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Manazashi-hen (Gazing Fondly Chapter)

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"Uggh… it's so boring today… come on, Uncle Yoshirou…"

Mion leaned with both arms on the counter of her uncle Yoshirou's game store in Okinomiya, holding her head with both hands. She had been asked to keep an eye on the store for just a couple of hours as he attended to some business, but it had been at least another hour past the time he'd estimated he'd return. To make matters worse, this was time spent that she was supposed to be using studying for her upcoming entrance exams. Though she'd maintained a confident attitude about them, deep down, she was worried that she would do badly on them. Sure, her family connections might be sufficient to get her into a decent school in that case, but it might not be the same school where Keiichi ended up. And if that happened…

She sighed to herself, trying not to think too much about it. But it had been a slow day at the store today, with only a few customers stopping in to buy things. The sweltering summer heat was probably part of the reason, but it would only be a few more weeks until summer was over.

It had been a rather eventful summer, one she was likely never to forget. The bonds she’d made with her friends meant more than anything in the world to her, and she was sure she’d carry such memories with her into whatever future was in store for her. But if that future didn’t include Keiichi…

She’d tried to act on her feelings. Numerous times, in fact. But she’d been too subtle about it, nervous about making him uncomfortable. It was probably meaningless anyway. Keiichi was a generous, kindhearted guy who’d won over the entire village with his sincerity and energy. A boy like that might stay single in a tiny village like Hinamizawa, but once he went back to the city to study at the university, the girls there would eat him alive. He’d probably find some cute, feminine girl who’d hang on his arm, wearing fashionable dresses and skirts, the sorts of things that didn’t suit a tomboy like Mion at all. They’d probably get married, and even if he moved back to Hinamizawa, Mion would be nice to that girl and befriend her, hiding her pain behind forced smiles and sobbing it into her pillows at night.

It was a rather depressing thought. Both Rena and Shion had told her to think more positively, but she’d imagined that future quite vividly. She’d seen it in her dreams. Sometimes, the girl would be short, and sometimes, she’d be tall. She never seemed to be the same person twice, but in each case, she was a much more feminine girl than Mion was. She wished she could stop having that dream—Shion liked to call it a warning—but it seemed to recur so often that it had even invaded her waking thoughts.

She was brought out of her rut by the sound of the shop door opening, and bells jingled to herald the arrival of someone. Either a customer or her uncle, she guessed. She snapped to attention, waving to whoever it was that had just opened the door.

“Hello, welcome!” she called out, forcing herself to be cheerful. It was an act she’d perfected many times over.

"Yo, Mion!" a familiar voice called out, and Mion's heart immediately skipped a beat as she recognized its owner: a lanky, cute boy with shaggy brown hair and warm, indigo eyes.

"Kei-chan? What are you doing here?" Mion asked, mildly surprised to see the same boy she’d just been thinking about entering the store. He was holding something in one hand, though she couldn't quite make out what it was.

"My mom needed me to pick up something from the store for the dinner she's making tomorrow, so I thought I'd stop by," Keiichi explained with a friendly smile, holding up a bag containing some jars of spices. Mion recognized a few of the labels as spices she’d used when cooking with her grandmother.

"Ah, I see," Mion remarked with a friendly smile of her own. "It's good that the younger generation is taking care of us old folks! It fills this old man's heart with hope."

They bantered back and forth for several minutes like that, and it helped pass the time, taking Mion's mind off of the drudgery of the day. Even her worries about her entrance exams and getting into a good school faded away, as Keiichi's very presence filled her heart with a radiant warmth. Since they were going to be talking for a while, she agreed to let him put the bag of spices behind the counter for safekeeping, and they became lost in conversation.

For a boy who caused her no end of heartache, really through no true fault of his own, Keiichi sure had a way of making her smile. He had that effect on people, which was part of the reason she’d fallen for him in the first place. And as they talked, she could feel her worries melting away, even if only for a moment.

She was caught off-guard, however, by the jingle of bells as the door opened yet again. Mion and Keiichi both turned their heads to see who had come to the door, thinking that perhaps her uncle had arrived to relieve her. Instead, what they saw was an adult woman, probably in her late twenties, and two young, nearly identical looking children each holding onto one of her hands. One was a boy, the other a girl, and they both seemed rather overwhelmed.

"Hello, welcome!" Mion greeted her with a polite wave. "Please, take a look around!"

"Hello," the woman responded politely, giving Mion and Keiichi a kind smile. "These two have a birthday coming up, so I thought I'd let them pick out a present."

"Twins, huh?" Keiichi said with a friendly, cockeyed smile, turning to look at Mion from the corner of his eye. "I bet they're quite a handful."

Mion rolled her eyes and gave Keiich’s arm a jab with his elbow, which he rubbed with exaggerated pain.

"I'm five minutes older," the boy insisted. "That means I need to take care of my sister… because I'm the older one!" He nodded emphatically to Keiichi, who smiled warmly at him and gave him a thumbs up.

"Go on, have a look around," the mother said to her children, releasing their hands so they could look around the store. "But be careful, OK?"

The children nodded and turned away to start wandering the store, and the woman gave both Keiichi and Mion another kind, polite smile. Mion was pretty sure she'd never seen this woman before, but she had heard that young couples had started moving into Okinomiya. Some had even been eyeing Hinamizawa, something which had simultaneously annoyed and pleased her grandmother.

Just as he was about to turn his attention back to Mion, Keiichi felt a tug at the side of his shorts. When he turned to look, he saw the woman's daughter staring up at him with a pout on her face.

"Hmm?" he asked, kneeling down so that he was closer to the girl's eye level.

"Mister, do you like this game?" she asked shyly, peering up at Keiichi from behind a box containing a game. Keiichi reached out for it curiously with both hands, his head cocked to one side as he inspected it.

"Ah, this game?" he replied with a smile, holding up the large, cardboard box. It was a marble capturing game with four brightly colored plastic dogs whose tails caused their mouths to snap at the middle of the gameboard. Plastic marbles of various colors and points values could be gathered. It was a simple game with simple rules, but the children were mostly enamored with the brightly colored characters on the box. Keiichi took the box from their hands to look at it. It had already been opened, probably for one of their club activities, but upon closer inspection, he could tell that all of the pieces were there.

Keiichi explained the rules patiently to the two children, and he even pointed out that if they made some friends, they could invite them over, and four of them could play the game together. He would even teach them how to play it if they wanted to.

"I'm pretty good at this game, so maybe you'll pick up a few tricks from me," he told the two of them, and their eyes widened in astonishment.

"Mommy! Mommy!" the young boy called out excitedly to his mother, pointing to the box in Keiichi's hands. "Can we try that game please?"

"If it's alright with the store employee, then I don't see why not," the mother responded patiently before turning to look at Mion. "Is that alright?"

"Eh?" Mion blinked from behind the counter, realizing that she was being talked to. With a gentle laugh, she flicked her wrist in the direction of Keiichi and the children, indicating that it was no problem whatsoever. "That's fine! Go right ahead. If anything happens to the game, I'll just take it out of his salary."

Let's see… yes, she thought to herself. Three hours as a maid for every marble that goes missing sounded like a good trade-off. If nothing else, that would take her mind off of her worries. She could just imagine Keiichi’s flustered face as she flipped up his skirt to take a nice, long look at his cute, chiseled butt in those panties… 

The children excitedly sat at the table with Keiichi as he unpackaged the game and set it up for them. He showed them how to press on the dog's tails and make them snap at the marbles, and he even showed them how not to get their fingers stuck in the dogs' mouths. The two children laughed at his exaggerated demonstration as he made one of the dogs nip his finger. With a smile, he began to count out the marbles, placing them in the playfield in the middle. Before too much longer, they started playing, the sounds of clacking plastic and children's laughter filling the quiet store with a rather joyous atmosphere.

Mion found herself rather enthralled with watching Keiichi play the game with the kids, enough so that she didn't mind that he wasn't talking with her. She leaned over the counter, propping an arm beneath her breasts and planting her other elbow on the counter to hold up her chin as she watched. The way Keiichi's eyes lit up as the kids had fun made him look rather charming. He was being so patient and kind to the kids that they took to him immediately, and she could see in his gentle, cockeyed smile that he was enjoying himself as well.

"He's going to be a good father one day, isn't he?"

Mion's head raised to look up at the mystery voice, a confused look on her face. The children's mother had stepped to the counter to look at some of the items displayed there, glancing over her shoulder at the table where Keiichi and the children were seated. Noticing Mion's confusion, the woman smiled kindly at her.

"He's here to visit you, right?" she clarified. "You're quite a lucky girl. Make sure you hang on to that one."

"I-it's not like that at all!" Mion protested, standing up straight and waving her hands dismissively. "Kei-chan's just a good friend of mine! Honestly!" Her cheeks began to flush bright red at the implication, however, and she found herself rather glad that Keiichi was too engrossed in the game to notice what else was going on.

"Oh? That's a shame," the woman remarked politely. She picked up a small box containing a fishing game from the counter and inspected it, no hint of malice or mischief in her eyes. Just earnest sincerity.

"Perhaps you ought to do something about that while you still have the chance."

With that simple comment that stabbed right into Mion's heart, the woman set the box back down on the counter and turned to go look at some of the items on the shelves against the wall. Mion, however, was left frozen in place, eyes wide. Her core temperature rose, that blush slowly consuming her entire face until her brain short-circuited, proverbial steam shooting out of her ears. Images flooded her mind until she saw Keiichi, several years older than he is right now, feeding a young child sitting in a highchair. His broad shoulders had filled out, and his arms had gained a healthy bit of muscle. The child, a girl who vaguely looked like him, opened her mouth wide as Keiichi held up a spoon containing some honeyed carrot slices. Once she chewed and swallowed the food, he smiled and gave her a pat on the head, and she giggled at him happily before reaching out her little arms, wanting to be picked up.

In that vision, Mion looked down at her hands, one of which was holding a knife as the other steadied a radish she'd been chopping. Her hands were just a little more weathered than she remembered, but they still looked very much like her hands. On her left hand, however, there was something new, something which caught her mind's eye. A slender, gold band adorned her ring finger, and when she glanced back up at a broadly smiling Keiichi picking up the young girl, she spotted a matching ring on his left hand as well. Noticing her gaze, he turned toward her, both he and the girl regarding her with curiosity.

"Uuu…" the girl cooed, a worried look on her face. "Did Mommy hurt herself?"

"N-no," Mion heard herself say, as though someone else was using her voice. "I'm just…  remembering something. Would you like to hear a story about your father?"

The warm smiles of Keiichi and their daughter faded to white before her, and when her vision was restored, she quickly realized that Keiichi, very much still a little wiry and without a ring on his finger, was standing in front of the counter, waving his hand in front of her eyes. The mother had gone back to talk to her children, who seemed very excited to purchase the game they had just finished playing with their new friend.

"Mion? Are you alright?" he asked, a touch of concern in his voice.

Quickly, Mion shot upright, her cheeks feeling rather warm. What was that vision that she had? A daydream? A vision of things to come? Maybe some other reality that's leaked into her own? It seemed so blissful and happy… that she would have started a family together with Keiichi, that he'd chosen to spend his life with her despite her being such a troublesome girl unsuited for cute things… she could feel a dull ache in the corner of her eye, a sign that tears might begin to form if she didn't take her mind off of the vision altogether.

"I-it's fine!" she blurted out, nervously rubbing the back of her head with one hand and waving the other. "This old man's just getting a little tired. It's been a long day, you know?"

"Oh, alright," Keiichi said, a smile rising to his lips. "It looks like they're going to buy the game, and I think your uncle is about to come back."

"Ah… hahaha, right," Mion responded, laughing nervously. She still couldn't quite shake those visions from her mind, and in the back of her head, the woman's voice began to echo.

"He's going to be a good father one day, isn't he?"

True to Keiichi's word, Yoshirou soon entered through the door, apologizing for keeping her waiting. He then turned his attention to the customers, and the woman happily explained that the young man had just helped her children pick out a game, and because her children had behaved so well, she wanted to purchase them a second one as well. When all was said and done, the mother and her children actually left with a sack full of games and toys, including the one that Keiichi had shown them, and Yoshirou was so impressed that he offered Keiichi a job on the spot. Keiichi replied that he would need to talk it over with his parents, and the two got to chatting a bit as Mion finished up at the register.

Finally, her shift was over, and after reminding Keiichi to grab the bag containing the spices his mother had asked him to pick up, they left the store together. They talked about various things in particular as they retrieved their bicycles, including the possibility of him becoming her coworker and when she would be available for him to help her study for her entrance exams. Such lighthearted conversation initially helped Mion brush aside those horribly distracting thoughts of hers, and the conversation was much the same as they rode their bikes back to Hinamizawa.

Once they got back to the village, the sun was setting, bathing the village in a warm, red glow. Their conversation had hit a natural lull once they dismounted from the bicycles and started walking home. As nice as it was to just be next to Keiichi, however, Mion found herself plagued by those distracting thoughts again. Her mood began to change, a soft red glow rising to her cheeks as they drew closer and closer to the Sonozaki estate. For his part, Keiichi didn't notice, offering only the occasional odd thought or question warranting a response.

By the time they arrived at the front gate to the Sonozaki estate, her visions from earlier had consumed her. She leaned her bike up against the wall then stood in place with her back to him, closing her eyes and clenching her fists until her fingers turned white.

"M-mion?" Keiichi asked from the road, cocking his head to one side as he stood with both hands on his bike's handlebars.

Mion recalled the words that the children's mother had spoken. Each of those sentences reverberated in the back of her mind, echoing distantly.

"He's going to be a good father one day, isn't he?"

"You're quite a lucky girl. Make sure you hang on to that one."

"Perhaps you ought to do something about that while you still have the chance."

Mion raised her head, opening her eyes. Her heart was racing, and she could feel her cheeks burning a bright shade of red. Adrenaline—yes, adrenaline—raced through her body, as if she were competing in the most high-stakes punishment game imaginable. But she wasn't going to back down. No, not this time. If she wanted to meet that young girl in the future… if she wanted to wake up snuggled in those strong arms… then she would call upon every ounce of determination she had available.

She turned to Keiichi, her blushing face adorned with a cheerful smile. When she spoke, Keiichi's eyes grew wide with surprise, and then his face turned a bright shade of red. With a shy smile, he brought one of his hands to the back of his head, glancing away for a moment before turning his gaze back to her and answering.

And by the time they finally said their goodbyes for the night, Mion knew what it was like to be held in those strong arms of his… and she never had those bad dreams again.