Part 40: A New ChancePart 40 - A New Chance
However, I didn't forget my custom of walking along the edge of the hallway while hanging my head and doing everything I could to avoid standing out.
Since a little time had passed since the ending bell, most people who went straight home were already gone, though students with club activities or cleaning duty remained behind.
Somehow, schools give off a lonely, nostalgic feeling once a day's worth of classes have ended. This is true of both old-fashioned, wooden school buildings and newer ones like Suimei Academy.
Although to be fair, I'd only been to wood-constructed school buildings in eroge.
A girl was tottering along, carrying two huge cardboard boxes.
The boxes hid her face from me. She probably couldn't see what was ahead of her, either.
She couldn't possibly have been more precarious.
I thought about giving it a shot, but it was a mere thought, of course, and I didn't have any intention of actually trying it out.
On the contrary, I stayed on my guard. Chances were strong that she might be an assassin sent after me by "Shogun."
Don't get involved. Watch out.
I paid careful attention to every step she took.
She drew still closer to me, swaying first to the right, then to the left.
I, on the other hand, walked along the left side of the corridor.
SFX: Something makes a SMACK sound as it hits the floor
Had the cardboard box girl dropped it?
I thought hard as I contemplated the student handbook.
Doubts rose at the back of my head.
Why had it fallen now, with this timing?
It was too obvious. Almost as if someone were urging me to pick it up.
I wondered if she'd dropped it on purpose.
The cardboard box girl had used both arms to hold up her boxes.
Neither of her hands had been free.
If her student handbook had been kept in her skirt pocket, it would've been impossible for her to "take it out and drop it on purpose."
Except, it wasn't as if I had actually seen where the handbook had fallen from in the first place.
Maybe the cardboard box girl had been holding it from the start, carrying her cardboard boxes in such a way as to conceal it from me.
Right at that very instant, the cardboard box girl turned a corner and went out of sight.
I'd only seen her from behind for a second. I didn't think she looked familiar.
I felt like.... she'd had short hair.
No, but it had also seemed long.
I couldn't make a decisive statement either way.
I hadn't seen her face either, of course. The cardboard boxes had hidden it as we passed one another.
Maybe the common-sense response would be to pick it up and take it to the faculty room, or chase after the cardboard box girl. But I hesitated to do either.
I looked around. I didn't see any other students.
All I heard were a number of girls laughing merrily from somewhere far off.
I didn't think this was a trap.
The handbook's owner was already gone.
How might this situation end up entrapping me?
Could there be a microscopic bomb planted in the handbook? That was far too unrealistic.
So surely nothing would happen even if I picked it up here and now.
Right. Of course nothing was going to happen.
I ought to use it to confirm who that girl was, just in case. Because she might be working for "Shogun."
I'd take a look at her name, class and headshot, and leave the handbook itself back here.
I'd take a pass on shouldering the hassle of having to deliver it to the person in question.
What was that.... An unidentifiable eerieness.
It didn't so much freak me out as it made me feel sick.
Malicious and blatant harassment aimed at me as an individual.
Who.... Who would do such a thing....
The girl from before, obviously!
That girl had been affiliated with "Shogun," after all. Of course she had....
I'd only had a glimpse of the student handbook's contents, but....
The first page, which should have contained the owner's name, birth date, class and other information, had been utterly blacked out.
Furthermore, the headshot photo that ought to be pasted there had been ripped away.
I abruptly experienced nausea.
I wanted to leave this place sooner rather than later.
The instant I dropped to my knees, the contents of my stomach came rushing up backwards.
Surging stomach acid made the depths of my throat sting.
Tears blurred my field of sight.
It grew hard to breathe.
The aftertaste of bile in my mouth made me feel sick.
It seemed like I was closer to the end of my psychological rope than I'd thought....
It might also have been because I'd stayed up all night....
But the shadows and blind spots I normally wouldn't take notice of seemed dreadful to me now.
I began to think that Yua and "Shogun" might be hiding somewhere.
Once I made myself believe it, I lost the ability to take a single step away from this place.
Somebody, save me....
I wanted to cry. At the same time, the urge to vomit rose in me yet again.
It hurt so bad, more and more tears started overflowing.
Frightened, I looked behind me.
OST: Tender Hearts
It was Rimi.
Those words weren't a question aimed at me.
They were a gentle conclusion.
She didn't grimace at the rotten stench of the filth I'd retched up.
She didn't show any indication of despising me, even when she saw my face covered in tears and nose-drippings, with vomit stuck to the corners of my mouth.
She smiled serenely, as though to reassure me.
Before this, and now,
When I thought I wanted someone to save me,
Why did Rimi materialize before my eyes?
Because Rimi was here with me now,
I felt relief. I felt my burdens lighten.
Before I knew it, I'd begun divulging all my emotions.
Even though I was bad at talking about myself.
Maybe this was why I'd come to school.
Up until now, I'd thought I was better off alone.
Even now, of course, I was frightened of talking to people.
I had no self-confidence when it came to making contact with people.
But being alone while "Shogun" and Yua hunted me down made me feel far more insecure, and scared, and forlorn.
I wanted someone to stay with me.
"In that case"
"I'll be there for you."
Those words held no malice. Nor any reluctance.
"Although I certainly can't stay with you 24/7. Tahaha."
Her shy gaze suddenly tilted up toward the sky.
What was she looking at with such distant eyes?
"At school, we'll talk about silly things during our breaks."
"We'll eat together during lunch."
"And leave school together in the evening."
"Once in a while, on the way home, we'll stop by a shop somewhere."
"We'll chat a bit in your room."
"And then we'll say see you tomorrow, and wave good-bye to each other."
"If you don't mind, we can do as much of it as you like."
".....In a way, that kind of thing has been a dream of mine."
That was.... almost....
I was stupefied.
Was she talking seriously.... Yeah, her face certainly seemed to say so.
"Wh, why.... would you go so far.... for me?"
There was definitely a flag standing here, right?
It wouldn't be weird for her to say "Because I love you" in this situation, right?
Not that I could think of a single reason why Rimi would fall for me.
No, wait. This was Zhuge Liang's trap.
Yua had fooled me, driving me to the brink of despair.
That's why I can't afford to expect too much.
Start by envisioning the worst-case scenario.
Rimi, too, might be my ene--
Without warning, she saluted me.
The suddenness of her actions left me shaken, making me think in astonishment that maybe she was about to reveal her true nature.
But her face still wore the same endlessly soft smile.
"Because we're friends, of course."
"From my perspective, it's only natural for me to try to help you."
"Don't say sad-sounding things like asking me why!"
"Do you get it?"
If it were "as a couple," I might've felt like my life had finally begun for real.
But even if we were just friends--
It made me incredibly happy....
Having another person be nice to me.
Having another person try to do something for my sake without seeking anything in return.
I'd never known it would bring me such joy.
It might be the first time I'd ever felt like this.
And more than anything,
Rimi's existence had saved me....
My nausea had finally settled down, and I felt considerably better.
"Here. Wanna use it?"
What Rimi held out to me was a vermilion, floral-scented handkerchief.
I accepted it meekly. But I hesitated to use it.
"It's okay if you get it dirty."
"You can keep it."
I felt bad about it, but I decided that I might as well accept her generosity.
I wiped the edges of my bile-soiled mouth.
It was the first time I'd received a present from a girl outside my family. Although I wasn't sure whether or not I could call this a gift.
Because I had felt as if I were all alone in the world, even a little thing like this induced the same gratitude in me as something far more precious.
My happiness and relief threatened to make tears spill out again.
Rimi asked me in a carefree voice.
Apparently "we'll leave school together," her suggestion from before, was already a done deal.
Though I hadn't given her an answer yet.
Not that I had any intention of refusing.
I was frightened of being alone. I didn't want to be by myself.
I picked a different route from usual on the way back and proceeded cautiously, trembling all the while.
I was tormented by the delusion that Yua or "Shogun" might be around the corner each time I approached an intersection, and my legs would go weak, halting my progress.
At such times, Rimi would go ahead and scout out the road beyond the intersection, then turn back and nod at me.
Relieved, I followed after her.
Rimi went along with me without a single grimace.
"What on earth happened to you?"
I was a little torn over whether or not to tell her about it.
If I told her here, and if she, too, ended up being targeted by "Shogun".... it'd be my fault for getting her involved.
"Ah, if you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to force yourself--"
"I, I'll.... talk...."
I definitely didn't want to get her caught up in it. But if I didn't explain anything, Rimi wouldn't understand the gravity of my position.
For my own sake, I ultimately chose to close my eyes to the potential danger to Rimi.
She'd been the one to say she'd stay with me, so it's not like I was doing anything wrong....
The fact that "Shogun" was the true New-Gen criminal.
The fact that Yua was his underling.
The fact that they were targeting me.
What had happened in front of the 107 building.
When I spoke of how "Shogun" had appeared in front of me, riding his wheelchair, Rimi made a sober face and lapsed into thought.
I'd been thinking I wanted to ask her about that incident. This was the ideal opportunity to do so.
"I wonder if he was there.... an old man in a wheelchair."
There was so little confidence in her answer.
"Tr, try to remember...."
"It, it's really important...."
Rimi scrunched up her eyebrows, as if she didn't want to say it.
"It was the same as always."
That was how it must have appeared to Rimi at the time....
If possible, I'd wanted her to agree with me, but....
Was I mistaken, after all? Had that "empty Shibuya" been a delusion of mine?
But that created a slight problem.
The elderly, wheelchair-bound man who had appeared in the depopulated Shibuya--"Shogun."
How was I supposed to explain him?
If the "depopulation" had been delusionary, "Shogun" would have to be a delusion as well.
"Basically, I didn't see him. Tahaha...."
"Sorry I couldn't be of any help...."
At the very least, "Shogun" wasn't a figment of my imagination.
"Shogun" was real. "Shogun" existed.
But maybe the "empty Shibuya" part of it.... had been imaginary.
Even then, the area around the station had been overflowing with people.
And I alone had viewed a different kind of scenery.
What.... how could that be....?
Rimi pressed her hands together in supplication.
Truthfully, I wanted to go home to my base this very instant.
I'd come here, taking the long way, because I'd been considering the possibility that Yua and "Shogun" were lurking somewhere, not because I wanted to shop.
That'd be problematic.... I needed to have Rimi with me....
On my own, I wasn't even sure that I could make it back to my base.
All I could do was haltingly tag along after her.
Perhaps it would be ordinary to think that surely even someone like Yua wouldn't launch an attack on me with this many people around.
But my fear that they were hiding somewhere nearby, blending in with the rest of the crowd, far surpassed that.
I shrieked internally each time I came close to bumping shoulders with the people passing me by.
"There's a police car...."
Were those policemen searching for me, too....?
Or so I thought, but apparently that wasn't the case.
Were those people protestors?
They came equipped with various standard-issue items, from banners to posters with messages on them to forehead bands.
There were a variety of marchers, young and old, male and female alike.
They paraded solemnly along, but once in a while they'd cry out in unison.
Many of the posters were inscribed with messages like "Drive the demons away from our city!" "Protect Shibuya From Terrorists!"
This had to be a show of resistance against the New-Gen incidents.
There was no point in demonstrating about it....
If you've got that much free time on your hands, find and kill "Shogun." That way, all my worries will vanish....
"Let's go, Taku."
Unlike the J-pop corner, there weren't many customers in the vicinity.
Rimi stopped in front of the "F" shelf and began searching for the CD she had in mind.
But her shoulders soon sagged.
An indie group whose name began with F. Could it be....
As I'd guessed.... There was no way I wouldn't know. I'd been to one of their concerts, and I owned their CD.
Rimi smiled ruefully when I nodded.
"I'm always slow to catch on to that kind of news, and I only heard about them recently."
"I thought I'd borrow the CD from a friend, but they're all having trouble getting their hands on it."
"So I figured my only choice was to buy it, and I've been looking here and there for about a week now, but it's sold out everywhere I go."
"I wonder when they'll get a new shipment...."
"You have it... their CD, you mean?"
I nodded. And Rimi--
The sweet smell of shampoo that came floating from her hair tickled my nose, and I knew my face was getting flushed with heat.
"Say, Taku.... let's make a deal."
A, a deal....?
"If you lend me that CD, in return, I'll...."
She wore a terribly serious expression as she watched me.
Positive, Negative or Neutral?