This is the epilogue.
Or rather, all that has happened so far should be considered the prologue.
My story begins today.
First of all would be what Araragi-kun had actually been up to those past few days while absent from school, but he refused to speak on this matter. Well, Kanbaru-san also came to school as normal the next day (and aside from her left arm, she didn’t have injuries all over her body like Araragi-kun had), he told me not to worry about Mayoi-chan, and his momentarily-severed bond with Shinobu-chan had returned, so everything worked out well — I suppose.
It remains unknown as to how exactly Gaen-san and Episode-kun were involved in this and how they had interacted but, well, this is Araragi-kun we are talking about here.
Something very painful must have taken place.
And he probably overcame it.
That’s how I would like myself to be as well.
And then, I had a chance to talk to Shinobu-chan, whose pairing with Araragi-kun was as mentioned restored, and after hearing my experiences while Araragi-kun had been absent,
“A Kasha, that was.”
she said this.
“It might not have possessed a base, but I daresay it was modelled after the Kasha. It appears to me to have been an abnormality created whilst heeding the Kasha, not the Ghost Flame.”
Speaking of which, while I had spoken with Shinobu-chan on numerous occasions as Black Hanekawa, this was the first time I had talked with her like this. As that occured to me, I asked.
“But, a Kasha…”
“What is the matter, monitress? Do you not know of it?”
“No, I do know what it is, but…”
I was trying to be polite in a way, considering the 500-year-old abnormality I was dealing with, but seeing as the one before me was an eight-year-old little girl, it was rather difficult.
“But, um, it’s a tiger.”
“As I heard from the Hindering Cat as well, so I did not quite see the connection — but, if aligned to fire, a Kasha it must be.”
“Huh — ”
The Kasha, the Flaming Cart, was an abnormality that drags corpses down to Hell — and speaking of which, the Tiger had said something like that as well — which, in many cases, was treated as a cat abnormality.
— She saw me.
— That is the only crucial point.
The Tiger had said that as well.
Basically, as soon as you saw the Tiger, you would be drawn directly to Hell without question —
” — But it’s not a cat. It’s a tiger.”
“Are they not alike?”
“It’s not a cart. It’s a tiger.”
“Do you not know of the Black Tiger? It also goes by the name of Kuruma Shrimp.”
(kuruma is also the pronunciation of ‘car’)
But then — is that why it was a Kasha, a flaming tiger?
If I must say, it sounded more like a coincidence… but it was a name by Gaen-san, after all.
Well, I suppose it was my name.
In that case,
“Behind the Hindering Cat, an abnormality ran over by a car, followed a Flaming Cart pulling the dead into Hell — an interesting bond, is it not? Hahaha, he who has suffered the aberrant is drawn to it, as the Aloha brat would say.”
“Actually, it sounds more like a game of word association… hmph — so even though the Tiger didn’t have an abnormality like the Hindering Cat as its foundation, it also isn’t a completely original abnormality.”
“True originality does not exist — that is the wall eventually barring the path of all creators past and present across the world. It was no different for Sekien. Doubtless the tiger of flame which you have conjured is simply that, not simply the fruit of the Ghost Flame or the Kasha or somesuch, but of your hoarded knowledge, and the ties you accrued with others. Liberated it may be, but free it is not.”
“Art begins in imitation, huh.”
“Quite a servile and defeatist state of mind to possess, that.”
Shinobu-chan laughed, her shoulders shaking.
A ghastly laugh.
“Rather, consider it as following in the footsteps of your great predecessor. Every man follows another. Every man succeeds another. Accept the pass that came from the ages gone by, and connect it to the ones to come. In such a way, someone, someday might be able to put one through the hoop, and the match will continue after the shot. Such is lineage. Such is tradition. Perhaps one day, someone will follow the Black Hanekawa or the Inflaming Tiger you have imagined, as well.”
I wouldn’t want that.
However, if my foolishness could become a lesson for someone in the ages to come, then perhaps there was meaning to it.
Even my worthless story,
might be of use to someone, someday.
So I thought.
Now, of course, seeing as Araragi-kun had returned, I in turn had to leave the Araragi house — Araragi-kun,
“Don’t worry about it. I can sleep on the floor, so just use the bed. I can sleep under the bed, even. Hell, just use me as a bed. I’ll make sure to close my eyes when you change.”
had quite kindly attempted to convince me to stay, but I could feel it as nothing but a threat to my chastity, so I respectfully took my leave.
I was happy that he would interact with me as he had always done, but at the same time, it also represented his unshakable feelings, which was as painful to see as I had expected.
Although surprisingly, perhaps if I had continued remaining at the Araragi house, it might have been a threat to Araragi-kun’s chastity instead.
Karen-chan had said that, “Nii-chan should just get out and we can have Tsubasa-san,” (which was horrible) but of course, that could not have been the case.
Their family was,
in the end, their own.
I could not wedge myself in.
It might have been only two nights on reflection, but I left the Araragi house after giving proper thanks to all its members.
After that, I went back to the home of Senjougahara-san — Warren Villa Room 201, which had almost been burnt down.
As I understood it, Senjougahara-san’s father would be leaving on a business trip overseas for the span of about half a month — and as such, he himself requested if I would spend said period with his daughter.
It was just for my convenience, of course.
Such a trip could not have been scheduled so suddenly — not unless he himself wanted it to be.
It would seem that Senjougahara-san had told her father about the circumstances and arranged all of this for me. Regardless of when Araragi-kun would be returning home, I certainly could not live in his house for an extended period, and she understood that.
In other words — even this had all been part of her scheme.
“Hitagi, a long time ago, I taught you to become a woman who would be able to help a friend when they were in need.”
Just before he left, Senjougahara-san’s father, holding a largish bag which he had prepared for the trip, said this.
“And you grew up to be just such a woman. Nothing could make me happier.”
Saying this, he gently brushed his daughter’s head.
The expression on her face then was unforgettable.
And the expression on his face, as well.
For some time after that, I would continue to live as Senjougahara-san’s roommate, but of course, not everything went smoothly.
Frankly speaking, having taken in both the Hindering Cat and the Inflaming Tiger within myself, I was at the height of emotional instability. At the very least, I doubt I was a comfortable roommate to live with.
However, Senjougahara-san supported me all the same.
“After all, I am no different.”
She said to me,
and taught me how she had overcome the swell of emotions, step by step.
We clashed, and we fought.
But we would reconcile afterwards.
As I watched the days go by, I understood — the reason why I could not envy the girl who I should have been so jealous of, the one who was with the Araragi-kun I loved so much.
Yes, of course.
I had probably known since the very beginning.
That the two of them would end up with each other;
that the two of them would end up with each other;
I had understood it — I had known it.
In the end, I really don’t know everything.
But I knew that.
That was why, the emotion I felt when encouraging the two to develop their relationship ever since Mother’s Day — hadn’t been a lie after all.
“You know, Hanekawa-san,”
“I thought it was the opposite. Ever since I saw the two of you in April, I thought for sure that you were dating. And even if that hadn’t been the case, I was sure that you were in love with each other. That’s why I was so shocked when I asked Araragi-kun only for him to deny it.”
Although it’s only now that I can say it out loud, she said, and continued.
“When I confessed to Araragi-kun, I thought I would be rejected. Of course, at that time, I was ready to do anything it took to have him accept, but I won’t deny that, in a way, I had nothing to lose by trying. After all, it seemed so obvious to me that Araragi-kun liked you — I was sure, then, that I fell in love with the Araragi-kun who was in love with you.”
“I see. Well, it really was the opposite for me.”
I said that to Senjougahara-san.
I think I said it with a smile.
“I don’t think I would have fallen in love him this much if he hadn’t been in love with you.”
That’s right — although it might have been absolutely nothing out of the ordinary,
we both fell in love with his kindness.
With his fickle heart,
never cutting anything away, or tossing anything aside.
Thank goodness — for this feeling, of never having once hated Senjougahara-san over Araragi-kun, and this feeling alone was truly an emotion of my own, the one that I could not cut away.
But, naturally, I could not deny also feeling, “Why can’t I be like that?” so I would sometimes pull pranks on her at night, and the way Senjougahara-san would react in such occasions were similarly irresistible.
I understand now.
I love Araragi-kun,
but I love Senjougahara-san as well.
Having admitted this to myself, I felt my heart had finally managed to break for the first time.
The pain accompanied me as my heart was broken.
This lifestyle continued for around ten days.
And finally, the day came.
They had found a home to rent in place of the burnt-down Hanekawa house — in which case, I had no choice but to go.
“You don’t have to go so soon. Why don’t you take it slowly until you feel ready?” worried Senjougahara-san, but I was all right.
She did not need to worry at all.
“I’ll come over to visit again soon.”
And left Warren Villa behind in high spirits — no, that was a lie.
I cried out loud.
It was very difficult leaving Senjougahara-san, and thinking of the life I had before me was very disheartening.
Yes, the Tiger had been correct.
Truly, I was feeble.
I easily broke into tears.
But Senjougahara-san cried for me as well, so perhaps we were even.
Speaking of which, along the way from Warren Villa to the new home, I ran into Sengoku-chan.
Sengoku Nadeko — the middle-schooler with a connection to Araragi-kun.
However, we had never been in contact much, and she was also with her parents, so I did not raise my voice. She did not seem to notice me, either.
Their family seemed to get along well.
Thinking this — I became jealous.
Wait, that’s bad, that’s bad, and I drowned out that emotion.
But, no, it wouldn’t do to drown it out.
I was the kind of person who would envy such a sight.
I should start by accepting that.
I should live on while making sure that the flame in my heart was lit — after all, was fire not the great symbol of civilization?
Surely, I would be able to evolve.
I might not be able to be like Kanbaru-san, but for now, by walking and being able to take in the sight of such a happy family, I was widening my vision — I believe that I have already begun.
By the way, the case of the burning of the Hanekawa house, as well as the tutorial school, was settled as a natural fire, or accidents, more-or-less — something to do with the window glass becoming a lens, or an unusual dryness in the summer air, or something.
That was how the world would make itself coherent, it seemed.
That was how the paradox would be solved.
Nevertheless, I doubt I would ever forget what I did.
Even if I were never charged for my crimes, it did not make me free of them.
That was something that all living things must always bear in mind —
One can never be pure white.
So I thought.
The house I arrived at was not all that big, as it was apparently just a temporary residence for them until a new house was built. In fact, it might even count under the definition of ‘small’.
There were not exactly many rooms, either.
But I had already made it clear, to the one whom I ought to call my father, and the one whom I ought to call my mother.
As soon as I heard that they had decided on a place to rent, I said,
“Father, Mother, I would like to have a room.”
As such, for the first time in my life, I had obtained my own room.
I did not want the little sisters in my heart to feel cramped.
She wasn’t gone.
The Tiger wasn’t gone, either —
They were in my heart.
And I wasn’t gone, either.
The me in the past was in my heart, as well.
It suddenly occured me.
The honor student, the class rep among class reps, kind to everyone, fair, smart, saintly — perhaps that me, the one who Araragi-kun had gave such praises to, was the very first abnormality I had created.
The one that Araragi-kun had called ‘the real deal’,
the one that Senjougahara-san had called a monster,
that was the very first ‘me’ I had created.
That was the ideal I had wanted to become — for the sake of doing so, I killed many forms of myself.
It was something which should not have been done.
The first thing cut off from my heart was none other than my self — it was never a matter of which one being the real me, which one being my true form, which personality being dominant or which one holding the initiative.
It was all a part of myself.
So perhaps — the me in the present, and the me in the past,
and the me who would exist from here on, had remained unchanged in our nature.
Just as how, no matter how much he tried to change, Araragi-kun would always continue on as himself — no matter which ‘me’ I was, I would never change.
That was all there was to it.
Nothing had changed for me.
And that — was not my epilogue, so much as it was my punchline.
I am me.
I am Hanekawa Tsubasa.
My cat ears may have already withdrawn, and I may no longer see the Tiger, but I daresay the white hair remaining on half of my head, arranged in a tiger-striped pattern, is proof of that.
Being rather too avant-garde for school, I have to dye it black every morning, but I don’t think of that as a bother or a waste of time.
It is a form of communication, with them,
with my heart.
I say it is enjoyable, because I truly feel it inside.
That’s — how I will go on.
Even if I do not change, it will change.
My life, will change.
I open the front door using the key I was handed — but it seems both of them are still at work and no one is at home.
It may be a completely unfamiliar home, but it doesn’t feel like I am sneaking into someone else’s house. In fact, it feels like a home I am already used to. Is this how it’s supposed to feel? I’ve only just opened the front door by myself.
Up the stairs I go, feeling strange.
Step by step,
digesting it slowly.
When I put my foot on the last step, reaching the second floor, I suddenly recall Mayoi-chan.
When I first met her, she had always been lost.
The Lost Cow — oh, I see.
Surprisingly, perhaps the reference with the greatest influence on my creation of the Tiger hadn’t been the Kasha or the Ghost Flame, but the Lost Cow.
Of course, the Lost Cow had already been cut away from Mayoi-chan, but you could consider it a rough echo.
Perhaps my meeting the Tiger directly after seeing Mayoi-chan was not simply because I then knew Araragi-kun had gone.
It seems that, once upon a time, cows and tigers were mixed together — in which case, it isn’t unthinkable.
For me, having lost both family and home — it was a fitting abnormality.
Ever since that day,
no, ever since I first met Mayoi-chan in that park in May — I have been lost.
Walking aimlessly, moving cyclically, wandering all over the place.
I was just loitering.
I should talk about this with Mayoi-chan the next time I see her.
So I thought.
I really have been lost enough.
I was lost in losing my way.
But thanks to that, I have met many different people.
Many, many indeed.
I have seen many families.
I have seen many forms of myself.
That was why I could become myself.
If the me in the past is still me, then so is the me in the future.
There does not exist a moment in time when I am not myself.
So how would I be like the next day?
With anticipation, I put my hand on the doorknob.
It is the room which I have been given.
A 12 x 9, Western-style room.
It will only be for the next half-year until graduation — but it is certainly, truly, a place of my own.
A place of our own.
It is then that I suddenly remember the sentence added at some point to the letter I had left behind.
No, it isn’t long enough to call a sentence — it isn’t even a single line, but just two words.
It is the only greeting I have ever received from the white cat who has always been by my side, who has always protected me.
It is nothing out of the ordinary.
Just a greeting that everyone would naturally give, every single day.
But this will be the first time I have ever spoken those words.
I enter my room.
I’m finally back.