senpai, what do you think of Sena-senpai?”
“W-What do you mean, ‘what’…? We’re just fellow club members.”
“Even though you’re engaged to one another?”
“…That’s in the past.”
Rika put on a pondering face.
“…I don’t think that’s how Sena-senpai sees it.”
“Huh? What was that?”
When I asked again for what Rika had muttered, she gazed at me with unexpectedly, horribly cold eyes; as though in pity; as though in contempt.
She then looked up at the sky, murmuring as though to herself in a voice bearing no trace of any emotions.
” — Longing for company, yet afraid of showing good will directly.”
” — Pretending not to notice. Pretending not to hear.”
” — Running away. Laughing it off. Dodging the question. Rejecting it.”
” — Lying to the heart itself, saying that no one can possibly ever like it.”
“…Oh, you talking about Kobato? True, she does have problems like that… she’s always been afraid of strangers. She’s still like that even now, in middle school.”
Despite knowing otherwise, I faked a bitter smile and said this to Rika.
As though she had not heard my words, Rika cast her gaze from the sky down to the concrete floor; with an ambiguous expression between tears and laughter, her tone became not of criticism but of kindness and affection, as she spat out her words.
” — Stop saying ‘What was that?’, stupid…”
And with her smile twisted, Rika faced me with dark and empty eyes, cold like the depths of space.
Having thrown off her clown’s mask as ‘an excitable and strange underclassman who always repeats peculiar actions’, the one before me was not a Shiguma Rika I knew.
Pretending to giggle, Rika continued.
“……If you so desire, I can continue to act as the character I had always been. It’s not exactly a lie that I like BL, or mecha, or dirty things; getting excited and running all over the place, and getting snubbed by Senpai, that’s fun in it’s own way. But you know, Kodaka-senpai…”
The smile that had been affixed to her lips disappeared; in its place, a tempest of emotions were swirling in the depths of her eyes.
“…Isn’t it about time you moved on? After all — ”
“Don’t say it!”
I unconsciously raised my voice.
I could not allow her to continue.
If she expresses it in words, I — we — will have no choice but to move on.
To move on would mean to change.
How fearsome that would be.
It would be truly terrifying to leave the warm, sunlit club room behind and step into an unseeing, utter blackness.
It wasn’t just me.
Even to Yozora, to Sena, to Yukimura, to Rika; I’m sure.
It would cause a decisive change which undermines the existence of the Neighbours Club itself.
Memories from ten years ago, or the engagement — it would be so decisive a change that these trivial matters are incomparable in scale.
“…Phew.” Rika let out a fleeting breath, and on that note said nothing else.
I gave a small sigh and walked away, saying “I’ll be going then.”
I left Rika — and when my hand reached out for the door leading back into the school,
“After all, aren’t we — ”
Aren’t we already friends?