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 muffled 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.”
“No need to worry about that,” Munakata cut him off lightly, glancing from behind his glasses 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?”
“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 hit 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 gratitude, and consider it.”
“In any case, I advice you to take a look at that school. You can decide after that.”
“Eh? What place?”
“N-No thanks. I’m still underage.”
“…I’m on duty,” the Scepter 4 member replied glumly.
“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’ attitudes 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…” Flustered, 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, flustered 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’m not here because I wanted.”
“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 embarrassed for a moment, regained his sarcastic attitude 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.”
“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 shit 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.
“—Yes, if that is what he wishes himself.”
“…FYI, our Captain is interested in headhunting him, too.”
“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 classes 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 embarrassing. 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 classroom made Hieda quicken his steps instinctively.
And then there was this spaciousness 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 bumpkin, 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.”
“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?”
“Eh? Fushimi-san, are you leaving already?”
“I hope you, too…”
“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. “Hello. 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.
“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.“
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 assaulted 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 embarrassment.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.