Endo Daichi returned to an empty house (or almost empty, if you ignored the dog lounging around out the back), but he'd expected that. His parents were out, his father scouting for talent at an international audition being held further in the city, his mother performing live for the newest singing competition show everyone had been talking about. Still, it felt like home, and he supposed that was the important thing.
He was just about unpacked when he heard his phone ring, and he knew exactly who it was by the ringtone. He froze. He hadn't hear this song in a long, long time, and if he was hearing it now, it had to mean -
Fumbling with the phone, he stared at the caller ID: Futaba Callie.
There had been a time when that name had been 'Callie-chan' with a heart and a star next to it, but those days were over, and he thought they'd agreed on that. Apparently not.
His voice was hesitant when he answered. "Hello?"
Crackling could be heard from the other end of the line, then a short breath, and then she spoke and he could almost see the way her curls were framing her face, the little ones that hadn't made it into her messy bun. "By your voice, I'm assuming you know who this is."
"Yes," was all he said, because he didn't trust himself to say anything else.
"I thought you would've deleted my number like I told you to." He could almost hear what she wanted to say but didn't. Neither of them wanted to references that night, that much was clear, but if they were going to continue this conversation, it would have to be brought up at some point.
But he hadn't, and he knew that she knew he hadn't. He'd spent weeks staring at the phone with half a mind to call, the other half telling him to just delete the number and get it over with. Instead, he'd gone with a compromise. He hadn't deleted the number, but he'd changed it so there were no more hearts or stars, deleted every correspondence between them until it seemed as though she was just another contact he only ever called upon once in a blue moon. He'd tried his best to ignore the 'f' section of his address book ever since.
Callie was silent for a few moments, and Daichi waited patiently, sitting on his bed and trying to occupy the time by playing with a loose thread on his pillow slip. "So, I hear you've got a new client."
Her tone was firm, lacked the hesitancy from before, and he knew there was no use denying it. Not that he ever would. He could never lie to her in the first place, and now was no different. "That's right. I'm guessing you met her at the concert."
He'd known Callie was there. She didn't go by her stage name of 'Lie-Lie' (pronounced lee-lee) anymore, but as soon as he'd heard the name 'Futaba Callie', he'd frozen. As much as he'd wanted to run back to the Izumi family beach house and never leave his makeshift room, he'd stayed for Natsuki's sake. After their argument, she'd forgiven him, agreed to give him time, and he wasn't about to ruin that by not being there. She'd needed the support of all them, and she still did, so he wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. It didn't surprise him that the two girls had run into each other, most likely by accident.
"Yeah, I did," Callie said, pulling him from his thoughts. "I warned her about you."
That one sentence sent a blast of anger surging through him and he was tempted to revisit that night he and his phone partner were yelling at each other, no one to watch them. He instead took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down, to not do anything completely and utterly stupid. Neither of them needed that right now. Still, her comment stung.
He'd expected it, though. In the off chance they ever met, he'd prepared himself for this. "I haven't told her yet, if that's what you're asking. She suspects, though. Look, I didn't want to become her manager either, but dad just kinda thrust it upon me. I had no choice, and really, it's none of your business. Not anymore."
There was more silence after that, a few sounds of skin on plastic and he wondered whether she was holding the phone tighter than before. She always did have a habit like that, holding the closest thing to her tightly enough to break when she was upset or nervous or both. If he had to guess, he'd suppose she knew he was right. It really wasn't her business. She'd disappeared into the void two years ago when she'd signed with a different agency with unapologetic words and fierce glares that still made his heart ache.
"I just don't want to see that poor girl get hurt from your stupidity. What if she ends up like me and despises you for your obsessive nature?"
Another comment that cut him like a knife. His drive to succeed, to not let the company down, had led to him doing just that. She knew damn well that was the case, and now it felt as though she was just rubbing salt in the wound.
Yet he continued. "It's the opposite, actually. She was angry with me that day because I didn't seem focused enough."
The tone on the other end is disbelieving. "You? Not focused? What kinda sick twisted joke is that? Why in the hell -"
He didn't mean to cut her off as harshly as he did, not really, but he knew her, and he knew that she would continue to go on and on until someone stopped her, whether it be him or someone on her side of the line. He made sure that, while he didn't specifically say anything, she knew exactly why he was acting the way he was. She would've gotten there eventually, but pushing her just that little bit forward wasn't too bad of an idea, right?
Nothing was said for a good thirty seconds. Then, "What is your dad thinking?"
Daichi shrugged before remembering she couldn't see. "He thinks it's good for me. I'm grateful that he has so much faith in me, but..."
"But you don't think you deserve it," Callie finished for him. "And you're right, you don't, but somehow you've become this girl's manager and you need to act like it. Don't screw this up, Endo."
She hung up after that, but he kept the phone to his ear for a little longer, listening to the dial tone before finally sighing and tapping the red 'end call' button himself. Closing his eyes, he let out a huff of air and let himself fall into his duvet. It was warm, and while it was still the middle of summer, his room felt far too cold and empty. It was if he were in his own frozen hell, but the ice and snow was invisible. Maybe it was just him and he felt this way on the inside. That was probably it.
They'd only just returned from their overnight stay by the beach, and yet Sayuki was still adamant that they meet up the following day to complete their summer homework.
"We get this over and done with and we can do whatever we want for the rest of the summer," she was saying as Daichi returned from the cafe's main counter, carrying a tray of drinks. He'd drawn the short straw and been forced to write down and remember everyone else's orders. Instead of handing each cup to its recipient individually, he settled for placing the tray in the middle of the table in their little corner of the store and let everyone take what they wished.
Hayate leaned back and blew some hair out of his face. "If it wasn't for the whole needing to keep my grades up so I can stay on the basketball team thing, I don't think I'd even do my homework."
He was lucky that he was on the outer side of the table, the one opposite Sayuki, as the death glare she was sending him told him he'd better take that back.
"We don't have much to do," Rina said from her seat beside Hayate, her sketchbook buried underneath textbooks and notebooks and pencils. "Just a few world history questions, some English phrases, then some algebra."
Etsuya groaned at the mention of algebra, slumping over his table. "Please no more math. I'm too stupid for this."
Sayuki sent him a glare as well, and Daichi stared at the two for a moment. Towards the beginning of their social experiment, Sayuki may have agreed, told him to stop complaining and actually do the work for once in his life, but that had died down altogether, as if a switch had been flipped, and now while she encouraged him to continue his studies, she didn't berate him. He had to admit that their dynamic was an interesting one.
He must have stopped moving for too long as a hand with chewed nails was waved in front of his face and Sayuki's voice said, "Hey, Daichi, you alright? You seem kinda out of it."
Daichi blinked, shifting a little in his seat. "Yeah, I'm just tired from yesterday."
It wasn't exactly a lie. After Callie's phone call, he'd spent most of the night tossing and turning in his bed. He'd contemplated telling everyone, then telling only Natsuki for the time being, but then he'd decided not to. No matter if he told one or all seven of them, it would come with worry and sympathy and pity that he just didn't deserve. No, he preferred to stay in his comfortable world of daydreaming and zoning in and out. It was what he knew now, and it was what everyone else knew.
"Have your coffee, man," Hayate said, nudging the tray towards him as Arisa took her glass of water. "It'll give you a pick-me-up."
Daichi obliged, glad for the bittersweet taste on his tongue as soon as he took a sip. He would have closed his eyes and revelled quietly to himself had he not been interrupted by the sound of a basic ringtone, one that could only belong to one person in the room.
Everyone's eyes turned to Takashi, and he swore to himself as he slid his phone from his pocket, rolling his eyes at the screen. "It's just mum. We can just continue with -"
Arisa snatched the phone from his hand with a grin, clicking on the green 'call' button. "Takashi's motheeeeeer, helloooooo!"
Takashi's elbows banged against the table as he held his head in his hands.
Their homework briefly forgotten (other than Sayuki's, as she was an expert at multitasking), everyone listened in, trying to hear what Takashi's mother was saying. Everyone was fond of her now, Daichi included. She was a lovely woman who was nothing like her son, yet he could sometimes see the traits that proved they were truly related. Their determination, their caring nature, no matter how much Takashi would deny it if asked.
"I'm okay!" Arisa paused after the pleasantries were finished, tapping her pen against the desk, and Daichi wasn't sure whether it was this or the fact that she was speaking to his mother that made Takashi glare at her. Probably. "His birthday? Really?" Her grin grew wider as she turned towards Takashi, who groaned just as Etsuya had earlier. "Absolutely! I'll tell everyone!"
The call ended and she tossed the phone in Takashi's direction, leaving him to catch it before it clattered to the floor. It was a good distraction, only lasting a brief second, but it ensured that Arisa would be heard, and she wasted no time in blurting out, "Takashi's birthday's tomorrow and there's gonna be a party!"
Takashi was seething by this point, and if Arisa hadn't broken his phone at this point, he was bound to by the way he was holding onto it. The whiteness of his knuckles reminded Daichi of Callie's habit and he had to look away for his own sake, before he ended up making himself even more upset than he already was. "Why? Why did you have to tell them that? I just wanted to have a quiet birthday, I didn't even want a party, they haven't thrown me one since I was five."
"That's probably because you haven't had any friends since you were five," Natsuki said, ignoring the pointed look Takashi gave her afterwards.
Before he could deny anything, Arisa spoke again. "It's at noon tomorrow and it's open-ended and it's just for us!"
She started jumping up and down in her seat and Sayuki had to place her hand on her head for her to stop. "This is great and all, but need I remind you that we have homework to finish?"
Daichi's house wasn't far away from the cafe, and he was expecting a quiet walk home with Natsuki (Takashi would have joined them had Arisa and Hayate not dragged him window shopping), perhaps picked up a few things for the party, but as they were walking through one of the nicer parks in the area, the foot traffic became unbearable. A crowd was growing by one of the fountains, but he couldn't see the fountain itself. It was hidden from view by a white sheet, and he would have connected the dots in the following second had Natsuki not spoken.
"Oh, it's her."
Grabbing his arm, Natsuki dragged him through the crowd so he could see who she was talking about. He had to crane his neck over two businessmen, but once he did, he wished he hadn't.
Futaba Callie was standing on a makeshift platform, the soft breeze nowhere near enough to ruin her perfect hair, which was loose around her shoulders, covering her bare shoulders. Her sundress was simple, floral-themed, shoes comfortable but fashionable. He should have expected that, with her singing career rising again, she'd be exposed to other outlets, like modelling. He just hadn't expected it to be here.
It took him a second to notice Natsuki's intense gaze on not Callie, but him, and when he did he quickly shifted his stare to the ground instead. That wasn't a look of confusion. She was curious, as if she knew something, and what else was there to know other than his previous failures? Callie had mentioned to speaking to Natsuki, warning her, but he'd never asked what she'd meant by a warning. Perhaps she'd already told Natsuki, who was just waiting for him to fail her now. It would make sense that Natsuki wouldn't want to hurt his feelings - they were friends, after all - and now he was certain that she was just buying her time until the perfect moment.
Licking his lips (when had they become so dry?), he wove his way out of the crowd, avoiding dog-walkers and parents with their children. It was as if everyone was out and about at this hour. He was only vaguely aware of them, only vaguely aware of Natsuki trying to catch up behind him, and he didn't dare slow down as he finally found an opening in the crowd, emerging on the other side.
Natsuki's volume made him cringe and he slowly turned around, trying to avoid any eye contact with those on the modelling set, but his precautions weren't enough. Callie was wide-eyed as she took in his appearance, but it was for three seconds at the most, and then she had to pose for the camera and it was as if she hadn't even seen him in the first place. She was a true professional.
"Daichi." Natsuki's voice was softer now that she'd caught up to him, eyes full of concern. She took his arm again. "Come on, let's go."
She had questions, it was clear from the way she'd looked at him earlier, but she wasn't about to push him, and part of him just wanted to break down and tell her for the sake of repaying her kindness. But at the same time he couldn't, not yet, maybe not ever, and that thought consumed him as he risked one last look behind him only to lock eyes with the person he was trying to hard to avoid.
Instead of holding her gaze, he turned his head so he was focused on the brick path ahead of him, and he cursed himself for his cowardice.