What are your plans from here on? She asked.
—I can't go back anymore. The other person answered.
Why did you join them? She asked.
—No particular reason, I just went with the flow. The other person answered.
Apart from that place, do you have any other place you belong to? She asked.
—Nowhere. The other person answered.
Then after a period of silence... Do you still remember what happened so far? She asked.
—I have listened all along. The other person answered.
At the same time, the other person turned to look at the ordinary scene outside the window—bearing a smile.
Watching that kind of expression, she thought to herself.
The past could not be changed. Time could neither be stopped nor reversed.
Even so, one must believe that "the present" could be changed, then continue advancing forward. She believed that humans need this kind of resilience. After getting to know those girls who were closer to human than anyone else despite not being human, if this person was able to smile like this while reminiscing about them, then there was all the more reason for this person to apply this sort of resilience and move forward courageously.
Hence, she—Un Izoey—asked once again.
"Without any place you belong, going back will mean your elimination. I hereby ask you... Do you wish to work?"
—I am an enemy. The other person answered.
"I believe what you said about going with the flow. Since there is no reason to put effort in staying there, neither is it possible to return to that place, there should be no problem."
—Even so, aren't you worried I will betray your organization? The other person answered.
"My reply: not worried. The pain of betraying and the pain of being betrayed are both known to you. Besides, without any place where you belong, there is no benefit in betraying us either."
Un Izoey gave the other person time to consider as well as supplementary information.
"Let me state beforehand, the work is simple. Due to one of our members disappearing, you will be replacing the position, something like a contracted employee. But if you agree with our ideology and want to pursue the unknown, that's a different matter. Are you interested in the belief of unraveling the unknown? I ask this kind of question."
—No idea. What I want to know is what I'm supposed to do next. The other person answered.
"A remarkable unknown. Do you have any idea?"
Next, Un Izoey remained silent, waiting for the other person's conclusion.
In this white sickroom, in this sickroom that contained only two people, Un Izoey was waiting for the answer from the young girl who was sitting up in bed, staring out the slightly ajar window.
After a moment, she spoke:
"I have... a condition."
"That person. I wish to... see that person."
It was obvious who that person she was referring to. A knight in isolation who had been captured. The person who once wanted to kill this very girl.
"I won't do anything. I just want to see her. Neither have I thought of helping her escape. She will surely be eliminated if she returns to the Knights Dominion. Staying here... is safer."
"If she sees you, she will condemn you a traitor. She will want to kill you again. In spite of that?"
"In spite of that."
She answered immediately, then continued in a whispering voice:
"Even if it's a lie, even on a whim, my memories won't disappear, the past won't disappear. I did feel happiness for real. Hence, I want to tell her. I just... want to tell her this..."
Her gaze was still directed outside the slightly ajar window.
"Thank you for giving me memories. Also—"
Wind blew in from the window, gently caressing the girl's white hair.
Like an intangible mother.
On that day, early in the morning before the sun had risen completely, Konoha tiptoed her way across the corridor in the Yachi residence. Stepping cautiously, she finally reached her destination—in front of the door to his room.
Gingerly, she looked all around and took a deep breath. Then with a forceful nod that went "yes!", she slid open the paper door. Even though she did so with great gusto, Konoha still carefully paid attention to the sound when opening and closing the paper door.
This was his room. For a room belonging to a teenaged boy, this could be considered quite neat and tidy. The same sight as usual, yet carrying a different atmosphere from normal—His room. Lying in the futon laid out in the center of the room, he was giving off steady breathing noises. In this tiny room, there was only herself and the sounds of his breathing. This was a sight that made her feel very comfortable and happy.
Konoha gently knelt down by the futon to observe his sleeping face. So cute.
An impulse surged from the depths of her heart, almost driving her mad.
Surging from the heart of her, the one who was lying.
The memories of that day were awakened, accompanied by pain. Ahhh, on that day, she had intentionally lifted the seal of the lie buried deep inside her, lifted the self-hypnosis that caused her to fear the sight of blood, immobilized whenever she saw blood. Several times in the past during crises, she had surmounted that layer of restraint through momentary force of vigor. However, lifting the restraint itself was the very first time.
It could not be helped. Had she not done so, she would have been unable to protect him. But was it right? Did she do the wrong thing? She did not know.
Right now, she wanted to apply that self-hypnosis on herself again. However, that layer of restraint that had taken effect until now, was a lie that approached truth infinitely, having been carefully crafted and built up over the years, finally reaching completion. So true that even Konoha herself forgot about the fact under normal conditions.
Once lifted, returning to past levels would require spending some time on it. Currently, flaws and openings existed. Currently, her existence was equally dangerous as that cube of torture and execution—
The lie of the past, the lie of the present, should she inform him? To be honest, she was very afraid. At the time, perhaps her mind was not quite stable due to the effects of the mind-controlling tool's curse. Once the chance was lost, she was going to flounder helplessly henceforth.
Konoha reached out to caress his cheek in his sleep. How warm, it invited tender affection.
The depths of her body ached. If she could simply steal his lips like this... If she could simply enter his futon like this, using this body of hers to accept his all... If she could be embraced by these arms of his, to experience his warmth forever and ever—What bliss that would truly be.
Desired. Desired. She... desired him... so much—
Konoha suppressed this impulse while gently tracing the outline of his face.
(Hey, Haruaki-kun... I am actually... this sort of scary woman. A woman who could go mad any time. If... I unreservedly... confess everything to you—Haruaki-kun, how will... you answer me...?)
Just at this moment—
He woke up. Konoha withdrew her hand from his face as though nothing had happened and smiled tenderly. Her usual self. Right here was her usual self. She should maintain this always.
"Good morning, Haruaki-kun. Sorry for waking you up."
"Yawn... No, I should be getting up around now, so it's fine. What's up?"
Haruaki sleepily glanced at the clock by his pillow to confirm the time then tapped the top of his alarm clock, sluggishly switching off the alarm. After he sat up, Konoha lightly presented to him the small box that she had been holding.
"Uh... This isn't anything particularly important... Umm... Today... isn't it that, you see? So... I just wanted to... give this to you."
"Hmm? Oh... Could this be chocolate...?"
Konoha nodded repeatedly. It was the chocolate she had made by hand personally, secretly made in the kitchen with the lights off in the middle of last night. If someone had happened to get up to go to the washroom, they would probably have witnessed the sight of a suspicious figure stirring a pot like a witch, relying on nothing more than the light from the gas stove's flame. Due to success beyond expectation, she apparently giggled secretly to herself a number of times... Even she found herself quite frightful. Luckily, no one saw her.
Haruaki blinked repeatedly quite a few times, finally scratching his face shyly, he took the box of chocolate.
"Thank you, Konoha. I'm so happy. But why so early in the morning?"
"S-Sorry. Umm... That's... because you will surely receive a lot of chocolate today, Haruaki-kun, so I was thinking I'd like to give it to you earlier than anyone else at least... Umm... Basically something like that..."
She stammered and murmured. Perhaps too quiet for Haruaki to hear, he tilted his head in puzzlement.
It was fine even if he did not catch it. After all, saying it again would be too embarrassing. "Anyway, it was involuntary, involuntary, okay!? Since I wanted to make breakfast today with great gusto, so I made this for you in the process as though to wake you up!" Reflexively, she glossed over things.
"O-Oh okay. Then I'll hurry to get dressed and head over—By the way, I'll say this again. Umm, thank you."
Haruaki lifted up the box of chocolate and spoke. Konoha replied with a smile and left the room. Sliding the paper door shut, she paused without moving for a few seconds. Coming from the room were sounds of him undressing and getting changed.
She had definitely handed the chocolate to him. He was very happy. Chocolate that was handed over earlier than anyone else would definitely be very special.
What needed to be done was done. But by this point, only then did she begin to realize: Would it be better if I was more proactive? Like giving him chocolate in a different manner, surprising him more, to let him know her feelings, then have all sorts of happy things happening. Such as... Such as—
"...Smearing chocolate on my body, then approaching and asking him to eat it... Something like that...?"
She could not help but murmur the image surfacing in her mind. After a second's delay, she was greatly shocked. Truly too indecent. Truly too perverted. What the heck was she thinking!?
Konoha rubbed her reddened cheeks and skipped her way to the kitchen to prepare a happy breakfast with him together.
Fear suddenly sat up from the futon and took a huge yawn, then mumbled her lips. While sitting in bed, she turned her head, straightened her back and swiveled her spine left and right. While doing these actions to drive away her sleepiness, she checked out her body's condition.
...Checking out her body's condition.
Fear reached out lightly and stroked her lower abdomen.
It was not long after defeating Hinai Elsie and Himura Sunao had vanished. Taking the Indulgence Disk from «Article 15», Haruaki had personally inserted it with his hand deep inside her as usual, which resulted in sealing away the «Tornado of Souls». She recalled the situation at the time.
"That bastard... I'm getting that feeling that his gentleness is subtly lacking recently. Even if it's because he's inserted the Disks many times into my body now, even if it's because he's used to it... Hmph, he should be more gentle when putting it inside. Because my hole is very small, shoving it in by force hurts a lot..."
She unintentionally grumbled and complained, thinking to herself: I really wish he'd think of some other method. Always holding that thing and shoving, pushing, poking every single time, doing as he pleased... Hmm, but after all, I'm the one who asked him to insert it in the first place, so I guess I need to endure to some extent. That said, there should be other ways, right? Such as... Yes, such as—
"Before putting it in... Lick and moisten my hole first... something like that... That way, my tight interior would become lubricated—Ah, idiot! Shameless, too shameless! Unforgivable!"
Fear angered at her own imagination for quite a while before recalling something else. Feeling painful was the same as usual. However, there was one fact that was different from usual.
Her mindset had changed.
For the first time, she felt hesitant. Was inserting the Indulgence Disks really a good idea? Once inserted, her powers would be reduced. Her powers for facing powerful enemies would be reduced. Such as when fighting Hinai Elsie, perhaps the battle might have been easier had she been able to freely use the mechanisms that had been sealed so far.
She pressed harder on her lower abdomen. It was quite close that time. Haruaki's scream. She did not want to hear other people's screams. Admit it—She was almost about to go mad at the time.
However, in spite of that, she still did not go mad. Supposing she had not sealed any of her mechanisms to this date, perhaps she might have used all her powers to kill that girl. Perhaps she would have lost her rationality, unable to suppress her powers, also possibly proceeding to attack everyone present, forgetting who was the real enemy.
The Indulgence Disks served as a suppressive power, a restraining power to seal away her madness. Only by continuing to gather them will she be free from the worry of going mad, then she can truly be like a human and focus her mind on lifting her curse.
But at the same time, the Indulgence Disks were taking away her powers, eliminating ways she could engage the enemy in battle. Continuing to collect them would mean losing all her powers and resisting attacking enemies would get increasingly difficult.
What a paradox.
She laughed and released the pressure of her hand on her abdomen. Because she remembered. When she was holding the Indulgence Disk in hesitation, when she was mentioning the paradox, Haruaki's face had displayed an expression.
She smiled wryly. He had simply said:
"That girl was the «Strongest», right? Yet you defeated her, so there's no need to be so concerned, right?"
Indeed. Her madness was still... very dangerous. In the end, she had to figure out a solution herself.
But when facing enemies, there was no need for her to handle them alone. Although it was quite infuriating, that Cow Tits was still around as well. And Kuroe. And Kirika. There were also others who might decide to interfere on their own, even though Fear did not want to involve them—
Bonds with other people... This type of resilience was what she possessed. Recalling this, her mood felt lightened unbelievably. Although she did not want to keep relying on other people's strength, it would be too foolish to panic and lose composure just because her weapons were decreasing.
"...Hmm, how should I say this...? Because I'm so amazing to begin with. With a bit of training from now on, as long as I still keep a hatchet and a drill, I should still be able to win effortlessly against any kind of enemy. Even without all my weapons, I'm still just as good as Cow Tits. Hmph... If there really is a need, it can't be helped, I'll just have to spar with her a little when I have time and learn some of her martial arts. Yes, the result is very simple. Even if I'm weakened, I just have to strengthen other areas in response."
After voicing it out as confirmation, Fear felt much more relaxed. She was surely correct.
Having completely dispelled her sleepiness, Fear pushed her blanket aside and stood up. Then she suddenly remembered. Right, today's date was—
Deciding it would be better to act sooner, she left her room and went to the kitchen. Just as she was about to open the fridge, Konoha also happened to enter the kitchen. For some reason, her cheeks were a bit red and she was rubbing her face in embarrassment.
"Hmm, Cow Tits, what's with you?"
"Oh dear... Cough cough, since I've come to the kitchen, there can only be one purpose. Namely, to prepare breakfast."
After making seemingly fake coughs to hide something, Konoha stood at the kitchen counter and started preparing breakfast as claimed. In any case, after accepting her reason for being her, Fear reached into the fridge. Hidden in the deepest part of the fridge that was stuffed with ingredients, there was a plastic bag which basically said "Mine. Absolutely forbidden to open, especially Haruaki!" Fear glanced at Konoha then slowly left the kitchen while holding the bag.
(Uumuu~ Today is clearly that day but she's not showing that kind of mood... Did she forget about the contest? Oh well, it's fine if she forgot. Then I simply win by default.)
Inside the plastic bag was a box wrapped in cute wrapping paper. She had personally packaged this in Kirika's home after buying the materials yesterday, but the position of the butterfly bow was slightly crooked... Hmm, this was a fun part that only came with being handmade, so it was going to serve as a highlighted advantage.
Then Fear walked over to Haruaki's room and boldly slid open the paper door.
"Haruaki, are you awake!?"
"H-Hey! I'm awake but I'm changing right now! Don't just suddenly open the door!"
"Oh sorry. Normally, I'd scream at you for being shameless and give you a kick, but I'm partly responsible as well today. I'll turn around and give you five seconds, so hurry up and put on your clothes during this time."
"I don't need you to tell me to put on my clothes. Seriously..."
Fear counted five full seconds then turned around again. Although Haruaki barely managed to put on his pants while a number of his shirt buttons remained unfastened, she treated it as fine.
"So, what's with the sudden visit?"
What was going on? Only at the critical moment did she start feeling nervous. Feeling as though her throat was blocked, Fear said:
"O-Oh, actually... Today is Valentine's Day. Kana told me. She said today is the day when people give chocolate in gratitude to those who take care of them regularly. So... Umm... After all, I guess I've caused you a little trouble... So anyway, this is what it's about! So, h-here you go!"
She forcefully shoved the chocolate she had brought to Haruaki. Greatly surprised, Haruaki stared wide-eyed.
"What, is it so strange for me to give you chocolate? I'll curse you!"
"Uh... No... Not strange... I guess. Eh, did you actually make this yourself?"
"Yeah. Because Kana told me that compared to store bought ones, making chocolate personally is better. Kirika helped in providing a place and other assistance, but I definitely made it myself from start to finish."
"You made it yourself huh... Amazing. How should I say it? That's so amazing. I'm really happy, thank you."
For some reason, Fear felt a sudden tightening in her chest the instant she saw Haruaki's happy expression with a smile all over his face. She felt breathing becoming difficult, her face going hot and her brain getting dizzy.
"A-All you keep on saying is amazing... H-Hmph, I am very amazing to begin with, so this is nothing to be surprised about. Anyway, hurry up and eat it with full sincerity. Come, eat it now!"
"Eh... Right now?"
"It'll melt if you put it aside!"
"I was thinking of putting it in the fridge... But I'm actually quite curious. Then I'll have a bite first."
Haruaki carefully untied the ribbon and opened the box. In accordance with what she investigated previously, the style stuck to the basics.
"This is ganache. Although it's very simple, I think it's the best. I also made it not excessively sweet."
"Okay, then thanks for the treat... Munch munch munch."
Haruaki picked up a piece of chocolate with his fingers and placed it lightly into his mouth. Fear gulped and stared intently while he chewed. How was it? How was it? She had tested the taste already, but after all, there was no guarantee that unforeseen changes might have occurred overnight.
At this moment, Haruaki suddenly widened his eyes.
Could there be some kind of problem? Fear frantically leaned forward.
"H-How is it? How is it?"
It took some time before this whisper reached Fear's ears.
"Yeah, mmm, this is really delicious. Fear, you're superb."
She felt a sense of warmth spreading from her heart. Her efforts had not gone to waste. Haruaki really looked very happy and even reached out for a second piece. Why did she feel so happy too? She felt really wonderful that she had made chocolate.
Feeling as though her entire body was floating, she could not stop her lips from grinning.
Suddenly, she began to wonder. This was simply chocolate she gave as a gift to express everyday gratitude. However, if she felt this kind of floating sensation simply from the person happily accepting her chocolate of thanks, what if the other person was smiling while accepting chocolate given to express love as Kana said—Ahhhh, that would be... truly...
She pondered while watching Haruaki's face, wondering if she might give that sort of chocolate to a certain person in the future.
No idea. However, she recalled that Valentine's Day was coming again next year as well. This made her look forward inexplicably—with some apprehension at the same time. She did not know why.
No no no, Fear shook her head. Anyway, the most important thing now was that Haruaki had happily accepted this year's chocolate. Confirm it once again. Confirming was not a bad thing, right?
"...Hey Haruaki, is it delicious? Is it really very delicious?"
"Yeah, it's really very delicious."
"Nuhu, that's good. Then you should savor it well and finish it completely. Also—"
Fear reached out, face to face, and placed both hands on Haruaki's shoulders. Since it was delicious, there was no doubt about it. In other words, she had won.
With a smile written all over her face, Fear applied a little pressure in her gaze to remind Haruaki not to forget something.
"Also—The return gift is thirty thousand yen of rice crackers. I'm filled with high expectations... Fufufu."
"Yeah, after eating it all, the return gift is thirty thousand... What, hold on a sec. What's with that term I've never heard before!? What exactly are you expecting from me!?"
After finishing breakfast, Kuroe handed chocolate to Haruaki as though saying "This is a snack." He originally wondered if he would get some sort of weird item like the rainbow-colored worm-shaped chocolate seen on television, but unexpectedly, it turned out to be ordinary chocolate.
Then reaching school, he found a small chocolate in his shoe locker. Taizou happened to see it and hammered the floor as though he were dealt a great blow, crying: "Only you! Damn it! There's no God in this world!" Haruaki ignored him and picked up the chocolate, only to find a note as well, written in a red pen like a frightening letter of blood that read: "Courtesy!" After seeing that, Taizou smirked for some reason and breathed a sigh of relief while placing a hand on Haruaki's shoulder. On the back of the note, there was also a message: "Shiraho told me that it's the local custom to write the words on the cover in this kind of style, so she wrote it for me. So this is the chocolate that carries gratitude from both of us. Please accept with a smile♪"... Sovereignty aside, the feelings poured into this chocolate by Shiraho were surely something even more terrifying and ominous.
The atmosphere in school seemed quite edgy and high-strung.
During break time, Haruaki witnessed many times the sight of people giving chocolate to one another while he was walking along the corridor, in the classroom or the courtyard. He also witnessed male friends gathered together in the washroom, whispering to each other: "Hey, how many did you receive...?" "What about you, who..." Haruaki was thinking they had something secret to discuss but they ended up strangling one another's necks in the next instant. Meanwhile, Kana was leisurely passing out Tirol chocolate to all the classmates as usual. Haruaki received one as well.
During lunchtime, the usual lunch duel took place again. What was different from usual—"Konoha-san didn't show up... Clearly I've been trying so hard to talk to her since Term 1... I still haven't reached the level of courtesy...?" Taizou was quite depressed, while Kirika was absentmindedly spacing out and Kana was frequently elbowing Kirika in the flank as though going "Hurry! Hurry!" On the other hand, Fear was wolfing down her lunchbox as usual as though she had already accomplished what she was supposed to do.
After finishing his lunch, Haruaki left the classroom, thinking of going to the washroom.
Then just as he was walking in the corridor, someone suddenly called out to him from behind. He looked back.
Awkwardly, her gaze was wandering all over the place, but at the same time, her entire body exuded a sense of nervousness—Then she spoke:
"Yachi, umm... I have something to talk to you about... F-Follow me."
The chosen destination was the roof. Luckily—or perhaps miraculously—there were no other people at all.
Kirika took a deep breath. There was no going back.
"Class Rep, you said you had something to tell me...? Is there another problem...?"
"N-No, it's nothing. Every day has been calm and peaceful."
Indeed, there was no problem every day.
Ever since that night, Himura had not reappeared. He not only abandoned his identity as a teacher but also his identity as a researcher, his whereabouts a mystery. She had stayed on alert for quite a while, but nothing changed—Hence, in the end...
That man must have vanished.
Gone past the curse's limit.
Even if he had escaped successfully that night with his consciousness intact, she did not think he would never use the mask again. Amidst days of peace and calm, the longer time went by, the higher the chance he had vanished.
She kept getting the feeling she will never see him again.
If she told this to her past self that this was going to happen; if she told her past self that still called that man "Senpai" at the time... What would she think—?
Absolutely ridiculous. Pondering such matters was completely pointless. Kirika shook her head.
"Uh... Is it about Amanda?"
"No, not that either. But after some time, I intend to ask Un Izoey to let us visit her... Cough cough, anyway, no. Absolutely ridiculous. What I want to talk about is something else."
She forcefully pulled her consciousness back to what she was supposed to do next.
What she was supposed to do was very simple. She had been thinking about this all along.
Hence, Kirika took the object out from her pocket.
"It's basically handmade, but I don't know if the taste will be to your liking."
"Chocolate? Ohoh... Thank you. Uh... I never expected to receive one from you, Class Rep, because I was thinking you might not be interested in this kind of festival... Although it's surprising, I'm very happy. I will savor it carefully."
"Th-Then in that case, I'll be very grateful. Also, ummm—"
She stammered. The instant she saw his smiling face, her mind went completely blank.
She clenched her fist tightly, trying to make that blank mind regain rationality. Just at this moment—
"Oh right, Class Rep. That girl Fear gave me chocolate too and said something about your assistance... I have to thank you for that too. She didn't cause you any trouble, did she?"
In her originally blank mind, that girl's face surfaced. Immediately, as though attached in a series, the face of the glasses-wearing girl with twin braids also surfaced next.
Kirika smiled wryly. Unbelievably, her mind was gradually turning calm.
How troubling, to think he would start talking about other girls at a time like this. Yachi, you really should read the mood.
"Oh... You don't need to worry. I only lent her my kitchen and started her off with some instructions for beginners. The rest was all Fear-kun's own hard work. She put in a lot of effort so you really must savor it carefully."
"Yeah, I ate a few already, it's quite tasty. I was so surprised."
Fear had already given her chocolate to him. Presumably, Konoha had also gave her gift as well.
But that did not matter.
She had been thinking. While helping Fear make chocolate by hand, she had been thinking all along.
She was not going to participate in the contest.
"Then that's it. Since I need to prepare for next period, I'm going back first."
With a calm smile, Kirika turned around.
She intended to leave the roof before him.
"Oh Class Rep! Let me say this again, thank you!"
She heard his voice coming from behind.
Just as she was about to open the roof's iron door, Kirika stopped walking.
"Yachi, I forgot to say something important."
Yes, indeed—She was not going to participate in the contest.
From the moment her body was enveloped by a curse, from the moment she was forced to wear the cursed outfit, she had given up on many many things. Hence, imagination alone was very sufficient, thoughts alone was very sufficient—
That was what she always believed.
But then she recalled what that girl had said, towards that foolish man, those words of reprimand.
There is nothing more shameful and unsightly than this kind of love where you've given up on fighting from the start.
Kirika agreed with what that girl had said.
Hence, for the sake of herself who had abandoned everything till now, Kirika—
From this moment onwards—
"That chocolate is not out of courtesy."
Kirika gave up on "giving up on fighting."
"Eh...?" Leaving Haruaki behind in puzzlement, Kirika closed the roof's iron door.
After taking a deep breath, she began to walk, descending down the stairs, step by step.
Valentine's Day. For girls, this festival was a deathmatch in the contest of love.
But she was different. To the point that she did not even have the right to stand on that battlefield.
She must first take the first step. If she did not want to be a disgraced coward, she must stand upon the battlefield, even at the risk of suffering defeat.
Because she was different from Himura Sunao.
Different from that selfish man who wanted to obtain happiness despite giving up on fighting.
In other words, what she had said just now was—
A declaration of war, in order to exhibit this resolve of hers.
Kirika recalled in her mind those formidable rivals.
Making an expression like a proud warrior about to face an imminent battle of honor, she smiled and murmured.
"The way I see it, the title of the 'strongest' should belong to those girls instead, right? Although there's an absolutely ridiculous difference in combat potential... Well then, how should I face them in battle?"
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