Last Story – A Bouquet For Your Smile – Turning Point
After meeting up with Professor Yoshizumi, I went back to the office.
Senpai was nowhere in sight.
However, unlike usual, the office was littered with small bottles of liquor and cans of beer all over, which was coincidentally a reflection of Senpai’s distressed state. Seeing that pierced my heart and saddened me.
Senpai had always been aloof but also easygoing. And his back was incredibly wide.
He was practically my role model, and at times he was like a giant rock protecting me.
But the Senpai now? It’s as if it were a lie that such a wide back ever existed, and it had become so small and almost on the verge of breaking down.
—Where has my confident Senpai gone?
I asked myself, and at the same time, immensely struck by my own foolishness.
Could it be that because of this one incident, the love I have nurtured for Senpai would vanish into thin air, slowly slipping away from my grasp?
Was that all Senpai was to me?
I shook my head. No, that couldn’t be true. That’s impossible. Senpai’s light should always be burning, far away and far beyond my reach.
Or maybe that was the proof that I was just always selfishly looking at Senpai.
But I don’t want to lose him.
I cleaned up all the bottles and cans of alcohol in the office and chucked them in the trash bin.
The person whom I always made instant coffee for was now away from this place.
Right, he’s not really “away”.
It’s just that right now—at this particular moment—he’s “away” for a while.
At least, that’s what I convinced myself.
After much hesitation, I decided to head for Kyoko Kasuga’s grave.
I wasn’t sure what to do. What should be done and what can be done? Those thoughts compelled me to seek out what the deceased Kyoko would have told me and what I should say to Senpai.
I knew, of course, that Kyoko was no longer there.
Just like what Mr. Sasamine had said, her soul had already ascended to heaven, so there was nothing more than a lump of rocks at her tombstone. Nevertheless, if a fragment of Kyoko remained, that was the only place where I could talk to her, just as the superstitious humans believed.
I trudged along the pavement, leaving loud steps in my wake.
Kyoko’s grave was supposed to be at the end of the path.
As soon as Kyoko’s grave came into view, a familiar shadow filled my vision, and although it hadn’t been that long since we last met, it felt like we had been separated for a long period of time.
The smoke from the burning incense stick diffused in the air, filling the area with a unique scent. There was a colorful bouquet in front of the grave, which was most likely given by Senpai.
Senpai, on the other hand, sat sloppily in front of the tombstone. He had a bottle of whiskey in his hand, from which he occasionally took a sip.
I tried to call out to him but no voice came out. I could only call out to him in my heart.
As I approached Kyoko’s tombstone, Senpai must have sensed my presence from the sound of my footsteps and looked at me.
“Apprentice, how did you know of this place?” He spat out half-accusingly as he waved the bottle of whiskey.
“It must’ve been Sasamine, huh. He’s totally dead meat.” He said in fuming exasperation.
I was at a loss for words. I felt all sorts of emotions from confusion to despair. In the end, I couldn’t say the words I’ve been wanting to, and they all evaporated as I let out a sigh.
“You must’ve visited Professor Yoshizumi, huh? Then you should know why I’m drinking myself into stupor. My glorious youth was covered in black.” Senpai said, spilling it all out.
“Pointless, isn’t it? You’ve probably heard from Sasamine too. That there’s no one here. Kyoko’s soul is already in heaven, while I’m stuck here. Are you disappointed in me, apprentice?” Senpai gave me a wry smile as he shook the bottle of whiskey.
What was the right thing to say? I felt tongue-tied.
Whether he knew how I felt or not, Senpai continued talking without minding me.
“Didn’t you have a nickname, apprentice? I think it was ‘Yuma the Failure’? Actually, I also had a similar nickname. It was ‘Shindo the Killer’. It’s now a thing of the past, but it’s still very much alive in me.”
After the self-deprecating remark, he took another swig of the whiskey.
“I’m a killer. Shindo the Killer. The worst of the worst. Someone who used to save humans ironically became someone who drove them to the depths of despair. Unlike humans, we have neither God nor Buddha. Then who do we pray to? Even if we pray, will we be forgiven? Oh, that’s right, I—“
He laughed in self-mockery.
“Right, I killed her. Kyoko… I killed—“
But Senpai couldn’t say it completely. Because I offered him a hug of comfort on his back.
“It’s Yuma, Senpai.”
I could feel Senpai’s embarrassment as strong as the scent of alcohol emanating from him.
He tried to turn around but failed and frowned. Then he turned his face forward again and spoke in a slightly upset voice.
“Apprentice, can you… move away…”
But I ended up hugging him even tighter.
Senpai gripped my arm, which was wrapped around his neck and chest, a little lighter.
“Release me. It’s an order.” Senpai commanded, his voice dropping lower.
But I refused to listen and instead gently brought my face closer to his. I was half-standing and positioned like he was giving me a piggyback ride, but he somehow still couldn’t loosen my grip on him.
Senpai grunted in frustration. It was as if the mantle, which had sunk deep into the earth, was pushing up against the surface, unable to withstand the heat of its expanding rage.
I could feel Senpai’s body trembling in anger.
But I still refused to listen to him.
“Cut it out! Apprent—”
“I hate it.” I spoke fervently. The rest of the words have vanished from my mind.
“I hate it, Senpai—” I repeated the same words against Senpai’s back.
Those weren’t merely words. It was a soft, gut-wrenching, but poignant cry that shook me—no, not just me but my very core.
Senpai hung his face down and said in a quivering voice. “Release me…”
I wasn’t sure if he was angry or sad. Probably both.
His body shuddered and he squeezed my arm for a moment, but then he left me as is. I could tell he was angry. But even at a time like this, Senpai didn’t take his anger out on me.
By gently and strongly embracing Senpai’s body, I wanted to convey my feelings.
But in the end, I couldn’t find the words to say.
So I decided on what I could do instead.
I knew that what I wanted to do might confuse Senpai, but I had to do it.
Even if it was selfish on my part.
Even if I was alone.
In order to convey my feelings to Senpai, I had to do it. Even if I wouldn’t be able to finish it.
“Yes, Senpai?” I replied, knowing that he didn’t blame me for hugging him.
“Are you disappointed in me? That I’m this small and pathetic?”
I spoke from the bottom of my heart. “Of course not, Senpai. You’re still the same warm, kind, blunt, powerful and dependable Senpai that I know.”
“I hate exaggeration.” Senpai sighed.
“But it’s the truth. You’re that kind of person, Senpai.”
Without saying a word, Senpai gripped the arm around his neck tightly and squeezed it gently. I felt that this gesture was clearer and carried more weight than any words he could have said.
“I can feel Senpai’s warmth. I can also hear your heartbeat… Badump, dadump… This is the Senpai I know.”
I closed my eyes and whispered in Senpai’s ear.
“Senpai is here.”
Senpai shook his head weakly and took a loud, deep breath. He seemed to notice the whiskey bottle in his hand and quickly tightened its cap.
“It’s Yuma.” I could hear Senpai snorting.
“Apprentice, you’re ten years too early to be comforting me.”
I couldn’t see his face but I could feel that he was smiling.
That made me happy and in a small voice, I said, “I’m sorry, Senpai.”
—In the end, our overlapping shadows didn’t disappear until the sun went down and melted into the darkness.
The next day.
When I came to the office, Senpai wasn’t sleeping on the sofa, but instead was sitting on his desk, which was visibly cleaner than usual. He looked at me with a cup of coffee in one hand.
“Morning, apprentice.” He said as he sipped his coffee with disgust.
“I waited for the water to boil properly, but maybe I didn’t wait enough after all…”
Seeing him blabber like that, it seemed like the usual Senpai was back.
“Good morning, Senpai! Shall I refill your coffee then?” I said with a perky voice.
“Yes, please. I just woke up so give me a strong one.”
“A strong coffee coming right up!” I smiled as I took his cup.
As I headed for the kitchen, Senpai suddenly spoke.
“Apprentice… about yesterday at the graveyard…” He said as he scratched his head in hesitation.
“Yes?” I blushed a little as I answered. I felt so embarrassed even though I only did what I thought was best for him.
But it seemed like Senpai also felt the same. He fidgeted sideways before opening his mouth.
“Yes?” My face also reddened, seeing him like that.
“Um, well, just… you helped me… so, um, you know…”
“Y-Yeah…” I listened with full attention and waited for him to express his gratitude.
But when I looked at him in keen anticipation, Senpai’s mood changed and he spoke in a serious tone. “Well, that aside. We’ll have another interview with Mr. Kobayakawa again. We’re halfway through the case and sorry I made you wait.”
I felt a little disheartened and embarrassed, but seeing Senpai’s vigor back, I answered “yes”, and went to the kitchen, feeling a little lightheaded.
And then we were back at the interview room.
Senpai and I sat side by side on the long sofa and greeted Mr. Kobayakawa, who looked a little exhausted.
“Sorry we didn’t get back to you soon.” Senpai spoke to him in his usual carefree tone.
“You told us about your lingering regret the other day, and we’ll do our utmost to help you resolve it. Sorry to have kept you waiting. I…” Senpai looked hesitant.
I tapped his arm lightly for encouragement. He seemed embarrassed but he nodded lightly.
Senpai scratched his head as usual, then took a deep breath before giving Mr. Kobayakawa a gentle smile as the latter seemed a little anxious of what he was about to say.
“—listen to your lingering regrets.”