LEVEL 3: Even the Best Laid Plans go Awry, but Such is This World
The vending machine was one, maybe two minutes from his house . A little further up the road was a convenience store, but if he went there he would probably bump into someone he knew no matter what time it was . He didn’t like that, so he took shelter in the refuge area—not that it was for refugees or anything—next to the vending machine .
It wasn’t like he often wanted to run away, to get away or anything, but maybe once in a while, when he did sort of feel like getting away, or when he simply had to get away, he would leave his house and make his way to the vending machine and kill time for a while . He probably got into this habit around the time he was in elementary school . Maybe fifth grade? Probably .
At home, he shared a room with his older brother so it wasn’t like he could get any privacy in there when he wanted to be alone . Whenever he tried to get his brother out of the room when he did want to be alone, his brother would always tell him to quit complaining and maybe threaten to kick him or something . But that didn’t change what Haruhiro wanted .
So he started to retreat to that vending machine . Sometimes he would buy a drink, sometimes he wouldn’t . Sometimes he’d drink the drink, sometimes he wouldn’t . He’d space out for a while and go home when he felt like going home .
The pattern repeated itself for a while until one summer day when he was in sixth grade . He was taking shelter next to the vending machine as usual when someone else came . He considered hiding but there was nowhere to hide, and then he considered pretending not to know them, but he did because she lived in the same neighborhood . Choco .
Choco always wore her hair in a short bob cut that made her look like a Japanese kappa creature . He had known her since she was small, and he couldn’t remember a single time her hair wasn’t cut like that . In fact, whenever he thought of the word “kappa” Choco would immediately come to mind .
She wasn’t exactly the open, friendly type, and even now Haruhiro had no idea what to think of her . Even at school, she was slightly distant and aloof . Well, just a little bit because it wasn’t like she didn’t have any friends . However, rather than having any close friends, she was the sort that was merely included in a group .
Haruhiro didn’t understand why, but he had been interested in her since he was in preschool . Maybe because she was… different from all the other kids . Actually, it wasn’t really a conscious thing on his part, it was a sort of subconscious interest that bordered on being a real liking of her .
Ever since he was born, Choco was the first girl he had ever liked and his feelings hadn’t changed since . They were in preschool together and were in the same class several times in elementary school, too . They lived closed to each other and often talked about this and that . Haruhiro supposed that would make them close friends, but he never said anything about his like of her .
Not that he dared to, anyway .
When they were both in third grade, there was a rumor circulating that Choco liked a boy named Kawabe . One day, when Haruhiro and Choco were walking home together, he asked her offhandedly if the rumor was really true and after thinking about it in silence for a couple of moments, she told him yes .
Traumatized didn’t even begin to describe Haruhiro’s feelings then . Kawabe was a slender kid who didn’t exactly excel at sports, but he was learning the piano and seemed like he came from a refined household . And apparently, he was the type that Choco was into .
Really . Really now . Was she really serious? No way…
Kawabe was the polar opposite of Haruhiro, possessing all the qualities that Haruhiro lacked, but he and Haruhiro were friendly enough that they played together from time to time . Kawabe was a decent guy who didn’t have anything unlikeable about him and placed pretty highly amongst Haruhiro’s friend ranking list . In fact, Haruhiro rather liked him .
So Choco likes him . Oh . Kawabe’s a good guy . Right . I need to help her out even if I don’t know how . Yeah .
Or so Haruhiro thought and began to take steps towards it . Did Choco want him to deliver a note to Kawabe? Kawabe’s family was pretty strict so he didn’t have a cell phone, but if Choco wrote him a note Haruhiro was sure Kawabe would read it . He would probably even write a response back to her because he was a nice guy like that .
Haruhiro asked Choco if she wanted to do that, but she declined, telling him that it was fine and that she didn’t intend to do anything of the sort . When Haruhiro responded noncommittally, she went on to say that it was a casual kind of like .
A casual kind of like…? Well, it wasn’t like Haruhiro didn’t try . He did . Stuff like attempting to get Choco and Kawabe to talk to each other, setting things up so that they would be alone, etc . When he thought about it now, it all seemed rather silly, but it was serious business back then . Kawabe was a good guy and Choco… well, Haruhiro liked her .
At any rate, it was that summer day in sixth grade when Choco came to the vending machine . Haruhiro asked her what she was doing, but she told him not much, nothing, I’m just here . Then she went on to say that it was hot so she wanted a soda but there were no sodas in the fridge at home, so here she was at the vending machine . They talked for maybe another ten or fifteen minutes after that and from that day on, they would bump into each other at the vending machine now and then .
Choco favored carbonated drinks, but during the winter she would buy canned corn soup . When she drank soda, she would make comments like, “Ow, my throat hurts,” and when she drank the corn soup, she would yelp, “Wah, hot” and blow on the contents to cool it down . Yes, this was the Choco he liked . However, it wasn’t some sort of desperate, intense like… more of a natural, mellow, matter-of-course like . Yes, he liked those things about her and that continued for a long, long time .
For her part, Choco was the type who was naturally attracted to boys . It didn’t show on the surface, but she had a history of casually saying how nice X or Y boy was and for the time being, thought of no one else but that person . She would only realize that she liked the person after she admitted to herself that she actually liked him, so it was almost like her fondness for the person grew more as she thought about how much she liked him .
Haruhiro would ask if she wanted to go out with the person, and Choco would reply by saying that she didn’t not want to go out with him, but she didn’t really like him that much . No, not that much…
And it wasn’t as if Haruhiro didn’t not want to go out with her, if he could, but Choco was always in love with some other guy and Haruhiro found himself unconsciously asking her about who she currently liked . Even if he wasn’t truly interested in knowing, she always answered him earnestly, which made him put effort into attempting to hook the two of them up or at least help them to get to know each other better, even though he never really intended to . Choco, of course, never asked him to; Haruhiro did it all on his own .
He often wondered why he did such things and couldn’t find an answer . Probably because he was an idiot, he thought on more than one occasion .
Choco was always impassive and expressionless, but when she talked about the boys she liked, she all of a sudden became animated and lively . At the end of their conversations, her cheeks would be a little rosy, making Haruhiro believe that she enjoyed such conversations, which made him happy in turn . They had been friends for such a long time, but even so, he was always trying to think of ways to make her happy . He didn’t even understand why himself .
Choco was a real mystery . She didn’t like to read books, never listened to music, didn’t watch TV, and even if she picked up a hobby now and then, she would soon lose interest and drop it . When he asked her if there was anything she absolutely loved doing, she answered him swiftly with, no, nothing . Haruhiro couldn’t find anything that pleased her, which made him want to try more so that he could see her smile, but nothing he said or did ever worked .
That night, he was squatting next to the vending machine again, staring out into space when Choco came . He had a feeling that Choco would come… but all the times he had feelings like that in the past, she never did . Tonight though, she did, and he thought to himself, YES! It made him want to do a victory pose right there and then but he resisted the urge, forcing himself to calm down .
“Hey,” he greeted casually .
Choco waved a hand at him . “Hey . ”
Her wave and return greeting was adorable and he was reminded once more of why he liked her . Currently though, Choco’s crush of the week was one of her classmates, a boy with a rare name, Hidemasa . Hidemasa was also a decent guy and good looking too, which made Haruhiro wonder if Choco went for the attractive ones .
Hidemasa wasn’t super popular with girls, but from a guy’s perspective, he was one of those people you had to admit was cool even if you didn’t want to, so it made him wonder why girls couldn’t see that in him, too . No, actually there were always one, two, a couple girls secretly in love with him . Choco was right to like a person like that . And Haruhiro couldn’t blame her .
In fact, he supported her and wished her well . There was no way Haruhiro could win against competition like Hidemasa, after all . And in the long term, it seemed that Choco would be happy with a guy like him .
Choco bought a soda . Some sort of fruity soda . She pulled back the pull-top to pop the can open and took a sip . Then her face scrunched up as a small sigh escaped her lips .
“Ow . My throat hurts,” said Choco .
“Does it?” asked Haruhiro .
“Yeah, it does . ”
“If it hurts, why do you drink it then?”
“Because I feel like it . ”
“Okay . ”
“I heard soda isn’t really healthy,” Choco said .
“It’s not,” Haruhiro confirmed . “That’s why sports stars don’t drink it . Soda . ”
“I don’t play sports . ”
“Then I guess it’s okay to drink soda . ”
“I don’t drink it that often,” remarked Choco .
“I see you drinking it all the time,” said Haruhiro .
“Only when I’m here . ”
“Oh . ”
Then Choco went on to tell him in a bored tone about how she went to karaoke with Hidemasa recently . It seemed as if karaoke didn’t interest her . Haruhiro also made it seem like he was equally disinterested as he listened but he was actually paying close attention as Choco talked about the songs Hidemasa chose . They were all songs from popular artists, so everyone knew the melodies and got really into it .
Apparently that was the type of person Hidemasa was, Choco said . And when Choco got tired after a little while into the karaoke session, Hidemasa approached her to ask if she was okay . That Hidemasa… he was a really cool guy .
“You see,” Choco suddenly said . “I’m not really good with paying attention to how other people feel, so I think guys who can do that are great . ”
“So it’s like looking for things you lack yourself in others?” Haruhiro asked .
“Hiro, you also think that I’m insensitive?”
“I never said that . It’s not like you go out of your way to make people feel uncomfortable . ”
“I guess I don’t,” Choco agreed .
“I don’t think you do . ”
“You don’t either, Hiro . ”
“Really? You think I’m a sensitive person?” Haruhiro asked .
“Yeah . We’ve known each other for a long time . ”
“Hiro, you don’t have anyone?” Choco abruptly inquired .
“That you like . You know, a girl . ”
Haruhiro had no idea how to respond and as he thought about it, his heart drummed hard in his chest . Even as he thought this was this big chance to tell her, a part of him was telling himself, Chance? What chance? This isn’t a chance at all!
He thought he liked Choco, but what if he was wrong? He wasn’t wrong, but he was . He didn’t know how to put it . Or maybe what he felt went beyond a simple like . Maybe it surpassed the notion of like . It was almost as if what he liked or didn’t like hardly mattered anymore, as long as Choco was happy . He felt like an idiot for thinking that, but that’s the way he truly felt… or so he thought . Maybe .
It was because of the distance that they had always kept between them that he could talk to her the way they were talking now . Once she had a boyfriend, maybe these chats would come to an end too . Well, he’d cross that bridge when he got to it . It was an unrelated matter, anyways . Painful as it was, Haruhiro had always watched on the sidelines as Choco fell for other boys . He was used to it .
But, yes, he liked her .
“Nope, no one . If there was, I’d tell you,” Haruhiro said .
“Well, I don’t really care anyways,” Choco replied .
“That’s mean . I always listen to stories about your crushes . ”
“Dork,” she whispered inaudibly . 
“Huh? Did you say something?” asked Haruhiro .
“Yeah, I did,” said Choco .
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you…”
Haruhiro had no idea what that was all about, but suspected that Choco had noticed . There was no doubt she realized that he liked her . She must have realized . Maybe . Did she really? Suddenly, she crouched down next to him . Her shoulder was so close, it almost touched his . Her gaze was fixed on the ground in front of her .
“If you ever get a crush on someone,” Choco started .
“Tell me, okay?”
“I thought you weren’t interested . ”
“Yeah, but tell me anyway . ”
“Okay, I will . ”
Choco turned to look at him now, the corners of her lips curved up in a tiny smile while her eyes narrowed ever so slightly .
“Hiro, you wouldn’t lie, right?” Choco asked .
“I might, depending on the situation,” Haruhiro said . “But probably not to you, Choco . ”
“I know you wouldn’t . ”
Yet he was lying to her at that very moment . And she probably knew it . Because Choco, I’ve always loved you . I’ve loved you and only you for a long, long time . Not that he could tell her . Not that he would ever be able to tell her…Note: This was previously translated to “chowderhead” but after some internal debate, it was changed to “dork” . All previous usages will also be updated in the near future . We apologize for any confusion .