As he was walking through the hallway, by chance, he bumped into Kiriyama Yui.
She didn’t look over — didn’t look at Uwa Chihiro, and walked briskly away.
She didn’t stop by the Cultural Research Club today either. She’d probably headed straight for the dojo after school.
The current Yui had no memories of the Cultural Research Club. Or, more precisely, she had memories of neither the Cultural Research Club nor Uwa Chihiro himself.
Because she was also acquainted with them outside of the club, Yui still recognized the other second years of the Cultural Research Club, but Chihiro’s entire existence had been wiped clean from her mind. Maybe because he himself had been the culprit of this whole incident.
In the few days after Yui and Yaegashi Taichi had lost their memories due to the irresolvable paradox brought about by [Fantasy Projection], Chihiro had profoundly realized his utter powerlessness.
Chihiro had started with nothing. Yet one day after meeting <Heartseed>, he’d received the power of [Fantasy Projection] and basked in triumph, thinking himself overwhelmingly powerful. Sure, he’d vowed never to become complacent because of this, but before he knew it he had somehow already fallen victim to arrogance.
If only it were just that. Even after receiving the power, he became obsessed with the notion of procuring more and more. Desire entangled his feeble willpower and Chihiro sank deeper and deeper, unable to pull himself free.
Then he had committed sins.
Kiriyama Yui, who had always been here, was not here anymore.
Yaegashi Taichi, who had always been here, was also not here anymore.
Chihiro destroyed everything those two had received from the Cultural Research Club.
The two who had once been here were now gone. How was this different from murdering them?
Him? As someone who had? What a joke. He didn’t have the right to discuss such things.
The world was divided into manipulators and non-manipulators. Chihiro had been sure of this.
He was certain that at least he should not become a non-manipulator.
But in retrospect he had already been used by <Heartseed>, falling to the level of some non-manipulator. He had considered himself a genius, but in truth, he was merely repugnant livestock that swallowed the feed in front of him without a second thought.
Everyone should stay away from people like me, he thought.
He had also driven away Enjouji Shino, who kept trying to inquire the details.
It was then that Chihiro discovered that <Heartseed> had already contacted people other than himself. To think that he was the chosen one — it was merely delusional, wishful thinking on his part. After realizing that, he felt even more ashamed.
Hearing someone greet him, Chihiro looked up.
It was Aoki Yoshifumi. Chihiro found it inconceivable that he kept running into Cultural Research Club members today.
“You look awful, is everything okay? Dunno whether to call your face pale or muddy…”
Chihiro was completely losing to someone who took him for a fool.
“Hey, I know you’re worried about Yui and Taichi too… Sorry, but, basically, you’ll have to endure it for a bit. We’ll definitely think of something!”
His enemy was sympathizing with him, too.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you again: have you noticed anything strange going on around you lately? Like, someone you know doing weird things, or saying weird stuff...”
Whether he was black or white had always been predetermined for him.
He was pitch black.
“—and stuff like that... Hey? Chihiro?”
“You sure talk a lot, senpai. You can leave me alone, I’m fine.”
Leaving Aoki with a stupid look on his face, Chihiro returned to his classroom.
He didn’t even see value in living in this world.
Shimono, who sat in front of him, turned around and tried to strike up a conversation, but Chihiro said nothing and averted his eyes.
“What’s up? Look at those dark circles around your eyes. You stayed up all night playing games, didn’t you? Have you started playing online games? Those are bad news once you get addicted. Even I’ve blocked them since they’re too dangerous.”
Shimono was yammering unintelligible gibberish. Chihiro decided to ignore him.
“No, huh? Oh, I see. Girl problems. You and Enjouji haven’t been getting along well recently, have you? Or did you find out that she already secretly has a boyfriend, and you’re like, ‘They’ve probably already done it a lot, dammit!’ I get you, man, that super empty feeling.”
“What kind of virgin talk are you guys having?”
Tada chimed in. As the third person to lose at jankenpon and forced to volunteer as cheer competition representative, there was an inexplicable magnetism that always seemed to attract him closer to them.
“Shut up, don’t get so cocky just because you’ve done it!”
“Whoa, Shimono, do I look cocky to you? Is this a virgin’s inferiority complex? Scaaary!”
What a peaceful, moronic conversation. Chihiro had always thought them boring, even holding them in contempt, but they now seemed completely out of reach. So far away. Too far away. This was terrible.
Why did he meet that thing?
Why was he bewitched by it?
Why did he accept that kind of power?
Why did he accept his conditions?
Why was he chosen to suffer this unfortunate fate?
“Hey Uwa, I need your input! Even if he has a girlfriend, he’s gotta to be nicer to the single ones, or introduce us to some girls while he’s at it! Come to think of it, have you already reached home base without telling us?! Uwa-san!”
“Shimono aside, at least Uwa’s pretty manly. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to introduce someone to… Uwa?”
Unable to bear it any longer, Chihiro stood up. He could never again partake in these normal conversations.
If he could still laugh in this situation, that would sure be a joke. This was too stupid. Damn.
He left the classroom.
What were Shimono and Tada’s expressions like? How much longer was lunch break? Was it reasonable to leave now? Should he tell them that he was leaving?
He didn’t even know anymore.
Since he didn’t have club activities, Chihiro went straight home after school. He hadn’t been going to the dojo lately either.
Pushing open the door to his room, he tossed his bag onto the bed. It landed on the soft bed with a faint puff, empty.
There was absolutely nothing to do today either. He was only idly wasting away his life.
Chihiro suddenly remembered something and pulled a photo album from his bookshelf. There were several pictures from the Cultural Research Club inside, which he had gotten someone to develop for him. He pulled all of them out and threw them into the trash can. He then lay back down on the bed.
“Chihiro, I’m coming in.”
His mother’s voice came from outside. Annoyed, Chihiro ignored her, but the door opened of its own accord.
“You’re lying down without changing out of your uniform...”
His mother said, concerned. His parents rarely came inside his room at all.
“Chihiro, you’ve been coming home very early these days, don’t you need to go to your club activities? The dojo, too.”
“... It’s fine.”
“Really? You’ve been looking down lately, does it have to do with whatever this is? I think you can manage on your own so I’ve been letting you deal with it yourself, but if there’s something wrong…”
“I don’t, so don’t worry about me.”
So annoying. So goddamn annoying. Normally you don’t give a shit, but now you come running and pretending to be a mother. Shut the hell up if you don’t plan to do anything.
“Well, you say that, but you’ve not been eating properly either…”
So annoying. Get out of my face.
“If you need anything—”
“Leave me alone, just leave!”
“... If you have anything, just say it, okay? Got it? Don’t keep it bottled up.”
His mother admonished him as if she were coaxing a child, and left the room.
She didn’t know anything at all, but she pretended that she did.
He was furious.
Everything was exactly the same the next day, and Chihiro stepped out the front door. He seemed to be a bit later than normal, but he felt as though he left around this time yesterday as well. Has this time become [normal], then? Whatever.
Time passed slowly.
Maybe he was no longer alive, and dead now.
Before he knew it, he had already walked out of school with his bag. School was somehow already over again.
Chihiro was probably the first of the entire school to leave. There was not a single Yamaboshi High School student on the school road.
He was alone.
The summer weather ought to be blistering hot, but Chihiro hugged himself from a chill in his body.
He had been like a criminal on death row since then, spending every day doing nothing.
The surrounding world left him alone, and his days passed ordinarily.
—I hope that, once you join my side, you drop the idea that you can safely return to the original world if you only show me boring things.
Clearly, it was already too late for him to back out completely. No need to doubt that.
What exactly would happen? What would <Heartseed> do to him?
Would his own memories be wiped as well? Would he be forced to do something? Would be he used like equipment? Or would his existence be extinguished entirely?
He was done for.
After making that fatal mistake, his life was done for. He couldn’t restart his life; he could only press the “reset” button.
I hope that I’ll be naturally lucky in my next life, and that I won’t encounter the disaster that is <Heartseed> again. — Chihiro prayed.
Let me reset myself. Delete my current body.
Erase Uwa Chihiro from this world forever — No, no, I don’t want to disappear!
He heard a clear voice.
It was a voice like that of a goddess.
A voice he had longed for entered Chihiro’s ear.
This was a miracle.
Suppressing the urge to scream, Chihiro turned his head around.
A petite girl, her chestnut hair gleaming, her radiant smile exuding a brilliant warmth.
Kiriyama Yui stood there.
“... Yui… san?”
“Are you leaving now?”
Yui asked with an expression as warm as springtime wind.
She stared into Chihiro’s eyes, confirming Uwa Chihiro’s existence.
As if time had turned back to before he had stupidly failed.
“N-... Um, Yui-san…? Have you regained your memories?”
“Y-Yeah… after a lot of twists and turns. You have got to properly explain to me what is going on. I have the right to know, don’t I?”
He ought to be very scared of and reject the idea of explaining, but now it didn’t matter. He could escape from hell, not needing to fear his own crimes again, and didn’t need to disappear — what more could he have hoped for? Chihiro desired nothing else.
“Got it…” Chihiro replied, and Yui invited him: “Why don’t we continue this in the clubroom?”
“I know that this is all the handiwork of <Heartseed>. It’s all his fault. And by the way, we’ve already driven him away, so you don’t need to worry.”
They were in Room 401 of the club building, the clubroom of the Cultural Research Club. Although he had not been here in some time, the clubroom was still wide open for Chihiro.
“I didn’t think that the problem would be solved so easily. Everything up till now seems like one big dream.” Chihiro mumbled, and Yui replied, “Yup, it really does seem like a dream. Chihiro-kun hasn’t done anything wrong, so that’s why you should tell me absolutely everything, from the beginning.”
Seem like a dream. Hearing her say this, Chihiro suddenly realized something. That guy’s existence and the phenomena he incited were impossible after all, it was all just a dream… If he thought of it that way, he seemed to feel a huge weight lifting from his back.
Words and sentences tumbled from his mouth.
“The day I decided to join the Cultural Research Club, I met <Heartseed> in Gotou’s body at the nature park. He told me that he was only greeting me that time.”
“A few days later, he showed me an unbelievable power and asked if I was interested.”
“He said that he’d give me the ability to make the second years of the Cultural Research Club see illusions and that, in return, I had to make those five people more interesting. If I did it well, he’d give me even more power. I was completely hooked.”
“I thought that my life, which wasn’t that bad to begin with, could be dramatically changed with this mysterious power. I wanted to make this horribly dull world more interesting. I wanted power.”
“It went really well at first. But things got more and more difficult later on.”
“Since it wasn’t going well, <Heartseed> blamed me and threatened me. I couldn’t help it, so I used my power more often, causing situations, but as you all see, it all backfired on me.”
“So I panicked, my mind weakened, and as a result, I caused an irresolvable paradox by mistake… then Yui-san and Taichi-san lost their memories… I’m really very sorry.”
“I was truly helpless… I lost myself, and couldn’t control my power...”
Inexplicably, Chihiro couldn’t stop talking, and even ended up exposing his heartfelt emotions.
Yui nodded, listening to him quietly.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Yui inquired when Chihiro’s monologue was about to end.
“It’s a bit late for this, Chihiro-kun, but why did you decide to join the Cultural Research Club?”
Chihiro was a bit surprised. Why was she asking this now? But it couldn’t hurt to respond... Hm, why, indeed? He had never seriously considered the reason behind his decision. Perhaps he could say that he was pressured by the circumstances… But before he could organize his thoughts, Chihiro’s mouth moved on its own.
It was as if his true feelings were exposed.
“Because I felt that there was something I’ve always wanted here, yet could never quite get ahold of…”
Those words were his [honest feelings]—?
Chihiro was a little embarrassed. This atmosphere was bad. He was going to let everything slip out.
“Is it because… there’s someone you like?”
Yui tossed this question forward, her expression unchanged.
His heart began to pound relentlessly. What? What does that mean?
Just as Chihiro froze, Yui shook her head: “Ah, forget I asked.” No one asked! Chihiro complained regretfully in his heart, but he said nothing.
“I sorta understand now. Thank you for telling me about this.”
“Ah, it’s nothing…”
Had he said too much? Chihiro began to feel uneasy. His confession had included a lot of extreme detail, but Yui hadn’t gotten angry at all, so Chihiro had accidentally told her everything.
But Yui didn’t look even slightly unhappy. It should be fine, right?
“Can you wait a moment for me, then?”
Yui said as she stood up. Was she going to the restroom?
Watching Yui’s departing figure, Chihiro’s mind suddenly realized something strange.
According to Yui, Taichi should have recovered his memory as well.
Taichi and the others would likely be very keen to find out the details of this incident, so why was Yui asking him alone? It felt a bit off.
She pushed the door open, stepped outside, and closed the clubroom door.
After a moment, the door suddenly opened again.
Enjouji Shino stood outside.
Her expression was a mixture of apology and pity.
“I’m sorry, Chihiro-kun.”
Enjouji Shino said in a small voice.
Chihiro didn’t know what she meant. What was with the sudden appearance and apology?
Wait, where did Yui go?
She’d left for less than two seconds before the door immediately opened again. These two should have bumped into each other…
—I’m sorry, Chihiro-kun.
… It can’t be. Chihiro shook his head.
But Enjouji was apologizing, the door had only closed for a moment before opening. No matter how he thought about it, it had been the same person who had closed and opened the door, but Enjouji was standing outside now.
And, like Chihiro, Enjouji had also encountered <Heartseed>.
All of this pointed towards a single answer; every theory came out to one conclusion.
In other words…
“You probably already understand… That Yui-senpai just now, was me. I used the power that <Heartseed> gave me.”
He had been played.
He had been played. By Enjouji.
And he had revealed everything.
“Heh, heheheh… AHA, AHA, AHAHAHAHAHA, HAHAHAHA!!”
For some reason, Chihiro wanted to laugh and began laughing loudly. Something in his heart dropped, slowly falling.
His malice, his crimes, his pettiness, his spite. All had been revealed to the world.
Of course Kiriyama Yui and Yaegashi Taichi’s memories hadn’t been restored in this world.
The other person had used the criminal’s own power against him to get himself to turn himself in on a silver platter.
He’d joined the Cultural Research Club because of something he wanted here? What kind of idiotic bilge was that. He was an enemy who had attacked the Cultural Research Club, and since he was an enemy, how could he be forgiven?
It was time to quit dreaming and realize the truth. Having hope at a time like this was purely wishful thinking. He had nowhere to run.
His only option really was — to disappear.
The instant this notion flashed by in his mind, Chihiro shoved Enjouji aside from the door and took off.
Without any goal whatsoever, Chihiro sprinted down the street.
He gradually grew breathless and had to slow to a walk. Sweat poured down his head like a waterfall and his shirt stuck to his skin.
He walked onto a bustling street in front of the train station. Chihiro’s eyes were immediately drawn to the karaoke bar, the fast food restaurant, the pub, and others in a messy flood of signs.
In the evening after school, there were many students strolling around downtown, probably preparing to have some fun after class. Other than them, there were quite a lot of people of different kinds: a young man wearing a formal suit despite the stifling heat, a middle-aged housewife walking back from grocery shopping, a young girl in trendy getup, and a foreign couple.
A space filled with people, people, people, people, people, people, people, people.
Fortunately, there weren’t any Yamaboshi High School students around, and Chihiro exhaled. He really did not want anyone he knew to see this haggard appearance of his. There weren’t any students from his school around, but was this… was this real?
Enjouji could have used [Fantasy Projection] again. She could become anyone.
In other words, anyone around him could be Enjouji Shino.
She probably wouldn’t have chased him all the way here — but she could have.
The hundreds of people he saw all seemed normal, but it was possible that one of them was an imposter. Anyone here could be the fake. Real or fake, virtual or actual, there was no way he could tell.
This meant that everyone was an imposter.
Now he was trapped within the cage of [Fantasy Projection].
The instant he realized this, everyone around him seemed to don masks.
A man smiled at Chihiro.
What do you want? Who are you?
Chihiro stood stock-still, and someone bumped into him from behind. A woman clicked her tongue, then walked around him.
The only ones capable of [Fantasy Projection] should be himself and Enjouji. But if even Enjouji could use it, it wouldn’t be strange for other people to get the power as well.
A female high school student in uniform was staring unceasingly at Chihiro, whispering to a girl beside her.
A group of young men walked towards him. They scattered in the street, as though to surround him.
How could this be? No, but, he was—
He was being watched.
He was being attacked.
The entire world saw him as an enemy.
Chihiro found that it was only possible to think of this, so he ran away.
Running was the only thing he could do.
He couldn’t live in such a horrifying world.
Chihiro fled into the nature park.
He wanted a place with no people, but went deep into the park by mistake. Chihiro immediately collapsed into a dilapidated bench, apathetic to the state of his clothes.
He was tired. He didn’t want to move. He’d had enough.
But finally, a little peace and quiet.
He felt great by himself. Although he disliked being alone, now he wanted solitude.
There was no one around him, so he wasn’t afraid to use [Fantasy Projection].
Chihiro now fervently believed that the five upperclassmen of the Cultural Research Club, who could live peacefully even under the attacks of the phenomena, were practically monsters.
It must have been quite some time since the last renovation. His surroundings were a mass of disrepair. The desolate atmosphere suited him quite well, so Chihiro decided that this would be his final resting place.
This was where everything had started: the nature park where he had met <Heartseed> several times. He would sometimes appear suddenly, but if he gave Chihiro time to think, he would tell him, “Come here when you’ve decided”. Even if Chihiro didn’t contact him beforehand, as long as he arrived, <Heartseed> would be there all the same. How exactly was he meeting him so perfectly every time? Was Gotou in cahoots with him after all?
And now, what was <Heartseed> doing at this moment?
Since Chihiro was already here, then that guy would probably show up too.
<Heartseed> would come.
… Ah, well, this wasn’t bad.
What kind of ending had <Heartseed> prepared for him? He, who had abandoned his contract?
Would his life meet its end with <Heartseed>?
If it was happening anyway, he didn’t really mind.
Very exhausted. Felt like taking a nap. Hadn’t been sleeping properly as of late.
That day, Chihiro did not return home.
When he awoke the next morning, Chihiro felt waves of painful cramps all over his body. The bench was too rigid after all.
The space surrounded by trees felt slightly chilly in the morning. A stray dog passed by, eyed him, then quickly turned around and scurried elsewhere.
Chihiro swiveled his neck, relaxing his muscles as his head gradually cleared. He was lucky to even be able to spend the night in this kind of place.
What time was it? About six in the morning? He could find out by simply flipping open his phone, but he really didn’t want to turn it on just to see the messages that had accumulated last night. Chihiro had told his occasionally-concerned mother that he was sleeping over at a friend’s place, so there shouldn’t be anything serious going on.
It was Saturday, so he didn’t need to worry about school.
Just as he was spacing out, the sun slowly rose.
Now what? What was the situation now?
There was no doubt that Enjouji had told Nagase, Inaba, and Aoki what he had done. Besides, there was no way that Enjouji had come up with yesterday’s stunt by herself. Inaba probably told her to do it. Did this mean that they now saw him as nothing more than an enemy? Chihiro had gone unexposed until yesterday, but he was now a wanted criminal.
Maybe a real criminal would have it better. Even if he committed a crime, as long as he were sentenced under law and obediently accepted his punishment, then at least he could be reborn. But he, having committed a crime outside of law, might not even be allowed redemption.
What if he simply denied it?
I don’t know. I don’t understand. What is <Heartseed>? If he could keep playing dumb like that until it all blew over… Could he do it? Could he really live with the shame?
Then, there was only one option left.
After all, hadn’t he always thought this world to be horribly dull? Since he was so powerless, even if he knew his place and carried on, he’d only be suited for a muddling, perfunctory life.
This world was horribly dull.
This world was done for.
Even if he lived on, there would be no light in this world.
So it didn’t matter.
He was already drifting along in this finished world like a sloth. Why not end it sooner?
He’d been walking the path of the baddies, but in the end, he’d still go out with an explosion, like a massive firework.
“Heh heh… Heh... Heheheheh…”
A great, big, ugly firework. Was that all that was left? His life would end, just like this.
End end end end end end end end end end end die...
“I’ve fiiiinally found you, Chihiro-kun.”
The voice coming from behind was unusually chirpy.
“I’ve f-finally found you! I don’t know how long I’ve been searching since yesterday… So you were in the nature park after all… Good grief, do you know how many times I called and messaged you? At least reply!”
Enjouji barged into Chihiro’s sight. She looked excited, as though her mind were unusually clear from not sleeping all night. Chihiro thought it was kind of funny.
“Ah, you’re laughing at me! Why are you laughing? I couldn’t find Chihiro-kun anywhere, I even called your house!”
“... Hey, why do you care?”
Chihiro couldn’t help but interrupt. He hadn’t spoken for a long while; his voice cracked for a moment.
“W-Well, I couldn’t help it. Ah, your mom answered the phone and asked me, ‘Isn’t he staying over at his friend’s house? May I ask who you are?’ I could only tell her that I was Chihiro-kun’s girlfriend, and that I was fighting with you because I was jealous… She seemed to buy it.”
“Make this all a little more troublesome, why don’t you?”
Where did she get this kind of drive and impulse from? It couldn’t be the normal Enjouji… An imposter!
“What do you think of Taichi-san’s voice?”
“Sexy and mature, but not without the sparkle of youth. — My tentative review of Taichi-senpai’s dulcet tones! I’m accepting objections! Limited to compliments, however!”
Judging by her perverted voice-fetish, this was Enjouji all right. She was even more passionate than before.
But what was this? He’d fled here alone because he was afraid to be near anyone else, yet now he was talking normally to someone, and moreover, it was Enjouji, who knew of his crimes.
When Enjouji had arrived, his thoughts of being done for or wanting to disappear had vaporized. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“Whoo… Anyway, it’s good that you’re okay… I was like, ‘You don’t know where you’re running… You’ll die if you aren’t careful…’ That sentence doesn’t count! Forget it! That’s way too unlucky!”
“... Why in the world would you want to find someone like me? You can’t have searched for the entire night…”
“I went home when it got real late.”
In other words, she went searching for me late into the night?
“... What do you want from me, then?”
Even if he wanted to be alone, he needed to let Enjouji finish her business… Couldn’t be helped.
Enjouji looked down at Chihiro on the bench, and sucked in a deep breath.
“Chihiro-kun, come with me. Let’s go… apologize to our senpais.”
Ahh, so those guys sent her after all?
“There we go, thanks. You may be a little hesitant, but since I called you desperately, ran all over the place, searched for you late into the night, and came to look for you first thing in the morning, you must be deeply moved… Huh? You don’t want to come with me?”
My god, shut up, just finish this subject.
“Everything’s already over and done with, what good will my apology do?”
“It’s... it’s not over! Wh-what’s over?”
“... It’s over, isn’t it? Yui-san and Taichi-san have lost their memories, and after you snitched on me, they all know that I was behind it…”
“No, I didn’t tell them… But you already told them, haven’t you?”
I can’t believe it, but it doesn’t look like she’s lying.
“Are you saying that after you deceived me by yourself, you’re coming to find me by yourself too?”
That petite, weak, stupid Enjouji, she, all on her own—
"... I really did try very hard. I went to find <Heartseed> and begged him to do something, but he didn't even explain anything to me, told me to figure it out on my own, and gave me the power to impersonate other people..."
Chihiro was even more stunned. Enjouji had not possessed her power from the beginning after all. She saw the tragedy Chihiro had created and ran directly to negotiate with <Heartseed> in order to break the stalemate.
Chihiro asked Enjouji when she had discovered <Heartseed>’s existence, and learned that she had found out about it at the same time as he had. He had agreed to the deal for power back then, but Enjouji had declined. From then on, the two of them had walked different paths.
"I... was lured by power..."
Although it was too late to say so, Chihiro felt nothing but regret for wallowing in desire at the time.
"I'm just... a coward, nothing more."
Enjouji mumbled. For just that instant, she seemed to have changed back into her usual weak, useless self.
"But even if I am a coward, I also feel... that it's wrong to do nothing. I clearly felt something happen back then, but I didn't do anything. Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai became like that because of me..."
"What do you mean, ‘because of me’?"
You feel guilty just at this level?
"I was a bystander, when I was really also partly the culprit."
By that logic, what did that make him? He, the complete, utter culprit?
Chihiro suddenly grew impatient. He wanted to hit someone. He didn’t want to cooperate with Enjouji anymore.
"... So, what then? What happens after we go and explain the long and short of it to them, then apologize?"
"What can we do then? Can we solve anything? I don't think so!"
Just by Chihiro probing her, Enjouji suddenly looked as though he had said something far worse. She was so easy to read.
"Y-You’re not w-wrong... But if we discuss this with the senpais, maybe we can find some clues. <Heartseed> said before that they’ve already experienced many of these incidents. If we just tell them everything and work together..."
"Are you saying that if everyone discusses this all friendly-like, we can work something out?"
How idealistic. This world wasn’t that reasonable, that simple. Chihiro was already familiar with this to the point of repugnance.
Enjouji hung her head, looking to be on the verge of tears.
This development again?
She seemed to be somewhat determined, but the embers of her passion were much too weak and would disappear in a wisp of smoke with just one breath. This filled Chihiro with rage. If you couldn’t do it in the beginning, then you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew, you shouldn’t have so much hope — these words could apply to his past self as well.
If a nobody tried to dabble in unrealistic dreams, they were only heading toward a tragic ending.
So he had to stop her, to prevent this from becoming a disaster...
Enjouji looked up, her expression firm, full of determination.
"We have to do something. We have to take action. We have to change."
Chihiro didn’t get a chance to interrupt.
Ahh, I see how it is.
"I will change myself, and I will fight hard to the end; I can absolutely fix this situation."
Had Enjouji already changed? Already stepped into that world?
Thinking about waking her up before something bad happened, now that was stupid.
He wasn’t that altruistic. He just didn't want to be abandoned.
Chihiro noticed his own attempts to justify himself, and his own weak state that was becoming rude and impulsive.
Sucked into the Cultural Research Club as he was, Enjouji had a personality similar to his. The two of them were birds of a feather.
But right now, Chihiro was forced to realize the definite difference between them.
Enjouji Shino had stepped onto the righteous path.
Uwa Chihiro had been led astray.
If she could head towards there, he really wished that she could have told him earlier; if it were going to end like this, he wished so much that she could have warned him. That way, maybe he, too, just maybe, could also—
Enjouji, on the righteous path, called the name of Chihiro, led astray.
"Let's fight together."
“... Fight together?”
Why did she need him? She shouldn’t need him at all.
"I'll try hard too, but I need your strength. So, let's work hard together!"
She needed him.
"You talk about working hard, and you didn't really do anything bad. That doesn’t matter, but I’m the main culprit! How do you expect me to have the nerve to ‘work hard’?!"
Ahh, what the hell am I saying? It's like I actually want to give it a go.
No, that’s it, isn’t it? That's probably really it.
It seemed like something similar had happened before. His mouth had betrayed his true feelings before his brain could react.
Hearing Chihiro's shouts, Enjouji hesitated for a moment, as though perplexed over whether she should have said all of that.
Then, Chihiro noticed something.
He was anticipating Enjouji's reply. He saw hope.
There was a savior. Someone willing to save him. Someone who could save him.
Even if this world was utterly boring, even if this world was completely meaningless, even if this world was done for, no matter how fucked up this world was — he didn’t want it all to end now, he didn’t want to disappear like this! Even if he was splitting hairs over the matter, that’s how it was!
That's why Chihiro believed Enjouji and entrusted his hope to her, waiting for her rescue and well-wishes.
"T-The enemy changing his ways and becoming your partner... p-pretty passionate, isn't it?"
How he wished he could have said that with a straight face. Since he was embarrassed himself, he made that hackneyed phrase sound even colder, and the scene suddenly cooled. If he wasn’t used to this, then he shouldn’t have tried to show off.
Come to think of it, things had been going stupidly since the beginning. What the hell were they doing?
"Um, uhh... I've done bad things too. It’d be too arrogant of me to talk about working hard... What's done is done and you can't change the past, but if I still do nothing because of that, I’ll only become even worse. If I know that it’s not okay, then I need to change, starting now."
Change, starting now… But with things the way they were, how would he change his path?
"If we can just get back their memories, we won’t become even worse... Probably."
Was there still the possibility that he wasn’t going to become even worse?
How much more did he want Enjouji to say? What did he want her to say?
He’d already decided what he wanted to do.
Chihiro wanted to fight.
He wanted to join the losers’ counterattack.
Even if his crimes wouldn’t disappear, Chihiro still wanted to redeem himself.
And, if possible, he wanted to return to the beginning.
He couldn’t lie to himself about not wanting to return.
"I went through a lot to meet <Heartseed>, just for you, Chihiro-kun!"
She emphasized a strange point.
"So what? I don’t know how many times I’ve met him."
"D-Don't say that! You’ll make my effort look like nothing!"
Enjouji was genuinely upset. She really was amusing.
Chihiro pushed against the bench and stood up.
Watching him stand up, Enjouji’s expression brightened. He hadn’t said anything yet!
"Well, it seems like... I’d better apologize and explain."
"H-Hooray! Thank you!"
Enjouji threw her arms up in delight. Her movements were very stiff; she was clearly not used to expressing happiness. Had she ever been this joyful in her entire life?
"I… can change Chihiro-kun, I… can change..."
Chihiro had no way of knowing Enjouji’s personal situation, but had he really changed? He didn't know.
"... Do you want to change, Enjouji?"
"Yep, one day... I want to become like our senpais."
Enjouji discussed her dream with a radiant smile. With the way she was now, Chihiro could no longer deny its plausibility because she had slowly but surely taken action.
Compared to her, he… Well, he needed to make amends first. He'd forget about whether or not he would be forgiven for now, because if he didn't resolve the problem right in front of him there was no way he could continue.
No matter the punishment, Chihiro was willing to take it. Even if it involved him getting beat up.
Once he became determined to accept punishment, a huge burden lifted off his shoulders and he felt much better. Maybe what he had been missing all along was the courage to admit his wrongdoing. He had kept trying to dodge punishment, but was instead forced into a dead end.
Take it like a man, that was what he needed — the correct answer.
Even Enjouji had changed so much; maybe he could change as well.
A bastard who had been led astray because of <Heartseed> could also take step after step towards the righteous path.
And then, Chihiro wanted to become someone he himself revered.
Although it was Saturday, the two of them still decided to ask Nagase, Inaba, and Aoki to come out. Since it was a bit much to have them come in uniform, they decided to meet in a park near school.
Chihiro and Enjouji stood at the meeting point as twenty minutes passed in dead silence. At some point, neither of them dared to move; both stood utterly stock-still, their legs growing stiff.
Enjouji cleared her throat twice. Chihiro turned, only to see her face pale.
"Hey, are you all right?"
"I’m O-OK! Everything's, fine... Uhguu..."
She slapped a hand over her mouth as though she were about to throw up.
"Uh, you don’t look fine. Why don’t you go and rest somewhere?"
“That’s not saying much coming from someone whose face is so white he looks near death.”
"That’s another matter..."
She was really pushing it. But was his own face really that white?
"W-Will they go off on us? Um... I think they will."
Enjouji’s words solidified the source of their unease and made Chihiro realize this problem.
“Going off” was too soft of a description, she should have used something more intense.
"Wasn’t this your idea? And you had to call them out right now."
How was he cheering her up now? Role reversal.
The casually clothed trio walked towards them.
Inaba, Nagase, and Aoki walked shoulder to shoulder. They couldn't have bumped into each other by chance here; they probably met up somewhere else beforehand. What were they discussing amongst themselves?
Their expressions were not kind, but not overly stern.
What did he look like to those three now? Chihiro tried to imagine but felt scared, so he quickly flung the image away from his mind.
Chihiro wanted to run far, far away, right now.
In this type of situation, those people would only express hatred and loathing. It was frightening. Chihiro wanted very much to run.
He wanted very much to run, did he?
Chihiro looked to his side and saw Enjouji trembling, clenching her fists. Her lips were pressed tightly together, eyes brimming with tears, but she didn't run, instead looking bravely ahead.
Enjouji was trying really hard.
So how could he leave her and flee?
He would never run away before she did. He couldn’t lose to her, absolutely not. So before that, he had to endure, endure, endure it.
Enjouji occasionally cut in, but the explanation was mostly Chihiro's doing.
"—And that’s how it is."
As he explained, Chihiro felt himself becoming paler and paler.
Enjouji’s tensionless tone numbed him, and he somehow misread the severity of the situation. It was easy to say it, but they had to actually do so — although they thought so at the beginning, in retrospect, it was absurd; this was no longer a matter of whether they were forgiven or not.
The trio’s expressions didn’t change: they occasionally closed their eyes and lowered their heads in contemplation, listening to Chihiro talk.
Their unchanging faces added to his unease. Enjouji looked to be feeling the same, her body shaking without end.
"I... I'm really very sorry!”
Chihiro's knees sank to the ground of their own accord and he prostrated himself in apology. Humans would naturally kneel down in situations like these, Chihiro thought in an inexplicably impartial manner.
Taking the punishment, edging closer to the righteous path, to go back to normal?
Boundaries for how carefree he could be existed. The more heinous the crime, the less likely he was to receive a second chance.
"I-I'm sorry... Um, I couldn’t… do anything either!"
Enjouji dropped down too, her voice becoming sobs.
No one spoke. The air was filled only with Enjouji's nonstop sniffling.
It was the longest seconds in a lifetime.
"Hey, you two."
Inaba spoke first.
He had destroyed the love she had for her boyfriend and everything between them, creating an irreversible situation. So, whatever she was planning to do to him, it wouldn’t be out of the question.
"The hell are you playing at?! Stop kidding around, you moooooorons!"
Her voice was loud enough to rupture his eardrums. Every fiber of her being flew into a rage, but yeah, he couldn’t blame her.
He’d already prepared himself, but he recoiled, unable to move upon being faced with her outrage. Nagase and Aoki’s eyes overlooking him felt as though he were sitting on a bed of pins and needles.
If only he had never started this whole twisted thing, if only he had never met Yui.
If only he had never been here—
Guilt gushed forth, assailing Chihiro.
He felt as if guilt would completely consume him… He wanted nothing more than swift, severe judgment.
"Stand up, Shino."
Inaba took Enjouji’s hand and helped her up.
"Look up, Chihiro."
Chihiro gingerly lifted his head. Inaba's face was right in front of his eyes. Chihiro shut them in fright.
"You bastaaaarrrd! ——Take this!"
Something tiny and rigid struck his head.
Chihiro opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead.
He’d been... flicked on the forehead?
"Get up and dust yourself off, Chihiro! You too, Shino!"
"... Whuh? What... Huh?"
Inaba ignored the dumbfounded Chihiro and helped pat the sand from his clothing.
"Oh! That’s good, for a second I thought that Inaban was really gonna lose it! You okay, Shino-chan?"
Nagase sidled up to Enjouji and patted down her clothes.
Enjouji also looked confused:
“Eh? U-Um, seriously?”
Their upperclassmen’s reactions were completely unexpected. No matter how much they punished him, it wouldn’t have been out of the question. But he was only scolded and flicked on the forehead. That was it?
"Shino, you haven’t done anything wrong. Chihiro, I can’t help but reprimand you a little, but you’re not in trouble either."
Chihiro, though he hadn’t revealed everything, had exposed the worst of his inner thoughts and told them that none of it was out of his own control, but that rather, Chihiro had lost to his selfish, feeble heart. This much was obvious, so why was he free of guilt?
Then Nagase spoke up:
“We are the ones… who must apologize. We clearly knew of that lowest being in the world <Heartseed>, but we kept you in the dark and invited you to the club…”
“Ah! In any case, it’s killing me to stand around like this, so let’s go find somewhere to sit down.”
Aoki quipped. He led the way as all five of them shifted positions slightly, and each took a seat in a playset or beside a flower bed.
Then, Inaba and the others explained to Chihiro and Shino the relationship between <Heartseed> and the Cultural Research Club. It seemed that the relationship between them ran deeper than Chihiro had imagined.
“In any case, we clearly knew that we would be involving you, but we still invited you to join the club. Although you weren’t involved in the worst possible scenario we could imagine, you were still dragged into this weird situation. We apologize.”
As Inaba bowed her head in apology, Nagase and Aoki also said “Sorry”, “I’m sorry”, and apologized.
“No… You don’t need to apologize, senpais…”
Enjouji looked terrified, and Chihiro helped smooth things over:
“That is… No matter how you look at it, the guilty ones are myself and <Heartseed>...”
“That’s right, Chihhi, <Heartseed> is the guilty one! So you don’t need to blame yourself too much!”
The instigator of everything was that guy in the shadows, so it was pointless for them to argue like this — this was Inaba and the others’ position.
“It’s just that, some things did indeed anger me.”
Inaba’s tone of voice changed.
Ahh, so he was going to be punished after all…
“I say, you guys… if it stressed you out that much, why didn’t you tell us? That’s got to be the most basic thing you can do!”
“I know, right? We really want you to depend on us, your senpais, more!”
“Inaba-chan, Iori-chan, you’re not wrong, but—”
The three second years chatted around like always.
What was going on?
This was too much; he was much lesser than they. They were actually able to take those kinds of actions and forgive them as though they hadn’t done anything at all?
Even if the most basic culprit was <Heartseed>, even if it was because of the Cultural Research Club second years that they came into contact with him, could such actions truly be forgiven? He, at least, couldn’t do that.
“B-But… Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai…”
Hearing Enjouji say this, Nagase and Aoki’s expressions suddenly froze.
But after a moment, their frozen faces thawed.
Inaba spoke first:
“No worries. No matter when, us five got through those phenomena together. Although those two weren’t able to fight with us this time, similar situations have happened before. This time is no different…”
Aoki continued her sentence:
“That is, it’s not just us this time, but Shino and Chihiro as well! In other words, that’s us five! As long as we five are together, we’re unstoppable!”
And Nagase finished:
“Well said, Aoki! Let’s work together, everyone, and win again!”
She grinned widely.
What was going on? What the hell was going on? What the hell was this?
Chihiro had already prepared himself for justice, but he’d merely rushed at thin air. If it ended just like this, it only forced him to realize the crushing differences between them.
Chihiro thought he had understood, but with reality right in front of him, his heart remained perpetually frustrated.
A problem that stressed the hell out of him wasn’t even worth mentioning to these guys.
He wanted to become like them? Impossible.
Before these gods, no matter how much he, an imposter, tried to show off, it was all a joke. He was simply being forced to realize that no matter how hard he tried, an imposter was still an imposter.
Chihiro noticed that he was always evasive, but he discovered that when he plucked up the courage to admit his wrongdoings and steeled himself to take it like a man, he was facing an crushingly towering precipice.
Chihiro knew that his upperclassmen had already reached a certain realm. He was clearly envious of them, but had never observed them closely, merely imagining hazily and thinking that he understood.
Right now, it was Chihiro’s first time facing this precipice.
He had absolutely no way of climbing it.
Just by looking at those three, Chihiro felt as though the world were discarding him, as though they were saying to him: You can stay over there for the rest of your life.
“... By the way, we’ve decided amongst ourselves that you guys’ll help. Is that okay?”
Nagase asked, restoring her serious expression.
Where did they need his help? What use would he fulfill? Chihiro thought, but said nothing.
The silence continued for a while. See, Enjouji is the same way—
“O-Of course! I-I’ll do all I can to help everyone!”
“Great, thank you, Shino-chan!”
Nagase grinned, as Inaba and Aoki smiled too. Enjouji beamed, and the atmosphere became peacefully warm.
Really? Enjouji is already on that side? She was once in Chihiro’s shoes, but Enjouji probably possessed that kind of aptitude from the very beginning. She had an honest personality, after all, and her soul seemed quite pure.
If these prerequisites didn’t exist, it might it have been impossible to explain why only Enjouji had suddenly changed?
“Chi, Chihiro-kun… can we?”
Enjouji asked, glancing fearfully at him.
Chihiro was already unable to see her as a partner any longer.
He was alone here.
“... It makes sense, I’ll… help too.”
Chihiro agreed; the current atmosphere didn’t permit a “no” anyway.
“Well then, we should think in detail about how to handle this, but there isn’t anything we can write with. Let’s head home first, change into uniform, and meet in the clubroom.”
Inaba suggested, and Aoki and Nagase immediately responded:
“Got it, Inaba!”
“All right, there’s no stopping now! Full steam ahead today and tomorrow! When school starts on Monday, we’ll charge even faster!”
“I, I… will do my best, too!”
Enjouji also was filled with enthusiasm.
Just as everyone was about to step away, Nagase added:
“Oh, right, we really need everyone’s strength to solve this problem now, and that’s why we asked for your help. But after all of this blows over, you can leave the Cultural Research Club if you want.”
They’d already thought about what would happen afterwards, and remembered to think of them, too; this completely surpassed Chihiro’s line of reasoning.
The five of them started home all at once.
Chihiro walked with the others for a bit, but since his route was different from everyone else’s, he said goodbye to them on the way.
Inaba, Nagase, Aoki, and Enjouji gradually drifted far away from him.
Now alone, Chihiro dropped shakily to his knees.
He no longer had the strength to stand and fight.
“I don’t think… I can go on…”
Chihiro thought it would be okay if he could at least receive his punishment. That way, maybe he could have closure in his heart, bid his current self farewell, and be born again.
Even though Chihiro had taken it like a man, he’d only experienced despair, let alone found escape.
The world would not change.
He couldn’t do it today. He couldn’t bring himself to do anything.
No, Chihiro understood that he had things that he absolutely had to do, important matters that had to be attended to, and though he couldn’t do it now, he had to do it. So, yes — he’d begin working tomorrow.
Even when the meeting time came, Chihiro did not leave for the clubroom.
Sunday came and went, followed by Monday, and the athletics festival was only a week away.
He felt dead for the entirety of yesterday, and still felt terrible upon waking up this morning.
Utterly terrible. He was supposed to meet everyone in the clubroom on Saturday, but Chihiro had left them out to dry. On Sunday, too, the Cultural Research Club seemed to have some kind of activity, but Chihiro had failed to participate.
After missing the first opportunity, he was even more scared of going to the second. The difficulty of it had increased far too much, and it was already too late — his whole body was bound by such thoughts.
No, it wasn’t that. He hadn’t gone for a specific reason. Chihiro had been losing sleep, spent a night outside, and had ruined his health. His body ached and he couldn’t put on any weight… he didn’t have a fever, though.
They’d understand if he properly explained that to them, right? They were definitely willing to forgive something even worse, so it’d be okay, right?
But could he bring himself to ask them to let him join now? Where would he get that kind of courage?
Why hadn’t he taken action that day? Why did he think it would be fine if he did nothing?
From the bottom of his heart, Chihiro despised what he did back then.
Although he was afraid even to go to school, his body still automatically prepared itself. Chihiro had always held in contempt those types of mindless drones who knew only how to go with the flow, but he was actually one of them.
When he left the house in the morning, his mother, specifically coming to the vestibule to see him off, had said:
“By the way you look, it seems that your problem still isn’t resolved, so you need to really talk about it with your girlfriend.”
Apparently, Enjouji had pulled an intensely bizarre excuse with his mother.
“Uh, that was…”
“Sometimes both sides can be too emotional, so there’s no harm in spending some time away from each other, is there?”
She was actually spiritedly making suggestions.
“Hey, listen to me…”
“When you guys make up, you can bring her home as a guest… But ah, if it gets out of hand, just cool down for a while and find another girl. You’re high school students anyway, so even if you have as many relationships as you want—”
Since it was too much to deal with, he decided to ignore her and leave the vestibule.
After arriving at the classroom, Chihiro immediately scanned the scene, discovered that Enjouji had not arrived yet, and exhaled.
Shimono, sitting in front of him, pointed at Chihiro’s bag with his mechanical pencil.
“... What’s up with my bag? Huh?… You want me to put my bag on the table and open it?”
Although he couldn’t understand him, Chihiro did as he was prompted anyway.
Shimono quickly pulled something wrapped in a paper bag from his own bag and stuffed it into Chihiro’s.
What was he doing? Astonished, Chihiro peered at the contents of the paper bag—
“Hey, stop! Don’t take it out here!”
—There was a cover almost completely plastered with the color of human flesh; a so-called [porno].
“... The hell are you trying to do… Hey!”
Just as Chihiro was getting more and more suspicious, Tada, who had just arrived, came near Chihiro’s seat.
“Hm? Oh, Tada, listen, I just gave Uwa a wonderful present.”
“Really, well then… I suppose I’ll need to give him a present too? Uwa, let’s hang out together sometime. Although we haven’t decided on a date yet, there’ll be girls involved.”
“Wh-what the hell is that ‘present’?! That’s no longer just a present!”
Shimono reacted before Chihiro could.
“Anyway… Why are you guys giving me stuff? It’s not my birthday or some kind of holiday.”
“How do I put it? Because you’ve been looking really down lately. But it’s already good that you can talk normally like this.”
Hearing Tada say that, Shimono continued, grinning: “Indeed, you were pretty bad for a while.”
“Are you guys… comforting me?”
“Don’t say it out loud, it’s embarrassing.”
“Maybe we are.”
Why were they suddenly doing this for him? What good did it do? What was their goal?
“So Shimono’s giving me a movie… and Tada’s giving me a real girl…”
“You don’t need to criticize even that, do you?! I feel empty too!”
“Hahaha, not bad, Uwa.”
Tada chuckled at Chihiro’s quip.
Chihiro suddenly realized that he, too, was entering the circle of laughter, and very naturally at that.
It was much too natural, much too simple.
He’d obviously been abandoned by the world, but what now?
A warm atmosphere surrounded Chihiro.
Were humans really such warm beings?
“Well, what do you think, Uwa?”
“... Huh? Ah… Well, let’s pick a day after the athletics festival ends.”
Chihiro could not bring himself to coldly reject Tada’s invitation, so he accepted it.
“Great, then that’s decided. But… the athletics festival, huh?”
Tada smirked bitterly, and Shimono spoke in a low voice:
“Hooow do I put this? Since a lot of classes are unusually serious about it, I think we’re gonna lose badly.”
“In other words… With things the way they are now, we can’t save our asses anymore.”
Both chuckled as though they had more to say.
During class, Chihiro thought, ignoring the teacher’s endless torrent of a lecture.
He was once under the despairing impression that it was over; he believed that he would be facing the worst world imaginable today.
But the world was unusually gentle.
Chihiro discovered that, even though he wanted to reject everything, there would still be someone who was concerned for him and would help him.
Whether it was Enjouji, Inaba, Nagase, Aoki, his mother, Shimono, or Tada.
For everything wrong that Chihiro had done, the world did not blame him. Instead, it tried to protect him, vile as he was.
It was different from the one he knew before. The world shouldn’t be like this. The world should be crueler, with only innately lucky people being rewarded.
Was he wrong?
The question kept popping up in a corner of his mind.
Chihiro hadn’t been this enthusiastic for some time. He even went as far as to think that he’d find the answer if he searched for it.
Chihiro tried to search.
He swiveled his head back and forth, surveying the classroom.
It was Classical Japanese class. Some were diligently taking notes, some were spacing out, and some were slumped on their desks, asleep… No, of course Chihiro didn’t think the answer was in the classroom.
Chihiro met eyes with a boy. He also seemed unfit to listen to the lecture, bored out of his mind.
The boy grinned at him, and he couldn’t help but grin back.
For some reason, Chihiro lowered his head, trying not to laugh. The awareness of being deliberate partners in crime created a momentarily bizarre, comical feeling.
It shocked him that he was able to smile. It was clearly meaningless, there was clearly nothing, he clearly felt such a strong sense of despair, yet he had still smiled.
Then, Chihiro thought of something.
Maybe… his perspective of the world was wrong after all.
Even though Chihiro had always believed that the world had abandoned him.
It wasn’t like that. This world was actually loving him, wasn’t it?
As long as he changed his perspective, changed his thoughts.
He hadn’t been punished, so he couldn’t be reborn. But since he hadn’t been punished, this also meant that no one hated him.
The situation with Yui and Taichi was a sin, but Inaba and the others believed that they would be all right. In other words, this whole thing would be all right.
Maybe he was overthinking it?
In reality, the simpler this world was, the easier people could live. Compared to himself, when those people, who seemingly thought of nothing, led their lives so well, was it simply because they had already accepted this truth?
Was this what he needed — the correct answer?
When he thought of this, he knew that this was the correct answer because Inaba, Enjouji, and the others were living so happily. Since he had finally discovered this precious truth, maybe he could succeed along with them as well.
Chihiro felt his mood lift, as though his very soul were excited… No, no, he was very calm.
Before now, his luck was running low, but that sort of misfortune had now ceased. Enjouji had helped him find an escape, and, objectively, his luck had been improving ever since.
If it were now, he could do it. He could only take action in this mood.
With this momentum, Chihiro concealed his embarrassed attitude and stood before Enjouji at the front of the classroom.
Enjouji looked up at Chihiro from her seat.
He had to do it now. If he didn’t, he’d never have another chance to do it — Chihiro urged himself on, convincing himself.
Chihiro forced himself to pluck up his courage, but it was still embarrassing.
Enjouji was clearly looking up at him, but it felt like she was looking down upon him.
“I’m really sorry… about Saturday.”
Chihiro was unable to look her in the eye as he spoke.
“Because my mind and body had hit their limit that day…”
Enjouji’s reaction was unexpected. Chihiro had been expecting her to chirp, “Let’s work hard together!”, but that didn’t happen. She looked as though she were trying to see him clearly.
“So… I want to know if there’s anything I can help with now.”
“R-Really… Hm, I see.”
Enjouji nodded, slightly nervous.
“Well, about that thing, how much progress have you guys made?”
“A-Anyway, come with me first, since it’ll be bad if we’re overheard.”
Enjouji replied, and led Chihiro into the hallway.
After confirming that no one was nearby, she began:
“Um, we’ve been monitoring places where <Heartseed> has appeared before, because he may be able to restore their memories. When <Heartseed> meets me or Chihiro-kun, he always does so in the nature park; he seems to like that place a lot now.”
This was the first matter — Enjouji said, then continued:
“A-And then, we’ve been slowly trying to talk about the past to Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai. This is very taxing for both of them so we can’t act boldly, and that’s why we decided to take it slow. Ah, also, we’re trying to befriend them without connection to the past. We’ve also considered shock therapy, which is to use that power to create an irresolvable paradox, but that plan’s too dangerous, so we’re saving it for later. Other than that, Inaba-senpai and the others think that if they make themselves interesting, he should show up, so we’re also thinking of using this method…”
A great flood of information gushed into his mind. He never would have thought that they were formulating so many plans and already taking action. Although she was stuttering a little, Enjouji still explained everything from end to end, which also greatly surprised to Chihiro.
“R-Really? Then… What can I do?” Chihiro asked.
Then, Enjouji began to look observant again.
“I don’t know.”
He felt as if he had been lowered a rope that led somewhere other than his destination.
“Uh… Hey, you know…”
What did that mean? He had clearly expressed his willingness to help despite indeed being slower, yet didn’t receive anything remotely close to gratitude. If he took action, maybe he would change. As Enjouji had said, “You have to take action, then change.” The most important thing was that his luck ought to be flourishing right now.
“Ah… Uh, um… You should ask Inaba-senpai and the others.”
I see, I see, so I should do that next?
“I’m really sorry… Um, I want to help do something too.”
After school, Chihiro headed towards the clubroom and apologized to everyone with his head bowed.
Although his stomach had complained on the way to the clubroom, the time had been decided beforehand so he couldn’t be late. Besides, Enjouji had told him to do it, so he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“I’m late because my mind and body were acting up a bit, but…”
Chihiro lifted his head and stole a glance at Inaba, Nagase, and Aoki’s expressions. They didn’t look welcoming at all; everyone’s faces were stern. This had to be the same as when he had apologized last time, a sign that they would accept him afterwards like nothing had happened. Chihiro thought this, but—
“Hey, Chihiro… Have you prepared yourself?”
Inaba asked stiffly, staring at him.
Was she testing him? He couldn’t blame her.
Although he didn’t know what kind of preparation Inaba meant, he should have already been prepared anyway.
“... What do you think, Iori?”
“Hmm… I think Chihhi’s strength in this is needed, but…”
They didn’t look welcoming.
It was as though the atmosphere were saying, ‘We don’t need you, Chihiro’. This was too weird.
“Anyway, let’s have him do something first.”
Aoki suggested, and Inaba nodded sternly.
“I say, do you not have an ounce of independence?”
“Huh? Ahh, I’m not used to bringing up my own ideas…”
Nagase stopped Inaba, who looked to be in a very bad mood.
Why was she forcing answers out of him like this? Chihiro didn’t know the meaning behind this attitude of hers.
The first thing that came out of his mouth was an offer to help, and he had even apologized. Although Chihiro knew that this wasn’t really worthy of praise, they were able to forgive that kind of wrongdoing, so what was there to be angry about now?
Did he do it wrong?
Or was his impression of all of it wrong? Was this world actually not pure, simple, and gentle?
Someone tell him; he may look like this, but in truth, he was frantically searching for answers and trying to take action.
Someone talk to him, tell him that everything will be okay if he does that.
But reality was cruel. Inaba merely said: “You can go home today.”
Chihiro received a text from Inaba first thing in the morning telling everyone to gather at the clubroom. Although he felt a little awkward, he immediately agreed. Because she had asked him to.
“Chihiro’s mission is to try and get in contact with <Heartseed>, request that he explain everything, and if possible, try to negotiate with him… Basically, just try to bump into <Heartseed>.”
Inaba had told him this in the clubroom building before first period, and had added a few instructions. The other members were gathered there as well.
“So the most probable location is the nature park after all,” Inaba said after Chihiro gave a detailed explanation ofthe circumstances under which he had met <Heartseed>, but since he would only appear when he felt like it, it was unclear whether they could see him as planned.
No matter what, the fact that he had a mission made Chihiro breathe a sigh of relief. He was needed, and he could take action to help solve the problem.
Then, everyone discussed simplistically, and Chihiro listened quietly.
Since they didn’t have much time, when everyone was about to end the conversation, Enjouji spoke up:
“Ah, um… I’m thinking, because <Heartseed> will be entering Gotou-sensei’s body… W-We only need to monitor Gotou-sensei, don’t we?”
“Hmm? Ahh, that plan won’t work at all. Because when we monitor him from the side, he won’t possess him no matter what.”
Hearing Inaba’s reply, Chihiro became less and less convinced. At this rate, could they really encounter <Heartseed> as they thought?
“Ah… I see, I’m sorry I troubled you guys…”
“It’s nothing, Shino-chan! Suggest away!”
“Y-Yes! I-I will try my best, Iori-senpai.”
It seemed that Enjouji had completely blended into her upperclassmen’s circle.
After school, Chihiro left for the nature park alone.
Chihiro walked inside by himself. He’d never thought that this would become somewhere he frequented.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t met <Heartseed> again after he threatened him. It was Enjouji who had seen him recently, so he felt that she had a higher chance of encountering him.
Chihiro advanced, stepping on fallen branches.
Drop the idea that you can safely return to the original world — He had threatened him so, but no direct retribution had come.
Did this mean that he was still considering it? Or was the loss of those two’s memories the very thing that <Heartseed> had threatened?
His own crimes were his greatest punishment — Really?
If so, he couldn’t help but feel too despaired, and could only spend the rest of his life criticized by guilt.
What should he do?
Of course, the best thing would be to recover those two’s memories, so he should be working towards that.
Could memories really be recovered?... No, they had to be. If he didn’t believe it, how could he continue to fight… Drop the idea that you can safely return to the original world — No.
He couldn’t see the ending of this story.
Chihiro only just realized that he had never thought about a way to end this since its beginning. He clearly wanted to step into an unusual world, yet he hadn’t been prepared at all.
He’d thought he was someone powerful.
He’d obviously only received that power by chance.
Chihiro became immeasurably self-satisfied upon receiving the power, and told himself that he wanted to climb upwards.
But where exactly was [upwards]?
Nothing belonged to Chihiro; not a single one of his thoughts was formulated from scratch.
Chihiro suddenly realized: Where is this?
While walking aimlessly, he had arrived somewhere he had never been.
Chihiro was thinking of nothing. It was the same now, too; he was standing here because he had been ordered to do so. Chihiro was merely following orders, and was happy to.
—After seeing <Heartseed>, what was he supposed to do then?
“Is it going to end like this? …Hmm, Uwa-san?”
Such a voice came from within the woods.
A voice like a moan from the depths of Hell.
[Something] entered Chihiro’s view.
It was the [something] who was not angry at all, in the form of Gotou.
This was after school, right? The teachers should be at school, was it okay for them to come outside like this? How did he get outside? How did he know what they were planning? He was even controlling this — Chihiro’s mind was filled with questions that didn’t need to slip out.
<Heartseed> was here.
<Heartseed> was — was here.
Chihiro had tried to contact him, and succeeded. Now what should he do? Ask him for an explanation, negotiate with him, but this was horrible timing. Inaba had given him detailed instructions… but had she explained how to ask <Heartseed> for an explanation, and how to negotiate with him?
“You haven’t been… using your power recently… has it already ended?”
Chihiro’s body went rigid.
He heard the sound of large breaths being taken. Were they his own? It felt difficult to breathe, like he was lacking oxygen.
What was <Heartseed> doing?
Did only he feel this way?
Was he alone in having this feeling?
“Oh, dear… You can’t just stay silent… Is it really going to end like this? Then, I’ll… end you?”
So there is another punishment?
A punishment crueler than that.
A punishment that would be applied directly onto him.
What was it…?
Would he forget everything?
“Did you think everything would end just like that?”
He shouldn’t have said that aloud.
Perhaps he could see through his heart?
“P… Please stop… Spare me… I don’t want…”
Chihiro emitted a trembling voice; tears may have even fallen from his eyes, and he dropped to his knees right then and there.
“Oh dear… Well… Hmm…”
His flat voice terrified Chihiro even further.
Chihiro had thought that he wanted to be punished, once lamenting his lack of punishment, and yet he had ended up like this. He talked about becoming like this or that because he didn’t get punished, and it all turned out to be an excuse to escape, to justify his own actions.
<Heartseed>’s eyes flashed. This is the end, Chihiro thought. This is the end. I’m scared.
Who will come save me… It’s a little too late for this, but who will come save me…
Just this once.
“Ah… Heart… <Heartseed>!”
A third voice.
The voice of redemption?
Chihiro turned to look behind him.
Appearing before him was his savior — Enjouji Shino.
“You’re kidding me… It actually happened… Ah, wait!”
Enjouji sprinted forward and Chihiro turned his eyes back, only to see <Heartseed> disappear into the woods.
Enjouji went sprawling onto the ground and crawled back up, moaning.
“Chi-Chihiro-kun, what’re you doing? We have to catch up to him! We need to capture that guy!”
Chihiro stood up, but he could no longer see <Heartseed>’s silhouette and couldn’t hear footsteps.
“... H-He got away?”
Originally wanting to chase after him but stopping her footsteps, Enjouji murmured, “Gotta tell them first anyway,” and pulled out her phone. She seemed to be reporting what had just happened to Inaba.
“... Okay, then I’ll stay here, please watch the school gate, senpais.”
It appeared to be an official <Heartseed> capture operation, but all <Heartseed> needed to do was pull himself away from Gotou’s consciousness, so it seemed pointless… wasn’t it?
Enjouji finished her call and put her phone away.
Enjouji looked back at him, her expression very severe. Chihiro had never seen such a face on her. The emotion this expression conveyed was… [rage]?
“Chihiro-kun, why… why did you just let him go like that?! Why didn’t you chase after him? That was… An opportunity like that only comes once in a blue moon! Tell me, why?!”
She calls that an opportunity? No, no matter how he looked at it, it had to be danger, right? A dangerous situation from which he had narrowly escaped.
“Chihiro-kun, shouldn’t you be aware that we need to capture <Heartseed>?!”
Enjouji shouted, seizing Chihiro’s uniform. Driven by her emotions, she shook him with both hands. Chihiro let her shake him, bathing in the emotions exploding from her. Enjouji, always stuttering, now was unrecognizable as her usually tepid self, releasing her state of mind onto Chihiro.
“So that’s why… Ahh, yeah, the senpais knew all along!”
“... What do you mean?”
Chihiro asked in a low voice. The fact that he didn’t know what to do after <Heartseed> had appeared and could only cower like that, unable to so much as verbally tear into him, was much too embarrassing.
Enjouji let go of Chihiro’s uniform and took a step back.
“... When this began, we originally wanted to ask you to help out more. But you didn’t come to the clubroom on Saturday, and the senpais said that you didn’t seem prepared enough when you showed up on Monday.”
So he’d been tested, and was exposed?
“So, they asked you to find <Heartseed>, but didn’t restrict you too much and gave you free rein. They also said that your chance of encountering <Heartseed> was the highest, and asked me to monitor your movements.”
“... Are you saying that you followed me?”
“I-I couldn’t follow you all the way… But pretty much, yes.”
So Enjouji would only show herself under those circumstances? Indeed, it would be too much of a coincidence.
Was he the bait?
Did he only amount to that kind of value?
Yeah, he only amounted to that kind of value.
“By the way… If I’d known that we need to capture him, I wouldn’t have slipped up like that. Besides, she only told me to contact him…”
“Do you plan to push the responsibility to someone else like you did back then?
These words struck him like a bullseye, piercing deep where it hurt in his heart.
“You always push your wrongdoings onto the people around you, and the senpais have already seen through this.”
Pushing his wrongdoings onto the people around him — They’d seen through it.
“You keep dodging and never try to fight. You keep dodging because you’re afraid to get hurt, right?”
Chihiro couldn’t think of anything to refute her with.
“When I found you after you’d run away from home, I thought you had changed, but you’re still your old self.
Once was enough, but he was a repeat offender.
He had tried to change, but couldn’t immediately change at all.
“I thought you had finally taken action, but you still ended up pushing everything to someone else.”
She couldn’t have made it more difficult to listen to.
“Then tell me, what am I supposed to — do?!”
That was it.
That was why she said that he would push everything onto others.
“Although I’m not that remarkable… But I think I have the right to say this to you, Chihiro-kun. So I’ll say it directly—”
—You keep dodging and escaping. How long do you plan to keep escaping?
How long does he plan to keep escaping?
Where does he plan to escape to?
Chihiro had never once considered that.
Chihiro thought that he had been looking forward, but he was really a shallow person, always prioritizing his own [happiness] and [desires].
Pushing his wrongdoing onto others, always escaping, never trying to help, giving everything to someone else.
His true self — placed right in front of him.
Chihiro was surprised at none of it because, deep down, he had truly known.
After all, it was himself; he would naturally be familiar.
But up until recently, he’d never known — no, he’d pretended not to know.
Including that, had he always been evading?
He had always been evading, and the more he evaded, the deeper he sank, unable to pull himself out.
“Hey, can we really go on like this? If Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai never… if Yui-senpai never remembers you, would it mean nothing? If all of their memories up until now completely vanish, would it still mean nothing to you?”
Enjouji had stopped caring about her own appearance and was yelling desperately. Caught in the midst of such intense emotions, Chihiro’s mind unexpectedly calmed a bit. He’d been intimidated by her imposition and could only stand there, petrified.
Come to think of it, they shouldn’t be the type of people to expose their emotions like this, should they?
Had Enjouji Shino really changed?
Had she already gone to that world?
“Chihiro-kun, you… you like Yui-senpai, don’t you?!”
He had always longed.
He, a shadow of a person, had always longed to approach that sun.
But somehow, he had already forgotten his true emotions.
From then on he had merely looked up at it.
He didn’t think he was capable of approaching it, but he still revered that sun unconsciously.
It obviously wasn’t an unconscious feeling, but Chihiro had intentionally ignored it because he was always evading, afraid of getting hurt.
He remembered the day he had made Yui and Taichi lose their memories.
He had used [Fantasy Projection] to escape.
Was that the greatest act of escapism in his life? But he still hadn’t learned his lesson, and was still escaping?
“Can it really end like this!?”
And Enjouji forced him into an impasse.
He was left helpless; this was his end.
This was the worst possible scenario. There was nothing worse than this.
Tears seemed ready to fall from his eyes.
Was it because he was being moved emotionally due to expressing his feelings? Enjouji’s eyes were also brimming with tears and her face was twisted. As though she couldn’t hold it in anymore, Enjouji hung her head and her tears dropped to the ground. Then, she immediately looked straight up.
Watching her, Chihiro noticed something.
So it was: if one looked down when they wanted to cry, tears would fall out.
But if one looked upwards, tears wouldn’t fall out.
So Chihiro raised his head to look up.
The vast sky unfolded before his eyes.
It was blue enough to sting a bit.
For some reason, he didn’t think the sky was a board now.
The sky looked like an immeasurably deep, smooth, wide solid.
It was beautiful.
No matter how bad his situation was, the sky today was still beautiful.
The tears rolling in his eyes had still not disappeared, so Chihiro kept looking up at the sky.
The sky was so big, so wide. Childlike thoughts floated into his mind.
He wanted to spend a bit more time, to think about something. But under this patch of sky, he just couldn’t bring himself to bother with trivial matters. He tried to think about something more important, more closely related to him.
Yes, he might as well think about things related to this world.
Chihiro had always thought that this world was very miserly.
No matter how diligently he studied, if he ran out of luck on test day, it would become an irredeemable failure in his life.
When that girl who always put off practice came back, in the blink of an eye she’d surpass everyone who had always practiced seriously and become the strongest in the dojo.
No matter how he yearned for it day and night, when he noticed it, that other person had already become an existence out of his reach.
Even if he wanted to change and tried hard to climb up, he was always bound to the bottom, as if that place were his rightful position.
Untameable. This world was utterly untameable.
This world was boring beyond belief, horribly dull, without future, without light.
But the blue sky was so beautiful today. —Ahh.
I’ve noticed it already.
This sky will not change, no matter when.
No matter when, it will still be beautiful.
No matter when, it will still be magnificent.
No matter when, this world will keep its original form.
This overly natural truth fell into Chihiro’s heart.
The world will not abandon him. It will not treat him severely.
But it would not treat him kindly either, or let him live an easy, simple life.
The world will always keep its original form; no matter when, no matter to whom, it was a fair existence.
The world will always protect everyone, while maintaining the same form.
He had always held the world in contempt and thought that it was incurable; but deep down, he had longed for a certain world. Back then, Chihiro already knew that this world had two faces, but he didn’t acknowledge this and merely kept brainwashing himself, thinking this this world was boring and tedious.
Why was this?
The answer was very simple: he was unable to belong to that world he longed for. Because he never did anything well and never became his ideal self, he thought that the world was something boring. So this couldn’t be helped, he wasn’t in the wrong — Chihiro explained, justifying himself. But if it were the ending he was hoping for, then Chihiro would definitely think that this world was wonderful.
The reason clearly lay with him, yet he pushed the guilt onto the world.
Since he was willing to push the [wrongdoing] onto the world, he was, of course, willing to push other things onto other people.
Not knowing how to think and solve it for himself, giving everything to others, always relying on his surroundings, and the only thing of his stronger than that of everyone else was self-esteem, twice as much. He immersed himself in thought only to avoid getting hurt, only for his own self-esteem. Even so, he had never done anything useful.
Chihiro had always used this lifestyle to create his own world.
It was all created by his hand.
The world had always kept its original form, but perspectives towards this world probably varied from person to person. The differences lay with how the observer saw this world.
The one changing his perspective on the world and architecting his own world was himself.
He had thought this world absolutely no good, because he was absolutely no good.
He had thought this world utterly filthy, because his own lenses were dirty.
The one who had decided this world’s worth, this world’s color, was none other than himself.
Now, for example, although he had hit rock bottom and wanted to die, although he saw himself as such, to Enjouji, it was different.
Although he had hit rock bottom, meaning that his spring had been compressed to the very lowest point, it was building strength.
This was a danger with narrow escapes, so it was the first and the last chance.
His perspective on the world was his to decide.
Was this correct?
After being lost for so long, had he finally found the correct answer?
Chihiro didn’t know. But no one would tell him the correct answer even if he said, “I don’t know,” then abandoned this matter.
He had to confirm it himself.
No matter when, the correct answer will be there.
Whether he thought it was correct, no matter when, the power to decide rested with him.
To acknowledge this naturally existing world, everything was up to him.
With the answer in his heart, Chihiro turned his face forward again.
Enjouji looked slightly confused. After all, Chihiro kept looking up at the sky, right up until his neck began to hurt; it’s no wonder she was concerned.
Chihiro called Enjouji, and then, for safety, brushed the corner of his eye… it was dry.
If he didn’t look down, but up instead, the tears wouldn’t drop out.
“Huh… Huuhhh? I-I’ve changed? Is my change so obvious that even you can notice it, Chihiro-kun?”
“You’ve changed, all right.”
Hearing Chihiro say this, Enjouji cried ecstatically, “Wow! Yay! Yay!”, but she was clearly not used to expressing joy.
“I-It’s embarrassing to have someone say it to you directly like that! Heheheh… I should say, Chihiro-kun, you seem to suddenly have a different vibe, have you changed?”
“Can you see it?”
Would my inner change be displayed on the surface so suddenly?
“Yep, I can tell by your voice.”
What kind of special power is that?
But even if only Enjouji could notice, it would be displayed by his attitude, expressing that a great change had taken place in his heart.
“Maybe it’s like I’ve found the correct answer… That’s what I think. If that’s the truth, it’s all thanks to you, so thank you.”
How long had it been since he frankly expressed his gratitude to someone like this?
“T-That’s embarrassing! Or rather, just from that one moment, something can happen… Ahh, it’s possible.”
Enjouji seemed to have had the same experience, it was like she could understand.
“This situation does exist, the moment when you find the [truth] you’ve always been searching for.”
“Have you found it too, Enjouji?”
“Hmm… P-Pretty much.”
“By now, shouldn’t you be more sure of yourself?”
So bold and powerful when she’s imposing.
“Right, there’s something else. Enjouji, when you said [truth] just now… It’s just as you said, I don’t know whether my own thoughts are the [truth]. How do you think I should judge that?”
If it’s her, she should know, right? Chihiro thought and asked.
Enjouji was a powerful person. If he thought of that, he could gradually see her merits. If he could earn something from within, he’d like to as well. As a result, he seemed to be able to grow more than before.
“Yeah, if you don’t do anything and let that thought stay in its original form, maybe it’ll become an imposter.”
Saying this, Enjouji looked a little pleased with herself.
Then, she seemed to want to say, “Let me tell you a very shocking secret,” and smiled:
“You have to take action and turn it into the [truth] on your own.”
——By the way, I think you mentioned something about me liking Yui-san…
——Huh?! Am I wrong!? When I was using my [power], the condition I set was ‘the person whom Chihiro-kun wants to see and talk to the most right now’, and I became Yui-senpai, so I thought that was it…
——Don’t say it again!
——O-Okay! Hm, but you didn’t deny it… in other words, you do like Yui-senpai…?
——Don’t immediately repeat it, okay!? Also… sorry for all the trouble.
——The trouble of making you run around, making you scream, making you watch me say nothing, and making you mad! Don’t make me say it, it’s humiliating!
——It’s your fault, so why are you scolding me?
“About our plan to forcibly cause an irresolvable paradox, if we want to do this, I should be the one to do it. I should be able to use my [power]. Also, I will find <Heartseed> again, because the chance of him coming to me should be pretty high.”
The five members of the Cultural Research Club who were able to gather met in their clubroom; Chihiro apologized to everyone and listened respectfully to their explanations of phenomena that had happened in connection to <Heartseed>, then suggested a plan he came up with.
“Oh, okay… It’s just that the risks with a forcible activation are very high, and I think it’s still too early to move.”
Inaba replied, a little surprised.
Chihiro thought a mere apology wouldn’t be enough to convey his own determination, so he had tried to express his intentions with a completed plan, but was it still not good enough?
Nagase called Chihiro’s name, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
After Chihiro responded, Nagase slowly opened her eyes and the corners of her mouth lifted.
“You’ve been reborn.”
Nagase pointed at Chihiro and declared in a mocking tone.
“Thank you for the praise, senpai.”
Chihiro bowed and thanked her politely, but ended up being suspected: “Wait, does Chihhi have that kind of personality? Maybe he’s an imposter?”
“Did something happen? Chihiro?” Aoki asked.
Chihiro was just about to speak, but he hesitated. His own intentions were a little too idealistic and felt very artificial; he didn’t dare discuss these in front of [genuine] people like Nagase, Inaba, or Aoki.
Enjouji looked as though she were about to say something; was she going to encourage him?
Wait a second, if she were to do that, then Enjouji would steal all his thunder.
“For the longest time, I kept pushing my wrongdoings to my surroundings… but I’ve finally noticed that. Everything is dependent on myself, or should I say that the world will always keep its original form… Wait, scratch that last bit!”
What the hell was he saying? Chihiro couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. Even if it were supposed to be funny, this was overly humiliating.
Chihiro’s words sent Nagase, Inaba, and Aoki into fits of laughter.
They were laughing at him, but Chihiro didn’t hate it. Because he already knew that this was joyous laughter that wouldn’t annoy him.
If he just observed closely, he would discover these things.
“Not bad, Chihhi! You’ve grown! Ahh, Chihhi’s a hardworking kid after all. It’s just that you like to get into fights and can’t use your powers properly!”
“Did I really seem like I like getting into fights back then? No, but I… I don’t count as hardworking, I’m just normal.”
“Then normal people are hardworking kids as well!”
Did she really just explain it like that? What an interesting person.
“Well Chihhi, as your senpai, I’ll give you a bit of advice.”
Nagase said, then continued in a very masculine, macho voice.
“You lack courage and self-esteem. You care too much about what others think of you, but you don’t need to worry about that. You just do you. Your own lifestyle is determined by how you value yourself.”
“It sounds really convincing when you say it, heheheh.”
Inaba chuckled, and stuck her tongue out at Nagase.
“Then I’ll say something too.”
It was Inaba’s turn to speak.
“Your perspective of the world is determined by you? That’s too naive. If you’re satisfied just by changing your perspective, that’s some second-rate stuff.”
Inaba propped her legs on top of each other haughtily.
“This world doesn’t belong to anyone else - it’s yours. If you have a problem with that, go change it yourself.”
When she put it this way, it sounded like literal blasphemy.
“You’re so cool, Inaban!”
Nagase danced around cheerfully. Even Enjouji was watching Inaba in awe.
It would be better to ask, ‘Why are they acting like this? Is everyone too into it? Too into youthfulness and putting on too much of a performance? You’ll be so ashamed of yourself later that you won’t want to show your face, I can’t even keep watching you like this!’
But wasn’t this the correct way? Was this the spirit of youth?
In any case, Chihiro tried waiting for Aoki to speak as well.
“Huh? What’re you all staring at me for? … Ah, judging by the circumstances, are you waiting for my suggestion? Well, th-that’s rare! Me, usually ignored at times like these… Ah, sorry! I’ll say it immediately, don’t give me that “Forget it” look! I’m thinking about it right now! Uh… Umm…”
Aoki racked his brain for a while, yet his words were very straightforward.
“Don’t think about it, just feel it!”
Well, that certainly sounded like Aoki.
In any case, with the goal of meeting <Heartseed>, Chihiro headed for the park. It seemed like that guy would only appear there.
If it were really going to end, he ought to say it clearly, and there shouldn’t be repercussions afterward. Because that’s how it always is. — Nagase and the other’s words tied with them his last sliver of hope.
No matter what, when he saw that guy this time, he had to capture him.
How was he supposed to fight an opponent like him? How could he possibly win against an existence capable of instigating supernatural phenomena? Even as Chihiro kept thinking about that, as long as he stood up seriously against him, it wasn’t impossible at all.
As long as he clearly recognized that guy and kept his battle plan in mind while working on attaining this absolute goal, he would indeed find a breaking point.
Being able to find a breaking point meant that he could fight.
He couldn’t fight before because he didn’t face the truth and kept escaping.
That guy’s nature could be speculated based on past incidents, and that guy’s so-called [interestingness]. From that he’d extrapolate a thought that seemed like an answer, and turn that still-fictitious “imposter” into a “reality” through actual action.
Very easy to understand. Chihiro rubbed his palms together, wanting to try it as soon as possible.
However, as it happened, even after he completed his perfect battle preparations, <Heartseed> did not appear.
Chihiro hovered around the park, walking in circles, and circles, and circles, and circles.
Incidentally, Enjouji was beside Chihiro, desperately shuffling her feet in the same way.
Everyone had speculated that <Heartseed> didn’t seem like he planned to appear before the second years, so only the two first years were there. Inaba and the others went along another route, searching for a way to solve the problem.
Right up until a moment before, the two of them had still been chatting as they walked, but they now moved in silence.
The sun began to sink, and a comfortable breeze blew. Was it because this breeze had begun when his mind was so exhausted the reason it was becoming hazy? A hole suddenly seemed to open in his heart.
“I keep feeling that… a lot of things are thanks to you, Enjouji. Thanks again.”
But as soon as the words left his mouth, Chihiro could not help feeling embarrassed. And he seemed to have already thanked her before too, so in other words, he’d said it for nothing.
“I-I say that, but the problem still isn’t resolved. Unless we let Yui… we let Taichi-san and Yui-san go back to the way they were, I don’t have the right to say anything.”
Yes, the matter still wasn’t done, but they were just standing at the starting line a moment ago.
Enjouji heard this, then smiled very kindly and gently.
“That’s because Taichi-senpai gave me courage. Ah, but I had the courage to go see Taichi-senpai because I saw how Iori-senpai and the others were working hard before that… No, that’s not it, if I think about it, it should be because I joined this club, a-and the senpais were always like [that], and because you were there… I-If that’s so, I should say that it’s because I was born…”
“How far back are you gonna go?”
If she were left like that, she might go back to the creation of the universe. How massive.
But, did the world really work like that?
Hmm, this was too sentimental.
“But, you’re not wrong, the problem… still isn’t solved, so our battle is only just beginning.”
“You actually remembered the topic that I thought you’d forgotten, Enjouji.”
Even though she’s changed, she still hasn’t.
Her stuttering still persisted, and judging by her words, while she was screaming at Chihiro, it seemed that she was in Awakened Super Mode (Couldn’t he do something about the way he named things?).
In the end, they didn’t find <Heartseed> as they had wished.
On the second day, Chihiro and Enjouji rushed all over the place, but didn’t find <Heartseed>.
On the third day, Chihiro and Enjouji still rushed all over the place, but didn’t find <Heartseed>.
So on the fourth day, Chihiro and Enjouji were still desperately rushing all over the place.
“It’s… no good… He’s… not showing up… at all.”
Enjouji panted with her hands resting on her knees.
“... What the hell... So it depends on his mood after all?”
If they couldn’t break this stalemate, they would need a new plan. It was just as well that everyone was discussing whether to use shock therapy on Yui and Taichi.
How much time had passed since Yui and Taichi lost their memories? The most frightening thing now was if those memories had not, in fact, been carefully stored away somewhere.
<Heartseed> possessed ludicrous power. He could do things completely out of this world.
But he was not omnipotent.
If something were under that guy’s control, it could be speculated that all was according to his plan, but <Heartseed> had given the controller to someone else this time.
Could that guy be expecting an unexpected situation and backing everything up first? Inaba once said that this made her uneasy.
Chihiro really wished she would not say terrifying things like that, but her willingness to express her concerns to Chihiro and Enjouji showed that she trusted them. If that was the case, then they could at least think ahead.
He should think ahead like that, and strengthen himself more. Chihiro was recently forced to realize how important this was.
Because of something that had happened when Chihiro went to dispose of the tape recorder he had placed in the clubroom.
As if suddenly possessed, he had replayed the full recorder. Then—
“Taichi… Uuhh… Taichi…”
The recorder played Inaba’s voice calling his name, and sobbing.
Inaba had always seemed easygoing to Chihiro. Even in this type of situation, her strong personality and past experience had led him to believe that she was really okay. Chihiro had always believed that Inaba was practically superhuman.
But he was wrong. They were just like him, suffering from pain.
They looked strong because they didn’t expose their weak side, but they were really hiding their tears.
Since they never showed their weak side, it made Chihiro and Enjouji feel their strength. Who knows how much courage their strong side had brought to these two?
Since they showed their strong side, they made others around them strong as well.
Although they appeared successful in everything they did, that wasn’t actually the case. They were merely pretending to be successful, and they didn’t stop there; through effort, they’d make that which was still an imposter into a reality.
In the end, they were standing on the same horizon as Chihiro.
Therefore, he could do it. — Chihiro thought fervently.
“The place he likes the most seems to be somewhere with no people. Let’s go back and check again.”
Chihiro suggested, and Enjouji agreed.
After hearing about how their upperclassmen had once been through hell and high water, when Chihiro had decided to fight along with them, frankly, he’d hoped for a moment that maybe everything could be resolved quite easily. Because once he got fired up, he felt like the world would go his way.
But, of course, nothing convenient like that would happen. The world merely maintained its original form; it wouldn’t conform to him so easily.
Despite that, Chihiro would not give up.
When things got tough, they wouldn’t just stop. They’d continue advancing through this cruel world.
They would take many strides, and take them step by step.
—What if <Heartseed> never appeared again?
His heart beat with anxiety as he walked.
—Even if he appeared, what if he were helpless too?
His heart pounded with questions as he walked.
—Could that kind of opportunity really descend on someone like him, who had a criminal past?
His heart beat with nervousness as he continued walking.
—If <Heartseed>, according to what he threatened beforehand, carried out the punishment on him, who had broken the contract…
Something like that wasn’t crucial at all… did that sound too much like he was showing off? It was only false bravado.
Yes, someone not genuine, like him, was still paying the most attention to himself.
But in this moment Chihiro was not advocating that, as he continued to advance.
Even if he were an imposter, he wanted to pretend to be genuine.
There was only one goal he needed to achieve now.
Then there would eventually be a day when he became genuine.
No matter how many times, he would carry on.
No matter how many times, he would continue to carry on.
He, no matter how many times, would continue to carry on.
No matter how many times, he would take action to change the world, and that’s why—
<Heartseed> would appear then.
Chihiro had clearly been anticipating his appearance, yet his body froze up in an instant.
His appearance was Gotou, but he could feel his inhuman breath radiating, wanting to engulf everything around him.
This was <Heartseed>.
Chihiro’s knees turned to water, and he almost couldn’t keep upright.
“He’s… He’s here!”
Enjouji seized the hem of Chihiro’s uniform.
He should go first. According to their agreed plan, he must be the one to strike first.
“Th… Think of something, bastard!”
“No, not you, Enjouji, I meant <Heartseed>...”
He didn’t feel tense at all, and things weren’t going as planned. Originally he planned to act in a more handsome fashion, but he could never do it as he had planned it out in his mind.
Calm down, everything’s fine. He had set up a battle plan. All he needed to do was to put the thoughts in his mind into practice.
<Heartseed> said nothing, merely standing there, even making one wonder if he were alive.
Just as Chihiro was thinking about this, he suddenly spoke:
“Ahh… I’ve recently been under the impression that… you guys have been looking all over for me… Ahh, normally I wouldn’t come out by myself… but things haven’t been moving forward…”
“Haven’t been moving forward… so you’ve pulled back?” Chihiro asked.
“... No, since being laissez-faire is interesting in its own right, after all…”
Up until now, he would only pull back once he was bored, and had always done so.
“U-Um… <Heartseed>... san, a-are you able to restore Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai’s memories?”
Enjouji’s tone was unusually polite.
“If restoring them would also be [very interesting]... I don’t think that would be a problem…”
In other words, if he wanted to, he could restore their memories?
“Ahh… but first, thank you for addressing me as ‘san’. I think it’s the first time I’ve been called as such…”
“D-Don’t mention it.”
<Heartseed> was placing emphasis on a very strange place. This conversation really felt lacking in tension.
“Hey, <Heartseed>, you can restore their memories, right? Please help us restore them, then. If you have any c-conditions, I’m willing to a-accept them.”
His words caught in his throat; <Heartseed> had narrowed his eyes and was staring fiercely at Chihiro.
The change in his weak expression completely altered the atmosphere.
“What a pity, for Uwa-san to say such a thing…”
He was blaming him.
“... You’re giving up while halfway through [making things more interesting] … and besides, Uwa-san… this is all your fault, is it not?”
Chihiro couldn’t deny that.
Normally, his stupidity would prevent him from negotiating with someone.
No matter how he thought about it, he was at an impasse.
He wanted so much to run away.
But those were his own thoughts. As long as he tried to find a different path, he would definitely find one.
Besides, since this guy was a heretical existence who lacked common sense and perspective, he should have weak points.
“As long as I… make things more interesting, right?!”
Strike at this point.
<Heartseed>’s eyes retracted their sharp gaze, restoring their blank, forward stare.
“I’ll make things interesting… I’ll make them very interesting, all right. So… So quickly restore Yui-san and Taichi-san’s lost memories. Let’s make a deal, you bastard!”
If he didn’t deride him a bit to lift his own spirits, he wouldn’t be able handle it anymore.
“Um… a deal, you say? You shouldn’t be a position to say that, Uwa-san…”
“For example, I’ll tell everyone that I used my [power]!”
Chihiro screamed at the top of his lungs.
“I’ll tell everyone about my super dark and childish thoughts! Or I’ll show everyone my diary that I wrote while I was in public high school, which I’ve locked away now!”
What the hell was he saying? — Chihiro ignored the questions flashing through his mind, moving with his own energy. If he stopped, it would probably be all over.
“Or I’ll pull out all the stops and tell everyone in the Cultural Research Club, frankly, what I think of each one of them! And… Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it! That can make things more interesting, right?! Oh yeah, I don’t need the [Fantasy Projection] power anymore! Take it back!”
“... Fantasy Projection?”
“I-It’s a name I gave my [power]! Nothing wrong with that, is there?!”
How embarrassing, he didn’t think it would be this awkward to reveal his own original name.
“I-I’m willing to do anything! I’ll do my best! Sorry to trouble you!”
Enjouji shouted along. Rather than making a deal, it sounded more like she was pleading with him, which seemed to deviate slightly from Chihiro’s goal.
“Whoo… Really… You people will do interesting things, huh… The price is restoring Yaegashi-san and Kiriyama-san’s memories, and to never let you use your [power] again… Is that so…”
He got through to him.
This method could actually work. A thin ray of hope wavered.
“But… if you want to make a deal, I feel like you people’s [interestingness] isn’t enough, so it’s best if… For example… what you’ve always wanted to try, deep down, Uwa-san… or something like that.”
Chihiro felt like his inner thoughts were being spied on. That guy had probably already seen through him.
His deepest, darkest thoughts were being stared at; he didn’t want to be seen, he wanted to hide, this was embarrassing — but this wasn’t the moment to fuss. There couldn’t be anything worse than this, could there?
“Then I’ll confess to Yui-san! I’ll even do it in front of everyone in the Cultural Research Club!”
That kind of declaration wasn’t worth much.
“Oh… compared to what you just brought up… that seems a little interesting…”
He seemed quite satisfied, would it work?
“But… what if I still refuse?”
He couldn’t say that he had exhausted absolutely everything in his preparations, but he was truly out of ideas, unable to think of anything crazier.
“Then wipe my memories!”
A shout like that was suddenly heard.
He didn’t shout that.
If it wasn’t him, then it could only have been Enjouji Shino.
“Y-You can wipe my memories about the Cultural Research Club… in exchange for restoring their memories… How’s that? Y-You can do it, right? It’s equivalent exchange, too!”
This action was way too absurd, way too ridiculous.
But Enjouji — Enjouji, who had somehow already let go of Chihiro’s shirt hem, was prepared.
Prepared, with intense resolve.
Was he a step behind Enjouji again?
Was he not trying, or was Enjouji too strong?
What should he think now? The one who could choose his own perspective on things was himself. So… he’d take it as Enjouji being very strong.
But he vowed that one day he’d catch up to her, and pass her.
Although the determination he had now, based on his momentum, was merely an imposter, Chihiro would make it a reality in the future of this world.
“Then wipe my memories too! Two for two! You satisfied now?!”
Even if he were to lose that dreamlike time and space, he must get something in return for it.
The five-person pentagon must be Inaba, Nagase, Yui, Taichi, and Aoki.
As an admirer of that pentagon, this was something he ought to do.
Steeling his willpower, he prepared himself.
This was the end and the beginning.
“How about it, <Heartseed>?!”
Such a moment would render the world—
“... What if I still refuse?”
—still the same.
Enjouji mumbled, half sobbing.
Chihiro had understood long ago.
Even if he did his utmost, faced the end of his tether, Lady Luck would not smile upon him.
In his life, he had already been forced to experience this principle several times.
This wasn’t anyone’s fault, and he shouldn’t hate anyone for it.
Whether it happened or not, he could only resign to fate.
But now… now was different.
Just in this current situation — he must rely upon himself to seize victory.
“... What will you do?”
<Heartseed> asked again.
This was his last chance.
So think hard, think hard, think hard.
He wasn’t at his limit yet. Unless he thought so; then he would be at his limit.
Have a plan.
“... Whoo… If you don’t have anything—”
Ahh, he was out of time.
“T-Then, I’ll… cry in front of you!”
Tweet tweet tweet. — he could hear birdsong.
A blank space suddenly appeared in time; it was quiet enough to hear birdsong.
In this type of situation, this type of development, this type of occasion, the fact that all he could utter was, ‘Then I’ll cry in front of you,’ filled Chihiro with despair.
“... Puha! Uu, uu… ha, hahahahah!”
Apparently desperately trying to hold it in, Enjouji burst out laughing.
“I’m s-sorry, Chihiro-ku… Pu, huhuhuhuuu...”
“Y-You’re laughing too much, Enjouji!”
In the instant that Chihiro was distracted by criticizing her—
“... Pff… What d’you mea — Huh?”
He heard <Heartseed>’s voice.
Moreover, Chihiro instinctively noticed that there was something different than before.
Chihiro turned around, only to see a stunned expression on <Heartseed>’s face.
His expression was definitively different from what he had seen before.
Chihiro examined it more closely, then discovered something.
That was <Heartseed>’s natural reaction.
That was a naturally expressed voice and appearance — Chihiro felt it.
“... Did I just… laugh?”
His voice was different from before; it was an unadulterated, candid voice.
What was going on?
What had changed in <Heartseed>’s mind?
“It was already too much for me… so I tried to give it to someone else to do… what an unexpected gain… How… How interesting… How very interesting…”
Although Chihiro couldn’t understand what this meant, <Heartseed> was very visibly excited.
Furthermore, he was genuinely interested.
This is it.
After Chihiro desperately thought and racked his brain, that sentence finally hooked him.
This was his very last chance to seize victory and win back the future.
“Hey, hey! You think that’s interesting, right? You just said that! Don’t horse around now! The price is that [interestingness] just now! If you take this chance to restore their memories… I’ll show you something even more [interesting]! So give their memories—”
The ending moment came so easily that it was simple enough to be anticlimactic.
<Heartseed> had already lost interest in Chihiro and the others, becoming spiritedly engrossed in himself.
Kiriyama Yui and Yaegashi Taichi recovered their memories.
Without any repercussions, they returned to the Cultural Research CLub.
In the Cultural Research Club where all seven members gathered, Chihiro explained this incident to everyone.
From before they had met <Heartseed>, right up until <Heartseed> had said, “I’ve already restored them back to their original form and stopped you from using your ‘powers’, so I’m going now…” As meticulously as possible, Chihiro recounted this unbelievably long story to everyone.
No matter what happened, Chihiro wanted them to know the entire sequence of events and make their own judgment afterwards.
Starting from the middle, Enjouji also helped tell the story, but one day wasn’t enough to finish. They left the rest for the next day.
When he had talked until his mouth and throat were dry and his voice had begun to crack, he finally finished the entire story.
After finishing his explanation, and even though he had apologized profusely throughout, Chihiro apologized to everyone once again.
Chihiro didn’t wish for their forgiveness or for them to let him off; he merely wanted to express his regret to everyone.
He thought that it would inevitable for him to be kicked out of the club, and it wouldn’t even be strange if there were harsher consequences.
But should he be surprised after all? Even Yui and Taichi, who had temporarily lost their memories, did not blame Chihiro. Insead, the five upperclassmen apologized to the two, and it turned into a small apology contest between the second and first years.
“We knew that we might include you in <Heartseed>’s phenomena when you joined the Cultural Research Club, but we kept it from you, and that’s why this happened.”
Taichi and the others were apologizing, but Chihiro had actually had the chance to reject <Heartseed>’s offer. He hadn’t been caught without an explanation, so he couldn’t be the least bit angry at this.
“Okay, let’s call it quits! Both sides have now expressed their indifference!”
Pat pat. — Nagase clapped her hands together, ending the apology contest.
“Well then! Chihhi and Shino-chan, do you want to stay in the Cultural Research Club? Frankly, we don’t know how many more times things like this will happen.”
Nagase asked in a carefree manner, trying her best to avoid looking uneasy or hesitant.
“But it’ll be like this every time; we’ll definitely be able to pull through it all.”
Inaba said, looking to the side.
“Things like this have hurt our exam scores, too! Yeah, I’m serious! I failed so many classes because of these phenomena!”
“Don’t believe that no matter what, you two.”
“I got it, Iori-senpai, that’s just Idioki-senpai being too much of an idiot… Ah, I mean Aoki-senpai!”
“That’s got to be the most hurtful thing you’ve ever said! Hey, Inaba-chan, you’ve passed down your trash talking to Shino-chan, haven’t you!”
“Shut up, Idioki. I’m just passing down the Cultural Research Club’s traditions to future generations.”
“I didn’t think you were doing it for real! You should say what you’re doing first!”
Putting aside Aoki’s shouting, Taichi switched to a serious tone and spoke:
“Honestly… it would also trouble the people around us, like our families.”
“You’re so thoughtful of your family, Taichi, such a gentleman. But… I’ll never forgive you for pampering your sister like that! Absolutely not!”
“Dereban-sensei, please save your lovers’ quarrel for later.”
Nagase put a stop to Inaba’s rage.
Then, Yui also spoke:
“Uhh, um, i-it’s not like we’re never seeing each other again after this… even if you guys want to leave, it’s completely okay… It should be, yeah.”
Only one of them couldn’t hide their feelings at all; so easy to read.
Chihiro looked at Enjouji, and Enjouji looked at Chihiro.
Neither of them said anything, they just nodded tacitly at each other. Somehow, the two of them had become good partners. Whether they would become good lovers… that was inconceivable now.
The two of them shifted their eyes to the five before them; that is, Taichi, Inaba, Iori, Yui, and Aoki.
Their answers were already decided.
“Please allow me to stay.”
<Heartseed>? Supernatural phenomena? Bring it on. He wouldn’t be pushed around by those things. He’d once been scared out of his wits, though, so it seemed that he was in no position to say that.
But <Heartseed> was, in the end, only <Heartseed>.
This world was only this world.
As long as his will was strong enough, there was no problem.
Chihiro felt slightly uneasy about his own strength.
But the five upperclassmen welcomed him and Enjouji, all smiles.
At about this time, the two of them had finally become members of the Cultural Research Club.
“But… I feel really bad for not being punished at all.”
Hearing Chihiro murmur this, Inaba said:
“Oh? Chihiro, you want to be punished because you’d feel better that way?”
“Uh, um… yeah.”
Chihiro peeked at Inaba’s sadistic grin and couldn’t help but take a step back, but he’d agreed to it himself and couldn’t escape now.
“You’re right. The important things are over, said and done with… However!”
Thump. — Inaba bopped the table.
“Just like I said before, I forgive you for using [Fantasy Projection] on us. It’s just that… for a certain incident that happened during that time, we’ll be settling that score very slowly from now on, understand, Chihirooooo?!”
“Firstly… How dare you make me take my clothes off and take a bunch of pictures! How dare you trample on a girl’s pure feelings! I want a performance fee!”
Chihiro bowed to Inaba in apology.
“Hey, Chihiro! What’d you do to my girlfriend?! Wait… performance fee? That’s like saying, as long as you get cash, it’s fine if he takes pictures?”
“I remember you hitting me!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
With extreme guilt, Chihiro apologized to Taichi and Aoki.
“Chihhi-san, I remember my poor girl’s heart being hurt very badly by you toooo.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
Chihiro apologized to Nagase, with his head bowed as far as it could go.
“O-On that rainy day, you overheard me saying a bunch of awkward stuff! I can’t get married now! You have to take responsibility!”
“I’m really, really sorry!”
Chihiro bumped his head on the table, bowing to Yui in apology.
“It’s all my fault, I’m sorry everyone! I’ll do anything, really!”
“... You’ll do anything? Then please do my punishment first.”
Inaba’s eyes flashed sharply.
She’s got blackmail on me? No, this is good — Chihiro convinced himself.
Okay, bring it.
“Your mission… do all you can to participate in the athletics festival, and bring the green team to victory! If we don’t win, prepare to shave your head!”
… He wasn’t in the sports club, so making him shave his head was taking it a little too far!