Paradox Live Fan Book Short Story - The Cat's Whiskers

It wasn't even ten o' clock at night yet, but all of the customers had cleared out for the night. In lieu of conversation, the interior of Bar 4/7 was filled with the soft and comfortable sound of jazz piano, the roll of ice in Yohei's glass as he twirled it around, Ryu's gentle snores from where he slept curled up on the couch, and the brush of Saimon's fingers skimming against the pages of a paperback book. And, most of all--


Was Shiki's long and heavy sighs as he set himself to sweeping the floor.


Yohei set his glass down on the counter with a loud clatter. "Oi, Shiki. Knock it off with the sighing. We're already deserted, we don't need to be any gloomier."

Shiki's shoulders shook in fear as he held the broom closely to his chest. "S-sorry..."

Suddenly, Ryu leapt up from the sofa and clung to the terrified Shiki. "Ah, what's Shikki sighing for? Do you want Genius Bartender Ryu-kun to make you a special drink~? Or maybe do a special dance together to raise your spirits~?" Ryu drew his face in close to Shiki and blinked owlishly.

"Ah, uh... no, I'm fine, we don't have to do either..." Shiki said.

"Well, according to the research of Great Detective Ryu-kun," Ryu said, and sniffed at Shiki's neck, "Shikki has been in Downer-Shikki mode since... last Thursday!"

Saimon closed his paperback book and rested his cheek on his hand, and he gave Shiki a concerned look. "You certainly have seemed to be rather melancholy lately," he said.

"Oh, uh, n-no..." Shiki said.

"Ain't he always a downer, though?" Yohei said.

"Please be mindful of Shiki's feelings. You don't have to put it like that, Yohei," Saimon colded Yohei. Then, he crossed over to Shiki and placed a hand on his thin shoulder. "Shiki, if something is troubling you, why not tell us about it? You don't have to keep it to yourself."

Once put on the spot by Saimon's all-encompassing gaze, Shiki knew that there was no way he could wriggle his way out of this one. Once asked directly, he gave a prompt answer. "Um... the thing is..."


"Sports day?" Yohei repeated, a cigarette hanging off of his frowning lips. "You've been depressed because of your school's sports day? What are you, a grade schooler?"


"Yohei," Saimon chided Yohei once more.

Shiki's high school sports day was coming up in one week, and Shiki -- who was not particularly good at sports -- was worried that he was going to cause trouble for his classmates.

"What did you do last year, then?" Yohei said.

"Um, well, last year, I..." Shiki began.

"Shikki skipped school last year, right~?" said Ryu.

"Then just skip it again this year," said Yohei.

"Last year, I was supposed to participate in the obstacle course, so nobody was really relying on me for anything," said Shiki. "But this year, I'm supposed to be in the three-legged relay race... if I skip school that day, then I'll be causing trouble for my partner and everyone else in the relay... I'm not good at running even on my own, let alone with my leg tied with someone else... and I feel like everyone's way more into it this year than they were last year... I don't want to drag them down." Shiki miserably swept the same spot over and over, slumped his shoulders, and let loose a weak whimper. "And moreover... the person I'm partnered with is a girl... there's absolutely no way I can run a three-legged race with a girl..."

Shiki looked like he wanted to disintegrate on the spot. Saimon tilted his head and crossed his arms in silence, contemplating a course of action. Then, as though struck by inspiration, the corners of his mouth pulled upwards, and he announced in a spirited voice:

"You know, tomorrow is Sunday. Why don't we all just practice together tomorrow?"

Shiki snapped his head up at the suggestion. "P-practice? But I... I can't make all of you use up your Sunday on me..."

"I just want to make you feel a little better, Shiki. You should feel free to rely on us more," Saimon said.

"O-owner..." Shiki said, staring at Saimon, and tears began to gather in his eyes.

Ryu flailed his arms and legs all over, and exclaimed, "Yaaay! Practice practice practice! Ryu-kun will get the real Spartan experience!"

"Wow," Yohei said flatly, sipping his whiskey. "Sounds like you guys are gonna be real busy. Have fun."

"You will be joining us, of course, Yohei," Saimon said without skipping a beat.

"Wh-- you can't be serious," Yohei said.

"Of course I am," Saimon said. "Well, with that decided, we may as well close up shop a little early today."


The next day was a beautiful Sunday, blessed with a bright sun and chirping birds. Four people, all having wildly different experiences at the moment, gathered in a river-facing park that was quite close to Bar 4/7.

"Godfuckingdammit, my head hurts," Yohei said with a yawn, one hand stuffed in his pocket. "I'm usually asleep this time of day..." The tracksuit that he had dug out of the depths of his closet did not suit him at all, and he was very close to dropping his cigarette out of drowsiness.

"We should do some warmups first," Saimon said. "We don't want to hurt ourselves before the main event." By contrast -- possibly because he went to the gym on a daily basis -- Saimon looked perfectly at home in workout clothing.

The four of them took a brisk jog around the park under Saimon's watchful eye, and then they split into pairs to do some stretches.

"Owowowowowowow!" Yohei hissed as Saimon, completely unmoved by his plight, pressed down on his back as he stretched.

"You're very stiff, Yohei. Your body is going to start breaking down one of these days if you don't start taking better care of it."

Yohei attempted to retaliate by putting all his effort into shoving Saimon once it was his turn to, but because Saimon worked out daily, he did not accomplish anything and Saimon did not seem to be pained at all.

On the other hand, the pair consisting of Ryu and Shiki were making some cries of their own.

"That hurts! Ryu-kun, my elbow doesn't bend that way!!"

"Oh? Are you sure about that~? But I think it would be way more convenient if it did!"

At this rate, Shiki was convinced that he wasn't going to live through practice, let alone live long enough to participate in the sports festival... ... you know, maybe that would work out for the best... he thought for just a moment as the pain grew and grew. Just then, a black lump of fur popped its head out from inside Ryu's sweatshirt. He immediately relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Ryu! The fuck did you bring a damn cat for!!" Yohei yelled.

"Hmm~! Well, I heard Black-Spotted Demon King DX[1] say that he wanted to come to support Shikki too~!"

The black cat -- Black-Spotted Demon King DX, who everybody except Ryu generally called Spot -- leapt out of Ryu's shirt and stretched out happily. Then, he jumped onto and curled up on his favorite lap: Shiki's.

"There, there... there's a good boy, Spot..." Shiki said, gently stroking the cat's back.

"Oi! What's with the slacking!? We're ain't here practicing for our own sakes!" Yohei said. "Oi! Shiki! Ryu! Get over here and gimme your legs!"

Once they did, Yohei pulled a hand towel out of his pocket and roughly, forcefully tied Shiki's left leg and Ryu's right leg together with it. Shiki tried to put his hand around Ryu's waist, but Ryu kept moving around restlessly and it felt weirdly wrong, and he groped around blindly.

(Why is this so weird...? What's with Ryu's torso...?)

"Oh!? Shikki is touching Ryu-kun all weird-like!"

"Sorrysorrsorry!!" Shiki cried and pulled his hand away hurriedly.

"Oi," Yohei said. "Don't go doin' that when you're paired up with a girl on the actual day-of," Yohei said.

"I-I won't!!" Shiki said.

"Ryu, could you please stand up straight?" Saimon said. "At attention."

In response to Saimon's words, Ryu snapped upright. "Attention!" he said, but then-- "... Attention? Tension, tension, tension is exhausting~." And then he slumped back down again just a few moments later.

Shiki was quickly coming to the conclusion that he had no choice but to just try and make this work as best he could. "Ryu, can we...? Let's... let's start with the left foot... or, no, I mean, my left foot, so that's going to be your right foot..."

"The fuck you saying?" Yohei said. "You mean startin' with the inside leg and then out?"

"R-right. Ryu-kun, let's start with that leg first, okay?"

"Okey dokey!!" Ryu said.

With Yohei standing behind them, Shiki got ready to finally start. Determined, he put his hand around Ryu's waist and took a deep breath. "Okay, Ryu-kun...! Ready, go...!"

For the first instant, it seemed like it was going to work. And then, they actually tried to take the first step.

"Ahahahahahaha!" Ryu laughed.


Ryu ran with the most bizarre running form. He swung his arms and his legs in an irregular rhythm, almost like he was skipping. Shiki, miraculously, managed to struggle along with Ryu's pace for maybe three meters, and then promptly fell flat on his face.

"Ah, Shikki, what's wrong~?" Ryu said, noticing a few seconds on delay that Shiki, attached to his right leg, was covered in dirt and on the ground. Ryu stared into his face with an odd expression, as though not comprehending what had just happened.

"... ugh..." Shiki moaned.

"Shiki, are you hurt?" Saimon said, untying the hand towel from around their legs and brushing some of the dirt away from Shiki's face.

"Um... thank you very much, I'm fine..." he mumbled.

"Hm, hm! I wonder if Shikki wanted to take a nap!? It is a beautiful day... Ryu-kun might be getting a little bit sleepy, too." Saying this, Ryu walked over to where the cat was laying on the gently sloping grass. "Freedom!"

"Perhaps it was a bit too high of an ask to expect Ryu to pair up with you. Yohei, would you mind taking over?" Saimon said.

"So you're just gonna stand by and watch, Professor?" Yohei said.

"Well, Shiki and I are far too different in height for me to be his practice partner," Saimon said.

"Whoop de doo for you," Yohei grumbled, irritated. He put out his cigarette in a portable ashtray and, with some reluctance, set to tying the hand towel around his and Shiki's ankles. He tugged on the ends of the cloth to check that it was fastened securely, and satisfied that there were no problems, he stood up quickly.

"A'ight, so a three-legged race is basically just running with extra steps," Yohei said. "Just follow my lead and you just gotta keep up. Alright! Let's go!"

Without waiting for Shiki's response, he took off at a run.

"Eh-- wait-- Master! You're-- fast! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!"

Lead was a very diplomatic way of putting it. It was more that Shiki was being dragged along by Yohei, who was bolting forward without a moment of regard for his partner. Shiki was flailing his legs in a desperate attempt not to fall over. It was like he was being pushed down a steep slope; his legs were completely out of his control, and even if he had to stop, there was absolutely nothing he could do to pull back or slow down.

"... how peaceful," Saimon said. He was sitting on the grass, petting the cat on his lap while watching Shiki suffer. He took out a stainless steel bottle and slowly sipped on the coffee he had brought with him. He took in the sounds of Shiki's voice -- whom he rarely heard be so loud -- and savored the taste of coffee and the bright blue sky. "... but he really is doing an impressive job of keeping up with Yohei," he said to himself. He was quite impressed, but it was not to last. Right on cue, Shiki fell on his face, and Saimon shook his head and murmured oh dear to himself.


What in the world am I even trying to accomplish?

Shiki sat on the grass, holding back tears, picking at a bento that Yohei had prepared for him. He was sore all over and scraped up from where he had fallen down, and he noticed a hole in his clothes that he would have to sew up later...

"Shiki, are you alright?" Saimon said, in the middle of working through his own bento; Shiki shrugged apologetically.

"So why don't you get off your ass and pair up with him after lunch?" Yohei said. "Mister Owner."

"Oh, well, I'd love to," Saimon said, "but the difference in our height is too extreme. It's even greater than the difference between you and him, Yohei, and we know how that worked out. Ryu is probably the closest in size, but his running style is... idiosynchratic."

"You say that, but you're just a shit athlete, aren't you?" Yohei said. "Are all those muscles you've got from workin' out are just purely decorative?"

While Yohei was in the middle of razzing Saimon, Ryu peered at Shiki's bento. "Does Shikki not like tamagoyaki~? Well, Ryu-kun will eat it for you, okay?"

"R-Ryu-kun, stop it!" Shiki said, hurriedly pulling his bento out of Ryu's reach.

"Ryu!" Yohei barked. "Eat your own lunch, stop scavengin' around other peoples'! You got everything he's got! And you!" he said accusingly at Shiki. "You said you wanted the sausages to be cut into the little crab shapes! I made 'em crab shaped! And you haven't eaten a single one! I did that shit while suffering from a hangover! Eat that shit or I'm gonna beat your asses!"

"Oh, you made ours crab-shaped too," Saimon said, inspecting his own lunch and the crab-shaped sausages therein with admiration. "How nice. By the way, Yohei, I'm the kind of person who likes to save my favorite food for last."

"I-I'm the same way, Owner," Shiki piped up.

"What? What's up with that!? You're supposed to eat it first when you're the hungriest, that's when it tastes the best!"

In the end, Ryu -- humming "pretty pretty yellow color~!" -- plucked Shiki's carefully-saved rolled omelette out of his bento and popped it into his mouth. Living with Ryu meant that usually Shiki was used to his eccentricities; but today, for one reason or another, he felt as though if he opened his mouth for even a moment then he might start to cry.

He turned away from Ryu and looked around at the peaceful park scenery surrounding them. It felt odd for the four of them to be spending Sunday afternoon at the park. They weren't really family, nor were they friends per se. Owner was usually busy working on papers whenever he wasn't teaching, and Master worked the bar until dawn. Shiki already felt bad enough that he had to ask Yohei to pack him lunches on weekdays, but today he had had to ask Master to make lunches for all four of them -- on a weekend, no less -- and to accompany them to practice in the park, even though he hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep.

Owner, Master, I'm sorry, I'm not worth all this trouble...

The sky was bright blue and the sun was warm, and Shiki couldn't help but feel like he was being mocked.

Maybe he shouldn't have brought up the sports day at all. This practice wasn't going to help him at all, but there was no way he could just call it off and ask to go home now. Maybe if he had just been blessed to be a bit more taller, everything would have worked out right, but he truly was the kind of person who just causes problems for everyone just by being alive...

Yohei and Saimon were still embroiled in their argument about what order you're supposed to eat food in. Shiki grasped his knees and hung his head as though to try and hide from the sun. He could feel Ryu tugging on his shirt, but he simply couldn't gather the energy to pay him any mind.

What am I supposed to do? I'm...

"What's this? Are you guys having a picnic?"

A bright, bubbly voice hit Shiki's melancholy ears. When he lifted his head, he was met with the sight of Reo beaming down at him.

"You are! Everyone's eating lunch on the grass!" Reo said. "Wow, Kanbayashi-san, you look like a total doofus in that tracksuit. That's great! Let me take a picture!"

"Oi, who said you could take pictures? Knock that off. The fuck, what're you doing here?" Yohei said.

"Just going for a walk~. Hold on, lemme just send this to everyone real quick~!" Reo said, smiling as he tapped away at his phone.

Then, Saimon spoke up, a thoughtful expression on his face. "I realize this may be a strange question," he said, putting his hand over his mouth and looking Reo over from head to toe, "but how tall are you, Reo-kun?"

"Huh? Me?" Reo said. "I'm 162 cm. Totally adorbs, right?" Reo was then taken aback as Saimon quite suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders. "Uh, can I help you? Why do you ask? You're kinda freaking me out..."


How could this happen to me?

"Ready, and go! One two, one two!"

Shiki, with Reo at his side taking charge, desperately ran in time with the shouts.

Reo's pinkish hair occasionally brushed by Shiki's nose, and he couldn't help but think that it smelled absolutely fantastic, like nothing he had ever smelled before. He thought it must look totally idiotic for the poppy, glamorous Reo to be standing side by side with a gloomy downer like himself.

However, just as Saimon had suspected, the height difference between himself and Reo was much more managable-- and come to think of it, Reo had a pretty similar physique to the girl he had been partnered with. It was much easier to match his pace, and it made for far better practice compared to his attempts to run with Ryu or Yohei.

"Phew!" Reo said. "Shikki, let's take a break. You did a lot better than I thought you were going to, considering you were saying you were totally hopeless."

Shiki had no idea what he could even hope to talk about with such a bright, personable person as Reo. He glanced over to the other three as though looking for help. Saimon -- for whom Reo's arrival had been a huge relief -- was playing with the cat and Ryu with a foxtail. Yohei, meanwhile, was laying on his back on the ground with a towel over his face, fast asleep. Realizing that nobody was paying the slightest bit of attention to him, Shiki untied the towel around his and Reo's legs and sat down beside him.

"I'm sorry to take up your precious Sunday..." he said.

"Eh, it's fine. I was just taking a walk, after all, you weren't interrupting anything!" Reo said. "And besides, you know that night students don't get to do the sports day, right? It's kinda fun to get to experience a bit of it by proxy by practicing with you."

"I see..."

Reo, Hokusai, and Satsuki from Akan Yatsura attended the same high school as Shiki; while Shiki attended during the day as a full-time student, they were part time students who attended at night. Since Shiki left school around the same time they went in, he often saw them lingering around with a jovial air about them.

"We go to the same school, but the daytime and nighttime students are totally different," Reo said. "But it's fine. I like the freedom that I get from going part-time, and I'm really glad that Aniki lets us go to school in the first place. Even if I'm always just playing games in class!" Reo laughed.

Shiki couldn't shake the feeling that if Reo was in his class, he would be an extremely popular student and a standout star during the sports day. But he couldn't have that experience at all.

"We've still got to do a lot of assignments, considering we're part time," Reo said. "Satsuki's always in a tizzy about it. But, hey, Shikki, what's your best subject?"

Shiki thought about it for a moment. After a bit of contemplation, he said, "I dont't know if I'm like, great at it, but I suppose I'm good at math...?"

"For real?" Reo said. "Math is like my worst subject! Can I get you to help me out with some of my homework?"

"Um... if you're alright with it being me helping you, I guess..." Shiki said.

"Yay!" Reo cheered, throwing his hands up in an exaggerated show of joy.

"Um... I... I'll do my best," Shiki said. Then he stood up, and turned to look at Reo. "Reo-kun, is it alright for me to ask for a little more of your time...?"

Reo stood up and stretched. "Sure thing. Let's give it one more go!"

Saimon, with paperback in hand, watched from afar as Shiki and Reo returned enthusiastically to practicing. "Ah, youth," he said to himself.


The wounds from Shiki's many falls and tumbles had turned into itchy scabs, and he felt utterly out of place and uncomfortable wearing his hachimaki.

The day of the sports festival was another beautiful day. Shiki watched the clouds drift by as he listened to the players make their oaths. As the students spread out on the field to warm up, Shiki caught the eye of the girl with whom he was partnered. She looked anxious as well, and they nodded their acknowledgement to each other.

Following his practice with Reo, they had run a race against Saimon and Yohei (who were, for whatever reason, quite displeased about having to do this) and practiced passing the baton off and the like, all the way until the sun had gone down. Perhaps because of all the practice he had done, Shiki was no longer quite as nervous in his gym class towards the girl he was paired with, and he had even (discreetly) given her a bit of advice.

He joined his classmates in applauding for the other contestants as the sports day began. He was somewhat taken aback by how excited the crowd got when one of the boys from his class took first place in the 100-meter dash. Shiki hesitated a bit, and then joined the crowd in clapping. He wasn't going to be able to relax until it was his turn... perhaps it was good that the three-legged relay event was in the morning.

"Wah~! Look at all the flying bread! Can Ryu-kun eat it, too?"

A familiar voice cut through Shiki's nervousness, and he pricked up his ears. He couldn't see where they were, but he could hear them talking.

"Hell no," said Yohei. "And that bread isn't flyin'. Look again."

"Ryu," Saimon said. "That's a competition called the bread-eating race[2]. The person who manages to eat the hanging bread first wins."

"Eh? Then Ryu-kun wants to do that, too! He'll aim for the Olympics! Promising new star Ryu-kun, infiltrating the athletes... to eat!! Munchmunchmunch!"

"Ow! Fuck! Stop biting me! Shit, when Shiki's not around you start botherin' me instead...!" Yohei hissed. "Anyway, there anywhere I can smoke around here...?"

Shiki couldn't help but smile, so he turned his head downwards and hid his face so that his classmates wouldn't think he was beiing strange. They hadn't said that they were coming this morning! In fact, they had sent him off to school without giving anything away.

"Hey, where's Shikki~?" Ryu said. "When's his turn~?"

"Looking at the program listing... it should be the next event," Saimon said. "Shiki will probably be nervous, so let's watch him stealthily and then head home."

Everyone had been thinking of him and trying to keep quiet... Shiki was a bit sad that their voices were retreating. And then:

"Hey, look, it's the cheerleading squad! This place is totally different by day, isn't it? Satsuki-chan, look at all the girls! Isn't this great? Come on, look, look!"

"HAH!? I'm not interested in... in any of that! Gym uniforms, or cheer girls, or a-anything like that! Right, Hokusai!?"

"Black Spotted Demon King DX... cute."

"Guess Hokusai's more into cats than girls, huh..."

Shiki had been trying not to look at the source of the voices, but in his surprise he turned around to see who had come along with the three whose voices he was used to hearing. Apparently, Reo had come along to support him and had brought Satsuki and Hokusai along as well. And more than that, he could see Spot's head peeking out from inside of Ryu's jacket.

Shiki had no idea that this many people were going to come to watch him. He felt like the pressure was on even more than it was, but he was more surprised at how happy he felt to have everyone's support. He had never been good at sports ever since he was a child, and so track-and-field day and the sports festival were often his least favorite days of the school year.

As everyone headed off to join the cheering section, Shiki noticed Reo walking behind him. He secretly made eye contact, smiled, and mouthed do your best.

Shiki smiled back shyly and clenched his hands into determined fists.

The time finally came for all of the athletes to assemble. Waved off by his classmates, Shiki headed to the point where the students who would be participating in the three-legged relay were to gather. When he arrived at the place for the third leg runners of the relay, and when he was getting tied together with the girl he was partnered with, the girl said, "are all of those people cheering for you, Ando-kun?"

He looked where she was indicating, he couldn't help but sigh at what he saw. Ryu and the three boys from Akan Yatsura were holding up a banner that read "SHIKKI IS THE CHAMPION" in sloppy, childlike handwriting. Behind them stood Saimon, smiling gently, and Yohei, looking utterly bewildered.

They had done this in secret...?

Reo, noticing that Shiki was looking at them, grinned mischieviously.

Reo-kun, you really are...

Shiki took a deep breath. "Yeah, they are. It's a little over the top, though..." he said. He could have pretended that he didn't know them, but he didn't, even if he felt like he was going to disintegrate from the embarrassment. At the same time, though, he was also very touched, and he wanted to brag about his friends a little bit.

"I think it's really sweet of them to be your cheering squad. We have to do our best," the girl said.

Shiki nodded his agreement.

The time of the race was getting closer by the minute. His tension was at an all-time high, but he felt remarkably calm and collected. After the call to take their places, the sound of the starting pistol shot rang out and the first set of runners took off.

Shiki and his partner were third in the relay. They gently put their arms around each other's shoulders and got ready.

Their class handed the baton off to the second leg of the relay, currently maintaining third place out of eight. The second pair of runners didn't skip a beat, and soon it was time for Shiki and his partner to take the baton.

"And... go! One two, one two!"

They took off running.

It wasn't bad at all. They were even more in tune with each other now than they had been while they were practicing in gym class. The backs of the pairs running ahead of them were drawing in closer-- could it be that they were closing the gap? Soon, they'd hand of the baton to the next runners. They were almost there...

Ryu and Reo grabbed either end of their cheering banner and jumped up and down, shouting:

"Fight, Shikki, fight!"

"Do your best, Shikki!"

"Shiki, come on! Push through!" Satsuki cried, pumping his fist in the air to the side, and Hokusai, still holding the cheering banner, watching the race with a serious, intent expression.

Shiki and his partner, who had taken the baton while their team was in third place, were not spectacularly fast per se, but they were moving at a steady clip with well-matched footsteps and they were closing distance between them and their handoff quickly.

"The fuck, Shiki, you're doin' it!" Yohei called.

"You're doing great! Good luck, Shiki!" Saimon said.

Overcome by excitement, Ryu -- jumping up and down and waving the cheering banner all around -- slammed the back of his head right into Yohei's mouth.

"Fuck, that hurts! Ryu! Calm your ass down!!"

Yohei bit his lip as Ryu's head hit him in the mouth, and in immediate retaliation he slapped Ryu upside the back of the head. At that moment, a black furry mass burst out of Ryu's jacket and went tearing off like a shot.

"B-Black Spotted Demon King DX!"

It all happened in a moment, but it felt like it was all in slow motion.

Spot had been startled by the shock of Yohei hitting Ryu, and he bolted towards Shiki, his very favorite person. Shiki, realizing what was happening, tried to jerk away to avoid stepping on him, and this caused him and his partner to lose their balance and go crashing to the ground. The air filled with the spectator's shocked cries. Shiki was only a few meters short of handing the baton off, but he fell heavily to try and break the fall for the girl he was partnered with.

"He has got to learn to be more competitive..." Yohei muttered, staring into the middle distance.


Shiki supposed that things had been going a little bit too well. Owner, Master, Ryu-kun... with the help of all these wonderful people, he had accidentally started to let it go to his head. His knees, his arms, and... really, every other part of his body hurt terribly with an aching soreness. The school nurse gave him a disapproving look as he made new wounds over the ones that were already there.

The last pair in the relay race hadn't been able to recover from their mistake, and so Shiki's class finished the raace in last place. When he came back from the school infirmary, nobody blamed him -- in fact, a lot of people said that he did really well -- but when his class finished second overall during the closing ceremonies, he was certain that everyone was thinking, we probably would have won if Ando hadn't tripped.

Around this time, all of his classmates were going to go out to karaoke or to the family restaurant out in front of the station. They politely invited him along, saying, "You should come, too, Ando-kun." But there was no way he could accept. Even if he hadn't fallen, he would probably still have turned them down. It was lucky that his partner hadn't been injured. The thought of her getting so much as a single scratch would have made him feel sickeningly guilty.

When he pushed open the door of Bar 4/7, it felt unusually heavy. Ryu leapt out to greet him with an enthusiastic, "Welcome back, Shikki!" The surprise made Shiki take a step back, and Spot entangled himself around Shiki's ankles. The lights, which were usually turned down low, now shone bright. Looking around the bar, it looked totally different from usual.

A banner reading "Well Done, Shikki" hung on the wall, and the sweet scent of sugar wafted through the air. It was totally at odds with the usual mature atmosphere of Bar 4/7.

"The fuck you just standing there fore? Put your stuff down," Yohei said bluntly. "First plate's up," he said, and placed a dish down on the counter.

"Pancakes..." Shiki murmured, and indeed, a fresh stack of steaming-hot pancakes sat on the plate before him.

Back when Saimon had picked him up, when he had nothing else in the world left, he had eaten the pancakes that Saimon made for him that day, and he truly believed that there was nothing more delicious in the entire world.

"Shiki, you did very well," Saimon said, giving Shiki a gentle hug around the shoulders.

"Um... but I fell down, and I failed everyone... and after you all went out of your way to practice with me... I'm sorry," Shiki said.

"No, it was our responsibility," Saimon said. "We should have been keeping a closer eye on Spot. That wasn't fair to all the work you put in. I'm the one who should be sorry. And besides that, Shiki, you protected both Spot and your partner from getting hurt. That can't have been easy."

"I'd rather I get hurt than let someone else get hurt..." Shiki said, sheepishly turning away and picking Spot up.

"I think that's truly admirable, Shiki. You have a kind heart, and the courage to let yourself get hurt rather than let someone else be hurt." As Saimon spoke, he scratched under Spot's chin. "But I want you to find a way that doesn't lead to you getting hurt, either."

"Owner..." Shiki mumbled.

"Hey, you two," Yohei cut in, interrupting Saimon and Shiki's little moment. "If you two are done with your heart to heart, can you stop being depressing and instead give me a hand?" He was hard at work frying up pancakes in the kitchen.

"How about Ryu-kun takes over the pancakes~?"

"Absolutely not."

"Ohhh, is Master being... shy~?"

"No, I'm bein' fuckin' serious."

Saimon and Shiki couldn't help but laugh at Ryu and Yohei's back and forth.

"By the way, Ryu-kun... you've been taking a bunch of pictures on my phone, what are you...?" Shiki said. "... ah..." Ryu had been decorating pancakes according to his... unique sensibilities, and had taken a bunch of photos of them, which Shiki was going through now. "Ryu-kun... are you sure that octopus in pancakes is a good idea...? And what's that blue sauce...? And... what is that really fuzzy green thing...?"

"Oh? That's a trade secret, Shikki! If I told you, I might have to kill you so that information doesn't leave this room!! Are you sure you wanna know?"

"Um, no, that's fine... wow, you... took a lot of pictures... I'm gonna have to clean up my phone storage..."

"Since we're all here, why don't we take a picture together?" Saimon said. Shiki handed him his phone and in return Saimon gave him a plate of Ryu's special pancakes, and called everyone in close.

With a little bit of urging, Yohei came out of the kitchen and joined them for the picture. "You really sure you want to sit that close to those things...?" he muttered, eyeing the plate suspiciously.

But the four of them managed to get into frame and take a picture together.

"There. Isn't that a great picture?" Saimon said, offering Shiki's phone back to him.

Shiki looked at the screen, and saw his own smiling face with the plate of pancakes right at the center, and he thought to himself that he looked very happy.


But he was really tired, and his legs felt like they might fall out from under him at any moment.

He hadn't been able to get a good nights' sleep in ages. The nights were heavy and long, and he -- so prone to weakness -- was always overwhelmed by them. But tonight, for once, he felt like he could chase away those persistent nightmares and sleep straight through until morning, with a pleasant sluggishness in his limbs and a lingering scent of sweet happiness on the air.

[1] Kurobuchi Maou DX. Because everyone else refers to him as Kuro, I think them calling him "Spot" is funny.
[2] This is a thing. Idk if I can explain it, so just... google パン食い競走 I guess?

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