It can't be Chihiro-kun who's behind all the trouble, can it?
How could… that happen.
What the heck, I wrote something weird. It's not that it's already over; it never happened in the first place.
My senpais, who have always seemed off to me lately, seem to be cheering up now, which makes me really happy. They're obviously going through quite a lot of trouble, yet they keep being concerned about how I am.
Have you seen anything strange lately? Has there been anyone acting weirdly around you? They've been asking a lot of questions, but I just can't think of anything, so I’ve been telling them: "Everything's fine."
As my senpais cheer up, Chihiro-kun's actually seeming to get gloomier and gloomier. He seems to be afraid of something, and he seems to be really on edge lately, so I've been avoiding him.
Can it actually be him…
… No way, right?
Even in the one-in-a-zillion possibility that I'm right, I can't do anything anyway.
It's not like I do nothing. I have tried to challenge myself, but it's no use.
So the results are the same. No matter whether I know, or don't know, I can't do anything either way. I can only watch from the side, as a bystander.
<div align = "right">Today I stayed in the same position, like I always do.</div>
<div align = "center">+++</div>
On Monday, the five second-years of the Cultural Research Club met in the clubroom early, for fear that the bizarre phenomenon created by <Heartseed> would happen again. Yaegashi Taichi had also come to attend this meeting, which was led by Nagase. How many times have meetings like this occurred?
The five of them first reported to each other anything weird they'd noticed lately, and discovered that whoever instigated the actions had no memory of doing so, yet the other four did. If that were the only thing that was happening, then it was likely that Taichi and the others were being controlled by someone; but no holes existed in their memories, and after they each confirmed each others' alibis for not being at the scene, they seemed to be able to speculate that "an imposter who looks exactly like them is making contact with the other four members of the Cultural Research Club from an unknown area". Although someone suggested that "their memories were simply being modified", they eventually eliminated this possibility.
"No matter the situation, all of them involved the person meeting us one-on-one, and this could be a restriction."
Inaba said, temporarily setting down the chalk in her hand.
Kiriyama let out a Mmmhh~ moan, and then murmured:
"But the four imposters I bumped into were exactly like the real things. Although the things they said were really weird, no matter how I look at it, they were real."
"From my position, I hope that Taichi can use the power of love to see through the fake Inaban!"
Nagase said on her own initiative. Beside her, Aoki hugged his head: "Ah! That means the power of love between us won't work!" But Kiriyama interrogated him: "What do you mean, us? Who exactly are you using as a participant in that two-person example?!"
"Even if you say that, Nagase, she was exactly the same as Inaba in terms of appearance and smell…"
"S-Smell? Do I have a very strong smell?"
Having been majestically directing the scene seconds ago, Inaba suddenly turned frantic.
"Uh, no, not that, by smell, I mean… a very nice smell."
Nagase screeched loudly.
"R-Really? I smell nice to Taichi… I really hope I can start smelling a bit like Taichi too. Heh heh~."
Nagase screeched loudly once more. Come to think of it, did that sentence count as "lewd"?
"Forget about that, let's come up with a strategy first."
Kiriyama's call to action caused everyone to begin thinking of a way to deal with the present phenomenon.
If one were to count, this was the fifth strange phenomenon to happen, and they had all gotten used to this sort of development, and grown quite a bit too, so their discussion went very smoothly.
"Since they only happen during one-on-one sessions, all we need to do is keep our guard up when we're alone together, right?”
"The simplest way is to avoid one-on-one situations~, but we can't declare that as absolutely safe, can we~?"
"Ah… If we follow that, then won't that mean I can’t be alone with Taichi for a while?"
"Huh? Well, on the other hand, when we're on the move we should just stay together in threes, right?"
"If that's the case, even with three people, I'll still be able to be with Taichi a lot. ♡"
"I support this too, Inaba! That way… since I've had fewer opportunities to be with Yui lately, now I’ll have more time to interact with her…"
"I-Inaba, um… that would make me happy, but wouldn't it be too difficult? If we try to stick together like that, then won't the situations with two people alone together increase with it?"
"We just need to step over difficulties like that—"
"Listen up, Inaban! Seal away 'Dereban' for now! That's an order!"
"G-Got it, I just need to think hard, right? Let me think… Ah, come to think of it, when that imposter is impersonating someone, will they have that person's memories too? Maybe we could ask a question that only the real thing would know the answer to, and if they don't, we'll know they're fake."
"Memories… I see. Well, how about we come up with a password that only we will know?"
"Are we using a password? Good idea, Iori, it's worth a try. But everything that guy has done is all according to conditions he's set, so it seems pretty difficult if we try to immediately solve the problem with that method."
"Ah! Chihiro-kun and Shino-chan should still be fine, right? I haven't seen the imposter as either of them yet, so I feel that they haven't been twisted into this."
"Makes sense. I’ll casually find out when talking to them."
"No matter what, if only the five of us have imposters, we only have to confirm again with each other at a different time, and that would solve the majority of our problems."
"We can't be sure yet that we're the only five with imposters, Taichi."
Hearing Inaba say this, Kiriyama looked somewhat uneasy.
"There might be other imposters for people who are not us? I-Isn't that really scary? The friends I've been talking to lately could be imposters too…"
"Yeah… If it's only our problem, then we can deal with it, but if it involves everyone else, then that's not good. One slip-up could mean the end of being certain about anything."
"Although I was the one who suggested this, there might not necessarily be any imposters outside of us five. Or should I say, we don't even know what kind of motive these imposters are acting upon. Are they autonomous puppets created by <Heartseed>? Or are they simply illusions created by <Heartseed> for us to see?… But, no matter what, we only need to do one thing."
Inaba said, prompting Kiriyama to ask:
Inaba carefully looked at the other members; Taichi looked at everyone along with her, and then everyone else followed suit.
The five-person pentagon in the Cultural Research Club clubroom each looked at each other's faces.
Then, Inaba spoke:
"Situations like this make it very difficult for one to not remain suspicious, but we have to believe in the people and friends whom we trust. I'm not saying that you have to believe what the other person says, you understand?"
"Trust the other person, and then take action."
Everyone understood what Inaba meant by that.
"No matter how you look at it, this is really headache-inducing."
Inaba said with a smile, shaking her head.
"The fact that <Heartseed> keeps picking fights with us, strong as we are."
<div align = "center">□■□■□</div>
"That means that you guys haven't forgotten about our gamble during the athletics festival, right? Whoever wins gets to make a demand~."
Nagase said, looking very upbeat.
Since their after-school cheer competition practice times overlapped, Taichi, Nagase, and Inaba were standing next to each other and chatting.
"Well… one of the teams out of all three grades is really…"
Inaba muttered somewhat resentfully, prompting Taichi to ask:
"Did something happen?"
"Our class is really pumped, and the third years are okay… But the first years aren't showing any enthusiasm at all. Their atmosphere is done for."
"Even with Chihhi and Shino-chan?"
"How would they have so much influence? Chihiro, especially, is just terrible at it; he's clearly the cheer competition rep, but he doesn't plan to seriously practice at all. Does he think his lazy attitude is cool or something? Tsk!"
Inaba cursed, and Taichi consoled her:
"Don't say that, he really only lost at jankenpon, after all."
"Anyway, the green team needs to think of a way to get the first years pumped, but they don’t change at all no matter how we second years try to reason with them… Ah, we're assembling now? See you."
Inaba said, and tore back to her own class's assembly point.
"Hmm~, Inaban's changed. She was a bit reserved in our first year, and although she would do some stuff behind the scenes, she'd never stand out and lead the charge in class."
Nagase watched Inaba from behind, her eyes narrowing. Her warm gaze resembled that of a parent watching their child.
"In that case, you've changed too, right, Nagase? You didn't like to be a rep or whatever during first year, and I feel like you preferred to act on your own more."
"Then you're the same way, Taichi. Taichi… although you inherently like taking on other people's business, I didn't have an impression that you liked to fight on the front lines before."
Really? Taichi thought, scratching his head.
"Yeah, that means we've all changed!"
Nagase concluded, placing a perfect full stop on that subject.
Today involved a full practice of the entire cheer competition, so the three year levels belonging to the red team were gathered together. Some people were absent due to club or committee activities, but the sight of nearly 100 people gathered together was something to behold.
Taichi and the cheer competition reps from the other years directed this scene.
"Um, the people in this area…"
"Setouchi-senpai! Could you come here for a second?"
"I'll be right there, hold on a second! Yaegashi-kun, can I leave this to you?"
"I-I need to direct them? I don't feel very good about that…"
Many reps were absent for reasons outside of their control, and there was a very clear lack of people capable of leading and directing.
"L-Let's take a short break! And second year reps, meet here!"
Setouchi shouted. The second year reps gathered up.
"What now? We don't have enough people, especially first and third years…"
Setouchi said, her face anxious.
"Let's just give all the second years to one person, and the rest of us will help the other years?" Nagase suggested.
"That would be good… but who can direct the entire second year?…"
Taichi thought that too — but a certain person's shadow suddenly flitted through his mind.
"No, if it were Fujishima…"
He had seen what a resurrected Fujishima looked like. Now that he thought about it, there had been something off about her, so it had probably been an imposter created by the phenomenon Taichi and his friends were facing right now. But when Fujishima was still their class president, she had definitely exuded the crushing atmosphere of a leader.
"Huh? M-Me? I can't… just with my abilities…"
Fujishima shook her head, already utterly devoid of confidence.
But in this sort of situation, other than the Fujishima of the past, they really could not think of anyone else who was capable of directing practice for multiple groups at once.
"Ah~, in order for our class to win, we need Fujishima-san's strength~."
Watase Shingo said, as though he were talking loudly to himself, and then Nagase added:
"Yup! I mean~, as long as Fujishima-san brings out the big guns, we can definitely do it~!"
As Watase and Nagase riled up the mood, everyone else seemed to understand their intention.
"Only Fujishima-san is qualified enough~."
"Yeah, I don't know if Fujishima-san is willing to help or not~."
"It would be great if we had Fujishima-san's strength~."
"Huh? What's up, Fujishima-san?"
"That doesn't matter, idiot, just cheer her on."
"Go get 'em, Fujishima!"
For some reason, other people began to go with the flow, cheering Fujishima on despite having nothing to do with this at all.
What on earth was with this wave of noise? He had only mentioned it offhandedly. Taichi was a bit anxious, wondering whether Class 2-B might be a little too excited.
"""Fujishima! Fujishima! Fujishima!"""
Under this tempest, enthusiastic cheering for Fujishima came very naturally, gradually expanding and increasing in scale. Watching the second years calling for Fujishima, even the first and third years ran over to join the fight for some reason. The r-red team is way too enthusiastic about this!
Bathed from head to toe in cheers, Fujishima stood blankly where she was. She trembled, then clenched her fists tightly, pushed her glasses up, lifted her head, threw her chest out, and stood majestically.
And then, she finally—
"Heh heh heh… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
"… Where did this demon come from?"
Taichi teased surreptitiously. He had a premonition that Fujishima was probably turning over a new leaf once again.
"Since you guys need me so much, there's no way I can refuse! Directing the ignorant masses, is it? All right, I'll show you all what I'm made of!"
Where exactly did this demon come from?
"T-That was great, Fujishima-san!"
"Watase, I've suspected it for the longest time, and it turns out that you are a total masochist. You love Fujishima's queenly character, don't you?" Taichi murmured.
By the way, Fujishima's demon mode was automatically disabled after that day's practice.
<div align = "center">□■□■□</div>
Taichi started home immediately after the full cheer competition practice had concluded.
Quite a long time had passed before they had noticed the start of the phenomenon according to their speculation, but <Heartseed> had been nowhere to be found.
Was this a coincidence? Or was it not <Heartseed> this time, but <Number 2>, who had initiated the [Time Regression] phenomenon?
What was worrying was that <Number 2> had once possessed his little sister for a while. Taichi was very uneasy; was it possible that such a nightmare would happen again?
"Huh? Did something happen recently?"
Hearing Taichi's inquiry, his little sister, now in sixth grade of elementary school, widened her round eyes even further and looked up from her magazine. She had let her slightly curled hair grow to where it barely touched her shoulders, and it naturally created a mature charm that made it hard to believe that she was a sixth grade elementary student. This was Taichi's little sister, whom he was very proud of and could very confidently introduce to anyone (although he currently had no plans to introduce her to anyone, of course).
"I'm still thinking of why you ran home so frantically, Onii-chan, and suddenly asked me that sort of question… Ah, y-you haven't found out, have you?"
"Y-Yes! That's it! Tell me about that, now!"
Taichi prodded her, thinking that he should know first about any abnormal changes that his sister had noticed.
"Hmm~, I keep thinking that you'll drop dead after finding out, so I never told you, but I can't do anything if you've seen through me."
Drop dead? What on earth was happening? Taichi had no idea at all.
Keeping him on tenterhooks, his sister giggled, then set off an explosion.
"Got a boyfriend!"
……… Got a boyfriend.
Taichi fainted on the spot.
"Onii-chan, are you okay?! You didn't use an ukemi falling technique at all!? Your head crashed into the ground with a bang!"
"Y-You sound like a robot, Onii-chan! Pull yourself together! Hey!"
His consciousness was slowly fading… On the other side of his muddled vision, he could see his little sister's frantic face… He also heard whap whap sounds, and his cheeks hurt… His sister was slapping him… Ah!
Coming to his senses, Taichi sat up violently. That was close, he almost died.
"Boyfriend… You actually got a boyfriend! It's too early! You're a sixth grader in elementary school! As your brother, I… I don't remember allowing you to have a boyfriend!"
"Huh~, I waited until you got a girlfriend before I got a boyfriend, Onii-chan."
"What…! It's because I got a girlfriend…! If that's the case, then if I didn't have a girlfriend…"
"Then do you want to break up with your girlfriend? Oniiii-chan."
"… I, I'm not going to break up with her."
Taichi said, resisting the embarrassment. His sister giggled "Nyeheh~", then squatted down and stared straight into Taichi's eyes as he sat on the floorboards.
"Good grief~, Onii-chan's lovesick too~. Since you have someone so important to you, then you can understand why I want to start dating too, right?"
"Well… I still feel that it's too early for you… No, kids grow into adults this way… and you've grown up too… It's a bit early, but… if you want to, then whatever makes you happy."
Taichi swallowed his tears, and his sister pounced, hugging him.
"Yay~! I love you, Onii-chan~! Let's do a double date next time, Onii-chan! ♡"
"I-I'm really happy… but I wanna cry...!"
Taichi shed tears of blood.
—By the way, is your boyfriend the same age as you?
—He's three years older than me; he's in third year of middle school.
—Wha…! Y-You should break up with that lolicon bastard right now!
—You're one to talk, you siscon Onii-chan…
<div align = "center">+++</div>
They had already completely uncovered the fact that some phenomenon was happening.
Coming to this realization, Chihiro violently flung the tape recorder aside. It had been a tool he had planted in and just recovered from the Cultural Research Club.
He was in one of the empty rooms in the club building, the very room where he had made Inaba strip down to her underwear. He sat straight onto the floorboards, not pulling up a chair.
They had already discovered that [Fantasy Projection] could virtually only be used in one-on-one situations. Chihiro hadn't even used it that many times, but they had also mentioned the possibility of there being an imposter other than themselves.
What was worse was the fact that they were planning to use memories to tell apart the imposter and the real deal. Frankly, if they were to do that, then he would be utterly helpless, and
But Chihiro finally knew why everyone trusted that idiotic girl who was blinded by love. Sharp leadership and the ability to analyze information, along with a dignified mien, made her the mental backbone for most, and this was indeed deserving of praise. Inaba Himeko was an existence not to be underestimated.
He couldn't blow off any of the others either. Chihiro knew that they had crossed many troublesome phenomena like this together, but their calm attitude towards abnormal situations was much too abnormal in itself. There clearly was an abnormal phenomenon going on, yet their attitude seemed to be saying that the Athletics Festival was pretty important. What the fuck? That's insane.
They were a bunch of abnormals. The world that they were able to strut in was also an abnormal world.
He was the normal one, right?
He'd simply been too careless back then. He could be sure of the fact that he was not in the same world as them, that he was on a higher plane than them. Moreover, absolutely no one had realized that Chihiro was the one using [Fantasy Projection].
Trust the other person, and then take action — Really?
That was the strategy to deal with [Fantasy Projection] that Inaba had told everyone. What a load of baloney.
What use was there in trusting the other person? None whatsoever.
Would miracles happen when trusting the other person? Of course they wouldn't.
No matter when, this world was always betraying people, always covetously eyeing the next opportunity to betray them.
That was how the world worked.
He was going to use [Fantasy Projection] more frequently. He didn't care whether he was turning into one of those five, or someone else. He'd surround them with imposters, rendering them unable to discern between real or fake. Render them unable to trust anyone in this world ever again.
Since they were underestimating him, he would not let things end so easily. He would show them what hell was.
<div align = "center">□■□■□</div>
After school, Chihiro approached Yui, who was preparing to leave school and head for the dojo. She had stayed in the clubroom for a bit, so there wasn't anyone else currently near the shoe racks.
"[Aoki Yoshifumi as seen by Kiriyama Yui]."
Chihiro decided to use Aoki.
"Are you going back too? Yui-san."
"Yup, are you heading to the club now, Aoki?"
For the sake of his own future, he could not fail the conversation that was to follow. He couldn’t, he wouldn't fail.
"Yeah… Well, now, when two people are alone together, we need to have our guard up, right? Ah, let me confirm first, our password is…"
Chihiro [Aoki] launched a preemptive strike.
"The password is Smash <Heartseed>!… Hey, that password's too violent, isn't it? Want to change it to another one?"
"It's pretty good already, simple and easy to understand."
Chihiro [Aoki] said, causing Yui to crossly murmur "You really think so?"
With that, Yui would be under the impression that Aoki was standing right in front of her. He should make his move now. Even if he were recognized as the imposter, that wouldn’t be bad. That way he’d teach them a lesson, and make them realize that a password was utterly meaningless.
Attack as boldly as possible. —Hit her? Might be overkill.
Chihiro [Aoki] called her name, then reached out to her.
Yui stared at his hand in alarm. What was she alarmed about?
Chihiro [Aoki] reached forward, and Yui stared unswervingly at the movement of his hand.
Petite as she was, Yui had a tiny face. Her cheeks were fair and looked very soft. His hand slowly approached. The whole thing felt odd. For some reason, his hand began to tremble, but Chihiro [Aoki] shoved back his surfacing discomfort and touched Yui’s cheek.
His finger stuck to Yui’s cheek like it were being attracted there, and a numbing sensation scuttled through his entire body. Her cheek was unexpectedly ice-cold and felt very comfortable.
“... What are you doing?”
Yui asked, motionlessly staring at Chihiro [Aoki]’s eyes.
“Um… I think you’re really cute…”
“In other words, you touched me because you wanted to touch me?”
Yui was neither embarrassed nor angry; rather, her face was devoid of emotion. This bewildered Chihiro [Aoki].
In an instant, Yui’s eyes flashed a penetrating, powerful gleam.
“The real Aoki would never do something like this! Begone, you imposter!”
As an impact shot up his crotch, excruciating pain pierced his body.
He felt himself becoming weak. His body shook back and forth, losing balance. Tears sprang from his eyes, and nausea ran rampant inside him.
Chihiro [Aoki] collapsed on the spot.
“Ow… OWWW… OUCH…! Hey… Kicking me so hard in the nuts… that’s going too… far…”
“You’ve no right to talk, imposter. Oh, I should capture you while I still can. That way we can resolve everything. Hmm, where’s the rope…”
—Capture you while I still can?
What? Hey, what? Hey, what’s this? What? What? What what what what?
Fuck. Fuck. This is bad. It’s over it’s over it’s over. Sweat was pouring from his body.
Play dumb? Won’t work. The instant she gets in contact with someone, it’s over. If someone other than her gets here, they’re going to be able to clearly see Uwa Chihiro lying on the ground.
Is he going to meet his end here so easily, like a mere trifle? Is he going to die?
No, nononono. A failure. A dropout. If everything is seen through, he wouldn’t be able to stay at the same school at all, and would become a social outcast. No, maybe because of <Heartseed>, he might even become a world outcast—?
His vision blurred. What to do? He should just admit that he’s an imposter, and then— Right. <Heartseed> once told him that, to them, there was nothing that <Heartseed> could not do. He’ll exploit that.
“Even if I’ve been caught… that’s fine… I’ll just vanish now.”
Was that okay? He wasn’t digging his own grave, was he?”
“Vanish… I see. Then this wasn’t much use, was it?”
Ahh… it worked. What a narrow escape. He survived.
“Hmm, but no matter where I look or how I look at you, you look like the real thing.”
Yui was carefully inspecting Chihiro [Aoki].
Why was she so calm even after seeing an imposter? What was with this calm attitude like she were looking at a bug? Yui watched Chihiro [Aoki] from above as he was sprawled on the floorboards. Don’t look at me like that.
In desperation, Chihiro [Aoki] opened his mouth:
“Why… don’t you think I’m the real thing?”
“Because Aoki would never touch me like that just because of his own desires.”
Yui answered matter-of-factly. In her reply, he could see overwhelming trust.
Trust… The fuck is that, huh? Don’t act like you all know each other so well.
“You seem unusually calm. I’ll be leaving first, then. If you’ve got a problem, bring it on anytime.”
Yui grinned confidently, her long chestnut hair billowing.
“Oh, I should tell everyone that the imposter can store memories, so a password is useless.”
Then, as though she were completely disinterested in Chihiro [Aoki], Yui left the scene. Sprawled facedown on the ground, Chihiro saw quick, light footsteps entering his blurred vision.
A student arrived in front of the shoe racks, looking startled.
“What’re you looking at?”
Chihiro stood up, holding onto the shoe racks for support, only to see that the student had run off, scared.
He had narrowly avoided danger. By the looks of it, they shouldn’t have realized the loophole that he actually [didn’t have their memories]. He had completed his goal. But.
Chihiro slammed the metal shoe rack, hard. It let out a rumbling bang, and the noise echoed around him. Stinging pain traveled up his wrist. He was trapped in a sense of emptiness and failure.
He’d been exposed in such an unsightly manner. He’d been underestimated. He was forced to see it. The trust between them. Yui completely disregarding him.
The distance between him and Kiriyama Yui was so very overwhelming. She was so very out of reach.
Things were not going well at all.
The next day at school, Chihiro ran into Taichi by chance. Taichi was walking into school.
Hit him — Chihiro thought on instinct. His mind had been so restless that he had been unable to sleep last night, and a mysterious excitement was gushing inside him. Although he'd always been avoiding crowds before taking action, now it didn't matter.
"[Someone among Yaegashi Taichi's friends who usually arrives very late.]"
Despite feeling exhilarated, he was still able to keep his cool. Chihiro couldn't help but admire himself.
If an irresolvable paradox were to be created with [Fantasy Projection], the results would be catastrophic. For example, when Chihiro was using [Fantasy Projection], if the person he was impersonating were to appear, it would seem that two of the same person were simultaneously there; very clearly an irresolvable paradox. To avoid violating this rule, Chihiro would carefully control the conditions.
His mind was very clear today, and he was feeling great. This was his original form. There was no way he would lose.
"Oh, Watase. You're really early today. How rare."
"Good morning, Taichi-san."
Other than the sound of his own voice, he could also hear his voice after it was automatically converted. At first he thought it was utterly gross, but now he was quite accustomed to it. Judging by the voice, he learned that Watase was a guy.
"Taichi-san, this might seem very sudden, but could I please borrow some money?"
It was a bit low, but this should be the territory that was easiest to understand, and the most corruptible.
Money represented humanity's desire.
"Sure, how much?"
"However much you can; no matter what, I need some cash."
Chihiro [Watase] bowed his head in request.
Taichi was a goody-two-shoes. Just from that, he might give Chihiro all of the money he had on him.
See? What an idiot.
"As for what you're using it for… Well, you don't have to tell me. But when will you pay me back?"
"At a later date."
How gullible, how… gullible?
Taichi glared at Chihiro [Watase] sharply.
Unable to withstand the pressure, Chihiro [Watase] automatically took a step backwards.
"You're an imposter, aren't you?"
"Uh… No, why…"
"Watase is super annoying about borrowing money; he writes an I-O-U and stamps it even for very small amounts! It's in his grandpa's will!"
What the hell kind of setup is that?! Who could possibly know that?!
Chihiro [Watase] yelled inwardly, simultaneously spinning around and taking off. Retreat for now.
He ran behind the school building. Upperclassmen and students just finishing morning practice looked at him, amazed. Chihiro's face grew hot, and nausea rose up in his chest. No, he didn't lose this time, that was only a tactical retreat.
But to those bystanders, right now, he was a downright deserter.
Did Taichi realize that he was unable to copy other people's memories because of that? He didn't know, fuck!
Things were not going well at all, things were not going well at all.
All throughout class that day, Chihiro was ruminating over his next attack. He even skipped club to prepare for battle, and before he knew it, it was evening.
Chihiro decided to attack Aoki after school.
"[A member of Aoki Yoshifumi's family who can show up here without it seeming strange.]"
“Ah, Nee-chan, are you heading home right now?” Aoki said.
Aoki has a sister? It took him slightly aback, but Chihiro [Aoki’s Sister] continued to approach him silently.
He wanted to use an invulnerable, perfect, and cruel execution method to properly teach this guy a lesson.
Chihiro [Aoki’s Sister] grinned, and clenched his fists.
He swung his right fist at that stupid, totally unalarmed face in front of him.
Aoki staggered backwards after taking blows right to the face.
Chihiro began to tremble with excitement; a rush shot down his spine. He was watching himself suppressing his opponent, and a savage, violent impulse delivered anaesthetic to his brain. He wanted badly to smash, to destroy, to beat the shit out of this guy with his animal instinct — but Chihiro would not do that. He knew the meaning of self-control, and he would show mercy, because he really had no intention of torturing his opponent’s physical body.
“W-What are you doing, Nee-chan?!”
Chihiro [Aoki’s Sister] said nothing, tilting his head.
“Ah…… the imposter…”
Hearing Aoki mumble that, Chihiro [Aoki’s Sister] lifted the corners of his mouth and grinned.
“You imposter… Actually using my sister’s… form like that!”
Scream with fury. Rage. Go insane. If you want to, by all means come at me. Bring it on. When the time came, he would thoroughly return the favor.
Then you will discover the reality that you have already been dragged into hell.
“Hey, wait… Doesn’t… this mean that we don’t know who will attack us at any time…?”
Has the idiot realized it too?
As long as he used [Fantasy Projection], Chihiro could become anyone he wanted. Even if they were able to see through his disguise after a conversation with him, at a glance they were still unable to tell. In other words, all of humanity could attack him. Who could live in that kind of world? Their mind wouldn’t be able to take it. Chihiro was going to identify the instant they broke, then move in and make things more [interesting].
What sort of despaired expression was Aoki going to make? Chihiro literally could not wait.
“What the hell, nothing to be worried about.”
Dazzling light illuminated Aoki’s face.
He was laughing at him.
“What… did you say?...”
“Because if you’re acting like this, doesn’t that mean you’ve already admitted defeat?”
“After all, <Heartseed> and… <Number 2> too, I think. Those guys would drag us into really cruel situations, but they would never make random moves afterwards. That was how they always worked. But, to be fair, during the [Personality Exchange], <Heartseed> did intervene once.”
Aoki wasn’t especially emotionally moved or excited; he was talking in a normal tone.
“I don’t really understand it, but according to Inaba, those guys seem to be observing the [fluctuations in our hearts], or they seem to be [interested in five-people groups], or something. In other words, these inexplicable happenings are a sort of competition. If those guys can collapse our bonds and spirits with these various phenomena, then they’ve won. If we can endure and cross over these obstacles, then we win.”
Aoki nodded, agreeing with his own words.
“If you actually intervene, not figuratively or hypothetically, in this sort of competition… How do I put it? It’s like you’re fouling or forfeiting.”
“Uh… I don’t recall competing against you people.”
Aoki was actually forcibly pressing these strange rules onto him, and then declaring that he lost? Quit joking around.
“Nope, you’ve lost. That said, you really aren’t <Heartseed>, are you? Does that make things different?”
Aoki began miring himself over it, but immediately said “I’ll talk to everyone else about it next time”.
“Anyway, what I want to say is, we’d never lose to someone like you who will intervene just because he’s in a tight spot. Also, you can act against me, but if you try it on a girl… that’s unforgivable.”
“Unforgivable… What’re you gonna do to me?”
“Unforgivable. Anyway, it’s unforgivable. That’s it!”
There’s no way that Aoki had thought this through at all. It was baseless. He’s bluffing.
He was clearly bluffing, so why did Chihiro feel overwhelmed? Why did he feel like he couldn’t win against them?
He was the strong one, and those guys were the weak ones. Two different positions. Why would it be the other way around? Foul? Forfeit? Defeat? Quit joking around. He had the upper hand, he had the upper hand, he had the upper hand; he had not lost, he had not lost, he had not lost, he had not lost.
No matter what angle he looked at it from, no matter what time he looked at it from, no matter how he looked at it, he had the upper hand. Anyone could understand that, right? Someone come and help judge that statement in court. Anyone. Anyone at all. But she cared for—
Things were not going well at all, things were not going well at all, things were not going well at all.
The world did not want to stand on his side.
After this, no matter what he did, everything rebounded onto him.
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It rained for the whole day.
During practice at the dojo, Yui asked: “You haven’t coming to the club at all lately, are you okay?” Chihiro didn’t look at her face, and only responded, “I’m fine”. Chihiro could not look Yui in the eye at all, because they were enemies. In hindsight, he was really very lucky when this all began, when he could cause the phenomena on one hand and treat them with a normal attitude on the other. Now, Chihiro no longer remembered how he did it.
But was it because he had not responded to Yui while looking at her face despite approaching her so closely?
After that, for some reason, he wanted to chat with her.
At the same time, he wanted someone to treat him kindly. He’d been facing enemies a lot lately and felt a bit fatigued.
On the way back home after practice ended, Chihiro got close behind Yui.
Yui twirled her pink umbrella as she walked.
In order to not be drowned out by the rain, Chihiro raised his voice slightly and declared louder than usual:
“[A friend whom Kiriyama Yui most wants to be her confidante right now.]”
As Chihiro said this, he simultaneously pulled back the distance between himself and Yui.
“Hm… Huh, Chinatsu?! Chinatsu, right?!”
Extremely surprised, Yui ran towards him, her polka-dot rainboots making splish-splash noises in the puddles.
“When did you come back? Did you have a good time over there? Did you practice hard?” As Yui demanded these things of him, Chihiro learned that Chinatsu once lived in this town but had moved somewhere else, and was also practicing karate. Also, he seemed to have heard this name somewhere before… Just as Chihiro was pondering this, he remembered a girl named Mihashi Chinatsu, an opponent of Yui’s in a tournament. Her ponytail was very distinctive and she was a girl even more competitive than Yui.
It was very lucky for Chihiro [Mihashi] that Yui wanted to confide in someone he sort of knew. After all, holding a long conversation when he knew nothing at all was really too difficult.
“Whatever you want to tell me today, I’ll listen to all of it.”
Chihiro [Mihashi] declared, making it difficult for Yui to raise questions. He had added a similar condition upon activating [Fantasy Projection], and that way he should be able to reduce his own talking as much as possible. That way, he could extend the time that… Huh?
What on earth was he doing?
“Really? Yay~! Let’s find a shop then…”
“Um, let’s not go inside a shop…”
What was he doing?
He was— Right, he was disguising himself as a good friend of Yui’s in order to get a hint for his next actions. He would carefully talk to her and come up with a countermeasure. Not a bad plan.
After deciding on his goal, his mood also steadied, and Chihiro regained his calm.
“Um, I’m waiting on a call, and when it comes I’ll have to go right away, so it’s more convenient if we just stand here and talk.”
“Huuhh, but it’s raining, though?”
“Don’t worry about it. Those boots and umbrella are really cute.”
He first had to prepare a situation in which he could leave at any time. Chihiro [Mihashi] flattered Yui in passing.
“I know, right?! A girl’s real value is in how cute she can dress herself whether it’s raining, snowing, or storming!”
“You shouldn’t need to try that hard during a storm, right?”
“That’s the challenge!… Although, it’s really rare that you would praise me like this, Chinatsu? What’s up… Ah, you aren’t the imposter, are you…”
Did she find out? Chihiro [Mihashi] hurriedly spoke first:
“N-No. It’s nothing. … She’s right, we need to try and trust each other.”
He seemed to have successfully tided it over.
Yui talked about this and that, and this and that. Was it because she was with a friend whom she hadn’t seen for some time? She was very excited. He had already gotten a very good wealth of information, but he seemed unable to immediately put it to use.
Before he knew it, Yui started talking about the boys in the Cultural Research Club. She did mention Taichi and Chihiro, but central to the topic was, as expected, Aoki Yoshifumi.
“—And that’s why Aoki really troubles me.”
It was all about Aoki.
It was all about Aoki.
“—so, Aoki was…”
It was all about Aoki.
“So, because of that—”
Unable to endure it a moment longer, Chihiro [Mihashi] interrupted Yui. He did not want to hear Aoki’s name come out of Yui’s mouth; he felt as though it were a declaration of his own failure.
Yui closed her flower bud-like lips, and stood there. Chihiro momentarily forgot that he had just interrupted her; he had to say something.
He had to say something.
The sound of the rain splashing onto the umbrella seemed louder than before.
“So, how exactly do you see Aoki-san, Yui-san?”
This question slid very naturally from Chihiro [Mihashi]’s mouth.
At this, Yui said nothing for a while.
A breeze picked up, and large droplets of rain knocked against Chihiro [Mihashi]’s umbrella with a pitter-patter, but the rain itself showed no signs of intensifying.
Yui, who would normally go red in the face and raise her voice when approaching this subject, was very calm right now. Was it because she was seeing him as Mihashi Chinatsu?
Right now, Yui was speaking from the heart.
If only the rain grew harder right now, Chihiro thought.
“I’ve always thought that, if I start to [love] the other person because he told me that he [loves] me, that doesn’t seem to be real love. If the other person does a lot for me and then I’m moved, I don’t think that’s love either.”
A moment of silence.
“But, I’ve decided to settle it.”
Her voice was very clear as it went straight into Chihiro’s ears, not drowned out by the rain.
“I mean, I said that I’ve decided, but I probably actually have to wait for a bit longer!”
Yui swung her umbrella back and forth embarrassedly. It really did seem like her style.
“No matter what, when I settle it, I’ll tell you about it.”
“No ne… Ah, okay.”
He had almost said “No need” in refusal; Chihiro frantically changed his words into agreement.
Ahh, then, at last.
To acknowledge this ending.
“Also, what do you think about Uwa Chihiro?”
Yui murmured, as though wondering why he would ask that, then answered:
“Hmm, lemme think… We’ve known each other for a real long time at the dojo, and he joined the Cultural Research Club at my invitation. My ratings have gone up because I found us a new member!”
She grinned triumphantly.
“Chihiro-kun’s a bit rebellious, and sometimes he’ll bully me… but among the boys, he’s probably the cutest underclassman.”
Yui smiled cheerfully and brightly.
She was laughing at him.
Even though he understood this long ago.
No, so, what was he doing?
Is he an idiot? He’s an idiot.
Don’t become a vulgar existence that clings to vulgar things. Had he gone soft? Pathetic. He had things he needed to do, needed to do no matter what.
No matter what she said about him, no matter what happened, he could only achieve the goal that had been set for him.
<Heartseed>’s voice resounded in his mind.
—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…
His body began to tremble from his core. Chihiro clenched the handle of the umbrella so tightly that his left hand began to slowly lose feeling.
Save me save me save me save me— but only he could save himself.
He had to win no matter what; he had nowhere to run, and no one could rescue him.
After a while, Chihiro [Mihashi] found an opportunity to end the topic, and bid Yui farewell. Chihiro looked up, and a tree filled with dew stretched far onto the sidewalk.
Yui’s cheerful “Bye-bye” came from behind him, and Chihiro continued forward.
Yui’s presence gradually grew far away from him, and Chihiro walked alone.
The sky had already grown completely dark, and there was no one around him.
No one was looking at him, and no one acknowledged his existence.
Someone notice me. Someone find me. Someone acknowledge me. Someone someone someone someone come and…
Chihiro roared towards the sky.
<div align = "center">□■□■□</div>
Pitch-black clouds engulfed his mind. Chihiro had utterly no idea what he was supposed to do. He couldn’t think of a plan that would work as usual even if he were to change his point of attack.
The five second years of the Cultural Research Club gradually returned to normal. To them, [Fantasy Projection] and his existence seemed to be an insignificant trifle.
He once thought that the power of [Fantasy Projection] was the strongest, but he had gotten it wrong. Now that he thought about it calmly, it was a defective product riddled with holes. Why had he felt so naively happy under the belief that he had received power back then?
Even though <Heartseed> had told him that “Everything depends on how you use it”, no matter what he did, the results were the same. There was no way that he was worse than other people.
But from an objective standpoint, he was— no, he wouldn’t admit it, he couldn’t admit it. He’d never be able to overcome the setback once he admitted it.
In the morning, Chihiro prepared for school and went on his way.
Before he had exited the door of his home, his mother had asked: “You haven’t been looking so good recently, is everything all right?” Chihiro could not remember how he had answered.
His mind had not yet woken up by the time he entered the classroom. Chihiro stumbled through the morning in a daze. He seemed to have talked to someone, but he couldn’t remember who he had talked to or what he had talked about. Come to think of it, Enjouji seemed to be watching him concernedly all the while. But that didn’t matter.
Chihiro had no appetite at all during lunch break, so he left the classroom alone.
The crowd of students heading for the cafeteria filled the corridor with a cacophony of noise. The students eating inside the classroom were also very noisy.
All of a sudden, Chihiro truly, personally felt that he was quite lonely.
Did everyone feel the same way? Or was he the only one?
No matter what, there was no place for him here.
Chihiro wobbled and dithered around the school building, and before he knew it, he found himself standing in front of the club building. He had been wandering towards a place with no people, but his feet had taken him here of their own accord.
Since he was here, he might as well retrieve the recorder he had set up in the clubroom.
Chihiro climbed the stairs, arrived at the fourth floor, turned the corner — and what was in front of him made him doubt his own eyes.
Striking, long chestnut hair, a petite body, a familiar profile.
Kiriyama Yui was standing there.
Ever since he had bid her farewell in the rain yesterday, this was his first time seeing her.
Yui was about to enter the clubroom and had not noticed Chihiro yet.
Chihiro suddenly felt that he did not want her to see him; in any case, he did not want to meet her right now.
He slowly, slowly, backed away.
“[Yaegashi Taichi as Kiriyama Yui sees him!]”
Chihiro yelled in panic, and Yui instantly froze.
“Huh? Oh, Taichi. … For a second, you looked a lot like Chihiro-kun…?”
Hmmm. Yui sighed confusedly and furrowed her brow.
“You were probably imagining things.”
Did I just barely make it?
Chihiro [Taichi] said, and the originally tense mood temporarily exhaled.
“Well, you’re right. Let’s go inside.”
“Hey, isn’t that Kiriyama and Chihiro? What’s going on? We didn’t call Chihiro to meet as well, did we?”
It was a voice he absolutely did not want to hear.
So the second year students would gather together during lunch break?
“... Ah, huh? … Huh? Taichi is… here, Taichi is… Huh? Two Taichis?”
The one climbing up the stairs to the clubroom was Yaegashi Taichi, and right now, he himself was using [Fantasy Projection] to make Yui think he was Yaegashi Taichi; in other words, at this moment, Yui was seeing two Yaegashi Taichis.
This was the severe, completely unerasable paradox that <Heartseed> had once spoken of.
What on earth were the consequences? Someone should have mentioned it. <Heartseed>.
There would be a very troublesome situation indeed.
What did troublesome mean? Would it happen to him, or to Yui?
What the hell would a troublesome situation caused by a phenomenon beyond human knowledge be like?
And a third person had caught him using [Fantasy Projection]. At this rate, they would realize that he is the offender.
Chihiro descended into panic.
Did he want to immediately vanish from the scene? If it came to light that he had started the [Fantasy Projection] phenomenon, then everything would be over. Taichi could see him: to him, Uwa Chihiro was Uwa Chihiro, and Uwa Chihiro was right here. Things could not develop that way. Think of a plan to deceive his way through? He had to think of a way to deceive them, there was no time to hesitate. In order to survive, he had to make sure that they didn’t discover that he was himself.
“[Inaba… Enjouji Shino as Yaegashi Taichi sees her!]”
That was too close. Chihiro wiped cold sweat from his brow. He had almost blurted out Inaba’s name under duress, but Inaba might come to the clubroom at any time.
“Chihiro… No… Oh, Inaba?”
Chihiro’s mind was blank.
Did only the first name he called out work? Sweat poured from Chihiro’s entire body.
It can’t be helped. It can’t be helped. It can’t be helped. It can’t be helped. Calm down.
In any case, he had to leave the scene first—
“Oh, Taichi… Oh, Chihiro too? Why are you here?”
Inaba Himeko climbed up the stairs to the clubroom.
Taichi should be seeing both the real Inaba and the imposter [Inaba].
“Ah… hah? Inaba and… Inaba… Two Inabas… Two? Inaba… Inaba…”
Taichi murmured to himself.
“Taichi is… Taichi? Two… Taichis…? Taichi… Two of him?”
Yui murmured to herself.
Taichi and Yui widened their eyes; their eyeballs seemed ready to leap from their sockets. The two of them seemed to have broken, muttering nonstop.
Chihiro shook with fear, feeling that his body might break down from shaking.
He could no longer distinguish between front, back, left, or right.
Yui and Taichi’s eyes lost focus, and they went unconscious.
The one who had broken them was none other than Uwa Chihiro, this incompetent piece of trash.
Then, Kiriyama Yui and Yaegashi Taichi collapsed, their memories gone.