Chapter 2 - Significance of Returning Darkness / "the village where they perform"
Bivorio. The former Matriarch of the «Bivorio Family» which was named after her—the insane organization that affirmed cursed tools, embracing them with love, accepting everything about them.
The former Matriarch.
The organization of the Family no longer existed.
"Sheesh... This is freaking incompetent..."
"Fufufu, I was quite taken by surprise too, because the original plan as agreed should have been later, meeting tomorrow or the day after that. An encounter here, is it purely coincidence? ...Or did your school's superintendent pull strings behind the scenes?"
After finishing lunch in a hurry, Haruaki's entourage gathered in the alley behind the restaurant. It was the quartet of Haruaki, Fear, Konoha and Kirika. When they were leaving the room, Shiraho and Un Izoey, who had seen Bivorio before, simply glanced at them without intentionally following along. On the other hand, it was also possible that Un Izoey was simply eavesdropping out of sight.
Meanwhile, apart from them, there were the former enemies—Alice Bivorio Basskreigh and Nikaidou Kururi. These two, like Haruaki's group, were seated on beer boxes in the alley. While Bivorio was smiling pleasantly, Kururi was pouting with displeasure.
The last time these two were seen was at the cultural festival—already half a year ago. As a result, their appearances were also slightly changed from before. Kururi's hairstyle and number of ornaments were both more toned down than before whereas Bivorio had simply shorn her head of super long hair, resulting in a housewife-like hairstyle. Furthermore, her monocle was now replaced by ordinary glasses. Presumably noticing Haruaki's gaze, she lifted her glasses lightly and said:
"Because in recent times, it's been difficult to buy monocles, especially in this country... So one side has a flat lens so that it's functionally the same. Besides, it was something akin to a certain fashionable accessory to begin with."
"Cow Tits, are you really okay with this? Yet another meaning of your existence has disappeared."
"It's nothing more than an additional person wearing glasses, what are you talking about!?"
Konoha retorted sharply but instantly exhaled as though to regain her composure, then turned towards Bivorio and Kururi with a rather stiff expression. After all, a number of grudges existed between them, combined with recent, repeated instances of deception from the Knights Dominion and the Draconians, it was only natural for Konoha to be highly wary.
"In any case, please start by telling us what you know. I have many questions for you."
"We will definitely give our full cooperation so long as the questions are within our ability to answer. Uh... Perhaps I have no right to say this, but all of you really have no need to be so wary... I have no idea whether you are willing to believe us, but we have lived our lives completely uninvolved with Wathes for a long time now. There is no reason for us to harm you."
"For the sake of believing you, that is why we must ask questions. So, first of all—"
About to start questioning, Konoha suddenly fell silent. What was the matter with her? Just as Haruaki felt baffled, the restaurant's back door suddenly opened and a young male employee in an apron poked his head out. He was a young man with an especially muscular build whose age looked like he had probably just graduated from high school.
Seeing him, Kururi clicked her tongue. Hearing that, the young man smiled like a mischievous child.
"Hey hey, Nikaidou, how could you click your tongue the moment you see someone—"
"...Shut your trap. Hey! Don't touch my head! Stop treating me like a child! So freaking incompetent!"
While the young man was stroking Kururi's kerchief with one hand, Kururi gruffly swatted his hand away. Although Kururi seemed to be frowning in annoyance, in Haruaki's view, the scene seemed more like animals horsing around playfully with each other. Bivorio smiled while watching and said:
"Excuse me... Kouichirou-san, what's the matter? We have already obtained explicit permission from the proprietress to take a break. If the shop has gotten very busy again—"
"Oh—no no no, that's not it. It's just that I heard that Nikaidou had friends visiting and found it unbelievable that she could have friends here to see her—It's quite surprising. In that case, as her senior in the workplace, I must show her my generosity! This is a special treat for you guys, so don't tell your classmates!"
The young man shoved a plastic bag of canned drinks to Haruaki. Exactly four cans, no more, no less.
"Oh—I was wondering what kind of friends Nikaidou would have, but you turn out to be fairly ordinary... Not. Especially these girls here. Is the silver-haired foreigner related to Alice-san...?"
"Kouichirou, you're making a lot of noise! This is none of your business, so freaking incompetent! It's not your break time right now, so hurry and get back to work!"
"Ooh—Scary scary. All said and done, they must be friends from your old school, right? Thank you all for not forgetting this violent girl and even came to visit her. So I was thinking I should thank you on behalf of this girl who's so not honest with her feelings—"
Kururi kicked the back door where Kouichirou's upper body was sticking out. Right before getting slammed by the door, the young man swiftly withdrew back into the shop. Before the door closed, he went "nuhahahaha! See ya!" The echoes of his hearty laughter instantly vanished and the alley returned to silence again.
Konoha exhaled deeply like a leaking ball. Haruaki could feel the nervous tension surrounding her dissipate slightly. The scene just now was exceedingly natural and ordinary. Precisely because of that, it served as an authentic display of Bivorio and Kururi's current lives without a shred of pretense.
Rather than through words, it could be felt from the atmosphere. No longer shrouded in nights painted with bloodshed and curses, they were living this type of exceedingly ordinary and matter-of-fact daily life, as displayed just now, with occasional teasing or squabbling with coworkers.
Distributing the received drinks, Haruaki said:
"Uh... You two... seem to be... living well. That guy just now looks very friendly. Can I trouble you to thank him for us later?"
"Fool, there's no such need. That guy's just an idiot, pure and simple. He's just curious and wanted to see what the people I know look like."
"After that time at the cultural festival, you've been working here?"
The last time they saw Bivorio and Kururi was when they had lost the fake god that served as the Family's center, having lost the dogma known as love; however, surviving family members were still family, hence they had departed together, side by side. Thereafter, no further news about them was heard.
Bivorio answered Haruaki's question:
"We spent roughly a month wandering all over the place, looking for a place to settle down. However, yes... After that time, this is the first place where we truly settled down to begin a new life. I cannot thank the proprietress enough for being willing to take us in."
"Speaking of which, why did you choose Kyoto?"
Konoha's question caused Bivorio to smile demurely:
"It happened naturally. Because I was thinking there should be job opportunities in a tourist area and also because it won't be strange even if foreigners appeared here. Personally, I am also quite interested in this country's traditional culture... I suppose you could say that I came for a look while sightseeing at the same time."
"That's unexpectedly fitting. By the way, speaking of foreigners, there should be one more, right?"
"Yes. Where is Oratorie Rabdulmunagh? I think you took her with you."
Hearing Fear and Kirika's questioning, Bivorio frowned in a slightly troubled manner. Kururi scowled and pouted on the other hand.
"...She's been cooped up at home all this time. A shut-in, so to speak. Freaking incompetent."
"I believe that she does understand concretely that everything is over—But the trauma in her heart has not healed entirely. Much time would probably be needed before she pulls herself together again."
"Hmm... So basically, the three of you are living here currently and working at this place at the same time as well."
Their current situation was understood, more or less. However, this did not mean the matter was hereby concluded. Visiting this place by chance during Haruaki's year group's school excursion, meeting the former members of the Bivorio Family by chance—The current situation could not possibly be summed in such simple words.
"You just mentioned something about the original plan being a meeting with us tomorrow or the day after that, didn't you? In other words, you intended to contact us in the first place."
"Yes. Encountering you here was completely beyond my expectation."
"If I ask you 'what's going on here?' again that'd be too much beating around the bush. So I'm gonna ask this now."
Fear narrowed her eyes and glared sharply, then said curtly:
"—Hand it over."
Bivorio smiled while answering.
"Impossible at the moment."
Fear's gaze turned even sharper. Naturally, Haruaki understood what they were talking about.
School excursion. Encountering Bivorio's group there. It would be utterly dimwitted if one still thought they were unrelated. In other words—
"The superintendent said that we'll be able to obtain an Indulgence Disk as long as we go west—In other words, you have an Indulgence Disk in your possession, right?"
"Only half right. Hence, that is why I can only answer you... Impossible at the moment."
"What do you mean by half right?"
Bivorio gently exchanged gazes with Kururi.
"No need to keep things secret, right? I think we can reveal all of it."
"Indeed. Then I shall explain to you all. Although we have currently mended our ways and live in seclusion away from the world of Wathes, there is a certain person who has taken care of us since a while ago and stays in touch. That person is both an information broker and a supplier."
"What's a supplier?"
Fear cocked her head and asked.
"Exactly what the word means. A merchant who provides all sorts of supplies to others. Not only food or other logistical supplies but also anything and everything you could need. Provided you can pay, even Wathes can be provided sometimes. But this time, things started not because he gave us something as a supplier but because he provided certain information as an information broker."
"That information is...?"
Bivorio swept her gaze lightly across Haruaki's group before saying:
"Information regarding Hinai Elsie falling into the hands of the Lab Chief's Nation. To begin with, another reason I kept in contact with him was in order to continue gathering information about scattered members of the disbanded Family."
"! ...That girl? Speaking of which, she really did mention that she used to be a member of the Family..."
As for the source of this information, it was Himura Sunao who had not reappeared since last time. Probably frowning due to recalling him, Kirika asked quietly:
"Have you heard the whole story? Do you also know why she is under the custody of the Lab Chief's Nation... and why she bit her tongue to commit suicide and nearly died?"
"Yes, I have basically heard already."
"Although she was being controlled, we can't claim to be completely free of blame, so what's your opinion on this? Furthermore, we also destroyed that cursed pocket watch."
Konoha spoke with a bit of tense caution, but Bivorio simply shook her head lightly:
"I bear you no resentment. Also, I have no wish for Elsie to serve as combat potential so I don't care about «Clockwork Life» either. It's just that—regarding Elsie who had survived despite taken orders from me who has committed great wrongs—I wish to accept her once again properly. Just like with Oratorie. It is my duty."
"Hmph. Who knows, that girl might have trouble accepting reality as well and end up as a shut in."
"Yes... But because Elsie and Oratorie used to be very close, I am thinking, very optimistically, if they could be allowed to meet again and support each other, this might serve as the chance for them to pull themselves together again."
Even after hearing Fear's slightly malicious taunting, Bivorio answered with a steady smile. But steady was not its only quality. From her expression, Haruaki could feel her firm resolve and the tenacity in the depths of her heart. Existing in her heart was the noble-minded determination to face and accept her past mistakes without faltering at all.
"Consequently, having known of Elsie's whereabouts, I decided she must be brought back. But we have offended the Lab Chief's Nation in the past. Even if we requested the release of Elsie, they probably would not agree generously."
"After all, you even went as far as to use suicide bombings. This is hardly surprising—No, I simply think so as someone completely unrelated to the Lab Chief's Nation."
In her response, Kirika once again asserted the fact that she had already quit the organization. Then Kururi spoke:
"Even if we demanded directly, they probably won't return her... Since that's the case, we can only consider other indirect means. In other words, asking someone else to act as a go-between."
"With connections to both the Lab Chief's Nation and us, yet low in danger, in other words—"
"Indeed. Including the Yachi family, Fear-in-Cube, Muramasa, Yamimagari Pakuaki's sister, the superintendent and former Draconian, as well as various people gathered due to all sorts of reasons, it would not be an exaggeration to call your community a faction—naming it the 'Yachi Family' or 'Taishyuu High'."
That's too exaggerated—Haruaki thought. But at the same time, he did understand how others would see them as such, given how special these people around him were.
"Muu. 'Fear and Her Happy Servants' would be a better name."
"I'm so surprised I can't even find a good reason. Speaking of which, we don't even count as friends?"
"Fine, then name it 'Fear and Her Happy Friends and Others'... Anyway! You want us to act as a go-between, then what?"
"Of course, I have also prepared compensation accordingly. I know of only one thing that can serve as compensation, something that you desire greatly. Hence, I asked the aforementioned information broker—but acting as a supplier this time—He recently contacted me, saying he had finally found connections to obtain one."
"In other words, an Indulgence Disk, right?"
"Yes. So that was when I contacted your school's superintendent, because I was thinking that many preparations would be necessary beforehand... Although for some unknown reason, he agreed immediately as soon as I mentioned the Indulgence Disk."
This probably happened after Fear had asked the superintendent to "help gather information about the Indulgence Disks," which was why he agreed to Bivorio's request. Furthermore, this must have taken place shortly before the school excursion, which was why the superintendent suddenly thought of a prank and asked Haruaki's group to undertake the transaction locally—
"Good grief... So it turns out that the superintendent decided to say nothing just because he wanted us to be in for a surprise? How absolutely ridiculous. However, this is indeed something worth considering. What should we do?"
"Anyway, let's verify it first. Furthermore, I wish to complain to him a bit."
Next, Konoha used her cellphone to call the superintendent, her eyebrows moving as she spoke: "Yes... It is true as one would expect... Very well, I understand. Also, please allow me to say a few additional words. Basically, please show some restraint and don't ever toy with us again using such an unnecessary prank..." It looked like it would be best to leave Konoha for now to scold the superintendent for being deliberately vague in an attempt to startle them.
"So... What do you think, Fear?"
"You mean whether to accept their request or not? Of course, I really want to accept. As for the reasons... Well, first of all, we are definitely responsible for that Hinai Elsie girl being at the Lab Chief's Nation right now. Secondly, the reward of an Indulgence Disk is very attractive."
Fear nodded vigorously as though agreeing with herself and continued:
"That's right, my primary goal right now is to obtain Indulgence Disks. I've already decided to gather as many Indulgence Disks as possible, no matter how much hardship or suffering I must endure. Given this rare possibility of getting one, I absolutely won't let this chance go to waste!"
Since Fear's resolve was this firm, Haruaki decided not to say anything more. All he needed to do next was support her as usual, dedicating everything he could.
At this moment, Konoha also closed her cellphone to join the conversation, having finished complaining to the superintendent. While talking on the phone, she had apparently paid attention to the progress of the conversation, hence she sighed and said:
"It really can't be helped... In the end, the conclusion is to accept the facilitating role of a go-between."
"Umuu, after all, they've become no different from ordinary people now. In that sense, this also counts as doing a good deed and helping others, so assisting them is not a bad thing."
"Yes yes, I understand. As one would expect, the superintendent is handling everything from the start, being the skilled negotiator that he is. I really wish he'll have this matter dealt with, never to have us involved in this again."
Konoha shrugged and said, then looked towards Kururi and Bivorio as though she suddenly remembered something:
"Speaking of which, I would like to confirm something with you. Considering what you said just now about it being 'impossible at the moment'... This means that you currently have yet to obtain the Indulgence Disk, is that correct?"
"Our appointment with the supplier is tonight. Then after receiving it, the plan is to find a suitable time to hand it to you another day... Arghhh, so freaking incompetent. By the way, I never intended to show up at all from the start. Why did you guys have to come running over while I'm dressed like this?"
Kururi started grumbling again. I never expected the apron look to suit you so well—Haruaki thought, but kept silent because he knew he would surely be punched if he said it out loud honestly.
"Hmm, in other words, we have to wait until tonight to get it?"
"But I really want to get it right away. When is your appointment? If possible, I want you to hand it to me directly."
"Yes... Handing it over to you as soon as possible also means that we can urge the superintendent to hurry and start taking action. I will tell you."
Hence, Bivorio told them the appointed time and location of the meeting with the supplier. After recording the information in their cellphones, they took the opportunity to exchange phone numbers with Bivorio and Kururi to facilitate further communications.
"This feels really weird."
"Shut up, you incompetent bastard! I'm gonna slaughter you. Once this is over, you must erase it!"
"Take this! The number transmitting beam!"
"Ara ara, ufufu. Thank you very much."
"You two have changed your attitudes with unexpected speed... Sigh."
"...This sort of thing would be totally impossible if Konoha-kun and I were the only ones present. I can't believe you're exchanging cellphone numbers casually with former enemies... Although it's not a bad thing, it's still absolutely ridiculous... Maybe? I don't really understand."
Despite some uneasiness, Konoha and Kirika still exchanged numbers with Bivorio and Kururi.
Just at this time, Konoha looked up at the back door again, apparently sensing someone's presence.
The handle rattled and turned. Then the person emerged—Not Kouichirou from just now but the timid and bespectacled Sagisaki-sensei.
"Uh... I am calling you like a teacher, or at least I believe so! Since we seem to be setting off soon, if possible, please conclude your reunion with old friends for now..."
"Oh really? Got it."
The time for this meeting was obtained by finishing lunch rapidly then asking the teachers "Can we have a reunion with friends before we set off?" in a semi-forceful manner to refuse dissent. Hence, they had no choice but to return as soon as they were called.
"I am truly sorry for taking up so much of your students' time. Since we have not met for such a long time, it accidentally dragged on... Disrupting the group's movements would be terrible, so let us conclude our meeting right now."
"Y-You are too polite... You're even more like a teacher than me, it makes me feel very shocked!"
Bivorio and Sagisaki-sensei kept nodding frequently to acknowledge each other, truly an extremely bizarre sight. Kururi went "hmph" while standing up from a beer box. Then entering the back door, she said:
"Since the carefree students have finished eating, it means our break time is over. Hurry and start clearing up before that idiot Kouichirou comes over to nag us as though he's got dirt on us, mom—"
Kururi suddenly stopped talking as though trying to swallow the atmosphere in one gulp. Immediately, she glared with both eyes as she looked back, apparently breaking out in cold sweat—
She noticed Haruaki's group watching her intently.
Her face turned increasingly red within the blink of an eye.
Her mouth kept opening and closing, even without expelling any air.
Simply relying on the vigor of this incomprehensible catchphrase, she overturned the mood at hand, then rushed swiftly into the shop as though insisting that she knew nothing and nothing concerned at all.
"?" Only Sagisaki-sensei remained puzzled, but Haruaki's group secretly looked at Bivorio. She was simply smiling as though saying "ara ara."
"...She's always like this?"
"Always, ever since settling down here. It makes me so glad."
Haruaki confirmed just in case, then listened to Bivorio's answer. About the slip of the tongue that Kururi had just tried to pretend she never said. The simple term of address, extremely ordinary and perfectly commonplace.
Nevertheless, it exhibited a very important truth. Far clearer than all other evidence, it explained their current situation. Hence, Haruaki remarked with a gentle expression:
"Whether you or her, things are going well for you both."
"Yes, I am proud of her as part of my family."
Bivorio also answered with a very blissful smile.
That night, they were going to meet up with Bivorio. At the appointed time, Bivorio was to receive the Indulgence Disk from the supplier then hand it directly over to Fear's group. That was essentially the planned rundown.
"There's finally a clue to what was bothering me! Now at last, I can enjoy the school excursion to the max...!"
Fear resumed the afternoon's schedule with utmost vigor. Having arrived in the northwest region in the morning, everyone now took a bus to head south. First they visited the Buddha statues at Kouryuu-ji but that was just a prelude. The main tourist attraction for the afternoon was a place nearby, the first site on this excursion that was neither a shrine nor a Buddhist temple—
Toei Kyoto Studio Park.
Sitting in the bus on their way to the next destination after Kouryuu-ji, Fear looked at the booklet and moaned:
"Hey hey, will there really be those ancient streets they show on television from time to time? In other words, there are imitations of the real thing, or rather, authentic fakes?"
"Although I don't really get what you're talking about, Fear-kun... They should be identical to what you saw on television. We might even get to see sets that happen to be used for shooting period dramas right now."
"Speaking of which, Konoha often watches period dramas and seems to know a lot about the subject. She looks like she's looking forward the most to visit this place."
"Oh dear... Who knows, fufu. But it's indeed quite true that I might very well become a little excited after seeing things for real. Like pointing out 'Ah! So this is the castle moat where drowned corpses often float up!'"
High school girls getting excited about discovering that kind of place would be a little unusual—Although this thought occurred to Haruaki, he decided not to say anything to dampen her enthusiasm.
They arrived shortly because Kouryuu-ji and the Studio Park were quite near. Despite being a renowned tourist destination, the road was a bit narrow. While the bus was moving along the road, buildings came into view outside the windows, bearing an atmosphere completely different from that of the surrounding scenery. A trapezoidal foundation, stable and solid, along with a structure covered by gray bricks...
"I-It's a castle! No, or is it just the main gate? Anyway, it feels like a rocket could be shot out from that gap any moment now!"
"What kind of comment is that?"
The students chatted noisily while getting off the bus in the parking lot. Once the teachers had finished confirming the student numbers, Haruaki's class went to the group entrance—or rather, they entered the Studio Park through the group entrance and lined up in front of a water fountain.
"You have two hours of free time starting now. Please stay in your groups as much as possible when moving about, so that channels of communication remain clear if anything happened. Phone me or Sagisaki-sensei if there are any problems. That is all."
Kaidou-sensei quickly finished speaking in a slightly restless manner, thus concluding the announcements. Immediately before anyone else, she proceeded to walk rapidly towards the period drama streets—carrying her shovel like a warrior's sword. Speaking of which, she had told Haruaki before that she frequently watched period dramas. Looks like she's also looking forward to having fun here, oh well, teachers are people too, after all.
"Hmm, even at a casual glance, this really feels like I'm in a period drama! Where should I start? Looks like there's so much to check out!"
"In any case, I would like to have a look at the outdoor film sets first. Haruaki-kun, is that okay?"
"Oh sure, it's totally fine with me. Feel free to lead. On the other hand, Taizou, are you guys fine with this? Although we're staying together with Fear's group again as usual, you do know that we're in a separate group after all, so we're allowed to move about on our own—"
"Haruaki! You want-wit of a fool!"
For some reason, Taizou was angrily reprimanding Haruaki using dialogue that belonged very much to a period drama. Animori also shouted:
"We are joined by one soul, right? Miyama! The one who has nothing to do with meal coupons, Miyama, right!?"
"Of course! I wish for a couple more side dish coupons! Anyway, our two groups will move together. It's not like we lose anything by doing that."
"I feel like there's some incomprehensible dialogue mixed in here, but personally, it takes a load off my mind if I can keep an eye on Fear to prevent her from doing anything weird... So I'm fine with it if no one has any objections."
"Excellent." The boys nodded repeatedly. As a result, Haruaki's and Fear's groups toured this site together again. Haruaki could not help but think to himself: myself aside, don't you guys have anything resembling self-determination?
Then while everyone was looking at the guide booklet and was about to start walking—
"Kyah—" A girl's scream could be heard from ahead. However, it was not a scream of tragedy.
It was purely a scream of excitement.
"Look at that guy, he's so cool—!"
"He's utterly handsome!"
Drawn by the girls' voices, Haruaki looked up and was rendered speechless.
They had just encountered Bivorio and Kururi.
Now, in addition, for some reason, in this Studio Park...
They met this person—!
At this moment, a certain person suddenly halted next to Haruaki. After witnessing the same image as Haruaki's group, she blinked repeatedly in disbelief.
"Lab Chief...? Why are you here? I question with this kind of question."
"Hahaha! Allow me to answer your unknown—You forgot to pack something, right? I happened to pay Shinohogi a visit, so after being informed of that, I decided to be a busybody and helped deliver this to you."
Kirika clenched her fists tightly and glared murderously as usual at the man in the black lab coat.
"Kirika, don't stare at me so viciously. It truly breaks my heart to see my precious little sister glaring at me like this... By the way, let me explain, I simply came to deliver something she had forgotten, so I'm not here to cause anyone trouble. I won't go back on my promise."
Some other students, unaware of the hidden circumstances, were clamoring in a carefree manner: "Eh~! It's Class Rep's older brother!?" "You really should introduce him to us~!" These voices sounded as though they were coming from another world, seeming extremely distant and unreal.
In any case, Haruaki's group first moved over to an inconspicuous corner within the grounds. Although Haruaki felt apologetic to Kana, Taizou and the rest, but they had no choice but to forcefully cover things up by saying "We're going to discuss some family business" and asking the uninvolved members of the group to wait slightly further away. Naturally, Un Izoey came along as well. She was supposed to be in Shiraho's group, but they were nowhere in sight.
After forcing Pakuaki into a corner with no escape, the group stared intently at him without lowering their guard. The only exception was Un Izoey whose gaze wandered casually while she cocked her head.
"So, Lab Chief—My question: I'd like to confirm if what you said just now is true?"
"I can assert with absolute certainty, of course it is. Let me hand it over to you first. Let's see, where did I put it?"
Pakuaki reached into a pocket in his black lab coat and began to rummage. "How odd..." He tilted his head, bent forward and reached further into the depths—This was truly very strange. Despite having Pakuaki's arm clearly stuffed into his pocket up to his elbow, his black lab coat did not bulge at all. In contrast to Fear and the rest who were narrowing their eyes warily, Pakuaki said nonchalantly:
"Oh, this thing? Simply stated—hoho, this is what's known as a 'fourth dimensional pocket.' Although the usable space can be described as fourth dimensional, it's actually not very big. Probably two or three cardboard boxes' worth at most—Similar to the mobile laboratory «The World Seen by Alicia Pitrelli» that you people destroyed last time. It's achieved by transplanting a cursed pocket onto this lab coat here... Oh, is this it?"
Pakuaki suddenly fished out a paper bag from his pocket. Naturally, the paper bag's size could not possibly fit into a conventional pocket, hence the scene was highly bizarre to behold.
"Shinohogi refused to tell me any details regarding the contents, but I still need to make a confirmation first. Un Izoey, this is what you forgot to bring, correct?"
Pakuaki swiftly opened the paper bag and picked up something inside to present before Un Izoey's eyes. A piece of fabric. Haruaki remembered. During his trip to the bathroom on the bullet train, Un Izoey had spread out fabric while talking on the cellphone in the train passageway. It looked like the same type of fabric.
"M-My answer... Yes. However..."
Speaking of which, the phone call back then was indeed to inform Un Izoey that she had forgotten to pack something. Now it turned out that Pakuaki had brought what she had missed. Indeed, Haruaki also remembered Un Izoey mentioning on the phone their upcoming itinerary... This could more or less explain the series of developments. However, there was one thing that Haruaki still did not understand, a very simple question. What exactly was that piece of fabric which she had forgotten to bring?
Pakuaki seemed to be harboring the same question as Haruaki, asking with inexplicable excitement:
"Very well. So, what exactly is this piece of fabric? Regarding this unknown, Shinohogi told me to ask you directly, so I'm really looking forward to the answer—"
"A change of underwear."
"...The price for turning the unknown into the known... Am I overthinking things? Somehow, I get the feeling that the gazes of my sister and those girls are undergoing a certain change. Even to the point of slight derision."
It's been like that from the start—Surely everyone must be whispering the same thing in their heart. In any case, Pakuaki shrugged and put down the piece of fabric, handing it along with the paper bag over to Un Izoey, who received it with slight embarrassment.
Then again, since it's just underwear, can't you just buy another set? —This thought occurred to Haruaki more or less, but then he recalled that either Kuroe or someone else had mentioned it before. Un Izoey's underwear, how should it be described? It greatly resembled a fundoshi loincloth. The fact that it looked like nothing more than a long strip of cloth now verified that piece of news. Considering how unconventional her underwear was, it most likely involved various reasons such as tribal traditions or honor.
At this moment, Fear took a great step forward.
"Are you done now? Then hurry and leave!"
"Hmm—How cold. It's been so long already, a bit of casual chatting wouldn't hurt, right...? Come on, people, considering the significance of a long-awaited family reunion—"
"None. Leave now. Absolutely ridiculous."
Kirika answered without any hesitation at all. Pakuaki shrugged again.
"How lonely it feels... However, I might end up suffering a direct attack if I dally here any longer, so I guess it's time to retreat."
Pakuaki walked away decisively. Un Izoey directed her words towards him as he left:
"Lab Chief, I express my thanks for your efforts in making this trip."
"Not at all, don't worry about it. I never expected I would be so free. But then I would never do this unless I were very free."
Pakuaki looked back with a smile then departed with a light wave of his hand. Konoha stared warily at him receding in the distance while frowning with a whisper:
"No matter how free... He is the leader of an organization after all. Would he really go out of his way to make a trip just to deliver underwear?"
"My answer: I give the explanation that the Lab Chief's reason of movement is currently unclear. It is an unknown."
Although it still felt rather concerning, no actual harm had been done so far. All that happened was purely Un Izoey obtaining a change of underwear she could start using the next day. Dangerously, Un Izoey was muttering: "Thank goodness. I was just thinking, rather than buy unfamiliar underwear, I might as well go without any starting tomorrow" while nodding frequently.
Next, Un Izoey immediately phoned Shiraho's group to meet up with them, then walked away. Haruaki's group also went over to where Kana and the others were waiting. In any case, they simply counted their blessings that Pakuaki had not sought trouble with anyone, then they resumed their tour of the Studio Park.
"You're back—Oh, Kirika-chan, what's wrong? You're making a scary expression."
"Hmm? Really? I see... How absolutely ridiculous, it's not my intention."
Kana asked with her head tilted, prompting Kirika to rub her own cheeks with one hand. Presumably, the nervous tension from facing off against Pakuaki still had not dissipated completely. But as soon as she noticed Haruaki's gaze, Kirika blushed in surprise and turned her face away.
"Oh, you've recovered. It's the adorable Kirika-chan as usual!"
"Absolutely ridiculous! A-Adorable? What nonsense!"
"No no no, Kirika-chan, you were also very adorable just now when you were a little red like an octopus—"
Meanwhile, the group was finally starting their tour of the Studio Park. As discussed earlier, their first destination was an outdoor film set used for period dramas.
"By the way, that guy just now, was he really Kirika-chan's older brother?"
"Because there are many things that are difficult to bring up... I'd really appreciate it if you don't ask..."
Haruaki felt very bad for Kirika, seeing that she had no choice but to stutter and answer Kana vaguely. But even if he tried to intervene, it would only make things more difficult.
Hence, he really felt relieved when they reached the outdoor film set, a neighborhood of streets. Haruaki was prepared to devote all his efforts towards changing the subject. Presumably thinking the same thing, Fear and the other girls also chimed in:
"Oh Kana, we're there! So amazing, the whole place really is like being in a period drama!"
"Yes, look at that! There are even samurai warriors walking around nonchalantly with their hair in topknots!"
"Wow... This sure brings back many memories. This atmosphere is so nostalgic... Ah, uh... I mean from television, yes! Indeed, of course I find it nostalgic only because I've seen it on television before, of course!"
"Come take a photo! Photo! Fear, it's a rare chance, go grab that samurai over there!"
"Leave it to me! ...I've caught him!"
With a topknot-wearing samurai actor (or perhaps a tourist simply experiencing what it was like to be a samurai) in the center, the group forcibly took a commemorative photo before continuing their exploration of Edo period streets. Low-rise tenement houses were lined in a row along the street, making one feel as though they had entered an alternate world. Small private schools, lookout towers for guarding against fires, guardhouses, tradesmen's houses, tenement houses... Konoha kept sighing in nostalgia while smiling throughout.
Simply walking among these sights was happy enough already, but there were performances as well, of course. Seeing a crowd gathered up ahead, Haruaki craned his neck to look and found two samurai warriors wielding their swords in a duel. Rather than a brawl, this was a martial arts performance show. After the roughly five-minute performance, the actors swept their eyes across the audience and invited volunteers in a tone of voice like it was some sort of act: "I shall proceed to teach how a staged sword fight is performed! Is there anyone present who believes they deserve the chance more than anyone else!?" "Ooh... A martial arts scene..." Seeing Konoha showing apparent interest, Haruaki said:
"Just go ahead if you feel like participating. It'll make for a good memory."
"Eh? Ehehe, you're right... Although it feels a little embarrassing, I shall participate!"
"I don't actually get it, but it looks really fun! I wanna join in too!"
Haruaki frantically grabbed Fear's collar as she was about to rush forward.
"Hold on, hold on, there are too many people volunteering so they've already stopped inviting people. You should give up... Rather, if you were to join in, all I can imagine is seeing you and Konoha locked in a serious fight with each other."
Although there were a few other participants, Konoha was the first to receive the actor's instruction. Naturally, both of them were wielding bamboo swords. Touching the tips of their bamboo swords together lightly, the actor began to explain—
"You get it? First, the sword tip has to be like this—"
However, Konoha instantly swung her bamboo sword towards the samurai before her with lightning speed. Faced with this sudden attack, the actor played along and pretended to stumble backwards, swaying painfully from side to side.
"Huff...! W-Why!? Miss, it's too soon!"
Konoha replied as though suddenly regaining her senses:
"M-My deep apologies, I didn't expect the bamboo sword to feel so real in my hands and couldn't help but get excited!"
"...C-Cough. Th-The injury isn't serious so don't worry. So, let's get back to the sparring instructions. Listen carefully, after I swing like this, you should swing back like this."
"Eh? But if I swing it like this then parry like that, it'll be easier for the returning blade to slash the enemy's throat, isn't that right? Have a look, just like this."
Whoosh whoosh whoosh! Konoha swung the bamboo sword so rapidly that one could almost see afterimages. By the time the actor noticed, he had already lost balance and the sword tip was already pressed tightly against his throat. A droplet of cold sweat slid down the actor's forehead. Haruaki could successfully garner all sorts of messages coming from the actor's expression. For example: What should I do? Should I scream again and pretend to be defeated by her? Or is it time for me to remind her seriously? What's with this girl?
"Wow—Konoha-chan really is an obsessive fan of staged sword fighting! Even an expert admits defeat against the swings of her sword!" While Kana and others were misunderstanding in a positive direction, Fear narrowed her eyes and whispered while watching the scene:
"Even if I didn't take part, she's still violent as ever."
"...I'll have to withhold my comment since I'm the one who recommended her to participate without much forethought. Anyway, I'm really glad that it's just a bamboo sword."
After the martial arts instruction that could be considered Konoha's personal performance, Haruaki's group began to tour around again.
"Yoshiwara Street... What is this place? There are so many identical shops all in a row."
"Fear-chan, about that, basically... Whisper whisper..."
"What!? Th-That's too shameless—Damn you, shameless brat!"
"Ah, ouch! Why are you hitting me? Totally nonsensical!"
"I can't believe you can touch each other for no particular reason... Damn you, Haruaki, the probability of a perfect crime happening has now reached 90%...!"
Advancing through the eras, they were now walking along streets in the Meiji period and could see various antique buildings. Kana pointed to a displayed item in front of a shop and giggled with an evil grin while saying:
"Eh, Kirika-chan, I really want to take a photo with everyone sitting on top of that. Right, what is this thing called again? I suddenly forgot, can you tell me?"
"Oh, that's... it's... the Chin... Train, I guess."
Kirika awkwardly turned her gaze away in embarrassment. For some reason, Kana was repeatedly snapping photos of Kirika like mad. Then she sought her next prey.
"I didn't hear you. Oh right, let's have Konoha-chan tell me instead, ufufu."
"Eh? Th-That's... Haha, what is it...?"
For some reason, Kana kept snapping photos of the embarrassed Konoha. At this moment, Fear spoke up:
"You can find out just by reading the guide booklet—Allow me to inform you, it's the Chin-Chin Train!"
"Have you no sense of delicacy!? Also, Miyama-san, please stop playing these childish games like a grade schooler! I am beginning to suspect you of being possessed by the spirit of that self-employed hairstylist from our home!"
In addition, there were many other attractions that they watched with great interest and excitement. They expressed their admiration for the glamorous decorations at the theater, watched Konoha show off her throwing skills at the shuriken training hall, and were awed by the monsters emerging from the castle moat.
"Hmm, I was thinking that everything here would be very historical like in period drams, but even monsters appeared... I really can't underestimate this place. It's too chaotic."
Hearing Fear's impressed remarks, Haruaki could not help but smile wryly. At the same time, he suddenly noticed something in the corner of his eye. Beside the moat, in front of a structure resembling the main gate, someone familiar was standing there.
(Oh, it's the girl who was riding a deer yesterday...?)
Wa Lolita attire, hair styled into curls, a pretty face with cute and dainty features, she was the girl Haruaki had met at Nara Park previously. Since she was quite far away, she did not look like she had noticed him. The girl had her eyes narrowed and seemed to be looking at the flag that was bearing the word "Integrity" and hanging high above the gate. This was apparently the Shinsengumi garrison simulation zone.
The girl seemed to nod lightly. Perhaps it was Haruaki's imagination, but she seemed quite satisfied. Next, the girl walked somewhere else without noticing Haruaki.
To think I'd encounter her twice in different locations—Haruaki thought to himself. But then again, seeing as both sites were famous tourist attractions, this was actually quite likely. All Haruaki could conclude was that strings of fate were at work here at most.
Feeling a little hungry around this time, they decided to take a break.
"What a great idea. After all, lunch was so early. This time, I really must gorge myself with tasty food. So, I must insist strongly that there must be a tea house somewhere here! It's very possible that it might even feature legendary rice crackers whose recipe was passed down since the Edo period!"
Rice crackers aside, there was definitely no particular reason to oppose Fear's idea. Hence, the group looked at the map in their guide booklet and walked over to a tea house where snacks should be available. Finally, they reached a tea house that was like the ones seen on television, with seats covered with red cloth and arranged outside the shop. The banner and the sign were also quite historical in appearance.
Nevertheless, they did not want to enter the tea house at all. This was due to the problem they discovered they had to resolve first before entering.
"Eh—I see now. I can't believe you're working in a research lab, that's so amazing~!"
"Ueno-san is very smart too, I guess it runs in the family... I'm so jealous."
"Hahaha, she is my prided little sister. I hope everyone can get along well with her."
"So—that's the place where Un Izoey-san works?"
"My reply: yes. I give the explanation that our relationship is like boss and employee."
Kirika stumbled on the spot, pressing her palm against her forehead. Her anger and astonishment had apparently reached dizzying levels. At the same time, Pakuaki also seemed to have noticed their arrival. Surrounded by roughly two groups of girls, Pakuaki poked his head forward.
"Hi, what a coincidence."
"What are you talking about? Didn't you say you were leaving?"
Due to being surrounded by uninvolved people, Fear could not release her ill will without restraint, hence she simply scowled as she spoke. As a result, Pakuaki smiled leisurely and said:
"I said I was going to retreat, but never said anything about leaving. Also, I did mention that I am very free, right? Since I haven't been to this kind of place for a long time, this is merely personal sightseeing... Yes, who could have thought that this tea goes so well with CalorieMate. Truly a new discovery."
Despite sitting in the tea house, Pakuaki was eating his favorite CalorieMate as though taunting the establishment. But at least the cup of tea seemed to be a drink sold by the tea house. On the other hand—
"I supplement: giving the explanation that I am taking care of my boss based on personal relationship."
Un Izoey was also sitting next to Pakuaki, chewing and taking large bites of round dumplings. No matter what, Pakuaki was indeed the most important person to her. Although it was unclear whether she was doing this on her own volition or following orders, in any case, she was serving as Pakuaki's bodyguard at least for now.
Seated at another spot outside the tea house were two others who were in the same group as Un Izoey—Shiraho and Hinata. Hinata was simply drinking tea with contentment written all over her face while Shiraho was resting her face against her crossed legs, eyes narrowed with displeasure. As a start, Haruaki's group hoped to get some information from her.
"Uh... What's the situation?"
"Ever since that man arrived, we have totally become his accessories. This is because the dark-skinned girl follows him closely wherever the man goes, leaving us no choice but to follow along reluctantly. Furthermore, that man seems to decide each subsequent destination arbitrarily by listening to the suggestions of those girls surrounding him. Isn't this tantamount to me getting dragged all over the place by that big group of sycophantic followers? I don't have particular preference for the sights but going about things this way is giving me a lot of stress. In other words, can you go and die, human?"
"Uh, even if you deliver the conclusion in such a matter-of-fact manner..."
Shiraho proceeded to lower her voice slightly and continued:
"Also—I should ask this first. Is that man someone respectable?"
"Not at all. You probably didn't see him directly, but he's the mastermind behind the cultural festival commotion that time... But we currently have something like a ceasefire agreement. If you're asking that, did he do something to you?"
"I simply gathered this impression from the dark-skinned girl's attitude—Also just now, she even kicked a pebble by her foot and struck down a ninja who was about to pass overhead on a wire."
It looked like Un Izoey really was serving dutifully as a bodyguard as expected.
While they were whispering discreetly, the others such as Taizou and Kana had already walked into the shop. "Anyway, let's order first and everyone take a break!" Left without a choice, Haruaki's faction was compelled to follow. Just like during lunch, they ate without tasting their food due to their concerned attention being drawn to Pakuaki outside the window, surrounded by girls and making them scream time after time. Presumably, things were even worse for Kirika who was more than simply concerned.
In this manner, the unsettling break concluded and Haruaki's group left the tea house. At this moment—
"So, let's tour around a bit more... Are you willing to continue serving as my guides?"
"Gladly of course—" The girls in the other groups all answered together at once. Un Izoey proceeded to get up matter-of-factly, forcing Shiraho and Hinata to follow with helpless expressions on their faces. The members of Haruaki's group exchanged looks.
"What should we do...?"
"Given so many people, I don't think he'll do anything weird, but still—"
"Leaving him alone is too worrying. Ueno-san, what should we do?"
"P-Personally... 'Follow them' is the only conclusion I can reach...! Even though it's truly and absolutely ridiculous!"
Vicious as a wild beast, Kirika threw a glance towards Pakuaki's back and continued:
"As hard as it is to bear the sight of him wandering before my eyes, if I don't chase after him, I won't be able to stop myself from imagining what things he might do to that group of girls... So at the very least, it'll be better than this kind of self-abusive mental state."
"I can understand clearly how you feel. Then let's follow them."
"Sorry." Kirika started walking after a brief answer. Haruaki glanced at the side of her face and asked:
"C-Class Rep, are you okay? It feels like your breathing is a little quick..."
"Frankly speaking, I'm not entirely okay. Ever since a while ago, I've been desperately suppressing the urge to use «Tragic» to drag that guy out from the group of girls."
Haruaki could only pray in his heart, hoping she must endure no matter what.
"I don't quite understand, but are we going along together? It feels like a feudal lord's procession—" Kana remarked casually. "I never expected to find another target for a perfect crime apart from Haruaki." "But unlike Yachi, he's a total pretty boy." "Confronted with someone who lives in a completely different world, should we simply admit defeat?" Taizou and the boys were whispering to one another. In any case, Haruaki's group followed after Pakuaki's crowd, strolling through the Studio Park.
Pakuaki did not behave unusually. Only his retinue was screaming noisily without pause. Haruaki's group gradually got used to it and were able to divert some of their attention towards admiring the surrounding streets in addition to monitoring Pakuaki's movements. Naturally, only Kirika was still pressing her right palm against her chest, breathing rapidly.
Just at this moment, a banner with the words "Shinsengumi Garrison" leapt into Haruaki's view. Rather than the outdoor film set from earlier that resembled a gate, this was a souvenir vending area that used the name to sell Shinsengumi paraphernalia. Given two locations with the same name, wouldn't people get confused when deciding on a place to meet up? Although it did not affect him, Haruaki still felt a little worried.
But putting that aside, there was only one reason why Haruaki noticed that vending area despite having no particular interest in the Shinsengumi. That was because he saw her again—under such circumstances, "again" was definitely an appropriate word to use.
Tiptoeing in front of the cash register, the girl dressed in Wa Lolita attire was paying for her purchase.
"...Bag not needed."
Haruaki heard the above exchange. Haruaki found her manner of speaking a little strange, but at the same time, what a good girl, being so environmentally friendly. Next, the girl received her goods and turned to leave. Haruaki could see her contented expression and the pale blue fabric hanging on her arm. This time, the girl still did not notice Haruaki and disappeared into the crowd.
Fate really must be bring us together, I guess she's truly a fan of the Shinsengumi—While thinking that, Haruaki turned his gaze ahead, only to see Pakuaki saying something to the surrounding girls. Then he heard: "Eh~" "Please come back soon~" "Got it got it!" Then Pakuaki waved lightly to the girls and slowed down his pace. In other words—
"Hi hi, hello again. Would you like to chat for a bit?"
He was now walking side by side with Haruaki. Not knowing what Pakuaki was up to, Haruaki made a troubled expression.
"You don't need to be so wary, it's just a casual chat. I'm not going to do anything strange—It can't be helped under such circumstances. Wouldn't you agree?"
Pakuaki shrugged and surveyed his surroundings slightly with a wry smile. More accurately, he looked towards Fear and the others who had shifted their positions imperceptibly to encircle him on the other three sides.
"If you think you are still able to play any tricks behind my back, please be my guest."
"Judging from this position, I don't think anyone will notice even if I extend «Tragic» to break your neck in an instant. It's worth a try."
"Pointed at your back right now is the corner of a Rubik's cube, but that might transform into a drill's tip any time. You are very welcome to tell me with your attitude, which pointy tip do you prefer?"
Pakuaki raised his arms lightly and shook them repeatedly as though surrendering.
"Like I said, this really is just casual chatting. Such heavy mistrust—So, how has school life been ever since promoting to the second year of high school?"
"Nothing much... Very ordinary."
Given their relationship, there was no need to use polite speech with Pakuaki. Haruaki answered hesitantly but Pakuaki did not mind Haruaki's answering attitude. Smiling pleasantly, he continued:
"Ohoh, what kind of ordinary? I'm very curious. Oh right, which subject do you like...?"
The tense chatting persisted. Haruaki's fatigue was accumulating unnecessarily because he could not help but ponder deeply every time whether Pakuaki's questions carried alternative meanings. Fear and Konoha would occasionally interject for restraining purposes, but Kirika remained silent all along.
How uncomfortable. But it was nothing more than discomfort. Haruaki took out his cellphone to check the time. The gathering time would arrive shortly, which meant that Pakuaki should be leaving, probably—
"Ohoh, I see. Also... Oh right. Speaking of high school life, there's an important element that's inseparable no matter what. So, allow me to ask while I'm at it. Do you have a girlfriend? Haha, despite how I may look now, I was quite popular back in my school days, you know? So I can more or less give you some pointers. How about that?"
Haruaki could feel Fear and the girls perking up their ears simultaneously.
"N-No thanks—It's okay."
"Oh? In other words, you don't have a girlfriend yet? Now that's totally unknown territory... To be honest, I can't understand it at all. There are clearly so many attractive girls by your side."
Saying the same stuff as Taizou and the guys—Haruaki thought. For some reason, this topic was brought up particularly frequently during this school excursion.
"You can't mean to tell me that there's not even one attractive girl around you? Reflect on this more carefully. It doesn't need to be attractiveness that's universally recognized. Being attractive to you is enough. What do you consider the most important? Looks, personality, figure, voice, interests, wealth, future potential, cooking skills... There are simply too many examples to list. By the way, I believe that the top candidate who'll be an excellent match for you is—mmmmphhhh!"
"Your... tie... is a bit crooked. Let me help you... fix it."
Walking over to Pakuaki's side, Kirika reached out towards his neck, a terrifyingly cold smile on her face. Her eyes were not smiling at all. Completely emotionless, her voice simply assembled words together to form an excuse.
While Kirika raised her arms and pretended to adjust Pakuaki's collar, the black belt slid out, wrapping itself tightly around his neck. Smiling wryly, Pakuaki lightly tapped Kirika's arm, causing her to fling her arm as though exclaiming "disgusting," finally releasing his restraints. Due to everything happening in an instant, people in the surroundings did not seem to noice. Only Un Izoey, who was walking beside them, shuddered but fortunately, she did not take any further or direct action. Did she dismiss it as purely love between siblings?
"C-Cough... C-Cough... Oh my, that's going a bit far."
"It's your fault for saying something stupid—How absolutely ridiculous. I have once again confirmed that there is absolutely no value even in chatting with you. Neither is there any reason for allowing you to do so."
"Yeah... Very well said. Droning on and on about boring things, even I felt impatient just from listening. If Kirika hadn't acted, I was about to fix you up with this."
"Agreed. In any case, free time is almost coming to an end. You should go back to wherever you're supposed to be, shouldn't you?"
"No helping it... Then in the remaining time, I guess I'll simply chat with cute high school girls. Besides, I promised them just now that I'll return to them immediately."
Contemptible pervert! Just as Kirika scolded quietly in fury—
Fear exclaimed in surprise. Haruaki followed her gaze to see ahead in a side street what appeared to be staff rushing past, carrying a stretcher. Lying on the stretcher was someone collapsed and completely drained of strength.
"Feeling unwell... Another heat stroke?"
"We've seen quite a lot of people getting heat stroke ever since coming to Kyoto. After all, since the weather has been so sunny, it can't be helped."
Just as Haruaki and Konoha had this exchange, Pakuaki remarked quietly, the corners of his lips seemingly curling in a grin:
"Heat stroke... huh?"
But then Pakuaki immediately widened his strides and walked in front of Haruaki's group.
Then without looking back at all, he waved goodbye while quickening his pace to catch up with the girls ahead.
Everyone returned to the same hotel as last night's and had dinner. Then the teacher issued an announcement:
"Last night, I discovered boys going to the girls' rooms and making too much noise. Hence, from today onwards, visits to the rooms of the opposite gender are prohibited completely. If you want to chat, do so in the lobby. That is all."
"Th-Then what's gonna happen to my plan of 'gradually growing closer with girls, ultimately having heart-racing and candid conversations in their rooms'...! If only I knew this was going to happen, I'd have demanded forcefully to play cards in the girls' rooms last night—!"
His plan foiled, Taizou was greatly crushed, but upon further thought, Haruaki concluded that this was actually a foreseeable result. Furthermore, although he felt bad for Taizou, there was probably no chance for playing cards in the lobby tonight either. This was because Haruaki's group still had extremely important things to do.
"You guys go take a bath first. I'll go by myself later, so don't worry about me." After saying that to Taizou and the guys, Haruaki went downstairs to the lobby. Fear, Konoha and Kirika were already waiting at an inconspicuous spot.
"How swift of you. How did you explain to Kana?"
"We told her directly that we had other things to do so we couldn't go to the bath with her, so she should find others to accompany her. As expected, she was very curious but we managed to gloss over the matter. We also asked her not to tell the teacher. The price consisted of dessert coupons for the cafeteria."
"It's good that we successfully appeased Kana, but on further thought, with three out of four members in the group missing, it's too suspicious no matter what... Will this be okay?"
"The appointed rendezvous location is not too far away and all we're doing is picking up that thing. No matter how slow, we should be able to hurry back before the bedtime roll call."
"We should barely manage to pull through as long as we avoid attracting the teachers' attention before roll call. Kana's wide circle of friends should make it easy for her to mix herself into other groups inconspicuously. Although it's striking if she's seen standing around alone, it might be more advantageous if it feels like the entire group vanished."
Of course, going out without informing the teachers was forbidden. It was probably possible to persuade Kaidou-sensei if they happened to get caught by her and confessed honestly, but encountering other teachers would be bad. Hence, the group sneaked towards the lobby entrance while paying attention to surrounding gazes then ran out the automatic doors all at once. Escaping successfully, it felt sort of like being a spy.
The appointed location was a nearby park. Despite being called a park, it was not the type of ordinary park with swings and leisure equipment but more like a vast nature park. Using a map she had brought, Kirika confirmed the location and they finally arrived after walking a fair amount through the night. At night, the nature park seemed to meld with the dark forest. Naturally, there were no signs of casual visitors.
In the center of this quiet and isolated space, beneath the faint illumination of a street lamp, two people were already sitting on a bench, waiting for them. Gone were the aprons and the kerchiefs. These two people looked as though they were the same as before, except with minor changes in their casual attire, reminding the viewer of the passage of time since autumn of last year.
"Good evening. What nice weather we have tonight."
Bivorio spoke as though starting a tea party. Kururi rested her elbows on her thighs while acknowledging their arrival most reluctantly.
"I'm here. Let's confirm first. Is it really okay for us to be present?"
"I have already contacted the supplier. Since he did not demand a change in time or location, it means that your presence is fine. It's possible that he might even want to explore new sources for customers."
"I will actually consider it if he's able to obtain Indulgence Disks in the future. Apart from that, if he knows where I can get my hands on extremely rare and legendary rice crackers, that'd be even better."
At this moment, Kururi suddenly got up from the bench and lazily indicated a certain direction with her thumb. Konoha had already turned her head to look towards that direction.
"Hi, Alice Bivorio Basskreigh. How are you doing? It's been a long time since I last saw you in person. Cheers to this wholesome reunion, bravo!"
"Yes, it really has been ages."
Bivorio also stood up from the bench to welcome the person who had appeared in the darkness. Haruaki's first impression of the man, to be honest, was that of Santa Claus. The new arrival was a middle-aged foreigner with a plump build, jovial and friendly facial features and a long, striking, white beard. The image would be even perfect had he been wearing a red suit decorated with furry balls, but in actual fact, he was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up and a New York Yankees baseball cap. With a backpack and a camera, he looked like a typical foreign tourist. If there really existed a Santa Claus who used his spring break to go sightseeing in Japan, it could be no one else but this man.
"Allow me to make introductions. This here is the 'supplier and information broker' I mentioned. And these people here are—"
"Cheers to this happy encounter, bravo! You don't need to make special introductions for each of them. I recognize them all. Rather, it'd be a taint to my reputation as an information broker if I didn't know. Fear-in-Cube... Oh, sorry, it's Miss Fear Cubrick, Miss Konoha whose family is best left unsaid, Miss Ueno Kirika who is nothing more than that, as well as—"
The information broker's down-turned eyes looked at Haruaki then closed partially in a jovial and gentle manner.
"I see, I see. Although it's my first time to see you in person, you definitely resemble Yachi Honatsu very much. Cheers to this encounter of fate, bravo."
After hearing this, Haruaki was surprised from the bottom of his hart.
"Eh? Excuse me... You know... my Pops?"
"Because we are in a similar line of work, we have met a number of times at least. Rather, we can be considered business competitors as well. After all, enemies are allies in this business and allies, enemies. This sort of thing is totally commonplace—"
Similar line of work? Business competitors?
Haruaki was suddenly reminded of the fact that he virtually knew nothing of his father's work. Ever since a long time ago, his father had been running all over the world, looking for cursed tools then bringing them back and keeping them in the storeroom at home so that their curses could be lifted given plenty of time. That was all his father had been doing all along. Although there were vague impressions in Haruaki's mind, even to this day, Haruaki still had no idea what specifically his father did for a living.
"Uh... It seems quite inappropriate to ask someone I'm meeting for the first time, but my Pops..."
"Okay okay, child, let's not be so hasty. Allow me to finish the job first before we talk further... Since I'm getting old, I have to finish what I'm supposed to do as quickly as possible before I forget. Although there are some things which are better off forgotten, like the cruelty of my second wife. Cheers to forgetfulness that has become God-granted salvation, bravo!"
Laughing heartily, he rummaged through the small pouch at his waist.
"Job? It must be that, right!? Very good... Hurry and give it to me!"
"Please be patient, Miss Fear. In this line of business where there are no contracts, doing things according to procedure is the most important... All we can do is hand supplies over to the client. How the client wishes to handle what they have received is none of our business."
"Yes, indeed, procedures must be followed."
Kururi shrugged and approached the information broker. "This is it, this is it." The object the information broker fished out from his pouch was undoubtedly—
"An Indulgence Disk...! How did you get it?"
"Hahaha, asking a supplier this kind of question, that's really difficult for me to answer. I'd be out of business if I told you. However, I can tell you one thing. This really took a very very very very great deal of effort on my part. Especially when these things have become even harder to come by in recent times. Cheers to my fortune from the god of commerce, bravo!"
"Just shut up with the noise... So freaking incompetent."
Kururi frowned and sighed, then reached out, grabbing the Indulgence Disk held between the guy's fingertips.
But in the next instant—
Failing to understand what happened, Haruaki could only blink repeatedly in rapid succession.
Why was Kururi currently sending a kick to the supplier with full force?
Fear was watching this scene unfold.
Struck by Kururi's forward kick, the man flew backwards several meters. Kururi rolled backwards from the recoil.
At the same time, another figure descended with astounding speed between those two. Kururi had rolled several times on the ground to pull back, then got up by kneeling with one knee drawn up. Taking out a switchblade from her pocket, she whispered:
"Freaking incompetent. Fighting scenes need professional training, you know...!?"
Fear understood the situation. It was an enemy. An enemy had appeared. Hence, Kururi had no choice but to kick the supplier away in that instant to protect him.
Fear took out her Rubik's cube from her tracksuit's pocket. In the pocket on the other side was a precious treasure, the other cube she kept on her person and regarded as her talisman, but one cube was enough for now. Using another would be extremely dangerous. She had this self-awareness. If possible, she did not want to employ it.
Fear took a deep breath, clutching the cube tightly at the same time.
"Mechanism No.5 impaling type, upright form: «A Skewer Loved by Vlad Tepes»—Curse Calling!"
Then she launched the execution stake at the figure that had appeared. The enemy jumped as though spinning, evading successfully and effortlessly, then landing in a forward crouching manner like a beast. Finally, they had a chance to catch a glimpse of the enemy's appearance.
It was a strange girl who was dressed in an outfit with traditional Japanese-style patterns yet covered with fluttering frills.
"Wait a sec... You're that girl!"
Fear pulled the execution stake back using the chain of cubes while glancing at Haruaki who had yelled out strangely.
"Hey Haruaki, you can't mean to tell me that you know her?"
"No, it's just that I've seen her several times yesterday and today... She also appeared at Nara Park and the Studio Park where she even bought that haori she's wearing now. Why is she here?"
Indeed, on top of the girl's frilly Japanese-style outfit, she was wearing a haori with alternating colors of white and pale blue. Due to learning many things during the daytime, even Fear now recognized it for what it was—A Shinsengumi haori.
"In other words, she's been following us. How absolutely ridiculous...!"
"It appears that it is not coincidence that she passed by and happened to descend from the sky. What exactly are your intentions! Speak your purpose now!"
The instant Konoha spoke, the girl's eyes seemed to narrow in an inexorably sharp manner. Then with very vicious and intimidating emotions, she glared at Konoha.
Those eyes conveyed completely undisguised wrath, hatred and contempt. Probably troubled by the girl's excessively overt gaze, Konoha paused her movements for an instant. But Fear did not stop.
"Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator»!"
No matter what, the enemy was definitely hostile. Were it not for Kururi's forceful kick, the supplier would likely have died already from the high speed descent that was enough to kill someone. Disregarding whether she had achieved her goal or not, the concrete ground where she landed was already curled up in a tragic manner.
There was no need to hold back. Fear made a thrust towards her using the drill.
A brief exhale. The enemy's movements were very simple. Using her right hand that spread open naturally, she slapped the drill's sharp tip and forcibly deflected it. Her left hand also opened up flexibly to spread her five fingers, extending forward in a posture like a beast's claws to strike at Fear—But just as Fear thought that, the girl's left hand was swung horizontally.
Approaching them, Kururi gasped, "seeing through" the attack just when it was so close it was about to connect. Many strands of hair from her bangs were sliced and fluttered in the air.
"Stand back! You can't handle her! This girl is one of our kind!"
Since she was able to deflect the drill barehanded, there was naturally only one possibility. Moreover, this was not a feat that any humanoid cursed tool could accomplish. For example, Kuroe and Sovereignty would not be capable of this. Indeed, to be able to do this—
The girl howled softly and attacked with the "claws" of both hands. Next came a wave of astounding, battering blows. Fear blocked them while retreating. Despite the redundancy, a helper stepped forward.
"I remember that posture of the hand, it's called the tiger's claw... Are you a Chinese martial arts fanatic!?"
The girl glared viciously again. It felt like the fighting spirit exuding from all over her body was burning even more intensely. The girl used one hand's tiger claw to sweep Fear's drill away while blocking Konoha's karate chop with her other arm. Meanwhile, her skirt, resembling a fluttering yukata, flew up as she counterattacked with a flying kick. Konoha used her unoccupied arm to block the flying kick, resulting in a loud crash that one could hardly believe came from the collision between bodies of flesh and blood. Although this was perfectly commonplace for them, Konoha was frowning with a troubled expression for some reason.
After deflecting each other's attacks, they pulled some distance apart slightly and paused for an instant. The girl's eyes were almost glued on Konoha, glaring at her. So not fun at all—Fear thought. But at this moment, the enemy suddenly shifted her gaze. However, rather than towards Fear, the formidable enemy who was more powerful than Konoha, it was—
"Guh... Oeeeeee, cheers to good fortune saving my neck, bravo. What on earth happened...?"
"Hurry and escape directly! The enemy's target is most likely the Indulgence Disk dropped over there!"
Kirika yelled loudly. Then Bivorio added with a serious demeanor:
"Since you have already handed the Indulgence Disk to us, your job is complete! What follows is our own problem—Please hurry and escape!"
"I really hate growing old... I used to be quite the influential person, a man of brawn who could rival those guys from the Draconians. Very well, please pay for the goods using the same old method as usual! Cheers to my hopes for the next business deal after this, bravo!"
The information broker rushed into the bush. The girl did not pursue him, presumably because her goal was indeed what Kirika had pointed out. Probably because her purpose was exposed, the girl suddenly changed in attitude dramatically and started to rush as quickly as she could towards the Indulgence Disk that had fallen quite some distance away from everyone.
"«Tragic Black River»!"
Kirika extended her belt, trying to get a head start, but the girl used a tiger-clawed strike to viciously sever the belt. The slicing technique was extremely violent and barbaric.
The girl continued to make a mad dash. Just as she was about to pick up the Indulgence Disk, fueled by such vigor—
"Don't think you'll succeed—! Mechanism No.4 swinging type, oscillatory form: «The Pendulum», Curse Calling!"
Sticking close to the ground, Fear swung the pendulum's massive scythe blade that resulted from the transformation, sweeping up the Indulgence Disk that had fallen on hte ground. Although this caused the Indulgence Disk to fly high into the air in another direction, at least it was better than letting the enemy obtain it.
"Woah... Hold on, that's very dangerous! Please consider the timing and location carefully!"
The enemy effortlessly stepped over the giant pendulum scythe that was slicing at her ankles, but being in the area, Konoha was faced with the same threat. Jumping upwards, she voiced her grievances at Fear.
"Shut up, the important thing is that it flew over there! Hurry and catch it! The enemy is chasing after it, so hurry and find a solution!"
"Seriously, always ordering others around...!"
Konoha and the enemy clashed at the predicted landing spot for the Indulgence Disk. Karate chops and tiger-clawed strikes collided repeatedly to produce acute sounds of impact in an intense battle. An unarmed brawl involving both arms and legs. Instantly, Fear was struck by a sense of dissonance. Seeing the way the two girls were fighting, Fear was struck by a certain unbelievable feeling.
She had witnessed Konoha fighting countless times in the past. Knife hand thrusts and attacks honed and trained to near perfection. Resisting her, the enemy employed what were known as tiger claws, with naturally curled fingers and forceful, well-honed strikes. Incredible resilience could be felt from the girl's slender body.
The two girls were taking a long time to decide the victor. Thus, the Indulgence Disk fell amidst their chaotic battle. A new element, the Indulgence Disk, was added to the exchange of offense and defense. An attempt to catch it. Prevention. Deflection. An attempt to catch it. A feint—The Disk danced and flew between the movements of the two girls' limbs. Don't break it—Just as Fear prayed in her heart and was about to join in the fray—
"Oh no, not again! Be more careful, Cow Tits!"
Probably due to the unusual forces from the two girls' attacks, the Indulgence Disk did not reach the ground even once, gaining new kinetic energy repeatedly, tracing out another high parabola and flying off somewhere.
"Looks like coming here alone was a mistake!"
While the enemy was staring at the Indulgence Disk, Konoha seized the opening to send the girl flying with a palm strike. The girl pressed the soles of her feet firmly against the ground, producing intense friction while at the same time striving to prevent herself from falling over. Nevertheless, her body still flew backwards nonstop until she finally reached out and hooked her arm on a street lamp on the side, forcibly halting the movement of her body. Looking like nothing more than "a push," the attack should not have caused any damage, but simply creating distance alone was enough. Indeed, as long as the Indulgence Disk remained on their side, it did not matter who picked it up.
"You're the closest, so I'm counting on you!"
As it happened, Kirika was closest to the Disk and started running as fast as she could. Judging from the enemy's current position, the girl definitely could not get there in time. Got it—Just as Fear was thinking that...
A strange snapping sound was heard.
Using her bare hands, the girl had sliced the street lamp into two.
Her gaze was focused intently on Kirika who was about to pick up the Indulgence Disk. Zzzt—Cut off from electrical power, the street lamp instantly went dark, causing the color of the night to intensify even more.
In a space shrouded by new shadows, the girl lifted the street lamp onto her shoulder—
Licking the surface of the street lamp, she then murmured softly:
"Go forth and pierce, my will—!"
A foreboding premonition suddenly raced across Fear's spine. Konoha also displayed sudden alarm on her face.
"Kirika! Watch out...!"
But it was too late. Arching her body back to accumulate power, the enemy then poured her full strength into the street lamp on her shoulder, launching it forward.
Instead of flying straight like a javelin, the street lamp rotated as it flew without sufficient directionality. Then simply brushing past Kirika's shoulder just as she was about to pick up the Indulgence Disk—
It severed Kirika's arm cleanly at its base.
Fear heard Haruaki's exclamation of surprise. She also heard Kirika's scream and Konoha's gasp.
Due to external, physical force, the palm, which had lost the concept of gripping, swatted the Indulgence Disk away. Spewing a certain dark red liquid that melded into the darkness, Kirika's severed arm spun in circles as it flew backwards. Spinning, spinning, spinning—
Then—It did not fall to the ground.
What was heard was not the thud of her arm striking the ground.
Instead, it was a sound of "wow" that was much quieter than the sound of a collision. It was also accompanied by the sound of speaking.
"Oh dear... Could this situation be considered a long-absent chance for skin contact between siblings?"
Judging from the current circumstances, Yamimagari Pakuaki emerged from the surrounding darkness without prior warning, exactly as his name implied. Looking not particularly surprised, he readily caught his flesh-and-blood sister's severed arm.
"What the heck...!?"
Incomprehensible. Why was he here? What was he doing? What did he come here to do?
"That guy, back during the cultural festival... The incompetent... Lab Chief's Nation's...!"
"—Yamimagari Pakuaki! Why are you here!?"
Seeing his arrival, Bivorio and Kururi stared in wide-eyed shock. Ever since the face off during the cultural festival, this was probably their first time encountering Yamimagari Pakuaki again. Hence, they were extremely surprised as one would expect.
However, Pakuaki simply glanced at the situation but still spoke in a very casual tone of voice. Most unbelievably, he was holding Kirika's arm and pointing it forward like a conductor's baton.
"Developments have become so interesting that I am greatly touched. Why did it become like this? What should happen next—These unknowns truly rouse my curiosity. In any case, Un Izoey, can you first bring that over to me now? That object seems to be the crux of the matter."
Naturally, Un Izoey was following behind Pakuaki. Dressed in a lab coat and a tribal skirt, her attire indicated her identity as a member of the Lab Chief's Nation.
Next, a dark-skinned beast charged forward. Without waiting to confirm the result, the enemy girl had started running at full speed the instant she launched the street lamp. At this moment, Un Izoey and the girl met each other at the place where the Indulgence Disk had fallen on the ground after bouncing off Kirika's palm. The knife-wielding foot and the girl's tiger claws were engaged in fierce combat at incredible speed, faster than the naked eye could follow. After a few exchanges, both sides jumped backwards at the same time, pulling back slightly. Then Un Izoey's knife could be heard falling on the ground between them.
However, this did not mean that Un Izoey had lost. In the battle just now, neither side had gained the upper hand over the other. The knife had dropped simply because Un Izoey chose to make a tradeoff.
"I make a statement: giving the explanation that the current goal is not a hunt to kill prey. Like stealing an egg from a ba-oon's nest. My side gaining the advantage is obvious beyond obvious."
Taking the place of the knife between her toes was the Indulgence Disk. Obviously, rather than bending over to pick up by hand, it was faster for Un Izoey to grab the prize with her feet that were as nimble as her hands. She had prioritized the execution of Pakuaki's command.
In the end, the Indulgence Disk had neither fallen into the hands of Fear's side nor the enemy girl, but unbelievably, the third party—the Lab Chief's Nation. Fear gripped her torture instrument tightly, glaring at Un Izoey while preparing a stance to engage in battle. However—
"Please don't come over. I request such a request."
Un Izoey was frowning and spoke with some reluctance. She looked like she was in a real dilemma. Hence, the notion of "taking it back by force at all costs" in Fear's heart was weakened slightly in an instant.
Nevertheless, the enemy girl could not possibly hesitate for the same reason.
"I refute: giving the response that this object does not belong to you!"
Un Izoey tossed the Indulgence Disk at Pakuaki behind her while drawing another knife from under her skirt. The girl chased after the Indulgence Disk and approached Pakuaki, but Un Izoey went forward to intercept her, of course. The two began to engage each other in a deadly dance as before. Un Izoey should be able to focus on fighting even more than just now, but there was no change in the tides of battle. This implied that the enemy's skills and capabilities were definitely authentic.
The girl had fought Konoha head on and was now engaged in direct combat with Un Izoey.
Nevertheless, she did not show any signs of being intimidated or overwhelmed.
She simply displayed those eyes filled with vigor and a beast-like sense of competitiveness.
—As well as willpower as strong and firm as refined steel.
"! ...I speculate that this is a lapella that might be a little tough to defeat..."
The two pulled apart again, resulting in a brief pause on the battlefield.
As though waiting for this precise moment, Pakuaki spoke up in a confident and leisurely manner:
"Okay—stop, stop. Let's time out for a break. Oh, allow me to return this to you. Although it should grow back even if you leave it unattended, reattaching the arm to regenerate should be faster... Because it's been thoroughly tested in experiments before, do you still remember?"
Pakuaki gripped the palm of Kirika's severed arm as though shaking hands before casually tossing it back at Kirika. Sitting on the ground in a crouched position, Kirika was looking up towards him, glaring fiercely while barely managing to catch the arm. A curse known as wrath, a curse known as hatred, a curse known as malice. In Kirika's eyes, all that existed were curses.
However, this was the same for Fear and Konoha as well. They were simply glaring at Pakuaki. Despite feeling unwell due to Kirika's bleeding, Konoha still glared at him.
Having exhibited behavior that indicated how different he was from normal people, Pakuaki had now gained control over the entire situation. Everyone had no choice but to look towards him. Perhaps this was his true motive. Even the enemy girl stopped her movements and glared at Pakuaki as well.
Pakuaki seemed to enjoy her staring. Spreading his hands lightly to the sides, he said:
"Well then... You have things you want to do, but I have mine as well. Using this time for respite, may I satisfy my desire first? Namely, to elucidate a simple unknown. It goes without saying, I am referring to you, of course... Could you at least tell me your name?"
The girl's gaze shifted lightly to the side.
...From the Indulgence Disk in Pakuaki's hand towards another woman. The Japanese sword with the giant bust that stood as an affront to the eyes.
The girl slowly took a breath and one could hear a certain emotion about to overflow despite her attempts to suppress it.
"Very well, mine appellation be..."
Then in an archaic manner of speech that poorly matched her appearance—
Her sharp gaze, akin to the sharpened edge of a steel blade, continued to glare at Konoha while she spoke:
"—Kotetsu. Nagasone Kotetsu."
Translator's Notes and References
- Chin-Chin(チンチン): chin-chin is also Japanese slang for "penis."
- Shinsengumi(新撰組): the Shinsengumi was a special police force during Japan's late shogunate period and has been portrayed extensively in popular culture.
- "Yami" in Yamimagari means darkness.
- Nagasone Kotetsu(長曾祢 虎徹): Nagasone Kotetsu(長曾禰 虎徹, 祢 is the simplified form of 禰) was a Japanese swordmaker during the 17th century. "Kotetsu" is popularly used as a name for swords in various anime, manga and video game series.
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