* 24 *

So - that's how Operation Take Back My Girlfriend began.
Or to put it more bluntly, my plan to murder my doppelganger.

Now, if I were caught after murdering Tokiwa, it would all be for naught.
To ensure this murder would be the perfect crime, I first began to stalk him.
I tailed him for days on end, believing the perfect moment for me to actually kill him would someday appear.

The method I desired was to push him from somewhere high up, to make it look like an accident.
Yes, I sought a death so believably natural that in a few years' time, even I who'd carried it out would be thinking "That was an accident, wasn't it?"
Of course, you always hear about people who do bad things getting arrested because of one little slip-up.
But what I think is, that doesn't happen because they dropped their guard. It happens because the person actually thinks "I should've been arrested."
That guilty thought consumes them until they feel like "it'd be easier if I were arrested," and that leads to a slip-up.

So just like I said, it was ideal that I went with a method that weakened the feeling that "I killed him" to keep that from happening.
And at least speaking for my first-life self, I loved spacing out and watching the scenery on bridges, viewing platforms, rooftops, all kinds of high-up places.
So, you know, if he was on a bridge with nobody around and no railing, gazing off ahead of him, I could sneak up and grab his legs, then push him right off.
I didn't know what kind of equipment the police had those days, but even if by some chance they noticed anything unnatural about his corpse, as long not a single hair, fiber from my clothes, or fingerprint could be found on the body, I thought I'd be okay.

All I had to do was keep waiting patiently for a fortunate moment. I couldn't just make an opportunity here, I had to wait for it.
No buts about it, I'm not the kind of person who can flex their wits to deceive the police. No matter how tight-lipped I tried to be, it was inevitable I'd make some mistake.
So I just had to count on luck.

And fortunately, I did have plenty of time. Had this been before the festival day, I might have been a little more impatient.
I may have even killed Tokiwa before he crossed that final line. Man, I'm really glad it didn't come to that.

Tailing him wasn't particularly hard to do. Since Tokiwa was so remarkably identical to my first self, I could easily predict his actions.
I bet he'll go here next, he's probably going to leave soon - I recognized those kinds of things plain as day.
And really, you're not going to notice you're being tailed if you're not someone who looks behind themselves a lot.

Now when you hear me talk about "tailing" my target, you're probably imagining this to play out like some hard-boiled private detective story. Well, I'm gonna have to let you down there.
In actuality, it was all boredom and inconvenience. Even if my target did have some big secret he was hiding, he was still just a student.
Plus, the times I could follow him in assured safety were limited. So my primary job was just... waiting.
Primarily, waiting for Tokiwa to come by and settle himself somewhere. He'd get suspicious if he saw me, obviously.
I'd once had a part-time job counting people who boarded and got off the train, and that felt more worthwhile than this.

The funny thing is, though, I was going out more frequently for the sake of stalking Tokiwa, which soon ended up curing me as a shut-in.
Of course, maybe it wasn't that severe a case to begin with.

Ironically, my personality brightened for a while after getting the idea of murder.
I went to old clothes stores for changes of clothes to help with stalking, I studied up on tailing techniques from books and the web, I memorized city maps...
It was all just little stuff coming together, but maybe it had a good effect on my brain.
It hadn't had much in the way of stimuli before, but now it was starting to get a good workout with all that info.

I suppose it was good to have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. Even if my objective was murder, at least I was working toward something - it had a positive effect.
The look of my face even started to gradually improve as a result. I rarely looked in the mirror after getting to college, so I never noticed the change at first.
But when my sister pointed it out, and I took a good look in the mirror, I did notice how I looked a little more cheery...

Ah, that's right. I've completely forgotten to talk about my sister. Maybe I should've brought it up earlier.
My sister, she'd undergone changes about as drastic as my own.
From a certain perspective, I made her suffer more than anyone else.


* 25 *

My memories of my sister were even clearer to me than those of my girlfriend. She played a rather important role for my first self.
The first time around, she was a frighteningly lively girl. She loved sunlight and exercise more than anything else, and would sunbathe all year.
Just a big ball of energy. And merely having her around made me feel more upbeat myself.

I wouldn't say her figure was all that "feminine"; it might've been that she didn't pay much heed to proper calorie intake.
Still, she always had a smile on her face and not a care in the world, so guys liked her. My friends would always ask me to "introduce them."

However, when it came to the second time around... She became a gloomy, pale sister who preferred reading and shade, and had no courtesy whatsoever.
It would have seemed like a joke to anyone who knew about the first time. The sheer difference between them seemed even more significant than my own case.

And I think it was my fault that my sister changed to be this way.
With her older sibling skipping school and generally demonstrating poor behavior, it's not surprising that would influence her, the younger.
Perhaps my sister, as she saw her brother leaving the house with a face like death and coming home only to curl up in his room, lost all hope for the future.

With both brother and sister gloomy, our whole house would be up late every night.
It was awful, really. Nobody ever smiled. There was only the sound of cold, hollow laughter from the TV.

Our parents lost confidence in their upbringing skills, even their own genes when they saw us.
They were wonderful people, though I know it sounds weird to say it like that as their son.
But with son looking like it was the end of the world, and daughter always reading and stuck in her shell, there was no chance they alone would remain bright and cheery.

That kind of thing warps people. My mother came to see me as a mistake and had great expectations for my sister, getting her a family tutor and all these other things which put pressure on her.
"Now don't you fail me," it felt like she was saying. It was a heavy burden for my sister, of course, and every time I saw it I felt like my whole existence was being denied.

As for my father? It seemed like he decided to give up on the family entirely. He ran off to his own world, started riding motorcycles.
I didn't much care, and in fact I thought it was a good hobby. But he was hardly ever home on days off, and he neglected to so much as go shopping with my mother.
It was scary to see. Fights broke out every Saturday morning. Nobody could stop them.

When I was seventeen, my father got in a pretty serious accident. He was hospitalized for a month, for which the house was inordinately peaceful.
But the day he was released from the hospital, my parents had a huge, huge fight, and more or less stopped talking to each other afterward.

And I had to say it was all my fault.
When I changed, it changed my sister, and us changing changed our parents. There was no need for those two to fight.
But telling them that wouldn't get them back together. They'd just think their idiot son had gone nuts to boot.

That got kinda sidetracked onto my parents, but I said this was about my sister, right?
Right, well. Me and my sister used to be amazingly friendly. But in the second round, we didn't even look at each other, much less talk.

I wondered if my sister hated me. On the rare occasion she did open her mouth, it was usually an insult.
Like “Your face looks like crap,” or "Your hair's too long." Rude things to say to a brother, I thought.
After all, she looked more out of it than me, and she let her hair grow pretty unkempt.

It really was a saddening thing. I imagine a father hated by his daughter might feel the same way.
But it's also not surprising, I figure. I was just the kind of person it was perfectly natural to despise.


* 26 *

But one night, about a month after I started gleefully plotting my doppelganger murder project and tailing Tokiwa, my sister came alone to my apartment.
Yes, the same little sister who should have hated me.

The first snow of the season had just started to fall that day. Not long after I got out of the bath, I was feeling quite cold, so I turned on the heater for the first time that winter.
Having been ignored for months, it blew out bits of dust for a few minutes after switching it on.
Then gradually the warm air started to flow, and the sweet smell of lamp oil filled the room.

As I huddled in front of the heater to warm up, the doorbell rang. I looked at the clock: 9 PM.
Who could it be at this hour? I didn't have any friends who would visit me - maybe someone got the wrong room?
The doorbell rang again. Normally, I would ignore it, but I was feeling a little odd that day.
I fixed myself up in the mirror, hurried to the entryway, and opened the door.

Perhaps I was just longing to see someone. It didn't matter if it was a mistake or not; just having someone at my door made me happy.
So I thought we'd just exchange a few words before they left.

But no, it was my sister at the door.
I was confused. The first thing that came to mind was that something terrible had happened with someone at home.
Like our father died in a bike accident, or our mother came back home. And that she had come to tell me.
When you live a life that has no good things for such a long time, you start to think you're always going to get bad news.

My sister, in only a uniform with a cardigan over it, let out a chilly breath and spoke, not looking at me.
"Let me stay here for a little while."
I asked if her something had happened at home, and she just said "Nothing happened" over her shoulder as she barged into the apartment.

She scrunched her face at the foul combined odor from all the empty bottles and cans, the unwashed clothes, and the cigarettes, and began opening all the windows which I'd closed to keep the apartment warm.
The fact she was already cleaning things up around here made it clear she intended to stay for a while.
I knew that unlike my first-life sister, she wasn't the kind who needed her brother's help for taking care of herself.
I was sure the largish Boston bag she carried over her shoulder was packed with changes of clothes and all that.

First of all, I got my sister something warm to drink, knowing she'd come through the cold.
While she arranged the clothes I left strewn around the room, I filled a mug with hot water and stirred it with plenty of cocoa powder. She loved sweet drinks like that.
She took the hot cocoa from me with both hands and slowly sipped it. As I watched, I thought about what to say next. She peered into the cup.

To be frank, I didn't necessarily want to know why my sister had come by. It was sure to be a weary conversation.
Some people might consider it a big brother's duty to listen to it anyway, but I was in no mood to fulfill that duty.
I was so busy thinking about my own burdens that I had absolutely no desire to stick my nose into those of others.

My sister must have expected I would ask her why she'd come first thing. She seemed dissatisfied by how I hadn't asked a single question on it.
We met eyes. Hers said "Come on, ask me something."
Unable to bear the pressure, I reluctantly asked.

"Honoka, you aren't on winter break yet, right?"
"Yeah. But I don't want to be in that house," she answered.

Aha. In other words, you're running away from home, I thought - but I didn't say it. I had this feeling that calling it that would just make her angry.
My second-life sister really hated having idiotic phrases like that used to describe her.

But it was surprising. It wasn't something I would have expected her to do.
Even if things weren’t happy at home, she didn’t seem the kind to do something as pointless as run away.
Just putting distance between her and the bad things, waiting for the worst to pass - that wasn't my sister.
Something really terrible must have happened, I thought anxiously, then quickly put away in the back of my mind.

Nothing to do with me, I told myself.
Of course, that wasn't true, but I was absorbed with my own troubles.

"How did you get here, anyway?", I asked. She replied typically, “Does that matter?”
She was right, though. It really didn't matter. I just asked it to dance around the heart of the matter.

"Dirty room," she said, looking around. She was an expert in judging her brother. "And your taste sucks."
"Leave if you don’t like it." I replied just as typically.
"I didn't say that."
"So it's dirty and my taste sucks, but you don't hate it?"
"Right. Smelly, dirty, ugly, but I didn't say I hate it."

My first sister would have cleaned it up without a word and cooked up some tasty food for us both.
But this sister of mine didn’t really want to come to my place. Like me, she probably didn’t have many friends, so this was her only option for running away to.

Winter vacation hadn’t started yet, so I figured she wouldn’t stay long. Even so, she was a nuisance and I wondered if I could get her to leave any sooner.
But I didn’t have the guts to be harsh with her. The second time around, I was an utter coward.
And my second-time sister was pretty scary to boot. She always had a sharp, quiet anger in her.
It was like a balloon I had to be very careful not to pop, and it made my stomach churn.

I was powerless to stop my sister from tampering with things in my apartment, so I got a futon out of the closet for her.
Just then, she came out of the bath, put on her pajamas, and dried her hair. When she saw the futon and the bed, she unhesitatingly chose the bed after two seconds.
She was already convinced it was her room.

I reluctantly got in the futon and asked, "How long you planning to stay here?"
"I dunno," she said, pulling up the covers.

And so we began living together, in a very strained kind of way.


* 27 *

At about eight the next morning, my sister shook me awake.
Since we're talking about me, I had completely forgotten about my sister while I slept. One would thus expect I'd be startled to see a girl in my room, but surprisingly I wasn't very.
With a level head, I recalled the circumstances of my sister being there.

Before my waking eyes were even a third of the way open, my sister said "Take me to the library."
After a brief pause, she added “Right now.”

She seemed quite prepared for an outing. I hadn't seen her dressed casually in a long time.
She sat on the bed, her hands thrust in the pockets of a gray cardigan, her legs wavering out of her navy-blue short pants, and her soft shoulder-length hair swaying along with that movement.
They were particularly skinny legs, almost seeming artificial with the black tights pulled over them.

I reluctantly got out of bed, took some unfolded dry clothes off a hanger and stuck them under my arm, headed for the bathroom.
The sink water was cold enough to kill a guy from shock, but it'd take a few minutes to get warm water. So I washed my face with that frigid water and quickly changed clothes.
Geez, it was my own apartment. Why did I have to change in secret like this?

I let out a few big sighs. I'd gotten into the futon last night not long after my sister, but ended up not getting much sleep.
Like many shut-ins, I was a night owl, so a constructive "sleep at 1, wake up at 8" schedule was exhausting for me.
Besides, for the past few years, I'd slept much more than I did in my first life. If I didn't get about ten hours of sleep, I was a mess.
Well, maybe it's more probable that I unconsciously slept more not so much for health reasons, but because my time awake was so harsh.

I wonder. Maybe humans can only wake up early when they have TV shows they want to watch, dates to go out on.
It's said that waking up early makes for a better life, but if you ask me, it's having a good life that allows you to wake up early.

Yet of course, even though I could tune out three alarm clocks at once, having a girl shake me awake will wake me up just fine.
Even if she was my sister who I wasn't on good terms with, who was skipping school, who was running away from home, that didn't make a difference.
I felt like it was the first time in a while I'd woken up in a human-ish way. It was common that I'd fall back asleep once or twice before actually getting up.
And even after that, I often stayed on my bed reading or messing with my phone, so if you wanna be accurate, it usually took about ten steps to get from me waking up to getting out of bed.
So yeah, my sister waking me up and me getting straight out of bed was a pretty big deal.

It wasn't even December, but the air had a chill to it like it was already the middle of winter.
As we were about to leave, I realized how lightly-dressed my sister was and went to get a Mods coat for her.
...When I put it like that, it sounds like I'm one caring big brother, huh? But to be blunt, I was just doing the bare minimum to look less terrible.
My biggest motivator was that I was scared of being blamed later, basically.

My sister looked at me holding the coat out as if to say "Wear it yourself," then snatched it from me.
The sleeves were a little long for her, but it was a pretty slender coat, so it didn't look too odd.
I put on a pea coat I'd worn since high school, lazily tied the shoelaces on my boots, and opened the door.
The cold wind hit my skin, and in seconds I was shivering. We got in the car, I turned the heat all the way up, and we sat together until we were warm.


* 28 *

My sister’s first words once in the passenger seat of the Mini Cooper were “Stinks like tobacco.”
That wasn't my fault, though. My dad used to drive it, and ever since it was passed to me it'd smelled like that.
Looking in the back seat, though, her fourth was “Dirty.” And that was one hundred percent on me.
The back seat was a mess: textbooks and materials for my classes, convenience store bags of water bottles and empty bento boxes, even tossed-off jackets and shoes.

There were times I did sit in the car for long periods as part of tailing my double, but the real problem was that no one but me ever rode in the car.
If I had someone who I was consistently driving around in it, even I'd make an effort to keep it clean, probably.
It's the same kind of thing as how if you want to be fashionable, you take a job that puts you in front of people.

"It stinks and it's dirty," my sister repeated.
"Tells you a lot about the owner" was the implication. She was something, alright.

But I'd say she's right, that the disarray of an apartment or a car reflected the mentality of the owner.
If you had a "+50 life," you'd likely fuss over little things to get it up to +51. But if you're at -50, it doesn't seem all that worth it to shoot for -49.

The 9 AM sky was cloudy, and everything was shrouded in a light fog.
My sister continued to complain on the way to the library.
Saying that my coat smelled like cigarettes too, and that wasn’t I going to play some music or something?
But if I popped in some of my CDs, I knew it'd just open up a new wave of complaints.
If I wanted my sister's approval, I'd need to play music in the vein of Sigur Rós or Múm. But unfortunately, I didn't have any of that.

I continued to ignore her, and she hit me with a tissue box. "Listen to what people say," she said.
I swear, the only time she was ever this arrogant was when she was alone with me. A braggart only to her bro. A broggert?

We arrived at the municipal library. She muttered "So small" when she saw it, but at least it wasn't a complaint directed at me.
I'd gone there to research things for my college homework once before, so I already had a library card.

I told her "Pick out whatever books you like," and for once, she obediently nodded "okay" before vanishing into the bookshelves.
Myself, I went looking for some books too. I went up narrow stairs to the second floor, where with each step the floor creaked.
There was a young girl sitting on a chair between the bookshelves along the wall, reading a bulky book.
At first, I mistook her for a sculpture and stared for an unfortunately long time. When she glanced my way, I finally realized she was a person and hurried away,

When I went to check out my books and saw the return-by-date calendar, I realized for the first time that it was Wednesday.
Indeed, when you don't make any plans in your life, your sense of days leaves you, even blurring the line between normal days and holidays.
So when it gets bad enough, you forget what day of the week it is.

If it's Wednesday, I thought, then that class must be starting about now... It was my fifth time skipping it. Oh well.
Regardless, it was a strange thing, a college student and his high school sister visiting the library early in the morning on a school day.
Most of the people in the library were elderly, so I wonder how they must have seen us?

After about thirty minutes, I went to look for my sister, and found her deliberating in front of a bookcase.
I asked “Done yet?”, and she hit me with a book. “No talking in the library!”
That was my second-time sister in a nutshell, I suppose. First time it would've been "Oh, please, hold on a little longer!"

About twenty minutes later, we were finally able to leave the library.

All she seemed to want to do was spend the whole day reading in my apartment.
As soon as we returned, she plopped on the bed, sat against the wall, and engrossed herself in a book as thick as some dictionaries.
She had really changed, I thought. But it wasn't so surprising anymore.

I figured it'd be fine to leave her be, so I quietly went to leave.
She looked up and asked “Where you going, big brother? School?”
I couldn’t very well say “I’m going to stalk this guy I want to murder so I can learn his habits,” so I said “Yeah, that. I’ll be back at seven.”

"Hmph," she mumbled suspiciously. "Still... sounds sorta fun. Gonna see anyone you know there?"
Honestly, that was exactly what I didn't want her to ask about.
"A college friend. I got to know them on the festival day last month," I said while thinking it up.
At times like these, it was best to lie with hints of the truth.
"Never hit it off with somebody so well before. It's just like, we know what the other's thinking, just like that. It's great to have at least somebody like that. Yeah, they're a close friend."
"Huh. Or at least... that's what you think about them, huh, big brother?"
Man, there was something just so disagreeable about how she said that.
"Yeah, I guess. At least I think of him as a close friend."

Still, it was odd. I hadn't thought she would care in the least where I was going, what I was doing.
Was she starved for conversation, maybe? Or maybe while I was gone, she was planning on doing things she wouldn't tell anyone.

I didn't know, at any rate, and I didn't care.
She could do what she liked. I had my own things to attend to.


* 29 *

I wanted to settle this doppelganger problem within the year.
The longer I let it go on, the harder it would be to execute.

In addition, if I could kill Tokiwa before December, they wouldn't get to spend Christmas and New Year's together.
No doubt, if those joyful days came along and I was reminded of how my first-life self and Tsugumi spent them, I would be hit with the worst depression of all.
I wanted to avoid that if at all possible.

And it was hardly an impossible proposition. By now, with my daily tailing, I had a very good grasp on Tokiwa's daily rituals.
To be honest, I had long been in stellar condition to execute the plan. But a minimum of three times, I passed up a chance to kill him that had very little risk.

Just as I predicted, Tokiwa's habits were extremely similar to mine. He liked to look down from high places, so there were many times he stood on the bridge gazing at the river, or on steep roads down at the residential district at night.
In my opinion, it was almost like he was just asking to be killed. Maybe God was on my side at this point, I thought.
And yet I was simply unable to carry out the plan. Probably I couldn't make up my mind to take the plunge.

The thing is, there was one other thing I was after in tailing him. I wanted to see Tokiwa's faults.

I was waiting for him to show me some kind of defect.
To justify my actions, I wanted him to give me some reason, any reason to believe that he was someone who deserved to die.
If only I could find just the slightest reason why killing him was worth it.

But the trouble was, I went a whole month looking and looking, but he didn't show me a thing. Didn't even get haughty about his lack of faults.
I dunno if he was even conscious of it, but Tokiwa appeared to be very careful about how he presented himself.

Tokiwa's greatest weapons were a polished smile that immediately took down anyone's defenses and a harmonic voice that everyone wanted to listen to, yet he dared to keep them in check most of the time.
And at critical moments, he would bring them out in a very targeted way, leaving a deep impression on those around him.
Naturally, people took notice. But he never gave them time to get accustomed to that charm; he pulled it back before they did.
By doing this, he let people's imaginations swell, and they began to think that he had even more charm than he really had.

It was magnificent, honestly. It taught me that when you have visible charms, it's better to show them off from time to time like a reminder, rather than keep them on at full blast.
A useless technique for someone who doesn't have any charms, hidden or otherwise, though.

I hate to admit it, but he was one hell of a guy. Even with all my hate, I still held some esteem for him.
No doubt everyone else saw Tokiwa as a very charming individual.


* 30 *

So that was another day of doing nothing still.
When I returned to the apartment and opened the door, the smell of a tasty dinner like only my sister could make... is what I hoped for, but instead I was just told "I'm hungry, make something." She again added "Right now."

I'm really not much of a cooking person, so I just warmed up some apple pie from the fridge and scooped some vanilla ice cream.
She looked at the apple pie and asked "What about veggies?" "Got none," I told her, and after some thought, she said "That's no good."
She probably meant to say "Are you stupid or what?", but being a freeloader in my care, she must have decided to hold back for once.

After drinking some coffee after the meal, she stared right at me. Her eyes told me "I want to talk, but I don't want to start."
So I started. "What's up?"
"Don't you have a girlfriend, big brother?"
What a thing to ask out of the blue, I thought.
"Nope. Unfortunately."
"...Sorry to push it, but have you never had a girlfriend?"
I had an ideal one in my first life, I wanted to tell her.
"Yeah. Never."
Why, she asks... That's got to be the worst way to talk to someone loveless.

In my second life, I couldn't help finding it odd how everyone else was able to find love one after another.
The first time I thought nothing of it, just having my ideal girl right there next to me, but now I was like, how dare everyone find someone perfect for them?

Yes, in my eyes, people with lovers are much more of an oddity than those without them.
Honestly, sometimes I kinda want to say "Is that really gonna be alright?" Not that anyone wants to hear this, but it seems to me that two people hitting it off for their whole lives would be a really rare occurrence.
Suppose there are lots of such a people who that happens to frequently. Aren't they hollow, in a sense?

The way your values get shaped over the course of your life, it's like painting a picture. That picture gets filled with what makes you you, so everyone's is different.
So if you and someone else's pictures match up perfectly, that's gotta mean you're just both blank canvases.
Or else you're so unimaginative, you just painted the most boring pictures ever.

I'm not convincing anybody of anything from where I stand, of course. Just an idle complaint, I suppose.
I'm just a fussy, bored, lonely self-analyticist who never thinks of anybody but himself.

Right, where were we... My sister asked me "Why?"
Well, the number one reason was that I couldn't possibly consider anyone but Tsugumi as my girlfriend now. But it wouldn't do any good to tell her that, of course.
"Not sure there's a good reason why," I said.
"So you haven't even had a crush on any girls or anything?"
I shook my head.
"You can't think of a single one?"
"I guess not."
"Then... I dunno, an agreeable girl, at least?"

An agreeable girl, huh.
That did bring something to mind.
Though I'm sure it wouldn't be what my sister was expecting to hear.


* 31 *

This part of the story goes back to when I was at my most miserable: high school.

Without exaggeration, I had not a single friend in high school the second time around.
But it's not that all my classmates hated me. The problem was my idiotic pride.
You're probably gonna laugh, but I thought friends were something that would just flock to me. Had nothing to do with arrogance or kindness, and I didn't imagine I'd have to talk to them first.
My first life was a bad influence there. I used to be waaay too popular.

Of course, even as the not-sharpest tool in the shed, I eventually did notice that yeah, I wouldn't make any friends without starting the conversation.
And by the time I realized, I did have half a chance left. I could tell the sorts who hung out in the corner, if I just went and talked to them, would readily accept me as a friend.

But ultimately, I didn't do that. Why? Good old pride, of course.
It's the dumbest thing, I'll agree with you there. But I would've rather died than talk to those clowns.
I always thought of myself as a handsome guy. ...Well, honest, I'm not really any less convinced of it now.
Never mind for now how true it is, it's what I think, and it's helped me a fair bit.
Besides, if nobody's gonna love me, I gotta love myself, right?

Anyway, point is, I thought a handsome guy like myself starting a conversation with those fools just wasn't fair.
Naturally, from their point of view, I must've seemed like an even bigger fool.


* 32 *

You'd know it if you went through it, but high school without friends is frankly hell.
College, in comparison, it's not so much of a problem being all alone.
It's often said that loneliness is something you get used to, and isolation is something you can't.
Stuff like spending holidays alone you can endure for days no problem, but when there's people all around you and you're the only loner... you can't just numb yourself to that.

So then how did I bear with this miserable situation? In yet another thoroughly lame way.

There was one girl in class who was similarly isolated, named Hiiragi. She didn't have a friend to her name either.
She looked like she was always thinking "I don't hope for anything from this world anymore," reluctantly pushing through high school. That was Hiiragi.

I'd say she was on the short side, with eyes that hurt easily. She was always looking down, and when she had to look people in the eye, she practically glared.
And with her frail, no-confidence voice, she often talked in a halting manner. "I, uh, think that's, fine. ...N-No, that won't be... a problem."
It seemed she made a careful effort to pick the most average, unprovocative words as she spoke, but it made people see her as a bother.
Myself, I spoke bluntly so I wouldn't have to talk as much. At a glance, we were polar opposites in that sense, but it came from the same roots.

Hiiragi went to the same middle school as me, and just like me, she wasn't totally alone then. She followed the same pattern of being separated from her friends in the transition to high school.
When I was ignored in the classroom, I felt it severely. And those were the times when I looked over to Hiiragi.
Hiiragi, my only company. Seeing her alone in the corner of the class was a huge comfort for me. At least I'm not the only one, I could think - that was such a relief.

No, that's not quite right. If you want to know the truth, it's also thanks to Hiiragi being there that I convinced myself that I wasn't at rock bottom in the class.
"I've got it real bad, but hey, better than her," I thought to keep myself stable. What a deplorable thing to do.

However... This could just be my own deluded impression, but I think she was doing the very same thing with me.
In situations that made us more strongly aware of our isolation, like class activities and event preparations, Hiiragi and I would happen to make eye contact.
No doubt Hiiragi was looking upon me as the one person even lower than her.
Or at least I felt certain that when she looked at me, she was reassured with the thought of "Ah, he's isolated too."

So in that sense, I might dare to say we "hit it off." In a very twisted definition of it. We were scapegoats for each other.
I looked down on her thinking "She's in a similar place, but as a woman she must have it worse"; she looked down on me thinking "He's in a similar place, but I'm still better in academics"... that was the situation.
It may be my persecution complex talking, but you'd know with just one look at those eyes. They were judging eyes. I'd know, because mine are the same.

In my first year, before I was accustomed to being alone, I'd scurry off at lunch to the library to waste time studying.
And actually, Hiiragi often did too. We came to see each other there frequently. Not like we talked or even greeted each other, but we acknowledged each other's existence.

Once every few months I would be struck with terrible depression, upon which I'd go to the infirmary (though not physically sick) and take my afternoon classes off.
Well, about a third of the times I did that, Hiiragi was there at the same time. It was awkward - seemed like we'd decided to skip class together.
But there was a lot of overlap between the classes we each wanted to take a break from, so it wasn't unreasonable.

Furthermore, my relationship with Hiiragi got closer in second year.
Our homeroom teacher arranged for a change in seating; students could choose to either draw lots, or pick for themselves.
However, those who freely chose their seats were restricted from sitting in the very back row.

Naturally, then, the people who ended up in the back row were people who didn't really care where they sat. And for friendless people, any seat in the corner will do.
So Hiiragi and I always ended up sitting together. It might have been almost ten times, adding up second and third year.

People started to see us as a pair, and I heartlessly thought "Whoa, don't put me with her."
Though what I would say was that sitting next to her put me at ease.
For example, in classical literature or English classes, you often have to read with a partner, right?
That was usually agonizing for me, but when Hiiragi was my partner, I wasn't so nervous.

When partnered with others, I'd worry about my voice squeaking, or my attitude being too blunt, or if they were upset about being paired with me, and all that nonsense.
But with Hiiragi, I could just think "Geez, she's so unsociable" - talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

At the root of all things which soothe us is a sense of reassurance, the feeling that it "won't hurt me."
In that sense, Hiiragi was soothing for me like no other.


* 33 *

When it comes to this stuff, you might be thinking I'm some jerk who's way too self-conscious about his assumptions.
And I say this with full recognition of that: I believe Hiiragi and I lived by leaning on each other's shoulders.

By our third year, while we didn't make much of a show of it, we started picking the same committees and duties.
Even when our seats changed, we tried to sit as close as possible. There was an implicit agreement that when times were tough, we would "use" each other.
"You don't really have to be friends with me, but please be there when I need someone," that sort of thing. Ah, but I'm romanticizing it far too much...
It's probably closer to "Hey, you're a loner too, right? As fellow miserables, I guess we should keep company."
"Welp, at least this person won't ditch me and run" - our relationship had that warped sort of trust.

We eventually developed - not affection, certainly, but a deep kind of sympathy for each other, I think.
If we hadn't, then surely we wouldn't have stayed together to keep ourselves from being all alone.

And isolation wasn't the only common point between Hiiragi and I. Even the quality of our isolation bore a resemblance.
...What I think is, the reason we couldn't get accustomed to the classroom was because we had both thoughts of "somewhere that wasn't here."
It came to mind that there was "a place much better than here" somewhere, and it became a huge hindrance since we were stuck "here."

I was constantly thinking about the happy days of my first life. As such, my view of the world was duller than usual, and I had little attachment to the "here and now."
And I wondered if Hiiragi might be thinking something similar - why else would she be so isolated?

I'm sure people who got to see her smile were pretty rare, but I was one of the few. After three and a half years, we were able to be just a little frank with each other.
And so just once, by chance, I was able to bear witness to her smile.

What a shame, I thought. If she wore that smile all the time, I bet it wouldn't be hard for her to become the center of attention in class.
That's the kind of charm her smile had. When I first saw it, no joke, I was shocked. All like "Wait, you're THAT cute?!", you know.


* 34 *

The day I got to see Hiiragi's smile was in the winter of my third year of high school, the day we had our graduation rehearsal.
Which means, yes, that for the three whole years leading up to her, I never once saw a smile out of her.

Graduation... Well, I'd be hesitant to say it was an emotional event for me.
There could be nothing sad about leaving that school behind, and yet I wasn't outrageously happy either. I just kinda thought "Man, what an awful three years."
I had so little attachment to the school I went to that I almost wondered if I was really a student there.

I kept thinking about it, and I didn't even feel like going to the rehearsal anymore.
While everyone headed for the gym, I slipped out of the line and went to the music preparation room.
Its door was always wide open. In my third year, I spent a lot of lunch breaks there.

I waited there for the rehearsal to be over. If someone who hardly seemed to exist didn't show up to it, absolutely no one would notice, surely.
Of course, by now I didn't care what anyone thought of me. It was almost graduation, after all.

The music preparation room was dark even in the afternoon. If you closed the door, it took a while for your eyes to adjust.
That's part of the reason I liked the place. I also loved how the instruments, once in the forefront, were now rotting in decay here.
Lots of "instruments we won't use anymore, but it'd be a waste to throw them away."

Sitting in an upright chair, resting on my elbows on the cover of a keyboard, I stared into space.
It took nearly five minutes to notice Hiiragi in the corner of my vision.

When Hiiragi and I met eyes, I can't really remember who smiled first. We always had sour looks, but for some reason we couldn't keep from smiling there.
I guess we were relieved to learn there was someone else who didn't feel a thing as graduation was coming up, and found it humorous that we both sought escape from it.

The ruins of something lost - that's the image Hiiragi's smile planted in my head.
Like there had once been this madly wonderful thing, and while it was now totally destroyed, she treasured a part of its ruins - kinda like that.

Of course, once we exchanged smiles, we quickly looked away and went to doing our own things.
I struggled to play a dust-coated classic guitar with no first string, and she played a sunbaked electronic organ with the volume set low.

I wasn't surprised to see Hiiragi playing like a natural.
There was a second-hand CD shop nearby which I'd often visit after school, not being in any clubs. And as I stood there with a CD in hand staring at a cover, Hiiragi would be standing behind me doing the same - silly, but that kept happening.
Since there was so little space between the shelves in that place, it made sense our paths would tangle. But we never said a word to each other about it.

I watched Hiiragi play the organ. I couldn't see her face, but even just from her back, I'd say she was slightly more at peace than in the classroom.
I had to admit, things were getting a little warm between us. You would probably think it natural that after all this, we'd be friends.
But as I've said before, to the very end, Hiiragi and I never had a single personal conversation.

Why did we always stay at such a distance?, I thought. At least for my part, I could probably just explain it as a lack of trust.
However, I wasn't distrusting of Hiiragi. What I couldn't put my trust in was, as ever, people's affections.
Because I'd been separated from Tsugumi, who I loved and vice versa so much in my first life. That ruined everything.
No matter how much we got along, they could someday leave me. So I was scared to even try getting deeply involved with anyone.
The friendlier the person, the more I feared their betrayal. Thus, I stayed just far enough away from Hiiragi.

It's as stupid as saying you'll never get married because you don't want to get divorced.
But I wouldn't change my mind. A relationship where we weren't too attached, just mutually looked down on each other from a distance, seemed best for me.

I remember that afterward, we were both scolded by a teacher for skipping the rehearsal.
"Think you can do whatever you like with graduation coming?" and so on, "How are you going to make it in college?" and so forth.
I listened in silence with my head low, embarrassing myself with the thought that the teacher might mistakenly believe there was a romantic thing between Hiiragi and I. Hiiragi looked the same way.
It was a stupid, stupid time, high school.

At graduation the next day, Hiiragi and I left the classroom right after the greetings. We were the only ones to leave that early, and as the only two in the hall, we naturally made eye contact.
I felt I saw her mouth the words "See you."

That's about it for my memories of Hiiragi.
And how it wasn't necessarily that I'd never found any girl "agreeable."


* 35 *

"Then... I dunno, an agreeable girl, at least?"
Ultimately, I didn't answer my sister's question.
This explanation may not suffice, but... when it comes to certain subjective thoughts, they lose their perceived magic when you tell them to someone else. I didn't want that.

If I wanted to keep that magic alive, I'd have to choose my words very carefully, tell the story very prudently so as not to get anything wrong.
But at the time, I didn't have the will or energy for that, so I just kept my mouth shut.
And besides that, talking about Hiiragi would mean touching upon my awful high school days, so I wasn't exactly enthused anyway.

My sister and I finished dinner and sat on the bed together, reading our books from the library.
It was awkward to be so close together, but admittedly it was the best place to read in the apartment.
She'd pulled the plug on the TV, so all I heard was occasional page flips and the heater running.
Luckily, the other tenants here made as little noise as I did. It was a blessing for someone as oversensitive as me.

I was reading a book on doppelgangers.
It said that they have the following characteristics.

- They don’t talk to anyone around them.
- They appear in similar places as to the original.
- If the original meets the doppelganger, they will die, and the doppelganger will become the original.

As you can tell from a little bit of thinking, these all applied not to Tokiwa, but to me.

I had no friends and rarely talked to anyone.
We went to the same university, so we appeared in similar places.
If one of us had to die, it’d be him (because I’d kill him).
And he appeared in every way like me from my first life.

Given this, was he the original and I the doppelganger?

I looked up from the book and noticed my sister peeking at me. She was curious about what I was reading. It wasn't really in my character to read, after all.
I asked her, "What are you reading?"
"...You wouldn't know if I told you," she said.
It sounded bitter, but it was the truth. I looked at the cover, and it was by some author I'd never heard of.

Still, I wondered, what was the deal with those questions earlier? About having girlfriends and crushes...
Thinking about it, it was kind of miraculous she would ask me of all people that kind of thing.
Second-time sister was absolutely not a girl who cared about her brother's love life. In fact, she would purposefully avoid that stuff.

"What was with those questions, anyway?", I asked, my eyes still on my book.
Instead of answering, she asked me, "Big brother, do you have any friends?", turning toward me and pulling her legs down.
"Besides the "friend you made last month on festival day" or whatever. Any other friends, like the kind you could invite over?"

It was a painful question to hear. Please just don't go there, I thought.
And the way she phrased it, she seemed to know that what I told her about my "close friend" was a story riddled with lies. Man, I felt so defeated.

"No friends I could invite over," I replied, but dared to say in such a way as to imply I had any other friends.
And of course, my sister pushed further on the point I wanted to be asked about least. "Then do you have friends which you just can't invite over?"

Now I had to reply honestly. "No, no friends. I'm ashamed to say not a single one. ...And the guy I got to know at the festival was a lie too. God, I should have just said that from the start."

I expected my sister to make fun of me. To shower me with scathing comments like "You think you're going to make it in society?" and "And you know why you don't have any friends?"
But the words out of her mouth showed no such scorn or abuse.

"Huh. So the same as me, then."
And with that, she returned to her book.

To an extent, I could have anticipated that my sister had no friends, but it was very surprising that she would reveal it to me so openly.
I was bewildered. I tried to think of some kind of reply to that. Because it was definitely odd that my second-time sister would tell me such a thing.
There had to be some important meaning to it.

She had said it very casually, yet I'm sure it took guts. I mean, she was usually so loath to show her weaknesses.
If I'd just asked her out of the blue "Honoka, do you have any friends?", she'd normally give some reply like "And what are you planning to do with that information?"

But before I could say anything tactful, she placed her bookmark and crawled under the covers.
She got me off the bed - "I'm sleeping now" - and pulled the sheets over her head.
She looked like she was angry, but she also looked like she was depressed.

About thirty minutes later, when I was sure she was asleep, I went outside and smoked, shivering under a streetlight.
I couldn't tell the difference between my usual chilly breaths and the smoke.

I thought over my sister's words.
Perhaps she visited my apartment out of loneliness, I thought. Of course, I didn't think she was "darling" enough for that to be the case.
But for my first-life sister, it would be a reasonable motive. And they were fundamentally the same person.

Friends, huh.
I took one last puff and put out the cigarette. The smoke hovered indefinitely about two meters in the air.


* 36 *

My memory's not entirely clear on this, but I had so many friends I was sociable with in my first life that it was unbelievable to me now.
At the very least, I think I was friendly with nearly everyone in my department and clubs. And at the time, I saw each and every one as having their own good qualities.
But now, looking at them from a bit of a distance, they all seemed like good-for-nothings. Most of them seemed entirely unlikable.

Of course you'd see those whom you have relationships with as good people, and those you don’t as bad people.
Strangely enough, that idea comforted me. Hah. So the first me wasn’t so blessed in everything after all, I thought.
Miserable as it was, I found joy in that.

My first self was convinced all his college friends were great guys. He earnestly thought "I'm so lucky to be surrounded by all these good people in college."
But from my point of view, they were all lowlifes in one respect or another.
People I used to think of as kind were a big ball of ego. People I used to think of as humble were attention-seekers.

However, I’m just speculating, but I don’t think it was necessarily wrong of me to feel that they were good people in my first life.
When your life isn't going well, you have a negative outlook on everything, so badness will stand out - of course, it was certainly still there. But that's not the only thing.

I wonder, if you put someone in front of a truly superb person, can they temporarily become better people by unconscious influence?
Perhaps when they stood before me in my first life, they were truly good people.
But in front of people like the present me, they’d feel less pressure and revert to trash.

I’m not too sure what point I’m trying to make, but there you go.
Perhaps that if you feel someone isn’t a good person, you carry some degree of responsibility for that.

Yet there are those who seem to acquire more and more charm regardless of their relationships... Naturally, I’m thinking of Tsugumi.
The more unattainable something is, the more you want it. I believe that in my second life, I came to love her more than I had the first time.
Yes, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to call it worshipping.

I'm not sure I could say what was most charming about her. I'd consider every little thing that made her up charming, but I was looking with rose-colored glasses.
I could talk about "a smile like flowers blooming," but it was my head that bloomed when I saw it.
Since my mind was always a flower patch in front of her, I couldn't possibly compare to say what stood out more.

Even objectively speaking, Tsugumi was beautiful. But if you asked me to explain why "no one else would do" even though there are lots of other such girls, I'd be lost.
Truth is, it's hard to talk about what charms you in a person. Much easier to talk about somebody you don't like.

It's repulsive, but I won't lie: I copied only the pictures of Tsugumi from my middle school yearbook and carried them around with me all the time.
And I'd look at them and imagine what it'd be like if she were there with me now.
You'd think it'd make me lonelier, but to me the girl in the pictures was someone different from the one that actually existed.
Kind of like a symbol of the happiness from my first life.

This time - THIS time, I wanted a chance to start my life over.
That’s what I thought. This time I would do it right.

I returned to the apartment, sank into my bed, closed my eyes, and prayed another night.
Prayed that when I woke up, I’d get my third chance.

Part 3

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