For some reason, Shirayuki was looking down at me with a terrifying expression.
“Keep your eyes open.”
Shirayuki pointed her fan at me. I didn’t understand what she meant. Her business with me was done. Why couldn’t she just leave me alone? I closed my eyes again. I felt a tremendous impact on my cheek this time.
I bit my tongue. Blood flooded my mouth. When I opened my eyes, Shirayuki pointed her fan at me again.
Words filled with rage came into my vision.
“I said keep your eyes open.”
My cheeks still hurt so bad. I closed my eyes, confused. The next moment, I felt another impact.
Shirayuki was looking down at me, her left hand clenched into a fist. Her pale fingers were red. She grabbed my collar and pulled me close. I wondered where she got such power from such a small frame. Then right in front of me I saw her eyes burning with rage.
She gave me a sharp glare. Her fan flipped and stopped right before my eyes.
The tip of the paper, sharp as a blade, was pointed at me. I yelped, and Shirayuki’s expression softened a little. The fan moved away. I crumpled to the ground and coughed violently.
Shirayuki ran her free hand once more.
There were new words on the fan.
“Yes. It is all your fault.”
Words of blame directed at me. A chuckle escaped my throat. She seemed to have something to say to me, too.
Then I will take it all.
I shouldn’t close my eyes and run away.
My vision blurry, I waited for her next words patiently. Wearing a furious look, she moved her brush.
“It is all your fault. If it weren’t for you, my pride would not have been wounded. If it weren’t for you, I could have fulfilled my long-awaited wish of dying by my brother’s hands. If it weren’t for you, I would not have cried back then. I would not have howled as I mourned my brother’s death. All of that was your fault. Your meddling self entered my life so rudely and trampled all over my pride when no one asked you to.”
I recalled the incident with the Minase clan. It seemed like a long time ago already. It felt like years since I witnessed the summoning of a god with Mayuzumi.
Shirayuki’s eyes were burning with anger. Reading her impassioned cries, I bit my lip. She was right. I had nothing to do with the Minase clan and had no right to interfere.
What was I thinking back then?
Shirayuki’s words went on. The fan shut and unfurled.
In my hazy vision, I saw words I didn’t expect to see.
Shirayuki regarded me with a very calm gaze. She smiled and nodded. The fan closed and opened again. Slowly, she ran her brush across it, as if to get her point across.
“You saved me.”
Saved? Who? Her?
Shirayuki nodded in response to my unvoiced questions. This time she ran the brush firmly.
“That fact will never change, no matter what.”
Closing the fan, she wrapped her arms around my head and embraced me without hesitation. Like a mother, she repeatedly stroked my messy hair. I could smell ink from her kimono. My heart pounded in my ears.
Her chest was so warm.
Shirayuki hugged me tight once more before letting go.
“Can a man who saw someone drowning and did nothing mock the man who jumped into the water? Was that all you really wanted to do? You wanted to help, didn’t you? You wanted to save them, didn’t you? You wanted to do something, didn’t you? That much is true, isn’t it?”
She wrote the words, opening and closing the fan several times. Incredibly comforting and kind words. Which is why I didn’t deserve them.
Nevertheless, she went on.
“You are the man I love. Be proud. And hold your head high.”
She put on a gentle, lovely smile.
“I will not allow you to say that you deserve to die.”
The fan snapped shut. Silence descended. Several seconds later, the sound of the cicada’s cries returned. She stared at me silently. I couldn’t say anything. Words left unsaid reverberated in my mind. Words that I had screamed within me in response to Higasa’s remark.
“You said you wanted to help, but you really just wanted to help yourself, didn’t you? You wanted to help people so you could justify your own existence, right? You don’t actually want to help anyone, that’s why you can say all that. Isn’t that right?”
No. No. That’s not it. Maybe. But that wasn’t all.
I remembered the words I shouted to the fox the moment I woke up from the nightmare.
It wasn’t fun.
Stifling back sobs, I pressed my eyes, hugged my knees, and buried my face in them. I didn’t know what to do. My head was a mess. Memories stirred. A twisted mermaid leapt from the sea, and blood spilled from the cabinet. Akari waved with a smile, and Higasa turned to dead flesh.
It was my fault. I was to blame for everything.
But I still wished to live.
That fact made me sick. I had no idea what to do.
“…You did this.”
What do I want to do?
There was a tinkle. Something fell on the tatami. A glass ball filled with red liquid rolled on the mat. It looked very similar to the one I had seen in Mayuzumi’s office. But this one was bigger.
A vivid red, similar to wine, shook.
“I learned from Lady Mayuzumi. Inside is my blood. While I belong to a family of espers, my blood is inferior to Lady Mayuzumi’s. I assume the effect will only last for a few hours. When night falls, it will coagulate.”
Shirayuki picked up the glass ball. Gently, she put the string attached to the metal fittings around my neck.
“Please keep it on. If you cannot move, that is fine. I simply want you to watch me. You helped me—the Minase clan. Without you, Minase Shiramine would have destroyed us.”
She lifted her head up with dignity. Strong will glinted in her clear eyes.
“The Minase clan pays back its debts.”
I repeated the words, unable to make sense of them. She didn’t respond. But her pursed lips conveyed her determination. A shiver crawled down my spine.
What was she talking about?
What did she mean by repaying debts?
“What are you—”
She struck the back of my neck with her hand. My vision lurched and darkened. I reached out, but grabbed hold of nothing. As I was losing consciousness, I saw Shirayuki watching me silently.
Her loving gaze faded—and eventually disappeared.
Burning heat woke me up, and I lifted my body up. Static noise filled my ears. The cicadas had gone quiet. There was a suffocating smell of dirt and water in the air.
The smell of sudden showers in the summer.
There was no one else in the dark, humid apartment but me. Moving my arm slowly, I touched my aching chest; it felt like hot iron was being pressed against it. Something hot brushed against my fingertips.
I let out a yelp and pulled my hand away. A red glass bead was swinging on my chest. Red liquid was spinning inside the thick glass. Blood was surging like a stormy sea.
It took a moment for me to process what it was. Then, memory came back.
Shirayuki was smiling at me with a loving gaze.
I gripped the glass bead tight. My skin hissed, my vision turning red with the pain. The world turned crimson, as though blood had seeped into my eyes. The heavy sound of rain filled my ears, preventing me from hearing anything else.
There was a clear sound of blood swirling.
As if saying, “I’m right here.”