"Kotori, wake up! You're going to be late for school!"
I stirred, my groggy eyelids drawing apart. The world that met my eyes was blurred for a good while. Sunlight filtered in from my bedroom window, an alarm on my nightstand berating an annoying chime in my ear.
Stretching my limbs, I pushed myself up from my stomach and onto my knees. My hair draped over my shoulders as I rubbed at my puffy eyelids, ridding myself of the weariness that ensued. I pressed the snooze button of my alarm then yawned.
After hopping off the mattress, I promptly made my bed then headed towards the window. Parting the curtains, I squinted past the light; the paled colours of grey patterning the sky as well as the distant houses and roads.
No matter the weather, simply looking outside and envisioning the new day ahead of me always lifted my mood and filled me to the brim with energy. But today, that spurt of excitement never arrived.
Sighing, I retreated from the window and slapped my cheeks. Maybe I was still exhausted from yesterday. I guess crying myself to sleep hadn't helped to relieve me after all.
Following my business in the bathroom, I brushed my teeth then applied a little more makeup than usual to rid all sight of my swollen eyes. After struggling to comb and toss my curly hair into a high bun, I slipped on my school uniform.
By the time I hopped down the stairs and entered the kitchen, my mom was setting a final plate onto the table. Sota was already eating from his little bowl and chopsticks, dressed tidily in his kindergarten uniform.
Clearing my throat, I taped up my lips into a wide smile.
"'Morning!" I cheered, drawing their focus to me at once.
"Kotori, why are you sleeping in to the last minute?" Mom demanded, slipping off her apron. "Did you forget to set your alarm?"
"Sorry, I didn't get enough sleep." I laughed it off, rounding over to my usual chair. I inhaled a whiff of the scents wafting into the air and immediately grinned. "These look so delicious! Thanks for the food!"
Once seated, I giddily scooped up a bowl of rice as well as the fish and other vegetables onto a plate. I shovelled it into my mouth without waste, beaming blissfully from ear to ear.
"Your cooking is always the best, Mom!"
"I understand but slow down. You're going to choke."
She took the adjacent seat to Sota's and helped him cut up his fish so he wouldn't accidentally eat the bone and choke.
"So good...!" I muffled through a full mouth, already securing enough for seconds. "Why are you even working as an accountant? You should become a world-class chef instead!"
Although my mom would usually brush aside my daily praise of her cooking with a joke or two, today she remained oddly silent. Alongside Sota, they watched me with rounder eyes than usual.
"Mommy, is Koto okay?" Sota asked.
"I'm perfectly fine, little bro." Leaping from my spot, I shoved the rest of my second bowl of rice into my mouth. "I hafta get going. I'm going to be wate for school."
"A-are you sure everything's all right, dear?" Mom asked.
"Of course evewything is," I assured her via full mouth, forging a tight-lipped smile for emphasis.
I reached onto the counter for my lunchbox and after stopping to ruffle Sota's hair, dashed towards the front door with my bag hanging by my forearm. Swinging my arms through my coat sleeves, I squeezed into my shoes and yanked the door open.
"She didn't burn anything today," I heard Sota mumble as I was closing it behind me. "Kitchen doesn't stink."
As soon as the door clicked shut, and I dashed to the bottom floor and exited the building, the silence of the world fell onto my shoulders. I gulped whatever remained of the rice I was chewing before glancing up at the gloomy morning sky.
Not only was it nippy outside, making me shiver and break out into a small jog to retain as little warmth as I could, but the coldness lingered inside me as well. Its heaviness weighed down on my heart, practically sinking me into every bunch of snow that crunched beneath my boots.
Nudging it aside, I carefully meandered over patches of ice in my path, the tall school building standing ways ahead.
Kotori Teruhashi didn't cower before anything and anyone, and I definitely wasn't going to let it happen today.
I'd... already made up my mind after all.
"Miko, my beloved goddess. Please help me with last Friday's homework!"
I lunged at the girl seated at her desk, squeezing her tightly within my arms.
"Kotori, let me breathe first," she pleaded.
I did her the favour and withdrew. Miko heaved, brushing her frayed brown hairs back into place. A smile crossed her face as I fell into my own seat.
"And why didn't you do it yourself?"
"It was way too difficult," I reasoned, digging into my bag and surfacing the very sheets. "Math will be the death of me."
"I'm glad you're as energetic as ever but you can't always rely on me for homework."
Making her way over to see my work, she hummed as she assessed my empty questions. Soon, she expunged a large sigh and seized her bag, slipping out her own worksheets.
"Fine. You can copy mine until Mr. Hanamura comes."
If one didn't believe math could be done beautifully, they clearly didn't meet Miko. Whether it be her Kanji, English and even math, Miko's handwriting was flawless and neat. Staring at the answers to this complicated work—living proof of her high academic standing in this school—I clenched the pencil in hand, doing a little dance with my shoulders.
"You're the best, Miko," I sang, bending over to scribble in as many answers as I could. "I would die without you."
She collapsed into her seat. "Trust me, I know."
"Do you have work today?"
"I do. Why?"
"Aw, I was kinda hoping we could go do some karaoke."
"What's bringing this on all of a sudden?"
"I was just thinking. I haven't sung in a while, you know. My vocals must be getting rusty."
"You did used to perform all the time in the Drama Club," she recalled. "Musicals were your favourite thing, and you performed so well in them."
The corners of my lips quirked up. "Yeah. Singing and dancing on stage... The relentless applause from the audience and undivided spotlight... It was so much fun."
"You even used to drag Gouda to watch you all the time," she went on fondly.
The mention caused my shoulders to stiffen.
Contrastingly, Miko paused and scanned my desk and its surrounding area.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "Did you not bring anything with you today?"
My wrist halted. I carefully set my pencil on my desk.
She gasped in utmost glee. "No way! Don't tell me Gouda finally ate your dessert!?"
She slapped my desk and poked her head closer to mine.
"What'd you make for him? Cinnamon pancakes? Banana? Did he fall to his knees, begging for more like you said he would? How could you not have told me something so amazing, Kotori? All your hard work finally paid off!"
After a couple of seconds of me not responding, Miko's exuberant energy faded.
My sudden shout caused her to recoil. With my best chuckle, I extended her worksheets.
"Mr. Hanamura no longer has a reason to yell at me! Thank you, Miko!"
She was extremely slow to receive the papers. But, the solemnity that crossed over her face was enough to hit me where it hurt. Regardless, I made sure to not let it bring me down.
"What's wrong? It's rare to see you frown." Rising to my feet, I purposefully went to push up the corners of her mouth. When an idea crossed my mind I brightened like a light. "I know! Why don't we go to our favourite cafe before your shift starts—"
"Kotori..." Miko's now glossy eyes narrowed. "You... gave up?"
Her seriousness was never something I could get used to. My smile flatlined for a moment until I pushed out a laugh. "You're acting like I had a shot at baking to begin with. Considering how terrible I am at it, giving up will mean nothing. It'd be more like I'm doing myself a favour."
She shook her head. "What happened at the cabin—"
Her head shot up, and when she'd seen just how unbothered my smile was, it stunned her into silence. I took the opportunity to properly take her hands in mine, staring into her warm brown eyes.
"It's like you said," I went on. "When it came to others telling me how untalented I was, my stubbornness kept clouding my vision from the truth—that I really can't bake. That trip only made me realize it, is all. And now that I can accept it, I think I can finally let go of that pipe dream and go for something I actually have a shot at: theatrics."
Miko didn't appear convinced, proven by the way she frowned. I pressed forward with another burst of enthusiasm.
"You'll get to watch me mull over scripts and sing again," I prodded. "I'll even be able to wear those cute outfits you like so much."
Miko bit her lip. "They were really cute."
I beamed, squeezing her fingers tighter. "Then—"
"But, Kotori," she said. "Are you sure? That you won't have any regrets?"
"Oh, come on. You already know I'm not about having regrets, Miko. Once I set my mind to something it's impossible to change it. I've always been like that, remember?"
Her mouth remained dubiously pursed. "I guess..."
I chuckled once more for emphasis. "Trust me. If I say I'll give up on baking, you best believe I mean it. Didn't I lose interest in drama that easily, too?"
She nodded. "You did."
I purposefully batted my eyelashes to plead her off my case. Soon enough, she bobbed her head again in submission. Her sullenness melted and replaced itself with relief.
She emitted a muffled titter.
"All right, I believe you," she said. "You're seriously so much trouble for me, Kotori."
I chuckled, withdrawing from her. Amidst my fit of laughter, I caught a familiar figure enter the classroom from the corner of my eye. I rotated in a hurry, singling out Koyuki striding inside, his bag propped over his shoulder, hair brushed back neatly as always.
I met the guy right as he arrived at his desk at the front of the room. He recoiled slightly upon the sight of me. But after recognition settled in, and he saw me for who I was, the look of surprise soon slipped from his features. I could feel my heart wrench in my chest—a stabbing sensation that hadn't disappeared since yesterday.
It only worsened when Koyuki relaxed his muscles and veered his gaze in another direction. His lips primmed as he set his bag on his desk.
"Look," he said, tentative with his words. "The deal's—"
"—off! It's so off. I know. I'm sorry!"
I dropped into a frenzied bow. Koyuki froze, astonishment reappearing on his face. My shout had reached the furthest corners of the class, but seeing as our classmates were all used to my vigour, it hadn't done much to affect them.
It must've been a good minute I was down, apologizing a thousand times over in my head in hopes for his forgiveness. When I finally picked myself up, fearful to see the contempt on his face, I rambled on, "I don't know how many sorry's I should say. I was being inconsiderate and ruined a lot of things for you. I pushed all your hard work down the drain, and I can't even think of anything to do to make up for it."
Koyuki's features hardened the more I went on. The heaviness weighing down on my chest—the difficulty to swallow. I clenched my fist.
"How's... Tadakuni doing?"
"He's feeling a lot better, but he's taking today off."
Relief wrapped around me in a tight blanket. I exhaled a shaky breath. "Thank goodness... I was so worried."
Koyuki didn't say anything. More like, it was as if he couldn't find anything to break the charged mood hovering above us.
The pain of my heart was still piercing my chest. Heaving another breath, I stepped toward him.
"Tamura." He peered my way, and I met his eyes. Knowing that it'd eat at me if I didn't, I confessed: "I'm giving up on the club."
The amount of surprise that seized him was unparalleled. Mouth hanging, he fumbled for words. "You... are?"
"I've bothered enough people and nearly killed Tadakuni yesterday. I think that gives me enough of a reason to give up." I dropped into another bow. "If there's any way I can apologize to everyone else, I'd really appreciate knowing. Again, I'm sorry for everything, Tamura. And, thank you."
"Why... are you thanking me?"
"You helped me understand what you said. That passion alone won't take you anywhere. That I should be doing something I actually have a shot at in the future." Faux amusement slipped into my tone. "I mean, seriously. A 'Baking Society'? A pastry chef? It's a far-fetched idea no matter how you look at it. I only wish I realized this before I dedicated almost ten months to it."
"Teruhashi." Koyuki's shoulders slumped, his eyes downcast. "Will... you regret this?"
"Probably." I cast a glance Miko's way, grinning when I saw just how anxious she was watching us converse from where she stood. I had to get going. "But it's better than wasting my time trying. Besides, if I can't even make one person smile from eating my desserts, what kind of pastry chef would I be? I'd rather not try at all than live a life like that."
I set my hand by my side and once again peeked at the strain consuming his countenance. It stung me further.
I twisted around and laughed.
"Don't you dare feel responsible or anything. This seriously was my decision." I waved over my shoulder. "See you around, Tamura!"
I raced off to join Miko without looking back. I didn't have to. I'd made up my mind.
Even if it wasn't going to be tomorrow or next week, one day this pain nestled in my chest would numb.
And maybe then I wouldn't regret this little white lie ways on into the future.