Part 161: ????
BGM: Le 4 Octobre
The many guests that filled the room chattered and applauded the person receiving an award trophy on top of the stage. The sign in front said 'Biggs Publishing Company Awards Ceremony'.
The projector in front of the audience showed a brief summary of the series. It was... a lengthy fantasy adventure novel that was already more than 8 installments long. The thrilling fantasy story told of the adventures of Sakutarou, a cowardly vegeta-lion who makes friends, learns through his experiences, and grows in his search for the One Fragment. The main character's catch phrase, 'I'll become the King of the Beasts', was even one of the candidates for the Best Phrase to Come Into Modern Slang award. In addition to being a thrill to read, the books also contained many messages for children to learn from, earning it high praise as an adventure novel that parents and kids could enjoy reading together.
However, it hadn't received praise like this from the beginning. For the first six volumes, it went almost entirely unnoticed, but last year, when foreign translations of the series began, it got its big break and suddenly became a huge topic of conversation. Even before this series, the author had created quite a lot of works, but none of those had achieved any public acclaim. However, after this sudden rise in notoriety, her previous works were being reevaluated one after another. It's probably fair to say that recognition of her works was very late in coming.
"Miss Kotobuki...!! Congratulations on your award!"
"Your latest, 'Sakutarou and the Witch's Island', was truly an excellent read!"
Publishing company executives repeatedly showered her with praise.
Nearly all of her royalties were sent to a fund to support needy children, and she herself had served as the director at several protective institutions. Some envious people tried to call this fake charity, but the more that people learned about her, the more those voices withered and died away.
Kotobuki Yukari. By now, that name rang loud and clear across Japan. She sat in a chair, cheerfully chatting with the people who came to greet her. Last year, she was diagnosed with initial cancer, and after the surgery, her physical strength had dropped sharply. Because of this, even in this stand-up awards party, she was given a chair and sat down while greeting people. Some people lamented, saying that if only she had been 20, even 10 years younger, she might have left her mark in history as one of the greatest authors in the 21st century. It had taken so long for her to receive the praise she deserved...
She could no longer be called young. Even so, her determination to write had not wavered in the slightest. The story had gone around that, even during her stay in the hospital, most of her time had been spent typing away. She always said the same thing. That she hadn't finished telling everything she needed to tell. Did she mean that she hadn't fully completed 'Sakutarou's Great Adventure'? This is how she answered when this question was asked by a journalist...
If, by writing even one more book, I can teach just one more child how to find happiness... Then I will spend the rest of my life to write every book, every page that I can. Because I still haven't fully conveyed the precious teachings I was given...
'Harry the Potato'. It was the name of a fantasy series that had become a worldwide hit.
"Thank you very much for your kind words. It's more than I deserve..."
"Oh, I forgot to tell you...! My name is Eks, head of Company X's first editorial department."
"It is an honor to meet you... I hope we have a chance to work together sometime..."
"Hachijo... Toya... you say?"
She remembered that name from several decades ago. She hadn't expected to ever hear it again.
"Do you know of Hachijo? Have you met Hachijo, by any chance...?"
"No, I have not... I did go to visit once, but I was an unknown back then. And, since I suddenly barged into the publishing company office, it's hardly surprising that I was refused an interview..."
"Oh, I didn't know that...! Could it be that you were a fan of Hachijo's work...?"
"No. I just wanted to find out what sort of person Hachijo was..."
"I see, I see. Well, the truth is... about that novelist... Hachijo Toya would like to meet with you discreetly."
"...To meet with... me?"
"Yes. Not as a formal interview, but personally, off the record... If you are interested, we would be happy to arrange the meeting... But, of course, this has nothing to do with work!"
Just like I realized that Itouikukuro was Hachijo Toya, did she use my name to figure out my identity?
Ange's name is written 縁寿. 寿 can be pronounced as Kotobuki and 縁 can be pronounced as Yukari.
The Rokkenjima mystery, which was sometimes called the greatest social phenomenon at the turn of the century. That uproar, which dragged in enthusiasts from across the world, had suddenly subsided after an event held by Hachijo Toya, where she was going to 'unveil the diary of Ushiromiya Eva, which contained the truth'. Though she had set up the event herself, she then outrageously disappeared without releasing the contents of the diary, drawing harsh criticism for doing so. However, a very, very obvious feeling--that this was prying into a terrible accident with many victims only for the sake of curiosity--returned to the public sphere. And so, the frenzy surrounding the Rokkenjima mystery faded away quietly...
Hachijo Toya. No, Itouikukuro. She caught the public eye as a Forger of Rokkenjima mysteries. She claimed to have reached the truth, and released groundbreaking works of fiction one after another. She became famous as the driving force behind the Rokkenjima mystery. After realizing that Itouikukuro was Hachijo Toya, I went to her publishing company to ask for an interview, but I didn't get one. At the time, I despised her. Back in the beginning, I thought she might have used the Rokkenjima mystery as a publicity stunt to advance herself, but now I feel a bit grateful to her. If she hadn't refused to show the diary in such an outrageous way, the Rokkenjima cat box might still be the plaything of countless goats.
She was indeed a Forger who had toyed with the cat box, and I still had an uneasy feeling about her. However, at the same time, she was the one who, practically speaking, allowed Rokkenjima to rest in peace. And... did she really reach the truth? Why did she reach something that was infinitely close to the truth, 'even from my perspective'? Even now, after all these years, that's something I've wanted to know, if I could.
"I understand. Does Hachijo Toya live near the city?"
"I was told that a meeting near here would be satisfactory at any time...!"
"I see. In that case, can I ask you to arrange a meeting for us in a quiet coffee shop next Sunday...?"
"Yes, as you wish...! Thank you, thank you very much! I believe Hachijo will be delighted as well...!"
"I have one condition."
"Yes, whatever you say...!"
"I am not going to discuss business, so please refrain from sending anyone from the editing department."
"But of course! We will do as you say."
"Madame Hachijo and I will meet alone, just the two of us. Can I count on you to keep that promise...?"
"Well, as to that... We would, umm, appreciate it if you kept this quiet, but..."
"What is it...?"
BGM: Soul of soul
As soon as I heard that, I felt a premonition. How had Hachijo Toya, a person with no connections to the Ushiromiya family, managed to write about it in such detail? I already felt a premonition of a certain kind of miracle...
When I left on my journey, I abandoned the name of Ushiromiya Ange and stepped into a new life. By now, things have settled down, but when the Sumadera family was still a threat, I wanted to distance myself from that name. Thanks to that, no one was able to get in touch with the new 'me' anymore. However, now that 'Sakutarou's Adventure' has caught the public eye this year and made the name of Kotobuki Yukari famous, maybe it finally reached his ears.
If those who knew this connected the name Sakutarou with my name, then it's only natural that they'd figure out who I was. The number of people who could recognize me from this was very, very limited.
...This person was also well-versed in detective novels, and a man. I could only think of one person who matched. After all, I knew just how many detective novels he had piled up in his room, from the time when his effects were gone through.
My heart was racing, almost like a girl in love for the first time...
At the very instant that the arranged time came, I heard the sound of the chime on the door, and they appeared. It was a man sitting on a wheelchair... and a woman pushing him. My eyes immediately fixed on the man in the wheelchair. And, right away, I saw the traces that remained on his face...
My brother... Ushiromiya Battler...
When our eyes met, he gave a little bow. I hurried to my feet and bowed back. It was a somewhat exaggerated and silly way for a pair of siblings to greet each other after several decades apart. However, my mind was already blank. The miracle I had waited for all this time was now a reality.
"Yes I am... And you two must be... Hachijo Toya."
"A pleasure to meet you. Thank you very much for letting us borrow your precious time today. My name is Hachijo Ikuko. I am mostly in charge of the actual writing. This is Toya. He mostly handles the drafting."
Though the woman who called herself Ikuko was far older than me, she seemed to be unbelievably youthful. It wasn't because she was good with makeup or dressed like a younger woman. It feels strange to say it... There was a strange mystique about her, as though she was immortal and never-aging.
Then, I quickly remembered that she had introduced my brother as Toya.
"...Pardon me for asking, but are you two married?"
"We are not married, but we have been together for a long time."
"True. Looking back on it, it really has been a long time..."
My brother smiled as he spoke. When I learned that, at least for him, these long decades hadn't been a period of isolation and loneliness, I felt an incredible sense of peace and relief. Come to think of it, by now, he was staring back into my face. After all, I had been just six years old last time. It must be hard for him to find any traces he can recognize. However, I'm sure he'll recognize something, just the same.
We kept stealing glances at each other and looking away, like a couple on a blind date. We were both at an age where outside appearances mattered to us. Even though we both knew, we wouldn't let our polite exterior falter. This humorous exchange was extremely embarrassing. I thought it would be a fated reunion, that we would hold each other and sob tears of gratitude together. However, it seemed reality would be different...
But that's fine. It feels like my heart will explode with happiness...
"Let's take our orders. Is coffee okay? What does everyone want?"
"I'd prefer something that isn't so bitter. How about you, Miss Kotobuki?"
"Oh, I don't mind... I guess I'll have cafe au lait..."
How stiff we're being. Even my brother seemed to be finding it amusing by now.
When she said that, my brother and I fell silent and sat up straight.
"Should I start? Or will we start with you, Toya?"
"...I'll go first. I'm the one who pushed so hard for this meeting, after all."
As he spoke, he watched me calmly.
"I came here today... thinking that you might be a certain person. Her name is Ushiromiya Ange. When I read your works and heard your name, I was sure that you were her."
"That's right. How long it's been since I last used that name. My true name is Ushiromiya Ange..."
I gave the exaggerated bow that I'd gotten so used to these long years. We've both aged, haven't we, Onii-chan? I whispered this in my heart.
Now, it was my turn. With a quick apology, I fished around in my handbag and took out a photo.
I had many other pictures of us having a good time, but this one had the best shot of his face. I looked between him and the photo. There was no longer any room for doubt.
"...Mr. Toya. Your true name is... Ushiromiya Battler... san, is it not...?"
The hands of the clock inside me stopped. I wanted him to answer with a yes... Even though I was already so sure, I was still about to burst with the tension. And then, when that instant that seemed far too long ended, my brother answered.
BGM: Steady pace
Unconsciously, I stared at my brother's face. With unbelievable quickness, he'd acknowledged that he was Ushiromiya Battler. My eyes immediately filled and overflowed with tears... I took out a handkerchief and wiped them away, but I couldn't hold them back... Onii-chan was alive after all...
So why didn't he come back to me right away? If he had been there during my darkest days, how much it would have meant to me... Normally, the thought would have made me curse my brother, but by now, even that emotion was softened. Because, now that I was faced with the miracle of being reunited with Onii-chan, everything I felt before now fell away with my tears. At this moment, I was happy. I wasn't all alone. I've worked so hard to live these past decades with that belief. And, finally, I have been rewarded...
By now, I couldn't even stop my tears. For some time, I continued to sob and sniffle... Watching this, my brother hung his head apologetically. Why didn't he come back to me sooner? It looked as though he was feeling regret for that. But I'm sure he had some sort of reason. He's probably here today to tell me about it and apologize. Already, just by him introducing himself to me today, everything inside of me has been washed clean with tears.
"No. It's only to be expected. For several decades, you've been waiting all alone, believing that your family would return."
"I did believe... I believed you would come home... Onii-chan..."
I held out my hand weakly, and my brother slowly held his out too. Then, I gripped his hand. Regardless of how many long years had passed, it was, without a doubt, my brother's hand. Once more, I had to struggle to hold back the tears...
"On that day, I escaped through the underground passage."
"The one that goes to Kuwadorian?"
"I was told that an underground passage led to a hidden mansion on the opposite side of the island. However, the place we escaped to was a submarine base, not Kuwadorian."
I don't know under what circumstances my brother entered the underground passage on that day. At any rate, he went into the underground passage, split up with Aunt Eva there, and escaped to the submarine base. There, he escaped the explosion... and survived...
"From there, I got away on a motorboat. However, it must have capsized somewhere along the way."
"It... must have...?"
"...Please forgive him. Toya suffers from memory loss. His memory from around the time he was drowning in the ocean is hazy."
"Could it be... that he forgot he was Ushiromiya Battler for a while...?"
"That is correct."
My brother escaped from the explosion, but either his boat capsized during his escape from the island, or he fell overboard. Afterwards, he must have drifted somewhere, wandered about half-conscious, and maybe got into a traffic accident...
"On that day, he was lying on the road."
"If she had found me even a little later, I probably wouldn't have opened my eyes again."
"I believe you suspected that I was the one who hit you for quite some time."
"Hey, I've already apologized for that..."
This explains pretty much everything. Either because of the time he nearly drowned, or because of the traffic accident, my brother's memory was damaged. His memory probably came back eventually. However, by that time, I had already set foot into my new life as Kotobuki Yukari. Only a handful of people, including President Okonogi, knew where I was. Even if my brother tried to contact me, there was a very good chance that he wouldn't be able to.
In that sense, I am responsible. I did it to myself. However, I think I did receive the message that my brother sent me. It was through Itouikukuro. I realized that Itouikukuro, the Forger who claimed to have reached the truth, was actually Hachijo Toya.
And then, I requested a meeting with her through the publishing company, to question her about why she was so sure she'd reached the truth. However, I wasn't granted a meeting. In the end, I heard nothing from them, and it's taken all these decades for me to meet Hachijo Toya. If the publishing company had only passed my message on, we could have been reunited so much sooner. However, at the time, I was just a bourgeois girl who liked to throw money around. Why would they pass on my message when I just barged in with no introduction and demanded to meet the famous and popular Hachijo Toya? We probably crossed paths several times. If just one of those had worked out, if we had been able to meet... Just how much would my life have changed?
But this was fate. God had decided that a few decades were needed before this sibling reunion. And during that time, my brother became one half of a mystery novelist. I became a writer of adventure novels for children. You could say that we achieved success in society. My brother and I were able to be reunited after becoming successful. Now, I could do nothing but thank God for bringing about this miracle...
"At the time, we heard through the publishing company that you wanted to have an interview with us. They said that a fan who discovered Itouikukuro's true identity wanted to talk to her."
"...You must've had dozens of fans dying for an interview. You couldn't possibly go to meet all of them..."
"No. They let us know that your name was Ushiromiya Ange. At the time, I had already realized that Toya's true name was Ushiromiya Battler, so I thought you should be given a chance to meet him."
My brother spoke thus.
"...What... did you say...?"
"I refused... because I didn't want to meet you."
Once more, my brother spoke clearly. I was completely confused. I could only sit there in shock and silence, waiting for the words that were sure to follow...
"...I believe I already mentioned that Toya suffered from memory loss. And then, one day-"
"Why did you refuse, when you knew it was me...?"
I cut through Ikuko's words and questioned him directly. What reason could my brother have for rejecting me? I couldn't think of anything. That unpleasant feeling brought up long forgotten feelings of anger inside me...
"You must have known that your little sister was living all alone, being crushed by loneliness. So why... why did you refuse to meet me...?"
My brother hung his head. It seemed more like he was lost for words than apologetic. There was nothing shy about his appearance, and I questioned him again in an even louder voice. When I asked for an appointment with Hachijo Toya, Itouikukuro was already famous as a Forger. Why did Itouikukuro's forgeries reach the truth? It's obvious. My brother, Ushiromiya Battler, explained to her what happened on the island in detail. So, the appearance of Itouikukuro proves that my brother's memory had returned. Therefore, he can't excuse himself by saying that he didn't remember me. In fact, in reality, he didn't try to make excuses. On the contrary, he's openly said that he refused to meet me, even though he knew who I was.
"You regret it...?!! Did you ever try thinking about how I felt?! For decades, for most of my life...! Do you realize what feelings I had to live with...?"
Various emotions swirled inside of me. I realized that I wasn't in control of them anymore. I could only moan, to prevent myself from saying something I'd regret...
"I feel deeply ashamed for doing something so cruel to you. That's why I've searched for you ever since then. For your sake and for mine... I should have met you much earlier..."
"...Then why... why wouldn't you meet me then...?"
"...Miss Kotobuki. As I said before, his memory has been damaged. No, perhaps I should say that his brain has been damaged. It's an aftereffect of the accident."
"But his memory came back just the same, didn't it...?!"
"...Yes, his memory came back. However, that did not remove the aftereffects of the damage."
"I have Ushiromiya Battler's memories. However, because of the damage to my brain, I can't think of those as my own."
"...Can't think of those... as your own...?"
"...Yes. It's true that my memory of my escape from the island is still hazy. However, I've remembered almost everything else."
"Yes, that's right. They're a treasure from when I was a child. I still keep them with me in my handbag..."
"I remember a lot more besides that. I remember you giving Mother trouble because you hated eating seaweed. I remember that you tried to move it to my plate and trick her. And when-"
"If you remember that much, then why can't you think of those memories as your own...?"
"...That's... the result of the damage to my brain. I've been to several hospitals, but it didn't do any good. You probably can't understand it. You can't know how painful it is to have your mind suddenly filled with the memories of a man you don't know..."
He was... terrified that he wasn't himself anymore. His mind was filled with the memories of a man he didn't recognize, and they threatened to crush and overwhelm him. They must have been his own lost memories. However, his brain couldn't accept those as his own.
"Maybe a different man will wake up tomorrow morning and start living life in my body. I can't count the nights that this terror tormented me..."
"...Several times, he tried to convince himself that they were his real memories. He told himself that he was Ushiromiya Battler over and over again."
"But... nothing worked. I am me, Hachijo Toya. No matter how much Ushiromiya Battler's memories flow into my mind. To me, they're the memories of another person. I couldn't accept Ushiromiya Battler..."
...As 'Ushiromiya Battler' said this, he hung his head as his eyes turned red.
"...Then, one day, when he was caught between himself and the other self he couldn't accept, he had a fit..."
"Fortunately, his life was spared, but the aftereffects forced him to spend his life in a wheelchair..."
"...You mean... he..."
Now I see why he appeared in that wheelchair. And, now I know why he refused to meet with me... He was afraid... that I would call him 'big brother'. He was terrified of meeting me, fearful that the part of himself that wasn't him would grow still further in his mind.
And then... he had a fit... After something like that, it was only natural that Ikuko would tell him that he didn't need to remember Ushiromiya Battler anymore. Bit by bit, he tried to forget that he was once 'Ushiromiya Battler'. Doctor's instructions and medication. With that and Ikuko's diligent care, he slowly began to regain his peace of mind...
"Even so, I.. thought that I would have to meet you sooner or later. To be honest, I didn't get a wink of sleep last night. I was... scared of meeting you..."
"If I met you, would I die? Yes, I was afraid. However, here I am, talking to you normally."
"...That's why I regret what I did. If only... I could have... met with you earlier... You... and the Ushiromiya Battler inside of me... might not have had to suffer for all those years... Just thinking that makes me feel so... sorry..."
As the one who was once Ushiromiya Battler said this, he broke down crying. I already... understood.
After all, didn't the witches say that he was dead so often with the red truth...? How pathetic for the Witch of Resurrection... the Witch of the Future... who swore that everyone would be together always...
"...Toya-san. Please, raise your head."
"...M... Miss Kotobuki..."
They realized why I had called him Toya-san. By calling 'him' by that name, I myself felt the agitation in my heart subside a little.
"Thank you. You must have suffered a lot. Thank you so much, Mr. Toya..."
"...Uu... uuuuuuuuu... uuuuu..."
"...Thank you, nii-san. Thanks... for pushing yourself so hard to come here today..."
Holding hands, we brought our foreheads close and cried together for a while. Then, we talked of the old days. He remembered many things vividly, even things that I couldn't remember myself. Each time, they made me cry even harder, and he hung his head apologetically. I realized how much this hurt him, so I kept nodding in encouragement with a strange look on my face, something between a sob and a smile.
...Even if he isn't Ushiromiya Battler. My Onii-chan came back to me...
BGM: Steady pace
Even though he had come from far away, he was willing to stay as late as this. We left the store. It's probably best... if I don't meet with Mr. Toya again. It will cause him pain, and of course, I'll find myself bound to the past again. Even so, just one more time. There was one place I felt I had to show him.
"...Sure, I don't mind."
From my handbag, I pulled an invitation written on a folded up piece of A4 paper. The pair of them spread it out.
"My. Now this looks like a splendid event."
"...Come to think of it, you have been involved in a lot of things besides novels, haven't you?"
"On that day, would you lend me your time just once more? That way, I think both me and my brother will be satisfied. I think... it might also be a chance for you to free yourself from the weight of my brother's memory, Mr. Toya."
"...I... don't believe we have any plans for then. As long as we can finish the afterword for the book."
"Okay, Miss Kotobuki. We'd be happy to join you."
"Thank you, Mr. Toya..."
BGM: Le 4 Octobre
...The two people who called themselves Hachijo Toya visited the city once again by Ange's invitation. A car stopped in front of a large building. Ikuko unfolded the wheelchair with a practiced hand, lent a shoulder to Toya as he got out of the passenger's seat, and helped him into the chair.
"...It looks splendid."
"Madam Ikuko, Mr. Toya. Allow us to welcome you to the Fukuin House."
They were welcomed by Ange and some staff members.
A welfare institution for unfortunate children who had lost their parents. In the past, this institution had been established thanks to Ushiromiya Kinzo's support. However, that support had been interrupted, and the Fukuin House had been forced to shut down for a time. Decades passed. And now, the institution would be revived. Revived by the hand of Kotobuki Yukari.
"...It's a pleasure to see you again, Miss Kotobuki. Thank you for your invitation. This is from the two of us. It's not much, but I hope the children enjoy it."
"That's not the reason I invited you here... My apologies..."
"Don't worry about that... The tales of the future are always woven by children. After all, without them, the tale of humans will not continue."
"Children are treasures. So please, let this be useful."
"...Thank you very much. We have a form for donations, so if it isn't too much trouble..."
The Fukuin House had been drastically remodeled in recent years. In the hopes that children would one day be able to remember this as a fun place...
Ange used her own money to massively remodel it into a beautiful establishment. By now, she had accumulated a lot of wealth as a novelist, but even without that, she had been saving the tens of millions of yen she got from the Ushiromiya group each year under the name of living expenses. This money had been used generously to help the children.
Pictures and crafts created by the children. Every corner was filled with things on display. The contrast between this elegant building and the school atmosphere was amusing. The yells and laughter of kids running around drifted in from the distance.
"...I imagine that many of the children come here hanging their heads in sorrow. To think that they could be here laughing like that... You really have done something great."
"All people can use magic to create their future and find a Fragment of happiness. This is a witch's school for teaching that magic."
"The 'Witch's Dormitory' from Sakutarou's Great Adventure?"
"...Oh, how embarrassing. So you've read it too..."
"We read straight through it right after our last meeting. I really must bow my head, not only at your talent as a writer, but to your warm heart."
"How embarrassing... This way, straight to the end."
Pushing Toya's wheelchair, we advanced through the corridor and reached the great doors at the end. The happy voices of children came from the other side. Apparently, this was where tonight's party was being held. There were several jack-o-lanterns cut out of origami. Tonight... was the Fukuin House's Halloween party.
"Here you are, Mr. Toya."
"I see, so it's trick-or-treat."
He was handed a bag filled with candy.
A teacher warned him in a small voice to watch out for rampaging children.
"...Children. Haven't had anything to do with them for years."
"Please tell the children stories of dreams. We all welcome guests here..."
"That's tricky... What should I tell them?"
"'When you're handing in your manuscript, choose your publishing company wisely'?"
"'Don't pay any attention to reader polls'."
"*giggle*giggle*. Then I'll open the doors. The children are waiting."
Video: Curtain Call
BGM: Soul of soul
At the sight of the hall... Toya opened his mouth in wide-eyed shock. This was... the great hall of the Ushiromiya mansion. No, that's impossible... This is clearly the Fukuin House. This hall... was just like the one in the Rokkenjima mansion...
"...What a splendid hall."
"This is... a replica... of the hall in the Ushiromiya mansion... on Rokkenjima..."
"Yes. I've reproduced it as well as my memory would let me. The details might be wrong though."
"...No. This really is... the hall of the Ushiromiya family mansion... on that day..."
And then, Toya's eyes fixed... on something at the other side of the room.
"...It's... exactly the same as my memories..."
"The artist hired by Ushiromiya Kinzo to paint the portrait had a photo. I had him draw it again based on that."
I was simply frozen in shock. The long, large table was filled with Halloween party food and surrounded with children stuffing themselves.
The teacher said 'everyone, we have guests'. The children all looked at us at once, then stood up and ran forward...
BGM: Engage of marionette
The smiles and eyes of the children... welcomed me.
Yeah, I know. I know... all your faces... It's been so long, far too long... I'm finally here, at last...
BGM: Cocoon of White Dreams - Ricordando il passato
Those of you who followed me on this journey until the very end, thank you. May we meet again some day within the sea of fragments.