Chapter 15:

The Stalker

The Hero Who Returned Remains Traumatized in the Modern World

Approach her softly; don’t do anything rash.Bookmark here

You’re not talking to Hope. You’re meeting somebody new, who has never heard of such a thing as “Alterra”.Bookmark here

That was the advice given to me by Furukawa at our most recent meeting. I couldn’t befriend Hope with the idea that I was going to “save” her, or even because I wanted to reconnect with her.Bookmark here

I had to introduce myself with the idea that she was just somebody new that I wanted to meet.Bookmark here

It wasn’t Hope. It was just a girl. That’s what I had to believe, or else I would only be causing trouble for everybody involved.Bookmark here

That was how things had to be.Bookmark here

It was for the best.Bookmark here

After spotting her in the hallway once again, I saw her walk into classroom 3-B. Of course, I knew that was wrong, and also a bit strange to be following her. It could be called stalking by some, or just observation by others.Bookmark here

But I didn’t care.Bookmark here

“Hey, excuse me.”Bookmark here

I called out to one of her classmates, who had just begun to walk out the door.Bookmark here

“Huh? Are you talking to me?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. Would you mind calling over... that girl over there? I need to talk to her.”Bookmark here

I peeked my head into the door, awkwardly scoping out the room to find Hope. Near the back of the classroom, one seat right from the window, there she was, talking to the girl next to her with a conceited attitude.Bookmark here

Hope.Bookmark here

Or rather, the girl I wanted to acquaint myself with.Bookmark here

“Oh, you mean Takao?”Bookmark here

So that was her full name; Kaori Takao.Bookmark here

“Yeah, her.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, hold on a moment.”Bookmark here

He turned around and headed back into the classroom in her direction, before saying something and giving me a point. I couldn’t make out their conversation, but the one who returned to me at the door wasn’t her, but instead the boy again.Bookmark here

“She says you must have the wrong person. Are you sure it was her?”Bookmark here

“I know it’s her. Look, could you just tell her that I want to apologize? Some rough things happened, is all.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know… That sounds kind of personal, and I don’t think it’s really my place to be getting involved. Sorry, but good luck.”Bookmark here

He quickly turned around and walked past me out the door, clearly eager to free himself from the situation.Bookmark here

It was frustrating, but there was no helping it. It was an uncomfortable thing to be in the middle of, after all. He wasn’t in the wrong.Bookmark here

I would just have to find some other way to talk to her.Bookmark here

With a little more following after class, I found out another piece of information. Apparently, she was in the basketball club.Bookmark here

It made sense considering her height. And if she was anything like back on Alterra-Bookmark here

No, she wasn’t from Alterra. She was just a girl named Kaori Takao.Bookmark here

Kaori Takao, who I wanted to befriend.Bookmark here

Of course, I found myself at the gym during the girls’ basketball team’s next after-school practice session. And there she was, playing in boyish shorts and a long, thin tank top jersey. Her build was a lot more lean than back in- than I was expecting, and she seemed quite light on her feet, too.Bookmark here

Yet somehow, I could still recognize her movements. It was as if she moved in the way that Hope would have, if she became a basketball player rather than a paladin.Bookmark here

But this girl’s name was Kaori.Bookmark here

I stood there watching her step, run, and pivot across the court over the course of several practice exercises and mock matches, making sure to soften my presence so not to be noticed. My original intention was to ask to see her during the nearest break, but I found myself captivated by the way she played. She was tall on her own, but her wide stride and large presence on the court made everything else around her feel just a little smaller.Bookmark here

That was like her, to take the spotlight like that without meaning to, despite preferring the sidelines.Bookmark here

It was like Hope, to be more specific.Bookmark here

This girl was named Kaori.Bookmark here

She was beautiful when she did anything, really. But just her swift movements and high jumps alone were fun to watch; it piqued my interest in basketball a little more as a sport, and I figured I might try to ask more about it once we got to talking. I ended up watching all the way into the late evening, when their practice ended and everybody began cleaning up. It was then that I noticed a certain other girl whose face I recognized.Bookmark here

We made eye contact.Bookmark here

You!Bookmark here

Her sweaty, freckled face scrunched as she stomped towards me. I expected a yell, but instead she pushed me out into the dim light of sunset, away from her teammates before speaking in a low whisper.Bookmark here

“Give me one good reason not to call my coach over and report you for sexual harassment again.Bookmark here

Somehow, I got enveloped in the secretive mood, and my words came out as a whisper as well.Bookmark here

“I just wanted to- how is this sexual harassment!?”Bookmark here

“You’re stalking her! Ogling her in her sports clothes, you’re a fucking pervert, you know that?”Bookmark here

“I am not a pervert! I came here to apologize. I wanted to before too, but I couldn’t get to her in the classroom. She thought I was looking for the wrong person.”Bookmark here

“You followed Kaori to her classroom too? Are you mental?”Bookmark here

“I don’t care what you call me! Can I just talk to her, so I can apologize for the other day?”Bookmark here

This girl was extremely irritating, finding an accusation in just about every word that came out of my mouth.Bookmark here

I did follow her though, so it wasn’t like she was necessarily wrong to say it. It was nice to think that Hope-Bookmark here

That Kaori had such a protective friend to help her.Bookmark here

“Have you ever considered that the mere sight of you terrifies her after what you did before? Don’t you think she’s just trying to avoid you, so that she doesn’t have to deal with a creepy, dangerous pervert!?”Bookmark here

“Hope isn’t that kind of person!”Bookmark here

“What’s with that? Her name isn’t Hope, so why do you keep calling her that? And what would you know about her?”Bookmark here

I messed up.Bookmark here

“Look. My point is, she wouldn’t just avoid somebody because she was scared to talk to them. Even if she wants nothing to do with some creep harasser, she’d still give them the time of day if they asked. She’s just… like that.”Bookmark here

The girl cracked. It seemed that I wasn’t the only one in this world who knew her well.Bookmark here

“Then how do you know her? Are you some ex-friend she rejected, or some kind of creepy fan of hers? Spill it, before I spill your guts!”Bookmark here

“It’s none of your business! If you believe me now, then just let me go talk to her myself!”Bookmark here

“Over my heeled corpse! Now tell me how you know her, so I can report you properly!”Bookmark here

“I…”Bookmark here

What was I supposed to say? The truth?Bookmark here

Of course not.Bookmark here

I had no choice but to lie.Bookmark here

“I met her in Alterra, another world that I came from. We were childhood friends who saved the world together, along with 3 others.”Bookmark here

WHAM!Bookmark here

Immediately, a knuckled fist barrelled directly into my stomach.Bookmark here

“I knew it; you’re full of shit! If I ever see your ugly chuuni face in her vicinity from this point onward, you’re fucking dead.”Bookmark here

And suddenly I was alone again, crouched over and holding my lower abdomen.Bookmark here

How was I supposed to get to her?Bookmark here

Or perhaps the girl was right. Maybe I didn’t deserve to see her at all. I had already messed up my chance, and now she was just afraid of me.Bookmark here

How much did I really understand about Kaori Takao? If she really was Hope, how did she even get to this world? I saw her die with my own two eyes. Could it be possible that she, too, had originally been born on earth?Bookmark here

No, that wasn’t possible considering Enigma's strong effect on her.Bookmark here

So then who was Kaori really? Where did she come from? What was her relation to Hope, if they weren't the same person?Bookmark here

I had to know- no, I wanted to know.Bookmark here

♙♙♙♙♙Bookmark here

Earth didn’t have a god. But if it did, they must have taken pity on me.Bookmark here

"Uhm, excuse me. A- are you Todoya?"Bookmark here

It was lunch time the next day, and my full focus was on the croquette in my hands. But that voice; the one I'd recognize anywhere, caught me off guard. The way she addressed me; as a stranger with a different name than what she used to call me; it felt foreign, yet nostalgic. It reminded me of our days in the capital city when we had first met.Bookmark here

"I am."Bookmark here

I looked just above her eyes, at her hair. It was straight and tied in a very basic ponytail, not tended to or cared for at all. She must have given up on taking care of it, unlike in the other world where she had maids to do it for her. Hope had always been under the impression that she didn't look good enough to put effort into her looks, after all. But even on Alterra, she usually wore minimal makeup and boyish attire. Her family had originally planned for a boy, and raised her as such.Bookmark here

Was Kaori the same?Bookmark here

"E- excuse me?”Bookmark here

“Oh, sorry! Uhm, that’s me. Jiro Todoya. You’re… Takao, right?”Bookmark here

I received a single nod of affirmation in response.Bookmark here

She was still adorable.Bookmark here

“I- it seems you’ve been mistaking me for another girl named “Hope”, but you were so persistent, so I just… wanted to come ask you about it.”Bookmark here

Timid.Bookmark here

Introverted.Bookmark here

Unsocial.Bookmark here

And yet, she still felt a need to reach out to me on her own accord. She still felt a need to hear me out fairly.Bookmark here

This girl was, without a doubt, the same one that I had fallen in love with back in Fortain.Bookmark here

“Your hair.”Bookmark here

“M- my hair?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. It used to be the same color as mine, before it turned to this dim, darker color.”Bookmark here

I brushed the side of my head, to show her my uninteresting features.Bookmark here

“Ah, uhm… I don’t really like my hair…”Bookmark here

“Why not?”Bookmark here

She began to run her hands through her straight ponytail, as if to give the same visual aid to her own reasoning. Her expression became solemn and dim as she did.Bookmark here

“It’s thin, and not very flashy or shiny. But, I- I don’t really want to stand out anyway, so I guess it’s okay. And I don’t take care of either, so part of it is my own fault, too.”Bookmark here

“I think it’s just fine. But I’m just biased, since it used to be like mine.”Bookmark here

“Is yours so bad now? I mean, compared to when it used to be lighter like you said…”Bookmark here

She was so timid in the way she talked.Bookmark here

It was just like that day. I could see it clearly.Bookmark here

The girl took out a pair of spectacles, and further examined my head.Bookmark here

“It… isn’t so bad, I think.”Bookmark here

Her glasses were just like mine. Almost the same, in fact.Bookmark here

“You wear glasses?”Bookmark here

“Yeah. I wear contacts on days that I have sports, but…”Bookmark here

She paused.Bookmark here

“But?”Bookmark here

“I actually… like glasses better. But people tell me that I don’t look good in them, so I usually keep them off even when I do bring them.”Bookmark here

She wears glasses.Bookmark here

“Who says that?”Bookmark here

“P- people…”Bookmark here

And they’re just like mine.Bookmark here

“Well, I like them. I think they’re great.”Bookmark here

“No, you’re just saying that… My hair too; I know you’re just being kind.”Bookmark here

She was looking away from me now. Rosy cheeks, which flushed easily under her pale skin.Bookmark here

I couldn’t help but let out a small laugh and a wide grin.Bookmark here

It really felt great to see her again.Bookmark here

“Are you okay? Did I say something weird...?”Bookmark here

“No, it’s nothing. I’m just relieved that we still have something in common.”Bookmark here

“Still…?”Bookmark here

There was that feeling again. The same one from before, when I had been talking with Kentaro. It was warm and fuzzy, and always seemed to be able to force a smile on my face.Bookmark here

I sighed.Bookmark here

“Actually, that’s what I wanted to ask about. You’ve told me a few times now that we used to know each other… and uhm, my friend, well… She mentioned something about you knowing me in another life-- or something like that. Did you really mean that? Uhm… did we somehow know each other before?”Bookmark here

The spectacles; they looked good on her, too. Much better than they did on me. She had already adapted and learned to live in this world, whatever the reason was that she had come here. It was like she belonged here to begin with.Bookmark here

She wasn’t going to have the same struggles I did.Bookmark here

She wouldn’t have any other-world trauma, or memories of murder and mistakes.Bookmark here

She was just a girl named Kaori Takao.Bookmark here

“You don’t really have to worry about all that. This is... well, the first time we’ve met.”Bookmark here

“I see…”Bookmark here

She smiled at me. It was clearly forced, and a little distant as well. But I wasn’t worried at all, because it was the very same smile the girl had given me when we originally met. If we kept on like this, it would slowly become more genuine.Bookmark here

I was sure of it.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry for last time, by the way. I’ve, well, been through some things. And I was having a bit of an episode then. I’m doing better now.”Bookmark here

“Oh, no! I’m- I’m sorry for screaming, and well… being afraid of you for these last few days.”Bookmark here

She began to fidget and look down nervously, which was so contrasting to her tall figure and lean, muscular build.Bookmark here

It was cute.Bookmark here

“I think that I still am a little bit, actually… But, I should have told them that you weren’t trying to uhm… harass me, or anything. You don’t seem like somebody who would do such a thing, I think.”Bookmark here

“I see.”Bookmark here

This was my chance.Bookmark here

If I could get to know her all over again...Bookmark here

“Do you think we could start over from scratch, then?”Bookmark here

“From scratch?”Bookmark here

If I could do that, then this world might just become a little more livable. With her, and Kentaro.Bookmark here

“Yeah. I’d like to get to know you properly this time.”Bookmark here

She thought for a moment, before giving me a slight nod.Bookmark here

At that moment, I was able to make another friend.Bookmark here

One named Kaori Takao.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.