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Chapter 5 – How to End the Reign of a Carefree King

By the way, you might recall that I’d asked Ponta to do something about the gnome’s supplementary maths class for me, but well, about that…

I fully expected everything to work out neatly the next day, now that I’d gotten back what I’d lost and all. After getting a call from the gnome, I went to the maths prep room.

“Love trumps studying. Indeed, that’s right. Crunch as many numbers as you like, but you’ll never solve the important equation. Butbecause of that, studying is meaningful. For example, i is an imaginary number that doesn’t exist in the real world, but when you sketch it on the complex plane, the coordinates reveal its shape. I think that seeing what can’t be seen is the true purpose behind academics, and I want you to feel that too…”

The sunlight streaming through the window of the prep room made the sweat drip off the gnome’s beard. But after a pause, he just went on speaking, this time more earnestly than when he spoke in class.

“Yesterday, I heard quite enough about how your world revolves around love. You do not have to resort to elopement. Stay in school, I tell you! As your teacher, I think that studying at school broadens your prospects.”

In other words, Ponta had used elopement out of all things as my excuse for not turning up to the supplementary classes. What I really needed was a friend who had a brain. How I longed to throw Ponta into a blender.

“You’re here to do something about your maths results. Not something else, like elopement. I want you to carefully reconsider that over your summer holidays. At least seek advice to make your marriage work.”

Surprisingly, the gnome thought like a student. He had forgotten all about the supplementary class. He was rambling by the end there, but I nodded along with the divine power of my façade.

I returned to the classroom, where Azuki Azusa, who was taking the supplementary classes along with me, was sitting. “We’ve got free time…” I said, after mentioning the conclusion and nothing in-between. “So now what?”

“Right, right! Since I have to thank you for getting me that plushie and I already came all the way here, why not hang out together?”

“Sure. Are we inviting Ponta too?”

Azuki Azusa pursed her lips with extreme dissatisfaction. “You’re so dense,” she said, fidgeting nervously. “Do you want to hang out with me?”

“Just the two of us?”

“Just the two of us! I only made t-t-two lunches, so anyone else would get in the way!”

With a red face, she held out the boxes, wrapped in furoshiki (1). This kind of antique stuff was right up my alley. My heart couldn’t take it. Did this mean it paid to have a façade? I wondered. I sure couldn’t bring myself to resent Ponta for this.

Azuki Azusa continued to skip out on class for about ten seconds.

Those ten seconds lasted from the moment I accompanied Azuki Azusa down the hallway to the moment we bumped into the year-level coordinator.

“Azuki-san, what great timing,” she said. “I was just thinking of ringing you. It seems you did fairly badly this semester, hmm? There are handouts for English, geology, world history, classic literature, P.E. and home economics waiting for you.”

“…I’ve got really important plans right now. It’s more important than what Santa’s reindeer have to do for Christmas. Could you please overlook it just this once?”

“Not this time. I’ll tell them on your behalf that you were being forced to hang out with this pathetic, noxious insect of a pervert who is the enemy of all women and deserves to be quarantined. You ought to be grateful. Now hurry to the student counselling room.”

“Nooooooo!” Azuki Azusa was dragged away, kicking and screaming. This turn of events made it even harder for either of us to concentrate on studying.

I wondered where I should file my complaints to get the year-level coordinator changed.

And with that, Azuki Azusa and I fell completely out of touch. Since the teachers still went to work and club activities were carried out fervently as usual during the exam period, the atmosphere at school was pretty much unchanged. Since I was the only one in limbo, I had nothing to do. As I ambled about aimlessly, I got a strange sense of déjà vu.

I knew just what to do at a time like this.

As I opened the window in the hallway and tried to make up my mind what late night program I wanted to yell out, the déjà vu hit me again. Well, what do you know? Ask and ye shall receive. Just around the corner, there was a small room I could spy on others from.

I Spy a Maid – that’s the name of an old drama.”

“What are you talking about?”

“So you appear out of nowhere with ‘oh dear’ written all over your face. What’s up, Tsutsukakushi?”

“Nothing much. I was just thinking about how you and Azuki-san have made up,” said Tsutsukakushi coolly, as if she were a tame cat (2), only half appearing into view from around the corner.

“Thanks to you, it looks like she’s in a much better mood now. I owe you a bunch.”

“You owe me, you say? I see.” She paused. “Very well then, go on a date with me. Just the two of us,” she said flatly, but with a strange wink that made her sound like she was misquoting borrowed words.

“A d-date? Uh, well I’m okay with it, but it’s kind of a waste. I was thinking of a different way to make it up to you.”

“What do you mean by ‘it’s a waste’?”

“I kinda want to be the one to ask you out on a date, Tsutsukakushi.”

I had no little sister. I only had an older sister who was a pain in the butt. Hanging out with my cool and cute kouhai made me feel like an older brother.

I beckoned with my hand, and this time Tsutsukakushi’s whole body appeared. She looked up at me sullenly, not fully understanding. Well, as sullenly as one could without any expressions. It wasn’t as if she seemed mad at me, though.

“So where do you wanna go?”

“Er. That is… I was joking about the date.”

“Aww, man! Why would you joke about that?!”

“No particular reason. I merely got in the mood for it suddenly. What a coincidence.” A beat. “That is the kind of tone you would adopt now that you have your façade back, senpai.”

Ouch, she was right on the money. She was right, but my words before had been my true feelings. But since she wasn’t wrong about me getting my façade back, I laughed and nodded.

“Thank goodness,” she said. “So that was all you wanted.”

“Seems that way. Looks like you saw right through me, so I thought I’d apologise.”

“Since I want to hear your true feelings, senpai, there is no need to apologise. Instead, I want to hear you apologise for all the perverted things you have uttered up until now.”

“…I am deeply sorry.” I bowed my head like one of Ivan Pavlov’s dogs (3). It was weird. Whenever I looked at Tsustukakushi, I had a conditioned reflex to apologise, as if she had set up a kind of program that made me do it.

Tsutsukakushi sighed deeply. What a familiar sight, I thought idly, as she lifted her schoolbag. Her retort was to hit me with the corner of the bag, making my head swell.

“If you really wish to thank me, please accompany me for a while,” she requested politely as she walked into the empty classroom nearby.


Tsutsukakushi wanted me to critique her dramatic reading. It seemed the reason why she had come to school in the first place was to borrow the equipment from her club.

“A dramatic reading? Just what kind of club is this for? The Drama club?”

“The Child-Minding club. I told you about it before.”

“Huh? You did…?”

I had no recollection of it at all. As I shook my head, Tsutsukakushi opened her schoolbag and took out a gigantic picture storybook, which she propped up on the teacher’s desk.

Tsutsukakushi, who had to crane her head just to be visible over the teacher’s desk, was completely obscured by the picture storybook. All I could see of her was her tiny hands holding up the book from both ends. Watching a child who needed minding herself grapple vainly with a picture book made me smile to myself.

“…you forgot what I told you and yet you have the same reaction. Is there something you want to say?”

“D-don’t mind me. Child-minding is a splendid thing to do. I was smiling at how much you wanted to contribute to society in your own little way.”

“Are you telling the truth?”

“I’m telling the truth! I haven’t said a single lie until now!”

“…now that your façade is back, you have become oddly detestable,” she said.

This was accompanied by that sound you hear when someone gets kicked under the table. Thinking it was best to avoid any stray bullets that came my way, I retreated to the back of the classroom.

“Now then. This is the beginning of a story called ‘The King Who Lost His Friend’,” Tsutsukakushi read out tonelessly.

I was instantly appalled.

Yeah, it was a script written for the Child-Minding club. The artwork had some neat touches here and there, and plus the story itself was pretty interesting, but the soulless narration was a major letdown. She zoomed right past even the heartbreaking climactic scene without pausing for breath. She could show that to as many kids as she liked, but the most good it would do was break the world record in yawning.

But even so, Tsutsukakushi went on reading stubbornly with an unchanging expression. She would never be a hit with the kids – and it was the cat statue’s fault for taking her true feelings away from her. I couldn’t forgive it for that.

Tsutsukakushi turned the last page. “…and so the king made his first friend. And he lived happily ever after,” she read aloud, wrapping up the story. She poked out her face from the side of the teacher’s desk, and it was only then that I realised the story was over. There was no deep feeling or lingering emotion around it, either.

“How was it, senpai?”

“Uh… the pictures were good. I think the kids might like those.”

“I see. So my reading was hopeless in comparison.”

“Er, uh, I didn’t say that…”

“There is no need to use your façade in front of me. I also thought I was hopeless.” With a shrug, Tsutsukakushi took the picture book down from the desk and closed her schoolbag. “Besides, it makes me somewhat happy that you said the illustrations were good. Thank you very much. Someone else wrote the story, but I was the one who drew the pictures.”

“Oh, really? You put a lot of effort into them!”

“That is because I am a dedicated club member,” said Tsutsukakushi. She paused. “I have been told that at the end of July, there will be a storytelling session at the children’s playgroup. I wanted to be in charge of this picture storybook no matter what, so I tried practising it somewhat. As it turns out, I am no good at it,” she said expressionlessly, as if nothing was wrong. But her wide eyes blinked unnaturally over and over again.

Something cold pierced my heart. It was the kind of feeling you’d get from having the gravure idol photo stash you love so much returned to you, only to drop half of them. Tsutsukakushi and I were partners, and as her partner, I had a duty to fulfil. It meant that I had to get her true feelings back for her.

“Even though all I learned today was that my voice is useless for dramatic reading, I still got something out of it. I am thinking of returning to my behind-the-scenes role at my club.”

“Tsutsukakushi…”

“You might be unaware of this, senpai, but I am a fairly good utility player. I can draw pictures and prepare tasty lunches. My specialty is shoulder massages, although I have mastered the art of lower back massages and my foot massages are to die for. If I were to pull out, there would be much difficulty for the others.”

She was putting on a brave face, I thought. But since Tsutsukakushi clearly spoke with conviction, I smiled too. “Well, in that case, you should give me a massage next time.”

“Not happening. My pervert detection senses are tingling.”

“W-what did you say?! My feelings are pure!”

“I know quite well that you are thinking perverted thoughts, senpai. It is as easy as breathing. The way you pronounced ‘massage’ was suspicious.”

“Eheheheh…”

Yeah, it was true that when it comes to getting a massage from a girl, I could only associate it with this, that and the other. That was a universal truth. But I’d just recovered my façade, so how did she see right through me?

Tsutsukakushi stared me down with eyes of an eternal blizzard. I tried to change the subject. “W-well, it’s just that seeing as you’re a utility player and all, isn’t the Child-Minding club a bit plain for you?” I simpered. “You’d be handy to have around as the manager of some kind of sports club.” It was easy to see that I was trying to flatter her. I had a façade to maintain.

“A manager, you say? I never considered that.”

“You’d be a hit for sure. For example, what if you joined the Track and Field club?”

“You are in that club. It turns me off.”

“Ouch…”

“That was a joke,” said Tsutsukakushi. She paused. “What really turns me off is…” She turned her face towards the window.

Voices from the Track and Field club came to us from the grounds. One husky voice stood out all too plainly from amongst them. Even though I knew it wasn’t me whom the Steel King was scolding, I cowered in fear.

“And there you have it,” Tsutsukakushi murmured. She didn’t need to explain.

“…I asked you this before, but…” I coughed. “Why did you stop getting along with your Steel Sister?”

“Because she hates me,” she answered easily. She was doing her best to distance herself from her feelings. “I do not want you to misunderstand. I do not dislike my sister.”

“You don’t dislike her even though you don’t get along?”

“Right. Of course, I think it would be better if I did like her. We used to get along in the past. Until Nee-san went to middle school, we were always taking baths and sleeping together. I always made her read books to me. Perhaps I joined the Child-Minding club because of her too. I wanted others to know about the joy of hearing stories.”

“So why don’t you get along?”

“I was the one at fault. After my mother and father passed away, I pestered my older sister. From the time I woke up till I went to sleep I would whine and ask her to feed me, to give me snacks and toys, to play with me, to teach me, to fuss over me… Nee-san had no time for herself.  She was beyond being fed up with me. Nee-san began to avoid me ever since I graduated from middle school,” Tsutsukakushi said all too tonelessly, as if she was reading out a boring event in her picture storybook.

Even a dimwit like me could tell that wasn’t what she was really thinking. This wasn’t the time to put on rose-coloured glasses and fantasise about her having a bath with her sister. It was because she spoke so flatly that I could feel the weight behind her words, all the pain and suffering lying within.

“That time at the main street was the first time we had spoken to each other in a long while. I could never find the right timing to talk to her. I would do anything for us to go back to how we used to be. It was my personality that was the cause of our estrangement. I thought that if I stopped acting so childish, we could get along as we did in the past…” she trailed off.

As she went on looking out the window, the side of her face was split by light and shadow. Her narrowed eyes showed wisdom beyond her years. And I was filled with fear, as if she would fade away altogether.

“H-hey, you know!”

Without thinking, I squeezed Tsutsukakushi’s hand. She swung around to face me. Almost everything about her was tiny and only her eyes were large.

I was reminded of that night we first met on Ipponsugi Hill. At that time, I had been wondering to myself why a young girl would go out for a walk by herself. I might be jumping to conclusions here, but it was just possible that she had been aiming to pray about her older sister from the very start.

As a result, the Stony Cat had taken on her shape. After all, that was the kind of thing a small girl would do.

“…hey, you know. I got my façade back, so now it’s your turn, Tsutsukakushi. How are we gonna do this? I’ll do anything I can for you.”

“…I see. Thank you.”

I could see myself reflected in her Stony Cat-like eyes. This time, I had a genuinely earnest look on my face. It would have been nice if some of that rubbed off on Tsutsukakushi too, though.

“Senpai, are you free tomorrow?”

“Of course!”

“Then I would like a bit of your time.”

She tapped my hand. It took quite a bit of time before I realised that she was trying to tell me that my grip hurt, now please let go.


Tsutsukakushi said she still had club business to attend to. That worked out great for me. After we worked out what time and place we would meet tomorrow, I went to the school grounds.

It seemed as if the baseball club and the soccer club were taking a break today too. The Track and Field club members, who normally occupied a corner of the grounds, were marching right in the centre and getting knocked around. Right in front of my eyes, a javelin whooshed through the air, tracing the arc of a parabola.

The person who threw it was, of course, our good club president Tsutsukakushi. She had been steadily extending her record during all this time. I was sure she went to sleep and woke up with nothing but track and field on her brain.

I sat down on the stone steps and observed the action. In that short span of time, I lost count of how many times she scolded the other club members. “Stop dawdling! Look straight! Get a move on!”

The amount of burns she delivered just kept increasing, I thought. I figured I’d had my fill of seeing a girl slap another girl on the backside from watching videos.

“…right! Ten minute break,” the Steel King commanded. Half the club members promptly collapsed on the ground. The other half fainted while standing up.

And then, before I knew it, the Steel King was looking in my direction. Oh yay, she was wearing tights today. But this wasn’t the time to rejoice, I thought as I sprang to my feet and saluted with gusto. “Reporting for duty!”

“Quit acting like a soldier. I don’t like it. The original purpose of club activities is to be full of harmony like those whatchamacallit Rangers.”

“You really like referential humour, huh, President Tsutsukakushi?”

“Huh? What does that mean…? Oh, never mind. More importantly, Yokodera, it’s good to see you in the flesh today.”

“Indeed. I have caused you a great inconvenience, although I have safely made a full recovery.”

“Oho!” With a stern face, the Steel King held her palm out. I assumed she would beat me up before I could even apologise, just like her sister did. My body tensed. I threw my arms over myself in defence, flailing aimlessly.

“…hm, congrats. I’m happy for you. Yippee,” the Steel King said dourly at length, clapping her right and left hand together to give herself a high five. What a strange person. “When you said those things I couldn’t understand, I was in anguish too. However, with this I can retire in peace. Hurry up and take over for me, starting from today.”

“I thank you for the kind words, but I’m sorry.”

“Hm? About what?”

“There is still something that is bothering me, so could you please let me off until I solve the problem?”

“That matter is more important than the Track and Field club?”

“Yes, it is very important to me. So then-” I gingerly wiped off the sweat sticking to my palm. There was something I had to say no matter what. “About the matter of who will be the next club president, could you defer on that for now? I think there are other people more qualified than I am.”

“Are you questioning my judgment?” The Steel King’s eyes narrowed with disgust.

An image of me being compressed and obliterated by a dark blue pressing machine flashed through my mind. I bit down my desire to admit defeat and run with my tail between my legs. This kind of pressure was nothing compared to true fear. But I’d still rather not get beaten up.

After ten full seconds of enraged silence, the Steel King sighed. “You’ve changed. I would never have thought you’d be able to look me in the eyes and say all that. Very well then. Make haste and deal with your issues,” she said softly. “We’ll talk about the club presidency after that.”

It was only very slight and no one was there to see it, but she was actually conceding to me. After that first time being referred to by a nickname, it wasn’t so bad to be called a prince, I thought. That way I could work together with Tsutsukakushi without having to worry about other things.

“However, I said make haste. Make haste. Don’t you slack off. I have things I want to do as well.”

“Thank you very much. That reminds me, you have university entrance exams to attend to yourself, huh?”

“Hmph… exams, along with marriage and other similar things. I must do them all so I can advance in life.”

“Y-you’re getting married?! Right now?! With who?!”

“Don’t be so shocked. I’m of age – that means I’ll be an adult,” the Steel King mused aloud as she peered at my stunned face.

It was an expression one didn’t just associate with the vague idea of a peasant’s happiness – it was hard reality. So my club president was getting married… and here I thought track and field was her only calling in life. I wondered what sort of person she was getting married to. Maybe someone who liked pain?

“Never mind me, though. So about the girl I saw you with the other day…” As she uttered those choice words that drove newlywed couples into divorce, she clasped her hands on my shoulder.

“The other day? Why do you ask?”

“That was when you two-timed my worthless sister. You still haven’t offered any wishy-washy excuse.”

She was still holding a grudge! It looked as if she was trying to be blasé about it, but her eyes weren’t smiling at all. Her grip crushed my shoulder. The seemingly relaxed air was spiked with a different kind of tension.

“I cut you some slack since you were right in the middle of your recuperation phase, but now that you’ve made a complete recovery, there should be no problem. Are you going to open up to me?”

“Er, um. How do I say it? M-maybe that was my… twin brother you saw? Yeah! What a scary coincidence, huh?”

“What’s that you say? That’s the first I’ve heard of it… but, well, he did look exactly like you.”

“It’s a secret from everyone! There’s a 1-out-of-256 percent chance you’ll encounter him. You’re lucky, Prez. It’s like a wave of metal slimes (4)!”

“Metal? Slimes? A metallic gooey substance? Huh?”

“Yeah, metal, because it’s hard to hit. My long-lost brother has a huge ego and we don’t hit it off well. He’s got nothing to do with me. The date with Tsutsukakushi was all his doing. What a two-timing scoundrel!”

“Hmm… I don’t really get it, but basically your brother is the bad guy and you’re innocent…?”

“I’m glad we see eye to eye. Please take out your anger on my womanising little brother. By the way, I heard you don’t get along with your little sister either.”

Yessss, I’d scored! Good going, façade of mine!

…or so I thought.

As soon as I spotted the open scowl on her face, I knew I’d stepped on a landmine.

“Who told you about Tsukiko and I?”

“Er, uh…”

“Only an imbecile would believe such baseless rumours. You keep your nose out of my business,” the king said scornfully.

Stomping on minefields wasn’t a habit of mine; I wasn’t trying to be so tough. There were some places no humans should ever go – like the very back of my bookshelf, for instance.

And yet.

When I heard her say those bitter words in such a flat tone, I knew that closing my ears to them would be wrong.

“…you’re not dissatisfied about your relationship with your sister?”

“You just go on and on. I’m telling you that whether we get along or not is none of your business.”

“W-well, I just got the impression that you and your sister have kind of a strained relationship lately and that you were kind of bothered over it and-”

“Quit it with your foolish noise. Even if Tsukiko and I were nervous around each other, which we’re not, you’re still barking up the wrong tree. Family disputes should stay in the family. You understand?” the King said haughtily, denying me offhand. It made me want to hold my ground against her.

Don’t pull random assumptions out of your arse. Stop denying it, you idiot.

Not that I could muster the courage to say any of that, though.

“Please tell me one thing. It’s something I need to know. Do you think your little sister has stopped expressing her true feelings lately?”

“True feelings…? What are you talking about?”

“There’s a rumour about a Stony Cat. Is it true?”

“Wait, hold it. A Stony Cat? I have no idea what you’re saying.” The Steel King’s hand shook violently. She was demanding an explanation.

As it turned out, the King was completely divorced from rumours. Just what did she talk about with those around her? I filled her in about what happened to the younger Tsutsukakushi’s body –  that is, what happened to Tsukiko.

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi blinked with eyes exactly like her sister’s as she listened to the end. “It’s a lovely story, but it’s too absurd,” she said, laughing. “That cat can grant wishes? There is no cat god with such great powers… godly powers don’t exist.”

“You might not be able to believe me, but it’s the truth.”

“As if! In my great wisdom, I have never been deceived by another person,” she said with a sharp, demonic glint in her eyes. She had an extremely high opinion of herself. Being the top dog of the Track and Field club had spoiled her. I wanted to tell her that she had just never realised she was being deceived. Not that I could say tha-

“You see, there’s absolutely no way the cat statue has that kind of power. I made it when I was a child.”

I was dumbfounded upon hearing those words.

“You made it?! You?!”

“Indeed. Hmph, so it was worshipped under the name of the Stony Cat, huh? I had no idea. That’s quite an elaborate pretence, although it sounds like a kind of evil spirit…”

“I can’t believe it! Why did you illegally dump such a weird thing at Ipponsugi Hill?”

“What are you saying? It’s not against the law or anything if it’s my own backyard.”

“Y-your backyard?!”

“What? You didn’t know? That hill belongs to the Tsutsukakushi family. My grandfather was a landlord, so he owned various plots of land. That hill is one of them. You might say we have a mountain in our backyard. It wasn’t used for anything, so they let us children use it as a playground,” she said briskly.

Winded by the shock of it all, I stared with my mouth wide open. The Steel King did not care in the slightest about the fact that she had no artistic sense or about how genuinely rich she was. How like a king.

The thing that surprised me was how I didn’t even know. Tsutsukakushi hadn’t mentioned it once. I thought she’d finally started to open up to me about her older sister, but there were still things that were hidden from me. It didn’t feel good knowing so little after knowing her so long. From the older sister’s attitude, it seemed possible that the root of their feud went back deep.

“That’s why you must be misunderstanding something when you say the cat can grant wishes. By the way, I still call it my masterpiece to this day. Do you hear me? Yokodera? Hm? Are you listening? What are you zoning out for? What is it?”

As the Steel King yabbered on and on, I thought to myself: Oh, shut up.

“…hmph,” she grunted finally. “I see you’re still recovering after all. You had better rest well.”

She returned to the grounds. Her conscious cleared, she resumed her Spartan training with renewed vigour.

Although I was deep in thought and forgot to say hi to everybody, it wasn’t as if I was struck with a great idea about what to do with the Tsutsukakushi sisters. Let sleeping kings lie. Those were the words that came to my mind.

On the way home, I went to the student counselling room to check out how things were going there.

“Another ninety-eight, ninety-nine, a hundred pages to go… urrrgh, when is this gonna end…? What about my date…?” A miserable, teary-eyed Azuki Azusa looked an awful lot like Sadako from The Ring (5). Sooner or later, she might be added to one of the school’s seven mysteries.

I snuck a parting message in an envelope through the gap in the door. “I’m always watching you! I’ll come check up on you tomorrow, too!” It was my way of saying goodbye ahead of time.

Since I wasn’t a stalker, I thought it might be better if I cheered her on in person, but a piece of paper with “No Perverts Allowed” written on it was stuck on the door. I got the feeling that the year-level coordinator was grossly violating human rights.


Geez, the sun’s heat had a way of boring into you even at the crack of dawn. It made me want to ride my bike completely naked. Of course, I was blessed with the average person’s sense of shame, so I held back on the stripping, at least.

I had no idea what Tsutsukakushi was trying to do to get her true feelings back. All she had said was, “Please come to the bus stop near the school gate.” I stopped my bike by the guard rails and sat on the bench at the bus stop for ten minutes, waiting.

Tsutsukakushi always had an impeccable fashion sense, so I was looking forward to what kind of get-up she’d be wearing this time. When she walked in wearing her pleated school skirt, I was a little disappointed. That feeling might have showed on my face.

“I was at my club activities. I cannot go to school without my uniform.” As if to apologise, she threw me a slow ball rather than her usual fast balls.

“Ah, well, can’t be helped… hey, it wasn’t like I was looking forward to seeing you in plain clothes!”

“…I see. I apologise.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. At this time of the year, you can see through blouses, not that I was thinking about the superb view I’m getting, either.”

“I take back my apology. According to the Computer Entertainment Rating Organisation’s code of ethics, it is prohibited to look at me from now on.” She stated the judgment with obvious personal bias.

Then she pushed me onto the bus. The air conditioner was working reasonably well, and a sense of ease came over me. We occupied two seats right next to each other.

I’d gotten used to walking around with Tsutsukakushi like this. You might say we were comfortable around each other. My heart didn’t fly as if we were on a date; it was the sort of feeling you’d get from hanging out with a childhood friend who was younger than you.

If someone pressed me about our actual relationship, I wouldn’t be able to answer them, but somehow I was happy not knowing. She could communicate only through words and unmoving expressions, and I understood her extremely well even though we weren’t a couple. I’m sure Tsutsukakushi thought the same way about me.

…as it turned out, I was so busy flattering myself I realised too late that something about the atmosphere was off.

At the bus stop on the main road, Tsutsukakushi pushed me again to get off. Since we were on the main road, we kept getting a whiff of the exhaust from the buses passing by, so it was hard to breathe.

Coming all the way here meant that there was only one place our destination could be. “Is there something you want to buy?” I asked.

“Yes. Many things.”

Our destination was a jumbo discount store.

Tsutsukakushi kept pushing me incessantly all the way through the pedestrian crossing, out of the car park and into the store.

Wherever I looked, I was dazzled by the selection. It was a massive store with three basement floors and twelve floors above ground, and it looked like every single thing in the world could be bought here. It was enough to make me dizzy. Inside, the latest pop music hits were playing full-blast. The whole place had the features of an entertainment district, only you wouldn’t be able to tell what country we were in.

When the store first opened, Ponta and I came here together.  We heard that they sold photos of people wearing cosplay outfits in a corner of the fifth floor, so we got all excited and went on a research-gathering trip, but then everyone who saw us gave us cold stares. I definitely wasn’t going to spill that story!

As I was thinking over that, Tsutsukakushi was talking. “The Santa outfit is cute. The miniskirt is somewhat off-putting, though. Then there are the classic vampire and the magical girl looks. I think the outfit from Alice in Wonderland might be the best. Which one do you like, senpai?” She was looking around the floor enthusiastically from top-to-bottom.

“Huh? So what you wanted to buy was a costume?”

“No. I was planning to buy the materials and make them myself. However, since the ready-made ones are kindly displayed here, I might as well buy one of them.”

As she constantly checked the price tags, she got swept away by the music and tapped her feet here and there. She kept pushing me from behind, but she drove me like a drunk driver.

“I think the nurse outfit is good… wait, Tsutsukakushi, are you going to wear it?”

“It is part of my Child-Minding club activities. I told you we were having a storytelling session at the children’s playgroup. Wearing a costume would make the story more exciting, would it not?”

“I… okay then.” I swallowed. My desire for swimwear of all kinds, from bikinis to competitive swimsuits, was written all over my face. And I had swimsuit models at the back of my mind, too. Could it be, I thought, that my chance had finally come to actually prove to the world the fine theory behind the swimsuit’s appeal? “Yeah, there’s the nurse outfit, but swimsuits are the best. Hasn’t it been hot lately? You should wear clothes that don’t use much fabric to show the children how to take care of our planet’s resources. Stop global warming!”

Silence. Tsutsukakushi stopped pushing me.

Uh oh, I thought. Did I push her too far? I’d squandered the opportunity to see her in cosplay. As I wallowed in my regret, she said in a voice barely above a whisper, “You may be right. A swimsuit might look good too.”

I felt her take her hands away from my back. I turned around, my hunger for swimsuits rising effortlessly. “Wait for me please,”Tsutsukakushi said as her tiny body vanished into the dressing room.

“Huh?”

Wait for me please. What that line meant was that she was going to change her clothes. In other words, that translated to “I want you to see me in a swimsuit”.

This would surely put an end to the debate on which swimsuit style looked the best on girls! God bless you, Tsutsukakushi! Bare thy flesh before me!

…yeah, as if that would happen. No wait, it might happen. It would be awesome. Except…

I was standing in front of the dressing room. I could faintly hear the sound of rustling clothes from behind the closed curtain. A mental image of a blue sky floated into my head, only to be pushed away by dark clouds of unease.

Was Tsutsukakushi really that kind of girl? Didn’t she say something along the lines of she would rather die before cosplaying in front of me that time we went to the Oriental Animal Café? She should be scolding me for asking to see her in a swimsuit. Now she was walking into a dressing room for me. Just what had caused her change of heart?

Tsutsukakushi had no expressions. I thought that was obvious. But, well, had I really thought about what kind of emotions she was embracing behind her expressionless face?

Tsutsukakushi was originally a shy girl. Far from saying “Wait for me please” as if it was nothing, she’d refuse her senpai’s advances and look as if she’d start crying.

…and that would suck big time. I learned that from my experience with Azuki Azusa. If I disregarded her feelings and only saw her for her outward characteristics, would that whole fiasco be repeated?

My feelings overcame my reason, and impulsively, I pushed the curtain aside.

“-don’t force yourself, Tsutsukakushi! I made a… mistake?”

Silence. She blinked rapidly. I could see myself reflected in her eyes, as pale as moonlight.

Tsutsukakushi was completely naked.

 

HenNeko-239

Well, to put on a swimsuit, you need to take off the top and bottom parts of your uniform. Even the underwear needs to go. Upon opening the dressing room curtain, I was suddenly confronted with just the sort of sight you’d expect.

“…mistake… I made a mistake. Dun goofed. Yep… hahaha.”

“Ah, Tsutsukakushi, you made a mistake too, hahaha. I only know this from watching videos, but when you’re putting on a swimsuit, you don’t have to take off your shorts. Haha. Ha…”

The silence got louder.

Tsutsukakushi was as beautiful as the moon rabbit (6). If I were a shameless erotic novelist, I’d describe her as white like snow and pink like unripe fruit. By that I obviously mean her retinas. Well, no, I wasn’t thinking about that – what was I doing?!

Sorry. Thank you. I was surprised. As I struggled to find what to say, the words billowing like a raging current inside my head, Tsutsukakushi wordlessly closed the curtain.

With a loud groan, I collapsed to the ground. This sucked. It really sucked. It couldn’t have been worse if I had jumped for joy and said, “Yippee! I’m so lucky!”

Tsutsukakushi didn’t come out of the dressing room for twenty minutes after that. I had no idea how to make it up to her for my disgusting behaviour. I definitely couldn’t tell her that I wanted to see her in a swimsuit again.


“A tank-top bikini is good too, you know, but I want to see you in a mini-bikini!”

“Senpai, I see you are a shady character who loves swimsuits. You would think that anything looks good on m… why are you suddenly beating your head against the table?”

“No reason, hahaha. I’m just beating myself up for my own weakness again…”

The opportunity to apologise came at the food court on the first floor. Tsutsukakushi was the one to bring up the swimsuit story. As she chewed on an okonomiyaki (7) three times bigger than mine, she took it into her own hands to lead the conversation down that particular track. Guess who didn’t take the opportunity to do some serious self-reflection? Me. Bleh.

“Forget about what happened earlier. I am not mad.”

In the silence that followed, I remembered something else about Tsutsukakushi. She spoke with her usual flat tone, so her true feelings were an eternal mystery. It was just like that time I tickled her and it was like she couldn’t even feel anything. The atmosphere heightened with tension.

Then the moment passed and the pressure eased.

“Senpai, you cannot help yourself. It was my responsibility to take precautions. You only did what came to you naturally, so do not blame yourself.”

“Stop being so nice to me! I didn’t intend to peep on you on purpose. All I was thinking about was stopping you from forcing yourself – I had the purest intentions…”

“Okay. I understand very well,” Tsutsukakushi said as if she understood something different entirely. She stopped pressing down on my bruised head and tugged on my sleeve sourly. This was a good sign, since we’d been touching a lot all day and I thought she might have been in a bad mood.

But for some reason something felt off. And that feeling was only getting stronger.

“Next time I will choose to lock the dressing room, so have no worries. I have the courage to wear a… risqué swimsuit.”

“Oh. You, uh, really intend to wear it?”

“I thought that even if I cannot smile, wearing a costume would help me get along with the children. I do not know much about cosplay, I thought we could put our heads together and – get something you like,” Tsutsukakushi whispered as she played with her ponytail with her index finger.

I realised just what had felt so off.

What had we come here for in the first place? To get back Tsutsukakushi’s ability to express her true feelings. Not to come to terms with her emotionless state. Even so, Tsutsukakushi was misdirecting her courage and effort. She was such a smart kid who had her priorities straight, but now she was veering off the right course.

“…um, hey. There’s something I want to ask you.”

“What is it? If you are asking me my sizes I won’t answer.”

“Er, no. Today, you’ve been acting kind of… I can’t put my finger on it, Tsutsukakushi, but it’s about getting your true feelings back… that cat statue is the whole key, you know. Oh wait, your Steel Sister made it, right?” I said, not really getting to the point. Normally, I was the one making the mistakes and Tsutsukakushi was the one pointing them out. Now the tables were flipped.

“…you heard about the cat statue from my sister?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah… was it a bad memory for you?”

“No. The opposite. She made it when we were young and rarely fought. It was not much to look at, admittedly. One time, we fought and I did not know what to do. Nee-chan did not apologise straight out, so to make it up to me, she made the cat statue as a promise for us to always be together,” Tsutsukakushi sighed deeply as she relived her old memories. “It is a precious memory for me… I had already given up, thinking that she had forgotten, but Nee-chan remembered everything. Perhaps we can still fix things after all.”

“That’d be nice. We’re partners, you know. I’d do anything to help you out.”

“…um. Senpai, about you helping me out,” Tsutsukakushi said falteringly all of a sudden. As if snapping herself out of a dream, she took a deep breath, and then another. “Are you doing this for me – no, I mean for my true feelings?” she asked incredibly seriously, as if she had come to a decision.

“Of course I am. I’m the only one whose condition has been restored. I won’t leave you alone until you get back your ability to express your true feelings.”

“…is that so? I see.”

The background music in the building was loud and I couldn’t hear Tsutsukakushi’s inflectionless voice very well. Not to state the obvious, but to me she just looked so tiny.

After that, we went on shopping for a while, but in the end, we didn’t buy a single costume. We got a bunch of other things for the Child-Minding club: sweets, drawing paper and crayons. Tsutsukakushi was unusually quiet. For example, when I tried to lecture her about the right way to “bend” books, she nodded and went on with her own business instead of picking on me for using the wrong word for “bind”.

I wondered if the shock from the dressing room had a lasting impact on her. Was there now nothing left to do but cut open my stomach?

After we left the discount store, we got on a rocky bus back to the station. I never found the right opportunity to apologise properly by the time I got on the connecting bus towards Tsutsukakushi’s house. All I could do was carry her baggage all the way to the entrance.

I didn’t have any ulterior motives at all. Those were my truest of true feelings. But in my foolishness, there was something I’d forgotten.

When it came to my sworn enemy the King, normal rules didn’t apply.


The last stop was at the district right next door to Ipponsugi Hill. To my left were tiny apartments and an assortment of mansions, and to my right was an elongated stone wall. When you walked along the wall, you could see an elaborate roof and doorway just ahead. That was Tsutsukakushi’s house. It had an air of gravity and lavishness, just like a feudal lord’s residence.

And standing right outside the gate was the beautiful, black-haired ruler of the establishment.

“So you’re with Tsukiko again. You’ve got a lot of time on your hands, I see,” she proclaimed as she stared me down with evil eyes.

She could have been lying in ambush waiting for me for God knows how long. The front area of her uniform was moist with sweat. This wasn’t the right time or place to escape from reality by perving on her and celebrating the fact that it was summer.

“Th-this isn’t a date – we were just shopping for a bit. And Prez, what are you doing here in the first pl-”

“Silence. You have no right to call me your president,” she snarled as harshly as she ever had. You could practically see the flames of carnage blazing on the asphalt in this summer afternoon. The Steel King looked furious.

“…what are you so mad at, Nee-san?” Tsutsukakushi tilted her head like a cautious cat.

Good job, I thought. She asked just what I was thinking. I had no idea what was going on.

“That’s between me and this boy,” said the Steel King. “Go inside, Tsukiko.”

She yanked Tsutsukakushi away from my arm. “Hey-!” Tsutsukakushi exclaimed as we were torn apart. The Steel King pushed Tsutsukakushi towards the gate and bolted it shut. From outside I could hear Tsutsukakushi’s protests as she slammed her fist against the gate. Her voice sounded unperturbed.

The Steel King was still pulling on my arm, dragging me somewhere. Not towards the entrance but to a place that looked like a spacious courtyard, where white pebbles were spread out on the ground.

An out-of-the-way inner sanctum. Overgrown vegetation. There were no eyewitnesses around, and the ground was soft for burying corpses. The Steel King had literally whisked me off my feet. Or was it figuratively? Argh, this wasn’t the time to think about grammar,I realised, as the Steel King grabbed me by the collar. “Wh-wh-what are you doing?!”

“That’s what I should be saying. What are you planning to do to Tsukiko?” The King was possessed by a demon. Deep wisdom and hatred showed on her face. My blood went cold with the same soul-crushing fear I felt at the arcade. It all came rushing back to me.

And yet, I mustn’t run away, I mustn’t run away. (Well, not to the extent that I’d plagiarise a boy pilot’s cool scenes – that time even the mountains got the short end of the stick.)(8) I won’t run away anymore!

“Er, uh, um. Look at these bags I’m carrying! Er, aaack! I dropped them a little while back, but anyway! I was just carrying her stuff for her, you see?! Aren’t you misunderstanding something here?!”

…except my voice trembled the whole time. Oops.

“Between you and Tsukiko, I’ve been hearing that a lot. Getting walked home is a big deal for a girl. If you use that as an excuse to manhandle her, I won’t stand for it!”

“Your sister’s not stupid enough to fall for that! You jump to conclusions way too quickly, Prez!”

“How many times have I told you not to call me your president?!” the King roared, loudly enough to split the sky in two. “Taking your twin brother’s form – if you think you can fool me, think again!”

“Huh?”

“Young Yokodera knows nothing. So you thought you could get away with making a fool of someone who sees and knows nothing? And then continue to make passes at my worthless sister?!”

The stone lanterns flipped over and the sky and the earth swapped places. In other words, I got turned upside-down. Ooh, there was a sharp jolt in the right-hand side of my body. Oh, right. I was getting beaten up and thrown into the air. I don’t know how she managed to perform such a feat. This person was wasting her talents on the athletics track.

“Say your prayers, Yokodera’s brother!” Grabbing my collar once again, the King yanked me to the ground so that I was face-to-face with her.

But wait, hang on. The King had just said something weird. “Brother?”

“So you’re playing dumb. Your brother told me everything. Hmph… now that I’m looking at you closely, you have such a strong resemblance I can’t tell the difference. But you won’t fool me any longer!”

“H-huuuuh?!”

What the hell? She actually believed my half-assed lie?

I’d learned my lesson about not telling lies, but now that I’d gotten my façade back I was neck deep in trouble. It was like I hadn’t made any progress at all. I wondered if she’d forgive me if I told her the truth now. Something like, “That bit about my brother was obviously a joke. Teeheehee, you’re such an idiot, Prez!”

…yeah, right. As if. She’d tear all the hair off my body and set me on fire. There was no going back. I had passed the point of no return.

“Yeah… it’s me, no, INDEED IT IS I… YOKODERA’S BROTHER. YOU HAVE MET YOUR MATCH.”

“So those are your last words, huh?”

“T-time out!”

She still held my arm in the air. Was I an idiot or what? I was just asking to have my arse handed to me.

“No waiting. I’ll make you regret starting a fight with such flimsy resolve.”

“…before you do that, why are you so against letting your sister hang out with me, I mean FROLIC WITH I? I don’t reckon it’s any of your busi- I mean IT HAS NAUGHT TO DO WITH YOU.”

“Nothing to do with me…?”

INDEED. YOU HAVE NO RELATION TO YOUR SISTER.”

Faced with my desperate words, the Steel King faltered slightly. Her grip on my arm weakened. Could it be that I had discovered her weak spot?

“Isn’t it enough just to be with her? Your little sister is already a high school student. What right do you have as an older sister to tie her down? I’m also… I mean I TOO AM A LITTLE BROTHER. I understand all too well. Your sister’s thinking what a big help you are. But she’s also thinking what a burden you are, how fed up she is with you, how she wishes you’d leave her alone. CAN’T YOU HEAR WHAT SHE’S SAYING IN HER HEART?”

I pointed my finger at her accusingly. The Steel King stiffened as if she had been doused with cold water, but she seemed angry at the imposter me rather than shocked. Slowly, deliberately, she let go of my chest.

Just as I thought I’d won – CRACK! There was the sound of a firecracker exploding. BOOM. CRACKLE. Sparks continued to fly.

Belatedly, I realised that this was the sound of the person in front of me grinding her teeth. Just what was going on? More than a sign of her violent impulse, it was a heartbreakingly melancholy sound too.

The Steel King slowly opened her mouth. “I have a reason to interfere with Tsukiko’s life,” she said.

“…huh?”

“You said it yourself. That I have no relation to my sister. That is something I prayed for,” she spat out, as if kicking down a sealed door. “I want to sever our sibling ties.”

“W-what…?”

“Her tendency to break down and cry. To laugh without warning. To get confused and act immature. Her fickleness. Her uncertainty. Her lack of self-awareness. Everything about her from head-to-toe is the opposite of me. That’s what I’m talking about. I am reluctant to admit that a sister like that is related to me by blood. That is why I cannot stomach the thought of that girl hanging around with a boy. It stands to reason that I’d disapprove,” she uttered scornfully. With those depressingly bleak words, she categorically denied the girl named Tsutsukakshi Tsukiko’s very existence.

Everything around us went eerily still.

A lot of time had passed since the Steel King had dragged me into the gate. I could have run around the walls of the residence and made a break for it countless times by now, but I didn’t feel the need. That would mean turning my back on the existence of a certain someone who was holding her breath and peeping on us without a single sound.

Normally, the Steel King inspired the fear of an absolute ruler, but right now I wished for her and that certain somebody to get along once more. I wondered how a little sister would feel, hearing her older sister say what the Steel King just said.

“…you bastard, where are you putting your hand?”

Without thinking, I’d grabbed Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi by the front of her shirt. My anger was spent and I came to my senses. I deliberately ignored thoughts like “Holy crap, her breasts are soft and squishy like marshmallows!” I could read the atmosphere every once in a while. “What did you just say about Tsutsukakushi?”

“Hm?”

“That she cries a lot. That she laughs a lot. That she gets confused? Are you still spouting all that?!”

There was no way Tsutsukakushi showed that side of herself these days. She couldn’t.

As usual, this person was blind to everything around her. Even though she lived with Tsutsukakushi. Even though she was Tsutsukakushi’s precious sister. Even though they used to get along so well. It was unbearably painful.

“So Tsutsukakushi was telling the truth when she said you ignored her this whole time. You don’t understand anything Tsutsukakushi’s been going through! Don’t screw with her, you idiot!”

“…idiot? Did you call me an idiot? You called me an idiot again!”

“I called you an idiot because you’re an idiot, idiot!”

“You said it three times! The idiot who calls someone else an idiot is an idiot! You’ve got it all backwards, you fool!” The Steel King gnashed her teeth together, making a sound like a tambourine. But that couldn’t compare to the full orchestra concert that symbolised the extent to which my blood seethed throughout my entire body.

“Tsutsukakushi stopped smiling because of the Stony Cat! She prayed so earnestly to the cat statue for her sister’s sake, and all you say to that is ‘I want to sever my sibling ties with her so I’ll get in her way’? The word idiot describes people like you perfectly!”

“Watch your tone, you bastard… hm?” Her clenched fist was three millimetres away from my nose when she pulled her punch. “You said she prayed for my sake? That’s part of the cat statue story?”

“Yeah! Now you can’t see Tsutsukakushi’s true feelings! Such a cute girl, and she has to put up with having an unnatural lack of expressions.”

“…you’re the second person who’s told me about this. The Stony Cat. Has that rumour been spreading a lot?”

What an idiot. That so-called “second person” was me. If I mentioned stuff like that, the conversation would get even more entangled, so I held my tongue. Deferring to her was a principle that still stuck with me even after everything that happened.

That is, until I heard what she said next.

“However, I am aware that Tsukiko has changed lately. That is not because of the cat statue.” The Steel King shrugged. “If this is some scheme of yours, give it up. The cat statue has nothing to do with how Tsukiko lost her expressions over time. That is what it means to become an adult. She decided that she didn’t need her expressions on her own. It’s something everyone goes through – it’s a kind of rite of passage, to put it in other words.”

“What are you saying…?”

“Indeed. I should just break that cat statue with my own hands. Don’t you and the others who spread that idle gossip understand that Tsukiko changing is her own problem? Yes, that could be a good idea. That way, I can leave the house with peace of mind and chase my own future. Honestly, I can’t believe there are others in this world who are as worthless as my sis-”

I had a sensation of cutting through the wind. My fist was flying towards the Steel King’s face.

There was nothing that could make me forgive this person. I had to defeat the King for no one’s sake but my own.

…except my enemy was goddamn steel. There was no way a mere pervert could match up. I accepted that a long time ago.

My pre-emptive punch struck open air, while she countered with lightning speed. All it took was one hit. Her fist connected neatly with my chin, sending me flying. And that was the end of that.

The Steel King was scrutinising my face. Vaguely, I could see her looking down at me sternly and wrathfully, just like before.

It was the last thing I saw before everything went black-


“-ouuuuuch!”

The instant I jerked awake, I received a nasty shock. I was in agony, as if a bulldozer had crushed all the nerves in my brain into tiny pieces.

“You ought to keep sleeping.” Someone pressed their hands against my shoulder, forcing me to lie down again on my back. The back of my head rested on a soft pillow.

I opened my eyes and saw Tsutsukakushi peering down at me.

Even though she was so close to me, I couldn’t see her face properly because of the backlight. What I could see was the orange glow of the setting sun through huge skylights that looked like they belonged in a planetarium.

“Where am I…?”

It was an awfully spacious room. I could feel the cool touch of the wooden floor against my bare feet. Looking around, I saw an old-fashioned refrigerator and cupboard behind Tsutsukakushi. “This is our kitchen,” she said. “I carried you here.”

“Wait? What? Why?”

“Nee-san has never been in here, so this is where you can feel safest.”

“…so the King can’t cook.”

The sink was quite low compared to the one in my own house, as if someone had stipulated it match the user’s height. A picture of the Steel King holding a carving knife in this miniature kitchen popped into my head, only for it to instantly change into one of her brandishing her fists.

Oh right. It occurred to me then that I had lost. My body didn’t hurt anywhere. Only my head throbbed violently in protest.

From what I was hearing, it seemed the Steel King had dumped me, the pitiful loser, outside the gate. From there, Tsutsukakushi had collected the trash, dragging her great lump of baggage around the wall and carrying it into the kitchen via the back door. As far as I was concerned, it was one serious close call.

“You were heavy, senpai. I got worn out carrying you,” Tsutsukakushi remarked as she put the wet towel that had slipped off my forehead back in place.

“…thanks.”

In other words, she was playing doctor for me again. Oh man.

My condition was quite a bit more serious than that time in the nurse’s office, but in exchange, Tsutsukakushi’s face was closer. When I turned my head to the side, I could even see the seams of her blouse. It looked like she was hanging over me, and it seemed she was cradling my head in her arms, and – oh hang on a minute here.

“Are you resting me on your lap?!”

“I apologise. I could not find a futon or a pillow in the kitchen.”

“Oh no, that’s totally cool.”

I thought I’d been resting on a soft pillow, but it was Tsutsukakushi’s lap. It was faintly warm and gently soothing. I shivered in delight. Wasn’t this the greatest bed you could ask for? If it wasn’t for my headache, I would’ve tried nuzzling her with the back of my head.

“Senpai, you always have a perverted look on your face.”

“Er, uh, that is…”

“It is fine, I suppose,” said Tsutsukakushi with a small sigh. “I was worried about you.”

She gently stroked my hair. I wondered what kind of expression this girl was wearing right now, in the shadow of the backlight.

“…you saved me, huh? Were you watching just before?”

“Indeed I was. I dislike quarrelling.”

“It wasn’t a quarrel. You’d call that a quarrel? I wouldn’t describe doing battle with a force of evil as a quarrel.”

Tsutsukakushi’s face was inscrutable to me. All I could see was her sharp chin line. I knew she wasn’t smiling. Even so, I wondered what her true expression was.

How did she feel, hearing those words from the only sister she had?

“…do not worry yourself over me. Somehow, I was expecting her to say that,” Tsutsukakushi said unconcernedly, as if she had read my thoughts. Was that right? “Nee-san is short-tempered, but she is also forgetful and quick to misunderstand. I am sure she was not dragging you down with her,” she added.

Was that right?

“I am used to sitting on my knees. Although, it is my first time acting as a pillow for someone. Take your time and rest up here, and when you feel a little better, shall I call a taxi for you?”

“No. That’s not right!”

“Senpai, don’t sit u-”

“Who cares about me?! The King said stuff about breaking the cat statue! Your smile, your true feelings – they’ll vanish forever, Tsutsukakushi! Be more angry! Why aren’t you angry, Tsutsukakushi?!”

She stopped, letting go of her tight grip on my arm. Finally, I could sit up straight. I was groaning as if I was forced to eat shit off a dump truck, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of the pain I was in or because of how angry I was.

“…of course I am angry,” said Tsutsukakushi.

“That’s not what your face is telling me.”

“That goes without saying. You only cannot understand how I feel because my true feelings were taken from me.”

“I understand! I do understand. You’re not the least bit mad, Tsutsukakushi!”

As we sat there facing each other on the floor, I pressed my forehead against hers. For the first time in a long while, I saw her eyes. I was close enough from this distance to count her eyelashes one-by-one, and I found myself captured by Tsutsukakushi’s distinctive pair of eyes. When it really came down to it, those wide, cat-like eyes were the centre of all gravitational pull. I was being controlled by the gods up above so that I could feel the emotions of an expressionless girl.

“Look, aren’t you totally giving up, you coward?! What happened to the guts you showed when you took me to a love hotel?! D-don’t tell me you only take charge for that kind of thing?”

“…shut up. How rude. You are mistaking the facts,” Tsutsukakushi declared, staving off my words with her tiny hands. Her expressionless face never changed, but this time, she was working herself into a rage. “I have known since the beginning. That cat statue belongs to Nee-san. If she takes it in her head to break it, I am in no position to stop her. I only have my memories of her – I have no right to change anything. And besides, even if she did break it, it is not such a big deal.”

And then, more than anger, her wide eyes exploded with fiery passion to their very brim.

There was a short pause, and then- “There is something I need far more than my true feelings.” As if to reign in her emotions, Tsutsukakushi lowered her eyes and heaved a long sigh. “If I stop ‘trying to be an adult’, Nee-san will hate me even more. But if my true feelings were to… if I remain expressionless… she might come to like me.”

“What are you saying? That’s not how things should work!”

I pounded the floor. I was angry, but more than that, I wanted to break out laughing for some reason. Tsutsukakushi loved jokes. I half-expected her to say that whole exchange was a prank of hers.

After all, Tsutsukakushi’s way of thinking would be too miserable otherwise.

“Senpai, in order to hide your true feelings leaking out and causing you trouble, you needed a façade. For me, something has to change so that I can hide my true feelings.”

“You’ve got it all wrong – that’s not the issue here at all! Why don’t you get it? Quit thinking it’s okay to kill your expressions for your sister’s sake. You said yourself that losing your true feelings makes things inconvenient for you!”

“Senpai, I see you understand my emotions. Then it was not so inconvenient for me.”

“There’s no point if I’m the only one who understands! It’s not just my problem!”

“It is just your problem.” Instead of shouting, Tsutsukakushi slammed her fist against the floor. It caused the wooden floor to tremble violently, more so than when I did it. The cupboard creaked and a wooden spoon fell down from the sink.

“…just my problem? Why?” I asked blankly, forgetting what I was going to say.

Coming to her senses, Tsutsukakushi covered her mouth, but she couldn’t take back the words she’d already blurted out. She stared at me unblinkingly, as if to shake off the silence that had descended on us. “In that case, I have something to ask you. Senpai, what am I to you?”

“What… do you mean by that?”

“Senpai, what is our relationship?” she said coolly and without any inflection, as if she were a gambler playing her trump card.

But this wasn’t a game of poker – her trump card was built on a shaky foundation. Any minute it would all come crashing down.

“We’re partners helping each other get our true feelings and façades back, except…”

That was a trite response. It would just make things worse. I couldn’t give the right answer if I didn’t know it. It was like I lost my nerves and my headache as soon I looked into her captivating eyes.

“Indeed. We are only just helping each other out. We were only seeing each other because of the cat statue. What will you do after I get my true feelings back? We will not have any reason to meet at school or go out on the weekends. I am sure that you would stop talking to me, senpai. Will I be alone for as long as my sister hates me?”

“That’s not true at all! You’ve got to make things happen, as any game character would tell you! Not having any events would mess the narrative up!”

“…I will do anything to be with senpai. Anything. Today in the dressing room, I thought I would bite my tongue and die, but I held my tears back.”

“Oh…”

“That was a joke. The only thing that would kill me was the embarrassment.”

“Don’t joke about stuff like that! Say it differently! I was the one who wanted to die!” I didn’t know if I was supposed to get mad or laugh. My way of compromising was to prostrate myself on the ground in front of her.

“…however. Even if I did want to be with you, that would not be enough in itself.”

“What? Why are you saying that so suddenly…? Even if there was nothing going on, I’d still want to meet up with you, Tsutsukakushi. I’d meet up with you and talk to you. That way, we’d be together forever.”

“That is a lie.” Tsutsukakushi shook her head briskly. She picked up the wooden spoon that had fallen on the floor and gently traced a boundary line between us. Whatever it was that lay brimming in her cat-like eyes was disappearing to the bottom all of a sudden, and I couldn’t drag it back out of her. “Senpai, you have Azuki-san.”

“Huh? W-why’d you bring up Azuki Azusa? Azuki Azusa’s my friend, but we’re not anything more or less than that.”

“That might be the case now. But it might not be that way in the future. No one can say for certain. You and Azuki-san suit each other very well. When I saw you carrying her on your back on the hill, I really, really regretted it.” Tsutsukakushi’s voice trailed off as she threw down the wooden spoon in self-abandonment. “What is certain is that if I got my true feelings back, Nee-san would still go on hating me. I do not know whether you would still be with me in that case. We have nothing in common; we are not even in the same grade. Even then, would you really want to be close to me? Senpai. Tell me. When you have finished helping me out…”

What will I be to you?

Only her lips moved for those last words. No sound came out. Even so, that message reverberated throughout my brain.

Invisible on the floor was the line Tsutsukakushi had drawn with the wooden spoon. On the other side of that line was an android-like girl whose speech system had broken. The setting sun cast light on her robotic expression. She’d been scarred and knocked to the ground by an unforgiving world, and now she sat on the floor all alone, waiting for just one friend who could save her.

And I – I didn’t cross the line.

I turned my back to Tsutsukakushi’s face and closed the door of that tiny kitchen behind me.

She made no move to stop me. When I left through the back entrance, I thought I heard a small, faint sigh, but that was all.


When I went back to school and told Azuki Azusa what happened, her first reaction was to screech at me. “You jerk!” The open door of the student counselling room shook from the tremor.

As dusk approached, the hallway was devoid of any sign of human life. There was only the “No Perverts Allowed” paper sign, torn up and scattered into thousands of little pieces.

“Why didn’t you say anything right then?! Why’d you come to me?! What were you thinking?!”

“Yeah… so um, how many pages of supplementary homework do you have left?”

“Tons! I swear they breed like rabbits. But you’ve got more important things to do than checking up on me, you ninny! Get your priorities straight!”

Her anger was less like that of a cosmic fairy and more like that a furiously yapping puppy. If her huge stack of printouts hadn’t become a fort standing between us, she might have promptly chewed my head off.

“Were you even thinking when you said that to Tsutsukakushi-san?”

“I was thinking. Isn’t it obvious a bunch of stuff was going through my head?”

“So then why?!”

“Tsutsukakushi wouldn’t believe me if I just said something to her. What she was really looking for wasn’t something I could tell her.”

When I saw how much Tsutsukakushi’s shoulders shook, I wanted to do something like put my arms around her. But that wouldn’t do. I’d come to acknowledge Tsutsukakushi’s declaration that she needed no true feelings. Just who was the one being made to think negative?

In other words, when there was no real enemy to defeat, there was no solution.

“Azuki Azusa. I want you to tell me, what is Tsutsukakushi to you?”

The affronted puppy avoided meeting my eyes ever so slightly. “What are you saying so suddenly…? She’s my kouhai, no, a frie… no, before that, we’re rivals, maybe?”

“Rivals? Since when?”

“I-it’s got nothing to do with anything – right now, Tsutsukakushi-san means a lot to me.”

Just what kind of rivals were they? I had no idea myself, but was this some kind of cat-versus-dog conflict? I kind of wanted to see.

But in any case, I could sense that the animosity between those two had completely eased up.

I’d heard from Tsutsukakushi that she and Azuki Azusa had made up. On that day I got my façade back, she got a call from Azuki’s family thanking her for coming to their house so many times, telling her about how Azuki Azusa thought of her like a real sister, or something like that. So Azuki Azusa didn’t hate her, I thought with a sigh of relief.

But I never thought she would get so mad for Tsutsukakushi’s sake. What a pleasant surprise. “In that case, I’ve got a favour to ask of you.”

Only Azuki Azusa was inside the student counselling room. Apparently, the homeroom teacher, in her boundless trust, had conferred Azuki Azusa the key to close up the room and leave when she was done.

Along the wall was a glass-encased shelf full of official documents. Student report cards and career advice forms along with various other files that had personal information enclosed in them were lined up on the shelf. And the key to the shelf was dangling from the same key ring that Azuki Azusa was holding.

“I need it to defeat the Steel King,” I said.

“…you mean opening the shelf and peeking inside?”

“Yeah. It might be a bad thing to do, but as Oscar Wilde said, ‘Conscience and cowardice are really the same things’…”

Azuki Azusa interrupted me with a snort. “Who cares about what some other person said? I want to know what you think.”

…this was the girl who had clung to her false pride, who imitated manga, who was defined by her façade. Not a single trace of her weakness remained.

The lovely fairy had bright eyes, unlike Tsutsukakushi’s, whose eyes had a way of swallowing all the light that came in. As she peered at me, the light in Azuki Azusa’s eyes, which had once started off as a gloomy, dim nightstand, now shone with the radiance of a brilliant jewel.

And because I was faced with that, I had no choice but to answer with my true feelings too.

“…Tsutsukakushi is more important to me than anything else.”

I had always blurted out lies, avoided my problems by blaming anything and everything on the gods, and relied on words over actions. It didn’t matter whether I had a façade – I never said the right things at the right moments. Even so, it wasn’t like I changed so much that I hated myself.

But when it came to the girl I cared about, it was okay that there were times when my instincts clashed with my true feelings.

“I want to help Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko no matter what. Only you can help me with that. So I implore you: please, please help me.”

“…okay. So you can say it.” Azuki Azusa nodded, satisfied.

And then she smiled, looking somehow lonely.


Have you heard of the American film called High Noon? I haven’t actually seen it. But there was an R-18+ video parodying that title amongst Ponta’s treasured goods. So I roughly know what the story is about.

At 12:00 noon the next day, I leaned against the cedar tree at Ipponsugi Hill like I was the sheriff of justice. I had no allies and the only weapons I had were my fists and my conviction. I’d stopped Azuki Azusa from coming – this was one of those times when a man has to do what a man has to do. Man, that sounded pretty cool. In Ponta’s video, there was also this girl cosplaying as a sheriff getting this-and-that done to her by the evil gang, but that was another story.

Matching the Western setting, the midsummer sun blazed overhead. Presently, the bad guy appeared on the hill. The promised hour had come.

“Sending me a letter of challenge, how exciting – I mean how clichéd,” she said. “Have you been saying your prayers?”

“That’s what I should be saying to you. See that sun in the sky? Remember it, because it’ll be the last thing you’ll ever see.”

“The only thing I can commend you on is how big you talk.”

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi was clad in her school uniform today as usual. The King marched up to me with her arms folded, displaying her sheer tyranny over me. The grass, an innocent bystander in all of this, groaned under her crushing feet.

“However, Yokodera’s brother, do you really think you can beat me in a duel? In that case, be aware that you are vermin, only useful as a punching bag.”

“Your pride will be your undoing,” I said to the King. “You know what they say – pride comes before a fall.”

“Hmph, I see only your mouth is in working order. What do they call fools like you in French?” Then after a pause she said, “Never mind. It slipped my tongue.”

The distance was gradually closing between us. As the sun glared down at us, a gust howled throughout Ipponsugi Hill. The Steel King’s glossy black hair swayed in the wind.

Those haughty, narrowed eyes suddenly blinked and widened, as if she were in a manga. “How can this be…! My cat statue’s features are too atrocious to look at!”

Situated next to me was a familiar sight – the enormous, pork bun-shaped, obese cat statue. Today, it was in a bloodthirsty state. It bared its fangs menacingly and its pupils glared at everything around it.

Tsutsukakushi had declared more than once that she would break the cat statue, but now that she was on the hill, it seemed she couldn’t take one step forward. Confronted with the sight of the statue she had carved with her own two hands, she stood stock still in a daze, preoccupied by how thoroughly it had changed.  Was it that much of a shock? I wondered. The eerie, expressionless cat statue from before could give the current cat statue a run for its money.

“Took you this long to realise? As you can see, the rumour about the statue is true,” I said, pausing for effect. “Now watch as I – I mean, BEHOLD AS MY PRAYERS COME TRUE.”

“W-what are you praying for?”

“That it’ll take what I don’t need. Right now, what I need least is-” I knelt on the ground. If I thought about what I truly didn’t need, I was sure the cat statue would answer me. I faced it and made my wish, “-my ‘sense of shame’!  I want my awkwardness, shyness and hesitancy to go away!”

At that moment, a thunderous roar like a waterfall broke out, alongside a violent squall. The trunk of the cedar tree creaked, frighteningly intensely. Unable to stand on my two feet, I tumbled over sideways around the hill countless times. The overgrown weeds pricked my skin, stinging me. My lower stomach area stung in particular – no, wait – I felt air down in a strange place… oh god.

“My underwear?!”

The trousers inside my pants had unexpectedly taken their leave of me.

That made sense – the cat statue needed it as an offering. My underwear had been given up as a symbol of my sense of shame. Perhaps right now at this very minute, a boy’s trousers appeared in the closet of someone’s house somewhere. I hoped its owner would treasure that newfound source of embarrassment.

Oh well, it was summer and it was hot and all, so I wouldn’t be missing my underwear anyway. It’d be handy when I went to the toilet, I thought idly, now that my sense of shame was gone.

Then I stood up once more.

“My preparations are complete! Now I can finally match you,” I said to the King.

“What? I’m wondering why you mentioned your underwear… and what is this match you speak of? If you’re talking about our fight the other day, you already did tha-”

“Who cares about that?! There is only one reason I would do battle with you!” I planted my feet firmly on the ground and bent my knees. Now was the time to bring my plans together. “You and I will fight over Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko!” I yelled out, loudly enough for someone far away to hear me.

“…how impudent!”

“You’re the one who’s being impudent. Siblings are something you should cherish! All the videos I have say so. If you want to break your ties and stuff, don’t go happily calling yourself her older sister! You don’t have the qualifications to be someone’s sister!”

“Did you lose your reason along with your shame? You’re just asking for a thorough punishment.”

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi clenched her fists hard enough for them to be a lethal weapon. She launched a “Suck It Up and Deal With It” Steel Punch. The instant I jumped to the side, her fist left an imprint on the ground where I had been standing. She was serious.

However, as a great man once said, “It doesn’t matter how powerful you are if you can’t hit me (9)”. Forgetfulness is my strong suit. I had erased all my traumatic memories from yesterday. I was no longer afraid.

“You have even less of a right to say such things,” said the King. “What is Tsukiko to you? No one’s forcing you to give a half-assed answer.”

It was the question that I had never been able to answer for so long.

But now, things were different. Now, I had no sense of shame. There was not a single thing getting in my way.

“But of course. Tsukiko-chan is my beloved-”

“Oh?”

“-sister! I swore an oath to her by the Stony Cat at Ipponsugi Hill!”

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s expression hardened. “Huh? You?”

“Yeah, and what of it? It’s got nothing to do with blood relations, laws or what the other person wants! You are disqualified from being her sibling,” I said to the King. “I’ll defeat you and officially become Tsukiko-chan’s brother!”

She could cook. She could draw cute pictures. Massages were her specialty. She was a shy little girl and a cry baby who was quick to sulk when things didn’t go her way. She was the kind of girl who dreaded the thought of parting with her older sister so much that, for the sole sake of her worthless sister, she abandoned the ability to express her true feelings.

As if I could follow such stupid reasoning!

“I’ll become her brother and always stay by her side. I’ll protect the cat statue from the evil King, and one day I’ll get her true feelings back!”

“Why are you doing all this…?”

“Because I love Tsukiko-chan!”

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s mouth hung half-open. She had an idiotic look on her face for once. As if suddenly remembering what her reaction was supposed to be, she threw a punch at me, but it was as flimsy as a child’s. “How dare you? I don’t know how you can say that with a straight face…”

“Saying that means you’ve already lost. True love is shameless. I love Tsukiko-chan as a brother! Can you say that about yourself, Steel King?”

“Don’t use that awful nickname! Who’s the Steel King?”

Her punches suddenly got faster. She battered me over and over again. Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi was in a flying rage. I could hardly believe it – was the King really unaware of what name she went under? I learned it in my first month in my first year of high school.  Did she really have no friends to tell her that?

When it came to a physical fight, my body was at a disadvantage, just as I expected. I dashed around the hill. The president of the Track and Field club followed me in pursuit. What ensued was a struggle for the throne. Good thing I was wearing spikes on my shoes, the type you use on the athletics track. My opponent was wearing leather shoes – today, I wouldn’t lose at track and field.

“Oh, and unlike you, Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi, I have more memories with Tsukiko-chan! I’ve pinned her down. She’s pinned me down. We went to a love hotel. And I’ve seen her naked as the day she was born!”

“-oho!

She caught me in three seconds flat.

Oh wow, I could see the Steel King’s hair really standing up on end. She was absolutely seething. But even though she grabbed me by the hair, I really didn’t want mine to become the same shape as hers. Stop it, please, I thought. I have a boo-boo. My scalp was threatening to come off.

“This brotherly love of yours is filthy. You hurt Tsukiko, so you don’t deserve to live. First, I’ll gouge your eyes out. I’ll gouge them lovingly for hours.”

“Y-you’re resorting to violence because you can’t win! Don’t be cruel! You’re a tyrant!” I wailed.

Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi frowned at me. “Isn’t this a duel?” she demanded after a pause. “My memories win over yours in the first place. All your memories of her are recent, are they not? So it’s ridiculous to have this conversation. Memories are things you point to when you pine away over what happened long ago.”

“Do you have those kinds of memories?”

“Hmph, I’ve had all the time in the world to make them. Bow down before me.  We’d count how many moles we had on each other when we were in the bath.”

“W-what?!”

“She had them in some strange spots. I’d laugh at her all the time. I’ve also washed her futon when she wet herself in her sleep. Even towards the end of elementary school, she hadn’t quite kicked the habit, so I’d wash her futon once every week. She got in so much trouble wetting the bed she kept a good-luck charm to get her to stop.”

Her power level was OVER NINE THOUSAND (10)!

Man, was I jealous! I smacked my lips, and the sound seemed to feed Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s ego. She peered at the cat statue as if remembering something. Surprisingly, it was a soft gaze.

“I have too many memories to count. We had an argument over splitting a pork bun. She was a massive glutton, so she called me stingy for dividing the halves equally. We had a huge squabble. That was around the time I made the cat statue. Tsukiko praised me and called it a masterpiece. She was so happy. We got over our fight and made a promise…” she said softly, her face overflowing with emotion.

There were a few discrepancies with her memories about her sister, but whatever. Now that the lid of her precious jewel box of memories had been cracked open, she was positively gushing.

But, well…

“It’s weird,” I said to the King. “From the way you talk, it sounds like you still love your sister.”

“Of course! You say your love for her is so great, but you’ll only hear her sleep-talk in hell!” Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi roared, banging her fist against the cedar tree resoundingly. “It’s obvious that I love my cute-as-a-button little sister more than you do!”

“Oh, is that so?”

It was uncanny timing. The interjection, which sounded like the lines a housewife would say when she discovered her husband cheating on her, came as a slap in the face. The voice came from the cat statue. I’d told her to stay quiet, but she couldn’t keep her mouth shut.

“Th-that voice…!” As the colour of the Steel King’s face changed, she involuntarily let me go of my hair. Welcome back, my follicles, I thought.

And then the spectator, hidden in the shadow of the cat statue, slowly emerged and showed her face.

“…you have plenty of things you want to say, I see. For now, I want you to either apologise to me or pull your tongues out, senpai, Nee-chan.”

Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko’s shoulders were trembling slightly.


Now that the duel had come to a hazy, roundabout end, Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko made the two duellists sit on their knees in front of the cat statue.

“Do you understand now? Senpai, because you were having your important discussion, I was listening quietly. And then what did you talk about? Love, moles, wetting the… I did not think I would receive such humiliation. The two of you need to do some serious self-reflection and soul-searching.”

As she walked in circles, the expressionless Tsutsukakushi preached on and on. She was like the moon circling the globe. When it came to who had the power now, the shoe was on the other foot.

“…I only said normal things,” I insisted. “The Steel King was the only one who remembered weird things.”

“Yokodera’s little brother was the one who set me up. I fought the duel on the terms given to me.”

As we hung our heads in shame, the (temporary) older sister dug her elbow into the (self-proclaimed) older brother, and he did it back to her. “This is all your fault, O ugly King.” “What did you say? It’s all your fault, boy.” “Shut up, fool. Foolishly foolish fool.” “Who are you calling a fool?” “You! You’re the fool.”

Thwack. Thwack. Tsutsukakushi smacked our shoulders in turn.“Stop fighting. Do not blame each other.”

“…sorry,” the Steel King and I said in unison. Our Pavlov’s dog instincts had kicked into gear.

It was a somewhat unpleasant situation. The King was no doubt thinking the same thing, because we glared at each other surreptitiously.

“Oh my goodness…” Tsutsukakushi sighed. “I can understand senpai being like that, but Nee-san, you should act more like an adult.”

What did she mean by that? Instead of wondering about it, though, I understood something important. Her sigh was one of baffled amazement. It was one of deep relief from the bottom of her heart. What made her so relieved? Well of course, it had to be-

“…by the way, Nee-san. You were saying it before, but is it true?”

“What are you talking about? I should be getting back to the Track and Field club. Let’s call it a day.”

“I’m asking if you love me, Nee-san.”

“Oh? Ohhh? Ohhhhhh? Could you please file the paperwork before you ask such a private question?”

“Do. You. Love. Me?” the expressionless Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko asked, enunciating every word. Whoosh. The little sister closed in on her older sister, cutting off all avenues for escape. The older sister struggled for words, her confusion utterly transparent.

Oh, believe me, it was a charming scene. It was just a matter of time before their sisterly relationship was restored.

I was silent for a moment.

“No wait,” I cried out suddenly, “don’t let her fool you, Tsukiko-chan!”

“Senpai. Please stop calling me that.”

“Don’t forget, Tsukiko-chan, that she said every bad thing about you she could think of. That’s how much she wants to break ties with you! Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi is a lying cheat – she’s evil incarnate!”

If the two of them made up, it would just be a half-assed ending at this rate, and I couldn’t accept that. The joker had yet to make an appearance.

“I’ll tell you, Tsukiko-chan,” I went on, this time in a calmer tone, “so that you’ll know just how inhuman Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi is. The shocking reveal!”

“You keep ploughing ahead and adding ­chan to my name anyway… what is this reveal you speak of?”

“The truth is, for her university entrance exams, the King is aiming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!”

Azuki Azusa and I had found her career advice form in the student counselling room. Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s first choice was a university in a foreign country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It was a prestigious, super elite school in the American state of Massachusetts, where so many graduates went on to become the Secretary Generals of the United Nations and the winners of the Nobel Prize.

“Huh…” Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko was lost for words.

I was shocked too when I found out. Even the career advice teacher seemed flabbergasted. Only one word was written in the comments section on the interview form: Idiot. That was all.

“It’s outrageous that an older sister would leave the house on her own and abandon her helpless kid sister to wallow in misery!” I declared. “Here’s the proof that Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi is a fake sister who has been pulling the wool over your eyes!”

“…that is a non-issue. I am already a high school student. I am not helpless. I can function by myself. If I had to pick between the two of you, I would say you are the one who is acting outrageous, senpai.”

“Do you hear that, Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi? Your sister is putting on such a brave face!”

“I want you to listen to what I am saying, senpai.”

“But even so, what kind of older sister wants to break her ties without even looking twice at her little sister?!” My combo attack against the fake sister was impeccable.

Tsutsukakushi sighed as if she was getting increasingly fed up with me and looked only at her sister. Why was I the one getting ignored? I wondered.

“Nee-san… what were you thinking, taking the exam for MIT?”

“…I love track and field. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there’s a college that specialises in health science. I don’t want to cast away the theories I learned from the Track and Field club. I want to confirm them from a scientific perspective.”

“Indeed, but do you really need to go all the way to America for that? You cannot even write the alphabet.”

“Th-that’s not true. I bought a pillow over mail order that can teach you stuff in your sleep, so I’m planning to become fluent right away. I’m mastering English for daily conversation, and my dream is to join the ranks of superheroes like Spiderman.”

“You are as easy to fool as a boy in middle school. Please open your eyes to reality.”

The Steel King had a rather sour look on her face after getting told off by her little sister, who was two years younger than her. She was like a resurrected pharaoh whose tomb had been broken into. She didn’t just glare at me – she channelled all of her hatred into my being. All she needed was one more push.

“What you said just now was a façade, wasn’t it?” I said to the King. “Your true feelings are about something else.”

“Urgh… how did you know…?”

“I know because I’ve been struggling all this time with my true feelings and my façade. I can say it clearly now, though. Even if, say, your words are vague, all you can do is move forward. That’s what Tsukiko-chan said, but I think so too. Confessing everything is your only choice.”

The same words were being uttered on Ipponsugi Hill again. I got the feeling they sounded better after all when someone else said them instead of me.

The time had finally come for the King to take responsibility. Her eyebrows knitted together, making a crease appear on the middle of her forehead.

Say it, I thought with glee. Say that you’ll cross the ocean to get away from your sister. Say that you don’t deserve to be her older sister.

“My true feelings, huh… hmph. I want to sever the ties between me and my worthless sister – that’s a fact.”

“What a cruel older sister you are. And then? What next?”

“…and then, since the State of Massachusetts permits gay marriage…”

“Man, you’re so unforgivable… wait. Gay… marriage?”

“Tsukiko and I-” Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko suddenly yelled out, as if drunkenly, “-are getting married! I want us to move to Massachusetts and live there, not as siblings, but as a married couple in bliss!”

What was this person saying?

The two of us were speechless. With a sideway glance in our direction, the King leaped on her sister like a coil, stroking her tiny head. She purred in complete disregard for her sister’s squirming. The entirety of her being was that of an affectionate cat.

 

HenNeko-277

“Just stop and think about it. Tsukiko and I have been close since we were very young. When two adults get along very well, they get married and live together – that’s how it’s been everywhere throughout history. Am I not acting as nature has dictated?”

“Er, um,” I said to the King. “That’s only for men and women…”

“I know. With Japan’s current laws, Tsukiko and I can’t get married! Why must the Emperor thwart my marriage plan? Is the sovereignty of the people a lie as well?”

“…I’m pretty sure that marrying your sister is not part of the constitution.”

“Lies! Whichever worthless people came up with that worthless idea of not letting me marry my sister deserves to die a thousand worthless deaths!”

Since that was pretty much everyone in history, well more than a thousand of them would have died by now. Oh I give up, I thought. I glanced at Tsutsukakushi and she had a “Senpai, please don’t reject her” look on her face. Somehow, I knew that was what she was asking of me.

“Oh geez,” the King went on, “that worthless rule about little sisters is the most worthless rule in the world. For example, my daily routine is to invade my sister’s room through her bedroom window at two in the morning and squish her cheeks together until I’m worn out, but in this country I cannot keep the promise I made to her that day!”

“…Nee-san,” said Tsutsukakushi Tsukiko, “we will be having a nice, long talk later about what your squishing has done to my cheeks. Now what promise are you talking about?”

“Stop trying to fool me! Did we not wish in front of this cat statue after our fight that we would stay together forever? That we’d walk side-by-side through thick and thin? Tsukiko, aren’t you just going through marriage blues?”

Marriage blues. A phenomenon where women fell into a vague sense of melancholy before they got married.

Tsutsukakushi and I proceeded to have an eloquent conversation through eye contact alone. “Is that so, Tsutsukakushi? Congrats. Invite me to the wedding.” “Please do not indulge in escapism, senpai.”

Our hearts were currently connected more deeply than anything else. But strangely enough, I didn’t feel happy.

“Tsukiko will soon be having her birthday,” said the Steel King. “She will finally be sixteen. She’ll be an adult and we can get married! Getting marriage blues before the wedding is the norm, they say. That’s exactly why I forsook you and pretended we were having a fight. Those were hard days. Tsukiko, you were playing along when you stopped smiling, right? However, my use for a façade has come to an end. If we go to Massachusetts, we can get married! Clearly, all I need to do is study and get accepted at Chu Chu University (11)!”

“I have no idea where to start… first of all, sisters can’t get married. No one who is blood-related can. Is that not so, senpai? That is not the issue here, though.” Tsutsukakushi glanced at me. Please, let me handle this.

“W-what did you say…? That my splendid plan has come to ruin? Then I’ll give up on going to a university. Studying is hard! I’ll spend my whole life at home with you, Tsukiko!”

“I am talking about something else entirely. If you want us to get along for the rest of your life, please study for your exams.”

“You’re so nice, Tsukiko. All I can hope for is a change in the law so we can get marr… oh. Ohhh. So did you know all this time that you and I couldn’t get married, my cute and wise Tsukiko?”

“The only person in the entire world who thought we could get married was you, Nee-san.”

“Th-then why’d you go through marriage blues?! Don’t tell me – don’t tell me you’re getting married to Yokodera’s brother?! Never! I’ll never accept him! If you intend to get married to this boy, I’ll stop at nothing to burn down every church, temple, shrine, priest and clergyman in the world!” the King wailed, clinging to her sister by her thin shoulders. Tsutsukakushi’s hair flopped up and down, but the King was the only one making a noise.

Even in this kind of situation, her Demon King expression didn’t just occupy a corner of her face – she was a completely different person whose facial components merely looked human.

I had no idea how to react. Was this her true form? She was such a kid on the inside. I’d been called a pervert by the King and that was how I became the Pervert Prince, but wasn’t the Steel King more like the real thing? I could sense how hopelessly strong her power levels were.

But with a practiced gesture, Tsutsukakushi said, “Senpai is a good person, Nee-san is a good person – you just don’t listen to what people are saying… which is what you should be doing. I do not have marriage blues – the cat statue took my expressions away.”

Thwack. She performed a chop on the King’s forehead. But contrary to what you’d expect, she didn’t come to her senses right away. The world didn’t work that way.

“Oh, I see. That’s good. No, it isn’t! You bastard cat statue, what do you plan to do with the privileges I gave you? You’d better return Tsukiko’s expressions at once! Otherwise, I won’t go easy on you, cat statue! I’ll scoop your body out. That’s how much I care about Tsukiko!”

This time, the cat statue was on the receiving end of Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s angry roar. Hahaha, serves you right, I thought. I was too exhausted to do anything more than just crack a weak smile.

…that was the moment the Stony Cat smiled.

The cat statue’s expressions didn’t just change as if it were a living being. It broke out into a high-pitched laughter, signifying its dominance. As if it had been waiting eagerly to hear Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s words, as if those true feelings had been the trigger.

Tears flowed from the cat’s eyes, as if it was too happy, and its body, carved from wood, began to twist and distort out of shape. As it convulsed with laughter, it got smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller, until – pop! It was back to its original size. Its pork bun-shaped face had also reverted to the same bland, expressionless face as before.

It was a vivid transformation, just like magic. Faced with this sinister sight, the Steel King finally went quiet.

The Stony Cat was a cat statue that had been made to fix the relationship between the Tsutsukakushi siblings. The strong feelings that had been injected into it had become its own will before long. Maybe it, too, had a wish to express its own feelings.

-and forever afterwards, that thought was on its mind.

If you asked me what I thought at that moment, of course I was freaked out, unable to get off my knees and onto my feet. But at the same time, I was impressed by it.

I realised what Tsutsukakushi was doing at once. There was a gaping wide space on the ground where the cat statue had grown small. And what was tumbling into that space was something that should have been given up a long time ago-

“Nee-san,” she said, picking it up. “We may not be able to get married, but we can least eat a pork bun like we did in the past.”

With a single sigh, Tsutsukakushi held out her cold, frugal offering.

The Steel King looked from the pork bun to her sister. “You want to make up with me again…?”

“You are the only sister I have. There is nothing I would rather do than make it up to you. I was never mad from the start.”

“I-I see!”

“However, there are many things I would like for you to improve on, Nee-san. You always miss the point. That is why you misunderstand, for instance – you are made of steel and you are a bulldozer. That is why even the Track and Field club seems to be afraid of you. There is nothing else for it, so I will help improve your image for you, Nee-san.”

There is nothing else for it, so I will help you. I’d heard that phrase before.

That time when we clasped hands as we swore we would get my façade and her true feelings back. In the end, it was Tsutsukakushi that helped me regain my façade back then, not the other way around.

Tsutsukakushi was always like that. She always put others before herself.

“Nee-san, it was good when you discarded your weird thoughts and your façade and showed me what you were really thinking with your words and expressions. So then, will you eat this pork bun with me? Have some.”

“Oh? I don’t really get it, giving me the whole thing means you’ve really grown.”

I had no idea why the Steel King accepted it so cheerfully. It wasn’t just a plain old pork bun. It was a pork bun that symbolised something. Thanks to the cat statue sacrificing itself, Tsutsukakushi’s true feelings had finally returned to her.

Which meant that if she gave it to anyone else, Tsutsukakushi’s true feelings – her smile – would be lost once more.

Then there was Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi, who hated her other name as the Steel King. The truth was that she was a dunce and a raging siscon. Her problem was that the only expression she could show was one of anger. If she learned to laugh and cry like her sister did, she would be able to fit in with her surroundings better. I understood that much.

But Tsutsukakushi didn’t have to sacrifice her true feelings for her, did she?

“H-hold on, Tsukiko-chan! Giving up food isn’t like you!”

“I am sorry,” Tsutsukakushi murmured, stony-faced as usual. She was cute. So cute I wanted to cry. And yet, if her eyes laughed too, she would have been that much cuter.

I knew that it was pointless to say anything more. But because the general idea behind my sense of shame was gone, I went on blabbering anyway. “You didn’t have to go that far for the King… seeing as I want to be siblings with you, I’ll become your brother.”

Tsutsukakushi looked down as if she was considering it for a moment. “I love my older sister,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “Besides, you do not feel like a brother to me, senpai. Sorry.”

“Hmph! I am Tsukiko’s authentic older sister! Don’t you go calling her Tsukiko-chan again!” the Steel King interjected, not understanding what was what.

She was beaming like a kid without any worries in the world. It was the first time I ever saw an expression like that on her face. She looked so young it was like she had used a time machine – she certainly looked clever enough for it now. Oh wow, I thought. Not what I was expecting.

There was nothing left of the pork bun in Tsutsukakushi Tsukushi’s hand. I could see now that it was true: the Steel King was 200% friendlier than she was before.

But the smile I really wanted to see belonged to someone else – the girl in front of me!

All of a sudden, I remembered my trunks were missing. I let out a sneeze. It was a hollow sneeze.

I didn’t become Tsutsukakushi’s brother, and she never got her expressions back either – the sheriff of justice had been utterly defeated.

HenNeko-284


TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

(1) A kind of traditional Japanese wrapping cloth.
(2) As you might recall from chapter 3, Yokodera thinks that ‘tame’ means ‘emotionally distant’.
(3) Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist famous for his experiments on the conditional behaviour of dogs.
(4) Super rare monsters from the Dragon Quest franchise.
(5) The Japanese refers to Okiku from the Bancho Sarayashi story. This folk story has been famously reinvented as the inspiration for the Japanese horror film The Ring, which I think is more familiar to readers. Sadako is portrayed as a creepy woman with long, black hair with a grudge against humanity.
(6) A reference to a Japanese folklore tale. The moon apparently looks like a rabbit making rice cake. You can decide for yourselves whether that mental image is pretty or not. Also, the ‘tsuki’ in ‘Tsukiko’ is spelt with the Japanese character for moon.
(7) A kind of Japanese-style grilled pancake.
(8) A reference to Shinji’s catchphrase from Evangelion and to the iconic scene where his mecha unit went berserk.
(9) A quote by Char Aznabel from Mobile Suit Gundam.
(10) The Japanese actually does have a dumb reference to Dragon Ball Z here: “Her power level would have broken a scouter.” I exchanged that for the more widely quoted Internet meme.
(11) “Chu Chu” is probably a shortcut for Massachusetts. As a side note, the way English words are spelt in Tsukushi’s speech indicates how terrible her accent. That could not be conveyed in translation, unfortunately.

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