Chapter 1 - Journey of Shining Gold / "the park where deer run"
Experiments and test runs.
Having obtained a new toy, she needed to perform these two tasks first.
She must confirm how it felt during usage. The new toy—but more accurately, it was actually a second-hand toy. The previous user... It was possible she might acquire strange habits due to that particular auxiliary.
It was imperative to verify the detailed functions—or rather, the cursed abilities. She had taken action precisely in order to obtain information about the cursed abilities, but reality could turn out different from what she expected.
It was imperative to verify the curse. This was the simplest and the most unavoidable issue.
One after another...
She conducted her task of verification while trying her utmost not to attract attention.
By this point, there was no need for haste. Precisely because what she desired was within arm's reach, it was even more important that she must avoid haste.
The feeling when using the tool—No problem.
Cursed ability—Just as informed. Or rather, just as predicted. No problem.
The curse—No problem when used under ordinary conditions. Possible to endure.
But this was not where the issue lay.
Because this implied that small issues would arise when the tool was used in situations deviating slightly from ordinary levels.
She believed that given who she was, she should be able to withstand it without even the concept of "enduring" surfacing, however, that curse slightly exceeded her predictions. Hence, that issue must be handled.
However, there was no need for haste on this issue either.
She asked herself:
—What is it that I need?
First of all was herself. The meaning of existence, what currently existed and frequently in short supply. Hence, it was something that sought the past as well as the future. A pure and unadulterated concept. An absolutely undistorted journey, unchanging truth and what dragons possessed.
In other words, «Strength».
This matter did not require further, deeper thought. All she needed to do was what she had engaged in repeatedly all along—namely, training—this time directed towards the specific form of training this toy required. Perhaps phrased differently, she needed to grow accustomed to it. All she needed to do was feed a suitable volume of repeated activity to the mouth known as time, and she would surely build up the strong flesh and blood this body required before long.
However, that alone was not enough. Upon calm reflection, it was still not enough.
Even with the future strength gained through training, she still needed something else.
Another essential element. A physical element. A device for lessening curses—
In other words, the Indulgence Disk.
She had reached a revelation that things were incomplete unless all requirements were met. Hence, she had started operations to this end.
She did not know the concrete whereabouts of the Indulgence Disks, but that was no big deal. Regarding possible locations where they could be found, she already had ideas. Regarding possible people in possession of them, she also had clues.
Indeed—In any case, she decided to first try contacting comrades.
Although gathered together in pursuit of the same goal, these people risked their lives in battle instead of greeting one another. Perhaps in the eyes of ordinary people, this type of relationship could not be considered that of comrades.
The vast historic public park occupied an area of six hundred and sixty hectares, encompassing countless tourist spots, the west side being an urban area where the Kintetsu railway station was located, while the east side was filled with lush greenery and the towering mountains of Wakakusa and Kasuga—
"This is what I'm talking about, Nara Park!"
"Umuu, you've really lost me, nuhaha!"
Fear was walking beside Haruaki, her silver hair swaying proudly. After answering Fear's careless question of "What is Nara Park?", Haruaki narrowed his eyes.
"You don't actually intend to understand anything, right? To think I even took out the booklet to read out to you."
"How should I put this...? What I wanna know about isn't that stuff. A park? In the end, it's just a park? How is it different from the park near our home? Are there swings?"
"Haruaki-kun, I would advise you to give up on a lost cause. No matter how much of a detailed explanation you try to provide to this girl with no common sense, you'll just waste your efforts."
"What are you talking about, damn Cow Tits!? I'll curse you!"
"Well... It's true that there's a limit to how much can be explained through words. You ought to tell Fear-kun what makes it different from the parks she knows."
"Yeah, Kirika-chan is right. I agree that having an actual look around would be faster than explaining—"
After getting off the bullet train at Kyoto station, Haruaki's group had taken a bus to Nara. All the students were scheduled to tour Nara on the first day of the school excursion. Then currently, they had gotten off the bus and were marching grandly towards Nara Park. Also, Sagisaki-sensei was trailing at the end of the class, presumably suffering from motion sickness, walking unsteadily while supported by several female students. So who's actually the leader here?
"By the way... What's up with that exactly?"
Seeing Fear make a rectangle with her fingertips from both hands, Haruaki figured out what she meant. She was talking about the other purpose of this trip—the Indulgence Disks. Although the superintendent had said ambiguously that "something good will happen if you go west," nothing had happened yet so far.
"After all, it's just the first day. Since the superintendent hasn't said anything, it means we don't need to know. Anyway, getting too bothered by it won't help at all."
"Really... But I wanna get it as quickly as possible if it's truly available..."
Fear exhaled forcefully as though trying to suppress her impatience. Even standing here, Haruaki could feel the impatience that Fear had been frequently exuding recently. Probably because she took his advice that "getting too bothered by it won't help at all," the wave of impatience quickly passed.
Indeed, this was a rare school excursion. Rather than getting distracted by incomprehensible things, Haruaki wished she could enjoy herself more in this place that was different from her usual environment.
After a moment, Fear suddenly started looking around.
"Hmm, the smell's changed... There's the scent of grass and trees. Plus this...?"
"Oh, hey Fear, hurry and look at this!"
By the time they noticed, a giant structure was already visible up ahead. Immense in area and solid in construction, a majestic piece of the landscape exhibiting a great sense of weight. The low-key colors of the bricks and timber looked natural and ancient but rather than exuding an air of neglect, it gave off more of a comforting sense of calm and stability. It was flanked by a giant Buddha guardian statue on each side, glaring wrathfully at oncoming visitors. People were currently passing through the massive colonnade between the two statues, stepping one after another into the structure—
This was the national treasure, the Great Southern Gate of Toudai-ji.
While Haruaki exclaimed in admiration, he could hear Fear shouting. She was surely touched by the sight of one of Japan's prided national treasure. Just as Haruaki was feeling a little proud—
"S-S-S-S-So cute! Such round eyes! So perfectly round!"
"What the heck!? Your tastes are too weird! Hurry and apologize to Unkei-san, apologize right now!"
Hearing Fear's unbelievable comment, Haruaki turned towards her in shock, only to see her staring intently with unparalleled interest at the herd of deer resting by the side of the road, rather than the Great Southern Gate or the Buddha guardian statues. Haruaki instantly felt drained of energy. Speaking of which, deer could be seen throughout Nara Park. Still, one should first notice the national treasure, right? One should first notice the venerable and elegant Great Southern Gate, right...? Just as Haruaki was thinking this, he discovered that almost half the class was pointing the lenses of their cameras or cellphones at the deer instead of the Great Southern Gate. How lamentable... But precisely due to harboring such thoughts, wasn't that why people often called Haruaki old-fashioned?
At this moment, Kaidou-sensei's voice was heard. All the students stop taking photos and turned to look at her.
"Including the Great Buddha Hall, there are many famous sights ahead. Students, since I am sure all of you would like to tour the premises at your own pace, you have one hour of free time starting now. After that, make your way towards towards Shousouen and gather in front of the central gate—Not here. Do remember to gather at the central gate further ahead. Do not wander off too far, make too much noise or cause trouble for others. I do not seek perfection but if I see anyone behaving out of line... I shall not show any mercy even if it is currently a school excursion. Understand what I am saying?"
Seeing Kaidou pat her palm with the shovel, the entire class had no choice but to answer in unison. During the few months since entering second year, everyone had already found out how terrifying her punishments were.
Then free time started and Fear took her cellphone and kept snapping photos like the others.
"Nuu, what's going on? This place is wonderful. It must be that, a park with a concept very similar to that Woof Meow Friendship Park. I finally get it...!"
"Don't go comparing Nara Park with that place, okay!?"
"By the way, this question has been bothering me, Kana, for the longest time already. Why are there deer here? The smart duo over there, pray enlighten me please~"
"Eh? Me? If you say that... I suppose they're simply indigenous to begin with. Because it's basically all mountains nearby."
"Hmm. I also seem to have heard before that the Kasuga Grand Shrine regarded the deer as a type of very auspicious creature, which is why they were preserved and seldom harmed by humans..."
"Wow—As expected of the class rep! Oh, h-however, Konoha-san's explanation is more simple, I like it very much, it's very easy to understand!"
Although it was currently free time, Haruaki found himself still surrounded by the usual lineup for some reason. The class had been divided into a number of groups for the Kyoto sightseeing on the second day and beyond. Right now, they were moving in their groups, in other words, the neighbors during the ride on the bullet train.
"Fufu. Miyama, it's all going just as planned. Please keep this up... I really hope to walk together with girls more on this rare school excursion... Even watching while standing on the side is fine!"
"'Without attracting attention, keep these two groups moving together as much as possible'—I haven't forgotten this secret agreement. You guys better not forget a month's worth of cafeteria coupons either... Heeheehee."
Haruaki's classmate and group member, Animori, was apparently having some kind of suspicious conversation with Kana... Haruaki decided to ignore them for now.
After taking photos, Fear squatted down on the spot, apparently still interested in the deer lying on the ground before her, resting her elbows on her knees while staring at the deer with obsessed rapture.
(Hmm... Examining calmly, these deer do look quite cute.)
Their black, round eyes looked wise and enlightened while the droopy eyelids seemed sleepy and about to close any time, extremely cute. Displaying the colors of the autumn grain harvest, their golden fur must surely be soft and fluffy to the touch. There were also the spots distributed evenly across their fur, short stubby tails, exquisite little hooves... Ahhh....
"I-I really wanna ride one..."
"Hold on! I was just about to agree with you, but that thought never occurred to me!"
"Why? Judging from size, I think it'll work unexpectedly well."
"It's not a matter of size!"
"Then what's the matter!?"
Things would be so much easier if he could say directly: "it's a certain very simple matter of mass," but Haruaki did not want to suffer injuries on the very first day of the school excursion. His gaze wavering, Haruaki said:
"Ah! ...That's right, I remember there's a rule here that the deer in the park are now allowed to be ridden. Class Rep mentioned just now that the deer are considered sacred creatures here."
"Muu. If there's a rule, it can't be helped."
"That's right, at most you can only feed them reverently. Like with those."
Haruaki used his thumb to point at a simple vendor stall set up using just a parasol and a table. When Fear saw the words written at the stall, her face changed all of a sudden.
"Oh right, there's that kind of thing as well."
"Yes. Just feed a few to the deer to commemorate."
"How can you guys act so casual...!? Unbelievable! As much as I seek rare varieties of rice crackers, even I falter at the sight of these rice crackers! But as the rice cracker master, I can't ignore them either... This is such a struggle!"
Fear clenched her fists and seemed to be panting in great suffering. She definitely must have misunderstood.
"...Let me clarify. It's not called that because deer meat was added. It's just rice crackers for feeding deer."
"What are you talking about? Th-That's so misleading! For sure, I thought you were going to say: 'Let the deer eat those rice crackers and force them to cannibalize their own kind! Wahaha!' That kind of inhumane and atrocious suggestion!"
"How could I possibly suggest what you described!?"
"Then in order to stop Akki who almost fell to the dark side, I, Kana, shall be devoured by dream-like dark forces instead... That'll be the back story, so let's go let's go! Hehehe, prepare yourselves, little deer, I shall stuff your stomachs to their fill, turning you all into big fat deer! And you'll get seconds! Even if you scream and cry, I shall not have mercy on you—!"
The members of the group approached the vendor one after another another. After taking out her purse, Konoha looked at the vendor apologetically.
"Excuse me... I don't have any change on me, will it be possible to get change...?"
"If possible, I hope you won't pay with large bills."
"Oh! K-Konoha-san, I have a lot of change that I want to spend right now! I-If you don't mind, allow this humble Hakuto Taizou to pay for you!"
"Although I really feel bad about this... I'm sorry, could you lend me some change?"
"Of course, gladly!"
Through the corner of his eye, Haruaki saw Taizou getting greatly excited and emotional. In any case, everyone bought deer crackers successfully and approached the herd of deer—More accurately, because the deer were used to being fed already, the instant they bought deer crackers, several deer already approached them on their own.
"Ohhhhh, it's eating! It's eating the deer crackers! Comrades!"
"Fear-kun, be careful so that your hand doesn't get bitten."
"Yeah—Although their eyes are so round, it's a bit scary when they show the whites of their eyes when focusing too much on eating..."
Haruaki whispered to the deer that was engrossed in eating deer crackers. Although Fear would also eat rice crackers fervently, at least her eyes never rolled up all the way.
"The second piece? You want a second piece? You greedy fellow!" Kana handed out a second piece just as she described. At this moment, Haruaki suddenly noticed Fear freezing.
She was staring intently at the second rice cracker she had taken out to follow Kana's suit. Then suddenly—
She bit down. Crunch crunch, she chewed.
"Y-You really did it! To be honest, I was expecting you to do so all along!"
"Muumuu, it's nothing special. Completely tasteless."
"Of course. That's because it's not meant for human consumption in the first place."
"I believe that food is better the tastier it is, no exceptions! This is even more true for rice crackers standing at the pinnacle of food! This is my belief as the rice cracker master... Hence here's my reverse thinking! If I feed these deer the carefully selected rice crackers I've brought, they might end up dancing in joy from the excellent taste! Very well, in order to reward them for welcoming me with their cute appearances, I'll spare at least a piece..."
"Slow down and listen to others. Deer crackers are unflavored because deer cannot ingest too much salt. Feeding them rice crackers meant for humans would cause problems instead. Stop it right now."
Fear pouted, of course. But her mood soon recovered after she successfully seized an opportunity to stroke the soft fur of a deer's head. Thank goodness her temperament was this simple.
The group decided to move on once their deer crackers were almost all fed to the deer. Passing through the Great Southern Gates, they arrived at the central gate. "That gate was big enough already but why are the gates here increasingly bigger! Are there giants to pass through?" Fear kept expressing surprise towards the giant size of the gates.
From the central gate, they followed a rectangular C-shaped corridor and reached the reception area for entering the Great Buddha Hall. After passing through the reception area, they entered a space exhibiting a great sense of layering. Standing upright on a flat, green area was a giant wooden structure. Simply looking up to view the building filled the viewer with great awe for its grandeur.
Then mounting the stone steps to finally reach the building's interior—
Haruaki expected an exclamation of "So big—!" to reverberate through this entire space for sure. However, Fear remained very quiet instead. Haruaki glanced at her, only to see Fear's mouth gaping open while she was looking up towards the owner of this building—namely, the massive Buddha statue venerated here, bearing a classical smile of calmness on its face. Apparently, its excessively giant size had ended up breaking Fear's surprise meter instead.
"Uwah... Quite astounding. This is truly frighteningly huge..."
"Indeed, the feeling is very different when viewed in person. I wonder how many Fear-kuns it would be equivalent to?"
"The answer would depend on whether you're measuring in terms of height or weight."
"Damn you, Cow Tits, shut up! It should be measured in terms of your excess volume! How enviable, simply two or three of you would be enough to cover its entire volume. As expected of cow udders that expand when soaked in water, increasing to an excessive and useless degree!"
"Nothing of that sort! Why are you treating me as wakame seaweed!?"
"Nyah, everyone is so friendly as usual... Eh, where's Taichii?"
Kana suddenly started looking around. For some reason, a voice came from below.
"Help! Haruaki, help! I'm stuck—!"
Upon further examination, Taizou was stuck inside a pillar, struggling desperately with only one arm visible.
"What happened? Did he run over to torture himself? I never knew that Taizou had that kind of special preference."
"It's said that passing through the hole at the base of this pillar will bring good luck... It's supposedly because the hole's size is the same as one of the Buddha's nostrils. But anyway, it's usually much younger children who attempt to squeeze through."
"Fufu, because I really can't suppress my urge to seek happiness..."
"Now isn't the time for acting cool. Anyway, we have to pull you out quickly. Come and help, Fear."
Haruaki and Fear grabbed Taizou's arm and pulled, freeing him from the pillar. Definitely not small, Taizou was actually quite large in build. Attempting the challenge was sheer recklessness.
"Oh my oh my, thank you very much... Oh Fear-chan, what's up?"
"Specifically, what does this good luck refer to?"
"Hmm... Clarity of mind, success in love, free of disease and disaster! Basically summed up as achieving happiness! I'm not too sure myself but the Great Buddha is surely omnipotent and omniscient, definitely bringing me great luck!"
"Hmm... Achieving happiness... Really? Okay, since it doesn't hurt to try, I'll make an attempt too!"
Fear knelt down before the hole in the pillar. Since her build was much more petite than Taizou's, she should be able to fit through given some effort. Standing behind her, Haruaki smiled and watched Fear. With a vigorous shout, Fear stuffed her head into the hole, squirming through with her silver hair. Still outside the hole, her bottom moved up, exposing a certain something under her skirt—
Before Haruaki could turn his gaze away, he already felt hands on his shoulders.
Stiffly, he looked right. Standing with a smile was Kirika. Looking left, he found Konoha standing there with a smile. Furthermore, Konoha was also using her other hand to grab Taizou's right shoulder. Taizou's left shoulder was caught by the smiling Kana. This situation looked totally new—a sense of totally new despair.
Haruaki already knew what was going to happen next so he remained silent. In contrast, Taizou whined nonsensically:
"Ooh... Oh... I-It's not what it looks like, hold on, this is just an unfortunate accident. But since my shoulder's caught, does this mean I'll receive punishment from Konoha-san next? A rare chance for direct skin contact, wow! I never expected the effects of passing through the pillar to arrive immediately, thank you, Great Buddha—!"
What can I say? —Haruaki could not help but feel impressed with Taizou. This guy really was good at enduring a beating.
After a basic tour of the sights in the surroundings of the Great Buddha, they returned to the gathering place or in other words, in front of the central gate. Since there was still some time remaining, Haruaki decided to make a visit to the washroom while Fear and the others started playing with the deer again.
After walking for a while, he found the public washrooms. Mixed among the tourists and fellow Taishyuu High students on the excursion, he finished his business. Then after exiting the washroom—
He witnessed a strange scene.
Or rather, Haruaki initially mistook someone for Fear.
To be honest, the only similarity was probably their mini-sized height, but apart from that, they were completely different in both appearance and temperament. After thinking calmly, Haruaki decided there was absolutely no characteristic that could be lead to misidentification, however—
Although the mistaken impression only lasted for an instant, there was only one reason why he would mistake the person for Fear.
Namely, that person was currently riding on a deer's back.
Haruaki never expected anyone apart from Fear to possibly do it—or rather, actually do something like this.
Presumably because it was extremely rare for humans to ride them, the deer was dashing madly at full speed in utter panic, running straight for Haruaki. Just as he heard the girl give off a brief "Ah" from atop the deer—
Naturally, Haruaki was unable to evade because things were happening too suddenly. Struck by an impact on his side, Haruaki was knocked flat on the ground. Despite the soft fur on the deer's body, a violent collision was still quite painful. Next came a second impact. Falling from above, a certain object's weight pressed down on Haruaki, instantly forcing the air out of his lungs. Despite his great suffering, Haruaki still forced his eyes slightly open in an attempt to confirm the situation—
Then their eyes met.
Looking up while lying flat on the ground, he saw the girl that was on top of his chest. More accurately, the two of them were currently in a state that could be described as an embrace. Due to cushioning the girl's fall with his own body, he had ended up protecting the girl, preventing her from getting hurt. That should be considered a good thing. Nevertheless, Haruaki did not have any thoughts to spare on calmly pondering this matter. Instead, he became aware that his right palm was undeniably pressed against the girl's chest right now, causing him great anxiety. As for why he had not noticed earlier, how should one put it...? It was because her bust was quite flat, the same type as Fear's.
"Oh, wah! Sorry!"
Haruaki frantically pulled his hand away and the girl slowly got up, resulting in a posture of sitting on Haruaki's chest.
The girl was dressed in an outfit that was as frilly as a doll's but also resembled a kimono as well. Haruaki recalled from a fashion feature on television that mentioned the term "Wa Lolita", which was probably what style this girl's clothing was. Worn on her feet were retro-style boots. The short skirt on top of his chest felt quite soft in texture. Her white thighs appeared in a corner of his field of vision, forcing Haruaki to understand that he must absolutely forbid his gaze from shifting any further down.
The girl's slightly long hair was curled and quite puffy. Her downward gazing eyes were the type to exhibit a slight amount of visible white between the iris and the lower eyelid. Probably because of that, her gaze seemed quite fierce and vicious. But overall, the impression she gave off was that of a cute girl in addition to being scary, like a solitary tiger or a proud stray cat of high pedigree.
"A-Are you okay? Did you get hurt? If you're unhurt, I hope you can get off from me sooner—"
"! ...This... What a blunder..."
As soon as the girl saw Haruaki, she stared wide-eyed as though in surprise and whispered. Haruaki could catch a faint glimpse of her cute little fangs. Blunder? Just as Haruaki heard those words, the girl stood up without hesitation. Clearly Haruaki was still looking up at her from below. Hence, she ended up standing astride Haruaki's face as soon as she stood up. How careless.
Haruaki reflexively closed his eyes and tried his best to drive away the memory of the white color he witnessed beneath the skirt. During this time, he heard noises.
Rustle. Thud thud. Patter.
Haruaki opened his eyes in trepidation. Only after confirming that the girl had already moved away did he sit up and survey his surroundings. He originally thought that the girl would have said something at least, having experienced a collision and accidentally getting groped in the chest, but all he saw was the girl receding into the distance as she departed silently as though escaping.
"What's with her...?"
As the Lolita outfit's Japanese-style patterns disappeared out of view, Haruaki was left whispering in puzzlement without moving from his position.
Incomprehensible. All he knew was—Indeed.
Deer's backs must not be ridden, just as expected.
The deer from just now was snorting, giving off airs that seemed to be saying "I transported her here, dude, so pay up now" while nudging its snout repeatedly against Haruaki's back.
She was playing with the toy in her hands.
A mask. A clip-shaped fastener was attached to the edge of the mask next to an eye, connected to a short wire extending outwards. On the other end of the wire, a slim device resembling a pocket calculator was shaking nonstop.
This was a mechanism for connecting an Indulgence Disk.
Capable of simply lessening a curse without degrading a tool's cursed abilities (but for some reason, the effects were different for Fear-in-Cube alone), Indulgence Disks were undeniably useful. However, this effect did not come about through mere proximity alone. Due to requiring the installation of this kind of mechanism, she had obtained an Indulgence Disk that happened to be in the possession of one of the «High Singles» through an open duel, fair and square, then forced a Draconian technician to create one of those devices.
It was said that the Knights Dominion would install a complicated suicide mechanism known as «Euthanasia» onto this type of connecting device. But since all she needed was the transmission of the Indulgence Disk's effects, it was completed in roughly a month.
"In terms of results, this is still not enough."
This was the conclusion she had reached after undergoing many experimental trials that also served as training.
Hence, she made this decision.
"Still not enough?"
The one asking was another person who stood ready by her side, having remained silent until now. One who could be considered a part of her.
"Precisely. Although it's just a feeling."
"Then what do you intend to do?"
"Nothing changes. More preparation and more training."
"Simple to the extreme. Add another Indulgence Disk. When ordering the creation of this device, I already demanded that this level of capability expansion must be included."
"Understood. Have you located one?"
Obtaining another one from within the Draconians would probably pose a challenge. The previous Indulgence Disk was only obtained because that particular member of the Draconians happened to be on Dragon Island. But she had already investigated. There was no one else in possession of an Indulgence Disk at the time among the members who could be contacted immediately. In other words, even if news were to arrive about a certain Draconian obtaining an Indulgence Disk, finding the person would surely take a lot of time. The Draconians were essentially willing to head to anywhere on the planet so long as they could fight strong foes. Even fighting man-eating crocodiles in the interior of the Amazon rainforest would not be strange.
Hence, she turned to other avenues to search for the locations of other Indulgence Disks.
"I have contacted the intelligence network just now. Someone has recently gotten hold of an Indulgence Disk. A black market 'supplier'."
"Where is that person?"
"Supposedly in the western part of this country."
Given this information alone, nothing more needed to be said regarding the next course of action.
Filled with loyalty and sincerity, a pair of eyes looked towards her.
"As your subordinate, I will assist."
"Of course. Before the opportunity arrives, I cannot take action. Hence, you are the lead actor instead."
"The specific location?"
As yet unknown. However, she believed that the chance to discover the person's location would come naturally. Considering reasons for the 'supplier' to visit, it was most likely related to Fear-in-Cube's faction that they were monitoring closely. In that case, something was sure to happen as long as they continued to observe Fear-in-Cube and the others.
"Conclusion—maintain a distance, neither too far nor too near, and observe without taking action for now."
The reply seemed slightly lacking in vigor. Then the other person also asked: "Then I shall standby for now currently?"
"You will be required to mobilize once the location of the 'supplier' is known. Hence, you may rest and recover readiness while on standby. The upcoming location is a tourist destination... It is said that Nara Park is extremely vast and also has deer residing inside. As long as you are cautious, you may amuse yourself a little to serve as entertainment."
"Yes... Deer... Amuse..."
Caring for a subordinate's mental condition was part of a superior's duties. Precisely because there were difficult tasks ahead, proper rest was required beforehand so that maximum power could be brought out when the time came.
"There is no need for you to worry. Go ahead and have fun—Yes, to think that deer could be ridden, this does look like an interesting place."
Naturally, she was only joking.
Ueno Kirika was very dispirited.
The first day was about to end on this extremely precious and irreplaceable school excursion. Strictly speaking, the day had yet to actually end, but for the majority of Japanese people, taking a bath was considered the final activity of the day. Almost about to end was virtually certain.
(...This is absolutely terrible.)
Inside the small bathtub of her hotel room's bathroom, hot water was gushing out of the shower, splashing against a bondage suit of black leather.
It's that time of the month for me, so I won't be going—Together with Kana who believed in this lie, Fear and the others had headed over to the large public bath with apologetic expressions on their faces. Kirika felt bad for making them worry about her. If Kirika were not rooming with these girls, she would surely be scared and on edge all the time in this situation surrounded by classmates everywhere, unable to take a shower or a bath, even inside her room, even with the bathroom door locked.
However, she was not absolutely not depressed because of this situation at hand. Ever since a long time ago, she had already resigned herself to accept this cursed and abnormal outfit to accompany her for the rest of her life. By this point, she could not possibly feel inconvenienced or dissatisfied.
"Ooh, so bad..."
This time, a bitter moan was uttered from her mouth. She recalled what had happened on the trip so far.
After touring Nara Park, they had taken a bus to reach Kyoto. Then they had arrived at this hotel that was going to serve as their base of operations for the remainder of the school excursion. After an especially grand and luxurious dinner, it was now bath time. During this whole day—
"We almost... didn't get to speak at all...!"
Kirika smacked her forehead against the bathroom wall with a thud then held still, allowing the hot water from the fixed showerhead to flow across her back.
Putting aside what happened on the bullet train because it was an accident, during ordinary times apart from that, during the time known as the school excursion—She almost never had a chance to speak to him.
Of course, it was not entirely zero. They had chatted and laughed together as usual, making eye contact. She had also stared at the profile of his face on her own.
In spite of that, she still felt dissatisfied—
Selfish, self-centered and egoistic.
The level of happiness that she subconsciously desired, the target value she had subconsciously set was not met.
Understanding her own greed, she also believed it was only natural. She was serious about her feelings. She had also prepared herself for battle. Then in other words, the issue was—
"A-Am I being too self-conscious...?"
A certain matter kept occupying her mind.
On the bullet train, on the bus, in Nara Park, in the hotel, at the dinner table. Even before embarking on this school excursion, inside the classroom's restless atmosphere, even on the way to and from school.
Girls were whispering discreetly. In order to avoid letting boys overhear, girls were whispering in one another's ears like little children.
—School excursions are so romantic. You can grow close all of a sudden. After all, it's a restless state different from usual. I've heard that couples result every year from the trip. It's not weird at all. After all, there's a liberating feeling, the boys know it very well too. During the school excursion, defenses are zero. Seize this only chance. Only chance for what? A confession of course. After much thinking, I think chances are highest during the school excursion. Since you have to confess eventually, why not do it now—
Kirika felt something boiling and scalding overflow from the depths of her heart. Her face had turned even hotter than the bath water. Like holding down a pressure cooker's lid, she pressed her forehead firmly against the bathroom wall, even performing headbutts repeatedly.
The conversation between unknown girls was not directed towards her of course. Absolutely not eavesdropping, the voices had simply flowed into her ears naturally. But because of that, an element of truth existed. A truth shared in common by the creatures known as ordinary high school girls—Right?
The topic of school excursions naturally led to confessions. Chances of success were highest during this occasion. Really? Is that really true? Will it be too impetuous? No, it won't. This is a good chance. Because I've already decided. Given an opportunity, I can't welcome it more. But I'm completely unable to make opportunities. Excessive self-awareness is making me shy and my movements stiff. This isn't working.
"That's right, I need to be more ordinary, more ordinary... Just like usual. No, if it's possible to attack, of course I should work hard and attack. After all, I can't be nervous when the time comes, arghhh, absolutely ridiculous—"
Kirika stopped headbutting and spoke quietly as though talking to herself.
In any case, she must not waste the prime opportunity presented by this school excursion. Right now, she had to focus her willpower and make the most of this opportunity as much as she was able to.
"Besides, it hasn't ended yet. Even the first day hasn't ended yet. It's simply just about to end. That's right, Ueno Kirika, do your best—"
But she knew that this conclusion was simply delaying the greatest challenge.
In the end, was she going to be able to achieve her ultimate goal? If she achieved it... What would happen? Supposing it was a most happy future, then what?
She felt a wave of pain in the depths of her body. A pain accompanied by a different temperature from before. Her face collapsed, unable to return to normal, almost drooling.
"Ah! ...N-No no!"
Simply from the vague shadow projected on the bathroom's plastic wall, she knew that her current expression was very dangerous and must absolutely not be seen by others. By the way, what kind of sound was "heha"...! Truly and absolutely ridiculous!
"A-After a bath, there's still chance for contact. I just have to ambush him in the lobby, claiming to be buying juice! Ah, this expression cannot be shown to others. Ueno Kirika... H-Hurry and control your emotions...!"
She began to hammer her forehead against the wall again. In order to hide her embarrassment as well as to warn herself.
It looked like she still needed some time before calming down completely. But at least, she did not need to worry about hitting her head and bleeding all over the place.
Naturally, what she meant was that in the event that she bled, it would heal immediately.
"Woah—! Open-air baths... really are great—!"
Fear leaned her back against a moist rock and stretched while speaking. Feeling the cool breeze against her upper body while the lower half was bathed in steaming hot water. The experience felt quite new and refreshing, unlike a usual bath.
"...If only Kirika could join us... I think she's looking a bit strange today. I'm sure she'll be re-energized if she could get a dip in this lovely hot water."
"It can't be helped since it's that time of the month for her... Besides, ever since Year 1, Kirika-chan has always been afraid of changing in front of others."
Fear was originally murmuring to herself but Kana apparently overheard. She also proceeded to soak herself in the hot water as well.
"So this is your first time trying a Japanese open-air bath, Fear-chan?"
"Of course it's my first time! It feels so liberating, a bit different in style from public baths... It's a very splendid zone!"
Fear came to a sudden realization after answering and started to examine Kana intently. Kana placed her towel on her head, made a strange "oho—" sound, then leaned next to Fear, dipping herself chin deep into the water.
"Speaking of first times—Kana, this is also my first time having a bath together with you. Although I've seen you changing before, after confirming directly with my own eyes... Mmmhmm. I knew it. Not an enemy but not an ally either. No, we of the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance will reach that level eventually, so you can be considered a future ally."
"I don't quite get what you're saying, but I can vaguely understand! Faced with an excessively powerful enemy, everyone needs to unite and find a way to defeat her!"
"That's right, that's right! Gwah—While we're talking, the rude planet of meat has descended! This impact will cause the healing hot water to overflow!"
"Heeee! I-I've caught sight of something astounding! ...It's floating! The rumors from the village turn out to be true! Amen amen!"
"Y-You two are making a big deal out of nothing! Also, Miyama-san, please stop worshiping me!"
Accompanied by evil sound effects of squishing—at least in Fear's mind—Konoha also lowered herself into the water of the open-air bath.
Fear and Kana were staring intently to observe the enemy forces. Although Fear was used to the sight already, when competing with Konoha directly in a naked state, the difference in levels was too great. Those were totally deadly weapons, things that should not exist in this world no matter how one reasoned. She was going to be killed. No, simply by unveiling these things, people must have died in the past. Because in fact, Kana was on the verge of death.
"Ahwuwu... Fear-chan, what should I do with this miserable feeling!? This despair from being forced to admit to a difference in femininity! As much as I'd like to try touching them, I think it'll deal me an even greater blow!"
"Calm down, you can surely reverse the situation by pouring our righteous anger into your hands when touching. They will be blown away, thus restoring balance and equality to all women in the world... This creation myth shall start now! I'll be in charge of the creature on one side so let's split the burden by half, let's kill one each!"
"P-Please stop this right now, it's too embarrassing! Everyone is here too!"
Konoha was wrapping her arms around her breasts and retreating to the depths of the bath, trying to escape from Fear and Kana's claws of evil. "Don't think you can escape!" Just as the two girls approached like two crocodiles locking onto prey—
In the corners of their eyes, they caught sight of something brown appearing amidst the white steam. "Hmm?" The three girls turned to look.
Un Izoey was currently standing before the bath, staring sharply. She kept turning her head to look left and right. As soon as she noticed Fear and the girls dipped in the hot water, she widened her eyes in surprise, staring at them intently to confirm if there was anything unusual. She was probably looking out for signs of people vomiting blood or suffering so much they had difficulty breathing. Having visited a public bath together with Un Izoey once in the past, Fear had a basic idea. Back then, Un Izoey had acted the same way. Her basic impression of "steaming pools" was quite different from the leisurely image harbored by the average Japanese person. If one were to ask her "what single word would you associate with this?" Rather than "hotspring" or "bath," she would most likely answer only a single word—"death."
"...Just to clarify, this is different from a certain cave in your homeland."
"Yes. This is not a spring of demons fuming with poisonous gas, so relax and have a dip."
Probably due to listening to Fear and Konoha or confirming with her own eyes that nothing was unusual, Un Izoey breathed out.
"I hear you. Of course I know, but I insist on my insistence to check first, after all, you only have one life to die. So..."
Un Izoey extended her dark-skinned legs into the bath water as though mustering her resolve then sat down next to Fear's group. Due to her posture with legs wide apart with one knee drawn up, the sight would have been quite frightening were it not for the slight murkiness of the hot water. She actually placed her towel on her head as instructed by Fear and the others earlier. With her arm leaning against her drawn-up knee, her overall posture was like a middle-aged man's.
"Izo-chan is really so cool... An athletic build without any excess fat at all, slim and trim, I admire you so much!"
Fear could understand what Kana was talking about. She was also stealing glances at Un Izoey's body—a body covered with supple muscles yet with slender shoulders and long, slim legs. However, Fear could not accept the pair of breasts that were equivalent to enemy forces. A mid-level boss of a different color.
"Hey hey, I've already asked many times, but do you wanna join the swimming club?"
"I am good at holding my breath but not skilled at swimming fast. No matter how fast I swim, I cannot win against sukunaki, besides, catching them needs patience not speed..."
While listening inattentively to their conversation, Fear discovered that someone new had entered the bath without them noticing. More accurately, the number of new enemies has increased again. However, she was not a student.
"Excuse me. I believe that I should make good use of this opportunity. Having contact with students is a good thing and should contribute to the learning space of the classroom henceforth, resulting in greater harmony."
"Oh it's you, Sensei."
Kaidou. With a serious expression and eyes closed, her face was stiff while she crossed her arms. However, this did not mean she was in a bad mood. Instead, she breathed out slowly in enjoyment.
"Is Sagisaki-sensei coming together with you?"
Hearing Konoha's question, Kaidou opened her eyes slightly and answered:
"She already collapsed from exhaustion and is resting in her room."
"Ah... She looked quite tired on the bus to Kyoto. Does she get motion sickness easily?"
"Cow Tits, I don't think that's the only reason. I only caught a glimpse, but she was already exhausted and walking unsteadily back in Nara Park. She probably lacks basic stamina."
"Yes. I remember too. I also saw a number of tourists fainting in the park and sent to the hospital. It was probably heat stroke. People often get too excited and emotional at tourist spots, so you should all take care."
Kaidou gave advice that was extremely in a teacher's style. In sync with her voice, the two bulges wobbled while resting on her crossed arms. This was the full form of the objects that were almost spilling out of the dangerous swimsuit last time when they visited a water park.
Probably intimidated by their presence, Kana was attracted over.
"Ahhh... Sensei! What an adult body...!"
"You are Miyama, I see. What is the matter?"
"What 'what is the matter'!? I am very interested in that part of your body, Sensei! Because my difference with Konoha-chan is a work in progress, I can pretend to ignore it, but since you're an adult, Sensei, it represents the future! A future filled with hope! Maybe many years from now, I might turn out like this... Something like that!"
"Oh...? I do not quite understand, but if you are interested, be my guest."
Kaidou unfolded her arms, straightened her back and presented that completely unguarded towards Kana, then said:
"Do as you wish."
Fear had almost forgotten, but this was the kind of person Kaidou was. Missing common sense in certain areas, or had Kaidou completely forgotten the sense of shame that everyone was supposed to have?
"Eh? No, umm... No way, are you serious...? But if the teacher says go ahead, it'd be rude if I don't comply, right...? Cough cough. Uh, well then, please excuse the unworthy Miyama Kana."
She grabbed them. Grope. Grope.
"Mmm... Hu, ha."
"What's this—such elasticity... So soft..."
"...By the way, a dip in a hot bath is really splendid... I also... nnn! It has been a long time... an open-air bath... Ah."
Konoha narrowed her eyes while watching this scene and murmured:
"Uh... Sensei, do you happen to have some kind of personal principle where you insist on speaking normally while being groped...? It looks almost like some kind of single-player punishment game."
"Hmm, why is Kana groping with such focus as well...? What a mystery."
Fear also whispered quietly then suddenly realized—
Kana was completely immersed in her task. Perhaps there was some kind of secret there. Perhaps unlike Cow Tits' boobs which were merely cow udders, some kind of profound evolutionary secret hidden might be hidden there. Perhaps Kana was close to mastering that secret. In that case, as the leader of the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance, she must not miss out on this excellent opportunity...
Hence, Fear was drawn over to Kaidou as well, making her way there unsteadily. The instant just as she was about to reach out—
"There are perverts here."
"Hyoh? Oh, I accidentally lost myself there... Sensei, thank you very much!"
"Hmm... Cough. Hmm. If there is anything you still do not understand, feel free to come again."
A voice of absolute zero temperature prompted Kana and Fear to regain their sanity. Fear turned her head to look.
"Hinata, I have a suggestion. Let us use the indoor bath instead, because perverted elements seem to be surging forth nonstop here."
"I don't really understand, but we're already here! It's a rare chance so we really should take a dip in the open-air bath... Ah! Please don't turn around suddenly, I can't see anything after taking off my glasses! I'll fall and die. I can only rely on you, Sakuramairi-san!"
"Hyah! I-I get it, so stop clinging to me! Seriously, you can clearly do as that bespectacled girl over there and enter the bath with your glasses..."
Shiraho grumbled while entering the bath with Hinata who was holding her waist.
"What are you looking at? I'll slaughter you!"
"No I was just thinking that it's rare to see you naked—Hmm..."
Quite rare indeed. Shiraho turned her gaze away in embarrassment and even used Hinata as a shield, how underhanded. Immersed in the hot bath water, it was still faintly visible. Shiraho's naked body. Portions of skin never seen before. Wow, so the curves there turned out to be like this. So there was a mole at that kind of spot.
"Hey Fear-chan, my resentment towards the gods' unfairness seems to be endless today—Too unfair. With a flawlessly beautiful face already, what's up with this perfect figure as well...?"
"There's no point complaining to me. But I do know that Shiraho's naked body is very rare and highly valuable. If you feel like doing anything, you'd be better do it now because her rarity is probably even higher than the teacher's."
"Th-Then I'll have to try even harder than when when doing the teacher's! May I? May I grope and rub my face against Shiraho-chan's that to absorb the essence!? Oh Kana-san, you're suddenly getting so excited!"
"Of course you may not! I knew it, the acquaintances of that perverted male rapist are all perverts themselves!"
"Then going by what you've said, you're a pervert as well."
"! ...Whatever. Hinata, please serve as my shield more faithfully. In times like these, your personality as an ordinary person is the most reliable. Okay, hurry and say something to these perverts now."
"Hmm—Sakuramairi-san's essence is totally mine."
"Hold on! Why did your role suddenly change!?"
While the girls were in a clamor—
"You girls. It is fine that you wish to deepen relationships between one another, but this is getting too noisy. Please enjoy the bath more quietly. You ought to silently close your eyes, experience the warmth, savor the cool breeze, smell the steam—I do believe that this is the proper method to enjoy an open-air bath."
Being the one who allowed a student to grope your breasts, you have no right to say that. Surely everyone was thinking that, but no one voiced their thoughts.
Naturally, this was because Kaidou had grabbed her metal shovel from the side of the bath matter-of-factly.
"Kana, don't worry."
As Kana's face twitched, Fear reassured her. Because Fear had asked in the past already.
"I heard that it's waterproof."
Meanwhile, Haruaki and the other boys were also enjoying an open-air bath. Naturally, things were not as coincidental as depicted in manga with a large hole in the partitioning near the top. Besides, the male bath was not connected directly to the female bath in the first place. However—due to the water source location, it was indeed true that the two baths were in close proximity and both open-air baths offered views of the same sky above. Consequently, it was possible to hear voices from the female bath if the girls were noisy. At the same time, those present on this side were all extremely ordinary, healthy high school boys. Were the male and female open-air baths actually separated by crude partitioning like those depicted in manga, these boys would surely declare with serious looks on their faces: "Not climbing up there would be rude instead!" Then putting their thoughts into action, they would proceed to push over the partitioning and create a huge commotion.
As a result, all the boys were glaring at Haruaki.
"W-Why!? What's with you guys?"
"How should I put this... I really can't accept it..."
"Today's resentment towards the gods' unfairness is truly endless, Miyama is right. Arghh, even if it's the voice of that shorty Miyama, as soon as I'm reminded that she's currently completely naked, I feel... I feel..."
"Haruaki, can you understand? How we yearn and thirst for contact with girls every single day? Even if they didn't do anything, images of Fear-chan groping Konoha-san's b-b-b-b-breasts still surface uncontrollably! ...Wee! Hic!"
While speaking, Taizou picked up a bottle from a tray and took a gulp. Although he burped, this was not beer but actually cola that Taizou and the boys had brought in without permission, saying they wanted to experience the mood.
"So how did things turn to glaring at me...?"
"Because we discovered now! Contact with girls! Sounds of kyah kyah ufufu! These heart pounding experiences that we desire so very much right now to savor carefully, yet there's an extremely enviable guy here who's already digested all such events into ordinary everyday life!"
"That's right! There's a withered old bastard here who's leisurely sitting back in contentment, the only one who's completely unexcited about noises made by completely naked girls!"
"So just one look at him and I suddenly realized how fortunate the life this guy enjoys on a daily basis! A lucky bastard that's lighting fires of wrath at this point in time!"
"Uh, even if you guys say that..."
"See! You're brushing the matter aside in a matter-of-fact manner again! Damn you! Boss! Another drink!" Saying that, the classmates, Animori and Murasawa, began to take swigs of cola from the tray. Because Taizou handed the last bottle of cola to Haruaki, Haruaki took it, thanked him: "Oh thanks" and started drinking cola as well. Taizou was a true friend indeed, preparing Haruaki's share without needing him to say anything beforehand—Just as Haruaki was thinking that...
"...You drank it, right? I didn't say it was for free, you know? You drank it, right?"
"Pfffft! ...C-Cough! W-What?"
Taizou's eyes glimmered slyly while he was speaking. Animori and Murasawa also chimed in:
"Yachi, pay the price. Perfect timing. Could you tell us the answers we've been itching to find out for the longest time—having known you from before, Taizou might know already—but we only met you after entering high school. Related to our grievances just now, we are very interested in your daily life!"
"That's right! To think you can live under the same roof with Fear-chan and the others... How many heart pounding events actually happen each day? If it's on the level of twice or more a day, I'm gonna start drafting plans for a perfect crime right now!"
"H-How could something like that possibly happen!?"
To be honest, the true answer was that even if events of that sort happened, Haruaki would try to forget them as quickly as possible so they were impossible to count. However, there existed instants when lying was permissible—Probably, if to protect his own life and avoid falling victim to the perfect crime.
"Uh—Well, how do you guys handle the laundry? Will things that shine golden and dazzling in our eyes fall to the floor on occasion, or when drying the laundry..."
"Lemme think... The laundry in the changing area is separated into two baskets to begin with. One of them being a domain where I absolutely never trespass. Furthermore, it has a lid on top so the contents cannot be seen. Konoha and Kuroe are exclusively responsible for washing that basket's laundry, which is then hung to dry at the exclusive drying area on the accessory dwelling's second floor, so I don't see anything throughout the entire process..."
"But there must be once or twice when clothing hung out to dry was blown down by the wind."
"No, like I said, the girls are very careful in this area..."
But no matter how careful, it was impossible to prevent all accidents—Nevertheless, Haruaki benevolently covered it up with white lies.
For quite a while, Haruaki tried his best to continue explaining his daily life: "Extremely ordinary, there's nothing particularly interesting. Those things you imagine don't actually happen." Finally he managed to quell the boys' curiosity as spectators. But during a school excursion, a space like the male bath intrinsically harbored a unique type of exciting atmosphere that was impossible to dispel completely. Taizou lowered his voice and said:
"By the way, Haruaki, you should be more aware of how blessed you are."
Right, Kuroe had also said something similar during the school beauty pageant. Haruaki recalled.
"That's right, that's right. The girls surrounding you are all so high in quality. Who knows how many boys want to approach them... But we are quite lucky to be classmates with them too."
"To the point that there are even people who want us to help make introductions just because we're in the same class. Fear-chan is so glittering and extremely petite, that's so cute. She keeps moving about like a small animal and looks so full of energy and capable of charging fearlessly ahead any time."
The boys proceeded to rate the rest of the girls:
Konoha was a goddess, her smiling face full of tender love while her figure was extremely pleasing to the eye. Kirika was both serious-minded and pretty, the type of girl who would be extremely loyal and devoted once she became smitten with someone. Also, the fact that she prepared her own lunchbox every day was an unexpected bonus, implying great cooking and domestic skills. Shiraho needed no mentioning at all, possessing beauty of the highest pinnacle while her haughtiness itself was also quite captivating. Un Izoey's bizarre, exotic, foreign flair was also great, instilling a desire to teach her many things as though facing a blank slate. Furthermore, Haruaki's luck with women outside of the class was also quite unfair. Not only were there the secretary and maid of the superintendent's office but also Kuroe at home—
Smiling while watching Taizou and the boys discuss the girls, Haruaki experienced quite unbelievable feelings. These were extremely complicated feelings—a certain type of feelings resembling anxiety, shyness, embarrassment, pride, uneasiness, superiority, displeasure, bliss, loneliness, all-encompassing yet not entirely inclusive, mixed with all sorts of emotions.
Due to feeling an unbearable itch in the very depths of his heart, Haruaki stopped thinking, resting his back against the bath's edge while leaning his head back to look upwards.
The carefree steam was drifting into the vast sky overhead.
Lingering in his heart was merely the vacuous question of whether Fear and the girls were currently watching the same sky.
After a bath—
Seeing the sight before him, Haruaki decided he would rather die than mention it to others.
"Ah! ...Hoo... Ooh... That kind of place... My confession: the fact that this is a first experience—Ah! Hoo! M-Mmm a-a-ahhh—"
"It feels that nice?"
"My answer: yes... No, there's still not enough evidence to judge, it's just that this feeling is very unknown—A-Ah!"
"This is a device invented only for the purpose of bringing pleasure to people. So don't be shy and embrace it with open arms. Just close your eyes, like what I'm doing... Ahhh, mmm, as expected, I find it the more forceful the better."
"What, if this force is continued... I-It seems like I'm about to break... Ahhh... Ahhhhhhh—"
Un Izoey had her four limbs extended straight, all the way to the tips of her fingers and toes, her skin was bright red, her hair was scattered loosely, even drool seemed to be dripping slightly. Her entire body was trembling as though saying she could withstand no longer.
...Sitting on a massage chair.
She was probably quite ticklish. Or perhaps the experience of getting gripped and massaged by a machine—actually quite a strange experience on further thought—was intrinsically tugging away at her heartstrings. As a side note, the person replying to her was Kaidou-sensei who was lying on the neighboring massage chair. The teacher was dressed in a bathrobe while Un Izoey was wearing a bathrobe over her upper body with her navel exposed as always with the usual tribal skirt on her lower body. In other words, there were unguarded openings all over the place, plus the fact she was twisting her body under such conditions, Haruaki had great difficulty deciding where to direct his gaze appropriately.
Without saying a word, Haruaki turned around and went back the way he arrived, joining up with Taizou again after having just parted ways.
"Eh? Haruaki, weren't you going for a massage? Just like an old man."
"Don't call me an old man. I was just thinking that having a go on a massage chair would be nice since it's not every day that there's this kind of chance... But both chairs are currently being used."
"Oh okay, then never mind that for now. Let's chat here for a bit longer. It feels such a waste if we go back to the room straight away."
Because the hotel was almost completely booked by Taishyuu High, even the lobby was packed with students and very lively. Consequently, while Haruaki and the boys were looking for a place to sit down and chat—
"Muu. It's the shameless brat."
"Ah, Haruaki-kun, did you enjoy your bath?"
Fear and the girls were sitting in some chairs at a resting area in a corner of the lobby, chatting quite happily. Presumably having just taken a bath as well, Fear, Konoha and Kana were dressed in yukatas. Haruaki could see the skin of Konoha's neck, bright red from the hot bath water. Fear was waving her collar, openly fanning wind towards her chest. Haruaki felt as though he could hear Taizou and the boys gulping behind him. But at this moment, Kirika suddenly appeared, blocking their view of Fear and the girls.
"...Absolutely ridiculous, what are you looking at?"
"N-No, nothing! Uh... We just want to take a break but there are no other seats! So I was wondering if you girls will allow us to sit here for a while!"
Only Kirika was dressed in a tracksuit, faced with her difficult circumstances as usual. In most likelihood, she could not possibly have bathed together with Fear and the others, so she must have met up afterwards.
Haruaki and the boys spoke as though trying to explain and defend themselves while sitting down at the same table as Fear and the girls. Next, just as Haruaki exhaled deeply, Taizou's vigorous voice suddenly sounded over the table:
"Excellent—! I've been waiting all along for this break time! Let's play cards together!"
Just as Taizou announced, he drew out a box of playing cards from the sleeve of his yukata. Since they had not returned to their rooms after taking a bath, it meant that he must have carried it all along.
Presumably noticing Haruaki's gaze, Taizou smiled malevolently and whispered in his ear:
"Kukuku, Haruaki, you must be thinking: why in this kind of place? This is only the preparation stage. My ultimate goal is to play cards in the girls' rooms, thereby leading to a conversation party. But for us who are unpopular, suddenly jumping to that step is a bit too hard. The girls will surely get wary instantly. So things have to start like this first to lower their guard. After all, there are still two nights remaining on this trip after tonight...!"
Despite Haruaki clearly not asking him, Taizou decided on his own to reveal this plan that Haruaki had no idea whether to call it ambitious or puny. If only Taizou could apply this sort of effort and dedication towards other things—Haruaki thought to himself.
In any case, it was not a bad method of killing time casually during the nighttime.
"Hohou. During the journey thus far, I've already survived countless deathmatches and leveled up immensely. You still dare challenge me, Taizou...?"
"Hehe, I'll feel quite troubled if you make light of the kinetic vision and running ability I've honed during my time in the baseball club!"
Neither of these abilities were applicable towards playing cards, right? Or was Haruaki mistaken?
"Yeah, the more the merrier. Class Rep, Kana, K-Konoha-san, let's all play together!"
"You have a point. Very well, after all there's nothing else to do."
"No helping it. Y-Yachi, surely you guys are playing together too, right? In that case, let's do this as boys versus girls. In any case, we're not going to lose."
Alright alright—While everyone was clamoring, someone began to deal out cards and a game of old maid began as a warmup. Spontaneously, the group decided on a special rule just for the first game, namely, that the last two players to finish would have to act as lackeys to go buy drinks for everyone.
As a result—
"Umuu—That's weird. I've already mastered the art of bluffing perfectly, I can't possibly have lost."
"...Because every time you use that move, it ends up being a safe card to pick whenever you make a worried expression. That's why I think Konoha-san and the rest are using it to their advantage. Apart from that, there's still the issue of luck."
"What did you say!? Damn Cow Tits! I knew it, you're truly impossible to surpass in the domain of twisted personalities! Those boobs of yours better turn ugly and twisted as well! As twisted as those twist bread!"
Haruaki and Fear left the table where the group was gathered and set off together to buy drinks. First they went to the vending machine closest to the lobby but there were many students waiting in line already. Perhaps they were sent on errands just like Haruaki and Fear for many of them were carrying multiple cans at once.
"Looks like it'll take some time even if we line up..."
"I remember there's also a vending machine over at the dining hall, right? Although it's a bit far, there should be fewer crowds than here."
"Considering the time, it'll probably be faster. Let's go."
Hence, Fear and Haruaki walked together along the soft carpet covering the walkway. The dining hall was located on the other end of the building. Due to its slightly remote location, the trip was like a short-distance stroll.
Naturally, there were no student rooms on the first floor. However, despite no seating provided, there were still isolated signs of students. And the majority of them being pairs of boys and girls.
These boys and girls were either gazing into each other's eyes at close range or leaning shoulder to shoulder, chatting with bliss all over their faces.
What were they chatting about?
Why were they smiling while looking at each other with such bliss written on their faces?
(Hmm... I guess I can understand. They must be... couples.)
When passing by, Fear glanced sideways at a couple. As a result, the couple glanced back in turn at Fear and Haruaki. At this moment, Fear came to a revelation with sudden surprise.
These two people are a pair, a boy and a girl.
Right now, she and Haruaki were also a pair, a boy and a girl.
She could not help but think, how did the other side see them? How did this pair of lovers see them as they walked through the depths of this deserted part of the building?
It felt like they were gazing back with pleased looking eyes. Was Fear overthinking things? The couples' eyes seemed to be encouraging her and Haruaki: "Comrades spotted. We hope you'll be able to share happy times together too." Was this an illusion?
For some reason, her heart began to quicken unbelievably. She began to feel very aware of Haruaki walking beside her.
"Hey Fear, do you know how to get to the dining hall? I'm actually not too confident."
"Hyohouh!? W-What? How do we get there? Well... Um, oh right! There's a direction board, so it'll be totally clear if we go over to have a look! Come this way!"
Due to Haruaki suddenly calling out to her, Fear jumped greatly in surprise. She went with the flow to cover it up. After using the direction board to confirm the path to the dining hall, she advanced along the corridor again. Due to the possibility that her heart would race even faster if she stayed beside Haruaki, Fear quickened her pace to walk in front of him. Then the deeper they entered the building, the fewer the signs of other people. But just as Fear was about to turn a certain corner all at once, she found figures standing in the corridor ahead.
But this time, this couple was not chatting with sweet intimacy. They were not conversing at all.
The two of them were simply engaged in a certain activity without saying a word.
Namely, smooch—Their lips pressed together.
Fear frantically turned around, pressed herself against the wall and hid behind the corner. Then she firmly blocked Haruaki who had not reached the corner yet. You may not pass!
"What's wrong? Why... Mmmmffff."
"D-Don't make a sound! You'll be discovered!"
Fear covered Haruaki's mouth with her hand and muttered softly in his ear. Haruaki did not realize what had happened because he had not witnessed the scene behind the corner. Despite displaying troubled eyes, he still raised his arms high to surrender obediently first. Surrendering completely despite clearly not knowing the entire situation, this guy was adhering to his philosophy of non-resistance too thoroughly.
Fear exhaled deeply then once again peeked past the corner, keeping her hand on Haruaki's mouth, slowly turning her upper body and only leaning her head forward. She could see it. Still kissing. Smooch—smooch—
(Th-That's truly too shameless...!)
Fear's face instantly went flush red. What the heck are these two doing? I can't believe they're doing it in this kind of place at this kind of time. No, it's exactly because of this kind of time, right? I think I've heard some classmate say school excursions are magical in a certain way, catalyzing the formation of romantic relationships between people. Two people spending nights together. Indeed, it was a very rare experience for ordinary couples. But what about me and him—?
Fear suddenly had another sudden realization. Due to using her entire body to pin down Haruaki, she could feel the sensation of his chest together with his body warmth. At a distance closer than normal. Clearly much closer. Also, his breathing was blowing against her hand that was placed against his mouth. His lips were on her palm. Lips that were used during kissing. No, not only that, the thing that was slightly touching her fingers, wasn't it his tongue? In other words, he had licked her finger. Contact between finger and tongue. Contact between palm and lips.
Fear suddenly remembered at this time.
Haruaki's lips. Indeed, his lips had touched her before. Although not when she was in human form, it did happen for sure. It should be back when the cultural festival ended.
She remembered. No, she had never forgotten, she could not forget—That sensation.
The sensation when Haruaki's lips and her body had overlapped each other was a very blissful memory.
However—Fear continued to ponder deeply.
(If it happened like what these two are doing now... Kissed on the lips, is the feeling different...?)
At this moment, Fear suddenly regained her senses. Shaking her head repeatedly, she chastised herself: I-Idiot! What am I thinking? This is truly too shameless!
I must be getting infected with shamelessness because of seeing these shameless people. How troubling, I must get away from here as quickly as possible!
"L-Listen, this path can't be taken any further. Let's find another route. Turn back now!"
"No 'why'! Just pretend that this path is already completely contaminated with deadly poison gas!"
Fear muttered quietly again, pushing Haruaki's back forcefully to direct him towards the path where they had come from.
Forget it, hurry and forget those things quickly. Fear found herself rather unsettled today. Her emotions were easily agitated for no particular reason, she was blushing or imagining weird things while her heart was racing in response to trivial matters.
Seriously, how did things come to this?
Taking advantage of the fact that Haruaki's back was facing her, Fear secretly used one hand to rub her reddened cheek.
Could this be what was meant by the magic of the school excursion?
After taking a roundabout detour (although Haruaki still had no idea why they must take the long route), the two of them arrived at the vending machine in front of the dining hall. Having bought drinks for eight people, Haruaki and Fear divided them evenly, intending to carry four cans of beverages each, however—
"Oh~ You don't have to strain yourself to carry them. Look, you're trembling all over."
Haruaki's method was very simple, basically using his fingers to clamp two cans in each hand. However, it still seemed to be too much of a stretch even when Fear forcibly tried to spread her fingertips. Such tiny hands—Haruaki marveled at the discovery.
"D-Don't you worry, I can do it!"
"These are carbonated drinks. The consequences are very serious if you drop them."
"Like I said, you don't need to worry! Besides, even if I drop one, it'll be Taizou's portion, so it shouldn't matter."
"That's a totally terrible thing to say. Oh yeah, you don't have to hold them in your hands. Just cradle them against your chest like this and it should be fine."
"What? What did you just say? What about my chest!? Are you trying to say that there's no obstacle because my chest is very flat, so I'll be able to maintain balance!? I-I'll curse you!"
"I didn't say that at all! Your persecution mania must be making you imagine hearing things!"
Fear ended up holding a can in each hand while clamping the remaining two with her arms. Then they started walking back.
After a while, Fear suddenly stopped when they reached a location that was still a small distance away from the lobby. They were next to the hotel's souvenir shop. She had discovered a certain something there.
"Hey Haruaki. First reason... We're going to have a beverage party in the lobby next. But don't you find it a little unfulfilled if all we do is play cards while drinking beverages?"
"Second reason is we took the detour and made them wait a long time. As an apology, we should add an extra gift in addition to the drinks, right?"
Seeing Fear's large, bright eyes that had locked onto her prey, Haruaki sighed. He knew that raising any objections would be futile by this point.
"Sigh... Since you'll surely bring up even more forced reasons next. Yeah yeah I got it. Hurry up and pick one, otherwise it'll be meaningless if you spend too much time here. Also, pay for it yourself..."
Without waiting for Haruaki to finish, Fear had already charged headlong into the souvenir shop. Naturally, there was a small poster stuck in this area—"All sorts of local rice crackers! Please bring Japanese-style greetings back home!" Fear tilted herself forward, casting her burning gaze over the countless rice crackers laid out before her eyes.
"Let me be clear, you're only allowed to pick one type. After all, we still need to buy souvenirs later."
"I know, I know, okay!? Fufufu, these are all rice crackers I've never seen before, what a treasure trove...! Which should I pick? Should I buy one type as a taste test to confirm if it's suitable to bring home as a gift? Or should I pick from the special flavors in an experimental manner? The tradeoff is between prioritizing satisfaction level and the number of rice cracker types I try out during the trip! This is such a huge dilemma, I'm already facing a monumental dilemma on the first day of the trip!"
"That's exactly why I said you'll make everyone wait even longer if you agonize like this."
Haruaki reminded quietly while smiling wryly but Fear was not listening, of course. She simply picked up and put down rice cracker packets one after another, completely engrossed in the selection process. "Pick this one? No, this one? This one's hard to give up too—"
Haruaki knew this was going to happen from the start. Having snacks to go with the drinks was not a bad thing, in fact, it was only natural. Fear also looked like she was in a very blissful state. Now that things had gotten to this, he had no way to stop her either. Of course, he would urge her as much as possible, but there would be no choice but to apologize properly to everyone else about their extreme tardiness when they got back.
However, simply urging Fear to hurry was not going to help. Haruaki allowed his gaze to leave Fear for now and surveyed his surroundings. Although it was only the first day of the trip, there were still many students in the souvenir shop apart from Haruaki and Fear, probably killing time or trying to check out what was available first. There were single-sex groups as well as quite a few couples. They were either looking at the key chains harmoniously, pointing at bizarre toys and laughing loudly together or picking t-shirts. "If you're going to buy one, which one will you pick?" Even as someone unrelated, Haruaki still felt inexplicably embarrassed by these scenes, although he did not find it unpleasant at all.
(Hmm... I guess it's because we're on a school excursion.)
Despite keeping things secret in school, couples would become bold enough to flirt openly in front of others during school excursions... In other words, different rules were at work when under an environment different from normal! "This is the magic of the school excursion! I want to achieve the same as those people too!" Haruaki recalled what Taizou had mentioned before. Just at this moment—
"Hey hey Haruaki! Which type do you wanna eat!? This Kyoto-style mustard rice cracker? Or this Kansai-exclusive takoyaki-flavored rice cracker? I'm having a difficult time choosing between these two, whaddya say?"
Hugging the drinks in her bosom that were about to fall, Fear turned her head back at once to ask Haruaki. She picked up the bags of rice crackers in sequence, tilting her head as though saying she was seriously agonizing over the decision.
Haruaki smiled wryly again—this time suddenly noticing gazes coming from other couples. Somehow it felt as though... the kind of gaze that was regarding Fear and Haruaki as comrades. At the same time, it also seemed that the gazes Haruaki had given them earlier were being returned to him in kind.
How did these couples view them? He was alone with Fear right now, standing aside while watching Fear choose rice crackers. Occasionally, she would seek his opinion to compare choices. Haruaki smiled wryly.
(W-Woah... This... somehow feels a bit... should I say, embarrassing...!?)
Haruaki shook his head lightly in order to cover up the wavering produced in his heart. He answered Fear:
"L-Looks like they're both very tasty. Anyway, you hurry up and decided...!"
"Saying they're both good is the kind of answer that causes the most problems. Hmm... Hold on, these deep-fried rice look very tasty too! How troubling..."
Without noticing what Haruaki was feeling, Fear turned to the long row of rice crackers again.
Haruaki could feel his slightly fast heart rate and found himself exceptionally bothered by surrounding gazes. Being alone with Fear like this was making him feel a bit embarrassed—In all sorts of ways, he felt that his mind was delicately off-balance today.
Seriously, how did things come to this?
Taking advantage of the fact that Fear's back was facing him, Haruaki secretly used one hand to rub his reddened cheek.
No way—Haruaki thought, could this be what was known as the magic of the school excursion?
Without needing Kirika to issue orders as the class representative, all the roommates obediently went into sleep mode the moment it was time for lights out.
"Okay, now that we've eaten rice crackers and played cards, I have no regrets today! Let's sleep! Mufufu, sleeping like this with our futons lined in a row like this, it feels so much like a training camp. It reminds me of the the time when we stayed over in the school's night watchman's room—mmfffmmfff"
"Night watchman's room...?"
"N-No, it's nothing, Miyama-san. Ohohoho. Okay, let us sleep quickly so that we will be able to have as much fun as possible tomorrow!"
"Y-Yeah. If we end up exhausted from staying up at night, it'll be truly and absolutely ridiculous."
Naturally, it was not possible for the group to fall asleep immediately. To accommodate Kana's excited spirits, Kirika and Fear chatted casually for quite a while. Although it was very fun, Fear soon fell asleep after that, bringing a natural conclusion to the conversation party. Kana muttered "it's just the first day, so there's still plenty of time for that traditional battle..." and groped her pillow as though to confirm its rigidity. How inauspicious.
Then the next day, everyone got up at the appointed time, rubbing their eyes while they ate breakfast and set off for the sightseeing destination of this day's itinerary, namely, Kyoto.
Kirika was working hard to be proactive.
"Y-Yachi! This is just to remember the trip with absolutely no other significance! Let's take a photo together with the Temple of the Golden Pavilion as the background!"
Using a World Heritage Site as cover to take a photo of just the two of them. This was so cliched. Rather, a tried and true attack.
"Oh of course. I actually wanted to borrow Kuroe's digital camera but ended up forgetting. I was just thinking that a cellphone photo would be kind of unfulfilling. Uh, what about the others—"
"L-Let's take one with just the two of us first, yes! It's also a chance to test out my digital camera to see if there are any problems! Okay, Kana, I'm counting on you!"
Kirika swiftly leaned close to Haruaki and looked up to glance at the profile of his face, saving the image into the most important folder in the memory of her mind. Of course a photo together as a pair was important, but this was very important too.
After the photo was taken, accompanied by the shutter sound, Kirika checked the LCD screen to confirm, finding a photo of herself looking tense and Haruaki looking shy (increasing her treasures by one). At this moment, Konoha quickly came forward. Thinking "Sorry, the competitive world is this merciless" to herself, Kirika separated naturally from Haruaki. She had no right to monopolize him. No one did. Was this way of thinking too naive? But at the very minimum, she did not want to do anything that would tarnish her own honor.
"Tsk! How careless of me! ...Uh ...I'd like to test my camera too! Haruaki-kun, please join me in a photo as well!"
"Sure, of course. But I was just thinking, even if it's just for testing, you could include the others. Just take the photo again when necessary—"
"Don't mind the trivial details, that would be too rude to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion!"
"But the Temple isn't gonna complain."
"Come, Miyama-san, please take my camera as well!"
"Ready any time—I'm going to take the photo now! Say cheese..."
"Hey hey Haruaki, did you see that!? It's so golden and shiny it's unbelievable! I thought it was really tasteless but after making one round around it, I actually find it very tasteful now!"
Within the viewfinder, a silver little head suddenly squeezed itself between the Haruaki and Konoha. The shutter button was then pressed.
"Excuse me, Fear-san—! I demand a re-take!"
"Muu, you're always so noisy, Cow Tits. Why don't you take the Temple of the Golden Pavilion as your role model and paint your tasteless and vulgar body gold as well? Perhaps it'll look a lot classier after I circle around you once. But according to my predictions, it'll probably still remain a tragic sight to behold, serving to remind everyone of the truth of the galaxy that your existence itself is so terrible that nothing can be done to erase it."
The current location was next to the Mirror Pond, supposedly the best location to get a clear view of the Golden Pavilion. Students were essentially still moving around in their homeroom classes as a unit, but due to the machinations of some unknown person, Fear's and Haruaki's groups naturally moved together. In other words, there were other boys present apart from Haruaki.
"Grrrrr, it's only Haruaki again..."
"The plan for my perfect crime is already 60% complete. Listen carefully, the first step is to throw Yachi into a completely sealed room with neither windows nor doors, then—"
"That sounds like it'll be quite a pain just to throw him inside. Hey, isn't it easier to just kill him directly in the first place?"
"What a great idea! You're truly a genius!"
"G-Guys, stop discussing something so scary! Argh, jeez, this is so incomprehensible, but anyway, everyone please gather for a commemorative photo! Gather up, gather up!"
"I will gladly comply! As long as I can get a copy of the group photo afterwards, all will be forgiven!"
Despite being quite astounded by the bizarre excitement exhibited by Taizou and the boys, Kirika still joined them for a photo of the two groups combined. The person helping to take the photo was Kaidou-sensei. In a different sense compared to the previous, this photo was also one of Kirika's treasures.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was not the only destination in the second day's morning itinerary. They still had to take a bus to tour the northwestern outskirts of Kyoto. The next stop was Ryouan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, greatly renowned for its Zen garden. Standing in a row before the rock garden, the group experienced the dry landscape.
"...Haruaki, can I say something honest? This is really boring."
"Isn't that the point? Yeah—It calms the soul. Isn't this what's meant by attaining the state of Zen?"
A withered old man as always—Kirika laughed wryly to herself in secret. That said, likewise experiencing serenity and bliss simply by sitting beside him, perhaps she was calling the kettle black.
Fear looked over the rock garden, apparently unable to understand it, commenting quietly:
"But this garden is so empty... In comparison, our garden at home feels much more comfortable and natural."
"That is such a lack of manners afforded to a World Heritage Site. However, seeing as elegance and refinement have nothing to do with you, this is only to be expected."
"What are you talking about!? Then lemme ask you, what exactly is the meaning behind these rocks that seem randomly placed to me? Talking about elegance so smugly, you should have no trouble answering something so trivial, right?"
"Hmph... As much as I'd like to gloat over my victory, the lack of an answer is really making me curious. Let's ask Kirika in a time like this."
"There are numerous interpretations regarding the rocks. Some say that it depicts a scene of a tigress crossing a river while carrying her cub. Others say since only fourteen of the fifteen boulders can be seen from any angle at a time, this is a teaching the world to accept imperfection and incompleteness... I suppose the viewer is meant is decide for themselves."
"That's too deep for me. But unfortunately, all I see is 'rocks on some sand.' Then what does it look like to you, Kirika?"
Kirika stared intently at the rock garden before her and came to a conclusion:
"...Sorry but I think it's just 'rocks on some sand' as well. Looks like I still have far to go since I haven't attained a level capable to seeing other meanings."
"H-Hey! Laughing is not allowed, Yachi! It's not like I can help it!"
"What a rude shameless brat! Don't worry, Kirika, I'll teach him a lesson for you!"
Haruaki casually blocked Fear's relentless flurry of karate chops and said:
"Sorry Class Rep but I jumped the gun and was hoping you'd have some kind of interpretation, yet the result was quite unexpected..."
"Seriously... A-Absolutely ridiculous..."
Kirika pouted slightly and turned her gaze forward to cover up her substantial embarrassment.
Gazing at the space of the dry landscape where time seemed to have stopped, she experienced the heat in her chest and the speed of her heart beats. If someone were to ask her what she saw in this world of desolate rock and sand, her current answer would be nothing at all, apart from his childish, laughing face.
The next destination was the temple of Ninna-ji. One could call this a triple dose of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Although Ninna-ji did not possess particularly magnificent buildings, its vast grounds included many tourist spots that exemplified Kyoto style, such as the Golden Hall, the Pagoda, the Omuro cherry blossom trees, the Reihoukan museum's cultural treasures display. They leisurely toured all of these sights in turn.
During this time, Kirika suddenly thought of something. While trying hard to talk to him intentionally, walking naturally by his side, laughing and spending a happy time together, she thought of something.
Although utterly hopeless and matter-of-fact, it was something she only realized now.
(Ah... All things said, I really do... love him.)
Having grown accustomed a long time ago to a daily life of deceiving herself and others, she had always harbored feelings in her heart that she considered "matter-of-fact," to the point that she tended to forget its special qualities—But now she was experiencing them concretely.
"...Class Rep, what's wrong?"
"N-No, nothing. Uh... I-I was just thinking it's almost the gathering time!"
She had clearly spaced out for only an instant, but Haruaki was suddenly worried and observant. Damn it! His kindness was truly too keen and sensitive. That was precisely why she had fallen in love with him so much—
To such an extent that even she was at an utter loss as to what to do.
After visiting Ninna-ji, each homeroom class left to head to the respective restaurants they had booked in advance. Haruaki and friends took a bus and finally reached a large, two-story building. The place could not be described as new even in flattery, but gave off a feeling like an excellent restaurant backed by a long history and tradition. Nevertheless—
"Hey Haruaki, be honest here. What kind of restaurant does this look like to you?"
"...The entrance curtain clearly says 'Teishoku' which means set meals."
Haruaki looked out through the window of the stopping bus and answered honestly. Taizou apparently caught sight of the same building and started to grumble and mumble: "Are you kidding me? They're asking us to just buy a miso mackerel set meal each? That'll surely kill the mood completely—" But as soon as he spotted a shovel emerging from the seat in front, he immediately shut up.
Then according to Kaidou-sensei's explanations, although this restaurant was essentially a set meal eatery, it also accepted advance bookings for groups or banquets. Presumably, group customers must be a valuable source of business in a tourist area.
Everyone got off the bus and filed through the the door next to the main entrance, marked with "Group Customers Entrance," to reach the second floor. Led by the middle-aged lady and proprietress, they entered the room reserved exclusively for group customers. The space was large enough for an entire class to be seated without any crowding at all.
"Well then, please take your seats, students. Do not make too much noise. There should be normal customers on the first floor... Sorry, Sagisaki-sensei, but I shall rely on you to take over for I must go greet the proprietress."
"Y-Yes... Please count on me. I think I really want to fulfill my duties as a teacher... I guess... Umm, so everyone, it would be better to get seated starting from this side... I guess..."
The frail Sagisaki-sensei was still walking unsteadily. There was not a single cloud in the sky today as well. Perhaps due to people falling to heat stroke, ambulances could be seen rushing past them while they were traveling on the bus from the Temple of the Golden Pavilion to the next destination. Hence, as one might expect, Sagisaki-sensei was also suffering greatly again... Haruaki really hoped she could at least eat some lunch to recover her energy while hoping she would not force herself to eat till she ended up vomiting—Her face was so pale that the students worried about this.
Although seats were free for the choosing, Haruaki's group of boys still ended up sitting with Fear's group of girls. Haruaki discovered Fear was currently scowling and looking up at the ceiling.
"What's wrong, Fear? Did the scary eight-legged demon appear?"
"No... Stop saying such weird things, I'll curse you! I wasn't thinking in that direction, but now it's your fault that my imagination is running wild! Jeez... Uh—Let me reset my brain. Not here. Not here. That type of demon does not exist in this world. It does not spit out sticky threads and dangle down smugly. These are nothing more than urban legends. So it can't possibly appear here. Good, it's over!"
"That's quite a convenient brain you've got there..."
"Shut up, damn shameless brat, you shut up! I was just thinking... It's already the second day but nothing's changed. Because we visited three places in a row during the morning, I was hoping for something to happen. But what a disappointment."
"Oh... You're talking about that, right?"
Haruaki also lowered his voice. Indeed, even when today rolled around, they still had not received any information at all regarding the Indulgence Disks. And in fact, there was nothing to guarantee that they were going to get anything in the first place. They had simply interpreted the superintendent's words optimistically, thinking it was worth a shot.
Sitting opposite, Konoha and Kirika also leaned forward over the table and said quietly:
"Hmm—It does feel quite concerning..."
"Indeed. Although no matter what, since the superintendent went out of his way to say something meaningful, there should ultimately be something at least. Of course, this could very well be subjective speculation that's absolutely ridiculous."
"Umuu, it's almost time for some new leads, right? No matter how generous and forgiving I am, there are still limits. Why don't I simply call the superintendent right now and complain to him..."
Fear frowned, murmuring her grumbles. Even during an important event like the school excursion, she was still unable to forget the issue of the Indulgence Disks. This desire was absolutely not going to disappear from her heart. She was going to keep desiring.
Fear was like that to begin with but Haruaki believed that she was currently expressing that desire more clearly and outwardly than before, presumably because she felt the necessity. The first reason that came to Haruaki's mind was Fear's discovery of a new and dangerous method of fighting. But apart from that, there were probably many other reasons. In a certain sense, this was also only natural.
As time went by, she was growing and developing gradually.
More and more like a human, growing accustomed to the human world, she was living and having contact with people.
Precisely because of that, it meant that she would gradually wish to distance herself from her curse. Hence, Haruaki felt that it was only natural that she would increasingly desire the Indulgence Disks.
Haruaki wished to realize her wish. He wished to assist Fear in reaching this goal that remained unchanged ever since she encountered him, that of wanting to become an ordinary human.
(Hold on, but if nothing actually happens next, it really might be best to call the superintendent and ask again...)
Just at this moment, the proprietress returned to the room and called out vigorously: "Sorry to keep everyone waiting—" She was also carrying many stacked trays of food. Then Kaidou-sensei, who had returned together with the proprietress, looked around and said:
"Do not just leave everything for others to do. Send out a few people to help carry the food back to share with your table."
On his table, Haruaki was sitting on the side closest to the edge of the room, so he got up and went with the other table representatives to the entrance area next to the room that seemed to be dirt-paved. The proprietress was not the only person carrying trays of food. Following behind her was another employee as well.
The employee seemed to be a girl. Like the proprietress, she was dressed in an apron with a white kerchief tied on her head. Due to the stacked layers of trays, her face could not be seen. At a glance, the girl seemed to be loaded close to her limit already. Since a number of people had gathered before the proprietress as well, Haruaki said to the girl:
"Uh... I'll do the carrying, please hand them over to me."
In that instant, Haruaki suddenly felt a sense of dissonance. He kept feeling that the girl's slightly gruff and stiff voice sounded very familiar. Weird? While perplexed, Haruaki still carefully received the the stacked trays. Wow, it's heavier than expected. Hence he drew more strength from his back then proceeded to casually shift his gaze upwards. Upon seeing the server's face—
Then he exclaimed in surprise. It felt like his eyes were really going to pop out and fall off.
The girl also backed away in shock. A familiar face, one that Haruaki never expected to see again. The face of a former enemy's.
The girl's back crashed into the wall. Hearing the sound, the proprietress looked back and issued orders: "Oh dear, Kuu-chan, what are you doing? There are more trays so hurry up and bring them!"
"S-Shut up! What the heck, why are you here...!?"
"Kuu-chan! How could you speak to a customer in that manner!? Oh, you know each other?"
Probably because she finally caught sight of the girl's face, Fear suddenly stood up with great alarm on her face, going "What—!?"
At this moment, from the passage connected to the end of the dirt floor entrance—probably leading to the second-floor kitchen—another employee emerged while carrying a tray, bowing her head as she passed beneath the curtains. Like the others, she was also dressed in an apron with a white kerchief on her head. However, she also had a rather striking characteristic.
She was not Japanese.
"Ara." She first looked at Fear then towards Haruaki before going—
"Welcome, everyone. Please relax and enjoy your meal."
Alice Bivorio Basskreigh was smiling like a tender mother while she spoke.
Translator's Notes and References
- Toudai-ji(東大寺): a Buddhist temple complex located at Nara in Japan, housing the world's largest bronze statue of Buddha Vairocana.
- Unkei(運慶): a Japanese sculptor specializing in statues of Buddha and other important Buddhist figures. His sculptures at Toudai-ji in Nara exhibit an unprecedented flair for realism relative to styles in Japan at the time.
- Link to image of pillar's hole: 
- Wa Lolita(和ロリ): with Wa(和) meaning Japanese, Wa Lolita combines traditional Japanese clothing styles with the Lolita fashion subculture.
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