Chapter 1 - Spring Scene / Overhead View Above the Shrine Maidens / "Welcome, cherry-blossom utopia"
After ending the first day of classes upon promoting to Year 2, Kirika returned to her apartment, put down her schoolbag and went into her room, intending to get changed. Just as her bed entered into view, she was attacked by a sudden impulse. Unable to resist the impulse, she pounced on the bed directly without changing out of her uniform.
"Gu, oh, guohhhhhh...! U-Unmistakable...!"
Kirika buried her face in her pillow, smacking her palm repeatedly against the mattress like an attorney protesting against an excessively inhumane verdict. In actual fact, there was plenty she wanted to protest about. Judge, what the heck is going on!? Judge, why could something so outrageous happen?
For a full month after February 14, her heart was about to explode out of her chest. After the ominous premonition left behind on White Day, the depressing rolling around of spring break, plus today's reaction, everything was confirmed.
That boy... That boy! Unmistakable!
"H-He must have gotten the mistaken idea that it's something like friendship chocolate... H-How absolutely ridiculous...!"
Wrong. Although I said it wasn't courtesy chocolate, you reached the wrong conclusion. Interpret my message more directly! Besides, wasn't friendship chocolate meant to be given between girls? He should have considered that I'm giving him chocolate with deeper significance than courtesy, right? In fact, that was precisely the truth, so why did he stop at "friendship"? Why didn't he think deeper about the meaning? All things considered, I can only conclude that inside that guy's mind, the concept of putting me under "that category" doesn't exist perhaps—
She knew very well, but his density had far surpassed her expectation. Since "her heart's desire" was a possible interpretation, why couldn't he pay her more attention? With that, she could use this as the impetus to take further action...!
Then should she spell it out to him one more time? Spell out for him the chocolate's significance? Absolutely ridiculous. She had already missed her chance too long. In that case, it was probably better to confess to him again. But even if she planned to do so, judging from the current situation, it would only put him in confusion. She did not think she would get a satisfactory response.
"...Because I have already decided to fight..."
Even if defeat was the end result, even if the chances of defeat were very high...
As long as there was a one in ten thousand chance of victory—She wanted to take a gamble. She was going to do everything she could to increase her odds of winning, biding her time, making the most of her paltry strength, then enter the stage to participate in battle. If she did not do that, this would not be a fight but merely a throwaway match.
Presumably thanks to rolling and twisting on the bed for a while, her feelings gradually calmed down.
Kirika suddenly got up and took a deep breath.
Forget about Valentine's chocolate.
That was originally a ritual for settling the hesitation in her heart. It was merely a kind of personal declaration of war. Besides—Even if she failed to elicit an obvious reaction, no matter how small, she still believed she had caused some ripples in his heart.
This was the first step in her offensive. All she had to do was act with greater initiative from now on.
"By the way... I never expected all of us to be in the same class. In other words, the playing field is level..."
Kirika recalled her classmates in Year 2 Class 1. Those girls who were both friends and rivals. Oh right, during homeroom, the quick vote had decided her as the class representative.
"It's Kana and others' fault for nominating me without thought... Seriously. But if no one else wanted to do it, I guess I have to. Anyway, being the class rep allows me to help him, and refusing would leave a bad impression... Hmm...?"
Staring up at the ceiling and murmuring to herself, she suddenly found a question surfacing in her mind.
—Supposing, hypothetically, if I'm no longer the class rep...
How will he address me?
"! ...Ooh, ah..."
She was shocked by her imagination.
Back when Year 1 class 1 started, he was probably intending to call her "Class Rep Ueno," right? But because he got tongue-tied, it became "Class Rep." Taizou even teased him about it but he smiled and defended himself, saying it was too difficult to say. Ever since, he had called her class rep, but—
This had a possibility of changing, right?
If she were not the class rep, perhaps he would change his manner of address. Then what would he call her? Ueno-san? That would be too formal. Fear and the girls were like family to him and therefore exceptions, but take Kana for example, he also called her Kana directly. Judging along these lines, then she would be—
"K-Kirika... or something like that?"
"Ooh, uwahhhhhhhh! Ahhhhhh!"
The temperature of her cheeks instantly rose to boiling point. Suddenly, heat gushed out from the depths of her body, incinerating her brain to mush. She collapsed on the bed again, turning her face and burying it into the pillow while attacking the blanket with karate chops nonstop.
S-So there existed a future where he would call her name directly? Had she failed? No, things were not set yet, but since she had already accepted the position of class rep again, after all, there was no way to refuse by this point. That said, supposing... Only hypothetically—
"...Kirika... Ooh, fufu, ufufufu!"
Oh no. No good. This was no good.
Simply imagining it was already making her this weird.
If he really called her that, she had no completely idea how she would react.
So... Definitely... This was fine—At least for now.
However, she wished for one day...
Kirika kept her face buried in the pillow for a very long time.
Hence, only the pillow could witness the expression on her face while she indulged in her blissful ecstasy.
The next day, normal classes resumed. Of course, lessons themselves could not possibly get interesting all of a sudden just because they were promoted to Year 2, but due to changes in the class list and the teachers delivering the subjects, it did feel new and refreshing.
Then the lunch break came. Haruaki could see Shiraho resting her face on one hand, elbow against the desk, eating bread. Her gaze was directed out the window but her head occasionally nodded as though concurring. The girl sitting opposite her was Sorashiro Hinata whom Haruaki met once at the cultural festival last year. She was energetically making conversation with Shiraho. Haruaki had imagined Shiraho to go rushing to the superintendent's office every day with her bread, but apparently due to Sovereignty insisting "at least have some more contact with your classmates at lunch!", this situation had started during Year 1.
Feeling someone looking at him, Haruaki looked back and met gazes with a girl who was sitting nearby.
"Say... Why don't you come over here as well? You've been staring at us all the time, it's quite annoying."
"What are you talking about? I inquire with this kind of inquiry. Please don't mind me, munch munch... I am fine like this, my completely genuine suggestion... Munch munch munch..."
Un Izoey was eating a meat bun with great enjoyment while holding a pencil like a child and writing in the notebook hanging on her neck. Then she nodded with satisfaction and happily took out the next meat bun from the drawer in her desk. Haruaki gave up on saying more to her and turned back to the massive gathering of desks in front of him.
"Ehehe~ I'm so happy that we can all eat lunch together from now on."
"M-M-Me too, I'm so happy! This must be God listening to my pleas! Yahoo~! Who knows when food exchange events might happen, oh mommy, I want the curry lunchbox sealed away forever—!"
Konoha had joined the usual lunch group. Apparently a Konoha fan, Taizou became greatly emotional and almost made the scene a little weird, but he was probably going to get used to it... Haruaki hoped so.
"Hey Taizou, you're especially noisy today—Hmm?"
Fear suddenly turned her head. Haruaki followed her gaze to see several unfamiliar students at the classroom's doorway. They were frequently glancing towards them, laughing to one another, then left soon after. Although Haruaki was completely baffled, at least there was no malice in their laughter.
"Hmm... This also happened many times during break. What's going on?"
"They look like they're probably first-year students. It feels like they came running to have a look out of curiosity after hearing about the foreigner girl and upperclassman in Year 2."
"It's not like I'm an object for display. Whatever, I'll treat this as the beginning rumors of the 'super beauty.' In that case, it can't be helped. Hohoho."
Amidst a brand new lunch landscape, there were scenes identical to back in Year 1, namely—
"Gah! Why is the flavor so concentrated? What kind of secret recipe did you use...!?"
"Nyahaha~ Even after promoting to Year 2, the positions of the reigning champ and the challenger still hasn't changed~ However, I, Kana, can assert that your cooking is very yummy too, Kirika-chan."
"Absolutely ridiculous. If that comment could satisfy me, I would have given up a long time ago...!"
Even with new members in the lunch group, the lunch duel still took place as usual, along with the usual result at the same time. That said, Haruaki felt a bit apologetic towards Kirika.
"I even lost the first battle in Year 2... What an unfavorable start. But no, I won't give up. I will surely avenge my loss."
"P-Please be merciful. But anyway... I really think the difference is only just a little bit."
"The question is what exactly is that little bit."
"Oh dear~ I guess we might be influenced by preconceptions. After all, with the contest persisting over an entire year, perhaps our brains have already been indoctrinated by the idea that 'Akki's cooking seems to taste better,' so our taste buds make the correction on their own."
"Then in other words, as judges, your tongues have already subconsciously filtered the results. In that case... Right, perhaps it's time for a change of environment. We keep having the duel in the classroom, so maybe a shift in battlefield is all that's needed to precipitate other changes."
"A shift in battlefield... Like eating lunch on the roof?"
At this moment, Kirika widened her eyes as though recalling something. Then blinking repeatedly, her gaze wandered and after glancing frequently at Haruaki, she spoke:
"No... Umm... Yachi, given the rare opportunity... How about a flower viewing? I just happened to think of it, after all, the season is just right, perhaps we could use it as a chance to hold a lunch duel with a different atmosphere than the classroom."
"Really? It's already the flower viewing season this year? It seems to get earlier every year."
Haruaki was a little surprised. How rare for Kirika to be inviting a gathering on her own initiative.
Kirika waited for his answer with slightly blushing cheeks, exuding an air that felt different from the past.
"A flower viewing? I've heard of that, it's having alcoholic beverages and eating stuff while admiring cherry blossoms, right!? Hmm... Eating rice crackers under the cherry blossom trees, that feels like it'll be especially tasty. Yes, let's go! When are we going flower viewing? Today or tomorrow? Leave it to me, I'll text Kuroe right now!"
"Haha, that's way too rushed... But if we don't hurry up, the cherry blossoms will all wilt. How about we decide on this coming Sunday?"
"Nyah~ Going flower viewing together, that sounds like great fun... But unfortunately, I can't go. I've got something on Sunday."
"Oooooh, me too. There are club activities on Sunday. Normally, I could go after noon... But just this week, there's other stuff to do after the usual club activities! God is so cruel!"
"I knew it, the baseball club too~? Same here same here, we've got to prepare for the welcoming festival~"
Kana and Taizou nodded at each other with great disappointment.
"Welcoming festival? I'm hearing about that kind of event for the first time."
"Right, Fear-chan only transferred here in the second term."
"The welcoming festival is short for the new student welcoming festival~ If the cultural festival is the autumn festival, then this would be the spring festival! The upperclassmen will welcome and treat the new first-year students and tell them how great this school is! That's one of the event's main goals. For students who have already joined clubs, this is also an important opportunity to recruit new members!"
Of course, Haruaki had experienced this even last year. Simply stated, it was like a great recruiting party held by the clubs together as a union. The drama club had activities in the gym, the dance club offered performances outside, the cooking club had a stall set up to sell crepes, and for some reason, the cheerleading club only competed by putting out a fried noodle stall exclusively manned by male staff. Ultimately, the main goal was to exhibit themselves as much as possible, to let new students know of their clubs' existence, thereby attracting their interest.
Fear had her head tilted as though unable to comprehend, so Haruaki explained further.
"Unlike the cultural festival which is based on homeroom classes as individual units, the stalls in the welcoming festival are pretty much based on clubs. I've heard that if you like, you can even make your own group to participate as long as you apply. Also, I don't know why, but the finale is a School MissCon involving the entire student body. This seems to be a kind of tradition."
"This is also the first I've heard of the term school MissCon."
"Uh, it's basically short for School Beauty Contest to Name Miss Taishyuu High... Yeah, it's like a beauty pageant."
"So they're holding that kind of event too, but it's got nothing to do with clubs recruiting members."
"Not necessarily. Although it's only limited to girls, if contestants wear their club uniforms, it serves as final publicity to recruit members. However, anyone can participate in the School MissCon, whether self-nominated or nominated by others, no matter if you're in a club or not."
According to Haruaki's own irresponsible speculation, the person who first organized this event simply did a half-assed job—"A final event to wrap things up... Can't think of one! But since there's a festival already, anything will do as long as it makes the mood lively. Then let's hold a school beauty pageant!" But for sure, that person never dreamt it would become a tradition.
"So that's why on Sunday, the clubs need to prepare for the welcoming festival~ But if you miss the chance, the cherry blossoms might end up all wilting. Besides, the clubs will definitely be organizing flower viewings together... So don't mind us two, you guys just go ahead!"
"Damn it, I really mind, but I dunno how my seniors in the club would punish me if I skipped out on activities. Although I'm promoted to Year 2, it's still a middle management position after all. The days of flagrantly abusing my position are still far away...!"
Thus, Kana and Taizou were regretfully unable to attend. Haruaki felt bad for them, but due to club activities, they could not be forced.
"So sorry, I only invited you guys on a sudden whim."
"No no no, Kirika-chan, I said it already, don't mind us~ Oh right, have you decided where you're going for the flower viewing? Territorial battles on Sunday for prime flower viewing will definitely be intense."
"Hmm, now that you mention it, there is indeed the issue of location. Since it's not often we go flower viewing, I'd really like to visit somewhere pretty. But the better the location, the more people there'd be... What should I do?"
Kirika tilted her head with a solemn expression. Haruaki also searched his memories but could not come up with a good location. If only the trees planted in the Yachi residence's garden or backyard were cherry blossom trees, then there would be no problem at all.
Konoha also tilted her head, apparently pondering the same problem. Same with Fear—But since she was not that familiar with the town, she was probably just doing it for appearance's sake. As though saying "I can't lose to Cow Tits," she hastily crossed her arms and closed her eyes in deep thought. While she was whimpering "mumumu" and shaking her head from side to side—
In that very instant, something unexpected happened.
"Kyoeee! Truly so explosively peerlessly cute that I can't help but cry out crudely! Although it's very sudden, I can't bear it anymore! Love you!"
Sitting on her chair, Fear was suddenly hugged from behind by someone. Grinning from ear to ear, rubbing her face against Fear's silver hair nonstop—A girl they had never met before.
Despite the girl bowing down to hug Fear tightly, it was obvious from one glance that she was very tall. Her face was filled with an innocent and radiant smile, carrying no malice at all. Her hair was shoulder length overall but the lock of hair hanging from her temples was longer on one side.
"What's going on, what on earth happened? What are you doing!?"
"Huohhhhhhh! I'm so grateful, anyway, I am truly grateful—!"
"W-Wait a sec——! You're charging ahead way too quickly!"
The group heard another voice and turned to look. This time, a familiar first-year student rushed into the classroom. Namely, Chihaya. She originally rushed over in great strides but stopped halfway.
"Oh! Shiraho...-san. H-Hello...!"
"A rare visitor indeed. What's the matter? This is a second-year classroom, you know?"
"Huff... U-Umm... Right. Because I still haven't thanked you properly for your help back in January, I wanted to come over and say—"
"To be honest, it's no longer necessary by this juncture. Besides, I didn't do much either. You have no reason to thank me."
"Uh... Yes. Sorry for disturbing you, I'm so sorry..."
"You're not disturbing me. After all, I'm currently very free."
"Is this someone you know? What's your relationship?" Hinata inquisitively asked Shiraho, but Shiraho could not be bothered to explain, so she continued to lean her face on her hand against the desk, simply murmuring: "Just an underclassman I've met before."
"Putting that aside... What is going on there?"
Shiraho turned her gaze with exasperation. Naturally, it was directed towards—
"Hey, let go of me now! How much longer are you going to touch me as you please!?"
"So soft~ So small~ Such smooth skin~! It's just as expected yet beyond expectation!"
"...I'm sorry. She's my classmate, anyway... She's been pestering me to introduce her to that girl. I was thinking it'd be okay to let her tag along while I came here to thank you, Shiraho-san, but it ended up—"
"Like this huh... How numerous in this world, the ranks of the mentally ill."
Shiraho sighed as well. This time, Chihaya finally seemed to remember her own responsibilities.
"Hey, it's about time you restrain yourself! Let go of her now!"
"Abya!? A completely merciless chop to the back of the head, seamlessly flowing into a pinch of the face—Hayahaya, you're very used to this, right? Very used to this type of violent taming? What a scary kid...!"
Chihaya resorted to violence to pull the mysterious girl away from Fear. Although the girl was doing nothing more than rubbing her cheek, Fear still acted like a wary cat, hiding behind the back of her chair to serve as a shield.
"Ooh, what's with this girl? What's your goal...?"
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm too slow in introducing myself! I am Hiwatari Yume! Pleased to meet you!"
The girl saluted in one clean motion, with an extremely radiant smile on her face while saying a strange greeting.
"Let me state for the record, don't ask me any questions since I don't know how I'm supposed to answer. That's because I only met this girl yesterday. By the way, I didn't even want to know her in the first place."
"Hayahaya, you're so cold~ Oh, Hayahaya is short for Hayakawa Chihaya! I made this nickname up, but please go ahead and use it if you want, everyone!"
"Stop promoting it! By the way, I find it embarrassing enough already simply with one person using it, so stop it! Ugh, you're super annoying as expected... You're also unnecessarily big."
"But this nickname is clearly so cute~ And Hayahaya, I can't believe you called me annoying, I'm so shocked! In this kind of moment, I wish you'd add a word or two to turn it into one of the latest concepts, 'annoyingly cute'!"
"Gah! I can't believe you can say completely unabashed, that's even more annoying...!"
"But speaking of cute, the person who best embodies that concept is right here before my eyes. Muhu!"
The girl—Yume—began to hyperventilate slightly. Fear backed away again in terror.
"I-I get it. This girl turns out to be a deviant! Put bluntly, she's just a deviant!"
"I think that term suits her quite well for the most part. More accurately, she's an annoying deviant."
"Of course not~! I've simply fallen in love at first sight with Fear-san here... Oh of course, I don't mean sexually! It simply means I want to give you a good loving!"
...Wha? Fear's mouth gaped in shock. Yume coughed lightly once.
"After seeing you yesterday, Fear-san, I was struck by an explosively powerful impact. I never thought someone in this world could be so cute, so I've been publicizing all around. Among the first-year new students, there's no one who hasn't heard of you, Fear-san... Probably, but I guess there could be a few I missed."
Haruaki recalled what happened just now. The groups of underclassmen who peeked into the classroom from the corridor. So that was because they were thinking: "Let's check out the Fear-san whose cuteness everyone has been talking about and see what she actually looks like." The mystery was apparently solved.
"But I don't think that's enough! I want everyone to see more of Fear-san's cute side, so in order to let everyone admire, savor and share—I've decided!"
Yume clenched her fist forcefully while her eyes glimmered brightly without a shred of impurity.
Then she made a vigorous declaration:
"—I want to establish a fan club for Fear-san! So that's why I came to make a request of you today! I want to organize lots and lots of activities, like a club magazine, a hobby group revolving around Fear-san and a photo shoot contest where people bring the outfits they like. Also there's—"
"S-Stop it right there! Stop! Shut up! Don't wanna! I refuse! I refuse resolutely! Although I'm still quite lost, I don't like being treated by others as some kind of exotic animal, go find someone else!"
Fear roared while waving her arms forcefully in a threatening manner, causing Yume to tilt her head and smile:
"Awww, you don't need to be so modest~ ...What an easily shy person you are!"
"Of course not~! You girl, listen properly to others!"
How to handle this girl? —Just as Fear was glaring unhappily at Yume, the reminder bell rang in the classroom to signal the imminent end of the lunch break. Chihaya approached Yume as though going "Perfect timing!"
"I. Said. Already. —I'd take you to the classroom, but things won't necessarily go your way. She already said no, so don't force the issue. Okay, let's go back!"
"That's so unreasonable~ Ah, ouch ouch!"
Chihaya chopped the back of Yume's head repeatedly with her hand then grabbed the back of her collar.
"Basically, I've already shown you the way, so remember to stick to that promise... Uh, that's it."
"It must be tough for you. Hurry and get back to your classroom—If you find the load too much of a hassle, just chuck it by the side of the road along the way."
"I'd really like to do that too. So... We'll be heading off now."
Chihaya bowed her head politely towards Shiraho then dragged Yume out the classroom directly.
"What does she mean by load? Say, getting dragged like this by you, Hayahaya, is a bit embarrassing, but it relieves me from walking, how relaxing~ Thank you for your efforts until we reach the classroom—Guha! You threw me aside so quickly after it was mentioned! Like casting off a load!"
For quite some time, noisy chattering came incessantly from the corridor, but silence soon returned. Finally back to peace and quiet, the members of Haruaki's group looked at one another.
"Umumumu, I actually agree with what she said. If a fan club really gets established, I, Kana, will join, no problem at all, but this sort of thing needs the consent of the idol in question after all~"
"Certain people do exist in this world with quite extreme tastes. Oh well, in any case, let her do as she wishes, I'd say."
"Nuu, you're all talking like it doesn't matter just because it's not about you...! Damn Cow Tits, you'd better get caught by that kind of illogical girl as well and get rubbed and mushed randomly. Although I love hugging soft and furry things, I don't like being touched randomly by others!"
"Finally you get a chance to understand how those poor little cats and dogs feel, isn't that nice?"
"How troubling, what an absolutely ridiculous commotion. However—"
"Oh, Class Rep, you realized too? In that regard, perhaps it can be considered perfect timing."
Haruaki and Kirika nodded at each other. Fear pouted unhappily and said:
"What do you mean, perfect timing!? Getting hassled by an illogical girl is total misfortune no matter how I look at it!"
"Basically the matter we were talking about before those two arrived. Okay, let's ask her after school."
Due to the massive shock caused by the new student called Yume, the matter had probably vanished without a trace from Fear's mind. "...?" She simply cocked her petite head in puzzlement.
Hence, after school—
"In other words, I wanna ask if there's a private flower viewing spot at your family's shrine that doesn't need any competing with crowds for territory! If there is, I want you to tell us!"
"Kyah! Wait... Stop scaring me!"
Appearing at the school entrance, Chihaya was so frightened that she kept retreating. This was because Fear suddenly yelled out to her while hidden completely behind the shoe locker. When Chihaya first appeared, Fear maintained her posture as though sneaking behind enemy lines, remaining hidden behind the shoe locker, cautiously looking this way and that.
"Oh... Are you watching out for that girl?"
"Looks like it. But I don't think you need to be that afraid."
"I agree. What does it matter? It's just a little hugging and touching."
"I-I'm not afraid, okay! I'll curse you! That's right, of course I'm not afraid—How should I put this? It's because it's too incomprehensible so I'm at a total loss, not knowing how to react, so it makes me uncomfortable all over—Anyway, I'm not good at handling her. If possible, I don't wanna run into her."
"She went home for the day already. So, what were you guys talking about? A flower viewing spot...?"
After hearing that Yume was gone, Fear exhaled in relief. Haruaki glanced at her from the side while explaining to Chihaya. In other words, they intended to have a flower viewing this coming Sunday and were searching for a location.
"Of course, to express our gratitude, since the location is near your home, we also plan on inviting you, Isuzu and the whole lot to join us. As for lunch, allow us to make the most of our skills to produce superb delicacies—"
"—Let me ask a question first. Who will be coming for the flower viewing?"
This could very well be an excellent chance. Everyone knew about Chihaya's weakness. Konoha gave Haruaki a look that seemed to be saying "Hurry and bring up the sure-win words!" Haruaki replied with an acknowledging gaze.
"Oh... Yes, basically everyone who was there for New Year's. Of course we will also invite Shiraho—"
"Inviting me is your freedom, but please do not decide my answer without consent, human. I have no interest in joining a pest party organized by a pest. When a pest is filled to the very bones with perverted lust of pitch black, the sight of cherry blossoms will surely provoke his desires to rape, violate and corrupt that which is pure and untainted, then undoubtedly proceeding to act upon them. Dear underclassman over there, please call the police now while you still can."
Shiraho happened to pass by and left without looking back, leaving behind words of stinging barbs as usual. She was probably off to pick up Sovereignty. What unfavorable timing.
However, that did not change the overall situation. Since they were planning on inviting Sovereignty, once she accepted, Shiraho would still end up coming along despite what she said. Just as Haruaki was about to speak—
"...No problem. I'll explain to you. But let me confirm first, it's the coming Sunday, right? If it's any other day, I'm sorry I'll have to refuse."
Chihaya was very upfront. The group found it a little unexpected.
"Yes, we plan to go this coming Sunday, but... Chihaya-kun, is it really okay?"
Seeing Chihaya agree so readily, even Kirika was quite surprised, blinking while asking.
"No problem. But I have condition. On that day, you guys need to come early in the morning, because there are many preparations."
"J-Just take my word, preparations are preparations. Got that? I'll tell you guys the precise location once you arrive. So, I'll be going now."
Chihaya ended the conversation, speaking inexplicably fast, swiftly changed her shoes and walked out the gates.
"She wants us to get there early to prepare—meaning stuff like sweeping and cleaning up? Maybe the place is full of weeds right now and there's no place to sit."
"If it's a private viewing spot, that's very probably. In any case, the important thing is that the location has been set. After that, what remains is... Honing my cooking skills for that day...!"
"Nuu, I can feel some intense vigor there, Kirika. Do your best, I will support you! By the way, if you're willing to prepare special handmade rice crackers, I'll unconditionally give you my vote!"
"Hold on, speaking of which, the usual judges Taizou and Kana won't be there. Earlier, we were talking about how Fear and the others might not be fair judges due to being used to eating Yachi's cooking, which is why those two were asked... This is a dilemma now."
"...About that, I was thinking it'll be fine if we asked other people who don't usually eat my cooking. That's why I've been holding back until now, but finally I have to speak out—What are you doing?"
Haruaki turned to ask the person with striking characteristics who had actually been staying in the corner of his eye even before they came to the shoe lockers—in other words, the dark-skinned girl who was standing motionlessly while facing the notice board. When Haruaki spoke to her, the girl pretended to finally notice them and turned around.
"Oh my, what a coincidence. I greet with this kind of greeting."
"Are you playing dumb? Anyway, I'm quite impressed with your bold lack of shame. Clearly you've perking your ears to eavesdrop."
"My answer: asking what are you talking about. Uh... This poster says: 'Come! Youngsters! Recruiting talent to establish the oil wrestling club! Let us get all oiled up together!' Because the content is very unknown, I am just very curious, I stand by this kind of stance. Especially the last sentence is too unknown, it makes me want to experience for myself—Let us get all oiled up together! Like that."
"What the heck kind of club is that? I don't really get it but hearing it from you, I just find it very shameless."
"You're already caught red-handed, so there's no need to try so hard in covering up... By the way, since you already heard the conversation just now, you must be planning on secretly observing us on Sunday for research, right? While viewing the flowers, it'd be totally uncomfortable if someone kept staring at us intently while hiding behind the cherry blossom trees. Since the more the merrier, and this is a rare chance, why don't you join us?"
Haruaki's impromptu question caused Un Izoey to blink her eyes that showed no signs of emotional fluctuation.
"My question... Permission given? Confirming."
"Yeah, because if we leave you alone, you might end up climbing the sacred cherry blossom trees and breaking branches. In that case, having you somewhere within our sight is less worrying."
"Class Rep, are you okay with that?"
Kirika frowned and stared at Un Izoey for a long while, finally exhaling deeply.
"...Can't be helped. I coincidentally have something to talk to this girl about. It happens to be a good opportunity."
"Then it's decided. Country girl, be very grateful to us!"
In this manner—within less than a day after Kirika suggested a flower viewing, they quickly settled the location and participants for the most part.
In one car of the bullet train, one quarter of the passengers were currently foreigners. Sharing few similarities in physical characteristics, they were also dressed quite differently. If a point of commonality had to be stated, they each kept a staff ID from the same company in their pocket. The group consisted of staff from a sales management company of antique art, headquartered abroad, currently in Japan on a company retreat—At least on the surface.
Lilyhowell Kilmister was dressed in a formal women's business suit for a number of reasons. First of all, dressing in a suit made it easier to fit in with the surrounding environment in this country, according to her judgment. Also, there was personal laziness for she could not be bothered to come up with another set of plain clothing. As for the second reason, as the leader of this team, she believed she had to dress more formally than the others in order to maintain her sense of authority.
Maintaining authority through formal attire, perhaps this notion itself was completely pointless—She turned her gaze lightly. The man sitting next to her soon noticed with his observant eyes and cheerfully made small talk with her—To be honest, it was already a miracle that he was able to shut up temporarily for the past few minutes.
"Heehaw! I know, I know, I know—! You're look at this, right? You wanna ask me what kinda fucking music I'm listening on these headphones, right? This bro sees through everything! Heehaw~ Haha~"
If anything, the question surfacing in her mind was: How does he actually wash those dreadlocks of his? Don't they itch? But sort of misunderstanding did not matter to her at all. Feeling there was no necessity in clear up this misconception and for the sake of establishing an amicable working relationship, she said:
"Yes Neto, what music are you listening to?"
"Oh, that's fucking great. I'll make myself clear. Other people often judge me casually just because of the way I look. Prejudice is bad, really bad. Truly fucking assholes. Those who think I only listen to hip hop just because I'm a black guy with dreadlocks, where have their brains gone missing? Honestly, I don't even know what reggae means. Capoeira? I don't dance that, sheesh."
"What a compelling argument. Judging someone's interests and tastes purely by their appearance is a very serious problem. So, what song are you listening to?"
Neto grinned to reveal a set of sparkling white teeth, smiling radiantly. Taking off his headphones, he pressed it lightly against her ear. From there, she heard—
"—Is it this country's traditional music? The distinctive manner of vocalization and pronunciation is truly interesting."
"This is Japanese enka singing! I love oriental stuff. Sushi, karate, ninjas... But no, someone always asks a fucking question at this time. Basically, why don't I put my hair in a samurai topknot? Those guys are just super asshole morons! No matter how much I love oriental stuff, once I put on a kimono, the image is a total fail. Learn how to read the mood, fuckers!"
"Truly an excellent mindset you have there."
Lilyhowell used a fingertip to gently lift the spectacles she only wore when reading. Pulling her gaze back, she settled on a small but thick booklet that had been kept on her lap all along, thereby conveying the message that the conversation was over. The dialogue just now was carried out in English, neither was it terribly important, but it would be prudent to avoid any leak in information. Minimizing pointless talking would be best. However—
"Heehaw. Hey hey, I've wanted to ask you for a while, is that book a good read?"
"No, but... That's just a cellphone manual, right?"
"Precisely. Be that as it may, this manual is able to satisfy my desire for knowledge. I find it quite excellent that all the information is recorded in there in such detail. Surprisingly, the type of book that limits information to only the essentials does not exist. Added to this is the fact that this country's cellphones are very high-performance and equipped with many functions, which makes the manual quite an interesting read."
Neto shrugged silently. Lilyhowell then recalled the person who had prepared this cellphone, saying it was for "facilitating communications," currently not on the bullet train but supposed to be working at the scene already.
"Right, has there been any communications from her? As I recall, her name is... Laurica Shoegazer?"
"Just call her trash. Laurica 'Trash' Shoegazer! My most beloved 'Trash'! She still hasn't contacted me, possibly malfunctioning like trash. Heehaw!"
"That girl is the key to the current operation. I do not believe it is quite appropriate to excessively abuse her with malicious insults."
"Calling her the key is such an exaggeration that it'll make her vain and carried away. After all, what she's doing is no different from a collection of petty tricks. She's just a girl who can become nothing more than useless trash after all. Know that she's a masochist, so laying on the verbal abuse will actually make her happier. Heehaw!"
It was Lilyhowell's turn to shrug this time.
This was because despite calling someone else a masochist, Neto's peculiar fetish was even worse. A fact that was already public knowledge.
On the morning of the Sunday dedicated to flower viewing, Haruaki's friends showed up at the grounds of the Hayakawa shrine. Fortunately, the sky was cloudless as far as the eye could see, exhibiting perfect weather for having a flower viewing. The shrine's grounds were lined with cherry blossom trees and the grass was already covered entirely with tarps. Some people had already started banquets. Had Chihaya not been willing to tell them about a private flower viewing spot, surely they would have needed to fight a tough battle to secure a location.
Walking at the site, apart from the quartet of Haruaki, Fear, Konoha and Kirika who planned this flower viewing, there was Kuroe who had signed up as expected, saying "Everyone is going flower viewing together!? This is clearly no time for working, of course I must go with the flow!", as well as Sovereignty who had accepted the invitation instantly as soon as she received Fear's text message. Also as expected, it was impossible for Shiraho to refuse Sovereignty's invitation. Finally, there was Un Izoey, wearing her navel-baring lab coat as always.
"But... It's really bustling even when it's still early in the morning."
"Also, the vendor stalls really make this feel like a festival. Are Sundays always like this here...?"
The group chatted while making their way around the main shrine building. Instead of the shrine's confines, they were heading towards a Japanese-style residence deep in the grounds, in other words, the building where Chihaya and her family normally lived.
Reaching the entrance whose antique airs rivaled that of the Yachi home, they pressed the door bell.
"Coming~ Oh my oh my, welcome, everyone~"
A shrine maiden came out to welcome them, apparently Isuzu, back in her basic role. Accompanied by heavy footsteps, Chihaya emerged from the house. Seeing her appearance, Haruaki was a little shocked. For some unknown reason, Chihaya was dressed in her work clothes, or in other words, the shrine maiden outfit with the two massive slits on the side of the thighs.
"Since you guys are here, let's start immediately... Misuzu, Toohisuzu, just grab a few random sets."
After Chihaya issued orders towards the depths of the hallway, two pleasantly smiling shrine maidens approached, carrying what looked like piles of fabric then putting them down at the entrance. Chihaya threw a glance then said:
"So, I guess I'll explain a bit. I am asking you to work for the next bit. Today, the shrine is holding a 'Flower Festival'—anyway, something like a spring festival."
Smiling and lightly tilting her head, Isuzu said:
"Due to a lack of manpower, Chihaya-sama's father had asked Chihaya-sama, hoping she could invite as many interested students from school as possible~ Although she was able to find one person, the more the better. As though on cue, you then made your request. We couldn't actually welcome it more~"
"I could have ignored you guys' request, you know, but since it makes us even and having people working for us for free would save some costs, allowing this run-down old shrine to earn a bit of money, indirectly assuring my own pocket money, hence that is why very reluctantly, helping you guys was not completely out of the question—Hold it right there——!"
"Gwah! What's wrong?"
Chihaya grabbed Haruaki's collar without warning. From point-blank range, she looked up at Haruaki with eyes filled with rage and panic, then whispered in his ear:
"D-Didn't she say she wasn't coming...!? Why is she here!?"
"You only noticed now!? Uh, even if she said she wasn't, it ends up depending on Sovereignty's wishes. It doesn't really matter to us, but isn't it better for you if she came? Don't you want to talk to her more?"
"Yeah... True... But not right now! I was only able to con you guys to do free work without any guilt because she wasn't coming! What am I to do? Now this is making me end up deceiving her!"
"To put it bluntly, you're simply reaping what you sow!"
In any case, Konoha was the first to murmur: "After all, we were the ones who asked her for a favor first, so this can't be helped." As for the matter of helping out itself, Fear and the others did not seem to have any objections.
"Ohoh~ Shrine maiden outfits! There are sizes that fit me?"
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, of course! Because we've held events where children dressed up as shrine maidens~"
"So cute! Can I wear one! Wow, actually I've always wanted to try wearing one!"
What Misuzu and Toohisuzu had brought to the entrance were several shrine maiden outfits. In contrast to Sovereignty who was picking up one of them in great interest, Shiraho showed eyes of exhaustion.
"After being dragged out to this kind of place early in the morning, now I have to work while wearing this sort of getup?"
"Ah... Uh, umm... Shiraho-san, if it's you, uh..."
Just as Chihaya stuttered, trying to offer Shiraho a personal exemption—
"What does it matter!? I so wanna see Shiraho dressed up as a shrine maiden! It'll be so cute! It's not every day that we get to dress up as shrine maidens together, of course you need to try it! Hey Shiraho... Please?"
Hugging a shrine maiden outfit, Sovereignty tilted her dainty face and looked up at Shiraho. It was as though a "kyuun" sound effect could be heard. Shiraho staggered then turned her gaze away.
"I-If you say so... It can't be helped. I am simply going to wear it. Don't expect me to help."
"Yes! Shiraho, thank you! Conversely, I will work hard to help! A professional maid's skills should be possible to apply towards a shrine maiden's job since both are service-oriented! Probably!"
"Ah... Umm... Sorry, uh... I am really sorry."
In response to Chihaya who was apologizing in trepidation, her head bowed low, Shiraho slumped her shoulders and said helplessly:
"Okay, it's fine. After all, this is wholly the fault of the human who planned this occasion and brought us here. I really wish for him to die an unsightly death, leaving a tale of mockery for future generations to circulate widely. For example, choking and suffocating to death from trying to eat a red hakama because of an obsessive fetish for shrine maidens."
Hence, things were decided. At Chihaya's behest, the group started helping with the spring festival. However, there was one fact they had failed to catch, rather unfortunate for Fear, mainly. Essentially, they failed to notice what Isuzu said about inviting "as many interested students from school as possible" and Chihaya being "able to find one person."
In any case, in order to change into the work clothes, Fear's group was just about to enter the Hayakawa home when—
The entrance opened suddenly and another shrine maiden appeared.
"I have returned~! I just met your dad at the shrine's main building, Hayahaya, and he asked me to pass you a message that it's almost time to head over—Awawawawoohoo! Woohoo! My emotions are surging madly and rapidly from this unbelievable encounter, finally turning into a weird dance while I'm approaching!"
"Eek, she appeared—!"
Hugging a shrine maiden outfit, Fear escaped towards the corridor with great alarm. Bearing a wide grin (also twisting her arms in a weird manner), the person chasing after Fear was—
Of course, it was precisely the one with the tall figure and charming face, the (self-styled) annoyingly cute underclassman.
The spring festival's main tent was set up in the shrine's confines and in the very center of the main cherry blossoms path where the flower viewing crowd was gathered. Haruaki's group was working industriously in the tent's surroundings on their various assigned jobs.
"...So it goes like this. Because Hayahaya took me to Fear-san's classroom, that counts as a favor which I need to return~ We also invited another friend of ours, a girl called Himenon, but she couldn't come because she's busy and I was thinking I'd be so lonely. I didn't even know that Fear-san was coming, so this is really an explosively peerless happy surprise, fefefe!"
"You're really laughing like an evil weirdo. Anyway, Chihaya first asked you to work... Hmm, so that means it didn't matter to Chihaya whether or not you ran into Fear."
Haruaki and Yume were holding bamboo brooms to sweep the ground near the tent. Of course, Yume was dressed in a borrowed shrine maiden outfit. Making unnecessary movements seemed to be a habit of hers. Haruaki watched as she alternated between swinging her broom strenuously and wiping her drool. At least, she was certainly a lively and cheerful child. As for being annoying or annoyingly cute, Haruaki decided not to comment.
As a side note, Haruaki was currently wearing a Shinto priest's white outfit that was lent to him. He did not know if the look suited him, but in any case, Fear reacted with loud laughter, Kuroe took out her camera without saying a word, Kirika clumsily averted her gaze, whereas Konoha made a terrifying, ecstatic smile while staring intently at him, saying: "A different Haruaki-kun from usual... Awesome...!" After seeing everyone's reactions, Haruaki still had no idea whether it looked good on him or not.
"Hello and welcome. You would like two of this merchandise? Understood."
Konoha was at the vending tent, serving as a cashier. Of course, she was dressed in shrine maiden outfit as well. The image of purity, with the colors white and red, suited Konoha's quiet demeanor superbly. However, due to the white top's plain design, it also plainly emphasized the curves of her figure. Ahhh, seriously, compared to western attire, that vivid and solid sense of weight, wobbling and quivering—
No good no good, Haruaki turned his awareness away from Konoha's bosom. Sitting in the tent, recording sales was Kirika. Since there was no cash register, she was apparently confirming sold merchandise one by one.
Kirika was also dressed as a shrine maiden, a perfect match for her straitlaced, noble-minded and clean image. She lifted her hair lightly, presumably finding it in the way when looking down at the account book. Then appearing to be performing calculations in her mind, she went "hmm~" while pressing her pencil above her lip and tilting her head. This action caused her black hair to slide down her neck—A sight that caused Haruaki's heart to race inexplicably. Despite the only difference being a departure from her usual attire, Haruaki found her image quite refreshing for some reason.
Sitting next to Kirika was Shiraho. Elbow on the able, face resting on her hand in boredom, she looked beautiful as a goddess, like a shrine maiden possessed by divinity. Her gaze was forever focused on the airheaded shrine maiden, running about the place, carrying trays of amazake, a sweet low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice. Although there were many a precarious situation, Kuroe would always extend a helping hand in time, dressed in a child-sized shrine maiden outfit. Kuroe was currently handing out amazake together with Sovereignty. Due to her looking like a kid helping out, all the visitors were smiling sweetly while receiving the amazake from her hand. "How amazing." Some of the elderly even went as far as to stroke her head. It was quite a refreshing sight.
The amazake supply came from a large, cylindrical iron pot. A foreign shrine maiden with gray hair and dark skin was currently stirring the amazake in the pot with a ladle. Whether due to tribal rules or insistence, she still bared her navel even when wearing a shrine maiden outfit. Un Izoey had forcibly pulled out the hem of the white kimono jacket and tied a knot on the side of her waist. Consequently, this produced the same situation as Chihaya, problematically, the side slits of the hakama offered direct glimpses to the bare skin of her thighs, due to the white garment being withdrawn from the hakama. As a side note, due to her adamant refusal to wear Japanese socks, she was only wearing geta clogs directly on her bare feet after they convinced to compromise after great difficulty.
(Appearance aside... At least she seems to be working seriously. That's the most important thing.)
Just at this moment, Haruaki suddenly noticed a shrine maiden kneeling down behind the tent.
"Mumu! Hohou... I see... Understood~"
That particular shrine maiden was holding her hands against the back of her ears, apparently communicating telepathically with her comrades. It was probably an inexplicable sight for bystanders and one could almost hear sound effects like that of radio waves and static. Soon after, presumably having ended the conversation, the shrine maiden, one of the kagura bells, stood up abruptly and approached.
"Ah! Although I can't tell from appearance whether you're the silent one or the one who talked to me before, but anyway, let me say hi first! Chief Shrine Maiden, thank you for your efforts! I've been working hard too!"
Noticing the shrine maiden approach, Yume was saluting energetically. Haruaki had no idea which bell she was, but the shrine maiden was apparently the one in current possession of the voice. She giggled lightly and said:
"That is truly wonderful~ Well then, Yume-sama, please allow me to say in fear in trepidation, my sister at the main shrine building has discovered a lost child~ Could you go over and help out~?"
"Of course! In other words, you want me to erase that kid's worries as a substitute mother! You want to rely on my womanly side! Normally, people only ask me for favors in changing light bulbs... Hohoho, looks like the meaning of my existence is not limited to height alone! The understanding people really do understand!"
"Then after arriving there, please let the child ride on your shoulders and wait at the same spot~ This is to allow his family to locate him easier~ In this regard, that is the great responsibility that only you can shoulder~"
"In the end, it's still my height that's being relied on—!"
Thus, the kagura bell (in the end, Haruaki still had no idea which one she was) led the depressed Yume towards the main shrine building. In any case, Haruaki hoped for a speedy reunion for the lost child and his family.
Everyone is working hard, so I must work as well—Just as Haruaki raised his broom again—
"Nuu, nice timing. Saves me time for waiting for that girl to leave."
Dressed as a shrine maiden, Fear looked warily in the direction that Yume had left and moved opposite to it, approaching Haruaki. Her shiny head of silver hair was surprisingly a good complement for the red and white outfit, resulting in a wonderful fusion of eastern and western elements.
"Chihaya wanted to move something and needs a boy to help, so she asked me to call you."
"I see. Helping is fine, of course, show me the way now."
Fear reached a spot behind the shrine, in front of a building that looked like an old warehouse. The latch was already lifted and the warehouse's door was wide open. Crashing sounds of things bumping could be heard coming from inside.
"Hey~ I've brought the shameless brat."
"Then hurry and come in. Jeez, because it was randomly thrown in here earlier, I can't take it out now...!"
Exchanging glances, Haruaki and Fear entered the warehouse together. Probably because it was seldom opened, the interior was filled with damp dust and a musty smell. There also seemed to be no lighting available so it was quite dark inside with only the faint external light shining in from the door.
Chihaya was in front of a rack in the depths of the warehouse. Bending forward slightly, she was moving things off the rack and dumping them on the side. Her bottom, clad in that daring shrine maiden outfit, was thrust towards Haruaki and Fear. With her body leaning forward, the hakama was scrunched slightly at the sides, offering tantalizing glimpses through the slit that almost reached the depths between her legs. Too dangerous. Were it not for this darkness, it might very well be visible.
"You've arrived. I wanted to ask you guys to move what's on this rack, but there's a whole bunch of stuff in the way that needs to be moved away first—"
The one who spoke was not Haruaki but Fear. Due to the darkness, Haruaki could not see clearly but Fear's face had gone pale without warning and her body seemed to be trembling.
"A-Ahhhh— I-I've really... come to quite a treacherous place. This is bad, really bad... I was too careless. That presence. No mistake, that type of presence is here!"
"Hmm? Right, Fear, you—"
Completely stiff with tension, Fear slowly backed away.
"L-Leave the talking for later. This is place is totally under their sphere of influence. They have been the actual rulers for many years. They could launch an attack any time, stepping in here was foolishness itself. I must escape without delay or else my life will be in danger..."
"Hwah! Hahaha! Houhyowahhhhhhhhh!?"
"Kyah! W-Why did you suddenly yell so loud!? Are you just happy or trying to be funny?"
"Uh, sorry. She's definitely just confused. Actually, she really hates spiders. I almost forgot until just now."
"Huhohee~! J-Just now... A thud... Could it be... Uhaaa, there's something moving on the back of my neck—!"
"Oh, figures. I was wondering just now why something seemed to fall from the ceiling. I get it now."
"Now is not the time to be saying something like that calmly... H-Hurry and get it off... Hurry... Eeeeeek, it's moving! Is it trying to spit silk at me or making a nest? Ahhhhhhhhh!"
Fear kept jumping up and down, turning vigorously left and right, arching herself backwards and screaming severely.
"Hey, you're getting too worked up. It's just a spider. I'll get it off for you, just settle down—Ah, hey!"
Exasperated, Chihaya walked toward Fear but Fear was still in a state of turmoil. Probably focused on trying to get rid of the spider that had scurried under her clothing, Fear had pulled open the collar of her shrine maiden outfit. The overlapping part of the outfit in front of her chest was completely pulled apart, and due to her excessive force, even the hakama's sash was untied. As a result, Fear stumbled, tripping over her own hakama. The approaching Chihaya hastily caught Fear in her arms but could not withstand Fear's weight. Frantically, Haruaki also reached out to stop the two girls from falling but failed, ending up falling over himself.
Crash—Entangled with one another, the trio fell on the floor. A large amount of dust flew up and filled the air.
"Oww... Is it gone? Where has it run off to? Is it dead? No longer here? Hey Haruaki, help me look and check, please. Where is it, is it no longer there?"
Right in Haruaki's view were Fear's tearful eyes. Haruaki nearly stopped breathing.
(E-Even if you ask me to check, this is way too hard!)
Given the current circumstances, it was totally impossible to check—Fear's shoulder was bare, the shrine maiden outfit was barely hanging on her body, the hakama had almost slid off, and even her pale white thighs were wrapped around Haruaki's body.
"Hey... You... Bastard..."
For some reason, Haruaki's hand had passed under Fear's arm and was clutching Chihaya's breast firmly. His other hand had slid through the open slit in Chihaya's hakama and his fingertips could feel the sensation of her thigh.
A half-naked shrine maiden was pleading to him, her mind still in chaos. Chihaya was trembling all over, scolding him.
"H-Hey, how is it? How is it? Haruaki, look carefully!"
"You... How dare you...!?"
"J-Just wait, you two. Anyway, calm down first. Listen carefully, this is just a series of unfortunate accidents. Let's all calm down then solve the problem. First, I'll move this hand away... Hmm, Fear's body is in the way too much, it's almost impossible to move away! No wait, I can force it to the side like this. Hmm? I seem to have gotten caught on something."
"W-What are you doing!? If you move to that side, the hakama... will be... stripped off...! You're not satisfied with stuffing your hand into the hakama alone!?"
"Wait, you're mistaken! Because we're entangled together in this weird manner, it's like untying knots right now! First, Fear, you should get up first, no no, that's very bad if you got up like this, put on your clothes first... Wait, you can't straighten your clothes like this, get up first—"
Just at this moment, a person's presence appeared at the warehouse entrance. Haruaki turned to see a shrine maiden standing there.
Haruaki's brain was instantly shivering in terror. No, this was an accident. But even as an accident, if Konoha saw it, she might possibly slay him in one slice. Were it Kirika, who knew what consequences there would be. As for Kuroe, she would probably just snap photos like mad.
However, the one standing there was not any of these girls.
"Uh... Yasuzu, you are Yasuzu, right? Perfect timing! Hurry over here and help—"
After seeing the situation in the warehouse, Yasuzu displayed surprise on her face for just an instant but immediately recovered the usual smiling demeanor. Then she nodded in comprehension but did not come over to help them. Suddenly, she knelt down next to the entrance—
Then cupping her hands behind her ears, she transmitted a certain message to her comrades.
"Ahhhhhhhhh! Hey, hold on! Why are you reporting to everyone!? Stop it, stop it right now! Or else I'll take out everything in my arsenal to make you pay the painful consequences! No, you've gotten the wrong idea! Arghhh, why are you looking so smug!?"
Yasuzu was simply smiling with unparalleled radiance, making a thumbs up gesture towards them.
She seemed to be saying: "I understand very well! I have already passed the message to everyone, asking them not to approach this place, so as not to disturb the three of you having your happy fun time!"
While Lilyhowell was reading the manual and chatting intermittently with Neto, the bullet train reached its destination.
"Starting now, divide yourselves into small teams to move independently. Until the next command is issued, stay on standby at your respective hiding places."
Having issued orders to the others, Lilyhowell got into a taxi together with Neto after placing their luggage into the trunk. After she concisely informed the driver of their destination, the car quickly started moving.
"Heehee, hey look, shit man, there's a LCD monitor on the back of the seat, such high tech. I knew it, this country is both oriental and fucking cool. But there's just one thing that rubs me off the wrong way and that's the way this country puts fucking mosaics on their porn like they're paranoid—"
Although there was dialogue during the taxi ride, it was not very interesting. At least it was approaching the end. The taxi drove into the destination town, a very plain and ordinary Japanese town that could be considered a metropolis to some extent, but with lingering vestiges of greenery. As it so happened, they were currently traveling along a street where there was relatively more greenery. Neto suddenly whistled.
"Heehaw~ That's a very oriental shrine there! And it feels like they're holding some kind of festival!"
"I have heard that there exists a custom of having a picnic while admiring cherry blossoms in the country. This happens to be that time of the year."
"So it actually is a festival, heehee. Hey, I wanna confirm something—Is the destination close by?"
"Since there's no hurry at this stage and all we've been doing is riding transportation, besides, it's already lunchtime and I'm hungry... So, since there's a festival, there should be one or two things worth eating. Say, why don't we have lunch here and take a tour while we're at it? Not a bad idea, right? After all, I have never had a chance to visit this kind of place and since that 'Trash' should be carrying out the mission right now, let's relax and play while we're here. There shouldn't be a problem with us having a bit of fun during the mission. Let the sights and sounds of a Japanese shrine, a mountain and a festival to cleanse our hearts, heehaw!"
Lilyhowell honestly did not care but Neto had a point. Besides, if agreeing to his little suggestion would improve his mood and allow him to finish the rest of the job happily, it would be more than enough to compensate for her disinterest.
"Very well. I am a little curious too."
"How understanding you are, boss! Okay~ Driver, stop the car in front of that shrine there! Yeah, over there!"
Neto patted the driver on the shoulder many times. The elderly driver smiled in a pleasing manner and said in English:
"OK~ OK~ Stop, right? OK~ Thank you very much~"
"Neto, you know how to speak Japanese, right?"
"Oh, not great, but yeah. Because I love Japan, it's only expected. Heehee."
"In that case, converse in Japanese from now on."
Neto cocked his head. Hence, Lilyhowell approached his ear and whispered:
"I have been too careless. I was under the impression that knowledge of English was not widespread, but this driver is able to speak English despite clearly not having received formal education in English. That sort of 'they probably don't know English' mindset will lower our guard and increase the chances of leaking confidential matters. Conversely, as long as we intentionally converse in Japanese, our alertness in maintaining secrecy will rise accordingly."
Although she spoke seriously, Neto looked like he was suppressing laughter for some reason and said:
"Uh~ I get the feeling that this driver is simply saying a few random lines based on the situation, don't worry about it... But it's not like I can ignore the orders of the boss. I understand. This is what is known as 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do.' I won't say fucking asshole anymore. Uh... Using Japanese... It'll be raping butthole? Seems a bit weird but whatever. Okay, it's time for the best butthole violation!'
Lilyhowell had given up a long time ago on correcting Neto's choice of wording things. Probably startled by suddenly hearing Japanese, the driver showed a face of surprise as they handed over the taxi fare and got off.
"Then let's go, boss... Oh, 'when in Rome' blah blah blah. Addressed like a boss, it'd be... Ah, something like this? Heehee, Squad Leader Lilyhowell."
"I only switched languages to prevent this type of careless talking... Whatever, it should not matter currently. Here on, I wish you could act with greater prudence as the deputy squad leader, «Neto the Avenger»."
—In this organization...
Normally speaking, the position of squad leader did not exist. Although normally organizations only existed naturally with the presence of leaders, such a position did not exist in this organization. The master entity was addressed by alternative means.
Conversely, this meant that "squad leaders" existed during unusual circumstances.
Namely, whenever a "squad" was formed. Limited exclusively to such cases.
Limited exclusively to special missions where members must form an organized group to take action, unlike normally—Only under the master's orders did they form temporary squads.
After being formed, the squads were disbanded upon the mission's completion. These groups existed only as anomalies, to accomplish the mission.
As was customary, the squads were numbered consecutively by their inception and labeled by using the name of the squad leader in charge, combined with the name of the deputy squad leader who assisted him or her.
Hence, the group who had just arrived in town were called:
The 87th Knight Squad, «Lilyhowell Neto».
"Wow! Too amazing, it's all fluttery and shiny!"
"Ah, truly. Such beautiful cherry blossoms... At least we get a reward for working hard."
"Yes, Haru, do it now! Although 'Leave things to me here, you go first!' is a close second, I believe that all boys wish to say this at least once in their lives: 'But I find you even more beautiful.' Now is the perfect opportunity to say it, go!"
"K-Kuroe-san! Seriously, what are you talking about!? Cough... Glare~"
"But Konoha, you seem to be staring at me with very hopeful looking eyes!"
They were surrounded by a vibrant display of blooming cheery blossoms. At the spot where Chihaya had led them, there were no signs of other people in sight. Ordinary people probably would not go deep into the premises since this spot was reached by circling around Chihaya's house then walking deeper in the forest. By the way—
"...This is where we visited in January. That pond and temple are really familiar."
Hearing Kirika, Chihaya frowned with displeasure.
"W-What's with that tone of voice? It's like you're saying that you don't need me to lead the way if only I had told you guys earlier. It's your fault for not discovering this place."
"No, I wasn't trying to complain. Instead, I'm very thankful to you."
"This place—My feelings: the body can sense that it is a place filled with pure raama of the land. I never expected such a great place, truly quite an unknown. If possible, I wish to concentrate and meditate, becoming one with nature as much as possible—"
"Hold on... Are you going to undress? You're going to strip, aren't you? Over my dead body, I forbid it absolutely!"
It was currently noon time. Since they had brought their lunchboxes from the beginning, it was currently lunch time and according to the agreement, time for them to have the flower viewing. But the help Chihaya demanded included cleanup, apparently, hence they were obliged to work all the way until evening. As a result, all the girls were still dressed as shrine maidens.
Haruaki sat on a tarp, looking up in admiration at the endless canopy above weaved by the colors of white and pink. Whenever a pleasant cool breeze blew, the two mild colors would flutter and fly towards the blue sky. A faintly sweet fragrance could also be smelled when breathing. With the sound of petals rustling, playing by their ear, the world before their eyes was like a dream or fantasy.
"Time to eat, time to eat, hurry and start the meal! Hey Haruaki, what's with you? Now's not the time for spacing out. If there ever was a time when the world will be destroyed if the lunchboxes aren't opened up quickly, surely it must be now! Oh no~ It's destroyed! Judging from the situation at hand, it's your fault that the current world is destroyed! How are you going to take responsibility!?"
"Guh! It's quite rare to find someone who fits the cliched saying so well about appreciating dumplings more than flowers...! Yes, fine, I'm hungry too after working. I've cooked a lot, so please eat as much as you want, everyone."
Just as Haruaki was about to open the lunchboxes, Kirika hastily presented her lunchbox and said:
"Hold on, don't forget that our original purpose was to try having a duel with a change of location."
"You're right, now that you mention it. Me, Cow Tits and Kuroe are already used to eating Haruaki's cooking, so it won't be fair for us to serve as judges. We won't be commenting."
"Yes, then I guess we'll need to trouble the rest of you to serve as judges. Please enjoy...!"
"I don't quite get the situation, but you can count on me! So, my seat is~"
"Okay, you hold it right there! Maintain your position on this diagonal line so that I can eat lunch in peace at least!"
"Aww~ Ooh~ That's so cold of you... But sitting opposite you, you can stare at your cuteness from the front! Fufu... I knew it, a shrine maiden getup is also explosively perfect...!"
Naturally, Shiraho and Sovereignty were sitting together while Chihaya nonchalantly sat on the other side next to Shiraho. Kuroe was also sitting near Sovereignty. The two of them were laughing about something together. On Haruaki's sides were Kirika and Konoha while Fear was staying on guard for Yume's movements. Un Izoey stared upwards blankly towards the fluttering cherry blossoms—
Opening the the lunchbox lid, Haruaki remembered Isuzu and the bells, so he turned his head. At least one of them was still present until just now. Next, Haruaki saw a shrine maiden not too far away, passing something to another shrine maiden. Then she returned to the shrine while the second shrine maiden carried the object here to the tarp.
"What's the matter? Isn't she going to join us?"
"Indeed, please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, not only Toohisuzu but also me, Isuzu, we don't need to eat lunchboxes! Although it looks very delicious and appetizing, there won't be enough if we all join in! So please don't mind us, everyone, because normally, we only eat randomly or even not at all~"
"Still, it doesn't sit too well with me. If anything remains, please help yourself. By the way, what did you just bring—Oh crap!"
Finally noticing what Isuzu was carrying in her hand, Haruaki was instantly rendered speechless. That's... That bottle is... No way—
"Ufufu, this was sent as a gift from a shopkeeper from the nearby shopping street to reward your efforts~ Since you are eating under these beautiful cherry blossom trees, of course, having some sake while admiring the flowers would add to the experience—"
"Hmm? I think I heard a word that tickles the depths of my heart..."
"Oh no! Fear, Kuroe! This is a state of emergency!"
"Cow Tits, I absolutely forbid you from transforming into your ultimate form! That liquid is the devil's water!"
Fear and Kuroe pounced on Konoha to suppress her movements through physical force. Perhaps just going with the flow or due to their instincts as members of the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance, the two girls joined forces and went on the offensive extremely naturally despite the lack of prior communications, obsessively attacking the bulging shrine maiden's outfit. "What are you two doing!? Hey... hey! Stop... it...!" Konoha made sensual noises while struggling and twisting her body. The overlapping part of the shrine maiden outfit near the collar looked especially precarious.
"...? Uh, those girls over there seem to be especially occupied at the moment~? How about you, would you like some~?"
Isuzu presented the sake bottle towards—Kirika. Raising her eyebrows, she answered in a stiff tone of voice:
"We are still underage! Also... Umm, I must say that alcohol is... is a dangerous intoxicating substance that makes people lose control, possibly to the point of being unable to stop themselves from doing things they absolutely would not do normally! I already swore never to drink again... Seriously... Absolutely ridiculous!"
Perhaps remembering something, Kirika was speaking with her face bright red.
"So, what do you think...? Sovereignty-kun and Shiraho-kun."
"Yes, very yummy! Both are so yummy! I can't decide which side is more yummy!"
"Seeing as Sovereignty said so already, I shall vote on a draw as well. To be honest, the lunchbox cooked by the human seems more appetizing, but due to the fact that I couldn't care less at all, I vote on a draw."
"I can't taste any subtle differences... So I'll follow Shiraho-san. Draw."
"If I had to judge—Hmm, this is totally not a draw! Both sides are explosively delicious, so it's a double victory! Who exactly are the ones who made these lunchboxes—!?"
The battle did not look optimistic. Kirika could not help but gnash her teeth. Although they called it a draw, this was simply because the judges were not interested in differentiating subtle differences in taste. Also, Shiraho's comment was virtually equivalent to casting a vote for Haruaki. Judging from the situation at hand, had Kana and Taizou been present, Kirika's defeat could very well have been declared already.
No, not yet. Kirika shifted her gaze. There was one more. One more person who could serve as a judge.
"...What do you think? Which side's lunchbox do you find more delicious?"
Un Izoey happened to be holding a fork like a child, stabbing the meatballs Kirika had cooked and sending them to her mouth. After chewing the meatballs a few times, she said:
"My answer: giving the opinion that I like this one better. Not words of flattery or courtesy, I add."
"My answer: yes. Because—"
This was an unexpected development. So what was it that had captured this girl's heart? Was it the meatballs? Or the plate of stew that she had carefully filtered off the dregs? Or her original secret recipe that she added to—
"Because this side's lunchbox contains more food that is round. I explain by giving the explanation that this is readily apparent. Take the rice balls for example, his are triangular but these here are more round."
Kirika instantly felt strength drained from her entire body. What point was there in winning due to the shape of food? Absolutely ridiculous.
"Hahaha, okay okay, what does it matter? Let's just call it a draw. I'm gonna start eating too. Class Rep's lunchbox... Hmm, so good! I'm not surprised it's a draw."
Calmly and casually, sitting beside her (because she had discreetly reserved the seat next to him, of course), he smiled while reaching his chopsticks into the lunchbox she had prepared. Haruaki looked so absolutely humble, excessively kind and a little infuriating... But Kirika still felt very happy to see him smile while eating her cooking.
And also a little cowardly.
"Hmph. This time, the biggest problem is that the judging panel is totally unmotivated. Of course I'm not satisfied with a draw. I declare this match void. Seriously, absolutely ridiculous..."
Grumbling, Kirika reached her chopsticks into a lunchbox to compare the taste. Judging by her own personal taste buds, indeed there was still a difference... Just a step away. She had lost. She must hone her skills further.
"By the way, Class Rep, when you were inviting everyone for a flower viewing, didn't you say you had something to talk to her about?"
Prompted by Haruaki, Kirika remembered as well. Looking at Un Izoey who was munching on meatballs, she said:
"Yes. But it's nothing special... No wait, this matter is very important indeed. I was just thinking, some time has passed already, so I wanted to confirm when a chance comes up. Tell us about Amanda's situation."
"My understanding: answering I understand what this is about now. I answer with the answer that timing is perfect. To report to you all, I just happened to load her photos yesterday."
After the incident before Valentine's Day, Amanda Carlot was handed over to to the Lab Chief's Nation for protection. Although they had demanded the condition of being allowed to see her any time, absolutely ridiculously, they still had not met her directly ever since. The Lab Chief's Nation had explained that they hoped to give Amanda more time before exposing her to intense stimulation. At first, Kirika was highly suspicious whether they intended to go back on the promise but it seemed like it was true that the Lab Chief's Nation really did consider Amanda's health. Although Haruaki's group was unable to meet Amanda directly, as a substitute, they were able to confirm Amanda's safety any time through Un Izoey.
Un Izoey reached behind her waist and pulled out a cellphone from under the red hakama's sash. Speaking of which, did she keep her cellphone sandwiched between the sash and her bottom...? Absolutely ridiculous. He must be prevented from touching that cellphone at all costs.
The cellphone was given to Un Izoey by a superior (The woman called Rai? Or that guy?), so she was still unused to operating it. Despite having gone through this process a number of times, using the cellphone to confirm Amanda's recent condition, Un Izoey still showed no signs of progress.
Un Izoey extended the cellphone forward. "Lemme see, lemme see." Fear and the others also leaned forward to look at the screen. Shown on screen was a sickroom somewhere. A white-haired girl was pressing down her bed head.
'Hope... you can give me some time. I just woke up.'
'Of course. I'm still trying to remember how to use the camera.'
The image was shaking. The cameraman had apparently failed to notice that the cellphone was already recording. The white-haired girl's face appeared for a second then went off screen immediately. Next to appear was a white bed's sheets and an open window.
'...I can leave the hospital soon?'
'Very soon. Your rehab is going smoothly and your muscles are almost completely recovered.'
'Wonderful, I'm so happy... How are things on your side?'
'Everybody is in the same class. I report by reporting that it is very lively—My assertion: certain of completely remembering how to do it. Then I will start recording. Can I? So, I first press this button—'
The video stopped here. Un Izoey tilted her head in puzzlement.
"Total failure in recording! You didn't remember at all!"
"It feels like after all that preparation, you ended up switching off the recording mode that you activated by accident! It makes me want to praise you instead, for being able to record a video with such incredible timing."
"Hmm~ Last time it was inexplicably upside down, so when can we actually watch a normal video?"
"...My apologies: giving a true sorry promise to reflect..."
"Whatever, that girl looks and sounds fine. Is it true that she can leave the hospital soon?"
"My report: reporting that this is the truth."
Sighs of relief were spreading among the members of the group. Kirika exhaled lightly as well.
In fact, Amanda Carlot's position was quite peculiar. What exactly was her relationship with this group here? What kind of existence was she now? There was probably no one who could answer such questions clearly. Even so, at the very least, Amanda was certainly a person they wanted to meet again.
"Nununu, I can't believe you guys are excluding us! Is it a rare film? No, it must be an erotic adult video! Guha! My neck is being strangled, I can't stand up! Hayahaya—!"
"Sneaking a peek at someone else's cellphone is too vulgar. Uh, Shiraho-san, you don't need to watch it?"
"I am not uninterested. Besides, I don't know that dark-skinned girl very well. In any case, it has nothing to do with me."
"You could try talking to her. I run into her occasionally in the public baths, so we're basically friends!"
In this manner, whether the cooking duel or checking up on Amanda's recent condition, both matters were concluded. Up next was viewing the flowers normally, eating lunch normally, all the while staying by his side.
The cherry blossoms overhead were extremely beautiful. Elegant, pretty and dream-like, watching the phantasm of white and pink, it felt like the lines between fantasy and reality were getting blurred.
Just at this moment, Kirika noticed something. She even thought she was dreaming. Could this possibly happen in reality? Yes, definitely. If under this canopy of cherry blossoms, surely it was possible.
She—Ueno Kirika who had made her decision to stand upon the battlefield—was she going to miss out on this chance?
The answer was already decided. Truly... Absolutely ridiculous.
She forcibly controlled her voice that was almost about to tremble from nervousness, calling out to Haruaki. Calm down. This sort of thing was actually no big deal. Very common.
"Hmm? What's up?"
Leisurely as always, he turned his face towards her. Probably feeling satisfied after eating lunch, he was currently holding a thermos in both hands, sipping the hot tea inside. In other words, both his hands were occupied, so what she was about to do was absolutely not unnatural. She convinced herself once again. This sort of thing was very common.
Indeed, for couples, this sort of thing was very common—
"Umm... There's rice sticking on your face... I'll get it off for you."
She used her finger to pick up the grain of rice sticking to the corner of his mouth. It felt like her fingertip touched his lip. Next—naturally—Kirika popped the grain of rice into her own mouth and ate it.
What to do? So embarrassing. But she did it. Indeed, she did it. Then so what? This was her going actively on the offensive in order to make progress. She did not need to feel guilty towards anyone.
Feigning composure, Kirika turned her gaze and started sipping tea as well. She hoped that her face had not turned red. But even if it did turn red, it mattered not. If only it could cause him to notice something. If only it could cause him to feel aware of her.
"Ah... Umm, th-thank you..."
"N-Not at all."
But she still did not dare look at his face. All she could do was keep her head bowed and endure for now.
Lifting her cup, she hid her face.
By the time she noticed—
There was a flower petal on her tea, giving off a faint fragrance.
Meanwhile, Fear was feeling inexplicably agitated.
Muku! She puffed her cheeks out. She did not know why except that she really wanted to puff her cheeks out. She really wanted to stuff her agitated emotions in her cheeks and be done with it.
The scene she had just witnessed merely consisted of Kirika picking a grain of rice stuck to the corner of Haruaki's mouth and eating it. Why was she feeling so angry? Why was she feeling so agitated?
(Hmm, hold on. Let me try a simulation.)
Supposing she were to do the same—
Was Haruaki going to make the same expression? Dazed, shocked, looking like his heart was racing—Was he going to do that?
Most probably... Not.
"An overt bid for victory... has already started? I have been too careless. To think I failed to notice first..."
Fear could see Konoha sitting beside her, narrowing her eyes while sipping tea, murmuring softly. Although Fear could not understand what Konoha was saying, she could not feel any anger and it seemed like Konoha was purely reprimanding herself for being negligent and careless.
In any case, simply from the way it looked, Haruaki was currently feeling his heart pounding because of Kirika. Fear could understand. Even as a girl herself, she also felt that Kirika was a terrific woman. However, putting that aside for now—
(Why wouldn't the shameless brat react the same way if I did the same thing...?)
Perhaps he might. But that would be speculation under her subjective wish. Using all her imagination more calmly and objectively, simulating that scene more seriously—She still reached the same conclusion: No. Even if the other person were her, Haruaki would surely not react with heart racing.
Doesn't he see me as a woman? —Fear wondered. But in the next instant, she reached a sudden realization.
(No no no, it's not like I hope for him to treat me as a woman, I'm simply talking about my ability and attractiveness! Yes! That guy thinks I'm still a child, right? He definitely has me pegged as unaware of human hardships. He has failed to correctly understand that I am a lady possessing otherworldly beauty with enough popularity that people might even want to form a fan club for me. This is what vexes me. That's right, I am infuriated by the shameless brat's insufficient understanding!)
Now it made sense why her cheeks were puffing out on their own. Nodding to herself, Fear walked off the tarp and sat down at a quiet spot on a cherry blossom tree's root so that she could think more calmly.
(Hmm... So, since the shameless brat is mistaken in understanding, I really ought to correct him. That guy should be making a shameless face when I take rice off, not just for Kirika. It's not like I want him to make that kind of reaction, but it's just because that reaction is perfectly natural, like cherry blossom petals falling down by the action of gravity, yes!)
Fear pondered for a way. Was there some kind of solution? To make Haruaki realize concretely that she was objectively a person with wonderful attractiveness...
"...Oh right, Kana and Taizou mentioned it. The finale at the welcoming festival is a school beauty pageant."
If she won that contest... Would Haruaki realize that she was actually very perfect, completely flawless, obviously a "woman" to anyone who saw her—?
"You're going to enter the school beauty pageant? I will cheer for you! And cheering very loudly at that!"
Her murmurs were apparently overheard. Appearing before Fear's eyes was the tall underclassman. Probably having learnt her lesson somewhat, she did not rush forward to hug Fear this time, or rub their faces together. Since Fear did not want to run around the place immediately after eating to her fill, so long as the girl did not do anything strange, she probably did not need to escape on purpose.
"Uh... Can I sit beside you?"
"Only if you don't do anything weird. I'm tired of running away so I'll compromise on small things."
Yume bent her knees lightly, folding up her tall body and sitting next to Fear. Grinning from ear to ear, she kept staring at Fear intently. Feeling kind of awkward, Fear took out her Rubik's cube and started rotating it, clicking away.
"Oh, it's a Rubik's cube. That sure brings back memories! Can you solve it?"
"I'm only able to solve one face. I'm simply taking it out to rotate randomly. Solving it completely needs technique... This is just an amusement tool for when I'm thinking, so it's not like I have to solve it."
"Hmm~ Thinking about something? Back to the subject, Fear-san, are you entering the school beauty pageant?"
Fear shook her head. The event simply occurred to her but she had not decided to enter.
"Oh~ Really, what a shame... Fear-san, it'll be a sure win for you! Everyone will surely bow down in front of your cuteness, Fear-san, it'll bring the fan club a step closer!"
"Y-You still haven't given up huh..."
"Of course. As soon as you give the go ahead, I'll do it instantly!"
Yume clenched her fists tightly while talking to her. Fear brought up a question that just occurred to her.
"Why do you... umm... like me so much? Uh, of course, I'm quite confident in myself, but that said, I still don't get why a girl like you would want to start a fan club."
"It's like the way people admire the things they don't have or seek the things they've lost. You see, because I'm a tall girl with long arms and legs, I see powerful weapons all over your entire body, Fear-san! Your petite build, your explosively cute appearance, and that head of silver hair, sleek and soft!"
"On the other hand, I wish I could be a bit taller. What did you eat to grow so tall? Did you drink milk like mad? Or eat some other food like mad?"
"Fufu, this is actually top secret! Besides, your petiteness is exactly what makes you cute, Fear-san, so if I tell you, that would end up betraying all of mankind. But Fear-san, I don't want to ignore your question and lower my affection points, so I'll take a middle path. Let me just give a hint—It's a certain type of all-purpose food!"
"All-purpose food? Is it something like nattou...? I'm not picky with food overall, but I'm only scared of eating nattou."
"Wrong guess~ Actually, I've been very short throughout elementary school with a shy and introverted personality. After switching to middle school, along with a change in environment, I started eating in great quantities that type of food which I never ate before, then my height blew up all at once. Yes yes, in terms of shape, it also feels like a prayer filled with hope to grow tall."
"This seems more and more like a riddle. But more than that, I'm more curious about how you used to be short, shy and introverted... Hmm~ It's quite unbelievable."
Fear glanced at Yume, causing her to cackle with laughter.
"W-What? That's creepy, you know."
"No no~ I was just thinking thank goodness I can talk with you normally, Fear-san!"
"Hmph, it's not like I'm an unreasonable person. I still can't accept it if you hug and rub me like a plushie on first sight, but if you face me calmly, I won't run away and could chat with you a bit. Because basically, you're one of my juniors."
Click—Fear stopped rotating the Rubik's cube. Speaking of which—
"Hey... You're Yume, right? I'll repeat myself. As long as you stay calm, I don't mind chatting with you. Yeah... Also, this is truly truly sometimes only, but it's not like letting you touch me is totally impossible."
"However... There's one thing I'm very displeased about so this displeasure must be dispelled. Before coming here, I've never studied at a place like a school before—rather, I've never studied in this country's schools before—so I've never had that kind of relationship. Chihaya counts as another one, but from the way she looks, she doesn't intend to show me any respect, so it's not possible. In other words, you can try addressing me in some other way—"
"I got it! So that's what this is about... You want me to call you Fear-senpai!"
"H-Hoo... Although it's my first time being called that, it really doesn't feel bad at all..."
"Yay~! So the answer to bringing us closer was here! I was thinking that using the '-san' honorific would be more intimate but the correct answer is actually the opposite... What an overly simple blind spot! Fear-senpai! As proof that we've grown closer to each other, please tell me your cellphone number! I absolutely won't make prank calls or send prank text messages, so please, you must tell me!"
Fear pretentiously deliberated before puffing her chest out arrogantly and answered:
"Fufufu. You leave me no choice... I shall agree to your request! Junior!"
To be honest—
Being addressed by someone as their senior for the first time, this feeling was very refreshing and delightful, to the point that Fear even felt that simply exchanging phone numbers was not a problem at all.
It was about time to clean up... Just as Haruaki was spacing out, staring at the cherry blossoms—
Ring—He seemed to hear the sound of bells.
Haruaki shifted his gaze slightly. Looking up at the sky, Isuzu suddenly froze. Next, Hauraki saw two of the kagura bells running here from the shrine. When the two kagura bells looked towards Isuzu who was already here, Isuzu nodded in response. Then she surveyed the surroundings with a troubled look on her face.
"Uh~ ...I suppose this ought to be done. There's no time left either~ So, Yume-sama, please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, I have a favor to ask of you~"
Yume was leaning forward, looking at Fear's cellphone. The two of them were exclaiming: "What a cute cat~!" "I know right!?" (When did they start opening themselves to each other in earnest?) Hearing Isuzu, Yume looked up with surprise.
"Yes~ Actually, it's currently necessary to suddenly enter deep into this forest to gather great quantities of a certain type of tree's leaves! Please lend us your assistance. You won't be alone since my sisters will be helping, so don't worry~ But these two younger sisters don't like to talk, so please don't mind them."
"Oh... Sure. But this is really sudden... No need to pull me, I'm going!"
The two kagura bells grabbed Yume's left and right arms respectively, forcing her to stand up then dragging her into the depths of the forest. As much as their faces displayed the usual smiles of gentleness, they also gave off a sense of commanding vigor.
After the trio vanished into the depths of the forest, Chihaya crossed her arms and approached Isuzu who was seeing them off.
"What happened? You're not telling that there really is something that requires the gathering of leaves, right?"
"That's because no matter what, she is an ordinary person~ As for the explanation, it's actually..."
Turning to face Chihaya, Isuzu's expression suddenly went stiff.
"—Chihaya-sama! Please be careful!"
Apart from Chihaya who was stunned in surprise, everyone present noticed the reason.
Chihaya and Isuzu were standing at the edge of the forest. Consequently, a certain person emerging from the forest would first make contact with Chihaya. That was all there was to it, but perfectly logical.
"Hey hey hey! What's going on here!? Those slits are way too big, fucking... Correction, too raping sexy!"
A black man in dreadlocks suddenly appeared from the forest.
Furthermore, he had reached into Chihaya's red hakama from behind—in other words, through the wide open slit—impudently using his fingers to stroke her thigh.
Apart from the black man, everyone was thunderstruck, or rather, dumbstruck as though time had stopped.
The first person to start moving was, of course—
"You... What are you doing—!?"
Face flushed red with anger, Chihaya turned around forcefully, raising her arm with all her strength. "Woah, no way, so fucking amazing! This shrine maiden isn't wearing pan—" Then she swung her fist and punched the muttering black man in the face directly. Not a slap but a punch. The crashing impact sounded quite terrifying.
"Th-That really hurts——! Seriously, it really hurts, raping butthole!"
Bending forward slightly to stroke Chihaya's thigh, the man suffered a direct punch from Chihaya and fell over backwards with a crash, rolling on the ground in pain. Chihaya's face was flaming red from anger and embarrassment.
"H-H-H-Hurting... you is exactly the point! That's obvious, you scum! Pervert, rapist! Die!"
"Arghhh~ ...Ouch, this really hurts. I'm the one in pain, you know? Calling me scum? It's your fault for wearing that kind of high slit outfit. If you dressed properly, I won't go touching you suddenly. Get it? Capish? It's very unfair that I'm in pain but you're not, right? That's very unfair. Is it completely my fault?"
Rolling in pain, the man grumbled and complained, slowly getting up, a massive bruise on his face. Despite coming from a girl's strength, it was a completely merciless straight punch suffered directly head on after all.
"A-Are you trying to pull something again!? I'll kill you, I'm really gonna kill you this time!"
"You'll kill me? Heehaw, what a painful yet funny joke. My mood is reaching a butthole climax! Heehaw!"
The man stroked the painful looking bruise. Just as he described, he was laughing in delight. Haruaki frowned while observing this black man. He was roughly thirty in age, wearing fashionable sunglasses, his hair woven into numerous small braids as dreadlocks. His clothing was baggy and comfortable while an old Polaroid camera was hanging on his neck. A tourist perhaps? However, he was not carrying luggage and his only belongings consisted of a guitar's hardshell case—But due to Chihaya's punch, it had rolled on the ground. In other words, this man gave off an impression like a reggae musician, touring around while being true to his personal desires. Just at this moment—
"Neto! I only took my eyes off your for an instant—What are you doing!?"
A young Caucasian woman in a business suit proceeded to walk out of the forest. Her blonde hair was tied behind her head. Her eyes were sharp and determined. Despite the beauty of her face, her expression seemed stern and commanding rather than cute. If the man named Neto was a musician, then this woman would be a capable manager or boss of some agency—But no matter which possibility, neither could explain the golf bag she was carrying on her back.
"Asking me what I'm doing? That's really tough to answer~ I asked you if I could take a walk in the forest and you said yes, right? Then I ran into this fated encounter, so thinking it was really a good chance, I wanted to get to know this shrine maiden, butthole deeply."
"I understand. However, what is with this situation? They are—"
The woman groaned as though realizing something. During this time, Neto had already picked up the camera hanging on his neck.
"Ahhh, ahhhhh, ouch, ouch ouch... Click."
Haruaki could not believe his eyes.
The bruise vanished from the man's cheek, the instant he picked up the camera and photographed the injury on his face.
The camera gave off faint operating sounds and quickly ejected a photo. Neto extracted the photo while kicking open the guitar case on the ground.
"Tsk... Neto! Wait!"
"I know, I know, heehaha! What does it matter? Just lemme do it, because it hurts and I was punched! What does it matter, it's just payback! Otherwise, I won't stand for this!"
While he was speaking—due to everything happening too suddenly, everyone was caught by surprise.
Using his foot to hook the object, Neto sent something from the guitar case flying into midair.
A gun. Not a handgun but a rifle of substantial length. A tool of murder, assembled from wood and metal.
Neto caught the rifle in midair, then in one flowing motion, he curled up the newly taken photo into a cylindrical shape and stuffed it into the rifle's magazine. Then like a gunman from a Western, he spun the rifle several times with one hand before pressing the muzzle on Chihaya's chest while she was rooted to this spot in shock—
Then he pressed the trigger.
The sound of the hammer striking was followed by the smell of something burnt. Haruaki simply sensed these. That was only natural, because stuffed into the magazine was just a photograph rather than bullets of lead.
"Ah... G-Gah... Ahhhhhh!?"
Instantly, Chihaya collapsed on the ground, holding her chest. Staring wide-eyed, she screamed as though forcing all the air out of her lungs while cold sweat instantly broke out all over her body. She scratched at that "something" which had struck the chest of her t-shirt. Tugging at the fabric, the mounds beneath were almost spilling out of her collar.
"Hee~haw! Now that's truly delightful! How does it feel to get raped in the butthole by me!?"
Neto's body was trembling, evidently extremely excited. Without doing anything more to Chihaya, he knelt down in front of the guitar case.
"Hey, don't worry, that level of 'pain' won't kill anyone. It's lucky that you only used your fist to punch me just now. If it was a knife, then you'd have become a butthole that could never speak again. By the way, I normally use this thing to stab people for pleasure. Because firing a gun only takes an instant! Fun and pleasurable things should be enjoyed for as long as possible, of course!"
Saying that, Neto attached a blade under the rifle. In other words, it was a bayonet. Had that blade been attached just now—Thinking that, Haruaki could not help but shudder.
In any case, the instant Chihaya collapsed, everyone entered a complete state of battle readiness. Fear took out the Rubik's cube from under her shrine maiden outfit and said:
"That camera and rifle... They're both cursed tools, right!?"
"Heehaw, you're only half right! «The Paingrapher» right here is indeed a damned Wathe. Using this to photograph an injured spot will eliminate the injury from the body. The photo then becomes 'the information of pain itself.' Then by pressing the 'pain' photo against someone's body and ripping it, the other person will feel several times the original 'pain.' The effect is especially potent if used against the one who inflicted the injury in the first place. However, fixing photos onto the enemy and then ripping it would be too much of a hassle in battle. That's why I made this."
Neto turned the rifle while continuing nonchalantly:
"Of course, this gun cannot shoot several meters away, but it's so convenient. All it takes is a press of the trigger to shoot out the 'pain' from the photo ammunition. If the photo is placed in the magazine, that 'pain' will transmit to the bayonet. Quite a great function as well. In other words, this is a bayonet for making «The Paingrapher» easier to use—It's just a tool. Not some kind of rotten butthole Wathe."
"You sure like to flap your gums. But thanks to that, I understand something now."
"Indeed. Simply judging from your attitude... It's sufficient to guess who you are."
Kirika slowly extended the «Tragic Black River» from the sleeve of her shrine maiden outfit, adding anomalous black to the colors of red and white.
"Heehee, then who exactly are we?"
Just as Neto spoke while cocking his head disrespectfully—
"Like the way mountains can be cleared of lush vegetation by means of incineration and through the work of sharpened sickles, all sins will be gone, purely purified, and cleanly cleaned!"
The wind was astounding. The air could be seen distorting, turning into formless vacuum blades carrying the sharpness of knives. Fallen on the ground, the cherry blossom petals all fluttered upwards. The raging wind proceeded to mercilessly tear off petals from the blooming branches, causing a rain of petals to dance rapidly in the air. The world was instantly shrouded in the color of light pink, instantly obscuring Neto's figure from Haruaki's view.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, who you are is irrelevant to me. Anyone who harms Chihaya-sama is our enemy. A divine oracle informed me that a certain unpleasant and harmful someone was about to arrive. All was fine up until after the uninvolved Yume-sama was led away. However, I am filled with regret that the voice did not speak of your destination. Had I known your destination, as soon as I saw your face, Isuzu would have done this."
Naturally, Isuzu was the one releasing the invisible sickles. The smile disappeared from her face, she kept her arm outstretched to release vacuum blades, staring intently at where the flower petals were flying. Haruaki could see behind her that Chihaya was trying to stand up while groaning weakly. She looked like she was okay. Haruaki breathed a slight sigh of relief.
Following Isuzu's gaze, Haruaki looked towards Neto's location. No matter what, that rifle should not be able to defend against the current violent storm of sharp sickles. He must have suffered quite some damage—
"Hehahaha, that really scared me! My butthole contracted!"
"What a surprising development. How should this be corrected?"
The blonde woman stood in front of Neto. Kneeling on one knee, she had reached into her golf bag and held a certain object in both hands, raising it up high. This must be how she blocked Isuzu's attack of vacuum blades. The golf bag's tattered remains were wrapped over the object, a giant mass of metal in a long and shape—A massive sword. Nevertheless, this sword's shape was very unusual. One edge was a sharp and straight while the other side resembled a comb, exhibiting saw teeth or sharp protrusions like inverse triangles.
"Say, Squad Leader Lilyhowell! Let me suffer the attacks! If you block them, I can't get any pleasure out of them! What does it matter? Hey, we're up!"
"Neto, calm down. This is still too early. Do not forget the mission."
The blonde woman swung the strangely shaped giant sword, stabbing it into the ground before her. Then with both hands on the sword's hilt, standing legs apart at shoulder width, head raised, chest out—Her entire person seemed so dignified and imposing.
"Hmph, of course you must be that guy's companion. Very well. Do you really think the two of you can defeat us...!?"
"Hold your position, Fear-in-Cube!"
The blonde woman maintained her stance and shouted sonorously. Perhaps surprised by the volume of her voice or noticing something in her attitude of not taking any defensive measures, Fear stopped herself just as she was about to charge, Rubik's cube in hand. Konoha and the others also seemed to have decided to observe what the other side was up to first.
Who knew if the blonde woman was aware or not, but Neto was currently shrugging behind her back.
With candid fearlessness... Even candid to the point of excess, she glared at everyone—
Then as though she were a true knight, she declared in a tone of voice completely devoid of pretense or feigned kindness:
"I am a First-Class Orthodox Knight of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion—Lilyhowell Kilmister! I hereby declare—We have no intention of fighting!"
For quite a while...
All that could be heard was the rustling sounds of cherry blossom petals.
"...?" She—Lilyhowell—tilted her head slightly in puzzlement towards this silence. Then recalling something as though going "oh, I see now," she nodded and added:
"Also, this man is a First-Class Revenge Knight, Neto the Avenger. We are currently the only ones here."
This sort of thing was obvious. That was not the issue.
"N-No no, what you declared just now is a bit weird."
"Th-That's right. As an organization, you guys of the Knights Dominion are supposed to reject the existence of cursed tools like us. Even if you say you have no intention of fighting, how could we possibly believe you so easily!?"
"Precisely. One, we are an organization for destroying Wathes. Two, you are Wathes. In that case, one can conclude that we will eventually cross swords one day. However, we currently have no intention of engaging you in combat."
Lilyhowell repeated herself again, causing Konoha to frown.
"What are you talking about? Clearly you suddenly attacked Chihaya-san just now."
"—That was this man's joke. On further examination, although this girl is an owner of a Wathe, she is human. All things considered, we are at fault for this incident. I hereby apologize to everyone."
With her hand on the sword's hilt, chest raised, Lilyhowell bowed her head towards them to express her apologies. She felt very serious, but too serious, instead giving off a kind of airheaded impression.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, even if you apologize, whether or not we forgive you is a separate matter."
"How rare, my flunkie actually spoke out perfectly what the master wanted to say...!"
Chihaya stood up while brushing away Isuzu's hand that had just been supporting her shoulder. Although her footsteps were still a little unsteady, her eyes were burning with raging flames.
"Hmm~ ...I don't quite get it. In the end, why are you guys here?"
"If you ask why, my answer is coincidence. We are simply visiting the shrine's festival."
"How absolutely ridiculous. Then let me rephrase the question. Why did you come to this country?"
Kirika's question prompted Lilyhowell to glance at Neto behind her. He was originally just tapping the rifle against his shoulder. Instantly, for some unknown reason, the atmosphere suddenly changed dramatically. The madman's smile disappeared, leaving an expressionless face that carried airs of cruelty. In a deep voice, sounding like it was forced out, he said:
"...Not funny at all. But looks like we have no choice but to tell them about that woman."
"Then I shall speak. Our goal as the 87th Knights Squadron is to exterminate the «Knight Killer»."
"The Knight Killer...? What's that?"
"Literally what the name says, a person who kills knights. To this date, a single human has killed dozens of knights belonging to the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion. Although the purpose of our organization's existence is to destroy Wathes, we are also obliged to avenge our murdered comrades."
"Just a single person...? Sounds like someone really strong."
"Precisely. But regarding the enemy, we only know two facts. One, she calls herself Nirushaaki. Two, this «Battle Demon Nirushaaki» is ranked second in the Draconians. That is all. Not much."
Haruaki's group gasped. The Draconians. An organization devoted to the singleminded pursuit of strength. Ranked second would naturally imply being second strongest in the organization. Even stronger than that Kokoro Pentangeli.
"...I see. Then stop wasting your time in this kind of place and eliminate that Nirushaaki person. You are our enemies. The Draconians are also enemies. We're not going to stop you."
"As much as we would like to do so, there are difficulties in circumstance."
"That's right, it's not funny at all. We woulda done it if we could. But that bitch keeps a mask on at all times so no one has seen her real face. Almost no one has heard her voice either. All that can be deduced from body shape is that she's a young woman. Apart from that, you can say there's no other information."
Neto was muttering in a terrifying and ice-cold tone of voice. Beneath those sunglasses, it was impossible to see where his eyes were directed and only cold, murderous intent passed through.
After Neto finished, suddenly changed in atmosphere, Lilyhowell went "There is one more problem" and continued:
"The problem is that she is rumored to have deserted the Draconians."
"...What did you say?"
"She deserted the organization. Her movements were erratic to begin with, strong and fierce, simply appearing and vanishing elusively but meaninglessly, a battle demon akin to a natural disaster—This is the existence known as Nirushaaki. Hence, I consider a sudden withdrawal from the Draconians not entirely impossible. That said, these thoughts are accompanied by doubts of 'why?'"
"She deserted the Draconians huh... Then you people appeared here... No way?"
Kirika had apparently realized something, frowning suddenly. Lilyhowell nodded.
"Your deductions are most likely correct. One deserter of the Draconians might have already approached another deserter of the Draconians. In other words, rumor has it that she has entered Taishyuu High where you attend."
"Hey... Hold on! If that really happened, the superintendent can't possibly have kept us in the dark!"
"No, Yachi. The superintendent himself could be unaware of this woman's existence. If she considered the current situation of the superintendent's faction and treated them as backup reinforcements, only to lend their strength when really necessary, it is very possible for her to hide in school as an ordinary new student for now."
"Muu... In other words, what the heck is going on...?"
"Your brain is a little slow, Wathe. Totally not funny—Oh crap, as soon as I recall that rotten bitch, I start getting serious. Listen up, that «Knight Killer»... is to this date the only butthole bastard who has injured my body but still evaded my revenge! Because I wanna kill and rape her so much, simply remembering that bastard fills up my mind with this matter, I even forget how to laugh! Like an inexperienced brat who can't stop thinking about the first night he slept with a woman, what a bad habit!"
Halfway through, Neto suddenly recovered his beginning tone of voice. Patting himself on the forehead, he laughed out loud—What a bipolar man. It looked like his hatred and resentment towards that «Knight Killer» was truly as extraordinary as he claimed. Resuming his original, manic tone of voice, Neto said:
"Anyway, I am dedicating everything towards revenge so that I can give butthole climax to the butthole bastard in your school. Although I don't know what she looks or sounds like, raping that bitch's butthole is my goal! Heehaw, isn't that very simple?"
"I repeat. Our goal is to exterminate the «Knight Killer». But of course, our superiors have not forbidden us to destroy you. You are simply not our primary objective. Should you hinder us, we will fight you without objection... Considering this possibility, please do not underestimate the combat strength of our squad, numbering a total of sixteen."
To be honest, Haruaki felt very troubled by what they said. Let alone hindering them, he still had no idea how his group should act. Neither did he know what the other side intended to do specifically.
"Hey, umm... I understand that our school might be where your target for vengeance is lurking. But you guys don't know what she looks like, right? So how do you plan on finding her?"
"That's a great question! I have a way. The 'pain' that bitch caused me in the previous battle—in other words, the photo taken using «The Paingrapher»—I've been keeping it safely. So, remember what I just said? If the 'pain' on the photo is returned to the one who inflicted it, the resulting 'pain' will be multiplied. When that happens, the pleasure I feel is also multiplied, in other words, there's an added effect! Because I only have one photo where that bitch made a butthole out of me, I can only put it into the magazine and stab using the bayonet. I'll just have to try each and every high school girl at your school, one at a time! So that's the plan, the bitch who causes me the most excitement will be that lovable butthole bastard!"
"Y-You bastard...! In other words...!"
"Using a bayonet to stab every student then deciding based on pleasure? How absolutely ridiculous a method!"
"Heehaha, an absolutely ridiculous method huh...? I agree. If I had to ambush kids on the way home from school, making buttholes on these barely weaned high school girls one by one, that'd be an utter pain in the ass—"
The blade pressed against Neto's neck forced him to stop speaking. But it was not Fear's torture tool nor Konoha's knife hand. Most likely having received orders to remain neutral towards the Knights Dominion, Un Izoey simply stood where she was without moving, so it was not her knife either.
Instead, it was the giant sword belonging to Lilyhowell who was supposed to be his teammate.
"—Neto, I will not permit unnecessary violence."
Staring at the giant sword blade, Neto giggled lewdly.
"But our dear Squad Leader Lilyhowell doesn't like this butthole-like method. So what shall we do?"
"...I am truly ashamed to say this, but my hand is forced. Hence, I have decided to negotiate with your group."
Looking clearly displeased, Lilyhowell stabbed the giant sword into the ground again. Then she turned towards Haruaki's group.
"One, find the «Knight Killer» by any means necessary. Two, kill her as soon as possible. These are our objectives. However, due to personal principles, I wish for the process to reduce the involvement of the ordinary populace as much as possible."
"Don't be absurd. Didn't that man just say that the only plan you guys came up with must involve ordinary people, checking them one by one!?"
"Precisely, but that applies to us only."
Lilyhowell continued to frown slightly and narrowed her eyes as though suppressing her displeasure deep into her heart, then said:
"But being students in the same school, you are in a better position to gather far more information than we could, hence there might be other methods. So I propose a deal—If your side can locate «Knight Killer» Nirushaaki and hand her over to us, we will return to the Knights Dominion without harming any other people."
"Let me ask this first... Does that include Fear and the others?"
"Indeed. One day, we will likely destroy Fear-in-Cube, but not now. Currently, our first priority is to avenge those who fell victim to the «Knight Killer». Your group can be ignored for now."
"Heehahaha! Oh dear, what a great idea. In other words, shoving the troublesome part onto others to handle. Say yes now, say yes now. If you say yes, we can relax for a while until the target is captured. If you don't, I'll have to undertake the pain in the butthole task of testing—Trying my blade on female students. Also if you guys come running to get in my way, I'll have to fight pointlessly before the prey is caught. Heehaw, really troublesome to the extreme. Yes, simply destroying Wathes is already a butthole game that brings out my best mood!"
Neto burst out laughing. Lilyhowell's eyes looked sincere. The members of Haruaki's group exchanged glances.
"What an absolutely ridiculous deal. However..."
"If we agree to it, the ordinary students will be spared. If we reject it, perhaps people will get hurt."
"How troubling, this is totally not a deal at all. It is almost a threat... How infuriating."
What about after agreeing? How exactly should they proceed? Of course, Haruaki's group had no idea at all. Nevertheless, they understood one thing—namely, in order to protect the safety of innocent students for now, they must agree to the other side's terms.
"Does this attitude imply understanding? Excellent judgment. So, the deadline is one week from today."
"Please wait. That's a bit too short...! We still have no idea how to find her!"
"Hee~ Ha~ Ha! That's none of our concern!"
"I know the address of the Yachi residence. We will be paying a visit one week later at midnight on Sunday. Before that, please locate Nirushaaki. Do not worry, I shall not allow fresh blood to stain your front door immediately."
Mixed with cherry blossom petals, soil flew lightly into the air. Lilyhowell had drawn her giant sword from the ground and rested it against her shoulder. Then she turned and walked back in the direction where she came from. Neto also threw his rifle into the guitar case as though tossing it away, then picked up the case and chased after Lilyhowell.
Several seconds after the two of them disappeared into the forest, noises were heard from behind. The group looked back in surprise.
"Ding ding ding~! The leaves gathering expert has returned~! Yes~ Although it only felt troublesome in the beginning, after gathering so many leaves, I still end up with a sort of explosively fulfilled sense of accomplishment!"
Before their eyes were two shrine maidens accompanied by Yume who was carrying a large pile of leaves in her arms. Speaking of which, in order to keep Yume the ordinary human uninvolved, Isuzu's sisters had attentively taken her away from the scene.
In any case, at least that goal was achieved—Isuzu exhaled as though saying that.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, you must be exhausted, oh my oh my, to think you picked up so many~"
"Mufufu, I don't mind at all if you praise me more~ Say, I'm really hoping for praise from Fear-senpai! So, although it's a bit late for me to ask now, what's the point of collecting these leaves? Could it be that you'll act like a mysterious shrine maiden and pour it into a pot to cook ancient secret remedies?"
"Ah, well~ Uh~ Umm... Umm~"
Isuzu's gaze wandered until she finally clapped her hands together as though coming up with an idea.
"These leaves have sharp ends, right~?"
"Yeah, it's a little prickly! Could there be some kind of mysterious power inside?"
"Actually, a leaf pricked my finger just now, ouch, so to vent my anger, I intend to burn all of them~"
On the way back to the Yachi home from the shrine, Haruaki looked up at the darkening sky and muttered:
"Things have become very serious."
"Jeez, damn the Knights Dominion. It'd be so much better if it was purely an attack!"
Fear concurred with her arms crossed in displeasure.
After the flower viewing, the two members of the Knights Dominion had left. After they finished helping with the shrine's work, Haruaki's group took their leave to hold a strategy meeting as soon as possible. Apart from the residents of the Yachi home, this included Kirika as well.
As a member of the Lab Chief's Nation, Un Izoey had apparently received such orders: "Remain neutral as much as possible in the face of other organizations." Hence, she said: "My explanation: I think I should be unable to help..." Then she took her leave with inexplicable forlornness. As for Sovereignty and Shiraho—"Uh, is there anything I could help—" "Nope." Then the former was forcibly dragged home by the latter.
After discreetly asking Yume to head home first, they had discussed with Chihaya and Isuzu for a while. Ever since encountering them in January, Haruaki's group had only glossed briefly over the existence of multiple organizations that targeted cursed tools. But now that one of them had appeared before them for real, it was necessary to explain again clearly.
In the end—presumably not taking after her revered Shiraho as a role model—Chihaya chose not to take special action. Haruaki's honest feelings believed that since a dangerous existence like the Knights Dominion had appeared, in the interests of safety, he hoped that Chihaya and Isuzu could keep a greater distance away from them. But since Chihaya had chosen non-interference, he could not force her. Besides, Isuzu possessed outstanding abilities in the domain of "protecting oneself." Hence, all he could do was remind Chihaya and Isuzu to contact them as soon as possible if anything came up.
"The Knights Dominion is here. Their target is a former Draconian who has currently entered our school. So, what should we do? Although back then, we had no choice but to agree to the deal."
"Muuhmm~ Deserted means that she can currently be considered an ordinary person, right? Is it really right to hand her over to those two...?"
This was the dilemma. The Knights Dominion had said: "So long as you hand her over, we will not harm other students." But the person known as the «Knight Killer»—were they able to sacrifice her? Were they able to treat her as an abandoned pawn to keep the other students safe?
"Hmm~ In hindsight, instead of listening to their explanation, we should have beaten them up on the spot until they couldn't stand up anymore. I lost all motivation because that woman said so seriously that they had no intention of fighting. This could very well be part of their devious plans!"
"To be honest, I think so too... Had we done so at the start, things would be a lot simpler."
"Don't say something so unsettling. When fighting and killing are concerned, it's still best to avoid battles as much as possible."
While they were discussing, the group reached the front of the house. Then they stopped. This was not because they were waiting for Haruaki to unlock the main door. Even Haruaki himself stopped walking.
This was because the two figures standing before the door were too unexpected.
One of them was a girl with relatively short hair. As soon as she spotted the returning group, she started trembling violently in apprehension for some reason, hunching her tall stature behind the other person's back. Her cheeks were scarlet while tears were welling up in her eyes. The other person, far shorter than the cowering short-haired girl, had a petite and slender build with her hair styled into two buns, a large pouch at her waist, dressed in a sailor-style school uniform—
"—Hello everyone, it's been a while. Trust you have been well?"
Showing an innocent smile no different from before, Ontenzaki Satsuko greeted them.
Translator's Notes and References
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