Having finished lunch with her friends and headed back to the classroom from the cafeteria, Enjouji Shino found Nagase Iori, Inaba Himeko, and Aoki Yoshifumi in the courtyard. These three were Shino’s upperclassmen in the Cultural Research Club.
Shino told her friends to please go back to the classroom without her.
I should go say hi to them.
Shino thought, but she was unable to take the steps forward. Shino could not move, as though her feet had sprouted roots into the ground. If she stayed here, would they see her? She thought as she stared at the three of them. She could not hear them talking, though they were somewhat far apart.
She had always been like this, staying in the same position.
But right now her feet felt so heavy, and there were other reasons too.
Just then, Kiriyama Yui, also an upperclassman from the Cultural Research Club, and someone who appeared to be her friend walked past the three people in the midst of a discussion.
Normally, Yui would fly towards the three and chat with them for a bit.
But she only nodded slightly towards them out of courtesy, then left together with her friends.
As if they were strangers.
It felt like they were not friends, merely acquaintances.
This scene made Nagase look very lonely, Inaba extremely hurt, and Aoki at the end of his rope. Her upperclassmen who had always been shining dazzlingly now exuded a jet-black, murky atmosphere, and their scintillating bonds were nowhere to be found.
The thread of their bonds had not just been severed; it had utterly vanished.
Yui and the girl walked together towards Shino, and she could hear the conversation between the two of them.
“Hey, Yui, did something happen with you at the club? You seem to have grown distant from your friends at the Cultural Research Club?”
“No… Nothing like that, Yukina, really… It’s nothing.”
“That’s~ really~ suspicious~, though? And you seem to be keeping your distance from Iori and Yaegashi Taichi in class too.”
“You’re imagining things… Don’t think about it. … Please.”
“... Since you’re asking me like that, there’s nothing I can do but listen like a good girl… If there’s anything bothering you, just come talk to me… Ah!”
The girl walking beside Yui met eyes with Shino. At closer inspection, she was someone Shino had seen before. When Shino was with the Cultural Research Club during the Club Tryouts and participating in the marathon, Yukina was a member of the Track and Field Club who had helped her out a lot.
She seemed to notice her and smiled a pearly-white smile, causing Shino to hurriedly bow her head out of courtesy. Shino was a bit moved; she seemed to still remember her.
But, walking beside her, Yui glanced at Shino and immediately returned her gaze forward, passing Shino just like that.
Without a word, without a wave.
Her expression unchanging, as though she had seen an entirely unacquainted passersby.
After a certain day, Yaegashi Taichi and Kiriyama Yui had lost the portions of their memories having to do with the Cultural Research Club.
Why would they lose their memories? What had changed in them? These were mysteries, and the only thing she knew was that Taichi and Yui had suddenly collapsed and lost their memories.
Sudden amnesia should have warranted immediately being rushed to the hospital and treated, but Inaba-senpai and the others deemed this unnecessary because they had only lost a limited amount of memories — other than that, they seemed to know the reason behind it but did not elaborate on the subject.
The two of them had forgotten the existence of the Cultural Research Club, what had happened in the Cultural Research Club, and the relationships built among them by the Cultural Research Club… as though the parts relating to the Cultural Research Club alone had fallen cleanly out of their minds.
On the other hand, they remembered everything except the Cultural Research Club, so Taichi and Yui’s daily lives didn’t appear to be affected at all.
Other than that, Taichi and Yui still viewed the second years of the Cultural Research Club as classmates from the same year despite no longer having memories of the Cultural Research Club. Therefore, although their fellow classmates felt that something was wrong, they didn’t seem to realize that the two of them had lost parts of their memories.
Shino and Uwa Chihiro, who had only met them through the Cultural Research Club, had been completely forgotten.
Shino and Chihiro had completely disappeared from Taichi and Yui’s worlds.
It couldn’t be helped.
Shino recalled what Iori, Inaba, and Aoki had told her.
Taichi and Yui did not feel that they had lost any memories, because, after all, they had [never had] those memories to begin with.
But how were they to explain that they had never attended the club? After all, they had forgotten that they once belonged to the Cultural Research Club.
After being asked about this themselves, Taichi asserted that he was a member of the Pro Wrestling Research Club, and Yui the Fancy Club (what kind of club would that be?). Although they were the only members of their respective clubs, they were very adamant that they were approved special cases. The two of them were attempting to perfectly adapt into a world [without] the Cultural Research Club.
With things like this, Iori, Inaba, and Aoki could not, of course, simply remain silent. To help Taichi and Yui restore their memories, the three of them had immediately recounted to them memories from before and shown them the resulting works of club activities to no avail. Whenever they tried to do this, Taichi and Yui would seemingly develop excruciating, splitting headaches, leaving them utterly unable to speak.
Although Taichi and Yui were aware that everyone around them saw them as friends from the Cultural Research Club and thought that they themselves [might have forgotten something], their heads would experience crippling pain whenever they drew near the heart of the matter, rendering them unable to investigate further.
Also for that reason, Taichi and Yui decided to forget everything about the Cultural Research Club and get on with their normal school lives — that was how it is.
The upperclassmen finished with Inaba at the center of the discussion, and explained somewhat uneasily:
“You may not believe this, and you may not be able to accept our decision to keep them from going to the hospital to get checked out, but we can’t keep you and Chihiro in the dark about this…”
But Shino was able to say to the three of them, resolutely and decisively:
“I believe you.”
She had to believe.
But it was already too late. The real thing she had to believe in was already gone forever.
She had done nothing, so she was irrelevant. She could say that, too.
But bystanders who clearly had the chance to do something yet ended up doing nothing at all were also the perpetrators. In that regard, she had indeed committed a sin.
She had destroyed that beautiful world.
She was, as expected, a useless dimwit.
That morning, Shino plucked up the courage to question Chihiro. She wasn’t going to look away any longer.
She’d tried it several times before, but Chihiro would escape every time.
Shino swore to herself that she must succeed this time. She had to give it her best effort, because this was her duty; only she could do this.
She had turned over a new leaf.
Her determination was genuine.
In that nearly empty corridor, Chihiro spun his head around without a word.
Chihiro’s expression was giving off a very dangerous air, and Shino couldn’t help but yelp. He had very severe eye-circles, his eyes themselves were stiff, his cheeks were quite sunken, and he looked ill, or unpredictable.
His situation had been becoming worse and worse all this time. Shino thought he was at the end of his rope.
And the reason was—
“Our… Our senpais are really in a jam now.”
Chihiro displayed no reaction at all, continuing to stare at Shino with eyes like those of a dead fish.
“... I-I think that there must be some reason behind it… Huh? Ah, if there weren’t a reason, then they wouldn’t become like that, so there must be some reason. But that’s not what I mean… Um…”
Even she was beginning to become confused over what she was saying.
She swallowed nervously.
Chihiro did not move. He looked like a zombie.
“Um… The reason is…”
Don’t be scared. I have to take this step.
Shino felt hot tears welling up.
“Does it have anything to do with you, Chihiro-kun…?”
With [him]. It’s [him]. [He] is…
If [he], who Shino had thought a lie, were actually a real existence…
Chihiro’s face grew stark white. Astonishment and terror dominated it.
Seeing his expression, Shino understood.
It wasn’t a dream, an illusion, a lie, make-believe, or something that had nothing to do with her.
That was the reality descending upon her.
“... Huh? Huuuhh? What’re you saying?”
Chihiro uttered after a long period of silence, his words very incoherent.
“I mean… Taichi-senpai and Yui-senpai losing their memories, it has to do with [him]... and you have to do with this as well, Chihiro-kun, that’s the reason…”
“What’s the reason?”
Chihiro stared at Shino viciously, his drifting vision now stable, as though he had suddenly gotten over the situation.
The dangerous vibe that was coming from his entire body, accompanied by his pale face, was really quite terrifying, causing Shino to shrink back in fear.
“Hey, Enjouji. Talk to me. What’s the reason?”
His eyes were not normal at all. The abnormal Chihiro suddenly brought his face up close to Shino’s.
It was impossible to predict what this Chihiro might do.
“D’you know [him] too?”
—He might end up erasing his own memories?
The instant her thoughts reached that point, her body and mind froze.
She didn’t know anything. She didn’t see anything. She didn’t hear anything. She wanted nothing to do with it.
She was the one who had brought it up, but she had said something different.
She smiled stupidly.
Plastering an evasive grin on her face, she tided it over.
Shino thought of nothing, only able to put on such a smile.
That was how she had always done it. Her body was already accustomed to this sort of conditioned reflex.
It adhered to the habits permeating her body, indelible.
What did she look like to Chihiro right now?
Rejected by Chihiro, by the world.
“You don’t know either, do you?”
Chihiro asked as though interrogating her, but before she knew it, Shino was saying “Y-Yeah” in agreement, through no will of her own.
She was only blindly going with the flow, moving as though she were a marionette being controlled by someone else.
Chihiro smiled darkly, then, as though declaring that the conversation had ended, spun around to leave.
Shino watched his departing figure, and suddenly came back to earth.
What was she doing? This wasn’t it. Hadn’t she made a firm resolution?
Perhaps it was too late, but Shino ran after Chihiro.
“Uh, um… <Heartseed> is— oof!?”
Chihiro had seized the ribbon on Shino’s uniform and yanked her towards him, hard.
His bloodshot eyes flashed sharply before hers.
“Don’t mention that name.”
Feeling that her life was in danger, Shino nodded frantically as though she were trembling.
Her neck was uncomfortably constricted as he tugged forcefully on her ribbon. Scary. Tears rolled in her eyes.
Her own trembling was transferred onto Chihiro’s hand, making him shake as well.
She shook wildly with fear, her body vibrating… No? The one trembling was… Chihiro?
Shino thought that she, her collar seized, was the one being threatened. Chihiro, having seized her collar, was threatening her.
But the hand that Chihiro was using to grab her collar appeared to be pleading for help.
For some reason, this summoned her courage.
Take that step forward.
“Chi-Chihiro-kun… Because… I have to be the one to admit it! Like… Like you, I’ve met <Heartseed>— Uhh!?”
“I told you not to mention that name!”
Intimidating. Scary. Don’t do scary things like that.
Tears spilled from her eyes. Breathing was difficult. It wasn’t because her windpipe was constricted, but because Shino was unable to exhale normally. Or inhale normally. Her method, and rhythm, of breathing was out of order.
Shino couldn’t speak. Chihiro released her violently, cast down a “Stay away from me”, and ran away.
She tried several times more after that, but was not able to get anything from him.
She, Enjouji Shino, had once met <Heartseed> in the form of Gotou Ryuuzen.
One day, when she had been walking her dog, someone suddenly stopped her.
He had shown Shino miraculous power.
He had arranged a situation in which one could not help but believe that someone had possessed Gotou Ryuuzen.
Then, he had said that he wanted to give her a miraculous power.
He had hoped that Shino would use that power to do certain things to the five second-years of the Cultural Research Club.
Frightened, Shino had rejected him. He had then said that Uwa Chihiro was in the same situation as her, so everything was fine.
Even so, Shino had still felt scared, so she had rejected him and fled without so much as looking back.
Shino had thought it a daydream or a hallucination. She had shut her eyes, refusing to believe that it had been real. Because that sort of thing was impossible in the real world.
She would be unable to deal with it. She would be unable to bear it and would be crushed for sure. She really hoped that he would not push something so immense onto her.
So Shino had acted as if none of it had ever happened.
She had dismissed it all as an illusion and banished it from her world.
But, Chihiro seemed to have given a completely different response.
And then — he had caused something.
Shino had not listened to <Heartseed> when he had explained the power he was intending to bestow upon her, so she wasn’t very clear on that.
Therefore, she was unable to decide exactly what she was supposed to do right now. In order to solve the problem, the first thing she had to do was to ask Chihiro exactly what was going on.
Such a presumptuous word.
She couldn’t even take the first step — asking Chihiro exactly what was going on.
No matter whether she actually did something or not, someone like her was unable to change anything in the end.
Enjouji Shino was utterly powerless. There was no doubt that she was merely a supporting role in this world.
She set out to do her absolute best today, to straighten up and fight.
But there was already nothing for her to do.
There was a full practice day after school that day.
Like everyone else, Shino arrived on the field in her PE uniform, and saw Inaba, Nagase, and Aoki gathered together. She had seen them huddled together in discussion many times recently.
“Ah, senpai. About today’s club activities…”
“Sorry. We’re taking today off too.”
Inaba said shortly, looking slightly irritated.
“... Hey, you didn’t do anything wrong, so don’t look so gloomy, okay? But… we might have to temporarily suspend club activities. Sorry.”
Inaba then said gently to Shino, apparently feeling that she had just vented her anger on her.
“Ah, uh… O-Okay. I see…”
“We’re sorry, Shino-chan.”
Nagase hugged her kindly. It wasn’t with her usual jocular attitude, but in consolation.
Aoki asked: “Just to be clear, nothing’s happened, right, Shino? Has anyone around you been saying strange things or acting weirdly?”
“... I-I think everything’s fine, more or less…”
This was the truth, so that’s what Shino said.
But in reality, she was a perpetrator.
Inaba and the others had clearly been hurt rather deeply, yet they were always worried about Shino and Chihiro.
Their consideration for them was much too warm. It almost brought tears to her eyes.
At the same time, her chest stabbed with pain.
She was well aware of the situation, but Shino still found herself unable to tell Inaba and the others about <Heartseed> and Chihiro. She felt like she was betraying their trust.
Even if she did tell them about <Heartseed>, they wouldn’t believe her. Moreover, she thought about how <Heartseed> had told her: “It’s best if you don’t tell other people about me… For the sake of those around you.” This made it even harder for her to run her mouth. Chihiro ought to be more knowledgeable than her about the details, so the only thing she could do was to first break down the walls around his heart.
That was why Shino could not come out and say that she wanted to help, and could not enter their circle of three.
Shino parted from Nagase’s soft chest and took a step backwards.
“... It’s really a shame that I can’t go to club activities, but it can’t be helped in this sort of situation.”
She said without looking the three of them in the eyes.
They apologized to her again. “It’s all right,” she said with a thin smile. What exactly was all right? Shino wasn’t very clear on that herself.
Just then, Yaegashi Taichi and Kiriyama Yui were passing by.
Inaba and Aoki suddenly lit up. Nagase clasped her hands together tightly.
Shino watched them, then looked towards Taichi and Yui, and her heart accelerated.
The two of them, having descended to normal students following their amnesia, were walking side by side.
As though they were both still good friends.
Anticipation rose in her chest.
Maybe everything that had happened up until today had all been a dream—
Taichi and Yui noticed the existence of Inaba and the others.
The two of them revealed awkward expressions. Taichi took large steps and pivoted to the right, while Yui pivoted towards the left.
They avoided where Shino and Inaba were standing, made a large circle, and headed towards the center of the field.
The distance between the pair and the trio grew gradually larger, gradually further.
The pentagon did not revive.
Instead, everyone personally experienced the truth: that Taichi and Yui were avoiding them.
Inaba called blankly, her outstretched right hand grabbing nothing at all.
Once such a loving couple, they were now unable to know the feeling of each other’s skin, or even speak to each other.
Nothing was left between the two of them.
Then, heartbroken, Inaba collapsed to the ground.
Nagase hurried to support her.
“... Ah, sorry. … I wasn’t… standing properly.”
Inaba tried to be tough, but inside she was nearing her limit, on the verge of total collapse.
She couldn’t watch this. Shino turned her face away.
The upperclassmen of the Cultural Research Club were unexpectedly helpless. This was impossible. Shino didn’t want to believe it.
Even if she couldn’t do it, they would definitely find a way. For sure.
There was no way that the future of all of this rested on her own shoulders.
That would be too much. She couldn’t do anything.
The pentagon that she had once admired had become a heptagon after she and Chihiro had joined. She had once worried about disturbing their balance, but the heptagon, with two new additions, seemed to maintain a different kind of balance.
But that heptagon had broken down. Without two people, only five of them could gather now. They had lost Taichi and Yui, to be replaced by Shino and Chihiro.
Maybe, by chance, she was now a vertex of the pentagon she had once admired. But that wasn’t the way she wanted it at all. Shino did not want it to become a pentagon like this.
The Cultural Research Club of Yamaboshi High School seemed only to allow a pentagon to exist. As though by the will of fate, after two new students joined, two others were immediately ejected.
Did the world really determine the fate of the Cultural Research Club like this?
She could only resign herself to it, and blindly go with the flow. She had lost to this world again.
Shino did not want to lose, but…
No one was looking at her, but Shino bowed her head in respect and left the scene.
The full practice for the athletics festival began, and after that came each team’s cheer competition practice.
Shino and Inaba’s classes belonged to the Green Team, and practice was chaos.
The Green Team’s performances were divided into third years, and first with second years. The two groups were responsible for performing completely different movements, so they practiced separately, but the situation on the first and second years’ side was a spectacle too horrible to behold.
The biggest reason was that Class 1-B, where Shino was, was utterly devoid of morale.
Moreover, Inaba had become sluggish as leader and Aoki was down in the dumps as hype man, so today’s practice was even more terrible than usual.
“Let’s review the movements, then—!”
“Put some more feeling into your movements—!”
The second years were doing their best, but no matter what, they were unable to change the cold aura wafting around the first years. The first years shuffled around lazily and listlessly, looking like a bunch of zombies.
“This is so much work.”
“It’s so hot.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“What’s with this cheer competition crap?”
A bunch of them complained resentfully in low voices. None of them were loud enough to be clearly heard, but they all coagulated into a cacophony of noise that transformed into a mass of spite, burrowing into the second years’ ears, making the atmosphere worse and worse. The heavy, depressing air made Shino gloomy along with it.
She wasn’t the one being blamed, but her stomach began to hurt.
She really didn’t like this. She wanted to go home.
She didn’t say it aloud, but Shino’s mood must have been making the mass of spite even heavier. In other words, she was a perpetrator of this as well.
No matter when, she was always a bystander; before she realized it, she had already become a perpetrator.
Even as she thought about this, she still did nothing.
She had clearly realized it, yet she acted as though she was unable to move, making the mass of spite even heavier.
Because everyone was doing the same thing. Because she didn’t mean to. Because this also couldn’t be helped.
So she hadn’t done anything wrong.
Just then, Shino suddenly noticed the person standing in front, who was clearly their rep, yet whose movements were even more sluggish than everyone else’s.
It was Uwa Chihiro.
Black aura poured from his entire body, as though intending to plunge the bright moods around him into darkness as well.
As to the trouble that the Cultural Research Club was in, she did nothing about it; the main culprit might be Chihiro, and that was the truth.
No matter when, she was always a bystander; before she realized it, she had already become a perpetrator.
She really hated this version of herself.
When the athletics festival practice had ended and she had changed back into her uniform, Shino, recalling herself over the entire day, walked to the roof of the east school building and lowered her head gloomily.
She watched the field from afar, against the wind.
She wanted to stare into space alone. There were a few people on the rooftop, but no one was paying attention to their surroundings so she didn't need to pay attention to other people's lines of sight. It didn’t feel hot either, as the clouds had thickened above her.
Shino leaned on the rooftop fence and sighed.
She really was much too useless, much too unsightly.
This time, she had to do her best; that determination was absolutely genuine. Although she had acted with that sort of mindset, before she knew it she had instead been imprisoned by negative thoughts and changed back into her regular indecisive self.
Shino acknowledged that she had made an important resolution. She murmured to herself that she had already turned over a new leaf, and just this morning, she had indeed held strong will.
But she couldn't maintain a mood like that for even half a day.
This was her own responsibility, something only she could deal with — Shino had encouraged and heartened herself like that, but somewhere in the process, she had reverted to her old self, presenting all responsibilities for other people to take care of, pushing everything to someone else.
How many times had she followed the same road until today?
Sometimes it was self-help books; sometimes it was novels; sometimes it was manga; sometimes it was movies; elements of all kinds had changed Shino and, most importantly, she herself knew that [it can't go on like this], so there were numerous times she had tried challenging herself.
She wanted to become more open, she wanted to get fitter, she wanted to become better at her studies, she wanted more friends, she wanted a happier life, she wanted everyone to like her more.
She wanted to become happier.
She wanted to change, so she had to change.
To change, she tried to take a step.
But even if it were to chase her dreams, whether she took one step, two steps, or three, it would always result in her stopping, unable to continue, and returning to square one.
It was enough to make one wonder whether there were some unseen force in this world, which decided from the beginning between those who could proceed and those who couldn't.
Why couldn't she change?
She took a step forward.
When she became a high school student and decided that she would master her own high school life and very important club activities, Shino embarked on a huge adventure. Shino tried hard to approach the people on a different dimension than herself in order to get closer to her ideals.
She took a step forward.
Even though she was scared out of her mind, she acknowledged the existence of a monster like <Heartseed>.
She took a step forward.
To break through the impasse, she had faced the terrifying Chihiro head-on.
Shino had tried to act, had tried with all of her might.
But even as she took the step, she was still unable to do it.
She felt that she was unable to do anything at all.
Powerless, unable to leave any legacy.
There was no meaning in her continuing to live in this world.
Through the gaps in the fence, Shino looked towards the ground. The roof was very high up. If she were to climb over the fence and jump down, her body would be smashed into a pulp and she wouldn't need to live such a torturous life anymore — Wait, what was she thinking? She shouldn't be thinking like that, even as a joke. Shino felt afraid of her own despondent thoughts, so she left the fence.
Just then, Shino spotted someone resembling Nagase in the courtyard.
She observed carefully, and realized that not only was it Nagase, but Inaba and Aoki were also present. They seemed to be discussing something as a group again.
Shino watched the miniscule trio from far above in the sky.
Her upperclassmen, who usually looked so great, looked like mere insignificant humans if she watched them from above like this. Did God look upon humans on the ground like this as well?
If that were the case, then the acts of humans must be very foolish.
She had clearly been born into a predestined fate, yet she wanted to engage in meaningless resistance; she was clearly supposed to go with the flow, yet she had tried to revolt, resulting in unnecessary wounds.
What use was there in living like that?
On the ground before her, the trio separated simultaneously.
Had they suddenly agreed on something? Or did they have other matters to tend to?
In any case, the three of them ran in different directions.
Inaba headed for the north school building, Nagase headed towards the east school building, and Aoki headed towards the school gate.
Insignificant humans running in a straight line.
Insignificant humans speeding along, full of energy.
Insignificant humans… No, they weren't insignificant at all.
The three of them looked very great indeed.
Shino didn't know for what reason they seemed so huge, and besides, they couldn't really become large. Looking down from the rooftop of the school building, the three of them appeared very insignificant.
But they gave her a feeling of greatness, and were shining with dazzling light.
For what reason?
If someone knew, please tell her.
Please tell her the reason, so she could become like them.
What secret was concealed within?
—It is this.
Hadn't she joined the Cultural Research Club just to discover this secret?
Hadn't she plucked up her courage and taken a step forward?
Shino recalled her mood at the time.
She had once acted; she could take a step forward.
Even if she stopped after the second or third step, hadn't she taken a step forward all the same?
If so, then she should take that challenge again.
She can do it.
Shino took a step.
Shino walked down the stairs and passed through a corridor, heading for Room 401 in the club building.
She wanted to take that step, to change herself — Shino murmured in her heart, advancing forward.
This wouldn't do, she had to pull herself together. To encourage herself, Shino intended to head towards the club building, and there she would carefully recall the courage she had given herself and what she had learned from her upperclassmen.
Shino climbed up the stairs of the club building.
She stoked the fire in her heart, letting it burn red-hot, storing energy to fight.
—You've tried this many times before, haven't you?
An evil voice murmured to her in her heart.
—But you were still unable to do anything, weren't you?
No, I have to do it this time.
—How many times in your life have you told yourself [I have to do it this time] until today?
I've said it many times, but I've never been able to really achieve my goal. Because I fail, the next [I have to do it this time] will pop up, and I know it in my heart.
—Then just give up, why don't you?
Even so, I still don't want to give up. As long as I don't give up, it won't end.
—Only the meaningless effort will not end. The true [beginning] you desire will still be nowhere in sight.
Maybe that's true.
—You should understand the terrible, horrifying tragedy that has been realized this time, right?
The terrible crime she had committed against Taichi and Yui had caused Nagase, Inaba, and Aoki immeasurable sorrow, and so she personally experienced how utterly insignificant she was.
Her feet climbing the stairs slowed, her body grew leaden, and she seemed about to stop.
But the three people in even greater despair than she were still going at it even today.
Although it would sometimes hide behind the clouds, they still resembled the sun, illuminating the earth, shining brightly on Shino.
So, she would do her best as well.
Advance, with the sun as her goal.
Just one more step, just one more, for the last time.
This was a mantra she had chanted numerous times until today. Shino repeated the mantra endlessly while taking the steps.
She began to feel like crying, but she did not stop stepping up the stairs. She could not stop.
Even if she couldn't do it, even if she couldn't act, even if she couldn't change — no matter how useless she was, she could only continue walking like this.
Endlessly. Endlessly. Endlessly.
From now on, as well. From now on, as well. From now on, as well.
And the ending that would always happen — did not happen at all.
Yaegashi Taichi was standing in front of the clubroom.
At least Shino had not, like always, tried her absolute hardest to take a step forward, one, two, three, and then stopped. Rather, she was currently deviating from that path.
Because Yaegashi Taichi was there.
Once she saw Taichi and gained strength, she was no longer by herself, and it was two people working together instead?
Rather rather rather rather… Forget that for now! Taichi, who had forgotten his own affiliation with the Cultural Research Club, was visiting the clubroom. In other words, did this mean that he had regained his memories? If that were the case, then how wonderful would that be?
Taichi seemed to detect someone's eyes on him, and looked towards Shino.
Taichi met eyes with Shino, and both of them acknowledged each other's existence. How long had it been since this happened?
"Ah, are you from this club? Sorry, even if I've got nothing to do with it, I just wanted to come here for some reason… I'm not too sure about it myself… Everyone in my class has been telling me that I've got amnesia. Well, you should probably forget what I just said — Ahhh!"
Shino was so deeply moved that she barely even knew where she was driving towards, bursting into tears and hugging Taichi at the same time.
Taichi must have been very surprised when a girl he didn't know at all hugged him crying. Probably feeling that it would not be very good for someone to see them like this, he dragged Shino to the rooftop. The rooftop of the club building was empty. It seemed that barely anyone would often come here.
"U-Um… I'm r-really sorry!"
Regaining her cool, Shino bowed nonstop in apology. She had gone so far as to perform such a brazen act.
"Ah, no problem, don't worry about it. Just… don't accuse me of sexual harassment."
For some reason, Taichi was feeling apologetic too. Both of them nodded for forgiveness.
"Don't say that, you didn't do anything wrong, Taichi-senpai…"
"Nah, it was my fault…"
"Don't say that…"
"Don't say that…"
"… Um, let's not keep apologizing to each other like this."
"R-Right! Y-You're right, Taichi-senpai!"
Thanks to Taichi, the nonsensical battle of Japanese apologetic nodding was concluded. As expected of Taichi.
"… Well, I wanted to ask you, you seem to know my situation?"
It had been so long since she last heard Taichi's voice, and listening to his steady, dulcet tones utter the word "you" made her feel as though she were rising into heaven… Uh, that sort of thought is unnecessary right now, let's sweep all of those distractions aside first.
"I feel really bad saying this… but I don't remember you… How did we meet?"
It pained her for him to say to her face that he didn't remember her.
"Um… We don't really know each other… I know you one-sidedly, Taichi-senpai. Um, I'm Enjouji Shino from Class 1-B, please look after me."
"Enjouji-san, huh? Please look after me as well."
Having been reset to zero, their relationship was now restarting. It felt miraculous. Inaba had warned her, "Don't get too close to Taichi and Yui", worrying that she might put herself into danger as well, but this situation was an unstoppable force… S-She would be forgiven, right?
"That said, why were you crying, Enjouji-san?"
Taichi suddenly hit straight at the core.
Well, Iori seemed to have told her before that "Taichi's sudden attacks are very powerful". She had also said "He used that same skill to turn Inaban into that Dereban creature, so you gotta be careful too, Shino-chan!"
"Uh, that… that's a really hard question…"
"I didn't know you before, Enjouji-san, but since you know me, it must be fate. If there's something bothering you that much, then I want to help you."
—I want to help you.
Without hesitation, Taichi said that to someone he had just met.
Even without his memories, Taichi was still an amazing person.
There was no way she would win against him, even if the tables were turned, or… No, she couldn't say that, this time she had to break the curse of [I have to do it this time] no matter what.
In order to change something, Shino decided to talk about her troubles with Taichi.
She couldn't reveal the details, so Shino was somewhat at a loss for how to explain it to him, but he seemed to largely understand what she wanted to convey.
"No matter how many times you take a step, no matter how hard you try, it's all useless. How do you make a true change — Is that what you want to ask?"
"Y-Yes… Just as you said… Ah, but now, instead of whether or not I made a change, I want to come up with some results…"
If she thought about it, this was a very bizarre situation indeed. The one whom she was seeking help from was actually the one whom she needed to help. She felt like she had messed up somewhere. This didn't seem right at all.
"… I really am a useless person, I can't achieve anything. I've always wanted to do my best, but compared to other people, my effort can't count for much at all… I also don't have a single redeeming quality."
"What makes you think that? Shouldn't you have your own merits, Enjouji-san?"
"N-No, I don't! The amazing people are really amazing, really really amazing!"
"Oh, there are people that amazing?"
"Yeah! Like a certain senpai I know; he's a really kind person, someone with a really strong sense of righteousness, and even says [I want to help you] to someone he's meeting for the first time… Erm."
Whoops! She was actually talking about someone in front of that same someone! He might misunderstand that she had something going on for him.
"Really. He must be pretty cool if you can say that about him."
"He's also a really dense person!"
Thank goodness Taichi is so dense! That was too close, way too close.
"And get this. This girl, who's been called the prettiest girl in school, and another really smart, beautiful, and adorable girl, both like this senpai, and they both fight for his affection. In the end the senpai began dating one of them, and they're really loving to each other."
"Geez, he's got it going for him, doesn't he? Someone should teach him a lesson."
"I think so, too."
Shino was very serious.
"Um… A-Anyway, that's basically it. There's a really amazing person, but I can't do anything at all."
"No, wait, no matter how amazing that person is, they don't have anything to do with your abilities, do they, Enjouji-san?"
"You're not wrong, but… I'm lacking in a lot of places."
"Hey, Enjouji-san, on what grounds are you saying that you [can't do anything at all]?"
"Huh? Because… I'm always a step behind, I'm bad at school, I’m bad at exercise, I can't find the trick to doing anything, I'm really indecisive, and it's really easy for me to get nervous and fail… Probably for those reasons."
As she spoke, she was growing depressed again.
She really had no redeeming qualities at all.
Seeing her like this, Taichi must have been perplexed as well. He had to be thinking about how she was beyond help—
"What? That's it?"
But Taichi said that unexpectedly.
Shino was startled, thinking that she had heard him wrong, but she seemed not to. Shino was startled again.
"Um… you said… that's it? It's not [that's it] at all, is it? What makes you say [that's it]?"
"Ahh, even if it's not [that's it]… You're [only] a step behind, bad at school, bad at exercise, can't find the trick for anything, really indecisive, and easily get nervous and fail, right?"
"O-Only? Those weaknesses are pretty bad, though?!"
"No need to get so worked up… But that's the truth, right?"
"Uh, um, erm… You can say that, but that's a huge problem—"
"But, there's nothing in there that says that you can't do anything at all, is there, Enjouji-san?
There was nothing in there that said that she couldn't do anything at all.
"No matter what traits you have, none of them indicate that you can't do anything at all, do they?"
He was right.
Up until now, she had always been able to take a step forward, so she wasn't truly unable to do anything. It could be said that she merely didn't have the endurance to complete a task.
"I think what's really important are the other traits, and furthermore, those should be traits that everyone has." Taichi continued.
"But… But there's someone who can work much harder than I can, and I have to work for a really long time to do something that that person can do easily…"
She couldn't help but say something completely irrelevant.
"Those people should be the ones actually doing things! S-Someone like me, who can't do anything, like a side character… what do I even do—"
"You're not a side character or anything, Enjouji-san. You're an outstanding protagonist."
"P-Protagonist? How could someone like me be a protagonist?! A story like that would be really boring."
"But it would be a story that only you can write, Enjouji-san."
A story that only Enjouji Shino could write.
"Furthermore, if a useless normal person can play a really active part and do something super amazing, wouldn't that be a really interesting story?"
The story of a useless normal person playing a really active part.
A simple, common story indeed.
Be that as it may, the protagonist would not become really active in the story for no reason.
The protagonist usually receives some special power, or…
“Anyway, they act.”
Attempt a very brave act.
Click. Shino heard the sound of a lock being opened.
Something felt amazing. She didn’t know why it felt amazing. Different from all those in the past, an [I have to do it this time] seemed to be coming.
Shino even felt that all of her struggles in the past were for this very moment.
“... Wait, hold on. I just… I just said something really embarrassing, didn’t I? I shouldn’t be that sort of character… No. I think I learned all of this… through something…”
Taichi looked somewhat embarrassed himself, and tilted his head in astonishment.
Even if his memories about the Cultural Research Club had disappeared, would he still keep the things he had received from it?
“You talk in a pretty sappy way, Taichi-senpai. Do girls like you because you talk like that?”
“S-Sappy?! Even if I am liked, ‘sappy’ is a bit too… But I’m not liked, though.”
“Of course, I think everyone loves you because of your voice, Taichi-senpai!”
“Are you even listening to me?!”
Taichi’s frantic expression was so comical that Shino couldn’t help but giggle.
He really was amazing. It was Shino’s first time gaining so much courage from someone.
After laughing for a bit, Shino murmured:
“... You think that someone as boring as me can also do something, Taichi-senpai?”
“I think that, no matter who it is, if they have the will to do it, there’s nothing they can’t do.”
In other words.
“If they think that they [want to do it], that means they think that they can do it, right? If they really can’t do it, they won’t have the idea of [wanting to do it] in the first place, right?”
I-I see! What amazing insight!
Shino felt that she basically understood, she felt that she really understood, and she felt that she truly understood this time.
Right now, she was realizing all over again how wonderful it was that she had joined the Cultural Research Club.
“I… think I can keep going at it.”
“Really? I’m happy if I helped at all.”
A wave of warmth engulfed their surroundings. She would no doubt be happy if she could stay here forever, but she could not. She had to take a step forward.
And then she had to be the one to save Taichi, and Yui too, of course.
“Thank you very much for listening to me, senpai. I have something I have to do no matter what, so I need to leave now.”
Shino bowed respectfully in thanks and turned away from Taichi.
The door was a few meters ahead of her.
I’ll start the instant I step out of that door — Shino convinced herself.
But as she looked away from Taichi and into the world without anyone in her sight, she suddenly felt uneasy.
Could she really do it? If she missed [this time], would it end?
She was a little scared by herself, so Shino decided to ask for some slight assistance.
“... Taichi-senpai, could you please say [Good luck, Shino]?”
Shino requested of Taichi standing behind her.
“Oh, okay… Good luck, Shino.”
“O—K—! Awwwwesome voice!”
Shino took a step forward.
One step, two steps, three steps — four steps.
“Um… I’m not too sure, but you should be a really interesting character, Enjouji-san.”
This time, her [I have to do it this time] was genuine.
… But honestly, she had said this a lot in the past.
Shino kept convincing herself like this, trying to gain power.
But, those versions of [I have to do it this time] had turned into lies every time.
No matter how determined or anticipating she had been, she was unable to change anything.
There were people who kept maintaining their beliefs and actually did reach their goals. Compared to those people, she was clearly a useless person.
A useless person.
A person who was [only] a step behind, bad at school, bad at exercise, couldn’t find the trick for anything, was really indecisive, and easily got nervous and failed.
A person like this who indeed had many weaknesses compared to other people, in order to transform [I have to do it this time] into reality, needed — to [act] in order to change their own world.
Changing her own world was not a simple task, so if she were to act, then she needed to act thoroughly.
If she wanted her studies to improve, she needed to study a bit every day.
If she wanted to become better at exercise, she had to exercise a bit every day.
People who were able to act, starting from relatively simple areas then slowly rising to their goals, were truly amazing. Or rather, that was actually the correct method.
But what about people who used that method and were still unable to do it?
Unable to do it, so give up?
No, that kind of thought process was just laughable.
If she didn’t change that, if she couldn’t change that, then she would act in an overwhelming way that could change everything.
Like only bringing study implements, shutting herself in an area without connection to the outside.
Like going to the top of a secluded mountain to train, in order to seriously achieve a reckless iron man triathlon.
Like — confronting the one whom she thought was a lie, a dream, and not reality: the superhuman monster <Heartseed>.
What Taichi had told her were mere words. There was no way she could immediately receive some sort of power from those words, and no change would occur in her heart because of them.
If she were only talking about words, about sayings, then up until today she had learnt of sayings from many famous individuals in books or on TV.
But to her, those words were all fake… It was a bit misleading to say that, because she alone was the one who kept changing all those words into fake ones.
Words were only words, just combinations of letters. It was up to her to make them into reality.
This time, she had to make them into reality.
Because this was something someone whom she respected had directly told her.
With this mindset, Shino continued her advance.
Rain began to silently fall from the clouds.
Ignoring the mere droplets of water plunging from above, Shino advanced, her eyes fixated forward.
Perhaps she had once acted before, but that was merely to find Chihiro and negotiate with him. Something easily done if she wanted to do it.
She was more useless compared to other people, and it took her a great amount of courage to do something trivial to normal people, so that was why she felt a sense of achievement even after doing [something trivial].
After getting used to simple obstacles, she would become satisfied after crossing over even just a relatively weak obstacle, so her body became indolent and idle.
That was wrong. She could not become used to an environment like that.
If people who got used to being lazy tried to change certain things, they needed to act even more dramatically.
That existence had once told her:
If you change your mind, and want to use the power, just come [here]. You can call my name anytime. Then, I’ll open an entirely new door for you…
The location was a natural park near the school.
Great. Now come and open that entirely new door.
Change this world.
Change it dramatically.
I will change it.
Shino drew in a deep breath, and let out the loudest voice she had ever uttered in her life.
“COME OUT HERE, <HEARTSEED>!”
She needed only to act dramatically and she could change her world in an instant.