From the nearest station, I took a train to the east and disembarked. The station was the largest in the region, with a subway line, a bullet train, and various JR local train lines. I went up to the ground level. Accompanied by Yusuke, I hurried to the bullet train ticket gate. But there was no one to be seen. Mayuzumi told me that I would know who I was supposed to pick up, but I didn’t see any familiar faces in the crowd.
I leaned against a pillar and waited. Yusuke took out his portable music player to listen to some rock music. I twirled my fingers around his earphones and pulled it. I didn’t know who I was meeting up with. But it would be better to part ways with Yusuke while I still could.
“You should really get going,” I said. “I keep telling you to stop sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not like you’ll lose anything. I’m always bored, you know. And if I stick with you and Mayuzumi-san, I’ll get to have fun. Don’t mind me.”
Not minding him would be next to impossible.
He was still carrying the usual bat bag on his back.
Yusuke put his earphones back on. But he seemed to sense my foul mood; he looked around and rested his gaze at a vending machine.
“I know,” he said. “I’ll buy some drinks, so can you lighten up?”
“You? Buying something for me?” My brows knitted. “That’s unusual.”
Yusuke, like Mayuzumi, did not care about how others felt.
He chuckled. “Oh, you don’t know? I went to visit Mayuzumi-san the other day, but you weren’t there. She served me some oolong tea from the fridge.”
“So that was you? Give it back!”
I knew something was up. Mayuzumi would never drink tea.
Yusuke waved his hands. “I will. I will.” He took out a wallet from his back pocket. But there were only cards inside. “Oops.”
“Oops, my foot. Give me back what you drank. And put a chain on your wallet. Don’t put it in your hip pocket. Do you want it stolen?”
“You’re so meticulous. Anyway, I don’t have change, so now what? Hmm?”
Yusuke suddenly looked up. A vicious smile appeared on his mouth. Walking with a bouncy step, he grabbed someone coming out of the ticket gate and wrapped his arm around their neck with a bright smile. Shuddering, the person took out their wallet. Yusuke took the coins and came back gleefully.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Odagiri-sa—”
I smacked his head as hard as I could.
Then I pressed my fists against the side of his head.
“Don’t mug people! Return the money, now—”
Holding down Yusuke, I lifted my head. My eyes met with the person in front of me. His face, half-hidden with a bandana up to his mouth, was familiar.
He nodded. He took out his fan and ran a brush across it.
“Lady Mayuzumi summoned me.”
His handwriting was very calm.
But his face was crimson and teary-eyed.
“I wasn’t expecting to pick you up. How’s Shirayuki-san doing?”
Yukihito nodded. In his hand was an apple juice that I told Yusuke to buy. Shooting a terrified glance at Yusuke, he took a sip.
He was the last person on my mind. But there were only very few people that I would recognize, so it being Yukihito wasn’t really all that strange. Yet I felt an explicable uneasiness.
The case with the Minase clan should have been resolved.
A god was born and subsequently died.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked. “You said Mayu-san called for you, but do you know why?”
Yukihito shook his head. Holding the apple juice and fan in both hands, he looked perplexed. I took his drink, and he pulled an envelope from his chest. The handwriting was familiar.
A letter from Shirayuki.
He came to deliver it to Mayuzumi, it seemed. Why did Shirayuki write the letter? I was getting more and more anxious, but there was no point in asking him, as he was only the messenger.
“Okay, then. Thanks for coming this far. Are you leaving as soon as you see Mayu-san? If you’re staying for dinner, hmm… We’ve got no food in the office, so how about some ekiben1? It’s my treat.”
Yukihito declined the offer with a wave of his hand.
“Your treat?” Yusuke beamed.
I smacked his head again.
Yukihito searched his chest once more. He was wearing modern clothes—a thin leather jacket over a black shirt. He didn’t have to put stuff in there. Before I could say something, Yukihito took out an envelope. Curious, I peered inside.
My breath caught.
“Oh,” Yusuke breathed with joy.
Inside was a poorly-drawn image of two girls in kimonos playing with each other, holding hands. A woman who looked to be Shirayuki was watching them. The corners of the paper were decorated with numerous red and black goldfish. The picture came with a message.
“We are doing fine.”
“I see,” I said. “That’s good to know.”
“They look great,” Yusuke added. “I’m glad.”
I felt relief from the bottom of my heart. Yusuke sounded delighted as well. I thought of the two girls. Raised as goldfish, they didn’t know how to express their feelings. But now they could write.
Sarasa and Choubi were doing just fine.
“All right then, let’s head back to the office,” Yusuke said. “Odagiri-san, I don’t know if you bought those on a whim, but are there any crackers left on the shelf?”
“Why are you acting like you’re in-charge, huh?! My landlord asked me to buy the crackers, but I forgot to bring them home. I thought a few were missing. So that was your doing too!”
While I squabbled with Yusuke, we hurried back. Yukihito, unable to stand crowds, looked around anxiously. When a group of tourists led by a tour guide passed by, he shuddered and stopped in his tracks. I looked over my shoulder.
Before I could tell him to stay close, I sensed a gaze.
I had a feeling that someone was watching us.
I stopped, and my eyes darted around. But I didn’t see anyone suspicious. People walked around me. Yusuke and Yukihito looked puzzled. Thinking it was just my imagination, I resumed walking.
Someone pulled on my shirt.
It felt like a child had stopped me.
I turned around again and saw a soft hue of colors. A girl was standing in front of a wall of camera ads. Bandaged arms and legs protruded from her cherry-red dress.
Honey-colored eyes met my gaze.
She watched me with a face devoid of expression.
“Who’s that?” Yusuke asked. “Do you know her?”
Before I could respond, the girl closed her eyes. Her lips moved soundlessly. Her bandage leg tilted to the side.
Like a puppet whose strings were cut, Akari collapsed on the spot.
The crowd stirred. I rushed over to her and picked her up. She was sweating profusely. Her labored breathing and high body temperature indicated a fever.
Is there somewhere we can rest?
I looked around. I spotted a station staff among the moving crowd. Right as I was about to call them, a hand was placed on my shoulder.
Yusuke crouched down next to me and shook his head. “Look at this, Odagiri-san.” He pointed to the ground.
My eyes grew wide. Akari’s shadow was not in the shape of a person. Its outlines were distorted into the shape of sculpted candy.
Every time Akari let out an anguished groan, the shadow rippled violently. Yukihito gulped when he saw the bizarre movement.
“She’s no ordinary girl, is she?” Yusuke whispered grimly. “It’s best if we keep her out of sight.”
Nodding, I picked Akari up. If people saw her flickering shadow, there would be a huge uproar. We’d better get moving before someone called the station staff. We weaved our way through the crowd to the exit.
Outside the southern exit was a small square. Several pigeons took off from the fountain in the middle. I removed my suit jacket and laid it on the curb, then lay Akari there. I touched her sweaty forehead; she was burning up.
“Yusuke, can you buy some drinks? Either water or sports drink.” I tossed him my wallet.
“Gotcha.” Yusuke bolted away.
Akari continued groaning in pain. Her shadow was swaying, assimilating with the shadow of the fountain. It wriggled, but then suddenly stopped moving.
Akari opened her eyes blearily. “Where am I?” she murmured.
Tearful, honey-colored eyes regarded me.
She narrowed her eyes. “Higasa?” Her bandaged palm caressed my cheek. “Y-You stayed,” she stammered. “Thank you.”
How should I respond? After a bit of contemplation, I decided to take her hand slowly so as not to startle her.
Akari squinted suspiciously. “No?”
“It’s been a while. Do you remember me? It’s Odagiri. Odagiri Tsutomu.”
“…Odagiri?” She mumbled curiously. Slowly, her eyes widened.
“You don’t remember?” I quickly added. “You collapsed at the train station. Me and my friends brought you here.”
“I don’t know,” Akari said in a hard voice, shaking her head. Her long hair swayed. “Odagiri… Tsutomu,” she mouthed.