[I’ll remember this! I’ll never forgive you!]
The feelings of hatred from those men have taken residence in my mind.
At night, when I close my eyes on my bed, I repeatedly hear voices of resentment.
Is it neurosis or PTSD?
I’m probably suffering from some kind of mental illness.
However, I have no intention of curing it.
Rather, I struggle every day to ensure that I keep hearing these voices.
No matter what else I forget, I must never forget these voices and feelings.
That’s what I vowed.
“Naho, introduce Hirao-kun to me.”
“No, no, it’s better to stop. He’s into some shady martial arts place, and it’s a bit sketchy.”
“A shady martial arts place?”
“Yes, it’s in a run-down, crumbling building, and you frequently hear strange and angry voices coming from inside.”
“But in a martial arts place, isn’t it normal to hear things like ‘Kiai!’?”
“If it were just that, it’d be fine. But you can also hear angry shouts and even screams.”
“Screams!? That sounds really bad. Such a shame since he’s good-looking.”
Oi oi, they’re talking about me here. They might think it’s okay because I’m sitting far apart, but I’ve trained myself to have keen hearing, so I don’t miss even the slightest sound.
I’ve heard similar conversations many times before, so it’s not shocking, but I should be careful not to do this with other people.
Naho Kusano is my childhood friend, and we used to be close until elementary school. But ever since I started going to that sketchy martial arts place, she’s been avoiding me. Now, we don’t even exchange greetings. Naho has distanced herself from me and is enjoying her student life.
“Ah, I wonder if there’s a good guy somewhere.”
It seems Naho’s female friends have given up on me quickly. I’m relieved it won’t turn into a hassle. I don’t have the time for romance right now.
“If he’s not handsome, then there are plenty of other guys, right?”
“Anyone other than a handsome guy is out of the question.”
“You’re still the same, huh?”
“Are you, Naho, who used to date a handsome guy, saying that?”
I wonder if they’re talking about Keitan-kun. He is certainly good-looking even from a guy’s perspective, but they should have broken up by now.
“I’m saying it because I used to date him. Men, just because they have a good face, easily date multiple people at once.”
“Yeah, with someone as handsome as him, I wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s still too early for Naho to have matured in love.”
I think that’s not quite true about women’s views on love.
“What? Naho, don’t you still like handsome guys after all? You’re aiming for Komine-senpai from the soccer club, right?”
“N-No, I’m not targeting him just because he’s handsome. It just happened that the person I liked turned out to be good-looking.”
“Oh, come on, is that so? But Komine-senpai is pretty popular, so it might be tough. I want to pursue him too, but it’s hard to get close with all the other girls guarding him.”
“Why are you so confident? Wait, don’t tell me!”
“He asked me out on a date next weekend.”
“Kiiiii! Why is it always Naho!”
Heh, Naho has found a new guy. I hope she doesn’t get cheated on this time.
The timing couldn’t be worse, but it’s my duty to protect her everyday happiness. It’s not pleasant to see their lovey-dovey moments, but I’ll put in the effort.
They might be coming soon.
It happened when we were in sixth grade. When I passed by Naho’s house, there were several police cars parked in front of it. I got anxious not knowing what had happened and approached. Two unfamiliar men were being apprehended by the police and brought out of the house.
[I’ll remember this! I’ll never forgive you!]
They glared at Naho’s house with hatred in their eyes and uttered those words as they were pushed into the police car, leaving behind those parting words.
I had no idea what had happened, and I stared in shock as the police car drove away. Naho’s father noticed me and explained what had happened.
The men had tried to frame Naho’s father for fraud, but Naho’s father noticed their scheme and, with the help of a police acquaintance, turned the tables on them and had them arrested.
Naho and her mother had refuge to her grandmother’s house and were unaware of the recent events, and I didn’t want to worry her, so I had decided not to tell her.
But since I had seen the police car and the men being taken away, he explained everything to me and asked me not to say anything to Naho.
I didn’t fully understand it, but when someone tells me that he doesn’t want to cause worry to Naho, I can only nod in agreement. However, I gradually became anxious.
The angry voices of those men kept resurfacing in my mind at unexpected times, and I was overcome with a dreadful premonition.
What if those scary guys try to do something to Naho? They are in custody now, so she should be safe, right? But wouldn’t they eventually be released from prison?
I looked up the penalties for fraud, and it could be up to ten years, but usually less than five.
Five years. In other words, they might be released when we are in our second year of high school. Is it possible that they might seek revenge on Naho’s family? Could Naho be in danger?
Back then, I think I liked Naho. Of course, it was a childhood crush, not a real romantic feeling.
I wanted to be by her side, to continue playing together happily just like before. But I also wanted to protect the Naho of five years from now.
Because I’m a fool, then and now, I couldn’t think of a way to have both. And because I’m a simpleton, I could only come up with a straightforward solution.
There was a suspicious, run-down dojo on the outskirts of town. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the old man who owned the dojo there listened to my wish and trained me.
To protect Naho, I had to give up being close to her and sought only the strength to safeguard her.
As a result, Naho distanced herself from me, and our relationship was completely severed.
But that was okay. If she was happy, then it was fine.
In middle school, seeing her happily smile next to the handsome guy, I felt jealous and, at the same time, wanted to protect that smile.
For Naho’s sake, I would…
And now, we’re in our second year of high school. They’ve been released.
I wonder why Naho’s father was so despised by them. The time has come much sooner than expected.
To protect Naho.
But that doesn’t mean I’m watching her all the time. If that were to be discovered, I’d end up in jail, and my purpose would be defeated.
I’m particularly cautious during her commute times. Fortunately, most of Naho’s route is heavily trafficked, making it difficult for someone to act recklessly.
However, there’s one spot where few people pass by – in front of an abandoned house.
If those guys were to investigate Naho’s movements and plan an attack, I’m sure this would be the place.
For a while now, I’ve been sneaking into the yard of this abandoned house during her commute home, watching over her to ensure she safely returns.
And then, it happened on a Friday, just before Naho’s date with Komine-senpai.
“(She seems so excited.)”
She appeared to be looking forward to the date, almost skipping with joy.
I want to protect that smile. Well, not really.
Naho passes by the abandoned house as usual. Maybe today will end without any problems.
Just when I thought that, a suspicious car started following her.
It was a large minivan, with windows obscured to prevent seeing inside. It was moving at an unnaturally slow pace.
I burst out of the abandoned house and chased after her.
My prediction was correct; she was about to be attacked by those men and pulled into the car.
“Damn, he found us! Hurry up!”
Naho’s mouth was covered by one of the men’s hands, preventing her from screaming.
Damn, I failed! I wanted to show myself and make them give up without laying a hand on Naho, but I was too late.
If their intentions were murder instead of kidnapping, it would have already been over.
But there’s no time for regrets. Naho was about to be forced into the car before I could catch up.
“Hurry up! Let’s get out of here!”
I won’t allow it!
I threw something small in my hand toward the car. It sailed over the car’s roof and landed in front of the windshield.
Before it hit the ground, it burst and fluorescent paint splattered across the windshield.
It was a fluorescent paint bomb with a remote trigger that the old man from the dojo had taught me to make.
Well, the old man was strict about everything, not just this.
With their vision obscured, the driver hesitated and couldn’t drive off.
In the meantime, I tightly wrapped a towel around my right hand.
I threw my full-power right straight at the rear-side window of the car.
“W-What’s going on!?”
Naho was being held down by the men.
While they were still startled by the shattered window, I reached into the car, unlocked it from the inside, and then forcefully pulled the man who was closest to me out of the car.
“You… What… guuh!”
I silenced him with a powerful kick, and now it was Naho’s turn.
“Y-you little brad, don’t move!”
One of the men attempted to thrust a knife at Naho’s throat.
Too slow. During the training sessions with the old man, I had envisioned dealing with opponents who were much faster.
I grabbed the blade of the knife with my right hand wrapped in a towel and forcefully wrested it away. It stung a bit, but I didn’t care.
I delivered a straight punch to the man’s face, and while he was down, I pulled Naho out of the car.
There was still a man in the driver’s seat, so I couldn’t let my guard down.
Wait, there are three of them? They had accomplices?
I punctured the tires with the stolen knife while keeping an eye on the man in the driver’s seat and moved away from the car, protecting Naho.
“You! How dare you do this!”
The man in the driver’s seat became furious and came at me with a knife, but I wasn’t scared at all. The old man was much scarier.
Once again, I grabbed the blade of the knife with my right hand and blocked his attack. Then, I swung my foot up between his legs with all my might, effectively neutralizing him.
With the others incapacitated, I contacted the police as per the training with the old man.
I managed to do it just like I practiced. My right hand was a bit sore, but Naho was safe, so I’ll consider it a pass.
Naho, however, was either overwhelmed by fear or shock and had collapsed on the spot.
Crap, I messed up. I might have planted a traumatic experience in her.
I didn’t want to scare her. I wanted her to enjoy her daily life without any incidents.
I messed it all up because I was late.
Even though I’ve been trying so hard since that day.
I continued to wallow in self-disgust as the sound of sirens grew louder and louder.
Afterwards, after finishing various tasks like going to the hospital, participating in police interview, and reporting to the old man, I went to school.
It’s all over now…
Things didn’t go as planned, but at least I don’t have to worry about Naho being attacked anymore. I don’t need to watch over her like before.
By the way, I haven’t seen Naho since that incident.
When I entered the classroom, I saw Naho. She had managed to come to school and was chatting with friends as usual. It seemed that the incident and our involvement were still unknown to others. Even in this age of information, some things can remain hidden.
For years, I had been living solely for Naho’s sake. My sole purpose was to protect her. Now that it was achieved, I didn’t know what to do.
Naho, who was seated nearby, engaged in a conversation, but the guy soon lost interest after receiving curt responses. I had distanced myself from others and used all my time to protect Naho, so it was only natural that others had lost interest.
Now, what should I do? I had lived for Naho’s sake, thinking about nothing else, and now that she was safe, I felt empty.
“How was your date with Komine-senpai?”
“Ah~ I had some urgent business, so I couldn’t go.”
“Haa?! Seriously? There’s nothing more important than a date with Komine-senpai!”
“Don’t tell me you thought you were going on a date, but you were the only one who showed up at the meeting place?”
“No, that’s not it! I contacted Senpai properly, and we agreed to reschedule the date.”
Naho’s date with Komine-senpai got canceled because of that incident on Friday. But it was good to hear that they planned to reschedule.
I should have known. She must have been feeling awful because of that horrible incident. It was a relief that she still had a smile on her face.
I hadn’t considered it, but perhaps I should find something enjoyable to do now. Maybe I could continue going to the dojo with the old man and eventually inherit it.
I just don’t feel motivated.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”
I was planning to take a short nap before class started, but suddenly, someone spoke to me. To my surprise, it was Naho.
“After school, I want to talk.”
Of course. How did I not realize this? Naho has no idea what’s going on. She probably wants to know.
“Hey, Naho, what’s going on? Aren’t you dating Komine-senpai?”
“It’s not like that. Just wait.”
“Don’t tell me it’s a love triangle!? Naho~”
“I told you, it’s not like that!”
Haha, she’s causing misunderstandings by talking to me so openly.
Naho always has been a bit careless in that regard.
Komine-senpai is probably in for some trouble too.
“Thank you for helping me. And sorry for being late with my gratitude.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
At a small, deserted shrine where I used to play with Naho as a child, she thanked me for my help in the recent attack incident.
And she asked a simple question.
“I just happened to be passing by.”
I replied curtly.
“Do you think I’ll believe that?”
“Even if you don’t, it’s the truth.”
If she found out that I had sacrificed everything to protect her, it would only complicate things. I’d rather she thought poorly of me than feel indebted.
I had resolved to deny everything no matter what she said. After all, she had no way of knowing the truth.
“What if I told you I went to the dojo you go to and found out everything?”
Come on, old man. I asked you to keep quiet. Naturally, he couldn’t resist poking fun at me.
“What should I do…”
I had no answer to that.
“You just started going to that strange dojo out of the blue, got involved in some weird cult-like stuff, and tried to stay away from me because it seemed creepy, and now you’re telling me it was all for my sake. What am I supposed to do with that!”
I didn’t have an answer for that either.
But it was my own doing. If I had handled things better and hadn’t given her a reason to suspect anything, she wouldn’t be in such distress.
“Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to do anything.”
That was my hope all along. I just wanted her to enjoy a normal, uneventful life.
“If you’re happy, Naho, that’s all that matters.”
Even if there were hardships, as long as they were within the boundaries of everyday life, it was fine. Even if there were no hardships, that was still wonderful. I had always hoped to see her happy.
“What’s that supposed to mean!”
Did I make her angry?
Maybe she thought I was trying to hide behind fancy words.
“Is that enough for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you satisfied with your life, doing all this for someone like me? Sacrificing your middle school years, nearly half your high school life… Are you truly satisfied?”
I replied without hesitation.
Of course, there were difficulties.
Times when I wanted to give up.
But you know…
I got to see the person I loved living every day with a smile. If I couldn’t be satisfied with that, I’d be a fool.
I wouldn’t go to such lengths to protect someone from a tragedy that might not even happen if I weren’t a little crazy.
“Just because you helped me doesn’t mean I’m going to fall for you.”
“I know. I’d rather you forget about me completely than feel obligated or burdened.”
“What are you going to do?”
“At the very least, I won’t interfere with your life anymore.”
“You’re really an incurable idiot.”
I’ve always been an idiot, then and now.
After that, daily life could truly be called peaceful. Naho had no contact with me, and there were no events or troubles.
The only issue was that I couldn’t muster the will to do anything. Maybe it was a form of burnout. I thought I’d quickly find something else to be interested in, but I got bored with everything I tried. I felt empty.
Even when I went to the dojo, the old man told me I’d finished what I needed to do and send me away. I thought about studying for my studies’ sake, but I had no goals, so I lacked motivation. I couldn’t get into anime or manga either.
“I guess I’ve really fallen apart,” I muttered under my breath, even though I was in the classroom.
No, it wasn’t even a feeling of boredom; I couldn’t even feel ‘myself’ to that extent. I felt as if I could disappear from the world at any moment. That peculiar sensation of always being in a daze forced me into awareness with that sudden shout.
“What! Naho, you turned down Senpai!?”
It was one of Naho’s friends.
“Why are you shouting like that? Besides, I haven’t even been confessed to.”
“But you turned down the date.”
“Well, there were various reasons.”
“Could it be that Senpai was also seeing someone else?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Umm, it’s a secret.”
Hey, that’s not right. I’ve already decided I won’t care about Naho anymore.
I do wish for her happiness, but I have no intention of pushing her.
It was just classmates chattering away.
Or so I thought.
On the way home that day, Naho called out to me.
I thought she’d never talk to me again, so why now?
“Are you free next Sunday?”
Maybe she’s mistaking me for someone else.
Alright, I’ll just ignore her.
“Hey, don’t ignore me.”
She grabbed my shoulder and forcibly stopped me.
“Why are you talking to me like this?”
“We don’t need to be so distant. Aren’t we childhood friends?”
Why does she want to know if I’m free on Sunday?
“Because I want to go on a date with you.”
“Oh, that surprised look you just had, it reminds me a little of how you used to be.”
Well, of course I’d be surprised. I’d already decided I wasn’t in her thoughts anymore.
“You, why would you…”
“Well, I don’t like you.”
“Why go on a date, then?”
“Well, because you always look so bored. So, I thought I’d entertain you.”
What would Naho gain by doing that?
She’s dealing with a guy she doesn’t like and who’s awkward and hard to engage with.
“You said it yourself, didn’t you? That if I’m happy, then it’s all good for you.”
Yeah, I did say that. I genuinely meant it.
“Well, I also want you to be happy.”
Make me happy?
“Well, you see, if someone who saved you is looking so miserable, wouldn’t that bother you?”
Is she really trying to get involved with me for such a reason? Is she really trying to go on a date with a guy she doesn’t even like?
Or could it be that she turned down Senpai for this?
“What the hell is that!?”
If that’s the case, then it’s like I’m interfering with Naho’s happiness!
“Hahaha, oh, this is hilarious.”
“Why are you laughing?”
“Because, well, you know, you’re saying the exact same things I did. Maybe it’s intentional?”
Same things… Oh, right. Naho was furious when I said “What the hell is that?”
“Do you understand my feelings a bit now?”
…My spine shivered.
Naho’s eyes were intense, as if she could see into my heart, and it sent a shiver down my spine.
“Go through some pain too.”
Sacrificing her own life to make someone else happy.
Even if that’s what she want, it’s still painful for the person being protected.
To go that far for someone like me. How can I repay that?
Naho wants me to experience the same feelings she did. She wants me to suffer, even if it means sacrificing her own life to save mine.
“It’s a bit shocking to see that expression. I’m not going on a date with you reluctantly, you know.”
There’s no way that’s true.
After all, she used to find me disgusting.
“That’s because you were ‘disgusting’ due to hanging around that weird dojo. But now I understand the reasons, so it doesn’t bother me as much.”
That’s a lie.
Once disgust forms, even if you know the reasons, it’s not easy to just erase it. There must still be some negative feelings towards me inside Naho.
She’s probably deceiving herself.
“And also, I like handsome guys. Did you know? You’re actually quite popular among the girls.”
No, that’s just ridiculous.
There’s no way I could be considered handsome.
But, come to think of it, Naho’s friend did say something like ‘his face is good-looking’…
“So, that settles our date.”
“Wait a second!”
“Come on, what’s wrong? Besides,”
“We both don’t like each other yet and there’s some awkwardness, but if we both end up liking each other, isn’t it a win-win situation?”
I’ve been watching over Naho from up close all this time.
So, I thought I could understand everything about her.
But maybe I was completely mistaken.
“So, work hard to make me fall for you, Hiro.”
When I was a child, my nickname was Hiro, short for hero.
Naho’s smile, as she mentioned that nickname from when we were still close, was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before. It felt like something was being poured into my empty heart.