Y1 Vol 3 Chapter 4 | The Meaning of Freedom

Kouenji’s questions weighed on my mind for quite some time. On the third day, I left the base camp before noon and made my way toward the forest entrance.

“Ahh, ahh, ahh… Wh-where are you planning to go now, Ayanokouji-kun?”Sakura was out of breath, her breasts heaving as she breathed. Shemust’ve been looking for me and given chase.

“Didn’t I tie a handkerchief around a tree? Anyway, I thought I’d just go and check something out.”I wanted to confirm something much earlier, but didn’t had the time.

“I-It’s probably not okay for me…to come along, is it? I’d only slowyou down, probably, but…"”Isn’t it better for you to stay back? Won’t it bother you if people start spreading rumors?”“That doesn’t bother me at all. Besides, I….”Sakura mumbled so quietly that I couldn’t have heard anything even if I’d put my ear close.

“It’s not going to be particularly easy, right? I mean, after we went through all the trouble of coming to this island, I think you should have a little fun… Though I’m not one to talk about fun, myself.” I thought I’d turn Sakura’s offer down with an appropriate excuse.

However…“Th-this is fun, though!” Sakura offered more resistance than I would’ve imagined. After her surprisingly forceful reaction, our eyes met in shock. Then, Sakura crouched and hid her face.

“Ahhhhh! N-no, that’s not what I meant! Ahh! I mean!”I had no idea what Sakura was trying to say. All I knew was that she was an interesting girl. It’d be great if she could just show that part of herself to others.

“Well then, how about we go together? But I have a condition. If weget into trouble later, you won’t blame yourself. Okay?”“Really? It’s okay?!” she cried, still hiding her face with her hands.

What kind of conversation was this? It felt kind of odd to just stay silent as we walked, so I killed some time by bringing up a familiar topic. Anything was less awkward than listening to the crunch of our footsteps on the path.

“Are you getting along well with the other girls? I mean, you can’t really do things alone in this test, right?”“No, not at all… We don’t really talk or anything,” Sakura muttered, twirling her hair with her index finger. It was like she felt embarrassed about herself.

“I’m just worthless, really. I can’t do sports, or study. I’m not really growing as a person in any area.”“That’s not true. You’re making progress, Sakura-chan.” “Huh? Me, progress? Ah ha ha… That’s not true, though.”“It is true. Maybe you can’t see it, but you’re definitely making progress little by little.”I tried to convey that with both words and my attitude. It was really effective for people like Sakura, who lacked confidence inthemselves. It was the first time I’d appealed to someone from the bottom of my heart like that, and I hoped it would resonate with her. Sakura stopped walking and looked at me, her eyes trembling. She was trying to discern the true meaning of my words.

“It’s okay. You’ll make some friends really soon, Sakura. Then school will become much more fun.”When our eyes met, Sakura panicked and averted her gaze downward. Even the fact that she was able to look at people for just one moment was a huge difference from when we’d first met.

“That reminds me… That guy, from the incident before…it seems like he resigned.”The man who’d worked at the electronics store on campus had been an extremely passionate fan of Sakura from her gravure idol days… No, in truth, he was just a stalker. He hadn’t been satisfied with hanging around Sakura’s homepage, and had schemed to meet up with her personally.

“Thank you for everything… Everything worked out thanks to you,Ayanokouji-kun.”“I didn’t really do anything. You were saved because you got close to Kushida, and because Horikita and Ichinose helped out. I was just a bystander. Anyway, more importantly, nothing else weird has happened, right?”Even though the stalker had left the school premises, there was thepossibility that he’d try and reach out online.

“No, everything’s been fine. Actually, I’ve been taking a little break from the bulletin board, too.”That was for the sake of precaution, most likely. Probably a wise decision.

“Besides, even though you usually act nervous, you always had this really confident expression when you were an idol.” “Well, that’s…that’s because I did the photography myself.”“A long time ago? But when you were featured in magazines youprobably didn’t take the pictures yourself, right?”Sakura answered with a wry smile, looking sheepish.

“I didn’t do well, and I also took way more time than the others. A cameraman would take pictures of the girls to make sure there were as few people involved as possible. Besides…back then, I was able to bear it because I made myself empty. It was like I erased myself, eliminated my feelings. But I eventually reached my limit, so I had to take a break.”Sakura said this all in one go, stopping at the very end to take a deep breath. The incident with the stalker seemed to have left her scarred, but now things were headed in a better direction. A mass of trees waited right ahead of us. I went ahead of Sakura, proceeding to the opening of the path just ahead.

The way forward began to get rather steep. Since we’d walked for a while, I decided it was time for a break. I looked back. Sakura was trembling, her shoulders shaking. Maybe she hadn’t thought I was going to look back.

“How about we take a short break? It’ll probably take a while longerto reach our destination.”Sakura was probably exhausted after walking such a rough trail for half an hour. She looked relieved. I searched for a big tree that could provide shade against the extreme heat, and the two of us sat between the roots, where there was enough space for two people.

However, Sakura decided to sit a little further away, perhaps due to her reserved nature. But the ground was all rugged and uneven, so it probably hurt her to sit there.

“Sit down over here.” “Is that okay?”“Yeah, of course. You aren’t comfortable over there, right?” “Y-yeah…“Sakura, still reserved, plopped down next to me. She sat at such a distance that the sleeves of our gym clothes barely touched.

“Nature sure is amazing, isn’t it? I like to spend a lot of my free timeout in nature, even if it’s just walking around,” Sakura said.

“Considering even Kouenji’s satisfaction, the school has probably been really good about keeping up the place. Normally, an overseas jungle would be more dangerous.”“When we left for the trip, I felt depressed at first. I didn’t have any friends, and I don’t really like traveling. I thought it would be fine if I could just stay in my room. If I did that, my life would have been the same as always. But then, all this happened. We were told this was some kind of test…“Sakura looked up at the sky, her back against the tree.

“But now I’m kind of glad that we came here. That’s because I never really had the chance to talk with you like this before, Ayanokouji- kun…“Together, deep in the forest, we were embraced by nature and a feeling of serenity.

“I wish we could stay like this forever…” “Yeah.”In the three days since we’d come to the deserted island, this was the longest time I had been alone with Sakura. I wondered if this was some kind of karmic meeting between two friendless people. It didn’t feel like it was strange or pointless. Like Sakura said, I felt like the distance between us had shortened a bit. I wouldn’t say we were falling in love or anything, but it was like we’d become friends. This was probably the first time I’d felt a relationship tilt toward friendship.

“Oh… It’s too bad. If I had my digital camera, I probably could have taken the best photos, but…“Sakura used her thumb and forefingers to make a frame, and placed both herself and me in the frame several times. Then she made an embarrassed face, like she regretted doing so. It was certainly true that a camera was essential for preserving memories. Since Sakura was always carrying her digital camera around at school, I imagined that this moment was probably the perfect photo opportunity.

Preserving memories, huh? So that was why Ibuki had a digital camera.

“But if I’m in the picture, wouldn’t that spoil the scenery?”“No, if you’re in the picture, Ayanokouji-kun, it will be the best photo… Ah! No! I mean, that is, I’ve never taken a picture with a friend before!” cried Sakura, shaking her head.

Sakura was absolutely genuine. While we sat side by side, I suddenly stared at her. Sakura didn’t notice my gaze at first, but after a long period of silence, she finally did. Our eyes met.

“Wh-what?! What is it?!” “Calm down. Be quiet.”Sakura had fallen into a state of panic. I placed my hands on both of her shoulders and held her firmly.

“Eek!”I brought my body closer to Sakura’s, sidling up next to her. When I did so, Sakura froze like a frog trapped by a snake’s glare. My eyes focused on her hair, where a bug was crawling around. Even someone like me, who didn’t know a lot about insects, could identify it. People commonly referred to it as a “hairy caterpillar.” Honestly, it grossed me out.

The way its body squirmed and the fact that it had countless legs sent a shiver down my spine. It had probably fallen off the tree we were resting against. What should I do? I thought. If I told Sakura she had a caterpillar in her hair, she might panic and start screaming. If the caterpillar got into her clothes, that’d be an even worse disaster.

“Sakura, there’s something I want to ask you…” “Wh-what is it?”“You…are you okay with bugs?” “B-bugs?”“Yeah. Bugs. Like grasshoppers and dragonflies, those kinds of things”“N-not at all. I absolutely can’t stand them. Ants either.” “I see. Well, all right then.”I couldn’t point it out here, then. I needed to think of another way. I wished I could just quickly snatch it away, but being a city boy, I hated insects, too. Even if I tried to remove the bug with a branch or something, Sakura would undoubtedly notice.

“Hmm. Anyway, don’t move for the time being, okay?” “O-okay. Sure…“With that careful warning, I let go of Sakura’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the caterpillar squirmed like it was starting to go somewhere. I’m sure it just wanted to escape, and I had to think of a way to remove it safely.

“What’s the matter?”As I tried to come up with a plan, Sakura tilted her head with a bewildered look. Perhaps sensing that Sakura’s movement meant danger, the caterpillar frantically tried to escape. Ah, this wasn’t good! Don’t be reckless, bug!I couldn’t delay any longer. I had to save Sakura even if it meant sacrificing myself. With my trembling hand, I courageously reached for Sakura’s hair. There! I touched the caterpillar, grabbed it quickly, and threw it into the bushes. Sakura probably didn’t understand the situation, but I’d managed to protect her.

“Ugh…I feel like there was something gross on me…“After our break, we chatted amiably and arrived at our destination with the help of my handkerchief acting as a marker. It had taken less time than I thought to get there, only about twenty minutes in total. At any rate, I carefully retrieved the handkerchief and returned it to Sakura, then observed the surroundings from where I thought Kouenji had been standing before.

Nothing in these woods stood out at first glance. There wasn’tanything else here. What in the world had he been looking at?”Did you notice something?” I asked. “Umm… What’s different?”If your sense of sight did not work, you had to rely on your other senses.

“For the time being, let’s investigate the area, but don’t go too far. Then let’s check on each other regularly. If we don’t concentrate, it’s likely we’ll get distracted.”We searched the soil and the big tree’s roots on our knees, and tried touching the lush green leaves and branches above our heads. Our sense of smell was sharp as we breathed warm air through our noses. We also tried to open our ears and listen. We made use of all five of our senses and checked the area thoroughly, careful not to overlook even the slightest change.

“Wha—?!”Sakura, who’d been searching in the bushes away from me, shrieked in surprise. The bushes were so thick that I could only see part of her body, and wondered if she’d fallen over again.

“Hey, look! I found something amazing!” Sakura’s voice was full ofeager excitement.

As I tried to figure out what she was talking about, I saw a different variety of green leaves sprouting from the bushes. Some yellow parts peeked through as well.

“Is this…corn?” “It seems like it.”I wondered if the corn only grew in this area. I didn’t know much about plants, but it was obvious that this was unnatural. The soil here was a different color from the surrounding forest soil, proof that the corn had been cultivated artificially. It was also strange because bushes surrounded the corn on all sides, making it difficult to find due to the weeds.

“So, this is what Kouenji saw…“He’d noticed the corn at first glance, and said nothing due to hisawful pride. In any case, I was absolutely certain that school officials had been coming and going on this deserted island. This cultivated spot made that clear. I inspected the corn, which was rather beautiful thanks to careful management and cultivation.

“It would’ve been nice if we brought bags… We probably can’t, but Iwonder if we should try taking it all back with us.”There were about fifty ears of corn, but carrying them unaided was impossible. We would inevitably need to make several trips if we wanted to bring them all back. I took off my shirt.

“Huh?! Wh-wh-wh-what are you doing, Ayanokouji-kun?! It’s way too soon for that!”Sakura dropped the corn as she covered her eyes with her hands.

“Sorry, sorry. I thought it would be okay. Wait, what did you mean by ‘it’s too soon’?”I didn’t think a girl her age would mind seeing a topless guy, butmaybe I hadn’t showed enough consideration.

“If we tie up the openings of my shirt, we can use it as a bag. That way we could carry more at once.”I was afraid that if we left and other classes found this place, they’dharvest the corn. I wanted to minimize that risk.

“We’ll tell everyone when we get back, and then come harvest more.”“Okay.”The unexpected harvest had made both of us gleeful, until we spotted some unexpected visitors.

“Wow. Look, Katsuragi-san! There’s an incredible amount of foodhere!”Sakura, her attention focused on the corn, jumped in surprise. She hid behind my back. When Katsuragi saw this, he apologized.

“I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to surprise you. He had no bad intentions, either. Please forgive us.”He shot Yahiko a stern look, compelling him to apologize. Yahiko, in low spirits, apologized. I’d encountered these two before. Katsuragi showed no reaction, but Yahiko immediately noticed me.

“Hey, you’re the spy from yesterday!”Yahiko raised his voice, shouting angrily. Sakura once again jumped in surprise and curled into a ball. Seeing this, Katsuragi dropped his tightly clenched fist onto Yahiko’s head. We could hear the dull, painful thud from where we stood.

“My name’s Katsuragi, from Class A. He’s Yahiko. Since this is thesecond time we’ve met, a self-introduction should be fine, yes?” “I’m Ayanokouji, from Class D. This is Sakura.”After we’d exchanged a brief greeting, Katsuragi glanced at the largeamount of corn.

“You found this. Don’t worry, we have no intention of snatching it away from you. But if someone else finds this spot, they’ll likely take it away.”“There’s nothing we can do. There’s only the two of us here.”We had no choice but to pray that no one else found this place. One idea was to hide it all, but that didn’t lessen the potential danger.

“You idiots. One of you two can stay behind and watch the stuff! Isn’t that right, Katsuragi-san?”“You’re the one who doesn’t seem to understand the situation, Yahiko. Don’t dismiss the danger of moving through the forest alone. It’s difficult enough in groups of men, but when men and women are together, no matter what, there will be certain limitations to whatyou can do.” That was why Katsuragi didn’t go alone into the forest. “We’ll help you.”“A-are you serious, Katsuragi-san? But, working together with Class D is—“Yahiko obviously wanted to refuse, but he stayed quiet after Katsuragi shot him a sharp look.

“We appreciate the offer, but our class told us to be careful. They’ll get mad if they find out we relied on Class A for help. I’m sorry, but we have to decline.”It was a lie, but Katsuragi had no other choice but to withdraw.

“I see. We can’t force you. However, can you trust us? After you leave here, there’s a chance we’ll make off with all of this, right?”“In that case, I’d have no choice but to give up what I’m carrying right now.”Katsuragi quietly cleared a path. Sakura still looked worried as we sped away. Afterward, when Sakura and I returned to base camp, we reported to everyone about the corn.

“What an amazing find, Ayanokouji! You too, Sakura! Let’s go get it, Yamauchi!”Ike called out to Yamauchi, who was nearby. After spotting Sakura and me talking with Ike, Yamauchi dashed over with incredible intensity. He grabbed my arm and shoved me away from Sakura.

“H-h-hey, you! Why were you all alone and shirtless with Sakura?!Why?! Huh?!”“Calm down. This is a misunderstanding, that’s all. We didn’t do anything.”I didn’t know what kind of delusions Yamauchi was having, but now wasn’t the time to get into it with him.

“I have to go talk with Hirata. Sorry.” “I trusted you, Ayanokouji!”Yamauchi ranted and raved while I went to report to Hirata. Soon afterward, we organized students into a team, which departed from the camp to bring back the corn. In addition, we set the goal of exploring other places and looking for more food. Around one o’clock in the afternoon, everyone returned from harvestingthe corn.

“We’ve got lots of food!”The bag appeared to be absolutely filled.

“It was pretty dangerous, though. That guy from Class A, Katsuragi,was nearby.”Apparently Katsuragi hadn’t made off with the corn after we left.

Instead, he stayed there so that he could watch us. WhetherKatsuragi had good or bad intentions, we didn’t know for sure.

Written on August 17, 2022