Hasumi has imaginary friends.
Yamada is stuck tending his badly hung-over roommate the next day. Hasumi and Tanaka go for lunch without him, but promise to get something and drop it off at his room when they come back. The two of them watch in awe as the /vicious/-looking debate between Ichinomiya-senpai and Yakko-san in the middle of the cafeteria ends with Yakko-san slapping his back with improbable heartiness that looks as if she is trying to dislodge something from a choking victim's throat, while Ichinomiya-senpai mutters at her in a disgruntled fashion and pulls faces at her back. Yakko-san laughs and departs gracefully, her every move a dance of victory. Ichinomiya spots them and makes his way over, waving cheerily.
"H-How can that horrible little man be so rude to the divine Yakko-sama?" Tanaka sputters in outrage, his face nearly purple. "Excuse me, I can't stand to look at him for now. I hate you!" he shouts at Ichinomiya as he runs from the cafeteria. What he really means is that he is jealous beyond words that Ichinomiya is on such easy terms with the beautiful Yakko-san, who has absolutely no idea he is madly infatuated with her, or even that he exists, because he runs away every time she walks into the same room.
Hasumi feels much the same way, aware in a horribly embarrassing way that, like Tanaka, he belongs to the class of cliche doomed to unhappily unrequited love. But he can't bring himself to say the same thing to Ichinomiya-senpai, who looks like he knows how Hasumi feels anyway. Instead: "You're quite close to Yakko-san."
Ichinomiya-senpai has a wry look on his face as he sits beside Hasumi with his tray. "We've known each other for a while." Then he smiles conspiratorially and nudges Hasumi's elbow with his. "Do you want an introduction? Be warned, though, she'll eat you alive."
He feels - he feels very warm, his breath is a little fast, and if he's honest, he's not sure if it's because of the idea of meeting Yakko-san and possibly being eaten by her, or because Ichinomiya-senpai is so near, and saying these things to him in a soft, intimate voice, as if they are close friends sharing a secret. His mouth is dry; swallowing, he reaches for his glass of tea without looking and Ichinomiya grabs his hand just before he touches the side of a hot kettle he could have sworn was on the next table the last time he looked.
"Stop that!" Ichinomiya snaps, looking angry. He looks down, away, and drops Hasumi's hand. Then he exhales, and gentles his voice, avoiding Hasumi's embarrassed sidelong glance. "You have to pay more attention to your surroundings."
The warm feeling is gone. Hasumi looks down at his hands and wonders if it's possible to appear even more stupid and incompetent in Ichinomiya's eyes. Their spirited discussions of methodology and obscure folklore, and the (un)likelihood of the existence of youkai aside, he's probably spending time with Hasumi out of pity. As he'd said at their first meeting, Hasumi's not at all popular. Tanaka is compelled to keep company with him to greater or lesser extent because they are roommates and share a number of subjects, while Yamada is really closer to Tanaka or Ichinomiya, even if he seems to like Hasumi well enough.
"I'm sorry," says Ichinomiya-senpai quietly, seemingly absorbed in his cooling tea, while Hasumi is still trying to think of a way to politely excuse himself. "I only wanted to be friends, with both of you. Was I wrong?"
Hasumi is confused. He looks around quickly to see if Tanaka has come back, or if Yamada has torn himself away from his sick roommate after all, but they're still alone at the table, and he realises belatedly that he has been silent too long. "O-of course not. You've helped us a lot, and I- I..." and he realises he can't complete that sentence.
Too long a pause, and Ichinomiya-senpai must have read? misread? something in his voice or manner, because he bows his head, pushes away his tray, and stands, as if he'd received an answer Hasumi had not intended. "I understand. I won't bother you again."
"S-senpai! I didn't mean-" Somehow, he must have said something wrong, or given himself away, and Ichinomiya-senpai is letting him down gently, but Hasumi hadn't meant for things to turn out like this, and doesn't know what to do. He clenches his fists under the table, but can't think of anything to say that won't make him look more pathetic. He can only watch as Ichinomiya walks away without looking back.
Ryoukan did not realise his friend wasn't real at first, though in retrospect he thought he should have wondered where she had come from if not the orphanage, for there were no homes close enough that it would be convenient to come daily.
But she was different and magical, and did not make fun of his reserved manners, his glasses, his shaved head or his interest in folklore and legends. In fact, she knew even more stories than he did, and showed him secret glades and overgrown shrines that, she said, youkai often used as meeting places, and some even lived there all the time, if he could only see them.
He did try, and thought sometimes he could imagine strange and wondrous creatures peeking from the shadows and waving shyly at him. She was the best friend he ever had.
When he gets back to the hostel, he walks around in the small garden for a while before he goes back to the room he shares with Tanaka. Tanaka is curled up in bed and Ignoring Him, sulking over a game of go he appeared to be playing against himself and losing badly.
"I'm back," Hasumi says at last, after waiting at the door for an awkward few minutes while Tanaka refuses to look at him.
"Welcome," Tanaka mutters grudgingly after another pause, and sets down another white stone with a loud click. "That was fast. Not going to talk with Ichinomiya about his research on youkai today?"
"Ah, no. Weren't we going to get lunch for Yamada?"
"Yamada can get his own lunch, or he can ask his precious Ichinomiya-senpai. He's always 'Senpai, this', 'Senpai, that', and if he's not paying attention, 'Kan-chan~~~'!" Tanaka sweeps the go stones aside in frustration and tugs his blanket over his head. "I don't see what you all see in him!"
Hasumi hasn't heard Yamada address Ichinomiya this way before, but Tanaka and Yamada were in the same high school, and the perfect imitation of Yamada's excited tones speak of long familiarity.
It's a little worrying. Tanaka's a little quick-tempered at the best of times, but Hasumi has never known him to stay upset for long, much less take out his annoyance with one person on another. He wishes momentarily that he could change Tanaka's mood instantly by dousing him with water, the way Ichinomiya had done when Tanaka was upset over his assignment. But getting Tanaka's bed wet will likely just make Tanaka even more annoyed with him. Hasumi sighs. "All right, I'll go by myself then."
She was the best friend Ryoukan ever had, but she wasn't real.
Hasumi is feeling lucky that he has managed to get the last two bentos for Yamada and his roommate. He begins to feel a little less lucky walking down the dingy corridor of Yamada's hostel, which is the cheapest and most disreputable of the lodgings available to the students. The air is dank and musty, and it looks like the ceiling, or at least the cracked plaster, will fall down on all their heads any minute. He worries for Yamada, who is stuck here and has to look after his roommate who is either drunk or recovering from a fight more often than not, and thinks he should feel relieved his scholarship saves him from having to stay here as well.
But all he can think of is the way the inhabitants look suspiciously at him, as if they think he is planning to report them for some offence or another, or as if they are thinking of asking him for his lunch money. He avoids their eyes, keeping his gaze fixed on the grimy floor, and finds his way to the quiet room at the end of the corridor that no one goes to because of the cobwebs and ghost stories.
Hasumi is at the door with his hand raised to knock when he hears voices. He wonders if Yamada's roommate is awake. Then Ichinomiya says, "Oh, go ahead, it's not like I haven't seen it all before."
"Kan-chan!" Yamada is laughing, in his nervous, embarrassed way. "You're sure he won't wake?"
Their voices drop to murmurs he can't make out, and there is soft laughter. His fingers brush the cool wood of the door, and Hasumi comes to himself with a start, a little horrified to realise he is trying to eavesdrop on his friends.
Tanaka was right, he needn't have troubled himself to get lunch for Yamada since Ichinomiya is here already. But he's already eaten, and so has Tanaka. He doesn't want the food to go to waste. He puts the bag down at the door and knocks once, causing Yamaka to squeak in surprise, and runs away before they open the door. Classes, yes, he still has classes to go to.
Tanaka is still under the blanket when he gets back late that night, after a protracted talk with Kawaguchi-sensei about his last paper and the subject Yakko-san had been debating with Ichinomiya in the cafeteria. Hasumi wonders if he should worry, but Tanaka's things have been moved, and he has put away his go board. He is also snoring loudly. Hasumi smiles at the rasping sound, a little exasperated, but relieved all the same. Tanaka will be all right in the morning.
He goes to bed, still thinking of Yakko-san, her beauty, her grace, her intelligence, and the casual way she had grabbed Ichinomiya's slim arm and pulled him aside to talk about whether oni were born or made. Yakko-san, he thinks, shares his opinions on /youkai/, and Ichinomiya had seemed to think she would like him. He burrows deeper into the blankets and puts the pillow over his head; Tanaka's snoring is somehow even louder and more obtrusive than usual tonight.
Just as he's about to run out of patience and get up to shake Tanaka awake, Tanaka grunts and mutters, his arms and legs flailing wildly. Hasumi suppresses a laugh - Tanaka always does that when Yamada comes to prod him awake. Tanaka will continue to struggle with his blankets until the cause of his discomfort ends. Sure enough, in a few moments, Tanaka makes a frustrated sound and turns over. The snoring eases. Hasumi is sure that he's not the only one grateful for the quiet.
When he finally falls asleep, he dreams of hands, and a soft voice, caressing. He reaches out blindly, gasps, "senpai!" and jerks awake with the shock like the force of a slap. Shaken, Hasumi sits up in his bed and traces his fingers along an angry red scratch down his chest.
end part 2