Ichika always spends the two-hour train ride to the hospital listening to music while doing her homework, albeit with some difficulty: writing on a surface of nothing but her lap proves to be uncomfortable for both her wrist and her neck, and the resulting shaky handwriting would sometimes garner a raised eyebrow from her teacher.
On the odd days that she doesn’t have homework, she’s more than content to stare out the window at the changing scenery and let her mind wander, or she’ll fall asleep hoping that her phone alarm will wake her up before her stop.
She isn’t the type to be particularly restless, so she enjoys the calm. Revels in the silence, even.
So when she steps into the train compartment and sees a familiar tall, blond figure, her fight-or-flight instinct instantly kicks in. Well, in this case, freeze-or-flight. She would probably rather eat her guitar than fight one very noisy Tenma Tsukasa, who, thankfully, hasn’t seemed to have spotted her yet.
Ichika’s eyes slide over to the right, where the door to the next compartment stands. If the plastic wrapping on her bouquet didn’t crinkle too loudly, she could probably make it to the next compartment unseen. Still, she didn’t move an inch. What if he notices me? That’d be so awkward… wait, I could pull my jacket over my head, but that’d draw even more attention… ugh…
But before she can make a decision, she’s halted in her deliberation. As if on cue, Tsukasa spins around the pole as if he’s a street performer— earning strange looks from the few others around him— and makes eye contact with her.
Ichika resists the urge to hide behind her bouquet. Oh no.
She watches as Tsukasa’s eyes widen— almost comically— in recognition. “Hm? OHH!! Well, if it isn’t Ichika!”
The radius of people sending him questioning looks increases further. She cringes. “Hi, Tsukasa-senpai.”
It isn’t that she hasn’t run into Tsukasa before— in fact, he’d often show up while she was visiting Saki, or vice versa. But running into him while on the train’s definitely a first, and she sighs internally, knowing that she’ll have to struggle through two hours of small talk.
Loud small talk, probably.
She fidgets with the ribbon on her bouquet as Tsukasa makes his way over and sits down on the nearest seat. “You’re also here to visit Saki?”
“Me too! Oh, wait, you probably already knew that.” He snaps his fingers with an exaggerated swipe of his arm. “Great! Excellent, even! Today, my sister’s being visited by both her brother and best friend! Saki will be thrilled!”
Ichika smiles and takes the seat opposite him. “The more, the merrier— double the excitement for her.”
They fall into a conversation so painfully small-talk that Ichika’s almost overwhelmed by the anxiety of having to come up with decent replies.
Even though Tsukasa seems to have an endless stream of things to say about his sister— and himself— and thankfully carries the conversation with ease for the first ten minutes, it’s still difficult to converse with someone who you’re not exactly on close terms with for two hours straight, and the two eventually lapse into silence.
It’s short-lived, however, because Tsukasa starts humming out of the blue.
Ichika listens for a while but doesn’t recognize a particular melody. “Tsukasa-senpai… what are you doing?”
He stops humming to reply. “Why, warming up my vocal cords, of course! I must perform for my sister later, after all.”
“Perform? Perform what?”
“Would you like me to demonstrate?”
At Ichika’s vehement declining and “no, Tsukasa-senpai, it’s fine, really—”, Tsukasa breaks out into a laugh. “It was but a joke, of course. Even if I were to rehearse, I would do it in an open area, like… a scramble crossing. I won’t be able to properly demonstrate my capabilities as a performer in such an enclosed space.”
Ichika lets out a sigh of relief. She won’t have to die of second-hand embarrassment today after all.
“You’ve been to Phoenix Wonderland with Saki a few times, right?” She nods, and he continues. “Yeah, so you’ve seen the shows there. Saki loves those. We used to have yearly passes for the Wonderland and she’d beg us to go every single day just for the shows. That’s how much she loved them.”
Tsukasa’s smile turns a little strained— just for a split second— then it’s gone, just like the scenery that they’re flying past. He breaks into another grin and pumps his fist. “Obviously, she can’t go now, but that’s fine! Someone else can perform for her, and that someone is me ! Ha ha ha!”
Ichika watches his expression carefully. He just wants to see Saki happy… There's an underlying sadness in his voice that she, too, can identify with, but perhaps not on the same level that he does. “You definitely make her happy, Tsukasa-senpai,” she tells him. “Saki tells me about how amazing your performances are all the time.”
Tsukasa visibly brightens at that. “Sh-she does? I mean, of course she does! I’m her brilliant big brother, after all.” He straightens in his seat and resumes his vocal warm-ups with renewed vigor.
They’re around half an hour into the ride. Ichika pulls out her math homework at some point and gets stuck on the last question. Tsukasa notices, guides her through the calculations, and keeps on humming.
“Saki mentions you a lot, too,” Tsukasa says suddenly.
Ichika sits up. She’s not sure when Tsukasa stopped humming, but he’d seemed to be deep in thought for a while now. “Wait, really?”
“Yeah. She’s always all Icchan this, Icchan that—” Tsukasa’s voice has raised an octave, and he bobs his head from side to side like he’s trying to imitate an excited Saki— “‘hey, big bro, did you see how pretty Icchan’s flowers were the other day, today Icchan brought me more and she taught me what they meant, she does this for every bouquet she brings, at this point we can probably communicate through flower and then Icchan and I will have our own secret language, how cool!’— yadda, yadda…”
“Oh.” She laughs a little, feeling warm inside. It’s nice to know that a little gesture from her makes Saki so happy. “Yeah… plants just make me really happy, so I’m glad I can share that happiness with her.”
Tsukasa beams. “If it’s not too much of a hassle, please keep bringing her flowers! They make her day.” His eyebrows suddenly raise like he’s remembered something, then he leans in and lowers his voice. "Also, I kind of feel bad for telling you this since I’m supposed to be keeping it secret as her big brother, but… she keeps a booklet— a diary, I think?— and writes in it whenever we visit. She has drawings of your flowers in there, too, annotated with the name and meaning. I only saw ‘cause I snuck in to surprise her one time and saw her talking to herself while writing in it.”
Ichika huffs in amusement. “How’d she react when she saw you?”
“Haha, so I was like, ‘oh, Saki, what’s that? Will you let your big brother have a look?’ and she was all ‘Ahhhh! Nooo, Tsukasa, go away! This is my diary— it’s private! Noooo! Don’t look!’”
The way Tsukasa imitates Saki— with his falsetto, exaggerated expressions, and movements— it’s simply too hilarious. Ichika attempts to stifle a “pfft”, but to no avail, and they both burst into unbridled laughter.
They’re definitely laughing too loudly, and Ichika sees a few people glance up from their phones at them, but she can’t find it in herself to care anymore.
Eventually, they quiet down and Tsukasa wipes at his eye.
“Hey, by the way, out of curiosity. What flowers are those?”
“Ah, these?” She perks up. Flowers are her area of expertise, after all. “They’re coreopsises. I thought they looked like little sunflowers when I first saw them, and I was like, ‘oh, cute!’ so I asked the shopkeeper about them.
“Apparently, they’re also called Golden Joys because of their color and also because of how long they last— did you know they’re also super easy to care for? Oh, also, I googled it, and turns out they’re part of the Asteraceae family, which means ‘star’, so I thought ‘how nice that it has that extra meaning’—”
She realizes she’s rambling and glances up, embarrassed, at Tsukasa, only to find his attention fully focused on what she’s saying. Huh, most people would already be spacing out by now.
“Mhm, I see what you mean by mini-sunflowers, though they do look like stars, too. But what do they mean, or represent…?”
Ichika realizes she’d been so engrossed in gushing about the flower that she’d completely forgotten to tell him the most important thing.
“Oh— uh, they symbolize ‘cheerfulness’, so I was like ‘ooh, how fitting, they’d be the perfect flowers for Saki’.” She pauses, then scrubs at her face embarrassedly with a hand. “Ah, I’m sorry…! I can’t believe I got so excited that I didn’t mention that…”
Tsukasa waves a hand. “It’s fine, it’s fine… You know, you’re sort of like Saki in that way. Sometimes, she’ll get so excited that she never gets to the point of whatever she’s saying, and we have to remind her to.” He scratches his chin with a finger. “Actually, scratch that. Now that I think about it, you two can be practically identical, with the way you talk and act when you feel strongly about anything.”
“Huh, is that so?” But my personality’s completely different from Saki’s…
“Yeah, you both keep going ‘also’ this, ‘also’ that.”
Ichika flushes, replaying their conversation in her head. Do I?
Tsukasa takes her silence as a sign to continue. “Since you grew up together, it’s only natural that you pick up certain mannerisms from each other, ha-ha! Speaking of that, actually—” he scratches his chin— “I haven’t seen Honami or Shiho in a while. How are they doing?”
It’s like a bucket of cold water dunks itself over her head. Ichika’s smile freezes on her face.
Do I tell him the truth? Or do I just… do whatever it is I do with Saki? She looks anywhere but Tsukasa’s inquiring gaze. Her hesitation drags on for too long, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees the way he closes his mouth and swallows, faltering, like he wants to take the question back but doesn’t quite know how to.
“They’re… doing fine,” she eventually settles with, still not looking at him.
Tsukasa exhales through his nose, drops his head.
“I see,” he says quietly. “That’s good to hear.”
They pass through a few tunnels, a city, the countryside. Ichika glances outside, notes the darkening clouds that hadn’t been there some minutes ago, and curses herself internally for forgetting to bring an umbrella.
“I get it,” Tsukasa tells her, drawing her attention back to the compartment. There aren’t many people in the carriage anymore, most having gotten off at previous stops. Those remaining strike lonely figures against the windows, dozing off or just staring listlessly at nothing in particular.
“I get that you probably want to keep it from Saki,” continues Tsukasa, “but it’s fine with me. I understand.”
Ichika says nothing, knowing exactly what Tsukasa’s talking about. She bites her lip and stares at the floor.
Tsukasa sighs. “Ichika, I don’t know exactly what happened with you and Honami and Shiho, but I do know that you aren’t as close as you used to be.” He pauses— seemingly trying to find his words— and runs a hand through his hair. “I won’t pry, and I know it’s not your fault at all. You’re a great friend to Saki, and I know you’d be just as kind to anyone else.
“What I’m trying to say is… Saki knows. She knows that you guys don’t talk anymore. She tells me about all of you, and while she has a lot to say about you in particular, she always ends up cutting herself off and changes the subject when it comes to the other two. It just… sucks to see her so downcast, you know?”
Ichika sees the same heavy guilt that’s weighing on her drop onto Tsukasa’s shoulders, and he does nothing to hide it. She swallows, wanting to say something, but not being able to find the words.
He stops pulling at his bangs and drops his head into his hands. “Sometimes, I’m outside her hospital room and I’m about to go in but I hear her crying and I just— freeze up, you know? I don’t know what to do when she cries. Hell, I feel so bad that I wanna cry.” He grits his teeth like it’s physically hurting him to relive the memories of his sister in pain. “I wish I could do something— I feel like I should’ve done something. I seriously can’t stand seeing her so sad. I get so upset, and resentful, and angry. Why can’t my sister have a normal life? Why can’t she be happy with her friends, like everyone else!?”
Tsukasa tears his hands away from his face and glances up. So does Ichika, and the anguish in his eyes takes her by no surprise, but she feels the need to shrink away anyway, like she’s intruding on someone else’s private moment.
Then again, this is their private moment now. From the way he typically acted, she didn’t think that he’d be the type to break down in front of someone like this. In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if she were the first to see him like this, if only because he knew she’d understand.
She realizes then the sheer control— or, rather, repression— that he keeps over his negative emotions. Like a tightly-corked bottle, she thinks. For how long has he been swallowing his guilt?
“I’m a terrible brother, aren’t I,” Tsukasa whispers.
Outside, a horn blares, and the entire compartment goes dark as they speed into a tunnel. In the dark, while neither of them can see each other, the sorrow that hangs between them is almost tangible.
Say something, Ichika pleads with herself. Say something!
But she can’t, because how do you comfort someone with words that you, too, desperately need to hear?
What Tsukasa’s saying resonates with her in a way that makes her chest hurt, because she does, indeed, understand. What kind of a best friend is she if Saki’s still crying, alone, hiding her tears from everyone else?
“My sister deserves the world.” Tsukasa casts his eyes downward. “But I can’t give it to her. That’s why I wanted to be a star in the first place, you know? Just because I wanted to see her happy. To tell you the truth, sometimes I don’t know if I actually want to become a star. But I don’t want to think about that. Because I’m happy seeing her happy, and that’s all there is to it, really.
“Ichika, do you think I could’ve done something? I wish I could’ve,” he finishes. “Then maybe I wouldn’t feel so helpless.”
He’s not looking for an answer, and Ichika knows it. She gives him one anyway, though it’s probably not what he was expecting.
“I think,” she begins shakily, “I think, that maybe, it might be my fault.”
A light, blinking, sweeps over them. It sets Tsukasa’s face aglow for just a moment, and she sees the anguish not having fully faded, his eyebrows furrowed.
“After Saki was rehospitalized, the three of us still hung out together. But the energy just wasn’t the same anymore, and we all knew it. Honami started hanging out with new people. Shiho grew more distant. And I was just stuck in the middle of it all.”
Her fingers tighten around the bouquet, and the wrapping crumples into itself noisily, digs into her skin uncomfortably.
“I didn’t know what to do! I tried talking to Honami, but she would just make up some excuse and run away from me, and Shiho would just tell me to go away. I thought at first that maybe we were all just really affected, and needed some time away from each other… but now I know that wasn’t the case. I was just watching my friend group falling apart, and I wanted to say something. I should’ve kept trying, but I gave up.
“I gave up,” she repeats, self-disappointment a tidal wave that crashes into her. “I gave up before Saki did— she still hasn’t. I’m a horrible friend.”
Another exhale from Tsukasa— not of agreement, but resignation. These feelings, these thoughts— these are something they share, fortunate or otherwise.
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell her. I can’t be honest with her because I don’t want to be honest with myself. I can’t face Saki. I’m too much of a coward— I can’t bear to see her disappointed expression when I tell her our friend group fell apart and I did nothing to stop it.” Ichika swallows the lump in her throat and falls silent.
With a rumble, they’re out in the open again, and the glaring sun hits Ichika with such force that she can’t help but squeeze her eyes shut. Even when the harsh, bright imprint on the backs of her eyelids fades, she keeps them tightly closed. It’s better than staring directly at Tsukasa while he makes his inevitable verdict.
“...Ichika, I want to thank you.”
Her eyes snap open. “What?”
“I said, thank you. No, seriously—” Tsukasa insists when Ichika shakes her head— “after all we’ve just said. I get it now. We both just want to protect Saki’s smile, right? That’s why I’m grateful.” He gestures to the flowers in Ichika’s hands. “You were always there for her when I couldn’t be, and for that, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Ichika blinks. She’d been expecting something completely different. Wasn’t he… really upset just moments ago? “But… I—”
“—Not your fault,” cuts in Tsukasa. “Not anyone’s fault, really, though I know we both feel otherwise at times. I meant it when I said it wasn’t your fault before, okay? Trust me, you’re the best friend Saki could ever ask for, and I know she’d say the same.”
“What about you!?” she blurts, words flying out of her mouth before she can even think twice. He’s his usual optimistic self again, but… “Tsukasa-senpai, you seriously aren’t giving yourself enough credit. You’re optimistic, and also charismatic, and you also keep everyone’s spirits high, and I have absolutely no idea how you do it. Saki looks up to you so much, did you know that?
“She gets her unrelenting positivity from you. And also, most importantly—” Ichika sets her bouquet down on the seat next to her so she can gesticulate with her hands— “you inspire her to keep fighting. To also keep on looking forward to tomorrow, because there’s always going to be someone there waiting for her, to cheer her up without fail, and that someone is you!”
She pauses to take a breath, and finishes: “I truly think that Saki’s lucky to have a big brother like you, Tsukasa-senpai. You’re a really, really good brother.”
Tsukasa’s silent for a moment, expression indecipherable, and for a second Ichika thinks, oh, I’ve gone and done it, I’ve said too much. I’ve made a fool of myself, Tsukasa-senpai won’t want anything to do with me anymore… but then he laughs— actually laughs!
“Sorry, it’s just that you accentuated every single ‘also’,” he chuckles.
Ichika flushes. She hadn’t been able to find the words before, so she’d been in a hurry to get them all out once she did, talking habits be damned.
“In all seriousness, though,” Tsukasa continues, “thank you. I… really needed to hear that.”
“Of course, Senpai.” Ichika quirks a grin. “Saki would also say the same.”
He catches her intentional emphasis on the word and laughs heartily, the sound warm, genuine, and full of joy. It finally clears up the thick air that had been swimming with their guilt and sorrow, so Ichika laughs, too, and they sit for a bit in comfortable silence.
“Hey, Senpai,” she asks after a while. “Do you think everything will work out in the end?”
“Absolutely,” responds Tsukasa without hesitation. “I just know Saki will make a full recovery soon. She’ll go to school, and you four will sort out whatever difficulties you have… oh, don’t look at me like that,” he says— Ichika must’ve been making a doubtful expression— “that’s just how my sister is. She has a way of resolving matters whether people want it in the first place or not. And I’ll move on to become a star, because I do , in fact, like to make people happy.”
He says the last part with a confident flourish, and Ichika lets out a breathless laugh, relieved.
“Then I’ll trust you, Tsukasa-senpai,” she declares. “And I’ll trust Saki, too. She’ll be healthy and happy, and I’ll always be there for her through it all.”
Tsukasa nods, placing a hand over his heart. “Thank you, Ichika. If I were alone, I wouldn’t be so sure if I could do it. But if it’s with her best friend, we can definitely protect Saki’s smile together.”
Overhead, the compartment’s speakers announce their stop, and Ichika gathers the bouquet of coreopsises into her hands.
“Let’s keep protecting Saki’s smile, as always,” she echoes.
It’s only when they’re about to step outside and are greeted by faint pitter-pattering that Ichika remembers she’d forgotten to bring an umbrella. She glances, irked, at the hazy gray clouds just barely obscuring the sun, then hopefully at Tsukasa.
“Tsukasa-senpai, did you happen to bring an umbrella?”
“Of course,” he says, already reaching into his bag. “A future star must always be prepared! Why, do you not have one?”
“Ah, yeah… It was still sunny when I left, and I forgot to check the weather forecast, so I didn’t bring mine.”
“That won’t do… you’ll have to make a habit of checking it from now on,” Tsukasa tuts, moving the umbrella over so Ichika’s also shielded from the rain, and she nods gratefully. “What would you have done without one? Just let yourself get soaked? That’s an express train to catching a cold, you know.”
Ichika laughs, tucking the bouquet further into herself to protect the flowers from the rain. Actually, that had happened to her and Saki once. She ended up giving Saki her jacket, and the two of them had to use their textbooks as shelter as they darted to the Tenma household. She debates telling Tsukasa this, then decides against it, already envisioning his horrified expression and incessant reproaching.
“You’re acting like you’re my big brother, Senpai,” she opts for instead.
“It’s a package deal,” he fires back. “You make friends with the cheerful Tenma Saki, you get the ever-protective Tenma Tsukasa, and that’s that.”
They keep bickering on the road like siblings, while Ichika marvels at the spontaneity of their exchange— it’s as if they’d known each other for ages. Technically, we have, but I haven’t seen him as anything past Saki’s brother, she thinks. It wouldn’t be so bad to be friends with him, though right now he’s acting more like an older sibling than anything.
They arrive at the hospital soon enough, and Tsukasa stops just before the doors.
“You head in now,” he tells Ichika. “Make sure to make my sister smile, okay?”
“Wait, are you not coming with?”
“Nah. Saki’ll have a hard time trying to talk to both of us at the same time. I’ll walk around for a bit, then visit her later, so she has people keeping her company for longer, yeah?”
He gives her a little wave, then begins to walk away, slipping his free hand into his pocket.
Staring at his retreating figure, Ichika realizes belatedly that she’s forgotten something. “...Wait, Tsukasa-senpai!” She rushes forward, only to stop when she realizes she’d be stepping out into the rain.
Tsukasa turns at the sound of his name, notices her sudden halt, and immediately walks back. “Hmm? What is it?”
“I just wanted to say thank you, Tsukasa-senpai. For everything.”
Tsukasa blinks slowly at her, then gives her a radiant smile.
“Thank you too, Ichika. I’m glad that we got to know each other better on this train ride,” he says, ruffling her hair affectionately.
He then turns and steps back out into the rain— without interference, this time.
Ichika’s about to turn around as well when she hears him yell, “Oh, and, drop the ‘Senpai’. Just call me Tsukasa!”
“Okay!” she yells back.
As she watches his retreating figure, a few loose strands fall into her face— probably from the way Tsukasa had mussed up her hair. She reaches up to brush them back, and unexpectedly finds a… card?
She plucks it from her head with great confusion, then bursts into laughter when she reads what’s on it.
The card appears to be Tsukasa’s business card. It has his phone number and email on the back, and on the front:
☆ WORLD (future) STAR ☆ (the word “future” is in extremely small letters, Ichika notices with no small amount of amusement)
SING! AND! DANCE!
She’s still laughing when she slides the card into the side compartment of her bag.
“I believe in you, Tsukasa!” she calls after him, even though he's probably already too far away to hear her. “You’ll be a star that’ll make a lot of people smile one day.”
But just for now, you can leave it to me to protect Saki’s smile.
And with that, she spins on her heel and steps into the hospital, bouquet of golden coreopsises in hand.