Teen Heart Manga Stories presents:

a Dear My Shoujo production

"Yuuenchi no Koi"


"Great! Now what am I going to do?" the boy thought aloud. "Today was supposed to be the day I confessed to Rumi-chan. And I've already lost the others. Didn't they hear me say, 'wait up, I have to re-lace my shoe'? Or did they hear and just not care? And we pooled all our money -I've barely enough for a bottled water, let alone lunch! Why did I let them talk me into this? Maybe I should just go home. I can always study for Tuesday's mock exam at cram school. I mean, the day's already ruined, and it just started. It can't get much worse!"

His thoughts were interrupted -broken into rather- by the sound of another voice, one he recognized all too well. "Tadaki-kun! Thank goodness. At least someone waited."

'Oh no! Rumi-chan -no, she's simply Himewari-san- is here! I was wrong, the day just got worse, much worse. Now what do I do? I wasn't expecting Himewari to show up by herself!'

The owner of the voice known as Himewari Rumiko waded through the people between her and Tadaki Kazunori. and sighed in relief once she had reached him. "But, where are the others? Yoshi-kun, Ana-chan, Misuru, Yumi? Didn't they wait with you?" Himewari-san asked, scanning the crowds as they passed by.

'Ah, so she got left behind as well,' was Tadaki Kazunori's first thought, quickly followed by: 'No, that's not good! How can I be comfortable around her, as I am? I'm a nervous wreck! Yoshi must have done this on purpose, he must have' "Ah, Himewari-san, gomen. I had to tie my shoelaces and got separated from them, when I looked up they had gone on ahead." Kazunori admitted. "Oh," she said pursing her lips. "Ah, but you're here, so its not a total loss." she continued brightly. "Did you try calling?"

'Yes, but it won't do any good' he thought. Aloud he said. "I tried calling Ozawa on his cell but got no answer. I left a message, but he either left it at home or has it turned off" -'or is deliberately ignoring it' he added mentally.

"Or he can't hear it over the noise of the rides." Himewari-san said helpfully.

"Unless he has it on vibrate" Kazunori pointed out -'or _silent_' he grumbled mentally.

"True, but all the bumping could disguise it." Himewari countered, still trying to defend Ozawa, it seemed to Tadaki, which made him wonder how she felt about him. 'Pushing it a bit, aren't we, Rumi-chan?' he thought, slipping back to familiar form of address.

"At any rate, we won't accomplish anything just standing here. Shall we go then, Kazunori-kun, maybe we can still catch up." Kazunori looked at her funny.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to use your name, it just slipped out." Himewari apologized, noting his look and misinterpreting.

He continued to stare at her for a second before shaking himself loose. Hearing his name from her lips had sent him to the third heaven, or so it seemed to him. "Oh no, no. I don't mind, its just...its just this is the first time you've ever used my first name," he said.

"I kind of like it," he admitted, experiencing a warming sensation in his chest, which he attempted to shrug off. 'Not now!' he told himself.

"All right, Kazunori," she replied, saying his name again, perhaps resting a little longer on the last syllables, perhaps not. "But you must call me Rumiko, else I'll fear I'm taking advantage of you" she smiled.

Ah, permission to call her by name! What could this mean? "Rumiko...chan" he tried her name experimentally as well.

Rumiko smiled wider in encouragement. "Ha ha, its like we're just meeting for the first time. Well, Kazunori-kun, please take good care of me." The two looked at each other for a moment, then broke out laughing together, eliciting strange looks from the people walking around them.

"Well, then, what shall we do now? We're here, might as well go in." Rumiko said again, getting back to the subject at hand.

Kazunori tightened up at this, He looked wistfully toward the interior of the park. "But, we all pooled our money, and Ozawa has the wallet" -'And I will never let him live this down' he thought grimly.

Rumiko's eyes widened in surprise. "We were supposed to pool our money? But nobody told me. And I brought over 30,000 yen with me."

'30,000 yen! Wish I had that kind of pocket money' Kazunori thought glumly. 'But why would Yoshi or Ana not tell Rumi-chan?'

His thoughts were interrupted again, by Rumiko's sweet voice. "Oh, that reminds me," she said, rummaging around in her purse. "I was over at Yumi-chan's last night, and Yoshi-kun was there, and he handed me an envelope, asking me to deliver it to you. He said it was to repay a loan, and that he'd rather I give it because he thought I might see you first, or something like that." She trailed off hesitantly at the end, but perked right back up, as though shaking off an unexpected thought. Her smile really set off her green summer dress and eyes, Kazunori thought.

'Loan? What loan? Oh that's right, the 7500 yen Ozawa borrowed last week to make his cell payment, he said. Wow, Rumi-chan really makes that light green look good. I never noticed before, but wow' She handed over the envelope, which he accepted hesitantly.

"I guess he thought we'd meet up first and then join the group. How like him. I'll have to ask him when we see him. You thank him too, Nori-kun," she said, absentmindedly truncating his name. Neither one batted an eye as he thanked her and truncated her name. It was like they had been this way for ever, personal names coming so naturally off the tongue.

"Arigato, Rumi-chan. And I will." 'You bet I'll definitely have a few words for you, Yoshi' he added mentally.

"Now that we have the money situation settled, can we go in please? I've been waiting all week for this!" Rumi said, accompanied by a little twirl that almost took her hat off.

'Acting this way, looking like such a child, it makes her that much cuter, so cute it almost hurts' Kazunori thought.

He automatically reached out to steady it, but was stopped in mid-reach by Rumi-chan's hand, which caught and lowered it, without letting go. She grinned at him and explained "So we don't get separated one from another" with only the tiniest hesitation and flush at the end.

So saying she ran off, one hand holding on to her hat while her purse splayed out behind her, while the other hand kept a firm grip on Kazunori's as he followed with a bemused expression. His eyes glanced up a the sign as they went under a semi-circular arch, with rows of banner flags lying limply on poles to either side, and the park's name written in large characters inside giant strawberries: "Welcome to Strawberry Fields!" A smaller banner beneath proclaimed. "A Dreamland Park"

'Dreamland indeed!' he thought, then gave up and decided to enjoy the day together with Rumi; he might not get another chance. At the same time, surely Buddha was smiling down on him, today. This was his chance, he would find the right moment today and confess! But first, as it turned out, he would have to endure what he would later recall as The Three-Four and Five Strange Things.


1. ~Kumahime-chan and the Golden Balloon~


The first strange thing they encountered upon entering the park proper was an oversized teddy-bear handing out balloons to a group of primary-school children. A park employee stood beside the mascot acting as an interpreter and holding the balloons in reserve. "Oh waaaa! Look Nori-kun, its Kumahime-chan!" Rumi squealed happily.

The bear looked up and over at them and waved with her free hand. Rumiko waved back "I remember in grade school writing an essay on Kumahimeko that won a prize!"

"Wow, you still carry such a memory about?" Nori marveled.

"No silly, its just that seeing Kumahime-chan brought the memory back. Say, can we go get my picture taken with her?"

"If they'll let usm" Kazunori agreed. "Still, you would have thought that a place like "Strawberry Fields" would use something other than a teddy bear princess for its major mascot."

"But teddy bears and princesses always go with strawberries. Didn't you know that Nori-kun?"

"They do?" Kazunori asked with disbelief in his voice.

"Yep." As they stood watching, Kumahimeko handed out a red balloon to another eager child, and reached for another balloon. As the the bear turned around she looked straight at them again, as if for the first time.

She raised her hand to shade her eyes as if to get a better look, and then tapped her 'interpreter' on the shoulder as if by prearranged signal. "Ojousama" the interpreter called. "If you please, Kumahime-chan would like to present a balloon to you as well."

Rumiko stood rooted the spot as the mascot and interpreter, followed by the children walked her way.

"Eh, me? surely not. Possibly you have the wrong person?" she said, shaking her head left and right, trying to find who the bear as addressing. "Hai, hai. The ojousama in the green dress and cute summer hat. This is for you" the interpreter said, clapping her hands together. The bear reached into the stack of balloons and selected a large golden-yellow one, which she presented to Rumiko!

"But this is for children!" Rumiko protested. "I couldn't possibly take it."

"No no no.' Kumahime-chan's interpreter said as the bear shook her head. "This special balloon is reserved for special guests. Thus it belongs to you! "Kumahime-chan was so touched that you remembered her from so long ago, that she has decided to make you a Royal Ambassador for a day!"

Rumiko blushed even more. "Oh, gosh, you heard that?" Kumahime-chan nodded her head vigorously.

One of the gathered children spoke up. "Oneechan, don't be shy!"

"Ganbatte, oneechan!" another child -this one a boy- yelled.

"Are, see, even the children want to encourage you, so go on, take it." The interpreter said, not unkindly, as she brought Rumiko's hand over to the much larger hand of the bear princess. The small crowd cheered and clapped as Rumi-chan accepted the balloon.

"Now, then, and what do you think oneechan won for her good deed?" The interpreter asked the staring children, "why, this balloon entitles her to go to the front of any line for any ride she wants." The crowd cheered again. "Oh, and here's a special carnation for your date, as well."

"Date?" Rumiko said blankly, as the interpreter reached into a side pocket and pulled out a large white carnation that she proceeded to pin on a befuddled Rumiko, and a smaller one intended for Kazunori.

"Hai, now everyone will know the Ambassador. Mina-san, congratulate our very special Ambassador!" More cheers followed to Rumiko's embarrassment. blushed, and tried to protest, and wave off the blurbs of congratulations and camera clicks from the school children, but just then an open berry shaped motor-trolley pull alongside, and two attendants, resplendent in red and white garments hopped off and headed their way.

The interpreter noted this and continued her announcement. "And look... the Royal Berry-Patch Guard is here to escort the young couple through the park!"

As the attendants reached the small group, the intepreter came up and bowed to Rumiko. "May you and your boyfriend have a wonderful time here at Strawberry Fields!" she said before she and Kumahime-chan moved off. Rumi and Kazunori were conducted back to the the trolly, where they were placed at the back, and the attendants climbed in.

"Say, don't 'ambassadors' normally have a sash, instead of a balloon?" Rumiko inquired as the trolley sped away. "Saa." Kazunori leaned back in his seat. "Oh well, now we can enjoy rides without waiting forever. Lucky!"

"That's such a carefree attitude to take toward this." Rumiko remarked.

"Well, its obvious that they weren't going to give up until you accepted this 'ambassadorship', and to continue to refuse would have offered insult to the park, so its best to accept the gift in the spirit it was offered, and use it well, to the best of our abilities." Wait, what was he doing? He was lecturing Rumi-chan! What must she think of him!

"Um mm...thank you Nori-kun, airing my doubts on you helps me accept that this really happened. I didn't think about it from their point of view. Of course I'll use it well, if you come with me."

"It would be my pleasure."

"Oh, and here is your carnation as my 'escort'. Please be gentle with me, neh?" she said, belatedly pinning the flower to his shirt.

"There. Now we're a matched set."

"Don't forget to wave, you know, just like the English Queen does." Nori-kun said, demonstrating by raising his hand and giving it a half-turn. "You try it too."

"What?" Rumiko asked, turning to face Nori-kun. "Well, people are waving as we pass by. Its only polite to wave back. And you are Special Ambassador Rumiko-chan." Rumiko did and noticed that on-lookers waved back. She smiled, which warmed his heart.

"Good, you look better when you smile." The trolley dropped them off on the Broad Way, where the shops gave way to the themed-rides of he park proper. To hide his nervousness, Kazunori consulted the folding map he had picked up at the ticket booth. "Hmm...which ride should we do first? Or do you want to explore the Great Berry?" Kazunori said, pointing in the direction of the giant strawberry that dominated the skyline of the park. "Or we could do the "Grand Tour."

" 'Grand Tour'? What's that?" She inquired.

"Its a route marked out throughout the park that allows you to make the rounds of the entire park. Its especially recommended for first time visitors, or visitors having a limited time. There are even signposts that show you where to go," Kazunori read from the map.

"So, we're following someone else's instructions on how to have fun in the park." Rumiko summed up.

"Well, yeah, you could look at it that way, I suppose." Kazunori replied.

"But I'd rather make my own way. So, let's just take a direction and see where it goes." she announced. "Okay, I'll choose."

It was amazing how she knew what she wanted, once she put her mind to it, Kazunori thought. She closed her eyes and spun herself around three times, then pointed her arm straight out.

"Okay, we're going this way. Come on, Nori-kun," she said, taking him by the hand again, "let's not get separated like you did from the others."

"So, why this direction?" he asked as they headed down a path paved with red bricks intersped with single yellow ones laying out a strawberry pattern.

" 'Cause its where my arm pointed, silly. Besides, I want to try out this balloon, at least."

The first ride they took advantage of with the balloon was the Super Mixer roller coaster. If Rumiko still felt awkward about going ahead of other people in line, it didn't show now. Being identified by the bright yellow balloon she carried, they were shown immediately to the first available seat, which happened to in the front of the next car to come up. They even graciously held on to the balloon for her, The car kept going up and up at an increasing angle: 'clank clank clunk clank' it went. If he looked to the side he could see the park laid out before him, but he didn't want to think about that.

"Nori-kun I changed my mind, I don't want to be on this. Let's get off now." Rumi whimpered, as the train came to the top where an attendant waited to wave them on.

"Too late now...aiiieeeee!" Kazunori smirked said as the card leveled out and paused for the briefest of moments. The next moment began a screaming plunge down the other side. The next 45 seconds were the fastest of Kazunori's young life, he knew he had left his stomach and his heart behind him at the station. But it was fun. Indeed, they rode the coaster two more times.

Next, at Rumiko's insistence, they went to the haunted house. Kazunori reflected as they went through room after room of strobing lights, that Rumiko was cute even when she was scared. But boy did she scare easily. He wondered how she survived class field trips with their courage tests. Rumi's hand nearly crushed his each time some monster or ghost popped, or a gust of wind-blown smoke and water sprayed them, and the giant hand surrounding his heart made a sympathetic squeeze with each pump of that hand.

"Oh gosh that was scary! Let's do it again!" Rumiko exclaimed as soon as the exit-door closed behind them. "Baka, you were nearly scared out of your wits in there, and you want to go again? Oh no, not with me. Go by yourself if you want to be scared that badly."

"Hidoi -you're mean, Nori-kun! You're supposed to say 'hai' and go with me. As Ambassador For A Day, I command you."

Kazunori marveled even as he marshaled a rejoinder -she even repeated herself in English! yet another thing to drive up her cute meter! How was he ever going to survive the day? Despite her pleading, he did not budge from his position. "No way."

"Yes you will."

"Not gonna go, you'll just scream louder next time."

"Will not." she retorted.

He folded his arms and looked levelly at her. "Yes you will. I guarantee it."

"You're no fun!" She said, sticking her tongue out at him.

"Says the one who screamed the loudest." Kazunori admonished, amazed that he could have such a conversation with Rumiko, the girl of his dreams. Two days ago, he would have been too nervous around her to act so familiarly. Did prolonged proximity really make that much of a difference? Then, what would a week with her be like?

His reply though, sent Rumiko off on another round of cajoling, combined with petitioning bows.

Finally, he relented. "All right, I'll take you, so please stop bowing. You're embarrassing me."

"See, I told you we were going again!"

"Hai," he replied, not having anything he could really say to that.

Rumiko giggled. "You're so good to me. Arigato."

"Ah, no. I'm just.."

"being a friend?" she asked, coyly.

"No, I was going to say, just mooching off your good fortune to have a "go to the head of the line pass." he finished deadpan.

Rumiko stared at him in shock for a minute, before she got the joke. They both laughed over it. "Well, shall we go?" She said, linking arms with him and going back to the entrance.

"Do we really have to?" he made a last-minute plea." "Now who's the scaredy-cat?" Rumiko said, poking fun at his continued hesitation. "And yes, we do. You promised." In fact they went through two more times, and true to Kazunori's word, she screamed just as much if not more the last time through as she did the first time.

"Told you." he said as they came out the exit, her death-grip on his arm not relaxing until the loudspeaker moans had faded into general background noise.

"Gomen, Nori-kun!" She apologized, bowing low. "I really didn't think it would be that scary a second time."

"Or the third?" She grinned sheepishly in return. Kazunori did a strange thing then, he reached out and tousled her hair.

"There, there. You're ok. There's no need to apologize."

"But really...oh I know! We've only done rides I want. To make up for that, the next two rides are your choice."

"Oh no, I couldn't possibly..." he said, waving off her offer.

"No no no. I insist. Besides, I want to know what rides you like," she countered.

That changed his mind instantly. "Well then..." he said, grabbing the map. "The Rocking Pirate Ship has always been a favorite of mine. Also the Bumper Cars..."

"All right...pirates we shall be then." She proclaimed.

"Yes, your ambassadorship!" he said, making a mock bow, bringing another laugh to Rumiko's face. 'So cute!' he thought with a pang.

Their fun came to an abrupt halt though, when someone bumped into Rumi outside of the Bumper Car ride, causing her to loose her grip on the balloon.

"Oh no, the balloon!" Both made a grab for it, but caught only the other hand. "Ah, there it goes!" she said, as if surprised that it didn't stay. The two looked at one another, and laughed. "Oh well, its not like I like jumping line."

"And we did get some use out of it. Thank you for winning Kumahime's heart!" Kazunori said. 'Though to be fair, I'd should say thank you for winning my heart,' he thought to himself at the same time. "Well, onward to our next adventure." And off they went to explore the park, just another pair of ordinary teenagers having a fun date.

By a frozen lemonade stand, as they paused for Rumiko to get a drink of water, Kazunori noticed her carnation, as drops from Rumiko's mouth settled on the petals, and a thought came to him, which he spoke aloud. "Ah, since you lost your balloon, it's probably a good thing to take off the carnation," he said reaching for the flower.

"Ah, allow me" Rumiko said, as she reached over and delicately undid the flower, placing it into her purse with reverence. "A memento of today I'll cherish always." she reported with confidence. 'If only she knew what words like that did to me' he though to himself. He wished this day would never end, that they could say this way forever, and that he would never have to confess his feelings with words that might drive her off. He buried his face in the map so she couldn't see his blushing.

#

They rode together. They laughed together. They ate together. They screamed together. They played games together, they even sank exhausted on the same bench together. All the while, eyes and binoculars were on them.

"What are they doing?" a boy grumbled, looking out from a balcony on the Great Berry.

"Having fun obviously, Yoshi." A girl said, snatching the binoculars from his hands to peer through them herself. "Gaggghh what are they doing there! That's not in the plan." she said exasperatedly.

It was the boy's turn to laugh. "Its what you get for interfering with my idea."

"Oh yeah, right _your_ idea. If we had followed your original plan, he would have never left the house." The boy just fumed but made no response, other than to make a face at her back. They went back to watching.

#

Unaware of the observers, Rumiko and Kazunori trudged around the park, stopping to look at various rides and games. "This is more fun than I expected," Rumi said around a stick of cotton-candy. "What shall we do next, Nori-kun?"

Nori looked startled. "I don't know...be spontaneous?" he said, consulting a folding park map

She laughed "That's what so great about you, Nori-kun, your desire to please. But what do you want to do?" 'I want to confess to you' Kazunori thought to himself, but never answered her question because it was then that the Second Strange Thing occurred.


2. ~Nanako and the Strawberry Patch~


Kazunori was interrupted by the sound of a child crying. The two looked around to see a little girl wandering to and fro amid the crowds. A yellow sun-dress and hat with blue-ribbon adorned red curly hair. A white purse with pink bunny ears peeping out was gripped in front by both hands. She was bobbing her head back and forth among the crowds, looking for someone -probably her parents, Nori-kun decided.

"Oniichan, oneechan!" the girl cried upon seeing the two on the bench, as though coming across beloved family members, and made a bee-line for them. "Help! Nanako has been separate from okasan and otosan and doesn't know where to find them!"

She wrapped her arms around a startled Rumiko's waist and began to wail, dropping her pocketbook as she fell to her knees. Kazunori leaned down and picked up the pocket book, holding it in his hands with a slightly puzzled look on his face, a look echoed by Rumiko.

"There, there, we'll find them" Rumiko said, stroking the girl's curly head. She looked over the girl to Kazunori as if to say "Now what do we do?". He shrugged his shoulders as if to say "I don't know, but we have to do something."

"Come on, Nanako-chan was it?" Rumiko asked, looking at the girl. Her sobbing over, the girl nodded, "why don't we go to lost-and-found, I'm sure the nice people there will have you reunited with your parents right away."

The girl shook her head vigorously. "No no no. Nanako doesn't want to go there. Those people are scary. Not like oneechan and oniichan." She began to cry again.

"Nori-kun what do we do, she won't stop crying!" Rumiko wailed. 'Ne, are you thirsty? Do you want to get a drink with oniichan and oneechan?" Rumiko asked, turning back to the girl. "And then maybe we can go ask a park attendant, if they've seen your parents?"

"No...no attendants. Nanako won't go with them. Strange men are scary."

"But Nanako-chan.." Rumiko began. "No no no no!" Nanako broke in. She began to pout.

Rumiko began to wring her hands. "Now what?"

"Relax, Rumi-chan. My little sister does this frequently. When she pouts the only thing you can do is wait her out, or distract her." Kazunori said, unexpectedly.

"You have an imouto, Nori-kun?" Rumiko asked.

"Yeah, about the same age as Nanako as well. Don't you?"

"No, I'm an only child."

"Ah, that explains your worry."

" You're okay with her crying, then?"

"Well, no, but I'm not alarmed by it. It happens."

Rumiko visibly relaxed. "Then, I'll go get her drink, and you stay here with her." She said, disengaging Nanako's hands from her waist, and bringing them to Kazunori, where they wrapped around his leg.

"Oneechan?" Nanako said breaking off her tantrum, as Rumiko walked away.

"Yosh, yosh, its okay, Nana-chan, oneechan's just going to get some refreshments. She'll be back" Kazunori said. "Now, why don't we sit down and wait," he said, giving force to his words by sitting on the bench. Behind him, a fountain of colored water started up and began spurting water in a variety of patterns into a number of varying lengths of pipe.

"Hey look, Nana-chan, watch the different colors jumping around. Its magic." Kazunori said, pointing to a stream of water arcing out of a hole and jumping to another hole a few feet away, before disappearing and coming out on the other side.

Nanako looked up as the water shot overhead. By the time Rumiko returned with the drink, Nanako had calmed down. "Do you really not know where your parents are?" Kazunori asked, after a couple moments of watching the water.

"No, Nanako has no idea where they are."

"Did you not have an agreed place to go to if you got separated, then?"

"um mm. Should we?"

"Oh yes, its very important to have such a place. It helped when my own imouto was separated from us a while back. We went to where we had agreed, and there she was, all curled in a ball."

Nanako looked gravely at Kazunori. 'Will you help Nanako find them, oniichan?"

"Of course we will, Nana-chan." he said, patting her head, as Rumiko had done earlier.

"Don't you worry now, we'll find them just like that." he said, snapping his fingers.

"Gomen, Nori-kun, I know its strange, but I don't know how to handle young children." she said as she came up with a drink and a cookie.

"There's no need to apologize, not everyone's a natural pre-school teacher." He looked over at the girl munching on the cookie, despite her tears before continuing. "It looks like she really is scared of the park attendants though. She shies away every time someone approaches, even the grounds-keepers." Rumiko nodded.

"There's no choice in the end, we can't just leave her alone." Kazunori said. "Well have to take her with us until we find her mom and dad." "Sorry to put you through this, Nori-kun." Rumiko said."

"Again, there's no need to apologize. Look at it this way. we get to see parts of the park we might not otherwise have gone to."

"You always have a good outlook, Nori-kun, that's great!"

"Not always." He said soberly. But Rumiko had turned her head to listen to something Nanako remarked on and didn't hear his reply. Truthfully, Nanako's presence was an unwelcome intrusion for him, but he couldn't really blame her for being lost. And yet as they proceeded from place to place in the park, he kept giving more and more sidewise glances at Rumiko's profile over the head of their little charge. How could he make a confession, shackled as he was with this little girl? This day was certainly not turning out the way he had hoped or planned. He was beginning to think the whole 'confessing at the amusement park' idea was 'dead on arrival' He hoped her parents hurried up and showed themselves. On the other hand, Rumi-looked like she was enjoying herself, now that the pressure of caring for Nanako was shared between them.

They walked through the park hand-in-hand with Nanako in the middle. Soon she even stopped crying, as she took in all the sights, even though her parents never seemed to materialize; she would spin around occasionally to wave at someone behind them. Nori even wondered if the three of them looked like a family from a distance to other park guests. They traversed the park over and over, retracing Nanako's route with her parents as best she remembered. This included the merry-go-round, the flying swings, and other kid-sized rides, festival-style games booths, even the lake. The Petting Zoo, especially seemed to distract her from worrying about her parents. They had to stop occasionally and allow Nanako to try a game, or ride one attraction or other on the pretext that her parents might be in line, or see her in line and come to claim her. Finally, they found her parents.

The three of them had just stepped around a line leading to the log flume, when seemingly out of nowhere, there they were standing by a sign pointing to various locations in the park.

"Okasan! Otosan!" Nanako yelled, and wriggling out of Nori and Rumiko's hands, she ran to her parents, and jumping into a great hug. After their reunion, the trio turned to Nori and Rumi and bowed.

"Thank you, you two for caring for our wayward daughter. We had no idea where she was. Why, we went about the whole park looking, and had just about given up hope," The mother said.

"Please, let us do something for you, for your trouble," the father said, reaching for his wallet.

"iiya you don't need to do anything for us." Kazunori shook his head. "We're just glad that Nanako could be reunited with her parents."

The two adults looked at each other, and nodded. "Well, in that case... But still, you had to go out of your way, and I'm sure there were plenty of things you would have rather been doing, than babysitting a crying little girl. So, please accept these tickets. They're no use to us now, because we have to get home," he said taking out a pair of tickets that read "Pick Your Own Strawberry Patch, Admit One. 2:30p "but its a shame to let them go to waste."

Kazunori was stunned. The Strawberry Patch was the park's most famous attraction with a price over and above general park admission. The ability to pick one's own berries at the park was a coveted opportunity. Ozawa and the others would certainly be jealous of his and Rumi's good fortune when they heard this.

"Are you sure this is all right? These are costly tickets, and all we did was befriend Nanako-chan and take her around the park looking for you." Nori said, politely trying to refuse the tickets."

"Nonsense, this is the least we could do for you because of all the trouble our daughter caused you." The mother said.

"Sumimasen" Nanako said, contritely. "Why you had to interrupt your date to look after our wayward daughter." Nanako's father said, pressing the tickets back into Nori's hand. It was a measure of how shaken Kazunori was that he didn't protest at the father's description of their outing.

"I think its far too generous of you, but I shall accept your gift." Nori said.

"Thank you, that makes us very happy." Nanako's mother said. Nori bowed in acknowledgment (and defeat), accompanied by Rumiko, one hand on her hat. "So, please enjoy the strawberry patch."

"We will, ma'am." Kazunori assured the couple. The parents bowed again, and the two groups parted. As they walked off, Kazunori mused "Still,if they were that worried about their daughter, you'd think they would have contacted park authorities for a lost-child search."

Rumiko shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe they were so concerned, that they didn't stop to think about contacting park security. It can happen."

"Oh well, what matters is that they've been reunited. And, we can enjoy a special treat." Kazunori said, as if having the last word.

#

Nanako waved as they watched the two go off. "Bye oniichan! Bye oneechan. Enjoy the rest of your date!"

As the reunited family walked away, Nanako's parents praised the little girl."You were such a help to okasan and otosan with oniichan and oneechan today, Nanako." her mother said, her hand resting on the little girl's shoulders. "Cousin Yoshi will be so proud of you. As a reward, you can have whatever you want for dinner!" "Wahh. Yippee. Then Nanako wants..."

#

According to the tickets (and the map) the entrance to the Strawberry Patch was in the Great Berry, situated at the middle of the park. The Great Berry rose to fill the horizon the closer they got to it. Rumiko craned her neck to see as much of it as she could. "Woah, I didn't know it was so big" she commented, craning her neck to try and see the top."I wonder how they fit the strawberry patch inside?"

He felt like teasing her, so he replied "Its one of the mysteries of the Great Berry."

"Really? Do you think they use hydroponics, Two way solar panels for the greenhouses? Maybe they grow them on trestles like grapes or roses, or..." Listening to Rumiko ramble on about all the different ways the strawberry patch could be hidden within the Berry, each one becoming more improbable than the other was finally too much for Kazunori. He laughed.

"Silly, this is just the entrance. The actual field is on the other side of the highway. We have to walk underneath the Berry to get there." she punched him playfully.

"Hidoi!" she said.

"It is true that the path to the strawberry patch is lined with presentations about the future of agriculture, like what you mentioned, though." She looked at him with disbelief, until he pointed to a brochure at a kiosk that confirmed everything he said, and a little of what she had proposed.

"Ha, see. I was right, after all." After a pause, she amended herself, "Well I could be right, probably I'll be right. Anyway, let's go see the strawberries."

Now it was her turn to drag him by the hand to the break in the Sunflower moat that surrounded the Great Berry that represented the entrance to the Strawberry Patch. People were going ahead of them all the time, and Kazunori decided it was probably a good time to go down, otherwise the juiciest berries might be taken, if they hadn't already been.

He willingly followed her lead. They followed the smaller crowds that entered the Strawberry Patch entrance and walked down a wide flight of steps. At the bottom they turned left and came to a wide corridor. On each side were lighted panels showing the past, present, and probable future of strawberry growing. Rumiko wanted to stop and read each one, but as they were on a people- mover, settled for reading each one as it went by.

At the end of the people mover, they were ushered into a small auditorium where they watched a brief film about the history of the Strawberry Fields strawberry patch, what they could expect once they got to the fields, and behavior and safety instructions. Exiting the auditorium they were guided by an attendant to the door that lead to the Patch. Coming out back into the sunlight, they blinked to clear their eyes, and then stared at what lay before them. The Strawberry Patch filled scores of acres of cultivated fields on a series of plateaus, much like a traditional rice-paddy farm. There were windmills placed at various points dressed to look like giant sunflowers. Still following the people that had come before them, they lined up at the entrance to the fields and presented their tickets in turn to the attendant. She exchanged them for two white wicker-work baskets with green linings.

"Please be sure to return to the counter when you're baskets are full. Everyone here at the Best Strawberry Patch wishes you two well on your date"

Kazunori couldn't help blurting as they stepped out into the fields "Why do you think everybody says we're on a date?"

"Perhaps because we look like a couple?" Rumiko asked rhetorically.

Kazunori blushed.

"Heh, heh, Nori-kun you're so silly. But really, does talk like that bother you that much?"

"I..iiya. Its just that...why would they see someone as pretty as you hanging out with the likes of me?"

"I think you short-change yourself too much" was all Rumiko said in reply, before turning her attention to the strawberry patch in front of her. For a moment, Kazunori had the impression that she was actually angry with him. But the moment passed, and he shrugged and crouched down beside her, and began reaching his hands out to pick berries.

They spent some time before each patch, carefully choosing which berries to leave, and which to pick, only taking a few from each bush. They worked in silence, or at least without words -the sound of their breathing mingled with the chatter -music and mechanical noises of the outer park forming a white noise in the background leading Kazunori posit their being in a dreamland, just like the park entrance invited. Their hands touched numerous times reaching for the same berries, and Nori felt his heart pounding each time -he wondered if Rumiko felt the same.

'Its as if the berries present themselves in such a manner that we can't help but brush against each other,' he thought to himself. 'The berries are cheering me on, What better place to tell her than here in the heart of a berry patch?' But could he really do it here?

A sneeze from the next row over brought Nori-kun back to the present. Of course he couldn't do it here, there were so many others around. And it would be rude to force his confession on her here. He needed a secluded place to compose himself. All he could do for now was to pick the berries. He went back to the patch before him bending to reach a particularly large and ripe berry nestled in the leaves.

Finally, Rumiko brushed her forehead locks with the back of her hand, and stretched. "If we stay here any longer, we'll get sunburned," he remarked, likewise taking the opportunity to stretch.

"I agree, its fun, but picking berries is hard work. Shall we eat now?" She asked.

"Eh, you're still hungry?" 'Nori exclaimed. "Didn't you eat enough berries?"

"How mean. I ate hardly any of my basket. Unlike you, Nori-kun!" she said primly.

"Huh? I didn't even touch what was in the basket!" he protested.

"Heh heh, that's because most of them didn't make it into your basket in the first place." Rumiko laughed.

"Heh heh, you got me" Kazunori said, feigning being shot. "But yeah, it is time for a meal. I just wish I had thought to bring an obento. Is that strange?" he asked, seeing Rumiko covering a smile with her free hand.

"Nonsense, it shows your sensible side. To be honest, Nori-kun, I always thought you were a bit shy and withdrawn, but I'm glad to find out that you're not."

"Eh, what's that supposed to mean?" Kazunori asked, trying to wrap his head around the apparent non sequitor.

"Nothing. Its a se-cre-t" she said with a smile. Nori just shook his head in amazement.

'Girls.' he said in exasperation.

"You got that right." a passerby said in commiseration, startling Kazunori, who hadn't realized he had spoken the last aloud.

"But what do we do with the berries we picked? We can't carry them around with us all day!" Rumiko asked as they headed toward the exit.

"Oh, we hand the baskets to the attendants. They'll hold them for us and we can pick them up at the park entrance when we leave for the day"

"Wow, Nori-kun, you're so smart -knowing so much" Rumiko said with admiration walking back into the sunshine. "Saa..not really, I'm only about average for our class."

"I'd hardly call being in the top third for our grade 'average', Nori-kun."

"Eh? How do you know that?"

"Oh everyone knows who's in the top third" she said quickly, as though recovering from an unintended slip-up ... "Oh look sunflowers!" she said, pointing out a ring of bright yellow flowers waving in the wind like a stand of trees, almost as if trying to change the subject.

"Did you know in flower language, the sunflower means 'I'm always watching over you'? I think that's romantic. Even more romantic than roses." Kazunori took notice of her words, despite himself, filing it away for future reference. Maybe he could get her a sunflower pin to wear...But he didn't have overly long to dwell, as with the approaching meal came the Third Strange Thing.


3. ~Lunch with a Strawberry Kiss~


When they arrived at the restaurant, the jostling crowds pressed them together as they had not been outside, "Wow, Is this place really that popular?" Kazunori marveled as he looked around from their place in line.

"Of course, it is, its so chic." Rumiko said happily "I've always wanted to eat here."

"Well, I'm glad we could come here. I think I learned something good about you, Rumi-chan."

"But not as much as I've learned about you, I think." Rumi said in a barely audible voice. Kazunori picked up only a few of the words, and made to ask her to repeat herself, when the line moved forward, and it was their turn at the counter.

"Irrasashimase! Welcome to Strawberry Kitchens! What will you have today, honored customers?" a pleasant attendant asked, hands poised on the cash register. He noted that Rumiko never hesitated, ordering a strawberry-almond and pomegranate salad. Kazunori raised his eyebrow.

"I've heard its a really good salad. Besides, it saves more room for desert," she said with a conspiratorial smile.

Kazunori looked at the choices. "Heh, banana flavored pasta with a fruit medley sauce. That sounds way too sweet for lunch. Don't they have other things here? Regular obentos would be fine."

"No, no, no Nori-kun, that's the wrong attitude to take here. You need to savor the flavors." "Rumiko said, admonishing his breach with her finger.

"Geh, you sound like a travel guide," he muttered.

"So ka?" she asked, turning to look at him. "But, you should really order, everybody's getting impatient, you know."

"Why don't you just order for me, then. I'm sure whatever you choose will be great." He said, and meant it. Rumiko looked pleased, and turned around to place her order. He reached for his wallet, and paid the bill automatically, before Rumiko could reach her purse.

"Dame, this is my treat, think of it as thanks for everything you've done for me today." He said, when Rumiko tried to give him half.

"Hai" she replied a little sheepishly. They carried their trays to a table and sat, Rumiko seeming to skip the whole way. Or maybe she was gliding on air. A waitress dressed in candy-stripes brought them water and noted their number.

"Wow, all those rides, and helping Nanako-chan sure made me hungry!" Rumiko said.

"And yet, all you ordered was a salad. With strawberries." Kazunori noted.

Rumiko shrugged. "Well, this is Strawberry Fields you know. You simply must eat strawberries at Strawberry Fields."

"Hai hai" Kazunori said, attempting to wave her off.

Rumiko giggled. "Plus, I have to watch my figure, you know."

Kazunori made as if to look her over. "Your figure?" he repeated with a tone indicating incredulous questioning.

Their food came, must faster than Kazunori would have thought possible, and gave Rumiko another chance to ribe him. "Besides, I knew how big, and pretty, the portion sizes were. Unlike you boys who always think with your stomachs, I ordered just enough to be happy." He noted, though, that she barely touched her salad. Instead, she watched him eat for a few minutes, then giggled again.

"What, is there something on my face?" he asked, reaching up to wipe his mouth.

"Uh ummm, I was just thinking, I've seen a side of you here that I rarely get to see at school."

"There's not really that much to see" he protested.

"You're wrong, today was a different Kazunori somehow." she insisted.

He shook his head again. "I'm no different now than at school." "

"No, really, you've shown a different side of yourself here at the park, which made me realize how much I don't know about you. I'm a little envious of your classmates who sit with you everyday, I think." She countered.

"What is there to learn about me?" he asked, wondering just what direction the conversation was headed. He needed to draw her out, not spend time talking about himself, even from her perspective, so why did he find himself responding to her?.

"You were wonderful out there today, really admirable. Its like you had more confidence than usual. I like that about you."

Kazunori paused, food halfway to his mouth. "Eh? Don't you have me confused with someone else?"

"No, actions speak so much louder than words ever could." She replied promptly. "The way you handled Nanako-chan proved that you're a good person, someone to be counted on. You're such a good friend. I'm glad it was you I ran into at the park entrance." she confided. "I would have felt out of sorts with Ana-chan and Misuru. And Yoshi-kun, well.. I don't think he's the kind to be one-on-one with people Even Yumi-chan agrees with me on that one, and they're going out."

Ah, so one mystery at least was solved. Ozawa-kun was just another friend to her. But 'good friend'? Wasn't that like saying 'only a friend', a way of deflecting any attempt of receiving kokuhaku from him?.

"Say, do you have a girlfriend?"

"Eh?" Coming out of the blue, the question startled Kazunori.

"Oh, sorry, a silly question I realize. of course if you had a girlfriend, you would have come with her instead of hanging with me. Gomen-nasai," she said, trying to cover her mistake.

Kazunori laughed. "Someone like me would never have a girlfriend." he said, almost bitterly. "I don't stand out much in class, I'm not active in any of the clubs at school. I tend to keep to myself a lot too There's nothing about me that would attract anyone's attention. I'm probably a bother to Yoshi and the others, I'm sure they only talk to me out of pity" he said, ticking off an imaginary list of reasons why he would no doubt remain single.

"Nonsense. You're thoughtful, you're kind, you go out of your way to help others. Those are all good qualities, you know." She rebutted. "How could that possibly make you a bother to Yoshi-kun and the others?" '

They're good qualities to have if you want something done. "I feel the same way. I'm always wishing I could be more like you, outgoing and friendly." he admitted.

'Eh, me? I'm not really..." she averred.

"But I always see you laughing with your friends!" he protested.

"You sound as if you've always been watching, Nori-kun" Rumiko said.

He reached quickly for his drink. "But I have been" he said quietly. Inside he was fomenting. 'would she ask such a question, what could she mean by that? Don't get your hopes up, its impossible for her to say yes, Nori-kun. Look at how much fun she's having right now, because she's with a 'good friend', That's all that you are, a 'good friend' How can I ruin a new-found friendship by confessing with inappropriate words, and in such a crowded place? An open, busy restaurant was definitely not the place for kokuhaku. But, where is a good place then', his chiding inner voice cut in.

Just admit that you don't have the courage to confess and let it go. Ozawa will understand -Not! But then, why did you decide you had confess if you're just going to back-out just because you 'think' she won't say yes? Besides, wasn't she giving him an opening to do just that, confess? Why else would she combine questions about a girlfriend with statements about being watched over? And, just because she said 'good friend' doesn't mean she couldn't change her mind. And at least you are a 'good friend'. She hasn't said that about anyone else'. He took a deep breath, and opened his mouth to reply. "You know I..." Nori began.

Just then, the waitress brought over a really large, pink ice-cream confection. "Thank you for waiting. Here is your special desert"

"Did you order this?" "I didn't order this, did you?" They both blurted at the same time.

"Ano, sumimasen, but I think you have the wrong table. We didn't order this." Kazunori ventured.

The waitress frowned, consulted her ticket and then asked. "This is Table Seven, right?"

"Hai" Kazunori answered cautiously.

"Well, then, there's no problem. This is the correct table. Today is Girl's Day at the park, and this table was randomly chosen at this time to receive a complementary Strawberry Kiss. Well then, please enjoy with our compliments. Thank you for your patronage and come again soon!" She said bowing and retreating to the kitchen.

'I'm beginning to see a theme' Kazunori grumbled to himself in his internal voice, 'and it has "Ozawa" written all over it. Don't you think you're overdoing it just a bit?' he directed toward his absent friend.

They sat there and stared at the desert, in all its magnificent largess. Finally, Rumiko picked up her spoon. "Still, it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Itadakimasu!" She took a bite, and immediately placed her hand over one cheek, "Ohhh...its so good!"

Kazunori smiled to see his Rumiko enjoying herself so much. "I'm glad," he said simply,

"Aha. I knew you had arranged this" She pounced on the perceived admission. He tried to fend off her words, but then his eyes,followed by hers, was drawn to the card attached to the plate.

She opened it and read. "Oh wow! Nori-kun, listen to this: "Strawberry Kiss" was created by the famous "Chocolate Confessions" chocolate boutiques especially for "Strawberry Fields". There's even a legend attached: couples who eat it together will be followed by good fortune. Want a bite?" she said, waving the spoon in the air between them. He blushed in response. He leaned over the table to look Rumiko in the eyes. Was she serious? Yet at that moment all the words he wanted to say ran away like water from his mind, and he could only look at her blankly.

"Bleehhh! Just kidding!" she said, sticking her tongue out in the childish gesture copied from anime. Yet, for just a moment, there was something hiding behind her eyes that looked hauntingly familiar to him. "Gomen, Nori-kun, I just wanted to tease you a bit, you seemed so serious for a moment there."

He waved off her apology, even though secretly he had been hoping for a bite. "Well, what next? What other strawberry memory shall we make together?" Rumiko asked as they left the restaurant. Kazunori consulted his much worn map of the park.

"Hmmmm..Looking at the map, the only thing left is..."

" the Swan Boats!" they chorused in unison, causing heads to turn their direction:

"It just has to be boating, after all!" Rumiko continued happily. I just love the feel of the wind against your cheek when you're close to the water."

"Naturally, besides its the only thing we haven't done yet, apart from the Great Berry tour, and that takes almost 2 hours to complete. We'd miss the start of the fireworks if we tried. We'll have to do it next time. Besides, Nanako already gave us the guided tour earlier." Kazunori agreed.

"Oh, but will we have time to enjoy it, considering the time?" Rumiko asked.

"Of course we will, this is our dreamtime, after all." Kazunori replied. Rumiko smiled. He extended his hand. "Let's go," Rumiko grabbed his hand and laughed as they passed benches inhabited by couples and families.

"And here I thought you didn't like being mistaken for a couple on a date, Nori-kun."

"We don't want to be separated, after all. And I never said I hated the thought, only it seems like we're deceiving everybody."

"Nori-kun you're smart and all, but sometimes you think too much." Rumiko remarked.

"Sorry."

"Um mmm, that's part of your charm. Anyway, let's have more fun!" They followed the signs that led to the docks and the boats, where the Fourth Strange Thing awaited him.


4. ~ Swans of Lover's Lagoon~


"I see, there are two kinds of boats, swan boats and regular row-boats," Rumi said reading the sign. She giggled. "I wonder which one is more romantic."

Kazunori hazarded a guess: "Most dramas and manga, even games portray rowboats as 'boat de jure' because you can see so much more from an open boat, and you can look the other in the eye without straining your neck."

"But Swan Boats are enclosed, so others can't see in," Rumiko pointed out."

"Well, there you go, then. Swan Boats are the more romantic. The Ambassador Rumiko has spoken."

"Oh stop it," Rumi said, blushing. The line moved, and they found themselves standing on the embarking platform. "I wonder which one we'll get then?" Rumiko said, watching an inexpert couple foundering not too far away from shore.

"We'll get the boat we need." Kazunori said with confidence. Privately, he hoped for a Swan Boat, but as there were more row-boats on the water, he didn't think their chances very high. "The Legend of the White Swan Boat" -Its even said that two people who follow the park swan will have good luck in love.! There sure are a lot of legends like that surrounding this park, for some reason." Kazunori commented.

"Don't be a spoil-sport, Nori-kun" Rumi admonished. "It must have happened at least once, so there's good reason to let other people know."

"Okay, okay. I wasn't criticizing, just commenting on the situation."

Rumi smiled again. "Well, this is a Strawberry Fields dreamland, after all, so they need something to bring visitors back. The next boat that came up to the dock to disgorge its two passengers, though, was a Swan Boat, white with a gold crown and an etched pink heart surmounting a graceful long neck. The park employee signaled for Kazunori and Rumi to come forward. Rumiko climbed in first, followed by Kazunori. He looked around at the interior: red plastic seating covering a white plastic wall with some stray graffiti as decoration. He began to wonder at their good fortune. The pair struggled to get the hang of steering the boat, but finally their confidence grew. Before they knew it, they had paddled themselves clear to the other side of the lake.

"Look over there" Rumi pointed out excitedly, "there's a real swan!" Kazunori gazed in the direction of her finger. Sure enough there was a white swan. As he watched, Something glinted from its neck.

"What's that?" he asked, also pointing.. "Shall we follow her and find out?" he asked.

Rumi's face lit up. "Do you think we can?"

"What's the worst that can happen, she'll fly off, right?"

That convinced her. "Ok."

And so they pointed their little boat in the same direction as the swan and began paddling after the swan. who led them on a merry chase, seemingly unafraid of the noise behind her. Their meandering course caused not a few near-misses with other boaters who let their feelings known by cheerfully, or not so cheerfully, splashing the offending boat in protest, even when apologies were offered up as they parted. Finally, they cornered the swan in a part of the lake where no else was. They found themselves in what looked like the entrance to a lagoon of sorts. Two poles on either side normal held a tarp that kept it from view, but it had been lowered, exposing this additional bit of shoreline.

"Lovers' Lagoon, please be responsible." Rumiko read from a wooden sign on her left. They stopped paddling as they crossed the threshold, continuing to glide. Able to observe the swan at a closer distance, Kazunori discovered that the strange glinting around the swan's neck came from a pink heart on a gold chain.. Without warning the swan took off, cackling as she began her ungainly launch, and leaving Kazunori and Rumiko in sole possession of the lagoon. The two half-turned to look at one another and shrugged in bemused wonder at their fortune.

"It looks like this place isn't used much," Kazunori commented aloud. He found himself wishing they had taken a rowboat after all, then he wouldn't have to keep turning his head to look at Rumiko. Finally, it dawned on him that they were alone. Wouldn't this be a great place make his confession. He gathered his courage about him like a cloak. The wind died down, It was as if the very waters were waiting for something to happen, nudging him to make his confession here in this pond. The very silence was pregnant with expectation. They drifted slowly, until even that slight motion faded. Yet, the silence also robbed him of any words. Their mutual silent appreciation of the scene before them was like a zen poem. Then a frog broke the stillness and the moment was gone. Kazunori shook his head to clear himself of the feeling of expectation and turned to his companion.

"Guess we should be getting back, huh? We've probably gone way over our limit." Kazunori said abashedly. Rumiko shook her head in agreement, but neither made a move to start paddling. Being together here was a special feeling he wanted to absorb to its fullest. They were startled out of their ponderings by a barking voice from behind.

"Oi, what are you doing here?" A park employee was waving at them from the shore, signaling them over. They shrugged and aimed the Swan Boat in his direction. "This area is off-limits to park guests you know. How did you get in here?" He asked when they were in hailing distance.

"Um, we just followed a swan. We didn't know this part of the lake was off-limits, sir."

"A swan?" he repeated with a tone that said he had expected a different explanation.

"Yes, there was a swan wearing a pink necklace in the middle of the lake and we chased it to get a better look, and wound up back here. What is this place anyway?" Rumiko asked.

"Umm." the employee said, scratching his head. "Ah, its really more of a non-public area the park rents out for private functions. So you followed Henrietta huh? I guess she must have wanted to show you something. But still, this is not exactly a place for you two to be. I'll have to ask you to leave now. I'll be replacing the tarp directly, so please return to the park."

"Yes sir, thank you, sir." Kazunori and Rumiko said. He waved them off. They back-paddled from the shore and followed the short channel out into the main lake. It wasn't until the employee was out of hearing range that the significance of his questions and prodding, and that of the purpose of the signs dawned on them. They burst out into embarrassed laughter. kazunori sighed inwardly, even as the laugh left his mouth: found out by a park employee, and sent packing from the one private place in the whole park. Another chance wasted. He truly was a coward, and Ozawa would never let him live it down, if he ever found out. But still, it was worth it, just to follow the swan, and experience the stillness together with Rumiko, a shared moment he would treasure forever, much as Rumiko would treasure the carnation.

"Strange to think that they would have that kind of place here, at an amusement park." Rumiko said after their laughter had died away.

"Not really. There is an attached hotel after all, and this is a business that caters to all age groups. Of course they're bound to offer a range of services." he replied without thinking. "Not that I'm in any hurry to try them all," he added hurriedly. They were very, very late in returning the Swan boat, yet strangely not a word of reproach was uttered by the employee, nor any mention of their transgression into off-limits areas. They stretched their limbs as they disembarked and left the dockside. Little though he knew it, Nori-kun had one last Strange Thing to undergo in his quest to confess to Rumiko, and it would prove the Strangest of them all.


5. ~Love's Ferris-wheel~


Thus, by the end of the day they had tried nearly every ride in the park, except the Ferris Wheel. They stood in line, and wondered if they'd get a seat, especially when the attendant announced that this was the last go-round of the day.

"You know the balloon would have come in handy right now." Kaznori said wistfully.

"You don't have to keep reminding me" Rumiko said a little crabbily."

"I wasn't, merely making an observation. I felt bad about using it as much as we did," Kazunori defended himself.

"Me too. I'm sorry I snapped at you. I'm a little tired, that's all. It was fun, but a long day. And even if we don't get on the Ferris Wheel, I count today as successful." Rumiko apologized.

"I agree." he said, wondering what was so 'successful' about the day. None of his attempts to confess his feelings toward Rumiko had even gotten off the ground. Was he doomed to always have her as a classmate, and nothing else? He counted the number of people ahead of them, and divided by the possible combinations that could fit into a capsule, and sighed inwardly. They probably would be turned away at the last minute, or be sharing the ride with another couple: he saw just that happen to a pair about 6 places ahead of them. He braced himself for disappointment, not really paying attention to the people. Finally they were next in line, and a white capsule stopped and 4 people stepped out. The attendant ushered them in, making sure they were seated properly.

"Sorry folks, last riders for the evening," the attendant said behind them, turning everyone else away, as she closed the door and signaled for the operator to move the Wheel. The capsule jiggled as it began to move. At first it moved in a line with the platform, but gradually, it began to rise, topping the fence that encased its base, disclosing the whole panorama of the park at dusk, from the lighted roofs of buildings, to the shores of the lake where even now a laser light show played; even the lighted Great Berry with its own light show shrank before them.

They sat facing each other, and largely ignored the view as they reviewed their day. "Did you enjoy your day, Nori-kun?" Rumi asked. "Oh so very much. At first I didn't expect to, with the way it started, being left behind by the others," -'and because of my nervousness of being alone with you, Rumi-chan' he added mentally- "but then, you came along, and then we met Kumahime-chan; and making friends with Nanako-chan, made it simply an amazing adventure. Thank you."

"I'm glad" she breathed.

"Huh?"

"Iiya, nothing" she said, the lapsed into thoughtful silence. The capsule continued to rise and go backwards.

"So, did you enjoy your day?" He asked as the capsule seemed to change direction in mid-stream. "Oh yes, it was a perfect day together." She said absentmindedly. 'Even the haunted house?" he couldn't resist the little jab "But of course, especially the haunted house." Then realizing what she had just said, stuck out her tongue. "You would bring that up again."

"Sorry, it just seemed that you were somewhere else, so I thought I'd tease you a little." They both laughed at that. They sat together in companionable silence for a few more moments. Then, right at the top, everything came to a halt, and the car rocked. A voice came over the loudspeaker:

"Please do not be alarmed. This ride has stopped to allow you our honored guests to enjoy the firework display."

This was it, the end of the dream time he had with Rumi-chan, and still he had not confessed; the last of the precious time allotted to him, and hadn't he squandered it by failing to confess? But then, he had enjoyed an entire day in Rumi-chan's company, wasn't that worth not confessing? He was able to see her in a variety of moods. They had done so many things together today. The only experience lacking was the kokuhaku, and now he doubted its necessity. Was it worth possibly ruining their friendship to make a kokuhaku at this point? To be rejected would throw him back upon his own loneliness. It would be a heavy loneliness without Rumi-chan in his life, but bearable, and wouldn't having her as a friend be almost as good? She would still be always near, after all. He could even fend off Ozawa-kun and the others' grousing about not confessing after all they had done to get him to this point. But what could he do? He didn't want a rejection, and a partial relationship was better than no relationship, no matter what They said.

He kept turning these thoughts around and around in his mind. An expectant silence descended and lay heavily in the air, almost oppressive in its heaviness -even the ever present sound of the crowds below faded into nothingness. How could such a silence be borne, yet alone broken?

"Oh, it looks like we'll have a good view of the fireworks." Even to his own ear that sounded extremely lame, a searching after something to say, for something to fill an unnatural gap. Natural communication having broken down, producing in its wake a seeking after artificial conversation starters.

'Of course we have a good view of the fireworks, we're at the very height of the Ferris Wheel, Dummy'. Mentally he kicked himself, hard. They looked out, awkwardly. He just wanted to hear her voice, not a disappointed, sad voice, but a happy, understanding, carefree voice, like what he had heard most of the day. Oh how he wished the sky would come and fall down on him, or that his seat would open up and swallow him, anything to remove him from this situation.

Finally, as the sky began to light up with blues and reds and greens, accompanied by the distant pops of the canon, Kazunori broke the silence a second time, desperate to say something, anything. He would willingly make a fool of himself for Rumi-chan's sake, if only... "Oh, look, there, the Fireworks are starting!" Kazu stood up to point out a particularly beautiful mulch-colored flower-burst, before realizing he'd just repeated himself.

"Ne, Nori-kun?" Rumi said from her seat, in a small voice, pulling on his sleeve. He sat back down heavily, causing the capsule to rock gently. He heard her breathe heavily, as if afraid of hurting him with a pronouncement. There was nothing to loose now, and he would regret it if he didn't make a proper confession, even if he was to be rejected. He hoped the words would come.

"A..ano neh, Rumi-chan, you see..." But before the words came out, another breath was explosively expelled.

"I have to do this quickly before I loose my nerve. Kazunori... Watashi....I like Nori-kun, and have for a long, long time now. Its ok if you can't reciprocate these feelings, its enough for me to tell you. I just wanted my feelings to get through. Its taken me all day to get here." Everything was coming out in one jangled rush, and his ears never got past "I like you Kazunori."

What? Rumiko looked into his eyes, searching for something, and afraid of finding it. 'You're not mad at me? For springing this on you?" She asked, quietly. "but of course you are. Suddenly hearing something like that from me.."

"How could I be mad at you? I like you. I'm the one who should apologize to you for the way I've treated you today."

"Nonsense, it shows your sensitive side," She said. "Besides, today there were a lot of distractions, And you see, I didn't think I'd get the opportunity to confess properly, not really. So I didn't, until now. There just never seemed to be the right moment, and there wasn't a single place that I thought appropriate for it, well, except for the swan-lake, and even then, the silence was too beautiful to spoil with something as mundane as a confession. And then, and then the Ferris Wheel presented itself to me. And so I grabbed it. Please don't be mad. To be honest, this whole day was Yumi-chan's and Yoshi-kun's idea. Why, he even told me to come late, and still..."

Comprehension brought an electric shock coursing through Kazunori -a great white firework burrowing from his head to his chest and back again. "But.. I...but that's my line, Rumi-chan" he protested. "Ozawa-san and I set this up so I..could..confess to you," he trailed off. Oh, what was he doing. Everything was wrong, and now she would think he only said what she wanted to hear, parroting her own words back at her. Why was the world such a cruel place? Why couldn't he just disappear through the bottom of the capsule? "and I worked so hard and now, and now.."

He trailed off into silence. His hand which had been scrunched up fist-like, fell limply to his side, a feeling of wetness that wasn't nervousness spreading over it. He felt another drop of wetness. Was he crying now, as well? A perfect way to end this day, he thought, through his imagined tears, bawling like a baby for Rumi-chan to see. Well, if he was to be condemned in her eye, he would look her in that eye, he retained that much dignity at least. Yet, as he looked up, expecting to hear rejection finally. ...

"You felt the same way Nori-kun?" she gasped, clasping his hand in hers. "But that's wonderful!"

"No its not. I'm a coward, I couldn't even bring myself to say it once." he said morosely, withdrawing his hand. "The berries, the wind at the pond, even the animals from the petting zoo all were cheering me on in their own way, and I let them down."

"Their feelings reached you, though, didn't they? They kept you going, right? Their strength let you accept my feelings did they not, and for that I'm happy." She folded her hands in her lap as she took a breath.

"Anyway, I'm happy to know that's how you feel you know, and that's all that matters" she said, taking his hand again and bringing it up to her cheek. "I was right to like you."

"Rumiko.." Kazunori said, and the simple repetition of her name was enough, for both of them.

"Anyway, I'm happy to know that's how you feel, and that's all that matters" she said, taking his hand again and bringing it up to her cheek. "I was right to like you."

"Rumiko.." Kazunori said, and the simple repetition of her name was still enough, for both of them. Fireworks began to come thick and heavy now, starbursts overtaking cannon shots overtaking bursts, exploding all around the capsule silhouetting the couple now sitting side by side, who barely took notice of the outside conflagrations.

#

From a distance, those same fireworks glinted off the oval end of fairly large pair of military grade light gathering binoculars. "Well finally," the boy puffed as he set them down. I swear, I thought those two would never take the plunge. And after all we did for them. Still, looks like our job here is done. 'kay. Dinner's on me. Let's go everyone." He got up and and reached for the door.

"Hold on. Let me see, let me see," The girl beside him insisted, exasperatedly grabbing them and up and looked through them to see the couple's clasped hands, "you're always hogging the equipment."

A moment passed. "Yep, mission accomplished. Ganbatte," she agreed. "I still can't believe your uncle went along with your plan, though." she said as they headed for the door.

"Well, he's always had a soft spot when it comes to young love." The girl just rolled her eyes. "Ecchi old man."

"Is not!" her companion protested, defending the honor of his uncle.

"Is to, and that's a fact. Anyway, how much did this day cost?"

"I'd rather not talk about that," he said, evasively.

"Well, its a good thing my grandfather was willing to do it at cost, then," she said, displaying an "I own you" look. His only response was a scowl. Sje only smiled more.

"I hope the pictures come out ok." she said as a vocal aside, startling the boy. "Well, I'm going on ahead." she said as she exited.

"Oi, Yumi!" the boy cried, hurrying after the departing girl.


Owari / The End


This slightly revised version of the story is a result of the reviews garnered by the Story Club members at the RP, Anime, Own Stories, Continued" (RAOSC) Forum in the Manga section, especially kingofe3, Erin Rein to Ero Sama, and Lord Slayer. I still balk at breaking it up, but I have an itch that says that as presently constituted, Yunokoi could be the core of a longer story, which I might write someday.