AURA 41

 

I was only twelve when I enlisted.
I joined the dream legion.
While I wasn’t the one to cast judgment, I think I was a first-rate soldier.
The symptoms began in a first year’s head.  It lasted close to three years.
Games, light novels, comics, I remember being hooked on them from around fifth grade. Up to then, it was the normal soccer,  games, manga, TV. My parents wouldn’t buy me many manga or games, so I was restrained from an overdose, but for some reason, light novels alone lipped under my parents’ radar. I’m sure it was because they were novels. If their fifth-grade son was hooked on reading, any parent would loosen the strings on their wallet. After junior novels, I’m sure they wanted me to shift into Natsume Souseki or Ishikawa Takuboku or Izuki Kyouko, but that never happened. With the support of an environment that would endlessly fuel my novel fever, like a flaming crop, it continued to burn and spread.
I was hooked on  ‘Mu’ on the side. ‘Mu’ was a mystery magazine that supported a young man’s dreams. With its claim to be an academic publication, I also got it through my parents’ checks. Along with the Mu columnist, I prayed for the existence of the Mongolian deathworm.
I read, I festered, I yearned—
I read of warriors with settings that were far too cool.
Like freely manipulating katanas that were taller than they were, emitting all sorts of destructive energies, concealing special powers, modern magic, various powers awakening in the midst of battle, wearing a coat right over bare skin.
It was inevitable that I longed for the day one would be reborn, slip into, escape to, lose their memory, or charge recklessly into the stage of modern Japan.
Just like that, in the spring of my first year of middle school, the delusion of the strongest swordsman from another world was born.
Bearing a harsh past, he held the power to (I remember the exaltation I felt when I wrote the line) annihilate an entire army. Both his sword and his magic were super first rate. He had a deep familial love for his sickly younger sister.
… I produced the settings in bulk. I put them together in notebooks. Ten volumes in total. I wrote out chronologies, I determined enemies, I let my feelings rage on for a distant lover. I mulled over a little sister’s forbidden love. When I was nothing more than some scraggly-haired middle schooler.
At first, I was just supposed to imagine.
And yet, it didn’t take too long for delusions to overtake reality.
Maryuin Koga—
The ‘true name’ I had given myself.
Right, an otherworldly soldier’s name was always something like Mushanokouki Furea or Ootori Raisen or Hazama Kira.  My mentality to give the character I created the greatest name spurred on such an overblown name.
If it was just the name, that would be fine.
In various aspects of my school life, I began acting like a swordsman.
Like Suzuki Osamu and the others.
For example, I could never neglect a knight’s duty to report to the prestigious Maryuiin house. When the regulation time came, even if I was in class, I would speak to the magic stone embedded in my right arm (so the story went) to establish contact with the other world. The magic stone was a translator, a transmitter, it could even dispel the enemy’s brainwashing magic, Gildiem.
“Is this the main house? This is Light Fang. As of the present time, I have failed to detect the diving dragon’s aura.”
That Light Fang which resounded colder than a Siberian blizzard was a  code name. If anyone out there has a time machine, please go right ahead and kill that version of me. Take a load off my shoulders.
My teachers yelled at me, my classmates were creeped out. But I wasn’t moved. I never thought it was bad. I was drunk on delusion. The reactions I could easily imagine now, I could never anticipate back then. More so, I even thought that displaying true-to-life soldier pride would elicit respect from my surroundings.
I would cut down unseen enemies with my aura blade, protecting my classmates from invisible attacks, at times even suffering serious injury.  I  interacted with the soul of the evergreen growing in the schoolyard. In morning assemble, there was even a time I held a hand over a girl in my class and said, “You’ve been brainwashed. Rest at ease. I’ll dispel that Gildiem right now.” She cried. I was hit. I was called (to the staff room). By the way, I liked that girl.
Constantly repeating such acts where everyone could see, I was a complete outside existence.
Even so, there were still people who would hang out with me. The class naughties.
They would kick me down, strip me naked, grab me by the ankles and drag me down the hall (while naked), and finally throw me into the toilet. Good, do it more. Just end me. Even in the midst of that, “I can’t use my powers on a student!” I would ceaselessly say in place of a scream. What a nostalgic memory. I was so homesick, I thought I might flip the suicide switch.
For three long years, I lived a soldier’s life, but naturally, the end had to come.
The chosen one hailing from another world, having disguised himself as a modern person, I harbored a tragic past of my true parents being killed by the Divine Dragon Astaloy. My transient parents were no more than a false family. My ties to them were only superficial. The day came when, compelled by my deep sorrow, I placed those thoughts down on paper addressed to my beloved Princess Erina, who had remained in the other world. And that letter.
I placed in the post.
By the setting listed out in volume seen, to deliver a letter to the other world, you merely have to write a nonexistent address and drop it into a rift in time.  But I submitted a real envelope marked with the Maryuu Seal (a ward so people couldn’t arbitrarily open it), in a real post box.
The letter returned due to unknown destination. My parents read it without delay. Both my father and mother hit me and cried. In the end, we reached the stage where I underwent a brain scan, and I was sobbing too as I was made to confess to the garage delusions birthed by my own hubris. The shock remedy forced me to escape from my fantasist spiral. The Gildiem was dispelled.
Like that, I managed to return from Maryuin Koga back to Satou Ichirou.
Satou Ichirou, a plain name. I didn’t have any verbose middle name like ‘Fenrir’ or ‘Odin’,  or any cool moniker like ‘of the lightning’ or ‘heaven enforcer’. Just Satou, normal Ichirou. Three cheers.
There was much lost in my life as a soldier.
The sense of distance to my family was the same. Even now, I was like a tumor in the house. While our relations were peaceful on the surface, both my father and mother handled me gingerly.
My relationship with the big sister I’d gotten along so well with in elementary school was destroyed.
While I was a dream soldier, she directed terrible abuse. I was kicked, I was punched, I was threatened. My eardrum was ruptured right after the letter incident. After the devil had left me, my sister started taking distance. I could only talk to her cordially.
Delusions break reality. Even if I’d completely recovered from the sickness, my past folly wouldn’t go away. Many of my classmates would use me as the butt of the joke, they would scoff, they would pull out their phones. I’d feel all special and show myself off to all the folks with the newest model cell phone. Whenever the lights flashed, the flowers of laughter would bloom from all over. What a convenient app. The Maryuin Koga photo collection.
And some way or another, Ooshima Yumina had obtained it.

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AURA 40

 

The place Kume-san directed me to was a region filled with apartment complexes a little ways away from the station. Away from the main road, where only futon shops, cleaning stores, Izakayas, stores appealing to the direct local crowd dotted the place. The lack of prosperity wasn’t much different from a residential district in the middle of the day. So when I stood before the indicated complex and spotted the antique bookstore occupying the first floor, I was confused in spite of being informed of it beforehand.
How was an old bookstore surviving in a place like this—
One look was enough to tell the store was a clutter.
It was the sort of bookstore you might see in Kanda-Jinbocho, the sort wit books piled up the edges of the eves. The dustiness could be conveyed outside, and entering the shop required some courage.
By the way, to the right of it was a Ramen store with the shutters down, to the left, a western apparel store catering to old women (judging by the impression).
“So this is… the origin of the legend.”
The store’s interior was narrow. What’s more, because the bookshelves were huddled together to the very limit, it became even more cramped. So cramped, it would be impossible to slip passed another person between the shelves. On the floor, book bundles bound in vinyl threads, were mercilessly stacked up with too much empty space like a shoddily-played game of Tetris.
There was evidentially no intention to display products in any tidy manner. Neither was there any mind to maintain hygienics in the store. The paper taped to the glass of the entrance sliding door had nothing but ‘Shoplift!’ written on it in red, quite a perplexing statement. Usually, Don’t shoplift, or Shoplifters will be arrested was the norm. Meaning, this store was far from a normal store, and its shadiness was also fitting of the land that birthed a legend.
After venturing further and further into the narrow store buried in old books, “Whoa,” the sight of a beauty in a red kimono sitting behind a cramped fifty-centimeter-ish counter almost made me jump back.
The manuscript I was looking for—I recalled Kume-san’s words— was in the furthest reaches of the old bookstore, it was hidden in the read-only, not-for-sale corner.
Countless bookshelves had changed what was once an open space into a complicated maze. The back passage passed the counter had a placed with a single curtain draped over it. Whether I was allowed to pass beyond it or not… I looked at the shopkeeper, hesitating whether to ask or not, when the pretty lady raised her face, turned me a modest smile and told me, “The adult section,” I immediately straightened my back, but shortly “… is not in that direction so please proceed at your leisure” she added on. If nothing else, I had a vague sense I was being teased. I was running into a lot of weirdos these days. Dammit.
After regrouping, I marched on.
It was blatantly the adult section.
“You lied to me!”
But at the end of the adult section was the not-for-sale corner I was looking for.
“Kuh…”
I hate this store.
The manuscript I was looking for—came Kme-san’s secretive whisper— is sandwiched in the pages of a local history book. It was a small corner. It didn’t take long to find.
Locally history was a topic that wouldn’t sell to a particularly wide demographic. While the same books were left in small bookstores around the shopping district, they gave off the sense they hadn’t sold in ten years.
An antique local history was at an even greater disadvantage.
While the price printed on the back cover listed it as a faded one thousand yen, the tag identified it was not for sale. What could be bought for a discount at the shopping district. It was a mystery for what reason it was being kept.
That’s just how perfect the camouflage is— I recalled the look in Kume-san’s eyes, as if he was boasting of the treasure he’d found. I tried skimming. The sour scent of old paper stung the air. Perfectly in the center, a colorful scrap of paper was sandwiched with the vividness of a pressed flower. The manuscript.
“Well I’ll be…”
The mysterious work known as the Voynich Manuscript was famous, and it was something similar. The manuscript was covered up in what looked like ancient writing. While they looked vaguely Japanese, there wasn’t a single character there I had ever seen before. That foreign language with a touch of Japanese was almost like a code.
There were a few colored illustrations, rendering the manuscript vibrant like a picture book. That’s what gave it a playful impression. The illustrations were of maps, of vegetation, of rocks, of brambly landscapes, of mysterious animals. There was no uniformity to them, on the contrary giving it a broader meaning. While it looked like a natural history magazine to me, according to Kume-san, it was a ‘Research document on spells,’ apparently.
The manuscript had fallen apart. Each page was preserved in a different interval of the history book. What was originally a not-for-sale volume, with all sorts of curious onlookers passing by and flipping through (it was apparently a famous manuscript in the area), it was dismantled, however, unable to take it out, it was preserved like this. If it was sandwiched in an unneeded book, perhaps those hopefuls would look forward to a chance they might be able to secretly buy it off (at a discount no less).
“It’s detailed, I’m surprised they got so much in by hand…”
It was apparently a complete unknown what hand had filled in the crowded codes and schema that covered it. This sort of thing couldn’t have been completed without a hint of dementia.
As I was flipping through the manuscript in the pages of the history book, I came across a drawing perfectly resembling the dragon’s nail.
“Here it is!”
There was no doubt whoever made the nail reproduced it from this. Some guy from the distant past. It hurt that I couldn’t read the letters. If I showed this to Ryouko, would her delusions clear up? Or could it be, she’d make up something new? Whatever the case, it was a large discovery, so reporting to Ryouko was a necessity. I was better not using my phone in the store. I took eight minutes to tap out the text, ‘Drgon info get, address ______ complex, thirst floor, love to brook store.’ And send it. I didn’t really what was happening after I hit space. When I looked back, for some reason, move had become love (seriously, why?).
The reply came in forty seconds.
‘This is Researcher. Emergency Signal Received. Transferring to point in 10sec.’
Ten seconds?
“Arrived.”
“Dwah.”
Ryouko was standing right next to me. Her other world costume the same as ever.
“W-when did you get here?”
“One moment ago.”
From the still-flapping curtain, even if the transfer part was a lie, that would mean she just happened to be somewhere nearby.
“Don’t tell me… you were tailing me?”
“Negative. Teleport. The truth.”
I let out a small cry. That was the face of a liar. She was tailing, stalking, a crime.
“Why were you tailing me!”
“Transfer is the only method to encounter Ichirou after school.”
I was at a loss for words.
“Then why weren’t you at school…?”
“Apart from speaking with Ichirou, it is impossible to discern any meaning in going, therefore school commute has been suspended.”
“… Is that so.”
“Report findings.”
While there was a lot I wanted to say, I had to finish my business first.
“Have a look at this. It’s not for sale, so you can’t bring it out in excitement.”
Ryouko took the book closely observing the page with the dragon terminal illustration. Her face with the glisten of silver plating was visibly pierced with the red of excitement.
“I-Ichirou. This discovery is exceedingly beneficial.”
“I know, right? But you can’t take it with you.”
“… Will attempt negotiation.”
“I doubt it’ll get you anywhere. I’m sure countless people have tried before you.”
To add to that, even if we took it, we wouldn’t be able to decrypt it.
“……”
“This is the identity of the item you call the dragon terminal. That’s all I wanted to tell you. I couldn’t obtain a real article, but I think this is the best information I’m capable of offering.”
That’s why, this is the end.
“……”
Ryouko was already entranced in the manuscript. Like an old typewriter, I could follow her eyes moving left and right in a systematic manner. Her eyes scanned through the other pages as well. I called to her from my side.
“Then I’ll be off, you can investigate until you’re satisfied. I can’t do anything about you coming to school, but just checking in for attendance is an option, so if you’re not sick, you’re better off attending. It’s better than getting counseled… I’m washing my hands with it. I’ll be protecting myself in the classroom, but I’ll at least consult over the phone. If possible, I’d be happy if you wanted to discuss rehabilitation.”
“……”
She wasn’t listening after all.
Something was bogging me down. But the search ended here.
“Goodbye!”
“?”
While she turned for only a moment to my angered cry, her attention immediately returned to her hands. She wouldn’t try to understand a single part of my irritation. As she stooped over, bringing her eyes right up to the book, she looked far younger than she really was.
My heart froze over. Drenching yourself in delusion is no different from putting up walls. A childish delusion was no different from garbage. It’s not something you can blame anyone for. Nor is it something you can hoist up with pride.
I was made the leader of the oddball group, trying to live each day as it came, but she never even considered opening her heart to me.
I don’t care if I’m narrow-minded. I don’t mind if you insult me, call me cold. I just want to be a normal human being. I want to say good riddance to my past self.

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AURA 39

 

When midterms were only two weeks away, a message came to my phone that rarely ever made a peep. The girl who taught me about the good luck charm.
She informed she found out the location of the dragon’s nail—or perhaps the dragon terminal.
Alongside the girls who carried them, the nails passed from hiding place to hiding place, rarely disappearing from circulation.
The hiding place changed every time, and while they were grounded in certain rules, the location was decided by whoever hid it. Once their problems were solved, if they didn’t pass the baton to the next per, there was a curse (so they say) and information wasn’t so easy to gather.
But in such a well-kept system, there was just a single hole.

“Worn down nails are supposed to be offered up, but a lot of people don’t know about that. There are a lot of kids worried when theirs is damaged or breaks, so the posts come around now and again.”

The mail sent to me had a screenshot of a post attached.
A certain OP posed the question, “What do I do if the nail breaks?” From the message body, it seemed considerably serious, and I could tell it was a real question not out of pure curiosity.
The response came in no time. “You just have to offer it to the shrine,” if even identified the shrine’s location. If the OP was serious, they would surely make for the shrine within the next day, she deduced.
So after school, I pedaled my bike and made for the shrine in question. Even if it was in the same town, I got considerably lost, barely managing to find it before it got dark.
“Heh…. This?”
I compared the shrine before me to the map on my phone. No doubt about it.
The shrine was terribly small. With the image of a standard temple in my head, I felt let down.
The grounds were only around four meters across. There was no main office building, with the row of Tori gates all puny ones. The front gate and hall of prayer were one and the same, with the two Japanese gargoyles no larger than cats. The easily countable trees in the grove around it surrounded the main sanctum like a folding screen.
“And you’re supposed to hide it here.”
In the foundation supporting the main shrine, there was a portion where the stone was put together in a lattice pattern, with a crevice opened up in a blind spot. When I timidly reached my hand in, my finger brushed up against the texture of a seal case.
“It’s really there…”
When I pulled it out and investigated it, the same item I’d seen at the infirmary and soba shop was contained. It was undoubtedly real. If I handed it to Ryouko, I’d have fulfilled my duty for the time being. But what sort of wish did that girl have to collect all of these?
Ever since that phone call, Ryouko had taken off from school.
My secret hadn’t been publicized yet. But that didn’t mean the situation was one to be relieved about, and as long as my secrets were being held, my stress continued perpetually.
“… Crap, I’m in a dead end no matter what.”
I gazed at the nail, my conscious muddled with whatever unsatisfying conclusion I might reach.
“Hey you! Hold it right there!”
The abrupt call severed my thoughts.
The individual who called out to me wore clothes that didn’t fit the place that, while small, was still a shrine. I casual hunting cap, a three quarter sleeve T, skinny jeans. His refined impression came from the ornaments covering up his neck and wrists just drab enough not to come off as flashy. He looked like he’d fit in more playing around the business district than visiting a shrine, but more than that off-sense, the stronger sensation was one of déjà vu.
“Haven’t I seen you before?”
“You run the accessory store, don’t you?”
Our voices overlapped in timing and intent.

 

“I see… so you’re also chasing the charms.”
“Yep.”
When a trace of night wind began to hang in the fall air, not a single child’s shadow graced the playground equipment of the park, where Kume-san and I occupied a bench meant for three. I meekly sipped at the canned coffee he treated me to as I explained my circumstance, covering up the deeper portions.
After he’d heard out my situation, Kume-san groaned a hmmmm, to himself as he thought.
“… While I’m sorry about your absent girlfriend, I’ll have to retrieve this one.”
The nail was in Kume-san’s hands. He had requested I hand over the one I’d obtained.
“Kume-san, how are you related to these charms?”
“Looks like I can’t keep silent after all you’ve told me…”
“Is it complicated?”
“No, it’s just, aside from my work, I take care of maintaining these good luck charms.”
“Maintaining charms? That’s something you don’t hear about often.”
When Kume-san laughed, he seemed just a little younger.
“You’re right. Though it’s half just a hobby. A few years ago, I was on the internet when I stumbled upon a story that the nails were enshrined… when I tried looking into it, they really were here.”
“And maintenance?”
“That’s what I do. After that, I can give it to someone, or hide it somewhere and post about it on the net.”
That really is a trendy charm system. To think it even has a maintenance feature, what a mystery.
“Do you know who started all of this?”
“Couldn’t tell ya. But that’s how it goes with urban legends, don’t you think.”
“Hmm, then do you know how many nails there are in total?”
“I don’t know that either. I’m pretty sure there are more than ten. From time to time I see one here and know it’s one I’ve worked on before… but only occasionally.”
Then there was a long, long way to go to collect them all. Not that I knew how many Ryouko needed.
Kume-san took a glance at my wrist.
“I see you’re still wearing the watch I made.”
“Yep, I’ve taken a liking to it. My previous one was a nine-hundred-yen cheapo, so it’s a nice upgrade.”
Kume-san’s looks crumbled. He was the honest sword who smiled when praised.
“Thank you. It makes me happy to see what I’ve made be put to actual use.”
“You’re quite the creator.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Kume-san flapped his hand. He shied back. “I’m not that great. At most, a guy who does some crafts.”
His reactions were so interesting I almost laughed myself.
“So you’re not even a craftsman yet?”
“There’s a long way ahead of me. I’d like to try some large job someday.”
“I’m cheering you n.”
“Ah, right. Thanks,” Kume-san scratched his head.
“Then I should get going. I’ll try looking for another nail.”
Kume-san turned to a serious face. Rubbing his chin, he spent a while in deep thought.
“… I feel a bit sorry. You’re the one who acted on the info first, but you’re not getting any return.”
“It’s fine. I’m sure it’s in need of some maintenance. Those charms are interesting. You should keep them going.”
When I told him how I felt with no fabrication, Kume-san stared at my face.
“… Satou-kun, could you keep what I’m about to tell you a secret from the girls?”
“Sure?”
The story Kume-san told me in exchange for the nail brought me the sort of shocker I got from reading a special feature in ‘Mu’.

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AURA 38

 

“Ichirou, it is time to search.”
The same day, after school. Ryouko stood by my desk.
I couldn’t look her properly in the face anymore.
Stuffing a textbook into my bag, I exerted myself to reply in a forcedly level voice.
“I can’t. I’ve got business to attend to.”
“… Significant breach of contract”
“It’s not happening.”
When my desk was empty, I continued changing the order of the books in the bag. I couldn’t settle down with that positioning. It would be difficult to carry if I didn’t get it right. Tacking on some false reason, I immersed myself in the act.
I wanted my cold attitude to rid me of her already.
But once she’d latched onto something, Ryouko wouldn’t change her thoughts so easily. No one knew that better than me. My only option was to forcefully shake her off.
If I complied.
As I raised my face, Ooshima entered my field of view. She was watching. Wicked women are generally moderately proficient. With a smile of ice on her face, her long legs folded, she sat elegantly with her back leaned against the wall. If say, Sharon Stone’s human power was 100Hu, Ooshima quite likely read in at 70. She was way too strong.
“But of the Dragon Terminals are not found and secured, the world will fall into an unprecedented crisis. Those articles are too dangerous for the phenomenal realm; the two of us must contain them no matter the cost.”
“Sorry.”
It was impossible to thrust her away with conversation. Standing from my seat, I could only leave by physical means.
Ryouko, left by the wayside, looked far too lonely for a witch who had slipped in alone from another world. What cowardly self-preservation. I knew full well I was pathetic. If you want to blame me for not sacrificing myself to save someone, be my guest. I didn’t have the slightest expectations for that sort of justice in the world.
There are only two things that can save you, coincidence or wisdom.
At home, after a dinner I couldn’t make out the flavor of, I made a call. After three calls, someone picked up. A juvenile breath informed me Ryouko was across the line.
‘……’
“Ryouko? Sorry, but there’s something I want to talk about. Can you listen?”
That Ryouko was being bullied. That I was being targeted. That if we didn’t stop hanging out, I would be dragged in. I covered up only Ooshima’s name and told her.
“You might hate me for it, but I’m prioritizing self-preservation. That’s why in class and in school, I can’t work together with you for the time being. Please try not to talk to me. Even if you do, I can’t properly interact at school.”
‘… You promised to search.’
“I did. I won’t go back on my word. However,” urged on by guilt, I naturally sped up.
“We’ll be acting separately.”
‘Define separately.’
“Exactly what it sounds like. I’ll search by myself. You handle your side.”
I had a faint sense she was hard of breath.
‘… Ichirou is being mean.’
“That’s right. But I’m not the only mean one here, you’re better off knowing that.”
Without crying sour grapes or making any excuse, I genuinely thought so. Ryouko was far too defenseless. Basking in her oddities was pretty much spreading the word, “You can attack me.”
“If you can’t endure it anymore,” and I gave her some advice. The greatest support I was capable of. “Throw away your costume and wear a uniform.”
‘… Ignoring the fact that proposition would lower defense values, The Researcher is hidden by a spell of concealment making it impossible for residents of the phenomenal realm to detect her by visual means. There is no need to wear—’
I felt like crying when I heard that unproductive explanation for the umpteenth time.
“Why are you like that?”
I yelled in a teary voice.
“Why can’t you even put in the effort to protect yourself!? Is it that important to show off you’re different from normal? Give me a break already! I don’t want to deal with that anymore! It’s because I realized it was pathetic, because I became aware of it, that I can never go back there again!”
While the phone waves could give hints, they wouldn’t convert her true thoughts into signals for me. Even if I had to make my best guess, when it really came down to it, dream soldiers were childish attention whores.
While they wanted to bathe in that spectacular attention, they knew they weren’t special, so they tried to make themselves cool with the flip of a switch. For those with otaku tendencies, it was easy for their sense of values to tilt away from reality. They’d become fictional operatives or bandmembers or develop multiple personalities or special powers. Showing off those settings at every opportunity for all to see came because they wanted to be respected and praised. Ryouko was the same.
“… Do you hate normal so much? Is the thought of being a normal person that far beneath you? If you want to stand out, then put in enough effort for people to want to look at you. Put in the time. Become something real. Don’t skip over all the process and suddenly demand results. I detest that sorta thing. It’s only natural you get bullied. Why can’t you guys make me genuinely want to help you…”
If she was actually trying to help herself, I’d help out all I could. But for someone without any such intent, why? How? That would just be spoiling them.
‘Ichirou’s restraints are…’ Ryouko was at a rare loss for words.
“What’s this about restraints? You’re saying the problem is with me? That is the logic you always used, isn’t it. No, this isn’t even on the level of logic. You’re just rejecting me.”
Alongside a dizziness, I was assailed by a mud-like fatigue. It became irksome even to put my stormy emotions to words. I put a lid over my heart.
“If I find a nail, I’ll deliver it to you. Could you not talk to me at school? I don’t really care if you hate me.”
I hung up without waiting for an answer. I immediately cut the power after that.
In the end, carrying a long battle to distance Ryouko with attitude alone was impossible for me. A coward in a corner. Evidenced by the fact the high stress was churning my stomach in circles.

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AURA 37

 

“… Satou, got a minute?”
Over break time, the representative of the normal girls, Ozaki-san called me out.
I faltered somewhat with someone I thought I’d never have another conversation with talking to me. Granted, she seemed to be talking somewhat reluctantly.
That was the second time I visited the landing between the third floor, and the fourth floor penthouse.
As the roof was sealed off, this place was a dead end. A place no one would come without a destination in mind, but the time Ozaki-san led me, that’s where Ooshima was.
What a peculiar lineup, I felt at first.
This was because, as of late, Ooshima was often paired up with Imawano showing no signs of acting in a larger group. Yet now, the queen bee with her back against the wall was with Enomoto, Ogino, and Kano (Four people, including Ozaki). Apart from Ooshima, it was the four normal girls.
My half-dead intuition immediately worked out that rather than the “Close to equal existence, yet free-spirited” Imawano, she had chosen the group that “Respected the heck out of her and were easy to use”.
While being called out by the queen was a bit of an enthralling experience, a dark feeling swiftly filled my body to the brim.
The triumphant face Ooshima carried from the very beginning was a source of anxiety.
I was about to run for the hills, but unless this conversation would be forceful enough to lead to Plan EXPULSION, I knew that wouldn’t resolve anything. A hopeless do or die.
Ooshima’s hand carried a cell-phone left open like a deceased shellfish. Crap, I inferred. This isn’t going to go well. It was rare for a mere object to emit an aura of its own.
“Satou, I’m sure you have no idea why I called you here.”
“How could I?”
Extreme mental strain brought a rush to my words. Perhaps my intonation had been interesting, as it warranted some giggles from the girls.
“I’m not here to complain to you, you can be sure about that.”
Ooshima said in a strangely gentle voice. Oh, I see, I could breathe a sigh of… despair, my degree of wariness only spiked in strength.
“But you think they’re creepy, don’t you?”
“Pardon?”
“The crazy folks in our class. You know who I’m talking about.”
“… That’s why you quarantined them all in one place during seat changes, right?”
“I mean, they’re impossible to hold a conversation with. Not only are they unpleasant, they’re impossible to deal with. It’s not even a difference of opinion, it’s not like our side did anything wrong. The other side’s just off in la-la land.”
In essence, I shared her opinion, so I couldn’t say anything clever back. I almost found myself nodding, “my thoughts exactly”. Whether she had seen through my intentions or not, Ooshima continued on.
“But you’re different, Mens. As far as I’ve seen you’ve got a proper brain.”
“Well, I sure hope so. That’s why, if you bully me, you should expect some proper countermeasures. You’re barking up the wrong tree here, could you find a better use of your time?”
Oh perish the thought, Ooshima shook her hand.
“The thing is, there’s something I wanted that supposedly-decent Satou to see.”
She turned her cellphone towards me. The scent of death lingered around that dead-clam-like husk. It was at that moment that my impulse to run reached its max. Something severe was about to happen.
The crystal display depicted a photo.
I let out a scream words failed to describe.
She immediately closed the phone.
“Did you see? Did you understand?”
“… That…!”
“I asked a friend to search out someone who went to the same middle school,” Shimizu’s warning echoed coinciding with a hallucination of the ground below me collapsing.
“And I heard it aaaall. Once I knew, I searched for a good girl who had the right picture. Amazing, right? This?”
I couldn’t move at all. The shock that had struck my heart was far too great even my body was shot. For how much I had always feared this moment. For all the scrupulous caution I had paid. For how deeply I understood how much dust would fly if they struck me.
I was finally outed.
The carelessness, the bad luck, the malice, no matter how many curses flew, it wouldn’t be enough.
“If this gets out, I’m sure there are some people around you who would leave.” She wasn’t just looking down on me; those were the eyes of a tyrant with my continued existence on the palm of her hand. “Like Kobato.”
I was startled. I’d been seen through. I hadn’t interacted with her enough to assert with confidence that would never be the case. Rather, I didn’t want to know in the first place. Didn’t want to try considering it.
Ooshima casually circled behind me, lowering the tone of her voice. It was a whisper of the devil.
“… Don’t get in the way of what I do. You got that?”
The conditions she lay rung lighter than anticipated. I didn’t really have any interest in Ooshima to begin with.
“… I couldn’t care less what you do, as long as it doesn’t involve Ryouko…”
“Are you an idiot?” The destructive force of a blunt weapon returned to her voice. “I’m telling you not to follow through for her in any way, shape or form.
“Ah…”
“In the first place, quit it with the double-Satou. Don’t cover for her. Go to the teacher, and get dismissed from your position.”
“There’s no way I’d comply.”
“Then I’ll just spread this?”
What if I stole her cellular phone and smashed it?
Of course, that was a no-go. She could just buy a new one, and she could reclaim the data from that friend of hers however many times she wanted. I’m sure someone in her friend group had it saved on a computer.
“Let’s see. Stop hanging around with her. Get in a fight or something, and go your separate ways.”
“Do you… really hate Ryouko that much……”
“It is only natural for Satou Ryouko to be done in.”
Ooshima’s voice came with the snap of a whip.
“It’s stranger for someone to cover for her. That cosplay… it’s crazy her private clothes are permitted. She’s the only one allowed to break a rule everyone has to oblige. It’s unfair, and you know as well as I do that no one accepts it. Apart from that loony bin of yours. Are you telling me I won’t be punished if I took out a cigarette and smoked it? You think that’d happen? You screwin’ with me?”
I’d made several suggestions to Ryouko about her uniform as well. But never once did she lend an ear. As long as her appearance changed, no matter how cringy she was inside, I’d be able to tentatively play it off. But Ryouko would never give any ground on the most important part of all.
And her searching. I spent so much time with her and completely failed to sprout mutual understanding. We were unmeshing gears.
Hey, what do you think about me, anyway? Do you ever feel like actually ‘conversing’ with me? I don’t know how many times I felt like asking.
That’s why, in the truest sense, I couldn’t stand by her side. We had no common language.
“If you don’t get in our way, I won’t spread the pic. Your choice.”
“……”
“You one of those guys who’s fine with being shunned?”
“Not really.
“I’m not telling you to bully her. I’m just telling you to stay out.”
I did a search of what was in my heart. Whether there was just enough cause to protect Ryouko, even if it meant my secret getting out… there wasn’t. The search came up with zero results. Nothing of the sort existed, not even a fragment. I couldn’t sympathize, I couldn’t concede, I couldn’t fall back to ethics. Ryouko had done whatever she wanted, and she hadn’t paid her dues. That was the injustice.
I had to pay them. I received the recompense of folly. Over the course of three years.
Wasn’t Ryouko obligated to pay them once? At the moment that logic established itself, something was collapsing inside of me. What had frozen solid by Dorisen’s order dissolved, a sense of loss, and a sense of release, a sense of guilt and resignation surfaced.
That’s why, Ooshima had the finest of timing.
“You got that, Koga-kun?”
The moment she emphasized that, “… Yeah,” I pathetically replied. I even held a feeling I had been saved.

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AURA 36

 

Evening, as I lay in my bed in the hours after dinner, a call came in from Shimizu.
‘Ichirou-kun, what happened after that? Smooth sailing?’
“Ah, my bad. I didn’t report. I can’t call it smooth sailing, but it’s like I’ve settled down where I’ve found some peace.”
As thanks for his advice, I told him of all that had come to pass.
‘So without aiming for it, you took your place as commander of the delusion-armed forces. Sixteen is amazing. That’s got to be the largest group.’
“You’re not wrong about that, but its not like they’re united. In the first place, I can’t stand to look at the cringe…”
Shimizu was guffawing over across the line.
‘You just can’t run away from karma, I guess.’
“You hit it where it hurts. I’m about to lose my will to live here.”
From his point of view, it was at most someone else’s business, so half for fun, he calmly put out comments that would seriously drag me through the dumps.
‘Ah, more importantly, I’ve got something else to discuss,’ before I could groan, whether he sensed it or was a natural, Shimizu changed the subject. ‘Someone’s looking for you.’
“Hah?” I was bewildered by this information I had yet to say, hear, or think about.
‘It’s kinda like the network was suddenly on it. It seems there’s someone who wants to know about a Satou Ichirou from N High. That’s you, right? It’s circulating around the girls, you know.’
“Well who could… seriously, who?”
‘I don’t know the origin, but it came to my place from Mishima. Mishima Shouko, you remember her?’
“I’d like to forget her, if I could.”
Mishima was a classmate from middle school. Excluding Shimizu, there wasn’t a s ingle person in middle school I could call a friend. Either enemy or potential enemy.
‘Relying on hearsay to pry into people is something only a person with a wide social circle can pull off. Do you know anyone like that near you?’
“… Social circle, a girl…”
There was only one person who fit the bill. The queen bee, Ooshima.
Though if you wanted to surprise me, maybe even Kobato.
But if Kobato-san was the ringleader, and the motive was, “Satou-kun, your personal information is only good to threaten and oppress you, right~?” I might just kill myself. After immortalizing my despair against modern society on a message board or blog as my will and testament.
‘Well, they’re already looking into you, so there’s nothing you can do about it, but you’d better keep your guard up. Sounds nice, it’s like raw school politics at work. A little interesting.’
While Shimizu’s voice was bouncing oh so amusingly, my feelings were the reverse, falling lower and lower.
‘What, if it really gets too painful, you always have the option of EXPULSION~ Subtitle: The Flight to Freedom~. It’ll totally work out.’
“Even if you bring it up as a joke, expulsion’s a game over! No way!”
‘But you can play to your heart’s content.’
“I want to study!”
I snapped, half serious. “In the first place, I don’t even have any friends to play with!”
‘Hahahah. Well, just be careful. I went out of my way to leak this information.’
“What does leaking it accomplish?”
‘Think about that on your side. How about solidifying your defenses or something?’
He makes it sound easy. Even if you know it’s coming, not being able to avoid it is the essence of bullying and harassment. Shimizu’s grades and athletics weren’t up to snuff, but he knew his way around. From an advanced player’s point of view, my troubles must have been simply charming. Without any way to put his information to good use, it came to pass that the inevitable made a direct impact a few days later.

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