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 activities 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!"
Despite it being time for free activities, 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 more 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 directly 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 shirt 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 end actually, 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 a 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 already 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 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."
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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