At a far location away from the festive scene, in the backside of the main shrine, stood a big tree. Stretching further into the air than the shrine itself, it had a thick trunk and branches. Since everyone was focussed on the fireworks up-front, nobody spotted this place hiding in the shadows. I however knew just how reliable of a location this was. No, we knew.
“…So you came.”
“Sorry to make you wait, I realized it too late.”
Even deeper in the shadows of the tree…As the sound of fireworks and people could be heard what seemed to be at a far distance, even though it was only a few meters away, Mashiro stood in this location, isolated from the world.
“Too late. The fireworks have started already.”
“Sorry, I was looking for you, but I couldn’t find you at all.”
“As Mashiro’s boyfriend, you should be able to find her in mere seconds. Your efforts are lacking. Reflect on that.”
She greeted me with a barrage of complaints. Being forced to eat this 100% poisonous tongue, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest. But, Mashiro quickly changed her expression to smile.
“Sorry. At times like these, Mashiro only has conversation cards that relate to badmouthing.”
“Let’s improve your deck a bit more, alright? Though I’m clearly not one to talk.”
In reality, I’m aware of Mashiro’s feelings. For people with low self-appreciation of themselves, they much easier find the bad attributes of other people, rather than the good points. Comparing ourselves to the little brother of Iroha’s classmate, Tomosaka Chatarou, who could openly praise [Black Goat] with ease, we’re worlds apart. People like Mashiro and I, with our body and mind, can only arrive at one strong point.
Badmouthing, cursing, all kinds of verbal abuse—If Mashiro can hold a conversation the easiest by using a poisonous-tongue blade that, and me with my blade of reason, then a conversation without hurting the other person is indeed possible.
Or in other words, Mashiro and I just suck at talking with others. The more words we use, the more trash comes out of it. Like a thin veneer, stylish blade that forgets to fix her makeup, or like an awkward fake lover relationship.
—That’s why. Mashiro surely wants to tell me in a way besides using words.
“Aki, do you remember this tree?” Mashiro ran her hand along the trunk of the tree, looking up at it.
“Yeah, it’s the tree your older brother—Mikoto—and I climbed, so that we could see the fireworks from a better position.”
“Yup. And, Mashiro gave up on climbing it…that’s why you came down as well.”
“It was my fault because I didn’t look for a place which considered your lack of athletic ability, right?”
“Mashiro never once thought of it that way…That’s why Mashiro never came to the summer festival again.”
Yeah, now that I think about it, that was the final festival the three of us went to.
“Mashiro was scared that you’d think of her as a bother, which is why she ran away.”
“I never felt that way. It’s not like I lost anything by not watching the fireworks.”
“Mashiro knows. Aki is kind after all.” Mashiro pulled a different card of her deck, as she smiled kindly. “Because you’re kind enough to even be considerate of someone who wasn’t even your friend.”
“…What are you talking about? We’re friends. Well, right now, we’re fake lovers, but back then, we definitely were.”
“No. For Aki, the only friend you had—the only equal friend, was Onii-chan.” Mashiro said as if to curse herself.
But, I couldn’t deny those words.
“Mashiro was just your friend’s little sister. You just took Mashiro with you because she’s Onii-chan’s little sister, not because it was Mashiro herself, right.”
“…I don’t remember what I was thinking back then.”
Yet, I can’t deny it. Because I don’t have enough confidence in knowing my thoughts from back then. Would I have taken Mashiro with me even if Mikoto was not around? To be honest, I can’t give you an answer for that.
“Well, whatever you might have been thinking doesn’t matter, Aki. Because Mashiro felt that way, and that’s what’s important.”
“…I guess so.”
In the end, human relationships are full of assumption and prejudice. If you feel that way, then this becomes the truth. Since Mashiro thought that she was merely the ‘friend’s little sister’, that became reality for Mashiro only. Trying to verify that or not doesn’t even matter.
“That’s why Mashiro is doing this all on her own. So that she can have confidence in herself, and graduate from being just the [Friend’s little sister]. This is an event for Mashiro to throw her past away, and it’s got nothing to do with you, Aki.”
“So you set that up alongside this fake date, huh? Aren’t you quite the schemer.”
“Ahaha, probably. But, this most likely is the only time that Aki will look only at Mashiro.”
Is she talking about the [5th Floor Alliance] as a whole? or…Is she trying to say that a certain someone is going to steal my gaze from her? Either way is fine. Whatever she might have meant with that, the person I have to look at right now, under any circumstances, is Tsukinomori Mashiro. Though I’m still a shitty bastard for not being able to give her back the two letters OK to her confession, forcefully postponing everything. Even if I’m trash, I want to support Mashiro right now.
“Just as you’ve ordered, I’ll watch over you.”
“That’s why…Hop! Now, come on up here!”
Running up to the tree, I kicked the ground next to Mashiro, and climbed up on a branch. Back in grade school, this branch felt almost unreachable. Only with lots of work, we managed to get up there, but now as a high school student, I could do it with ease.
“Aki…So you knew what Mashiro wanted to do…”
“Yeah. Show it to me. Show me how much stronger you’ve gotten.”
Now, there was no need to climb the tree. We’ve got around the same height as the other adults, so we can see more than just their backs. If anything, it would be way more efficient to go back to the shrine right now, look up at the night sky, and watch the rest of the fireworks. Yet, I’m working outside the concept of efficiency.
“Mashiro will climb this tree in one go, just you watch…And, there!”
She took off her wooden clogs, rolled up the sleeves of her yukata, and jumped.
She rammed her head right into the trunk. Oi, you got a death wish or something? She didn’t slow down at all, crushing into the tree at max G.
“Y-Yeah. Mashiro’s nose is just bleeding a bit.”
“I don’t think you could classify that as ‘being okay’.”
“Mashiro isn’t dead, so ‘tis but a scratch.” Showing the passion of a first-rate business person, Mashiro wiped away the blood from her nose, and challenged the giant tree once again.
But, no matter how much motivation she might have, or how much she had grown, her athletic ability was still lacking. Since she had locked herself up just a while ago, it became obvious that her athletic ability, basically her parameters in physical strength, leg strength, and sense haven’t progressed much. The world wasn’t as kind as to magically make her a top-class athlete.
Even if she tried to grab the small branches, they broke off, and trying to use her legs, she slipped down again. Isn’t it bad for that yukata to get ruined like that? That’s the one she borrowed, right? I asked Mashiro about that, and she just gave a bland ‘Mashiro will pay for the repair’, which completely ruined this passionate atmosphere.
And, after the results didn’t change for a while…
“Should I pull you up? The fireworks are about to end.”
“…No. There’s no meaning to this if Mashiro doesn’t make it up there on her own. If she doesn’t get any stronger, she won’t be able to stand next to Aki…!”
—Without a doubt, I was watching Tsukinomori Mashiro’s Youth happen right this moment.
But then, what am I supposed to do? Thinking about it rationally and efficiently, letting her continue this challenge is meaningless. Using the shortest method—namely taking my hand, she would be able to watch the rest of the fireworks. Or even better, since we’re almost adults ourselves, we don’t need to rely on the tree anymore. And yet, Mashiro is willing to sacrifice those few minutes of the fireworks.
“A bit of advice should be fine, right?”
“Eh? …But, that would be…”
“I’m not lending you a hand. This is just my habit. As both a person and producer. Seeing you work this hard, I couldn’t help but feel the need to act as a producer of yours.”
—That’s why I’ll revert Ooboshi Akiteru’s Youth as well.
“Yeah…Thanks Aki. No, Producer~”
“Don’t change the way you call me at the climax of the story. It’s not some life-changing advice, just a way to climb the tree.”
“Hmpf, how cruel, Aki. Pouring water on my passion…You’re the worst…!” Showing her discontent, she challenged the tree again, but failed.
“Don’t try to climb the tree all at once. Look closely at the sight of the enemy, and look for places where you can put your feet.”
“Places to put Mashiro’s feet…” Just as I told her, Mashiro calmly observed the tree.
She had slowly started to calm down, and opened up her field of view.
“Found it. If Mashiro uses this…!” Finding hope, she challenged the stream again. “Hyan?!”
But, she met failure yet again. She might have found a good spot, but it turned out to be fragile, and broke the second she tried to use it.
“Find three spots of support. With three, you can climb up by using both your arms and feet. If you move your weight too much, and just cling randomly to the tree, you’ll fall down. If you focus on three points, and leave one leg in the air, you can keep your balance.”
For the first time, Mashiro challenged the tree with logic, knowing how to balance herself.
“Exactly. And push your body even closer on the tree. You can even hug it.”
Mashiro clung to the tree like a shaking koala, slowly but steadily pushing her body up towards me. This was the exact opposite of a cool entrance, or a dignified work. It was unsightly, and pathetic. But, is that what I should be feeling, as the fireworks above our heads continued to illuminate Mashiro?
After that, a few minutes passed. It felt like I was spacing out, as I watched Mashiro. It was probably the most dry event in a person’s life, a boring trial and error. However, there is one important aspect, and that is the fact that you gain something at the end when you keep trying. The same thing couldn’t be said here. There was no meaning to this.
—But, if this will leave Mashiro satisfied, then isn’t that enough value? And, that is the same for my own self-satisfaction. By joining Mashiro and her youth happening right now, I feel like I can forgive myself a bit more, for acting like a horrible bastard and postponing my response to her feelings.
That’s right. Just like that, Mashiro.
Yeah, just a bit more. If you get up your body a few more centimeters, and reach out for your hand, you’ll make it to the branch you’re aiming for.
…! No, it’ll be fine. She lost her balance, but by being aware of the three sports, she won’t fall.
“As…as if…Mashiro will just…lose…he…re!”
Don’t lose, Mashiro.
“Mashiro will overcome this wall…!”
You can do it, Mashiro…!
“Because…she’ll win…against Iroha…channnn…!”
Yeah! Win against—Hm? Hold on, what did you just say, Mashiro? …Oh yeah, I know this would be the perfect moment for a protagonist to not pick up her words, with the fireworks going on in the background and all, but I’ve heard her loud and clear.
You’re going to win against Iroha? In what field? In which way? ……No, I know already. There’s only one possible answer. Mashiro sees Iroha as her rival in love, and I don’t blame her. After all, Iroha…the annoying Iroha—is still cute. And being cute means that you’re a charming member of the opposite sex. That’s why, looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, our relationship could be misunderstood, and that’s also why President Tsukinomori started to become doubtful. Even I avoided going to public places with Iroha.
—Yeah, I see. Mashiro’s actions now aren’t only to change her weak self. She didn’t just want to stand next to me. She wanted to gain the position of an equal to me, and stand next to Iroha. That’s why she wanted to graduate from being a ‘friend’s little sister’, and move forward. So much that she was fine dragging herself through the dirt, missing the beautiful fireworks in the sky.
Ikaros, who had tried to reach the sun using waxed, fake wings, got his wish granted, but received his punishment by falling to the ground.
But, Mashiro’s wings had grown through her own efforts, and won’t be burnt away, not even by the sun.
Thus, she reached the sun. Her small hands grabbed onto the branch. At the same time, the fireworks that would wash away the past, and greet Mashiro with applause, symbolizing her growth—
—Stopped. The sky was black, and silence reigned. The fireworks that should have gone off to reward the girl who had worked this hard, never colored the sky.
“Ahaha! Mashiro did it! Did you see that, Aki?”
“…Yeah, I’ve watched everything.”
But, Mashiro wasn’t even bothered by this, as she just showed a beaming smile with her face, drenched in mud and dirt. Hey now, weren’t you so bothered by the idea of your makeup being ruined before? Then again, thinking about this at such a time is probably what makes me a shitty bastard in the first place.
“You’ve worked hard, Mashiro.”
“Yeah, she did. A life’s worth.”
“That is a bit of an exaggeration, right.”
“Don’t underestimate Mashiro’s lack of athletic sense and skill. Just climbing up this tree took everything.”
“Is that something you should say so proudly?”
“Not quite.” Mashiro shook her head, and then had a content look on her face. “Mashiro became able to say it proudly.”
“…Yeah, you’re right.”
Mashiro really has no athletic sense, and she hated herself for just accepting this weakness, influencing her life. She has no confidence in herself, a weak mental state, and they each built up her twisted pride. Continuously running away from being hurt, the pride she had protected inside her shell had continued to grow.
But now, she faced her weakness head-on, and won against it even. With this, she managed to accept her own weakness.
“Though it’s a shame that we couldn’t watch the fireworks, Mashiro can now sit next to you, so she’s satisfied.”
“H-Hey, what are you doing?”
Mashiro suddenly clung to my arm. Her yukata was full of the dirt from the ground and on the tree, and her skin was drenched with sweat. But, that didn’t mean that it felt uncomfortable. Her soft sensation, and the sweet scent reaching up to me, they both made my head go numb like pleasant poison.
“This should be okay to do, right? As a reward, and Mashiro’s right as a girlfriend.”
“I mean, I guess something like this should be fine…?”
“Right? We couldn’t watch the fireworks either, after all. With no proper rewards for a quest, the game would just be trash.”
That’s exactly right. Since I’m a game creator myself, I’m perfectly aware of that. But, Mashiro, you’re wrong about one thing.
“If it’s fireworks, we can still watch them, you know?”
“It was my fault that we didn’t make it in time. If I didn’t prepare a reward for your hard work, that would make me a failure of a boyfriend.”
“O-Oh, that’s some great mindset. Did you…bring some incense stick fireworks by chance?”
It’s modest, and probably a great way to create memories as just the two of us after all. It’s been used in many stories this far, holding charm in its average idea, yet creating the greatest possible romantic scenes. If my life was one of those romcom stories, that would probably be the climax of today’s event.
—But, this is real life. I’m not some romcom protagonist, but the individual Ooboshi Akiteru. That’s why I don’t have the skill to create a development where everyone could be happy. All I can do is choose the method that will allow a certain someone to see the same scenery that I can.
“Mashiro, don’t miss this, okay?”
“Um…?” Mashiro blinked in confusion.
I ignored this, and took out my smartphone. Pressing the call button, I spoke these words.
“We’re ready. Send them up.”
That was the signal. I couldn’t give the girl everyone’s fireworks that seemed like they rewarded her efforts, but instead…
Fireworks went off, as if to solely reward the girl who had worked this hard.
“You’ve worked hard, Mashiro. You’re really amazing.”
“Eh…eh…? Aki, this is…”
“I told you, right? As a reward, I gave you the biggest fireworks of the evening.”
“M-Mashiro can see that…but, this is weird…why would they go off at your signal…?”
“I found out the identity of the spy. That’s why I could do this.”
“Spy…the person ordered to watch over us by Dad?”
“Yeah. Oji-san is a super talented business man. If he’s doubtful as he said, he’d definitely put a lot of eyes on us. By being this thorough, he managed to build up HoneyPlay after all.”
The question was just where these eyes were hiding. But, looking at today, the answer was awfully easy.
“It was all the staff here at the summer festival. The ones who worked at the stalls, the ones playing music, and even those responsible for the fireworks—All of them were the spies.”
Calmly tracing my memories, the answer was exceptionally simple. The festival band played an arrangement of GranFan 7 Remake’s opening, a popular game developed by HoneyPlay. Of course, they would have needed the permission to use that, but what if this entire festival had been sponsored by HoneyPlay in the first place? Naturally, that wasn’t the only proof that I had. The other time that felt suspicious to me was the goldfish scooping.
“What are you talking about, Aki. If you keep going, the drop rate will eventually be 100%.”
“That logic doesn’t make sense in the slightest! I’m not an author, so clever words don’t work with me!”
“Let go! Mashiro definitely won’t stop!”
“How vigorous. I guess that rich ladies are on a different level…Alright, I’ll jump in on this. Young lady, take this new paper scoop!”
“Mister, thank you…! Watch, Mashiro, AKi. This is her determination…!”
During this exchange, the man working at the stall called Mashiro a ‘rich lady’. Yet, I referred to Mashiro as an author. Though she’s still in training, working on her debut, the general populace would think that a popular author would earn enough money to spend it like that.
Then, rather than mistaking her for the daughter of a rich politician or company president, who’s using too much of her allowance, assuming that she is a successful author would have been the much more logical conclusion, right? But, what if he had known about Mashiro to begin with?
Naturally, that didn’t work as definite proof either, and I wouldn’t bet everything on this one fact. But, it didn’t even matter. The warning President Tsukinomori brought to us happened at such a convenient timing, almost as if he was hoping that we would choose the summer festival as our stage for the fake date.
He told the people from the management to observe Mashiro and I—Betting on this chance, before I started running to greet Mashiro, I gave President Tsukinomori a call.
「You’re watching over us, right? Using the people from the management here」
「Excellent! Well done catching on to that!」
「For crying out loud, only you can come up with crazy stuff like that. You’ve wrapped up an entire official festival in your private business, you know?」
「Aren’t you wrapping up my entire company in your business, and the one of the [5th Floor Alliance]? It’s the same thing」
「It pains me to say it, but I don’t have any words to fight back…」
「The mixing of public and private affairs is the new norm. This is the time of personality and individuals, away from military-style organizations—and we’ve crossed that to reinstall the era of community. Leaving aside infrastructure-type work, a creative work always involves public and private」
「Sounds like sophisticated fraud if you ask me」
「I can’t hear you~ I’m a popular man, a romcom protagonist, so I can use noise filtering for things I don’t want to hear~」
「You’re jealous of other people, but use this excuse when it’s convenient for you?」
「An adult is allowed to do that, okay! It’s my right, because I’ve thrown away love and romance during my student days」
「And weren’t you the one who said to taste this choice even if it’s a lie? Then, won’t you give me a single reward for uncovering the truth?」
「I want you to help me involve the festival and its people in my own personal circumstances. Just one shot is fine. Please use that for me, and for the sake of my girlfriend」
That’s what happened, but a single shot of fireworks—turned into a barrage, hundreds of flowers blooming in the night sky. It felt like they used the fireworks for the next five years.
“Nobody told him to go all out like that…what an idiot, that guy.”
I would have been perfectly fine with just one shot. With that, I might have been able to pay him back with the expenses of the [5th Floor Alliance]. Really, that damned President Tsukinimori, raising the risks like that just for his daughter. Then again, high risk—
—Can equal high return like this. Mashiro was watching the rain of lights color the dark sky with a smile, which made me feel that all the effort was worth it. I won’t say that it had the worth of a diamond, but the amount of the fireworks definitely had been repaid.
Before, the girl had crouched down at the root of the tree, hiding in the shadows. But, now, she was showered in the sparkling lights of the fireworks. It might have been almost insignificant, but she definitely took a step forward. I guess changing is possible, huh…
“Sorry, Mashiro. I’m the worst possible boyfriend, aren’t I.”
“Why are you apologizing? You gave Mashiro such a beautiful present.”
“Normally I should be sitting here with you in a romantic atmosphere, only focussing on my girlfriend next to me—But I can’t help thinking about the [5th Floor Alliance].”
Mashiro showed me how she could change. But, the first thing that appeared inside of my head were the faces of my team members.
There’s Ozu, who managed to greatly improve his conversation skills.
Murasaki Shikibu-sensei somewhat made progress, freeing herself from her family’s shackles.
And then there’s me, who is slowly but steadily starting to change my view on inefficiency for the greater good.
But, there is one person who hasn’t changed at all; Kohinata Iroha. Currently, she’s only annoying towards me, but if she were to find someone she can show this annoying attitude to, I’m sure that she might be able to live more freely, and easier.
Even though I know that Mashiro likes me, and that it’s just the two of us right now, I can’t help but think about being a producer for Iroha… I’m really the worst kind of shitty bastard.
“You’re not thinking about the [5th Floor Alliance], but Iroha-chan, right?”
“…How much do you know?”
The way she made it sound almost seemed like she knew more than she should. But, Mashiro just ignored that doubt of mine, and washed it away with a nonchalant ‘Who knows’.
“Just to let you know, we’re not in some romantic relationship, alright.”
“What about any feelings for her?”
“So you’re not saying 100, huh.”
“I don’t know myself enough to fully deny it.”
“What a virgin. A super virgin.”
Those words don’t fit your prim and proper face.
“In this field, Mashiro might just be your Onee-san…Just kidding, hehe.” She said, and leaned against my shoulder.
In this situation, the two of us closely glued against the other, as she muttered sweet words of temptation.
“Mashiro doesn’t know in what way you want to act as a producer towards Iroha-chan, but, as your Senpai in youth—your Onee-san, Mashiro will help you.”
“Yup. That’s why, tell me. What do you want to be to Iroha-chan, and in what way do you want her to live?”
“Is that…your battle strategy?”
“Yeah. Mashiro is really stubborn after all. She wants to be with you as your girlfriend, and solve your troubles together.”
Hesitation, guilt, and whirling emotions. She’s forcing all these feelings on me, and yet she only spoke the truth, so I forgave her. That’s why I started talking, while keeping Iroha’s identity a secret. About what I want to do for Iroha, my desire to act as the producer of the human called Kohinata Iroha, and that I wanted many other more people to know about these feelings.
Of course, wanting to influence the relationships of someone else is something arrogant, but by getting the stamp of approval of an outsider, I could change this self-righteousness into something more objective. It also helps that Mashiro is not a part of the [5th Floor Alliance].
“…Now we’re even, Iroha-chan.”
I heard a faint voice coming from Mashiro, but before I could react to that, my brain thought of all the things I needed advice for, and my mouth blurted it all out.
“I want Iroha to be able to act freely and annoying towards others as she does with me. I want her to make friends with which she can enjoy her time even more than when I’m around.”
The second I spoke those words…Neither Mashiro nor I heard the faint rustling in the grass near the tree we were sitting on.
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