This page contains translations for the Symphonic Rain side stories that were on the Digital Picture Collection disk. Don't read them before finishing the game, as they contain massive endgame spoilers. I'll fill in the others as I finish them. They're not edited as of yet. You can find all seven sidestories in Japanese here.
For all side stories:
Writer: Maoto Nishikawa
01: It begins to rain.
The toy piano was emitting a melody; the notes completely out of tune. While it was true it was but a small, old piano that hadn't been tuned in the slightest, that was not the only reason for it to produce these kind of tones. Torta was currently playing it. Certainly, her skill at playing piano did not match up to her singing abilities, but, considering that she learned how to play to accompany her songs, her skill level should have been beyond satisfactory. And yet, right now, I could barely stand to listen to it.
"... Ari," Torta sobbed. She was sitting at a slight distance from the bed, her back turned to me. It was supposed to be me who was watching Torta play - yet I was not myself at present. There was a reason I was here. Why Torta was crying. Why Chris had forgotten all about me.
Everything began on that fateful day...
Chris had called out my name many a time by now. A small crowd had formed around the blazing car. The rain that had started to pour down sometime along the line was now clattering down on my and Chris' bodies.
"... Arietta...," Chris muttered endlessly. There were some among the crowd who called out to him, yet he paid them no heed, and continued to intently stroke my hands, my back and my face. His fingers were shaking. There was surely not a soul among the bystanders who understood the meaning of his conduct. But it should have been painfully clear just what was on his mind at the time.
I was absentmindedly watching the scene from afar. My emotions were dulling; my shock, and even my sadness were threatening to slip away from me. It felt as though I was looking down on the spectacle from high up in the sky - until I realized that this was not merely a feeling.
"Hey... Chris?" I replied, but he did not respond. As I continued to call his name, I gradually stopped wondering why exactly it was that I could see my own body, or why it seemed like I was floating in the air. All that eventually remained was the reality of Chris crying his eyes out, and one last emotion of sadness within me.
I didn't quite remember what happened after that. I had somehow slipped into the ambulance that had carried off not my own body, but Chris', and I was now by his side. He had his eyes firmly closed. I attempted to touch his hand, his shoulder, his face, but all it served to do was remind me that I had not even arms of myself. Back then, I already had a vague apprehension of what had happened. To put it simply - I had died.
The only thing that I intently wished for at that moment was that Chris would not be too saddened by the ordeal.
Chris was now resting in a hospital bed. They had taken him to some kind of examination room and performed all kinds of tests, but he apparently wasn't too badly injured. I had heard the doctor mention something about his right eardrum, but above all, I just felt intense relief at the fact that Chris was all right. I had made it a point not to think too much about what had happened to my own body.
As I was sitting beside Chris, wondering whether there was even any meaning to my doing this or not, the door to the hospital room was violently swung open.
"Chris!" Torta stormed into the room, our father and mother - as well as Chris' parents - in tow. Apparently forgetting she was in a hospital, she came running up to Chris quicker than anyone else, and gripped his hand. It was something I had wanted to do most, but was unable to do in my current state. In fact, my entire existence was indefinite at this point. And the sight was like a thorn to my heart.
"The doctor told us he'd get better with some rest, remember?" said Chris' father reassuringly. Torta released a deep breath, then nodded. She then proceeded to pose the question I had least wanted to hear the answer to.
"... Then what about Ari?" Torta's voice had reduced to a whisper, as though her earlier excitement had all but abated.
This time, it was my father's turn to answer. "We... don't know yet. Just that she's suffered heavy trauma to her head..."
Torta tilted her head. "Where is she?" There was a childlike innocence in her voice. "Tell me, where is she?"
"... She's still in the examination room."
"I'm asking you where this room is!"
"Torta... what is the point in knowing that?" My mother opened her mouth for the first time since entering the room.
"I'm going to see her," Torta replied as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. She seemed to be desperately suppressing the emotions that had brought her to scream aloud only seconds ago.
"... You can't see her yet. Stay here."
"Where's that going to get us!?" she spat out this time. A myriad of emotions appeared and left her, leaving me to wonder which represented her true feelings.
"Going to see Ari isn't going to get you anywhere, either."
"But! ... But..." Finally, she began sobbing. I understood that that was the most dominant emotion within her at that moment.
It was about two days after that. I had seen off my own body being transported to a hospital room. After that, I had cooped up in Chris' room, as though to escape that reality.
Indeed, I was still there. I did not know whether I was dead or alive. Just that I existed. Nothing more. I could not talk, nor make physical contact with anything. Chris had not regained consciousness yet. Even if he had, it would likely change nothing for me. Hence, I simply snuggled up to him, continuing to avert my eyes from reality.
I heard someone knocking on the door. I knew it was Torta. She had come here yesterday as well, after all. The reserved manner of knocking, the overly lengthy pause before opening the door - it was exactly the same pattern.
"Chris... Are you awake?" Torta whispered softly. She continued to whisper his name, despite knowing it would not reach his ears. Then, she took a completely different action from yesterday.
"Then I'll be off to Ari's room. Get well soon so you can come visit her too, you hear?" I did not comprehend why Torta would say something like that. Torta... liked Chris as well. I was convinced of that. My disappearance was supposed to work in her favor. I followed in Torta's tracks before I could find a clear answer to that doubt.
Torta came to a standstill at a room numbered 212. She probably paused even longer before stepping inside than she did at Chris' room. Having not much of a choice, I, too, timidly progressed into the room.
"Ari... Arietta...?" I did not want to see anything beyond that. I did not want to see this girl, who was always so strong of heart, crying. She was born several hours after me, yet was always walking a couple of steps ahead of me. She was my beloved little sister - stronger than myself, and always supporting me.
'Oh, I see now,' I comprehended with surprising ease. This was exactly the reason that Chris had chosen me. Torta had everything - she was strong. I was her polar opposite. Because of this, Chris must have gotten the silly idea in his head that Torta did not need him. Now that I finally realized this simple fact, it was difficult to believe how much I used to agonize over this issue in the past.
"... Sis..." The mutter triggered me to raise my head. Torta very rarely called me 'Sis.' She would only do so in her weakest moments - in times she would approach even me for solace. I was probably the only person who knew about this weakness of her. Torta was aware of this fact as well - which was why she would only ever show her weak side to me.
'Sis.' The umpteenth time I heard that whisper, I felt that I had enough. If I died, Torta would surely be saddened even more than she was now. But this sorrow would weather eventually. And, provided enough time passed - although I did not know exactly how much time would be required - only joyful memories would remain.
At the same time, a voice in the back of my head screamed at me whether I could truly find peace in this conclusion. 'Are you really fine with losing your favorite songs and loved ones forever?' Such was the internal conflict that continued to haunt me for days to come.
The next day, Torta appeared in the hospital room carrying a toy piano under her arms. I was in Chris' room when she came to leave a brief salutation, and subsequently followed her back out. At the time, I was probably walking around on legs. Until right before that point, I had absolutely no idea what had become of me - the fact that I had a body at all had not even crossed my mind. Nevertheless, my body gradually regained its form, and I could not help but be astonished at the size and shape it had become. What could this body be? Why am I looking like this?
At that moment, Torta's sob-like singing voice came into hearing. The toy piano was emitting a melody; the notes completely out of tune. An infantile sound and voice completely opposite of Torta's character. It was sorrowful music that nearly brought me to tears.
"Hey... Ari. Wake up. It's my turn to make you better." A memory from our childhood days abruptly came back to me. I had once sung a lullaby for Torta on that piano when she had come down with a fever. And now, Torta was singing that very song to me. My mouth naturally began moving along with the melody. While I loved to sing, I was not gifted with the talent for it. And it was for this reason that I had learned to restrain my urges... or so I thought. For song spontaneously began to flow forth from my throat. My singing voice did not bear the slightest resemblance to my former voice. The tones I produced reverberated as though they were rushing through my entire body. I had become the person I had always wanted to be; singing the songs I had always wanted to sing. Suddenly, I saw myself reflected in a window for the very first time. Even though I never even had a reflection until now. I noticed that I had turned into a fairy. And while I had a hard time believing it, I had a recollection of this appearance. It was Fata. The foolish fairy who could not fly. Was this truly the form I wished to have? I could not deny it. So I decided to accept it. Despite still being unable to come to terms with my fate.
"I'll come again tomorrow." Torta's voice snapped me out of my reverie. An indescribable sorrow took control over my body. It appeared that, along with my physical form, my emotions were gradually recovering as well. Distress and inner conflict, too, slowly began to materialize.
Ever since that day, I would continue to journey back and forth Chris' room and my own. I had learned that there was not much to worry about Chris' condition, which had come as an incredible relief. However, I had also heard from the mouths of my parents that my own condition was worse than they had originally assumed. What would happen to me? Wanting to respond to Torta's pleads, I had attempted many a time to return to my own body. Since I had no idea how to go about this, I tried everything I could think of, from touching my own body to praying intently. But all I could do with this tiny frame of mine was to float a short distance above the floor and look on at the scene.
"... Ngh... Uh..."
"... Chris?" He had not regained consciousness for all this time, but now he was groaning. I immediately called out his name, but there was no sign of him noticing. Hence, I assumed that my voice was unable to reach him, either, but...
"Ah... Uh... Ari?" Chris looked directly my way with narrow, hollow eyes, all the while calling out my name. A combination of happiness and fear floated across my mind. What would Chris think if he saw me in my current form? Ultimately, it might have been for the best if he had just muttered my name in delirium. However, considering that he had his sight straight onto me, I could not imagine this was the case. Before his eyes had the chance to witness the harsh reality of the matter, I ran away from him. I jumped down from his pillow and glided to the floor. I had already gotten accustomed to my current form to the point I could pull this off casually. It was then that I heard a clicking sound in the distance. The door opened, and Chris' parents entered the room. I should have been in their line of sight, but as expected, they were unable to spot me. While I did not understand what made Chris and other people so different, it had become painfully clear to me just what kind of existence I had become.
"Ah... Chris... Are you awake?" Chris' mother timidly shuffled to his bedside and bended over. I could not really see from where I was standing, but she was probably embracing him. Relieved, I moved underneath the bed, outside Chris' line of sight. To my small physique, it was quite spacious and dusty underneath. I doubted my own action of hiding for a short moment, but when I heard Chris' father's voice in the next, I realized I had done the right thing.
"... Chris. How do you feel?"
"Huh? O-Oh... I'm fine... I think." After a short pause, Chris continued. "My ears hurt... but..."
"What am I doing here?"
"You... got into an accident. You don't remember?"
"I... don't. An accident?"
"Y... Yes..." Chris' father hesitated in bringing up my name. He must have known he would get questioned about it, so this was merely his weakness at play. However...
"An accident... Did I really get into an accident?" Chris never mentioned my name.
"Do you really not remember?"
"... No. I don't know how long I've been here, either."
"I-I see..." All three present in the room fell silent. "... Then you should try and catch some more sleep." He said it as though he believed that this would make everything all right again. I could hear the springs of the bed creak from my position, from which I assumed that Chris had obeyed.
"Let's step outside for now." The two of them started for the door with slow, heavy steps. I was still unable to infer what Chris had really meant with his words.
"Ah... Hey, can I ask one question?" The two of them stopped in their tracks, and turned on their heels.
"... What is it?"
"Was there anyone here in this room before you two arrived?"
"No, there was no one else here."
"... I see. Never mind then." They left the room without a further word. I still could not bring myself to move. Chris did not even ask about me. How is that possible? The word 'amnesia' quickly sprang to mind. I wondered how to put what I felt at that moment into words. It was a mix of relief and hollowness - a very strange feeling. How fortunate would it be for Chris if he had completely forgotten about my entire existence? Such a thought flashed through my mind.
And all of a sudden, I comprehended just how terrifying it was to be completely forgotten. I felt I understood now why the fairy from that story I read when I was small was so particular about this. I lost even the will to move, and felt I just wanted to disappear already. At the same time, I noticed my existence was getting increasingly diluted - I could no longer even see the palms of my hands. I wondered if this was also what I, myself, had wanted to happen. Just like the time when I first came to this hospital room, I had once again changed into some formless entity. All I could still perceive at the edge of my consciousness were the sounds of Chris turning over in his sleep and the unpleasant creaking noises of the bed that accompanied it - yet I remained adrift in this world.
If I had not heard Chris' voice that night, I might have disappeared for all of eternity. 'Ari. Arietta.' It was undoubtedly an unconscious uttering on Chris' part. But even if they were but words spoken in delirium, I needed them right now.
The next morning, the entirety of Chris' and my family were assembled in the room once more. The first person to speak up was Torta, asking Chris a question about myself.
"Chris... About Ari..."
"Yeah, about that... Didn't she come with you today?"
"Umm... No... Actually, what I wanted to ask was..."
"You... don't remember anything about the accident?"
"Dad asked me this as well yesterday. I don't remember a thing. When I came to I was in this bed... and my ears hurt..."
I had the feeling that I had regained the form of that fairy once again. And in fact, I actually had. When I glanced down at my palms, they were properly back in place.
"More importantly, what day is it today? Wasn't I supposed to go to Piova one of these days?" asked Chris in an almost carefree tone.
"It's already been five days since the day we were supposed to head toward the institute. You've been asleep for four full days."
"That long!?" Chris reacted in surprise to Torta's stifled voice. He did not seem to realize the one obvious fact that Torta was hiding from him. Even though anyone else in this room would have been easily able to deduce it.
"Anyway, you should rest for now." Torta left Chris with the same advice as his father yesterday, and started for the exit. The bed once again made a grating squeak, leaving me to conclude that he had taken her words to heart. Chris... had forgotten exclusively matters related to the accident. So was this not actually a good thing? He would not have to be tormented by guilt, and he might be able to forget me, in the true sense of the word. The time spent at the institute would certainly make this a possibility. He would be able to painlessly let go of a person that had naturally drifted far, far apart from him... I knew that this would be in Chris' best interest. If he spent three years close together with Torta, he would surely fall in love with her. It was what I feared most, but at the same time, I knew it was what would make Chris the happiest.
But... I don't want that!
That moment served as the trigger for me to gain strong awareness of this fact. I had no idea I harbored such intense emotions within me. But... But. It was plain as day which option would be best for Chris. I would likely never regain consciousness again. After all, my ego was right here. And no matter what I did, I was unable to return to my body. Then... what was it that I could do? Not for myself, but what could I do for Chris? I had to step down. If I did, Chris and Torta would surely attain happiness. Having made my resolution, I locked up the opposing voices in my head deep within my heart.
Ever since Chris had left this hospital room, I had been fading in and out of existence - at one time I was but a hollow being, the other I had returned to take on the form of a sprite. I had overheard the entire discussion between Torta and the others the day after they had learned that Chris had selectively forgotten everything relating to the accident. I had absolutely no intention of criticizing their ultimate decision. Because without a doubt, it would lead to the happy future I had pictured in my mind for Chris. Although certainly, his happiness was not in any way connected to that of my own.
And I had begun thinking. About what kind of existence I really was. I never lamented my own misfortune. I was simply desperate to seek out the significance of this form... this fate that was bestowed upon me. And at the moment I had finally come to fully accept my own death - I found my answer.
I wanted to be together with Chris.
I wanted to spend every last second of the time offered to this ephemeral life together with Chris. That was my honest desire. A wish that had been smoldering deep inside of me ever since that time I learned that Chris and Torta would be leaving for the institute.
I inwardly expressed thanks to God and left Chris' former hospital room behind me.
In the few days after that, I experienced arduous travels.
I had a small frame, and equally small steps. I continued to press ahead, at a pace only slightly faster than I would have when walking normally. I clearly remembered the address of the apartment where Chris would be living from now on. My first letter to Chris was already nestled safely in my drawer. I had written a lot of my feelings in that letter, but it would no longer reach Chris anymore. However, it looked like it served a good purpose in the end. Besides, I already had the road to Piova perfectly memorized. I could still vividly recollect the times in which I used to pore over train schedules and the like, as I had agreed with Chris that I would come visit him on Natale, or New Year's.
The pedestrians on the streets did not appear to be able to see me. At times, I would hitch rides by clinging onto someone's feet, and I even rode the bus. In this manner, it had taken me almost a full day just to reach the station. As a result, I did not make it in time for the last of the sparsely departing night trains, and was forced to spend the night at the station. However this mattered little to me, as I had learned how to make my body disappear and become a drifting consciousness. This body, that I had thought of as an inconvenience at first, turned out to be pretty handy. At times, I wondered why I had turned into a fairy, but I never managed to find an answer. All that occurred to me was the fact that I used to admire a fairy named Fata. And that might have been all there was to it.
The next day, I hopped onto the first train that departed. All that dominated my mind during the ride was Chris, Torta, and myself. I thought of what I should do from now on, or how I would explain my current form to Chris. I tried my best not to think of what would happen in three years, when Chris would graduate.
The moment the train had passed through the long tunnel, the landscape changed. I seated myself in front of a window and began staring outside. By that time, my thoughts had already solidified. 'I should simply be who I want to be.' That time I sang along with Torta's piano was still fresh in my mind. How wonderful would it be if I could continue to do the same along with Chris' Fortell? Singing songs, being forever by Chris' side... such was the merry future I pictured in my mind. A dream that was too good to be true. Hence, time available to me was limited.
Three years. I had thought of it as an eternity before, but from my current perspective, it just seemed so very short. But being able to interact with him at all was already nothing short of a miracle. I gave up on desiring anything beyond what I was given, and decided to view matters realistically. In the first place, I did not even know yet whether Chris would accept me. Perhaps it was conceited to think he would readily accept a mysterious fairy that suddenly appeared in his room without complaint. However... I had the feeling that Chris, of all people, would not have much qualms about it.
This premonition turned out to be on the mark. While it had not exactly gone seamlessly, Chris had accepted me for who I was. Or to be more precise, I was no longer Arietta at that time. He had given me a lovely name and accepted my existence in this world. Phorni. A fairy who could not fly. The conclusion to this tale would in no way constitute a happy ending for me. However, as long as Chris was happy, I felt I did not mind.
We had performed our first ensemble together. It almost felt as though the tones of Chris' Fortell were absorbed into my body. The same went for my voice. I probably had not really realized until now just what kind of sound I managed to produce. I could sense the sounds of my voice and Chris' Fortell mix and melt into each other with my entire being. This was by no means a figure of speech - I could literally feel it with my whole body. And what a magnificent feeling it was.
Before long, the moment that I had wanted to continue on forever had come to an end. It was already dark out. We had been performing with such intense fervor that it was hard to believe that Chris had only just been released from the hospital.
"Good job, Chris," I spontaneously called out to him.
"... Yeah, same to you." I initially felt a slight bit of worry at Chris' weary voice, but that feeling dissipated as quickly as it had come once I noticed the satisfied smile on his face.
I spent the entire next morning staring out the window. The sun had risen over a clear, blue sky. Which was also the reason that I could not shake what Chris had said to me yesterday from my mind.
"You can only ever see clouds in this town. It's always raining, year round, apparently."
"I see... So you didn't know about the rain." I would probably never forget the look in Chris' eyes as he said that. It was a look full of sorrow, as though he were staring off far into the distance. In my mind, his eyes overlapped with the eyes I had seen on that fateful day. He had been holding me in his arms, protecting my body from the icy cold rain, as he called out my name, over and over again... So, this may just have been an unconscious sort of atonement for him.
I accepted everything about his condition, as Chris had done for me.
That same morning, he turned to me, and said:
"Since I believe I forgot to mention this before... I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, my fellow roommate."
02: A trick coin
A nostalgic wind was blowing. Stained walls and narrow alleyways filled my view. I stepped out of the car and took a healthy intake of the air.
"What are you doing? We are pressed for time. Head inside and start preparing."
I could excuse myself by explaining that this place is precious to me, but Father would not lend an ear to it. This yearly routine had started since I learned how to play the Fortell properly. He surely couldn't understand how much I was looking forward to this moment every year. Not now, not ever.
"I am ready at any time."
I looked over my shoulder at the girl as she casually replied as such. This year would be a little bit special. I would never have dreamed of being able to perform with Fal, the girl whom I admired so much. I was thankful to Father for bringing her along, as well as to her, for taking out the time to be here with us. I quickly managed to snap out of the sentimentality of having returned to the place I was born and raised, readjusted the Fortell case on my shoulder and replied.
"I... I am ready as well."
I followed in Father's tracks as he entered the orphanage, giving me not a second glance. Fal smiled at me faintly, then disappeared into the building ahead of me. I looked behind me once more, gazing over the quiet alleyways. The articles of laundry hung up on cords were dirty and frayed here and there, but the sight filled me with such nostalgia that I couldn't help but spill a smile. When I entered the slightly musty interior, I spotted Father talking to Ms. Azziro, the Mother of the orphanage. Although, it appeared he was simply placidly nodding to her verbal shower of adoration.
Right after classes ended this year, the three of us have been going around orphanages, giving benefit performances - a common undertaking for noblemen. Some say it is merely a selfish publicity stunt. But I know for a fact that this is not all there is to it. Even if Father doesn't have such intentions, I believe we are doing a wonderful thing. A glance at the stares of the children as I set up my Fortell was enough to convince myself of this. They were eyes brimming with admiration.
Once, I had looked at the musicians Father had brought along to this orphanage in the same way. I didn't necessarily feel that I wanted to become just like them - I simply loved the music that was woven together by their voice and Fortell. I'd often wished to be able to sing just as well as they could. In the end, that wish was never granted, however. Still, I believed that it would be the height of arrogance to feel regretful about what I'd become. After all, the lifestyle I had been granted was one that did not even compare to the life I had lived here. I couldn't bear to feel regret whenever I looked at the children here. My wish to sing was surely nothing more than egoism. I had had the talent of being able to play the Fortell bestowed upon me - I had to accept this with pleasure.
At least, I was supposed to. I was reminded a little bit of the person who had told me it was okay for me to sing.
The table that furnished the center of the room had already been cleared away, and rows of wooden chairs were neatly lined up. I noticed the eyes of the children upon me, and immediately after my gaze collided with Fal's, who was staring at me curiously.
"Ah... I-I'm sorry."
Fal chuckled. "Anyway, let us begin. It appears they are waiting for us," she whispered, a smile affixed to her face.
I suddenly realized that all preparations had already been completed. Behind the rows of chairs where the children were sitting, Father lowered himself on a noticeably high-grade chair, and shot me a dubious look. It appeared that I had unconsciously been preparing my Fortell even as I was lost in my reverie. The chain of actions had seemingly been ingrained into my mind already.
"T-Then let us start."
I averted my gaze from the many eyes that were focused upon me, and faced Fal. The first time I had performed together with her was when Father had called me to his study, right after the end of classes at the institute. And although it was only for a period of three days, we practiced often and long. We were well-adjusted to each other. I looked her in the eyes, then nodded faintly. I brought my fingers to the keyboard and began playing. Soon, Fal's pristine voice overlapped with the Fortell's tones, leading in a beautiful melody. A quick glance at the faces of the children made me feel a bit relieved. And at the same time, the manner in which Fal was singing made me feel a little bit envious.
What floated across my mind right then were the truly gentle tones of Chris' Fortell.
After everything was over, I lowered my fingers from the keyboard and breathed a sigh of relief. While I hadn't been able to sing, I felt at peace just listening to Fal's voice. I raised my head and considered what to say to Fal, but that action was cut short by the sudden roar of applause. The eyes of the children were sparkling. Behind them, Mrs. Azziro was smiling. Father was looking stern as usual, although it appeared that the corners of his mouth were turned up a little. He usually would rarely ever show such an expression - did this imply that he had truly liked what he saw today? Even if that was the case, I didn't believe this was due to my own abilities. It had to be that Fal's voice simply was that magnificent. After all, the only thing different from my usual, emotionless performances was that this time, I had thought of someone else as I played.
After having received a cordial welcome from Mrs. Azziro and the children I was once a part of, I was left alone in my room. There were electric lights installed, but it was common practice here to spend the evenings by candlelight. With a nostalgic, quivering light in the background, I sat down on a stiff cushion on the lower compartment of the bunk bed, and hung my head. No one would be sleeping in the upper bed today. Mrs. Azziro had prepared this room for me in a gesture of extreme hospitality. Last night, I still slept at the same hotel as Father and Fal, but it had been arranged that I stay the night here, part of the reason being that this is where I was raised. And while I wasn't sure as to why she'd chosen to do so, Fal was also sleeping here, in the room next to me.
The time I spent here eating the food lovingly prepared for us and talking to the children I had made friends with many years ago unwittingly soothed my heart. I would talk to the children about the Piova Music Institute, which I began attending this year, and about the Fortell. I felt I was just repeating the same things every year, but seeing their faces light up whenever I did, I became unable to refuse. In other words, I was the target of their envy. Whether I wanted to or not. The children here had nothing. Which is why they admired the life I had been granted - a life that was but a distant dream to them. They didn't know just what kind of life this entails. But even if they did know, they would likely yearn for it regardless. The meager dissatisfaction I harbored was laughable compared to their misfortune.
"... But..." I swallowed the words I had unconsciously put into my mouth. 'But still, I want to sing.' How could I possibly be so conceited?
Back then, I was happy just being able to sing. I liked singing on my own, but what I liked best was to sing along with Mrs. Azziro's piano playing. It felt like I was connected to someone, that I was creating something with someone. Because of this, I always badgered her to teach me how to play the piano, but she told me I was still too small for that, and didn't even allow me to touch it. It was then that my eyes fell on a Fortell that had been left behind in a corner of a room.
Thinking back on it, I wonder what would have become of me if I hadn't touched that Fortell back then. If I had been taught how to play the piano after having grown up a little, I would surely have become a completely different person. Perhaps I would have become an attendant at a small store somewhere in this town. However, reality was different.
It was a very, very old Fortell, donated by some famous nobleman - it might even have been my stepfather. An instrument that wasn't properly tuned, and that no one could play, left in a corner to collect dust like some forgotten ornament. I removed my eyes from the piano and walked up to the magical instrument. And then I touched it.
Ever since then, the people around me started looking at me differently. My life had been thrown upside-down the very moment the poor tones flowed forth from the instrument. I had heard about noblemen going around orphanages to give benefit performances, but there were just so many orphanages around that one should have been lucky if a nobleman were to come around in the span of ten years. Yet in that same year, Father had come.
Time appeared to elapse very quickly from that moment onward, to the point that I now had trouble just remembering the things that had happened. It was decided that I would become Father's adopted child, and I was sent off by envious looks from my peers. A choice of refusal was never given to me. Everyone talked to me with sparkling eyes, certain of my happiness. Before I knew it, I was swept into my current lifestyle as though having been swallowed by the current of a river. I... didn't regret any of it. There was absolutely no way I could. I...
"... I am happy."
Yes, just like everyone told me I would be.
The mutter dissolved into the air, never to be heard by anyone. I blew out the candle, quietly got on my feet and slipped out of the room. I tip-toed through the dark corridor toward my destination. The children were likely already asleep. Beyond the wooden flooring of the corridor - which creaked with every step no matter how careful I walked - lay the living room. The room wasn't spacious, but certainly not confined, either. The instrument was still looming in the corner. The only difference from when I had first discovered it was that there was now a pretty cover draped over it. The first time I had come back here for a visit after having left, Mrs. Azziro told me with a bright smile that this instrument was their hope. The hope of the children who had been doomed to live out their lives in this place. My name would likely never be forgotten at this orphanage. The girl who had grasped ultimate happiness. 'If you are capable of playing this instrument, you will surely become happy.'
I carefully removed the cover from the instrument and lightly touched the keyboard. 'Here is where it all began,' I thought.
"You weren't asleep yet?"
"Huh? Oh... Fal."
"Won't you get scolded if you play this late at night?"
"... No, I didn't intend to play..." I immediately released my hands from the instrument and faced the girl.
"Is that so," she said, then simply smiled, never asking me for a reason.
I felt that I had to say something, so I looked for the right words. It occurred to me that I still hadn't heard the reason why Fal had decided to stay here.
"Fal... why are you here?"
"Hm? Oh, I couldn't sleep. I wanted to go and get some water, when I noticed you in the hallway."
"Are you having trouble sleeping as well?"
"... Yes," I replied honestly, then picked up the cover, wanting to put it back over the Fortell. However, Fal took my hand, as though intent on stopping me from doing that.
"Why don't you play for a bit?"
"But it's late..."
"It'll be fine as long as you don't play too loudly. Everyone was tired - they should be sound asleep by now."
Fal had managed to mingle in with the children quickly - unlike myself, who was only looked up at in admiration. She had only been looking on from a distance at first, but her smile apparently held a mysterious power. A small crowd soon surrounded her, and the radiant sight of her playing with the children until late at night was projected into my retinas. She was different from me. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was simply far too different from her. And only in a bad way.
"Could you at least play a lullaby, then?" Fal said, noticeably bothered by my long, unnatural silence.
"N-No, it's not like I don't want to play..."
"Then why don't you try? I'll sing along in a subdued voice."
She chuckled mischievously, then took the cover from my hands and neatly folded it. I nodded to her, feeling motivated now that I knew I could hear her voice again.
"Thanks. I didn't think I'd be able to fall asleep without releasing some tension," said Fal as she sat down at the table, looking relaxed - it didn't appear that she was intent on singing with all her heart.
Taking this as a cue, I very cautiously began to play some notes. The faint moonlight pouring in from a window high up highlighted her figure. Illuminated by this fantastical light, Fal closed her eyes and began to sing softly. I similarly closed my eyes upon hearing the subdued sound.
Our tiny little concert continued on without end. My own despicable feelings of jealously thawed away before the bliss of being able to listen to her sing. I wished our time spent in unison could last forever. But times invariably come to pass. Whether they are times of happiness or times of sorrow.
"... Phew. That felt good."
"Yeah, same to you."
As we took a moment to soak in the trailing reverberations of the lullabies we had just performed, Fal suddenly spoke to me in a casual tone of voice.
"By the way, it seemed your Fortell sounded a bit different from how it did yesterday..."
"Did something happen?"
Fal returned a silent nod, waiting for me to respond. If she had felt there to have been a change, then this was undoubtedly the case. But the only differences I could think of were the fact that this is the place where I was raised... and that this had caused me to be strongly reminded of Chris. That day, I had bid my farewell to Chris. 'Please don't come here anymore,' was the cold-hearted phrase I had uttered. And he had complied with this. If I had continued singing, it would only have caused Chris trouble in the end. So I had made the right decision. And that was all there was to it.
... But in truth, I might have been hoping that he would come again regardless. In the back of my head, I had made the sneaky calculation that he might still care about me in spite of what I said. Which was exactly why I simply couldn't forget about it. The times in which I was allowed to sing were indeed times I was truly happy.
"I knew it. Something happened."
I was snapped back to reality by a tone of voice of the same degree of softness as when she was singing.
"Is this the place you were born?"
"... Yes. Did you know?"
"I do now. Although I did hear beforehand that the place you used to live was among the orphanages we were going to go around. Is that why there's a difference compared to yesterday?"
"... That might be part of the reason." While I hadn't intended to lie, I forcibly expelled Chris from my mind.
"Then I suppose it will be my turn tomorrow," Fal muttered with a bashful smile.
The place Fal was born and raised; it is likely to be the orphanage we are visiting tomorrow.
"I'll... have to put in even more effort tomorrow," she said to no one in particular, then showed me a face more earnest than I had ever seen from her before.
She was likely the target of children's hopes as well. A true beacon of hope, unlike me, who was simply in this position because of sheer luck - calling it talent would be presumptuous. Before me stood a truly ideal individual - one I could not admire enough. A person who had come to see me despite me having implored her not to. A person I loved, and greatly looked up to. The person I had always wanted to be.
Liselsia Cesarini was watching me, basked in the dull moonlight. The burning envy I sensed in her eyes filled me with a mix of satisfaction and irritation.
"... What's the matter?"
"N-No... it's nothing. It is already late, so shall we go to sleep?"
I watched her shuffle back to her room. There walked a truly ideal individual - one I could not envy enough. A girl who had been adopted into an aristocratic family, living an affluent life. I didn't know how much effort she had ever put in, but I had been able to fight myself into the same position as she was standing of my own strength. I have never once regretted the amount of time and labor I have poured into this cause. However, if I had happened to have the talent to play the Fortell, and had been adopted into a family of nobility like her... then I had certainly been able to get even closer to the person I truly wanted to be. I would have been able to devote all of my time only to myself. In that sense, one could say that Liselsia was the person I had always wanted to be.
Her figure disappeared from my vision. And I had to admit one thing: her performance today had been truly captivating. Her tones reminded me of Chris Vertin's. I even felt that she had managed to move me emotionally, to an extent. However, back when I performed together with her after Natale, I hadn't been able to sense any of this at all. Then what could have been different this time? And if I figured out the answer to this, would I be able to fix my own imperfections as well? There seemed to be merit in asking her about it. Although I could no longer do this today.
I realized that I was allowing myself to be dragged along by recollections of the past far too much. Even if it was a place I never wanted to return to, I only had to endure it for a day. After all, there was no doubt that this performance would prove beneficial to me in the end.
I got myself together. Before returning to my room, I dropped by the washing room to look at myself in the mirror.
"... Stay cool now."
The following morning, we had had breakfast at Lise's orphanage, and then we had been picked up by Grave. The car had been speeding along for around an hour by now. I averted my eyes from the familiar scenery outside, and spent the time pretending to read a score I had retrieved from my bag. I realized that, no matter how long I continued to deny reality, I had to face it eventually. But...
"... Fal? It looks like we're almost there," Lise said to me with a smile, clearly under the impression that I was actually looking forward to this.
I was unable to manufacture an appropriate expression for an instant. Noticing this, Liselsia silently looked back the other way. I mentally kicked myself for slipping up; something that, under normal circumstances, would never have happened.
"... I see. Thanks," I just managed to answer.
Liselsia produced a gentle smile, and told me, 'It'll be okay,' in a subdued voice. Thankfully, it appeared that she was under the impression that nervousness was the cause for my behavior. Then again, this probably really was half of the reason.
"Then let us go," Grave announced as he pulled the car to a stop.
Doing my best to form a near-expressionless smile on my lips, I opened the backseat door.
Right then, Liselsia, who had stepped out of the car before me, leaned closer to me and whispered, "Please go on ahead."
She still had that aggravating smile on her face, perhaps thinking she was being thoughtful to me. But... even so, it made me feel a bit better. Because my emotions had flared up at once, I was now able to keep my composure.
"Thanks," I replied, and passed through the front door of the building with feelings somewhere between nostalgia and revulsion.
What immediately caught my eye were the filthy walls and the laundry hanging from clotheslines. The stench of mold and sweat penetrated my nostrils. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. When I reopened them, I felt confident I had returned to being my former self.
Looking further down the hall, I spotted the person who was once my guardian, knitting at a table full of scratches and chips. Immediately noticing her visitor, she stopped what she was doing and turned this way. She then came trotting toward me, arms spread as though inviting me for a hug.
"Oh my, Fal! I've read your letter. Thank you so much for coming!"
"... It's been a while, Mrs. Modesto."
With a controlled smile, I accepted the embrace, spoke to her warmly, and patted her on the back a few times. She did the same with me. We then separated and looked each other in the eye.
"Umm... G-Good day..."
Liselsia timidly spoke up behind me. She was probably shocked by the filthiness of this orphanage. The place Liselsia had grown up was heaven compared to here. This was not a place operated as pastime for some rich nobleman.
"Oh? Quite a cute girl you have as your partner."
"Lise, you're agreeing with her."
"Ah... I mean... No..."
I chuckled. "... It's true, though."
Amidst the relaxed atmosphere of the meeting, I was unable to ignore the gazes fixed upon me. I was projected in the eyes of the many children here. Was it admiration? I couldn't imagine. I had to be something far more ugly - most were likely looking at me with jealousy. After all, that was exactly how I had looked at the orchestra that had come to perform at this place once in the past. If this was a place like the orphanage we'd visited yesterday, then it probably wouldn't be that bad. Over there, the children were properly provided three meals a day, and there were enough warm blankets to cover all of their bodies in full. Over here, there was no such luxury. I've run away from this place before, unable to take it any longer. I've even once roamed the alleyways, singing, and using the little money I earned to live.
"... Huh?" Suddenly, one of the children was pulling my sleeve.
"Did you go to the music institute from here?"
"... That's right."
It was an innocent question. I would estimate the girl around eight years of age. She was emaciated and wore tattered clothes. How could she possibly smile like that? How could she possibly look at me like that? It was a look of pure admiration - a way in which I hated to be looked at the most. Just hate - hate the world for having put you into the environment you are in. Just envy - envy the people more wealthy and blessed than yourself.
Such is how I have always lived. And it has gotten me to where I am now. I have always been looking up, putting in the effort to struggle to the top... which was why I had the right to tell this child the following.
"You can make it as well - provided you put in the effort. If you work at it hard enough, you can do anything you want."
And you must never forget: orphans like us can do absolutely nothing without desperately fighting for it.
Liselsia looked at me, almost tearing up. She would likely never come to understand the true meaning behind my words. Reality was not quite as pretty as they might have suggested.
"Enough chit-chat. Start your preparations."
I was thankful to hear Grave's emotionless voice right now. I immediately replied, turned my back to the little girl, and began preparing. Grave did not sit in the chair that was prepared for him, nor even leaned his back against any of the walls. He probably didn't want to touch anything belonging to this orphanage - it was not suited for the world he lived in. While I felt some disgust at his attitude, it did not change the fact that that was the kind of world that I was aiming for. Liselsia was apparently still moved by the charade from before, and secretly shot me glances every now and then as she prepared. Her gaze felt the same as that of the little girl before. How come these people insist on making me feel terrible?
"Then let's begin."
I kept my eyes fixed on Liselsia, which helped me to escape the gazes of the children sitting in the room. At last, the Fortell started emitting a beautiful sound.
"Hey, will you really not stay the night here?"
"... I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Modesto, but..."
I carefully scoured my surroundings, making sure not to lock eyes with any of the children. If I made even the slightest of disagreeable expressions right now, her opinion of me would no doubt plummet. But I wouldn't make the same foolish mistake twice in one day. I refused her invitation wearing the most painful expression I could muster.
'Don't get me wrong - it's not that I don't like this place. But if I stayed here, there would be less food available for the children.' Such were the intentions I attempted to get across to her.
I'd managed to act the part perfectly, and accepted her farewell embrace. When I arrived outside, Grave was already seated in the car. Liselsia was standing in front of the door, probably waiting for me.
I quickly walked toward the car, not forgetting to look around a few times. I hadn't expected to hear a voice calling out to me from behind.
"... Hm? You are..."
"Won't you stay here today?"
The innocent and foolish girl from before was again pulling my sleeve. I felt an incredible urge to forcibly shake her off, but somehow managed to restrain myself. As I pondered a way of getting rid of that arm in a gentle manner, a voice came from inside the car.
"I do not have all day. It is not a bad idea to foster past relations. You should stay here. I will send a car to pick you up tomorrow morning."
With that, Grave closed the front window. All I could do was watch on in bewilderment as the car sped off without me, until it suddenly came to a halt again a moment later. As I was about to run over to the car, thinking he might have changed his mind, I realized that the child was still gripping my sleeve, forcing me to stay put. The car drove off again, this time leaving behind one Liselsia Cesarini.
"Umm..." Liselsia came running up to me and, panting like a dog, continued, "I will stay as well."
"... I see."
When I averted my gaze from her, the child's beaming smile filled my vision. Neither sight managed to make me feel any better. Before long, I was surrounded by Modesto as well, rendering me incapable of looking anywhere but to my feet.
"Fal, there's no need for you to hold back. While I won't be able provide you with much of a service, you will always be a child of this orphanage."
Clearly not realizing that this very fact was what was causing me to hang my head, she patted my shoulder a few times. I only just managed to utter an expression of gratitude.
"... Thank you... very much..."
I had felt terrible for the remainder of the day. A smile was the kind of mask I had gotten most accustomed to putting on, so something like this wasn't enough to bring it down. However, it had taken a lot more effort than usual to maintain. Their warm reception had felt like torture to me. It was late at night when I was finally released from it. I threw myself on my bed and shut my eyes. The bed was of poor quality. The smell of the sheets made me wonder when they were last washed. Feeling fed up with it all, I became unable to move.
"Umm... Fal?" It took me a little more time than usual to respond to that voice.
"... What is it?"
"If you are going to sleep, I think it would be best to change out of your clothes..."
"... I know."
We had no choice but to sleep in the same small room tonight. We had been assigned the largest room in the orphanage, but even then, the bunk bed - just big enough to fit two older children - took up over half the room.
"What is it?"
"Aren't you going to sleep yet?"
Liselsia probably misunderstood, considering I still hadn't changed out of my clothes. I honestly didn't even feel like doing that anymore.
"... Why do you ask?"
"I... was wondering if we could talk for a little bit..."
I considered refusing, but considering what had happened last night, I decided to bear it. I got up and seated myself on the edge of the bed. Liselsia was sitting on the chair next to a small desk in a corner of the room. The flickering candle atop the desk illuminated her profile.
"Sorry for stealing the bottom bed."
"That's okay. I actually prefer the upper bed." She produced a bashful smile. What was she so happy about?
"So what did you want to talk about?"
"... Ah... Umm... Good performance today."
"Hm? Oh, yeah, you too. And thanks for staying over as well. The children were happy about it."
"Oh, no... It was nothing..."
She probably stayed behind because she wanted to be of help to me, or something silly like that.
"Ah... So, about what I wanted to talk about..."
"Your singing was really wonderful today. It might not mean much to hear this from me, but... I really thought it was wonderful."
Truth be told, I barely even remembered anymore whether I'd sung here or not. All I'd been able to think of was how to get away from this place. I got the feeling I'd only been looking at Liselsia the entire time, wanting to escape the innocent gazes of the children.
"Hey, play some Fortell for me."
Liselsia chuckled, probably because of what had happened yesterday, and began setting up her Fortell. As I watched her cheerful appearance, I couldn't help but feel how much easier life would be if everyone was as easy to handle as she was.
"Go ahead and play something, then. I'll sing along."
Soon after, Liselsia softly began to play the Fortell. The tones had changed again compared to yesterday, but there was still something captivating about them. They no longer even remotely resembled the tones of Chris Vertin - so why did I feel this way? Completely forgetting to sing along, I simply listened closely to the melody, entranced. The very moment the piece ended, Liselsia glanced at me in wonder.
"Umm... What's the matter?"
"Was there something wrong with it?"
"... Not at all. Could you continue for a bit?"
For some reason, I was convinced that those tones had been addressed to me. Liselsia wasn't playing for herself, nor for anyone else - she was playing only for me, the girl in front of her. I wasn't lying to myself when I thought of her as easy to handle earlier, but I could feel something else as well right now. I felt strangely comfortable around her. It was similar to when I first heard Chris Vertin's playing, but there was still something subtly different about it. Asino described Chris' tones in one word as 'forgiving.' And if I had to express Liselsia's tones in one word, then it would be 'accepting.'
"Is that a habit of yours?"
Liselsia was looking my way. I hadn't even noticed she had stopping playing. I was surprised by that, but the question itself surprised me even more.
"... What is?"
"Well... Touching that pendant around your neck..."
Whether she was curious about why I wasn't singing at all or not, she didn't make this noticeable, and brought up something completely unrelated. When I shifted my gaze downward, I noticed that I was indeed touching the pendant. Because of its age, the surface was dirtied with finger marks, and its original ruggedness was almost completely gone.
I'd never really put much thought to it, but the sensation in the palm of my hand felt quite familiar to me. I stroked the pendant once more, as though reconfirming its existence. This was the second time anyone had ever brought up the pendant. The first time it was Asino Artiere.
"'Sullied wings as they may be, they suit you in their beauty.'"
His heart certainly wasn't as beautiful as his words. He would have been worth using if he had devoted his life to spinning together such words, but he was just a child of nobility in the end. He couldn't even muster the determination to give up playing the Fortell, for which he had no talent, and become the poet he wanted to be. I had no interest in people like that.
"You did a very good job today."
"... What's the matter, all of a sudden?"
"Umm... It seemed like you were having a very rough time."
She was right in a way, but she had no idea about my true feelings.
"I... want to be of assistance to you."
If her Fortell playing just now displayed her true abilities, then there would be more than enough merit in using her. I couldn't overlook the fact that that nobleman was her father, either. In fact, I had once attempted to bring her into isolation, and get her to become dependent on me. I would probably have succeeded eventually if only Chris Vertin hadn't come along. While it was regrettable that I hadn't been able to obtain him, it wouldn't be a bad idea to return to my original plan for now.
"You asked about this pendant, right?"
"This pendant is very important to me."
Liselsia silently nodded. It appeared she had anticipated that.
"It was my only possession when I was dropped off in front of this orphanage. The first belonging I ever had."
I gave Lise some time to let the importance of my pendant sink in, then slowly removed it from my neck. I unfastened the leather cord and let one of the two wings glide onto my palm.
"Do you have some kind of cord on hand?"
"A cord...? Umm..."
Lise searched through her pockets a few times, but apparently couldn't find what she was looking for. So, I shifted my gaze to her hair, making sure that she noticed the gesture. Realizing my intentions, the girl quickly untied the thin ribbon tied into her hair and held it out to me. I ceremoniously took the cord from her and pulled the faded silver wing through it.
"I want you to have this."
The blush on her face was noticeable even in the faint candlelight. She looked me directly into the eye. As I slowly extended my arms toward her neck, she closed her eyes and slightly tilted her head forward. And she muttered.
"I've... always looked up to you. I've always wanted to be just like you. You are the ideal individual I could only dream of becoming."
For a second, I honestly felt like killing her. She wanted to be like me? Did this aristocratic little princess - who had the talent to play the Fortell, had been taken in by a nobleman and was living out a wealthy life - seriously think she had any right to say that to me? This ridiculous fantasy of hers would come crumbling down if she spent even three days in Modesto's orphanage.
At that moment, the face of that ignorant child who had gripped my clothes came to mind. How could such a miserable child smile like that? She had no dreams, no hope - all there was for her here were days of manual labor and meals too meager to fill her belly. She had no place to return to aside from the filthy beds in this dump.
Liselsia had opened her eyes again, and was looking at me. My two hands were encircled around her neck, in a position where I could strangle that slender neck of hers if I so desired. It would be child's play to take her life right now - all I had to do was put some strength into my grip. However, I wasn't foolish enough to let such urges get the best of me.
"... It's nothing. I'm just not really used to this. You have a really pretty, slender neck, you know that?"
Lise's cheeks flushed a shade of red. A pure smile formed on her lips - proof that she had been blessed with an upbringing void of hardship. How dirty must I have been compared to her. But I didn't regret any of my actions. If I ever did come to regret them, I would have to apologize to all of the people I have used and betrayed over the course of my life. Like hell I would ever do that.
"This is yours now. Keep it safe."
Lise gripped the pendant at her chest, almost like I always used to do, and nodded a number of times.
"Let's go to sleep. You must be tired," I said, purposely never giving a clear answer to Lise's earlier question.
The next morning... or rather, right when the sun came up, I felt like taking a stroll outside. At this time, the children wouldn't be awake yet. I put on my clothes and quietly sneaked outside. The paved alleyways were slightly moist due to the morning dew. As I walked through the familiar streets, I spotted two small coins lying on top of some wooden crates piled up in one of the narrow side-alleys. I could still picture in my mind the children that used to play around in these alleys with surprising clarity. In the past, I used to enviously watch and the people coming and going from here.
I picked up the toy coins. They appeared to be made for trickery - one coin consisted of two heads, the other of two tails. The trick was to hide both of them in the palm of your hand, ask the other party whether they wanted heads or tails, and then to toss the one that you wanted yourself. I recalled having played this game myself when I was little.
Lise had told me yesterday that she wanted to become just like me. And I wanted to be just like her. I had calmed down now to the point that I could admit this to myself. It must have felt great to be able to live a pure life, accepting everything that came your way. But Lise and I were two completely different individuals. We were two faces of one coin, brought together like this. But...
I tossed one of the coins up into the air. I caught it on the back of my hand, using my other hand to hold it down. The answer was already obvious, but I still removed my hand to double-check. Heads. Even if I flipped it over, it would still be heads. I thought it might be fun to apply a trick like this to a certain someone.
"Ah, Fal. So this is where you were."
I turned around to see Lise standing there, her face flushed.
"Liselsia... Good morning. You're up early."
"Same to you," she said, panting like a small puppy. Her hair was tied up as usual again, with a brand new ribbon this time.
"Do you still feel the same about what you told me yesterday?"
"You said that you wanted to be of assistance to me... Did you forget?"
"N-No! I still feel that way!" she declared immediately, proudly presenting the pendant around her neck to me.
"Then shall we make a bet?"
"Hm? Huh? ... A... bet?"
I showed one of the coins to Lise and continued.
"This side is heads. I'm going to toss it up and catch it. You should guess whether it'll land on heads or tails. If you win, we will stick together from now on."
"It's a gamble. Now, will it be heads or tails?"
"But... what if..."
I softly called out her name. Realizing that this was the first time I had called her by that name, she blushed again.
"Heads, please," she stated with apparent determination.
I gave her a satisfied nod, then threw the coin up into the air. I skillfully caught it on the back of my hand and looked at Lise. She didn't seem to notice, as she was attentively watching the course of the coin with almost ridiculous zeal.
"... Well then..."
I slowly removed my hand and brought my arm up to Lise's face.
"It looks like you win."
"Ah... Th... Thank goodness..."
Lise breathed a sigh of relief. I turned around and started walking back to the orphanage.
"Come, let's return."
"Ah... P-Please wait for me."
After confirming the sound of her footsteps behind me, I tossed up the coin once again, calculating it to land about right in front of Lise.
"Huh? Ah... Wah..."
I didn't hear the coin hit the pavement, so apparently, Lise had managed to catch it.
"Keep it as a souvenir."
I gripped the double-tailed coin that remained in my hand. It bore a resemblance to the two of us.
03: The book of a fairy
'The fairy was unable to fly.'
Arietta abrubtly stopped fluttering through the pages of the book. She hadn't been reading very seriously, but something about the illustration of the small, adorable fairy in one of the short stories caught her interest. The fairy had tiny, faintly glittering wings on her back - her appearance differed significantly from any of the fairies from the stories she had read before. Arietta flipped some pages back to compare it with an illustration of another fairy, appearing in an ealier story.
"... I wonder what kind of fairy she could be?" Arietta muttered to herself.
She was around halfway into the collection of fairy-centric short stories, so her image of a fairy had already solidified in her mind, when suddenly this picture appeared. She began reading.
The story wrote of a world which no human could perceive. It is a known fact that a long time ago, when magic was still widespread in the world, fairies actually existed. They were few in number, but every once in a while, some individual was able to perceive one. This was how their existence in the world was established.
Most stories about fairies adopted and built on this common setup. However, this story was about one particular fairy, named 'Fata,' who lived in a land exclusively inhabited by fairies.
Arietta closed the book and walked over to the oven. A scent of baking bread wafted from it. Concluding that it still needed some time to bake, and looked at the clock.
"Around thirty more minutes, I suppose."
It would be finished exactly when Chris and Tortinita's practice session ended. This was no coincidence, as it was how she had timed it. Arietta prepared a basket so that she would be able to carry it with her the moment it was finished, then sat back down in the chair she had set up close by the oven. She quickly rediscovered the page she was on before, and eyed the illustration again.
The fairy's name was Fata. She had always been the subject of ridicule from the other fairies. Fata, who had been sickly since childhood, had a tiny frame and wings about half the size of those of regular fairies. However, ridiculed and pitied as she may have been, Fata was always smiling. This was because she had one little thing that she could be boastful about. Of all the fairies - who naturally excelled at singing - Fata's voice was particularly outstanding. Admiring her talent, her fairy friends would often come visit her - even when she was bedridden, recovering from one of her frequent colds, they would pester her to sing for them. And every time, Fata cheerfully obliged, and sang songs for them in a cracked voice.
At that moment, Arietta noticed a burnt smell wafting from the oven, and quickly jumped from her seat.
"... Ah, geez."
The bread she retrieved from the oven had been burned, albeit only slightly. 'Another failure,' Arietta grumbled under her breath, trying to scrape off the black parts with her nails.
While the bread had become a little disfigured, Arietta stuffed it into the basket anyway, having come to the conclusion that it was at least still edible this way. She checked the clock once again, made a fold into the page of the story she was at, and left the house.
"Ahh, such great weather."
Arietta glanced up at the sky while moving at a pace that didn't quite reflect the calmness in her voice. She steadily marched through the early-summer air, beads of sweat beginning to form on her forehead. Several cars were passing through on the street right beside the paved walkway. Since it was a holiday, there were relatively few cars on the road, but Arietta still had to protect the bread from the clouds of dust blown up by the tires. She shot a glance at the opposite side of the road, then covered the short remaining distance to the music classroom with a dash.
Arietta opened the door without knocking and stepped inside. She'd heard beforehand that the teacher wouldn't be present today. Since Chris, Tortinita and Arietta were the only students of this classroom, the teacher had entrusted them with a key to the house for times like these. That said, Arietta was only enrolled on paper, and by now almost never practiced together with Chris and Tortinita anymore. She only came to the classroom before nightfall on free days, to pick the other two up. Arietta herself was feeling some reserve about this, but at least for now she could still do it with a smile on her face.
While it was labeled a 'music classroom,' it was really just a small, remodeled room in a private house - from a glance, one would never be able to tell if it wasn't for the small, wooden signboard outside. Arietta progressed through the hallway toward the room in question located on the second floor. Once she had reached the door to the room, she stood still for a moment. She quietly opened the thick, soundproof door and peeked inside. At the same time the interior of the room came into view, the sound of Chris and Tortinita's performance reached her ears. She kept perfectly still for a while, just listening to the music. The expression that formed on her face was neither one of admiration, nor of jealousy. She was just intently attempting to pick up the sound as well as she could.
"... Hm? Oh, you're late today."
Chris abruptly stopped his performance and looked over his shoulder. He had had his back turned toward the door, but did he sense Arietta's gaze in spite of that? Arietta didn't act surprised, but just timidly entered the room.
"Are you done performing?"
"We just continued because you were late, and we had nothing better to do," Chris answered cheerfully, then began packing up his Fortell.
"You were late today. Did something happen?"
All Tortinita had to do before leaving was to put her foldable music stand back in its case - which it seemed she had already done, probably by the time they would have originally stopped practicing. She immediately stepped toward Arietta.
"... Sort of."
"Hm? This smell..."
Tortinita produced a mischievous smile. While it was a common occurrence that Arietta would bake them bread, she noticed something about the state of said bread.
"Don't tell me you burned it again?" Chris added jokingly, walking up behind her.
"... You say that as if it happens all the time."
"Yeah, I mean, it only happens one out of two times, after all!"
"B... But at least that's a better result compared to when you first started out, right?"
Chris interjected to Tortinita's sarcastic remark without a moment's delay. Even so, Arietta hung her head in embarrassment.
"Ah, I'm sorry, I was just kidding. It's actually only about one in three, lately," said Tortinita flatly. It hardly came across as an apology, but Arietta regained her smile all the same.
It had only been a few months since Arietta's sudden announcement that she would no longer be joining them for practice. And ever since that day, her ways of spending the afternoons had changed. While Chris and Tortinita were practicing, she would be busy baking bread, something she had loved doing since she was little. And after she was done, she would bring it here so the three of them could eat it together. This had become somewhat of a routine, so no one needed to ask her what she did on these afternoons either.
"Well, I'm sure the taste is great anyway. I'll have a piece."
Chris smiled, retrieved a piece of bread from the basket Arietta was holding and took a bite. This prompted Tortinita to take a piece as well. The three of them switched off the lights, went outside, and locked the front door.
"How is practice going? What are you playing these days?" Arietta asked on the way home.
Chris exchanged a glance with Tortinita and replied with a wry smile.
"The teacher has been making us play difficult pieces almost exclusively lately."
"You still have it easy. At least you don't have to memorize all those lyrics."
Arietta frowned ever so slightly at that. It was a change of expression so subtle that anyone who didn't know her as well as Chris and Tortinita did would never have noticed it. And Arietta, in turn, knew the other two well enough to realize that they had.
"I see... well, don't let it get to you. Unfortunately, the only thing I can do is bake you some bread," Arietta said with a forced smile.
It was most likely the result of her quitting that the teacher was now making them perform pieces that were better suited to their level of skill. She herself felt proud of them for being recognized for their talent, but it seemed Chris and Tortinita felt differently about it.
"... If you ever get tired of baking bread, you should come back."
"Yeah. I kinda miss hearing you sing, Ari," said Tortinita.
"There you go with the obvious sarcasm again. I know that I am just not--"
While Tortinita couldn't resist teasing her sister, she was also unable to hide her affection for Arietta. She interrupted her with a sudden embrace.
"Huh? Ah... ah!"
"You're always welcome, you know," Tortinita said, at the same time taking another piece of bread. "Bufh," she continued with her mouth stuffed, "isn't fhis fhe firsfh fhime in a while fhafh you burned one?"
Arietta briefly contemplated rebuking her little sister for her bad manners, but since the message came across clear enough, she decided against it.
"Oh... yeah. I was caught up in a book," Arietta answered honestly.
Hearing this, Chris also took another piece of bread and added, "Come to think of it, you've been reading a lot of books lately. What kind of books do you read?"
"Today... I read a book about fairies."
"Fairies? You mean those little things with wings?"
Fairies obviously didn't exist in the world they were living in. That said, it wasn't like there was absolute proof for this. A long time ago, when the world was still rich with magical power, fairies were known to exist. Their shapes and characteristics varied between tales, but all described them as singing wonderful songs, and soaring through the skies using the wings growing from their backs.
"It is a collection of short stories about fairies."
Arietta added that she had forgotten the title of the book.
"I wonder if they really exist?"
"... If only they did," Arietta murmured in response to Chris' idle doubt.
Even during dinner that day, the book wouldn't leave Arietta's mind. They had invited Chris and his family over for dinner, which was something they quite often did. The atmosphere was as relaxed and comfortable as it always was, but a large portion of the time Arietta just sat there smiling quietly, not really participating in the conversation. Once Chris and his family had left, Arietta immediately went back to the bedroom she shared with her sister, and opened the book of fairies. At almost the same time, Tortinita entered the room.
"Is it interesting?"
"Huh? Oh... yes, it is."
"I see. Well, I wouldn't want to bother you so I suppose I'll go play some piano."
Tortinita said it without ill intent - both girls knew that neither would consider the piano to be any hindrance. After that, the two of them didn't share a word anymore and began immersing themselves into their own worlds. Tortinita began playing the piano, singing along quietly, her voice no louder than a whisper. As if invited by this, Arietta lay down on her bed and returned to the world inside the book.
On days that she felt better, Fata would always try to go outside. Since her wings didn't function quite as they should, she was forced to walk almost like a human would, inevitably arousing the ridicule of the fairies around her. But Fata would never stop smiling. She would simply look upward, watching her peers elegantly soaring through the sky with genuine amazement.
"Does it feel nice to be able to fly?"
"Nah, it's nothing special."
This would be the stock response of the few friends that Fata did have. And then they would match her pace, walking with their feet on the ground.
"Oh c'mon, no need to walk. Fly! I'm having fun just watching you guys do that."
And she would always urge her friends to do exactly that, upon which they would reluctantly take flight. And indeed, flying was the natural thing for them to do. Within seconds, they would be cutting back and forth through the sky again, expressing the joy of the act with their entire bodies. Fata would watch them while restlessly fluttering her own wings. By doing that, she was able to keep herself afloat a few inches above the ground, which, combined with the sight of her friends flying around her, made her feel like she was flying together with them. For Fata, this was the second most important time of her life.
Fata saw off her friends - who were so engrossed in the activity that they flew off somewhere else - and returned to her room. There was a soft, straw bed inside the hollowed out tree that served as her dwelling. Fata lay down on her bed, anxiously waiting for dusk to come. Waiting for her friends to come home like this was the third most important time in her life.
As it gradually became darker outside, Fata restlessly walked to the front door. The fairies lived a calm and regular life. They would play all day long, and return home once the sun began to set. So it was common sight to see large groups of fairies flying through a scarlet sky, backed by the evening sun. Fata spotted her friends among them, and waved her arms. This prompted a number of fairies to split from the pack and float down toward her. Fata took this cue to take flight herself - from her front door, which was located at an elevation of a couple of meters at most.
Fata was unable to fly. However, by flapping her wings with all her might, she was able to at least glide through the air. Fata herself called it 'flying,' but most of the fairies thought it rather ridiculous. Only her friends didn't laugh at her when she did it.
She and a couple of her friends glided down toward the ground together. This was something that they did every day. They spiraled downward, very slowly but surely losing altitude. It seemed to take an eternity for the fairies around them, but Fata hand't once regarded the moment as lasting too long.
Before long, a large number of fairies had gathered around them. All of them had simply come to jeer at Fata, but Fata enjoyed herself nonetheless. That was because the moments that followed were the most important times of her life.
Feeling thirsty, Arietta left the book at her bedside and got up. Torta was still immersed in her piano performance, and didn't even seem to notice her getting up. Arietta looked at her sister, smiled, then left the room. A few minutes later, Arietta returned with two cups of herb tea in her hands. She pushed open the door to the room with her back. Inside, Tortinita was still quietly singing along with her piano. Not wanting to disturb her, Arietta placed one cup on a desk located near her sister, and brought the other to her lips. It was then that Arietta suddenly noticed another cup, still raising vapor, on top of her bedstand.
Upon closer inspection, there was also a cup on top of Tortinita's upright piano, which she had likely prepared for herself. Seeing this, Arietta put aside the cup she was holding and took a sip from the cioccolata calda her sister had prepared for her instead. She then opened the book once again. She was dying to know how Fata could always keep smiling despite the treatment she got from her peers.
Given their relaxed lifestyles, time passed slowly for the fairies. Even so, they kept moving on, never coming to a standstill. No looking back, no hesitation, just moving forward. And the fairies, too, had a lifespan that would eventually run out. They aged at a rate so slow that it couldn't even be compared to a human lifespan. However, their form and lifestyle would barely see any change over this period. They would continue living until their worn souls had decided it was enough - or so the eldest fairy among them had told everyone once.
There was once a fairy who did not call this death, but rather a return to the place they were born. Fata, however, always called it death. And she feared it. Her friends would ask her why she thought this way. This was because her body was slowly but surely falling apart. Fata could sense this with absolute certainty. No matter how much she wished for it not to happen.
Again, the question "Why?" is what dominated Arietta's mind. Why did she have to die? According to the mean fairies that always laughed at Fata, it was her fate. They said it was already a miracle that she'd managed to live for as long as she had in the first place.
"What's with the strange look on your face?"
Tortinita worriedly looked her sister in the eyes, sipping from the cup of herb tea rather than the cioccolata calda she loved so much. Arietta shook her head, as if to say "it's nothing," then lifted the cup next to her.
"Thanks for this."
"Hm? Oh, yeah, same to you."
They looked at each other's cups and chuckled together.
"Is your book really that fun to read?"
"... Yes. I think."
"Not really 'fun' in the sense that it makes me laugh."
"... Huh...," Tortinita responded doubtfully, tilting her head to one side. She then continued roguishly, "So are you done with it yet?"
"Umm..." Arietta flipped some pages of the book that was lying on her lap to gauge how much was left. "There's a little bit more."
"Shall I leave the rest for tomorrow?"
"But your face is telling me you want to read some more."
"Yeah, I kind of do."
"Then go ahead. Read until you drop."
Tortinita didn't say it in a sulky or resigned manner - she meant it just as she said. Arietta knew her sister thoroughly. She could be selfish at times, but when it came down to it, she would always be considerate of her feelings - and she loved her for that. Which is why she decided to indulge in her kindness, and opened the book once more.
Lying on her straw bed, Fata was waiting for something. Her friends were standing by her bedside, taking care of her. By nature, fairies lived and grew old by themselves, therefore their dwellings were not particularly large. It was thus no surprise that once Fata became unable to get out of bed anymore - that is, when all her friends would usually be there - her small room was constantly enveloped in hustle and bustle.
One of her friends noted that this kind of environment couldn't be good for a sick person, but since Fata herself wanted it this way, they would all assemble in her room like this almost every day. And Fata, who deep inside must have been feeling the dread of death creeping closer than ever before, would still never stop smiling. Upon being asked by her friends why she was still smiling, she would always return the same answer.
"Because I'm happy, of course!"
Despite being in such a comfortable environment, surrounded by all her friends, there was one thought that Fata was never able to abandon. She was still waiting patiently for the right moment.
There existed a valley where the fairies would never go. This was due to the strong winds blowing upward from this valley - even the most proficient fliers would have no chance against it, since their tiny wings were rendered useless in the face of the powerful winds. And every once in a while, the winds blowing up from the valley were particularly strong. Today was that time - the full moon was out.
"I'm going to the valley," Fata pronounced, in an almost lyrical tone of voice. "And then I'm going to fly."
With that, Fata slowly and unsteadily crawled out of bed. She hadn't walked in days, yet her gait was still firm.
"Why? Are you going there to die?"
"Didn't you hear me? I'm going there to fly."
It was only natural that one of her friends would try to stop her. However, no one went as far as to grasp and restrain her. They were unable to.
"I can still walk. But I think this will be my last chance."
'You can do so once you're healed.' 'Go when you're back in shape.' All of her friends swallowed the words, as each of them realized that that time would never come.
"... You're a stupid fool."
One of her friends flung patronizing words at her. It was the first time that this friend had ever said something like this to her.
But Fata smiled.
"That's right. I'll probably become the most foolish fairy that has ever lived."
"And turn into the laughingstock of the land?"
"Yup," Fata agreed frankly. "That's exactly why I'm going to the valley."
With that, Fata walked out the door. Her friends, who had been looking on dumbfoundedly, quickly followed suit.
"Are you seriously going to do this?"
"Can we come along?"
"If you're really going to do this, I'll never forgive you. Are you okay with that?"
Fata nodded to every question. She then threw herself off the tree, and glided the initial short part of the way through the air. Once she reached the ground, she continued on foot. Her friends walked behind her. There was no one who called out to her.
The fairies reached the valley right around the time the full moon was hanging straight overhead. Even though they had been walking for several hours, Fata hadn't once taken the time to rest. Therefore, she had to sit down and catch her breath for a few minutes upon arrival. The sounds of the wind and Fata's ragged breathing was all that broke the silence in the area. The fairy that had earlier told Fata that she wouldn't be forgiven now spoke up in an annoyed tone of voice.
"Idiot. Do you realize that you'll be laughed at even after death?"
"Yes, that's exactly why I'm doing this."
"You said that before. Do you want to be remembered as a complete clown? Is that really what you want?"
The sounds of Fata's ragged breathing gradually began to abate. Everyone waited for her next words. Realizing this, Fata began to talk.
"I wanted to be someone I *could* be."
Satisfied by everyone's silence, Fata continued.
--If I am to become a clown, then so be it - it would still be leagues better than remaining just a 'fairy who couldn't fly.' Of course, I would have wanted to become something a little bit more respectable, but that is asking for the impossible. I spent my entire life being ridiculed. A fairy that can't fly. A fairy that crawls across the ground like a worm. It's all fine. If I am doomed to be a clown either way, then who is to stop me from acting my part until the bitter end? I'll go out with a bang, doing something so ridiculous that all will laugh about it for years to come.
One of her friends' screams brought an end to her soliloqy of self-derision.
"Don't you have your singing!?"
"Everyone has that."
"But your voice is magnificent!"
"I... suppose it might just be about as magnificent as that of yours, and all the other fairies in the land."
Fata's words rang true. If she had been able to fly normally, just like all the other fairies, no one would ever have thought her voice to be particularly magnificent. A fairy's voice was wonderful by nature.
"If I had simply disappeared in my bed, then what kind of purpose would there have been to my life?"
No one could answer that. Fata continued in a whisper.
--If a foolish fairy with broken wings threw herself into the valley in order to fly, the very foolishness of the act will cause her to never be forgotten. Some may laugh, some may scoff... and I am sure that some will hate me for it.
Her final words were directed at her friends.
--Even so, people will continue to talk about me. Even if I die, even if everyone that ever loved me dies - the story of my life will *never* die.
At that moment, the winds suddenly lulled. A short interval of calm before the next storm. Without a moment's hesitation, Fata turned on her heels and strode toward the valley. Her friends quickly went after her. One of them clutched Fata's shoulder, forcibly turning her to face them again. But... they said nothing. Instead, each plucked off one feather from their own wings, and pushed it into her hand.
Just before Fata could clench her fist, all of her friends standing around her placed their hands on hers. Fata gripped the feathers tightly, and softly wept. She turned her back to her friends just before she truly burst out crying, hence no one was able to see her tears.
At the last moment, one of her friends asked, "Can we go with you?"
Still faced the other way, Fata shook her head, and uttered her final words.
"You guys have to tell everyone about my folly."
It was her usual, cheerful tone of voice. However, not even Fata herself knew what kind of face she was making.
Finally, the howling of the wind resumed, and Fata was whirled up into the air. Her tiny frame and battered wings were utterly powerless against the ruthless force of the wind. Amidst the sounds of the wind growing ever stronger, her friends didn't make a single move.
By the time the sky was getting brighter, the force of the wind began to weaken. And a few more hours later, the wind died down completely, and perfect silence filled the valley once more. Fata's friends were blankly staring up at the sky, wondering whether something was going to come down. Perhaps her body, or one of their own feathers.
Eventually, the winds began to control the valley once again. The friends were unable to find what they were looking for. One by one, they returned back to their homes. Not a single word was uttered among them.
As the days passed, and as the years passed, the story of the foolish fairy never became known among the rest of the fairies. The only the fact that remained was that 'a fairy who couldn't fly had quietly passed away.' The reason for this was that none of Fata's friends ever talked about her foolish dream. Fata wasn't even able to become what she had wanted to. All that continued to exist was 'Fata, the fairy who couldn't fly' - the type of recognition that she hated the most. And even then, this was only known among her very small circle of friends. But at the very least, *they* never forgot about Fata until the day they died. Not because of her folly, or their hatred toward her - but because they loved her.
As though having timed the exact moment, Tortinita jumped onto Arietta's bed from her own - which was set up right next to it - and embraced her.
"You finished reading, didn't you?"
"W-Well... yes, I did."
"Then let's talk."
Tortinita said it in a manner that made it clear she was bored and had absolutely nothing else to do. Arietta was used to this, so she replied in a sweet tone while stroking her sister's hair.
"Then talk. Like, about practice today."
"More importantly, what have you been doing all day?"
"I baked bread and read this book, that's all. It's not interesting at all to talk about me."
"That's not true. I mean, all *I* did was sing the entire day."
The two were around each other almost every day, so there really wasn't much to talk about. Even so, the twins would often talk to each other about trivial things like this. This was especially true since Arietta stopped going to music class, as they could spend less time in each other's presence.
"Then talk to me about your bread. It's always really delicious."
"If it's not burned."
"Aww, you beat me to it. But I'm serious though, I really think they taste great."
"As long as you bake it in the proper way, anyone's bread would taste the same."
"... Nah, yours is special."
It may have sounded like flattery, but Tortinita meant it from the bottom of her heart. At least, that's what Arietta believed. After that, Arietta began to explain to Tortinita exactly how she went about making her bread, despite knowing that she probably wasn't even all that interested in the nitty and gritty of it.
That night, Arietta found herself unable to sleep. She opened her eyes and got out of bed, taking utmost care not to wake her sister, who was sleeping soundly right next to her. After confirming that Tortinita was facing the other way, she turned on the light on her bedstand.
Arietta never considered herself to be misfortunate. If anything, she was convinced that she was happy. However, she was not convinced that this happiness was something certain and incapable of falling apart. After a deep breath, Arietta decided to stop thinking. She opened up the book to the final page of the short story, which she had been unable to read due to Tortinita's interference. The page contained only a few lines of text, along with another illustration of a small fairy, with even tinier wings.
The years passed, and eventually, Fata was completely forgotten by the fairies. If Fata had known that this would happen, would she have considered herself misfortunate? There was no one who could know.