18

For their hands-on lesson in group counselling, the club moderator had his students start small. Each of the ten Peer Counsellors was assigned a pair of grade schoolers – one boy, one girl – before being made to spread out across the room. And from there, the next 20 minutes would be allotted for the children to tell their assigned Peer Counsellor about the week they had, including any highlights, positive or negative, that they felt noteworthy enough to share.

Unsurprisingly, Taro was one of the two children the club moderator entrusted to Shugo. “You already know Taro, right? His dad specifically asked for you, after all.”

Yeah, I thought so.

Meanwhile, the other one was a young girl who appeared to be of mixed blood, whose blond hair and round, blue eyes meshed surprisingly well with her Asian facial features. “My name’s Yuria,” said the girl with a bright smile on her face. “Amaki Yuria. I’ll be in your care, okay, big brother?”

Amaki?

Is she related to Rena?

If one were to look closely, they’d have noticed how Shugo’s eyes widened just a tiny bit when the girl introduced herself. While the surname naturally made him wonder whether Yuria was at all related to Rena, the relative lack of resemblance between the two made that possibility highly unlikely. I mean, they’re both pretty in their own way, but-

Oh, look, said an all too familiar and all too obnoxious voice at the back of Shugo’s mind. You find this 10-year old pretty, do you? What if Rena finds out?

Shugo cleared his throat, both to silence that voice and to call the children’s attention at the same time.

“Alright, kids,” he began, gesturing at the two armchairs in front of him so Yuria and Taro could take their seats. “How have we been this past week? I won’t judge you no matter what you happen to tell me, so you don’t have to be shy.”

It was Taro who went first. The police chief’s son showed off the perfect score he’d gotten for their first long test in Math, as well as the essay he got on his dad’s occupation which got him a grade of A-. “And I actually slept well last night, which was a relief,” he added.

Shugo nodded approvingly. He knew firsthand better than most the significance of that last sentence, and he understood why being able to sleep well for the first time in a while meant so much to Taro. Given how the boy had narrowly escaped an attempted kidnapping just over a week ago, it was no mean feat for him to have slept soundly for the first time in a while.

Looks like he’s coping well.

That’s encouraging.

“I see. That’s great, Taro,” he said with a smile. “Just keep at it. Remember, you’ve got all of us rooting for you.”

The boy beamed as he nodded energetically.

“And you, Yuria?” Shugo went on after a half a minute’s silence. “How’s your week been?”

Her face fell. “…Well…”

Between her hesitant tone, and the way her eyes darted side to side, Shugo got the sense that the girl wasn’t sure what she should talk about, or where she ought to start. “Take your time,” he reassured her. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t help you with.”

“…A lot of things happened this week. I got lots of high grades in our quizzes and homework assignments, which was great,” Yuria finally began. “And I made the tryouts for the volleyball team, too.”

“Yeah, that’s great news,” Shugo agreed. “But then, how come you don’t look too happy?”

At the question, Yuria looked down at her knees. From the way she bowed her head and folded her arms across her chest, Shugo got the sense that she was dissatisfied with her accomplishments over the past week, impressive though they may have been. That only begged the question of just why she wasn’t satisfied; after all, any one of those achievements would’ve been commendable, to say nothing of having all of them happen in a single week.

Finally, she broke the silence.

“It’s my mom,” Yuria explained. “If I get 18 points out of 20, she’ll just ask me why I couldn’t make it perfect. When I told her I got in the volleyball team, all she said was that my sister was team captain at my age. I wish she’d actually praise me for doing well even just once, instead of comparing us all the time.”

Shugo was sympathetic. On one hand, the fact that he and his own older sister had an age gap of more than 10 years meant that he himself never experienced being compared to his older sibling, and at any rate. Even ignoring that fact, his parents never once compared him to his peers back when they were alive, in favour of simply encouraging him to do his best with the skills and talents he had. On the other hand, that didn’t mean he didn’t see his cousins or friends receive that kind of treatment from their own parents on occasion. He recalled the words his old teacher back in fifth grade once shared with him.

The best way to ruin something special is to compare it with something else.

“I see,” Shugo finally replied to the explanation given by the girl who sat dejected before them. “Is there anything you can do that she can’t, Yuria? Is there anything you’re good at that your sister isn’t?”

She frowned in thought as she considered those words. “What do you mean, big brother? I shouldn’t do well in school anymore?”

He laughed. “Of course that’s not what I meant. You’re doing great at school, and you should keep it that way. I simply meant to point out how you’ve been competing with your older sister all this time, whether or not you realize it, and that it’s not really a healthy way to live.”

He paused for a moment to allow her to digest what he’d just said, before he continued.

“Instead of trying so hard to follow in her footsteps, why not find something you yourself can excel at, something only you can do?”

“Huh?” Yuria looked up, confused. “Something only I can do?”

“That’s right,” he confirmed with a nod. “Don’t bother following in your sister’s footsteps and comparing yourself with her. Rather than striving to be a pint-sized version of your sister, you just focus on being you, and on bringing out the best in you.”

“Okay…” she replied as though unsure. “But what would my mom say?”

“I can’t tell you how long it’ll take, but your mom will come around,” answered Shugo with utmost certainty. “I’m sure of it.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

Shugo’s smile was one of reassurance. “I’m not sure you should worry, really. But if she doesn’t come around, well, I think that’ll say more about her than it will about you.”

The club moderator called everyone’s attention not long after.

And after a few minutes in which they processed everything that had gone on during the exercise, the bell rang to signal the official end of the school day.

And with it, the official start of the weekend.

——

“Taro told us all about your session earlier. Looks like you really are good with kids, huh?”

Shugo exited the classroom after having packed his things after they’d been dismissed, only to be met by Taro, Ayato, and Ayaka at the school’s front gate. As Riku was busy with work, Ryoma had charged the siblings with walking his son home for the day. Their instructions were to head to the shopping arcade, and to wait to be fetched there, though it was unclear just who would come to pick them up.

“He told me to invite you along if possible,” Ayato said to Shugo once he’d read the text message from none other than the chief himself. “He’s buying dinner, apparently. Unless you’ve got other plans, of course?”

Shugo laughed as he shook his head. “Nah, I’m game.”

The four of them walked together to the shopping arcade as instructed. Along the way, the three older youths talked about the goings-on of the day gone by. Ayato had joined the First Aid Club, which wasn’t exactly what Shugo expected. Then again, I guess it’s not all that surprising after all.

Meanwhile, Ayaka had apparently joined the Art Club. As she shared, their club meeting that day had their moderator tasking them to embark on an art project, to be completed by the end of the term, with the catch that standard paintings, sculptures, and other forms of visual art were prohibited.

“She told us to get creative, and that we weren’t to use the usual media for crafting whatever project we intended to make,” she explained. “Metal wires aren’t commonly used in art pieces, are they?”

“Cool!” exclaimed Taro. “Will you teach me to make art with that stuff too, Ayaka?”

“Sure, but you’d have to ask your dad, Taro. I’ve lost count of the times I hurt myself making wire art.”

When they got to the shopping arcade, they passed the time by looking around at the items and merchandise the shops had for sale. Ayaka went over to various clothing outlets and tried all kinds of clothes on, briefly exiting the fitting room each time to show the boys and ask their opinion on whatever she happened to be fitting at that moment.

“What d’you think, guys?” Ayaka asked as she stepped out of the fitting room 10 minutes later. Her top was a long-sleeved purple blouse that had been buttoned up halfway, under which was a black undershirt or tank top. Likewise, she briefly eschewed the skirt and stockings she’d been wearing yesterday in favour of a pair of knee-length denim shorts. “Doesn’t it look good on me?”

All three boys expressed their approval. Ayato gave his sister a smile and a thumbs-up, while Taro beamed.

“You look great in that,” Shugo replied with a broad grin. “Kaito’s gonna love it, too.”

A pink tinge crept up her cheeks as her brother and his friend both laughed for a few seconds.

“All kidding aside,” Ayato added once he’d finally stifled his laughter, “does Kaito have a shot? I think you caught his eye yesterday.”

For better or worse, the sudden appearance of a newcomer spared Ayaka from having to respond.

Who’s this, now?

The new arrival was a young woman in her early twenties, whose chocolate brown eyes matched the short, straight brown hair she had adorned with a hairband decorated with a butterfly motif. She wore a red scarf over what appeared to be the white uniform of a nurse, with black rubber shoes and matching black socks. If her footwear was anything to go by, Shugo speculated that she made frequent use of public transportation. And from the worn state of her shoes, her day-to-day activities likely entailed a good deal of walking as well.

“I’ve been looking all over for you, Ayato,” she said with a pout as she put her hands on her hips. “You haven’t just been browsing here all this time, have you?”

Ayato laughed. “You’ll have to ask Ayaka about that. I’ve just been judging her fashion choices.”

“Which are great, by the way,” the new girl added, making eye contact with Ayaka as she did so. “At least someone’s got good fashion sense in the family, I guess.”

Ayato laughed a second time as he approached the newcomer and planting a kiss on her forehead, before turning back to face the rest his companions. From where Shugo was standing, and from the public display of affection, he had a good idea what this girl was to Ayato, and of who had sent them that box of donuts yesterday.

“Shugo, Taro,” Ayato’s eyes darted from one to the other as he made the introduction. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“This is Matsugane Erina, nurse extraordinaire at the Rakuen Recovery and Rehabilitation Center…”

He then held her hand in his.

“…And my girlfriend.”

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