I honest to goodness thought I was seeing things. But it was him. My sluggish underclassman sauntering from the house across the street, wearing a Setoguchi Antiques t-shirt.
"What are you..." I watched as he grabbed the handlebars of the miniature vehicle and lift up a helmet. "Why do you have a delivery bike?"
"Because I'm making deliveries for my grandpa. That one was the last house." Right as the words left his mouth, he not so appealingly shivered and fervently rubbed his arms to stay warm. "It's so cold..."
I chuckled. "Obviously. You're wearing a t-shirt in the middle of February."
He dramatically trembled again. I cracked a hopeless smile.
Chiaki was definitely the last person I'd expect to cross paths with, much less in front of my apartment. Considering he was making deliveries, did that mean he worked at an antique shop? Was it a family business?
Since he was the laziest person I knew, imagining him working had honestly been pushed to the back of my mind as a possibility. Though, considering how tuckered out he looked now, maybe he did work, but just not often.
"Do you live here, Teru?"
His question transferred me from my thoughts. He'd parted a single eyelid to see me amidst his attempt to stay warm.
"Yup. In that apartment. Not too fancy, I know." I pointed over my shoulder and lit up. "Oh, do you want to come inside? There's heat."
His lips met in a frown. He peeled his hands off his arms and shook his head. "I really think I should be heading back—"
"I'll give you ice cream."
He was already halfway up the front steps. "What's your apartment number again?"
I giggled. Typical Chiaki. Didn't he just complain to be freezing a second ago?
Although my initial plan was to grab the mail, I might as well save this dear underclassman of mine from freezing to death.
Hastening after him, I led him into the building. Upon entering, he immediately savoured the heat that enveloped him and I guided him toward the elevators and up to the room. I twisted open the lock. Chiaki grinned like a content child upon learning that my house was a lot more humid than everywhere else. He slipped off his shoes by the entryway and I directed him into my living room.
"Sit wherever you'd like."
"You're my saviour, Teru," he said, beaming as he accepted the warmth. "Thank you."
Somehow, his childish compliment made me laugh again. After shedding my coat and tossing it onto the couch, I slipped into the kitchen and headed toward the freezer where multiple palm-sized tubs of ice cream lay inside. My mom had bought in bulk after seeing they were for sale yesterday, which I wasn't going to complain about.
By the time I reentered the living room, I handed him one tub of vanilla and a spoon. Keeping one for myself, I collapsed in front of the kotatsu directly across from him.
"Thank you," he repeated upon receiving it. More than I deemed possible, he was glowing from immense happiness as he peeled back the seal and dug right in. He was already on cloud nine. "I'm in heaven."
I could barely stifle another titter as I went to open mine. "You really do like cold desserts, huh? Even though it's freezing outside."
"There's no perfect weather for cold desserts," he blissfully responded.
Proof of that, he took another exaggerated bite. I snorted.
Silence fell between us, not that I expected otherwise. Chiaki wasn't much of a conversationalist. This was probably the first we'd talked this much. But considering he was here, maybe I could ask about Hayate. They were in the same class. I could get some hints about how to handle this situation.
I stiffened, gaining last second nerves. "I was just wondering... How did you and Hayate manage to become friends? Isn't he very shy and easily afraid? You talk about him like you're close despite that, so I was curious as to how."
He took another spoonful of the ice cream, savouring the bite. "Haya... isn't very good with conversations or receiving any attention. He's always stuttering and hiding, too. But..."
"He's really cool." Much to my shock, another smile spread across his face. "He's smart and knows just about everything. His art and creativity are out of this world. And he's always looking out for others even if it's at his own expense. People... don't seem to see the good in him because they're quick to label him off as a weirdo or a crybaby. But, he's a nice guy. The nicest. If I were to relate him to something... I'd probably say he's a modern-day angel."
Chiaki was praising someone! He hadn't even blinked twice whenever Koyuki was involved, who I'd assumed was an older brother figure to him.
Then, he truly respected Hayate. He thought so highly of him.
To say I was shocked would be an understatement.
I keeled over the table, grappling for the fabric above my chest. "And I-I made an angel hate me?"
My words stunned Chiaki for a while. "Teru... don't tell me you blame yourself for him fainting yesterday?"
I stiffened and lowered my gaze to my lap. He heard about that? Did Hayate tell him?
"But," I mumbled. "I—"
"You seriously have nothing to worry about. Fear has nothing to do with Haya's fainting. He only faints when he gets extremely embarrassed. He's awkward like that."
Embarrassment? That was? My lips connected in a purse. If it were coming from anyone else I'd have called BS. But this was Chiaki, the closest guy to him.
I leaned forward, meeting his bright green eyes. "That doesn't make any sense! He looked ready to cry. He seemed so scared! How could I have made him embarrassed?"
My fingers furled tightly into fists on my lap. Every fibre of my being was urging him to correct himself—tell me I was right to feel guilty.
I was expecting any type of response—
"Obviously because you're really cute, Teru."
Okay, except that.
"Cute?" Heat splurged onto my cheeks—hot enough to give me the notice that I'd flushed from surprise. Chiaki remained smiling softly, only making me more flustered. "Me?" I echoed, rapidly whipping my head from side to side. "St-stop joking around. I-I'm nowhere near as cute as y-you or Hayate!"
He chuckled. "You're blushing."
"I-I wonder whose fault that is!"
My embarrassment was difficult to stifle. Especially because, the more he continued to watch me, the more my blush deepened. I wasn't complimented by other people very often—if anything, I was one constantly boosting my own ego—so I was left very flustered whenever it did occur.
I slapped my blazing cheeks. What was Chiaki trying to make a point of exactly? Hayate thought I was cute and got too embarrassed that he fainted? There was no way that was the case.
My heart throbbed. But oh gosh. If—and I'm speaking entirely hypothetical here—if Hayate really did faint because he thought I was cute... he seriously was as precious as an angel!
"You're amazing, Teru."
I peered through the slots between my fingers. He still hadn't stopped staring at me. However, spotting the newfound softness of his gaze riddled me with confusion once again.
My quivering lips curved downwards. "Are you teasing me again?"
He shook his head, the corners of his mouth quirking higher. "I mean it," he said. "You work so hard. And you're always so full of energy no matter what you do. Even if something holds you back... even if everyone is against you... you still work your hardest to make others happy, while keeping yourself in mind. That's not something everyone can do. You're special. I know because I've been watching you since we met."
"Even with Ko," he went on, fiddling with his spoon in the near-empty container. "I never would've thought that he'd bake again. And yet look at him now. I've never seen him enjoying himself in a long time. It's all because of you."
Koyuki? "As if," I said, setting my hands back to my sides. "He always makes sure I know it's a chore to him."
"That's just Ko's personality. But I've been around him long enough to know. He's having fun. Rather, he doesn't have fun unless he's in the kitchen baking. Even if it is for your dream... I'm thankful you called out to him. Ko's passion is baking—not staying cooped behind a camera directing films. And at this rate... he may finally be able to accept that."
I fluttered my eyelashes, speechless, but Chiaki had already thrown the last of the ice cream into his mouth. Despite seeming so disoriented all the time—living at his own pace—he was surprisingly observant.
But his words... Chiaki had been around Koyuki much longer, probably right in the midst of Koyuki's pursuit of becoming a pastry chef, so him noticing these little details about him wasn't a surprise. Still, he sounded so melancholic... Was the reason Koyuki quit baking not because he'd switched ambitions after all?
"Anyway, just be yourself and things will work out. It's my life motto so you can trust me." He rested his chubby cheek against the wood of the table then let out a blissful sigh. "Ah, that ice cream was amazing. I've been revived."
I couldn't halt the appearance of a grin yet again.
"Three times now."
"Hm?" he murmured.
"That you've cheered me up. That you've given me confidence."
On the first day we met he'd stood up for me when nobody else would. And when I'd almost given up my dream, he was the one who offered to teach me. Despite his lazy streak and tired way of talking, Chiaki never failed to have my back. Even if he was the type you couldn't help but worry about, he was so easy to confide in. Just talking to him could magically make you feel like everything will work out.
He was the amazing one, not me.
I beamed wider. "I really need to repay you."
"Then..." Lifting his head so that his chin rested on the table instead, he rose his empty cup. "Can you repay me with another tub of ice cream, please? It's seriously delicious."
I should've expected that response. He'd returned to his languid world, where nothing but frozen desserts were ever on his mind. Did he even realize how much having his presence here comforted me?
Chuckling, I ascended to my feet and received it from him.
I was extremely fortunate to have met him.
"Coming right up."