Chapter 2 – Self

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Have you ever wished that you existed  twice?

I’m not talking about twins or anything like that. I’m talking about a second “you” who can stand in for you.

Come to think of it, there was a copy-robot in a famous anime show  that I used to watch when I was a child.

In order to act as a mysterious superhero, the protagonist made the robot go to elementary school in his place. The robot had some amazing abilities: it had free will, would act independently, and could then share its memories with the protagonist.

If you had access to something like that, you could make it do your homework when you felt tired, go to school when you weren’t in the mood, or earn money for you to fritter away on whatever you wanted.

Aah, that would be so convenient.

It does sound like you’d be acting like a pretty nasty slave-driver, but that’s not really the case. After all, the two of you share everything – fun and not-so-fun – at the end of the day.

Mh? Then take on the not-so-fun stuff yourself, you say?

…Now that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Well, there’s no point in daydreaming. Possessing something like that would be too good to be true, and even if it were possible, there’d bound to be some kind of catch.

“I’m back.”

“Ya,” I said as I paused the game I was playing and turned to the person who had just entered the room.

It was a high school student. He had just come back from school, so he was still wearing his uniform and carrying the official school satchel. His short haircut, sun-tanned skin, and strong build suggested that he played a lot of sports.

If there were a third person in the room, he would have been flabbergasted.

The face of that student looked identical to mine. Not similar, but the exact same.

And our faces weren’t the only things that were identical—our body sizes, haircuts, shoulder widths, weights, skin tones, leg lengths, shoe sizes—everything was the same.

We weren’t identical twins. Even so-called “identical” twins look similar at best, and aren’t actually identical.

Our appearances, however, were exactly the same in every respect.

He was like my mirror image, which is why I called him “copy.”

“Give me the satchel.”

After taking the satchel from my copy, I rummaged in it for a manga that had just come out today. I had commanded him to buy it for me on his way home. When I took the manga out, I accidentally snagged a sheet of paper, which then fell to the ground.

“What’s that?”

“The results from the quiz I told you about yesterday.”

“Did you mention it to me?”

I took a look at it. Next to my name, Jirou Kishitani, was a 100. It was a perfect score.

“Not bad at all.”

“The test covered the stuff we studied yesterday. It paid off, didn’t it?”

“You’re the one who studied, though.”

But I get all the credit. Heh, looks like I can look forward to my report card this year.

I tossed the sheet away and threw myself onto my bed with the new manga. My copy picked up the sheet and sat down where I had been sitting.

“Oh? You made a lot of progress, didn’t you?” he suddenly said as he looked at the TV screen.

I’d been gaming all day while my copy was at school. Of course I made some decent progress.

Cause both my parents work from the early morning ‘till late at night, there’s no one who would bitch at me for skipping school. No, I was at school, I guess? Or rather, my copy was. But practically speaking, it’s the same thing.

“Train my characters while I’m reading this manga!”

Tsukumodo_V2_93

“I don’t mind, but let’s share our memories before you start reading manga.”

My copy refers to himself as “boku,” but that’s only when he’s with me, of course. I had also made him change his manner of speaking a bit. I would feel really awkward if we talked the exact same way. After those small tweaks, I no longer felt like I was talking to myself and could relax.

My copy got on the bed, lay on top of me and touched his forehead to mine.

It was a sight that could easily be misunderstood. But we weren’t doing anything questionable; this was how I could turn the memories of my copy into my own.

While I collected myself, I felt something flowing into my head. It was the memories my copy had experienced that day.

I saw that he went to school and attended classes. He surprised everyone with the full mark he had received on the short test. Figures—I haven’t gotten a full mark in my entire life. That’s unsurprising, because I never did my homework properly, let alone prepared myself properly for school. It was kind of funny to see the reactions of the teacher and the other students.

There was also a scene that stood out from my club activities, where he played soccer. I saw him score an amazing goal in a practice game. The goalie was a guy from the first-string team who I couldn’t stand. He was gnashing his teeth. Glorious. After that, my copy went to a convenience store, bought my manga, and came home.

“Man, you rock.” I had to praise him after seeing that test score and his soccer playing.

My copy got off me and smiled wryly.

“Is that self-praise?”

“Oh, looks like it is. You’re me after all, aren’t you?”

I couldn’t explain what on earth he was.

I could only say that he was my copy.

A copy that looked the same as me and had the same skills. One who did things like going to school, studying, and training my game characters for me.

It’s like there were two of me.

But while he was me, he somehow wasn’t me.

He was a version of me who had to obey my every command.

What a convenient tool I had gotten my hands on.

I could do whatever I wanted. I never had to do anything boring or annoying anymore.

Ever since I had obtained that tool, my life had been fulfilled.

The manga scene I was reading wasn’t particularly funny, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

Ah, right. Gotta make him do today’s homework.

“Nhaaa,” I yawned as I watched the match.

It was one to one with five minutes remaining. I guessed it would end in a draw.

The motivated players were fighting hard for control of the ball, while the unmotivated players like me just watched from afar.

Some background: PE today was a soccer match.

“Kurusu, the ball!”

“Gotcha!”

The ball was kicked toward me. I just wanted to pass it to a teammate and be done with it, but Kishitani, an opposing player, stole the ball from me and dribbled around me toward the goal.

“Kurusu, get your act together!”

Even though my teammates were complaining, I didn’t run after him. My opponent was in the soccer club; even if I managed to catch up with him, I wouldn’t be able to steal back the ball. As if to further bolster my decision, Kishitani easily dodged the defenders, one after another.

“Man, how childish can you get? That guy’s in the soccer club and still gives it 110%…”

“The guys he’s beating are in the soccer club too,” said my teammate Shinjou as he approached me.

He was right – the players opposing Kishitani were also members of the same soccer club, but utterly failed to regain the ball.

“Heh, believe it or not, he’s actually restraining himself!”

“Really? I mean, look, they’ve already got nothing on him!”

“He used to be a good-for-nothing who would just rush onto the opponent’s side of the field like an idiot, but he’s become incredible lately! He’s been practicing like a different person, and keeps at it alone, even when everyone else had gone home. I guess something made him turn over a new leaf? I’ve heard that by now even the seniors on the first-string team have a hard time stealing the ball from him.”

When the defense finally seemed about to overwhelm him with sheer numbers, he skillfully passed the ball to a teammate.

“He’s even started to do some decent team play – like just now.”

“Has he only improved lately?”

“Yeah. He’s like a totally different person.”

“Like a different person, eh?” I said while gazing at Kishitani, who was running toward our goal.

Right before time ran out, Kishitani received a pass and slammed the ball into the net.

“The losing team’s in charge of clearing up!” announced the teacher right after he had blown the final whistle.
Back at the Tsukumodo Antique Shop, Saki served us some black tea. She asked “so did you discover anything?”

“Yeah, I’ve narrowed down my list of suspects considerably.”

“I see.”

After I sat down next to Saki, Towako-san entered from the living room and plopped down before the counter, waiting for me to elaborate.

About a week ago, Towako-san had told me that someone in my school had a Relic.

Apparently, when she dropped by our sister shop, she happened to notice a customer who was wearing my school’s uniform. The owner of the sister shop told Towako-san that he had bought a Relic.

The name of the Relic was ‘Masquerade’, and as the name suggests, it looked like a mask. When that white and expressionless mask was placed on a doll or mannequin, the mask would transform it into a perfect copy of the user. It would not only have the same appearance, but also the same skills and personality as the user.

The user was at risk of becoming so lazy that his ability to interact with society would be lost. He might start to unload even the smallest of tasks onto his copy if he kept using Masquerade, which would lead to his ruin.

That being said, at first I wanted to ignore this incident because I thought that someone just getting lazy was hardly a real problem, and that it would serve him right if he ruined himself due to laziness.

But I couldn’t get it off my mind, so I ended up unobtrusively observing my classmates.

In addition to a school badge, our uniforms also had class badges that displayed the students’ school years by color and the class number as well. Towako-san had not clearly seen the customer’s face, but she had seen his class badge. It happened to be the same as mine.

Considering the power of Masquerade, it was highly unlikely that I could distinguish the copy from the real thing – after all, it was a perfect copy. Nevertheless, I was on the lookout for the even the slightest trace of strange behavior.

And after observing my class for a week, I had drawn the following conclusion:

Kishitani was definitely suspicious.

“I’m back.”

I woke up to the greeting of my copy.

“Ah, sorry. Did I wake you up?”

“No, it’s cool. I can sleep all day, after all.”

It seemed that my afternoon nap had gotten quite long.

It figures. Lately, I’ve basically been sleeping in the day and active at night.

“I’ve got good news for you today!” my copy said as he approached me with a smile on his face.

“What is it? Tell me more.”

“Best just see it for yourself!”

My copy pressed his forehead against mine and started the memory sharing process.

It was just the normal school scenery. By now, I didn’t consider flawlessly answering every question the teacher posed or getting a high score on a quiz particularly good news anymore.

What exactly is he so happy about? I thought right before the memories of that day’s club activities entered my mind. I was similarly unimpressed: neither his skillful shots, nor the fact that he was practicing with the first-string players impressed me.

Suddenly, he was called out by our coach.

“You’re on the starting lineup in the match tomorrow. Don’t let me down!”

Even though we were still in the middle of sharing our memories, I immediately jerked my head back. My copy gave me a triumphant smile.

“In the starting lineup for tomorrow’s match?”

“That’s right!”

That was the first time I was selected for the first string. Considering that I hadn’t even entered a real game thus far, suddenly being added to the starting lineup was a great leap forward. All those efforts had paid off.

“Okay, I’ll go to school tomorrow.”

“Eh?” my copy uttered with wide eyes.

“What? Got a problem with that?”

“N-No, I don’t… but are you all right?”

“If you were all right, how could I not be? After all, we’re the same, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, we are.”

“Okay, now that that’s decided, time to get some sleep.” I got on my bed again and added “Prepare yourself for tomorrow! You better not forget about any of your regular preparations.”

“Hah…hah…hah…”

I was gasping for breath, and about to collapse from a lack of oxygen. I was trembling so hard that I couldn’t stand up without supporting my knees with my hands.

“Here goes!”

I received a pass from a senior player, but could not take another step. Just as the ball passed the goal line, the final whistle was blown. I somehow managed to stagger back to the bench.

“W-Water…,” I groaned as I plopped down on the ground, holding my hand out to our team manager.

That manager, however, ignored me completely and handed out towels to the other players.

“Hey, what’re ya doing? Get my some water!” I ordered a second-string team member standing nearby from my year. He reluctantly brought me a water bottle, which I whipped out of his hand and greedily drank from.

Ah, that really hits the spot. I didn’t think that the playing on the first string would be so hard; man, I was about to die! I haven’t gotten that much exercise in ages. Well, I haven’t really been doing much lately, because I pushed all that kind of stuff onto my copy.

While my copy could share his memories with me, he couldn’t apparently do the same with physical fitness.

I had really been looking forward to this Saturday’s match…but the first half had ended with almost no achievements on my part.

“What’s wrong, Kishitani?” our coach said as he approached me. “Where’s your commitment today?”

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t get enough sleep…”

That wasn’t a lie. While I had intended to go to sleep right after I heard about the game from my copy, I hadn’t been able to sleep a wink because I already been asleep for too long during the day.

“I see. Well, I guess you’ve gotten a bit overanxious about the game because this is your first real match.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Got it. I’ll sub in someone else for the second half.”

I was relieved: I couldn’t walk another step. Playing the second half would have been pure hell.

“I’ll give you one more chance during tomorrow’s match. Make sure you get enough sleep tonight, okay? Well, I guess you’ll sleep like a log since you look completely worn out.”

Tomorrow? You wanna make me go through that pain again on Sunday…?

I slumped down all the way, and couldn’t even imagine standing up.

“How was it?” my copy immediately asked after I got back.

“It was terrible! Dammit…”

After throwing down my satchel with some difficulty, I slumped onto my bed.

“Looks like it didn’t go well, huh?”

“Oh just shut up. Have you trained my characters at least?”

“I have! All day.”

I looked at the TV screen and saw that they had gained roughly thirty levels. Those PC’s sure had it good—they didn’t get exhausted no matter how long they fought.

“…The coach said he wants to put me on the starting lineup tomorrow, too!”

“He did? But that’s good news, isn’t it?”

“You go.”

“Huh? May I?”

“Yeah. I’m fed up with this—it’s such a pain. Besides, I think my muscles will be killing me tomorrow. Anyway, make sure you kick their asses, okay? You better not suck!”

“My skills are your skills.”

I wanted to ask if he was being sarcastic, but I was just too damn tired.

I fell into a sound sleep right away.

I momentarily thought to pool our memories, but my overwhelming desire to get some sleep immediately killed that idea.

“Hey, how was it?” I immediately asked after my copy got back from the match.

I didn’t mean to imitate him—I was genuinely curious. I hadn’t even been able to focus on playing my video game all day.

“Not bad, I guess.”

My copy brought his forehead toward me. I touched mine to his and started to receive the memories of the match.

Just as I was yesterday, he was on the starting lineup as a forward. The coach slapped him on the back, reminding him to do better this time. Even though it was only a memory of something that had already happened, I got kinda tense.

The match started.

I don’t want to admit it, but unlike me, my copy ran around up and down the field quick as a flash. Of course, that reassured me that I’d have been able to do just as well had I not been so exhausted.

He ran with perfect timing in order to receive a pass from a senior. Just before the offside line, he took control of the ball and rushed toward the goal, leaving the opposing defense in his dust.

Shoot! I shouted in my heart.

Our thoughts were in sync; my copy slammed the ball home just as I shouted. The ball brushed the fingertips of the goalie and went straight into the net.

My seniors ran to my copy to congratulate me and pat me on the back, while our coach nodded approvingly.

It felt great.

In the end, we won the match by three to one. My copy really kicked some ass – he scored one goal and made two assists.

“Well done!” I praised him after I had viewed all of the memories. “‘Not bad’? Come on! That was kick-ass!”

“As I said, that’s self-praise!”

“I guess you’re right. Man! I would have been able to do the same yesterday if I hadn’t been so tired…”

“It doesn’t matter—my achievements are your achievements!”

He was right. It may have been me yesterday and my copy today, but from anyone else’s perspective, it was me both times.

Since our skills were identical, I would have been capable of the same success if I had gone today. Well, if I had really gone today, I would have had a hard time moving due to my sore muscles, but that’s neither here nor there.

Besides, my copy and I were sharing our memories; I could perfectly recall that day’s match. I could practically remember the feel of the ball when I scored that goal.

I suddenly felt as if I had just smashed the ball into the net and raised my arms like my copy had back then.

“Ouch-owowow!”

The sore muscles all over my body pulled me back to reality. They were actually doing much better now; in the morning I hadn’t even been able to stand up.

“Don’t overstrain yourself and get some sleep!” my copy said.

“Yeah, good idea. I’m sure I’ll have nice dreams tonight.”

I don’t like Mondays.

The thought that a whole new week has just started depresses me, and I can’t help but count the days until the weekend.

I entered the classroom just as the bell rang and noticed that it was rather noisy.

Shinjou’s desk was in front of mine, so as I sat down, I asked him “What’s the matter?”

“Do you mean that?” he said as he pointed to a gaggle of girls. The classroom noise appeared to be centered there. “Kishitani scored a goal and made two assists in the first-string match yesterday, you know. Now the girls are going wild because the team manager just told them about it.”

As Shinjou had said, Kishitani was standing in their midst, getting praised from all sides and blushing with modesty.

I had never seen him act that way before. While Kishitani is not loathed by the girls, he was also far from popular because of his crude and over-confident personality.

I fixed my gaze on him.

Of course he looked the same as always, like a perfectly normal human. He in no way resembled a copy created by Masquerade. Of course, it was also possible that the real Kishitani was in front of me right now, though.

“This sucks,” muttered Shinjou in a displeased tone. He was also in the soccer club.

“And? How did you do?”

“One goal and one assist.”

“Hey, that’s not half bad!”

“It was a match among farm teams.”

I see. Life sure can be cruel.

“Sorry everyone—! Please give me a moment!” the class representative called from the teacher’s platform. The chattering subsided and the students’ attention focused on the representative. “Today’s first period is self-study because the teacher is absent due to illness.”

After a moment’s silence, a wave of cheer spread in the classroom.

“So I thought we might just as well change the desk assignments now, and not after school as originally scheduled. Is everyone okay with this?”

Right away, sir! a few students responded like elementary school students. The students who didn’t reply weren’t opposing the plan, either. Of course, I was perfectly happy to avoid staying after school, too.

“Okay, then please go to your seats.”

The students sat down at their respective desks.

“We’ll draw lots to determine the new desks. As I informed you beforehand, the absent students will be allotted the free desks. Is that okay?”

The class representative was obviously not playing dumb or really expecting an answer from someone who was not here; it was just a judgment by default.

As I was looking at the desks around me, I suddenly noticed that one had remained free. There seemed to be one absent person, but I couldn’t immediately name who it was.

“Hey, who’s the guy that’s missing?” I asked Shinjou.

“Huh? The assignments are complete, aren’t they? Ah, you mean that desk?” he nodded when he saw the desk that I was pointing at.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only who was wondering about that empty seat. Here and there, I heard people asking who had sat there.

“That desk belongs to a guy called Sagara. He’s never shown up even once, though.”

Now that he mentioned it, I remembered hearing such a name sometime during the beginning of the school term. I had forgotten all about it because our teacher had stopped calling his name when checking the attendance list.

“Is it just me or is that desk kinda unnecessary?”

“Dispose of it before we draw lots then!”

“Why don’t we just put a doll there?”

A few students started making jokes, causing a bout of laughter.

But their laughter was interrupted by a roar.

“Watch your tongue!”

A deep silence fell, and everyone’s gaze focused on the person who had yelled out.

It was Kishitani. He had stood up when he spoke out, but after bathing in the surprised gazes of his classmates for a few moments, he sat down again without saying anything further.

“You should hardly be one to talk!” Shinjou hissed silently while glaring at Kishitani.

“What do you mean?”

“Sagara stopped coming to school because of Kishitani, you know?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah. It’s a pretty famous story in our soccer club! Kishitani forced him to do various chores, like buying him drinks, under the pretext that it would help Sagara train his body. And he’s rumored to have done even nastier stuff to Sagara in private. But it looks like bullies forget about their bullying in no time flat, eh? Or did his success make him a different person? Meh, just meh.”

A different person, huh.

Indeed, I had similar thoughts.

But I was still unable to say for sure that Kishitani’s personality change was due to Masquerade.
“The personality?”

I had asked Towako-san again about the characteristics of Masquerade upon arriving at the Tsukumodo Antique Shop.

More specifically, I had asked if it’s possible for the copy to have a different personality than the original.

Lately, people often mentioned that Kishitani was like a different person, and because he had changed for the better, those changes had mostly been well received. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but smell a rat.

“To put it simply, the personality is the same as the original’s.”

“…I see…”

“You don’t look convinced, eh?”

“Well, yeah.”

“That being said, it depends on what you mean by a ‘changed personality.'”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, your impression of someone else’s personality can easily change,” Towako-san said, and shifted her position on the chair before getting into detail. “Kishitani, was it? Let’s use him as an example. Pretend that he ignores you when you try to talk to him because he’s in a bad mood; what would you think? Wouldn’t you think that he’s an antisocial fellow?”

“Most likely.”

“Now pretend someone else tries to talk to him. However, this time Kishitani happens to be in a very good mood and responds to this person’s approach with a smile. In that case, would that person also consider Kishitani antisocial?”

“No, I guess not.”

“At the end of the day, our ability to judge others’ personalities is pretty poor: our evaluations flip back and forth depending on timing and circumstances—or what you already think of the other party.”

“I guess you’ve got a point there…”

“Anyways, let’s get back to Masquerade. As I mentioned before, the copy’s personality is exactly the same as the user’s. Even if everyone else is bewildered by something atypical that his copy has done, the user would certainly act the same way if the circumstances and his mental state were the same. They are also identical in terms of skill, so his copy can’t do anything that Kishitani is incapable of, and it can do everything that Kishitani can do.”

The sudden spike in his soccer skills didn’t bother me. Kishitani might have been able to improve through sheer effort.

What bothered me was that Kishitani would almost certainly fail to make an effort to improve.

I had once taken a retest together with him, which made for a good example.

The reason some people pass an exam and others fail it, despite attending the same classes and taking the same test is plainly and simply the difference in effort. Every student has been confronted with the same problems when he cleared the entrance exam. Everything after that point is just a matter of effort.

The guys who make an effort rise in the ranking, while the guys who goof off fall down the charts.

Kishitani used to fall firmly in the latter category, and clearly shunned any extra efforts.

“You think that Kishitani has become a changed man, but do you actually know him well enough to judge?”

“No, I have to admit I don’t know him that well.”

“You mentioned that he had been promoted to the first-string team and became smarter, but maybe something has simply caused him to reconsider his lifestyle and start to make an effort? Who knows, maybe he’s fallen in love with some girl and wants to show off? Sometimes, people can change for such simple reasons.”

What Towako-san said made perfect sense. I could agree with her.

I had no clue what exactly made me suspect him so strongly—which might in fact be the reason I couldn’t get it off my mind.

“Let me confirm this once again: Masquerade is designed to create a copy of its user that has the same personality and skills?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“Everything’s perfectly identical, right?”

“Right. There would be no point in a copy otherwise.”

Indeed. It would defeat the point to have a copy if it weren’t identical.

Perhaps I was reading too much into Kishitani’s atypical behavior, and the uneasiness I was feeling would prove groundless.

“However,” Towako-san suddenly said with a serious mien, “our experiences have a strong influence on our personalities. Should the user ever allow his copy to engage in lots of experiences and grow negligent in syncing their memories, then their personalities will diverge more and more, eventually leaving them as two completely different beings.”

“—A copy is anything but a marionette.”

My copy came home earlier than I expected.

“What’s the matter? Don’t tell me you thought it would be okay to goof off?”

I didn’t want to admit it, but that was very possible, given that he was my copy.

“I wouldn’t do that! Unless you order me to, that is. Ah, did you become anxious because your only order was for me to go to school? Don’t worry, I’m not going to split hairs!”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t. But then why are you back so early?”

“Because we had two matches in a row, there were no club activities today. That’s all.”

“Aha. And did anything happen today?”

“We changed desks! We’re sitting in the last row now.”

“I see. That makes it easier to nap.”

“There’s no need for you to go to school just to doze off; that’s what I’m here for, after all. You can make yourself comfortable at home in bed.”

“Word. Anything else happen?”

“I guess there was nothing else noteworthy?”

“Didn’t people say anything about the match?”

“Ah, I see what you’re getting at. They did talk about that match—our manager waxed lyrical about my success in front of the rest of the class.”

“Hey, I wanna see that.”

I had started to get tired of syncing our memories, but I definitely willing to make an exception for something like that.

“Just cut straight to that part.”

“Okay!”

My copy’s memories started to enter my mind.

He was surrounded by girls. They heaped praise on me as our team manager was telling them about our achievements.

The manager said that she would make me a boxed lunch for the next match, making the other girls squeal and tease her. While she claimed that she didn’t have any romantic intentions, she didn’t seem all that averse to dating me, either.

I felt great. Finally, I was starting to get acknowledged. Finally, I was starting to get attention. Right: my high school life was always supposed to be like that.

“Well, that’s pretty much it. After that, we just switched seats and had classes like normal.”

At that moment my copy removed his forehead from mine, and I was pulled back to reality.

The praise I had received from the girls was still sparkling in my ears. That was the first time I’d ever had such a great experience, yet I was somehow dissatisfied. I couldn’t help but feel that I had wasted an opportunity. I should have gone to school today, and enjoyed standing in the spotlight first-hand.

Strange as it was to envy myself, I was still a little jealous of my copy.

“Hey, I’ll go to school tomorrow.”

“Mm? As you wish.”

I was feeling kind of annoyed. “If there’s any homework or other stuff like that, do it all,” I ordered my copy.

However, on the next day, practically no one gave a shit about the match anymore. Our manager did quickly pat me on the back, and told me to practice hard for the next match.

I also tried to bring up my victory, but no one really responded. Apparently, it was all water under the bridge now. I regretted coming to school in place of my copy.

That being said, it was too late to switch now.

Besides, it made for a nice change to go to school once in a while. I toyed with the thought of doing so from time to time going forward, instead of relying completely on sharing memories.

“Hey, Kishitani, here’s the ball!”

Whoops! Gotta get my act together. It’s soccer time now.

That day was the first time I had shown up—in person and not as my copy—at our club in a long time. Before, I would have only been a ball boy, but this time I was allowed to take part in a practice match with a selected group of participants.

I received a pass from a senior, and dribbled toward the goal.

I took a quick peek at the side of the field. Our manager was watching me.

Okay, time to take a shot at the goal!

The match on Saturday had been a debacle because of a lack of exercise and because my initial first-string game made me nervous, but this time I was just playing in a practice match. No problem.

I evaded the enemy defense, wound up for a kick, and… lost the ball before I could shoot.

“Fuck!”

“Don’t sweat it! I’ll pass it to you a few more times!” a senior said to me as he patted my back.

“Here!”

I waved my arm, urging a teammate of mine to give me a pass. I promptly received it, but this time around an opposing player on defense stole the ball before it even reached me.

“Please shoot the ball better next time!”

“Whoa, whoa! You have to move more, dude! If you take root like that, you’ll just be an easy target!” said the defense player who had taken the ball from me with an amazed look on his face. “Your problem is that your playing style is inconsistent.”

“Y-You think so?”

I never bothered to think about it, but he’s probably right – my play is sometimes inconsistent. Well, I guess that’s just the nature of gifted people.

“Give it your best! We need good newcomers in our team, so we’re counting on you!”

“Got it.”

“Just play like you normally do.”

Like always, huh. He’s right. I shouldn’t try to show off—it’s all about playing like normal.

“Here!”

This time I got moving and succeeded in receiving the ball. There was still some distance between me and the goal, but I didn’t care; I was going to rush all the way there.

“Kishitani, I’m open!” a teammate yelled as he raised his arm. But the goal was already within reach. I just had to get by the last line of defense…

However, my attempt to dribble past them failed; the opposing senior easily stole the ball from me.

“Dang it!”

“Kishitani! It’s not over yet!”

A teammate recaptured the ball and passed in to me once more.

All right then, I’ll show you what a real shot looks like!

I kicked the ball with all my might. But because my posture was kinda awkward, I lost my balance, went down ass over teakettle, and sent the ball flying way over the goal.

My teammates gathered around me.

“Jeez, don’t overdo it, Kishitani.”

“Besides, I was open earlier. You should have passed to me instead of trying to go all the way on your own!”

“Like I said: play like you normally do. You’re trying too hard.”

While I was apologizing to them, I got confused.

I’m trying too hard, you say? Pass more often, you say?

Even though I was pretty damn sure that I was playing like normal, they cocked their heads in perplexity. They may have told me to play like normal, but I was unable to form a clear image of how I used to play.

“I’m sorry – I though I was playing like normal…”

“Not at all! Today, you’ve been playing like you used to – totally hogging the ball!”

Used to? When was that?

“Yeah, or like how you played on Saturday. That was really bad.”

“Absolutely, that was terribad. There’s gotta be a limit to how nervous you can get. Your stamina went down the drain, too. Anyway, the thing is, just keep up doing what you’ve been doing lately.”

“Exactly. How you’ve been playing normally during practice recently.”

How I’ve been playing lately? Lately? But I haven’t shown up for our practice lately. No, that’s wrong; that’s not true. I’ve become a first-string player because of my achievements in our practice matches, and I even scored a goal in a real game, didn’t I?

Yeah. I gotta have more confidence in myself. I can do it.

“Kishitani, here you go!”

I received another pass. This time I lost the ball because I was absent-minded and didn’t capture the ball properly.

“Hey, receiving a pass like that would normally have been a breeze for you!”

What damned “normal” are you talking about?

“Shoot, Kishitani!”

Again, someone sent me a pass. This time the ball hit my foot at a bad angle and just rolled away.

“Hey, slamming that ball into the net would have been a breeze for you normally!”

What damned “normal” are you talking about?

“Kishitani, like normal!” “Kishitani, just play the way you’ve been playing recently!” “Kishitani, you’re supposed to be better than that!” “Kishitani, where did all your recent skills go?” “Kishitani…” “Kishitani…”

You’ve lost me. How have I been playing recently? How have I played normally?

I can’t remember. Then how about really recently? When did I play best recently? On Sunday. How did I play in the match on Sunday? Think! Right… I scored a goal. I also made some assists. I was great. And everyone praised me!

Huh…? But was that me?

Yeah, it was.

But somehow it wasn’t.

That can’t be. If it wasn’t me, who was it then?

Who on earth—

“Ah…”

“What’s wrong, Kishitani?” our coach said as he patted me on the back. “—You haven’t been yourself.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“C-Coach, when have I been like myself then?”

“Mm? Now that’s a strange question, but I guess…lately?”

“But what do you actually mean by ‘lately’?!”

“Hey, what’s wrong? Don’t get too worked up. Just calm down and try to remember…for example, how you felt when you played on Sunday.”

I felt dizzy. My head started spinning. My legs started wobbling. Why was the ground so shaky?

“I feel like vomiting…”

“Kishitani! Kishitani! Kishitani…Kishi…Ki…!…”

I could only listen as their voices faded into the distant background.

“Welcome back. You’re quite late today, aren’t you?” said my copy. He’d been patiently waiting for me at home.

I was more than an hour late because I had rested at the infirmary-though it didn’t help any.

“How was it? Weren’t you the star today? Share your memories with me!” my copy urged as he approached me, trying to touch his forehead to mine. I shook him off. “What’s wrong?”

“Enough.”

“Huh?”

“It’s over and done with. I won’t let you go to school anymore, and I won’t let you play soccer anymore. No, I won’t use you at all anymore.”

I grabbed my copy’s face and tried to remove his mask.

However, he only smiled on the other side of my palm.

“Are you sure?”

A shiver ran down my spine and froze my hand.

“What do you mean…?”

“Just what I said! Are you sure that you want to stop using me?”

“Of course. I don’t need something like you.”

“So you’re okay with abandoning your position as a first-string player?”

“Abandon? I’ll still be a first-string player even after you’re gone. Besides, anything you can do, I can do that just as well. After all, we’re identical, aren’t we?”

“Do you really think so?”

“What?”

“I wonder, how much time will it take for you to become as good as I am? After idling away your time and making me do all your work?”

“I…”

“When you were lazing about at home, I was practicing hard, and polishing my skills by playing with and against our seniors. While we can share our memories, we cannot share our skills and conditioning. Don’t you realize that we’re not the same anymore?”

Last Saturday crossed my mind. I could barely move because I hadn’t exercised in ages. My body had gotten really rusty. The same thing happened today: everything sucked. How long would it take me to regain my old conditioning, and then improve enough to live up to the “normal” that everyone had been talking about?

Would I have to listen to that crap constantly the whole time?

That I should play like normal.

That I’m not myself, comparing me to something that’s not me.

“And I’m not just talking about soccer! I have studied hard for school and gotten good grades. Sharing memories might update you on the material I’ve learned thus far, but will you really be able to follow suit? If your grades suddenly go down the drain, people will suspect that you were cheated before, won’t they?”

My copy might be right.

How would I be treated when I became unable to do things that used to be normal for me?

“I managed to become really accomplished in school and at soccer, and I even had to overcome your handicaps! It was really hard! But you’re right, in theory we’re identical, so you might be able to do it if you tried hard enough. But you will fail unless you give it absolutely everything, skipping manga and games entirely and cutting down on sleep. Will you be able to handle that?”

Will I be able to handle that? Me?

“Just use me! Like you’ve gotten used to. For your convenience. Or why don’t you just leave everything to me? I’ll deal with school for you! It doesn’t matter which one of us goes, as long as we keep our memories in sync.”

I guess so? If we have the same face, the same appearance, and the same skills, maybe it doesn’t matter who of us goes.

“Don’t get me wrong: I’m saying this for your sake! It’s reckless to try to do alone what we could only accomplish together! I’ll be in charge of school and soccer as always, while you can keep doing the fun things like reading manga and playing games. We are one. That’s our ‘normal’.”

It’s like my copy said. That’s our ‘normal.’ That’s the ‘normal’ they were talking about.

“Everything’s in order!”

Right. Everything’s in order.

“Just leave all the shit to me!”

As always, Kishitani was surrounded by others.

He was apparently explaining our homework assignment to them. As far as I knew, his grades had been in the lowest quantiles of our school. After all, he had kept me company in taking a retest. Besides, he used to avoid any extra labor like the plague. Despite that, he had improved vastly in both school and sports, and was now even teaching others.

The new and improved Kishitani was no flash in the pan, and his reputation had improved.

That reputation had also spread beyond our classroom, causing some of his former classmates to pop by and confirm the rumors with their own eyes. To a man, they departed in astonishment after witnessing his transformed personality.

…Transformed personality, huh?

There was no nastier way to describe him.

As Towako-san had pointed out previously, I wasn’t actually that familiar with Kishitani. Still, I couldn’t help but smell a rat, and while I told myself that there was no need to bother, I couldn’t fully shake off my concerns.

I still considered Kishitani suspicious, but as time passed, I failed to find any evidence to support my suspicions.

However, a painful noise ran through my head one day—

Kishitani stood while covering his face with his hands.

As a result, I couldn’t see his face very clearly, but the visible parts that peeked out from the gaps between his fingers were enough to identify him.

He slowly pulled away his hands, peeling his face off like a piece of prosthetic makeup.

A ‘mask’ lay in his hands.

The perspective moved upward once more.

The face that had appeared under the mask was like that of a puppet… No, I’ll be honest: it looked like the face of a corpse, lacking all expression.

I was perplexed when I woke up from my ‘Vision’.

Unlike all the other ‘Visions’ I’d witnessed thus far, this one was rather abstract.

It was unclear if any death had taken place at all.

Considering Towako-san’s theory, that scene might simply have implied that Kishitani was about to lose his place in society due to excessive indolence.

But I had a feeling that there was more to it.

Added to the slight concerns I’d had ever since his change in personality, despite Towako-san’s denial, an image that suggested that the copy created by ‘Masquerade’ took over its origin—Kishitani—

At any rate, I was very uneasy after seeing that image of the future.

My alarm bells were ringing.

“Mm?”

“Practicing this early in the morning? Quite the hard worker, aren’t you, Kishitani?”

On the following day, I waited for him in the classroom because I knew that he always trained before school. The sports ground this early in the morning had been a really tranquil sight. Kishitani had been running through it silently and all alone.

“You’ve joined the first string recently, I heard? Looks like you’re fired up more than ever now that you’re in such a position, huh?”

“I kinda suck, so I’d be back in the second-string in no time if I goof off. I don’t want to lose my current position, after striving for it for so long.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever hear such commendable words from you. When did you become so earnest?”

“My state of mind changed a little!”

“Your state of mind? It seems like your entire personality changed!”

“My personality? Lately, I’ve been hearing that a lot,” Kishitani replied in an unconcerned manner.

However, there had been a small pause. Normally, that would have been no skin off my nose, but under the current circumstances, it bothered me a great deal.

“Looks like you’ve been doing well recently in school as well?”

“Eh? Yeah.”

“When do you even have time to study when you’re practicing from early in the morning until late in the evening?”

“Well, I’m studying when I get home.”

“No kidding! Didn’t you tell us about that video game you were playing? How would you be able to improve your grades and clear a game at the same time? You’re working so hard it seems like there were two of you, dude!”

“R-Really?”

“There’s a trick to it, isn’t there?”

“Not at all! I’m merely playing games and studying from time to time.”

“Come on, we’re buddies, aren’t we? Let me in on your secret!”

Buddies? Really? I get chills myself from saying that.

“Umm,” he uttered while letting his gaze wander.

“What’s wrong?”

“Err, have we really been on such good terms with each other?”

“…Now that’s a funny remark. No one would ever say such a thing out loud, you know?”

“I-I guess so.”

“Anyway, we’ve taken a retest together, haven’t we?”

“A-Aah, I see. Right. You had to repeat that retest, though.”

“Shut it. So, what’s your secret?”

“I have none! You’re starting to get on my nerves, you know?”

“Sorry about that! I don’t mean to complain to you, I’m just curious.”

“But there’s no trick!” he said once again. He seemed to suspect something was amiss, and turned toward the exit.

“Ah, one more thing.”

“What is it?”

“The owner of the shop I’m working at told me that she’s seen you before. What did you buy in such a strange antique shop?”

“!”

He was so easy to see through despite his mask.

I had suspected him, but had found no hard proof thus far.

His reaction, however, overcame my doubts for good.

Kishitani was the owner of ‘Masquerade’.

I just didn’t know whether the person before me was the real person or the copy, but there was no way to tell. At any rate, it was not the “old Kishitani.”

Suddenly, the door rattled open, and Shinjou entered the room.

“Huh? You’re here pretty early today guys, aren’t you?”

“You too.”

“Me? I’m just on day duty today.”

Kishitani seized the moment and slipped out of the classroom.

“Hey, wai…,” I called out to him, but he completely ignored me.

“Something wrong?”

“Nah…,” I said, evading the question Shinjou had posed after he looked at both of us suspiciously.

At that moment.

“Tokiya.”

I turned around upon hearing a new voice, and my eyes immediately sprung wide.

“Wha…”

To my surprise, it was Saki.

“Saki? Why are you…?”

“Who’s that, Kurusu? Don’t remember seeing her around here. Is she in our school?”

“Ah, nope, she’s one of my coworkers.”

“Hey, you never told me that you work with such a cutie!”

“Tokiya, can you spare me a moment?”

“‘Tokiya’? Whoa whoa! You’re calling each other by the first name? So you’re in that kind of relationship?”

“We aren’t!”

“Now, now, don’t be shy! Hey, you…”

“What?”

Tsukumodo_V2_134

Shinjou, who had tried to take an easygoing approach, shrunk back.

“…Uh, err, what’s your name?”

“Saki Maino.”

“……Uh, err, how old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“………Uh, err, you don’t happen to be Tokiya’s…”

“………No, I’m not.”

“…………Um… yeah, no, Kurusu…! What have I done to her…?” Shinjou turned to me with teary eyes. Apparently, he had been unable to withstand Saki’s lack of expression. Well, I admit that that’s quite tough to tolerate on one’s first encounter with Saki. Of course, she wasn’t angry or anything. She was just behaving like normal.

“Are you done?”

“Yes.”

After getting the devastated Shinjou’s okay, I left the classroom together with Saki. I took her to the roof for the time being, where we could be alone.

“Why are you here? You’ll be in trouble if someone finds you!”

“It’s fine. No one will notice when I’m wearing a uniform.”

…Indeed, she didn’t look very different from normal because her clothes were still black, but she was wearing the blazer from our school uniform.

“Towako-san had one.”

“Why on earth would she have one?”

“Who knows?”

“A new Relic, huh…”

“Don’t be silly.”

“I know, I know! I just wanted to say it. So, what kind of business do you have?”

“Urgent!”

“Why didn’t you just give me a call?”

“It would have been hard to explain over the phone,” Saki said and took something out of her pocket. I had no idea how Saki had gotten her hands on it, but it was a group shot of my class. “The person who bought ‘Masquerade’ isn’t in this photo.”

“Huh? Wait a sec. What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s just what I said. When I showed that photo to Towako-san, she said that she doesn’t think the buyer is in it.”

“Maybe she’s just forgotten how he looks? She never saw him clearly anyway, right?”

“Towako-san also thought that might be the case, so she asked the owner of the sister shop – the answer stayed the same! The buyer’s definitely not in this photo.”

“Just let me have a look,” I said as I snatched the group shot away from Saki. It goes without saying that Kishitani was in there. “That’s Kishitani.”

“I see.”

“Can you have her check once more?”

“I already had her check several times.”

…What the hell? So Kishitani doesn’t have ‘Masquerade’? But then what in the world caused that uneasiness I had felt regarding him, and what about the rumors about his sudden personality change?

Was that uneasiness just me, and his change really just a natural change in personality?

No, that’s impossible.

Had it only been my uneasiness or those rumors, I might have been able to dismiss them as a misunderstanding on my part.

But I had seen it.

I had seen a future through my ‘Vision.’

A future where Kishitani would take off ‘Masquerade’.

A future that showed me that nearly dead face beneath the mask.

“Tokiya… you must be wrong about your suspect.”

“!”

I took another look at the photo. I stared holes into it.

I was there. Kishitani was there. The other students were there. It was without a doubt a group shot of our class.

However—

“What’s wrong?”

“…There’s something I have to confirm.”

I was in disbelief, but it was worth a try.

Leaving Saki behind, I headed toward the staff room.

“Hey, did anyone visit you today?” my copy asked right as he entered my room.

I paused my fifth playthrough and looked at him.

I really want a new game already. If only I weren’t short on cash.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

He grabbed me by the collar.

What a crude fellow. Almost like I used to be. Oh wait, he is me, so that figures.

Did Kurusu come here?”

Kurusu? Who’s that? Ah, there was one guy by that name in my class. Sure haven’t heard that name in a long time. I wonder if he’s doing well. Mm? A long time? Even though I see him every day? Oh, but it makes still sense, I guess—after all it’s my copy who sees him. It’s certainly been a while since I’ve seen him personally.

“So, did he?”

“He didn’t… I think.”

“Don’t think, remember, jackass! It looks like he’s somehow onto us. He was at school this morning, but then he suddenly disappeared. Apparently, he asked for someone’s address in the staff room. Maybe he was planning to come over and check if I’m here.”

“……”

“Can you give me a proper answer now?”

“I haven’t seen anyone. I haven’t talked to anyone. I haven’t met anyone.”

“I see. Very good,” my copy said and let out a sigh of relief. “Listen, this is over if he finds out about us! Don’t go outside when I’m not here from now on, okay? You mustn’t answer the door, either! And don’t let anyone see you through the window. Got it?”

Outside? Now that I think of it, when was I last outside? More like, when did I last look at what’s going on outside? I thought while gazing absent-mindedly at the window whose curtain had been shut for something like forever.

When did I last talk to someone other than my copy anyway?

…Oh well, I don’t care. Not at all.

I get what my copy is talking about.

I mustn’t be discovered because my real self is at school during the daytime.

Huh? If my real self is at school, who am I, the guy who’s playing games all day at home?

…Oh well, I don’t care. Not at all. Can’t be bothered.

I suspended my thoughts and turned to the TV screen to finish my fifth playthrough.

I didn’t have to care about the outside world.

“Sorry for calling you out,” I said as I walked onto the rooftop with Kishitani.

I had caught him in the classroom before his voluntary morning practice. Given that he wasn’t surprised in the least and followed me right away, he had apparently been expecting my approach.

“So? What’s the matter, Kurusu?”

Kishitani was clearly wary of me.

“I was at your place yesterday.”

“Was that why you weren’t in class?”

“Yeah. But did no one tell you that I stopped by?”

“Well, the house was empty when you visited.”

“No, it wasn’t. Your mother was there.”

“!”

“What’s wrong?”

“A-Aah, my mom was at home? I thought she was at work, you know.”

“Anyway, I had her get you.”

“Me? I wouldn’t be at home during class, would I? Unlike you, I was at school, studying hard.”

“Bullshit. You weren’t at school yesterday.”

“What are you talking about? I was definitely there!”

“No, you weren’t.”

“Hey, give me a break! You’re just spouting bullshit!”

“Even the attendance list says that you were absent!” I said and tossed him the attendance list, which I had borrowed from the staff room beforehand. Kishitani opened it and looked up his name, slightly nonplussed.

“Who are you saying was absent? Use your eyes! It says I was present!” he complained, turning the list back toward me and pointing at his name.

“No, you should use your eyes. That’s not your name, is it?” I replied as I retrieved the list from him. “I’m referring to this name! Look!” I said, pointing at a row with only “X’s,” which represented absences.
“—Keisuke Sagara.”
Kishitani—no, Sagara in Kishitani’s guise widened his eyes in astonishment.

“Sorry for beating around the bush. I wanted to get you riled up and corner you for a bit because you were so wary of me. Besides, I wanted to make sure you had some free will. Let’s be frank from here on out, shall we?”

“Wha-Wha-What are you…”

“Didn’t I just say let’s be frank? You don’t have to act like Kishitani anymore.”

I had asked Towako-san one more thing about Masquerade the day before.

‘Masquerade’ creates a copy of the user with the same personality and the same skills when placed on a puppet or a mannequin.

But what if a human were to wear the mask?

I just couldn’t understand why Kishitani’s personality and skills would start to change.

I tried to satisfy my concerns by coming up with all kinds of explanations, such as a difference in experience due to neglecting memory synchronization, a change of mind, it being purely my imagination or just a misunderstanding.

However, I felt that there was a gap between the copy and the original that could not be explained so easily.

A gap so wide that they had to be considered two different people.

Thus, I posed a question to myself: When placed on a blank puppet with neither mind nor will, the mask might create a copy that assumes the same personality as the user. But if one were to put the mask on a human who already has a personality, would the result really be identical to the user?

According to Towako-san, we didn’t know for sure. She even mentioned the possibility that the personalities of the user and the target—Kishitani and Sagara—might merge into a complicated mixture.

Once I had arrived at that thought, I was set.

I knew that one of my classmates had obtained Masquerade.

I knew that he or she wasn’t in the group picture of our class.

From there, it became clear to me that the classmate who wasn’t in that picture had used Masquerade to assume the appearance of Kishitani.

I learned the address of the missing student, Sagara, from our teacher, and went to Sagara’s home. I talked to his mother there, and as she told me, Sagara was supposed to be at school.

According to her, he had recently started to go to school again after skipping class for a long time due to bullying. But he told her that he didn’t consider himself ready to go to school alone yet. Thus, he elected to stay at a friend’s place so that they could go to school together.

Apparently, Sagara had gotten in touch with our teacher directly regarding his absences, and thus his parents were left in the dark.

But there was one thing that didn’t quite make sense to me: Why did Sagara become the copy of the person who had bullied him?

“If you’re only acting like Kishitani because you can’t get that mask off, I’ll lend you a hand and help you remove it!”

“…Hehe, hahaha. Hahahaha!” Sagara burst out, unable to hold back his laughter. “I see you aren’t surprised by this mysterious phenomenon. It seems like you know even more than I do?”

“…Somewhat.”

“But I’d rather you didn’t act like you knew everything about me! ‘Only because I can’t get it off?’ No. I wanted to become like this. Don’t get in my way!”

“Seems so… huh.”

In the scenario I had imagined, Kishitani stole Masquerade from Sagara, or something along those lines, and made him a scapegoat. But in our talk, it seemed like Sagara willingly played his role as Kishitani. As a matter of fact, he just admitted it.

“What do you want to achieve by replacing Kishitani?”

“…At first, I planned on making a copy of him and taking revenge on it. To pay him back in his own coin. But because that didn’t seem all that enjoyable, I decided to act like him myself and commit some crimes.”

“And then make it his fault? That’s just tawdry.”

“Indeed, I also thought that was tawdry. I was disenchanted with myself for being unable to come up with a better form of revenge. I was disgusted with myself.”

“Then why…”

“Which is why I decided to just become someone else.”

“!”

“I decided to put on this mask and live as someone else! And I chose Kishitani for that. I went to him and told him that I wanted to become like him; that I would deal with all his burdens, like school.

It was smooth sailing after that, in part because I know what kind of personality he has and his tastes, because I had to cater to him when I was bullied. Of course he didn’t believe me in the beginning, but when I took on this appearance after having him put that mask on me, he had to give up all his doubts. We started by taking turns. Once he learned that nobody could tell which one of us was at school, my days at school gradually started to increase. By now, he’s the one who’s at home all day.

He wasn’t the only one who profited, though. I was also happy. I don’t have to adjust myself to others anymore, after all. It’s the first time in my life that I enjoyed going to school! I get good grades, I play in the first string, and I am at the center of attention. I have been reborn. My school life has finally begun for real.”

“It hasn’t started. Nothing has started at all. Your life has stopped!”

“You’re talking about Keisuke Sagara’s life, I suspect? I don’t mind if it remains stopped. No, it might just as well end. I will live on as Kishitani. But not as the old one—as a new Kishitani.”

“You aren’t Kishitani.”

“Yes, now I am! And will be. Who cares? Nobody can tell the difference. Nobody is bothered. I’m quite popular as well, as things stand now. Everyone loves the new Kishitani much more than the old one!”

“But it’s just wrong.”

“What is?”

“Everything.”

“So you think it was right that he bullied me until I was afraid of going to school and shut myself in at home?! Do you even know how miserable I felt back then?! Don’t you dare get in my way when you haven’t given a shit about me ever before!”

I recalled the future I had seen through ‘Vision.’

He will vanish. If I don’t intervene, the identity of Sagara is going to vanish and die.

“‘Relics’ bring disaster upon us. Stop using it.”

“‘Relics’ bring bliss upon us. I absolutely won’t let go of it.”

I won’t let it be too late.

Admittedly, I hadn’t done anything for Sagara so far. But now I was in a position to help him.

“Sagara…”

“Don’t call me by that name. Sagara doesn’t exist anymore. That useless guy is dead!”

Sagara raised his fist and came at me.

There’s no way an unathletic guy like me could win a fight against a well-conditioned soccer player like him.

“—You’ll be for the high jump if you thought that, Sagara!”

Tsukumodo_V2_149.jpg

Unlike you, I have been through hell and high water!

A crisis that doesn’t even trigger my ‘Vision’ is nothing!

I countered with a powerful punch straight into the mask that was covering his face.

Sagara was sent flying and rolled on the floor.

“You damn…,” he said while trying to stand up, and then suddenly grabbed at his face.

Masquerade had come off a bit due to the impact of the blow. His real face became visible. He hurriedly tried pushing the mask into place, but once removed, the mask wouldn’t take on “Kishitani’s” appearance anymore.

Putting it on again would only result in his own face.

Sagara seemed to be aware of that fact as well: The mask fell out of his limp hands and bounced against the ground. I picked it up and looked at him.

His unmasked face was pale and blank like that of a corpse.

But it was undoubtedly the face of a real person—of Keisuke Sagara himself.

After Sagara told me that the mask had been broken, my double life came to an end.

I awoke from that dream.

Why would I shut myself in at home?

Why would I entrust Sagara with everything?

Being so timid wasn’t like me at all. No, I hadn’t been timid—I had merely felt like taking some time off. I had taken a long break from school. That’s all.

I was returning to school the following day.

I was sure there would be some guys telling me to act like I used to, or something like that.

But just let them talk—I’ll show them what I’ve got.

I didn’t mind if it took awhile.

What my copy had managed to do, I could do just as well.

I smiled as I thought back to my memories from when I played in the first string, got good grades and was surrounded by all my fans.

I was gazing down at the grounds from the rooftop.

A practice soccer match was taking place before my eyes.

A second-year forward who had replaced another player caught a difficult pass and drew level by beautifully slamming a ball into the net.

His teammates gathered around him and gave him a loud cheer.

“Well done Sagara!” someone yelled in a voice loud enough to be heard even from the school rooftop.

“What kind of spell have you cast on him?” Saki asked as she stood beside me—in a school uniform of course. Apparently, she had taken a liking to visiting me at school. “Why the heck are you here, anyway?”

“I just wanted to have a taste of that feeling of being in high school. Does it bother you?”

“Nah, I don’t mind. Well, I guess it makes for a good change of pace once in a while?”

I didn’t dislike the prospect of being at school with her.

“So?”

“What?”

“Didn’t you think that it might be over for him? You were worried that he might decide to remain a shut-in, weren’t you?”

“Was I?”

“You were!”

But contrary to my worries, Sagara was actively taking part in the game. He was acting like a different man. No, that wasn’t quite right – like a newborn man.

Right after losing Masquerade, Sagara’s face had looked like that of a man watching the end of the world. Well, perhaps the world inside him had actually come to an end.

I had to tell him something.

I said that Masquerade might be able to create a perfect copy from a puppet, but it was only able to copy the body when placed on a person’s face.

He didn’t understand at first, but when he did, he desperately asked me, “So it wasn’t Kishitani’s personality and skills that let me excel at soccer, get good grades, and become so popular?”

I nodded, telling him that he could count all the things he had done in Kishitani’s stead as his own achievements, and that he could pull off just as much on his own if he chose.

“Is that true?” Saki asked.

“Who knows?”

“What…?”

“But don’t you agree?”

Down below, Sagara scored another goal.

While he had avoided school for a long time, he was willing to learn and had thus still studied and practiced sports on his own during that time. All that had been left was getting past his fears. Of course, not everything went smoothly. He was still somewhat out of place in our class. He wasn’t playing on the first string either, and was only given the chance to take part in soccer matches as a substitute.

Nevertheless, he was definitely satisfied with his progress. For now, the people who knew him were saying that he was acting like a different person, but as I looked at how his teammates clustered around him to offer their praise, I was convinced that a day would come when his successes would be considered in character.

“Many a true word is oft spoken in jest, right? Anyway, give it back to me,” Saki ordered.

“‘It’?”

“The picture.”

“Aah,” I responded and produced the picture. “By the way, why do you have a picture of my class, anyway?”

“You once asked me to make some copies of it for you, remember? I accidentally made one too many.”

“Why didn’t you just throw it away?”

“I don’t like throwing away photos.”

“But there’s no reason for you to keep it, is there?”

“Just give it back to me,” she said and snatched the photo away from me in order to stuff it into her pocket. In her rush, she accidentally creased one of the corners, causing her to frown briefly. Apparently, she disliked creases in photos as much as throwing them away?

“If you’re so keen on my photos, just ask and I’ll give you some!” I joked, hoping to cheer her up.

Saki paused for a moment. “I like thi… I don’t need any,” she finally responded with her usual lack of expression and looked away.

Tch. Such a prudish girl.

Suddenly, I heard a whistle from below.

The match ended and the team manager handed Sagara a towel. She was the girl who, until recently, had flirted regularly with Kishitani.

“Now that’s a fast-moving girl.”

“You’re mistaken. She merely perceived to his inner value!”

“That’s a different way of looking at things, I guess.”

“That’s the only way to look at things.”

As for Kishitani, no longer a recipient of that manager’s attention—

“Coach, please let me play! You know what I can do!”

Kishitani had managed to reintegrate himself as well and was back at school. That being said, one day, out of the blue, he started to frequently come in late, his grades went down the drain and he lost his position on the first-string team.

“Please! I can do it if I try!”

“If I try”, huh? That’s quite a convenient motto, but it cuts both ways.

One person had chosen to believe in it wholeheartedly and never ceased in his efforts, while the other had used it as an excuse to goof off.

“Why don’t you try to study harder as well, Tokiya? Maybe you can do it if you try.”

Because Saki’s sardonic remark had really struck home, I put on a fake “mask” of composure and replied:

“I wouldn’t be able to recover if I tried and failed, so I never try.”

“Pathetic.”

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