The Place You Called From

Volume 2, Chapter 13: The Place You Called From
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Volume 2, Chapter 13: The Place You Called From

Time passed in a blink, and before I knew it, it was the deadline of the bet, August 31st.

It was pouring rain from early in the morning. Appropriately bad weather for my last day, I thought, looking out the window. The weather report said it would rain all over the country all day. The TV showed a crowd of people with umbrellas at a scramble crossing in the city, and read out the estimated rainfall in each area.

Hajikano and I gave up on going outside and spent the day lying in the room, gazing at the rain from the porch, and watching disaster reports on TV. The fact that it was the last day is exactly why we didn't want to do anything special, just savor a meager but certain happiness.

In the evening, while listening to a record on a turntable found in the closet, Hajikano crept up and covered my back. Her hands came around to my chest, holding a fruit knife.

"Hey, Hinohara. I really enjoyed these ten days," she said. "It was really like a dream. When I lied down at night and turned off the light, I kept thinking, "maybe this is a dream I'm having unconscious after my suicide attempt." I was worried that the next time I woke up, I'd be in a hospital, all alone. ...But when I woke up in the morning and opened the screen, you were always there. And I was so happy to know it wasn't a dream, and that alone almost made me cry."

Hajikano stopped there.

"...So please," she said pleadingly, putting the knife in my hand.

I refused it, and she pouted. "Mean."

I took the knife from her hands and put it back in the kitchen. When I returned to the closet, Hajikano was lying down there.

She looked up at me and asked, "Do you not like seeing blood?"

"I dunno," I dodged.

"I don't mind strangling."

"I'll consider it."

"That way, I'll be able to feel your warmth to the end."

"I think you've already felt it plenty these past few days."

"Absolutely not. And it's not a matter of how much."

"Greedy, huh."

"That I am. You just realized?" She smiled.

This was when I finally noticed that the crying mole under her eye was gone. I got up close to her to look at her face and make sure it wasn't a mistake.

So that mole wasn't real after all. Hajikano had been seeking my help all along, with that distress signal she thought up in grade school.

"What's wrong?", Hajikano asked, blinking.

I hesitated for how to reply, but after a few breaths, only said "Nothing, it was just my imagination." Now, I was Yuuya Hinohara. Talking about the crying mole would be bizarre. That was within Yosuke Fukamachi's jurisdiction - and he would never appear before Hajikano ever again.

Looking at her at close range, Hajikano closed her eyes as if expecting something. I parted her bangs and lightly flicked her forehead. She opened her eyes and turned away with dissatisfaction. It was such a childish reaction, my face broke into a smile.

After dinner, I went to look outside, and the rain had become a light drizzle. We notified Yoshie reading the evening paper in her lounge chair and left the house. As I took an umbrella from the rack, she stopped my hand and shook her head. One was enough, she was saying.

We put our shoulders together under one umbrella, slowly walking to a coast about twenty minutes from the house. By the time we saw the light of a small lighthouse, the rain had completely stopped. We sat on the edge of the bank, listening to the sound of the waves.

"Hinohara," she said to me. "To tell the truth, there's something I need to apologize for."

"What do you mean?"

She took a deep breath before answering.

"Last night, I finished reading my diary."

I looked at her face dumbfounded. "...Why would you do that? Didn't you decide to stop remembering?"

"I'm sorry."

She lowered her head and gripped the edge of her skirt with her hands.

"Well, what did it say?", I asked.

Hajikano hesitated to answer that question for a long time.

I forced myself not to face the water, patiently waiting for her to start talking.

And finally, she broke the silence.

"Hinohara. Right now, I like you to a hopeless degree. But before I lost my memory, it seems that wasn't the case. At least until that moment she leapt into the sea, Yui Hajikano loved Yosuke Fukamachi."

Her words turned my world upside-down.

My mouth hung open.

She continued. "According to my diary, I attempted suicide another time in the middle of July. At a shrine park near my high school, I tried to hang myself. Yosuke was the one who saved me."

Then Hajikano pointed below her eye.

"Did you notice my crying mole here was a fake?"

I wordlessly nodded.

"This is a signal that only makes sense between Yui Hajikano and Yosuke Fukamachi. Like a distress signal, kind of. When you're hurting, but it's difficult to be honest about wanting help, you draw a mole under your eye to signal it. That's what we decided."

She put her hand under her eye and ran her finger down her cheek, like showing the path of a tear.

"Even after we went to separate middle schools, I would draw a mole under my eye when I wanted help, like it was a good luck charm. I kept that habit even after I lost my memory; not even knowing why I was doing it, after getting out of the bath or washing my face, every day I would mark under my eye with a marker. ...So when I got to high school and found Yosuke Fukamachi's name on the class roster, I felt like I was ascending to heaven. "Ahh, so Yosuke really came to save me.""

"But," I interrupted. "But Fukamachi was saying then that Hajikano seemed to hate him."

"Right. It's not that I hated him, but it's true I was trying to keep my distance," Hajikano said. "Because after that horrible incident, I couldn't look him in the eye. And I wanted Yosuke to just remember me as I was in grade school. I didn't want the memories of our time together being overwritten by seeing me in my shameful present state. ...For better or worse, Yosuke had an accident during spring break and was three months late to start school. So I was able to stay away from him for then."

She glanced toward me to see my reaction, then faced forward once more.

"When I met Yosuke again months later, I was really surprised. The birthmark that covered the right side of his face had cleanly vanished. When I saw him, I thought, "I don't want to burden him." If he knew the misery of my life, dutiful Yosuke would surely throw away everything to come to my aid. But I didn't want to interfere with his life like that, when he was free from the prejudice over his birthmark. So I resisted taking the hand he extended to me, and kept refusing him."

"...I think Fukamachi would be glad to know that," I said.

Hajikano grinned.

"As much distance as I put between us, Yosuke followed after me. He even clearly stated his fondness for me. I tried to bluntly push him away every time, but... truthfully, I was so happy, I didn't know what to do with myself. The thought that he was still thinking about me like this made my head spin with joy. But responding to his affection felt like fooling him, so I refrained. And I felt like there must be a girl much more fitting for Yosuke now than me."

"But ultimately, you ended up stargazing together," I appended.

"I'm so weak-willed," Hajikano said self-derisively. "In the end, I gave into temptation and started going with Yosuke to see the stars every night. In my heart, I told myself excuses. "I'm about to kill myself soon, so can't I dream a little at the end?""

"And then you met me and Chigusa."

"Right. ...Honestly, at first I didn't like giving up my time alone with Yosuke. But once we talked, I found that you and Chigusa were really great people, and I came to like you in no time. Only, Chigusa seemed to be interested in Yosuke, so I was always on edge watching them. Of course, I didn't let it show. Chigusa was pretty with almost no flaws and had an honest personality, so I thought she would have taken Yosuke from me soon enough."

Hajikano looked up at the night sky and sighed.

"It's strange, isn't it. Just a while ago, I was trying to keep Yosuke away, but now I couldn't help but feel regretful if someone else took him away. Even though I should have been supporting their relationship. ...That said, other than that, our days together were really wonderful. All three of you were at a comfortable distance where you'd turn away but let me hold your hand, so I was free to relax."

"...If that's the case, then why did you have to jump in the sea?"

She bowed her head and smiled worriedly. "I couldn't forgive myself for enjoying my life. It seemed wrong for someone who left two girls to die to be having such a wonderful youth. And yet, I kept desiring more and more happiness. I especially wished to get Yosuke back from Chigusa. I came to hate all of that about myself, so I jumped into the sea."

Her story seemed to end there. Hajikano looked at my face, and awaited my response to the whole thing.

Once my head was in order, I asked her.

"Do you still love Fukamachi now?"

"Yes," she nodded without hesitation. "I still love Yosuke. I've lost my memory, but reading my diary, it hit me. "Ahh, I do love this person." ...But it was a "love" that sat on the same line as affection shown to family and siblings. And different from the "love" I have for you, Hinohara. Because the first time I truly fell in love was the moment when you visited me in the hospital and embraced me."

With that, Hajikano leaned against me and hugged me.

Even I didn't know how I should feel.

In a sense, everything I had done up to now was completely off the mark.

In a sense, nothing I had done up to now was wrong in the slightest.

Something like that, surely.

*

But the story didn't end here.

That night, I met the witch.

*

When I woke up, the first thing I did was check the time. It seemed like I'd fallen asleep. Hajikano was leaning against my shoulder and sleeping, faintly breathing. My watch said it was 11:56 PM.

Though the bet would be up in less than five minutes, I was calm enough that even I found it strange. Maybe I had experienced enough happiness in these ten days for nearly a lifetime. So there was no need for hastiness. I couldn't decisively say there was nothing left undone, but to ask any more than this would be a luxury. Considering it was my life, you could call it complete.

I was glad Hajikano was asleep. If I vanished before she woke up, she wouldn't have to experience the decisive moment. Like a cat vanishing from its owner before it's about to die, I felt it would be good to die quietly while Hajikano didn't notice.

I stared at the second hand on the watch. The red hand relentlessly brought today toward tomorrow, second by second. It seemed like I would be in a staring contest with the numbers to the end at this rate, so I took off the watch and threw it into the sea. Then I laid Hajikano on the ground careful not to wake her, and quietly walked to the edge of the bank.

Time passed slowly. Less than five minutes felt like ten or even twenty. They say that before death, your mental activity goes up as your life flashes before your eyes, so maybe it's something like that, I thought at first.

But it really was a long four minutes. It was like the length of a second increased with each one. Or else with each second forward, tomorrow moved a little further away. I even thought that at this rate, I might never reach tomorrow. Like Achilles chasing after a tortoise he could never catch forever.

Just then, I heard footsteps behind me.

I turned around thinking that Hajikano had woken up, and when I saw the person there, I gulped.

The surprising thing was, when suddenly faced with that revealed truth, I was hardly perturbed. No, not even that. Hard as it was to believe, from my own reaction, it seemed that maybe I had expected her to show up from the beginning, and was just waiting for it to happen.

Perhaps, from some time ago, I had considered the possibility.

The wind blew, and the ribbon of Minagisa First High's uniform swayed over her chest.

"It has been a while, Fukamachi," Chigusa said.

"Yeah. Long time no see, Ogiue," I responded with a wave.

Chigusa sat at the edge of the water and looked up at me.

"May I have a cigarette?"

I took a pack from my pocket, pulled out the last one, and handed it to Chigusa. She put it in her mouth, and I held the lighter to her face. Chigusa coughed from the bitter taste and knit her brow.

"It really doesn't taste good, does it."

I stood next to Chigusa and gazed at her outfit once more. No mistaking it, she was the Chigusa Ogiue I knew. Her voice, her body, her scent, her behavior, it was all as I remembered it.

But it was also she who was the "woman on the phone," who'd offered me a bet.

"Don't talk too loud," I said. "I don't want to wake up Hajikano."

"Not to worry, she will not wake until dawn," Chigusa said with conviction.

"Did you do something to Hajikano?"

"Hm. Who can say?", she answered vaguely. "Really though, Fukamachi, you weren't surprised at all to see me. Amazing."

Once I was sure Hajikano was sound asleep, I talked to Chigusa.

"They got a replacement Miss Minagisa."

"Yes, I'm aware," she nodded. "What was she like?"

"I only saw her photo, but she was pretty."

"Hmm."

"Personally, though, I liked the previous one better."

"Is that so. Hooray," Chigusa raised her hands in delight.

I turned around again to make sure Hajikano wasn't awake.

Then I got to the point.

"There's one thing I don't understand."

"Only one? What is it?"

"What happened to the real Chigusa Ogiue? Or, was there a real girl named Chigusa Ogiue at all?"

"Rest easy," Chigusa replied quickly, as if expecting the question. "The real Chigusa Ogiue you met in the hospital safely left two months after you. She is doing fine now, in a distant town. ...And just as you've imagined, the Chigusa Ogiue you reunited with in high school was no more than a fictitious character I played. No such girl existed from the start."

"...I see. I'm relieved to hear that," I nodded deeply. "Well, turn me to foam, drown me, do as you please."

"Please, don't rush things. We have gotten to meet again, after all."

I shrugged. Even seeing the trick unveiled to me, I still had trouble believing this Chigusa was the same person as that woman on the phone. Their voices were different, of course. But that wasn't all. Chigusa to me was a symbol of innocence and harmlessness, and the woman on the phone, a symbol of maliciousness and harmfulness. I had trouble linking the two together. Even if I knew it to be factual in my head.

"Fukamachi, when did you start to find me suspicious?", Chigusa asked.

"I don't know." I shook my head. "But helping you with that reading practice definitely did something."

"It really was just coincidence I was picked as Miss Minagisa," Chigusa laughed heartily. "Don't you think that's ironic? For me to play the part of the mermaid, of all things."

"Yeah. It's ironic, alright," I agreed. "Hey, Ogiue. Can I ask one more thing?"

"So you'll still call me that name," Chigusa smiled. "What is it?"

"Did you put me through all that irrational stuff for some deeper reason than just being a pest?"

"Yes, that's right." She slowly nodded. "I wanted, this time, to make The Little Mermaid have a happy ending."

"...I see."

A dry laugh came out of my mouth.

"Seems like that was a failure, though."

Then Chigusa tilted her head. "...How do you mean?"

"I mean it couldn't be a happy ending."

After an unnaturally long pause, Chigusa suddenly put her hands to her mouth and laughed.

"You're so sharp, Fukamachi, and yet so slow where it's most important."

"What's so funny?", I asked, taking offense.

Chigusa took a deep breath to calm herself, and wiped tears of laughter from her cheek.

I couldn't understand what Chigusa was saying at all.

She stood up tall, and made a ceremonious declaration.

"Congratulations, Fukamachi. You've won the bet."

*

Like I explained before, The Mermaid of Agohama was like a mix of the legend of Yaobikuni told in Fukui, and Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. The story begins with a girl living in the little fishing village of Agohama eating the flesh of a mermaid her fisherman father caught without realizing what it was, and becoming immortal also without realizing it.

It was long, long ago.

For a few years after she ate the mermaid flesh, not a single person noticed the change to her body. It was very normal for growth to stop around her age, so even she never even thought that she had become immortal.

A decade later, everyone was astounded by her peculiar body. Compared to other girls her age, she was all too young-looking. White skin and glossy hair, just like a girl of fifteen or sixteen. And not only that. Ever since she ate the mermaid flesh, a difficult-to-describe charm radiated from the girl's body, even seeming as if she glowed slightly. Naturally, the young men of the village became entranced by her.

But after several decades, as others her age had their hair turning gray, the fact that she still showed no sign of aging began to feel definitely strange to the people of the village. There had simply been too few changes to her. It couldn't be dismissed as "liveliness" anymore. Was she really human?

Still more decades passed. By that time, most of the girl's friends had died. And though that much time had gone by, her body still showed no sign of age. She stood at the deaths of innumerable people, her heart worn down each time. When her last friend died, the girl decided to leave the village she was born in.

The girl became a Buddhist priestess, and went around the country in pursuit of death. In her long journey, she acquired Buddhist powers, and came to use them to heal the sick and give help to the poor. But she never found a means to be freed from her eternal life. As overwhelmingly many days went by, she became unable to even remember her own name. And by the time she forgot her reason for traveling, by coincidence, she arrived in her hometown.

...Up to this point, you'd be right to say there's no real difference between The Mermaid of Agohama and Yaobikuni. To get more exact, the legend of Yaobikuni also existed in places besides Fukui. Depending on the region, the protagonist could be a rich man's daughter, or given the mermaid flesh by a mysterious man, but they all shared the point of an immortal girl becoming a Buddhist priestess, wandering the country, and arriving back home.

The legend of Yaobikuni ends with the girl finally dying after arriving home. But in The Mermaid of Agohama, this is where the story truly begins. Back in her home fishing village after centuries, exhausted from a life full of others' death, the girl cut off communication with people and decided to live in the sea. Yet when she saw people in trouble, she couldn't help extending a hand, so as she brought people from shipwrecks to shore and saved people from drowning, she came to be worshipped in the village as a god of the sea.

One night, the girl saved a young fisherman drowning in a storm. The fisherman was hardly conscious, but he thanked the girl and tightly grabbed her hand. With this incident, she fell in love with the fisherman many centuries younger than her. Every time he went fishing, her heart beat fast. At those moments, she really was a girl of sixteen again.

One day, a few years later, a young mermaid came to the girl. The mermaid said she sought the aid of her powers. The girl listened, and found that the mermaid had fallen in love with a human man. She said she would make any sacrifice to become a human and live with the man. Thinking of the young fisherman, the girl sympathized with the mermaid's plight, and turned her tail into human legs. Not knowing that the man the mermaid loved and the young fisherman she loved were one and the same.

As they parted, the mermaid said: "What am I thinking, falling in love with a fisherman of all things? Even though my mother was killed by a fisherman..." The girl had a thought. What if, perhaps, her "mother killed by a fisherman" was that mermaid my father caught? Was it her mother's flesh I ate back then?

When she found out the mermaid's love was for that young fisherman, the girl regretted her actions. But she couldn't interfere with the course of the mermaid's love. I ate her mother's flesh, so I have a duty to advocate for her happiness. That's the least I can do to atone.

And so the young fisherman and the mermaid were wedded. The two had a happy life. It seemed as if there wasn't any room for displeasure. But there was an ironic twist of fate. One day, the mermaid couldn't bear not to tell her husband everything about her, and revealed that she had once been a mermaid, not a human. This set the tragedy into motion. The fisherman had lost both his parents in a storm when he was young, and it was believed in the village at the time that storms were caused by the singing of mermaids. As a result, he had a deep hatred of mermaids.

Upon learning that his wife was a mermaid, the fisherman despaired and threw himself into the raging sea. The mermaid jumped in to save him, but having lost her tail, she didn't even have the strength to carry him and swim. By the time the immortal girl came rushing over, they had long since drowned. The girl grieved, and decided to live alone at the bottom of the sea.

That was the gist of The Mermaid of Agohama.

But Chigusa made an addition.

"Then a few centuries passed, and while leaving the sea again after quite some time, the girl saved a drowning boy. The boy who felt somehow similar to that young fisherman, having some kind of thought, visited the beach near-daily afterward, and he began to weigh on the girl's heart. The boy came to love a certain girl, but feeling that he wasn't a suitable partner for her, seemed to keep those feelings in his chest. I want to help him, the girl thought. This time, I'll make it work. No mistakes like back then. I would make this boy's love succeed in the best possible way."

*

"I win?"

Chigusa nodded.

"Yes, that's right. You have surmounted many forms of adversity, marvelously ending up with a mutual love with Hajikano. Though it seems you haven't realized it yourself."

"What do you mean?", I said, my voice unconsciously raising. "That can't be right, can it? I mean, Hajikano..."

Chigusa interrupted. "Hajikano is not as slow as you think. She had long since seen that you were Yosuke Fukamachi assuming the name of Yuuya Hinohara."

I was too shocked to speak.

"Your long conversation earlier was a roundabout confession. She told you to your face that she had always loved you, and now loved you even more." Chigusa shrugged. "Did you really not notice that?"

My legs buckled and I collapsed on the spot. Chigusa chuckled at my reaction.

"It was convenient for her as well to remain fooled. She hesitated to admit her affection to Fukamachi, but if it were "Yosuke Fukamachi as Yuuya Hinohara," she could share her feelings without it weighing on her."

I ran through my interactions with Hajikano in the past few days in my head.

That time... and that time... that that time...

Hajikano knew who I really was, and still accepted my affection?

I lied down face-up and put a hand over my face. "I was a fool."

"Yes, you rather were," Chigusa agreed.

"So basically, everything was set up for me from the start?"

"That's correct."

I pulled my hand away. "So then why did you take such roundabout actions? If you just wanted to make my love succeed, was there any point to removing my birthmark, any point to appearing before me as Chigusa Ogiue?"

"I wanted the two of you to experience every kind of hardship. Taking away your birthmark, your ultimate weapon which earned you Hajikano's sympathy; borrowing the appearance of Chigusa Ogiue to shake your feelings; creating a situation where there was no salvation except by killing Hajikano - I wanted to have it proven that you could both overcome it all."

"...I get it," I said. "Come to think of it, that letter you sent mentioned "a way for both of us to survive." Was that a trap?"

"Yes. Hajikano saw who you really were because you were constantly attending to her for ten days. If you had followed the letter and chosen to search for "the woman on the phone," you would have very little time together, and it would have likely been impossible for her to realize who you really were by today."

I was starting to accept it, but then a new doubt appeared. "But, that one time, you linked the calls to make an opportunity for me and Hajikano to talk, right? What was that about? Just on a whim?"

Chigusa scratched her cheek with a troubled look. "That was completely outside of my expectations. I did not imagine you would try to burn your face. I mean, there would have been no purpose to it. I was stunned, but at the same time, I rather admired it. I saw you really would go that far for Hajikano. In deference to that recklessness, I allowed you to talk on the phone for just ten minutes. ...By the way, do you have an ashtray?"

"Nope. Put it in here."

I offered her the empty pack. She grinned, put the cigarette butt in her hand, then held it up to me. A moment later, the cigarette butt had turned into a white camellia. Unlike my magic tricks, there was probably no secret to this one. She handed me the flower with a cocky look. I held it to my nose; it had a faint sweet smell.

"Kind of a pity about Hinohara," I said, looking at the flower. "He seemed pretty fond of Ogiue."

"Is that a fact?" Chigusa put her hands together and her eyes widened. "But not to worry. By dawn, there won't be anyone left who remembers me."

"And I'm no exception?"

"Right. Aren't you glad?"

I didn't want to answer that question. I felt like I'd flat-out regret answering, whether I was honest or not.

"I've been fooling you all this time, haven't I?", Chigusa said peacefully. "I played the part of the fictitious "Chigusa Ogiue" smiling to myself with all these thoughts of "if I behave like this, surely it will shake Fukamachi's resolve." Feel free to be more angry."

"...Yeah, that might be true." I took my eyes off the camellia, stood up, and turned back to Chigusa. "But even so, I liked the time I spent with you. And I think maybe you might not have hated your time with me, either. Isn't that right?"

"...You hit where it hurts," Chigusa said, trying to conceal her emotion, and hit my chest with her forehead. "You really are a bad person, Fukamachi."

"We're in the same boat there," I said.

Chigusa raised her face and smiled sadly. "At first, I simply approached you to fulfill the role of testing your devotion. But half a month into performing as Chigusa Ogiue, I realized I was deeply enjoying the role. I was swallowed up by the fictional person I'd created. I got so into my part, I even forgot who I really was at times. The times I spent with you, Fukamachi, truly were as "Chigusa Ogiue," forgetting all my past. ...But, oh well. It's not my first experience with heartbreak. I can't be wounded by such things."

She parted from my chest, stood on the edge of the water with her back to it, looked up at the night sky, then turned back to me.

"I shall reveal one last secret from my bag of tricks. About the birthmark I removed from your face, Fukamachi. To tell the truth, it would have gone away with time from the start. I only slightly accelerated the time it took to do so. Practically the same as doing nothing."

I thought for a bit, then shook my head. "That "slight acceleration" was really important. If I still had the birthmark at the time of our reunion, I think the relationship between me and Hajikano would be more codependent and destructive. So, thanks."

"Don't mention it." Chigusa smiled with her eyes shut. "...Now, Fukamachi. Even once I go, please don't slack off. You still have one final job left to do."

"One final job?"

Chigusa whispered something. As I brought my ear closer to make out what she was saying, she stood up and softly put her lips on my cheek.

After smiling with satisfaction over my surprise, Chigusa leapt from the edge of the water. I reflexively tried to grab her hand, but I didn't make it in time. A moment later, I saw her land on the water. Not in the water, but on. Like there were an invisible one-centimeter floor above the water, she walked soundlessly on the surface. I stood there in amazement, seeing her off.

After walking about ten meters, she turned around.

"Goodbye, Fukamachi. I'd never had such a fun summer before. My one regret has been settled, so now I can finally put an end to myself."

Immediately after, a gust of wind blew, so strong that I couldn't keep my eyes open.

When the wind stopped and I opened my eyes again, Chigusa had vanished.

*

The horizon was dyed orange, and I saw a faint yellow-green on the boundary with the deep blue sky. Early-morning higurashi buzzed and sparrows chirped, and the outlines of things gradually became clear. The white rays of the sun drew a boundary line along the sea which sparkled in the morning sun, perpendicular to the horizon. A morning calm came to heat up the ground, and the wind I'd felt on my skin for a long time came to a stop.

Hajikano, sleeping on my lap, opened her eyes. She smiled as she saw my face. "Good. You're still here." She sat up and clung to me tightly, rubbing her cheek against mine to be sure I was really there.

"Hey, Hajikano. It seems that I won't have to die yet after all."

"...Really?"

"Really. I guess I can keep staying here."

"Until when?"

"Until, whenever."

"Always?"

"Yes, always."

"You're not lying?"

"Yeah. I've given up on lying to you, Hajikano. So you don't have to act like you're being fooled, either."

After a few seconds of silence, I felt her body suddenly heat up in my arms.

"Yosuke?", Hajikano asked timidly.

"Yeah," I nodded. "Not Hinohara anymore."

Hajikano lifted her head and looked at my face closely.

"Welcome back, Yosuke."

"Yeah. I'm back."

Keeping her arms around me, Hajikano shyly smiled and closed her eyes.

And I carried out the "final job" Chigusa had taught me.

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