A.N. (4/19/23) - You weren't expecting this, huh?
Chapter 6 - The Clear Bell Returns
"Yup," Isuzu nodded as she took another bite of her lunch. "Some of the other girls in our class just told me that they were inviting the whole class out at the end of the week once lessons are over. Right now, a few of the organizers are trying to convince the boys to join."
"Are you going?" Izumi asked.
"Sure. It sounds fun, and it will be a chance to get to know the rest of the class better. What about you? Are you interested in joining everyone?"
"I mean…" he hesitated. "I don't want to rain on anybody's parade."
Isuzu rolled her eyes. "Then think about it this way. Come with me and act as my support for when I have no one else to talk to."
"I doubt that's going to be a problem for you."
"Let me rephrase that. Act as backup for when someone wants to talk to me when I'm not in the mood."
Finally, Izumi took the hint. "Ah, got it."
Despite her extrovert demeanor, at her core, his sister was somewhat of a loner. Her energy and social adaptability burnt bright and quick when she wasn't holding back, and he knew that there were times when Isuzu wanted to take off her facade and relax for a bit.
"But this will be my first time singing in front of others," Izumi said. "In fact, this will be my first time going to karaoke. I don't even know what to sing."
"Hm? In my case, I usually just sing theme songs of popular children's shows."
"I'm pretty sure only you're shameless enough to do that."
"Ahahaha! But at least everyone knows the lyrics well enough to sing along."
"I don't think people will join if someone suddenly starts singing the anime opening to Hurricane Star with the passion and vocal ability of Celine Dion."
"That's a bit of a stretch. At most, I'm more like a Yoh Kamiyama* kind of person."
"At least pick a female singer…"
"Anyway, this is a good opportunity to introduce you to my friends. They've been bugging me to introduce you to them ever since they heard about you."
"Eh?" He blinked. "Aren't they from a different class though?"
"Apparently, their class is also setting up a karaoke outing as well. It's just a coincidence that they're going to the same place."
Well, if you consider the popular locations that were within distance of the school, it was reasonable to expect two different classes would go to the same place once lessons were over.
"But now that I think about it," Isuzu continued. "There's still some time left before lunch ends. It would be better to just drag you over to meet them now."
A hand clasped his shoulder, and Izumi saw something in his sister's expression. It was a look that he recognized countless times before in the past, one that promised no escape and that it was futile to resist.
Closing his eyes, he accepted his fate as he was dragged along by his sister like a ragdoll.
As the school year went on, Isuzu slowly got used to her new high school life along with her brother and friends. While she still maintained a somewhat friendly relationship with most of her classmates, the three closest people she knew at school consisted only of her brother and her friends.
Thus, she thought it would be nice to introduce them to each other.
"These are my friends." Isuzu gestured to her side. "The one next to me is Remi, and the furthest is Sakura."
Several weeks have passed since she became friends with the two, and only now did Isuzu finally introduce her brother to them. Both of them gave Izumi curious looks while he fidgeted under their gaze.
He gave a nervous wave. "Erm… hi?"
"They really do look alike," Remi muttered with awe. "And yet, he feels completely different from her."
"It's nice to meet you M- Izumi-kun," Sakura changed at the last moment. "We've heard a lot about you from your sister?"
"You have?" He blinked before his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What exactly did she say?"
"Ahahaha…" Isuzu awkwardly smiled as she threw an arm around her brother's shoulders. "Nothing interesting, to be honest. I doubt that's something you'd want to hear."
She gave a warning look to Remi in particular, who noticed and motioned zipping her mouth shut.
"Hmm…" A strange smirk appeared on her brother's face. "Then how about I tell you some stories about my sister instead?"
"Yes, please! We would love to hear them, Izumi-kun." Sakura had a strange gleam in her eyes. "Give us all the juicy details."
"Well, there was this one time when Isuzu tried making chocolate for Valentine's Day as practice only to have accidentally placed it in someone else's locker mistaking it for her own. Then, on White's Day, the girl who got it gave a heartfelt confession to her while also giving her own homemade chocolate as thanks. And this other time during her middle school culture festival, she crossdressed as a prince to play a part in a play and completely charmed her fellow classmates with her performance. And more recently, she got unlucky and lost over nine-thousand yen trying to get a cute plush from a crane machine-"
"AAAAAHHHHHH!" Isuzu cried with despair as she huddled down and covered her head in shame, her completely red face hidden from view. "Shutupshutupshutupshutup!"
Sakura seemed completely invested in what Izumi was saying, but Remi barely seemed to be paying attention. Isuzu blinked as she realized that she's been like that the entire day today.
That's weird. Normally she's more upbeat than this.
As Izumi continued to get along with Sakura, Isuzu began wondering whether something was wrong with Remi.
Of course, she voiced these concerns with the only other person who might have a clue as to what was going on.
"Something wrong?" Sakura blinked. "Does this have anything to do with Remi saying she had to leave early?"
Currently, Isuzu and Sakura were hanging out together after school. Earlier, Remi told Sakura to tell Isuzu that she wouldn't be able to walk home with them today, so they should just enjoy themselves without her.
"Sort of," Isuzu replied. "But it's not just that. When I introduced my brother earlier, she seemed like she was lost in thoughts the whole time. I was wondering, since you hang out with her more than I do, whether you've noticed anything strange with her recently."
"Really? She seemed bright and cheery to me…"
She frowned at that, and Isuzu began to wonder if she was just overthinking it.
"Again, it might just be my imagination."
"Now that you mentioned it, there might be something I know."
"What is it?"
Sakura grimaced. "I'm not certain this is related, but something happened yesterday when Remi left to go to the restroom. I overheard a few girls in our class gossiping about her while they thought I wasn't paying attention. Some of the things they said… I'm getting the feeling that Remi's not liked by others in our class."
Isuzu blinked. "Why? She's awesome."
Sakura gave a strange laugh. "Thanks for saying that. It's because you're like this that Remi is easily able to be friends with you, you know."
Isuzu grinned. "You're awesome too, you know? I mean, it's not like I hang out with just anyone after school. Don't forget, we're manga besties."
Despite the teasing tone she took, Isuzu meant that genuinely. After all, when was the last time she ever hung out with someone other than her brother or Shindou? She recalled what her brother said all those weeks ago and realized that he was right. Until this year, she didn't really have any close friends. Sakura was the first, and Remi soon became one as well.
And now, one of those friends was troubled.
"Erm, so Isuzu. You said that Remi seemed lost in thought earlier, but it's not like she looked sad or anything…"
"So you think it might be something else other than the rumors?"
Sakura rested her chin on her hand. "Maybe she's just worried about something small like her weight or height."
"If that's the case, do you think she'll mind if we just ask her directly?" Isuzu frowned. "I'll admit, I'm bringing that up because I think you'll be the most likely person she'll open up to. After all, she should have an easier time confiding in you since you've known her longer."
The other girl thought about it. "If the both of us confront her tomorrow, she might tell us. If it's anything serious and she clams up, we'll try to figure something out."
"That kind of sounds like we're forcing her…"
"Not really, we just need to make sure to treat this situation delicately."
"Alright, if you say so."
The next day…
Remi was lost in thought as she walked along the hallway alone. She was unaware of the girl looming behind her, and only realized at the last second when she caught a glimpse of them at the corner of her eye.
A hand clamped down on Remi's shoulder.
"Oi, Remi." Remi was greeted by the sight of Isuzu giving her a look. "Let me borrow that face of yours for a bit. If you try to run, I'll chase you down and drag you away myself."
Why are you talking like some kind of delinquent?!
She quickly found herself dragged out of the classroom as Isuzu took her outside and into an empty classroom where Sakura was waiting. Timidly giving her friends a look, she spoke up.
"W-What's this all about?"
"Isuzu! I said to approach her delicately, how come she looks completely terrified?!"
Isuzu gave a confused look. "No, I'm pretty certain I asked her to come here nicely. Not sure why she looks like a newborn deer with wobbly legs right now."
"Maybe it's because you look like a predator who's going to pounce if Remi looks like she's going to flee!"
"Don't be ridiculous. At most, I'll just wrap my arms around her to prevent her from escaping. With my arm strength, there's no way she'll be able to break free from my grasp."
"You're totally treating her like some kind of suspect!"
"I mean, isn't that why we're here?"
As Sakura gave a look that said how completely done she was with the situation, Remi interrupted. "So can anyone explain what's going on?"
Sakura hesitated, and it was becoming clearer that she had no idea what to say as the seconds ticked by.
Isuzu rolled her eyes. "Alright, let's just get this over with."
A hand suddenly slammed on the wall next to Remi's face, and she realized that Isuzu had completely cut her off from getting free as she loomed over her.
Wait a second…
"Just spit it out already and tell us what's bothering you."
"Hey, are you even listening?"
"Isuzu." Sakura's voice sounded strangely high-pitched. "Why exactly are you doing a kabedon** right now?"
Yes, currently Isuzu was blocking off Remi by leaning over her and pressing her arm against the wall while looking down at her. The specific wall slam position was something she recognized from countless depictions in popular media, something she never thought actually happened in real life. It was so surreal that Remi thought this was a dream for a moment.
"Huh?" Isuzu turned to look at Sakura. "I saw something like this in a manga yesterday and I wanted to try it. It was about a detective trying to get a criminal to talk. You think it's working?"
"I-It's certainly doing something, alright." Sakura quickly turned her face away. "...geez, why is my chest fluttering from watching this?"
H-Hey, what exactly was that supposed to mean? This isn't some kind of drama show, you realize that right Sakura?!
"Stop stalling already and spill the beans!"
"A-Alright, but can you please back away first? This position is bad for my heart."
Once Isuzu complied with Remi's request, she took a moment to calm herself while her two friends watched her curiously.
"It's just…" Remi hesitated. "I don't know if I want to go singing with everyone this week."
She watched the two of them blink comprehensively.
"Wait." It was Isuzu who spoke first. "So you aren't being bullied?"
"Or maybe you're scared of being ignored by everyone in your class like Izumi."
"I feel like you just said something really mean to your brother."
"I mean, I just assumed that the rest of the girls in the class were planning on pulling a malicious prank on you or something."
"Exactly what kind of scenario did you brew up in your head before confronting me?"
All the tension seemed to leave Isuzu's shoulders at the same time. "Well, I guess I blew this out of proportion then." She shook her head. "So what's wrong then? How come you don't want to go to karaoke with everyone else?"
"Well… I'm not comfortable singing in front of a bunch of strangers. It's not like I know anyone there other than Sakura."
"Pretty sure that's the whole point of the outing though. Isn't this supposed to help the whole class get to know one another better?"
"That's not the point."
"This is going to be the first time I do something like karaoke. I don't know how I'm supposed to act or what to do in a situation like that. I'm scared that I'll mess up and make my classmates think that I'm dumb or something."
"It's not like people are expecting you to be perfect." Surprisingly, it was Sakura who knew what to say. "The goal is to try and enjoy yourself."
"I get that," Remi replied. "But I'm not stupid. I know what my classmates think of me, especially the girls in our class. They think I'm prissy and stuck up, even though I've only interacted with them for brief moments. Even though I know what others think of me, that doesn't mean I like it."
It was something she realized about herself a long time ago.
Even though Remi knew that it was impossible to please everyone, it was a simple desire of hers. She didn't crave people's affection, not really. Having someone she barely knew thinking good or bad things about her shouldn't make her this conflicted. And yet, it was difficult to accept that when her thoughts were constantly about how she was perceived by others.
Being included in a group, having a place amongst her peers, and being accepted by others.
Only Sakura ever made her feel that way, and recently, she was starting to believe that Isuzu was like that as well. But expecting the rest of her classmates to feel the same way was asking too much. The whispers of the girls who didn't like her always caused a pang in her heart, even if they were limited to off-handed comments and thoughtless remarks.
In short, she simply didn't want to be hated by those around her.
Remi was scared that if she was forced to stand in front of her whole class and perform, she would only confirm those thoughts and make everyone always hate her.
She broke out of her thoughts when Sakura spoke. "This is really bothering you, isn't it?"
Isuzu spoke next. "I think I get it. Nobody wants to be in a situation where they might embarrass themselves or have to interact with people who might make fun of them. You're afraid that those girls who gossip about you might try something bad during the outing."
"But don't forget you won't be the only one there," Isuzu continued. "Both Sakura and I will be there to back you up. If something goes wrong, we can all handle it together."
"How about this?" Isuzu proposed. "Why not have all three of us do a practice run together? This way, we can be prepared as much as we can before the big event."
Without elaborating, the other girl simply grinned. And suddenly, Remi found herself heading into a new direction of uncertainty with no way to prepare for what was about to happen next over the next few days.
Don't expect too many updates from this story. I was in the mood to post a new chapter, since I had a bunch of unfinished drafts sitting around in my Google Drive. Not sure yet if I'm going to release the next chapter soon, but hopefully I'll have a follow-up for this new mini-arc that this chapter is hinting at.
* (Yoh Kamiyama) is a bit of a meta joke as this is the singer to the opening of the Horimiya anime.
** (kabedon) refers to the action of slapping a wall fiercely and mainly appears in romantic plots when one person forces the other against the wall.