Kanbaru-san was absent.
I ended up more or less rushing into the classroom just before the first bell rang (metaphorically speaking, of course, I would never run in the hallways. It was already quite — no, already very suspicious to be moving like I was in some speed-walking competition.) so I only visited the second-year classroom of Kanbaru-san during the recess after the first period.
“Oh, Hanekawa-san.” “It’s Hanekawa-senpai.” “Oh, it really is Hanekawa-senpai!” “The one Kanbaru-san is always talking about.” “It’s Hanekawa-san, Senjougahara-san’s classmate.” “No, Hanekawa-senpai’s the one who helped Araragi-senpai.”
…I was exceedingly well-known, for some reason.
I felt like hiding my face and running away, but managed to hold fast and asked about Kanbaru-san — and the response was as mentioned above.
It seemed there had not been any contact from her, not to her homeroom teacher, nor to her friends in the class (obviously though it might seem once I had considered it, it was a relief to find out that Kanbaru-san did actually have friends in her own year).
“Kanbaru-san’s a very diligent student, so it’s really rare for her to be absent without leave… we’re all very worried about her.”
It is often the case that the same person can gain different reputations within different communities, but there is an immense difference between the image Kanbaru-san had and, above all else, the image we had of her.
That was probably the way things should be.
It would be strange for someone to look the same regardless of the observer, like something stamped out — someone like me.
It was not obvious.
And it was not normal.
Someone who appeared to be an honor student to anyone who was looking — that was abnormal.
“Have you heard anything, Hanekawa-san?”
“Being asked this,
was the only thing I could say.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know anything.”
Those words seemed to have had a rather cold ring to them, as the girl looked to be in utter doubt, and I retreated from Kanbaru-san’s classroom, feeling embarrassed.
Due to this, unfortunately for my teacher, practically nothing entered my head during the second period’s lesson — I was worried, after all.
Araragi-kun was, of course, absent as well. Just what had happened last night?
Well, truthfully speaking, nothing entered my head starting from the first period — after hearing from Gaen-san about Noble Minds Tutorial School burning down, I could not remain calm.
It was unthinkable that the place we were so fond of, not to mention where Araragi-kun and Kanbaru-san were supposed to meet, would be beset by fire.
Naturally, after I had parted with Gaen-san and Episode-kun, I checked the news online on my cellphone and confirmed that it was not a lie.
There was even an image attached.
A photo of that bare concrete building collapsed in a miserable pile entered my view — that memorable place where so much had happened.
It was now completely gone from this world.
I was wondering what Senjougahara-san would think if she found out about this, not to mention being taken by an extreme sense of the impermanence of the world, but on the other hand, when I took into account the current situation, it was clear that this was no time to be so sentimental.
What on earth — happened last night?
Are Araragi-kun and Kanbaru-san all right?
I was so worried that I could not sit still during lessons or recesses.
…And yet — the fact that I was able to continue taking lessons for the entire day without leaving early meant that, somehow, I firmly believed the both of them to be safe.
I found within myself the will to assert that those two were not hurt in the fire.
At first, I had not been sure if I could trust this feeling.
Perhaps I had simply believed in Araragi-kun and Kanbaru-san, that they could overcome any difficulties and, as such, did not need me to worry for them.
But that was not the case. It was not even worth considering.
Araragi-kun was simply a boy whom I could not calmly watch over from a distance in that way, as he was always involved in things possibly fatally dangerous, and he inclined towards not so much self-sacrifice as self-punishment. It was precisely because I knew him so well that it was hard for me to imagine him being safe in a situation like that.
And Kanbaru-san, unfortunately, was not so close to me that I could just simply trust in her safety (and considering the case with Senjougahara-san, I might even be seen as an enemy).
Why was it that I could be so sure of their safety — at the very least, in terms of my conviction that they had not been victims of the fire,
“…It’s because I know.”
I was on my way back from school.
Well, this was not the ‘way back’, to be exact — I was not returning to the Araragi house, but making a side trip.
“Yes, because I know — I know the fire that started had nothing to do with Araragi-kun or Kanbaru-san.”
I didn’t know.
But the me who wasn’t me knew.
It was most likely that, yesterday night — when I had become Black Hanekawa, I had seen it, and I knew. I knew that the two of them were safe. I knew that after Araragi-kun and Kanbaru-san had met, they changed to another location — I knew that it was, more or less, an unrelated problem to the fire.
It was as Gaen-san had said.
This — was my case.
“… Besides, the fire’s — something to do with me as well.”
Three days ago, the Hanekawa house burnt down completely.
And yesterday, Noble Minds Tutorial School was in flames.
In just three days — two buildings that had been deeply connected with me had burnt down.
It would be absurd not to think of these two events as being connected.
Not to mention that both cases occurred immediately after I had seen the tiger — I could not help worrying about that.
Also, the cause of the fire at the Hanekawa house was unknown, and as far as I could tell from the news report online, the fire at the tutorial school was similarly of unknown origin. Seeing as they were both places usually without traces of fire, it was all the more reason to suspect arson —
The worst possibility passed through my mind.
The possibility that I, as Black Hanekawa, was the criminal. In other words, an arsonist.
Thinking back to the outrageous violence committed by Black Hanekawa during Golden Week, it was a perfectly realistic possibility.
To be certain, it was not true that I had not wished many times for the Hanekawa house to ‘just disappear’ — and in this situation, I could not deny that said wish had been granted.
You might even say the possibility was quite high.
However, I felt that this was incorrect.
Not, that something like this happening was impossible — but the part about this being ‘the worst’.
I could not put it into words, but I got the feeling that an even worst conclusion was already prepared further along in this story. A conclusion that I had been turning my eyes away from — as though it was relentlessly lying in wait for me, its jaws held wide open.
Yes, the truth.
An inconvenient truth — was lying in wait for me.
That was the path I now walked.
“Now would be the time — to turn back, I guess.”
If I could close my eyes — turn my eyes away just for a little while,
if I could just make it to tomorrow, I would be able to go on without encountering the truth.
Thing would be as per usual.
I would be able to continue as the Hanekawa Tsubasa I had always been.
As the best friend of Araragi-kun, as Hanekawa Tsubasa — as myself,
I would be able to remain.
Without any change.
I did not know what Araragi-kun was fighting against right now.
However, he was unmistakably fighting against something — together with Mayoi-chan and Kanbaru-san, and lending the aid of Shinobu-chan, putting his life on the line as always.
In that case, I too shall fight.
If it did not mean running away, then I would not turn my eyes away, either.
Now was the time to come face-to-face — for me,
and my own heart which had been cut off from me.
This — was probably that kind of story.
“Yes… that tiger,”
It was on that day when the new trimester started.
I was on my way to school when I saw — that giant tiger.
“All of this started after I saw that tiger.”
That was the feeling I got.
I could not be certain at all.
But I was.
“Gaen-san called it… the Inflaming Tiger, didn’t she?”
That would be the first angle of approach.
I had reached the library.