That Nobukuni had come back to Tsukuyomi... Moreover, unexpectedly bumping into him when I was with Toshi... That night, as I remembered our chance meeting that afternoon, I was lost in thought in my room. ...Maybe I seemed kind of weird? I hadn't planned on taking any notice of what had happened in the past, but when Nobukuni looked at me over Toshi's shoulder his eyes seemed strangely cold, and in the end...
"Heeey, Ryoko! Are you in your room? Someone you don't hear from often called, so come quick!"
Someone I didn't hear from often? Who? Hearing my brother's voice from the living room brought me suddenly back down to earth, and tilting my head in question I left the room and picked up the receiver of the black phone in the hallway.
"Hello? This is Ryoko."
"...It's me. You know who, right?"
...Nobukuni! I gasped with surprise.
"Uh, yeah... I don't have much time in the afternoon, so sorry. I..."
"Ah, we didn't really get to speak too much, did we. Even though I came all the way here just to see you..."
"So let's meet up some other time, yeah? There are so many things we have to talk about. What are you doing tomorrow?"
Nobukuni spoke in a forceful tone. As I listened to his voice, which sounded somehow tense, for some reason a strange pain began to shoot through my head now and again.
"Ah... Tomorrow Toshi's coming over to discuss the catering for his uncle's memorial service..."
Suddenly, as though filling in the gap where my words had trailed off, the energetic singing voices of an idol group with spiky hair wearing checked outfits played through the living room TV. And then, on the other end of the phone, as though trying to outdo the singing, Nobukuni spoke in a bright voice.
"Hmm, Toshio, huh? You neighbours are still great friends as ever. Got it. Well then, I'll come too. That's okay, right? I'll call Toshio too. See you tomorrow!"
I heard the beeping sound of the phone being hung up. Even after putting the receiver back, the robotic sound lingered in my ears, and the noise of the insects outside the window which until then I hadn't noticed suddenly sounded really loud.
He was just an old friend who had come home for the first time in ages and wanted to meet me. There was nothing strange about it, but... Why did I feel this unfamiliar unease...? Giving a half-hearted reply to my brother when he asked me how Nobukuni was, I returned to my room and crawled into my futon, trying to clear the steadily increasing, eddying pain in the corner of my head.
The next day. I was in my room with Toshi, who came to discuss the menu for the meal, and Nobukuni, who had arranged to show up on the phone.
"Well then. This is the estimate and the amount of food, huh. I'll leave the rest to Masaaki and your dad. My uncle loved your family's cooking. He would've been really happy."
"My dad said he would come along to the service and bring some incense. Maybe it's because they're all family heads and see each other all the time at council meetings, but our fathers seem to share everything. Speaking of which, our maid mentioned something about a big ritual this year?"
"Looks like it. Your dad was called to council, right, Ryoko?"
"Uh, yeah. I think so. But I don't know the details."
"Hmm. To council? My dad didn't mention anything about that."
"Don't they all have different roles? None of them will say anything about their meetings. This is an old village, so maybe that's still one of their customs?"
Toshi and Nobukuni chatted casually. Even if they haven't met up in years, friends always have something to talk about. Seeing Nobukuni relaxed and enjoying talking to Toshi, unlike the day before, for some reason made me feel calm. The strange pain in my head was totally gone, too.
Gathered together that afternoon, as we entertained ourselves with silly conversation, the sun set without our noticing. Like we had done so often in our fondly-missed childhood, we got dinner at my family's restaurant. As we drank together, we talked about university and Tokyo, and it felt just the same between them and me as it used to.
And then 9pm came around. All of our regular customers were gone, and my family went to their rooms, leaving things to me, so it was just the three of us in the restaurant. A slightly drunk Toshi began to prepare to leave, as he said he had to straighten up the house before the meal. Thinking Nobukuni would leave with him, I looked at him.
"Yeah, see you later, Toshio! I'm gonna drink a little more. That's okay, right, Ryoko?"
Nobukuni stared straight into my eyes and held up the cup containing his beer. ...Toshi, wait. For some reason I felt like I couldn't be alone with Nobukuni, and the words involuntarily began to tumble out. But Toshi simply smiled kindly and left us with the words, "I see. Well, don't drink too much and cause Ryoko trouble, okay?" before opening the door and leaving...
"Well, Ryoko. Let's drink together. Come over here. I came here today because there was something I wanted to talk to you about."
I turned around timidly at his voice, which seemed on first impression gentle. But at some point, the same hardness as yesterday had crept into his eyes. Ah... again. I could feel the shooting pain begin to throb inside my head again, and for some reason I was unable to resist Nobukuni, sitting down next to him.
"What is it? This thing you want to discuss?"
"You don't need to look so nervous because Toshio's gone. What I wanted to talk about... Oh, that's right, I wanted to talk about me and you."
"You and... me?"
"I told you once, didn't I? That I liked you. Do you remember?"
...Of course I remembered. I reflexively closed my eyes.
"When I went to Tokyo, I tried to forget you. I dated loads of girls. I've been really popular with them for ages now, so. But... it was no good after all. I couldn't forget you. Even when I bumped into Toshio, we talked about you... I wanted to see you so badly, I just couldn't help it, so I came back. I like you. Now and forever. You know that, don't you?"
Looking up suddenly, I saw Nobukuni directing a piercing stare at me. His gaze and voice were stronger, more serious than back in high school. Stab... stab... stab... The throbbing in my head seemed to grow along with the harshness in the words of Nobukuni's confession. What was this pain? Trying to shake off his clinging stare and the pain inside my head, I forced my voice out of my tight throat.
"...I'm sorry. I..."
"Is it Toshio? Is it because of him? It's him you want after all, isn't it?" Nobukuni spat, pained, staring intently at me.
"T-that's..." I stuttered. There was a long silence. And then...
Crash! Nobukuni slammed the cup he was holding down on the table and silently stood, throwing the door open and spoke to me sharply.
"I'm leaving. But I'll never give up on you. Toshio doesn't know how you feel yet, right? That means I still have a chance. I won't lose to him. I won't lose to anyone who has feelings for you. Remember that!"
Nobukuni left, the faint sound from the cooler the only noise in the empty restaurant. As I slowly began to tidy up, sweat began to cover my body, like I had remembered...
Nobukuni... Toshi... Their faces spinning through my head turned into a fierce throbbing. The throbbing balled up deep inside my head and burned. Toshi, who I loved... Nobukuni, who said he loved me... I went stiff as it shot through my eye. Which eye was it? At some point their faces in my head blended into one, changing size while saying something to me.
"I'm looking forward to seeing you..." "I still like you..." "You're the one who's lonely, right, Ryoko...?" "I'll never give up on you..."
Whose voice was it...? Toshi, who loved me? Or Nobukuni's? And who was it I loved? ...Toshi? Nobukuni? Which... which was speaking to me?
"...!? A dream...?"
The morning after Nobukuni confessed to me for a second time, I was jerked awake by a strange dream. My pyjamas stuck to me with cold sweat. The throbbing pain was gone, but even after I got up my head still felt vaguely heavy.
"Crap, it's already opening time!"
I dressed hurriedly and headed for the living room, pulling myself together.
"Oh, you're finally awake. You three drank a lot yesterday, huh? Don't look at me like that. Well, I guess it's not often you and your friends get together here, so I suppose it's nice to let your hair down once in a while."
"Sorry for not helping out with breakfast, Masaaki. Huh? Where's Dad?"
"Ah, I think it has something to do with that ritual? He was called to some big meeting this morning, and he's not back yet, but it looks like he was talking to the village chief and some others at the shop earlier."
"Really? Oh, then we should put out tea and sweets."
I hurried to the shop, and the faint sound of conversation I had heard suddenly stopped. What was this feeling...?
"G-good morning, Chief. Sorry, I'll get you some tea now."
"Ah... Ryoko. We're about to leave, so there's no need for tea. Sorry for getting in your way. I'll leave the rest to you..." the Chief said, then whispered something into my father's ear and left.
"Was there some kind of trouble at the meeting? You look kind of pale, Dad."
"Nah, they just suddenly decided to have the ritual, so everyone is rushing around. Nothing for you to worry about... Let's open up then, hm?"
For a moment, my tired-looking father looked at me with narrowed eyes, then shut them and hurried inside the store.
The pain ached inside my head again. The dream I'd had, and the way the chief and my father had been... Something was different from usual. I didn't know what was different, but... Hmm. As I absent-mindedly thought of Toshi and Nobukuni, I felt my inexplicable unease increasing...