The Longing Of Shiina Ryo:Volume3 002

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When I was done reading it all loud and clear, I gave Ryo a nod telling her it was okay for her to speak her mind even though we both and quite possibly the bound and gagged Kouma in front of us too knew everything what she would say. It was undeniable for anyone with half a brain.

“No matter how you look at it, she was trying to use you.”

This happened in the second floor of my house during the week that followed the festival that got known on national television mostly due to the Death Drive incident. Of the beings involved in that conversation, one was now a kidnapper; the second was a runaway and the third was being held back by belts to ensure she had absolutely no chance of harming the other two in any way.

The irony in the fact the kidnapped one and only person of the trio whose motions were restrained was indeed the most dangerous of us reached ridiculous levels.

How far we had come from being together in class, eating lunch on the school building rooftop or relaxing together on Le Ciel Bleu? Hell, just how far had we come from fighting together against an otherworldly creature inside a warehouse?

There stood the three of us, the quintessential manifestation of the Japanese aesthetic Wabi-Sabi worldview: based on the concept of transience, this concept that came from the Buddhist’s ‘Three Marks of Existence’ glorified imperfect things such as me, impermanent ones such as Shiina Ryo and the incomplete ones like Kouma Yon. On many levels it was all about how raw and asymmetrical all things could be but not necessarily about how far one could push art before it was grotesque. Different from Dada or modern anti-art movements, the culture Kouma Yon referenced whenever she explained what I believed to be her personal philosophy on the cafe was about inherent flawed beauty and mostly focused on how time would pass us all.

In a similar way, as it was, the former relationship between the three of us could no longer possibly last: Kouma had used me and also lied to and hid information from both of us. It was safe to assume Reikoku-sensei’s state could have been prevented with her powers and thus she, consciously or not, chose not to. It was blood on her hands.

Things would never, ever be the same.

So when she showed up at my door I was ready for the worst and prepared myself to kill or die once more, quite possibly both because I was still me and all. However, she assured me all she needed was to see Ryo and was willing to do anything for that. At that point I asked if she told anyone she was coming to see me and before she could finish her answer denying it like I knew she would whether it was true or not, I knocked her out quickly and ensured she had no concealed tracking devices on her.

How I did it is absolutely irrelevant, not worth mentioning in any way.

Even though she seemed surprised as she woke up covered in a sheet tied by belts so she couldn’t move and her mouth muffled with tape and cloth, I still had to consider it was all part of an insanely complex plan of hers. There was a chance she lied about the ‘save point’ limitation in her power or even if it was true, that she realized I would not tell her about Ryo’s hiding places even while tortured and decided to lure the girl here. There was no way I could keep her for long, someone with actual parents and now a rising flavor-of-the-week sub-celebrity, restrained at my home for long so I had to risk it one way or another. As I needed to know how deep it was I chose to inform her I would bring Ryo to a meeting later.

The only condition was that we, Ryo and I, would judge her for what she did and decide her fate. Not like she had much of a choice, but she nodded in affirmation and it led to the current situation in which I told Ryo she could come out of the hiding spot only the two of us knew. Ryo and I in chairs on one side of the room from where we could observe every moment and Kouma alone with her stomach down and limbs completely tied up.

“Ryo.”
“Yes, Shin-tsu?”
“Can we begin? I don’t know how long we have before her parents get worried or something.”
“On my way here I gave them a call and told them we’d be working together on something and she’d probably sleep at my place later. Wouldn’t be the first time we did that, and even if they visit my place and no one is there, their first idea will be to call my phone. We can always improvise from that point on.”

It was simple and effective; not perfect, but I was impressed with her continuous development.

“Good thinking.”
“Thank you. Go on.”

And so I turned around to face my hostage.

“Kouma, I know you liked Reikoku-sensei a lot. Even when you assumed I had some sort of relationship with her, you could only find fault in me for that, so I take it you respected and admired her considerably more than our average classmate, especially because it did not seem to come from fear or at least not the same sort of fear. When she proposed the mystery club thing, I thought you accepted with the sole purpose of protecting Ryo, but that wasn’t it, right? No, the way I phrased it was wrong. I mean, you wanted to protect Ryo alright, but it wasn’t from mystery... you knew she’d accept the offer and you knew more about it than I assumed you would. And I should have expected that, because if when she comforted you after Ayaka’s incident wasn’t enough of a sign, the fact you were not opposed to or question her disappearance at all should be. I can see Ryo overlooking this because the monsters-of-the-week are supposed to vanish after their defeat and the story about her parents going away could be perceived as ‘closure’, crude but no less than what’s expected from a weekly show or pulp fiction magazines that forfeit proper characterization and details in order to churn out more content in general, but I don’t see you accepting that.”

The more I spoke, the harder Kouma Yon would lower her gaze in what I wasn’t sure if it could be called ‘shame’.

“Shin-tsu, if you put it that way...” Pondering over what I had said, Shiina Ryo scratched her left cheek gently. “Looking from your standpoint, I can understand why Kouma’s behavior was out-of-character for someone without any more information than the two of us indeed... but you unintentionally oversimplified my rationalization, big time: that kind of trope requires at least one more on-screen meeting between the main characters and the victim-of-the-week after the monster is defeated in which she should be shown to change her ways or at the very least comically lampshade the fact nothing changed but the supernatural activity aspect if she chooses to persist indulging in her troubling, erroneous ways. As it didn’t happen, I decided to use the Internet to gather data on her family and found out they were actually living somewhere other than this city, but for the whole past year. When I thought it couldn’t get any weirder, I found social network cached pages of a site that exploits vulnerabilities in public profiles that freaked me out a little.”
“Wait, you didn’t mention it before.”
“Someone was too busy having fun with the student council president and running away from me to listen.”

Zing.

“Should have seen that coming.” She was exactly like me in many ways so I could not really hold it against her: I knew she was going to keep a grudge for a while. “I’m not trying to get away with it, but since we already discussed that subject before and even with your plan we should still assume we’re on a very limited time-frame here, so what did you find?”

Ryo shook her head lightly.

“You couldn’t even if you wanted to. Jokes aside...” She said, and I knew my cute friend was not joking at all; she did forgive me, but an unspoken condition for that was I could never forget and make the same mistake twice. One could argue it meant she really, really liked me; there was no other reason to make sure I wouldn’t forget it that much. “...what I saw was Ayaka’s mother grieving over her recently deceased daughter in picture comments, posted halfway last year.”

My vision started shaking as the migraine rose to alarming levels and I could even feel the veins in my face throbbing as blood rushed through them. I knew very well what that implied and it made me sick to my stomach.

“No way.”

It just never ended.

“Way. She wasn’t in our school register database for this year either. Not in the web-site's file directory, not in the Principal ‘s personal computer and definitely not in any computer connected to the horribly-unsecured network inside the school’s infrastructure. For all the administration board knows, there was no Morimoto Ayaka in our classroom.”
“How is that even-” At first I was worried about things like methods and then it kicked in, my numbness and dizziness gone in a second as I felt my eyes get sharper in a sense that I could swear was physical. “For this year, you say? Are you implying there are registers of her in previous years or other areas?”

The catlike smile I adored so much glowed on her face.

“Just a brain warmer, I don’t want you getting dazed again any time soon because we have a long road of discussions ahead of us.” I couldn’t help but see what Kouma meant by me being biased, especially because if it was the fashionista doing the same short ‘mind game’ trick to me I would have not assumed it was innocent. Though, considering we were having a trial to understand whether she was guilty trying to get me killed or not right there and then, saying it was entirely baseless was a stretch too. “It seems Ayaka was a Reikoku-sensei’s student in the same class as Megumi and Akane. Have they ever mentioned anything to you?”
“Not at all.” I stared at Kouma for a moment and wondered if the disapproval her face was trying to hide was because she was still tied, because we were closer to the truth or because Ryo was learning the bad custom to drop honorifics from me. Either way, the best she could do at the time was grunting: the real reason why she was gagged on top of bound was so whatever attempt to change the direction of the conversation by using Chaos Theory and her ability would not happen through voice, which would definitely limit her. There were other possible means, sure, but there was only so much I could do at the moment. “We didn’t talk about their previous year that much, but I guess I can give them a call and set up a meeting.”
“Discussing it over the phone would be no good?”

She was still a little green in that aspect, but I understood correcting her by exemplifying why that would be a naive decision would be better than outright telling her it was wrong. After all, it was a much better way of teaching something than the way I was taught the same lesson.

“There’s only so much one can get from a call, information-wise, and there would also be no stopping them from hanging up on me. We still don’t know what’s happening for sure, although I see where you’re heading. It does have all the signs and set up. Kouma, can you figure it out yet? Or rather, how much did you know about this?”
“...”

As expected, Kouma Yon would not show any desire to reply by making muffled sounds, instead remaining quiet as a sacrificial lamb: she knew all she had to do for Ryo to feel like getting the tape out of her mouth and defend her case was to moan and I wouldn’t be able to keep her like that, but she did not. And so Shiina Ryo kept on.

“So, as one can presume, we have the basic outline of a ghost story of sorts developing in front of our eyes.” And it made some sense, sort of. “Still, my research showed Ayaka’s parents are alive and well at least, so this was a situation in things are either all right or too wrong for us to get involved with if, at least if the plan to give you a fresh start as a normal person remains untouched. To be more specific, ‘all right’ would be if whatever Reikoku-sensei did sent the ghost to another plane of existence so she won’t haunt the classroom anymore, ‘too wrong’ would be if there was anything else going on. When our teacher, who two days before that decided to handle the matter on her own but accepted and even encouraged my idea, acted like nothing happened, I decided to call her bluff to figure out whether she was doing it to try and scare us off by implying there would be other cases or genuinely trying to recruit us, which would be even more out-of-character. So I gave her an answer that implied we only needed the resources because it was a sure thing we would go on, and Yon-chan followed suit despite me not having arranged that with her before.”
“...”

One more gaze at the silent Kouma made me wonder if she was now pretending not to feel betrayed and hurt by the fact she genuinely thought Ryo made a point the martial artist considered ‘sensible’ only to learn it wasn’t Ryo’s honest opinion on the matter.

“And so, it happened.” I said. “Our teacher took the bait.”
“To an extent: the material and ‘cases’ we were provided with once you became involved with that bi-” Ryo took a breath and stopped herself before we had to change audience ratings. “...that band, well, they were probably set up by Reikoku-sensei herself. Yon-chan worked as the field agent because I slept a little through the afternoons so I could manage to stay up at night to work and we would brainstorm at school or via e-mail. The puzzles were formulaic at best, lacking the organic random real mysteries need; I knew they were Red Herrings to keep us too busy to care about you being gone specifically because they were too ‘clean’. Whoever came up with them had no imagination, really.”
“...”

At first I wondered what kind of work Ryo would be doing while Kouma was gone, considering it was unlikely they were working on a new game while hunting clues on dead-ends meant to look like paranormal activity. And then, something else took focus: the feeling I assumed Kouma Yon was barely hiding was that she felt offended.

It was hard telling if Ryo considered that Kouma could not only be aware of the simplistic nature of the cases but she was probably enabling Reikoku-sensei as well ‘perfecting’ the cases to ensure Ryo would be amused enough not to go after me, something only possible because with my cute friend having a job and complete exhaustion Kouma was forced into a position where she could play the middleman part. But I wouldn’t put it past her to have realized it was a possibility, but also be punishing her childhood friend indirectly with the exposition, especially because that would only annoy Kouma if she was in fact guilty.

Hearing about Ryo’s side of the story helped me fill some blanks, learning what I missed while working with the band. It was weird in many good and bad ways, to be made aware of the fact things happened while you were not present. One of those moments you feel the world kept on moving without you and once you’re back in track you don’t know if you should despair over the time you lost or praise the heavens for coming back before it was too late. Or both.

The most important part was that I could finally establish a behavioral pattern for our little defendant.

“I see. May the prosecution begin?”
“I don’t see why not. Go ahead, Shin-tsu.”

At which point I jumped out of my chair and crossed the room before the chair had finished falling on the floor. When I landed in front of the person I once classified as a ‘best friend’, my first impulse was to grab her by the hair, raise her head so she could face me, spit and growl threats at her. But that wasn’t me.

Not anymore.

“Kouma.” I looked at her in the eyes and felt pure child-like fear hiding inside them. “You let her be hurt by Death Drive because you assumed it would be beneficial to us, right? Saving her was never your intention: if you did, somehow how, you would not be able to save us, I understand that much. Yet you did not let her die when you had the opportunity to kill her yourself in such optimal conditions the crime would fall on Death Drive’s account: a perfect murder, that’s what you could have done and chose not to. Under these conditions, I can only assume the one who would hurt me as a direct consequence of leaving her ‘operational’ was no one but Reikoku-sensei herself. And now you want me to punish you for betraying us but you know I won’t unless I think you are acting this way just so I will forgive you, that you are trying to manipulate us one more time. What do you think, Ryo?”

I could only wonder if she could tell whether I was bluffing or not, because at that point it was hard for me to decide on it too. So the one of us who had spent the most time with the girl would either condemn her completely or play the role of defendant’s advocate.

Ryo took a long breath and I realized I could as well have prepared popcorn because the following lines would be huge.

“As a childhood friend I can tell this is just the kind of thing Kouma-chan would do: even as kids, when we had our first sleepover at my house she decided not to ask for another blanket as, judging by the number of blankets I used, we wouldn’t have any more and she didn’t want to be a burden while being a guest preferring to hide how cold she felt the best she could. She even tried staying awake in order to control her reactions better, but we had played a lot that day and the moment she fell asleep she curled her body. At first I thought that was just her way of sleeping although it was different from the way she rested at the kindergarten and found it to be cute. However my cat, a baby ball of fur at the time, had an attachment to that blanket and a craving for sleeping at people’s feet. When he localized Kouma’s and laid on it, she almost immediately straightened up her body because of the heat, which more or less meant kicking the cat. Everyone in the house woke up with the noise, but she didn’t say anything with the intention of not bothering anyone. So when the lights came down and my parents returned to their room, I got into her futon and hugged her so we would both be warm.” And with that story I learned the exact source of a fraction of Kouma’s undying obsession for Ryo. “But despite the cute story, the fact remains her actions were not honest to us and operated on an entirely different level, which makes one wonder what her motivations now are. While I can’t deny her wanting me to come here could easily be so I could act as a devil’s advocate in case you wanted to finish her off yourself, this seems very unlikely to me even if as a secondary escape plan for someone who came to kill the two of us, or just you. Not because she would not use someone’s bias, but rather because I know her well enough to tell she hates herself too much to do anything for personal gain.”

During the time Ryo spent doing one of her characteristic expository speeches, I could do nothing but watch. The girl I came to this town in order to meet still could blow me away in so many levels while I could not even begin to comprehend how she managed to avoid the false ‘character development’ that came with haircuts related to dramatic situations; after the events of the Festival, she was just a Ryo with hair short as mine.

What affected me this time was exactly the whole Wabi Sabi thing still being present: she mentioned a distant episode which would count as entirely unrelated to the topic to most, except we were discussing principles and moral systems. There was absolutely nothing that would stand out as a particularly special or character-defining trait for the teenager we were judging under the present circumstances. It was a mundane thing at best, that episode. Ryo bringing it up without even making a direct connection to the incident in hand made her point incomplete. At surface level, it would do no more than showing Kouma Yon had once been a shy kid and that was it.

There was an underlying beauty in the simple tale.

Why that marked my year-long friend, I didn’t know: the fact remained it did. Shiina Ryo couldn’t vow for the innocence of her friend now, yet she could draw from memory a moment of her friend back then that implied a thought pattern different from the one instantly assumed whenever things go bad.

There is a kind of quiet melancholy that cannot be translated, only experienced.

If we go by black and white, split thinking, a good person does good things and a bad person’s actions will obviously result in bad things. Except that, upon close observation, anyone can tell that is incorrect despite what idealistic fictional stories and equally forged historical books try and condition us to believe. To win a war, to protect, to survive, many would do things they normally would not. Things they would be horrified at the mere thought of, things that make them less than human in their own perception.

Imperfect. Crude. Silly.

The closest word I could think of to what I was looking for was ‘idealistic’, but even that was not enough.

“So if Kouma thinks that if it’s for a greater good, anything goes whether it’s sacrificing herself or what she cares about, except she cannot deal with the consequences be them guilt or cold? Is that that you’re implying?”
“For a given value of, yes. She even had a salon appointment the day we helped you unpack, but she cancelled, came and helped anyway.”

...really? Kouma was that scared of me being alone with Ryo?

I wanted to treat it as a simple inside joke and play it for laughs, I really did. My problem was, however, I could not deny her selflessness when, on a day the two of us joked about spending the afternoon together so much teasing her that she decided to cancel an appointment, the only thing Kouma Yon would talk to me about was Shiina Ryo’s happiness. Knowing her interest in fashion and how keen she can be about the maintenance of her appearance...

...I knew for sure her priority was not herself.

If Ryo’s reasoning was correct, this meant the ‘patient’ and ‘caretaker’ dynamic in this poisonous relationship I initially perceived them was reversed at this point; at best, it was something that could reverse polarities as easy as you can flip a switch. To simplify it, Kouma did her best to take care of Ryo, but she could only go on if Ryo was taking care of Kouma. Task which Kouma would not always ‘allow’ Ryo to perform, because she obviously believed Ryo would not be able to take it: that much I knew for sure, because the day I indirectly made Ryo cry she came after me with intent to kill but not with resolution to kill.

My head was starting to go light and I knew I would be dazed soon, so I had to wrap it up soon before I gave into the temptation to open my mind enough to see Kouma for what she was as opposed to what I perceived her to be and what she saw herself as.

“Alright then, I’ll take your word for it.”

The two of them were surprised by my sudden reaction.

“Shin-tsu, are you sure? For you to be convinced easily as that...” Instead of being mad at Ryo for questioning my behavior, I was glad; if she accepted it right away Kouma would be a fool not to consider this was another scheme of sorts and become wary. Whether I was telling the truth or lying, that effect would be far from desirable so my cute friend’s reaction was, if anything, necessary for both ways to work. “Did you find something out?”

I had, indeed, found something out and modest as I liked to pretend to be or self-depreciative as I really was... I couldn’t say it was by accident.

“Kouma covered for us all.”
“What do you mean?”
“See, since you were hiding I’ve been watching the news and searching for information online, Ryo. Unlike you I am not the best in the world in that field, but while you could not help I had to do what I could with the tools I had.” Kouma Yon’s eyes opened wide as I said that, probably because it confirmed I had sent our common friend to a place she really could not be contacted at in any way the moment I assumed the fashionista was a threat. “Enough downplaying: I might not be good at it as you are, but I know considerably more than the average citizen and I couldn’t find anything that tied other students to the incident anywhere. Think of it this way: the reporters got all over our school and the town as a whole because of such a bizarre incident asking questions left and right but we didn’t get any exposure like she did, as if she was the only girl who was actually there. Rather, she managed to divert the attention of the media to Death Drive, the serial killer, despite having to deal with the fact Megumi had broken a window with a brick and we had made a mess out of that room, along with any stun gun’s after effects that could show up in a detailed autopsy, which we clearly were going to get if the only explanation for his death was ‘a sudden and inexplicably convenient heart attack’. There’s no way they’d think that was good enough, especially not with the hype this thing created.”
“Right.”
“Her official report of story implied she only went inside the building and straight to that room because of the noise caused by the window shattering. Kouma Yon, age sixteen, walked into the room and found both her teacher with a perforated cranium and a man posthumously identified as Daisuke Miyamoto-Chevalier having seizures near her. While performing first aid exactly as she was taught by her parents, she called the city hospital for paramedics and the authorities because the situation, later dubbed ‘The Slaughter Festival’ in a very exaggerated manner, did not appear to be an accident in any possible way. Instead of leaving the two injured persons, she called for help over the window. The man died, but paramedics found drugs on him that justified the lazy autopsy by the forensic team, that disregarded whatever wound they found as caused by either the seizures resultant of the overdose or previous issues unrelated to the case, since his heart really was bad enough he needed a pacemaker. Based on this report, what do you think does not fit with the truth we were aware of so far?”

Shiina Ryo raised an eyebrow.

“But he died of a simple heart attack. What does an overdose or other stuff have to do with this?”

She confirmed my fears.

“Oh, but did he?”
“You told me he did.”

I could see my mouth form a bittersweet smile in the reflection of Ryo’s glasses. She didn’t only take me serious but she actually believed in me. It was a logical flaw and could be a fatal one because she, much like I too would do regarding her, instantly believed everything I said directly to her was true because we wouldn’t lie to each other for no reason.

But an ‘intentional lie’ isn’t the only situation in which the truth can be misrepresented.

“Exactly, I said so because I saw it, or rather, I saw Kouma verifying it. And I believed what Kouma said because she touched him, so that was a flaw of mine too. I had no substantial proof, just her testimony and my sight to rely on, and we’re talking about a man whose power was to-”
“Fake deaths! And we hadn’t seen him activating it or known the limitations for sure, so it’s not like any of us could pinpoint the difference between a real death and an apparent one produced by his ability if it didn’t have any sort of visual effect, ability-name-screaming or anything like that.”
“...the first sentence, spot on.” Her enthusiasm was somewhat overwhelming. “The second one, not so much. Kouma knew.”
“Wait, Yon-chan knew he was playing possum? How?”
“My guess is that her skill, ‘It Keeps Happening’, really does what she told me the first time as opposed to what she mentioned near Megumi and Akane: her mind travels back in time and all that jazz. But the script-related ability isn’t the only thing she lied about: Kouma Yon used ‘IKH’ several times and analyzed the possible outcomes thoroughly, so I call Bravo Sierra on the ‘I only learned about my skill today, this is the first time I use it’ line. Makes absolutely no sense, especially because Kouma cannot possibly retain as much information as she did about the setting no matter how you look at it because things went out of what was planned to an extent and yet others clearly didn’t despite being direct consequences of what was expected, exclusive to those events too; it was virtually impossible for anyone who was short of omniscience to perform so optimally during the first try. That implies a lot, too: chances are this is, indeed, the best possible outcome of all those she might have seen. Even so, don’t you have anything to tell us, Kouma Yon?”

After the painful noises she did when I took the tape and cloth off her mouth, not entirely gentle while at that, there was silence for a moment as she collected her thoughts.

“...I murdered Death Drive. He was still alive but under the effects of his own ability as Shin-tsu left the room to go after the bomber in the bus, so I woke him up and questioned him. The details are fuzzy from that point on, which I presume to be due to extreme stress, but judging from what I heard about the autopsy I must have drugged him more with his own stuff so he would get the seizures. Then I covered up the other traces by calling the doctors, police, screaming for help.”

Like everything in this case, something was very off.

“Look, either way I’ll have a hard time believing you. It’s not even a matter of liking you on a personal level or not: it’s just that from what I’ve known you, the patterns are far from acceptable in a friend, let alone desirable. However Ryo, who has met you as a kid and spent her whole life around you, trusts you and while there is no evidence that it’s not just a bias, I can’t help but think there is much more to this than any of us in here are aware of even with our sides of the story combined. So I guess that puts you on probation, which is a lot better than the other alternative if you ask me. But if you lie to us again, if you hide information thinking you are helping us, you will be deemed not worth of our trust. You can walk away if you want to and you can even stay by our side, but I will not tolerate having you against us or controlling our actions. Fair enough to you?”

Her answer to that was anything but what I expected from Kouma Yon: a non-answer.

“I was just trying to save you.”
“Kouma. How many times did you see us get killed as you kept on trying?”
“...”
“Because you took the burden alone, how many times did Ryo die? How many times did Megumi get injured? How many times did the other students get involved into something that had absolutely nothing to do with them?”
“I... I just wanted to-”
“Save us? How selfish, how arrogant of you. What were you thinking? If only you explained properly and provided some sort of evidence, there was no way I wouldn’t have cooperated with you once you told me the truth; the fact I worked along in this timeline with less than that should say enough. No, you wanted to be a silent hero, you wanted to have all the credit even if it was only in your head. You wanted to be better than us, our messiah. Is your inferiority complex that extreme that you thought you needed to be able to hold the world all by yourself or your existence wouldn’t be valid? Are you sure you are qualified to tell others about biases when you feel like that deep inside? And putting yourself in front, so you could get the adrenaline? What if your Kung Fu failed? What if you were caught by surprise? Who would turn back time if you became unconscious? We were in danger there. If you were knocked out at any point, we’d be dead. Passed out due to stress or forgetting to eat, dead. Hell, if you only got as much as a nap that reset the save point, we’d be all dead because if you could barely get the plan going with the whole day, you would only accomplish less with even more limited time. And you know, it would be your fault because you chose to do it all on your own instead of letting us know what the hell was going on. You risked our lives, and for what? For a goddamn whim? Is this what you call love?”

Had I slapped her in the face repeatedly I wouldn’t have gotten this much of a reaction of her, so I figuratively slapped her heart by showing her she almost ruined everything.

“You’re getting it all wrong!” She said amidst the sobbing I still couldn’t trust. “I did my best to protect everyone when no one else could have done it!”
“No, you got it all wrong: we don’t need you to protect us by tricking us when you obviously don’t have all the answers yourself. We wouldn’t need you to ‘protect’ us if you weren’t such an idiot and realized we could do much more together as a team. But you didn’t and now Reikoku-sensei is in a coma, Ryo ran away from home, I almost got captured, tortured, killed in a bus explosion and am now a kidnapper.” Dramatic pause followed by slow clapping dripping with sarcasm. “So, great job, Kouma: you really saved us all from what horrible fate life had for us. Thank you so much, I’m so grateful for your efforts in ruining our lives in a different way they were going to be initially. It’s not like you could have dodged all of that easily or anything.”
“Shin-tsu!” Ryo seemed pissed off as she could get. “That’s too much!”

But I still had my point to make.

“No, it’s nowhere near enough. Go on, Kouma. Admit you were wrong. Admit you are not in charge. Admit you are just hu-”
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! I TOLD YOU TO SHUT UP!” Kouma Yon finally snapped releasing a clearly painful scream, nothing like the technique-based ones Rin and I used during our presentation. “What the hell do you want me to do? I can’t go back so far in time I can change anything right now... I tried, the moment I realized what I had done, but I couldn’t. I am powerless. I’m useless because I have no imagination, okay? I was jealous of both of you and made everything worse. Is that what you wanted me to say?”

It still wasn’t, and I was going to keep lashing out at her but then I realized.

“Kouma.” Her tear-filled eyes showed she was more than ready for another round of psychological abuse, although it would be more correct to say she wanted it. It was raw, untamed guilt shouting back at me. “Chances are you didn’t kill Death Drive and you certainly were not the one to hide your traces.”

General confusion was imminent.

“I’m not following.” Ryo stared at me, not sure if still mad or not. “What do you mean by that?”
“Let’s think of it for a moment.” I looked back at Kouma. “You couldn’t go back in time to when it all started and I am absolutely sure you wanted to, considering how that day went. The only situation in which you cannot use ‘It Keeps Happening’, according to the limitations you told me about and I assume are true, is after a save point is created because the former is instantly deleted. Not only that, you could have tried to come here right after clearing up stuff with the police, the hospital and media, but you didn’t. I was monitoring the Internet, radio and television channels for news on it and I saw the moment you were carried out of school and put into the ambulance. You were carried away in a stretcher, Kouma; they wouldn’t do that if they thought you could walk, not with a dead body and a school teacher almost dying there. You had no injuries, absolutely no reason for a paramedic to make you a priority.” Going on a rant wouldn’t explain my point as well as having her get to the same conclusion by leading her through the obvious patch she was feeling too much grief to even be made aware of it on her own. “Tell me how you did it.”
“Did what?”
“How did you kill him? How did you cover the traces? How did you dispose of whatever you used to perform both actions if the school was searched for days after the incident and all activities had to be suspended?”
“I... I don’t rem-”

The sound of my right palm hitting my face echoed in the whole apartment and startled my two companions, but I had every reason to be brute.

Damn you, Kouma Yon. Don’t you ever scare me like this again.

“You don’t even remember. That’s exactly what I thought. Does it even remotely sound like you?” That sigh showed my disappointment in myself too; this short time without puzzles to solve was dulling me, which wouldn’t be a problem if Mystery wasn’t still stopping by once in a while for a cup of tea. “Someone who, despite never seeing a supernatural being before, would jump and fight it alongside a boy she met earlier that week with no fear; someone who discovers a fantastic ability and decides to use it right away to pull off a complex confidence game on many levels involving several people to ensure the best results, someone so methodical she can learn to the point of mastering virtually anything that exists just by observing it long enough. That’s the Kouma Yon I know, and it’s not just a mere bias. But now you’re telling me you wouldn’t remember doing something that brought you this much guilt instantly? C’mon, repressed memories don’t quite work like that, you should know better than this if you’re going to get a PhD in Psychology. And you tell me you don’t remember?”
“...Shin-tsu, what are you getting at?”

Getting hot-headed was one way of avoiding the mind fog that dazed me, but I knew it was harder to get my point across that way so I tried toning it down a little.

“Let me break this down for you, because your brain isn’t working very well due to the copious amounts of self-pity, or perhaps self-flagellation, you have going on right now: you fell asleep, and probably was put to sleep. It most likely was fast, but you blacked out at some point and because you don’t remember exactly when, it’s impossible for us to tell whether it was before or after the paramedics’ arrival, but the fact you weren’t a primary suspect leads me to think you were still awake when they got there and fainted during their work. The paramedics took you away on a because they were afraid your short syncope was a symptom to something else and their job is not to give differential diagnosis but keeping patients alive until the ambulance reaches the hospital so whether it was vasovagal, due to blood pressure issues, hypoglycemia, anemia... they wouldn’t have your medical files immediately so they had to take you with them and they couldn’t risk having you walk so they put you on a stretcher. Now I ask, exactly when did you find time to clean up the scene so the police, who got there around two minutes after the paramedics entered the building, wouldn’t find everything? So, which one is it? Did you pass out after breaking a world record on cleaning, did you do it in your sleep or did you tell the paramedics to look somewhere else?” Another calculated pause. “There is no such thing as a perfect crime, Kouma, and I know crime better than I know my right hand from my left one. Someone framed you good.”

She was astonished, Ryo not so much. The reason was obvious: she could actually see that development happening in her mind as one possible path. That was the blatant difference between the two of them: one of them would consider the truth in front of her as only one of infinite possible outcomes and not treat it as special at all despite the fact that, unlike the others, it did happen; the other would see only what was in front of her and take it as an absolute truth while blocking everything else to the point of nonexistence. More than rejecting or accepting reality, this was about disregarding its value in face of more interesting possibilities and being a slave to the truth you were aware of.

To me they were both were simultaneously half right and completely wrong. Either way, it was all good and a real disaster.

“...I was framed as a hero?”
“Yes, possibly because it creates less snooping around than a murderous schoolgirl for the outsiders, but it definitely makes you want to avoid looking into it too much. Framing people as the murderer to the whole world is often tricky because there is, as a trope to the sub-genre, the need of a character who will defend you and people are always dying to be that underdog lawyer who saves the innocent from the death row, to be the main character. And why wouldn’t they? They chose the Criminal side of Advocacy and everyone there learns that unless you’re getting big time cases with crime lords involved you’d be barely making a living compared to your colleagues in the Divorce and Corporate Law. But I digress.” I shake my head as if the physical action could rearrange the pattern of my thoughts. “Whoever did this wanted you to feel like you had everyone on your side but looking any further into would put the world against you, because if looked upon closer, you’re the killer since there is no evidence that says otherwise... Now, this is the kind case I would usually get involved in. But no longer.”
“No longer? What do you mean by that?”

It worried me how for someone that smart, she really had no imagination.

“What else could it mean? I’m too old for this, too mentally and physically exhausted. I’m nowhere as strong, smart or confident as I once was. Not half as altruist as my father tried to raise me to be either, so I have no issue telling you this is your problem, not mine.” Liberating as it might have been, there was still a very strong discomfort as a backlash for not trying to save everyone all the time. However, it was something I would have to learn to deal with, especially considering the alternative was to deal with danger and the possibility of failure and tragedy instead and I already had my fair share of those.“I’m retired, Kouma and this is your story. You want an answer, you search for it solve this yourself, for your sake and yours alone; Ryo doesn’t really care as long as you didn’t commit murder and I will give you the benefit of doubt until I have more against you than the fact you let Reikoku-sensei get injured, along with you manipulating me and you can try it again any time because of your special skill. So you can stop trying to get us to punish you now and focus on deciding whether you want to get the person who used you to mask its crime or just let it go.”

I knew for sure I would never forget the look on her face before I finished my sentence.

“Am I... forgiven?”

If that was all she had to say, all she had ask after all the accusations, then I had even more reasons to hate myself.

“Not yet, but I’ll give you time to work on being a better friend. What about you, R-”

Before I could finish the sentence, Shiina Ryo was already hugging her bound and no longer gagged friend, pressing her body against her in a way that made me jealous not just of one of them, but of both positions in this portrayal of affection and relationship. Kouma Yon was correct in assuming I worried too much about flaws, but it was silly of her to think I could do anything but admire the wonderful girl I met on the Internet, the person who despite all things life could throw at her was still pure virtue in my eyes.

Still, what Kouma needed to realize was that the other two in the triangle had their eyes on her as well, for she had managed to transcend humanity making use of sheer willpower. For someone without imagination to have her most precious one be pure creation, for someone who stayed by the side of a friend her whole life to see that person can be friends with other people too and they can make her as happy as you do or even more despite the fact you invested so much in that relationship when you thought it would be the only one in both of your lives, to feel simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the lies of someone who seems to be followed by all things evil, to be emotionally torn between two individuals who share a connection of the level you wish you shared with at least one of them, to feel like the only thing you can do to protect your loved ones is eventually going to make them want to walk away from you; just how far did Kouma push herself lately? To feel like you cannot catch up no matter what you do must be really awful.

But by trying so hard she made herself special even if the only thing she is special at is ‘trying hard’, and if I judge her for it I would be doing what was done to me.

No, I did not fully trust Kouma. I did not have enough evidence to say she was wrong too, or rather, I did have evidence that proved she did act wrong, but considering what I knew along with what she told me and what I speculated about Reikoku-sensei, it is understandable someone with Kouma Yon’s mindset would react like that. For the moment I decided to smile and be wary of her and give her the closeness she wanted because it was my only way of knowing how deep this whole mess went. It was just another bet on top of the many others that were already going on.

But I could relate to her regret over her ‘first kill’ as it was similar to my last.

“The most important question remains unsolved.” Shiina Ryo pondered. “Regardless of what she wanted Shin-tsu to do, was Reikoku-sensei’s plan worth all this ridiculously high-stakes manipulation game? And if it was, doesn’t that mean we’re all really doomed by now?”