Warm Place Chapter 25


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Two Springs That Bloom Next to the Tree1

1Tsubaki (camellia flower)「椿」is written by drawing a springtime「春」next to a tree「木」.

 

“…hm……?”

I slowly raise my seemingly powerless body to look around. It gradually comes to me that I have dozed off. And finally, I remember that I’m currently not at my own home.

(Aah, I see.)

…It seems that I’ve fallen asleep while waiting for Hiori and Tsubaki. My body hurts a bit, maybe because I’m sleeping on the sofa.

Yawn… I sure slept well.”
“My, you’re awake.”
“Mhm…”
“Would you like dinner first? A bath? Or maybe… a scrubbing brush?
“………”

While I’m stretching my body, I notice a suspicious person in front of me, which makes me freeze in place. She doesn’t look embarrassed at all as she shows me a delighted smile. In the first place, what does she intend to do with that scrubbing brush in her hand?

No, I lose if I make a retort here. Aah, but I really want to! …and so my heart grows conflicted with those trivial worries, all while feigning a composed look on my face.

“…So, what are you doing here, Mom?”

If my memories haven’t failed me, Mom should be dining a full-course Chinese dinner with Saki today. So why is Mom here at Tsubaki’s house? When I strain my ears, I can faintly hear Saki, Rumi, and Tsubaki talking in the kitchen.

(Ah, so Tsubaki is home.)

I was getting worried because they were late, so that’s a relief. I’m now more curious to know what Mom is doing here.

“…You know, When Mom thinks about my precious daughter, whom I have to leave all alone, as I head for a luxurious dinner… Mom can’t bear to go….”

She looks sad as she sheds some crocodile tears. Um, you’re being too obvious, you know. You should try a bit more to deceive me.

“Okay, okay. So, what are you doing here, Mom?”
“My! How cruel of you! You don’t believe Mom, do you?!”
“It makes me want to ask you which part of your story is actually believable.”
“Look at Mom’s eyes! Do they look like the eyes of a liar?!”

It’s sweltering when she shoves her face up close to me like that, so I turn my face sideways. However, Mother doesn’t give up from that and uses both her hands to seize my face and make me face her.

“Hiinaataaaaa!”
“Noo waaaaaay!”

With Mom grabbing my head, I grab her hands to resist. Uwaaah, it hurts… Both my face and neck are hurting…

“What are you doing? Both of you.”

When Saki enters the living room, she looks at our stalemate engagement in pity. Uuh, it’s not like I’m doing this because I want to. Perhaps my sister’s appearance makes Mother lose her interest, she finally releases me. Aah… I’m saved… good job, Saki!

“Well, I was asking what Mom and Saki are doing here.”

I tell her while relaxing my hurting neck. In response, Saki suddenly goes into a pout and sulks.

“Aah, you see. I’d hate it if the restaurant is full when we arrive, so I called to make a reservation. And, we found out that it’s their fixed day off today.”
“…Hoo.”
“Tehe☆”

Mother tries to laugh it off. I’ve actually had my suspicions from the start, so it doesn’t really matter to me, though. Still, it’s really unlucky that the place is closed for the day.

“So, as we planned to eat somewhere else, we met Tsubaki-san’s Mom outside. It was as she was about to leave home.”
“Tsubaki’s Mom?”

Hm? Now that I notice, Hiori is nowhere to be found. Since I only heard Tsubaki’s and Rumi’s voices from the kitchen, I figured she had returned to her own room. If Saki met her outside, does it mean that she’s going out somewhere again?

“So, when we told her that we were going out to eat, she invited us to eat dinner together instead. That’s why we’re here.”
“Heeh, I see. Eat dinner… together…… aaah?!”
“Hey, Onee-chan. What’s wrong with you?”

I.FOR.GOT!

I said to Tsubaki that we would make dinner together, but I had totally overslept!

“Hey, Onee-chan?!”
“My, my.”

I rush to the kitchen, and I see Rumi and Tsubaki side by side, each doing their own tasks. Uwooh, it smells so delicious. I’m looking forward to dinner… hey, THAT.IS.NOT.IT!

“Sorry!!”

I lower my head and apologize with all my heart. Perhaps belatedly noticing me, the two make a yelp.

“H-Hinata-san?! Eh, wait, um, anyway, please raise your head!”
“Even though I was the one who suggested to cook dinner together, please forgive my impudence for sleeping in so selfishly!!”
“Um, like I said, please… hey, what are you groveling on the ground for?!”
“Otherwise, I won’t be able to forgive myself! Ah, feel free to curse at me! Don’t hold back!”
“Eh? Eeeeh?! But, um!”
“…Hinata-chan, aren’t you still half-asleep? Come on now, you’re troubling Tsubaki-chan.”

Rumi pats my head, which is rubbing the ground. I timidly raise my head, and I notice that Tsubaki looks as if she’s gonna cry for some reason. Heey, why am I making her cry instead? Looking at Tsubaki’s troubled expression gradually calms me down, and my head starts to clear up.

“Um, I’m sorry… for sleeping in…”
“Don’t worry about it. Hinata-san is our guest after all. You should be taking it easy.”
“But, still…”
“Tsubaki-chan is right. It’s Hinata-chan’s family’s welcoming party today, so you should just relax this time.”

Hm? Huh? When did it turn into our welcoming party?

“Now that you’ve known about it, please leave everything to us. The guests of honor should make themselves at home in the living room, okay~♪”
“Eh? …wah, wait a second…”

I end up getting chased out of the kitchen with their smiles. With no other choice, I return to the living room to find Mother and my sister making themselves at home. Mom has turned on the TV and is laughing hard, while Saki is lying on the sofa, reading a fashion magazine that I think she brought from home.

I breathe a sigh, and I sit somewhere empty. It’s probably gonna take a bit longer until dinner is ready. What should I do now?

“………ah.”

I think it wasn’t there when I visited the other day. There’s a picture frame that catches my attention. It’s a photo of Hiori and a child Tsubaki, maybe when she’s still in primary school. Hiori looks as unfriendly as ever, while Tsubaki is showing a smile. It’s somewhat crude, but there’s no doubt this is their [family photo]. Rumi was probably the one taking it. Hiori hates the camera, so she must have forced her against her will.

Come to think of it, I once tried to take Hiori’s photo in secret with my cell phone. But she found me out, and she wouldn’t talk to me for the whole day after. On the other hand, she’d taken so many photos of me…. which I didn’t really mind since I like being on the camera.

As I recall the past, I’m feeling really nostalgic.

I’m reliving the past as I gaze at the photo for a while, then I feel someone reservedly tapping on my shoulder from behind. I turn around to see that it’s Tsubaki, whom I thought was in the kitchen.

“Hinata-san.”
“Huh? What’s wrong, Tsubaki?”

Could it be that dinner’s ready? They’ve just started cooking when I peeked into the kitchen earlier, so maybe not. Tsubaki looks somewhat serious, before her expression changes to that of her usual kind smile.

“I came to ask about Hinata-san’s favorite foods.”
“Favorite foods…? I like cabbage rolls.”
“…Do you prefer it cooked with tomato sauce?”
“Yup, that’s right. Could it be that Tsubaki has the same preference?”
“Yes.”

I heard there are many households that put consomme as the flavoring, but I can declare firmly that I like my cabbage rolls cooked with tomato sauce. Its sweet and sour taste really goes well with rice.

“Ah, by the way, where’s Hio… Tsubaki’s Mom? She was with you right?”
“Yes, but she went out again just earlier. She told me that she would be home by dinner, though….”
“I see.”

I wonder where she’s loitering around…. She should’ve taken it easy at home, even if the dinner isn’t ready. I’m amazed by her lack of cooperativeness as always. Although when I look at Tsubaki, she looks worried about something.

“Tsubaki?”
“Ah…… no, it’s nothing.”

If she tells me that when her worry is clearly shown on her face, it just makes me more worried instead. Is there something in her mind?

“Something you can’t speak about?”

I tell her gently while looking at her eyes. She looks conflicted whether or not to answer. But after a while, she finally gives in and answer.

“…It’s really not that big of a deal…”
“Uh-huh.”

“…Um, when Mom was about to leave, she looked strange. And it worries me….”
“She looked strange?”
“Somehow, she looks different from usual…. I can’t really put it in words, but… I have a bad feeling. Ah, but, it’s nothing that serious. It could be that just I’m imagining it….”

Imagining it, huh…. Hiori’s expression rarely changes, which makes it hard to read her emotions. That’s also how she’s able to hide her real feelings easily.

“I’m just worrying too much, I’m sure of it. Ah, I have to return to the kitchen soon…”
“Ah, Tsubaki…!”

I grab Tsukabi’s arm to stop her, but she ends up losing her balance from being startled.

“Kyah?!”
“Wah!!”

She’s going to fall down at this rate! I pull Tsubaki forcefully towards me to restore her posture, and she ends up in my arms.

…Well, thank goodness I can support her without losing my own balance. Someone could’ve hit their head against the table. I sigh in relief.

“H-Hinata-san!”
“Sorry for grabbing you out of the blue…. Are you okay?”
“Y-y-yes! There’s n-no problem at all!”
“?”

When I look at Tsubaki, her face has turned faintly red. Then, I realize that maybe she’s having trouble breathing because I’m hugging her too tightly. So, I release her in a fluster.

“Sorry, did it hurt?”
“N-no! That’s not true.”

Still blushing, Tsubaki waves her hand vigorously to deny it. Well, as long as she’s safe.

“Geez— you should be more secretive if you want to flirt around like that— The temperature in this room is rising high, you know~”
“Fufu, I thought Hinata was a late-bloomer, but you’re actually pretty bold, aren’t you? I knew that you’re my daughter—the eldest daughter of Hayase family.”

Hey, what was I doing anyway?! I was just helping Tsubaki when she’s about to fall down, you know?!”

“I’ve thought of Onee-chan as a more taciturn person.”
“Oh my, you think so, too, Saki?”

Mother and my sister are rudely whispering about a mixture of truths and lies. Hearing their conversation, Tsubaki is turning even redder, like she’s going to boil. A-anyway, I need to hush those two before their misleading conversation reaches a point of no return…!!

*beep beep beep beep!*

“Huh?”

I hear a basic ringtone coming from below. It’s from a cell phone that’s lying on the table, which I’ve seen somewhere before. It’s not just the cell phone that’s familiar to me, I remember the strap that’s attached to it, too.

“This is…”

I take the cell phone in my hand and stare at it. It’s scratched and dirty all over, and this model is already over 10 year olds. The sub display is showing the word ‘alarm’, so that must have been the sound of the alarm ringing.

“That is Mom’s other cell phone.”
“Oh, Tsubaki’s Mom has two cell phones?”
“Yes, it seems like she’s been cherishing it for a really long time. She would always carry it with her… but I guess she forgot this time….”
“I see….”

The strap sways. I inadvertently flip open the cell phone, and the screen displays a nostalgic photo.

There’s [Tsubaki] laughing without a care in this world like an idiot, and Hiori who seems to be reluctantly looking at the camera.

I think this was the most precious photo that we finally took together after I had been asking her since forever. I was so happy with the picture, and I had configured it as my wallpaper. I think she yelled at me, telling me to delete it because it was too embarrassing. Even so, I secretly kept it as my wallpaper. That’s just how much I liked this photo.

“………”

I close my past self’s cell phone and hands it over to Tsubaki. It’s no longer mine, so it’s not right for me to have it.

“I’m sorry for opening it without asking.”
“…It’s fine. More importantly, Hinata-san.”
“Hm?”

She returns the cell phone that I just gave her.

“Eh? Why……”
“It may be presumptuous of me to make this request of you, but would you please deliver this cell phone to Mom?”
“Sure… but why so suddenly?”
“This cell phone is like a good-luck charm to her. She told me about it yesterday. I think I’m repeating myself, but I’m having this unease. So, would you mind bringing it to her?”
“I don’t mind bringing it, but do you know where she is?”
“Ah… umm…”

It seems that she doesn’t know where she was heading. Tsubaki is really cute when she’s hiding her blushing face like this. Hmm! Truly a sight for sore eyes.

“Can you try calling her cell phone?”
“Ah, actually, Mom’s cell phone ran out of battery.”
“…Oh. But since she said that she would be back by dinner, she shouldn’t be heading somewhere far. I’ll walk around and see if I can find her.”
“But……”
“Ah, even if I miss her, you can just contact me when she comes home.”
“Y-yes…”
“I’ll be going, then.”

 

I go to the entranceway and prepare to head out. While I’m putting on my shoes, Tsubaki approaches me, instead of going back to the kitchen.

“I’m sorry. I’ve asked you something troublesome…”
“It’s okay, this is nothing much.”

I give her a smile, and her apologetic face loosens a bit as she smiles back to me.

“Um……”
“Eh?”
“It’s nothing. Please take care on your way…”

It bothers me that she’s holding the words in, but she’s waving her hand to me. So I wave back to her in response.

 

 

“Hinata-san!!”

 

When I put my hand on the door handle to leave, she calls my name with a rather loud voice in her respect. When I turn around, it takes by surprise.

“Hinata-san.”
“Tsuba…ki…?”

It’s as if she just got harshly scolded——she’s looking at me like she’s going to start crying at a moment’s notice. I wonder what’s making her so sad. Was it… something I said?

“Um… I…… I…”
“………”

I look at her without saying anything. Tsubaki slowly closes her eyes, and she opens them again after a brief pause. Then, she looks straight into my eyes and says…

 

 

 

 

“I’m, really glad that, I was born…”

 

 

 

 

Pieces of words are voiced out. But, they have surely reached my ears.

 

 

“So… thank you.”

 

 

I can’t look away from Tsubaki’s earnest eyes.

 

Why… would she say those words to me? I should be just someone that she ran across a few days back, and a neighbor. I think we got closer in this short while, but it still doesn’t explain why she would tell me those words. I do think of Tsubaki as someone special to me. But on the other hand, she should be thinking of me as her friend at most. So, why would she—so earnestly, and with all her feelings——thank me?

“………”

I have no idea how I should reply, facing Tsubaki’s gaze is all I can do. My mind is jumbled up, and I’ve gotten too confused to think properly. What is in Tsubaki’s mind as she said those words to me? Why is she thanking me? Questions keep piling inside my head. I’ve always been told that I’m slow in the head, and damn they’re right about it.

“I’m glad that I was born, too, I guess. Yup… ———I’m glad that I met you.”

Anyway, I shouldn’t think too much about it and just tell her what I feel. Those words alone might not be able to convey my whole feelings to her, but even so, it’s fine.

Hearing my reply, Tsubaki smiles from ear to ear. Looking at her contented face is making me really embarrassed. I avert my eyes, and I scratch my cheek.

“Just kidd–”
“Hinata-san.”

Just when I’m about to play the fool like always, she calls my name, interrupting me. It’s a quiet voice, yet it feels earnest at the same time. There’s a mysterious drive from her that’s making me feel nervous.

“Hinata-san.”

She calls me with a hoarse voice, like she’s trying to hold something back, like there’s something stuck in her throat.

 

“…thank you.”

Perhaps finally losing all the brakes, tears start spilling from her eyes. That’s when I finally realize the small possibility that shouldn’t have existed.

 

“…Tsubaki… could it be that…”

 

…you noticed?

 

I’m too afraid to finish my question. But she faces me, without asking anything, without saying anything, except for conveying her heartfelt gratitude to [me] again and again.

It’s possible that it’s just my misunderstanding. But, if she’s really conveying her gratitude to [me]…

Is that my recompense? Does it erase my sense of guilt? Can I say with pride that I’ve done the right thing?

No, that’s wrong.

She isn’t looking at [Sekiguchi Tsubaki], yet she isn’t looking at just [Hayase Hinata], either. Perhaps she’s actually looking at both my past self as [Sekiguchi Tsubaki] and the present [Hayase Hinata]. Perhaps that’s why she has been calling [Hinata] over and over again. She doesn’t need to ask me anything. No words are needed, either. She’s telling me that I only need to be here. She’s telling me that who I was in the past doesn’t matter, because I’m no one but [me].

Nobody would normally believe in such an unimaginable thing like reincarnation. Maybe my own desire is making me imagine all this. But if it’s all true, then it’d be so————

 

“Please go and fetch Mom.”

The words that she imparts, ring true in my heart.

 

“……ah.”

 

 

Is it fine, already?

 

Can I end this ‘penalty game’ now?

Can I stand in the same place as Hiori?

Can I really stay… next to her…?

My cheek feels cold, so I bring my hand to touch it. It’s wet. I didn’t notice it, but it seems that I’m crying. I wipe away the dripping tears with my arm. But no matter how many times I keep wiping, the tears just won’t stop.

“Hinata-san.”

She hugs me softly. She’s acknowledging [my] existence.

 

It’s enough. Really, it’s enough.

 

“Thank you, Tsubaki.”

 

It’s possible that it’d be meaningless even if I tell Hiori about [my] existence. It’s possible that it’d only bring her more sorrow and misfortune. It’s possible that she won’t believe me to begin with.

I’m really afraid, afraid that she might reject [me]. But, if there’s someone who acknowledges [me], even if it’s only one person; if there’s a warm place that would accept [me].

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…I’m heading off.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll be going, to meet her.

 


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