Chapter 2 - Two Minutes on the Pocket Watch / "The place where heart is"
On that day when she first visited, that place where she knew not a single soul except one, the person she selected as the first person to speak to—was simply due to the fact that their ages were the closest, probably.
Despite being closest in age, she was just a middle schooler who had yet to develop a sense of judgment whereas he was a university student. But back at the time, he had already earned all the necessary credits and seldom attended university. For her to feel that they were similar in age even though they were still many years apart, surely it must have been because all the other people present seemed too mature to her.
In a corner of the research facility, she was looking all around her uneasily. Whenever a person in a lab coat passed by, she would look at them in panic as though wanting to say something but always ended up bowing her head, too afraid to speak. Then she would survey her surroundings again—Repeating ad infinitum.
But just as he passed in front of her, she finally—
"—What is it?"
"I-I'm sorry, I'm lost... C-Could you give me directions?"
Instantly, he felt intrigued. Why would she be lost? Was this her first time here? She was far too young to be a new researcher. Although he had heard that the organization leader was both a genius and an eccentric, often hiring talent without regard to age—Even so, she was far too young. That said, he was also quite young himself.
However, all these unknowns instantly became known after hearing the location she wanted to reach.
"The Lab Chief's office...? I see now, you're the Lab Chief's little sister? I've heard of you. Let me lead you there."
"Th-Thank you. I was with Onii-chan until just now, but we got separated..."
Relieved, she exhaled and smiled.
An honest and innocent smile.
In that very instant, he thought to himself—How different.
She was different from everyone else here: the researchers who spent their days with scowling or frivolous expressions on their face, consumed in their thoughts on how to conquer the unknown. Also different from those he had met so far: sycophantic friends who approached him due to his excellent academic standing and reputation as a genius (though inferior to the Lab Chief) or women who sought either money, future influence or his body.
While feeling the smile directed at him from behind, he advanced. Definitely not the talkative type, nevertheless, he decided that walking in silence would not be good, so he spoke up:
"...What kind of research do you intend to undertake from now on?"
He thought it was a perfectly normal question. After all, this place was a research facility.
However, unbelievably, she responded with silence. After a while, she finally spoke, a little troubled:
"I... 'm not too sure."
"That's right. What should I do? What can I do... I'm still... not too sure."
She must be feeling worried, he thought. About what she should be and the point of her existence henceforth.
"I came over for a look because Onii-chan invited me... But, uh... I don't dislike studying, but I'm nowhere was amazing as Onii-chan... Uh..."
While she spoke, the content of her words became fragmented. He sighed.
"There's no one in this world who's as amazing as your brother. He is a true genius. Of course, I can't imitate him either... Hence, there's no need to try to be like him."
"Just start with things that you're able to do. In other words, this is equivalent to turning the unknown of 'what am I unable to do?' into something known... Impatience is a serious impediment to research."
Even he knew that this was not something he would normally say. He was not trying to comfort her. Neither was he trying to lecture her as a senior. Just that—Knowing the expression of innocence she was displaying behind him, he felt extremely uncomfortable.
He scratched his head and tried to calm his emotions. As it so happened, there was a drink vending machine right on the side. Inserting some change, he bought a can of coffee. After a merely a second's hesitation, he inserted more change and randomly pressed a button—Then turning around, he shoved the second can to the girl.
"Drink. Essentially, everyone here is quite cold. There won't be a welcome party. Consider this a substitute."
Only blinking, she accepted the can. Then as though releasing all the emotions she had penned up all this time, she said:
"O-Okay, thank you!"
Indeed, this was unlike his usual behavior. As though trying to escape from the expression on her face, he turned his head away. Just as he was about to resume walking—Suddenly, he felt a weight on his shoulder.
"Oh~ How nice, someone's treating. Could you treat me to a drink as well?"
When did the Lab Chief appear? The Lab Chief was leaning an elbow against his shoulder, face supported on one hand, smiling as he spoke.
"...If you don't mind drinking canned coffee, I can treat you as many times as you want."
"Hahaha, I'm just kidding. Sorry for troubling you. Thanks for taking care of my little sister."
"No, I didn't do anything."
"Onii-chan, I got lost after you disappeared... He was just about to take me to your office, Onii-chan."
"Oh my, sorry sorry. I lost track of you for a moment."
The Lab Chief reached out and stroked her head. Although she was pouting slightly, her body seemed to be giving off an aura of relief. Apparently, things were fine now.
"...So, I'll be off."
"Oh right, Himura. Hold on."
He was quite astounded that the Lab Chief actually remembered his name. Looking back, he saw the Lab Chief still smiling.
"I have a task for you. I was just thinking who to entrust the task. Looks like this is a kind of fate. I'm sorry but could you serve as this child's instructor for now?"
"Indeed. I've read through your personal details and I remember you have credits in teacher training courses, right? You also look like you're quite good at teaching others... Besides, you've already met this child already. I don't think you mind, right?"
"Ah... No, of course... There's no problem at all."
"Then it's decided. So, what do you say?"
The Lab Chief was the organization's leader. He was just a mere researcher. This was reason enough.
Apart from that—Definitely, there were no other reasons.
"...So long as you believe that I am up to the task."
"Very well, I'm relying on you. At any rate, today's task is simply getting her to my office and that's a wrap for today... Let's go, don't get lost this time."
"It's you who disappeared, Onii-chan—Uh, nice meeting you, please take care of me from now on, Himura-senpai!"
The girl bowed her head politely then followed after her brother. Just as Himura sighed and was about to turn around, he suddenly realized he had not asked for her name.
Watching the backs of the siblings receding in the distance, he heard the following conversation faintly.
"By the way, why did you pick a name like 'Yamimagari Pakuaki,' Onii-chan?"
"Hohoho, this sounds way cooler. As the leader of an organization researching the unknown, my name should be full of mystery as well... Why don't you change your name to Yamimagari Kirika as well?"
"N-No way, that's way too lame."
"To be honest, coming from you, that kind of hurts."
The two's figure disappeared as they turned a corner and their voices could no longer be heard.
(Kirika... huh? I wonder what's her family name...? Looks like it's not Yamimagari at least.)
Thinking over these things, he turned and left.
Her face and her voice, for some reason—kept occupying his mind endlessly.
The next day, he found out her full name—Ueno Kirika.
Mummy Maker. Soon after Fear arrived at the Yachi home, the organization of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion had sent a team to destroy Fear. Possessing the cursed «Chupacabra Bandage», Mummy Maker was the auxiliary assigned to support the mad destroyer, Peavey Barowoi. She had offered Haruaki's group a deal in hopes of protecting Peavey's life, but this backfired and was seen as betrayal by Peavey herself. Then—
"W-Why!? Why is this girl here!?"
Fear pulled out her Rubik's cube from her uniform pocket. Konoha tossed her schoolbag to the floor and readied a knifehand strike. However...
Mummy Maker was completely unresponsive, simply sitting in her wheelchair, staring off into space in a daze—truly in nothing but a daze. Rather than ignoring them, it really seemed as though she did not see Haruaki's group at all... No, it was like she was totally unaware of the outside world—
The light in the room was switched on. Haruaki looked back in surprise. Having pressed the wall switch, Kirika exhaled with a suffering expression.
"There's no need to be so wary. She... won't do anything at all. Rather, she can't do anything at all."
Haruaki asked. Kirika walked slowly over. Picking up the blanket that had fallen in front of the wheelchair, she used it to cover Mummy Maker's thighs. Even so, Mummy Maker remained motionless.
"How should I explain this...? I'm not sure if this is the correct way to put it, but in consideration of simplicity... That's right..."
Then Kirika took a deep breath and said:
"Her mind is broken."
"I don't... get it. What is going on? What on earth happened?"
"No idea. Although I've no idea... More importantly, I remember hearing the knight called Peavey mention that this child was already dead. In other words, she lied...?"
"But she didn't look like she was lying. Besides, judging from the way she said that she absolutely won't forgive Mummy Maker, what would be the point of lying..."
"Let me explain. It's just that I'm not sure where to start..."
At this moment, the doorbell echoed inside the apartment. Haruaki saw Kirika frowning while walking to the entrance. Then warily, she opened the door and the one who appeared was—
"I'm now able to report a bit about the situation and check how things are where I'm here... Looks like you have guests. Hmm, what perfect timing by coincidence. I'd give a hundred marks for that."
As though saying "May I come in?", Himura shrugged, behaving differently from the way he acted in school. Kirika glared viciously at him for a moment before finally agreeing to his request.
"I don't trust you. However, it'll be faster for you to explain. Hurry up and be done with it."
"The price of admission, is it? I understand. Then I shall explain."
Hence, Kirika returned to the living room with Himura. Not only Kirika but also Fear and Konoha gazed at Himura warily. Casually sitting down on the sofa, he swept his gaze over everyone present.
"Hmm... It feels quite strange to see you all outside of school. Anyway, let me make myself clear first. You may have heard already, but I am a member of the Lab Chief's Nation."
"We heard already. Hmph, you're giving off a totally different impression compared to during the school day."
"Even if you've told us your real identity, don't think that we'll lower our guard. By the way... You just mentioned about checking how things are, right? Are you responsible for this child's presence here?"
"Himura-sensei, please tell us. What happened exactly?"
"Konoha-kun is already used to using honorific speech, I suppose... But Yachi, you don't need to address this man with respect. Just talk to him as you would an enemy."
Kirika was speaking with her arms crossed, leaning with her back against the wall. Haruaki understood that she distrusted Himura, but since this person had always been no more than a teacher to him, it felt difficult to suddenly drop the honorifics.
"How harsh... Yes, but it's fine no matter what manner of speech you use. As a matter of position, I just hope you'll use honorifics with me in school. In any case, let me pay the admission price. In other words, about Mummy Maker over there—Amanda Carlot."
Mummy Maker's original name was apparently Amanda. Despite having her name mentioned, the person in question simply continued to space out with unfocused eyes.
"The one who was supposedly killed by Peavey Barowoi, why is she still alive? —Simply stated, very simply, I saved her."
"You saved her?"
Fear asked and Himura nodded.
"Yes. At the time, I was wearing the Wathe, «Il est dans Bastille», which can erase the wearer's sense of presence completely, to monitor those two's movements. When Peavey Barowoi used «Dance Time» to absorb this girl's blood, I was also nearby."
"Although I don't know what the situation was like at the time... You simply observed quietly without any attempt to stop it, right?"
"...That is my job."
Hearing Konoha's accusatory question, Himura muttered in reply. Somehow, it felt as though he was trying to convince himself.
"Then Peavey went berserk and left the scene to seek revenge on you. After she went away, I approached to confirm Amanda Carlot's condition. It was utterly tragic. Her abdomen was sliced open with ruptured organs splattered out, it was a total blood bath. Naturally, her breathing and heart beat had already stopped."
"So she was actually dead at the time? Then how did she revive?"
"Let me give an example. Suppose someone was drowning in the sea and both their breathing and heart beat stopped. Provided that appropriate treatment is applied immediately, they can sometimes regain consciousness. In other words, so long as it's before the brain is completely deprived of oxygen, humans can be revived."
"Drowning in the sea is completely different from having the abdomen chopped into halves."
"You deserve a hundred marks. Of course that's true. However—Luckily at the time, there still existed a method to make someone 'whose abdomen was chopped into halves' turn back to the level of 'drowning in the sea.' «Chupacabra Bandage»... Amanda's Wathe that provided healing in exchange for blood and pain as the price... The fact that Peavey neither took it away nor destroyed it could be considered a massive stroke of luck."
"That moving bandage huh..."
"I wasn't sure if its taboo ability would activate towards someone on the verge of death whose heart and breathing had stopped. However, nothing would happen if I didn't try so I just went ahead and tested it, using «Chupacabra Bandage» to wrap up Amanda's body, then—"
"She was... revived once more...?"
Haruaki whispered and looked towards the girl sitting in the wheelchair. Including Himura, everyone's gazes were directed towards the girl who had died and come back to life.
"A few minutes later—No, had I been a couple dozen seconds late, perhaps she truly would have died. But «Chupacabra Bandage» activated its taboo ability, just as usual, accompanied by pain that could make the target go mad. I took her to a medical facility affiliated with the Lab Chief's Nation. Soon after, this girl woke up. However, perhaps the curse's impact was too much and broke her mind. She was already like this when she woke up."
Unable to move her body as well.
Turned into a creature that simply stared off into space.
Haruaki sighed in depression. But he immediately thought of an important question that had not been raised, then looked up.
"Umm... Chances... of recovery...?"
Himura took a long breath and slowly began to speak:
"—Not entirely zero. Despite how she appears now, compared to when she first woke up, she has already recovered a lot. In her current condition, she will even react to external stimuli sometimes. Right now, she will chew on her own if food is placed in her mouth, but in the beginning, she needed nutrients to be delivered intravenously. Precisely because her recovery is going well, she is now discharged from the hospital—Kirika, have you fed her the medicine?"
"Then please go ahead. There's probably not much left, right? I'll give you the refills."
Kirika snatched the sheet of tablets that Himura had taken out from his pocket and went to the kitchen. She returned with a cup of water. Saying "here, open your mouth" gently, Kirika placed a tablet by Amanda's lips which then opened slightly. Putting the tablet into Amanda's mouth, Kirika fed her water. Gulp, a slight swallowing motion could be seen in her throat.
Himura was right. Amanda was not completely unresponsive to the environment. She was neither a vegetable nor a doll. She was still alive—Unmistakably.
Hearing Himura mention that recovery was not entirely impossible and seeing Amanda responding as a human should, Haruaki was a little relieved. But only a little. Was her mind really going to recover back to normal? How long would it take?
"I basically understand why this child is still alive. Well then, here's the next question. Why is she here—in Ueno-san's apartment?"
"Of course, it's because I asked her to take care of Amanda. She can't keep living in the hospital but if she returns to the Knights Dominion, they'll most likely execute her for failing her mission. I could hardly steel my conscience to allow that... But on the other hand, this girl is not important enough to compel the Lab Chief's Nation as an organization to protect her. After all, the captured Peavey Barowoi is enough for interrogation purposes. The end result is that I had no choice but to take responsibility, having brought her to the hospital in the first place, to take care of her after discharge."
"Then why don't you take care of her? Why do you have to ask Kirika to help you?"
"I don't have pedophilia, so it would be somewhat problematic if I had to help her bathe. Once her mind recovers, it's very well possible she might bite her tongue to commit suicide out of shame and humiliation. Aside from that, I believe that it's better to have someone of the same gender helping her. Besides—"
Himura looked at Amanda again with a smile of self-deprecation on his face.
"The doctor said that it's better for her to get all kinds of external stimuli as this would help her psychotherapy. Rather than have a cold and reticent man like me take care of her... Someone like Kirika here, who'll smile and talk to her, would have a more beneficial effect on Amanda."
Himura's self-deprecation did not seem to be an act. He really believed that Kirika taking care of Amanda would be more beneficial. In other words, he hoped for her recovery with great sincerity. That was what Haruaki concluded.
(It seems like Himura-sensei's image... compared to what Class Rep described, is more...)
Haruaki secretly glanced at Kirika. Why was Kirika so wary of Himura? She hated the Lab Chief's Nation as an organization, so as part of that—Maybe that was the reason, but Haruaki felt that there should be more to it.
At this point, Haruaki suddenly realized that he knew absolutely nothing about the relationship between these two. This was only natural. After all, it was only a few days ago when he learned of Himura's true identity. When did they first meet? And when did they start working together as partners? What did they do in the past—
"Of course, I don't intend to have Kirika take care of this girl indefinitely. The burden is too great. Although support cannot be obtained from the Lab Chief's Nation, I am currently looking for a trustworthy medical facility to conduct psychological rehabilitation. Once I find one, I'll transfer Amanda over to there."
"Until you find a medical facility huh... That said, are you really okay with this, Kirika? I can't believe you agreed to this request. Don't you hate this guy?"
"Yes, I hate him."
"Then why did you agree to his request? You called in sick to skip school today so as to take care of this girl, right? You're already making sacrifices in your own personal life."
"Yes, this man placed Amanda in my care the day before yesterday. Simply feeding her breakfast took me quite some effort yesterday. I also prepared all sorts of things she would need before I went to school, but it didn't work. As one might expect, even with lunch prepared, she was unable to eat on her own. The same goes for going to the bathroom... So I had no choice but to call in absent for today. I don't even know what I should do for tomorrow."
Haruaki recalled the scene yesterday, still vivid in his mind, and finally understood. Kirika had racked her brain, trying to figure out what to cook for Amanda, hence she made a breakfast menu that had no unity in theme at all. Then packing the extras as her lunch, she brought it to school... That was why yesterday's lunch duel had to be cancelled.
"Class Rep... Why do you need to go this far?"
"I've mentioned already, right? I am guilty of making Amanda like this. I'm the main reason why the situation became like this."
While looking at Amanda, Kirika tensed the arms she was crossing before her chest, as though embracing her own body tightly.
"Perhaps the situation was too chaotic at the time, which was why you didn't pursue the matter deeply. It's also possible that you noticed it but didn't speak out. In any case, I pretended that nothing had happened... All this time. Peavey murdered Amanda. As for why she murdered her, that's because Peavey thought Amanda was traitor. As for why Peavey came to such a conclusion—"
Kirika stared straight at Amanda, staring straight at that sense of guilt.
"Because I made her think that. It's Amanda's card that I stole from you, Yachi, and added information to it that would cause internal discord between them. Then I asked Himura to deliver the card to their hiding place. In other words, had I not done so back then, Amanda would not have been killed by Peavey. Although she's currently still alive, were it not for that, her mind should still be intact at least."
Haruaki recalled the situation back then, a long time ago. It was also the first incident that happened after Fear's arrival.
Peavey had attacked Fear but ended up getting an arm amputated by a berserk Fear. Mummy Maker could not bear to watch Peavey attempt to complete her mission even at the cost of her own life, hence she offered Haruaki's group a deal. After writing contact details on a card and handing it over to them, Amanda promised to retreat to Peavey if they handed Fear over. Then somehow, the card went missing... Meanwhile, deciding that Mummy Maker's wish to save her was betrayal, Peavey eliminated her. Then Peavey headed over to attack the Yachi home. Just happening to visit, Kirika was caught up in the incident, but she—
"Well... Umm, you did it to help us, right? Also... How should I say this? After all, this girl was an enemy at the time."
Fear finished. Kirika nodded, then spoke in a tone of voice as though exasperated with herself:
"Yes. Perhaps the end result simply proves my naivety. It's just that I can't help but think: Although this girl is the enemy's companion, she's just an auxiliary who doesn't participate directly in battle. In actual fact, she didn't do anything to me—or Fear-kun and the others, probably. When someone like that suffers injuries that should have been fatal, as a result of my actions, can the whole matter really be dismissed by saying 'because she's an enemy'...? If it were acceptable to do whatever we want to anyone so long as they're in the enemy camp, then just for example, it'd be like saying that it's also okay to kill a cook who works in their stronghold's restaurant."
"Hmm... Indeed, that's... a bit hard to define..."
Konoha murmured with a troubled expression while Kirika sighed lightly.
"To be honest, I also hesitated in the beginning. But then I thought, at least I should meet her once in person before deciding to accept or reject the request to take care of her. So I allowed her to make a visit to my home, but that's where I made a mistake. Ahhh, absolutely ridiculous. I know this isn't my style, but honestly... You see, she's currently not responding at all, right?"
"Yeah, nothing at all. She's like a doll."
Fear walked over to the wheelchair, where Amanda was staring off into space, proceeding to poke her cheeks and play with a few strands of her hair. Haruaki also reached out to wave his hand before Amanda's face to check her eyeball movements. But no matter what they did, Amanda remained unresponsive.
"Then try holding her hand."
Haruaki exchanged glances with Fear then held Amanda's hand lightly.
He could feel her holding his hand in return. Although she had no change in expression, this was definitely no illusion. Despite being very feeble in strength, she was definitely gripping his hand in return—like a child, lost in the dark, holding tightly to a mother's hand, as though seeking some sort of salvation.
"Should be some kind of reflex action... Apart from that, all she can do are movements like chewing her food, but for some reason, she will grip in return when you hold her hand. How should I say this...? As soon I learned of this fact, it bothered me a lot, making it impossible for me to ignore her and send her away..."
"Mmm... Hmm. Indeed, with that..."
Like Haruaki, Fear tried holding Amanda's hand and made a complicated expression, twisting her shoulder. Haruaki speculated that Fear had probably felt the same as him—an urge to protect.
Through this weak force, Amanda was relying on them, telling them of her presence. It felt as though her entire body would melt away and disappear into space as soon as they let go of her hand. The weak force exerted by this little hand seemed to be her only support that connected her to reality.
Presumably, the first time when Himura had brought Amanda to this place, Kirika had tried the same action and felt a rising urge to protect. Faced with Amanda whose mind had been destroyed as a result of her actions, Kirika must have pondered about what she was able to do.
"In any case, that's that... I made her like this. I am responsible for her. At least until this man finds a trustworthy medical facility, I don't mind taking care of her during this period—That's what's going on."
Haruaki gently released Amanda's hand and looked at everyone present.
Kirika seemed quite set on her decision and he could understand her reasons. However, this job seemed to be too much of a burden for a high school girl alone.
Then what should they do?
Dissuade Kirika? Stand aside and do nothing? Of course not. Seriously, that would be—absolutely ridiculous.
A conference requiring no words instantly concluded.
While continuing to hold Amanda's hand, Fear stared intently at the snow-white back of her hand and said:
"It's true that his girl is an enemy's companion. But after becoming like this, can she still be considered an enemy so matter-of-factly? That I can't be so sure. Anyway, putting that aside, Kirika, there's something you're mistaken about. You're not the only one who caused her to become like this. The one who attracted them here, chopped off Peavey's arm and filled Peavey with hatred, that person is also responsible. In other words, me."
"Hoo... Oh well, if we sit back and do nothing, I'm sure it'll eat away at our consciences. It can't be helped, I'll admit it as well. Had I been fast and merciless enough in driving those people away back then, then Ueno-san wouldn't have needed to come up with that plan and the current situation would be quite different. In other words, I am responsible for not being competent enough."
"I'm also responsible for failing to notice the card's theft."
"Wha..." As Kirika went speechless, Haruaki turned to her, smiled and spoke as the representative:
"Therefore, Class Rep, let us help too. It's very tough for you to do it alone."
Kirika tried to object but could not speak up firmly. Haruaki simply used his eyes to question her: Class Rep, by this point, do you really think we'll back down so easily?
Finally, Kirika sighed and surrendered.
Fear finally let go of Amanda's hand and said:
"Kirika, you don't need to apologize. For now, let's forget that this girl used to be an enemy. I simply need to do something beneficial to others and it's a very tough job for you to take care of a patient on your own, Kirika, so I can't leave things alone and have no choice but to take care of this bandage girl who I seem to have seen somewhere before... Anyway, that's that. Everything is due to unavoidable circumstances. Unavoidable circumstances."
"If it were mental trauma, it's probably useless even if Kuroe-san transfers life force to her. But still, I'll discuss with Kuroe-san after we get home."
"Let me ask, just in case. Himura-sensei, it should be okay if we offer our help, right?"
"In fact, it'll be a great help. I'm sure more lively surroundings will be beneficial for her mind."
Himura agreed readily. He really acted differently compared to expected. Considering how Kirika had warned them repeatedly, Haruaki's impression of Himura was someone much less reasonable.
Similarly, Konoha showed doubt in her eyes as though she had thought of something.
"Oh, by the way... There are two things I wish to ask you, Himura-sensei."
"What a great student for asking questions. Let me award you a hundred marks first."
"Even if you praise me, I won't be pleased. First point, I would like you to fill in why exactly did you ask Ueno-san to take care of this child? There should be others in your circle who are female and able to care for this child, right? Even though she only arrived here recently."
"Are you referring to researcher Un Izoey? I only greeted her for the first time yesterday, so unfamiliarity is one of the reasons. The Lab Chief's Nation has no need for the person named Amanda, so this counts as my personal problem. That's reason number two. Also, I've heard that she used to serve as the Lab Chief's bodyguard. Combat ability aside, in terms of common sense knowledge, I'm a bit worried about her ability to take care of a patient."
"Hmm... That last point is actually quite understandable. Every lunch break, that girl is always chomping on meat buns held in both hands. It really makes me wonder if she'll ever tire of them."
So a scene like that was taking place every day in the classroom next door? Haruaki could not help but imagine it... Most likely, the other students must be gazing at her with eyes like looking at a pet.
"Next question. When you arrived at this apartment, you mentioned how you're 'now able to report a bit about the situation.' Then your purpose here is not just to visit this child."
"I am very curious about this too. Himura, what is the report you mentioned?"
"Having good memory and observation skills are truly an advantage. Well then... I have good news and bad news. Going with the usual procedure, one should start with the good news first, but regrettably, let's go with the bad first because it'll be easier for you all to understand. Then I'll be blunt—The Knights Dominion has started taking action."
As soon as he spoke, the atmosphere immediately became extremely tense. Fear frowned and said:
"They're trying to destroy me again...?"
"That should be part of the reason. But the matter does not end there. I'm not sure where they heard it from but they seem to know that Amanda is still alive. In other words..."
Himura pushed his long bangs and exhaled.
"They intend to execute Amanda who had failed her mission and was captured by the Lab Chief's Nation."
Haruaki's group was speechless. If Amanda were returned to the Knights Dominion, she would most likely be executed. That was why she was not returned. Then what if they came knocking at the door on their own?
"Rumors say that the knight sent is an ace with quite powerful abilities. Then let me get on to the good news. Although it's not certain, rumors say that this knight was assigned a certain Wathe on an experimental basis."
"I'm more concerned about the bad news... But I'll still continue listening. That's the term you use to call cursed tools, right? What kind of tool is it?"
"Now that's a coincidence that's almost like a miracle." Opening with this line, Himura continued:
"—According to rumors, it is a Wathe for recovering mental health."
Haruaki's group was dumbfounded again. To them, this was perhaps good news indeed. Right now, here was a person whose mind was broken. If that tool could be used to heal her mind—
The next to speak was Kirika.
"Why would the Knights Dominion use something like that?"
"Since you lot have engaged Peavey Barowoi in battle, you should be able to understand. The Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion is an organization founded on fanatical hatred towards Wathes. Moving forward in the name of hatred, swinging the weapon called insanity, speaking words of grudging resentment. Essentially, the stronger a knight, the more they exhibit the Knights Dominion's style—In other words, the stronger a knight, the more insane. Furthermore, powerful knights heading off to harsh battlefields result in even deepened insanity. But no matter how strong, a pawn becomes useless once it is insane to the point of no longer being capable of executing plans normally. Hence, this experiment aims to maintain their sanity."
"This sounds like there's still many uncertainties..."
"That I concede. I will continue to gather more information."
"If that tool really has the ability that you claim, perhaps we could take it by force to use...? But if it means using a cursed tool, hmm..."
"Yes. Just like back in Christmas, it could very well be accompanied by an astounding curse."
Recalling the difficult battle that his and the superintendent's sides had faced against Kokoro Pentangeli's sword, Haruaki remarked quietly.
"Of course, I won't force any of you. Just decide once we capture the opponent. However, as one who researches Wathes, my advice is that this option should not be ruled out from the start. Like «Chupacabra Bandage», Wathes can even save lives in different situations."
"Hmph... But I think homicide happens far more often than saving people. Whatever, we're still not sure about this tool so speculating isn't going to help. Once it appears before us for real, then we'll decide. Right now, the question we need to consider is the bad news about the enemy's impending attack."
"The attacking enemy must be defeated... Same as usual."
At this moment, Kirika clicked her tongue and glared at Himura viciously.
"So that's why you said that it's perfect timing for Yachi's group to be here, right? You are planning to use them as a combat force to protect Amanda, aren't you?"
"I had no intention of using them, but it's true that I predicted a fight as the final outcome. After all, I don't think the Knights Dominion will leave Fear-in-Cube alone, so they can't possibly remain uninvolved."
Without anyone noticing, Himura had already stood up from the sofa. Despite watching him all this time, Haruaki completely failed to notice his movements.
"Basically, let me state for the record. I cannot act in the name of the Lab Chief's Nation regarding this matter. I've already mentioned just now that the organization does not deem Amanda Carlot important enough to require their protection. Even if I report directly to the Lab Chief, he'll simply say 'too dangerous, don't resist and hand her over.'"
"As if anyone would want to contact that guy. Absolutely ridiculous... From the way you sound, you're not doing this according to his orders?"
"I believe the Lab Chief has received news of this matter, but he hasn't issued any particular orders. So that means he doesn't care however I choose to proceed."
Haruaki suddenly found Himura walking towards the exit already. Due to his extreme lack of presence, all of his movements were very inconspicuous.
"I'm relying on you all to take care of Amanda. The Knights Dominion probably won't locate this place that quickly and attack. But definitely, they will appear eventually. Don't lower your guard. I will continue to gather information."
Kirika called out to him from behind. Himura stopped. As though hesitating, Kirika paused for a few seconds before using a voice that sounded like it was forced out:
"...When you entrusted Amanda to me, there were a few things I didn't ask you. Clearly without orders from the Lab Chief's Nation, why do you want to save her? Out of personal reasons? You—You aren't such a compassionate man, are you?"
"What a terrible comment, I'd say it's worth zero marks. Hmm, considering everything I've done to this date, that's hardly surprising."
"Answer me! I still can't believe in you!"
Himura's shoulder shook up and down slightly. His answer was very simple and brief.
At the same time, it was also baffling.
"Like you, for redemption."
Kirika's eyes wavered and she could not speak anymore. Himura continued walking and opened the main door. But just as he was about to step out, he looked back and said:
"By the way, Fear Cubrick."
"Nothing important. I've already graded today's test paper and you scored quite a high mark. Compared to the beginning, you're showing marked progress. Please continue to do your best like this."
On high alert all this time, Fear reacted with her jaw dropping in surprise upon hearing unexpected praise.
Seeing Fear's expression, Himura's lips curled slightly.
Indeed, like a very ordinary teacher, smiling from joy at a student's growth—
Then he walked out of Kirika's apartment.
After a long discussion, considering that it would be more convenient to take care of Amanda as a group, as well as the possibility of enemy attacks, they decided to move her to the Yachi residence. Kirika also packed her things for staying over.
Having explained the story to Kuroe when she returned from the beauty parlor, they managed to feed dinner to Amanda with great difficulty. Then when the after-dinner snack time ended, several dozen minutes later...
Fear and Kuroe were in the changing area next to the bathroom.
"So... Although we've brought her here, now what?"
Looking at Amanda sitting on the wheelchair, Fear crossed her arms and tilted her head. Their next task was to help her take a bath, of course. Doing it alone seemed quite difficult, so Fear enlisted Kuroe's aid.
"Hmm~ Anyway, since it's a bath, let's take off our clothes as well. Cast off!"
"I don't really get what you're yelling at the end there, but I agree."
Fear and Kuroe swiftly stripped down. After all, they were all girls and she was very familiar with Kuroe, so there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Once naked—
"So of course, we need to help her undress as well. Kuroe, help her sit up a bit."
Since Amanda's attire consisted of a simple one-piece dress, it was quite easy to take off. While Kuroe lifted Amanda's bottom, Fear pulled Amanda's dress up all at once to remove her clothing. This revealed her white underwear of a plain design (no bra) and the bandages wrapped around her body. Naturally, no one takes baths with bandages, right? Fear untied the bandages one by one. Unlike their initial encounter, these bandages wrapped around Amanda's body were only ordinary bandages. According to Himura, that «Chupacabra Bandage» was apparently behind held by the Lab Chief's Nation.
"Is this... okay...?"
"Oh my. This... She's clearly a girl, but what a poor dear..."
Seeing what lay beneath the bandages, Fear gasped. Skin, as white as silk, contrasted sharply with skin of the opposite. These seemed to be old scars and probably not painful, but conversely, the sight was heartbreaking for viewers.
Fear narrowed her eyes while pulling Amanda's underwear off from her waist. Then holding the equally nude Amanda in her arms, Fear pushed the glass door open with her foot and entered the bathroom.
"...Let's wash her first. Have her sit here... Uwah."
"Since there's nothing to lean on, I'll use my hair to support her."
Hence, Kuroe's hair gently wrapped itself around Amanda's arms and torso. With this, they were finally able to seat her on the bathroom stool.
Dividing the labor, Fear washed the front while Kuroe was responsible for Amanda's back. Despite her slender body being covered by layers of soap suds, Amanda remained expressionless and unresponsive.
"...Something must have happened to her in the past."
"Drawing on my experience, I can tell... As much as I hate the fact that I can tell, these are scars from burns."
"Was she caught up in a fire once?"
Perhaps it was an allusion, but somehow, Fear kept getting the feeling that the burn scars on Amanda's body were identical to the ones Fear had created in the past as a tool of torture and execution, such as the «Voices of the Brazen Bull». The scars exuded a sense of someone's malice and intent to harm. Even if these scars were caused by a fire, it was most likely no accident—Deliberate arson committed due to some sort of horrifying reason.
Perhaps these scars had changed Amanda's life. Maybe it served as some sort of opportunity leading to Amanda joining the organization of the Knights Dominion. However, one could not sense from her any desire for vengeance against cursed tools. Then the fire itself was probably not a direct reason.
One could imagine all sorts of possibilities. For example, after Amanda was sent to the hospital and deemed a lost cause, she could have been sold to an unlicensed doctor for human experiments, then after she was wrapped up in cursed bandages, the Knights happened to show up by chance to kill that unlicensed doctor and ended up taking her away while they were at it—Something like that. Fear did not know any details. Only by asking Amanda herself could anyone hope to figure out her past.
Only now did Fear realize that she knew virtually nothing about this girl named Amanda Carlot.
"Although I treat every enemy with hostility... Perhaps this girl does have quite a complicated past."
"Yeah. If only we could converse with her. Hmm—the back is basically done. Okay, then it's about time for me to use my professional hair washing skills."
Leaving the hair washing to Kuroe, Fear washed the body of the girl who used to be an enemy, washing the body of the girl whose reasons for becoming an enemy were unknown, washing the body of the girl who could not answer this question. When the lathered sponge touched a sensitive spot, although it was very faint, Fear did feel Amanda's body tremble as though ticklish. Even simply just a physiological reaction—Indeed, she was not dead, she was still alive.
Fear washed Amanda's arm and took this opportunity to hold her hand lightly as they had done at Kirika's home.
Indeed, she held Fear's hand in return.
This feeling was like being bitten lightly by a small animal. Was she trying to convey some kind of message? Was she seeking something desperately? That faint force was accompanied by an unbelievable sense of self-awareness, causing Fear to grin.
(Yes. Being able to talk to this girl one more time at least... That would be nice too.)
After Amanda's mind recovered, who knew what the situation might be like? Still the companion of enemies? Or some role apart from enemies? But at least, Fear was certain, this could not be confirmed unless her mind recovered. They must first deal with the knight who wants to execute her in order to get an answer.
To be honest, Fear got into taking care of Amanda simply as part of going with the flow. Things started with Kirika taking on the responsibility to care for her and Fear was simply helping Kirika. However, Fear now felt she had found a reason for slightly wanting to do so.
While feeling the force transmitted to her hand, Fear looked into Amanda's unfocused eyes and whispered:
"I don't know what you're trying to say... But anyway, you don't need to worry, Amanda. Since we promised, we will take good care of you. Not only will we prevent the Knights Dominion from harming you, but we'll also help your mind recover. Leave it to us."
Of course, Amanda did not reply. Washing her hair behind her, Kuroe smiled and said:
"Since Ficchi has decided this already, I will do my best to help~ Although the situation might be very complex, simply in terms of feelings, I have discovered a source of favorability points that compels me to stand on this child's side."
"I agree." Fear nodded with eyes full of tender affection while looking at that source of favorability on Amanda's body.
As the leader of the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance, she definitely had no choice but to recognize this flat chest as thoroughly flat.
The day after they learned of Amanda's situation at Kirika's home, it was after school Haruaki's group was walking in the corridors.
There were still many students hanging around in the corridors, chatting excitedly with high-pitched voices. "Hey hey, what about you? Have you decided who you'll give it to?" "Eh~? N-N-No, what about you~?" "Speaking of which, that guy in Class 4 thinks you're..." What were these girls talking about? Come to think of it, lately the entire student body seemed to be in an excitable state... Hmm?
Haruaki's thoughts were interrupted by Fear when they reached their destination.
"Please~ Lead the way~!"
"I've been intrigued for a while already, why do you yell that every time you arrive here? Why do you make it sound like you're crashing a party?"
"Nothing much, I just get a feeling that this door must be opened with great vigor, whether because there are tasty snacks and tea waiting for me or because it greatly resembles a corrupt bureaucrat's base of operations."
"Hahaha! I have never received any golden confectionery from Echigoya, you know?"
As soon as they walked into the superintendent's office, the gas masked man, making one of his seldom appearances at school, spoke with his shoulders shaking from laughter. "Hello." Konoha and Kirika bowed their heads to greet, eliciting a wave of his hand in response. Naturally, he was not the only one present—
"Welcome, everyone. Please allow me to prepare some tea."
"Everybody, welcome to you all~! Oh, Zenon-san, of course, I'll help out too~!"
"I'm counting on you two for my share too~ But, oh~ Having to blow on my tea to cool it is so tiring... Dear sister, or little maid, could you please help blow on mine for me~"
"Then I shall bring out tap water for you, Onee-sama, for which no cooling is required. Sovereignty, please turn on the tap with full sincerity... Of course, I am saying all this out of my kind consideration in hopes of saving you effort, Onee-sama."
"Bubu~ Ah, does this count as a blowing gag? But even explaining it is too tiring~"
Hence, Zenon and Sovereignty got up and headed to the room next door to brew tea. Wearing a white coat, Ganon simply sat on the sofa, completely relaxed.
There was nothing surprising about these three's presence in the superintendent's office, except for—
"Yes~ The string need to be pulled up here and here—It's here~! Secret technique 'Amida Buddha Statue' complete! Ohoh, it's been a long time since I've last seen this move, even for me... How gratifying~"
Sitting in a wheelchair was a white-haired girl with a hollow gaze, as well as—
Using the girl's fingers to play cat's cradle and make complicate patterns—Kuroe, dressed in school uniform. Seeing her mutter Buddhist chants while bowing at the figure formed by the cat's cradle for some reason, Haruaki sighed.
"Hmm... No matter how many times I see this, it feels so out of place..."
"Muu, that's so rude! Hmm, but honestly, I never expected to have another chance to wear this uniform again~ I knew it, the gods must be asking me to enjoy school life thoroughly!"
"No such thing. Anyway, please don't cause another commotion like last time..."
Kuroe had sneaked into school before, dressed in a uniform. Of course, that was definitely not for the sake of a prank but for her own reasons—But it was definitely true that she had caused a commotion.
Once they decided to take care of Amanda, the first issue was what to do with her during the daytime. After much pondering, the group decided to take her to school directly. After all, even if the enemy attacked, it probably would not happen openly in a crowded place like a school. But of course, they could not leave Amanda in a classroom, hence they phoned the superintendent to explain the situation. "After all, I caused a lot of trouble for you during Christmas and owe you all a favor." Saying that, he agreed readily and allowed Amanda to stay in the superintendent's office.
Even so, it did not feel right to shove the responsibility of taking care of Amanda all on Zenon in the superintendent's office, so in the end, they decided to take turns skipping class to visit her... Back when Haruaki's group was discussing this matter, Kuroe raised her hand and said: "Then let me help as well." Although it was a shame that she had to skip work, but indeed, with Kuroe present, even if the enemy attacked, she was at least able to run away while taking Amanda with her. Hence, they finally accepted Kuroe's suggestion. Like last time, she obtained a uniform from who knows where—probably partially to be less inconspicuous in school, partially out of personal desire, finding it more fun this way.
"So Kuroe-san, how is the situation?"
"The same as usual. I haven't sensed any presence of the rumored pursuer. For now, I tried out therapeutic cat's cradle, but she's not reacting at all~"
"This is only my opinion as a school physician, so take it with a grain of salt, but here's a few words from me... Just wait patiently for now. As much as I hate saying this, this isn't the kind of thing that will show dramatic improvement in one or two days' time."
Kirika nodded in response to Ganon. Indeed, impatience would not help at all. Haruaki murmured in his thoughts to persuade himself. Even once her mind recovered, they did not know what to say to a former enemy like her—However, surely it would still be a better situation than now.
Next, Haruaki suddenly recalled that he needed to thank them.
"Ganon-san, thank you... The same for you too, Zenon-san. We originally didn't want to trouble you two, but it feels like we ended up troubling you after all."
"Don't worry, don't worry, because we caused trouble for you too. I won't complain about being tired at a time like this... Besides, I'm also tired of sitting in the infirmary with nothing to do~ It's nice to be working as a school physician on call sometimes."
"Yes, Yachi-sama, please do not mind."
At this moment, Zenon returned with a tray with cups, still expressionless as usual, but her voice sounded quite gentle. With experienced movements, she handed the steaming tea over to each member of Haruaki's group in turn—Meanwhile, Sovereignty exited the room next door slightly later, carrying a glass with two hands as one would carry a trophy while swaying unsteadily in a panic.
"W-Wawa... Phew! I managed to make it! Here you go, Genon-san, I have prepared this for you with full sincerity!"
"I can't believe you actually made her bring water over! You're really bullying your elder sister~"
"I don't recall you saying you wanted tea specifically? This only happened because you keep slacking off and crying tired. Please pull yourself together, Onee-sama."
While Zenon spoke calmly and Sovereignty stared with her head tilted, Ganon sipped her tap water forlornly. This pair of sisters really got along together well. At least, Haruaki decided to treat that as the conclusion.
"Here's the girl's portion too."
"Oh, then let me cool it for her by blowing. After all, I'm the one responsible for taking care of Amanda in school... I guess feeding her with a spoon would be best."
Kuroe took a spoonful of tea and brought it next to Amanda's mouth. Gulp, her throat swallowed but her expression remained unchanged. Haruaki's group began to chat casually while drinking tea. After all, they only turned up to pick up Kuroe and Amanda without anything important to do at the superintendent's office. Once they finished their tea, the group took their leave.
Leaving the superintendent's office, they headed to the shoe lockers. The entire school building seemed rather quiet. Students in clubs were currently focused on club activities, hence, apart from them, those belonging to the "go-home" club had almost all departed, but not completely. When the occasion student passed by in the corridors, they would stare suspiciously at the bandaged girl in the wheelchair, but there was no issue as long as Haruaki's group acted confidently as though everything was legitimate. Thus, they walked through the hallways in a line.
"Hmm~ I knew it, this does cause trouble for the superintendent's side..."
"It can't be helped. Without their assistance, there's no way to bring this girl to school at all."
Fear pushed Amanda's wheelchair while reacting to Haruaki's whispers.
"But I'd feel so guilty if we keep troubling them. If only this girl will recover soon... But so-called mental trauma is very tricky. We don't really know how to cure it either."
"Yeah, although Himura-sensei mentioned that exposing her to more external stimuli would help, it feels quite ambiguous and nonspecific."
"External stimuli huh? Hmm..."
Fear tilted her head and pondered deeply for a while, then finally stopped walking.
"I've got an idea—We've got nothing left to do except going home, right? Then let's take this opportunity to show her around school. What do you all think?"
"I don't mind."
Kirika glanced at Haruaki. Haruaki did not have any objections, neither did Konoha nor Kuroe.
"After all, we're not in a hurry to get back and there aren't too many students remaining in school right now. As long as we don't do anything too conspicuous, it should be fine."
"I'm totally okay with it~ After all, I belong to the faction who wants to be shown around the school!"
"Then let's try it out.. But why?"
Haruaki's simple question caused Fear to scratch her face and turn her gaze away.
"Mmm... Hmm... Umm, I simply recalled my first time here. The building seemed so big, there were so many people, everyone was wearing the same kind of clothes, it was so lively everywhere, it was very refreshing, I guess—It was very stimulating for me. So, even though there's very few people now, I think it should still be able to stimulate this girl a bit..."
"W-What's with your shameless look? I'll curse you! I-I simply think that if this girl could be cured as quickly as possible, it'll save us a lot of trouble! Although she's human, surely she's never gone to school normally before—In this regard, she should be the same as me!"
Fear desperately tried to find excuses. How amusing. Not only Haruaki but also Konoha, Kirika and Kuroe smiled slightly.
Hence, Haruaki and friends took Fear's suggestion and took Amanda on a walking tour around the school, meanwhile talking to Amanda. Although she made no reaction, surely this did not mean it was pointless—Probably.
"This is our classroom. This is my seat. That's Haruaki's seat and that's Kirika's."
"Uheeheehee, so this is Haru's spot huh... Great, I'll be starting the secret operation of replacing the recorder mouthpiece, please don't mind me."
"I mind very much! Say, stop searching the desk in front of the owner! Also, I chose art instead of music! There's no recorder here in the first place!"
Next was Konoha's homeroom. Then taking advantage of after school, they visited club activities without disturbing others. Fear picked up Amanda together with the wheelchair and went up and down the stairs. Standing outside the music classroom, they listened to the woodwind club's performance for quite a while. Then through the door's gap, they secretly peeked into the calligraphy classroom. Then they visited the snack shop and the cafeteria.
"Oh~ There's quite a lot of menu choices... Since you guys usually bring packed lunches, you don't have much chance to come here, right? Is there anything good to eat?"
Arms crossed with insufferable arrogance, Fear declared with exceptional conceit:
"They don't have rice crackers here. Simply by this fact I deem this cafeteria third-rate."
"Using your logic, the world doesn't have any cafeterias second-rate or beyond... Hmm, of the things I've tried before, the mapo doufu is quite good."
"Also, although it's not very conspicuous, the salads are quite fulfilling too. The vegetables are always very fresh."
"There's also the udon noodles with meat or the porkchop cutlet rice. If I really had to criticize, sometimes the udon uses brown seaweed to obfuscate the amount of meat or the porkchops are too thin. As a result, although the taste is impeccable, the quality is too inconsistent. If anything, I should condemn this attitude of treating meat as anything less than the main feature. Completely unacceptable. For a meat dish whose name is crowned with the word 'meat' or 'porkchop', it is utter blasphemy—"
"Uh... Kono-san, Kono-san, there's no need to push your viewpoint so seriously. I was only just making conversation..."
Next, they passed through the corridor connecting two school buildings to reach the clubs block and peek at the activities of the cultural clubs.
Fear picked up Amanda, holding her up by her underarms, allowing her to peer into the manga club's activities from the small window above the door. However, Fear suddenly pouted with displeasure and said:
"I don't think there are many cultural clubs that hold activities with great fanfare."
"That's so naive! For example, a manga research club should at least be drawing battle manga while maintaining the mindset of actual combat!"
Fear sat Amanda down on the wheelchair again and said:
"But... Even if I complained here, the cultural clubs aren't going to get lively and spectacular suddenly. Speaking of lively, I guess it has to be the sports clubs after all. The first I was here, although I didn't know the rules, I had so much fun just watching. Then let's finish up by observing the sports ground from the roof."
The timing was just right. "Let's do it." Reaching consensus, the group moved again, back to the main school building. Just as they were heading up the stairs to the roof—
"...My statement: a greeting expressing what a coincidence."
Arriving head on was Un Izoey. Gray hair as usual, dressed in her uniform with her navel exposed, barefoot in definitely contravention of school rules. Although it was perfectly natural, she was probably not involved in any club activities. Why was she still staying in school at this time?
"What are you doing here?"
"My answer: in order to get used to this environment, undertaking research to master geographic locations, to make sure where is what. In other words, a strolling kind of stroll."
Un Izoey answered while her emotionless eyes captured Kuroe in school uniform. As though saying "Is this person a student...?", she tilted her head. Next, her eyes also caught sight of the girl in the wheelchair, causing her head to tilt in the other direction.
"...You don't recognize this girl?"
"My answer: unknown. A person related to me?"
Haruaki's question brought a firm answer from Un Izoey. After all, Himura had said that "the Lab Chief's Nation did not deem Amanda important" and she had been hospitalized until recently, it was not surprising that Un Izoey had never seen her before.
Ultimately, since Himura was protecting Amanda in a personal capacity, Haruaki's group had already decided.
Since an enemy was going to attack, the more people they had on their side the better. Moreover, Un Izoey was very strong. However, even if they could recruit her to their cause, they decided against it.
So long as the Lab Chief's Nation had not issued orders to protect Amanda, borrowing Un Izoey's strength for convenience would mean owing the Lab Chief's Nation a favor. Even if Un Izoey did not see it that way, Yamimagari Pakuaki could still argue this point. Right now, it was necessary to avoid as much as possible giving him a pretext to take Kirika away or demand researching Fear—That was what Haruaki's group had decided.
"This is none of your business, so don't interfere. Okay, we won't disrupt your stroll. Hurry along now!"
"That I will do, but..."
Un Izoey walked barefoot, giving off faint footsteps (but had she the intention, surely she could have walked silently), approaching Haruaki's group. Then just as she was passing by them, she suddenly halted. With completely emotionless eyes, she gazed down at Amanda's hollow expression—
Then reaching out, she gently caressed Amanda's white hair.
Stroking Amanda's head, Un Izoey acted like lovingly petting a small animal. Amanda made no response but Un Izoey narrowed her eyes.
"Diagnosis: the flow of her raama is very strange. Does not seem injured or ill."
"You don't need to worry about this. Absolutely ridiculous."
Kirika scowled and retorted. Shortly after, Un Izoey took her hand away.
"In these cases, our tribe will start by checking food."
"You mean she'll get better just by getting fed with tree sap or livers? Now that would be absolutely ridiculous. Don't make irresponsible statements so casually."
"This is simply the way of our tribe... Then I leave by taking my leave."
Nodding lightly to say goodbye, Un Izoey walked away. She was probably resuming her exploration of the school building.
Once confirmed that she had disappeared into the other end of the corridor, Fear murmured coldly:
"Should I call her hard at work...? Hmm, she must be very free too."
Then she started pushing the wheelchair again.
Through the roof fencing, Kirika stared out at the sports ground, lost in her thoughts. The students of the sports clubs were busy running around. The sounds of vigorous but hoarse yells and balls bouncing could be heard. Haruaki, Fear, Konoha and Kuroe—as well as Amanda sitting motionless on her wheelchair—watched this scene silently. What was Amanda thinking—or rather... What could she think?
At this moment, the roof's metal gate opened with a grate. Kirika looked back to see no one—but just as she concluded that—
"So you're all here?"
"Hmm, you're Himura? How did you know we're here?"
"Because I happened to overhear students talking about someone in a wheelchair. Nothing much, I just wanted to have a look, thinking that since you're still in school after all."
"Unfortunately, there's no change in this girl so far."
"Really?" Himura muttered with deep condolence. His footsteps sounded extremely weak in presence as he walked over to Kirika's side and looked out at the sports ground through the fencing. To be honest, Kirika did not wish to converse with him at all, but there was no choice given the circumstances. She threw a sideways glance at Himura.
"Sorry, there hasn't been any significant progress. I am still searching for a hospital willing to take in this child. There are not many places capable of admitting patients with special circumstances and able to treat mental trauma at the same time. Although it's not impossible, the search will take more time."
"What about the Knights Dominion?"
"No detailed reports on that side either. However, it is certain that the enemy is approaching us. Be careful."
I don't need you to tell me that—Kirika retorted in her thoughts. Before her eyes was a girl who had nearly died because of her, a girl who had suffered a critical wound equivalent to death. Absolutely, Kirika would not let anyone kill her again.
Just as she spent a few seconds to confirm her determination, Himura's presence vanished from beside her. Did he go over to Fear and the others to flap his gums? She looked next to her but her guess was wrong. Himura was still next to her. Unlike normally, his eyes looked like he was being considerate of their feelings. Apparently, she had simply stopped sensing his presence just now simply because Himura's sense of presence was too weak.
Simply? Absolutely ridiculous.
This was a curse. The one carried by «Il est dans Bastille», the cursed mask in Himura's possession.
Kirika was definitely not worrying about him, but to think she had forgotten this important element of the curse, how absolutely ridiculous. Even if he was being devoured by the curse, she did not care at all. She did not care. She did not care.
However, why did her lips move on their own?
"...You're still using «Il est dans Bastille», right?"
"Yes. I can't collect information without using it. Could it be... You're worrying about me?"
"Like hell anyone would worry about you. Absolutely ridiculous."
How unlike myself—Kirika thought. Yes, this was totally unlike herself. Her pace was messed up, messed up by something. What was it?
Naturally, it was because Himura was currently acting too unlike himself.
What was different about Himura after his return? Impression, temperament, attitude. He no longer forced his way to approach her. Over the phone, he had said: I have decided to change. Then he was taking action to protect Amanda unrelated to the Lab Chief's Nation, and the reason was—
This was the word he had said before leaving yesterday. She did not understand his true meaning behind that word.
Asking him directly would be faster. However—
She could not bring herself to ask. Completely opposite to just now, her lips would not move.
Kirika turned her gaze lightly back towards the sports ground below.
Suddenly surfacing in her mind was a past memory she had no wish of recalling again.
Guilt. Himura's guilt. What would it be? No idea. How could she possibly know—
—The number of clues was truly too abundant.
As the days passed, she was gradually getting used to research. Although she did not feel like she was helping, at least she was not creating work for others, probably... But perhaps, this might be merely her own wishful thinking.
Every day after leaving from middle school, she headed off to that place. Inside the changing room, putting on the lab coat that did not fit her, she then proceeded to her assigned laboratory.
"Good morning, Himura-senpai."
Although it was evening, the greetings were always "good morning." Researchers had no concept of night or day. Since it was commonly morning when one woke up, in other words, the first greeting upon meeting someone the first time for that day would be good morning. "This is just a habit without particular significance." Her senior had whispered this while explaining to her.
"You're here. I am currently about to measure the mass of this piece of cloth. Kirika, come over to help."
A day like every other. Although she had gotten to know quite a few people, there was essentially only one person she would see every day and greet. Naturally, her brother was also present at the facility, but his hectic schedule prevented her from seeing him often.
After starting her life here and taking part in the research, things changed when roughly a year went by.
A stray dog had gotten lost within the research facility's compound. Without thinking, she had fed the dog. This was its misfortune. Although she wanted to go home, the dog kept following her.
"Uh... Sorry. I... don't have anymore food to give you..."
Of course, the dog did not understand human speech. It simply panted leisurely with its tongue stuck out, wagging its tail. Kirika steeled her heart, stood up and left but could hear the sound of claws striking the ground as the dog walked. Sighing, she turned around and frowned while petting the dog's head.
"What should I do? Even if you follow me home... I can't keep you..."
Several researchers passed by her on their way home. Some of them ignored the sight while others smiled at her before continuing on their way. Still others struck conversation with her. "Logically speaking, a stray dog has no owner. A dog without an owner will not have received vaccination as required by Japanese laws. An unvaccinated dog may be infected with rabies and other diseases, so getting infected is quite likely a risk. In other words, reaching the logical conclusion according to logical thought, the logical advice I offer to you is—Call the Ministry of Health." Naturally, she refused.
What should I do? What should I do? She continued to stroke the puppy's head. During this time, small raindrops began to fall. Back luck always arrived in pairs or more. All covered in dirt, the puppy still did not move, panting while staring at her as though waiting for its master's orders. Perhaps the rain could clean its fur, but Kirika could not leave it behind for that reason. Even a puppy would catch a cold if not dried, probably.
Just at this moment—
"...What are you doing?"
"Himura-senpai! Umm... This puppy, it..."
He looked like he was about to go home. Not wearing a lab coat, holding one of those plastic umbrellas supplied at the lab, he was looked at the collar-less puppy.
"...I think I understand the basic situation. However, all I can say is that this dog cannot be allowed into the facility. The laboratory's precise equipment cannot allow a single speck of dust. If this dog's shed fur were to cause machinery to malfunction, compensation is beyond your ability."
These were cold words. Although he had always been gruff and impolite, Kirika never found him cold before. Whether teaching her or instructing her to carry out difficult research (although due to being too gruff, sometimes his words failed to convey his meaning), he always explained seriously to her in detail. Even towards someone like her, what would be a child in his eyes. Hence, she never considered him to be cruel and merciless. Despite being difficult to comprehend at a glance, he was actually a kind person—Never did she think...
Silently, he began to continue forward. When he passed by her, the raindrops disappeared over her head for an instant.
Then the raindrops stopped falling.
Only then did she realize that the plastic umbrella's handle was hanging on her shoulder. It turned out that in passing by, he head left the umbrella behind to shelter her crouching body.
But his footsteps did not stop at all, neither did he look back as he left the research facility, walking in the rain.
(I forgot... to say thank you...)
She readjusted the umbrella, realizing this was only a temporary solution, but at least she could protect this stray dog from the rain for now.
Perhaps it could not be helped, she thought. He was right—no matter how much harder the ran fell, the dog could not be allowed into the lab. However, he did not ignore her, neither did he ask her to contact the Ministry of Health. This was probably the maximum extent of his kindness. Were she in his shoes and saw the same scene, what then? As one would expect, at most she would have done the same as him, most likely.
"Even so... What should I do...?"
The rain gradually became heavier. She could not move. The solitary stray dog was staring at her solitary self. She had no mother. Her father was deceased, leaving only her elder brother. Surely, this puppy did not have any family at all. All the dog had was this hand, petting its head, this girl who reached out towards it on a whim.
Unexpectedly, she heard a splash behind her.
Jumping in surprise, she looked back to see—
A man standing there, completely drenched.
By his foot was a large vinyl bag. Judging from the logo printed on the bag, it came from a nearby home center.
Without saying a word, he knelt down and took out several things from the bag. Five wooden stakes of equal length, a bundle of vinyl string, a small sheet of blue tarp, as well as a DIY hammer. Using the hammer, he nailed four of the wooden stakes into the grass while hammering the last one arbitrarily nearby. Then he spread the tarp over the four stakes and secured it to them using the string. —Ah, so those wooden stakes were pillars, pillars for an impromptu tent.
Then he took out something else from the bag, a collar on a chain. Handing the collar to her, he said:
"It might struggle if I put it on, so you do it."
Despite feeling intrigued, she still accepted the collar. Then he turned his gaze towards the impromptu tent and muttered emphatically in a quiet voice: "Even I find this emergency solution quite terrible. I should buy some wooden planks and design a kennel tomorrow—no, if I go to the right place, there should be ready-made kennels for sale..."
Kirika finally came to a sudden realization.
She placed the collar around the puppy's neck. He (or she) accepted the collar without any resistance. Then Kirika took the ring on the other end of the chain and placed it around the other stake near the tent. Judging from the length of the chain, the puppy should be able to take shelter inside the tent.
"...This is your temporary home. I'll come over to see you again tomorrow."
She stood up and backed away slowly. The puppy kept running in circles, looking at her, but finally, it slowly entered the tent. Sitting down with its front legs stretched out together forwards, it panted with its tongue out as though saying "see you tomorrow" and curled its body slightly. Kirika finally felt relieved.
Himura put the vinyl bag away, quickly turned and left. Kirika frantically ran after him. Walking beside him, she hesitated before extending her arm, lifting the umbrella that was originally his, raising it above the head of her kind senior.
"Umm... Thank you. But why? Didn't you say no just now?"
"I didn't say no. I simply said that it can't enter the lab."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Hmm... Just on a whim."
His tone of voice remained gruff and impolite. Subconsciously, Kirika's face relaxed.
"But is it okay?"
"Who knows. Superficially, this is a pharmaceutical company's research facility. Even if a watch dog were being kept on its grounds, there's nothing strange, right?"
Speaking casually, he turned his gaze towards her. As soon as his calm gaze caught sight of her, he smiled as well.
"Besides, even if there really is a problem... Your position will come in handy when the time comes. No matter how many people complain, in the end, you only need persuade one person and the problem is resolved, right?"
"Ahaha, just leave it to me. If it's just Onii-chan alone, watch and I'll surely persuade him!"
"Is that so?" He replied briefly.
Then for quite a while, they shared an umbrella on their way home.
The next day, an ordinary kennel replaced the tent, erected on the research facility's grounds—
Kirika felt her consciousness suddenly pulled back to reality. Right now on the roof, she could hear the shouting from the sports clubs. Apparently, while recalling the past, she had somehow started spacing out... It felt like a day dream. How absolutely ridiculous.
Himura was still standing by her side. He was gazing at the scene below as though looking into the far distance. However, without being prompted by anything in particular, as though the thought suddenly occurred to him, he asked:
"By the way, Kirika... Do you still remember that puppy?"
Kirika felt her heart skip a beat. There was no need for her to mention the past she had just recalled, right?
"—No, I've forgotten."
"Is that so?"
This was both a lie and the truth. Because she had reasons for wishing to forget it. When she strongly demanded herself to stop recalling it ever again—That was equivalent to her having truly forgotten the memory. So long as she was not possessed for an instant, or suffering a mental malfunction, recalling the memory by chance—
"That's right, put all your strength there into the pole—and vault! Oh, she failed?"
"She touched the bar slightly."
"That track and field club member failed because of that redundant mass on her chest, right? Without that excess weight, she would have jumped over it with agility... I knew it was completely useless! Not only is it an eyesore, it's also heavy and ugly to the extreme! Hey Cow Tits, as the representative of ugliness, hurry and go apologize to the track and field club member for hindering her from making new records!"
"Who is the representative of ugliness!? I have no idea why I must apologize either!"
"No, if you assume Kono-san is actually the giant boobs spirit, then all busty girls are elementalists contracted to the giant boobs spirit... Everything makes sense now! To think you caused such misfortune to a girl under your contract, you really should apologize! But putting that aside for now, O great spirit, I really wanna know how to form a contract, please tell me!"
"Hold on, Kuroe, don't get impatient. Surely she'll demand a live sacrifice as an offering. Like a head of top-grade Wagyu cattle! Faced with that staggering amount of calories, I'm trembling in fright!"
"What the heck, there's so many ridiculous things being said here, I don't even know where to start!"
"You guys seem to be having fun... Anyway, isn't it about time to go home? It's getting a bit late."
Kirika was listening inattentively to Haruaki's conversation with the girls when the fencing suddenly shook. It was Himura leaving the fence with a wry smile.
"You guys are lively as always. It's about time I get back to work as well."
As Fear and the others advanced, pushing the wheelchair, Himura's whispers seemed to be audible.
"What kind of work do you mean?"
"My work as a mathematics teacher has already ended for the day. Since I plan my work very carefully, I never need to put in overtime. Anyway, I will contact you if I receive any news about the enemy's side. Please keep the status quo and continue to take care of that girl—By the way, I forgot to ask, was Amanda living in your home yesterday?"
"Yes. Compared to Kirika's apartment, our place is bigger and more convenient in many ways. We will be taking her home today as well. Don't worry, we've been feeding her three square meals a day and the medicine as well."
"I see. Then if there's anything urgent, I will go over directly. See you tomorrow."
Himura waved his hand lightly, turned and headed to the roof's exit.
In the very last instant, Kirika felt as though Himura's gaze had met with hers. Hence, that final sentence might have been directed to her alone—But of course, Kirika ignored it completely.
"Hey~ Time to eat... Oh crap, it's spilling out. Nuu, it turns out she's not very willing to eat when I'm the one feeding her. Why?"
"You put too large a mouthful in that spoon. Reduce it slightly, like this... Eh?"
"If Kono-san is no good, it's my turn! Hmm, looks like she's not in a good mood today."
Like yesterday, the Yachi dining table was filled with dishes that could be conveniently fed to Amanda. However, feeding Amanda was not going very smoothly today.
"It shouldn't be because she's not hungry. We're eating dinner even later than last night."
Kirika commented while Haruaki crossed his arms and pondered, staring at the food on the table.
"Did I pick the wrong menu...? It's possible that there's something mixed in that she particular hates. Uh, the only dish we've yet to try is... the rice pilaf?"
Haruaki took Amanda's spoon and gently scooped a mouthful of pilaf from the plate, then tried to bring to her lips. Reflexively, she opened her mouth but stopped there.
"Hmm..." Haruaki was just about to frown when he hastily renewed his spirits. No good, at at time like this, the mood was very important for sure.
"This is food that I put a lot of effort into cooking. Through many years of research, I finally innovated this secret recipe... So, come on, have a bite and see, okay?"
Staring into Amanda's expressionless face, he smiled radiantly at her. Using his facial expression, he tried his utmost to tell her: Don't worry at all, it's really tasty.
"Oh dear~ Even with Haru's heart-warming smile, perhaps it's still a bit difficult~ Even healing beauties like us are out of ideas~"
"P-Perhaps. So, Haruaki, even if doesn't work, don't get too depressed..."
"Oh, she's eating."
Amanda opened her mouth slightly wider than before. After Haruaki gently inserted the spoon into her mouth, she began to chew. Haruaki could not help but feel delighted.
"Nuunuu... Why the shameless brat!? Clearly it didn't work for me, but she's letting you feed her so readily!"
"Hey Fear, if you speak too loudly, she might refuse to eat again. Lower your voice a bit—Konoha, could you help feed her some water?"
Konoha tilted a cup filled with water and Amanda swallowed, perhaps because liquids were easier to ingest. Guessing she had finished her water, Haruaki delivered another mouthful of pilaf. Chew chew chew. Konoha fed her water as appropriate. Gulp.
"Excellent, let's keep it up like this."
"Ah... It's a shame that she won't let me feed her, but like this... It seems like... Not bad at all. If... and I... were... to have a child, surely we would be taking care of the baby like now... Ufu, ufufu, ufufufufufu?"
For some reason, Konoha's glasses flashed while an eerie grin seemed to be hanging at the corner of her lips. Not knowing what it was about, Haruaki decided not to worry about it. After all, feeding Amanda was the current priority.
"Okay, this should be about right. I feel like I've fed her quite a lot."
Hence, Haruaki put down the spoon. Then he suddenly found Amanda to be acting not quite right. Although it was just a subtle change, her cheeks seemed a little reddened as though she were enduring something.
"Could it be that she ate too much? No... This is..."
That. As much as they took her there regularly, it was still impossible to predict exactly. Probably happy to see her willing to eat, Konoha had apparently fed her more water than usual—
"This is a crisis! Please excuse me!"
There was no time to spare. Even disengaging the wheelchair's brakes would be a waste of time. Reaching into the wheelchair's seat, Haruaki picked up Amanda's petite body. This was his first time holding her. So light.
"I realize it's an emergency! But, y-you are acting too shameless! Even if picking her up is a desperate act that cannot be helped, you... To think you'd... take this girl to the toilet—"
"I-I'm not going that far, okay!? I'm just moving her, that's all! I'm leaving the rest to you girls!"
Just as Haruaki was about to run out of the living room in a panic, his senses alerted him to something unusual.
He could not help but stop and look downwards at Amanda. Expressionless. But for some reason, Amanda's arms, wrapped around his back, seemed to be... applying slightly more force.
"Haruaki, what's the matter?"
"No... Nothing... Anyway, let's move quickly!"
Running out of the living room, he made a mad dash for the washroom. He lowered the girl in his arms onto the toilet seat, but still felt a slight force from her arms around his back. This could be considered the first time for her to give a definite reaction apart from holding hands. Once he put her down, the feeling disappeared, to be honest, it felt—
"This seems... a bit... of a shame..."
As soon as he muttered softly, Haruaki felt a murderous aura behind him.
"I-I can't believe you said it was a shame! Damn you, shameless brat, what the heck are you talking about, I'll curse you!"
"Haruaki-kun~? With this, I really... cannot defend you anymore... Not only did you embrace her tightly and enter the washroom together, in the end, you even said what a shame it was—I knew it, taking care of her to the very last step are your true feelings!"
"A-Absolutely ridiculous! I will not permit this at all, there are limits to perversion!"
"No... That's not what I meant!"
His denials in vain, Haruaki was viciously kicked out of the washroom by the girls as though caught in a tornado.
Having driven Haruaki back to his own room, Kirika was sighing in the corridor. Inside the washroom, Fear and Konoha were probably shoving at each other, trying to take care of Amanda. This was the first challenge Kirika had faced on her own the first day she had to take care of Amanda. But once her panties were removed and urged with a gentle voice, she would comply definitely. Ultimately, Amanda heard their voices to some extent and probably comprehended more or less. In other words, the mental circuits, capable of manifesting these actions into a definite verbal response, were definitely shut at the moment.
"What should I do...?"
After Kirika murmured absentmindedly, Kuroe looked at her, also waiting in the corridor for Amanda and the others to return.
"By the way, Kiririn, now happens to be a good opportunity. I'd like to chat with you for a bit."
"Sure, what do you want to chat about?"
"No, it's nothing important."
Kuroe smiled gently. Nothing important—Behind these words, Kirika could feel that she wanted to discuss something serious.
"That's right, Kiririn, you've been staying over frequently at our home lately~"
"Seems so. I was also intruding here during Christmas... Sorry for causing you trouble."
"No, you're definitely not causing trouble~ I'm overjoyed that this home could become even more lively. So what I'd like to say happens to be the complete opposite."
Kuroe's gaze remained very gentle, the kind that she would momentarily reveal despite joking around all the time—profound eyes that were both mature and as calmly accepting of all things as the ocean.
"Indeed, it'll be very fun if you continued to live here, Kiririn—So, I was thinking. In that case, why don't you simply move in?"
Kirika held her breath. She could not say that she had never considered such a thing. Living together would be quite wonderful. Happy, joyful, blissful, able to regard the future with hope, at the same time—
It was probably going to be very painful as well.
Hence, Kirika forced a smile and said:
"Haha... I don't have a reason for living here. Besides, living with classmates under the same roof isn't befitting for a class representative."
"Reason... Huh? Not even considering your curses, Kiririn?"
Perhaps because the two of them were currently alone, Kuroe pursued the matter to the end. Hence, Kirika concluded that she could not simply gloss over the answer and must answer Kuroe properly.
"...Indeed, if I could stay in this home which possess spiritual powers of purification, perhaps the curses of my «Gimestorante's Love» and «Tragic Black River» can be lifted. However, I neither know how long that would take, and honestly speaking, nor do I believe there is any necessity to do so at the moment."
"Is that because you don't want to lose the power to protect Haru?"
"I think it's useless even if I lied to you. So—Interpret it however you wish."
Using a calm voice and expression, Kirika concealed her pounding heartbeat.
"How stubborn... The way I see it, I think you can live a little more true to yourself. Don't bother with complicated and difficult concepts like necessity. Don't go worrying about Ficchi or Kono-san. Just do what you want to do the most—"
"I am currently doing what I want to do."
How stubborn... Kuroe murmured again. The smile on her face seemed to read "you leave me no choice" while helplessly tolerating a willful child.
"Then let me ask you a final question, but it's fine if you don't answer. However, I hope you can think about it carefully inside—In other words, Kiririn, for the next step, do you plan on keeping this up indefinitely?"
This simple question ended up weighing exceptionally heavily in Kirika's heart.
For the next step. In other words, the future. Who knows. What was going to happen? What did she want to do—?
The sound of flushing came from the washroom.
Instantly, Kuroe returned to her usual tone of voice, even more crazy than usual:
"Yes, this secret discussion has come to a conclusion with perfect timing. Then let it be so—Basically, let me make myself clear, if anything troubles you, please feel free to discuss with me any time."
The heavy atmosphere was instantly released by her excessively lighthearted tone of voice. This was probably one of her strengths—Kirika thought. Switching seamlessly between seriousness and nonseriousness at will.
Kirika smiled wryly while saying:
"How troubling... Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"I am standing on everyone's side."
Having probably seen through everything, she continued to reply in a lighthearted tone of voice.
During the leisure period after dinner, Fear was staring unproductively at a variety show on the television. The show's contents did not seem to be getting through to her mind—because there was too much to think about.
She slightly shifted her gaze away from the television over to Amanda on the wheelchair. Amanda was essentially sitting facing the television but Fear could not be certain if she actually watched the show.
Fear recalled the scene of their first encounter. Back then, she had just arrived at this home, still unsure of what she wanted and had no idea what she should do next.
That was why she laughed like a maniac on that roof, swallowed by her memories, harmed Peavey and even tried to kill Haruaki, then she jumped into the sea—
I really did a whole bunch of stupid things—Fear smiled wryly.
Looking at Amanda made Fear recall her own stupidity from that time. However, precisely because of that—
(Compared to back then... It's already quite different.)
Her wish was now very clear. She did not want to hurt anyone. She wished to lift her curse and become like a human, not hurting anyone, a being able to rescue others.
Currently before her eyes, Amanda was causing her to recall her past guilt. Then as long as she protected Amanda and helped her mind to recover, this would be able to prove that "now" and "back then" were different—proving that she had conquered the past. Fear had this kind of feeling.
(Then... I'll protect her... The "now" that I'm striving towards.)
After defeating the enemy who wanted Amanda dead, Fear just needed to wait until her mind recovered. After that, it would be nice to try having a chat with her as Fear suggested yesterday in the bathroom. Once Himura found a safe medical facility, although it might take a long time, she should recover one day.
(Speaking of which, there was that mention of the enemy possessing "a tool for healing minds." If that thing is useful, it could cure her immediately. But being a cursed tool after all, I'd better not put too much hopes in it. Rather than trying to steal that tool, protecting Amanda should come first.)
Fear suddenly noticed that the blanket wrapped around Amanda's thighs had slid off, so she reached out and gently covered her again. Having confirmed once more what she needed to do henceforth, Fear felt her mood brighten unbelievably. Feeling much relieved, the sounds of the television finally started registering in her mind somewhat—
'So! Next is the Valentine's special programme, unbelievably, this time it's—'
Fear had forgotten that she still had that problem to handle. Meanwhile, Kuroe was napping on the tatami floor and Kirika was staring at the television. Fear brought her lips next to Kirika's ear and murmured:
"By the way, Kirika, can we still find time to practice?"
"Hmm? Oh, I'm not sure either. Judging from the current situation, it might be quite hard. However... Whether that guy finds a hospital or the enemy attacks, it shouldn't take too long. Before Valentine's Day arrives, everything should be settled... That's what I'm hoping."
"Yeah, then I'll try to be patient for now. Oh yeah, I recently realized something very important, basically what kind of chocolate to give Haruaki. According to my wide-range observations throughout daily life, that guy typically snacks on either red bean jelly and potato chips, or stealing my rice crackers from the side—In other words, he doesn't seem to have a thing for chocolate, right? That's a very serious situation!"
"Hmm... That's probably common for the majority of boys. But since he eats red bean jelly, that means he doesn't hate sweets at least. Besides, there are still other choices like giving him dark chocolate which isn't particularly sweet."
"That's quite deep. Which kind of chocolate should I make... Perfect, let's watch this show as research."
The issue of Amanda could not be overlooked, but Fear must also give consideration to her own problems. Stretching out, Fear focused her gaze on the television show.
The host on screen said: 'Come, everyone, have a taste of this specially made chocolate! Never in your wildest dreams would you expect to draw the special wasabi flavor!'...
Oh~ So there's this flavor as well. Judging from the name, it shouldn't be too sweet, probably. Since the host was grinning from ear to ear while speaking and the comedian who drew the chocolate looked quite happy, the flavor must be nice, right?
Very well—Fear mentally added it to her list of choices.
At the same time, Haruaki was washing dishes in the kitchen with Konoha. Originally, Fear and Kirika had offered to help but too many people would get in one another's way, so they ended up deciding with rock-paper-scissors. That said, why was it the winner who got to wash the dishes...? Haruaki did not feel that washing dishes together with him was that fun an activity.
But in fact, Konoha was currently humming happily while washing dishes. Yes, compared to someone helping reluctantly, this was much better, of course... Thinking that, Haruaki continued with the dishes. From the living room, he could hear what sounded like Fear and the others whispering, plus the Valentine's show on television at the same time...
That prompted Haruaki to finally understand. Speaking of which, it was definitely that time of the year again. The recent restless atmosphere in the entire school was probably due to this as well. Once that day arrived, Taizou and the other boys were surely going to shout noisily: "That girl gave me chocolate!" "No, I didn't even get a single one. I won't forgive you!" To begin with, Haruaki was not one to mind the amount of chocolate he received, but the lively mood coming from the television was causing him to space out and wonder.
If someone gave me chocolate, who will it be? For sure, it'll all be courtesy chocolate, so probably limited to the female friends whom I converse with on a daily basis. Fear most likely doesn't even understand the festival's inherent meaning; Kirika would probably say "absolutely ridiculous," expressing complete disinterest; if Shiraho gave me chocolate, I'd better seriously consider the necessity of testing for poison. Sovereignty would probably be airheaded enough to forget the chocolate at home, while Kana had always been one of those people who passed out Tirol chocolate to everyone since middle school—
(Then the only ones likely to give me chocolate like a normal person would be Kuroe and... Konoha... Right?)
Haruaki turned his gaze to the side. Next to him was Konoha, happily washing the dishes, always giving him handmade chocolate every year. At this moment, she suddenly said: "Oh, excuse me." Then she reached for the detergent in front of Haruaki. Due to bending forward, her bosom wobbled and shook slightly—Haruaki frantically turned his gaze away. But for some reason, that scene kept getting replayed in his mind nonstop. Slight shaking. A round bulge, looking soft yet warm. Texture as though capable of accepting everything. It was quite late to say at this point, but Haruaki admitted that not only did Konoha have a great figure, but she was also smart and very kind. One would expect many people to want to give her chocolate. And currently, someone like her was right by his side, smiling happily, reaching forward to put away a dish, her bosom quivering again—
At this moment, Konoha looked at Haruaki and spoke as though she had suddenly recalled something:
"Uh, Haruaki-kun, is it okay if I leave the rest of the dishes to you? I need to go prepare the bath."
She was smiling very radiantly. Haruaki could not help but feel his heart pounding.
"S-Sure, thanks for your help."
He stammered in reply. "Then I'm counting on you for the remainder." Saying that, Konoha walked to the bathroom. Not long after that, Haruaki finished the dishes as well. Then just as he was leaving the kitchen, he seemed to hear his name being called somewhere. Tracing the sound to the source, in other words, the changing area, he checked and—
"...Haruaki... kun, umm... Could you come in briefly?"
This time, he heard his name being called definitely. Konoha's voice sounded quite nervous, as though she were suppressing some kind of emotion. Haruaki entered the changing area and asked:
"What's up? There's no hot water?"
"S-Something like that... In any case, please... come in..."
Haruaki listened to her answer through the bathroom's glass door. On the other hand, he kept getting the feeling that something was not right about the changing area. Hmm? Haruaki tilted his head in puzzlement, then slid the glass door open without thought—
Then instantly, he froze completely.
He was struck by a very rich and sweet fragrance. A second later, he finally realized what was unusual about the changing area. It was this smell drifting into there. Ah, not only that. He traced back his memories. There were clothes in the female laundry basket in the changing area. Konoha's clothes. That also contributed to his feeling of dissonance. In other words—
Konoha was currently nude.
"Umm... Haruaki... kun..."
"W-What? No, sorry, anyway, I'm very sorry!"
"Wait! Don't... go..."
Haruaki halted himself just as he was turning and could not help but see.
Konoha was kneeling with her knees together on the center of the bathroom floor, sporting twin braids and glasses as always. Undressed, her body was presenting its womanly and voluptuous curves without any reserve at all. Luckily, the critical areas remained out of sight, just barely. This was partially due to Konoha, blushing intensely, covering herself with both arms ineffectually, but more importantly, because—
It was also the reason why the bathroom was filled with the sweet aroma. This was because very delicious looking chocolate was currently smeared over the critical locations of Konoha's body.
"K-Konoha... W-What on earth is this?"
"Must I really spell it out... in order for you to understand...?"
With large, watery eyes, she looked up at Haruaki, straightened her back, lifted her torso and shifted her arm away slightly. Ahhh, that was now exposed even more clearly in his view—
"This is... Valentine's... chocolate... This year... is special."
"I specially prepared this... to make you... happy, Haruaki-kun. Made with very... very... great dedication... So... it's very delicious... Yes, so..."
Konoha spoke with an inexplicably high-pitched voice. Without sitting up, she slowly extended her hands towards Haruaki. Then wrapping her hands around the back of his neck lightly, she pulled him towards her.
Pulled, Haruaki fell over forwards, his face landing on some... something gentle. The sweet aroma was at the tip of his nose.
Konoha still had her arms around the back of Haruaki's neck, her eyes moist, her face bright red, her breath hot.
"Please... Could you..."
Then whispering softly:
"Could you... lick... my chocolate...?"
Haruaki's mind went blank from the sweet aroma, completely unable to think. Konoha tightened her arms faintly but irresistibly, bringing his head even nearer. Cocoa and milk's aroma, aroma, aroma aroma aroma. Indeed, it looked quite delicious. Haruaki salivated greatly. In fact, it must be very tasty without a doubt, tasty things were supposed to be eaten—
Instinctively trying to imagine a taste he had never savored before, Haruaki subconsciously breathed out. Perhaps upon feeling the wind of his breath, the chocolate before his eyes—
"Ah... Yah, mmm..."
Giving off a burning hot moan, she shuddered once. Living chocolate, delicious-looking chocolate. If he did not eat it, perhaps it would be an affront to the confectionery chef who had created this chocolate. Hence—
Hence, Haruaki opened his mouth slightly, his mind in a haze.
Then slowly, slowly, he extended his tongue, wet with saliva, towards there—
Haruaki suddenly woke to a start.
"Kya? W-Watch out—!"
The instant Haruaki regained his senses, the dish he was washing slipped from his hand. Naturally, Konoha had not gone to the bathroom while claiming to prepare the bath, neither had she prepared chocolate in the bathroom. Still washing dishes, Konoha swiftly reached out and caught the dish.
Heart pounding like mad, Haruaki looked around in the kitchen and instantly realized. A delusion—To think he was having delusions? How did this happen? Was the culprit the result of looking at that wobbling bosom? No, he could not lay the blame on others. In any case, to think he would... To think he would have that kind of delusion... Too abnormal. Seriously... too abnormal.
"Haruaki-kun, what's the matter with you? You even made a strange scream."
"No... Uh, i-it's—It's that. Because it slipped from my hand, I was worried if the dish would fall and break, so I couldn't help it..."
"I remember the scream coming first... Never mind, in any case, thank goodness it didn't fall and break. This is quite rare for you to have this sort of accident, Haruaki-kun."
Konoha smiled tenderly. Her innocent and smiling face brought a stinging pain in Haruaki's heart, guilty from the delusion.
"? There's no need to apologize to me with your face red. Everyone has accidents, besides, the dish wasn't broken either."
"No, even so, umm... Uh..."
Naturally, he was unable to explain, not daring to stare straight into Konoha's eyes. Hence, Haruaki poured forth his full sincerity and spoke again:
"I-I am sorry."
Of course, Konoha simply inclined her head in puzzlement.
The next day after school, Haruaki's group was going home together. Like the day before, Kuroe spent the daytime at the superintendent's office, taking care of Amanda, with neither problems nor apparent progress. Apart from mathematics class, they did not see Himura again either, thus suggesting no progress on his end either.
Instead of heading home directly, they took a tour of the surroundings. Today, Kuroe was responsible for pushing Amanda's wheelchair while Fear was holding a book she had bought at a bookstore along the way, frowning deeply while staring at the pages. Not only did she cover up the exterior, but she had also chosen the book secretly with Kirika, so Haruaki had no idea about the book's title or genre.
"To think you're reading a book, how rare. What is it?"
"Nuu. Secret, it's a secret! I can tell others but not you!"
"Shut up! Don't ask anymore, I'll curse you! Jeez... But I never knew there could be so many varieties... Which should I pick? Hmm..."
Fear turned her gaze back to the book and murmured to herself. Oh well, reading a book was not a bad thing after all. In any case, Haruaki decided not to pursue further regarding the book's contents and simply gave an honest warning: "Reading while walking is very dangerous." But just as expected, he was cruelly ignored.
But soon after, Fear closed the book shut and placed it in her schoolbag. This was definitely not because his warning finally worked after a delay but simply because she tired of it.
"Hmm, how difficult... I'll read the rest at home. Speaking of which..."
Fear glanced towards Amanda.
"Wasn't the bookstore stimulating enough? There were so many fun-looking books inside."
"Yeah. To me, it's quite a shame I wasn't able to visit the most stimulating zone."
"How could you be allowed there!?"
"The most stimulating type of book...? I don't get what you're getting at, Kuroe, but books are simply books, right? I don't really think there could be too big of an effect. Is there anything more stimulating?"
Fear surveyed her surroundings while speaking, then went "Oh!" and stopped walking, looking towards the side of the road.
"There's a park. Why don't we play there for a bit?"
"Oh~ Returning to childlike fancies on occasion seems like a good idea. Playing together in a lively manner, or watching us play, perhaps Ama-chan might be more energetic."
"What do you mean by 'occasional,' why do I feel like you always have nothing but childlike fancies, Kuroe-san... Hmm, whatever."
"I don't mind either. I didn't even know of this park before."
"Same here. Looks like there are quite a lot of leisure facilities~"
Hence, the group filed into the park. Although smaller than a baseball field, it was large enough for a three-player game of catch. The park contained sand pits, monkey bars, an elephant-shaped slide and swings, a full set of basic leisure facilities. In a corner on the far end, there was also a drinking fountain combined with a large clock stand.
There were already some people playing in the park, a few kids and a brown-haired girl, probably the elder sister of one of them. Probably playing tag, the group was running around, making a lot of noise.
Trying not to get in their way, Haruaki's group first headed over to the swings. Putting Amanda on a swing, they rocked her gently while making sure she did not fall off. Swaying the iron chains, Haruaki exchanged glances with Kirika who was supporting Amanda's arms.
"...How should I describe this? Somehow, it feels... very lonely..."
"I get the same feeling too. But it can't be helped. It's not like we can be like Fear."
"Ahaha~! Amanda, do you see!? This is really very fun, if you're jealous, hurry and get well, at least well enough to play on a swing!"
Fear was standing on the adjacent swing, showing off swinging upright, swaying backwards and forwards forcefully. "What's this? A display stand for decapitation? Or a relative of the guillotine's? I never knew that this country has a culture of public executions as well!" Fear had said that the first time she saw a swing, but by now she was very experienced with them.
"Fear, don't swing too hard, it's dangerous! Rather, umm, you're currently wearing a skirt...!"
"This stimulating sensation is the whole point of fun on a swing. I want to go even higher~!"
"Like I said, hold your horses! You are also being stimulating in a different sense!"
Perhaps because she was trying to make a display of her joyful form in an effort to stimulate Amanda, Fear did not relent in her vigor. She swung high, fast and boldly. Her head of silver hair glittering brightly, she became a pendulum herself. To be honest, the sight was very pretty. Perhaps also because of that—
"Wow~! That foreigner missy is so amazing..." "Doesn't she get scared?"
The kids who had been playing tag in the park were apparently drawn to Fear and approaching, their eyes glimmering as they watched Fear trace out arcs in the air.
"Hohoho... Those who recognize my skills know what they're talking about...!"
Fear grinned at them while increasing her swinging speed, getting even more carried away. Were she to speed up further, it really looked like she was going to make a 360-degree full revolution. However, that did not seem to be the ending that the kids wanted.
"I-Is she going to fly? Will she fly?"
"The foreigner missy definitely can fly very far away! She's most likely a gymnast!"
"Uh, umm, dear children... Excuse me, but that idiot missy really might end up doing that after listening to your commotion, so—"
Just as Konoha spoke to the kids with a stiff smile, in that very instant—
Twang! The swing swayed greatly then—
"I must respond to expectations... Watch! Here I go~!"
"She flew~!" "So amazing!"
Under the children's amazed gazes, silver hair fluttered in the air. Perhaps incited to a good mood, Fear even went as far to somersault in the air, holding her knees to her chest while rotating—silver, stripes, silver, stripes, these two colors alternated in Haruaki's view while Fear traced out a perfect parabola, landing on her feet—
"Yeah! Kids, did you see that!? Please offer your generous applause of praise... Woah?"
Perhaps due to jumping too forcefully, Fear's landing failed a little. Just as she slipped, the lead girl who had been playing with the kids, arrived chasing after the kids, panting heavily—
"Huff... Ooh... Wait up... You guys, I'm so happy you didn't flee and waited for me. But Onee-san is pretty much 'it,' so if you act too casual, Onee-san's pride will get hurt, will HEART BREAK... Ooph!"
The girl running weakly collided with Fear who had lost her balance. Then the two of them collapsed, all entangled together.
"Nuu. What happened...? Anyway, looks like I didn't achieve a perfect ten. What a shame."
"Hey Fear! Now's not the time to be saying what a shame! I knew this was going to happen!"
"Uh.. This is... because they were looking forward to it, so I had no choice... Muguu!? Damn you, shameless brat, you dared to hit my head! I'll curse you!"
Haruaki decided it was appropriate to give her a bit of educational punishment given the circumstances. After a knock on Fear's head, he lifted her up by the collar to right her stance. At this moment, Fear finally seemed to realize what had happened after her failed landing.
"Muu... Did I hit this girl? I'm really sorry. Hey, are you okay?"
"Yeah, umm, we're very sorry! A-Are you alright?"
Haruaki examined the girl's appearance. She was roughly the same age as them. On her head, she was wearing a cute knit cap with long ear flaps. The ear flaps were curled up slightly, revealing wires and headphones on her ears underneath. She was probably listening to music at a low volume. Her outfit consisted of a t-shirt, a hoodie together with a fluttery miniskirt, overall quite convenient to move around in. A pair of bare, snow-white legs extended from beneath her skirt down to her sneakers, no socks, giving an impression of convenient mobility yet vulnerable at the same time. Combined with the fact that she had fallen and was currently sprawled on the ground, between her bare thighs and miniskirt was—
Feeling murderous intent, Haruaki frantically turned his gaze away so quickly that he almost broke his neck. After evacuating his view, he happened to find Konoha slowly raising both hands. Smiling at him, she lowered her hands lightly at the same time. What a close call.
Sensing the girl sitting up with a rustle, Haruaki turned his gaze back towards her. The girl was sitting listlessly on the ground, her head cocked in puzzlement: "What just happened...?" Hence, Haruaki asked:
"Umm... Sorry about that, are you okay? Did you get hurt?"
"Eh? Oh—I'm probably... okay. Yes, don't worry! This is totally the GOODEST!"
The girl smiled demurely while using incorrect English. Her smile was quite dazzling. Then patting her bottom, the girl stood up. Probably due to wearing a knit cap with ear flaps, she gave an impression like a rabbit's—The cap could very well be modeled on a rabbit's design as its prototype.
"Really? It's great that you're unhurt. Sorry, I accidentally went too far in my playing around."
Fear could not help but make an apologetic expression, scratching her face while saying sorry. But the girl replied cheerfully:
"No no! It's my fault for not looking ahead! The same goes for both of us!"
This doesn't really count as the same for both of them—Haruaki thought... But of course, this was much better than angering or hurting the other person. Just as he felt relieved, he saw the children crowding around Fear one after another.
"So amazing! Missy, you're so amazing! Swinging back and forth just now!"
"Hey hey, missy, do you know other tricks? Show us!"
"Ah... Cough cough, since I'm a professional after all, I can't go around showing off my ultimate moves so easily. Consider the performance just now a special service and that's it for now."
"Eh~" The kids yelled with dissatisfaction. Fear glanced at Haruaki. Naturally, he returned a warning gaze. Allowing her to do anything like that again would be unacceptable.
"Do not keep insisting on unreasonable demands. Okay okay, it's time to continue the game of tag! I'm gonna catch you all~!"
"Eh~ But Nee-san, you're already out of strength. Your fleeing speed is still okay, but you're too weak as 'it.' The game's not working out at all."
At this moment, one of the kids said:
"Oh right! Hey hey, foreigner missy, why don't you join our game as well!?"
Fear was still thinking when the rabbit-like girl grabbed her hand and spoke with serious eyes:
"You must join in! These kids can't be allowed to look down on adults, let's show them the power of adults! Make them eat their words!"
"Uh, I think you're the only one getting looked down on... Hmm, but after all, I did cause you trouble, so playing a short while should be fine. Haruaki, may I?"
"Yeah... Nothing wrong with that."
There were limits to how much the wheelchair-bound Amanda could play. In that case, just as Fear mentioned earlier, letting her see them play happily might be a way to give her stimulation.
Since Kirika offered to take care of Amanda on the swing, Haruaki and the rest began to join the kids and the girl in their game.
First, they resumed the game of tag they had been playing. But the girl acting as 'it' was sluggish to the point that it was heartbreaking. Too pitiful. Why don't I deliberately let her catch me? Just as Haruaki thought that, one of the kids gathered everyone for an emergency meeting and suggested modifying the rules.
"Takaoni... If forced to translate it, I'd say it's High Ogre! Sounds so powerful! Then what's the game like?"
"I don't know either. How is it different from playing tag?"
"So missies, you don't know anything. Uh, the rules are like this—"
The one being 'it' was not allowed to touch someone who was above ground level. However, the players are not allowed to stay in one spot either. Once locked on by the 'it,' they were forced to be 'it' after ten seconds.
"Muumuu. Once locked on, the player must escape to a higher elevation, so the 'it' only needs to figure out which direction the player will run and guard it... Nuufu, sounds doable! I won't let you guys off so easily anymore like just now!"
The game restarted with the girl's vigorous shout. Despite locking on to various targets, she still failed to catch them, but just as she predicted, she soon caught one of the kids. When it was Konoha's turn, she caught people gently. Standing on the top of the slide, Fear laughed heartily and audaciously, but ended up slipping accidentally and sliding down and was easily caught. As for Kuroe... "Strange? Where did the tiny missy go?" "Hoho... Looking for me?" "I can't believe you're on a tree! How did you climb up there?" Thus, the game continued in this manner. Finally, it became Haruaki's turn to be "it."
Playing with kids was truly exhausting for the mind and body. One could not be serious but holding back too much would take out the fun for the kids. In all sorts of ways, it was very draining.
After several kids escaped from him, Haruaki wiped sweat off his brow and surveyed the park.
"Phew. Uh, who might be a better target...?"
Fear was standing one-legged on a tire that was half-buried in the ground. Konoha was staying on the slide together with the other kids while Kuroe was hanging on a low branch overhead with her hands—
"Crap, DANGER! Our eyes met!"
That girl was on the monkey bars. Haruaki really wished she could pay more attention to her miniskirt where she wore nothing underneath apart from panties. Should he target her? What should he do? Even though Haruaki was still thinking, the girl began to get nervous and climbed down frantically. Unexpectedly, she slipped—
Although she did not hit the ground, the situation was perhaps even worse. Her entire body upside down, she was entangled in the monkey bars' frame in a complicated manner, especially with her legs open towards the sky—
"Wait... Time out, time out~! I'm stuck! Oh my... Oh my my? Over here... should—Are you actually planning on targeting a poor defenseless girl who cannot move!? Stop it, don't target me! You're a complete demon, an ogre!"
"Mister, hurry~!" "Get her~!" The kids' yells came one after another, but no matter what, Haruaki still had what was called a warrior's mercy. Furthermore, Konoha and the other girls were making scary gazes.
If he were to target the lively yet sluggish girl, surely he would be able to quickly get out of being 'it'—But since she was too sluggish, Haruaki could not bring himself to do it. It looked like he had no choice but to continue running around as 'it' for a while longer.
Sighing, Haruaki ignored the unsightly girl on the monkey bars and slowly began to search for other prey.
Drenched in sweat after all this fun and games, it was almost sunset. One of the kids suddenly yelled:
"Oh no! That clock isn't even moving!"
Hearing him say that, the other kids screamed in dismay one after another.
"Eh, seriously! I'm in trouble!" "Hey mister, you got a watch?"
"No watch, but I do have a cellphone. Have a look."
"Uwah... I'm so dead, it's already past dinner time. Mom will be so mad... I'd better get home!"
"Same here! Why is the clock broken today!?"
"Bye bye, missies! Let's play again another time!"
Apparently, though the kids were able to fearlessly play with Fear and the others despite their unusual appearances, curfews were even more frightening. The kids all rushed out of the park and vanished like a puff of smoke.
"Oh, see you next time~" Fear waved her hand while seeing them off, looking up at the clock in the park.
"It's definitely broken. The glass is shattered too. Did someone throw a rock? Now it's useless and just taking up space."
"YES. A clock must move after all. Once it stops, only then do people realize its importance."
The girl was nodding her head with a solemn expression. Kirika moved Amanda from the swing back to her wheelchair and pushed her over.
"Hmm...? You don't need to go home? Seeing you get along with them so well, I was sure you would be one of the kids' older sister or relative."
"No, not at all. It's my first time meeting those kids today. Getting along with others just happens to be my strength."
"I won't lose in terms of getting along with them." Fear declared proudly with her chest puffed out. In response, Konoha remarked with slight exasperation:
"It's not like that's something especially worth being proud of. I was thinking it was simply because your mental age is roughly the same as those kids."
"What did you say!?"
"Anyway, we're heading home, what about you?"
"Hmm~ I can't go back yet, because I still have work to do~"
The girl answered energetically. With an innocent look, a look completely devoid of malice.
At the same time, she was smiling radiantly.
"After all, it's not a good influence if I destroyed and slaughtered my targets in front of kids, right? Now that I've waited so long for the kids to leave, I must do a bit of work."
Fear and the girls reacted quite swiftly. As alarm appeared on their faces, they shielded Amanda and the wheelchair behind them. Konoha stepped forward and pushed Haruaki lightly. Only then did he finally move and retreated in surprise. Impossible. Unbelievable. The girl who had been playing together with them, both laid back, cheerful, lively yet a bit sluggish, the girl whom they had not sensed any hostility coming from her at all—
"...The Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion?"
Fear asked while fishing out her Rubik's cube. The girl nodded simply.
"YES. Elsie-san's name is Hinai Elsie. My purpose is destroying you, Fear-in-Cube—as well as eliminating this Mummy Maker here. In order to maintain internal discipline within the Knights Dominion and to prevent the leak of information, the higher-ups basically ordered the execution of the useless auxiliary who was captured by the Lab Chief's Nation."
"You should understand after seeing her, right? It's currently impossible to get any information out of this girl. That's exactly why the Lab Chief's Nation gave up protecting her. Even so, you still want to kill her?"
"Of course, because it's Elsie-san's responsibility. Work must be approached seriously."
After hearing Kirika's words, the girl—Elsie—remained unmoved. Was a fight unavoidable?
A period of silence descended on this deserted park with sunset imminent.
Just at this moment, someone's cellphone suddenly rang. Pushing the wheelchair while keeping an eye on Elsie's movements, Kirika took out her cellphone and narrowed her eyes after glancing at the screen.
"Feel free to pick up the call. I don't mind waiting this little bit of time."
The cellphone continued to ring. Kirika hesitated for a moment before picking up finally.
"...Are you asking about the current situation? Absolutely ridiculous—Allow me to tell you. We are currently facing off against a girl from the Knights Dominion called Hinai Elsie. She's right in front of us."
Kirika spoke in exasperation and frowned after hearing the response.
"Hey. What do you mean by hitting the jackpot on what you hoped would not be true—What... was that?"
Several seconds passed.
Absolutely ridiculous—Kirika murmured softly and hung up the phone gruffly.
"Class Rep, was that... Himura-sensei just now?"
"I must have mentioned before, there's no need to add the 'sensei' honorific. Yes, whatever, you're right that he's the one who just called, reporting useless information: 'The enemy has landed in the country apparently.' Then—he had also learnt of the enemy's name, albeit not completely convinced. Now that he knows the person is in front of us, he told me even more useless information."
"...What did he say?"
Haruaki asked while feeling unusual vibes from Kirika. After hanging up, Kirika did not let Elsie out of her sight at all. She was clenching her fists and giving off a sense of tension. Perspiration appeared on her forehead.
"I'll repeat his words verbatim. This is what he said—"
Still maintaining the aforementioned state, Kirika smiled.
...It was most likely a forced smile.
"Hinai Elsie is known as the «Strongest»—You have no chance of winning, so hurry and escape."
Elsie's shoulders shook as she giggled.
"Absolutely the GOODEST! That's really correct advice, but I have no intention of letting you escape."
"What a joker that man is, how would I know if we don't try? And you, speak properly!"
"Eh~ Elsie-san is speaking properly. In other words, this is GOODEST SPEAKING."
"You don't have to repeat so deliberately! Arghh, how could this airheaded girl be called the strongest—Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator», Curse Calling!"
"I feel the same way. Try my super move, uh... ALWAYS KILL SKILL explosion..."
"You don't have to try to compete with her. That makes you look totally like a comedian. In any case—Haruaki-kun and Ueno-san, please step back. I'll leave Amanda in your hands."
Saying that, Fear and Konoha stepped forward. Kuroe stood behind them to be able to support the two girls while guarding Haruaki and the rest from projectile attacks.
Fear raised the drill up high while Konoha readied her knife hand. Watching these two, the enemy remained unfazed.
"Wow~ BRAVE HEART. How courageous. Then Elsie-san will begin preparations."
She reached into the collar of her t-shirt and pulled out something. Roughly palm-sized, the object was an antique-looking pocket watch on a silver chain. The watch shone with golden luster and intricate engravings could be seen decorating its surface.
Then Elsie grabbed the watch stem and turned it by one revolution.
Quiet ticking started, then in the next instant—
Elsie's shoulders shook as though an electrical current had passed through her entire body. Then she continued to slowly wind the watch, winding, winding, causing her body to tremble nonstop every time.
"Mmm... A-Ah... Kyafuun... Almost... th-here... ECSTASY!"
Her mouth half-open, eyes glazed, she kept winding the watch—
But after a while, the pocket watch gave off a louder click and the watch stem could no longer be turned further apparently. Elsie suddenly looked normal again.
"Ah, it can only go this far after all? I dunno if it'll be enough... Whatever, anyway, I won't know until I try, yes."
"Is that a cursed pocket watch? At a glance, you don't look like you have other weapons. Neither do I know what abilities you have, but don't think you can defeat us with that thing—"
"Oh sorry. I don't have time, so here I go."
Instantly, two things happened simultaneously.
First of all, Elsie suddenly vanished from view.
Secondly, Fear's body was sent flying to the side.
Konoha readjusted her stance with an expression of shock. Elsie was now beside her where Fear had been standing.
—A second later, there was a loud crash. Having been sent flying silently, Fear now crashed into the monkey bars directly, instantly deforming the frame. Collapsing sprawled, Fear remained motionless.
What just happened? Haruaki finally realized what he had sensed vaguely just now, something that he only sensed very vaguely. The reason was simple. Rather than vanishing, Elsie was simply moving fast enough for others to mistake her for vanishing, unnatural speed that was akin to fastforwarding a video, then casually delivering a hook towards Fear's gut. Simply by doing that, she effortlessly sent Fear flying despite what should have been a heavy and sturdy body.
"You... This girl—"
"A knife hand stance? Compared to the knife hand, Elsie-san prefers the knife finger. Isn't this cooler? Look, COOL!"
Konoha swung her karate chop at close range but Elsie did as claimed and blocked the attack simply by sticking up her index and middle fingers.
"No way... Come on! A mere human's body, how could it be possible... I failed to slice through...!"
Konoha groaned. In contrast, Elsie swung her right hand's knife finger towards Konoha to counterattack. As expected of unnatural speed that was almost impossible for the eye to follow. Haruaki could feel it even when watching from a distance. Surely, Konoha must be experiencing much higher speeds up close.
Thrice. Despite being highly experienced in battles, Konoha only managed to exchange three blows against this level of high speed.
"Wow! To think you're able to exchange blows thrice with Elsie-san, how rare! EXCELLENT!"
Konoha was unable to block the fourth strike. Piercing Konoha's defense, Elsie stabbed her upper arm. In the next instant, Konoha's clothing was dyed by the red color she abhorred.
Immediately, Elsie swung her fist at the stomach of the immobilized Konoha. With abnormal speed and power, the petite fist made a depression in Konoha's belly, causing her to moan even more painfully before flying backwards, getting caught up in the chains of the swing where Amanda was sitting earlier.
"That child asked just now, what abilities I have, right? But it's hard to answer because it's too simple. Basically, Elsie-san is strong because Elsie-san is strong!"
Elsie spoke while her miniskirt fluttered as she jumped towards the collapsed Konoha. Then using the speed of the descent, she swung both her fists together. Alarmed, Konoha yelled out:
"Guh... Sever... completely!"
Manifesting a blade's sharpness all over her body, Konoha severed all the chains of the swing she was entangled in. Caught in the effects, her uniform was instantly shredded but there was no time to be concerned about that. Konoha swiftly rolled to the side and evaded Elsie's hammering fists. In her stead, the ground suffered an absurd depression.
Just as Elsie was about to attack in pursuit, taking advantage of Konoha losing balance—
"Mode: «Penetrator Yoshimasa»!"
Kuroe's hair extended like spears, attacking mercilessly. If her attack landed, she could probably gouge holes into the enemy's body with penetrative power rivaling Fear's drill, but—
"Hey! Because there's no time, you're becoming quite an eyesore!"
Elsie agilely dodged the spears of hair, but not only that, she also clamped a bundle of hair under her arm and leaned back, pulling the hair forcefully. Then with a mighty swing, she sent Kuroe flying, hair and all. Probably too fast for Kuroe to disable the hardening, the hair acted as the string of a pendulum in sending Kuroe flying into the air, vanishing into a forest outside the park. Then came the sound of branches breaking and leaves rustling before silence returned. Only after the spear-shaped hair lost its hardness did it fall to the ground like black ribbons.
"I can't believe... even Kuroe-san..!"
"I don't think you have time to worry about others right now~!"
Elsie spoke energetically and attacked Konoha who was getting up unsteadily. This time, Konoha only managed to block her attack once. The reason was obvious. After blocking once, Konoha turned towards Haruaki as though her face was desperately saying "there are more important things than defense"—Yelling loudly:
"P-Please hurry and escape! Haruaki-kun, Ueno-san!"
"To think you'd do this in the middle of battle... This is totally your MISTAKE!"
Elsie unleashed a spinning kick faster than the eye could follow, striking Konoha in the head and sending her entire body flying far away, creating a cloud of dust. With such apparent destructive power, Konoha was unable to get up at all—
Watching in stunned disbelief, Kirika suddenly regained her senses and spoke to Haruaki. Shoving the wheelchair's handles into Haruaki's hands, she stepped forward to protect them.
"Yachi! You hurry and go, leave it to me to stop—"
"—You can't stop me."
Haruaki heard such a sound.
Ahhh, Kirika was standing there, maintaining the same pose as when she took her step forward. Elsie was right in front of her. However, why—Why was Elsie's arm piercing out of Kirika's back?
After approaching with unnatural speed, Elsie spoke in an inexplicably gentle voice:
"No matter what, human cannot do it. You cannot keep up with Elsie-san's movements while Elsie-san's power can penetrate even a Wathe's defense to damage the Wathe. Of course you should have expected this with just an ordinary human body."
Kirika extended the belt slowly from her right arm, entangling Elsie's arm that was piercing her body. Then she reached out with a trembling hand and grabbed Elsie's wrist.
"Haha, you want to let him and Mummy Maker escape together? Amazing. Amazing. Also, I already know. You're wearing a Wathe of immortality, right? That's why you intended to do this... But is it really okay? A simple thrust already skewered your body like this. If Elsie-san moves this arm downwards, your body will be split into half to the crotch. At the same time, your clothes will break along with it... You could very well die."
Haruaki could not see Kirika's face. However—After hearing Elsie's words, he felt his heart stop for an instant. No way. That absolutely cannot be allowed!
"S-Stop it—I beg you, stop!"
"Yes. I understand how you feel. But sorry, no can do."
Elsie crushed Haruaki's pleas without mincing any words. Haruaki felt his view darken as something heavy weighed down on him. He wanted to scream but no sound came out. This overwhelming wish of the highest priority prevented Haruaki from thinking about anything else, causing his mind to short circuit. Once the circuits stopped, he could no longer lend voice to his wish, so the thought simply kept spinning in his mind, spinning repeatedly nonstop. Stop, stop, stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop stop—
He could see Elsie apply more force through her shoulder.
He could also see Kirika fall unconscious, her arm sliding down, the «Tragic Black River» dangling limply without control.
"Hmm~ It wasn't enough after all, huh... Time's up."
Elsie pulled her arm out from Kirika's body, dyed completely with Kirika's blood. At the same time, while watching in fascination as the blood squirmed and returned into Kirika's body, she said:
"However, with only an ordinary human left, at least I should be able to take care of the Mummy Maker who is no different from a cripple? ...That's what I was thinking originally, but forget it~"
Elsie turned her gaze to the side. Ahead was—
"Guh, ah, huff...!"
Fear was stumbling while unsteadily getting up. Attacked completely unexpectedly, Fear definitely took heavy damage. Breathing with difficulty, she used her drill as a crutch, but her eyes shone with determination as she shakily tried to stand up, her whole body covered with injuries. Judging from the power displayed so far, Elsie probably did not regard Fear as a threat but she said:
"You're more durable than expected. Can't be helped, I'm retreating for today. I'll be back once preparations are done. Before that, you guys just wait patiently—Oh right, say, Elsie-san has no sense of direction. May I ask a question, is this area the busiest part of town?"
Haruaki did not know why she asked this question. Neither was he obliged to answer. Nevertheless—
Haruaki secretly looked down towards the girl in the wheelchair. Expressionless. Despite the appearance of a former comrade who planned to kill her, a former comrade hurting Fear and the others again, Amanda remained completely unresponsive. The girl who had lost her cognition still remained in a state of lost cognition.
—Right now, I'm the only one standing by Amanda's side. Why doesn't the enemy rush over to attack? Why is she concerned about Fear who's all wounded and even going to retreat? Despite being completely puzzled, Haruaki decided that he had to protect Amanda as best as he could, so he answered honestly, in an effort to avoid reckless lying that might cause the enemy to change her mind.
"I guess... that's correct."
"Yes~ Then as expected, I'll need to do it in this town... Thanks! Seeya next time~"
Completely unconcerned with the wary Haruaki, Elsie turned around and strode away, leaving the park in this manner. Haruaki observed for a while, but there were no signs of her returning.
Thud! Haruaki then heard the sound of Fear pushing her hand against the ground, still trying to get up. Fear was panting and holding the flank of her abdomen where Elsie had punched. Haruaki pushed the wheelchair and ran towards her but there was nothing he could do.
He surveyed the park and saw the deformed monkey bars and the broken swing. Thrown into the forest earlier, Kuroe seemed to have sprained an ankle and was hobbling back to the park. Konoha was moaning in pain, clenching her fists on the ground. On the other hand, Kirika had a massive hole in the center of her body, making no sound, she looked like she was dead.
Haruaki could not understand why the enemy had left without delivering the final deathblow.
However, he had no choice but to admit.
Counting from when she first made her move, only a mere two minutes or so had elapsed.
During this duration—
Within these short two minutes—
Hinai Elsie had thoroughly crushed their entire group.
Translator's Notes and References
- Echigoya(越後屋): a reference to the successful Mitsui family business, founded in the 17th century, that developed into Mitsukoshi, the root business of the Mitsui Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Japan. Apparently used as an euphemism for bribery.
- Mapo Doufu(麻婆豆腐): a popular dish of spicy bean curd, originating from Sichuan province of China.
- Red bean jelly(羊羹): yōkan is a thick jellied dessert made of red bean paste, agar and sugar.
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