Energy! 24/6 [Book 1: Chapter 8]
I vaguely learned what this place was as we spoke with some people. Apparently there were a few cosplay cafés in this building that set up the event with a circle of artists—the artists attract customers for the café and get to sell their wares at the same time so it was win-win. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but to be honest I didn’t really care.
As it turned out, Azusa was right. Most artists were too backed up to even consider what we had to offer and the rest made it pretty clear that the only way they would work with another group was on commission. It dawned on me that I really didn’t know how any of this stuff worked, but Kazuto should have known. Why would he bother with something like this if he knew it wouldn’t work? I wanted to ask him but as soon as I opened my mouth I heard a girl’s voice and instantly shut it.
We all turned to the girl standing beside a table of doujinshi and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed that she looked like she hadn’t meant to say that. The girl outwardly flinched, hunching her shoulders and diving behind the table for refuge. Azusa was the first to walk over, casually of course, as if the girl wasn’t clearly trying to hide.
“Do I know you?” Azusa peeked behind the table, immediately stepping back as the girl frantically stood, her light brown curls bouncing with the loose folds of her clothes.
“How dare you! You don’t recognize me?! We’ve been classmates since first year!” Again, the girl flinched as if she regretted speaking, covering her mouth and looking around. “Crap! I didn’t think anyone from school would be around here.”
Then I recognized her. “You! You were that girl from the game store!”
“The frumpy nerd?” Kazuto stood beside me, sizing her up. The girl looked at us as if she’d been caught red handed, but I was sure she didn’t know who we were. Kazuto was unimpressed, naturally, as the girl wore a loose sweater and a long skirt, making it hard to tell if she was curvy or just chubby. I thought she had a cute face, but I knew he was far too superficial to think anything of her.
“Frumpy?” The girl looked appalled. I was getting the idea that she was kind of dramatic. “How dare you, you superficial beauty-standard-yielding sheep!”
“Sheep?!” Kazuto glared.
“That’s the part that offended you?” I grimaced.
“Oh!” Azusa placed a fist in her palm as if she’d been thinking this whole time and suddenly came to a conclusion. “You’re Takahara, right?”
“Takahashi, you unfeeling shrew!” The girl fumed. “My name is Takahashi Saya! You always forget it!”
“Sorry.” Azusa smiled, apologizing unconvincingly and placing a hand on her delicate looking neck. “I’m bad with names.”
I wondered if that was a lie.
“The hell you—Hey! Don’t read that!” Saya turned to Kazuto who was picking up one of her books from the spread.
Azusa and I exchanged glances and I’m sure she thought it as strange as I did that Saya didn’t want someone to read a product that she had out for display. I didn’t really understand Saya’s hostile behavior. Surely that’s not how she treats all of her customers. It was weird to me for all of half a minute until my eyes traveled over the many colored covers of her books. My cheeks burned at the sight of all of the extremely homoerotic pictures and I watched as Kazuto flipped through a volume before I could stop him. Suddenly he shut the book and turned his whole body away from us, the backs of his ears a bright red.
“Kazu?” I chanced.
His hand was over his face, surely embarrassed that he lost his composure. “It’s cool! I’m fine! This is fine!” He placed the book down on the table slowly and carefully and retreated back to my side. Saya looked proud of herself in a scary kind of way that seemed to only make Azusa curious.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
To my surprise he buried his face in his hands. “The art is so good, Kou.” He complained.
“That’s what you’re concerned about?!!”
A dark cloud seemed to accumulate around him as his voice lowered to a fearful tone. “And it’s uncensored.” That seemed a little more appropriate.
I patted him on the shoulder before noticing that Azusa was flipping through one with the most incredibly stoic face I’ve ever seen. For a moment I wondered if she was secretly a ninja who could slow her heartrate at will. I dismissed that thought when she opened those glossy lips.
“This is a really sweet story, Takahashi.” She smiled, earning a bashful grin from the girl before she finished. “Even though it’s all fan-service.”
“What’s wrong with fan-service?!” Saya defended passionately and Azusa put a finger to her chin in thought.
“I guess it’s fine if it’s just a doujin.” Azusa replied and Saya looked like she was ready to claw her eyes out until Azusa spoke again. “And anyway the art is really beautiful. I don’t usually read manga, but I think I’d like to buy one of these. As a commemorative thing.”
Suddenly Saya was smiling politely, the way you would expect someone to be when selling wares. She directed Azusa to what she referred to as “AUs” which, according to her, tended to be more involved stories because she gets to “world build”. Azusa seemed to understand everything she said even though she didn’t strike me as someone who would, but then I never know with her. Sighing, I turned to Kazuto who looked a bit in shock.
“Damn, Amamiya’s poker face is unreal.” He shook his head disbelievingly and I felt myself nodding in agreement. “But besides that, aren’t these girls in high school? What’s up with how casual they are over this? This is practically porn! Isn’t this too perverted to be selling out in the open like this?”
“Are you going to tell people about this?”
Kazuto and I turned to meet Saya’s stare. She was clutching a small bag of what I assumed was Azusa’s purchase as if she was afraid to give it to her. The way she was waiting for an answer reminded me of the girls that confess to me, knees shaking, trying to feign confidence. I felt bad without really understanding why.
“Hmmm? Are you doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, Miss Saya?” Kazuto teased.
“Don’t get familiar with me all of sudden just because you know some things!” She defended, probably reflexively by the look on her face. “Listen. I’m in high school, you know? This isn’t really appropriate and my parents don’t know I’m here, okay? My senpai is nice enough to let me come here even though I’m not supposed to, but if you tell people about how old I am I’d be in big trouble. So…”
“Interesting…” Azusa pondered, grabbing Saya’s fearful eyes. I’m sure the poor girl expected something awful from Azusa by the way she looked. “Why would you be honest? Could it be you’re dedicated to that sort of thing? Or did you just not know that no one here realized you were doing something wrong?”
Saya froze in shock, I think. I was pretty surprised at Azusa’s forwardness as well, but she seemed at a loss for words and something told me she was thinking about whether or not she could’ve pulled off that bluff.
“Whatever!” Kazuto suddenly shouted. “It’s not like I can tell anyone I was at a place like this, so you’re safe, alright?”
Saya nodded, wide eyes on Kazuto as if she finally understood he was really a nice guy underneath all of those airs. Then she looked at me expectantly and I reflexively put my hands up, waving them in the air in my panic.
“I wouldn’t rat you out like that! I swear!” I relaxed when Saya looked away from me, focusing instead on Azusa who only smiled that fake smile that I was beginning to dislike.
“I don’t have anyone to tell anyway.”
I hated her answer. I don’t know why. I just really hated it.
“Hmm? I guess you can be nice sometimes too.” Saya watched Azusa for a moment before gently handing her the bag. I noticed a pause before Azusa took it. “You’re alright, Amamiya Azusa! And you’ve got one and a half good friends too!”
“What’s one and a half mean?” Kazuto griped.
“It’s you! You only get a half for the kind gesture, but you were rude about it and I can already tell you’re one of those guys!” She stuck her tongue out like a little kid and Kazuto began to loudly defend himself.
In the midst of that argument I found myself wanting to know what kind of face Azusa was making. My heart jumped a bit when I saw it. It was definitely an expression I wasn’t meant to catch—a light shade of pink on her cheeks and only slightly widened amber eyes. I wracked my brain for something unusual about the interaction just now but I couldn’t think of anything. What made her look like that? How can I see it again once it’s gone? Then I noticed something funny about the look just before she masked it with that practiced smile. She looked kind of stressed out like she’d just made a huge mistake.
I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I was scared of that smile and how distant she would feel from me if she turned it on me and said I was imagining things or told me it was none of my business. I really am a coward, aren’t I?
“Well, maybe I will tell people what I saw here!!” Kazuto shouted and I turned to see Saya at his mercy, the poor girl. I knew he wasn’t serious but she definitely didn’t. “Hey, Kou, maybe we should just blackmail this nerd into drawing that story.”
“Story?” Saya tried to hide her curiosity with suspicion and failed. I opened my mouth to try and help her, but Azusa beat me to it.
“No.” She said firmly, back to her usual calm self. She flipped through the book she’d just purchased with that same stone faced look. “It’s clear that Takahashi’s manga are good because she enjoyed doing them. It wouldn’t be the same if she was being forced to do it and anyway constantly pressuring someone sounds like a pain.”
“You’re actually a good girl, aren’t you, Amamiya Azusa!” Saya patted Azusa’s back triumphantly, forcing another unsatisfied look into her amber eyes. “Maybe we can get along after all!”
“Well, I hadn’t intended to fight with you.” Azusa smiled in a way that was clearly forced and I began to think that she had seemed troubled all day. “And you don’t have to say my full name every time.”
“Azusa, then!” Saya grinned, seemingly proud of herself.
Azusa looked like she wanted to say something, but we were interrupted by the crowd that was shuffling in. It wasn’t the most crowded room I’d ever been in but it was enough to make me uncomfortable and talking one on one with Saya became nearly impossible with all the girls at her table. Kazuto grabbed both Azusa’s arm and mine to drag us away before we could properly excuse ourselves, naturally embarrassed at the thought of girls seeing him at a table like that. As new bodies circulated about the room the café tables began to fill so Kazuto ran ahead to secure one for us. My hands started to sweat a bit when I realized I was alone with Azusa outside of school and I willed myself not to imagine if that was what a date would feel like.
It was hard not to be hyper aware of everything she was doing. The slow steps she took and the lazy way she brushed her hair out of her face only to have it fall back in place. The delicate way she sat in the booth and relaxed into the seat made me think she looked kind of tired.
“Hey, Amamiya?” I found myself calling out to her. Her eyes met mine slowly. “Are you alright? You seem kind of worn out.”
She perked up at that. “I’m fine. I’m just not used to crowds. I don’t get out much.” Azusa was quick to look away from me, turning to Kazuto with that bright expression I was used to seeing at school. “I’m surprised there are so many people who come to stuff like this.” It felt like she was changing the subject.
“Are you mocking otakus, Amamiya? You know there are a lot of us.”
“Hmmm. No, not mocking. I guess I just thought that people were more self-conscious about showing off that side of themselves in public.”
“This is a safe place!” Kazuto waved the menu at her defensively, but Azusa only laughed.
For the rest of the day Azusa seemed cheerful like she always did. She made an effort to smile at me and point things out that she found interesting and, as usual, she showed no shame in vocalizing my embarrassment or asking Kazuto and me weird questions. Though Kazuto’s uncooperative answers put Azusa off of asking him anything and she began to bombard me instead. I didn’t mind so much. I’ll admit it felt good to be exclusive to her in some way.
Azusa made it known that she wasn’t into things like this when I mentioned I didn’t like coming to crowded places, but Kazuto dragged us both around for another hour or so anyway, spending what looked like an excessive amount of money on keychains, manga, and posters. It was only after Azusa stopped us to rest that Kazuto relented and we all decided to go home. After the fuss he put up I could see why Azusa thought it was so funny that he fell asleep on the train. I leaned back in the seat next to her, wondering if that laugh was real.
“Amamiya?” I found myself asking. “Umm… I’m sorry if Kazuto was too much today. It seemed like you might’ve been pushing yourself a bit.”
“Geez, Izumi. I’m alright I said!” She grinned at me, lightly slapping my arm. “You’re more of a worry wart that I thought. Too bad I forgot my notebook or I’d write it down right now.”
I couldn’t help but smile a bit at that. “Okay. But if you need to sleep I can wake you up when the train stops.”
“No way. I couldn’t sleep on a train.” She waved a hand like I was asking the impossible and I’m sure I looked at her funny. “It’s weird. You know? Sleeping in public? Besides, I have all day tomorrow to sleep.”
“All day?” I laughed. “You don’t want to waste your whole day.”
“Hmmm… Yeah, I guess it is kind of a waste to sleep Sundays away…” Azusa relaxed in her seat. “Maybe I’ll fall asleep here if you agree to be my pillow, Izumi.”
I’m sure my red-faced flailing was a ridiculous sight, but Azusa only giggled at me and told me to relax and that she was only joking. I wanted to ask her if she had fun with me, but I couldn’t. She didn’t give me a hint either way and before I knew it Kazuto and I were waving goodbye to her from the street in front of her house.
“So what are you going to do now?” Kazuto suddenly asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Takahashi Saya? She goes to our school. I’m sure she’d at least hear about the story if you asked her.”
I watched him for a moment before it dawned on me. “Kazu! You’re a genius!”
“You’re just figuring this out now?” He grinned and we set off for home.
I didn’t know I was smiling until Kazuto elbowed me in the side, but it didn’t bother me much. After all, I had a plan of action now and I was feeling impatient. Monday couldn’t come fast enough.