Not surprisingly, it was Sayaka who first noticed the change in Usa.
It all started when Usa began waking up earlier to go to school.
“It’s convenient for Shirosaki”, he replied curtly when asked about it.
Since when did Usa ever do anything for Shirosaki? Sayaka decided to make a list of other strange things Usa did throughout the weeks that followed.
1. Won’t come home with Ritsu anymore
2. Doesn’t play video games
3. Picks at his food (even Sumiko’s signature dish of hamburger steak)
4. Isn’t hanging around to catch a glimpse of Ritsu
5. Shuts himself up in his room early, as though he has an atomic bomb ticking in there.
Sayaka happily shared her theory with the other Kawai complex girls. Sumiko nodded absent mindedly and went off to do the washing. Mayumi dismissed the idea as another far fetched notion of Sayaka’s. Only Ritsu really listened; to Ritsu, the ladies at the Kawai complex were like the older sisters she never had, and she always gave them a listening ear. Then again, Ritsu was concerned about Usa as well. He looked downcast instead of laughing things off when Mayumi pulled his leg as usual, and no longer wore an infectious grin wherever he went. He no longer asked her nail biting, intrusive questions on how her day had been. That she now had more time to read without disturbance did not gladden her; on the contrary, she felt worried. Where was the Usa she knew?
Eventually, Ritsu decided to conduct a personal social experiment to confirm her doubts.
She saw him stiffen, the hair on the back of his head standing on end. He always got like that when someone called his name, as if bracing himself for the worst. Perhaps one day, when she was intoxicated and had the courage, she would tell him it looked cute.
Ritsu was standing hesitantly outside his room, biting her lip and tapping her right foot. One hand tightly gripped the screen paneled door tightly, while the other had two fingers sandwiched between pages of a dog eared book.
“Would you like to… come read with me?”
She saw the look of longing on his face, before his expression hardened and he turned away.
"'Sorry... I need to take time to study." He got up and came to where she was standing, and she realised, with a jolt, that he was going to close the door. She stepped away, subconsciously noting the distance created between them. Except this time, it wasn’t her doing- it was Usa’s.
The door shut quietly. It could have slammed in her face and she would still have felt the same way- hopeless. The deafening silence in the hallway accentuated the pace of her heartbeat.
Was it beating in time to Usa’s?
She cringed at her extremely cheesy thought.
The book fell from her grasp and struck the floor with a loud thump.
“Who goes there?” Sumiko’s slow footsteps padded towards the direction of the boy’s rooms.
Oops. Although not as strict as the girl’s area, the general rule was the other gender couldn’t venture into the other side. Punishment would be meted out accordingly.
Too bad Sumiko wouldn’t show favouritism to her niece.
The situation was getting worse and worse. Desperately, Ritsu looked for a place to hide. But where? Shirosaki had went into a spring cleaning spree a few weeks ago and everything had been cleared away. She heard the sound of a panel door sliding open.
A hand grabbed Ritsu and pulled her roughly into the room.
“Don’t say anything!” he hissed, and in one swift motion he thrust Ritsu towards his cupboard and shut the door. Ritsu heard him breathing heavily as he resumed his work, biting back a curse every now and then as his pencil lead broke. Sumiko walked along the hallway and stopped to call out to Usa. Upon hearing his nonchalant reply, she headed back to the kitchen, satisfied.
“Now, go quick! And don’t come back!” Ritsu beat a hasty retreat to safety, but not before noticing the scribbles he had made in the notebook he kept for the book series he and her were reading.
Tenderness welled up in her. So he still cared after all.
Back in the sanctuary of her room, she pondered what to do next.
Enough was enough. She'd find a way to corner him and demand the truth.