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Volume 7

 

Will this, too, become a moment that I will only be able to remember in my dreams?

"Are you ready?"

My opponent, O, stands before me in the apartment that Maria had once occupied. I glare at her, and my mind starts to wander.

I'm confronting a beauty possessing a horrifying charm; she has long hair redolent of Maria's, the slender arms and legs of a top model, and a delicate face with a glued-on smile. Yes… "glued-on" is just the way to put it: her smile is so perfect that it resembles that of a masterfully crafted doll.



It's an uncanny smile that arouses a primal fear.

Until now, O's face kept slipping my memory when I woke up. This will stop now.

O no longer remains the mysterious being she once was, because I learned that she was created via Maria's box, the Flawed Bliss. If Maria's box is the cause of my amnesia, then I should be able to withstand it with the aid of my Empty Box.

Yes! Focus on her, Kazuki!

—O (Aya Otonashi)

She is your enemy.

 

"─────────────────────────────"

 

It's all right.

My thoughts are back to normal now that I've affirmed that she's my enemy. I smell scented oil everywhere. The fragrance of peppermint serves as a powerful reminder of my goals.

—I will bring Maria back.

—I will make her a part of my everyday life.

—I will meet the Zeroth Maria, the girl who was still ignorant of boxes.

I will go to any length for the sake of my goals. I've already sacrificed one of my friends. If I had to kill every single human being on this planet, I would do so without a second thought. Quite literally. I'm dead serious.

I take a deep breath and glare at O.

"Are you ready?" she asks with an uncanny and all-too-perfect smile. "To say goodbye to this world?"

I scrunch up my face as tightly as possible.

"Why would I want to do that?"

It's an undeniable truth that boxes have wreaked havoc upon my most valuable treasure, my everyday life.


Yuuri Yanagi will continue to suffer from the guilt of committing murder.

Iroha Shindou's personality and the false miracle she believed in were both crushed.

Koudai Kamiuchi was killed.

Ryuu Miyazaki killed his parents and was thrown in jail.

Riko Asami has gone missing.

Kasumi Mogi will never walk on her own two feet again.

Kokone Kirino was physically and mentally damaged until she broke down.

Haruaki Usui lost all of his friends, myself included.

Daiya Oomine is not likely to return.

And even I, Kazuki Hoshino—

I look at my right hand—at my glaring, self-inflicted wound. This wound reminds me that I'm a sinner and a lunatic who is long past the point of no return.

 

"But—" I mutter to myself as I clench my right fist. A burst of seemingly endless energy wells up from deep within.

Right! I won't give up on my idea of a perfect world, no matter how hopeless my situation looks.

"When we last met, you lost," O taunts me without hesitation. I muster up as much scorn as I can while staring at her, but she doesn't seem to care one bit.

"You seek to make Maria Otonashi voluntarily give up her box, correct?" she continues. "However, you should be well aware that your own deeds have ruled out the possibility of that ever happening."

I bite my lips. She's right.

"In order to defeat Daiya Oomine, you chose to sacrifice Kokone Kirino before her very eyes – perfectly aware that Maria might turn a deaf ear to all your attempts at persuasion after seeing your horrible act. And your concerns were well-founded."

"…"

Maria will never forgive me for what I did, even though that was the only solution I could think of. I dug my own grave.

Breaking the silence, O continues: "But that does not matter, for something far more serious has occurred."

What does she mea—

O answers my question before I can even pose it.

"Maria Otonashi forgot about you."

"Wha—!"

My goal is to get Maria to abandon her box. I must make her abandon the very goal that drives her to such extremes in search of a new box: exclusively wishing to help others. It's beyond the scope of my imagination to figure out how I could ever persuade someone with an iron will like Maria to do that.

And, as if the situation weren't hopeless enough … Maria lost her memory?

I'm supposed to persuade her like that? …Impossible. I mean, who would listen to the words of a total stranger? How could a stranger influence anyone's heart? My words can no longer reach her.

The situation is bordering on hopeless.

No, there is no hope at all.

However, that's not what I'm most concerned about.

"…She forgot about me…? She lost the memories of the time we spent together … this must be a bad joke…"

—NO!

—I won't accept that!

"Uh … gh…"

I've become a stranger to Maria. Our bond, which had grown stronger than anyone else's over the lifetime we spent together, has vanished into thin air.

Maria, will you no longer recognize me when you see me?

Maria, will you no longer smile at me when I call your name?

Maria, are you no longer the girl I once knew?

—Then why fight at all? Even if I manage to destroy the Flawed Bliss, there are no common memories left to keep us together.

"It appears that you are in despair."

Of course I am! I can't fulfill my goal even if I destroy her box!

And yet—

"But you will not give up, will you?"

Yeah. I can't fathom why, but she's right.

Despite my overwhelming sorrow, I'm still glaring at O.

I will save Maria, even if she doesn't remember me. I will save Maria, even if she doesn't want me to.

I will not give up. No … that's not quite right. I can't give up. The Empty Box has me under its control. I have to keep pursuing Maria, even if it means that I will die inside. I have to continue my search for her, even if I have to plunge into the depths of the sea where I'd be blind and unable to breathe. Surrender is not an option.

O continues to stare at me and stops smiling. She displays the sternest expression that I've ever seen on her face.

"I will be honest: I am slightly afraid of you."

—An enemy.

O has finally recognized me as her enemy.

"There is no hope for you. That is undeniable. And yet … I cannot shake off the feeling that you might still be able to reach Maria Otonashi's heart. After all, that is the power you have been given."

She is talking about the power of the "savior," the power to destroy boxes.

Maria created the Flawed Bliss by wishing for everyone to be happy. However, because of the ludicrous precision of every box, her internal doubts about her wish and her secret wish for someone to stop her, came about at the same time.

Maria's contradictory wishes created two beings: a wish-granting entity, and a wish-crushing "savior."

Namely, O and me—Kazuki Hoshino.

I'm her knight. I'm the only one who has the power to save her.

"—Yeah."

I look at my injured right hand. The terrifying power to crush wishes dwells within it, the power to erase even O.

The only reason I'm not erasing O right now is that the Flawed Bliss would also be destroyed. If I did that, Maria's heart would definitely shatter.

On the one hand, this makes it seem like Maria is rejecting my help. On the other hand, I definitely wouldn't exist if not for her wish to be saved.

Therefore, there must be a solution, no matter how unlikely. I can and do believe it.

All right, let's summarize.

What can I do to save Maria?

There is just one simple answer: I have to free her of the person in front of me.

I say the name.


"Aya Otonashi."


O—Aya Otonashi—starts to smile again, overflowing with self-confidence.

"Aya Otonashi, hm? That's the appearance I've taken on. And indeed, she is my origin. But I am not actually Aya Otonashi."

"I suppose so. You're just an image Maria has of Aya, not the real person. I'm sure the original Aya was an amazing person as well, but she was still only a human. She couldn't possibly be as unearthly as you are. Something must have driven Maria to deify her sister."

I clench my teeth as I think about how Maria must have grown up.

"Aya Otonashi has grown too large inside Maria. Maria can't flee from her and, at this rate, she will remain trapped. She is neglecting herself—denying herself—in order to become the monster known as Aya Otonashi. So—"

I point my right hand at O, and shout:

"So—release her right now, 'Aya Otonashi!'"

Needless to say, O doesn't bat an eyelash in response to my command.

"You are barking up the wrong tree. I do not know how to release her, and neither do you. Ah, but I do know exactly what you are going to do."

"What…?"

I have no idea what I should do next. Despite that, O claims to know what I am going to do.

"How could I know, you might ask? Well, I can tell because there is only one thing you can do, and since you only have a single choice, you will choose it sooner or later, no matter how futile it is. It is just a meaningless struggle that will bear no fruit, like aimlessly diving into the depths of the sea. However, you have no choice but to head there, even if there is not a single strand of hope to be found."

Suddenly, I recall what O mentioned earlier.

"…That one thing I can do, it's—"

"—It's to leave this world. Exactly."

While I haven't the slightest idea of what O means, I somehow know that she's right.

"You will leave this world and never return. Of course, that means that I win. If that happens, Maria Otonashi will continue to pursue her 'flawed' wish until there is nothing left of her. I just need to wait it out."

"I won't let it come to that."

"Yes, I suppose if you managed to come back to this world, it would mean that you somehow fulfilled your mission of saving Maria Otonashi. That would mark my defeat and I would disappear. You would have released her from her sister—from Aya Otonashi."

It's quite simple.

In other words, I just have to return. Return to my precious "everyday life."

 

I will meet her. I will finally be able to meet Maria in her purest form, before she entered that world of endless recurrences.

—I will meet the Zeroth Maria.


Ah—but just how difficult will my task be? My dear "everyday life" has been destroyed; how can I bring Maria to a place that no longer exists?

However, as O said, I will continue to struggle, no matter how hopeless my cause is.

"Very well, Kazuki Hoshino. It is time for the final battle," O says as she extends her arms. With her gaze tightly focused on me, she distorts her beautiful yet hideous face.


"Enjoy yourself inside the Flawed Bliss."


With those words, O embraces me.

It's disgusting, and yet I can't fight her off. I try to grab O's shoulders and push her aside, but my hands just slip through her intangible body. It's like I'm getting caught up in cobwebs. Bit by bit, I'm consumed by O's body.

I can't breathe.

I'm drowning inside O.

Slowly but surely, I'm sinking into her. The progress is so gradual that I feel as if I'm completely motionless. However, the light gradually grows weaker; I barely realize that I'm falling.

Sinking, sinking, forever sinking—

—Where am I?

It's almost like I'm in the deepest part of the sea, yet its brilliance makes me feel like I'm bathing in the midday sun.

The incessant noise is hammering away in my head. I hear laughter all around me, but I can't tell where it's coming from. I can't escape the laughter, even if I were to cover my ears. It's so unbearably loud that I want to stop thinking altogether.

I'm not breathing, yet I feel no distress. My body starts to melt into the space around me. The space around me starts to take over my body.

I lose myself.

I disappear.


I don't know what's going to happen, but one thing's for sure.

By the end, I will have completely melted away.

 

 

 

 

 

1st time

"I love you, Kazu-kun."

Not interested. I can't afford to deal with matters of love right now.

 

23rd time

"I love you, Kazu-kun."

Please spare me. How do you expect me to react?

 

1,050th time

"I love you, Kazu-kun."

I'm so happy. What else could I feel after being confessed to by a girl with such a lovely smile?

 

13,118th time

My brain has stuck to the insides of my skull like chewing gum that's been stomped on repeatedly. A constant feeling of nausea is possessing my body, as if I were bathing in a pool of used oil. I'm rotating back and forth like I'm trapped in a washing machine, yet the scenery around me doesn't change: annoying laughter and darkness.

I can't see anything.

I just keep on repeating.

These loops will continue until I've melted into the darkness. These loops will continue until every last one of my cells has disappeared. These loops will repeat without end.

 

—I wake up.

While suppressing the urge to throw up, I rub my eyes and confirm where I am.

I see an upside-down blackboard. Apparently, I'm in a classroom at school.

"…Was I dreaming?"

I'm lying on the floor of my classroom. I stand up, scratching my head.

The classroom looks different. The desks have been grouped in blocks of four, each desk decorated with a colorful striped tablecloth. The windows are plastered with homemade flower ornaments. The blackboard shows a lovely drawing of a maid, clearly drawn by the girls of our class, with some words to the right:

"Maid Café"

"…Haha…"

A bewildered laugh escapes my lips; the discrepancy between my nightmares and the silly words I just read is just too great.

"—Right … today's…"

It's Saturday, October 10th. The day of our school festival.

Once I remember that, the noise around me suddenly becomes comforting.

"Hello, hello? Is it fun staring into the air with something like that in your hand?" a familiar voice suddenly says.

"Hm?" I mutter as I turn toward the voice. "Ah!" I exclaim and look away.

—Whoa! I wasn't prepared to see an attractive pair of legs right in front of me! This girl's even wearing gorgeous white knee socks!

"Oh? Oh-oh? What am I to make of that reaction? Did my beautiful legs arouse you?" she jests.

"O-Of course not!" I counter and lift my eyes. Kokone Kirino stands before me with a grin on her face. She's clad in a light blue maid costume, one somewhat reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

"What were you doing while everyone else is working like crazy?"

"Erm…"

What was I doing before I fell asleep again?

I remember lying down because I didn't know what to work on and got bored; I must have fallen asleep after that. It's probably because the day before, we were also preparing for the festival until late into the night.

I'm holding a cylindrical object. Right! Before I accidentally fell asleep, I wanted to eat some Umaibou (corn potage flavor—I love that stuff). Umaibou are like energy drinks to me, and they cost but a meager 10 yen each. They're so cheap, everyone should buy them.

In an attempt to energize myself, I try munching on it.

—Clank.

"…Huh?"

Umaibou aren't supposed to be that hard.

"Oh my god! How can you play my recorder so shamelessly in front of everyone…?!"

"Your what?" I ask in confusion and look at what I'm holding.

For some reason, I'm holding an alto recorder in my right hand instead of an Umaibou.

"Huh? How?"

"OH NO HELP ME! A perv! We have a foul pervert among us!" Kokone shouts.

"…Urm? W-Whoa, no no no! I didn't mean to…!"

"Nooo! He's licking my flute! He's licking it! He's gonna take it home and place it on an altar! He's gonna use it to play with soap bubbles! He's gonna play the finest melodies while blowing soap bubbles!"

"I've never even heard of such a perverted guy!"

—However, I really can't remember picking up an alto recorder anywhere.

That means…

A deep sigh escapes my lips. I finally regain my composure and ask Kokone:

"Erm, Kokone … you swapped my Umaibou for your recorder, right?"

Simply put, Kokone played a prank on me.

"Hah? I, have, no, idea, what, you, are, talking, about," she says, playing dumb. "I mean, why would I even do that? Why would I possibly want a boy who's not even my boyfriend to play my flute? Does that sound like the behavior of a normal high school girl to you?"

"No, not at all, but I'm sure you can come up with a reason."

"Oh come on, use your common sense, okay?" she continues. "No naïve, adolescent girl could come up with such a strange idea, right? Surely you understand that?"

"Yes."

"In other words, you stole my flute yourself and played it. That's the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. You are a pervert, Kazu-kun. Please admit it. I won't quit until you do."

"Hah…" I sigh.

"Now repeat after me: 'I'm a pervert.'"

She would probably get even more annoying if I refused, so I give in.

"I'm a pervert," I say.

"Okey-dokey, next comes … Repeat after me: 'I'm a pervert. My hobby is to embarrass girls by staring at the hairs they forgot to shave.'"

"I'm a pervert. My hobby is to embarrass girls by staring at the hairs they forgot to shave. In particular, I can never get enough of armpit hair."

"Eek! Y-You're the real thing! Stay away from me!"

For some reason, she really seems to be appalled, even though she's the one who made me say those words.

"By the way, your maid costume looks great on you."

"Oh, what an abrupt segue. Well, I was getting bored anyway … Ah, um, my maid costume you say? Yeah, it's really pretty. But let's be honest here: everything looks great on me, no? I'm an unparalleled beauty, no?"

"Yeah. You're an unparalleled beauty. And isn't the weather lovely today?" I say.

"What's up with that indifferent reaction?! You started singing my praises first!"

I think you're cute, but what else am I supposed to say when you're bragging so much…?

"Uh-huh, I bet you're cross because this maid costume isn't designed to emphasize my bust, eh? So you're saying I have to show off my massive E-cups and seduce everyone, eh!?"

Not even close.

"Not only are you a flute perv with an armpit fetish, but you're also a knee-socks addicted boob-afficionado! The word 'closet pervert' is made for you, Kazu-kun! Kneel down before my splendid E—Ouchy!"

Someone rapped Kokone on the head.

"Hah…" sighs Daiya Oomine, the guy who just smacked Kokone.

Daiya just recently dyed his hair back to its natural black color, but even after removing his piercings, the holes in his left ear are still visible. Because of his handsome face and snappy personality, people call him the sharp-tongued prince.

That being said, he's settled down a bit these days. He even listened to his classmates and dressed up as a butler for the school festival. He would never have gone along with something like that before.

But if a butler as testy as Daiya really existed, his insults against the lady of the house would have him fired within a day. Or … maybe there's demand for that sort of thing?

Anyway, while Daiya also loves to tease me, he usually stops Kokone when she's going too far.

"Thanks Daiya, you came just at the right time! Say something to her!"

"Hm…"

I bet he's going to say something along the lines of "You're an insult to my eyes. You can try to dress up as much as you want, but you won't be able to hide your true colors. Fine feathers may make fine birds, but that doesn't apply to pigs like you."

Yeah, something like that.

In line with my expectations, Daiya, the consummate cynic, spits out:


"Don't play with another boy in front of me. Now I'm jealous."


—What?

Urm, eh?

Could it be that … Daiya's fallen head over heels for her…?

"…Awawa…" I utter in confusion…

W-What's going on…? Sure, I know that they finally started dating, even though they used to get along like oil and water, but still…!

"Aw…" Kokone says as she blushes, apparently just as surprised as I am. "U-Urm…! Y-You're my one and only, Daiya … you can be sure of that…" she mutters as her voice fades away. She's behaving more girlishly than ever before.

"But you're getting closer to Kazu than necessary, aren't you?" Daiya says.

"We're friends! It's just because we're friends!"

"Hmph, fine then. It's really annoying that you don't seem to fully understand how attractive you are."

"I-If you say so, Daiya, I will make sure to be more self-aware!"

As she settles down, Kokone starts to smile from ear to ear. She rubs her head against Daiya's chest.

…Are they going to make out in front of me? Get a room already!

"Oh … did you change your cologne?" Kokone asks.

"You have an excellent nose."

"Well, I'm used to smelling that stuff every day. But wearing cologne is against the rules—you're such a bad boy."

"What about your dyed hair?" Daiya retorts.

"You said you like brown better than black on me. I wouldn't mind switching back to wearing glasses or going natural either, but you're the one who said you prefer my current look."

"Yeah, you look great. You don't need to change it back unless you feel like it; I prefer your current style. But that wasn't the problem I was talking about, was it?"

"…Mm," she nods as she looks up at Daiya. "…Your butler outfit looks so cool … Daiya, honey, try saying 'welcome home, princess' to me!"

"Silly-butt. There's no way I'm gonna say that. You say 'welcome home, master.'"

"I don't mind at all. Welcome home, master. Ah … next time I come over to your place, I'll wear my maid outfit while saying that!"

I'm in despair.

W-What the hell is this…?! T-They've turned into a saccharine-sweet couple! Kokone's still recognizable, but what's up with Daiya's attitude?! I never wanted to see him like that! This isn't my Daiya anymore!

"Hey Kazu, what're you gaping at?" Daiya asks.

"I-Isn't it obvious? Don't show off like that in front of me!"

"I've gotta do it because I'm so popular with the girls. I get in some troublesome situations if I don't make it a point to demonstrate that I'm in a relationship from time to time."

"…There are several things I'm itching to comment on, but I'll keep those to myself. Let me just ask … aren't you embarrassed?" I say.

"There is no reason to be embarrassed about being seen with my lovely girlfriend."

God, he's embarrassing as hell!

"…So you're not embarrassed about being with me?"

"If anything, I'd brag about it."

"Ehehehehe"

"Haha"

"Hehehehe"

"Hahaha"

Cut it out! I don't want to listen anymore!

I end up more embarrassed than either of them. Suddenly, I feel someone's hand on my shoulder, so I turn around.

"They're horrible, aren't they? They're clearly showing off to make us single folks jealous!"

It's Haruaki Usui, a friend of ours.

I start to nod in agreement, but yelp in surprise once I take in Haruaki's outfit. He's also cosplaying, but for some reason, he's wearing another school's girl's uniform. His broad shoulders are about to burst through the uniform, and because his top only goes down to his navel, the green shirt he's wearing underneath is totally visible. His manly legs, packed with muscles built up from his baseball activities, peep out of a skirt. At least shave those legs, for crying out loud!

How can he wear that getup so shamelessly, anyway? Does he think he's lolling about in the privacy of his own home or something?

"Sigh! I want a cute girlfriend too! You're my only ally, Hoshii!"

"…Tch!" I spit out as I shove his hand off my shoulder.

"Huh? W-What's wrong, Hoshii? That was cold."

"…I know everything, Haruaki," I say in an unusually deep tone.

"…What do you mean?"

"I hear you're doing really well with a girl from another school. You even went on a date?"

"Ugh."

"Ah…! That uniform! It's from that girl, isn't it!"

"…" Haruaki remains silent, a forced smile glued to his face. My guess seems to have been spot-on.

"You've got quite some nerve, pretending that I was your 'only ally' when you're busy making out with your gal. That borders on violence against all us lonely guys!" I chide Haruaki while smiling miserably.

"…No … I mean … look, we've gone out on a date, but we're not exactly dating. Anything could still happen at this point. That's why, you see, I'd like to play the unpopular character for a little longer…"

"Feh!" I say as I pretend to spit on the floor. "You're like some rich guy who gets off on slumming it!"

I continue to laugh miserably.

"A-Aren't you exaggerating? That analogy doesn't really ring true for me, either … and hey, you're no better, Hoshii!"

"Hm?"

"You and Kasumi clearl—MHMHM!"

The moment he mentions that name, Kokone covers his mouth. I can't help but blush and shut up.

After all, Kasumi Mogi is the girl I'm in love with.

—T-That's strange. I never confided in anyone, so how did Haruaki come up with her name like that?

Kokone whispers into Haruaki's ear, "…Shh, Haru-schmucki! They're still in the brittle early stages of their relationship … best to let them be…!"

"…Ah, you're right … but come on, it's clearly mutual…"

"…Hush now! If we barge in, we might accidentally mess up their relationship … those two aren't even aware that they're acting lovey-dovey all the time…!"

"…Seriously? Are they still stuck in elementary school, or what…?!" Haruaki replies.

Guys, I'm right here!

B-But, it's mutual? W-What could he mean by that? That's not possible. It's true that Mogi-san often smiles at me … but that's because she's a cheerful girl. And she's only asking me for help all the time because I'm a helpful guy. Yeah … exactly.

But.

But, given what they're saying, perhaps she really—


"Kazu-kun?"


"Eek!" I exclaim after hearing an unexpected voice.

I spin around.

"Hm?" the slender girl in a wheel-chair mutters. It's Kasumi Mogi, her eyes open wide in surprise at my overreaction. "What was that 'eek' for? Does this nurse uniform not suit me?" she says, pursing her lips and hanging her head low in shame.

I, I didn't know that Mogi-san was cosplaying as well … She's wearing a pink nurse's uniform.

My heart is pounding like mad, to the point where I'm worried that other people might actually hear it beating. In my panic, I can't even make eye contact.

There's no way that uniform wouldn't suit her! I'm infamous for my tear fetish, but I also have a fetish for maid's and nurse's uniforms! (The cat's out of the bag now.) Besides, Mogi-san would look cute wearing a garbage bag!

I have to tell her!

"It looks great on you! You look lovely!" I say while she looks up at me.

"L-Lovel—"

"Really! You're lovely! The loveliest girl around!"

"~~~~~~!!" she looks at the floor, her face red as a beet.

Huh? What's wrong with her? All I did was tell her what I was thinking…

"Oh boy, there he goes again, really working his skills as a player," Haruaki sighs.

"Lately, I've come to think that he's doing it on purpose," notes Kokone.

"For real? He's one wicked bastard if that's true."

"Seemingly naïve boys like him get laid more often than you'd expect. They're experts at exposing the secret desires of housewives—I learned that from my manga."

Haruaki and Kokone sure don't mince their words.

"Um-um-um-um…!" interrupts Mogi-san.

At first she seems a bit abashed by her strange utterance, but then she gets a grip and glares at me.

"Err, yes?"

"Thanks for being in charge of me today, Kazu-kun!"

She bows her head.

—In charge of her…?

I really like the sound of that, but I have no idea what it means. However, I notice that Haruaki, Kokone, and even Daiya are all grinning at me. Alright … I think I know what they're getting at.

My task is to tag along with Mogi-san all day and show her around.


After getting in an accident, Mogi-san lost her ability to walk. She's still doing intensive physical rehab and hasn't returned to school yet.

However, her classmates wanted her to somehow participate in the school festival. We wanted to show her that her friends at school are still rooting for her.

We thought a lot about how we could make her day enjoyable and ensure that everything went smoothly. We agreed that someone had to look out for her during the entire day, and for some reason I was unanimously chosen for that role.

Needless to say, I accepted without a second thought. I'm delighted to spend time with her, and it would be wonderful if her memories of the festival could help support her recovery.

I begin to smile as I gaze at Mogi-san. She's still looking at the floor.

"The pleasure is all mine, Mogi-san," I say and bow my head.

"Ah! But…! I hope I won't be too much of a hassle, so really, I should be thanking you!" she stutters and bows again.

"Don't hesitate to ask if you need anything, okay? I'll do my best to keep you entertained!"

Bow.

"Aah…! Don't bow! I'm really happy that we can enjoy the festival together! Thank you so much!"

Bow.

"Hehe"

Bow.

"Hehehe"

Bow.

Bow. Bow. Bow.

For no good reason, we keep bowing to each other while smiling in embarrassment.

"Take this!"

"Ouch!"

Before long, Haruaki smacks me.

"That hurt, Haruaki…"

"It was supposed to! Remember how you gave me a hard time a few moments ago, just for taking a girl on a date?!"

…Well, I have to admit that I really lucked out.

"Hey, Hoshino. You can go and leave the rest up to us!" yells our class president, Ryuu Miyazaki, in a slightly rough tone. He's not mad at us; that's just how he normally sounds.

"Okay, we're off then," I reply and grab the handles of Mogi-san's wheelchair. "Let's go."

"Yeah!"

I give her wheelchair a gentle push.

 

What a moment—it once again marks the start of this great day.

 

"……Hm?"

—Again?

Mogi-san turns her smile on me, and whatever fleeting concerns I had get blown away with the rest of my worries.

 

Every proper school festival ends with a campfire … no, that's a lie. I have no clue how widespread this custom is in reality.

Lit by the flickering flames, students dance to the tune of the Oklahoma Mixer.[1] Two first-year students whose love confession we witnessed earlier are happily holding hands. Looks like the confession went well.

Kokone and Daiya have changed out of their costumes, and are also dancing. They used to not get along because of some ancient history, but they got past that and started dating. They haven't entirely escaped the shackles of their past, but at least for now, they're dancing free of care.

Mogi-san has also changed back into her school uniform. She's sitting in her wheelchair and staring into the flames. She looks very serious, as if she's branding this moment into her memory.

I'm just a high school kid, but I already know: such blissful moments are rare. I'll treasure the glamor of adolescence for the rest of my life.

It's the same for Kokone, Daiya, and so many others. People have their own, personal stories of their adolescence. Maybe they're not always happy stories, but today will still stand out for the rest of our lives.

No day comes twice.

While watching the dancing couples, Mogi-san mutters, "how nice."

I'm at a loss for words; Mogi-san will never be able to dance like that again.

She notices the expression on my face and frantically shakes her head.

"Ah, don't get me wrong! I'm not whining! I was just jealous of how they can spend a special day like this in love with each other!"

Her satisfied smile clearly proves that she's speaking from the heart.

"Kazu-kun…"

After all the time we spent together today, I finally understand how she feels about me.

"After that accident, I thought that I wouldn't be able to achieve happiness in a conventional way any more. Even though I might act happy, even though I might have happy moments from time to time, I was convinced that my disability would always hold me back, that I would never be able to smile without care."

Despite her self-deprecating words, her face is calm.

"But you know what?" she continues, "I didn't feel bad at all about my disability today. Really. That's a huge discovery for me! For instance, I can't dance with you, but I don't mind at all. Not because I'm persuading myself to think that way, but because I already feel really happy. Isn't that wonderful?"

I smile at her and nod deeply.

"Because I was able to enjoy this day, I finally stopped hating myself." Mogi-san takes my hand. "Thanks for making me feel this way."

The fire isn't the only reason her face is slightly red. A look at her face is enough to tell me what she's going to say next.

 

"I love you, Kazu-kun."


Her smile is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. That's genuinely how I feel. I'm the only person who gets to see her smile like this. I'm definitely the luckiest guy in the world. I would do anything to protect that smile.

My feelings of fulfillment are about to boil over. Every single cell in my body is vibrating with joy.

This has to be the best day in my life.

And this day—

This day, that I'd love to experience forever—

"Aah—…"

 

—Is a goddamn farce.

 

A cold breeze that has been hiding behind the warm air brushes past my cheeks. The sharp coldness of the breeze clears my dulled senses at once.

What is this disgusting place?

The gentle, crimson scene before me turns into a poorly executed oil painting depicting a silly pipe dream.

"Heh, heh…" I chuckle, amused by my stupidity for not noticing that anything was awry until now.

"Kazu-kun…?" Mogi-san asks, cocking her head in response to my abrupt shift in mood.

I disregard her, however, and look at my right hand instead.

As I thought, there is no scar.

—My resolve to save Maria has disappeared.

I do not have the power to crush boxes right now.

I look at Mogi-san, whose eyes have widened.

Her confession delighted me. That's true. The repeated days in this box have made me fall in love with her for real. I'm head over heels in love with her.

But this story ends here. The story ends after she confesses and we become a couple. There is no sequel.

Come to think of it, this isn't the first time this has happened. The same thing occurred in the Rejecting Classroom, although our roles were reversed. Back then, Mogi-san was delighted when I finally accepted her confession, only to despair upon realizing that there was no tomorrow. It's the same kind of futility.

Right. No matter how comfy, this world is made of lies. No matter how happy everyone seems to be, it's all fake. No?

I mean—she is not here.

Maria is not here.

This world assumes that she didn't exist, and seems like a happily-ever-after. Maybe we would have ended up like this if she had never brought the boxes into our lives. Perhaps, the root of all evil is O and the Flawed Bliss.

Maria hurt us by dragging those anomalies, those boxes, into our lives.

However—

"I don't care."

I live only for Maria's sake.

"…Kazu-kun? What's wrong?"

The situation resembles that of the Rejecting Classroom, but I'm sure that Mogi-san is innocent this time. Still, there's more to this than mere coincidence. Maria's psyche was most likely influenced by the time she spent inside the repeating world, which is why the Flawed Bliss has assumed a shape reminiscent of the Rejecting Classroom.

Its power is to make happiness last forever, but at root, it's all fake and only lasts for a single day.

It seems O decided to pin me down in this world in order to corner me.

Once I accept this happiness—once I accept the absence of Maria—I will lose to O and be trapped in this world forever.

Therefore, there is only one response I can give to Mogi-san. After all, there is no tomorrow to our relationship.

"…Please wait until tomorrow," I force myself to say and run away from her.

"K-Kazu-kun…?!"

Ignoring her cries, I rush into the school building and head upstairs, skipping steps as I go. I finally get to the rooftop, open the door, and find myself confronted by the sight of the sunset.

"Hah … hah … hah…"

In order to struggle against this recurring world, I need to somehow retain my memories. In the Rejecting Classroom, I was able to do so by experiencing something traumatic, like witnessing Maria or Mogi-san getting hit by a truck.

While I have no concrete proof, I'm fairly sure that I can achieve the same effect by doing something similar. By the time I decided to run to the roof, I had already come up with a plan.

I'll jump off the school!

I run toward the fence at full speed to avoid thinking about the fall to come.

I throw myself at the fence and start to climb, finally standing at the very top.

"——Ah…"

I see the ground below.

—I'm going to be hammered against it.

Suddenly, I'm overwhelmed by fear. My legs freeze. My brain immediately cools down and starts to churn out excuses. Suicide is absolutely stupid! Go right back to Mogi-san and accept her confession. There's no reason to be loyal to just Maria. Why not accept a world where everyone is happy except for Maria? Think it over don't jump don't die don't think forget her forget her forget her—

"S … SHUT THE FUCK UUUUUUUUUUUUUUP!"

I take a flying leap off the fence and dive into the crimson sky.

Imagine. Imagine breaking through this world.

For a split second, a crack runs through this supposedly perfect world. The darkness that I recognize beyond the crack proves that I'm right—this world is fake.

However, that vision only lasts for a split second.

The darkness gets obscured again, and I fall headalong toward the ground.

Without mercy, without pity, my head smashes against the hard ground.

Splash.

As I hear my skull splitting open and its contents getting crushed, my consciousness—

13,189th time

—gets transferred over.

Instead of having my brains scattered around me, I'm lying on the floor of our classroom. My classmates are busy preparing for the festival.

I sit up and put down the recorder that I was holding.

"Ah, gh…"

What I saw right before I died makes my heart beat wildly. I can't shake the cold sweats. I could throw up at any moment.

I certainly don't want to go through that a second time … but I'll probably have no other choice.

After all—

"It worked."

I managed to retain my memory, which is the minimum requirement to fight against this world. Without that ability, I would waste the entire day enjoying myself. I'd become yet another gear within this meaningless world.

In order to prevent that, I have to commit pseudo-suicide.

I struggle to my feet and rest my elbows against a cloth-covered table.

A long time ago, I was taken in by O. I don't remember when that happened, but it was ages ago. My memory of that time has faded and feels foreign to me, like watching a movie. I have been repeating this day—the day of the school festival—for a very long time, trapped within an illusion of happiness.

I have no idea how many loops have already occurred. I only had that information during my time in the Rejecting Classroom, because Maria had been able to keep track.

I may have repeated this day over 10,000 times already. Perhaps I'm starting to become part of this world. I have no way to tell.

I forgot how the real world feels, and can't differentiate this world from the real one. That I became aware of the truth borders on a miracle.

If I neglect to retain my memory, my doubts about this world will eventually disappear entirely. If that happens, this happy festival will repeat itself thousands upon thousands of times.

The same day will repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and melt me and swallow me like an old piece of chewing gum that has lost all flavor.

—How is that different from death?

"Uh … ah—"

Fear.

The fear of losing my purpose, of having the meaning of my life painted over.

But even that fear will eventually fade.

"Gh…!"

Angst-ridden, I rush out of the classroom. I hear Kokone calling out to me, but I couldn't care less. I have to put a stop to this repeating world.

 

It's easy enough to run away from school and the festive mood surrounding it, but I quickly come to a stop.

I don't know where to go. In fact, I don't have anything even vaguely resembling a clue.

In the Rejecting Classroom, our goal was to locate the owner. This time, however, there is no owner to begin with. At most, you could say that Maria herself is the owner, since I was consumed by O—a part of the Flawed Bliss.

That being said, Maria does not exist in this world. She can't be found.

"But—"

This world is connected to Maria, so there might be a hint somewhere.

"I have to find a fragment of Maria!"

If I manage to find one, it's bound to help me come up with a solution.


I ran around town. My first destination was Maria's apartment, which turned out to be empty, just like in the real world. Naturally, there was no peppermint scent to be found. After thoroughly searching the room and realizing there were no clues to be found, I decided to sift through all the places I had visited with Maria.

I went to the park, the game center, the karaoke bar, the shopping mall, the hospital, the amusement park, the restaurants and cafés we ate at—however, I didn't find a single fragment of Maria.

There was no trace of such a thing in this world.

In the end, my aimless meanderings allowed time to fly by, and before long, a red glow started to cover the sky once more.

I must retain my memory, and the time of day when I jumped off the roof during the last loop is drawing near. I'll have to commit pseudo-suicide again.

I don't know the exact time when each repeating day gets reset. My memory could be reset at any point after the time of day of my previous suicide.

I absolutely must jump before that!

Needless to say, unwillingly jumping to one's death is abnormal and comes with great fear.

But I have no other choice.

Actually, there is no need to insist on jumping off a roof nor is there a need to die in the same spot as last time, but my feet still carry me to the roof of our school.

I pass through the gate and head toward the school building. Suddenly, a familiar face stops me.

"Hoshii!"

It's Haruaki. He's walking up to me with a raised eyebrow, pushing a wheelchair.

"Where did you go, Hoshii?! You were in charge of Kasumi today, remember?! Weren't you looking forward to it just as much as she was?! Why, just why…?"

He has every right to be angry with me.

"I-It's all right, Haruaki-kun … I'm sure there's a good reason!" Mogi-san defends me.

Her words are kind, but she can't hide her disappointment.

—Mogi-san … I would love to switch off my brain and enjoy the festival together with you. I would love to see your smile up close … but I can't!

I must not adhere to the "role" this world has given me. If I give in to that temptation, I will be trapped here forever.

Suppressing my feelings, I ask, "Do you know Maria? Maria Otonashi?"

"…Is this the time for questions, Hoshii…? Who the hell is that?" Haruaki says harshly.

"Does that person have something to do with why you disappeared?"

As I feared, neither of them have any idea of who Maria is.

"Ah … gh…!"

This is too much to bear. I turn my back to them and run toward the roof.

Jump. I must jump! I must die!

—What is so unbearable?

They don't know about Maria. I couldn't sense a trace of Maria in them.

But that's okay—I was prepared for that.

Then why is it that I'm so deeply shattered? Why is it that I'm horribly nervous and distressed? What am I fleeing from?

It's because nothing felt off. Even though my classmates are supposed to know Maria, their ignorance doesn't strike me as strange. Maria seems like a distant fictional character in an unrelated world.

While I, the only one who remembers Maria, appear to be far more false than they do.

Suddenly, I realize something crucial.


Maria.

What kind of girl were you?


I'm starting to forget about Maria … just how long have I been exposed to the violence of time for this to happen? The time spent in this state of false happiness has already grown heavy enough to squash me.

If I'm going to forget even more about her—then why maintain this lonely struggle at all?

"Hah … hah … hah…"

I keep on running as if to shake off my doubts and open the door to the rooftop. A crimson world jumps into view. I don't have much time left.

"I love you, Kazu-kun."

This world is most seductive. I want to stay here.

However, I shake off that thought.

I won't waver. I don't want to waver. I mustn't waver. Without leaving myself any room for doubt, I climb the fence and stand on top of it.

I jump.

I fall, and I spread the insides of my head all over the ground again.

 

13,190th time

After returning to the morning classroom and confirming that I still have my memory, I stand up.

However, I'm immediately attacked by a fit of dizziness. My hand is trembling as I hold my forehead. The pseudo-suicides are seriously damaging my mind.

—How long am I going to have to keep this up?

I shake my head to free myself from my qualms. I mustn't think about them any more, or I'll be drowning within these loops before I know it.

"…Okay."

I'll sift through everyone at school this time. I'll walk around and interrogate anyone who associated with Maria.

No doubt I'll earn much resentment for wandering around instead of tending to Mogi-san. I'll do it anyway … I have to.

 

"—Ha!"

I look up at the crimson sky as I lean against the door to the rooftop. The day has ended fruitlessly once more.

I continued my attempts at interrogation until I was despised by the entire class for deeply upsetting Mogi-san, but the end result was still a disastrous failure. No one knew about Maria, and no one provided any clues.

"—Heh, haha!"

I can only laugh. I'm horribly exhausted. I can't even walk straight because the lack of sleep is wearing me down. I want to rest. I don't want to think anymore. I want to escape. I just want to escape. I want to go to the school festival together with Mogi-san, even for just one day.

But I can't.

I won't be able to resist these loops if I savor the sweet taste of happiness once more.

So, it's time to jump again.

It's time to commit suicide.

"…This is so fucked up."

—What kind of logic is that? Why do I have to repeatedly suffer such pain? Is it really worth it?

Cutting off that train of thought, I jump off the roof.

Splash. I spill the contents of my head once again.

 

13,191st time

I retained my memory, but I can't muster the willpower to stand up. I want to act, but neither my body nor my heart will listen to me.

Give me just a grain of hope, even if it's dimmer than a tiny nightlight. I just want to take a step forward.

I force my leaden limbs into motion and stand up.

 

However, once again I was unable to make any progress, and end up lying on my back on the roof.

No one seems to know Maria. There is no trace of her existence.

"Uh … ghu…"

I tear up. I don't want to jump off the roof anymore. I don't want to suffer anymore. I don't want to sadden Mogi-san anymore. I'm fed up with everything.

But since giving up is not an option, I jump again. Splash. I spill out the contents of my head.

Just kill me for good already!

 

13,192nd time

But my life continues, and so does the chain of memories. Even though my pain is self-inflicted, I can't help wailing out loud and making myself the center of attention.

"God. Dammit—!" I curse after crying myself out and wiping away my tears. "I won't give up!"

There's no way in hell I'm going to give up.

 

13,201st time

I gaze at the crimson sky from the school rooftop.

How many times did I repeat the same day? Only about ten times, I'm guessing?

There's nothing left for me to do. There are simply no fragments of Maria to be found.

I'm trapped by this loop. There's no way out.

Then what am I supposed to do? Do I still have to continue to fight? Isn't it okay to lose my memories? Haven't I done enough? Haven't I earned some rest?

I'm attacked by thoughts that try to overcome me. The thoughts won't stop. At this point I'm only thinking about fleeing my duty.


And yet I climb the fence. I don't even know if there's any point to this. I don't know if this is the right thing to do. But I'm still chained by my obsession: I must bring Maria back into my life.

I jump off the fence.

I spill the contents of my head.

Hahaha, is there even anything left to spill?

13,445th time

The count has exceeded 250. I died more than 250 times. I see the campfire as I look down at the school grounds. I'm no longer able to recognize any meaning in the Oklahoma Mixer that is playing in the distance.


I killed off my thoughts a while ago because they were getting in my way.

Only rarely am I able to form any meaningful thoughts like I am right now.

And yet, I jump off the roof once more. The mountain of my dead bodies increases by one.

I don't even think about the reason I'm doing all this anymore.

Splash.

 

14,590th time

Who's Maria?

I jump off the roof.

Splash.

 

14,688th time

Corpses. 500 corpses.

This is a mechanism made for Kazuki Hoshino to jump to his death.

 

14,888th time

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa​aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah"

 

15,233rd time

"                                                                                   "

 

18,900th time

"                                                                                   "

 

22,000th time

"                                                                                   "

 

26,000th time

"                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   "

 

27,500th time

"                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   

                                                                                   

        

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