The girl is crying, terribly, fearfully. Oginome-san was loud, her shoulders shaking with every breath.
If it was any other day, any other person, he would ignore it. Cruel, whispers a voice in his mind, one that sounds like Shouma. They had followed her, bugged her room, listened to her ramble endlessly on Sensei, Sensei, Sensei. Really. Shouma needn't have complained so much. Kanba had only suggested breaking into her house, not breaking her neck.
And still. She had helped make Himari smile. Eaten at their table, in their house. He owed her. For Himari's life. For Shouma's life too, after the accident.
If not for that, he would not have hesitated, would not have thought twice and yanking the book from her hands and running. It was Himari, wasn't it, who had the greater need.
And still, Oginome-san offered it now. Freely, without resentment, and for Shouma's sake.
"Keep it," Kanba says."I will save Shouma some other way." He pushes the cover back into her palms, smiles as reassuringly as he could. He has had enough practice with that, when Himari would start to frown, her eyes uncertain, when Shouma would get that particular pinched look between his brows.
Oginome-san steps back, cradling the pink journal with one hand, scrubs quickly over her eyes with the other. "Okay," she says and straightens her back.
The chair creaks as the doctor leans back, his eyes closing. "Surely your brother's need was just as great. Are you so certain you would never need to choose between the two?"
Kanba resists the urge to sneeze. He hates it all. The sterile air, stickily tinged with plastic and alcohol, the urgent rattles of wheeling carts outside, faint but palpable.
He hates it all and yet. Unconscionable, to leave without stopping by once, twice. As long as he kept Himari well and alive, as long as their family was safe, that was all that mattered.
"Tell me," Kanba says, his hands in his pockets. "Is Shouma all right or not?"
"Ah." The doctor sits up, lifts a white-gloved hand to prop his chin. "He is. Naught but a scrape or two for his misadventure. So, a question for a question. Will you answer one of my own?"
By Kanba's foot, Number One squints at a page in front of him, rotates the magazine between flippers.
"Fine," Kanba says.
"Excellent." The doctor had one rabbit— no, two —on his knees. His hand strokes over one of the rabbit's ears, gently, delicately. "If two people fell from a boat into a river —shall we say, your mother and father— who would you rescue first?"
Kanba scoffs. "For all your learning, I don't see any licenses on your wall for psychology." Number One makes a similar sound through his beak, throws from a flipper a papery something which crumples to the floor.
"Oh," the doctor says, light, "just consider me a jack-of-all trades. You never know the knowledge that comes in handy for our patients. There are many, many odd cases a doctor can see during his stay here."
"I'd save both," Kanba says. "That is all. Tell me when you next need payment."
A doorknob squeaks in the silence and his footsteps stalk out, Number One trotting behind him hastily to keep up with his stride.
"Can you really?" The doctor lifts one rabbit to place it on the ground. Its twin stretches up, sniffing the tips of the doctor's pink hair. "Ah, young Orpheus. What dark song would you sing to make it so?"
Wheels squeak when the doctor stands from his chair, the last rabbit jumping off his knee with an offended air. A shoe moves to toe at the magazine near the door. "Oh," the doctor says, wrinkling his nose, "what frightful things young people read nowadays."
"Tell us, Kanba-kun."
"Yes, please do tell us!"
The girls' words fluttered, grew wings, their volume rising and circling. Their high voices, their rustling uniforms, their pleading eyes, all jostled for attention.
"Who will you choose? Who really has your heart, Kanba-kun?"
"Oi!" Another voice pipes up, the loudest by far. "It's too bad it's so crowded here." The girl skips forward, loops an arm through Kanba's right arm in a natural movement, like it belongs there. "Kanba-kun, you promised me already today! Let's go to the bakery already."
The other voices stop for a moment. "It's Yui-senpai," one mutters. A few resentful looks bloom, but the voices clear a path easily enough, a straight road through the hall and out the entrance.
Kanba walks willingly enough with her, out the hallway, past the school gates. He shakes her arm off two blocks from the school. "Who are you?"
The girl— Yui-senpai —stops and spins on her heels. Her brown curls float for a moment, then settle around her jaw. "Don't be silly. You wanted them to leave you, didn't you?"
She isn't bad company for the next hour or so, Kanba admits. She plays volleyball on the school team. Has a younger brother just starting junior high. She enjoys watching baseball too and has a taste for caramel desserts. At the bakery, Kanba buys Yui a slice of caramel castella and stops at the register, weighs his wallet in his hand.
He takes home a peach tart for Himari as well; Himari forgives him easily enough for being tardy to dinner.
Yui becomes his third girlfriend before the week ends.
The air around him hums, like water crooning from the rim of a wine glass. Golden halos turn, red beads rolling through.
"Butterflies flock to honey," the doctor says, holding something small and glass-like in his hand, a paperweight or a toy. "What happens in the winter do you suppose?"
"To the butterflies?"
"Not all survive, though some have developed tricks. The Nyphalis antiopa is a particularly interesting example. But below 35°C for a mere human is enough to provoke hypothermia." The doctor places the glassy object down and it slips in unseen among stacked papers, shadowy outlines on his desk. "Forgive me— you don't come here for an old man's rambling."
"I don't." There is a clacking in Kanba's pockets, something like marbles striking each other. He swallows, thinks he tastes bitter disinfectant. "Do you know a medicine to reverse memory loss?"
"Not my specialty, I'm afraid." A smile, glimmering indifference. "Is there someone you hope to save?"
Kanba does not speak for a moment. Only draws up his chin, narrows his eyes. Who are you, he does not demand, who are you, who are you. Those questions, which came in small drifting bubbles from the girls he once knew.
"Just make sure Himari gets her medicine on time," he says. Turns and disappears through the exit, dark coat sweeping around him.
"There can be only one princess in a castle," the doctor murmurs to himself, turning his chair slightly. "And if she prefers to keep dreaming? Her rescuer would be left outside, dreaming too."
A rabbit clacks his teeth together by the doctor's fingertips, bites down on a carrot lit magenta, lit cerulean, lit gold by the screens in the room, chopped into flickering strips of bright colors.
"No! Kan-chan, no!"
Kanba winced as fists slapped lightly at his shoulders, his reaction more to her voice than her blows. He tilted forward and adjusted his grip to avoid dropping Himari in the mud.
"Are you sure you are all right? We could take turns carrying her." Kanba twisted around, could not quite see his parents' faces in the dark.
"I'm all right Father." He was twelve now after all, much taller than Shouma when he had his height marked with all three of them, him and Himari and Shouma.
"Well, as long as you are not too tired." Mother's voice floated somewhere from behind his left shoulder. "Shouma, be careful of the step there."
On Kanba's back, Himari-chan sniffed. "I just wanted to stay a little longer. I wanted to see the festival."
Kanba stepped to the left to avoid a pothole, tried to ease his grip on Himari to avoid wrinking her yukata entirely.
On his left, Shouma too, had a similar disappointed look at Himari's words, but he shot Kanba a sympathetic look. They even had gotten dressed up, him and Shouma and everyone. Himari had been excited, talking for days and days about the anticipated splendor of yukatas, the smoky sweet snacks that would stain their tongues and hands.
Kanba had been watching the taiko drum players practicing, their muscled arms tensing when they struck the skins. Shouma had been nearby, mesmerized by the cotton candy an old lady spun, sugar and heat ballooning into a cloud as big as a melon. Both, nevertheless, had turned and rushed to Himari's side when she put a hand to her chest and started coughing.
First one minute, which stretched terribly to two, three.
She had just recovered from a fever a week ago. Mother and Father decided to usher them all home, worried about the night's chill and Himari.
"Sorry Kan-chan," Himari said a little later. Kanba could see the front door of their house in view, gray and crouching between the two buildings on its sides. "Sorry. I wanted everyone to see the festival together. You and Shouma-kun and Mother and Father. Sorry. I won't cry now." Fingers tightened into small fists around Kanba's shoulders.
The night was quiet. If Kanba strained, shouts and rambling crowds could still be heard in the dark; the sizzle of meat and clatter of hawking vendors, sandals, drums. All seemingly a thousand miles away, as far as the stars.
"Father," Kanba said suddenly. Himari had been lowered to the porch. Mother had swept inside, lights flickering on through the windows. "I think I left something behind at the festival."
Shouma, in the middle of rearranging his sandals near the front door, blinked at Kanba, and slightly frowned.
Father, however, had just turned, looked straight at Kanba. Kanba met his Father's stare.
Kanba came back one hour later, running, running, running. He held aloft a clutch of unlit sparklers in one hand and a candied apple in the other, glinting scarlet and sugar under their porch light.
Kanba was grinning, like he had slain a dragon, like he had saved a kingdom. He tripped forward towards the porch between Shouma and Himari, where the both of them had been waiting. In the air, fireflies drifted around their heads like a scatter of stardust.
A sound like a radio station murmuring, sleep-rusted and low. It hiccups. A heartbeat carries through.
"Careful with those supplies now. Glass can be tricky to clean." And with even more amusement in his voice: "Especially with skin and bone in the way."
"I can pay." The boy slips the roll of bandages beneath his coat. "And if I can't, they will."
Sanetoshi nods. "Of course. These are just hospital rules."
"Of course." The boy puts his hand on the door. Breathes a moment.
A ringing sound breaks into the air, a low, clear buzzing in the boy's coat pocket. The boy scoops it out from his pocket, glances at his phone. He pulls his shoulders back, face blank and cool as snow, and leaves.
"How impetuous," Sanetoshi sighs. Nearly admiring, if not for the note of distaste, a prickling repulsion beneath. "But what else would a knight do? And if he falls to despair, what then?"
"Why?" asks a child with hair black as ebony, a ribbon red as blood.
"Why?" asks another child with hair black as ebony, eyes as red as blood.
"Why indeed?" Sanetoshi echoes, waves a hand though the air like a careless conductor. "For his lady is searching for a rose, the reddest rose in all the land. Without it, she is gone. This is not a battle he can win, as splendid a fighter as he was."
"Splendid," a boy says. A rabbit ear swung up, went down and up again like a loose TV antenna.
"A splendid tragedy." Its brother slaps its hands together, again and again. A repeat performance from its twin pushes the applause through space, bouncing back from the corners of the room.
Sanetoshi bows his head, his eyelids closing.
Somewhere, a boy forgets himself. Places the dagger, the thorn, the talon against his ribs, gleaming, heart-hungry.
Your attention please, a voice beyond him says. Please do not leave luggage unattended anywhere on the station. Any unattended luggage will be removed without warning and may be destroyed.
"The last volume of this series, you say?" Sanetoshi turns, his white coat flaring with his movement. "I'm afraid it's out of circulation at the moment. A pity, for some would say it is a fine tale."
His hand rises, taps some unknown rhythm over the rows, spines upon spines of stories. Each row presents a neat label beneath a certain group. Madness. Malice. Mercy. Miracles.
His fingers stop, flick once against a book, its title too dim to read. The spotlight around him is bright, far too glaring. "You would ask after my own story? How electrifying."
He snaps a finger. The light goes off. He grins; a languid crescent of teeth, white in the rising dark. "Where would it be in here?"