Chapter 1: The Red String
No matter how many times it happened, or how used he thought he could get to it, Ryuji would always say that catching a crowded train sucked. Especially when he was still a bit sleepy after a shaky night of sleep. And considering that it was still just Monday, Ryuji could tell he was in for one hell of a week. Worst of all, his best friend wasn’t there to share that fate with him.
Dammit, Ren… Bet you’re having a great time not needing to deal with train shit anymore.
Thinking about Ren proved not to be a good option at the moment, as it only made Ryuji’s mood more sour. The same applied for when he thought of his other friends. Ren was back in his hometown, hours away from Tokyo. Ann was literally in another country, studying and working hard on her model gig. Yusuke and Futaba studied at different schools, making any chances of meeting with them pretty rare and scarce. Makoto and Haru were probably frying their brains in college or work. And Sumire, the only Shujin remainder among the ex-Phantom Thieves, was actually even harder to meet due to her strict training schedule.
Even Mishima seemed to be too busy recently, as he claimed to be working on a book or something. Ryuji had seen him writing stuff on a notebook during lunch time a few days ago. He seemed to be as determined as he was when speaking of the PhanSite, if not more. As odd as it was, Ryuji had to admit it was sort of impressive.
While Ryuji was damn sure he himself wasn’t slacking off either, since he was working every day on making his return as a track runner, days like that just felt so lonely it was sort of frustrating. More than anything, he really missed having his best bro around. While the others surely would just tell him to stop his whining or straight up ignore him, Ren would definitely join in Ryuji’s complaining, even if just to make jokes with it.
When realizing that he preferred to deal with Ren’s jokes than to be alone, Ryuji knew he was actually getting desperate.
...You gotta come back already, man...
At some point, the train slowed down, making a stop at another station. Right next to him, a middle aged man was tapping his foot repeatedly, bearing an angry expression. Ryuji heard him muttering things such as, “Come on” and “Hurry it up already”, but paid it no mind. He could relate to the feeling of wanting to get out of that human version of a sardine can. At least he was managing to hold the complaints inside his own mind.
Then, as soon as the doors opened and people started moving the man nearly jumped out of his seat and forced his way through the crowd. By doing so, he ended up pushing a girl, who gasped and was just about to fall down. Ryuji, being close enough, reacted just in the nick of time by putting a hand to her back to help her keep balance.
“Whoa! You okay?”
“Ah… Y-Yes, thank you…” The girl replied, still a bit shaken by the sudden turn of events.
Turning back to the man’s direction, Ryuji tried calling him out.
“Hey! Watch it, you jerk!”
But his shout fell in deaf ears, as the man was already long gone.
“Dammit! What an asshole…!”
“Um… It’s okay. Please, don’t worry about it.”
The girl spoke out calmly, seemingly recovered from the quick scare. Looking back at her, Ryuji was surprised for a moment, as she was astonishingly pretty. She had long, smooth brown hair, and deep green eyes. Above that, there was just this air of class around her. It made Ryuji feel like he shouldn’t dare to address her with anything less than “Lady”. He also figured they were about the same age, as she was also wearing a highschool uniform. Not one from Shujin’s, though.
“O-Oh… Uh… Yeah...” He said, finding some inexplicable difficulty to find his words. “Sorry for shouting… Y-You sure you’re alright?”
“Yes.” She nodded, smiling. “It’s not my first time on the train, after all. I know some people can be quite aggressive when they’re in a hurry. Thank you very much for your help, though.”
“Uh… Right...” Ryuji stammered, before smiling awkwardly. “Yeah, it was nothing, really, so… Don’t mention it.”
“Oh, this is my stop as well. Excuse me.”
The brunette nodded politely and walked off amid the crowd. Ryuji just watched her go, until the train doors closed. Then he let out a sigh, looking down.
And now, to never see her ever again…
However, as his eyes turned down, Ryuji noticed there was something lying on the floor. Curiosity getting the best of him, he reached down and picked up the item. It seemed like a piece of thin red rope, tied in a way it formed three circles connected. Looking at it a bit closer, Ryuji realized it was actually a hairpin, and a quite unique one at that. It belonged to someone, that much he knew… But who?
The rest of the morning proceeded pretty much as expected, with Ryuji finding himself needing to deal with a day of classes without any real motivation to do so. Between the moments of boredom, he would think back on the girl from earlier. Her deep green eyes... Her small yet charming smile… Those memories actually prevented Ryuji from falling asleep in class. Yet they still earned him a big piece of chalk chucked at his forehead, courtesy of Ushimaru.
After surviving through the morning classes, Ryuji set out to a quiet corner in the courtyard, where he usually sat down to have his lunch. While handling the chopsticks with one hand, the other one was busy fiddling with his phone, checking received messages and replying to a few. Luckily, Ren happened to be among those people he talked to, and Ryuji found his mood improving a little once he shared the events of earlier with his best friend.
[Ryuji - 12:37]
So, I met this really pretty girl on the train today.
I was actually kinda blown away.
Been thinking about her the whole day.
[Ren - 12:38]
She must’ve been amazing if she made you write a poem.
[Ryuji - 12:38]
Huh? What poem?
[Ren - 12:38]
Anyway, did you talk to her?
[Ryuji - 12:38]
Yeah, but real quick, cuz she had to leave.
Couldn’t even get her name...
Some jackass almost made her fall when getting out of the train, so I helped her.
[Ren - 12:38]
Oh, nice! Sir Skull to the rescue, eh? :P
Just be careful if the jackass isn’t some crazy powerful politician.
Dealing with those can be a bit troublesome…
Ryuji chuckled out loud and shook his head. Leave it to Ren to make fun of something that nearly ruined his own life a year ago. He put the phone away for a moment to finish eating the last bits of his bento. Once done with that, he reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out the rope hairpin from earlier. He wondered if there was a way to find its owner so he could return it. Sadly, no ideas came to mind, and the more he thought of it, the more Ryuji felt it would be an impossible task.
What was that saying, again? “Like finding a needle in a clay stack”… Right?
Figuring that maybe two heads would think better than one, he took a quick picture of the hairpin and shared it with Ren.
[Ryuji - 12:43]
Oh yeah, btw…
I found this thing on the train today.
Think someone dropped it.
Got any ideas on how to find who?
[Ren - 12:44]
Isn’t that a hairpin?
[Ryuji - 12:44]
Have you seen it before?
[Ren - 12:45]
Did you run into Hifumi on that train?
[Ryuji - 12:45]
[Ren - 12:45]
Hang on a sec…
Ryuji raised an eyebrow, staring at the screen in awe and expectation. A few moments after the last message, Ren sent another one, having only a photo attachment. As soon as he loaded it up, Ryuji’s eyes went wide and he couldn’t hold himself from shouting.
It was the picture of a young lady, sitting next to a table, her gaze focused on some sort of board game. Ryuji immediately recognized her long, smooth brown hair and the beautiful emerald eyes. She was even wearing the same highschool uniform. And sure enough, there it was: The red rope pin, attached to her hair on the left side. For the second time that day, Ryuji found himself stunned in front of her beauty, to the point it took him a short while to recover and begin typing again.
[Ryuji - 12:48]
Dude! That’s totally her!
It’s the girl I saw today!
You know her?!
[Ren - 12:48]
That’s Hifumi Togo, my Shogi master.
We actually helped her out as PTs once, remember?
[Ryuji - 12:49]
Her mother was, like, crazy controlling, right?
While his memories of the time weren’t crystal clear, Ryuji remembered the time he looked into rumors about a beautiful girl who was a famous Shogi player at Yusuke’s school. Knowing how Ren used to look awkward and reluctant when dealing with girls, Ryuji had jokingly suggested he tried talking her into teaching him battle strategies. It was definitely a surprise when, some time later, Ren told him that he actually did befriend Hifumi. The two of them even made some sort of deal, where Hifumi would teach Ren how to play Shogi in exchange for him helping her to come up with new moves.
At some point, Ren had gathered the Phantom Thieves in order to trigger a change of heart in Hifumi’s mother, who was ruthlessly trying to control her daughter’s life. Always eager to jump into action and help someone else, Ryuji quickly agreed to join in and did his part in fighting against the woman’s Shadow in Mementos. And ever since Ren reported that the change of heart worked, he just never got to inquire further about Hifumi.
Ryuji just couldn’t believe it. He called himself an idiot for not knowing there was such a pretty girl right within reach and that he never bothered looking into it. He was also slightly mad at his best friend, and couldn’t hold himself from asking:
[Ryuji - 12:50]
Dude, why didn’t you ever tell me she was this beautiful?!
[Ren - 12:51]
I thought you already knew. :o
I mean, you’re the one who first talked about her back then...
[Ryuji - 12:51]
Well, clearly I didn’t!
[Ren - 12:51]
Anyway, you want to give her back the hairpin, right?
How about I try talking to her and see if you two can meet up?
[Ryuji - 12:52]
OH! That would be awesome!!
[Ren - 12:52]
Alright. I’ll see what I can do and come back to you later, okay?
[Ryuji - 12:52]
Gotcha! Thanks, man!
The rest of the day had Ryuji in a much better mood, as he actually had something to look forward to. Every now and then during the remaining classes, he would take a peek at his phone, hoping to see a new message from Ren confirming his contact with Hifumi. He would also take the chance to take another glance at the picture his friend had sent earlier. The day truly had taken a turn for the best: He would be meeting a beautiful girl and doing a good deed for her. It couldn’t get much better than that.
Finally, at the end of the school day, a while after classes were finally over, Ryuji heard his phone ringing from an incoming call. Picking it up quickly, he read the caller’s name and made a brief cheer once seeing Ren’s name.
“Yo, dude!” Ryuji greeted, smiling wide. “What took you so long?”
“Uh… I was at school?” Ren chuckled. “Let me guess. You couldn’t even pay attention to the afternoon classes because you were waiting for me?”
"That’s… Uh… You don’t know that!”
“...Right. Anyway, I talked with Hifumi. Good news, the hairpin you found really is hers. She said she’ll be glad to meet with you to get it back.”
“Hell yeah!” Ryuji cheered. “Did you set up a place for us to meet?”
“She said she’ll be in her usual spot today, in the church in Kanda.” Ren replied. “That’s okay for you, right?”
“Yeah! I can get there in a jiffy!”
“Then you should be all set. I told her about you, so you just have to go and make sure to strike a good impression.”
Something made Ryuji hesitate at that moment. On one hand, he would trust his life on Ren without a second thought. But on the other hand, by knowing of his friend’s playful nature and his taste for terrible jokes, he felt the urge to ask a question.
“Uh… Wait, hang on, hang on! What did you tell her about me?”
“That you’re my best friend and a really cool guy.” Ren said in a simple manner, before playfully adding: “Am I wrong?”
“Oh… No, I just... Nah, j-just forget it… Thanks, Ren.”
At that moment, a different voice came from the other side of the call. A familiar voice that Ryuji hadn’t heard in quite a while, but that still made him frown due to its teasing tone.
“Hah! Getting cold feet already, Ryuji? I should’ve known.”
“Morgana? Wait, have you been listening this whole time?!” Ryuji questioned.
“Naturally! I have to make sure my disciples aren’t doing anything stupid on their own!”
“Disciples? Yeah, you wish…” He groaned, rolling his eyes.
“Seriously, though…” Morgana said. “I don’t think you know this, Ryuji, but Hifumi’s knowledge was invaluable for us as Phantom Thieves. We owe her, and she’s a good friend of Ren’s, so make sure to behave yourself properly, okay?”
“The hell you think I’m going to do?” Ryuji retorted. “I’m just gonna give her hairpin back!”
“...Is that really all you have in mind?”
“...And I’ll try talking to her a bit… Y’know, try getting to know her better and stuff.”
“Of course…” Morgana sighed.
“Alright, alright. Enough, you two.” Ren chuckled and intervened. “We’ll leave it to you, Ryuji. Hifumi is a pretty cool person, so I hope you two get along. If I can help in some other way, let me know, yeah?”
Ryuji couldn’t remember the last time he ever visited a church. He had faint memories of being inside one with his mother when he was really young. Probably to attend the funeral of some friend or relative he wasn’t really acquainted with. As someone who liked to always be on the move, being too long in that wide, quiet space just felt boring. Not to mention unnerving for some reason. Yet there he was, in Kanda church, swallowing all those feelings as he walked in.
According to Ren, Hifumi was a frequent visitor. Not for religious reasons, but purely because it was the one place she could practiceShogi in peace and silence, without being bothered much. Ryuji thought to himself that she should have nerves of steel to make that place her hideout.
Maybe I could invite her to come over to Leblanc! It’s just as quiet, but much cozier.
Taking a mental note of that idea, Ryuji walked by the middle space between all the benches, his head going left and right in search of Hifumi. There weren’t many people there, which should’ve made his job easier. And, sure enough, once he turned his eyes to the row that was the farthest in the front, he spotted her. Hifumi had her head turned to the side a little, focused on something placed right next to her. Feeling his heart skipping a beat, Ryuji took a quick breath and walked forward.
Once he stepped out to the front side of the first row, Ryuji could have a better look at what Hifumi was doing. She had a Shogi board set next to her on the bench, all pieces positioned as if she actually had a match going on. Even though there was no opponent in front of her, Hifumi seemed quite serious and focused.
Stopping there and watching in silence for a few moments, Ryuji took notice of small things. Like the way she’d gently brush some hair behind her ear… Or the way she’d place a finger by her lips while looking deep in thought…
What the hell… How is she so effing beautiful?
“...Hmm?” Her eyes going up a little, Hifumi finally took notice of the young man standing a few steps away from her. “May I help you?”
“Oh! Uh… S-Sorry, I was just...” It took Ryuji a moment to recover from the shock of being called out all of sudden. “I mean… You’re Togo-san, right? I’m Ryuji… Ryuji Sakamoto! Ren’s friend…?”
“Ah! So you’re Sakamoto-kun!”
Hifumi’s eyes lit up as she rose to her feet and then made a short yet polite bow.
“I’m assuming Amamiya-kun has told you about me, but… I’m Hifumi Togo. It is very nice to meet you.”
“Y-Yeah! Nice to meet ya too!” Ryuji replied, showing a smile as he ushered himself to chill and stop stuttering.
After smiling at him for a moment, Hifumi’s expression changed to one of curiosity, as she seemed to notice something.
“Excuse me… Correct me if I’m wrong, but… Have we met before?”
“Actually, yeah! I was… Uh...” Ryuji hesitated, his cheeks flushing a bit as he really found no other way to explain it. “...I was the guy that shouted in the train when someone almost made you fall today.”
“Oh! Yes, that’s right, I remember now!” Hifumi nodded. “You’ve helped me to stay on my feet, yes? Allow me to thank you once again for that.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it… I’m just glad I got to be there at the right time.” Ryuji then snapped his fingers. “Oh, right! Before I forget…” He reached inside his pocket, pulling out the red rope hairpin. “Here… Figured it’s about time you got this back.”
Hifumi’s expression brightened much more at the sight of the hairpin. She carefully picked it up with both hands, smiling tenderly at the accessory before putting it back where it should be: Safely attached to her hair on the left side.
“Thank you so much…” She smiled at him, looking truly relieved. “I was so worried I had lost it for good… I only noticed it was gone when I arrived at school. Imagine my surprise when Amamiya-kun asked me about it a while later. I couldn’t believe it!”
Ryuji felt like butterflies were going crazy inside his stomach. Just her smile was enough to render him speechless for a few seconds. Just enough time for Hifumi to notice it and give him a look of concern.
“Is everything alright, Sakamoto-kun?”
“Y-Yeah! Sorry about that, I just zoned out a bit! Think I’m just… a bit hungry, you know?”
“Ah, yes! Please, wait a moment...”
Hifumi turned back to the bench she was previously sitting on. She reached out for her bag, her hands searching for something inside it. She shortly brought out a small package of store bought onigiris.
“Please, take this as thanks for coming all the way over here.” Hifumi told him.
“Huh? F-For me? Whoa, thanks!”
“I do hope you enjoy it. Amamiya-kun told me that, since you’re an athlete, you’ve got quite a big appetite.”
That son of a…!
Ryuji quickly swallowed the angry thought that popped in his head, but he would make sure to throw that back at Ren later. For the moment, he simply took the onigiri box from Hifumi’s hands, handling it with care. He noticed that the brand was actually a pretty good one. Those onigiris weren’t cheap by any means, and it was surprising for him to think she bought that for someone she didn’t even know, just a way to show gratitude.Ryuji actually had to control himself to not pick one and start chomping right away. Part because Hifumi was there, and another part because he felt that doing so would prove Ren right.
“So… Anyway…” He spoke up, scratching his head a bit while trying to come up with a different topic. His eyes wandered around and found the Shogi board, still sitting nearby. “You were just playing on your own over there?”
“Oh, yes… I’m actually trying out a couple new strategies.” She nodded.
The idea seemed to work out better than Ryuji expected, for Hifumi sat down next to board again, looking pleased as she explained her line of thought.
“See, I try to set up different scenarios, where two players follow different strategies against each other. All so that I can try figuring out ways to counter each strategy, find weak points or even ways to improve them.”
“Huh… That sounds kinda awesome, actually! Also a bit complicated…” Ryuji chuckled sheepishly, as he sat down on the opposite side. “Sorry, I don’t really know much of Shogi… The most you’ll see me playing on a table is something with cards.”
“Is that so?” Hifumi said. “I haven’t tried many card games myself, but I hear there’s a considerate amount of tactics behind them as well.”
“Well, yeah, I guess… But I think most of it falls down to luck, really. And I know for sure I have a pretty bad one.” He sighed, haunted by memories of past card games where he came out on bottom.
“Or perhaps you just need to improve your strategies.” Hifumi playfully suggested.
“Alright, alright. Strategy ain’t really my forte… So I’ll give that one a maybe." He chuckled.
“Of course, I do agree that luck also plays a big part in card games. I believe that might just be the reason I’m not quite interested in them. Leaving the outcome of a match to sheer luck is just unthinkable for me.”
As she spoke further, Hifumi ran her fingers by the edges of the Shogi board.
“In Shogi, however, there’s no such thing as luck. Both players are standing on equal foot, with the exact same conditions, tools and goals in order to win. If you lose the battle, you have only yourself to blame for it.” She spoke in a serious, borderline harsh tone, but then changed to a sweet voice. “That might be the reason I’m enamored with it. It’s the fairest battlefield one might take part on. It’s truly quite thrilling!”
Ryuji looked at her in amazement. He could definitely feel her passion showing through each word. It reminded him of Yusuke in some ways, but in a more contained and down to earth manner. She was giving a warrior, samurai like vibe that he just found really cool.
“Oh! My apologies!” Hifumi suddenly gasped. “I just began running my mouth without a second thought…”
“Hey, hey, it’s cool, I know what you mean.” Ryuji grinned. “I think that’s pretty badass!”
Hifumi blinked in surprise, actually looking speechless for a moment.
“...Huh? S-Sorry, that’s actually the first time I’ve been told that.” She said, her cheeks flushing a little.
“Uh… Was that too weird?” Ryuji asked worriedly.
“Oh, no, that’s not what I mean. It’s just unexpected, is all.” Hifumi giggled and then added. “And that’s coming from someone who’s spent some time with Amamiya-kun. As I’m sure you’re aware, he’s quite playful with his words.”
“Hah! Trust me, I know. I’ve been hanging around with that guy pretty much from the moment he set foot in Tokyo. I’ve had plenty of my share of Ren’s jokes to go around.”
“Goodness gracious, Sakamoto-kun.” She made a playful gasp. “Allow me to commend you for surviving this far.”
Meanwhile, miles away from there, Ren Amamiya suffered from a sudden sneeze.
“So you’re like his Shogi master, huh?” Ryuji asked. “I guess he must’ve given you some trouble, right? Don’t worry, you can talk. I’m totally not gonna tell him!”
“You do realize I’m now obligated to be very wary of what I speak, don’t you?” Hifumi replied, covering a soft laughter with her hand. “Anyway… It’s quite the opposite, truly. Amamiya-kun has been very helpful. Thanks to him, I feel I improved a lot, and not just as a Shogi player. If anything, I’d say I’m the one who gave him some trouble back then… Yet he still insisted on having my back when I needed it.”
“That sounds like him alright. Yeah…. That guy had my back more times than I could even count.” Looking up for a moment, Ryuji sighed and came out with it. “I know it’s gonna take a long time, but… I hope he comes back soon.”
“I see… Seems you two are really good friends. It can be quite lonely without having someone like that around.”
Turning his glance back to her, Ryuji noticed Hifumi eyeing her board, seeming a bit lost in thought herself.
“...How about you?” He asked.
“W-Well, I mean… Ren told me you spend a lot of time here practicing all by yourself... Don’t you feel a bit lonely too?”
The question made Hifumi widen her eyes a little, in surprise. She pondered on it for a few moments, Ryuji patiently waiting for her to find the right words.
“Well… It’s odd, now that I think about it… Practicing alone is something I’ve done for a long time, and it never quite bothered me. But after meeting Amamiya-kun last year, I found myself enjoying our talks more than I imagined… And now that he’s gone back home… I think I do miss having someone to talk with sometimes…”
At that moment, they both heard a faint buzzing sound, to which Hifumi reacted with a brief gasp. She reached inside her blazer’s pocket, pulling out her phone and giving it a quick glance.
“Oh, excuse me… It’s from my mother. I nearly forgot, we had arranged to go out for dinner tonight. My apologies, Sakamoto-kun, but I should be leaving now.”
As she said that, Hifumi started collecting all the Shogi pieces and storing them in place. Ryuji watched her for a moment, feeling his chest tighten, as if urging him to do something.
“If you want… I mean, if you’re okay with it… Could I come here some other time to see you again?”
Hifumi turned a curious expression to him, making Ryuji feel his heart flipping again. Why wouldn’t the blasted thing just settle down and let him focus for once?
“Uh… Y-You see… My other friends have been getting busy a lot lately, yeah? So I’ve been having some free time every now and then. I thought maybe I could drop by so we could… you know… just talk and stuff? I know I said I don’t really know much about Shogi, but… I dunno… I just thought it’d be fun. And, uh… I would like to know you better too… If that’s okay!”
“...I see…” Even as Ryuji attempted to explain himself, Hifumi had a curious, slightly surprised expression. Then, much for his relief, she opened up a smile. “Well, I did enjoy our talk today, Sakamoto-kun… If that’s truly alright for you, then yes, I wouldn’t mind if you visited again.”
“F-For real?!” He gasped and then smiled wide. “I mean, a-awesome! It’s a deal then!”
Hifumi giggled a bit at his overjoyed reaction and then pulled out her phone.
“Shall we exchange our contact information? We can keep in touch and check if our schedules align again.”
“Yeah, sure!” Ryuji nodded, quickly picking up his own phone.
A few taps later, both of them had each other’s number registered in their contact list. Ryuji had to hold himself really hard to not jump and shout out a cheer.
“Thanks! I, uh… I guess I’ll see you later then!” He said, unable to contain his grin.
“Yes. I shall look forward to it.” Hifumi nodded, giving him another smile.
That said and done, Ryuji shortly said goodbye to Hifumi, as she left the church first to meet with her mother. The young man stayed behind a little longer, still reeling from all the events that had just happened. He checked his contact list a few more times, as if to confirm that he really did just register Hifumi Togo’s info.
Holy shit… Did I seriously just get the number of a girl I have a crush on?
Does that mean… I can ask her out?
Wait… Should I?
But what if she says no? What if she says yes?!
A dozen different thoughts running wild in his mind, Ryuji knew he had to ask for guidance. And he also knew exactly who to turn back to.
[Ryuji - 17:57]
We need to talk.
[Ren - 17:59]
Okay, if this is about the appetite thing…
I am not sorry. lol
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.
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]
You were gonna do something different with Hifumi today, right?
How is that going?
[Ryuji – 17:48]
Going good so far!
I brought her to Leblanc!
[Ren – 17:49]
[Ryuji – 17:49]
[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]
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.
I can't believe it took me over a month to get this chapter done. I'm so sorry! >_<
I've struggled a lot to decide on how I'd tackle some ideas, but I think I've finaly found my footing. Following chapters shall not take this long to come out, hopefully!
Also, I really don't know much of how exactly Shogi is played, so my apologies if the match between the ladies doesn't make any sense... But since this is mostly from Ryuji's PoV, I still think it works. Mwehehe~ x3
And as always, thanks for reading it this far, and bigger thanks for your patience! *bows*
After the unexpected but still interesting turn of events in Leblanc, Ryuji had parted ways with Hifumi and returned home. He still had much in his mind, though, so as soon as he got an okay from Ren, he opened up a voice chat with him to report on the events of that afternoon. While that normally was something Ryuji would thoroughly enjoy, he wasn’t exactly having a blast that night. The reason being a certain talking cat that had decided to butt in their conversation. And until then, he had yet to contribute in a positive manner.
“...Seriously, though, how did you manage to forget about Futaba?” Morgana asked. “How does anyone forget about Futaba? It’s Futaba, for crying out loud!”
“Oh, shut up! I get it already!” Ryuji replied angrily. “I just haven’t been seeing her so often, okay? I bet that if you were to hang out with Ann you’d forget about everything else too!”
“Hah! I’m not a brawns for brains like you!” The cat said.
“What was that?!”
Ren’s voice came through at that moment, loud and serious enough to call both Ryuji and Morgana’s attention .
“You both need to chill, seriously. I told you, Mona, if you want to take part in this, you need to keep it cool. We want to help Ryuji, not to make fun of him.”
“Ugh… I know, I know…” Morgana muttered, hints of regret showing in his voice. “You’re right… Sorry, Ryuji. You are making a good effort there, and I won’t deny that.”
“...Thanks.” Ryuji replied, following the cat’s example and swallowing his own anger. “I shouldn’t have snapped either, so... Uh, yeah, my bad… I seriously appreciate the help… From you two.”
“Good! Glad to hear it!” Mona cackled, regaining his confidant demeanor.
Even though he still wasn’t fully on board with Morgana being present in their talks like that, Ryuji was at least grateful that Ren was making sure there wasn’t any animosity between him and the cat. Even if it meant needing to be a bit rougher with either of them, or sometimes both. And whenever it did happen, Ren would also go out of his way to make sure Ryuji and Morgana would still end up on good terms, instead of just sweeping it under the carpet and pretending nothing happened.
Once the Leader, always the Leader, huh?
“Anyway, I’m glad to hear it all went fine. I wish I could’ve seen Hifumi nailing on Futaba, though.” Ren chuckled. “It’s been a long time since I last saw her going wild at shogi.”
“Dude, what was that?” Ryuji asked, eyes wide. “Is she like a chuuni or something?”
“It’s just how she is, really. But here’s the important question… Does that bother you?”
“Hmm… Nah, not really. I think it’s kinda awesome, actually! I even started imagining her as a Phantom Thief. Don’t you think she’d look totally badass wrecking some Shadows like that?”
“That would be interesting to see, for sure.” Morgana agreed, amused with the thought. “I can totally see her as a second Queen.”
“Huh… Yeah, I guess I can see that... You think she’d get along with Makoto, though?”
“Trust me, they would be best buddies.” Ren replied. “Personally, I think both of them would have us all under full dictatorship.”
Ren spoke with such certainty that Ryuji actually felt a shiver. The picture of Hifumi and Makoto working together as a pair of bonafide badass ladies was quite fun to think of. But he definitely wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of said picture. And Ryuji had the impression that it would happen, in one way or another.
“Speaking of which...” Ren said. “Since Futaba knows about Hifumi, I think it’s safe to assume that now everyone else knows about it too.”
“You seriously think she’d spill the beans like that?”
“Well, let me share this one message with you, and then you tell me what you think.”
Ren went silent for a few moments and then a new message notification popped up on Ryuji’s phone screen. Despite having a bad feeling about it, he shortly began reading.
[Futaba - 19:57]
I think Ryuji is trying to join you in the dating club!
He came here with that shogi girl from Inari’s school today.
She’s fun... I like her.
A total chuuni, though. lol
“...Dude. For real, your sister sucks.”
“Sorry, man.” Ren tried apologizing while laughing out a bit.
Ryuji groaned in response, but shortly shook it off. He figured that it was a matter of time before the others knew about him and Hifumi. Sure, he would have preferred if it didn’t happen until he was in an official relationship with the shogi player. But things could’ve gone much worse, so he figured that was a fine result.
While Ren recovered from the brief wave of laughter, a thought crossed Ryuji’s mind. He hesitated about bringing it up, worrying that he’d sound impatient or ungrateful. Still, he also really wanted to move things forward. Take them to the next step. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to ask, would it?
“Hey, Ren… Mind if I ask ya something?”
“I was just thinking…” Ryuji took a short breath before coming out with it. “Do I really need to wait a whole month before making a move on Hifumi?”
“Oh, there it is. I knew it would happen.” Morgana sighed. “I’ll admit I’m surprised, though. I thought you’d come complaining about that in the first week.”
“W-What? I’m not complaining, I’m just asking!” He retorted, feeling his cheeks warming up.
The story behind “one month” was rather simple. A couple weeks earlier, back when Ryuji had just begun meeting with Hifumi, he asked Ren for all sorts of advice and help on how he could interact and get closer to the beautiful shogi player, so that eventually they could be together for good. At some point, Ren made a proposal.
“You two are already going to have more meetings, right? Stick to that for some time and don’t go any further. Let’s say… One month? Take this time to learn more about Hifumi, and to tell her more about yourself too. This way you’ll find out if you really want to be with her or not. And it’ll be good so that she can get more comfortable with you as well. Take your time, Ryuji. I think that’s the most important thing you should focus on.”
At first, Ryuji was bothered by the prospect of not doing much more than talking for a whole month. Still, Ren was the only person he knew who had gone through the same process of meeting a crush and working his way into becoming an actual couple, so Ryuji decided to give that a try. And sure enough, the time he spent just talking or hanging out with Hifumi had been quite fun until then. He was always learning something new and interesting about her, and she seemed to open up to him a little more every time. Ryuji could feel it, they were getting somewhere. But still…
“Well…” Ren said, seemingly not bothered by the raised question. “At the end of the day, it’s all up to you, Ryuji. Holding it for one month was just a suggestion. You don’t really have to do it. Like I told you before, I don’t really consider myself the best example to follow… All I can tell you is what I would do if it was me.”
“It’s also worth mentioning that it took Ren over half a year to finally talk to Haru for the first time.” Morgana teased. “So yeah, you might want to not follow his footsteps too close.”
“...Yeah, what he said.” Ren groaned.
“I dunno, man…” Ryuji sighed. “I guess I’m just worried Hifumi might end up friendzoning me if I keep this up for too long. And I’m sure of it, more than ever… I seriously like her. I want to be more than just friends with her, you know?”
“I know… Trust me, I do. But think of it this way… Who would have better chances of getting a positive answer? Someone who she met just a couple days ago and that confessed love to her out of nowhere? Or someone she actually knows, trusts and gets along with?”
“...Ugh, fine… I get what you mean. I guess I’m still in the middle of the way there?”
“Maybe more.” Ren replied cheerfully. “It does sound like you’re both hitting off well so far.”
“The point here is, we just want you to be patient, Ryuji.” Morgana added. “Remember, we’re Phantom Thieves. We wait for the right moment and strike when we’re sure of our victory! Most of the time, at least.”
“Did you have to say that at the end? You almost sounded cool for a second there, dude.” Ryuji said, shaking his head.
“Hey! I always sound cool!”
“Yeah, yeah, sure you do. Anyway, I guess I’ll just keep at it… You’ll still have my back, though… Right, Ren?”
“As much as I can, buddy.” Ren assured him. “Just remember, Hifumi is my friend too. If you make her upset, you’ll have to answer to me.”
“To both of us!” Morgana chuckled.
Although they both said it in a playful tone, Ryuji could tell Ren did have some seriousness in his words. Either way, their talk soon deviated to other subjects, and it didn’t take long until the three of them decided to call it a night.
Once he ended the voice chat, Ryuji lied down and stared at the ceiling of his small room.
So two weeks more to go, huh...
The following days went on with nothing out of the ordinary happening. Although things didn’t exactly get better for Ryuji at school, he did get the chance to meet with Hifumi a couple more times since their visit to Leblanc. Granted, that still earned him a few dirty looks from some of his teammates at the Track Team as he had to excuse himself early those days as well. Ryuji paid no mind to it, though. He was sure he was close to getting something special. He just needed a bit more time...
Then, one day, around the end of the third week since they first met, Ryuji and Hifumi agreed to meet at the church, as per usual. The young man arrived there with his mood up in the clouds. As soon as he walked up to Hifumi in the front seats, though, he immediately realized there was something amiss. She had already set up her shogi board with the pieces in specific places, and she had a serious expression while gazing at it. No, not serious. Hifumi was worried.
“...Yo, Togo-san?” Ryuji called out. “You alright?”
“Oh!” She gasped, only then taking notice of his presence. “Oh, hello, Sakamoto-kun… Apologies, I didn’t see you walking in.”
“It’s cool, don’t worry about it.”
While Hifumi quickly worked on looking more composed, Ryuji took a seat next to her, giving her a friendly smile.
“So, did something happen?” He asked. “You looked a bit nervous for a moment there…”
“Hm… I suppose that would be an accurate way of putting it…” She admitted. “See, Sakamoto-kun, while I did agree to talk with you today… I’m afraid we might have to keep it short this time.”
Hifumi said it as gently and politely as she could, yet Ryuji still couldn’t help but feel concerned over that. He immediately began wondering if he had done something wrong.
“W-Why? What happened?”
“You know I’ve been playing official matches to climb up the ladder in the shogi League, correct?” Hifumi waited for Ryuji to confirm it before continuing. “Well, recently I’ve been notified of who my next opponent will be.”
“Oh… Is it someone you know?” Ryuji guessed.
“Yes… Her name is Sayaka Nadeko. We’ve already played a match before, last year. In fact, it was my first match ever since the truth about my mother fixing my matches came to light. And… I was completely, utterly defeated by her.”
“It has been quite some time since our last bout… And I do wish to believe I’ve improved and learned better moves since then, but…” Hifumi looked down. “I honestly did not expect to face her again so soon… I’m not sure I’m prepared.”
Despite having pretty much no knowledge about shogi or about any other names in its competitive scenario, Ryuji still found himself stunned at that information. For him it was just unthinkable that Hifumi, who always showed so much passion and skill at the game, could be toppled so easily. More than that, it pained him to see her looking so troubled. He had to do something.
“Alright, then… Let me help ya!” He nodded. “You’ll want to practice a lot, yeah? If you want, I can call Futaba and see if she’s up for playing a few rounds. Or maybe we can do some digging to see what we can find about that Nadeko person and how she plays…”
Hifumi widened her eyes, bewildered by the sudden shift in his attitude.
“Oh! S-Sorry…” He quickly apologized, cheeks blushing. “Maybe you just want me to leave you alone so you can focus on practicing?”
“No, that’s not it.” Hifumi giggled in return. “I’m just surprised at how interested you look.”
“W-Well, you know… It’s important to you, right? I just figured I’d try helping out, if I can.”
“...Is that so?” She then smiled warmly. “I believe I can see now how you and Amamiya-kun became good friends. It is as if you both have a strong sense of helping out those next to you. It’s quite admirable, truly.”
“Heh… Well, I guess that’s just how we roll.” Ryuji replied with a grin. “So, yeah! If there’s any way I can help ya, just say the word.”
“I’m very grateful, but… I’m honestly not sure of what I could possibly ask of you.”
Hifumi turned back to her shogi board, her gaze once again turning serious as she seemed to study the pieces.
“Truth to be told, I have already tried looking up Nadeko-san for hints of any strategy or pattern she tends to follow… My research didn’t give me much to grasp on so far, though. Seems she’s a very open minded player, who doesn’t follow any real patterns. And when I think of how much she must have improved since last time…”
Ryuji’s eyes moved from Hifumi’s face to her hand. He took notice of her fists clenching slightly, and of the way she’d frown ever so slightly while speaking. As much as she tried to conceal it, even he could tell she was actually a bit scared of going into that match.
“...Hey, Togo-san? When is that match of yours with Nadeko happening?”
“It should be in a week from now on.”
A whole week before the match and she’s already this nervous? This ain’t gonna end well…
At that moment, Ryuji made a decision. No, it was possibly more like a gamble. A hunch, yet still slightly based on experience. While Hifumi kept herself focused at her shogi board, he pulled out his phone and did a quick research. His smile grew wide once he confirmed his idea could work. In fact, it probably couldn’t be any better in timing.
“Togo-san, I have an idea.” Ryuji said, suddenly standing up. “It might sound crazy… But I think it’s gonna be a big help.”
“Oh? What is it?” She tilted her head curiously.
“Pack your stuff. Imma take you to the movies!”
“March Comes in like a Tiger...?” Hifumi read the title on the poster.
“I hear it’s a pretty sweet and chill movie.” Ryuji replied. “I think they call it a... Spice of life...?”
“...Oh! I believe you mean, a slice of life?”
Ryuji would blame that little slip on the fact he was so excited to see his idea actually happening. Hifumi had somehow agreed to follow him to the theater in Shibuya, even though it did require him to get through the shock and confusion born from his suggestion. It wouldn’t be too surprising for Ryuji if she had accepted simply because he was so quick and insistent on it. He didn’t mind it, though, for the important part was simply to get her out of the church and, thus, take her mind off shogi for a while.
“Uh… Sakamoto-kun…” Hifumi called him out hesitantly. “I’m sorry if I’m missing the point, but I’m truly not sure I understand how this will be of help to me...”
“Arrite!” He replied, crossing his arms and smiling confidently at her. “I know I may not be the sharpest guy around… But even I can tell you’re way too stressed out, Togo-san. I think you need some time to relax. You know, to just kick back and take a breather, yeah? Trust me, that’s important. I learned it the hard way myself.”
“...What do you mean, the hard way?”
Ryuji was actually a bit surprised that she inquired about that last part. It was something that just slipped his tongue, so he didn’t expect it to catch her interest. And when thinking about it, he realized it was a little bit embarrassing of a story to share.
“Well… Way before I got into high school, I had my first real race at school, right? I was feeling good about it. Like, ‘I’m gonna do my best’ and all of that… But, uh…” Ryuji felt his cheeks going warm as he continued. “I ended up tripping and falling flat on my face… And since it was kind of a messy fall… Everyone started laughing at me.”
“Oh!” Hifumi gasped, looking a bit mortified. “But that’s horrible!”
“It’s fine, it wasn’t anything too bad, really.”
Ryuji was quick to shrug it off, as he certainly didn’t want to share the fact he had actually started crying that day, because of the hard fall and of everyone laughing at him.
“Some time after that, there was gonna be another race… And I was seriously freaked out. I was scared of falling again, you know? Just thinking of people laughing at me, like last time, would get my legs shaking… That’s where my mom came in. She noticed I was too nervous. So, the day before the race, she dragged me to the movies to watch anything I wanted. It was something we didn’t really do often, so I was super excited… It was a lot of fun, and… Well, it helped me relax. It took my mind off the bad stuff, and I went for the race the next day feeling like I could take on the world!”
“I see…” Hifumi smiled warmly. “Your mother sounds like a very kind person.”
“Yeah… She totally is.” Ryuji agreed, grinning a little.
“If I may ask, how did the second race go back then?”
“...Third place.” He muttered.
Apparently, Hifumi was expecting something different, as she shortly started giggling soundly, her cheeks even going a little red from it.
“W-Well, that’s still pretty good, yes?” She said, quickly trying to compose herself.
“Y-Yeah, well, anyway…” Ryuji replied, not wanting to dwell on that any longer. “You get what I mean, right? Getting all worried ain’t gonna do you any good… I’m not saying you should just forget about the match. More like… Just take it easy on yourself. Doesn’t hurt to take a break every now and then, to clear up your mind and stuff.”
“...Yes. I understand.” Hifumi nodded, smiling at him. “My mother has also brought up that I looked a bit unfocused ever since I’ve been notified of my match with Nadeko-san.”
She glanced to the side for a moment, rubbing one arm while looking for the right way to express herself.
“I believe she still feels quite guilty over what happened between us last year… She has been really hesitant about demanding anything from me ever since then. I thought maybe she was being over cautious in this case too. But now you’re saying the same thing... I suppose even I have to concede after that.”
“I mean… You can totally say it if you don’t want to…” Ryuji rubbed his head sheepishly. “I just figured I’d try my best to convince you…”
“You certainly did a good job on making your point, Sakamoto-kun. At this point, it’d feel quite disrespectful of me if I said no. And it has been quite some time since I last watched a movie, so… I suppose it should be interesting.”
His confidence growing a bit once again thanks to her response, Ryuji smirked at her.
“Well, I had one last, secret argument just in case… Good to know I didn’t need to use it!”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
“Looks like the main character in the movie is a shogi player too. Maaaaybe you could even pick up a few pointers from watching it?”
Hifumi spoke up, her face going serious all of a sudden. For a second there, he thought she had entered her Queen of Shogi mode.
“I am convinced. Let us march to the movie room.”
Around a couple hours later, Ryuji and Hifumi would be back in the theater’s lounge area. The movie had finished just a few minutes ago, and the small wave of people that were in the same room were already flocking out of the building. Most of them, Hifumi included, walked out carrying a smile of satisfaction on their faces. Ryuji, on the other hand, did not look happy at all.
“I must confess…” Hifumi said, covering a giggly smile with her hand. “I did not imagine you had such an emotional side in you, Sakamoto-kun.”
“I’m just not used to that sort of thing, alright?” He muttered, his face quite flushed as he tried looking away from her. “That was such a cheap tearjerker... Anyone could fall for that!”
“Well, while it did bring a tear to my eyes, it certainly wasn’t to your extent.”
When he came up with the idea of bringing Hifumi to the movies, Ryuji had imagined a few different ways it could end. Having her making fun of him just because of a little bit of sobbing was not one of those ways. Normally, he would take that as a good sign that they were getting closer as friends. At that moment, though, it just felt outright embarrassing.
“Right… Uh, before I forget…”
Ryuji reached inside his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he offered to Hifumi.
“Thanks for lending me this…”
“You’re welcome.” She gently took the cloth from his hand and then winked at him. “And don’t worry... I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“I didn’t-” Ryuji swallowed his initial answer, instead sighing and lowering his head a little. “Thanks…”
“Now then… Would you excuse me for a moment, Sakamoto-kun?” Hifumi asked. “I won’t be long.”
Ryuji was just about to ask what she was going to do, but then he noticed the direction she was stepping towards. There was a small sign on the wall indicating that the restrooms were that way. Quickly catching up, he nodded and assured he’d be right there waiting. Smiling thankfully, Hifumi turned and walked on to tend to her business.
Left alone in the lounge area, Ryuji let out a sigh and gave his eyes a brief rub. The movie was definitely good, and he could tell Hifumi enjoyed herself. But he definitely made a mental note to be more careful on his choice of movie next time. Or at least to look up if there were any tearjerker moments so he could prepare himself.
While waiting for Hifumi to come back, he picked up his phone to check for any missed messages. He also thought about reporting to Ren and informing him of the lady’s match. Maybe his friend had an idea or two on how to help her prepare for it. Before he had a chance to begin typing, though, Ryuji felt a hand tapping his shoulder.
“Oh, hey. Back already? That was fast-”
But as soon as Ryuji turned to face the person who nudged him, he quickly found out it wasn’t Hifumi. It was Takeishi, from the Track Team. And Nakaoka was right behind him too.
“Wha-” He gasped in shock. “What are you guys doing here?!”
“We just dropped by to get some popcorn…” Nakaoka replied. “Didn’t expect to find you here, though…”
“So, who was that girl you were talking to?” Takeishi questioned.
“Th-That’s… She’s just a friend.” Ryuji said, frowning. “She’s been having it a bit rough lately, so I’m trying to help her out a bit… That’s it, seriously.”
Even though Ryuji tried to justify his presence there, he still expected to receive the full load of his teammates’ anger. They had already complained about him leaving practice early, after all. However, much to Ryuji’s surprise, neither Takeishi nor Nakaoka seemed really mad or angry at him.
It was actually much worse: They looked disappointed.
“...Okay, look…” Takeishi took a short breath. “Ryuji, it’s fine if you have a girlfriend. It’s none of our business and, seriously, we’d be glad for you. But if this is what you’ve been doing when you go out of practice early, then I’m sorry… We gotta tell the couch about it.”
“W-What the hell?!”
“You know Motokuni, right?” Nakaoka asked, referring to another member of the Track Team. “He has a girlfriend too, you know? We’re all totally cool with that. But he doesn’t use that to skip practice, dude.”
“That’s not what’s happening here! I’m not skipping anything! You guys know I’m doing all I have to do before leaving!”
“Yeah, sure, you’re doing the minimum…” Takeishi replied. “But do you really think that’s gonna be enough for competitions? Shit, man, Motokuni once told me it’s been weeks since he’s managed to take his girlfriend out on a date. But he’s still there, working real hard every day.”
“He’s gonna go far, Ryuji. Maybe more than us… Maybe even more than you, if you keep that up.” Nakaoka added.
As much as he wanted to, Ryuji couldn’t find the words to talk back. He did know Motokuni, and how much the guy was giving his all on training. He could be rough around the edges, but he really was a hard worker. And Ryuji knew for a fact that, while he had been working hard himself, he surely wasn’t working as hard as he could.
“Like we said, it’s totally fine if you wanna be around that girl or whoever you want.” Takeishi said. “But this is not just about you, man. It’s about the team. This is gonna be our last shot at making it far in competitions. You should know that too, better than anyone.”
“After all that happened with Kamoshida, you actually have a chance of making it back, Ryuji, and to show everyone you’re more than what the rumors say.”
At that point, Ryuji almost wished they were just angry at him instead, or straight up calling him an idiot. Even getting punched by them again -- like last year -- would be better than that. There really wasn’t any excuse he could give. To make matters worse, Takeishi and Nakaoka were actually being really fair about it. Instead of going straight up to the coach and speaking to him on Ryuji’s back, they were reaching out to the young man himself. Like they were expecting him to snap out of it and make a comeback.
Ryuji knew that. And he really didn’t want to let them down. Not again.
But he couldn’t just forget about Hifumi either.
“...Guys, I get it… You’re right. I know you are. It’s just...” Ryuji hesitated for a moment, but pushed through and made his request. “Can you guys just hold on a bit more? For real, I’m gonna sort this out, I promise. I just need more time...”
Both Nakaoka and Takeishi simply stared at Ryuji, their expressions hard to read. Before they could give their answer, however, Hifumi came back.
“Apologies for the wait, Sakamoto-kun.” She approached Ryuji, only then noticing the other two standing in front of him. “Oh? Are these your friends as well?”
“Y-Yeah… They’re from the Track Team.” He replied awkwardly.
“Uh, hey there…” Nakaoka greeted her. “Sorry to bother you, we were just giving Sakamoto a quick heads up about our next practice session.”
“Yeah, we’re just gonna get some popcorn and go.” Takeishi nodded. “You guys can have fun!”
Without waiting for an answer, the two of them turned around and began walking away.
“W-Wait, hold on!” Ryuji called out.
“We’ll see you later, Ryuji.” Takeishi replied, without looking back. “Don’t forget what you promised us. We’ll be waiting for you!”
“Oh… Right… Got it.”
A brief wave of relief ran through Ryuji. So they were willing to give him some more time. But they would also make sure to hold him on to his promise to sort things out. The problem itself wasn’t solved, but at the very least he still had a chance to fix everything… Even if he didn’t know how just yet.
Hifumi’s soft voice brought him back from his turmoil of thoughts.
“Is everything alright?” She asked, sounding slightly concerned.
“...Yeah!” He replied, showing her a confident grin. “All good.”
“Are you sure? You looked somewhat concerned right now…”
“Eh, it’s nothing…” Ryuji rubbed his head. “We’re gonna be having competitions soon too, so… You know, just thinking I don’t wanna mess things up with them again.”
That was just another slip of his tongue, yet Hifumi promptly caught on to it and expressed her curiosity. Ryuji mentally cursed himself for letting that happen. Not because it was a topic he absolutely refused to talk to. He was just worried it would give her the wrong impression about him.
“Well… It’s kind of a long story…” Ryuji said.
“Oh… We don’t have to talk about it, if you’re uncomfortable with it.” Hifumi told him, smiling gently.
“Nah, that’s not it, it’s just…”
Despite his worries on what that story would make Hifumi think of him, Ryuji did want to share it with her. It was just the honest thing to do, especially when considering she was always open about things that weren’t so nice of her own past.
“...Ever heard of a guy called Kamoshida?” He asked. “He was a volley coach in Shujin…”
“Ah, yes, I have!” Hifumi nodded, eyes widening a little. “He turned himself in because of numerous crimes of abuse and harassment, correct? I remember hearing about it in the news.”
Hearing that made Ryuji feel a bit more comfortable as he continued talking.
“There was some time Kamoshida was asked to coach the Track Team, over a year ago. I was part of it back then too... But it was just messed up. He didn’t really care about us, so he gave us this bullshit training regime, and there was no way we could keep up. It was just torture...”
Hifumi looked horrified as she listened to him intently. Even though it had happened so long ago, Ryuji could still feel his blood boiling of anger when remembering that time. He kept breathing in, though, wanting to keep calm and not scare the lady in front of him.
“Kamoshida was coming after me more than the others, since I was one of the best in the team… He kept making fun of me and trying to get me on edge. I sucked it up as much as I could, because I knew everyone else in the team was doing the same… Except one day… I snapped.”
That was the hard part, and it took Ryuji another moment to take a breath and collect his thoughts.
“Kamoshida started talking shit about my family… And I just couldn’t take it… So I… I attacked him and got into a fight.” He admitted. “Things just went downhill after that… Kamoshida pretty much forced the Track Team to disband after that… All because of me.”
“...I see… So what’s what you meant…”
“Yeah… I screwed up and everyone paid for it. Took a lot of time, but they managed to get the team back together last year. And they even let me join in again, after what I did… It’s a big chance… I really shouldn’t mess up again…”
As he spoke, Ryuji himself came to realize once again the golden opportunity he had in hands with the new Track Team. Considering what happened at the time, that was almost a miracle.
“Sakamoto-kun…” Hifumi came closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t even imagine how awful that must have been for you. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“Thanks…” Ryuji then chuckled, letting out a quick sigh of relief. “Right now, I’m just glad you don’t think I’m a crazy, violent jackass.”
Hifumi stared at him in shock for a moment, before breaking into giggles once again.
“Sakamoto-kun, I just witnessed you cry while watching a movie. I’m quite positive this should qualify you as anything but violent.”
“Huh?! I didn’t… That’s… Uh…!” Ryuji’s face went all red at her comment.
“It’s alright.” Hifumi placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you’re a good person, Sakamoto-kun. And I’ll be cheering for you on your own endeavors. I’m sure you’ll succeed this time… Or at least get more than just a third place.” She added with a giggle.
And just like that, Ryuji melted and felt his heart soar. All the worries and tension from moments ago were gone, as if blown to pieces.
Shit… I love this girl…
“...Heh… Yeah… You just wait!” He said, smiling wide. “I’ll get a big, fat first place just so I can show it to you!”
“I shall anxiously wait for it!” Hifumi giggled. “I promise I’ll do my best in the upcoming match as well. It’s the least I can do after the support you gave me today.”
“Hey, no worries…”
An idea crossing his mind, Ryuji asked a question before giving it any time to think over.
“Say… When that match happens… You think I could be there with you? Y-You know, to cheer on you and stuff…”
“Well… Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be allowed in the same room we’d be playing in… You’ll be able to watch the match through the internet, though.” Then, after a moment, she added: “But if you wish… It shouldn’t be a problem if you stayed in the lounge area of the building…”
“Then I’ll be there!” Ryuji nodded. “You can count on me!”
Although Hifumi seemed a little surprised by his words, she shortly opened up a smile, her cheeks flushing a little as well.
“This is funny… Not too long ago, I was actually reluctant for my match against Nadeko-san… Now, I think I’m actually looking forward to it.”
“Yeah… Me too, Togo-san.”
Before you ask, no, I haven't watched "March Comes in like a Lion". Maybe someday... x3
And as per usual, thank you for reading this far! See you in the next chapter~
The teacher’s office room of Shujin Academy was a place Ryuji was fairly acquainted with, but not for good reasons. Ever since the incident with Kamoshida a couple years before, he’d get called over there to get scolded or reprimanded over any dumb reason the teachers could think of. The way he dressed, his hair color, his lack of interest in classes… Coming up with an excuse to pick on Ryuji Sakamoto was never a problem for them, especially when the biggest offender, Kamoshida himself, was still around.
Things did get easier for Ryuji, though, after a certain student with a criminal record was transferred to Shujin in the previous year. A student that would turn out to become his best friend, one of the most reliable persons he ever met, and his biggest ally in putting an end to Kamoshida’s “kingdom”.
With all the scandals and incidents that followed Kamoshida’s fall, it seemed the teachers didn’t have much time to pick on Ryuji anymore. Thus, his visits to the teacher’s office room became few to nonexistent. And ever since his third year at Shujin began, Ryuji hadn’t been called to go there not even once. He figured that keeping it cool during classes and rejoining the Track Team was helping him with that.
But alas, there he was once again, walking through the office room door while following one of the teachers, Kawakami Sadayo. After days of slipping away and avoiding her, she finally managed to catch him with enough free time after class and not nearly enough excuses to delay their promised talk. Needless to say, Ryuji was not in the greatest of moods because of that.
Once they went inside, he quickly noticed there wasn’t anyone else in the room. It was a bit of a relief, because at least he wouldn’t need to worry about other teachers giving him dirty looks just from him being there. Regardless, Ryuji repeatedly prayed that the talk with Kawakami didn’t take too long. After all, there were countless better ways for him to pass the time. Such as talking with a certain shogi player he was quite infatuated with.
“Thanks for lending me some of your time, Sakamoto-kun.” The teacher said, smiling as she offered him a seat next to what he assumed to be her desk.
“Yeah… Figured I might as well get this over with.” Ryuji shrugged before taking the offered seat and crossing his arms. “So… What did I do this time?”
“...You still think I called you here for some scolding, don’t you?” She sighed briefly while also sitting down. “Relax, Sakamoto-kun… I told you, it’s nothing like that. I just want to talk to you a little bit, ask you a few questions and then give you some advice. Sounds good?”
Ryuji wasn’t exactly convinced, yet he remained silent and nodded so that Kawakami could go on and continue. While speaking, the teacher fiddled with some papers on her desk, as if looking for one or a few in particular.
“So… How are you?” She asked.
“Yep, simple like that.” Kawakami chuckled. “No need to overthink it. How have things been for you at school?”
“Well… It’s going alright, I guess?” He replied. “I mean, I’m usually busy as hell… But some things have been pretty fun too.”
“Glad to hear it! I was told you actually moved to a different place so you could be closer to a rehab facility. Have you been managing well on your own? I do hope you’re eating and sleeping properly, at least.”
“Uh…” Ryuji raised an eyebrow. “I’m sleeping just fine… And I’m trying to watch out for what I eat too. Learned some simple recipes from my mom, so at least I’m not just eating some random crap.”
“Oh, that’s very good to know.” Kawakami nodded. “Speaking of your mom, have you been seeing her often too? Has she been alright?”
“...Okay, what the hell.”
That line of questioning left Ryuji utterly lost and somewhat uncomfortable. It was not the sort of thing he’d expect to hear from a homeroom teacher. Not without some second intentions masked behind it, at least. He didn’t get that feeling from Kawakami at all, though. The way she asked it in such a casual, friendly like manner only made him feel all the more weirded out.
“Seriously, what’s all this about, Kawakami?” Ryuji questioned. “Where did this sudden interest in me come from?”
“Calm down.” The teacher raised her hands a little, looking genuinely taken aback by his reaction. “I could tell you’re on edge, so I just thought I’d try making some small talk to get you a bit less tense, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well, when a teacher suddenly starts asking about me or my family for no reason, it’s kinda hard to get comfy...”
“...I suppose you’re right.” Kawakami sighed. “I’m sorry… I actually do have something important to talk to you about, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.”
“So there is something…” He said, frowning.
Kawakami tapped her fingers on the desk, looking thoughtful for a moment.
“...If I get to the point, will you promise you’ll just listen to me until I‘m done?”
Ryuji did not like the sound of that at all. Still, there was something different in Kawakami's voice that got his attention. Just like the last time they talked, he could feel some genuine interest and concern coming from her. While it didn’t exactly make him feel more comfortable, it at least made him open to the idea that maybe Kawakami didn’t call him there just to give him a hard time for no reason.
“Fine…” He answered after a moment of pondering. “I’m listening…”
Kawakami once again reached for the papers on top of her desk, taking a look at one of them as she approached the main topic.
“I’ve taken a look at your scores in the latest exams, Sakamoto-kun. And I’m afraid to say… It’s a little bit concerning.” Kawakami said in a serious tone. “I know you don’t want to hear it… But this is a problem. This is your last year in high school, Sakamoto-kun. If you don’t sort this out soon, it’ll just become a bigger problem for you down the line.”
A scoff came out of Ryuji almost immediately. He knew it. Of course those exams would come back to bite him in the ass at some point. The worst part was, he couldn’t even deny it. The friends he could rely on to help him study were either busy with their own lives or too far away. And studying all by himself just didn’t work at all. As expected, the results did not go much in his favor.
“Okay, yeah. I know my grades suck.” Ryuji replied in defense. “But what’s it to you, Kawakami? What do you want?”
“Well, simply put… I want to help you.” She said, unphased by his attitude.
“See, you’re not the only one who has been struggling with getting good grades. I’ve been talking to a few other students who are in the same position and I’m trying to help them out with that. We’ve been having meetings just like this, where they tell me what they’re struggling with and I try giving them directions on how to improve. You can think of it like small extra classes.”
“As in… After school time?”
“Well, it has to be at that time. I’m afraid there’s not much of a choice in that matter. Either way, I believe it’s something you could definitely benefit from.”
The thought of spending even more time at school did not go well in Ryuji’s mind. Not just because of his troubles with studying, but simply because that would mean having less free time. And that meant even less time for him to meet with Hifumi.
“I mean… Do you really think I need something like that?” He asked. “I’m going for a sports scholarship, you know? It’s not about the best grades, it’s all about doing my job at the sport.”
“You’re not exactly wrong...” Kawakami admitted. “But I’m afraid it’s not that simple… Having terrible grades will only make things harder for you. That goes for any sort of scholarship. Students with bad grades just don’t make a good impression. They could easily read that as a lack of respect or commitment.”
Ryuji really wanted to talk back, but he couldn’t find any strong arguments for it. And since no objections were raised, Kawakami kept talking.
“I know you’d rather focus on the Track Team… Honestly, I am glad you guys are making a comeback. Coach Sekihara told me he is really enjoying being back and working with you and the others again. However…” She hesitated for a moment. “He also said he is worried about you… He feels you’ve been somewhat distracted as of late. That you’re not putting in the extra effort like you used to.”
Those words hit the young man like a punch in the gut. Among all adults in Shujin, Sekihara was probably the only one he had a big amount of respect for. Ryuji truly didn’t want to let him down, so it was disheartening to know the coach was having such doubts about him.
“Getting a sports scholarship is tough, Sakamoto-kun. You need to be willing to go the extra mile and even further. As it is right now, can you really come out and say you’re putting all your efforts into it and that you’ll definitely get a scholarship?”
Maybe it was because of all the time he spent hanging out with Hifumi and hearing her talk about shogi, but Ryuji had the perfect word to describe that situation: Checkmate.
“S-So what are you saying?” He questioned nervously. “You think I should just give up on running and focus on studying instead?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” Kawakami replied calmly. “All I’m trying to say is, if you’re unable to give all you got into running, you should be looking into other options. Say you just keep going as it is and go for a scholarship… What are you going to do if you don’t make it?”
While Ryuji was somewhat used to hearing all sorts of scolding or pretentious questions thrown at him when called over to the teacher’s room, that might have been the first time he actually felt like he was in the wrong. It just felt terrible and so frustrating he could barely hold it anymore.
“Dammit, where’s all this coming from, anyway?!” He snapped, raising his voice a bit. “Why are you so damn interested in prying in my life all of a sudden?”
“I’m not trying to pry.” Kawakami said. “I just think you need help…”
“Is that really all this is? You sure it’s not just the principal that put you up to this? Or that you didn’t just get the short end of the stick in having to deal with me?”
Kawakami widened her eyes, looking truly astonished for a moment. Ryuji regretted his choice of words right after. He felt pretty damn sure that, if he wasn’t getting scolded before, he definitely would now. However, instead of snapping right back at him or showing anger from being confronted like that, Kawakami just sighed and looked down.
“...You really don’t trust me at all, do you?”
“I understand… After what happened with Kamoshida, no one in the school staff stood by your side. Everyone just started treating you like an inconvenience. It’s no wonder you don’t trust any of the teachers… And I’m guilty of that too.”
Kawakami rubbed her sidearm a bit, looking and sounding more emotional than Ryuji ever thought it to be possible.
“I was in a pretty bad spot until last year… So much that, for some time, I actually hated my job here.” She confessed. “I know that sounds like an excuse, though, and that it’s way too late for apologies, but…”
The teacher sighed once again, before turning her eyes back towards Ryuji. She had a sharp, determined look that actually caught him by surprise.
“Sakamoto-kun, I won’t blame you if you don’t believe most of what I just said, but I’d like you to at least believe this: I’m on your side. I want you to succeed. No one asked me to do this. I’m doing it because I’m a teacher and you’re my student. As long as we’re both here, I want to be of help to you. It’s my duty as a teacher. That’s all there is to it.”
Ryuji was speechless. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect to see Kawakami showing her feelings like that. He knew what she was talking about when mentioning her own issues in the past. After all, it was yet another case brought to the Phantom Thieves’ attention by their leader. But still, what Ryuji and his friends did was change the hearts of people who were harassing Kawakami, not of the teacher herself. Yet it seemed like she was the one who had a change of heart in the end.
And even he could tell she was being honest. She was serious about helping him out… Just like she was serious about the possibilities of him not making it out of Shujin unless he fixed his ways. It was just too much to take in at once.
Seemingly, Kawakami herself was aware that Ryuji would probably have too much on his mind at that moment, as she showed him a small smile and spoke out gently.
“What do you say we call it a day for now?” She suggested. “I don’t want to overwhelm you and force you into giving an answer. Just know that, if you ever want to talk more about this… Or, really, about anything at all that might be bothering you… Feel free to come find me. Deal?”
“...Yeah… I’ll, uh…” Ryuji stumbled on his thoughts, having a bit of trouble answering properly. “I’ll keep that in mind… Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” Her smile grew a bit wider at his response. “Take care on your way out, Sakamoto-kun.”
Ryuji barely registered as he left the teacher’s office room, walking through the door and closing it behind him. Although he was conscious the whole time, it felt like his body was on autopilot, while his mind was lost somewhere far away from there.
The sorry state of his grades... His lack of effort in the running training... The concerns of his fellow teammates and of coach Sekihara himself... Then there was Hifumi. Ryuji was well aware of how much each one of those factors could make a difference in his future. And he truly didn’t want to give up on any of them. It was actually really scary, as a question took weight on his mind:
Was it really possible for him to sort out all of those things?
Ryuji only snapped out of those conflicting thoughts when he heard a girl’s gasp after he bumped into someone in the hallway.
“Oh! S-Sorry, my bad!” Ryuji immediately apologized.
“It’s okay, no wo-” The girl interrupted herself. “...Oh! Ryuji-senpai!”
Once his eyes focused on the person in front of him, Ryuji quickly recognized the young lady with blazing red hair and crimson eyes. It had been some time since he last saw her, but he was certainly glad to see Sumire Yoshizawaka seemed to be cheerful and in high spirits just like usual.
“Oh, hey, Sumire. Sorry about that, I was kinda spacing out…”
“That’s alright! I was distracted as well, so I’m equally to blame.” She replied, kind and polite as always. “Also, it is nice to see you again! It has been a while, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah, for sure…” He smiled. “What are you still doing here, though? Thought you’d be gone for your training about now…”
“I’ll be going a little later, actually. I’m on my way to meet with Kawakami-san right now.”
“Huh?” Ryuji blinked in surprise. “You too?”
“Me too...?” She tilted her head.
“Yeah, I was just talking to Kawakami in the office room like a minute ago…”
“Ah, I see! Are you taking her extra classes as well, senpai?”
Sumire asked that question in a curious tone, but Ryuji could feel some expectation in her voice. Even though he still didn’t know what to make of Kawakami’s offer of help, he felt like giving a negative answer would not go well in Sumire's eyes. And he definitely did not want to let a friend down.
“Uh… Not yet…” He said while awkwardly rubbing his head, before adding a slightly more honest comment. “She just told me about it today, so… Still thinking about it…”
“Well, if you’d like my input, I’d say Kawakami-san’s counselling has been quite helpful for me so far!”
“Wait… So that means you’ve been having trouble with your grades too?”
“Not that much… I’d personally consider my grades average… If not a bit below.” Sumire sheepishly admitted, blushing a bit. “I realized in the latest exams that I might not be putting enough effort into studying... I talked with Kawakami-san shortly after that, and she offered me help on how to learn or simply to memorize things better. We’ve been doing that for a couple weeks now.”
Ryuji showed an expression of surprise towards his friend. Not because of the confirmation that Kawakami really was going out of her way to help other students, but because he didn’t expect someone like Sumire would be going after it.
“Isn’t that getting in the way of your training, though?” He asked.
“It certainly is cutting a fair chunk of my free time…” She chuckled. “But I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean I’m neglecting gymnastics… Make no mistake, senpai. I still intend to give my absolute best, whether it’s in practice or in a competition. It’s what I promised to myself and to many people too.”
“But then… Shouldn’t you just be focusing on gymnastics instead?”
“Well… I’m thinking of something like a backup plan…” Sumire explained. “If for some reason things don’t work out as I hope, I’ll still have something to rely on, thanks to the education I received. For example, I could get into college while I keep working on gymnastics! It could even become a foundation for something for the future!”
“Uh, foundation? What do you mean?” Ryuji scratched his head, not following her thought.
“It’s just a little idea, but… I think I’d like to start my own gymnastic studio one day. So that I can teach and help others, just like my coach did with me!”
That was the first time Ryuji ever heard her speak of that. When they both used to hang out more often, as part of the Phantom Thieves, he was aware only of her dream of getting gold in the olympics. It wasn’t that different from his plans of making it far with his running. The difference being, he didn’t have a backup plan. Worse than that, he wasn’t even taking his main plan seriously enough.
“That sounds… pretty awesome.” Ryuji replied, finding himself sinking into restless thoughts.
Sumire got a bit closer to Ryuji, placing a hand over his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” She asked worriedly.
“Yeah, just… Lotsa stuff in my head. But I’m cool, don’t worry about it.”
Ryuji tried flashing a confident grin at her, but clearly Sumire could tell he wasn’t as cool as he was saying.
“If I can help with anything, please, do let me know.” She told him. “O-Of course, I can’t promise I’ll be able to help with whatever trouble you might have… B-But, you know… I’d be happy to lend an ear, at least!”
“Yeah, I getcha, no problem… Thanks, Sumire.” Ryuji chuckled. “Seriously, though, it’s fine… I’ll figure this out.”
“...Of course.” Sumire smiled and nodded. “Then I shall wish you good luck, senpai. Do remember, though, there’s nothing wrong with relying on others when you need to. I still talk to Ren-senpai from time to time to ask for advice… In fact, he was the one who told me I could certainly trust Kawakami-san to help.”
“He did, huh? I’ll guess I’ll keep that in mind too…”
At that moment, they heard a short, cheerful jingle sound. Sumire widened her eyes and quickly pulled out her phone from her pocket.
“It’s Kawakami-san, she’s waiting for me.” She turned to Ryuji, giving an apologetic look. “I’m really sorry, senpai, but I must go.”
“Hey, no problem. It’s my bad for holding you up.” He replied, smiling amicably. “I should get going too. I’ll see you later, yeah?”
“Of course! Do take care, Ryuji-senpai!”
Pocketing her phone again, Sumire did her usual polite bow before Ryuji and began walking off. Just before he could do the same and be on his way, however, the redhead stopped on her tracks and called out for him again.
“Oh! Senpai! May I ask you something first?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Is it true that you have a girlfriend now?” She asked, her eyes beaming with curiosity.
Later that same day, Ryuji would once again find himself walking towards the church of Kanda. It was the last day before Hifumi’s next official match. One in which she would face an opponent who had already beaten her before. While the lady had seemingly managed to get her nerves under control, Ryuji still wanted to check on her one last time. She agreed to meet him as well, so he was hoping to give her a few last shots of encouragement. Not to mention that spending time with Hifumi would certainly improve his own mood a little after the events at school.
Before Ryuji even made it inside the church, however, he noticed something different right next to the building’s entry door. It seemed like they were doing some sort of film shooting, with a cameraman standing in front of two people. One of them was a lady holding a microphone, so Ryuji guessed it was some sort of interview. And before he could ponder on who the other person was, he got close enough to realize it was Hifumi Togo herself who was being interviewed.
“...with a series of victories in all your recent matches.” Ryuji caught the interviewer’s speech part way through. “Are you feeling confident that you’ll soon be back with the higher ranks?”
“I do have hopes of making it back.” Hifumi replied. “But regardless of that, I am confident that, this time, I’ll make it through my own effort, and for no other reason.”
“Yes! We all have high hopes for you, Togo-san.” The lady nodded. “On to the next question… Some people look at your current winning streak and quickly bring back the events of last year. It seems some out there still refer to you – if I may say so – the Phony Princess. And that the revelation was nothing but a trick to gain popularity. What are your thoughts about that?”
Ryuji went wide-eyed at the question. The interviewer tried to sound all polite and careful about the question, yet she still put up the microphone next to Hifumi’s face, expecting an immediate answer. He could tell the young lady was taken aback by it as well, as she took a second before starting to form her response.
“I understand that some might still be skeptical about my skills...” Hifumi calmly said. “I do not blame them for that… However, I do want to insist that all that happened last year was away from my control, and I still deeply regret being part of it.”
Hifumi took a moment to make a polite bow. Something that Ryuji had seen quite a few times in the past, but with people who had truly done something wrong and had all the reason to be apologizing. He would never put Hifumi the same as them, though. It pained him to see her being called out for something that should be in the past already.
“I have a deep respect for shogi as a game.” She continued as she raised her head. “And I have no interest in empty victories that were bought for me. I wish to face my opponents to the best of their skills. That is why I was more than willing to start from scratch, doing things properly this time. It’s the least I can do to honor the opportunity given to me.”
“Well said, Togo-san!” The interviewer replied enthusiastically. “Here’s hoping we’ll see the return of the Venus of Shogi soon enough!”
That other title was a new one for Ryuji, but apparently not for Hifumi, for she started blushing a little once it was mentioned. Without giving her any time for her to recover from that, though, the interviewer shortly threw another question her way.
“Lastly, I’d like to talk about your next opponent, Nadeko-san. She was one of the first players you’ve faced ever since coming out with the truth about the fixed matches, correct? At the time, you described the result as a crushing defeat… How do you think you’ll fare against her this time?”
Ryuji groaned, bothered by yet another question that seemed directly aimed at Hifumi’s old wounds. He really wished he could just get in there and take her away from that place. Before he could actually consider the idea, though, Hifumi began talking.
“Nadeko-san is a very skilled player, and I still believe my defeat was no surprise at all. I have been working hard on studying and improving ever since then. I will not say I’m confident... But I am looking forward to our match tomorrow.” Hifumi showed a smile. “I do hope I can show her and all other players what I’m really capable of this time.”
After that, the interviewer finished it by passing a bit more information regarding the incoming match between Hifumi and Nadeko. She thanked the young lady for her time and then gestured for the cameraman to stop recording. Ryuji watched from a small distance as Hifumi traded a few last words with them, smiling and bowing politely. Then, as the filming staff picked up all their belongings and started leaving, he finally found his chance to approach her.
“Yo. Caught you at a bad time?” He chuckled, waving a hand.
“Sakamoto-kun!” Hifumi gasped. “My apologies, were you waiting for long?”
“Nah, I just got here. Just in time to hear the last bits of it. Didn’t know you were getting interviewed today.”
“It was a bit surprising for me as well.” Hifumi admitted, giggling sheepishly. “They just approached me while I was in the church, and I figured I shouldn’t say no.”
Ryuji frowned a bit, taking a moment to mind his words before speaking up.
“Well, maybe you should have… I mean, those last questions were kinda nasty, weren’t they?”
“...They were not exactly pleasant to answer, I agree. But I can’t blame them for bringing it up. It’s only natural, since I did cause quite a commotion because of the fixed matches.”
“Yeah, but… That wasn’t even your fault! I dunno, I just don’t think it’s fair to pin all of that on you and keep nagging about that.”
“It is what it is…” Hifumi shrugged. “All I can do is keep trying and hope to eventually rise above the rumors… I do appreciate your thoughts, though. It is reassuring to know that I do have allies in this endeavor.”
“...Hey. You can always count on me to back you up… Alright?”
Ryuji’s words caused Hifumi to smile and blush a little. A sight that made his own face grow warmer and his heart to dance. And for a few seconds, the two of them stayed like that, simply smiling at each other. Once again, Ryuji felt the urge to come out and confess his feelings for the beautiful young lady in front of him. He held himself not to, though. Hifumi had an important day tomorrow, and he figured he shouldn’t drop that bomb on her just yet. It could end up bad for both of them.
“So, uh…” Ryuji rubbed his head, smiling sheepishly. “What do you wanna do? Wanna get back to the church? I thought I’d just check on you before tomorrow, but I can totally help you with some practice, if you want.”
“Actually… Would it be alright for you if we just take a walk?” Hifumi asked. “I didn’t even bring my shogi board with me this time.”
“Oh... F-For real? I mean, it’s totally cool, but… You sure about that?”
“Yes… I believe I’ve done all I can to prepare myself for tomorrow… I fear I might get nervous once again if I think about it too hard... So I thought I’d take your advice from last week and just try to relax a little before the time comes.”
It was truly flattering for Ryuji to hear that Hifumi was taking his suggestion to heart. He was somewhat worried that she’d start getting worried all over again at the eve of her match, but that turned out to be a happy mistake. Hifumi seemed calm, collected and sure of herself. For him, that’s how she was meant to be, and how he liked her the most.
“Alright, gotcha!” Ryuji grinned. “Maybe we could get something to eat or drink…?”
“Oh! There’s a place that sells wonderful bubble tea nearby! How about we have some for ourselves?”
Ryuji wasn’t really the biggest fan of tea, but he admittedly hadn't tried the bubble variety. In fact, he had no idea of what sort of tea that even was. But considering who was making that suggestion, his reply was a no brainer.
“Sounds great, let's go for it!”
Going for a walk with Hifumi turned out to be better for Ryuji than he had initially imagined. Not only because the bubble tea was surprisingly delicious, but also because the walking helped him to ease his own thoughts a little. Just by being there with her, sharing a humble moment while simply talking and sipping on tea, made him feel so comfortable he almost wished it never ended.
At some point, Ryuji thought of Ren and a talk they had long ago, even before his friend had to move back to his hometown. Ryuji was curious to know more about what sort of things Ren had done with Haru ever since they started dating. And he was baffled to hear they really hadn't anything too special. They simply went out to visit certain places, whether to walk around or to have something to eat. By the time Ren told him of the time he took Haru to the ramen shop at Ogikubo, Ryuji called it bullshit and wouldn’t believe anything else for the rest of the day.
Maybe he was not joking about simple things being the best…
Nonetheless, Ryuji felt much more relaxed after that short time spent with Hifumi. He realized that, that time, she was the one helping him to calm down and not get eaten by his own worries and stress.
Sadly, it did not mean those feelings were gone. The fear of what could happen in the future still lingered in the back of his mind. Telling him he had decisions to take, sacrifices to make, and that there was no escaping from that. He hated having to deal with that, but he hated himself even more. After all, the only one responsible for driving himself into a corner like that was Ryuji himself.
“...Sakamoto-kun?” Hifumi called out to him at some point, her face showing signs of concern. “Are you alright? You look awfully quiet today…”
“O-Oh, sorry! Didn’t mean to zone out on you...” He smiled apologetically. “I’m alright, just… Lots of stuff in my head lately.”
“Oh? Is there something I can help you with?”
Ryuji didn’t answer at first, for he found himself laughing softly at something he’d just realized. Earning a confused look from Hifumi, he quickly recomposed himself.
“Man, I must be really down in the dumps…” He chuckled. “You’re like the third person to ask me that today.”
“Is that so? Would you like to talk about it?” Hifumi inquired. “The least I can do is hear you out. And I’d be glad to.”
Ryuji rubbed the back of his neck, trying to decide on what he could say. He didn’t want to cause Hifumi to worry about him because of his own troubles. Not to mention the fact she was a big factor in said troubles.
“Well… There’s some stuff that I need to make up my mind about. Like, stuff that I need to do, stuff that I want to do… I’m just realizing that I’m not gonna be able to do everything… So I need to choose what I’m actually going to do… And it sucks, cuz I know I’ll need to drop some things so that I can do others…”
Hifumi stayed silent, intently listening to his words. Even after he finished speaking, she remained quiet for a few seconds. Ryuji guessed she probably had no idea what he was talking about, and was just about to apologize for that. Hifumi spoke up first, though, and in quite the simple response.
“So it’s just like shogi.”
“What you just described fits shogi quite perfectly.” Hifumi insisted, smiling at him. “In shogi, there’s no such a thing as an undo. Each decision we take is unique, in which it has its own benefits and consequences. While you might claim a piece of your opponent, they might do the same to you right after that. And the tradeoff might not always pay off. Yet still, we have no choice but to keep moving forward.”
Pausing for a moment, Hifumi took one last sip from her bubble tea and dropped the cup into a nearby garbage can. Ryuji still had a little of the drink in his own cup, but it remained mostly forgotten as he kept listening to Hifumi’s speech.
“In shogi, it’s impossible to win a game without losing pieces. As unfortunate as it is, sometimes you need to sacrifice a piece in order to gain another, or simply to stay alive, so to speak. And if you just keep playing safe or being passive, you won’t get anywhere. In the end, I believe that the most important thing is to never lose sight of your goal, nor of your principles.”
At that point, the young lady seemingly became aware that she had been speaking for quite some time. She blushed a little and cleared her throat, smiling sheepishly.
“Oh, dear, I’ve gone and rambled a lot just about shogi, haven’t I? Even though I said I wouldn’t think too much about it today…” She giggled, which sounded like sweet music for Ryuji’s ears.. “But my point is… I believe life is not so different. Each one of our decisions can make a huge impact in our future. And sometimes, we need to let go of certain things… I, for instance, might be certainly giving up a few things so I can become a professional shogi player. It is rough… But it’s the path I’ve chosen, and I intend to keep going as long as I’m allowed to.”
“P-Pardon me, I’ve talked too much, haven’t I?” Hifumi apologized.
“You’re amazing, you know that?”
Those words came from Ryuji without him even realizing it at first. Hifumi widened her eyes, the blush on her cheeks intensifying, while he could feel his own face starting to burn. As fast as he could, Ryuji tried to “fix” it by talking more and explaining himself.
“I mean, uh… Y-You know, that was pretty cool! I don’t know much of shogi, but I think you nailed pretty much everything you said!”
“W-Well, certainly not everything.” Hifumi giggled. “Now that I think about it, it’s actually quite conceited of me to compare life with a game…”
“No, no, it’s cool! I get what you mean!” He assured her.
It was something that hadn’t crossed Ryuji’s mind until then, but he pondered on how much Hifumi was putting behind so she could make an actual career as a shogi player. Ryuji had the Track Team back at Shujin and all his Phantom Thief friends to rely on, despite the distance that had grown between them in the last few months. Hifumi, on the other side, never mentioned having other friends like him or Ren. And, for some reason, Kosei High didn’t even have a Shogi Club for her to share her passion with other people. Not to mention all the backlash from her fixed matches scandal, which insisted on haunting her.
Yet still, Hifumi had a steeled resolve to keep moving forward, against all odds.
“Thanks, Togo-san.” Ryuji said. “I think I really needed to hear that. I still gotta make up my mind on what moves to make, but… Can’t win the game if you don’t play for real, right?”
“Yes… That’s quite correct.” She nodded.
Ryuji knew what he had to do. But before any of that, there still was something else he needed to see through to the end. He needed to be sure that all the time spent so far had been worth it. Not for him, but for someone else.
“...Hey, Togo-san? Can I ask ya something?”
“Your match tomorrow… Would it be cool if I went there with you?”
“Oh? I’m afraid they don’t allow guests to be in the same room as the players, though…”
“That’s fine! I just… Wanna be there, you know?” He insisted. “I mean, someone needs to give you the congrats once you come out there a winner!”
“...Or perhaps comfort me in case I come out as the loser, correct?” Hifumi suggested while showing a playful smile.
“What?” Ryuji gasped, mortified. “No! Hell no! You got this! You’re gonna win that thing and we’re totally gonna go and celebrate after that!”
Contaminated by his burst of enthusiasm, Hifumi laughed out quite a bit.
“Pardon me, I was just kidding.” She said, catching a bit of breath and recomposing herself. “In all honesty… I’d be more than glad if you were there, Sakamoto-kun. I’ll very much appreciate it.”
“Then it’s a date.” He then realized his choice of word and quickly addressed it. “I mean, a deal! It’s a deal!”
Hifumi giggled and gave him a single nod.
“Yes… Then I shall be waiting for you.”
“And I’ll be there. Promise.”
Whew... This one was a bit more serious and not so fluffy... But I still wanted to give some attention to certain things that should be of concern for Ryuji. I put quite a bit of thought into it and even did some quick research, so I hope it's good enough. >.<
As always, thank you so much for reading. I'll see you in the next chapter!