Demon Child
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The chapters for Demon Child are long, they have parts. But I didnt want it to be confusing, so I have put one chapter per post.



Demon Child translated by Aili. This is complete, with translators notes. Enjoy!!

Demon Child, Prefacing Poem.
from Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
Wang Wei's Seeing the Librarian Chao Jian off on his return to Japan.

-

The end of the accumulated waters cannot be reached,
So how does one know what is east of the blue sea?
How far away are the Nine Territories?
Going ten-thousand miles is like riding upon the sky.
Facing that country, one simply sees the sun.
Returning ships only follow the wind.
The turtle's body reflects the darkness of the heavens.
The fish's eyes redden the waves.
The local trees are at a distance from the Hibiscus.
You, master, are in the middle of the solitary island.
The point of separation is in another realm,
Though correspondence still passes through.

[Note: Obviously, I am not an expert at translating Tang poetry, so this is but an attempt. There are many allusions in the piece, as is standard in any good Chinese poem, but the following are some that I thought might need more explicit mention: the "Nine Territories" of line 3, jiuzhou, may refer to China, or to Japan (Kyuushuu); the "Hibiscus" mentioned in line 9 refers to a great tree, Fusang, from which the sun springs every morning, and it has come to represent Japan.]
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Prologue.

-



Snow drifted from the sky.

The large and heavy snowflakes fell as if they would never stop. To look up at the sky was to see a canvas of white with countless dull, gray shadows painted upon it. His line of sight followed the snow sweeping across his entire field of vision into the sky, and before he knew it, all he saw was the white of the sky.

He watched as a snowflake lightly drift onto his shoulder. It was a big and thick snowflake that looked like a crystal that was made of cotton. Snowflakes continuously fell onto his shoulders, arms and his bright red palms. They immediately melted into the transparent color of water.

His white breath really showed how piercingly frigid it was. He turned his small child's slender neck and the white of his breath followed his movements and hung in the air, making him feel even colder.

He had already stood there for an hour. His little hands and exposed knees were all red like a completely ripened fruit, and he had lost all feeling in them. No matter how he rubbed or covered them, he only felt the cold seep into his bones. So he was like this, feeling nothing as he stared uncertainly into the air.

This was the yard on the northern side. A storehouse that was no longer in use stood in the corner of the narrow yard. A crack in the earthen wall made the air even colder. The three sides of the courtyard were the main building, the storehouse, and where the wall contained the yard. However, at this frigid and windless time, there was nothing he could use in this place to shelter him from the cold. There wasn't even anything in the yard you could call a tree. For a time in the summer, the irises would bloom, but right now, the ground was only scattered with the white snow.

"What a stubborn child." His grandmother had moved from the Kansai region when she had gotten married, but when she spoke, she still carried a thick accent.

"He could at least cry a little. Even a little bit would let people know that he feels bad."

"Mother, you don't actually have to be so harsh."

"It's because you dote on him so much that he's become so stubborn."

"But..."

"Today's young parents only know how to please their children. It's better if the children receive some strict discipline."

"But mother, what if he gets a cold..."

"He won't get a cold from a little bit of snow. —You listen to me. Unless he sincerely apologizes, he's not allowed back inside."

He just stood there.

In fact, all this had originally happened because of a small matter; someone had dripped water onto the floorboards under the sink and hadn't wiped it up. His younger brother blamed him and he denied that he'd done it. By his thinking, it was because he didn't remember doing such a thing that he felt secure enough to say that he didn't do it. His grandmother often warned him that telling lies was the worst thing he could do, so he didn't want to lie and say that he had done such a thing.

"Just be honest and apologize, and the matter would be over." Grandmother had said it very severely, so he could only explain again that he hadn't done it. "Why are you so stubborn?"

His grandmother always said this about him, so his young mind decided that he was indeed stubborn. Even though he wasn't too clear on what exactly "stubborn" meant, he had his own way of explaining it: because I'm a "stubborn" child, grandmother doesn't like me.

He hadn't cried because he was confused. His grandmother wanted him to apologize, but if he had given in and done so, wouldn't he have become the kind of lying child that his grandmother hated so much? He didn't know what the right thing to do was. He felt very anxious.

The hallway extended horizontally in front of him. Beyond the hallway's glass window was the paper door of the kitchen. Through the half piece of glass installed in the paper door, he could see his grandmother and his mother arguing in the kitchen.

The two of them arguing made him feel very sad. Usually, in the end his mother would admit she was wrong, and then she would have no choice but to quickly clean the bathroom. He knew that his mother would eventually hide in the bathroom and secretly weep.

—Is mommy crying again?

He thought about this as he stood uncertainly. His feet felt a little numb. He moved all his weight onto one foot and felt a dull pain in his knee. He could not feel the tips of his feet, but he still forced himself to try to move a little more. As a result, he immediately felt and retreated from a sharp, cold pain. He could feel the snow melting on his knees, melting into an icy water that trickled down his calf.

When he sighed heavily the way children do, a puff of wind suddenly brushed the back of his neck. It wasn't a cold, empty draft but a very warm breeze. He looked around because he thought that someone had felt sorry for him and opened a door for his sake.

However, after he looked all around him, he found that all the windows were still shut tightly. The window facing the opposite room was covered in a thin fog because of the warm air inside.

He tilted his head suspiciously and looked around once more. The warm air still didn't stop blowing onto him.

He looked towards the side of the storehouse and immediately blinked his eyes in surprise. A white object extended from the small crevice between the storehouse and the wall. It looked like a person's arm, a completely bare arm, white and full, reaching out from the crevice behind the storehouse, but he couldn't see to whom the arm belonged. He thought, could they be hiding behind the storehouse?

He felt like that was unthinkable. The space in the crevice between the storehouse and the wall was too small. Yesterday, his brother had cried the whole day because he couldn't get the baseball that had rolled into the narrow crack. Even with his or his brother's small bodies, they couldn't fit anything in the crevice but their arms. That arm looked like it belonged to an adult, yet how were they able to fit into that space?

The forearm portion of the arm was swaying as if it were stirring water. He realized that the hand was beckoning to him, and then he took a step toward it. It was very strange that although his knees were numb from the cold, they didn't make any dry, rough sounds.

He didn't feel the least bit frightened, because he realized that the warm air was blowing from that direction. He was really very cold and he also didn't know what he should do, so he obediently walked over towards the arm.

The snow had already completely coated the ground, almost covering all of his little footprints, eventually leaving no trace of him. The white sky resembled faded ink, the color gradually changing.

The white of the short winter day gradually turned into the color of night.
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Chapter 1

1

Right when Hirose walked through the gates of the schoolyard, he saw a group of students in front of the entrance to the school, all wearing their monotone school uniforms and full of the clamor that one only finds at high schools. It might be better to say that this clamor had the particular feeling of a long vacation's end. The wind carried a faint indication of the sea, as well as the chirping of the cicadas.

The uniforms of the students were gray and white. Their bright sky gray ties had a certain refreshing feeling about them. Though from the students' standpoint, they might make the heat nearly unbearable. Some of the students who had loosened their collars for the sake of keeping cooler, were caught by a teacher standing beside the gate and lectured at.

Seeing this, Hirose couldn't help but smile, but then realized that his collar was slack as well. He hurriedly clamped his briefcase under his arm and retied his necktie. A sliver of a wry smile came to his face.

When he had attended this high school, their uniforms didn't have ties. They weren't used until the second year after he had graduated. They'd originally worn a stuffy open-necked shirt with black students' trousers as their summer uniform, before it changed into the present look. That style was more suited for the serious teachers. The fact that he was now one of those serious teachers--or rather that he was training to be a teacher--was a bit funny.

He entered the school through the faculty entrance with the other teachers. Passing some familiar faces, he greeted them with nods as he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a sketch of the school to verify the layout of the building. He looked around for the special classroom.

- - - - -

Hirose had graduated from this private high school over three years ago. According to the hensachi, this was a high-class boy's school. That, in addition to its long history, was why it was considered a prestigious school. Besides the fact that a high percentage of its graduating students were admitted to famous universities, there was little else worth mentioning. Though it wasn't a particularly interesting high school, it wasn't one that was particularly disliked either.

This school had only a high school division, which was a bit unusual compared to other prestigious schools of this sort, and there were only six classes in each grade. Also, each class was made up of only about 40 students. It could be considered a relatively small school compared to other city schools. When Hirose attended this school, it had been an ancient brick building in the center of the city. However, because of recent trends, the school had already moved outside of the city. This had happened the year after Hirose had graduated three years ago.

It wasn't until he began to make arrangements to train as a teacher that Hirose had stepped foot in his alma mater for the first time since graduation. Though had he actually wanted to return, he could have done so at any time. But for some reason or another, he had felt a bit nervous.

When he had gone to school here, this place was his own territory. This was where his life had happened. This was a place that was very nearly an extension of his home. However, once he graduated, it became someone else's place. He had become an outsider, an invader. Not to mention that in Hirose's situation, the entire school had moved after his graduation, and the uniforms had changed completely. For him now, there wasn't much of a difference between his alma mater and a school that was completely new to him.

He had previously seen the new school mid-construction. It was close to the sea and all around there was barren land extending into the distance. In the midst of this, it had the backdrop of a calm sea, and a group of buildings were rising up which looked like some sort of pavilion. A wide road passed straight through the center of the flat earth, and more and more large apartment complexes were being built in the vicinity of the school. He still remembered that when those buildings and the school were in the middle of construction, they created a curious shape. It seemed to him like a tanker or an aircraft carrier was floating on the surface of the water.

And now, construction on the apartment buildings had been completed, and houses had been erected and arranged closely on the once-bare farmland. It all formed a large scale new town. The route of the private railway had also been extended, and there was an expanding bustling street in front of the brand-new train station. However, to Hirose it was still an unfamiliar area.

Absolutely nothing here fit in with the sentimental feelings he had attached to the words "alma mater." There were no brick buildings to speak of, nor were there trees on the grounds filled with even more of a gloomy feeling than the school building. Even applying the word "history" to describe it seemed a bit too trite, and using the word "tradition" seemed a little too improper and didn't carry with it any meaning.

The school was extremely large and bright. The trees that stood between the school buildings created weak shadows. The lawn that was designed in geometric shapes within the grounds radiated a dense green hue, but because it had been managed too cleanly, it was instead missing the impression of thriving vegetation. The trees lining the sides of the walkway from the main gate to the courtyard should be cherry trees. From looking at the thickness of their trunks, they were probably moved here from the old school in the city, but after being planted at regular intervals and deliberately pruned, the feeling he received was completely different from what it had been.

Of course, he didn't feel any strong emotions from returning to his alma mater, but instead a yearning for something he used to depend on and was now lost floated into his heart. For some reason, he felt like he could rely on no one. That feeling was very like the particular one Hirose always felt when he was depressed--like the sentiment of having lost one's homeland.

2

Hirose's supervising teacher was a science teacher named Gotou. Because it was a private school, the teachers seldom left. Teachers like Hirose who came in the middle of school terms were now mostly chosen from the teaching school within the school.

Gotou was a chemistry teacher and had been Hirose's homeroom teacher when he was attending his first year. Hirose had received a lot of his assistance and was heavily influenced by him.

Hirose quite liked Gotou, and Gotou felt much the same way. Unless it was completely necessary, Gotou never went back to the faculty office. He had made his own dwelling in the chemistry preparation room, and Hirose had spent three years in there as well. Due to this, Hirose had a particular familiarity with chemistry, and thus, his grades in chemistry had also been a bit higher. Because of this, he had joined the science department in college. However, he didn't want to become a researcher, nor did he want to become an ordinary salaryman, so he had decided to become a teacher. Perhaps it's not completely due to the fact that he saw in Gotou a teacher's ideal which sparked something within him, but it wouldn't be too much to say that everything he did was somehow influenced by Gotou.

- - - - -

The special classrooms had been put together and separated into an area of their own called the special classroom section. When he had come before in August to receive guidance, he had been instructed on this day to go to the chemistry prep room right after he arrived at school, but he had no idea where the chemistry prep room was located. He looked about as he walked, referring back to the sketch. The special classroom building that was completely unfamiliar and quiet gave it a feeling of isolation. He found the chemistry lab at the end of the third floor and the chemistry prep room was right beside it.

Hirose lightly knocked on the door of the prep room. A hoarse voice immediately responded from inside.

"Oh."

"Excuse me," said Hirose as he opened the door. Suddenly the smell of oil carried on the cool air from the air conditioner rushed at him. It was the smell of turpentine that was inseparable from the chemistry prep room.

"Hello. Well, don't you look completely like an adult now?" Gotou was smiling teasingly as he stood in front of an easel by the window of the not particularly spacious prep room. Gotou painted purely out of individual interest. Though he was an amateur, he could paint like a professional, and he also had the duty of the art teacher of the required art club. He was not currently painting, but looking at a work he had completed.

There was a cabinet placed on one of the walls. Across from there, three tables had been set tightly together against the other wall. Brush cleaners, painting supplies and a palette were scattered on one of the tables next to the easel. On the other two tables there were what looked like teaching materials, but they were in a mess just the same. The lab instruments and canvases that were strewn about the floor and the periodic table and memos posted on the wall made everything very disorderly, and the impression of the prep room that Hirose used to frequent could be superimposed very closely onto this one.

Hirose looked at Gotou's face, which had not changed at all, and finally smiled. At last he had the feeling that he had come home.

"It's been a long time," said Hirose, and Gotou immediately laughed. They had met in August when he was undergoing guidance, so it hadn't been very long since they saw each other, but when he saw Gotou in the prep room, Hirose felt a kind of feeling that he hadn't seen his teacher in a while which was hard to express.

"All of a sudden you've become an adult and reached the age of wearing ties."

"Fortunately." After exchanging greetings, Gotou pointed at the first desk from the door.

"Just use Tanno sensei's desk." The only ones teaching chemistry were Gotou and Tanno. Tanno was a gentle, elderly teacher who respectfully could not stand the smell of turpentine and very rarely came to the prep room. Of course, Gotou's personal effects were placed on top of Tanno's desk. Even this was a habit that he had had when Hirose was still in school, and Hirose remembered it fondly.

"Doesn't look like you're going to be late, eh?"

"Well, people grow." After Hirose said this, Gotou laughed loudly.

Hirose's parents changed jobs in the winter of his second year in high school. At the time, there was no way for him to apply for a transfer, so Hirose stayed behind by himself and rented out a house. He then attended a local college, so the result was that he had stayed where he was born and raised up until now.

Once he had started living on his own, no one was around to make him go to school, so there were many instances when he was late. He had been reprimanded as irresponsible by his third-year homeroom teacher after he had been tardy for an entire month straight. After he was lectured, his absences increased even more. In short, it seemed that he didn't like going to school.

In reality, Hirose had not been the kind of kid who could fit into the school environment. He had never been very close to anyone in his grade, and he wasn't good at reaching an understanding with the teachers. It wasn't that he hated studying, but having to be imprisoned within the enclosed school together with other people for a long several hours was unbearably hard on him. When he had lived with his parents, it was bothersome arguing with them, so he dutifully went to school. However when he was living on his own, it was like his bindings had been undone and he gradually started skipping classes. Though it never became so serious as to the point that he refused to go to school, it might also be going too far to say that it was purely out of laziness.

After many quarrels and discussions, Hirose did not improve at all and simply caused his homeroom teacher to be at his wit's end. In the end, his homeroom teacher could only grumble to Gotou, who had a good relationship with Hirose.

"People are like kusaya," Gotou had said. "When you're not used to it, you think it's smelly and it makes you sick. But once you do get used to it, you can really enjoy its great flavor. If you think it's too smelly and throw it away, then you'll never be able to eat it."

In response to Gotou's words, Hirose had responded then that he would never eat it. In reality, that was when Hirose had seriously pondered going into the mountains, building a hut, and living in seclusion as his alternate plan. Though he felt this way, he was still at least a little bit influenced by Gotou's words. Afterwards, Hirose was gradually able to open-mindedly deal with other people. These sorts of situations were common in the third year of high school.

In short, Hirose had been considered a difficult student, but all Gotou did was patiently listen to Hirose's complaints. All the other teachers knew of this situation and because of it, they tacitly allowed Hirose to rely on Gotou day and night. When he thought about it now, Hirose felt that he must have been a lot of trouble for Gotou.

"Well then, why don't we go to the faculty office?" Gotou wiped his hands on the towel at his waist. That movement was a habit of his when his frame of mind changed.

"All right." Hirose nodded, set his briefcase on the desk, and walked behind Gotou, who had a calm expression on his face.

What was strange was that Hirose didn't have any feelings of alienation. In the end, he felt as if there was clearly no particular reason for Gotou to purposely ask him to come to the prep room, though perhaps the purpose had been to make this process a bit easier for Hirose.

3

Hirose went to the faculty office for a meeting and then attended the opening ceremonies. The student teachers this year numbered less than ten, and Hirose was the only student teacher in science. All of the eight people had been classmates of Hirose, but he didn't really remember any of them.

Hirose was not born with a social personality that allowed him to make a lot of friends. He didn't have an interest in bringing his impressions of yesterday's television shows to school the next day to talk over. Outside of school, he had even less of an interest in exchanging opinions on students and teachers with other people. He knew that if he wanted to improve his interactions with people, he'd have to endure this phase, but for Hirose the high schooler, he didn't have the desire to take on this challenge. He didn't ever think that living alone was a hardship, and he wasn't afraid of isolation. There were many classmates with whom he had never spoken to by the end of school. He spoke a bit with a few of the other students who had spent a lot of time in the prep room, but his relationship with them wasn't so good that he would arrange to meet up with them outside of school. Thus, if one was forced to say whom he had been friends with in high school, there was probably only Gotou.

When Hirose was called up by the headmaster for his introduction in front of the students who were sitting in neat rows, he couldn't stop thinking about this.

- - - - -

After the opening ceremony ended, Gotou went to the homeroom of the class under his guidance, and Hirose followed behind.

Gotou was currently advising class six of the second year.

"My responsibility is sixteen hours a week, four second-year Chemistry classes and two first-year Science I classes. Other than that, I also have homeroom and mandatory clubs. Right now, I'm going to entrust them all to you."

"Entrust?"

"I'll go through the whole process once so that you can see how to proceed. Later on, it'll be entirely up to you. I'll watch over you kindly from the side."

"Are you just going to watch?"

"Of course I'm just going to watch." Gotou smiled.

Hirose could only murmur his response, "Yes, yes."

"All right, everyone here?" Gotou surveyed the classroom from the podium and started the class with an opening speech. Hirose stood in front of the schedule posted beside the podium and endured the students' gazes that made him a bit uncomfortable. Some of the looks were full of curiosity, while others were those of avoidance. He knew that the attention and the curiosity of the students were all directed at him.

In a hoarse voice, Gotou went over key points that the students should know. His clear enunciation and his easy-to-understand, modulating tone made Hirose nostalgic.

Gotou's topic extended to the plans for the athletics festival to be held in ten days, and therefore all the students' attention was directed at the podium. It wasn't easy to shake off the hold of their gazes, so Hirose quietly breathed a sigh of relief.

"Some things should be addressed over in the student council, so without going too far, you may act as you wish." These words seemed to be Gotou's favorite thing to say. "You can do whatever you want, but I won't be accountable for it. Go ahead and do anything that you feel like you can be responsible for."

Hirose cracked a smile and looked from Gotou to the students. The students all had different reactions. From Hirose's point of view, Gotou was a good teacher, but this didn't imply that all of his classmates had felt that he was a good teacher. Some people thought he was mean, and some didn't like that he acted as if he understood other people. There were even some who had taken Gotou's words at face value and regarded him as an irresponsible person. Seeing all the different expressions on the students' faces gave Hirose this impression.

Hirose looked around the room and smiled wryly. It was a class of forty kids, all similar ages. In a school setting, this was completely normal, but once you left this environment, there was no scene stranger than this, a group of people of the same age, in the same dress, and having the same expression. They all had the faces of honor students, and it made Hirose think of a neatly arranged carton of eggs.

Hirose thought this as he looked about the classroom, and then his line of sight suddenly stopped.

There was a student sitting in the back of the classroom that caught his eye. Hirose stared at him for just a little bit longer than a moment, but he didn't know why.

He did not have a distinctive appearance. He was neither particularly ugly, nor particularly clear. He was not looking somewhere else, and he didn't have any expression on his face. He was just like the other students, looking blankly at the podium where Gotou was standing. To the contrary, it was obvious that he was just not alike the students around him. If you had asked what was different, Hirose could not have said, but he was certain there was something different about him.

If he was forced to say, he would probably say that it was the air about him that was different. Hirose felt like the atmosphere that surrounded the student, the feeling that he gave out, and other such things were the greatest differences between him and the others.

This was a strange guy, Hirose thought to himself just as he heard Gotou calling him. Gotou waved at him, and he quickly put his thoughts away as he walked over.

- - - - -

Gotou said that the time of year when everyone could pass their days happily had come again, and then he introduced Hirose to the students.

"This is student teacher Hirose. You should treat him with the appropriate kindness." As soon as Gotou said this, there were some sounds of dry laughter scattered throughout the classroom. Gotou gave the attendance record to Hirose.

"Call roll, give this handout to them and you're done. I'm going to go take a nap," said Gotou as he pointed to the handouts on top of the podium. Hirose nodded. Gotou chuckled softly as he left the classroom. It looked as if he didn't want to watch Hirose in action for the first time.

"I am Hirose. Pleased to meet you." After he greeted them, Hirose followed Gotou's instruction and passed out the handout. He divided the handouts approximately and gave them to the students sitting in the very front and watched them send the papers back. At the same time, he looked at the faces of the students. His line of sight still unexpectedly stopped on 'him.'

'He' took a handout from the stack handed to him from the students in front of him and sent the remainder to the person sitting behind him. He made no sound and it looked as if the air around him was completely static.

If 'he' had been both really weak and a skinny person, perhaps Hirose would not have paid special attention to his presence. To the contrary, 'his' behavior was completely opposite to his lively appearance. Perhaps it was the impression his upright waist gave. 'His' outward appearance completely expressed the openhearted and healthy atmosphere that only growing people had. However, when 'he' moved, he didn't make any sounds, nor did he convey any mood. At least it seemed from his appearance that one would expect him to have the untroubled behavior of a young man, but 'he' entirely lacked this. It was this sort of extreme discrepancy that caught Hirose's eye.

As he received the extra handouts, he thought, what an interesting guy.

When Hirose took attendance, 'he' responded with an extremely tranquil tone when "Takasato" was read. Because the voice of a young person was originally lively, it gave Hirose even more of an impression that this voice was a bit monotonous.

"So, it can be read 'Takasato'?" Hirose casually asked for confirmation because he wanted to hear 'him' speak again. However, he replied very simply with a "yes."

4

When Hirose returned to the chemistry prep room, Gotou was pouring coffee into a beaker. As he was passing the attendance record over, Gotou pointed at his desk and took out another beaker from the cabinet. Hirose placed the attendance record on Gotou's desk and opened the bookshelf to take out a jar that had been placed inside along with the mess of teaching materials. He knew that one of them contained sugar, and another contained creamer.

"You still remember?"

"How could I forget?" replied Hirose, and Gotou laughed. The clear jar with a label stuck to it on which nothing was written was the sugar, while the brown jar was the creamer. For a person like Hirose who had previously hidden in the chemistry prep room all the time, he could not be any more familiar with these things. Hirose put the jar and the medicine spoon on the table, and Gotou handed over the beaker. Hirose took out his handkerchief to hold on to the beaker. Without it, a beaker filled with hot water would naturally burn one's hand. If one wanted to enjoy tea in the chemistry prep room, a handkerchief was indispensable.

"This brings back memories."

"Sure does!" Gotou said this in a very satisfied manner, which Hirose found funny.

"Have students been coming here lately?"

"Nobody spending day and night here like you did, though some people come here during their lunch break and do what they like doing."

Hirose couldn't help but smile. "Do they cook ramen in beakers and make popsicles in test tubes?"

"It's just as you say," laughed Gotou. "Well, that sort of person will always be here, but you're the first in history to have come back as a student teacher."

Hirose laughed softly. When he was still in school, there were others who spent their days in the prep room, but most of them were just like him. After graduation, they chose diverse paths in life--from researchers to doctors, and even some actors and activists--but none of them chose to become a teacher.

"How's it feel to imitate a teacher?"

"It's hard to describe in words."

"I'm thinking there probably isn't much interesting about that class."

Hirose hung his head and cracked a smile, and then suddenly remembered. "There's a kid who doesn't seem quite like the others."

"Ah," replied Gotou. "So you've notice as well. Is it Takasato?"

Hirose nodded and Gotou smiled. "Your ability to pick out people who aren't like others is quite good. When I saw Takasato, I thought that this guy is a lot like Hirose."

"His type is a bit different, isn't it?" asked Hirose. Gotou looked up at the ceiling.

"There is a difference, because you had a nervous look to you. But he's conspicuous all the same, don't you think?"

"Was I that noticeable?"

"Of course you were. You and Takasato both stand out."

"Perhaps you could call it an eyesore." Hearing this, Gotou smiled again.

"That kid is in the art club too. --The pictures he does all have a rather profound effect. He's a strange fellow."

"Oh?"

"When I say that he's strange, I'm saying he's several times stranger than you. On the contrary, you were much easier to grasp." Gotou's expression had somewhat of a deep color that was hard to describe. "You and I both don't really belong in the same category as regular people, so it was very easy for me to hold on to you. But Takasato's just not the same."

"Isn't Takasato also outside the category of regular people?"

"But not in the same way. You and I are different from other people by our own choosing, but there's no way for Takasato to blend in. It's because his nature is completely different from that of other people, so we can tell that he's unlike an ordinary person. That's how he is different."

"You've been observing him quite closely, haven't you?"

"Yep," said Gotou with a crooked smile. "The atmosphere around him is completely different from the other students, right?"

"It is different."

"Rather than saying he's strange, I think we should say that he's a different sort of person." There could be a little bit of worry heard hidden in Gotou's tone.

"Is there a problem?"

"There's no problem. Takasato differs from you. He's a good kid, but not only does he have a good head on him, he also has a cooperative personality."

"I was a lot of trouble for you then."

The polite and proper way this was said made Gotou laugh. "He's like the eye of a typhoon. He himself is very peaceful, but everything around him is chaotic. You'll know very soon. Though this class isn't very interesting, you can't manage them with ordinary methods."

"Why?"

"Because Takasato's there." Gotou got up after he said this. He pulled open the curtain and let the sunshine fill the entire room. He wiped his hands off on the towel at his waist and then stood in front of his easel.

The view of the campus was in the process of being completed on the size-ten canvas. It looked like one part of the campus scene was being painted with a strangely bright color. A few students that looked like monsters or fairies wearing school uniforms were also painted on it. There were people hidden behind trees with old-seeming expressions on their faces, others on a bench who looked like toads, and some making wild poses while looking at them. At first glance, it had a dark feeling to it, but after a closer look, one could sense a humorous tone and warmth to it that was hard to explain.

The first time he saw something that Gotou had painted, Hirose was really surprised, but he immediately felt like it was a work full of Gotou's style. Gotou normally painted the scenery of the school, but it was rare for people to appear in his paintings. Hirose knew that once, Gotou had signed a picture, "Conference," wherein strangely-dressed animals were gathered in the faculty room drinking it up, but as a result, it caused the headmaster to have a few words with him.

It wasn't necessarily because of Gotou's nudging, but Hirose had also chosen the art club as his mandatory extracurricular. Perhaps he just liked the feeling of closing himself off that came with facing a canvas. He had previously wanted to paint something like those that Gotou had done, but in the end he simply came to the cruel realization that he wasn't very good at painting at all.

Seeing Gotou starting to look over his unfinished painting, Hirose quietly sat down in front of the desk and opened up his training journal.

- - - - -

The following day was the beginning of regular classes. Hirose followed Gotou everywhere, and by that afternoon, he was standing at the podium covered in sweat. The training period was a very short two weeks, or more properly said, it was twelve days. Hirose enthusiastically threw himself into his work, and at the end of the two days that added up to a sixth of his training period, the floating atmosphere that preceded the athletics festival began to permeate the school.

* *

The white flowers were in full bloom.

His entire field of vision was taken up by a large plain. The sky unfolded like a sphere that had been cut in half. The field was like an endless disc. He had never seen one so wide that it extended all the way to the horizon.

He looked around. The field formed a complete circle of 360 degrees. The green extended out flatly without the slightest variation.

"Amazing."

He said this to himself, and it wasn't until then that he realized he didn't even know what this place was. What is this place? He felt like there wasn't anything like this around his house or surrounding his elementary school, and not even on the road to school that was now so hard to recall.

Then he lifted his head. The sky was a complex arrangement of colors. It was the first time he had seen a sky of this color.

Most of the sky was light blue. It looked a little bit lighter than the sky ordinarily was, or perhaps it was because it was covered in a thin layer of cirrus clouds. In the middle of the light blue, there was a gradation of pink and light green.

He looked absent-mindedly up at the sky. In his mind he thought, the next time I color the sky, I'm not going to use blue, but try using light blue instead. As the cirrus clouds slowly drifted about, the color of the sky began to shift like the aurora.

After watching the sky for a while, he looked around once more and talked to himself again.

--But try not to forget the moon.

A moon, pale and white as a full moon in the morning, climbed up into the sky of incredible colors. Around the moon, he could see dim, white stars. He followed the shapes of the constellations and saw a second moon.

He subconsciously widened his eyes.

--It looks like there's more than one moon.

After counting carefully, he saw that there were a total of six moons floating about, each with a different shape and size. The sun could not be seen anywhere.

This was unimaginable to him and he stared up into the sky for a long moment. The air wasn't cold, nor was it hot, and the wind blew gently towards him, carrying along with it a slight fragrance. It was the scent of flowers with the smell of grass.

He took a deep breath, and then turned toward the ground. The soft, down-like green spread across the flat earth. The grass reached up to his knees. Its stalks stretched straight out from in between its thin leaves and a few claw-like flowers were attached to the top. From up close, the flowers were sparse, but from a distance, it looked like a haze of white.

Whoosh, a slightly strong wind began to blow. The grass and the white flowers swayed together in the wind. When the small flowers bumped into each other, it made a clear sound like that of glass touching glass. The soft grass tickled his legs.

And then he became aware. It wasn't a field at all, but a marshland. His small legs were in the transparent water just up to the middle of his shins. He had never seen water this still before, and he even questioned whether or not it was possible for water to be like this, completely without ripples or flow. The most incredible thing was that his legs didn't feel wet at all. He tried lifting his leg to see what would happen. The water droplets were like shattered crystals and glistened as they fell. Not even a little moisture remained on his skin.

The bottom of the water was blanketed with gray stones. No wonder the ground was flat. The big square rocks had been arranged neatly and were covered up to their tops with water. The thin but apparent green stalks grew out from in between the stones. Small fish came swimming and flipping out from the dark places of the clustered bunches of grass into the light.

He cheerfully let out some sounds of joy. He thrust his hands into the water, planning to pull some fish out. Under the pursuit of his small hands, the fish didn't fearfully dart away, and not only that, they even actively swam near his fingers. Whenever he moved his fingers, they would come closer.

--What in the world is this place?

He used both of his hands to draw out water with fish in it and then looked around. He began to understand that this sort of place was impossible. Water dripped through the cracks between his fingers, and when the fish slipped through his fingers with the falling water, they tickled him slightly.

--What a beautiful place.

He nodded his head meaninglessly. He looked around once again and then began splashing his way forward. With every step he took, the flowers would continuously sway, producing a crisp clinking sound around his legs.

Afterwards, he didn't know quite how long he had been walking for, but he felt simply like he had walked quite a distance. No matter how long he did walk, he didn't feel the least bit tired. It continued endlessly, and he didn't get tired of the views of the countless and familiar flowers that revealed themselves no matter how many times he looked at them. He was very content and kept walking, carrying with him a happy mood. From time to time, small birds would fly from a place unknown to him and come to perch upon his head or his shoulders. After playing about for a bit, they would fly away again.

Following the flight of the birds with his eyes, he discovered that in front of him the field ended at a distance. The white flowers broke off to the side, and he could barely see a portion of blue-green. It seemed as if there was a river flowing through here.

He walked towards the river. However, he walked and walked and was simply unable to walk closer to the river, just as though he were chasing drifting water, never being able to catch up to it. He played with the little fish and the small birds as he walked for quite a long time, finally arriving at the river.

Though it had looked like a narrow river, it was actually a big one. The other side appeared to be so far, and the river bottom couldn't be seen. The stone-covered ground stopped abruptly. Other than the deep green water, he couldn't see anything else in front of him. He looked closely, but the color of the water appeared to be just as deep and solid everywhere, as if there were no areas that were shallower than others. He was clear on the fact that the bottom of the river probably didn't rise and fall either.

He walked to the green at the edge of the deep and wide river, and then he didn't go any further. He didn't know how to swim yet. Though it didn't look to have any current, he didn't think he could cross such a broad span of the river.

He looked around disappointedly. Something in the distance appeared to give off light. After a closer look, A bridge had been positioned upriver (or downriver) in a distant part of the winding waterway.

This bridge was translucent, as if it had been built out of glass or something like it. He cracked a smile and walked forward along the edge of the river, towards the bridge in the distance that he could only faintly see.
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Chapter 2

1

It was the third day. Three hours of classes had ended, and he had finished writing in his training journal. He was just about to go home when students from 2-6 came looking for Gotou. They said that when they were organizing square planks in preparation for the athletics festival, they had accidentally broken a window. He rushed over to the area behind the gym where students were busily carrying on their work and sorted everything out according to Gotou's instruction. The students that had stayed after school to prepare for the athletics festival had gradually gathered in a crowd. If there were students in his class that stayed after school, Gotou had to stay after as well. And if Gotou stayed behind, it was natural that Hirose not leave either.

While thinking about these things, Hirose contacted the faculty member in charge and was walking in the hall on his way back to the prep room when he saw someone in the 2-6 classroom. No one had put in a request to stay in the classroom after school today, so he looked into the classroom apprehensively and discovered that the person inside was none other than Takasato.

Hirose couldn't tell what he was doing in there, nor could he see if he was thinking about something or just staring off into space. He could only make out that he was sitting in his own seat with his hands together and placed lightly upon the desk, looking in the direction of the window. His only feeling was that he was simply there.

"What's the matter? You're still here?" asked Hirose as he stood in the wide doorway of the classroom. Takasato suddenly turned his head and then quietly nodded.

"Yes."

"Working on the preparations?" Hirose subconsciously wanted to find other things to talk to him about, and so he asked this as he walked into the classroom.

Takasato looked directly back at Hirose's face.

"No."

It was at that time that Hirose sensed something zipping by Takasato's feet. He stopped walking and chased with his eyes the shadow that crossed his vision. The speed of the shadow was quicker than his eyes and slipped out of sight. It had happened in an instant and Hirose hadn't really gotten a good look, but he felt like that thing looked like an animal. A stunned Hirose looked in the direction the shadow had darted, but of course he didn't see anything.

Did you just see that? he wanted to ask as he looked straight back at Takasato. There was no color to Takasato's gaze. Hirose suddenly felt awkward and could only shift his line of sight to a corner of the classroom. The dry summer air had settled in the empty classroom.

Hirose smirked and then looked over again at Takasato, who was also looking back at Hirose. "Staying behind to catch up on work?"

"No."

"Then, are you feeling unwell?" asked Hirose as he leaned in, but Takasato simply looked up at Hirose and shook his head.

"No."

Takasato's responses were always short like that. Hirose looked at the face that looked back at him. Takasato's face didn't have any expression; it was peaceful like that of someone who was fully awake.

"You're Takasato, right?" Hirose reconfirmed the name that he already kept firmly in his mind. Takasato merely nodded.

"Aren't you participating in any after school clubs?"

"No."

"Why is that?" Hirose thought about how it would be possible for Takasato to respond with a little bit more and so he asked this. Takasato tilted his head slightly and replied in a voice calm beyond his years.

"Because I don't have an interest in joining any clubs."

Though Takasato had said more, the incongruous feeling he gave off still didn't change. Takasato was not giving Hirose the cold shoulder, but it didn't seem like he was welcoming Hirose either. It was simply because Hirose had talked to him that he respectfully responded. There was merely this feeling.

"What are you doing then? Ah, I'm not interrogating you. I'm only curious."

Takasato tilted his head a little and replied, "I'm looking outside."

"Just looking? Aren't you thinking about anything?"

"No."

What a strange guy. Hirose didn't think he'd see anything interesting, but he still looked out the window. Because of the angle, Hirose could only see half of the gym's roof from where he was, and the horizon above it, which looked like a table made out of blue glass. Perhaps the only thing that Takasato could see from where he was sitting was the sky.

"Only the sky is visible."

"Yes."

Takasato turned his head toward the window as well. From the angle of his gaze, he appeared to be looking at the sky. The weather outside was good and though it was September, one could still not see the day growing darker. The cloudless and cold blue background of the sky extended without end.

"I don't see what's so interesting about this view." It was obvious from Hirose's tone that he was puzzled, but Takasato didn't particularly respond. The corners of his mouth simply rose slightly and revealed a faint smile.

For some reason, Hirose felt uneasy, but he was unwilling to turn around and escape from the classroom, so he asked Takasato a few meaningless questions. What competitions was he going to participate in during the athletics festival? Did he like exercise? Was school enjoyable? What was his best subject? Who was his first-year homeroom teacher? What junior high had he attended? Who made up the members of his family?

Takasato looked at Hirose's eyes and answered each question plainly. He had not decided to participate in any competitions; he neither liked nor disliked exercise; he did not think that school was especially boring; he didn't have a subject in which he excelled, etc. He always replied to Hirose's questions with the shortest and simplest answers.

He wouldn't offer anything that he wasn't asked, and he didn't ask Hirose any questions of his own. Whenever he was asked something, he would respond, but if no questions were asked, he said nothing. Though he didn't appear to be bothered by Hirose, he wasn't actively seeking to have a conversation either.

"This might be a little blunt, but I think you're a bit unusual. Has anyone told you that before?"

Hirose knew that this question was somewhat rude, but he couldn't help but ask. As a result, he received a short and simple "yes" from Takasato, which carried with it not even a sliver of emotion.

"That's what I thought," smiled Hirose. Takasato cracked a faint smile as well. His expression was like the insincere smile that adults of experienced used to be polite. Takasato didn't give people a crude impression, so he didn't make people feel discomfort, but there was still no way to get rid of that certain feeling of unease. As for his attitude and voice, which were both very calm, it's better to say that they gave people an impression of experience, than to say that they carried with them the sense of maturity that was well past his age. Also, that feeling really didn't match up well with his actual youthful appearance. This inconsistency was in every one of his movements and in everything he said, and it extremely puzzled Hirose.

Hirose personally grasped the strange quality that Gotou had talked about. It might be better to say that Takasato was "strange" than to call him "unusual." There was nothing about him that made others unhappy, so it seemed like "having strange quality" was the only appropriate way to describe him. He couldn't tell what Takasato was thinking about, but he could tell that he didn't have any warped thoughts going through his head.

"Am I bothering you? Please excuse me."

Hirose said this, and that smiling face replied, "Not at all."

2

"Takasato's really unusual," said Hirose when he was in the chemistry prep room during the lunch break on the following day. Gotou had gone out for lunch.

There were four students next to him. Hirose figured that no matter if it was the present or the past, there were always going to be those who made the prep room their home base. Either because they felt that there was too much of something or not enough, their whereabouts could not be found in the classroom. Except when Hirose was attending school, all the students who had gathered together in the prep room were unparalleled. Compared with those who came before, the students who were surrounding him now eating lunch, gave him the feeling that they did not size up very well.

"We're aware that Takasato is really unusual." The student who said this with a tone of wonder while turning his head upwards, was called Tsuiki. Like Takasato, he was a student in 2-6, and it seemed as if it wasn't until this year that he began hanging out in the prep room.

"I know. I talked to him yesterday."

There was nowhere else as suited to eating lunch as the prep room. Not only was the natural lighting good, but the air conditioning was also on in the summertime. Gotou would also generously treat everyone to tea. It's just that he served it in beakers.

"At a glance, he seems like a really gentle guy, right?" said Tsuiki a bit sarcastically.

"Are you saying that he's not actually gentle?"

"Well, maybe." This was said with the slightest bit of dissatisfaction. Or was there another way of looking at it? A student named Iwaki looked at Tsuiki's face.

"What?"

"Nothing."

At Tsuiki's blunt refusal, Iwaki looked very obviously disappointed. He was a second-year student as well. He was in class 2-5, but he took his electives with class 2-6.

"What? Do you hate Takasato?"

"It's nothing."

"What is it? Just say it!" Iwaki refused to let it go, and Tsuiki turned away in an attempt not to answer this question. The first-year Nozue and the third-year Hashigami looked on with high interest.

"Is it just that he's a gloomy person? That the first impression he gives people is bad. Or did that guy secretly do something?" asked Iwaki.

Tsuiki blurted out, "Anyways, he's just weird."

His tone was strangely anxious, and everyone had hesitant expressions on their faces.

"How is he weird?" Hashigami continued to ask, and Tsuiki looked even further down while he muttered in a resolute tone.

"Because that guy's a bit different from other people."

Hirose heard something in Tsuiki's tone that made him think. He tilted his head and asked, "Is Takasato disliked?"

Hearing this, Tsuiki looked a little distressed.

"I don't think anyone likes him." After saying this, he looked at Hirose. "It's best not to have anything to do with him."

"Why?"

Tsuiki didn't answer.

"Does he have some sort of problem?"

"--Anyways, he's just different."

Iwaki let out an exaggerated sigh.

"He just doesn't talk much. Is bullying still going on these days?" asked Iwaki mockingly. Hearing this, Tsuiki looked down again. After he was at a loss for a moment, he spoke in a meaningfully quiet voice.

"Don't tell anyone I told you this," he warned those around him. "Takasato's experienced kamikakushi."

In that moment, Hirose thought, what written characters go with "kamikakushi"? After a little bit of thinking, he finally thought of them, "spiriting away," and he couldn't help but open his mouth widely. [note: this part doesn't quite work in english. after hearing tsuiki say "kamikakushi," hirose was at a loss initially as to how to write it, and therefore what it meant. after he figured it out, he realized that it meant "spiriting away."]

"A spiriting away? You mean one day he just vanished suddenly?"

Tsuiki nodded. "I think it happened when Takasato was in elementary school. He really did just suddenly disappear one day, and then he suddenly came back one year later. Where he was or what he did during that time, absolutely no one knows."

"What does Takasato say about it?"

"He doesn't seem to remember anything about it."

"Seriously?"

Hashigami leaned forward curiously. "Are you sure that it wasn't just a kidnapping? It was really a spiriting away?"

"I guess. That's why Takasato had to do a year of school over."

"That's ridiculous," said Hashigami derisively. "So what? It's just hearsay."

Tsuiki glared at Hashigami. "It's real! Because this story's really well-known. Anyways, that's why Takasato's so weird."

Hirose was really puzzled. This area had been developed quickly within a few years, but he had heard that Tsuiki and Takasato had lived around here since before the development push started. The so-called "well-known story" didn't represent a "well-known school story," but a "well-known local story" instead. It made sense up to this point, but to speak of "spiriting away"...

"That's nonsense." Iwaki's words ended this conversation, but the phrase "spiriting away" was stuck deep in Hirose's mind. Hirose essentially had no interest in mysticism or paranormal phenomena, but that didn't mean that he rejected it all. Not to mention that when it came to Takasato, it was very hard for him to treat this subject like idle talk as Iwaki had done.

3

The fifth period immediately afterwards was the mandatory club. Hirose and Gotou, who had returned from lunch, proceeded together to the art room, where most of the students had already arrived.

Though it was called a mandatory club, in reality it wasn't all that different from an art club. After Yoneda the art teacher perfunctorily took roll, the students left the art classroom in twos and threes. Hirose knew from his own previous experience that though the students all carried their sketchbooks under their arms when they left, most of them either went to the library or an empty classroom to study, or they went somewhere else to have fun. The teachers gave their silent consent to that sort of thing as well, and the students knew about such a thing, thus the cultural clubs were all ordinarily those that the most students signed up for. Of course, among the students there were also those who really liked to paint and remained in the art classroom. These students started on their work as Gotou and Yoneda had a leisurely conversation over to the side.

Takasato was one of the students who remained. He opened up his easel and set it in a corner of the classroom, and then took a canvas out of the communal locker.

"Is he going to do an oil painting?" guessed Hirose quizzically. Perhaps it was because the atmosphere that he had about him was associated with watercolors. Using movements that revealed familiarity, Takasato took a box of paints out of the locker and opened it. Hirose walked towards him silently.

After he walked to a place where he could see the canvas, he greeted Takasato. Hearing Hirose's voice, Takasato looked back and, after recognizing that it was Hirose, he nodded a little bit. His face was like that from the day before, revealing a smiling expression. Hirose raised his hand and waved it, and then looked over to Takasato's canvas and watched closely as he painted for a while.

That painting was one that truly left a deep impression on people. For a long time this was how Hirose looked at Takasato and then looked at his painting.

"...It might be a bit impolite to ask about something like this..." Hirose didn't know quite how to say it, but he knew it wasn't possible for him not to ask. "What is that?"

On the canvas, the colors that appeared to have been applied without the least bit of order, were only pure colors. It seemed as though he could see some faint shapes, but it was just when he concentrated his sights to try to grasp onto a concrete form that he again felt the outlines were excessively murky, and he wasn't able to see any real shapes. The use of colors was very complex. Mostly, the colors that Takasato used were soft colors, but he felt that they were extremely opaque. It was hard for him to say that they were pretty colors. Regardless of if it was the colors or the blending of the colors, neither could be described as pretty, and also it looked like there wasn't a composition to be spoken of.

"Is it some sort of vista?" asked Hirose very confusedly, making Takasato widen his eyes a little bit.

"Yes." He softly squeezed out a smile. It looked almost as if it was a real smile.

"Where is it?" Hirose asked this in an interested manner, but Takasato shook his head.

"I don't remember."

"You don't remember, but you can still paint it?" asked Hirose rhetorically, in doubt. Takasato showed a focused expression as he nodded.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I was thinking, if I managed to paint it, would I be able to remember it then?"

"I see," replied Hirose. He was amazed at this strange sort of guy. Hirose left Takasato with several doubts in his gut. He suddenly remembered Tsuiki's words: He's experienced a spiriting away, and one year later, he didn't remember anything.

He turned back to look at Takasato. He really wanted to ask him: was that vista from when he had been spirited away? He immediately forced himself to keep his mouth shut, and got rid of such an idea. Without giving it a thorough consideration, he definitely couldn't ask something like that offhand. He couldn't just blindly believe what Tsuiki had said, and he also felt that if it was to be believed, then he would be even less able to rudely touch upon this question.

"What a peculiar guy," mumbled Hirose to himself.

If he had really underwent a spiriting away, then Takasato really didn't remember what happened to him within that span of time but hoped that he would be able recall it. It must be rather discomfiting for a person to have lost a block of their memory. Despite this, Takasato was still so positive about wanting to remember. This fact puzzled Hirose.

People are extremely sensitive living things. Tsuiki's tone was the most typical expression of this. Takasato had previously undergone the experience of spiriting away, so he was a bit strange. He was a bit different than them--so he wasn't able to create a good feeling in other people.

Even if a person deliberately hides their own likes and dislikes, the feelings will still be conveyed to other people. Hirose didn't suppose that Takasato wasn't able to pay attention to this. Did Takasato not want to wipe out the "spiriting away"? Had he never thought to wipe it clean from his own past experiences? Had he never thought about forgetting what had happened to him before? --Or, had there even been something like a "spiriting away" after all?

- - - - -

During the club, Takasato silently painted on his canvas. He would often stop, as he thought things over while he painted, and then he would also often use a knife to scrape off some colors. The only thing that Hirose could understand was that painting this painting--when he thought back on this later--was very important to Takasato.

4

On the fifth day, the fifth period on Friday was a long homeroom. Naturally, the topic was locked strictly on the athletics festival to be held just a week away. After various warnings were communicated to them simply, all there was to do was to stand at the side and watch as the class representative arranged the working preparations.

The students conversed about disparate topics while the meeting was going on. It was only because the teacher wasn't standing up at the podium that the classroom revealed itself to be much noisier than usual. Just about everyone had to decide the competitive events and the distribution of the prep work, but the entire process was not much different from a leisurely chat.

Hirose looked about the whole classroom while standing in the back. Takasato had not involved himself in the chatter. He had been completely isolated by the atmosphere of the classroom, just as if the air around him had been separated. No one sought to talk to him, and he didn't actively seek to talk with other people. He simply sat and watched as the others conferred. The attitude exhibited by the people around him was as if he wasn't there at all.

The collaborating seemed already to have a conclusion, and the competitions that all the students were taking part in were clearly set. Committee leader Gotanda counted the names in the competitions on the blackboard to reconfirm, and then he suddenly said, "Huh? We're short one person."

Hirose realized that the missing name was Takasato's, but he didn't say anything. Takasato likewise didn't say anything in particular. The student who sat at the front whispered into Gotanda's ear, and Gotanda became flustered as he looked at Takasato.

"Takasato, do you have an event that you prefer to be in?" Gotanda's voice sounded nervous. Takasato offered a short and simple, "no." Gotanda hesitantly looked from Takasato to the blackboard.

"All that's left is the 200-meter dash. Is that all right?"

Takasato nodded without an expression on his face. Gotanda relax with a sigh of relief.

Hirose watched everything develop as he tried to grasp the atmosphere of the classroom. Takasato was isolated, and all the students deliberately ignored his presence. What was really strange was that Hirose couldn't feel any spitefulness here. It looked as if no one excluded him because they held some sort of malice. They just purposefully avoided looking at Takasato. --This was the impression that Hirose got.

- - - - -

Afterwards, the students left the classroom for the prep work to which they had all been assigned. According to convention, the athletics festival divided first-years through third-years vertically to compete in three teams. Classes five and six of each year, which was traditionally called the Blue Army, were combined into one team. The fifth period on Friday was a long homeroom for the entire school, so first-year and third-year students began to frequent the classroom.

Gotou yawned as he went back to the prep room, though Hirose remained in the classroom. He inattentively watched the students chatting as they worked.

"Hirose sensei, if you're free, can you help us out?" Having been called out in this way, Hirose smirked.

"What would be best for me to do?"

"Help cut this up." The student handed over newspapers. It seemed like they were preparing to do papier mache. Takasato sat not too far away, and was also compliantly cutting something up with scissors.

"Oh? Hirose-san, have you been recruited too?"

Hearing this, Hirose looked up and saw that it was the third-year Hashigami popping his head in.

"Isn't this what apprentice teachers do?"

"Training is very tough, after all. --Is there anyone here in charge of the cheer squad?" asked Hashigami as he looked over at the people that remained in the classroom. A student raised his hand, and Hashigami began to pass on some coordination info about how he had to stay after school to discuss arrangements for the cheer squad.

"Takasato, next, do this one." Just at that time, someone handed a portion of blue cloth over to Takasato, who was then sorting out the paper he had cut.

Takasato nodded and took the piece of cloth. Hashigami stared over at him.

"So you're Takasato?"

"Yes." Regardless of whether it was a student teacher or a senpai, there was no change in Takasato's attitude. Those expressionless eyes simply returned Hashigami's stare.

"Ah huh," replied Hashigami with much interest, and then asked, "So I hear you were spirited away when you were little?"

It's impossible to fully describe the change that underwent the room after he said that. Hirose felt as if a nervous feeling so thick it could almost be seen snatched up the students present. In an instant, everyone once again went back to their work pretending as though nothing had happened at all, but they all looked like they were desperately trying to look away from something that made them uneasy.

"Was that for real?" asked Hashigami with a tone full of curiosity. Takasato just nodded silently.

"It wasn't just a kidnapping? I hear you don't remember it at all. Is that true?"

"Yes," replied Takasato plainly. He didn't look like he was especially uncomfortable.

"So it was a so-called loss of memory, huh? Amazing..."

Then, for the first time Takasato wrinkled his brow. Though it didn't seem as though he was unhappy about anything, one could faintly feel that he didn't like discussing this topic.

"You sure you weren't abducted by a UFO? You hear a lot of that sort of thing happening lately. Those creepy aliens do experiments on people's bodies, and then after they wipe your memory, they send you back."

Takasato opened his mouth to speak. This was the first time Hirose saw him talk without being prompted.

"Who did you hear this from?"

Hashigami lifted his chin and without any hesitation, he glanced over at Tsuiki. You cruel jerk, thought Hirose to himself. Then, he heard the violent crash of a chair falling over, and his expression froze. He looked back at where the noise came from and simply saw that Tsuiki's expression had changed and that he was now standing.

"Wasn't me!"

What surprised people was the look of panic on Tsuiki's face.

"Please, believe me! I didn't say it!" denied Tsuiki fervently.

Hashigami laughed, "Wasn't it you who said it?"

"Not me! I didn't say anything!"

Takasato looked down. His brow was a little bit furrowed, but still no one was sure what sort of feeling it represented.

"It wasn't me, Takasato."

A stunned Hashigami followed Tsuiki with his eyes as he fled out of the classroom.

"What wrong with him?"

Hirose was also dumbfounded. Why had Tsuiki been so anxious that his entire expression had changed? At this time, Hirose discovered something else, that all the students who were present had strange looks on their faces.

They all seemed to be nervous, and moreover they all tried their best to cover up that nervousness. Every person pretended that they had not noticed Tsuiki's unusual behavior. Hirose thought that they all looked to have just the sort of response people have when they witness a drunk guy making a scene on the train.

Hirose looked back at Takasato. Takasato's face was blank again. He didn't appear to be the type of person who was secretly violent. Hirose didn't consider him to be someone who would inspire fear in others.

"I think this Tsuiki is turning out to be even weirder," mumbled Hashigami to himself. Still, none of the students there gave any acknowledgement.

5

After school was out, the clamor in the schoolyard had still not quieted down. One of the teams was standing under the window of the chemistry prep room, working hard on a signboard, and somewhere, the cheer squad of the Red Army was practicing. Class 2-6 had also registered to stay after school. Gotou painted blithely, so Hirose was free to bury his head into his training journal.

It was just then that Gotanda from the student committee hurried in while in a state of agitation.

"Sensei, someone's hurt."

"Hurt? Who?"

"Tsuiki."

Hirose suddenly dropped the pen in his hand.

"Tsuiki? What happened? Was there a fight?" asked Hirose apprehensively, because he couldn't forget that strange scene.

Unexpectedly, Gotanda shook his head.

"When we were making a billboard, his leg was accidentally hurt with a saw."

"Oh... I see." Strangely enough, Hirose let out a sigh of relief.

"It is serious?" asked Gotou, and Gotanda shrugged. It didn't appear to be a very serious matter.

"When we took him to the infirmary, he was bleeding a bit."

"I'll go check up on him," said Hirose as he stood up. Gotou nodded at him.

- - - - -

When Hirose and Gotanda rushed to the infirmary, Tsuiki had already gone home.

"He went home?"

If he could make it home on his own, then it shouldn't have been a very serious injury, right? Hirose felt like a burden had been lifted from his shoulders, but at the same time it was hard for him to relax. The teacher-nurse Totoki smiled wryly.

"I don't know why, but he seemed very intent on hurrying back home."

The teacher-nurse while Hirose was in school had already reached retirement age and retired. Totoki was one of the few teachers that Hirose had never seen before.

"Actually, his injury wasn't so serious that he needed stitches, but I told him it would be best if he went to the hospital for a visit."

"I see..."

Hirose raised his hand and waved it at Gotanda, who then nodded blankly and left the infirmary. Hirose then give Totoki a light nod.

"Sorry for the trouble."

"No trouble at all." After he said this, Totoki, who was close to Hirose in age, smiled.

"Would you like some tea? How is your training going?"

"It's a bit easier than I thought it would be."

At Totoki's gesture, Hirose sat down in a chair at the side. Totoki prepared a cup of chilled barley tea with practiced movements.

"Hirose sensei, what subject do you teach?"

"Science--Chemistry."

"Ah, then your supervising teacher must be Gotou sensei, yes?"

"Yes."

"Isn't that tough? I hear he thrusts all of his students upon the student teacher."

"Yeah, he does," smirked Hirose as he picked up the teacup.

"Totoki sensei, are you also staying after school and working overtime?"

"When it's time for the athletics festival or the culture festival, I always have to wait until the last student goes home before I can leave. Because, someone might need me at any time."

Totoki laughed calmly and sat down as well.

"Kids these days are a bit clumsy. Just now, that..." As Totoki said this, he looked at the notebook on the desk. "Tsuiki-kun? He said that he had securely propped the board up with his leg and the sawing was done very carefully."

"He used his leg?"

"He used his knee to prop up the board, and as a result, he cut his shin. For sure he was a bit clumsy in supporting the board, but the person doing the sawing wasn't too great either."

Hirose looked over at Totoki again.

"He didn't hurt himself?"

"Nope. There were other students helping with the sawing."

"Do you know the name of the student who was using the saw?" asked Hirose. Totoki looked uncertainly at his notebook again.

"It was probably the student that came here with him. Let's see, Seta-kun."

Hirose couldn't help but let out a sigh.

"What is it?"

Hearing Totoki ask this, Hirose hurriedly shook his head. Totoki tilted his head in doubt and said, "Well, their situation wasn't so bad. The third-year that came before them actually got a nail driven into his own hand."

"A third-year?" Hirose had a bad feeling about this. Totoki nodded.

"He'd somehow put a 5-inch nail into his palm, up to the head of the nail, and he'd done it to himself. I really wonder how he was using the hammer that he was able to do that."

"He..."

Totoki nodded. "I sent him to the hospital immediately, since he was using an old nail that someone'd brought. This sort of thing is what I'm most afraid of."

"Oh no, I wasn't asking about that." Even Hirose thought that his thinking was a little strange, but no matter what, he wanted to find out for sure the name of that student. "What was that student's name?"

Totoki widened his eyes and flipped through his notebook for a third time.

"Third year, class five's Hashigami."

6

On his way back to the prep room, Hirose didn't know at all how to settle his mood.

Tsuiki and Hashigami. It looked like there was another meaning to this. Although he understood that there probably wasn't any particular significance to the whole thing. It seemed to him that he had seen strange signs one after the other: Hashigami, the nervous students, Tsuiki who had fled so quickly--and Takasato.

From the head office area that housed the infirmary, he could go directly back to the special classroom section. He slowly ascended the stairs of the head office area to the third floor. A landing was designed between the sets of stairs where they turned, after which one could continue upwards. The wall of the landing was taken completely up by a window that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. On the other side of the window, he could see the colors of dusk draping over the school building. He was directly facing the neatly arranged classrooms of the classroom section, with the wide courtyard lawn in between.

The glass forming a horizontal row was the window of the hallway. Most of the interiors of the windows were lit up with lights. When Hirose drew his face near to the glass at the landing, he could clearly see the inside of the classroom section. Students were walking back and forth along the lit hallway. He could even see the silhouettes of the working students through the open doors of the classrooms.

Hirose forgot about agitation that he had just had, and without thinking, he smiled. The excitement of the students that arose concerning festivals was always like that of working mice, and there was something about them that made him smile. Hirose was looking around at all the students when something suddenly caught his eye. His line of sight stopped upon a student who was standing by the window at one end of the school building.

In the midst of all the bustling to-and-fro, there was only one person who wasn't moving at all. He was standing at the window on the second floor and appeared to be glancing down at the lawn.

Hirose couldn't help but blink his eyes a bit and then close them for a second. Afterwards, he opened them widely and looked toward the far side of the second floor. He raised his hand and wiped at the glass, and then he stared even more closely over there.

The distance between the two sections wasn't close enough for him to see the face of that student clearly, but Hirose could see that there were arms resting upon his shoulder. They were bare arms. The uniforms that the students wore currently were short-sleeved, so it was normal to be able to see a student's elbow. However, those arms were exposed up to the shoulder. It was as if the bare arms were covering up the student from behind. For a moment, Hirose had thought that the student had his back toward someone, but he couldn't see the rest of the person's head and shoulders behind the student. There were simply two arms resting lightly upon his shoulders.

Hirose thought he was seeing something that couldn't exist. Why couldn't he see the head and shoulders of the owner of those two arms? The upper arm seemed to rest completely over the student's shoulders, and yet Hirose couldn't spot any sort of figure behind him. The posture of the student with the arms around his shoulders didn't look as if it was bearing any sort of weight. Those arms almost looked like they grew out of his neck and hung in front of his chest. A few students passed behind him quickly, though none of them discovered anything abnormal.

When Hirose was watching again and the again the student and the arms, the student suddenly turned to the side. He turned only his head, and from where he was looking emerged two students.

Hirose couldn't help but let out a sigh. It must have been just a prank. He took the fake arms that he had used in the costume competition--one this school's most famous competitions--and was hanging them in front of his chest as a joke. And then when people noticed this, they called out to him. That must have been it.

The student by the window said something, and then he turned so that his back was facing the window. In the extremely short time it took for him to turn completely around, it seemed as though those arms had retracted toward his back and appeared to disappear. The entire process looked a lot like arm-like snakes that slithered backwards. Of course no figure could be seen at the back of the student who was now leaving the window.

- - - - -

Hirose stood there absent-mindedly for a while. He rested his forehead on the glass and envisioned what he had just seen over again.

"It was because of the distance," said Hirose to himself. "Yes, it was because of the distance and the backlighting."

Now, in the midst of the preparation for the athletics festival, the inside of the school was overflowing with all sorts of things. There were papier mache figures, costumed props, and things the cheer squad utilized that one couldn't even figure out the use of if one just glanced at it.

It must have been because of the unusual circumstances that caused him to look at that situation as he did.

This was what Hirose told himself and then he sighed. The warm air had made his forehead damp with sweat. He forced himself not to think about it anymore and took this opportunity to turn away. The picture of what had happened then settled in a deep corner of his mind.


* *

Deep in the night, a man hurried back to his home. The night air brushed gently against his sweaty skin, causing him to sweat even more.

He'd drank quite a bit. The man walked upon the road relying on his homing instinct, though to the contrary, there was no way for his instincts in to kick in here in this residential neighborhood where all the buildings looked the same. More than once, he'd rang someone else's doorbell.

With his memory, some sense still remained in him, and thus he would often stop, raise his head, and look up. With the buildings of the same exterior design lined up neatly, they looked like giant gravestones. He did frequent verifications. The building numbers were hung in big, color ceramics on the side of the highest floor of the 12-story buildings facing the emergency ladder.

"I've done this so many times before, why do I still get it wrong?" he thought to himself.

At the same time, he was reminded of the makuragaeshi.

Back in his hometown, there was a legend concerning the "makuragaeshi." It's said there is a demon called the "makuragaeshi" that comes out at night and moves the pillow of a person deep in sleep to an unusual place. Every time he went to his grandmother's house in the countryside, the "makuragaeshi" would appear. When he woke up in the morning, his pillow would always be resting by his feet. Although, when he remained motionless after he opened his eyes, it felt like the position of his futon was different. When he thought about it now, it was probably just that his sleeping posture hadn't been very good, but he still couldn't forget that mysterious feeling, the uneasiness of waking up in the old tatami room of the old country house. After some careful thought, the futon hadn't moved the night before, but nevertheless, there remained thoughts he wasn't able to explain.

He smirked as he stopped walking. He stared up at the building in front of him. He had confirmed that he was standing in front of the building he should have returned to.

He nodded arbitrarily and looked up once again. There were no other figures in the road on which cars were prohibited from driving. His steps echoed throughout the wide open space. It looked like the tall buildings were about to fall on top of him. He turned his head and looked around, feeling faintly dizzy.

He shook his head about and discovered that there seemed to be a white light on top of the building that he was looking at.

It was shining weakly and dimly. There was a dim, round glowing at the edge of the roof. He a blinked a few times, and then stared fixedly at it. He saw something rising out of the light.

The man's jaw dropped in surprise. It was as if some animal had climbed up out of the light. He didn't know exactly what it was, but he knew that it was a big beast with four legs. It was too big and tall to be a dog. The body of the four-legged beast grew dark and there was no way for him to identify it, though he saw that it was giving off a faint glow from its back.

"What the heck is that?" he asked himself, but before he could think anymore about it, the four-legged beast leapt into the air. It passed over the top of his head as fast as if it had been swimming in the water, and glided across the 12-story buildings.

Even after its silhouette disappeared, he still stood there dumbfounded, looking in that same direction.
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Chapter 3

1

The first week of training was soon to be over. It was Saturday when the students had only a half-day, but most of the students remained at school in the afternoon in order to prepare for the forthcoming athletics festival. The chemistry prep room was occupied by the regulars.

It was uncertain where the first-year Nozue had heard the news of Hashigami's injury, though he was carefully explaining what had happened.

"It was a 5-inch nail. Except for the head of the nail, the entire length had gone through his palm. And even though he went to a hospital and got a doctor to pull it out, the process of doing so was really tough."

"Yikes, how scary!" exclaimed a first-year named Sugisaki.

The air conditioning was on in the prep room. Gotou as usual had gone out for lunch. The students had taken the beakers out by themselves and were either drinking juice that they had bought at the store or the coffee that Gotou had prepared.

Tsuiki was taking a day off today. They'd heard that Hashigami hadn't come to school either.

"Hashigami-san's a pretty handy guy. He's good at carpentry work too."

The first-year Nozue's words had caught Hirose's attention.

"Is that so?"

Nozue nodded meekly. "Hashigami-san is actually an otaku."

Hirose didn't understand what he meant.

"Hashigami-san's room is amazing. If we're just talking about VCRs, he's got about five of them. He uses them to record anime. He's got a great antenna system set up that he uses to record rebroadcasts from broadcast stations that are far away."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, and the shelves he puts videotapes and cassettes on take up an entire wall. Hashigami-san built them all himself."

Iwaki smiled. "Even monkeys fall from trees." [note: this is an idiom which means that no matter how good one is at something, they can still make mistakes.]

Sugisaki laughed loudly. "Even Hashigamis puncture themselves with nails."

Hirose let out a short, obligatory laugh, but he wasn't satisfied with this explanation. There was something he just didn't understand.

"That's right, I heard that Tsuiki was acting weird yesterday or something?" asked Iwaki. Hirose nodded disconcertedly.

"You seem to know quite a bit."

"I think someone in our class was there. I heard he ran away in a fluster, that he got into an argument with Takasato."

"Yeah... Hashigami said some trivial things, and then it turned into something like that."

"Trivial things? Hashigami-san was there too?"

"Yep."

"Oh, I know. It's that thing, the spiriting away," said Nozue excitedly. Hirose nodded vaguely.

"What's the spiriting away?" asked Sugisaki curiously. Nozue then proceeded to tell a story of which only half had actually happened and the other half he had made up himself.

"Really?"

"Don't believe him. Most of that Nozue came up with by himself," replied Hirose with a cynical smile. Nozue pouted unhappily when he heard this.

"It's a bit troubling. Everyone goes about casually broadcasting this stuff everywhere. --But the spiriting away seems to be for real."

"Hah?"

It was just at that time.

"I think it's probably better if you don't talk about this just because you think it's interesting."

It was the second-year Sakata.

"Why?" asked Iwaki as he turned around.

"Someone in my class has said before that bad things will happen to you if you just casually talk about it."

"What do you mean by bad things?" The one who had asked this was Hirose.

Sakata shrugged, saying, "I'm not clear on it myself. The classmate that had said it doesn't seem to like to talk about it. He was in the same class as Takasato when they were first-years, and he said it wasn't good to talk about it. I heard it wasn't too good for the guys who'd made fun of Takasato..."

Everyone who was there was a little taken aback, but Hirose couldn't help but start to take this seriously.

"It wasn't too good? Do you mean like accidents or something like that?"

"Probably. They say that nothing good happens to people who bully Takasato. Everyone who's made fun of Takasato's been hurt."

"No way! You're making this up!" said Iwaki. Sakata could only tilt his head in hesitation.

"That's just what I heard. But, a lot of people have been hurt because of this, and didn't someone die on a field trip that spring? Of course, those are just rumors too."

"Someone died?"

This was the first time Hirose had heard anything of the sort and he peered at Sakata's face.

"Yeah, when they were riding a ferry, someone fell into the sea and drowned to death. I think it was someone in class three. It'd happened on the way back from the field trip, and so they had to stop doing that field trip altogether. It was in the newspapers. Didn't you see it?"

"Ah, I don't remember..."

"They say that the day before, that guy didn't like the look of Takasato, so he got two of his friends and the three of them beat him up. That one guy died and pretty bad stuff happened to the other two too."

Iwaki wasn't pleased and spoke up. "You're making this up."

"I'm not. Why would I do that? Of the other two guys, one of them was run over by a truck and got his leg broken. The other got into an accident while riding a scooter without getting a license and was hurt really badly. He was suspended from school and later dropped out. At any rate, none of those three are at this school anymore."

After Sakata finished, he pursed his lips. "I seemed like someone died when I was a first-year."

No one said anything else. Hirose knew that everyone was shocked, except that he wasn't able to speak because of an apprehension that arose inside him. He could understand now the reason why Tsuiki had been so distressed, and all the students present expressed a strange anxiety that was also due to these rumors.

2

The following day was a Sunday, and for the sake of making it more convenient for the students doing prep work, the school officials opened the doors of the school. It seemed like Gotou was spending his entire day holed up in the prep room. Hirose had heard that the rest of the student teachers had also come to school to use this opportunity to rehearse in studying the class work. After thinking a bit about it, he himself got in touch with Gotou and told him that he would be at school in the afternoon as well. Then, he left his apartment early in the morning.

An insecurity that wasn't entirely selfless was bothering him and made him feel like he had to find out the truth. Following a note that Nozue had written for him, he went to Hashigami's house for a visit. Once he had clarified things with Hashigami, he would be able to relax. However, he also knew that if everything had happened purely by accident, he would feel quite a bit disheartened.

Hashigami's house was located in the center of the new town area that also contained the school. There were many park facilities in the spacious residential neighborhood. This town was full of a comfortable atmosphere, which was in concordance with the image of a commuter town. Hashigami's house was at one corner of this residential neighborhood, and after just one glance, one could tell that this building housed only those of a wealthy economic status.

Hirose rang the doorbell, spoke his name and said that he was looking for Hashigami. Very quickly, Hashigami came down the spiral staircase that was in the entrance hall.

"Eh? Hirose is you?"

"You look like you're doing well," said Hirose. Hashigami cracked a smile.

"Honestly, I skipped school. Saturday was a half-day anyways, right?" he joked as he made a funny face and then pointed to the second floor. "Let's go upstairs."

- - - - -

Hashigami's room turned out to be as Nozue had described. The interior was filled with videotapes and that sort of thing. On the wall of the large approximately 8-tatami-wide room was set up tall shelves up to the ceiling. They were finely crafted shelves that had even been varnished. Had Nozue not mentioned this before, Hirose would have thought that these shelves had been bought from elsewhere.

"Did you make all of these shelves yourself?"

Carrying an electric water pot back into the room, Hashigami laughed, a little embarrassed. "Yeah, it's a little awkward using stuff that's been made to a regular specification."

"That's really great."

"Naw," laughed Hashigami self-consciously.

"With such skillful hands, how did you manage to injure yourself?" When Hirose asked this, Hashigami held out his bandaged hand for him to look at.

"Are you talking about this?"

"I heard you put a nail through it?" asked Hirose, and Hashigami's expression became a little stiff. He thought it over a little bit as he fiddled with the end of his bandage.

"...The nail went into my hand by itself."

Hirose didn't know how to respond to that, so he just stared at Hashigami. Hashigami pouted a bit like a child might.

"Hirose-san, do you believe in ghosts?" This sudden question caused Hirose not to know what to say for a moment.

"I need to say upfront that I don't believe in that sort of thing," Hashigami said with determination.

"I'm the same way... I'm more inclined not to believe in stuff like that."

Somewhere in Hirose's mind, there appeared a little alarm, because the events that he'd seen the day before had remained in his mind.

"But I think it was a ghost that did this," said Hashigami in a quiet voice.

"Why do you think that?"

"Because I couldn't see the offender who drove the nail into my hand." Hashigami dropped a teabag into a teapot, and then poured some hot water from the electric pot in and covered it. "When I was doing the nailing, I wanted to finish securing the archway that we're setting up at the entrance. I was holding a nail with my left hand and a hammer with my right. But the nail that ended up going through my hand wasn't the one I was holding."

As he said this, Hashigami got a nail from off of his desk. It was about 5-inches and was slightly bent in the middle. He could see immediately that it was an old and rusty nail.

"So that's the nail?"

"Yep. I brought it back from the hospital, as a memento."

Hirose thought, what an unusual memento; although, he didn't say that aloud.

"I'd brought the my own hammer and nails from my house. I mean, it's stuff I like using. But that nail wasn't my own nail."

"Why?" asked Hirose curiously. Hashigami shrugged.

"I didn't bring any rusty nails like that. Don't people say that if you're cut on a rusty nail, you'll probably get tetanus? It sounds a little scary, so I throw rusty nails away, not to mention the fact that this nail's already bent like this. Some people hammer the nail back into shape and then use it, but I think that no matter how you hammer it, it won't go back to its original shape."

After Hashigami said this, he tossed the nail back onto the desk.

"I was doing my hammering in a corner area when I felt like something had cut the palm of my left hand. When I flipped my hand over to look, I saw that nail sticking out of my hand."

"All the way up to the head?"

"No way," laughed Hashigami. "It was just a little bit of the tip. I think it might be better to say that it was stuck into my hand, rather than say that it punctured it. Without anyone's touching it, the nail was propped up, slanted against my hand."

Hashigami's tone was plain, though it sounded to Hirose like it was plausible.

"I thought this was weird and wondered what was going on. I put down the nail I'd been holding and I brought my hand towards my face for a closer look. And then there was a clack and suddenly someone was hitting the nail."

"Who was it?"

"Right. I couldn't see anyone, but I felt like someone was hitting the nail in with a hammer or something. The blow knocked my hand away, so I threw my hand to the ground for support, and then I heard another clack. I finally realized that that nail had been driven into my hand."

It felt like the temperature in the room was slowly falling. Hirose unconsciously looked up at the air conditioner near the ceiling.

"I was so scared, I couldn't even call out. My thought processes had stopped. Then, there was another sudden hit. It didn't hurt very much, but I was at a complete loss. I wanted to move my hand from the ground, but I couldn't. As I was thinking how impossible this was, the nail was hit again. As a result, the entire length of the nail had been pushed through my hand, except for the head was sticking out a little. I was afraid and shouted, what the heck is going on! Isn't that funny?"

Hashigami chuckled dryly.

"The guy behind me asked me what happened, and I told him that I'd been nailed. My hand was completely stuck to the ground, so then I reached my hand under the other one and gently took my hand off of the ground. There was a hole on the ground where the nail had been, but no blood was dripping down. It wasn't until then that it started to hurt, and I hurried to the infirmary."

Hashigami poured the black tea into a cup.

"It might be bitter," he mumbled. The tea that had sat forgotten to one side was already maroon in color; it looked like it would be pretty bitter.

"I figured that my values might change because of this, so I kept the nail as a memento."

"Have they changed?" asked Hirose calmly. His own voice sounded dry.

"Not really. I feel like it doesn't have anything to do with me, though I was a little scared yesterday. When I was trying to sleep, I kept feeling like there were going to be other nails coming at me from whatever place. I was afraid to close my eyes, thinking stupidly that if I closed my eyes, the nails would come right at them. But, I ended up falling asleep anyway."

Hirose simply nodded. He didn't know what else he could respond with. What Hashigami had said innately held some sort of mysteriously persuasive power, but something in his own mind resisted swallowing it whole. Thus, he couldn't add his own comments to it.

"I didn't believe in ghosts, and now I still don't believe in them, but there's some doubt in the back of my mind. What exactly was that? I think this is what they call confused, huh?"

Hirose could still do nothing but nod.

3

When he could no longer think of things to say, Hirose left Hashigami’s house and proceeded to Tsuiki’s house for a visit. No one knew exactly where Tsuiki’s house was, so he looked the address up in a class directory and stopped at a police box for directions.

Tsuiki’s house was on the outskirts of the new town. This area looked to be composed of a disorderly mix of ready-made houses built in recent years and old houses that have been around since some time ago. In actuality, the old houses were not that old, but they had a completely different flavor than the newly-built houses that surrounded them.

Hirose rang the doorbell. Tsuiki's mother came to answer the door. Hirose told her his name, and then she went upstairs to get her son. For a little while, he heard the sounds of conversation coming from upstairs, and then Tsuiki's mother came back down.

"I'm sorry, but he says that he's not feeling well." However, her tone didn't sound apologetic.

Is he all right?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki's mother crinkled her brow.

"Excuse me, but may I ask if you're a friend of his?" From her tone, he could distinctly hear the meaning of "I don't remember your name or your face."

"No, I'm a student teacher. Gotou sensei told me to come and check up on the situation." In his head Hirose apologized to Gotou, and then Tsuiki's mother covered her mouth with her hand.

"Oh, is that so? Please excuse me."

Hirose could only give her a perfunctory smile, as she said, "It's because you look so young." She directed him to the second floor.

"Please go upstairs. I don't know what that child is up to, always saying that he's not feeling well. The doctor clearly said that he could go to school if he relied on a cane, but he insisted on taking the day off. He used to be a diligent child. I keep thinking, what exactly happened to him at school?"

Hirose nodded vaguely and climbed up the stairs. The room from the top of the stairs seemed to be Tsuiki's room.

"Since you're a teacher, you should say you're a teacher, or else how was I to know?" She said this as she opened the door without so much as a knock, and then turned back to Hirose. "I'll go fix some tea."

"Ah, you needn't bother."

Tsuiki was scrunched up under the covers of his bed.

"How are you feeling?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki poked his head out of his summer futon.

"Hirose is sensei's name?" Tsuiki had asked the same question as Hashigami had.

"How's your leg?" Hirose asked with a smile. Tsuiki lifted himself up and wearing a track jacket, he sat on top of the futon. He moved his leg over as if it were very heavy, and Hirose saw that it was bandaged all the way to the ankle.

"Yeah, it's not that bad."

"Really? The day before yesterday I went to the infirmary, but you'd already left."

"Yeah..."

"How did you manage to cut your foot?"

Tsuiki didn't reply. It was just then that his mother, who had entered with some barley tea, saw his expression and smiled a worrisome smile.

"He just says that it was an accident, and won't say anything further. Ever since he entered high school, he speaks less and less. --My younger brother was like this as well."

Just as his mother was about to sit next to Hirose, Tsuiki said curtly, "Mom, why don't you go downstairs?"

"But--"

"It's not like we're talking about anything important. Just go downstairs."

"All right." She looked at Hirose, then looked at Tsuiki, and then left the room. Hirose was silent in thought for a bit, and then listened to the footsteps of Tsuiki's mother as she went downstairs. Tsuiki remained in a closed up posture and seemed also to be carefully listening to his mother's footsteps.

"Well, Tsuiki," said Hirose. Tsuiki looked at him with a bothered expression on his face, as if he was discouraged about something. "Does your injury have anything to do with Takasato?"

Upon hearing this, Tsuiki screwed up his mouth.

"You said before that nothing good comes out of getting involved with Takasato. I've heard about all sort of unfortunate events being talked about. Is that how you got your injury too?"

In that moment, Tsuiki looked like he wanted to say something but didn't say anything after all.

"I just came from Hashigami's house."

"Is Hashigami-san okay?" Tsuiki suddenly leaned forward. Hirose nodded.

"Yes, it wasn't anything so severe."

Hearing Hirose say this, Tsuiki contorted his face and asked, "Did something happen to him?"

Hirose realized that there simply hadn't been any conversation between the two. "Oh? Are you worried about him? Were you worried that something might have happened to him too?"

"What happened to him?"

"A nail." Hirose extended his own left hand. "I think it pierce him. Though Hashigami said that the nail had done it itself."

Tsuiki hung his head.

"Hashigami said that someone he couldn't see had deliberately done this to him."

"Does sensei believe him?" Tsuiki asked directly. Hirose nodded his head frankly as well.

"He didn't seem to be lying. Truthfully, I partially believe it and partially doubt it, but once I've come here to see you, I would really like to believe this sort of thing."

Tsuiki hung his head still. Hirose could see that his hands that were resting on his knees were trembling, and he knew Tsuiki was scared.

"If Takasato is made angry, people die." After patiently waiting a while, Tsuiki finally opened his mouth, but what he had said was startling. "When I was in junior high, I was taking a cram school class with a guy who was in the same school as Takasato, and he often spoke of Takasato. He said there was a weird guy at school, someone who had been spirited away before. He said that if someone were to make Takasato mad, that they would die, and if someone were to make him unhappy, they would be seriously hurt. At the time, I'd thought that it was all a bit ridiculous..."

"Are you talking about what had happened on the field trip?"

Tsuiki shook his head. "He was only joking, so I didn't believe him. Then, he brought up something strange that had happened to him in the summer of the third year of junior high. He'd said that he was afraid of doing swimming lessons in gym class, because he'd felt something tugging at his legs, which had scared him. He'd been crying as he said this during cram school."

Hirose simply listened silently.

"He'd said that it was because he'd hurt Takasato before. They'd had a fight during P.E. or science class. Afterwards, he would always insist that it must have been because of that."

"What are you saying...?"

Tsuiki shook his head. "I don't think he was clear on it himself. He just said that something had been pulling on his legs. He'd told the teacher that he wasn't feeling well, so he didn't want to swim, but the teacher didn't accept his explanation. He'd told me that he could very soon be pulled down by his legs and drown to death. It turned out that he really did die. He had drowned in the swimming pool."

Once again, Hirose was speechless.

"When I started my second year, I was put in the same class as Takasato. At first, I had no idea that he was Takasato. Later on, other guys had told me that if I had anything to do with Takasato, I'd be cursed. I'd heard that during our first year, there'd been people who were seriously injured or died. I didn't intentionally listen to these rumors, but I just didn't feel comfortable. As a result, during the field trip..."

"Yes, I'd heard."

Tsuiki nodded. "Seeing that look of unhappiness that Takasato showed the day before yesterday, I knew then that something was going to go wrong..."

Hirose urged the quiet Tsuiki to continue speaking. "And then?"

"Then when I was working, there appeared a weird hand that grabbed hold of my leg."

"A weird hand?"

"It was pale, and it looked like a woman's hand. I was using my knee to support the veneer of the signboard, but then someone grabbed onto that leg. It was like someone was using both their hands to embrace it tightly. I tried to kick it off, but I couldn't move my leg at all. I think the person who was pulling the saw didn't notice it at all, and still continued sawing. The saw kept getting closer to my leg, and I knew that if this kept on, my leg would be sawn off, but I couldn't move. I lowered my head to look beneath the veneer, and I saw a pale, woman's hand holding on to my leg. But there wasn't anyone under the veneer at all."

"Didn't you call out?"

"I couldn't make a sound. All I could think about was that my leg was going to be sawn off, so what could I do? In my mind, I was pretty clear on the fact that my leg was definitely going to be sawn off, but I didn't know what to do. So, it was a relief to me that in the end my leg was only hurt a little bit. I told myself, ah, that was good, I hadn't made Takasato too mad."

Hirose felt that from a certain viewpoint, it was this sort of thinking that was scary.

"But then, when I was in the infirmary getting treated, I gradually started feeling a bit uneasy. I was afraid that things weren't done yet, so I ran back home. Though this is how it ended, without anything else happening..." Tsuiki couldn't help but look at Hirose. "Sensei, what was it like? After I left the classroom, was Takasato very mad?"

Tsuiki was agitated. Hirose simply shook his head.

"No, it didn't look like Takasato had cared that much."

"Do you think that this is it? Do you think he's not mad anymore?"

Hirose sighed heavily. "Nothing else has happened to Hashigami. I don't think anything else is going to come about."

Hirose in actuality had no basis for saying this, but Tsuiki looked like he was really happy. He let out a sigh of relief and smiled, but then his expression suddenly because stiff again.

"Sensei, uh..."

Hirose understood his meaning and nodded. "I'm not going to talk to anyone else about this. So, don't worry about it."

After Hirose said this, Tsuiki unloaded the intense worry he had carried in his brow, and sighed deeply.

4

Hirose definitely didn't believe in the talk of the so-called "curse of Takasato," but he could feel deeply the flood of belief by a portion of the students in the "curse of Takasato."

People believed Takasato would bring misfortune upon people. So, every time something suspicious happened, they would inevitably involve Takasato. Hirose understood how this worked. What he didn't understand was, was this simply an innocent belief or was it reality?

- - - - -

"Hey." When he opened the door to the chemistry prep room, Gotou greeted him casually. He was still standing in front of his easel.

"How are Tsuiki and Hashigami?"

Hearing Gotou ask this, Hirose was suddenly dumbstruck, although he followed it with a wry smile. "So I've been discovered by you, huh?"

"At the very least, I can still grasp your thought processes. If you hadn't gone, I would have. How are the two of them doing?"

Hirose handed over to Gotou some juice he had bought at a nearby vending machine.

"Hashigami seems quite energetic. Regarding Tsuiki, I guess he's doing pretty good as well."

"So did it turn out to be Takasato?"

As Hirose pulled open the ring pull, he looked fixedly at Gotou's face. "What does that mean?"

"Didn't Takasato have a quarrel with them the day before yesterday? That's what Iwaki had said."

Hirose examined Gotou's expression. Because students ordinarily went in and out of the prep room, Gotou knew all about what happened between the students. It wasn't inconceivable that he would know about the "curse of Takasato." However, Hirose was thinking that Gotou quite appeared to believe in the talk of the "curse." It was incredible that he would use that sort of tone when speaking.

"Is Takasato the cause?"

Hirose thought of the promise he had made to Tsuiki, and he couldn't help but feel a little lost.

"Don't worry. I'm not going to tell other people about it."

"...At the very least, that's what Tsuiki believes. He says it's the curse of Takasato. In regards to Hashigami, it seems likely that he doesn't know anything about it."

After Gotou wiped his hands, he sat down and opened the can of juice.

"Takasato's a problem child. From a certain viewpoint, he's an extremely difficult problem child. He's not fundamentally the sort of person who creates problems over small things, but everything around him turns out to be a mess. He's the eye of a typhoon."

"...Is it appropriate to say this to a student teacher?"

Gotou simply smiled bitterly and look at his juice can.

Hirose felt it out, asking, "On the very first day, Gotou-san said some things that were quite profound. Were you referring to this?"

Gotou nodded. "Yes, I was."

"I heard that Takasato curses people, and I also heard that during a field trip, a student had lost his life because of this. --Is that for real?"

Gotou furled his brow. "It is true that a student died on a field trip. The police ruled it an accident. That idiot drank alcohol on the ferry back. Our students for the most part conduct themselves appropriately, but in their midst, there are still a few whose behavior is out of control. That particular one never followed the rules, and he had even been marked by the student guidance department. That student and a few others who were likewise marked, were drinking beer together until they were very drunk. They said they wanted to get some wind, so they ran up to the deck. As a result, he fell into the sea. Other passengers witnessed him fall. There's no doubt that it was an accident."

After Gotou finished speaking, he tilted his head upwards to take a drink of the juice.

"For me, I think it would be too forced to decide whether or not there's some other meaning to that accident."

Hirose nodded, and then asked, "Gotou-san, what is your impression of him?"

Once Gotou heard this, he directed his gaze at Hirose for a moment. He then looked at his hands and quietly asked, "Do you have an interest in Takasato?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I don't know," replied Hirose honestly. He felt that Takasato was a student unlike any other. However, if it was only because of this, he probably wouldn't be interested to this degree, would he? Hirose was never great at figuring these things out. The reasons that had caused him to keep this in his mind was because of that painting, that indescribable one that Takasato had painted, the "spiriting away" rumor, and the appearance of Takasato attempting to remember what had occurred in that period of time.

Gotou smiled and then looked up at the ceiling.

"I used to be full of interest in Takasato too, in many aspects. I looked up everything that could be looked up about him. It's in my nature to be curious." Saying this, Gotou smiled cynically. "Many dead and injured people have appeared all around Takasato. It looks like there really are a lot. For example, when he was in junior high, in his third year there are already four deaths.

"Four deaths... Were there that many?"

"Just about. Three died in traffic accidents, and one died from illness. The cause of death for each of them was clear, with absolutely no room for doubt. --By the way, Hirose, didn't deaths occur when you were in junior high?"

Being asked this very bluntly by Gotou, Hirose hurriedly searched his memory. "There were a couple. I remember one of them was in a traffic accident, and another was a teacher who died from illness. I didn't really know either one."

Gotou nodded. "Right, and Takasato's situation is similar. One of them was in the same year as he was, but the others were mostly unfamiliar with Takasato. If you let those guys talk about it, they'll blame the curse of Takasato. It may be chance, and it may very well not be. How can we be certain?"

"You have a point."

"It's the same with the field trip. One person died and two were seriously injured, but it all happened by accident. No matter how you look at it, it was purely accidental. Because, it wasn't until a month after the end of the field trip that something had happened to the third person. Could we really connect that to Takasato? --I don't know."

Hirose nodded in agreement.

"But Takasato is still feared by most. People are sensitive to deviation, but on the other hand Takasato won't suffer harassment, because people believe that he'll curse them."

Hirose nodded, and then, a little puzzled, he said, "I've heard other strange rumors having to do with Takasato..."

Gotou nodded in a straightforward way. "The spiriting away?"

"Is that real?"

"It seems to be. At the very least, he really did have to re-attend a year of school. It was during his fourth year of grade school."

"But about the spiriting away..."

"It's said that he disappeared from his garden."

After Gotou said this, he threw out the empty can, and then handed to Hirose an empty beaker that had been sitting to one side. Hirose silently accepted it, and together with his own portion, he poured coffee into it.

"I heard that it had happened in the courtyard. It was the February of his fourth year in grade school. Takasato was in the courtyard. His family's house was an old building, one of those houses with a storehouse built in the yard. That house had a courtyard somewhere and Takasato had been there."

Gotou put large portions of cream and sugar into the instant coffee that Hirose had handed over, and then stirred it.

"The courtyard was completely blocked all around by the buildings and walls, and without going through the interior of the house, there was absolutely no way out. In order to enter the house, one has to go in through the corridor of the living room, and his mother and grandmother had been there at the time. The sliding door of the corridor had been open, and they could clearly see everything in the yard. I heard that they had only looked away but a moment, and Takasato disappeared."

"Hmmm..."

"They both confirmed that it hadn't been possible for Takasato have passed by them. The height of the wall was as tall as the roof, and there had been nothing in the yard that could be used to stand on. On one side was the storehouse that hadn't been opened in quite some time. On the other side was the wall of the bathroom with only a window that light could get through, over which a trellis had been installed to block the sight. As for under the floorboards of the building, there was no way for a person to fit themselves into there. In other words, Takasato had to pass through the living room to leave the yard."

Gotou tossed the medicine spoon into the sink, and it made a loud sound.

"That's how it was when Takasato vanished from the yard that was impossible to leave. It was as if he had just suddenly disappeared, and that's why people say it was a spiriting away."

"But..." Before Hirose could say much, Gotou casually waved his hand.

"According to what the police have said, of course they call it a kidnapping. It was something like someone sneaking in over the wall and taking Takasato away. Perhaps it was because it was profitable, or perhaps it's possible that they originally had this kind of purpose, but then afterwards felt something for Takasato. However, there's a hole in these two explanations."

"A hole?"

Gotou raised his eyebrows. "The other side of the wall was the neighbor's yard."

If that's so, then the criminal crept into the neighbor's house and then crossed over the wall and invaded Takasato's house.

Gotou continued, "In any case, Takasato spent a year somewhere. Actually to be more precise, it had been a year and two months. When he came back, Takasato didn't have any memory of it. What had really occurred, absolutely no one knows."

"Didn't the police investigate?"

"I think they did, but they didn't find anything. Forget about who'd done it, but even where Takasato had been or how he'd gotten back, up until now no one knows."

"How did he get back?" asked Hirose curiously. Gotou nodded.

"Takasato came back after a year and two months. I heard that that day was the day they were proceeding with his grandmother's funeral. He had just suddenly appeared at the place where they were holding the funeral. However, not one person saw him walking back."

Gotou sighed.

"The person that discovered Takasato was someone who had come to pay their respects and had been in the entry hall. When they saw a completely naked child coming through the door, they were very surprised, and then when they immediately realized that it was it was Takasato, who had disappeared a year ago, they were even more shocked. Takasato's house is located in the inner part of the old town. In order to get home, he had to pass through the town. Because there was a funeral on that day, there were people going in and out of Takasato's house, but no one saw Takasato going through the town."

"How very strange..."

"There were even people chatting in the roadside farm. They were very certain that no suspicious cars or people had passed by, but they couldn't confirm that they had seen Takasato. That is to say, it was just like when Takasato had disappeared; he had suddenly returned."

"I see. So is that the so-called spiriting away?"

"That's how it was. The Takasato that returned had not only grown taller, but had gained some weight as well. His health was extremely good. --Perhaps the only one who knows exactly what happened is Takasato himself."

There is no doubt that Takasato is of a different nature, thought Hirose to himself. Just looking at those experiences, his existence was already different. According Tsuiki's way of speaking, Takasato's spiriting away was a very famous story. Hearing it, of course it was famous. How did the people around Takasato react to his return? Not all of the reactions would have been pure and whole-heartedly cheerful, would they have? The neighbors would probably have made him the subject of gossip, and his classmates would probably have made him the target of mistreatment. None of these things was hard to imagine.

To Takasato, it wasn't an experience that was worth much celebration. Some of the students looked at Takasato as a deviant, and currently, his past was still having some sort of effect on him. Takasato probably knew this as well. Since this was so, then wouldn't Takasato naturally want to leave his past behind?

"It seems like Takasato really wants to remember," said Hirose. Gotou nodded.

"More or less. It looks like Takasato cares about the fact that he has been abandoned by his classmates, or else he probably wouldn't want to remember."

For Takasato, the reality of his own previous spiriting away wasn't taboo. Hirose felt that this fact was really incredible.

"Regardless of if it's a curse or any other such rumor, things having to do with the spiriting away still have an effect on him after all, don't they? To be honest, I don't quite know why Takasato is so persistent in trying to remember what happened."

"Right."

"Though, perhaps you can understand it," said Gotou simply.

"Me?"

"Hirose, if you can't, then no one will be able to."

Hirose understood what Gotou had implied, but he didn't know how to respond.

* *
* *

A man threw out his cigarette butt. In the pitch black night, the small, red light of the fire fell and hit the concrete, scattering tiny sparks. The sound of waves echoed in his ear. The half moon appeared in front of his eyes, above the silver waves of the night sea.

He used the tip of his foot to stamp out the cigarette butt that had fallen to the ground. He reached his hand to the pocket of his polo shirt and pondered whether or not he wanted to smoke another one, but in the end he still took out the crinkled pack of cigarettes. The flame from his Zippo burned as he lit it. He smelled the strong smell of oil. As if he wanted to avoid that oil smell, he turned his face away, and thus a car parked under the weir entered his field of vision.

He revealed a thin smile. For a college student whose income came entirely from part-time jobs and living expenses sent from home, this car was a bit too extravagant. It was a car that had been bought with a promise to his parents that he would return to his hometown and work at a business there. In reality, the main office of the business from which he already accepted a tentative offer in the summer was located near his hometown, but the actual activity happened at the business office in Tokyo. Moreover, he had always hoped to work in Tokyo. He knew that this hope was just about within his grasp.

He didn't have any feelings of guilt. He figured that being a kid was all like this, and being a parent was all like that. All the boarders around him had all done the same sorts of things. Parents would always hope to keep their children by their sides, and kids would always want to fly out from their parents' house. Regarding his parents' situation, they hadn't stayed by their own parents' side just to make them happy. Hereafter, he didn't seem to have any plans to live together with them. His parents appeared to have planned to live with him, welcoming the happiness of elderly life, and requesting that their children do the things that they weren't able to do. Did that look way too shameless?

He laughed as he shook off some cigarette ash. It was still the period where he was getting used to driving his new car, and that wasn't conducive to driving long distances. Driving his car nearby his apartment when he had calculated the traffic to be lightest had become a recent habit.

--If he'd had a girl by his side, that would be perfect.

Thinking about this, he smiled bitterly. The classmate that he had dated from before the summer had gone to be with a useless skirt-chaser. Perhaps the main reason he had been defeated was that the moment he asked his parents to buy him a car was too late.

He flicked off the ash from his cigarette again and then threw it away. The cigarette butt that he had thrown to the outside of the weir drew a crimson trail as it fell to the beach far below. As he was watching it flying down, he sighed, and then he noticed a shadow on the beach.

The beach was small. It seemed to be low tide just then, but the distance of the waves lapping against the shore wasn't very far. The human figure came closer towards the water's edge from a point far away. He thought this was suspicious, and when he focused his gaze, the figure appeared to be a young woman.

He couldn't help but look down at his watch. It showed a time that was past one in the morning. He looked around at the entire beach. There was no one else except for that woman. It didn't look like a couple of lovers who had agreed to meet up in the middle of the night.

The woman walking on the beach stopped when she wasn't too far away. She turned to look at him, and after pausing for a moment, she walked straight towards him. He waited uncertainly for the woman to walk closer.

When she reached the area under the weir, she stopped and looked up at him. She appeared to be around 20 years of age, and though she wasn't outstandingly hot, she had the look that he liked.

"Are you alone?" she asked.

"Yes. What's a girl doing out here all by herself?" he asked back. She gently nodded her head.

"Can you give me a ride into the city?" Her voice carried a reliant sound.

"Sure," he replied.

He thus revealed a slight smile, and then he looked left and right, a little confused.

"It's to the right," he said. There were steps on his left side that went down to the beach.

He walked down weir and waited by his car. The woman climbed up from the beach very quickly. After she identified him, she walked down from the weir. She looked to be a very small woman. Rather than saying that she was a woman, her figure was much more like that of a teenage girl.

"Where do you live? I can take you back home." He asked this, but she shook her head in worry. Seeing this, he couldn't help but wrinkle his brow.

"Then where do you want me to take you? You only said into the city, so how am I supposed to know where to go?"

She lowered her head, a bit stunned. Her height only reached his shoulders. When she had lowered her head, her long hair fell from her shoulders, revealing her neck which was slender like a child's. She appeared to be pretty calm. Perhaps she was only a high school student.

"New town?" he asked. It was as if she sighed in relief when she lifted her head to give a slight nod. He had some suspicions in his head, but he still opened the car door.

- - - - -

While he was driving, she didn't say a word the entire time. No matter what he had said to her, all she did was nod or shake her head without the intention of saying anything.

"Did you get dumped by your boyfriend?"

Even with a question this direct, she still simply shook her head in the same way she had been.

"What were you doing in a place like that at so late a time?"

It was then that she finally spoke up. She replied in an isolated tone, "I'm looking for something."

What a depressing girl, he thought to himself as he felt a little displeasure at the same time.

"It must have been a bad feeling, walking by the sea at night," he said strongly and clearly, and then he immediately thought of a ghost story he had heard regularly. Someone had given a ride to a girl and then in the middle of the drive, the girl disappeared. --The ghost tale went something like that.

It can't be. He turned to look at her. Although the girl in the passenger seat was quietly hanging her head, no matter how he looked at her, she didn't seem to be a ghost.

"What are you looking for?"

She lifted her head. "The ki."

"A tree?" [note: among other things, "ki" can mean "tree" in japanese.]

Is she talking about a tree? He turned to look at her.

"I'm looking for the ki, because I haven't been able to find him, so I've been distressed."

"Oh?" he replied dubiously.

"Don't you know him?"

When he was asked this, he shook his head.

"Is 'ki' a name? So you're not talking about something like a gingko or pine tree?"

"Yes," she nodded. "I'm looking for Taiki."

"Taiki... Is that a guy?" he asked.

She shook her head. "It isn't a person."

In an instant he stared fixedly at her. In his head, he felt that it didn't have any meaning, and that he couldn't understand it. He felt a chill as he was shut in the small space of the car with this girl whose background he didn't know.

"Don't you know Taiki?"

"No...I don't." As he said this, he stepped on the gas. The needle of the speedometer rushed up. Although he was still trying out his new car, now was not the time to be thinking about things like that.

"Is the entrance to the new town okay for you?" It's better to say that it was a reminder than to say that it was an inquiry. He didn't want to take this girl any farther. The girl nodded silently. He said nothing as he sped up a hill.

- - - - -

As the car raced about for about ten minutes, it was hard to see the traffic lights in front of it. Because it was deep in the night, they had all changed to flashing light signals. Across the intersection, he could see shadow of the new town. All around, a sparse number of cars began to drive past them.

He sighed, and looked to the side. The girl simply sat hanging her head. He thought his own unfounded fears laughable, and then tried to talk to her again. His courage had increased a little bit.

"We can see the residential neighborhood now. What do you want to do? Do you just want me to take you to the entrance? Or do you want to..."

Keep going? Before he could finish, he swallowed his words stiffly. The girl looked up hesitantly.

"You..." He wanted to speak, but he couldn't say anything. The car was surrounded by darkness. His image reflected off of the window, and he looked through it over to the passenger seat. The figure of the girl wasn't there. He turned to the windshield and saw the passenger seat empty without even a shadow.

A chill crept from the bottom of his feet. He locked his line of sight dead ahead, forcing himself not to look at her. It was then that he suddenly heard a whining sound, like the whine of melting plastic. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the sight of the figure of the girl slowly collapsing.

He couldn't stand it any longer and turned toward the passenger seat. All that was left in the seat was a bubble about the size of a person that was in the midst of gradually melting.

He stepped on the emergency brake. Under the strange centrifugal force, the scene all around spun continuously. When the car stopped, it was splayed horizontally across the road. It was good that there were currently no cars passing by.

He composed his breathing and looked to the side. Other than the trace of having been soaked by water, the passenger seat was devoid of anything at all.
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Chapter 4

1

After school let out on Monday, Hirose saw Takasato in the classroom. Thick clouds drifted in the heavy sky. The sky was getting darker earlier than usual. The sound of an announcement was transmitted from some far away place in the school. The uproarious noise of the cheer squad came in waves from the schoolyard.

Hirose was aimlessly wandering the school grounds. He unconsciously walked towards the 2-6 classroom, and as a result, he found Takasato sitting there by himself.

- - - - -

"Takasato, are you alone?"

He needed a little bit of courage, but Hirose still tried his best to say this as if nothing had happened at all. Takasato looked back at Hirose. Scattered on the desks around him were some props for what use he didn't know.

"Where are the others?" asked Hirose.

Takasato replied in an indifferent tone, "They went to buy things."

"Can I talk with you for a little bit? Will that bother you?"

"Sure."

His responses were still as short as they could be. Hirose was about to ask something, but then realized that he didn't know what he should ask. He didn't know what was appropriate to talk about.

"Takasato...you had to redo a year?" He sounded it out with this question. Takasato looked straight at Hirose, and used an expressionless sound to reply.

"Yes."

"Was it because you were sick?"

Hirose himself felt that asking this question was a bit mean, but as the person who was asked this, Takasato didn't appear to particularly care. He replied very naturally.

"I think I've been spirited away before."

"Previously, Hashigami said that, but the so-called spiriting away..."

"I guess I just disappeared."

Hirose stared at Takasato's face. No expression appeared on his face.

"I don't quite...understand."

After he said this, Takasato tilted his head a little bit.

"On a certain day, I vanished. After a year, I reappeared. So everyone says that I was spirited away."

"How did you spend that time?"

"I don't remember."

"You don't remember anything at all?"

"No."

An indifferent voice and an indifferent expression, he looked as if he was simply stating a fact.

"Does talking about this make you uneasy?" asked Hirose directly. Takasato tilted his head.

"Well..."

"Well...? Isn't it a question about how you feel?"

Takasato looked to be considering something, and then he looked straight up at Hirose in a way approaching rudeness.

"Why do you want to know?" This was the first question Takasato had ever asked of Hirose.

"I'm not quite clear on that myself."

After Hirose said this, he smiled thinly, a bit embarrassed.

"Weren't you doing that painting?"

"Yes."

"I feel like you want to remember what happened. Right?"

Takasato nodded.

"Why is that?"

"Because I don't remember."

What a detached answer. Hirose sighed quietly. He hesitated for a moment and decided to try out telling Takasato something about himself that he rarely spoke of.

"When I was little, I almost died."

After Hirose said this, Takasato looked a little stunned. For the first time on that blank face, there appeared something that could be called an expression.

"I think it was shock caused by an injection. I don't really remember what happened anymore, but at the time, I felt like I had seen another world."

"Was it a near-death experience?"

"Yes. There was a sky with unimaginable colors and wetlands that were filled with white flowers in bloom. A clear and deep river flowed, and in the distance there was a bridge. I walked forward along the river. The air wasn't hot, nor was it cold, and no matter how far I walked, I didn't get tired. I looked around at the scenery as I walked with uncertainty. When every now and then a small bird or fish would come out, I would play with them. None of the things that appeared there were shy. I guess I was probably walking toward the bridge. I just felt like I had walked a long while." Hirose thought of the scenes that he had mulled over time and time again. "That's about all I remember. I don't remember how I got there or how I got back. I just remember it being a beautiful place."

Takasato didn't say anything.

"I seemed to be unconscious for three days. I think it happened to me when I was six. From then on, whenever something happened to me, my parents would say, 'Who told you to be a child that almost died.' It didn't matter if it was something good or something bad, but I think it probably happened more when something bad happened."

Takasato nodded. It looked as if that was something about Hirose with which Takasato found resonance.

"Perhaps it was because my parents always said that to me that I made these memories up myself, but I feel quite certain that I'd seen those scenes before."

Hirose laughed at himself. Hirose didn't get along with his mother to the extent that people felt it hopeless. His mother tried to restrain Hirose, but Hirose hated being restrained the most. His mother wanted to blame this on his near-death experience. Currently, it was still like this. Hirose felt that it pointless to go home, but his mother always accused him of being a son who never went home. Whenever he used his part-time job or lab experiments as excuses in an attempt to get out of it, his mother would say this and hang up the phone. She would say, "You've thrown all the feelings you had for your parents there."

"Every time I feel discouraged, I think back to that place. When I'm lost in thought, I feel like that place is the world in which I truly belong, and it's not a so-called other world. I realized that the reason that I don't get along with my parents and that I don't get along with my teachers is all because I don't belong with the people here. --Up until now, I still feel a little bit like that."

Takasato nodded, and his face revealed a sincere expression.

"I understand."

"Yes, I thought you would."

Takasato blinked his eyes, and then looked down. He stared at his own hands resting on the desk.

"At the time, I was standing outside of the house. It was a really old house, and there was a storehouse in a corner of the courtyard. I guess it might be better to say that one side of the courtyard was separated by the storehouse... Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, for the most part."

"I was standing in the courtyard. And then, in the corner of the yard there was a pale arm."

Takasato's expression was full of longing.

"The wall was right next to the storehouse. There was only a gap in between the wall and the storehouse big enough for a cat to pass through. That arm had extended out of that gap, and it was beckoning to me."

"Was it just...an arm?" A pale, white arm. Hirose's brow was slightly creased.

"Yes, the gap was really small. There was no way a person could fit into there. The arm was pale and bare and like a woman's, reaching out from the gap. It kept waving at me."

"Didn't you feel at all uneasy?"

Takasato laughed lightly. "I guess. But at the time, I didn't feel uneasy or scared. Actually for some reason, I felt extremely safe and extremely happy."

"Because of that arm?"

"Yes. And then I walked in the direction of that arm."

"And then?"

Takasato shook his head. "That was it. I remember myself walking in that direction in the yard, but I don't remember if I reached the corner of the yard anymore. I don't remember any of the things that happened afterwards."

The white arm that appeared frequently. What exactly was it? Were all these factors somehow related to each other?

"When I regained consciousness, I realized that I was walking on the road. I felt like there was a short amount of time when I was walking uncertainly, and then suddenly I came to my senses. I looked around and then tried to figure out where I was. And then I realized that I was next to my house. From where I was, I could tell that a funeral was proceeding at my house. In my head I thought, who'd died? It wasn't until I went to look that I knew it was my grandmother's funeral."

Takasato's face was bare of any expression.

"I walked into the house and everyone there was extremely taken aback. Various people crowded around me, and it wasn't until then that I knew I had already disappeared for over a year."

"You don't remember what happened in that period of time? Nothing at all?"

"Right. Sometimes, I feel like I only remember some colors or some sort of impression, but after thinking about it over and over, I still can't remember."

Takasato sighed quietly.

"But I feel like in that period of time, I was in some place, and it was a place that made me feel extremely comfortable. Because every time I want to remember, I always feel a strong yearning."

Takasato smiled weakly. It was a genuine smile.

"I feel like I was extremely happy when I was there, so that's why I have a feeling of longing that almost approaches sadness."

"Is that what the painting is about?"

"Yes." Takasato nodded. "I was thinking that if I painted it, it might be able to remember more clearly, but it still doesn't work. When I feel like I've remembered something and am just about to paint, the impression I have gets muddled."

His expression really revealed a sorrow. The one thing that Hirose could be sure of was that Takasato wholeheartedly wanted to remember that period of time.

"I see..." Various different trains of thought were roiling about in his head. Hirose didn't know what else he could say, so he could only respond to Takasato in this way. Takasato was someone who had lost his native land, just like Hirose. What he felt in his heart was a strong resonance. There was no way he could or even wanted to believe that Takasato had the intention of taking revenge on the people around him.

2

Not long afterwards, the group that had gone out to buy things came back in a clamoring pack.

"Eh? Hirose sensei." The one who shouted this with an energetic voice was Iwaki.

Hirose raised his hand in response and slid off of the desk upon which he had been sitting. He gave Takasato a "later," and then made as to leave.

"What? Hirose sensei, are you going back?"

"Can you help us? You came here especially to help us, didn't you? That's so nice of you."

Hearing the students volunteering him to help them, Hirose could only smile dryly, and then Iwaki handed a paper bag over to him.

"This is Hirose-kun's poster paint. You can use it however you like."

"I know, I know." Hirose put the paper bag on the desk. "I'm going to go let Gotou-san know."

- - - - -

Student teachers came every year in September. Furthermore, it had been decided that the athletics festival would also be held in September. The reason that the athletics festival was held when the student teachers came was so that they could avoid the advancement of class work being put off. Hirose searched his own memory and he recalled that the very first class after the athletics festival was a research class. He remembered there being student teachers around during the preparation for the athletics festival, but he never had the impression that the student teachers worked with the students on it. Was the fact that the students often got him to do things because he was especially good with them? Or was it that the students that made use of him were clever and knew to use people when they could use people?

He returned to the prep room to tell Gotou about it, soliciting a mocking laugh from him but nothing much else. After he finished writing in his training journal and asked Gotou to stamp it, he proceeded back to the classroom. When he arrived at the front of the 2-6 classroom, he felt like there had been some sort of argument inside.

"What happened?" he asked as he entered the classroom, and saw simply a student named Okada turn back to look at him.

"Hirose sensei, please stop Iwaki."

Hirose saw Iwaki standing in the middle of a circle of students. He was standing in front of Takasato's desk, looking down at Takasato with a hostile face.

"What's going on, Iwaki?"

Without even looking at Hirose, he muttered, "Nothing." He kept glaring at Takasato with that hostile look, while Takasato simply looked up at Iwaki expressionlessly.

"What happened, Takasato?"

Takasato didn't reply. All he did was return Iwaki's look without any expression.

"Iwaki, what's going on?"

Iwaki finally turned to look at Hirose. "Didn't Tsuiki take the day off today? All I did was tell him that it'd be best if he went to Iwaki's house and talked with him for a bit."

More than half the students looked very anxious. The other half, perhaps because they didn't know the circumstances, simply looked as if they weren't involved, some appeared a little baffled and some also appeared to have had their curiosity piqued, as they looked at Iwaki and then at Takasato.

"That guy actually just needs crutches to come to school, but he didn't because he was afraid. So I thought it would be better if someone went to talk it over with him. If he just lets these misunderstandings go unexplained, the mysterious rumors'll just get more and more ridiculous." After Iwaki said this, Iwaki simply creased his brow. "What spiriting away? What curse? We're already high school students, and we're still talking about that stinking kid's stuff. The people who talk about it like it's real are being irresponsible, but Takasato, the one doesn't say anything at all, is to blame too. Just clear everything up already!"

"Iwaki, stop it." A student standing next to Iwaki quietly rebuked him. Actually, it was less a rebuke than it was a warning. A feeling of crisis permeated the place.

"Are you stupid!?" Iwaki glared at that student. "Do you believe it too? How can there be anything like a curse? If I die because of this, it won't be a curse, it'll be retribution. Unless Takasato kills me with his own hands, regardless of what happens to me, it'll be purely chance."

Iwaki didn't cover up his shock.

"This is a problem of probability. It's because of Takasato's personality that other people make things difficult for him. There must be a lot of people who bully you on their own, right? There are a lot of people like that, and among them there'll also be people who get into accidents or die. It's a question of their own luck. What does that have anything to do with Takasato?"

"Iwaki, that's enough." Hirose spoke up to stop him. Iwaki appeared stunned.

"What? Could it be that Hirose sensei believes in this too?"

"It's not like this."

"Then what is it like?" Hirose didn't reply. Iwaki bent his mouth. "Really, can no one think for themselves?"

Tsuiki probably didn't even want to see Takasato. Even if Takasato did go, he would most likely not get to see Tsuiki. Tsuiki believed that Takasato had cursed him. Now, it was no longer important how things really were. No matter if Takasato did go see Tsuiki, and no matter what he said, everything would just add to Tsuiki's uneasiness.

Suddenly, Iwaki raised his hand. A sound both horrible and biting made everyone in the room hold their breath.

"Keeping with this, I'll probably die, huh?" said Iwaki mockingly as he looked at the students around him. All the students that had seen everything happen very obviously looked even more distressed than Takasato, who had just been slapped. "Don't hold back. Go ahead and curse me."

Takasato simply looked at Iwaki. Neither the slightest bit of anger nor dissatisfaction could be seen in his face. His very slightly creased brow was the only clue to the thoughts of Takasato that people feared.

"What a joke," said Iwaki as he laughed lightly, and then he went and picked up the props that were scattered everywhere. "What are you all still looking at? Get back to work!"

Iwaki sat down in a chair to the side with a thud, and then everyone started to move. Each person would occasionally sneak glances at Iwaki and Takasato. The two who had been involved were both expressionless. Iwaki tossed the unopened packages and memo paper to Takasato.

"Cut the cloth off."

Takasato nodded silently, as he picked up the scissors next to his hand.

3

"Hey." During the lunch break of the next day, the first person who showed up at the prep room was Iwaki. Hirose greeted him and Iwaki smiled.

"How about it? I haven't died yet."

"So it appears."

"There've been no accidents or surprise attacks. All is well."

Hirose simply smiled and nodded.

"When I went into the classroom this morning, everybody looked like they'd seen a ghost. What a bunch of idiots."

Hirose simply smiled dryly and took out a beaker. "Is coffee all right?"

"Are you serving? What great treatment."

"Bravery award."

Iwaki smiled. "Are you saying I deserve it? --How's Tsuiki now?"

"I think he took today off too."

"What a useless guy."

Hirose handed the beaker over to him.

"It's a belief issue."

"What do you mean?"

"Aren't there people who pray for good luck before a test? That's exactly the type of problem this is."

"Ah, I see."

"Actually, if someone has time to go to a shrine and pray, it'd probably be more realistic if they used that time to study a little more. But stopping other people based on that reasoning would be too obviously insensitive."

"Perhaps."

Iwaki smiled wryly. At this time, the door opened and Hashigami poked his head in.

"Yo."

Iwaki raised a hand in greeting.

"You look energetic, Hashigami-san. How's your injury?"

"I had a fever yesterday; it was horrible. It hurts a little bit, but it's really nothing."

"Gonna fess up to your bad luck?"

"Shut up!"

Hashigami looked like his spirits were quite good. Though his left hand was bundled up with a thick bandage, it didn't look like it affected him much. When Hashigami joined the ranks of the coffee-drinkers, three more students came in while chatting with each other. The first one who came in was Nozue and he groaned as soon as he saw Iwaki.

"Iwaki-san."

"Yo."

"I heard you were up against Takasato yesterday. You all right?"

Iwaki brought the beaker to his lips as he glared at Nozue.

"Don't be ridiculous. What exactly is going through that brain of yours?" He set his empty beaker down roughly. "Also, how did you find out?"

Nozue pointed his eyes at Sakata, who'd been standing behind him. Iwaki looked at Sakata.

"Who knew that everyone paid so much attention to Takasato? It looks like maybe we should be calling him an idol."

From the time when school let out the day before until the current day's lunch break, the gossip had already reached all the other classes. These were truly exceptional circumstances.

"What did Takasato do?" asked Hashigami. Iwaki smiled.

"They're all saying that Takasato curses people. What happened to Hashigami-san is also because of Takasato's curse."

Hashigami looked at his left hand, and then laughed. "Idiotic."

"That's what I'm saying!" Iwaki laughed and then looked up at the ceiling. "Takasato sure is a weird guy. When I hit him, he didn't get mad at all."

"He didn't get mad?" asked Nozue.

Iwaki smiled and said, "He wasn't mad. If he had the guts to get mad when stuff like that happens, then there wouldn't be any of those rumors. Maybe it's because he doesn't get mad, and that makes people uncomfortable, so it scares them."

"Huh?" Hashigami looked at Iwaki. "What did you do?"

"I smacked him." Iwaki moved his hand in a slapping motion.

"Why'd you do that?"

For some reason, Nozue looked a little satisfied.

"So your meaning was that if he could curse you, he should go right ahead and do it, huh?"

"That's not what I said." Iwaki denied it insistently. Nozue put on an innocent face and explained it to Hashigami.

"I heard he said to Takasato, just try and kill me! And then he slapped him across the face. Then he yelled at him, if you're going to curse me, then I'd like to see it! He even yelled at other people, I can't believe you guys are so scared of such nonsense!"

"I knew how the rumors would be exaggerated," sighed Iwaki. Hashigami looked at him cheerfully.

"Who knew Iwaki was so brave?"

"Whatever."

"They said you smacked him and Takasato didn't get mad? He must have. Were you just being gentle?"

"What? No..." Iwaki being shy was an amusing sight.

"But regardless of whether or not you were being nice, most people get mad when they're slapped in the face," said Nozue. Iwaki nodded in agreement.

"Right? Is it just that people are raised that way? I think he's just a coward."

Sakata quietly said, "Isn't it a little bit too early to relax?"

After he finished he smiled weakly. Iwaki couldn't help but raise his eyebrows.

"So you'd like to see me die?"

"That's not what I said." Sakata seemed to be enjoying himself. "Since Takasato is definitely a difficult kind of guy, I think it's too early to let your guard down right now. Iwaki-kun, you should be careful."

Iwaki laughed coldly. "And I hope you don't anger Takasato with what you're saying."

"That won't happen. I'm not the kind who's going to go provoke Takasato's anger..."

"Oh yeah?"

"No, really! I think Takasato is amazing." His tone seemed like it was full of anticipation. Everyone was disappointed and stopped talking. Iwaki wasn't happy and creased his brow as he stood up. Nozue called to him.

"Iwaki-san."

"I have gym during fifth period," Iwaki said as he waved his hand. The rest of the people watched him leave, and he left behind a strange, stifling atmosphere.

"Sakata-san, Iwaki-san's angry now," said Nozue. Sakata smiled weakly.

"Really?"

"Did I really need to say it? What you said sounded like you wanted Iwaki to die."

"That's not what I meant. That never even crossed my mind. I was just letting him know that it's best not to belittle Takasato..."

"What do you mean belittle? There's no such thing as curse."

"I'm not so sure of that."

"Well, suppose there is a curse..."

Hashigami glanced at his left hand for a second. This action didn't escape Hirose's notice.

"Iwaki just said that to be nice. I don't think Takasato would be stupid enough not to understand that."

Nozue nodded vigorously.

"If you look at it that way, then Iwaki-san sure is a really decent guy."

Sakata smiled as well. "They do say, keep your nose out of other people's business..."

His smile made them shudder. Iwaki's behavior had definitely been out of kindness; Takasato probably knew that. However, why did people then feel so uneasy?

Hirose thought this over for a while. He didn't know why, but he wasn't able to calm the fearful trembling in his heart.

4

Fifth period on Tuesday was a Science-I class. That day, class was being held in the lab. The first year students were busy plating 10-yen coins. For a while, the silver 10-yen coins could be seen in the store occasionally, flying through the air, probably causing the lady at the counter to duck down amidst the chaos.

After two-thirds of the class was over, Hirose at last breathed a sigh. Gotou was sitting half-asleep in the back of the lab, and all Hirose had to do was to prompt the students from time to time. He finally had some extra time to look out the window.

The wide sports area was outside the window of the lab, and there were currently students there attending gym class. According to custom, all the gym classes before the athletics festival were used as practice for the events of the festival. From the looks of it, the students were practicing for the cavalry battle today. Many schools had considered this activity too dangerous and had cancelled it on those grounds, but at this school, it was seen as a tradition, and so they kept it.

Takasato and Iwaki are probably out there, thought Hirose casually. Although, he didn't know exactly where they were.

Glancing absently in that direction, Hirose immediately noticed something small and strange happening.

It was a spot. A small shadow-like spot had appeared under the feet of the disorderly students. It was a completely clear day with sunlight so bright that the sand in the sports area reflected white. The shadows of the students were both small and dark. The spot that appeared beneath their feet was about the size of a puddle and looked like a spray of water. As if groundwater was seeping up to surface, the puddle quickly expanded, and in a glimmer, it engulfed the feet of all the students.

Hirose pressed his face against the window, which was closed tightly because of the air conditioning. Neither the entangled students nor the teachers that watched from the sidelines appeared to notice that stain.

"Gotou-san," Hirose called out quietly, and Gotou, who had been resting his chin in his hands while leaning on the window frame, opened his eyes a sliver.

"Eh?"

His heart beat anxiously. Takasato and Iwaki were both out there.

Gotou looked out the window and then stood up. Hirose knew that some of the students doing experiments were looking over suspiciously.

Gotou opened the window and shouted, "Hey!" At just about the same time, there was the sound of a whistle. The tumult of the cavalry dispersed as they separated themselves to either side. The stain that had discolored the surface of the sports area also faded as if it was evaporating under the harsh light of the sun.

In the midst of the current of people returning in bunches to their own sides, there appeared an isolated shadow. It was a student. His entire person was lying on the ground, not moving at all. However, for a shadow normally made by a person who had fallen over, it was a little bigger and had a strange color to it as it fell under the student's body.

It was Iwaki. It had to be.

They saw the gym teacher yelling something as he began to run. The white gym uniform of the student lying on the ground was discolored with smudges of sand and blood.

Hirose rushed out. Behind him, he could hear Gotou's hoarse voice.

"Everybody sit down! Be quiet and remain seated!"

- - - - -

Hirose sprinted down the stairs and ran to the sports area in his indoor shoes. That place was already permeated with a panicked atmosphere.

"What happened?" Hirose peeled his way through the circular wall of students, urgently rushing up to the front of the students. All the sand was white. A student was lying in the middle of the circle. Standing at the side was a student teacher in physical education. He was bent at the waist and looked as if he was ready to get away at any time.

"What's going on?" asked Hirose as he panted. In his head he was thinking, was there any question stupider than that? One look at the situation was all that was needed to know that something serious had happened.

The student teacher looked at Hirose, and then he turned around and began vomiting. A few of the students had also squat down, holding their heads.

Hirose didn't know if the student lying there was Iwaki or not. Though he was lying face up, Hirose couldn't distinguish him by his face. His entire face had become a ripe red lump of flesh. Blood and mud clung indiscriminately to his gym uniform. At a glance, he could see that countless muddy footprints and countless blood-stained footprints had chaotically trampled over his body.

"Where's the teacher?" asked Hirose. The gasping student teacher sputtered only "telephone" between breaths. The chest covered up by the school uniform had just stopped moving a little before. Hirose could see the name "Iwaki," written on the shirt in an area stained with blood.

Hirose looked around at all of the students.

"What happened?" He tried asking, though he actually had an idea already. "How could no one have noticed that Iwaki had fallen down?"

No one in the circle replied.

"Who was in his cavalry team?"

"Sensei..." A voice on the verge of tears spoke up from behind him. Three students stood closely to each other in front of the circle of people. They were 2-5 students.

"You guys?"

They nodded. They looked like frightened grade school students.

"It couldn't have been like this." One of them couldn't hold it in any longer and began sobbing. "Iwaki was supporting my leg. From the time the whistle blew to before we came apart, there was always, always someone holding onto my left leg!"

Murmur, murmur. The people around were in commotion.

"If it wasn't Iwaki, then who could it have been?"

The other two nodded as well, displaying a fretful demeanor.

"There was definitely someone beside me. I didn't see his face, but our arms were pulled together. If he wasn't there anymore, I would know for sure. How could this have happened?"

"We didn't know that Iwaki fell down. If you think about it, if Iwaki had fallen over, I would have fallen right after him, but really, nothing happened at all. If Iwaki'd disappeared, when who was holding onto my arm the whole time?"

The people around erupted into a commotion again and the circle opened up in an odd spot. Standing in front was an uncertain Takasato.

Hirose could hear a person somewhere whispering. He couldn't hear it very clearly, but Hirose could imagine what they were talking about. The circle of people was saturated with an unusual atmosphere. It's too dangerous, thought Hirose in an instant.

"Takasato."

It was too dangerous here. This place with a horrible dead body laying there was too dangerous.

"Go to the prep room."

Takasato looked at Hirose as if he had something to say.

"Hurry up! Go to the chemistry prep room and wait there for me, all right?"

Takasato nodded lightly, and then turned and left. The gym teacher walked past him on his way back.

5

It was in this way that gym class was cut short. The students had been called back to their classrooms, and the first years that had been in the lab had gone back to their classrooms as well. The school administration directed the entire student body to self-study. An ambulance had hurried its way there, and it was discovered that Iwaki was still just barely alive, but in the end, he had died in the ambulance.

The assistant headmaster and the dean repeatedly queried the students about the sequence of events, but all they found out was that no one had realized Iwaki had fallen down, and at the same time, no one realized that they had stepped on anyone.

All of sixth period was a self-study session and the school officials had convened an emergency meeting. It looked now as if the athletics festival was going to be called off for certain.

- - - - -

When the long meeting ended, it was already past nine at night.

"So they're going to cancel the athletics festival? They probably won't have the cavalry battle anymore starting next year."

Gotou muttered while in the dark hallway on the way back from the faculty office.

"...Yep."

"Did you see it too?"

"The stain?"

"Yeah."

"I did."

"Do you think it's related?"

Hirose shut his mouth. He didn't think it was unrelated. That discoloration must have had a lot to do with the accident that killed Iwaki.

Replying nothing, he maintained his silence. When they reached the stairway, Gotou patted his shoulder.

"I'll be heading back now. I'll leave it up to you to close up," said Gotou simply. He took off his white lab coat and handed it over to Hirose, and then he went down the stairs that led to the first floor.

- - - - -

Hirose hung his head uncertainly as he walked silently down the hall. Just an hour before it happened, he'd even seen and talked to a lively Iwaki. Walking into the prep room, Iwaki'd said: How about it? I haven't died yet.

Hirose closed his eyes and sighed deeply as he opened the door to the prep room. Iwaki would never again open this door like Hirose was doing now and walk into the prep room. A second year student. Seventeen years old. Only seventeen.

It was dark within the unlit prep room. None of the lights in the hall were on either, but the dim light casting from both the sports area and the courtyard made it so that the prep room wasn't completely dark. Thin curtains hung from above the windows, and the cold fabric fluttered gently as he drew them tightly closed. Under the light coming in from the sports area, it looked like a square-shaped water's surface. The prep room in itself was like a large square well. Hirose looked into it, a well both dark and empty.

The mysterious feeling of the easel which Gotou had placed in front of the window pulled Hirose back to reality. The appearance of the paints that filled the canvas glistened moistly. Hirose glanced over there and immediately stiffened. As he stood in the doorway, he gasped.

He discovered a person sitting on the floor underneath the waist-high windows. Under the dim lighting, he couldn't tell who it was, but Hirose could see that he was wearing a gym uniform. He was sitting there, hugging his knees and looking at Hirose. In a split second, Hirose thought of Iwaki--how he had usually looked and his tragic appearance just then--he was about to back away when he suddenly thought of something else.

"Takasato...?"

From the dark room came a reply. "Yes."

Hirose turned on the light. Seeing for sure that the person standing up was Takasato, he let out a sigh of relief.

"I'm sorry. I'd forgotten about you," Hirose hurriedly apologized. "It's my fault. I was too upset."

"It's okay."

He couldn't sense any emotion in Takasato's voice.

- - - - -

"I'm really sorry." Hirose pulled a chair out for Takasato and then went to brew some coffee.

"It's okay. Thank you."

"I feel really bad, so please don't."

Takasato shook his head. "Because when I was there, I was a little scared."

"Really?" Hirose used a handkerchief to pad it and handed the coffee to Takasato. Takasato opened his eyes widely, and then revealed a faint smile as he received it.

"Can I ask you a question?" He asked quietly after he took a sip of coffee.

"What is it?"

"Why did you tell me to come here?"

"Because that place was drenched in an unpleasant mood."

"Were you protecting me? Or where you isolating me?"

Hirose glanced at Takasato. His eyes held fast to Hirose's look, not moving one bit. They radiated an air of utmost sincerity that didn't allow for lies or deceit.

"My intention was to protect you."

His silent gaze was still fixed upon Hirose.

"Takasato... Are you familiar with the rumor that if anyone angers you, they'll be cursed?" asked Hirose. Takasato simply nodded. "What's really going on?"

Takasato looked away and was silent for a moment.

"...I've realized that a lot of the people around me get into accidents or die. They all look like they have something to do with me, and that's what everyone's afraid of. But, that's not how it is."

"What's not how it is?"

Takasato sighed. "None of those things had anything to do with whether or not I was mad."

Hirose looked at Takasato. Takasato was simply looking down, staring at the beaker in his hands.

"Weren't you mad at Iwaki?"

"Why would I be mad at him?"

Hirose nodded. Takasato wasn't stupid; at least he was able to understand Iwaki's intention. "Then what about Hashigami and Tsuiki?"

Takasato lifted his head and tilted his neck slightly. "Hashigami... Is that that third year?"

"Yes."

"He was saying something about living experiments. I just thought he was one of those people who said weird things. As for Tsuiki, it wasn't anything...because everyone was saying the same thing."

Hirose smiled dryly. "I guess you're right."

"It's just that when people are saying that something's going to happen, it's a little annoying."

"Like when they said that accidents were going to happen to Tsuiki or Hashigami?"

"Yes. I feel like if it turns out to be true, that's really annoying."

Hirose was a little hesitant, but he still asked in a surveying manner, "Then what about what happened on the field trip?"

Takasato looked up at Hirose, and then smiled wryly. "Even when someone hits me, I don't get mad."

"Why?"

"Because it's not something that can be helped. Because I'm not like other people, so people can't accept my presence."

His tone was so indifferent. Hirose stared at him, and Takasato lifted his head.

"...Doesn't that make you angry? That your presence isn't tolerated?"

"But it's because I'm like a different species of creature that's been mixed up here." Takasato looked at his hands as he said this. "When something is obviously different, but they can't figure out what it is, people will inevitably feel discomfort. Because, people have no way to decide if this thing is harmful or harmless. Plus, I look like I'm harmful, so it's even more unavoidable."

Hirose felt like Takasato was talking as if he wasn't talking about himself.

"So even if I do get hit, I don't have any special feelings... But, everyone still dies."

A chill immediately ran up his back. Just because Takasato's tone was so indifferent, it made Hirose feel what he'd just said was even more frightening.

"...Why is it like that?"

Takasato's tone sounded as if he really couldn't figure it out.

"Is it really because of me?" asked Takasato, seemingly to himself.

"You're not the cause." Though Hirose didn't have this sort of self-confidence, for the time being he comforted Takasato in this way. Takasato still hung his head and didn't look up. Hirose pondered silently for a moment and then looked away.

What was that thing, that strange discoloration that appeared on the sports grounds? If Iwaki had already fallen down, then who was holding up the cavalry team? Everything showed that these were bizarre circumstances that couldn't be figured out with common sense.

The spiriting away, the rumors of the curse, the hand that grabbed hold of Tsuiki's leg, the person who had pounded a nail into Hashigami's hand.

--There were too many things that couldn't be explained.

Hirose peered at Takasato.

He didn't think that it was all unrelated. Everything that had happened had some sort of connection, and the center of it all was Takasato.

"...There just isn't any reason for it."

Hearing Takasato mumble this to himself, Hirose lifted his head. Takasato stared into space with a blank look on his face.

"There's just no reason that he had to die."

Hirose didn't reply. Takasato said nothing further.

* *
* * *

He was rushing along the night road. He was a sixth grade student and he lived an extremely busy life. His mom had said that a kid's work was to study. If that was true, then that work was a bit too arduous. He grumbled in his head.

At some point in time, his dad had started working for the bottom line, not coming home until the middle of the night. He remembered very well his father once saying that working more than 12 hours a day is unbearable. Well, I've been working 13 hours, he mumbled to himself. After school was over, he had to go to two cram classes. His mom always said that if he worked a little harder now, then it'll be easier later. He thought that that was a strange thing to say. After he got into junior high, it would most likely be like it was for the girl next door, attending cram school until late at night, and after he got into high school, he'd probably still have to go to cram school. After he grew up and got a job, he would have to work overtime to pay the bills.

"Working oneself to death isn't covered by workers' insurance," he muttered to himself, though he didn't really understand what that meant; it was just a complaint that had recently become popular in his cram classes.

In reality, he wasn't really that dissatisfied with the current situation. Going to cram school was a given, and he was also attending an exam course at a famous private junior high. This was evidence that he still had a sliver of hope remaining. Even so, he still hated going home this late. If he took shortcuts on this stretch of road between the station and his home, it wasn't actually very far. It was just that on the side of the shortcut was the long earthen wall of a temple that annoyed him and made him feel uneasy. In addition, the season brought with it the popularity of telling ghost stories at cram school. Today, during break time and on the train back home, he had heard plenty of unpleasant stories.

Because of that, in all honesty there were many places where he would anxiously rush past. After taking a right at the traffic light in front of the station, and then he taking the first turn after the next traffic light, he reached a one-way street. After walking across the one-way street and over the stone bridge hanging over a ditch, it was the road beside the temple.

On the right side of the unpaved 50-meter stretch of road was all earthen wall, and on the left side, there was a bamboo thicket. He broke into a jog, and in order to spur on the force of his movement, he swung his bag vigorously.

When he was only a little way past the bridge, a rustling came out of the bamboo thicket. His entire body froze and he stopped running. He looked back towards where the sound was coming from. If he didn't see anything, then perhaps he would start to run ahead. In reality, he saw within the thicket the back of a white dog and relaxed his shoulders. He immediately felt a bit embarrassed, knowing that he had been scared just then. Thus, when there was another rustling sound, he was calm as he looked over attentively at where the sound had come from.

The shape of the dog was blocked by the grass at the bottom of the thicket, so he couldn't see very clearly. However, because he could see its white fur and from that tell its size, he figured that it was probably another dog. A human figure appeared as if it was chasing the dog. He thought of the shiba inu that they raised at home and the trouble of taking the dog out for a walk.

The person that appeared out of the bamboo thicket was a young woman. She walked from the darkness as if she was protecting the dog, and then she looked up as though she felt his gaze. She looked a little like she had come straight out of those special effects TV shows he watched, a team member wearing a pink uniform.

After she glanced at the dog, she walked over to him. He could tell from her face that she wanted to say something. She then stopped walking.

When she reached the side of the road, her line of sight rested upon him, not moving at all. He first checked to see if she had legs, and then he looked up at her slightly tilted head. What a gentle person, he thought to himself.

"Do you know the ki?" Her warm voice sounded a little sorrowful.

"What ki? Like a tree with leaves?" [note: remember, "ki" can mean "tree" in japanese.]

"Taiki." She looked down at him.

"I've never heard of it before. Is it really important?"

She nodded and appeared mournful. In his head he thought, so the reason that she's come to such a deserted area so late at night with her dog is to look for something?

"Extremely important. I have constantly been looking. You haven't heard anything?"

"No, nothing. What kind of thing is it? Maybe I can go ask my friends about it for you."

She smiled faintly. "It's not a thing. It's a beast."

He peered into the bamboo thicket. That dog was still making rustling sounds. She might have been looking for the wife or husband of that dog.

"A dog? Named 'Ki'?"

She nodded. "Taiki is his name."

He tilted his head in doubt.

"I haven't heard anything. But, I'll ask around about it at school. Is it a dog that onee-san is raising? What kind is it?" He asked. She shook her head.

"Not a dog. It's the ki."

He still didn't understand.

"The ki of Taiou."

He didn't understand what she was talking about. "I've never heard of a ki. What does he look like?"

She shook her head.

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

She nodded. "The shape of everything here is distorted, so I don't know what he looks like."

He thought her talking to be strange. "Then there's no use looking."

"There are traces left behind."

He looked over in the direction of the dog whose nose was shoved into the grass.

"Is it like a smell?" That's why she'd brought the dog to look.

"It's like a light. Ordinarily, I can see it very clearly, but the traces of Taiki are faint. They are almost gone, so I don't know where he is."

He tilted his head. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't understand for sure what she was talking about.

"Perhaps he's sick..."

"Hm," he answered uncertainly, since he didn't know how to respond. She sighed and said thank you, and then went back into the bamboo thicket. He watched as she left and felt it unbelievable.

She faded directly into the thicket. When she passed the dog, she spoke to it softly. The dog's fur shuddered.

He was stunned, because the dog that lifted its head when she called to it had only one eye. He watched speechlessly as the woman and the dog pushed aside the grass and walked deeper into the thicket. In the distance, he could faintly see some sort of earthen wall.

She then made her way through the grass and walked into the wall. She disappeared into the wall with the dog as if they'd been sucked into it.

He screamed and afterwards, ran at full speed in the direction of his home.
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Chapter 5

1

The next day began with a morning assembly for the entire school. There, the school officials reported the news of Iwaki's death, and at the same time they announced that the athletics festival of the following week was cancelled.

After the assembly, they continued to follow the regular class schedule, but smaller meetings were convened again and again, so several classes were temporarily turned into study sessions. Hirose was notified that student teachers weren't required to attend the meetings, so he had nothing to do but sit in the prep room and stare into space. When he had gone to the student teacher break room, the topic of conversation circled around Iwaki. Going there only resulted in Hirose fielding question after question, and it had annoyed him.

The mood of the students was unsteady like they were attending some sort of memorial. In the morning, a lot of people who probably had something to do with broadcast media were gathered at the school gate. There was a very obvious difference between the views that the students held and those of the teachers, regarding these people. The school tried their hardest to keep their students away from media harassment--to prevent someone from saying something they shouldn't be saying, they hurriedly separated them, but many of the students deliberately allowed the swarming reporters to reach them, happy and untiringly answering their questions. The student who were like this were now continuously spreading an unsteady yet friendly, noisy atmosphere within school.

Though this was so, classes five and six of the second year had sunk low as expected, and many of them were absent. What had worn away at them wasn't the death of someone in their class, but the reality that they had killed a classmate. Even when the police had come after school to question about the things that happened, several students escaped to the infirmary or other places to avoid being seen. Because of the blood that had stained their shoes and socks, most of the students felt helplessly anxious. No matter how they were urged, none of them were willing to come out from their hiding places at any time.

Hirose simply looked absent-mindedly out the window. There was a small shadow on the white sand of the sports grounds. It was a small mound of sand made with a pile of new sand, on top of which there was even placed some fresh flowers.

It was tragic the way Iwaki looked when he died. Even the paramedics had had a hard time looking straight at him. He'd heard that Iwaki's mother, who had rushed to the hospital, kept asking, "Is this really my son?"

Thinking about these things, Hirose's mood fell into a valley. Just then he heard flustered footsteps outside. The committee leader Gotanda ran in.

"Where's Gotou sensei?" He asked as he panted. The uniform he was wearing was wrinkled and messy, as if he'd gotten into some sort of accident, and his face showed that what had happened was exceptionally unusual.

"He's in a meeting. What's wrong?"

"Please go and stop it. They're going to hang Takasato."

- - - - -

Hirose ran as quickly as he could to 2-6. When he reached the second floor where the classroom was, he saw only a few students gathered here and there in the hall. He pushed past the students and ran to the classroom. As soon as he entered the room, he saw a wall of students facing the window.

"What are you doing?"

A few students turned to look at him, but no one had the intention of dispersing. Not far from the wall of people were a few students huddled together with ashen faces. A few people had bruises on their faces as if they'd been hit.

"Stop!" Hirose grabbed on to the shoulders of the students in front of him, trying to force the crowd to separate, when he was suddenly attacked from the back.

"Don't get in the way!" growled a student angrily as he glared at Hirose. The classroom was full of a tension that could be called frenzy.

"Hey, stop it!"

Hirose tried to push apart the students around him, but was he was met with a countless number of hands throwing fists at him. All the students showed vicious faces.

"Takasato!" He was standing in the front of the wall of students. Hirose saw a few students pushing and tugging at him.

"You killed him, didn't you?"

"It was you, wasn't it?"

Hirose knew that they were talking about Iwaki. He wanted to shout that it wasn't like that, but someone had kneed him in the chest and it hurt so much that wasn't immediately able to say anything.

"The student teacher should butt out!"

Hirose's legs became weak. When he was on one knee, someone kicked him indiscriminately.

"What the fuck are you, Takasato? Are you really human?"

There was no reply, though it might have been that after a round of punching and kicking attacks from those around him, Hirose couldn't hear anything.

"Iwaki said that there was no such thing as a curse, but look, he's really dead!"

Through the legs of the crowd, Hirose saw that Takasato had already been driven next to the window. The agitation of the students had already reached a boiling point. This place was full of an urgently dangerous atmosphere.

"You guys, stop it!" Hirose picked himself up and forcefully pushed apart the students. As he was doing so, there would still occasionally be fists flying at him.

"Are you friends with this monster? There's no use helping him. Iwaki's already dead."

"Do you know what you guys are doing?"

"I do!" As this was said, a kick came at him. Just when he felt a pain coursing through the corner of his eye, a warm fluid started flowing out of his nose. Hirose desperately forced the students apart, making his way to the front row. Now, he felt as if the floor was rocking and wasn't able to stand up again. Hirose propped his forehead weakly on ground, and then two hands came and wrapped themselves around his shoulders. It was in this way that Hirose was restrained, though before the students had chosen to do this, he was already too weak to move.

Takasato saw Hirose and looked as if he wanted to run over to him, but he was blocked by the students who surrounded him.

"Apologize!"

Someone pushed Takasato over. Another grabbed hold of his collar.

"Apologize to Iwaki! It's all because of you that we're all involved!"

"Kneel down and swear that nothing like this'll ever happen again!"

Someone tried to push Takasato over and forcefully make him bow down. Someone else took hold of his hair, wanting to push his head down.

It happened then. Takasato, who hadn't resisted at all, shouted.

"No!" With the force of the yell, he realized the seething anger of the situation.

Takasato shook off the hand that was pressing down on him and twisted his body away from those who were viciously trying to push him over, staying close to the window. What was strange was that the Takasato who had pulled himself free of those restraining him and picked himself up, looked as if he'd been extremely shaken by something.

"Why not? You mean you're not gonna apologize?"

"You killed someone! Don't you feel anything?"

Takasato's eyes widened. The blood drained from his face, but he cried out.

"Don't push me! I can't!" His words provoked a round of verbal attacks. A few people got closer to Takasato and started pushing and hitting him again.

"Stop." Hirose's voice was hoarse and at the same time, he began to get extremely dizzy. He threw off the hands pushing him down and told himself that no matter what, he had to get up, but he had already lost his balance.

He saw that Takasato had been pushed to the window. Takasato's eyes widened with terror, but he wasn't resisting at all. He looked as if he was so stunned that he had forgotten to fight back.

This isn't good, Hirose thought to himself. This can't happen. He couldn't let them all become attackers. For their own sakes, this wasn't good.

--Revenge wasn't good.

Revenge, revenge, revenge wasn't good.

"Stop!" yelled Hirose, but it was too late. Takasato's yielding body disappeared out the window. There were sounds of cheering all around.

2

By the time a few of the teachers ran there, Hirose had already sunken into a haze, and it was very hard for him to maintain clarity of consciousness. Someone held on to him as he walked in the hall, and several times he fell to his knees, once throwing up. After walking what seemed like a long time, he finally fell over in the infirmary and fainted.

The next time he opened his eyes, Hirose realized that he was lying on a bed in the infirmary. He turned his severely aching head about, and while propped himself up, he saw Totoki.

"Are you all right?"

"...How's Takasato?"

Totoki walked towards Hirose and sat down at a corner of the bed. Hirose could feel his ears ringing heavily, as if he was walking through a tunnel, and it was like a white fog had covered his eyes so that he couldn't see clearly. He also couldn't move his mouth completely of his own volition.

"An ambulance took him away. I don't think he was hurt very badly. In some respects, you're the one with the heavier injuries."

Totoki's words were a relief to Hirose. He blinked hard a few times before his eyesight cleared up a bit.

"What time is it?"

"It's almost noon. Not much time has passed since the other teachers brought you in."

"...Can I get a glass of water?"

His mouth was full of the taste of blood and it was bitter. After he gargled with the water Totoki gave him, he felt much better.

"You've been through some pretty bad stuff."

"Where are the students?"

"They've been kept in the classroom. They're being reprimanded."

"And Gotou-san?"

"He went to class. At any rate, it'd be best if you rested for a while. You threw up, didn't you? Does your head still hurt? Any nausea?"

"No... I'm fine." Hirose held himself up and felt his entire body ache, but he wasn't dizzy at all.

"It'd be best if you went to the hospital."

"I'll go after I take care of something." Hirose got off the bed. He stood and inspected his body. It was no problem; he could already move. "Thanks for your help."

"Really, you should go to the hospital."

"I will." Hirose bowed his head and left the infirmary.

- - - - -

Hirose encountered Gotou as he was on his way back to class.

"Oh? You still alive, handsome guy?"

Hearing Gotou teasing him, Hirose laughed softly and looked down. Gotou smiled wryly and then patted Hirose's shoulder.

"What a mess."

"It's inexcusable. I was even there."

"It's no use for the injured to think so much about it. Anyways, you should go home, go to a hospital. It's dangerous that you were hit in head and then you vomited."

"I'm sorry..."

"It’s not your fault. I knew long ago that something like this was going to happen."

Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou cracked a dry smile.

"It's a revolution by force. Takasato spread politics of terror. I knew there would come a time that they would rise up."

"What about them?"

"They were chewed out by the assistant headmaster. Actually, whether there's a curse or not, how could they understand? But before we knew it, it became something serious. Because as they see it, those guys were just legitimately defending themselves. So, the more blame is laid on them, the more they'll pass it off as if it was innocent teasing."

"...Perhaps."

"Anyhow, go to a hospital. You can't help anyone in the condition you're in."

Hirose nodded, bowed his head, and suddenly asked, "Do you know what hospital Takasato was sent to?"

"I heard it was the Red Cross. I don't know why he was sent so far away, since his injuries weren't that bad, huh? He only fell from the second floor after all." After Gotou said this, he smiled wryly. "If you're going to the Red Cross, don't just go to visit. Go get yourself checked out. All right?"

Hirose nodded and continued down the hall.

- - - - -

He walked to the prep room to get his bag. When he opened the door, he saw a few students inside.

"...You're all here?"

"Hirose-san, are you all right?" The first to greet him was Hashigami.

"I'm okay. News sure travels fast."

"When something this big happens, everyone'll find out about it. Do you want anything to drink?"

"How about some water?" Hirose plopped weakly into a chair. For the current Hirose, coming back from the head office area could already be considered tolerable hard labor.

A beaker full of water was placed in front of him. Nozue snuck glances at Hirose's face.

"What a scary face. Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yeah," replied Hirose, noticing a bundle of chrysanthemum on the table. "Who brought those?"

"I did," said Nozue. "I always feel like Iwaki-san's here, so I brought them over from the classroom."

"I see..." Hirose gently touched the chrysanthemums, and then looked around the room. Sakata wasn't there.

"Where's Sakata?"

"Hashigami-san kicked him out."

Hirose looked at Hashigami, and he creased his brow.

"He looked like he was happy. I told him to get out, since we were in the middle of a wake."

"I see." Hirose nodded. So that's why these regulars were all gathered here.

"I heard that they're having Iwaki-san's funeral today. Hirose sensei, are you going?" asked Nozue. Hirose nodded.

- - - - -

A short moment later, Hirose left the school. He flagged down a taxi and took it to the hospital. The reception desk was already closed, and Hirose used this as an excuse not to get himself checked out. He turned to ask about Takasato's room. Takasato had been sent to a room on the sixth floor. When he got to the door, Hirose knocked lightly and then opened it. Only one of the curtains towards the corner of the room had been pulled shut. He looked around the room and nodded to the other patients. When he got to the corner, he gently pulled back the curtain.

His eyes went wide and then he immediately closed them.

Takasato was fast asleep with his hand hanging off the side of the bed. A white hand was holding onto his hand.

--Then, was it Takasato?

Suddenly, a scene of what had happened before came back to him. A shadow standing next to the window of the building.

From close up, the arm had a perfect composition. As if it was carved out of marble, it was the smooth arm of a beautiful woman. Moreover, he couldn't see any trace of the owner of the arm that reached out from under the bed. Before Hirose even had time to be more than a little surprised, the arm hurriedly let go of Takasato's hand and disappeared under the bed.

Hirose walked forward and bent down slightly to peek under the bed. Of course, there was nothing there.

Hirose stood in a daze for a while, and then took a deep breath. As he was troubling himself about whether or not to wake Takasato up, one of the patients behind him brought him a chair, probably thinking that Hirose had just bent over looking for a chair.

"Thank you." Hirose nodded his head. He pulled the curtain back and sat next to the bed. Then, he thought over the problem of Takasato.

- - - - -

Takasato woke up very quickly. Perhaps, he hadn't been in the deepest of sleeps. After he recognized Hirose, he widened his eyes and then propped himself up.

"Are you all right, Takasato?"

"Yes. I'm sorry." Takasato lowered his head quite a bit.

"It's not your fault. Don't think anything of it." As Hirose said this, he thought casually back to yesterday, when he had said much the same thing. "How are your injuries?"

Takasato shook his head. "Nothing big. Just some bruises and scrapes from the fall."

It was just the second floor, but the second floor of their school was pretty high up. In addition, the side path underneath was even lower by about another story, with a place below to park bicycles. Takasato had fallen right onto the concrete slope down to the bicycle lot. It was really a bit hard to believe that falling from three stories up would leave someone unharmed.

"Why didn't you fight back?"

Takasato hadn't fought back then, and this bothered Hirose a lot. Takasato was about to say something, but then shook his head, simply saying indifferently, "I was a bit shocked."

Hirose stood up and patted Takasato's shoulder, who was silently hanging his head.

"Are you going to be hospitalized?"

Takasato lifted his head and looked troubled.

"No... The doctor said I could go home, but..."

"But?"

It seemed as though Takasato found it hard to speak up. "No one's come to get me."

Hirose tilted his head, told him to "wait a moment," and left the hospital room.

- - - - -

Hirose went to the nursing station and told them who he was, and then asked in a probing way, "Can Takasato not go home yet?"

An older nurse was bewildered and said, "He's still a minor, so we told him that he needed to ask a guardian to come."

"And no one's come?"

"Yep. We gave them a call. His mother answered and said that she understood. Afterwards, we rang over there a few more times, but no one answered the phone..."

Hirose wrinkled his brow.

"What a worry. We need to get a family member of his to bring an insurance card to fill out these forms, and also to settle the medical fees."

"Let me take a look at them."

"Really? We would really appreciate it if you're willing to help out."

The nurse sighed delightedly. Hirose took the invoice the nurse gave him and put it in his pocket. He gave Gotou a call from the lobby and then left the hospital.

3

Hirose went home first to change out of his blood-spotted clothes before he made his way to Takasato's house, because though he had a jacket with him, by itself it wasn't able to cover up all the blood stains.

Takasato's house was located in the inner part of the old town by the sea. It was a private residence from an era already passed. It had been well maintained, but it was still hard to conceal a dark atmosphere.

Though the gate was closed tightly, it wasn't bolted, and so Hirose opened it by himself. Stepping stones extended out in an area overlaid with gravel. He walked upon the stones to the forbidding entrance hall and rang the doorbell. Inside, someone answered immediately. A little while after Hirose told them who he was, he heard footsteps and the door to the entrance hall opened.

The person who poked her head out was a middle-aged woman. He could tell that it was Takasato's mom with one look. She stood in the entryway with an appearance of evaluating the situation in her eyes, asking, "Might I ask what business you have?"

Hirose felt suspicious as he explained to her what had happened. "The hospital said that a long time had passed and no guardian had gone to the hospital, so he had no way of being discharged from the hospital and coming back..."

She pressed her hard lightly against her forehead. "Please tell him to come back on his own."

Hirose was a little astonished. No matter how good he tried to make it said, what she said wasn't at all like the attitude a mother should have toward a son who had fallen out of a window and was sent to the hospital in an ambulance.

After she tossed those words out, she turned away from Hirose, looking like she was about to close the door. Hirose hurriedly stopped her.

"Excuse me, but about the fee..."

"Ah." Her eyes widened and then she reluctantly invited Hirose into the entrance hall. Hirose stepped onto the dirt floor of the 3-tatami-wide room.

"How much is it?"

A little thrown off, Hirose took out the invoice and handed it to her. Did this woman regard him as someone the hospital sent to collect money?

"I think they need your insurance card too."

"I'll go get it."

"Wait a minute." Hirose called for the woman who was on her way inside to stop. "I'm not here especially to pressure you about the money. Why didn't you go to the hospital?"

She absent-mindedly turned a little towards him and gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm busy. It's a lot of trouble, but might I ask if sensei could go to the hospital for me?"

"You don't look very busy." Hirose's words couldn't help but carry barbs. He really couldn't understand this mother's attitude.

She suddenly turned around and looked at Hirose, glaring at him as if she was gazing at an enemy. "If he wants to come home, then he should come home on his own!"

Hearing her yelling, Hirose was immediately stunned into silence. She pointed at Hirose.

"If you want that child to come home, then why don't you just go and bring him home? I'm just too busy." Her tone had an unsympathetic feeling to it. It would be better to say that Hirose was feeling uncertain than to say that he was angry. He was completely at a loss as to why she was so heated.

"Okaa-san, Takasato-kun was injured, you know."

"So what?" she asked condescendingly. A rush of displeasure immediate rose up in Hirose. He couldn't hold it in any longer and said directly what was on his mind.

"Aren't you his mother?"

She stared at Hirose.

I..." She stamped her foot. "I don't care if that child comes back or not. If he wants to come back, I'm not going to stop him, because I am his mother."

When they say that someone's stunned speechless, they were probably referring to how he was feeling now, Hirose thought. As Hirose stood frozen in shock, she went quickly into the house and then came back to the entrance hall just as quickly, holding out an envelope and her insurance card.

"Why?" Hirose couldn't help but ask. She stepped down into the dirt floor of the hall in her bare feet and tried to put the items into Hirose's hand. He shook his hand away at once.

"He's different." She stared at Hirose. "Another death, am I right?"

Hirose didn't understand her meaning right away and tilted his head in doubt.

"Another of his classmates has died, haven't they? It's because of that child."

Hirose took a shallow breath. Her hands were in tight fists, and she trembled like an unhappy child.

"Did you think it was the first time? People have even accused us of being murderers." Tears fell from her eyes, and her tone sounded like a curse. "We have to close our storm doors again and spend our days hiding in our home. It's all because of that child."

"It's not Takasato's fault!" Hirose couldn't help but shout. This is too much, he thought. Even if the entire world blamed them, aren't parents supposed to do their very best to protect their children?

"Everyone says it. They all say that it's because of that child. All the people around here know about it, and everyone talks about it like that. Even if they don't say it outright, I know." She said this with determination. "Did you ever think of how tragic it is for me and my husband because of that child? When people aren't turning a cold shoulder to us, they're speaking to us scornfully. Our kid too has suffered bullying more than once."

The word "kid" pierced Hirose's heart. Takasato had said before that he had a younger brother. When she spoke of her kid, she was probably talking about the younger brother. It was very obvious that she wasn't including Takasato with that word.

"Then does a mother just abandon him?"

"I don't know."

"How can you not know? He's your child, isn't he? Haven't you ever considered how much this attitude hurts Takasato?"

She laughed. "Does that child ever get hurt? I've never seen him show anything worth feeling compassion over."

"Who's to decide? Maybe he just doesn't show it."

"Yes, I don't know. I have no way of knowing what sorts of feelings that child has in his heart, or what's going through his head." She laughed again, and it very noticeably carried with it a mocking tone. "He doesn't feel anything, and he doesn't think about anything, because that child isn't even human."

"How can you say that?"

She sneered. Hirose thought that he had never before seen such an ugly smile.

"That child is a substitute. When he disappeared, he was switched out."

Changeling. When he heard what she had said, Hirose began to search his memory. He was sure he'd seen that word in his college English textbook. It was a folk story passed down through Ireland. The legends say that native sprites would steal the babies of beautiful humans and leave behind the hideous child of a sprite hundreds of years old.

Hirose felt as if he was witnessing a shattered parent-child relationship with his own eyes. He didn't want to say anything further.

"Ever since he was little, he's been a strange child. But before he disappeared, he really was a good child. We're already letting this substitute stay in our home, providing for his room and board, even allowing him to go to school. I'd really hoped that our behavior would get your admiration!" After she said this, she hid her face in her hands. The sounds of her voice that leaked out from between her fingers gave Hirose chills. "Why, when he came back, didn't I just hit him with a fire poker...?"

Sprites disliked fire, and they hated metal. It was said that all one needed to do was pierce the throat of the substitute with a red hot fire poker, and it would turn back into the original child.

Hirose stood speechless, when she abruptly lifted her head and stared at Hirose.

"Please don't tell him what I've said to you."

Hirose widened his eyes, and for a while he didn't know what to say. She suddenly cringed in fright.

"Please don't say anything. I'm begging you."

It was fear of Takasato. Hirose just understood this, and he could tell that this household was full of that sort of atmosphere.

--So distant.

Hirose couldn't help but feel a tightening in his heart. The distance between Takasato and the world around him was so far. After school, Takasato remained in the classroom. Hirose thought, he wasn't staying at school because he liked to or wanted to. It was that he had no home to return to.

"I won't say anything." Hirose murmured.

She handed the envelope over to Hirose. This time, Hirose silently accepted it.

"Takasato-kun..." Hirose began. He felt he had to say it. "Would it be better if he didn't come back home for now?"

She looked suspicious.

"Until it settles back down, I'll take care of him. Is that all right?"

She nodded, looking visibly relieved. As soon as she consented, she turned her back to Hirose and went back into the house.

Hirose was left in the room with the dirt floor, and he stood there without a word, hanging his head for a while. He felt like crying.

4

After he got back to the hospital, Hirose settled the bill with accounting, and then went to Takasato's room. The curtains for Takasato's hospital bed were still shut tightly, and Hirose gently took one end of the curtain and looked in, seeing simply Takasato sitting on the bed staring at the curtain.

"Is it fun watching the curtain?" Hirose asked jokingly. Takasato smiled as well.

"Sparrows are casting their shadows on it."

"Oh?"

An image of the tree outside was replicated on the curtains facing the window. He couldn't see any shadows that looked like birds, but only those of branches and leaves swaying steadily in the wind. Just when Hirose was about to ask where the sparrows were, one of the branches suddenly quivered. An extremely light shadow shook, and from that jumping movement, he could tell that something was there. There appeared the round silhouettes of something other than those of leaves, flying to the branches on the side. With those branches moving as if the wind behind them, he could see small birds perched on top. It was as if he was watching a difficult shadow picture.

There were sparrow shadows as expected. After Hirose spotted them, he looked at Takasato. Takasato looked up at Hirose as if seeking approval.

"It's spectacular," said Hirose. Takasato smiled and looked over to the curtain.

"There are three."

Hirose glanced when he was looking, but he didn't know which one he had seen before. He smiled dryly and pressed Takasato.

"Let's go! I've already settled your bill."

Takasato's expression immediately dimmed. "I'm sorry."

"I told you before not to worry about it."

Though Takasato was wearing his uniform, his shirt was thin, and it looked dreary. It was unclear whether it was due to the attack or the fall, but there were several rips in his shirt and even some sparse spots of dried blood. "Put this on," said Hirose as he handed Takasato the jacket he was holding. Takasato stood up and accepted the jacket, and then bowed his head deeply toward Hirose again.

- - - - -

After they stopped by the nursing station to say goodbye, they left the hospital and walked to a nearby subway station. Takasato bowed to Hirose again and made as to leave.

"Where are you going?" Hirose asked, as he put coins into the ticket machine, buying two tickets to the same destination.

"I'm going home," said Takasato wanly, and Hirose couldn't help but sigh. He'd previously been sent to the hospital in an ambulance, so of course he hadn't brought his schoolbag. That is to say, he didn't have any money on him, so he was probably just going to walk home. Even if he took the subway to a station near his house, it would take half an hour to get home, but for Takasato, this wasn't much of an issue.

Hirose handed the subway ticket to Takasato. "Come to my place. My room's a bit smaller, but I'm the only one living there. You needn't worry about being a bother."

Takasato looked at Hirose with amazement in his eyes, and then a gloomy shadow pass over his face as he probably guessed what had happened. He hung his head heavily. "I can't."

Hirose didn't take his reaction to heart and gently pushed Takasato's back. "I only have one futon, but I probably wouldn't need it in this weather. Although, I might wake up with aches and pains."

"Sensei."

"Why don't we talk about it later?" said Hirose quietly. Takasato nodded reluctantly and then once again bowed deeply.

"I'm really very sorry."

"You don't need to apologize to me."

Hirose didn't mention anything to him, but Takasato seemed to understand it all and looked at Hirose painfully. How many times had a dispute like this between mother and son happened before? When he thought of this, Hirose felt a sort of sorrow in his heart.

Hirose lived on the edge of town. It was on the second floor of an old apartment complex with windows facing the weir at the mouth of a river. The height of the weir rose above its roof, and thus, the view was terrible. It was a dense residential area, so even though it was by the sea, it felt as if the wind had stopped blowing, making it hard for people to endure the extremely hot summer weather. The only merits were that the rent was cheap, and that it was next to a college.

"There's not much here," Hirose said as he entered his place, and Takasato looked like he was seeing something unusual as he looked around the interior of the room.

The first room in was a 3-tatami-wide kitchen. Beyond that was a 6-tatami-wide Japanese-style room, and next to the lowered area by the door was a unit bathroom.

Hirose didn't have a habit of collecting things, and thus the rooms appeared extremely spacious and clean. He'd always been the kind of person who was unsettled by messy clutter, so he made things as simple as they could be. Since he had a closet, he didn't have use for a dresser. In the 6-tatami-wide room, he had a kotatsu that stood in for a table, a bookshelf, and a three-section chest that stood in for a television stand. This was all his furniture.

"Isn't it dreary?" Hirose said with a wry smile.

Takasato shook his head and asked, "Can I look out the window?"

Hirose nodded and Takasato went to the window. There was a small balcony outside the window and out in front of that was the road paved along the weir. The road was higher than the window, so even standing on the balcony, one couldn't see much unless they looked horizontally up outside of the concrete. Because the road was a little far from the room, they got plenty of light, but there still wasn't much circulation of air.

Takasato pulled back the curtain and gazed out the window, and then turned around and looked up at the bookshelf. Hirose liked reading, but he didn't like filling his room with books, so he mostly made use of the library. After he finished reading the books he did buy, he immediately got rid of them, so the only things on the bookshelf were textbooks and a few photo books.

Takasato looked at the bookshelf as if he'd never seen one before. Hirose smiled dryly as he looked at him. "Is it unusual?"

Takasato nodded yes. "This is the first time I've been to someone else's house before."

What a lonely thing to say. He didn't even have a friend with whom he could visit.

"I need to go back to the school. Do whatever you like. On my way back, I'll stop by your house. Do you need anything?"

Takasato tilted his head and said simply, "If there are textbooks."

Hirose nodded and handed Takasato a spare key. He gave a rough explanation of the things in his home and left. He didn't know why, but as he left the room, Takasato asked, "Is it all right if I look at your books?"

For some reason, this left a deep impression in Hirose.

5

"How are your injuries?" asked Gotou, as soon as Hirose walked into the prep room.

"I'm sorry to have worried you. They're fine now." Hirose laughed as he said, "I afraid that for a while, my entire body was swollen."

It was quiet throughout the school. It was already after school, and it should have been relentlessly clamoring with the preparations for the athletics festival that was supposed to be happening the next day.

"And Takasato?"

"According to the nurse, it shouldn't be anything serious. At most are some bruises and scrapes."

"I see." Gotou nodded and poured some coffee in a beaker for Hirose.

"What happened to those students?" asked Hirose. Gotou put his feet up on the desk and looked up at the ceiling.

"Still racking our brains about how to take care of them. There was a meeting just now, and we decided not to punish them right now. Well, if we disciplined all of them, then it looks like starting tomorrow, we'll all be holding classes for empty desks."

"I suppose."

"The school administration has decided first to handle it as an accident for the time being, since even Takasato has said that he had fallen by mistake."

Hirose looked at Gotou. "He said that?"

"You didn't hear?"

"No."

Gotou sighed. "The students that pushed him out are also maintaining that Takasato jumped out on his own. The few witness who were standing in the hall watching all say that Takasato was pushed, but before Takasato was taken away by the ambulance, he said that he had tripped, and that's why he fell out of the window."

"Is that so...?"

Gotou heaved another sigh.

"He's not a bad guy... He's not, but he seems to have a lot of problems," Gotou seemed to be saying to himself, and so Hirose didn't respond. "So, your situation is also going to be considered an accident."

Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou creased his brow.

"Agitated by the death of their classmate, a group of students became hysterical and were trying to hang youth A. Youth A, feeling that his life was in danger, tried to escape and then as a result, accidentally fell out of the window. Also, a student teacher, who was trying to intercede, fell down in the midst of the shoving and pushing students and hurt himself." As he said this, Gotou pointed at Hirose.

Hirose smiled dryly. "I understand."

"Sorry."

Hirose could still only smile dryly, and then he said, "Gotou-san, Takasato will be staying at my place for a while."

Once Gotou heard this, he took his feet off the desk with a thump.

"What do you mean by that?"

"I think it's best for now if he doesn't go back home. I've already let his mother know."

A stunned Gotou opened his mouth, and Hirose explained everything that had happened to him. Gotou looked speechless.

"...Really, why did you make that sort of decision on your own?"

"I'm sorry."

Gotou frowned. "Oh well. At any rate, you should keep it to yourself before the training period is over."

Hirose nodded. Gotou sighed earnestly. "Also, let me do the next home visit."

"You don't believe me?"

"It's not that. I just haven't done a home visit at Takasato's house." Hirose looked at Gotou, and Gotou smiled wryly. "I've been there once, but no one was home. Afterwards, I called them a few times, but they just kept saying they were busy, busy, busy. They even said that they entrusted their child to us and that we could handle him however we pleased. It was much the same for his first year, and so that's how it's been up until now. I've never made a home visit for him."

This time it was Hirose who sighed.

"At the time, his homeroom teacher Ikuta sensei had been hopping mad."

Hirose laughed lightly. Ikuta was an English teacher and served as the soccer coach as well. He was a hot-tempered guy.

"When he couldn't get it figured out with his mother, he went to Takasato's father's workplace to look for him. He was surprised to find the father saying that these sorts of matters were completely the child's mother's responsibility. He was at a loss."

"That's a distinct possibility." Hirose nodded.

"He said that they never ever called Takasato by his name."

Hirose suddenly recalled that Takasato's mother was always calling him "that child," but never mentioned him by name.

"I think Ikuta-san also considered bringing Takasato to his house several times. But, it was hard for most people to avoid thinking more about it. Ikuta-san had two vivacious children in his home, and Takasato brought with him such negative rumors, so he had a lot to consider."

Hirose nodded. Gotou smiled uneasily.

"--It's not like I hadn't thought about bringing him home. Any person couldn't help but think this way after talking with his mother. But, at my house, we have a bad-tempered old woman who only opens her mouth to say disagreeable things." Gotou sighed. "Ikuta-san took great care of Takasato. Actually, it was by Ikuta-san's request that Takasato was placed in my class."

"You can do that?" Hirose asked doubtfully.

Gotou smiled wryly, saying, "There's always a way. --Although, I wasn't much help."

Gotou sighed yet again. Hirose felt like sighing was all Gotou could do today.

"I was hoping I could help him out in some way. But then, even Ikuta-san died..."

Hirose couldn't help but stand up. "What did you say?"

"Don't you know?" Gotou asked dubiously. Hirose could only shake his head. "It happened on the day of the closing ceremonies after the third school term. That day, Ikuta-san had come here and said to me, 'Please take care of Takasato,' because he said that he'd ended up yelling at Takasato. I didn't know what he'd done or what he'd said. I knew only that on the way home that day, he'd crashed into a curb. I heard that at the scene, there was no trace that brakes had been used or evidence that the steering wheel had been turned. It's possible he was dozing off as he was driving."

Hirose closed his eyes.

"Someone probably knew that he'd left Takasato behind, and so during the funeral, the students in his class then called it the result of a curse."

Hirose sighed deeply.

Ikuta and Iwaki had both done something to Takasato without bad intentions. Or perhaps it could be said that it'd been out of good intentions, which Takasato himself had been clear about. However, both of them died. It had nothing to do with what Takasato was thinking. They'd actually done it for Takasato's own good and shouldn't have died. But they did die, and as a result, everything was being blamed on Takasato.

Thus, Takasato was forever alone.

Gotou heaved another deep sigh. "...He's not a bad guy. He really isn't a bad kid, but..."

6

Hirose called Takasato's house from the school to tell them that he was going to go pick up Takasato's belongings, and then he left the school.

The quiet school seemed to be enveloped by a nervous atmosphere. The school would still be on a regular schedule tomorrow, but a relatively long time was probably necessary before the schoolyard returned to normal.

When he got to Takasato's house, Hirose saw bags placed in front of the entrance hall, one was a paper bag and another was a travel-size bag. Hirose opened the paper bag and inside there were textbooks, notebooks, and the like. He bit his lip and made up his mind to ring the doorbell. He rang it a few times in succession and waited patiently, but there was no response from inside. The rooms next to the entry hall were completely shut up with storm windows. Hirose sighed, took the bags and left.

By the time Hirose got back to his apartment, the sun was already slowly descending, and the sky above the weir dyed the thin clouds in crimson. He called out a greeting and opened the door. Through the glass door, he could see Takasato sitting by the window, looking at a book.

Takasato looked up, and when he saw Hirose, he immediately shut the book and stood up. After he apologized, he went to get the bags in Hirose's hands.

"I told you before not to worry about it."

"Sorry."

"Stop apologizing." After Hirose said this, Takasato smiled gently.

Hirose was taken aback. Though it was only a weak smile, he felt like Takasato was recently more and more expressive. His mother had said those things, but Hirose didn't believe that Takasato was completely devoid of feelings or that he didn't think of anything. It was just that he'd never had someone to whom he could express his feelings and thoughts--It had even been the same at home.

The twilight filled the entire room. Hirose turned on the lights as the window that had been so bright just before grew a bit darker.

"There's nothing here. You must have been bored, huh?" said Hirose, but Takasato shook his head. Hirose looked at the book in his hands and discovered that what he'd been looking at was a photo book on the Guiana Highlands.

"Were you looking at that? Pretty nice, huh?"

Takasato nodded.

"I'd really like to go see it in person," said Hirose as he was changing.

Takasato replied, "Yeah."

"You think so too?"

"Yes." He nodded, and then said, "I want to go to Mt. Roraima."

"Ah, you mean that place with the Crystal Valley?"

Takasato smiled faintly. "The place with the Labyrinth of Rocks."

"The Labyrinth of Rocks?"

Hirose bent down and stooped in front of where Takasato was sitting and looked at the pages of the book. He saw pictures of the areas Takasato referred to as the "the Labyrinth of Rocks" that were photographed from above. The formations of strange crags and crevices were like a maze. Because of the scale, it looked tiny, but in reality, it was a giant maze the size of tens of Tokyo Domes.

"...It just feels so familiar..." Takasato mumbled quietly. Hirose peered at his face.

"Are you talking about the Labyrinth?"

Takasato nodded passively. "The views of the Guiana Highlands give that sort of feeling... I guess you could call it deja vu."

"You mean that? The place you went when you were spirited away?"

"I don't know." Takasato shook his head. "I keep thinking about it, but I just can't figure it out."

Hearing in Takasato's voice a hesitant uncertainty, Hirose forced himself to say to him with an upbeat tone, "Don't be discouraged. There'll be a day when you'll remember."

Takasato wanted to smile at Hirose, but in the end, he couldn't succeed in bringing a smile to his face.

"Takasato, it won't help to overthink it."

"I just feel like I have to remember. I keep thinking that if I don't do it soon, something will happen that can't be recovered from..."

Hirose creased his brow, not knowing what to say.

"I feel like I've forgotten some extremely important promise, and it's a promise that must never be forgotten."

Hirose silently placed his shirt on a clothes hanger, and then opened the closet and put it away. As he was about to slide the door closed, he discovered Takasato staring over in his direction. He was looking at the lower part of the closet with an amazed look.

He used the upper portion of the closet to hang his clothes, and he had placed shelves in the lower portion to store books. Takasato looked at the bookshelf as if he had never seen one before. They looked at each other and Takasato asked, "Can I take a look?"

"Go ahead." Hirose moved out of Takasato's way.

There were two small shelves on the left side of the closet. Hirose used them to store books that he couldn't get rid of. He'd been living here since he started college, and though it had been four years ago, there was still some empty space on the shelf.

Takasato browsed the shelf, but he didn't look at the back covers of the books. Instead, he pointed inside. Hirose looked at where he was pointing, and hanging there on the back wall was a painting.

"Ah... Gotou-san painted that for me." Mounted in a rather bland frame, the watercolor was of a view, painted with the muted colors of an embellished style. On a field full of blooming white flowers, there was a clear river twisting and winding on and on, and in the distance there was a partially transparent bridge.

This is something Gotou had painted for him when Hirose had told him the story of "that world." Gotou had used pencil to sketch out a rough picture and asked Hirose, "Is it this sort of feeling?" Hirose had told him that he wanted this painting, so then Gotou had added color to it for him that day and created this extremely faint and multicolored painting.

"Why do you hang it there?"

Hirose smiled and pointed at a desk lamp next to the lower shelf.

"When we sleep, don't we usually lay the futon out straight?" Hirose bent his arm so that it was perpendicular to the closet, and then he pointed towards the closet. "So, I put my pillow here, and I can read if I just turn the lamp on. It looks like a lazy guy's study. It's not a bad idea, is it?"

After Hirose finished speaking, Takasato smiled and nodded.

- - - - -

"Takasato, what would you like to eat?" asked Hirose as he put his shirt in the washing machine on the balcony. Takasato tilted his head in astonishment, as Hirose pointed at the shirt Takasato had on, meaning that he wanted Takasato to take it off so that he could wash it with his.

"Anything is fine."

"Do you especially like anything?"

"There's nothing really that I can't eat."

"Great!" Hirose turned on the water for the washing machine and then poured in some detergent. Takasato had changed into something more comfortable and poked his head out to the balcony.

"I don't need this anymore. There's a spare uniform in my bag."

"I see," said Hirose as he indicated the trash can on the balcony. In reality, once a shirt gets stained with blood, it's not an easy task to wash it off, not to mention the fact that the shirt was ripped in several places. With Hirose's domestic skills, he felt like there was no way he could get the shirt back to its original condition, so he was relieved at Takasato's words. Takasato opened the cover of the trash can and then looked at Hirose uncertainly.

Hirose thought it peculiar and when he looked into the trash can, he saw his own shirt which he had thrown into there during the day. --It had been heavily stained by his nosebleed, so he hadn't felt like wearing it again.

"How curious," said Hirose softly. Takasato hung his head apologetically.

7

Deep in the night, the rumbling of the sea could be heard from Hirose's room. Hirose liked hearing these beat-like sounds. Tonight, he could also hear the faint noise of breathing that seemed to accompany the rise and fall of the waves.

The lamp had already been turned off. The glow of the moon reflecting off of the weir flooded into the entire lightless room. Hirose turned his head and saw the sleeping face of Takasato. He'd laid out the thick, winter-use bed covering for Takasato, and gave him a blanket to take the place of a summer futon. If he'd never been to someone else's house before, then this must be the first time he's spending a night away from home--other than on the field trip.

To be honest, this was the first time Hirose had let someone else stay at his place. He'd never liked having other people in his room. However, this wasn't something he could just come out and say directly, so it wasn't as though he stood in his doorway and shooed visitors away, but once someone entered his place, he would feel strong unease. If one wanted to give this problem a name, it'd probably be visitor phobia. He had an irrational anxiety where he was worried that someone would then stay for a long time, or never leave once they had entered. On the one hand, he was afraid they would stay, and on the other he was afraid that anything and everything would be messed up. But if you asked him what exactly would be jumbled up, even Hirose himself wasn't clear on it.

Thus no matter what, he never let anyone else stay at his place. Though he did allow people to come in, he definitely wasn't okay with them staying there. It was the same for even his mother or father. He let them come in, but he absolutely didn't allow them to stay overnight. It might be better to say that it was because he couldn't deal with that kind of fear and discomfort, than to say that it was because he didn't like it, but since he was this way, Hirose was often described as weird.

For as long as he could remember, Hirose just didn't like spending a long period of time with other people, no matter how familiar they were, for example: his parents or a lover. As time went by, it would start to feel unpleasant. It wasn't that he didn't like the other person, but one it did start feeling disagreeable, he would then really need to find some time and space where he could be alone. When he was at someone else's house and he began to feel impatient, he simply needed to leave and go back to his own home, but when someone else was at his place, he couldn't very well require that they leave on their own. What exactly was going on with him? Even Hirose would wonder this about himself.

Thus, it was absolutely shocking that he himself had invited someone else to stay with him. Hirose couldn't help but crack a wry smile. He was also very clear on the fact that this stay would be for a very long time.

Hirose turned over. --He knew the reason.

Hirose wasn't afraid of Takasato. Takasato didn't give rise to Hirose's uneasiness, and he wouldn't "make a mess of everything." If one were to change it to make it sound more sentimental, then it was because Takasato was his compatriot. Neither Takasato nor Hirose were people from "here." At the very least, Hirose had that feeling, so he knew that Takasato wouldn't "make a mess of everything."

What exactly was "everything"? thought Hirose. Did it have a lot to do with the fantasy about losing their native land?

After almost falling asleep, Hirose was suddenly awake again. He kept the train of thought he'd had when he was half-asleep, that there was still a lot to think about; that there was still a lot to consider, and he didn't want to sleep yet.

When he was about to fall asleep while thinking this, he suddenly felt like there was someone breathing nearby. Who is it? thought Hirose, a little astounded, but he then immediately remembered that Takasato was sleeping next to him. Of course. Takasato's sleeping here. Afterwards, he was on his way to sleep again when he heard someone's footsteps. This time, he became wide awake.

Did Takasato get up? Could he not fall asleep because he wasn't used to it? Hirose wanted to turn and look, but he discovered that he couldn't move his body. He couldn't even move his hands or feet, and even breathing became difficult. Every breath took a long time to perform.

Scuff, the noise of feet nearby. He heard the sound of feet dragging on top of the tatami. He tried his hardest to turn and look at where the sound was coming from, but even shifting his line of sight used up tremendous strength. Still laying face up and unable to move, Hirose couldn't see whose footsteps he was hearing. He tried looking around, but performing even this action made him sweat. Is this what so-called sleep paralysis felt like? Hirose finally thought of that.

Scuff, the noise of feet. The sound of feet was extremely distant. Even using as much strength as he might use moving a boulder, there was no way he could turn his head even a little bit. Shuffle, the sound of feet again with the feeling of someone's breath nearby. He could sense the presence of someone in the periphery of his field of vision that he couldn't shift no matter how hard he tried. If only he could turn his head just a centimeter, then he would be able to see who it was.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle... The sound of something sliding along the tatami mat. And then, in an instant all the sounds stopped. The surroundings returned to stillness.

Hirose was still persistent in identifying the source of the sounds. The sweat on his forehead slipped to his temple. He mustered up all his strength to move his neck. Just a little bit more. I just need a little bit more.

He used the strength in his entire body, almost choking himself, as his line of sight finally moved with great difficulty towards the area from which the breathing came. Even so, he could only see the top of the window through which the moonlight was shining. In the corner of his field of vision, he could see the sleeping figure of a person next to him.

Had it been Takasato? Was it Takasato getting up, and then lying back to sleep? Just as he was speculating about this, in the corner of his eye, he saw something white moving about. He knew they were white fingers.

White fingers were moving around in the periphery of his stationary field of vision, trying to touch the sleeping Takasato's face. The hand made its way next to Hirose as it went to caress Takasato. The white arm appeared in full as if gently embracing Takasato's neck. Hirose held his breath as he turned his head. He could finally see in plain sight this image.

The white arm hugging Takasato's neck had full lines, and one could tell immediately that it was a woman's arm. It extended out from the other side of Takasato. That area was not very low, and it looked like someone was sleeping in that dead space, but Hirose knew that this wasn't the case.

Just then, a face suddenly appeared from the other side of Takasato's profile where Hirose was staring.

Hirose looked directly at it and saw that it was a woman's face. She had revealed the upper portion of her face to look at Hirose. Hirose wanted to call out, but that just produced cramps in his stomach as he wasn't able to make a sound. He had no way of closing his eyes, and he couldn't turn his head away. Because it was dark in the room, he wasn't able to make out much of the woman's facial features, but those round, wide eyes stared at Hirose.

Hirose suddenly felt as if he'd heard a voice.

--Are you an enemy of the king?

Before he could make sense of what she said, with a whoosh, the face suddenly appeared in front of Hirose's eyes. The roaring force of her big, round eyes was as if they wanted to penetrate his eyes, and he could perceive the smell of the sea. Hirose screamed silently, and as if his entire body was bounced up, the restraints on his body were released and he sprang up. At the same time, the arm and the head shrank back faster than Hirose's eyes could follow.

As he leaned forward to catch up, the arm and the head looked as if they were about to be sucked into the tatami. The arm that was up to the elbow and the woman's head that showed only the upper portion of her face--and those round eyes--grew slimmer until whoosh, it was gone. She disappeared as if she had dropped into the tatami.

Hirose was terrified as he panted. His sweat slid continuously down to his chin and dripped onto the tatami. That presence was no longer there. All that remained was the cold-looking tatami and Takasato, in a deep sleep.

A stunned Hirose remained propped up as he looked in the direction of what had happened. He thought about what he had just seen. It was a woman. She seemed to have long hair and eyes like a reptile or a fish, those round eyes. She gave off the strong smell of seawater. It felt as if it was her breath, rather than her smell. He hadn't seen her nose, or perhaps she didn't have one. He hadn't seen the rest of her either, not her lips, neck, or shoulders. It was in this way that she sank into the tatami.

Hirose covered his face with his hands and wiped off the sweat that kept dripping. He looked at Takasato, who was still sleeping soundly, and it appeared as if he hadn't been affected by what had just happened at all.

Hirose hugged himself with his arms. His sweat was quickly turning cold, and chills penetrated his body. The goose bumps on his arms that he was holding with his hands had risen up.

Hirose drew up the summer futon, lay back down and pulled it over his head. He closed his eyes and didn't think about anything. He wanted with all his heart just to fall asleep.

* * *
* * *

A child on his way home after school encountered a woman on the twilight road. She had a face of worry. The child greeted her out of kindness, and she asked, "Do you know the ki?"

"I don't," the child replied, and then the woman disappeared without a sound.

- - - - -

A man saw a woman in the middle of making a delivery. He stopped the car to ask for directions, not knowing that in fact the woman would ask him a question, "Do you know the ki?"

"Not to the best of my memory," the man replied. The woman then disappeared into the cracks of a nearby wall with a whoosh.

- - - - -

A taxi driver was taking a young woman along the road at night. He started the meter and began to drive forward, asking the woman where she wanted to go. The woman asked him, "Do you know Taiki?"

"I don't know that place. Is it the name of a store?" the driver asked, shaking his head. The perplexed driver wanted to know where the woman was going, and asked her several times over, but the woman didn't say much. Not five minutes had passed when she stopped responding. The driver turned around to look, but the woman had vanished.

- - - - -

When a woman was waiting on the platform for the last train, a younger woman walked up to her and struck up a conversation. "Do you know of ki?" she asked.

"I have a female friend with that name," she replied.

The other woman looked extremely happy and asked, "Where does this friend reside?"

The woman gave her friend's address to the younger one, who bowed deeply and then jumped off of the platform and made as if she was going to cross the tracks. The woman cried out in panic for the other one to stop as the last train entered the station. After the train rode over the younger woman, it put on its emergency brakes, but she had vanished without a trace, with no trace that an accident had happened at all.

- - - - -

A woman was in her room at night getting ready to sleep when she saw the silhouette of a strange beast in the corner. It was about the size of a dog, and it only had one eye. She didn't know where this beast had come from, but once it entered her room, it made its way next to her pillow. The woman screamed in horror and sprang up, seeing a young woman standing next to her bed. The young woman looked worried as she stroked her face, quietly saying, "It's different," before disappearing.

As she vanished, the other woman could hear a voice next to her ear. "Do you know the ki?"

The woman turned around to look. It was as if that beast was talking. Exceedingly frightened, she shook her head, saying, "I don't know." The beast hung its head and dove into the floor, disappearing.

- - - - -

Late at night, a group of men were speeding along a road in a car. Seeing a woman in the outskirts of town, they stopped the car and struck up a conversation. "Need a ride?" they asked.

The woman nodded readily and then got into the car and asked them, "Do you know the ki?"

It was clear the men hadn't heard this name before as they exchanged glances and a tacit understanding with each other, answering, "We know him."

"Where is he?" the woman asked.

"We'll take you to him," they replied, and steered the car towards the sea.

When they got there, the woman asked again, "Where is the ki?"

The men didn't reply as they began to put their hands on her body. Then, the head of a dog materialized out of the backseat, and it had only one eye. The dog bit at the men, and then disappeared along with the woman. Of the three men, two of them were hurt. For one, there was nothing beyond his wrist. They looked all over for it in the car, but they couldn't find his hand.

- - - - -

During the day, a kid was playing in the park, and at the time there was no one else there. As he was digging in the sandbox, a dog stuck its head out from under the sand, and the dog had only one round eye. The kid was so frightened he couldn't move. The dog climbed out of the sand and following it was an even bigger beast. The kid had never seen anything quite like it. Both of the animals sounded out loudly together before and leapt up, vanishing mid-air. A small hole remained at the bottom of the sandbox.

- - - - -

A woman appeared late at night in a fourth-floor room at the far right end of an apartment complex. She came out of the wall and asked a teenager sitting in front of his desk, "Do you know the ki?" The teen was terrified and couldn't say a thing. The woman appeared sorrowful as she disappeared into the wall across from the one she had just come out of.

After a little while, the woman appeared in the second-to-last room on the right end of the fourth floor. The toddler in the room who had just turned three opened his eyes widely. The two looked at each other, but the woman said nothing as she disappeared into the opposite wall. When she did so, the toddler began wailing as if he'd been burnt.

After a little while longer, the woman appeared in the third-to-last room on the right end. An old woman facing her Buddhist altar was startled and flung her Buddhist beads at her. Just then, a dog appeared like a gust of wind and bit into her leg. The woman disappeared, but a deep bite mark remained in the old woman's leg.
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Chapter 6

1

Hirose was woken up by the sounds of a noisy alarm clock. Once he opened his eyes, he saw that Takasato had already gotten up and was sitting next to the window, gazing at the concrete road out the window.

"Morning..." said Hirose, and Takasato smiled and replied with a good morning. "You sure woke up early. When did you get up?"

"Just now."

His body feeling heavy, Hirose slowly propped himself up.

"Sleep well?" asked Hirose as he got up.

Takasato nodded and said, "Yes."

"You're probably not very used to sleeping in someone else's place, huh?" asked Hirose.

Takasato tilted his head, saying, "Actually, it was better than sleeping at home."

"Really?"

"I could hear the sounds of waves." Hirose nodded and Takasato smiled. "I fell asleep listening to the waves."

"I see," said Hirose as he stood up to go wash his face. With a mind that was muddled as if it was shrouded in a thin fog, he tried to decide whether the events of the previous night had been real or a dream.

--It hadn't been a dream.

He came to this conclusion as he wiped his face with a towel, and when he went back to the 6-tatami-wide room, Takasato had just finished folding up the futon.

"Sorry to trouble you."

"Not at all," smiled Takasato, as he reached his hand out to get the uniform that was hanging by a hanger on the lintel.

"Takasato," called out Hirose. Takasato stopped and looked back at him. "I think for now, it might be better if you didn't go to school."

Takasato looked at Hirose. Hirose smiled dryly.

"I feel it's best if we wait until those idiots have calmed down."

He figured that the students' agitated mood should've settled down a little bit because of yesterday's incident. It wouldn't be a big deal if the resentment that arose from Iwaki's horrible end and the other deaths associated with Takasato was purely an exception, or if it only added another negative rumor, but the shock of having personally killed one of their classmates caused them to lose control of their emotions. They used the event of hanging Takasato to subside that shock in their minds. The passing of a night should have been enough time to settle them down, and they should have had more than enough time now to consider whether what they had chosen to do was right or wrong.

--And then, they'll understand how horrible it was.

They'd surely comprehend that if they'd harmed Takasato, they'd see the results of revenge. They'd surely realize that they could not be let off the hook for pushing Takasato out of the window.

Perhaps sensing Hirose's point of view, Takasato nodded, and as he did so, he sighed lightly.

- - - - -

Pacing back and forth in front of the school gates were two or three people who probably had something to do with the broadcast media, but compared to yesterday, the number had obviously dropped. It was still a bit of time before school started, and the interior of the schoolyard prior to when the students attended class was silent.

The morning meeting held everyday in the faculty office started 30 minutes earlier than usual. The faces of the steering committee members carried a thickly weary color. The headmaster sternly conveyed that they had to calm the unrest in the minds of the students as soon as possible and to restore the school schedule as quickly as they could. Regarding the accident of the day before yesterday, it had occurred simply due to the mistakes of those directly involved, and thus he prohibited the passing on of irresponsible rumors.

Hirose's educational training would end on the day after tomorrow. On the following day, a Friday, and on the day after that, a Saturday, they would follow the set plans and proceed with the research publication. After the morning faculty meeting, the student teachers were assembled in the break room, and school officials firmly asked that though the training period was concluding, they not speak inappropriately.

On his way back to the prep room after listening to the announcement, a member of the staff called out to Hirose in front of the office.

"Are you Hirose sensei?" It was a female staff member past middle age. Her high-cheekboned face carried on it a look of intense trouble. "Can I ask you to pass this on to Gotou sensei? They're absence notifications."

The second-year homeroom teacher was in the middle of a meeting. Hirose nodded and took the memo. On the small piece of paper were listed six names. There were only names written on the top, with no reasons for their absence. Among them were certainly those who were afraid to come to school and called in sick, but it couldn't be assumed that this was case for all of them.

Hirose returned to the prep room and waited for Gotou. He gave the slip of paper to him after he came back from the meeting. Gotou furrowed his brow, but he didn't say anything in particular about it.

"I'm letting Takasato take some time off as well."

To this Gotou didn't say anything either, and simply nodded weakly.

- - - - -

Hirose walked with Gotou to the classroom.

"It's so quiet." Though the first bell had already sounded, the school was surprisingly still. Gotou stopped and looked around.

"Ah, what an uncomfortable feeling."

The students' open-minded clamor as it had been before couldn't be heard in the school. In the quiet, somewhere beyond what the eye could see, there seemed to be the noise of a commotion. It was a wave-like noise as if created by a countless number of hushed voices.

"It seems like everyone's extremely nervous..."

"Perhaps."

For no reason, Hirose and Gotou also spoke softly. Anxiety permeated the school and pressed down forcefully on the people. There was no way to casually break through this sort of quiet.

In the entire school, the 2-6 classroom was even more noticeably lonely and still. All the students should have been in the classroom, and moreover, every one of them seemed to be holding their breath, not making any sounds. As Hirose pondered whether or not to open the door to the classroom, Gotou lifted his hand. He sighed and opened the door, putting on a face as if nothing was wrong. Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room shifted and the eyes of all the students looked over.

"What is it? Why's it so quiet?" Gotou looked around the entire classroom. About one-third of the seats were empty. "Quite a few absences. Hirose, take roll."

Gotou said this with his usual loud and clear voice, and Hirose nodded reluctantly. He walked up to the podium and called names. When he got to Tsuiki's name, he got a reply and couldn't help but look up. He saw that face he hadn't seen in a while.

After he finished roll, he discovered that a total of 11 students were absent. Those with absence notices, including Takasato, numbered seven. The remaining four hadn't contacted the school on their own.

"Hirose," called out Gotou. Hirose nodded and left the podium. Gotou stood by the podium and surveyed the class. "The school isn't going to punish you. However, not being punished doesn't mean that what you did is going to just completely disappear. This matter is being concluded an accident."

The classroom suddenly filled with an atmosphere of relief.

"Takasato admitted that he fell out because he wasn't being careful. --You guys really think about that."

Hearing this, all the students consciously looked away. Gotou sighed lightly. The mood of the classroom didn't change at all. There was no way that Gotou's words had alleviated the anxiety in the hearts of the students.

Of course, thought Hirose. The hearts of the students were curled up in extreme fear. The nervousness in the classroom came naturally from fright. What they were afraid of wasn't the punishment of the school officials, but the direct retribution from having hurt Takasato. That was the only thing they were scared of.

2

Gotou said that he had to go to the faculty office to make some phone calls, so Hirose went back to the prep room by himself. He didn't have a class the first period. He looked absent-mindedly over the training journal he had written in, and after a bit, Gotou returned. When he entered the prep room, he collapsed into his chair as if he were paralyzed, and Hirose gave him a cup of coffee he'd brewed.

"How did it go? Didn't you go make calls to the houses of the absent students?" asked Hirose. Gotou heaved a deep sigh.

"Three of them got injured in accidents. Four are taking sick days, saying they have headaches or stomachaches. The other three didn't elaborate."

So something did happen, pondered Hirose to himself. "What's the situation with the ones who were injured?"

"One of them fell off of the balcony in his home and only suffered minor injuries, so it wasn't anything serious. Another fell into the space between the train platform and the train, getting just a few light scratches. The other fell down the stairs and is in the hospital for some complex bone fractures."

All of them had 'fallen' from somewhere, just like Takasato had fallen from the window. Hirose had a deep reaction to this.

"Hirose, how do you see it?"

Hearing Gotou's question, Hirose looked at him.

"Do you think this is the curse of Takasato?"

Hirose was taken aback. He hesitated for a little bit, and then responded honestly. "I'm thinking that if it was all by accident..."

Gotou revealed a teasing smile. "If you say it like that, it sounds like you aren't confident that they were just accidents."

Hirose nodded. "My natural impression is that Takasato is innocent. He's not that kind of person, even though he has suffered so much harshness--"

"Sometimes those who've suffered will lash out violently in an instant," interrupted Gotou.

"I understand that. But, he wouldn't use those sorts of violent methods. I'm thinking that he's probably not the sort to wish death or suffering on people."

"Why?"

Hirose spoke in a quiet yet confident tone. "Because that's just the way it is."

Gotou raised his eyebrows as he looked at Hirose.

"Gotou-san, you've said before that I should be able to understand Takasato, and I'm pretty sure that I can. Takasato is a person who's lost his native land."

"Lost...his native land?"

"Takasato doesn't remember what happened when he was spirited away. But he's said that to him, that place made him feel comfortable. Just like me. Illusions have taken hold of us alike."

Gotou remained silent and urged Hirose to continue wordlessly.

"Our illusions are that this isn't the world where we should exist. When I'm at odds with the world, there's no way for me to hate this world-- At least, it's something I can't bring myself to do. I've previously thought, why is it this way? Why aren't things smoother and easier for me? I told myself that it must be because I'm not of this world, so I can't blend into this place. This has always been very forced."

"Hm."

"There's only one thing I desire and that's to return to my home. Since I was a child, I've often argued with my mother, but I've never wished for her death. I simply thought, 'I want to go back,' and that's all."

"Don't you think that's something everyone's thought about before?" asked Gotou. "It's not just you guys. When I was young, I thought the same thing. Although, to be honest, I have really hated people before. I've silently called other people 'bastards' so many times, it's uncountable."

Hirose sighed. "I get it, but our situations are a bit different. I was once on the verge of death. At the time, I was sure I'd seen those plains. In my heart, it was a definite reality. Takasato is missing a year of his life. It doesn't matter if he'd really disappeared for a year or that the year disappeared from his memory. That may be a kind of illusion, but it isn't an illusion without any basis. And also, before this illusion allows us to face reality, it lets us first to have thoughts of running away."

Gotou stared fixedly at Hirose, and then immediately looked away and murmured to himself, "So this isn't an issue of what's on the outside and what's on the inside?"

"Outside and inside?"

"Ah, nevermind."

"Even if these accidents had something to do with Takasato's fall, they have nothing to do with Takasato's individual will. It's just..."

Hirose pause for a moment. What was the best way to talk about it? The white arm that would suddenly appear around Takasato. The unusually-shaped woman that he saw the night before. Though he knew he had very clearly been face to face with that woman, he didn't suppose that Gotou would be able to understand it.

Something existed by Takasato's side. Was it that thing that organized these acts of vengeance again and again, and thus wasn't Takasato's doing? Was the hand that had grabbed Tsuiki's leg is hand of that woman?

Hirose sunk into contemplation, and this time, looking up at the ceiling, Gotou opened his mouth.

"How much do you think they'll get hurt?"

"The number of people or the degree of the injuries?"

"Both."

Hirose sighed. Based on examples, Tsuiki had only brought up the subject of the spiriting away, and Hashigami had only goaded Takasato. As a result, the two of them had suffered revenge to such a degree. Even without considering the death of Iwaki, Hirose could already imagine that the degree of retribution would be incomparably extraordinary.

"I think perhaps everyone who was there at the time will suffer from retribution. In terms of the degree of the injuries, it'll be extremely brutal."

"Like Iwaki?" In Gotou's tone there seemed to be hidden the sense of having no alternatives. Hirose didn't dare respond easily. "They really did overdo it; this I'll admit. However, at the time they were in an agitated state. When people in a group begin to lose control, those involved have no way of containing it. Say they did contain it, then sometimes it becomes even more dangerous. Hirose, you probably understand this, right?"

Hirose shook his head. He could understand Gotou's analysis, but he couldn't accept it. That "something" that was by Takasato's side probably wouldn't evaluate everything so carefully. Just like in the actions taken against Iwaki, "it" didn't seem to have any heart of mercy or pity.

Gotou stared at Hirose as if he were someone waiting for a verdict. Hirose shook his head again. Gotou heaved a deep sigh, and then there was a long period of silence.

"...I'm afraid of Takasato, Hirose," said Gotou in an isolated voice.

Upon hearing it, Hirose hastily lifted his head. He stared at the profile of Gotou, who was gazing up at the ceiling.

"In the prep room, there are a wide variety of people coming and going. Even if some of them act strangely, there's no question that they're all human. But Takasato... I just don't know. I really can't parse out Takasato's real face. It's to the extent that I don't know what he's thinking about. Or does he think about anything at all? He's too abnormal. Honestly said, he makes me very uncomfortable."

"Gotou-san."

"Is it strange for me to say these things?"

"Very strange."

Gotou smiled lightly. After smiling, he slowly leaned back into the chair again and gazed up at the ceiling.

"I see."

"See what?"

"I don't remember when it happened. It was probably the beginning of the first term. After school, I was strolling about the schoolyard and I passed by the entrance to a classroom." Gotou paused for a moment. "...The sky was already starting to get dark then. Someone had remained in the classroom, and that person was Takasato. I was going to call out to him, but I couldn't make a sound. It was because I'd seen something strange."

Hirose felt his heart beating faster.

"Takasato was sitting in his own seat, and there was something next to his hand."

"What...was it?"

Gotou nodded, and then stood up to open the locker out from which he pulled a sketchbook. He flipped through it and took a sketch out of it, giving it to Hirose to look at.

The rough lines were drawn in pencil, and it had been colored with watercolor. However, he still couldn't tell what it was. Even the outline was missing in several places; it didn't convey any shape at all.

"I focused as hard as I could, but I still don't know what it was. I knew that there must have been something there, but I just couldn't tell what it was. The size of it was as big as a large dog, and it was crouched next to Takasato's feet. That's the complete impression I have in my head."

Hirose looked over the sketch and it made him think of the painting that Takasato had done.

"After I got back here, I immediately drew it, but in the end I only drew that. I can think of a faint impression, but I just can't grasp its shape."

Hirose simply nodded continuously.

"I feel like that thing was crouched next to Takasato's feet, and Takasato was just looking out the window. Then, an arm appeared from the dark areas of the desk."

Once again, his heart beat wildly as if it was about to surge into his throat.

"It was the white arm of a woman; there was no mistaking that. It looked to be naked up to the upper arm, a woman's arm carved out of marble. It appeared in front of the desk and stroked the hand that Takasato had rested on top of the desk. It sat on top of the surface of the desk as it tried to take hold of Takasato's hand. However, neither under the table nor in the darkness could I see any human shapes."

It was that woman, thought Hirose--Had he never seen certain shadows in the classroom? Wasn't that what Gotou was bringing up?

"Takasato didn't seem to see the arm. However, he was smiling. In the moment the arm came into contact with him, he was definitely smiling. The arm immediately shrunk away, and at the same time, whatever it was that had been by his feet also sunk into the floor."

Hirose didn't say anything.

"Honestly, I'm very glad that you took an interest in Takasato. I was afraid that if I were left by myself to think all over the place about this, it would be unbearable."

Hirose didn't respond, and Gotou smiled bitterly, saying, "I'd thought, if you heard the story of the spiriting away, would you develop an interest in Takasato? I can't understand him. His background is too indistinct, and that makes me uncomfortable--But I did feel that perhaps you might have a different sort of response."

Hirose simply nodded.

"Or do you also fear Takasato?" asked Gotou. Hirose shook his head.

"I don't. I've never thought that." Saying this, Hirose smiled for some reason. "Takasato and I are cut from the same cloth. I think that of all the people I've encountered, he's my only companion."

Gotou didn't say anything. Except that in the moment that Hirose said those things, his face revealed an extremely complex expression. Hirose sent him an inquiring look, but he shook his head. As if he had suddenly lost interest in this topic, he stood up.

"Gotou-san?"

Gotou didn't look back. He wiped his hands on the towel at his waist, and then silently made his way in front of the easel. He crossed his arms and looked over the canvas.

Hirose sighed, and when he opened up his training journal, Gotou finally spoke.

"Hirose, can you do something ill-mannered for me?"

3

The second period of this day was chemistry class, and it was a shared course for classes 2-5 and 2-6. During the break period, the class 5 representative came to ask about the classroom instructions. Hirose let him know that they were going to use the laboratory for the next class, and at the same time, he asked the representative to pass this information on to the students of class 6. Then, he went to the lab himself and stood by the window, looking out at the sports grounds.

Close to the center of the sports grounds was the slight bulge of a small sand mound. The flower bouquets could no longer be seen there. Iwaki had been taking chemistry, and before class began, Gotou asked Hirose to help him draw a line. He drew a long line in the attendance roll, across Iwaki's row. It meant that he would never again come to class. Hirose used a ballpoint pen and a ruler to draw the line, and for some reason, he thought of the touch of that hand. At the same time, he thought that after the training was over, he would go to Iwaki's house and light a stick of incense for him. Because of the mess that had arisen previously, Hirose hadn't been able to make it to Iwaki's funeral.

The students of class 5 came in a few at a time, and with their help, Hirose began to set up for the experiment. Just as all the implements were readied, the class bell rang, but none of the class 6 students had shown up.

Hirose felt uneasy. "I'll go see what's going on," Hirose said to Gotou.

But Gotou responded, "I'll go myself." And then he left the lab. Hirose wrote the procedure up on the blackboard, but he was extremely distracted. After he'd finished writing, Gotou brought only five students back with him, one of which was Tsuiki.

"Hirose, come here for a minute." Hirose had been called into the prep room by Gotou.

"What's going on? Where are the rest of the students?" asked Hirose quietly. Gotou replied quietly as well.

"It's a boycott. They've said that there are too many dangerous things in the lab. They don't want to come."

Once he heard this, he knew that they were afraid of retribution.

"When I went, all I saw was Tsuiki standing outside of the classroom, as if he'd been kicked out of there. I lectured them loudly, are you guys really skipping class? But only a few of them came out. The rest are all boycotting."

"What do we do?" asked Hirose. Not knowing what to do either, Gotou sighed.

"Today, why don't we just let it pass? ...There's no other way."

Hirose could only nod.

- - - - -

Excluding Iwaki, there were still 17 students from class 6 that were taking chemistry. The other 22 had chosen to take biology. When the classrooms needed to be used, it was fixed that biology was held in the class 5 classroom, and chemistry was held in the class 6 classroom, so at this time, the biology students should either have been in the class 5 classroom or the biology lab. Among the 18 students who were taking chemistry, only five of them had shown up at the lab. Then, taking into account that another five of them were absent, a total of seven students had remained in homeroom.

As Hirose proceeded with the instructions for the experiment, he thought about this. Then, an intense noise suddenly sounded out from somewhere. It was the sound of people yelling loudly. Hirose and Gotou stopped the students who made as if they were going to get up and rushed toward the hallway. The gymnasium was directly across from the windows of the hallway, and to the right the classroom building could be seen. It might have been gym class. Students and their teacher were gathered in front of the open door of the gym. They were all looking upwards and shouting continuously. When Hirose followed their lines of sight and looked up, he couldn't help but gasp. He saw several figures on the roof of the classroom building.

Hirose felt dizzy and immediately grabbed onto the window frame. He wanted to look away, but he couldn't.

The uniformed figures were lined up neatly at the edge of the roof, as if just a gust of wind could have made them lose their balance and send them tumbling downward.

Entry onto the roof had always been prohibited for students, so there was no separating railing there. At this nervous moment, it was no longer that important how they had opened the series of locks in opening the door. The students lined up close to each other seemed as if they had been tied together with rope. Though even looking at them from far away, he could see that it was the neckties that were part of their uniform. Hirose unconsciously counted the number of figures, and when he reached seven, he was sure that they were the students of class 2-6.

Don't! he called out internally. We need to stop them! We have to! We need to think of a way to save them! But what could we do? There wasn't any time. There was nothing Hirose could do. Even if he ran there at this instant, it would be too late. What was there to do? What could be done?

The anxiety in his heart froze his entire body. All he could do was stare at those seven people. He felt dizzy, and his intensely beating heart made him feel like he was suffocating.

Among the students who were, like sculptures, originally unmoving, the one on the very left suddenly stirred. Hirose's thoughts jumped, and then his brain became blank. That student lost his balance as if he had been pushed from behind. Hirose heard him shouting something, and the rest of the students who had been bound together by their neckties, swayed with him like a rising wave. Ah, thought Hirose. After he sighed, he didn't know what to say. He couldn't help but close his eyes, and he didn't mean to cover his ears, but all the sounds around him completely vanished from his hearing.

When he opened his eyes again, he could no longer see any figures on the roof.

- - - - -

Hirose couldn't remember the commotion that arose after the incident, as he had passed that time muddle-headedly. When he came back to his senses, Hirose discovered that he was sitting in the prep room in a daze.

He felt like he had been daydreaming and then suddenly woke up. His sense of reality was that delicate, and the only thing that he could understand was that he wasn't dreaming.

Besides Hirose, there was no one else in the prep room. Where had Gotou gone to? He suddenly remembered that he had been in the midst of asking about what had happened. And then he thought, why hadn't I been called over there? Then he recalled that Gotou had seen that he was on the verge of passing out, and so had ordered him to stay and rest.

Sections of his memory continued to come back, and contended with each other in his mind: the seven people lined up on the roof, the rest of the students looking up at them, the gray ties that bound their wrists, the laboratory that had descended into panic, the ambulance, the police, the students who had been hurried out of the school gates, the screaming, the uproar, the three who had died at the scene, the four who were critically injured...

Hirose held his head, and a sobbing sound rushed to the top of his throat. He hadn't the means to stop that upwardly gushing sorrow, because a question had suddenly arisen in his mind.

--How could he tell Takasato?

What was the best way to tell him? Takasato himself should have known that something was going to happen. He must have had a realization. Because in that instant when Takasato had fallen out of the window, the events that would happened today had certainly already existed. Though this might be the case, how was he going to tell him about this tragedy?

For a while, Hirose searched his mind for the appropriate words, and then a laugh escaped him. His mood was already completely inclined toward Takasato, because he cared more about Takasato than those seven students, even though of the seven students who had jumped off of the roof, there were still four who were currently hovering between life and death.

The smile on his face became bitter. All Hirose could do was continue to smile bitterly to himself.

4

Hirose didn't go home until it was after nine. Takasato was sitting by the window with a book in his lap. His eyes, however, were staring out the window.

"Welcome back."

The sound of his greeting was reserved and stiff. Hirose tried his hardest to think of something appropriate to say, but he couldn't. He hestitated a while, so Takasato spoke again.

"You're home pretty late."

"Yeah..."

"Was there...a meeting?" asked Takasato stiltedly. He appeared pensive. Hirose thought, He knows. He knew that retribution would happen.

Hirose nodded and pointed outside. "Why don't we go eat? You're probably hungry."

They made their way to a late-night coffee shop, and got something to eat. Hirose didn't really have an appetite, and Takasato seemed the same. On the way back, Hirose asked Takasato if he wanted to go for a walk. A half moon had come out, and a strong breeze caused the scattered clouds in the sky to drift about.

They were walking on the road beside the weir, and after a bit, they arrived at the broad mouth of the river. The river was wide, but after a long period of silting up, the sandy mud had made it so that the actual water only flowed through half of the area of the river. It probably also had something to do with it possibly being low tide on this day. The dark water crept through the black mud that seemed to take up half the width of the river. Near and far, the water of the sea looked dim. The glistening water flowed upon the glossy mud.

"How many people...died?" asked Takasato as he stood on top of the weir, looking down at the sea.

"In the end, there were five. The other two are still in a coma, though they say it's just a matter of time."

"What happened?"

"I don't know."

"Was it an accident?" asked Takasato. Hirose shook his head.

"I really don't know. For some reason, the students who had refused to go to chemistry and stayed in the classroom, suddenly jumped off the roof. The distance from there to the pathway below was four stories, probably about 12 meters or possibly even more. Three people died at the scene, and the rest had become unconscious, never waking up at any point in time. One of them died just like that, with his eyes closed. No one knows what had really happened."

"People aren't supposed to be able to get onto the roof."

"Yeah. But I looked at it myself, and it seemed like the door was open. As to why it was open, no one knows that either."

"Did they really jump down on their own?"

Hirose sighed. A breeze blew by and carried that breath away, gliding from the top of the weir to the black mud.

"I saw it with my own eyes, Takasato, the moment they jumped with their bodies upright. There were many others who had witnessed that scene. It looked as if something had pushed them off, but no culprit could be seen. Looking at the entire situation, it can only be said that it was a group suicide."

Takasato was silent for a while. The moist wind passed gently by from the night sea. The movement of the air was so fast. It was then that he remembered someone saying something about a low pressure front approaching.

"Were there only seven people?"

"Three others were hurt, but they didn't have any serious injuries. I suppose there were only seven." For now. Hirose swallowed these words forcibly.

"Was it all because of me?" It was a quiet and lonely voice.

"I wasn't because of you."

"If I ran away, then nothing would have happened."

Hirose looked at Takasato. Takasato was staring out from the weir.

"If I'd have clearly resisted them and escaped from them, then maybe nothing would have happened. If I hadn't obediently let them push me out and fought back and ran from them, then I nothing would have happened. If I'd done that, then at least I could have..."

"I don't think you could have ran from them."

"But..."

"Even if you had escaped, at most you would still have been beaten up. Just like student teacher A, who'd gone and tried to stop it," said Hirose. Takasato cracked just the shallowest of smiles, which then immediately disappeared.

"No matter what, the situation wouldn't have changed. It wasn't because of you."

They'd said they were afraid of going to the laboratory for class, that there were a lot of dangerous things there, and so they'd refused to go to class. Like the burners or chemicals, there were too many things where just one tiny mistake could turn into an accident.

When Gotou had gone to get the students, he'd seen Tsuiki standing by himself in the hall. Tsuiki had previously verified it. He'd said, when the student from class 5 came to tell them that class would be in the lab, and he stood up to go to the lab, no one else moved at all. He stood at the door and looked back, asking, "Aren't you guys going to the lab?" Then he was pushed out of the classroom and they shut the door. And so, he had been standing out in the hall, waiting to see if anyone would come out.

He'd also said, the student who'd pushed him out of the classroom had said this, "You weren't there. Consider yourself lucky."

On the day that they had pushed Takasato down, Tsuiki hadn't been there. That he was scared of Takasato and refused to go to school had saved Tsuiki's life. Thinking about it, it was ironic. Very ironic.

Originally, Tsuiki had been an offender, and the rest of them had been bystanders. It was because Tsuiki had previous been an offender, that he didn't hurt Takasato more cruelly. And those who did hurt Takasato even more were originally supposed to be students who were bystanders. Because they were afraid, they kept themselves away from the lab, but those who went to the lab were saved. It was only those whose minds were full of warnings that jumped off of the roof.

Takasato spoke quietly, "It had to do with me."

"No, it didn't," said Hirose.

Takasato rested his arms on the weir and buried his face between them. "If only I'd never come back."

"Takasato." Hirose said his name comfortingly, but he still lowered his head.

"If I'd just left, then this wouldn't have happened. If I didn't come back, it would have been better for everybody, but I..."

This was the truth, and thus Hirose didn't say anything in reply. He thought, for Takasato, it would've been better if he hadn't come back. To Takasato, "that place" had been somewhere that he felt right in. If he could have stayed in "that place" forever, then he wouldn't have to suffer these hardships.

The wind blew stronger and the sound of the sea arose regularly. While they were lost in thought, the moon and the stars had disappeared. Above the dark sea there continued the endlessly expansive and lightless night sky. The evening was deep and heavy in this way, and one could faintly smell that rain was about to come. There, the two were simply breathing for a while in silence.

5

"...Say, Takasato." Hirose was leaning against a pillar and sitting cross-legged on the futon. Takasato was sitting next to the window and looking out of it through the break between the curtains.

After they came home, he'd taken a bath, laid out the futon, preparing to sleep, but he wasn't sleepy at all. The daily accidents were taking their toll on Hirose, and his mental exhaustion was worse than that of his body. Though this was so, sleepiness couldn't the least bit overtake him. He knew very clearly that the reasons for this were that his nerves were tightly strung and his sleep had been uneasy.

Hirose sat blankly pondering. Looking out the window, Takasato too looked like he was in a daze.

"Takasato, do you believe in ghosts or monsters?"

Takasato widened his eyes and looked a little bothered.

"Have you ever seen a ghost?"

Takasato shook his head. "No. But if you're talking about things a little out of the ordinary, then..."

"That arm you saw when you were spirited away?"

"Yes."

"Then what about an atmosphere?" asked Hirose further. Takasato suddenly knit his brow. "Have you ever felt a strange atmosphere?"

Takasato stared at Hirose, and then looked as if he was thinking about something.

"I've seen something strange before. It was by your side." Hirose forced a smile. "It was a white arm. And then there was a shadow with an unknown origin. I didn't see them very clearly, but I think there's something strange lingering about you."

After he said this, Hirose revealed a bitter smile.

"How troublesome. I'd never believed in this sort of thing." Hirose looked back at Takasato who was looking at him with his head slightly tilted. "I wonder if you've been possessed by something."

Takasato's eyes became wide.

"The one that's cursed isn't you. It's that thing."

The white arm that had grabbed a hold of Tsuiki's leg, whatever had put a nail through Hashigami's palm, and then whomever had substituted for Iwaki as a support leg in the cavalry battle, and that unusual stain Hirose had seen when Iwaki died. No matter which, they were all abnormal phenomena. They were all things that belonged outside of this world, whose existence couldn't be explained by common knowledge.

"...There's the griffin," Takasato suddenly said. Puzzled, Hirose looked at him. "I don't know quite how to say it, but I call it a griffin. It's like a big dog...or maybe bigger. It's about that big, and sometimes it flies, so I think it has wings. That's why I call it a griffin."

"Have you seen it before?" asked Hirose. Takasato shook his head.

"Sometimes I feel its presence next to me. It really is just a feeling. Sometimes I feel like there's a creature by my side that seems like a dog. It's been there since I was little, and at first I thought I was just being paranoid."

Takasato laughed softly.

"It's always crouched near my feet, like a tame dog. At times, I feel like it's calling out 'Ah!' but when I look over at it, I don't see anything. I don't know where's it's gone to all of a sudden. Sometimes I feel like I see something like a shadow, but most of the time I don't see it. --Wasn't there that one time when I met up with sensei after school?"

"Yeah."

"When you were asking me all those questions, it was there then. When sensei came into the classroom, you looked in the direction of where it disappeared, so I thought perhaps people other than myself were about to sense it."

The shadow that had disappeared somewhere in the classroom.

"It was like keeping a secret dog. It'd even been a bit fun," said Takasato with a faint smile, before that happy expression vanished almost immediately. "Sometimes I feel a person's atmosphere. There's a person's presence and it's almost as if they want to touch me. The smell of the sea always accompanies those times... I call it Murgen."

"Murgen?" Hirose had never heard this name before.

"Do you know sirens? In the 6th century, there was a siren that was caught by humans. Later on, since she was baptized, she became a saint. Her name was Murgen."

"Oh..."

"Whenever I feel sad, Murgen and the griffin will appear and gently stroke my shoulders or rub their bodies against my legs. I think they're comforting me."

By the time he finished, his voice was shaky.

"But, why?" For the first time, his usually quiet tone was full of real emotion. It carried with it Takasato's strong feelings. "I was thankful to Iwaki. I really was."

"I know."

"But, how did it come to that?"

Hirose naturally couldn't respond to that.

"Why did they do that sort of thing? They'd never hurt me before, only ever comforted me. I thought they were my companions."

These words weren't directed at Hirose. Takasato had realized the cause and effect of the entire situation, that undeniable connection between the presence that appeared around him and the unfortunate incidents that occurred often.

"Why did they let him die?"

Just like bodyguards, thought Hirose. But extremely malicious bodyguards. Just like an excessive mother's love, they use these methods to protect Takasato. They mercilessly disposed of those who hurt Takasato. What was important to them wasn't whether or not Takasato had been hurt, but rather how they would make their judgment. They had determined that Iwaki had been Takasato's enemy, and thereby Iwaki was eliminated.

He's finally comprehended the actual situation, thought Hirose. The true character of the thing called the "curse." It was necessary to separate them from Takasato, or else Takasato would sooner or later be forced to face this dilemma. This was not something that was far off from now. Nothing had yet happened to more than half of the students who had pushed Takasato down, but if Tsuiki and Hashigami, who had only brought up an uncomfortable subject, had suffered such a degree of retribution, then there was no way they would let the students go and allow the situation to conclude calmly in this way.

--However, what could be done?

- - - - -

That night, a strong wind arose. The waves rumbled restlessly. Hirose lay in the darkened room tossing and turning, unable to sleep. From the flow of the atmosphere, he knew that Takasato, who was sleeping next to him, was slow to sleep as well.

Very late into the night, just when Hirose was drifting with some difficulty into slumber, he heard what seemed like a woman's voice next to his ear.

--Are you an enemy of the king?

Hirose responded with something.

What did he respond with? Hirose thought hard about it over and over after he woke up, but he couldn't remember.

* * *
* * * *

A man and a woman were standing on a weir, gazing at the night sea.

The man was silent, and the woman was talking by herself. Everything she said sounded like idle chatter, but in reality, hidden in her words was intense sarcasm. The woman seemed like she was trying to provoke the man, and the man had no interest in dealing with it.

It was then that 'splat' came the soft sound of something slapping against the mud.

It sounded like a small fish flipping about on the mud. The man checked out the area below the weir, but there was only sticky muck over there. He didn't he could see fish in such a dark place, but based on his curiosity, the man looked over in that direction anyway. As expected, he didn't see anything upon the surface of the mud. The woman still continued to jabber on. Perhaps she was fuming inside, as her words became very obviously sarcastic.

The man held onto the weir with his hands, and once again there was a sound, 'glump.' This time it sounded like something was sinking into the mud. The woman finally shut up.

"A fish?" she asked, as she looked down at the area below the weir.

"I wonder if it's an eel."

How could that be? Before the woman could respond, another clup came out from below.

'Glump. Klup, klup. Splat.'

The man knit his brow. Suddenly, the smell of the tide became very strong. The sounds didn't stop; there continued to be the sounds of something squirming upon the dark face of the muck. If the sounds were caused by eels, there would have to be enough of them to cover the entire surface of the mud.

"What is it...?"

"I don't know," whispered the man as he waved his hand for the woman to step back, but not once did he move his line of sight from the bottom of the weir. 'Slurp,' there continued to be a sound like someone licking their lips. Small ripples formed upon the stagnant muck.

There was something there.

There were small, countless somethings.

The man looked fixedly down there. A mysterious glimmer shined out from the muck, and the entire thing began wriggling. A group of something surged into the area directly below them. As the man very cautiously leaned his body over to look, the woman released a suppressed scream.

"Look!"

The man hastily looked back at the woman and saw that her face was frozen as she peered toward the surface of the sea. Looking over at what she was looking at, he too couldn't turn his eyes away from the sea. In the midst of the completely muddy water of the sea, something swelled up out of its center like an island in the middle of a river as if it had been sliced open.

The two were no more than 200 meters from the dark mass that looked almost like a giant turtle shell. Perhaps it was because it had floated up from under the muck or because of the swelling black shadow that looked like a round hill of mud that the entire curve appeared to be in the midst of quickly dissolving due to the continuous drip of the mud.

"What is that?"

The smell of the sea became thicker and thicker. The glup, glup sound beneath their feet grew louder and louder. It seemed clear that something was coming closer. The sound edged slowly towards and arrived next to their ears, as if it was about to crawl up from below the weir.

The man suddenly grabbed the woman's upper arm and pushed her body, and started running as if he was rebounding. He pulled the woman who was unable to react because of her excessive shock, away from there. He looked over behind him as he ran back to the road next to the weir.

After running ten-some paces, he looked back and all he could see was something that was black. He could see a slimy sheen like that of mud. It had climbed over the weir and made a glub, glub sound as it drip onto the road. The woman stood still, and following that the man stopped as well. That muddy thing crossed the road making a wet, unpleasant sound and passed over a concrete slope. It flowed down towards a house below the weir and slid into the goldenrods growing thickly outside of its walls, creating a black stream.

Sensing something different, the man turned around and saw that the thing they'd seen at the mouth of the river was about to sink into the mud. All he saw was that the swelling would soon become an undulation of the mud, and then disappear beneath the muck. Afterwards, all that was left was the smooth surface of the sea of mud.

The man looked again in the direction of the road. On the road paved with concrete and not asphalt, there only remained the traces left behind of the muddy thing that had dragged itself across it.

"What was that thing just now?" The man wanted to look at the muddy tracks on the ground and walked forward, but the woman grabbed his arm. She shook her head, signaling for the man not to go. The man looked at the woman, then looked back at the muddy tracks, and then nodded his head gently.

All around them was the strong smell of the sea.

"Let's go back," said the man resolutely. It was a warning that came out of instinct. It was best not to get any closer to that thing. If he really wanted to get a closer look, it wouldn't be too late to wait until tomorrow. It was probably better to come back and confirm what they saw after the darkness was swept away and the day was bright, when nothing could hide.

The two quickly started jogging away. The smell of the sea followed them closely like a clinging tentacle, and there it included the overpowering stench of the tide.
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Chapter 7

1

When Hirose got to the school early in the morning, he saw a crowd of people having to do with the broadcast media gathered in front of the school gates. There were more people now than when the incident with Iwaki occurred.

There was still a little stretch of time before the students would arrive at school. They were lucky to catch a scattering of students and teachers walking to the doors of the school. All the teachers who had been caught lowered their heads and rushed to get away, while forcibly calling over the students who had been caught in the same way and taking them into the school. Perhaps it was lack of good judgment that the students who had entered the school looked like they were disappointed. As they were forcefully brought inside the school grounds, they looked back at the members of the media with high interest.

Hirose stopped at a place where he could see the gates of the school. Seeing the situation at the school entrance, he could only sigh. He didn't want to be asked ludicrous questions, so he turned back and walked a short stretch of road, coming to a place where he could see the back entrance. However, all around the back were also gathered some people. He eyed the number and thought that at least there were less people on this side. Just as he was about to start walking, he heard the soft sound of a car horn behind him.

Looking backwards, he saw the teacher-nurse Totoki sitting inside the car. "Need a ride?"

"Please, that would be great." Hirose bowed and got into the small white car stopped next to the sidewalk. After he got into the cramped space, he released a sigh.

"What a tough teacher-training period," laughed Totoki steadily.

"...Yeah."

"But it'll be over tomorrow. I'm a little envious."

"I guess," said Hirose as he smiled wryly. Totoki smiled as well, and brought the car to the right. He clicked on the right-turn signal and waited for the red traffic light to turn green.

"Has your body been all right?"

"At most, I just have bruises here and there."

Totoki smiled and nodded. Seeing that the traffic light had changed, he drove as he said quietly, "I heard that yesterday the teachers who went to check up on the students at the hospital they were staying at were asked some strange things by reporters."

"Strange things?"

"Yeah. They asked about hearing there was an accident involving a student who had fallen from the second floor and if that student had come."

"But that incident..." It was settled as an accident. The newspapers and television had disregarded it.

"They probably heard about it from somewhere. They keep pursuing it, plainly asking where Takasato's house is."

Totoki drove the car towards the back entrance, honked his horn to disperse the media gathered at the gate, and went directly into the school grounds.

"They keep asking if it was really an accident. It looks like they're putting all their attention over there. They might even bring up incidents regarding injured students. You should be careful."

"I will."

Totoki drove the car to the parking lot next to the back entrance, and smiled, saying, "If you haven't given up by then, I can give you another ride after school, since the surroundings of the school are crowded with these army ants."

Hirose smiled vaguely and nodded. "Please, if it's not too much trouble."

- - - - -

Hirose and Totoki walked into the faculty office together, and discovered that it was enveloped in a strange, nervous atmosphere. The teachers were scattered through the office in small groups, keeping close to each other. Everyone had complex expressions on their faces as they read the newspaper. Hirose scanned the entire faculty office, and after seeing Gotou standing in a corner, he walked towards him.

"Good morning. --What's been going on?"

Gotou lifted his hand gently, and then looking distressed, he whispered, "The sports news carried a really strange report. They're clumping yesterday's incident and the rest of the accidents together, saying something about a curse."

Hirose knew that his face had turned pale. Totoki leaned in with interest.

"A curse?"

They couldn't be talking about Takasato, could they? Hirose asked with his eyes. Gotou shook his head.

"I think they heard about Takasato's incident and about the events of the field trip. They've even brought up Ikuta-san." Gotou smiled bitterly. "They're grouping everything together, as if they were afraid that the situation wasn't bad enough, writing about a cursed school or something like that. They're also saying that the people involved are saying that this is some sort of curse and that they're scared."

Totoki made a startled sound. "The people involved?"

"I think they're probably talking about me or Totoki sensei."

Totoki's eyes went wide, and then he smiled wryly. "I didn't know myself that I was so scared."

"Me either," smiled Gotou, and then his face tightened up. "How troublesome. Yesterday, the hospital was made into a mess by those media people."

"So it appears."

"Situations lead to more situations. It's no wonder, since the incident with Iwaki just happened. And then, I think there were those small accidents that occurred yesterday."

"Yesterday?"

"Yeah. There were nine students in our class who, if they didn't trip down the stairs, then they fell from a footbridge, leading to quite a few absences. I'm thinking that there's no way to conduct class today." As he said this, Gotou gave Hirose a look, and just then the headmaster walked in.

- - - - -

The start time of classes was pushed back, and morning meetings were conducted for the whole school. According to the headmaster, of the seven who had jumped off the roof, six of them were already dead.

Hirose proceeded to the classroom to carry out a morning meeting and there was quite the bleak situation in the classroom. Six people had died, and one was unconscious. From the day before yesterday until this morning, there were twelve students absent because of an accident, and four who had called in sick. There were only 16 students sitting in the classroom, looking uneasy.

The two-week teacher-training period was coming to an end. The student teachers' study curriculum was strained in its implementation, but most of the other courses were left to the students' self-study. According to the set plan, during fifth period Hirose went to the first-year Science I class, but the minds of most of the teachers who had come to look on and that of the students were not in it.

When Hirose had returned to the prep room after the study curriculum was over, the telephone rang. It was a notification that the last student in the hospital had died while still completely in a coma.

2

Gotou put down the telephone receiver and dejectedly placed his hand on his forehead. He didn't know quite how to tell Hirose, and thus looked silently at his back.

"Hirose," said Gotou quietly to Hirose's back. "I really don't like the feeling of being afraid of Takasato. But, after this, I can't help it anymore."

Hirose's back was still to Gotou, as he nodded gently.

"Disliking Takasato is much easier. Seven people. Seven."

"We still can't say for sure that it's Takasato's doing."

Gotou turned his head. "You said before that Takasato curses others."

Hirose shook his head. "I only said that Takasato and the retribution were related. First of all, this isn't necessarily revenge. It could really be suicide."

"Their motivation?"

"Often those who kill themselves don't even know for sure. There are some who seek death because of small reasons like being laughed at by those around them."

"Do you really believe what you're saying?"

Being stared at by Gotou, Hirose lowered his head. "--It's not Takasato, Gotou-san."

After Hirose said this, Gotou blinked his eyes in doubt.

"Takasato's not the one cursing people. It's that thing that Gotou-san had previously seen."

Gotou looked at Hirose, and then looked over at the locker where he kept his sketchbook. "...Are you referring to that?"

"Yes. I don't know what they are. They've attached themselves to Takasato, and are constantly protecting him. I don't know the reason."

"I don't know if I'd call that protecting."

"Their methods are wrong, but their intentions are very obvious. They're using their own ways to protect Takasato. They are not the least tolerant of those whom they've decided are Takasato's enemies. I think that they're using the methods of retribution to achieve the goal of protection.

"Then," Gotou murmured. "Then, will they never harm Takasato?"

"Probably."

"If this is really the case, then aren't the people standing by Takasato's side actually safer? I don't know how they exact their revenge, but as long as Takasato is in the classroom, then they probably won't use methods that bring the ceiling crashing down or punch up through the floorboards. Even if they use more makeshift means, the safety factor while next to Takasato is much higher than if one wasn't next to Takasato. Is that how it is?"

Hirose opened his eyes wide. "Yes, that's exactly right."

If they're protecting Takasato, then the closer one is to Takasato, the higher the safety factor.

"Takasato..." Should be called here, Hirose was about to say, but Gotou stopped him.

"Wait," he said firmly, and then he looked away as if he was still undecided.

"Let me call home."

"No!" Gotou was clearly a little dismayed. Not understanding, Hirose cocked his head to the side to look at him.

"--It's too dangerous. The students don't understand the situation. Right now, they're all afraid of Takasato. They're convinced that Takasato personally curses others. There might be those in a helpless situation who'll conclude that everything will be all right if Takasato wasn't there... This is a possibility. They'll think that once Takasato's dead, they'll be able to escape misfortune."

"That's true, but..." Hirose continued. "But, were something to happen to Takasato, those things would surely protect him." Wasn't it because of them that he came out unharmed after falling three stories?

After Hirose finished speaking, Gotou looked away. "Don't do this. I don't believe there are any students who're willing to stay next to Takasato. Isn't the best proof that there are students who've called in sick?"

"We just need to explain to them that it's in the best interest of their safety. They should be able to understand that. We need to find an opportunity to persuade those absent students, and let them know that when they come to school, it'll be more..."

"Did you want to tell them everything about the situation?"

"Can't we?"

"Don't be absurd," spit out Gotou curtly. Hirose thought this inconceivable and looked at Gotou.

"Why?"

"You want to tell them that because of this and that, so don't leave Takasato's side? It's no use. It's not as if they could stay by Takasato 24 hours a day."

"But..."

"When I say no, I mean no. Wait and see. If someone else dies, when they see Takasato, what do you suppose will happen?"

"But there's nothing else we can do to protect ourselves!"

"I don't know how effective it would be. Also, the risk is too great. Stop with this."

"Then what can we do?"

"At any rate, we mustn't tell people about it."

Hirose sighed. He didn't understand why Gotou suddenly chose such a stubborn attitude.

"Gotou-san."

Gotou didn't look at Hirose as he went to stand in front of the easel. He glanced over the canvas with his arms crossed.

"Hirose, what kind of person do you think I am?"

Hirose didn't know why Gotou asked such a question, and he didn't know how to respond. He remained silent as he tilted his head.

Thus, looking at his canvas, Gotou murmured, "I'm pleased with you."

"Thank you."

"--So, I'm urging you not to tell people. I don't want to attend your funeral."

Hirose widened his eyes. "Gotou-san!"

"This is my ego. I know this. But, at least I'm not one of those great people who are capable of liking everybody equally. If you tell them everything and create an obstacle for them, then even you might be cursed. I really don't want to see Hirose becoming like Iwaki and what happened to him."

"Do you know what I mean when I say that I want to explain it to them?"

Gotou still didn't look at Hirose. "I do. Do you want me to say it more simply? --Even if you told them everything, they would still need a scapegoat. They will do what they have to do to someone, and you must pay the price for what you've done. This is not a price you can afford to pay."

"Gotou-san."

Gotou cracked a bitter smile as he faced the canvas. It was a bitter, bitter smile. "Are you surprised? Or should I say even more inappropriate things?"

"I don't want to hear anymore."

"Then let me ask you. --If you died, what do you think would happen to Takasato?"

Hirose looked at Gotou's profile.

"You can't compare this to when Ikuta-san or Iwaki died. Hirose, you could possibly be the first person Takasato's met in his lifetime able to understand him. Did you want to leave Takasato behind?"

"I..."

Gotou moved his eyes elsewhere, and revealed a harsh and bitter expression. "If it were possible to treat everyone well, then anybody would do that. But sometimes we have to decide on an order. Liking everyone the same means that you don't like any one person. At least that's what I think."

Hirose was silent. He felt as if he had been jabbed where it hurt. In reality, Hirose was also worried because he thought that if something happened with the students, it would all likewise add on to Takasato's psychological burden. In his mind, there also really existed the thought that it was unavoidable that those who had pushed Takasato down would receive some amount of retribution. However, excessive retributions would become burdens to Takasato. Thus, if there was some way he could stop it, he hoped that he would be able to do so. He didn't realize that if he had come out to stop it, he himself could very well be harmed.

"If no matter what, you're going to explain it to them, then let me do it. A young person like you shouldn't cross such a dangerous bridge."

Hirose felt himself being hit where it hurt again.

"...You mean old man."

"Yeah." Gotou seemed all of a sudden to be a lot older. Hirose remembered that when Gotou was his homeroom teacher, he was already almost 50 years old. Hirose suddenly thought, is he quickly approaching retiring age?

"I don't like attending the funerals of people like you. It's simply a waste of funeral gift money," said Hirose quietly, and Gotou really laughed painfully. He didn't say anything else, so Hirose didn't speak any further.

The affection of one person thinking highly of another should be a precious thing, but on the other side, there exists such an ugly ego. Every person existing in this world as a person is itself so dirty. This is what Hirose felt in his heart.

- - - - -

The funerals of the students who had jumped off the roof and died that day had been planned for the afternoon. After watching a heavy-footed Gotou leave, Hirose opened up the attendance record. After each of the seven names, he used a straightedge to carefully draw a long line, just like he had done before for Iwaki.

3

This day was also nothing but meetings, so there was a lot of self-studying. Even though classes were going on, the school grounds were still very noisy. A little bit after Gotou left the prep room, the sound of people talking approached. Hirose was straining his ears to listen when the door burst open, and Nozue and Sugisaki walked in.

"Oh? Sensei, are you all right?"

"How are you feeling?"

The two spoke at the same time. Hirose smiled bitterly at them.

"I'm okay, I suppose."

Nozue peered exaggeratedly at Hirose's face. "You're fine? I heard that yesterday you looked like you were about to die."

"Who said that?"

"The guys in class. They said that the face of the student teacher wearing white looked like he'd been the one that jumped off a building."

"That's an overstatement."

"Is that so? Sensei, it's because you're so naive."

"You know what that means?" Nozue began to chuckle.

"Don't you guys have to be in class?"

It was supposed to be fourth period. When Hirose asked this, Nozue opened his eyes impishly.

"It's self-study. So we thought we'd self-study some chemistry."

Hirose looked on with a certain feeling of being rescued, as they willfully invaded the cabinet and took out some beakers. It had been depressing sitting here all by himself, and their laughter cheered him up a little.

"I hear 2-6 is empty, huh?" Nozue sat down in front of Hirose, holding a beaker of coffee.

"Well..."

"How many people?"

"Sixteen. The classroom has great ventilation, eh?"

"If you're asking me..." Sugisaki suddenly lowered his voice. "Have you guys heard about the curse?"

Nozue murmured, "Are you still going on about that?"

Sugisaki shook his head. "No, no. I'm not talking about that second-year... uh... Takasato?"

"If it's not Mr. T, then whose curse is it?"

Sugisaki lowered his voice even more. "Iwaki-san."

For an instant, Hirose was dumbstruck. Nozue was also silent for a little bit, and then laughed.

"No way. Why would Iwaki-san have a curse?"

"Don't people keep getting hurt in class 2-6? Isn't that why they killed Iwaki-san?"

"Class 5 people were there too!" said Nozue.

Sugisaki grinned, saying, "Weren't they taking advantage of the time when classes 5 and 6 had a joint class to do a dry run of the cavalry battle? Of course, they're going to split it into two teams. I mean, we've played it before. They usually make teams based on which class we're in, right?"

"You have me up to here."

"Iwaki-san was in class 5, so how could he get tangled up with his own classmates? So, the people around Iwaki-san's cavalry team should have been guys from class 6. After a struggle with the guys in class 6, when Iwaki-san fell down, most of the attackers would have to be from class 6. QED."

"Ah, I see."

"Also, there are people who saw it."

"Saw what?"

Sugisaki lowered his voice. "The people who live near the school say that at night, they saw someone wearing a gym uniform on the roof of the classroom building."

"A gym uniform?"

"Also, guys from another class said that when they were in the entrance hall, they saw someone wearing a gym uniform walking behind the shoe rack. They even said that the gym uniform was stained with dirt and blood."

"Heh heh."

Hirose smiled wryly. "It seems like after people die, if they don't turn into ghosts, they aren't satisfied, eh?"

Sugisaki furrowed his brow. "I'm not the one saying it. I'm just the one who's saying there are such rumors."

"Whenever someone dies, these sorts of rumors always appear."

After being mocked by Hirose, Sugisaki defiantly puffed up his cheeks.

"But everybody's saying that yesterday's jumping incident had something to do with Iwaki-san..."

"Can't be."

"No, really. They say that the people in the gym heard everything. They heard the guys on the roof shouting, 'Please help us! Please forgive us!'"

Hirose wrinkled his brow. "Shouting?"

"That's right. That's how the people in the gym discovered that there were guys on the roof. They said that they were shouting deliriously, 'Forgive us!' How do you save a whole group of people standing at the edge of the roof? Some people were saying they looked like they were being controlled."

Suddenly a vision passed through Hirose's mind. In that paralyzed state, their bodies couldn't move, nor could they make a sound, except that there was movement in their legs. They didn't want to go, but their legs made their way towards the roof. The door that shouldn't have been opened was opened, and they came to the roof. Their two feet wouldn't listen to their commands and moved them to the edge of the roof. But because they were so terrified, it was such an effort just to squeeze out a little sound. "Please save us!"

Hirose shook his head. It'd just been a daydream. No one knows exactly what happened there. And one couldn't eliminate the possibility that they had killed themselves based on their own volition.

"Also, this morning..." said Sugisaki.

Hirose disconcertedly shot a look back at him. "What happened?"

"Someone said that muddy tracks were smeared in front of the first-year classroom."

"Mud?"

"Yeah, muddy tracks that looked like they were made by something crawling were smeared across the first floor hallway. Mud, it's so... you know?"

"When did you hear about that?"

"Just this morning! It was the first thing I heard when I got to school. It's just too bad that by the time I got here, it'd already been cleaned up. Seems like a janitor cleaned it up or something."

"Oh!?" exclaimed Nozue. Sugisaki continued.

"The muddy tracks left were about this wide, from the bottom of the stairway next to the entrance hall up to the front of the class 6 classroom." Sugisaki held his hands out and measured out a width a little less than a meter. "After I heard about this in the entrance hall, I ran up there immediately. I've always been a gawker, but I didn't get to see anything. Although, there was a strange smell."

"A strange smell?" Hirose looked up to ask, and Sugisaki nodded.

"It was some sort of wet and putrid smell. I felt like I'd smelled something like that before."

Hirose asked timidly, "Was it...the smell of the tide?"

"Ah!" shouted Sugisaki as he tapped his finger. "That's it. I kept thinking how familiar that smell was. It's the odor of the sea, the dirty smell of sticky mud when you're by the sea."

Nozue made a startled sound. "And then? What does the smell of the seashore have to do with Iwaki-san?"

"Eh? Uh... That's right, huh... Hm?" Sugisaki tilted his head, and Nozue laughed. Nozue went on for a while about how people never had any basis for rumors, but Hirose wasn't listening.

The smell of the tide.

From a certain perspective, it was frightening to consider that that was what Iwaki left behind. Didn't Takasato mention it as well? He'd said that they were always accompanied by the smell of the sea.

4

When the class bell rang, Hashigami came immediately.

"Hey, did you hear?" Hashigami asked, as soon as he entered the prep room. "I heard it happened, Sugisaki."

Sugisaki smiled proudly. "I've known for a while now. It's Iwaki-san, right?"

Hearing this, Hashigami was surprised. "Iwaki? What about Iwaki?"

After getting this reply from Hashigami, Sugisaki couldn't help but open his eyes wide. "Aren't you talking about this? That Iwaki-san's ghost has been appearing?"

"There's a rumor like that?"

"Yeah, there is. Are you talking about something different?"

Hashigami sat down in a chair with an amazed look on his face. "Are you talking about a rumor that Iwaki turned into a ghost and began appearing? That's the first I've heard of it. It's not Iwaki. It's about a young woman."

Sugisaki leaned forward with great interest.

Hashigami grinned. Nozue handed a beaker of coffee to him, and he gently raised his hands. "It's a common story, but lately it seems to be pretty popular. I heard that she's been appearing a lot around this area."

"What is it? What is it?"

"It's the ghost of a young woman, who stops people and asks them a question. 'Do you know the ki?' When they reply that they don't know, she immediately vanishes, but when they reply that they do, a one-eyed dog will appear out of nowhere and eat them up."

Sugisaki let out a delighted sound.

"You love stories like this, don't you?"

"Heck, yeah."

Nozue tilted his head. "What is that, ki?"

"Well..." murmured Hashigami. "What about 'oni'? Ki, as in ogre." [note: the kanji for "oni," which means "ogre," can also be pronounced "ki."]

"Why do you think oni?"

"I don't know. That's the most likely, isn't it?"

Sugisaki cocked his head. "I wonder if it's someone's name. Because a while ago, there was a similar ghost story about a woman who kept looking for a man whose name started with 'hi.'"

"What's that?" Just as Hashigami asked this, the door to the prep room burst open, and Sakata appeared.

After looking at the three for a moment, he approached Hirose. "Sensei, do you know where Takasato is?"

Hirose didn't know what he meant by this question, and so tilted his head.

"I called his house yesterday, but no one picked up. Do you know where he is?"

"Yeah, I do," he replied, and Sakata affected a flattering smile.

"I was wondering if you could tell me. Takasato's probably not coming back to school, huh? No matter what, I have to see Takasato and speak with him."

Hirose thought it over a little bit, and then replied simply, "I can't tell you tell you where he is. I think Takasato will probably come back to school. After you see him at school, you can speak with him then."

Sakata looked up at Hirose discontentedly. "It seems like sensei and Takasato are on pretty good terms."

"Really?"

"It just seems different. When other people mention Takasato, the mood is just different from when sensei talks about Takasato."

Hirose didn't reply to this.

"Sensei, if you get along with Takasato so well, I was wondering if you'd let me see him. No matter what, I have to talk with Takasato."

Sakata was annoyingly persistent.

"What do you want to talk to him about?"

"A lot of things."

His yearning tone made Hirose feel nauseous.

"Takasato's present situation is a bit tough, so I wanted to give him a little encouragement."

"Oh?" The one voicing another implication was Nozue. "I didn't know Sakata-san was so kind-hearted."

Sakata scoffed nasally. "I'm very kind-hearted...to people who are worth being kind-hearted towards."

"Sounds unpleasant."

"That's not what I mean. I just dislike having anything to do with the trifling sort, because there are so many people out there who are so boring, but then pretend they're so great."

Nozue held ridicule in his smile. "So if you become good with Takasato-san, just maybe you won't be cursed, huh?"

"It's not like that." Sakata puffed up his cheeks. "I just think that everyone's misunderstanding Takasato. He's a person who has unique talents, and I think treating that sort of person like an ordinary person is wrong. Special people should receive special treatment. If not, then Takasato won't think much of it."

Hirose found his words annoying. Takasato probably wouldn't like Sakata. "You'll probably have plenty of chances to see Takasato at school. I don't want to do this."

This being said, Sakata dissatisfiedly snorted. "Whatever. I don't mean to be unreasonable. But..." Sakata searched Hirose's face.

"I'm unhappy with your attitude."

"What attitude?"

"Nothing. If you don't understand, then nevermind." Hirose felt like he was one of those people who unsettled others for no reason. Then, Nozue made a stunned sound.

"Sakata-san, why do you care so much about Takasato-san? When I look at you, I feel like something's not right."

"You're speaking very impolitely."

"But isn't that how you are? Sakata-san, you seem to really worship Takasato-san. Won't that just annoy Takasato-san?"

"Why?"

"Usually, if someone is accused of having caused the death of another, I don't think anyone would feel happy about that, much less someone who's been injured as a result of an attempted hanging."

"So, didn't I say I wanted to see him and give him some encouragement? He might not be feeling so well because he could possibly have caused the death of others, and I feel bad for him. There's nothing to be done. Takasato is just that special. I feel like those who don't understand that and then bully him are stupid. Takasato doesn't need to feel like he's responsible for any of this." Sakata gave an exaggerated sigh. "No one recognizes it, and so they do inappropriate things. The point is, if people were to not go against Takasato, then no one would die. Though everyone says that Takasato curses people, no one really thinks that in their hearts, so that's why these weird things have been happening. If only everyone were able to understand how special Takasato is, then absolutely nothing would happen."

After he spoke, Sakata smiled unevenly. Hashigami blurted out, "I'm sorry. There's no way I would want to appease some person just so I could go on living."

"For people like that, they can do whatever they want. Because there will finally be a day when they'll be purged."

Hashigami glared at Sakata. "Let me just make this clear. Sakata, you've got some sort of disorder. There's something critically weird about you."

Sakata laughed at that. "I just think that if we don't change that sort of attitude where we think only we're right, then one day, we'll feel the wrath of Takasato."

Hirose didn't say anything. He couldn't stand Sakata's presence, and that made him uneasy. Hashigami seemed disappointed and also kept his mouth shut. An obvious look of disgust also appeared in the faces of Nozue and Sugisaki.

Hirose stood up.

"What's wrong?" asked Nozue, as he looked up inquiringly at Hirose.

"Errands," said Hirose curtly, and then he left he prep room. When he exited into the hallway, putting a door between himself and Sakata, he couldn't help but heave a deep sigh.

5

Because he hadn't left the prep room with any particular goal, Hirose descended aimlessly to the first floor. When he looked outside from the hallway of the first floor, he saw students gathered on the lawn of the courtyard. As best as he could see, nothing gave him the impression that odd things kept occurring at this school. When he sat absent-mindedly by the entrance, the shrubbery immediately in front of him made a sound, and a student popped his head out from the other side of the slender boxwood. It was Tsuiki.

"What are you up to over there?"

"Taking a break. You eating lunch?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki nodded. Hirose stood up and went into the courtyard in his indoor shoes. He went around to the other side of the shrubbery and saw Tsuiki and Gotanda sitting on a bench.

"Ah, your indoor shoes."

"Let's keep it between us."

Tsuiki smiled and squeezed out a space on the bench for one more person. Hirose sat down. The two rested their lunchboxes on their knees, though they were already almost done eating.

"It's probably still a bit warm to be basking in the sun."

The intense sunlight shone on the bench. Bright sunlight makes darker shadows. Hirose felt that though it was bright all around him, but his mood had fallen to a nadir.

"It's because there's no air conditioning right here." Tsuiki smiled.

"Yeah. Tsuiki, you didn't come to the prep room, huh?" asked Hirose. Tsuiki looked a little perturbed.

"I wanted to, but I just don't know how to face Hashigami-san... Plus, Sakata is there."

"What? You don't like Sakata?"

Tsuiki wrinkled his brow. "He's never really been the type that I liked. Although, recently that guy's been weird."

"Weird?"

Tsuiki hesitated. Gotanda spoke for him. "Because lately, he's possessed, like he's starting a new religion."

Hirose tilted his head.

With no expression on his face, Gotanda said, "Takasatoism."

"Ah." Hirose nodded. Gotanda shrugged indifferently.

"I keep getting calls."

"From Sakata?"

"Yeah. He tells me to repent."

Surprised, Hirose looked at Gotanda and then at Tsuiki. Both of them looked fed up.

"Whether he knows us or not, he keeps calling people in our class, and preaching to us about not going against Takasato."

Hirose sighed. "So...do you plan on entering the faith?"

Gotanda shrugged once more. "You've got to be kidding me. Sakata's got an abnormal personality."

Completely, muttered Hirose in his head.

Tsuiki sighed exaggeratedly. "He says that those who were injured received a sort of baptism."

"What's that?"

"A baptism from Lord Takasato. He says it's an opportunity."

"I don't get it."

"Me either. He's saying stuff like, he doesn't think any of us know what Takasato's capable of, so we should take the initiative to change our attitudes; that even though we've been punished, we still have a chance to reform ourselves; that on some level, we have it better than those we have no clue whatsoever. He says that if we don't change our attitudes, then even worse things will happen, and that Takasato is already weary of us... That guy's not right in the head."

"I agree," mumbled Hirose.

"I'm not sure, but I wonder if 'blessed are the poor in spirit' refers to him."

"I think it's a little different."

Gotanda said, "If we're going to translate Sakata's words in terms of religion, then it'd be like this: Going against Takasato is a sin, and those who've committed a sin are declared guilty by God. This declaration is a kind of miracle. Sinners have committed a sin, and so their sins are great, but in being punished, they have the blessing of being in the presence of God. Among them, there are those who have committed unpardonable sins and thus condemned to death, but those who survive have the opportunity to see a miracle with their own eyes, so this is a sort of blessing."

Tsuiki sounded surprised. "You seem to understand it well."

"It's not that I just understood it. It's that I've done some studying in order to understand it. In the entire class, I'm probably the only one willing to spend an hour or two on the phone, dealing with Sakata."

"Idle curiosity."

"I wonder if you could call it a vigorous intellectual inquisitive nature. --Well, whatever. Since Sakata's phone calls are harmless for me. But, the other guys..."

"How's that?" asked Hirose, and Gotanda shrugged.

"In a nutshell, even though he keeps talking about stuff like miracles and condemnations, and about how if we don't quickly repent, we'll be punished again, I'm not especially concerned, because whether actively or passively, I was not involved in trying to hang Takasato. Although, if I were one of the people involved in that, then I might be threatened by Sakata's calls."

Hirose sighed. "For certain..."

"I think most of those guys who're absent are probably faking illness. Even for those who were really injured, there are probably very few of them hurt so badly that they can't come to school. People are just afraid of coming. I also think that of the guys who are still coming to school now, most of them must be those with strict parents that refuse to let them take days off. In any case, I think Sakata's calls play an important role in people skipping school."

"No way. It's probably just a simple fact that they're afraid of retribution."

Gotanda asserted, "They can't be so scared as to not come to school, because there's already a scapegoat. There'll eventually to be a day when they'll come again."

Hirose tilted his head, and Gotanda widened his eyes.

"Ah, I was also in the same class as Takasato when I was a first-year. Incidentally, I was also in the same class as him for half of the third year of junior high. He'd transferred there during that year. So, I have a pretty good idea of Takasato's situation. I don't think that it's certain that retribution will come once you've hurt Takasato."

"Is...that so?"

Gotanda nodded. "It's like last time. When a whole bunch of people hurt Takasato, a few of them will be injured badly, but the rest of them will either only be injured a little, or not at all, which basically means they were overlooked. That's the rule."

"Ah, so that's what you mean by scapegoat..."

"I think Takasato's intention isn't in revenge, but rather in a warning. He's making a threat to everyone, that good things will not come out of messing with him. So when a group of people hurt him all at the same time, only the unluckier ones receive a severe retribution, and the rest get away with only a few scratches. For the lucky ones, nothing happens to them at all. Those who've taken days off because of injury can't have been hurt very badly, right?"

"...Yeah."

"Thus, nothing more serious is going to happen to the people who've already been hurt, and the onlookers won't get hurt either. Regardless of when, there are always onlookers, those who'll only stand by and watch, and not try to stop it. To the contrary, none of those onlookers have gotten into any accidents. In other words, it's a warning. For a warning, a more severe retribution would be useless and meaningless."

Hirose nodded.

"Actually, it's easy to understand with a little thinking, but I think the reason that those guys didn't come to school is because of Sakata's strange method of persuasion."

At first listen, it seemed reasonable.

"Then, do you know how many people were involved in the end?" asked Hirose. Gotanda cocked his head and mumbled the names of a few students.

"Twenty-six, I think. Tsuiki and a couple others were absent, and I immediately refused to get involved. There were four others who were hurt but tried to stop it, and there were probably five onlookers. Including Takasato, that makes 14. Our class is exactly 40 people, so 26 were involved in it."

Accidents already happened to twelve people. Seven more were no longer alive, which left seven people. --Could it be possible that those seven would get away with only a few warning scratches?

Hirose knew in his heart that the reason Gotanda made sense to him was that nothing else was worth hoping for. The scary part was that in reality, Takasato wasn't the one carrying out retribution. Would human logic suit that monstrous crew?

Even so, Hirose was a bit relieved. It was definite that some of the tension he'd held in his chest had loosened.

* * * *
* * * *

He hurried along the third floor hallway to the stairs. The level of light in the school building had already dropped, and gloomy shadows lurked here and there.

He glanced at his watch. He didn't think that drawing Agrippa would take so much time. Particularly since the art teacher Yoneda had covered it with a plastic bag, what was originally a bust he had grown accustomed to drawing became today a difficult problem. Even if he could catch a cab in front of the school gates and rush directly to his drawing lessons, he didn't know if he would be able to make it by the start of the class. Today's lesson was going to be sketching, and he didn't want to be late. He was terrible at sketching, but his first-choice art college often put sketching into its entrance exams.

He trotted down the stairs and made his way to the entrance hall. There weren't a lot of windows, and in addition, the entrance hall was on the side opposite the sun which had already set.

He was standing in the empty space in front of the vacant, lined-up shoe racks, when he momentarily thought of that rumor that kept being brought up recently. The rumor was a ghost story about how the underclassman who'd died on Tuesday would unexpectedly appear here. He'd only thought about it for a second, since he was in a rush.

Based on the hensachi numbers, this school he attended was considered a high-level school, but to someone who wanted to get into an art college, it wasn't considered a very good prep school. He was confident about the written exam, but what decided admission was the practical exam. He hadn't spent enough time drilling for the practical test, nor did he receive special attention from any of the teachers.

He pulled out his shoes roughly and at the same time, threw his indoor shoes in. He hurriedly put his shoes on, and as he was about to cross the entrance hall, he discovered a person standing in the shadows nearby.

It wasn't the underclassman who'd died, he could say that for sure, because though he wasn't familiar with the dead student, he knew that he'd gone this school, and so was certainly not a woman.

She was standing with her body leaning on the shoe racks, facing him with her white face.

Who's that, he thought to himself, though he didn't think it especially suspicious. He knew the contents of the rumors that were beginning to go around inside the school, but he wasn't familiar with the ones that had started to circulate around the new town.

He cocked his head.

"Um... Who are you? Are you someone's family member?" he asked. She hung her head dejectedly, and then immediately looked back up at him again.

"I'm looking for Taiki."

"Taiki?"

She nodded. "Do you know the ki?"

He didn't understand the meaning of her words and simply stood there, so she looked down again.

"I'm very troubled. If I don't find him soon..."

He tilted his head and said, "I've never heard of that before. Sorry."

He couldn't help but apologize, because she looked so sad. Thus, he questioned her.

"What is that? A person?"

She shook her head. "The ki is a beast, one that called Taiki."

"Is it a dog?"

She sighed lightly. "The ki is a ki. Well, I suppose you don't know of it."

"Yeah, I'm sorry I couldn't help you." As he said this, he searched his memories. Was there a beast called ki?

"Then, do you know of Sanshi?"

"Sanshi?"

"Haku Sanshi."

This had even less meaning than "ki" to him. "Is that a beast too?"

She tilted her head. "I think she's closer to a human than a beast. Have you seen her?"

He shook his head, as he pondered, what does she mean by "closer to a human than a beast"?

"If I don't find them soon, very bad things will happen..."

"Bad things?"

"Yes, very bad. The situation will become dire."

"Dire..." In that moment, the strange things that had been happening continuously in the school passed through his mind. He didn't know what she was thinking about, but she shook her head.

"Taiki's presence has become extremely dirty, but it is not the impurity of blood, because a beast who hates blood will become sick from blood," she said to herself. "It was so much effort for Hanshi to find this place for me..."

He didn't quite understand what she was talking about. It was then that he finally began to feel as if things were a bit off. Something was different, different from the world that he knew.

At last, he thought that he should probably get away from her, so he said, "Anyway, I think it's best if you leave soon. The security guard's going to come and close up, and if he spots you, it'll be a big fuss."

After he said this, she nodded and departed from the shoe rack.

That's right. If I don't get rid of this strange woman and go back, if I don't hurry up, I'll be late for my lesson.

She turned around so that her back was facing him, and walked in the direction of the hallway.

"That's not good. An outsider..." In the middle of talking, he swallowed his words.

Her silhouette slowly faded, and as he was forgetting whether or not he should be saying something, her figure disappeared as if it were melting.

For a long time, he stood there dumbfounded.
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Chapter 8

1

For Hirose, the following day, a Saturday, was the last day of his teaching training. After the morning meeting held in the faculty office ended, he returned to the prep room, and a little later, Gotou returned as well.

"Seven accidents, eight faked illnesses," said Gotou just blandly, though that was enough.

Entering the classroom, Hirose saw, including Tsuiki and Gotanda, only five students waiting inside. After two weeks of being in charge of this class, this was the farewell scene.

- - - - -

The study curriculum meeting was originally planned for that afternoon, but it had been postponed until a later date.

After the Saturday fourth period class that was held instead, when Hirose went back to the prep room, Gotou poured him some coffee. Just the two of them, he and Gotou, knocked beakers and toasted a little.

Hirose's teaching training was now over.

"Gotou-san," called out Hirose as he was organizing the desktop. "Afterward, would it be all right if I popped my head in every now and then?"

Gotou was standing in front of the easel. Hirose didn't know when he stopped putting a paintbrush to canvas.

"Don't hesitate to come, or you might lie awake at night."

"Okay."

Gotou smiled as he wiped his hands. "I'm going to a meeting. I don't know if I'll be back this way, just to let you know."

Hirose looked at Gotou's face.

"I'm glad that you came. I think it was good for Takasato. Look after that guy."

Hirose nodded softly.

- - - - -

After he finished writing that day's training journal and review record, Hirose closed the notebook. The training notebook was full of ups and downs, making it rather unusual. Eight students died during his training period...

Feeling a strange pressure in this chest, Hirose placed his hands on the notebook and stared into space. Just then, three students, one of whom was Hashigami, burst into the room with cheerful voices.

"Ah, you're still here!"

"That's great!"

He didn't see Sakata or Tsuiki.

"What's going on?" asked Hirose. The three pulled grocery bags from behind their backs to show him.

"A send off."

"We're having a farewell party."

Having said this, they promptly began to clean off the desk and spread drinks and the like on it. Before long, they had fixed up a modest party space.

"Sensei, will you be back?" asked Nozue.

"If they have a use for me," answered Hirose. Nozue furrowed his brow.

"Our school hardly ever uses newly-trained faculty."

"Yeah, well, if they're not recruiting, you can probably still take the faculty employment exams. I think you could pass it."

"That sucks."

A teasing smile floated to Hashigami's face. "Well, first you have to graduate, right? What if you get held back a year? If that happens, then next year I'll be your kouhai."

"That's only if you pass," joked Nozue, who then laughed softly.

Hashigami lightly held up his beaker. "Well, no matter what, we appreciated everything. Congratulations on completely the teaching training safely."

After Hirose smiled dryly, Nozue said, "But, can we really say it was safe? Wasn't it a teaching training full of ups and downs? It's become the topic of conversation. Even Iwaki-san--"

Halfway through speaking, Nozue quickly shut his mouth, but he'd already brought the mood down. Hashigami smiled wryly and said, "Heh, let's avoid that subject."

"Right, right!" shouted Sugisaki.

"Oh yeah, here's something completely unrelated. Hashigami-san, I heard it appeared yesterday."

Nozue made a bad face. "Again with those rumors?"

"No, it's that female ghost looking for the 'ki' that Hashigami-san was talking about."

Hashigami's mouth dropped. "It appeared? Where?"

"At our school. In the evening, I think."

"Seriously?"

Sugisaki nodded vigorously. "I heard the one who saw her was a third-year. He encountered a woman in the entrance hall, who asked him, 'do you know the ki?' Later on, she asked if he knew Haku something or other.'"

"Haku what?"

Sugisaki scratched his head.

"Uh... I forgot. A guy in the art club heard it from a senpai." Sugisaki leaned forward. "But, I heard that 'ki' is the name of an animal. It's not oni."

Hashigami smirked. "You sure it's not just someone losing a dog or something and then coming to look for it at this school?"

Sugisaki scowled. "No! They said that she disappeared right in front of the third-year's eyes."

"Third-year, huh? Who was it?"

"That... I didn't ask."

"Sure he didn't make it up?"

"I'm saying he didn't!" Just when Sugisaki was getting keyed up, they heard hurried footsteps outside, and soon the door opened. It was Gotou.

Right when he entered the room, Gotou opened his mouth to speak, but seeing the three students crowded in there, he hastily closed it again.

"Hirose," he beckoned as he motioned toward the hallway. After Hirose stood up and exited into the hall, Gotou shut the door and lowered his voice. "Hirose, you have to go home."

Hirose widened his eyes. "Gotou-san?"

"Go home. Totoki sensei will take you."

"What's happened?"

Gotou was clearly dismayed. "The sports paper."

"Gotou-san."

Gotou handed the newspaper over to Hirose and spoke quietly still, "It's Takasato. He's been exposed. And what's more is those imbeciles have put out his real name."

Hirose gaped in amazement, and then shut his eyes.

He felt an anxiety for which there was no place in his body.

This is scary, thought Hirose.

After the rumors about Takasato spread, what sorts of reactions will people have? --And furthermore, what sorts of things will happen as a result of those reactions?

2

After getting a ride from Totoki back to his own place, Hirose saw three men gathered in front of the entrance hall to his home. Hirose walked through the passageway designed in the style of a veranda, and the men turned toward him with questioning looks. One of them spoke.

"Are you the person who lives here?"

Hirose didn't reply.

"Are you by any chance the student teacher Hirose-kun?"

"You're Hirose-kun, aren't you? Hey, could we ask you a few questions?"

Hirose silently took out his keys. He ignored the approaching men and turned back toward his home, and one of them spoke.

"During the incident where the student named Takasato was pushed down, you were nearby, weren't you? Tell us about that time!"

Hirose gently pushed away the man standing in front of him and blocking his way. "Please step back."

"Takasato-kun was the one pushed down, wasn't he?"

"Please make way."

"It'll only be a minute, so won't you talk with us? If you insist, then we won't put out your name."

Hirose forcefully shook off the hand that was clutching his arm and inserted the key into the keyhole. He opened the door just a crack and slipped inside, but someone grabbed his arm. He intermittently heard the sound of a camera shutter snapping.

"Some say that Takasato-kun curses people. Is this true?"

"What do you think of the view that the group suicide was due to Takasato-kun's curse?"

"We only need a minute. Please speak with us."

"Did you know that no one is at Takasato-kun's house? Do you know where he is?"

Hirose put both the sounds and arms that were chasing him in the back of his mind, and walked into his place. He took the hands of those who were standing outside, holding on to the door, trying to open it by any means, and shoved them outside, and then slammed the door. The sound of knocking continued right after. He turned two locks and secured the door chain. He then leaned back against the door and sighed softly.

I didn't seem like they knew that Takasato was here. This was something worth feeling happy about, though it probably wouldn't be long before it was disclosed. He knew that such creatures were capable of that. However, it was dangerous. Takasato was more dangerous than any victim they would have had to deal with up until now.

"Takasato?"

He slid open the glass door to the 6-tatami room, and saw Takasato crouched in the corner as he had fled from something. This gave Hirose a small shock, because his posture made him look awfully like a small, frightened animal.

When Takasato heard the glass door open, he looked up and appeared very relieved, and then looked down apologetically. Hirose cringed and then squeezed out a small smile.

"Did you come across them?" asked Hirose.

Takasato shook his head.

"Don't outside for a little while. It's not going to be as free, but it's better than being mobbed by those guys," said Hirose softly as he loosened his tie. Takasato bowed his head deeply.

"I'm sorry for being so much trouble for you..."

"Didn't I tell you not to apologize all the time?" Hirose forced a smile. "The commotion'll blow over soon, because they're very fickle. It might be inconvenient for the next two or three days, but just think of it as a natural disaster and endure it."

Takasato nodded meekly. "That's good," he said.

Hirose turned back questioningly, but saw an extremely calm expression on his face.

"I thought something had happened, because just before noon, a lot of people were gathered outside. Whenever they caught someone who lived here, they would ask about sensei... I didn't want to believe..."

Hirose heard his voice though it was quiet. "You didn't want to believe that something had happened to me?"

Takasato nodded.

"Well, now you can see that nothing's happened to me. At the school, even though there was a small accident, everything's fine over there too. Plus, my teacher training's over now. I think we're at a pause." After Hirose said this, Takasato relaxed his expression in relief.

"Are those people newspaper reporters?"

"...Probably."

Takasato bowed his head deeply. "I'm really very, very sorry."

Hirose sighed, and then took the newspaper that Gotou had given him out of his bag.

"Your circumstances are tougher than mine."

It would have been easy to keep this from him, but he didn't think that there was a reason for it. Takasato needed to know the truth about what was going on.

Takasato received the newspaper and looked at it. A page was naturally dedicated to articles about baseball.

Takasato opened up the newspaper. After turning to a page inside, his hand stopped.

It was a big article about a cursed private high school. The incidents involving Iwaki and that of the seven people who'd jumped off the building occupied three pages of headline stories. Probably because they felt that there wasn't much of a point to concealing it, the name of the school was printed clearly within. It was written in the newspaper that between the two incidents, there occurred another: the restless students had pushed a classmate out of a window, and the full name of the victim, Takasato, had been printed.

The newspaper report somewhat criticized the school for its motives in attempting to cover up the incident of a student being pushed out of a window, and carefully analyzed the situation surrounding it. Within the course of the article, it described in detail Takasato's history of having been spirited away, his being ostracized by his classmates, and also the widespread rumor that he could "curse" others.

The article had also mentioned in passing the incidents that had happened in the past, including the death of a student on a field trip just this past spring, a series of serious accidents occurring afterwards, the death of the teacher Ikuta and the things that had happened before--it touched on the deaths and accidents that occurred around Takasato when he was in grade school and junior high. The report listed these meticulously and concluded with the speculation that it all had something to do with him.

With a stiff expression, Takasato folded up the newspaper. He didn't look as dismayed as Hirose had originally worried he would be.

"Takasato."

"It's all right," he mumbled as his gaze hung downward. "I'm all right."

Hirose understood the connotations of him emphasizing the subject. But would they really be all right? Those who reported on this, those who provided the information, those who collected the information?

Takasato looked up at Hirose. "I'm going home."

Hirose shook his head. He could imagine how that mother would behave after reading this report.

"If you're doing so out of respect, there's no need for that." After he said this, Hirose suddenly looked over at the phone. "But, it might be better if you gave them a call and advised them to be careful of people coming for interviews--though it's probably the case they've already been there. Also, it'd be good to tell them not to reveal your whereabouts."

Were they to know that Takasato was hiding over here, then those people would probably be even more persistent. It might have been Hirose's own bias, but he couldn't imagine what those people would do. Furthermore, he knew even less what method of retribution "they" would adopt in response to these actions.

Takasato nodded, said, "Please let me borrow it," and picked up the telephone receiver. He dialed his number and waited a moment. As Hirose watched, he set down the receiver.

"No answer?"

"No."

Perhaps, supposed Hirose, the media has bombarded their telephone with calls, and so that mother is firmly ignoring the telephone. That was what he thought.

- - - - -

It wasn't just Takasato's house that received special attention. When evening arrived, the telephone didn't stop ringing at Hirose's place. Most of them were asking Hirose to confirm that Takasato had been pushed from the window. A few calls were from the school, urging that he not to say anything that didn't need to be said. When night came, Hirose finally admitted defeat. He made it so that all calls went to the answering machine and turned off the ringer. That same night, the tape in the answering machine was interrupted by him as well.

3

The following day was a Sunday, and the situation outside still hadn't changed. Because of this, they could only idle away their time inside. On the day previous, he'd left his room with a do-or-die determination to buy and bring back plenty of groceries, so that they wouldn't have to leave in order to eat. Hirose watched TV or read a book as he chatted with Takasato.

When he went shopping yesterday, he's also picked up a sketchbook and some watercolors. Takasato sat next to the window with its curtains closed and had been drawing with a pencil since the morning. Beside him lay open the photo book on the Guiana Highlands.

What Takasato wanted to draw was the expansive scenery of strangely-shaped rocks. He wanted to sketch out something resembling the photos with countless lines, but in some areas, the crags were very clearly different. He appeared puzzled again and again as he kept erasing what he'd sketched. As a result, the surface of the paper had become fuzzy.

Hirose looked at his pictures, as he spoke of things of no consequence. Takasato's replies were always short, but it wasn't that he was disregarding Hirose. Hirose felt like he was talking to a dog or cat, but it was nice that Takasato was answering all his questions.

When he talked about the farewell party the student who were usually holed up in the prep room threw for him, Takasato looked up from his drawing and smiled, saying, "It'd be great if you were recruited."

"Yeah," replied Hirose. Takasato retained his smile as his eyes returned to the sketchbook. The two thus went back to what they had been doing.

"Oh, that's right." Hirose remembered what Sugisaki had said. "What do you suppose 'ki' is?"

Takasato looked up again when he was asked this, as if he was a little taken aback.

"What?"

Takasato shook his head with a smile. "What is it?"

"I don't know. It's in some sort of ghost story that's recently become popular," said Hirose, who then proceeded to recount with a wry smile the story Sugisaki had told them. It was just a small and harmless ghost story, though he thought it unusual that he had thought about it like that. "Hashigami said that it might be oni, but someone said it might be the name of an animal."

Takasato's gaze dropped as he thought something over. "Is it the name of a kind of animal? Or is it a pet name that people have given it, like Mike or Tarou?"

"Hmmm..." Hirose cocked his head. "I didn't ask that."

Takasato rested his pencil lightly on his chin. "Could it be ki?"

"Hm?"

"A male kirin."

Hirose replied with a question. "Kirin? With a long neck?" [note: the japanese word for giraffe is "kirin."]

Takasato laughed lightly. "It's the beast from Chinese legend, the kirin. I'm not sure if ki are male, and rin are female, or if it's the other way around, because different books have it different ways..."

Hirose took out his dictionary and looked up the entry on kirin.

"Kirin... Ah, according to this, what you said was right. Ki are male, and rin are female. They appear before the arrival of a sage. Is it like a Chinese unicorn?"

"It does have only one horn. It's also called a kakutan."

"I see. Though, your memory's impressive."

"For some reason..." Takasato gave a troubled smile.

"Then, what is Haku? Do you know?"

"Haku?"

"That's all he knew, Haku something or other."

Takasato thought about it a little bit, and then murmured, "Haku Sanshi..."

"Haku Sanshi?"

"Haku... San...shi." Takasato wrote the characters for it on a blank space on the paper, and then his hand stopped.

"What's wrong?" asked Hirose.

Takasato shook his head. Something was making him feel uncertain.

"What is Haku Sanshi?" Hirose searched the dictionary, but he couldn't find it.

"I don't know."

Hirose looked at Takasato with surprise. "You don't know?"

"I'm...not sure. The words just suddenly came into my mind..."

Takasato appeared very confused. "...It's weird, but lately I keep feeling like I'm going to suddenly remember something..."

"From that time?"

"I think so."

It'd been seven years since Takasato returned. For seven years, Takasato has been kept from recalling those memories.

"Since when?"

"Since before I fell out of the window, when they wanted me to bow down and apologize."

Hirose remembered. It was the first time he saw Takasato revealing an intense expression and shouting resolutely. --"No!" he'd called out.

"I don't even know why, but I felt like it was something I couldn't do."

Hirose watched as Takasato became troubled.

"I said I couldn't do it. Actually, before then, I'd always thought that if my apology could make everything all right, then I'd do it, but in the moment when I was being forced down to the floor, it felt like something I just couldn't do."

"Takasato, that..."

Everybody has that thing called dignity, and people were creatures who understood disgrace. Takasato interrupted Hirose firmly. "No, it wasn't shame or regret. It was an inability to do so. In my heart I was thinking, there wasn't any way I could kneel down to them and beg for forgiveness."

Takasato stopped here. It seemed as if he had closed his mouth because he was a little embarrassed at having revealed so much of what he truly felt.

"Is that so? At the time, it looked to me like you were dumbstruck."

Takasato nodded. "In the moment that I thought such a thing, I almost remembered somebody. That train of thought snatched away my attention..."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know. It felt like a shadow. I knew it was a person, but I didn't know what kind of person it was..." Takasato sighed. "And then, when I look at this Guiana Highlands photo book, its scenery gives me the feeling that I've seen it before... Like, Houzan."

"Houzan?"

"Yomogi, mugwort. Mt. Hou. That word just pops up in my head, but I don't know what it is." [note: the kanji for "yomogi," which means "mugwort," is the same as the "hou" in "houzan."]

Hirose walked to the bookshelf and pulled out a map. Was there such a mountain? Was it in Japan, or was it somewhere else? But after looking it up, he didn't find a mountain with that name.

Hirose's gaze fell upon the sketchbook. The strange view that he'd sketched with countless lines, that was Mt. Hou, a place that had something to do with Takasato's lost year.

4

It was then that the bell that had stopped ringing sounded out once again.

Hirose glanced over toward the kitchen for only a moment and then looked away again. The ringing of the bell continued and with it, Hirose heard someone calling out to him.

"Sensei!"

Hirose sat up.

"Hirose sensei!"

It sounded like a student calling to him, and other than that voice, he could hear those of others, as if they were conversing with the person who had rang the doorbell.

Hirose stood up, walked to the entrance hall, and cautiously opened the door.

"Oh, so you are home." The one that was speaking was Sakata, and behind him stood a few eager men who began to ask a torrent of questions. Hirose undid the door chain and opened the door.

"Get in," urged Hirose, and without even looking at the other people outside, immediately shut the door again.

"Amazing, huh?" said Sakata as he took off his shoes. His tone seemed to imply that he was a bit excited.

"If you're feeling so envious, you're welcome to it. So, what's up?" asked Hirose, as he walked back to the 6-tatami room.

"I was just wondering where Takasato was. I went to his house, and--" Sakata stopped when he saw the person in question inside the room, and couldn't help but open his mouth in astonishment. Takasato lightly nodded at him.

"Ta..." Sakata was about to say Takasato's name when Hirose stopped him. Sakata was taken aback. Hirose glanced over toward the door.

Hirose closed the glass sliding door. "Sorry, but could you keep the fact that he's here a secret?"

"No problem, but why is Takasato at your place?"

"It's a long story. I asked his parents to let me look after him for now."

"Oh?"

Sakata looked down at Takasato. Takasato's hands were resting upon the cover of the closed sketchbook as he sat with his head bowed.

Sakata sat down next to him.

"Takasato, you haven't been to school in a while. I was so worried."

Takasato looked at Sakata lacking any particular expression on his face, and didn't answer him.

"I called your house. I even went over there myself, but no one was there. The storm shutters were closed too. I thought to myself, where could you be?"

Takasato didn't say anything at all; he simply wrinkled his brow slightly. Sakata didn't pay much attention to his reaction.

"Ah, Takasato, I don't know if you know who I am. We've never been in the same class before."

"I don't." It was an extremely brief reply.

"I figured you wouldn't. I'm Sakata. I've always wanted to meet you and talk to you. Takasato, the things going on right now, they must be hard on you, huh? Though, I'm on your side."

Sakata opened his mouth and began to talk ceaselessly. Takasato hardly responded. It wasn't until Sakata asked him a direct question that he gave a curt reply, though when there weren't any questions, he remained silent. Throughout the course of the conversation, he merely stared at Sakata, expressionless.

Hirose had a strange feeling. Takasato's face as it looked now was just like how it had been when Hirose had first seen him. It was as if the Takasato that had been smiling and chatting with him before had never existed.

--Who was it that said Takasato lacked emotion?

Hirose rolled complicated thoughts through his head as he watched Takasato's static profile. Is this how he had spent his life? Saying nothing, looking at nothing. And so, no one understood Takasato; no one paid attention to Takasato. Considering these two, which one was the cause and which one the effect? Did Takasato shut out the world, or did the world shut out Takasato?

"As for Iwaki, well, we reap what we sow," continued Sakata without stopping. "It's because he slapped you. That was just out of line. And what did he say? If you have the guts to curse me, then do it! He should never have doubted you at all. And as a result, what happened to him was regrettable, but really, he brought that on himself."

"Did he?" asked Takasato calmly, though his temperament was resolute.

"That's what I'm saying! Those who test Takasato's abilities are in the wrong."

"There's no reason Iwaki-kun had to die. No matter what kind of person he was, that should never have happened to anyone."

Sakata was a bit taken aback by Takasato's intensity. After blinking a few times, he quickly forced a smile. "Well, each of us has a lifespan. Iwaki died because he was at the end of his, so you really needn't blame yourself."

Takasato hung his head and didn't reply.

Sakata didn't really take Takasato's bearing to heart, and immediately started up his chatter again. The contents of his speech included mostly talk about how everyone else was foolish and uninteresting. It was because people were stupid that when they saw someone of unusual intelligence, they would only regard them as heretical. And those that disparaged the heretical didn't know that in reality, they were the ones whose existence should be spurned. --Sakata repeated this sort of talk over and over again.

Hirose was agitated by an unease and disquiet that were hard to describe. He had no way of understanding what was going through Sakata's head. Sakata's repeated expressions of his philosophy which seemed all right, but were in actuality incorrect, made Hirose helplessly unhappy. At the same time, he felt an overwhelming discomfort. He felt as if he could see the room filled with colorless and transparent blocks, and those around Sakata were slowly crumbling.

5

After a long while, it didn't look at all as if Sakata was going to close his mouth. Based on his own experiences, he discussed to no end the stupidity of humanity.

The unsettled Hirose tried to be indirect in his urging Sakata to leave, but Sakata didn't get Hirose's intentions at all. --Or perhaps he was just pretending not to understand. When the color of dusk was slowly creeping up outside, Hirose finally decided to employ firmer language.

"Sakata, we're going to be eating dinner soon."

Sakata smiled and said, "Oh? You guys sure eat early."

"We don't often cook ourselves, so we need a little bit more time to prepare. So..."

"Ah, don't worry about me. You guys go do your thing. I had a late lunch."

Hirose sighed. "That's no good. We couldn't be at ease if you just stood by and watched us eat."

"Well then, when you guys eat, I'll go wait outside."

"If you do that, then it'll be late when you eventually go home."

"That's okay, I don't mind staying here tonight. My parents won't have a problem with it."

Hirose sighed again. "I don't have an extra futon, and the room's so small."

"I'm all right with staying in the kitchen. Not fussing about where I sleep is my specialty," laughed Sakata.

Holding onto his annoyance, Hirose said, "I'm sorry, but could you please go home?"

For a second, Sakata stopped smiling. He looked strangely at Hirose. "Am I getting in the way here?"

Hirose's automatic reaction was to say no, but he quickly suppressed it. "...Things are just a wreck right now."

"Oh, I see," said Sakata coldly. He then stood up and raised his hand to Takasato. "Well, then. I'll be going, though it's regrettable. I'll be back to see how you're doing."

Hirose sighed deeply. "Sakata, please don't come back here. You know how the situation outside is like."

For a moment, it looked like Sakata was about to say something, but he simply murmured, hm. He hurriedly turned and walked to the entrance hall. After giving Hirose a sinister glance, he left. Hirose heaved a deep sigh as he locked the door.

When Hirose returned to the room in the back, he saw only Takasato looking up at him in bewilderment. Hirose smiled wryly. "Sorry, I couldn't take anymore."

Takasato laughed gently. "Me either."

- - - - -

"There are all sorts of people in this world," sighed Hirose uncertainly as he leaned against the bookshelf.

Takasato nodded. "There are, aren't there?"

People like Sakata depressed Hirose. At times like this, he had an urge deep in his heart to return to that other place.

"I think I've become a hermit."

Not understanding, Takasato tilted his head as he looked at him.

"It was probably when I was in high school. I had a dream--to run away to some mountain and hide; to farm a little piece of land, and live a life of simple self-sufficiency."

Takasato laughed. "I know what you mean."

Hirose smiled dryly. "But even if it's deep in the mountains, the land still needs to be bought. And even if I had a field, it doesn't necessarily mean there'd something to harvest year-round. I thought, it'd still be best to save up money to some degree first. I had to join society, work hard, and save up enough money. But then, that goal was just too big and too far away, so in the end, I gave up on it."

"You've got to go south."

"South?"

"A place that's warm throughout the year. Not deep in a Japanese mountain, but somewhere in the jungles of a tropical rainforest. It has to be a place where you could find things to eat everywhere."

Hirose was taken aback. "The castaways described in novels all end up on some island in the south, because if they drifted to the north, there'd be no story to tell."

"You've got a point."

Takasato laughed lightly, and then looked down at the photo book in his hands.

"I think Venezuela's pretty good."

"Auyantepui?"

There's an old man named Laime living at the base of the tabletop mountain called Auyantepui which was part of the Guiana Highlands. He's a white man from Lithuania. He lives a life of simple self-sufficiency there, and is called "the Hermit." [note: i believe aleksandrs laime was latvian and not lithuanian. also, he has since passed away.]

"Roraima."

"Roraima? You should plant yourself across from old man Laime and become 'the Hermit of Roraima.'"

That would be beyond imagination. Settling down wherever he felt like in the dense forest meant that he wouldn't have to deal with the judgments of others. Clearing out a space in the jungle and planting some bananas to live off of might be pretty good.

"If I really had to choose though, I'd want to live on the top..."

"That's easy to say, but it's really cold at the top of the mountain, because the elevation's close to 3000 meters. I don't think it's suitable for farming up there."

"Farming might be a problem, but something could probably be done about the cold, since the sunlight's so intense."

"What do you think about collecting crystals from the Crystal Valley and selling them?"

Takasato smiled. "No, it wouldn't be tolerated, and plus, the first issue I'd be facing would be that going down the mountain to sell the crystals would just be way too much trouble. It's sheer cliffs 800 meter-high, you know?"

"Then how about this? The Labyrinth of Rocks remains unexplored, right? We can find someone to sponsor us on the condition that we make a detailed map of the Labyrinth. Then we'd have plenty of free time. It's like killing two birds with one stone."

"...That sounds good."

"That's what I'm saying." Hirose quietly laughed with Takasato for a little while.

"Although, how would we make a map? We might already be lost before it's even the third day."

"I guess we'd have to build a little hut on the edge of the Labyrinth, and then survey it starting on the outside and slowly working our way in."

"It's about three kilometers long, and more than one and a half kilometers wide."

"We could move the little hut around as we explore. The rocks in the Labyrinth are all really big, aren't they? I can't tell how big they are by looking at a photograph, but they're probably as big as buildings. Also, the rocks have been worn by erosion into unusual shapes. I bet if we just looked, we could find rocks out of which we could make houses, just like the ones in Cappadocia."

The famous region with strangely-shaped crags and underground cities of Turkey was also one of the places where Hirose had longed to be.

"We could name the rocks as we explored, just like how people named the stars."

Takasato smiled. "Would we need to bring a compass?"

"Yes, a compass and rope. We could probably find a use for chalk too."

"But it rains a lot over there, and it's under the cover of fog for long periods of time."

"Then an umbrella and boots are a must."

Takasato laughed lightly, "An umbrella?"

"Yeah, and lightning's really scary, so you can't bring one with a metal frame. With an umbrella in one hand and a rope in the other, it's like a fairytale, isn't it?"

"A red umbrella'd be best."

"Red?" asked Hirose, and Takasato laughed and nodded.

"Red. The colors of the rocks are so dark, so I'll have to use a red umbrella. A dense fog in the midst of a maze of building-sized rocks, and then add a single red umbrella to it, isn't that even more like a fairytale?"

Hirose laughed. "Then I'll carry around a yellow one."

- - - - -

Hirose and Takasato ate and laughed together as they brought up funny-sounding ideas. By nighttime, they had already completely drawn up the plans for a life in seclusion.

* * * *
* * * * *

She opened the window.

It was a window on the third floor, and peering from it, she could see very clearly the buildings of the school, which together looked like a great, black ship. The reason she thought it looked like a ship was because it reminded her of an oil tanker she had seen on a field trip when she was in grade school.

She didn't know why, but she had been afraid of that tanker. Similarly, looking at the school buildings at night was also a bit frightening. Recently, a lot had happened, and unsettling rumors were making their rounds at her high school, but even before the rumors, she had been scared of the school--the buildings of the school.

She knew that directly across from the window, she could see the main school building that housed the faculty rooms. Right now, the windows of the school were covered by blinds, but when the blinds weren't closed, she could even make out the colors of the teacups on the desk next to the window.

Up above, she could see the towering classroom building off of which people had previously jumped and killed themselves, and next to it was the special classroom building. Sticking out from under that building's shadow was another classroom building.

She leaned next to the window and looked at the scary buildings for a while. Even though she thought them frightening and disagreeable, for some reason, if she didn't look at them a while before she went to sleep, she couldn't rest her mind. She felt it must have been that she needed to make sure, to be absolutely certain that it really wasn't something to be scared of, that it was simply a school enveloped in the night.

She rested her chin in her hands and her line of sight swept across the buildings. Suddenly, she creased her brow and leaned out the window with her hands supported by the window sill.

There seemed to be something moving around in one of the classroom buildings. She couldn't tell what it was because she was too far away. She opened the desk drawer and took out a small pair of binoculars that she had bought when she joined the birdwatching club.

Looking through the binoculars, she saw the figure of a person.

According to the girls at her school, the students of this school were their objects of yearning. For a time, it had been popular among the braver girls to sneak into the school at night and slip love notes into the lockers of the boys they were interested in. The establishment of this activity was possible because the classroom building was so frequently in use. The students would often forget to lock the windows on the first floor. However, there were also a few unlucky girls who had been caught by the security guard, so eventually it was stopped.

The reason she thought of that was because the figure was female. She wondered, could there really be someone still doing that? She immediately thought of the other rumors that were being spread at her school.

Her hands were trembling as she held the binoculars. The woman was wandering aimlessly beyond the window. She discovered through the binoculars that the window looked into a hallway.

She shivered as she set down the binoculars. In such a short amount of time, she hadn't been able to survey the scene completely. She turned her eyes back immediately, for now she saw something moving on the roof of the classroom building. She was drawn towards it and once again picked up her binoculars to check out the roof.

There was an animal on the roof that looked like a dog. How could there be a dog on the roof of the school? That roof had been the ill-omened setting for the incident involving the seven students who had leapt to their deaths. That a dog was wandering about up there was beyond illogical, and it made her uneasy.

With the binoculars, she swept her field of vision about the school. For some reason she felt that if she didn't look at the entire school once, it was as if she wouldn't be able to calm down. She looked through the binoculars to the side and glimpsed the passage facing the special classroom building. She saw a dark shadow on the second floor, a shadow that looked like it belonged to a big, black cow. Looking further to the side, she could see the windows of the classroom building. At this time, she thought she saw something crawling on the walls. It looked like a dark red leech with a body as long as the window was tall. The creature crept up from below like a slug. Looking above it, she become aware of a few leeches occupying the edge of the roof, and looking below, she saw several of them wriggling about at the base of the building.

In the courtyard there appeared to be black dwarves walking about. Turning toward the sports area, she spotted giant amoeba-like things clinging to the ground.

What are those things? She dropped her binoculars. What the heck is going on at that school?

Just as she was about to close the window in fear, she suddenly noticed the glimmer of a shooting star. She chased the light with her eyes, and realized it wasn't a shooting star at all. Stunned, her jaw dropped.

It was a beast not unlike a deer. Where it was different from a deer was its body, which shimmered dimly. Not knowing where it had flown from, she saw it land lightly upon the roof of the classroom building. Puzzling enough, she wasn't frightened. On the contrary, all the discomfort she had felt previously had quickly disappeared.

The beast very quickly vanished to a place she knew not where, but not before it had already filled her with an exceptional calm as she slowly closed the window.
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Chapter 9

1

The next morning Hirose woke up before it was even six o'clock.

He had conversed with Takasato about this and that, and didn't get to sleep until after two in the morning. In total, he'd slept less than four hours. Hirose sat up absent-mindedly and saw that Takasato had already gotten out of bed. Not only that, but he'd also put on his uniform already.

"Takasato... You're..."

"I'm going to the school."

"But..." Hirose began.

"It doesn't look like there are any people outside. I can use this opportunity to go." Takasato smiled faintly and bowed deeply. "Thank you very much for all you've done for me."

That meant that he was intending to leave.

"Takasato," sighed Hirose. Although Takasato's presence had created problems for him, Hirose still didn't want him to return to that home and to that mother. "You can go back, but the situation hasn't changed. I've been marked and if you leave, it would just worry me. Wouldn't you feel this way?"

Takasato lowered his head and didn't answer.

"Or do you miss your home?" Hirose asked. Takasato looked up uncertainly.

"I have no home to return to."

Hirose nodded.

"Even if I went back, there would be no one to welcome me. Concerning my parents and my brother, it would be better for them if I wasn't there. --Isn't it the same for sensei?"

Hirose sighed gently.

"Truthfully, I am a bit irritated, but I don't feel it towards you. I feel it towards those people who were waiting outside, and towards those people at school," said Hirose as he leaned his back against the wall. "But that isn't because of you. It isn't my wish for you to leave here. I actually feel much better when you are where I can see you. This is out of my own individual will. Were it me, I wouldn't want to return to that home either, so it would be hard for me to bear you going back to that home."

Hirose looked at Takasato.

"I don't think you want to go back either, do you? Isn't that why you stay after school?"

After Hirose finished, Takasato slowly shook his head. "The reason I don't want to go home...is different."

"How is it different?"

"My going home only causes problems for them."

Hirose sighed and tried to shake the sleep from his head.

"I don't quite get your train of thought. I mean, of course I don't think it's bad, but it's just hard for me to understand it."

Takasato tilted his head and lowered his eyes. He looked as if he was thinking about how best to choose his words.

"It's better for my parents and my brother if I wasn't there. Since I'm a harmful child who gives people a bad feeling, my being near them will only cause them unhappiness. I know that's what they're thinking, so I feel like it's a little better if I stay away from home."

Hirose sighed. "Why should they feel unhappy? If you know that they think like that, why aren't you angry?"

"Because...it's the truth."

"What do you mean by the 'truth'?"

Takasato was puzzled. "This is what everybody says. Sensei, don't you think I give people a bad feeling?"

Being asked this by Takasato, Hirose was dumbstruck. "I've never thought that."

"Sensei must be a different kind of person."

"Yeah... Maybe," laughed Hirose lightly. "Just stay."

After Hirose said this, Takasato still shook his head. "I think I'm going to leave school."

Hirose fixed his gaze on Takasato's calm face. "Why?"

"I've been thinking, not going to school might be better, because bad things happen when I'm with other people, and everyone is troubled. However, I've never really known what to do, so when my junior high teacher recommended that I take the entrance exams for this school, I just took his suggestion." Takasato said this with a bitter smile. "I think I was scared. Since I've always lived my life without a purpose, I was afraid I'd lose my footing. It was as if I was standing at the middle of a cliff. Since I didn't have anything to hold on to, I was scared to lose my footing. I think I wanted to have the position of a 'high school student.'"

"--And so?" asked Hirose quietly. There was a biting tone somewhere in his voice.

"I want to stop going to school and leave home. Working with people won't be any different than going to school with people, and it'll cause trouble for all the people around me, but I don't think there should be much of a problem if I only do it for a short amount of time. Even though I might have to continuously switch jobs, I believe this kind of life is by no means rare..."

Hirose didn't know how to control his anger. His anger was directed at Takasato, but it wasn't Takasato who had provoked him. He was mad because he couldn't figure out why this person in front of him just couldn't live normally, like most people do. He was even angrier that Takasato just weakly accepted this truth.

"And then? What exactly will you have grabbed onto?" He was trying to undo his own foothold. He knew that if he didn't have anything to hold on to, he would surely fall.

"I want to try and go to Mt. Roraima."

Hirose sat in front of Takasato and looked at him. That's absurd, he thought for an instant. To see the strange crags of a mountain in South America, that's your only desire. Compared to the wishes of so many people who aimlessly cling onto their footholds, how small!

Takasato smiled. "Silly, huh? But this is the first wish I have found in the extension of my reality."

"Then go," said Hirose disparagingly. "Go and see the 'Labyrinth of Rocks' after your years of hardship, and then come back completely dejected when you find out it's not Mt. Hou."

For an instant, Takasato appeared extremely wounded.

"...Forgive me. It was a cruel outburst of anger." Hirose felt embarrassed and couldn't help but look down. Or perhaps it was that he didn't want to look directly at Takasato. "Can you wait for me a second? I need to go out too."

Hirose stood up and Takasato looked up at him.

"If you want to leave, then you should probably go speak with Gotou-san. I'll come with you."

"Were you taken aback?"

"No." Hirose shook his head. "I think I was probably just hoping you would be able to live a peaceful life. I hope you can walk a path of a happy life. But, what a happy life is really up to each individual person to decide."

Hirose forced a sliver of a smile.

"What I find a little regrettable is that you didn't let go of that kind of life by your own initiative, but that you couldn't help but let it go. Though, because of that, you go forward for the sake of your desires," said Hirose as he opened the door to the bathroom. "After a few years, if you've decided to go, please let me know. --I'll send you a red umbrella."

This time he smiled for real. Takasato seemed to sigh in relief as his lips cracked a smile as well.

2

It was still early, so there were barely any people at the school and the front gate of the school was not yet open. Hirose and Takasato climbed into the grounds of the school through the back gate and sat behind the gym in a place people couldn't see while staring off into space.

They chatted about nothing important while they waited for the school day to begin, and when it did, they came out from their hiding place.

Hirose patted Takasato's shoulder and sent him off towards the classroom building. What will Takasato's classmates think when they see him? What will they say? What will they do? Hirose had originally intended to walk him to his classroom, but Takasato shook his head and refused. His expression was indifferent, like he was a martyr who had come to a resolution.

Hirose followed the path to the special classroom building and purposefully avoided eye contact with others on his way. He had spent two weeks here naturally enough, but once that period of time had passed, the school returned to being a place where Hirose was seen as an outsider. He walked in a less populated hallway as he thought about this.

- - - - -

When Hirose walked into the prep room, he was met with a stunned and sitting Gotou.

"You know that your teacher training period is over, don't you?" asked Gotou. Hirose nodded.

"Didn't you say it was all right for me to come by?"

"I did say that, but I didn't think you'd be coming by this morning."

Hirose laughed gently, and then returned to a serious expression.

"Today, I'm a bodyguard. Takasato's back."

"...Is that so?"

"I told him to stop by here after school. There's something he wanted to discuss with you, Gotou-san."

"Discuss? Takasato, with me?"

"Of course with you, Gotou-san. He wants to talk to you about quitting school, so naturally it's you."

Hearing this, Gotou widened his eyes. "Quitting school? Quit and do what?"

"Probably to find work."

"Did you instigate this?"

"Certainly not. It was something he decided on his own."

"Really?" Gotou lowered his voice. "The number of empty seats in my class keeps growing."

Hirose didn't say anything.

"Did you see it already?"

Not understanding, Hirose looked up. Gotou lifted his brow.

"There was a report in the weekly released this morning about Takasato. Although, they kept his name out of it."

"Really...?"

Hirose mulled over this.

- - - - -

The warning bell rang, and Gotou went to attend the morning meeting. When he returned, he held a complicated expression.

"Twenty-six. How can it be? A great attendance ratio, isn't it?"

"Twenty-six people are in attendance?"

"Yes! I wonder if everyone's feeling better after spending a Sunday off. Well, I'm definitely grateful."

"How was the situation in the classroom?"

Gotou's expression looked complicated again. "It was mostly like it was as usual. Takasato was like he used to be, and the rest of the people didn't act much different than before the incidents. In other words, something like 'put something at a safe distance, and it's not my concern.'"

Hirose tilted his head a little in doubt. "It was like it always was?"

"There might have been little differences, I suppose. Because, when I opened the door to the classroom, I saw two or three people coming away from Takasato's desk."

Uneasiness swept by Hirose. "Really?"

Gotou waved his hand. "It didn't look like a quarrel. To me it looked like they were chatting."

Hirose seemed bewildered. "Chatting? With Takasato?"

"Don't ask me. In a moment you can ask him yourself. Anyway, as I saw it, the mood appeared very calm."

Hirose sank into thought. He thought this peculiar. It was like finding laughably easy questions on a test that was considered highly difficult.

"Oh, right. Did you hear anything from Takasato's home?" asked Gotou. Hirose shook his head.

"No. Takasato was planning on getting in touch with them yesterday, but I don't think anyone was there."

"Hm," hummed Gotou softly. "The school that Takasato's brother attends called me at home yesterday. They said that he was absent on Friday and Saturday without giving notice. They wanted to ask me whether or not I knew what was going on."

"Oh?"

"I heard his father was absent from work without leave two days in a row as well. Afterwards, I think a coworker of his remembered the school that his younger son was attending and called to inquire, but the answer he ended up getting was that the kid had been missing school too. Someone wanted to contact them, but I don't think there was anyone home, so that's why they called me."

Hirose was suddenly struck by an unpleasant feeling.

He'd originally thought no one answered the phone because they weren't home. That mother had said before, they had to spend their days with the storm doors closed. Hirose had always thought that they must have shut themselves up in their home and purposefully cut off contact with the outside world. However, could it be that even the father would stop going to work?

"I'll go for a look after school's out," said Hirose. Gotou looked a bit surprised.

"Did you plan on spending the entire school day in here?"

"I can't leave the school when classes are still being held, because there are so many reporters waiting by the gates of the school. In any case, I wanted to go with Takasato, so it won't be out of my way."

- - - - -

When Hashigami and the others arrived at the prep room during the lunch break and saw Hirose there, they were dumbfounded.

"Why's Hirose-san here?"

The first one to speak was Hashigami. Hirose could only smile wryly.

"We even went to the trouble of throwing you a farewell party. What an ungrateful guy!"

"Yeah! I was just now feeling sentimental, thinking, 'Ah, I won't see Hirose sensei anymore when I open this door.'"

Hirose lightly jabbed Nozue who was putting on an anxious face.

"I had some errands, so I came to school this morning, but those hyenas outside are keeping me from leaving."

"Ah, I see." Nozue clapped lightly and said, "Every time on my way to and from school, they call out and grab onto me. I think they even made a call to Tsuiki-san's house. They keep saying, 'Tell us about the accident involving Mr. T and his fall!' They called three or more times too."

Hirose smiled dryly. "Do you want me to tell you how many times they called the home of student teacher A, who was injured in a suspicious incident?"

Hashigami looked at Hirose sympathetically. "...How terrible."

Nozue leaned forward. "Are there people keeping watch over your place too?"

"On Saturday and Sunday from morning to night, there have been two or three people waiting around."

"Wah! That sucks..."

Just then, a rarely-seen person turned up.

"Eh? What is sensei doing here?"

It was Tsuiki.

Hashigami pulled up a folding chair for him. "Tsuiki, it's been a while. How've you been?"

"Yeah, I'm all right." He sat down in the chair Hashigami unfolded for him. Nozue put a beaker of coffee in front of him.

"You haven't enjoyed service like this in a while."

"Thanks," said Tsuiki, who then looked back at Hirose. "Takasato showed up."

"So it would seem." Hirose nodded vaguely. Nozue leaned forward again.

"So he finally showed up, huh? What was that like?"

"It felt weird," answered Tsuiki disinterestedly.

"Weird? Was it because of Mr. T?"

"Of course it was because of Takasato. The people in the classroom have done a complete 180 in their attitude toward Takasato. That's why it feels weird."

Hirose asked, "This morning, Gotou-san said Takasato was surrounded by a gathering of people, huh?"

"It was as he said. When those people who hadn't originally cared much for Takasato saw him, they gathered around him and apologized for all things that had happened. The whole thing played out like a bad teen drama."

Nozue poked fun at it. "Oh Takasato, we were wrong. It was all a misunderstanding. We're all good classmates, right? --Did it sound like that?"

Tsuiki laughed. "Probably pretty close. I wonder if they're all friendly now and eating lunch together. The number of people have increased since this morning too! I don't know why, but it's eerie to see."

Hirose wrinkled his brow. He really couldn't figure out why there was such a change.

"Is it because they now recognize that Mr. T is a very special person?"

Tsuiki looked at Nozue questioningly.

"That's what Sakata's saying. He keeps putting forward the notion that Mr. T is a very special person, so everyone should always give him the proper respect. He even presented a speech about it the other day," said Nozue.

Tsuiki sighed wearily. "That guy's a weirdo. When the lunch break started, he came to look for Takasato as if he was particularly close to Takasato. I don't think anyone's been influenced by Sakata, but anyway, seeing it just gives me a bad feeling."

After saying this, Tsuiki looked at Nozue. "Although, Nozue's performance just then was actually pretty realistic. It was like they really were respecting him."

Hirose once again sank deep into thought. What was the real meaning behind all this? He couldn't believe that Sakata's influence was that great, and if that was the case, then what would cause them to change their attitudes?

"Oh, right. Sensei." Nozue looked up. "I think there's a report about Takasato in today's weekly."

"Yeah, I heard."

"I also heard that the report in Saturday's sports paper included his full name."

Hirose nodded.

Tsuiki suddenly blurted out, "Do you think it was Sakata that leaked it?"

All those present looked at Tsuiki.

"After school on Thursday, I saw Sakata sitting in a restaurant with a guy that looked like a reporter. He seemed to be really pleased with himself as he talked nonstop. I couldn't hear exactly what they were talking about, but every now and then, I heard him say the name, 'Takasato.'"

3

Takasato came to the prep room not long after school was out. He first took a bow, and then walked in. Using a plain tone, he said simply, "I would like to leave school."

Gotou's attitude was likewise candid. "What do you plan to do after you drop out?"

"I'm going to work."

"Have you found a place yet?"

"No, not yet."

Gotou looked sincerely at him. "If a little distance doesn't bother you, I'll help you keep an eye out. Now that you've already prepared yourself, why don't you at least finish out to September?"

After Gotou said this, Takasato took a deep bow. "Thank you very much."

The discussion ended in this way.

- - - - -

When it was time to go, they were protected by getting a ride from Totoki. At first, Takasato had politely refused, but he consented when Totoki told him, "Look at the news reporters gathered in front of the school. If you don't let me give you a ride, I'm going to give Gotou a ring."

The door to Takasato's house was shut tightly. Perhaps no one was at home. There didn't seem to be any reporters nearby. Hirose got out of the car and thanked Totoki. He looked at the mailbox installed on the metal gate and saw that it was so full of newspapers, they were sticking out of its narrow opening.

Takasato unbarred the gate from the outside. All the storm doors for the windows facing forward were pulled down. At a glance, it looked like no one was home.

Takasato rang the doorbell, but there was no response from within. He rang it a few more times, but the house remained silent.

"It looks like there really is no one home," said Hirose. Takasato nodded. With an apprehensive expression on his face, he took a key out of his book bag. He unlocked the door and put his hand to the glass door. "I'm back," he said as he opened the door.

The entranceway that Hirose had seen before was absolutely silent and devoid of presence. The flowers on the shoe rack at the back of the room were also completely withered. Then, an offensive smell struck their noses.

"Do you smell something bad?" asked Hirose. Takasato appeared suspicious.

"What do you think it is?"

"The smell?"

"Yeah, it smells like something's rotting."

At this, Takasato inhaled a breath of air and cringed with his eyes wide.

"It couldn't be..."

This heartbeat began to sound like the ticking of a clock. Hirose took a step into the entrance hall, and as he did, that thick odor became even more obvious.

"...Mother?"

After Takasato opened the paper door directly in front of them, that foul air became stronger. The situation was beyond unusual. Hirose tried to stop Takasato who was hurriedly taking his shoes off so he could run inside. "You should stay here."

Takasato shook his head and rushed into the 3-tatami-wide room. Hirose followed him in. After opening the sliding screen on the right side of the room, it revealed the hallway. The atmosphere inside was entirely still and emanated a dense, almost sticky stench.

"Takasato, it's better if you don't go in there." Hirose grabbed onto Takasato's arm to stop him as he tried to dash toward the hallway. "Let's call the police. It'd be better to wait until they got here before we did anything."

"...But--!" A pale Takasato shook his head. They suddenly heard a faint sound coming from somewhere, like something brushing gently against a tatami mat.

"What's that sound?" asked Takasato as he turned his head to listen. He then walked toward the back of the hallway. "Mother!" he shouted. They suddenly heard a noise that sounded like a heavy object swinging about. Hirose and Takasato looked at each other, and the first to make his way down the hall was Hirose.

"Takasato-san! Are you here?"

The hallway was covered in a thin layer of dust. A sound continued to come from the end of the hall. One step into the hallway and the stink became even more pungent. Even if they breathed through their mouths, the rotting odor still stung into their throats.

Hirose followed the noise into the back of the hall. On one side not far from the front of the hallway was a glass garbage window, and on the other side was a paper door. The storm doors for that window were not pulled down and were covering only a part of the curtains. The sunlight streamed into the hallway between the lightly patterned curtains.

Hirose stood in front and carefully peeked into the nearest room. The very first thing he saw was two linked Japanese-style rooms that looked together like a Western-style living room. The noise came out from the back of the house once again.

Here, the corridor parted to the left and the right. On the right was a washroom, but the sound seemed to be coming from the left.

After taking a left, Hirose put his hand onto the paper sliding door of the first room.

"This is?" Hirose had covered his mouth with a handkerchief, so his voice was muffled.

Takasato answered in a daze, "It's my parents' room."

Hirose opened the door gently. Before he had even had a chance to open it completely, something flew at his face and he staggered back. Something had flown out of the crack between the door and the wall. In an instant Hirose put up his arms in defense, and then realized it was a swarm of bugs.

"...What is that?" asked Takasato. Hirose followed the bugs flying all around him with his eyes.

"Flies..."

There was a thick stench inside. Hirose once again put his hand to the sliding door he had opened just a crack, and pushed it wide open. Once it was open, he saw a 4.5-tatami-wide room. The storm doors for the facing window had also not been closed, and though the curtains were shut, a bright light still filled the room. There was a flower vase on top of a shelf, and there was a desk. Another sliding room stood half-open to the adjacent room, which was also filled with light.

Hirose didn't know what that room looked like, but he could see a carpet laid on top of the tatami. An awful color was scattered about the carpet, and a swarm of fleshy flies swirled above it.

Takasato screamed in anguish as he rushed into the room. Hirose wanted to hold him back, but it was too late.

Takasato stood in front of the half-open sliding door, and stared into the room in terror. Hirose stood in shock looking at the carpet, trying to spot any clues in the colors of the festering rot.

- - - - -

In the room, they had seen the bodies of Takasato's parents, and in another room they'd found the body of Takasato's brother. They all looked like they had been attacked as they slept. The posture in which they died looked like they were trying to jump out from under the covers. There was no doubt it was a violent death.

A long string of maggots on the carpet had eaten away at the corpses here and there to reveal white bone. It was latter part of summer and the temperature was warm, so the degree of decomposition was likewise high. And even Hirose could tell, because the bodies weren't in any natural human position, that it could not have been either suicide or an accident.

The police officers called for Hirose. Takasato looked into space as if he was in a catatonic state. The officers were asking for Takasato to identify the bodies, but there was no way for much to be confirmed. The only thing was a gold ring on the hand of one of the bodies that had already decayed beyond recognition. Takasato replied quietly, "I think that's my mother's wedding ring."

4

They went to the police department to give statements. Because Takasato's house had been closed up for such a long time, the stench of decay was especially strong. There was no way for anyone to stay there for very long.

When they headed back, they were given a ride in a patrol car. The area around the police department was packed with members of the news media, so a nice-looking, plain-clothes police officer took them to the police car at the back entrance. He draped a coat over a silent Takasato's lowered head, and then said to the reporters gathered in front of the gate, "Please consider that he's a minor." It was well-meaning, but Takasato still looked like a criminal being escorted by the police.

There were only two or three reporters in front of the apartment. The rest of them were probably at the police department or Takasato's house. Hirose purposefully let them ensnare him in order to scatter their attention. Takasato used this opportunity to slip inside.

- - - - -

As if he had gone catatonic, Takasato said nothing. Aside from sitting by him to keep him company, Hirose could think of nothing else to do.

Gotou came by to see about him after it had become dark outside. Seeing that Gotou was coming, Takasato bowed deeply. Other than that, he remained silent.

"This has got to be hard for you, Takasato," said Gotou. Takasato didn't say anything. Gotou looked at Takasato with a pained expression, and then turned around and spoke to Hirose. "Did the police tell you when they died?"

"They said it was probably sometime in the middle of the night three days ago."

"Was it an accident?"

Hirose shook his head. "Right now they're calling it murder. The bodies are in terrible shape."

Hirose said nothing further. The bodies that he had seen for himself looked as if someone had through some ill intent, tore the people upuntil they no longer resembled people. When he saw the corpses, it gave him no small shock. Though they were called bodies, they might actually be better described as the wreckage of a confusing clay work made with human flesh.

"There was an investigator who said that the bodies looked like they had been picked over as food by a wild animal or something. A more detailed conclusion will have to wait until the autopsy is finished."

"Is that so?" Gotou murmured to himself as he searched about the area around his waist. There was no towel at his waist because he was wearing a suit that he didn't often put on. Gotou irritatedly wiped his hands on his pants. "Were his only family members his parents and his brother? What about relatives?"

"I think all of his parents' relatives live rather far away. Takasato isn't too sure of it himself since there didn't seem to be a lot of contact between them."

Gotou nodded. "And the funeral?"

"It's being left up to the police. I heard that there's some communication between some funeral home and the police, so through an introduction by the police, the funeral home will take care of it all. Anyway, the autopsy itself will take up at least most of tomorrow. The wake and the funeral won't happen until the day after tomorrow at the earliest."

"I see," Gotou nodded.

"And it's likewise quiet outside."

"Yeah, somehow."

They didn't know that Takasato was here.

Gotou looked back at Takasato. "Takasato, are you going to take time off school starting tomorrow?"

Takasato didn't look up. He simply nodded his head silently.

"I offer my condolences from the bottom of my heart. Keep a level head."

Takasato responded to Gotou by nodding expressionlessly.

- - - - -

After Gotou left, Takasato finally opened his mouth. It wasn't until then that Hirose suddenly understood that Takasato had not been in a daze because he had lost his family all at once. Takasato asked Hirose, "Was it all because of me?"

Hirose wasn't able to reply at that instant.

To speak of those who harmed Takasato, there were none that did so more than his own family, and as for retribution, Takasato's mother ought to have been the first victim. They could never have overlooked her. The only reason they had waited until now was because of some extenuating circumstances. Though Takasato's family were his enemies, Takasato had needed them. They were able to protect him and guarantee his very basic living necessities. Now, however, they were no longer essential--and that was because of Hirose.

Hirose thought about it. It was three nights ago, on the day that the students jumped off the roof of the school. That night Hirose had heard a voice.

--Are you an enemy of the king?

He remembered saying something back, but he hadn't been able to recall what it was exactly. It came to him now. No, Hirose'd responded.

--I'm not an enemy.

Takasato's family died that night. Was there some meaning to this happenstance? Did they accept the fact that Hirose was not an enemy, making the existence of Takasato's family no longer a requirement, and so proceeded to purge them? Could it be explained thusly?

Then... Hirose looked at Takasato who was looking back at him.

--Then, the king?

Looking at Takasato's helpless eyes, Hirose shook his head.

"At the very least, it's not your fault, no matter who did it." No matter if the attackers were those creatures. "Because you're a victim."

"...Really?"

Hirose nodded decisively. "Takasato, it didn't happen because of you."

Takasato lowered his head. He had been dumbfounded for a while, but now he finally began to cry.

5

The next morning, Hirose was woken up by the sound of knocking on his door. Half-asleep still, he undid the door chain and opened the door. A microphone was shoved in his face.

The walkway outside of his apartment was full of people.

"We hear that Takasato-kun's here."

Hirose shut the door at once. On the other side he could hear their voices like a whirling storm, "Let us talk to Takasato!" A similarly awakened Takasato was looking over through the opened glass door. Hirose thought, He's been discovered. Did the police leak it? Or was it someone else? Will this commotion continue for a long time?

Once the telephone started ringing, it pretty much didn't stop. According to the determined plan, the police were going to call them, so Hirose couldn't disconnect the phone. He covered his head, not knowing what to do. To cover up the noise from outside, he turned on the television. Almost all of the morning talk shows were talking about the same thing.

"Having been left alone, he is now residing at the home of a senpai, a student teacher." Behind the female reporter giving these details with a stern expression was Hirose's apartment building. Hirose impatiently changed the channel, but the result was that he saw his name again.

In between the endless requests by phone for information, he started receiving a smattering of different calls. There were ones from college friends, acquaintances, people from the high school, including Gotou, and Hirose's mother.

Hirose's mother blamed his being caught up in all of this on his refusal of his parents' supervision and his living by himself.

"You were broadcast on TV opening the door. At any rate, you should come home immediately."

"I can't right now," said Hirose, and his mother responded.

"At the very least, throw that child out. He's not your responsibility. He's pulled you into his mess, and you've even gotten your name reported."

Hirose hung up on her.

The landlord and some of the neighbors called as well. Most of them did so to complain. They said, "How are we supposed to live like this? Find a way to get rid of those reporters!" He even received phone calls from complete strangers: a woman who wouldn't blame him if he threw Takasato out of his home, a man who threatened him saying that hiding Takasato would incur a divine punishment, and furthermore people who expressed sympathy, encouragement, suspicion, criticism and blame toward Takasato.

Some of the students from class 2-6 called too. All of them gave words of condolence and encouragement.

"Since he was little, he has been continuously followed by a series of accidents and deaths. Some say that he's cursed, and it was because of this that things deteriorated between parent and child." This is what the reporter said on a noontime talk show. Hirose turned the television off. However, after he did so, Hirose was seized with an uneasiness that something unexpected would happen because he didn't know what was going on outside. He put up with it for a little while, but it got to such a point that he couldn't stand it anymore, so he turned the television on again. He repeated this several times.

When evening came, people from the neighborhood started to stop by. Most of them came to ask Hirose to think of a way to do away with the members of the media, but there was one woman who went on and on about how an accident had happened to her child at school and might it have had something to do with Takasato?

The police called to say that the autopsy had not gone smoothly and that they would probably have to wait until tomorrow afternoon before the remains could be returned. Hirose called the funeral home and explained the situation to them. Afterwards, he turned off the ringer and pulled out the cord for the bell so that it wouldn't ring anymore.

During this time, Takasato was sitting with his head lowered. From time to time he would look at Hirose as if he wanted to speak up but stopped himself, and so he didn't say anything.

That night, when it was finally quiet around the building, he took a deep bow towards Hirose. "I'm really very sorry for causing you so much trouble."

Hirose thought, Takasato is always apologizing.

"It's not your fault," said Hirose. Takasato silently shook his head.

"You're not causing me any trouble."

Takasato laughed gently, and then sighed with a stern expression. "I know my existence is nothing but a nuisance, but I'm afraid of death."

"Takasato," said Hirose comfortingly. Takasato smiled wanly, and then immediately looked down.

"I know it would have been best if I'd never come back at all, but it would be great if I could go back." Saying this, Takasato bowed deeply again. "Please forgive me. I don't know how to get back."

Hirose sighed. He knew all too well what Takasato was thinking. This isn't his world. He should be living in another world, so it was hard for him to fit in this one.

"You don't have to apologize. The ones who are causing trouble are the media and the rubberneckers, not you."

Though this is what Hirose said, he knew that it wasn't incredibly persuasive. Had he not had anything to do with Takasato, then he wouldn't have been caught up in all of this. This was an idea that had yet to be resolved. Hirose thought, Takasato's blaming himself, but he couldn't very well abandon him like that.

The air conditioner was on, but the atmosphere in the room was still humid and heavy. Hirose said, "Why don't we open the window a little?" and Takasato stood up. He pulled back the curtain a bit and opened the window. Voices came in from outside.

"Are you Takasato?"

Hirose jumped up and ran to the window. There was a man with a camera standing on the weir across from the window. Hirose took Takasato's arm and pulled him from the window. He heard camera shutters sounding out successively as he closed the window, and when he closed the curtain, another voice rang out.

"I can't believe you cursed your own parents to death!"

Takasato's face became pale. Hirose patted his shoulder. He earnestly patted the shoulder of a Takasato who had covered his face. He scolded himself for not being able to do anything more for Takasato.

6

The next afternoon, the bodies were returned to them after the autopsy. When the police understood what had happened, they sent out a police car to pick them up.

"Did you determine the cause of death?"

The one who asked this was Takasato. The police officer who was with them cocked his head and said, "About that... I think they came to the conclusion that it was an animal attack. I believe they'll give you a more detailed explanation in a bit, but I think they said that they were killed by a dog or another such animal."

He seemed to puzzle over it.

"However, no animal tracks were left inside the house, and all the doors and windows were locked from the inside. We couldn't find any holes or openings big enough for that big an animal to go through."

They were taken to a university where they listened to the man in charge of the autopsy give them the specific details.

"From the teeth marks we can determine the size of the jaw... And from the size of the jaw, we can deduce that this animal is much larger than a dog, perhaps a tiger or a lion or an animal like that."

The forensics professor tilted his head in doubt.

"I asked a specialist to come take a look, but he found that the teeth marks are not that a feline. In a certain way, they looked more like those of a canine. The results are inconclusive. Now it's up to the police investigation to resolve this issue."

The professor revealed a sliver of bewilderment.

- - - - -

The remains were sent to the crematorium to be cremated. There was no point in preserving the bodies since they no longer resembled their original shape. It was in this way that Takasato carried the ashes of three people back home.

The funeral home had arranged for both the wake and the funeral to take place at a temple near where he lived. In order to accommodate the investigation, Takasato couldn't stay in his house for the time being. Riding to the temple in a car that belonged to the funeral home, he saw the press corps in front of the temple gate and a number of mourners waiting inside the main hall of the temple.

The mourners were mostly relatives that had hurried here from afar. Since there hadn't been much contact with them, Takasato had to ask each of them for their name and their relation.

There really was nothing else Hirose could do at this point, so he sat in the corner of the main hall and waited. A group of officials from the school arrived, including Gotou, and the place began slowly to have more activity.

Not long after Gotou and the others had arrived, some friction arose among the guests. The question was in who would adopt Takasato. At first, everyone distanced themselves from this idea and were against adopting him, but then they thought of the fact that because the land around this area was under heavy development the past few years, the price of property was currently in the midst of rising very quickly. Takasato's family had been a farming family up until his grandparents' generation and more or less had possessed a lot of arable land. After his grandparents passed away, all of it was either sold or leased. The land that was sold was probably converted to liquid assets, while the leased land could likewise be turned to money. This is the one thing they were all thinking about. "I suppose I could adopt him." They began to squabble unreservedly. Takasato watched this carry on in front of him with nary an expression on his face.

Hirose could stand it no longer and walked out to the courtyard. The night breeze was cool and refreshing. Gotou followed him out.

"I mean, really--how intolerable."

"Yeah..."

Gotou sat next to the bell tower. "At first they were all shunning him and now they're fighting over him. Watch, when they start thinking about the rumors, they'll just go back to shunning him."

Gotou said this with a joking tone, but Hirose found it hard to laugh. "Perhaps."

"...What's wrong? It looks as if you're the one most hurt by this."

Hirose didn't respond.

People aren't wild animals, and it's because of this that they are so impure, so ugly.

"What's going on with you? Hm?"

"...I went with Takasato to the crematorium."

Gotou looked at Hirose.

"We waited there until the remains had been burnt into ash. Takasato mourned the departed and I worried over the bereaved. --Why do they all act like that?"

"Hirose," sighed Gotou.

"It's the same with the people outside. Are there people happy over the rumors of a curse? Why don't they get it? If they're scared, they should stay away. They have more than an excuse to ignore this person's existence or cut off contact. Why do they purposefully get themselves involved? Why can't they leave us alone?"

Gotou didn't respond. Once the words had come out, Hirose couldn't hold it in any longer.

"We're living because we were born. We can't abandon our existences, so we work hard to live on. It's not as if we like it this way. We can't understand the reasoning of others. The world that people have created for themselves is uncomfortable. But, it's not as if we could leave if we wanted to--"

"Hirose," said Gotou comfortingly, but Hirose ignored him.

"Really, it would have been good if we'd never returned, but we did. How great would it be if we were able to go back? But we don't know how. This world doesn't make sense and is full of cruelty. There's no way for us to blend in."

"Hirose," said Gotou firmly and smiled bitterly at Hirose, who was looking back at him. "I'm telling you, Hirose, I think it's better if you don't use the word, 'we'."

"Why?"

"From how I see it, you and Takasato are not too similar. That's why."

Hirose creased his brow. "I don't get what you mean."

"I don't think you and Takasato can be put in the same category. For me, the empathy you feel for Takasato isn't too good."

"Gotou-san."

"Right after you got involved with Takasato, you've become more and more pessimistic. That's how I feel."

"That's because of all the things that have been happening."

"Yes, maybe. Or perhaps it's all in my head. But, I'm quite sure that in the past you would never have so easily said that you couldn't blend in. It used to be hard for you to talk about this."

Hirose asserted, "It has nothing to do with Takasato. In reality, I've always felt this way."

Gotou heaved a deep sigh.

"It started about when I was in junior high."

After a moment, Gotou suddenly said, "There was a girl who told her classmates that she was an abandoned baby."

Hirose didn't understand what Gotou was getting at. Gotou laughed.

"She insisted she was an abandoned baby and that her parents weren't her real parents. But she actually looked a lot like her parents. Despite this, she maintained what she said through graduation." Hirose listened, not understanding. Gotou looked at him and said, "Listen, everyone feels like this isn't the place that they really belong sometimes. I feel like everyone's said before: I want to go home. People also say that there's no place that they can return to. This is because everyone wants to escape from this world."

Gotou stared at his hands clasped together on his knees.

"This isn't truly my world. This isn't truly my family. These aren't truly my parents..."

He paused for a moment.

"You suppose that if you could only flee from this world, you'd find one where you would feel comfortable in. You think there's a happy world out there that's prepared especially for you, that suits just your needs, that you can enjoy like a picture. ...There's no such thing. Nothing like that exists, Hirose."

"Gotou-san."

"That's a fairy tale, Hirose. Sometimes there's hardship in life, and everyone wants to escape from it at some point. I understand this. I know what it feels like to want to escape to a fairy tale. That way you won't be a bother to other people, and I can't say that it's bad to think that way. But, people have to live in reality. People have to face reality and find a point of compromise somewhere. Even if the fairy tale seems harmless, you have to throw it away someday."

To Hirose, this was a frightening proposition. "...But I know it's not a dream."

"And that girl really believed that she had been an abandoned baby." Gotou looked down. "You said before that you don't feel bitter toward other people, right? You said you've never wanted anyone to just disappear."

"...I have said that."

"I think that's a lie. You dream about returning to that world to make yourself feel better, so that you don't feel bitterness toward others. That's just two sides of the same coin, Hirose."

"...Two sides?" Hirose creased his brow. He remembered Gotou saying something similar before. Gotou nodded.

"The front side and the back. There's another implication in your thinking. I want to go back because I don't belong in this world? If you think about it another way, it means that you want everything to disappear."

Hirose widened his eyes.

"Make this world and all the people in this world disappear. Make everything that isn't a part of my dream world go away. --Isn't that what it means?" Gotou looked at Hirose. "What's the difference in wanting someone you don't like to vanish and dreaming about a world in which they don't exist? They're just two ways of saying the same thing. You understand what I'm saying, don't you?"

I don't want to understand, thought Hirose. I don't want to understand your reasoning.

Hirose shook his head. "It's not a dream. I'm absolutely sure I've seen that place."

"It is a dream," affirmed Gotou. Hirose frowned at him.

"Then what about Takasato? If it's just dream, then where did he go for a year? What was he doing for a year? What did he eat to stay alive? When he came back, he was taller; how did that happen?"

Gotou nodded. "I don't believe in that world nor do I believe in the immortal soul. Likewise, I don't believe in spiriting away or anything like it. It's undeniable that Takasato disappeared when he was little, but it wasn't a spiriting away. In reality, strange things seemingly happen all the time. I think Takasato was simply kidnapped and spent a year wherever he was taken. He just doesn't remember it anymore."

Hirose thought he found a hole in Gotou's argument. "Then what are those things? What are those things that stay by Takasato's side? Is it by chance that all these people around Takasato keep dying?"

Hirose said this partly triumphantly, and Gotou nodded quietly. "That's just it, Hirose. That's where Takasato is difficult to understand. No matter how I try to deny it with my logic, there are still parts of him that I can't. That's why I say that Takasato is a different kind of person."

"But..."

"In regards to your dream, I can deny it to the end. I can't prove to you that it's purely a dream, but then neither can you prove to be that it isn't a dream, right? This is where you and Takasato differ. Don't let Takasato lead you astray. You can sympathize, but don't have the pleasant dream that you are compatriots."

"Pleasant...dream..."

"I can't completely deny Takasato's dream. The way I see it, you've been chasing that dream nonstop. You're letting Takasato carry the burden of your own dream and asking Takasato to prove for you the existence of that world. This doesn't do you any good, Hirose."

Hirose stared at Gotou, speechless.

"People are dirty and base creatures. That's our destiny as humans. Once we are born human, there's no escape from this fate. There's no one without an ego, and no one without selfishness."

Hirose hung his head and thought, He never understood me either. He's not the friend I thought he was. This man is just another person from this world after all.

Gotou couldn't understand Hirose, and Hirose couldn't understand Gotou.

It's so far, Hirose thought. Why is that world so far away? If only I could get back there. I want to go back so badly, back to that paradise full of blossoming white flowers--

They're two sides of the same coin, rang out Gotou's voice.

--Why do I want to go back?

Because in the end, there's no one in this world who could understand Hirose. Thus, he wanted to vanish from this world.

--Does that mean I want to die?

He didn't want to die; he just wanted to return.

--If I went back, will the people there be able to understand me?

Yes, he thought.

--The front side and the back.

He had always thought if he just left this place, that he would find a world where he felt comfortable, that he would be able to live in a world where people understood him and everything would feel like it fit.

I want to go back. This isn't my world. Because, no one understands me. --Disappear. Everything would be solved if only this world vanished. Those who comprehend me are in other world.

--Where's the difference? How are they different at all?

Hirose hung his head.

He shed tears of failure.

"Hirose. Please don't reject us," said Gotou gravely.

Hirose couldn't reply.

"People as people are just this base."

Hirose held his head for a long time murmuring to himself, when he suddenly started sensing some doubt. It was a very small doubt, so small that he couldn't put it into words. It felt almost like discomfort. Toward what do I feel discomfort? He pressed his hand on his forehead and began to think.

* * * * *
* * * * *

She woke up in the dead of night. She laid in the futon as she patiently gathered her senses and pondered over why she had awaken.

She blinked her eyes slowly and felt as if she had heard a noise. What was strange was that she wasn't drowsy at all. She looked at the alarm clock next to her pillow and saw that she hadn't slept even two hours yet. Beside her, she saw her husband sleeping on his back in the futon.

She sighed softly. For a while, she couldn't fall back asleep. She just couldn't get rid of her uneasiness. What will happen to them now? It's because of that child...

When he was first born, he was so cute. He was the eldest son everyone was hoping for. The mother-in-law was an extremely strict woman and didn't treat children especially well. For some reason, she was especially cold to this child. Despite this, the boy grew up not to be especially stubborn and quite gentle instead. He was intelligent, but also obedient and unassuming. Though he was still small, he'd already sensed that her relationship with his grandmother wasn't terribly good. Whenever his mother hid somewhere to cry, he would run to her side and comfort her with his small hands.

--It was because of the spiriting away.

She was left only with her second son, who was a year younger than her first. Just how much sorrow did she feel then? Because of his grandmother's rearing methods, he had slowly developed in a bad direction. He was a bit deceitful and very good at reading people's expressions. More seriously, he had a violent nature. Although, as a parent she could never withhold love from him because of this, since she had given birth to him. Despite this, when she found out that her first had disappeared, she knew in her heart that she would rather it had been the other one.

The child did come back, but he didn't remember what had happened to him. She exhausted all methods in trying to help him recover the lost memory of that year, but the child's memory persisted in resisting her. The discord between the two of them began here. At first her second son was injured, and then an accident happened to the kid next door. A half year after he was back, she began to think this strange, and not only her, but almost all the neighbors felt the same way. After a year had passed, this was already well-known. Everyone in the neighborhood turned a cold shoulder to them, and gradually their interaction with their neighbors became difficult.

It was then that she heard about the rumor of the curse. Others kept that child at a distance and bullied her second son instead. At the time they were in the same year in school, but only her second son suffered from severe harassment. In junior high, her second son was beaten up by classmates, and it resulted in a torn eardrum. When she met with the bully's parents, before she could even tell them off, they said, "It's because of his brother hurting so many of the kids." She swallowed her anger. She had to. The bully didn't die, but if there really was a curse, it would have better had he fallen victim to it--she swallowed these words.

However, her eldest was definitely a smart kid. His grades and his behavior were both better than those of his younger brother. Her second received an endless amount of supervision. In their third year of junior high when they were advised on which high school to attend, the teacher suggested that he choose the high school with the lowest scores, while her eldest was encouraged to attend a prestigious school in the suburbs.

--It'll happen again, she thought to herself.

Another one will die because of that child. How many will this make it?

As she was laying on her side with her face covered, she heard a quiet sound next to her pillow. It sounded like breathing. She lifted her head to look beside her pillow, but all she could make out in the darkness was the white paper of the sliding door. She saw nothing else. When she looked away, she heard the sound of breathing again. It seemed a lot like the sound of a dog's coarse breathing.

She sat up and turned toward the area next to her pillow. She could now clearly hear long, rough breaths. She looked around attentively, but didn't see anything. Wanting to turn the light on, she stood up. When she raised a hand to feel around for the light switch, she as if something suddenly grabbed her foot and tugged at it. She screamed as she fell to the floor. The foot that was being held was hurting as if in the artery.

"What's happening?" asked her husband, half-asleep. She was completely preoccupied with her own problem that she wasn't able to respond to her husband.

She wanted to confirm that she had been wounded but saw that she was already missing her ankle. It was then that she knew that the amount of pain was not proportional to the severity of an injury.

She looked for her ankle, but as she swept her line of sight forward, she came across only pitch darkness. She tried to shriek but all that came out were spastic gasps.

"What is it?" Her husband had finally stirred and opened his eyes. Just then something squirmed in the darkness and rushed at her husband's collar which had come out from under the covers. Her husband screamed as well and rolled out of the futon and onto the tatami. After a thick and heavy crunch, an arm fell onto the tatami, and the sound of water droplets on an umbrella followed. It was probably the sound of blood splashing upon some surface.

The shade black creature chased after her husband. She look on in shock. Something enveloped her husband causing him to scream several times, each one weaker than the last as it joined a disgusting cracking sound.

When the dark shadow got up, she finally saw the shape of her husband. His abdomen had been chewed through; the potbelly that he had frequently worried about had become a big hollow. Even so, his body kept on convulsing.

The darkness turned toward her again.

--I knew it.

She mumbled to herself.

She knew it, that one day she would be killed by that child. She felt that that had been a matter of course.

--Because I had always wanted to kill that child.

The dark shadow approached her. She slowly closed her eyes, and her vision turned pitch black.

Or perhaps it was that the darkness had covered her.
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Chapter 10

1

The next day, a great many condolence callers came to the small main hall of the temple. What was surprising was that about a dozen of them were students who had skipped school to come to the funeral. They were all class 2-6 students, but Sakata was not amongst them. They awkwardly offered some incense and gave Takasato a few words of support. Hirose's mood was hard to articulate as he watched this supposedly heart-warming scene.

A surprising number of condolence callers had shown up. A majority of them seemed not even to know what Takasato looked like. People were gathered in small clusters here and there throughout the main hall and the grounds of the temple, gossiping to each other in lowered voices. He knew from what he could hear that they were here merely to get a peek at the rumored angel of death.

Since this was a funeral with only the ashes of the deceased, there was no funeral procession. After Takasato gave a short customary expression of gratitude, the guests left their seats in waves. Just then, a thunderous roar erupted in the vicinity that seemed to make the ground shake. All the guests gathered in the main hall looked to the direction of the sound, and saw the air above the road to the temple filled with a thick cloud of dust. Everybody began speaking up.

The temple gate had collapsed.

In an instant, a tumult rose up in the area. Hirose leapt out of the main hall and ran towards the gate. The gate that, while small, had been built in the style of a temple gate, had fallen over and crumbled. Amid the scattered heaps of timber, roofing tiles and the mud wall, he could see the hands and feet of people. There was also blood and the sound of groaning--and cameras.

At once he realized that the members of the press who were waiting outside of the temple had all been buried under. Looking around, he could see the luckier reporters who had escaped unscathed all standing in a daze as they looked upon the rubble.

"Idiots!"

Suddenly hearing a sound, Hirose looked back. Three students from class 2-6 had gathered near the advancing crowd of people.

"After causing such a commotion, did you really think that you'd all be fine?"

"Yeah! How could you broadcast about some curse? I can't believe it."

They sent flickering glances around and could see Takasato standing with a pale face.

The reporters standing in front of the gate began to move about. Some called for ambulances and some asked if the video had been rolling. "That guy put a curse on them," a man said, pointing at Takasato. Then there emerged the widespread sound of camera shutters.

Takasato stirred. He ran to the pile of rubble and started pushing aside the things that had fallen to the ground. Some people from the crowd jump forward to help with the rescue effort as well. They hauled away the rubble and started pulling the injured out.

- - - - -

It was likely that all of the ambulances in the vicinity had been called. A few of them had rushed there and were beginning to take the injured away. Hirose sighed and patted the dust off of his body. He looked for Takasato in the crowd and found that he was near the main temple hall, surrounded by the students who had come to pay their condolences.

Hirose walked over there and heard someone say kindly, "You must have been scared."

"Takasato, you don't look well."

"Yeah, you should take a break somewhere."

"This must be hard for you. I'll go ask where you can rest."

Saying this, one of the students left and spoke with an elderly monk who was sending off one of the people who had been injured on the temple road.

Hirose knew what was really going on. --They were just flattering him.

Here, there was a king of curses, and he used fear to rule those around him. One day, those around him raised a banner of revolt and attempted to overthrow the king and topple his reign of terror. However, the king hadn't been defeated. He fell three stories but suffered nary a scratch, and afterwards, he implemented a purge. Those who tried to smash his reign of terror were punished in a horrific way, and thus the rest of them became subservient. If a revolution was impossible, then to live on, their only option was to serve him. They had to avoid making the king unhappy and couldn't provoke his anger. If they never defied him and always treated him kindly, then no mistakes could be made.

Takasato was so lonely, thought Hirose. Every part of him was utterly filled with loneliness.

The siren of an ambulance went off as it sped away.

This incident had resulted in the deaths of nine people and the injuries of twenty-some others. The news for that day repeatedly broadcast the recorded images of that moment.

The temple gate suddenly collapsed, and before they had time to scream, those standing under it were crushed. The moment was like a tower of toy blocks that were stacked too high and thus toppled over.

When Hirose and Takasato returned to the apartment that night, it was quiet all around. They no longer saw the gathered reporters from before. The atmosphere in the road in front of the apartment was still. The wall of the house across from them had been damaged and was covered with a sheet. They thought it curious as they walked up the stairs of the apartments. Then, Hirose stopped in front of his door.

A paper was taped to the door with two words scribbled on it in marker: "Get out." Hirose ripped it down and unlocked the door with the key in his hand.

- - - - -

After that night's news, they knew the reason why there hadn't been a single person out there in front of the apartment complex.

At the time the temple gate collapsed, an accident occurred near Hirose's apartment as well. An out-of-control car had hurtled into the group of waiting news reporters, resulting in two deaths and four injuries. Since the driver of the car was one of the dead, no one knew why he had driven like that.

I see, Hirose thought. So they're finally scared, are they?

Reporting about the collapse at the temple and the car collision, a hard-line newscaster said, "News reporters became victims while covering an occurrence," but which "occurrence" they were referring to would likely be immediately spread around.

After watching the news, Takasato's face became ashen. Hirose felt terrible for him. His very existence had caused these horrible things to happen. Just how many lives have been lost because of him?

Hirose looked at Takasato's profile with a compassion a bit different than that which he expressed before yesterday, and then he stared off into space.

Perhaps, Hirose thought. Perhaps their intention was to get rid of all enemies. He felt this was like a child's line of thinking. If that was the case, then they'd likely never stop. Tomorrow, another group of reporters will come, and they'll surely treat Takasato less favorably than the group before them. What will they do to them? Will they get rid of them too?

And then, before long, will they have determined everyone to be an enemy? If they continue to unrestrictedly protect him, then he'll eventually lose both a way and a place to live.

"Takasato," said Hirose. Takasato looked at him. "Let's use this opportunity to take a walk."

Hirose forced out a sliver of a smile.

"I don't think we'll be able to go outside tomorrow."

2

They couldn't see the moon. Without any street lamps, the top of the weir was dark all around. The pitch black mud broke against the outside of the weir.

"What was your grandmother like?" asked Hirose as he was looking down at the water. Takasato found it hard to hide a troubled expression after Hirose suddenly brought this up.

--This was a trap.

Hirose looked at Takasato's face as he mumbled to himself, "It's a trap. Don't fall for it."

He tilted his head. "I think...she was ordinary, just a little strict."

"Strict?"

"She was a strict person when it came to discipline. Because she was really old-fashioned... I remember she had a lot to say when it came to how we held our chopsticks or how we sat when we ate."

"Oh? That strict, huh?"

Takasato smiled. "My grandmother was scarier than my parents. That one time, she hit me mercilessly."

Hirose looked at Takasato. "Are you talking about when you were spirited away?"

Takasato nodded and appeared to be smiling bitterly. His expression saddened Hirose. He had no idea he was about to fall into a trap.

"What was the reason? I remember that...she asked me who'd dripped water all over the bathroom. Yeah, I think that was it. My brother said that it was me, but since I didn't remember doing it, I said that it wasn't me."

"So was your brother the real culprit?"

Takasato shook his head. "I don't know, because I didn't see anything. If I'd seen who did it, then I would have told her. Unfortunately I didn't know who did it, so all I could say was that it hadn't been me."

What an interesting line of thinking, thought Hirose. Wasn't he even a little bit suspicious of the brother who'd insisted it had been him?

"And then?"

"My grandmother also said that it was probably me. She scolded me. Why can't you just apologize honestly? She sent me out into the garden and told me that unless I apologized, I wasn't allowed to go back inside. It'd been February then and it was snowing." Takasato smiled and said, "It was cold outside, but I knew that I hadn't done it, so I couldn't apologize and lie and say that I did. This was because my grandmother always warned me that I should never ever lie."

"...And? What happened after?"

Takasato was still smiling. "I was at a loss. I didn't know what to do. It was getting colder and colder and the sun had almost set. I wanted to go inside really badly, but I couldn't lie. It was then that I felt a warm breeze blow towards me. I looked in that direction and I saw that arm."

The smiling Takasato looked at Hirose and began to look more hesitant.

"...What's wrong?"

You've fallen into the trap. Hirose swallowed these words.

Takasato. In front of Hirose's eyes, he looked like a helpless and unlucky boy.

"Did you hate your grandmother?"

"No." Takasato shook his head.

"Wasn't she strict? You must have hated her."

"I've never thought that way before. I was afraid of being scolded by her."

"Even though she made you stay out in the garden in midwinter for something you didn't even do? At the very least you must have hated her at that time, right?"

Takasato shook his head. He didn't look like he was lying or pretending. "But what could she have done? My grandmother didn't know who did it, and my brother said it was me, so she could only believe him..."

"You don't think it was really your brother?"

"Why? My brother said that I'd done it."

"Because of that! You hadn't done it and your brother hadn't seen you drip any water, right? But he was so certain that you had. Don't you think he was pushing his own blame onto you?"

Takasato was taken aback, and then asked, "Ah, now that you mention it... I suppose that's a possibility, huh?"

He looked as if he was slowly coming to this realization.

Hirose sighed. It didn't look like he was acting, but his reaction could have another deeper meaning.

"Aren't you angry at your brother?" asked Hirose quietly. Takasato smiled. He was not accustomed to smiling, so it looked unusually earnest.

"It doesn't mean that he actually did it... Also, it's already in the past."

Seeing his smile, Hirose understood. The quarry had fallen into the trap. All he had to do now was seal it up.

Hirose breathed in softly, and then he said to Takasato as calmly as possible, "It's you, isn't it, Takasato?"

Takasato looked as if he didn't understand Hirose's meaning. Hirose repeated it quietly.

"It's you."

"What...about me?"

"You're the one doing it."

Takasato opened his eyes widely and then creased his brow.

"What did I do?"

"The retribution. You're the one doing it."

Takasato stared at Hirose's face. His eyes carried a jumble of different emotions.

"I think you're doing it subconsciously. Despite that, I think you're the one doing it all."

"...You're wrong." He sounded perplexed. His expression and mood were that of not understanding why Hirose would suddenly these things.

"I'm not wrong. It was you that hurt those people. I think your subconscious wanted to take revenge on them. And you carry it out with this 'power' that you have."

"Power?"

"It would be a bit cliché to call it a psychic ability. It's some sort of unique 'power," and it exacts revenge on behalf of your consciousness."

Takasato shook his head vigorously. He didn't appear angry, just a bit distressed.

"You hated your home. You wanted to escape to somewhere. Your subconscious used that 'power' and made you vanish to some other place. In that way, it's a tremendous power. You got rid of all the people you didn't like. Every time you felt lonely, you would call for its consolation."

"That's...not possible."

Hirose shook his head plainly. "It's only that you don't know about it. You don't know you have that kind of 'power.' Somewhere inside of you, you hate the people who hurt you."

Takasato didn't respond. He simply stared at Hirose's face with widened eyes. He looked just like an abandoned child who couldn't completely understand the situation, and so simply felt sorrow.

"People are messy creatures. They're messy and crude creatures." It's only because they're not wild animals that they're so tainted and base. "People's souls aren't made of light or glass, but the poisonous ego. No one can live like you do, where you don't hate anyone. That's not something that people are able to achieve. There can't be a complete lack of hatred. You simply cover it up is all. Otherwise, it's not that you won't admit it. It's just that you're pretending it doesn't exist."

"...That's not right."

Hirose looked directly at Takasato. "Then why did you ask Hashigami for Tsuiki's name? It was because you wanted revenge. On those guys who brought up things you didn't want them to bring up."

"That's not true." Takasato looked up at Hirose. "I didn't ask him. It wasn't that I wanted to find out Tsuiki-kun's name. A third-year was saying such strange things, and I just wanted to know who thought that way."

"Takasato," sighed Hirose as he shook his head. "This is a front, and I'm not going to buy it."

In the same way, there was a self-deception in Hirose as well.

"It's true. I was wondering if the rumors had really already become so strange, so..."

"Takasato," Hirose interrupted Takasato. "Stop it. You must understand that it can't keep going on like this. You'll slowly lose your own footing and at the same time gather yourself more enemies. And the enemy that appear will be even worse than before."

Takasato shook his head.

"Takasato. Humans can't live tidily. People can't spend their days crying for those who've harmed others or lamenting those who've hit other people."

"Please stop..."

"You can hit me. You can hate me and yell at me. Just stop pretending you don't know what's happening and stop overpowering your ego."

Takasato hung his head low.

"Stop saying these things, please."

"Don't cover your ears."

"I'm begging you to please stop!"

"Takasato!"

"Please just stop!" He looked up at Hirose sincerely. "Please, don't die."

He sounded utterly genuine.

Is it that he can't admit it, or that he doesn't want to?

Hirose patted Takasato's shoulder. He was still hanging his head.

"...Let's head back."

3

Late that night, Gotou called to ask that Takasato make a trip to the school the next day. His tone had sounded strange. Was he drunk? thought Hirose. Of course, he'd never seen Gotou drunk before.

The following day, Takasato asked Hirose to come to school with him. It surprised him, since this was the first time Takasato asked something of him, but still he nodded silently.

When they went outside, an astounding number of reporters were gathered on the road in front of their place. Upon seeing Takasato, they began causing a commotion. Before they ran to Totoki's arriving car, they could heard enough malicious taunts to induce a headache.

- - - - -

Per instruction, they made their way to the prep room where Gotou was already inside waiting. When he saw Hirose, he raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything.

"Takasato, I feel terrible for asking you here."

"It's fine..."

"I'm sorry, but could you go to the headmaster's office? The headmaster would like to speak with you."

Takasato looked at Gotou's face, but didn't say anything. Then he looked back at Hirose.

"Excuse me, Sensei, can you come with me?"

"Me?"

A surprised Gotou spoke up, "Hey hey, I don't think the headmaster has any business with Hirose."

Takasato looked at Gotou. "I feel a bit helpless. If Hirose sensei doesn't come with me, I'm not going."

Gotou dumbfoundedly looked at Hirose, and Hirose looked back at Gotou. With a baffled expression on his face, Gotou picked up the telephone and dialed an extension number. He told the person on the line what Takasato had said to him.

The other person didn't really have any objections. Via the telephone, Gotou served as an intermediary between the other person and Takasato and finally put down the telephone receiver. He had a strange expression on his face.

"Hirose, go."

- - - - -

They arrived at the headmaster's office, and other than the headmaster, the deputy headmaster and the second year dean were also there. They seemed a little bit unhappy as they looked at Takasato and then Hirose, and then with sullen expressions invited the two to sit down.

"Well, Takasato-kun."

"Yes?"

"First, we are all very sorry for your loss. Have you decided on what you will be doing from now on?"

"No."

The headmaster gently cleared his throat. "Takasato-kun, I heard from your homeroom teacher, Gotou sensei that you were going to withdraw from school, is that right?"

"Yes."

The headmaster nodded a few times, and then squeezed out a smile, though they weren't sure what it represented. "A lot has happened to you recently, and it's been hard, hasn't it? And with the loss of your family, I think you probably need to take some time for yourself. I believe you want to find a place where you can really think through all the things that have happened to you, so that you can completely change your mental state, is that right?"

Hirose fixed his eyes on the headmaster.

"The school is willing to accept you withdrawal notification any time."

Hirose stood up. "Does that you mean you want him to leave?"

The deputy headmaster scowled at Hirose. "No one's said any such thing. Please settle down."

The headmaster looked at Hirose with upturned eyes and then looked back at Takasato.

"So, what do you think?"

Takasato nodded, his face showing no particular expression. "When I go back, I'll take care of the formalities."

The headmaster looked very obviously relieved, and then nodded. "Don't worry. There's no rush. Please go downstairs for the paperwork, and just mail it to us at a later date. According to policy, you're supposed to need a guardian's approval, but because of your situation, your guardians are no longer present, so that can't be helped."

How crude, thought Hirose. He knew why Gotou had gotten drunk last night. The school wanted to get rid of Takasato, but since they couldn't think of a reason to, they were pressuring him to withdraw on his own. The reason they had asked Takasato in during his mourning period was because he currently had no guardian who could oppose the school officials. He'll have a guardian in the future, but by that time, the school would have already accepted his withdrawal notification. They were trying to wipe themselves clean of responsibility after the fact, and it was truly a despicable way to do things.

However, it didn't appear as if Takasato cared. He was looking down expressionlessly, meaning that he had already accepted it. The headmaster smiled as he gave a soon-to-be-leaving student empty words of encouragement and caution. Hirose stood nearby with clenched fists as he listened on.

As they were about to leave the headmaster's room after the discussion was over, the deputy headmaster beckoned to Hirose. Hirose stopped walking and Takasato did the same.

"Hirose-kun, please wait a moment. --Takasato-kun, you may leave," said the deputy headmaster.

Takasato said, "Can't I stay as well?"

Hirose looked puzzlingly at Takasato. The deputy headmaster gave the headmaster a troubled look. "In any case, please leave."

"No." His voice was firm and resolute. Hirose was very surprised as he looked over at Takasato's raised profile.

The deputy headmaster walked over and grabbed Takasato's arm.

"At any rate--"

"If you force me to leave, I'm going to tell the media that you asked me to withdraw."

The deputy headmaster was taken aback as he looked at Takasato. Takasato was smiling.

"I could also tell them that you threatened me."

The administrators all appeared worried for a moment. Hirose was speechless and absolutely astonished. His behavior could only be described as a complete change. He was not at all like the Takasato of before.

"Hirose-kun," said the deputy headmaster uneasily. "About this matter--"

"I'll keep quiet," Hirose spit out indifferently. "I didn't see or hear about any of the things that went on here, including my previous stint as a student teacher. From today on, I no longer have anything to do with this school. --Is that good enough for you?"

Hirose looked at the nodding administrators, and then prompted Takasato to leave. The exited the headmaster's office together.

On their way from the headmaster's office back to the prep room, Hirose might better be described as surprised than angry. He had to stop himself from asking, "What happened back there?" He mulled something over in his head several times, and when they were going up the stairs, he carefully asked, "Takasato, you'll have to excuse me, but in a little bit I have to go to my university."

Takasato looked at Hirose. "I can't come with you?"

"I'm sorry, but I have to go talk some things over with my seminar instructor..."

"Please, take me with you. I swear I won't get in the way."

He was so insistent. Hirose understood why.

--Being nearer to Takasato raised one's chances for safety.

When was it that I'd discussed this with Gotou?

"Please."

Hirose felt deep emotions, as he looked at Takasato who was looking back at him.

"I lied."

Takasato widened his eyes.

"Forgive me. It was a lie."

He looked down in shame.

"Takasato, thank you."

"...I don't understand it myself." Takasato kept his head down. "No matter how much I think it over, I don't know if I'm really doing it or not. Even more, I really don't know if I'm actually harboring all this hatred but pretending like nothing's wrong."

His voice was trembling.

"Regardless of whether I'm doing it, or if someone else is, I don't know how to stop it from happening. But, if it is me, then I know I'm probably not going to harm myself. If there are others protecting me, then they're not going to hurt me either. So..."

Why is it Takasato? Hirose thought. Why is it Takasato who has to shoulder this fate?

"Thank you. Well, let's go back to Gotou-san's room. He's probably fallen into a pit of self-hatred right about now."

4

After they returned to the special classroom building, while walking in the hall, Hirose heard someone calling to him. He stopped and looked around him. Takasato stopped as well. They were in front of the Earth Sciences laboratory.

"Hirose." The door to the lab was open, and the voice came from inside. It sounded like Gotou.

"Gotou-san?"

"Is that Hirose? I'm sorry, could you help me out?"

Hirose poked his head in. The blinds for both the windows facing the sports area and the windows facing the hallway had all been pulled down, and the classroom was as dark as night. A figure was crouching over at the very back of the room.

"Gotou-san, what happened?"

Just when Hirose stepped into the classroom, the door slid shut behind him.

"Sensei!"

He heard Takasato's desperate voice.

Hirose ran his hand frantically about the door which had a small clouded glass window set into it. No matter how he pulled or shook it, the door wouldn't budge even a little. He heard Takasato's voice shouting from outside.

Hirose kept trying with all his strength to get the door open, while looking around the classroom. The figure in the back of the classroom stood up. The only light source came from the small window in the door Hirose was attempting to open. In that weak light, he couldn't tell who the standing figure was.

The figure moved from behind a desk into an aisle, and then bent down, thrusting its two hands forward. Hirose stared at it, forgetting that he needed to get the door open.

The figure crawled between the big lab desks on all fours and made its way closer. The aisles were even darker than the rest of the room, and Hirose couldn't see the figure clearly. He could only hear the sound of bare footsteps. Hirose rubbed his eyes and looked again. The shadowy figure that appeared to be a portion of the darkness seemed to have grown limbs at some point. It crawled forward slowly with its four forelimbs and its two legs. It gave off a faint smell of the sea.

--So your ego isn't able to forgive me, Takasato?

The shadow crept forward sneakily. The number of its limbs increased again. Every time I crawled forward a step, it would grow another set of limbs. Before he knew it, the shadow had transformed into a giant centipede.

"If you kill me, you'll be alone."

The centipede-like shadow crept out of the aisle. It was already no more than two meters from Hirose. From the light shining in from the small window, he could see it glistening with the color of bloody pus.

"You've already got nowhere left to go. Do you know that?"

It stood up suddenly, and its silhouette no longer resembled that of a human. Without thinking, Hirose had backed into the corner of the classroom. When the shadow stood up, its height measured more than two meters, and it rocked its upper body like a snake that had raised its neck. He could almost see the tapering point of its snout.

This was the form of Takasato's ignored and neglected ego that had been continually distorted underwater. Of course it was ugly, thought Hirose. People are all raising such hideous monsters inside their bodies.

Its body swayed as it approached, emitting a thick and damp sea odor. It opened its bloody-pus-colored jaw. Under the dim light that was coming through the window, the rows of teeth inside its mouth gleamed. It suddenly popped up in Hirose's head the image of those appalling corpses he'd seen at Takasato's house.

--So this is what it was?

Hirose thought this calmly. In that moment, it swung its forelimb across and he felt a blow to his chest. It then struck his shoulder, and a gouging pain coursed through him. Hirose pressed his shoulder with his hand and it felt warm.

His strength escaped his knees and he slumped down in place. It continued to advance on him with its sea stench, heavy with rot. Hirose remained still and stared at its teeth.

Just then, he heard the sound of shattered glass, and light streamed into the room.

- - - - -

It stopped moving in alarm.

"Sensei!"

Hearing Takasato's cry, it crouched down and looked back at him. Beyond its body, Hirose could see the window blinds on the hallway side flapping about. In the daylight streaming in, its hideous shape emerged for only an instant, and at the same time the blinds flipped down, it returned to its initial deep black shadow.

The thing's shape was restored in Hirose's eyesight, stimulated by the sudden light. He could see Takasato's silhouette facing the monster.

"Please stop it!" Takasato cried out forcefully. "Why are you doing this?"

The crouching monster crawled on its countless legs and hid to the side. There was no longer anything blocking Hirose's vision. He could clearly see Takasato facing it and looking at it intensely.

"This person is not my enemy! Please stop!"

The creature withdrew. It retracted its body and hung its head. Its movements were almost ridiculous in how they looked like that of a reprimanded dog.

"What are you? What exactly are you to me?"

It drew its body in even more. The size of the shadow continued to shrink, eventually resembling the shape of some animal.

"If you've done all this for me, then you should be punished more than any of the others!"

Looking at Hirose, Takasato ran over.

"Are you all right?"

"...Yes," replied Hirose though his gaze remained fixed on the shadow. It now completely resembled a dog.

"We..." Suddenly the shadow spoke up. Takasato turned to look. "We have the duty of protecting you."

It was the deep voice of a man. The shadow shrank even further.

"...Duty?"

"We exist solely to protect you."

"What do you mean?"

"This is...what was...determined."

Buzz buzz, it was the sound of something crumbling. The shadow was now smaller than the size of a baby.

"What the hell does that mean?"

Buzz... This sound was the only response Takasato received. They could no longer see anymore of the shadow.

They suddenly heard a noise from outside of the classroom.

"Takasato!?"

This time there was no mistaking that this was indeed Gotou's voice.

- - - - -

The door to the classroom was opened effortlessly. Some ten teachers had gathered in the hall, Gotou included. Under the bright lights, they could see countless scratches on Takasato's body. The damaged window on the hallway side was now just a wooden frame. Broken pieces were scattered about the floor of the hallway and a chair had been knocked over.

Gotou told the others to leave this to him. Hirose reached through broken window and turned up the blinds. Nothing out of the ordinary could be seen in the classroom anymore.

5

"I heard the door to the Chemistry lab open," said a troubled Gotou. They were in the waiting room of a hospital near the school. "I looked outside and saw Takasato's expression undergoing a change as he carried a chair out of the room. I asked him what had happened, and he said that you'd been trapped inside the lab next door, so I ran there with him. The door couldn't be opened. Before I knew what was going on, Takasato had smashed the window and jumped inside. I was going to follow him in, but he told me not to. Danger was written on his face, so when he said that to me, I couldn't help but step back as courageous as I think I usually am."

"Huh..."

"Also, after Takasato entered, it became silent. I wanted to flip up the blinds to take a look inside, but they wouldn't budge. They were just blinds, but at the time they were immovable like they were made of metal. I could only stand in the hall and wait. What else could I do?"

He sounded like he was making rationalizations. Hirose laughed. As soon as he moved his chest, he felt a burning pain. When they stitched him up, they had given him local anesthetics that should still be in effect, but Hirose didn't think they did much good. The injuries below his collar bone and on his shoulder were both deep, but they didn't reach the bone. The wounds appeared to have been made with a sharp knife, and so Hirose had no alternative but to say that his cuts were the result of running to a glass window, and the old doctor more or less accepted this. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Takasato had come for medical attention with real glass injuries.

- - - - -

After they were treated, they went back to the school and answered the deputy headmaster's questions together. Hirose simply said that he had been shut in the laboratory. He didn't think that there was any need to elaborate.

By the time this was over, it was the lunch break. Because Totoki had said he would take them home after the midday meeting, Hirose and Takasato went back to the prep room to pass the time. Gotou turned out not to be there, but four students were present instead.

"Where's Gotou-san?"

"In a meeting. Sensei, I heard you got hurt again." Nozue looked at Hirose. Hirose opened up the lab coat Gotou had lent him a little to show him.

"Did you get stitched up?"

"Looks like you won't be able to hit up the hot springs for a while."

"For sure," said Nozue as he glanced over at Takasato. The others had done the same. Tsuiki was the only one looking coldly at Takasato. Takasato indifferently bore the stares of this group of people.

"That's right," said Sugisaki. "Sensei, did you hear? Something happened to Sakata-san."

Hirose's eyes went wide as he looked at Sugisaki. "What?"

Gotou hadn't mentioned this.

"Yesterday morning, he fell off a subway platform and was hit by an arriving train."

Hirose knew that his face had drained of color in that moment.

"I think he was skipping class and on his way somewhere when it happened. The train was slowing down so he didn't lose his life, but I heard his injuries are serious and he's still in a coma."

--It wasn't Takasato.

An astonished Hirose glanced back at Takasato and looked at his ashen face and eyes, wide from surprise.

It had nothing to do with Takasato's ego. It was the work of creatures holding a different purpose.

"I'm sorry..."

Takasato looked at Hirose uncertainly.

"It wasn't you. I'm sorry."

"Why did Sakata-kun..." mumbled Takasato.

"You mean it wasn't really an accident?"

Hirose shook his head. "It was retribution. I have no doubt."

"...There was no reason for it." Takasato looked troubled. "They only needed a small reason to carry out their retribution, but there was no reason at all for Sakata-kun."

Why did Sakata suffer retribution? At a glance, he had been a supporter of Takasato's. No matter how Hirose thought about the reason for Sakata to face retribution, he could only come up with one.

Nozue blurted out, "Was it because he was the leak?"

He looked over at Tsuiki.

"Leak?" Takasato looked at Tsuiki.

Hirose asked Tsuiki, "Tsuiki, did you tell Takasato about that?"

"No." Tsuiki stiffened his face and shook his head. "I didn't talk to anyone. I can't publicize anything that has to do with Takasato."

Takasato turned to Hirose.

"It's a possibility that the one who leaked all that stuff about you to the press was Sakata."

Takasato widened his eyes.

"That's probably what actually happened. Or else there's no other reason why Sakata would have been punished. The person who leaked your whereabouts could have been him too. --It wasn't you. You didn't even know about any of this."

Hirose hung his head. "I'm sorry I ever doubted you."

Takasato shook his head slowly. He looked as if he was having trouble holding together the entire sequence of events.

It was then that someone knocked on the door of the prep room.

- - - - -

When they opened the door, they saw about a dozen students standing outside. Most of them were from class 2-6, but a few were from other classes.

"...What's going on?"

The class six student standing in the front spoke up. "We heard that Takasato was here."

"Ah, yeah..." Hirose pointed inside. Takasato tilted his head and looked over.

"Hirose sensei, we heard you got injured. Is it true?"

The clothes he had on this morning could no longer be worn, so he had put a white lab coat directly on his bandaged body. Since the bandage could clearly be seen, Hirose just nodded honestly.

Sounds of scorn suddenly rose up from the students. Takasato and the others in prep room stood up.

"What is this about!?"

One of the students pointed to Takasato and said, "It was Hirose who hid you, wasn't it? Wasn't Sakata one of your supporters? Why did you curse them?"

Another carried a pallid face with tears welling up in his eyes. "You killed your parents, and you're killing your friends. What exactly do you want us to do?"

"You don't actually care if it's friend or foe, do you? When it comes down to it, will you hurt just about anyone? You kill people whenever you feel like it, right?"

Like screams, the insults roared forth.

They had expressed their fealty in an attempt to escape his curse. They had flattered the god of curses in every way they could in order to save themselves. The one who had most embodied this--regardless of his intentions--was Sakata. But Sakata was purged all the same. Hirose had always protected Takasato, but he was purged as well. Even his family, those who were supposed to be his original supporters were purged.

"Wait! This is a misunderstanding!!"

There was a reason for Hirose's attack, and Sakata was not exactly a great person. No one in his family was a friend to him.

"Calm down!" shouted Hirose. His wounds immediately burned, and he couldn't help but crouch down. Watching this unfold, the group became even angrier. Seeing that they were about to rush forward, Hirose suddenly raised his arms and blocked the door.

"Takasato, run!"

The student at the front shoved Hirose. Hirose wasn't able to take the push and fell over. He had no strength left in his current state.

"Stop!" Hashigami shouted. "Do you know the consequences of your actions?"

"Yes!" someone yelled.

"If he indiscriminately kills his enemies and his friends, then why can't we be his enemies? If only there was no Takasato--"

Hashigami picked up a jar that was sitting on the table and threw it. The jar hit the window and its frame. The window shattered with a crash, and the jar was also smashed into pieces. The sharp noise of breaking glass caused all the students who were rushing into the prep room to stop.

"If only there was no Takasato, what?" Hashigami looked around at those students. "Then what, huh?"

The agitation that had filled the room had immediately cooled off.

"Where you really going to kill Takasato? Would you then be able to sleep soundly? Sleeping in a reformatory or juvie?"

"Are you a friend of Takasato's?" asked someone. Hashigami laughed.

"I just hate stupid people."

"...You better remember this."

"Oh, I will. Because I saved all your lives."

The students looked at Takasato, who was standing by the wall, and then turned to Hashigami. Everyone of them appeared conflicted.

Amid all this glowering, Takasato opened his mouth. "I'm dropping out of school."

Everyone turned to look at Takasato. "I want to withdraw. I came here today to give them official notice."

There was a moment of silence, and then someone suddenly began to laugh. Hysterical laughter had infected the people around him, and they continued to laugh up until the teachers who had heard the uproar hurried there.

6

When Totoki dropped them off in front of the apartment, there were even more people there waiting for them. They pushed their way through the surging crowd of microphone-holding people, and expended quite a bit of energy just to get to the stairs. When they ran up the stairs, none of those people followed them, but a few stones flew their way from somewhere. The walnut-sized rocks bounced off the hallway, making crisp clattering noises.

There was a large piece of paper stuck to the door.

The word "warning," written over and over again in small handwriting, filled the entire piece of paper. As Hirose reached out to tear it down, another stone came flying and the sounds of jeering rose up behind them. Hirose gave up on tearing the paper down and escaped inside.

- - - - -

The three o'clock talk shows were all discussing the same thing. The media gradually came to the consensus that Takasato was an enemy. All of the commentators reporting on this story mercilessly criticized him.

How will it be from now on? Hirose looked over at Takasato as he opened up his sketchbook. If the media was labeling him an enemy, then eventually he'll become an enemy of humanity. This was undeniable. He had lost his guardians, and he had lost his student status. Will he still be able to find a place that'll give him work? How long will it be before this commotion settles down? How long before people forget about all of this?

Hirose watched Takasato. His paintbrush slid across the surface of the sketchbook. He was staring intently at the sketchbook much like the first time Hirose saw him paint, but the tranquility and sincerity that had been present before was completely different than the feeling now. He knew there were things heavily disrupting Takasato's mood.

He colored the "Labyrinth of Rocks" he had drawn with green. It was a deep green, as if the crags were thick with moss. Takasato colored the picture quickly and then sank into deep concentration. He looked fixedly at the picture and cocked his head ever so slightly.

"--What's wrong?"

"Something's just not right about it..."

Despite this, this work was definitely very important to Takasato. Hirose smiled gently, and then suddenly felt uneasy. What kind of person was this boy sitting in front of him? The shadow that attacked Hirose had said its duty was to protect Takasato. The retributions didn't come from Takasato's will, nor were they carried out by his subconscious. The grotesque had used grotesque logic to protect Takasato. However, why did they shoulder the responsibility of protecting Takasato? And furthermore, where did they come from?

--Are you an enemy of the king?

He thought of that voice he'd heard. Who was the "king"? Was it Takasato? If so, why was he being called a "king"?

"Takasato," called Hirose to Takasato who then looked up. "If someone called you a king, what comes to mind?"

"...King?" Takasato repeated the word, and then appeared to be deep in thought. "Taiou." [note: the japanese word for king is pronounced "ou," so the conversation makes a little more sense if you want to replace all instances of "king" with "ou."]

Hirose sat up, and his wound sent out a shock of pain. "Taiou? What is that?"

Takasato shook his head, baffled.

"I'm...not really sure."

"How do you write it?"

"The 'tai' in antai, peace..." [note: just to clarify, the kanji for "tai" used in Taiou is the same as the "tai" in the word "antai," which means "peace."]

--Taiou, King Tai. Hirose murmured to himself. "Is Taiou a name? Or a title?"

Takasato knit his brow in bewilderment and looked deep into his drawing. He looked like he was searching hard for something as his eyes roamed across the surface of his picture.

"Does this have to do with your lost memories?"

"...I think so."

"Since you're remembering it, this word must have a profound meaning for you. Can you think of other stuff? Anything would be good."

Takasato shook his head. "I don't know."

"Let's think about it like an associative game." Hirose grabbed a piece of paper next to his hand. "It's just like when we were talking about Houzan, Mt. Hou. You seem to remember words better than visual images. Try saying all the words that come to mind."

"But--"

"Well, you don't have to think about king if you don't want to. --Right, spiriting away. If someone brought up spiriting away, what do you think of?"

"Memory."

Hirose wrote it down quickly. "And then?"

"Vagueness. Uneasiness. Incident. Heresy. Foreign. Alien. Loss. ...Arm. Disturbance--"

"Kirin."

"Kirin painting. Good omen, kakutan, horn, Confucius, transformation, selection, king, covenant."

When Confucius came upon the carcass of a kirin in a field, he wept and said, "My path is at an end." Hirose understood it up to this point, but the associations after it were cryptic for him.

"...What are those?"

Takasato shook his head. "I don't know, I just said what came to mind..."

"Hm." Hirose nodded and continued. "Haku Sanshi."

"Water, woman, protection, ayakashi." [note: the ayakashi is a sea ghost that causes shipwrecks.]

Hirose crinkled his brow. "Do you mean the female ghost related to the water?"

After asking this, Hirose opened his eyes wide.

--What did Takasato call her?

Hirose searched his memory. It was the name of a nymph, the name of a sea nymph. That right, it was a siren. They caught a siren and then gave it a name. Gosh, what was it...?

Takasato surprised himself by murmuring, "Murgen."

Was that woman called Haku Sanshi?

"Sensei, this--"

Hirose stopped him. "Don't worry, keep going. --Mt. Hou."

Takasato closed his eyes. "Crags, Roraima, Guyana, birthplace... Tree, Houro...kyuu."

Hirose handed the memo paper over to Takasato, and he wrote on it the characters for "Hourokyuu," Houro Palace.

"--King."

Takasato immediately replied, "King Tai."

He then shut his eyes.

"Covenant, kirin, twelve kings."

"Twelve kings?"

For some reason, Takasato looked like he was about to cry. "In the twelve kingdoms, twelve kings."

Saying this, he looked at Hirose.

"King Tai is a title. The king of Taikyokukoku is King Tai."

After he spoke, he wrote down the characters for "Taikyokukoku," the Far Kingdom of Tai. Hirose stared at the words.

"And then?"

Takasato covered his face. "I don't know. I can't think of anything else..."

Hirose looked over memo paper. Takasato's lost memories. The fragments of a year. His spiriting away seven years ago, and then-- Hirose couldn't help but smile wryly inside as he thought about this. What a foolish imagination I have. But if the monsters were real, then it doesn't matter how foolish it is.

Takasato underwent a spiriting away seven years ago, and then spent a year in another world where there were twelve kingdoms and twelve kings, of which King Tai was one. The king and the kirin were bound together by a "covenant." Houro Palace sat in the expansive green crags of Mt. Hou.

Hirose looked over at Takasato, whose face was down on the surface of the kotatsu.

--You are King Tai.

If Haku Sanshi was indeed that woman, then kirin must be that monster. Didn't the kirin say that it "had a duty"? If that was part of the "covenant," then the person who received protection based in the covenant could only be the king.

However, for some reason Hirose couldn't bring himself to say this aloud.

Hirose had no way of analyzing his own feelings and couldn't help but feel dismay. Takasato wanted to recall what happened, and so he must want to hear about anything that has to do with what happened. But then, why couldn't Hirose say anything?

Hirose was troubled, but he still wasn't able to tell Takasato what he had been thinking.

* * * * *
* * * * * *

He stood in the balmy night. It was past midnight and a large group of people was gathered on the road. Below the nearby wall upon which a blue sheet was draped, people had piled up a number of flower bouquets.

Each and every one of them gazed resentfully at the apartment in front of them. He was especially angry as he glared at the dark windows. His friend had been crushed to death under the temple gate. I'll never forgive you, he thought. The kid who at a glance appears harmless and gentle. The boy who uses strange powers to control those around him with terror.

The boy could not be allowed to continue living without receiving consequences. Justice would not permit this.

He was the representative of justice, and he held a weapon more powerful than a sword. Iniquity must be exposed and denounced. Thus, there was freedom of the press, and that child had employed dirty methods in obstructing that right. He couldn't let something like this happen.

He lit a cigarette. When he put the lighter pack into his pocket, he noticed a photographer outside of the group walking unsteadily into a back alley.

He's tired, he thought. Everyone here's tired.

He stared up at the second floor window as he shook the ash from his cigarette. There was a door facing the road next to the window and affixed to that door could be seen something white. It had been stuck there by a resident of the apartment building. Everyone present knew who had attached the paper to the door, but no one was going to give up this information. He knew that the person who'd thrown the rocks was a father that lived in the house across from the wall he was next to. But he wasn't planning on telling that boy.

He threw the cigarette butt down by his feet and extinguished it with the tip of his shoe. He looked around casually and saw that the original six-plus people gathered here had already reduced its number by half. A lot of people with no patience, he murmured inside. He was planning on keeping vigil all night. Someone was going to come tomorrow morning to switch with him. Before that, he had to keep watch here in order to keep that boy from escaping.

A man who was standing close by entered a nearby door. He saw the look of the guy as he went in. In the dim light, he appeared to have been pulled inside. Probably needed to take a piss, he thought. Some people have no manners.

He squatted down, leaning his back against the wall. His lower back and legs creaked. He sat there and lit a second cigarette. At some point, the continuous sounds of whispered conversation had stopped.

He heard the voice of someone being squeezed to death from somewhere. Just as he turned his head in the direction of the sound, he spotted a magazine reporter entering an alley. He saw the reporter's foot, hidden in the alley. A light breeze brought with it an unpleasant odor. It might have been the smell of the mud at the mouth of a river, with perhaps a little of the scent of blood.

He watched the apartment absent-mindedly and slowly puffed on his cigarette. When the ash reached the cigarette filter, he stubbed it out on the asphalt. At that moment, he felt like heard a distant scream and looked around disconcertedly. It was then that he realized at some point he had become the only person left on the night road.

He stood up and took two or three steps to his left and then to his right. He extended his body to check the road, but there was no sign of anyone. The slumbering houses were lined up like ruins. He wanted to look for the man that had entered the door. He had already been gone a long time. If he fell asleep in someone's yard, they're probably going to get another complaint.

As he was about to move, he heard another noise, this time much closer to him. It was the sound of the sheet rustling. He gazed at it and caught something moving inside the blue sheet hanging on the wall. Just as he focused his look on it, the movement stopped, and things returned to their previous calm.

He stepped closer to the sheet. It was simply a sheet that was being used to cover a broken part of the wall. He flipped up a corner of the heavy sheet and discovered that the bouquets placed near his feet weren't chrysanthemums, but marigolds.

--It was the flower that old ladies offered up at Buddhist altars.

He thought this blithely as he gave a crooked smile. He pulled up the sheet by the corner as he was smiling. The hole in the wall took the form of a pitch black shape.
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Chapter 11

1

Hirose was roused in the morning by the sound of a patrol car. He could hear the piercing sound of a police siren in front of the apartment complex. When Hirose sat up, Takasato likewise awakened and arose as well. The two exchanged glances under knit brows. It was still dim within the room.

Hirose stood up and went to the kitchen see what was going on. He opened the window a sliver and peeked at the scene outside. A police car was stopped in front of the apartment and several figures were moving every which way.

"...What's going on?"

"I don't know."

For an instant, Hirose wanted to go outside to take a look, but when he thought of being encircled by the press, he felt unpleasant and gave up on that idea. People from here and there began to come together, and he could hear the sounds of shouting and commotion. Things aren't that simple, thought Hirose.

When he looked again, a large crowd of people had congregated outside. A number of figures that appeared to be gawkers looked up at the apartment. He could hear bits and pieces of conversation.

"Dead...six people...reporters."

Hearing the voices from outside, Hirose turned pale and hastily closed the window. Takasato appeared uneasy.

"What's happened now?"

Hirose forced a smile and shook his head. "I don't know. I suppose we'll find out in the a little while. It's still early, so let's go back to bed."

After Hirose said this, Takasato laid back down doubtlessly. For a bit he tossed and turned uncomfortably, but after a time, Hirose began to hear the sound of his light breathing. He was probably tired. The pressures he had to face were too heavy.

It was the same for Hirose. Did he have a slight fever? His body felt a little sluggish. The coldness of the floor felt nice under his feet. Hirose sat in the kitchen for a while and enjoyed the cool feeling.

Before an hour had passed, the entire area around the apartment complex had erupted in a clamor, and soon after they heard a knock at the door. Hirose stood up, opened the door just a crack and peeked out. A uniformed police officer was standing outside.

"Please open the door." The police officer spoke assertively. Hirose silently undid the door chain. The middle-aged officer entered and stood in the doorway as he looked around the room.

"What's happened?" asked Hirose. The officer looked at him coldly.

"Reporters were killed, six of them."

Hirose held his breath. Though he had already anticipated this, he couldn't help feeling a shock hearing it for himself from the mouth of a police officer. Through the space of the opened glass door, they could see that Takasato had woken up.

"Did you hear anything suspicious last night?"

"No." Hirose shook his head. The officer turned to Takasato.

"What about you?"

"...No."

"Is that so?" said the police officer as he turned to leave. As he exited the room, he looked back at Hirose.

"If you think of anything, please let us know," said the officer as he gave Hirose a menacing leer. "--I wouldn't mind a surrender."

Before Hirose could say anything, the police officer had closed the door. With his hands trembling, Hirose locked the door.

- - - - -

Before half an hour had passed, a tumult rose up outside. The two sat inside next to each other behind the closed glass door as the commotion outside grew gradually louder. After another hour, someone knocked on the door, or perhaps it might be better to describe it as someone pounding furiously at the door.

"Come out! Come out and explain yourself!!"

Hearing the person's angry shouting, Takasato stiffened up. Immediately afterwards, the sound of jeering erupted from the people in front of the apartment.

They found out the details from the morning news.

Six reporters who had been keeping watch in front of the apartment were killed. They all appeared to have been attacked by a dog or some such animal. Something similar had reportedly happened at Takasato's house, and the police and health officials had started working together in an effort to round up stray dogs.

He could still see the horribly disfigured corpses vividly in his head. Were it not for Takasato's intervention, the same thing would probably have happened to Hirose. Just imagining it gave Hirose chills running through his body.

The newscasters spoke with a more hostile tone than yesterday. Hirose was afraid they might mention that they caught some sort of sorceress or something, so he immediately turned the television off.

The relentless knocking on the door continued. Someone was beating forcefully on the door and striking at the window above the sink. Others shouted out condemnations, and sometimes someone would call out, "Come out!"

Before noon, people started to throw rocks, which clattered whenever they hit the door and the windows. After that, a fist-sized stone had broken the window and flown inside. The floor of the kitchen became littered with rocks, and some among them had strips of paper attached to them, one of which read "Disappear!" After he looked at this piece of paper, Hirose no longer felt like seeing any of the others.

After a while, the rocks no longer came from the base of the building, but were being chucked in from the passageway. A few of the stones broke the glass door and flew in front of their knees. Hirose couldn't take it anymore and picked up the phone. There was no sound coming out of the receiver he held by his ear. Hirose stared at the telephone. The telephone line had probably been cut.

Very soon, rocks were being hurled from the side of the weir as well, and they could hear indistinct jeering coming from that direction as well. After the glass window facing the balcony was shattered, the stones flew into the room one after another. Hirose took Takasato with him to hide in the bathroom. The two huddled there not saying a word as they heard the continuous sounds of destruction.

- - - - -

The police rushed there at around 12:30, but Hirose felt like it was an exceptionally long period of time. "It's okay to come out," they heard someone outside say. Hirose opened the door and saw a familiar man standing beyond the door. He remembered that this was the detective who had come to receive them when they went to pick up the remains.

They were brought to the police station and questioned as the victims of mob violence. When they finished filling out some paperwork, Gotou arrived, having hurried there with Totoki.

"Hirose, are you all right?" asked Gotou loudly as soon as he entered the small room in which they were sitting. Hirose put his finger across his lips and gestured to a chair by the window with his eyes. Takasato had fallen asleep leaning on the window frame.

"How's your physical condition?" asked Totoki quietly. "You're probably tired. It must be tough going through all of that."

The two others nodded. Gotou walked to the window and looked down at Takasato.

"Have they decided on a guardian yet?"

"I don't know. It isn't really the time to figure that out, since those relatives have all gone home. I have a feeling that it's going to be inconclusive."

Peering down at Takasato, Gotou murmured, "What'll happen to this child from here on out?"

Hirose didn't respond.

When Takasato was watching the news, he'd said softly, "I thought I told you guys to stop it." Those things didn't seem to consider Takasato's intentions. They just whole-heartedly carried out their own duties.

"At the very least, he should be put under the care of his relatives, move far away, and perhaps change his name, but...will that really change his current situation?"

As long as those things were with him, it didn't matter where Takasato ran off to. He believed that they would follow him closely and try to fulfill their mission. --If this was true, then Takasato's future had no hope to speak of.

Hirose thought back to his initial belief that they must be separated from Takasato. He was confident of this now more than ever, but he didn't know how it could be done.

Gotou sighed. He then looked back towards Hirose and motioned to Totoki with his eyes. "Totoki-san said he was willing to let you guys stay at his place, so go hide over there for the time being."

Hirose looked up at Totoki. "...Oh, we couldn't."

Totoki showed a relaxed smile. "It's okay. Please stay as long as you need to. I'm guessing you guys need some of your things. Just let me know and I can go get it for you."

"But, Totoki sensei..."

He smiled and winked as if to say, "Don't be silly."

Hirose bowed his head deeply toward Totoki. That he clearly understood the entire situation and yet was willing to extend a helping hand made Hirose feel extremely grateful.

2

Totoki's place was a studio apartment situated near the coast in the new town area.

After Totoki took them to his place, he showed them around and told them the general layout of the neighborhood. Before he left, he even changed Hirose's bandages.

"I'm really sorry about this." Hirose and Takasato both said at the same time. Totoki laughed loudly.

"I'll set the phone to go to the answering machine, so don't worry about it."

"Thank you."

"If you need clothes or anything else, just look over there. Please make yourselves at home."

"But..."

"It's all right, there's nothing suspicious in there," said Totoki as he puffed out his chest. He smiled at Hirose and Takasato, whose heads were both hung lowly, and then left the apartment.

- - - - -

It was a bright and comfortable apartment. It was positioned on the fourth floor of an eight-story building, and from the spacious veranda one could see the sea nearby. Hirose opened the window widely. They'd been stuck behind closed windows and curtains for so long that this felt great. The breeze that blew from the twilight sea was extremely refreshing. Summer was about to end.

"Isn't it nice, Takasato?" said Hirose.

Takasato smiled faintly and nodded. He stood on the veranda and looked down at the sea. He hadn't said much since this morning. Hirose's heart ached as he thought about how Takasato must have felt about the additional deaths. Hirose forced himself to sound more cheerful.

"Here, we'll be able to eat a proper meal. After it gets darker, let's go get something to eat and take a walk.

As he said this, Hirose turned the television on just as the six o'clock news was airing. A magazine reporter who was sent to the hospital after being injured in the temple gate collapse had died.

Right as he flipped open the newspaper, he saw the news of Sakata's death.

"Sakata-kun...died?"

Hirose looked up and saw Takasato also reading the news.

"It looks like it."

For some reason Hirose wanted to count the number of deaths that had accumulated since he start his teacher training, but he immediately thought it absurd and forgot about it. How many people were killed by them? Including all those in the past, he believed that it was a very large number.

Hirose suddenly thought of something and inquired Takasato.

"Takasato, you said that you could feel them around you since you were little, right? Did that happen before the spiriting away?"

Takasato thought it over. "...I don't remember really well, but I think it was only after."

"Did the injuries start afterwards too?"

"I think so."

"I wonder why." Hirose folded up the newspaper. "Could they have come back from that place with you? Murgen--is that Haku Sanshi? That's probably the arm you saw that first time. They attached themselves to you when you were over there."

Takasato looked troubled as he hung his head.

What happened in that lost year? Why had Takasato been taken into another world and what was his connection to those companions of his? Also, why did Takasato return? Why did they follow Takasato back? --His questions were endless, but unless Takasato's memory was restored, he would never be able to get any answers.

"What am I?" Takasato said dejectedly.

Hirose couldn't help but look down. He still couldn't say it, couldn't tell Takasato that he was King Tai.

"Why was I the one beckoned away?" Takasato murmured as if echoing Hirose's thoughts. "What's the meaning of my existence? Why did I come back? Was it of my own will? Or was it someone else's...?"

Takasato then looked at Hirose.

"To which side do I belong?"

For some reason, Hirose became very flustered.

"Of course you belong to this side," said Hirose in a hurry. Hearing this, Takasato looked down.

"...Really?"

"It doesn't need to be said. You aren't unusual and it wasn't your fault. You accidentally entered that world--or they dragged you there and because of that, you were burdened with disaster. That's all," said Hirose firmly, but Takasato didn't look convinced.

"If I could only remember more..." he mumbled. "If I could at least remember how to go back."

Hirose didn't reply to him.

- - - - -

They waited until it was nighttime before they went out to eat. On the way back, they took a walk to the sea. Walking to the weir took them less than ten minutes. This area was unlike that around Hirose's place, which was closer to the mouth of the river. The water here didn't look as dirty. There was an area below the weir big enough to be called a beach. The sliver of a moon resembling a trimmed fingernail reflected on the surface of the silver, almost black, water.

"The realm that you went to, where is it actually?" asked Hirose as they walked on the beach. Takasato tilted his head in doubt. "Those things are probably creatures from that place, and when you returned, they came back with you for some reason. They exist to protect you. They'd said it themselves, so that must be true, don't you think?"

Takasato didn't answer.

"No doubt devotion to one's duty is good, but theirs is rather excessive. Especially lately..." Hirose smiled bitterly. Takasato suddenly stopped walking. "What's the matter?"

Takasato knit his brow as he thought hard about something.

"...Don't you think it's escalated?"

"Eh?"

"Iwaki-kun, the people in my class, the reporters... I feel like recently their methods are becoming more and more severe..."

Hirose widened his eyes. "That's true..."

Or one could say that they accomplished things in any way possible. Even though a lot of terrible things had happened around Takasato, at a glance they all appeared to be simple accidents. Was it Gotanda that said these were all warnings? But recently, their actions have already gone beyond the scope of warnings. It looked more like bloodlust.

Hirose said as much and Takasato nodded.

"How long will this go on for?" Takasato murmured. "How many more victims will there be?"

"Well..."

"I..." Takasato was about to say something but stopped himself. Hirose pressed him to go on, but he shook his head. "It's nothing."

Hirose was suspicious as he looked towards the sea. The waves rocked back and forth like a cradle.

Why couldn't he say it? he thought.

He didn't know why he couldn't ask Takasato--Are you King Tai? He knew simply that it made him uneasy, but he didn't know why he felt that way.

Hirose was looking out over the sea when he suddenly focused on something. A very small and very faint light appeared at quite a distance in the open sea. Whatever was emitting the dim light looked as if it had sunk into the water.

"Takasato," Hirose beckoned. "What is that?"

Takasato looked over to the sea as well and stared in the direction that Hirose was pointing.

"It's so far... It's not very big, is it?"

"Do you think it's...seasparkle?"

It slowly enlarged as they stared at it. When it had become the size of a baseball, Hirose finally noticed it.

"It's getting closer."

It wasn't that it was getting bigger, but that the light was growing nearer. It became larger and larger before their eyes. It was moving at an unusual speed, but not as fast as a high-speed ship.

Closer up, the light was weak yet big. When it was even closer, they could finally see that it was a cluster of things that gave off a phosphorescent glow much like the soft light of a firefly. The faint white light proceeded toward the shore.

"Takasato, run!" said Hirose directly. It would be best not to stay here. Those things were coming straight to the beach.

"This is bad, they're too fast..."

Hirose grabbed Takasato's arm. "Takasato!"

Takasato stopped Hirose, who was holding onto his arm. "It'll be all right, because they're here. Please don't leave my side."

As Takasato said this, those things drew nearer, with a diameter surpassing five meters, white and crowded tightly together. They approached like lights gliding across the surface of the water. When they reached the shore, they washed up onto the beach with the waves.

It was a swarm of white-colored humans. The waves dropped the glowing people onto the shore. After washing up onto the shore, those things that resembled drowned bodies remained on the sand. The next wave came and piled bodies upon bodies.

"Are they corpses?" asked Hirose. Takasato shook his head.

"They're not bodies..."

They were definitely not corpses. Those things left on the shore started writhing convulsively. They wriggled their four limbs and scraped the sand. They raised their hairless heads like turtles and looked up at Hirose and Takasato.

Hirose took Takasato's arm and backed up.

The waves again and again washed those things up onto the shore, and again and again they piled on top of each other and lifted their heads up. The waxy bodies emitting a white glow crawled clumsily forward as if they were mere imitations. They resembled decomposing drowned bodies as a thick, miasma-like stench of saltwater rose up off of them.

Hirose and Takasato looked at them intently as they kept moving away until they backed into something solid. They were up against the bottom of the weir.

Hirose breathed heavily as he looked to the left and right. In the surface of the dark blue weir he found an even darker colored crack by his right hand, but it was hopelessly out of reach.

The cluster crawled forward and the ones in the front slowly surrounded Hirose and Takasato.

"...Sanshi," said Takasato softly. "Sanshi."

The swarm stopped advancing. In the mere arm's length that separated Hirose and Takasato from the others, there formed a small whorl. It sunk into the shape of a mortar and in it they saw a white finger. A pale arm then appeared at once as if reaching for the sky.

--That woman.

Before Hirose could even gawk at it, the sand around them began to churn. It roiled and spewed upwards, and two shadows leapt out. The pair, one white and the other red, landed in between Hirose and--rather, Takasato and the swarm.

The white one had the head and arms of a woman and the lower body of a white beast. The red one resembled an enormous dog. Its body wasn't covered with fur, but instead scales wrapped in a viscous fluid.

Hirose looked on in amazement at the two creatures. Their strange shapes were crouched down like threatening beasts. They were the ones who had shed so much blood to protect Takasato.

The swarm of drowned corpses vigorously shook their heads together and opened their rotting mouths. They made the motions of throwing something up, and facing the night sky they spoke up with mashed voices.

--Taiho.

--Ren Taiho.

They called for someone with their groaning voices. They continuously sent their noisy and expansive voices up into the pitch black sky.

--Heer. [note: this "here" was written in katakana, so i spelled it differently intentionally.]

--Here.

--Here!

Suddenly, the pair of red and white disappeared. At the same time, the cluster of bodies lowered their heads and started scratching at the sand. Hirose and Takasato gaped as they all dodged into the sand and one by one vanished beneath the ground. When the sound of scraping against sand stopped, all that remained were funnel shaped holes everywhere.

After a period of time passed, they could hear the sound of the waves again.

"What...was that?" exhaled Hirose finally.

All that was left on the beach were traces of those things pulling out of view. They looked around timidly, but they didn't see anything. The beach returned to quiet and the white sand appeared frozen. The strong scent of seawater instilled in the sand rush up to their noses.

The smell of seawater.

Those things had come from the sea, so that they smelled like it was unavoidable, but it had nevertheless disturbed Hirose. Wasn't there a rumor before about the halls of the school tracked with mud? Before he realized it, Hirose had already tied the smell of seawater closely with a feeling of discomfort.

Hirose fell to his knees, and dug a little in the sand. When the sand was overturned, the smell became even stronger.

Things that came from the sea. Hirose looked up at Takasato next to him, and saw him simply standing in bewilderment. Might these strange sights have nothing to do with Takasato?

"Takasato."

It wasn't until Hirose called his name that he stirred and looked back at Hirose.

"What was that?"

Takasato heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. "I don't know."

Hirose looked around once more. Countless holes had opened up in the desolate expanse of sand. All he sensed was change. Hirose felt as if something was swaying forcefully. Uneasiness flowed through his veins. That feeling matched the roar of the sea and the beating of his heart, and continued to shake the dimly-lit night.

3

Hirose woke up just before noon the next day. He propped himself up on the futon that was laid out on the floor and didn't see Takasato's when he looked to the bed next to him.

He surveyed the room, but still didn't spot Takasato. He turned the light on in the bathroom, and the ventilation fan started to spin but it didn't make any noise. Hirose got up and approached the veranda. He pulled the curtain aside and saw Takasato standing outside. He was leaning against the banister looking down.

"Takasato?" called Hirose.

Takasato jumped and lifted his head. It wasn't until Hirose called him again that he looked back calmly.

"What's wrong?" asked Hirose. Takasato shook his head and smiled faintly.

"Good morning."

"Yeah." Hirose nodded as he went onto the veranda. Like Takasato, he looked down off of it. "Anything there?"

"No... I was just thinking that this must be higher than the roof of the school..." said Takasato as he smiled. He then went back inside the room. Hirose discontentedly followed him in.

Hirose picked up the remote control after returning to the room and was about to turn the TV on when Takasato said, "I think there's a fire.

Hirose looked back at him.

"...What?"

Takasato sat with his head hung. "Sensei's apartment, last night..."

Hirose hastily turned the television on. There was still a little time before the noon news report.

"When did it happen?"

"In the middle of the night...maybe around three?"

Despite this, it was probably in the morning paper. How many people? Hirose swallowed the words he was almost about to say. He thought it cruel to ask Takasato these sorts of questions.

They prepared only toast and coffee for lunch. Before they started eating, the news came on the television.

A fire had broken out just before three at the apartment that Hirose and Takasato had lived in until yesterday, and burned it to the ground. The origin of the fire was a gas explosion in a room on the first floor. Three people died as a result.

Hirose became dizzy as he watched the news.

--What a thorough retribution.

Had it been revenge for the rocks thrown or the piece of paper on the door? Of course, he could have predicted as much, but that didn't make him feel any less miserable.

For every person that dies, a path closes for Takasato. The bigger the disturbance, the less Takasato will able to find a place to live.

Hirose was sick to his stomach. What was the likelihood that Takasato would be able to stay? How possible was it for him to live at least peacefully and securely in this world?

"I'm sorry for all the trouble..."

"It's not your fault."

How many times had they had this exact same exchange?

Hirose looked around the room. You guys, the ones who said you were protecting him, the two of you, one white and one red, don't you understand that you're slowly killing Takasato?

- - - - -

Takasato didn't seem to want to talk at all that day. He answered when he was talked to, but it couldn't be considered conversation. He looked like he was trying his hardest to smile, but his efforts weren't successful at all. Gotou came in the afternoon. Hirose left all the post-fire procedures up to him.

That evening there was another fire. The one who called to inform them of it was the detective from before.

Half of Takasato's house had burned down. Some grade school students from the area had set the fire. A neighbor saw three kids running out of the house. They were immediately caught and confessed their motive for starting the fire. --They figured that as long as the house was still there, there would be a day when Takasato would come back.

They were afraid of Takasato returning to his house. After they watched the television news report about Hirose's apartment burning down, they got the idea that if Takasato's house had burned down as well, he wouldn't come back.

Takasato had no reaction when he heard this. They left the post-fire procedures for Takasato's house up to Gotou as well.

- - - - -

Hirose woke up in the middle of that night. Something had awakened him. He noticed that Takasato was staring fixedly at his face. Takasato looked so sad. Hirose wanted to talk to him, but he was so sleepy he wasn't able to say anything. Perhaps Takasato realized that Hirose had opened his eyes, as he lowered his head deeply facing Hirose. I'll ask him what's up when I wake up tomorrow, thought Hirose as he closed his eyes.

--Perhaps I'm just dreaming.

- - - - -

They were just about to turn off the television after watching the daytime and midday news programs when the news captions appeared with the report.

Hirose stood up, and Takasato yelled out. The subject of the breaking news was that the school had suddenly collapsed.

"Please go and see." Takasato looked up at Hirose. "Since I can't."

Hirose nodded and dashed out of the room. Before he reached the elevator, he felt as if he was treading on clouds.

It was Monday, daytime. There were going to be a lot of students at the school. He ran, hoping that they--the members of the prep room and the teachers--were going to be okay. Before the elevator door closed, he prayed for this, and when the elevator descended, he suddenly recalled the dream he'd had the night before.

He'd forgotten about it up until now, and he wasn't sure why he had thought of it. Thinking back, he wasn't certain if it was a dream at all. He pondered this, and when the elevator reached the first floor, Hirose sprinted out of the apartment complex and looked back toward it for some reason. It was an eight-story building, and the eighth floor verandas were lined up facing the roof.

Hirose suddenly thought about when he saw Takasato on the veranda yesterday morning.

--What was he thinking about at a time like this?

Hirose started going at a jogging pace as he tried to shake the memory, but he couldn't.

Takasato had been standing on the veranda looking down. Hirose abruptly felt the same dissatisfaction he had felt at the time.

Takasato's posture as he looked down, the lines of his extended elbows and of his tensed shoulders, did all of it suggest something?

--I was just thinking that this must be higher than the roof of the school.

Takasato couldn't have been to the roof of the school. He was probably just imagining it when he said that. He must have thought of those unfortunate students as he stood high up.

--Or else.

Hirose clicked his tongue.

Something made him uneasy, extremely uneasy. An unpleasant feeling was eating away at him.

He turned around and ran back toward the apartment. As soon as he decided to do this, the uneasiness took over his entire mind. Hirose forgot about his injuries and ran as fast as he could.

- - - - -

He didn't see Takasato in the room. Hirose ran to the window. Seeing that the window leading to the veranda had been locked from this side, he couldn't help but sigh in relief.

"Takasato?"

He should be here.

Hirose suddenly thought of the roof, but then he remembered Totoki saying that the roof of this apartment complex was inaccessible.

If that was the case, then where had Takasato gone?

He then thought of the emergency stairs. The emergency exit was locked from inside, but there was nothing stopping someone from going outside. Hirose turned around.

He ran straight through the fourth floor hallway and gently pushed the door for the emergency exit open. A strong gust of wind suddenly rolled through. Takasato wasn't on the landing. Hirose opened the door as quietly as he could and leaned on the handrail as he looked up. As soon as he did, his body froze up.

There was someone on the highest landing.

Hirose almost couldn't help but call out, but hurriedly suppressed it. He felt an intense queasiness as if something strange had passed through his throat. He let go of the handrail and ran upwards. The metal staircase clanged every time he took a step.

Hirose took off his shoes. He went barefoot to lower the noise of his footsteps, and then ran up the stairs as quickly as he could.

- - - - -

It was quite a feat for Hirose to run up four stories without catching his breath. Hirose pleaded in his head as went up the last flight of stairs. He then saw Takasato holding onto the handrail of the landing while looking down.

The handrail was low. If Hirose made a sound, it would be enough for Takasato just to tilt his center of gravity. Hirose held his breath and muffled his footsteps, praying that Takasato wouldn't feel his presence. He bent down low and when he climbed halfway up the staircase, Takasato stepped over the railing.

Hirose contained the beating of his heart, not remembering how he had gotten up the rest of the staircase. When he screamed loud enough to shake the landing and came to his senses, Takasato's body had fallen on the inside of the railing.

"You...!" Hirose didn't know what he wanted to say. His right hand was clutching Takasato's arm. It came back to him that it was he who had pulled Takasato back. "Why did you...?"

He couldn't move his right hand. With his left hand, he slapped the face that had fallen onto the landing and was looking back at him with widened eyes. He himself felt that this reaction had been like a child losing his temper.

He angrily struck the completely unresisting Takasato, and then clung to him tightly. Hirose comprehended the feelings behind his choosing to climb up here, so there was no way he could let Takasato jump.

"Please understand," said Takasato quietly.

Hirose lifted his head. He was shaking so much his teeth were chattering.

"This was my only choice."

"Nonsense."

Hirose raised up the body that was pinned under his own. He grabbed Takasato's arm with a hand that was still stiff and immovable and pulled him up.

"Sensei."

It had reached this point and Takasato's calm voice carried sorrow. This voice was telling Hirose that he had thought this through before deciding on it.

Hirose grabbed onto the emergency door, but it didn't budge. Then he remembered that the door couldn't be opened from outside, and so he took that weakly resisting arm and went up the stairs.

"Sensei."

"If you jump, I'll jump too."

These were the words that came out of his mouth on impulse. So crude. He didn't think there were any words cruder than that. In an instant, the arm in his grasp tightened up, and then Takasato obediently followed Hirose down the staircase.

Hirose's legs were trembling. After every step down, he felt as if his knees were going to crumble. When they made it after some difficulty to the landing one flight down, Takasato called to him again.

"Sensei..."

Hirose sensed a change in his tone and looked back apprehensively. He saw simply Takasato looking up at the landing they had been at.

A woman was standing there.

It was a young woman, about twenty years old, or was she a little bit younger than that? For a moment, he thought a resident of the eighth floor had come out, but he didn't remember hearing the emergency door opening. The door was made out of a heavy metal. Leaving aside the door opening, Hirose knew that there was no way the door could close without making a sound.

The woman opened her mouth.

"You must not die."

Hirose turned to look at the woman.

"Who are you?"

The woman didn't answer his question.

"If you die, he will also die."

Before Hirose could ask her who she was again, Takasato spoke up.

"Who are you?"

She didn't say anything but appeared sad.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Takasato. "Anything is fine. Please tell me anything you know. What am I? What's going on? What are those things that are following me around?"

She looked hurt.

"If you can't remember, then it's best if you didn't know."

After she said this, she put her hand to the emergency door. The door was opened by her effortlessly.

"Here." She gestured inside. Hirose was bewildered, but he grabbed Takasato's arm and climbed up the stairs once more. The woman held the door open and waited. When they walked in, she stood aside to let them pass. When they went by her, they could detect the faint smell of seawater.

Hirose walked through the doorway and threw Takasato inside. Unconcerned for a staggering Takasato, Hirose closed the door. The surprised woman's face was before their eyes.

"Who are you?" Inside, the sound beat against the door behind them. "Who the heck are you?"

She looked down, and then looked back up.

"I am Renrin. I cannot say more than that."

"Is that your name?"

The woman nodded.

"What on earth's been going on?"

She shook her head, probably meaning that she couldn't say.

"Will you please tell me if there's a way to save him?" asked Hirose. She answered by casting her eyes downward. Hirose closed his eyes and sighed.

She murmured in a whisper. "...I did not know things would come to this. They understand only justice. Please, forgive them."

Hirose couldn't reply. He wasn't able to understand clearly the meaning of her words. "Them?"

"Haku Sanshi, Gouran."

He knew that she was referring to those creatures. "What are they?"

She shook her head and didn't answer Hirose's question.

"Please run away."

Hirose tilted his head in doubt. She looked at him seriously.

"King En will come forth. Taiki has lost his horn, and nothing can be done about that. A greater calamity will occur. Please leave him behind and run away."

Hirose suddenly reached out his arm. The woman drifted away from it like a cloth fluttering in the wind.

"What do you mean by that?"

The woman shook her head.

"What the hell do you mean by that!?"

She shook her head once again, and then turned around. As if she hid behind something that couldn't be seen, her figure disappeared without a trace.

4

Hirose wavered for a bit, but ultimately decided not to go to the school. Even if he rushed over there now, he wouldn't be able to help much. It wasn't as if he could help every single person. Thus, he couldn't leave Takasato's side.

"Please understand," repeated Takasato. "The ones who started the fire at my house were kids."

"Quiet." Hirose grabbed onto Takasato's arm and didn't let go.

"They were still in grade school."

Hirose ignored him. This was his ego. He understood that. "Didn't she say that you mustn't die?"

"Who was she?"

Hearing Takasato asking him this, it suddenly came up in Hirose's mind.

How did that woman know Takasato? How did she know Haku Sanshi? Hirose remembered hearing Sugisaki mention the name Haku Sanshi.

Was Renrin the woman who appeared in those ghost stories?

Then there was an inconsistency. Why was the woman looking for a kirin? Why was she looking for Haku Sanshi? How did Takasato know that she was looking for someone?

--Naturally, there must be a link between Takasato and the woman.

"Renrin, she said."

Takasato looked at Hirose. "Ren...rin?"

"She also said that Haku Sanshi and Gouran only understood justice, and asked that we forgive them. She wanted me to run away too. King En was coming, so run away, she said. Taiki had lost his horn and nothing could be done about it."

Takasato widened his eyes, and then looked down as if he was thinking about something. Success, thought Hirose. At the very least he was successful in distracting Takasato.

It was then that the telephone rang. It went immediately to the answering machine. After the message that Totoki had prerecorded, Hirose heard a voice he'd urgently wanted to hear. He picked up the telephone.

"Gotou-san!?"

Takasato lifted his head and looked at Hirose.

Gotou's usual voice came through the telephone receiver.

"Did you watch the news?" began Gotou.

"I did, but I couldn't have been any help there."

"Quite right."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm one of the good guys who almost died! I disregarded the deputy headmaster's directive and snuck out to eat, so I survived."

Hirose sighed in relief and was at a loss for words.

"The school's in terrible shape. The courtyard sunk down and buildings collapsed, but it's not clear right now the extent of the damage. Half of the main building remains intact. Totoki-san is unharmed."

Hirose nodded. He could hear the sound of sirens and people shouting from the other side of the telephone.

"I don't know anything else. Anyways, the phone lines are busy, so I'll hang up for now. I'll come by again in the evening, or I'll give you a call."

Saying this, Gotou hung up the telephone.

"Is Gotou sensei okay?" Takasato looked into Hirose's face.

"Yeah, Totoki-san's fine too."

After Hirose said this, he turned on the television. A bird's eye view of the school appeared on the screen.

The courtyard had caved in severely, and the buildings built around it had collapsed as if they had fallen towards that hole. The destruction was astonishing.

Takasato gasped. Hirose said strongly, "Don't overthink it."

"But..."

"But nothing." Hirose's tone remained firm. "A lot of people died there. At a glance, it looks tragic, but those who are going to die have no choice but to die. The meaning isn't any different from that of one person dying. Someone can't comfort themselves on the death of their own child by saying that so many other students have died too, right?"

Takasato hung his head, not appearing to accept this at all. Hirose himself knew his words were nothing but sophistry.

This was an enormous disaster that occurred because of only one person, a great catastrophe that came about from a small problem akin to taking a tumble. Hirose searched his memory, trying to recall where it had all started. At least Takasato had spent a long time in peace--much more peaceful compared to the current situation--while he had been passively ignored by those around him. How did things get to this point?

Was this it? Was this the "great calamity" that the woman was talking about?

Nevertheless, thought Hirose, this wasn't Takasato's fault. No one had the right to deny him his existence, nor could anyone place the responsibility of these misfortunes on his shoulders alone, let alone require that he atone for it with his death.

"How goes the solution to your mystery?" Hirose looked at Takasato whose eyes were closed. "Don't you want to remember? There were some important clues in what that woman said."

Takasato shook his head. Did he not know, or was it that he no longer cared one way or another?

"I thought you wanted to remember. Didn't you say you thought you had a promise that mustn't be forgotten?"

Takasato didn't answer.

"Renrin, Gouran, King En, Taiki, they're all a bunch of words I don't know. Can you explain them to me?"

Takasato hung his head low and answered Hirose's goading question dejectedly, "I don't know..."

"Think. You should know." Hirose opened up the sketchbook and handed a pencil to Takasato. "She mentioned Haku Sanshi and Gouran. Is Gouran the name of the griffin? Do you think it's the kirin?"

"I'm...not sure."

Hirose knew that Takasato didn't feel like thinking about it, and couldn't help but sigh. If he wanted to put an end to the situation, the surest way would be to consent to Takasato's actions. If Takasato disappeared from this earth, the ever-expanding disasters would probably stop. However, Hirose couldn't consent based on this reasoning.

He had to turn Takasato's attention to something else. No matter what, Hirose had to find a way to save Takasato before he rushed to a solution.

Hirose turned off the television and asked Takasato to lift his head. He finally said what he had been unable to say for so long.

"--I think you're King Tai."

Takasato opened his eyes and looked up at Hirose.

"Wha..."

"Haku Sanshi asked me before, 'Are you an enemy of the king?' If they're protecting you, then you're the king, and isn't King Tai that king?"

Takasato's eyes went wide and for a moment, he didn't say anything.

"Am I right, King Tai?"

"No," he said reflexively. "I'm not King Tai."

"Takasato." That can't be. Hirose carefully explained to Takasato the process by which he came to this conclusion, but Takasato still shook his head.

"No, I'm absolutely sure I'm not."

"Why?"

Takasato shook his head obstinately. "There's no why. I just know it's not right."

"Then who the hell are you?" Without thinking, Hirose raised his voice. "Why else would they protect you? Isn't that the so-called covenant? They're protecting you in return for something."

"That's not it," plead Takasato impatiently. "I'm not King Tai. It's not me. He..."

Takasato cut himself short suddenly.

Hirose clutched his arm and looked into his face. "'He'?"

Takasato was dumbfounded.

"Takasato?"

Takasato was staring into space, and then slowly turned toward Hirose's face.

"He's my master."

"Master?"

"How could I have forgotten...?"

Takasato stood up and walked to the window. Hirose hurriedly grabbed his arm.

"I'm not going to die." Takasato looked at Hirose with eyes lost in thought. "I pledged my loyalty to the king. I swore not to abandon him and not to disobey his royal command."

"...Do you remember it now?"

Takasato shook his head, and a slightly rueful smile floated to his face. "That's all I remember... But that much is enough."

His expression was resolute as he stood by the window. He put his fingers on the glass and gazed at the sea.

"But I swore never to leave his side."

It was a promise exchanged in that lost year. Was this the promise that he should never have forgotten?

"I have to return to the king's side." Takasato's sense of urgency made Hirose look up at him. "I have to find a way to go back."

"What kind of promise was that?" Hirose didn't know why, but he felt as if he'd been backed into a corner with nowhere to go. "Didn't you break the promise by coming back here and leaving the side of King Tai?"

Hirose went on and on. The more he said, the worse he felt.

"Maybe he let you go, or maybe you ran away from him. --You must have run away, or else Sanshi and them all wouldn't be here. They've chased you here, haven't they? It's the same with that Renrin woman. You're being pursued by the world that you escaped."

Takasato shook his head in surprise. "That can't be."

"Why?"

"I couldn't have left the king voluntarily."

"How can you be so sure?" Hirose was pointing a finger at Takasato, though he didn't understand why he was feeling so strongly about this to be acting this way. "They've chased you here, and that's why so many strange things happen around you. They're trying to destroy your footing here, so you can't stay here any longer."

Takasato tilted his head uncomfortably and peered at Hirose.

"Why are you saying that? Sanshi and the others said they were protecting me, didn't they?"

Hirose didn't speak. It was true. Sanshi and Gouran were only protecting Takasato with a devotion nearing insanity. It wasn't a loyalty to Takasato, but rather a loyalty to the king. The king had tasked them to protect Takasato.

"Why did Sanshi ask me if I was an enemy of the king?"

Takasato cocked his head. "...I don't know."

If King Tai and Takasato had a master-servant relationship, then naturally their interests were concordant. Did they suppose that Takasato's enemies were also then enemies of the king?

"...Was Iwaki an enemy of King Tai?"

If King Tai was a king from over there, then the Iwaki of here couldn't have been his enemy. Not Iwaki nor any of the rest of the students were enemies of King Tai.

--Ah, then...

Hirose heaved a deep sigh. So that's why Renrin said that "they understood only justice." They had no idea that none of the people here could be considered enemies of the king. They knew only to consider the enemies of Takasato the king's enemies as well, and to get rid of them.

"How absurd..."

It was a misunderstanding. Everything from the beginning was just a big misunderstanding.

"How absolutely absurd."

Takasato looked at Hirose silently.

5

Gotou came after night fell. Suspended over the sea was the scar-like sliver of the moon. The wind blew strong, and the clouds were beginning to drift as if dashing.

"Gotou-san, what's the situation at the school?"

Gotou grimaced. "All the people in the courtyard were wiped out."

Takasato closed his eyes as if he himself had been injured.

"The classroom building and the special classroom building were almost completely destroyed. The people in the student activities building and the people in the gym for the guidance counseling orientation are all okay."

"What about Hashigami?"

"He's fine."

"Nozue and Sugisaki, and what about Tsuiki?"

Gotou shook his head. "They haven't been found yet. We don't know if they're alive or dead. Anyways, there's a desperate rescue operation going on right now, but it looks like a typhoon is coming. If we're unlucky, they'll have to temporarily suspend rescue efforts tonight."

Gotou smiled bitterly and mentioned that there hadn't been a typhoon forecast. His eyes were full of fatigue.

They were showing views of the ruined school on the TV news. The reporters were probably shooting the location from a helicopter. Under the bright lights, the rubble drew thick shadows as the scene rotated. The rescue operation was now still continuing in the strong wind. The buildings facing the courtyard had all collapsed. Half of the classroom building had been destroyed, and a third of the special classroom building had crumbled. The places where the class six classrooms and the chemistry preparation room had originally been had toppled as if trampled over. The upper level ceiling had fallen to the floor, and the rubble was protruding from the small cracks. The parts that remained just barely retained their original shape.

There was probably little hope that the students present in the classroom building survived. The condition of the prep room was a little bit better, but the shelves inside had been filled with chemicals.

The picture on the TV changed as they started to run the names of the casualties: first a long list of those with minor injuries, then a short list of those with serious injuries, and then an even shorter list of those who'd died. However, the number of people still exceeded thirty, and the number of missing surpassed the number of the deceased by three times.

Hirose groaned. There was no doubt that the reason for all of this was their harassment of Takasato. Half of the main building was gone. The headmaster's office had become a part of the wreckage, and a number of the faculty, including the headmaster and the deputy headmaster, had been in there at the time for a meeting.

However, a lot of students who'd died in this incident had gotten involved for no reason. A great number of lives were lost because of a foolish blind acceptance. Things had not progressed so far as to require such a severe retribution.

Those things had escalated things as if drunk on blood. Or perhaps something had changed the situation--

Hirose was staring at the screen in a daze when Takasato suddenly turned toward the window and stared out of it. Outside, the lowly-hanging clouds were moving at a dizzying speed.

"Takasato?"

Takasato abruptly stood up when Hirose called his name. He walked to the window and placed his hand on the glass.

"What's the matter?"

Takasato opened the window. In that instant, a warm, humid wind gusted inside and the air in the room became wet. In the moist wind that was almost dripping with water, Hirose heard a sound.

He perked up his ears. There were bits and pieces of some faint sound muddled in the wildly-blowing wind. It sounded so distant. It was a weak call carried upon the wind from far away.

"...What is that?"

Takasato concentrated on hearing the sound. Thick clouds rushed their way from the sea. Hirose kept trying to hear the sound, and he heard a beckoning noise.

Hirose turned to look at Takasato. Something was calling to him. The sound came from the other end of the sea, or perhaps from the bottom of it. The calling continued without stopping.

Gotou became apprehensive. "Do you...hear something?"

Takasato suddenly turned around. He ran from the window and made as if to leave the room. Hirose chased after him and grabbed onto Takasato's arm in the entranceway.

"Don't go outside."

Takasato struggled in Hirose's grasp. "They're calling."

"It's the sound of the wind."

Takasato opened the door and the forceful wind gushed inwards, roaring from the window to the door. The wind carried the faint sound along with it.

"They're calling to me."

Hirose held onto Takasato's arm and reached for the door in an attempt to close it. Takasato stopped him.

"I have to go."

"It's just the wind."

Takasato shook his head.

"It's just the sound of power lines or something."

"It's a voice, and it's calling to me."

"It's waves crashing."

Takasato twisted his arm forcefully and threw off Hirose's grip.

"It isn't a voice, Takasato!"

The blustering wind surged. Takasato slipped out and the door slammed after him.

"...Hirose?"

Hirose had been staring at the door as if caught in some sort of spell when the sound of Gotou's voice stirred him.

"Hey, Hirose. What's going on?"

Hirose dashed toward the entranceway and shouted behind him, "Please stay here!"

"Stay here? Hey, Hirose!"

6

Hirose ran. When he got to the elevator, he saw that it was already on its way down. He hurried to the stairs and flew down them. After he exited the apartment complex, he stood in front of it and looked around.

Because he was injured, this had all taken him a while to accomplish. He didn't see Takasato.

--Where did he go?

The voice that called to Takasato was itself a powerful clue. Hirose ran toward the water. Strong winds continued to blow from the sea. He knew some sort of force was filling the atmosphere.

By the time Hirose reached the weir, running and jogging by turns, the wind had become so strong it almost knocked him over. Rain had begun to mix with it, and its slender droplets felt like needles jabbing at his skin.

Hirose ran along the weir, looking all around him and at the beach. He couldn't open his eyes very wide because of the wind. He put his arm in front of his face as he searched the beach for any sign of a person. When he had run almost as far as his legs were going to take him, he finally saw a silhouette on the beach.

He jumped down from the weir and fought against the sand and wind as he ran. He grabbed onto Takasato as he stood at the shore.

Takasato was taken aback.

"Sensei."

"What's going on?"

Takasato tried to get out of Hirose's grasp.

"Please go back to the room."

"You're the one who should go back. It's too dangerous out here."

The waves crashed, sending sea mist high into the air.

"It's unsafe, so please go back."

"Then you're coming with me."

Hirose tugged at Takasato's arm, slippery from the rain. Takasato shook his head.

"I'm begging you, please go back to the apartment. I have to find out why someone is calling to me."

Hirose silently pulled on Takasato's arm. He wasn't pulling very hard, but the strong wind coming from the sea was helping him out.

"Why did so many people have to die!?"

"There's no good in thinking about it."

"What the hell is going on? Why was there so much blood spilled? I just can't let it go on like this!"

Hirose didn't want to let it to continue either, but he couldn't just leave Takasato here. It wasn't because it was dangerous--Hirose had come to this realization. With Haku Sanshi and the others around, it didn't matter what happened; they would probably protect Takasato. Hirose knew in his heart that there was something else making him uneasy that didn't allow him to release Takasato.

He tightened his grip on Takasato's arm. If he let go, something unbearable would happen. This feeling became stronger and stronger.

As he clung desperately to Takasato's arm, a voice suddenly rang out.

"Please release him and run away."

He turned around to see where the voice was coming from. The wind blew the rain onto his face. The woman was standing there.

"You..."

She spoke to Hirose. "Please run away, King En will be appearing shortly."

"What does that mean?"

She shook her head. Her long hair was flapping about in the wind. "There will be a flood. The king is crossing over, so this is unavoidable. Please leave him and run somewhere high up."

"Stop this nonsense."

"Please." When the woman was finished speaking, she twisted her body. It could only be described as twisting. She suddenly distorted and her entire outline melted. The melting lump slowly lengthened and started to glow. It was as if something was turning itself inside out. There then appeared the form of a beast.

His vision was clouded because of the wind and the rain. The faint glow added to the blurriness of the shape, but he could still tell that it was a beast with a king's yellow coat and that her back emitted a glow of intricate colors. Her legs ended in hooves like a horse, and she had a mane of gold.

The beast seemed to want to say something as she looked at Takasato, and then she gently rose up into the air and soared into sky. She flew across the sea as though she didn't feel the effects of the wind and rain, and disappeared as if she had melted into the curtains of rain.

The two remained silent for a while. It wasn't until the wind became even fiercer and pressed down on them that they came to their senses. What was that just then? As Hirose turned to ask about it, he saw that Takasato was stunned as well.

"Takasato," called Hirose, but he didn't respond. Hirose called to him once again, louder this time, but Takasato remained silent. He was looking in the direction of where that beast had disappeared when his lips moved.

"I remember."

Takasato smiled.

"I...remember," he mumbled, and then closed his eyes tightly. "I'm not a person."

He said this as if he had finally found happiness.

"Takasato...?"

He finally turned to look at Hirose.

"Taiki is my name. Taiki--the kirin of King Tai."

"...What are you saying?"

Takasato smiled warmly and gazed at Hirose. "I'm not a person, I'm a kirin."

"Stop talking nonsense." The emotion that suddenly rose up within Hirose was anger. How could he accept this? Hirose impulsively spoke coarsely. "You are a person."

He didn't know why, but Hirose just felt angry. He was unable to maintain his calm.

Takasato shook his head tranquilly.

"I'm a kirin. King Tai is my master. Haku Sanshi is a nin'you sent by Renrin to join me here, and later she and Gouran were responsible for protecting me."

"Ren...rin."

Takasato nodded. "There are twelve rulers and twelve kirin. Renrin is King Ren's kirin, and King En has Enki."

"That's silly." Hirose couldn't help but yell. "That's stupid! That can't be!"

Takasato was looking back at Hirose.

"A kirin? A beast? You? Don't you have the body of a person? Didn't you have parents? People can't give birth to animals. That's impossible."

"I'm a taika."

"Taika...?" asked a baffled Hirose. Takasato nodded.

"I was never a creature that belonged here. I fell into this world by mistake and grew in the womb of a person... That's a taika."

"It can't be." Hirose's cold attitude made Takasato sad. "If you say you're a kirin, then transform for me."

Takasato shook his head. "I've lost my horn, so I can't. That's also why I can't return on my own."

The word "return" pierced Hirose's heart.

"Return...?"

Takasato nodded. "I have to return. I have to go back and help my king. Because I lost my memory, I've wasted a frightening amount of time."

"You...won't go back, will you?" Hirose felt as if he was being chased by something. He refused to be captured. In order to escape, Hirose could only continue speaking. "You're a person. It doesn't matter what you were before. You're just a person now. You were born in this world and you lived here. Even if you returned there, you'll just end up back here. You...will be back."

Takasato shook his head. "I won't be coming back. This was an accident."

Hirose opened his mouth and wanted to yell at him, but he didn't know what to say. "This can't be."

These words he repeated lacked determination. He knew he was just being insistent.

"I have to return."

"How?"

"They'll come get me."

The thin yet strong raindrops pounded Hirose's body, falling on the clothes that were sticking to his skin. The tall waves struck the beach and fell apart at Hirose's feet.

"...King En?"

Takasato nodded. "Yes. She said that King En would appear and cause a flood. Please go back to the apartment."

Takasato pointed to the shore, but Hirose didn't move at all. He couldn't move.

Takasato's return to the other world was good for Takasato himself as well as this world. This was what Takasato had hoped for, and this world was probably hoping for the same thing. Since this was all so, then shouldn't Hirose see Takasato off with a smile?

Despite thinking this in his head, Hirose hadn't been able to realize it and still didn't move. Regardless of the wind and rain blowing at and hitting him, he stood fixedly in this spot.

"Please."

Hirose was still unable to move. In order to avoid the battering of the wind and rain, he hung his head and realized that at some point the waves had reached his feet. The sea spray from the crashing waves wet his eyes. --It was then that he felt a presence behind him.

He looked back and a person's face was right next to his own. Surprised, he screamed and ran to Takasato's side. It was a bald, white head. --It was the face of one of those corpse-like things that they saw the day before last. Before he realized it, the mob of corpses had already crept up behind him.

The only difference between now and that other night was that the group of them had surged forward from the direction of the weir this time. They walked slowly with collapsed postures. When they reached Hirose and Takasato, they bent over with their heads down and then thrust their arms forward. They crept on all four like turtles into the leaping surf, and returned to the sea. Before long the entire mob had completely disappeared into the waves.

Hirose heaved a deep sigh of relief. He then looked around casually, and in the distance, he saw through the haze of rain, a large beast moving about. Its size was almost as big as a cow, but he couldn't clearly tell what the animal looked like. He looked around reflexively and saw that at some point the beach had become churning with mysterious animals. Their shapes twisted about as if fused with the blustering rain and the darkness, and each and every one of their bodies was frighteningly warped.

Hirose suddenly took hold of Takasato's arm and pulled at it in an attempt to run away, but Takasato stood fast.

"Sensei."

"Run!"

"...There's no need. They're harmless. They're returning as well."

For some reason, these words cut deeply into Hirose's heart. He pulled impulsively at Takasato with his entire body.

"Sensei!" Takasato struggled vigorously in an attempt to stay where he was. "Please, let go of me!"

Hirose tugged at his arm, not uttering a word. Takasato lost his footing and fell over. Hirose pulled him up and started running toward the weir. He tripped up a little suddenly and noticed nearby the smell of seawater, stronger than that from the sea wind.

--The smell of seawater.

Hirose stopped and jumped back cautiously. A trace of red passed in front of his toes. It was a miracle that he was able to dodge the attack.

The head of a red beast burst out of the sand. Hirose made to move backward, but something was forcefully keeping Hirose in place. It was a pale woman's hand reaching out from the sand.

--I can't put a stop to Takasato.

He thought this hopelessly. I can't put Takasato in danger. I can't hurt him. I can't stand in his way. If Takasato wants to go, Hirose could do nothing but send him off silently. Or else he would meet with retribution.

With half her body coming out of the sand, the woman held onto Hirose's legs with both her hands. He couldn't even think about shaking her off, since he wasn't even able to budge at all. The red beast had emerged from the sand entirely. Its claws could easily tear Hirose apart with ease, and its jaws could probably chew through him with less energy than it took to blow dust away.

"Gouran." A firm voice rang out. Before Hirose knew it, Takasato had arranged himself between him and the creatures. "Stop. He's not an enemy."

The red beast shook its head in indecision.

"Sanshi, too. Release him. There's no need for this."

The hands that were wrapped around Hirose's legs didn't let go though. The red beast named Gouran also got into position and displayed his sharp teeth.

"This person is not an enemy. He's been helping me. You should understand that, shouldn't you?"

After a moment, the hands around Hirose's legs released him. Hirose shook off the hands and retreated a couple steps. He could plainly see that the one called Sanshi and the creature called Gouran were both confused. The beast was still clicking his teeth together.

"Gouran, stop," commanded Takasato again, and then he knelt down. He reached out to the animal. "What happened? Can't you tell the difference between good and bad anymore?"

Gouran's body shrunk back a little bit and it hung its head. It stretched its bloody-pus-colored head under Takasato's hand, and Takasato placed his hand upon it gently. Gouran approached him, and Takasato embraced the strange beast.

Sanshi climbed out of the sand and lowered her head deeply. Sanshi's head was in front of Hirose. When he realized she was bowing to him, he was taken aback.

Takasato looked back toward Hirose. It was unmistakably his human figure hugging the strange beast. The image rendered Hirose speechless.

Hirose was different than Takasato. Gotou had said it. Hirose had silently conceded to this point in his mind. Yet he had never imagined the difference--between those who belonged to this world and those who belonged to another--to be so great.

He now understood what was making him feel so uneasy. He was afraid of confirming this difference. This was the real reason behind the behavior that even Hirose hadn't comprehended.

Before he realized it, the tide had reached his feet. The frothy surf powerfully carried away the sand beneath his feet.

Takasato stood up and looked directly at Hirose. The red and white creatures disappeared as if dissolving into the rain.

"Please run, to a place higher up."

Hirose couldn't move. He simply whispered, "...don't you have any attachment to this world?"

Takasato looked at Hirose and was about to say something, but then lowered his head. "...But I still have to go back."

"Don't go," Hirose blurted out. "Why must you go back? You don't have to."

Takasato shook his head. "There's...no longer any place for me in this world."

"If you need a place, I'll make one for you. --Don't go."

Takasato shook his head just the same.

"Then what about me?" Hirose reached out and the rain hit his outstretched hand. Both his arms and legs were trembling from the cold. "Takasato, what about me?"

"I can't drag you into this anymore."

Hirose grabbed onto Takasato's arm with his ext
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Demon Child, Commentary.
from Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.
by Kikuchi Hideyuki.


-

In the realm of the Japanese horror novel, which has heretofore been unable to compete with those of the West, a powerful new weapon has finally been forged.

Perhaps it's going along with a worldwide trend, but what's interesting is that the activity of a woman writer is especially remarkable.

It can be said that the author of this book Demon Child, Ms. Ono Fuyumi, has arrived gallantly on the frontlines of horror and is a most active new addition.

Though it's being published as a volume in Shinchou's fantasy novel series, this book is thick with the smell of horror. And yet—and I'll touch on this later—it hasn't lost the dignity of fantasy. It's a wonderful mixed-genre novel.

Hirose, returning to his alma mater as a student teacher, in the midst of students not much younger than he is, finds a young person that gives people a mysterious impression.

Something about the young person named Takasato just doesn't fit in—no, it should be said that his existence in this world itself is inconceivable to others.

Hirose is intrigued by him, and immediately discovers some strange facts. All those who oppose Takasato or fight with him come to suffer from successive accidents that could be called "retribution." The cause could more or less be found in Takasato's "spiriting away" that lasted a year. Hirose keeps trying anxiously to find the truth, and deaths occur before his eyes time and time again.

Despite this, Hirose still doesn't give up on Takasato, nor does he attack him, because he himself holds a similar secret. As it were, this is a time when a mysterious woman and beast begin to run wild...




"Spiriting away." —What a fascinating topic!

A person who abruptly vanishes one day, suddenly reappears another day under similar circumstances. What did he (or she) do during that time?

All you need to do is add some enigmatic supporting characters and strange phenomena to it and you've got an unbeatable story. Merely writing a commentary like this about it gives me the chills. Just choosing this theme is proof enough of the author's great sense in the art of fantasy literature.

Incidents where his classmates are hurt or killed keep happening around the protagonist Takasato—as the story progresses, their severity slowly becomes tragically heavier. In most writing, showy action can happen at any time in a given plot, but the author isn't really interested in that.

Demon Child is a rare work that captures the dark side of the human soul.

The protagonist is being cut off from the world and sinks gradually into solitude. People start off abusing and hurting him, and when they find that not to work, they chase after him, and in the end they even seek his death. The author mercilessly reveals the pursuit of egotism between the two characters. By linking with a woman's touch the psychological portrayal to a reserved depiction of the scene, she carves out very well the isolation of the protagonist Takasato, who has mistakenly returned to this world.

All of us have probably had the experience of suddenly waking up in the middle of night and being bothered by an intense loneliness. The thought at that time, the voice of our hearts is likely...



Why am I in a place like this?



That is to say, we all exist in the wrong place. If that's due to the intentions of others, then humans are eternal exiles—a banished people. The Flying Dutchman could never find a place to land, but in our case, we find ways to endure it, and thus it can be said that the end is even harder to manage.

Rejected—by his friends, his neighbors, his father and his brother—and willfully neglected by his own mother who even wanted to kill him, Takasato's lonely frustration is the despair in our own hearts. Is there really no place where we can live in peace? In a world that is all wrong, does there exist in the dark corners of our memories even a shred of the Shangri-la to which we originally belonged?

If we come to the end without knowing that, it could still be considered a rescue. But what about those who know the truth? —Those who've seen with their own eyes the world, beautiful and vivid as a dream, like that described at the beginning of this work, and are stuck in the deepest layers of their memory, will never be able to release themselves from the shackles of this world.

An unusual young woman and a strange beast appeared by Takasato's side and unleashed a cruel massacre. I'm not going to introduce them all one by one for the reader, but the first one was a classmate who after falling down was trampled to death, the second a group that committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building. Each slaughter was more terrifying than the last, and while the author thoroughly depicted it all serenely (women are frightening), it never falls into the trap of splatter writing (even though the factors are all there for it). It so splendidly achieves a coexistence of the grace of fantasy and the shudder of the horror touch, because the author explores the insecurities at the very base of ourselves by means of the protagonist.

While we know that we're living in a world we shouldn't be living in and we're looking for the world in which we should, we also realize there is no way for us to return there.

I want to ask of the author.

Where are we supposed to go?






I would like to add something for the readers who have no interest in the occult or paranormal phenomena. "Spiriting away" happened all around Japan up until around the 30th year of the Shouwa era [1955].

There were many such cases of people who vanished completely one day without warning, some of whom returned after a period of time.

It probably corresponds to the unexplained disappearances of today's setting. Usually it's attributed to the stress of modern society and the rate of people being found is much higher than that of "spiriting away," but perhaps there are some cases that really are the work of supernatural forces.

In a famous example from the Kan'en period (1748-1751), a merchant in Oumi entered the bathroom of his home and didn't come out for a long time. A maid servant who had been waiting for him thought it strange and called for someone to open the door. Her master had unexpectedly disappeared.

There's a continuation to this. Twenty years later, the sound of a person calling out came from that same bathroom. Members of his family hastened to it, and found the man himself squatting in the same position as he had been when he went missing. They asked him where he had been and what he'd done for those twenty years, but he didn't know. His hair had turned completely white, and the kimono he'd been wearing while eating had crumbled virtually to dust. Later on, strange things kept happening around him—it sounds pretty interesting, but no one knows what happened afterwards.

An instance from overseas is the disappearance of David Lang, a farmer from Tennessee. This was a famous incident that happened right in front of several eyewitnesses, and a great many papers were written on the subject. Even in regards to reality, it's enough to pique people's curiosity, but it could also be considered the perfect theme to be handled by way of fiction.

I have no doubt that this book, Demon Child, as a herald for things to come, will fascinate many scores of readers.



While watching The Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost",
August, the 3rd year of Heisei [1991].
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Its always good to have this to clarify things, so im adding this as well. Hope its helpful

Demon Child, Glossary.
for Ono Fuyumi's Mashou no Ko.


-

This glossary includes potentially new vocabulary and the names of characters and places that are encountered in the book, Demon Child.

-


anime  アニメ
Animation.


Auyantepui
A tepui in Venezuela. Of the Guiana Highlands.


ayakashi  あやかし
A sea ghost that wrecks ships.


Cappadocia
A region in Turkey.


Crystal Valley
A valley filled with crystals on Roraima.


Enki  延麒 【えんおう】
Enki. The kirin of En Kingdom.


Enou  延王 【えんおう】
King En. Someone Renrin, the mysterious young woman mentions.


futon  布団 【ふとん】
Futon. Japanese-style bedding.


Gotanda  五反田 【ごたんだ】
The leader of the athletics festival student committee.


Gotou  後藤 【ごとう】
A chemistry teacher at Hirose's alma mater. Hirose's former first-year homeroom teacher.


Gouran  傲濫 【ごうらん】
Gouran. The name of one of the mysterious creatures.


griffin
A mythical beast, half-eagle, half-lion. The name by which Takasato refers to one of the mysterious creatures he believes accompanies him.


Guiana Highlands
A vast mountain range in northern South America.


Haku Sanshi  白汕子 【はくさんし】
The name of someone the mysterious young woman is looking for.


Hanshi  ハンシ
The name of someone (or something) mentioned by the mysterious young woman.


Hashigami  橋上 【はしがみ】
A class 3-5 student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


hensachi  偏差値 【へんさち】
A deviation value calculated through testing, used to rank the academic ability of students in Japan.


Hirose  広瀬 【ひろせ】
A teacher-in-training.


Hourokyuu  蓬盧宮 【ほうろきゅう】
Houro Palace. A place Takasato associates with Mt. Hou.


Houzan  蓬山 【ほうざん】
Mt. Hou. A place that Takasato is reminded of by pictures of the Guiana Highlands.


Ikuta  生田 【いくた】
An English teacher at Hirose's alma mater, who also served as soccer coach and was Takasato's homeroom teacher at one time.


Iwaki  岩木 【いわき】
A class 2-5 student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


kakutan  角端 【かくたん】
Kakutan. Another name for kirin.


kamikakushi  神隠し 【かみかくし】
Spiriting away. A mysterious disappearance of a person attributed to being abducted by supernatural forces.


ki  麒 【き】
Ki. A male kirin.


kibasen  騎馬戦 【きばせん】
Cavalry battle. A game where teams of four (three of whom form the "horse" while they carry the fourth member with a hat or headband) try to get the hats or headbands of the other teams.


kirin  キリン
Giraffe. A tall, long-necked, quadrupedal, African mammal.


kirin  麒麟 【きりん】
Kirin. A mythical animal of China which appearance is an auspicious sign.


kotatsu  炬燵 【こたつ】
A table with a heater underneath it.


kouhai  後輩 【こうはい】
A colleague or classmate that has less seniority than another. The opposite of senpai.


kusaya  くさや
Salt-cured mackerel.


Labyrinth of Rocks
A naturally occurring maze-like arrangement of enormous rocks on Roraima.


Laime, Aleksandrs
"The Hermit." A Latvian topographer and explorer who lived at the base of Auyantepui.


makuragaeshi  枕返し 【まくらがえし】
A demon that repositions one's pillow at night.


Mike  ミケ
A common name for a pet cat.


Murgen
A legendary siren found off the coast of Northern Ireland in the 6th century CE. The name by which Takasato refers to one of the mysterious creatures he believes accompanies him.


nin'you  人妖 【にんよう】
A magical creature that is half-human and half-beast.


Nisseki  日赤 【にっせき】 abbreviation for:
日本赤十字社 【にほんせきじゅうじしゃ】 The Japanese Red Cross Society.


Nozue  野末 【のずえ】
A first-year student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


okaasan  お母さん 【おかあさん】
Mother. A term of address usually referring to the mother of another.


Okada 岡田 【おかだ】
A student who was working on the athletics festival in classroom 2-6.


oneesan  お姉さん 【おねえさん】
Older sister. A term of address usually referring to the older sister of another.


oni  鬼 【おに、キ】
Oni. Ogre, demon.


otaku  オタク
Enthusiast.


raamen  ラーメン
Ramen. Chinese-style noodles.


Renou  廉王 【れんおう】
King Ren. The ruler of Ren Kingdom.


Renrin  廉麟 【れんりん】
Renrin. The name of the mysterious young woman.


Ren Taiho  レンタイホ
Ren Taiho. Something or someone that the swarm of drowned corpses call for.


rin  麟 【りん】
Rin. A female kirin.


Roraima, Mount
The world's highest tepui. At the three-way border between Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. Of the Guiana Highlands.


Sakata  坂田 【さかた】
A second-year student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


senpai  先輩 【せんぱい】
A colleague or classmate that has seniority over another. The opposite of kouhai.


sensei  先生 【せんせい】
Teacher.


Seta  勢多 【せた】
A student who accidentally injured Tsuiki with a saw.


shiba inu  柴犬 【しばいぬ】
Shiba Inu. A breed of dog native to Japan.


Sugisaki  杉崎 【すぎさき】
A first-year student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


Taiho  タイホ
Taiho. Something or someone that the swarm of drowned corpses call for.


taika  胎果 【たいか】
A person or creature from the other world who mistakenly falls into our own and grows in the womb of a person.


Taiki  泰麒 【たいき】
Taiki. The name of the ki that the mysterious young woman is looking for.


Taikyokukoku  戴極国 【たいきょくこく】
The Far Kingdom of Tai. A kingdom ruled by Taiou.


Taiou  泰王 【たいおう】
King Tai. Something or someone to which Taiki belongs.


Takasato  高里 【たかさと】
A mysterious student in Hirose's homeroom, class 2-6.


Tanno  丹野 【たんの】
A chemistry teacher at Hirose's alma mater.


Tarou  タロウ
A common name for a pet.


tatami  畳 【たたみ】
Tatami mat. Japanese-style floor covering made of straw.


Totoki  十時 【ととき】
A teacher-nurse at Hirose's alma mater.


Toukyou  東京 【とうきょう】
Tokyo. Japan's current capital and largest city, located in the Kantou region of Honshuu.


Toukyou Doomu  東京ドーム 【とうきょうどーむ】
Tokyo Dome. A big, domed stadium in Tokyo that plays host to baseball games, concerts, and other events.


Tsuiki  築城 【ついき】
A class 2-6 student who hangs out in the chemistry preparation room.


Turkey
A country.


Venezuela
A country in northern South America, bordering with Guyana to the east, Brazil to the south, Colombia to the west, and the Caribbean Sea to the north.


yomogi  蓬 【よもぎ】
Mugwort.


Yoneda  米田 【よねだ】
An art teacher at Hirose's alma mater.
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