The next day. Raira Academy.
Himeka returned Yahiro’s greeting, voice no different from usual.
“Yesterday must have been hard on you.”
“Yeah, I haven’t sorted it all out yet.”
Yahiro wanted to ask her about what she had said yesterday before they parted, but felt that it might be too intrusive and hesitated.
“Do you still think of the Headless Rider as a demon?”
But his hesitation did not lead to restraint, and in the end he asked her anyway.
If Yahiro was the kind of boy who could be sensitive to this situation, he would probably have handled his childhood better.
“…You really are frank.”
Himeka, however, did not appear particularly unhappy about it.
She had probably come to understand this side of Yahiro through their interactions in the past few days.
“It might have been better, and easier to accept, if the Headless Rider was the culprit.”
“But if our enemy was someone who could control those weird shadows we wouldn’t be able to rescue the people who were kidnapped.”
“Yeah, that might be true.”
Himeka said lightly. Yahiro did not know how to answer.
“But, Yahiro-kun, I’m thinking…”
Himeka turned and walked forward, and still, with a voice that could not be more casual, continued:
“If the Headless Rider is so friendly, if you’re interested in it, if you’ve researched… you’d be even more willing to follow it, wouldn’t you?”
“Even to a deserted area, or deep in the mountains, anywhere.”
“I… guess so.”
The line of reasoning Himeka expressed did make sense.
Just by her words alone he was able to realise she was still suspecting the Headless Rider.
Yet Yahiro was unable to accept that what Himeka had murmured yesterday, that she thought the Headless Rider was a demon, stemmed from this suspicion alone.
—Ngh… What now. I’m bad at these situations.
—If Kuon were here he’d be able to ask all kinds of questions. He really is great.
—I wish I had his skill to push conversations forward.
Yahiro had judged Kuon as a social person despite that he had isolated himself from others by dyeing his hair green. He continued the conversation casually as they walked towards their classroom.
And when homeroom period came around, he noticed something odd.
A familiar green head was not in the classroom.
—Maybe he’s absent.
It was likely he was simply late, but because of what had just happened yesterday, he was disturbed.
In the break after the first period, Yahiro called Kuon.
‘The person you just called may have run out of battery or may be in a place without signal – ‘
This feminine voice answered, only escalating his worry.
Yahiro remembered Kuon’s call to hin last night:
—’Yo. That was exciting.’
—’But Himeka-chan really was cold back there.’
—’She should have been more… I would’ve thought she’d say something provocative, like, “Give my sisters back, you kidnapper!” But she was unexpectedly calm, which was a great help.’
—’Well, starting tomorrow we should start looking for anyone with a grudge against the Headless Rider.’
—’See you in school. I’m going to pop by the store.’
They had talked about other things, too, but from what Yahiro remembered their conversation had been mostly chit-chat.
Most importantly, he had said he would be coming to school.
It was difficult to believe he had planned to skip school.
A chill ran down Yahiro’s spine.
Because he remembered a rumour about the serial disappearances and the Headless Rider.
The rumour that Himeka’s sisters had given truth to: that ‘people who look for the Headless Rider will disappear’.
—No, wait. This is weird.
—In that case, Tatsugami-san or I should have disappeared first.
Yahiro, bewildered, continued to sit through his lessons after that, engulfed in uneasiness.
When lunch break rolled around he approached Himeka.
“I wonder what happened to Kuon-kun…”
“Did he skip? He doesn’t seem the kind to take school seriously.”
“That was frank… But I haven’t been able to get him on his phone.”
“If he didn’t skip school… It might be related to the Headless Rider.”
Himeka’s face darkened slightly as she said it outright.
“I wish it weren’t, but… Should we text the Headless Rider?”
Saying this, Yahiro opened his email that he had finally begun using to communicate with his family lately –
But before he could type anything, a voice called out,
“Hey, are you dating, Mizuchi-kun, Tatsugami-san?”
A posse of girls from their class had approached upon seeing them together.
“Not really, we’re just hanging out together.”
Himeka answered evenly.
There was no dislike or embarrassment; she simply converted the truth in her mind into words.
“Eh~? What about you, Yahiro-kun?”
Meanwhile, Yahiro’s response did not lose to Himeka’s in terms of honesty.
“I’d be glad to have such a pretty girl as my girlfriend. But we’re not dating, unfortunately.”
“That was half confessing, wasn’t it!”
“It was! You’re so funny!”
Yahiro tilted his head in confusion as if it were not he himself who just said that, and thinking it was a joke, the girls began to laugh.
“Be a little embarrassed, Himeka-chan~”
“You’re really interesting, Yahiro-kun.”
“Is it an Akita thing?”
“No, that’s not it.”
He answered that with more certainty than the other questions.
He was different from the people in his village. They, the ones who called him ‘monster’ – were the normal people.
Such self-loathing thoughts ran through Yahiro’s mind. At the same time the girls around them probed further:
“But, uh, Kotonami-kun? That green-haired guy, he’s with you a lot, right?”
“Oh? A love triangle?”
“Is he your cup of tea, then, Tatsugami-san?”
Their classmates proposed wilfully, to which Himeka calmly replied,
“Not really, we’re just hanging out, too.”
“Whoa~, so self-assured~”
Although the girls’ teasing was somewhat malicious, Himeka remained unaffected –
But her expression shifted slightly at the next sentence.
The same could be said of Yahiro, however.
“But speaking of Kuon-kun, was that real? The thing with the Headless Rider?”
Yahiro and Himeka both looked towards the speaker.
“Oh? You don’t know? The rumour’s been flying around all lunch.”
As she said this the girl took out her smartphone, and showed it to them.
“See… The one on the news right now is him, right?”
On the screen was a photo of a boy next to the Headless Rider, with a black box edited over his eyes.
The fact that he had green hair made covering his eyes meaningless, however –
And Yahiro and Himeka, both of whom did not keep up with current events, came to realise something over the course of their lunch:
Kuon had become the man of the hour.
After school. Rooftop.
“And so you came to me.”
Kuronuma Aoba said as he leant against the guardrail on the roof.
They were on the opposite end from the rooftop garden that students used as a recreational area.
As there was an installation of solar panels here, it was more or less empty, and even if there was anyone it would not be a model student.
Because Raira Academy did not have a significant population of ‘delinquents who looked like delinquents’, the rooftop was open for access – but in this area around the solar panels there was a unique tension not to be found elsewhere.
“Yeah, I was thinking you might know something, Kuronuma-sempai.”
Yahiro, for all he was afraid of this atmosphere, pressed Aoba with his questions.
“I can’t believe he went so far as to say the Headless Rider’s favourite food is suzu castella, though. That was too much.”
Aoba answered his junior with good humour.
“Well, if you’re asking about where he is, I’d like to know myself. I called him the moment I saw that article.”
“Did he pick up?”
“No, either his battery was out or there was no signal…”
He cut off there, and, lips quirking, continued,
“Maybe someone brought him to a place with no signal…”
“If you chase after the Headless Rider, the Headless Rider will abduct you… was it?”
“Are you saying he was abducted by the Headless Rider-san?”
Yahiro blurted anxiously. Aoba narrowed his eyes.
“Oh… Headless Rider ‘-san’, huh…”
“Could it be you were with Kuon, and met the Headless Rider together?”
Caught red-handed, Yahiro was temporarily speechless.
But it was as good as confirming Aoba’s conjecture.
“You’re bad at lying, huh.”
Yahiro tilted his head, while Aoba answered cheerfully with a faint smile.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if you’ve met the Headless Rider, but there’s one thing I can say for sure.”
“What is it?”
“The Headless Rider isn’t the kind of human to kidnap anyone. …Though they’re not even ‘human’ in the first place… But there’s no need to complicate things, so let’s leave it at that.”
He spoke as if he had been familiar with the Headless Rider for a long time; Yahiro cocked his head.
“You like tilting your head, huh.”
“Ah, sorry. There’s still a lot of things I don’t know about Tokyo…”
“It’s nothing to do with Tokyo, but sure. …Well, it’s probably fine to eliminate the Headless Rider from the suspect list. Even if they had reason to kidnap someone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose.”
With a self-deprecating smile, Aoba continued to describe his own impression of the Headless Rider.
“To put it simply. In a nutshell… The Headless Rider is a good guy.”
“A good guy?”
“More so than most. They might be driving without a license, but if they see anyone in trouble, they’re more likely to step in and help than even regular humans.”
“Do you know the Headless Rider, Kuronuma-sempai?”
The question should have been expected, but Aoba smoked through it:
“It’s not like we’re such good friend you can ask me that, right?”
“With some thought, Yahiro bowed his head obediently.
“You’re right. Thank you very much.”
“Ah, you didn’t argue.”
Aoba shrugged, seeming somewhat disappointed.
Just as his junior was about to turn around and leave, Aoba stopped him, saying:
“Oh right. There’s one more piece of information I can give you.”
“Do you know where Kuon lives?”
Evening. Somewhere in Takadanobaba.
“So this is… Kuon-kun’s home…”
Yahiro murmured, looking up at the building.
Yahiro, having gotten Kuon’s address from Aoba, had decided to visit with Himeka after school.
Despite his hopes that it was just a cold that kept him from school, Yahiro could not repress his fears.
The apartment building was a fair distance from the Takadanobaba station, and was taller than the neighbouring buildings; from the roof one could probably see most of the city.
As a building more than thirty years old, the security at the gate was lax, and there might not even have been a camera at the entrance.
Looking at the building, Himeka voiced her impression:
“It’s big, but it looks rather old.”
Yahiro asked automatically when Himeka said this.
Having come here from a village with no apartments to speak of in the first place, he was unable to differentiate between new and old buildings very well.
There were no cracks in the walls or anything; it did not look especially old compared to their school.
“Yeah… If a place so big was built recently, I don’t think we’d have free access all the way to the front door.”
With this, Himeka moved towards the interior of the building.
Still, there were no security measures; the model of the apartment was such that couriers could deliver goods straight to the door.
As they stood in the lift, the two of them discussed what they should say once they were at the door.
“What are we going to tell his family?”
“He was absent from school today, so we can just say we’re here to return a book to him.”
Himeka took out a book from her bag as she said this.
It was a book she had been reading occasionally during lesson breaks and such.
The title was Ikebukuro Fights Back.
“What book is that?”
“It’s an introduction to Ikebukuro. The writer is Tsukumoya Shinichi; there are some detailed sections on the Headless Rider.”
He had looked up information about the Headless Rider back in Akita, but that was mostly on the internet, and he had not thought of looking for books.
He ought to borrow it later, or buy it himself.
While Yahiro was thinking this, the lift came to a stop at Kuon’s floor.
This was written on the nameplate beside the apartment door.
“His… mother, maybe?”
‘Nozomi’ was most likely a woman’s name.
In that case perhaps Kuon was living with his mother.
As he considered that, Yahiro pressed the doorbell.
They waited for a while, but there was no response.
“…Maybe no one’s home.”
“Should we go back?”
Yahiro was about to agree with Himeka –
But suddenly he froze and looked towards the door.
Himeka faltered at Yahiro’s sudden statement.
But Yahiro leant his face closer to the door, and spoke such that anyone inside could hear:
“Excuse me, I’m Kuon-kun’s classmate, Mizuchi.”
He knocked lightly on the door, but still there was no response.
“Could you have mistaken?”
“No, I heard footsteps.”
Due to Yahiro’s unique brand of timidity and the magnificent history that had resulted from it, he possessed senses twice as acute as most people.
They had been numbed for a time due to the sheer crowdedness of Tokyo and the unfamiliar environment, but as he grew used to it his senses had regained their sharpness.
Armed gangsters closing in on him from behind or from the shadows.
Yahiro had detected faint sounds from nearby with that same sense of someone ‘holding their breath’, and concentrated further.
In doing so, he had heard something through the door, and realised that someone was inside.
“What should we do… I’m sure there’s someone… but why aren’t they replying…?”
In the worst case it could be the kidnapper, here to abduct Yahiro as well.
Yahiro, visualising Kuon’s corpse sprawled on the floor inside, began to panic.
“Should we call the landlord to open the door for us?”
”…There’s no way the landlord would open up just because we said we heard footsteps inside.”
Himeka calmly stared at the doorknob for a while –
And, sighing softly, said to Yahiro expressionlessly,
“This kind should be workable.”
“Kind as in?”
“Keep a lookout.”
Before he could ask, Himeka had taken out two slim metallic objects from her bag, and begun rattling at the lock.
At the sight of what Himeka was doing, Yahiro’s face paled and he flustered.
Yahiro swallowed; he had broken out in sweat. Even so, Himeka was unaffected as she put her hand on the doorknob, her face utterly placid.
“…I’m opening the door.”
Deciding to postpone his questions for now, Yahiro looked towards the door nervously. In the next moment, Himeka opened the door.
No one was inside.
Had he been mistaken?
That was Yahiro’s first thought, but his eyes caught something crouched in the corridor, wiggling.
More accurately, rather than wiggling, it was shivering behind an ornamental plant.
“Um, excuse me. We’re friends of Kuon-kun…”
Realising it was a woman, Yahiro chose to offer a proper greeting first.
“Are you Kuon’s mother?”
At that, the shivering figure – a woman with thick glasses – peeked out from behind the plant, and, looking up at him, stuttered shakily,
“Do… Do I look that old…”
The woman with the gloomy aura stood slowly with a hand on the wall to support her, and looked warily towards Yahiro and Himeka.
“W, wasn’t it… locked? How is it open…”
“We jiggled the knob a bit and the door just opened. It might have been broken.”
Himeka replied smoothly with this outrageous lie.
Yahiro’s eyes grew round and he was staring at her, but with a cool expression she asked the bespectacled woman,
“I’m sorry if it shocked you. Are you related to Kotonami-kun?”
With fearful eyes, the woman introduced herself:
“K, Kotonami Nozomi.”
“I, I’m Kuon’s… older sister.”
A few minutes later.
Yahiro and Himeka, who had been led to the living room and served snacks, had been exchanging glances, unsure what to say.
But being that the other party was sitting with her legs curled to her chest while pouring the tea, neither had been able to find an opportunity to speak up.
Just then, Kotonami Nozomi spoke in a tiny voice, without making eye contact,
“You must be, Mizuchi Yahiro-kun, and Tatsugami Himeka-chan.”
Yahiro was surprised she knew his full name although he had only introduced himself as ‘Mizuchi’. Himeka asked expressionlessly,
“Why do you know our names?”
“Of course I know. You’re the friends of my cute little brother.”
At the sight of Nozomi, who was smiling while still averting her eyes, Yahiro was somewhat disconcerted.
But without a hitch he accepted that the capital probably had people like this too, and continued the conversation without dwelling on it.
“Um, actually, Kuon-kun didn’t come to school today, so…”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Eh? So he was absent for a reason, right?”
“Yeah, there’s a reason.”
As she sipped at her own tea a dark smile spread over her face, and she said, happily,
“He was abducted last night.”
“…?””He was abducted; kidnapped. My brother Kuon.”
She said it so blandly Yahiro thought it was a joke, but he started as he remembered their earlier exchange.
“T, Then, you didn’t open the door just now because you thought we were the kidnapper?”
“Not really? I’m scared of strangers. I don’t open the door unless it’s Kuon or a deliveryman.”
Unable to understand what she meant, Yahiro turned to Himeka.
Himeka, calm as ever, asked Nozomi quietly,
“…It doesn’t seem like you’ve contacted the police about this, hm.”
“Yeah. I haven’t. Kuon would get in trouble, and I’d hate for the police to come into the house.”
She was swaying back and forth, and even now she was shivering slightly.
“Honestly, it’s already very stressful that people I’ve never met before are in the house right now, you know? I feel bad about my situation, especially since you’ve come all the way down…”
Gaze hovering at some point in the air, Nozomi took out a notepad and pencil, and pushed it across the table towards them.
“C, could you write your phone number here? Any one of you.”
—So she’s asking us to leave our contacts and go home?
—Well, we did break in, so that’s to be expected.
Yahiro interpreted the situation in this way, and with a look at Himeka, he wrote his own number and passed back the notepad.
“Th, thanks. Drink the tea. There are snacks in the fridge, so just eat, okay?”
Yahiro, who was expecting to be sent home, tilted his head in confusion.
Then Nozomi practically crawled out of the room, and slipped into her own room down the corridor.
“What’s happening… What should we do now?”
The two were exchanging glances when suddenly Yahiro’s phone rang.
Yahiro was surprised that an unknown number was calling, but nevertheless he picked up.
And then –
‘Yaho~! Doing good? Ah~, I’m so sorry we couldn’t talk properly just now!”
Only to hear the same voice that had been in the living room just now.
‘Ah~, we can finally talk! I’m really bad at talking face-to-face, see! I get so nervous I can’t talk properly! I’m really sorry! It’s not that I don’t like you! Actually I love you! I love you both very much!’
It was the same voice; yet so spirited it was hard to think of as the same person.
‘Yep, it’s me. Ah, do you know how to switch to speaker mode? So Himeka-chan can talk too.’
“Sorry, I don’t know how.”
After that, with some explanation, Yahiro was able to activate this new function of his phone successfully.
‘Hello~? Himeka-chan, can you hear me?’
“Yes, I can.”
“OK~! I can hear you too!”
Apparently by projecting the call through the speakers one could have a normal conversation. Yahiro was relieved, but in the end he could only wonder whether it qualified as a normal conversation.
After all: the other party was only a room away.
‘I’ll introduce myself again! Kotonami Nozomi! Kind of a shut-in, but I handle all the household expenses, so I’m not a NEET! I pay Kuon’s school fees and living expenses, too.’
“Are you a writer, then?”
Himeka said the first thing that came to mind upon hearing that she was a shut-in with a job, but was promptly rebuffed.
‘Nope, I’m not! Ah, but I guess it’s something like that, since I use a pen name and write articles!’
‘Yep, you can call it a handle, but since I’m writing, maybe pen name sounds better after all!’
Then she uttered a specific name across the receiver:
‘Have you heard of… Lila Tailtooth Zaiya?’
Lila Tailtooth Zaiya.
It was an odd name and it was hard to tell what country it could be from, but Yahiro had the feeling he had seen it before.
—I feel like I saw that name somewhere today…
Before Yahiro could place the memory, Himeka spoke up.
“…the ‘IkeNEW’ admin, right?”
‘Bingo! You’re absolutely right!’
“Ah – ”
Yahiro exclaimed as he remembered.
He remembered that during the lunch break his classmates had showed him a website that had reported on Kuon’s photo with the Headless Rider. It was a blog called IkeNEW, and the administrator was Lila Tailtooth Zaiya.
“Huh? What? But…”
‘Yep. That whole article was a charade by us~. You won’t be able to find the original blog, since it doesn’t exist! Everyone was completely fooled, isn’t that funny?’
“? ? ?”
Question marks were popping up all over Yahiro’s head.
A news article based on a fake journal?
Why would you do that?
And spread lies about the Headless Rider at the same time?
Is it really all right for a news site to lie?
In the end, who kidnapped Kuon?
Next to Yahiro, whose mind was occupied with ‘?’s, Himeka asked over the phone,
“Was it… so he would be kidnapped?”
‘…Oh? You’re very sharp.’
‘What’s wrong? Tatsugami-san. Do you have some idea who the kidnapper is, perhaps?’
To Nozomi, who had said such an odd thing, Yahiro answered, for now ignoring his own doubts:
‘Why do you say that?’
“If she knew who it was, she could have just told the police.”
‘I can’t believe I just heard something so straightforward and innocent in this day and age!’
Dry laughter came across the receiver; Yahiro tilted his head wondering if he had said something funny.
‘Yahiro-kun, you’re more interesting than I expected. Who do you think kidnapped all those people?’
Nozomi asked, clearly curious. Yahiro mulled thoughtfully for a while, before answering,
‘And why do you think that?’
“Um, I don’t have any basis, exactly… I was kidnapped in the second year of middle school myself, so…”
Both Himeka and Nozomi went silent.
Both were aware by now that Yahiro was not the kind of person to joke.
But as she did not know why he would be kidnapped, Himeka was completely unable to absorb the information, and even Nozomi, who was somewhat aware of the rumours surrounding him, was left speechless by the sheer extent of what he had said.
“Back then my grandmother talked to someone very important from that group and got me out, but I was very scared all along.”
‘You really are interesting.’
Then Nozomi said, under her breath:
‘I see~, so that’s why Kuon’s so interested.’
“Um, so in the end, is Kuon-kun safe? You don’t seem very worried.”
For all Kuon’s sister was the victim of this incident, Yahiro voiced his doubt directly. And she answered, nonchalantly:
‘Well, I don’t know if he’s safe, but he has his own plans, I guess?’
‘Since, just as our princess over there said… he got himself kidnapped on purpose.’