“Air” is something that exists between people.
It’s probably like a lump of unspoken understanding.
And yet, it’s incredibly fragile, like a jelly.
If you break it, you’re treated as someone who can’t grasp the atmosphere, an outcast.
Human groups are very frightening, and they become an “atmosphere” where anything is allowed against those who deviate from the herd’s vibe.
They start to attack those who deviate from the “atmosphere.”
Humans, individually normal, easily become cruel when they gather in groups.
They become capable of hurting others easily.
Surely, it’s the doing of the so-called “atmosphere.”
Because they’re doing it too.
It’s not just me.
If I don’t do it too, then next it’s me…
Such an “atmosphere” seems like a free pass for absolution.
So, in order to protect myself, I desperately try to read the atmosphere.
I’m definitely not handsome.
But from my hairstyle to how I wear the high school uniform, I pay meticulous attention to every detail, and I’ve become known as the so-called ‘vibe handsome.’
Balance is crucial.
I’ve slightly dyed my hair brown to match the light gray of the blazer; it’s grown a bit longer.
Even when wearing the uniform, not too tight, not too sloppy.
Maintaining cleanliness is of the utmost importance.
If you’re too dull, you’re called an introvert.
If you’re too rebellious, you’re called a player.
Balance is crucial.
It’s as if every day is a tightrope walk.
But I, Kotaro Miyama, can read the atmosphere.
Without any issues, I’ll show you that I can enjoy my school life.
I’m sure I can do it.
Kotaro Miyama was a second-year high school student.
He was struggling with his studies for the midterms in the early autumn.
The temperatures that had been scorching like fire had somehow turned chilly.
During lunch break, he was in the classroom with his male friends, engaging in the usual empty chatter.
“…actress…involved in an affair,”
“…cute girl in the class next door, isn’t she?”
These conversations held no interest for Kotaro.
Still, he had to somehow keep up and participate.
He couldn’t afford to be left behind.
Yes, he believed he could do it.
He, Kotaro Miyama, a guy who could read the atmosphere.
At the shoe lockers when school ended, Kotaro changed his shoes.
Today, he planned to go home and study for the tests.
And then, he would join in with his friends, saying, “I haven’t been studying at all! I’m screwed!”
For that, he needed to get home before any invitations to hang out arrived.
Once those invitations came, he couldn’t refuse.
Appear relaxed on the outside.
He changed his shoes and left the school building.
And at the school gate, he was called out.
“Hey! Miyama-chi, are you heading home now?”
Turning around, he saw Mari Ishi, from the same class.
This person was a girl who couldn’t read the atmosphere.
Her hair, extending down to her chest, was dyed beige.
Pink glass earrings adorned both ears.
Her makeup was heavily done, including mascara.
She was a gal.
Kotaro felt a slight relief.
If it was Mari Ishi, there was no need to read the atmosphere.
After all, she couldn’t read the atmosphere at all.
She stood out in their class.
To the point that even the other girls found her annoying.
There was no need to pay meticulous attention to her.
“Oh, Ishi it’s you. I’m heading home to study.”
“Ah~! This serious guy! Miyama-chi, you’re like… serious but not serious, I don’t really get it.”
“Well, I’m trying to strike a balance right in the middle.”
“That’s why you’re definitely a serious guy.”
Although they were getting off at different stations, Kotaro and Mari often took the same train part of the way home.
Sometimes, they got along well enough to go home together.
“Miyama-chi, wanna go home together?”
“In the train, don’t grope me if you get all worked up, okay?”
“Do you get worked up by me?”
This person really couldn’t read the atmosphere.
Or rather, Kotaro couldn’t understand what she was thinking.
Her conversations were often completely unexpected.
Yet, Kotaro found a bit of enjoyment in these conversations where he didn’t need to read the atmosphere.
On the train ride back.
Kotaro’s stop was approaching soon.
“Hey, hey, Miyama. Have you fallen in love?”
That is right, Kotaro Miyama had never fallen in love in his entire life.
So, keeping up with his friends’ love talks was truly challenging.
“What about you, Ishi?”
Ishi put her index finger to her lips.
While she was always prying into Kotaro’s affairs, she was secretive about her own.
As Kotaro’s nearest station arrived, he got off the train.
“See you later, Miyama-chi!”
“Yeah, see you.”
Through the glass window of the closing train doors, Kotaro saw Ishi waving her hand.
Then, the train departed, disappearing beyond the tracks.
Kotaro muttered to himself on the platform.
The next day.
During break time, Kotaro Miyama and his group of male friends engaged in their usual banter.
Among the group of guys was one with short black hair, exuding an air of seriousness – Tsukasa, someone Kotaro had a good bond with.
Tsukasa crossed his arms and shared, “I’m a bit worried about this upcoming physics test.”
The others chimed in reassuringly.
“Ah, don’t sweat it, Tsukasa. You always say that, but you usually end up scoring pretty well.”
“He’s quietly diligent, you know.”
“He comes across just as serious as he looks.”
Kotaro seamlessly joined the conversation, providing well-timed responses.
He was being attentive to the atmosphere, a skill he prided himself on.
Balancing on this conversational tightrope was second nature to him.
He believed in his ability to read the atmosphere – he wouldn’t disrupt it.
Then, his attention shifted to Mari Ishi.
Ishii’s gaze was fixed on their group.
Following her line of sight led to Tsukasa.
Ah, so Tsukasa was the object of Ishii’s affections.
Kotaro shifted his gaze to Tsukasa, musing to himself, “Interesting. Looks like Tsukasa’s quite the catch.”
While Kotaro himself had never experienced love, he recognized he couldn’t fully grasp Ishi’s emotions.
Nevertheless, he considered offering some form of assistance, at least indirectly.
And a few days later, after the tests had concluded and everyone could take a breath…
A rumor began to circulate.
—Mari Ishi is selling her body—
The rumor’s origin was unclear, yet it swiftly spread throughout the class.
People now only watched Ishi from afar.
Ishi had always stood out, even amidst the class.
She was met with disapproval from the girls.
The rumor was likely ignited by one of the female students.
People no longer dared to approach Ishi.
(Well, she’s not good at reading the atmosphere.)
Kotaro mused silently.
He hadn’t entertained the notion that Ishi was involved in such activities.
The truth remained unknown.
Even if she was indeed engaged in solicitation, there wasn’t much to be done about it.
After all, such professions existed in the world.
However, at the very least, Kotaro was inclined to believe Ishi wasn’t involved.
(Perhaps leaving her in isolation isn’t the best choice. Maybe I should try talking to her.)
Kotaro recognized the negative consequences of letting Ishi remain isolated.
He was about to rise from his seat and approach Ishi…
Yet, the collective gaze of the entire class bore down on him.
—Don’t make things worse—
The words seemed to pierce Kotaro’s heart like nails.
(What’s with this ‘atmosphere’?)
The entire class seemed unified in ostracizing Ishi.
The class’s atmosphere clung to Kotaro like barbed wire.
It was as if the atmosphere warned him, “If you act oddly, you’ll be the next one to suffer.”
Kotaro struggled to stand, succumbing to the pressure of that atmosphere, ultimately resuming his seat.
He was rendered immobile, unable to act as he wished.
As a member of the group, he understood the tremendous force the current atmosphere held.
The pressure was overwhelming.
Disrupting the atmosphere could result in him becoming the next target.
The sentiment directed at Ishi was sharp and pointed.
Should Kotaro step into that space, his heart would be torn apart alongside Ishi’s.
And in the face of that fear, he found himself powerless.
After school, all he could do was watch Ishi walk home alone.
Days passed, yet the rumors remained.
If anything, the classroom atmosphere grew even harsher.
In hushed tones, but clear enough for all to hear, the girls spoke.
“Seriously… there’s a really trashy girl here.”
“Yeah, like, just don’t even come to school anymore.”
“Selling herself? That’s just impossible.”
Kotaro attempted several times, even many times, to approach Ishi and talk to her.
However, the invisible blades of the atmosphere wielded by everyone acted as a formidable wall, blocking his path.
The classroom atmosphere grew even sharper.
Despite enduring it alone, Ishi faced relentless hostility.
“Kotaro, it might be best to leave Ishi alone.”
“I don’t hate Ishi, but, Kotaro, I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
By helping Ishi, Kotaro would be hurt. By not helping, Ishi would be hurt.
With no other options, Tsukasa was simply concerned for Kotaro’s well-being.
Tsukasa wasn’t a bad guy. In fact, he was quite the opposite.
However, both Kotaro and Tsukasa were just ordinary students.
They didn’t possess the power to change this atmosphere.
And then, on a certain day during lunch break…
Kotaro Miyama found himself alone on the rooftop, an unusual occurrence for him.
(Haa… Can’t something be done about the current class atmosphere?)
He was referring to the atmosphere surrounding Ishi.
Kotaro gazed up at the sky.
Suddenly, someone entered the rooftop.
Kotaro glanced toward the entrance.
There stood Mari Ishi.
Upon seeing Kotaro, she seemed a bit surprised and started to retreat.
Kotaro raised his hand.
Ishi turned back to face him.
“Come sit here.”
Kotaro gestured beside him, inviting Ishi to join.
“Miyama-chi, you might end up bullied too.”
“Right now, it’s just us here, so it’s fine.”
He couldn’t really say “I’ll be fine even if I’m bullied.”
Ishi took a seat next to Kotaro, albeit hesitantly.
Taking a closer look at Ishi, he noticed that she seemed worn out.
Was this really the energetic Ishi he once knew?
Was this the same Ishi who couldn’t read the atmosphere?
Summoning his courage, Kotaro spoke up.
“Ishi, I don’t believe you’re selling yourself.”
Ishi glanced at Kotaro from the corner of her eye.
“Yeah. It’s fine. Just hearing you say that… I haven’t been selling my body.”
Tears welled up in Ishi’s eyes, mascara smudging as they fell.
“Should I pat your head?”
Kotaro gently patted Ishi’s head, unsure whether he was making contact or not.
This was the best he could do now.
But at the very least, during this lunch break, on this rooftop, the class’s “atmosphere” didn’t hold sway.
As autumn neared its end,
Within our school, alongside cherry blossoms, maple trees were also quite abundant, their leaves turning a brilliant red.
These leaves fell to the ground, creating a carpet of crimson.
On that particular morning,
Ishi was not wearing regular indoor shoes.
She had on slippers, probably borrowed from the staff room.
Most likely they had been hidden or damaged.
Alone at her seat, Ishi merely stared downwards.
Entering the classroom was Tsukasa, his face seeming weighed down by something.
Following behind him were several boys and girls.
The ringleaders of the bullying against Ishi.
All of them wore sly smiles.
(What’s going on?)
Tsukasa halted at the front of the room.
But he stood there frozen.
One of the boys prodded Tsukasa.
Tsukasa’s gaze flickered towards the prodding boy.
Then Tsukasa shouted at the top of his lungs.
I… I like you!
Will you go out with me?”
Ishi’s expression was dumbfounded.
Tsukasa’s face turned pale, not at all looking like someone who had just confessed their love.
Yet, Ishi’s expression gradually turned joyful.
Ishi’s lips parted.
I’ve also been thinking that I like you…”
The boys and girls around Tsukasa continued to grin slyly.
No, no, Ishi.
You still can’t read the atmosphere at all.
Perhaps this is…
“Sorry! Ishi! It’s a lie!
I don’t have any feelings for you!”
The color drained from Ishi’s face, her joyful expression fading away.
The classmates chuckled.
Kotaro remained frozen in place.
(…Tsukasa! You… You were the one I thought wouldn’t do something like this!)
Contempt and frustration swirled around in Kotaro’s mind.
Why? Why, Tsukasa?
Kotaro glared at Tsukasa, unable to move.
There was Tsukasa, still with that pallid expression.
Right, Tsukasa must have been coerced into this by those guys.
There was no room for refusal in the atmosphere they created.
Yet, even so…
Suddenly, Kotaro realized.
He too had been swallowed by this atmosphere, obedient to the majority.
Ultimately, his inability to help Ishi was no different from Tsukasa’s situation.
He had no right to attack Tsukasa.
(What, what was wrong?)
Why had things turned out like this?
Kotaro had been oppressed by the class’s atmosphere.
Tsukasa, pushed by that same atmosphere, couldn’t resist.
The classmates, driven by the class’s atmosphere, had become excited, bullying Ishi.
This class’s atmosphere had become a thick wall, surrounding Ishi, obstructing the will to help her.
This class’s atmosphere…
Kotaro was a perceptive individual.
The collective atmosphere was like an incredibly powerful current.
If you went against the flow, you’d be instantly overwhelmed.
And once an atmosphere had solidified, changing it was no easy task.
Kotaro remembered Ishi, crying on the school rooftop.
Her mascara-streaked tears.
And the sensation of gently stroking her beige hair.
Kotaro tried to stand up.
He wanted to ease Ishi’s sorrow.
But as he lifted his hips, it felt like an immense pressure was pushing down from above.
The entire class was enveloped in an atmosphere of trying to mock Ishi.
The atmosphere of defying this, what would happen?
At that moment, surely the entire class would see Kotaro as an enemy.
Kotaro was frightened.
He could imagine it.
Crushed by that fear, he sat down again.
But then his eyes fell upon it.
Ishi’s pink glass earrings.
And upon closer inspection…
Something twinkling between Ishi’s mascara-covered eyes.
It was probably a tiny tear, so small it could only be seen with a magnifying glass.
Seeing it, Kotaro…
Kotaro rose from his seat with determination.
Some classmates gazed at him with puzzled expressions.
Even he was surprised by how effortlessly he stood up.
The atmosphere, it was ultimately just that.
If you tried to read it, it became incredibly heavy and substantial.
If you ignored it, as light as a feather.
Of course, anyone who defied this atmosphere would undoubtedly face severe penalties from the group.
In this case, they would become the target of bullying.
However, Kotaro was angry.
At the classmates bullying Ishi.
Tsukasa, who succumbed and lied about his feelings.
At himself for being unable to do anything.
And so, Kotaro began to move.
The class’s atmosphere shifted.
But Kotaro didn’t mind.
Once he had resolved to stand up…
Not being swayed by the atmosphere was surprisingly simple.
If he had acted this way from the beginning, Ishi might not have been hurt this much.
He might not have become such a pathetic version of himself.
Thinking that, he sneered at his past self.
Kotaro was already…
I am, no longer…
I no longer care about reading the atmosphere.
Kotaro’s feet moved freely.
Tearing apart the clinging atmosphere.
The entire class looked at Kotaro.
He shrugged off their gazes.
He bumped into a desk on the way, causing a girl sitting there to raise her voice in complaint.
The class buzzed with commotion.
Kotaro paid no attention to their voices.
He pressed on.
In front of him was Tsukasa with a pale face.
And then, Kotaro…
He punched Tsukasa with all his might.
This was the first time he had ever hit someone.
His knuckles hurt.
Tsukasa fell to the floor at the teacher’s desk.
Screams echoed throughout the classroom.
Looking at the entrance, there were the ringleaders of the bullying, a group of boys and girls.
(I won’t let you get away.)
Kotaro ran towards the ringleaders.
He started by punching the boy at the front.
Then he punched the girl next to him.
Gender didn’t matter anymore.
He no longer cares about reading the atmosphere.
The boy behind them shouted, “What the hell are you doing?”
Kotaro punched him too.
Kotaro got hit back by another boy, then retaliated with his own punches.
A brawl centered around Kotaro, who had erupted.
But the odds were against him.
Kotaro was punched, pulled, and grabbed.
His classmates subdued him.
Then, the middle-aged male teacher hurriedly rushed in.
Perhaps he already knew the situation.
He quickly instructed everyone to return to their seats.
Kotaro leaned on Ishi’s shoulder as she guided him to the nurse’s office.
The ones to blame were the class atmosphere and the ones who created it.
But since Kotaro couldn’t go against it and even a false confession was made, he hoped they would take the punch he received lightly. With his swollen face, Kotaro thought this.
Tsukasa raised his head and continued.
“The result of the staff meeting is out. Kotaro is suspended for a week. I’m also suspended for a week. The ringleaders, those guys who were the worst, got a three-week suspension. Depending on the circumstances, they might even involve the police since they damaged Ishi’s belongings.”
Our homeroom teacher understood the situation well. When Ishi lost her indoor shoes, the teacher lent her slippers. Apparently, the teacher had been trying to address the bullying issue since then. And then, Kotaro’s massive brawl happened.
After hearing testimonies from everyone, the staff meeting treated the ringleaders with the most severe punishment. Our homeroom teacher was pretty cool.
Tsukasa continued, still speaking.
“So, Ishi, yesterday’s confession was a lie… I’m really sorry!”
Tsukasa bowed his head again. Ishi responded.
“It’s okay, Tsukasa-kun. I’ve already found someone else I like.”
Eh? It’s only been one day, though?
What on earth happened to Ishii?
Tsukasa seemed somewhat satisfied.
“Both of you should switch to attending classes in the infirmary.”
Our school’s infirmary was needlessly large. A few students from other grades and classes who had experienced bullying were already attending classes there.
“Miyama-chi, I think it’s better for us to do that.”
Honestly, I don’t think I can go back to that class anymore.
Studying with students in the same situation in the infirmary would definitely be better.
And then Tsukasa left.
He said he would bring our belongings from the classroom.
He’s truly a good guy.
After Tsukasa left, there was no specific conversation. Just silence between Kotaro and Ishii.
This atmosphere wasn’t bad either.
Together, they watched the crimson leaves of the maple trees drifting in the sky.
“You still haven’t fallen in love?”
Kotaro had never fallen in love before.
Along with the exclamation, Ishi planted a smacking kiss on Kotaro’s cheek.
A kiss devoid of any romance, more like a suction cup.
The kiss clung to his swollen face, causing intense pain.
“Ah, I-I’m sorry! But it’s my first kiss!”
It made absolutely no sense.
This girl, she really can’t read the atmosphere.
“Hey, hey, hey, Miyama-chi. If, if you still don’t like anyone, then how about m-me?”
Just like the autumn leaves, Mari Ishi’s face turned as red as the maple leaves. Huh? She said earlier that she likes someone else…
“Yeah, that’s right! I just kissed you!”
“Well, honestly, I don’t really know what to do. I’ve never been in love before.”
“Then how about a trial run! A trial run with me!”
“But, didn’t you like Tsukasa until yesterday?”
“Come on, you know how it is with girls and crushes, right? We overwrite the old ones with new ones. Now, it’s, K-K-K-K-K-Kotaro. After all, for my sake, you did that… I mean, someone would definitely fall for that, right…”
Looking down, Mari Ishi’s eyes darted around nervously.
What should I do?
“Okay then, a trial run. If you find someone else you like, you’re free to go that way.”
“Y-Yaaay! Don’t worry! I’ll teach Kotaro about love!”
Mari Ishi jumped around with joy.
Her beige-dyed hair bounced along.
Her pink glass earrings also bounced.
Am I going to learn about love from now on?
If it’s a sweet atmosphere, I’d definitely like to give it a try.
Mari Ishi reached out her hand to Kotaro Miyama.
“Let’s go, Kotaro!”
Kotaro took Mari’s hand.
Kotaro stood up.
And the two of them disappeared into the school building, their shadows blending together.
In the sky, crimson maple leaves danced in the breeze at the end of autumn.