It was time to go home for obon. I transferred from the shinkansen to an older line, and got off at the crowded terminal station. There I took a sad-looking single-car train that only went through a few times a day, and disembarked at Tsukuyomi Station.
Opening the train doors, I got out onto a small platform in the valley. Right away the fresh smell of greenery filled my nose, and the irritatingly loud sound of cicadas assaulted my ears from both close-by and far away. Having been thrown from the hustle and bustle of a Tokyo town, I heard a clear voice and was jumped upon by a shadow.
"Toshi! Welcome home!"
"Hmm? Ryoko? Did you come here just to greet me?"
I hadn't seen Ryoko in about six months. My chest tightened, but I desperately tried to conceal my delight as I watched her smiling casually.
"I was going around town collecting delivery money and realised it was about time for the train to arrive. I didn't come out here specially for you or anything," Ryoko said, glancing away from my face, turning away and pouting slightly. Even her casual behaviour was helplessly cute.
"I... see. How's your family, by the way?"
"Hm. They said that since you only come here every six months, they would treat you to delicious fish and vegetables you wouldn't get to eat in Tokyo - they're so enthusiastic about it. I think they've already decided that you and everyone else are going to come over to ours for a big feast tonight."
"Sorry for causing such a fuss every time I come here."
"It's fine, it's fine. Everyone enjoys getting together for a drink. Let's go, huh? I came on my bike, so... How about you pedal?"
Ryoko peered at me mischievously. I picked up the sports bag I had put down, put it into the basket on the bike Ryoko had left in front of the station, and gripped the handles. Ryoko sat on the rack and wrapped her arms around my waist, the smell of her lightly tickling my nose. She clung on tightly, pressing her body up against my back. Her casual touch made my heart pound even harder as I peddled leisurely.
That night, my family gathered at Ryoko's family's restaurant for the feast. This was an event that occurred every time I returned to Tsukuyomi. When Ryoko and I were kids we had events like sports day and festivals, so we got together a lot, but I suppose my return was a good excuse for both of our families to gather and eat together. It was also a conversation-starter.
"Wow, Toshio's gotten so handsome!"
"Of course he is, he takes after me. But, you know, when we speak he won't even tell me whether he's got a girlfriend in Tokyo. Not being popular with girls, though - that he gets from his father, haha."
...Did she really need to be saying that? The reason I wouldn't... no, couldn't get a girlfriend, was because of Ryoko, I muttered mentally as I overheard my mother and Ryoko's father passing around the alcohol happily.
"Oh, Toshi, your beer's all gone. Hold on, I'll bring you some more. Oh, by the way. My brother and my dad said that today they would feed you, so they cooked way too much. If there's anything you want to eat, just say, okay? Oh... Haven't Dad and your mother had too much to drink?"
Ryoko circled the table in the bustling restaurant wearing her apron, waiting on us hand and foot. Watching her like that, I felt my heart warm. She enjoyed taking care of people more than I would have imagined. But that was what I liked about her... If we got married, I was sure we would have such a fun life... I was determined to tell Ryoko how I felt this year. I wanted to resolutely say to her, "When I graduate from university, I'll come and see you. So, will you stay with me forever?" I loved her. I'd loved her for so long. So...
"But, you know, Toshio might not have a girlfriend, but my Ryoko never tells me anything about anyone she's interested in..."
As I watched, unable to take my eyes off her, Ryoko's brother Masaaki unexpectedly spoke with a sigh as he passed around the alcohol.
"Well, it looks like there was a guy she was interested in when she was in high school, but... After our mother died, it's like she's been tied to this house and Tsukuyomi, and it doesn't seem fair to me. She might not find someone to marry in this village, you know?"
"Is... that so."
"It would be nice if Toshio would take her, though, since we're friends. Ryoko is always so happy when he comes home, so maybe she and him... You know. Ryoko and Toshio being together would really give Dad and me peace of mind... Huh. Hey, Ryoko, is there any more sake?"
Maybe Masaaki was half kidding, but my heart raced as I listened to him talk. It was the first I'd heard of Ryoko having a guy she was "courting" during high school, but could it maybe be... Could that mean she felt the same? Her brother watched over her every day. If he said it, then it must be true...
As I watched Ryoko smiling, in the centre of the circle of family members drinking together, my head swam with thoughts of when I should find out how she felt...
The next day. Hanging my head due to my slight hangover, I went for a walk in the village. My family's general store was the only shop doing business on Tsukuyomi's small shopping street. I say shopping street, but it was really only Ryoko's restaurant and a few other shops, including our own. As usual, Tsukuyomi Village was quiet, with no one around... Or at least it should have been, but today there were lots of people coming and going, and it seemed like something was going on.
"Morning, Toshi!" Ryoko called brightly, seeing me wandering aimlessly around, and ran over to me. Saying she was on an errand for the shop for her father she joined me, the two of us walking side by side.
"Hey, Ryoko - doesn't the atmosphere in the village seem somehow different from usual today?"
"Yeah. It looks like after that last night my dad was contacted by the village council, and left this morning. Apparently they suddenly had to do... some important event... that only occurs every few decades?"
"Huh. That's right, your father works for the village too. I wonder what the important event is."
"I don't really know either, but doesn't it sound like some kind of big festival? It seems kind of fun. Maybe it'll be held while you're here."
"Ah, maybe. If it is, maybe we could..."
Before I could say "go together", Ryoko suddenly spoke.
"Huh? Toshi, look over there... The person by the station..."
I looked over at where Ryoko was pointing. Walking along there was Nobukuni, wearing cool-looking, fashionable clothes and carrying a brand-name bag. Surprised, I ran after him and called out.
"What are you doing here, Nobukuni? When we met at the bar, you never said anything about coming back here. I got here yesterday, but if you'd told me I would have come with you."
"Ah, Toshio. Nah, I only decided to do it after talking to you."
"Did you get homesick? Meeting up with an old friend like you in our hometown is nice. It's like going back to when we were kids."
"I guess so. Where's Ryoko? What's she doing?"
"Huh? Oh, Ryoko's just over..."
I turned around and Ryoko, who had until now been smiling and chatting to me, had her head slightly bowed and walked quietly along behind me, like she was hiding.
"Hey, Ryoko, it's been a while."
"...Nobukuni. Welcome home. You seem well."
"So do you. You're with Toshio as usual, huh?"
"That's... Ah, I'm sorry. I've got to do this errand, so I'll be going now. See you later," Ryoko said, hurrying off towards the town hall.
"Ryoko? What's up with her? You've only just got back... She seemed like she was missing you when I told her on the phone about our meeting in Tokyo."
"Like she was missing me? Huh, what an honour. Speaking of which, at the bar you told me you wanted to confess to Ryoko, right? Have you done it yet?"
"Did I tell you about that? I guess bumping into you put me in a good mood. This is kind of embarrassing. I've not told her yet, unfortunately."
"Really. So you've still not said anything... I guess coming here today was a good choice."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Nothing. I guess it's lucky I ran into you and Ryoko, as beautiful as always, as soon as I got here. Well, I'd better go and put in an appearance at home. See you later."
Saying this, Nobukuni narrowed his eyes and glanced from the path Ryoko left on and then at my face, seeming to scowl a little, and then began to walk. It seemed as though he was implying something and skirting around the subject, but seeing Ryoko being so cold towards an old friend she hadn't seen in a long time was so strange I couldn't believe it.
The sun, heading for the centre of the sky, beat down on Tsukuyomi Valley, and the wind suddenly blew in the direction of Nobukuni's retreating figure, rustling the leaves on the trees of the deep forest enclosing the valley. This was how Tsukuyomi always was in summer. But still, for some reason, when I thought of meeting Ryoko, there was a fluttering in my heart just like that of the leaves...