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The strong emotions the voices contained sent a jolt through him and he opened his eyes.
He found himself in some alley, sitting on the asphalt with his back leaned against the wall of a building. Before him, a girl and a boy stood peering into his face.
The girl was pretty and the boy was dignified. The eyes they regarded him with were terribly worried, and they looked like they were torn between surprise and nervousness, relief and anxiety.
“…Who are you two?”
They were not someones he knew. And to begin with, what was this place? And what was he doing in this kind of place?
He tried to remember and failed. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t recall when and for how long he had lost his consciousness.
On the other hand, he was aware that he was unconscious for quite a prolonged period of time. Though his memories were in a disarray, he knew that much for a fact through the vague sensations dwelling in his body. It had been days or weeks, or even more than that if he was unlucky enough. When he had become aware of that gigantic blank void in his memory that was imperceivable to him, he was suddenly overcome with anxiety and fear.
Just what happened to his body?
Meanwhile, upon hearing his question, the boy and the girl held their breaths, their features twisting. Seeing those heartbroken expressions made him feel instinctively guilty. But there was nothing he could do except shake in utter confusion.
From a place some distance awa, a brisk commanding voice could be heard. Then, a m.u.f.fled sound of an explosion followed, along with the corresponding tremor much like that of an earthquake that he felt through the asphalt he was sitting on. Something unusual was going on. The anxiety and fear he felt got exacerbated.
What an odd awakening this was, raising a myriad of mysteries and questions.
This point of time had become the moment where his memories resumed.
“…High school?” with a complicated expression on his face, Hieda Tooru repeated what had just been said to him.
He was summoned to the Annex 4 of Tokyo Legal Affairs Bureau, also known as Scepter 4, and currently was standing in the office of its head.
“Yes,” the young man, seated behind the desk, nodded. The gesture was composed yet still managed to also look elegant. The young man was Munakata Reishi, the head of Scepter 4.
“Luckily - though this is not a very appropriate expression in your case - you have already been laid off at your parttime work place, and your contract for the apartment has already expired. That high school has a dormitory, so I believe you will find this a good opportunity to think about your future prospects while commuting to school.”
“But I don’t have that kind money to—”
“No need to worry about that,” Munakata cut him off lightly, glancing from behind his gla.s.ses at the Lieutenant standing at his side.
Awashima Seri acknowledged him with a nod. “Timeless Palace… I mean, several privately owned businesses jointly implemented an excellent and generous scholarship system there. We have entered you as an applicant at our discretion and received a word that you have been accepted. As such, for the time being you are exempt from having to pay the enrollment and tuition fee, and you will be provided aid if necessary. If you aspire to further your education, this presents a perfect opportunity.”
Awashima’s phrasing may have been business-like, but her tone was gentle. It was clear that she recommended that path with his wellbeing in mind. What showed on Hieda’s face in response though, was a slightly negative bewilderment. If he thought about it rationally, he should have been jumping with joy - unexpected good fortune had come his way, after all - but as far as his heart was concerned, he wasn’t able to be truly happy about it.
—Just what exactly is going on?
This question apparently could be read on his face.
“Oya?” Munakata inclined his head to the side in a studied manner. “You do not seem to be very interested, do you? Indeed, age-wise, you would be entering high school 3 years later than normal, but I still think it is not a bad deal?”
“I-I realize that it is a great deal, and I am very grateful. Giving someone like me a chance to attend high school… But…”
“But you cannot help finding it all quite eerie, is that it?” Munakata smiled rather nastily, and Hieda shook his head in panic.
Except those words. .h.i.t the nail on the head. “Um… I simply don’t understand why you would bother arranging all that for someone like me…”
Never once in his life had he experienced such an undeserved stroke of good luck before. If anything, his life experiences consisted of only the polar opposites. As such, he couldn’t help being wary, suspecting all sorts of hidden agendas whenever a “sweet deal” was offered to him.
At a glance, there was no connection whatsoever between him and Scepter 4 - shouldn’t have been, as far as he was aware. At the same time, he was finding it very hard to believe that going through the trouble of deceiving a small fry like him would benefit Munakata and his organization in any way.
—And that’s why this whole situation feels even more eerie to me.
“Do not be afraid to come off tactless. As we have explained earlier, we are in your debt, if indirect, in regards to the aforementioned Jungle case. The fact that you do not remember it does not free us from our obligation to you. The bother you mentioned is no bother to us at all.”
“It is as the Captain said. And actually, we are not the only ones who are indebted to you. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that all the people of the world are in your debt. So we are asking you to regard the suggestion we made in a positive light as our way to show some of our grat.i.tude, and consider it.”
Awashima’s speech was pa.s.sionate, but unfortunately for her, that audible pa.s.sion only made Hieda’s distrust grow stronger. Socializing was never his forte, and he was never the type to up and accept others’ “friendliness” without questions.
Thus, face still rueful, Hieda fixed his eyes on the floor.
Just then Munakata, while carefully observing the boy, remarked, “…Besides, a certain person of influence strongly requested us to do everything in our power to help you arrange your life and your future.”
“The person whose debt to you is the biggest. In other words, we can make him indebted to us by taking care of you, you see. Oh well, having him obliged to us now is not worth much anymore, but still, it is a nice bonus to gain, on a personal level,” Munakata said and smiled broadly - this time, clearly for show.
Awashima, standing at his side, let some of her desire to roll her eyes seep into the expression on her face.
As to Hieda…
—I see. There is also that reason, then, huh.
Hieda was beginning to understand. Upon getting a confirmation that Munakata and his organization weren’t doing all that for him just out of goodness of their hearts, he felt rather relieved.
But this development raised a new worry in his mind, namely who that “he” was. Just what happened to his body in the period he lost all memory of?
Seeing the conversation come to a pause, Awashima coughed dryly a couple of times.
“In any case, I advice you to take a look at that school. You can decide after that.”
If he really could get a chance to attend high school, it would be more than he ever wished for. When it came down to it, it wasn’t like he had anything to lose anyway. And even if he was being tricked, he couldn’t imagine it making more trouble for him than what he was already having.
“I would like to add that if you find that attending high school goes against your wishes after all, we can always employ you at our organization. This is quite a stimulating workplace, if I do say so myself.”
That made Hieda finally lift his head in even more bewilderment than before. a.s.suming that it was a joke on Munakata’s part, he darted his eyes to glance at Awashima for confirmation, but she only calmly nodded. Hieda didn’t believe that he had that much worth going for him, which made him wonder for the umpteenth time just what on earth was really going on.
“In any case, the arrangements for your visit on the school’s side have already been made, so please get ready at once. …Ah, and another thing. Using this opportunity, there is another place I want you to stop by on your way to the school. One of my subordinates will guide you there, will that be alright with you?”
“Eh? What place?”
“A bar in the Shizume town. There are people there who also want to meet you. If possible, I would like to ask you to put in an appearance. Quality of the clientele aside, it is by no means a bad establishment.”
Hieda Tooru was an orphan. He grew up in a local orphanage and, after graduating from middle school, made a living by drifting from one parttime job to another.
It wasn’t like he had a dream or a purpose in life, but neither was he corrupted by his environment. For better or for worse, he was moderate in everything, simply living a bland and honest life. Even he himself thought that his life resembled that of a plant, but he wasn’t dissatisfied with the comparison. He wasn’t very good at communicating with others, and for that reason, he spent most of his time alone.
But there was one thing that had spiced up Hieda’s life. A free SNS app “Jungle”. At first - no, in hindsight, till the very end - he didn’t understand the meaning of that “game” you could partic.i.p.ate anonymously in that was held in the real life, and he did think that it was suspicious and shady, but as he completed missions, collected points and leveled up, he got completely mesmerized my the magic-like power that the app had.
“Jungle” had given him a sense of fulfillment that he hadn’t experienced until then. To the socially awkward Hieda, completing missions anonymously was a great system that allowed him to experience the sense of solidarity with others without strings attached. What’s more, the mysterious “power” of the top rankers he had witnessed after leveling up literally changed his small world.
He was thrilled to learn that there existed things in the world that he couldn’t even imagine.
And so Hieda, having nothing to do besides his parttime jobs, got completely absorbed into “Jungle”. So much that he even went to the downtown area on his days off where more missions were available.
And then, when he had almost enough points to level up for a second time, he received a sudden notification about a certain mission. He was to come to a certain place of the metropolitan area.
In itself, this kind of contents wasn’t unusual, but what was unusual was that that mission wasn’t issued for several users but for Hieda only. Hieda may have been a little obsessed but in the end, he was aware that he was only a low ranker. So he probably had been chosen randomly then, he concluded. Regardless, an individually designated mission meant lots of points, no doubt. So Hieda, in high spirits, headed to the indicated location—
Only to come to in some alley, with a girl and boy he didn’t know peering at him, more than a year later.
After that, Hieda was taken into protective custody by Scepter 4. Apparently, while he was unconscious, “Jungle” caused an unprecedented incident of ma.s.sive scale that messed up the world. Hieda heard that and all kinds of other explanations from Scepter 4, ending up feeling like Urashima Tarou[*]. Still, somehow or other, he was able to deduce that the explanation he was provided was the same as the so-called “official version” released to the general public.
“Taking into account that from now on you will be returning to the general society, I concluded that at the present time, you do not need to know more than that. …Of course, if you wish to come to "this side” though, I can provide information that will not be limited to that,“ Munakata said rather dispa.s.sionately, but there was no way Hieda could have objected further to being kept in the dark in the face of that smile.
They didn’t tell him what happened to his body during the period he had no memories of for the same reason then, namely because whatever happened had quite a lot to do with that secret. He wasn’t satisfied with that - but more so than that, he was simply scared, and being kept in the dark didn’t awake a rebellious reaction within him. He lived his life always going with the flow, and he didn’t consider it something bad. If not knowing would help keep things peaceful, he didn’t mind.
But then again, the blank year stole a job and a place to live from Hieda. He had already been in enough shock as it was when the talk about giving him a chance to attend high school came up. Although all that did creep him out, objectively speaking, he hardly had any choice in the matter.
In all of his life up until that point, he had never really actively decided anything for himself, just letting whatever was going to be be. That was Hieda Tooru’s way of living.
"Ooh~! Shiro-sa— Ah, no. Erm, Hieda-kun, was it? Feel free to take any seat you like. What would you like to drink? Beer, wine, or perhaps a special c.o.c.ktail…?”
“N-No thanks. I’m still underage.”
“Haha. Right, right. How about some tea then? I got a very nice quality blend.”
The ones to welcome him were the bar’s owner - a tall young man - and an adorable doll-like girl with white hair.
It appeared that the two knew all about Hieda’s circ.u.mstances already. They introduced themselves as Kusanagi Izumo and Kushina Anna respectively. Kusanagi was very hospitable when he invited Hieda to come in and set off to prepare some black tea for him, while Anna sat down on a couch opposite of the one Hieda was sitting on and gazed at him with a quiet smile.
Meanwhile, the Scepter 4 member, who led Hieda to this place, gave the bar’s interior a sharp once-over and let out a little snort. Not going farther into the bar, he leaned against the wall next to the door.
The place Hieda was taken to was a fashionable bar called HOMRA. This was Hieda’s first time coming to a high cla.s.s establishment like that. It was a nice and cozy bar, to be sure, but, not being used to this kind of places, Hieda felt ill at ease. The biggest reason for his discomfort, though, was that Kusanagi and Anna, whom he saw for the first time in his life, clearly knew him - and quite closely at that.
—It’s understandable with a government agency like Scepter 4, but there shouldn’t be any common grounds between me and a place like this…
Except those two apparently considered themselves “indebted” to Hieda, too. To him though, it was all too perplexing.
“Fushimi. You’ll have a drink, too, I trust?”
“…I’m on duty,” the Scepter 4 member replied glumly.
“So uptight. A cup of tea won’t hurt you any, y'know. I won’t force you though,” Kusanagi said, smiling lopsidedly.
The member’s name was Fushimi Saruhiko. When he was ordered to escort Hieda here, he gave a resounding tongue click, but it appeared that he was a frequenter of this bar or something, because aside from Hieda, everybody present clearly knew each other. And that was the precise situation Hieda sucked at dealing with.
“—I’m glad to see you doing well,” Anna suddenly said. Her voice was lovely, fitting her cute looks. Except it held an inner strength and strong will far beyond her age.
Hieda got fl.u.s.tered, mumbling out a stammered “Th-Thank you!” and strengthening his back.
“Do you really not remember anything?”
“I’m afraid so. Um… I apologize for that.”
He was doubtlessly older than Anna, yet he felt compelled to bow to her in apology. He really was no good at communicating with people - but before that, there was that strange dignity that the girl before him emanated. Hieda, who was used to living his life gauging others’ att.i.tudes and accommodating them, sensed that this girl exuding such an air was different from ordinary people. That air was somehow similar to what Munakata had about him.
“I see,” Anna murmured quietly. “It may be better that way though. Since you are only a victim who got dragged into all of it regardless of his will.”
“That’s why I want us…”
“…to become friends once again,” the girl finished with an extremely serious face.
Hieda found himself lost for words. It was the first time in his life when someone requested to be friends with him - and in such a straightforward and serious manner, too. He flushed and, stammering out a myriad of ums, erms and uhs, acted completely lost as to how he was supposed to react.
Just then, Kusanagi returned, carrying a tray with a tea set on it.
“Take it easy. No need to be so stiff. I understand that we may be coming on too strong for your liking, but the point is, we’d like you to just relax and from now on drop by this bar every now and then. Right, Anna?”
Anna nodded her agreement.
Hieda, reaching a limit of sorts, suddenly blurted out loudly, “Excuse me, but… Wh-Why? Why are you all so kind…? J-Just what happened to me during the period I have no memories of?”
Kusanagi, scratching his head with a troubled face, found it hard to answer right away, “Mm, well…”
Seeing him troubled like that instantly made Hieda regret his careless question. These people must have been silenced by Scepter 4, too.
“I apologize…” Fl.u.s.tered, Hieda rashed to make apologies, then hung his head.
“—You fought together with us,” Anna said.
Hieda stared at her in wonder.
Except fighting was the last thing Hieda would do. He was the kind of person who tried his best not to inconvenience others in any way and lived as inconspicuously and quietly as he could. Needless to say, engaging someone in a fight was the farthest concept from his life.
Only, the expression on Anna’s face didn’t change in the slightest, still looking serious and serene. “—You and us are precious comrades in arms,” the girl continued.
From his spot on the couch, Hieda, fl.u.s.tered and confused, glanced up at Kusanagi next to him. He wanted to confirm that this was some kind of joke, but Kusanagi shrugged his shoulders, affirming Anna’s words.
—A comrade in arms? Me?
“…I ask you to leave the matter at that,” came Fushimi’s warning voice from where he stood by the door, still not moving. “The higherups are treading with a lot of caution in regards to his case.”
“I know. …Well, let bygones be bygones, then. But like Anna said, now that we finally met each other, let’s all be friends. How does that sound to you?” Kusanagi said, winking at the perplexed Hieda.
Hieda pursed his lips.
“Hiya~!” The door to the bar got thrown open with a lot of force, letting in new visitors: a boy of small stature in a beanie and a blond giant in sungla.s.ses. One glance was enough for Hieda to know that they belonged to the type of people he completely sucked at dealing with.
Though, upon entering, the boy froze in plain surprise once he noticed Fushimi standing by the door. Fushimi, on the other hand, awkwardly averted his eyes from him.
“…?! S-Saru… what are you doing here?!”
“…I’m not here because I wanted.”
“R-Right… I see. Yeah. Well, not that I mind… Good to see you… Not! Ah, right! About that strain case from the other day! We’re not done talking about that yet!”
“Huh? What are you even talking about? Actually, there’s nothing to talk about in the first place.”
Unlike the boy who couldn’t stop blushing and paling in turns, Fushimi, despite looking embarra.s.sed for a moment, regained his sarcastic att.i.tude right away.
“Ease up, Yata-chan,” Kusanagi reprimanded the boy with a displeased face. “This time, Fushimi is serving as a guide on our request, see? So don’t pick fights now.”
“Huh? But Kusanagi-san, a "guide”? What do you m—“ And that was when the boy finally noticed Hieda. "Aah!” he exclaimed, pointing a finger at Hieda.
Hieda gave a start and shrunk into himself.
“You, the Silver—”
“Yata-san! He’s that, you know. What we were told before, remember? The body’s original…” the giant, standing behind the surprised boy, whispered to him.
Hieda shrunk even more at the two’s reaction.
Anna snickered and introduced the two. They turned out to be Yata Misaki and Kamamoto Rikio. Those two were also obviously acquainted with Hieda during the blank period he didn’t remember.
“I see. So you got back one way or another, huh. Haha. Sucked to be you, I gotta say. But good to know that you’re alive and kicking after all the s.h.i.t you’ve been through!” Yata looked like he was sincerely glad about the fact, showing a honest and cheerful side that completely overturned Hieda’s first impression of him. Kamamoto also looked moved, seconding Yata’s words by nodding a few times.
“E-Eh?” Hieda’s bewilderment knew no bounds.
“Say, whatcha gonna do now? If you’re undecided, you can come to us, y'know. You’ll be warmly welcome. Right, Anna?”
“—Yes, if that is what he wishes himself.”
“Uhm, no, wait a se–?!”
“…FYI, our Captain is interested in headhunting him, too.”
“Huh?! Hey, pal, Hieda, was it? Doncha fall for that offer. Nothing good will come out of joining Scepter 4, I’m telling ya.”
“That’s right! If you come to us instead, you’ll have all the delicious things you could wish for to eat!”
Excitement of those around Hieda only grew, with none other than Hieda himself in the center of it, though his reactions were completely disregarded. He had no idea anymore what to say to any of them.
—Just what is all this?
He suddenly became aware that the corners of his lips lifted. He was astonished at the realization.
He knew none of the people currently surrounding him. Yata and Kamamoto, and also Fushimi, all were the exact kinds of people he could never deal with well. And yet, here he was, in their midst, smiling carefree. This was yet another first in his life.
Suddenly, his eyes met Anna’s. She nodded to him happily.
“My, my, you all are being too hasty. After all, he has yet to meet the "favorite” of this race,“ Kusanagi said with a chuckle, outstretching his arm, then added, addressing Hieda, "You’re going to visit the school now, right? So first, have a nice long talk with them. It will be most useful to you.”
The school he was invited to visit was the famous mammoth academy on a small island, with the whole of that island being the school’s premises. Hieda’s jaw hit the floor at the sheer size of the installation.
The school’s name was Ashinaka Academy High School.
“This whole area is referred to as simply the "School island”,“ Fushimi, who guided him there, explained.
Moreover, the scale wasn’t the only thing the school could boast, it seemed to also have all the latest equipment and top-grade teachers. It was probably his imagination, but even the students walking the school grounds looked more refined than ordinary pupils.
"I-Is it really OK to let someone like me into such a school…?” Hieda couldn’t help asking, but Fushimi bluntly brushed him off with an annoyed “Don’t know, don’t care.”
First thing upon coming onto the school’s premises, Fushimi headed to the administration office. The administration had been warned beforehand, so a female clerk was waiting there to show them around the school.
It was already late afternoon, but cla.s.ses weren’t over yet. Guided by the lady clerk, Hieda and Fushimi went on a tour around the school.
For an outsider, being on the school grounds was oddly embarra.s.sing. It wasn’t like they were doing something bad, but the very fact that he was there while not being a student made Hieda want to flee. When they were crossing the yard, a sudden random glance thrown out the window of a cla.s.sroom made Hieda quicken his steps instinctively.
And then there was this s.p.a.ciousness to worry about. Just moving within the school was plenty exhausting. If they went to look at every nook and cranny of this giant installation, not even a whole day would probably be enough.
—Amazing… To think that a school like this existed.
Hieda almost felt dizzy being there. Picturing himself attending this place was too much for his imagination. He couldn’t help thinking that it all might have been some kind of mistake, after all.
“Um… excuse me, Hieda-san, have you been to our school before?” the lady clerk, showing them around the school, suddenly asked as they were walking the campus.
Hieda looked back at her in surprise, “Eh? No, never. This is my first time here.”
One glance was enough to know that he was a country b.u.mpkin, if he did say so himself. And yet, why did she… he wondered when the clerk smiled wryly and apologized. “I was sure you have, Hieda-san, because you’re rather confidently moving about before I even show you the way.”
“Huh? Am I?”
He didn’t realize. However, once the fact was pointed out, he noticed that yes, he, indeed, was walking in front of the woman who was supposed to guide him. He couldn’t pinpoint the moment when he had overtaken her.
“The same happened earlier when we left the yard - even I didn’t know about that shortcut that you took, you know. Is this really your first time visiting our school?”
“That’s, uh… just a c-coincidence, I believe…” Although he answered without a moment’s delay, the thought of the blank one year period went through his head. He turned to Fushimi in askance, but the young man only stared back at him with a blank expression, not reacting in any other way. In the end, he had to leave it at the evasive non-answer he had already given and made sure to meekly follow behind their lady guide.
—Do I know this place? Have I been to here?
No matter how hard he tried to remember, he only drew blank. But what if his body did remember, even if his head forgot? And that was why it moved seemingly on its own…?
—No, no. It can’t be.
It was hardly believable. But then again, by now his own self had become the person he was inclined to believe the least. Maybe it would be better for him if he could just shrug the whole thing off and stop sweating the small stuff.
“Well then, I have shown you all the main school facilities, but there is still the dormitory left. Do you plan to live in the dorm, Hieda-san? If you do, would you perhaps like to take a look at it?”
“Ah, yes, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”
That was when the chime announced the end of today’s cla.s.ses. And suddenly, it became a lot noisier all around the school.
“Good. I’m going back then.”
“Eh? Fushimi-san, are you leaving already?”
“I still have work to do. You should be fine on your own on your way back, no? Besides… I’d only be in the way from now on,” Fushimi informed him with a sour look, but then suddenly showed a tiny smile.
Just what on earth did that mean? Hieda didn’t have the time to ask that question though, as Fushimi, seeing no need to say any more goodbyes than that, turned on his heels and started walking away.
“Th-Thank you for taking care of me!” Hieda tried to thank his retreating back but got no reply. Or so he thought.
Abruptly, Fushimi stopped and muttered something under his breath.
“I hope you, too…”
“Eh?” was all Hieda was able to voice.
“I hope you’ll find it, too. Your place to belong,” Fushimi muttered as if talking to himself, tossing a glance at Hieda over his shoulder, then started walking again.
For a short while Hieda stood stock still trying to grasp the meaning of that completely unexpected remark. By the time he came back to his senses, Fushimi had already been too far to try and say anything to him anymore.
Hieda bowed to Fushimi’s back that became little more than a dot in the distance.
Just then, he heard a ringtone playing behind him. It was his lady guide’s. When she took out the PDA, she appeared to be surprised at the caller’s name, “From German-sensei?”
Apologizing to Hieda, she answered the call. “h.e.l.lo. Is something the matter, Weismann-sensei? …Eh? Yes. I’m in the middle of showing him around. We are about to go take a look at the dorm… Yes… Eh? Are you sure? Of course, it would easier for him to understand that way… Yes, yes…”
After talking on the phone for a short while, the clerk hung up and turned to Hieda.
“Did something happen?” Hieda asked.
The woman, her surprise plainly visible, answered, “One of our teachers who lives in the dorm asked about you. To help you learn about the dorm, he invited you to his room… Would you like to take the invitation?”
Just as Hieda suspected, the dorm was also quite grand-scale. So much that each room had its own bath and toilet room and even a kitchen, with the dorm looking more like a company housing than an actual dorm and being incomparably better than the apartment Hieda lived in a year ago. It now made sense to Hieda why not only students but also teachers lived there.
“That is right, "German-sensei” is his nickname. He is from Germany but teaches English and physics. He is a cheerful and sociable teacher, so he is popular with our students, despite starting to work here just recently. Only, he is a little… no, fairly eccentric, to be honest. Like he is out of touch with the world in a sense…“ the clerk explained with amus.e.m.e.nt.
Rather than from her words, Hieda got a better handle on the personality of that "German-sensei” from her tone and her facial expressions when she talked about the foreigner.
And— Hieda also got a feeling that dealing with that personage would be quite troublesome, because to him, sociable popular teachers fell into the category of people he sucked at handling. As far as Hieda was concerned, the ideal teacher was one that didn’t poke their nose into their students’ affairs unnecessarily. He had his share of such unwelcome favors in his middle school days, when he was friendless by choice, yet teachers kept meddling with him and nagging him about it.
—But then again, worrying about that in this case is unwarranted.
After all, all that teacher would do was just show him around the dorm, nothing more. Hieda chided himself for being such a worrywart.
While he was thinking that, his lady guide stopped in front of a certain room.
—Huh? This room…
Hieda had a feeling that he remembered it from somewhere. That made him fl.u.s.tered again, but when he looked at the next room, the doors turned out to be identical. And yet, he definitely felt something when his eyes landed on this particular room, something he didn’t feel from any of the other rooms down the hall.
“This is our destination,” the woman informed him and knocked at the door.
The same instance, the tapping of rushing footsteps came from behind the door. Just when Hieda was about to wonder what was going on inside, it was thrown opened with a lot of energy, and—
A girl and a boy almost fell out the doorway as they stuck out their heads into the hallway. The girl was pretty and the boy was dignified.
Those two, he knew.
Hieda’s eye went wide and his breath caught at the sight of them. They were the ones he found by his side when he came to in that alley.
Leaning forward, the boy and the girl also stared fixedly with wide open eyes at Hieda, who went completely stiff on a reflex.
“The previous Shiro!” the girl broke into a grin, giving a joyous shout, then spread her arms wide and jumped at Hieda with enough energy to almost topple him, hugging the dear life out of him. Hieda barely managed to catch her without falling, but he distinctly felt his heart skipping a beat.
“Idiot, stop!” the scandalized boy immediately chastised the girl, but his words appeared to fall on deaf ears.
With a displeased face - but with enough telltaling composure to indicate that this wasn’t an unusual sight to her - the lady clerk reprimanded the girl as well, “Ameno-san? I did warn you to refrain from behaving in such a fashion, didn’t I?”
“Neko! Don’t tell me you already forgot what Shiro told you?!” grabbing the girl by the shoulders, the boy said in a hard voice.
That worked, and the girl released the lock of her arms around Hieda with a quiet dissatisfied “meow”. She bounced back in no time though, looking up at Hieda with shining eyes and a wide grin like there was no happier thing in the world for her than his presence. That gaze, filled with innocent affection, was like the midsummer sun, overflowing with warmth and vitality.
The boy meanwhile cleared his throat, strengthened himself and held out his right hand to Hieda, introducing himself anew, “I didn’t introduce myself last time we met, so let me do it now. I’m Yatogami Kuroh, but you can call me "Kuroh”. And this one is Ameno Miyabi.“
"Call me "Neko”!“
For a while, Hieda just stood stock still in a shock, but when he finally managed to shake off his stupor, he fl.u.s.teredly took Kuroh’s hand, "I’m H-Hieda. Hieda Tooru…”
The boy, Kuroh, clasped Hieda’s hand in a handshake. “Long time no see,” he said with a smile.
Hieda had been meeting all those “acquaintances” he had never seen before one after another today. In other words, these two were also like that. It wasn’t Munakata’s agency that organized his visit to this school so easily. Kusanagi did mention it, didn’t he? That Hieda was about to meet the real “favorite” of the race.
“We have a lot of catching up to do, but first, come in. There is someone we’d like you to meet,” Kuroh said, and at that, the lady clerk, who was his guide till now, excused herself, “Well then, I am leaving the rest to you.” She gave Hieda a smile and left.
Following Kuroh and Neko, Hieda entered the room. The feeling that he was familiar with this room a.s.saulted him once more. The distinct sensation of deja vu only got stronger. Hieda’s heartbeat picked up pace, and his throat went dry.
There was a silver-haired Caucasian man sitting in the room. When he laid his eyes upon Hieda, he got shy in a sort of nostalgic awkward embarra.s.sment.
“Being face to face like that feels really strange, I must say. You are Hieda Tooru-san, correct? Nice to meet you. I’m Adolf K Weismann, but you can call me "Shiro” if you want. That’s what all my friends call me, and I would like you to call me that, too, if you don’t mind.“
The man was inexplicably slipping right into Hieda’s soul without trying, yet Hieda didn’t feel alarmed or bothered. That was the kind of voice the man had, the kind of way of speaking. Despite it being the first time they met, it felt like Hieda was meeting an old friend.
What’s more, this person also had an air about him that set him apart from ordinary people. Something that Anna also had, that Munakata had. Although, unlike the other two, his was somewhat gentler, somewhat kinder.
Barely conscious of what he was saying, Hieda voiced the conviction that had settled firmly within him, ”…You know what happened to me during the period I have no memories of, don’t you?“
“W-Will you tell me?”
“That depends on what you want from your life and from your future…” Shiro replied quietly.
“My future…” Hieda repeated.
His future. From now on. It was the words that were mentioned to him a lot today. In all of his life until now, never once had Hieda given it a serious thought. Never once had he believed that his life had such a worth.
“Hey, hey! We decided to take it easy today, not have those complicated talks, no?”
“True. Besides, the dinner is ready. I’ve poured all my talent into it, so I hope you’ll like it.”
“Eh? B-But, it’s so sudden, I can’t possibly…”
Being treated to a meal at someone else’s home was also a first time experience for Hieda. To make things even more hectic, even if to these people he was someone they knew, to him they were pretty much complete strangers. So as far as socially awkward Hieda was concerned, having to sit with them at the dinner table was pure agony.
“…” Having shut his mouth, Hieda was staring at Shiro. He could see in Shiro’s expression that the silver-haired man was wordlessly telling him that he was under no obligation to stay if he didn’t want to, that he could do as he pleased.
Hieda didn’t know what the future had in store for him. But…
“…Well…I guess… If you insist.”
Let’s try deciding for myself starting with tonight’s dinner, he thought.
At Hieda’s small decision, the room got filled with lively cheers. And then, another bowl of white rice got added to the rest already put on the low tea table surrounded by Shiro and his companions.