The meaning of her life.
While considering that, she bumped into it.
Into the question.
The question drilled into her core, and perhaps into Yaegashi Taichi too.
If she hadn’t realized it, she’d be basking in a simpler world instead, and probably be happier.
No, this was a question she had to face sooner or later. There was no running away from it.
So she’d face it head on. Then she’d pose the question to him too.
To make sure.
Worse case scenario, it might end here. She knew that.
She was extremely, positively, undeniably terrified.
The outcome of this showdown would determine her path from now on.
That was how Inaba Himeko thought.
<div align = "center">+++</div>
After the second summer break of his high school life had ended, after school on a certain day during the new semester had ended, after he had finished cleaning for his day duty, Yaegashi Taichi headed for club building room 401.
With the cultural festival back in early September now behind him, Taichi walked through Yamaboshi High School, which was gradually returning to its normal appearance. The sunlight was intense today, but in the shade he could feel a slight whiff of autumn on the breeze.
Taichi arrived at the old but graceful club building. Before he entered, on a whim he looked up at the full view of the structure.
People often talked about how it was time for it to be earthquake-proofed, and someone may have even suggested simply rebuilding it, but Taichi personally hoped that it would hold out until his class graduated.
Almost a year had passed since the members of the Cultural Research Club had deviated from the normal world.
Taichi and the rest had brushed with danger on several occasions up till now, but every time they had united as one to pull through crisis after crisis. Even the new club members had gotten roped in later, but they overcame this crisis too.
When was it going to end? Even if <Heartseed’s> phenomena showed no signs of stopping, there had to be an endgame somewhere, right?
In fact, he and the other second-years would be leaving this school in a year and a half.
As he climbed the stairs, Taichi reached into the backpack on his shoulder and pulled out a form that had been given out today.
Printed along the top were the words [CAREER PLANNING SURVEY], along with blanks where one indicated their desired path after high school and whether they intended to study humanities or science in their third year.
Yamaboshi High School’s university matriculation rate was decent; almost every student indicated university as their goal. Some subjects were already being split into humanities or science-focused sections.
When students became third years, the school divided them into classes based on their survey data, so the second-years were being pressured to make their final decisions right now.
Taichi pinched the form between his fingers, lightly fanning it back and forth. It was kind of silly to think that this thin piece of paper would end up dictating a portion of his life.
He still had nearly two months before the deadline, but the sooner he filled it out, the better. Let’s say he had already decided he wanted to apply for university. After that…
He reached the fourth floor, still deep in thought. He walked to the end of the hallway and arrived at his destination. Taichi glanced at the words [Cultural Research Club] printed onto the A4-sized paper and opened the clubroom door.
“Hey Shino-chan, Chihhi, what d’you guys wanna do in the future?”
Nagase Iori’s cheerful voice traveled out from inside.
“Oh, Taichi, hey!”
Nagase saluted at him with a solemn expression, her long silky hair fluttering. Her tone was jovial, but her outstanding beauty and graceful demeanor wouldn’t look out of place on a poster.
Six people were already in the clubroom. With Taichi, the number rose to seven.
Each of the other club members greeted him; he reciprocated and sat into a chair.
“The future… you said? The future… huh. The future me… The future… In my lifetime… My life… Afterlife…”
“Won’t you be a different person in the afterlife, Enjouji?” Taichi quipped in a low voice.
“Oh, the future! In the future… Umm… Uhhh… Uhhhhh… Bfuuu…”
“O-Okay, Shino-chan, any more and your head’s gonna start smoking.”
A teary-eyed Enjouji Shino unclenched fistfuls of her soft, brown hair and reached towards Kiriyama Yui. Enjouji was Taichi’s underclassman, a first year girl who felt more like a small animal, evoking in others the desire to protect her.
“C’mon, you’re just a first year, Shino-chan~. It’s still too early to think about that stuff~.
Kiriyama Yui stroked Enjouji’s hair, smiling happily. Kiriyama’s own chestnut hair (which she prided herself on) was gleaming today, like always.
Just then, a tall, gentle-featured boy, Aoki Yoshifumi, butted in:
“Yui~. Can you fawn over me too~? Meeoow! Just kidding~.”
“Wuu... I’m… I’m gonna puke… Aoki-senpai’s going to jail for insulting kitties everywhere…”
“No worries, I’ll take care of him myself. Three kicks and four punches.”
“Was it really that bad!? I said that I was kidding!”
You couldn’t tell from their appearances, but Enjouji was unexpectedly sharp-tongued, and Kiriyama was a karate champion.
Their verbal barrage made Aoki hold his head, muttering: “Why… I thought I was gonna join their circle today…”
“Why’d you think it would be today?” Taichi murmured. Aoki straightened and threw up his arms: “No reason!”
“Hey, you look like Revolution Fighter during his ring announcer introduction—”
“We don’t need a funny-man who makes pro-wrestling analogies.”
Taichi’s spiel was cut short by Inaba Himeko.
“Whoa, Inaban interrupted Taichi! But [Dereban] would be tolerant of anything Taichi does. Is [Inaban] finally making a comeback?!”
“What does that mean Iori? As Taichi’s best partner, no matter what time it is, I take the best, most appropriate action with all the sincerity—”
“That’s enough funny-womaning from you, Dereban.”
Inaba, more suited to the word “beautiful” rather than “cute”, argued childishly with Iori. When she was quiet, her sexy demeanor captivated Taichi to no end, but her current tousle-haired, emotional look was charming too… Was this because he was her boyfriend, and beauty was in the eye of the beholder?
“Taichi-san, why’re you staring at Inaba-san and grinning?”
A cool voice stung him; he turned to see an equally cold face.
The tease had come from Uwa Chihiro. He was a first year boy in the same class as Enjouji, and a member of the Cultural Research Club.
“I-I’m not, that’s… No… I just think she’s really cute.”
“Ahh, it’s okay, thanks for the display.”
Chihiro looked away from Taichi and swiveled his face to where it was before. His hair was unequally parted, so Taichi was able to see the uncovered side of his face. Even from Chihiro’s profile, Taichi could tell that his features were quite sharp.
Uwa Chihiro, provoked by <Heartseed> into using the [power] the latter had given him; Enjouji Shino, faintly realizing what was going on, but unable to stop him. After the two of them decided to remain in the Cultural Research Club, the five second-years had told them not to be too hard on themselves, but they still seemed to be wallowing in guilt. Both of them had always been rather easily intimidated, and the terror of now being targeted by an inhuman being must be a great burden indeed.
It should be impossible to actually return to normal after that experience.
But constantly brooding over it was no good. That was also true. Taichi and the others continued to treat the two first years as if nothing had happened, and so they gradually began to loosen up in the club.
“Hey, we digressed too much! We were talking about what Shino-chan and Chihhi wanna do in the future!”
At this, Chihiro replied to Iori’s cheerful voice in his typical calm tone.
“Do we have to answer?”
“Hey, you guys were the ones who were like, ‘What do you want to be in the future, senpais?’”
“That was Enjouji, not me.”
“Huh?! B-But… Chihiro-kun also sounds like he really wants to know…”
“Can you even tell that from his voice...?” Taichi quipped quietly.
Occasionally, Enjouji would flex the special abilities of her voice-fetish.
“I mean, when we were on our way here—”
“Ahhhh, don’t say it, Enjouji!”
“You’re going red, Chihiro-kun, it’s sooo~ cuuute~!”
Kiriyama straightened, putting her sitting height above Chihiro’s head.
“Wait, Yui-san, don’t touch… mff…”
Chihiro scowled, but didn’t push Yui’s hand away and quietly remained in his seat.
Whether it was because of guilt or because something in him had changed, Chihiro’s personality had become quite mild. His cold side hadn’t changed, but there was less sneering from him now.
Thanks to that, Kiriyama was free to love her two underclassmen to her heart’s content, so she had been in a very good mood recently.
“Well… Right now my goal is to get into a good university, and then find a job at a nice, stable company.”
“Huh? Isn’t your biggest goal to become a riajuu like our senpais?”
“Quit your delusions, Enjouji!”
“So Chihiro-kun’s goal is to become us~? That makes me so happy~!”
“Yui-san, how long are you going to keep massaging my head? I’m gonna shake you off.”
“You say that, but you’re still letting her do it! You’re a big tsundere, Chihhi! When Inaban goes [deredere], you’re the only one who can fill her position of [tsundere], Chihhi!”
Enjouji, Kiriyama, and Nagase messed with Chihiro.
“Wait, Yui’s about to go [deredere] now, so there’s another opening—”
“O-kay, Aoki, you can shut up now~.”
Kiriyama didn’t so much as glance at him. Her voice was cute, yet very cold at the same time.
“Hey, Taichi… I’ve… Lately I think Chihiro’s stolen my spot as the butt of their jokes and now I’m just a throwaway side-character… I-I’m just imagining things, right...?”
“Hm, well, now you understand how scary it is to have Chihiro steal your place, right? Nagase told me that my [calm, low-key personality seems to overlap with his], and it’s been bothering me for some time…”
“Oh, were you bothered by that? Sorryyy.” Nagase apologized nonchalantly.
“Weeell, even if we don’t sweat the details, Taichi’s pretty mm. Yup, he’s completely mm, and not just mm, he’s also mm. The mm that makes people go ‘Mm?’ and ‘Mmm?’”
“And you still end up with nothing good to say about me! Really takes me back!”
There had once been a time when Taichi was fond of playing word games like this with Nagase.
“M-My goal now is also to study hard and earn above-average grades in school, and live a more complete life!”
“What do you mean by ‘live a more complete life’?” Taichi asked.
“Hmm, basically… to evolve to the point where Taichi-senpai can say to me in his sultry voice [you’re cute, Shino]! Kyaah~!”
“Sultry voice? Well, it’s no biggie, so it’s not like I can’t say it… Owf!”
Inaba’s jab from hell exploded at Taichi’s throat.
“Inaban’s attacking Taichi?! So she wants to shed the [Dereban] skin after all…”
“You don’t have a need for this mouth if it calls girls other than me cute… Do you now, Taichi…?”
“D-Don’t turn into [Yandereban], okay?!”
Inaba was probably humoring Nagase’s joke, since they were so close after all. …No, Taichi really didn’t want to believe that what she just said was serious.
“Well, are you gonna choose humanities or science, senpais?” Chihiro asked, and Enjouji followed up:
“Y-Yes! We must bear witness to our senpais’ beautiful plans for the future!” Enjouji upped the ante for no reason.
“Okay, okay,” Inaba replied first. “I’m choosing science. People are saying that it’s really hard to find a job now, so if I take science and get into a good university, I won’t have to stress over finding a job if I choose the right major.”
“Always the realist, huh, Inaba-san?”
“If I do science and choose the right major, I won’t have to stress over finding a job… writing that down.”
“Hmph, what’s wrong with being realistic? …Well, there are some unrealistic reasons for that.”
“What’s unrealistic, Inaba-chan?” pried Aoki.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to pull it off, and I don’t plan to put special effort towards it since that’ll just be a waste of time, but if I can get some chance or opportunity, I wanna broaden my horizons first so that I don’t give up…”
Keeping them in suspense, Inaba’s lips curled upwards slightly.
“To unravel the mystery of <Heartseed>.” She declared audaciously.
“S-So you haven’t given up…” Kiriyama muttered in surprise.
“No matter what sort of disaster mankind is faced with, we always try to make sense of the mechanisms behind it, right? There’s nothing I hate more than someone going [I dunno]. I’ll say it now, though: when I choose majors, I won’t be thinking of this goal at all. Since there’s no way any phenomenon created by that guy just depends on the major we choose.”
Even for something they could only treat as “a thing that’s already happened that they can do nothing about”, Inaba would insist on upholding her principle of “having the situation under complete control”, while carefully observing the problem on a realistic level without barging blindly into it, and then acting according to her own ideals. She’s amazing— Taichi thought pertinently.
“You’re so cool, Inaban! You gotta leave some of it for those coming after you~. People’re gonna look bad next to you~.” Nagase sighed dramatically while placing a hand on her forehead.
“U-Um, well… Iori-senpai… what kind of splendid, majestic future do you have planned...?”
“So harsh! Utterly merciless! You got a sharp tongue, Shino-chan, or are you just a super sadist?!... Hm… wuu, your innocent gaze blinds my eyes…”
“Poe’s law in action…” said Nagase, pressing her chest as though from heartache. “Well, guess I have to say it~.”
“Lately, I’ve… been a little more sure of… well, what I wanna do, I guess.”
Eh-heh-heh. Nagase chuckled shyly.
“I’m okay with humanities or science~. Or even a specialized subject.”
“The suspense is killing me.” said Chihiro.
“But I can only reveal it later! If you want a hint, it’s got to do with kids. I’ll make an official announcement when my goal is clearer, so please stay tuned!”
“You’re not almost dodging the question, you’re actually doing it.” Inaba said smoothly.
“And I almost got away with it! You’re always so blunt, Inaban~!”
Nagase’s words surprised Taichi quite a bit.
Not knowing what she liked, not even knowing what she wanted to do. Always repeating that mantra, this confused girl was now trying to progress towards something she wanted to do. Taichi knew that Nagase had gotten over her past distress and was making strides, but he had no idea she had already gotten this far.
The two of them suddenly met eyes. Nagase flashed him a smile blooming like a sunflower, and Taichi nodded silently.
—Thank you. He seemed to hear her say.
“Everyone’s set on their goals already… and I’m still fumbling around~. Don’t leave me behind~.”
Kiriyama’s petite body fidgeted noisily.
“What? Weren’t you talking about how sports could get you into university, Yui?” said Nagase.
“If I can get good scores at the next tournament. But I’m still hesitating. Dunno if it’s enough to do karate until I graduate high school.”
“That’d be a shame. You’re the embodiment of talent.” It was Inaba’s turn to say.
“Talent…? But I want to become someone useful to society in the future. I’m not saying karate is useless, but I can’t just be really fit, right?”
Kiriyama would rather pursue her wish than rely on her talent.
“...<Heartseed>’s a special case, but whenever I see him, it makes me think that there are so many people in this world who encounter inexplicable things. I want to help those people! …I want to correct the evils in this world, in a sense, so maybe I could be a police officer!”
To other people, perhaps only the cute side of this brightly grinning girl was visible, but if you spent some one-on-one time with her, you would be able to feel the strength hiding within her heart and body.
“Your ambition is noble, but immediately thinking of joining the police isn’t very creative.” Inaba was ruthless.
“I-I’ve only just started to think of the details!”
“So are you gonna choose humanities or science? Humanities, then?” Nagase asked, and Kiriyama replied: “Well, I’m still thinking about that one.”
“You’re amazing, senpais… Am I going to become like you guys in a year…?” Enjouji gushed, and Taichi sighed in admiration from beside her.
The three second-years of the Cultural Research Club had immense potential. If they all flexed their true abilities, they would probably be able to manage something amazing. This gave Taichi a sense of anticipation that was almost like foreboding.
“Well, how about you boys? First~, Taichi!” Nagase pointed at him.
Taichi opened his mouth out of reflex, to say something.
But then he realized that absolutely nothing at all was coming to mind.
At a loss, he fell silent.
“What’s wrong?” Kiriyama asked, concerned.
He remained silent, unable to move.
“Hey, Taichi…?” Inaba called to him, and he was suddenly brought back to earth.
Everyone was looking right at him.
His face grew hot. Was he turning red? Sweat had soaked his entire body.
“No… I haven’t thought about that at all… I’m such a blank slate, I think I need to start from the beginning and consider this more carefully.”
“No need to keep it from us.”
“It’s not like that, Chihiro-kun. Someone at Taichi-senpai’s level would be hesitant because they have too many choices. Like becoming a voice actor, narrator, announcer, or someone who wakes me up every day with his sweet voice.”
“I really should respond to every bit of that but I’ll stick with one thing for now. That last one isn’t a job at all.”
“Ah… Th-That was actually my wish!”
“Shino, how dare you fantasize about someone else’s boyfriend… But a morning call, huh? ...I’ll definitely have to look into that… Only I can listen to it, of course.”
“I-Inaba-senpai! Just once is enough, please record it for me!”
“...You get really aggressive when it comes to voices, Enjouji.” Chihiro was astonished.
The two first years began chatting with Inaba and pulled the attention away from Taichi, who exhaled.
—Why did I just exhale?
“Ohh, well. What about you, Aoki?” Nagase directed everyone's attention towards Aoki.
Aoki uttered one word and stopped. He didn’t seem to be faking suspense. It was unusual for him to hesitate like this.
“...I think I’ll just become a company president! I’ll start my own company and be its president! There’s no way I can go to university anyway so I’ll just start working!”
“Is it because you’re too stupid for university…? Poor you… You got into this school, so even a low-tier university will be able to squeeze you in somehow, right...?”
“Don’t actually pity me, Yui! This has nothing to do with whether I’m stupid! …Ah, w-well, let’s just say that it does…”
“What do you mean? Are you an idiot?” Inaba said coldly.
“Now, hold on, don’t say that.” The one who interrupted was not Aoki, but Nagase. “But… maybe it’s better if I don’t cut in.”
Nagase was confirming something with Aoki. The two of them exchanged glances, creating an odd vacuum.
“Don’t… Well, I mean… cut in as much as you want! Doesn’t matter to me whether I hide it or not.”
“Wait… for real? I’m not telling you to say it, just confirming that you do…”
“I know, Iori-chan. I want to say it.”
“What? Did something happen?” Taichi asked, since the two of them were discussing something only they knew about.
“No worries, I’ll tell you. It’s best if you guys just listen, and don’t think about it too much.” Aoki prefaced, and then continued:
“The truth is that I’ve run into some trouble at home… I think my dad’s being pressured into quitting his job. When the company was laying people off, well, I think he did something wrong by accident. He says that he’s got nothing to do with it, and we believe him.”
The words exuded a solemn air.
“By ‘he’s got nothing to do with it’, do you mean…” Kiriyama looked very worried.
“Yeah… I can’t really say right now. Don’t look so worried, Yui, I’ll be fine.”
Kiriyama seemed at a loss for how to respond, and looked down.
“Hey, hey, don’t apologize,” Aoki smiled dryly, “my sister’s working too, but the loans at home make the financial situation kinda difficult.”
“But now… you can apply for scholarships and stuff, right?” Taichi remembered, and suggested.
“Well, we can cobble together the money for me to get into university, but if that happens, my sister won’t be able to leave home. Ah, my sister’s twenty-four and has a strong sense of responsibility, so if things come to that, she’ll definitely say that she wants to stay home, right up until I graduate. It’s lucky that she’s met someone nice.”
“...I don’t know if ‘unexpected’ is the right word… but that’s a legit reason.”
Inaba’s face was stern.
“Don’t take it so seriously! No one’s gonna die. My family says they’ll think of a way for me to get into university, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!”
Aoki grinned, but it would be a lie to say that there wasn’t a shadow in his smile. They’d known him for a long time and were able to tell that he was trying to cope.
Real problems were sometimes worse than unreal problems.
Because they had to continue living in reality.
“I just overheard Aoki talking to a teacher about this…” Nagase said, embarrassed.
Beside her, Kiriyama looked up and spoke: “I-If there’s anything I can help with, let me know! Really… just tell me!”
“Thanks. Then I must just ask for your help, Yui!”
Aoki grinned, and Kiriyama’s expression softened.
But her face immediately turned dark and she looked down, muttering something.
It was so quiet that almost no one heard it, but sitting directly across from her, Taichi clearly saw the movements of Kiriyama’s mouth.
—Him getting into something like this… Nothing I can do… Better confess and be done with it.
<div align = "center">□■□■</div>
When the club adjourned, Taichi and Inaba stopped at a cafe on the way home.
You couldn’t really call them dates, but Taichi and Inaba would sometimes have some alone time after club. (Nagase would mock them for it when everyone said their goodbyes.)
The two of them sat across from each other, and Inaba suddenly prodded Taichi’s cheek without explanation.
Inaba prodded his cheek gently again with her index finger.
“Hey.” “Poke.” “Yo.” “Poke poke.” “What?” “...Poke?”
Inaba pressed her finger into his cheek, tilting her head, her face innocent.
She looked like a baby being shy towards her parents… it was ridiculously cute.
“I-Inaba… I don’t think this is good for my heart.”
“I’m trying to shoot through your heart.”
Inaba made a gun with her hand, and winked at Taichi with a perfect mixture of cuteness and coolness.
Taichi grabbed his chest. He wasn’t pretending to be hit; his heart simply could not handle such an attack.
Oh god… What frightening power…
“Well, that’s enough dere for today.”
“Hey, don’t break the immersion like that.”
He really hoped that she wouldn’t keep tabs on the strength of her dere-ness like that.
“Anyway, about your future course planning, are you really a completely blank slate?”
Today’s subject of future planning was brought up yet again.
“Yeah… Well… I’ve still got two months.”
Taichi sipped his milk tea to hide his own waffling response.
“Haven’t even decided on humanities or science?”
“It’s fall of your second year, you have to be thinking just a little bit about it, right?”
Inaba’s attitude towards Taichi had become somewhat stern lately. …But it was a given that he was going to get yelled at anyway.
He wasn’t like Aoki, whose choices were limited. He wasn’t like Inaba and the others either, who were firmly fixated on the future. He hadn’t even entered the stage of fussing over his future yet.
If he thought about it, it had been like this when he was taking the high school entrance exam too. It seemed that he had never really given his future goals a second thought.
“You always waver back and forth. That’s your gentle side.”
Waver back and forth, gentle — Was it appropriate to describe him with such endearing words?
“Because you’re gentle, you’ll…”
A shadow suddenly covered Inaba’s face, dark enough to repel all light, but it vanished as quickly as it had come and her expression was bright again.
“Have fun worrying, young man.”
“Aren’t we the same age?”
Heh-heh-heh. Inaba chuckled magnanimously, her longish hair swaying.
She looked very mature. Was this to be expected? You could say that it was too early, and you could say that they were almost there, but Taichi and the others were becoming adults.
Path. Future. Career. Dreams. Life.
These matters, too great to be viewed clearly, made Taichi feel as though a heavy weight were pressing down on his body.
If someone were to ask him what path he should pursue, Taichi wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Feeling consumed by vague uncertainty, he hurriedly exhaled to escape a state in which he had difficulty breathing.
“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Inaba’s words did much to calm Taichi. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there — he decided to approach things optimistically.