.'

 

I turned my head, wiped away the tears that were streaming down my cheeks without Emilian's knowledge, and said, trying not to break my voice.

 

“I'll stay with you.
Just…
get some rest.”

 

“Mn…”

 

Emilian smiled faintly, relieved to have someone there.
After a short while, his eyelids fluttered shut.
I stayed by his side in silence.
His breathing slowly became even.

 

'Did he fall asleep?' I turned around to leave, but his grip was firm.
Unable to pull away, I brushed a stray strand of hair from his forehead.

 

'I'm sorry, I can't stay with you until the end.
But…

 

I don't want to run away from you, either.'

 

Contradictory thoughts jostled dizzily inside me.
I knew I had to make a choice at some point, but my weak mind couldn't decide, and my hesitation only grew.

 

*      *      *

 

A few days passed.
I woke up to a brilliant morning sun.
Normally, I would have gotten up at the crack of dawn, but today I stirred a little longer under the covers. 

 

Today was my first day off in a long time.
I only get three times a month; it's hard to go without them.

 

The researchers gave us a minimal amount of time off for just one reason.
They were worried that if they pushed the kids too hard, some of them might not be able to handle life here and try to escape.
As I washed and dressed, I glanced at the clock.
It was the time of day when I would bring breakfast to my test subjects.

 

'Come to think of it, today is Emilian's day off too.' Emilian was excused from experiments for a week by special order of the director.
Of course, it wasn't because the director was a kind-hearted adult.
After Franz had pushed him too far, Emilian's body had suddenly gone haywire.
Once he's recovered enough, they'll take him back to the lab.
It was depressing, but at least he could rest for a while.

 

'Maybe if it was any other child, they wouldn't care, and they'd go ahead with the experiment.' It was clear that the director had given Emilian preferential treatment. 

 

'I wonder what she's doing now.'

 

He had no one to talk to, no friends, and the test subjects weren't even allowed to leave the room.

 

'He must be bored all day.' Come to think of it, there was something I could bring Emilian, and while I've been too busy at work to go there, today was different.
I tied my shoes and left the room.

 

'I'm free today anyway, so…'

 

The second library was located in an annex far away from the research building.
The smell of old books filled the air as I entered, and the librarian, who was resting his chin on his hand with a bored look on his face, glanced at me.
After he asked me what I was doing there, I replied that I was on an errand for one of the researchers.
It was common for errand children to come looking for books, so the librarian didn't doubt my word.

 

I passed several shelves with thick books.
The book I was looking for was on the lowest shelf, classification no.
800.
I squatted down and examined the shelf-backs.

 

'Ah, here it is.'

 

I hooked my fingers around the corner of the book and pulled hard, and a small, thin book slid out.
It was a children's book that I stumbled upon one day while running an errand.
I didn't know why or how a fairy tale book had ended on this bookshelf, but…

 

'I'm glad I recalled the place.'

 

I put the children's book on the bottom and picked up several thick academic books. 

 

'This should do, right?' A few moments later, I returned to the research building, my arms full of books.

 

'Will he like reading?'

 

Arriving at Emilian's room, I poked my head in.
He was sitting on his bed as usual, but his knees were hugged tightly together and his head was buried in his hands.

 

'Is it because of the experiment?' I felt sorry for him, as he looked strangely depressed.
I spoke up and put on a big smile.

 

“Emilian, what are you doing there?”

 

Emilian's head snapped up at the sound of my voice.

 

“Annis?” His eyes widened.

 

'Should he be so surprised that I'm here?' As I tilted my head in disbelief, he stepped closer to the bars.
Blinking his red eyes, Emilian stared into my face.

 

“You…
I thought you weren't coming anymore.”

 

“.
.
.?”

 

'Why did you suddenly think that…?'

 

For a moment, I was stunned by the out-of-context remark.
And then soon I had a small epiphany—I wasn't the one who brought Emilian breakfast today.

 

'Did you think I was replaced with someone?' I tried to explain to him what had occurred and that it wasn't like that, but Emilian cut off my words, looking all gloomy.

 

“Is it because I'm being too much trouble for you?”

 

“Huh…? What do you mean?”

 

He paused before replying, biting his lip hard. 

 

“Before…I was troubling you, holding onto your hand not to go.”

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