The Longing Of Shiina Ryo:Volume2

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Prologue[edit]

Reikoku-sensei is serious.

That might sound kind of obvious because anyone should have probably already noticed that she is serious by now, but I don't mean it that way. Well, maybe I do but that’s certainly not the point I’m trying to make here. I'm not talking about her attitude because, honestly, the way she acts grows weirder every minute, like she’s trying to follow the second law of Thermodynamics.

Heck, I'm not even talking about her looks; she does seem very serious and reliable when she is dressed like a teacher and not in my home wearing pajamas, eating my food and talking passionately about those over-the-top and older-than-steam gory horror movies she is so addicted to. Maybe I didn't express my thoughts properly the first time (although not for the first time): she is serious, but what I'm trying to say here is that she is truly serious about something in particular, and on the top of that it's something that particularly bothers me. Big. Time.

She is serious about making that monster/strange phenomenon hunting team thing Ryo suggested last week. The solid proof is standing in front of me right now, so close I cannot deny its existence. Unless I'm a governmental alien studies-related agency or something like that, you know.

"Excuse me but just what on Earth is this?" I ask, only mildly aware of the unfortunate implications an answer to this particular question might bring.

My peripheral vision captures unreasonably fast movement from a person standing on my left side, someone that probably desires to get closer to my heart, but not for the reasons one would like to have a girl doing so; in my humble opinion, the apparently emotionless fashionista is just trying to position her weapon of a body in the best spatial coordinates for a direct fatal attack.

“These certainly look like paper to me.”

I admit it: my heart froze when Kouma Yon’s dangerous arm moved and grabbed one of the three sheets standing on Reikoku-sensei’s desk by the tip, but shortly after that I noticed I was being silly and decided to lower my defenses and play her game.

“You know, that kind of ironic comment isn’t that funny anymore. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t very good to begin with.”

The girl I had fought both against and alongside not recently looked directly at me as if my poorly-thought counterattack had deeply offended her.

“It might sound ironic to you, but it’s a very important and nearly defining character trait for me. Therefore, I’d rather go with the adjective ‘iconic’ as it fits much better.”

My best friend joined the conversation exhaling a cuteness so intense it burned me inside soothingly… could someone be a darling and please stop me before I think anything even more ridiculously embarrassing?

“Positronic. There are a few things that need to be clarified about the misusage of that particular word. People often associate it with robots, mainly because of Asimov’s stories. The thing is its true meaning is completely unrelated to what those people assume: a positron is the antimatter equivalent of an electron, a subatomic particle with the exact same mass but a positive charge. It doesn’t take much to search the Internet for this info, yet people still insist on inserting this nonsense into their works of fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against trying to come up with ‘cool names and concepts’ because if people really wanted to get proper facts they certainly wouldn’t be reading fiction or even popular magazines for that matter. I just miss the days where science fiction was about science and it made honest mistakes by trying to be ahead of its time instead of walking straight into pits blindfolded by option with the foolish intent to simulate the writing of those who were born blind in the past. Pitiful, just pitiful.”

I don’t think any of us was ready for a rant like that so early in the morning, especially coming from Ryo.

“Hm… basically, you’re saying ‘positronic’ is not related at all to robotics.” I tried to pick my words carefully, as cautious people usually do when confronting someone who just delivered a massive amount of information in the shortest time possible to them. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, close enough.” She took a breath, but it wasn’t quite as deep as I expected. “By the way, ‘robotics’ is another term coined by Asimov, although the word ‘robot’ is not.”
“…then how is it related in any way to Kouma’s speech?”

Probably noticing how strange bringing up that topic was, Shiina Ryo stopped moving completely and stayed like that for a few moments as if she was trying to imitate our reaction to her information overload, only with an incredible time delay.

“Well, it actually isn’t. I just needed to get it off my chest, that’s all.” She seemed to be as puzzled as I was, except she was not. To be completely honest I don’t actually think anyone was puzzled as I was. “That unscientific science fiction term has been annoying me for a while.”

Needless to say, silence followed.

“If you kids are done with the information dump moment, I would like to explain why I’m handing these pieces of paper.”

Our teacher had her hands tightly clasped in front of her slender face, the fingers crossed like an evil ambassador or a certain fictional commander of an organization that has the purpose of defending the Earth with complicated semi-biological humongous mechanical weapons. Yes, I’m pretty sure you got the idea because you watched all the episodes and movies. “Anything else you would like to add? No? Excellent: allow me to begin explaining what those… sheets of paper with words printed on them represent. My only condition is that you don’t interrupt me while I’m talking. Do you all agree to that?”
“Yes, we do.” In the face of such an argument, Ryo probably felt the urge to reply verbally to our teacher while Kouma and I just nodded.
“That said, I don’t want any of you suddenly coming up with extremely long sequences of sentences that, while usually initially related to the topic, end up taking the conversation to a completely different place and then bring the textbook example of awkward silence we just witnessed: in other words I don’t want any of you to stop my speech to add countless unneeded explanations and witty remarks that clearly came from the database of several online encyclopedias. Once more, to make my intentions as crystal clear as they could possibly get and avoid further issues: I do not want any of you talking about the process of producing paper with fibers such as those derived from wood or grass and I certainly don’t want to hear about its origins, size, thickness, weight, durability, usage, materials, how edible it can be or even a single word on the endless ‘sulfite versus recycled’ discussion. So, no mindless pretentious faux-intellectual rambling on any subject of any kind allowed.” Reikoku-sensei finally paused to breathe and the mild expression on her face implied a glorious moment of hypocrisy-fueled epiphany. “Oh, terrific; this is contagious.”
“I was going to warn you about that…”
“Are you interrupting me, Koukishin-kun?” My first impulse was to answer her question but it didn’t took me a long time to realize that I was about to make a huge mistake that would only grow exponentially bigger. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that when it comes to Reikoku-sensei, the first thought that comes to your mind is not the right one. Nor is the second, for that matter. “Good. I’m afraid we don’t have much time left to discuss this before the room gets crowded with students, so I’ll try to keep it short. As I said while we were talking after the event last weekend, there was the necessity of discussing the idea of making a task force to deal with... you all know what. After some pondering it dawned on me there isn’t anything to discuss on that subject.”

The warm glow that came through the window and illuminated her desk slowly moved closer as if deliberately trying to touch her face. Sunlight really should know better.

“Then why did you want to talk to us before class start-”

I really should know better, because I only realized my reflex action was like stepping onto a nuclear mine when I met her sinister glare and felt the cold breathing of my female friends on my neck. It was a mistake on the level of ‘bringing a sword to a gun fight’, and yes, you read that right. You can always find a neutral ground between swords and guns, anyway; unbeknownst to many, hybrids have been available since the 16th century. What I’m telling you is that you don’t need to be a video game character that looks exactly like a certain Japanese singer to get your very own pistol sword. Isn’t that nice?

And yes, I am trying to avoid the inevitable. Can anyone honestly blame me for that, considering it’s me against Ms. Entropy here?

“A friendly warning: you’re going to pay for that interruption.”

I don’t personally consider myself an expert on threats (especially because you’d expect an expert to at least remember how many threats he, she or it has received), but how on Earth was that friendly? Even soccer games between sworn rivals such as Brazil and Argentina could easily be considered friendlier than that.

“You know what? I’ve had more than enough of this: just take the individual club member application formularies and fill the blanks with your information so we can forget this morning even happened. Talking to you is too tiring.”
“…individual club member application formularies?”
“Do you enjoy repeating things that much? I believe anyone should fully understand the situation by now.”

And I did, and that’s what scared me.

“You honestly expect us to make a supernatural entity hunting school club? Who would do that?”
“You would, or at least they are going to.” Our teacher pointed to my friends with her long index fingers, almost looking like she was imitating a cowboy holding guns. “While you were busy looking shocked, they started filling their respective formularies.”

Much to my dismay, the beautiful yet not-so-responsible woman spoke the truth; my friends were already furiously pressing pens into that mischievous contract, a deal with the Underworld. The real ones were not exactly like that, but they came pretty close.

The worst part of it is that even if I don’t take part in this bizarre experiment, I’m not sure I can talk Ryo or Kouma out of this. Ryo takes an interest in oddities because she thinks she is helping me this way and she probably sees this as a form of escapism, something she seems truly in love with. Kouma would stay by Ryo’s side 24/7 if she could and because of Ryo’s frail body condition she often acts as her bodyguard. I’m not trying to look all macho here, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have made it without me last time (especially because we barely made it even with the three of us).

Judging by the look on Reikoku-sensei’s face, this outcome was planned all along: everyone is going to take part in this because they want to protect someone else and the ones who see through her plans are still forced to follow them because whether we choose to research and hunt those entities or not, there are more of them and they are here. A place that has no cops is not the same as a place that doesn’t need cops; au contraire, if there is anything a utopia like that needs is people to make sure crimes are being prevented or punished.

I understand exactly just how deep this is.

It’s only a matter of time before something weird happens to someone and involving others in this situation would be stupid and selfish, so I don’t even get to question ‘why us?’ Maybe it was sheer causality or an honest-to-God example of synchronicity but for someone who had a life like mine to find himself into a situation like this, it’s just too weird. Almost as if everything that happened before was just training for this, or as if all those things gravitated around and towards me. Since blaming Fate is a terrible cliché, I’d rather stick with Gravity, who is at least it’s an enemy I’m already familiar with.

Still, my pride wouldn’t allow me to surrender so easily.

“Now, even if we were decided on giving up our perfectly normal lives…” At that exact moment, all of them coughed nervously. How predictable. “…without a proper reason and hunt down those monsters, and I’m definitely not saying we will do such a thing, what would be the point of making a school club to perform this hideous activity?”

Ryo touched her small chin and gave me one of her trademark smiles.

“The money, obviously.”

Raise your hands if you were expecting that sentence to come out of that pretty mouth of hers. That’s right, you can’t, and to be honest, you’re not the only one. Especially after that hug scene at the end of the event… I’m not sure whether I should feel disappointed or intrigued by that twist.

“Wait, what?”
“As a registered club of this school, we’ll receive a room and a small yet considerable allowance to buy products to help with club activities or its research.” Kouma said without looking away from her paper. “Having a reasonable amount of funds is necessary for starting any kind of business.”
“A business? What are we, the Teenager Ghostbusters? You might as well use those funds to buy us a van and a talking dog.”
“Vans are quite expensive but I already own a cat, if that is any help.” Unlike her childhood friend, Shiina Ryo not only stopped writing but also looked directly into my eyes when replying. It was like watching Fire and Water being best buddies. “He doesn’t talk, though, but he stares an awful lot and reminds me of Yon-chan.”

Even children could see the connection between the two things in Ryo’s innocent remark, and that’s what made it so amusing to me. Still, I couldn’t get carried away; they are still trying to drag me back to the dark waters. Laughing was not an option.

“What would we need that money for, anyway?”

And then something inside me clicked: it was the feeling you get when you ask a computer technician or a car salesman an innocent question. When you realize you shouldn’t have asked that and now you’re probably going to regret it all the way home.

“Bandages aren’t free.” Kouma Yon said.
“Nor are warehouses’ rentals.” Ryo followed.
“And school chairs.”
“Desks, too.”
“Once in a while someone’s clothes are going to be completely ruined.”
“Stake-outs take time and food on the streets can be expensive.”
“It certainly would be cheaper and a lot more practical to cook our own Taiyaki instead of interrupting the meetings to go outside and buy it.”
“We could eat something else, once in a while.”
“Or we could eat Taiyaki.”

Thankfully, this dialogue ended prematurely thanks to one of the greatest wonders of Science: the fish-shaped cake Kouma loved so much. Considering those two were talking, I know it could have gone for hours. Especially if someone decided to discuss Nietzsche or Freud, who would obviously find their way into the conversation. They always do.

“Good morning!”

As should be expected after all the time we spent talking, the other students were finally arriving. Still, for some unknown reason, all of us seemed surprised by their sudden appearance. Perhaps we were all hoping they would have the decency to wait for the main cast of characters to finish the plot-related dialogue before entering, which they sort of did, in a sense.

“Now go and sit down before anyone finds this suspicious and questionable or worse than that, clarifying and answerable.” Our teacher said in a low voice that didn’t suit her. “Hand me the papers before you leave for lunch.”

And that’s what we did: first we greeted the others (which means I did, while my antisocial friends just went to their places) and then after calm and affably boring lessons, we left our papers on Reikoku-sensei’s desk right before going for another lunch on the rooftop. Other than the small commotion caused by the announcement another student of the class, Morimoto Ayaka, suddenly transferred (and even that commotion was below my expectations, as if the class was already used to things like that happening) there were no events in between and not a single irregularity after lunch; just a lazy nice day at school, how they are supposed to be.

When we’re about to go home, our teacher calls me over, an obvious invitation to a one-on-one talk. Knowing my teacher, I told Kouma and Ryo to go without me with the promise of calling later or something like that; hoping for this conversation with Reikoku-sensei or its consequences to be resolved in just two minutes would have been utterly foolish of me.

I really should have seen this coming.

“Sorry about accidentally sending your application formulary to another club. Oh, I feel so-o clumsy today.” Her words sarcastically pronounced in monotone made me extra suspicious. “Not only that, I am especially busy and I don’t have free time to pick up your application form; you’ll have to run to this club's room and get it back yourself.”

Almost immediately my eyebrows rose; there was absolutely no way I could have seen a dojikko impersonation coming.

“Is this about the interruption?”
“The possibility exists. Now go and retrieve it.”
“Why would I?” Despite whatever she planned, this time the upper hand is mine. “I don’t think I have a reason to get my application form back from a club I don’t know to join one whose activities I’m not fond of. If I bring it back I’ll start searching for aberrations that I otherwise probably wouldn’t meet. If I don’t, the worst thing that can happen to me is receiving notices for not attending club activities. Honestly, there isn’t a single reason for me to go there and get that paper for you.”
“And that would be very clever of you if it wasn’t for a small, but not insignificant, detail.”

The cerulean sky out the window did not dare to move.

“Really, what that would that be?”
“I am not the teacher responsible for every club. When you start skipping club activities, which I assume you will promptly do regardless of the club’s activities and areas of interest, there is a good chance the assigned teacher will pay you a surprise home visit. Now, I can relate to your situation because of my personal experiences, but I’m not sure if another educator put into the same situation would choose to stay quiet about an unemancipated minor living on his own. Then it would have been much easier if you never filled that formulary in the first place, wouldn’t it?” And there it was: blackmail in paper-thin disguise, just as expected from a person such as my teacher (although for the well being of the world I hope there aren’t many of those). It doesn’t take much to see that staying next to her is like kissing a flame, like being between Scylla and… the other monster whose name I cannot recall right now. Anyway, merely going to school can be considered extremely dangerous.
“…I think I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.” She gazed down on the several papers on her desk as if they had the intention of running away if she stopped watching. Honestly, I could relate to the poor fellows: despite coming from trees and everything, I don’t quite believe any entity, living or dead, have Reikoku-sensei as a personal warder. Now that I think about this matter, maybe the people who claim disasters can unite individuals of different races and species are not completely wrong; when it comes to my teacher, there is a great chance the paper suffers just as much as I do. “Now hurry.”

Without having anything clever to say in reply, I ran.


Chapter 1: Megumi[edit]

Chapter 1: Megumi

Part 1[edit]

“Charybdis! That’s right, the name of the monster that created whirlpools by belching in Greek mythology is Charybdis!”
Only then I realized there were people inside the room whose door I had opened, and it was a good thing to find out that the two girls were as shocked as I was at that moment. Not for the same reason, probably.
“Say what?”
The one that asked the question was so unusual looking I had a hard time accepting the fact I managed not to see her during my first week. Eyes of completely different colors that could probably gleam in the dark, layered unruly hair so multicolored it made her look like a razor cut a Christmas tree covered in rainbow graffiti, along with obligatory pierced lips, ears (both the helix and lower conventional parts) and one eyebrow to match the hair and give to the viewer an extreme version of the ‘youth gone wrong’ stereotype. In her ink-marked arms, an acoustic guitar so customized with psychedelic drawings and stickers it could definitely find place in a postmodern art exposition (in the same way a pink brick with a rudimentary image of a kitten carved on it could; it’s postmodern we’re talking about).
Think rebel: judging by my first impression, that is definitely what she wanted you to think.
“…eh, nothing. Hm.” Sometimes explaining things properly takes time, pre-canalized energy and unreasonable amounts of effort one simply cannot afford. Bonus points if said one is so tired from running through the school buildings he starts generalizing about his oneself…-ness?! Besides, just seeing that person was confusing enough. “My club application form was mistakenly sent here and I just came to retrieve it.”

The pierced right eyebrow was raised in a surprisingly non-threatening manner, which reminded me that the person in front of me was definitely not a certain fashionista I had the displeasure of knowing. Not that the tattoos, metal and hair dye weren’t enough of a hint, really.
“Oh, so you’re Koukishin Shinzou.” The girl whose looks screamed ‘rebellion’ looked at the other one, who seemed to be doing her best to keep her distance from me while holding my application form. Maybe she was just shy, but the way she kept trying to slowly walk backwards when her body was already pressing against the wall was slightly disturbing even for an acquaintance with Kouma Yon. “Akane and I were just saying it would be very weird if there was a girl with such a name.”
How am I supposed to reply to something like that? Should I thank her or something? Not only that, the girl in the corner she called ‘Akane’ didn’t look like she would ever say anything.
“I …guess?”
“It was a good idea to stick to that thought until the end, even though I never heard of boys studying here. By the way, my name is Megumi.” She raised a fist and left it suspended in my direction, a gesture I could not comprehend coming from her but would have assumed being an attack from Kouma. Wait, why am I still thinking of her?
Then it dawned on me: that fist suspended in air and pointed at me was a greeting.
“Koukishin Shinzou, but you can call me Shin-tsu.”
I too turned my hand into a fist and punched hers firmly but definitely not with the same intensity I used when fighting that creature; this was a punch in name and aesthetics only, but as artificial as a closed fist could be. While our hands were still meeting each other, I heard something I wasn’t expecting at that moment, and just being in that school meant getting used to expect everything.
“A fist bump between two young individuals of different gender seems like a lacy glove slap on the face of those who still believe there is a gender war going on. Or a cute feminist photographic postcard, I am not so sure right now.” It took me a moment to realize someone had entered the room through the door I forgot to close and that’s why I was surprised, although this might be connected to the fact the third girl walked in without making any kind of noise. “It is hard to tell because he looks quite feminine for a boy or even for a girl, this affirmation based on certain urban areas.”
“I do not!”

When I turned around to face the new arrival with the accusative contralto voice, I found her significantly closer than I would have expected her to be. Too close for comfort and respect of personal space, perhaps. In retrospective, it makes me wonder why I didn’t consider the possibility of being a decent countertenor and therefore forces me to realize I can be a little bit biased when it comes to vocal ranges.
…perhaps not only on that matter.
While her way of speaking was similar to Ryo's, it would be impossible for me to ignore the precision of her resemblance to the other of my closest acquaintances in this city. She reminded me of Reikoku-sensei’s classroom appearance, only somehow neater (which was probably not quite true, just my mind’s natural reflex to my teacher’s bad habits outside school). Her long hair and narrow eyes seemed so perfect in symmetry that I almost assumed she was not a living person; the figure in front of me was giving me a sense of stability I could only get from well-crafted mannequins.
“I simply stated a fact but you are entitled to an opinion. If people are still silly enough to waste time on ‘science versus religion’ discussions you might as well state your opinion saying you are not a walking chunk of androgynous meat. For the record, I never said or implied it was a bad thing.” The long-haired girl was now looking at the colorful one with confidence. "And obviously, the whole anti-gender war propaganda loses its metaphorical sparkle once other factors such as a long-term relationship are established. Are you somehow ‘intimate' with this visually ambiguous boy?"
“We don’t know him that well. Actually he came out of nowhere saying stuff about mythological monsters, just like that.” Megumi stared at the school council president and I felt a little animosity between them, which is only to be expected when you put two graphical opposites in the same place. Thankfully, the girl was a bit too bold to just blush at the insensitive comment made by the older student. “What the hell are you doing here?”

But the rude question had no effect, apparently.
“Interesting. Do you often walk into rooms and say random fragments of information to complete strangers?” Said to me the complete opposite to the freak girl, the way she manipulated her voice keeping her intentions veiled. “If your answer is affirmative, I might actually enjoy talking to you.”
“…what?” Sadly that was the best line I came up with back then. “Seriously, what?”
The overtly colorful one looked a little more serious now. “You didn’t answer my question, Miss Student Council President.”

Apparently the moment the older student was referred to by her title marked the point where I lost focus and the other girl got the spotlight.
“And what would that be, my dear second year student who makes no effort to display an ounce of respect to her upperclassmen?”
“Why are you here?”
I could not entirely blame the girl with almost as much metal as face on her, uh, face: there was something in the arrogant eyes of the neat girl that made me want to scream ‘pretentious,’ even knowing that word didn’t quite apply, and for one brief and shallow moment, I knew exactly how elitist fiction critics and ranting music bloggers felt.
“Not quite sure, I do not care enough about the subject to have what a valid opinion by my personal standards. As one could presume by my previous statements, I do not enjoy the idea of wasting time in scientific and religious debates, metaphysics included, because in the end it is commonly connected to both,” she said, playing with what could hardly be called a lock of her hair, considering how fine and straight it was. Yes, I am kind of jealous. “On the other hand, if you meant that in a less universal way, I suppose the answer is one I can provide: I, Koukina Rin, am interested in this club.”

Upon hearing those words my curiosity took over me and I could not stop my eyes when they decided on their own to look at the paper sign on the door. I barely paid any attention to it on the way here because my motivation was strong and my directions were simple: find room 23. Although my eidetic memory was probably more than enough to remind me of the words written on the sign, my body felt the urge to look anyway; it was just like those occasions when you feel compelled to look just because someone told you not to.
"D… M... C?" When my gaze saw the words on the paper and they matched the words in my memory I could only think one thing: 'great, this time we're actually facing a lawsuit.' But as long as I kept breathing, I could not give in to despair. Not without knowing why, anyway. "Does this mean what I think it does?"

Visually puzzled, Megumi stood in front of me as if I had done some kind of unforgivable mistake.
“This obviously stands for Dark Music Club! What else could it stand for, really?”

And by doing that, the girl practically made of contrasting colors triggered a brief series of replies, the credit for them being shared between the Student Council president and myself. A very impressing similarity to an occurrence of today lingered.
“Digital Mixing Console.”
“Death Match Classic.”
“Dimethyl carbonate.”
“Donatio mortis causa.”
“Detroit Medical Center.”
"Diffusion Monte Carlo."
“Dynamic Matrix Control or even Dynamic Markov Compression would work fine, too.”

Strange as it may seem, considering her question was answered with honesty and amazing precision, Megumi was clearly infuriated, her vivid orange and azure eyes burning with sheer anger.
“Seriously? You guys came up with eight realistic and somewhat reasonable possibilities and not a single one of them was related to the famous hip-hop group, the manga/anime or the video game series?”
“To be honest I did my best to avoid those examples.” Koukina Rin maintained her elegant composure as she explained her reasoning, which is far more than you can expect from some national presidents. “The group was not that good to begin with, the anime is disappointing because there is no real death metal in it, and in the new installment of the game they changed the protagonist’s hair to black. As the common man says, ‘totally dropped’.”

By that, one could tell she considered people who browse internet forums to be the ‘common man,’ which is obviously an incredibly bad start for any premise on, say, anything.
“Still on the manga subject, corpse paint on death metal. No, really?” And with that I started playing along, violating all my common sense; it just seemed like a good idea at the time, like bad ideas always do. “What’s the point of writing about something that exists in the real world when you don’t have a clue of what it’s like? No matter how good it is, it’s hard to get past errors like that.”
“Very interesting.” While completely innocent on the surface, to a practiced eye Rin’s flaming glance towards me could easily be interpreted as the same kind Kouma would give her favorite kind of candy. “You are somehow and somewhat familiar with concept of death metal. Given your brief purist speech, one can presume you are a fan of the subgenre. Is that correct?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Are you, by any chance, a musician?”
“Well… I play both electric and double basses.” My initial plan was to act humble like musicians usually do when talking about their own abilities but something in her stance made me quit my false modesty act; the good thing about arrogant people is that their mere presence makes you want to do and be your best when you’re around them. “Permit me to frankly say I am fairly good at it.”

I don’t believe human contact is a bad thing. The concepts of personal space and distance between people who don’t know each other too well actually add to the flavor of closer and better-developed relationships as the beauty of the thing remains in the contrast. I don’t mind shaking hands with people or even being hugged after delivering good news (not to say that kind of thing happens to me frequently, anyway) to someone who was waiting for what seemed to be an interminable quantity of time. There are, indeed, exceptions, but they are so unlikely (or directly related to a certain fighting fashionista), I feel it would be a tad stupid to consider them even if only for the sole purpose of statistics.
Then there is another story, an unusual situation where a boy’s hand is suddenly grabbed by an older female student, who proceeds to tenderly and almost provocatively caress his fingertips while gazing into his eyes with tangible superiority and more than a hint of indifference burning in hers. In other circumstances I would have been surprised and acted like it, but then again what good could possibly come out of blushing, stuttering and acting like a complete shoujo manga shrinking violet lead character in front of someone like Koukina Rin? For that purpose, we already have the girl in the corner, Akane.
"The pattern of the calluses I found in his fingers matches his story: this is definitely the hand of someone who plays the bass on a regular basis. Given that he was the first person that walked into your club room and did not laugh and leave, one could go as far as saying this is a fortunate meeting."
Her reasons were now explained and thus her behavior didn't seem as odd as I first believed. The course of action she took almost sounding logical to me. What did seem odd, irrational and strikingly similar to my newfound battle partner's attitude was the fact that Rin too seemed fond of touching me past the point I found myself comfortable with, despite not being particularly familiar with me.
Almost as if stating what she was doing gave her complete freedom to do it and much more, the School Council president's fingers long fingers and flawlessly French-styled nails now ran over mine. The keratin blades that grew out of her hand scratched my skin as if she intended to mark me like cattle; the drawing movement her slender fingers did seeming anything but random.
She was clearly teasing me, and not in the way I was unfortunately already getting used to.
“Of course I’m telling the truth: why would anyone lie about being a bass player? We’re underrated as it gets, regardless of musical genre.” To ignore Rin’s body language (which was beyond the point where its signals could be called ‘protean’) was the only visible course of action for someone who didn’t want to give signs of weakness. I looked at Megumi, who seemed to be busy thinking of something else, and envied her. “And why would meeting a bass player be a fortunate thing? Were you looking for one?”

The weird-looking girl snapped out of her unfitting mundane daydream.
“Oh… yeah. I could settle for a club where the members would just spend their afternoons being lazy and listening to the darkest forms of music until we graduate, but what I really wanted was to recruit members to form a band. Well, that and spending my afternoons being lazy and listening to the darkest forms of music until I graduate.”
“I see.” The words came out of my mouth pretty easily: unlike the distressing patterns of colors present in her hair, accessories and figure, as a whole the girl was surprisingly not complex at all. “But don’t you need an assigned teacher for every club? What kind of teacher would want to watch over a ‘Dark Music Club’?”
“Excuse me, what are you talking about?” A puzzled Koukina Rin asked. “I have never heard of such practice and I have been on the school council since my first year in the school.”

It took me a moment or two to grasp the meaning of those words.
“That cannot be right, Reikoku-sensei told m-” And then it finally struck me: this too was part of a plan devised by my teacher, the arch conspirator. She relied completely on my paranoia and complete lack of knowledge about the ways and bureaucracy of this school to pull a prank on me and make me run through the hallways like there would be no tomorrow after something that couldn’t possibly matter less. My hand was raised in apology and, deep down my soul, defeat. “Never mind, my mistake. A band, you say?”
“Not ‘a’ band; I want it to be more like ‘the’ band.” The movement her mouth made when she smiled along with the angle by which the sunlight came out of the window made her lip piercings gleam in an obfuscating manner. “To take part in something huge and influential is what I’m looking for, you know? A band with a distinct, unique sound.Much more than merely fresh, I want something wild.”

Like your hair then, I thought but never stated out loud because that would be just rude instead of adorably witty.
“That sounds… nice.” And also as optimistic and naïve as it gets; funny thing is, pretty much everyone in the music business genuinely believes they are the ‘hot stuff’ and their albums are ‘complete revolutions’ and ‘the end of this genre as we know it’ even when they are generic at best and the ones who don’t quite believe they’re the best thing since wheels were invented but will say it anyway because boasting is the only way of getting people to pay for something they cannot touch or see. Those opinions are often considered laws by the cult-like band fans, and there was never a day the word ‘fan’ meant ‘extremely zealous’ as today. Well, maybe not but it's tough to compare to people with yellow submarines. “You do, however, realize that doesn’t explain much about your band idea, right?”
“Oh, right.” Megumi scratched her head and blinked twice. “I guess we can figure that out as we go; as long as it’s dark I’m cool with it.”

And with that statement she finished marking herself as a common, indecisive amateur in my eyes. Does she really expect to make a ‘huge and influential’ band without even having an initial concept? It’s like planning to write the deconstruction of a novel or a genre without ever reading the source material and expecting people to call you ‘genius’.
“Unfortunately you have been found wanting. That certainly is not enough to make the quintessential band.” A few minutes around her and Rin already seemed like the kind of person that felt the uncontrollable urge to always have the last word on a topic. That and running her fingers on my body; apparently, my hand too has been found wanting and now the girl was focusing her attacks on my arm. Still, it was nice to see I wasn’t the only one in that room who was unaffected by the overwhelming idealism in the air. “It takes good musicians, discipline, chemistry between the band members and the most important, superb leadership. That is why I am taking the role of leader of this band.”

At that exact moment, Akane sneezed just like a baby mouse does, involuntarily reminding us of her existence and presence in that room. After the shy and nearly invisible girl’s unexpected portrait of cuteness, her unusual friend blurted out her thoughts.

“Now why the heck did you get the idea I would let you join my band, let alone lead it?”
In face of this sentence Rin breathed artificial suavity.
“I play guitar fairly better than you, for starters.”
“Bravo sierra!” She didn’t actually say those words, but I’m doing my best to keep this story clean for the kids, so using a military slang seemed the right thing to do especially when the alternative was somewhat profane. If you’re an age appropriate and more than merely moderately curious reader, search-engine it. “You haven’t heard me play, ever!”
“And I do not need to because I know exactly how well I play.” Oh, the audacity; it was massively unreasonable to the point of making my blood boil and I wasn’t even part of the dialogue. It made me wonder if that girl managed to become School Council president by winning a bet. “Plus, I own enough equipment to set up a recording studio right here by tomorrow. Think of me as a blessing from the heavens that will turn your kiddy project into the real deal, if you will.”

I am not sure if this girl has the talent it takes to be a rock star but no one can possibly deny the fact she already has a surprisingly solid amount of sheer overconfidence, maybe enough for two or three big names. Not that there’s anything ‘sheer’ about her boasting, that is.
“Pretty full of yourself, aren’t you?” Megumi’s mismatched, mischievous eyes were completely full of delight. Possibly, from the rebel girl’s point of view, this was an invite to duel to the death; to me however it was just a pointless battle of egos. She extended the acoustic guitar she had been holding so carelessly to the school council president. “Let’s see if those wings you’re so proud of are made of wax.”

Does anyone know why people start saying stupid things when they get into fights? It might have something to do with testosterone, but I have always thought it worked differently in men and women (and I must clarify that this is not baseless sexism, just baseless science).
“Your loss, my friend. I always, always dare to win.”

Her slender, teasing hands were off me and, in a blink of an eye, on the guitar she took from her recently-acquired rival. While menaces not composed of words were brought to this plane of existence, I could only try and figure out how I managed to come across situations like this over and over again. The supernatural element wasn’t around but the shadow of tension that fell upon that room was hardly bearable.
Further investigation of my field of vision revealed a hawk-ish look coming from where I didn’t expect it to. The locks of not-so-wavy but most definitely slightly messy hair half-covering Akane’s eyes before were now being held by her right ring finger, revealing adorably huge but somewhat cold doll eyes, intent in a manner I could only fully describe as ‘targeting’. Unlike Kouma Yon’s, those eyes didn’t lack expression, but the heat and vibrancy we usually find in living beings. The apparently shy bird of prey seemed to have intentions of rapine for Koukina Rin.
Rapine, as in ‘abduction’ or ‘plundering’. Don’t get any funny ideas.
The body posture adopted by the School Council president as she sat on a chair with Megumi’s guitar was quite not the correct one for acoustic guitar players of classical style and thus I was a bit underwhelmed. There was something familiar about that pose, but I couldn’t help but feel like all that arrogance was just talk.
After a strum that only let natural harmonics out, she hummed a note and started loosening and tightening the strings repeatedly.
“What are you doing to my guitar?”
“You did not tune it properly to A440, thus I must tune this instrument myself. Thankfully, one of my many skills is perfect pitch. We shall not be hindered by your presumably usual clumsiness.”
“Oh, you little…”
“Please be quiet, this old G string of yours is giving me a hard time.” She became aware of me and looked in my direction as I chuckled because of the involuntary bilingual pun. “Is there something particularly funny or amusing you’d like to share with us, Koukishin-kun?”

Laughter suppressed, I waved a hand abiding with her true desire of having me quiet. After the situation with Reikoku-sensei earlier today, I should watch out and not react the way my body wants without considering the scenario first.
“…no, please proceed.”

The girl reassumed the playing posture to finish tuning and only when she struck the strings to test if the guitar tuning was still stable by using natural harmonics it came to me: I deduced her act wrong. That posture of hers implied she was going to play flamenco or something similar and not classical music per se; the two postures are a little different from each other and that’s why I assumed she was trying the classical one but making significant mistakes.
Suddenly and without another word uttered, the performance began. Strings successively struck using one slender digit nail per strum; the visibly older girl known as Koukina Rin sent the room an obscure signal through the expressive gypsy chords that were being attacked without absolution. Achromatic images formed as sour memories that weren’t exactly mine.
Her rasgueado technique was flawless and the musical progression presented itself with overflowing acrimony. The song sounded somewhat familiar but I could not recall when I heard it, if I in fact did. Adherence struck me faster than I could possibly expect but the whole short experience ended just as abruptly as it began. The motive of the conductor was obvious to me.
To tease.
A chord progression intentionally unfinished, build-up lacking resolution: it was almost unbearable, the thought of the missing final note. Instead of delivering what we were expecting and even craving, the girl with long nails preferred to replace the last part with a silence that was only interrupted by me unintentionally humming the resolution for the unfinished melody.
The idea of being musically manipulated struck me as an afterthought and a small movement in her jaw formed what I believed to be a hidden smile of pleasure.
No, she definitely did it on purpose.
A sudden change in the position of her body was made audible after she attacked not the strings but the body of the acoustic guitar with a percussive rattlesnake-like finger tapping. With her current posture being the proper classical one and the picking technique changed to tremolo, a fast continuous array of notes began.
This second musical round was entirely different from the warm-up. The values changed along with the technique, and this song I could recognize for sure. A composition of Francisco Tarrega written in 1986, Recuerdos de la Alhambra. Melancholy was still a major figure written in minor scale, but it wasn’t half as raw and over-the-top like the song used as introduction. My notion of how refined it was might have been biased by the fact I knew what would come in the B-section of the piece.
Pure cheerfulness and bliss, almost reaching sweetness.
Incoherent it was not, the transition well done to the point of coming across as a small anti-surprise such as guessing which side of the coin will be the one up correctly; not so much overall thrill on it, although there was an awful lot of note trill going on and I assume some people can find that distracting. Not a defect on the part of the performer, though.
The song continued exactly as expected, not a single broken section from beginning to end. Whether it was a faithful interpretation of the author’s ideas with nil experimentation or a subversion of the patterns she showed us until that moment it’s hard to tell. Both, perhaps.
In the silent intermission that took place after the piece was over and before the performer decided to talk, I analyzed the reactions of the two girls who apparently were my upperclassmen and Rin’s underclassmen: Megumi clearly was taken aback, the expression on her face probably connected to both her being unfamiliar with this kind of music and the shock of seeing someone around her age doing a great deal more than playing three powerchords and calling it a song. Akane on the other hand just covered her eyes with her wavy fringe again, like it was a theater curtain that closed after the show was over, an action that only made her more intriguing to me.
“This guitar is not so bad for a cheap, brand-less model although I particularly prefer cypress when it comes to inexpensive acoustic ones. May I ask what kind of woods is this made of other than Indian rosewood and maple?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea and I don’t care!”
“Oh, casual much?”

Megumi clenched her teeth and let out a low growl, and I started to wonder if the young woman called Rin was aware of how far she was going with her attitude towards others. It didn’t take a genius or prodigy of any kind to tell Megumi’s blood was boiling and a real ugly fight was just a step away.
“That does it: you’re going down now!”
“A short-tempered one, are you? Please, prove me wrong if you can.”
“What did you say?”
“I politely asked you to prove me wrong, if that is within your range of capabilities. If you believe in your technical ability enough to challenge me and take as the role of lead guitarist, now is the moment to show us all what you can do. Otherwise, I do not see a reason why someone who clearly does not plan ahead or have the skill and precision it takes to be the front man of a project of such, say, majestic proportions and should be leading. You do want this to be huge, correct?”
“Of course!”
“Well, you already showed us you are not fit as a strategist, so a splendid musician is the only redeemable feature you can achieve now. Consider this as a chance to claim your crown if you are worthy: I will have no objections with having you as director if you can at least outdo my performance with a piece or two of your choice.”
“Wait, why are you handing out rules like you already owned the place?”
“Simply because you set none.” Beautifully arrogant, but I could see where her reasoning came from: she expects Megumi to back down and thus avoid future discussions on leadership. The execution of that plan, however, was not something I would applaud under any circumstances; her extremist ways were paved with good intentions but would not necessarily lead to good results. “Go on. This time, I dare you.”

Acoustic guitar in her arms, Megumi stared down for a moment in what seemed to be the shadow of despair. Suddenly the colorful student smiled and it was not in a sweet, girly way but in a hot-blooded manga protagonist’s. “Fine. I’ll do it!”

And the inked hand went down fast, clumsily holding a guitar pick with three fingers but when only a brief metallic and choked noise was heard, I admit I choked too.
I didn’t see that coming.
Her shy companion’s hand was muffling the strings and I almost felt like the silence present in the girl was being transferred to the guitar, an idea reinforced by the fact that girl talked only after performing that action.
“Save yourself the embarrassment and don’t play. There is no way you can defeat her as you are now and you know it.”

Truth be told, her voice was almost a whisper, although the words gave me the prospect she was anything but frail.
“Hmph.” Megumi did not seem satisfied at all with the outcome or her friend’s words, but she also seemed helpless and somewhat scared, like people who brag about their strength usually feel when someone stands up and accepts their challenge. “I will back down now because Akane knows much more about music than I do, but this isn’t over yet! Tomorrow band practice starts and I don’t care how good you are, if you don’t fit in, you’re out! Let’s go, Akane!”
The walking metallic rainbow stormed off without waiting for her friend. Said forgotten friend shook her head quickly and looked at Koukina Rin, one of her huge eyes uncovered by the movement.
“…that w-was impressive for so-someone your age.”
“Thank you.”
“N-next time I expect you to pick a piece you’re t-truly comfortable with to the point o-of improvising instead of a f-flashy one, t-though.”
“Once again, thank you for your honesty. Next time I shall sweep you off your feet.”
“I-I’ll look forward to i-it. See you t-tomorrow, senpai.”
“Farewell.”

Without making eye-contact with me, Akane left in a hurry, leaving my application form on a chair. That left me alone with the older student that had a fondness for teasing alone together in that borderline empty room. Keeping that in mind, I silently put some distance between me and the girl, as a somewhat effective immorality prevention measure.
“Now what on earth was that about?”
“A couple minor mistakes of mine made mostly out of nervousness, but nothing to be worried about.” Her breath was hot and somewhat tired. “You could say I know a thing or two about Akane-san’s musical background and being praised or scolded by her is something one should cherish or appreciate as constructive criticism, although in this case I had to do both.”
“I was talking about the sudden portrait of modesty! You can’t come in out of nowhere and act all high and mighty to the point of dueling with someone and then take a hundred and eighty degrees turn to being humble with someone else who is directly related to the first scenario. That doesn’t feel right or even fit!”
“Not quite the case, but the way you put it, that situation could easily be explained with bipolar disorder.” She stared at her own fingernails, their polish still enviably flawless despite the fast impact to nylon strings the fingers were subjected to. “There are times when even a very ‘technical’ musician needs to bow down to someone else.”

That indirect praise showed me the trait of arrogance was still present, only thinly veiled.
“Still…” Shrugging it off and changing topics sounded like the sensible thing to do because there more than enough pointless confrontation for a day or two already earlier occurred. “Regardless of technical difficulty, isn’t Recuerdos De La Alhambra a tad too standard for classical guitar demonstrations these days?”
“I was considering the possibility of playing a Django Reinhardt song and getting a few points with the jazz conservatory child prodigy, but I did not think it would be comprehended by the other. The regular ‘hardcore’ and modern metal fan is always looking for something that is close to what they already like but a little more, say, extreme than what they are used to listening. With that in mind, I thought that particular Tarrega piece would do the job.”
“So you knew more than only a thing or two about Akane’s musical background.” And that’s probably the real reason why she chose to join this club/band, arrogant dynamic entry included and everything. “Why not Niccolò Paganini? Many metal guitarists are inspired by his works, to the point of plagiarism if you ask me. His pieces are much, much more popular than Tarrega’s too.”

She looked calm, as if scheming something.
“If you want an honest answer, specifically because he is way too popular. Now go on, say it: we both know what you want to call me right now and just this time I shall allow you to, entirely consequences-free.”
“…you bloody hipster.”

For a split-second she raised both eyebrows in a very, very suggestive manner that struck me as twisted approval for using the words she assumed I would.
“A somewhat imprecise and thus entirely incorrect description, but I am much more interested in the obscure forms than the mainstream subgenres of music. To compare the technical, flawless beauty that lies in modern progressive blackened death metal to common radio heavy metal sounds like an awful joke even in theory.”
“That’s a pretty biased view you got there.”
“And yet it is by far closest to the utmost truth than the belief that all music is the same because of how they make people feel.”
“Right, I’ll grant you that.”

It’s very, very sad, but I believe you cannot condemn a person’s valid opinion because you don’t agree with the methods that person uses to express his or hers opinion: they are two separate things. Now if only I could get the rest of the world to think like that, political parties would get a tad more interesting.
“So, will you join us? A bassist would be good, and unlike the other members, your position does not require too much experience or talent therefore you will be fine either way.”

Rude.
“…I’m not sure. I don’t have a reason to, you see.”
“Do you need me to… give you a reason?”

A single line composed of cold sweat traced down my face to my mouth, and when I nervously licked my lip, I found out it tasted of subversion. Still, to give in would mean becoming a side character that would only be useful for jokes and teasing or a standard anime protagonist and, honestly, even I knew better than that.
“No.”

But she didn’t look disappointed or surprised at all.
“Perfect. Take your time and think about it. I must admit the idea of spending time with someone like you appeals to me on a personal level, but I have no intention of pushing you towards or away from this band.”
“That’s, hmm, very mature of you.”
“I see you underestimate me. I am the School Council president, after all. One of the first things I had to learn was that there are many times when the collective needs are so important we must ignore the wishes of individuals.”
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea not to tease people you just met then, especially in ways that can be considered harassment?”

Then she gave me a smile that could easily be found on face of the criminal mastermind in a secret spy movie.
“Good thinking. You could become a great Student Council secretary someday. There are, however, times when a leader like me needs to show her minions she has flaws so they won’t bother searching for them, although these flaws cannot be connected directly to the leading capabilities or knowledge of the subject the group has to deal with. You want your soldiers to think you’re human, but not like them at all. All work and no fun, etcetera.”
“So it was just for show? The teasing.”

Her gaze went to the roof like a rocket. Not to say that rockets usually go to the roof, but the motion was the same as a soaring rocket in the sky and… forget it.
“Not quite, I actually have a penchant for teasing people. However that doesn’t change the fact that unveiling and accentuating that natural, small flaw of mine for the purpose of achieving my goals was for show.”

I couldn’t deny she was amusing, regardless of pretty much everything else.
“…you’re weird.”

And then her mature eyes came rushing back to me like a falling meteor would, only with a good amount of expression one should not expect to find on humongous space rocks. The room lit itself on fire when her gaze met mine in an impact of cosmic proportions. Figuratively, of course: after the Ayaka incident it’s best to clarify these things.
“And you like it, correct?”

Always a bit too direct for comfort: only later it occurred to me she probably wasn’t able to turn that whole act off at will.
“I guess I don’t mind it as much as the ‘common man’ would.” Shrugging was more of a reflexive action rather a visual aid. “One could say I have high immunity to the uncommon, or at least should by now.”

She smiled at me, a glass façade of innocence I was quite sure she didn’t possess.
“Perhaps I should try harder in our next meeting?”

After walking with such style and rough grace that would make a hard-boiled noir detective protagonist jealous, I opened the door of the room and turned my upper body around to face her in a feature that was both rather mysterious and painfully vertebral column damaging.
“If you think you can.”

Then I closed the door and ran away like a scared little girl before she could have a chance to even consider attacking me right there.

Part 2[edit]

Shocked and almost infuriated without quite knowing the reason why, I pressed the space bar of my portable computer and stopped the movement of a group of handsome actors dressed as doctors on the screen.
“Wait, so you knew about the band thing?”

Reikoku-sensei did her best to pretend she wasn’t annoyed by the interruption during the climax scene of the streamed show she suddenly had her attention drawn to, possibly after identifying herself with the somewhat misanthropic main character.
“There isn’t much happening on that school I’m not aware of, Koukishin-kun. Plus, sending that paper to just any random club wouldn’t be half as fun to me. If it isn’t somewhat complex, it cannot be amusing. Every little thing needs at least two reasons to happen.” Playing with the pencil that only seconds ago was holding up her hair, she uttered words that would sound deep if they didn’t came from a grown woman in pajamas killing time late at night at her student’s house. Not quite what comes to my mind when I try and imagine a mentor figure, you see. “And that’s why my suggestion is that you give that club a try.”
For some reason that shocked me more than it should, enough for me to spit all the soda in my mouth all over a near region of the wooden carpet. Not an insignificant amount of liquid, definitely not an insignificant spread rate. Considering the pressure needed for that result, if I were looking at my personal computer screen at that moment, chances are some repair store with a shady fellow would have become a little richer by tomorrow.
“Are you serious? What would be the point of that?”
“Honestly, can’t you see what is wrong with your current situation?” Reikoku-sensei seemed genuinely and unusually concerned at that moment, so I figured interrupting her would be a bad idea. After this morning’s events, even a dog would understand that; Pavlov would be quite proud of my teacher. “You have only been here for a week and already started to hang out with the anti-social students, started a visible love triangle situation, got into a fight with a classmate and defied common sense and physics by using your body as a cushion to save someone from a fall without even considering the harm to yourself, including your death. As a matter of fact, I’m still trying to figure out how you survived the latter.”
“…love triangle? Seriously?” My sarcastic laughter was suddenly interrupted when I met her gaze. “Right, I know what you mean. An awful lot of things happened way too fast by normal standards.”
“But not by yours, I presume.” Right on the spot, as always. Then it was obvious to me: in one mere week, there should be nothing established as ‘always’ yet. That was exactly the problem, the fact bonds too deep were being made too soon. “And here I am, trying to slow down the carousel before someone gets hurt. Please notice I’m not telling you to stop talking to them but to consider the possibility of expanding your social circle a little, preferably with perfectly normal people who share interests with you.”
“Such as music?”
“Indeed.”

A simple, nearly silly plan that disappointed me somehow. I didn’t see that coming from the woman who led a double life and did her best to be a manipulator in both. Apparently, (self-proclaimed) geniuses are not sheer brilliance all the time and the incredible intuitive talent she possessed had no direct influence on her plans: the things I believed to be well pondered master strokes were very probably but lucky strikes.
So much for chess masters.
“I see. But why did you assume I would be interested in joining a band or that I have what it takes to be in a band with the School Council President? She is most likely quite the shredder.”
“Based on your CD collection, you listen to old school jazz and fusion, progressive and math rock, sixties funk, thrash, early death and avant-garde metal, baroque and tango and only a single album of post-hardcore. If there’s anyone I would team up with that musical elitist, it would be you.”
She seemed quite confident about it. “Plus, you own a five string bass; the chances of you not being a real musician are incredibly low now because more than half of the, say, ‘posers’ buy common electric guitars shaped after famous guitarist’s models. Spending much more money on a bass that’s not even industry standard does not sound very amateur-ish to me.”
“That reasoning was kind of dodgy.”
“Fine, there were a few complex sheet music pages with your handwritten annotations on them lying around on the first day I came here but that’s not the point.”

A genuine smile formed on my face too quickly for me to even consider the possibility of suppressing it, not that I would if I had the chance.
My teacher really watches out for me. In a creepy and somewhat plotting way, yes, but she does it and it’s much more than I could wish for. Based on what she told me last week, I can only imagine how hard she wanted to have someone doing that for her when she was younger. She gives up all of her free time outside school to be here, when she probably has something better to...
“Reikoku-sensei, do you have a significant other in your life?”

More soda on the wooden carpet, but this time it didn’t came out of my mouth: from that day on I tried buying more neutral drinks.
“What the… where did that came from?”
“Just sheer, potentially intrusive but honest curiosity.”

She touched her forehead with two fingers and took a moment to think, although I almost expected her to teleport away from my house.
“…you mean someone like a boyfriend?”
“That’s a little bit more specific than I was hoping for, but yes.”

Strange as it might sound, she stopped moving for a moment and then all of a sudden action took place again, with a presumably feigned attribute on it.
“Not so far from the truth, so I suppose you could say that. Why do you ask?”
“If you knew the people you care about were in trouble, wouldn’t you try and help them?”
“Oh, so you’re still thinking about that.” She seemed bored, but on further examination, I noticed the expression she had could be also interpreted as relief. “Caring for people is fine; we are prone to bonding because of our humanity. Still, there is a thin line between doing a number of things out of care and Messiah Complex. The real problem lies in the fact the perpetrator of the action never knows when he or she crossed said line. One moment you’re the knight in shining armor, next one you’re the Universe’s favorite punching bag wasting your life with a silly smile on your face and let me tell you one thing, your strings will only be pulled harder and harder.”

Saying that, Reikoku-sensei got up and went towards the kitchen while I followed her physicallybut not so much in the metaphorical sense. Her speech on morals was coming across as rather confusing and baseless to the point of referencing lyrics and movies rather than actually teaching something. As I had presumed, she stopped by the refrigerator and opened it looking for dessert, which was probably ready to be consumed by now.
“So you’re telling me I should stay out of Ryo and Kouma’s business?”

A bored sigh and a disappointed look.
“Koukishin-kun, I am a teacher who is starting a custom of going to a student’s house for dinner practically every night mostly because of the striking similarities that exist in our unfortunate lives. Does it sound like I could tell you such a thing without being a total hypocrite?”
Taking out a bucket filled with pudding-flan I had bought because of viral marketing, she went to the sink and picked up two spoons, one of which she handed me without any grace. “Don’t read too much into it. Young people like you just have to stop worrying about every single thing and learn to appreciate the moment. You’ll have the time to overthink everything later. But limits on what one should do to and for others should always, always be in sight.”
“…what does that even mean?”
“Never mind, it will come to you when it’s time. For now, let’s finish that episode. I really want to know what kind of disease it was and if I know that series, we still have three incorrect diagnostics left with straw man arguments and morals clashing as intermission.”

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to extract any more information from my teacher, I fed myself a spoonful of the flan and pressed the space bar to make the video resume playing. While I watched not the series’ weekly episode but the amusing reactions my companion made when the characters made witty remarks at each other (you’d think she be sick of that, considering it seems pretty much like her daily life), I couldn’t help but wonder what that woman so close to me had been through. Then the flavor kicked in and I let go of being so preoccupied because even Ms. Entropy wasn’t.
Being a victim of cutesy internet viral videos never tasted so sweet.

Part 3[edit]

Next day at school was pretty okay. No, really.
Unlike what I quickly trained myself to expect in that school, nothing much happened other than several successive Physical Education classes (something I managed to avoid last week by being absent due to an unfortunate meeting with an entity that was rather mysterious at the time). Walking with Kouma and Ryo during lunch kept people away, so by having my closest friends acting as natural repellents, I didn’t hear a lot of gossip on the Morimoto Ayaka subject. It wasn’t the worst thing ever, although I was sure it was within my capabilities to conceal any pertinent detail of last week’s happenings. Besides, for me, entirely avoiding particular topics is almost a super power.
For starters, there’s the Reikoku-sensei situation. She said a strikingly similar situation to mine marked her adolescence, yet I did not push her to tell me what happened. Kouma said she attacked me out of care for Ryo, but forcing her to say anything more didn’t feel right, even though I could see the traces of a badly formed relationship everywhere in her behavior. The way Ryo can change from too naïve to way too sharp in the blink of an eye also went uncommented, although God and many other supernatural entities know I had a plethora of chances I never bother to take.
Overlooking things on purpose and at command is an acquired skill used mostly to avoid red herrings and mind control. I don’t claim to be able to do it perfectly, as I am aware every little detail I run into will eventually come back to bite me at some point in my life: if anything, my best take on that skill is to dodge what can be dodged at the moment while thinking of a way to counter it when that potential disaster’s turn to try and ruin everyone’s life comes.
Postponing the end over and over again. That’s me alright.
“Does he ever get tired of spacing out?”

Knowing the girl for exactly a week was enough time to realize Kouma Yon always found a way to interrupt your train of thought. Funny and ironic as it might sound, yesterday she wouldn’t leave my mind while she wasn’t around and, now that she is, I keep thinking of something else.
“However, this too fits my hypothesis.”

Oh boy, another hypothesis. Any other teenager would have casually used the word ‘theory’ instead, but my particularly uncommon one-time battle partner knew better than that.
“What hypothesis?” Ryo asked. “Is this the one about him having ADD?”

With a sigh of mine, the three of us sat down on our secret place, our sanctuary of concrete, steel and sky to enjoy our meal. We have done this enough for me to assume it was a ritual, a custom they probably shared long before I came to this town. The formation was a perfect triangle in which each one of us could face the others, and by that I mean Kouma could watch us both with just one stare of hers, which was economical and effective when it came to comfort prevention. The rooftop was empty as always and the only reason I was comfortable with this situation was because if they hadn’t found trouble so far because of eating here every single day, I think the odds are smaller for a storm to start just because I’m together with them.
No, actually not.
“Imprecise, but yes,” proceeded the fashionista. “While we are talking about the same hypothesis, the correct term since 1994 is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and no longer Attention Deficit Disorder. Therefore, the proper acronym for that would be ADHD. Predominantly inattentive, to be more specific.”

The fact I decided at the last second not to tease Kouma that most people, doctors included, still called the disorder by the old name was probably for the best. I do not think I have the energy it would take to get in a heated ‘popular knowledge versus scientific advance’ debate with Kouma Yon without eating first. Or after eating, for that matter; even if it’s only to annoy her a bit, it just wasn’t worth it.
“It doesn’t matter, I don’t have ADHD.”

It was easy to tell that dialogue wasn’t going to end there, so I figured I should eat as much as I could without looking disgusting in between my lines. Otherwise, I’d end up not finishing my meal before break was over. Again.
“Are you sure? You daydream on what could be called a ‘regular basis,’ your eyes go everywhere even while people talk to you, and anyone who saw your house before we went there would say you lack a sense of organization. The symptoms fit.”
“Not all of them.” Ryo intervened in the diagnosis. “He never showed any urges of touching and playing with everything in sight or even talked to excess.”

What would be considered as ‘excessively talking’ by Shiina Ryo, exactly?
“Actually, that’s not evidence.” I said after another portion of my gyudon was properly swallowed. Disagreeing with Ryo wasn’t half as bad when I had something in mind, and setting up a hook for Kouma was kind of worth it. “That just means I am not the hyperactive type.”

One could tell the dreadful fashionista grin was coming because of the aura that preceded it.
“He seemed fairly, say, touchy with you last week, if that counts.” Surely she, who had previously attacked this boy she hardly knew and who all of a sudden chose to lock arms with him due to alleged cold, is one to talk about people being touchy. “So, you see, my hypothesis is still val-”

Kouma completely lured in with the bait equals time to fish.
“But I am completely sure I don’t have ADHD because my parents had me tested for it, twice.” The first time didn’t really count, as the doctor was a hired Neapolitan assassin with fairly poor acting skills and a penchant for touching his moustache. The second doctor was legit and fairly well shaved. For a bearded woman, that is. “You can argue all you want, but I can get the medical papers scanned and sent to you in high resolution in less than fifteen minutes and then rub them in your face until your makeup comes off.”

It was obviously a bluff, and undeniably a tad too harsh for a friendly conversation between people who had only recently met, but I could frankly and rather disappointedly say Kouma did not appear appalled at all by my words. If anything, she stared at me with more lack of expression than she usually did.
Back then it didn’t occur to me that the complete absence of small nuances of concealed feelings itself could be a symptom of something else.
“Today’s P.E. seemed to be very tiring,” Ryo said, implementing passive diplomatic countermeasures.

There was some irony in the way she carefully picked the words, though.
“But none of us took part in it.” It seemed pretty obvious to me why Ryo didn’t participate in physical activities of any kind (and I have been around for only a week). In my case, I was directly told by Reikoku-sensei not to, although I’d rather believe it was because of my display of strength in that battle rather than the fact I am the only male in class. On the other hand, we have Kouma Yon, who is a fairly healthy girl with excellent motor skills yet won’t participate, presumably to not leave Ryo alone. This would not be an issue if Kouma became fond of the idea of leaving Ryo alone with me. “It’s been a while since I played any kind of sport.”

That gorgeous catty smile of Ryo made its appearance and thus my day was complete; I could as well go home at that moment and sleep, waiting patiently for my next fix tomorrow.
“Really? I could never picture you as someone who liked sports, Shin-tsu.”
“Wait Ryo, I might have given you the wrong impression. I’m not a fan of sports or similar physical activities but I’m pretty good at most of them because, well…”
Kouma finished taking a sip of whatever she was drinking, as rushed to speak as a half-asleep amateur actor who was just reminded of his line; the fashionista managed to maintain a certain degree of composure in her speech while lacking it in visual effect.
“You are used to running all the time.”

Denying it at that point would be juvenile and kind of silly.
“…precisely, thank you so very much.”
“You’re welcome.”

The flat expression (or rather, absence-of) in her face annoyed me a lot.
“For someone so used to analyzing people and their speech, your usage and perception of sarcasm is rather poor, Kouma.”
“The same cannot be said of the amount of split ends in that thing you call hair, unfortunately.”

That line sounded oddly familiar to me, although I was sure she didn’t mention a thing about my hair in the previous week. For some reason unknown to me, it also reminded me of an entirely different topic.
“Hey Ryo, how are the ARK thing’s projects going? Any new ideas?”
“Funny you asked. I got this novel series idea in a dream, but I can’t remember much of it so it’s just a vague concept now.”
“Not vague enough to wake me up at 4:17 AM, surely.” Kouma tilted her head to the left side, which was a bit creepy because her face was still hers. If I were to describe the effect to someone who had never met her, I’d tell them to imagine an Ichimatsu doll with a five hundred dollar haircut and sailor uniform moving only her head, j-horror movie style, to look at someone’s direction. “Not that I am complaining about being woken up to the sound of my mobile phone’s ringtone to listen to information on Sengoku-era clothing before breakfast.”

Then she looked at a rather dumbfounded me as if saying ‘if you want sarcasm, I can give it to you,’ but what really surprised me was the fact she could actually act in a non-worshipping way towards Ryo. Maybe I jump to conclusions a bit too fast…
“Who else could I text? You’re the only person I know who would know whether matching the colors of an obi with a hakama worked back then or not. And it turned out you knew an awful lot about gloves too!”

Then Kouma moved her eyes to me, and knowing that hideous grin of hers was forming, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted her to have easy to spot expressions or not. It was Scylla and Charybdis all over again.
“Try and find a decent yukage pattern in less than thirty minutes. I double dare you.”

Apparently, I do reach conclusions too fast: even when acting sarcastic and annoyed, Kouma Yon actually likes to spend time with Ryo, and vice-versa. The fact they had been doing it for a long time cancels out any possible kind of offense taken by any remark they could make at each other. Weird as they really are, they’re completely comfortable being themselves around each other.
It made me so jealous that I could not refrain from biting my inferior lip. Not hard enough to break the flesh and spill blood like one would expect, to deliver a graphic example of my inner turmoil and justified angst when confronted with the fact that the chances of me actually sharing this kind of relationship with anyone are still slim. There’s only so much of a drama queen a person can be, even as a teenager.
“So,” I said, trying to divert the flow of the conversation to one topic where I would have at the very least chances of cringing slightly less, even if only a bit. “What are your predictions and speculations for this season’s Medical Doctor Holmes? The latest episode was pretty good.”

Shiina Ryo suddenly became radiant, so lively one could hardly imagine a girl capable of such vibrant vivacity had a physical health so different from that appearance. What caught my interest the most at the time was not the fact I didn’t know what kind of condition she had, but the lack of stability in her condition. I was not considering her fragile state to be false (although that might have been reckless of me), but rather how developed whatever her sickness or disorder was. In my experience, inconstancy is where the danger lies.
“Yes! Yes it was! The sudden yet somehow fitting development of his relationship with the gracefully feminine yet firm administrator caused by a petty argument that started very early on that episode was quite well written. To bring it back with a simple symbolic gesture at the final scene was a good tactic, although I have seen too many drama shows to miss the hint that this was a breather episode. Thinks are bound to get darker.”
“Even you, Shin-tsu?” Kouma had this bored, borderline ennui look on her pretty-but-easily-associated-with-cynicism face. “I didn’t assume you’d like that show.”

Pouting, I tried giving her a lazy caricature of her facial expression by reflecting it with mine. Now that I think of it, I still wasn’t sure whether Kouma and I were on friendly terms, given the whole on-off nature of hers. Slight teasing, unlike any other more intimate or aggressive attempt, worked both ways.
“Why, do I look like someone who likes monster truck demolition races or something like that? You’re not the only person around with ‘refined’ tastes, you know.”
“The opposite: I don’t consider that show very refined, especially when it comes to the application of medicine. Of course, it could be argued that since the show has to last the full timeslot, the writers have to come up with hardships for the doctors, but that doesn’t make me any more attracted to the idea of seeing them formulaically misdiagnose patients for a whole episode. Certainly not for more than five years, in all honesty.”

Although this will sound judgmental as hell, I must say: her analysis, regardless of right or wrong, was always anything but what one would usually expect from someone that actually bothered to follow the current fashion trends. If anything, Kouma Yon lacked the ‘charming shallowness’ almost glorified in that scene that would give her an illusion of the concept we (possibly wrongly) perceive as personality.
“Plus, you don’t even seem to be the kind of person that distinctly cares about television. When Ryo and I went to help you sort your apartment, a task I wasn’t uncommonly interested in doing but was urged to given the circumstances, we couldn’t help but notice you didn’t have one. And demolition races sound plainly unsuitable, you’re not alpha enough.”
“Hey, I take offense to the last line. And from all the people I know around here, I thought you would be the one that would like that series the most, Kouma. I heard they rarely get medical mistakes and everyone dresses and looks nice. Dr. Holmes manages to look really good even with permanent action movie guy stubble.”
“It just seems wrong, going through all the trouble of streaming, downloading or waiting for the horrid Japanese dubs of what I already know is more and more of the same. The way they’re using the relationship Ryo-chan and you care so much about just shows me the whole thing is even more of a waste of time, egging on shippers like that rather than raising the bar on its cases and making sure the accuracy is pitch-perfect all the time. Being serious though, your beta is showing. Hard.”
My adorable friend stretched herself and yawned, cue me feeling like yawning as well but doing my best not to succumb to that feeling. My tongue quickly touched the roof of my mouth and with a tickly movement the will to yawn was gone. Works every time; do try it.
“Mistakes happen, although writers are supposed to keep them to a minimum to avoid loss of the public’s interest. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief, really. You can retcon mistakes here and there, but do it on a regular basis and even the most naturally over-the-top Mexican telenovela will not appeal to the viewers anymore. And Kouma, this new season is just delicious, you have to give it a shot. I’m a tad tired because I didn’t get much sleep last night, but if you feel like it we could all go to Le Ciel Bleu and watch a few episodes toget-”

Ryo’s speech was brought to a rather abrupt halt, and because of that I could tell there was someone we didn’t usually see approaching us, which was something really unusual considering we were having lunch on the rooftop. And some people say poor social skills aren’t useful.
“Shin-tsu, my man!”
“Oh, it’s you.”

If you watch a reasonable amount of anime, you definitely don't need me to tell you the important characters are always given special, attractive (and often blinding) coloration when in comparison to, say, bland and normal ones. Judging by that alone, one could argue that Megumi was the most likely individual to be relevant to the plot the industry had ever seen. Still, the color thing is predominantly used to grant the viewer easy identification of the character (and thus, propel the sales of merchandise and make cosplayers earn their brief popularity with their blood and tears) and I don't see how a company could market what my eyes can on perceive as the result of infinite pigments of watercolor thrown into the world's most brutal kitchen blender. Unless it's one of those artsy things you're not supposed to really comprehend, just mock the ones who admit they don't while riding your fixie bike.
“We were playing detective all morning trying to find out where you were, bro. Yesterday you only told us your name, not your class or anything.”
“Were you? Also, what do you mean by ‘we?’” And then I noticed the second, almost shy shadow hidden almost entirely in Megumi’s shade, and couldn’t help but wonder if that was premeditated, considering she managed to vanish on a rooftop, a technically open area. “Never mind. Hey Akane. Didn’t see you there.”

The girl-shadow hid a bit more.
“Yeah, and to be honest I thought finding a boy in this school should be easier. Somehow, you don’t seem to stand out much,” said the peacock queen.
It might have just been my imagination, but I think I actually heard the air moving around Kouma’s well-designed lips when she smirked, possibly due to the irony of the situation. Another possibility is her fashionista roots being overwhelmed by fury at the sight of what even in my eyes could be considered an abomination of style and the color spectrum, and I’ve actually seen my and everyone’s share of real abominations, mind you.
“I need to talk to you, bro. You can spare a minute?”
“Sure.”
“Great, awesome.” She squatted next to me and Ryo, putting herself between us as Ryo edged away. The triangle and its symmetry were gone, but Megumi probably didn’t even realize she was disrupting the natural order of things. As far as she was concerned, Ryo moved away from her as an invite for her and her friend to sit. Whether Akane felt the crescent animosity or just didn’t want to be near me, that’s another mystery I had to postpone; she stood still like a tower, casting her extended shadow over us. Due to the current position of the sun, her shadow’s head reached Kouma’s leg and darkened the detailed checkered patterns on her knee high socks, which I will pretend I just noticed and you will pretend you believe me. “Hey, are the three of you first years?”

I could not see how that was relevant to any topic Megumi could have to discuss with me.
“Yes, we a-”
“Cool. Class B, right?”
“Yeah, why is that imp-”
“So you’re really in Reikoku’s class. Tough luck, guys. Akane and I were in her class last year, and she makes even old man Kawajima look like an angel. Just wait for finals. I barely made it to the second year!”

Akane muttered something under her breath at that point but stopped all of a sudden when she noticed I was looking at her. She was visibly uncomfortable, even more than the Shiina Ryo I’ve caught a glimpse of while turning to face Megumi once again, and it might or might not be related to the fact the colorful older student was looking at her and Kouma while smiling sillily, like people do when they have a good set of Mahjong pieces in hand.
“Just wondering, how did you find me?” I asked.
“We actually had just quit for now and decided to visit our old lunch spot. The plan B was to find you before you went home, but by sheer luck we found you.” And just when I thought Megumi would get to the point, she turned to Kouma with the same smile of a few moments ago. “I think I remember you. You went to the kindergarten two blocks from here?”
“That is correct, both Ryo and I were in Honmaru Kindergarten.”
“Your hair wasn’t layered or anything, but you looked pretty much the same as a kid as you do right now. Not to say you look like a kid, but you stood out even then. And man, I’m drooling all over your hair.”

Kouma’s eye twitched upon being called ‘man;’ I could only expect a retort boiling to come out of that cold as ice person.
“Oh, I could get you the salon’s address, their specialty is this kind of cut. And I must say you stood out a lot back then, too.”

I started to notice the layers weren’t only present in those girls’ hair but in their conversation as well: no one could deny there were at least two conversations going on at that point, one on the surface and other underneath. As I could feel the levels of animosity rising without knowing why or how to solve the problem, all I could do was to use my power to divert the topic.
“What did you want to talk about, anyway?”

This brought the carefree thing back to Megumi’s expression.
“Oh, right. Akane’s mom just gave her a call. She heard us talking about the band thing yesterday and because a client changed his mind about the schedule she is free today to come to help us gather the instruments and other equipment after school. We’ll get to ride around town in her delivery van and everything. So, are you in or are you out?”
Too much seemingly unrelated information to digest at once for me, and this impression was coming from someone who texts Ryo on a daily basis. “I don’t think I’m following.”
“The band thing, man. I don’t want to pressure you or anything, but Rin seemed pretty thrilled when I told her Akane’s mom would be free to transport our instruments today and stuff. That doesn’t usually happens, so we are in a pretty lucky moment right now. If you feel like being a part of this, I kind of need you to decide now or you might be on your own to bring your stuff all the here. Do you live close to the school or something?”
“No, he doesn’t.” Kouma Yon answered the question for me, possibly with the intention of interrupting the original course of the dialogue and thus gather my attention to her so she could pose a question of hers. “…a band? You been here for a week and already joined a band? Are you serious?”

But if my insight into Kouma’s intention was correct, the course of action the girl with enough metal piercings to disrupt small-sized magnetic balance zones had taken was a direct confrontation.
“It’s more like ‘the’ band, and it’s going to be brutal,” she said proudly, and then proceeded to fully ignore Kouma’s existence, a feature I’d envy if I didn’t know it only made my classmate more and more dangerous. Megumi looked at me like she was watching something surrounding my body and not the body per se. “Let’s say you decide to join us later, would it be hard to bring your bass and rig all the way here?”

Trying to overlook the imminent conflict of teenage girls for a moment, I pondered on that hypothetical scenario’s chances of coming true and realized it would be unlikely.
“A lot, I’ve got one huge amp.”
“Right.” She took a second to present another alternative. “Can you get your parents to bring it here by car later or something like that?”

I did my best to avoid making a face that screamed ‘touchy subject, don’t ask’ in front of this older girl I hardly knew, but it wasn’t easy at all because all I could see was Kouma Yon twitching her nose with Ryo’s nervous humming as background effect.
“…no.”

I couldn’t tell if she was trying to ignore the undertones or was just that simple, but Megumi did not bother with my specific and uncomfortable answer.
“Then I guess this is a now or never thing, eh? Which will it be, bro?”

Then intervention came.

“Do not rush things.” The vanishing girl had quickly got on her knees and whispered, but specifically because of that I managed to grasp the high frequencies of her voice’s sound waves. “Give him some time.”
“I would be okay if he could just call us when the time is right, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, man. It’s not that much of a deal.”
But it was.
Everybody involved was uncomfortable to some extent. Ryo hated being around new people and wasn’t particularly happy about having visitors in our sanctuary. Kouma was somehow teasing Megumi and did not seem pleased about being ignored. Megumi was acting a bit cocky and from yesterday’s experience I could tell she was nervous. Akane was clearly visible and I was in the midst of all that chaos.
It occurred to me then I could halt everything with a single word, so I did.
“Okay.”

All of the faces in front of me seemed surprised, Kouma being the exception. Megumi vocalized their thoughts.
“What?”
“Fine, I’ll play with you.” And to hint something I wanted but couldn’t directly ask for without being rude. “Meet you guys later, then?”
Whether she realized I needed them out of there or was just done with her business, I couldn’t tell. What I did witness was sudden movement and a girl fading once again to her position as the other’s shadow.
“Great, we’ll be waiting for you by the club entrance at the end of classes. Let’s go, Akane!”

They opened and closed the rooftop entrance door as silently as they had the first time and with that they were gone and it was all over. Everything would go back to normal, and I could finish the meal like nothing ever happened.
Surprisingly, Ryo didn’t seem relieved or happy at all.

Part 4[edit]

Funny or not, the thing that surprised me the most that afternoon was not the fact I was in a parked flower delivery van with three older girls and a grown woman, all of them borderline strangers to me. Neither was the realization that my life was not, despite all my constant efforts over a long period of time, becoming any more normal. It was something else entirely.
“So, is that really your house?”

Rin tilted her head to be able to see me from her position next to the driver in a way I had only witnessed before in the works of a particular animation studio, and for a moment all I could do was wonder if it hurt.
“Was it not, what we are about to do would most definitely be considered a crime. Removing musical equipment from the home of another person would, in many circumstances, qualify as theft. Why do you ask, Koukishin-kun?”

I do not consider myself a particularly wealthy individual for a reason or two, but I know that I surely lead a comfortable life when compared to many less-fortunate others. With that in mind, I guarantee the school council president’s mansion made my flat look rather mediocre and unremarkable. The property was, at the very least, hard to describe without using stuff such as ‘big’, ‘large’, ‘huge’, ‘humongous’, ‘massive’, ‘monumental’, ‘gigantic’, ‘colossal’, ‘stellar’, ‘dude is that really necessary’ and so on. Not to say that it was flawless when it came to aesthetics or common sense, but it most surely peacocked just as much as Megumi did. Proportionally, I suppose.
Judging by that one, has to wonder why she bothers to attend a public school or any school at all: anyone with that kind of money could and would get better than decent tutors unless they have a reason not to or similar ulterior motives of some kind. A future career in politics sounds like a fairly good reason, though; the people need to think your roots are the same, although they expect you to be superior to them in honesty and morals. Go figure.
“No particular reason, not at all.” I looked through the window of the stationary vehicle with flower-themed paint job, mostly looking for a petty topic to divert my attention from what was not a mere elephant in the room. I could have dealt with that. In fact, I had, once. “Is that a Japanese Iris garden?”

The driver and owner of the car we were in let out a pleasant laugh that sounded a lot like a glissando slide played on a violin.
“Close, you have good eyesight.” Akane’s mom was astonishingly similar to her daughter physically, but a tad too different when it came to personality. As in complete opposite. It was quite the shock to me when I met her at the school entrance: to see a carefree, older version of Akane waving to us, chatting and smiling in a very calm way the whole ride while the younger Akane more intensely tried to fade into inexistence using both her predisposition to it along with the natural edge to it that dawns on every teenager when their friends or colleagues are meeting their parents. It was too much to take at once. “My bet is that those are flowers from the orchid family but varied genus. Am I right?”
Rin turned around to face her and nodded firmly.
“Absolutely. In that particular section there can be found several types of orchids, many of them brought from Central America.”
“That’s great! It’s good to know there is a garden so rich in diversity in our town. Flowers have power.” I did not know it then, but found out soon enough Akane’s mother was a hippie, technically. She believed in the ideals and loved the culture, but was not born in the right time to actually live any of that. In retrospect, being a single mom, driving a van, owning a flower shop, discussing the benefits of solar energy with high school students and having slightly messier hair than her daughter should have struck me as clues. “Those flamingoes fit well as decoration.”
They didn’t, both in the visual aspect and the geographic one: there are four kinds of Flamingoes in the Americas, but as far as I was concerned not one of them was from Central America, but from the South. The visual aspect was probably not as much of a lie as it was an honest mistake. The compliment on taste did come from a woman riding a flower-themed van around town after all, so it could be seen as being called ‘fashionable’ by someone who dresses very badly.
“Those are real.”

That small sentence did not seem to blend well and I don’t think I was the only one to think that way.
“Yes, I can tell those flowers are real even from here.” Hippie mom tried to look just as carefree as she did before, but I could see small sweat drops starting their despair-inducing descent from the points where her hairline was visible in the midst of too-messy-to-be-called-wavy black locks. “I see real and plastic flowers every day.”
“A misunderstanding; I was referring to the flamingoes.”

Silence reared its ugly head as a rising sun, eclipsed by the sudden beginning of a spring rain, a poke and a rather loud whisper coming from the colorful girl who sat by me in the center of the van’s backseat.
“Dude, she’s like, filthy as a wobble bassline rich!”
“…did you actually say that?”

Rin looked to the backseat once again.
“Well, this has been a good conversation …”
“No it hasn’t.”

I automatically muttered those words without considering the consequences, the alteration of my mood and lack of inhibition and self-restraint possibly occurring due to being inside a hot variation of car during a rather warm spring day.
“Is there anything you would like to add, Koukishin-kun?”
“No ma’am.” Quite the opposite, there was plenty I would have liked to subtract if we were under normal conditions. “Please proceed talking about how great the previous talk was.”
Chances are she grasped the implied insolence and sarcasm, but ignored it. I savored the sweet moment, given that it was easy to tell there would not be many of those.
“As I was saying, this has been a good conversation, but I would like to do what we came here to do and, as the common man says, ‘get done with it’. We still have two more houses to visit in order to gather musical equipment and time consumes itself easily.”

Megumi shook her head full of hair in slow motion.
“Just one more, I guess: my guitar, cables, pedals, amp, all my stuff is already in the back of the car.”

That sounded fishy to me, but apparently not to Rin.
“Excellent, in that case we will have more time to set the gear up back at school. Thus, I am going in.” Her gaze rolled and fell upon the girl who had done her best to conceal herself from being topic relevant or part of the discussion the whole time. “If you do not mind, I would much rather it to be you accompanying me, Akane-san.”

Shy girl didn’t need to uncover her eyes to show her surprise, as her open mouth did the job well enough. Megumi disagreed with Rin’s decision, as I was sure I would see happen more than once again in a not distant future.
“Just wait a second! Why don’t we all go in?”
“This is but a scout mission, so that would be completely unnecessary. Our first step is to gather intelligence on the whereabouts of my father and based on his location choose the best method of bringing the equipment outside in these current climatic conditions. Only then we will gather at the backdoor of the mansion and start transfer phase.”

I was interested in a particular detail of Rin’s lines.
“Could that be interpreted as your father not approving of these activities? As in the band being formed and moving your gear around?”
“I am afraid it suggests what you thought but in all honesty it means my father is not even aware of me having sound-related apparatus in my bedroom, let alone joining an extra-curricular activity unrelated to the School Council. That said, this maneuver is only a precaution. By this time he is usually working, so we shall have no more hindrances in executing the transport operation.”

Yet like a puppy playing with someone, Megumi wouldn’t let go.
“Fine, but why Akane and not me or Shin-tsu?”
“Seems remarkably simple and logical to me, but you and I are very distinct persons so I shall try and put it in terms you can comprehend. He is, contrary to visual-aided common sense, a male individual around my age and that would raise suspicion with the helpers, possibly enough for some of them to talk with to my father about some boy entering his daughter’s bedroom along with her. Worst case scenario, if my father is indeed inside, Koukishin-kun does not have enough data to act as if we were long-term friends or part of the School Council, thus creating an even stronger image of a hidden relationship paved with bad intentions and juvenile passion. About you, well, I do not think I can possibly explain why your appearance would gather unwarranted attention in a way that you would not perceive as directly offensive.” A breath and a blink later, I realize that I could not tell if Megumi understood the situation or was just looking mad because of Rin’s constant patronizing attitude. “It is obvious, then, why I am choosing Akane-san. Even like this, she is visually the closest to an acceptable companion for me that we have in this car. No offense meant.”
“None taken.” Akane’s mom was watching Rin with a soothing look in her eyes. “I keep telling this daughter of mine she needs to work on her looks a little bit. We’re not in the sixties anymore.” And from what I could tell by looking at her face, she never was. “Even then, boys had standards. Still, if being around Megumi-chan has not given her a wish to change her appearance, I hardly think you can do something about it. You just don’t have half as much boldness as she does, despite your manners, but I must congratulate you on managing to run the Student Council even with those social skills of yours. No offense meant.”

Megumi produced a muffled giggle, so it was probably okay making a little bit of fun of her looks if you were Hippie mom and attacking Rin with an almost static yet very natural carefree smile on your face. I sort of hoped for conflict, but it was prevented by Akane, who had somehow opened the van door at her side, moved outside, closed it and then opened the front one by Rin’s side without me noticing it.
“Let’s go,” Akane meekly said to Rin.

And without any further ado they left, presumably a tactical move of our School Council president devised as a way of avoiding meeting our eyes while flustered with anger and, in a less likely scenario, shame. Not as much of a sadist as the girl she had just teased, Akane’s mother had the decency to wait for the two girls to walk away before commenting the situation with the two students that stayed in the car.
“It’s great to see Akane-chan making new friends, but that older girl could use a small dosage of consideration for others. We all have flaws, anyway, and her vocabulary is great for her age.” She looked at me through the rear-vision mirror. “You don’t talk a lot, do you? Like my Akane-chan.”
She could have good vision for flowers, but her hearing was not the best. “…no, it’s just that…”
“It’s probably hard when you’re the only boy around and surrounded by girls, eh?”
“No, not really,” I replied with a strong and secure voice that surprised even me, although it was the utmost truth. While it could be argued I have always been mainly in the presence of females, it wasn’t until then I realized it was happening. Perhaps that is the way a fish would feel if someone told it about the water. “You could say I am used to that kind of situation, as I always had more friends who are girls than boys. What’s really making it hard for me to get into the conversation is the fact I’m new around here and didn’t even know anyone until yesterday afternoon.”
“You’re not from here, then?”
“No, just moved here last week.”

That was probably news to Megumi too.
“Really?” The second year student seemed impressed. More than anyone, I knew there were people very interested in what was somewhat foreign, especially because I can hardly remember any time when I wasn’t a foreigner. “Were did you live before, Tokyo?”
“Actually, I was living abroad most of the time during the past years.”

Rising levels of uneasiness warned me the conversation was heading to a direction that could not meet a good end as I finished speaking that sentence. Her next question confirmed it.
“Where?”

The shrugging was automatic but the vague answer was completely intentional.

“Everywhere, really.” To divert their attention by bringing in another topic was a cheap and easy way out, but I wasn’t in any condition to be picky. “Hey, can I ask you a few questions, rapid fire style?”
“This is kind of sudden but sure, hit me.”

I breathe in.

“Blood type?”
“B.”
“Interests?”
“Music!”
“Hobbies?”
“Music again!”
“Favorite color?”
“All of them.”
“Favorite accessory?”
“All of them.”

The last two were quite believable, very much. I smiled without showing teeth and wondered for a moment if it looked anything like Ryo’s characteristic cat smiles, which was unlikely. However, as long as it was reassuring, it worked.
“Fantastic. So far, you’re doing great. Isn’t she?”

Akane’s mom nodded cautiously, as did not seem to understand what I was getting at. Still, she did not intervene.
“Thanks, man.” Megumi scratched the back of her head with the visible embarrassment of those who aren’t used to being praised. “I practice for the day I’ll get magazine questionnaires.”
“Interesting. A saying?”
“Ten persons, ten colors.”

Which basically translated to ‘to each their own’, if I was correct.
“Did you see the person you like today?”
“Never liked anyone, not in that way.”
“A painting?”
“None specific, but I dig abstract art.”
“Last movie you’ve seen?”
“Some old American black and white comedy. Wasn’t very interesting.”
“Have you found anything interesting while walking recently?”
“A golden paperclip. I still walk around with it in my bag.”

And there it was: we had reached the point where the defenses of the interviewed were lowered because of being conditioned to answer, the stage right before she’d get annoyed and answer things with sarcasm and quirkiness. Experimentation showed me how to identify that and, as it was a useful skill for extracting information, I made sure not to forget how to do it.
“Did you contact your parents while in school today?”
“Nope,” she said, seeming a tad unsure about it afterwards.
“So there was no way you or your parents could know today would be the day we’d gather stuff and move it to school?”
“Not really… Why do you ask?”
“How did you get to tell someone at home to get your stuff ready for Akane’s mother to just come by and pick it up without making mistakes?” Everything was just too convenient, too neat even for a fated situation. Even though it was possible due to how random life can be, it sure was not likely and questioning her was a risk I was willing to take. “You left school at the same time I did and did not even bother to look at your equipment. How could you possibly know everything is in there?”
“Well, I…”

I saw Akane’s mother movements in slow motion and could tell she was going to try and intervene, which implied I was doing it right. A bit more of pressure was necessary to expose the truth.
“Answer the question.”
“I didn’t, but what is the poi-”
Although fully aware that my final move was a huge stretch of the truth, the whole thing still sounded a lot like a good idea at the time.
“Megumi, don’t be offended by this supposition, but you are actually living at Akane’s place, right?”

Once again it was time for one of those silent moments, except this one was caused by yours truly. After it happened, I could only wonder why I had done it; the impulse that drove me was not composed of reason, but something much more primal and similar to what I felt when facing Ayaka last week. As if I was a beast that could attack in ways other than by using physical strength.
Not that despite the raging thrill I felt it was morally correct or, more importantly, socially acceptable.
I must admit she could have lied and dismissed my hypothesis with ease, but in her case I assumed she would not. No, the correct word would be ‘knew;’ I could without a trace of doubt tell she was the type that hid but did not have the custom of lying, although for reasons that shame me. To some extent, I am both: someone who hides and someone who lies, and good enough at both to tell when I see one of my kind.
The response to that behavior was fairly better than I expected or deserved.
“You are a nice guy, Shin-tsu.” Hippie mom had a good impression of me, somehow. “I am sure you wouldn’t tease Megumi over this or spread this rumor.”

Well, I could be mistaken but to me there wasn’t a hint of threat in that line: just pure motherly concern, which made me somewhat uneasy, I admit it. Days later I would understand they assumed I wasn’t being an obnoxious, offensive socially unfit individual but just someone without a perfect grasp of daily Japanese, my rudeness a mere lack of acclimation with the language and culture.
You stay around manipulators, literal monsters and such for too long and you start assuming everyone is one.
“I wouldn’t.” Ironically, there I was trying to assure someone I was one of the good guys after playing mind games. “I just needed to know because I’m concerned, and this is something you two might want to avoid hinting in the future in the presence of other people. People who would have a harder time understanding. You are obviously trying to keep this a secret for some personal reason, so it might be a good idea to think twice before giving out information that may be suspicious or contradictory in the light of other events. Never say anything concrete if you want to be able to take it back. When keeping secrets, chances are you’ll have to.”
Megumi’s mouth was still open, the piercing in her lip lacking the shine her eyes always had (which was probably a byproduct of the two different colored contact lenses she wore all the time). And those lips I for one moment felt strangely focused on started moving a bit sooner than I expected they would.
“Yeah, he won’t. And even if he did, I know it wouldn’t be anything like what Rin would do if she knew. Maybe something like calling names between bros, but that’s all. I know we’re going to be bros because we kind of clicked when I saw you, you know?” She did not say that in a romantic way, or at least I could only associate that line coming from her with friendship for some reason. Possibly related to the constant usage of the word ‘bros’, I guess. “Almost the opposite of what happened when I first saw Rin. Pfft. Man, there’s something about her that pisses me so much.”

To manage to ignore that, one would have to be trying very hard to do so.
“Sure.” I concurred, and then tried to come up with an understatement to follow that avoided minimalism. “You even talk way more casually when she’s not around. It’s like you two are competing all the time over everything.”
“Yeah, I do. Speaking like that is weird for me, but not doing it in front of someone like her would be like, giving her more fuel to act all high and mighty. Someone needs to fight her on her own terms, bro.”

A characteristic sound went off, something universal although not exactly popular: the sound of a cheap wristwatch’s alarm. The driver of the flowery van turned her head to face us.
“Megumi-chan, there are other ways of standing up to The Man. In the sea of life, it’s not always about rowing and rowing; fighting the power is an activity that can be performed in many ways, but what really matters is to do the right thing even if it means kicking reason to the curb.” Hearing Akane’s mother speak about whatever topic she managed to grasp was really amusing, for a given value of that word. Definitely a good person, but one could tell she believes in the flower power, power of the people and all that jazz from kilometers away. “Now if you kids don’t mind, it’s my meditation time, and I’m going to need phones for this or the binaural frequencies will be buried and lost in this van’s cheap boosters.”

Megumi started moving all of a sudden and seeing her searching for something in her school bag was rather trippy, certainly enough to make me dizzy -- way too many colors and movement happening in too little time.
“Oh, earphones!” She said, her hand continuously digging down and bringing a mess up as an excavator would do to a terrain. “What a great idea!”
“Someone already patented that, I’m afraid.”
“You’re real funny, man,” she took ear buds and extended me one of the pair, and once more I was entirely baffled by her corporal language. “Now seriously, let’s listen to some music and chill.”

For a moment I could only think of the irony present in her poor choice of words and then I understood what was going to happen.
“Sure, as long as it’s not metal. It wouldn’t work.”
“Eh? Why is that?”
“We will be sharing, right? That means one earbud for you and one for me.”
“So?”
“Modern metal production standards pretty much dictate at least one guitar track should be used in each side so when it comes to harmonizing or completely different riffs being played simultaneously, they can contrast and fill the overall mix. Listening to only half of what the sound engineer intended might sound a tad awkward for one of us, perhaps both.” Then I noticed I was doing it again, the whole Ryo-speak thing. “What I’m trying to say is that we probably won’t be able to enjoy the songs as much while sharing the earbuds because the music is usually mixed to only work properly in stereo.”

Her rather unfeminine laughter was somehow only noticeable when I stopped talking, or for the sake of a fairly more precise description, lecturing.
“…for one second you really sounded like Akane.”

Chuckling ensued.
“Wait a second, did I ever stutter or something? Never mind that, are you implying she ever actually speaks and a lot on top of that?”
“Boy, you’d be amazed.”
“I already am.” Sure, I met the girl yesterday but there are a few characteristics you just expect to be permanent, or at the very least, not contradicted within minutes. “Her mother doesn’t see her that way though.”

She wasn’t laughing anymore, and it wasn’t completely unexpected.
“Do your parents know exactly who you are?”
If they didn’t, they’d still be around. Or six feet under.
“You tell me. Most of the time I don’t know myself.”

Satisfied with my half-fabricated answer, Megumi pushed her hand further and made me take one of the earphones almost inserting it in my ear herself.
“Enough talking, let’s get down to business: it’s Dubstep time.”

A button press was all it took for a distorted synthetic bass to start growling inside one of my ears along with a beat that didn’t quite naturally felt like one, but grew on you after a while. Unlike some more common forms of music it was based on ambience and feel rather than a melody one can hum, and unlike most electronic subgenres the production was overflowing with a powerful sub-bass. Hundreds of glitches and sliced vocal samples happening almost at random added much to the composition. It was rather dark, dirty and harsh, yet somewhat contained and completely nothing I would expect from someone made of blinding chromatic variations and metal who got into a silly argument with a girl she apparently met yesterday just to get in a van with her on the following afternoon.
“This isn’t bad at all.”
“Not the kind of music you can get into at once, but once you get into it it’s pretty hard to fall out of love.”
“Yeah. But there’s one thing, Megumi.”
“What?”
“This track has basically nothing to do with dub or 2-step garage.”

A blurry window reflected the colorful Megumi biting a toothpick she found in her bag while searching for the earbuds, the reminiscence in her eyes barely visible amongst the hundreds of raindrops running on the glass at random speeds with unpredictable pauses during its course.
“It’s been raining at least once a week around here, but it’s always like that when it’s spring, so no biggie. There was this amazing rainbow these days though, it was really something out of this world. Totally unforgettable.”
“Last week?”
“Whoa, you saw that rainbow too, man?”
“Yeah, I was hanging out with… a friend.” Giving unnecessary information out has ruined too many kingdoms. “We caught a bit of rain and then all of a sudden there it was, the most beautiful l’arc en ciel I had ever seen, stunning as heaven. What were you doing?”
“Same as you, just chilling with a buddy: Akane’s room has a huge stained glass window so it took me a moment to realize it was open and all those colors were on the sky and not coming from the stained glass itself, you know?” When she looked at me I saw her face wasn’t particularly hard to read despite the heavy makeup. “I saw those amazing trippy colors outside and even told Akane about it, but she didn’t pay much attention to it so I guessed it was all in my head or something.”

Something clicked in me.
“Hey.” I lowered my voice so Akane’s mom wouldn’t have a chance to hear us. “Were you, say, ‘clean’ that day?”

Laughing loudly, Megumi ruined my efforts in making that question private, even though it was for her own good.
“Oh dude, relax: I’m always clean. Straight edge for life!” She held the toothpick between two fingers like it was a cigarette, looked to her hand, laughed slowly and then shook her head as if to wave the irony away. “I see where you’re coming from though. Thing is, I used to be around smokers for a long time and became what you would call a ‘passive smoker’. I don’t hang out with that kind of people anymore, so whenever I catch myself thinking about the smell of nicotine, I start chewing on a toothpick until the craving goes away.”

That sounded way more like a lie she spent quite a good time working on than an honest truth, but for that moment I assumed the best course of action would be not to pressure her on the subject. After all, it was definitely not my business.

Yet.
“So, why did you assume you were able to see that but Akane wasn’t?”
“I don’t know, man, my brain plays tricks on me once in a while when it comes to colors and stuff. Good to know it wasn’t all in my head though, or that there is at least one more person around here who is just as weird as I am.” I felt like disagreeing because at least in the visual aspect no one could be half as weird as she was without actually trying, but I figured I’d understand the meaning of her words at some point in the future after some cooking scene or something so I’d be wasting saliva and ruining plot points. One of her fingers pointed outside at Akane and Rin were walking towards us. “Here they come.”

The president passed in front of the window Megumi was watching so intently but didn’t stop, moving directly towards the van driver’s. I couldn’t hear all of what she said to hippie mom, but the words ‘help’, ‘butler’, and ‘backdoor’ gave me a vague but interesting idea of the overall context. Obviously it could have turned out to be something completely different from reality, as thoughts that start at the back of flower power vans often are.
The rest of that day was blurry and fast-forward but anything short of easy.
Rin had an awful lot of equipment for an individual and not a studio, enough to make me consider going back to school by foot to give everyone more free van space. I only stayed because Akane’s mother insisted, although we had to stop at the school to unload cargo before going to my place to pick up my stuff. The good thing about my house being the follow-up to Rin’s is that, in comparison, it did not seem surprisingly big at all.
We spent the afternoon setting up and turning what initially was a small empty club room into a small recording/rehearsal facility crowded with cables and equipment, activity that took time and a good deal of unnoticed effort in the nearly empty school campus. It was a day of carrying instruments, computers and gear while sweating in our uniforms. The irony is that to get things right for the band, we had to act less like musicians and more like roadies.
When the darkness of the night was starting to gain territory in the sky, Rin spoke.
“I believe I am speaking on behalf of all of us when I say we should just lock up the room and call it a day.”
“Yes, I concur. This was tiring.”
Megumi argued and not only for the sake of doing so. “But we haven’t even played a single note yet!”
“Still, significant progress was made. We now have a functional practice and recording room that will not attract attention or disturb anyone.”
Thanks to Rin’s meticulous planning, the room’s structure was absurdly effective despite being a mess: two guitar amps, a bass one, a microphone and a netbook working as host for the information sent by the electronic drum kit, all passing through a small mixing console with outputs to the main recording computer and four high fidelity headphones, two of them brand new. Definitely not eye candy setup, but it was so beautifully functional it hurt; we could jam and record the most brutal tunes at the same time without any passerby ever hearing what we were doing inside of that room, being only subpar in the vocal aspect because of acoustics. “Except for perhaps minor tweaking, the band studio is ready to start activities right away.”

I could only agree.
“Already far more than most bands can even dream of. I’m honestly surprised. We might get spoiled because of all this convenience.” But what surprised me the most was how smooth and fast everything went: it was too neatly executed to be part of a plan devised Reikoku-sensei. This crazy, abrupt and juvenile thing could actually work. “Do you guys know any ramen stands or something around here? Today is my treat.”

We left the room as Megumi barely could contain her excitement, considering she had worked as enthusiastically as I did; the other two did help, but we were the active ones, burning energy like there was no tomorrow and stuff. If her hunger was anything like mine, my words must have sounded like an oasis. Akane looked like she was about to faint or evanesce completely too, but that was just her usual self.
“Agreed.” To my surprise, Rin seemed a little calmer, almost to the point of vague, even after our driver left and kept acting like that for the whole afternoon. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I think she just did not know how to deal with being defeated. “We managed to get most of the work done today, so I suppose we are allowed to have a break like that.”
A chance like that only came once; it was only obvious Megumi would bite.
“Isn’t it a commoner-exclusive activity, to eat ramen in stands and stuff?”

You’d think Rin would fluster, react with a disguised bad mannered answer or give us some odd line that would eventually reveal itself as having a deep meaning, being a reflection of her past or something like that.
“Rich people eat too.”

After that disappointingly mundane reply we locked the door and left, and with that my story with that unusual band started.


Chapter 2: Akane[edit]

Part 1[edit]

Inside that seemingly calm and forgotten room, the synchronized movements of four students generated results that simply could not be witnessed by anyone else. That was probably part of the beauty of the whole thing, the way we always forgot the world around us whenever we got together. Sometimes I would even forget there was more of me than just a center panned, low rumbling waveform in the midst of many other sounds produced by the three girls I shared most of my afternoons with.


The now longer, slightly sweaty strand of hair that fell over my eyes for a second as I ran my fingers through the bass’ neck was crude, poor, but undeniable physical evidence of the passage of time. Nothing drastic, though.


Only two months had passed since practice began, but I had already grown used to having this activity as part of my life. We couldn’t do it every single day because of Rin’s position as a student council member, and every once in a while Akane’s mother would need help because running the only flower shop with delivery service in town by yourself is not much of a glamorous lifestyle if you ask me.


In order to avoid Rin’s suspicion, I came up with a system that works similarly to some countries’ day-based driving restriction: whenever the occasion came, the colorful guitarist would follow the plan we agreed on and depending on the previous experiences use a new alibi (such as having to study) or just tag along and help Akane. To ensure it wouldn’t look too fishy and obviously formulaic after a few occurrences, even I had to take part in the scheme, sometimes as a helper in the flower shop and others as the younger student tutoring her. All the irony in that generated little more than two or three jokes from Rin that were repelled with barely passable acting performances of Megumi’s false anger.


It sure helped that Rin did not seem to be particularly interested in spending time with us outside the rehearsal room except for the obligatory food quests we did on a regular basis, and I can’t honestly blame someone with her upbringing for not caring for commoner experiences such as having fun simply by going to a mini-market with friends, which is exactly why I never pushed her to come with us whenever she didn’t felt like it (and I noticed it happened more often in places where she could actually be seen with us). Chances are her father remained unaware of her afterschool activities, or at least assumed they were still pertinent to the council.


Or just did not care. There are families like that.


An unpleasant surprise struck me as an initially-sharp, distorted noise morphed from absurdly high to low and lost definition in less than a second in my right ear. It was one of those sounds you never really get used to no matter how many times it pierces your timpani. The sound of a guitar string breaking passing through a distortion system is just, for the lack of a better (or in this case much worse) word, unique.


“Again, Megumi?” I said as we all took off our headphones to avoid permanent hearing damage from the subsequent rising levels of static that followed. “A fair share of our budget is going straight for replacement of strings because of this, you know. Take it easy.”


“No can do, bro. Someone keeps complaining about my finger tone or whatever, so all I can do is pick harder.”


“Perhaps next time you could try picking better instead of harder. Technique before strength, always.” Rin gave her a bored look before turning the distortion off, but it didn’t last long as she moved her head towards someone else. “Akane-san, would you be so kind as to pass me the string box? Unfortunately one of our members cannot perform such basic maintenance on her own instrument.”


From where I stood I could see Akane taking the box from behind her drum throne and handing it to our school council president in the most discrete manner someone possibly can, an interesting contrast to how ‘loud’ she could be when it came to playing. Even though I only heard her through the synthetic sounds triggered by the electronic drum kit she borrowed from Rin, I could already tell the reason of all that admiration I at first assumed to be uncalled: she was a very precise and tight player, even if almost mechanical.


The way she could read through our intentions as the four of us jammed while not being able to look me in the eyes even though we’ve been sitting in front of each other for two months interested me a lot.


“Hold on, it’s not my fault! I told you I’m still not used to messing with floating bridges and this guitar isn’t even standard!”


And she was correct: it really wasn’t. Although not half as ‘customized’ as her acoustic one, the guitar Megumi got from a pawn shop was a seven string one, the extended range handy even if the reason why she got it in the first place was because it was flashier than her previous electric guitar. Apparently the guitar was ‘abandoned’ by her original owner, as he pawned it and did not show up to get it back for around six months. Money issues, one figures.


It required some work in order to make it functional again, such as electronic repair and minor part replacements, which a luthier supposedly did (though I’m sure Rin did it on her own). I could see no other reason for the secondary pickup remaining useless after the supposed ‘professional repair,’ especially considering wiring transducers is something those people do every day for a living. When I realized that was the case I didn’t know if I should be more surprised at her working hard with her own hands or her being genuinely nice and not bragging about it.


“If you intend to throw excuses at me on a regular basis I suggest you take some time to ponder them. Two months is more than enough time to learn how to string a guitar, especially considering how often you break strings.” It was even harder to believe she was capable of being kind when she spoke like that. She unplugged the guitar and cable from the mixing console. “If the two of you want to take a break, now is the time. I will try and teach Megumi how to do this.”


The colorful girl set her animosity aside for a moment and smiled, an action that simultaneously stirred all of her piercings.


“Whoa, really?”


“Certainly. I have no intention of doing this for you any longer, so pay attention.”


I tried to meet Akane’s gaze to see whether she wanted to keep on jamming, just the two of us, but gave up when I saw her already nibbling on an oversized, definitely homemade fiber cookie.


Her mother had a penchant for natural-ish vegan recipes, something I experienced every time I went there and she greeted me with a new one. Not to say that they were bad or anything, but everything always seemed to taste rather earthy. While the shy drummer seemed not to mind it at all, her friend and secret roommate seemed eager to eat some meat whenever she was outside.


Trespassing through a thin breach in the thick curtains, a thread of light illuminated my bag on the floor, making it cast a new set of shadows. Without a doubt, it was a sign from Heaven that I should drink the strawberry juice that waited for me inside before it got warm.


Bass resting on my lap like a baby, I just arched my back once as a warm up and clumsily moved my body as if I was swimming sideways afterwards in order to be able to reach for the bag. I felt lazy at that point but opened the juice while doing those weird movements just so I could drink from the can while going back to my original sitting position.


“So, what exactly are we going to play here?” I asked after a sip, knowing that was a million-dollar question. “We have done nothing but jam all the time and any omniscient sentient being in the universe knows we’ve done it enough to create themes and clichés of our own. So before someone just answers ‘music’ to sound witty or cool, in this particular moment I am referring to genres, subgenres and such. I will tolerate no jokes on conceptual darkness, brutality, innovation or similar as an answer either. Intensity comes in many forms, so it doesn’t give me the slightest bit of a clue. It could be some subgenre of metal, could be screamo or math rock, technical skate punk wouldn’t be bad and it could be free form jazz for all I know. Therefore, I beg: someone please, please give me a hint.”


Their eyes fell upon me like I uttered the world’s most absurd words.


“I assumed such a thing would be obvious by now, but it might have been a mistake of mine to do so. Forgive me for considering all of you would be able to understand the rather simple thought patterns I used on this subject.” Our school’s Student Council President was, effectively, the only person I knew who could sound like an arrogant spoiled child while saying ‘I’m sorry,’ be entirely aware of it and add a bit more of heat on purpose for both fun and strategic profit, if there is such a thing as her thinking of those two targets separately. “Apparently it is time for me to put the cards on the table.”


“Please do so.”


“While I cannot say I had the highest expectations for this project, I find myself forced to admit we have chemistry as a band, despite the lack of individual ability of some members. A certain portion of that is absolutely required in order to achieve the status where a combined group of musicians conceive and engineer a properly devised array of tunes.”


“Yeah, that’s right!” Megumi looked at Rin intensely and for the first time I saw genuine, unadulterated admiration without a trace of frustration or jealousy. “What kind I don’t know, but no one can say we’re not making music here! This is going to be huge!”


The aura that emanated from Akane made me feel like she too watched Rin, even though her messy, curly bangs covered her eyes, which would hinder a normal person’s visibility. Then again Akane still strikes me as an abnormal fellow. Considering the time it took to get to this level of acceptance, it’s safe to say her strategy wouldn’t be one I’d willingly adopt and it doesn’t seem like I’m being tsundere for her tsundere ways of leadership. I wouldn’t fall for…


…no, it’s best if I avoid thinking about it. Nothing good comes out of pondering on subjects pertaining to things you simply cannot achieve, or rather could but should not for the greater good. Instead, it reminded me of a game I feel like playing whenever I can.


“That would be nice.” I carelessly and slowly unbutton the top of my shirt with my left hand, aware that the flaming gaze that belonged to Rin was almost entirely on me ever since my index finger lay on the now-unfastened red tie; it was pleasant to know she would use peripheral vision in order to check if either of our two band members could see my actions. “It still doesn’t answer my question in any way. What are we going to play, and exactly when? Rehearsals are fun and all, but having goals such as recording a demo or playing gigs… that’s what I personally see as actual band activities. If anyone disagrees, I’ll be happy to listen, but I don’t think there’s a point in having ‘chemistry’ if we’re going to keep the end results to ourselves.”


My opponent crossed legs covered in just-thick-enough stockings visibly made of silk, the gentle rotation of her limbs making me imagine propeller blades spinning in slow motion.


“I was not finished with you, Koukishin-kun; patience is a virtue of utmost value, so I understand.”


The way she completely ignored the fact Megumi interrupted her before I did filled me with a wicked kind of joy. She was sending me a message I was happy to ignore, or rather, contradict… but not with words.


“Then please, proceed.” I said, aware that she had eyes only for me.


Her deep sigh was the confirmation I needed and motivated me to go further.


“Therefore, I took the liberty of saving most of our jam sessions’ recorded files and, after a certain amount of editing, and by that I mean editing as heavy as I could as an amateur audio engineer, I can announce we have the preproduction tracks for our EP ready.”


That’s when I stopped trying to tease her.


“An EP?”


“Surely you know what the acronym stands for.”


“Extended Play, a recording too long to qualify as a single but too short to be a full length album. While it’s hard to tell exactly at which point one category ends and the other begins, the modern usage implies four to seven songs, usually six, of equal importance, in comparison to a single which would usually be one main song, usually accompanied by a B-side track, or a maxi-single, which would be the same as a single but with two or three B-side compositions along with the main one instead. Not to say EPs don’t have remixes or B-sides in them, quite the other way around; as I stated before, it’s hard to pinpoint a measure for the format everyone would abide to, since the term’s meaning changed a lot through the decades since it was introduced back in… 1952, if I recall correctly.” Beat. “Now that it’s certain we all understand what the acronym means, what exactly do you mean by ‘our EP,’ pray tell? Enlighten me.”


A smirk of hers.


“Oh, I will. This conversation of ‘where are we going with this’ is bound to happen at least once in every musical project, so I decided to be prepared, in the same manner people who have been in a relationship for several years should not be surprised by a marriage proposal, and, in my personal opinion, if they are there is most likely something wrong with the relationship to begin with.”


It seemed to me Rin had a hard time transposing values and morals from one situation to another, which was not a surprise considering her train of thought led her to challenge someone in order to join a band as their leader in classic shounen manga style. It amused me, the way she couldn’t see the reason why she pulled that off and the reason why someone without a personal flaw could be surprised in the excessively specific and thereby suspicious situation she described are the same.


Whether the proposal is acceptable or not in theory, circumstantial issues might result in completely adverse outcomes to what is standard. It’s not what is done, but how and to whom: had she used the same strategy to anyone who wasn’t as stubborn and authority-defying as Megumi, she would be ignored at best, and after several years of wait some people assume it’s just not going to happen anymore and settle for the stability that lies in not having titles that imply, say, stability.


“Moving on, the reason why I was sure to turn our multi-tracked rehearsals into drafts of songs is because I think we achieved the maturity required to take this to the next level. We should record and publish our music worldwide.”


“That’s awesome! It’s going to be so, so great!” Megumi started fist-pumping the air but tried to contain herself when she realized she almost made Rin drop her guitar. “Us, becoming real artists and getting signed!”


It was easy to see Rin would scoff at the colorful girl’s behavior.


“Signed? Really, in this day and age? If you have the connections and money, labels are completely useless.”


“W-what if you don’t?” Akane took a deep breath, something she usually did whenever she needed to have some composure and avoid stuttering. The pitch in her voice usually went lower and serious, which had an odd effect since her figure that was almost a comic rendition of a J-horror novel-turned-movie character, but after months of seeing her nibble and sneeze and be shy while not getting any closer to her I could say ‘odd’ was not the same as ‘terrifying,’ unlike early horror and science fiction magazines would proclaim. “I don’t know about Koukishin-kun and you, Ms. President, but my financial situation isn’t stable enough at the moment to afford professional recordings, and I know for a fact Megumi’s isn’t either. There’s no way you can tell me the ‘allowance’ the club is given by the school is going to enough because I know for a fact you won’t settle for anything less than perfect. Where does this leaves us?”


As expected of Akane.


While I didn’t manage to get any closer to her as friends, I had watched her from a safe distance for long enough to realize similarities between us. She always considers the worst outcome possible first, was always evasive and, whenever she’s not stuttering, presented her arguments in ways that guided you to the same answer she got to.


At that moment, she was trying to make Rin either back down or take the responsibility for whatever ego-feeding plans she had, or make me go against the plan because, in one of the possible scenarios, I’d have to pay for something while they didn’t. It was inspiring to see how she admired our self-proclaimed leader as a musician but did not stand behind her on every occasion, thus confirming the excessive curtains of hair in front of her eyes were not blinding her enough to make her view the Student Council President as a good person who was right all the bloody time. Not only that, she realized that when it came to take decisions, the effective way to stand against someone who held herself in such high regard as Rin was to be passive-aggressive, an activity in which Akane excel.


I liked that in her, even though it implied her self-esteem had been as completely crushed at some point as mine. I could only hope she’d gotten that skill in a different way. Perhaps she got that rather uncanny skill or character trait from watching her mother and then perfected it, most likely not even conscious of doing it at first?.


Whether it’s the whole forbidden fruit appeal thing or something else, at that point Akane was the one out of the three girls that interested me the most despite, or perhaps because, I still barely knew her.


I knew she was going to fail, though.


“…I understand. However, my plan was having the tracking phase happening here . It’s usually the hardest, expensive and most time-consuming part of recording so we would be cutting most of our costs by doing so and also getting a larger and more flexible time-span to work in comparison to booking a studio for the same. Mixing and mastering, now that is something I would rather have a professional do for us because my knowledge in the field only goes so far, but with the way the world has moved forward thanks to technological advancement, it is not unthinkable to have an audio engineer from Europe or America work on your tracks and then send them back to you… As far as I can tell, it is common practice and the price is fair, or so the common man says.”


Of course she wouldn’t bring us a half-baked idea. It was easy to tell she’d probably spent days researching people and if I asked, she could give me a list of names, pricing rates and previous works then and there . Dedication was her strong point.


“We probably will not require any more funds than we already receive from school, but if not, I will happily cover whatever extra costs we may ha-”


“No way. That won’t fly.”


Megumi interrupted Rin’s speech. Took her long enough.


This was the point when I stopped caring and put myself on automatic mode, something that has happened a lot ever since I began hanging out with them . It’s not the same as blanking out because of focusing too hard on an issue, but more like being aware of what was happening and really not giving a damn. I cared about them and I cared about the band but I also knew what it was going to be like because I’ve seen that scene a thousand times before: Megumi would say that it was unacceptable, get a part-time job or something to be able to help if it came to spending more, and make Rin always show her the budget so they could be sure Rin wasn’t just spending her own money. It wasn’t a matter of how much you had but working as a team of companions on the same level. It was mediocre storytelling bonding.


It was boring.


The only twist in that whole thing was that Akane made it all happen without knowing it would end this way. Her lack of experience against criminal masterminds brought her to this situation; her plan backfired because you simply can’t con an honest person. Good or bad, smart or dumb, extreme or not, both Megumi and Rin knew what they wanted and it was the exact same thing as what they said they wanted, while ulterior motives are the cornerstones of every single con ever. In their case, making them think they held the advantage over others by appealing to greed or self-protection only made them even more willing to share and sacrifice for a greater purpose. Clashing personalities aside, no main character would take a shady deal like that, especially with friends or allies involved, and those two occupy that spot in their respective minds. In that particular sense they were ‘normal.’


Now if Akane had all that in mind, knew just how deep this would go and did it intentionally so everyone would hug and feel closer, that would have been quite the impressive feat. However, no matter how much I wanted Akane to be a potential rival in mind games, a genius with strange ideals and goals, I knew that expecting her to think of subverting, inverting and playing straight fiction tropes with people was projecting and most likely far from what was really happening.


I saw Megumi laughing, Rin trying not to and Akane looking confused.


In only a little while, the situation had changed. Rin had real friends she didn’t need to put her mask on for, but did it anyway because it was fun for her, Megumi was less rebellious and more willing to learn even when it was way all above her head, Akane managed to talk to us whenever she had time for that little preparation, even though she’d still stutter around other people no matter how long it took her to mentally prepare herself, and I got my rest from bizarre things and all things related to my past life, to the point where I haven’t even called my parents yet. I should be happy, but this is all incomplete.


At the end of the day, we don’t always get what we want.


Part 2[edit]

As I approached the Student Council room, all I could think about was the mess in the corridor that led to it. Being a corner room, it was only expected that a few things would be gathered by its door, but what I was seeing was a whole new level. While I am sure the boxes and sorted equipment lying on the floor did not belong to the Council or to Rin, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone as easily irritable by imperfection as her could stand working near such a puddle of chaos.


Or whether the Student Council room wasn’t a former improvised storage room.


“Ah, Koukishin-kun. I am glad you found time to lend me your hand.” She was sitting behind a desk and did not raise her gaze to meet me. “We have a fair amount of work to get done with, so for optimal performance it would be better if there were no interruptions. Lock the door.”

“Sure.”


I turned around to do so. When the knob finished its turn with a click, I felt a sudden pressure on my back and wrists pushing me against the wooden door. While my first instinct was to react with violence and the muscles on my body were already contracted, the hot breath I felt on my neck that came along with the rough and breathy contralto made me reconsider.


“Why do you do this to me?”

“And what exactly am I doing?”


“You know just how much you tease me.”


She kept pressing me, and I reminded myself dedication was her strong point.


“As you know exactly why.”


“Because we both have issues with codependency.”


That usually results in bad relationships that are borderline parasitic. We see ourselves in a different light than other people, both for good and bad. The need for acceptance, the denial, a compromise of morals, the absurd judgments and addictions, a loyalty so extreme that we can tell when a situation is harmful but not leave it by making secondary interests a priority. We share that.


“It’s the agreement, our little war game.”


We figured that trait could be negated or at the very least canceled out if two people with it used each other as the target. Not to be in a proper relationship was important, as it would eventually just lead to a greater harm. One could say we were just killing time.


“Aren’t you having fun?” she asked.


I licked my lips and wondered if she was biting hers, as she usually did whenever I ‘played’ with her.


“Not as much as I would have if it was not just build-up with no resolution in sight.”


“You didn’t complain when we established the terms.”


Terms in question: no real couple action, just constant teasing. Every kind, whenever we feel like it and as much as we could possibly get away with, for as long as it doesn’t involve other people and similar stuff.


The pressure stopped because she finally let go.


“You say that, but you did not have a problem with running your finger through your collarbones when Akane-san could have easily seen you.”


“I was just performing a mindless, innocent action. It probably doesn’t mean a thing to other people who don’t have a thing for collarbones, you know.”


“Do not pretend you are unaware of how much I enjoy that!”


“Just don’t fret over it and we’ll be fine. Plus, denying you liked the thrill of having an audience for something that you and you alone consider risqué is very unusual. It is good, to know you react that way.”


“You are terrible.”


I finally heard her take a step back. I turned around only to be thrown against the door again, although this time it was my back that hit it. The front part of my body was basically covered by Rin’s as she stepped forth once again.


“Yes, yes I am, and you love it.” A few centimeters and my upward-pointing index finger blocking her lips were the only things between us. If we go down that road once, I can tell there will be no stopping us, so I’d rather not. “Don’t ruin the fun. The two of us kind of need it.”


“I know. I will not.”


No emotionally cathartic hugging happened after that, and it only served to remind me of how she was not Ryo. At the end of the day, that was both good and bad, but either way, that was constantly being splattered on my face.


Like something that is both poison and cure, depending purely on the occasion.


For our own private, petty reasons, ; we both needed escape valves for our tension and cravings, and they were too intense to involve others, whatever we felt towards other people. To ruin someone else’s life so yours won’t be so bad was not something we wanted to do. By sticking together without actually being together, we were hurting no one but ourselves, and to people like us that is a great achievement.


“That’s good. I was slightly worried you’d give up.”


“Am I not allowed to?”


“You are as free to go just as I am, but it would mean no more... fun.”


For a second that lasted two measures of forever, Rin just stared.


“Do not think lightly of me just because of the way you appeal to my tastes. The fun is yet to begin.”


It’s hard not to smirk whenever someone tells you something like that with a straight face.


“Really? I’ll look forward to it then.”


“And I shall look forward to the day you will get ready to move on so I can, as the common man says, make a real move on you.”


“Nah, surely you’ll get tired of me before that happens.”


“If I do, whose fault is it?” She willingly kissed my finger and then retreated, almost looking shy and romantic. “It is all on you, boy. Come on and set me free.”


I did say ‘almost.’

“I never thought you’d be the kind of person who quotes song lyrics to others.”


“Not to anyone. And Koukishin-kun, I am afraid there are many things you do not know about me yet.”


“I’m sure there are at least two or three I’d love to find out. A man of mystery, that’s me alright.”


Understatement of the decade.


“Is that so? Then I suggest my private investigator take the mysterious case of why the school water bill is here. It could be just an honest mistake, but it could easily lead to the unfolding of a complex money-washing scheme or something similar.”


She meant it as a joke, but I’ve seen too many things like that happen to find it funny.


“You seem disappointed, but I have to remind you I asked for your help and running errands is part of it. Not all can be fun and games.”


Affirmation which points out she honestly thinks I’m upset over not ‘playing around’ with her rather than stunned at how possible/accurate her joke’s assumption could. Given that I did not tell her about my past, it’s only remarkable and a bit too touchy that she had to go and say something like that. Not that she was ever ‘not uncommon.’


So yeah, we weren’t on the same page all the time.


I took the bill in my hands, nodded and left. As I closed the door behind me, I felt like I was stepping on something weird and realized my shoe lace had come undone. I squatted down so I could fix it, an action which consequently made me realize there was a faint shadow being cast near me that didn’t belong to an object.


Turning my head around to face the source just confirmed that the person was trying to conceal her presence. However, it was hard to hide properly in such a messy corridor because moving the objects would result in noise.


“…just how much did you hear, Akane?”


“P-plenty.”


There goes playing, here comes drama.


“Look, it’s…”


“G-go out with m-me.”


Was I shocked? Was I stunned? Did anyone see that coming? Considering my personal history, yeah, probably.


“…what?”


“T-tomorrow.” She breathed deeply and looked down, as if the composure she was searching for was physical and just fell out of her like contact lenses, but it didn’t seem to work because the request she made was quite probably way out of her comfort zone. “Keep it a s-secret, I’ll k-keep yours.”


“Oh.” For a moment all I could do was stare at her. “A-alright.”


With an eye and a frown visible amidst the sea of messy bangs, her face went absolutely serious, borderline furious.


“Don’t make fun of my stutter.”


Taken aback by her sudden shift I almost stuttered again, which would have been quite the portrayal of reverse psychology at work.


“Didn’t mean to. Sorry.”


She bowed, which was out of place even in Japan given the circumstances, and left in a hurry, walking even weirder than usual now that she didn’t have someone’s shadow to do it on. I was left standing there wondering how off the mark someone has to be to think a shy girl who, in the light of such events, seems to have a crush on him is the same kind of maniac manipulator as he is. Talk about being delusional… or right on spot, I couldn’t tell at all.


Oh boy, normal life can be tough too.


Part 3[edit]

Insisting on getting the chair by the window was a good move of mine.


Regardless of my interest or will to help Rin with the Student Council issues, she surely managed it all by herself before I even considered moving to this town. I spent time with her mostly because I had a very special reason to hang out in school for a little while that day. You see, from the Student Council room I had a great view of the entirety of the teacher’s parking lot, thus making my self-inflicted mission easier.


A peek outside, nothing yet.


Having observed the parking lot for a while, I could state without doubt it was always half empty (or half-full depending on your perception of the world). It was probably due to this being a small, increasingly developing town that didn’t need the number of teachers necessary to fill the spots. The school itself wasn’t as crowded as it could be, its three buildings filled with vacant rooms.


Numbers written on the paper placed in front of me made me sigh; the window shows no signs of what I’ve been waiting for.


Alternatively, it could have once been a much greater school both in staff, popularity and students in the past, because judging from the money invested in this place, the architect obviously had had bigger plans than an allegedly girl-predominant school in a small town whose other schools allegedly were crowded or lousy, conditions which resulted in flocks of students journeying daily to the larger town nearby.


One more look at the window, nothing yet.


Flocks of commuters were not an unusual sight, and it would explain why the regional division of the government would want to invest in making this town closer to what you’d expect of a big town. Based on the prices of everything I’ve bought so far and the fact the security of the school was demonstrably precarious, my educated guess said the economy here probably wasn’t doing that great. Perfectly understandable as a direct consequence of urban migration: living Here is cheaper but good open schools and work that really pays is There, so you would have to be rather stupid if, being able to afford it, you don’t spend all the day There and then just come back Here to sleep, which leads to you spending money There in activities such as lunch and recreation, money which Here was relying on because your town needs more than taxes to function as a whole, and then…


“I have to go, catch you later.”


Rin looked befuddled, possibly because I said that in the middle of helping her with the financial reports, but she didn’t try to stop me when I got my bag and ran out, although she might have had I actually given her the chance instead of moving so fast out of the room it was practically teleporting.


Yes, I actually helped her. We didn’t just almost fool around all day.


At that moment I couldn’t tell if it would be easy to make it up to her, but I could afford being treated badly for a while for the sake of my goal, so I kept running down the stairs all the way to the building exit. All I had to do was to make sure I wouldn’t lose sight of Reikoku-sensei because I knew she was up to something.

How?


The third time I went to the Student Council room to help Rin, which coincidentally was the day when Rin proposed this little game of sorts to me, I saw Reikoku-sensei go outside the school gates but leave her car behind. and as I stayed there for a couple hours because I, well, accepted Rin’s proposal, I can testify my homeroom teacher did not return while I was there. That night she had not gone to my place, but on the following day she acted like it was because she had a lot of work to do.


Over the many occasions our self-proclaimed band leader and only current member of the Student Council required my aid and/or just wanted to be together I realized there was, indeed, a pattern.


There was something she hid, and that was why I was going to follow her to find out exactly what ‘it’ was. Now, several interpretations could exist for my behavior, such as jealousy due to her revelation that she had someone she could call a ‘significant other,’ paranoia over the fact we never heard from Ayaka or her family again, concern for her well-being as she could be coping with the treatment of a disease, inner desire to get involved in something mysterious again and many other rationalizations to justify what I would describe as curiosity, raw and pure.


I needed to know.


More important than whether I was being betrayed, knowing was all I wanted and craved for. There was, of course, the thrill of the chase, but it was nothing compared to the revelation at the end of every chapter, to the climax achieved in those glorious moments. It was hard to admit I was addicted to it, and even though it usually came along with the rest of the process that was depriving me of sanity and killing me little by little, I had to have that in my life.


Too bad there wasn’t an Adventurers Anonymous organization to help people like me. I hope it’s because there aren’t many of us. If there are, I feel as sorry for them j I do for myself, and there’s no end to how much I feel sorry for myself, especially when I realized I ended up growing fond of the thrill to the extent the Heaven I worked so hard to conquer looks dull and lifeless.


Following her as she went towards the commercial part of town was interesting.


It wasn’t the first time I found myself having to stalk (or to use a less derogatory term, tail) someone. I could pride myself in not being a specialist of sorts, but not stupid enough to make the grossest beginner mistakes: catching up with her wasn’t necessary and for all effects it would be an undesirable outcome, as the only thing I wanted at the moment was to learn of her after-school activities. And if approaching her was out of question, there was absolutely no need to follow her from close distance; if you want to follow someone without being found out in seconds, it helps to keep just close enough not to lose sight of your target when he, she or person of indeterminate/intermediary gender turns a corner. Chances are that your moment of distraction will result in you losing your target or getting hit and knocked out by it.


Now, it was not a question of trust but survival instincts; while she could be just going out to bowl on a regular basis or a similar activity, my teacher most likely was going after something related to supernatural forces (and the probability of that only increased when I considered the constrained timeframe she had, having a day job and spending time with me most of her nights) and if that was the case, were my presence discovered I would not only expect but hope she’d attack me. Reason being that if, upon realization she was being tracked like prey, Reikoku-sensei didn’t at the very least try to confront someone who observed her, it would mean she definitely wasn’t as reliable as she tried to show during the Ayaka incident.


I wouldn’t make it a breeze for her, though. Since I wanted to test her perception, I figured I should conceal myself the best I could, which was harder to do in a small town because it wasn’t crowded like metropolises were. Hardly any people or cars to hide behind, and it made the secrecy part of the task much harder on me than it made the chase easier. I changed sides of the street once in a while to stay always on the one with better shadows to hide in.


Following her got harder because the rain and wind came suddenly, fast and hot upon the town, as if with the intent to blind me. She wouldn’t stop or hurry and there was some grace in that, which I could only assume would vanish if she got herself a really bad flu or pneumonia.


I kept watching her from afar even when she stopped near a factory and just stood there for what seemed to be hours. Checking my phone didn’t seem like a good idea as I could miss all the magic in a blink, her behavior being strange enough for me to assume there was something big going on and I did right by coming all the way here.


A short-haired young guy in a white t-shirt came out and then she followed him into an alley until he actively noticed her.


“Alright, this is getting annoying. Come here and let’s talk.”


“…”


“Who are you and why are you following me? Actually, I don’t care about who you are but why are you following me?”


“…”


But my teacher just wouldn’t answer it.


“Look, you’re pretty and all but a little too old for me. Sorry.”


“…”


“I even like the whole concept of ‘stalker’ girl. It’s a pretty good archetype if you ask me, if you can pull it off. Not that there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing, anyway.”


“…”


She kept closing the distance.


“No offense, I guess I just prefer my girlfriends younger. It’s a matter of taste and you shouldn’t feel rejected.You are attractive for someone your age. Then again, I haven’t been with anyone for a while now so it’s no time to be picky. And maybe it’s not so much ‘taste’ as it could be just ‘history’… never dated anyone older than me, you see. Could be nice, much better than what I’m used to. Had the chance once, but didn’t take it. Not the only bad decision I’ve made, either.”


“…”


“You see, dropping out of school and then working in a factory was never what I wanted for myself. Maybe I wasn’t a genius like everyone else thought, but at least I was bright enough to get good grades. College bored me, though. You should go there to learn, not to get grades doing stuff you already did before. I waited my whole life to actually learn what I wanted, and after a few months of not doing it when I was supposed to, I quit.”


“…”


Closer.


“Not the cleverest move, I know. Sorry I keep talking about it; it’s just that you look too much like a teacher for me not to think about the subject. I don’t talk to people often either, so sorry if you don’t enjoy this monologue. Adults don’t seem to like other people to expose their inner thoughts publicly, but younger people are quite the audience. They can still learn, so it’s always good to hang out with them. No, not always. Still.”


“…”


“I take it you’re not here to talk either... well, thanks for letting me. The other people that fought me sure weren’t this nice, letting me speak my mind and stuff. They died because of that. You probably will too, being within my ability’s reach and all.”


“…”


“Sorry… I was inconsiderate again. Is this what it’s all about? Were you friends with those guys? They did come after me, so no one can blame me for crushing them like maggots or ants or little rodents with a hammer. It’s a pity those kids got involved, but then again, by that time they were supposed to be at school anyway, so maybe we can disregard that as karma? I mean, come on. I drop school, unemployment followed by job I’m overqualified and underpaid for ensues; they skip school and die a gruesome death getting involved in a fight between super powered freaks. Guess we all learned a lesson there, right?”


“…”


“Well, I’m tired now. I’ll just finish you and then go home to eat a sandwich, perhaps complain about shows I don’t watch on the internet. Thank you for listening, though, I missed doing this. I’ll miss you too.” He let out a sigh and pinched his own left cheek as if to bring himself back to the real world. “So, shall we beg-”


A snapping sound of what it would now be generous to refer to as a jaw. He never finished his sentence because Reikoku-sensei clearly wasn’t chivalrous enough to wait.


Instead of taking a small break, she pressed on as he fell, her her well-known telescopic pointer in hand as his head hit the ground. That would be a great move if she was ready for what came next, and unfortunately she wasn’t.


Movement took place, too fast for my eyes to catch. Reikoku-sensei’s body flew away, resulting in impact with her back straight against the wall. Pain showed on her face in such an expressive way I reflexively reached for my own back.


Only when the humongous blur stopped did I realize what had happened. I saw that his arm had become significantly larger. As in monstrous, borderline demonic.


It was hard not to make that association when a guy has a multitude of horns coming out from his body.


Whether it was my teacher’s fault or not I couldn’t tell, but the fact remained that her enemy’s face looked anything but human at that particular point. His lower canines had become horns, even though they reminded me of the massive trademark features of a saber-toothed tiger; nothing compared to the increasing number of horns in his arms and legs, the pointed keratin-based projections literally blooming from his body. Ironically enough, not a single one on his forehead.


Just by looking at it I knew it was the work of a Shugoshin.


Reikoku-sensei got up and charged without a moment of hesitation. “Hah!”


While the guy’s ability seemed impressive in power at first, the moment I saw the bones fade into a cloud of dust I realized how useless that ability would be in an extended battle, the flaw so visible it felt like cheating . If Reikoku-sensei did not realize it, she probably wasn’t cut out for going around getting in fights and I’d be sure to tell her that right after saving her.


Once bitten, twice shy: the moment he saw her using the pointer as a whip to get him in the face again the guy did a back-flip, which was not enough to avoid completely her advance but, in what I can only assume was a streak of luck, the attack landed on the soles of his feet and somehow propelled him far away instead of causing injuries. At which point I found myself wondering where did luck end and circus performer skills began.


The man breathed as deeply as he could, a very prominent vein popping on his forehead.


“Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarge!”


His second attack was smarter, as he used the distance and the way he landed to crouch, run and throw himself forward in a tackle and activated his skill just at the end, making his body an enormous spiked cannon ball. It seemed like he figured out his flaw, so things were bound to get harder for my teacher.


It was a power designed for one-hit-kills and useless for everything else. Once he projected the heavy horns it was impossible for him to move. Punching with the horns, even if they were activated just a moment before they connected, was a ridiculous, amateur tactic. Humongous or not, a limb moving in a specific direction with predicable trajectory is definitely not the same as a giant ball of pure speed possibly weighing way more than a big car, the reason being simple: a sideways dodge was only possible with the first.


Her wide open eyes told me she knew death was near, but I found more surprise than despair.


Jumping over it was out of question without using propulsion from kicking a wall which sounded too hard to perform properly, not to say unrealistic… which could be seen as a perfectly reasonable goal considering she was fighting a man covered in magically materialized horns that weigh tons. Still, she just did the more logical thing and retreated.


Not to a usual position for the situation.


“Knight mode.”


Reikoku-sensei’s posture was the typical fencers’ en garde, her telescopic pointer held like a foil. I’d never have imagined the woman I saw as a somewhat-safe-for-work dominatrix teacher knock-off with a penchant for manipulation would be the kind to, against a hellish enemy, choose the high road and duel in the way only gentlemen would (or should, at the very least). Considering he was a walking rock of massive destruction, she was playing against type and could easily die because of that.


My interest was piqued.


She jumped forward and attacked using her pointer with immense strength, which made me wonder if the green glow I saw was nothing but phosphorescence instead of an amazing power. Her strike did not seem any less dangerous than the ones she used against Ayaka’s Shugoshin, although the shine aspect was not present in this battle, which I could only, taking into account how much information I had, assume was because of the difference in luminosity an alley has when compared to a closed warehouse. No matter how interested I would ever be in a fight, it was only natural for me to pay attention to details like that. Why exactly, I couldn’t tell.


Despite harming a fraction of the horn armor, the attack was not all that effective. As before, the young man’s primary weapons just vanished after usage. It confirmed my hypothesis: he ‘projected’ them rather than expelled them from his body or such. The fact his clothes remained intact was a huge clue.


The moment he ‘erased’ the horns, she went after him. One could easily see my teacher meant business.


She switched the position of her rear and front legs and stamped her foot as if kicking the ground. I could only understand why when he did too: she made it look like she was attacking his torso immediately, which gave him enough time to cross his arms in front of it to limit the harm she could do. However, the little kick at the end propelled her enough so she could position her arm like she were working her biceps and aim for the head with the tip of her pointer.


Even from this distance I could see her eyes flickering as she repeatedly stabbed at him, every thrust so fast it reminded me of a pneumatic jackhammer at work. Her foe did the best he could to retreat, but she would only push forward until her attacks connected with the ground.


A mildly thick cloud of dust rose, a result of the damage the concrete had taken from the man’s extremely heavy wall of marrow spikes and the hammering of Reikoku-sensei’s telescopic pointer, but it wasn’t enough to block my view of the battlefield completely for more than a second.


I got to catch a glimpse of his evolution process.


It was obvious the man wasn’t going to bow down before her, but it was also clear he had become aware of the limitations of his ability against a speed-based opponent. Anyone could see it was a situation where he had to either change his methods or accept his defeat. He put his left arm in front of his body like a butler, or more precisely, as if to do a horizontal karate-like hand chop.


It was only expected that he could and would adapt. As far as I was concerned, at first Ayaka’s power caused potent hallucinations or altered reality using objects, but the moment she needed to fight it changed almost completely, even if you disregard the whole ‘possession’ thing. I knew better than to expect other people with Shugoshin to stay the same.


Likewise, this guy learned too and pretty fast.


He focused his power. His horns emerged from his left arm and he slashed the air sideways generating a shrieking wave of pure pressure strong enough to make my mentor flinch before she was sent flying away.

“Fu-GUH!”


But the profanity cut short by visibly excruciating pain was his, and it was his fault for not calculating the outcome.


He had dislocated his shoulder; his arm was hanging there unnaturally enough to make the stomach churn. Keeping in mind the sheer weight of the manifestation of his power, it was no surprise at all: using such heavy horns that way would surely result in damage to him.


It happened specifically because he tried to stay still and go against the natural flow of Gravity, sustaining the suspension of such a tremendous burden to try and reach her at shoulder height while not allowing his body to move as a consequence. Even if one can gather the strength to maintain it for the whole maneuver, it doesn’t mean the body will take it well. There was a toll to pay and the joint was the losing end.


Doing his best to ignore the pain, the man scanned the alley with his eyes, analyzing how much harm the attack managed to deal, probably to see if it was worth it while thinking of more effective ways to use his improved weapon.


Reikoku-sensei was still getting up when he started to furiously run towards her and payback was due when he reached her, only this time it wasn’t a swinging arm he would use.


Right foot in the air.


Stomping the concrete with his bone-encased leg like a sledgehammer, he used the ground itself as a limiter and leveraged Gravity to his advantage. The man missed her feet by little more than an inch. However, before she could strike back and retaliate for this nearly-perfect attempt to cripple, one more horn, the longest of them all, rose out of his knee.


“AHH!”


My throat closed instantly upon hearing her distressed cry.


As he ‘released,’ she fell to the ground. I was thankful when I saw her writhing; it was a better alternative than the one I had in mind. I could feel the blood rushing through my veins again, although the anxiety would take a moment to go away completely. Ready to intervene, I positioned my body to rush over, but not a second before it was strictly necessary.


If I had to save her, it would probably mean she wasn’t capable of saving anyone, which meant this whole situation was hopeless. It wasn’t me putting her life on the line, though: I did not force this outcome in any way. She was an adult and responsible for her deeds. If she went after someone she should be ready for whatever consequences she could face, including harm and eventual death.


I needed to test her, and if it took priority over her assured safety it was no one’s fault but hers.


So far, she was passing. Despite being wounded, she did not let go of her weapon of choice for a single moment, going as far as holding her bleeding stomach with her unused hand to try and stop the bleeding. She even took the small time he stood still (after a possible overload due to changing the structure of attack halfway?) to gain distance by crawling. Good to know she was at the very least familiar enough with pain to understand crying over it meant death and pretending the wound wasn’t there meant death in the long run.


His eyes focused once again. So did mine.


The undamaged arm was now raised and pointing a few meters above my teacher’s head. A huge bastard sword-shaped agglomerate of lines encased the limb far beyond its extent. This time, the bones didn’t just come into existence: the framework appeared like a bad omen and was increasingly ‘filled in,’ becoming more and more of a solid and visibly crushing reality.


There was no way she could escape that without a hidden card up her sleeve.


“Die,” he said, with no emotion in the intonation but a smile wide enough for me to see the blood all over his jaw.


My body screamed for me to move, mostly because I felt like I never would again if she died right there because I expected way too much of her. My mind, on the other hand, knew better. I don’t think I could take him on in a direct fight either, so even if I were to rush in and save her I’d have to do it by distracting him.


The marrow guillotine dropped.


Cursing mixed profanities under my breath, I ran, bending space and time or at the very least trying the hardest I could. From my viewpoint, despite the speed I was running there was barely any noise at all. Once again, against all odds, my lightning gallop got me close enough to act.


At that point I realized I wasn’t needed and sighed deeply.


In the face of danger, my teacher dropped the knight act and just rolled on the ground towards him, getting so close to his body the only things they had between themselves were their clothes. A fraction of moment later, the hand that once held her injury gripped his throat. Whether his concentration was gone, he was trying to regain full control of the one good arm he had left or he just realized there was just no possibility of hitting her with his attack specifically because of how massive his weapon was, the fact remained he ‘released.’


She landed on top of him like a rider mounting a horse and kept choking with one hand as he struggled as the best he could with a dislocated shoulder. She raised the telescopic pointer up high.


Her eyes were filled with scorn when the beating began.


“Five.”


The smashing sounds of pointer against skull and thorax contrasted with the monotone in her voice. What went through her mind was hard to tell, but I could hypothesize: to her, he just was not worth the emotion. He was just another foe to be defeated.


However, if that was the case…


“Ah!”


…she wasn’t that different from him.


The man suffocated and Reikoku-sensei wouldn’t back down. In order to make sure he wouldn’t get a chance to get up again, she did not let go, even when her weapon hit her own arm as a consequence.


“Four.”


The whole scene expanded in my eyes, working like refraction in crystals.


“Ghh!”


His bloodshot eyes were pure anger at that point, the expression reflecting a mix between the very first time one finds an obstacle that cannot be overcome and having faced those one too many times. To be fair, it was stupid of him to try to overpower her when he had those reflexes.


“Three.”


It was brutal, thus fascinating: the kind of wicked you just can’t look away from.


“Mh!”


His strength was finally giving out. No matter how much endurance he had there was hardly anything he could do.


“Two.”


“…”


“One.”


After a moment of silence, I approached her.


“So is this what you do for fun? Cornering super-powered sociopaths and trying to exorcise them by beating them to a pulp?” Real smart of me to say that after seeing her perform that action. “Are you okay?”


Reikoku-sensei’s eyelids twitched for a moment when she looked at me.


“I’ll be fine, but I have to admit this was more than just a scratch. Where did you get so properly scratched?”


Oh, that. It was surprising what she could see from a distance, especially considering I expected her to be in an altered state of consciousness at that point. On the other hand, it could be specifically the reason why she was able to.


“You noticed. Also, don’t you mean ‘badly scratched?’”


“Of course I did, and no, whatever or whomever did that to you did it good. That cannot be said of your other minor bruises and injuries, however, and I can tell you did not get them here. Are you going to tell me the truth now or make up an excuse like the ones you keep throwing around like seeds in a field?”


As there were enough of them already germinating in front of my eyes and on their natural way to becoming trees with bitter fruits it seemed excessively tiresome and superfluous to spread some more.


“The scratches are recreational, for lack of a better word.” They actually were, to someone other than me. “Not a big deal at all, just teenagers and their things. What you really want to know about is the second source of cuts and bruises, and in a way I am sure you already do.”


For one moment I assumed she’d issue a snarky remark regarding the recreational aspect I mentioned. No, more than assumed, I hoped that was the case: it was a red herring devised especially for her, but somehow it failed to live up to my expectations. Reikoku-sensei did not bite and make fun of my generation’s experimentation standards when it comes to sexuality and relationships.


She got up, tried to clean the dust off herself, walked towards me and then just gazed into my eyes like she had lost something in my iris.


“You are hurting yourself.”


In retrospect, that was easily the deepest thing she ever said to me.


“Not directly, but yeah. I’m trying to figure out exactly how I did ‘that.’ It’s not something I recall being able to do before coming here.”


Stopping Ryo’s freefall could and probably should have killed both of us, but while the fact it seemed like a good idea to me at the time would imply I have a mental problem, what bothers me the most is that I managed to pull that off, clearly showing there were other forces at work. Running through a warehouse that fast was already hard to believe but the freefall thing outright defies Physics, and yet it happened. “And I guess you have a clue, but you also seem to have reasons for not wanting to tell me about it so I won’t push you.”


My teacher stared at the ground. “It’s best if you don’t know much about it. I’d be perfectly happy if you had not gotten involved at all with this too, but it probably is too late for that.”


“But doesn’t being ‘already involved’ qualify me as a target? Because if so, you’re only making me an easier target to hit by not supplying information, and things were not looking particularly good for me to begin with.”


And although I did not want to consider the possibility, it was hard not to imagine the reason why she was suppressing data could have been because having me as a sitting duck could benefit her. Whatever was the cause of the strange things would come after me and she could easily track the enemy that way. However, that would imply Reikoku-sensei did not care for me much more than a chess player cared for one of his pawns. I wished I didn’t have to doubt her, considering how much she seemed to genuinely care about me, but then again she was the one that made me realize I have this bonding issue where I get attached too fast.


“Not in this case. As far as I’m concerned, the ‘Ayaka incident’ was an independent, completely self-contained event. A random occurrence. A mistake, if you will.”


“What if you’re wrong?”


“Do not underestimate me, Koukishin-kun. I was here long before you were and I know how this works.”


The messed up hair and the blood on the clothes didn’t reassure me.


“No offense, sensei, but we got to Ayaka before you did and we had absolutely no idea what was going on or what exactly we were looking for. Whatever you’re doing at the moment is not foolproof.”


“Answer me one thing first: what is? Do you honestly believe there is anything in life that is absolute and flawless? Stay around anything long enough and you’ll see the cracks in every mask and mirror. No such thing as fighting a war and leaving unharmed. You finding her before I did was just a coincidence.”


“So our deaths would have been mere battle causalities in your eyes? Is this what you’re trying to tell me? That we’re not safe and there isn’t much you can do about it? Well, I’ve got a question for you, teacher: just how many times have you lost students because of all th-”


My left hand stopped hers a split second before she could hit me good. Even so, my cheek was already warm in anticipation of the shock and friction of a dramatic slap that never came. It was an instantaneous psychological reaction and thus too fast to avoid by having simple control over one’s body, much like Reikoku-sensei’s breaking down in front of me.


At first I wasn’t moved by her tears. When I realized I made so many girls cry in such a short period of time, I found myself wishing I had not been fast or strong enough to stop her. I kind of deserved that slap.


“…I have a back-up plan.”


“And what if that doesn’t work either?”


“Then we’ll all die miserable deaths together after living miserable lives separately. Is this the answer you wanted?”


The sarcasm that dripped off her words was both a bad sign and a good sign and nowhere as awkward as the elephant in the room, which happened to be an unconscious, recently exorcised person that illustrated far too well what we were talking about.


“Yes. I needed to know you didn’t lose it completely, my favorite martyr.”


“Koukishin-kun, I am an adult. This means I know that what I have to do and what I want to are often going to be separate things, and this goes both ways. Children’s television bunny idealism alone will not save anyone and ruthless pragmatism can only take one so far. But I guess I don’t have to explain that to the person that effectively put his best friend out of the way for her sake. Bittersweet as it looked, I can’t deny that I felt very proud to see you using the one method that could work effectively.”


“It seemed only logical. If I had run away, she’d try to find me and get into more trouble because we’re both just that lucky. If I stayed and let her get involved, considering what happened with Ayaka, chances are sooner or later she’d get herself killed by one of these freaks you don’t think are out to kill me. Even if I tried to break off the friendship directly, she’d see the flag from miles away and know I was doing it for her sake, which would only bring us closer and consequently make her even more of a target.”


Hesitation showed on her face as she tried to fill the blanks using the information I just gave her.


It was understandable. Sure, it didn’t seem to be a popular solution as it didn’t particularly please anyone, except for Kouma Yon (and even that wasn’t a certain thing, as her presentation of this as a possible and to an extent presumably desirable outcome when she threatened me could be just a tsundere moment). But, even if this wasn’t quite happily ever, who was I kidding when I thought just winning against Ayaka would be enough to have a safe, decent life with Ryo? It was an idealistic miracle to gather strength I didn’t know I had to save the day when everything was going to hell, but it was obvious it couldn’t stand as a life philosophy on a daily basis.

All I was doing was getting the adhesive bandage off quickly. There would be pain, but it would be a dull one compared to how excruciating it would be if we stayed together and something happened to her.


Between dull pain and sharp pain, between Scylla and…Charybdis; if you’re going to hurt either way, minimize damage on the ones you love. Alternatively, maximize it on the ones you fight against.


Either way it sucked to know I wouldn’t be complaining all the time about this routine life or the days full of real schemes and such if I had Ryo by my side. No, thinking about it more carefully, I would be complaining about it every single moment but I’d be better off with my best friend. She wouldn’t be better off with me near her, and that’s why I took my distance.


Not so close she’d notice me, but far enough so I could watch her and protect her if it ever came to that.


“So you stayed but drifted away from her because of a new circle of friends you have more characteristics in common with. That happens often and is so realistic no one bothers to question that kind of development. It’s an unwritten law of reality that takes precedence over fiction’s. Teenage bonds can vanish as easily as new ones are formed. By now, she probably thinks you’re a side-character that got a featured in an episode or an aborted arc in her story. An otherwise reasonable plan. Unfortunately for you, it depends on the target having a predictable mindset, or at the very least very similar to yours.”


Which could be said of her in my story too; it works both ways, especially considering my sudden involvement with Rin was a direct consequence from this plan. A workaround rather than a solution.


“As expected of sensei, you got the main idea but missed a detail.”


She seemed annoyed by my remark but intrigued enough to save the retort for later.


“And what would that be?”


“There is absolutely no one in this world that is as similar to me as Shiina Ryo is in every way. This gambit I’m pulling off actually relies on that.”


“How so?”


“She knows that we’re the same and is afraid of me too.” At the end of the day, we don’t always get what we want. “It’s that simple.”


Reikoku-sensei frowned, the disapproval on her face so evident only a governmental bureau could deny it.


“Sure.”


“Now that we got that clear, what are we going to do about this guy?” We did not get anything cleared up, but I’d settle for her doubt while there were more urgent matters on hand, or rather lying on the ground unconscious after getting beat up by a sadist school teacher. “Because you told me to take the girls away last time I have no idea how your post-exorcism system works whatsoever. Should I help you bind him or anything like that? He’s bound to wake up sooner or later, considering how long our conversations go.”


Without waiting for her reply, I approached my teacher’s defeated foe. As my hand reached out to touch him, I felt something odd.


He was cooling.


“That won’t be necessary, Koukishin-kun.” Despite the choice of words, the tone was matter-of-factly. “Unfortunately, this one is already…”


Part 4[edit]

“So, are you ready to talk?”


“…”


Her house was the quintessential mess, making it easy to see that her lackluster, lazy attitude weren’t limited to her clothes outside school. There was just too much irony when compared to the rigid-borderline-OCD-level tidiness present in her work life.


I could only wonder if she brought Ayaka here.


After two days, my mind was already diverging from topic and calming down, in a sense. My body, on the other hand, still got fierce shivers and felt like it was all beyond my control. Quite an achievement from the previous state it was in, just after ‘that’ happened.


When I saw that corpse in front of me I crashed real hard, like an x86 trying to run a modern First Person Shooter.


Dead people don’t bother me; it’s passive and helpless. Nothing you can do about it, it already happened. However, people dying, especially if they are killed in front of me, is both active and disturbing. Ever since a certain point of my life I would rather not mention, if anyone dies in front of me I get catatonic.


It’s the kind of thing one cannot just ‘get over,’ a trauma that will probably haunt me for the whole duration of my life. I considered therapy but I’ve never been stable enough regarding location to take it seriously, therefore me staying seriously mentally unstable instead. Unless you call talking to Kouma ‘therapy,’ which I personally wouldn’t. Even if I did, I’d rather never bring the subject up, especially with someone as Freudian as her.


I don’t need any more mistaken judgments; this whole story started because of that.


“Koukishin-kun, you’re not mad at me, right?”


And there was another one.


Like me, Reikoku-sensei was quick to take things personal. Which was selfish and borderline silly because if I was mad and it was relevant compared to the fact I’ve been catatonic and speechless for two days and counting, I probably wouldn’t answer if I could, or rather would just walk away instead of being interrogated. Hell, angry or not, if I could I would have left when she gave me the sponge bath.


I swear that actually happened. I was catatonic, not delusional.


In the face of that accusation there was only one way to respond, given my state at the moment.


“…”


But getting used to not receiving the answer one wanted was part of the daily life of a public school teacher, so it was obvious that stubborn-by-nature adult would not give a traumatized me a rest until I actually spelled it out for her, which as a matter of fact I couldn’t do at the moment. Not talking for a couple days made me wonder if I still could, while she seemed to want to talk for the two of us.


“It wasn’t my fault and you weren’t supposed to see it anyway, so if there’s anyone to blame it was him for being a troublemaker and resisting and you for following me around.”


Denial and shifting the blame was useless when murder was involved, and this definitely was not about morals. Right or wrong, someone died as a consequence of fighting her and I have every right to be upset or even fear her, considering she brought and kept me, the only witness, here. The line between patient and captive was just too thin under those terms.


“I called the school and said I had a sick relative I needed to take care of, but I can’t keep using that excuse or the Council will not be pleased no matter how nice they are. Either way, to be able to work without being worried all the time I need to know you’re going to be okay on your own. I’ll stay with you for today, though. If you want me to.”


Had I the ability to speak properly I would tell her to go away, although that could be seen as a conceptual mistake, this being her house and if anyone had to leave it should be me. Getting up and walking out the door probably wouldn’t have the same psychological/dramatic effect, however.


“…”


“I know it’s hard to believe someone under these circumstances and you have probably been through a lot before to get a reaction that screams post-traumatic stress disorder like that, but you have to understand I did what I had to do.”


Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of how stalking people and beating them to death in mildly dark alleys was part of a Japanese teacher’s work.


“…”


“Thing is, there are many of those. People like Ayaka and that guy, I mean. I have been researching them for a while now. They all seem to share a similar mindset, in the sense that they always seem willing to fight or manage to get themselves in trouble because apparently getting powers doesn’t come to those with the common sense to keep it on the down low. Alternatively, if there are indeed people fitting that criteria they must be really, really good at it then.”


Maybe, just maybe, the fact those persons were all aggressive or hot-blooded had to do with the fact they were, I don’t know, possessed by supernatural beings.


“…”


“What I’m trying to do is bait them out: with tempers like those, how could they stand the fact there’s someone out there defeating each and every one of them? They’re bound to come after me, which is exactly what I want.”


Based on the premise ‘they’ work in groups. Judging by Ayaka’s and that guy’s case, I wouldn’t say so; they all seem autonomous. Of course, I could be wrong to assume such, as she has been doing this for a while now and probably has seen more than a couple situations. She did say Ayaka’s was an isolated incident, so there is a chance she didn’t misjudge and there is at least one faction of them.


“…”


“If they come out one by one, I fight them. When they realize they have to come all at once I will try and bring them to my special trap. I don’t feel like talking about it now because it would take too long, but the details are in the safe. The combination is seven-nine-five-three-one-three-three-eight. Repeating, seven-nine-five-three-one-three-three-eight. If anything ever goes wrong, the data you’ll need to blow this town up is there.”


I prayed it wasn’t literal but knowing my teacher it could as well be.


“…”


“They took… killed a student of mine.”


“…”


For all I knew about what happened to Ayaka, so did she.


“Long before Ayaka’s case, there was a girl named Minato Suzuki. She wasn’t particularly bright or pretty. She wasn’t funny or lonely, she didn’t have any special talent... she was as regular as it gets. Regular grades, regular speech, regular number of friends, regular everything. There was virtually no one who would look at her twice, except someone did.”


This is giving me the weirdest vibe because of one really unusual dream I had a long time ago, just before I got involved with the band.


“...”


“I got to the room in the second building where she was standing, apparently untouched. I felt like something wrong happened to her, so I touched her shoulder to comfort her. Then she fell apart. He had slashed her in small, perfect cubes of three centimeters each side. She just disassembled in front of me.”


She skipped a good part of the story but I could not say she didn’t have my full attention at least from that last line on.


“…”


“And you know what really bothered me? Keep in mind I’ve seen my fair share of bad things, but this ticked me off big time. That despite what he did to her, despite being beat up really bad because when I found the bastard ‘deathly furious’ was just a euphemism, he didn’t even seem to remember it. Like she was just one more, nothing special about her. Mediocrity followed her all the way to the grave.”


“…”


“I decided to meet her parents to know how I’d deliver the news, although my plan was to do it indirectly so suspicion wouldn’t fall upon me. Her parents assumed she ran away, and after seeing how her family life worked I wouldn’t have blamed her if she did. Alcoholic, gambling-addicted father along with deny-reality-and-everything-will-be-fine mother is a lot for a kid to deal with. One can guess acting like she was nothing special was her self-defense mechanism to avoid having people interested enough to find out. Maybe not, this is just speculation after all.”


“…”


“I knew how to hide a body and considering the emotionless way the parents reacted to their daughter’s disappearance, it was probably for the best I did. No one at school seemed to care much after the first week either, so I let the rumor spread and added a few bits of my own to it. She deserved better than this, so I made her interesting. It was all I could do for her at that point.”


“…”


“So now if you ask anyone in this or the nearby towns about Minato Suzuki, they’ll tell you she was more than just another girl that vanished one day. They’ll talk for years about how she outsmarted a foreign con artist that passed by, how they fell in love and eloped. How she’s still out there, probably in Vienna or Berlin playing cards against the best of the best. Some might even say she came here to run away from her past, having been a genius all the time. Reports of events she was involved with have her part magnified and elevated her to a status that I don’t know she ever dreamed of, and all fame is good fame.”


“…”


“But I digress. You know how bad it gets when those jerks are around. Innocent people get involved, regardless of how important in society they are. People die for nothing, and I can’t have that.”


“…”


“According to my personal research, for now it seems like this particular region is the only one, say, ‘infected’. So I hunt them whenever I can and expect them to hunt me back, and I told you that because, though I fall, I expect you not to take my place, but finish it for me no matter how drastic this might be. Too much of a burden, I know. Still, you can’t deny this is bound to get in your way sooner or later if you plan to live around here and in the way of those you care for. It will be the worst case scenario if you do, but it still doesn’t mean we can’t win.”


“…”


“Whatever happens, this can’t spread all over the world. Even if it means staining our hands with blood.”


“…”


“You understand, right? Of all people, I thought you would.”


Because we’re the same? Don’t make me laugh. Everyone thinks that, and if anything that’s my one true power: charisma. The way it attracts a lot of monsters and deviant beings makes it my curse too.


“…teach me.”


“What?”


“Teach me.”


“To fight these monsters ruining society?”


“No.” Breath pause. Speaking was somewhat hard still and I wanted to get a few bigger sentences out next, so I took my time to regain the ability to talk. “Fine. I’ll put up with your Dark Knight-ish raising project. You’re making a huge mistake though, for I am absolutely and utterly worthless. If you don’t care about that possibility, use me. Whatever potential you saw in me, I will fake it until it becomes real. For a price.”


One eyebrow raised, her face was the same as usual and not the one of a murderer.


“And what would that be?


“Teach me how to kill without restraints.”


She seemed underwhelmed by that proposition.


“Oh, there’s no such thing. It sucks every time.”


…like, really?


“You don’t seem depressed or traumatized.”


But then apparently I struck a nerve by doing that.


“Oh no. You’re not going to give me that. Think about my speech just now. Hell, think about how I speak all the time. Think about how I act and how my students no longer look up to me but rather fear me because of the rumors that spread like fire. I’m putting the career and life I worked hard to get at risk despite having fought for it for years, coming from a similar scenario to yours and all. Everything could just be gone if I fail and there’s no clean winning no matter what I do, but I can only lose if I close my eyes to that. Do I look okay to you?”


I kind of deserved it.


“…”


“At the end, we’re all broken. Don’t bother denying it or overplaying it; both are futile ways to live because in that sense, everyone is the same. Embrace it and deal with it the best you can.” She then stared at me for entire five seconds. “Either way I’m here for you. So, are you ready to talk?”


“I just did, didn’t I?”


“No, I mean for real. There’s no way I can tell what your passive-aggressiveness is all about, but you need to get that off your chest, whatever it is.”


I wanted to say a witty retort.


“…yeah.”


Part 5[edit]

I went back to school on a Wednesday and it was all okay. For a given value of, at least: I was bombarded with questions from the dead tree where I usually meet my band members but a few well placed lies made to match Reikoku-sensei’s and it was like nothing ever happened.


Ryo just looked at me from her safe distance.


The day in school was uneventful. As in ‘really boring,’ even coming from a person who now had two training routines after school: a self-imposed one and Reikoku-sensei’s. The highlights were a simple short dialogue with the acquisition of an item and a discussion with the Rin. The first of those happened as follows.


“I take it your first day back was smooth.”


“You sure have a lousy sense of humor, saying something like that after applying a Physics test which was no surprise to anyone but me.”


“Let me make up for it, then. This is a gift.” My teacher handed me a wooden box I became familiar with when I was at her place. “No, not precise. You earned this, in a way. Spoils of war, you could say.”


“Ayaka’s knife?” I said meekly even though all the students were gone for lunch. “You know I can’t just use stuff like this.”


“That’s exactly why I’m handing it to you, Koukishin-kun.” She smirked in a way that actually made me sick. “Besides, I don’t think she needs it anymore.”


And the latter went a little like this: the scenario was the club room just after the end of rehearsal, one of the few when every single one of us had reasons to go our separate ways rather than stay and hang around.


“Here, yesterday I, as the common man says, ‘burned’ some copies of my music-related instructional DVDs for everyone. The recordings will start soon and we need every sort of power-up we can get. I am afraid you are the one with the fewest, Akane-chan: playing drums was never among my top ten priorities in life. Gladly, you are the one who needs the least of these.”


I didn’t like the sound of that.


“…Koukina-senpai, did you really buy all of these? You’re rich and all, but you won’t use your card for most stuff so you won’t get found out. Our budget isn’t that big and these are some expensive courses. Did you, say, ‘torrent’ them?”


She gazed at me with mischievous eyes and an ironic, almost enigmatic smile.


“Do you really need to know?”


“Nah, I don’t think I do.”


Our commander’s laughter was almost hysterical, by her standards.


“This is just too amusing: a young boy with the code of honor of a fictional medieval knight that is able to bypass its limitations by using willful ignorance. That contradictory and broken nature of yours is quickly making you my favorite person in the whole world, Koukishin-kun.”


“If the lovebirds don’t mind, we’re just going to take our discs of stolen data and leave the scene. Let’s go, Akane!”


I just looked at the student council president after they were gone.


“Why did you have to say ‘stolen’? You know it bothers me.”


“Don’t be such a buzz-kill, you download series yourself.”


“While waiting for my pre-ordered DVDs to arrive, and never keeping the files for more than 24 hours! Entirely different situation!”


Rin sighed. “They are gone, this is just me here. You can stop faking morals now.”


“Slow down on the finger pointing. We’re not the same, Rin.”


“Exactly the reason why I am so interested in you. We are alike at first glance, compatible even, but so different individuals when it comes down to the actual facts. My values, they are unchanging. Good and bad are actually well-defined, although I try my best to stay in the neutral zone most of the time so I can flutter above and below however I want. But I see… well, anyone with a brain can see the evil in you. What I want to know is why you try so hard to be good.”


“What are you talking about? All I do is run, I’m no hero. You are projecting onto me the image of the savior you crave for.”


“A savior? Koukishin-kun, do not make me laugh. This is my juvenile rebellion, my phase of personal and silly mistakes so I can never look back as an adult and regret not having spent my younger days as the child I never felt like I was allowed to be. For you to save me, that would be the last thing I could ever wish for. You are the devil in plain sight, so obvious people instantly overlook you. Why you bother to put up that paper thin disguise, I do not know.”


I was going to reply addressing her daddy issues, but stopped myself at the last moment.


“You don’t know what you’re talking about. If that’s how you think I am inside, you’re involved with the wrong person.”


“Yet my gut feeling tells me I am not. So I will deal with you, show you just how bad you are until you can relate to me, shape whatever corners you have that keep us apart and make you mine.” She kissed her index and middle fingertips and then let them hover over my lips. “Forever.”


“I can just walk away, you know.”


Rin smiled one more time, with extra feeling.


“Oh, I would like to see you try.”

Part 6[edit]

Something really interesting happened when I got outside the school. Since it looked like it was going to rain soon, I decided to go through the dead tree path because even though it was not the shortest, it had better streets to deal with when it comes to strong rain and brand shoes, had a decent convenience store and twice as many bus stops.


A certain someone was waiting for me under the tree.


I gulped, but made my best effort to keep a poker face when I saw Ryo. There it was; the special event I had been waiting for a while but would postpone forever if I had the chance.


Commence the last dance.


“Sucks how ‘I haven’t seen you in a while’ is not only imprecise, but an outright lie.”


“Keeping characters in the same environment for too long ruins dialog.” Her characteristic smile now looked tired and bittersweet. “Although one could argue we do have a lot to talk about, now that we’re leading our respective lives apart even on the internet.”


Ouch, strike one.


“It’s all about differences rather than similarities, isn’t it?”


“Except when it’s not. It’s not a rule, but a guideline. You don’t have to follow it by heart, just consider it if you are stray. There is one kind of situation when two of a kind manages to match perfectly in the same plot.”


“And in which situation one can find that example, Ryo?”


“Mutual antagonism.”


Strike two. To put these equal individuals on opposite corners and make them clash, that’s what Shiina Ryo believed would validate their existence if all else failed. It could work as an enforced acting method too.


“Only works when two have the will to duel, and as far as I’m concerned it’s not usual to find two individuals like that in real life, let alone with matching agendas.”


Concern painted all over her face.


“Yes, it’s unlikely. Unrealistic even. Too good to be true, I presume.” A sigh. “I’ve been really busy myself, too.”


“One figures. You sleep in class every day.”


Her eyes reminded me of a puppy’s.


“So you still watch over me.”


“On occasion. When I’m not sitting like a gargoyle on the top of the tallest building in a bat-themed costume, of course.”


“That’s a lie.”


“Actually, a comic book character.”


“I meant the ‘on occasion’ part.”


“Probably.”


“I miss you.”


Strike three.


“I know.”


I was out.


And then, as we stared at each other from around seven meters apart with all signs of cosmic levels of gravitational attraction in the air, rain fell upon us hot and fast as fictional narrative demanded.


She held up her iconic parasol, a paragon of perfection against the hazel skies.


“Quick Shin-tsu, get in he-”


“No need to.”


I had gotten my own retractable umbrella, which was hidden behind my back, and opened it above my head.


Shattering shock was in her eyes.


On one side we had Ryo with her white-laced parasol and optimism hoping it would all be solved with a smile. On the other side, just a few meters worth of street apart, there was I, pessimism incarnate, with a black protection of my own. No longer needing hers. No longer needing her.


Ironic echo.


The water surrounded us like minuscule blades in fast rhythm patterns, a staccato wall of hits that would be quite soul crushing if I hadn’t been thinking about all the possible outcomes and suffering from anticipation over and over again until I was no longer affected by it. It was still fairly easy to pinpoint the exact moment when her heart broke just by looking at the face I found so angelical.


Infinite emotional distance.


I wanted to tell her I missed her too, but to be entirely frank, at that stage I didn’t know if I really did. Even if I blame it on having several short-lived relationships of all sorts, the fact remained I could no longer trace the line between memory and longing. Only time would let me know if burning that bridge was the right thing to do or the biggest mistake of my life. Either way, things wouldn’t work out with her no matter what I did.


If those were the lies I needed to go on, I would craft them so perfectly I would believe in them at some point. I could never lose her if I abdicated, if I transfered all the care I had for her to a different target. It would not be Rin; that would be unfair to her, no matter what she said or I could try and rationalize. There was only so much of that burden I could let her carry.


I’d pour myself on the band, an immaterial concept that would keep my mind away from her. Because that, the moment I was living, was nothing but music; both the most important thing in the world and worthless, too. Not any variation of metal, not pop, not classical, not drum and bass, not reggae, not synthpop, not polka, not electro, not blues, not house, not rock, not hip hop, not folk, not dubstep, neither hardcore punk nor hardcore techno, not jazz and absolutely not ambient.


It was tango, the kind of sadness you could dance to. It started quiet and uneventful, with no more than hints of underlying energy just waiting to be spent. It grew steadily until it exploded into something so vibrant and in your face you couldn’t ignore it. Then it alternated between the dynamics of strong and weak with such moving sorrow that every little object involved enhanced the others. It reached peak after peak as a revolving door of catharsis until it faded out to nothingness and the hollow left in your heart was a bullet hole the size of the world.


You could as well call it ‘goodbye.’


“Oh. So you got one.” She tried to put a straight face and act rational, pretending it didn’t hurt her when I knew for a fact that every little thing always did. She cared about concepts like I did, after all. “I really need to rest a little, but if you want to come over I can postpone that or-”


“I have to go. See you.”


I didn’t run or cry, leaving as calmly as I could. Just walked in the most normal rainy-day way I could, at least considering how aware of it I was at the time. At some point I got home, which showed my feet knew the path well enough by then to keep their action independent from my absent mind.


From my window, I watched the rainbow alone.


Chapter 2.5: Intermezzo: The Kouma Yon Experiment[edit]

Deja vú.


Once again the boy I loved walked into the café, and not for the first time I couldn’t help but notice how similar he was to the girl I loved.


My name is Kouma Yon and I do not, for a fact, believe in fate. It strikes me as unreasonable when people prefer to believe that every little thing was already decided to begin with when such a thing not only denies the concept of free will, but is absurdly boring.


I, more than believe, acknowledge a god that watches all the possibilities and, having the power to pick and change them at will, reserves the right not to.


My concept of love might come across as warped to some, but in all frankness it doesn’t bother me because, even though I am entirely sure I am not the first person to feel that way, it belongs to me. It might be wicked love, but it’s my love and that is all that matters.


To me, love is the same whether it is directed towards a parent, a friend, a puppy or a lover. Not several kinds of love like the Ancient Greek used to believe; Eros, Storge, Philia and Agape are unnecessary names for the exact same thing, and that sort of conceptual mistake happens more often that you’d think. People seem to assume there are feelings in music, paintings, movies, novels, even martial arts. Like everything is mystical in its own way.

I am not ‘people’.


Music is just manipulation of noise, paintings are just lines and blots of pigments, movies are nothing more than pictures with noise, novels are mere printed words while martial arts are body movements and that is all. Nothing mystical, emotional or sacred about them and the feelings one might experience belong to the person alone; the artists may appeal to a certain kind of reaction, but it is absolutely impossible to tell whether the author was feeling something while composing a work or if the actor was performing with passion.


You can’t judge how a man feels from the style and lyrical content of a song he allegedly wrote about his lover, you can only judge the quality of the songwriting.


You can’t tell if a writer's magnum opus was born out of despairing memories or the author just acts like that to attract those who seek to be surrounded by all things edgy, you can only see if the fiction is well-written.

They couldn’t know my ‘art’ was just a thinly disguised mash-up of hundreds of styles, learnt by pure analysis of every dot and recreated with ease once every aspect of the source was fully comprehended. Instead, they called me a ‘genius’ and the second coming of this and that artist, while referring to my work as ‘deep and soulful.’ I don’t even think I have a soul. I didn’t feel a thing while drawing and painting the works that got me the scholarships I refused and prizes I didn’t bother to pick up.


Everything I do is just collage.


Subcategories based on concept instead of execution are futile. It doesn’t matter what you want or what you feel, just what you do. Your affection, your hate, your trust and care are null. Wanting to save the world doesn’t mean a thing, but killing one person or more does.

Cause is passive, void and worthless; effect is active, everything and absolute.


So whether the love I feel is a result of chemicals, a holy sentiment bestowed to me by heaven or misplaced attention resultant of the broken base for relationships I have, my intentions don’t matter as long as I act good. More important than ends justifying means, my means justify following or avoiding on purpose whatever idea that acts as an initial spark to them. It’s such a relief to my mind as it takes away the heaviest of all burdens.


Being a monster inside is no longer an issue for me, especially not when I’m around him.


“You’re looking great, Kouma. I like the dark red shirt with polka dot combination on you, makes you look almost harmless.”


“You’re being redundant.” He already knew of my fake narcissism was just a way to joke about my self-hatred. Yes, I was capable of making a joke. “Very unmanly too. Glad to see you’re the same as always, Shin-tsu.”


“Did you order already? I’m in the mood for-”


“French fries, because I remind you of Amelie. You told me that two months ago and I came dressed in the same outfit as a social experiment.” I touched the technical book on game theory not just from instinct. “You can subvert it now by picking something different and pretending it was your first option or say you wanted me to think that, but either way you have the bitter feeling inside that I got the best of you this time.”


I wondered if he was aware of the faces he made whenever someone tried to antagonize him.


“The shoes are different and so is the handbag. You were wearing earrings too, and the perfume was muskier than this one, which has a pretty noticeable ‘floral’ attribute, even a little bit of ‘citric.’ The order of red and green in your nails is inverted compared to that day except on the pinkies. Commenting on a haircut is irrelevant considering it was two months ago, so I will abstain from it. Your progress on the book regressed around thirty pages, hard to tell exactly because it’s a paperback volume. Might be thirty-three. One more thing.”


“Yes?”


“You hid your killer grin a little better last time.”


More like I don’t mind showing it to him as much, even if it seemed to scare everyone else.


“A full analysis, which implies you’re inspired. Wonderful.” I stared at the waitress who brought the coffee, Chinese dumplings and French fries I ordered exactly four minutes and a half before he got here until she went away. This session would not be a waste. “Go on, start talking. This therapist charges by the hour.”


“Guess I can’t hide anything from you.”


“Of all people, you should know I’m not stupid enough to fall for that.”


“Sorry, bad habit.”


“I forgive you.”


“Never thought I’d listen to these words coming out of your mouth.”


“I shall surprise you more later on. Mark my words.”


“Color me interested. Miss, may I?”


“Dislike the band. Go on.”


“I wonder if we can get away with that, having avoided so many brand names so far.”


“Shin-tsu?”


“Yes?”


“Focus.”


He frowned. “Okay. So, today I went out with Akane as I had promised her.”


“Are you that indiscriminate about females?”


“Just listen for now, okay?”


“You know I don’t work that way.”


“Yeah, you just like 2D characters and Shiina Ryo. And my arm.”


“Wait, what?”


“Nevermind. It was almost cute, how she was actually worried that I skipped school because I was scared of her in some way. No self-esteem whatsoever, really.”


“Did you?”


“No.”


“Okay, proceed.”


“So it didn’t take me long to realize she was looking for someone to sit with her on the bus.”


That line took me by surprise.


“…I beg your pardon? Is that a euphemism youngsters are using these days?”


“You know how strangers sit by your side in buses when there’s a free spot?”


I felt my eyes open wide.


“To avoid that?” I knew I was far from being a regular society member but even I knew the best way to avoid strangers on the bus was not to take it. “That could be even worse in terms of social awkwardness than Ryo, perhaps verging on savant-level if one considers what you told me about her being a music school dropout slash genius. I appreciate that. Quite a lot. She seems interesting as a test subject even if I never saw one.”

“Wait for it. We got on the bus and no matter how much I tried, she wouldn’t use her voice in public. Pretty strict about getting the window seat too, and when that attitude transferred to outside the bus…”


“Excuse me, but how? Also, where were you going? The more details you give me the better.”


“She kept saying ‘please don’t stand in the same horizontal line as I do’ and similar because she’s so paranoid whenever there’s a mirrored surface she’ll use the reflection to watch the world around her. Not joking. And the city nearby, which was no surprise considering how big it was compared to this. If I were to take someone from outside the country out on a date it would probably be the obvious choice, since it’s the closest to a first-world kind of town you get around here.”


“Stay classy.”


“I didn’t mean to offend you. This one is growing, but it’s far from a metropolis. That one, not so much.”


“None taken. You were all around the world and have seen everything after all, right?”


“…I wonder how long will it take for me to convince you of that.”


“Carry on, will you?”


“I’ve been through some weird stuff but that date was one of a kind, really. We kept walking until she made me stop by a Post Office. What was interesting was not the place, but what we could watch from there. Or rather, ‘who’ we could watch. Or rather, ‘who’ we could listen to.”


“Megumi?”


“Yeah. Apparently the reason why she avoided everything on Saturdays lately was so she secretly could go acoustic on the train station. Not for the pennies, it was more to lose fear of public. I mean, really. She walks around like that all day and was afraid of playing at the festival so she decided to just go outside and learn it the hard way.”


“I take it Akane wanted to watch her from afar and that’s why she didn’t go with Megumi and went with you instead.”


“Which is exactly why I grabbed her by the arm and dragged the girl all the way there making sure to scream ‘GREAT PERFORMANCE MEGUMI, AKANE WAS TEARING UP BACK THERE’ at the top of my lungs so running away would only be harder for her.”


“So not you in a way, so you in others.”


“Ends justify the means.”


“Does the story end there?”


“Not quite. Megumi is a little simpleminded so she never questioned why we were there and just took the two of us out. We tried to call our leader but she didn’t think she’d be able to go outside unnoticed. Thus we visited two arcades and a karaoke, as those were things we can’t enjoy with Rin because she’d complain about everything, from the quality of the games in the current state of the industry to our singing. Then we went to a mall to eat more, because Megumi craves meat like a lumberjack, and things got a little weird.”


“Do lumberjacks crave meat? How exactly?”


“Yes, yes they do. Akane went to the bathroom. Megumi and I were just checking people out from the restaurant’s balcony and talking nonsense while eating burgers, such as crazy manias people have. I mentioned Akane’s paranoia and Megumi got mad. I tried to assure her it was just me being playful and nothing I wouldn’t say in front of Akane herself but she took offense to it and started mocking me. She kept on and on picking stuff about me while I tried to calm her down, but then she got loud and people started looking at us, so I kind of got back at her and talked about how her appearance was freaky and trying-too-hard, especially her eyes.”


“Mhm.” I contorted my face in a frown that physically hurt me, possibly due to not using the muscles, ever. “And then?”


“As she got visibly hurt Akane came out, gave me a hawk look and they left, so I came back and now I’m talking to you. Can you spare some of your personal insight?”


I tried to ignore the sarcasm, as it was obvious he was in trouble.


“In a moment. Let’s talk about Ryo for a while, so you can relate to what I’ll tell you a little better.”


“Is that how you want to do this? Alright then. I assume you know I talked to her recently and it didn’t go well. Despite the obvious issue with me, what’s going on with Ryo recently? She seems so… different.”


How brilliant, Sherlock.

“Mostly I’m afraid she has a huge creative block. As far as I’m concerned, ARK is on hiatus. It started a month or two before you came to town and at first it was a relief because I honestly needed a vacation from drawing concept art for every unlikely-to-make-profit idea she had, but now it bothers me.”


“Wait, haven’t you guys worked in any games, manga or light novels recently? From the way you were talking the first time it sounded like you did stuff like that all the time.”


“We work a lot on the concepts. We just never get anything done. Ryo’s methodology of work is 98% research and procrastinating, 1,50% complaining about writing and the rest is actually writing.” I took a sip. “That said, you are very, very mistaken and delusional when it comes to Ryo, Shin-tsu.”


He seemed confused, which was no surprise.


“What do you mean by that?”


“Unlike me, what you seem to like in her is a perfect idealization of her characteristics instead of accepting her as a whole. You mostly ignore her flaws and expect her to meet the expectancies you project on her. That’s pretty much how society brings up boys to be like, but that is still rather painful to watch, even for me.”


“Are you calling me ‘biased?’ You, the person who assumes everything in human behavior from functioning relationships to archetypes can be explained by Freud’s view of psychology? Attacking people because you think they’re going to be in the way of your childhood friend doesn’t help your case at all.”


Only then I noticed how rude I could come across to some, but couldn’t say a thing directly related to the topic after that without losing my composure.


“…Shin-tsu, you ought to start liking people for their flaws. Accepting them as they are, at the very least.”


“Seriously, what are you even talking about?”


“You take it as a pejorative remark of mine but I think you being biased isn’t that bad, as it’s a defining characteristic of yours. You are unsure, paranoid and biased, but that’s who you are, and without your flaws you wouldn’t be you, at least not the you I tolerate.”


I could tell he appreciated my use of ‘tolerate’ as a pretty word.


“Kouma, I…”


“Don’t.” I put my left palm one inch away from his face in a halt sign that could as well be some sort of slap. “If there’s anyone you need to apologize to, that is Megumi. Your bias went a little too far on her and it’s not exactly why you think it did.”


Using both the index and middle finger from his right hand, he slowly pushed my hand aside. Then he held it with both of his, as if he had the intention of warming me.


“Kouma.” He gazed into my eyes. “Tell me what I said or did wrong.”


I trembled for a fraction of second; the power he had was unbelievable.


“There is no way you could tell without some background information, but the reason why she got upset at you is a little deeper than just your dislike of her body modification. See, Ryo-chan and I went to the same grammar school as her, and although we were never in the same class because of our age difference, I recall she always stood out even as a child without the accessories, colored hair or more ink than blood in her arms. A tad too much, and kids can be cruel.”


“I don’t quite think I’m following your thoughts.”


“The mismatching eyes are actually hers, from birth.”


“Are you telling me I mocked someone with heterochromia?”


“She probably based her look on the concept of making enough of a visual ruse that no one would think her eyes are unfitting. This is just speculation, though.”


“…oh.” The discomfort in his face was so great the only reason I did not take a picture was because I was sure I would see it over and over again if I just stood by his side. “Then I guess I should-”


Not so fast.


“Pay the price for what I just gave you first. I didn’t come here just to eat with you, you know.”


“Yes. Your thesis. Most don’t work on that until they are, well, finishing college.”


“I am not like them at all.” Felt like Dracula, telling a defining truth that way. “Are you ready?”


The boy I loved just shrugged.


“Am I ever?”


“Well, then I have three what-ifs for you. Hopefully you can answer them honestly.”


“I’ll try.”


“Remember how you told me about the mysterious voice that mocked you inside your head and you haven’t heard it for a while? Perhaps coincidentally, one could argue, but not once since you chose to stay away from Ryo?”


“Yes.”


“Remember I was perfectly okay with you getting away from her, but not making her cry?”


“Quite vividly, yes.”


“One. What if I was the voice inside your head?”


“Not flirting, but sometimes you kind of are.”


“Not flattered, you liar.”


“Jokes aside, I don’t think that’s possible. Mind control or telepathy don’t work that way, and if they did and you knew exactly what was inside my head you’d have killed me by now.”


Or fallen for you.


“Alright, two. What if I am just a folie à deux caused by a power of Ryo-chan’s?”

“Shared Psychosis?”


“Not unlikely at all, considering Ayaka had a power that presumably allowed her to induce potent hallucinations by using a simple object like a paper card or, looking from a different angle, affected space in non-permanent ways. The first is much more likely considering she wouldn’t have missed the chance of using the latter against us during the battle, although whether the creature she seemed to be possessed by was rational enough to do so is debatable."


“I guess it would explain your romantic preference for fictional characters. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. No need to get mad at me. I don’t know how I’d react, but I guess it wouldn’t change much how I act towards you or her. If you were a figment of her, I think the only change would be that I’d like her even more.”


Interesting.


“Say, you knew she was sick from the very start, didn’t you?”


“I did spend a lot of time with her online, Kouma… The details are fuzzy and she tried to evade the subject so I don’t know how bad it is but of course I knew she was sick. You might be the childhood friend, but I know her too. Don’t underestimate that.”


I could feel my face muscles contracting lightly and it irritated me further to know he could tell.


“So you were aware of her state and came here anyway?”


“I wanted to be with her.”


“Task in which you clearly are succeeding at.”


“You can’t always get what you want.”


“Three. What if you can’t save her?”


Silence followed because I hit the bull’s eye, and I wondered how Shin-tsu liked a taste of his own medicine, what with him cornering everyone else.


“…I’m fully prepared for that outcome too. I guess I’ll just have to deal with it one way or another.”


“I knew you wouldn’t go full ‘I’ll save her no matter what’ and stuff.”


“And you know I’d die trying just like you, right?”


“Of course, partner. Such is the power of love, etcetera.”


“Oh, I don’t know about love. I do know I’d fight for you too.”


“You cunning bastard.”


“Easy there, crazy fashionista. I wouldn’t do it for just everyone. It’s just that I know you enough to care.”


“Do you know my true nature already?”


“Yes, Kouma.”


“Go on, if you please.”


“You are a 『derivative』 being.”

He scored a few points by using ‘being’ instead of ‘person,’ although that wouldn’t be as bad as ‘people.’ Either way, this was what surprised me the most when I met Shin-tsu: where others, and I am talking about the best of men with a natural tendency to go all the way towards amateur sleuth would see the facts and then tie them together as a method of discovery the truth, this little fiend I felt tempted to call a friend saw motives, just like that.


It could be magic or not, but it sure was interesting so I fueled the conversation to learn more about the extent of his deductive power.


“Care to elaborate?”


“You cannot create anything, ever. You have no hopes or dreams of your own, but you chose to enable those of the ones you care for because in a sense that would be all you can do. You have absolutely no imagination, just memories, yours and of others.”


“And what kind of human would be that?”


“I don’t think you are human, Kouma.”


“Do I look like something else? Bear in mind I might take offense to your response and if that is the case, you will have to pin your hope on me not being fond of the idea of bearing arms.”


“Excuse me if I came across as rude, or don’t. Your choice, but I can tell you I was honest and you should treasure that either way. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the concept of the right to own weapons, especially guns and similar, doesn’t fly too well here in Japan. But yeah, you come across as something like a magical beast to me. Not like the ones I met, though. Your DNA is pure Homo sapiens material alright, yet your mind is not. You are of human descent, and although this might not make sense at first, your nature surely isn’t human.”

“Correct, we can’t legally have guns here except for some very specific cases which require extensive and somewhat expensive procedures, such as in the case of hunters and sportsmen. And whether I confirm you are correct or not on the second one is irrelevant. Do you know why?”


“It’s simple: whether someone hears the noise or not, the tree already fell in the forest and a fact is a fact. It cannot be altered in any way, just the way we perceive it. Entity or mortal, what difference does it make if I know exactly what you are? What am I supposed to do after the thrill is gone and the mystery is solved? Walk away? Pray tell, how exactly would that be different from running?”

“So self-absorbed.”


“Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. To assume my argument is invalid just because I am a good-for-nothing, whiny, narcissistic jerk would go against your proclaimed love of flaws.”


“I wasn’t complaining about you being self-absorbed. Just mentioning it.”


“Alright then. What I mean is that I know all I need to know about you right now, and that would be ‘what kind of relationship we have.’”


“And what would that be?”


“My best friend.”


“Excuse me? Wouldn’t that be Ryo-chan?”


“Yes. And Reikoku-sensei. And you.”


“I’m afraid you are having issues with the Japanese language again.”


“No, this is more of a conceptual thing… I have strangers, acquaintances and colleagues, lovers and recently even band mates but no friends. I don’t trust friends, I don’t like the idea of that at all. People you laugh with, you cry with, you spend a year or two with and then stay away from them as your relationship withers to the point where you wave at them at the supermarket and that’s it… I don’t want that. I want constancy. I want something that remains forever because nothing ever does.”


It became crystal clear within seconds.


To him, ‘best friend’ is a slot rather than a title. The ones he could connect with were his ‘best friend.’


“Yet you walked away on Ryo. You noticed she’s not okay and you know there’s only so much reaching out to her I can do. Is that something you’d do to a partner you want for life and beyond?”


“As a matter of fact, yes.”


I was rendered speechless before his bold reply. He suffered no shame admitting how warped he was, and I actually envied him for it.


Shin-tsu was just my kind of repulsive.


“I’m willing to wager what I want for the things that others need, and sometimes to bet the very things I need too. Because I hate myself, but not just because.”


“Why would you tell me? Just because I am part of the group you name ‘best friend’? You should know this might be one-sided. People don’t often correspond to your feelings no matter how strong they are, believe me.”


“…you are really pleasant when implying you have feelings, Kouma. Much prettier than when you smile, too.”


“Once again, stay classy.”


“Friendly jabs aside… I really have to go and fix things up with Megumi. Catch you later.”


As he left, I found myself unsettled.


It bothered and interested me, how someone could be so pure and so pragmatic, so good and evil at the same time. He really was similar to Ryo, albeit far more experienced in a sense; this boy has obviously seen a lot of stuff, even though one needs to take his tales with a grain of salt. He manages to remain a sore thumb sticking out even in a world where, after what we saw, denying the existence of supernatural powers is just silly. Not to say that means everything he said about his past was truth.


To me, Koukishin Shinzou was a liar and that was final regardless of how much of one he would turn out to be.


He was not merely unaffected by morals like I was because of my unnamed condition or even exactly like Shiina Ryo, which would mean ‘switching extremes’ with her obvious Borderline Personality Disorder. Koukishin Shinzou was good, neutral and evil all at once, and every single one of those individual elements composed his ‘true’ personality in a mess so immense and intense they were barely recognizable.


Each of these were separately very easy to spot, considering how he was clearly holding back when we fought against each other and suddenly became stronger when I underestimated him, but did nothing more than stopping me despite having every reason to believe I would kill him if I had the chance. Or how he came up with the idea of trapping Ayaka using psychological pressure, but didn’t go for the kill. Instead, he aimed for restraining the monster while it could be seen Ryo tried to put it down for good.


He had boundaries and I wanted to know what they were, but asking him would be pointless one way or another, so I played games.


It was actually amusing how, even in this setting, just believing what he said was hard, while whenever he made a joke or said an inoffensive lie I had to fight not to get caught in it. Like he could say the truth and it would make one doubt, but whatever he said would only be instantly believable if it was tainted with a dosage of lies. Not hard at all to see how people could distrust someone like him; it was a curse whether he was aware of it or not, except the moment he decides to use that in his favor it’s bound to be a curse to everyone else.


So yes, I was thoroughly obsessed with his ambivalence, a precious monstrosity which gives a whole new meaning to polyvalence and given the circumstances, even gave an actual meaning to omnivalence. In other words, it could be said I was obsessed with him.


Not accurate.


I was, for all effects, obsessed. The object, however, was an immaterial one. An untouchable, flawless concept even in my eyes. Not just with him and not just with her, but with the fact the three of us managed to meet and bond somehow. Three beings so broken in different ways brought close and not by fate but by a small, infinitely slim chance…


“Shall we carry on with the little ‘conspiracy’ of ours, then?”


…it was just too beautiful.


Chapter 3: Rin[edit]

Part 1[edit]

After a month and a dark and really stormy night came the Festival, along with anxiety and stress. Specifically because of the ‘stormy’ part.

We needed our synthesizer backing tracks because, well, not one of us could play keys and especially not while playing any of our primary instruments. Still, the programmed lines added a lot to the intricate quality of the music and it would be very detrimental for us if we had to perform live without them, especially because that’s how the songs were recorded on our EP which would be launched after the show but was already in our respective playlists for the past two weeks.

The files got really heavy on the CPU and to export them the first time for the EP was hell, but having to do it again just for the synthesized tracks would not be much better. The reason for everything was because we, instead of doing it track by track, decided to arrange it in the way we would perform it in the set, one after the other. Therefore we assumed it would be okay to leave the computer on for the 12 estimated hours exporting the file.

It wasn’t.

The storm was strong enough to bring three fast intercalated blackouts. We were all at our homes when it happened which resulted in a lot of texting going on, but we all hoped that despite the obvious reset and having to restart the process all over again in the morning, the medium-priced No-break would take most of the damage and leave the computer with the project files unharmed.

It didn’t.

Now Megumi was gone, as she stormed out the door saying ‘I have a plan’, Akane was sulking, Rin was angry at the school, at the electric company, and the heavens. I did my best to keep them together and functioning, and to some extent, succeeded. Most of our EP work was dead for good but we still had the mixed and mastered files on our mobile phones, personal computers and music players and also on the server of the Finnish audio engineer we hired; maybe we couldn’t post stems of it so it could ever be reworked it in the future and the live performance would sound really empty compared to the recording but it wasn’t the end of the world.

It was actually a good story for the future.

Megumi came back one and a half hours later with a loop pedal so we could record sections of audio and play the loops just by stomping on it, which would help us give the songs more body because we could just record the parts that previously belonged to synthesizers with the guitars, regaining some of the ambience we achieved on the EP. The rainbow girl said she borrowed it from a friend, but I managed to see the pawn shop ticket before she could hide it and I knew very well she had only one personal possession she could trade for this.

Her acoustic guitar.

I called Rin for a private talk so I could provide her that information and she agreed to get Megumi’s guitar back immediately, even though that would involve telling her father about the whole band thing. We came back to the room and started working on rearranging and tracking the loops for the best performance we could bring with those limited resources and were surprised by how, with some effects, it sounded much less cluttered and alive this way.

And then, when we were done celebrating, Rin proclaimed something that made me snap.

“I want you all to give your very best tonight. It shall be Saris’ first and last performance, after all.”

The shock made me sure my hearing comprehension had failed for a moment.

“Wait, what?”
“Surely you heard correctly, Shin-tsu.” She spoke in monotone. “This band will be over as of the end of Ars Finita.”

The other members made no objections and it only made me angrier. It was obvious: they all knew this was coming.

“…Why are you doing this?” Frustration building up. “I thought you guys enjoyed this as much as I do!”
“We do,” said Akane in a surprisingly audible voice.

Megumi faced the ground and started talking.

“These have been the happiest days of our lives too, Shin-tsu.”
“Then why?”
“Because these days will not last.”

Fury took over me when I heard Rin utter that.

“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I am graduating soon and you cannot possibly expect me to live this rebellious ephemeral dream for much longer, especially as an adult. My family and its company will need me someday soon and playing technical music will not get me ready for this responsibility, so there’s a huge chance I will soon move to study abroad. I am terribly sorry if I led you all on, but then again I was fooling myself too.” She took a melancholic pause. “And even if you keep this without me, it’s only a matter of time before something similar happens, albeit different in scale, to Akane and Megumi, who are older than you and going to graduate next year.”
“But that doesn’t mean everything should just end! You guys are overreacting!”
“Yes, but what would come next, then? Playing occasional gigs in bars while settling for part-time jobs you believe are ‘temporary’, becoming the casuals you all deep down loathe so much until you do not have time or interest to rehearse or talk to each other anymore? Perhaps trying to be a full-time band but failing miserably for years because your style of music simply does not sell, and then realizing you wasted years that could have been used for self-improvement and studies in order to have an actual career like everyone we went to high school with and their little brothers? Or selling out and hating yourselves every single day for not being able to succeed by playing fair and doing everything you are able to? Even the best case scenario for us is to somehow go major with our own music style but eventually degenerating into predictable, uninteresting trash as time goes by.”
“And your alternative is to kill the unborn, to give up while we’re ahead? That’s the cowardly way out!”

One bar pause.

“The soldiers who die at war are seen as brave by some, but in my opinion they were just as scared as the others who managed to come back. There is no glory in failure.” Rin was once again sharply calm, the most infuriating sight possible for me at that moment. “My alternative is to let this be what it really is: a rebellious ephemeral dream that will end up exactly as good as it started specifically because it ended shortly after it started, without having the time to become a flawed execution of the initial concept. Something we can be proud of and share the longing of it till the day we die: a band made of never-ending nostalgia for us to dream about.”

That was the last straw for me but when I looked around and saw my other two band mates who were showing no signs of resistance as I did to Rin’s ideas and views on morals, I felt like I was the only one trying to save a sinking boat. Unfortunately, no matter what I said, I could not fully disagree with them. We all took music and ourselves too seriously to let it slide to the status of a hobby but had so much going on in our personal lives that we couldn't make a career out of it, which would be already hard considering the kind of music we played.

“So, is this it? You’re all quitting on us? This was supposed to be influential and huge! Are you telling me we wasted time and effort on this just so we could self-produce an EP and make a single live performance? Have you all gone insane?”

They all looked disappointed, but I couldn’t tell if they felt this way about me or themselves. This kind of drama was less the end of a band and more akin to a bad breakup.

“That is a conceptual mistake: it is never ‘time wasted’ if you enjoy wasting it, Shin-tsu. I too fell in love with this project but I cannot afford to remain like that any longer if that is going to be in my way, and ultimately neither can you. This would only hinder us: no matter how much potential they have, high school bands never last long.” She looked into my eyes and for one moment I assumed Rin would break down too. “One can see this is not only about the band for you, but either way at some point in life you will have to learn to let things go.”

My mask and inner layers were directly hit and broken at that point. Was this what it was all about, letting things go? Why was it easy to everyone but me to just accept it as a memory, to sacrifice important things for something that wouldn’t last? Were they all idiots?

“…But how can I?” No longer in control of myself and without the strength to lie, all that was left for me was to join them as a spectator of my own monologue and be mortified by the truth that came out of my mouth, a truth I never wanted to admit. Regardless of my past experiences I still became attached to this, too much in fact. It was good, to finally feel like I was part of a group. “I thought I was too numb, too devoid of emotions to really care about anything. I’ve been losing since I can remember so I should be used to it by now, right? But it just keeps happening to me over and over again and it never gets any easier than this. How can I let the only thing I truly believed wouldn’t end on me simply vanish like this?”

Not my friends. Not my family. Not Ryo.

People have forsaken me so many times I cannot help but expect a relationship will end before it even starts, regardless of its intensity. Is it because of that? Is that the reason why the one thing I felt so honestly attached to is not a person but an abstract, juvenile concept such as a ‘band’? Is having nothing I can truly call ‘mine’ the reason why I cannot afford to lose anything?

…Just how broken am I?

As I pondered, warmness surrounded me all of a sudden and I didn’t need to open my eyes to confirm I was in the center of a group hug.

“By keeping the bittersweet aftertaste on your mouth as a memento, obviously.”

Knowing that I wasn’t the only one needing that, I decided to let the whole thing happen a little longer before making any significant movement.

“…Let’s do this,” I said when the time was right.

Everything from that point on was on blurry flash-forward and the only moment I do recall was furiously growling the title of the first song in the set sharing a microphone with Koukina Rin.

“WE ARE THE BLEEDING DARK!”

Part 2[edit]

We got off the stage less than an hour later and moved our bodies slowly to the backstage, without saying a word before the door was closed and locked. Our band leader then broke the silence with remarkable lack of composure.

“Well, that sucked.”

In face of such a statement we could do nothing but follow her in the routine.

“I made so many mistakes I could as well have played other songs.”
“My blast beat was alright but coming back to the groove parts was harder than it should be.” “The crowd was almost blasé and we probably left a bigger impression by having the School Council president in our band than because of our music. They didn’t even ask for an encore, the uncultured swine.”

A brief moment of silence was followed by spontaneous yet somehow perfectly synchronized laughter.

“I’m going to miss this so much.”
“You definitely are not the only one.”
“Me too.”

When it was her turn, Akane just nodded and I could tell it was not because of shyness.

We left the improvised backstage behind and as Megumi left to get food while Akane followed like the world’s happiest shadow, Rin and I met her father, who was clearly waiting for us to come out. I was ready for stern words and conflict, but it ended up being very… different.

“Certainly, I do not want you to run my company, Rin.”
“Father, I…”

He raised his huge hand and for one moment I assumed I would be a witness of familiar violence, but instead he patted his daughter on the head and made the School Council president look fragile and young like I have never seen her look.

“My greatest wish is to see you doing what you love and do best, be it music or ruling the world as a dictator. You are my only daughter and I could never force my own views of the world on you, let alone make you walk a path I chose. After all you are your own person and should not compromise your dreams because of anyone else.” His extremely deep voice was softer now and the soothing way in which he spoke made me feel jealous of Rin. “And I know the company I built is not what you want for yourself; that is a good thing indeed, because it is mine and I have no intention of leaving it for a long time and am willing to fight over it against any person on Earth. It seems you’re going to have to find your own business, lady. Just let me know next time, you got it? I will support you if you allow me to.”
“Daddy…”
“It has been a while since you called me that…”

Leaving that somewhat mushy father-and-daughter scene a tad too late for avoiding the puke in my mouth but still as smoothly as I could at the time, my feet guided me to the improvised backstage once more. If the man was going to reveal some detail that resembled the plot of a certain visual novel such as being the original owner of her guitar or something, I didn’t want to be there when it happened. We have enough problems as it is without facing plagiarism charges, so I walked away.

Then I met Shiina Ryo and a big, loud argument began as a prelude to the wicked happenings that were to come.


Part 3[edit]

It all started when I kissed Ryo.

This might sound a tad too personal to you, but have you ever experienced the feeling of being so connected to someone in a perfect moment you no longer know when you end and that person begins? Like there’s an electric current passing through the being once known as two individuals directly, like the point where you merge with that person is a rectifier; both are one and this one is pure energy, thoughts meaning less than the constant flow of action shared. A matter of skin, timing and chemistry where absolutely nothing else matters, be it summer rain striking two lovers or the end of the world that surrounds them.

Well, it was nothing like that. Not at all. Nope.

Instead, I felt a similar thing to when Ayaka’s Shugoshin trapped me with the white card trick. It’s no wonder I was confused at first but it became absurdly obvious when I faced the monster in the warehouse: what happened to me in class definitely wasn’t just a panic attack.

One moment I was arguing pretty bad with her over God-knows-what and the other the school was gone. Everything around me shifted into a world of white, with no beginning or end; not the kind of blinding light you’re supposed to see at the end of the tunnel, but the misty one you’d get at walls that have been painted for more than mere months, on clouds in grey days, on office paper considerably cheaper than regular.

Definitely not what you expect even from a bad kiss.

To be alone in such a scenario made me feel like it was a dream; ‘surreal’ doesn’t begin to describe how it struck me. It was too distressing for my brain to compute at once, a dull uneasiness going through every muscle as recognition came little by little.

An outside as empty as one could be inside.

The solitude didn’t last long, for the shot of pain that exploded and sent me flying away was more than enough to let me know I was not, as a matter of fact, alone there.

“I hate you.”

A long-haired, black and white version of Ryo that seemed to be made of paper and ink stood before me with devilish eyes set to kill and her parasol held as a sword. Didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on.

“…Shugoshin.”
“...”

So they got her too, maybe that’s why my memories of that are so blurry.

Kouma’s words resonated in my mind: ‘What if you can’t save her?’, indeed. Even though I played the part on occasion, I was not a hero. I was not a good guy and had one of the worst personalities of all the people I have ever seen. I was useless and prone to use others, a good-for-nothing smug-faced bastard. I wouldn’t trust me to be able to save anyone’s skin but my own. I extended my retractable umbrella to its maximum.

“Knight mode.”

Obviously, if I couldn’t save Ryo I’d just fight her. If I went this far to protect her, there was no way I could just pretend it wasn’t my problem even if that option was presented to me. If I can’t try when I can lose I am not worthy of winning.

So commence the last dance - I’m more than ready.

Then 'it' proved me wrong.

I shall refer to the monster as ‘it’ for I cannot see it as the same as Ryo and I. It charged with unparalleled speed and I only had the time to open my eyes wide before the series of attacks began and the makeshift sword I held was destroyed with the first one. That’s when I knew my training was completely in vain.

I considered something after I watched the battle between Reikoku-sensei and that man, and this proved it: there was a varying level of strength among them especially depending on the kinds of attacks. Expecting to be able to spar or swordfight with every single one of them regardless of training was absolutely unrealistic. My speed that once looked absolute was now worthless: it hit me again and again from everywhere at all times because it moved in all directions where there was space to move, while I was bound by logic and gravity. I could feel the bruises being born near fresh lacerations and I knew the only reason why I wasn’t dead yet was because it was having the time of its life torturing me.

There were no limitations for the creature in this realm.

Absolute defeat crippled me more than it did, for I stopped trying to fight back or defend myself. Unsurprisingly it got bored and decided to finish the job after teasing a little more to see if the prey would get up one more time.

I didn’t, so it prepared the final hit.

If you don’t come back, this is how it ends. Will you?

…Never tell me to shut up or go away again.

I know your true name now.

Yes, you do.

Am I strong enough to defeat that Shugoshin?

This should be obvious by now: no, you are not.

Are you strong enough to defeat it on your own?

No, I am not.

…Then I suppose it's about time for me to stop fighting you.

You must accept the absolute truth.

I accept it; I probably always have, deep down. There is no hope, the suffering and despair will never end, and it might be the worst day ever: I know I cannot afford to keep denying those statements that are all the utmost truth any longer, but it is necessary to add they are also not for me. This is going to be someone else's truth, and together we sure are going to make him understand it well.

Because we are one.

Because we are none.

Because if light itself is corrupted then it's time for the dark to ‘shine’.

Because eventually, every single thing will fade to us.

And for that hideous flawed glow, the time is now.

I know that much; just make sure you meet my expectations because this is going to take all of my willpower.

Call me.

"Come forth!" I opened my eyes as pitch black flames or rather the absence of flames enveloped my body. "THE DARKEST!"

It took a little distance because of the surprise element, but I knew it would take more than a last minute unexplained power-up to fight that monster, especially considering how bad I still was. The thing is, the reason why I had that voice that knew facts that I didn’t (and could not know, such as the ovation I received in Le Ciel Bleu being a standing one or the moment Reikoku-sensei would reach my house) and was ignorant to things I did, other than the physics-ignoring abilities and fast healing, was obvious in the setting.

I too was the host to a Shugoshin.

Getting up was hard because I had both a ruined body and information overload to deal with. All of a sudden, I knew about how my power was a ramification of the reality-warping abilities I showcased before by which I limited the broadness of possibilities to increase the actual energy of the power. My wounds started healing instantly but I realized the absence-of-flames grew dimmer.

It was really easy to get spent and I was in the middle of something so it was a matter of life and death to use this power the best I could. But how? Rather than energy, it was anti-energy. Absorbing others? Super punches? Trying to blast it off your fingers? I didn’t feel heat from it like most main characters do, but it wasn’t ice either.

It was ‘nothing’, and just that.

As I wondered, ‘how do you fight with nothing?’, the Shugoshin similar to Ryo already had the answer figured out: with ease.

First it came swinging the parasol against my face which I stopped by concentrating a good share of the absence-of-flames on my right hand, turning it into a claw and counter-attacking with enough strength to break it. Which only lead to me taking a kick in the knee, an elbow strike to the chest and getting one more attack that was similar to the position of holding a sledgehammer to my spine, at the end.

I fell to my knees, rolled over and concentrated on using the power as an energy blast with my left palm pointed at the creature. It landed but did no more than a small injury to the right thigh, which was no surprise whatsoever: while I’m no Physics expert, I don’t think energy just flies around in air without losing potency during the path. The payoff at long distance wasn’t worth it and at short distance it was probably irrelevant. I just had to try because I was running out of ideas and time.

A kick to the temple and I went down one more time, only to be kicked over and over again.

“GET UP! GO ON, GET UP! AREN’T YOU A WARRIOR? GET UP!”

I probably hurt its feelings by attacking it directly.

Serves you right for playing its game straight, you are no fighter or hero.

Oi, for someone with such a flashy name and an intro boast like that your power is really, really underwhelming when compared to others’.

I never claimed to be the strongest and a name is just a name.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt if you were a little stronger.

One could say water is not ‘strong’ when it stands still, but few dare defying the fury of the oceans when there is a storm happening.

Except this thing here is closer to a cup of water than an ocean if we’re talking about proportions.

Make your enemy choke on it then; it is still a matter of approach.

Right. This doesn’t change the fact I’ll probably die this time, though.

Change your approach.

But… I gave my best shot. I gave it all.

Shut up, you piece of trash human: how dare you say that was all you could do?

It was.

Can you think?

…What?

Can you feel sorry for yourself? Can you think about how weak and hopeless you are in comparison to the universe around you? Can you wish for things to be different? Can you move? Can you breathe?

Yes.

Then you still have energy left: you did not give it all.

But I’m tired, and if I couldn’t beat it before how could I have a shot now? I’m much weaker and I was found wanting to begin with. What do you want me to do? To rise as a nail and stick out only to get hammered down more?

A few months in Japan and you already became a conformist? You ran for years just so you could have this heaven and now you’re giving up on it because you couldn’t take an enemy down as easily as you imagined? Will you stain your hands with the blood of innocents once again? Is it okay just because you won’t live long enough to cope with the trauma this time?

You don’t understand! No matter how many of them I defeat, how many cases I solve or how many people I save, it’s all the same: more and more trouble will come my way until I can no longer handle it.

No, you don’t understand: you don’t stop punching because the enemy doesn’t fall, but the opposite. If the target does not go down, it’s one more reason to keep on punching: you punch and punch until it does. The punches will not affect only your enemy, but you too: your bones will break and your flesh will bleed easily and in the same way they will recover, but not to the same state. Your bones will grow thicker, your muscles will develop, and your mind too will become stronger but there’s one thing you need to do to start that process.

To resist?

To fight back: one can manage to resist passively, but you can’t fight back that way. Either you fight back with aggression as your intent and means or you don’t.

But I might die. Everyone might die because of my mistakes and weakness. Someone already did, for heaven’s sake.

So? The thing is, all of you will eventually die either way: you are fated to that the moment you are born, period. What you are doing so far is giving up, it’s the cowardly way out.

If in the end it’s all the same, why should I bother?

Yes, you are going to die, and dying is forever; thinking about it right now is just suffering by anticipation. But life is limited, a single shot you get at doing what you want and ascending to a higher level regardless of whether you start as the richest woman ever or a poor excuse for a man. Why on Earth would you people consider wasting it or being okay with passing through those few years living like a dog, I have no idea.

This speech is very nice and everything, but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t have the strength to win a proper fight against that creature. I just can’t do it.

Then don’t.

…But you just said…

Don’t have a proper fight, if you can’t win one. Humanity sure is slow to learn, but you’re something else. You don’t fight storms; you find a way to predict them and to some extent, control them. You don’t swim against the ocean; you create vehicles that allow you to navigate through it, devices to warn you when you should defend your people from it and dams to tame its tremendous strength, getting hydroelectric power on top of that. Don’t just stop punching, you idiot: punch differently!

…One more time. I know what you mean now. Lend me your strength one more time, I know what to do.

You’d better. And I won’t lend it to you. I am the strength, and I am yours.

I felt the power rush through me and it wasn’t like I was possessed as in Ayaka’s case; rather I was feeling whole at last.

“As I decay, something new is born.”

Without hesitation, without thinking at all, I advanced. I stepped in walls that weren’t there and moved freely like it was a world made of floors. Walking, increasing my pace and then galloping at lightning speed on thin air. Directions were tolerated no longer, for I could push my legs forward and move backwards or sideways if I wanted to at that point. That sub-universe was nothing but vectors and fractals and it was my domain.

In rare form, unchained like the drift, all was allowed to me.

The speed and overall mobility of the monster were finally matched if not surpassed and it showed whenever we’d meet and spar midair rather than just clash inside those seemingly endless boundaries. Every hit I delivered generated a noise that struck me as the characteristic one of glass breaking while every attack the creature landed was accompanied by a sub-frequency bass wave that resonated in my chest. That improvised percussive symphony was insane, and that was the biggest understatement I had ever listened to.

Maybe that fight could not go on forever because of my stamina, but it surely was going everywhere.

As I maintained focus and sped up my pace I realized why the monster did not seem as undefeatable at that point and got slightly mad at myself for not considering the possibility first: a creature moving that fast and freely could not and would not rely on vision. Vision is useless if you have to change angles and point of view every second.

So 'it', or most likely all of the Shugoshin, used heat, which my power canceled. Not a particularly heroic natural defense, but perfect for someone like me. If it concealed me enough to force these monsters to use more natural means to search for me limiting their abilities that much, it was better than I could ever hope for and gave me a lot of insight on how I should fight.

A clash and a retreat on both sides.

“Y-your plan is to defeat me, the entity who created this glorious realm, with mere brute force? Nonsense! You don’t stand a chance!”
“Just my kind of battle then!” Quickly I jumped, advancing both forward and to a higher infinity at high speed and pulled my right arm enveloped by the pitch-black absence-of-flames back midair to gather some strength. All that goes up has to go down and I could tell even inside that sub-dimension that law was truth; that was an important part of my potentially suicidal plan. “Clench those teeth, Ryo!”

I came down from the illusory space falling like a comet or an angel, but all the resistance I found only made me want more and more to emerge victorious from the confrontation. The Shugoshin bit his inferior lip, strong and fast enough for a small spray of blood to fly and taint the imitation of air. Indecision no longer was present in his face and in its place a burning lust for battle spawned. It seemed genuinely happy and for some reason I could relate to that feeling.

Perhaps because I am human and that is what really drives us.

“Come!”
"UORYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!"

What my inhuman enemy didn’t see coming until the last second, however, was the bait and switch.

We, humans, are tricky creatures by nature, living beings that use ruses and tools to achieve what we can’t do on our own and while that kind of intelligence might not be all there is to us when it comes to separating us from other species, it certainly is what brought us safely to the state where we find ourselves currently: our world is a massive deathtrap composed of a million smaller ones just waiting to be triggered by nature, and we certainly built a few deathtraps ourselves much to our children’s dismay, but so far we survived all those ordeals. The planet seems to hate us and that doesn’t mean that we should stop evolving.

Or, even if we should give up, that we will.

A direct, fair blow would be a stupid strategy and too much of a risky gamble. While I can see why it would appeal to some people, that’s not how I fight unless it’s the last option left. To appeal to the enemy’s battle lust, however, is a good way to make sure you can predict its behavior. It helped that the creature shared a mind with an idealistic writer; I’ll have to grant you that: a duel like that was most likely what the Shugoshin wished for the most. The button was just there waiting to be pressed.

So I triggered it, I played along and delivered to my public. It wanted the promise of a fair battle with high stakes, ‘manly speeches’ and boasting. The clashing of final attacks was an absolutely necessary scene in order to complete the story for someone with that kind of mindset. Fantasy craves and screams for scenes like that, which is exactly why I was sure to feed that illusion until the punch landed and my arm was completely shattered.

If I didn’t know what would come next I would have allowed my body to give in and pass out because of the unbearable pain. But I did for a fact know, and the knockout mechanism would not get the best of me.

For one split second I saw the creature grin with absurd pleasure only to realize it was too easy and move its head to face my flying left arm that went against it like a guided missile engulfed by the black non-flames. It finally realized I had transferred the power to my other arm which held Ayaka’s pantographic knife and sacrificed the right one to create a ruse.

I needed the time to draw and unfold it and the monster just gave it to me.

I was no fighter, indeed; if I ever learned how to fight it would be so that I didn’t have to. To embrace what I was good at instead of accepting a role others forced upon me, of being someone else’s hero or knight in shining armor because the plot demanded so was ridiculous. Who I was, what I was, that constant would never change and always take me back: as back when I was a kid, I was the destroyer of all things magical. Maybe I could not cope with murder, but this creature was not human and it would not qualify.

So return her to me.

Ryo is 『mine』.

The grin didn’t fade as much as it shifted briskly, a contortion visibly painful but nothing compared to what the knife in my remaining hand did to the back of the creature with Ryo’s face. I had just lost a good portion of my arm yet the attack still made me feel sorry for the monster when it connected.

I had become, in all senses of the expression, a cheating backstabber.

Mankind’s answer to Mystery.

A 『born killer』 who cannot murder.

A soundless and inexpressive chock happened followed by a deafening supersonic wave spreading through the whole realm, and then it really was all over.


Chapter 4: Ryo II[edit]

Part 1[edit]

In a sense, of course.

What really happened is that I was all of a sudden brought back to the Festival along with Ryo, whose body just collapsed in front of me. Thankfully my reflexes were good enough to catch her.

Actually, I was thankful for both that and having two arms to catch her with.

After checking her pulse and discreetly running my hand down on her back to make sure the knife wound wasn’t there, I sighed deeply with sheer relief and then reached for the mobile phone in my pocket. One look at it and I was assured of what I suspected.

Time did not move at all ever since the kiss.

Another illusion? Seemed too complex for one, and it went on for too long, but I could not find another plausible explanation with the knowledge I had so far. My arm was here, I didn’t feel exhausted in any way other than mentally. Confusion levels rising and that alone was too much for my brain to handle at that point.

Everything happened, but inside a layer.
A sub universe or a ‘scenario’ if you will.
It did, though.

The Darkest.

The girl is safe, you just defeated her Overdrive; to be precise, she is safe because you defeated it.
Although my speculation is that the reason why she’s passed has probably to do with the ‘condition’ her ability imposes.

…condition? Wait, is this ‘Overdrive’ the Shugoshin-possessed state? So there really is a difference between a host fighting commonly and that…

You got that right.: Ayaka and Ryo had breakdowns and the Shugoshin took over.
On the other hand the horn guy and you fought using the Shugoshin as weapons, so it wasn’t Overdrive but rather the correct usage.
Not that it pleases me to admit I am biologically no more than a glorified wishing well of destruction.

What about Reikoku-sensei?

She’s not a host, has the wrong sort of mind.

No, I meant ‘why isn’t she here now’: if you say this was real, shouldn’t Reikoku-sensei have gotten here during the fight or at least after it? How can she expect to defeat the hosts if she can’t detect or at the very least provide immediate post-attack assistance? Is her idea of ‘saving everyone from them’ waiting for them to kill people so she can trail the monsters?

All the doubts I had earlier were resurfacing in no time and given the circumstances it was hard to pinpoint what was probable and what was paranoia. Was I wrong to have trusted that woman? Was I nothing but a puppet and bait in the hands of a self-righteous psychopath?

Save it for later, we’ve got company.

“She’ll be okay, Shin-tsu. You are needed somewhere else.”
“Kouma.” I was almost annoyed by her presence at that point. “What do you mean? What are you doing here?”
“No time for explanations, I know it’s a cliché but deal with it. What I am doing is damage control. If you cooperate, no one has to die.”

I felt my eyes shift to match the mind state I knew was the worst of me.

“I’m going to ask this once so answer carefully. Are you threatening me?”

She seemed hurt and shocked to her core, even horrified; I never thought I would see her that way let alone be the perpetrator.

“…look me in the eyes.”
“Fine.”
“I love you too, Shin-tsu. Would I hurt and manipulate you?”

Didn’t take a lot of brain work for me to realize what my answer would be.

“If you had to for what you believe is my sake, yes, I’m positive you would.”

It didn’t offend her, or if it did, she didn’t let it show.

“Do you trust me regardless?”
“I do.”

Which was true, too; Kouma Yon was literal-minded and an extremist, but she cared about Ryo and me in her own way so even if I couldn’t always agree with her when it comes to ‘execution’, I could trust the ‘concepts’ she had in mind enough to listen and help moderate her behavior. Her intentions were not harmful to me, at the very least of that I was sure.

“Good.” She nodded. “Thus a new experiment begins.”
“Kouma, I’m a little too tired for this.”
“Don’t worry; I’m here to save you. This is why I moved back in time.”
“This ought to be the worst practical joke ever, Kouma. Even by those twisted standards of yours, I might add.” My crossed arms were trembling as I still got the ‘phantom pain’ of having lost one of them inside the monster’s world. “If you’re not giving me any evidence proving that you actually can travel in time, I’d rather stop this conversation right now.”
“I know about you being KEN.”

Something clicked inside my mind when she called me that name and then I remembered many, many things I came to this town to forget.

“…I’m listening.”

She seemed absolutely delighted.

“The phone is going to ring. Pick it up. Repeat the lines I’ll whisper in your ear with exactly one second of difference and the same intonation: no mistakes allowed for now, we need to keep this timeline as close to the original as we can.”

It did.

As I raised the phone to my ear level all I could hear was static followed by faint background noise, clearly the result of muffling the input area of the phone. Whoever it was on the other end, the intent was to make sure that the receiver would talk first: the reason I could assume was to find out if who picked it up was me.

After a few seconds I coughed just as Kouma did and intentionally took the bait.

“Hello?”
“Nyahahaha~~! Do you remember me, KEN?”

I wouldn’t forget that stupidly flamboyant laugh, ever.

“Death Drive.”

Death Drive/D.D. used to be a Japanese scammer and murderer with a penchant for playing Houdini who would fake his death countless times, including on internet live streams and such. It was in one of those underground sites that I met Ryo. Not that we were into snuff or anything similar, anyway: I was there as part of my self-imposed and ultimately failed trauma-overcoming ‘routine’ and she was there to disprove him pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies of his number and method like an annoying kid at a magician’s presentation.

Except the ‘magician’ got so angry he went after her.

Over the phone and through the internet, I acted as a consultant and helped her survive his attacks. Together we defeated him and ended up sending the guy to jail for life as he was wanted all over three countries for many crimes that involved ‘faking deaths’ of other people, as in more than one coffin of a person related to him was found all clawed up inside because the victim desperately tried to get out and died spending the little oxygen he or she had under seven feet of mud after the bastard drugged them to put them in a ‘playing possum’ kind of state. He barely made it to prison though, as he had a heart condition and ironically almost kicked the bucket for real because he a little bit too nervous when he got caught. A temper and bad, bad heart made a lousy combination.

That’s when the two of us, Ryo and I, bonded. Not the cutest story for many, but it was cute enough for me because that bond lasted. Even against my attitude, for I would never dare say ‘will’; all I wanted from the bottom of my heart was to be near her for the rest of my life, regardless of title or relationship. This was obvious from the beginning to me, although whether I would get that or not was a matter of chance.

“The one and only. I just got out of prison a few months ago and thought I’d drop by and say ‘hello’ to our common friend.”

As Kouma was telling me my next line, I could only think of how I did not have time to wonder how he got my number. This seemed specific enough to raise suspicion inside my heart.

“How exactly, pray tell? You got life sentence, no chance of parole ever. Your own lawyer applauded when the judge said it.”
“And for as long as I was alive, I served it. Thing is, people seem to forget details and I think they are the most important thing, much more relevant than facts. My files said a lot about me, but not enough for the new prison I was transferred to. They saw me as a crazy murderer and all, and were ready for that. Not for someone whose purpose in life was to fake deaths with high-end or third-world-class methods, and thus with the unfortunate demise of Mr. Daisuke Miyamoto-Chevalier set Death Drive free, more now than ever before. This is why you were not told about my grand escape by your information service, although while we’re on the topic of information providers it should be noted that word on the streets is that you have been out of touch with your family and probably wouldn’t have gotten the gossip. If it existed, anyway.”
“So you came after Ryo?”

A disgusting snicker too sharp for my ears pierced through them, all the way to my brains.

“Not really. I mean, I might kill her too, what with her being a pretentious nuisance of a prey last time, but the one I’m after is you. You really annoyed me when you got involved, because it’s one thing to be against a kid and the other is to be against a living legend who is, as all of them, just a fake.”
“It’s not my fault if you got worried thinking you were clashing against a genius detective or something. That is the kind of thing that only happens in movies. You should be thankful it was just another kid instead.”
“Cause that’s exactly what you are, right? You lying demon. You fooled me into thinking that once already but I’ll get you this time, and in the only way it could hurt you: I’ll kill them all, and only because of you. You don’t get the hero’s death you crave for. You will be the only one who survives as everything burns to the ground. Mark my words, KEN: I’ll make your purgatory life hell.”
“Still obsessed with imagery, I see. I know you like playing games. Tell me the target and we’ll race over who gets to it first while trying to catch each other.”
“Tired of that. Let’s do something else.”
“Like what?”

“You try and find me hiding within school grounds before your teacher bleeds to death.”

I knew what my next line was before Kouma Yon whispered it in my ear.

“No.”
“…”
“I refuse. Do you understand that? I won’t become a sitting duck for you and I won’t waste my time over this. If you’re going to kill her, just do it. Let’s see what else you can do.”
“For starters I can kill more students!”

Getting more people involved was not the most pleasant of scenarios for several reasons, but I didn’t need to think about it because I was still getting all the answers ready-made.

“People I care even less about? What are you, twelve? If you’re going to negotiate on terms I should bet my life on, you ought to be able to make a better proposition than ‘run around with no idea whatsoever of where I am while I watch you from afar’. The stakes aren’t high on your end, thus this bet means nothing to me. I don’t care about catching you in particular; I just want you out of my way. You on the other hand, want my head. See how we’re different?”
“…”
“For me, it’s easy to achieve what I want. Kill her right now, I’ll just spread the word that an armed lunatic is within school grounds and Japanese police will be here in moments, having all those issues with guns and what not. They might be no good with conceiving ways to prevent you from escaping but you know damn well I am. In my case, the ‘no casualties’ condition is a bonus, not a goal. For you, it’s now a very important thing that I am the only person who knows you are out of prison and can put you back there for good, if not aim for a ‘special case’ informal death sentence using connections with other inmates or wardens. You don’t know my limitations, but I know yours.”
“I know one. You can never kill again, KEN.”

So he did get information from Lang Shou. That explained it all.

“Imprecise, therefore incorrect; if that’s all you know about that story, you’re in for a surprise. So, are you going to kill her? I thought you wanted to play with me.”
“What are your terms?”
“Oh, now we’re talking.” I sighed just like Kouma Yon did. “I need an hour to work on my side before the game starts. I’ll try to gather spies from the people here, students and parents alike, and brief them just enough information so they can be useful but not enough for them to get in my way as I have full intention of reaching you myself. Keep in mind that while you can take them down if they approach you consider that I’ll find you easier if they are my spies because I’ll know who went on which route and then... well, it’s up to you. I won’t give any more tips, already did my part in making this game more interesting. Are you with me so far?”
“You have twenty minutes. I’ll call again when it’s time.”
“You are in no condition of negoti-”

Call disconnected.

“Shin-tsu.” Kouma sounded like she was trying to be careful with her words. “You know why he did that, right?”
“She’s already wounded, so he doesn’t have the time.”
“Yeah.”
“Guess we don’t have the time to waste either. By the way, you could tell I was bluffing, right?”
“I know you were, but only because you approached me during those twenty minutes in the previous timeline looking pretty desperate, or at least as desperate as you get when you’re into something. I also know you could easily have been serious about it.” Matter-of-factly she just implied I’d allow murder to happen, just like that. If she thought that way, arguing was useless. “He held quite a grudge towards you.”
“Not personal: I think he is on bad terms with everyone he ever crossed his path but I happen to be one of the few who are still alive.”
“And he’d go out of the way to his freedom just to take ‘one of them’ out? You’re special to him. Whether you lied about your past or not is irrelevant at this point because you clearly did something at some point.” Kouma was serious and I couldn’t really blame her for being worried. “Koukishin Shinzou, if that is your real name, who are you?”

I had to be honest albeit not necessarily specific.

“It is my ‘real’ name, just not my birth name; I’m adopted. I was taken by the most normal couple in the world who just happened to be the odd ones out in this absurdly unusual family. This should be as far as my connection would go to the weird circumstances, but I’ve gotten into some messed up stuff of my own and ended up making a name for myself as an individual rather than a son of the household. Because of that, people know my nicknames but most of them don’t know me. I know people.”

She seemed satisfied with that vague answer of mine.

“I like you better now.”
“Figured.”
“You would, wouldn’t you? Before I tell you about the plan, tell me, so-called ‘hunter of monsters’: what good are you against a human?”

Yes, that alone proved her time travel allegation even further. As if I needed any more proof despite the scripted lines and all.

It could have all been a ruse; the lines could have been arranged on the other side too.
She could be working with Death Drive too, they all could.

Let’s not go there; spiraling into paranoia is just what I don’t need right now.

“Good enough when it comes to deception.”
“I’ll take your word on that.” An ironic reply considering what I just told her, but her voice had no sarcasm in it. Then again, I did tell her she’s not human to me. “Here is the plan: Ryo, dressed as you, will walk around school and act the same way you did in the first timeline following the script. Akane will keep your mobile phone and play the audio clips you will record with Megumi’s loop pedal and one of the microphones you used for the live performance. Whenever the phone with Akane gets a call, Ryo in disguise picks up too: synchrony is everything.”

Let me suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that she got all of my movements down in exact words on paper, let alone in a way it couldn’t be misunderstood by a reader such as Ryo. Or that we can get high-school girls to help us pull a swindle or an operation such as that, just because they’re friends. Let’s point out a simple flaw first, save the awful implications for later.

“Hold on. What about ambience?”
“What?”
“Lack or different ambient noise on our end will make the recording stand out in places where he can both watch me and see what’s going on too. The recording won’t match the environments even when there’s no noise because of the room natural reverb too. D.D. might be an oddball but it will be hard to keep the act for long. Can we just redirect calls easily?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know… it is your phone after all.”
“Never tried, bought this new model right before coming to Japan and just had my number transferred.” Decided to omit the detail my previous one was eaten by a harpy from Kouma, who was just too much of a skeptic to take it even as a joke, which it was not, but would be a better reaction than hers anyway. I messed with it for a while. “Yes, this phone can.”
“Alright, hand it to me. I’ll just set our speed dials’ first position to be each other.”
“Good.” I was so focused I didn’t even want to make a joke about that. “I’ll wake Ryo up and brief her in. Can you get Megumi and Akane?”
“No Rin?”
“Her father is probably suspicious of me already, no need to add salt to the wound; what if we involve her and he follows us, only to be hurt or ruin the scheme? We know Akane’s mom isn’t like that.”
“I see.”
“We just have to hope they’ll cooperate with us, but if you say it’s for me Megumi might agree and Akane will come along.”
“Shin-tsu, I’m absolutely certain I can get Akane to cooperate: it’s Megumi we will have to hope will come along, actually.”

That made me confused.

“How can you be so sure you can mobilize them just like that? Did you talk to them about this before?”
“Oh, not really. It is because of Ryo’s conspiracy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Somehow, she guessed this whole ‘I want to protect you so I will get away from you but in a way it seems like we just grew apart because maybe we weren’t so close after all’ thing was your game early on and let, in her own words, the plot build up for a most cathartic finale. I aided her keeping track of your behavior with the café therapy sessions, but before you ask I actually am working on my thesis. When you told me about Megumi and Akane, I knew who we had to ally with to make sure you would be alone at some point during the festival. Then Akane gave us the information about the band ending plans and Ryo made sure you would not be told about it before the actual day so you’d be absolutely ready for some clashing morals and romantic angst when she confronted you, other than no place for you to just run away to. This is why we got Rin’s father to wait by the backstage and, although entirely unaware of our gambit, he was useful when it came to intercepting her and making you leave alone. What Akane doesn’t know is that her mother also indirectly helped the plan because she talked to Rin’s father a couple times before, what with being the only dedicated flower shop owner and all. I happened to overhear them talking while you played and while he was a little shocked that his beloved daughter hid something like that from him for so long, the hippie knocked some sense in him with a ‘boys will be boys’ kind of speech that reminded him of his youth days. In the end, we relied on luck a little but her sting worked.”
“…Shiina Ryo out-conned me?” I laughed honestly from my heart. “Dear God, I’m going to marry her.”

This was kind of intricate for a beginner so it made me wonder if the reason why they don’t seem to get along with other girls in school went beyond anti-social behavior. Another part of the explanation brought forth an even more unsettling question.

If it was all just part of the con she pulled on me, why did her Shugoshin go Overdrive? The plan would have ended there with the kiss; she should be happy but instead broke down. Sure that wasn’t what I expected from our first kiss either but it was because of the whole world fading to white and whatnot, not because it was such a bad kiss. Perhaps I’m mistaking the ‘cause’ here: let’s say it even wasn’t because of the kiss per se, but rather the strong emotion she felt triggering others in chain reaction after a period of bottling up, including the real cause. But what could that be? The emotional overload of a hundred of small problems or something else much bigger? If I were around, I probably would know.

“I’m sure she’d like that.”

A certain fashionista I knew had an ennui face and I realized that, under the circumstances, it looked like I just spaced out imagining a married life with Ryo.

“Kouma, it was a joke.”
“I know. Me being jealous is a constant rather than a common variable, so you just have to watch out for how much and not if I am or not; that is a sure thing.”
“Talking about jealousy, it might be a little too rude to ask but do you think Megumi knows Akane likes her that way?”
“Who’s to tell? One way to look at it is that she doesn’t have a clue; other implies she does and doesn’t want to reject the friend who gave her a home when she was in need. My personal guess, and I will take it as fact until proven otherwise, is that she knows and regardless of seeing her as a possible romantic pair or not will not move a finger until Akane takes the courage to go after her and confess properly. Which would be brilliant in a simple and effortless way, if you ask me: works if she just wants her friend to grow up or if she needs a more reliable and sure-of-herself lover.”

How specific.

“Is that what you wanted the dynamic between Ryo and you to be? Good grief, Kouma, you’re such a maiden at heart.”
“…”
“Liking me or not, you wouldn’t have a problem if I got offended by being played that way and didn’t want to be involved with you guys anymore one way or another. Not only had you enabled her behavior, which could end up really bad, you also told me the whole scheme so that I could react the way I wanted. It was a matter of free will to you, and you were sure that one way or another I’d use mine to walk away if I had the chance. ” I sighed deeply. “So your personal conspiracy failed, in a myriad of ways.”

I kind of wanted her to get mad but she just stared at me.

“It was an experiment. Experiments never actually fail, you know. They provide results one way or the other, even if the results are that you can’t achieve the ones you want by using that method; that outcome that could come across as bad narrows down the search and brings us closer to what can be called Science.”
“So did you find out the answer to your question?”
“It’s ‘yes’.”
“And did you find the question to your answer?”
“It was ‘whether I loved you because you were like her or because you are you’.”
“...in a conditional question, marked by ‘or’, you replied ‘yes’ and that’s it?”
“Exactly.”
“OK then.” If that was good enough for her, it was for me too. “Enough talk; let’s pull a con on a convict.”

A yawn was heard behind me but I had the impression she had been awake for a while.

“Shin-tsu.” Ryo said, half of the mouth still covered by her hand. “You’ve been waiting to say that for your whole life, weren’t you?”

I didn’t bother denying it.

Part 2[edit]

The five of us stood on the rooftop as we prepared to perform as a different sort of band than the one I played with earlier and I felt like mood of the day was definitely crescendo.

To make things simple: I had two sorts of drama, kissed someone, had a visit from the past, slammed that bass with a progressive/extreme metal group, someone I cared for was in danger, got into a fight and it was an established fact my friends schemed a lot too. The festival was an emotional rollercoaster yet I didn’t feel that awake in months so it was hard to complain; I really missed the thrill and I hated myself for it.

Not just for that, but whatever.

The two remaining members of our posse joined without making many questions, but this probably had to with me activating The Darkest in front of their eyes and showing them the absence-of-flames I could summon. Akane was weird enough on her own, but what surprised me was how Megumi seemed badly shocked for a split-second and then calming down only to get hyper enough to ask why I didn’t use the visually exquisite anti-pyrotechnic ability as special effects during our concert.

The moment Kouma handed each one of us the Bluetooth earpieces and made sure we all had each other in speed dial I remembered how Megumi pawned her acoustic guitar and realized what Kouma and Ryo meant by how money mattered: it was easy to see how someone who for a while now have everything just handed to him would have trouble understanding the concept of not having enough monetary resources available.

What I couldn’t understand was why Kouma had two phones on her; it would be easy to comprehend if the number she gave any us was of the new one, but she did not even mention it even though it was on sight. The second model seemed very simple in comparison to her fashionable main one, not even from a well-known brand: it looked completely bootleg if I ever saw one, and I’ve seen my share of counterfeit merchandise through the years. What could be the purpose of that, if not to avoid using her day number for the calls?

Not the time to digress, I know.

The roles were simply established by default: Ryo would take care of distracting Death Drive by pretending to be me; Akane was the closest we could get to a gadget person and would operate both the phone that would actually connect to DD’s when he called and the loop machine we’d use to record my lines so I did not have to pick the phone and give away the plan somehow; Megumi would provide assistance to Akane but her job was to be the field agent that would make sure I could get unnoticed to the room we already knew he was in thanks to Kouma having been through this day once before; Kouma was our information source and mastermind for that operation. And me?

My job was, according to the fashionista, the same I chose on my own during the first timeline: to infiltrate and neutralize the bastard before he could do more than merely hurt our teacher.

Needless to say, I was uneasy. Thrilled in a sense, sure, but it was an unusual situation for that kind of mission: we had a ‘who’, the exact location of ‘where’ and more than enough data on ‘when’. Our real trouble was ‘how’ and we barely had any time to discuss it: it was either following Kouma’s lead or storming like a bull and risk Reikoku-sensei’s life.

I did not have much of a choice given the circumstances: I was offered a clean way out which would save me and others and the other option was letting Death Drive have his way.

I’d never.

With Kouma’s plan, Ryo would wear my clothes and walk around school in the same fashion as I did in the first timeline to keep it from diverging into new events due to the Butterfly Effect (not something I thought was entirely possible, but would have to work for a while somehow) and keep the day as predictable as possible until I could sneak behind DD and rescue Reikoku-sensei. This would have been all fun and games if it wasn’t for one detail: if my clothes were with Ryo, then whose clothes would I wear to successfully disguise myself in a school that was pretty much girl-only?

Yeah, pretty obvious and not particularly pleasant.

So they lent me some of Megumi’s, say, ‘hair’: one set of medium length red extensions, and despite having seen a lot of stuff ever since I was born I have to admit seeing that at least part of Megumi’s look was actually detachable and under the several layers of extension her hairstyle was essentially a sidecut freaked me out for some reason. Each of the extensions was placed under the sides of my own hair giving me an edgy look along with the side-swept fringe held by a bobby pin at the end. Ryo’s thick-frame glasses weren’t half as strong as I assumed they would be, so neither of us should have issues being with or without them. Kouma did my makeup; I told her ‘no heavy stuff’, but it’s not like we had the time for her to overproduce me anyway and the key was not to get too much attention, which I assume would be harder if I looked like Megumi did every day.

A little padding on the uniform to make up for my absolute lack of bosom helped although it would take a lot more than ‘a little’ padding if we were to simulate Ryo’s, so a few safety pins had to be placed on strategic points too. While they talked about my transformation on the go I realized my idea that Ryo was entirely oblivious to girly things such as makeup was unfounded and made me realize she probably used it a lot more than I noticed, which made me happy because being ignorant to a girl’s effort in cosmetics was pretty much a ‘guy thing’. And why did that make me, a self-proclaimed feminist, happy, you ask?

Because it took me one look at the mirror to realize they turned me into a hipster girl.

It kind of offended me deep down that to disguise Ryo as me they seemed to have a little more difficulty to make her look manlier, going as far as trimming her hair a little and using plastic to bind her generous-to-say-the-least bosom, tasks which she wasn’t particularly thrilled about. Still, despite the many bad things that could come out of it, there was no denying Kouma was right about her bone structure being the most similar to mine of the four girls; she looked like an idealized me so much it got to the point of making me look less like myself. Yet it wasn’t like I didn’t prefer her as a girl: there was just no way I looked that good as a boy.

She caught me staring at her and gave me the smile I missed so much in my life.

“Did you like it? Put a ring on it.” She extended her hand to me as those waiting for an engagement proposal but took it back after a single second and I knew it wasn’t just because that reference felt a little out of place. “Wait, I’m the guy now... this should be my job, traditionally. Go on, give me your hand. No… should I be on my knees while doing this, Shin-tsu?”

Instant smirk.

“You ask as if I was the expert in proposals.”
“Well, you sure flirt a lot amongst other things.” Ouch… With that critical hit blow I frowned instantly. I knew that was coming but it didn’t make taking the damage any easier. Guess I deserved that and the following five hundred remarks on that subject I surely would get over the course of months. “Forget it, I shouldn’t take things personal now. Let’s just move on. Our teacher’s life is at stake, it was shallow of me to waste time. I’m sorry.”

No.

Postponing stuff or making things happen sooner than they should was what put us in trouble in the first place. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. The time was right then and letting the moment pass instead of hitting the iron while it was hot was a risk I was not willing to take.

“No, I’m sorry. You have the right to feel that way. I should have treated you as an equal and I apologize for not doing so. This is why we became friends in the first place, so I shouldn’t underestimate you and think you can’t take whatever I am dealing with. Concern does not justify concealing information, and thereby this offender offers a truce.”
“On what terms?”
“I promise to never hide anything from you again.”

Dramatic pause, as expected of her.

“What is it in exchange for? Forgiveness?”
“Forgiveness isn’t something that can be bought with a deal, no matter what the State might say about pardoning someone in exchange for information on others. Either it blooms on its own or it’s bound to be taken back in the future. Remission is more of a realistic procedure, if you ask me, so I’m aware I deserve some consequences whether I regret what I did or not because I wronged you.” I had to stop myself from going off the tangent too much. “What I want is the same of you: you are not to withhold information from me. If we are to stand side by side as equals, you need to stop hiding things too. You’re in some sort of trouble and not asking for help. While that is commendable as an effort, it means nothing if you can’t get past it on your own. Kouma and I, we’re here. If you need us, just ask.”
“Just that?”

I nodded.

“Just that.” Gently I took her hand and held it, ready for a shook. “Truce?”

Rather than taken aback, she seemed peaceful like a burden was taken off her back.

“Yeah, I guess we really are the same. Truce.”

We shook hands in a rather firm way but if it hurt her she did not let it show. Despite having kissed her earlier surely that was the moment of the day when I felt connected to her the most.

One interpersonal issue solved, all that was left was to save Reikoku-sensei.

I looked at the script she wrote for Ryo and realized why the idea was, at least to some extent, executable: it was made of references and had several drawings. Every movement, pose and line she had to lip synch had very specific written observations that tied with sentences and such in TV series, manga, movies, books and even real life people such as celebrities and politicians. In face of such bizarre script one cannot help but wonder if what brought Kouma Yon and Shiina Ryo together was not something particularly deep and poetical but the fact one of them is so derivative she cannot do anything without comparisons and the other has an insane crave for knowledge especially of the pop culture variant: maybe the initial spark of their relationship was indeed because they were, for each other, the only ones who could fully understand what the other was talking about.

I could comprehend that well, creating a bond over being extremely similar in one particular aspect. Surprisingly, I could even rationalize how Kouma managed to make a script with such a tremendous degree of descriptive information about my actions embedded in it.

This was only possible because Kouma’s ability was pretty specific.

She called it ‘It Keeps Happening’ and stated that the moment she activated it like I did she found out it worked like this: every time she sleeps she creates/overwrites her ‘save point’, to which she can return her mind to but not her body or any items. Kouma wakes up at the exact same moment that she did after using her power but once she sets a ‘save point’ by waking up, she cannot go back to a previous one ever again. Thus as long as she stays awake she can always use her ability to revert time on a personal level and rewrite the timeline.

Which did not, in any way, seem to match the alternative explanation she gave the other girls, that her power was to predict the future and ‘expel’ the script for someone. Whether she lied to them because we didn’t have the time to explain or because of a special reason she had not to be open about her power, I would just play along. Maybe it was a secondary effect of her time travelling power, I could not tell.

Personally, I find that all to be a little tricky.

Why exactly? I’d like to have your input on this.

It’s obvious she’s something else, for she mastered her Shugoshin already to a point there isn’t a trace of it other than the power.
However, to do all that on the first time?

Mastered her Shugoshin? So she doesn’t get voices in her head anymore?

Don’t assume everyone does just because you do: my species isn’t known for sentience, or at least what you humans would consider sentience.

What do you mean, then?

Consider this: let’s say I am not the only of my species who actively thinks and talks, especially to the human host, and the other one is just like me.

But it would be using the same logic you just condemned!

Not precisely and it’s just a postulation so no need to get that upset: if I did not inform you of the full extent and limitations of your power yet, why would hers?

…do you really want answers?

Possible solutions.

Alright then. How about ‘different personalities’? No, you talk too much about species, chances are you’ll disregard that and say you guys work on some sort of ant-like communist regime or something. Would it be too far from the truth to assume our powers were supposed to just keep developing instead of being stable from the start?

You really can avoid seeing possibilities that are in your face when you don’t want to.

Paranoia can be used against you too. Thinking bad of one of my ‘best friend’ persons is bad enough; two would be too much stress to handle at this point. Unless I acquire enough evidence for it to sink in as slowly as it can to avoid the complete shock, I’ll deny it with all I have.

“Shin-tsu.” Kouma uttered to bring me back from my internal monologue. “It’s time.”
“Understood.” I coughed on command, trying to get rid of the weird feeling at the back of my throat just to realize it was a psychosomatic symptom. “Standing by, waiting for your command.”

She stood still, visibly uneasy about what to do next.

“Are you sure? I could simply work as a source of data. This plan is a derivation of yours in the first timeline, you know.”
“Whether it is or not, it doesn’t matter: the shortest the distance between a leader and the information necessary to guarantee the success, the better. You call the shots this time, Kouma; I’ll trust your judgment and follow your lead.”
“I’ll definitely save you.”

Her bold statement made me ponder on how the events of the first timeline turned out; it shouldn’t be me who would be in danger, and if there was danger directed towards me it probably would be directed to Ryo, which made Kouma’s line even more unusual. She would not put Ryo in danger for my sake, and it was her plan. So what the hell did that mean?

“Wha-”
“Everyone, on your positions!” Contrasting with the previous uneasiness, Kouma sounded no less confident than a general. “Ryo, go downstairs and wait for the simultaneous call to move outside as planned. Take your medicine as soon as you get there so we’ll have at least one hour before you’re drowsy or in pain.”
"Aye aye Capt'n!"

My favorite person in the whole world did an army salute and left.

“Akane, man your station.” She ordered to the silent girl who had already taken the messy fringe of hair out of the way of her hawk-ish eyes and only nodded in reply. The kung fu fighting fashionista then gazed at the easily amused fashion disaster. “Megumi, it’s not too late for you to back out.”
“I don’t know much about what’s happening but if there’s something huge going on and a friend needs me, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” Megumi looked at me and gave me a thumbs-up. “Just take me out for burgers later and we’ll be even, okay?”

She was quick to get angry, reckless, clueless whether it was fashion or business, irresponsible and had double standards; she was also quite normal compared to the others and a good friend who would accept hers gladly and fight anyone for their sake with what little weapons she had. I liked her a lot and was just thankful Kouma’s plan would keep Megumi away from the actual action rather than going back and forth and providing assistance to Akane, or at least away enough that she could not try anything ‘heroic’; it’s people like her, those who look in a way too good for this sinful earth, who die first.

“Shin-tsu.”
“Yes, Kouma?”
“Go.”

At which point I ran across the rooftop and threw myself to soar over the fence of the building; thus began the operation.

Part 3[edit]

The reason why I jumped was because I needed to be sure I’d be out of Death Drive’s sight and the only ways I could get to the floor on the side of the building he could not watch were by either breaking down locked doors to get access to the windows or doing what I did: he could not, in any way, see two KEN walking out the building door or the gambit would be ruined.

I used The Darkest in the same way I did inside Ryo’s dream-like subdimension on the first activation, by having the anti-flames in a layer enveloping my body instead of condensing it on a single spot. I guessed it would cushion my fall or at least let me heal faster than normal so I could move unnoticed by an alternative path Kouma had traced for me on a map of the school (and would possibly have hand-waved as part of her ability had I asked about it).

Frankly, my expectations were exceeded: in such short distance of four floors it actually reduced my terminal velocity to nearly nothing mid-air, making me not ‘land’ as much as ‘gently hover’ to the ground. Gravity found a new way to mess with me: just when I started learning about Physics in order to bend Space and Time properly, something like this happens…

It was out of my comfort-zone to say the least.

My first impulse was to look around and make sure that, despite what Kouma Yon told me, there was no one around at the exact time. It did not surprise me to see she was right again, although it was obvious she’d be considering the scripted phone call and all.

After placing the Bluetooth device on my ear I stretched just to be sure my body was okay, not for the first time after the ‘losing an arm’ incident, and started running through the route she drew to me. As I passed by trees and waited precise amounts of time to hurry to the next pre-marked stop while taking care not to slip or fall, as to ensure the timing would remain perfect and I wouldn’t be seen by anyone who didn’t see me in the first timeline which could unleash a chain reaction of magnificent proportions and hellish results.

Scouting to avoid others was easier with the enhanced awareness I had now that my Shugoshin was active: the less I focused on my vision the more I could sense the thermal levels around me and tell the difference, which explained quite a lot on the subject of how Ayaka’s could fight so viciously or the disorientation of the monster in Ryo’s dream-world when I got rid of that particular trace with The Darkest.

There was a lot at stake and I could only wonder if I still had the skill to make something like that happen or, if I didn’t, I could use the new acquired one to ensure the best outcome possible. Thus I began to ponder on it, because if Kouma, Ayaka and even that psychopath guy had somewhat complex ones I should get to consider its limitations to raise my chances of success, which meant saving someone’s life.

If I were to describe it based on appearance, I’d say it was just improbably malleable black anti-fire. Low damage but a lot of variety in possibilities of usage, along with unusual and unlikely sub-effect while being very exhaustive: it was hard to believe my power meant for surveillance alone or long-term fighting.

Don’t fool yourself, the purpose was clear.
It was made for you after all.

If you mean ‘assassination and deception’, I have to argue it’s only half right.

Like I said, don’t fool yourself: this is tailor-made.
Just strong enough to kill but not the kind of power you’d bring to a battle if you could help it in most forms, and visually flashy looking enough to keep others away and yourself concealed from the most dangerous enemies’ radar may their eyes not be on you.

So the reason why my attack power is so limited it’s because it’s a very broad ability?

Think of it this way: there’s a limit to a Shugoshin’s power and it is inversely proportional to the area it covers.
The broader your range is in reality warping, the less you will of this limited power spread over the span of it.
Still with me so far?

Yes.

Good, good.
Now consider that you have to fight others with the same growth potential, probably to death: in a situation like that, what do you think would be the obvious way to spend your points?

To focus on a particular deathly ability and raise it to its maximum potential compressing all of it on a single point: a better way would be with 80-85% on the specific ability and the rest on a sub-effect, like a ‘blade’ covering a particular area.

Correct: is your ability one of those?

No.

And why do you guess?

Because I don’t need 80% on the specific power: I just need to be strong enough not to be instantly killed by monsters and to overcome any human, so I can trick and defeat them because that’s how I fight. Therefore I can spend the rest on more valuable effects of it rather than in raw power, which would be a waste in my case. In comparison to the ‘blade’, mine would be more of a ‘bamboo with spikes’; in direct confrontation it would break, but the thing is I am not looking for a clash of weapons.

You aim for the opponent’s meat.

That’s exactly where it works just fine, because if I absolutely have to use something like that I’d rather hit just once.

You mean in battle or in life?

You know the answer already.

As always with you, ‘both’.

The phone I exchanged with Ryo for mine vibrated once and I did not need to pick it up because I knew it was Kouma making sure I was ready for the big halt. For the next 45 seconds I was supposed to stand by until the mass of people would pass and I could move again. Would have been an eternity of moments if I didn’t know that I would be able to see Ryo in action, as this was the one time in the route I was planned to follow when I’d ‘meet’ her.

I watched her walk and gesticulate with my phone in her ear, mostly as I would and sometimes as I should. Seeing her as a part of something like this had a certain appeal I won’t bother to deny even with the danger: it was like she was made for it, and I hoped she was feeling better by then. Sure there was a conflict in her life we did not have the time to talk about yet, but she finally made the transition from normal highschooler to girl with powers who cons criminals; as far as I was concerned, she dreamed about that day for years and envied me for it, although it’s arguable whether she honestly believed what I said or just appreciated the stories. Ironically as it might sound, I wanted her life too.

Everything was going according to the plan.

Ryo had been following Kouma’s instructions; Akane operated with surgical precision the loop pedal with the necessary snippets of my voice; Megumi would stay assisting her and getting the calls from Kouma but she was actually our trump card as she would be our secondary field agent in case something went wrong; Kouma would walk around unnoticed too one step ahead of us every time and ensure the situation would follow the planned route at whatever cost.

However, the moment I realized I thought ‘everything was going according to the plan’ I knew I should have known better than this and got my heart more ready for a disaster than usual and this is coming from someone who lives by ‘prepare for the worst, hope for the best’.

So I stood by.

That’s when I saw Rin approaching Ryo and knew it would all go to hell because Rin did not know that was not me and she had a certain look on her face as she held her father’s hand and went towards the girl disguised as Koukishin Shinzou. I dreaded that face so much.

The ‘teehee, I’m going to introduce you to my parents’ face. And it’s not just girls who do that kind of stuff, acting mature and cold to hide insecurity or more specifically the fear of rejection, so I couldn’t really blame her. Regardless of gender, some people are just closer to our conceptions of ‘maidens’ at heart than ‘commanders’, although nothing says one cannot be both. But Rin was one severely repressed broken bird and I could tell the cathartic performance and sickly sweet talk with her father gave her and injection of positivism and endorphin rush.

Of all times, she had to act like a love-struck teenager at that point: when lives are at risk, when I’m dealing with all sorts of trouble, when I had lost a very important thing to me, while she knew I had unfinished business with someone else. She had to pick today, because she was in a better mood than usual, to make her move. Rin had to choose this day to be like that. This only made me think of how Rin’s constant need to impose the mood was because she couldn’t just read it and that was the only way she’d know what was going on.

But what bothered me the most was to read her father’s lips from distance as they got closer and I could only try and predict what would happen at the moment she’d wonder why there was a girl wearing the clothes of her romantic interest and looking exactly like him while ruining the plan’s perfectly synchronized timing.

“…Rin, did you say Koukishin?”

Yeah, I should have considered that even in a smaller city, as long as I’m in Japan some people might know the name ‘Koukishin’. That could mean a lot of trouble.

While I was busy trying to figure out a way to get us out of that situation without making everything so far be a waste a flash of colors, albeit slightly less colorful than usual, passed by and did something that affected us all.

It is always a matter of perspective.

I saw Megumi kiss Ryo and ruin the plan in great scale while doing her best so it wouldn’t be ruined by someone else; Ryo’s eyes opening in complete shock, still too lacking in field experience to know that the fictional rule of ‘whenever there is a plan in sight something is bound to go terribly wrong’ actually applied to reality as well; Akane probably saw something that angered her in a way, but implied she’d have a chance in the future because Megumi did not seem entirely adverse to kissing girls; Kouma was bound to be murderously furious by now one way or another and in the most potentially damaging example of all, Rin saw a Shin-tsu she would approach being taken in the way she wanted the most by someone who could not rival her in class, leadership or guitar playing.

I guess rich people get heartbroken too.

Knowing just thinking that made me a horrible person inside, I watched her consternation-filled eyes with a similar look her father gave her. It was stupid of her to expect more when the boundaries were established; it was idealistic to think something that started so wicked and wrong could become a proper relationship despite its roots. No one said teen rebellion is all sweetness, and there is a reason why growth is necessary. I still felt bad for her to get that kind of shocking view but at the same time I knew she had it coming one way or another. Not a matter of ‘what’, but ‘how’.

Rin didn’t run away crying, instead just staying there and looking back as he guided her away on the opposite direction back to what was left of the festival. Megumi ran while picking up her phone soon after the kiss, like it was a hit-and-run operation. Ryo just stood there but picked up the phone when D.D. called ‘me’ once again.

And this, well, this is when stuff got really, really weird.

In case things went out of script, the calls should be transferred to the phone I was holding so I could improvise lines for damage control. No one eve worried about my talent to do so, and not just because I took pride in being able to perform impromptu whether the subject was music or life, but because when I said ‘it was just something I came up with at the spur-of-the-moment’ I meant ‘I pondered over every possible scenario ever beforehand like every good comedian or performer should’.

You don’t just go on a stage and play whatever is on your mind, you execute combinations of riffs and licks you trained for quite a while altering them to fit the musical scale and overall idea of the composition; if it truly was randomness they wanted, any member of the audience would do. Improvisation took a lot of preparation.

I was ready for anything Death Drive could throw at me and all Ryo had to do was make sure he wouldn’t notice her lips weren’t in synchrony with the voice as it was a three-way call with her end muted. Well, almost anything.

His scripted line didn’t change at all, as if it was pre-recorded.

I panicked and felt like hanging up immediately, but managed to keep it until the exact point where the conversation was supposed to break on the script. I knew for sure that was virtually impossible: Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect simply do not work that way. It was absolutely preposterous to consider things would go smoothly on track after Megumi’s intervention, to the point where only bad time-travel novels would ignore the change in pace.

Let me say this once and for all: there is no such thing as a clean and easy time travel plot, under no circumstances. The moment you act outside of what was supposed to, the whole scenario is bound to change sooner or later because of cause and effect, like dominoes falling one by one. Hell, even having anyone who didn’t help me in the first timeline collaborate with us now was bound to affect the scenario quickly, for they would not be where they were and that would affect the actions and reactions of other persons as a direct consequence shaping the world into something unpredictable.

To have Death Drive say the exact same line despite all that change made this whole thing entirely unbelievable.

While a ripple in the water takes a while to affect something in large scale, no one with a brain could deny a disturbance like that had to make things go off script, because a) he saw something he didn’t in the first timeline, which would alter the course of information on his brain and b) the timing of the plan was done for and unless he had a script of his own to follow. Yet such an impossible ‘coincidence’ took place therefore it was safe to assume the game had to be even more rigged than I initially thought. Whom it was supposed to help… now that was an absolute mystery.

It’s times like this I hate mystery even without capital letters.

No matter how much I didn’t like the idea of even pondering on the subject, Kouma could have easily set me up. It made sense. She could have been sided with Death Drive to begin with or even planning to catch the two of us, killing two birds with one stone. A two-way trick; I trusted her to some extent, but they don’t call it a ‘confidence game’ over nothing.

But the silliest thing I could do at that point was to quit.

“Kouma, he’s cheating.” I said when she picked up after two and a half rings. Guess she didn’t see this one coming. “He might be really killing her and getting ready to escape right now. Hell, she might be already dead.”

And it would be my fault.

“How do you know?”

Naturally a lie came to mind.

“Feedback.”
“What?” Kouma’s voice was getting breathy. “What do you mean?”
“I heard feedback from the noise that happened by my side on his end. He’s not holding the phone anymore; it’s on speaker mode now. It wasn’t before so I take it Death Drive probably got his hands busy.”

Such an obvious perversion of the truth yet if she outright denied its possibility it would be like she walked with a shirt with ‘traitor’ written all over it. Her reply was unimpressive.

“There was no feedback whatsoever, what are you talking about?”

A creature with no creativity could not do much other than try and buy time. I would not let her, especially if Reikoku-sensei’s life was in danger.

“I’m going in.”
“Shin-tsu, don’t! You’ll ruin everything! Stick to the pl-”

But I hung up and ran fast enough to feel my lungs burning before she could say anything else. I knew it would ruin her plan that was supposed to protect us all, but I’d do it. I’d walk into his trap. Why?

Because ‘me finding out the scheme’ was certainly not in her calculations one way or another, but there was a possible outcome that would save Reikoku-sensei even if Kouma was actually being honest. It was simple, crude and effective.

All I needed to do was to assassinate Death Drive.

“GUH!”

The taste and texture of bile filled the inside of my mouth and escaped it a millisecond before I could cover my lips with my crossed hands. I burned feverish and felt excruciating pain in every muscle or joint I had, my mind wavering and heart pulsing like a collapsing temple. As I watched the world spin around me I knew it was hopeless; if that was how broken I was, if that was how I got whenever I just considered murdering someone not possessed by an entity…

…I would only have one shot.

Waiting for your command.

“Huh.” I spit the vomit on the ground and bit my inferior lip hard enough to feel my canines pierce it. “SET ME ABLAZE, THE DARKEST!”

Halfway the growl the body of the young man some knew as Koukishin Shinzou was entirely embraced by the ghastly absence-of-flames and, as if watching someone else, I saw the position of my hands turn from wide open to claws. Anatomically speaking, my body contorted to an aerodynamically improbable wolf-like stance before I let myself run like the predator I needed to become for that sinister task I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform without losing my sanity over it.

The psychosomatic effects never stopped afflicting me and every step was grief, but I had the strength to keep on moving in me; where I was getting it from, I had not the faintest clue. And even without Kouma I could have found out on my own exactly where the egomaniac monster would hide and that was where I was heading. The room in the school he’d claim was made for him. The room that belonged to a club that was no longer.

The one with a plaque that had ‘d.m.c.’, the initials of both his birth name and our club, written on it.

An unpleasant coincidence, very much like me getting there and realizing the plaque was no longer there. He saw it, knew I’d look for it and probably took it somewhere else in the building to make sure I’d follow him.

Which I would instantly if I didn’t have to get Megumi out of my way for her own good.

“Bro, what the heck is going on? When that Kouma girl called I thought she was going to chew my… but yeah, she just wanted me to come here and meet you. She said you needed help.” No, Megumi, Kouma wanted you to delay or stop me. “What can I do?”

Kouma knew it was too dangerous for Megumi to come along. Of all of us Megumi was, against all odds when it came to looks, the most ‘normal’ and defenseless one: even without powers, Akane was paranoid and sneaky enough to be dangerous. What could Megumi do, really? Annoy the guy with bass music she didn’t use the correct nomenclature for? It was just electro house, for Heaven’s sake: adding wobble bass and random samples does not change the genre.

“That’s right, I need your help.” Denying it would only make it harder for me. “Do you still have that golden paper clip?”
“Wait, dude, that was months ago.”
“Do you?”

She quickly searched her bag and it didn’t surprise me that someone as obsessed with oddities (because even though the story about her eyes is probably true, it’s obvious she developed a taste for the weird over the years) would keep an object like that around.

“Here; what are you going to do, pick a lock?”
“Kind of. Give me your phone too. Don’t have the time to explain.” Cutting her way of communication with Kouma would help me avoid undesirable surprise, but even when she handed me the phone I made sure to check if it was set to vibrate and held it on my back so she wouldn’t hear or see it in case our common friend called. “Need you to make a fuss to get people distracted. Biggest you can without getting caught, ok? Do not get in trouble.”
“Alright but-”
“Megumi, now!”

The colorful girl muttered something under her breath and stormed off clearly infuriated which was expected and understandable: I knew how she hated being ordered but I also knew I needed her to be safe. While I could be sure she was not to take this to heart in the long run, it didn’t make the task any more pleasant. If being an adult meant knowing when to do what you must rather than what you want to, I had been an adult for quite a while and it was absolutely nothing special.

I knew what I had to do then so I reactivated The Darkest to remain as concealed as I could.

As I began to run through the building’s floors looking for the plaque, since finding would probably lead to finding the maniac who took it, I fell the phone vibrating and the moment I saw the name on the screen I pressed the ‘end call’ button to make sure Kouma would know she couldn’t reach Megumi even if she wanted to. Next, I looked at the on-screen clock and decided to do my best to reach Ryo by calling her the exact moment her next synchronized call from Death Drive disconnected to warn her in a way she would know it was really me instead of having Kouma act as an impersonator through text without wasting too much time and gathering unneeded attention not to avoid ruining the plan but to keep the farce to Kouma.

After a disturbing moment of rising desperation the time her line would become free finally came.

The phone in my hand vibrated again as I tried to call Shiina Ryo, but it was Akane this time; the moment I was about to punch ‘end call’ I heard the beep on my Bluetooth ear device and from then on I only had one thing in my mind.

Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon. Damn you, Kouma Yon.

Like a mantra it resonated in me as I saw through her improvisation, once again, derivative; as used in an episode of a certain American television show with a conman as a main character, her tactic now was to stop me from reaching Ryo by cluttering my available phone lines. Most if not all modern phones have the poorly thought, albeit occasionally useful, custom of just making calls pop-out on screen even when you’re doing something else, like dialing a number. The problem, at least in my case, lies in the fact I could not block these calls even if I knew how to in this phone specifically because of the nature of this attack. At that point I could not tell whether she was using both hands to control the phones or tricked Akane into desperately calling Megumi out of concern with emotional blackmail of some sort.

My greatest fear, however, was that Kouma would see an even simpler solution.

Since I had Megumi’s phone, which I was sure Kouma knew by now, she assumed it was in her best interest to clutter both lines with calls I wouldn’t pick up. It was wrong of her to think so and the reason why is that, considering how badly the ‘plan’ had failed and was pointless at this point whether she was an ally to Death Drive or not, she could just go and instead call Ryo, who would pick up promptly. It would make her unreachable to me by any means that weren’t text, and even so it could be said Death Drive took control of the phone lines I had in my possession or had some fake message software or similar. It would make her worry but would keep her under Kouma’s domain.

I needed to save her.

My mind was splitting into several sections as I kept running around the building looking for the plaque and fending off Kouma and Akane’s calls while trying to connect with Ryo until the moment I came across the two of my targets at once: at the same time I found the right door I also heard Ryo’s voice through the earpiece.

“Hello?”

There was so much I needed to say, but I didn’t have the time. The enemy that held Reikoku-sensei hostage was in front of me and for all I knew she was dying a little more every second I wasted; on the other hand, Kouma was bound to look for Ryo or me and my main concern was that Ryo wouldn’t take me seriously and walk straight into whatever trap Kouma Yon laid, whether it was for just me or not.

What if Ryo is involved in this scheme too?

“…”
“Hello?” She tried again. “Who is this?”

…isn’t it obvious? Then I’ll gladly die by her hands.

“Abort mission. Stay away from Kouma. Hide now.”
“Shin-tsu. It is really you.”

Savvy or not, to get to that extent she probably got text messages already.

“Trust me.”

Considering whom I was, that sentence sounded absolutely ridiculous. I was a con, a lying demon, a manipulator, a trickster, the last person you should trust especially when on the other side of the fence you have a friend you grew with, who has been there for you when you were sick, who had always loved you one way or another; I was just the other person, the guy from the internet, a glorified stranger who was probably faking it whenever the two of you would talk about any subject and had matching views. I was no one.

“I will.”

I could feel my heart beat everywhere in my body. Sure, Ryo could have said that and then betray me: I wouldn’t blame her. She made me happy at that time, like I really belonged somewhere. Like I finally had someone even if I had nothing else I could truly call mine.

I felt loved.

So I hung up, held Ayaka’s knife by the blade with my right hand and got myself ready to open the door and throw it at Death Drive giving priority to the head but would be okay with settling for the heart. Due to my own issues, I would probably lose my mind the moment I saw someone be killed by my own hands and, in case I ever did, would probably wake up in a hospital only to be either sent back to the Koukishin clan or a juvenile council if grandpa was finally done trying to give me chances to actually live my life the way I want. Couldn’t say I had no regrets, but it was beyond the point.

“Here goes nothing.”

I slammed the door open with my left arm and walked in the classroom ready to give up my sanity to kill a man who murdered many. I was not, however, ready to see my teacher on a chair covered in irregularly placed barbed wire and something metallic on her head that even before full comprehension made me lose hope and the ground under my feet. When faced with her body tainted in red I realized the anti-flames were gone along with my concentration and whatever resistance to gravity my body could have by standing up.

My knees faltered and I felt to the floor as the bastard laughed.

“Nyahahaha~~!”

In front of me, trepanation; her perforated cranium still had the drill he used in it. Blood everywhere and it was hard to pinpoint where the dried ended and the fresh began. She remained a perfect portrait of still-life, too beautiful in her peaceful sleep that I could only imagine would be eternal.

We were too late to save her to begin with.

His sadistic laughter seemed to echo inside my brain again and again in a multitude of hellish undecipherable noise. Chalk dust floated visibly because of the light coming across the window. I could not move once again. Insanity rose. One more person died because of me. As I saw Reikoku-sensei’s body I remembered Kouma’s words once again: ‘What if you can’t save her?’ she said regarding Ryo, but the one needing to be saved was someone else. And I failed her. I failed them all and above that I failed myself.

Reikoku-sensei was seriously injured.

My legs trembled, the knife in my hand wavered, I as a whole collapsed.

“…”

The murderer tilted his poorly-shaven head while grinning, looking just as much as a half-Japanese Nosferatu as he did one year ago.

“Hey, you’re cross-dressing again! Is it a hobby of yours I didn’t hear of or something?” He said, regarding the time when he chased after Shiina Ryo. “Will we ever meet with you in male clothing?”
“…”
“What’s the matter, where are your usual snarky retorts? Cat ate your tongue? The so called ‘greatest of all liars’ can’t handle a little manslaughter?”
“…”
“Right, you can’t just kill another person: your little Chinese friend was kind enough to give me the information for free, along with where you were now. She must really, really hate you; can’t blame her, so do I. But to think you’d be stupid enough to tell your location to someone who feels this way about you… Is this all penance to you? You think getting killed will erase the sins you committed? How many lives do you think you ruined so far, you bloody fool? How many times do you think you need to die to make up for it?”
“…”
“Me, I’m a criminal: I kill for money or vengeance and it set me aside from modern society because our values differ. My victims, however, are all done with. With my methods, it usually happens while they are already buried so they have time to reflect and despair over what brought them there because I never in my whole life did it without having a reason to, although whether you’d call it a good reason or not is up to debate. They wake up with no hope and I’m sure that after the screaming and trying to claw their way out of it like in the movies they just calm down and realize their mistake. After all, what is a coffin other than a confessional you stay in for a long time?”
“…”
“But you, you won’t change despite knowing how bad you are. You really think you are the hero despite all you’ve done to so many; was it just me, I’d be perfectly okay with just killing you and be done with it. When it’s personal I tend to do things quicker because, you see, I don’t get paid extra. I have no illusions over the matter of what I do being evil, but to think that despite your actions you’d walk away unharmed because of your family’s influence while I, a plebeian, would rot in jail for what anyone with a brain would consider smaller penalties... this is what is wrong with this country, no, this world. I know you can be a bastard when you want to, but it was just because of your family. And no, it is not fear I have of you: I despise you as a fellow human. If the rumors are to be believed, you are the most disgusting creature in existence.”
“…”
“Well, I’m no hero, but since no one stepped up a scum like me has to do the job. You and your little girlfriend messed with the wrong person because I have no problem putting my life on the line just to set things right according to my standards and while I have the power, my word is the law. She ruined her life the day she crossed my path. You ruined your life the day you crossed my path. The two of you will pay and under these circumstances, I’ll give you special treatment. Be grateful.”
“…”
“I will dismember, no, that would be too good for you; what I’m going to do first is render your arms and legs useless surgically so you can feel them and know they are there but not be able to move them. Then I’m going to find Ryo and take the two of you to a room with only a clock covered in duct tape so you will hear it tick but never know the time, and do you know what I’ll do next? Hurt her in every way I can while you watch, and boy, you will watch all of it even if I have to shove caffeine down your throat, cut your eyelids and fill the room with mirrors so you can’t close your eyes or look away. Other than making you a cripple, I won’t lay a finger on you; I’ll give her everything I prepared for both her and for you, including acts that will put me in a different class of criminals.”
“…”
“Then, when I break her mind, only then I will give her the chance of killing you for her freedom: the you who watched her pain but didn’t move a finger to help her, the one who is at fault for her suffering this much for countless days. The death she would have gotten if she was alone when she messed with me would have been way cleaner if you weren’t around, and you can be sure I’ll let her know that. It is all on you.”
“…”

It was like every little word that flew out of his mouth was handcrafted to make me furious and bring the worst of me to the surface.

“And I win either way, as the disfigured Shiina Ryo marches towards you: if she kills herself you won’t be able to bear with the guilt, and if you are the one who is killed well, then I can just shoot her in the legs before I aim for the face. She did annoy me, so there’s absolutely no way I’ll let her walk away from this just because she cooperated: as everyone in the criminal side, I believe in reduction of penalty only when it applies to me not being behind bars. Those who were wronged know.”
“…”

Letting him talk as I recovered from the shock was a good idea. In a few seconds I would get up and end this once and for all. He couldn’t match me in close combat, especially with The Darkest on me. The environment was favorable. He didn’t bring a gun or such, while I had a room full of weapons even if you ignore Ayaka’s knife. The chairs, the chalk, the floor, the desks, the windows, the curtains, the wood corners, the walls, Megumi’s golden paperclip, cell phones, hair extensions barbed wire, Reikoku’s body, my own body, The Darkest, oxygen, carbon, gravity, the world and everything in it I could reach for: humans saw most of them as objects, persons or immaterial concepts, but when I was like that they were all tools and weapons and all mine on top of that. It would not be a fight: I hated the idea of fights deep down. It would be one-sided murder and I would make it happen even if I had to use my beloved teacher’s corpse as a human-sized club to beat him to a pulp.

If the room was ‘all weapons’ there was only one target to destroy.

“I won’t let you forget it’s all because of y-”

A brick came flying, piercing through the window and landed along with shards of glass right between Death Drive and me, intrusively coming from the side very much like a ball in a foosball table. Ironic, as I felt the game was set a long time ago.

I looked out the freshly-made hole in the glass window and saw the not-so-distant sniper hanging from a tree, raising her fist against the sky like the world’s most accomplished pitcher and I knew exactly what Megumi could do.

The unpredictable action took us both by surprise and distracted the maniac for long enough to someone I knew to come inside the room through the door, crouch by my side, run, step on a chair and then a table, kick it rather than merely jump, propel herself like a falling star and reach the killer with the speed of lightning and an unidentified object in her left hand that made my gaze go to the floor searching for the knife I dropped.

When I heard the fizz I understood why Kouma had a second phone and the violent convulsion Death Drive had when it landed on the side of his neck.

The model was unknown to me but not the concept so it was easy to recognize an electroshock weapon (also known as ‘stun gun’) disguised as a mobile device. One could argue she was not using it to its original purpose, or at least the one the fabricant claims is the raison d’être in order to avoid federal eyes: to me it was absolutely obvious she did not buy the object for self-defense. Hell, she knew martial arts well enough for that purpose; this was another weapon of hers, which concerned me even more as I wondered about the effects of electricity on the foe that was now twitching on the ground.

He had a pacemaker.

“Rest assured, Shin-tsu, I read studies on this: pacemakers don’t seem to be affected by stun guns. It amazes me how deep your personal issues go, to worry about the life of someone who performed trepanation on your beloved teacher even though you were considering sacrificing your mind in order to kill him yourself.” Reading my mind not for the first time that day, Kouma Yon looked at me and spoke carelessly. “I told you I would save you. I just didn’t tell you it would be from the killing instinct within yourself and the consequences it would have on you because of your childhood trauma.”
“…she’s dead.”
“No, his ability is very similar to thanatosis: it’s slightly more complicated than I am currently willing to explain but he basically feigns death as in ‘playing possum’, his or someone else’s as long as they are at touch range. Not entirely unexpected, considering his history and even his Freudian nickname. Based on animals that use the technique I can see a few possible defensive and offensive applications for it, which apparently he couldn’t. Such a waste of potential is unforgivable; what other creatures could do with that skill is left to imagination. According to you, I have absolutely none, but even I can comprehend a naturally passive-aggressive predator would benefit greatly from the possibility of being able to both mimicry and render the prey defenseless.”
“Kouma, listen to me. She’s been out of his touch range for a moment now.” It was ridiculous how quickly I could find myself pressured rather than merely willing to get others out of denial when I didn’t have the strength to do anything for my own life. “She’s dead.”

I felt absolutely ridiculous. The boundary of not being able to withstand the sight of murder, despite of being strong enough to incapacitate me immediately and for days on its own, could easily be overcome by the craving to save others? No, not even save; just wanting to get Kouma out of denial was enough, but it shouldn’t be. Was this what my late teacher was talking about, on the whole Messiah complex topic? Morals, traumas and stigmas could be just thrown away amidst the worst conflict to avoid having someone get hurt on a much smaller scale than I was?

At some point I became everyone’s peon.

“She’ll wake up. Poison dripping off the small needles that he materialized on his fingertips is how he did it, which is more realistic and understandable than applying hallucinatory effects to a paper card. It should be off her system soon so don-” Kouma’s speech was interrupted by a single cry from the woman I assumed was dead, followed by feverish shivering that worried me greatly because the screw was still inside her head and could damage her further if she moved too much. The kung fu fighting fashionista just looked at my teacher who stopped altogether to move but still breathed loudly enough to reassure me of the fact she remained alive. “There we go. That should stir up anyone nearby so we can count on some more police and hospital calls, which shall be beneficial to us.”

Death Drive started getting up.

“Ju…just who are you?”
“I see you know Shin-tsu and Ryo, but we haven’t been introduced yet: within my boundary I am the god of possibilities.” Her eyes were expressionless but at that moment she emanated a force so overwhelming I felt my legs shake. Kouma really was something else. “My name is Kouma Yon and more important than Kung Fu, I know Psychology.”
“And who cares? You got in my way too, so you’re dead no-”
“I also know you are trying to bait KEN into killing you over what, soon after doing it, he’d realize out was nothing. The moment when this ability of yours becomes no more a disability has come, for unlike the other times you used it to coerce someone into something the third element knows how the magician’s hat trick works. This was meant to be a masterpiece, wasn’t it? To fool the lying demon who caught you in a way he could never get back at you even if there was a way he would recover from needlessly killing a human being once more. A sick joke funny only to yourself, right? You could not expect anyone to see through this, right? But now he knows too much for it to work. He might not be able to see the whole picture but he won’t kill you now and that’s all you wanted of him in the end. Even I have a considerably bigger chance of getting killed by him right now than you do.”
“…how do you know all that?”

She took a deep breath.

“Well planned time travel and analytic skills alone. You could have done it: you actually made it the first time and it got him insane just like you wanted to. In the first timeline, he almost killed me after going berserk and that was how I learned about my own power. You were going to win against him but you didn’t. You lost once again: your will is meaningless because like I said, I am god within these boundaries. Fighting me is futile, I will defeat you every time and cheat whenever you get close to win. Every movement and idea of yours are mine. So try me. Come at me if you think you’re fast enough to attack before I travel back in time once again with the information of the precise kind of blow you will try to land or cunning trick you’ll play, other than how to get to it by triggering all the right flags once again. At this point, I am invincible. You think you’re going to mess up with the mind of my favorite test subject?” Kouma Yon gave him her grimmest grin. “Not on my watch.”

Death Drive was stunned and he was not the only one.

“You… you little piece of… you ruined everything, goddamn bi-GAAARGH”

Just like that, Daisuke Miyamoto-Chevalier, also known by the self-imposed nickname of Death Drive, died of a heart attack in front of our eyes. Which was ridiculous and ironic but also definitive and undeniable.

Therefore I crashed for good.

In a moment that could easily have lasted forever in my altered perception I stood there not doing a thing until Kouma set my body in movement forcefully. She slapped me across the face so fast I took a moment to comprehend what exactly had happened and as I fell to the floor she ran back to Reikoku-sensei’s side in order to provide her primary care.

Her attention did not waver as she lectured me.

“Cut it out. You cannot blame yourself for this: it’s not your fault that he followed you here and attacked us, and it’s not your fault he died. You didn’t do this. However, if you waste our chance of saving this woman because of that trauma of yours instead of manning up and taking care of an innocent person who has done nothing but try and reach out for you when you were down, in my eyes and yours you will be a murderer.” Kouma Yon finally managed to stop or at least limit the hemorrhage a good 4 seconds after she was done talking. Her eyes were serious and tender simultaneously, raw and alive as an animal’s; whether it was my altered perception or her own growth, I couldn’t tell. “So don’t give in, Shin-tsu. Stay with me. I need you.”

And there it was: the line before the bass drop, the growl before the breakdown. A conman’s hook.

I bit and licked my inferior lip hurting it once more and felt the taste of blood acting not for the first time as a reality check for me.

“…tell me what I have to do next.”

Kouma’s confusion didn’t show in her face but in her taking five seconds to give me a reply.

“I beg your pardon?”
“You need me to do what? You’re talking to me in simpler terms like you learned to do to connect with me whenever you want me to do something for you, whether it’s answering questions about my psyche or morals or something else. I don’t care whether I’m an experiment to you at this point, just tell me what you want or leave me alone.”
“This isn’t about you.”
“I said I don’t care about your excuses right now, save them. You saw a void I can fill somewhere and now you want me to get up and fix something for you. Spill it.”

I grabbed Ayaka’s knife and got up.

“I never meant to hurt you.”
“Doesn’t matter; just tell me what I have to do.”

Walking towards the girl enveloped by the newborn sunset that came through the crack she made in the glass.

“I don’t expect you to forgive me.”
“Tell me what you want.”

When she looked me with her once again cold eyes I clenched my fist tighter on the weapon’s handle by reflex.

“I really love you.”

The last straw she needed to pull.

“Say that one more time and I’ll kill myself in front of your eyes. I’m tired of being told that and then be left alone: no more. Is this what you wanted from the start? Was this part of your plan, you godforsaken beast? Because if yes, go on, I dare you. Hell, I want you to do it. I’m right on the edge here. It’s all on you, girl.” Knife against my throat, my breathing so hard I felt my chest tremble as air moved and emptied my lungs like life was already leaving me every second. I trembled like I was falling apart and was bound to cut myself deep even before she had the time to say anything if I kept unstable like that. “Say it, I beg of you. Give me one last reason. End me.”

Patiently I waited for her to give me my final command.

“I’m sorry.”
“…”
“Shin-tsu, I’m sorry you feel this way.”
“But not for acting the way you did, do or will do. Which implies you honestly believe you are not in the wrong. And I know you for a fact don’t care about good or evil, but rather about but concepts. Damn.” Gently as I could I lowered the weapon to waist level. The time for my melodramatic act was over as I assured the fashionista was still the creature I thought her to be. It made me aware it was serious business we were dealing with or she would not have gone so far, as it would be too bothersome to do so for the world’s laziest multi-talented being. "Sometimes, just sometimes, I really hate you, Kouma Yon.”
“Thankfully, just sometimes. I can live with that in mind, like I shall do regarding the fact you would have done it if I said ‘it’ again yet won’t do it now just because I just ruined the moment for you. Double subversion would feel less gratifying to you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“For such a long-time liar, sometimes it feels like you’re not even putting enough effort in it. You too are a disappointment.”
“Did you learn my craft yet? My so-called ‘art’?”
“There is no such thing as ‘art’, just ‘art admirers’. And yes.” She nodded as if words were not enough to express the depth of comprehension she achieved. “You can stop pretending you’re not shaken up inside now.”
“Thank you.” My hands finally dropped the knife.

I knew I was way too mentally exhausted to make decisions when it got to the point I considered relying on Kouma Yon of all creatures as a moral compass. But when life gives you lemons and they are deathly sour…

“No need to play that role in front of you, good.” The stern look on her face showed no approval, however. “As the few paramedics tried to save me in the first timeline, just before I lost consciousness, I heard a report about the situation on an exploded inter-city bus through their radios: it was supposed to happen around 5 minutes from now, and there were heavy suspicions of terrorism. We won’t get the attention and primary care we need if this happens, and the lack of media coverage for this story might lead to further questioning too. I need you to stop the bomber on the inter-city bus while I focus on keeping Reikoku-sensei alive and setting up the scene to make this look like an isolated incident: having you around could ruin the latter up too.”

Then it hit me.

“You were going to just let those people die if we managed to stop Death Drive before he caught Reikoku-sensei.”
“Not now, Shin-tsu. I have priorities and so should you.”

More lives at stake and now that I knew about it, it was on me. She set me up real good, she did not know for sure I would not be able to reject it yet she bet all her chips on me going out and doing it. I hated myself for not being able to prove whatever unrealistic expectations she had of me wrong, for not being capable to let her down.

Still, I ran.

Fast as I could I advanced, much faster than I could before the Shugoshin was in me but it did not feel fast enough to me: no matter how much I tried, I no longer could bend space and time on command. The Darkest did not need to explain it to me, as I realized how give-and-take the situation was on my own; in exchange for more power I sacrificed potential and there was no easy way to change it back again.

As I ran towards the great fence that separated the eastern area from outer buildings I recognized something that made me stop for a while. Near a small, cabin-like janitor room, there were cameras were different than the ones you saw at schools and hospitals and much more akin to the ones you’d see in secret spy movies: that model was activated by heat, so I could use my skill to pass through unnoticed if I used that area, which would help in case I needed an alibi in the future for I could just say I was still at school while some sort of disaster happened, that is, if I failed.

Awfully convenient, except it was a nightmare in disguise of saving throw.

Pondering over all I knew regarding Reikoku-sensei’s backup plan, it was obvious where she stored that dreadful item of hers. I wanted to scream at myself and say it could not be, but it was just too likely to deny it no matter how high were the regards I had her in. To even consider she’d possibly keep something like that near her students made me severely nauseous; I was actually glad I had only found out about it because otherwise chances were I would have doubts about going so far for the sake of saving her life.

When I found myself standing up on the top of wall close enough to reach the one pertaining to the next building I got my body ready for jumping higher and climbing because for once during that day I knew exactly what I needed to do to reach my goal.

I was going for Parkour, the art of not just moving around obstacles but use them to your benefit for maximum efficiency. Critical thinking was a must. A wall was not there to block my way, just to be my stepping stone: it was all terrain, a world made purely of it. No more limits: it was time for me to stop thinking of common, linear paths to walk in and start running in vectors.

Traceur, on.”

A jump into nothingness that ended abruptly when my fingertips touched the walls and from that moment on I was one with everything; a single layer of the flames enveloping my hands and foot, so thin it was not much more than pitch black contour wavering like ink but never leaving for real. It made me feel like I was moving on vacuum, which was probably not far from the truth.

By both using it and deactivating it I alternatively propelled and glued myself on the terrain composed of all things over the houses and buildings of that developing town. At the apex of the nearby constructions of concrete picking the ones closer to touch the skies in altitude in order to avoid being seen I moved but instead of feeling as a hunter I was free like an unparalleled, unleashed beast albeit constrained by the time limit: I was simultaneously carefree and worried sick; I loved being alive and I hated myself; I was a being and I was not.

During that moment I got the same impression I had during the fight against Ryo’s Shugoshin, that it all had been preparation for this. Lately I’ve been getting this feeling quite a lot… every little thing feels like build-up to something else, and it’s supposed to be huge.

Very much like the strength of the wind blowing my skirt.

Part 4[edit]

My heart could not decide if it wanted to race or stop fully as the bus was doing in order to pick up more passengers.

Breathe.

The bus was more crowded than I assumed it would be due to it not being a weekday and all, but I guess even in smaller cities people go around and have fun. They didn't consider the risk of being inside a vehicle that would blow up and kill them all due to a sudden terrorist attack; not everyone is like Akane.

Looking at the window I watched both the inside and outside of the car for movement while the back door released a bickering couple who would probably get closer if they realized they averted a disaster if I failed to stop the bomber and the front door welcomed anyone who would walk in join those who died in the first timeline and were still at risk in this one.

Of those waiting for a bus I saw some making room for a soon-to-be passenger and the moment I heard the door close I knew there was no coming back.

Breathe.

I recognized the only person who got in the bus within milliseconds despite the trucker hat, jeans jacket and hiker backpack (which I could only assume was her definition of discrete disguise) because it was the one who hated me the most. Lang Shou seemed considerably more than just slightly distressed when she saw me looking at her while dressed in drag. I too was shaken up inside as it was the usual whenever I saw her, which I hadn’t in a while.

Her right eye twitched.

“Pervert!”

She said in Cantonese, and if I knew her it was probably only to scan if there were any speakers of the language in the bus; if that was the case, they’d probably just start screaming or tackle me. Yes, because of that and not because I was cross-dressing on a bus.

Nothing happened, so I did the obvious.

“Pervert!” I replied to her enthusiastically as if the word was a greeting, and then thought about what addendum in Japanese I’d have to put together with that to make it convincing enough. “It’s nice to see you again, Lang Shou.”

While her face was clearly a painting of annoyance, the fact she sit down by my side when there were other free places in the bus finished the job of reassuring the passengers that we were the right sort of acquaintances.

Even though we were not.

“…how did you know?”
“I have my sources. You seem to be everyone else’s.”

On usual situations I would not be so harsh with her but I was seriously ticked off by the result of her actions.

“There’s nothing wrong with that I do, just means to an end.”

Irresponsible brat.

“I hope you meant Death Drive’s, because your plan only led to him passing away.”
“Wouldn’t expect less of you.”
Did my best to keep myself from showing emotions when she said that, can’t tell if I succeeded. “But I guess he was pretty useless, failing like that despite being a little more than mildly famous.”
“You really don’t know anything about this business: an assassin’s job is to be concealed, so whenever someone’s name is out there for people like you to hear it means he might be a good killer but a lousy professional.”

Scorn was shining clear as day on her face.

“You’d know, wouldn’t you? Murderer.”
“…”

There wasn’t much I could say in reply to that.

“What’s the matter, murderer? Is it bad that I call you that, murderer?”
“…stop.”
“Or what, will you kill me too?”
“…”
“Oh, the little murderer got depressed, boo hoo.”
It was not a very big step, from tomboy to bully. “Don’t give me those sad puppy eyes. Even now, you still look like a Shih Tzu dog.”

Oh, this sure brings back memories: so that’s where I got the nickname from, then. Not that I’ll ever correct the mistake, would be kind of embarrassing after all. I’ll remain using the ‘Shin-tsu, out of two of the same kanji’ excuse. Better than letting it be known so Kouma can refer to me as ‘Puppy-kun’.

I had more urgent topics to address, too.

“So at the end of the day you’d kill yourself to divert the paramedics’ attention but not explode now that you’re here with me? When you could hurt me and me alone?”
“Hurt you? By killing you? Even now you try to trick me, you lying demon? I know very well that would be bliss, especially compared to what you did to me. You don’t deserve that: I’ll take it out on the ones near you until you are a walking pile of nerves surrounded by corpses you watched growing cold. I will break your mind and heart and I won’t lay a finger on you to kill because I want you to do it yourself to atone for what you did. It will never be enough, the suffering. Whatever you build, I’ll crush it. Forever and always, until you finish what you started and kill me or decide to suicide. Just be aware of this: as long as I am alive you don’t get to live a happy life after what you’ve done, and I’ll make sure of that.”

That was when I approached her, hugged her tight and released hot breath down her neck to make her shiver, with a superior level of success than I expected to achieve. It was obvious to me she was almost melting as experience dictated. Good to know some things never change.

I held her hand and rested my forehead against hers, looking the girl in the eyes.

“Lang Shou, I am sorry. I can’t take back what I did and God knows I would if I could but you need to realize you won’t gain anything from doing this. This isn’t you, so stop while you can. Please. I don’t want you to suffer a second longer.” My hands ran down her backpack but still delivered the pressure to her body like I wanted them to. Her shivers were strong enough to make me wonder if I had done something to give her a seizure. “I care about you. Either go back to China to your parents or stay here with me; things are never going to be the same, but I can give you a place you can call ‘home’. I am still your friend.”

Furious, she pushed me away, slapped me and got up but didn’t leave before delivering a dramatic one-liner.

“I hate you.”

Not surprised: it was the second time I heard that one on that day and she made sure to say it in Japanese before storming off the bus the moment it stopped, but at the very least I did not end up receiving the mother of all beatings from a visually warped version of her in dreamland. Either way, I already had gotten what I needed to.

Personally, I hated pickpocketing. It wasn’t as thrilling as some might assume it could be, because it was more a case of ‘either you know the trick or not’; no room for cunning talk or similar when it comes to the actual thing, just before and after and it kind of beat the point of going unnoticed. It was no fun but as any adult can tell you, life is not always doing what you like to do.

So I stole both the bomb and the detonator from her backpack and now I had to disassemble the bomb before she could realize I did it because she could notice they were missing and try to meet me on the next stop.

Frankly, that was the easier part of the day: Lang Shou was an amateur whose only talent seemed to be getting into trouble still. Her bomb was pretty crude looking (which helped me because anyone who saw it would dismiss it as a toy and not panic) and was built quite poorly on top of that. The detonator was short distance-only and unrelated to the bomb, which would go off around two stops from where she dropped, so one possibility is that she would have tried to blow somewhere else up just in case if I hadn’t been a dirty thief and taken both the red herring detonator and the silly-looking bomb. I have to grant her that she did better than usual in that particular aspect but I could only guess whether it was because she wanted to go down along with everyone or the limit of her design and engineering skills: for all I knew she could have mixed two projects she got in books up.

Upon the realization I wasn’t even followed back home I felt lie I could no longer hide my disappointment and let the post-traumatic stress kick in. I wanted to feel despair and rage and get the overwhelming, exhilerating depression out of my mind even if it meant crying and throwing up for days until I got hallucinations due to the deprivation of water and nutrients. I needed to scream at the heart of the world because I could tell I had it in me.

It never came despite the copious amounts of build-up.

Like every single thing that ever happened, the events of that day were ‘proven’ anti-climatic and dull when the hindsight bias was applied; the Historian’s Fallacy made everything obvious and absolutely ridiculous to say the least, and to pinpoint the truth by hypothesizing after the results were known was nearly impossible because most things aside, the simple presence of time travel in a case blurs the lines between cause and effect beyond recognition. Still, one could say that above ‘good’ or ‘bad’, Kouma did ‘right’: the definition of the latter being up to debate. Now, Lang Shou…

...she killed me inside a little more.

It was like a bad joke; to think someone so incapable and inexperienced was willing to try and cause so much damage to so many over nothing, or at the very least nothing that had to do anything with them.

It was a bad joke because it was the exact same with me.

The news reports a week from that day were still all about how a high school girl from a small-to-medium sized town saved her teacher’s life using only a mobile phone with internet access and a handbag’s contents, and it didn’t take them long to dig her up and realize she was the same child prodigy who won some art prizes a few years ago. Instant sub-celebrity; blogs spawned; people would talk to her whenever she walked down the street.

The biggest hospital in the nearby city, where Reikoku-sensei was immediately admitted to and is being kept until she wakes up from her comatose state, even offered Kouma a fully paid scholarship on a college above average and future internship may she choose Medicine as her career. I immediately assumed she was going to accept it for all the wrong reasons, and I could not blame her for that because I could easily see myself doing the same.

That maiden was too a knight and she was 『Ryo’s』.

Part 5[edit]

“Come in.”
“Excuse me.” I said, dodging something on the ground that was probably an elaborate trap her cat assembled to keep strangers out.

As soon as I entered Ryo’s apartment the realization dawned on me; before seeing the image with my own eyes it sounded just like a story from a TV show or a book. It was too surreal for me to accept it as a fact at once, even to someone who is used to the unusual such as me. Still, one could easily tell just from seeing the way the place was a complete mess Ryo’s story matched the environment.

Shiina Ryo’s mother left her house.

The reasons are irrelevant to me because whether it was depression or something else the fact her daughter was left behind remains unchanged. I should not judge without having all information on a subject, but it’s pretty obvious to me it was a mistake and so should be to anyone with a drop of common sense.

You don’t walk away on your teenage daughter.

People her… our age are not expected to live by themselves with no support, in good medical condition or not. Even with the exceptionally good amount of money my family deposits every two weeks I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be okay if I didn’t have the support of Reikoku-sensei, Kouma and Ryo. It takes more than financial stability to make a stable person.

From a mathematician’s point of view it might sound unreasonable but there is another factor, something else we need to function other than the strictly necessary physical resources; I’m not sure if it’s human contact or anything like that, but I’m aware of the fact I wouldn’t be able to live a complete life without their support. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and too young to deal with those matters right now. My best friend is living a situation similar in theory yet completely different in intensity.

I am fully aware of the fact I am not, however, old and numb by apathy enough to be able to ignore the painful silence in this house and just live my life as if it wasn’t my problem.

Both out of curiosity and concern I opened her refrigerator to find only half-empty bottles of water, a piece of fruit so old I cannot recognize which kind and cups of cheap instant ramen, which I presumed to have been her primary meal for the time she lived alone. My heart ached just from imagining Ryo working late on the nearby town to pay the bills her irresponsible mother (and that’s not judging but stating a fact) left for her along with the ones that would come every month, and then coming home to eat an unhealthy, poor excuse for a meal and sleep for a few instants before getting up to diligently go to school in order to avoid suspicious looks from people who love to gossip. With her health as it was she certainly could not afford to have such a routine.

At that moment I realized there are many people in the same situation as hers out there and a lot of people living under much worse conditions, yet what pains me the most is to find out there was someone so close to me living like that while I was completely unaware.

Some could see this as a very strong attribute of hers, to try and go this far without anyone’s help: I think that was selfish of her.

But who am I to blame her for not asking for help? I probably wasn’t even around when this started and even if she told this to Kouma Yon, chances are Kouma’s mother would have just reported this to Child Services or something like that because that is what a responsible law-abiding person should do, technically flawless but the results in practice are not the same you’d expect by following the theory, often much darker instead. Not only that: when I had my own problem in the past my first reaction was running away despite the fact Ryo was the first person I saw right after the whole thing happened so I don’t think I can easily be considered reliable and centered. She was probably too scared to even think, without anyone to help her.

In the end, aren’t we all?

“Shin-tsu, could you come here?” She said, in a low voice that could barely be heard reverberating in the apartment. “I think I’ve got everything I nee-”

But her sentence was cut due to shock but the apparently fated silence was avoided by the fall of the box she had been holding onto, and it was definitely my fault. The reason for that reflex was my sudden movement in her direction and the subsequent action, holding her in my arms as what I imagine to a father embracing his children after they got hurt. Perhaps the strength I used was a little bit more than I intended, possibly because she was not the only one with parental issues.

“It’s okay, Ryo. You can let it out now. I'm here.”

I expected and almost wished her to say one of her extremely long speeches full of data or have a retort that was both witty and innocent but her reply was awfully short, almost minimalist.

“…thank you.”

And then she cried in a rather loud, impolite and tangibly honest manner for a while.

Later when Shiina Ryo decided she had cried enough to be able to stand it, Akane’s mother was sensible and drove us around without making many, if any questions. The path travelled by the van seemed not only melancholic but empty as if the only thing in the world who felt like talking was the delivery car’s motor that resonated soundly and accentuated the shades of grey present in every street.

When we were carrying the final boxes to my place I was approached by our hippie driver, who not as much as offered but forced me to accept a certain amount of cash out of her eco-friendly wallet I was pretty sure she could not simply spare. I tried again and again to say we would be fine because I had some extra money, but she made me take it out of kindness and care. Few would be able to go that far to help strangers these days, regardless of their beliefs and views of the world.

It was definitely not a question of trust, because she trusted us enough to give us money she worked hard to make but not enough to believe me when I said we had the financial situation under control. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to ask for help or even accept the kindness of semi-strangers.

Perhaps I am being biased as Kouma said I was once again, but her individual altruistic action made me consider a hypothesis I have long ignored: perhaps there is a chance mankind still has hope. I might be wrong and believing that might be a mistake, but that is a privilege the young are given.

Like this thing I’m doing.

Bringing a female friend to live with me might be a mistake, both of us being pretty broken as human beings, young and not having an adult to look after us in the house. Still, even if it turns out to be an error in the long run, I have to do it now and probably won’t regret a thing.

Not out of gratitude or romantic feelings but out of something I could not yet define and probably never will. There are things better off unnamed and unspoken.

…no, it’s too late for that.

Overlooking things on purpose and at command is an acquired skill used mostly to avoid red herrings and mind control. My version of it has saved my life a few times and probably got into someone else’s path many others. To live through life as if only my life matters and seeing others as either obstacles or peons is not the prettiest way of seeing this world but I’m sure there are worse ways. Not that it justifies every ugly action I might make to achieve what I wish for, but then again I never claimed to be a good or bad guy.

Thus I will help her out of egoism.

Because making her happy makes me happy, because knowing she suffers hurts me, because comforting her when she is sad soothes my heart as well. More than relate to, she understands me and vice-versa. I don’t even regret coming here, despite all the trouble we have been put through so far, because deep down I know I like the way Ryo and the others make me feel in general.

Thus, I will keep acting so their reactions will bounce back hard enough to generate reactions in me too. One way to look at this situation is to believe that’s how human relationships do work and thus I am not being wrong or a bad, just seeing this whole thing the wrong way because of my wicked, broken and rather cynical view of life, byproduct of years of inconstancy.

There is no way for me to see it like everything is so black-and-white simple; I am just not that optimistic.

Love, in any form, is a flawed concept in my opinion so I say let’s leave it at egoism, and at least for now my word is final; not because I can’t feel any love, but merely because I cannot bring myself to believe in it so easily. Not to say I deny its existence, but I can’t just believe it like you can’t trust a travelling vendor with magical beans smiling his face off. But then again, who’s to tell? Maybe it is an honest fellow...

I'm more than quick to run away but not one to know when to stay, thus I shall learn to balance between those two or get caught in another net. As long as I rely on others to save me things will never be okay, so I’ll let Time test Love and tell me the results before I make any deals I might regret.

Part 6[edit]

Obligatory time skip.

Every day I went to the hospital to visit Reikoku-sensei, hold her hand and read her the news or a novel even though the doctors told me, half-heartedly for it wasn’t in them to crush a highschooler’s apparent idealism, that her brain was far from operational at that point and it was very unlikely that she could receive any of the information, let alone recover.

The nurses were a lot nicer to me after it was clear I wasn’t romantically involved with her or anything, thinking I was some sort of angel-like student and I could see them tearing up whenever I gave them a bittersweet smile after a whole afternoon and twilight of being there and leaving for another inter-cities travel.

Sadly I felt a great amount of guilt despite knowing she was ready for an outcome even worse than this. It was my purgatory, to watch her alone. On a particular day, however, I went there with company. The three scheming students whose Pyrrhic victory resulted in her vegetative state: Kouma, the derivative polymath; Ryo, the splitting designer; and me, the vague executor.

Anomie, ambiguity and ambivalence sitting in a hospital room.

Without us asking like the last time she went out to buy us something, Kouma left with the promise of bringing three coffee cans. Instead of talking to Ryo immediately, I knew better than to trust the fashionista to just leave us alone.

My instincts were right.

I caught Kouma looking at us by using the many pieces of metal and glass present in the hospital as mirrors like Akane did and then something became painfully obvious to me. The reason why it was possible Kouma Yon would able to save me by moving her mind back in time just once without her lack of presence in the second timeline at the places she was in the first affecting the outcome, against all odds that exist in such a scenario is so simple and bland my mind just ignored automatically. A bias of mine.

She knew every little thing and every single move I’d make because she watched me from very close.

All.

The.

Time.

Honestly, I did not know what I should do in the light of such evidence and the reason was simple.

It was a lie of hers; whenever a con tells you it’s all over, doubt.

Kouma saying it was the first time she travelled back in time was absurd. No matter how good she was, she simply could not do it properly the first time. Not to that extent, no sir, she couldn’t. I knew she couldn’t create anything from scratch, so how could she come up with a plan like that in one day when it was hard to believe she would be able to do in a lifetime? Wasn’t it safe to assume her absolute lack of creativity was what got her ‘stuck’ with Ryo in the first place, too? The only logical explanation I could see was that her plan was a combination of several she has seen through the several timelines she has been in while searching for the best possible outcome.

Considering how things turned out, it wouldn’t surprise me in any way if even the flaws in the plan, in making me take the lead by telling me I shouldn’t, in having Reikoku-sensei harmed even were all just a well-done mix-and-match game for her. If the latter was true, the hypocrisy in having her there in the hospital room would be overwhelming and I was prone to reacting with violence...

…unless there was a good explanation to go so far as putting our teacher into a coma. After all, assuming she has gone several times back in time and this is the best scenario it goes without saying that for some reason the other ones must have been, at the very least in Kouma’s point of view, worse outcomes. She did see herself as a limited god beyond morals, so it was not much of a stretch, to assume she'd deliver a simultaneously preemptive and retroactive sentence as an all-knowing judge with the power to stop tragedies. What I needed to know was whether a tragedy for Kouma Yon was the same as a tragedy for all of us or if I was within range of a powerful enemy.

Either way I had a sure mode of testing it once and for all.

“Kouma, Ryo. Listen.” I said, going in for the kill; the stakes were high enough to ruin all that had been building up but I just wasn’t done with the game yet. “I have to tell you guys about Reikoku-sensei’s backup plan.”


Afterword[edit]

Greetings, I am Ryuno.

It has been little more than a year since I wrote my first ‘Afterword’, hasn’t it? A lot changed since then, but one thing didn’t: writing this novel was absurdly exhausting too, and while the intensity of it might have changed (and it’s safe to say it escalated to levels I was not aware of) the essence of the exhaustion did not. That said, I take pride in saying I worked on some of the deficiencies of the first volume in this one.

I am really glad you stayed with me so far and thankful for the friends I made due to writing this. To meet such like-minded people and even be able to have some individuals fairly different from me relating to my story, these were things that filled me with joy. You all made a creature really happy just by saying “hey, I read your novel” and replying nicely to my common honest and self-depreciative answer, “sorry about that”.

As I am fairly sure I mentioned several times before, and pretty much everywhere, from the moment I decided to get serious about the story the first novel was established as build-up. Not just it, to be honest: even now that I merged the plot of two stories into “d.m.c.” the schedule remains for three novels that come before the story I actually want to write yet don’t find myself ready to as a writer. While I am adept of the philosophy of always aiming for a higher level than the one you usually can achieve and forcing yourself to become the worker to perform it properly rather than dumbing down the product so you can manufacture it with the means you have at the moment, I simply cannot release the story I actually want to finish because it is a good concept that deserves a better execution than I can provide now: if I let it out as it is, I’d be better off just releasing it as an outline and letting other people fill the blanks or write it for/along with me.

Which I have been tempted to many times in the past, to be frank.

I would not be entirely honest to anyone if I said this book took a year to write, and a better alternative would be to say it took a year to get done with. Were procrastination a magical skill I would be one amazing creature. My editor, Hegemon and close friend Zehava gave some amazing input in the matter, which I will transcribe here.

Get over the whole "if I'm not in the mood" thing on creativity. The reason I even have to hit you with deadlines is because you don't get work done for a dog's age unless you're being pressured. I understand that, and I know I can be like that too, but I cannot abide when other creative people claim lack of muse or whatever as their excuse not to get things done. If it's a weakness of yours, then just bite your arm and force your way over it. I'm aware of all the burdens you have now, but I've also seen you goof off when you could have been planning out your schedule and reducing it.

I know you made fun of me half a year ago when I told you about planning my days. Hell, I made fun of me too. But the thing is, even that rough outline has helped me get things done that I'd never have gotten done otherwise. So as a friend, as a client, as your editor and technical superior, I'm telling you this.

Start planning.

Force yourself to stick to your plan and get stercus done already.

It was very convincing to say the least. Sure I had a lot more on my mind and considerably less time than I had when I wrote the first volume because I have been working a day job with shifts that are, from most points of view, disproportional to their remuneration. Even after work, I do not have the time I used to have because my priorities have changed along with emotional needs. I am not complaining in any way, for there has not been a time in my life when I could say I was “genuinely happy despite unfavorable, not to say generally soul-crushing odds” without lying as much as Shin-tsu does.

During the course of this year I failed people and I am sorry they feel bad. Like Kouma, however, I have my reasons and will stand by them unless they are not enough to give me the results I require. What I am saying here is that the only situation in which I would have done things different would be if I could get equivalent or better results than now. Judging by the time travel/Butterfly Effect mechanics I not only believe in but know exist and function not only in the book, all of this is very likely and unlikely simultaneously, but either way absolutely unpredictable thus not worth pondering over.

Other than that, postulate on everything: such is the nature of Science: as long as there is a possibility, question. Sometimes we forget about that and it leads to bad, derivative work. While humans are a species that learns by imitation (much like monkeys) better than by, say, osmotic inspiration, the problem with having derivative scientists lies in the fact you don’t get, if we were to compare them to musician terms, the core of Progressive Metal.

You get Metalcore instead, a whole scene of.

At some point, though, it is bound to spawn higher quality products by mixing with other subgenres and experimenting, defying tropes and playing clichés straight when you expect them not to specifically because it is an author tract to avoid them. Even the worst specimen of anything has to have a quality or two in order to survive even if they seem to be nothing but flaws. Natural selection, albeit limited by the absolute randomness of Chaos, tends to be too harsh on the ones who try and escape the roulette of abilities, be them uncanny or not. I refer to both the escapees and the abilities.

What does this all have to do with the book?

I refuse to write the same book twice and am sorry if you felt bad by how your perceptions of the characters changed by the end of this one. If you stay tuned, it will happen again and again so you might enjoy it more next book. However, I do not apologize for writing them.

The first story established the setting: that is a given. The purpose of this one is to point flaws in it and raise questions; as a consequence, I understand how it could have been seen as a much darker tale, even though once you re-read the first book you will be able to see better how the darkness was always lingering and you just did not know about it much like fish probably don’t have a word for water, but would have if you made them aware of it. Alternatively, you would only feel that way because I told you of this possibility, the effect known as the “Historian's Fallacy”. After the author says a character is X, it’s easy to see traces of it even when they weren’t there.

Which is one of the reasons why I raised more questions than delivered answers this time; the other would be to make sure people would get the point of having a first- person perspective on a book nowadays, as in the postmodern world.

Shin-tsu lies.

Maybe not all the time, maybe not about everything, but he clearly does and it’s time for everyone to consider questioning him at least once in a while: I had to go and establish it as a fact that he does, however, because the nuance just wasn’t reaching most and that was probably a direct result of me not being a good writer in the first place. Kouma’s chapter, more than give insight on the character, did not show this as much as shove it on the reader’s face.

What else is left to be asked, then? Well, several things. I will list some to entice speculation, so feel free to make threads about it or pass by the official blog to discuss these with me (although answering them directly would most likely count as spoiling the next book).

  • How exactly did Kouma Yon know what Death Drive would say after the things went out of what was planned (pretty easy one if you were paying attention to how the story went, but I will state it on screen next time to make sure no one misses it)?
  • Who is Koukishin Shinzou?
  • On whose side is Kouma Yon?
  • What happened to Morimoto Ayaka?
  • From the point the festival happened to the final scene in the hospital, it is implied at least one week passed: how did the conflict between a Ryo on-the-run, a potentially dangerous Kouma and a paranoid-but-with-reasons-to-be Shin-tsu got “resolved” to a point where the three of them can be in the same room?
  • Regarding the many magical and odd things one can only assume (based on the evidence presented so far) to be Mystery, was Shin-tsu lying about his past, telling the truth or being delusional?
  • Where is Ryo’s mother?
  • What the hell did Shin-tsu do to Lang Shou?
  • Why is Rin so perfect (asked by my editor)?
  • What exactly happened between Ryo, Death Drive and Shin-tsu (prequel, prequel!)?
  • How will things progress now that the one person who knew what was actually

going on is in a coma? Will Shin-tsu keep his word and take Reikoku’s place?

  • What was the teacher’s backup plan and why is Shin-tsu so afraid of it?

If you think of any more, contact me on http://thatguyfroma.wordpress.com . Next book is about acceptance and reconstruction and in order to close the cycle properly before starting the story-I-really-want-to-write I need to know what subplots I need to solve. I want to be sure I can give this story the “end” it deserves.

Thank you for your time, hope you enjoyed this and I can’t wait to meet you again.

January 29th, 2012.

- Ryuno.