The Longing Of Shiina Ryo:Volume2 Chapter 4: Ryo II

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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.”


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