It was night. I called her.
— I want to speak to you.
I made an appointment to meet her alone.
Since it was going to take some time, the meeting was set to Sat.u.r.day after work. She suggested we meet at her home, but I rejected. I had no good memories there.
Hence, she suggested a park on a hill. It was the park where her mother had fallen. I responded right away.
— Got it.
Of course I was wary because she chose that park of all places, but my interest in the view from there won.
Come to think of it, she was not in the least surprised by my sudden request. She even accepted it readily.
I guess she had expected that day to come.
No, that wasn't quite right.
She had been waiting for it with antic.i.p.ation.
That's what her cheerful voice sounded like—as if talking about a date.
It was a moonlit night.
A golden moon hung in the sky, reigning over the stars like their king, and lit the earth with light so strong one almost forgot what time it was.
The park was situated a few minutes' walk past Tsukimori's home.
By the time the viridian green fence of the park came into view, my breath was so wild and faint that I expected to faint at any moment.
I checked the time on my watch. It was just past eleven, which was reasonable because I had returned home once, taken a shower and put on a change of clothes.
Well, I had wanted to go to the park right after finishing work, but Tsukimori had stopped me.
She insisted on a neat appearance for our first date.
Leaving aside the essential fact that this wasn't a date, I had accepted her suggestion. And it had been the right thing to do.
I had needed some time to draw a line between me and my everyday life.
I reached the entrance of the park. It was nothing special; just a small s.p.a.ce with some trees and playground equipment spa.r.s.ely scattered about. The only object that stood out was a white wooden clock tower near the cliff.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Fresh air filled my lungs. I slowly exhaled, checked my left breast pocket for the last time, and entered the park.
"—I was about to get tired of waiting."
I squinted my eyes in the direction of the voice.
"But I ought to be thankful that you came properly, right?"
When I grasped her figure with my eyes, I couldn't help but hold my breath. A snow white Tsukimori was sitting on the top of the red jungle-gym.
"Wearing all black truly suits you, Nonomiya-kun."
Except for the white shirt I wore under my jacket, I was indeed clad all in black.
Tsukimori giggled, "But that is exactly what I expected, so I matched my clothes to yours and dressed myself all in white."
She wore a white dress and white pumps. She had also draped a semi-transparent white shawl around her shoulders and adorned her hair with a white ornament.
From my perspective, snow white Tsukimori was holding the moon on her shoulders.
"Shall we start our date, then?"
Youko Tsukimori crossed her legs and leaned on her elbow, her head slightly tilted. A lock of her beautiful black hair curled down to her mouth.
It was a dreamlike scene. I quickly shook my head to rid it of the impression.
"...the day after you asked me to go out with you, you said that it was necessary for both of us to deepen our mutual understanding, right?"
"Yes," she nodded.
"You also said that it was fine for me to make a decision after we had come to know each other better, right?"
"Yes," she squinted an eye.
"Unfortunately, I still don't understand you very well. We're still quite far from a date."
"What exactly do you want to know from me then?"
—"Everything," I almost answered. But judging by her confident smile, there was only one thing to say.
"You killed her, didn't you?"
The next moment, she leaped from the top of the jungle-gym into the dark blue sky.
Her shawl spread out to both her sides like the wings of a swan, then she landed softly like a feather that had fallen from those wings.
"What am I going to hear from you now?"
"Well, you could call it," I pretended to ponder and continued with my usual poker face, "the solution of the riddle called Youko Tsukimori."
Unperturbed, Tsukimori kept smiling like always.
"I see, that seems much more interesting than a date."
But that's how I wanted her to be; my worthy adversary.
At one time I had come to the conclusion that Tsukimori had not killed anyone because I was sure that she wouldn't do something that foolish.
However, the situation had made a sudden turn with the appearance of a man of outstanding perspicacity. It didn't take long until my theory was negated due to several doubtful aspects and contradictions brought to light by Konan one after another.
In a sense, it had been inevitable for my doubts to be revived, considering how well I knew her and that the murder recipe was in my hands.
One might ask why I had concluded that she was absolutely innocent in the first place.
It is true that I had had several clues that suggested that her mother was guilty, like the fact that the murder recipe had been written by her. However, at the same time I had also been aware that those clues did not necessarily prove Tsukimori's innocence.
I myself had been the decisive factor in my belief of her innocence.
Only now I realized that I had probably strongly wished that she wasn't a murderer back then. One could say that my imagination was steered that way because I didn't want to lose the person I was so interested in.
In other words, what made her innocent had been my own desire.
I sat down on a railing, while she got on a blue swing.
I started explaining to her one reason after another why I doubted her.
The suspiciously well-timed call from the cooking school, the fact that her mobile phone had been set to silent mode, her unnatural behavior when getting me a towel instead of starting the search for her mother, and the fact that the suicide note was written not by hand but on the computer. Furthermore, I told her about my hypothesis that she had wanted to make me the finder of that suicide note.
Tsukimori quietly listened to my explanation and nodded once in a while without denying or acknowledging anything.
When at last she had heard me out, she let her gaze wander in the night sky, seeming deep in thought, before she asked with certainty, "Did you borrow those theories from Konan-san?"
I nodded. As she had guessed, most of my arguments had appeared in the conversations with Konan.
"But I agree with them, so you can think of them as my own opinion."
Tsukimori put on a surprised expression.
"That's the sort of thing you spoke about in my absence?" she scowled at me and pursed her lips slightly. "How mean! Do both of you doubt me?"
"No," I shook my head. "Konan-san has nothing to do with it anymore. I'm the only one doubting you."
She gasped in admiration, "It is really surprising that Konan-san stopped doubting me despite seeming so tenacious. What magic did you use, Nonomiya-kun?"
"It's all thanks to the hint you gave me," I beat around the bush and saved myself from mentioning the "Love Recipe".
'If you want to know what he thinks, just think about what you would do in his case!'
As a matter of fact, if not for those words, I probably would have still been at a loss for what to do about Konan.
"Oh, did I happen to be a help?" smiled Tsukimori. Her soft glance resembled a gentle sister's who rejoiced over one of her little brother's accomplishments.
Which caused me to let out a deep, heavy sigh.
"...I see... so she did give me a hint," I thought to myself.
Considering how she had immediately realized that I was borrowing Konan's words, she had probably been perfectly aware of Konan and me doubting her all along.
With that in mind, she seemed like a truly cunning actress, reconsidering the evening when we were thrown out by Mirai-san; her blatantly offensive att.i.tude towards me hadn't been normal at all, and the way she had brought up Konan had been rather unnatural as well.
I stopped counting, but as it seemed, she had been playing with me again. I had to admit it: she was a much better actor than I.
Because I was keeping quiet, she tilted her head slightly, "Mh?"
There had been no creaks in her smile from beginning to end. Despite me having labeled her a "murderer".
Her smile was something like a trademark. In the mind of everyone else, Youko Tsukimori was probably depicted as an ever-smiling holy woman.
That was, however, not the Youko Tsukimori I wanted to see. Right now I was brooding over how I might freeze that smile of hers.
My fingers automatically groped for my left breast pocket.
"...right, there's something I want to give you."
There was no way around using 'it' after all. I slid my hand into my jacket.
What I produced was a four times folded sc.r.a.p of paper. "What's this?" Tsukimori asked while s.n.a.t.c.hing it away from me.
I watched Tsukimori look down at the unfolded sheet.
With her gaze still cast down, she whispered, "...I am happy about anything you give me, but this is not exactly a thoughtful present."
"I can't help it: it's not a present, after all. I'm merely returning something to its owner," I didn't avert my gaze from her, "It's yours, isn't it?"
I stared her in the eyes, not daring to breath or even blink. It's fair to say that I had protected this solely for this very moment. By no means I wanted to miss her reaction to it.
She raised her head with a smile shaped like a crescent moon.
"Yes, it is!" she admitted surprisingly readily.
"Then let's now talk about this—'murder recipe'."
This was the trump card I had successfully protected from Konan.
She laughed dryly, "So there is no way around it after all, is there? Well, of course you would never miss out on such an 'intriguing subject', right?"
At first glance, Tsukimori was the same as always.
"Truth to be told, I would rather not, but I might be able to answer your expectations if that is your wish. But in return, promise me—"
But I asked myself: did she realize the slight change that had come over her?
"—that you won't hate me. Okay?"
She was smiling as usual, but her eyes were serious.
I was observing a side of Youko Tsukimori that n.o.body knew. It felt as though I had come a step closer to her. Of course, though, I was not at all satisfied with just that.
I wanted to see more of her unknown side.
But no need to rush things; there was more than enough time until sunrise.
"...You knew it all along, right?"
"That the murder recipe had come into my hands."
I had always had a hunch. After all, she had suddenly asked me to go out with her even though we had not spoken to each other much, save for greetings. She had approached me shortly after I had obtained the murder recipe.
But it was only now that I was convinced. Her poor reaction proved that she was not surprised at all.
Tsukimori raised and lowered her brow multiple times in hesitation.
"I had noticed, yes," she nodded calmly at last. "Do you remember what happened in the cla.s.sroom the morning after I lost the recipe?"
I recalled the morning in question to mind as she told me.
"That morning you addressed me, Nonomiya-kun. Much to my surprise. Therefore, I thought about the reason for that. It didn't take long until I found the answer."
"...So I dug my own grave, huh," I facepalmed automatically.
What a fool I had been for revealing myself! I had been unable to suppress my curiosity and addressed her that morning, but indeed, it was not normal for me to do so with our relationship at the time.
I shook my head fiercely to get rid of stray thoughts, took a deep breath and continued as composedly as I could manage.
"...When I first obtained the murder recipe," I proceeded with the subject as if to bury the mistake I had committed, "I thought that you had written it. I didn't even doubt that the owner was equivalent to the author. The word 'recipe', however, has been bothering me since then. Wouldn't it normally be a 'murder plan'?"
Only my voice resounded throughout the moonlit park.
"But when I learned that your mother was a teacher at a cooking school, I realized that the word 'recipe' was probably very common to her—and sure enough, your mother has written it. A handwritten note of hers, which I presumed to borrow from your home, matched the handwriting of the recipe."
"You never fail to live up to my expectations, Nonomiya-kun," she interjected and closed her mouth again.
A meaningful statement, to be sure, but no denial of what I had said.
"Anyway, for that matter I want to ask why your mother's recipe was in your possession?"
I leaned a little forward to sneak a peek at her expression.
"It was shortly after I started high school when I found her recipe purely by chance—"
It was calm and musing.
"—I realized right away who my mother meant to kill."
"Yes. By the way, this is not the only murder recipe; there are more of them. Perhaps, there are even some I haven't found yet."
"...I didn't expect that."
I was intrigued to read those as well.
"I think my mother didn't realize that I knew about those recipes until the very end. I kept it a secret from her."
"What were your thoughts about it? What did you intend to do after you had obtained the recipes?"
While gazing vacantly in the air, she brushed away her hair beside the ear with her finger. Probably, she was searching for the right words.
"...when I first read the recipe, I was surprised that she also had such an 'ugly' face."
I found myself staring at her.
"I knew her as a typical housewife. A woman who would always pay attention to her appearance and her behavior."
"...that's quite hard to imagine from the impression I got from her during the funeral ceremony."
The howling image of her broken mother soothed by a black-dressed Tsukimori flashed up in my mind. I was disturbed by how my fragile image of her crumbled to dust.
"I do not know what you imagined her to have been like, but you should not forget whose mother she was," Tsukimori put on a smile appropriate to adorn the cover of a fashion magazine, "She was my mother."
Like daughter, like mother? No, the proper order would be "Like mother, like daughter"? Either way, the moment I thought about it in that way, it was surprisingly easy to have a new image of her. By a.n.a.logy, the same must have applied to her father as well.
"My mother worked as a teacher in a cooking school, the largest one in the area. She held cla.s.ses for countless students everyday. Apparently, she even made appearances on a cooking show on local television from time to time, and she had published a few cookbooks. I heard she was quite famous in the cooking scene, as 'the beautiful culinary scientist'."
My image of her mother was being remodeled.
"Now imagine such a woman writing such a cheap thing. I was completely stunned," she shrugged slightly, expressing her amazement.
"Cheap, huh?" I repeated a certain meaningful word she had uttered.
"But you thought the same, didn't you? After reading it, I seriously wondered if she really intended to kill someone with it. It's not even close to a plan. Now, I think that she might have chosen the word 'recipe' because she was aware that it was too crude to be called a plan."
"Aah, I see."
I was entirely of the same mind.
"Indeed, for a murder plan, it's extremely unpolished and seems incomplete. You could consider yourself lucky if it succeeded once in a hundred times."
"Mm," she agreed at first, but my continuation made her raise her brow.
"But I think that this lack of polish is exactly what makes the recipe useful."
"What do you mean?"
I was seeing the amateurish content in a different light than Tsukimori. I had thought about it like that since the very beginning.
"Who would imagine such a luck-based murder plan could exist?"
Tsukimori was at a loss for words. Of course she was. A few moments before, she had stated that she could have never imagined her mother writing something like that.
"If hypothetically that plan worked out favorably, wouldn't it indeed look like a 'mishap'?"
"That is an amusing alternative way of thinking about it," she nodded in a impressed tone.
I continued, "I know of one incident that virtually proves my hypothesis—"
"—the accident of my father, right?" she answered before I could finish.
"...you admit it?"
I was a little startled at her unexpected reaction.
"What is there to deny? It is only natural that one would harbor doubts about that accident even having read the recipe only once."
She shook the sheet beside her head, holding it with her fingertips.
I finally noticed what it was that might have been bothering me about her.
"Until I found the recipes, I had no idea that my mother had a such an impetuous side. I suppose that her motive was jealousy — even though my parents didn't care about each other — because my father apparently had a mistress. Maybe she just couldn't accept it that he had a woman other than her. In that sense, women might generally be more jealous than men. You should be careful too, Nonomiya-kun."
Even though it was about her mother, about her family, I sensed a kind of distance in her indifferent tone. As if she wasn't concerned. As if she was talking about some rumors from the neighborhood.
My conviction deepened.
"I can't help but see you as the murderer of your parents," I said frankly, whereupon Tsukimori sneered at me.
"Even though I have no reason?"
She c.o.c.ked her head while maintaining her smile.
"It's not like I'm paying no heed to your motive. I'm very interested actually. But if I look at it from a perspective that solely deals with whether it's possible or not — I have long since come to the conclusion that you could do it."
Tsukimori narrowed her eyes to a crescent moon-like form for a second.
"You have already admitted that what's written in the murder recipe rather closely resembles the traffic accident of your father. Now, if it was not an unlucky accident but a willfully committed incident, it couldn't possibly be carried out by someone who hadn't read the recipe, right?"
Tsukimori put her chin on her hand and probed me with her gaze.
"Or, put the other way round, it could only be carried out by someone who has read the recipe, right?"
I closed my eyes and took a breath.
"I know of exactly three persons who read the recipe before the accident of your father occurred. Firstly, the author of the recipe, your mother. Secondly, I, of course, because I obtained it by chance, and finally—"
I pointed at the report sheet she held in her hand.
"—the person who lost the recipe—Youko Tsukimori. You."
Tsukimori remained wordless.
"I am convinced that you, Youko Tsukimori, could have carried out such a plan, no matter how cheap and unrefined it was."
She broke her silence and motionlessness with a whisper.
"...do you know how I am feeling?"
"If I were able to understand your feelings so easily, I wouldn't be dancing to your tune all the time."
"I am really moved right now. I feel so much love from you because you understand me so much, though you are probably going to say I am wrong, with your usual cold tone."
I fulfilled her request with an extra large topping of coldness.
She really made no sense to me. Even though I had accused her of murder, she smiled without change, neither provoked nor alarmed. Her unaffected behavior almost made me think that she might not be hiding anything after all.
Was it absolute self-confidence that loomed behind that composure of hers? Was she confident to ward off any accusations I could throw at her?
This isn't enough. Unless I delve deeper and break her sh.e.l.l from the inside, I will never see what I seek.
"...something has been bothering me almost from the beginning," I began, "Aren't you entirely too objective toward your own parents? You're as calm as if you were talking about complete strangers."
Tsukimori put on a slightly doubtful expression.
"Do you think so? I'm seventeen and not of the age to be dependent on my parents anymore, am I not? Isn't the distance between parents and teenager quite similar in other households?"
I immediately objected strongly, "No, it isn't."
Tsukimori sealed her mouth and scowled at me.
"Oh come on, there's clearly something strange. I mean, your mother was drawing up a plan to kill your father! If you're a family, you'd normally try to stop her, wouldn't you?"
Tsukimori widened her eyes for an instant.
"Do you know why my first question was about your actions after finding the recipes? It's because I hoped you would say that you wanted to discourage her. But you only voiced your thoughts on the contents of the recipes—"
She opened her mouth slightly, wanting to say something.
"—did you even once think about stopping her?"
The helpless expression Tsukimori showed that moment was a clearer answer than any words could have been.
She huddled up, embracing her slender legs.
"While you had a rather blank relationship with your parents without doubt, strangely enough there are no indications that you were on bad terms with them either."
Reconsidering the many reactions I had gotten from Tsukimori in the past, I found that she was not unconcerned about the loss of her "community", known as family. After losing her parents, she had seemed very fragile from time to time. I was convinced that she had by no means wished to lose her family.
"You found them uninteresting, didn't you?"
That's what I thus concluded.
If I was forced to talk about something that didn't interest me, I a.s.sume that I would speak with a certain distance as well.
"...rather than saying that I had no interest, it would be appropriate to say that there was no need for us to be interested in each other," she muttered. "I didn't hate my parents, you know? Honestly. It is just that the Tsukimori family was built around the idea of individualism. It was an unwritten rule that we stayed out of each others' business. In fact, it was only because of that rule that we were able to remain a harmonious family."
As if reminiscing, Tsukimori narrowed her eyes slightly.
"I was already able to do anything on my own when I was still young. My mother, too, would have had no problems living without my father. As for him, he merely sustained the budget to fulfill his role as the man of the house, but he didn't interfere in the household itself. Whether you believe it or not, when I was young I thought of him only as a kindhearted uncle who gave us money."
Her smile bent in self-deprecation.
"Just as you noted, I did not think about stopping my mother."
With a powerless smile, she cast her eyes down.
"I was able to accept the murder recipe without problems because I a.s.sumed that my mother had her own thoughts and her own life. But I suppose that I should have stopped her, just like you said."
She clenched her fist, her white fingers digging into her palm.
"If I had been raised in a different kind of family, I might have acted differently."
Tsukimori raised her face.
"But you know," she said with a vacant voice, "That's the way I have been brought up since the moment I was born."
Her eyes were breathtakingly clear. There was not a particle of regret in her honest and majestic appearance. In my opinion, Youko Tsukimori was strong.
But at the same time she was just as lonely.
During that moment of sublimity, she was beautiful and ephemeral like a mirage, setting b.u.t.terflies in my stomach aflutter.
"Weren't you lonely?"
She promptly answered my question with a shake of her head. "Not at all," she smiled.
Relying on no one seemed like a lonely life to me. She herself, however, claimed she had not been.
"Even now?" I posed my denied question once more. "Are you still not lonely even now that your parents have pa.s.sed away?"
I found that to be an awfully desolate way of life. Maybe I was just seeing things, but Tsukimori seemed lonely to me as she sat there wordlessly.
The next moment she put on a slightly awkward smile and looked up at the night sky. The moon reflected in her eyes gave them a golden shine.
When she returned her gaze to me, she declared, "I am not lonely—"
The teasing att.i.tude she usually had toward me was absent.
"—because you are here for me now, Nonomiya-kun."
I saw that neither in her eyes nor on her lips was a smile. She was entirely serious.
This was the memorable moment in which I finally succeeded in freezing her smile.
The clock tower was about to strike twelve.
She had no strong motive to kill her parents. At least, I could find none.
Furthermore, my view that Youko Tsukimori was not a girl that would do something as foolish as murder had already become an unshakable fact for me.
And yet her parents were no more.
I whispered, "...I don't know how to describe this feeling."
Which words would be appropriate?
I stood up from the railing because I couldn't sit still anymore and strolled into the park on my own, leaving her behind.
While ordering my thoughts, I walked slowly and deliberately felt the earth under my feet with each step. My legs led me unconsciously towards the cliff with a good view over the town.
At last I reached the boundary between park and cliff.
The boundary was marked by a rusty, viridian green fence a little higher than my waist. I bent over it and looked down. I figured that it wouldn't take much to fall over it and down the steep slope.
I rested my crossed arms and my chin on the fence, which caused the entire fence bordering the park to bend towards one side a little. I looked down at the town.
The town filled my field of vision with all its shining lights. It was far from the stunning skyline of a metropolis at night, but I was still deeply moved when considering my hometown.
Despite its small size, there was always something going on. That night, too, there must have been a red sports-car driven by that man somewhere down there. Was the chocolate-addict still up? That little girl who resembled a pygmy marmoset was definitely already a resident of dreamland.
The faces of various people I knew crossed my mind like a slideshow.
"Isn't it captivating? This is what I meant to show you, Nonomiya-kun."
The person who flashed up last and by far most vividly was in sync with the person who was beholding the town right by my side.
A chilly gust ruffled her hair. She hugged herself because of the coldness.
That scene reminded me of that rainy day when she had been in her cold, wet uniform.
There was no way I could forget how in that night I had asked her why people killed others. Of course, I hadn't forgotten her answer, either.
The instant I recalled that answer, my body spontaneously started to tremble, followed by a chuckle of mine.
"...I found the answer at last. I finally realized what made you kill your parents!" I whispered.
She only commented calmly, "I see."
She was at the edge of my vision, and I was at the corner of hers, as I noticed then.
"Because you felt like it."
As I laughingly said it, she answered with the smile of a girl that had just received some candy, "You're great."
As she had told me that night, 'feeling like it' was the only way to explain an action devoid of reason.
I had laughed because it was such a silly answer. Who would believe such a thing?
The only ones able to comprehend it were me and — Youko Tsukimori.
Suddenly, she drew closer.
"...if all you say is true, then I am a horrible woman," she whispered softly into my ear, "Killed my parents, deceived everyone, tricked you and still living on without any worries."
Then—the semi-transparent shawl she had worn floated to the ground.
"But it cannot be denied: there are some rare cases of people that are not bound to the rules. People who are not restricted by anything, who are ridiculously free—"
I was taken aback. She had hopped on the fence without a moment's hesitation-causing it to slowly bend towards the abyss along with her.
"—Nonomiya-kun. You decide! If you don't punish me, the horrible woman Youko Tsukimori will remain at large."
Sitting on the fence, she did the unbelievable: she leaned backwards over the abyss. Her hair reached out toward the bottomless darkness. Only her white slender arms were sustaining her equally slender body now. The smooth curve of her snow white neck was exposed right in front of my eyes.
"Should you judge that I am not worthy to live... you understand, right?"
A slight push against her chest would be enough to send her down the cliff.
"...Are you out of your mind? Do you understand what you are saying?"
I doubted her sanity.
"Who knows? I consider myself to be in my right mind. Well, it is true though that I might be a little off in the head for liking an oddball like you."
As if enjoying the bath in the moonlight, she shut her eyes with a tranquil expression.
"I decided long ago to devote my all to my 'destined one'. You can believe me on that."
It appeared that "everything" included her life as well.
"...I absolutely fail to understand your current state of mind. What on earth is a destined person to you?"
Her reply was short and clear.
Her words were accompanied by a transcendentally blissful smile. Considering the utter absence of fear in her face, she was serious.
Suddenly, the final appearance of her mother, which Konan had described to me, flashed through my mind. A shiver ran down my spine. I had accidentally imagined a very special scene.
The stunningly beautiful scene of Youko Tsukimori's dead body surrounded by countless purple blooming azaleas — had been painted by my imagination.
I gulped. I flushed from the core. Before I knew it, my fingers had reached out to her chest.
My fingertips touched the bulge of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s. A short sigh escaped her and she stretched the toes of her white pumps.
My blood began to boil from the excitement that gripped me. Oh, what a sweet temptation it was! One mere finger of mine had the right to pa.s.s sentence on Youko Tsukimori's life.
Her neat snow-white dress looked like a burial shroud in my eyes at that moment.
She had no doubt made all necessary preparations. I suspected her intended scenario was along the lines of "heartbroken girl follows her parents into death".
In other words, n.o.body would punish me if I pushed her down.
She had called me her prince. If I really was a prince, my designated role would probably be freeing the princess who was being held captive in the castle.
...Tsukimori. I am sorry for belying your expectations, but I'm afraid I'm not a prince. I am and will only ever be Villager A. That's the role that suits me best.
My heart pounded against my chest. My wild breath urged me to run free. After taking a deep breath and firmly clenching my teeth, I slowly reached out for the girl in burial cloth — slid my arm around her delicate back and pulled her towards me with all my might.
The excessive momentum caused me to fall backward with her in my arms. While I was still struggling with the pain in my back, she sat up astride me.
"...please don't forget," she began as she laid one hand on her chest, "that this is the life you have saved."
You have picked up that puppy, so bear responsibility and look after it yourself—remembering words my mother had said ages ago, my spirits. .h.i.t rock bottom. Since when had I become such a nice guy?
"...did you test me?"
"Don't worry, I am confident in myself. You will definitely not regret that you have saved me."
She optimistically clenched her fist in front of her. That almost provokingly lovely smile she showed me gave me the conviction that she had foreseen this turn of events from the very beginning.
"I've long regretted —"
—that I met you.
"Sorry, but could you get off me?"
She was boldly sitting on my pelvis For now, I just wanted to do something about her lack of manners.
Unfortunately though, she apparently didn't intend to get off. She went on her knees, bent over me while putting her hands left and right of my head and started talking from right above me, with her eyes staring into mine. "What are you going to do? What do you want to do? Do you want to tell the police about the recipe and the things I have told you just now?"
As her charming lips formed words, my hair was softly stroked by her ticklish breath.
"I won't stop you if that is what you want to do!"
Apparently, she was not specifically provoking me; while her expression was mild as always, her voice had taken on an earnest tone.
"You're quite daring, aren't you?"
I scowled at her from below.
"Is it because you are confident that you can trick the police? Or is it because you are belittling me?"
"Wrong on both counts!" she shook her hair smoothly. "I just know more than anyone else that I am innocent."
She was composed.
"Let us do a little test... if there was an incident that most clearly implied murder and I told you it was just an accident that happened because of a chain of unfortunate coincidences, would you believe me?"
The hair that fell down from right above swayed in a nightly breeze and tickled the tip of my nose.
"...of course not!"
Because Tsukimori maintained perfect composure, I hesitated for a moment.
"Right? You don't believe me anyway, so I just let you do whatever you want."
The next moment, she formed a soft smile, accompanied by dancing feathers in my imagination.
"But please remember that there is only one truth for me."
Can someone who laughs so purely be a liar?
I honestly did not know.
"Besides, you are the one I chose. So there should be nothing strange about respecting your decision, even if it differs from the answer I would wish for."
"Chose?" I repeated suspiciously.
The sound was different from the "destined one" sort of "chose" that she had used before. I estimated the nuance to be something along the lines of "entrusted".
"There is one thing you have gotten wrong, Nonomiya-kun."
"What do you mean?"
"It is not at all a coincidence that you have the murder recipe."
I raised a voice of surprise.
"Please recall the day when you found the murder recipe."
It was still vividly in my mind. It had happened after school. I had found the murder recipe in her notebook, which she had dropped on the ground.
She suddenly giggled.
"I am a very capable person, if I say so myself, am I not? Do you think that someone like me—"
The face she showed me then was going to remain clear in my memory for a long time. Her face looked staggeringly cruel and yet so beautiful.
"—would lose something as important as the murder recipe?"
No way. Such a mistake was unthinkable if it was for her, for she was the only absolutely perfect human in the world I knew of.
On that day back then I had partic.i.p.ated in a meeting — the regular meeting of the cla.s.s officers. The male cla.s.s officer of our cla.s.s was me. So, who was the female one?
It was the person before my very eyes.
Now that I think about it, she hurried back to the cla.s.sroom right after the meeting had finished. I figure that she did that in order to buy time, so she could make sure the murder recipe would fall into my hands "by chance".
How could I overlook such a basic thing? That she had been searching for the recipe the following morning was most likely just an act to make me believe she had lost it "by chance", too.
It looked like I had been dancing to her tune since the very beginning. That humiliating fact numbed my limbs and even brought terror upon me. Not a groan could be heard from me in this shocked state.
Tsukimori got off me while giggling.
"There is not one thing that didn't work out the way I wanted. There is not one thing that I couldn't have obtained if I wanted. My wishes define how matters settle."
Normally, those statements would have been extremely haughty, but they sounded like logical facts when it was Youko Tsukimori speaking.
"But don't you think that such a life is incredibly boring and listless? Is there a point in leading such a life?"
She walked towards her shawl on the ground.
"You cannot be excited about a present when you already know what is inside," she slouched her shoulders slightly. "Nevertheless, I did not decide against being the Youko Tsukimori everyone desired, because it is simple to play the model student and it did not feel bad to live up to their expectations."
After picking it up, she draped the shawl around her shoulders again, skipped towards me with light steps reminiscent of a ballerina and landed right beside my head. Then a thick shadow covered my field of vision entirely, so that I was almost left with the belief that the moon had been covered by dark clouds. In fact, she had bent right over me with her hands at her hips.
"Do you want to know why I entrusted you with the recipe, Nonomiya-kun?"
It was already an almost annoyingly definite fact to me that when she put on such a scheming expression, the answer could not be any good.
"It is because you looked more bored with your life than anyone else I have ever met!" she said as if she had found something dear.
I averted my gaze.
As she had guessed, I had always lamented over how boring the world seemed to me. My imagination used to be my haven to heal me from the boredom of my daily life.
I picked up the murder recipe and stood up.
"You exceeded all my expectations. Talking with you turned out to be exciting, Nonomiya-kun. Every day became thrilling as soon as you entered my life. My heart throbbed more than in anyone else's company. I realized right away that you were my 'destined one'. Thus, it was easy to become crazy about you."
Then everything had gone according to her plan and I, as foolish as I had been, readily took the compelling bait, the murder recipe.
With heavy steps I walked back to the fence as if drawn to it. By the sound of her steps I noticed that she hurried after me.
The fence creaked. She had strongly gripped it and was looking down the black clear s.p.a.ce right at my side, leaning over. She quickly realized that there was nothing she could do about it anymore, straightened up again and turned to me.
"...won't you regret that?"
My right arm was fully stretched out over the fence.
A white paper plane was drawing circles in the air as it slowly descended into the bottomless darkness. The plane was probably going to get caught somewhere on the cliff, be exposed to weather for months and finally return to dust.
"It's okay. There's no need for it anymore."
I was the same. I, too, hadn't searched for the truth behind the murder recipe because of a sense of justice.
"Ah, will you at last believe me that I am innocent?"
I turned towards her smiling face and declared coldly, "Do you have sawdust between your ears? Of course I'm still doubting you!"
She narrowed her eyes in doubt.
"You don't make sense. Why did you throw away the murder recipe then?"
"Who would buy such an absurd story? I mean, how should I answer the police if they asked me for the reason why you killed your parents? Do you think I would get through with 'Oh, it looks like she felt like it'?"
Without knowing her well, understanding her motive would be very difficult. Having seen Youko Tsukimori's true face, I was the only who could ever nod, facing such a claim.
"But do you have another choice? It is the answer you have worked out after all. Leaving aside whether they believe you or not," she said in a playful tone.
"That's stupid. I would only embarra.s.s myself," answered as I shook my head.
The magic had been lost since the second I had thrust the murder recipe, my trump card, before her and revealed its contents.
I had realized that, in the end, the murder recipe was nothing more than "just a sc.r.a.p of paper".
She had taught me that it was not the recipe itself that was of value, though I had cherished it like life itself, but the fact that it was "Youko Tsukimori's" murder recipe.
At that moment, after recovering from the shock of having been led by the nose by her all the time, a different emotion overcame me.
As much as it didn't match my character, that emotion could be described as the protective instinct.
By her own admission, she had entrusted the recipe to me because I had looked more bored with my life than anyone else. Because she had concluded that I would no doubt show interest in the thrill the murder recipe offered.
Definitely unintended, but I had undeniably provided considerable entertainment.
In short, she had been seeking for some kind of thrill for her boring daily life as well. In this sense, our interests had complemented each other without my knowledge.
However, the thing is that I unfortunately came up with another interpretation.
—It happened to me that she may have been overwhelmed by the murder recipe.
She was shaken. The discovery of the murder recipe, and a completely unexpected side of her mother along with it, disturbed her more than she could have imagined. Subconsciously she kept looking for a way to do something about that state of things and in the end entrusted me, whom she had found after long searching, with the murder recipe.
That signal was not strong enough to be called an SOS. Probably, she merely wanted to share the information. Maybe she just wanted someone to know.
The burden was indeed a bit too heavy to carry alone.
Maybe I was simply reading too much into it, but I couldn't do anything about it, since that was the impression I got. My vexation was cleared away in a split second.
The thought that Youko Tsukimori, the only person that could pride herself on being perfect, was shaken like a helpless girl and relied on me caused my heart to beat faster than ever.
Now aren't we lovely, it throbbed.
My gaze fell on the number that was indicated on the clock tower behind her.
"Already past midnight?"
When I whispered so, she turned around with vim and vigor, spinning the skirt-part of her dress like a parasol. The clock hand had long since pa.s.sed midnight.
"I'm shocked. How could I have mistimed such an important event?"
Something rare happened: she was discouraged.
"Actually, today is my birthday! Oh what happened to my plan of pleading for all kinds of things as soon as the hour would strike twelve..."
"Congratulations," I wished her before she could blurt out any bothersome things.
After she had polished her look, arranging her hair and adjusting her dress, she turned around to me with a smile all over her face. "Nonomiya-kun, you know, the date has changed, so it's my birthday..."
"I just offered you my congratulations. Didn't you listen?"
"I did listen, so I'll give you some belated thanks. But you see, personally I would prefer it if it was not just words, but—"
"I'm not done yet, Nonomiya-kun. You should hear out what others have to say."
"Remember one thing, Tsukimori. I'm not as good-natured as to hear out something that I know won't be any good."
"Don't worry! I am not going to plead for an expensive present. Well, it is a present, but it's more like a memory or a memento," she said and while doing so, she took out a mobile phone from her dress and thrust it before my nose. "I want a photograph of us."
"...you ask for that while knowing that I don't like photos?"
She heedlessly feigned ignorance. In the café Usami had once asked for a photograph of me. There was no way Tsukimori didn't know that.
"Please. I won't ask for anything else if you grant me just that one wish. This day is only once in a year, so please!"
In contrast to the begging tone in her voice, she constrained me by grabbing my wrist with both her hands. She was going to have it her way.
"...Okay! But only one, hear me?"
I gave in quickly because I had already learned that the labor required to break through her obstinacy wasn't worth it.
"Thank you so much!" she rejoiced while clapping her hands. "Let's take it in front of the clock tower!" she said and walked off right away, pulling my arm along.
Said tower was three times our size and thickly coated in white paint.
"Mh, which place works best...?" she couldn't decide where she should take the photograph. When I said that it didn't matter, she rebuked me, saying she had only one chance.
As she then asked whether I would let her take several photographs in that case, I had to seal my mouth, leaned against the wall and had no choice but to wait until she decided on a spot.
I had not the slightest idea how that place was different from any other, but she claimed contentedly, "Yes, here it is. It looks like this is the best place for it after all."
"Come here," she waved me over. I positioned myself next to her.
Then she drew close to me like never before. Along with the material of her thin dress, I also felt other, different things that had nothing to do with her clothes.
"If I don't do this, we won't fit in the frame," she claimed with the arm in which she held her mobile phone fully stretched out, before I could object. Thinking that I was supposed to take the photograph because my arm was longer than hers, I s.n.a.t.c.hed her phone. When I confirmed which b.u.t.ton I had to press, she told me to wait for a second and took her shawl from her shoulders.
I gazed at her with my arm stretched out, asking myself what she was doing, while she was pulling it over her head and pinning it with a white flower that she had been using as a hair ornament.
"Alright," she said and, probably because I was looking suspiciously at her, added, "Isn't it cute and kind of princess-like?"
Indeed, it suited her so well I forgot to deny it.
I pushed the b.u.t.ton on her signal, whereupon a mechanical shutter sound resounded from the phone. Unable to wait, she s.n.a.t.c.hed the mobile phone away from me to take a look at the photo.
While viewing the picture with a satisfied expression, she nodded slightly, "Yes, exactly as I have pictured it."
From time to time she even giggled out. Good for her that the present was to her liking.
"Thank you for letting me take this photograph. I'll treasure it."
"Yeah, treasure it so much that n.o.body will ever see it and I'll keep my peace of mind."
I didn't even want to imagine what would happen on the day the guys at school found out about this photograph, and I was really fed up with the fact that Kamogawa's visage was the first thing that came to mind.
"What a pity. I already planned on using this valuable picture of you to brag in front of Mirai-san and Chizuru..."
Thank G.o.d I forbade her to do so.
"...oh well, I'll enjoy it all alone then. Viewing it as the wallpaper of my mobile phone during cla.s.ses with a broad smile on my face. Giving it a good-night kiss before going to sleep."
"Should I delete that picture right now?"
"I'm joking, really," she laughed mischievously.
That's how it feels when someone has the better of you.
"Do you want to take a look, too?"
As it was the photo of me she was going to hold on to from now on, I felt obliged to check how I looked on it.
I approached my face to the screen of her phone, which she held before her chest, while bending my knees a little. Her next words reached me just when my ear was somewhere near her lips.
After waiting that I had seen the picture, she whispered,
"Did you see? We look like bride and bridegroom at a private wedding à deux in front of a church, don't we?"
I stared at the screen. Depicted was a black-dressed man and a white-dressed woman who happily clung to each other.
With only a little imagination, the shawl on the head of the woman looked like a bride's wedding veil. And mysteriously, as soon as I viewed the woman like that, the man, too, looked as though he wore a dress suit.
Imprinting is a really dreadful phenomenon: I noticed that the clock tower looked like part of a church. If the bride had held a bouquet, it would have been a wedding ceremony no matter the way you looked at it.
I reflexively reached out to steal it out of her hands, but she evaded me, turning around like a dancing petal.
"Give me that phone."
"No! I am sure you would delete the picture if I gave it to you."
"Of course I would!"
I reached out to her again. However, she sped away like a tiny, winged fairy dancing with her toes over a water surface, so that the distance between us grew and grew. She then climbed on a slide.
"Nonomiya-kun, I am here!" she waved innocently from above, almost like a child.
Youko Tsukimori was wild and free when she revealed her true colors. Way too much to handle for a spiritless person like me.
This night had tired me.
"Wait!" she shouted from above when I went past the slide to leave the park. I only turned my head and looked up at her.
"Why did you come alone tonight?"
Lit by the moonlight and shrouded in a veil, snow-white Tsukimori looked majestic as Jeanne D'Arc must have been.
"Why didn't you tell anyone about the murder recipe? There were more than enough opportunities, right? Just take Konan for an example... don't you think he would have been able to make people lend an ear even to your absurd story?" she asked in a slightly gloomy voice.
The only thing that was in her eyes as she looked down at me in the pointed silence without moving a muscle was I.
I accidentally bent over laughing.
Why? Because I immediately realized how easily I could answer her question. To think that I hadn't even known myself properly until recently despite being so cautious about anyone else, I really was a fool.
Now my answer was clear.
Whether she had killed her parents or someone else, whether she was guilty or innocent, even if there was to be an incident that most clearly implied murder in spite of being just an accident that happened because of a chain of unfortunate coincidences—those questions didn't matter.
She raised her brow at the edge of my field of vision.
"That's a simple question—" I spoke towards the night sky.
"—I am the only one in the world who has the right to doubt you."
We didn't need any others. It was more than enough if only I knew the real Youko Tsukimori.
At last, the cold night wind carried a heated whisper to me.
"...Mm, I'm not lonely after all."
My eyes must have been wide open when I turned them to the slide that was lit by the silver spotlight.
She was smiling with tears in her eyes, almost weeping with joy.
As I didn't know what I should reply, I closed my mouth and burned the appearance of an unknown Youko Tsukimori into my memory.
Suddenly, she cowered down. Then she slid down without even caring about her clothes or exposition of her skirt, started to run and jumped straight onto my back, upon which she wrapped her arms tightly around me.
While burying her face in my back, she said with a somewhat m.u.f.fled voice,
"—You are the only one in the world to whom I grant the right to doubt me."
She sounded joyous.
I am not so tolerant as to let someone cling to me without permission, but her arms were so tight around me that I couldn't shake her off. She was like a shackle chaining me, which represented our current relationship ridiculously well.
I gave up resisting and looked up at the night sky along with a sigh.
The fine silver light from the moon shone down on the earth like silk threads, which were absorbed by the earth. Without a break, as if the moon was trying to dye all the creatures on earth in its white light.
Compared to the moonlight, any other type of light seemed ever so weak. No matter how bright the stars twinkled, no matter how much light the streets of the town emitted, nothing could match the all-enveloping moonlight.
Without noticing, I reached out for the moon—while knowing that I would definitely not reach it.
The decision I made that night might have been wrong. Perhaps I was going to regret it for a long time.
No, perhaps I would not even have the opportunity to regret.
Because I had come to know Youko Tsukimori.
I closed my eyes without moving my head away.
The moon that night was very soft and warm.