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Chapter 5: Winter Wormderland

The two came to have outings together at a fixed time every day. Sanagi would visit the room like usual, they'd first spend about thirty minutes idling together to settle down, then make preparations and leave, walk around for an hour, return to the apartment, and calm their high-strung feelings in whatever ways they wanted.

At the end of the day, they gauged the results of their training. Sanagi would test how many seconds she could look Kousaka in the eye, and Kousaka would test how many seconds he could hold Sanagi's hand.

Kousaka could feel himself getting better with each passing day. As usual, he couldn't ride the train by himself, but if he went with Sanagi, he could even do a simple restaurant visit. Though it was slow going, he washed his hands less frequently, spent less time cleaning, and the smell of disinfectant in the room weakened.

Upon seeing that Kousaka's germaphobia had gotten better, Sanagi started taking him to feed wild animals. Swans at the lake, stray cats in the park, pigeons in the station plaza, seagulls on the coast, eventually even crows at the dump - Sanagi fed them all without discrimination. Kousaka watched her from a bit of a distance.

Kousaka asked her what exactly she liked about animals, and Sanagi had a somewhat surprising answer.

"I read in a book a long time ago that animals don't have a sense of past and future; to them, there's only the present. So as much pain as they experience, even if it accumulates as an experience, the pain itself doesn't accumulate. So their first pain and their thousandth pain can only be recognized as "my current pain." Thanks to that, they can't have hope, but can't fall into despair, and just seem to stay in that peaceful state. A certain philosopher once called it "total investment in the present"... but I look up to that way of living animals have."

"That's kind of complicated. Can't it just be like "cats are cute, so I like them"?"

"Of course cats are cute," Sanagi said as if wounded. "If I could be anything, I'd want to be a cat. Also, I'd like wings like a bird."

"You want to be a winged cat?"

"That wouldn't be a cat," Sanagi firmly denied.


As the two walked around town, they made various discoveries. The sights Kousaka always passed by looking straight ahead, with Sanagi beside him, became a source of imagination: "I wonder how this world looks to her eyes?" It was like getting a fresh set of sensory organs. Like having a camera equipped with a brand new lens, everything became a subject for reevaluation.

Perhaps Sanagi was feeling the same way. One day, she looked into the distance and mumbled something.

"Walking through town alone and walking through town together are completely different, huh."

Sanagi painted the colors Kousaka left unpainted, and Kousaka painted the colors Sanagi left unpainted, completing each other's worlds. By doing this, the world stood out more clearly.

It was tastier eating together than alone. It was more fun going together than alone. It was more beautiful looking together than alone. Something so obvious to most people, it didn't merit saying. But to Kousaka and Sanagi, it was a major discovery that shook their view of life. Happiness was resonance.

Now, they felt like they could understand the reason people came together to live.

Kousaka hadn't forgotten Izumi's warning. He obeyed his command to "keep things as they are," trying to keep a reasonable distance from Sanagi to avoid being too intimate with her. Each step she took toward him, he backed away, and if she backed away, he stepped toward. It was like a dance.

But even if it wasn't their intention, the distance between them certainly lessened. It was just natural. People who spent so much time together, shared their worries, and shared their worlds couldn't possibly not advance their relationship.

Unknowingly, Kousaka had reached a point of no return. Now, they were barely within the realm of friends, but it seemed only a matter of time before a sudden beat made them lose balance and fall forward.

And soon that time arrived. The night of December 20th, a night of falling sleet.


Kousaka had dozed off in his chair. It wasn't that he was tired, or sleep-deprived. He just liked sleeping with Sanagi around.

It had become a daily routine. When he nodded off while Sanagi read, he could have good dreams. There was no distinct story, just a fragmented patchwork of images, and he couldn't remember a single concrete thing after waking up, yet there was still an echo of happiness. Those kinds of dreams.

When he woke up that day, Sanagi's face was in front of him.

Kousaka jumped a few centimeters in surprise, but she showed even more of a reaction. The instant he opened his eyes, Sanagi jumped back in a flurry. A reaction like a child secretly doing something bad being shouted at from behind.

And they met eyes. Sanagi was surprised - but it was directed at something other than Kousaka suddenly waking up.

"Good morning."

Kousaka smiled at Sanagi. His smile said "I'll act like I didn't see anything."

But Sanagi didn't respond. She sat on the edge of the bed, stared at a balled fist on her lap, and fought an internal confusion. Her eyes, usually listlessly droopy, were wide open, and her ever-tightly-pursed lips were half-open.

Soon, she came back to her senses and looked up. She took a deep breath, then spoke in a hoarse voice.

"I'm sorry."

Kousaka found himself confused by her expression of agony, like a murder had just been discovered. Just afterward, he realized with a delay what Sanagi had been trying to do. He realized the angle of her face when he woke up to it, and the angle at which she'd kissed him through a face mask, were a perfect match.

"That's too overblown. I don't mind that much," Kousaka said. "And I didn't scratch you this time."

"No," Sanagi said, shaking her head forcefully. "I was just about to do something there was no coming back from."

With that, she held her knees on the bed and moped into them.

No coming back? Kousaka wracked his brain. There was only one thing he could think of. She was probably apologizing for nearly making him break the "don't cross the line" rule Izumi had issued.

Indeed, it was a close call. But even so, her reaction seemed too overdramatic. Even if it was through a mask, she had done effectively the same thing once already. He couldn't help but feel "what does that matter now?"

However, Sanagi's next words gave him a shock.

"If we keep staying together like this, I think I'll kill you someday, Mr. Kousaka."

She kept her eyes off Kousaka, smiling lonesomely.

Wiping the tears from her eyes, Sanagi stood up.

"So, I won't come here anymore."

Saying nothing more, she left the room with no hesitation.

By the time Kousaka recovered from his confusion to go after her and leave the apartment, Sanagi was nowhere to be found.

Heavy sleet poured down on the town.

And thus, Kousaka was alone again.

*

A few days passed.

Kousaka knew that coming to an answer wouldn't make Sanagi come back, but he couldn't help thinking about why she'd vanished.

He didn't think he'd made any huge mistake. In fact, for the past ten days, their relationship had been very favorable. He was confident about that. She was enjoying their time together deep down. That much was certain.

It's not that she left because she hates me, Kousaka figured. However... Like she said, I don't know much about her. I was only under the impression I did.

Yet now he could understand somewhat. There was "something" more devastating than scopophobia residing in her, and it prevented interaction with others. While he had no proof, he was instinctively sure of that. Scopophobia was only one symptom which stemmed from this.

It was extremely disappointing, but when he considered how the six people asked to do this job before him had failed, it felt only natural that Sanagi ran from him. Perhaps this was an unwinnable game from the start.

There was just one thing that didn't sit with him. What did she mean by "I think I'll kill you someday"? Should I interpret it as an exaggerated expression for troubling me, or interpret it literally? ...No, I should stop. Thinking about things that are done and gone doesn't do any good.

Kousaka's life went back to how it was before meeting Sanagi. At first, he felt like he had nothing to do spending the afternoon alone, but he quickly got used to it. And he wouldn't easily forget the living rituals he'd kept up for over five years. He thoroughly cleaned the room, cleaned up Sanagi's bloodstains, and took repeated showers to drive off the feeling of Sanagi.

*

December 24th, 4 PM. Less than an hour remained before the activation of Kousaka's creation, SilentNight. It was unclear how many devices had been infected, but it couldn't be less than a few thousand as a low estimate. Because the malware he'd created was quite distinct from the mobile malware that had been made prior.

Kousaka, the author, was not very aware of it himself, but SilentNight was extremely revolutionary mobile malware. There did exist prior malware that disabled the communication functions of phones. SilentMutter and Radiocutter discovered in 2009, for example. But at any rate, of the mobile malware recognized in 2011, the majority were trojans due to technical hurdles. SilentNight, meanwhile, was a mobile worm that infected the network and could self-replicate, so its ability to diffuse was incomparable to previous mobile malware. And at least currently, there were no anti-virus programs that detected this malware.

A powerful virus that struck in 1999, Melissa, was said to have caused over 80 million US dollars in damages. Furthermore, a virus that surfaced the next year, Loveletter, was said to cost over a few billion dollars. Even this malware created by individuals could deal an unheard-of blow to the world if it worked its way into the gears. If all went well, even if it didn't shake the world, SilentNight might get a lot of people's attention for two or three days.

But Kousaka didn't much feel like watching it happen. Though creating malware had been what he lived for, now, it just felt empty. Kousaka himself didn't know whether that was due to Sanagi or not.

I'll turn myself in before the date changes, Kousaka silently decided. He wasn't accounting for the fact that turning himself in might result in a lighter sentence than Izumi doing it for him. He simply felt it was just right.

Upon getting outfitted and standing at the door, the intercom sounded. He knew it wasn't Sanagi. He figured it was probably Izumi, but Kousaka's intuition was also wrong there.

Standing at the door was a deliveryman. The man bluntly handed him a pen and voucher. Kousaka signed, and the man handed him a paper bag and quickly left.

He returned to the living room to open the bag. Inside was a wine-red scarf. When he unfurled the folded-up scarf, something fell out. It was stationery with a simple design and an envelope. The contents of the envelope were sticking out slightly after the fall: a stack of bills.

Kousaka picked up the stationery and stuffed it in his coat pocket. He didn't stop to count the bills. He knew how much it was, and the reason he had been sent it.

Sanagi probably took half the payment from Kousaka as a condition for becoming friends because she wanted to be on equal footing with him. She absolutely didn't want him to feel like he was working for money. Now that their relationship had failed, there was no longer a need to maintain that equality.

Kousaka unplugged his smartphone from the charger it was always plugged into, stuffed the scarf in his bag, and left the room. He was headed to the police station. He didn't know why, but he felt that to turn himself in, he should do so by going there directly instead of calling in.

He didn't wear gloves or a mask. It was a meager punishment for himself.

On the way, Kousaka took the stationery out of his pocket and read it.

"I must have startled you suddenly leaving the way I did. I'm really sorry. I really would like to explain myself, but I can't say anything. Because as many words as I tried to use, it would probably only deepen your confusion. One thing I can say for sure is that you have no responsibility, and the problem lies entirely with me. I was wrong to have a desire that was totally beyond me."

She had neat writing for her age. Her writing was also different from her usual informal tone. But strangely, nothing felt wrong about it. He felt that the words she wrote in the letter were closer to Sanagi's inner self than the words she spoke.

Kousaka looked to the second sheet of stationery.

"Mr. Kousaka, I liked spending time in your room, not doing anything, just spacing out. It was my first time experiencing such peaceful feelings since I was born. I think it was thanks to having someone I liked there. Thank you for the wonderful time."

Following blank space like a period of silence, Kousaka looked at the third sheet.

"It's not exactly a repayment, but I've sent you a scarf I knitted. Yes, this is the "girly hobby" I was hiding. If it doesn't please you, I won't mind if you throw it away. To tell the truth, I simply wanted to try giving someone a gift once."

The fourth sheet.

"I've directly asked Izumi to let you free, Mr. Kousaka. He's always incredibly indulgent to me, so I'm sure he'll do as I said. ...I actually planned to only send you this part, but I've gone on and on writing excess things. Sorry."

And this is how she wrapped up her letter.

"This will be my final contact to you, Mr. Kousaka. It's fine to completely wipe your mind of me. Goodbye."

At about the same time Kousaka finished reading the letter, he arrived at the police station. Kousaka stood there. The clock inside was just striking 5 PM.

He put away the stationery in his pocket, took out the scarf from his bag, and held it in front of him. It was a neatly-knit Aran-patterned scarf, easily mistakable for a commercial product.

Kousaka wore the scarf. He did this, knowing it was handmade. He found it strange himself. He who hated the "hand-cooked," "handwritten," "handmade" - anything touched by a hand - should have normally been disgusted by the gift, even if Sanagi had made it for him. There was an inconsistency that couldn't be explained away with "it's cold enough that I need the protection."

Standing outside the station, Kousaka buried his face in the scarf, staring at shimmering red lamps.

He wasn't sure how long he did it for.

All of a sudden, it occurred to him how he was hopelessly in love with Hijiri Sanagi.

It was his first love, at age 27.

And she was a 17-year-old girl.

But he couldn't see it as shameful. As inherently irregular people in irregular circumstances, they had an irregular love. There was nothing strange about that.

He turned his back to the police station. He no longer felt like turning himself in.


His actions afterward were rapid. Kousaka turned on his smartphone for the first time in days. He called Sanagi's number, but the call sound was cut off after one ring. It was a strange way for a call to cut off. He tried again and again, to the same result. It didn't have the feeling of her phone being off or her being somewhere without reception. Was she rejecting calls from his number?

Just then, he hit upon a possibility. Maybe this is the fault of SilentNight. Maybe it far exceeded my expectations and spread massively, eventually infecting even Sanagi's phone. Considering it now, it wasn't implausible.

Kousaka was at a loss. If he was right, then she'd lost communication just a few minutes ago. Even if he tried to go meet her in person, he didn't know Sanagi's address. Would he have to wait out the two days until the worm's effects stopped? He shook his head; no, that won't do. He felt like he had to tell Sanagi today, or he'd lose the chance to do so ever again. There was no time to delay it any longer. But where could he look to find her? He frantically searched his head, but had not a single idea.

How ironic, Kousaka laughed. The worm I made to cause couples trouble had come around to bite me. So this is what "a curse is always repaid" means.

He felt something cold on his cheek, and looked up. Had it started to snow? He held up his hand and waited for snow to fall into it. When he did, he suddenly wondered why he wasn't wearing gloves. From there, his mind jumped from one thing to another. Gloves, training, holding hands, Sanagi's hand, outside the station, Christmas lights, Christmas Eve.

"So, how does this sound? By Christmas Eve, I'll be able to walk around town without people's gazes bothering me. Mr. Kousaka, you'll be able to hold hands with someone without dirtiness bothering you. If we achieve those goals, then on Christmas Eve, we'll hold hands and walk by the Christmas lights outside the station, then have a modest celebration."

If she's anywhere, it has to be there, Kousaka concluded.


He raced to the station and lept onto the train just before it left. There were a few empty seats, but he didn't take them, and stood by the wall catching his breath. He took out his smartphone, and to check the status of the worm's infection, checked if anyone had mentioned a new worm online in the past hour. From what he could see, there were only five or six people saying their phones had suddenly lost communication. Kousaka almost felt relief seeing this, but shortly realized his stupidity. Those affected by this worm, unless they had another device on hand, wouldn't be able to go online and say anything. Using the internet to check for people who'd lost internet was like counting casualties with a roll call.

He gave up on checking the state of the infection and put the phone back in his pocket. It would probably still be some time before damages became evident.

After getting off the train and going through the ticket gate, a middle-aged man called to him. "Sorry for the rude request, but could you lend me your cellphone?", he said. "There's someone I want to contact ASAP, but it seems my smartphone suddenly broke earlier."

"I can't make calls or send emails, but I can check my address book. I thought I'd just use a public phone, but as you can see..."

Kousaka saw a strange sight where the man pointed.

Outside three phone booths some distance from the ticket gate, there were long snaking lines. At the front was someone looking at a smartphone screen and pressing the buttons on the public phone. They were probably all victims of the worm.

Kousaka gulped. This may perhaps be more serious than I anticipated.

Though it was a race against time, Kousaka lent the man his phone. Not knowing that this generous young man was in reality the cause of all this commotion, he bowed his head deeply and thanked him.

While the man made his call, Kousaka tried to think about means of contacting Sanagi. Then he suddenly realized. There was no need to make contact. If Sanagi still felt like meeting me, she'll definitely appear outside the station tonight. That was what she promised. On the other hand, if she didn't want that, then it would be pointless even if I could call her. My primary worry right now is that, regardless of whether Sanagi appears, I'll fail to find her.

Kousaka saw a station employee put a signboard outside the ticket gate, and people started to crowd around it. The man finally finished his call, returned the smartphone to Kousaka, thanked him, and left. Kousaka resisted the urge to disinfect the phone and stuck it in his pocket. And he left the building to head to the plaza. If Sanagi did appear, that's the place she'd choose.

It seemed like there were many lonely young people in the plaza. Surely not all of them were, but no doubt at least some percentage of them had lost their means of communication due to the worm and couldn't meet who they were intending to. People smoking cigarettes with displeasure and looking into the distance, people sitting on benches and looking around constantly, restless people walking around the plaza. The scene reminded him of a time before cellphones were widespread.

Kousaka sat on a bench beside the clock, and kept watching the people leaving the station. He sharpened his senses so he wouldn't miss a single person who went in or out of the station.

But an hour, two hours passed with no sign of Sanagi. Every time he saw a woman with bright, short hair, he looked up hopefully, but they were all the wrong person.

The snow picked up, and the people who filled the plaza gradually lessened in number. Before he knew it, there were enough left to count on one hand. Those who came in and out of the station became sparse, and it was no longer necessary to focus his senses.

And a total of three hours passed.

Maybe it's pointless to wait any longer, he thought.

That promise has long since lost its effect.

He sighed and looked up at the night sky. He was freezing all over; below his knees especially, he was unbelievably cold. But physical coldness was no big issue. A warmth in his chest that had felt like part of him went out, and a heavy chill filled the space. The faint heat that remained only seemed to reinforce the cold.

Ah, so this is what loneliness feels like, Kousaka finally realized at the ripe age of 27. The scales had fallen from his eyes. Until now, he had been faintly aware of the shapes of love and loneliness, but decided they were things irrelevant to him. To think the day would come when he could feel them like this. Maybe the kiss Sanagi gave me that day rewrote some of my data, Kousaka thought.

The clock rang out, informing him it was 9 PM. Less than an hour until the Christmas lights turned off.

At that point, there was nothing keeping Kousaka there but stubbornness. Surely Sanagi isn't going to appear at this point, he thought, starting to discard his hopes - and in a way, he was correct.

After the bell finished ringing, Kousaka looked all around. Almost everyone in the plaza had vanished; all that was left was himself, and a single girl. She looked like a docile girl in a quiet outfit. She buried her face in a scarf to endure the cold, keeping her head down. Likely from doing that for a long time, her head and shoulders were covered with white snow.

Maybe she was another person who failed to meet the one she loved. That thought filled Kousaka with feelings of regret. Now, he could understand her feelings to a painful degree.

I want to apologize to her, Kousaka thought. Say I'm the one who caused all this trouble, I was jealous of all the couples and created a worm that made all this happen. Of course, she probably wouldn't believe him if he said that. She'd just think he was nuts. But his judgement had long since gone numb from the cold and despair.

Kousaka got up from the bench and walked toward the girl. All his muscles were stiff, so he walked awkwardly like a marionette.

"Um, excuse me."

The girl looked up when he spoke to her.

And she smiled.

Just like that, Kousaka was unable to speak a word.

He was so shocked, he forgot to breathe for a while. It felt like all the energy had left his body.

"I was waiting to see when you'd notice," the girl said.

"...That's unfair," Kousaka said at length. "You look way too different. There's no way I could tell."

"But there's no point in changing if I don't change that much, right?"

Sanagi slowly stood up and swept the snow off her hair and coat.

Perhaps Sanagi had been there for a long time now. Kousaka simply overlooked her, and she was in sight the whole time. Not like he had something wrong with his eyes, though. Nine out of ten people would probably make the same mistake.

When Kousaka imagined Hijiri Sanagi, he first pictured her dyed hair. Then her unrefined headphones, her short skirt, her blue earring. The girl in front of him met none of those requirements. Her hair was black, she wasn't wearing headphones, her skirt was an average length. The earring was still there, but you couldn't tell that without coming up close.

"I was about to give up and assume you wouldn't come. Sheesh, Sanagi, you're mean," Kousaka said in amazement.

"I was right by you. It's your fault for not noticing, Mr. Kousaka."

"You're one to talk." Kousaka furrowed his brow. "Did you notice me from the start?"

"Yeah. Because of that scarf." Sanagi looked at Kousaka's neck. "I knew instantly. Glad to see you actually using it."

"Right. Today was especially cold, so...", Kousaka said with some embarrassment. "That aside, does your natural hair color mean you intend to go back to school?"

"Well, there's that."
"There's another reason?"

"Err..." Sanagi's gaze turned down diagonally, and she spoke while fiddling with her hair damp from the snow. "I figured you liked this kind of diligent feel, so..."

Sanagi laughed like it was a joke, but Kousaka didn't laugh.

The chilled core of his body warmed up like a flame had been lit.

A moment later, Kousaka was hugging Sanagi.

"Huh?", Sanagi yelped in surprise.

"...Does it feel okay?", Sanagi asked with concern from within his arms.

"To tell the truth, it doesn't really," Kousaka said, stroking her head affectionately. "But for some reason, I can forgive being made dirty by you."

"...You're rude," Sanagi said with a laugh, and brought her arms around his back.

*

In the seven days up to the new year, Kousaka and Sanagi had the most peaceful and fulfilling time of their lives. Everything they'd lost in their lives prior, that they couldn't get, that they'd given up on, they took back one at a time. It was happiness that to most people wasn't rare, just shabby and trivial, but to the two of them it was like a pipe dream. Just holding hands, just being shoulder to shoulder, just looking each other in the eye, were major events in their personal histories.

In these seven days, Kousaka never reached out toward Sanagi. Not out of any duty to Izumi, or because he found her body impure, or because he lacked the courage to cross that line. He simply wanted to treat Sanagi dearly. He could afford to wait until she was a proper age to think about such things.

Perhaps sensing that consideration, Sanagi also refrained from excessive touching and showing skin, seemingly cautious not to stimulate him more than necessary. Kousaka was very grateful for her cooperative attitude. Even with the difference in their ages, self-control was something that could very quickly crumble if poked too much.


Truthfully, in the last few days of the year, there was quite a panic over the mobile worm that wreaked havoc from Christmas Eve to Christmas night. The first mobile worm in the world to spread on such a large scale, SilentNight made a small etching in the history of malware. But Kousaka, who didn't look at any form of news in those seven days after Christmas, had no way of knowing that.

At this point, nothing mattered to him. He felt like there was nothing but Sanagi worth giving his attention to.

Later, he'd look back and recall - maybe I knew somewhere in my heart that this was my first and last opportunity, so I could spend every second carefully and without regrets.

Kousaka was so convinced that these happy days wouldn't last long, it was as if he'd seen the future with his own eyes.

Maybe it was just a feeling worming its way through his mind.

He chose not to ask Sanagi about the meaning of "I think I'll kill you someday." He felt having her reveal her secret would only shorten their already-short deferment.

Even if postponing the conclusion proved to be what caused Sanagi to indeed kill him, he wouldn't mind that. If she wants to kill me, I'll let her do as she likes, Kousaka thought to himself. Because if Sanagi went away, his life would no longer have meaning.


Izumi appeared in the afternoon on January 1st. After the two paid a visit to a temple for the new year, they didn't do anything and just dozed off in the room with the curtains closed. Just as Kousaka was a moment from falling asleep, he was pulled back to reality by the sound of the intercom.

He gently put Sanagi, sleeping soundly on his lap, on the bed without waking her, then answered his guest. Even after seeing Izumi at the door, he was hardly fazed.

"I thought it was about time for you to come," Kousaka said, his eyes squinting from the light.

"Is Hijiri Sanagi there?", Izumi asked. Because of the backlight, Kousaka couldn't quite read his expression.

"She is. She's asleep, but should I wake her up?"
"Yeah. Sorry, but do that."

Kousaka returned to the room and gently shook Sanagi's shoulders. "Izumi's calling," he said, and she quickly opened her eyes and got up.

The two did as Izumi told them to, and got in the back seat of a car parked outside the apartment. It was a gray car that left little impression and could easily be lost if it were parked in a large parking lot. The heater was on inside, and the seats had a faint aromatic smell.

For a while after the drive started, the three didn't say a word. They got on the highway, and while stopped at a light, Izumi finally spoke.

"Kengo Kousaka. I'm going to have to tell you a somewhat shocking fact."

"Izumi," Sanagi interrupted. "...Don't."

But Izumi ignored her, and continued.


"There's a new kind of parasite residing in your head. It doesn't have any official name yet, so we just call it the "worm." To spare you the tedious explanations, it's that "worm" to blame for you not being suited for society."


He thought it must be some kind of joke.

Some kind of in-joke that only made sense to Izumi and Sanagi.

But looking at Sanagi's expression, it was very clear that it was no joke.

Her lips trembled, and with a face turned pale, she hung her head.

As if she were deeply ashamed that Kousaka had heard this.

"And this "worm" is in Hijiri Sanagi's head, too," Izumi continued. "The worm in your head and the worm in Hijiri Sanagi's head are calling to each other. You might think Hijiri Sanagi's your fateful partner, but that feeling's been created by the worm. What you have is nothing more than a puppet love."

Izumi's expression, seen through the back mirror, looked completely serious.

Kousaka looked toward Sanagi, seeking words of denial.

But all that came out of her mouth was:

"...I'm sorry for deceiving you."



Chapter 6
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