* 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.

Chapter 27

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