Standing before the coffee server furnished in the break room, he pressed the “Cafe Latte” button.

As no one else was around, the familiar sound of the machine seemed a tad too obnoxious.

Soon enough, the coffee, brewed at just the right amount and concentration, was poured into a mug lined with creaming powder, yielding the pale brown liquid.

Within this company, many people find it unusual that he is a person who drinks only sweet coffee, yet it is probably because many of those who like it black are one of the many who like to smoke in the first place.

He doesn’t smoke, so it’s hard for him to relate.

……I always had a sweet tooth to begin with.

His black hair, cut at a moderate length, is such a way that it doesn’t give the impression of sloppiness even without a proper getup.

On top, he wore a shirt, no tie, and on the bottom, slacks and walking shoes.

His attire conveyed a crisp impression of dynamism while still looking neat and clean.

Although his features still hold traces of youth, he still bears the airs of an adult.

Standing by the window, Ichigo Kugiyama gazes outside as he sips his latte from his cup.

Voluminous clouds with a touch of dark colours drift across the high blue sky ── a scene characteristic of the days preceding summer.

This is the rainy time of year.

And to think that Golden Week was just a while ago, and now Obon is just around the corner in August.

……I guess the next peak season is almost here too.

As he thought about this, Ichigo released a yawn.

“Having sleep troubles?”

Before he noticed, another person had come to the break room.

Apparently, judging from the lighter and cigarette on one hand, it was just someone now coming back from the smoking room.

Unlike Ichigo, he wore something more akin to comfortable work clothes.

He is a male employee below Ichigo, and younger than him.

“We’ve been busy lately with the new events, revisions of the sales floor, and the construction of new facilities among other things.”

“Well, thanks to everyone’s help, we’ve been able to get the results we need.”

Saying this, Ichigo had a smile on his face.

“Again, all thanks to the manager’s idea──”

“Manager Kugiyama.”

Then, another staff member arrives in the break room.

It’s a new female employee who had just joined this spring.

“The regional manager is here.”

“Is he in a hurry? The manager is on break right now, so couldn’t they just appoint another appropriate time to──”

“No, it’s fine, I’m coming.”

Ichigo gulped down the remaining half of his latte in one go and placed the mug in the sink.

“I’ll be doing rounds in the store shortly, so if you need anything, just give me a call on the extension.”

“Okay”

“Yes.”

After leaving those words, Ichigo exited the break room.

At this point, the new female employee and the other male employee were left alone behind.

“Seems tough. To the manager, I mean.”

“Well, yeah, but I still like working with him.”

The male employee says, while making himself a cup of coffee on the server.

He said out of genuine respect for him.

“I guess that’s the ‘capable adult’ kind of person that the company trusts, right?”

──Fifteen years have passed since the day Sakura disappeared.

──The now 28-year-old Ichigo Kugiyama works as a store manager of a large general store of a nationwide chain.

※※※※※

“Looks like you are doing considerably well being a manager for the first time.”

The store, with its vast sales floor areas, was crowded with many customers.

This is a large general store located in a corner of a NSC (Neighborhood Shopping Center; a complex of independent stores scattered throughout a site, similar to an outlet mall) built a little far from the city center.

It’s a store that deals with everything from daily necessities and furniture to materials and tools that are used in remodeling, construction, and DIY, which is all the rage right now. Ichigo is currently talking with the regional manager (the person responsible for overseeing and managing all the stores in the area) while doing rounds around the store.

The regional manager is a short, stocky, bespectacled man in the prime of his life.

He has a long history with the company and is a rather pleasant and easy to talk and work with type of boss.

“Sales are also strong. Don’t you think that you did a great job by creating a creative sales floor that stimulates customers to want to buy while keeping the best sellers in mind?”

Ichigo smiled back at the manager, who kept up with the barrage of excessive praise.

“I just proposed a sales floor based on information from the staff, the surrounding stores, and the social networking sites. Even though I drew the plans, it was actually my staff and part-timers who did the actual work.”

Ichigo answered modestly. “And that’s the work of a good manager.” countered the manager, patting him on the shoulder.

Then, as they were approaching the storefront.

“Oh?”

There, they found a corner of the store set up with several part-timers doing some kind of advertising, to which the manager reacted.

“That’s……”

“This is a strategy for boosting the number of customers, as I reported in the Weekly Management the other day. We’ve been assigning some staff to the storefront in order to invite more customers.”

“Oh, I see. I thought this store was focusing on getting more app members.”

A relatively elderly customer was having trouble operating his smartphone.

Next to them, the group of student part-timers were helping them install the app that the company had previously made and distributed.

“Yes, I have the young part-timers who are good with devices to assist the older customers in signing up with the app. We tell them about the special deals and systems we have, hoping to get them to come back again. Our goal is to gain more frequent customers.”

“That’s brilliant, you are quick on the uptake once you find the right spot to aim for.”

The regional manager looked up at Ichigo with an amused smile.

“With this kind of initiative. Keep that up, and it may not be long before you get another promotion.”

“Haha, I still want to take my time in this position for the time being.”

──As this conversation is happening between the two of them, on the other side.

“Oh, look, the manager and the regional manager.”

The staff of the store took notice of Ichigo being accompanied by the manager on his rounds through the store.

More precisely, it was the part-time university students who were working at the storefront.

“Looks like the manager is being praised again.”

“You and the manager get along pretty well, don’t you?”

“I wonder if the manager is a promising stock?”

“Of course, how else would he be put in charge of an S-ranked store when he’ s only 28?”

“What’s an S-ranked store?”

“A store with the top high annual sales. That alone indicates how highly the company must value him.”

The question raised by one of the part-timers was answered by yet another part-timer.

“Wow, so the pay must be pretty darn nice, too.”

A female college student part-timer added.

“This is just a rumor, but I heard that it’s one of the best salaries in the company if you take out what the executives get.”

“Wow, really?!”

“What are you guys talking about?”

At this point, sensing a certain buzz within that group, Ichigo walked over.”

“Ah, manager. And the regional manager?”

“He’s done with his patrol, so he went back to his office. So, what were you all talking about while you stared at our direction?”

“Nothing really, sir.”

“We were just wondering if the place you live is nice.”

The two part-time female college students looked at each other.

“My place? Are you doing some sort of housing hunt?”

“No, no, not that.”

“Manager, are you a natural airhead?”

Said this, the female part-timers giggled.

Naturally, Ichigo himself knew what they meant.

“Hey, Manager, do you have a girlfriend?”

“Currently? No, I’m free at the moment.”

“Heh, that’s a surprise. I thought you, manager, would be in high demand.”

The student part-timers were getting worked up with that topic.

And Ichigo himself wore a “not so displeased” face as he was fawned over.

……However, when it comes to talking about love and romance, he has a hard time committing to the conversation…… Always bearing such a gloomy expression on his face.

※※※※※

──As the sun sets, and the curtain of night falls over the sky.

“Yeah, yeah…… I understand.  Then you can leave it like that and go home. Thank you for your hard work.”

He received a call from the assistant manager from the store.

After receiving the report of the store’s closing for the day, Ichigo hangs up the call on his cell phone.

After leaving the store early this day, Ichigo stopped home for a moment and then went to the station near his house.

With many restaurants and clothing stores lining the streets, the area surrounding the station was thriving reasonably well.

At one local café terrasse, he worked on some paperwork.

He had just finished drawing up a document and reached a satisfiying stopping point.

“I guess I’ll go home.”

After putting away his notebook, Ichigo exited the café.

The company-leased housing is about a 20-minute walk away.

He walks home just to get some exercise.

“……Phew.”

Walking while carrying a notebook in one hand does draw some energy.

As he made his way along the sidewalk lined with streetlights, Ichigo emitted a deep breath.

Even when looking around, he could spot only as much as a handful of people at this time of day.

Within those, coming from the opposite side of the street, there was a couple made up of a man and a woman.

They seemed to be students ── as they passed by Ichigo, chatting and laughing enthusiastically. and laughing.

……Oh ……a Gift, huh?

Looking over, he could see that the woman was clutching a paper bag that looked very important to her.

From the snippets of conversation he overheard, it seemed to be a gift from her boyfriend.

……Perhaps a birthday present?

Ichigo pondered over the contents of the gift.

Given the current trends, it should be a room fragrance or body soap……

Whether or not it is because of the fact that he runs a general store, but he can tell that they seem to be high school students.

In that case it would be more a straightforward item, like accessories or……

.”…….”

Suddenly, as he wondered about this, the memories of his own childhood ── his memories of Sakura, resurfaced in his mind.

Ichigo had also given Sakura birthday presents.

That said, being a child, he couldn’t afford anything too fancy.

Therefore, Ichigo, who had always been good with his hands, tried to offset his lack of financial resources with his own ingenuity.

Using the way of life knowhow and DIY magazines that his mother used to buy as a reference, he made various things such as aromatic candles and sweets for her.

And, for birthday presents, he would make silver accessories out of sterling silver clay……

But now, when he thinks about it, the idea only comes to him as so childish that it makes him wince in embarrassment.

Wow… Thank you, Ichi. I will definitely treasure it.”

He still can’t forget Sakura’s voice and expression of joy she showed when he gave her the gift.

She would also return the favor by making homemade sweets for Ichigo for his birthday.

There is a certain sweetness and sourness in these memories.

Long flowing black hair that seemed to have been crafted by hand, the smooth line of her nose, her long eyelashes, her peach-colored lips, her smile──.

──It has been 15 years since then.

Ichigo is living a fulfilling life, both financially and socially.

However, when it comes to love, he is still unsure of what he wants or should do.

He himself is aware that, for a man who is about to turn 28, to still be reeling from the memory of his first love at this age seems a bit foolish……

Still, Sakura has remained such an enduring and vivid memory in Ichigo’s mind.

He feels a sense of hopelessness about his current situation, that he bows his head and lets out a sigh of sorrow, “Hah……”

His mood grew a bit more gloomy.

“I guess I’ll buy some alcohol and go home.”

Conveniently, Ichigo was approaching a convenience store, and, as if drawn by the light, he entered the store.

He already had the ingredients for dinner at home, so he was just going to buy some alcohol.

He wants to drink something a little stronger today to take the edge off his mind.

He bought whiskey and sparkling water.

Walking out of the conveninece store with the plan to go home and enjoy a highball, Ichigo resumed his walk home.

And then, there it was.

“Hey, come on.”

Ichigo’s ears picked up the sound of a coarse, crude voice.

Looking over incidentally, he found a man and a woman in what appeared to be a conflict of some sort.

 No…… upon further inspection, it appeared that the woman was the one in the midst of being dragged along by the man.

The man, who appeared to be a middle-aged man, was behaving questionably.

There is a can of high-alcohol content soju-hai (shochu highball) lying at his feet. Which was probably bought at one of the convenience stores around the block (or possibly the one Ichigo had just dropped by).

As it looks, he is quite inebriated.

The girl, on the other hand, seemed to be in high school given the uniform of a well-known private school for girls in the area she is wearing.

Since she was just out of the reach of the streetlights, it was hard to see her features clearly in the darkness, but he could tell that she had a certain dainty air about her.

The drunkard was trying to mess with the high school girl, saying, “Let’s go and have a chat” and so on, which may have been an attempt at a playful act or a foolhardy joke, but it was getting extremely noxious as it was.

As for the high school girl, she didn’t make her displeasure plainly apparent, but……

“Er, I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m in a hurry……”

Which is met with a nonchalant smirk.

However, though she seems calm on the outside, her distress is clear.

Perhaps due to the current time, there are not many people passing through the area.

Even the occasional passerby who happened to witness them would ignore them, either in a hurry themselves or not wanting to get involved.

………There’s no choice.

“Excuse me.”

With a moment’s judgement ── Ichigo promptly intervened between the drunkard and the high school girl.

There are times when the part-timers of his store get tangled up with customers.

He had the experience of handling a situation like this resolutely ingrained in his body.

Both the drunkard and the high school girl stalled as he suddenly stepped in front of them.

“She already said that she won’t, so could you please stop?”

With Ichigo now standing in front of him, the drunk man asked, “What?” in a flustered, slurred voice with clear agitation.

“She is clearly underage, and your excessive behavior may be considered coercion.”

He didn’t raise his voice or become overly forceful, just stated it plainly.

Ichigo kept in mind to handle the situation in a most mature manner.

To which the drunkard replied, “And who are you? It’s none of your business,” with a heightened degree of hostility.

There is truly no choice.

“It, in fact, is. She works part-time at my store.”

Insinuating that he was related to her in some way would further reinforce the two-on-one situation and potentially discourage the other person.

It was just a valid lie to defuse the situation, one that could be easily excused afterwards.

However, the drunkard turned a deaf ear, saying, “Like I care.”

Rather than being on the defensive, he seems to be unwilling to discuss…… or even to hold any conversation at all.

In other words, he is likely to be very drunk.

The high school girls behind him seemed frightened by the empty-eyed snarl of the drunkard.

Ichigo, on the other hand, was reassured.

If the man was unable to communicate properly like such, it was easier to deal with.

Ichigo whispered to the high school girl.

“Can you run?”

“Huh?”

The next moment, Ichigo took the high school girl’s hand and ran from the spot at a stretch.

And his opponent was an older drunken man.

He couldn’t react to Ichigo’s sudden movement, and by the time he realized it, they had already disappeared from sight.

They could hear him shouting something from a distance, but it seemed he didn’t chase after them.

That’s good enough.

Being so drunk, he probably wouldn’t even remember what happened today or about Ichigo when he wakes up.

They kept running until they reached a residential area.

“This far should be fine, I think.”

After releasing her hand, the high school girl gets her hands on her knees with heavy breathing.

“I’m sorry, I made you run out of nowhere.”

“N-no, it’s……”

She eventually seems to have settled down her breathing.

The high school girl raises her face.

Ichigo had never got the opportunity to see her face previously, either because of the darkness or because he was busy dealing with the drunkard, but now he was finally able to see it.

And then, it took him by surprise, leaving him speechless.

Her black hair was long enough to reach her waist.

Her skin was fair and clear.

Her pale skin gave a sense of translucence.

A well-defined face with a smooth bridge of the nose.

Long, alluring eyelashes on her slightly slanted eyes.

Peach-colored lips.

It’s the same figure as back then.

Just like back then.

This face──mirrored that of his childhood friend, Sakura.

“Um……”

As Ichigo remained wide-eyed and immensely shocked, Sakura…… No, the girl who took the form of Sakura said.

“Thank you very much.”

.”…….Huh?”

“You helped me…. didn’t you? Earlier.”

“……Ah, well…… I’m glad that nothing alarming happened.”

“Oh, right…… It would be really scary… if something alarming really occurred. I was so scared, I couldn’t even ask around for help…… You really, really helped me.”

She says with slightly teary eyes.

As she wipes away the tears on her long, trembling eyelashes.

Together.

His chest heaves and the back of his throat quivers with that thought.

He is so shaken with this that he cannot calmly analyze what is happening to himself, and whether this is reality or a hallucination.

“Um…… excuse me. Actually, I live just around the corner.”

Then the high school girl quickly points towards an alley.

In the direction of where an unlit street lamp stands, in the dark. “If you don’t mind…… I’d like to thank you.”

“………”

Confusion, frustration, astonishment…… even amidst all the mixed emotions, he was still able to judge that it would not be a good idea for a full-fledged adult man to accompany a high school girl into her house.

“I don’t mind it. You don’t need to thank me.”

However, at that moment, Ichigo:

“……but, it’s already late at night. I can’t say that there isn’t a possibility that you’ll end up in a difficult situation again, so I’ll take you home.” He said so── as if his being was driven by some unseen force.

※※※※※

“It’s around the corner.”

“Ah, okay.”

Thus, Ichigo had ended up accompanying the high school girl whom he had rescued from the bothering of a drunkard to the condominium where she lived.

At first, he was shaken by the sight of the girl in front of him that had an exceedingly resemblance to Sakura, but after a while, he was gradually able to consider the situation soberly.

……I’ll only be sending her up to the door of her house…… Nothing more than that.

He tried not to think for a moment about the fact that she looked exactly like his first love, and just as she was at the time he fell in love.

Once reaching her home, he would first of all have to properly explain the situation to her family.

With this in assumption of what to do hereafter, Ichigo addresses the high school girl next to him.

“Is your family at home now?”

“I don’t have any family. I live by myself.”

.”…….”

A high school student living alone── Ichigo himself has found many people in this situation with various circumstances surrounding it due to his profession.

So, in this day and age, he doesn’t think it’s strange.

However, at the same time, that also means that she is the only one living in the house.

So, naturally, he didn’t intend to make his way into the place where a high school girl was living alone.

“Here, this is where I live.”

They arrived at her apartment before he could finish his train of thought.

It’s a reasonably well-equipped condominium, furnished with things like an auto-lock system built in with the woman residents who live alone in mind.

In addition, it was close to the station and a solid security system ── with this, the parents would feel comfortable enough to allow her to live alone.

“This way.”

The high school girl led the way up the stairs to the second floor.

Then, the high school girl takes a key out of her bag when in front of an apartment, located just after a turn in the landing of the stair.

Apparently, this is where she lives.

“Come in.”

With this, the high school girl held the door open and guided him to enter.

“No, I just came to accompany you home.”

Ichigo, however, attempts to decline her invitation as he originally envisioned.

“I didn’t intend to……”

“It’s okay!”

In contrast, the high school girl grasped Ichigo by the sleeve of his outfit and refused to back down, in an earnest attempt to invite him in.

“Please don’t worry about it. It’s really just me.”

……All the more so because of……

Despite Ichigo’s bewilderment, the high school girl does not relent in her efforts to thank him.

Even with just Sakura’s appearance, she holds the sleeves of his own clothes and pull them with a gusto.

Her expression mirrored hers as she looked up at him with upturned eyes.

“…I don’t have a choice.”

By no means did he give in to the temptation.

Instead of rejecting her out of hand, he simply chooses to deal with the matter nonchalantly.

“Then, pardon me for intruding.”

“Right.”

It would be wiser to stifle his emotions, get this matter over and done with as soon as possible and then consider this settled.

Ichigo passed through the entrance door of the apartment where the high school girl lives with this thought in mind.

The lights were turned on as he walked inside, revealing the interior of the room.

The apartment was slightly larger than the average one bedroom flat.

There was a bed, a desk, clothes on hangers on the wall, and a sweet smell wafting through the room.

The decorative furnishings, knick-knacks, and everything else is exactly what one would expect from a high school girl’s room.

“Please, make yourself at home.”

Saying so, she headed for the kitchen, turned on an electric kettle, in the process of boiling water.

Sje also took out teacups and tea leaves from the cupboard, seemingly in preparation for brewing a pot of tea.

Ichigo, naturally, does not sit on the bed, neither the chair, nor the floor.

……I’ll just have one cup and then leave as soon as I get a chance.

Do not be careless, do not commit any kind of accident, and do not do anything that could be misunderstood── he repeated in his mind.

“….hmm?”

Incidentally, he caught something there in his field of vision, a photo frame sitting on a desk.

Most likely to be a family photo.

Of a man, a woman, and also a young girl who appeared to be still in elementary school beside them…

“……Eh?”

Ichigo’s thoughts came to a halt at that point.

“What’s wrong?”

A high school girl came back from the kitchen, carrying a teapot and cups on a tray.

She then noticed Ichigo standing still, staring fixedly at the photo on the desk.

“Oh…… that’s a family picture──”

“Sakura?”

“……Eh?”

Ichigo muttered to himself as he looked at the woman in that family photo.

He realized.

The memories Ichigo had of her stopped at the time when he last saw her, when she was 15 years old ── but there she was, as the years had gone by and she has now become an adult.

It could be said that he mistook her for someone else…… However, this is where his intuition kicked in.

This woman, the one depicted in this photo.

In fact──.

“Do you know my mother?”

Mother.

The words that the high school girl emitted made his heart skip a beat.

Ichigo turned around and looked at the girl’s face once again.

This face is identical to the image of his first love ingrained in his vivid memories, as beautiful as they may have been back then, at those days, at that time.

“What’s your name?”

It’s been a long time since he had felt so disturbed, be it in his professional or personal life.

He could not breathe properly, and inevitably, he was unable to even utter a mere sentence clearly in this state.

Despite this, she still must have understood Ichigo’s question ── the high school girl also expressed her confusion as she answered his question.

“My name is…… Hoshigami Runa.”

“───”

It’s the same.

That surname is not Sakura’s maiden name, but rather that of the president of the big company that she married.

“Are you…… Sakura’s child?”

At those words that came out of Ichigo’s mouth, the high school girl ── Runa, nodded hesitantly.

Of course, in that case, it’s no surprise why they are so alike.

It was a bit of a rational thought that floated in the midst of all the confusion in his head.

……She is Sakuras daughter.

Nevertheless, this fact now brought about a sense of surprise that Ichigo had never felt before.

And, just as the surprise, a question that naturally came after ── the curiosity was unrestrainable, and it overflowed in the form of words.

“Where is your mother now?”

“………”

Runa’s expression visibly darkened at the question.

What on earth happened then?

Is it something that is difficult to say?

A slightly unpleasant premonition ran down Ichigo’s spine.

“My mother……”

And that premonition turned out to be true.

Not just a little bit, but in the worst possible way.

Luna spoke up.

“My mother had an accident a few years ago…… and she hadn’t been around anymore.”

※※※※※

So, the high school girl whom he rescued from a situation where she was being tangled up with a drunkard just happened to coincidentally look like the spitting image of his first love.

Her name is Hoshigami Runa.

If that wasn’t surprising enough, she also turned out to be related to a childhood friend from whom he had lost contact a long time ago ──She is Sakura’s daughter.

He was also given by her the late news that her mother, Sakura, had already passed away ── leaving Ichigo with the feeling that his head had been rocked senselessly.

“Not just my mother…. My father too. He passed away long before my mother…. Now, I have been taken care of by my mother’s side of the family.”

While being bombarded with a torrent of information, though Ichigo somehow managed to catch her words with his dazed perception, he was still completely lost in thought.

Sakura’s death ── that’s a fact way too heavy for him to come to terms with.

In an involuntary stumble, he sat down on a nearby chair.

“Are you okay, sir?”

“Ah…. Yeah.”

Seeing Ichigo in such a state of sudden dejection, Luna also grows worried.

“……Were you acquainted with my mother?”

Before long, Luna asks that question.

Considering what she had been witnessing so far, it was a natural question.

Considering what she had been witnessing so far, it was natural to ask.

“Yeah…… Well, we’ve been sort of childhood friends…… that is, until I lost contact with her after she got engaged, and I haven’t seen her since.”

Ichigo honestly tells her about his relationship with Sakura.

Then──.

“Could it be that…… Are you perhaps, that ‘Ichi’… er, that ‘Ichigo Kugiyama-san’?”

.”…….”

Ichigo was blindsided when Luna unexpectedly blurted out the word “Ichi.”

How nostalgic ── he thought.

After all, it was the nickname that Sakura had once used to call him.

Wait, that aside ── Another question arises from there.

“How do you know about me?”

To Ichigo’s query, Luna responded with a rather sullen expression.

“My mother used to talk a lot about you, Ichigo-san.”

“……I see……”

She did, about him.

So, despite moving so far away from him, she didn’t forget him……

When this thought occurred to him, his mind was flooded with the memories of that time ──that cherubic smile of his older childhood friend as she looked back at him──.

And, as if a dam had been burst, tears began to flow from his eyes.

Once again, he was faced with the fact that she was no longer in this world, which made it even more difficult to bear.

“Ku, Kugiyama-san……”

“Sorry, it’s okay.”

But that was only for a brief moment.

At Runa’s worried expression, Ichigo soon put on a calm face, taking on a more mature stance.

He finally regains the ability to think straight.

Then, he became aware of something else.

He had made her, Runa, talk about her mother’s death…… That would naturally be a painful topic for a young girl like her to talk about.

“I’m sorry.”

Ichigo lowered his head and apologized for his inconsiderate approach.

“No, no, please don’t worry about it.”

To which Runa hurriedly replies.

“But if that’s the case, then right now you’re……”

“Yes, as I said before, I don’t have any family.”

So she didn’t mean that in the sense that she was living alone ── she meant literally that.

So called, an individual who is alone in the world.

……Well, she probably still has both her mothers and fathers family, so that would not be strictly true.

As Ichigo was pondering over the life circumstances around the girl in front of him──.

Gu~……” A sudden, flat noise rang out.

The sound in question was coming from Runa’s stomach.

“Oh, no……”

For a moment, they both stopped and stared at each other in wonder, but eventually, when Runa realized that she was the source of the sound, her face flushed red with embarrassment and she clutched her abdomen.

“Are you perhaps feeling hungry?”

“I’m really sorry……”

“No, there’s no need to apologize. It’s already past dinner time, right?”

Ichigo felt something akin to a sense of relief when he saw Runa, whose features he had been admiring associating with those of the person he admired, showing certain signs of vulnerability for the first time.

At the same time, being the daughter of Sakura── he also felt a stroke of a desire to protect her from the lonely life she lived alone.

If he had planned to leave as soon as possible, he couldn’t think of doing so anymore.

“Runa-san, what about dinner?”

“Huh?”

Runa was momentarily at a loss for words at the sudden question.

The fact that a man at least ten years older than her addressed her with “san” might have played a part in it.

“Erm, I was planning on making it now……”

“I can buy something for you if you like.”

“What!?”

And at this sudden suggestion, Runa also exclaims in surprise.

Ichigo has a home delivery app installed in his smartphone.

It’s from a restaurant that he usually buys from when he’s not in the mood to cook dinner.

He would have been fine with ordering it, but judging from what she had said a moment ago, it seemed that she had the ingredients prepared to make dinner.

That being the case, he couldn’t let it go to waste.

“Well, thought I said that I would treat you to dinner, I guess I can cook it if you want. You will have to wait a bit though. If it’s not too much of a problem, that is.”

“No, it’s not a problem at all. In fact, I’d rather you didn’t go that far……”

“It’s fine. You don’t have to worry about it. I am doing this out of my own self-interest.”

Ichigo laughs internally at the fact that he is doing the exact same thing as Runa, who had just earlier insisted in thanking him at any cost.

However, as one would expect, Runa couldn’t quite give her immediate agreement with this situation.

“How much did your mother tell you about me?”

Ichigo then posed this question to the confused Runa.

“I heard that you were pretty good at cooking, or something like that, I think?”

“Ah…… yes.”

Runa nodded back, as if a thought had occurred to her.

“My mom did say that she loved the food that you, Kugiyama-san, made for her sometimes.”

“……Is that so.”

I’m glad to hear that, Ichigo thought deeply to himself.

Sakura not only remembered such a thing, but also recounted it to her daughter as if it were a precious memory……

“So I guess you don’t have any issues with my reviews. So, how about it, Runa-san? Since I’m already here, why not try out the real thing and see it for yourself?”

When Ichigo would jest like so, Sakura would pause and stare at him blankly for a moment── but eventually, seemingly unable to hold back, she would burst into laughter.

It was such an adorable gesture.

“Hahaha…… Kugiyama-san, you’re very funny, you know.”

Thank God, she laughed.

The atmosphere that was getting a little heavy seemed to have eased up a bit.

“Well then, I’ll take your word for it.”

“Ok, sure.”

Runa happily accepted Ichigo’s offer of cooking dinner for her.

However, she placed a .”…but” afterwards.

“It doesn’t feel right to have you unilaterally treating me with dinner…… So,  Kugiyama-san, why don’t you have dinner together with me?”

“Eh?”

It seems that it wasn’t of the disposition of either of them to accept the other’s goodwill unreservedly.

Now it was Runa’s turn on the offense, and she made the suggestion to Ichigo.

“Even if the food is home-cooked, it would be lonely to eat alone. Kugiyama-san could tell me about your time with my mother.”

.”…….”

You’re a tough kid……, thought Ichigo.

And, at the same time, that she has a mindset beyond her years, ──perhaps inherited from Sakura, or so he believes.

※※※※※

Well, he was the one who brought it up in the first place.

Shortly thereafter, Ichigo was now standing in Runa’s kitchen, cooking dinner for the two of them.

As one would expect from this sort of nice apartment, the kitchen is well designed and equipped.

This kitchen is a built-in.

On the downside, it’s probably a little too big for a student who lives alone to use by themselves.

“Let’s see……”

He checked the ingredients available in the refrigerator.

Frozen rice, eggs, and then some chicken, vegetables, among other things……

This is the refrigerator of a high school student living alone, so naturally there is not that much in terms of quantity.

That’s said──.

“Right, I decided on the menu.”

──He is going to make the one that he also made for Sakura a long time ago.

With that in mind, Ichigo began to cook.

Setting out the chicken, onion, and green pepper, he heated some butter in the frying pan.

Now he puts the ingredients into the heated frying pan and seasons it with salt and pepper.

Keeping the flame on, he stirred with the thawed rice and then added the ketchup.

“That smells good.”

At that point, Runa came over to watch him.

“Wow, chicken rice!”

“That’s right.”

As she just said so, Ichigo served the resulting chicken rice to the plates.

“But of course, this isn’t all.”

Well, although the cat is already out of the bag, Ichigo still sends Runa back to the adjacent room with the words, “I’ll let you see once I’m done” and continues cooking.

Next, he cracked eggs and beat them in a bowl.

Then, he scrubbed the now hot frying pan in fast motions, wiping off the surface before pouring the eggs he had beaten into it, flattening the mixture and allowing it to heat thoroughly.

Resulting in a fluffy tamagoyaki, which was laid on top of the chicken rice on the plates──.

“Okay, it’s done.”

The final result is an orthodox omurice.

Ichigo returns to the living room and lays the dishes out on the table.

“Wow……”

When Runa sees the omurice being brought to her, a smile breaks out in her expression, seemingly moved.

Her face suddenly reminded him of the expression on Sakura’s face from a while ago, of the time he gave her a present when he was a child.

A dazzling smile.

Now, having laid out the plates on the table and finished all the preparations, Ichigo and Runa sat down on the chairs facing each other.

““Itadakimasu!””

Their voices overlapped.

“……Fufu.”

Runa let out a slight, amused chuckle.

“……? What’s wrong?”

“Oh…… nothing, I just felt like it’s been a long time since I’ve had dinner with someone.”

This was how the dinner between the man and the girl, who miraculously met each other today, started.

“Delicious!”

Runa exclaimed as if involuntarily as she took a bite of the omurice.

“You’re really good at cooking, Ichigo-san. I’ve never eaten an omurice this good.”

“You are exaggerating.”

You didn’t use any unusual or expensive ingredients or seasonings, this is a normal omurice…. at least should be.

Her reaction would seem to be somewhat over the top.

“But I’m glad that you’ve liked it. I used to make this omurice for Sakura…., to your mother too before.

“To my mother too……”

Upon hearing this, Runa dropped her gaze to the plate in front of her.

Needless to say, when put in comparison with his current cooking skills, he at that time was a complete amateur (even though now, he is still an amateur, to be precise).

However, even at that time, Sakura also gave the same exaggerated praise to his cooking.

She would go even further and say things like ‘Ichi, if I marry you, I would be able to eat such delicious food every day’, a comment that made him very enthusiastic as a person who had feelings for her.

……Actually, now that I think back on it, its hard to believe that she was only three years older than me back then, given how mature she was.

“Kugiyama-san!?”

As he had this solemn recollection, tears had seemingly resurged in Ichigo’s eyes.

This is no good, no good──he hurriedly wiped his eyes, not wanting to unnecessarily worry Runa.

“……You don’t have to be so sad, I’m sure my mother is happy in heaven.”

She said in consideration for Ichigo, and gave him a smile.

──After that, Ichigo shared some old stories about Sakura with her over dinner.

Runa listened tattentively, as Ichigo himself spoke as if he were revisiting his own past.

Being Ichigo’s childhood friend, he and Sakura had spent a lot of time together since their childhood.

They played together, studied together, and went to various events together.

Since Sakura was a Ojou-sama, there were many times when her family circumstances forced her to go out or when their schedules did not match, but he would invite her whenever he could.

Also──.

“So, Ichi was the nickname my mother used to call you, Kugiyama-san, back then.”

“Please don’t tease me so much about it.”

Seeing the smile plastered on Runa’s face as she said it, even Ichigo felt embarrassed.

“Somehow, from what you’ve said, Kugiyama-san, I feel that my mother from that time was a very strong person since childhood…. But this nickname, “Ichi” she gave you, feels much more fitting of her age, or even more childish.”

“Indeed, I agree with you on that.”

He not only thought so himself, but sure enough, she was just another young girl at that time, after all.

……Well, memories tend to be embellished, I suppose.

Enjoying such pleasant conversation ──before they realized it, both Ichigo and Runa had finished the food on their plates.

““Thank you for the meal.””

Both spoke in unison once again after finishing their meal.

“Oh, Kugiyama-san.”

And it was at that point.

“Will you have a drink?”

Runa asked it out of the blue.

“Huh?”

The suggestion was so sudden that Ichigo was brought to a halt.

Facing Runa, she points at Ichigo’s bag where he carries his computer.

To be more precise, she is pointing at the convenience store’s plastic bag beside it.

It has the whiskey and sparkling water that Ichigo bought, but because it’s a plastic bag, the contents can be seen through it.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be too forward.”

“No, you don’t need to bother about that……”

You are really conscientious, Ichigo thought to himself at Runa’s attitude.

“I don’t know much about it, but you drink the whiskey with sparkling water, right? I saw it on TV.”

Meanwhile, Runa says to Ichigo with eagerness.

“If you want, I can make it for you. You can feel free to drink it.“

“Ah…. Hmmmm.”

Rina’s offer of goodwill is appreciated.

However, Ichigo was also stuck with a moral quandary.

Being the only one drinking alcohol in the house of a minor, in their presence, he felt that he would somehow be violating public order and morals by doing so.

At least when considering time and place.

“Ah, could it be that you live far away? Do you have a car parked nearby?”

Sensing Ichigo’s somewhat uncertain expression, Runa said in a concerned tone.

“No, my house is close enough for me to walk there. I’m good in that regard.”

“That’s good. You made me feel very happy for the first time in a long time. So I wanted Kugiyama-san to at least enjoy yourself as much as I did.”

Runa said, with a small tilt of her head and upturned eyes.

“Please, let me make you a drink, Kugiyama-san.”

……Ugh.

There is no malicious intent on Runa’s part.

She’s making the suggestion completely out of the kindness of her heart.

And even if she were coercing him on drinking alchohol, as long as he was the one drinking, there should be no problem.

But he naturally has to be extra careful to make sure she won’t take even a sip of alcohol.

……Well, a little bit should be fine.

Facing her with that in mind, Ichigo decided to accept her offer.

“Ok, then I’ll get things ready right away.”

With that, Runa vanishes into the kitchen, returning with a glass.

“You’re going to put ice in it, right? I saw it on a commercial.”

Additionally, she added the ice from the freezer she also brought into the glass.

Runa sets the glass on the table, and proceeds to uncork the whiskey.

She then made a motion to pour it into the glass……

“……uh, how much is the right amount……?”

It comes as little surprise that she doesn’t know any further details beyond that.

Ichigo felt rather amused to see Runa at a loss.

It was as if he was looking at his own child pretending to be a grown-up in front of him.

“Well, about this much.”

Ichigo lends a helping hand there.

He takes the bottle of whiskey from Runa and pours it to about a tenth of the full glass.

“The whiskey doesn’t need to be more than this much.”

“Hoh……”

“Do you have a spoon?”

Borrowing a spoon from Runa, Ichigo used it to stir the ice and whiskey.

Once the ice has started to thaw a bit, he adds soda water to the mix.

“It’s just like this.”

“That’s about it.”

Ichigo takes a sip of the resulting diluted amber bubbling liquid.

The flavor of aged whiskey mixed with the sting of carbonation gives it a rich taste.

“I got it, I’ll practice that.”

“Practice……”

Runa, in the meantime, brings another glass and tries to make a highball on her own, using the same method Ichigo just did.

Her expression, enthusiastic.

“What do you think?”

“Let’s see…… Yeah, it’s good.”

“That’s a relief.”

After that, Ichigo continued to share his recollection with Runa while enjoying the highball she made.

Being an apparently fast learner, Runa became proficient in no time.

However, as he continuously enjoyed the highballs with gusto, he found himself getting considerably intoxicated.

Leaving him without the luxury of controlling himself.

Leaving him also without the luxury of self-control.

──A wonder exactly how much time has passed since then.

Runa’s energetic pace, typical of youth, had carried him to this point where he found himself on the brink of total drunkenness.

“And then, you know, Sakura…”

Ichigo proceeds to passionately share his memories with Sakura with a flushed face.

.”…….”

And, for some reason, Runa only stared at such a face that Ichigo was making without as much as a word.

“Hmm? What’s the matter, Runa-san?”

“……Kugiyama-san, did you liked my mother?”

He spewed the highball he had been sipping on.

Fortunately, the liquid didn’t spray, but the amber froth dispersed into the and Ichigo went into a choking fit.

“Wha-, what do you mean……?”

“I can tell it,, from the way you talk, Kugiyama-san.”

Taking into consideration the fact that she was Runa’s mother, he was at the very least speaking about Sakura as a close childhood friend of his.

However, maybe the alcohol had loosened his tongue and he might have spoken in a way that she could interpret as such.

“I envy my mother. I wonder how nice it would be to have a cool guy like you, Kugiyama-san caring so much for me like that.”

“……No.”

Ichigo immediately attempted to dismiss those words that Runa had inadvertently said.

However ──perhaps due to his highly inebriated state, his thought process was unable to work properly──.

“……That’s not really true.”

Before he could pose the denial, his true feelings escaped his mouth.

Ichigo says as if to amend Runa’s words.

“At that time, I was really, without a doubt, just a kid…… From Sakura’s standpoint, I don’t think she saw me as anything more than a younger brother.”

“That’s not true at all.”

Runa denied Ichigo’s self-depreciation straight away.

“Huh?”

“I…… I have a huge respect for my mother. She was a very strong person, and even after my father passed away, she raised me by herself.”

.”…….”

“She taught me how I should always repay the kindness of others…… She also showed me how to properly live in a society by teaching me manners and etiquette.”

Runa loved Sakura dearly, and Sakura also raised Runa as her daughter with love.

For that reason, even excluding factors such as their similarity in appearance, you can sense from her a certain quality very reminiscent of Sakura……

The life of Sakura after she disappeared from Ichigo’s life.

Even under a clear drunken state, Ichigo listens carefully to this particular topic that Runa mentions.

“That very person, my mother, used to often tell me stories about you in the past, Kugiyama-san.”

“……Eh.”

“The memories of those days seemed so happy and joyful…… And it was because of them that I could recognize you right away, Ichigo-san. That is how strongly an impression was left on me. And I’m sure that my mother also──”

Runa goes on with a serious expression.

“I think she liked you, Kugiyama-san.”

.”…….”

“Ah, I mean, that’s what I thought from my mother at the time. It’s not like she explicitly said so. Whatever the details behind it, my mother and my father had a good and harmonious marriage, and I also loved my father……”

But ──putting that aside── the boy that her mother told her in her stories.

Runa is saying that “It was true that she was also interested in Ichigo Kugiyama.”

“……Kugiyama-san, are you perhaps very drunk?”

So Runa muttered, looking to confirm……

“I…. ever since I was little, always admired you, Kugiyama-san. When my mother used to tell me stories about it ──about you, Kugiyama-san──, you would come to my mind as a really wonderful person. I deeply admired you. And to me, you were the ideal person.”

Runa confesses, as if those emotions have been long bottled up.

She spoke just like he did when talking about Sakura, with a passionate voice.

“……And then, when we met each other today like that, well, I became certain about it.”

“I see……”

He stood and heard those words.

I wonder…

When he heard those words.

I wonder what it is.

Ichigo felt as if his heart would burst at the prospect that Sakura “might have thought of him that way.”

Due to the drunkenness, he felt his head to be slightly clouded.

While doing his best to forcibly shift such thought processes, Ichigo called out Runa’s name right in front of her.

“Runa-san.”

“Yes?”

And Runa simply stared blankly up at Ichigo.

She has already been doing so for a while now.

Even though she (naturally) hasn’t been drinking, her cheeks seem to be flushed somehow.

“If you ever have any problems, you can call on me for anything you need. And I’ll be there to help.”

That said, although she has lost both her parents, she still must be able to get help from her parent’s families.

She probably wouldn’t be in that much trouble, financially speaking.

But right now, Ichigo felt compelled to say it to her.

“Anything……”

“Yeah, our encounter today was a happenstance of sorts. Even if it’s just a small favor, I would be willing to do anything possible to make it happen if you ask.”

A perfectly fitting statement of a mature person.

Something he wasn’t able to do or say to Sakura back then.

Ichigo said it to the girl almost as if an attempt to atonement with the person who shared her image.

And, as soon as he did, his body slumped unsteadily.

Apparently, he had drunk so much that he was unable to control himself properly.

Struck by a feeling of something that couldn’t quite be described as drowsiness, he slumped against the desk.

Runa ──in the corner of his vision── makes an expression of a mixture between surprise and confusion with those words from Ichigo.

“……Thank you very much.”

And, in response, ── after a brief pause ── she said that.

“I… I’ve always liked you, Kugiyama-san. Could you please let me be your girlfriend, Kugiyama-san?”

At that point, Ichigo’s head was doing rounds, but he was able to catch those words, if not just barely. “Hahaha…… I would definitely like to…”, he jokingly replied.

Ichigo’s recollections of that night stopped at that point.

※※※※※

“…Hmm.”

Slowly but surely, Ichigo opened his eyes due to a throbbing pain assailing his head.

A soft sensation enveloped his body.

He could tell from the sensation that covered both his back and abdomen that he was lying on a bed.

“……hmm?”

It appears that he had fallen asleep before he knew it.

His memory until the time he fell asleep is fuzzy at best.

He has a slight headache.

……I was drinking, wasnt I?

Ichigo’s thoughts raced through his head as he stared up at the ceiling with drowsy eyes.

Remember.

Last night, I believe, I…… right.

He helped a high school girl who was being harassed by a drunkard and went to the girl’s by her invitation, because she “wanted to thank him”, she said. He then discovered that the girl was none other than Sakura’s daughter……

“……Hah.”

Ichigo let out a sigh and rolled over in the bed with this recollection that seemed all too unrealistic.

There’s no way.

Such a coincidence.

Surely, he must have been dreaming about that── he thought.

“……No.”

It was then that Ichigo noticed that the ceiling he was looking up at was not the same one he usually saw in his own home.

A company housing leased by the company as a part of the benefits for the title of manager.

There is something different on this ceiling from the usual ── from the ceiling of the bedroom where he always sleeps, at a house that is a little too big for a single person like himself.

……This room is……

“Good morning, Ichi.”

He heard a voice calling him.

At the same time, Ichigo felt something climb onto his abdomen wrapped in the futon.

And there it was, a girl.

A high school girl dressed in a school uniform.

Calling him by the nickname that his former childhood friend Sakura had once used, the girl ── Hoshigami Runa ── straddles atop the futon covering Ichigo’s abdomen and flashes a dazzling smile.

“Breakfast is ready.”

“Eh…… ah, no, err…”

“What time do you have to be at work? Are you sure you don’t need to rush?”

“I still have time to spare…… that’s not it, well, Runa-san, this……”

Runa giggles at the panicked Ichigo and then elaborates.

“You know, after that, Ichi, you were about to fall asleep sitting in the chair. You had been drinking a lot, right? So I led you to the bed and you ended up staying at my place like this.”

“……I-, I’m sorry!”

I screwed up.

To get drunk and end up flopping in a high school girl’s house……

Ichigo now felt ashamed of his blunder.

“I don’t know how to apologize, this was really shameful of me……”

“Not really, you don’t need to apologize.”

In contrast, Runa says as if it was evident.

“We── are lovers after all.”

“……Eh?”

Runa smiles at Ichigo’s stupefied expression.

With her faintly cherry-red colored cheeks seemingly out of embarrassment, that smile was an apparent blend of bashfulness and joy.

“Didn’t you say it was okay if we became lovers?”

“……Ah.”

His mind drifted back to last night.

He felt that, just before he lost consciousness, such conversation did take place, and that, for whatever reason, there had been a lot of mix-ups and miscommunications.

It happened while his mind was in such a state, as if only the surface of his brain was being used.

Yes, that’s right. Ichigo did indeed say so.

“……What-”

But that was a joke.

“What are you talking about? There’s no way we can be like that.”

The fault is unquestionably his for giving such a thoughtless answer.

But for that reason, he couldn’t let such an unrealistic request pass without question.

There was no way he could agree to it.

“You are Sakura’s daughter and…… In the first place, something like a working adult with a high school girl is……”

“You don’t want to, Ichi? You don’t want me to be your girlfriend?”

Runa lifted her upper body from her leaned over posture, and straightened her back.

A complete sight of her close figure was framed in Ichigo’s vision.

Dressed in the uniform of a high school for young ladies, her form held a balance of purity and loveliness of a blooming flower.

Hair of deep black color, a smooth line of nose, unblemished milky white skin, long slit eyes, and long eyelashes.

A sculpture that in itself can be regarded as beautiful without question.

Moreover, for Ichigo, there is an element of unrealism, of something that was never meant to be done, a sort of immorality about it.

“When you saved me yesterday, Ichi, I felt that I should do something to repay you somehow, in my own way. So I thought that if I became your girlfriend, I might be able to help you have a lot of fun, Ichi.”

“T-, That’s why……”

“I’m serious, and I mean it.”

With a face and voice quite identical to that of his first love, her mother, Sakura.

With an earnest expression.

That face, those lips, drawn up close.

“Hey, Ichi.”

Runa says.

“Would you mind making me your girlfriend?”