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Chapter 2 – One Man’s Treasure Is Another Man’s Trash

“Hey, Ponta. What do you think summer is all about?”

“The scorching heat from the sun! The parched earth! O mother star, I vow here that we will protect this world…”

“…I see you’re still talking crap.”

“Hey now, I’m serious. I’m stopping myself from breathing for one hour a day so I can reduce CO2 levels.”

“Whoa, you don’t need to do anything that drastic.”

It was a peaceful, sunny morning. The road to school was crowded with students who had gotten off the bus. Ponta and I kept close together, pedalling on our bikes. It had been quite a while since we had last gone to school together.

“By the way, good sir,” said Ponta, “are you okay with skipping your morning practice? This is the first time we’ve met at this hour.”

“I am not okay. I have no idea what to say to the Prez. ‘Last night, I physically restrained someone, pushed her down and made her cry, so then I got tired and overslept,’ maybe?”

“You mustn’t confuse your videos with real life. Or get so defensive about it.”

“I am talking about real life! I can still feel that girl’s warmth in my palm!”

“Heh heh, whatever floats your boat. Enough of that, though. What do you think summer is all about?”

“Glad you asked! It’s about straining your eyes to see the outline of a girl’s bra through her blouse! It’s about the arousing scent of sweat!” As I said that, we stopped at a red light. From my bike seat, I could see a heap of sexy girls, all sweating thanks to the sweltering heat. Just like them, I was red in the face. “Like that chick, for example. Oooh, she’s nice too! Whoa, this is amazing!”

“…look. Since we’re friends, can I just say something?”

“What?”

“Wouldn’t your life at school be easier if you refrained from pointing from now on?”

The girls around me glared at me as if I were a bad smell. I lowered my finger, feeling dismayed. “Gee, thanks a lot… just when I was finally getting excited from seeing their bras clearly.”

The girls went on glaring. It was like they thought I was a slug. As soon as the pedestrian lights turned blue, they dashed through the crossing as if their lives depended on it.

“Huh, you’re really letting loose this morning,” Ponta remarked. “Just what’s the big idea anyway? Don’t you see that you’re pushing their buttons by staring like that, even if it’s fun for you?”

“No, that’s not how it is… if we’re talking about what pushes my buttons, that’d be your treasures, Ponta. That sweat-fetish DVD was great. That whole concept of sit-up exercises with chicks was totally unique!”

“Hehehe, that so? Your user satisfaction will bring happiness to you, me and Africa.”

“Er, yeah…” I said, craning my neck.

Something was strange. I just couldn’t explain it. Somehow, the air around my body felt lighter than usual, as if the very molecules they were made of had thinned out and starved away.


When I passed through the pedestrian crossing, I noticed people were crowding around the school gate. Ponta and I got off our bikes and gathered around the gate too.

Ponta peered over the shoulders of the people in the crowd. “Ah… here we go. Another session of Azuki Azusa’s Reward Time,” he said, shrugging flippantly.

“…what’s that? And hang on, who’s she?”

“Good sir, did you say you didn’t know? That’s her over there, the rich girl who transferred to our school in April.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of her… ah, wait, hold on. I heard about a super cute transfer student from another class. I didn’t know know her name, though. Was it Azusa or Hikari?”

“That’s Azuki Azusa, all right. Compared to the other girls in our year, she’s on a whole different level. She’s famous for always receiving love confessions.”

“A beautiful, popular and rich girl – what a perfect superhuman! Since I’m busy with my club activities from morning to evening, I only remember the girls from the Track and Field club and the swimming club.”

“I’m impressed by how diligent you are… hm? Why are you so acquainted with the swimming club?”

“I seeeee, so that’s Azuki Azusa, huh? So, what’s Reward Time?” My interest piqued, I waded my way to the front of the crowd.

The cause of the commotion immediately became clear. The other students had formed a ring around the school gate, where a boy and a girl faced off against each other as if they were having a duel.

On one side, the boy yelled out, “Azuki-san! I-really-really-love-you-for-you-are-my-heart’s-desire! Please go out with me!”

While he might have pulled those lines out of some deep work of literature, they weren’t exactly sparklingly original. Azuki Azusa, who was listening, said, “Go out with you, you say? Hmph.” She tilted her small, delicate neck to the side. “Then what?”

That gesture was all it took to make her seem like a dainty fairy. It was as if she had come into existence on the outer reaches of the cosmos itself. Her long, chestnut hair was like a net made of silk. Whenever she blinked and frowned, her slender lips parted, making her look like one of the flower fairies (1).

 

HenNeko-053

“Don’t tell me that’s all you’ve got to say?” she said, not mincing any words. “Even flamingos flap their wings and have a mating dance. What a sham of a human being you are. You’re even lower than a pre-evolved ape. Why don’t you crawl on the ground like the inferior life form that you are?”

Um, what? Where did my fairy go?

Azuki Azusa’s words stung like a red-hot iron. “And I’m not telling you to drive me around in a Rolls-Royce or roll out a red carpet for me at school. I don’t want a peasant to do that for me. I only want something simple. Would you be my golden retriever? If I called for you at two in the morning, or when you’re on a faraway vacation, or when your parents just died, would you always, always come running to me? Could you swallow all that and follow my orders like a blind sheep?”

Her eyes were like jewels and her cheeks blushed lightly. A stiff choker emphasised the suppleness of her nape. Even if you painted all the surrounding girls with the most expensive art tools you could get, they would never look half as pretty as Azuki Azusa was.

Everything about her was so fairy-like, and yet…

“…ha. I already know it’s useless. Can you stop talking to me now? You’re about as interesting as a bug. Go back into your cocoon and do your life over again,” Azuki Azusa said scornfully, waving one arm as if to ward off an invisible flying insect.

The boy who had just confessed stiffened. I thought that he stood a better chance of impressing her if he told her he was a butterfly because technically they were insects too. But then I remembered their average life span was only about a month long. Sad, really.

Utterly defeated, the boy sighed and prostrated himself on the ground. “Thank you very much!” he exclaimed in ecstasy. What the hell? I thought. “Azuki Azusa, you are a true aristocrat. I know that our love can never be. Ever since you transferred here, you have constantly trampled over our confessions.”

“If you didn’t realise,” Ponta whispered behind me into my ear, “it’s the guys who are into that kind of thing who call it Reward Time. I guess to them it’s like a daily morning ritual. Lately, she’s been toning it down somewhat, but today she went all out with the fanservice. Those were some first-degree burns.”

“What kinda fanservice is that…? It would suck for anyone who’s not hardcore.”

“Yeah, she sure knows how to talk. But man, since she looks like such a princess, I can understand why you’d want her to talk to you at least once. Then, after getting pushed around so much, you get a taste for it and call it a gift from God or something.”

Glancing at the boy who had confessed to her, Azuki Azusa let out an elegant sigh and turned her back to him, her hair fluttering behind her. I thought she looked like a flower display. The surrounding crowd hushed and made way for her, as if they were in a museum appreciating a masterpiece. No one was allowed to get close to her.

Alone in the cosmos, she bloomed without any sunshine.

“She’s cute, eh? Even though I’ve left my horniness behind, just looking at her makes my heart pound.”

“That so, huh.”

“She’s got looks and she comes from a good family. Whoever said you can’t have your cake and eat it too!”

“That so, huh.”

“That so – hey! You don’t really care, do you?”

I’d already seen all there was to see in this girl with one look. My gaze fell to the area below her clunky choker. It went even further down past the ribbon tied to the front of her uniform. Specifically, I looked straight at her modest pair of (o)(o). I didn’t have to measure her with a tape. I could see how small she was just by looking at her. As if I could bring myself to care about this fairy’s body when it just happened to be fairy-sized.

“Don’t you see?” I said. “That chick acts all high and mighty, but she’s flat as a board!”

At this point, I should mention something that I’m curious about. If all the students clamouring around school in their free time just so happen to go quiet at this one exact moment, then wouldn’t that moment be a bad time to say something without thinking? It’d be all weird and embarrassing, right? What are you supposed to do if that happened?

I want to know. Like, right now.

When I spoke, I did not get any bad vibes. I just think that everything zoned out. In front of that whole crowd, my voice was the only one that could be heard.

Azuki Azusa looked down at her own chest. I think her mouth twitched. “Flat…as a board…” Maybe she was secretly bothered over it. Her face went red as a plum.

Everyone around me stared and then quickly looked away. I didn’t say that, oh no not me. When it comes to the group mentality at these sorts of moments, it’s impressive how everyone cooperates. Before I knew it, a tide had pushed me in front of Azuki Azusa. I was the only one whose appearance stood out.

“…well now! You said something very interesting just now.” The young lady glared at me with fire brewing in her eyes. Sparks crackled, as if threatening to ignite the entire cosmos in flames.  If I didn’t answer her straight, her fire would consume me.

This was no time to panic. Calm down, I told myself. I can do anything.

I channelled every ounce of calm, gentlemanly spirit I had in me and said, “I-it’s okay! Fear not! While I prefer big titties over small ones every time, flat chests are a sign of status in this world. There are people out there who value how rare they are! Or you could say there are philosophers who prefer the plains over the hills! And since you don’t have breasts, you don’t need to wear a bra, so I reckon changing clothes for you is easy. They won’t ever sag either, not that there’s anything there that’ll sag. Oh man, how lucky!”

As I gave her the thumbs-up, I realised that I had said much more than I ever needed to. Although I had said my true feelings, I should have known it was TMI. No one was forcing me to look Azuki Azusa in the eyes, but I did still peek at her face.

“Die, Pervert” was written all across the dainty fairy’s face.

“Eh heh heh heh… aren’t you an interesting one?” she said mildly. “How fun, it’s like I got bitten by a badly trained dog. You’re in trouble now. Why don’t we take a nice little walk together, okay?” The dainty fairy looked about three seconds away from a major eruption. Her shoulders shook ominously.

Sensing that Reward Time was forthcoming, I tried to pull away, but there was nowhere to run except into a back shed which no one could get into anyway. I could feel the envious stares from the boys. I was not into that kind of fetish at all, though. Please, no, I thought. Oh god, save me-

“Hold it. I’ll be taking care of Yokodera.”

I knew who it was, just from the aura around that voice.

The newcomer on the scene was a distinguished individual. She was dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt, a sure sign that she had come from morning practice. The morning practice I skipped out on, that is.

The Steel King cracked her knuckles and stared right through me with a demonic gleam in her eyes. If looks could kill, I was already dead.

“Who are you?” Azuki Azusa demanded. “If you’ve got business with me, here I am.”

“This man’s about to choose between life and death. DEAD OR DIE. That is all.”

“Y-you don’t make any sense! Stop talking broken English!”

“Hm? Did you say something? Surely you aren’t insulting me, are you?”

“Urk… n-no, I’m not.”

The Steel King silenced Azuki Azusa with one look. I marvelled at the stark difference between them. When it really came down to it, the rich girl was surprisingly submissive.

I felt giddy seeing two girls fight over me. It was like a dream. Well, more like a nightmare, really. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, just like Nostradamus predicted. Oh gosh, save me from this fate.

The Steel King drew herself to her full height in front of me. “Now then, Yokodera. What do you intend to do after coming to school this late?”

Seeing her in that outfit was bad news to me. That outfit was the last thing I needed.

“I just appointed you as the future club president, and then you suddenly don’t turn up to morning practice without permission,” she went on. “I thought I told you I hate having my expectations betrayed. If you have any explanation for this, you better ‘fess up. Are we clear?”

“Er, uh, um…”

“What is it? Choose your excuse carefully. I don’t want to beat you up over what happened this morning either.”

“S-sh-sho…”

My mind went blank. Normally, I would have made up something about world defence forces and secret military organisations because the Steel King liked those kinds of stories, surprisingly enough. But while that would have been enough to excuse spilling a cup of tea, today it was too little too late.

As soon as my mouth opened on its own accord, I was past the point of no return.

“Why are you wearing running shorts, Prez?! Your tights! What happened to the tights you normally wear?! Those running tights of yours are just as magical as competitive swimsuits! It’s the magic of fetishism that keeps me tied to you! Thanks to those tights, I was able to endure so much practice from hell. Without it there is no meaning to the Track and Field club’s existence! You’ve been doing Track and Field for so long and you still don’t understand that?! If you just changed to your tights straight away, I wouldn’t be having these thoughts!”

The Steel King was speechless. The look on her face was beyond description.

I had no idea what the hell I was spouting. I had let my true feelings slip right in front of the King’s presence and ruined every prospect I had in life. I was about as innocent as the door-to-door salesman who sells uncensored adult magazines at the police station.

I had to think of an excuse, quick!

“Er, uh, uuuuum… it’s not what you think! What I was trying to say was that – well, it’s true that I think about this stuff every day, but… oh, hurry up and change out of those clothes already, please…”

“…uh huh.”

When I saw how wooden her response was, I knew it was all over.

There was a deathly silence. The surrounding students were frozen with fear at the prospect of the King’s steely retribution. My impending doom was set in stone. I looked forward to my next life.

After a pregnant pause, the King opened her mouth slowly. “Is that so? That’s how it is, huh?” she said, blinking multiple times. To my surprise, I found myself admiring how long her eyelashes were, when all of a sudden her sharp eyes narrowed. “Yokodera… you must be tired. Your pain must have been unimaginable and all this time I didn’t see it. I cannot apologise to you enough.”

“Er, you see, that is…”

“Rest at ease – I will tell everyone! You have poured so much of your heart and soul into Track and Field. Otherwise, you would not have said such baffling things. It was as if you had become a mere pervert. I will therefore turn a blind eye to this morning’s incident. You should rest your body for a while,” she advised me gently. One thing led to another and now her attitude was that of someone caring for a sick person.

She was just like Jesus.


Something was definitely up.

My mind was not my own. Maybe something was wrong with my head, but that thought didn’t seem right to me, so I put it aside. The problem was with my tongue. Normally, when I did think about, say, swimsuits, I’d make up something about space whales to cover it up. But today out of all days I just blurted out what I was thinking. It’s like if I fought in a war in the near future without using a single AT field (1).

After that morning’s incident, I sexually harassed my classmates seven times. The teacher sent me out of the classroom four times. Students from other classes and year levels came to stare at me over fifty times.

“Who’s he?” “That’s the crazy tights guy.” “Oh, him.” “Hey, he looks different from what I expected.” “So that’s him, huh?”

The Hentai Prince (2).

It was a name the guys came up with among themselves after seeing me escape from the Steel King’s jaws without a scratch. If the King dubbed me a pervert, then I was the “Hentai Prince”. It was the most horrible naming sense I’d seen in years. It sure gave “Porn Hunter” a run for its money.

“Still, I think Hentai Prince suits you, good sir,” Ponta said to me after school. He patted me teasingly on the shoulder. “That was a joke. Just messin’ with ya.”

“Don’t give me that crap! I don’t reckon my nickname fits me any more than yours fits you. You’re just getting back at me.”

“Ooooh… why are you glaring at me like that?”

“Take back what you said about me being a Hentai Prince, or else!”

Chortling, Ponta crossed his arms like a monk. Then he said, “In all seriousness, we are all driven by worldly desires at heart. Unless you attack the root of all evil, there can be no peace in this world. How about you pray to the Stony Cat like I did?”

“I already prayed to the statue… oh. Oh.” I remembered the ritual from last night.

No way, I thought, shaking my head. I’d only prayed for around a few seconds at most. I just couldn’t believe that doing that would make me lose control of my tongue… I think.

“Oh, so you went as well, good sir? And your offering vanished? So it is the real thing! See, Barbara was too much for it. As soon as I took my eyes off her, she was gone.”

“Come again?”

The body pillow was useless as an offering so the Stony Cat had thrown it into my closet. And now I still had it in my possession.

As Ponta told me the story, I shuddered. “What do you mean, she vanished?”

Again, Ponta looked at me gravely. “Exactly what I said. She evaporated. Disappeared from the face of the earth. Her whereabouts are unknown. How do I say it? As proof that it grants your wish, the Stony Cat makes your offering vanish. It’s the same thing as being an expert kidnapper. If these were peaceful times, I would have asked the police to search for her.” He sighed deeply. “I miss her.”

I knew he was not the kind of guy to pull off such an elaborate prank. But if it wasn’t a prank, what was it?

The offering vanished, only to appear in my room? Ponta’s horniness vanished, whereas Barbara hadn’t when I tried the same thing. So when I prayed, what did vanish…?

Something was strange. The pieces of the puzzle were all laid out before me, but the big picture vaguely eluded me. I just didn’t think it could be right.

While I stood there, dumbfounded, Ponta came to his own conclusion and furrowed his brow in worry. “Just drop it. The effects of your offering might not show immediately, for it is all up to Providence. Rumours have a short lifespan, too. That applies to your Hentai Prince nickname as well!”

This time when he patted me on the shoulder, he did it comfortingly. Then he stood up as his way of saying goodbye. He was off to further the cause of world peace. I was too confused to wave him off.

I didn’t know what was going on, but my gut told me that I had fallen into a dangerous situation.


I wonder how long I was in a daze. No matter how much I racked my brains, no clear answers came to me and it wore me down trying to think of what to do next.

There was no one in the classroom. Everyone had gone their separate ways. “This sucks,” I groaned.

I was deprived of my club activities. According to the Steel King, my cool-off period could be no shorter than a week. While I did deserve it, I was parted from my beloved concrete wall. I couldn’t appreciate the tights worn by the Track and Field girls either. I was back to having no purpose in life.

“Argh, craaaaaaap! Goddamn iiiiiiiit!” I roared without provocation. “Even if I just went home now, I can’t even watch the idol swimsuit competition! I can just see those high-def boobs in my mind’s eye!”

My head had barely cleared. I thought I might be able to vent my emotions if I opened the window all the way and yelled my lungs out. I decided to do it. I unlatched the window facing the grounds and the window facing the hallway, and then-

“You’re a bigger pervert than I expected.”

“Aaaaaaaargh!” I reacted without thinking.

I had no idea when it could have happened, but a girl had slipped into the classroom as if she was a ghost. The ribbon on her uniform indicated that she was a first-year student and her short haircut emphasised her petite figure. She had one ponytail which was tied at the side of her head and pointed diagonally. Although she had a small stature, the total lack of expression on her face made a strong impression on me. She seemed as cold as ice.

I felt as if I knew this girl from somewhere. It totally bugged me.

I stared at the girl and she stared back coolly. Rather than being reminded of a person, I thought of a Siamese cat. In a way, she was more animal than human.

“Man, I really wanna stroke your ponytail,” I said.

“…you’re a pervert, I see.”

“N-no, I was just giving you a special compliment or something!”

“Many perverts end up in court, I see.”

“Isn’t that going overboard?! And hey, what are you doing in a second-year classroom?”

“Indeed. I have business with an upperclassman… pervert.”

“You didn’t have to add ‘pervert’ on the end there! You say you’ve got business with me, but is this our first meeting?”

“You don’t remember, huh? I see,” the girl said as she slowly sidled up to me. In spite of the significant height difference between us, her unblinking stare felt really eerie for some reason. “Will this jog your memory?”

The girl grabbed my collar and pulled me to the ground in one smooth motion. I landed on my knees with a muffled impact.

It was a secret rendezvous for two. Caught in the space between two desks, the girl’s body was sprawled out beneath me. Against all odds, one of my private after-school fantasies had turned into reality.

“Oi, what are you doing?!” I spluttered. “I-if I get seen like this again…!”

“Again, you say? I see. So this is not your first time. Clearly, without any doubt, you are an absolute pervert.”

It all looked as if I had pushed her down, and yet she showed no sign of being upset. It was as if she couldn’t show any more expression than what she had on her face.

And yet she was cute. Although she had a small nose, pink lips and a delicate chin, her eyes held a power that belied all of that. Her eyebrows were tilted upwards and her watery-blue eyes scrutinised me. If I were a poet, I’d describe myself as being sucked into her gaze, unable to tear myself away.

My mind was so out of it I couldn’t seem to control my body properly. I had to put my hand somewhere, so I rested it on the girl’s delicate shoulder…

…delicate shoulder?

It was through our touch that I recalled her. I remembered her weak and brittle frame, as delicate as china.

“Th-the girl from Ipponsugi Hill!”

Wasn’t she the pork-bun girl who had been bawling her eyes out? I was sure I wasn’t mistaken, but since it was dark and the impression she gave off through her words and actions were that of a completely different person, I hadn’t realised at all.

“Correct. You helped me out back then.” Then she pursed her tiny lips together and sighed coolly. “Now then, this is embarrassing, so I would like you to get off me.”

“Embarrassing?”

“Yes. So embarrassing I could die,” she said.

She didn’t look embarrassed this time either.


Her name was Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko. If I ever had a girlfriend, “Tsukiko” sounded like a name she could have. Seeing as she was one year younger than me, I asked if I could call her “Tsukiko-chan”, but she immediately shook her head.

She said it was embarrassing; her expression said otherwise.

“So basically, um… Tsutsukakushi-san… you’ve lost your ability to change or show any expression. Am I getting this right?”

We sat down on the desks, keeping a polite distance between us. When the girl dangled her small feet over the side of a perfectly normal desk, the desk looked king-sized in comparison to her.

“It is unnecessary to put ‘-san’ after your kouhai’s name, Hentai Prince-senpai. I am troubled over what has happened.”

“‘Senpai’ is kinda a mouthful too, you know. Tsutsukakushi… was this all ‘cos you prayed to the Stony Cat? So you could stop expressing your true feelings?”

“I don’t see what else it could be. You also prayed with me… Hentai-senpai… and then you got into trouble yourself because you lost your façade.”

“You don’t have to say hentai either! But yeah, unrealistic things like that do happen, huh?”

“Is it unrealistic for you to say perverted things to your Track and Field club president in public?”

“Urk.”

“Are you not a mild pervert who gives your body pillow a name? Or perhaps it has nothing to do with what you prayed for and it’s normal for you to blurt out perverted things like an extremist? Is it really unnecessary to call you a pervert?”

She had me there.

Tsutsukakushi’s repeated accusations of my pervert status bowled me over. It was less about what she actually said and more about how coldly she stared at me as she said it that stung more than it needed to. It felt like she was an android out of a movie. The true feelings of that crybaby girl were completely obscured without trace.

But wasn’t this what Tsutsukakushi had wished for?

“I cannot control my voice or my expressions very well. At this rate, I won’t be able to have a normal school life. Do you have the same problem, senpai? Even the first years have been hearing rumours about a Hentai Prince. So I thought I should ask you for advice.”

“Er, you know, I don’t have any advice to give. Neither of us have a clue what’s going on… oh, I got it-!”

A light bulb lit up in my head. If we could get to the heart of the problem, then it would be easy to come up with a solution. It was the least I could do for a kouhai who had gone through all the trouble of asking her senpai for help.

“I also thought about what happened. It all started with our prayers to the cat statue, so if we went back to it again…” Tsutsukakushi trailed off. She tilted her head slightly and pressed her finger against her cheek, holding that pose like a statue. She peered up at me mutely and nodded.

“I’ve got a better plan than that,” I said.

“Huh. What may that be?”

I flexed my fingers. Then I unleashed my tickling attack from hell. “C’mon! Laugh, laugh, laaaaaaugh!”

Tsutsukakushi grunted in shock. Her tiny body squirmed against the table and she curled herself up into a ball.

If she couldn’t express her emotions, then I decided I would force them out of her. If someone did this kind of thing to me, I wouldn’t be able to hold back my laughter for a moment. (Getting tickled is embarrassing, though, so I would rather not do it if I could help it.)

Tsutsukakushi gasped. And yet she remained surprisingly stubborn. My tickling caused no change to her facial expression at all and I didn’t hear any noise resembling laughter. All she did was breathe heavily. The Stony Cat’s divine power was fearsome indeed.

There was nothing for it, so I tickled her even harder.

“Ahh…! Mmmmmmfffff…!”

The back of her neck turned from white to pale pink and she shook her head fervently from side to side. Her ponytail swished back and forth as her doll-like fingers gripped the edge of the table. She kicked the legs of the table with her slippers as if in surrender. Under her weight, the table made a sound like a creaking bed.

I had the feeling we were doing something very naughty…

“Hang on,” I said aloud. “I’m only tickling you, but this is making me look like a pervert.”

“Mmmmffff…! You are… a pervert…!”

As soon as I eased up my attack a little, Tsutsukakushi opened her mouth wide and bit my arm. Ouch! I winced in pain and pulled my hand away reflexively. Tsutsukakushi rolled off the table and flailed around on the floor, her whole body quivering like a fish.

“Y-you all right?” I asked. “It’s like we’re playing cat and dog… you left teeth marks on me!”

Silence.

“I thought it was a good idea, though. Should I have tickled you harder?”

Silence.

“If you can’t laugh by nature, you’ve got it tough.”

Silence.

“…Tsutsukakushi?”

Tsutsukakushi finally lifted herself up, shrugging her shoulders. She smoothed down the hem of her rumpled skirt and the creases on her blouse as best she could. As she tied her ribbon again, she stared right at me without saying a word. It was a gaze that could melt steel.

“Er, Tsutsukakushi-san…”

“I am not mad,” she interrupted me. She spoke without any inflection at all, as if she had forgotten how to be angry or kind. “I am not the slightest bit mad.”

“…um.”

“I simply wish to perform a CT scan on your head, senpai. I am not mad.”

There was nothing to say to that.

“I would simply prefer it if you did not lay even one finger on me from now on. I am not mad.”

I realised I was at fault. “I am so sorry…” I muttered, lowering my head.

Although the Steel King’s power was more outright dominating, I felt like the pressure exuding from Tsutsukakushi’s gaze belonged to the same kin.

 

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For a long moment, Tsutsukakushi gazed deep into my soul. “Good, you understand then,” she responded indifferently. Her clenched fist pressed up against her skirt, hinting at untold violence.

Even though her expressions could not communicate her true feelings, I got the picture. Tickling was a no-go. It was easy enough to understand what she was actually saying, but her tone of voice made it hard to get the nuance. That was true not only when she spoke but when she was being tickled, too.

I made a mental note to let go next time before I could get bitten.

“Senpai. Are you sorry about what you did?”

“Nope! Wait, what?”

“…so that’s the truth, huh,” she said tartly.

If we didn’t cure our conditions quick, I thought, it could only go downhill from here.


If I couldn’t use direct means, there was only one other means possible. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to the Cat God what is God’s (4). I decided to ask the Stony Cat to take back my prayer.

I walked out the school gates and rode my bike down the path towards the afternoon sun. There was quite a distance between our school and Ipponsugi Hill. Since Tsutsukakushi went to school by bus, she rode with me on the back seat. The pedals neatly supported the weight of two people. Even though this run-down pushbike was a hand-me-down from the neighbours, it carried the girl as my noble steed.

“This is my first time riding a bike with another person,” Tsutsukakushi informed me as she coyly wrapped her arms around my waist.

I was filled with an inexplicable, exultant feeling, as if something warm was trickling down my body. “First time, you say…? No other boy took you for a ride?”

“I am a very shy person.”

“Ahhhh. I’ve ridden with another person quite a few times, but since you’re light, I’m worried you might fall off accidentally, Tsutsukakushi. Hold on tight, okay?”

The other person I rode with was, of course, just Ponta. His bike was forever getting punctures. I always gave him a lift to school whenever that happened, but compared to him it was so much easier to ride with Tsutsukakushi. My bike practically flew across the ground.

“…you’ve done it quite a few times,” Tsutsukakushi said blandly. “I see.” She summoned her strength and pinched my skin. It stung, no two ways about it. I wondered if this was revenge for the tickling.

Thanks to her, we made it to the hill in record time. We passed through the wire mesh, which no one seemed to be taking care of that day either, and together we made our way to the cat statue.

Meanwhile, I did a little thinking. Maybe the truth was that my big mouth and Tsutsukakushi’s lack of emotions were completely separate, unrelated issues. Tsutsukakushi’s hunch and the rumours had influenced my way of thinking. It was a mere coincidence that we had prayed to the Stony Cat and coming to Ipponsugi Hill was a waste of time. Couldn’t I just bask in the simple happiness of taking a ride with a girl?

But that thought was completely out of the question. “I gotta kick this habit of fantasising…” I muttered to myself.

“Rather plump, is it not?” Tsutsukakushi interjected.

The Stony Cat at the base of the cedar tree had developed a serious weight problem.

To put it more accurately, the giant statue had changed into the size of a humungous pork bun. The shape it had been for countless years before had been easy on the eyes, at least. Now, it was as if half a dozen pigs had been stuffed inside of it. Actually, it was a shame that it wasn’t edible, seeing as it was made of wood.

“…oh yeah, Tsutsukakushi. You said your pork bun went missing, right?” It was a totally crazy thought. If it couldn’t open its mouth, it didn’t need food. “I don’t know how it did it, but it looks like it took it… I think. Hahaha.”

“…it seems the pork bun was not the only thing it took.”

“Huh?”

The Porky Cat’s face came up to the same height as Tsutsukakushi’s eyes. It could no longer be called the Stony Cat.

The cat statue was laughing.

Its face, which shouldn’t have held any expression at all, was split into a wide grin. It was much more expressive than a human was – as if its face was like, for instance, a shy, crybaby girl who hated acting childish. It was beyond eerie. It had become an unspeakable horror.

“The rumour of the Stony Cat was that it takes what you do not want and gives it to someone who needs it, was it not?” Tsutsukakushi said slowly. “We gave up the pork bun as an offering and the cat statue took away my expressions. Was that how it went?”

Anyone would have laughed that away as a joke or prank, but Tsutsukakushi’s voice expressed no emotion whatsoever. She said it calmly, but her knees were shaking.

The (former) Stony Cat sure was uncanny. It was unnerving how Tsutsukakushi had to clarify what she was feeling no matter how she expressed herself. Of course, she had decided herself to have no expressions, but a girl who had lost the ability to express her true emotions because of a cat statue just had to be miserable. It pained me to even think about it.

Tsutsukakushi knelt against the undergrowth, which was tinted amber with the rays of the evening sun. She bent over so far that her head scraped against the ground in front of the fat cat. She concentrated solely on her prayers, as if she were a truth seeker at the Hill of the Golgotha (5): I beg of you to return my true feelings. Please.

“It’s no use,” I broke in suddenly.

Tsutsukakushi lifted her head and looked at me sharply. Her gaze betrayed no emotion.

“The cat statue’s power is the real deal,” I said.

“Then it would not return my emotions if I prayed to it?”

“It’s not as if it grants every single wish you make. It probably only has the power to give what you don’t need to someone else. You and I need our expressions and our façades. But it’s not as if someone else doesn’t need those. It’s not as if we prayed to have those things. I think.”

Tsutsukakushi opened her mouth slightly and then closed it again. She did not bite the bottom of her lip. Not even a single tear formed at the corner of her eye. She looked at me with a face that could not express the sadness she felt.

“You think,” she repeated blankly. “So, what do you think I should do? Will my expression stay like this? What will happen to me? Do you know what to do, senpai?”

As she kneeled, neither standing nor sitting, the evening wind blew against her hair. A single lock of her black hair flittered without sticking to the side of her face. It was like a kitten’s tail, lingering at times but never staying in the same spot.

“If you know what to do, then please, I want you to tell me,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.

I… couldn’t stay quiet then, I realised. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had a man’s duty to fulfill. If I couldn’t protect a girl, there was no justice.

…that’s what a cool male protagonist from an eroge said. People like that are popular with the girls. I wanted to be popular too.

I racked my brains for something comforting to say. Aha!

“You aren’t the only one who lost something important, Tsutsukakushi. I heard about it from my friend.”

“…what?”

“My friend Ponta, you see, prayed to the cat statue. He wished to lose his horniness since it was making it hard for him to concentrate. But actually, he had to take a makeup exam because of me. Someone was in charge of collecting the papers for the end-of-term classic literature exam, but when no one was looking, someone accidentally-on-purpose made a paper plane out of Ponta’s exam. How wily and cunning, eh? But thanks to Ponta losing his horniness, he passed the makeup exam. He offered up his body pillow, which he had treasured for so long, and somehow it ended up in my room.

“Since then, I’ve only gotten hornier. When I became a second-year student, I could guess the three sizes of the swimming club girls using just my eyes. Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s no dirty meaning behind it. I had the same feelings as a parent has towards their child. My thoughts were like ‘oh, you’re maturing by the day’, or ‘if you skip practice, you’ll get flabby’. But I digress. Anyway, since we’re on this subject, Tsutsukakushi, what’re your three sizes? No, no, what I’m trying to say is that, like how Ponta wanted to block away his perverted thoughts, I just… I just…”

I had no idea what I wanted to say. Without my façade to put a stopper on things, my mouth was like a broken faucet. Acting purely on intuition, I spoke nothing but the naked truth.

Tsutsukakushi opened her mouth halfway and let out a long, heavy sigh. Then she stood up and turned her back to me, poised to run.

“Ah, wait! I made a mistake! I’m wrong about the whole three sizes thing and stuff! How do you say it? Um, right. I want to help you out, Tsutsukakushi.”

Tsutsukakushi turned around. “I see you are a hopeless pervert,” she sighed once again. She stretched out a finger and waggled it in front of my face. “What we need is someone who is like your friend. Someone who would willingly pray to the cat statue because they think of expressing their true emotions or having a façade as a nuisance.”

“Huh?”

“If they do that, the things we need will return to us. If I can express my true emotions, I will be able to laugh again. You will have a filter between your mouth and brain again, senpai – that sort of thing.”

If the statue was not going to return Tsutsukakushi’s true feelings and my façade, we had to find the people who could give it back to us. That was what she was saying.

“R-right! So that’s what you were getting at! That’s what I was trying to say before too!”

“Really now?”

“Nope, that was a lie! Badum tish!”

“At least you are honest…”

“…sorry.”

“…are you sure about that? I will understand even if you apologise without any feeling behind it. You have never lied to me at all. Because you have no façade, I can see right through you. Everything after that is your own fault. You are a second-year high school student, almost an adult, so you understand what I am saying, yes?” She scolded me thoroughly.

(Getting told off by a girl younger and smaller than I was made my skin crawl for some reason.)

Tsutsukakushi held her hands on her hips and went on. “Without your façade, senpai, you are too clumsy. If you act the way you do, the girls will hate you more and more,” she warned me earnestly. “How unfortunate.”

It was already dusk, but the growing darkness did nothing to obscure her penetrating gaze. Her gleaming eyes were as blue as the open sky. I was too busy admiring her to remember that I was mad at her.

“Oh geez,” Tsutsukakushi sighed for the third time.

Then she held out her right hand towards me.

I had no idea what she was doing. As I stared at her blankly, she forcibly took my hand and held it in her own.

“We will not be seen if I do this here. There is nothing else for it, so I will help you, senpai. I think together we can find people who do not need a façade,” Tsutsukakushi said. She gripped my hand tightly, but she looked up at me hesitantly.

“…ah, yes!” I exclaimed. “I’ll look for people who want to hide their emotions!”

And so it happened that, in our own roundabout way, we established an alliance between us. She and I were comrades who lacked true feelings and a façade respectively. I felt the resolve in her palm, just as she felt the resolve in mine.

We went on holding hands even longer, just so we could defy the bizarre and sinister cat statue. I smiled; Tsutsukakushi did not. Without showing any emotion, she nodded, and so the deal was sealed.

HenNeko-080


TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

(1) Refers to the famous set illustrations drawn by Cicely Mary Barker.
(2) A reference to the near-impenetrable barriers used in Neon Genesis Evangelion. They’re said to symbolise the psychological barriers people put up to avoid feeling vulnerable, so they’re pretty much the same thing as a façade.
(3) Literally the “Perverted Prince”. The Japanese officially translates “Hentai Ouji” as “Hentai Prince” so I kept it like that.
(4) A Bible reference… in a Japanese otaku light novel. It’s an exact quote from Matthew 22:21, except God is referred to as the Stony Cat. As an aside, I think Yokodera misinterprets what that quote actually means in context, but he uses it here to emphasise to the Stony Cat’s divinity and how he needs to treat it like a god.
(5) Another Bible reference in a Japanese otaku light novel. The Hill of Golgotha is the site where Jesus was crucified. It is now known as Calvary.

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