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T-Toh

4 (part 3)

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The next day. The sky was as cloudy as always.

Everything was normal for them at school today.
Term exams were around the corner, and then it was going to be their winter break.
Around this time, Misaki High ran on a tight schedule, but it was first and foremost a private highschool that generously took the students' freedom into consideration.

Taking the role of a diligent student was what the student council president followed to a T.
Taking the role of a footloose student was, for as much as they let themselves, to freely spend their time as they pleased after school.

As it happened, the student that could qualify as a poster boy for the "Footloose Student" campaign, happened to be the vice council president himself. Why their school gave him such a long leash was a tiny mystery.

"Knock-knock, Aozaki!"

Harboring a rumored majority of pretend milk runs was the second student council room, and its door flew open as Tobimaru Tsukiji came bursting in.
He was vice council president, and a character with the commiserating job of being the student council's other half.

Just one person was waiting for him in this cramped room.
Sitting up straight in one of the pipe chairs, student council president Aoko Aozaki glowered his way in answer to his loud entrance.

"It's cold in this room as usual.
Hey, let's get a heater in here sometime."

Maybe as a bold attempt to break the ice, Tobimaru started a casual conversation with the otherwise close-mouthed Aoko.

"I'd appreciate that. On that subject, do you know what you're here for?"
"Sure I do. It's just harsh to make it all business in here.
Would it kill ya to be chattier than this?"

Shutting the door, he sat across from Aoko.
He was holding a blue envelope in his hand.

"As of now, I'd rather we get this over and done with.
I got a knack for that sort of thing, right?"
"I s---- nope! Nope nope nope!"

As workaday and blatantly crabby as Aoko Aozaki was, Tobimaru pulled back on agreeing with what she said and furiously shook his head at her.
No matter how much freedom he had in this school, he was still signing off as her daily spy.

"So then, let's see what you got."
"Right. I just got through the last of those I've talked to.
All the details are in that envelope. The file you lent me's in there with it."
He dropped the blue envelope onto the table.

"Good."
Aoko took it, and perused the documents for herself.
Once she started, she was off in her own little world, and Tobimaru clearly had no place in it either as she just ignored him.
She had a neat way of waving off distractions when it came to getting down to business.

"..................Yo."
"What?"
"I, gotta ask you something."
"Tell me, what?"

The silence was deathly chilling.
Aoko was checking documents in a no-nonsense fashion,
and while it was hardly anything that bothered him, Tobimaru was staring right at her.

"Aozaki, do you enjoy doing this?"
"It's not about the enjoyment, don't you think? Enjoying it, is the last thing we're ever going to feel from doing this."
"I see. I get it."
He seemed to accept her answer. Disappointed, Tobimaru rose from his seat.

"If you get to the end, you'll see I didn't get a lot of solid evidence. From what it looks like, seems none of our students were in that part of the neighborhood two nights ago. Still, don't quote me on it."

Losing his interest, Tobimaru was headed for the door.
He was just here to help with the case, and he was ready to leave it all behind him.

"----Oh, before I forget.
There's only one other student I didn't talk to about this at all. Since you didn't tell me to add him to your list, I left out our transfer student."

Aoko only looked up slightly.
That was true. She did leave him out of the investigation, as he was relatively new to the school.

"So, Sou-ji's got no part to play in it.
Oh, but he did kind of fess that when he was out late this one time after work......eh, he ran into a killer, or something like that. Makes ya think he was just havin' a bad dream while tucked up safe at home, right?"

Tobimaru cheerfully took off.

"----, wha--?"

At the same time, Aoko dropped the documents back onto the table.
Not that she meant to, but for some reason, she just lost the strength in her fingertips.

"......No, it can't be."

She tried to tell herself she was overthinking it.
But, based on what she just heard, plus the nausea that was attacking her all of a sudden, Aoko Aozaki knew that her hunch was currently pointing her in the right direction.

"----It seems dumb."

But the goal would still be the same.
Taking Tobimaru as an example -- him turning out to be their witness would still lead to having him killed by her.
However, what if he was their witness?
As soon as that "maybe" crossed her mind, she felt herself grow cold before she could ponder it at all.

Pressing a hand to her forehead, Aoko thought deeply.
And from beyond her memory,

"Let me teach you about choices. You will always be forced to pick between two things.
The good-natured simpleton, or the mean-looking sage. There's nothing you can do to save everyone. This is where you take your pick. That, is where all of your freedom lies."

was two years ago.
Muttering the words passed down that day to her by her grandfather, the same day that she was chosen instead of her sister, Aoko gave a small sigh of grief.

"----I just think it's, so dumb."

She laughed bitterly at herself for being perceptive.
How wonderful it would really be, if she had never heard those words at all.

Locking the door, Aoko left the student council room.
Calmly, and acting like there was nothing wrong, she greeted students that she passed in the hallway, all the while amazed that she was still acting like her usual self.

Things at school were still lively at this time.
Of course, those with club activities were to stick around. The schoolyard was alive with her schoolmates' chatter as they were getting ready to go home.
The gray sky could rain on them at anytime now, and they would still have nothing to seriously care about.

In the midst of all the clamor, Aoko quickly walked to the school gate.
She went past students talking animatedly with each other.
Most of them were discussing their plans now that the day was over. How to best spend their time after school was a hot topic.

Not that she would know about their wild idea of spending time out with each other, but Aoko was neither jealous nor felt like she wanted to make fun of them for it.
Up until two years ago, she was just as in love with her independence as they were.

"......Maybe I was always a cold person to begin with."

She fastened her muffler tight around her neck, not quite yet feeling alone in spite of that.
To begin with, people who hardly thought much of being lonely and pretended to be on their own, were said to deny how alone they were that way.

"......How true. Being a loner speaks for itself is all."

By the school gate was much noisier than usual.
The reason being that the boys were crowded around the other side.
They were all huddled in a secret meeting, whispering furtively among themselves about what lay beyond the school gate -- a girl that was standing on the street by herself.

A black cape was wrapped around the girl's shoulders.
It was normal wear for anyone to see, but the Misaki Town population could connect her caped appearance to the uniform of a prestigious all-girls school.
Furthermore, it was an all-girls school that was distinctly different from Misaki High, completely distant in terms of mentality and actual distance.

The girls' cooped-up life in their dormitories made them a rare spectacle anywhere in this town.
An academy for wealthy young girls and its renown were all echoed by the elusive Reien all-girls school uniform.

It was enough to excite the boys plenty, but there was also the fact that the girl in question was too good to be true.

She held her standing pose in a way that was too lovely for words.
Waiting without budging an inch, she was reminiscent of a picture drawn to capture her exact likeness.
One look at it, and Aoko would be sure to describe the picture as a statement on "solitude".

"......For Pete's sake, boys! Leave it to them to still hang around here and act like spies behind a bush."

Still appalled by the scene, Aoko pushed her way to the school gate.
Unlike her daily descent down the slope, she made a beeline across the asphalt and straight for the girl, who stood there waiting by the roadside.

"Aaagh!? Is that the Madame President!?"
"Aw crap, she's probably going to shoo our girl away. It's not a crime to be where she wants, it's a free country!"
"Is she gonna get it, then? Is our angel gonna get told off?"
"So what if she's from another school? I thought it'd be no big deal if she's hanging around......just outside the school gate......right?"
"Miss Aoko is a hard-hearted mistress. She has an awful hand when it comes to fairness, just awful!"

"............*sigh*."
Behind her back whispered the rabble-rousers.
Not up to the mood to turn and shout at them, Aoko made her way up to the girl, and just greeted her with a wave.

"What's up, Alice? I know you came all this way, but I did tell you nothing's worth your interest here, didn't I?"

"Wai-- you're kidding, right!!!!?"

The timed screams that erupted from the general area of the school gate, naturally went ignored by our heroine.

"I found a lead. ----Aoko.
These people? They need to go."
"Right, I get it. I'll get rid of 'em first."

Unlike Alice's strained voice, Aoko's booming voice rang loud and clear.
Undoubtedly, their mixed ideas of what was happening did not go unheard.

"Agh, the chief's comin' this way!"
"Gawd, quit pushin' back there and move aside! I'm goin' back to the school building!"
"Err, hold on, guys......the chief knows that girl, right? Maybe we're gonna get introduced to her, by the chief......"
"A-ha-ha, born yesterday, were you? This young man knows not what lies ahead on the battlefield. ----Good on ya, nothing is sweeter than a good dream just before you die."

Given that they were all huddled in one place, the boys found themselves cornered outside the school gate in a mad grab for safety. At that,

"O-K now! What do we have here, but some students who still aren't packing it up and going their way home yet? What's gotten into all of you to stick around like this, hmmm?"
"Euuugh!"

the student council president frowned upon their foolishness as a heavy sound rang out in the background.

"In any case, it's almost time for the exams.
Boys, as much as I'd like for you all to tell me what branch of education you're pursuing today, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you're gathered here to ogle at a prestigious young lady from an all-girls school, but I could be wrong about this, right?
I mean, instead of gathering up the courage to talk to her, you'd rather do nothing but stand here and stare, if that's so."

Not one man bold enough to answer stepped forward to confess that yes, that was exactly what they were doing. As far as nerves of steel went for just admitting to it, said nerves had flown out the window ages ago.

"......Hey, look at that, I left something back at the classroom......"
"Man, if this was how it was going to turn out, they should've just given it a mercy killing......"
"What if I borrow a pair of binoculars from the astronomy club? Perhaps permitting me to adore her from far up on the roof."
"Ain't no such thing at that club! Why don't you try the birdwatchers' group?"

"A-ha-ha-ha-ha! The chief shut 'em down last month, didn't she? She said she'd have 'em around if there was time to indulge our bird obsession."
"A-ha-ha, haaa......her, have 'em around, riiight......'scuse me, but I'm takin' the back entrance out of here today, Zaki-san......"
"Cripes! Later, Chief! See ya tomorroooow!"

Leaving those words and the rest of their charms behind, the boys scattered in fear of themselves, incredibly defeated by their superior.
"That seemed fun, Aoko."
"Oh, you could tell?"
She was quick at answering to Alice's remark.
In all honesty, Aoko's schoolmates were extremely nice people, so it was a treat to talk to them all things considered.

"----OK.
So since you came here, what did you find out?"
"I stumbled upon traces of the barrier's presence. Then, I just followed my nose up to your school."
"I see. Hm......? Alice, how long have you been waiting out here?"
"Since the moment I left school."
......Meaning that she was standing out here for at least an hour.
For someone as sensitive to the cold as she was, it must have been miserable to stand and wait in one place for that long.

"Man, I'm sorry I made you do that."
"......Never you mind. I was just doing as I pleased."

Even as she spoke, her dark pupils scanned the crowd of students exiting the school gate.
Over the course of one hour that she stood there, Alice had been keeping an eye on things.

"Couldn't you have just waited till I got home? We'd still get to see each other even if you didn't get here by yourself."
Alice nodded to that.
She was still in the middle of finding their witness.
If the student they were looking for was really here, and once she found out who they were, Alice would have just gone straight home without waiting for Aoko.

"I didn't find anything for my part."

After getting feedback from Tobimaru's investigation, Aoko told her only what her search turned up in the end. She had no words for Alice.
With nothing else to share, all that was left for them to do was to stand in the freezing cold wind.

......And so their wordless lookout for their witness continued on.
The student council president's schoolmates stared at both her and the student from the Reien all-girls school, marveling at the unlikely duo as they went on their way home.
Helped along perhaps by the boredom and the winter chill, Aoko heaved a sigh after more than twenty minutes.

"Say, Alice. How about we stop by Reimei on the way back?"

Aoko glanced over at her.
Reimei was the name of Aoko's favorite coffee shop.

"........................"

It was hard to tell if she was disapproving of Aoko's carefree attitude to their situation, or if she was saying 'yes' to the invitation. Alice's gaze moved ever so slightly.
And at the end of what she was looking at----

"Oh, Aozaki! Are you also waiting for someone?"

A voice, an unexpected voice, prodded her awareness to life.
She knew who it was from the get-go. His naturally easy voice was difficult to miss.

"----I see. Just as well, maybe it was meant to be."

Turning her back on Alice, Aoko fixed her gaze on the approaching student.

"So, then. What are you up to today?"

There were no greetings for him.
Aoko's unhappy scowl rounded on Soujuurou, working itself into a bigger storm on her face upon laying eyes on him.
Still, even she could tell that her harsh treatment was going over his head well enough.

"Oh, I'm meeting up with the head of the swim club at the station, but I wanted to give to you all of my thanks for what you did for me."
"?"
If there was a word for what he was saying, it would be "unanticipated".
Club activities and giving to her all of his thanks.
......However, Aoko figured that only a person as unthinkably stupid as him would try to place a gold circle in a group of yellow squares. The question was why.

"......Hmmm. Give to me all your thanks, huh? As in 'go to the shrine and make an offering to the gods' give to me all your thanks?"
"?"
He was lucky once, now he was lucky twice, because Soujuurou was still clearly in the dark about what it meant to "make his offering" to a fellow student of his.

(彼のドウテイはいい供物かも、ミス・ブルー)

"I don't really get what you mean, but I didn't mean to make it sound important.
It's just that in the swim club, they only get busy during the summer."

Soujuurou was going to say more about the club activities that he was urged to participate in, when Aoko cut him off with a bored expression.

"You bet it is. There's no way I can rec you to any of the clubs if you're not going to be around for their activities. Since you had at least one shot with your busy schedule, all I had to do was tell them about you."
"So I see. It worked out well, then."

Aoko bore no signs of opposing Soujuurou's impressed reaction.
Back then, she thought it was a waste of time to look for something club-related for him to do, and trying to persuade the head of the club to take him.

"At the very least, I owe you a debt.
I want to tell you how grateful I am for all you've done for me."

Soujuurou's humble bow of thanks to her right then and there, made Aoko put a quick stop to it.

"OK, enough already. You don't have to put on a show to thank me.
......So, how's the swim club working for you, then? Did you do well?"

Her keen stare changed into something uneasy.
While Soujuurou noticed how uncomfortable Aoko suddenly seemed, he simply had no idea why that was.
Therefore, he decided to give her an update on his progress instead.

"Yeah, they didn't accept me into their club."
"Wh-Why did they do thaaaaat!?"

Without thinking, Aoko cried out at the unexpected twist.
......She leapt like a jack-in-the-box.
Whatever inner turmoil she was struggling with, it was immediately swept off the board by the extremeness of this development.

"But, you, you said you were meeting up with the head of the club......!"
"Oh, that. We'll be going to the heated swimming pool over at Yashirogi from now on."

Soujuurou nodded at the surprised Aoko.

"......That doesn't make sense. Things were going well for you, so how did you get turned down anyway!?"
"That's because, I can't swim."
"----"
'I see. No wonder he got sacked.' Aoko was pressing a finger to her forehead.

"......Shizuki-kun. Remember what I asked you yesterday? I made you choose which of the two you were OK with: to run or to swim.
Please correct me if I'm wrong.
You said you preferred 'to swim', yes......?"

"Sure. Back then, I wanted to get over my problem of not being able to swim. In the end, though, I turned out to do much better at running and favored it the most."

Now that it made sense, Aoko's energy was spent.

"Though it seems that I got the most basic training for at least a year.
Even though they gave me a three-year member status for the next three months, they still can't accept a member that doesn't know how to swim at all.
But the head of the swim club is very understanding and wants to help me get better at it, so I'll be getting swimming lessons from now on."

Whatever it was that was making Soujuurou so happy as he spoke, Aoko was having a hard time understanding.

"*sigh*......In other words, they're pushing their deadweight onto somebody else......and not being up front with the head about it......err, wait a second!"
"Shizuki-kun. The head of the swim club? Then......"

'A girl.' She stopped herself before she could say it.
And the moment she said it, she got nervous about running her mouth off about something very awkward.

"......God, fine. I get how you feel about this, so could you go someplace far away now, please? I'm not really all that tired, but I can't hang out with you today."
"Tobimaru said the same thing. Aozaki, he says you're tireder than usual, both yesterday and today. Is everything alright?"
"Not really. It's fine, though. I guess I've just made up my mind is all.
But anyway......Shizuki-kun, how do I look? I bet I'm tired from your perspective."

Why was she asking this?
Aoko was acting strange,
and for no reason at all, saying things that just flew out of her mouth.

'......If I have to say it, it's because this is it, this is the last time we'll have anything as normal as a conversation.' It was possible that this was why.

After a moment of him thinking, Soujuurou gave her a smile that lightened the mood more than it should.

"You're right, you look like you have a lot of energy instead of being tired. A wolf will work the fields if he has to, but he'll feel like tearing off in high spirits when he goes for a hunt he hasn't had in ages."

He was so happy at the thought of it.
As if it were something he himself was going through, he smiled broadly.

(何故このかわいいこがシナなければならないの!?)

"----"

Without realizing it, Aoko was clamping a hand over her cheeks.
If what he said was true, her face was going to break into a grin the likes of which she had never done before.
Of course, nothing was worse than her flubbing it right here and now.

"At any rate, thank you. Alright, till tomorrow then."

Maybe still not as carefree as to wave his hand goodbye, Soujuurou gave a sincere farewell that she could see and hear in his entire being, and turned to leave.

"Wait. There's something I want to ask you. You can go after that."

Aoko called Soujuurou back.
Her voice was cold, warning herself against a temperament close to tranquil.

"Hm?"
"There's this fable I heard once.
......Here it goes. Let's say that you're starving to death, and in front of you, are two animals in the same situation as you.
Shizuki-kun, you are handed a rifle. Which of the two animals are you going to shoot?
On your right is a lion, and on your left is a kitten. You can choose to do what you want here."

Her question seemed planted inside a children's story.
It was a fable that enabled cruelty, a moral lesson, and a person's say-so on what was the right thing to do.
This was the kind of do-it-yourself story that had limitless possibilities.
However, he had a simple answer to it.

"No, I don't think I'll use the rifle. I mean, I can do whatever feels right. And besides, all three of us are hungry."

It was just as well -- there was no point in worrying at all.
His was a solution that chose to be just as helpless as the two animals. He chose to make a decision as pure as driven snow.

"......You'll live long and prosper, my friend."
"That's an extremely flattering thing to say to me. That's probably the first time I've heard anything like that from you."
In his smile were words that were ill-fitted to it.
"----What, the heck was that?"
......She chose to call after him at the last minute.
'Even if I was going to hear what he had to say.'

And so, Soujuurou Shizuki went down the slope and on his way.
Today was another busy day for him, being forced to stay out late by his part-timing.
The only ones left were Aoko and Alice, who was lurking in the background this whole time.

"That bumpkin is completely......throwing me off with his 'harmless as a baby' gimmick!"

Aoko talked to herself, clenching her fist.
Unless she really sucked air into her lungs, a vaguely loud voice would hardly carry out as sound in this place.
......It was hard to say or know for sure if she was cursing his existence, or hers.

"Aoko."

She heard Alice's faint voice from behind. Aoko knew ahead of time what she was going to say.
......Before now, she was ready to hear the name of whichever student that they were hunting down, then everything changed as soon as Soujuurou was brought into the equation.

"You don't have to say it. He's our guy, right?"

Coldly,
she spoke of him as if they had never met before.

----The lion and the cat.
They each had their strengths and weaknesses, and in the end, she made up her mind to target a creature besides herself.

Considering her options, the lion was the bigger threat. It would have a chance to retaliate the minute she aimed the rifle in its direction.
Therefore, even if it took courage to shoot the lion, with it came the lack of a guilty conscience for taking up arms against it.
In addition, the lion was a strong animal. Guilt for using the rifle could be erased with the human instinct for self-preservation.

As for the cat? It was a weak animal.
The lion was the simple and obvious choice. Still, the decision would make anyone sick.
Even if it was never about being equals, the balance was tilted far too much in her favor.
And for Aoko, Soujuurou stood no chance of winning against her at all.

"......That's right, I thought the same thing......"

She had her mind made up, for as far back as the student council room where she was feeling uneasy about it. But her resolve shook in the face of Soujuurou's words.

Getting jostled in her entire being, had nothing to do with second thoughts/confusion created by how wrong this felt for her.

Soujuurou Shizuki was not a person she liked, was a weak opponent, and was more docile than anyone she had ever met.
Still yet a question of why she was feeling uncertain about him.

He was a student who flew straight from the countryside and landed in the heart of the city, and he had no relatives here whatsoever.
His sense of decency was unlike other people's. If he vanished off the face of this planet, only so few would make a commotion over the event.
If she killed him, he would be taken down in a way similar to strangling a cat.
......In all truthfulness, all the good things about him were enough to make her lose her head over it.
What a lucky person he was! She felt like flailing and kicking him in his buttocks. To come right out with it, she was burdening herself by looking after him and getting annoyed----

"......I don't believe it. I am, not liking this. This isn't right.
----This just, isn't me."

Alice could probably hear her muttering to herself.
However, contrary to her partner's fury,

"He has a cloth around his neck."

she brought up something completely unrelated to the situation.

It gave Aoko a wake-up call.
"Neck? Wha--?"
"......Yes. I wonder if he injured himself trying for the swim club."
Alice was talking mostly to herself, giving the matter a lot of thought.

"Actually......he was wearing that on the first day we met, too. Though it's hard to see it from how tight around the neck it is."

It was nothing of note, and nothing of use.
Their conversation may not have fixed anything, but Aoko's uncertainty was brought to a complete halt thanks to it.

"......Thanks, Alice. I feel much better.
I can do this right now.
While I still have the chance, I'll get things taken care of before he even gets to talk."

Aoko turned her back on the school gate and went on her way.
First things first -- she was going back to the European-style building to make preparations.

"......If you say so, but when, and where are you going to kill him?"

......However hushed her voice was, those were not words meant for the public to overhear.
Usually, it was Aoko who would tell Alice to keep her inauspicious behavior in check when it happened, but today, she was also just as bad as the other girl in terms of inauspicious.

"Tonight's the night. I'm taking him someplace beyond his wildest dreams."

Without any misgivings towards Alice, a ghost of a smile steadily floated its way to Aoko's mouth.

Her words, full of mystery and meaning, told her friend of a meeting she had with her special someone.
----------------------------------------------------------------END OF CHAPTER----------------------------------------------------------------
MUSIC QUIPS:

(1) Andante Cantabile
- known as String Quartet No. 5 in F major Op. 3 2nd Movement, aka "Serenade". Thought to have been composed by Joseph Haydn, but is actually by Roman Hoffstetter, who happened to have admired Haydn's work.


CLOSING THOUGHTS FOR THIS CHAPTER?

So way back since learning about chapter five, I used to secretly joke that it's where they had their "first date". I guess I'm not completely wrong now.

Now I can't stop picturing Tobimaru to be a regular Ren McCormack.

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