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approval is the root of what i need

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Every night before she goes to sleep, she prepares a to-do list with everything she wants to accomplish for the next day. Written in neat, pretty penmanship are the following tasks:

  1. Finish memorizing Class 2-3’s names, birthdays, and blood types
  2. Visit the stationery shop and buy that vintage Gero Froggy keychain Chiyo’s been thinking about
  3. Make a stop at the nearby convenience store and buy a small snack for Mera --> maybe enough for her whole family?
  4. Figure out what to do about the Mt. Owari eruption in Oshimai

A very simple, ordinary, normal to-do list for Teruhashi Kokomi, a psychic from birth.

Lucky for her, God’s on her side, because over half of her classmates are the same as her first year, which means reviewing only takes half the amount of time it usually would. Teruhashi walks into the classroom with a smile on her face, ready to flex her knowledge.

She only stayed up until 2 AM this time. It’s getting easier.

Names come first, and she smoothly transitions from morning greetings to mindless questions about spring break as she scans the classroom, adjusting her glasses. She pulls everyone’s favorability meter up for easy access, the floating red hearts displaying their ranking for her. Her smile only grows wider when she sees the numbers tick up.

Her calculations haven’t betrayed her yet, and at this rate, Teruhashi thinks she might reach her 70 overall score milestone from everyone at PK Academy sooner than planned.

You’re thinking: but Teruhashi’s a psychic, isn’t she?

Similar to the way she’s changed the status quo to allow for odd hair colors, miracle cures, and unrealistically fast thought processes, couldn’t she just make it so that “admiring Teruhashi Kokomi” is second-nature to everyone in the world?

Wrong.

While it’s within her power to do that, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Not to say she wouldn’t use her psychic abilities to her advantage, because she most definitely would, but the world is give and take, even with God’s favor.

Going as far as to make herself popular using her powers leads to… undesirable results. Through a lot of trial and error and reset timelines whenever the world decides to implode, Teruhashi knows this better than anyone else.

Revealing her powers, on the other hand, is another dead-end since that means being pulled apart by hospitals and research institutes and going against her overprotective family.

At the end of the day, to everyone else, she is nothing more than a plain, average high school student. Anything more than that is something she needs to earn.

But she’s still Teruhashi Kokomi, a psychic. In that way, she’s already far above everyone else, even if they don’t know it.

Of course, she wants more than that, and Teruhashi doesn’t mind a fair game.

It’s not really her fault if the cosmos align and God is simply willing to take her side sometimes.

Teruhashi looks down at her journal, using her thoughtography to check off the names of all the students she talked to so far this morning, proud of her efficiency.

“Saiki-kun’s in our class this year,” Yumehara sighs dreamily, staring off into a large crowd gathering in the corner of their classroom. Even Mera pokes her head out of her chip bag to ogle the pink-haired boy at the center of the chaos.

And last on her list is... Saiki Kusuo. She frowns.

It’s not that she hasn’t heard of him before – and at this point, who doesn’t know Saiki Kusuo? – but she’s never had the chance to actually interact with him.

For one, he’s always surrounded by a crowd of people.

From other students who want to date him to those who want to be him, teachers who want him to be their student to even strangers on the street attracted to his aura – Saiki is almost never alone. All of his proclaimed ‘fans’ act as a shield around him that Teruhashi has no interest in bypassing.

Second, she’s not sure she’s ever heard Saiki speak.

Somehow, his silence doesn’t kill the mood but rather amplifies it, the picture-perfect image of a broody man that girls are very attracted to. It helps that by not talking much, there’s no danger of saying the wrong thing or causing trouble. The double-edged sword is that he can’t argue against their interpretation of him if he doesn’t say anything about it, no matter the extremes.

Take his friends, for example: Nendou, Kaidou, and Kuboyasu.

They’re among the lowest ranked of the class, for well-known reasons, but Saiki hangs out with them anyway.

Well, it’s more like they choose to hang out with him, but he doesn’t shake off their advances, and everyone immediately assumes that he’s respectable for taking on such a “charity” case. Without so much as lifting a finger, he has the whole school loving him.

He’s a blank canvas, someone everyone can project their own fantasies onto.

To everyone else, he’s hiding a kind, soft, romantic side, waiting until he can share his true self with “the one”.

Saiki Kusuo has the looks, the grades, and the presence.

The ideal pretty, perfect boy.

Unfortunately for him, Teruhashi doesn’t see the appeal.

Really, though. She can’t physically see it.

One downside of her psychic abilities is her X-ray vision, which triggers as soon as she sets her eyes on something. Within 5 seconds, everyone’s muscle tissue is exposed, and any longer than that, she’s staring at skeletons. So, instead of her own eyes, she often relies on other people’s thoughts.

But daydreams of Saiki are filled with 2D flowers and sparkles, engulfed in a golden glow, the unrealistic portrait of a bishounen protagonist straight out of harem manga.

That, and she’s already sure the real Saiki isn’t someone she wants to get to know personally, anyway.

Her telepathy is the problem.

Yumehara slaps herself on the cheeks, pulling herself out of her daydream. Ah! What am I doing? Kaidou-kun is right there… that’s right, I should focus on him. Get it together, Chiyo!

Everyone’s thoughts are rampant and overpowering, their inner dialogue swallowing her whole.

Wow, Saiki-kun’s so handsome today!

I’m going to be sitting next to Saiki-kun… how am I going to focus?

As expected, Saiki-kun is a shining light in our classroom!

It’s another uncontrollable power, and she’s always exposed to everyone’s true thoughts no matter how much she doesn’t care for it. And Saiki is no exception.

For someone whose entire reputation is based on being a “perfect, pretty boy”, he can’t fool her.

Good grief, she hears him thinking, it’s only the first day and everyone’s already getting on my nerves.

Teruhashi clicks her tongue.

Saiki’s attitude is awful. If this were last year, she would just do her best to avoid him.

Teruhashi looks into the crowd, spotting him at his desk with a blank look on his face. His friends, Nendou and Kaidou, babble about their after-school plans, and the horde of students swoon and blush at Saiki.

But he’s in her class this year, which means she has to interact with him. Surely enough, “playing nice” is one of her hidden skills, having long since realized that kindness is the key to everything in this world. And if she’s nice to Saiki and gets on his good side as a result, popularity should follow, too.

She throws herself into the crowd of students and through the small gaps, knowing that everyone is too fixated on Saiki to notice the way her bones shift and dislocate. Before long, she’s standing right in front of his desk, ignoring the pain in her body.

“Saiki-kun, is it? Good morning!” Teruhashi greets, a killer smile on her face as she extends her hand. “It seems we’re in the same class this year.”

He stares at her.

And then he turns away.

When is class going to start?

Teruhashi’s eye twitches.

That can’t be right. That was less than one second.

If she feels particularly petty about the situation, she can go back and time it herself, only to find out it was a disappointing 0.533 milliseconds of a glance.

(She does. Of course she does.)

Back in the present, she pauses and pulls herself together, unwilling to let herself slip. The smile doesn’t leave her face. Getting the last words in, she continues, “Let’s treat each other well.”

I don’t know about that.

Her hand is still out, untouched, and she jerks it back, using it to wave at Nendou and Kaidou instead, who return her smile. In the corner of her vision, she sees a vague motion of numbers ticking down, and she does a double-take at Saiki’s favorability meter.

Teruhashi blinks at the number.

8.

8?

Out of 100?!

That’s the score of a faceless background character in someone else’s story. It’s not even high enough for a single speech bubble.

Wait a minute. That means…

She quickly performs the calculations in her head as she pulls up her own favorability average, clinging onto the hope that she’s just registering things wrong. But, no, even taking outliers like Yumehara and Mera into account, his rating plummets her score down to a 49.

Below average.

She doesn’t remember being below average since she was born.

Teruhashi pulls up his scores for other people and realizes, very quickly, he just doesn’t like people. His average favorability for the school is around 25, and even his slightly higher scores for his friends don’t make much of a difference.

And yet… he’s the most popular student at this school?

Isn’t that too unfair?

This is unfair, his thoughts agree.

The bell rings, and everyone groans and settles into their new seating assignments before the homeroom teacher can scold them. Teruhashi walks to her own seat, dazed by the new information flooding her brain. Even the glares from her classmates for being so close to Saiki can’t faze her.

Her eyes bore into the back of Saiki’s head for the entirety of the lecture.

“Do you know anything about Saiki Kusuo?”

“S-Saiki Kusuo?” Yumehara’s voice on the other end of the line dissolves into flustered squeaks. “I mean, of course I know him. I had class with him last year and I—well, everyone, really—had a c-crush on—I mean, I don’t have one anymore, but yes, he’s still very handsome and sweet and mysterious, b-but you know I like Kaidou-kun now and—”

Teruhashi doesn’t need to use clairvoyance to know that Yumehara’s face is beet red, head sunk into her pillow as she desperately tries to spin her words around.

She twirls her pen, writing down a few more gift ideas into her journal, half-listening to Yumehara and half-trying to recall fragments of her classmate’s thoughts from today’s class.

Tomorrow is Kusuda’s birthday, and her present this year needs to be more extravagant than lasts. His favorability meter slipped into the 50s over the break, and she needs to balance her score out. It’s frustrating how people seem to forget her so easily, but with a little extra work and good luck, she can overcome this small hurdle.

“So, why are you asking?” Yumehara asks, calmer now, and she stops writing mid-sentence.

“No reason,” she says.

Teruhashi can’t forget about this morning.

As much as she hates to admit it, Saiki’s presence in their classroom worked wonders. She thinks about everyone’s happy faces, their thoughts free of negativity for a rare moment in time. She thinks about the feeling of solidarity and joy and everything she’s ever wanted for herself all at once.

She thinks about the frown on his face.

“Hey, Chiyo?”

“Yeah?”

Teruhashi hums, stares out her bedroom window, wonders if she should continue. She asks anyway. “If you had the opportunity to be liked by everyone in the world, would you be happy?”

“What kind of question is that, Kokomi?” Yumehara laughs. “Of course I’d be happy.”

“Right,” she says, softly. “I’d be happy, too.”

Teruhashi puts her pen down, and her breath catches when she sees her notes. She must’ve used her powers without thinking because her notebook is flipped to Saiki’s profile, small doodles reminiscent of Yumehara’s daydreams filling the page. A big question mark is drawn next to his name, circled twice in red ink.

She clears her throat, asks if Yumehara likes her new keychain, changes the conversation.

If there’s one thing about Teruhashi, it’s that she never gives up.

She doesn’t need Hairo to give her a sweaty, inspirational speech to keep her going, though she’s half-convinced that he can actually hear determination, so she does a cursory sweep through the hallway to make sure he’s not hiding in the shadows somewhere. The last time she got carried away, she paid for in bunny-hop laps around the track.

Well, she can’t hear him coming, so that’s at least one disaster she can avoid.

Teruhashi breathes deeply, stretches out her arms, and pushes forward into the classroom.

“Saiki-kun,” she says, voice sickly sweet, “Good morning! You’re here early.”

Of course he is. Teruhashi’s been picking out his thoughts from the crowd all week, and she found out that he always tries to get to school as soon as Matsuzaki opens the gates so he can get as much alone time as he can before a normal person would head to school.

And she knows that if she wants Saiki’s favorability score to go up, she’s going to have to do it her way, even if that means non-coincidental meetings at 7:45 AM.

If things go according to plan, they’ll be walking home together after school in one week.

Saiki stares at her for a second before nodding, then looks back down at his notebook. His pencil isn’t even out.

What a pain. Someone’s here early, too.

Teruhashi tightens her grip on the sling of her bookbag. But she’s prepared this time, refusing to let his thoughts sway her.

“Are you ready for the quiz today?” she asks, approaching his desk. “I did all the readings and practice problems, but I’m not sure I quite understand every concept. What about you?”

If I ignore her long enough, will she leave me alone?

“Oh, your math book is out, too.” Teruhashi points out. “Did you want to review together before class starts?”

Is she gone yet? No, her feet are still there.

“Look, I have some notecards, so—” she says, stopping when she sees the number on his meter start to drop. It’s enough to shut her up entirely, and she instinctively redoes all the calculation in her head, wondering where in her flowchart things went wrong.

Good grief, she’s troublesome. I have to try and avoid her in the future.

Teruhashi balls her hands into fists, glancing at the time. She can already hear the shuffle of students and their never-ending thoughts filling the 200-meter vicinity.

Man, I really didn’t study anything last night. I’m screwed. Huh? Kokomi’s here…

Naturally, that also means she knows that Yumehara’s on her way, having heard her tired thoughts from when she passed through the school gates. Yumehara always comes early on quiz days, usually after falling asleep while studying and waking up in a panic with nothing in her mind. It’s a detail she memorized when they first became friends.

Teruhashi can hear her “O-Oh! Saiki-kun!” coming before she even steps foot in the classroom, and she frowns at the incoming interruption.

It plays out just as she expects.

“K-Kokomi!” Yumehara whispers into her ear, pulling her away from Saiki and toward Teruhashi’s desk. “What are you doing?”

“I’m being friendly,” she says, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. Teruhashi unloads her books into her desk and sets her pencil case down, trying to hide her pout.

“Yeah, but...” Yumehara glances around the classroom, slowly filling up with occupants, her voice low, “to Saiki-kun? His fan club is everywhere, you know. They might get the wrong idea. I’m worried.”

Her thoughts echo her words, and Teruhashi’s expression softens. How did she end up with such a good friend?

Teruhashi knows about his fan club, too, and that a few members are currently posted outside the door and have been since she arrived this morning. Saiki is almost never alone, and even she can’t stop him from attracting attention like that.

She rolls her eyes at their thoughts – “How do we get this average, good-for-nothing girl away from Saiki-kun?!” – already coming up with different ways to deal with them later if things get that far.

“I want to make a good impression,” she says through her teeth, knowing Saiki’s done absolutely nothing to make a good impression on her.

Even Takahashi is easier to get along with than him, and Takahashi is… well, Takahashi.

There’s a pause.

She watches in horror as Yumehara clicks the pieces together in all the wrong ways.

I see.Yumehara’s eyes twinkle, and she hides a grin behind her hand, nudging Teruhashi in her side. “So that’s why you asked.”

Even Kokomi isn’t immune to Saiki-kun’s charm, huh? Of course, that’s a given. Alright, I’ll support her through this!

“H-Huh? No, it’s n—"

Yumehara puts a finger to her chin, contemplative. “If you want to make a good impression, I can help you come up with a plan. I have a lot of relationship experience, you know. Oh, and I’m partners with Mikochin for the science project, so if you have any questions, I can pass them on!”

“T-Thank you, Chiyo.” Teruhashi smiles awkwardly, knowing very well how hopeless Yumehara is with romance. Well, she’s still a good friend, even if she’s completely wrong.

Besides, it’s hard to say “no” when Yumehara gets fired up like this, and she appreciates her willingness to help, no matter the misunderstanding.

“It’s not going to be easy, though.” Yumehara sighs. “It’s Saiki-kun, after all.”

“I know,” Teruhashi says.

“But it’s annoying,” is what she wants to say, but decides against it, instead digging into her bookbag for the notecards she carefully put together last night. Teruhashi glances in Saiki’s direction, but he’s already surrounded by his usual crowd, complaining in his head all the same.

“Come on, I’ll help you review for our quiz.”

“Really?! You’re a life-saver, Kokomi!”

“Welcome back, Saikiks!” Aiura, co-president of the Saiki Kusuo Fan Club, claps her hands together, gathering the attention of the packed room. “I hope everyone had a rad spring break!”

A rumble of excited murmurs fills the crowd, some of the more dedicated members beginning to cheer.

Bored, Teruhashi sits with her chin in her hand, wondering how such a useless club got so much funding.

She’s not really there, of course, since she’s only eavesdropping using the power of invisibility. There are limits, even for her, and submitting a membership application and wearing Saiki merch is a hard line she does not want to cross.

Toritsuka, the other co-president, taps a large pile of papers against the long desk at the front of the room. The poorly made “S <3 K” stickers on his headband begin to peel off.

“If all new and pending members could please line up at the front, I’ll be collecting applications and distributing membership cards, and wow, you’re really pretty, by any chance are you fr—ouch!

Aiura tugs on Toritsuka’s ear, effectively shutting him up.

“While Toritsuka is handling that,” Aiura glares in his direction, her thoughts filled with profanity and not-so-nice nicknames, “with no bad intentions, whaddya say we start our 163rd meeting?”

Toritsuka slumps back into his seat, a lifeless look on his face. “Yeah… please line up…”

Teruhashi realizes, very quickly, that the Saiki Kusuo Fan Club is just a formality to gush about Saiki. She can learn a lot more, and faster, too, with her powers anyway, so she leaves in the middle of Toritsuka performing a spirit-summoning and Aiura offering to read people’s fortunes.

In retrospect, maybe the fan club is a cover-up for an occult club?

Either way, Teruhashi ends up at the shoe lockers, lost in thought. Since that plan ended up being a bust, maybe it’s time for her to switch tactics.

“Partner, you’re coming with us, right?”

It’s a familiar voice, and she uses her X-ray vision to see Saiki and his friends crowding his locker a couple rows ahead.

Saiki raises a hand in a “no thanks” gesture.

“It’s okay,” Kaidou says, “I feel sorrier for you. Tch, it’s not every day one can witness the resurgence of the Jet-Black Wings—”

Kuboyasu slings an arm around Kaidou’s shoulder, grinning. “You won’t miss much, Saiki. I’ll help Shun win his stupid card game.”

“Really?”

“No way, Chibi,” Nendou says, rubbing his nose with a finger. “I’ll beat you for sure.”

“You won’t!”

After a while, his friends wave him off enthusiastically, still bickering among themselves. Of course, she notices how Saiki slips his normal shoes back into his locker, not changing into them at all.

If I leave now, I’ll probably get ambushed, so I’ll wait at school a little longer.

Teruhashi tilts her head, closing her own locker as she watches him walk further into the school building. She trails him to the third floor where she finds herself standing outside the men’s bathroom.

Saiki’s thoughts are quiet, but she knows that he’s in there, and quick use of her clairvoyance confirms his location. In fact, he’s just sitting in a stall, scrolling through his phone to pass the time.

What’s his deal? So, he stays in the bathroom after school to avoid his fans?

She waits 30 minutes before she realizes she’s running late for cram school, hurriedly gathering her things in a panic.

Teruhashi leaves the school, feeling more confused than when she started.

And so begins her updated plan: Operation Fill Saiki’s Page in her Journal By Following Him Around (Name Subject to Change).

It’s for research purposes, obviously. The more she knows about him, the better her method of attack will be, and the more favorability points she can accumulate.

The devil works hard, but Teruhashi Kokomi works harder.

At least, she thinks that way until she starts following him.

Saiki saves a dog.

And a cat.

And a neighborhood kid’s late grandfather’s lost baseball.

And some random third-rate street magician from going broke by bringing his crowd of fans to one of the performances.

And Kaidou from delinquents they pass by on the way home from school. That one, he manages to do without attracting any extra attention to himself, playing Kaidou as the big hero. Nendou and Kuboyasu end up handling the rest for him as he slips off to the side.

After the mishap, Kaidou grins like a kid on their birthday, and he talks their ears off about how he’s glad he didn’t have to take his bandages off or those guys would’ve taken serious damage.

Kuboyasu ruffles his hair.

Nendou laughs, digging into who-knows-where for a used tissue. “Here, Chibi. Your nose.”

Kaidou almost passes out when he learns he’s bleeding.

Saiki watches, impassive as ever. His thoughts say, “I hang out with idiots”, but she sees the almost barely-there smile on his face and knows a part of him enjoys it.

So, yeah, he’s fooled her. She underestimated him, which is unlike her.

Teruhashi is never wrong. In fact, it’s hard for her to be wrong.

But maybe Saiki is just as good as her at hiding his true colors, and she can respect that. Not literally, though, because no one is as good as she is. She’s a different being, after all, so that sort of comparison means nothing.

Saiki’s at the school’s lost-and-found, now, turning in a wallet he found on the staircase earlier.

He passes by her as he turns the corner, and she just barely avoids his touch, not wanting him to catch her turn visible so suddenly. But her 10 minutes are up, anyway, and she ducks into the hallway, trying to make her appearance pass naturally.

At that moment, someone runs up to the counter, asking about a wallet. After some confirmation, the receptionist returns their lost item.

He almost passes out in relief when he opens it up, seeing everything still in their rightful place.

I should’ve asked who found it. Oh, there’s someone here. Maybe…?

Teruhashi is one step down the hallway when the student calls her name.

“Ah, excuse me.” It’s a classmate she recognizes, and she smiles and nods. “Teruhashi-san, right?”

“Yes?”

“You found this, didn’t you?” He shows her his wallet, and before she has the chance to respond, he takes her hands in his, shakes it fiercely. Tears form in his eyes. “Thank you so much!”

I almost lost my grandma’s picture. I’m so glad…

And, through the muddle of thoughts, she hears Saiki think. Good grief, that was close. At least they don’t think it’s me.

Teruhashi nods, slowly, barely registering anything. “Oh, um, yeah. It’s… no problem.”

Her classmate thanks her profusely, his favorability meter rising to new highs, and she should be happy about it. Maybe if this happened earlier, she would be counting her blessings, thanking God for being on her side again, not thinking too hard about it.

When Teruhashi turns the corner, peering down the adjacent hallway, Saiki is long gone.

She doesn’t understand him. One second, he’s complaining about the world, and the next, he’s helping others without their knowledge. No ulterior motives, no hidden agendas, nothing.

All her life, she’s only done things for her own benefit. Briefly, Teruhashi wonders what it’s like, to not.

The next time she follows him, Saiki’s sitting on a swing-set in a park by his house. She’s not so sure she’s ever seen someone so happy to be alone.

"Is it that fun?" Teruhashi wants to project into his mind. "Not being the center of attention?"

He shovels a spoon into one of those cheap convenience store coffee jelly packs, the ones with the new promotion where you can win an extra pack if the bottom of the cup says so. Teruhashi remembers how fun those were as a kid when she won herself all the free Gari Gari-kuns she could possibly want, but after a bad stomach-ache, well, she’s long since realized she can do without it.

Saiki’s eyes widen as his spoon hits the plastic, uncovering a “W” beneath the gelatinous mold.

So, maybe Teruhashi switched the loser cup he brought up to the cash register with a winning cup. No rhyme or reason to it; something she’s never done before.

She wonders why she did it.

It’s only then that she realizes while watching Saiki smile into his cup – the words “WINNER! You win one free coffee jelly!” printed across the bottom – there’s something to be found in the silence.

Teruhashi stares at him, and transports to a moment in time before favorability meters and perfection, before worries about expectations and wants and needs. Back when the only thing she cared about was how many Gari Gari-kuns she can win in a row for the week.

It’s a weird feeling.

It’s a nice feeling.

Saiki’s unfiltered, happy thoughts about how he plans to stop by the convenience store again tomorrow to pick up his free coffee jelly run through his head and into hers, a type of content she’s always wanted to feel.

Living through Saiki, she thinks she can appreciate small joys like this again.

Teruhashi waits for him to disappear into the neighborhood, teleporting herself to the swing-set he just occupies. She sits down, holds onto the chains.

It’s still warm. 

Kaidou lets out a cry of pain, fingers twisted around his right arm.

“I sense a disturbance.” He laughs to himself, ducking his head down. “As expected of the Dark Reunion. Perhaps this is another one of their ploys to lure me into a duel.”

“Again?” Kuboyasu says, like it’s routine.

“Hey, Chibi,” Nendou says, ignoring everything coming out of Kaidou’s mouth, “Let’s watch you and Kuboyasu race today.”

“Why waste our time? I’d win.” Kuboyasu grins. “Shun, I bet you haven’t touched your motorcycle since we took the behind the wheel test last summer.”

“Aren!” Kaidou says, protesting. And then, while touching the tips of his index fingers together, he continues, in a smaller voice, “Mama told me I couldn’t play with it unless I place in the top 10 during exams.”

“Riding your motorcycle isn’t a game!”

“Ha,” Nendou laughs. “I would beat both of you at a race.”

“Shut up, Nendou!”

“You don’t even have a motorcycle license!”

“And I wouldn’t trust an idiot like you to even touch a motorcycle!”

“Huh? You need a license to drive a motorcycle?” Nendou scratches his head, a blank look on his face.

And behind the chaos of their conversation, Saiki walks unperturbed.

“Anyway, what about Saiki?” Kaidou asks, jutting his thumb in Saiki’s direction. “He has his license.”

Pass, he thinks. Saiki shakes his head.

Teruhashi’s a couple of steps behind them, and everything in her mind is screaming at her, wondering why she’s still at this even when she knows that Saiki is a lost cause. She can be spending her time working on improving everyone else’s rankings for her and earn her 70-score milestone that way.

Saiki’s score doesn’t matter anymore. It shouldn’t.

But it’s not the score, really.

It’s just that…

If they can keep talking for a few more minutes, I can make it back in time for Robust Rangers.

Saiki really wants to watch this TV show when it airs.

Robust Rangers is the 5’ o clock program he doesn’t want to miss, and his fans are known spoiler-types, so even if he records it, there’s no point. It’s true that Mugami Tooru plans to star in the live-action adaptation, and even though she doesn’t like her brother much, she admits his fanbase is large enough that spoilers will spread as soon as an episode airs.

Teruhashi just wants to see if he’ll make it back in time, that’s all.

She sighs. This is so stupid.

“Did you guys wanna go get some ramen?” Nendou asks.

The rest of the group groans. “Why is it always ramen?”

They start listing off alternative foods for them to eat instead, but she’s been hanging around them long enough that she knows they’re just going to eat ramen at the end of the day, anyway. Saiki uses the distraction as an opportunity to slip away, turning the intersection before they notice.

“So… ramen?”

Kaidou and Kuboyasu lower their shoulders in defeat.

“Let’s ask Saiki—huh? Saiki?!”

“I could’ve sworn he was just behind us…”

“I see,” Kaidou says, covering his face with his hand. “The Dark Reunion is playing dirty today, aren’t they? Alright, I’ll play along with their game. I’ll defeat Aren in a motorcycle race and save Saiki from their new world agenda!”

W-W-Where is Saiki?! What if the Dark Reunion really took him? I can’t actually use my motorcycle yet… t-this is so bad!

“You can’t use your motorcycle yet, bastard! And Saiki really is missing!” Kuboyasu shakes Kaidou’s shoulders, pulling him out of his fantasy. “We need to go find him.”

Alright, this is a good opportunity. Dark Reunion whatever, I’ll just beat them up instead.

The group splits up, each taking a different path at the intersection and calling out Saiki’s name.

Teruhashi finds him easily with her clairvoyance, not too far from where his friends branched off. He’s taking the long way around, navigating through the neighborhood in loops that only someone who sneaks away often would know.

Unfortunately for him, Nendou also takes the same turns, and Teruhashi knows it’s only a matter of time before he catches up to Saiki.

But Saiki’s not so unaware, either, since he immediately notices someone is on his trail. He sneaks a look behind him, seeing Nendou’s head bobbing in the distance. His strides lengthen, and his thought process shifts as he diverges off-path.

You have got to be kidding me.

And it’s only because her 10 minutes of invisibility are up that Teruhashi decides she should do something about it, teleporting behind a conveniently placed shrub ahead of Saiki.

Naturally, she’s the one who placed the shrub there, having previously exchanged a couple of smooth rocks and twigs she found on the street for a shrub large enough to hide two people.

“Over here,” she says telepathically, waving him over. He stops, tentative.

Saiki stares at the shrub, a confused look on his face.

Do I trust her? Has that shrub always been there?

“Hey, Partner, where did you go?”

Nendou’s getting closer.

She’ll do it her way, then.

There’s no time for this,” Teruhashi says, grabbing onto Saiki’s arm and, before he can cry out in surprise, she tries to activate her invisibility. Tries, being the keyword here because nothing happens, and Saiki is looking at her like she’s grown another head, too shocked to say a word.

That’s right. Teruhashi still needs to wait 30 more seconds before becoming invisible again.

“Oh! Wow, it’s a shrub!” Nendou says, pointing at their hiding spot. His senses are sharp for someone who has absolutely nothing in his brain that it’s rather terrifying, and Teruhashi curses in her mind.

Without explanation, she pulls Saiki behind the shrub, making sure he’s completely concealed. It happens quickly enough that Saiki can’t react, and she positions herself in front of the shrub, trying to calm herself down.

Act natural. Teruhashi can do that.

She looks down at her cellphone like she’s waiting to meet someone at this very strange corner in front of a shrub that didn’t exist there before.

It only hurts a little bit when Nendou stares at her, at the shrub, and back at her before he shrugs, passing by like she doesn’t exist.

Teruhashi guesses there are merits to being average sometimes, pushing aside calculations and flowcharts for another time because it’s Nendou and she should really make a better impression on him of all people, but for now, it’s fine.

She tracks the rest of his friends using her clairvoyance, noting that Kuboyasu and Nendou meet up at an earlier intersection with a new task of finding a lost Kaidou on their list. Teruhashi lets out a sigh of relief.

There, that should buy him enough time to get home on his own.

Teruhashi can turn another corner, teleport back home, and Saiki will be none the wiser.

There’s nothing for her to gain from this interaction, anyway. It’ll be like an illusion.

Is that okay, though?

“Huh? Was that shrub always there?” Kuboyasu asks, pulling his cellphone away from his ear to point at the shrub as they retrace their steps.

“Oh, I thought I saw a girl standing there.” Nendou rubs his eyes. “Guess not.”

“Let’s run,” she tells Saiki, holding onto his hand and pulling him away.

Teruhashi turns them both invisible, running out of the neighborhood and out of his friends’ sight. She hopes that they can make it to their destination fast enough so she can dispel any of his thoughts about her being a crazed stalker fan holding him hostage against his will.

She can’t really argue against the “stalker” part, though.

They stop in front of Café Mami.

This is the café he always passes by with his friends whenever they stop by the town’s shopping district, though they’ve never actually gone inside. But she’s heard his longing thoughts every time he stared into the store’s windows, eyes trained on the small wooden sign. An advertisement for their staple coffee jelly.

His eyes widen, lowering his guard slightly, and Teruhashi takes it as a success.

Of course, research always wins.

They sit down in a booth by the window, and she goes ahead and flashes a smile at the manager she’s familiar with. It’s empty, even for a school day, and she’s grateful that Mera introduced her to this hole in this wall.

Before Saiki can say a word, she quickly orders a strawberry-vanilla milkshake and a slice of strawberry shortcake for herself, and, taking note of his thoughts, a coffee latte and a coffee jelly for Saiki.

He stares at her.

“I-I like sweets,” Teruhashi says the first thing that comes to mind, “And it’s good to order different things so you can try more than just one dish. See, you can have some of my cake.”

His face turns to goo at the mention of cake, and she lets out a sigh of relief.

Sweets are his weak spot, check.

It’s hard to refuse after she’s saved me, and she already ordered so… I’ll stay here until we’re done eating. He rationalizes his actions in his head, and she stifles a giggle at how far he’s willing to go for something sweet to eat.

Suddenly, Saiki looks her up and down, scrutinizing her, and her laughter dies in her throat.

I’ve seen her before. Ah, that’s right. The troublesome girl from class. Teruhashi… Teruhashi Kokoro?

Kokomi, she corrects in her mind, but it’s closer than what she thought she would get from him.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Teruhashi Kokomi. We have class together.”

He nods stiffly.

But how did she find me? And why did she drag me here?

“You’re probably wondering why I dragged you here. Um, I was heading here anyway, and I happened to pass by you when you were hiding from your friends…” And then, she says, gently, a suggestion she’s not really sure she has the right to make, “And I thought… maybe you needed help.”

He freezes, fingers wrapped around his water cup. It’s a small action, and maybe no one else would’ve noticed, but Teruhashi’s far too attentive for her own good, hears his mind racing a mile a minute.

So, that’s it, huh.

Teruhashi knows what it’s like to have people care about her.

Sometimes Yumehara stays on the phone when she’s up late working and needs the company, or Mera calls off her part-time job to make it to a girl’s night, or someone in her class with a higher favorability ranking will offer to help when she has class cleaning duties.

But knowing that people care and accepting their acts of kindness are two different things; the latter something Saiki consistently deprives himself of. She thinks she can understand him a little better now.

Teruhashi wants to share that feeling with him.

Even a perfect, pretty boy like him deserves to be cared for, too.

“S-Sorry if I assumed things! It’s just, ah, nice to be alone sometimes, isn’t it?” Teruhashi waves her hands around, suddenly flustered. “Plus, we’re classmates, so…”

I guess I can trust her after all.

“It’s fine,” he says, and it takes her a moment to realize he’s speaking and not just thinking it. “You’re right.”

His sentences are short and sweet, and while Teruhashi never doubted he could actually speak, it’s still a surprise to her. Even she couldn’t see this coming. Saiki’s really trying, and she can only blink up at him, stunned.

He returns to sipping his water, like he didn’t just defy all the laws set in place in this universe, staring somewhere past her head.

Teruhashi follows his gaze to the wall clock near the entrance.

4:10 PM.

They can finish their sweets in around 20 minutes, and he’ll have the remaining 30 minutes to make it back home in time for his program.

“I hope I’m not taking up too much of your time,” she says. “I have somewhere to be at 5 PM, so we don’t have to stay for long.”

Saiki nods at this, the tension leaving his shoulders, and she smiles to herself. It’s not a lie, because she does have cram school at 5 PM, but it’s the furthest thing from her mind right now, and she can rely on her teleportation if they’re cutting close on time.

Seeing Saiki relax into his seat is much more satisfying, anyway.

And, in the back of his mind, she hears him think: She never said “oh”.

Humming to herself, Teruhashi sips from her water cup, wondering what to say next when she picks up on their thoughts.

I don’t really want things to come to this, but if we don’t find Saiki soon, I’ll be forced to release him from my arm…

Man, I haven’t punched anyone in a while. When are we gonna find the bastards who took Saiki away?

Kaidou, Kuboyasu, and Nendou are here.

Teruhashi doesn’t know when they entered the 200-meter perimeter, but they must be nearby if she can hear them through the buzz of the shopping district. How could she be so careless?

Her eyes meet Saiki’s and she quickly averts her gaze from the subject of her distraction, trying to ignore his curious expression.

Well, there are more pressing matters to take care of right now.

She picks up a dessert menu from the menu holder on the table, using it to cover her face because no way in Hell is she letting Saiki Kusuo see her go cross-eyed. Teruhashi pinpoints their current location with her clairvoyance.

30 meters away, actually. Closer than she thought.

20. 10. 5.

The distance is closing – fast.

She doesn’t have time to explain everything, so she reaches over and pulls Saiki into the cover of her menu, using her telekinesis to catch his water cup when he knocks it over in the process.

“Don’t move,” Teruhashi whispers, stopping Saiki from peering over the edge of the menu.

Luckily, his friends have a penchant for being loud, and their booming voices reach through the slightly open window, alerting Saiki of their presence. He ducks his head down, holding onto the other end of the menu and keeping quiet.

She feels him staring at her, but she’s too busy looking through the menu with her X-ray vision, watching as his friends bumble across the street and out of sight.

And, just to make sure, Teruhashi sends them a subliminal telepathic message – “ramen!” – and they quickly become distracted by a local ramen shop at the edge of the shopping district.

It should be safe now.

“Um,” she says when she notices how close they are. Her hand is still on his shoulder, and her whole body feels a bit warm, even for the spring weather. Did she accidentally set off her pyrokinesis during that? “They’re gone now.”

Saiki, now aware of their compromising position, jerks backward and clears his throat, hands cupping his glass of water.

Teruhashi sets the menu back in place, tries to act as natural as possible.

His eyes narrow.

How did she know that was going to happen?

Curse his attentiveness. Saiki’s really perfect, isn’t he?

Teruhashi thinks of 129 ways to get out of this situation, 124 of them possibly illegal and require her to move to a faraway country as a result, before she looks through the wall of the staff kitchen. The pastry chef is already plating their desserts.

She beams. God is on her side yet again.

“Our desserts are here!” Teruhashi draws his attention to the waiter exiting the double doors of the kitchen, bringing over their order on a tray. “Wow, they look so good.”

From that moment on, all of Saiki’s thoughts are about sweets, and she hides a satisfied smile as she sips on her milkshake. Close, but she’s better.

“Thanks, Teruhashi-san,” he says, voice muffled by the spoon in his mouth, already digging into his coffee jelly. He’s sincere.

Teruhashi almost chokes on her drink. “Huh?”

“For taking me here.”

Every time she thinks she’s figured him out, Saiki goes and surprises her.

There’s still so much about him hidden beneath the surface, and Teruhashi wants to keep digging, until his world is her’s and theirs together. She wants to know more.

It’s a thought she keeps to herself. “Yeah… you’re welcome.”

“The coffee jelly here is good.”

Saiki gestures to her plate, and Teruhashi stares down at the spoonful of jelly sitting there.

She knows that Saiki set that down on her plate a moment ago in an effort to share as she suggested earlier, but even if she saw it, a part of her still doesn’t believe it. Saiki stares at her like he’s waiting for her to try it.

“Is it?” Teruhashi says, taking a bite of the jelly.

The coffee flavor hits her first, strong and bitter, but it’s sweetened by the cream, a rich taste spreading through her mouth. He’s smiling into his own jelly, quiet and reserved in that usual way of his; a smile that feels like it’s just for her to see.

“Oh, yeah,” she says, but her eyes are only on him. Teruhashi thinks she may be the luckiest girl in the world. “It’s good.”

She cuts a section of her cake for Saiki to try, which he does without hesitation.

There’s a list of topics floating around in her head for moments like these. She can ask if he’s excited about the school trip, or if he has any plans for summer break, or if he knows that white and green asparagus are actually the same plant.

Idle chit-chat and ways to fill up the time, always with the goal of raising someone’s favorability score in mind.

But it’s Saiki, and there’s really no reason for her to try so hard around him.

So, she doesn’t.

Teruhashi relaxes, forgets about her journal and information sheets, the pile of expectations she’s set for herself since she was born, and sits in the silence instead.

They finish up their meal at the café, only after Teruhashi double-checks that the others made it to Kaidou’s secret base and are not, in fact, loitering outside Saiki’s house.

“Hey, we never did end up finding Saiki… wait, why were we searching for him anyway? He told us his mom was sick.”

“Partner is so sweet. He didn’t want us to visit so we don’t catch his mom’s cold.”

“That’s it! We’ll prepare a surprise for Saiki tomorrow for treating us so well!”

“Good idea, Shun!”

“How about some ramen?”

It does help that she can telepathically share the message that Saiki’s busy taking care of his sick mom this evening and there are absolutely no visitors allowed for their own safety.

They walk together in silence, a comfortable air between them.

But when they reach the intersection where their paths diverge, his towards his home and hers towards her cram school, Teruhashi lets the words roll around on the tip of her tongue.

Surprisingly enough, Saiki speaks up first.

“I’ll be going, then.”

He starts to take his leave, and Teruhashi finds herself staring at his disappearing figure.

“Bye, Saiki-kun,” she says, waving. And, before she loses the courage, she continues, “I had fun.”

He stops.

It’s because I don’t like owing people things, but I wouldn’t mind doing this again.

Her heart soars at the idea of a “next time”.

Saiki turns around and nods. There’s a hint of a smile on his face before he stuffs his hands into his pockets and continues walking.

Teruhashi’s eyes glaze over his favorability meter. She hid it from herself for most of the day, but she guesses there’s no harm in checking what it is now.

She almost gasps at the number.

His favorability score rises.

Just by a few points, but it rises, nonetheless.

And as for her own favorability score, well…

Teruhashi smiles to herself and starts heading toward her academy.

She refuses to share that number with anyone.