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“Be ignorance thy choice, where knowledge leads to woe.” —James Beattie
“Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”—Robert Browning

He was in love with the sweetest, most beautiful, most charming girl in the entire universe.

Every time his eyes closed, he could see her looking up at him with large, uncertain eyes, or crawling across the floor on hands and knees in a manner that was both childlike and erotic.

How could a person not love her? Everyone loved her. Even Himejima—her inadvertent rival—loved her.

He kept his eyes open, but she was still there. Her face stared out at him from the reflective glass of the train’s window. He turned away.

It was impossible not to think of her.

They were all important to him, but she had always been his favorite. She just needed a little extra attention… She didn’t have anyone to care for her… And it was so nice to be looked up to for once…

He wanted to take her to the zoo, and ply her with sweets, and buy her anything she looked at twice. He wanted to come home to her beaming adoration at the end of each day, and surprise her with flowers, and eat the cookies she baked for him. And… yes… he wanted to snuggle against her in the blankets and hold her and kiss her forehead… her lips… her neck…

He stopped this line of thoughts and pressed his forehead against the window, refusing to see and refusing not to see. He hadn’t had thoughts like this at first, back when they were only friends. Back before she had become his closest friend, and he had become her staunchest protector, her mentor, her ally. Then one day he realized that she was the reason he left the house every morning.

Really, wasn’t love the logical outgrowth of a relationship like that? If you’re close to somebody, you grow to care for her more and more, and by the time you realize that you’re physically attracted to her, you’ve been in love for a long, long time.

But explanations were meaningless. She was suffering now—this was his fault—and he was doing the only thing he could do to stop it.

He had never really realized how spiteful and malicious people could be. How could anybody publicly humiliate her in such a manner? How could the very people who were supposed to care for her well-being malign her virtue in a callous attempt to justify their own hate?

He burned with anger. He hadn’t protected her.

Fukae would have done better. But… she hadn’t fallen in love with Fukae. She had fallen in love with him, Hibiki Amawa. She had offered herself to him.

And it was all so completely expected and unexpected. He hadn’t intended to hurt her. He hadn’t had any intentions regarding her. But he had hurt her—he had fallen in love with her—and, practically speaking, it was the same thing. He was the same as all of the others. He would have used her for his own pleasure, and in the end, the sincerity of his feelings was irrelevant.

He had tried so hard not to think of her. He had tried, really. He had not indulged himself. Well, at least not until it became obvious that he would never succeed at forgetting her. But what could he do? He loved her. He wanted to protect her. He needed her constant affirmation of his value.

And now she believed that he had lied to her.

No. He had lied to her.

She would probably never forgive him. She ought never to forgive him. Was she even ever in love with him? Or was she only in love with the woman she had thought he was? But, weren’t they the same person? That was an unanswerable question.

Oh, why did she have to find out in such an awful way?

If only they could have stayed ignorant. It was so much better before she knew about his secret. It was so much better before he knew with certainty that his love was returned. It was unspeakably better before everyone learned of what had passed between them.

He reached his hand out to stroke the imaginary face in front of him, smoothing over the flyaway strands of hair and lingering on the blushing cheek. So many times, he had thought of her and lusted for her, but he had denied himself the shameful pleasure of imagining her beautiful body writhing beneath his hands, her mewling cries breathless with expectation and confusion…

She was the most precious person in the world, the justification for his existence. Of course he wanted to care for her! What better person to love than a person who needs to be protected and adored? Naïveté is a thing that is most beautiful in all the world, and he wanted to gather it all up, build tall hedges around it, and see it smile at him when he came home to its trusting, simple caresses.

He tried to console himself, reminding himself that people were naturally attracted to purity and naïveté. They naturally wanted to protect it, and even more than that… they wanted to own it. He himself hadn’t been innocent for a long time, and he felt that if he could just preserve it in somebody else, his worldly sophistication would be partially justified.

She needed him. And if she were less naïve… well… she might not.

He wanted so badly to defend her, to shelter her innocence from the people who would hurt her. He wanted to protect her from predators that would obsess over her, gobble up her personality, and mold her into a doll that reinforced their own egos. He wanted to shield her from those who would take up all of her attention—would teach her the meaning of pain and ecstasy—would ruin her reputation and her self-image—would do to her the things that all lovers do to their beloveds.

What was he protecting her innocence from? Wasn’t he protecting her from people just like himself? People who were attracted to innocence? The entire reason she needed to be taken care of was that she was too inexperienced to know her own mind about sex and love and boys. Which meant that he had no business thinking about her like this.

He had to protect her from himself. Because, in loving her, he was hurting her.

This thought clenched like a sharp pain in his abdomen and nearly made him cry. If everyone who truly loves her stays away from her, then the only people who will approach her will be those who don’t respect her enough to stay away. Who will be left to care for her?

Fukae could do that. Fukae—still something of a child—was a better human being than Hibiki was.

He glanced out the window so that he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the other passengers. And she was there, too—outside, running toward him, with her arms reaching out for him, her mouth wide, calling for him, although he couldn’t hear her words.

The train went faster and faster and further from her, and she was falling behind before he realized that she was really there.

He watched her fall and get up again and fall again and get up again, his hands pressed against the glass and his face in bewilderment. How had she managed to catch up with him? Why had she run after him at all? Did she… love him anyway? Even though he hadn’t been able to explain himself to her? Even though he had left without saying goodbye?

She would never catch the train. Why, he wondered, was she running after him? Why would she, the girl who couldn’t run fifty meters without falling on her face, ask of her body what she knew would be impossible?

There was no reason to ask. He knew why she was there.

If she were taken from him, he would have run farther and faster than anyone had ever run before. He would have torn down cities, moved the earth in its orbit, killed himself before he allowed anyone to take her away.

And suddenly… the distance was too great, and he couldn’t see her any more.

He had promised them that he would return, but he knew he mustn’t. So he had lied to her again. How he hated himself…! How could he have been so selfish as to love her?

Only a truly loathsome person would fall in love with his fourteen-year-old student.