Chrome Shelled Regios:Volume2 Chapter4
Chapter 4: Run the Entire Lap
At the same time Layfon was whispering to himself......
The heavy iron whips hung listlessly from her hands. Nina felt like she was suffocating, unable to stop her panting. She was sucking in air, yet her body wanted more. Despite the pain, she attempted to slow down her breathing.
She was so exhausted that her legs shook and pleaded with her to lie down, but she desperately kept standing, and slowly let her body cool off. Proper breathing technique was basic for controlling Kei. She mustn't disturb it. Her body must not rest immediately. Everything had to gradually calm down.
On top of the drumming of blood bombarding her ears, the sound of friction from the movements of gigantic multi-legs of the city echoed from below. The city's edge was the only place right now that was quiet and secluded enough, a place without people where Nina would not be scolded.
Gaining control of her breathing, she lifted the iron whips again. In fact, she looked as if she was forcing herself, but she could keep going as long as she extended her Kei through her entire body. She controlled her breathing for that purpose.
Conscious and aware of the place she was standing, the place where Layfon had shown his strength, Nina danced alone with the iron whips.
What could she do to become stronger?
Basic moves flowed into more complicated moves.
When using a weapon, most moves were variations of the three stages of movement: retrieve, hold with increasing strength, and attack. For a sword, it was slash. For a spear or staff, it was stab and hit.
It wasn't meaningless to repeat her moves. While the mind failed to keep up at the other end of the ladder, the body instinctively repeated familiar movements. The repetitive movements increased Nina's physical strength, which would be helpful when she fought.
"Fu......Ha, ha, ha, ha......"
And then she rested again. Controlling her breathing, she took out a towel from her bag to wipe away her sweat. When the school year started, a bone-chilling cold would immediately cool down the body, but it was better now. Even at night. Zuellni was probably heading towards a warmer climate. Because of that, the heat from Nina's body took some time to dissipate. Irritated at the sweat continuously pouring from her skin, she lifted her head to watch the night sky through the invisible air shield.
And like that, she sat down on the ground.
The cold, hard ground felt good to her. Exhausted and feeling she didn't have the strength to stand up again, she sat there to look at the sky. Only a half moon floated above her, with the endless darkness serving as a backdrop. The existence of the moon seemed to point to the boundary of the night.
The iron whips, turned back into simple Dites, fell to Nina's sides. Still gazing at the moon, she touched them with her fingers. To look at the moon as if reflected in her eyes, she felt for an instant that she could touch it. She didn't reach out a hand. It was embarrassing, and she knew she couldn't possibly touch the moon.
"......It's so far away," she said.
As if it was within reach, but it actually wasn't. The moon existed between illusion and reality. It made people think it was within reach, but it was billions of Jimels away from Nina. Her arm wasn't long enough to touch the moon.
Even so, she thought there must be a way.
If her arm wasn't long enough, then she'd fly up there......
She laughed, knowing how ridiculous it was. She couldn't fly in the sky. This dream was meaningless. What was meaningful was her weakness, for wanting to rely on such an unrealistic way to reach the moon.
She didn't think it was meaningless to repeat the moves she'd learned, as they were directly related to her growth. She had been training like this from the very beginning. The very beginning, when she knew she had discovered Kei and decided to become a Military Artist. She didn't think she would become strong all of a sudden by repeating the same movements.
Was there a faster way......?
She understood that was just a wish. A wish not grounded in reality. She couldn't help but think of it though, and that irritated her.
She should become stronger if she trained at this pace. She believed if she was industrious and put more time and effort into it, she could catch up to Layfon. But how much time would she need to reach his level? One year? Two years? Impossible......It wasn't that simple.
She had only reached her current level, after living all these years. One or two years of hard work weren't enough for her to catch up to Layfon, who was one, three, probably many more times stronger than her.
And she didn't even have one year.
"I won't make it!"
What she needed wasn't a possibility in the future, but what she could reach for now. To balance the unbalanced 17th platoon, she must become stronger. Only she could make it happen. She had decided to protect Zuellni.
"Can't I make it?"
Her hand slowly moved from the iron whip towards the moon.
Her finger caressed the air and touched the moon before her eyes.
Yet she knew this was meaningless......
Watching the hazy moon, she lowered her wrist. Was this bitter regret or jealousy? Facing the Layfon who possessed what she desired......
She had read the letter that had fallen out of the envelope. The impatience and anxiety inside her became more intense after she read the letter, along with her growing desire to catch up to him.
She didn't know what to think of Leerin, the girl who understood Layfon more than Nina did.
Increasing anxiety. Irritation.
"Is this the end?"
She wiped the sweat off her brow and suddenly stood up.
"It can't end here!"
She picked up the iron whips.
The night was still long. Time was limited, but it should be enough. She believed so......
She started her flow of Kei.
The next platoon match was set for next weekend.
A sigh burst out of Layfon.
He hadn't had a chance to see Nina recently.
It wasn't easy to bump into her as they were in different grades. During training, time passed without giving them room to chat privately, and once training finished, Nina left the room immediately.
They hadn't even met in the Engine Room. Somehow, they had been separated and placed in different groups. They now had different janitorial responsibilities.
Losing the chance to talk to Nina forced him further from the truth. Moreover, he didn't have much spare time as he had to test Harley's invention and attend meetings with Karian and the other Alchemists.
Although he didn't have the time to stand still, he wasn't worried about it.
"How come you seem to be so busy these days?" Mifi asked.
It was now lunch break. They were eating Meishen's special bento on the rooftop of the school building. Long benches lined the metal fences around the rooftop.
"Huh? Do I look that way?"
"......Mmh," Meishen nodded.
Layfon scratched his head.
"We wanted to hang out with you after you were done with training, but you're always going somewhere. And I specifically picked a time that you didn't have work!"
How did she know his shifts in the Engine Room? Mifi's ability to gather intelligence was terrifying.
"Maybe he's busy because it's almost time for the next platoon match?" Naruki said.
"Huh~~ But I planned to catch Layfon when he wasn't training. Isn't this strange?" Mifi said. Layfon was right before her, but she was indifferent to how she appeared to be gossiping about him.
Besides, Naruki didn't seem to believe the reason she herself gave, as if she only said it to eliminate one possibility and force Layfon to tell the truth. "Then, what other reasons are there?"
Beautifully shooting down Naruki's guess, Mifi cut straight into the chase. "Is this secret preparation for the platoon match?"
"Why do you sound suspicious?"
"I'm not joking. I'm serious."
Mifi stared at him. He looked down at the bento.
"Have you got a woman?"
"......Why do you think that?"
"Well, you're always with senpai lately. Isn't that right? Senpai stands out a lot, so you can't hide it."
"No, that's not it!" Layfon waved his hands, noticing how Meishen's face had gone white.
"Our dormitories just lie in the same direction."
"So because they're in the same direction, you have dinner with her all the time?"
"......How come you know about that too?"
Yes, since that night at the battle arena, he had had dinner a few times with Felli. It was Karian's treat, but the Student President had never come to dinner with them. Felli was the only one eating with him.
"Don't underestimate my information network!"
It was another arrow to his chest.
"No, it was just a coincidence."
Layfon tried to make up another reason, but he could tell from Mifi's eyes that she was still suspicious.
"Really? Her level of beauty and cuteness is shocking. When two people are alone, don't they just......start shooting out the energy of youth meaninglessly? Because of a moment of thunder and fire, don't they think they are permitted to do anything and so derail off into the lust of youth?"
"......I'm having trouble following you."
"In other words, have you pushed her down yet?"
"I wish you wouldn't use such clear words......" He shook his head. He didn't have the courage to do such a thing to Felli. No, no, no. He didn't mean he'd do something if he had the courage......
"So just what are you doing?"
"Uh......Is it something you can't talk about?"
"I was asked not to."
Karian asked him to keep it a secret. To students who hadn't fought filth monsters, news of filth monsters in the direct path of the city would be a huge shock to them. Just like in the previous assault, when it was so chaotic within the city that students failed to follow the proper defensive procedures.
They tried to plan better for when the next wave of filth monsters hit, but that couldn't be done overnight. And the only person who could fight back against this threat was Layfon. Hence, it was best to have Layton solve everything while everyone remained ignorant.
She stared at him for a while and gave up.
"This is boring. I'm gonna go to eat by myself." She raised a hand and left the rooftop.
"Geez......She didn't have to throw a tantrum like a kid," Naruki said, standing up."I'm sorry. Please don't be mad."
"No, this is my fault."
"Really......Maybe, but her demand is unreasonable," Naruki shrugged and looked at the uneasy Meishen.
"I'm going to stay with Mi. Please take care of Mei."
Naruki took her bento and left.
While Meishen stammered, Naruki disappeared from the rooftop.
(Why do I feel like this has happened before...)
"Sorry," Layfon apologized.
"......You're not the bad one here, Layton." Meishen shook her head like a bell.
"But still, it is my fault."
"......But, you can't tell the truth, can you?"
He didn't say anything. If he said "yes" then he was admitting that he was hiding something, and if he said he wasn't hiding anything, that would expose him too.
He couldn't say it, but also didn't want to lie.
He didn't want to lie because it was Meishen and her friends, so he could only shrug.
"......I think we shouldn't ask and listen to what can't be told. I feel that if you want to tell us, you'll tell us one day."
"......Mi knows that too."
"I hope so."
"......But, Mi is curious." Meishen smiled. Layfon envied the affection in that smile.
"......If Nakki and I had any secrets, Mi would expose them immediately. But she doesn't know what Layton's hiding, and knowing that you don't want her to know frustrates her."
"She feels frustrated because I don't want her to know?"
"......Mi wants a better relationship with you. With her curiosity, she wants to be close enough to you that you can tell her things on your own. If it's Nakki, she'll do what she can quietly, but me......" She shook her head. "......Especially Nakki, she's impatient too."
"Didn't you help Nakki before? She's impatient because she can't help you out."
"I never knew," Layfon murmured at a loss.
"......Nakki's good at being patient."
"I don't think she has to worry about it. After all, I did get paid," he said, but he knew that wasn't important.
To receive help from someone when she needed it, but unable to help when that person was in trouble. Naruki's feeling of uselessness had nothing to do with Layfon getting paid.
"I see......Um, so it's my fault."
"......No, it's not Layton's fault."
"No, it's my fault."
For not realizing that Meishen and the girls wanted to get closer to him. That was enough to make him at fault.
Thinking back closely, Meishen didn't use to speak that much when they first met each other. She never talked much, always saying very little and giving snippets of words each time, but she was now talking and taking the initiative to get closer to him.
"Do I look troubled?"
"......Not troubled, more like......worried?"
Layfon didn't get it.
"......Sometimes you seem like that." Meishen frowned.
......And Meishen was always on the verge of tears, but he wouldn't say that even if someone tore his mouth apart.
"......What is it?"
Layfon fell into contemplation.
He didn't worry about the filth monsters. There was a high possibility of filth monsters attacking Zuellni. Unable to run away, he had to face the crisis. This feeling was different from worrying. Either way, he was prepared for the reality that filth monsters would come near. Coming back to it, fighting filth monsters was normal in Grendan. Considering that death might become real was indeed a heavy burden, but if he lost to that pressure, he would've died already. To him, the fight of his spirit had already ended.
Then about this worry......
"Ah......Hahaha......So that's why......"
"Mi sounded strange, so I got it all wrong."
"Ah......But that can't be helped."
Having laughed for a while, Layfon looked at the wall.
"......Layton......" Face white, Meishen's hands were put together tightly, as if she was praying.
"Ah, Ahah......No! No......Nothing. Nothing really. I just got something wrong......So, please don't cry?"
And as he comforted the trembling Meishen, he told her the truth.
Naruki and Mifi came back to find Layfon comforting a trembling and nervous looking Meishen. In order to explain he wasn't bullying Meishen, Layfon had no choice but to skip his afternoon classes.
Then he told them the entire truth.
"Uh, the captain doesn't look strange......" Mifi nodded as she played with the empty milk packet.
"Is Layton worrying about her?"
Layfon nodded. "Yes."
"So you want to help her?"
"If I can." He nodded simply, burnt out from explaining things to them.
"Why......?" He sat up straight, surprised by the question.
Both Mifi and Naruki were watching him.
"Because you're both in the same platoon? I thought Layton wasn't interested in the platoon and the platoon matches. If so, then the captain acting weird shouldn't be that bad for you, right?"
"......Mi," Meishen looked at Mifi and Naruki, troubled, then she shook her head as if giving up.
They must have understood something between each other in that split second, but Layfon had no idea what it was. He only knew he was being asked a question.
Why did he have to do something for Nina?
"Is there a need to ask me that difficult a question?"
"Depends on Layton whether it's difficult or not, right?" Naruki said.
"Perhaps," Layfon nodded. Perhaps it wasn't a difficult question, but even if Mifi kept on asking him the same question, he still had no answer to give them.
"Even now, I still don't care about the platoon matches. But my thinking's changed. I want to stay in the platoon until the next real Military Arts competition ends."
"Oh? Is that the awakening of a righteous heart? A little investigation tells me Zuellni's in a crisis. Everyone above the 3rd year knows of it."
"I'm not that good-natured."
"Then what is it?" Mifi said, as if she was reproving him.
"It'll be troubling for me if Zuellni disappears. I can't return to Grendan. If I don't study something here for six years until I graduate, I don't think I can survive in other cities. I don't plan to train in the Military Arts all the way to graduation."
"You're not returning to Grendan?"
Layfon shook his head.
"......You probably know already. My skill in Military Arts doesn't come about through spare training."
"Of course," Naruki shrugged. "If you managed to train up that skill in your spare time, then all the other Military Artists are terribly weak. I guess you had formal training in Military Arts back in Grendan? And you've trained to a level that the Academy City can't teach you anything more in Military Arts. But that's not what I'm concerned with, rather, it's the reality of you wanting to give up Military Arts even though you're so strong."
The three girls watched him, increasing the pressure on him.
They were concerned about his past.
Naruki's mouth moved, preparing to turn her suspicions into clear questions. How should Layfon answer her?
He still didn't think what he did in Grendan was wrong. It didn't go against his sense of morals. But he only knew that what he did had hurt a lot of people.
What would the girls think of him? Shocked? Contemptuous? Would they then leave him?
Thinking of the loneliness made him nervous. How would he feel if Nina found out about it?
"......Isn't this enough?" Meishen said, cutting through his emotions.
"......You wouldn't want to listen to Layton's past now, right?"
"......If that's the case, then it's enough, isn't it?" Meishen's repeated question silenced the other two girls.
Layfon's reflection danced in the regret and guilt in Meishen's eyes.
"......Sorry, they......and I, just want to understand Layfon more."
He failed to speak, his chest feeling hot. He didn't know how to express his weaknesses to them, and he was scared of them knowing his past.
(Really? So I'm already so close to these three.)
He was used to hanging out with them, going to class and studying together. This had become a part of his daily life.
He was scared of losing it.
"......I still like the people on the platoon, so I want to help." He squeezed out those words and was left with nothing to say.
He fell silent.
He understood that just like how he was with Meishen and her friends, he was also enjoying the time he spent with Nina, Felli, Sharnid and Harley.
He was afraid of losing them.
"......In that case, I don't have anything to complain about," Mifi said, but still with suspicion in her voice.
"Aah, I was planning to help from the beginning. The only person who didn't want to was Mifi."
"You're lying, Nakki!"
"I was never suspicious of Layton!"
"Liar. You were concerned too!"
"My concern's not the same as your concern."
"They're the same."
"Nakki was concerned about it. Definitely, definitely, definitely concerned about the captain, Felli-senpai and that letter......"
Meishen suddenly shouted, her face all red. Everyone stared at her, dumbstruck.
Her shoulders heaving, Meishen quickly covered her mouth with her hands.
"......Uu......" Tears filled her eyes.
(And I thought I could apologize.)
Meishen had been trying to find an opening to apologize for reading his letter.
But not under these circumstances......
Tears flooded down her cheeks.
This time Layfon was chased away. At a distance, he watched Mifi and Naruki comfort Meishen. Sometimes they said something wrong and made the situation worse. At other times, they mentioned the past and Meishen looked even worse at that. Meishen got angry, and was comforted, and like that the process repeated itself......
Meishen......When the three girls had calmed down, the bell signaling the end of class rang out.
The bell of the last class.
Although they did agree on it, he never thought they'd really come.
"Well then, let me explain our mission."
It was now night, or more like it was almost dawn. Everywhere was still dark and dim, but the sun would rise in two to three hours. They couldn't have stayed awake all night, so they should have been sleeping till now.
Mifi's hair was tangled, the sign of a sleepyhead.
"No, this isn't really a mission," Naruki said to Mifi, who, for some reason, was wearing a long coat and sunglasses.
When the workers had finished cleaning the Engine Room, Meishen, Naruki and Mifi were already waiting for Layfon outside the entrance.
The quartet's breath came out as steam. Meishen had hot tea in her thermos. Everyone enjoyed the hot liquid thankfully.
"Where's the captain?"
"The class leader's called her over. She should still be inside."
"Good. We'll wait here then tail her," Mifi smiled deviously, cupping the cup as steam from the hot tea rose to fog up her sunglasses.
"I think she'll go back to bed like usual......" Layfon said, uncomfortable with her expression.
"Oh, I've been observing her. She trains until it's time to work, so if anything happens, it must happen after work."
"Huh? Has she been training?"
"Yeah, it's pretty scary too, when she trains."
"It's like she's another person."
If even Naruki said so, then the training must have been intense.
She canceled her training with him, but continued to train by herself.
That confirmed his suspicions.
He glanced at Naruki. She seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion.
"......Ah," called Meishen softly. Everyone looked at the entrance.
Nina was coming out.
Breathing out steamy breaths, cold and shivering, Nina only wore her Military Arts uniform. Did she come straight from the Engine Room without returning to the dormitory? Her work-suit probably was inside the bag she carried. Layfon remembered that Nina had that bag with her when she came to team training.
Even the scattering street light, dim as it was, couldn't cover the shadows of exhaustion on Nina's face, but her pace while walking didn't show her fatigue.
Layfon drained the tea in his cup and tossed the cup into a bin. The four of them waited for Nina to walk ahead a bit before following after her.
Layfon and Naruki decided on how far they had to stay behind Nina. If left to Mifi and Meishen, they'd have been discovered already. Although that was his conclusion, Nina's appearance changed his judgment. Mifi might tail her well even by herself. A kind of tension surrounded Nina, but it looked more like an old wire fence to him. A fence with lots of openings.
"She's very tired," Naruki said in a low voice. Layfon nodded.
What had pushed Nina to this stage? Was it because they lost the platoon match? Could it have been that big of a shock to her? He wasn't sure. No, perhaps he did know. He had tasted failure in Grendan. In order to survive, it was important for him to win again and again. The important point wasn't his life and death, but more his being afraid of encountering a stumbling block in the process of doing what he wanted to do.
Was this the feeling that Nina held?
......Sure. She wanted to protect this city from harm. She said that to him not long ago.
"......She's going somewhere?"
Troubled expressions adorned Meishen and Mifi's faces.
Nina continued towards the outskirts of the city.
The edge of the city was a danger zone, a zone where emergencies tended to arise, so residential and any important buildings were usually built further in from the city's boundary. On the other hand, any buildings close to the danger zone were rented out cheaply.
Layfon didn't know the exact location of Nina's dormitory, but he could guess from the direction she headed after training and cleaning in the Engine Room that her dormitory did not lie on the city's edge.
Nina finally arrived in a clearing devoid of buildings.
The sound coming from the movements of the city's multi-legs rode the wind. Layfon and the girls hid in a forested area. This place was a bit far from the roaming bus station. All they could see was the wind carrying pollutant, a sandstorm rioting outside the air shield.
The wind tonight was especially strong. The sandstorm in the dark looked like some stirring creature.
Meishen held tightly to Layfon's sleeve.
A hazy sky blocked out the traces of the moon. The cloud cover must be very thick.
Nina walked down some stairs to the middle of an amphitheater and dropped the bag from her shoulders.
She took hold of the Dites in her harness.
"Restoration," she said softly. At that sound, a familiar feeling ran through Layfon.
She readied her fighting stance. Layfon knew she'd then breathe in deeply and allowed the Kei to flood her body.
The iron whips struck downwards or to the sides. She received, let the pressure slide off a side, and struck back at an imaginary enemy.
Nina's body spun left and right, sometimes staying in one place as if defending against repeated heavy strikes, sometimes running forward as if attacking, charging in.
Nina practiced all the moves she knew.
There was no delay or hesitation in her movements. Each move flowed smoothly into the next.
It was an Art, and it had a frightening air.
All three girls except Layfon were holding their breath.
Nina was like a first class dancer, showing every scene of the world in her movements. At the same time, she was like a mad fighter, fighting against everything in the world.
Meishen and the other two girls had already seen Nina training last night, but watching her for a second time did not reduce their amazement. They watched her wordlessly.
Layfon fixed his gaze on Nina, watching the light of Kei emitting from her. Her flow of Kei was brighter than the Kei she showed in team training. But unlike the first time, when Nina's Kei was so dazzling that he could not look directly at her, a shadow now traced her Kei.
It was meaningless to judge one's strength by the light of Kei, since the two held no relation to each other.
Layfon wasn't sure whether he should to be happy or not about the change in Nina's flow of Kei.
He was just saddened for some reason.
The remaining Kei dispersed from her body like steam, giving off light and floating up into the air as though like something finally being released. From her fingertips, shoulders, neck, head, back, toes......The remaining Kei shook like strings. The strings wove together to become one and stretched out to the sky like something struggling against a force too heavy to resist.
What a tragic scene.
And that was where her problem lay.
"What a mess," Layfon murmured, earning wide-eyed stares from his companions.
"Huh? But I think she's amazing......?" Mifi asked and looked at Naruki. Naruki didn't seem to understand Layfon. She wore a perplexed expression.
"Is something wrong?"
"The problem's not with the Kei flow or her movements......" No, that 'was' the problem. Internal-type Kei would not strengthen the entire body. What it did was coordinate a person's movements and cause changes accordingly, making the moves faster and stronger. It was a type of training like Whirl Kei, generating sudden and speedy changes. But in Nina's training, there were many redundant moves.
Layfon didn't want to point that out. Her weakness could be improved, given more training.
"It's not a problem that she trains by herself. Military Artists are always lonely. One must face oneself and struggle hard to become strong. Nobody can help you, and it's not something you'll ask someone for help with, but......" he shook his head.
How could he put it? He hadn't yet organized his own emotions, so no words surfaced in his mind. He failed to find suitable words.
"She's too reckless," he said in the end.
The way she dispersed her Kei was like she was drowning, struggling to hold onto anything, even a bunch of wheat, but even so, it still wasn't enough to escape the flood.
She could only sink.
What would happen if she continued to sink......
"......If she keeps this up, she'll break."
"Yes......" Naruki nodded in realization.
Nina had classes and training in the Military Arts course, then team training after class and individual training after that, janitorial duties in the Engine Room after all of that and then individual training again......Just when did she sleep? Did she get enough rest? Looking at her, she had probably spent most of her time training alone when she wasn't at her work.
But she would pay a huge price later.
In Grendan, Layfon once had to fight filth monsters for an entire week. A whole week without time to sleep and rest. A week that took away his awareness of time. In the end, he was so debilitated that he couldn't lift a single finger. No matter how he lied to his body, his biological clock went crazy afterward. A twist of the normal pattern appeared. He spent two whole weeks resting before he could return to duty.
"......We must stop her," Meishen said.
Layfon agreed. But how? It was easy to say you'd damage your body......But Nina knew that too.
Layfon knew training was not enough for Nina to reach what she wanted, and he didn't know what advice to give in that area. Sure, he knew on a basic level how one became strong. The head of the orphanage was the first person to teach him the way of the Katana.
Nobody was born with an innate understanding of the Military Arts.
But teaching Nina the Katana wasn't what she needed.
She needed better training in the basics, but......
Layfon couldn't teach her his training in Kei flow. He had already passed that phase of needing someone to teach him how to handle the flow of Kei at a very young age. He could teach Nina some simple steps, but he didn't have the confidence to teach the deeper theories. He knew his own knowledge in this area wasn't an easy thing for others to obtain.
Maybe it'd be presumptuous of him to say this, but what he meant was the ability of a genius. It would be difficult to pass on all of his instincts, instincts that a genius possessed and made real. And as such, none of the other Heaven's Blade successors had apprentices. All they did was concentrate on their own training.
"We're the rarest of the rare, special and strange. We're humans but not entirely humans. Even if we pass on our knowledge, it'd only be one-thousandth, one-ten thousandth, one-billionth. We're those kinds of people, off the beaten path."
Lintence had said that when Layfon was slowly getting the hang of how to control the steel threads technique.
"I taught you this skill as a small experiment. You've reached one-thousandth of my level, but it isn't possible for you to get any better at it. Even if you can control billions of steel threads, they still aren't as sharp as the point of your Katana. It's better for you to use the Katana when you're in a crisis."
Layfon wasn't disappointed at those words. He understood and accepted it. This reality hadn't changed. He felt the running of his Kei flow the best when he held a Katana – not steel threads.
Why was there a difference? He couldn't pass on his skill to Nina when he was unable to explain his own skill.
He shook his head. She would have asked him already if she had wanted to learn from him.
Against Meishen's question, he had no idea how to show them his helplessness at Nina's situation.
"Can't we do anything?"
He shook his head.
"Probably......No, I don't know. We can tell her she's training too recklessly, that she'll seriously injure her body; but is there a purpose to this? There's something she wants to achieve even though she's like this. I find it meaningless to tell her to stop training when we can't help her at all."
Nina wanted to become stronger.
She had always wanted to become stronger. This wasn't some sudden idea of hers.
"Why's she only doing this now? Because she lost the match? Is that all?" Mifi asked reflexively.
Layfon couldn't think of any other reason, but doubt remained. Was that all, really?
"......I think I understand," Naruki said.
They all looked at her.
"This is how I felt when I asked for Layton's help awhile ago. Layton's too strong, so I feel that I can't fight beside you. I don't know how to feel about this other than that. You can say that's how Military Artists think. This feeling is lonely and regretful......Frankly, I'm also jealous. The feeling of only being able to rely on another's power is hard, especially for me as a Military Artist. I think it's harder for her as the captain of the team that you're in."
Listening to that reminded Layfon of Sharnid testing his new Dite.
Though Sharnid had laughed, saying that sniping was not enough for him, that might not have been the only reason. Did Sharnid ask Harley to make him new Dites because of the feeling that Naruki held? And Nina too?
No, she must be criticizing herself even more intensely than Sharnid, right? Because she strongly wanted to save this city......
"If that's the case, then I don't have anything to say......"
It was natural for a Military Artist to want to become strong.
"......But why?" Meishen said.
"Hmm?" Layfon responded. Meishen, not being a Military Artist herself, wouldn't understand......He could think that about her, but the way she voiced her suspicion sounded like more than mere doubt.
Meishen said something vague, but changed her mind. "......I know the captain wants to be stronger, but why can't Layton do anything? Why does Layton have to do anything?"
At first, he didn't understand what she was getting at.
"......The captain wants to become stronger so she can win, right? Does she want the entire platoon to become strong? In that case, it's not just Layfon, but everyone together......"
Was it alright to become stronger alone or was it better to become stronger together? Which one was it? Layfon thought that it was the same either way.
"Together?" he asked.
Meishen nodded, her face all red.
"What's so strange about that?" Mifi asked.
He felt as if something was stuck in his throat, preventing him from speaking.
"I see, it's that simple......" Naruki said, touching her chin.
Something sounded strange. The sound of flowing Whirl Kei had stopped.
Layfon was the first to look over, then Naruki and the other two girls.
Nina had fainted.
It didn't take long to get to the hospital. Layfon had carried Nina to the hospital and the medical students on the night shift had quickly prepared a room for them. The doctor that had been napping came over to do a simple checkup and ordered the nurses to get someone over and prepare an IV. During this time, Layfon had called Harley, and as he was about to return to the patient's room he met Naruki, Mifi and Meishen.
It was now another shift. A different doctor was checking up on Nina. The nurses had changed Nina into patient clothes that were open at the back.
The doctor was placing needles into Nina's back.
"He specializes in Kei vein treatment," the nurse said to Layfon.
"Is this 3rd year Nina Antalk!?" the doctor said, displeased. Could it be because of sleepiness? His eyes looked quite sleepy.
"I never thought a 3rd year in Military Arts could faint in such a stupid way."
"Is it serious?"
"There's a decreasing level of function in her internal organs. She lacks nutrients and has overworked her muscles......Anyway, everything about her is weak. The simple cause is the overworking of the Kei vein."
"Kei can strengthen body functions and speed up healing, but the source of the Kei vein is the flow caused by human activities. Military Artists have a special organ to generate Kei flow, but the basics are the same. No, to a Military Artist, this is the same as increasing their weakness, because that organ is the same as a heart or a brain. If it's damaged, then they might die," the doctor said as he placed more tiny needles into Nina's back. From her waist going upward, as if the needles were mapping out some sort of a terrain.
"Even if the brain's damaged, one can still live in a vegetative state. If a heart's damaged, we can give them an artificial heart. But this is the only organ that is irreplaceable. If the Kei vein is damaged beyond repair, then it's over. I think I said that already in class, that it has to be looked after carefully," he said, continuing to place tiny needles on his patient's back. Although there weren't any professionals in the Academy City, this doctor's skill seemed reliable enough.
"Can she be cured?"
"This isn't fatal. I'm using acupuncture to strengthen her flow of Kei."
"But she can't move for now, and she can't participate in the next platoon match."
"Hum? You don't seem shocked?"
"That type of thing means nothing to me."
"It seems like that rumor of the newbie of the 17th platoon being a weirdo really is true."
So there was such a rumor? The needles spread from the waist to Nina's fingernail and heels.
The doctor placed the last needle on Nina's left heel, and massaged his shoulders.
The nurses adjusted the air-conditioner and left the room.
Nina continued to sleep. Layfon's fast and irregular breathing had now calmed down. A relaxed sigh escaped his mouth, and he remembered the three girls waiting in the corridor. He went out to tell them Nina was all right, that they could go home first. It was almost dawn and the girls also had class next.
"What about Layton?"
"I'll stay here a bit then go."
"......Is there anything you need?" Meishen asked.
Layfon didn't understand what she meant.
"......She'll need things, staying in the hospital."
"Layfon won't be able to prepare everything. We'll bring the things after class."
"Aah, that's all we can do for her," Mifi said as he escorted them to the lobby.
And he saw Harley.
Representing the other two, who weren't here, Harley's face was stiff and green. "How's Nina?"
"I see......Is she all right?"
"She won't be able to participate in the next match."
"That can't be helped," Harley said without resistance. He sighed, relaxed after knowing Nina was all right. "Don't you think it's a shame?"
"What's important is the real match, right?"
Harley's reply gave Layfon courage. To Layfon, the platoon match wasn't at all important, but he wasn't sure whether Nina felt the same.
"I've contacted the other two. I think they'll be here soon......But they aren't the hasty types, huh?" Harley shrugged, not at all criticizing their slowness.
They returned to the patient's room. Harley gasped at the needles covering her body, but he breathed out slowly after seeing her sleeping face.
And suddenly directed his gaze to the wall. His face turned red.
"Can we cover her?"
"......The nurses didn't. If we do it ourselves, it seems......"
Layfon understood Harley's meaning, and he also felt heat creeping up his own face.
After knocking quietly on the door, Felli walked in.
"......What're you doing?" she asked coolly, her gaze sweeping across Nina, her underclothes illuminated by the light, and the two young men.
Losing interest at her tongue-tied teammates, Felli observed Nina's face. After confirming that Nina was all right, she once again put her face closer to the captain's.
Felli was in uniform. It was not yet dawn, but neither her hair nor uniform showed signs of her having slept.
Layfon was peeking at the two girls. Felli moved her gaze away and looked at him.
He hastily moved his gaze back to the wall.
"I didn't see anything."
"Giving that response means you're a pervert."
Unable to fight back, he could only moan.
"Never mind, that's not important. What's important is......" Her gaze landed on Harley, then she took out a big envelope from her bag.
"My brother gave me this."
Layfon read the letter.
He had already guessed the contents of the letter before Felli opened the envelope. And after observing Harley's reaction, stiffening and recovering and then looking at Nina, Layfon understood more.
Back at the bed, Felli was checking whether Nina was truly asleep.
Inside the envelope was a photo.
"This is the second image from the drone."
The image was the same as the last one, but it was clearer and sharper. Maybe because it was closer to the city.
That thing was fastened high on the face of a mountain. Was it sleeping? Its wings were folded, laying on top of each other. Its body was curled up.
A filth monster.
It was a male......In which phase? Layfon couldn't judge from the photo.
If only it would continue to sleep; but this hope was far from possible.
"Has the city......Has Zuellni changed direction?"
When a city detected a filth monster, it'd take evasive action. Every mobile city acted this way, including Zuellni.
Felli shook her head. "Zuellni's still heading straight in that direction. At this rate, it'll encounter the filth monster the day after tomorrow."
The day after tomorrow......Was the weekend, and the day of the platoon match. It appeared that the 17th platoon would have to give up on the match.
Layfon sighed. He put the photo back inside the envelope and returned it to Felli.
"The Dite's ready. You can use it anytime," Harley said.
"The combat gear for external use is ready. My brother wants you to depart tomorrow night if possible."
"Are you afraid?" Felli suddenly asked.
"Of fighting the filth monster."
Of course he was afraid. That line touched his lips but did not leave them. It wasn't because he thought he'd lose face by confirming his fear, but he hesitated at the expectation and hope in Felli's eyes.
"It's a bit late for you to be asking that question."
As if imitating Layfon, wanting to say something and deciding not to, Felli's lips opened and closed. She sighed, a sigh of one who knew how many times cuter and more beautiful that sigh could be.
"Can't you stop......?" she murmured. Confirming Nina's condition once more, she left the room.