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There's a retail store outlet located on campus, as the brand it belongs to is a famous nationwide retail chain store that entered into a partnership with the school. As their only customers would be students, the store itself isn't very large. Even so, the store readily sold supplies that students may need on a daily basis as well as electronics that students may be interested in.
"If I'm remembering correctly, the repair service is located at the counter in the back."
Kushida seemed to have been here several times before, as she promptly remembered where to go and headed deeper into the store. Sakura and I followed behind.
"I wonder if they'll be able to fix it soon…"
With an uneasy expression, Sakura tightly gripped the camera in her hands.
"You're really fond of that camera."
"Yes… Is that weird?"
"No, not at all. Instead, isn't it a good hobby? Well, that's just me assuming that I know what you use the camera for. Nevertheless, I hope they'll be able to fix it quickly."
"There's where they take care of the repairs."
As there was a lot of merchandise inside the store, we were unable to see our surroundings properly. However, Kushida had found the repair center at the innermost section of the store.
Sakura stopped moving forward for some reason. From the side of her face, I could see that her expression had become one of blatant disgust, as though she had seen something unpleasant.
I followed Sakura's line of sight, but I couldn't find anything particularly out of place.
"What's wrong? Sakura-san?"
Kushida also seemed to find Sakura's behavior strange, so she called out to her.
"Ah, uh… That…"
Though she seemed to have something to say, she ended up shaking her head and taking a deep breath.
After saying that, she put an earnest smile on her face and walked up to the receptionist at the counter of the repair center.
Kushida and I glanced at each other, but since Sakura said it was nothing, we followed after her.
Kushida spoke to the clerk and commissioned for him to repair the digital camera.
While that was happening, I took a look at the nearby electronics out of boredom.
However, the way Kushida conducted herself was rather fierce. She was talking to the store clerk, who she had only just met for the first time, as if they were old friends. Although Sakura was the owner of the camera who was seeking the repair service, she was only speaking up when she was being asked for consent.
That said, the clerk was in frightfully high spirits. He was energetically talking on and on with Kushida carrying a torrent of momentum. Based on the snippets of the conversation that I was able to overhear, it appears that he was asking Kushida out on a date to the movie theater to see the screening of an upcoming female idol concert. He seemed to be an exaggerated otaku, who was skillfully choosing his words to approach Kushdia with a wide range of topics, from how the elections were going to matters regarding idol magazines.
Since Kushida didn't show any signs of annoyance, he probably thought that he could smoothly tempt her into accepting his offer. However, I thought that he was doomed to fail, and that she found the situation distasteful instead.
The clerk seemed to be emotionally excited about being around a cute girl, so the conversation hadn't progressed at all.
As expected, Kushida felt that the situation was crude and pushed the conversation forward, urging Sakura to present him with the digital camera.
The clerk opened the camera and made a simple check inside. He stated that some of the parts had been damaged by the impact of the drop, which prevented the camera's power supply from turning on properly. Fortunately, since the digital camera was purchased after entering the school, it was included under warranty and it was to be repaired free of charge.
All that was left was the process of Sakura filling out her personal information. Or at least it should be, but Sakura's hand came to a stop just before the paper.
Kushida thought something was strange and spoke up. Sakura appeared to be hesitating about something.
I wasn't planning on interjecting, but the way she was acting worried me.
Besides- I looked at the clerk.
The clerk, who had been indulging in conversation with Kushida, was now staring at Sakura.
As both Sakura and Kushida were focused on the form in front of them, they were unaware that the clerk had a terrible look in his eyes that would even make men shudder a little.
"Hold on a second, okay?"
I stood next to Sakura and motioned for her to hand over the pen she was holding.
Looking uneasy, as she didn't understand what I was doing, she handed the pen over to me nonetheless.
"Please contact me when you finish the repairs."
"W-Wait a minute sir. She's the owner of the digital camera, right? It's kind of-"
"There were no problems verifying the manufacturer’s warranty and proving the sale and purchase date, and there shouldn't any legal issues either. Besides, there shouldn't be any issues if the person filling out the form is different than the original purchaser, right?"
I began listing the required information, such as my name and dorm number, before he could even reply.
"Or is there a reason why it has to be her?"
I added on, without shifting my attention off the form.
"N-No. I understand sir… There won't be any problems."
Shortly after, I finished filling out the form and handed it over to him along with Sakura's camera without a hitch. Sakura breathed a sigh of relief.
It would take about two weeks for the camera's repairs to be finished. Looking very disappointed with this, Sakura hung her shoulders in frustration.
"Mr. Shop Assistant was really terrifying… The way he was talking on and on was so imposing that it made me feel a little anxious."
"The way he was talking so incessantly was a little gross, wasn't it…?"
"Well, I didn't personally mind it. Do you know him by any chance? The salesclerk?"
Sakura gave a small nod. It seems that she met the clerk back when she bought the camera.
"What do you think, Ayanokouji-kun?"
Kushida asked for my opinion.
"Well, I guess he may have had a somewhat unapproachable temperament. Especially with girls."
"There was a situation where he tried to speak with me before… Because of that, I was afraid of going to get the repair done alone…"
Kushida made a small sound as if she had realized something and turned towards me with wide eyes.
"Is that why you did that then, Ayanokouji-kun?"
"It's because she's a girl. I thought that she might be hesitant to write down her personal information such as her address or phone number."
Whereas, as a male, there wouldn't be anything to worry about if he had my information instead.
"Th-thanks… Ayanokouji-kun. You've really done me a great favor…"
"No, it was nothing really. All I did was write down my address. I'll get in touch with you when I'm notified that the repairs are completed."
Sakura nodded happily. I felt sorry thinking that was all that it took to make her happy.
"You're watching over Sakura-san pretty closely."
"That's misleading. To be exact, I was watching the distinct mannerisms of the shop assistant. How do I put it… He gave off an atmosphere that screamed 'pervert', didn't he?"
"Ahaha… That's for sure."
It must have been pretty tough on the defenseless Sakura; even Kushida had enough of him.
"Because Kushida-san was with me today, he didn't focus all of his attention on me. Thank you."
If Sakura had faced the clerk one on one, she might have ended up running away.
"If it's something like this, I'm totally willing to lend you a hand. Sakura-san, are you a fan of digital cameras?"
"Yeah… though it wasn't a passion of mine when I was younger. I slowly came to like them after my father got me one before I got into middle school. That being said, I just like to take pictures, I don't know anything about how cameras work at all."
"Understanding how cameras work and enjoying photography are two different things. I think it's great to be passionate about something."
"If I'm remembering correctly, you said that you usually like to take pictures of landscapes right? Do you take pictures of other stuff, like people?"
Sakura backed up quickly, in the blink of an eye. Did I ask an inappropriate question?
I thought that I had asked her something completely natural. Does she take pictures of something else, or is her specialty in taking pictures of scenery or landscape only?
Sakura opened her mouth in shock as her body stiffened.
I see. She doesn't want to give a detailed answer to someone like me.
"T-That, that's because… it's very embarrassing…"
Sakura blushed and looked away in shame as she spoke. Is she taking pictures of something embarrassing?
It was a situation where my imagination ran wild with the possibilities, but it would've been rude to let that show on my face, so I had to bear with it.
"Is that so? Anyways, sorry for this, but can I take a quick look around the store?"
"Are you looking for something?"
I don't know if there's something I'm looking for, or if there's just something on my mind.
"It's fine if the two of you take a look around as well."
"Then let's all go together. Right?"
"Y-Yes. It's my bad for having you come out and accompany me… so I also have some free time."
It appears that both of them ended up deciding to come with me, though I was hoping they wouldn't.
Kushida and Sakura. Looking at the two of them walking side by side, I feel like the distance between them has shortened significantly over the course of today alone. I wish Kushida would share the secrets of how to do that with me.
The two of them engaged in some sort of girls' talk, and in order to avoid disturbing them, I decided to make a check for what I was looking for. I opened up the contact list on my phone.
I had been exchanging my contact information with others recently due to a gambling thing that Ike occasionally forced me to participate in.
Though the number of contacts may be few, there's no doubt that my number of friends has been steadily increasing.
I went down to the S line in my contacts, selected『Sotomura (The Doctor)』, and started a call.
"Doctor, do you have a minute?"
"Hm? Tis quite unusual to be phoned by Ayanokouji-dono. What can I do for you?"
The one on the other side of the call was Sotomura, nicknamed The Doctor. While his nickname makes it seem like he has a good head, in reality, he's just a passionate Otaku. He gathers information on a daily basis, covering a broad range of topics, from the latest bishoujo games to anime and manga.
"That notebook computer you're always using was bought with points from the school, right?"
"It is so. I parted ways with 80,000 points. But what of it?"
"There's something I'm looking to buy in the electronic appliance store on campus."
I told him that I was already in the store and gave an outline of what I was looking for. I explained that although there were many similar products in front of me, I didn't know which one to pick.
While I think it would have been faster to just ask the clerk, that would have been met with various difficulties.
"Ayanokouji-dono… do you figure me as well acquainted with things of that nature?"
"It's fine if you don't know."
"Wait a moment!"
He called out to me as I was about to cut the call.
"I do know. I used to have two of those things back at my parent's house."
"No way. You were making mischief like that back in middle school?"
"Don't misunderstand. At the time I was experimenting for the sake of foreign language studies."
"Well then, if it turns out that I need it, is it fine for me to ask you to set it up?"
"Fufu, It has been entrusted. Someday, it might come to light that I, too, am in need of your assistance."
He was the right person in the right place. For things where I hold no expertise, there's always another person with detailed knowledge to fill the gap. I ended the call and turned to Kushida and Sakura.
"Sorry, I've kept you both waiting."
"You're already finished?"
"I'm just previewing things today. I don't have enough points to buy any electronics anyways."
Kushida abruptly stood still and stared at Sakura's face.
"Sakura-san, have we ever met somewhere before?"
"Eh? N-No… Not that I can remember, but-"
"Sorry. For some reason, when I looked at you just a second ago, I vaguely felt like I had seen you someplace before. Erm, if it's alright with you, would you mind taking off your glasses?"
"Eeeh!? T-This is a bit…! My eyesight is so bad that I can't see anything…"
Sakura refused Kushida's request while waving her hands from side to side in front of her.
"Hey, let's get together sometime, Sakura-san. Not just you and me, but with other friends as well."
Sakura began to say something, but her words trailed off and she didn't make it to the end of her sentence.
It appeared that Kushida also felt it would be troublesome to ask again, so she didn't say anything in particular. No- perhaps she couldn't press the issue anymore?
Eventually, we ended up back at the spot where we met up in the beginning.
"Um… Thank you very much for today. You've really become my savior."
"No, no. It's not anything you need to be that thankful for. Moreover, Sakura-san, if it's alright with you, could you speak normally? It's strange to use honorific language with classmates."
Sakura's choice of words definitely aren't the type one would use with other classmates of the same grade.
However, this wasn't a very simple matter for Sakura, who appeared to be overwhelmed.
"I'm, not really doing it on purpose… am I strange?"
"I'm not saying you've done anything wrong. However, I'd be happier if we could just speak casually."
"Ah, y-yeah… Understood- I mean… I get it. I'll try my best."
I'd expected her to refuse Kushida's suggestion, but Sakura ended up giving a response that made it seem like she had come to terms with it.
I wonder if this is how people get on good terms with one another, one step at a time.
Even against someone like Sakura, who barely left herself open to others, Kushida had managed to steadily shrink the distance between them.
"You don't have to push yourself if you don't want to."
"I-It's okay. Because… I also…"
Sakura cast her eyes downwards as her words quietly trailed off, unable to reach my ears. However, she didn't appear to be feeling discomfort.
Kushida smiled in satisfaction and left things like that without pushing the matter any further.
I guess that was a tactful place to stop.
From the standpoint of someone who's weak at socializing, it would be appreciated for someone to be willing to take the lead and show them what to do, but on the other hand, if it becomes annoying or if you push them too much, they may end up pushing back.
"Well then, see you guys at school."
Kushida spoke up and began moving the conversation towards ending things there for the day. However, unexpectedly, Sakura didn't move at all.
Sakura raised her voice a bit and looked directly at both of us. When we returned her gaze, she quickly looked away.
"About that thing with Sudou-kun… As a thanks for today, I haven’t been completely honest but… if it's alright with you…"
She once again paused for a moment, and then clearly spoke the words.
"… About Sudou-kun. I, I may be able to cooperate…"
Sakura personally stated that she was an eyewitness of the incident.
Kushida and I exchanged glances with each other.
"Sakura-san, are you saying that you saw Sudou-kun's fight with the other students?"
"Yeah… I-I saw the entire thing. Even though I just happened to see it by chance… it really is unbelievable, isn't it?"
"That's not true. However, why are you bringing it up now? It's a completely wonderful thing to discuss, but I don't want you to overdo it. I didn't set things up today to make you feel like you owe us something."
Sakura seemed to be at a loss for words and shook her head from side to side.
The fact that she's chosen to speak up now of all times might be evidence that Sakura cares about Sudou's situation more than anyone. It made me wonder if she wanted to cooperate and come forward with information to get a foothold on the situation.
"Is it really okay? You're not forcing yourself here, right?"
Kushida asked the same thing that I had wanted to ask. She seemed to be thinking along the same lines that I was.
Sakura understood that Kushida's question came from a place of concern, so she nodded apologetically.
"It's alright… I think, I may end up regretting it if I keep silent. I also… I don't want to be a burden to my classmates. But, if I was to speak out as an eyewitness, I would end up standing out anyway… I just hate it… I'm sorry."
After offering many regret-filled apologies, Sakura promised Kushida that she would testify.
"Thank you, Sakura-san. Sudou-kun will definitely be pleased to hear this!"
Kushida grabbed hold of Sakura's hands, and Sakura responded to Kushida with a smile.
Was a new friendship born, right here and now? I wonder.
In any case, it was the moment Sudou had been hoping for. A witness had finally been found.