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Star-Chasing Chariot

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Ryuji Sakamoto was having a bit of a rough day. It felt like the teachers at Shujin were getting on his back much more than usual for some reason, and the practice time in the Track Racing Club had been especially draining. He did have something to look forward to that day, though. Something very good. All he had to do was make it through all that shit alive. But of course the world would still throw some more at him right at the end.

He didn’t expect it to come from the rest of the Track Team, though.

“Hey, coach?”

While the rest of the team was on break after another tiring session, Ryuji had approached coach Sekihara to make a request.

“I got some important stuff to take care of, so I gotta get going now. That cool?”

“Hmm? Oh...” Sekihara took a quick read on papers he had on a clipboard. “Well, you did finish your quota for today… Alright, Ryuji. You can go.”

“Awesome! Thanks, coach!”

Just before Ryuji could turn around to make his escape, though, someone else intervened.

“Wait, hold on a minute!”

It was Nakaoka, one of his former colleagues on the Track Team from long ago. He walked in closer to join the talk, accompanied by Takeishi, also an old acquaintance of Ryuji from his earlier running days in Shujin.

“You gotta leave early again?” Nakaoka questioned, raising an eyebrow. “Why’s that? Today’s not rehab day, is it?”

“Nah, I just… Got some shit to do, you know?” Ryuji replied, rubbing the back of his head.

“That really doesn’t say much, Ryuji…” Takeishi commented, crossing his arms. “It’s fine that you’ve been leaving practice on days you have rehab. But you’ve been doing that on other days too lately.”

“Competitions are coming really soon, remember?” Nakaoka added. “We need to know if you’re really taking this seriously…”

“...What the hell?” Ryuji widened his eyes, baffled at what was being implied. “Of course I’m taking this seriously! I’m busting my ass in here as much as you guys! I moved from home so I could take care of my leg and bring out my best game for you guys!”

“Whoa, calm down, dude.” Takeishi raised his hands to appease him. “We’re just worried about you. Seriously, we want you to go there and wreck the competition!”

“...But you won’t do any of that if you keep skipping practice, Ryuji.” Nakaoka said.

While he did find the reason in their words, Ryuji still felt irritated that they were getting on his case. Fortunately, before he had time to talk back, coach Sekihara intervened to put an end to the talk.

“Alright, guys, that’s enough. We all know Ryuji is a hard worker, so I’m sure he gets it.” He then turned to Ryuji and put a hand on his shoulder. “Just remember, if you have any trouble or need help, let us know, yeah?”

“...Yeah…” He nodded, relaxing a bit. “Thanks, coach.”

With that matter settled – although maybe not in the best manner possible – Ryuji shortly changed back to his Shujin uniform and took his leave. 

That was it. He was finally free. It didn’t matter that he’d probably have to go through the same sort of thing the next day. For that one day, he was free, and he was going to spend time with someone that could easily make his heart race. And that was all he cared about at that moment.

“Oh, Sakamoto-kun!” A voice came to his ears, snapping him from his happy thoughts. “Can you hold on for a minute?”

Focusing back on his surroundings, Ryuji met with the familiar, yet still unexpected face of a teacher. The only one who actually hadn’t bothered him the whole day… Until then, at least. Already expecting to have more annoyances thrown his way, Ryuji let out a sigh as he turned a frown toward the frizzy haired woman.

“What is it, Kawakami?” He muttered.

“Are you free right now?” She asked, unphased by his attitude. “I’d like to talk with you for a little while.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m kinda in a hurry… I don’t suppose you can leave the scolding for tomorrow?”

“Geez, who said anything about scolding?” Kawakami replied, actually looking surprised for a moment. “Really, it’s just a friendly chat. If you want, you can think of it as a small counselling session!”

Kawakami showed a smile that weirded Ryuji off quite a bit, due to how genuine it looked. The image he had of the teacher was of someone who had no interest in doing any sort of counselling. He could easily remember the many times he’d seen her groaning and sighing while doing her job. As if she didn’t want to deal with that more than any of her students.

The Kawakami that stood in front of him was different, though. She definitely didn’t look like someone who was doing things just out of sheer obligation and hating it. There was true interest in her words as she made that invitation to Ryuji. It actually disarmed the young man’s annoyed attitude, making him take a second before answering.

“Okay… I guess we can talk...” He said carefully. “Does it have to be today, though? There’s somewhere I really need to be right now…”

“No, that’s fine.” Kawakami nodded. “We can leave it for some other day. Let’s keep talking through the week and see if we can have some time when you’re not busy. It’s important, so I’d really rather not rush if I can help it.”

“Uh… Alright…” Ryuji replied, her casual attitude once again catching off guard. “I guess I’ll see you later then…”

“Looking forward to it.” She opened a small grin. “Take care out there, Sakamoto-kun. Oh, and one more thing...”

Kawakami’s grin shifted into a slight frown.

“Just for the record… It’s Kawakami-san, if you’d please.”

Once he finally, truly made his escape from Shujin, Ryuji picked up the pace and began running towards the station. With a quick check on his phone, he noticed he wasn’t quite late just yet. But when thinking of the time it could take him to get to his destined location, there still was a fair chance of him being a few minutes late. He would be cutting it close, but Ryuji was determined not to mess things up. Not on his first “date”.

I mean, I guess it’s not really a date… Not yet, at least.

After taking a train to Shibuya Station, Ryuji walked through the crowd as fast as he could. Remembering what happened a couple weeks ago, he slowed down a little, just to make sure he wouldn’t end up bumping into anyone on his way. It’d be way too ironic if he became the asshole who nearly pushed people to the ground just because he was in a hurry.

Eventually, Ryuji found his way out of the station. While heading towards Buchiko Statue, he pulled out his phone to check on the time. It was exactly the time he had agreed on with his new acquaintance, so if he didn’t find her in the next few seconds, he would officially be late. Since the area was more open and he had more space, the young man allowed himself to add some more speed to his walking. And just as he saw the dog statue in the distance, he also found her right next to it: Hifumi Togo.

“H-Hey! Togo-san!” Ryuji spoke up, waving an arm above the head while approaching her.

“Ah, Sakamoto-kun! Hello!”

Hifumi greeted him with a smile. And just like that, all the stress and annoyances that Ryuji was carrying on his back began melting away. He smiled back at her, although his expression was slightly disturbed by the fact he had to catch his breath for a few moments.

“I-Is everything alright?” Hifumi asked.

“Yeah! No problem!” He replied quickly. “Sorry about that! I was hurrying to get over here in time! D-Did I get too late?”

“No, not at all. I just arrived here just a few minutes ago. I didn’t even have time to check the clock before you came.”

Ryuji let out a sigh, part to recover from his brief time running, and a bigger part due to relief.

“Did something happen, though?” Hifumi pondered. “It feels like you had quite a bit of trouble before getting here…”

“Kinda, yeah…” He rubbed his head. “I dunno… Ever had a day where it feels like everything’s going against you? Like, nearly everyone has been on my case today, for some reason… Just… Gets on my nerves, you know?”

“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that… I certainly had my own share of bad days, so I know how draining it can be. Would you like to rest for today and meet again later, perhaps?”

“What? No!” Ryuji quickly replied. “No, no, I’m fine. I made it through all of that because I really wanted to get here! For real, I’m super looking forward to this!”

His excitement seemed to overflow into Hifumi, as she began giggling a bit.

“And here I was thinking that all we’d do is go to a cafe.” She commented with a playful smile. “Yet you sound awfully eager about it, Sakamoto-kun… I must confess, I’m quite curious now.”

Ryuji smiled sheepishly, feeling his face heating up. Naturally, he couldn’t straight up tell her that the place they weren’t going to wasn’t what had him excited, but actually her company. When she put it that way, though, he realized it really was quite odd of him to be so hyped up about going to a cafe.

“W-Well, I mean… It’s just somewhere I really like, y’know? And, like I said, it’s pretty chill too. It’s a great place when you wanna take a break from the church.”

“I do enjoy having a change of scenario from time to time, as it can be inspiring for new moves.” Hifumi nodded. “Since you’re recommending it, I’m having high hopes for Leblanc.”

Ever since his first interactions with Hifumi Togo two weeks prior, Ryuji had been trying to meet up with her as often as he could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something as simple as he wished, considering both of them had somewhat busy schedules through most weekdays. Ryuji had his rehab sessions and the post-school practice with the track team in Shujin, while Hifumi had Shogi matches to attend to, either official ones or for practice. Even then, they managed to have quite a few chats through those couple of weeks, and Ryuji would easily point those out as the highlight of his day.

At first it was a little awkward for him to start up a conversation with the beautiful Shogi player, simply because he didn’t know what to talk about. Ryuji had big worries of getting into a sensitive topic or simply boring her to death. Soon enough, though, he learned that Hifumi was actually much more approachable than he had imagined, as she was willing to talk about even the simplest of things. So they started it off small, asking each other how their day was and how things were at school, or in general even. The topics started branching more from then on, with Ryuji talking about his activities at the track racing club, and Hifumi speaking more of her own endeavors at the competitive Shogi scenario.

There were, of course, things Ryuji purposely avoided getting into. Such as the incident involving Kamoshida and the disbandment of the track team long ago. Likewise, Hifumi never got to mention the fact that her mother was behind the scenes, fixing her matches to make sure she’d win. Last year, when they still acted as Phantom Thieves, Ryuji learned that story from Ren, who personally requested the group’s help to change Mrs. Togo’s heart in order to help Hifumi. He could tell the young lady still had some reservations about those unfortunate facts, so he never tried prying any further. Just like she never inquired too much on anything he told her about.

All in all, their meetings until then had been quite pleasant, and Ryuji was confident they had, at the very least, shifted from just acquaintances to actual friends. He got to know more about her and learned of things she enjoyed and disliked. His feelings for her hadn’t gotten any weaker either. If anything, he was liking her more and more.

“Take your time”, huh…?

Ryuji admittedly had some doubts, but… Maybe Ren’s advice would pay off, after all.

In their latest meeting, Hifumi mentioned to Ryuji how she was looking for somewhere different to spend time in. There would be an event happening in the church, which would make it difficult for her to focus on her practice. The young man immediately took that as a chance to help her, even if it was a small one. He told Hifumi about a certain cafe he used to hang around in, and that it could be the perfect place if she wanted some peace and silence. Also a good cup of coffee, and maybe some curry, if she liked it.

Thus, a couple days later, Ryuji would be guiding Hifumi by the backstreets of Yogen, soon finding the small building that set itself apart with its red and white sunblind.

“Here we are, the best cafe around!” He cheekily said, before quickly adding a disclaimer. “I mean, not that I know many cafes, but… So far this is my favorite!”

“Coffee and curry…?” Hifumi tilted her head curiously as she read the words in the sunblind. “That’s an interesting combination.”

“Oh, yeah. Boss’ cooking is really good! Imagine how lucky Ren was, having some curry for breakfast every day when he lived here.”

Hifumi turned her eyes to Ryuji, looking surprised.

“Pardon? Are you saying Amamiya-kun lived here?”

“Uh, yeah… This was basically his house while he was in Tokyo. His room was basically the attic. He never told you?”

“Not that I remember, no…” She shook her head. “Now I’m truly fascinated…”

Taking that as a positive, Ryuji grinned and opened up the door, making the bells ring, and motioned for Hifumi to come along. As always, the first thing he heard after walking in was an old man’s greeting.

“Welcome.” Standing from behind the counter, Sojiro shortly realized who it was and added: “Oh, hey there, Ryuji.”

“Yo, Boss!” He saluted in response, grinning wide. “How is it hanging?”

“Oh, you know, same as always. Not that I’m complaining, of course.”

Sojiro then took notice of the young lady standing right next to Ryuji. While surprised at first, he quickly opened up a small grin.

“I see we have a new face here. Is that a friend of yours?”

“Yeah! This is Hifumi Togo. She’s actually a friend of Ren’s too, so I brought her to see the cafe!”

“Really, now? Well then, glad to have you, Hifumi-chan.”

Hifumi smiled as she made a polite bow.

“Thank you. It is very nice to meet you… Uh, Boss, correct?” She slowed a bit at the end, sounding a bit unsure.

“Oh, right. The name is Sojiro. Sojiro Sakura.” He introduced himself with his usual friendly smile. “Most people call me Boss, though, so feel free to call me that too if you want.”

“Then it’s nice to meet you, Sakura-san.”

“Likewise. Go on now, feel free to have a seat and take a look at the menu.” Sojiro then turned to Ryuji. “I’d offer you some coffee, but I’m guessing you still haven’t grown up, so… Soda, as always?”

“B-Boss, geez!” Ryuji retorted, cheeks flushing immediately. He glanced at Hifumi before replying sort of quickly. “...Yes, I’ll have some soda, thanks.”

As per usual, there weren’t many people in Leblanc at that time. In fact, the only other customers Ryuji saw was an old couple, which seemed to be the biggest regulars. He and Hifumi shortly found themselves a booth and sat down. On opposite sides, naturally. While she took the time to look at the menu, Ryuji felt his phone buzzing in his pocket. Pulling it out for a moment, he found out there was a new message for him. From Ren, of all people.

“Uh… Sorry, mind if I check this real quick?” He asked Hifumi.

“Go ahead.” She nodded and smiled.

While Hifumi kept herself busy with making her choice of what to have and talking with Sojiro, Ryuji began quickly typing his answers.

[Ren – 17:47]
Hey, Ryuji.
You were gonna do something different with Hifumi today, right?
How is that going?

[Ryuji – 17:48]
Hey man!
Going good so far!
I brought her to Leblanc!

[Ren – 17:49]
Wait, what??

[Ryuji – 17:49]
What’s up?

[Ren – 17:50]
You took her to Leblanc.

[Ryuji – 17:50]

[Ren – 17:51]
And you’re sure that’s a good idea?

[Ryuji – 17:51]
Uh. Yeah?
You mean it’s not?

[Ren – 17:52]
Oh, I get it.
She’s not there yet, is she?

[Ryuji – 17:52]
Hifumi? Yeah, she is.

[Ren – 17:52]
No… Not Hifumi.

Right on cue, the cafe doorbells rang at that exact moment. A young redhead with big glasses walked in, carrying a few plastic bags filled with groceries. As soon as she was inside, she made a playful military salutation for Sojiro.

“Commander Curry, I have returned to the base!” Futaba Sakura announced, smiling wide.

...Ah, shit! Her!

“Welcome back, Sergeant.” Sojiro chuckled. “Thanks for the groceries, by the way.”

“All in a day’s work!”

Futaba walked nearby, putting the plastic bags on the counter. Then she immediately turned around and found Ryuji, not giving him any time to think on what to say.

“Hey, Ryuji! Fancy seeing you around! Inari is not with you today?”


Then Futaba noticed the girl sitting on the opposite side of Ryuji’s and her eyes went wide. Hifumi looked at her curiously, obviously not expecting a quirky young girl to approach them out of nothing.

“H-Hey there…” Futaba said, her social awkwardness showing, as it usually did when she talked with someone new. “Uh, is my friend bothering you? I can totally kick him out if he is.”

“Wha-” Ryuji gasped. “What the hell, Futaba?!”

Hifumi covered her lips with a hand, muffling some soft laughter.

“I’m assuming she’s an acquaintance of yours too, Sakamoto-kun?”

“Y-Yeah, she’s a friend… Futaba is Boss’ daughter, actually.” He awkwardly tried explaining.

“Oh! Is that so?”

“Mwehehe! That’s right! The Heiress of Coffee and Curry, at your service!” Futaba grinned cheekily, her shy demeanor quickly giving space to her usual self.

“Well, it is nice to meet you, Futaba-chan.” Hifumi giggled and replied. “I’m Hifumi Togo. Sakamoto-kun told me of your father’s cafe, so I was interested in taking a look.”

“Oooh… Did he, now?”

Futaba threw a big grin towards Ryuji, which made him feel all the more nervous. He couldn’t believe that he had somehow forgotten the girl was a regular at Leblanc, more than any of the others in their group. And for a very obvious reason too, considering her father was the owner of the place. Ryuji was quickly assaulted by regret, for he knew that Futaba would never miss a chance to embarrass or make fun of him in front of someone else. Even more if she had figured out he was interested in Hifumi.

Luckily, a saving hand intervened just at the right time.

“Alright, Futaba, what did I tell you about bothering the customers?” Sojiro chuckled. “If you’re gonna stick around, come here and help with the dishes, will ya?”

“Ugh. Fine…” The redhead groaned and went on to behind the counter.

Ryuji held himself to not let out a huge sigh of relief, while also sending a silent prayer of thankfulness to Sojiro.

With the threat of Futaba seemingly contained – at least for the time being – Ryuji and Hifumi could focus on making their order. Sojiro soon brought them two full plates of curry, along with a cup of coffee and a glass with soda and ice. Ryuji joyfully savored his food, always glad to taste some of the Boss’ cooking. Much for his delight, Hifumi also seemed to enjoy her curry quite a bit. He noticed as her cheeks went a little flushed, likely due to the food’s spiciness. She also sipped from her coffee quite gracefully. Yet another show of how much of a refined lady she was. Ryuji adored that.

Soon enough, both of them had finished off their plates. He let out a small sigh, before immediately remembering some of the advice Ren gave him regarding etiquette on the table.

Don’t get all lazy on the table after eating. All you did was have a meal, not run a marathon.

Ryuji stuck to it, keeping himself straight and composed. He could tell Hifumi was an adept of that, as she simply cleaned her lips with a napkin once she was done.

“That was quite delicious. Easily the best curry I’ve ever tasted.” She nodded, looking quite satisfied.

“Hey, glad to hear it! I told you Boss’ cooking is something else.” He grinned and then asked. “So, wanna get your stuff set up? I can help you with that.”

“Ah, yes. Are you sure it’ll be alright, though?”

“It’ll be fine! We’re not gonna bother anyone, right? Just sitting in a corner, mind our own business, like any other paying customer.”

Giggling from his positive attitude, Hifumi nodded once and reached for her bag. She pulled out her very own Shogi board from it, gently placing it on the table before pulling a small box that contained all the pieces.

“Just gonna set up a game from scratch?” Ryuji asked.

“Yes, please. There’s something I’d like to try out as an opening.” She nodded.

While Ryuji was pretty damn sure he wouldn’t be able to fully figure out a game like Shogi, he figured that the least he could do was memorize the pieces and where to place them at the start of a game. He hoped giving a hand with the setup could save Hifumi some time. Much to his relief, she was quite grateful for that initiative, and was also quite patient in teaching him when he got something wrong.

“Oooh, you’re gonna play Shogi?”

At that moment, a pair of googly eyes peeked from the side of the table, coming seemingly out of nowhere.

“Wait, do you even know how to play?” Futaba asked, looking at Ryuji.

“...Don’t you have dishes to do?” He groaned, glaring at her.

“I’ve done plenty.” She replied dryly, giving him a glare of her own.

“Anyway… Nah, I don’t know how to play. I’m just helping her out with the pieces, really. Hifu- I mean, Togo-san wants to try out some strats, that’s all.”

Futaba raised an eyebrow, as she clearly never expected to see Ryuji referring to someone by their surname and so respectfully. Before she could question him on that, though, another thought crossed her mind, as she seemingly realized something else.

“Oh, wait!” She gasped, turning to Hifumi. “Aren’t you that professional player that goes to the same school as Inari?”

“I-I’m sorry… Inari?” Hifumi tilted her head, confused.

“She means Yusuke.” Ryuji replied. “Yusuke Kitagawa. I think you know him, yeah?”

“Ah, yes, Kitagawa-kun! So you’re all acquainted, I see!”

“Yeah… He’s a big dork. But we still love him.” Futaba giggled.

Ryuji sent a weirded out look towards the redhead. Before he had the chance to inquire her on that last phrase, though, Hifumi made a question herself.

“Do you play Shogi, Futaba-chan?” She asked curiously.

“Eh, sorta… I used to play with my mom.” Futaba then grinned a little. “Once I got it figured out she never got to beat me again, though. Mwehehe!”

“Is that so…? Would you be interested in playing a match?”

Ryuji looked surprised at Hifumi, while Futaba’s eyes lit up immediately.

“Oooh, a challenge, is it? Well, consider it accepted! Gimme some space, Ryuji!”

The young man had quite a few things to say about that, but none that he could say in front of Hifumi. So he was pretty much forced to concede and shuffle to the side, giving space for Futaba to take his place in front of Hifumi.

“Shall we begin, then?” Hifumi asked, briefly bowing her head.

“Here’s to a good game!” Futaba hummed and returned the gesture.

Crossing his arms and sitting back, Ryuji could only watch as his crush began playing against his quirky friend and fellow ex-Phantom Thief. He really didn’t mind watching Hifumi playing Shogi, but he also couldn’t deny it was a bit boring since he couldn’t really understand what was going on. It was especially boring at the start of the game, since both players would just be nudging some pieces forward, setting up their own strategies.

It was also a bit of a bummer because he needed to stay quiet. Futaba probably wouldn’t mind some talking, but Ryuji knew for a fact that Hifumi would. Not having the proper silence to think on her moves was simply inconceivable, and she made it pretty clear on the first – and thus only – time Ryuji tried interrupting her thought process. He would not make that mistake ever again.

Fortunately, Hifumi and Futaba had agreed to play on a time limit rule, so they had to make their moves fast. Even Ryuji could tell that they were both quite focused in the game. Just a glance at Futaba reminded him of the times she was working on something in her laptop. Hifumi, on the other hand, looked calm and composed. Her expression did shift a few times to something close to confusion, though. As if she found some of Futaba’s moves surprising or just hard to understand.

Either way, it seemed like Hifumi had the upper hand at first, as she was the one who began taking pieces from Futaba. Then, suddenly, the young redhead opened up a wide grin. In an over dramatic gesture, she took a piece and slammed it in a new position, making a brief sound of wood hitting wood.

“Check, Lady Togo!”

Hifumi gasped, looking genuinely surprised and caught off guard. Even Ryuji straightened up at that. He knew that Futaba was sort of a genius, what with her knowledge on computers and programming. Could it be that she was also a prodigy at Shogi? She did have the air of a gamer, but to the extent of a board game?

“...I see.” Hifumi said, her expression turning serious and stoic. “You have been hiding your true skills along, haven’t you, Lady Sakura?”

“Mwehehe!” Futaba cackled and adjusted her glasses. “Figured me for a beginner, haven’t you, Lady Togo? That shall teach you not to look down on the Heiress of Coffee and Curry!”

“...The hell are you even talking about?” Ryuji muttered.

“I shall admit… I did underestimate you.” Hifumi admitted. “Your moves were akin to one of a rookie. But now I see your true colors… And to think you sacrificed so many soldiers to a tactic of this kind… Very well.”

With a flare of movement of her own, Hifumi made her next move with nearly as much intensity as Futaba had moments earlier. The redhead let out a gasp herself, clearly being the one caught off guard that time.

“Then I shall fight to the fullest extent of my abilities to put an end to your tyrannical rule.”

Both Ryuji and Futaba looked at Hifumi in awe. Her voice and her expressions were much sharper and stronger, as if she had literally become a different person.

“Ah… I can feel it… The swords and spears of my soldiers, claiming that justice is made…” She spoke out, one hand over an eye. “Yes… We shall bring justice as swiftly as the wind!”

“...Ryuji, what is she doing?” Futaba whispered, sounding a bit scared.

“Like hell I know!” He whispered back, utterly lost and taken aback.

“Make your move, Lady Sakura.” Hifumi said, either not noticing or just ignoring their lowered voices. “I recommend you choose wisely.”

What happened from then on seemed like a completely different match. Ryuji still had no idea of what exactly was going on, but even he could tell that Hifumi was launching a mighty offensive against Futaba. The redhead began losing more and more pieces every few moves, and was looking actually distressed soon enough. Hifumi remained serious and focused all the time. There was no more hesitation in her moves nor confusion in her eyes. Never had Ryuji seen her look so regal and imposing. It was somewhat mesmerizing.

Eventually, Hifumi slammed one of her pieces in place and then turned to Futaba.

“I can see the end of this turmoil approaching.” She spoke solemnly. “I recommend you concede now, and preserve the life of your soldiers.”

“N-Never! We shall go down fighting to the end!” Futaba replied stubbornly.

“...Then you leave me no other choice.”

Futaba nervously looked over the board, thinking back and forth many times before making her move. The game went on for just a couple more minutes, as Higumi’s pieces were pretty much overwhelming Futaba’s. Even Sojiro stopped whatever he was doing to look at the girls playing, his expression also quite confused.

Finally, after one last movement, Hifumi declared:

“Check. And, as far I can see… Checkmate.”

Futaba groaned, glaring at the Shogi board, as if there was an answer for her troubles there, somewhere. She seemed unable to find it, though, as she lowered her head in defeat.

“Yeah… Nothing else I can do… It’s over.”

Hearing the conceding words of her opponent, Hifumi let out a short sigh, closing her eyes for a moment and placing a hand over her chest. When looking back at Ryuji and Futaba, she looked like she had just woken up from a trance, letting out a gasp.

“Oh, dear… I… I’ve done it again, haven’t I?”

“Uh… Y-You okay, Togo-san?” Ryuji asked carefully.

“Yes, I am…” Hifumi blushed heavily as she tried to explain. “It’s an old, bad habit of mine… When I get too invested in a match, I start rambling those things… See, I like to imagine myself as a true queen, guiding her vassals into battle and aiming for victory… But sometimes, I get too much into character, so to speak…”

“For real…?” Ryuji blinked, looking at her in awe.

“So you get that excited, huh?” Futaba asked, grinning. “I can dig that.”

“I’ve said rude things to you, haven’t I, Futaba-chan? I’m truly sorry, I’m usually much more composed than this…”

“What are you talking about? That was awesome!” The young redhead cheered. “I thought I’d play around just for kicks, but it was actually pretty fun! I even got to duel against Yami Hifumi!”

Hifumi seemed quite confused at Futaba’s statement, so Ryuji felt he had to give a hand and translate it.

“Uh… I think what she’s saying is… Don’t worry about it.” He said, smiling at her. “And, I mean, she was right, it was pretty awesome. I didn’t get any of the Shogi stuff, but I could tell you kicked some serious ass there.”

“Yeah. My ass, you dork.” Futaba groaned.

“...I mean, you asked for it.”

Hifumi still had her face quite flushed, but she shortly began giggling at their exchanges.

“Thank you… It was quite an enjoyable match! I do hope we can play again, Futaba-chan.”

“Oh, you bet! You haven’t seen the last of me, Lady Togo!”

At that moment, Sojiro intervened.

“Alright, Ms. Heiress, how about you give those two some space now?” He asked, chuckling playfully. “The dishes are piling up again over here.”

“Aww, but Sojiro...!”

While Futaba tried to whine her way out of doing more chores, Ryuji turned his attention back to Hifumi.

“Hey, uh… I’m sorry it wasn’t as peaceful here as I promised…” He said, rubbing his head. “I really didn’t expect things to go this way…”

“Oh? Sakamoto-kun, why are you apologizing?” Hifumi asked, tilting her head. “I like this place, truly! The food and the coffee are delicious… I really enjoyed meeting Sakura-san and Futaba-chan too… I even got to practice in an actual match! I’d love to come back here again soon.”

Hifumi then smiled wide, bowing her head briefly.

“Thus… Thank you for bringing me here.”

Ryuji felt his own cheeks warming up at that, as well as a wave of relief to see that she truly seemed to be enjoying herself. Eventually he smiled back at her, feeling more confident that his choices were indeed the right ones. Seeing her flushed, happy face made it worth going through all the troubles during the day. And it didn’t matter to him that maybe tomorrow it could happen all over again. Knowing that there was a beautiful girl who could smile at him like that made him feel like he could go through anything.

The only thing Ryuji regretted was not being able to show or express those feelings, whether with words, or with his gestures.

One month… Dammit, Ren… This wait is gonna kill me, man.