Hellping

Part I

It was a terrible dream.

The wind howled through the classroom. The chalk on the blackboard had all fallen off and snapped into pieces, the calendar was flipping back and forth between this year and the next. The floor and walls were as red as dusk, and all matter was becoming noisy and unidentifiable.

Alice too was no different.

“Seems like this is the end…”

Alice murmured softly, staring at his palms that were emitting noise.

His expression was strangely calm.

He gave a tender smile, as though he had lived a hundred years.

As though he had lived his entire life.

“Sorry for shoving this dirty work to you.”

“No.”

Ai shook her head. She knew the expression she had even without looking. It was a very radiant smile, a smile of happiness that showed no uneasiness of whatever that was going to pass.

“Your decision is a very sad one. But since it is your sincere wish, I shall assist.”

She spun the shovel around, adjusted her straw hat, and smiled.

“Because it’s my dream.”

I see, Alice heaved a sigh of relief.

“So you’re going to bury me, for real?”

“Of course. “

 

“For the sake of my dreams, I shall bury you too.”

 

“I see.”

“Yes.”

“I’ll leave it to you then.”

Alice said, and laid by the side. Ai twirled her shovel and stabbed it into the ground. Swoosh, the wooden floor had somehow turned into a desolate earth. Also, the desks, walls and dusk had disappeared, replaced by the mountainside and the morning glow.

The wind.

It was the top of a mountain, right before dawn. Looking around, she found forty-seven brand new graves.

Before she knew it, Alice was at the bottom of the grave, looking at the sky and Ai.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

He apologized with a glance from his left eye.

For some reason, his left eye seemed a little red.

“What are you talking about?”

Ai played dumb, pretending not to notice as she dismissed the possibility.

The Dead closed his eyes softly. Ai did not say anything else and dropped the first pinch of earth into the hole.

Sand danced in the air. The shovel spun. The hole was quickly filled with soil, and the Dead was no longer recognizable.

And so the grave was completed.

Phew. Ai let out a white breath and stared at the sun that had begun to rise. The sunrise was so bright that the area seemed to be shrouded in fog.

“So, what are we going to do now?”

Within the light, someone asked.

“Well, that’s obvious.”

Ai gave the perfect answer.

 

“I’ll save the world.”

 

+

 

She felt absolutely horrible waking up..

She had difficulty breathing, she was lacking in blood, her pajamas were soaked in sweat, and her hair was stuck in her mouth.

She barely managed to sit up, grabbed her collar, and started to gasp in and out. Her limbs were cold as ice. Her brain was deprived of oxygen, and the corner of her vision had turned black.

She could not move a muscle. Her heart was the only thing beating fast.

“———Haa——haa——haa…hahahahahahahahaha

Ai panted alone hard in a dimly lit tent that seemed to have been abandoned since the dawn of time.

“Hah…hah………hah …”

For some reason,

For some reason, she felt that she had a very scary dream. A very, very horrible dream. A forbidden dream that should not be seen. A dream that should not be recalled.

But a very pleasant dream.

 

A dream that nobody else could see.

 

“Uuu…”

Her body trembled. That little thought alone sent a strong chill down her spine.

The breathing that had been gradually stabilized started to become erratic again, and a nauseous feeling scorched her chest, her heart increasingly uneasy.

She yearned to see the person who had disappeared. She wanted to meet him and confirm that he was still alive. She wanted him to tell her it was all a dream.

She wanted him to call her name.

“Ai.”

Just like that.

“Hey, Ai, it’s morning, are you awake? I’m opening up, you know?”

Just hearing that voice caused her heart to beat warmly. Her limbs that were frozen like ice felt some warmth amidst the numbness, and her eyes devoured the blood, adding color to the world.

“…Yes—Come in, Mr. Alice.”

The tent flap was lifted. The dazzling morning sun stung her eyes.

In the backdrop of the light, Alice Color was smiling.

“Good morning, Ai.”

Alice was indeed there.

Ai was helplessly relieved.

“Good morning, Mr. Alice.”

“Yo–what’s up? Why do you look so excited? Did you have a good dream?”

Eh? Ai tilted her head and touched her face. She thought it should not be the case..

“No, it’s a really horrible dream…”

“So, did anything good happen after you woke up?”

“I only met you after that, at most.”

“What’s that?”

Alice laughed in bemusement.

“Well, never mind. I’m glad you’re feeling better. Food’s ready. Go wash your face.”

The flap fell and the tent was dark again. Ai looked out of the tent, somewhat reluctantly.

The outside was full of light.

Everything was golden. The sun was shining in the distance, and the lake water was reflecting it like a mirror. The scorched streets were covered with haloes like old coals left in a kiln, and people were huddled around each one of them, waving their chisels.

Reconstruction has begun.

Leading the group was Alice. He stood at the front of the town that was going to be revived, looking on happily.

He really had a blissful smile.

It was the smile of a guardian, looking at the life he had protected.

Ai felt warm and fuzzy when she saw that.

 

(—For the sake of my dreams, I shall bury you too—)

 

She remembered what she had been dreaming about.

 

Part II

 

Ostia town Hall, first floor hall.

The building, formerly a customs house and once a hideout for bandits back when it was abandoned, was at this point full of activity and confusion.

“The bridge! Just get the bridge connected! “Hey, does anyone know how to operate a sailboat?” “Find a demoman!” “Yeah, don’t let it move. No, I say, no move. No, stop.” “Oi, I got gas!” “Get it here!!” “Us first!!”

More than two hundred people come and go in and out of the hall, and no one stays in the same place.

It had been six days since that day—when the world created by Class 3-4 had collapsed and 30,000 citizens returned to the real world. The reconstruction phase had gone past the initial turmoil, and the turmoil itself became part and parcel of daily life, starting to be controlled..

“Alice, where’s Alice?”

Bam! A man shoved the door aside and stormed into the hall. He was followed by his lackeys, who looked like goldfish poop.

The man was in his fifties, so plump  and greasy that he looked as if he would ignite if he was set on fire. His silver hair was trimmed short and neatly bundled , and his gray suit was ironed so tightly that it looked out of place.

He was Bendo Gram, the mayor of Ostia.

It had been six days since their return, and the staff began to show signs of fatigue. Bendo walked briskly among the workers, Bam! Bam! slamming his feet hard as he bellowed, “Alice! Answer me! Alice!” He searched everywhere from the cracks between the bookshelves and under the desks. While everyone wondered “There’s no way he’s in there”, nobody, not even his lackeys, pointed it out.

And while doing so, he actually found Alice.

“Alice! Ohh there you are!”

Bendo plunged his upper body into the gap between the bookshelves and pulled Alice out with a lunge as though he was pulling out a radish. It appeared Alice was rifling through old documents.

Alice, still upside down, flipped through the documents and glanced at the mayor. Both of them started a conversation without questioning the current situation.

“Oh, it’s you, Bendo?”

“Hey! Don’t call me that! Call me mayor!”

“Don’t be so formal. I used to let you change my diapers when I was little.”

“You’re not the one who should be saying that!”

This damn brat…Bendo cursed, and casually tossed Alice aside. Alice adjusted himself in midair like a cat, and landed.

“…Goodness. Why is such a damn brat—”

“So, what do you want?”

“Oh, Alice, sign this.”

He was presented with a request for passage to Fort Hortology, the main transportation hub in the area.

Bendo shivered with anger.

“The monkeys of Hortorgy! Do you know what they said to me when I paid them a personal visit!? They actually said ‘We never heard of any Bendo Gram. Bring us the signatures of Alice Color or Dee Ensy. The signature of the latter is obviously a fake though. Kukekeke! ‘!”

“Well, it’s no wonder. You haven’t been here for more than eight years, Bendo. What else can we do about it?”

“But that doesn’t mean you should be okay with it! I’m obviously the mayor! I’m a big shot!”

“Yes, yes, yes, you’re right.”

“Don’t be rude! I’m the one who’s taking it out on you! Follow the conversation!”

“You’re such a bother, old geezer.”

Alice finished signing and handed back the documents.

“—And the rest?”

“Mmm, lads!”

With these words, the attendants rushed to Alice.

“Mr. Alice, we need lime! By the truckload!”

“That’s at the cave in the backwoods.”

“Alice, do you have electrolytes for the batteries?

“Warehouse 3, Parliament Hall.”

“Alice, I need some dried building materials—”

Alice, Alice, the voices calling out to him echoed incessantly.

The biggest obstacle to the revival of the town was simply a lack of resources. 30,000 people were suddenly returned to the world, faced with a town that was ruined for at least a decade, along with the harsh cold of mid October. At this rate, it was likely many would become Dead within a month..

The one solving these issues was Alice, who had spent more than a decade wandering the world, buying supplies and hiding them throughout the city.

His first priority was to free the sealed world, but he also did consider what to do after he had freed them.

“Alice, the guards want some plunger equipment and maintenance kits.”

“Dig at the lone pine tree in the schoolyard and have a look. There should be some stuff there wrapped in red line greaseproof paper.”

Alice, Dr. Quess wants the medicine on this list.”

“I don’t know anything about medicine. I got two ambulances full of medicine in the pharmacy parking lot, see what you can find.”

Got it! The young men ran off.

When most of the lackeys had left, “Hmmm” Bendo stroked his chin,

“Things are getting a little more stabilized now. Alright Alice, once you’re done, go get some rest.”

“I don’t need a break.”

“Don’t get cocky, just go home.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“—You don’t understand what I’m saying?”

Bendo slowly brought his face over.

That girl hasn’t eaten or drank all morning either.”

He pointed his chin to the other side, beyond the window of the town hall. There was a girl sitting alone in the shade of a tree, denied of her shovel and Gravekeeper’s clothes.

“Be gentle with the lady—right, now that we got this clear, go take a break.”

“Oi, old geezer.”

“Just get some rest. Don’t show your face for six hours. I’ll tell everyone to kick your ass out if they see you.”

Finally, he waved Alice off as though he was shooing a dog, and Alice was whisked out of the town hall.

 

+

 

“Yo.”

“……”

“Let’s go home.”

Ai stood up slowly, stretching her legs. Her legs and feet were numb and stiff from sitting for half a day.

They left the town hall and arrived at the main street, where a market had formed. It was one of barter trade, where the bare minimum variety and quantities of necessities could only be obtained. Alice stops by the commissary to get dinner for five and snacks for two. It was a lunch box filled with stew, a basket of bread, and two ready-to-eat sandwiches.

“Here.”

He handed one to Ai.

“… Thanks.”

That was all Ai managed to say.

She received the sandwich, brought it to her chest, and trudged on.

Gong on gong on, trucks as large as a whale drove by incessantly.

“You’re not eating?”

After a while, Alice said,

“You won’t have any strength if you don’t eat.”

“……You too, Mr Alice.”

Alice’s sandwich showed no signs of having been eaten.

“……”

As soon as she said that, Alice started munching on his sandwich. It was like a wounded beast forcing itself to consume nourishment.

“…Would you want mine as well?”

Ai held out the sandwich in her hand.

“Huh?”

Intent unknown. That was the expression Alice showed.

“That’s yours, you know?”

“I know.”

“…Then why are you giving it to me?”

“I have no appetite.”

“…You actually have moments when you don’t have an appetite?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Ah, it’s nothing. “

Ack, ack, Alice faked a cough, and swallowed the rest of his words in a panic.

“We-well. Don’t mind if I do though.”

“…I see.”

The two of them walked again.

Ai just hobbled on weakly. She could see nothing but the ground, and could only see Alice’s heels on the edge of the road as she followed along.

She was not thinking about anything.

She did not feel anything.

It was as if all desire, not just appetite, had vanished.

“Say, you…”

After about five or five hundred minutes or so, Alice suddenly said,

“You know…”

Unusually, he seemed to be hesitant in his choice of words.

“What is it?”

“Ah, no, I mean.”

He took two deep breaths.

 

“You know, I was wondering if you’d like to come live at my place from now on.”

 

“Heh?”

Ai stared at Alice blankly. Omaesa, korekara saki mo ore no ie de kurasanaika? What language was that? So she wondered what language it was, only for her comprehension to catch up. Clearly, it sounded like,

“How about it?”

“Wh-when you ask me such a thing. Erm, well,”

“You don’t like it?”

“No, I mean, I already live here…”

“I’m not talking about the past. I’m talking about the future.”

F-future!?

Her throat let out a weird, melting-like voice, and her eyes were rolling around.

“Erm, the future, that, well.”

“Ai, I’m going to take responsibility.”

“R-re-re-res-responsibility!? What responsibility do you have, Mr. Alice!?”

“There is!”

“Ever then, why, erm, why does it sound like a pro-proposal!?”

“Heh?”

What’s that? That was the expression he showed.

With a skeptical look, propose, he mumbled the word repeatedly.

“No. No! No! That’s not what I meant!”

The next moment, he screamed, his ears flushed red.

“When I say my place, I mean if you want to stay in Ostia. It’s not just you too. The old man, Scar, they’re both welcome too! And anyway—”

Seeing the unusual Alice flustered and impatient, Ai immediately understood.

“No, you know, how do I put it? It’s—”

“…………………Ah, I see. So that’s what you mean…”

“A-Ai?”

“It’s okay, Mr. Alice, I get it now…”

Ai’s heart quickly regained its original temperature, and the rippling emotions subsided heavily.

Do you want to stay here? It was Alice’s fault for being strangely discreet in his choice of words that Ai was mistaken. She had foolishly digested the layers of oblaat that Alice had wrapped around his words and let them melt away.

Within those sweetly wrapped words was a bitter poison-like pill.

“Mr. Alice, you’re pretty much asking this right? ‘How long are you going to stay here?’.”

“Ai…”

Alice frowned, as if he had tasted the bitterness himself.

“Look, I’m not going to say that …If you want to stay in Ostia, you can stay as long as you want, and if you don’t want to stay, you’re free to leave.”

“……”

Ai was silent, silent as death. Alice too was silent, standing next to her like a shadow, waiting for Ai’s decision.

“Did you give up on your dream? “

That was what Alice really wanted to know.

“Are you going to spend the rest of your life giving up on your dreams?”

“Or will you continue to chase them and return to the wilderness?”

Alice instead asked discreetly if ‘she wanted to stay here’.

There was no choice but to go or leave.

But,

“…I don’t know.”

“Hmm?”

Ai had too many things she did not understand anymore. 

“I don’t know, Mr. Alice…I don’t know, everything, anything, I just don’t know…”

No tears came out. She had no idea if she was sad or not.

“…The things I could do even though I couldn’t understand a while ago, I can’t do them anymore…the dreams only I can see are gone…”

She stopped in her tracks.

“…Ai…”

Alice called out in frustration.

“Say, Mr. Alice.”

“…What?”

“What do I have here?”

Ai put her palms together and held them out in front of Alice.

“………No, there’s nothing.”

Yes, you’re right. There’s nothing here…but in the past, I’m the only one who could see that there’s something there. There should be something like a flame, something that definitely exists…”

Ever since the moment she made that oath on the hill, there should be a flame burning on her hands…

“But I can’t see it anymore…It’s like it wasn’t there in the first place. I can’t see it anymore…”

Ai slowly clenched her fists and stuffed them at her chest, seemingly putting her heart back.

For six days, Alice had been waiting for her decision. No, it was not only Alice, Julie, Scar, Dee and many others who had been waiting for Ai’s decision.

And yet…

Ai was depressed, but no tears were spilled. Instead, a series of painful words fell and rolled between them.

“Everyone is waiting for me to make a decision, but I can’t even do that…”

“……”

Alice scratched the back of his head.

“…Man, something’s really off with you…to be honest, I’m a little surprised at the way you’re being right now.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah, you did fail—you brought me back to life.”

Ai’s heart suddenly shivered.

“Like, it’s a mistake, yes…but I thought you were the kind of person who would go all ‘so what’ and continue on. I thought you’re the type to say ‘so what’, continue to charge on, and save the world.”

“…I can’t do that anymore, Mr. Alice. I just can’t.”

“Why not? I’ve always failed over and over again, but I made amends in the end. That’s how I’ve made it till now.

“Goodness, you know what I’m talking about…”

Alice was being kind after all.

“You know my dream is unlike yours. My dream has to be perfect. Isn’t it all empty words to say that I want to ‘save everyone’ with the pretext that ‘some people will fail and can’t be saved’?”

“Mm…”

“I’m right, no?”

“……You should’ve just come up with a reason to explain it…you’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?”

“Yes, I’m really a bother.”

“Well, that’s what makes you interesting.”

Alice casually patted Ai’s head a few times. The head without the straw hat was well ventilated, and it seemed he could feel her warmth too.

It was warm.

Ai gently turned her head and chewed her lips so that the idiot next to her would not notice. She covered her cheeks with her bangs to hide the redness. Her heart seemed to beat faster than it had in a long time.

At the same time, however, Ai’s heart was rapidly freezing. She rejected the warmth and put on an armor of ice.

“Well, if you can’t decide, that’s fine. I’ll wait. It doesn’t matter whether it’ll take a week, or a month.”

“…There’s nothing worth waiting for.”

“Well, don’t say that.”

She moved her head, breaking free from the warm hand.

“I don’t have the right to do that…”

“Oh, come on, that’s really not like you. It’s funny hearing you mention ‘right’. Are you sick or something?”

“…Mr. Alice, I.”

Ai gestured a slit chest to reveal her heart.

She put her hands on top of each other, spread her palms and showed Alice the black words on them.

 

“This morning, I dreamed that you died.”

 

Alice was immediately taken aback. The expression on his face, along with a certain guilt, became a blade that gouged Ai’s heart deeply. The blade was made of cold steel and froze the blood from the edge of the cut.

But the pain was comforting to Ai. She felt that coldness and pain were more appropriate for her at this moment compared to the world.

“—I dreamed of the moment when I accidentally saved you in the classroom. I turned that scene into a dream in which you died—I don’t know why. Maybe I thought everything would go back to normal if I thought this would be the proper development…”

There was no longer the flame of her dream in her hands, merely dark words.

“Do you understand, Mr. Alice? The one wanting to save is just a person…I don’t have the right to save you…”

A painful silence fell upon them, Ai was afraid of what Alice would say, even though she had said it herself.

“So please…leave me…alone ….”

“……”

Alice’s silence lasted for an eternity, and Ai had a hard time waiting. Her heart was adrift, unbearable as she did not get any response.

She was about to run away when Alice spoke up.

“I see it.”

“Eh?”

“I see it too.”

Alice said, gently pointing to Ai’s palm.

“There, I see your fire burning. I can see it.”

“…………Is that, so …?”

All Ai could see was a heart covered in blood and wounds.

“Yeah, maybe you can’t see it, but now that you mention it, I get it. Your heart is still burning. It’s just a little harder to see.”

“…Is that…so …?”

“Yeah, that’s right—All right, come here!”

“Kya!”

Suddenly, Alice grabbed Ai’s hand and started running through the alleys and the forest formed by drying laundry.

“W-Where are we going!?”

“A stroll!”

“H-how is this a stroll?”

What kind of stroll required them to go at full speed?

“Shut up and let’s go!”

Alice just sprinted off wildly.

 

Part III

 

After rescuing a car stuck in a ditch, taking a lost old man home, and feeding a wild dog that had been scared off by the sudden increase in the number of humans, Ai finally believed Alice’s definition of ‘stroll’.

She would swear that the man, who was currently getting his face licked by a dog, definitely did not have anything on his mind.

“I’m pretty sure this little fella is the pet of the Krauses, and it got left behind when its family entered the entire world. I remember they got someone to adopt it…I see, so you’re looking for your master?”

Payback! Alice utilized his mysterious creativity to retaliate against the dog that was trying to lick his face. It was not much a payback to begin with, but both of them appeared to be enjoying themselves, so Ai did not say anything.

“What’s its name?”

“Hmmm~~what’s its name again? I remember it’s Krau…Krau…yeah, Krauwa!”

“…Are you sure?”

Krauwa (temp designation), who had been happy till a moment ago, suddenly looked unhappy. “Yep, it’s Krauwa of the Krauses. No doubt about it” Alice assured Ai confidently.

Then they took Krauwa (temp designation) home. The family was so grateful that they welcomed the dog and the two of them, and even gave them a gift.

“…You mistook the dog’s name.”

Ai said as she held the sweet bread that was given to her. They fed the dog sandwiches, but somehow they got more food.

“Shut up.”

Alice said unhappily, biting into a piece of raisin bread.

“Close enough, wasn’t it?”

“Ah yes, you’re a liar, a liar. That wasn’t even close.”

“Shut up…anyway, yeah, that’s right. Don’t you feel that not getting it right at all feels similar to getting close to the answer?”

“Yes, yes.”

By the way, Krauwa’s real name was Bernard III.

It was completely different.

“That’s not important..”

Nom nom nom

“What about you? How does it feel to have saved the world after waiting for so long??”

“Eh? W-what do you mean by that?”

“I’m talking about Krauwa.”

He was talking about Bernard III.

“You see how happy the Krauses were, right? The old man was so happy he nearly broke a bone, and their daughter was crying with joy.”

“…We only brought their dog to them.”

“But still, their world was saved, you know?”

Right? He smiled.

“Not only that, but there’s that lost old man and the car in the ditch. You’re amazing to save three worlds while on a stroll. I guess a certain something really loves you.”

That was the moment when Ai could hazard a guess as to where he was getting at.

“Thank you, Mr. Alice.”

“Hm? For what?”

“You were trying to encourage me, weren’t you?”

She had assumed Alice was not thinking of anything, but at this moment, she felt apologetic to him.

“……”

Alice’s face suddenly turned into a scowl, and after a few moments of hesitation, she sighed loudly and threw away the script.

“You’re a real pain in the ass, aren’t you?”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, you are. Couldn’t you have not noticed this at all? Even if you did, you should have played along.”

“But I can’t do that.”

She could not be blinded by the immediate joy and run forth without resolving the contradictions.

That was the case despite knowing that it would be a lot easier if she had remained oblivious.

“You know how they say that time heals all things?”

Ai said as she looked down at her toes.

“When something important to the main character is destroyed, one of the supporting characters will say, ‘Time heals’. But I think that’s a lie.”

“……”

“It’s not healing. It’s just forgetting. Forgetting the sins that were committed, forgetting one’s failures…”

“Seriously, you…”

Alice threw his hands up in the air, as though declaring that Ai was a lost cause.

“What’s wrong about forgetting it all? That’s how you’ll get healed.”

“I’m not saying it’s bad. But …”

Ai looked at Alice. She stared at her sin squarely in the face.

“If I’m going to forget my sins, I want to choose to do so of my own free will.”

“……”

“I don’t want to leave it to ‘time’. I want to at least choose that for myself.”

“Seriously, you…”

Alice appeared to be completely speechless.

‘You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?

“I’m sorry, that’s how I am—but if there’s one thing I can still be proud of, this is it. I’m a mentally fragile person, I’ll fail, I’ll make mistakes, but I’m not going to double down on it. That’s the one thing I don’t want to do.”

“…That’ll be tough.”

“That’s true.”

Even Ai herself had no idea as to why she had become such a troublesome person.

“Haa, that’s a waste of time……let’s go home, alright?”

Alice abandoned his script, raised his hands in seemingly surrender, and changed his path

“Yes.”

Ai raised the basket filled with bread, and turned behind by the right,

“Excuse me.”

It was then when they encountered a group of people who clearly had a ‘we’re in trouble’ aura. The center of that group was a young couple, and the husband asked as if he were representing them,

“Do you know our daughter?”

Alice looked at Ai. Something really adores you, huh? He asked.

Ai merely replied with a sigh.

 

+

 

It was a group of relatives, consisting of a young couple just over thirty, their parents, cousins and brothers. The father, who was in his prime, introduced themselves as the Edwards, and explained the situation to Ai.

“Your daughter has not returned to the real world?”

“Yes.”

Ai and Alice were sitting on the stairs of an open deck that had probably been a fancy café fifteen years ago, and heard him out.

“Yes, she’s my beloved granddaughter. She’s really pitiful. The poor girl is probably crying somewhere right now.”

“She’s a sweet girl, very strong, always smiling.”

“Hey, you don’t think the…Witch kidnapped her, do you? Oh, oh God…”

“Please, Alice, you have to find my big sister!”

There was quite a fuss going on.

“Alright alright! Tell me the name of your daughter or granddaughter or big sister!”

“E-Everyone, please calm down! Please talk one at a time!”

Alice and Ai were jostled by the Edwards who complained about their predicament, and they tried to sort out the situation.

“I’ll talk.”

The first person to step forward was the father who was the first to speak. Once he stood forward, Alice and Ai heaved a sigh of relief.

His name was Shiba Edwards, and he worked as a librarian in the sealed world, and was acquainted not only with Alice but also with Ai, who frequented the library for research. His personality was gentle and he was always smiling.

At this moment however, the smile on his face was gone.

“Father-in-law, everyone, please look elsewhere. I shall explain this to Alice? “

“Then—”

“Please do.”

Shiba bowed to his relatives with a stern expression. Ai could not tell if it was courtesy to his family, or that he was being overly anxious that resulted in such a harsh attitude.

Ai saw that half of his relatives were looking around the town and the other half watching from a distance, and so she looked directly at Shiba and the only other person left, his wife. Alice folded his arms and started to groan.

“Your daughter’s gone, huh…?”

“Yeah, we don’t know what to do anymore…”

“…Are you implying that the Witch took her?”

“”Witch!””

The relatives listening by the side were terrified, and took a few steps back.

Ai was not too sure, but it seemed the word ‘Witch’ alone was something nobody really wanted to hear. In hindsight, it was the same situation at Gora Academy, for even the mention of Dee, the “Witch of the West” caused Q class to be completely terrified. Of course, given what Dee had done, it was not hard to comprehend their reactions..

“No, no, there’s no way that could happen.”

Shiba shivered for a moment, but quickly regained his composure and continued.

“My daughter and I got separated when we came back, and then…”

“So basically, a random returnee.”

Alice immediately replied.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find her right away.”

There was a reason for his words. The scenario described by the couple was not that unusual.

 

The people who had returned to the real world that day six days ago had generally returned to where they had been, but some found their places flooded or collapsed in reality, and ended up at completely unrelated places.

“The guards will probably take care of you guys if you go to them. I remember your daughter’s very sick, Mr Shiba, right? We better look for her immediately then…eh, what’s her name again?”

Alice said, flipping through a list of things that he kept in his pocket.

“My daughter’s name is…Isola Edwards. “

“Isola Isola…hmm, not on the list. I don’t remember her either. I’m sorry, Shiba, but you might want to ask at the guard station.”

“Understood, we’ll just wait here.”

“Hm?”

Alice momentarily stopped in his tracks. The assumption was that he would run away, but he instantly stopped.

“—Ah, right. If everyone leaves, we won’t be able to meet up with the old man and the others. Right, I’ll go ask them in a jiffy.”

Alice said, and ran off. Ai waited until he was gone, and another minute, before asking,

“So, what can I do for you?”

“You are very perceptive.”

Shiba too appeared to be waiting for this moment, and he spoke up,

“Is this something you don’t want Mr. Alice to hear?”

“Yes.”

“… I don’t like secrets though…”

“Of course, I won’t force you to keep quiet. You can tell him if you feel there’s a need to.”

Nevertheless, Shiba still hoped that she could keep mum about this..

“I don’t want him to be reminded of my daughter.”

 

+

 

“Isola is a child who can’t ‘grow up’.”

Shiba began to speak softly. Only when talking about his daughter did he give that gentle smile that Ai remembered from the sunny days in the library.

“Can’t grow up, you say…like Mr Julie’s?”

“No, not in that mental sense.”

He denied so, slowly and firmly. Shiba was also a part-time teacher at the Ostia school, and him speaking to Ai reminded the latter of class.

“To be honest, it’s brutally simple, the body itself, Ai.”

At that moment, Shiba’s wife, Lethe, who had been slumped over—began to bawl out. Shiba embraced his wife’s shoulders in his large hands to console her, saying, “It’s not your fault”.

“Our daughter was destined from birth to live a shorter life than others. A great doctor told us that her muscles would lose their elasticity as she grew, and eventually they would atrophy, causing her heart to stop beating.”

“Is, that so…”

It was the first time Ai had heard that Shiba had a daughter. He definitely did not intend to hide this, but it was not something that could be mentioned so simply.

“But still, Miss Isola did enter the sealed city, right? She was willing to enter even if it meant her death…”

It was a world where one can die normally.

This was one of the rules of that sealed world.

Ai respected Isola. In a certain sense, even if one had died in the real world, that person could have survived. She however did not make that choice, and chose to go to a world where death did not exist, and Ai was very impressed with that..

But at that moment. Lethe finally had enough, and collapsed in tears.

“Ahhh! Th-that’s not it, little Ai! She wasn’t prepared for that! I-I took that time away from her!”

“Calm down Lethe, it’s not just your fault. It was our fault too…”

Something was amiss.

Ai was driven by this thought as she watched them break down in tears. The feeling that she had recently experienced, the feeling that the premise was wrong to begin with, rather than it being difficult, came back to her.

Finally, Ai paid attention to their ages.

A young couple who had just turned thirty. What did that mean?

“…Mr Shiba, when did you enter the Sealed City with the others?”

“Thirteen years ago…the beginning.”

“Miss Isola’s age at that time was…”

“She only learned a few simple words when she first entered the world.”

Ahhh! Lethe sobbed again.

“When did you find out about the disease …?”

“Yes, we found out once we entered.”

Ai closed her eyes tightly as she understood everything.

“…It was after we entered the sealed city. Isola was a beautiful baby, like the world loved her, and we could not imagine that a terrible disease was lurking in her…”

The mother’s cries echoed in the ruined city, and Ai could do anything about her tears.

“After we found out our daughter was sick, we were tormented by guilt. For ourselves, we accepted Alice’s invitation, because we felt it was acceptable. We felt back then that dying naturally was something to be proud of—but that notion was discarded the moment she got sick. If she stayed in the outside world, she could have lived her life to the fullest at the very least, even if she had died. … we had permanently deprived her of that opportunity…”

“B-but, she could not return to this world after all.”

It was then that Ai noticed.

The girl did not return.

“…That’s what I told Alice that, but we already reported to the guards and the town council. I even checked with them before coming here.”

“…Why do you want to keep this a secret from Mr. Alice so badly?”

“Because he doesn’t know about this…”

“Eh?”

It was inexplicable.

“But then again, wasn’t Mr. Alice the one who led you to the sealed city?”

“That Alice is already dead.”

A cold sweat ran down Ai’s spine.

“You know, don’t you, Ai? Alice has died several times in the last fifteen years, and he got reset each time. Just from what I remember, he died three times already. Every time he did, we had to make acquaintances with him again and tell him that we owe him a favor, that we are his good friends…”

How tragic would it be for someone with that past?

Ai tried to put herself in his shoes. One day, Alice would ask Ai, “Who are you?” One day, Alice asked me, “Who are you? She will have to start all over again with the fifteen-year-old, forgetting that they met at Gora Academy, climbed the World Tower together, and celebrated his sixteenth birthday.

Twice, thrice.

Oh, so that’s why, Ai thought to herself. When he was in the sealed city, Alice had been a popular person in town. Everyone called him by his name affectionately.

But Alice had always kept his distance from them. He was alone, looking at the town beyond a windowpane.

Ai finally understood the meaning of those eyes.

No matter how fond they were of Alice, Alice did not know. Rationally, he knew his past self he made memories with them, and they treasured each other, but his emotions were unable to comprehend.

That was why he always kept his distance from them.

“The second time he appeared, our daughter turned seven, and started to fall sick.”

Shiba said, with eyes similar to Alice’s.

“His anguish at that time was unimaginable. He blamed himself even more than we did. ‘I should have put more thought into this. I should have been more careful,’ so he said…”

“……”

“And he forgot about that, too.”

Shiba continued with a stiff voice, as though deliberately restraining himself.

“When we met him for the third time, we decided to stop telling him the truth.”

“…Is that, so?

“My daughter suggested it back then. She was twelve.”

Twelve years old.

“I still remember that moment, a little while after she turned twelve, when she heard that Alice had come back to the town after a long absence. She told me that she and Alice had promised to go pick her favorite dream chrysanthemums on her birthday. She smiled and said that she had managed to make it in time…but she cried alone that day…and came back without any flowers…and right after that, she made that suggestion…”

Ai firmly sensed the fact that Isola was a person of flesh and blood. She thought of a twelve year old girl with a dying body, deprived of the time to choose, but still caring for someone else (Alice).

She thought of the young girl who would tell such a gentle lie at the age when Ai was still living her dream.

“What was she thinking…?”

“…I don’t know.”

She frowned, as though thinking this was the toughest part to accept..

“I, no, we all don’t know what she’s thinking…but it seems Alice has asked our daughter about it a few times before. “Did you want to be in the original world? You don’t like the sealed world?’”

Surely this was a question he would ask..

He would have asked her, without a second thought to the wounds he would have to bear.

“I heard our daughter say she didn’t know.”

“I guess so…”

“To be honest, we didn’t believe what she said…I’m sorry to say it, but that girl was really kind, and that made it hard to read her true feelings. We didn’t know what she was really thinking when she suggested hiding the truth from Alice or when she asked this question. …”

Ai felt that it was to be expected. She could understand Isola’s feelings better than Shiba and the others.

Isola probably did not have any hidden feelings like Shiba said. She was afraid of hurting the people around her, and became more adverse to talking.

“Back then, I didn’t understand her…”

Suddenly, Shiba said, looking a little different from before.

“Back then?”

“…When she…didn’t save Alice.”

“She didn’t save…Mr. Alice?”

“Yes.”

Then Shiba looked into Ai’s eyes.

“By the looks of it, Ai, you didn’t know, did you?”

“Kn-Know what?”

“The classroom in the setting sun—the noisy desks and chairs—the school festival fifteen years ago.”

“!!”

That was!

“You were the first one to save Alice, that’s for sure. But, Ai, there are many people who were almost there.”

Alice once said that Ai was the 35,696th helper, and that 35,695 people before her had failed.

But there were some people who had gotten very far.

“They were divided into two groups. One such group that originally lived in this town.”

Shiba held up his index finger.

Those from this town naturally knew that there was an incident at Ostia School. Many would be excluded if it came to those who were rather privy of what happened, but it was said there were a few such people.

Ai remembered. She remembered the strange feeling, that some were trying to obstruct her. It seemed Dee was not the only source of them.

“And there’s another group of people who have discovered the truth on their own, Ai, just like you.”

He pointed a finger at Ai.

“There were about four such people, my daughter was one of them. Isola discovered the mystery of the world on her own.”

“Then why couldn’t Isola and the others destroy that world?”

Ai asked, and at the same time, she realized what was going on.

Surely it was not that they could not destroy it, but that they did not.

Because by the time they discovered the truth, the world and Alice had already become important to them.

Whether driven by regret, desire, friendship, or love, each of them had their own emotions that kept them from destroying the sealed world and kept their mouths shut.

(I’m sorry, but I’m not counting on you.)

Ai finally understood why Alice had been so cautious. He really saw the moment when the chance for salvation slipped away from in front of his eyes, time and time again.

“—I don’t know why the others didn’t destroy that world. And I don’t know much about what Isola was thinking either. To be honest, I was delighted when I heard this story. I thought she could return to the real world. However, she gave up on that choice without hesitation. That’s what I don’t understand. …”

Then Shiba hugged his wife tightly. By comforting her, he seemed to be comforting himself.

“Even now, at this moment, I don’t know what’s going on with her.”

“…Please don’t think about this too hard.”

“Thank you very much…but this is not good parenting from us, is it? Why did she disappear? Why didn’t she come back to this world?…We don’t even know the reason why she’s doing this, and we call ourselves parents…”

“P-Please wait a minute. It’s not that Miss Isola didn’t want to go back on her own, right?”

Alice might pop by the next moment and say, “Hey~there was a mistake. Your daughter’s nearby.”

“No, it’s not.”

But Shiba—and even Lethe—simply denied it.

“W-Why not?”

“Our daughter did not come back as per her own decision. The moment we returned, we looked her in the eyes. Her eyes showed that she was planning something.”

“H-how do you know that?”

The couple looked at each other, with a puzzled look on their faces.

“Because that’s the kind of girl she is.”

What kind of girl is she?

At this point, Ai understood that these parents who kept saying that they did not ‘understand their daughter’ were just putting on a front.

 

+

 

Alice came back with a face like a dog that could not ‘fetch the toy it’.

“Sorry. I couldn’t find the name Isola with the guards or the evacuation shelter. I just asked based on age and appearance at least, but …”

“No luck?”

“I-It’s embarrassing…”

They sent him on a fool’s errand just to buy some time, and decided not to bully him any more.

“Guess we have no choice—well, shall we go?”

“Go where?”

“While you’ve been running around, I thought of a certain answer.”

Really!? Shiba and the others immediately pursued the matter.

“Yes, it’s true.”

There was no certainty, but the scenario he had described was probably related to ‘that’. That was what Ai’s instincts were telling her.

“Thank you very much! I’m glad we consulted you after all.”

Shiba then whispered, I’m really glad I turned to you, since you were able to help even Alice.

The couple bowed their heads in thanks, but Ai’s heart was completely cold.

“Don’t worry.”

Ai shook the mother’s hand cautiously.

“We’ll find Miss Isola, I’m sure.”

“…Thank you, little Ai.”

No, Ai cordially replied as she monitored her own heart, ensuring that she was not in ecstasy over the joy of helping others, and not save the world until she had corrected her mistakes.

She did not allow herself to move forward while ignoring her mistakes.

She could sense Alice’s annoyed gaze on her. That was fine, she was such a person after all.

“Let’s go, shall we?”

Ai said.

“To school.”

 

+

 

The Ostia School for Boys and Girls was, surprisingly, filled with people.

“? What’s going on?”

“…Hmm, you don’t know, Ai?

“Mr. Alice, do you know?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Just for once, shut up forever.”

They walked up the hill with the Edwards family. For some reason, there was a group of people hanging out there, surrounding the school from a distance.

They all seemed to be in distress.

Ai walked on, thinking that if it was the old her, she would have run in to ask what happened. Not long after, she spotted a nostalgic but changed scenery over the hill.

The steel main stood gates like a guillotine that ruthlessly cuts off late arrivals every morning, the statue of a great man whose head had been unrecognizable, and the brown schoolyard was bumpy as if it had been bombed.

In the middle of it sat a strange black surface.

The black surface was standing on the ground, a dark color that appeared as if night had been cut out and put into a frame.

It was the residue of the miracle that the sealed city had left behind with its collapse. It was a jet black surface.

Ohhh…it was the first time Shiba and the others saw it.

“Ai… What is that? It looks like the gate we went through when we entered the sealed city. …”

“I think it’s probably something similar.”

“…Why did you bring us here …?”

“It’s simple.”

Ai raised up her index finger.

“I was thinking, if Miss Isola is really not in this world, then where did she go?”

“No way…”

“Yes, she may have gone to another world, different from the sealed world and ours.”

Ai herself had yet to dismiss the possibility that Isola had gotten lost though.

“I see, I see.”

Alice was more readily convinced than Shiba.

“I thought it was strange. I couldn’t figure out why that black surface was left behind, but, I see, so that makes sense. It was Miss Isola who made it, wasn’t it?”

“It ‘might’ be.”

“But I’m convinced.”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re convinced. “

What do you think, Mr Shiba? Ai asked the man standing beside her.

It was Lethe who responded.

“That’s…that!”

“What’s wrong?”

“You! Don’t you feel it? That’s it! That’s her! Beyond there!”

“C-calm down.”

She grabbed her husband by the shoulders and shook him hard. Seeing how great her response was, Shiba could not hide his dismay.

“What little Ai and Alice said is true! You don’t understand! Come on, have a look!”

“Even if you say so, I…”

Shiba apologized with just his eyes. Ai gestured to him that he should not take it to heart, and at the same time, thought that they should end things for the day. Lethe clearly was at her limit.”

“Anyway, calm down for now. We’ve had enough for today. Let’s just go home and start again another day.”

“There’s no need for that! Enough already! Have a look! Feel it!”

Shiba’s actions were all to console Lethe. He shook his head and looked at the same object that his wife was staring at.

He had a look.

Ai and Alice too were also staring at it. The black surface had its mouth open as usual.

“…I don’t think there’s anything there.”

And apparently that was true for Shiba, too.

“No, it can’t be! Yes, if you look closer, you can see that there is something…”

Lethe then stumbled over, beyond the cordon rope, and into the schoolyard.

“Hey!”

With these words, a female student showed up.

“Seriously! Isn’t there a sign right there!? No loitering! Queue up! No climbing over the rope! I don’t want you not to make me any busier, you hear me! Dee Ensy is closed for the day! Please wait until tomorrow!”

The female student was dressed in her school uniform, her hands on her hips, looking angry.

“This goes for you two as well, Alice and Ai!”

“Yes…”

“Sorry…”

Good. And the girl smiled.

“…Now then, what are you here for …?”

Dee stared at them with a wary expression.

 

+

 

“The cause of the black surface?”

There was a signboard with the words ‘Black Surface Plane Exploration Survey Operation Management Association Headquarters’, the name definitely something Dee came up with herself. She was in this tent, adding a third spoonful of sugar into the thick coffee in the tent. This was after Ai and the others had told Dee about the situation at hand.

“So you’re saying it’s because of Miss Isola, huh?…Hmm, I see.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t think it’s impossible. “

It was a reliable assertion coming from Dee. However, they were more interested in the coffee that had a fourth, fifth spoonful of sugar added. It was the sixth spoonful.

“It’s certainly unnatural that the black surface remained after our world collapsed. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a reason for it. But I’m only interested in the practical use of the black face, so I don’t really care.

In the end, Dee added eight spoonfuls of sugar and downed the coffee at once.

“Fuaahhaa! That’s what all-nighters are for!”

“… Are you tired?”

“No, I’m not! I’m~going~ strong~! Yoo-hoo!”

It seemed she was too tired to feel that she was tired.

“Why don’t you at least change your clothes?”

On a closer look, Dee was wearing the same uniform as before, and it was all torn and tattered, a stark contrast from the vacuum-preserved purity and the prim and proper attire in the sealed world.

“Ahh, no no no. I’m wearing this uniform because it just fits, so I’m using it as a staff uniform here. Isn’t that a good way to tell the difference? And it just so happens that most of the main staff are students.”

“Ahhh, so that’s it.”

On a closer look, one could see most of the members of the tent were wearing student jackets or tops.

“So I’ll just take the school uniform as that for the Black Surface Phone…Black Surface Plan Explanation…Black Surface Plane Exploration Investigyaaahhhh!!”

Ah, she bit her tongue.

The hot coffee probably flowed into the bite mark, and Dee was rendered speechless as she made a weird dance.

… Ai had a thought that if she would end up biting her tongue, she should not have given it just a long name. Ai remembered that there was a drink given along with the good just now, and wanted to hand it over to Dee.

So she thought as she pulled out a bottle of soda.

“”(Miss) Dee, here.””

Two voices overlapped.

She turned around to find a person with such a large presence standing there, causing her to wonder how she did not notice that person before.

A noblewoman in a blood-red dress.

The lady was perfectly dressed except for the fact that it was inappropriate for the venue. She wore high heeled shoes, gloves that covered her elbows, an intricate hat that covered her face that was some complicated four-dimensional design, and a huge parasol as a finishing touch.

All of them were deep red.

The bottle of water Ai had been holding out retracted at the same speed as it was handed over.

As a result, Dee took the lady’s water bottle that was a little higher, took lots of gulps “Ahh you saved me, thanks” and she thanked the lady.

The noblewoman replied, “No,” and then went back to the edge of the tent.

“Erm, where was I? Ahh, the black surface?”

“Erm, I’m curious about that too…but, who is that person over there?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just think of her as a mannequin.”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying…”

It was true that she resembled a mannequin with the way she stood there, but that alone would cause Ai to have another terrifying imagination.

“And so? What do her parents want to do? Where are they now?”

Dee continued with the topic.

“…They’re outside now, looking at the black surface. Mr. Alice is with them.”

“I’ll meet them. Bring me over.”

“—No need, we’re already here.”

Alice and the couple entered the tent. Dee tensed for a moment at Alice’s presence, then quickly switched her expression.

“…It’s been a while, Shiba, Lethe.”

“My my, it’s been a long time, Dee. You’ve grown up.”

“Is that so? I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t grown in fifteen years.”

“No no no, we’re not wrong. You do seem to have grown quite a lot over the past few days, Dee.”

“I-Is that so?”

Both Shiba and Lethe seemed to be mentally recovered, and the way they talked to Dee resembled relatives who had not seen each other in a long time.

Alice and Ai made eye contact.

“Did anything happen?”

“No, I don’t think there was anything in particular. …”

“Oh, yes, Dee, we actually have a favor to ask you.”

“A favor?”

This time, Dee asked with her eyes  “What’s going on?” “I don’t know.”

“Dee, can you get us through the black surface?”

 

+

 

“…There’s been an increase in such instances lately. …”

The black surface was in the center of the schoolyard, and right in front of it was a tent filled with various acoustic measuring instruments, dimmers, and various other measuring devices used in the investigation of the black surface. Dee had her hands on her waist as she said so,

“Such instances, as in??”

“People who want to get through the black surface.”

Dee said grumpily, chewing on a candy cane to keep herself awake.

“Nobody has returned from this road, but more and more people want to go there even after I tell them.”

Dee glanced behind.

There was a family meeting going on in the Edwards household.

“Think this through, Shiba! Where’s your usual calmness?”

“Yea, brother-in-law, calm down! You’re risking your life for that thing?”

There was quite a loud squabble. Ai and Dee looked on as if they were outsiders.

“It’s a common scene recently.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. People wanting to enter through the black surface, and people wanting to stop others. Mostly relatives.”

“I see…”

The family meeting was increasingly heated, and just when the voltage was about to reach its peak.

“Everyone.”

Someone spoke with a soft, low voice, but it was one no one could ignore.

“I think your concerns are justified. But we’ve already made up our minds.”

Shiba’s voice was not filled with determination or confidence. Rather, he seemed to be trembling with anxiety.

However, everyone knew that Shiba was a person who would not bend his thoughts when he spoke with such a tone.

“…That’s common too.”

The sight of Dee saying this lethargically resembled someone who had seen similar movies. It was inappropriate given the seriousness, but Ai knew that Dee had not slept more than twenty hours this week, and could not say anything.

“In the end, the one who spoke up won. Those who are left behind hang around here with their regrets…”

This is ……

“Haha …… haha …… when you see Miss Isola. Give this to her. ……”

Dream chrysanthemum.

It is the birth flower of October, blooming in autumn.

I’m not sure what to make of it.

Alice, you can’t possibly…

“…… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ……, sorry, what?”

“No…”

Shiba did not ask any more questions.

He just tucked the flower into his shirt with care. I’m not sure what to do with it.

…… It’s kind of strange, Alice.

What’s that?

Thirteen years ago, in this very place, you invited me to enter the Sealed World. We were young then, almost as old as you are now.

Ahm, Deenibbled on the candy cane like popcorn. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the main gate and the people glancing at the black surface from there. They were a group of people like that.

“Kept you waiting Dee. We’ve decided.”

“Yes yes. So who’s going with who?”

“Just me and my wife.”

“Got it. Write your names down here, and we’ll report back to the guards.”

Dee had them fill out some more paperwork, gave them some precautions to follow before going through the black surface, and then took a backpack labeled ‘for experimentation use’ that was filled with the bare essentials, along with a rope that was at least a hundred meters long, tying it at their waist.

“Dee, what’s this?”

It’s for communication…supposedly, but every single attempt for this has failed. You get me uncle? Just move at a constant speed, stop once when you get somewhere, stop twice if there’s someone inside. If there’s danger, run out as fast as you can.”

“I understand. I hope we can be of some help to you.”

“Yes. Take care then.”

Bye, bye. Dee waved them off without showing any remorse. Both Shiba and Lethe simply responded and tried to go to the black surface, but were caught again by their relatives who said, “Hey, wait a minute.”

“Eh~ another argument~? Can you please spare me already…”

“…Miss Dee, can you please be a little more serious?”

“That’s impossible. I’m all out of it.”

More or less, Dee muttered to herself. She showed her ‘man, living’s a pain’ expression.

“Oops.”

With that, the candy cane she was holding fell off. Ai, who was not expecting it at all, could not react. Right when the candy cane was about to land on the ground and hit the dirt.

“………Dee, be careful.”

The lady grabbed the cane along with the bag and gave it back to Dee.

“Sorry, sorry, thank you.”

“No worries.”

The lady then slowly retreated to the back. Ai looked at them suspiciously, but the lady remained iron-faced, ‘hm?’ merely giving a cute wink and not answering anything else.

“What’s the matter, Ai?”

“… No—but more importantly, shouldn’t we be stopping them…”

“I’m not going to stop them. I’m not that kind of a character.”

“……”

“But I won’t stop you if you do.”

“……”

“Hmm?”

“………so—”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“….I too can’t be bothered with this…”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, ….”

A dry breeze blew.

It was a wilderness breeze that blew from the west.

Dee looked at the sky, letting the wind brush her hair, and said without making eye contact,

“—What’s the schedule for the next shipment?”

“…Still undecided.”

“I see, that’s a shame. But I wish you could ship them in sooner. I prefer it.”

“…Can’t guarantee that….”

“You could have lied and said you’ll do your best. Aren’t you in the service industry?”

“……I’ll do my best.”

“Good.”

Dee patted Ai on the head and ended the conversation.

“—Hm, looks like they’re done talking.”

The siege of the relatives collapsed, and the couple exited.

In the end, it seemed their original decision had not changed.

“Goodbye, both of you, Ai, I’m really glad I consulted you.”

“Thank you, little Ai.”

Even though they were thanking her, Ai could not take it in stride. She could not decide if she did the right thing or not.

“… Are you sure you want to go?”

“Yes.”

“…Honestly.”

Ai hesitated for a moment.

“I have no idea what you guys believe in.”

“I guess so.”

“You’re like people trying to climb the World Tower. You’re acting like fervent believers, seeking things that shouldn’t be there, fanatics trying to make your delusions real.”

“I guess so.”

I guess so?

Ai did not expect such an answer. It was not an answer a fanatic would say.

“You seem surprised, Miss Ai. You’re right. Unlike my wife, I haven’t seen anything on the black surface.”

“Then why?”

“That’s why.”

Shiba smiled.

“That’s why it’s worth the trip—that world needs not only those who believe, but also blockheads like me.”

“…I don’t really understand.”

“I guess so.”

Shiba laughed.

“So, from here on out, let the results speak for themselves.”

“All right.”

“Now then…”

The couple all said their goodbyes once more, and finally stood in front of the black surface.

“…I wanted to say goodbye to Alice too, but…”

Finally, Shiba looked around and said so. “I’ll be out for a while” Alice said this a long while ago, and had yet to return.

“…I don’t want to bother you any more than I already have. Looks like we have to go too, Lethe.”

“Yes, dear.”

“—Wait!”

At that moment, a human whose head had some grass attached to it emerged from behind the fence at the edge of the school yard towards the back of the hill. He stepped over the fence and ran all the way over.

“Haaa…haaaa…haaa…haaa…did I make it…? “

“Alice, what’s wrong?”

“…This!”

There was a purple flower in his outstretched hand.

“This is…”

“Haaa…haaa…when you meet Miss Isola, hand this over to her…”

 

The Dream Chrysanthemum.

 

It was a flower that would bloom in autumn, October.

It was the flower he promised to pick with her, but did not manage to fulfill his promise.

“Alice. Did you—”

“…Haa…haaa…haaa…sorry, you were saying?”

“—It’s nothing.”

Shiba did not ask any further.

He merely kept the flower into his shirt pocket, treasuring it well, ensuring that he would not lose it accidentally.

“…Somehow, it feels strange doesn’t it, Alice?”

“What’s strange?”

“Thirteen years ago, you invited me to the sealed world here. We were young back then, and no different from you in age.”

“…Is that so?”

“Yes, that’s what it was, Alice.”

Ai had a vision.

There were young Shiba and his friends there. They had none of the composure or confidence of a decade later, only a glow as they protected the little girl beside them.

Alice was watching them with a smile.

Now and forever.

He was the only one who never changed his appearance.

“Goodbye Alice…goodbye, everyone.”

“Yeah, goodbye.”

The time had come to say goodbye.

“I’ll see you on the other side, if possible….”

“…Yeah.”

And with that, they were swallowed up by the black surface.

There was no dazzling light dancing around them.

There was no earth-shattering roar.

The two of them merely disappeared like a lamp that was switched off..

“You fools…”

The old man, who had opposed the idea until the very end, dropped to his knees.

“16.26, no signal at all. The rope was never pulled…”

Dee mumbled as she retrieved the rope that had snapped in mid-sentence.

Ai and Alice were the only ones who stood still.

They recalled the significance of the events that just happened, and saw the petals of the Dream Chrysanthemum flutter in the air.

 

—Since that day, the number of people who wished to cross the border increased exponentially.

 

Part IV

 

Seven days have passed since their return.

Alice felt that yesterday turned out well.

Ai had been depressed for a long while, but after talking to others and being appreciated, she seemed to be back on track.

So Alice thought that Ai would be more energetic on this day.

“So why is this happening …?”

At the main entrance, where he had been kicked out like yesterday, Alice held his head in his hands.

He was looking at a girl who was seated there, not moving at all.

 

+

 

“Yo.”

“……Oh, Mr. Alice.”

We’re leaving.”

Ai slowly looked up at Alice, slowly stumbled to her feet while her legs were numb, and looked as frail as a newborn deer.

On this day, Alice did not wait, and walked quickly to the market.

“Ah, wait…”

There was a voice behind him, and those who knew of that owner would surely be shocked.

“P-Please wait. …

“What…?”

Eventually, Alice slowed down.

It was a bad decision.

“Wargh!”

With a slight impact, Ai hit his back.

“So-sorry.”

“…What are you doing?”

“W-woah, I-I’m sorry. I’ll move…move away immediately…”

But Ai’s legs were numb and she could not stand up straight, and her right hand would not leave her back like a drowning man grasping at a straw.

“Tch…”

“S-Sorry…”

The tongue click was immediately misunderstood. Alice was merely expressing his own unhappiness, but Ai had assumed it was her fault.

Lots of gears were disoriented.

Alice did not want Ai to feel unbearable.

“…I’m sorry. I’ll stand up right away. …”

Ai appeared to be in pain, but there was no sign of tears. She was trying to stand up on her own as quickly as possible.

“…It’s fine.”

“Eh?”

“…It’s okay to lean on someone when you’re tired.”

Then Alice did something that surprised even himself.

“Let’s go.”

“Where?”

He held Ai’s hand and started walking.

They walked through the main entrance, down the main street and into the market. At all of these places, familiar faces were looking at them, wide-eyed. Some of them were even whistling. Alice wondered which idiot did so, but unfortunately, it so happened to be the mayor of this city. It was a real shame.

“M-Mr. Alice, I’m totally fine. …”

“Shut up, can I believe what you say?”

“Auu—but, erm.”

“I told you to shut up!”

Alice dragged her forcibly by the hand through the marketplace, got dinner just as they did the previous day, and went home.

“… Are you angry?”

Ai said as soon as they left the market.

“I’m not angry.”

“…I’m sorry. I know it’s troublesome for you…to have to wait in a place like that…”

“I’m not angry at you!”

Pii, Ai lowered her head with a squeal.

Oh.

He did it again.

“Y-you’re angry though, aren’t you …?

“No, I’m not. It’s true that I shouted at you, but it’s a different kind of anger! Do you understand!?”

“Y-yes, I understand—erm, I’m sorry…”

“You don’t know what I’m talking about!”

“I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry!

It was hopeless.

Alice gave up on explaining and hurried down the street. He knew that this attitude of his was making Ai feel uneasy again, but at this point, he did not care anymore.

He felt that Ai should just keep dwelling on it, be increasingly dejected, continue to misunderstand others, and continue to live with her head lowered.

“Let’s go…”

“Ah, yes.”

Alice could not find the chance to let go of her hand, but at this moment, it was squeezed tightly.

The strength of the grip was so weak compared to her usual monstrous strength, so much so that he would not have noticed it otherwise.

It was as if she hesitated to hold his hand. It was like the hand of someone that was about to fall off a cliff, but could not muster the strength for fear of involving the other person.

It was like a swallow that was starving but could not coo its other siblings. It was like the last claw marks of a cat dying in the dark, hiding its wounds.

(Again…)

Alice wanted to do something about this, to ensure that she could regain her prior confidence.

But he said all he could. He ran out of tricks the previous day.

What more could he do?

“Ah…I-I’m sorry. Did I squeeze too hard?”

Furthermore, Ai tried to let go of his hand. She kept quiet. She wanted to conceal what she did.

“…I’m fine now, really…”

As if her heart was leaving her, the weak strength in the hand suddenly disappeared, and each finger slowly slipped away.

It was as though Ai was letting go of her last lifeline.

And as for that hand,

“……”

Alice grasped it tightly.

“E-erm, Mr. Alice?”

“…What?”

“You’re asking me what…can you please let go of my hand?”

“No.”

“You refuse me…erm, what…”

Alice did not know either.

“! Ow…”

“Enough, we’re going back.”

“Erm, Mr. Alice, that hurts!”

“Shut up.”

“Uuu~!”

Ai made a face of a bullied child.

“What’s wrong with you… If you’re angry, just say so. I don’t know what’s going on anymore…”

That is why!

“I’m the same!”

“Eh?—Wait, kayaa!”

Ai got forcibly dragged along by Alice, and tripped over. Alice lifted her with his right hand, the bowl soup dinner in his left hand shaking violently.

“Oops.”

“I-I’m sorry. See, it’s still dangerous…”

“It’s because you’re not putting in the strength.”

He squeezed her right hand again.

“Squeeze it harder.”

“……”

“We’ve known each other for so long, don’t hold back now.”

Alice did not hold back at all, and squeezed Ai’s hand as if he were holding a 45 caliber gun or grabbing a person that was hanging from a cliff.

He hoped to convey something that could not be conveyed by words or attitude. He prayed that the tip of his right hand would connect their hearts through the tip of his body.

“……Ah.”

He had no idea if it was conveyed.

But Ai put just a little bit of strength into her right hand, as if she were a wild bird drinking water from a human hand for the first time.

The weight of her trust was less than one kilogram.

It was enough.

“Let’s go.”

“……”

There was no reply, but this time she obeyed him honestly.

Alice was finally relieved.

 

+

 

“Whooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

It was supposed to be the case.

“CCHHHEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTTTTTTOOOOOOOOOOO!”

This runaway locomotive caught them from a hundred meters behind, it reduced the distance to zero in eleven seconds and smashed through the space between them with a machete-like chop.

Ai saw the numb right hand and left hand swim through the air in slow motion, and thought to herself.

Mr Julie’s an idiot.

“AAAALLLLLLLLLLLLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICCCCCCCCCEEEEEE…”

Julie tumbled a few rounds forward before his chop could follow through, but his eyes were glowing as he caught sight of Alice who was preparing to run away. He was so fast that she was worried, wondering if they could communicate properly with him.

“You’re mistaken, old man.

“Yoouuu doooonnn’tttt gggeeetttt tttoooo caaalllll mmmmeeee an old man!!!”

“Eh? I’m a stranger now? No, wait! You’re already at this age aren’t you!?—Ow ow ow ow!! “

Alice was dragged down to the ground, his arms latched behind him, and he was raised up.

“What are you doing, old man!? What if you break my arms!?”

“I’m trying to break them off. Of course I can.”

“Oh dear…”

This old man is serious… Alice mumbled in a rather calm voice.

“Alice…I’ve warned you many times…that anyone who messes with my child will die…”

“I think it definitely won’t end at dying though…”

The arms were tied tighter than before, but Alice’s voice remained calm as though he could no longer feel pain.

“This is bad, Mr. Julie. He’s already prepared to die. You should stop…”

“And I thought you said ‘I’m not a lolicon’ every time I advised you…”

Ai decided not to stop Julie..

“To think I trusted you when you said that…”

“You wouldn’t be asking me all the time if you believed me. What do you mean, ‘every time I advised you’?”

Alice sounded like a convict on death row, and was in turn not afraid of anything anymore.

“And yet! And yet, you!”

Julie said in anguish, like a parent who just had a terrible misfortune befall her daughter, the cause of it being someone she trusted.

“Of all people, my daughter! Ai! I can’t believe you’re holding hands!”

 

“……”

“……”

 

No.

At first, Ai was a little panicky, but once he said so, she felt it did not seem like such a big deal.

“You’re exaggerating, Mr. Julie.”

She tried to say so with a nonchalant look.

“It was because my feet were numb, so Mr. Alice had to help me out. There was no such…erm…thing like…that. Yeah…it’s just business.”

She was a little self-conscious at the end, but she did explain properly. The worst reaction for her to have would be to get flustered. As long as she remained calm, everything would be alright.

But Julie did not stop.

“No! That’s not it!”

“Y-You’re wrong, Mr. Julie. Stop—”

“That’s what I’m talking about! You know, like trust and fear mixed together at the crucial moment, holding hands at such a place! It’s worse when you’re holding hands like that!”

“Awawawawawawa!”

Ai flailed her limbs as though she was scrubbing something.

“M-Mr. Julie!? Wait! N-No more—”

“See! Ai shows a look of trust to that bastard other than us, and now she’s showing such a face—”

“”CCHHHEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSTTTTTTTTTTTTOOOOOOOOOOO!””

Two chops smacked Julie front and back , and the big man fell to the ground without a sound.

And while the man fell over, Alice remained guarded against the attack on the other side.

“That was a formidable foe…”

“Yeah…”

Both of them looked down at the big man, as though they were comrades who finally defeated a sworn enemy.

“…There’s no greater enemy than him in our tough travels thus far…”

“I’ve lived thirty-plus years of a bizarre life, and I never encountered anything like this. This old man has become more than just an airhead these days…”

“You’re right.”

At that moment,

“Ai~, Alice~.”

“Oh, Miss Scar.”

They turned around to see Scar carrying Celica not too far away, and a small group of people surrounding her.

Just then, Scar came running through the group. The hem of her flared skirt fluttered, and Celica bounced on her chest.

The others in the group chide the young mother, “Take note of this.” But the mother and child were both smiling happily and not worried.

Daw, Ai high-fived the giggling Celica and asks Scar from up close,

“Are you on your way home now?”

“Yes, since we are here, let us go together—can you please wake him up?”

Of course, she was referring to Julie.

“He actually left the luggage and started running. Goodness me. Do you agree, Celica?”

Daw, Celica agreed.

Though unwilling, Ai had no choice but to give the big man a good shove. Alice ran five meters away.

“Haa!”

“Ugh!…Ugh, this place is…”

“Are you awake?”

“Yeah……anyway, why am I sleeping here?”

“You’re tired, old man.”

Apparently, Julie’s memory was erratic. Seizing this position, Alice returned at the speed of light.

“You’ve been on the frontlines, helping the recovery. Got to take a break once in a while.”

“Aren’t you being caring now, Alice? Well, thanks…but why do I feel like punching you…”

“Hahahahaha, you’re a weirdo, old man.”

“More importantly Julie, please get up and grab your stuff.”

Scar said unhappily, and Julie hurriedly did as told.

“Do not leave us and go running off now.”

“Hmm? Y-yeah—alright, come here Celica.”

With a bear-like smile, Julie stretched out his arms to Celica. But the baby turned away with a pouty face, as if she had been served old milk.

The others who had walked with Scar chuckled at the sight of her, probably finding it bemusing.

“Oh my. Looks like this child doesn’t want to.”

“Yep yep, papa’s so dirty after all.”

They were the ladies doing the laundry, cooking and other domestic work. Scar had been spending most of her time with them lately, and likewise, Julie has been driving around on the frontlines of the recovery effort.

“Th-that’s not true. I just bathed three days ago…”

“Do you wish for papa to bathe every day, Celica?”

“Grr, Scar…where do you learn to use your daughter for your opinions…?”

From where, I wonder? Scar replied with a smug look. The old women behind her snickered away. It seemed they got along really well.

“Well then, everyone—see you tomorrow.”

With a little wave of Celica’s hand, the group left them.

“What a coincidence.”

After leaving Celica in Julie’s hands—or rather, Julie forcibly snatched her away from Scar—Scar looked a lot more relieved, leaned forward, and smiled at Ai.

“Yes, Miss Scar, what did you do today?”

“Just laundry. Ah, but we started from making detergent today. Ai, do you know how to make detergent?”

Scar began with her lecture before she heard the answer. Basically, they put lots of oil, ashes, and some kind of unfamiliar medicine in such a big pot and…

Scar seemed to be enjoying herself.

She wore Gravekeeper boots, the shirt Julie had given her, and a flared skirt that she had personally stitched. She was living happily neither a Gravekeeper nor a human being.

“…By the way, I did see what happened just now, you know?”

“Bffftt!”

Ai was completely caught off guard. Scar really should be underestimated these days. No one would have thought at first sight that she was a Gravekeeper.

“……Is there a need for such an intense reaction? Were you not holding hands?”

But she was not thinking of anything different in particular.

“Y-yeah. That’s right……that’s right…”

Ai was deeply relieved.

“Yes, I sometimes hold Julie’s hand firmly.”

“Wait a minute.”

Ai turned her head to the left like a rusty doll. Julie was trying his best to stop Celica from escaping towards Alice.

“… Is there something wrong? I’ve been told by people in the washing area that I should do this once in a while…”

“No, it’s nothing strange. Nothing at all…”

It was really a sticky situation to explain their way out of. One had to wonder what the folks at the washing area thought of their relationship and more importantly, what did Scar think of Julie? What did she think of Ai and Alice? Ai had the urge to ask, and yet not…

Ai had a lot on her mind, and in the end it felt that it did not matter, so she pushed the responsibility to the person closest to her.

“… Maybe Mr Julie is the worst ….”

“That is probably true.”

She agreed with great seriousness. Ai could not help but laugh at that.

Scar had become truly human. She was able to understand and care for people’s hearts. That was why Ai was able to laugh, and why Ai was able to…

She froze.

“Thank goodness …”

Scar said, gently raising her scarred right eyebrow.

“Eh? What’s good?”

“The fact that you are smiling, Ai.”

If warmth and gentleness could melt a person’s heart,

Those words would be most appropriate for this situation.

“…Eh?”

Ai gently patted her own cheeks. Incredibly, the smile that had been missing had returned.

Happiness had returned.

“You’ve been feeling moody for a while now.”

Scar smiled warmly, and Ai’s heart froze cold.

“But it is a good thing now that you can smile again…”

“What…?”

“Eh?”

“What was I smiling at …?”

“Sorry, I did not hear you. Could you repeat that……Ai?”

It was as though Ai woke up from a dream, or was returning to one.

Her vision was clearing up. The October sky was clear enough to the point where it felt like it would snap. The air was clogged with the buzz of reconstruction, bustling. The shattered town caused an increased amount of information, putting pressure on the visual cortex.

Ai took a deep breath, wanting to swap out the oxygen in her body. The upcoming winter air was frighteningly cold, robbing warmth from her body and her heart.

What was she doing?

What was she being healed of?

What happened to her pride? Did she not say that she wanted to make the choice for herself?

“Ai…what is the matter?”

“……What do you mean?”

Scar was unable to respond to the reflexive question.

“…Sorry, Ai, did I do something wrong just now?”

“No.”

Ai shook her head slowly like a well-made automaton.

“You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Ai was the one at fault.

“Wah, wait, don’t cry, Celica. All right! I’m going to take a bath! I’ll shave too!”

Just then, Celica threw a tantrum and almost fell out of Julie’s arms.

“…Wait a minute, Ai.”

Scar felt that something was amiss with Ai, but she went over to pick up Celica.

Left alone, Ai was surrounded by a chilling air. Her heart was ripped open and her mind was bleeding.

“Sorry to keep you waiting…”

Scar returned. At this moment though, Ai was sinking in a large heap of snow, and could no longer melt. Luckily for Ai, it appeared Scar noticed something as well, and Ai was spared of more questions, but…

“Daw.”

Instead, another pair of terrifyingly impassive eyes stared at her.

“…What?”

Celica was strangely angsty to the point where she nearly fell out of Scar’s clutches and started swinging punches at Ai.

“Daw!”

Thud.

The punch hit Ai in the cheek.

It was light as a mosquito bite,

But with a thud, Ai found herself falling on her buttocks. She raised her hand and placed it on the cheek where she had been hit.

It was so hot and painful, it was a wonder it did not leave a mark.

“A-Ai!? Are you okay? Goodness, Celica, what are you doing!?”

“It’s okay…I just slipped.”

Saying that, Ai stumbled to her feet. Her body was heavier and more difficult to move compared to when Hampnie had kicked her, or when she had run around Ortus all night.

It seemed Celica’s mood improved after delivering the punch, and she no longer threw a tantrum, “Goodness, you” that was the expression she showed as she leaned forward again.

“Uu!”

She handed Ai a pacifier that was sticky with drool.

“……”

“Daw!”

Her face was basically saying, “Here, have a bite.”

“…I appreciate the sentiment.”

Ai said, and returned the pacifier. She then hopped and pulled away from the group.

“Ai?”

“I’m sorry. I just remembered something. Please go home first.”

Julie was understandably reluctant.

“Now?”

“Yes. Go ahead and have dinner without me.”

“Oi—”

Ai ran off without listening to what the others said.

She could not allow herself to remain at such a warm place.

 

Part V

 

There was only one place she could go.

Ai dragged her feeble steps forward as though she was taking turns moving her feet. The streets of Ostia were bustling with activity, and everyone seemed to be very busy. It seemed like every place had a sign that said “No Ai Astin allowed here”.

She walked. She walked and walked, and before she knew it, Ai was in the same place as yesterday.

Before her was the slope that led to the Ostia School for Boys and Girls.

But there was something wrong there.

“……?”

There was a line of people on the hill in front of the main gate, one that did not exist the previous day. It seemed the queue lasted from the bottom of the hill to the schoolyard. Some of the more business-minded people had even set up stalls in anticipation of the queue.

Ai watched them from the side as she walked silently up the hill. Eventually, she left the path to the school and entered a slightly higher path, looking down at the school grounds.

There was a huge snake there, its scales formed by human beings, coiled leisurely in the schoolyard, its head buried in the center.

There was a black surface.

At the head of the snake, the center of the vortex, was a young couple holding hands, hopping into the black surface. In their eyes, there was half uneasiness and half anticipation.

The people behind them too jumped into the black surface.

That queue was full of people waiting for their turn.

“……What’s going on?”

Despite noticing it, Ai’s muffled voice was quiet. She was unable to muster that interest. Even after knowing the situation, she would not be able to take action anyway.

“…I guess I should go then?”

She just wanted to head over to her destination as soon as possible. She was only passing by this place, and was heading for somewhere further. Ai turned her gaze back to the schoolyard.

And at that moment,

“Ah, isn’t it Ai!”

There was Dee, carrying a bucket.

“Miss…Dee.”

“Oui, I’m Miss Dee.”

Dee greeted by opening and closing her right hand, the bucket of water in her left hand shaking hard.

“… What are you doing?”

“What am I…do I look like an old lady sprinkling water on the street?”

She might be saying that, but she was actually spraying water though.

“Or are you saying I’m a fireman?…Anyway, how do I act like a fireman?”

“You don’t have to do that…please stop. The water will spill—”

“Ah.”

Right after she said so,

Dee probably messed up somewhere again, for the bucket of water that she was swinging like a cartwheel fell off. Ai tried to get around to where the bucket was going to fall, but she was rooted to the stop when she saw what happened afterwards.

Dee lost her balance and was about to fall on the back of her head.

That angle was really bad.

Ai tried to insert force in the opposite direction, but her sluggish body slipped at the critical moment, and she could only flail futilely.

It was too late.

“……Be careful, Dee.”

The moment she thought so, that noblewoman in bright red caught her from behind before she knew it.

“Why, sorry about that, Dust Believer. Thanks.”

Dee said and stood up by herself.

The lady saw Dee stand up, and pulled her distance. It seemed the lady had covered quite the distance earlier.

“……”

Ai kept staring at the lady.

“What’s the matter?”

“…No, it’s nothing.”

Since the lady was not going to answer, Ai should just deem her as a non existence, as Dee said. So she decided and turned back,

“Goodness, I didn’t think you were such a clumsy oaf.”

“You’re noisy.”

A strange boy was floating there, carrying the bucket. One had to wonder how he did so, but he managed to collect the water without spilling a drop.

“……”

…The number of suspicious characters had increased…

The boy returned the bucket and returned to his original position along with the noblewoman.

“Miss Dee…erm, that.”

“Ahh, him, just think of him as air.”

“No, he’s floating like air, but that’s the only common point they have—”

“Well, don’t sweat the details. “

It appeared Dee was uninterested in revealing the specifics as she looked into the bucket as if to say, “I’m done talking about this.”

“Well, thank goodness the water didn’t spill though. I came all the way to the school to get it. The well down the road is dry now, it’s troublesome.”

“‘Down the road’…?.”

Ai’s destination should be the only place there.

“…Miss Dee, are you going this way too?”

Ai turned her eyes beyond the alley. The place ‘further beyond’ really was unsuited for Dee—no, it was not a place for the people in Ostia to visit for that matter.

The only person suitable for such a place would be Ai herself.

“Yes, but why?”

“Because…aren’t you very busy, Miss Dee?”

Saying that, Ai looked behind. She had no idea what was going on, but Dee, the person in charge, should not be absent.

“Hmm? Ahh, the situation there is already stable. Menhim kicked me out when I dozed off while walking though. He told me not to show my face for about five hours.”

“…I’m sure he wants you to go get some rest.”

“Well, yeah. But that’s okay. I’m free to do whatever I want during my breaks.”

“…They say break is part of working though.”

“Work is also a break.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know! All right!”

“Kyaa!”

Wahaha! Dee laughed and hugged Ai.

“Woah, wait Miss Dee! Watch the bucket!”

“Ahahahahaha. You’re so squishy Ai. I got a freebie!”

“P-please let go of me!”

“Don’t wanna~! Hm, what’s this? I feel very agitated for some reason. Oh yeah, I guess this is what they call a runner’s high!”

Dee chuckled as she spilled the bucket of water on the floor.

“It’s refreshing to be so tired in the outside world, I never felt tired when I was being the Ghost.”

“Hmmm…”

Hearing those words, Ai relaxed her resistance.

Dee seemed to be really agitated. After letting go of Ai, she spun around the bucket like a ballroom dancer.

It was like a child who had just learned a new game.

“But don’t worry, this level of fatigue really isn’t something to worry about. I’ll gladly stay up for two or three nights, but…”

Dee said as she turned behind, looked over her shoulder, and stared at the schoolway.

“I didn’t expect the situation of the black surface to stabilize so quickly either.”

There, the black surface continued to swallow people.

“What’s that?”

Ai asked, calmly observing her own mind. It’s okay. I’m just asking.

I’m not choosing anything.

I’m not going in the wrong direction.

“Ever since yesterday when you left, more people started showing up.”

Dee seemed to have explained this many times over.

“The first to enter were the relatives gathered around. They made up their minds and said they were going to enter the black surface. That’s fine, that’s common. But there’s a lot of them, and like, of those who stayed behind, half of them decided to queue up after that.

Next in line were their relatives’ relatives and friends of friends. And after them were the relatives of the relatives’ relatives and the friends of the friends’ friends. After them were the relatives of relatives of relatives of relatives of relatives ….

That was how the giant snake grew rapidly.

Dee was puzzled and asked them. How could you enter the black surface without hesitation? There could be nothing there.

Their only answer was, “Because we have our own world there”.

After finishing the story, Dee relaxed her shoulders.

“It feels like we’re the ones who really don’t understand. Do you see the queue over there? I heard that even the ordinary grandpas and grandmas knew that they should go over. “I just knew I had to go over.” That’s the reason they told me while laughing. They all sounded like a certain person.”

“……”

Ai did not answer, but looked at the schoolyard. At the center of the whirlpool of people was a towering black surface, and people were jumping into it without hesitation.

Nobody could guarantee that there was a new world beyond the black surface. Perhaps there was a world worse than what they had. That was not what they thought however, and they drove their own bodies forward.

And that was why,

A new world was surely developing beyond that black surface.

“We didn’t need confirmation or investigation after all. We could go in with just conviction. It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ situation here. Their wishes will create a new world.”

At first, it was just a small dream; the world Isola Edwards had created, a small one for one person.

However, the wish had already been approved by her parents and hundreds of others, and was still growing at this very moment.

“Well, a skeptic like me would like to have at least some definite information. But to be honest, I can’t do anything about the research at the moment. What we only need to do now is to sort the queue, which makes things a lot easier. So.”

So then—Dee carried the bucket and twirled around, walking towards the alley.

“Since I got the chance, I’ve decided to visit Alice’s grave.”

You’re going too, right Ai? So she asked with her eyes.

 

+

 

The cemetery was empty and deserted.

It was no wonder, for everyone else was looking forward now. There was no one stopping to look back at the past, whether they were working on recovery or martyring for their dreams.

Only people like them would stop in their tracks.

“…A graveyard is really creepy, isn’t it?”

Dee clung onto Ai’s arm as she said so timidly. It seemed she felt out of place in this place.

Dee really was completely different from Ai, and the latter exhaled softly.

For some reason, her breathing felt a little relieved ever since they entered the graveyard, my breathing had become easier. The tension had dissipated and the constricting sense of urgency had faded.

“Hee! I just heard a strange sound!”

“It’s the sound of the wind.”

“Kyaa! Something touched my arm!”

“It’s a leaf.”

“Uuu~I’m scared~!”

“… By the way, I’ve been feeling a sudden heaviness on my body since a while ago…”

“Hiii! Ai, stop saying scary things like that!”

“It’s definitely because of you though, Miss Dee.”

Ai forcefully pried away Dee who was holding her tightly, and walked forward.

“Wait for me, Ai, I don’t know the way.”

“? Didn’t you just come here?”

“I was so scared I forgot about it.”

Dee put a fist at her head and stuck a tongue out. Ai thought of leaving Dee behind, but when she saw Dee’s little “pyaah!” from the gust of wind that followed, she forgave Dee.

“Seriously…it’s surprising when you’re called ‘Ghost’…”

“Ugh, because …”

“Come on, this way. Let’s go.”

Ai dragged her by the hand while she was cuddled like a ball.

“You know your way around well, Ai.”

“Is that so?”.

“You’ve been to Alice’s grave a few times, haven’t you?”

“————”

Ai immediately stopped as though she tripped over, and continued on as if nothing had happened.

“I have a good memory after all.”

The answer appeared to be directed at the question, but yet did not seem like one, hmmm and Dee let out a skeptical reply. Ai cautiously observed her tone, but could not discern anything.

“Oh, we’re here.”

And then they arrived at the place they were looking for.

Alice Color.

The tombstone with the name engraved on it was inconspicuous, plain, silent, and covered with sand like many others.

“……Okay, let’s do this.”

Setting down the bucket, Dee started throwing brush and stuff into it. There were other things on the ground around her, including a scythe and some offertory flowers.

“Ah.”

“…That’s wrong?”

“There’s no rag.”

I forgot. Dee slapped her forehead.

“Hmm~I think the buckets have a few of them…I’ll go get them!”

“Ah, Miss Dee…”

Dee ran off without waiting for the reply. The noblewoman and the boy followed her like a shadow.

Once the bunch of noisy ghosts left, the graveyard was left with a moment of silence. Ai heaved out a sigh of relief and was finally surrounded by a true sense of peace.

The wind blew and the leaves fell. The three months of winter spent in the sealed world had caused her to skip over the real summer, and the season was approaching autumn. The seasons of life, spring and summer had passed, and the graveyard seemed much more comfortable.

Dee was unlikely to come back for a while.

Ai approached Alice’s grave, the pebbles crunching under her feet. The place had been swept clean, not a single leaf could be seen on it.

Ai sat down hard like a corpse. As a corpse, her body immediately stopped moving. Her legs slowly stretched forward, her forehead bumped against the gravestone, and the body heat was comfortably drained away.

Time, indeed, was ticking from autumn to winter.

And then Ai cried, her tears trickling like melting ice.

(You’ve been to Alice’s grave a few times, haven’t you?)

(Have you been to Alice’s grave several times?)

The original answer to that question would have been ‘yes’, and Ai had come by here several times till date.

She would drop by here whenever she woke up in the middle of the night, or whenever she had some free time, crying at Alice’s grave.

She could not cry at any other place, but for some reason, she was able to do so at this place.

Ai did not know why. She did not, but she just could not help but return to this place to cry.

“…I can’t.”

She covered her face with both hands..

“I can’t…I’m not supposed…to cry anymore…”

As if to seal the wound with her hand, Ai held her eyelids and tried to choke back the tears. She used to cry at any given instance, but she just could not keep crying all the time…

It was a horrible sight.

In a corner of the graveyard, a girl was crying alone. She was terrified of the tears spilling from her eyes, as if they were drops of blood.

“I can’t let time heal me anymore!”

At this moment, she did not believe that she actually dared to say such words. Even though she had said so, she would unwittingly cry every night and let the sadness heal her wounds.

“Uuu…..uuuuuu…”

She could reject happiness. She was immediately wary of the warmth provided by Alice and Scar.

But she could not do anything about the sadness and pain. Because it was a punishment, feeling them was proof of righteousness. It was proof that she would always remember her sins.

But it was different.

Just as warmth and kindness could break a person’s heart.

Ai learned that coldness and pain could heal a person’s hearts.

She had always earnestly faced the fact that she had accidentally caused Alice to be revived. But she, being tormented, was actually being healed.

She was in despair.

Neither warm nor cold would do. No matter which I chose, she would eventually be healed.

Even if there was a difference between happiness and unhappiness, she would ultimately be forced to forget her dreams and sins.

It was a really terrifying fear.

But…

But even that fear.

Eventually, it would heal.

“Uu, uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”

The tears show no signs of abating. Every single tear left Ai terrified, as though her pride took the form of something tangible, leaking out from within her body. Ai was truly terrified to the point where she used her palms to catch the tears and drink them.

It was a really tragic scene.

 

+

 

“I’m back.”

It all ended abruptly.

The moment Dee returned back, Ai stopped crying as if it was the reason for the world.

She did not stop her tears on her own volition.

It was just that even in this place, she could not cry when others were around.

She regained a little bit of hope that had returned to her. Yes, she just need not return anymore. Surely she would not cry anymore. And until she got her conclusion, she should keep her distance from Scar and Alice and the others.

Imagining the impossible, Ai felt a little more at ease.

“Well, let’s start.”

Dee politely ignored Ai, who still had tear marks on her face, wet a rag and began to clean the grave.

“I’ll get it cleaned up for you.”

With a brush and a rag, she carefully washed the tombstone, and the mossy tombstone was soon cleaned.

Ai sneaked away and watched from a nearby fence.

She was grateful that Dee did not say anything.

“…Sniff…Miss Dee…did you come to clean the grave?”

“Yes, or rather, mourning. The whole thing, basically.”

The only sounds heard were the bouncing brush and the running water.

“But say, Ai, since you’ve been here so many times, you should have cleaned up.”

“…Did you notice?”

Sorta, Dee replied. Even after reviving, she did not lose her temperament as the ‘Ghost’. In terms of the subtleties of conversation, Ai stood no chance.

“Miss Dee…are you mad at me?”

“Eh? Why?”

“…Because I’m crying in a place like this. …”

Ahh,  Dee looked off into the distance.

“I’m not mad at you.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not lying.”

Scrub, scrub, scrub.

“…It’s just that you probably had the same goal as me.”

Eh? The moment she thought so,

Dee stood up quickly and began to put away her tools.

“…You’re leaving?”

“Yep. I need to rest after all. Ah, yes, Ai, this is for you.”

Then Dee muttered to herself, “Where did I put that?” Dee rummaged through the pockets of her clothes, pulled it out of her breast pocket and handed it to Ai.

“This is…?”

For a moment, Ai did not recognize what it was that had fallen into her hand.

It was a familiar silver button, stained with dirt.

“Is this…”

It was a button from the Ostia Boys and Girls High School.

“Yeah, it’s Alice’s button.”

“Miss Dee…did you actually….”

The hand that held the button shook uncontrollably. The silver button, the moist black dirt, and an out-of-place shovel. The reality derived from the hypothesis surrounding these items shook her thoughts.

“Did you dig up Mr. Alice’s grave?”

“Yes.”

Dee simply answered.

“Why did you…do such a thing …?”

“Because I wanted to be sure.”

“Su-sure of what?”

“That Alice is dead.”

Ai was breathless. She just could not breathe.

“I just wanted to make sure, you know? I wanted to make sure that the original Alice was dead. I wanted to know that though Alice is revived, what we did before this didn’t disappear at all. I feel that I can’t move forward until I get this clear, that it’s not right. My heart will continue to be trapped here otherwise. That’s why I dug his grave

……and found that Alice was dead.”

I didn’t mean for anyone to see it, Dee said, sounding a little embarrassed. On a closer look, one could see that her eyes were slightly red.

“But since it’s you, Ai…as a comrade, it’s fine for you to know.”

“Comrade …?”

“Yeah, because Ai’s a comrade.”

“What do you mean, I’m…?”

“You came here and cried, just like me, to accept what you did, right?”

“…….”

No.

Dee was mistaken.

“You’re really amazing after all, Ai.”

“…Not.”

“Eh? Did you say something? I can’t hear you.”

“……That’s not it, Miss Dee…”

Ai hugged the silver button tightly and eked the words out.

“…You overestimated me…I didn’t come here for any of that. I was just here to cry. …”

“Eh?”

“Ahh, I see. Now I know why I can cry here. It’s because Mr. Alice here is dead. I can still be immersed in my dreams here…”

“……”

“I’m not as active as you are, Miss Dee…”

“…Ai.”

“I’ve been running away the entire time…”

And at this point, that place of escape had been destroyed…

Ai assumed that Dee would be angry if she said such things. She felt that Dee would be completely livid and abandon her there and then.

But Dee did not show any of those feelings and just patted Ai on the head.

“I see, Ai, so you’re just running away?”

“…I’m, sorry…”

“It’s okay, I’m the one who had selfish expectations. I’m sorry, too.”

Dee was just so strong and kind.

“It’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, you don’t have to get over it.”

“Mr. Alice and Mr. Julie…said the same thing as well…”

“Hmm, I guess so. I’ll say something else then—there’s nothing wrong with whether you buck or or not..”

“…Either way works?”

“Well, whether you run away or not, I’ll respect that.”

“Ah.”

Such, such a line was,

“Since you have this chance, just run away all you want before you decide. It’s okay. We’ll buy you that much time.”

With that, Dee hugged Ai’s head.

“Fufufu, it’s nice to have a body after all. It’s great to be able to touch. Good for me. It’s so great.”

“Wa-wait Miss Dee…”

“Brood away all you want Ai, it’s the fastest way to do things after all.”

Then Dee took the button from Ai’s hand.

“I’ll do the same. In future, I’ll do that for every step I take.”

 

And so the story began with the light shining from the west.

 

On Monday, God created the world.

 

On Tuesday, God distinguished the order and chaos.

 

On Wednesday, God honed the numerical values.

 

On Thursday, God allowed the Time to flow.

 

On Friday, God overlooked every corner of the world.

 

On Saturday, God rested.

 

And so, on Sunday, God abandoned the world.

 

But was that true? Was the world truly abandoned? Which was the correct answer.

The answer remained unknown.

 

 

And so the man appeared from the west.

“Deeeeeee Eeeennnnnssssssyyyyyy!!! Ghhhoooossssstttttt!! Witch of the West!!!!”

The air was scorched, and the earth cracked.

“I’ve come for your head!”

 

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