There was nothing—no rainbow lights dancing wildly, no shining doors or dark tunnels appearing, no space crunching and cracking, nothing like that.
Ai merely lifted her right leg, moved it, and lowered it.
Just like that, the world had already changed.
The wreckage of the school building before her had been fixed. Every stonge wall extended straight, and the tiles that were once with the gravel were back on the roof. The floors of the classrooms were old but undamaged, and the desks and chairs were neatly arranged as per the number of students, standing still in the setting sun.
The school had regained all its functions. The repairs were perfect, and it looked as natural as if nothing had been broken in the beginning.
And the world,
The visual shock was so great that Ai did not feel cold.
Outside the classroom was a snowy landscape.
The crumbling buildings, the mended ruins, the corroded streets, the June air,
Everything was gone. Replacing them was a beautiful winter scene.
The setting sun stained the snow and the town with the color of fire. The frozen lake on the other side glistened like a snowfield. The once collapsed tall buildings stood upright. From the chimneys, smoke from the cooking rose into the sky.
Julie squealed in surprise, and Ai felt her throat move in the same way. She felt her chest and heart tightening.
Scar stood there listlessly as though her soul was ripped out of her, while Celica bawled as though she was scalded.
The baby’s cry echoed through this world, where the peace was never disturbed, and it remained in slumber, never doubting that tomorrow would come. The earliest star and the red star illuminated the town that was shrouded in smoke from the preparation of dinner..
The entire town had been lost to this world for fifteen years. It was engulfed in a real repose.
“…Welcome to our hometown.”
Alice, who was leaning on the opposite wall, said.
“I ask of you again, Ai Astin, please free us, Class 3-4, from this closed world.”
That was Alice Color’s wish.
Before anyone could ask a question, tchoo, Celica burst the little bubble on her nose with a sneeze. At that point, all plans to act and doubt were cancelled. The group decided to go to Alice’s house.
They walked through the classroom door with some nervousness. However, they did not return to the previous day, “The way to go and come back is different” for Alice said. They did not understand.
“I’m really sorry. I completely forgot about the ‘time difference’. Let’s just hurry home.”
The moment they left the school building, the howling winter winds struck them. Ai shivered and rubbed her palms frantically.
Once again, Celica sneezed, and whenever she did so, Scar would panic “her cheeks are red!” “She is making a weird noise!”, and started a little ruckus. It seemed Scar herself had never never been in a cold climate before, hchoo, for she too sneezed, and blinked her eyes in surprise.
“Ju-Julie, my teeth are shaking and clicking by themselves! What is this?”
“That’s what happens when it’s cold. It’s an instinct to raise the temperature by moving muscles that aren’t being used. Don’t worry about it.”
“How can I not be worried—hchoo! This sneeze is—hchoo! Uuu, it is annoying…”
“Hii! Wh-what was that!?”
“It’s a sneeze. ”
“Is this one too!? Haa, there are all kinds of them…”
Ai and Alice too sneezed as well. They sniveled and rubbed their palms to keep warm.
“It’s really bad. Let’s hurry up and leave…”
Now that they were in agreement, they walked down the street in front of the main gate.
Once they did, the crowd suddenly began to grow.
The students still at school hurried home, and the teachers were shooing them out so that the school gates could be closed. The janitors were here to clean up, and there were candy stores aiming to earn money from students.
“Isn’t it Alice!?” “You’re back!? When!?” “Come by at my house when you’re free. Aren’t you cold wearing that? I’ll get some clothes for you.”
Many people were surprised to see Alice and spoke to him intimately. Alice too looked relieved, but he gently declined their attention and hurried home.
Ai looked up at Alice. But there was no explanation.
Eventually, they passed through the downtown area and entered a dark street. The sun had already set, and they were guided by the distant feeble lights, prying through the darkness and the snow as they moved forward. In the usual season, the street lights would be noisily swarmed by winged insects, but they were only shining on the snow that was falling like dead insects.
One silhouette was on the verge of being buried by them.
Dee Ensy Stratmitos was alone, sinking under the lamppost.
Ai rubbed her eyes, wondering if she was looking at the wrong person.
In the compass-like light, Dee stood in her usual school uniform and coat. Her white throat was exposed to the white snow and orange lights, and she was looking at the sky as if there was something there. The muffler was in her hand, removed, and she looked as if he was tasting the cold air. There was a huge suitcase next to her.
Then Dee turned her gaze back to the earth and said,
Ai raised her shovel, Julie took a protective position over Scar, and Scar held Celica tightly.
“Whoa, it’s spicy here.”
Dee rewrapped her scarf as she said in bemusement.
“…Why are you here…?”
“What kind of greeting is that? I’m a member of Class 3-4 after all.”
Ai looked up at Alice in surprise. Of course, he did not mention anything about that.
“Hmm…Alice, you didn’t tell them?”
Dee seemed satisfied with what she had just learned. She nodded her head in understanding.
“What, I thought Alice would try to solve this no matter what since he pointedly chose you. Looks like that’s not the case though. I panicked for nothing.”
“You’re rather reckless, though.”
Alice pointed his right hand like a pistol and pointed it at Dee.
“I didn’t expect you to come back here. Looks like you rate Ai better than me.”
“…Whatever you say.”
“You didn’t think I was going to reset you?”
Bam. Alice gestured a gunshot. Dee smiled as though she had seen the prank of a neighbor boy.
“Who knows? But first, you have to take this.”
With that, Dee opened her suitcase. It was filled with neatly folded winter clothes.”
Alice was strongly disconcerted at the sight.
“…Quite the quick thinker you are.”
“I thought that you aren’t very thoughtful anyway, Alice. I brought you guys some winter clothes. Here you go.”
“Please check them. They could be poisoned.”
No way…she could not say so however. The murderous intent that Dee displayed under that Tower was real.
Be my guest. Dee kicked the suitcase at them, and it slid over. Ai took some clothes, sniffed at them and rifled through the pockets.
“Sniff sniff…doesn’t smell bad. Should be fine.”
“…So you think poison is ‘something like bad food’…I see. …”
Dee raises her hand in surrender.
“No need to be alarmed, You have two Gravekeepers, and I’m not going to physically attack or poison you.”
“Hard to tell…but thanks for that anyway.”
Alice remained wary as he rummaged through the suitcase, pulling out warm clothes and tossing them to the back. Julie was given a long felt coat, and Scar a large man’s cloak, which she wore while wrapping Celica.
Ai too wore one of them, a coat of the same design as Dee’s.
Finally, Alice took out a well-worn coat and slipped his arms through the sleeves. It was a similar black coat. Dee was happy to see him wear it.
“—It’s been a while since I wore this.”
“Same here—welcome home, Alice. ”
“I’m home. Welcome back, too.”
“Yeah, I’m home too.”
This is the first time in recent times that Dee had given a sincere smile, and she helped to dust the snow off Alice’s shoulders..
As soon as she saw it, Ai realized what she was feeling. But before she could point it out,
“Ah, I see you’ve finally entered…”
With her hands folded behind her back, Dee stood before Ai with a slippery gesture and lowered down to meet her gaze.
“Wh-What is it?”
Jiii. They stared at each other for a while.
Dee’s palms, cold from the weather, pressed against Ai’s cheeks.
“Ahaha, I knew it. Your cheeks are really soft, Ai. I’ve always wanted to touch them.”
“Hyaa! I-It’s cold! Let~go~~!”
Without needing to be told, Dee simply released Ai and went to her next target. She put her fingers on Celica’s palm, stroked Julie’s stubble, and Scar’s right eyebrow before pulling her distance.
“Ahahah, it feels just like I imagined. Everyone’s so warm!”
“Miss Dee, you pervert!”
“Exactly, and besides, I’m your enemy.”
Dee repositioned her hat and lifted her suitcase, alrighty, waving it in the air as she moved away in a different direction from the group.
“I’ll be there later. I’ll bring Mama’s stew and some bread.”
“… I see. Please do.”
“It’s not troublesome at all. See you later.”
With a small wave of her hand, Dee left with the large suitcase in hand, and snow falling on her body.
Ai pressed her cheeks as she watched Dee leave. She could still feel the cold hands.
Ha…Ai let out a hot exhale into the air. Her breath was white even though she was indoors. The fireplace had just been lit, and the temperature was similar to the outside. Thanks to this, the tea tasted very good.
The steam from the tea permeated through the silent room. Ai sipped the tea, which had a lot of sugar in it, and the warm liquid slowly melted under her chest and mixed with her blood.
The others too kept warm in their own ways. Jullie drank the whisky he procured from somewhere in large gulps, mother and daughter embraced each other to keep warm, and Alice was energetically running around to limber up.
“Damn, it’s still hard as always.”
Alice was beating on the chimney cap with a fire poker. He managed to poke one off, but the other was tough to remove.
“Do you need help?”
“I’m fine. The guests should sit. This is the landlord’s job.
Alice took a piece of burning wood, seared the bolt, and used the thermal expansion to bang it open again. After that, he continued to toil around—removing the cloth shielding the dust from the furniture, shoveling away the snow in front of the back door, and setting the mailbox on fire.
“…I guess I should help after all.”
Ai finished her tea and stood up. This time, Alice did not bother to stop her. For starters, Ai took the cup to the sink. The water supply seemed to be working and there was a faucet, but naturally, she could not use it as the water was drained. She put the cup there, returned to the room, peeled off the cloth covering the furniture, cautiously folded it inside to keep the dust out, and took it outside to dust it off.
“Ugh~, it’s cold.”
It happened when she was brushing off the third piece of cloth.
She saw a silhouette beyond the front door, at a small yard from the entrance.
“Ah, Ai, just in time. Open up.”
Ai wrapped the cloth and laid it on the chair deck. She scamped quickly across the slightly snow-covered ground to open the gate.
“Thanks, you helped me out here. As you can see, my hands are full.”
She held up her hands, and there was a pot and a basket.
“You need to heat up the pot again. There’s sandwiches in the basket.”
“Eh? Th-thank you so much!”
Ai thanked her and picked up the items . The pot and the basket were both heavy.
Dee looked at Ai curiously, and must have read the confusion in her eyes.
The fingertips, chilled by the outside air, touched both cheeks. Ai was unable to resist as she was confused, and was holding items in both hands..
“Miss Dee…you have…a body.”
“What are you so surprised about? Any ordinary person would have one, right?”
Dee giggled. But Ai was not in the mood for that, for her cheeks were being pinched away.
“Erm, Miss Dee, why—”
“Well, I don’t know, either.”
She said and turned around.
“…Are you going back?”
“Yeah, mama and papa are waiting for me at home.”
“Yeah, see you later.”
With that, Dee left.
Ai stood there, alone.
“‘Mama and papa are waiting…’ she said.”
Ai had no idea as to why she had mumbled that.
Inside the pot was potato and onion soup, and the ingredients of the sandwiches were sausages and boiled cabbage. There was more. In the innermost section of the basket were two apples as red as Celica’s cheeks.
“Here, Mr. Alice.”
Ai peeled the apples, cut them in half, handed them to Alice, and threw the peeled skin and the other waste into the fireplace. The apple peel bubbled and turned into black charcoal in an instant.
A spring clock that was just resuscitated clang away, and next to it, the calendar had remained stuck at September for 14 years. Underneath it was a pile of newspapers and magazines that were bundled together.
Surrounded by these items, Alice looked quite at ease as he munched on the apple
“Actually, I’m sorry about this.”
He said abruptly, and took another bite.
“I dragged you guys along without telling you anything, and I’m still unwilling to say anything more. Even I feel it’s awful. I don’t think I can explain much further in the future though.”
Ai did not answer, and prompted him to continue.
“So I’ll tell you why I can’t explain.”
Alice finished the apple, threw the core into the fire, and turned to Ai with a serious face.
“There are two reasons why I can’t explain just like this—first of all, I don’t trust myself. ”
Ai did not know what that meant. But,
“Thanks—well, there are a few things I can say though—somehow, this world feels similar to that tower. This place feels like one that’s created by someone’s wish.”
“Yep, I can kind of see that.”
Ai looked around.
This space is probably a mutation, or if not, an inferior version of the ‘World Tower’. There are many differences, but the atmosphere is very similar. It’s also a space that was created by someone’s wish…and like the Tower, I guess there should be some people who created this place?”
“Who do you think it is?”
Alice asked happily, like a teacher who was teaching an intelligent student.
“But first, I have a question—was this world isolated fourteen years ago?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Of course I can tell. There are so many hints already.”
Ai pointed to the calendar she had just seen, and to the newspapers.
The calendar hung on the wall, still showing the month of September. The newspapers that were used to wipe the dust off were dated 14 years back.
“The isolation loops annually, right?”
The reason was the old newspapers. The old newspapers had been stored since July 28, 14 years ago, but the pages were so sharp that one could possibly be cut by them.
The date in this world was the second day of April.
“Oh, I stand corrected. It’s probably not exactly one year. To be precise, it should be two weeks shorter than a year.”
“Why do you think so?”
“It’s this seasonal difference. It’s early summer out there, but it’s still winter here. Is the date in this newspaper correct? If so, I can calculate it…erm, it’s exactly two weeks short.”
“60 points. Strictly speaking, it’s exactly one week. The remaining difference is caused by something else.”
“Scar. Would you like some more tea?”
“Thank you, Julie, I shall have some.”
“Two spoonfuls of sugar, right?”
The adults gave up on thinking and drank their tea to relax. They looked happy.
“One last question. Tell me which other people entered this world from the outside like us.”
“Everyone but the members of Class 3-4.”
That was the answer Ai had expected.
“It’s obvious who’s the culprit. The one isolating this world and keeping Class 3-4 in it.
“Is it themselves?”
“You’re always just slightly off, huh?”
Alice smiled happily.
“Metaphorically speaking, it’s a cage made of people. This is the kind of world it is. Everyone from class 3-4 is a prisoner, a convict, and the cage . It feels like everyone was chained to each other, back to back in this cage. That’s how it feels.”
“But no one knows why we did it. Nobody remembers.”
“You all made the wish, and you can’t remember?”
“Yeah, so I was thinking that part of our wish was to forget about this..”
“… Woah, that’s troublesome.”
“Yeah. We didn’t know we’re trapped. It’s a most terrifying cage.”
“But still, it’s the place you wished for, isn’t it…?”
Alice nodded begrudgingly.
If this was the same place as that tower, Ai could not do anything. Interfering with other people’s wishes on her own volition could not be considered as saving ‘everyone’.
“I don’t like it here.”
Alice pouted, his mouth seething with rage along with utmost displeasure.
“Like, this got to be a joke, right? You’ve got to be kidding me. I love those guys in class 4, and I want to be with them, but I how it’s like here. Why is my life tied to this place? Are you kidding me? I don’t know if it’s God or whoever did this, but I just want to curse our. Don’t fulfill our wishes just like that, and like, it’s a complete crapshoot, seriously—what’s so funny?”
So Ai said, but she could not stop herself from smirking.
“It’s just that you’re the Mr. Alice I know of.”
“What’s that about?”
Alice suddenly pouted as if he was lowered a peg, and stopped lashing out.
“…Anyway, I’m part of the system here, and I can say I’m the lock that wants to unlock itself. But no matter how much the lock wants to unlock itself, it will try to fulfill its function…that’s why I didn’t give you the information. I’m the least trustworthy person here.”
“That’s the first reason. The other reason is that…ahh, I’d appreciate it if you’d hear me out without being unhappy about this.”
Ai braced herself to see what he would say.
“Well, you know, actually, I don’t expect much from you.”
“…No, that’s kind of easy to misunderstand…like, I do have expectations. I think you can save us. But it’s only as good as the others.”
At that moment, Julie brewed a pot of tea. The adults took a sip..
“Didn’t you meet people other than class 3-4 in this world just now? They’re all people that I brought here because I believed in them.”
Ai was slowly grasping the situation.
In other words, while it was her first time saving Alice, she was not the first helper Alice sought. For him, it was a common event bringing in outsiders to destroy this space.
Ai sipped her tea, feeling a little gaudy about it. She did not truly understand this feeling. She was not angry, but yet it felt like it, and it was a little different from disappointment. It was a strange feeling.
“—By the way, how many people have you brought in here so far?”
“Thirty-five thousand, six hundred and ninety-five.”
It was enough to build a town.
“Most of them are just here as an experiment, though.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Well, I just wanted to see how many people I could fit in there. If this space has a limited capacity, I thought I could cause it to burst.”
Upon those words, Ai remembered the rumors Julie mentioned before they arrived.
“Are all those mysterious disappearances…”
“Yeah, I guess it’s me, though I don’t know where the 100,000 number came from—I didn’t force them, of course. I explained it to them and brought them here when I was sure they were fine with it..
Ai was very impressed.
“Mr. Alice, you’re really serious, aren’t you?”
“Always has been. I’ve been planning seriously the entire time. I’m counting on you, but I won’t rely on you.”
“I’ve seen thirty-five thousand six hundred ninety-five people fail. I won’t be able to believe that the 35,696th one will succeed…I know it’s harsh, and I’m really sorry about it.”
Ai could not say she did not understand those feelings. In fact, she would praise his resilience since he could still move forward even after all the setbacks. However, Ai herself,
Was not relied upon by Alice.
This made her a little disappointed and depressed.
“…And I’m so obsessed with information because there’s an ‘enemy’ in this world.”
Dee changed, Alice said.
“She used to be like me, trying her best to destroy the world, but she changed her mind…she didn’t want to go to the outside world. She said she’d rather stay in this world with us class 4 members instead of returning to that hellish world.”
It was not difficult to empathize with that sentiment.
“”So she’s trying to obstruct me…you better watch out too, because she’s probably trying to kill us now.”
“…Ahh, so that’s why you were so wary of Miss Dee just now?”
It was the same with the clothes and this dinner. Fortunately, Ai and Scar determined there was no poison, so they were safe.
“She’s really changed…the old her wouldn’t have dreamed about killing anyone…now she’s called the ‘Witch of the West’, and trying to destroy humanity.”
“This is why I didn’t give you information. I don’t want Dee to know what I tell you. It’s to save the savior after you.”
“I know it’s terrible. I feel bad about it. But I’m desperate, too.”
I’m sorry. Alice lowered his head.
Ai too felt it was cruel of him, that he was dishonest and bad.
She could not say such words to a desperate person.
“Please raise your head, Mr. Alice.”
Ai called out softly.
“I’m fine. I don’t care about that. I can gather the information on my own. You can fight as you like. Regardless of that…”
“I’ll help you.”
“Wake up~ Ai~ It’s morning~ Wake up~!”
Klank klank klank. The banging of the frying pan could be heard, and Ai cussed away as though she was cursing all living things, and with the movements of an overweight cat, she rolled her buttocks back under the blanket.
But the sound of the pans never stopped, and in fact, it approached her. The volume increased. A frying pan should stay in the kitchen and cook an egg or something.
“I’ve already made that.”
The frying pan spoke.
“Who’s the frying pan? How rude.
And with that, Dee stuck the bottom of the cold steel onto Ai’s cheek.
She woke up with a jolt.
She flipped the blanket aside, sat upright, and looked around the room. It was a guest room with only a bed and packed luggage lying around.
For a moment, she lost track of where she was.
“…Are you awake?”
Next to her was Dee, holding a frying pan and a ladle, wearing an apron over her uniform.
Ai sat up and held up the shovel that was propped up next to her.
“Oh, nice reaction. I’ll have it a lot easier if you’re that easy to wake up…”
“Wh-What are you doing here?”
“What…to make fried eggs?”
She flipped the pan around.
“I’m saying that you guys can’t do anything on your own anyway. I came to help you. Breakfast is ready.”
“? Why are you staring at me like that…is there something on my face?”
“…You seem calm for some reason, Miss Dee.”
“Yeah, you feel very poised.”
“Well, I am.”
Dee tapped the floor with the tip of her slipper.
“You’re up, right?”
As if to preempt Ai, Dee said.
“Hurry, go wash your face.”
And so Dee simply left the room. Ai sat blankly on the bed for a while…
“—It’s going to be worse if you fall asleep again.”
Ai said to the head that was glancing aside at her, and hopped off the bed.
She followed Dee down the hallway. To her right was a staircase leading to the first floor, from which she could hear the voices of Julie and the others along with and smell the delicious aroma. Tempted as she was, she looked to the left
“Alice, are you awake?”
She saw Dee knock on the door in annoyance.
“What? If it’s about my body, I’m not answering”
“I’m not talking about that…”
Ai looked at the ladle, the frying pan and the quizzical face in turn.
“Did you come all the way from home to cook for us? From home?”
“So what? Just so you know, this is something I’ve been doing the entire time…”
“Ah, I see. You’ve been doing this for a while?”
There was nothing sarcastic in Ai’s words, and she merely felt that she understood. Dee however straightened up like a cat caught by the tail, and opened the door before her as if to escape.
“Alice, wake up!”
“Woah, it’s messy.”
The room was filled with magazines, clothes, balls, bicycle wheels, and the walls were covered with books, posters, and tapestries. Even the ceiling was no exception as it was crammed with plane models, world maps, and there was nary a space.
Well, to put it, it resembled a boy’s room.
Alice was lying down in the middle of them, asleep like the rest of the junk around him. Like Ai, he continued with his futile resistance.
“Alice~ wake up~!”
“Alright, you said it. It’s a promise. One, two, three, four, five! Hey, five seconds up. Wake up.”
“I can’t wake up…you idiot…mnya.”
Bam bam bam! Dee slapped the frying pan with her ladle.
“What’s with the noisy frying pan…why are you here? Your place is in the kitchen. … Go home and make some fried eggs…”
“What are you talking about, Mr. Alice, you idiot?”
“Yeah. You’re right.”
Dee gave an indescribable look between Alice and Ai. Why was that so?
“You’re~annoying~, Dee, you translucent idiot! Go ahead, make as much noise as you want. That’s all you can do is make noise. I’ll just pretend not to hear you. Ignored. Don’t underestimate my desire to sleep. You can never wake me up if you can’t physically attack me…”
The frying pan and ladle as a demonstration to show how to make pilaf using his face as a grill.
“Are you awake?”
Dee showed a very radiant smile.
For a moment, Alice had no idea as to where he was. He immediately nodded.
“Go wash your face.”
After washing their faces with cold water, they brushed their heads that resembled some bird from paradise. Ai’s blond hair was immediately restored after one stroke, but Alice’s short hair was still sleepy, and remained curly, only giving up on resistance when it was doused in cold water.
Ai scrubbed her teeth while fighting her sleepiness. In the mirror before her was another face giving the same look while brushing his teeth, albeit with a height difference of 30 centimeters.
“Hurry up, you two!”
A voice echoed from the kitchen, accompanied by the sound of dishes being washed, “bku bku” and the two answered so.
Ai turned around to look at the kitchen, and found Dee washing dishes over there…she had a feeling the latter was just going to stick around and not move. She looked up to Alice, is this fine? wanting to ask him, but it seemed he too could not decide, for he brushed his teeth looking as though ‘he was brushing with glue instead of toothpaste’.
Ai ignored Dee for a moment, gurgled loudly, and spit out the water.
“So Mr Alice…you’re a lot older than me…”
Ai wiped her mouth with a towel, remembering the conversation of yesterday.
“I guess so~”
Alice spat out foam as he answered. As he spoke, a few toothpaste bubbles flew from my mouth and slowly fell.
After that conversation, the group went to bed early to prepare for the next day. At that time, Ai thought a little in bed.
Fourteen years ago, Alice was sixteen years old, which meant that he should have been thirty years old, about the same age as Julie.
And yet, the man before here clearly did not look like anything other than a boy.
Ai had known of another person like that.
The immortal Hampnie Hambart.
“Speaking of which, my memories only last up till three years ago.”
“There’s a phenomenon here called ‘reset’. If a member of class 4 suffers a fatal wound that can’t be recovered from, that person will be reset to the initial state. I’ve died at least three times now.”
“Well, unlike Hampnie Hambart, I don’t have any memory after I die, so I don’t know the exact number.”
Ai heard something more shocking before she could react.
“!You know my dad!?”
“I’ve only met him once.”
Shocked as she was, it made sense when she thought about it. It was not surprising that they had met, as they were both ageless.
“—No, I don’t think it’s just once. Maybe three times…or four…I don’t know. Maybe more.”
“? What do you mean?”
“The current me has only seen him once, but he’s seen me many times. He said that whenever I reset, I could look for him if I heard of an immortal like him. We never got to fulfill our objectives, but he’s acting as my backup memory, so it really helped me out a lot.”
Ai wanted to know what they had talked about, to see how they were talking to each other.
“So, well, I was very happy to hear that he died. It’s not for me to say this , but thanks.”
She really did not do anything to be thanked.
“But I’m surprised…that dad went along with such a troublesome thing. I’d think he’d ignore you after the second time. …”
“Eh, it seemed he killed me once, and did this as an apology.”
“Well, technically it was a half-kill, but the ‘reset’ triggered first, and I disappeared right before him…”
“That’s…I’m sorry about that…”
“You got nothing to apologize…speaking of which, he never apologized to me once. He even said ‘you’re the one yapping about being immortal, so I wanted to see if it’s for real. I only caused your heart to stop, and then you disappeared. You cause me trouble’.”
“………Once again, I’m really really sorry.”
Ai bowed her head and cursed her late father, Dad you idiot!.
So Mr. Alice, you’re now fifteen years old?
“No, I’m sixteen now. Didn’t you wish me a happy birthday the other day?”
Ai remembered the birthday party in the wilderness, the one she had persuaded Alice to hold even after Alice rejected, saying ‘it’s not necessary’.
Back then, she did not know that Alice could not age. She did not know how Alice actually felt back then, what he was thinking, to experience his 15th birthday for the third time..
“That made me happy.”
Alice simply said.
“You’re right. I can’t become a monster. If I become a monster, even if I’m released from here, something won’t be right.”
“I can’t kill anyone. I can’t let anyone kill me either. I can’t have a single reset. I need to free everyone with a correct, decent manner, and then—”
Alice smiled and said,
“I want to be seventeen.”
“That’s why I’ll have to go to school first.”
She understood the reason. The fastest way to find out about Class 3-4 was to get into Class 3-4. She felt that since they could, she should.
But she was not convinced by this reason, and she did not want to.
Alice and Dee ignored Ai and quickly put their story together.
Ai merely felt the number of enemies had increased to two.
The buildings and teachers were different, but the creatures known as students appeared to be the same everywhere. They were all young, bored, and hungry for something new.
“I’m Ai Astin. Nice to meet you.”
After a brief introduction, she went to her seat, and felt several stares piercing her back. Every one of them were the same as when she was at Gora Academy. They were not hostile in the slightest, but she was utterly feeble.
She was assigned to the seat at the very back, second row from the window. Dee sat next to her, and Alice sat in front of Dee. Both of them looked out of the window indifferently.
“Yes yes, everyone, quiet down. Class is about to start.”
The teacher coaxed the students, and began the class that was a good ten minutes late. But the whispers however did not stop, and there were notebook scraps being passed around under the table.
Ai let out a sigh at the thought of the upcoming recess.
“Hey, where are you from?” “I heard you’re Alice’s cousin” “What are you doing here?” “You moved here?” “Do you have parents?” “Do you have any siblings?” “Wait, how old are you? Did you skip grades?” “Want some candy?” “Hey, hey, you’re married, right? What’s he like?” “What’s the baby’s name?”
This sure is tough. Ai thought as though she was the uninvolved party.
The big break at lunchtime was an explosion of frustration.
Ai had it good, since it was her second time transferring schools, and knew what to do in a situation like this. In fact, there was no need to answer the torrent of questions that came at her. She just needed to answer the important ones, correct the obvious mistakes, and then sit back and smile.
But of course, Scar did not have the skills to do so, and she sat there, fidgeting and helpless.
Ai stole a glance at her.
Scar too was wearing the same navy blue blazer as the other girls. She appeared to be more natural compared to Ai, who was wearing the sailor uniform of Gora Academy, but the helplessness she showed was not something that was similar to Ai.
It was no wonder. Scar was a Gravekeeper, and then no longer a Gravekeeper. Her age was listed as 18, but her actual age was 13, and considering the incident that day, she was aged 0, and furthermore, a mother.
The students of Class 3-4, both boys and girls, were equally fascinated by this married high school girl who appeared out of nowhere.
It was thanks to Scar that Ai was now able to live in relative peace.
(I think I should help her out now.)
It was at that moment that Ai decided to stand up.
For a moment, Ai thought a flashlight had been pointed at her. Scar broke through her surroundings with a radiant, beaming face as she hugged Ai and patted her head, which got everyone else wondering what was this fawning about. Ai let her be and turned to face her classmates.
“Sorry, Miss Scar has to go downstairs to feed the baby.”
Ah, maybe she should not have mentioned that.
“I’ll show you around. Where do you want to go?”
Ai looked towards the windowside, giving a pleading look. Alice played along however, and stood up to call this student’s name.
“Then shall we all go together?”
“What’s with this big group of people …?”
“Hello there~” The students of class 4 was exceptionally loud only at such a moment, and immediately blitzed the innkeeper’s office. The old staff members, except for Julie, gave a ‘ack, it’s class 3-4 again’ look, and wanted to shoo the students off as though they had seen a cockroach.
Ai slipped away from the noise and stood by the wall with Julie.
“It kind of looks good on you.”
Julie was wearing work clothes, with a “Ostia School for Boys and Girls” school badge shining brightly on his chest. He would be working here, starting on this day.
Julie said with a grin, looking at Ai’s different uniform.
“As I said this morning, it still looks good on you.”
“I’ll get you one of these uniforms eventually, maybe when I get paid.”
“You don’t have to buy this. We’re leaving once we save Mr. Alice.”
Julie paused for a moment, “…yeah,” and then nodded.
“Well, you say that, but we don’t know how long that will be.”
“…I guess so.”
This time, Ai nodded in agreement.
At that moment, a cheer erupted in the middle, and Scar was over there, terrified as she held Celica in her arms. Celica was in the center of it all, poised in her mother’s bewildered arms, happily watching the students as they observed her.
Julie silently left Ai and went to Ai. Ai did not dare to approach, and leaned against the wall to watch. Alice approached and stood at where Julie did Dee went to the opposite side and stood there.
In the center of the circle, Celica began to cry. Hearing this, Scar suddenly wiped away all the fear she had been feeling, regained her composure, and gently peeling the clothes around her chest.
All the boys were flabbergasted, and all the girls tried to cover their eyes. .The noise was short-lived however, for everyone forgot their naughty thoughts and were mesmerized.
Celica was suckling the breast, and Scar watched her child with a gentle expression and the humans whose children who were still young. Julie stood by the side, protecting them.
The trio watched the scene from a distance.
With Gigi leading, “Cheers!” everyone shouted along, and toasted to each other. The drinks ranged from tea, lemonade to fruit juice and and other miscellaneous things, the only thing in common was that ‘they were not alcoholic’.
The Class 3-4 students, who never had a drop of alcohol, were having lots of fun. They placed crackers, played tricks, and chatted loudly like explosions.
Tired of being bombarded with questions, Ai kept a low profile and moved on. Scar remained very popular and still in demand with Celica.
Alice called out from behind her.
Alice deftly slipped through the gaps between the tables and led Ai to the kitchen in the back.
It was a world of magic.
“This place is…”
The kitchen was empty, with only ingredients and dishes dancing in every direction. The kettles flew about, brewing coffee, and the fruits were cut into parfaits all by themselves.
Ai had already seen this scene many times. Newspapers were being dropped into the mailbox on their own, and the snow on the roofs were shoveled. The place Class 3-4 were in had all kinds of supernatural phenomena.
“What are you doing?”
Alice said to Ai, who had stopped trying to move further in.
“Don’t look at them too much. Otherwise, everything will be inconsistent.”
“Inconsistent, yes…and especially don’t mention it to those guys in class 4. Worst case scenario, the class gets reset.”
Ai had no idea what was going on, but she nodded and followed Alice upstairs. They went past a sign ‘night onwards’ and went to the second floor.
He said the second floor was where they served alcohol starting in the evening. On first glane, there was a shockingly fancy bar, and one could smell wine, cigarettes, and perfume.
Alice entered the counter in a familiar motion, pulled out a few bottles from the shelf, and began to pour them in a shaker.
“Is it okay to do that?”
“I used to work part-time here…and the owner of this place isn’t around anymore.”
Ai thought it was not a sufficient reason for him to do as he pleased.
“What do you want to drink?”
“…I can’t have alcohol.”
“Of course not, you idiot—Come on.”
Alice mixed a few liquids together, and poured out a yellow steaming liquid. Is this orange, or grape juice?…she had no idea what it was, but it was tasty. Alice too helped himself with a serving, and strode off to the window, unbolting it.
The breeze felt good.
The chill of the place was a welcome relief to the hot body, and made the cocktail taste even better.
“What do you think of class 4?”
Alice asked, not drinking the cocktail, but using it to warm his hands.
“It’s fun. Everyone is so nice, and funny. It’s just…”
Then Ai paused.
“—No, it’s nothing.”
“No, maybe I’m just imagining things.”
“You feel distanced, right?”
Ai looked to her side in shock.
That was right. While Class 4 was friendly to her, she felt disconnected to them, as though there was a thin membrane between them.
It felt as if she had wandered onto a stage accidentally without a script, such a dissonance.
“This world is created as a replica of the world fourteen years ago. I say that, but as you can see, it’s pretty flimsy—the establishment is rather weak, and they can’t really accept transfer students. Part of the reason why everyone’s so noisy is because they’re trying to relieve their stress. They’re subconsciously trying to get along with you, but they can’t really accept people like you who don’t exist in this world to begin with.”
“…Everyone doesn’t know they’re trapped in this world, right?”
It was one of the points she had heard the previous day. Of the members of class 4, Alice and Dee were the only ones who were aware that this was an abnormal world. The others did not know it was a sealed world.”
“You’re not telling them?”
“I’ll tell them when the time to free us comes. Even if I do, it’ll only add on to their stress. It’ll be terrible if we end up killing (resetting) each other again.”
“…That happened before…?”
There was a slight pause in the conversation, and Alice, after stirring his cocktail, tapped the floor with his toe before getting to the main point.
“I want to ‘destroy’ the world. I did mention it before, right?”
Ai nodded her head. She finally understood what he meant.
“I want to destroy this place and save Class 3-4 (everyone).”
Alice picked up a dart that was lying on the table and flicked it. It was obvious without looking, 40 points (Double bull).
“This place will continue to repeat an annual loop that ended on August 27th, thirteen years ago. But there are a few inconsistencies—like say, those who died in this space will simply die.”
“I guess it’s because there wasn’t any plan for anyone else. I tried to bring some Dead in as an experiment, but it didn’t work. They just couldn’t get through that entrance. I could bring in Gravekeepers…but…”
“…What happened to them?”
“The moment they entered this world, they looked around in amazement. ‘Our task is finished…’ and they just laid around and didn’t move until they died…maybe that’s what will happen to them in the outside world, when they bury all the Dead…I feel sorry for them…”
Perhaps Ai and Scar did not become so as they were malfunctioned Gravekeepers?…no, it did not matter. Scar and her had already left such a phase.
“Also, there’s the issue of those deformed. Anyone with any ability can’t enter. This includes Hampnie Hambart.”
“The only exception is my Buzzer Beater.”
He said, and threw three darts. Each dart hit the circle that was the size of a ring.
“It doesn’t make sense. The awakening of my Buzzer Beater ability happened in the future way after the loop in this world. I felt something’s wrong here, and that’s how I managed to notice the anomaly of this world. I figured it out in the first month after I got reset three years ago, and then things escalated…I read books, rode my motorcycle from one end of the continent to the other, and finally got out of here…”
“Wa-wait, wait! From one end of the continent to the other? How big is this space!?”
“The round-the-world exploration team returned just a while back.”
Ai was dumbfounded.
“W-Why is it so uselessly big?”
“Who knows? The exploring scholar I knew said that it was probably created by observation.”
“In other words, this space was originally only as big as it needed to be. When we were the only ones here, it was just this city, and as more people came, more space was observed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I only found out after seeing the World Tower that this world is the same as that place. It’s ‘a world created by many people’—the more people that form this world, the bigger the world. That finally made sense…when I first rode a bike to try and leave this place, I had a feeling that I just couldn’t reach the end no matter how far I rode…it felt like the goal-line was chasing after me as the same speed…”
Then Alice suddenly noticed something, and shook hishead.
“Uh oh, I talked too much.”
“Is that so?”
“Ahh. I beg of you, don’t ask me too many questions. No, please assume that whatever I say is wrong.”.
“…Well, I guess it’s better not to ask then.”
“Yeah, and there’s someone eavesdropping…”
The moment Ai said this, there were footsteps at the stairs leading to the first floor, followed by a slip, “Owie…” and then a grumble.
“…Feels like she’s been really clumsy ever since she got her actual body back.”
“No, that’s how she’s always been.”
Alice downed the cocktail he had not sipped, and stood up,
“That’s all I can say. Please take care of the rest.”
Ai had no shovel, no straw hat, and no Gravekeeper’s clothes. “Yes” She could only answer proudly.
A week passed in a flash.
In that amount of time, the group adapted to the world at their own pace.
Celica was the first to take action. This baby appeared to assume that she should not be adapting to the world, but that the world should adapt to her (which, in hindsight, she had been doing the entire time). On the second day, she crawled up to class 4 in search of Scar, and attended class with her. The young teacher was quite bewildered, but the old teacher accepted the situation with an air of calmness, “It’s nothing to worry about.” Thus, Celica was the only one who would not be reproached for falling asleep in class, and reigned over class 4.
This act seemed to help Scar a lot, and using Celica as a bridge, she slowly blended with crowd. She had a ‘trying’ attitude when she first transferred over, but it seemed she had enjoyed herself somewhat..
Julie rarely remained in a conspicuous place, but it seemed he was working everywhere behind the scenes. Whenever Ai went to the shopping district, people would say, “Are you Julie’s child” and give her great discounts.
The townspeople were basically ‘invited here by Alice to save him’, but in fact, it felt like ‘Alice was saving them when they had nowhere to go’, which was why they were especially kind to Ai and the others. In addition, the autonomous organization seemed to have made some kind of decision and notice, for there was surprisingly little confusion about Celica.
Scar was often begged to go into town to parade her baby.
She’s not for show! Julie was originally angry and opposed, but there was an endless stream of people who wanted to see Celica, and those who actually saw it were moved to tears, and none of them were laughing. Thus, Julie relented. Celica aside, Scar was not opposed to this, and this seemed to be the decisive factor as to why Julie agreed.
The entire town had become much livelier thanks to the baby, and in response, the three of them were doing just fine.
Ai was the only one who was not well.
Ai shouted and plopped down on a pile of newspapers.
Perhaps as a reaction to having acquired so much information on the first two days, the rest of the week was surprisingly uneventful.
(I wonder if I’m doing this wrong…)
She lifted her face and looked at the materials scattered before her.
Ai’s first task was to investigate ‘what happened fourteen years ago?’ and ‘what happened during the fourteen years?’
The yesterday newspapers that were printed fourteen years ago were already complicated and weird on their own, and there were earlier issues. Next to them was a pile of scrapbooks and documents.
Ai thought that Alice’s metaphor was really appropriate, the one about the cage, the key and the treasure.
Class 3-4 was trapped in this world, but it did not mention they were in a cage. Their predicament was akin to having to solve a ridiculous question. They were in a cage, and yet outside the cage. What was the one thing that could never escape a cage? That would be the cage itself.
Ai’s role was to break the cage free, and not necessarily to know the treasure inside. She thought one way was to break the cage forcibly without unlocking it, or knowing its secret, and free the contents that was class 4.
But Ai did not want to do that.
Because, after all, it was the place of some people’s wishes.
Though the wish was distorted and thus created a lot of misfortune, the initial emotions were not a lie. Ai did not want to trample upon them.
She wanted to choose a solution that was in line with everyone’s ‘wishes’, as much as possible.
However, despite this, the investigation was not progressing.
Alice stopped expressing his own opinions as he had originally declared, and instead of helping Ai, he started attending club activities (he was apparently the manager of the basketball team). He had said so much, but it felt as though he was enjoying this world thoroughly.
And there was also a problem with the material research.
There was only so much material in this world at this point. The most crucial part, the ‘end of the loop’, was completely omitted however, and it was impossible to grasp what happened at that moment.
She had no idea as to ‘what happened 14 years ago’, and ‘What happened during these fourteen years’ remained a bigger mystery.
The reason of it all was the ‘reset’. The ‘reset’ resulted in a breakdown of information, and the footprints during those fourteen years became a black box. Even Alice had no idea as to what happened in the early days.
And and there was Dee.
Ai had a feelt that Dee and her got along really well. Ever since Dee regained her body, she was using it well to help these people who had absolutely no life skills. Seeing her sweep the floor and cook, one would not have imagined her to be the same person as the ‘Ghost’ outside. It seemed she was well suited for this role (Though she was a klutz).
But that did not mean she had lost her ghostly fangs.
Ai flipped through a stack of documents. It was a lot, but on further thought, it was not much.
Most of the materials was hidden by Dee. She would steal or destroy the information to a point where the rest would not occur. (And she had pretended to be klutzy by spilling tea or slipping, which Ai failed to realize initially). Ai tried to ask her directly, but she turned Ai’s words against the latter. Ai’s mouth was no match against the Ghost’s, and she was at her wits end.
Tired of the reality where she understood nothing at all, Ai plopped down on her desk, screaming like a dying warthog.
The chief of the newspaper club, Mr. Witz, appeared to have had enough as he reached to nudge his glasses up, grunting in annoyance.
“You have been making noises for a while now. Is there a problem? Don’t bother others just because you’re stuck.”
Ai looked up. The newspaper that was stuck to her forehead fell down.
They were in the newspaper club room.
There was a huge desk with piles of papers scattered all over it, and the walls were covered with shelves with papers shoved into them. The floor too was dirty, with ink vials that surely had fell to the floor, becoming stuck with the floor. The area around the stove was the only clean part, but she could not lean over, but there were signs of countless scorch marks on them.
Ai had Alice arrange for her to use this place freely, and brazenly occupied a table to work. The chief appeared displeased, and would insult her whenever he had the chance to.
“Goodness…our newspaper club is the bastion of knowledge and conscience. What are you thinking, making such noises that aren’t intellectual in the slightest? If you want to growl so badly, why don’t you go to a pig farm?”
“Well, well, chief, that’s enough ….”
Maki, the male advisor, followed up. Not only that, the other members of the club were generally friendly towards Ai.
They were not Class 3-4 students; Ostia had about 500 students at this point, and they were run so differently from the past. There was no longer an academic year system or class system. The ages of the students range from fifteen to sixty-eight, and the school has become a kind of university where those who were unable to study during the turbulent fifteen years could freely attend. In fact, the chief of the department was nineteen years old.
Alice had said that the act of bringing in 35,000 people was a failure, but that might be hard to say in. The influence of bringing others in was firmly shown in this world.in reality, we still didn’t know. The effects of letting others in are clearly visible in this world.
“Ehhh~, is that what you should be saying, chief~~? Don’t you always get impatient and talk to yourself whenever it’s almost the deadline?”
Standing up was Kate Ann, register number seven of class 3-4, vice chief of the newspaper club. Her freckled cheeks flushed, and she pointed her ink-stained fingertip as she turned to wink at Ai. It seemed her desire to protect her classmates took precedence over her club allegiance, and she often defended Ai..
“Wha! Don’t slander me! I would never do such a thing!”
“Oh, you’re trying to get away with it? That’s not like you, chief Maki. I thought you wouldn’t deny it at least no matter how horrible a person you are…”
“My name is Witz!”
“…? What are you talking about, Chief Maki?”
The air in the room changed drastically. Kate herself did not appear to notice this as she continued to call Witz as Maki.
The name, of course, did not belong to Witz.
It belonged to,
In the same tone of voice as before, the teacher Maki Collect said.
“That’s enough, both of you.”
His voice was stern, gentle, and compassionate. Witz gave him a gaudy look, while Kate looked incredulous at him.
Ai’s brow furrowed as she endured the scene in front of her. The same could be said for the other members.
Professor Maki Collect was an alumni of Ostia School. He used to be a member of class 3-2, and was a member and chief of the newspaper club during his tenure.
This world as perceived by the students of Class 4 was quite different from the real one, and the unnatural scenario of ‘not thinking this world as unnatural’ would not be possible. The cognitive adjustments were flexible, and could allow for people who should not have existed back then—like Ai and the other students—and even become friends with them. Even if the loop developed differently, it could continue to run if there was no major dissonance.
However, the really important matters would not change.
For Kate, the head of the newspaper club was Maki Collect, a fact that she could not change and a memory she could not forget.
And it must have been the same for Maki Collect who, after fourteen years, decided to return to this place and stay by her side as a teacher…
Don’t think about it any more.
Ai shook her head and just read the material furiously.
They need to be released, no matter what.
So she thought.
Ai brushed the snow off her boots outside the door, took off her coat and scarf, and went inside. The house was warm, and there was a nice fragrance. Dinner was already prepared in the living room, and the lid of the pot was shaking in the fireplace.
Julie was angry. His face was filled with deep wrinkles, and his legs were quivering, as though he was sick or something.
“You’re so late! Why are you home so late!? Didn’t I tell you to be home by sundown at the very least!?
“I thought I answered that I can’t guarantee that.”
I’m back~. After greeting Celica, she reached out to tickle the latter’s belly, and then laid out the her shoes and coat next to the fireplace.
“No! No! No! Ehhh, you too Alice! Why didn’t you tell Ai to leave earlier? Didn’t I ask you!?”
Alice, who was also hanging up his clothes next to Ai, was startled.
“Eh, you’re mistaken, old man? You said that if she’s going to come home late, I should at least accompany her—”
“It’s obvious without me telling you that you’re supposed to send her home early!”
“That’s pushing it.”
“Shall we go, Mr. Alice?”
Hey, Ai! I’m not done—”
“I’m going to gargle and wash my hands.”
Ai glanced aside at Julie, whose words were stuck in his throat, even giving a childish look before closing the door. Alice Alice muttered, “that stubborn dad.”
“—Goodness, that old man’s having the time of his life.”
“Good grief. Can’t he think about how he’s always late at home because he’s always going out with friends or working.”
“That old man definitely never followed a curfew when he was a student. That’s hypocritical of him.”
After gargling and washing their hands, they did not want to go to the living room, so they went upstairs through the kitchen. This time, bam! the door was barged open, and Dee, holding the pot, charged out.
“Move, move, move!”
The contents of the pot were dumped into a colander, and steam kept rising as the glossy pasta appeared. Dee deftly drained the water, lifted the colander, and went back to the kitchen.
It was just in the nick of time: Alice caught Dee who was about to fall, and Ai caught the colander before the pasta could fall out.
Phew, The three of them slowly stood up, letting out an unanimous sigh of relief.
“I-I’m sorry, you two, and thanks.”
Dee bowed her head while she was still held up by Alice.
“Dee~~~please hurry back soon!”
But she paled the moment she heard a scream from the kitchen.
One had to wonder what project was going on there. The fragrant smell quickly turned into a smell of paint and concrete, and the steam turned to purple smoke.
And Scar’s scream came from the other side.
“Dee, the pot, the pot—!”
“Wait, Scar, what are you doing? I’m coming, don’t touch it!”
Saying that, Dee gulped and charged into the kitchen with the expression of a fireman headed towards a severe fire.
“Ahhh, it exploded.”
“Oh, why does it always happen?
The menu for dinner was pasta with meat sauce and dried salmon soup, along with pickled vegetables salad.
Somehow, it was delicious.
And so, the the days passed, leisurely for some, and frantically for others.
Ai’s room was slowly filled with things. First were cabinets and desks for storing materials, then heaps of stationery and paper.
At night, Ai was lying prostrate on the desk under a light that had been left on. Drool and snoring oozed from her mouth, about to stain the borrowed materials.
Dee speaked at that scene. She did knock and call out to Ai, but since there was no response, she opened the door.
“…I knew you’d fall asleep like this again.”
She sighed and entered the room. “Ai, are you asleep?” She walked up to Ai, stole a glance at the material, and heaved a sigh of reief. For some reason, it seemed Ai was researching on something related to water and sewage in Ostia. Dee was relieved to see that there was no progress at all, so she set her hand to the second objective.
Dee picked up Ai, carried her to bed, and tucks her under the blanket. The heating was switched off late at night, and her little body was pitifully cold.
Dee wrapped her hands tightly around Ai to warm her up, then prepared a hot water bottle and put it under her feet before leaving the room.
Suddenly, she noticed a blanket on the floor under the chair Ai had been sitting on.
It appeared someone had draped it over Ai’s shoulders, but it had fallen off.
Dee folded the blanket carefully, held it in her left hand, switched off the light and left the room.
Truth be told, Alice was of no use.
In fact, he was more of a hindrance.
He did not give any hints, and on the contrary, interfered with Ai’s work. Whenever there was a break, he would invite her to play ball, or in the holidays, he would drag her out to go skiing, skateboarding, everywhere.
It would be a lie to say that Ai did not enjoy it. In fact, she remembered the night they skied to the other side of the ice field at Ostia Coral and spent the night in a snow hut.
But it would be a bit of a stretch to say that she was really enjoying herself.
“You’re too uptight. You won’t be able to see what you can normally see, right?”
Alice laughed and patted Ai on the head, who brushed it off and went to her desk with a stoic look.
The investigation just did not progress, and no matter how she waited, the inspiration did not come..
And so the season turned to spring.
Ai turned thirteen.