Hellping

Part I

 

It was the beginning of May, a month after Ai’s arrival in this world.

The persistent snow finally began to disappear, and the season turned to spring. The snow slowly melted and was replaced by the lake water of Ostia. The sealed, heavy clouds were reluctantly repatriated to the north as they were by the south wind. The mornings and evenings were still cold, but the middays were warm enough.

It happened on a certain day.

Everyone was acting strange since morning.

They would hastily avert their eyes whenever she saw them, and there were often whispers behind her back.

It was the same at home and at school.

Everyone was shunning Ai, fearful of talking to her. However, they were strangely kind, filling in for her duty, and some cleaned up for her.

She only understood the reason once she got home.

“Happy Birthday!”

There was a chorus of dozens of people, Menhim’s homemade crackers, deafening applause, and some really delicious smelling food.

” ………Eh?”

Ai muttered as she pulled the ribbon of the cracker over her head.

“Eh? Ah, i-is it someone’s birthday today? I-I’m so sorry. ! I didn’t know anything about it! I’m sorry! Whose is it?”

“Yours, yours.”

Julie, Scar, and the entire class 4 retorted.

Me? Ai pointed her index finger back at herself.

“That’s right! Ai! Happy birthday!”

Dee shouted excitedly, hugging her from behind.

“You totally forgot, right?”

Alice, wearing nose glasses, smirked.

“Eh? But my birthday was in the summer, and it’s not spring yet…”

In the middle of saying this, Ai realized.

It had been a month since she came to this world.

It was early summer outside, so it should have been summer by now.

However, it was a late spring over here, cold enough to require a fireplace, and there was still snow under the eaves.

She never had a birthday like this before.

“Look at you, you’re too uptight, and you have tunnel vision. You don’t even know when your own birthday is. Who got the nerve to lecture me now? Huh?”

Alice grinned as though he was the biggest contributor.

“Just for today, I’m going to make you forget everything. Forget about the world, forget about us, just have fun.”

Then Alice extended his hand.

“Come on—it’s your day today.”

There was a huge white cake behind him, thirteen pale colored candles, a chocolate plate celebrating her birth, and smiles, smiles, and more smiles.

“Here, Ai.”

Dee took Ai’s other arm, and they dragged Ai to a warm place.

And so Ai turned thirteen.

 

+

 

“Hahhh~!”

It was the time when the date was about to change. Ai sat slumped in her chair in her room and spaced out.

That birthday party became quite a ruckus ever since that. There were lots of party tricks, a whole bunch of ‘congratulations’, and a lot of little present boxes that were never the same.

Scar’s training had paid off, and she gifted Ai with many jewel-like baked sweets. Julie gave her a school uniform and a modest hair clip that was definitely not cheap and did not violate school rules. Her classmates gave her a dress as a present.

The clothes were adorned on Ai’s body. A simple sky-blue shirt was matched with a flared skirt down to her knees. This dress was very suited for the coming spring and summer, and one that would match Ai’s straw hat.

“Alright~ we’re done.”

Alice carried the presents in and clapped his hands. Ai said that she would move all her presents, but Alice did not budge. He was still in the midst of cleaning up downstairs, and would not allow Ai to do any work.

“Ah, what are you doing down there? I told you to rest today, right?”

“Yes, yes.”

In fact, Ai wanted to continue her research, but she was not in the mood. Thud, she closed the folder she had just opened, and did as Alice commander.

“What now? You look tired.”

“Urk! I’m not tired. It’s just that I was deeply moved, like—oh, I’m thirteen years old now.”

“What? You’re unhappy?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to be old…”

“Seriously, you’re saying that at thirteen years old? You’ll have blood on your hands. Don’t ever say that to the nearby aunts.”

“I don’t mean that…it feels like I’m seeing a fuse of a bomb getting shorter and shorter, and I don’t like that…”

At that point, Ai realized she had misspoke.

The fuse of the person before her had stopped all this while.

Given that she had already noticed so, surely Alice too noticed she misspoke, but he did not show it on his face, “What’s wrong?” and smiled-.

I didn’t notice anything. It was a kind lie to emphasize so. Ai took advantage of his kindness and said, “It’s nothing,” and stood up.

“I’ll get changed.”

“Oh, my bad. Wait a minute. I’ll be right back..”

Ai nodded without asking why, and Alice left the room once he saw that. He probably went to his room.

Ai only removed the little item on her, the barrette that held her hair up.

The barrette was a simple piece of bent tortoiseshell. Practical as it might be, it was a genuine article.

“Is that Dee’s?”

Alice, who came back really quickly, peered at her hand.

“Yes, it’s nice.”

The classmates’ joint gift was clothes, but there were also quite a few individual gifts: Mu gave her brass knuckles, Menhim gave her a brand new pencil case, and Kate gave Ai her favorite ruling pen.

And Dee gave this hair clip.

“It’s kind of fun to give gifts, isn’t it?”

“Sure seems the case for the recipient.”

“I don’t mean this. Don’t you think giving presents is like ‘making a wish’?”

Making a wish? Alice asked for an explanation. Ai pondered for a while, and said,

“For example, what do you think everyone in class 4 was thinking when they gave these clothes to me?”

“’Will you please dress like a normal person’?”

“Y-yeah. I guessed it would be something like that—but you’re too blunt about it.”

Aside from weekdays, Ai spends all her holidays in Gravekeeper clothes. Surely class 4 had taken her appearance into consideration when they gave her the clothes.

“Mr. Julie gave me the new uniform for the same reason, I guess. He wants me to fit in at school…and doesn’t want me to wear these Gravekeeper clothes too often.”

“…I guess so.”

“Miss Dee is the same too. ‘You should dress up a little’, that’s what she’s been saying all the time.”

“Yeah.”

“Of course, that’s not the only reason. I think Miss Mu for example just chose what she wanted. It seemed Miss Scar chose something she could do.”

“… Ahh, I guess so.”

“? What’s the matter, Mr. Alice?”

At this point, Ai noticed that Alice was becoming more and more uncomfortable. His gaze swam and his voice became monotone.

“No, it’s nothing.”

He seemingly changed expressions forcibly.

“Then I’ll give you a present too.”

“Woah, great!”

Alice returned with a very large box, “”When’s he giving it to me? When’s he giving it to me?” and Ai had been waiting excitedly. Alice was quite the scoundrel to drag this out for so long, knowing that she was looking forward to it..

When it was time to give it to her, Alice simply presented the box to her. Ai took it to her bed, sat on the bed, and unwrapped it. The wrapping paper was plain and there was no ribbon. At that point. That alone had a vibe that “it was a present from Alice” and she was a little delighted. y.

She opened it.

“Ah…”

Inside the box was a shiny shovel that had been repaired.

Ai lifted the shovel in surprise and slowly stroked its handle and blade. The shiny oak handle looked like it had been just lacquered.

“Woah.”

Ai exhaled in admiration as she twirled the shovel and saw the shine on the blade. There were no minor scratches from her travels thus far, and no signs of the bullet holes that were caused.

At the bottom of the box was another set of shiny Gravekeeper’s clothes, folded.

“I asked Scar to bring them out. You never noticed, did you?”

“…Yes. Not at all.”

She had not touched her shovel or her Gravekeeper outfit for a long time recently, and she did not realize they were maintained.

“Tunnel vision. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Mm…well, you’re right.”

She had to admit this.

“…It’s important to focus on what’s before you, and I think there are times when you need to do that. It allows you to really pull out some power, but the price is that you’ll end up buckling yourself. ”

She felt those words stab into her chest.

“Well, it’s your birthday, so let’s not nag too much.”

Happy birthday, Alice wished her so, and left the room.

Ai forgot all about her plans to change her clothes and sat in the bed.

She spun the shovel around and around.

A present contains a wish.

And so, what was the meaning of Alice’s present here?

Ai pondered as she twirled the shovel around and around in the pale light.

 

+

 

That day was seemingly the boundary of seasons, for Ostia instantly became spring thereafter. The red-brick streets were dry and free of snow, and housewives were tending to their potted plants in the streets, their faces tanned as they planted flowers that would bloom in summer.

In the two weeks since then, Ai had changed her ways little by little. She reduced her priority to only investigate the material, and decided to be more involved in Class 3-4.

She started attending classes she had been skipping.

She attended the club activities she had never participated in.

She decided to join the cooking club. This club did not receive any monetary assistance from the school, but instead was the only club allowed to sell for profit. The club was restricted in many ways due to the other vendors, but thanks to the rarity of their products and Dee’s outstanding skill, the lunchtime store ‘Afumi’ became one of the most popular in the school.

Ai had been attracting attention since her enrollment as a rising star who suddenly debuted in the hellish lunchtime bread fight, and her existence has been attracting a lot of attention from illegal hustlers (there is an organization that sells to wealthy students at double the price. By the way, Alice was one of the cadres), but they missed out on her.

Ai, with her hands covered in flour on a special table, began to learn how to cook by making instead of eating—though she was a month later than Scar’.

She also started to ‘learn out of interest’. This originally came from Scar’s interest in history books and historical novels, which she had been reading intently.

Ai was interested in cultural history, especially in the context of burial and human Gravekeepers, the work of priests, the past customs and the authorities. They were also the ones who saved and protected the world. Though Ai’s world had been greatly different, there was much to take reference.

And something strange happened.

Ai obtained the ‘key’ by chance.

 

+

 

Class 4 was preparing for the cultural festival.

“A cultural festival?”

“That’s~right~. We’re going to hold it before the summer break~ we should start preparing for it soon.”

The laid-back Christine said in a relaxed voice. Her seat was right before Ai, and was someone who liked to care for others. She would immediately explain anything to Ai whenever the latter was confused about anything.

“Ours~is a week-long event~. It’s some huge festival, and the whole town is involved~ . Our gardening club grows vegetables and fruits to sell for the festival. They’re really delicious!”

Ai was greatly interested in this, but there was something she was more bothered about.

The festival was held for two weeks, the same as the annual difference, starting from July 28th.

That was the end date of the loop, the day this world would be ‘reset’.

“I wonder what our class is going to do this year~.”

“I guess. ”

Ai answered listlessly as she stared at the blackboard. Mu was laying out a number of events for the class. An exhibition, a play, a restaurant, a contest. All of them were supported, and there was a deadlock.

“…This will be the last one ~”

“Huh?”

“I mean, think about it. We’re 3rd years. We’re about to graduate this year…”

Haa, Christine let out a depressed sigh. This was something Ai did not really understand, but it seemed that graduation was so depressing and sad.

“There’s no need to be so depressed, is there? It’s not like we won’t meet again.”

“I didn’t think you’d be so cold~”

“Mmm, please call me cool at least.”

“I don’t think you’re cool~”

She patted Ai’s head and pinched the latter’s cheeks.

“Haa~It’s so depressing.”

“Feels like everyone’s the same. Everyone looks happy, but looks sad at the same time.”

“Yeah, well, Class 4 is usually fun.”

“I can see that.”

“…If only these days can go on forever.”

Right? She asked for Ai’s agreement, and Ai awkwardly tried to pass it off.

Would it be sarcastic of Ai if she said, you guys have been in this loop for a long time now?

“Argggh! We’re getting nowhere! Let’s vote!”

Mu finally snapped out of it as they could not come to a consensus. Bam bam! She slammed the table hard to silence the messy opinions.

“Shut up! We’ve raised all our opinions. Let’s leave it to fate! Those for exhibition, raise your hands!”

A few hands were raised, and the voting began. Two suggestions were chosen for the first round, and then there was another vote for the remaining two opinions. It seemed the remaining choices were the play and the restaurant.

So it was said, but the decision was already made. There was a certain level of change permitted, but the ultimate choice was predetermined beforehand. Ai was told by Alice in advance what would be chosen: a play.

“Eight…nine…ten…okay! We’re doing a restaurant this year!”

“Eh?—Yo-you’re kidding!”

Dee was stunned. In prior years, the vote would end up split between nine and nine, followed by a meaningless debate, and then the choice would be a play.

But this year, there was Ai.

Her vote went to the restaurant.

 

+

 

“Mr. Alice, why did you tell me to ‘vote for the restaurant’?”

Ai asked Alice while they were at the news club, like always. She did not put much thought into Alice’s words when the latter mentioned so, but after seeing Dee’s reaction, she had a feeling there was a reason for that request.

“The play gets chosen all the time.”

“I shouldn’t pick the play?”

“Not that we can’t, but it’s just weird. It’s supposed to be a restaurant in the first place.”

“? What do you mean?”

“Unless there’s someone interfering, the event that happens in the loop basically repeats what happened fourteen years ago. The only thing different is the type of stalls at the festival.”

“…So you thought there’ll be something if we choose something different?”

“Yeah, that’s why I wanted to try it out.”

“…What happened back then?”

“……”

Alice was silent.

Hmm, Ai sniffed and headed for the filing cabinet. She pulled out the previous year’s bulletin and festival pamphlet. However, there was no particular purpose when she did so.

She was hoping to find something that would allow her to recognize, but the materials available were too old to be of any use.

“…Mmm, it’s expected that the future can’t be predicted, but I can’t think of what we can do if we don’t know what happened during this year’s festival…”

“I guess so~.”

“Hmm, I guess I’ll have to experience this once?”

“……”

Alice was silent again. Their conversations were usually like this.

“…I would like another source of information.”

She wanted some absolute information that could not be biased.

But there was no way she could find that in this place…

Hmm?

“…Mr Alice.”

“What?”

“You’ve been to the outside world so many times, right?”

Alice mentioned before that he and the other original members of Class 3-4 could leave and return to this space as many times as they wanted.

“Yeah.”

Alice replied curtly. Ai however saw the blood drained off his face.

“If that’s the case, can I ask for something? Can you please go to the outside world and gather some intel? If you can, please collect newspapers from July 28th onward.”

Even if there was no information about July 28th in this world, there should be some in the outside world. Such information might be the future in this world, but it was the past in the outside world.

“You make it sound so easy, but it’s really tough, you know? Even if they’re preserved well, old newspapers from fourteen years ago are tattered. Don’t forget that there had been two wars and a plague outside. You’d be crazy to think there’s anything left of that.”

“….Then.”

“Yeah, I really spent a lot of effort looking.”

Then Alice got up, went to the file cabinet and took out a file from there.

“Here.”

“Wh-What’s this?”

“Ahh, August 29th. It’s a piece of newspaper from the day after the reset. Just a piece.”

There was only one page in the file. The paper was tanned bright yellow, and more than half of the articles had been burned.

It read.

—Seventeen students of the Ostia School for Boys and Girls are missing. One student died—

 

+

 

Ai had no idea who that one student was. It might have been written on the burned part, or not at all.

But there was something about the incident that struck Ai.

She remembered a female student who claimed to be the ‘Ghost’.

 

+

 

After leaving Alice, Ai went to look for Dee alone.

She bumped into Menhim in the hallway, and asked him where she was. “Isn’t she in the cooking classroom?” he answered, so Ai went there.

“Ah, Ai, just in time! Go ahead, have a taste.”

It seemed that though there were no club activities held on this day, Dee stayed behind to come up with a new menu. She was in the midst of making the dough and putting it in the oven when Ai visited the club room.

“Miss Dee—”

“Wait a sec.”

Dee turned her butt towards Ai and carefully adjusted the flame. She observed the color of the flame and the outside, and adjusted the dough position accordingly.

“Sorry to make you wait. I’ll have you try out these delicious lemon bars as an apology.”

Satisfied, Dee stood up and stuck out her tongue.

“…? What’s up?”

She immediately noticed that Ai was acting differently, and hung her apron on the chair and turned around with a confused look.

“Miss Dee….”

“Hmm?”

“Why did you call yourself the ‘Ghost’?”

That question alone got Dee to seemingly realize everything.

Ahhh, she nodded in enlightenment, and immediately became a different person, it seemed—from the friendly Dee of this world she had been getting used to recently, to the Ghost she met in the wilderness—

“Sorry, I have to finish cleaning up—”

Dee began to wash the baking tools. Ai stared at her back silently.

Swoosh, the faucet was turned off, the tools were carefully drained and put back on the rack. Dee wiped her hands and said,

“So? Why do I call myself ‘Ghost’? ”

“… Yes.”

“Coincidence, I guess.”

Ai frowned. In contrast, Dee remained composed and dusted the hem of her apron..

“What’s with that face? If you’re unhappy even after I’m telling the truth, then what else is there to talk about?”

“… That’s true, but the way you put it,”

“Well, it was really a coincidence initially at least. You know, unlike Alice, I don’t have a physical body once I go to the outside world, so people started calling me ‘Ghost’. Can’t they spare a thought for me when I hate ghosts and monsters and such.”

“……”

Ai did ask both of them before as to why Alice had a physical body in the outside world, but Dee did not.

The answer from both of them was “We don’t know.”.

Back then, Dee reeked of a liar.

“I really don’t know why. I can guess though.”

“…Can you tell me why?”

“Well, if I don’t tell you, I won’t be able to stop you. Since you made it all the way here, I’ll tell you something…the reason why Alice has a physical body and not me is because…”

Dee smiled.

“Because he’s alive and I’m dead.”

 

+

 

“Well, it was the day before the school festival. We were so busy preparing that day that we stayed in school to help. The reason for that was that we started taking action only at the last moment, and those guys were helpless. It was a really messy day. We didn’t have enough equipment, we misspelled a sign, and we didn’t keep our receipts. The teacher even scolded us ‘you guys never requested to stay in school’, but everyone got really rowdy, and said that we should just stay up all night to prepare. Mu and I had a hard time setting up a simple kitchen, and we went about putting the gas canisters and the stove and buying the ingredients. Alice’s Buzzer Beater ability had just awakened, and he was really depressed, but he was too busy to be depressed as he was busy working, and he was smiling. I was really happy when I saw him smile…that’s why I didn’t manage to look forward. It’s all my fault.”

“……”

“We were particularly nitpicky about the interior. We even changed the lights, and turned the classroom into something like a palace. I was in charge of taking down the curtains, so I stacked the chair onto the table. It wasn’t stable, but it was fine for me, so I just climbed up. I removed the second, the third, but when I got to the fourth.”

“Miss Dee…”

“The fourth window was the only one opened, but I didn’t notice it, so I stupidly leaned against it to try and remove the curtain. I was so stupid. All the other windows had been closed, so I thought this one would be the same. I was shocked, like, I thought there was a flight of stairs, but there wasn’t? I didn’t know what happened at first, and I guess my eyes were really wide, since Alice was like that. Ah—yeah, Alice was removing the curtains with me, so I was really sorry about that…I didn’t remember what happened back then, but Alice definitely saw everything…I messed up.”

“Miss Dee!”

Ai shouted.

Dee widened her eyes, and it appeared as though she had not realized she said something that would necessitate others to stop her. Surely that was the same expression she showed as she fell.

“That’s enough….”

“Hmm? Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s over now, but …”

Dee held her flushed cheeks lightly, as though checking if they were hot.

“Erm, what were we talking about again? Ah yeah, we’re talking about the ‘Ghost’, part? Actually, I’ve been talking about it for a long time. Let’s see. That’s after I left the outside world along with the first Alice…so that’s the sixth year, I guess? We found a newspaper article about the missing Class 4 students and the death of one of the students, and that’s when I remembered. I thought, Oh, that’s me. How did you find out about this, Ai?”

“…….”

“You don’t have to tell me. I see. I had been suspicious about it before, but there’s still some bit of this newspaper? Looks like I have to burn it properly before the next loop…”

Ai realized that she had said too much, and also understood why Alice had kept the information from her. He did not want Dee to notice. Alice felt that he did not need to provide this if there was a need to abandon Ai, and wanted to bet on the next candidate.

And at the same time, she also found out where Dee stood.

“…Miss Dee, you once told me that ending the world is your way of saving it, right…?”

“I did.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Dee laughed. She laughed like a witch.

“Fufufu, Ai. You already know. You know that I don’t want to end my world.”

“But I still want to hear it from you.”

“The world I want to end is the outside world.”

Dee continued the conversation as she opened the oven and checked the pastry.

“Hey Ai, what do you think is the biggest obstacle to preventing this world from continuing to exist forever?”

“It’s Mr. Alice.”

“Pfft, great answer. I can’t get rid of him even though he’s a nuisance. He’s a very important part of this world.”

Dee poked a toothpick in the oven to see how it was cooking. It was not done yet.

“And there’s nothing Alice can do about it…but he just wants to go beyond the glass, right?”

“Eh?”

The last line was in the form of a question, but it was not a question.

The last line was in the form of a question, and yet not one. Dee suddenly narrated, seemingly to herself

“And then he’ll be battered all over, right? That’s when I thought of the other side of the glass. I thought that if I could get rid of the world outside the glass, even Alice would give up.”

Their eyes met. At that moment, Dee had reverted to being the Ghost.

“And I’m always scared that just in case, the one who’ll destroy this world will come from the outside…that’s why I went about whispering to others to accelerate the oxidation of the world, let the world end sooner.”

“That’s…”

The shock ran from the little toe of her right foot to the ends of her hair.

“You can’t be doing that!”

“You won’t allow that?”

Of course! Ai was about to shout, but she held her breath.

“…Thanks Ai. I know the current you won’t say something like ‘of course!’ that easily now. I knew you would at least listen to me, even if you didn’t like it.”

Dee said, looking somewhat shy.

“Actually, I didn’t start out thinking this way….It was, well, the time of the third Alice. That’s when we believed Alice’s words. It was tough, but it was fun. We were all united in our efforts to get out of here. At that time, I really wanted to get back to the real world. I even forgot that I was dead. …”

“……”

“We were able to go outside for the first time, and that’s when I started to change my mind. I still remember the first time I went out and saw the Dead, and I thought, ‘Are we seriously returning to this place’?”

“……”

“But even then, I tried to hang on, since Alice wouldn’t give up, so I had to. I thought that no matter how bad the world was out there, we should return there, and break free from the bond of this little world. I tried hard, I really did.

…until I realized that I died…”

“……”

“Hey, Ai. Am I a bad kid?”

Dee said, as though she was an abandoned child.

“Of course I’m a bad kid. I just bound everyone because I don’t want to disappear, and I even went to everyone, getting everyone uninvolved to hurry up and die. Of course I’m a bad kid. I’m so bad that I can’t complain if they stone me or chop my head off, right?”

But still,

“But still, is it really my fault?”

Dee spoke plainly, as if she were talking about her own death.

“I can’t accept my own death, and that’s why I can’t let everyone go. Is it really a bad thing…?”

The Ghost, the monster, did not cry. She had seemingly forgotten how to cry, and merely uttered her words.

“…No.”

Ai responded.

“Miss Dee…you aren’t a bad person.”

“Haha, that’s a lie. I don’t need any consolation.”

“It’s true. You aren’t a bad person. You’re just weak…”

“Weak?”

Yes, Ai nodded.

“You’re just ‘weak’, and that’s worse than being bad…”

“…Haha, hahaha.”

I see, Dee laughed.

“I see I see. So it’s worse than being a bad person…I guess I’m worse than evil then…”

I’m really a monster…Dee sneered as she leaned limply onto the kitchen table.

Ai stood there, not knowing what to say. Dee looked up at her from a lower position.

“…But then, what are you going to do about it, Ai?”

“What am I going to do about…what?”

“Aren’t you trying to fulfill Alice’s wish?”

The vibe around Dee slowly changed.

“I don’t know how Alice is going to destroy this world. But if the time comes, will you bury me? I’ll cry and say that I don’t want to be buried, but will you still bury me with your shovel?”

Dee Ensy Stratmitos whispered, like an evil spirit.

But that whisper did not work on Ai now.

“No, of course not.”

“Eh?”

“Seriously, that’s what you’re thinking about? I thought I told you about this many times before .”

“Wh-what?”

“It’s fine to call someone an enemy…actually, it’s not…but please don’t think that just because you think of someone else as an enemy, the other person thinks of you as an enemy. Didn’t I say before that I’m standing on your side?”

“Ah….”

“I want to make everyone’s wishes come true. Yes, of course I will grant Mr. Alice’s wish, but it doesn’t mean that I’ll trample over yours. The wishes of ‘wanting to be free’ and ‘don’t want to disappear’ aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s a really simple problem. I just need to fulfill both.”

“Ho-how’s that possi-!”

Possible! Dee almost shouted, but she swallowed her words in the nick of time.

“Fufu, you’re starting to understand me now, Miss Dee—I hate it when people say they can’t do it, that it’s impossible. I like to tell them, so what?”

Dee was dumbstruck, and opened her mouth wide.

Just then, ‘Ring!’ the bell rang.

“Oh, it’s baked. We’ll continue later. Let’s find a way to fulfill these two…no, everyone’s wishes.”

Ai deftly took out her oven gloves and opened the oven. The hot air escaped, causing her bangs to curl up.

‘Woah, that looks delicious. Miss Dee…how many can I take?”

“Eh? Ah, erm.”

Dee felt a strong sense of daily life, and nearly tumbled over as though intoxicated. Her brain, which had been worrying about the world, was now confused over whether she should allow Ai to eat a few tidbits.

“I’ll take about sixteen.”

“…Nope, three.”

By the time she responded,

Dee was no longer a Ghost or a monster, she was back to being Dee Ensy.

“…Seriously, I can’t get serious about this.”

Dee dragged herself up and put on her baking gloves.

“…It won’t happen, huh?”

“What?”

“Nope, it’s nothing…hey, Ai.”

“What is it?”

“If. What if, what if I just accepted everything?…what would you do if I feel that I can just die?”

“Huh?”

“No, that’s not the case. It’s not like I don’t care that I die. Assuming that I suddenly have the urge to die like the Holy Maiden? What will you do if I say that I’ll happily disappear for everyone’s sake?”

“……”

“Will you bury me happily? With an emotionless face? Or sadly?”

“Why are the answers all to ‘bury’…”

“So you won’t bury me?”

Ai took a single deep breath,

“Basically, I think that people are supposed to disappear someday. I think that’s right.”

“Yes.”

“People will disappear. It’s true. But I don’t think ‘humanity’ will disappear. It’s right for a single person to disappear, so I won’t stop anyone who’ll willingly disappear…but if I do, everything will disappear. So—”

“Ah~ahh~ahhh~ahhhh…that’s not what I’m asking!”

Dee squeezed Ai’s cheeks.

“Will you bury me if I ask you to? Or not?”

“I-I don’t want to bury you. But…”

Ai was teary-eyed, as though she was forced to make a decision.

“But I’m sure that when the time comes, I’ll bury you Miss Dee…”

“I see.”

“Yes…”

“What’s there to be sad about? I already know that. I know that you buried Hampnie Hambart.I know you’re not going to give up on your dream just because of your feelings.”

“I’m sorry…”

“But, ahhh, that’s too bad. Now my plan of trying to appeal to you has failed. Dammit, I shouldn’t have taken care of you. Here, return the sweets to me.”

“Eh? So you’re planning that…?”

“……Just kidding. Here, for you. You can have four.”

“…I want six.”

“Damn you…”

Dee gritted her teeth and handed over the basket to Ai, as though implying that the latter could take as many as she wanted “Yay~” Ai immediately cheered, and the crow that had just despaired immediately broke into a smile, munching on the lemon bar that was not too hot at this moment.

“Ah, since we have the chance, let’s eat and chat about the future. There’s something we should explain to Mr. Alice too. Ah, but since he’s working so hard, I guess he definitely knows everything—”

“No!”

The supposedly amicable, joyous mood immediately turned tens again. Dee turned around and grabbed Ai’s shoulder as if she were about to burst.

“Please! Don’t tell Alice!”

“…M-Miss Dee. It hurts.”

Her eyes were filled with despair and fear.

“Wh-Why are you so…?”

“Please…I beg of you, Ai… don’t tell Alice…Alice doesn’t know. He doesn’t know that I’m dead. He doesn’t know about this, and he’s working so hard. No matter how thick the wall is, he’s still not going to give up.”

“……”

“Do you think Alice would give up just because I’m dead?”

Ai could not answer.

“No…maybe Alice knows. He might have known that I’m dead, and that destroying this place will cause me to disappear. But even so, it’s fine. Even if that’s the case, I’m fine with this. As long as I don’t know. But—”

“……”

“But if I know, if I realize that ‘I still want to be free even if it means that you’ll disappear’, if I know that’s what he’s thinking, then…”

Dee laughed. She laughed at herself.

“I’m really ridiculous…I’d kill anyone for my own sake…and even destroy the world… I’d do anything for that…But…”

 

“If Alice tells me ‘I don’t need you’—”

 

From that point on, Dee could not say anything.

Her body went limp, her knees buckled, and she  and she sagged against Ai’s body.

──────. ──────.

Dee was crying as if she was laughing, without making a sound.

Ai hugged her body gently with her right hand.

“Miss Dee.”

She slowly stroked Dee’s head with her left hand and said,

“You love Mr. Alice, don’t you?”

Dee nodded, trying to hide her tear-stained and snotty face.

 

+

 

Dee rubbed her nose until it turned red, cried so many tears one would wonder if her eyes ran dry, and finally regained her composure.

“…I’m sorry you had to see that, ….”

“No, no.”

Sniff. She sniveled.

“But I’m surprised that you like Mr. Alice…Miss Dee.”

“…Me too.”

“No, no, no, no.”

The two of them sat side by side on the floor of the home economics room with their legs outstretched. The sun shining through the window in the west went past Dee’s legs, and only heated Ai’s left leg.

“What do you mean, ‘me too’?”

“…No, I just realized that I like Alice. …

“Huh?”

What are you talking about? That was the face Ai showed.

“What are you talking about?”

And she actually said so. Dee blew her nose one more time.

“I see…so I like Alice.”

“Eh? Does that mean you just fell in love with him?”

“No. Now that I think about it, since elementary school—”

“That’s so late!”

Ai slapped herself on the knee.

“Miss Dee, you’re so late to realize it!”

“Y-yeah. But you don’t have to say that…”

“I mean, you were annoyed before when Mu and others made fun of you, saying ‘it’s really not’, right?”

“Y-yeah. That’s what I really thought back then. Now that I think about it, I was hiding my own embarrassment, maybe?”

Kyuu, she blushed and pressed her cheeks.

“… What should I do? Miss Dee is being cute …?”

“I-I’m not.”

Dee was so embarrassed that her eyes, nose and cheeks were red. Ai sighed.

“…Want some sweets?”

“Yes.”

Finally, they chowed down on the lemon bars that were no longer hot. The lemon bars had lemonade soda essence sprayed on it, and was fizzy in the mouth. It tasted really sweet.

The first star. The afternoon home economics room in the western sun. Tears, love, and lemon bars.

It was like a scene from a novel.

“But I see…I like Alice…”

“You’re still saying that…”

Ai decided to ignore it and crunched on a lemon bar.

“Ah, then, I’ve been finding fault with you because I was jealous, Ai?”

Soon, Ai could not ignore it anymore.

“………Huh?”

“I see, I see, ah—it all makes sense now. Is that so? Now that I think about it, whichever the girl Alice saved, I just didn’t like that girl. So that’s why.”

“Wait, Miss Dee?”

“I see, I see. Jealousy? Ehehe.”

“W-waait, stop, Miss Dee, stop.”

Ai stopped Dee who was looking blissful for some reason, rubbed her brows, and said,

“Why are you jealous of me, Miss Dee?”

“Eh? Because you like Alice too, don’t you, Ai? ”

“Huh?”

What are you talking about?

“What are you talking about?”

“Eh? Huh? That’s weird?”

Dee stuttered at the answer, looking as if she had messed up one plus one. And then she appeared to have understood.

“You just don’t know it yet, do you?”

“Wait, wait a minute. Why are you deciding that I like him?”

“Am I wrong here…eh? So you hate Alice, Ai?”

“I don’t hate him, but…”

“Then you like him?”

“Please don’t make it sound like it’s black or white. It’s not a yes or no question.”

“Is that so?”

“Of course not. And I…don’t really understand love relationships.”

Dee made a really vexed face. It was the kind of look a novice would give to a younger novice, forgetting that she was at that phase before.

“Well, it can’t be helped at your age. Yep yep.”

“……”

“But you know what? If I count backwards, I guess I fell for Alice at your age.”

That’s being thirteen, Dee said.

“You just don’t know it yet, right? Maybe you’ll only realize it later on.”

“…That’s not true.”

“I told you you won’t notice until later…ugh, if you’re that insistent, maybe you’re—”

“Yes, yes.”

Ai really would not listen to whatever Dee said, so she just dismissed them and stood up.

But Dee seemed certain to some extent, and she kept leering away.

The school bell rang.

The lemon bars were already finished.

 

+

 

“Fufufu, but Ai, I didn’t think—”

“Seriously, have you had enough? Are you really trying to make me your love rival? An all-out war for love? Is that what makes you happy, Miss Dee?”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not your love rival. Relax.”

“Eh?”

Ai looked at Dee in surprise.

“…You’re not going to confess or anything?

“Haha, you’re quite the joker, Ai.”

Dee was laughing with her back facing the setting sun.

“The one who loved Alice was the ‘sixteen year old Dee Ensy.”

“? Isn’t that you, Miss Dee…?”

The one standing here is just the Ghost.”

“…That’s.”

The one who loved Alice was just an ordinary sixteen year old girl…who lived on, never doubting that she could live till the next day, heartbroken just because he’s late, more than happy to hear him say that the food she made was delicious…but that girl’s dead now.”

The one here is just a hollow husk, Dee laughed.

“The girl who loved him is gone. The one left here is just a monster who only knows how to kill, she killed him, her friends, the world. She’s just a ‘Ghost’…the cute Dee is gone.”

“…That’s not true, Miss Dee is pretty cute.”

“No, that’s not what I mean…”

Dee almost felt limp, and looked at Ai.

The resolve in Ai’s stare left her a little gaudy.

“Miss Dee, you’re adorable.”

“Th-thanks….”

“Miss Dee, you’re definitely a murderer, a Ghost, a bad person, greedy, clumsy, and a bit of an airhead who says things without thinking much about people’s feelings, but…”

“Hey.”

“Maybe the old Miss Dee might not have been like that at all. She might have been a perfect young lady…But I’m sure Miss Dee now is still as adorable.”

“…Really?”

“Really.”

After saying that, Ai stood up and held out her hand to her on the ground.

“I don’t care if you’re a Ghost, a monster, or just an ordinary girl. I won’t treat you any differently—and I’m sure Mr. Alice is the same.”

“……”

Dee stared at the small hand.

“…I guess I’m no match for you after all….

“eh?”

“No, it’s nothing.”

Dee gently grabbed her hand and pressed her weight onto Ai.

Ai pulled her up easily.

“Alright, let’s hurry home now.”

Dee smiled.

“I really want to see everyone’s faces now.”

 

 

And again, time passed, and the calendar flipped to the month of June.

 

Part II

 

Tatatata—it was a relieving sunny afternoon, and Ai carried the basket as she ran off with light steps. The early summer sun burned the nape of her neck, and the biscuits in the basket emitted heat after being freshly.

She peeked into the house, and found both Julie and Scar around Celica. She took some warm biscuits to them. “They’re good,” Julie widened his eyes as he praised her, “not good enough”  while Scar gave such an expression. Celica, who had been beginning to abstain from milk, was asking for some too.

It was the first time Ai made sweets on her own.

Ai puffed out her cheeks and held the basket above her head, handing out cookies to everyone she could find on her way here, getting praises like ‘it’s great’, ‘it’s nice’. Menhim in particular tilted his head, saying “You’re giving food and not snatching them? The sky must be falling.” So Ai kicked him.

The biscuits were quickly running low.

There were two biscuits left in the basket♪.

Ai sang and went out to the track field. He was not here, not in the classroom, and not in the news club room either. She went to the principal’s office, not hoping for anything, and naturally could not find him either. Thus, Ai guarded the few biscuits left as she went around looking for Alice..

She tried the basketball club room, but they had a game today and were out.

Perhaps Alice was not at school as he was attending the match.

Ai could not find her target, and carried the basket as she walked towards the school building with heavy footsteps. Even she did not expect to be so disappointed about being unable to hand over the freshly baked biscuits to Alice

“You see?”

A hallucination of Dee appeared as she said these words. Ai abandoned it and hurried off. She felt it was unlikely for him to be there, but she scurried off to the basketball court behind the school building.

Well, there he was.

Alice pulled some fancy dribble moves, feinted twice at his imaginary opponent, and shot a fadeaway.

The ball flew through the air with a slow spin, and passed through the net without touching it, bouncing at his feet a few times.

Alice was covered in sweat, as though he had just played a game, and he was panting hard. His face was not red, but rather, cyanotic.

Ai wanted to brag by showing her biscuits, but she was stunned by the sight of him, and hastily hid herself.

“M-Mr. Alice?”

Alice was exhausted, but still picking up the ball. He dribbled the ball through his legs, feinted with his eyes, and made a layup. It was again nothing but net.

Ai felt a little scared. The Alice before her was definitely Alice, but he appeared to be someone else.

Alice played so much that he was tired. His movements were poor, and his skills were amateurish, but the shooting remained absolutely precise. The ball never hit the rim, swished, and every shot landed onto the court perfectly.

Ai thought it was a beautiful sight.

But—

“Damn it!”

“Kya!”

Alice shouted, throwing a tantrum as he grabbed the ball with one hand and threw it into the sky. It was a high arching toss, a moonshot, and was dragged down by gravity.

Swish, the ball fell to the ground.

Nothing but net.

The ball bounced on the court without slowing down, and finally rolled towards Ai’s feet..

Seeing this, Alice finally stopped and looked at Ai, the look of sanity appearing in his eyes once again.

“Yo…”

“…….”

Ai was silent.

“…You saw something uncool, didn’t you?”

“No.”

Ai pretended not to notice.

“I baked some biscuits.”

She held out the basket.

“Let’s eat together.”

 

+

 

It seemed Alice was more appreciative of the tea Ai brought than the biscuits, for he finished the entire bottle, “Man, this is great”.

Please eat this before you praise me! Ai held out a biscuit, and Alice ate in one gulp and simply said, “It’s good”.

“…Do you really think so?”

“What do you think?”

Alice shoved one of the two biscuits into his mouth. It was still warm, crispy on the outside, and one could taste the sweetness of honey.

“…It’s great.”

“Right?”

Alice finished a biscuit in an instance, licked his fingers, “thanks for the treat” and said so..

Ai ate slowly. It was the first time she ate anything aside from tasting anything.

Alice spun the ball around out of boredom, and from time to time, threw it at the wall of the school building, where there was graffiti of a pirate flag. Alice aimed precisely at the right eye of the skull.

Twice, four times, eight times, sixteen times—

Ai finished her biscuit, wiped her hand on a napkin, put aside her plate and the paper beneath, before saying,

“Did something…happen today?”

“…Sorta.”

Alice replied tersely. The skull was hit for the forty-seventh time.

They did not say anything after that, and merely stayed together in the spring sunshine.

“I say it’s today…but it’s actually today, fourteen years ago…”

“……”

“I…”

In the sunshine, Alice eventually spoke up.

“I really liked this sport a lot. I’ve been playing since I was a kid, and my passion for basketball wouldn’t lose to anyone.”

“……”

“But you know, liking it or not is completely different from being good at it. I could train my skills to a certain extent, but there’s a cap I could hit. I’m not tall, and I’m not exactly fast. Coach never played me in any official game, and Dee used to make fun of me and say, “Why are you still doing this?” To be honest, I don’t really know the answer, and I’m the one wondering why everyone isn’t playing basketball.”

Ai was speechless. She did not make a sound.

“…Until today—today fourteen years ago—coach finally put me in a game for the first time.”

Bong bong, the ball bounced a few times on the court..

“He put me in, but it was the second half. To be honest, part of the reason was because we were walloped. Coach put me in because he gave up. I didn’t give up though. My teammates didn’t give up. And that’s when it started to get awesome!”

It would be a strange way to describe him—but Alice’s face lit up like a boy’s, waving his hands in the air and gesturing away.

“I thought, if I don’t do it here, then when? So I did all the things I wanted to do in a game. I might be getting carried away, but till now, I felt that I dominated that game. Last ten minutes, coach got greedy and wanted to sub me out. Of course, it’s a normal thought, but I didn’t expect that bastard Ed to got all “I got a stomachache”, and even Saffy and Carrick were complaining “My feet hurt” “I twisted my ankle”. Like, I wanted to yell at those bastard “what the hell is wrong with you guys? I can’t last the second half, and you guys want me to keep running”…but I’m grateful to them.”

Ai stared at Alice as the latter’s eyes glowed. She witnessed the boy who had abandoned all notion of the world or his mission.

“The game was a back and forth. We scored, and then they scored. They scored, and then we scored. There’s no way to get the lead at this rate though, and we had to figure out a breakthrough. It was the last minute, and it was bad. The ball got stolen by them, and they scored. It was a two score game. Thirty seconds left, we managed to score, but it’s their turn on offense. We didn’t care about defending, and just tried to steal the ball whenever we could. They expected our move though, so ten seconds left, they got someone to run to the frontcourt for a long pass, and throw the ball to him. Five seconds left, but I expected them to try that. Three seconds left, just kidding, I just stayed at my own basketball because I couldn’t move, but I intercepted the ball. One second left—I was twenty meters away from the hoop.”

I was in despair. Alice suddenly calmed down, as if everything had gone cold.

“It was the first time I had ever felt such despair. I’ve always loved basketball and never wanted to quit no matter what happened or what people said, but that was the only time I really despaired. One second before the end of the game, down by one, last game of the season, and of all people, the game was going to be lost in my hands…I just felt like, dammit. I hated it, so I just threw the ball…praying that the ball had to go in no matter what.”

Alice stood up, and from that spot, he threw the ball wildly at the opponent’s hoop. The distance was twenty-five meters. There was no way that would normally go in. No matter how good a player was, a 10% chance of going in would be really amazing.

But…

 

“Swish.”

 

Buzzer Beater.

“We won.”

The ball took a really beautiful trajectory and flew into the soft net.

“And I stopped playing basketball.”

Alice took his eyes away from the ball and came back and sat down next to Ai, as though disinterested.

“Well, it’s to be expected. How can anyone play a sport when every shot hits the target? Basketball is fun because you can aim and miss…it’s not to be played by someone abnormal like me.”

Alice did not look particularly sad.

Ai hated it when he was like it.

“Sorry, no consolation or counselling for me. I’m in no mood to deal with these.”

Ai was preemptively stopped by Alice, and the words she was about to say were stuck in her throat..

The ball rolled futilely.

“Actually, I don’t think wishes are supposed to come true.”

Alice suddenly said so.

“Isn’t that…too extreme?”

“I think so too. It’s just my theory.”

He kicked the ball away.

“It’s a good thing that wishes don’t come true…It’s because they don’t come true that we work hard, and can keep moving forward. But once we fulfill our wishes…won’t we stop moving forward…?”

“……”

“Wishes are beautiful because they don’t come true. …”

Ai felt as if Alice was talking about her.

And at the same time, she felt that he was talking about himself too.

 

+

 

Haha, Alice let out a dry laugh, suddenly a little embarrassed.

“It’s kind of embarrassing to say this. Oi, how did we end up on this topic?”

“……”

“Oi, what’s up…Ai?

“……”

Alice moved over to look at Ai with a shaken expression, while Ai evasively pressed her head even lower.

“………………………Are you crying?”

“I-I’m not crying. …”

She definitely was not crying, until that moment.

But the moment she was asked that question, her vision was already filled with tears.

“….Uu…”

She lowered her face, cupped her knees, and assumed a crying posture.

“Because Mr. Alice…you aren’t crying…”

“Why should I?”

“Because something sad … happened.”

Tears rolled down Ai’s face as she looked at the crouching Alice..

“You didn’t know? Hic…I cry when I’m sad…”

“…I know ”

Alice’s hand ruffled her head hard.

“You too, if you’re sad… cry at someone else’s place instead of torturing yourself here ….”

“…You’re, right.”

Alice remained stoic faced.

“I see, so you’re crying for my sake….”

“………”

“Haha, I see. Thanks…I feel like I’ve been owing you favors today. I ate your sweets, you heard my complaints…and you cried for me…”

Alice handed her a crumpled handkerchief, and Ai buried her face in it.

“You’re really weird…it’s my first time meeting someone like you……I usually wouldn’t talk about this. Even my birthday, I couldn’t argue against you. Dammit…I’m so weak…why am I like this whenever I meet you. I’m not being me…wait, this complaint too. Get a grip, me…ahh dammit…”

“Eh?”

Alice shook his head head in self-loathing.

He looked like he was trying to hide his embarrassment.

Ai retracted her tears, and her cheeks were red.

“J-just, please don’t say such words only for me to hear, alright? Even I’ll feel embarrassed by this. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, you can just tell everyone, right?”

“…Well, I guess you’re right, but…”

Alice slumped.

“But it’s really not easy to say these words.”

“……”

“Really, thanks for today.”

Alice stood up abruptly, picked up the ball and the bag, and turned away.

He was going to be alone again. He was afraid of hurting others, and wanted to be alone again.

Having said that, he was back at it again.

Ai let out a long, long sigh. What do you mean, I guess you’re right? Alice did not understand at all..

She was telling him not to be alone..

At that moment, Ai ran like a bullet. She crouched low and ran over, stealing the ball from behind Alice.

“Ah, oi—”

“Mr. Alice. ”

“Nn? Yeah.

The ball was passed to him.

Alice spun the ball with a bewildered look.

“—What are you doing?”

“Let’s play.”

“Huh?”

“One on one, you and me.”

“…Huh? What are you saying—”

Now? Before he finished saying so, Alice shot the ball. It was a breathtaking feint.

But Ai had anticipated this.

“Hoh!”

With a big jump that would have made any sensible person uncomfortable, Ai snatched the ball from the side just as it was about to hit the rim.

“Heh heh~ .”

“……”

“I guess I probably won’t be able to play a game either.”

Saying that, she threw the ball at the other hoop, jumped after it, and dunked it in an alley-oop.

“I get a point ahead.”

“……”

“What do you think? I think we can have a good match, right?”

“……”

“Mr. Alice?”

Alice gave a deflated look as he sized up Ai, who was hanging from the rim, and said,

“…Goaltending.”

“Huh?”

“You can’t touch the ball after it’s passed its apex.”

“Eh? Eh? Eh?”

“And also, if it’s one-on-one, it’s half-court!”

Alice snatched the ball and dashed beyond the three-point line.

“Oh! P-please wait! You’re being sneaky!”

The brown ball was dancing in the June sky.

 

+

 

“Ahh goodness, that Ai! She ran off without cleaning up…”

As soon as the biscuits were done, Ai snatched them and ran out of the kitchen. It was the first time that she baked by herself, and it was no wonder then that she was so excited. Dee herself had such an experience before..

But still, Ai was late.

“I’ll look for her then.”

Dee said to the other members of the club and left the room. Now then, where did she go? For the time being, she went around asking passer-sby. Fortunately, many of her acquaintances were holding the biscuits Ai gave, so they remembered well. She went from the classroom to the staff room, then through the newspaper club to the court.

It all happened so fast that the eyewitness accounts stopped.

Dee wanted to ask Alice, and went to the basketball club room, but there was nobody around.

At that point, Dee remembered what day it was.

She rushed out. She had to stop Ai no matter what. This was the one day she could not allow Alice to meet Ai. Alice always lost his composure on this day every year. He would lose control.

It was the only day that Alice would give up on the ‘outside’ world.

That was today.

Surely Ai would encounter a huge setback. This was the one day which they could not meet, that she could not approach Alice. Both the person approaching Alice and Alice himself would end up being so unhappy.

Dee panted as she ran past the track, took a short cut by the water fountain, jumped over the gardening club’s flower beds, and headed for the courts. Alice would visit this place every time this day occurred, shooting away while tormenting himself. The best case scenario for her was to arrive before Ai, but even if she was late, she should be fine if she could stop Ai in time. She could be hurt in Ai’s stead instead..

She turned around the corner of the school building.

There was Alice, holding the ball.

Dee stopped there, “Alice!” she was about to call out

Alice, as expected, was pushing himself to the limit and aiming at the basket.

But then, he was not alone.

“Hahaha! Take this! What’s wrong now? The gap’s widening!”

“Mm! It’s just two scores! I’ll catch up immediately!”

It was no longer basketball. The moment Alice got into a ‘shooting position’, he was able to score no matter the angle or position, while Ai would grab the ball form behind to cover the hoop. It was Ai’s turn on offense. She darted between his legs at a speed even he could not react, scurried from the court like a mouse, and jumped out of a cannon. She was just dunking every time, in a peculiar manner at that. She would dunk herself along with the ball through the hoop, not letting go.

“See! I caught up!”

“… No, actually, I want to say that you definitely fouled there…”

“Heh! If there’s such a foul! Then explain it to me! Come on! Come on!”

“Well, there’s a rule about ‘not touching the rim or the net unnecessarily’…oh well…”

And so the two continued their contest. Sometimes Ai led, and sometimes Alice led. The scoring gap did not increase as they went on, and it was as though they were playing a game that would never end..

Dee gently leaned her body against the wall, for she would have collapsed on the stop if she did not have anything to lean on.

Her brain refused to comprehend what was going on.

“Mr, Alice, haaa?”

Ai asked, dribbling very low.

“Why do you want to go outside so badly?”

Dee gulped in the shadows.

“Ahh? Do I need to explain again? I don’t want to be trapped in this place. I won’t be able to grow up.”

“Then, if, just if, what if you need to sacrifice something to get out? ”

Alice’s ragged breathing stopped for a moment, and he said with a calm voice,

“…Depends on what I have to sacrifice.”

“So, for example…”

Don’t say it!

Dee wanted to run out there right now and stop Ai from blabbering further, or to get away as far as possible, but her body just would not allow her to.

“What if that’s the most important thing to you?”

Alice’s breathing stopped.

“Ai… you….”

“Don’t ask for details—please answer me.”

Dee’s heart was split in two. One half was telling her to get out of here right now. The other half of her mind yearned for the answer.

Alice’s answer was,

 

“I don’t care.”

 

“I’ll do anything to break free. I’ll sacrifice anything.”

Dee’s heart died.

“… Is that so?”

“Say, why are you asking that? Where did you hear that from? Did you find out something? Did Dee tell you something? Or—”

“…I  can’t answer.”

The conversation continued, but Dee was no longer interested in what came after.

She was disinterested in everything.

She just did not want to see the two of them together.

 

+

 

It happened before.

It was the day after Alice’s birthday, before they arrived at the World Tower.

A small fly was buzzing in the car.

The fly flew over Ai’s head, past Julie’s humming, circled above Alice’s head, and came to Dee’s side.

Dee was drifting away, half-awake. Perhaps the celebration over yesterday’s birthday feast caused her to reminscene the past..

Right before her, the fly began to smash against the window pane.

“…stupid fly.”

In her slumber, Dee muttered at the fly.

“There’s glass blocking you…you can’t break it no matter how you try…”

But the fly paid no heed to her words and kept banging.

“But you won’t give up, will you? You’re not going to give up.…no matter the cost. …”

After an umpteenth number of attempts, the the fly rolled over and fell. The right eye was slightly dented and a lllte black, probably from the impact, or probably it was always the case. The wings were dented , and the left hind leg was broken at the joint.

Even in this state, the fly did not stop.

Dee whispered to the fly,

“I guess…you just ‘can’t bring yourself to stop’, huh?”

The fly did not answer, and continued to slam into the glass silently.

“Even if it is impossible, even if you’re only hurting yourself, you just can’t stop, right…”

Dee felt sorry for the injured fly.

“So, at least…”

She slowly raised her right hand and gathered her strength, drawing it like a bow and swinging it down like a whip.

Pah. This sound that did not exist echoed, and the fly was pressed between the palm and the glass.

But such an act was futile.

The fly permeated through the palm and nonchalantly flew away again.

“…But I can’t finish you off properly.”

Dee fluttered after the fly. The injured fly and the ghost’s hands clashed several times, but not once did they touch as they danced away.

The dance did not last long.

The fly left her hand again, and flew towards the glass pane. Dee immediately put up a wall with her palm to keep the fly from going that way.

But the fly still managed to slip through the palm, and charged towards the window–

It did not hit the window.

At that moment, a gust blew and the fly was softly carried out of the car.

Dee looks at the window dumbfoundedly. The windows trapping the fly were opened, and the wilderness wind was ushered in.

“Hmm. glad to see it’s doing well.”

Ai then closed the window tightly and returned to the passenger seat.

Dee stared at this scene for a long, long time.

Just blankly.

 

She believed this was the story.

She knew it was a matter of time until this happened.

Dee Ensy could not understand Alice Color.

No matter how close they were, they would never be able to be together.

The only ones that could be together were—

Whatever. Nothing else mattered.

Time to end this.

 

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