Chapter 3 – Pinky

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There exists a myth of a red string of fate.

As the legend goes, lovers who are fated for each other are connected by an invisible red string that is tied around their little fingers. No matter how many romantic encounters and break-ups they experience, they are said to eventually end up together.

No, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that their final choice determines who they were linked with through fate.

However, I don’t like the word “fate.”

I want to believe that I make my choices myself, not that someone else decides in my stead.

That being said, if there really is a red string of fate … where does mine lead to?

Have I already met my fated partner?

We’ve split up.

He meant the world to me. I don’t think I can live on without him.

Goodbye Yuu-kun. Thanks for everything.

Just a few minutes ago, I found this message on my answering machine and deeply regretted turning my cell phone off.

I immediately ran around in town to search for her. That being said, we weren’t in a relationship and I wasn’t her ex-boyfriend.

We were only childhood friends who had known each other for 16 years because our parents happened to be friendly neighbors. That was all there was between us.

She was best described as a “girl thirsting for love.”

By that I don’t mean that she was cheating or two-timing her boyfriends, but that she couldn’t live without being in love with someone.

Her motto seemed to be that love was life, and her name, Karen Saotome[1]., reflected her personality.

She kept repeating a cycle that consisted of falling in love with a boy, dating him, and then splitting up.

After every split-up, she would weep like it was the world’s end and it was up to me to console her.

However, today of all days I wasn’t at home when she called and my cell phone was turned off.

Since it was the first time that this had happened, I had never before gotten such a call from her.

She wouldn’t… I told myself, but anxiety impelled me to run and search nonetheless.

I knew the places where she would usually hang out: our school, a park, a café, the library. All places where she had memories with her former boyfriends.

There was no place that was important to her and her boyfriends that I didn’t know of. I was pretty sure that I remembered them better than she herself, even though she was the one who told me all that when she was talking about her love affairs to me.

Karen had the habit of revisiting all the memorable places of her most recent relationship whenever she split up with someone, after which she would eventually go to the place where they had met for the first time.

If my memory didn’t fail me, she had first met her last boyfriend on the bridge that spans over the river that splits the town. She was supposed to be there.

However, the message she had left me and the bridge formed an ominous mix.

Karen, don’t be stupid! If you want to be reconciled, then so be it! I’ll help you!

Make it, please make it! I desperately repeated to myself while I was running toward the bridge.

Finally there, I found Karen standing in the middle of the structure, right before the handrail.

“Karen!” I shouted as I dashed across the bridge, and then I grasped her. “Karen! Don’t get any stupid ideas!”

“Ah, Yuu-kun…” she muttered, calling me by my nickname, her look distant and her mind sent into silent raptures.

Right, the alarming message she had left on my cell a few hours ago had eluded her entirely.

Still lost in reverie, Karen looked at me and said with blushed cheeks, “I found a new love.”

Exhausted, I slumped to the ground and thought, …OK, just like I know her.

—I love you. Please go out with me.

A girl suddenly confessed her love to me when I was about to leave the school through the gate.

The girl wasn’t unknown to me, though; I had met her the day before on a bridge.

That day, I had been on my way from school to the Tsukumodo Antique Shop. As I was crossing a bridge, I noticed a girl looking down at the river that was flowing 10 meters below. More precisely, I didn’t “notice” her but she entered my field of view.

But then … suddenly, a painful noise rang inside my head.

Yes, Vision showed me how she would throw herself into the river and die.

It was sudden. It was unexpected. I was completely unprepared to foresee the death of an unfamiliar girl.

I had already seen a stranger’s death in passing once before. But while I failed to save that woman back then, my reaction was fast enough this time.

I grabbed her arm and pulled her back on the bridge, hindering her from doing the leap.

She gave me a startled look.

I then tried to persuade her not to do something as stupid as to commit suicide. Surprisingly, she nodded in agreement without the need of many words.

While I was somewhat worried about the girl, I couldn’t watch over her forever and therefore decided to believe her and leave.

To tell the entire truth, I kept observing her after that from afar, but she showed no sign of killing herself. After a while, a friend of hers arrived and I left for good with a load off my mind, forgetting about her entirely.

Until she suddenly confessed to me, that is…

I was at a complete loss because her confession did not simply come unexpected, but because I hadn’t fathomed anything like that to happen at all.

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“Whoa, Kurusu, how did you do that? She’s not even from our school!” said my classmate Shinjou as he nudged me with his elbow. We happened to be walking home together that day.

“He saved my life,” the girl explained and looked at me. “Excuse me… may I ask for your name?”

“Kurusu. I’m Tokiya Kurusu.”

“Tokiya-kun? What a handsome name…”

“What’s yours?”

“I’m Karen Saotome. Please call me Karen.”

“Okay!” Shinjou replied in my stead and continued asking and answering things.

Her name was Karen Saotome. She was enrolled in a high school in the neighboring town and was one year my junior.

She wore her hair in fluffy twintails and had a childlike face with big eyes, but there was something feminine about her that was simply charming. Without exaggerating, she was the kind of beauty that could become an idol within her class or her school even.

Apparently, she had looked up my high school based on the uniform I’d worn when we met and had been waiting for me at the gate.

“So, Karen-chan, you fell in love with Kurusu because he saved your life?”

“Yes. I’m sure that this is fate,” she said, making it obvious that she was a hopeless romantic, as she combined her hands in front of her surprisingly big bosom and gazed closely in my eyes.

Her gaze was so warm and soulful that I was forced to avert my eyes. They were pulled back a moment later, however, because Shinjou made a strange remark:

“But you’re out of luck, Karen-chan. He’s already got a girlfriend.”

“Huh?”

“EH?”

Saotome-san and I both startled up.

“Who are you talking about?” I asked in a rough tone.

“About Saki-chan of course! That girl where you work.”

“We’re not in a relationship yet!”

“Is that true?” Saotome-san interrupted without missing a beat when she heard my denying it. “You don’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Huh? Uh, err…”

“Thank god…” she sighed with deep relief, her eyes slightly wet. “Ah, excuse me for a moment.”

Her cell phone had rung. She turned around and discussed something. “Oh…” she then gasped.

“Excuse me for showing up today without notice. Actually, I only wanted to thank you for saving me, but I just couldn’t suppress my feelings… But I really do love you. I’ll be waiting for your response.”

With these words and a nod, she left.

Our second encounter ended as a one-sided dialogue from start to finish. I wasn’t able to do a thing, to say a thing. The storm that had just passed had left me in a state of absent-mindedness.

“Oh boy, I sure don’t want to be involved in this,” Shinjou said with a raised eyebrow. “She’s definitely going to turn up again. Not just that, she’s going to hit on you until you give in.”

“You think so?”

“Pretty sure of it. Let’s just hope matters don’t get complicated.”

“Complicated?”

“If Saki-chan gets involved.”

“I-I just told you that we’re not together!”

“Dude… do you realize what exactly you told me?” Shinjou sighed.

“What do you mean?”

He put on a grin that looked as naughty as if he had mimicked Towako-san even though he had never met her.

“You told me that you aren’t in a relationship yet.”

“I…I never said…”

“Yes, you did,” he declared without allowing any ifs and buts.

Even so, there were really no plans of getting together with Saki, although I might have unwittingly said otherwise.

“Well, that girl was real cute though. Maybe you should consider switching over?”

“Switch over? I would never…!”

“Look, that means that you’ve already chosen someone, no?”

“……”

Shinjou was a cut or two above me when it came to this sort of thing.

“Didn’t I tell you not to confess yet?”

“I’m sorry, Yuu-kun… I just couldn’t hold myself back,” she apologized with an upward glance, her head inclined and her hands folded in front of her chest. This was Karen’s special attack; no man could help but forgive her when she apologized like this. By the way, she used this attack entirely subconsciously.

I was the one who’d figured out her crush’s—Kurusu-kun’s—school from the description of his uniform and bag.

It had always been my job to take care that her love would bloom. This time was no different, but while I had told her to charm him while giving thanks to him, I had explicitly forbidden her to confess. Because once turned down, it would be hard to get another chance.

Not that his turning her down would hinder me from making her succeed.

“If I listen to you, he’ll become my boyfriend, right?” she said.

“I’m glad to hear that you trust me.”

“Of course I do. It always goes smoothly if I ask you for help.”

To be precise, “always” was not true. There was one time that I failed. The first time.

We were still in middle school when it happened.

“Do you think he likes me, too?”

Although I didn’t like to meddle in someone else’s love affairs, I had done some research on the boy she’d fallen in love with.

Is he in love with someone else? Do you know his favorite type of girl?

I didn’t know whether or not he was in love with someone already, but Karen was certainly a good match for him type-wise.

“Why don’t you try?”

With indifference and the little information I had researched, I made the mistake of pushing her back.

She confessed and she got turned down. He was in love with another girl from another school. Even worse, he was already in a relationship with that girl.

Karen cried bitterly. More so than I had ever seen before and after.

I regretted making her cry.

Why hadn’t I done more thorough research?

Why hadn’t I noticed that he wasn’t in love with Karen?

If I’d put more effort in it, she wouldn’t have had to cry.

From that day on, Karen stayed home.

Neither did she answer the phone, nor did she meet me when I stopped by her place.

I was sure that she hated me.

Out of fear to lose her and sheer helplessness, I wandered around in town.

It was then that I came across a certain shop.

I don’t remember how I got there or where it was. The only thing that I remember is that it was a small, old shop in a shadowy backstreet far away from the center.

After a great deal of hesitation, I then decided to enter the shop and find a present for Karen to make up for my mistake.

The shop was waited by a woman. Since I wasn’t able to assess her age as a middle school student, I only remember that she was pretty and older than me.

“Welcome. How can I help you?” she asked with a calm voice, leaving me at a loss for an answer.

I knew that Karen liked accessories, but the sort of accessory that could be found in this shop—vases and wall clocks—was old-fashioned and not cute and fancy like the kind of thing she liked.

“Um, you wouldn’t happen to have some girlish accessories in your assortment?”

“I’m afraid to say that we don’t have any accessories here. We only carry Relics.”

By Relics, I understood antiques and art objects. At least, I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t make a find here.

Reading my thoughts off my face, the saleswoman added, “Note that by ‘Relics’ I don’t mean antiques or art objects. Relic is the word we use for tools with special capabilities created by mighty ancients or magicians, or for objects that have absorbed their owner’s grudge or natural spiritual powers.

“You’ve probably heard of them before: things like a stone that brings ill luck, or a cursed voodoo doll or a triple mirror that shows how you are going to die.”

“……”

One thing was certain: Karen was not going to cheer up if I gave her such an ominous thing.

Since I had no business in this shop anymore, I bowed myself off and turned around.

Before I turned around, however, the red ring she wore on her little finger caught my eye.

“This?” she asked after tracing my glance and showed it to me like a celebrity on the press conference of her wedding.

It was a very peculiar ring, made of red string that was intertwined and woven to create a complex pattern, but it did not look cheap by any means. I had known about gold and leather rings, but this sort of ring was a first to me.

“Do you want it?”

“I didn’t mean to ask for it … the ring simply caught my eye.”

“I see. It’s settled then.”

With these words, she removed the ring from her finger and slipped it on my own little finger.

“Excuse me…?”

“Relics choose their owners themselves. If Redtwine caught your eye, this means that it tried to draw you to it. It has chosen you!”

“Redtwine?”

“Yes, that’s the name of this Relic,” she explained.

“It will give you the power of observing and retying the red string of fate, effectively twisting fate itself.”

Power? The red string of fate?

I couldn’t quite follow the woman, and yet I found myself listening to her feverishly, almost in a state of fantasizing.

“But note that fate is mutable; what you see through Redtwine is not absolute,” she emphasized and ceased to speak.

However, her explanation was not over yet.

For the first time since I was here, she showed an expression other than a smile—one of compassion toward something distant.

At last, she added:

“Twisting fate, on the other hand, will create distortion, and fate will always try to resume its original shape. Keep that in mind when you use the ring.”

When I left the shop, I was confronted with a remarkable sight. It was safe to say that the world had changed entirely.

There were red lines hanging in the air.

Not one or two—they occupied my field of view, extending in huge numbers from everywhere in all directions.

What’s going on? I wondered. They hadn’t existed a moment ago.

A moment ago? Yes, before I entered the shop.

It was then that I recalled the saleswoman’s words.
It will give you the power of observing the red string of fate—
I looked at the ring on my little finger. It was composed of interwoven red strings that were much like the lines hanging in the air.

At last the penny dropped: the red lines were strings.

On closer inspection, I noticed that the strings were tied to the left little fingers of the pedestrians walking the streets.

“Those are the red strings of fate?” I muttered to myself and observed them even closer.

Before me was a man whose red string was tied to the little finger of the woman walking beside him.

Next to me was a woman whose red string extended into the distance.

Behind me was a couple whose red strings went away in opposite directions.

The red string of fate was indeed visible to me.

“Hm?”

Suddenly, I noticed a couple my age walking toward me. I didn’t know the girl, but I knew the guy.

It was the guy who had turned Karen down.

As he walked past me without noticing me, I looked at his little finger. The red string connected his little finger with that of the girl walking by his side.

His blissful smile burnt itself into my mind.

Karen was in tears.

Karen was in despair.

Karen was in distress.

And yet that asshole was enjoying himself with his sweetheart.

My contempt for him was unjustified. He was not to blame for not reciprocating Karen’s feelings, nor had there been any ill will on his part. And the girl next to him I didn’t even know.

However, I couldn’t bring myself to forgive him.

I walked behind them and grabbed their red string. I felt no surprise at being able to touch the string.
It will give you the power of observing and retying the red string of fate—
Before her words even crossed my mind, I ripped the red string connecting them apart and looked after them.

Before long they let go of each other’s hand. The distance between them grew and the casual talk came to an end. Eventually they wound up in a fierce argument and parted in opposite directions.

That was no coincidence; it was the power of Redtwine. I had no problem to believe in its power.

In my hand I still held the torn red string of that guy.

“Yuu-kun! I have big news for you!”

Karen came visiting me with an angelic, beaming smile that had no traces of depression.

She waved her hand and from behind the door a boy appeared. It was the boy who had turned her down and who had his red string torn by me the day before.

“We’re a couple now!” As she said this, the guy blushed. “He gave me a call yesterday and said that he changed his mind. So we decided to date each other!”

I looked at her little finger out of the corner of my eye. A red string was tied around it with a bow knot, which led to the finger of the boy next to her.

Of course that was no news to me. After all, I had tied that string to her myself.

After tearing off his red string the day before, I kept ahold of it. Length was of no import to the string of fate, it seemed—the thread grew as long as needed.

I then went to Karen’s, still carrying said string, and sneaked into her room after getting her mom’s approval—we’d known each other for as long as I can remember, after all—and tied the string around her little finger.

There was already a red string tied around her finger, but while I didn’t know where it led to, I didn’t care.

Karen needed another guy right now.

Since I didn’t remove her existing red string, there were two guys linked to her through fate now. I simply didn’t care, either.

What was important was that I had regained her smile instead of losing it forever.

“We’re going shopping now.”

“That’s cool. Enjoy yourself,” I replied.

“Thanks. See you!” she said and left while holding hands with the guy.

When I went back inside, feeling a combination of joy and loneliness in my stomach, I encountered my grandma who was looking at me with an expression of regret.

“What’s wrong, grandma?”

“Karen-chan has found a handsome boyfriend, hasn’t she?”

“Seems so.”

“What a pity… I was sure you would marry her…”

“Don’t be silly, grandma,” I laughed.

Karen didn’t see me in that light.

We were childhood friends through and through. Even more than as a friend, she saw me as family.

The evening before, I had tried comparing our little fingers. Needless to say, there was no red string connecting the two of us—our strings led far away even though she was right by my side.

Far away in opposite directions.

“I wonder what your future wife will be like, Yuu-chan…”

Without any special intention, I looked at grandma’s red string. The string tied around her little finger wasn’t connected to anywhere and simply fell to the ground.

Perhaps the string had come loose because grandpa passed away the year before.

I tried looking at my own little finger.

Where is mine connected to…?

They split up three months later.

The guy’s red string had come loose from Karen’s little finger, and instead—

The string was once again connected to the little finger of his ex-girlfriend.
Fate will always try to resume its original shape. Keep that in mind when you use the ring—
The warning the saleswoman had given me suddenly crossed my mind.

I had forgotten entirely; I thought that my role was over and that her love would prosper.

I hurried to Karen to console her.

While she was depressed, there was no comparison to how depressed she had been after getting turned down.

Karen longed for pure love. She did not permit unfaithfulness and changes of mind. Therefore, although she was sad about her expired romance, she didn’t miss him.

However, we’re talking about the hopeless romantic Karen Saotome: She found a new crush in no time.

Again, I connected the red string of her new love to her little finger and made her succeed. And whenever the string came loose again, I would repeat the same procedure with her next crush.

Karen was in the dark about all this of course. She didn’t need to know.

All I wanted was to see her happy smile.

Next on the list was a guy called Tokiya Kurusu.

All right, let’s cut his red string and connect it to Karen’s pinky.

I’m a Cupid of love.

Karen’s personal Cupid.

“Tokiya.”

“Huh? Y-Yeah?”

“What’s the matter? Your mind is somewhere else.”

“N-Nothing, really.”

“Okay, then pull yourself together and concentrate on your job,” Saki shortly stated, pulling me back to reality, and resumed ordering our wares.

Man… Because there was nothing to do, I couldn’t help but think back at that incident.

By “that incident” I was of course referring to the confession of love.

I don’t mean to boast, but I hadn’t ever in my life been confessed to. There was really nothing to boast about and I had no idea how to deal with this matter.

There was no way around giving her a reply sooner or later.

What should I do about it?

My eyes fell on Saki and followed her delicate back. She was the same hard-working shopgirl as always—surely she had no idea of what had happened to me.

At once, I came back to my senses.

Saki had nothing to do with this matter. She had nothing to do with it… but because Shinjou planted uncalled-for ideas in my mind, I couldn’t help minding her.

How would she react if she learned about it?

I’m curious… maybe I should try telling her and ask for her view? Wait wait, she’d probably just give me a deadpan “Why would you ask me” and be done with it.

Having imagined her exact answer, I suppressed my curiosity and discarded the idea of telling her.

“Tokiya.”

“Huh? W-What? I’m not hiding anything!”

“A guest.”

“Guest? Aah, you mean a customer, right? H-How rare… haven’t seen one in a week.”

“No.”

“No? Has it been ten days, or what?”

“That’s not it,” she explained. “You have a guest, Tokiya.”

“Huh?” I muttered as I looked at the entry, and I tensed up.

The very girl who had confessed to me was standing there. She, Saotome-san, responded to my glance by joyfully waving her hands at me.

Although completely flabbergasted by her unexpected appearance, I rushed to her and asked, “E-Eh? Why are you here?”

“I wanted to see for myself where you work! Teehee!”

“T-Teehee …?”

“Am I a bother?” Saotome-san asked with an upward glance, quickly getting all teary-eyed.

“N-No, that’s not what I mean…”

“Thank god…” she sighed with relief as her tearful face turned into a beaming smile.

What an animated girl…

“How did you find out about here, anyway?”

“I followed you! Teehee!”

…Oh boy, way to scare me with a carefree smile. Well, can’t say that she’s a stalker since she doesn’t seem to have any bad intentions.

All of a sudden, a cold shiver ran down my spine.

I could clearly feel a stinging gaze on my back, but as though paralyzed I was unable to turn around. Saotome-san, on the other hand, paid no heed to the glance piercing through me and entered the shop.

“Wow, such a comfortable shop! And I love accessories! Maybe I should buy something?”

Judging by the character toys attached to her bag, she may have really had a thing for accessories, but I doubted that she would find anything suitable in this shop. Regardless, she started looking through the shelves.

In the meantime, Saki walked up to me and whispered into my ear:

“Who is this girl?”

“S-Someone from school!”

“Oh, she is? Her uniform is different from yours, though.”

“!”

Crap! I forgot that Saki knows how our school’s uniforms for girls look like.

“Ah, err, from a school nearby I mean!” I corrected myself in a hurry.

I wasn’t lying to her, but because I had corrected myself once, I must have sounded real fishy. I felt like I was making excuses.

“The white base looks horrible. And there’s no black at all.”

As Saki had noted, Saotome-san’s school uniform consisted of a white blazer and a skirt that was checked red and white. That said, I didn’t find her uniform to look “horrible”. Saki only had a problem with it because of her extreme preference for black.

It was then that Saotome-san finished browsing and walked toward us. She completely ignored me, however, and stood in front of Saki.

Why does she go to her…? I thought to myself, missing the moment to stop them. Unable to keep watching, I averted my eyes.

“Welcome,” Saki said with a monotone voice like she always did.

I gathered that she wasn’t satisfied by my half-assed explanation, but that didn’t influence her attitude. She treated Saotome-san like a normal customer, without asking who she was, without showing any special interest in her. A customer is a customer. Saki was totally behaving professionally.

However, the current circumstances rendered her incredible deadpan scary…

Even though any other customer would find himself thunderstruck for a full 5 seconds in front of Saki, Saotome-san was left utterly unimpressed and started interrogating her.

“Do you work here?”

“Yes.”

“Part-time?”

“Yes.”

“Like Tokiya-kun?”

“…Yes.”

After hearing this, Saotome-san turned around to me and asked:

“Tokiya-kun, are there any open positions in this shop…?”

“W-Why do you ask?”

“I would love to work here, too…!”

P-Please stop… I beg for mercy.

“Tokiya, did we have any open positions? Hm?” Saki asked.

Y-You’re asking the wrong person. Go ask Towako-san.

“Hm…? ‘Tokiya’? You’re calling him straight by his first name?”

“Yes, I do.”

“May I ask how you are related to Tokiya-kun?”

What a thing to ask… But why does she ask Saki and not me?

“We are…” Saki paused, wavering.

She glanced at me. Sensing her glance, I turned my averted eyes on her and made eye contact. Saki immediately looked away and answered:

“…We are co-workers.”

Well, yeah. She’s right. That’s true.

“I see. Good,” Saotome-san replied with a smile.

“What do you call ‘good’?” Saki asked this time around.

“I mean that’s good to hear. Because I lo—”

“Hold it!” I interrupted.

What was she about to say there? No, that’s pretty obvious. I can’t let her say that in front of Saki… no, it doesn’t matter in front of whom she blurts out something like that.

In order to prevent Saotome-san from giving Saki weird ideas, I took her hand and pulled her out of the shop.

“…Um, did I trouble you, perhaps?” she then said with a face gloomy with regret. She had doubtlessly troubled me, but I couldn’t possibly complain to her when she showed so much remorse. She certainly didn’t mean any harm.

“Um, no, don’t mind it.”

“Thank god…” she said with a smile of relief.

To be entirely honest, her smile was incredibly cute. Not only that, she was also cute in general.

Therefore I felt that I had to ask the question I was burning to ask.

“Tell me one thing. Why me? Because I saved your life? I assure you, anyone else would have done the same!”

“No, that’s not it,” she distinctly denied. “It was the first spark, yes, but that’s it. I don’t fall in love with someone just because he saved me. I… sensed that we are fated for each other.”

“Fated?”

“Yes. You may not believe me, but I can tell.”

Female intuition or something? Well, the perks of being a girl, I guess? I thought, but my expectations were completely betrayed when she responded in a way more down-to-earth manner.

“This ring lets me know.”

“Huh?”

“A childhood friend of mine once gave me this ring when I was depressed after getting turned down by someone. Ever since then I can tell who I’m fated for.”

I gazed closely at the ring adorning her little finger.

“Can you really tell apart fate with this?”

“Yes.”

Needless to say, the word “Relic” came to mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one that let you find your fated partner.

It was impossible for me not to relate things with mysterious powers to Relics.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Ah, no, I’m fine… can I take a look?” I requested, although this was not something that could be analyzed just by the eye.

“Sure!”

However, contrary to her consent, she hid her hands behind her back.

“Hm?”

If you go on a date with me tomorrow,” Saotome-san explained with a mischievous smile.

That was uncalled for, Karen…

You tailed me while I was tailing Kurusu-kun, didn’t you? Even though I told you to go home.

And here I had been waiting for him to get alone to cut his red string of fate. She had upset all my plans.

Well, I could have just as well simply entered the shop and secretly severed his red string, but I wanted to avoid doing so in front of Karen, even though she couldn’t see those strings.

If I had no luck anyway, I should’ve just gotten it over with while he was on his way here.

The problem was that his red string had pointed away from me while I was tailing him. Of course I could have just sneaked myself ahead of him, but then I would have risked getting the wrong red string among the countless hanging in the air.

I wanted to avoid cutting the red string of unrelated people, let alone tying the wrong one to Karen.

“Well, there’s still plenty of time.”

I then tried sneaking a peek into the shop to observe what was going on inside when suddenly Kurusu-kun came out through the door together with Karen. I quickly hid myself behind a corner.

Neither of them had noticed me. In fact, Karen was smiling from ear to ear because she was happy being pulled along by him.

…Love sure is blind. I’m sure she wouldn’t dream of being a bother by visiting him here.

Having known her for a long time, I could tell that she was not behaving like that on purpose. She came here because she simply wanted to see Kurusu-kun—that was all that was going on in her head. That being said, I feared that he might be put off by her attitude because he didn’t know that.

I should hurry up and retie his red string before Karen does something stupid. Not that it would make a difference once I’ve connected them.

While there were hardly any people around in this side street, they still seemed to care after all and went to the back side of the shop.

I was about to move to a spot where I could observe them, when suddenly someone else appeared through the shop entry.

It was the girl who worked there. After looking around for a moment, she carefully poked her head into the alley that led to the back of the shop.

Apparently, she was also curious about them even though she had not shown the slightest stirring of emotion when Karen made an appearance. That being said, I couldn’t tell for sure because I’d been observing them from outside.

Come to think of it, didn’t Kurusu-kun’s buddy mention something about a possible girlfriend? Maybe she’s that girl?

With these thoughts, I decided to take a look at the red string around that girl’s little finger.

Sorry, but I’ll take the liberty of cutting your string if it’s connected to Kurusu-kun!

Before I could check, however, I sensed someone behind me.

I swung my head around and found myself looking at a woman watching me from behind.

It was close to a miracle that I didn’t let out a scream. It seemed like overwhelming surprise tended to seal the voice.

“What are you doing here before my shop?” asked the woman who I deemed to be in her late twenties. She was not trying to be intimidating toward me, but because I knew that I was doing something bad, I felt rather unsettled.

“…Wait. Did you just say your shop? Are you related to that shop?”

“You bet. I’m Towako Settsu, the owner of the Tsukumodo Antique Shop. Who are you? A friend of Tokiya’s?”

“Ah, um…” I uttered, unsure as to how I should reply.

If I pretend to be Tokiya’s friend, it will be a hassle if she calls him. We haven’t met each other yet. Should I be honest and tell her about Karen…? If possible I don’t want Karen to know that I’m here, but if I tell her that I was making sure what kind of person he is, everything should go smoothly.

“No, rather than with him, I’m close friends with a girl who fell in love with Kurusu-kun.”

“In love with Tokiya…?”

“Er, yes. I was just wondering what kind of place he works at.”

The woman who had introduced herself as Towako Settsu nodded with an “Uh-huh”, and added with an ironic smile:

“All the while looking for a chance to tie them together with Redtwine, eh?”

“——!”

This time I was literally left speechless.

“So you do know how to use it. It’s unsettling to know that she would sell such a thing to a kid…” she muttered to herself and looked down at me, while I was still struggling to regain my composure.

“Surprised that I know of Relics?” she asked. “Perk up your ears then, because we carry fakes of those Relics at the Tsukumodo Antique Shop. Although I’m really collecting the originals only… Hey, you wouldn’t be so kind as to give away yours?”

I reflexively hid my hand behind my back.

“That’s a no, eh?” she remarked with a shrug and didn’t seem to apply any pressure on me.

“D-Does Kurusu-kun also know of Relics…?”

“Obviously,” she briefly said.

However, that was a huge miscalculation on my part: If he knew about Relics, chances were that he would see through my suspicious behavior if I were to execute my plans.

I don’t even want to think about what would’ve happened if I really just walked in and cut his red string…

There is a need to revise my plan. But first I have to get out of this situation here.

Settsu-san was aware of my intent to severe Kurusu-kun’s red string and connect him with Karen. If I failed to deceive her, she was going to tell him and put him on the alert.

“Well, do as you please.”

“Huh…?” I uttered in surprise like an idiot.

Rather than stopping me or warning him, she intended to leave me at large. On top of that she told me to go ahead with my plan.

“W-What are you up to?”

“Hm?”

“I don’t see why you would just let me be. What are you planning to do…?”

“Well, I can’t just go ahead and mug you, can I? Or have you changed your mind? Wanna give me your Relic?”

“No, I…”

“See? But that’s okay. Just drop by when you feel like it’s too much for you to manage,” she suggested as though she was dead sure that was going happen.

However, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t insist on obtaining my Relic right now.

“Aren’t you supposed to stop me if you know what I’m up to? Or is there a catch somewhere?”

“You don’t have to fear anything of the sort. There’s just no reason to mind your Redtwine, since its effects are only temporary. Weren’t you warned that fate would resume its former shape when altered? You’re not gonna change fate with a Relic as petty as Redtwine.”

“Yes, I was told that, but…”

“Besides,” she said with another ironic grin, “I wish that something as feeble as your Relic would suffice to change his fate.”

I was unable to grasp the true meaning of those words.

“How did it come to this?” I asked myself while I was waiting by the clock tower at the station for my date.

It was Sunday. Unlike normally, when I would have been heading to the shop at this time, I had taken the day off under the pretext of “some business at school”. Towako-san approved my free day without asking any questions.

I hadn’t told Saki anything.

For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it with her.

Is that how it feels to cheat on someone…? I wondered. Wait, I’m not cheating on anyone, am I? I’m just meeting up with Saotome-san in order to verify whether or not she has a Relic. Plain and simple.

Besides, I can’t be cheating on Saki if we’re not in that kind of relationship. I can meet with whoever I want.

…Who am I making excuses to, anyway?

I got fed up and stopped thinking.

That being said, it was true that I wanted to verify the authenticity of her supposed Relic, and that I had to save her before she messed up her life if she could really see who her fated partner was.

I could not just turn a blind eye to someone who was about to become unhappy because of a Relic.

Besides, if she did have that power… I also wanted to check if her destined partner was really me.

“What are you doing?”

“Woah!” I exclaimed when someone suddenly talked to me from below.

Saotome-san stood before me, looking at me with an upward glance.

“Y-You’re here already?”

“Yes, I just arrived. What have you been muttering?” she asked in response.

“Did I mutter something?”

“Yes!”

“Ah, never mind then. I was just talking to myself.”

“You’re doing that, too, Tokiya-kun? I also often talk to myself! And get laughed at by Yuu-kun…” she sighed.

“Yuu-kun?”

“An old friend. I’m always relying on him.”

“I see.”

“Ah, but Yuu-kun’s just a friend, honestly! Don’t get the wrong idea.”

“Ah, yeah. Got it,” I said although I didn’t care enough to get any idea from it. “Um, shall we go then? Do you want to go somewhere specific?”

“Wherever you’d like to go, Tokiya-kun.”

“Wherever I like?”

I was somewhat at a loss to be honest. She was the one who wanted to go on a date, not I, so I didn’t have any plans for the day. That said, I didn’t want to look like a wimp, either.

“Have you had lunch?”

“Mhm, not yet.”

“Shall we go grab something for starters?”

“Yes, please.”

For the time being, we decided to go to some fast food restaurant.

…She talks a lot.

That was the impression she left on me while we were eating.

She talked about her preferences and her hobbies, asked me things, and also told me about her school and the shows she had watched on TV the other day.

The absence of any awkward silences could be entirely attributed to her. I didn’t have to search for topics because she would come up with them herself and talk away. No silence lasted longer than 3 seconds.

Whenever she was telling me something fun, she would flash a smile, and whenever she was complaining about something, she would pull a wry face. She touched on a sad scene she had seen on TV and became all teary-eyed because she remembered the scene, just to change the subject with a radiant smile a moment later.

She’s nothing like her, I smiled to myself, thinking about Saki who was always expressionless and minimal when it came to talking.

“Did you like this story so much, Tokiya-kun?”

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked perplexed.

“Because you were laughing.”

“A-Ah, yeah, that was a real fun story,” I lied, unable to admit that I had laughed because of something else instead of listening to her. “Okay, what next? Do you want to do go shopping a bit?”

“Yes, that would be wonderful.”

During our lunch I had learned that she loved to go shopping. She often went to general stores to look out for cute accessories, and there was one in the station building that she liked particularly.

We left the fast food restaurant and went to the station building.

The general store was packed with people and sold fancy stuff like cell phone straps, colorful scrunchies and other accessories. Their product lineup was quite stunning; they even offered character-branded stationery.

It was nothing like a certain other shop.

I wonder how things are at the Tsukumodo Antique Shop… Well, it’s not like we get any more customers on Sundays. She should be fine.

“Tokiya-kun?”

“Hm? Yeah?”

“How do you like this?” she asked as she put on a pink hair clip.

Since I was not used to praising someone, I responded with a simple “Looks good.”

“And this?”

This time she showed me a ribbon with light blue and white stripes. Again, she asked me if it suited her while holding it to her hair, so I said yes.

Laughing happily, she started browsing the shelves for more accessories. Most of her picks were either brightly colored or based on characters.

Heh, Saki would never choose something like that.

A smile escaped my lips as I imagined Saki wearing a pink hair clip. While it didn’t look bad on her, wearing it wasn’t anything like her.

Speaking of which, didn’t I once give her clothes and stuff that would go well with that sort of accessory because of a Relic that affected my wallet? As fake presents.

Boy was she angry with me back then, although I managed to cheer her up with a real present.

I do think that those clothes suited her quite well, though. Not that I ever told her.

With these thoughts crossing my mind, I tried picking up a pendant that caught my eye.

The pendant was shaped like an old rune. I couldn’t help feeling that Saki would like this.

“You like this sort of thing?” asked Saotome-san as she peeked at the pendant I was holding.

“No, just picked it up for no reason. I suppose this isn’t your thing?”

“Yes, not really… I prefer cuter things.”

“Fair enough.”

Apparently, her preferences were nothing like Saotome-san’s, either.

“But if you think it would suit me, I’d be more than willing to try putting it on, Tokiya-kun.”

“Ah, I didn’t mean to make you wear it. Pink suits you much better, I think.”

I returned the pendant to its original place.

“Let’s move on,” Saotome-san suddenly suggested, and pulled me along into the book store next door.

“Are you looking for a book?” I asked.

“Um, yes, a magazine.”

Sounds to me like she just wanted to get out of the other store to be honest … maybe she spotted someone she knows?

Saotome-san skimmed through a few fashion magazines and showed me some pages.

“I absolutely love this brand here.”

“Cool.”

Honestly speaking, I had no clue about fashion, and I found myself wondering if Saki also paid attention to the brand and didn’t only make sure her clothes were black.

It was then that I noticed a special promotion on the neighboring shelf with a mountain of books on personal development.

“Collection of How-tos and Made-Easys,” the section was labeled. This was the sort of book that Saki would often buy.

A smile escaped my lips when I discovered one that I had seen her read.

“Do you often read self-improvement books?”

“Not really. I only read manga and magazines.”

“I see…”

“Ah, sorry. You don’t care for such books, right?” I apologized as I put the book back into its shelf.

There’s no way any normal high school student would be into this genre. Except for Saki, of course. I should tell her of this promotion when I’m back.

…I just hope she’s not going to put any more effort into the wrong things.

“I didn’t find anything, so let’s move on!”

“Okay.”

After memorizing that the special promotion lasted until the following week, Saotome-san and I left the book store.

In the end, I didn’t get an opportunity to connect Kurusu-kun’s red string to Karen.

I tried following him around after he had finished work, but in order not to let him notice Redtwine, I became overly cautious.

However, in the evening Karen told me that she would go on a date with him.

Having heard that, I regretted failing to cut his string. I could absolutely not allow him to sadden Karen by turning her down on their first date together.

Therefore, I decided to connect them with his red string during their date.

Tailing a childhood friend and the target of her unrequited love on a date—what a great way to spend a Sunday.

I had been waiting for them at their meeting point ahead of time and therefore watched as Kurusu-kun arrived there.

This was a golden opportunity.

If I managed to get ahold of one end of his red string before Karen’s arrival, I could easily tie it to her little finger once she came. Doing so would spare me the hassle of following them around all day.

I positioned myself behind Kurusu-kun who was standing alone by the clock tower.

Everything’s fine. He hasn’t noticed me.

Since the clock tower was perfectly suited as a meeting point, there were countless people assembling there on this Sunday morning. While it was true that their red strings blocked my view, they were a perfect guise to sneak up to him.

I focused my eyes and tried to make out the red string coming from his little finger.

I didn’t care about cutting the wrong string, but I did care about tying the wrong to Karen. Connecting some strange guy to her was out of the question. I had to get Kurusu-kun’s string no matter what.

After making sure that Karen was still not here, I raised my leg to sneak up to him—and noticed that I wasn’t the only one who was observing him from behind.

“That’s…”

It was the girl who worked at the same shop as him if my memory was right.

Has he told her to keep watch?

This is bad. They mustn’t find me.

I hurried away from the meeting point.

After Karen had joined him, they grabbed something to eat and proceeded to look around in the shopping center inside the station building.

I had been following them around, but there was always this girl that stood in my way and seemed to be playing his bodyguard. As a result, I ended up following her instead of the two of them. I prayed not to be mistaken for a stalker.

Anyhow, she didn’t lose track of them for a single moment.

I realized that I wouldn’t be able to connect Karen and Kurusu-kun at this rate. The girl wasn’t included in in my calculations.

If I don’t do something, he might turn her down!

…Karen’s tear-stained face crossed my mind.

I had to prevent that no matter what. I had sworn that I would never again let anyone make her cry like that.

I know, I’ll just pull the girl over to my side by connecting our red strings. That should be the most straight-forward method since I can’t allow myself to cause a commotion.

I slipped Redtwine on my little finger and the moment I did so, my field of view was flooded by countless red strings.

Next, I tried to determine which of those string was coming from the girl’s finger.

“!”

But all of a sudden, the girl turned around to me.

Crap! She noticed me! I was too careless. This is bad. I’m done for if she raises her voice.

I reflexively grabbed her hand and pulled her into a corner behind a product shelf.

“Be quiet. Don’t notify them of me.”

“…Who are you?” she asked expressionlessly and as cool as a cucumber even though she had just been forcibly dragged behind a shelf. I almost ended up being the one who was panicking.

But I have to keep an level head.

If she’s so good at making predictions that she was prepared for this to happen, then so be it!

“Don’t play dumb. The owner of your shop told you about me, didn’t she?”

“What are you talking about?”

“…Aren’t you the other clerk from that antique shop?” I asked, slightly flustered.

“Do you mean the Tsukumodo Antique Shop? If so, then yes. I work there, but who are you?”

“Do you really not know who I am?”

“Have we met somewhere…? If you are one of our customers, please forgive me. How careless of me to forget a customer’s face…” she muttered, completely losing me.

“No, you’re on the wrong track…”

“…In that case, who are you?” she asked again.

Did the shop owner seriously not tell her? Sure, she told me to go ahead, but did she really keep me a secret…?

If so, I’m shooting myself in the foot here. Catching her was pointless.

Crap… I’m in the shit if she calls me a creep in public.

“Who are you?”

“Err, urm, I’m a close friend of the girl who’s with Kurusu-kun.”

Since I didn’t know how to answer her, I wound up telling her the truth.

“A friend of hers? What brings you here then?” the girl asked.

“I-I’ll return that question to you: Why do you keep getting in my way?”

“In your way? What are you talking about?”

“I mean, you seem to be eager to position yourself between them and me…” I explained.

“Were you watching?”

“N-No, um, it just caught my eye.”

“It’s pure coincidence.”

“It’s coincidence that you tailed them?” I asked back.

“I-I just happened to come across Tokiya who happened to be skipping work today, so I was wondering what he might be doing.”

“…Are you worried about him, by any chance?”

She gasped, and after a short, awkward pause she brought her face closer to me and said:

“No, I’m not.”

We lost them.

“Did you find them?” I asked Maino-san.

“They weren’t over here, either.”

We had lost track of Karen and Kurusu-kun while we were talking with each other. Since Maino-san and I shared a goal, we both tried looking for them in different places separately, but neither of us was successful.

The mall had 5 floors, and the number of shops was more than I was willing to count. Obviously, I couldn’t just call her, either. If they had gone to another floor, finding them was next to impossible.

As for Maino-san, I couldn’t quite read off her face if she was disinterested or antsy.

Well, I guess she is worried, considering that he was tailing them. But still…

“I suggest you don’t dress up like this.”

“What do you mean?” she asked back.

“No, seriously, you stand out badly.”

Tsukumodo_V4_237.jpg

All would have been well if being dressed all in black was the only feature of her getup, but she also wore a broad-brimmed, laced hat on her head—probably to conceal her face—and topped it off with a pair of sunglasses. She had completely overdone her disguise and was attracting attention from all sides.

In fact, I originally thought she was trying to intimidate me with that stuff because she hadn’t been wearing them when I tried to sneak up to Kurusu-kun at their meeting point.

“Do I stand out?” she asked perplexedly while inclining her head. “But I followed the advice in this book.”

She produced a small paperback from her pocket and opened it to the bookmark. The book was titled “How to Become a Master Detective” and the title of the chapter she was checking read “The Case-Book of the Downtown Lady-Detective: Love Wreathed in Steam”.

Sounds like a cheap thriller anthology to me… More importantly, is she being serious? Or is she that flustered?

“But you were tailing them if you’re carrying around a detective manual, weren’t you?”

She gasped again, and after another short and awkward pause, she said with a poker face:

“…No, I wasn’t.”

Hrm… I just can’t read her. Am I overthinking things…?

“But you’re worried about him, right?”

“And you’re worried about her, aren’t you?” she replied, most likely not ironically.

Apparently, I looked nervous to her, and she wasn’t really mistaken: I wanted to retie his red string already.

“Well, yeah, I am. We must quickly find them.”

“Why?” Maino-san asked.

“She’s a bit clumsy, you know. She needs someone to watch over her.”

“Watch over her and then do what?”

Telling her the truth was out of the question; if she didn’t know of Redtwine, there was no need to go out of my way to explain it to her.

“No, I really only want to watch over her. Well, and help her out if something goes wrong.”

“How?”

“For example by giving her a hand with something without her noticing, I guess?”

“So that it works out well for them?”

“Yeah, so that it works out well for them.”

And so that Karen will be happy.

“Do you disagree?”

“I…” she muttered and groped for an answer to my mean question.

“Looks like you’re the opposite of me,” I then stated.

“No… I don’t mean to…”

She tried to explain herself but ended up beating around the bush because she couldn’t bring herself to deny it.

She really was the opposite of me. I felt sorry for her a bit—because I was going to set Kurusu-kun up with Karen.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked.

“I just told you, didn’t I?”

“Is that all there is?”

“That’s all there is.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“You watch over her and then…?” she asked again.

“As I said, that’s all. I only want Karen to be happy.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

Sorry, but I’m not going to give you the answer you were expecting, I added in my thoughts. Right, this isn’t about love and romance. My feelings are closer to those of a close friend or family.

The only difference is that my feelings are a weeny bit stronger than those of normal friends and family, and that I can actually effect something.

I wouldn’t have been able to do so much without the help of Redtwine.

But I did have its power. I did have the power to make her happy.

Therefore, it was my duty to take full advantage of it—even more so because doing so matched with my own wishes.

“We’ve been together for as long as I can remember. Our parents were on super good terms with each other, so we ended up always acting together. The longer I was with her when I was little, the more those feelings of love faded away.”

“So you did actually love her.”

“…When I was in kindergarten! I even proposed to her.”

“How did it go?”

“I think we went as far as holding a wedding ceremony?” I told her, digging up an old, paled memory.

It was a nostalgic memory that had slipped my mind entirely.

Why do I recall this now? I asked myself.

Not that I want to disagree with myself, but there was no doubt that I had loved Karen back then, and she had loved me back.

But then we grew up and she learned what love really was, realizing that the romance in our memories only existed in play. No, most likely she didn’t even remember having had such artificial feelings of love for me in the first place. They weren’t real. Even if they were, her feelings weren’t serious enough to not fade into obscurity.

But there had been love between us at some point.

When did those feelings go away…?

…Hold on, what am I pondering over here?

There was no romantic love between Karen and me. Sure, I held her dear and loved her more than anyone, but not in a romantic sense. My feelings for her were limited to wishing that she was happy.

But why do I wish for that, anyway?

Because I don’t want to see her cry?

Yes. That’s all.

Friendly love and atonement for what I’ve done to her.

That’s all.

There’s nothing more than that.

I mustn’t think of more.

I mustn’t think too deeply about it.

“I’m going home,” Maino-san suddenly said and walked away.

“Are you sure? Maybe they’ll start dating at this rate?”

Why am I trying to stop her when she’s clearly standing in my way? What if she changes her mind?

However, Maino-san silently shook her head.

“I can’t allow myself to follow them without making up my mind like you.”

In other words…

“You really love him, don’t you?”

She silently shook her head again. Not to evade the question, but not out of denial either.

“I don’t know,” she explained.

“You don’t know…?”

“Yes. Tokiya is without doubt special to me, but I can’t tell the nature of my feelings for him,” she whispered as if to verify her feelings and continued:

“He is suffering a lot because of me although he doesn’t know, but if I lost him, nothing would remain of me; perhaps, I would not even be able to live on. Therefore, my feelings might just be feelings of guilt or fear. I don’t know what’s at the core of his significance to me.

“—Sorry, I must be confusing you.”

There seemed to be something only she knew.

“You are a kind person,” she whispered with a lonely glance directed to the ground. “I wish I was like you… I wish I could content myself with his happiness alone.”

Leaving behind those words, Maino-san left.

There was one thing I wanted to tell her once the day arrived when Karen and Kurusu-kun parted on amicable terms.

If you can’t content yourself with just his happiness and instead wish for your happiness together—

—then you already know the answer to your feelings.

We kept strolling around in the mall for a while and eventually returned to the clock tower where we had met.

It was 07:00pm—time for dinner.

Should we call it a day? Or should I ask her out for dinner? Or go to the park?

At any rate, I still had to have her show me her ring and verify whether or not it was a genuine Relic.

I thought she’d bring up this matter, though…

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” she replied.

“About the matter you told me; that ring that lets you determine…”

“Can I ask you something before that?” she interrupted me with a question of her own.

“Sure. What is it?”

“I would like to hear your response to my confession.”

“Ah…”

Right. I forgot.

“I thought you would bring up this matter, though…” she said.

She had kept her word of ‘waiting for my response.’ I was certainly supposed to answer her before questioning her about her Relic.

“Once again: I love you, Tokiya-kun. Please go out with me.”

“I’m sorry,” I refused with honesty.

Saotome-san was a very lovely girl by all means, but I had no romantic feelings for her. There was no hesitation or regret.

“I thought so,” she laughed. She didn’t cry. “That’s weird, I was sure we were meant for each other… It’s always the same. It never works out when I think I found my fated one.”

Even someone as slow-witted as me understood what she was getting at; she was telling me in a roundabout way that she couldn’t determine her fated partner.

She had no Relic.

The ring on her little finger was just a normal ring.

Still, I didn’t think of her as a liar. Certainly, she had been dead sure that we were meant for each other—which honored me, of course. I didn’t even think of complaining to her.

But I didn’t know what to say to her, either.

“Well, bye then.”

“Yes,” she nodded and walked away.

After a few steps, however, she stopped and turned around to me once more.

“Just a piece of advice,” she started, smiling. “You shouldn’t think about another girl when you’re with a girl.”

I was floored.

Not because she had noticed, but because I hadn’t noticed myself until she pointed out to me—

—that I had been thinking about Saki all the time.

“I got rejected,” Karen said with a tear-stained smile after she visited me late in the evening.

In the end, I didn’t find back to them and couldn’t tie Kurusu-kun’s red string to her. I should have just butted in and get it over with, I through with regret.

“I was always proud that I managed to become a couple with everyone who I thought was meant for me, but looks like the chain was broken…”

“I’m sorry.”

“Mhm, it’s not your fault, Yuu-kun. I should have listened to you like always. It’s just that I thought that I had to make an effort myself for once so that you wouldn’t have to go all the way to his school just for me. I was so silly to believe I could do anything on my own…”

I knew what she was referring to.

Be it the confession, the locating of his workplace, or their date—this time, she acted of her own accord instead of depending on me.

Even though there was no need for her to be considerate to me. I wanted to be the one person she could consult without reservation.

I let her into the house and had her wait in my room while I was making her a nice and warm hot chocolate. When I came back, she was crying as expected.

This is the second time that I made her cry because I messed up… even though I was helping her love affairs along to prevent just that.

Why do I keep repeating the same mistake?

I got distracted by Maino-san and forgot about Karen. Even though it’s evident who is most important to me.

“Karen.”

Unable to hug her, I sat down next to Karen, who was sitting on my bed and weeping, and wordlessly held the hot chocolate.

Noticing the sweet aroma that was rising from the cup, she raised her face and accepted the hot chocolate from me. She blew into it a few times and took a single sip.

“Delicious,” she said with a teary but innocent smile.

Why do things that her this girl exist in the world? I wondered.

No matter how dear she was to me, no matter how much I protected her, the world and other people just wouldn’t stop hurting her.

Suddenly, I started wondering where the red string around her finger, which I could never untie or cut, led to.

I want to find him for her. I want to find the person on the other end of her red string of fate.

“Karen, want to go searching?”

“Hm?”

“Let’s go find the one who’s meant for you! You always said you could tell, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did… but that’s a lie. I can’t tell who’s meant for me. If I could…”

“I’ll help you! Together I’m sure we’ll find him.”

In fact, I had traced her red string several times already. Whenever she cried—whenever her love ended—I would go search for the one who would not break her heart anymore.

However, I would always lose track of her red string eventually. But I was sure that we could pull it off if Karen followed me.

“You’re so kind, Yuu-kun. You always look for me.”

“Of course.”

“Why?”

“Because…” We’re friends, I almost said as I was used to saying, but I had to swallow these words.

Karen was silently looking up at me.

Never before had she gazed at me with such eyes. Her eyes asked for a different answer than usual.

My heart pounded.

We can’t, I immediately thought.

Karen was asking for something that had been there all the time but that I had come to ignore.

The magic seal will break if it’s put into words.

You’re about to open the box I’ve sealed away for no one to see, not even myself.

But Karen was waiting. She was waiting for me.

Is it really okay, Karen?

You mustn’t ask this question, you know?

There will be no going back, you know?

I was content with just being by her side and protecting her.

If we dug deeper in search for something, we were without doubt going to seek for more.

Are you really okay with that?

“Why?” she asked again as if to give me the last push.

Therefore, I stepped forward and said it.
“…Because I love you more than anyone.”
The seal was broken.

The noble prince who protected her no matter what had turned into a beast that thirsted for her.

However—

She snuggled up to the beast and leaned herself against it.

“You finally said the words. I was waiting for them so long.”

She softly placed her hand on mine.

The day when I had made Karen cry for the first time—when I obtained Redtwine—I’d bought her a ring and placed it next to her pillow.

Usually she wore that ring on her little finger, but today I found it slipped on her ring finger.

The words of the saleswoman came to mind.
But note that fate is mutable—
Suddenly, I realized something.
The red string coming from her little finger was connected with mine.
Long ago I have sealed them away.

For a long while, I have averted my eyes from them, hiding them behind a wall of lies.

Yet they kept surfacing, and whenever they did, I gave up once more, forgot them and deceived myself again.

I’ve repeated this loop so many times that I forgot where those feelings of mine had gone.

But—

Thank god I didn’t discard away.

Thank god I didn’t destroy them.

Thank god I didn’t kill them.

Right now I know for sure.

Right now I can tell for sure.

More so than in the past.

More so than yesterday.

That I love you more than anyone.

“Can we forget about what happened yesterday?”

The date had changed.

The one hearing those words was me.

The one saying those words was Karen.

After going home in the morning, Karen returned to my place and confronted me with those completely unexpected words.

“…Huh?”

Her words pierced right through me and disappeared beyond the horizon before I could even grasp them.

Unlike me, who was still thunderstruck, Karen was smiling like always, like an angel or a girl in love.

Who is that smile directed at? Not at me?

From behind the door appeared—

“He asked me to start all over again.”

It was the guy who had almost driven her into suicide by splitting up.

This morning he called me you know and he apologized to me and begged me to start over again but I told him about you and me Yuu-kun but he said he still loves me and that I’m everything to him and that got me thinking and realized that you’re more of a friend than a lover to me Yuu-kun but don’t get me wrong I love you but just not as a lover you see I’m really sorry but let’s stay friends okay?

Karen said something, but while her words entered my ears, they didn’t reach my heart. No, they did reach my heart.

The problem was with my heart; it was already broken.

Therefore, I felt nothing when I noticed that her ring had moved back from her left ring finger to her right little finger.

“Yuu-kun…?”

“…Yeah, I got it.”

“Really?!” she said with a happy smile.

Delighted that she could split up with me.

“Yeah, really.”

I had known from the start that Karen was nothing more than a childhood friend.

I had said myself that there was no love or romance between us.

Things simply fell into place.

“I’ll see you then,” she said and turned around to her boyfriend.

“Karen.”

“Hmm?”

I raised my hand and held out my little finger to her.

“Let’s friends forever. Pinky promise.”

Tsukumodo_V4_257.jpg

Hearing me say that we were not lovers, she put on a beaming, carefree smile and entwined her little finger with mine.

“I love you, Yuu-kun.”

“I love you too, Karen.”

We promised to stay close friends and parted.

A single red thread was left behind at my feet.

It was Karen’s red string of fate.

It was the red string of fate that had been tied to my little finger the day before.

It was the red string of fate that had not been tied to my littler finger anymore that day.

I had known from the start that Karen was nothing more than a childhood friend.

I had said myself that there was no love or romance between us.

Things simply fell into place.

However.

The truth was that I had indeed been in love with her.

I should have kept the lid to my feelings closed.

I should have kept my eyes averted.

I would have been okay if those feelings had stayed forgotten.

But I had become aware of them.

I had experienced the delight of winning her heart.

I had experienced the toughness of losing it again—and couldn’t take it.

I carefully picked up Karen’s red string of fate and tied it around my little finger, as if to reminisce about the night before.

However—

Karen and I were not going to become a couple again.

The fateful string I had picked up did not lead anywhere, not even to Karen.

The moment when we entwined our fingers to make a pinky promise, I had torn off her red string.

Karen did not have a red string of fate anymore.

I’ll keep my promise!

I won’t be more than friends with you.

I won’t become your lover.

I won’t ask you to answer my love.

And…

I won’t forgive you.

Karen.

Karen, you who lost me.

Karen, you who lost love.

Karen, you who cannot live without love.

I will watch over you as a friend for the rest of my life.

Therefore, I pray—

May you become the unhappiest person under the sun.

Right after I had parted with Saotome-san, I stopped by a certain place before going home. Well, there was only one “certain place” that would come into question.

The Tsukumodo Antique Shop.

I entered the shop and was greeted by the familiar clang-clang of our bell.

“Welcome back,” Saki said as though she had been waiting for my return all along.

“Thanks,” I replied in an equally natural manner and sat down on a chair.

Since I had nothing else to do, I watched Saki work. Well, there weren’t any customers around, so she didn’t actually do anything.

“What’s the matter?” Saki asked when she noticed my gaze on her.

“Ah, it’s nothing,” I answered without explaining the reason to her.

Not that there was a reason in the first place.

“…Did something happen?” she asked.

“Nope! Everything like always.”

“I see. Nothing has changed.”

“Yeah. Nothing has changed.”

A lot had happened, but in the end nothing had really changed.

“Anyhow, did something happen to you?” I asked her this time around.

“What makes you think so?”

“Oh, I’m just asking.”

“Nothing. Everything is like always.”

“Cool. Everything like always, eh?”

Shortly after, Saki started to close the shop and proposed, “Why don’t you help me if you have nothing to do?”

“I shouldn’t have to work today, though.”

After making a feeble complaint, I joined her in tidying up.

Saki had started to sum up the day’s revenues, just to close the register again because she was done in no time.

In the meantime, I locked the entrance and turned off the lights.

The shop became dark and was filled with an air of loneliness.

It was a well-known and irreplaceable view for me.

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[1] “早乙女 歌恋” in Japanese, which makes for a really corny name. Could roughly be translated as “Maiden” and “Love song”.”

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