* 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.

Chapter 36

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