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https://www.novelcool.com/chapter/Utsuro-no-Hako-to-Zero-no-Maria-Vol-3-Chapter-1/173783/

Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria Vol 2 Chapter 1

Volume 2

 

I am surrounded by scenery that I can only remember in my dreams.

I already know who the person facing me is, but without a box, I cannot deliberately recall this place except in my dreams. For that matter, I can't remember when this conversation occurred.

"Do you remember that I told you that I can see you as an individual even though your kind doesn't have any distinguishing features?"

I don't know. It feels like I have heard this before, but it also feels like I haven't.

"Thanks to what happened this time around, I am beginning to recognize why I can distinguish you from the others. It might be that, while rejecting nothing, you also don't accept anything."

This all sounds like mere semantics to me.

"First off, the everyday life that you never tire of mentioning is different from the everyday life perceived by others. You include the loss of things in your perception of everyday life, am I right? This is, in fact, different from the common definition of everyday life. Other humans are unable to take things as they come," he says with a smile. "All humans are distorted, and their everyday lives are twisted by their individual values. You could say that a box forces such distortion upon others. You are sensitive to these intentional distortions of everyday life by others' boxes—and you find them repulsive. Am I wrong?"

I really haven't the slightest idea of what he's talking about. Leave me alone already...

"This time around, your body was attacked directly, but even so, you managed to retain your 'self' without being affected by the values of the owner. That is because you intuitively recognize the distortions of others. And when you know that something is distorted, you naturally wouldn't accept it, would you? However, your ability to detect those distortions is orders of magnitude greater than that of an ordinary person, and because of that—you cannot accept anything."

I can't help but frown, but he insistently continues.

"Your field of vision is terribly small compared to mine. But those abilities... Aah, I see. You might... resemble me."

Please stop.

You are disgusting.

When I say that to him, he laughs and changes his ever-malleable appearance to that of someone quite familiar.

Mirroring my very own appearance, O says:

"May I interpret this as distaste for the same thing?"

That's not it!

We don't resemble each other at all!

 

 

 

April 29th

 

April 29th (Wednesday) 00:02

The first day begins.

April 29th (Wednesday) 23:57

The first day ends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

April 30th April 30th (Thursday) 00:00

The second day begins.

April 30th (Thursday) 12:37

Lunch break has started.

My yawn just now might have been caused by the mysterious call I received at six o'clock this morning:

"I'll make you a boxed lunch today."

The call was terminated, however, before I could even respond.

What is she up to now...?

It's the last day of April, and that means Golden Week—our long vacation—will soon begin. I am currently waiting for Otonashi-san in the corridor like I do every day. We normally eat lunch together in the school cafeteria; she has never made me a boxed lunch before.

"Kazu-kun! Did I hear Haru right?! A home-made lunch à deux with Maria is waiting for you?!"

It's getting noisy. Kokone steps in front of me, followed by a grinning Haruaki.

"...Haruaki, didn't I tell you to keep quiet about it to spare me all this trouble?"

"You did, but I'm free to obey or not!"

What an awful friend.

"Kazu-kun, what's the deal with that exciting special event?! Details, please!"

"...well, don't ask me why, but I got a call this morn―"

"A wake-up call?! All lovey-dovey, aren't ya!"

Please let me finish.

"A wake-up call..." someone murmurs behind me, causing me to spin around.

...Oh no, another bothersome girl has arrived.

"Ah, Rikorin. 'Sup." Kokone says.

"Good morning..."

The girl with that strange nickname is Riko Asami, a short freshman with a short haircut. She is a classmate of Otonashi-san's and a member of the Maria Otonashi fan club that has been flourishing ever since the school entrance ceremony. The two of them usually come here together, but it seems like Asami-san came ahead of time today. Maybe it's just me, but her expression and voice seem even gloomier than normal.

Asami-san is absent-mindedly gazing at me.

"...Um?"

Or is she scowling at me?

"You're getting a boxed lunch from Maria-san, I heard?"

"Y-Yeah, I guess so."

Asami-san doesn't say anything in response and keeps staring at me.

"......If only the batteries in your cell would explode... if only you were using batteries that were as obviously dubious as those cheap ones from overseas... burst, batteries, burst...!"

Her mumbled curses give me the creeps.

"B-But why did she choose Kazu-kun of all people, right?" Kokone cuts in with a smile in an attempt to ease the rapidly spreading tension. "'cuz of that, Kazu-kun's been getting really scary looks from the guys, right? I heard he's topping the list of 'People I'd Love to Kill by Faking an Accident!'"

"What's with that deranged list... who on earth would come up with something like that...?"

"I did!" Haruaki raises his hand. "Of course I handed in a vote! I can't stand how you're all lovey-dovey with Maria-chan!!"

I almost fall over in shock.

I'm sure Haruaki is just joking, but lately, the looks I've been getting have certainly gotten scary. Although I don't think Otonashi-san is the only reason this has been—

"Mh? Why are you looking at me?" Kokone asks.

"......It's nothing."

I bet she has no idea that my being so friendly with her is probably a factor as well...

Kokone just cocks her head. After the eternity we spent within that unchanging classroom, she's finally switched her hairdo to a ponytail bound on one side. A "side-ponytail," I suppose?

"Say say, I've been wondering: How did you tame Otonashi-san?!"

"Now, 'tame' is really not the right word..."

"Otonashi-san must be used to being hit on, so you didn't use any typical run-of-the-mill methods, right? Ah, I got it! You somehow made her believe that you were her special, fated love!" Kokone says triumphantly and starts to make some wacky comments. "Let's see... you might have saved her from some pervert who attacked her... Oh, doesn't that sound plausible?! The pervert was like, 'Hey sweety, your navel fluff must smell terrific... Wha! Now if that's not a scab down there! B-But I don't care!!' and right when he was about to charge at her as he murmured those words, you swooped in to save her from his evil clutches, right!?"

"I wouldn't have the guts to fight off a true pervert... wait a sec, we aren't even dating!"

That's just the plain truth, but Kokone's grin just gets broader.

"Sooo, how do you explain that incident at the opening ceremony, mm? Mm? Mmmm?"

"We—I—"

I know only too well how everyone has misunderstood that declaration of war during our school's opening ceremony. I absolutely have to come up with an explanation and wipe that giant grin off Kokone's face.

"That's just, you see, because Otonashi-san happens to be a peculiar—"

"—I'm a peculiar person, you say?" A familiar voice rings out behind me, and I reluctantly turn around.

Maria Otonashi.

Upon seeing her face, my body immediately grows stiff—not because her accusatory words made me break out in a cold sweat, but simply because I was unprepared for the sight of her incredibly pretty face.

I have yet to get used to her unyielding personality and stunning looks. I can't help getting flustered. I count up to three in my head as I always do when I prepare to talk to her.

I was together with Otonashi-san for the equivalent of an entire lifetime. I'm aware of that. But I don't feel like I spent all that time with her anymore.

"Why are you so stiff? Do you think I'm angry? I wouldn't get angry because of that, would I?"

"R-Right."

While my bewilderment keeps me paralyzed, Asami-san wordlessly toddles toward Otonashi-san and positions herself behind her.

"...Mm? What is it, Asami?"

Asami-san doesn't answer and just continues to stare at me. Haruaki opens his mouth instead.

"She's acting a little bit strange today. Maybe she's afraid that Hoshii is stealing you from her, Maria-chan! Because of that momentous Boxed Lunch."

"......How dare you call her 'Maria-chan'. You're obliged to append a '-sama'..." Asami-san mumbles once more, almost without opening her mouth while her eyes remain cast downward.

"Anyway, let's go, Kazuki."

"Um, to the cafeteria?"

Otonashi-san utters an exaggerated sigh.

"Is it really so hard to guess my intentions after I informed you that I made you lunch? I want to avoid the school cafeteria, of course."

Avoid the school cafeteria?

We meet there every day during lunch to discuss issues involving the boxes and O. That being said, it's hard to get any new information and we hardly ever discuss anything that must be kept secret from others. In fact, nothing like that's come up since Maria transferred here. Therefore, the school cafeteria has served us perfectly well.

But she wants to avoid the cafeteria today.

"So that's why you made a boxed lunch... But couldn't you just have bought a sandwich?" I mutter.

Otonashi-san suddenly brings her head near my face and whispers into my ear: "...I got fed up with the cafeteria sandwiches during the 'Rejecting Classroom,' if you know what I mean..."

Um... it's perfectly understandable that she doesn't want anyone to hear the term Rejecting Classroom, but if she draws so near my face right before Asami-san's eyes, Asami-san might get the wrong idea, no?

I sneak a peek at Asami-san, and as I expected, her gaze seems even more pointed.

"Um, Maria-san. May I join you...?" Asami-san asks.

"Sorry, Asami. I want to be alone with Kazuki today."

"Just the two of you..."

"Well, Kazuki, shall we get going?"

Otonashi-san grabs my arm and starts walking. Haruaki lets out an uncalled-for whistle.

...I wonder how Asami-san is taking this turn of events?

I turn around anxiously and hear her muttering something while gazing toward her feet.

"......If only a female cockroach with a swollen abdomen would enter your mouth, lay her eggs inside your stomach, those eggs would hatch, and your guts would get mangled...!"

She's really creeping me out!

 

April 30th (Thursday) 12:43

"Being here almost makes me feel nostalgic," I say once we're behind the school building.

We spoke here quite a bit while trapped within the 'Rejecting Classroom'.

However, Otonashi-san doesn't seem inclined to indulge in reminiscence: after giving me a sharp glance, she quickly takes a boxed lunch wrapped in cloth out of her bag and hands it to me.

"...T-Thanks."

"You're welcome."

I untie the cloth and open the lid. The contents look rather bland, which is a bit unexpected.

I start by popping one of the pieces of bacon-wrapped asparagus into my mouth.

....Mhm, the taste's rather bland as well.

"Um... I really like this bacon-wrapped asparagus."

"It's from the supermarket."

........Aah, I see. Yeah, it's no surprise that it tastes so bland.

Next, I take a bite of the hamburger steak. As with the asparagus, it looks and tastes completely generic.

"......Um, I really like this hamb—"

"That's also from the supermarket."

...I knew it!

I look over the rest of the boxed lunch. It seems like the potatoes, meatballs, dumplings and vegetables were all store-bought items.

"Don't make a fuss—there's no need to praise me so desperately."

"...Otonashi-san, didn't you cook at all while we were trapped inside the Rejecting Classroom?"

She previously told me that she practiced countless skills during those endless recurrences, such as martial arts.

"Oho? It looks like you're keen to criticize my cooking, doesn't it?"

"N-No, that's not what I meant..."

"Oh please, don't even try to deny it...Well, I'm not actually offended. I did learn to cook, and I was talented enough to prepare some fairly refined dishes, but I just never really got into it. I can't take pleasure in honing my cooking skills."

"So that's why you skimped on my lunch..."

"Now we're speaking plainly."

Whoops.

I sneak a peek at Otonashi-san's expression. ...She doesn't look offended…I think.

"...Um, on a related note, does that mean that you don't care about the taste of food in general, either?"

"That's incorrect. It's a pleasure to eat something delicious."

"So what's your favorite food, if I may ask?"

"Strawberry tarts. Basically, any confection that contains strawberry—hey, why'd you freeze in the middle of chewing that meatball?"

"Ah, no―"

Such a cute favorite dish? I could see you liking something like sweet-potato paste, but I don't think strawberries suit you at all. That's what I was about say out loud, but I somehow barely held back. That was a close one.

"Hohoo, denying other people's favorite foods—you've got some nerve, eh?"

"......You're putting words in my mouth."

"Sweet-potato paste would suit whom, you said?"

...why is it that I'm like an open book to you, Otonashi-san?

"So you like eating, but you don't like cooking," I summarize, deflecting her attention from my missteps.

"It's not really enjoyable to cook for myself. The whole process feels like nothing but pointless labor."

I see. Naturally, she had no one else to cook for inside the Rejecting Classroom. I've hardly ever cooked myself, but I know that one of the pleasures of cooking is to watch others enjoy what you've prepared for them. So if there's no one else to cook for, perhaps cooking would just become fruitless.

"...But none of that matters right now. It's not like I called you out here just for some chit-chat."

"Y-Yeah."

"Let's get down to business," Otonashi-san says, after which she searches through her bag and takes out her cell phone. "I received an e-mail yesterday, late at night."

"An e-mail?" I ask in response.

Without a word, she holds out the cell phone.

"My deepest desire has been granted. Now we can be together forever."

Those were the words displayed on the screen.

Um... what's this? It reads like... an excerpt from the sappy messages of a couple who just fell in love? Huh? In other words, Otonashi-san is going out with someone? The Otonashi-san that I know?

I look at her. She is smiling wryly at my reaction.

"Oh well, this is hardly unexpected after seeing you earlier today. ...Kazuki, take a look at who sent that message."

I do as told. The name in the 'From' field reads―

"Huh?"

―"Kazuki Hoshino"

I'm the sender of this e-mail? ...No no no, that's impossible. I don't remember writing any such message. But the proof is right before my eyes...

"At first I thought it was a scam of some kind, but my spam filter makes that pretty unlikely. It's safe to assume that this e-mail was sent from your cell phone."

"But Otonashi-san, I don't remember sending this―"

"How about checking your Sent Mail folder then? Unless someone emptied it, the e-mail should still be in there."

I nod and take out my cell phone. Much to my dismay…

"My deepest desire has been granted. Now we can be together forever."

…I see the same message in my Sent Mail folder.

"T-That's―" I sputter as I turn pale.

"Relax, Kazuki. I can tell from the look on your face that you didn't send this message because you were feeling amorous. But if it really were sent by someone else, then he must have used your cell phone sometime after two in the morning to do so."

The e-mail is dated April 30th, so that means it was sent at 2:23 A.M. this morning.

At that time, my cell phone was resting beside my pillow. I woke up because of Otonashi-san's call, so that's undoubtedly correct. Does that mean someone broke into my room late at night? Seriously? Why would someone go to such lengths...? "Kazuki," Otonashi-san says while I'm lost in thought. " Do you know how I was able to slip into the box we call the Rejecting Classroom?"

"...?"

I fail to see where she's going with this.

"It's related to what we're talking about right now. I told you that I was able to enter the Rejecting Classroom because I'm a box myself, but that doesn't really explain how I did it, does it?"

"...Now that you mention it…"

"In addition to slipping into boxes, I am able to detect and locate them as well."

"...Yeah."

"How would someone send an e-mail from your cell phone to mine sometime after two in the morning? Alternatively, how would someone make us believe that it happened? There must be multiple ways to do so, but I'm considering the following possibility."

She continues.

"It's the power of a box."

―a box?

"Well... I don't know how you can so easily come to such a conclusion. I mean, why would someone resort to a box just for―"

"Kazuki, weren't you listening to me? I am able to detect boxes. ...Ah, but you're right: this e-mail might be totally unrelated. But there is one thing that I can say for sure."

Otonashi-san fixes her determined gaze upon me.


"Someone is using a box nearby."


It's her serious look, and not her words, that gets through to me. I finally realize what's about to begin.

It's happening again.

Once again a box is about to destroy my everyday life.

"Okay Kazuki, let's get back to that e-mail. Assuming that a box is involved, what might be the significance of that message? It's a bit too optimistic to think that the owner just wanted to play a prank on us after acquiring special powers, isn't it?"

"...What do you think?"

"It's a declaration of war against us, or it might be a simple factual observation."

"A factual observation...?"

What does she mean by that? Otonashi-san obviously hasn't started dating the owner.

"It might be some kind of metaphor. Or the box was used to change the future this way... but we know one thing for sure." Otonashi-san breathes out lightly and continues where she left off. "The owner is trying to interfere with us directly by using his box."

Right, that's what it boils down to. Otherwise, there would be no reason for the owner to send such an e-mail from my cell phone to Otonashi-san.

"...What should I do?"

"That a box was used is beyond doubt. I need to find out how this box is used and grasp its essence, and I want you to help me do that. You're sensitive to slight changes to your everyday life, aren't you? You might notice some abnormalities that I wouldn't pick up on."

"Okay, got it. I'll keep my eyes open."

"Great. I'll be sure to get in touch with you once I've learned something new."

Since the discussion seems to have come to an end, I turn back to my lunch. However, Otonashi-san's chopsticks are frozen in place, so I also stop eating.

"Is there anything else, Otonashi-san?"

"Mmm... yeah, sort of," Otonashi-san says in a strangely vague manner. "It's no big deal, really, but it's been bothering me, and I don't like that, so let me be frank."

"...Okay, go ahead."

"What's with the way you've been addressing me?"

"Eh?"

She posed an unexpected question.

"...If there's no particular reason, never mind," she says and returns to her meal.

Despite the urge to probe further, I decide to ignore it and continue eating as well.

April 30th (Thursday) 22:38

Slight changes to my everyday life... I try to come up with some while sitting at my writing desk, which I have been using since primary school, but nothing comes to mind. Changes. We're surrounded by all kinds of changes.

Unable to come up with anything, I open my cell phone on a whim.

A picture of Mogi-san in pajamas is displayed on the screen.

While she does look a bit skinnier than usual, she doesn't look pitiful at all. The photo was taken at the hospital, and there's a beaming smile on her face as she makes a peace sign.

"Kazu-chan's grinning! Looking at lewd pictures!"

I quickly flip my cell phone shut when I hear my sis' voice.

"I-I'm not!"

"You're all flustered~ Something's fishy here~"

My sister Luka Hoshino is three years older than I am. She climbs onto the upper bunk of our bed with a broad grin on her face... as always, she's only wearing underwear. Geez, Luu-chan... she never listens to me and keeps walking around in that outfit all the time even though she's almost twenty. Your brother's a teenager, Luu-chan, for crying out loud!

"Aah, let me guess: You were looking at a picture of Kasumi Mogi-san, weren't ya~?"

"Wha―!"

How did she...?!

"Uwa, bull's eye? Uhehe..."

"H-Hold on! Why do you know about Mogi-san anyway...? Ah! Don't tell me you played around with my cell phone without permission?!"

"'Course not~ I only saw her name once when she called you, 'kay? That was a wild guess~... ah, but aren't you quite the lech? Having fun while looking at a picture of a girl?"

This is exactly why I want my own room!

To hide my bashfulness, I tightly grip my cell phone and dive into the lower bunk.

"Hey, Kazu-chan, is that Kasumi Mogi-san your girlfriend?"

"N-No, she isn't!"

"So what's your relationship, then? Or more importantly: How do you feel about her?"

"......uh..."

Our relationship... I wonder? How do I feel about her?

Well, she did confess to me inside the Rejecting Classroom, and sending me this picture means that she feels something for me... probably.

I certainly don't find her feelings toward me disagreeable.

But honestly speaking... I don't know if there's anything more to that. All the feelings I used to possess while inside the Rejecting Classroom are gone now. I have certain memories that imply that it's likely that I had similar feelings for Mogi-san. But because of those memories, I find it hard to think about her objectively. I have no idea how much I can trust my feelings any more.

"Well... we're friends, that's for sure!"

My sister doesn't reply even though I've racked my brain to answer her question. But when I perk up my ears in bemusement, I hear her breathing in a calm and steady rhythm.

...The speed with which she can fall asleep never ceases to amaze me.

That's when I notice that I haven't yet replied to the e-mail I was looking at, so I begin to type a reply.

I look at the time displayed in the corner of the screen.

22:59


I'm in the midst of typing my response when my stream of consciousness suddenly goes blank.

 

April 30th (Thursday) 23:18

Well then, time to make a call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 1st May 1st (Friday) 08:14

Kokone ignored my casual "Good morning" today.

She's acting strangely distant. She's still talking to our other classmates even though she would normally pop in arbitrarily into my conversations. At the same time, she's sneaking peeks at me from time to time, while glaring at me with a pretty scary look on top of that.

I don't know what's going on—I have no idea why she would suddenly start acting like this. Since I don't really feel like talking to my other friends when Kokone's behaving so oddly, I try to remain on the sidelines by focusing instead on munching on a cheese-flavored Umaibō.

"Did you do anything to Kiri?"

As expected of Daiya. He completely ignores my subtle signals and asks me point-blank.

"...I have no idea what's wrong."

"I see... Okay, let me tell you something good."

"Something good?"

Does he know the reason for Kokone's strange attitude?

"You know, when Kiri had her first midterm in middle school, she was so eager to get good marks that she almost ended up pulling an all-nighter on the eve of the exam. Because of that, she fell asleep during the third exam. It wouldn't have been that remarkable if she had just slept silently, but that didn't happen: Her babbling filled that dead-silent classroom even while she was sound asleep. If I remember correctly, she was saying something along the lines of 'This plug suit is too tight, I'll never fit in...'"

"Daiya... What on earth are you talking about?"

"Mm? About her weak point, of course. It takes a lot for her to dislike someone, so now's your chance to get on her bad side and banish her from your life. If you remind her of that story now, it'll be a walk in the park!"

"Uhm, why would I want to do that..? Besides, isn't that story pretty cute, actually?"

"No, this is where it stops being cute and starts getting funny. Listen up as I regale you with the Legend of Kokone and her Drool!"

Since I've got a bad feeling about Daiya's yarn, I wordlessly cover my ears, but Daiya just grabs my arms.

"Stop, I've had enough!"

"No man, forget that story for now—look over there!"

I look in the direction Daiya is pointing. Otonashi-san and a male student are engaged in a conversation by the door. They both look very serious.

The student she is talking to is Ryuu Miyazaki, a classmate of mine who happens to be the class president. His black-framed glasses are perched above his intellectual-looking, almond-shaped eyes. Unlike Daiya, who was elected to the presidency in his first year solely because of his superior grades, Miyazaki-kun fulfills his duties with great responsibility. But while he may be a model student, he isn't painfully rigid, and that's why he's still popular.

I reluctantly approach them; to be honest, I happen to have some trouble dealing with Miyazaki-kun's self-confident attitude.

"...What's wrong?" I ask. They turn around to face me.

"Oh, Kazuki. This guy stopped me when I wanted to enter the classroom."

"Of course! What's wrong with you, moseying into a classroom of your seniors? Heck, it's not even lunchtime!"

Now that he mentions it, Otonashi-san doesn't usually come here except during our lunch breaks. Maybe it's because she at least pays lip service to the school rules, rather than ignoring them outright.

"Planning to carry Hoshino off somewhere again, right?"

"What I do with Kazuki is none of your business."

"But it is. I'm the class president here, whether you like it or not. That means that I have to keep an eye on my classmates, got it? The first period is about to start; if you take him away now, he won't make it back in time."

"I couldn't care less. We have something much more important to take care of."

For a second there, I don't know what she's referring to, but on second thought, there's only one thing that comes to mind.

—It has to be about the box.

That's a task of great importance for me too.

"Um... I'm sorry, Miyazaki-kun, but I'll go with her," I say, causing him to stare closely at me with a frown on his face. I reflexively step back, intimidated by his piercing gaze.

"So you do whatever she tells you to?"

"T-That's not what I'm saying."

"You sure are a wimp, aren't you? Ever thought about having your own thoughts instead of playing a girl's poodle?"

"Hey, watch your mouth. It's like you're saying Kazuki doesn't have any will of his own," Otonashi-san interrupts.

Miyazaki-kun grins in response. "Ah, please forgive me. Did you take offense because I insulted your sweetheart? Ah, or did it bother you because I implied that you're ordering Hoshino around?"

"Miyazaki—" Otonashi-san scowls coldly at him.

He chuckles, "What? If you want to object—"

"You're acting suspicious."

Otonashi-san's words silence Miyazaki-kun.

"Your position as class president is too weak a pretext for meddling in our affairs. You didn't seem to care a bit until now, right? Why did you change your mind all of a sudden? What are you trying to achieve by approaching us so frantically? Is this an attempt to find an excuse that would allow you to meddle in our affairs?"

"...What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Fine then. Your behavior just caught my eye because I'm very sensitive to my environment at the moment. One can never be too careful, and even if you are really up to something, then this speech should put you on notice."

I watched their verbal sparring in mute amazement. Why is she talking like that all of a sudden?

"Kazuki, let's go," Otonashi-san says as she grabs my hand.

"Ah, yeah..."

Miyazaki-kun gazes at my arm with a slightly strained face as I am dragged away. Indeed, his approach was a bit more aggressive than normal.

As I am pulled out of the classroom, we come across Haruaki and Asami-san. Haruaki is returning from the restroom and Asami-san starts chasing after Otonashi-san.

"Oh, what's up Hoshii? On the run?"

"...On the run..."

Upon hearing Haruaki's unnecessary remark, Asami-san's gaze fixes upon our joined hands. She then raises her gaze slightly and looks at me with narrowed eyes. ...I'm scared.

"Oh, what's wrong Rikochii? You're acting strange today."

She keeps staring at me without appearing to be annoyed by that nickname, which she usually would.

"A-Asami-san has been acting a bit odd since yesterday... right, Haruaki?"

"Mm? Really?"

Haruaki, how air-headed do you have to be to forget about what happened one day ago?

"...Maria-san."

"Sorry, but we're in a hurry," Otonashi-san says to Asami-san while glancing at her quickly, and turns around.

Shocked by Otonashi-san's attitude, Asami-san casts down her eyes and murmurs...

"......if only the underground board of the school would get spammed with libelous comments and humiliating pictures that thoroughly ruin Kazuki Hoshino's dignity..."

Don't take it out on me!

May 1st (Friday) 08:31

Just like yesterday, our meeting takes place behind the school building.

"You know what this is about, right?" she asks while leaning against the wall.

I gulp as I nod. I suppose she has collected new information about the box that's currently in play.

"There are several things I'll have to ask you."

"Okay."

"Why do you think we are often together? Like right now, for example."

"Why? Because it benefits you. It increases the chance that you come across O again."

"...Exactly."

I'm pretty sure that was a perfectly good answer, but Otonashi-san wrinkles her brow.

"Hang on: So you are aware of the position you are in and haven't gotten the wrong idea, is that correct?"

"...? What are you talking about?"

"Come on! ...No, never mind. Of course you wouldn't say such a thing if you hadn't thought it through; I owe you a sincere answer. I mustn't run away. Kazuki, my answer to your feelings is—"

"Hold on!" I quickly interrupt her, causing her to yell out.

"Why do you interrupt me?!"

"S-Sorry... but what on earth are you getting at? Aren't we talking about the box?"

"About the box...? What's with that? Of course, the box is important, but isn't it obvious that I've brought you here because of the call you made yesterday?"

"My call?"

"Yes, yesterday's—" she breaks off in mid-sentence, her eyes wide-open, and holds her breath. "...I see. That e-mail... No, no way... I've spent so much time together with Kazuki, phone or not, this can't be..."

"Otonashi-san...?"

"Kazuki, I'm going to check something now," she says in a loud and clear voice. Then, she begins to mumble. "You... confessed to me over the phone yesterday, right?"

Confessed?

Does she mean confess as in please go out with me?

"You also told me that you would confess again face to face the next day—in other words, today."

"I...I wouldn't—"

"Right, you wouldn't say that, now that I think about it..."

"Of course I wouldn't! W-What makes you think that I said something like that...?"

"Well, take a look at your cell phone," she calmly suggests.

I nod, take out my phone, and check my call history.

The name I find at the top of the list is:

"Maria Otonashi"

The call was supposedly made on May 1st, at 1:49am.

That's impossible. I was asleep at that time, so I naturally can't remember calling her.

"Yesterday—no, strictly speaking, today—at two o'clock in the morning, you rudely roused me from slumber by calling and confessing to me. That is my understanding of what happened."

There's no way I'd do that. But on the other hand, Otonashi-san wouldn't make up something like this just to tease me.

However, as a matter of fact, I didn't call her.

"Did someone play a prank on you? I have no idea how they'd pull it off..."

"A prank...huh? So you're suggesting that someone used your cell phone and confessed to me because that person was clowning around?"

As unreasonable as it sounds, that's the only thing I can think of. But the moment before I nod:

"With the exact same voice as you?"

"—Huh?" I utter, leaving my mouth open like an idiot.

"Unless you have a twin brother from whom you were separated at birth, let me assure you of one thing, Kazuki: There was no doubt that it was your voice."

"You, you must have been hearing things! You just saw my number and thought it was me... probably..."

"Kazuki. I have spent a human lifetime together with you. I would never confuse your voice with someone else's."

She looks at me with utter conviction. I can't believe that she confused me with someone else, either.

Which means that I'm the only one under suspicion? No, that's just as absurd. Otonashi-san is convinced that it was my voice, but I'm convinced that I didn't confess to her. But it's a fact that I called her.

"That doesn't add up..."

"Yeah, it's contradictory, however you look at it. Which means that—"

Right.

A contradiction like this couldn't occur normally. Which means that—

"We are dealing with—a box."

I unwittingly press my fist against my chest, which already throbs with fear even though I'm still at a loss as to what's going on.

"We have to hurry up and come up with a countermeasure. The owner is obviously targeting us, and with ill will as well."

"What can I do...?"

"Let me think... I need some time to sort things out. For the time being, just make sure you're ready. I'll determine how we're going to proceed."

I nod wordlessly.

"We're done here then. I'm returning to my classroom."

With these words, she turns around and walks away.

 

May 1st (Friday) 09:32

I returned to class after the end of first period, only to find Kokone standing beside the door in a daunting pose. She is scowling at me for some reason, her face slightly red. Maybe she's angry?

"......I've been waiting..."

"Huh?"

"I've been waiting for you to approach me!" she complains in a loud voice. "But you thought you could just ditch first period together with her! I mean, what the heck! I don't get it! Your actions don't make sense, Kazu-kun!"

From my perspective, Kokone getting so worked up doesn't make sense, but I should be quiet now.

Seemingly irritated by my silence, she gives my chest a shove and presses me against the wall, grumbling all the while.

"Um... I'm sorry."

"Why are you apologizing?!"

"Huh? ...S-Sorry."

"No, seriously, why are you apologizing?!"

Kokone draws closer and closer as I try to cope with my hopeless confusion.

"Or do you want to apologize?! Apologize and pretend it never happened?! Isn't that cruel?! W-Well... that would make my life a lot easier, though..."

"W-Wait... what are you talking about?"

We're talking past each other, just like Otonashi-san and I did earlier.

...Eh? Wait a sec. Does that mean that—

"What don't you understand, mm? Because...! Y-You know... because..."

Her face flushes even more—she turns crimson right up to her ears.

If my guess is right, then I don't want to hear about it. Nevertheless, Kokone whispers the answer into my ear after she confirms there are no eavesdroppers.

"I'm talking about—that call yesterday when you confessed to me."

What...? I confessed to her?

I'm at a loss for words. Kokone looks at me with upturned eyes.

"Um, you know... I..."

She bashfully looks down at the floor, probably misinterpreting my silence. She mulls over what to say for a while, but eventually begins to speak.

"I'm sorry... I... I really don't know how I should respond... I mean... I thought of you as a buddy, and was pretty sure that's how you felt, too... Besides... not that it matters... but there's Daiya..." She musters her courage by clenching her fist and raises her head. "...Give me some time. I don't know when I can give you an answer, but give me some time... Sorry."

Her sorrow appears so clearly on her face that my heart starts to hurt. I want to shout out and tell her that it wasn't me, but there's no point in telling her that. Only a fool would act so thoughtlessly.

Reading a different meaning into my painful expression, Kokone straightens her lips just like I have, turns around, and trots back into the classroom.

After I can no longer see her, I murmur, "I also think of you as a friend!"

I clench my fist.

Suddenly, a certain thought occurs to me. I take out my phone and examine my call history. ...Why didn't I notice earlier? May 1st, 1:29am.

Kokone Kirino is listed right below Maria Otonashi.

 

May 1st (Friday) 11:00

Well then, let's see how things turned out.

 

May 1st (Friday) 12:00

The first thing I hear is the sound of a girl crying.

Daiya's face is right in front of me. I haven't the slightest idea of what's going on.

What the hell?

Cold hostility is flickering in his eyes. Toward whom? Toward me, of course, because I am the one reflected in his eyes. In other words, he is regarding me as an enemy.

Suddenly, a wave of pain rolls through me. My mouth and my cheeks hurt, as do my wrists.

Daiya is sitting astride me, grasping me tightly by the wrists.

I finally manage to comprehend the situation I'm in.

I'm in the music room. It's third period, so I should be in history class right now, but for some reason I'm in the music room, which is where my fourth period class is held. There is blood sticking to my uniform. Whose blood? ...It's probably my own; there's a metallic taste in my mouth. Daiya must have hit me.

What happened... what on earth happened here?!

"Daiya... what's—"

"Keep your mouth shut, Kazu. One more word and I swear I'll crush your mouth."

Daiya's hostility is real. The plain tone of his voice proves that he's not joking; he would probably resort to violence if I make an unasked-for remark.

What sort of nightmare is this?

However, if this were a nightmare, my body wouldn't hurt so much.

This is reality.

The crying hasn't stopped yet... who's crying, anyway?

I turn my head toward the source of the sounds.

Kokone Kirino is crying.

The first sensation I feel is comprehension. I see, that's why she didn't stop Daiya before things got to this point. The second sensation is wonder. Why would Kokone be crying?

The next sensation that spreads within me is horror.

—Please, no.

OK: Kokone is crying and Daiya has completely freaked out. So, who made her cry? Who made him angry? I'm in the music room, so it must be fourth period already. I don't remember anything that happened during third period. Yet I'm here. In a different place than I was before. In other words—

—I moved unknowingly?

Like when I unknowingly sent an e-mail to Otonashi-san and confessed to her.

Like when I unknowingly confessed to Kokone and destroyed our relationship.

What if I unknowingly did something that hurt Kokone and provoked Daiya's wrath?

"That's enough, Daiyan," Haruaki says as he puts his hand on Daiya's shoulder.

"That's enough"?

Does that mean I deserved to get knocked down and beaten up?

Daiya bangs my hands against the ground and releases them. He slowly gets to his feet, piercing glance still fixed upon me. Then, almost as if on a whim—

"Ugh!"

—He tramples on my stomach with all his strength and turns his back to me.

I squirm in pain and catch a glimpse of my surroundings as I do so. Everyone—my classmates, the music teacher, and even Haruaki—is looking at me as if I had done something incomprehensible. Kokone's crying gets even louder as she presses her face against Daiya's chest.

I try to rise, but I have trouble doing so because of the pain. Nobody bothers to give me a hand.

It's as if I were prostrating myself before them.

Why do I have to endure this? Why does everyone seem to think that I got what I deserved? I don't know what happened, but I do know the cause.

—It's a box.

Right, it's not my fault, it's the fault of a box. I haven't done anything wrong!

Then why do I have to go through this?!

I stand up. On my own.

Even though I'm the center of attention, no one approaches me.

I know perfectly well that no one is going to understand what really happened. Therefore, no one approaches me, no one speaks to me. No one. Not Daiya, not Kokone, and not even Haruaki. No one. No one. No one no one no one—


"Kazuki, are you alright?"


No one but her.

I smile. Her sudden appearance in the middle of the lesson leaves everyone astounded, but I'm not surprised at all.

"...Maria."

As she hears her real name escape my lips, her eyes widen for a moment, but she immediately regains her usual equanimity and rushes from the door to my side.

She stops in front of me and draws so near to my face that I can make out her individual eyelashes, completely ignoring the spell that is keeping everyone else away. She gently strokes my swollen cheek.

"First of all, let's get your wounds treated. Follow me to the infirmary."

"...Got it."

She walks away and I follow her.

No one calls out to us.

The moment I leave the room, the crying grows even louder. At least, that's what I thought.

 

May 1st (Friday) 12:17

No one is in the infirmary.

Upon realizing this, Otonashi-san examines my injuries and palpates my wound. She takes a medicine box off a shelf and starts to treat my wound with deft movements.

"I sure didn't expect to come across such a disastrous scene when I decided to share my new thoughts on this box with you... What happened?" she asks, while disinfecting my wound.

"I would like to know that myself, actually."

"You don't remember?"

I nod. For some reason she lets out a horribly annoyed sigh.

"It's always the same thing with you ever since the Rejecting Classroom. It's getting old, you know?"

"It's not like I want to lose my memories..."

"I'm just joking, of course," she explains as she applies a gauze patch to my face. "The first thing I saw was Oomine treading on you. Do you remember what happened before that?"

"...He was already on top of me by the time I regained consciousness."

"So you don't have the slightest idea why he hit you?"

"Mm, I don't know."

After hearing me out, she crosses her arms and ponders the matter.

"Kazuki, do you have your cell phone with you right now?"

"My cell phone? It should be inside my pants pocket..."

"There might be some sort of record left behind. Search it thoroughly."

I quickly take out my cell and search it as instructed.

Calls Received, Outgoing Calls, Inbox, Outbox; none of them seems to have changed. I open the data folder.

"Voice Folder"

I have a Voice Folder? I open it.

There is one item with a 12-digit filename. I guess the numbers reference the file creation time. If it wasn't edited in some way, this file was created on May 1st, around 2 a.m.—in other words, sometime late last night.

I open the file and press the phone to my ear.

A voice starts to play.


"Good morning Kazuki Hoshino-kun. Or should I say, good day, or good night even?"


What the...?

I unwittingly pause the file playback. Why is there a recording of some unfamiliar guy on my phone? Why is this guy talking to me?

"What's wrong Kazuki? Did you come upon anything useful?"

Unable to answer her, my fingers tremble as I press the play button once more.

"Well, I guess it doesn't matter—you don't care about such details either, do you? What you do care about is who I am, right? Ah, just to confirm, you know about the boxes, right? You heard about them from O, right? There's no need for me to repeat that explanation, is there?"

He knows about the boxes as well as O? Does that mean that he is the owner?

"You must have noticed by now that your everyday life is starting to crumble. Cool, isn't it? After all, that's what I'm aiming for. But why? Because I want to eliminate you, Kazuki Hoshino."

The contrast between the casual tone of his voice and what he's saying causes my heart to race.

"I will eliminate you. I will destroy everything you value. With my box, I can steal everything from you. It'll be a cinch! After all—"

The voice is cut off. No, that's not quite right; I just dropped my cell phone.

"Kazuki...?! Are you alright? What on earth did you listen to?"

"Ah—"

I've just experienced clear hostility—from someone who has obtained the worst and most powerful weapon, a box, and is going to attempt to destroy my life.

Otonashi-san picks up my phone and opens the voice file.

"This is—!"

She raises an eyebrow as she listens closely to the message.

After a while she flips the cell phone shut, returns it to me without a word, crosses her arms and loses herself in thought.

"Kazuki," she finally says in an alarmingly clear voice. "I've been ruminating over this matter ever since the events of this morning. I had come up with some vague ideas for how we should proceed, but I couldn't come to a conclusion. However, now that I've heard this recording, I've made up my mind."

Otonashi-san looks straight at me.


"I won't trust you anymore."


"—huh?"

I open my mouth like an idiot, unable to follow her.

"You've noticed by now that this box seems to be focused directly on you, haven't you? To make matters worse, you've already fallen into the hands of the owner. Therefore, I cannot trust you."

I repeat those words in my head.

She can't trust me—?

"W-Why? I would never betray you!"

"Right, you wouldn't. If you are Kazuki Hoshino, that is."

"Huh?"

"But are you really Kazuki Hoshino? Maybe you're the owner?"

"Y-You're being cryptic, Otonashi-san. The owner is the one who recorded that voice message, no?"

"...Did you not finish listening to the recording? No... even if you stopped listening midway, you should have at least recognized the speaker's voice."

"Otonashi-san, did you uncover his identity? Do we already know who the owner is? You know him?"

"...Well, I suppose it stands to reason that you fail to recognize the voice. After all, you've never heard that voice in this manner, and the way he talks is entirely different as well," she murmurs instead of answering my questions. She then turns her back to me and proceeds to leave the infirmary.

"W-Wait! Come on, at least tell me whose voice it is!"

She stops. But she does not turn around to face me.

"Kazuki, try listening to this voice once more when you've regained your composure."

Upon saying so, she walks away.

Stunned by her absolute rejection, I'm unable to call out to her.

Otonashi-san left me here alone.

As I listen to the voice, which is unfamiliar to me even though I hear it all the time, once more, I finally understand what's going on.

"Hahaha..."

I can't help laughing. Fair enough. It's only natural that she can't trust me right now.

"Shit..."

Then... Then, what am I supposed to do now...?!

"It'll be a cinch! After all—"

I finally hear the end of the message.

"—We're sharing your body."

It's the voice of none other than myself.

 

May 1st (Friday) 13:00

I guess I'll keep quiet for now.

 

May 1st (Friday) 14:00

All of a sudden, my consciousness is cut off, only to be restored moments later.

I'm sitting in my seat. We should still be on lunch break, yet I'm suddenly here in the classroom.

I check the time: It's 2 p.m., so fifth period is about to end.

I hurriedly look around the classroom. Kokone and Daiya's seats are empty—perhaps they left early—while my other classmates are more or less concentrating on class. Looks like everything's okay for now. On my desk, I find my textbook, my notebook and my writing implements. It seems that I haven't taken any notes.

There's no doubt about it anymore.

There are two entities dwelling within my body. It's not just "me" anymore; there's "another self" whom I cannot perceive, and has been controlling my body until just now.

The bell rings.

The break begins, but because of what happened in the music room, nobody approaches me. Instead, people only cast curious glances at me from afar.

This state of affairs must have been deliberately brought forth by my "other self." After all, he said that he wants to erase "me"—this is one of his attacks.

I fall flat on my desk.

What should I do about my "other self," now that even Otonashi-san has abandoned me?

"Hoshii."

Someone's calling my name, so I raise my head in response.

The expression on his face is totally unlike his usual joyful self. With an unbefittingly serious face, Haruaki asks me, "Look, why did you do that to Kokone?"

I keep my mouth shut. I can't possibly answer him—after all, I don't even know what, precisely, he's referring to.

"You know... I don't think you would say something like that without a reason, Hoshii, so I'm sure there is one. I'm probably just too dense to get it. But unless you explain, I'll remain in the dark! So why don't you let me in on what's going on?" Visibly uneasy, he continues. "Otherwise, I can't support you, honestly speaking."

His words make one thing clear to me:

Haruaki is the last fortress that protects my everyday life.

Would he believe me if I told him that I was being controlled by "another self"? ...He just might. But—

"—I can't tell you. I can't tell you right now."

I still haven't really come to terms with the situation I'm in myself, so I wouldn't be able to come up with an explanation satisfying enough to convince him.

"But I will soon!" I say while looking straight in his eyes, trying to convey my sincerity.

"Okay, I got it. I'll wait," he responds plainly, and walks away silently. He must have really wanted to voice his discontent, but held back somehow.

Haruaki said he'd wait, so I can't talk to him until the proper time arrives. I'm going to lose him if I speak carelessly.

And once I lose Haruaki, my final fortress, I won't be able to retain my everyday life.

...Yeah, I gathered what I have to do now. I have to learn more about this box and my "other self" as quickly as possible.

But how? I don't even have any means of communicating with him.

"......Ah."

Right. How did I learn of his existence, anyway? Because he left me a message.

I walk into the corridor outside my classroom and take out my cell phone—I'm going to send a message to my "other self," using the voice recorder.

Of course it's unclear whether or not he'll answer, but it's still worth a try.

"Hey, how do you do? Or do we know each other already, my 'other self'?" I start the recording. "I now understand that we're sharing my body, but I'm still confused. I want you to tell me more about this box. And I want you to reveal who you are."

Will he answer me if I question him so bluntly? After all, he's someone who is trying to eliminate me.

Therefore, I try provoking him a bit.

"Oh, but I don't care whether you reply or not. My behavior won't change no matter what you say to me. I couldn't care less even if you have the strongest possible reason to loathe me, a goal that's the noblest imaginable, or a past that deserves everyone's pity."

I'm surprised by the hostility of the words that naturally well up, so in contrast to my own character. But I feel that I'm saying what has to be said.

"I will not approve of your existence."

I have to convey my determination.

How could I approve of this? No way in hell could I allow anyone to steal me from myself.

My legs are trembling and I'm leaning against a wall before I know it. That's probably because my body is deeply disturbed by the first instance of distinct hostility I've felt toward someone in my entire life.

I close my cell phone and take a deep breath.

I'm going to crush my "other self."

No matter what his situation is, I will not permit his continued existence.

 

May 1st (Friday) 15:34

I notice that Kazuki Hoshino has recorded a voice file.

 

May 1st (Friday) 16:00

Right before my eyes is the face of an unfamiliar girl. Out of surprise, I let go of the strap I've been holding and fall over. The people around me giggle as I get back on my feet, trying to ignore them. I analyze the situation.

A strap? So I'm riding a train?

The reason is obvious: My body has been controlled by my "other self" again.

Without missing a beat, I take out my cell phone and discover a new voice file.

I press Play.

"I see, this is a pretty handy way to communicate. I was just starting to think that a one-way conversation would get boring! Well, let me answer your questions," the intruder says in my own voice. "When I received this box, I decided to make a certain wish: to become you—Kazuki Hoshino!"

I hold my breath.

"Well, and here I am, controlling your body... but look, don't you think that my wish is somehow lacking, since my control is only temporary and I can only steal some of your time? Rest assured, this will change before long. The process of taking over will end exactly one week after I first used my box. Once May 6th rolls around—the last day of the Golden Week—your soul will leave your body, while mine will remain."

So I have just over four days to destroy his box.

"That should be enough to give you an idea of the situation you're in. Well then, you asked who I am, didn't you? Haha, that's a difficult question indeed. Who am I? To be honest, I don't really know myself! I mean, I'm Kazuki Hoshino, no? But that's not the answer you want to hear, is it? To simplify matters, I've come up with an alias to differentiate us. You may call me"

He says in my voice.

"—Yuuhei Ishihara."

I burn that unfamiliar name into my memory.

"Okay, I guess I'll conclude with some feedback. You said that you wouldn't approve of my existence; well, I'm sorry, but I broke out into laughter after hearing that! I mean, what can you do about me? Prattle into your cell phone? Care to explain how you intend to execute your plans?" Yuuhei Ishihara laughs hideously using my voice. "You're really pitiful, so let me offer you one way to get rid of me. More than half of Kazuki Hoshino is already mine. It's simple—"

He speaks.

"—just commit suicide."

Again, his unbearable laughter resounds from my phone. I desperately fight against the urge to press the stop-button before listening to the rest of his message.

The voice calms down and I hear his final words.

"Oh, one more thing, in case you haven't noticed: one of your friends sent you an e-mail!"

A friend...?

I gulp and open my inbox. The name Haruaki Usui is displayed at the top.

I don't remember opening it, but the message is already marked as read.

What—

What has he done to Haruaki—?!

I take a deep breath. Still unable to calm down, I bite my lips. I don't want to admit it, but my hands are trembling.

I open the e-mail.

"Please don't talk to me for a while."

Aah—

The last fortress that protected my everyday life just crumbled away.

May 1st (Friday) 23:22

I'm dreaming.

It's the same dream that I've experienced several times already.

 

 

 

 

&nbs

Chapter end

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