Konoha reached towards the card in the middle—But that was a feint. The silver-haired little lady's face distorted slightly to show an evil grin.
Then swiftly moving her fingertips again, Konoha made a grab for the card on the left—But this was also a feint. The silver-haired little lady's eyebrow twitched slightly.
Still so easy to read, Konoha thought to herself and directly drew the card on the left, but in that very instant—
"I-Impossible!? It's the Joker?"
"Puhu—! Damn Cow Tits, you totally got fooled! Judging from your look just now, surely you were thinking 'still so easy to read,' right!? Hmph, I've already figured out your little brain circuits that are small enough to fit in my hand... So just give up and it'd be best if you shrink those cow tits that are giving me eye cancer so that they fit in my hand as well, how's that!?"
"Guh! When did you start learning these petty little tricks of deception...!? Looks like I have underestimated you. Still, I have no intention of losing. Things will not go your way from here on!"
Sitting opposite, Fear scoffed with a look that seemed to be saying "Just try it if you think you can—" with a taunting grin. Then she opened the backpack on her lap and began rummaging through it.
Konoha sighed lightly and turned to the side, presenting her cards up high towards the person sitting next to her. Thinking calmly, she found it quite strange to be playing cards together like this. Her neighbor—Kaidou Imi the teacher in the bright-red tracksuit—was in the process of adjusting the shovel between her knees slightly while saying: "Students, despite the different circumstances right now, I do not want excessive loud chattering so please pay slightly more attention to your noise level. I might consider disciplining you if this racket continues."
With great manliness, she instantly drew the Joker from Konoha's hand. Presumably due to seeing the card in her hand, Kaidou emitted a soft groan.
Since the shovel had yet to be mobilized, there was still room before lines were crossed but Kaidou's person alone was plenty intimidating already. Fear fished out a packet of rice crackers from the backpack she had been searching.
"Sure, yeah. I swear I'll be more careful from now on, but these rice crackers are very tasty. I hope you'll try some, Sensei. Let me state for the record that this absolutely isn't bribery or sucking up to the teacher... Honestly."
Making a look as though she were feeding a ferocious beast, Fear stuffed a rice cracker into Kaidou's mouth. Kaidou began to chew, producing crunching noises. Even after Fear withdrew her hand, the piece of rice cracker remained hanging between her lips. Chewing on the rice cracker in this manner, Kaidou turned herself and presented her cards to the next player. At the end of this row of three seats, sitting by Kaidou's side was the assistant homeroom teacher who served as her aide—Sagisaki Saki-sensei. She had a petite figure, wore thick glasses exhibiting swirls and was dressed in a plain, navy-blue suit with black garter stockings. She seemed especially timid and lacking in confidence. Konoha did not know if that was because she had freshly joined the workforce or simply her personality.
"U-Uh, which should I pick...? I seem... quite indecisive... Ah oooh, seems like I need to apologize to everyone, sorry for taking too much time. Even though I know this is bad and I should act more like a reliable teacher, awawawa!"
"Munch munch much... Sagisaki-sensei, it is highly unlikely that anyone would judge your image as a teacher through this game of cards. I suggest that you try not to worry so much and just pick any card."
While the two teachers were conversing, Kana made a thumbs up while sitting beside Fear.
"Fear-chan, well done! Operation Echigoya, success! You're quite a villain~!"
"Kukuku... All conflict will disappear in the face of rice crackers, because they're simply too tasty. Even though this wonderful food can clearly contribute to world peace, why doesn't the United Nations set up a World Rice Crackers Organization to devote efforts towards protecting and developing rice crackers...? It's totally mind boggling."
Naturally, Fear also took out her share of rice crackers and began to munch heartily. Konoha already knew that in addition to her backpack, Fear had stuffed every outside pocket full of rice crackers, calling it the "exclusive bag for rice crackers." Konoha sighed deeply and said:
"I don't know how many times I've repeated myself already. The iron-clad principle for times like these is to keep baggage to a minimum as much as possible. I'm not asking you to not bring snacks but you can easily buy them locally at the destination."
"That's right! Local purchasing— That's what I'm really looking forward to! There could be rare rice crackers there that I've never seen before, no, there definitely will be! That gives me even more reason to finish gobbling these rice crackers here! Because I must make space, the rice crackers I'm taking home as souvenirs won't fit at this rate! Acceleration Mechanism—Go!"
Fear instantly increased her rice cracker eating speed and Konoha gave up on wasting more words. At this moment, Sagisaki-sensei finally managed to draw a card.
"Hmm... I guess it's this one! Eeee, it's the joker! This feels like a great failure that a teacher really shouldn't make!"
But didn't that smug teacher beside you draw the Joker without hesitation? Naturally, Konoha had the tact to refrain from voicing these thoughts.
"Uh... The next player seems to be Ueno-san...?"
"Oh sorry for not paying attention. Then I'll draw now."
Sitting next to Kana, opposite to Sagisaki-sensei, Kirika was apparently looking around a bit. Konoha could understand vaguely what she was looking at while returning to the game as if nothing had happened.
The girls were sitting in a space where two rows of three seats each were positioned facing each other. Separated by the aisle, a set of opposite-facing two-seaters was where four boys were playing card mahjong. He was among them.
Because Konoha was frequently glancing at the same person all along, naturally, she could understand.
Although it was the same as usual, Konoha could sense that Kirika's glances were more frequent than before. This was surely because the situation was different, whether for Konoha or Kirika.
The current situation was one where people would spontaneously hope to see special moments of a particular type and devote more glances than usual. In a certain sense, such behavior was also only natural.
Indeed—This was the situation where they were taking the bullet train on a long journey together with him.
Even for Konoha who had been living with him for many years, this was quite a rare experience.
Haruaki and his classmates, a total of four of them, were playing card mahjong. Although he did not know how to calculate the points, he still retained lingering knowledge of the basic rules and card suites that his father had taught him in the past.
"Hold on, thinking too long is forbidden!"
"Hmm—Yeah, we can't allow Haruaki to stay so far in the lead any longer...! But I'm a lost cause. Taizou, I'm counting on you!"
"He clearly looks like he's putting out cards arbitrarily in leisure. Is detached indifference the trick to victory?"
Taizou and his two buddies Animori and Murasawa were staring at their respective cards solemnly. They looked like they were going to take some time, hence Haruaki turned his gaze towards the interior of the train car.
At the adjacent row of three seats—currently turned around to produce a six-seater arrangement—Fear's group was currently playing old maid harmoniously. Apart from the original quartet of Fear, Konoha, Kirika and Kana, the leaders Kaidou-sensei and Sagisaki-sensei had also joined them for some reason. What a rare sight.
Fear began to holler: "So... very fast—!" while pressing against the window, trembling emotionally on occasion but eventually got used to it as time went by. Chewing the rice crackers from her exclusive bag for rice crackers, she was happily playing cards while squabbling with Konoha on occasion.
Haruaki leaned out slightly to gaze further down the aisle behind him where another group of girls were sitting.
"Sigh, Sakuramairi-san, don't just keep staring out the window! Let's have some girl talk on exciting and embarrassing topics, and try some sweets too! I've brought so many snacks, so be my guest and have some! Go on!"
Resting her chin on her hand, Shiraho was gazing at the scenery outside the window. Her classmate Sorashiro was shoving snacks towards her face. Shiraho pushed the food away in apparent annoyance. Upon seeing the snacks she had pushed away, she even began to frown.
"Goodness gracious, that's enough, stop annoying me. Why don't you hurry up and take a nap as usual...? Right, Hinata, don't you usually eat Pocky during these occasions? Why did you bring steamed buns?"
"I'm getting a head start! Like practicing a traditional Japanese mood first!"
"My discovery... So round... I stare—"
Noticing the gaze from the opposite seat facing her, Shiraho narrowed her eyes, grabbed Hinata's hand that was holding the steamed bun and forcefully changed its direction. After Shiraho shoved the teamed bun forward, bringing it to the lips of the dark-skinned female student. The round shape was gradually eroded while she chewed.
"Wow! I-Izoey-san is so cute! I've got lots more so eat as many as you like!"
"My comment: due to round and delicious, I give reaction of gladly accepting your kindness."
"Do as you wish. Sigh... Although it's just a few days, not being able to see each other whenever we want is such suffering... Sovereignty..."
Shiraho turned her gaze outside the window and murmured to herself, sighing in melancholy. Meanwhile, Hinata was feeding Un Izoey successfully. Haruaki concluded that this group was relatively peaceful as well.
Soon after, the number of mahjong rounds reached half-game and it was time for a break. Haruaki left Taizou and the others to shuffle the deck while he got up to go to the washroom.
The first washroom he found was occupied and displaying a red light. Standing in the narrow corridor between train cars, Haruaki looked around in search of vacant washrooms. Then the it just so happened that the previous washroom opened. The heavy door panel slid open sideways and the person exiting was—
"Oh hi, Class Rep."
Haruaki greeted her as usual, but only came to a sudden realization after seeing Kirika's gaze wander in a slightly troubled manner. Glancing at the washroom symbol, he noticed that it was a unisex washroom. Entering directly after her would seem a bit lacking in delicacy. But on the other hand, turning around and leaving did not seem right either, because it felt like a message of "I don't want to enter after you" which would end up being even more impolite, right...?
These troubling thoughts rapidly swirled and occupied Haruaki's mind in short time. Should he enter or retreat? Presumably, Kirika was also feeling similarly indecisive about her next action. Her hand remained on the washroom door without moving. Just at this moment—
The bullet train was shaking a bit. Haruaki instantly lost balance and pushed forward out of habit to avoid falling. He had no choice but to take a step forward but Kirika was right in front so all he could do was guard with his arms and ended up pushing Kirika's body backwards. As a result, Kirika's hand naturally released her grip on the door she was holding onto for support, in other words—
Hearing the sound of the heavy door closing due to its own weight—
Haruaki found himself tightly packed into the cramped washroom together with Kirika.
His arm was wrapped around her waist as though embracing her tightly. Naturally, he had reached out frantically to prevent her body from falling over backwards. Hence, the two of them were tilted in a subtly out of balance state in the same spot. Haruaki could feel from his fingertips the sensation of something hard beneath her uniform as well as something soft even further beneath. Their faces were very close together. He could see her face turning bright red.
"N-No, sorry, anyway, I'm sorry! I was afraid you might fall so it inexplicably became like this!"
"Idiot, don't be so loud! If we get seen by others in this situation... A-Absolutely ridiculous...!"
This situation. The situation where the two of them were squeezed in a cramped washroom, pressed tightly together as well.
If they were seen by others—Indeed, it would be a very serious problem!
"Yeah. Seriously... Absolutely... ridiculous..."
But incredibly, Kirika did not take further action. Without pushing Haruaki's body away, she simply whispered her usual catchphrase weakly. Haruaki actually felt her exerting more force through her arm instead... Definitely his imagination. Perhaps due to being severely out of balance, she was very careful in taking the first step. Indeed, she must be worrying about moving recklessly and losing balance even more, which might end up putting her hand in contact with the washroom floor. So that explained it.
But this posture could not be maintained indefinitely. Resolving himself to take action proactively to fix the problem, Haruaki started moving. First, he had to regain balance. Hence, he shifted his feet slightly then supporting his upper body that was still leaning forward, he then moved his hand—
While pondering, his first move in progress ended up failing spectacularly. Next to his foot was a pedal for turning on water at the sink. Accidentally, he had stepped on the pedal. In his forward leaning posture, Haruaki's head happened to be just above the sink, therefore—
"Uwah, so cold!"
"Y-Yachi, what's with you?"
"Ugh—I used my own head to block the water that came out because I stepped on the pedal... I'm so clumsy."
Several moments later—
"Ha... Fufu... You're really..."
Kirika could not hold back anymore and laughed quietly. The reward for his foolish act was that he was finally able to stand up straight and release his arm as well so that the two of them were simply standing in the washroom—that said, Haruaki still had doubts whether the word "simply" could be applied to the situation so casually. Haruaki responded to Kirika with a smile to hide his embarrassment.
"H-Hahah... No, I'm sorry. Uh, anyway... Let's go outside first."
"O-Of course. We have to get out first."
Checking out the surrounding situation, they carefully stepped out of the washroom. Luckily, no one saw them. Breathing a huge sigh of relief together in the passage, after a moment of silence facing each other—
"So... Uh, I'm going to enter again. For the original purpose."
"Y-You don't have to report to me deliberately. Absolutely ridiculous."
Of course, Haruaki entered another washroom, exclusively male, which was now vacant after their little slapstick episode.
Naturally, being a boy, Haruaki did not take long. After finishing his business quickly, he walked out. There were two independent sink spaces next to each other in the passage. Kirika was still standing before one of the sinks, drying her wet hands with a handkerchief. Using the mirror, she looked at Haruaki and said:
"Let me ask just in case, you're okay where the water struck you, right?"
"Ah... Yeah, I just got splashed a little. I've wiped it a bit just now so it should dry quickly."
Haruaki was also starting to wash his hands at the adjacent sink. At this moment, the sound of the passage's automatic door opening could be heard.
"My statement: please wait. I report back with a report that I am currently in the passage."
It was Un Izoey's voice. After washing his hands and leaving the sink area, Haruaki could see Un Izoey with a cellphone against her ear, her sports bag placed on the floor while she was crouched down. She looked like she was going through her luggage to find something.
"By my judgment, I conclude that the problem might have become reality. Really, not here. No, present it may be, but fewer than expected—Yes. One day's portion. My analysis: because I kept it on the table earlier, intending to have it carefully washed before setting off on the trip—but too carefully, I forgot to take it..."
Un Izoey sat down on the floor with a thud, keeping the phone against her ear using her shoulder while pulling out something from her luggage that resembled a hand towel and spreading it out. Judging from her replies that could be heard vaguely, she probably discovered she had forgotten to pack something only after someone phoned to inform her.
At this moment, Un Izoey turned around and glanced at them. Although she had sensed their presence from the beginning, it seemed like she had not recognized their identity as acquaintances until now. Instantly, she swiftly stuffed the towel-like object back into the depths of her bag.
"! ...Eh? Y-Yes? The itinerary for this class? Please wait, I am looking for the handbook..."
However, she did not hang up but began flipping through a booklet she took out instead. What did she forget to bring? As much as Haruaki felt curious, the attitude she displayed after discovering Haruaki and Kirika seemed a little frantic and embarrassed. Since she was a girl after all, perhaps it would be best not to interfere recklessly.
About to return to her seat, Kirika also noticed Un Izoey and stopped walking while eyeing her suspiciously.
"Hmph. I hope you're not scheming something devious."
"Haha... She shouldn't be. See, she's been very rule-abiding lately. Also in the earlier incident as well. She should know how to discern what is right and wrong."
"You mean Amanda?"
Haruaki nodded in response to her slanted gaze and recalled what had happened a few days earlier.
At Un Izoey's request, the group had gathered at the Yachi residence.
At the time, she had finally fulfilled the earlier promise—Allowing Haruaki's group to meet the recovered Amanda. A former member of the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion, Amanda ended up with a broken mind after a complicated interplay of goodwill, malice, intention and coincidence. Earlier, it was difficult to meet her due to her health condition but the recovery treatment had finally concluded and she was supposed to have regained the ability to move about like a normal person.
"She looks very healthy, thank goodness... Although we didn't get to talk much."
On that occasion, Amanda basically spent all her time hiding behind Un Izoey's lab coat in shy awkwardness. Although she was originally an enemy, they had lived together once even if only for a couple days. Haruaki's group was equally unsure what attitude to take towards someone like her just as she was apparently confused about her position.
They ended up not doing much. After seeing her face, Fear and the others smiled with relief. After they asked "How are you?", she nodded while hiding behind Un Izoey's lab coat, causing her white hair to bob up and down once. This reunion was truly trivial and quite boring but one thing was certain, the mood was very warm and congenial.
"However, the only problem is that she joined the Lab Chief's Nation. The way I see it, that's completely insane. They must have taken advantage of her helplessness to recruit her. This organization is the worst as expected."
"But Un Izoey said that her job is like ordinary chores."
"Even not as a researcher, simply staying in that rotten organization will gradually taint her. If possible, I really want her to quit... Hmph. However, since she used to be part of another organization, at least she won't place blind trust in that man from the get go. That is the only saving grace."
Speaking of blind trust—Haruaki shifted his gaze. Un Izoey was still talking on the phone while searching her luggage. In the past... Haruaki remembered the first encounter during the cultural festival. That was how Un Izoey looked back then. Was she still blindly believing everything Pakuaki said?
Haruaki could not decide. Were it not for the experiences to this date—without what had happened during Christmas, the third school term and in spring—he definitely would not be having such doubts now. Perhaps that in itself was a kind of answer.
"Yachi, what are you spacing out for?"
"Oh sorry. It's time to get back."
In any case, they left Un Izoey alone and returned to their seats. Kirika played cards with Fear and the girls while Haruaki resumed the card mahjong game with Taizou and the boys. For some reason, the boys even named it the 'Yachi Haruaki Revenge Cup.' Haruaki was certain that his earlier success was clearly just good luck.
While arranging the initially dealt cards, Haruaki felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. The text message subject was "Commemorating the establishment of the Lonely to Death Alliance." The body had no content apart from an attached photo, taken next to a table in some kind of cafe or restaurant with Kuroe and Sovereignty smiling happily shoulder to shoulder while making victory hand signs.
Catching sight of silver motion from the corner of his eye, Haruaki turned to look at the adjacent seats across the aisle. Fear and the girls had also taken out their cellphones to check the screens in the middle of their game of old maid. The same text message was apparently sent to everyone in the usual group.
Fear looked towards Haruaki and said:
"You received it too? Damn that Kuroe, how is that lonely to death at all? They clearly look so happy."
"Just let it slide... It'd be true if she were left behind alone, but now that there's someone else to play with her, that's actually good. Otherwise, I think she'll try to come along with us no matter what."
On the other hand, a certain person who had to set off alone was probably having a tougher time. Haruaki turned to look at the seats behind him. Probably due to receiving the same text message from Sovereignty, Shiraho was hugging her cellphone against her chest, almost about to faint.
"Ahhh! I can't stand this any further! In any case, I'm so lonely I'm about to die! Ahhh!"
"Sakuramairi-san has suddenly become very interesting! Hey, don't get so emotional. Eat a steamed bun and calm down!"
Hearing that cheerful voice behind the seat, Konoha closed her cellphone.
"It's just four days and three nights, Kuroe-san still has work and this is a school trip as well. I have never heard of school trips where family members came along as well. As much as I sympathize with her, she has to be the one to watch the house."
"She does deserve sympathy but Konoha-kun is right. Then at least we should take more care in choosing souvenirs for Kuroe-kun."
"Ueno-san, there's no need for you to trouble yourself over that. Although not recently, Kuroe-san frequently likes wandering off and traveling all over the place. Since our destination is a must-see in terms of tourist attractions, she has probably visited it many times already."
"A must-see... This kind of place will really... Oh."
Fear frantically closed her mouth and drew a card from Kana's hand as though trying to cover up something. Apparently getting the Joker, she immediately began to pout.
Haruaki knew what Fear was trying to cover up. Due to the presence of Kana and Sagisaki-sensei, as well as Taizou and the boys on Haruaki's side, Fear could not blurt things out recklessly.
"Indeed it's a must-see. There should be quite a lot of people who went in middle school already—"
"Those who are going for the first time in high school could very well be the minority. It seems like the destination is the same as last year's. In any case, it's all decided by the superintendent's whims."
"Since Fear-chan was born overseas, perhaps this could be considered a perfect pick, the most standard tourist spot best exemplifying traditional Japanese style. This isn't anything bad at all. Since there's no need to be too excited, personally, I'm quite enjoying it."
Listening to Kirika and Kana's conversation, Haruaki began to recall.
He recalled what happened several days earlier, on a certain day in early May, in the superintendent's office.
Ever since the last incident, Fear had kept saying: "I want to actively collect more Indulgence Disks." Hence, the superintendent had summoned Haruaki's group.
Haruaki could imagine vaguely why Fear had made such a request.
During the previous incident, after encountering and parting with an underclassman girl, Fear had discovered a dormant power inside herself. Using two Rubik's cubes simultaneously, she had transformed both of them into her emulated forms, tools of torture and execution. After discovering the new combat technique of Dual Emulation—precisely because she discovered it by accident—she realized that it was necessary for her to restrict her functions more actively. Haruaki understood quite well. As for whether there were other reasons... He had no idea.
At least it was certain that Fear did not quite enjoy manifesting "her past self" to use as weapons to begin with. This inevitably made her recall her past and gave rise to the risk of getting devoured by dark memories. Ever since Haruaki encountered Fear, although she always looked like she was controlling the cube nonchalantly, Fear was probably constantly paying attention, staying on alert and persistently resisting that darkness.
One alone was hard enough already, but now that there were two, Haruaki could easily imagine the pathways towards contacting that darkness to have doubled. He could also imagine the voices whispering contemptible curses to have doubled. Hence, in this regard, for the sake of reducing the curse, Fear could hardly be blamed for wanting more strongly to obtain Indulgence Disks than before.
In any case—
The superintendent had agreed very readily to Fear's request, apparently still feeling that he owed them favors. He promised Haruaki's group that he would gather all available information about the Indulgence Disks' whereabouts and try to get his hands on them if possible. After making this promise, this was the first time he summoned them all to the superintendent's office, hence, everyone in addition to Fear was filled with anticipation, of course.
However, facing Haruaki's group who were standing ready before him, sitting in front of the usual desk, the superintendent said:
"Puhohu... You will obtain what you desire as long as you go west. Fufu!"
All he gave was ambiguous information that resembled the guidance that sages would offer heroes in video games. Despite their efforts to pursue the matter, the superintendent simply kept silent and shook his shoulders happily, leaving them no choice. All they could do was set off for this westward journey without finding out anything further. Considering the timing, the superintendent's cryptic hint was definitely related to this trip, but even to this point, Haruaki still had no idea what he meant specifically.
(I suppose his message can be interpreted as: we are able to obtain an Indulgence Disk during this trip? Even without given any information beforehand...? Hmm—If only coincidences were really that favorable.
Even without the answer, the bullet train still continued on its way at three hundred kilometers per hour, carrying not only Haruaki and friends who were baffled by the superintendent's unfriendly prediction but also the entire second-year student body of Taishyuu High out west.
In other words, for certain people, this could be considered the most important major event in their high school lives—namely, the school excursion with the destination being—
Kyoto and Nara.
Translator's Notes and References
- Echigoya(越後屋): a reference to the successful Mitsui family business, founded in the 17th century, that developed into Mitsukoshi, the root business of the Mitsui Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Japan. Apparently used as an euphemism for bribery.
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