From then on, we found company in each other, hanging out in times of boredom and fighting against others together when it came to it. We weren’t the closest of friends, but it was comfortable to know another whose eyes would not silently judge from behind our backs. Even if Noguchi’s only interest was picking fights, I would not have minded. Just fighting side by side was enough to bring a small sense of security and relief. I was content with my companionship with Noguchi, and I doubted that anyone else would be so willing to look past my flaws. We remained a team of two until the late autumn day when we found ourselves thrown in the path of a very different group of people.
“Ah, this guy too, he’s weaker than he looks,” Noguchi sighed, grabbing his opponent by the collar. “What a disappointment. Why start a fight if you can’t even hold yourself up?”
He threw the boy back, and the student stumbled for a few steps, trying to regain his balance. Unaware of his surroundings, he crashed straight into another, who lost grip of his phone and dropped it to shatter onto the asphalt floor. The sound of the collision brought my attention to the student, who paused for a moment before looking at our direction.
Catching sight of his appearance, I grew stiff, halting in my activities. ...That’s Ono Yuuki, who’s known for being the son of the owners of a large company. I glanced nervously at the ground, my hands trembling. What do we do now?
As his friends watched on in perplexion, Ono bent down to pick up his phone, moving the hurt student aside. He inspected his phone carefully, observing all of the cracks along its fine surface, and then raised his gaze to look back at us.
“Hm…” he started, “seems like it cracked pretty bad.”
I glanced at Noguchi to find him with a nervous expression, one that I had never seen on his face before. I turned back to see Ono’s expression darken, as if a judge ready to deliver a negative verdict.
“Shouldn’t you look at your surroundings before throwing someone?”
Noguchi swallowed, regaining his composure. “My bad, your phone must be expensive,” he replied, almost jokingly.
“What, are you going to pay for it?”
“Well, to be fair, you weren’t looking at your surroundings while walking either.”
I was hesitant about the fine line that Noguchi was walking, but was shocked to see Ono’s lips curl up into a smile as he responded.
“Oh, is that how it is?” Ono laughed, his air of hostility softening. “Well, something like this is cheap to me anyway; you don’t have to worry about it.”
Glancing at Noguchi, he added, “But instead, I’m a bit curious about you.”
Since that encounter, I often found Ono and his close friend, who I later learned was named Maeda Noboru, spending time around Noguchi. Although I thought that Noguchi wouldn’t get along with the two of them, it soon became evident that his carefree and unpredictable character was not only inclined to be acceptive of me. Despite his reputation as a wild card and impulsive delinquent, he was a magnet towards which the three of us were drawn, even if not necessarily by the same motives. Still, it wasn’t long before I grew accustomed to the four of us, and then I marveled at the years I had spent alone, lost.
Contrary to my previous beliefs, both Ono and Maeda were rather quick to welcome me, and did not dwell on my periodic episodes of anger when they were around. In fact, instead of keeping a distance, Ono opened himself up to me first, sharing his thoughts and concerns to make the atmosphere less oppressive. It was a subtle gesture, and he made no signs of acting so on purpose, and thus I felt all-the-more appreciative. In those times, I felt included, and trusted even. If these people could see the best in even someone like me, then I thought it might not be so bad to let my guard down after all this time.
* * *
My happiness peaked in the days leading up to our second year of high school, where we could laugh freely and resist the hurtful stares from others as long as we were together. I wasn’t ready to approach others yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with Noguchi, Ono, and Maeda. Even though I hadn’t changed, they understood me, and sometimes I wondered if they might have had a better grasp on my character than I did myself. For the first time, I felt that I could have empathy, and that seeing another smile could actually reflect onto my own happiness. Unlike with my family, who I could only feel apologetic towards, and others, who I could only find resentment for, the three of them were a safe haven for me, and I hoped that it would always remain that way.
And yet, it didn’t take much time for cracks to begin to surface onto my envisioned happiness. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but I wanted to believe that the relaxing days could have lasted a bit longer. I wanted to believe that I could have some control of myself for a bit longer.