Chapter 1 - Stomach Clock and Chocolate Time / "Study for Saint Valentine's Day"
"Let me make myself clear, I'm just going out to play next! There's absolutely nothing else going on or any secret purpose, so don't mind me at all!"
It was Sunday afternoon. After lunch, while the Yachi living room was shrouded in a lazy atmosphere, Fear changed to go out and made a loud announcement. Naturally, what Haruaki needed to do was not simply seeing her off, waving goodbye and saying: "Take care." Narrowing his eyes, he asked:
"Hey... What are your intentions?"
"I-I don't have any intentions. I'll curse you! It's like... purely a stroll, nothing more!"
"Oh okay, a stroll? Then lemme come along."
"N-No way! Today's stroll involves... Umm—Oh right, trying clothes! Like trying on underwear in a clothing store, there's a whole bunch of boring activities! The schedule is completely packed! If you want to take a stroll with me, that'll mean you finally admit to being a shameless brat, planning to do shameless things! No more shamelessness! Shoo! Shoo!"
Fear made a gesture as though driving a puppy away. Then she looked up at the living room clock with sudden alarm.
"Muu! It's this late already because of too much talking! I'll be late unless I hurry—So, I'll be taking a stroll alone, without being suspicious at all! Definitely back before dinner!"
Before Haruaki could stop her, Fear had already run outside. Soon after, the sound of the main door being opened and closed frantically was heard. With that, peace and quiet returned to the living room once more.
"What's going on? It's better to chase her straight away, right...?"
"Hmm, it should be fine. Lately, she looks like she's getting quite used to this city, so she shouldn't be doing anything too weird."
Sip~ Konoha spoke as she drank her tea. How odd, Haruaki thought. Normally, Konoha would be the first to keep Fear under strict monitoring instead.
"Maybe... Hmm~ Although she's always like this, it's worrying if we can't contact her when something happens. I should have asked her to take a cellphone with her."
"Just buy one for her. I'll help sponsor part of the cost."
Rolling about on the tatami floor, Kuroe spoke in a lively tone of voice. The Dan-no-ura beauty parlor was still open for business today, but Kuroe was taking a break for almost an hour, making a visit home for lunch. Although it saved the cost of buying lunch, conversely, she also lost an opportunity to pull in more customers. Haruaki felt that it was a bit pointless. Especially since it happened to be Sunday as well.
"Buying a cellphone for her is fine, but the phone plan is a problem~ I'll have to do some calculations next time and see."
"It's too early to buy a phone for that child. In any case, she won't be out of contact today, so you don't have to worry too much."
Konoha simply closed her eyes while enjoying her tea. What was going on?
"Konoha, you know where Fear went?"
"I can hazard a guess. But due to certain reasons, I've decided not to tell you, Haruaki-kun."
"Kono-san, Kono-san, then could you tell me?"
Kuroe turned her body on the tatami floor and rolled over to Konoha's feet under the table. Konoha sighed lightly and whispered something into the ear of Kuroe who was using her lap as a pillow. Next, Kuroe rolled back out from under the table.
"Oh~ I see I see, I get it now. Looks like things are getting very interesting."
"You really can't tell me?"
"Secret~ Mufufu, don't worry, you'll find out eventually. In fact, Haru might very well have forgotten this by then... You'll definitely be more happy if you forget."
For some reason, Kuroe glanced at the calendar hanging on the wall while smiling profoundly.
"Hmm~? What on earth is going on...?"
To be frank, Haruaki was completely lost, tilting his head alone in bewilderment.
While continually referring to a memo throughout her journey, Fear finally reached her destination, an apartment building. Following the instructions given beforehand, she keyed the room number into the panel at the entrance. The automatic door opened simultaneously as the occupant's voice was heard. Truly high tech indeed.
Using the brand new elevator to travel up to the predetermined floor, Fear lingered a little in the spotlessly clean corridor where not a trace of rubbish could be found, before finally finding the target room. She could not help but feel excited as she pressed the intercom—Soon after, the door to the flat opened.
"Hi Fear-kun, welcome."
"Kirika, I have arrived! Today I'll be relying on you!"
Led by Kirika, Fear entered the flat. This was her first time to visit a home known as an apartment so it felt very refreshing for her. The interior was not as cramped as she expected, but since she had no idea what an average apartment was like, it was quite possible that this apartment was more high-class than average.
"So... Did you bring what I asked you to buy?"
"Of course. After all, I'm the one who asked you to instruct me, so just leave the little things to me. Let's see... Chocolate bars... Is this enough?"
Fear had made a shopping stop at a convenience store along the way just now. Peering into the plastic bag Fear had handed over, Kirika nodded.
"Yes, that should be enough."
"Great. But to be honest, this is quite different from what I imagined from the word 'handmade'... Because this is already chocolate."
"After all, you can't really start making it from cocoa beans. Don't worry, this still counts as being handmade."
Kirika placed the chocolate bars on the table. Suddenly, she remembered something and looked up:
"By the way, let's first make an important decision... What are you planning on making?"
"You're asking me what I'm making...? Of course it's chocolate!"
"I know that... What I mean is what kind of chocolate... Oh, let's have a look online."
Kirika opened up the notebook computer on the desk and typed in some words. Instantly, the screen displayed a colorful website (probably).
"Although they all fall under the umbrella category of chocolate, there is actually a diverse variety of types. Also, you don't have to give chocolate for Valentine's Day. Chocolate cakes are fine too."
"What, it turns out to be like that!? Muumuumuu..."
Fear frowned and stared intently at the computer screen. This looked like a website with a special feature introducing Valentine's Day. On it was written the advertising slogan: "With this, you can capture your beloved's heart!" At the same time, many photos were published of all sorts of chocolate confectionery.
"Uuumuu~ All of them look quite tasty. Mmm... Huh!? No wait, now's not the time to be drooling. I'm looking at them to decide which type I'm making."
"Did you find a type you like?"
"If I had to say it, I like all of them."
After a while of continuously browsing through the confectionery photos, Fear suddenly realized something.
"By the way, Kirika, what are you planning to make? Duplicating would be bad, right?"
"...I haven't decided yet, so you don't need to worry about me."
"Hmm, then there's no problem."
So, what should I make? The problem is what would the shameless brat be the most happy to eat—No wait, I seem to be getting ahead of myself. After all, it's my first time making chocolate. There's no need to finish in one go the chocolate I'm going to give to Haruaki. I should use today's opportunity to prioritize improving my skills first. That's right, there's still some time before Valentine's Day, so I just need to decide before then... Yes, that'll be the plan.
"Okay. Anyway, I just wanna use today for increasing my chocolate-making experience. I'm sorry, Kirika, but could you help me pick a type of chocolate from all these choices, something that even a novice can make?"
"In other words, let's practice first. What a great idea. Then how about this—ganache? I think it'll help you get a feel for what chocolate is like after you reprocess it manually."
Kirika operated the mouse and clicked a photo, popping up a webpage that showed a recipe.
"Okay—Let's start with that! Fufu, this is the first step towards 30000yen's worth of rice crackers!"
Even as a novice currently, I am definitely more perfect and competent than that Cow Tits. All I need to do is train diligently from this point onwards to improve my skills. When the real contest is here, I'll surely surpass her. In other words, victory is already 80% in my hands now. Hence, Fear believed with great certainty:
(I'm winning for sure...!)
What sort of expression would Haruaki make when receiving her chocolate and how awesome a return gift was he going to give back?
Simply the thought of that was enough to seriously fill Fear with incomparable anticipation.
February 14 arrived.
"Whew~ What nice tea..."
As usual, Haruaki was sitting in the Yachi home's veranda, his eyes half closed like an old man while drinking tea. After making sure no one else was around, Fear slowly approached him from behind.
"Yeah, what's up?"
A familiar idiotic expression. Fear inexplicably felt her heart racing while she shoved to Haruaki the bag she had been holding behind her back.
"For you. Because it's... Valentine's Day. It's basically a thank you gift for your everyday care."
"Eh? Really? I'm so happy... No way, you made it yourself?"
"That's right, I put my very heart and soul into it."
"Amazing. I'm so touched... Can I eat it?"
"Ch-Chocolate is meant to be eaten, it's not like it's for decoration. Of course you can."
"Haha, but in my view, I'd rather put it up as decoration to commemorate this."
Haruaki took out the chocolate from the paper bag and picked up a piece. Staring at the chocolate, he seemed to take a gulp. Was he worried...? No, it must be because it looks too tasty so he could not wait to let his tongue savor the sweet and wonderful taste. Definitely without a doubt.
"Okay, I'm gonna start."
Haruaki announced carefully and placed the piece of chocolate in his mouth. Fear watched the scene unfold without blinking at all. No problem, it was definitely going to be fine. Because she had worked so hard. And she definitely tasted it.
Suddenly, Haruaki froze. What? Did it taste bad? Impossible...!
Just as Fear's heart raced wildly—
"D-Delicious! Too delicious—! So delicious that even a three-star pastry chef would be forced to make a barefooted escape!"
Haruaki abruptly hugged her. Because it was too sudden, Fear made a strange sound.
"Ah... Hey Haruaki, you shameless brat! Let me go now... I-I'll... curse you...!"
"It's super delicious! Really super delicious, Fear! It's way better than what Konoha gave me!"
"R-Really? Good to know—H-Hey, I got the message, okay, stop rubbing your face in that kind of place..."
"Oh sorry sorry, I got carried away in a moment of excitement. So, I'm giving you a return gift for White Day! Here you go, 30000yen's worth of rice crackers! Eat as much as you want today!"
With a shameless expression on his face, Haruaki took out a bag of rice crackers from somewhere and handed it reverently to Fear. Only now did she just notice that Haruaki was so touched that tears were streaming all over his face.
The characters bearing 'thirty thousand' were carved on each piece of rice cracker. These rice crackers were not worth 30000yen each, were they? To think one could eat their fill of such high-class rice crackers. Fear sat down on the veranda and opened the bag of rice crackers. Instantly, an intense aroma drifted out. She picked up a piece and took a bite. As though freshly baked, the rice cracker gave off a delightful crunch. Then an indescribably complex and concentrated flavor began to spread from her tongue—Nothing less expected from 30000yen rice crackers, so delicious, completely out of this world!
Fear kept eating, wolfing them down ravenously, her hands unable to pause for even an instant.
"Oh... Ohoh... So happy... I'm so extremely happy...!"
"Really? That's wonderful, I've very happy too."
She looked at Haruaki beside her, feeling her heart racing even faster. He was smiling as usual, sitting next to her, drinking tea with a gentle smile on his face. After watching for a while, Fear felt a sense of discomfort in the depths of her heart and could not help but shift her gaze away. Before she knew it, she had already picked up the cup before her and was drinking tea in an attempt to calm her emotions. On this calm and peaceful veranda, the two of them were alone, drinking tea together.
"Uh... What should I say, basically..."
Fear was hesitant, unsure of what she should say. At this moment, she suddenly felt bad about hogging these delicious rice crackers all to herself.
"Oh yeah! I-It's all because you're staring at me with such greedy eyes, fine, I'll give you a piece at least. This is... really... very tasty... Munch munch munch."
Fear chewed a rice cracker while shoving another piece towards Haruaki. He smiled gently and said:
"Thank you. However, what delights me the most is seeing you so happy. No need for a whole piece, just giving half will do. So—Here I go."
Fear held her breath. Haruaki's face gradually occupied her entire field of view. Haruaki... Ahhh, Haruaki—He was currently bringing his lips towards her, biting the other end of the rice cracker sticking out her mouth.
"Ahhh... Truly... so delicious..."
Separated by nothing but a rice cracker, Haruaki's face was right before her eyes. While chewing the rice cracker, he slowly drew his lips closer to Fear. Her heart raced uncontrollably. Crunch. Halfway point surpassed. Hold it. Wait, Haruaki, if you keep on eating, your lips... Your lips... Will touch with mine—
At this moment, Fear suddenly regained her senses.
"F-Fear-kun, what's the matter?"
"H-Huff... W-What's going on, what did I just do...?"
Panting, Fear looked all around her. Oddly enough, her memories were in total chaos. This place was—that's right—the kitchen at Kirika's home. In order to make chocolate for Valentine's Day, she had asked Kirika to be her coach and instructor. Then making her first visit to Kirika's home, she had decided to start with making something simple—
"Fear-kun, are you alright...?"
"O-Of course I'm alright. Absolutely alright. I just spaced out for a moment there. Uh, no, I suddenly just felt like screaming out once..."
"...Very well. It's very dangerous if you move carelessly when holding a kitchen knife."
Speaking of which—Fear looked down at her hands. She was holding a kitchen knife. On the kitchen counter was a cutting board with chocolate bars on top. Under Kirika's tutelage, she was currently performing the step of cutting the chocolate into small pieces. After coughing drily once, Fear focused her attention again.
"I must focus... There's no time for spacing out. Cut cut..."
Fear returned to her original task, producing a drumming sound while she chopped away with the kitchen knife in an unrefined manner. Her movements were unrefined because she was not used to handling a kitchen knife. This could not be helped. Absolutely, this was not because she was venting her anger or trying to hide her embarrassment.
A certain matter suddenly awakened in her mind, one that she had been pondering for a long time now. Fear could feel her cheeks turning red. At the same time, she swung the kitchen knife even more violently.
Strange, this really was too strange.
She was simply giving chocolate to him out of gratitude for taking care of her on a daily basis. She was doing all this out of a very practical wish: giving better chocolate than Cow Tits, making Cow Tits recognize her ability, and while she was at it, receive the best return gift from Haruaki.
That was obviously the situation here.
—Then why was she having such weird delusions?
Kirika looked up from the sheet of paper where the recipe was printed and glanced at Fear. The way Fear was chopping with the knife really looked as though she were venting her anger. She also made a strange scream suddenly just now. Did something happen?
(Valentine's Day... huh...)
Busy thinking over other matters recently, Kirika had temporarily prevented herself from pondering this lively festival—However, it could very well be time that she started making preparations.
Preparing... Courtesy chocolate.
(That's right... I... have no intention of competing.)
But it would be a lie to say that she had not considered the possibility of handing over a different type of chocolate. She had considered it. Of course she did. Yes, she admitted it openly to herself. After all, even that rotten older brother knew already, hence she had long gone past the point of denial—
She... loved him.
However, so what? She was unable to give chocolate to him that harbored this level of significance.
She had considered that option already, but she was the one who ruled it out.
Perfectly natural. No way. Impossible. Because there was no way. Because it was impossible.
All she permitted was imagination alone. What did it matter? From the moment this body was enveloped in a curse, the moment she was forced to wear this, she had already abandoned all sorts of things. For someone like her, imagination alone was more than enough. Simply keeping him in her thoughts was more than enough.
Seriously? Kirika asked herself.
She closed her eyes lightly and answered sincerely from the heart.
Kirika decided to hand over her chocolate on the roof. On that day of the cultural festival, she had created a little happy memory that she probably would not forget for the rest of her life. This memory of the "first time" that she had stolen while he was asleep—
"Class Rep, what's up? Why did you ask me to come here?"
"No... Nothing important. It's just that it might cause other people to have all sorts of unnecessary misunderstandings if they saw, which would cause you all sorts of trouble, so... Umm... Anyway, here you go! This is for you! Hmph! Seriously, how absolutely ridiculous!"
She shoved her handmade chocolate into his chest. He stared slightly wide-eyed and accepted the chocolate. He seemed quite surprised—Indeed, to think an uncute girl like her would give chocolate to him, surely it must be quite unexpected. She must view herself realistically.
Since she had delivered the gift already, there was nothing more to do. Kirika quickly walked over to the roof entrance and said:
"Of course, although it's so absolutely ridiculous that I shouldn't need to say this. Don't get the wrong idea, this is courtesy chocolate."
He murmured softly in serious tone of voice. There was a hint of regret mixed in his voice, why?
Kirika could not help but pause in her steps. From behind came the following words:
"Really... What a shame."
"A shame... What?"
"In other words, I really hope it's not courtesy chocolate. Oh well, I'll just say it directly. I actually—you, Class Rep..."
She turned around. Then his voice jumped into her ear.
Incomprehensible. She clearly heard beyond a doubt but could not understand his words. How could that be possible? Absolutely ridiculous. Impossible. That sort of thing... That sort of thing—
No wait, let me confirm again. What did you just say?
"I said, I—you, Class Rep."
Her voice was trembling extremely as though it were not her own voice.
Approaching step by step, he spoke with a very sincere voice and a very serious expression.
"It's true, I've always wanted to be together with you, Class Rep."
"A-Absolutely ridiculous... D-Don't joke around. Th-That kind of thing, who would believe—"
"Then if I do this, will you believe me?"
While saying that, he embraced her tightly from the front.
An electrical current rushed through her brain, instantly short circuiting all thoughts, memories and emotions. Her heart raced insanely. Body temperature. His body temperature was mixing with hers. Breathing, breathing, breathing breathing breathing.
Kirika forcibly suppressed the urge to give in completely to him and squeezed her voice out:
"N-No way. I..."
"Of course it's okay. Of course you can, Class Rep."
A gentle voice. His arms tightened around her, pressing her body against his especially broad chest. A sense of comfort. A sense of comfort that she absolutely could not accept. In order to maintain her identity. The sensation of the thing under her uniform was probably being transmitted to him through his embrace.
"N-No way, really no way... Did you forget? I... am cursed. Is this really okay? You can't accept it, right? I... No matter what, cannot take this off, so..."
Raising her trembling arms, she tried to push him away, but to no avail. Instead, his hands moved gently over her back in a soothing manner, following the lines of that cursed bondage suit, touching her neck, then lightly lifting up her skirt—
"I don't mind."
"H-How could you... not mind. I can't take it off. At all times, during all activities, no exceptions. Even when taking a bath, also, umm..."
"I really don't mind. Simply being with you like this, Class Rep, makes me very happy. And even if you're wearing a bondage suit, I don't mind either. No, if anything..."
"I-If anything... What...?"
Her mind began to grow hazy. His face was up close, right before her eyes. Serious yet gentle, his face displayed the confidence to accept everything about her. It was okay? It was really okay? Entrusting everything of hers to this guy?
Then he spoke in a voice without any ambiguity at all:
"To be honest—This is even more arousing."
Under her uniform, she heard the sound of «Gimestorante's Love» being unzipped somewhere.
Ahhh, oh no. Oh no. In this manner... In this manner...
All she could muster was a powerless murmur like this.
In the next instant, her arms gradually lost the strength to resist—
At this moment, Kirika suddenly regained her senses.
"K-Kirika, what's with you!?"
Kirika tore up the recipe on the paper in her hands and scrunched the pieces into a ball. Then she threw it into the nearby trash can with all the brute force she could muster. Next, she laid herself on the table and performed a forceful bear hug on the surface—Were Fear not present, she would surely have banged her head repeatedly against the table. Die! I should go and die!
"Huff, huff... W-Why... would this happen to me...!?"
"H-Hey, Kirika, are you okay?"
As soon as her emotions calmed down—even though her heart was still beating rapidly—Kirika looked up. Currently cutting chocolate with the kitchen knife, Fear was watching her with a puzzled look. How embarrassing. How embarrassing to the extreme.
"N-No... It's nothing... at all."
"Your weird sound and behavior don't look like it's nothing. Are you okay? You even tore up the recipe."
"I-Is that so? I'm really sorry for scaring you. Just now, that was... That... Yes! A memorizing technique! It's like erasing something from a set of cue cards. In other words, now that I've already memorized the contents of this recipe, I secure the memory in my mind completely by throwing the recipe away!"
"I've never heard of that kind of technique before... That's probably why you get such good grades on tests. On the other hand, I think it'd be more easy to forget since you can't refer to it and check anymore, but if you say so, it must be true. Lemme try it out next time I have a test."
The forced excuse apparently worked, just barely. Although Fear was tilting her head in puzzlement, she still turned her gaze back to the cutting board.
How unbelievable. Kirika really could not believe herself. Ahhh, seriously—
Why was she having such weird delusions?
How absolutely ridiculous.
Fear and Kirika were in the living room, trying out the ganache they had finished making.
"Wow! Although it still tastes like chocolate, it's very thick! This texture is totally new for me!"
While stuffing the ganache into her mouth, Fear could see from the corner of her eye that Kirika was tilting her head in puzzlement. Delicious. Fear never expected the first chocolate she made in her life to be so tasty... As expected of herself. Fear knew she had cooking talent in herself after all. Yes, although the shape was a little off, that was something that would come with practice. Probably.
"Chew chew. Ah, why am I the only one eating? Kirika, you should eat some as well. It came out this tasty only because you were teaching me!"
"Haha, then I'll try one. Hmm, it's really quite good."
"But excellent taste aside, it's still a bit too simple. As for whether it'll make Haruaki ecstatic when he receives it... Or rather, can it defeat Cow Tits... What do you think?"
"That's because you're just practicing basic skills for today. Now that you're able to make ganache for sure, you can combine with other ingredients to make all kinds of chocolates, such as truffles."
"Hmm, I think I've heard that name before. It seems to be something pricey."
"You're thinking of a different kind of truffle..."
Then let's trying making that truffle thingy—Although this crossed Fear's mind, she was feeling hungry now that her stomach was stimulated by the chocolate's sweetness. Looking at the wall clock, she saw that it was already the time when Haruaki would start preparing dinner at home. Her stomach clock was apparently quite accurate.
"I guess we're out of time today since I said I'd be home before dinner. If possible—Can I visit again? I'd like you to teach me more."
"Of course. You're welcome to come any time."
Kirika replied with a smile. Seeing as that was the case, Fear felt relieved and popped another piece of ganache into her mouth. Lemme go home after finishing this piece. I'll leave the rest for Kirika as a thank you gift.
"Okay, I'd better get going." Saying that, Fear got up and was about to walk to the door when—
"By the way... Fear-kun, umm... I have something to tell you."
"Oh, what is it? Is it about what kind of chocolate we're making next time?"
"No, this has nothing to do with Valentine's Day... However..."
Stuttering, her eyes wandering, Kirika seemed to want to say something but was hesitant. Next, she crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes, turning her gaze down while entering deep thought. Fear inclined her head and waited for Kirika to continue, but—
"No... I guess I really should mention this when everyone is present. Also, that girl needs to be there too..."
Kirika murmured to herself and concluded on her own. Shaking her head lightly, she said:
"Sorry. I'll tell you tomorrow—during the lunch break. Don't worry about it."
"I don't really get it at all but anyway, see you tomorrow. You really helped me a lot today, thank you."
"Don't mention it, I had fun too. You're welcome to visit again any time."
After waving goodbye to each other, Fear walked out of the apartment. While making her way towards the elevator lobby, Fear suddenly wondered.
(Just now, Kirika was making a very serious expression. What happened...?)
No amount of pondering would obtain the answer. Yes, after all, since Kirika was going to tell her tomorrow, there was no point worrying over it. All she needed to do was listen to what Kirika wanted to tell them tomorrow and devote herself to helping out if possible.
Fear nodded on her own and entered the elevator that happened to stop on this floor.
Then in her haste to hurry home for dinner, she pressed the button for the ground floor repeatedly.
The next day was Monday. After finishing their lunch, Haruaki and company were called by Kirika to the roof. Probably due to the chilly weather of January, no one was in the mood for lunch on the roof. Apart from Haruaki's group, no other students could be seen.
"Eh? Class Rep still isn't here?"
"I think she said she had something else to do first. Anyway, let's wait until she arrives."
"Yes, but the weather is a bit chilly. Should we go buy a few cans of hot tea?"
Haruaki, Fear and Konoha waited for a while on the chilly roof—
"...Sorry for making you wait."
"Oh, it's you, Class Rep. It's okay, but what do you want to talk about... Eh?"
Halfway in his sentence, Haruaki suddenly fell silent. Behind Kirika was yet another figure. Kirika looked back over her shoulder, threw a glance at the girl and said:
"I'm late because I needed to get this girl. The next step requires her presence."
"My question: Asking what is the unknown matter. Because of this, I am unable to leisurely enjoy that most tasty food—meat bun."
Someone was eating meat buns for lunch at school? Was she ignoring the school rule that prohibited going out during break in order to buy meat buns at the convenience store outside? Or did she simply bring them to school as her lunch? ...Despite these many questions, Haruaki decided to put them aside for now. The person before them was undoubtedly Un Izoey. The one feeling the most wary about her should be Kirika, so why bring her here?
In any case, the group first sat down in a circle. Konoha and Kirika were kneeling on floor with their knees together, but Fear was sitting casually with her knees drawn up to her chest while Un Izoey sat cross-legged. Haruaki really wished the latter two could be slightly more aware of the fact that they were wearing skirts.
"Next, I wish to hold a discussion—rather, an announcement meeting. Frankly speaking, I should have brought this up sooner. I am truly sorry for not telling everyone until now. Although even if I didn't mention it, you'll probably find out from the superintendent's side soon... However, I should be the one explaining this matter."
"Uh... What is it?"
Kirika's tone of voice suddenly became very serious. Although Haruaki was unsure of what she wanted to talk about exactly, he had a vague feeling. Lately, what frequently occupied Kirika's mind was definitely this matter.
Very seriously, Kirika swept her gaze across everyone. Then she spoke:
"Simply stated... It's about the mathematics teacher at this school, Himura Sunao."
Hearing her suddenly mention this name, Haruaki was quite troubled. Naturally, he recognized this person.
Just as Kirika described, he was a mathematics teacher who also taught Haruaki's class. He was always muttering gloomily, a man with an exceedingly poor sense of presence. Due to his long bangs, his expression was basically never seen clearly. However, he was never witnessed losing his temper. Haruaki's only impression of him was a teacher who taught seriously despite the ghost-like gloomy aura he exuded. Furthermore, he started being hospitalized long term during the second term due to illness and had not returned to school. Why would Kirika mention his name now?
"Class Rep, did something happen to Himura-sensei?"
"Nothing happened in particular. Although I haven't told you all this time... He's actually a member of the Lab Chief's Nation and will be returning to this school soon. What I want to discuss is how to deal with him when the time comes."
Kirika continued to explain. Back when she was still a member of the Lab Chief's Nation, Himura-sensei was something like a partner to her. Back when Haruaki and Kirika were abducted by Alice Bivorio Basskreigh, the masked man who had forcibly rescued Kirika and left Haruaki behind was Himura-sensei. Then Kirika had caused a car accident, causing him to be hospitalized ever since—
"The man from that time... was Himura-sensei?"
"Yes. Because I caused him to be hospitalized, there was temporarily no need to worry about his meddling, which is why I delayed the explanation until now... Or rather, I couldn't find a suitable opportunity to explain... In any case, I apologize."
"Hmm, come to think of it, I seem to remember such a teacher, but not really... Or maybe I've no recollection? Anyway, his sense of presence was too weak, I can't quite remember. And he disappeared not long after I transferred in."
"Granted that may be true, you still must have attended his lessons multiple times. Putting that aside, back to Kirika-san, since you say he will return, that means Himura-sensei will be discharged from the hospital soon?"
Hearing Konoha's question, Kirika shook her head.
"No actually, he seems to have left the hospital a while ago. Currently, who knows if he is recuperating at home or still engaging in new research at the Lab Chief's Nation... However, what is certain is that he will be returning to his post soon. I've asked other teachers and also confirmed with Kaidou-sensei and the superintendent's side."
"What did the superintendent say?"
"'With no omissions in procedure, there are no grounds to refuse his return to his teaching post. Although one member of the Lab Chief's Nation has already been accepted, what difference would having two make...? Oh dear, what do you think?'—He acted like it was none of his business. Absolutely ridiculous."
Kirika clicked her tongue disapprovingly while she spoke. Haruaki did not know if it was aimed at the overly laid back superintendent or Himura who was about to return.
"Indeed, what difference would having two make... To be honest, I've no idea, which is why I called this girl here."
Kirika glared at the one person present who had been silent all along. Despite facing Kirika's vicious gaze, she spoke without any change in expression:
"The purpose of this gathering is now known. But I answer by giving this kind of answer: no special change, probably. About the research observations about you, it is now known that a researcher called Himura Sunao will participate, but I have not seen him yet. Neither has special discussion taken place."
Un Izoey spoke while facing Kirika's gaze directly. She did not sound like she was lying. Kirika stared at Un Izoey for quite a while before finally shifting her gaze and murmuring:
"...In that case, fine."
"Uh... I already know that Himura-sensei is from the Lab Chief's Nation. Then according to this girl, even if he intends to return, it looks like he's not planning any special operation... Probably. In that case, what should we do?"
"The way I feel about it, so long as that guy is hospitalized again, I don't care if it takes a sneak attack or something."
That would be too dangerous, right? Haruaki looked towards Kirika. Whether in expression or tone of voice, she was very serious, hence it was even more frightening... Did she really hate Himura that much?
"My statement: if any of you intend to harm a researcher, my coworker, I cannot ignore it for sure."
"Hmph—I'm just kidding. Since you've neither met him for any discussions nor do you have any plans, we're done with you here. We'll handle the rest ourselves."
Kirika ignored Un Izoey and turned to Haruaki's group again.
"Frankly speaking, that guy can't be trusted. Yachi, perhaps you're still able to understand since you're left behind back when we were imprisoned by Bivorio... In any case, that guy is a quintessential member of the Lab Chief's Nation, motivated by nothing except the prospects of researching the unknown. In this regard, he even rivals Yamimagari Pakuaki."
"If he's on the same level as that guy, that's really quite a problem."
Fear frowned and groaned.
"Yes, that's why I believe you should all be as wary of him as you would against Yamimagari Pakuaki. Stay vigilant at all times and keep away from him. Best to avoid speaking to him. Due to the student-teacher relationship, there may be situations where it's impossible to avoid contact, but never face him alone. Who knows what he could do."
"About you guys, the Lab Chief's current attitude should be observation without undertaking any other research."
"I really wish these words of yours could be believed. How absolutely ridiculous."
Kirika finished and stood up. The meeting was apparently over. Haruaki and his group also got up.
"In any case, don't approach that Himura guy, right? Understood."
"In other words, the people we need to be wary of increased by one. Yes, by this point, there isn't much difference whether it's one or two. In any case, you should maintain the status quo and avoid doing anything weird. Okay, you'll be late for next period if you don't hurry back."
"Affirmative... My question: is next period Modern Japanese? I confess a confession that I am actually not very good at it."
"There's nothing 'actually,' about it, anyone can tell you're not good at Japanese simply from the way you speak. Please learn proper Japanese faster."
While listening to this exchange, Haruaki walked over to Kirika's side to exit the roof. At this moment, Kirika spoke quietly:
"Sorry, maybe my warnings have raised everyone's alert unnecessarily."
"But Class Rep, you told us only because you believe that we should be wary of that guy. It's okay. Although I don't like suspecting others, it'd be too late if something really happened."
"...That's right. If anything really happened, it'd be too late..."
Kirika glanced sideways at him, her eyes incomparably serious.
"Let me repeat myself, Yachi, you must beware of that man."
"Y-Yes. But compared to me, I guess Fear and Konoha needs to even more..."
At the same time as her objection, Kirika stopped walking for only an instant.
"Or rather, I should say—You're the one who should take the most precautions against him. So be more careful."
Kirika resumed walking, moving even faster than before. When Haruaki stepped onto the staircase leading to the roof, Kirika very quickly passed him.
While Haruaki looked at her back, he seemed to hear a very quiet "sorry."
Hence, during third period a few days later—
"Umm... Hello everyone... It's been quite a while. Sorry for causing everyone trouble all because of my ill health..."
Standing before the lectern was a gloomy and muttering mathematics teacher—Himura Sunao. His long bangs obscured his face, preventing a clear view of his expression. Conversely—actually, that was not aptly put either—In any case, Haruaki turned his head slightly to look at a certain girl sitting nearby.
This girl student's expression was easily read and understood. Kirika was glaring at the teacher sharply, overtly wary of him. Haruaki turned his eyes again to see Fear staring ahead vigilantly though not to Kirika's level.
"So... I'm quite sorry but please turn to page 180 of the textbook..."
Himura did not pay special attention to the two girls and started the lesson as usual. Quiet voice, gloomy tone, excessively weak presence. Haruaki recalled the masked man he met back when Bivorio had kidnapped him. Compared to that man's arrogant tone of voice and attitude, this was worlds apart. Nevertheless—come to think of it, there was a similarity in voice. Definitely for sure.
(But even if she asks me to be careful...)
What could he do exactly? This was an ordinary lesson. A lesson no different from the ones Himura delivered before getting hospitalized.
If anything, only one thing was different.
Namely, no matter how sleep deprived from the previous night, no matter how gloomy the teacher's voice sounded, it looked like Haruaki was not going to be falling asleep, at least in mathematics class.
Once returned home, Kirika took a deep breath.
"Nothing happened at all huh..."
Although she still could not relax or stop worrying, at least the first day of Himura's return went by without incident. He had not made any attempt on his own to approach her. Naturally, she did not approach him on her own either. Not even a single word exchanged. Kirika really wished that she would not have to speak with him ever again.
Placing her schoolbag on the table, just as she was thinking "let me get changed first then it's time for homework" and walking towards her wardrobe—Her cellphone rang.
An ominous feeling. After she saw the unfamiliar number displayed on the LCD, this feeling further strengthened.
'To think you'd put my number on ignore, how terrible. All because of that, I had no choice but to change phone numbers. Hmm, on the other hand, I already expected this beforehand.'
Kirika could feel her emotions freezing rapidly, but at the same time, something did not feel right. Something was off.
The voice. It was unlike the arrogant and confident voice he used in the past or the gloomy one heard in the classroom. If anything—It was a normal voice somewhere intermediate.
"What do you want?"
'I can understand why you're so wary of me, but listen to me. I—have decided to change.'
"Change...? Change what?"
'It's very simple. I'm changing my way of life, my way of thinking.'
"Don't make me laugh."
'I'm not joking. Actually, while I was in the hospital, I was scolded by the Lab Chief once. Apparently, I was too coercive in various ways all this time, thus causing you a lot of trouble. Sorry.'
Kirika felt a sense of dizziness. What happened? This man could not possibly be speaking these words.
"Himura, what are you planning?"
'Nothing at all. Hmm, I don't think you'll believe me straight away... However, I just think that I need to inform you first in order to turn over a new leaf.'
"I'm hanging up. I've no interest in chatting with you about such absolutely ridiculous life philosophies. Don't call again."
'Hold on, I've one more thing to say apart from that. Something important—Rather, a request.'
"Your brain must have a problem if you really think I'll listen to your request. You've called the wrong number. Or perhaps, you've even forgotten a three digit number?"
'Sigh...' Himura seemed to sigh lightly on the other end of the line.
'Because you're the only one I can ask. Besides, this is related to you too.'
"Related to me? Absolutely ridiculous, I've already severed all ties to the Lab Chief's Nation completely!"
'I really don't want to say this, because it'll sound like I'm blackmailing you—But I guess it's impossible to communicate otherwise, so I still have to say it. Since you're so smart, you should have an inkling even if I don't say it out. What I mean by 'related,' in other words—'
'This problem, which I'm burdened with, stems entirely from your actions.'
After hearing Himura's words, Kirika understood. With a feeling of despair, she understood.
Precisely. It was related to her. She was responsible.
She had not forgotten. On the other hand, neither had she proactively kept this matter on her mind. How absolutely ridiculous. Clearly she could not be forgiven for something like that.
Ahhh, this... definitely was...
Absolutely impossible to pretend it never happened—
The day after Himura returned to teach at school...
Starting from that morning, Kirika looked very off. Although her wariness against Himura the previous day was not quite normal either, today, she was even more unusual.
Agitated. Somber. Deep in thought. Repeated sighing.
When the lunch break arrived, these symptoms still had not changed—
"Too delicious! This stewed dish is indescribably delicious... Akki, you're basically a mom! Mommy~!"
"Who the heck is Mommy!?"
"Oh my! It's because my mom is not very good at Japanese cooking! But her stews are lovely."
"Hey Kana, this roasted fish is very good too. The saltiness is perfect!"
The usual lunch duel. Claiming to be taste testing, Kana and Taizou kept using their chopsticks to pick up food from Haruaki's lunchbox as usual. However—
"So, how about the challenger, Kirika-chan? Eh? Hey Kirika-chan~?"
Kirika turned out to be still spacing out. Haruaki, Taizou, Kana, as well as Fear, who was wolfing down a lunchbox identical to Haruaki's, looked at one another. Soon after—
"What do you mean, what~? Kirika-chan, aren't you going to eat lunch?"
"W-Well, eat? Of course I'm eating. But, ah..."
Kirika opened the lid of her lunchbox and stopped. "?" Haruaki and everyone else looked inside.
"Hamburg steak, shumai pork dumplings, cellophane noodles, bean curd skin sushi...? Uh, though it does look very tasty."
"But it looks kind of like a mixed bag... Kirika-chan, aren't you having a lunch duel as usual?"
Taizou and Kana's comments prompted Kirika to turn her gaze away as though trying to hide something:
"That's because... This morning... I didn't know what she wanted to eat... N-No, not that. Umm... I was too careless. Sorry. So please, let's have a truce for today's lunch duel."
"Yeah, we don't mind at all. To think you'd carelessly make this kind of mistake, that's quite unusual for you, Class Rep."
"...I'm like this occasionally. Please don't worry about it."
Taizou and the rest were tilting their heads in puzzlement while Kirika sluggishly started to eat her lunch. For sure, something was not quite right.
Quite concerned, Haruaki decided to talk to Kirika discreetly after they finished eating lunch. Fear also shifted her chair noisily and moved next to Kirika's seat.
"Hey, Kirika, what happened?"
"I'm finding you spacing out all day today... Is this related to Himura-sensei in some way...?"
Haruaki lowered his voice and asked. Kirika was in the process of preparing her textbooks for next period. Her shoulder shook but she said:
"No... Nothing at all."
"Then did some other problem happen? After all, I owe you a ton of favors, I'll help you anytime! All you need to do is ask! Come, tell me! Don't hold back!"
Kirika's lips curled up. This was probably the first time she smiled today, albeit a little weakly.
"Thank you. Well... To be honest... It's because I currently need to handle a certain matter that I'm not used to, so... I'm a bit exhausted. That's all."
"A matter you're not used to...?"
"Nothing major. Yes, seriously... It's nothing important."
Then what was it? Haruaki was just about to pursue the matter when the bell rang for class to begin. "Time for class, so hurry back to your seat." Kirika ended the conversation with a remark very typical of a class representative's.
Left with no choice, Haruaki returned to his seat. Naturally, he remained unconvinced but there was no way he could ignore the lesson to continue questioning. Yes, I'll just have to ask her discreetly after school—Thinking that to himself, Haruaki began his afternoon lessons...
But as soon as school finished, Kirika grabbed her schoolbag and rushed out of the classroom.
"Oh my? Looks like she's rushing off in quite a hurry... Is it related to what she mentioned at lunch? Haruaki, did she tell you anything else after that?"
"Nope. It's really quite weird~"
"I think so too. But Kirika is a smart person. If she ran into a problem she can't handle on her own, she'll definitely discuss with us... I think I can assume this kind of deep and trusting relationship. Conversely, if it's no big deal, she's not going to go out of her way to explain to us."
"Maybe. But it's really quite concerning... Let's ask her again tomorrow."
Haruaki conversed with Fear while packing his things to go home, then exited the classroom.
However—His plan was easily foiled.
Because Kirika was absent from school the next day.
After school, Haruaki and company were walking on the streets in their school uniforms.
"I asked the teacher and heard that she contacted the school and apparently asked for sick leave due to a flu."
"A flu... huh...? Last time when she got drunk, she did mention that her resistance towards internal maladies isn't as strong, so it's possible, but still..."
Fear offered her findings to which Konoha responded with her head tilted, not entirely convinced.
"In any case, since it's only an ordinary flu, we're just making an ordinary patient visit. Just consider it something along those lines. If it turns out not to be a flu but some other problem, we'll just deal with it when the time comes."
"I think that's overthinking things too much... No matter what other important matters there may be, I don't think Class Rep will skip school by feigning illness. She definitely has a flu. Anyway, I bought some sports drinks and other stuff for the visit, but is that enough? After all, Class Rep lives alone, so perhaps I should buy some ingredients for cooking porridge."
"This should be fine, right? She knows how to cook as well, so at least there should be rice ready at home usually. I remember there were eggs in the fridge too—"
"Hmm? How do you know what's inside Class Rep's fridge, Fear?"
"N-No, I mean that most fridges at least have eggs in them—It's a prediction, a prediction! I definitely did not sneak away to visit Kirika's house because of something I can't tell you about!"
Despite saying that, Fear was moving along the route to Kirika's apartment without any hesitation at all. Yes, I'm not together with Fear all day long after all. It's very likely that she once ran over to play at Class Rep's home without my knowing. Don't worry about it.
While walking with the rustling plastic bag of visiting gifts, Haruaki soon arrived at the apartment where Kirika lived. Another resident happened to be returning home so Haruaki's group followed him through the automatically locked entrance to enter the apartment's lobby and take the elevator.
"Wow~ What a beautiful apartment, it looks so expensive..."
"Hmph hmph, you're shocked, right?"
"Why are you acting so smug?"
"Uh... Hmm, it's this one, right? I'm pressing the button."
Ding dong—Haruaki pressed the intercom. Frantic footsteps could be heard from inside the unit, then the door opened extremely slowly, as though the occupant was peeking at the situation outside.
"Wha... I-It's you guys!"
"Sorry for disturbing you so suddenly. Uh..."
"Kirika, we visited to see how you're feeling! Shouldn't you be lying down and resting?"
Answering the door, Kirika was dressed in casual clothing instead of her pajamas. She looked fine and definitely did not resemble a patient.
Kirika stared wide-eyed but soon exhaled as though surrendering.
"Really? Right, because I said I had a flu. Clearly, I should have known you guys would likely visit me. Indeed, my brain currently isn't working very well... Absolutely ridiculous..."
"Class Rep, no way—You're... feigning sickness?"
"Yes. Looks like it's impossible to hide things any longer. No, I should have expected it from the start... I've been thinking I'd explain to you guys later. It's just that I need mental preparation."
"I don't quite get what you're saying... But you must have encountered some kind of problem, right? It must be the 'certain matter' you mentioned at lunch yesterday."
"Problem? You're right, there is indeed a problem."
"If there's any way we can help, we'll definitely help. Anyway, please explain first."
"Of course I'll explain. Also, I'm obliged to explain. Because this is my crime. But it's quite related to you guys too... But first of all, I think it'd be faster if you saw for your own eyes instead of listening to me explain."
Kirika opened the door wide, presumably inviting them inside.
Compared to the last time Haruaki visited—in other words, the time he brought Kirika home after she fainted—not much had changed. Last time, he had seen Kirika on the bed in a state that was equivalent to being nude from her perspective. As the image surfaced in his mind, Haruaki frantically drove it away.
But... Letting us see for ourselves would be faster? What was going on? What was in the apartment? The reason for Kirika's unusual behavior. Matter. Problem. As well as—Crime.
What was she referring to? What would it be?
Haruaki's group gulped as they walked towards the living room.
Then—They saw it.
They stopped breathing. Instantly, the sight before them felt surreal.
Incomprehensible. Everything was incomprehensible. Too unexpected and unbelievable.
Nothing except questions surfaced in Haruaki's mind.
Why was this here?
The window curtain was drawn. Streaming through the curtain, a faint orange glow illuminated the entity in the room hazily.
It was a wheelchair.
On it, a girl sat there, completely motionless.
A slim girl, dressed in a loose-fitting dress resembling a hospital gown, with a head of faded, white hair, wrapped in white bandages the same color as her hair—
Fear could be heard calling out the girl's name in a trembling voice.
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