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Chapter 5: Hero

Ghosts have become remarkably less common since the advent of the digital camera. But some seemingly transferred to the electronic realm over the course of a few decades, as starting at some point, electronic reports of ghosts began to appear around the web. Most of them were just fabricated stories or intricate pranks, but despite them making some big news, there were a few incidents the truth of which was yet unexplained.

One of the most well-known electronic ghost stories is "The Kayano Sisters." A woman reported that a friend who she called near-daily for five years turned out to have passed away two years ago. This story had a proper, twist resolution. As indicated by the "Sisters" in the title, the woman's friend had an identical-looking little sister. The truth of the matter was that the younger sister had taken the place of her deceased older sister.

Contrary to the outgoing older sister, the younger sister had a withdrawn personality, and was friendly with no one but her big sister. The younger Kayano, after losing the only person she could talk to, decided to take the calls from her big sister's friend and pretend to be her. And just like that, she continued to play the role of the deceased. She talked on the phone like her big sister, she met with the woman like her big sister, she kept posting to social media as her big sister. The Kayano sisters not only had exactly the same looks and height, the little sister also knew everything about her big sister, so the woman never remotely noticed the two had switched places. The two-year lie was finally exposed by the most minor of circumstances, but apparently the two formally established a friendship afterward.

If this were all it was, it would be a heartwarming tale. But there's a disturbing followup. There was an article about what appeared to be the last post the elder Kayano made on her account before she died, the contents of which sent out ripples. At a glance, the text seemed incoherent, but it could potentially be interpreted as "someone close to me is after my life." The article had to dig up the post from a third-party archive, so the fact the younger Kayano had deleted the original post caused a big stir. Rumor spread that the younger sister must have killed her elder sister to take her friend from her.

Ultimately, there was no explanation whatsoever given by the younger Kayano, the account was abandoned, and it now serves as a famous web ruin, perfect for daring someone to go visit.

*

It rained for three days, then there was an almost apologetic cloudy day, followed by three more days of rain. The more this bad weather kept up, the more I felt I'd forget the color of a blue sky. The weather forecast said there was a huge typhoon approaching, and once that had passed, we would have clear weather for a while.

Really, it was a strangely rainy summer. It was rare to get major rain, but instead, rain as thin as fog kept falling ceaselessly. As a result, I was traveling back and forth between the coin laundry and my apartment. The coin laundry luckily had good AC, so while my washing was in the dryer, I could leisurely pass the time reading old magazines and newspapers.

In the span of that week, I lost one umbrella, one snapped in the wind, and one folding umbrella got stolen. I threw out my dirty sandals and bought new ones. I tossed dehumidifying agents in the closet. That was about the extent of the rain's effect on my life. From the start, my days were empty save for my part-time job. During inclement weather, the video rental store had even less customers than usual, so it felt like running a souvenir shop deep in the mountains. There was a damp mildewy smell in the store, but the manager seemed not to care in the slightest.

I hadn't gotten any contact from Emori. I had no friends other than him, so I inevitably spent my time alone. As usual. This is life as usual for me.

On days off work, I went to the prefecture library to read through documents related to Mimories. There wasn't anything in particular I wanted to know, but I realized it was a little more fun to read scientific literature I wasn't interested in than magazines I wasn't interested in.

When I got tired of reading, I took a light nap, went to the rest area and got coffee from a vending machine, smoked two cigarettes, then returned to the reading room. When I heard the song "Sunrise, Sunset" announcing 5 PM, I took that cue to leave the library, buy canned beer on the way, and while savoring it, leisurely walk down rural roads from the station to the apartment. And while wondering if I should watch TV or listen to the radio, I'd eat a dinner of just cup ramen, take a shower to rinse off the day's sweat, drink gin until evening, and fall asleep by the time the sky was brightening.

Cigarette butts, empty cans, empty bottles. Through these things, I barely managed to sense the changing of the days. If it weren't for them, I'd surely have no distinction between yesterday and today. That was how unchanging my days were. I could hardly remember what I was doing at this time a year ago.


I had my evidence in order. Dad and Nozomi Kirimoto's testimony. The class page of the yearbook. Sure enough, the childhood friend Touka Natsunagi didn't exist. My memories aren't wrong. She's no more than a Substite, a fictional person created by a Mimory engineer.

Now I just had to show my evidence to that scammer and make her admit defeat. That would end it all. I could drink the Lethe in the back of my closet and put a period on this foolish chain of events.

That was the plan.

Incidentally, since that day she left my room without saying "good night" to me, I'd completely ceased to see any sign of the woman calling herself Touka Natsunagi. I knew she was there because I could see her light was on at night, but she didn't make any movement worth calling movement.

Had she given up on ensnaring me? Or was she planning something intricate? I'd be lying if I said I didn't care, but I had no thoughts of going to talk to her myself. If she intended to let this end hazily, then let it happen. If she was working on a new plan, then I'd get revenge on her next time she came. And once some form of resolution arrived, that would be the ideal time to take the Lethe.


Like any other day, I drank until dawn, slept like I was passed out, and woke up to the sound of wind eight hours later. It was a storm. A whistling sound came through the gap in the window. I turned on the radio just in time to hear a report about the typhoon.

My head and throat ached. I had a hangover, and I'd smoked too much. I poured water into my stomach with a glass that still smelled of last night's gin, warmed up some premade coffee and slowly drank it, then stood under the ventilation fan and smoked. After turning two cigarettes to ash, I collapsed on the bed and listened to the radio and the rain.

I like rain. I like how fair it is, that absolutely everyone seems bothered by it. Whether you enjoy clear weather can really depend on the person, but everyone can only enjoy heavy rain in moderation. It's all you can do to sip on something warm in your room, accepting the abnormal feeling the storm brings from a safe location.

When I got tired of the radio, I put a cushion by the window and sat, then opened the book I'd checked out of the library yesterday. It was the biography of some famous person I'd never heard of in a field I'd never heard of and their achievements I'd never heard of. Personally, a book having nothing to do with me is what I want. It lets me forget that the person I am here and now exists. It was probably meeting Nozomi Kirimoto the other day that influenced me into suddenly wanting to read books.

Taking short breaks every thirty minutes, I carefully read through the book. Occasionally a stronger wind blew, and raindrops beat against the window glass. Time passed surprisingly sluggishly.

It was probably around 3 PM.

Suddenly, I felt an powerful hunger.

It was a violent hunger, the kind that took your humanity from you. Come to think of it, I haven't eaten a single thing since I woke up. As soon as I thought that, my stomach badly ached, as if some anesthesia just wore off.

I put the book down and looked below the sink, but there wasn't a single cup ramen left. Naturally, the refrigerator was also empty. I gave up and decided to smoke, but the cigarette I smoked earlier was the last one too. Apparently I'd been completely neglecting to go shopping.

My umbrella didn't seem like it'd be any good, so I wore a yacht parka with the hood pulled low, put on my sandals, and stepped out into the storm. It was darker than you'd ever expect 3 PM to be, and the path was littered with trash, tree branches, and umbrellas blown by the wind. I couldn't keep my eyes open in the driving rain, and every time there was a sudden gust, my body faltered.

It was unusually quiet inside the supermarket. I bought the cheapest cup ramen and cigarettes they had, tightly tied up the shopping bag, and left the store. The rain had gotten even more intense.

To hide myself from the fierce winds, I walked alongside the walls. Suddenly, I stopped. Something was staring at me from a window facing the road.

It wasn't a human. It was a cat. A tabby cat I remembered seeing many times in the area. I'd always thought of it as a stray, but it seemed it had an owner after all. It was glaring at me with a look of "You're a curious one to be going out in this weather." I approached the window and knit my brows, but the cat didn't move, fixed in place like a decoration as it stared at me.

When I returned to the apartment, I tossed my wet clothes in the washing machine and took a shower. When I went to pour water into the kettle after leaving the bathroom, I realized the hunger that had me at wit's end earlier had calmed down as if it never happened.

I lied down on the mat and savored the taste of the cigarettes I just bought. The room was cool, and the rough texture of the mat was comfortable. Rain fell on the town without pause, stripping all meaning and intention from everything and washing it away. I thought of the cat at the window, and then, I thought about the ghost at the window.

*

The summer when I was 7, I saw a ghost.

What I'm about to tell you is some seriously inconsequential nonsense. First of all, the ghost here is not a real ghost. Secondly, this story is part of my Mimories to begin with. And at that point, it loses any meaning it could possibly have as a ghost story.

The ghost resided in an old local Japanese-style residence, and was always watching people pass by from a bay window on the first floor. It was the ghost of a girl with long hair, slender and pale, always giving off a melancholic air every time you saw her. Every time I passed nearby, she leaned forward, clinging to the window, and followed me with her eyes.

She must have been a child who died in that house a long time ago. I pitied her, and was afraid of her at the same time. For all I knew, she might be jealous of living children around her age, and was thinking of taking me with her. She watched me emotionlessly, but maybe deep in those colorless eyes, there burned a hatred for the living. I was afraid to look the ghost girl in the face, so I came to walk quickly down that road.

I had just happened to watch a summer special on TV about the paranormal. I overheard a rumor about a child who went missing in the area several years ago. Several factors like this overlapped to convince me that the sickly girl who just watched me pass by through the window was a ghost. I didn't have an active imagination so much as a lack of wisdom.

That summer, I was attending swimming classes. Or rather, I was being made to attend them. My mom thought it was lonely for her son to stay at home all day for his summer break, so she signed me up for swimming lessons for a short time to get me out of the house and active. The pool was about 10 minutes from home, and there were only five students other than myself. Those five seemed to have been friends beforehand, so I was the only one left out. Of course, I'd felt that sense of alienation at home since I was born, so it wasn't really a problem. I only paid any interest to the ghost.

The pool was built on some very low land, so there was a single path you couldn't avoid taking to get to it, and the window in the ghost's mansion directly faced that path. My parents didn't escort me there or back, and I had no friends to go and return with, so I always had to walk in front of her alone. It wasn't as bad when going to the pool, while it was still bright, but it was often evening by the time I came back, and I shivered with terror thinking of making eye contact with the girl in the dark. At the same time, I felt like if I looked away, she might take that chance to do something. So even after passing the window, I checked behind myself repeatedly to see if she was there. (I never even considered she might have seen that as a sign of affection.)

Day by day, I saw the ghost more frequently. Not to spoil the fun, but she simply started to learn what times I passed through - yet I took the change as an ill omen. I bet this is progressing to something, I thought.

My expectations were right, in a sense. Before long, the ghost started to smile from behind the window whenever she saw my face. It was an innocent smile, but my mind clouded with fear saw it as the cruel grin of a predator. In addition, that smile seemed to be reserved just for me, as the other kids said her expression didn't change at all when they went by. My worries became convictions.

That was an evil spirit. It was borrowing the form of a sweet girl, but it's really a hungry beast who sizes up humans and and eats their souls. And I - for what reason, I had no idea - had been targeted by this evil spirit.

The fear slowly ate into my life. All I thought about was how I could get that evil spirit to spare me. Asleep or awake, the girl's face occupied my mind. It sounds an awful lot like I was a boy with a crush, except I was terrified to my core. I had nightly nightmares about her coming to get me, or crossing some point of no return when that window opened.

I considered talking with someone about it several times, but I'd come to think just acknowledging her existence itself would invite disaster, so I hesitated. Besides, I didn't have anyone to choose from, not having friends nor parents who cared.

It was a staggeringly long month. And yet eventually, an end arrived.

The last day of the program ended, I said goodbye to my two instructors, and I left the pool behind. My body was exhausted after swimming for a long time, but my steps were light. Now I would finally be free. No longer would I have to pass in front of that window. I wouldn't have to look at her face. My heart bounded at the thought.

The haunted mansion came into view. My heart beat fast. Because of the setting sun, I couldn't really see through the window from a distance. And yet I knew. She had to be there again today. With elbows on the windowsill and her chin in her hands, staring absentmindedly into the distance, leaning forward when she saw me and putting on that smile.

In fact, the ghost was there.

But she was somehow different today. When she saw me, she didn't budge, and didn't smile. Much like the first time I passed by, her eyes just followed me mechanically. I rubbed my eyes to inspect her expression.

When I noticed the ghost was crying, the awareness I had built up over the past month was turned on its head. The reversal was instant. The evil spirit threatening me didn't exist; there was only a living, breathing human girl.

To call her a ghost was absurd. The girl sobbing behind the window was simply an unfortunate prisoner, locked up in her house for some reason and longing for the outside, and that's why she always sat there. Her delicate body felt smaller than ever to me. I felt pathetic for having been afraid of such a timid girl.

At the same time, I crudely wondered why she was crying. With the threat removed, all that was left was shame over being so excessively afraid, and a pure curiosity toward the girl.

The concrete wall between the bay window and the road was no more than a meter tall, so it was easy to get past. I first threw over my slightly chlorine-scented bag, then hopped over myself. And I was now standing in front of the window I had only viewed from a distance before.

She watched me do this with a flabbergasted look. When I lightly knocked on the window glass, she reared up as if struck by lightning, hurried to unlock the window, and opened it. And then we looked at each other up close for the first time.

It was an August evening full of the echoing cries of cicadas.

The girl smiled with a teary face, and let out a sound between "ehehe" and "ahaha."

My suspicions about her had already been cleared up, yet I couldn't help but ask.

"You aren't a ghost, right?"

She blinked a few times, then softly chuckled. Then she put her left hand to her chest as if checking for a pulse, and slightly tilted her head.

"I'm alive. For now, at least."

That was my first meeting with Touka Natsunagi. Over the next decade, I would be repeatedly teased for the foolishness of that question. And I was ultimately never told the reason she was crying that day.


To my 7-year-old ears, words like "asthma" and "spasms" sounded like words from a distant land. But I was able to faintly grasp the gist of it, that the girl had a chronic illness which made her parents forbid her from leaving the house.

"I don't know when I might have an attack, so whenever possible, I can't leave the house."

Possibly because she'd explained her illness a lot, or because she'd heard these details from her parents and doctors many times, she was unusually eloquent when talking about her asthma, and spoke many words you wouldn't expect to hear from a 7-year-old.

"I can't be causing other people trouble, after all."

No matter how you looked at it, those words weren't coming from her herself. Her parents must have focused on drilling that into her.

"If you go outside, you have an asthma attack?", I asked, trying out the term I'd just learned.

"Sometimes. If I do strenuous exercise, or breathe unclean air, or get anxious, it seems attacks get more likely. It's not like everything's okay if I'm at home, either..." Then the girl said another phrase that felt like it was in quotation marks. "At any rate, if I have an attack outside, it'll be troublesome for other people."

After digesting her explanation, I asked:

"Why were you looking out the window?"

She immediately lowered her face and went silent. And she bit her lip as if desperately holding back tears. It seemed I'd touched on a topic I definitely shouldn't have.

Immediately, I made her a proposal.

"Hey, let's go somewhere together."

She slowly raised her head. She had it cocked to the side, thinking "was this boy even listening to what I said?"

"You won't even have to walk. I'll carry you."

I told her "just hold on" and headed home in a big hurry. After tossing my bag down by the front door, I flew back to the haunted mansion on my bike. She was waiting in the same position as when she saw me leave, and smiled with relief to see me come back.

I stopped the bicycle and pointed to the luggage carrier.

"Get on the back."

She hesitated. "But my mom will be mad if I go out..."

"We'll be back soon, so don't worry. Do you not want to go outside?"

She shook her head.

"I want to."

She got her shoes from the entryway and put them on, hopping down from the window and landing unsteadily. She carefully climbed over the wall, plopped down on the back of the bike, and grabbed my shoulders.

"Well then, if you please."

I nodded. Then suddenly, I realized I hadn't asked her name.

"What's your name?"

"Touka," she said. "Touka Natsunagi. And yours?"

"Chihiro Amagai."

"Chihiro..."

She clearly repeated the name. It sounds strange, but that felt like the first time in my life someone used my name properly.

Until then, I had simply disliked my name. I thought it was a weak name that sounded too girly. But the moment Touka said "Chihiro," I could feel a deep gratitude that my name was Chihiro.

Chihiro. It sounds good.

Thinking about it now, though, any name she called me would have sounded wonderful coming from her.

"I'm ready now," Touka said from behind me.

I nervously started to pedal. The bicycle slowly moved with the two of us on it. Touka raised her voice in neither fully a scream nor a shout and clung to me.

"You gonna be okay?", I asked without looking back.

"Umm, I dunno... I'm having so much fun, I might just have an attack."

I hurriedly hit the brakes, and she gave her usual laugh between "ehehe" and "ahaha."

"Just kidding. I'm totally fine. You can pick up the speed."

That peeved me a little, so I tried to purposefully bike in a serpentine path. She held tight to my shoulders, laughing happily.

*

Mimories are made to go along with the client's latent desires, but just putting in unprocessed desires as-is results in conflicts between the memories and Mimories. If you get Mimories that are clearly a departure from reality, they won't stick as memories. They're treated like another person's story.

That's why Mimories take a somewhat more realistic "best possibility" form, rather than being totally dreamlike. Something that wouldn't be odd if it happened, but also, definitely didn't happen. Something that should have happened. Something you wish had happened.

The Mimories implanted in me had, for the most part, been cleverly woven into my real past. For instance, it was true that I took swimming lessons for a time when I was seven. It was also reality that someone had stared at me as I went by a window every day. The difference was that it wasn't a girl my age watching, but an aged cat.

It was also true that I was chosen as my class's anchor for the track meet relay in middle school third year. The girl who encouraged me and lifted the pressure from me, however, was not present. At the time I was passed the baton, our class was in last, and I didn't pass a single opponent, so we finished in last. There was no support, and no words of gratitude. In fact, our classmates didn't have any expectations for the relay in the first place. I was simply made to take the loss. ...I could go on and on with these examples.

The many episodes were a detailed simulation based on the premise of "what if a childhood friend named Touka Natsunagi existed?" What they depicted wasn't simply nonsense. The lies were kept to a minimum, and the real me felt nothing wrong with my words and actions in the Mimories. I could naturally accept that I would react just like that if I were put in those situations. It was entirely plausible that it happened - if Touka Natsunagi weren't standing next to me.

To put it one way, they were my memories from a blessed parallel world. Or maybe it was a twin brother of mine, who you'd think was in the same exact circumstances, yet lived a more bountiful life than me. That's why the Mimories were realistic - and all the crueler for it. You can easily give up on something you know from the start you won't have. But something you could have had with just a small step will leave you regretful forever. Through my Mimories, I was told that the difference between me being happy and unhappy was paper-thin. Meet her, or don't meet her - that difference was the divide between heaven and hell.

I thought I'd given up on ordinary happiness long ago. But having "it could've been like this" thrust before my eyes clear as day, I knew painfully that I hadn't given up one bit. I thought I had kept things nice and separate, but I was really just covering my desires with a lid to keep them out of sight.

Now I know. I wanted to be showered in unconditional love, but more than that, I think I wanted to be someone's hero.

I'd wanted my memories from age 6 to age 15 erased so as to escape from this kind of emptiness.

I wanted to be overwhelmingly close to zero, so that there was no room to spare for "it could've been like this." By doing that, I hoped to destroy every single fork in the path.


I didn't have any appetite, but my empty stomach started to hurt again. I put out my cigarette, went to the kitchen, put the kettle on the stove, and aimlessly watched the burner flame while waiting for the water to heat up. After the kettle began to spout hot air, I turned the flame off, and while crouching down to get a cup ramen from under the sink, I discovered something on the floor.

It was a small piece of paper. I thought it was a receipt at first, but I lifted it up and found handwriting on it. A note addressed to me. There was no need to wonder who left it.

I wonder if she was humming to herself as she wrote this. Did she intend to leave me a message and go back to her own room because it seemed I'd be late coming home? But just as she finished writing, I returned. And when she boasted to me about her cooking that night, I forcefully pushed her over and stole back my key (presumably this is when the note fell to the floor), threw her meal in the trash right before her eyes, and ordered her to leave the room right away. That's why the note had been left here.

This is what it said.


"I hope you'll be well, Chihiro."


I stood there unmoving with the paper in my hand.

Suddenly, I imagined the scene of not "her," but "Touka Natsunagi" leaving behind the note.

Immediately, I felt a deep sadness that nearly stopped my breath.

Joy, anger, affection, emptiness, guilt, loss, these feelings came and went all at once. They stormed in my chest and tore it apart, gouged it out, sliced it up, and stepped all over the little chunks. And then only naked sadness remained in the hole drilled in my heart.


Once I was done drinking, it felt anticlimactic.

On the table were two open packages and a glass. The glass was already empty, and I filled it with gin and drank. I couldn't find any warning suggesting not to mix alcohol with nanobot doses, so it was probably fine.

I had none of the regrets I was worried about, nor the sense of achievement I was hoping for. At best, there was a small sense of relief that I'd taken care of a troublesome task.

After drinking the gin, I fell down on the mat and waited for the Lethe to reach my brain. I hadn't necessarily overcome the fear of losing my memories, but my desire to forget this pain as soon as possible won out.

Soon, drowsiness enveloped me, and I lost consciousness with a sensation like sinking.


I heard something hard hit the floor.

After waking up, I had to think if I'd heard that sound in a dream or in reality.

Probably reality, I decided.

Then where did it come from?

The neighboring room.

I listened closely. The typhoon had passed its peak, but there was still a whistling sound of wind coming from the gap in the window. There were no noises from the other room. I put my ear to the thin wall, closed my eyes, and focused on my hearing. Sure enough, all I could hear was the wind.

Gradually, the wind started to sound like a person's breathing. The sound was familiar to me. It was the breathing of someone having an asthma attack. The way Touka breathed when she collapsed. ...It seemed I hadn't forgotten about Touka Natsunagi yet. How much time had passed since I fell asleep? Surely I could expect the Lethe to have taken effect around now. I refused to believe I had been sent the wrong nanobots once again. Maybe it actually was bad that I took alcohol with it.

As a test, I listed the things I remembered about Touka Natsunagi. Long hair, pale skin, friendly smile, delicate body, five kisses, Firefly's Light, the class relay, the study and records, the ghost in the window, her face all blue, her chest contracting strangely as she breathed, her whistling breath, her inhaler lying on the floor,

"The doctor thinks it might be changes in air pressure."

plain white pajamas, neck and skinny arms sticking out,

"I mean, that typhoon was approaching, right? Apparently that made the pressure drop fast, so I had that attack."

Hadn't she had an attack and collapsed?

Hadn't the low air pressure made her asthma worse?

Hadn't she been crawling on the floor, unable to move?

I'm mixing up memories and Mimories again. I was aware of that. Yes, Touka Natsunagi was afflicted with serious asthma, but the woman in the room over was a different person from Touka Natsunagi. That girl Touka Natsunagi doesn't exist in the first place. Hadn't I confirmed that by meeting Nozomi Kirimoto? Her name wasn't even in the yearbook.

Yet however many logical arguments I offered up, my body wouldn't be satisfied. My heart beat faster, feeling like it might soon burst. My vision shook, my fingers were numb, my muscles twitched. I forgot how to breathe momentarily, so I hurriedly took a deep breath.

That was my limit. I went out barefoot into the hallway wet with rain. Fingers trembling, I rang the doorbell of the neighboring room. No response. I kept ringing every few seconds. No response. I took my phone out of my pocket and called her. No response. I knocked furiously on the door. I kept knocking.

No response.

"Touka!"

Before I knew it, I was shouting her name.

There was no response.

For a while, I hung my head with my hands against the door. The blowing rain had gotten me soaked without me realizing. Soon, the sound of wind stopped, and that calmed me down a bit too. I suddenly began to get embarrassed of my actions.

There being no response meant that she was out. That was all. What sounded like her asthmatic breathing was the wind coming through the window, and the sound like someone collapsing was the wind knocking something over. Maybe she had left with the window still open.

I laughed self-derisively and produced a lighter and cigarette from my pocket. I sat in the rainwater in the hallway and filled my lungs with smoke, breathing it out five seconds later. Then I leaned on the wall and closed my eyes.

I no longer cared about why the Lethe hadn't taken effect. I just wanted to see Touka's face now. Even if I knew how foolish it was, I wanted to feel the relief of knowing she was safe.

Behind my eyelids, I felt sunlight.


She must have disguised her footsteps among the sound of rain dripping from the gutter.

I heard a laugh that split the difference between "ehehe" and "ahaha" very close by.

It wasn't a hallucination or something misheard.

When I opened my eyes, Touka was leaning down and looking at my face.

My understanding couldn't keep up.

"You thought I'd gone away?"

With that, she sat down beside me.

"...Or did you think I'd had an asthma attack and couldn't move?"

I couldn't muster the effort to respond.

I was too busy trying to hide my relief.

"...How long have you been here?"

"Ever since you were knocking on the door, Chihiro."

She scooted close to me, coming within breathing distance.

"You called me Touka again."
"You must've misheard."

"Hmm, so I just misheard..." She purposefully widened her eyes. "Then what did you actually say?"

When I responded with silence, Touka snickered.

"You swapped the Lethe with fakes, didn't you?", I questioned.

"Yeah," she confirmed without fear. "After all, I didn't want to be forgotten, and I didn't want you to forget."

I was too stunned to get a word out.

"Can I ask another question?"
"What?"

"Why did you just hurry to put out your cigarette?'

I looked at my hand. At some point, I started to crumple up the end of my cigarette.

It was a completely unconscious action.

Her eyes narrowed happily.

"You remembered I didn't like cigarettes, didn't you?"
"...It was a coincidence."

A pitiful excuse.

I didn't realize until she pointed it out, but I'd never once smoked in front of her.

Was it just because she was a girl that I spared her?

No way.

I could try to deny it all I wanted, but I had subconsciously accepted this woman as Touka Natsunagi.

"It's okay. I'm all better now. I don't really mind the smell of cigarettes, either."

Touka softly leaned on my shoulder. Just like when we sat together and listened to records in the study.

And she whispered into my ear.

"Relax. I won't just suddenly disappear."

*

That night, I tasted Touka's cooking for the first time.

All I could say was that it was delicious.

Touka had her chin in her hands with her elbows on the table, looking at me with upturned eyes awaiting my opinion, and I asked her.

"Why would you do all this for me?"

She responded with an answer that didn't amount to an answer.

"I'm doing all this because I want to do all this."

I sighed.

"Basically, as far as targets for scams go, I can't imagine I'm a very valuable one."

"Hmm," Touka said. "I mean, that was the promise."

"Promise?"
"Yes, promise."

She affirmed it with a self-satisfied smile. And then she spoke with a tone I couldn't place as joking or serious.

"That's why I intend to devote myself to you, Chihiro."

I went over my Mimories, but the word "promise" rang no bells. Precisely because all her statements prior had neatly aligned with my Mimories, that inconsistency left a little bit of stiffness in my heart.



Chapter 6
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