Group 1 - Pacific Mall
He'd roped himself into something rotten again. Perhaps the dream had set him off balance. Perhaps he'd been overworking himself. In either case, Masato had just sworn over his hard-earned summer money simply to feed a few classmates, an otaku all too eager to share his knowledge, and a selfish, blackmailing little girl.
Then again, at least this time he *chose* to buy them ice cream. His room to complain was barely wider than the space he had between one man's shoulder and the next. Masato kept an eye on the others as he felt a rotund office worker's stomach flatten against his back, and his look visibly sunk. He'd let the girls go onto the train first. At least they could sit, or so he thought, but Shiori opted not to, and became similarly wedged between an uncomfortably warm network of bodies. Natsumi presumably found a seat but amidst all the train riders, it was hard for him to tell. He was most concerned about Hinake. What if they lost her and the kid didn't know the stop to get off at? The way things were going, the blame would largely fall upon Masato first. An angry middle student stepped on Masato's foot, as if to punctuate the thought.
They arrived at the stop closest to the mall, and Masato was all too eager to extricate himself as the people flowed naturally out of the train. A cool breeze fluttered amongst his hair, and with it drifted the familiar outdoor speaker muzak that always played. The familiar tunes reminded Masato of prior visits. A number of store fronts revealed completely empty rooms, with sunlight-faded "for sale" signs, but the area still seemed as lively as it could be.
It was second nature for a young man such as himself to look for his new acquaintances, and one diminutive hanger-on. He then turned his head to reflexively look for the familiar billboards and shop signs he'd used as landmarks as a kid. Since he was relatively tall, his steps took him far, and Masato tended to walk at a respectable speed. He often had to consciously slow down as he tried not to overtake the others. There was always something tense about the way he moved so quickly, but the others, unless they often watched him at track or on the way from school, wouldn't have likely noticed.
His concentration lulled for a moment as he stopped, one part waiting for his associates and one part window shopping. A familiar little reflection skipped by. Masato looked behind him, watching Hinake tread happily by and felt a reflexive urge to tell her to slow down. However, he only managed to look tired.
The original reason he came to the shopping center was the theater. Masato's pocket was heavy with his wallet, filled with his beloved bills and change. Though it was painful, he had made a promise.
"... I agreed to pay for you all, but if you don't want to go to the ice cream place, that's fine with me. Although I think Yamaki-sama might object..." Masato smiled with a hint of sarcasm.
Shiori seemed uncomfortable, and with Natsumi so close by, and Ryuji insisting with odd vehemence that they needed to go get sweets, Masato couldn't help but put two and two together.
A strange image floated through his mind. A reluctant, reddening Shiori, timidly eating a child-size ice cream cone, eyes alert and that angry look still vaguely present in her face. She seemed dead set on hiding her love for the wonderful, cool taste so perfect for the tail end of summer, before something unseen startled her. Nearly jumping out of her hand, the ice cream splurted messily across the corner of her mouth and cheek. Shiori looked sad for a moment, out of character even, before Natsumi appeared, drawing close with a napkin and a motherly look. She winked as her friend dabbed strongly at her cheek, looking all the more innocent and even a bit ashamed. Natsumi doted on her as if to chide her gently for eating so messily, and Shiori's eyes glittered with an apologetic light. The space between the two of them began to diminish, and their faces-
Masato was abruptly jarred back to reality, having overtly spaced out for a moment. And he'd just been thinking about how cute it was.
"Aaanyways, if we go someplace else first, I might change my mind. You'd better start thinking about what flavor you want, girls and boys."