Chapter 3 - Beauty and the Beast? ~Sakuramairi Shiraho on a Rampage~
—Hence, Fear visited that place once again.
"I've... finally... returned..."
While her eyes were staring solemnly straight ahead, her shiny silver hair was fluttering in the wind. As though trying to confirm various complex thoughts and emotions in her mind, she murmured softly:
"I've filled with regret every time I recall the scene back then. Why didn't I move my hands more? Why didn't I move my feet more? Why didn't I open my eyes more? Why didn't I do more—Ahhh, ultimately, I didn't get to do what I was supposed to do. Everything was incomplete, nowhere near enough. That's why—"
Fear was eagerly waiting with impatience for the instant when these desires exploded. Overflowing from her heart, these desires turned into countless breaths, swirling in her surroundings.
Nervousness and tension.
Unease and anticipation.
While monologing, she slowly took a step forward. The breaths hanging in the air were conferred the mission of breaking through the impasse.
"That's why I have to start all over again. I have to let everyone know that I'm no longer my past self. Even if it means crushing my feet, I won't halt my steps; even if it means tearing off my arms, I won't regret. I will carve everything into my memory, branding all sights into the back of my eyes. All this is for overcoming my foolish regrets!"
In the beginning, she simply walked slowly, then gradually she accelerated, soon reaching her fastest speed. Simply advancing nonstop, forward, forward!
Charge, charge, charge—
Watching Fear from behind, Haruaki narrowed his eyes and yelled to her. But surely, she could no longer hear him.
"Hey Fear, I'll first say this just in case. Your excitement is directed in the wrong direction. None of us can keep up with your pace."
Fear's gaze was locked onto the place she was currently about to rush into.
The words on the sign were no different from what they saw on their last visit.
Namely, the Woof Meow Friendship Park—
The name of the addictive paradise that made Fear lose rationality.
One ordinary Sunday morning, a dramatic change was brought about by Fear's sudden whim. Indeed, before that, the day was definitely as calm and peaceful as usual.
Haruaki was about to finish washing the breakfast utensils. While helping out, Konoha was preparing tea. Going off to work at her beauty parlor, Kuroe had opened the front door noisily and announced: "I'm off~..." On the other hand, Fear was lying on the tatami in boredom, watching television while saying: "Hmm~ What should I do today...? So bored."
However, a furry puppy television commercial started it all. As though suddenly recalling something, Fear stood up at once and yelled:
"Oh right! It's called the Woof Meow Friendship Park! Let's go there again! 'Cuz if you ask me whether I had enough fun there last time, I definitely can't answer affirmatively, besides, today is so free and the puppies and kittens are so furry and fluffy! Yes, let's do it! It's decided!"
In that instant, Haruaki almost dropped the plate he was washing, Konoha sighed deeply while Kuroe suddenly closed the front door that she had opened halfway, making a hundred-eighty-degree turn and declaring: "I'm off~ ...Not!"
"Getting ready to go out now would be somewhat troublesome. Why not relax and spend today casually at home?"
"What what? We're going out to have fun?"
"Guh, I can't believe you came back as her ally. If only you left for work a second sooner!"
"Oh dear~ Although I will always stand on Ficchi's side, somehow I'm really getting the feeling recently that I'm slacking off a bit too much. As a result, I'm just coming back to listen to the situation. I'll take a neutral stance this time. If you're going, I'll come along. If you're not going, I won't go either. Thanks for having me!"
"You're just feeling lonely if we leave you out, right?"
"That works too."
Confronted with the sudden suggestion, Haruaki and Konoha showed hesitancy on their faces while Kuroe remained neutral. However, Fear's determination was firm and she had already ran back to her room to begin rummaging seriously and prepare for an outing.
"You guys may say no, but it's really too boring. Since I know the location anyway, I must go even if I have to go alone!"
She showed no signs of giving up at all. However, it was definitely too worrying to let Fear wander far away on her own, to play outside unattended. Hence, Haruaki's group had no choice but to compromise in the end.
After getting ready to head out, they then took a bumpy bus ride for dozens of minutes. As soon as they arrived at the destination, Fear sprinted ahead, resulting in the current situation.
"Hmm... She really can't hear me."
Even though Haruaki had tried to remind Fear that her excitement was misdirected, naturally, none of it reached her ears. Looking at the back of the silver-haired figure as she ran into the entrance, Haruaki sighed.
"What starting all over again? ...She was clearly having a ton of fun last time, right?"
"It is true that she was having fun, but that child probably doesn't think so herself, sigh~"
"Because last time's situation required us to pay attention to clocks all the time. Although Ficchi looked like she was having fun to the max, I don't think that was actually the case."
"What are you guys doing!? Hurry and come in, hurry!"
Fear had already passed through the gate and was waving vigorously at them. She had apparently paid the entrance fee herself. Since the ticket was not expensive, she probably used money she had saved up from all her part-time jobs so far... Seeing her growth, Haruaki spontaneously felt happy for her but also experienced a sense of loneliness.
"Ehehe, O~nii~chan~♪ Ticket please!"
"Stop suddenly acting cute and saying nonsense. Working members of society should pay for themselves."
"Muu~ I was just thinking I should have you spoil me on Ficchi's behalf, Haru. Although I'm in the workforce, the economy has been bad recently. It's a huge problem for me too."
"In that case, that's even more reason for you to open shop and go to work, right? I can't believe you gave up on earnings completely on a valuable Sunday."
"Ah~ ah~ I can't hear anything~"
Haruaki bought his ticket while looking at the poster put up at the counter. Indeed, they were in quite a flustered state the last time they visited and could not spare any thoughts on leisurely browsing the park's maps, events and other promotional posters.
This Woof Meow Friendship Park was an integrated facility combining a zoo with an athletic park where visitors could bring pets in to play. Despite being a zoo, attractions were ultimately limited to the level of dogs and cats without offering large exotic animals like elephants or pandas. The promotional posters listed out various events such as "Come hug bunnies!" or "Pony Test-Riding Experience." Today's event turned out to be: "Monthly Tradition: Woof Meow Friendship Park's Couples Battle! The winning couple will be presented with an extravagant prize!" For some reason, wedding photos of random couples were put up next to the poster. What did it mean?
After waiting for Konoha and Kuroe to buy their tickets, Haruaki entered the gate as a trio. As soon as Fear saw the dog exercise plaza stretching before her eyes, she began to grow restless.
"Wow, wow... This place is really awesome! Furry little doggies over there, wait for me...!"
Probably reaching the limits of self-control, Fear took a step forward unsteadily. Haruaki hastily grabbed her by the collar.
"Shouldn't you plan a little first? You came here to have as much fun as you can, right...? I've brought the map so have a look first and decide which places you want to visit. There's still plenty of time."
Saying that, Haruaki glanced at the large clock standing in the plaza. The clock hands were concretely tracing out the passage of time—Haruaki could not help but feel slightly guilty, although back then, they had no choice.
"Muumuu. You have a point. After all, I can visit this park any time and I'll surely see doggies everywhere. So let's have a look at other attractions... Oh, here's the cat petting house I visited last time, it's a wonderful place. I have to go again. Also—this rabbit garden looks nice too. After all, as one of the twelve animals of the oriental zodiac, the rabbit mustn't be missed out. Do they allow petting? It'd be nice I could pet them. Rabbit fur probably feels different from dogs and cats. I never knew there were so many places to visit, like the pony farm or the aviary. Oh man, where should I start—Uhahahahahaha!"
"Crap, she can't stop laughing from over excitement. Ficchi, you've got to calm down!"
"She can't possibly calm down, right?"
"Indeed, it is impossible."
Haruaki and Konoha sighed deeply. Instantly, Fear snatched the map from Haruaki's hands and broke into a sprint.
"Okay, let's start over here! Hurry up or else I'll leave you guys behind! Don't get lost!"
"That's totally our advice to you!"
"I'm actually relieved that everything is happening too predictably. Fear, we're coming too, so wait up, stop running—!"
After that, Haruaki casually accompanied Fear to tour the park. He did not actually dislike animals and was only startled earlier when Fear suddenly suggested going out. Once arriving here, he decided that it was not a bad idea to spend a boring Sunday in this leisurely manner.
"Wow~ They're getting very used to this and don't struggle at all... But this kind of temperament is probably why they were placed here in the first place."
"In other words, cats for greeting visitors? Ufufu, this little one is a little chubby and reminds me of the manager... Mister manager, thank you for working so hard~"
What a peaceful time. Currently, the group was at the cat petting house that had Fear salivating completely. In terms of appearance, it resembled a small community center or daycare facility, equipped with playgrounds and cradles with blankets inside. Naturally, as the main attractions, the cats were also doing their own things as they pleased. Visitors were allowed to freely pet these cats inside this space.
Picking up a calico cat that was not afraid of strangers, Haruaki took a brief look all around. Konoha was using a foxtail toy that was kept here to play with a chubby cat. Fear was having a staring contest at eye-level with a cat with large round eyes. She did not pick the cat up. Instead, she had her chin pressed against the floor, her bottom sticking up, a rather unseemly posture. Not only her posture but of course, her hazy eyes and the drool about to drip out from the corner of her lips were unseemly to the extreme.
"Ehe... Really too cute... Fufuhe~"
Then Fear wriggled and lifted her chin, supporting herself with elbows against the floor. Her level of unseemliness sort of dropped a notch.
"O-Okay, that's about it for visual appreciation. I'm just warming up in consideration for the burden to my heart. If this were enough to satisfy me, my priorities would be totally wrong. Next, finally, it's time to... pet...!"
Still with her elbows against the floor, Fear slowly extended her fingertips towards the cat. The cat cocked its head and stared blankly at Fear. However, just as Fear was about to touch the cat, it started approaching Fear instead, taking tiny steps.
Fear was still in the same posture with her bottom up, elbows against the floor. Naturally, her collar was hanging low as result of gravity. Combined with the fact that Fear was modest in bust size, a vast cave naturally opened up beneath her collar. Cats were a type of creature that loved squeezing into narrow spaces, in other words—
The cat jumped into Fear's bosom all at once.
"Howawa! Wait... You ran there... Huahhhhhhh, but it's furry, it feels so furry in front of my chest! Hold on, if you move carelessly, you'll touch weird places, ahaha so ticklish... Mmm! Hey..."
Laughing one moment, going red in the face sometimes, making strange moans on occasion, Fear was making a ton of noise. The front of Fear's clothing shook as the cat moved about. Fear reached inside her collar, desperately trying to rescue the cat. Her collarbone flashed in and out of view while the dark expanse of unguarded space stretched beneath. Don't pull too hard or else your collar be stretched out of shape—Haruaki thought with escapism while quietly turning his gaze away as usual.
But just as he turned away, he saw Kuroe. She was staring at him intently with a bit of a sad look in her eyes.
"Ficchi ended up stealing naturally... what I was planning to do deliberately. This makes me feel... a little... jealous."
"W-What are you talking about?"
"Hmm. Hey, Haru, look..."
Kneeling on the floor with her calves against the outside of her thighs, Kuroe grabbed her skirt with her tiny hands. Then slowly, she lifted the hem, revealing her calves, then her knees, then her thighs—
"Hold on... What are you doing?"
"Don't ask so many questions. Just watch. I can't bear it any longer... So ticklish and so hot. So, have a look..."
Just as Haruaki was about to turn his gaze away again, out from between Kuroe's legs—in other words, beneath her skirt—a black cat poked its head out. Having lost the dark place where it had been resting quietly, the black cat made a discontented expression, got up on its little legs and walked away in search of new shelter.
"Bye bye~ Hmm... You have no idea how much effort it took me to drive that cat into this place! Not only do I need to consider the most comfortable size of the space but also calculate how far apart my legs should be... Even I can't help but feel jealous of Ficchi! That's why I gave up on the 'using suggestive language to make Haru misunderstand and get flustered' operation. Since it's lost its novelty, there's no point in delaying the delivery. Onwards to execute the next plan!"
"You don't have to execute anything! Jeez, I can't believe you're doing this kind of stuff while I'm not paying attention!"
"But then again, after experiencing this furry feeling in a spot I've never tried before, I'm beginning to find it kind of nice... Huhya! Hmm... Hyah!? No, it's no good, seems like it's no good after all, hey—You should come out too! Ooph—!"
—In any case...
Haruaki concluded that the girls all seemed to be having quite a fun time in their own respective ways.
After spending quite some time interacting with animals, Fear and company started to feel a bit hungry. Hence, they went for some simple food at an area lined with gift shops and restaurants. Although it was still too early for lunch, filling their stomachs was crucial because they still had not visited half the places they were supposed to go, due to going on many detours on whim.
Fear finished her after-dinner tea in one gulp.
"Hey Haruaki, you guys are going to take a break here for a while, right? Then during this time, can I go over to the gift shop to have a look?"
Haruaki was sitting before the restaurant table, sipping tea absentmindedly. Hearing Fear, he turned his head to face her. What a carefree guy he was. Come on, in order to try out all the facilities without leaving any regrets, even a single second must not be wasted.
"Sure... But don't buy things yet because it'll be troublesome to carry around."
"I know. I'm just gonna look."
Fear walked over to the gift shop near the restaurant. Inside, all sorts of goods were laid out. There were stickers, desk pads and key holders emblazoned with the logo of the Woof Meow Friendship Park. Other relatively unusual products included pet collars, leashes and dog clothing with the same logo. The targeted customers were probably the visitors who brought their own pets to the park. In addition, there were many other goods that did not seem very related to the park, but simply placed together due to relevance to cats and dogs, such as stationery, piggy banks, plush dolls...
Fear suddenly stopped walking. Her gaze drawn to a certain location, her feet could no longer move. She crouched down on the spot, gazing intently at the massive object displayed behind a fence to prevent visitors from touching it.
One could categorize it as a plush doll. Also a cat. But no ordinary cat.
"I know... what this is. It's the park's most popular mascot, MeltyCat...!"
At all of the park's cat zones they had visited so far, virtually all the signs and buildings depicted this mascot. A lethargic in a lying down posture, drawn in an extreme version of super deformed style. Looking as though it was about to melt from heat, the cat's outline was a bit indistinct. Nevertheless, the distorted lines produced an unusual sense of adorability and comicality.
While staring at that thing, Fear slightly expanded her awareness into the surroundings. Apparently, the vicinity of this fence was the corner focusing on MeltyCat merchandise, including various things like key holders and cellphone straps. As though guarding the goods and also like the master of this corner, the massive MeltyCat plush doll, standing over a meter tall by visual estimates, was displayed prominently in the very center.
"Guh!? N-Now they've really got me—Is this a trap they set, knowing I'd be captivated by MeltyCat as soon as I laid my eyes on it!? I-I really want it...!"
"Oooh... But, 'Not for sale, please do not touch' huh... Makes sense. As the master here, it won't be very dignified if anyone could buy MeltyCat. Even if it's for sale, I'm guessing that the price is definitely beyond the money in my purse... So it's telling me to settle for buying other MeltyCat merchandise..."
But Fear was unable to tear her eyes off the plush doll. Staring intently at the adorable yet solemn fact, she then breathed out, long and deep. At the same time, she also heard a sigh from beside her.
"S-So cute. Unimaginably cute..."
"Yeah, it's really unimaginably cute..."
The other person was probably just murmuring to himself, but Fear could not help but concur because their sentiments matched completely. She also found the youth's voice a little familiar. But because her eyes were glued to MeltyCat, Fear did not turn to look at the voice's owner. All she could tell was that the other person next to her was crouching as well, staring in mesmerization at the same plush doll.
"Sigh... How could it be this cute...? I guess it's fully of mystery..."
"The greatest thing is how it looks so furry and soft. There this mysterious sense of balance in appearance... I really wanna try touching it. Who knows what it feels to the touch..."
"Definitely furry and fluffy. Ooh, just imagining it is making me feel unbearable!"
"If I could hold it in the palms of my hands... Who knows what I'm going to do to it."
"I really wanna put it on my head!"
"When sleeping, crawling under this soft plushie to use it as a blanket... Then of course, waking up in this state would mean having MeltyCat's face dominate your entire view! Ahhh, I'd die of happiness first thing in the morning! And thus, a space even harder to leave than the kotatsu is born!"
"Oh look! The mini-plushie is labeled 'Changes color when dipped into hot water'!"
"What!? W-What if that kind of high-tech function is also installed in the master... H-Holy cow!"
Fear turned her head in surprise, intending to check out what the youth was pointing to—As a result, she finally saw the face of the person whom she had been talking to all this time. Gazing into each other's eyes, they both exclaimed in surprise at the same time:
" "Eh?" "
No wonder Fear had found the voice a bit familiar. But only just a bit, so she could hardly be blamed for not noticing instantly. Because speaking of which, he usually appeared before Fear's circle as "her" instead.
"Sovereignty, sorry for keeping you waiting. There was a bit of a crowd at the washroom...!"
"Hey~ Fear, break time's over. It's time to get going—Oh, it's you guys!"
Hearing this, Fear looked back.
Considering Sovereignty was present next to her in male form, then most naturally—
Sovereignty's lover Shiraho must be standing behind. As soon as Shiraho spotted Haruaki's group, she backed away repeatedly in surprise and alarm.
Such a stomachache, and a convulsive one at that.
Fear and Sovereignty were currently side by side, crouching on the roadside inside the park, petting and playing repeatedly with a large dog, laughing happily. Standing behind the pair, Konoha was craning her neck, looking eagerly at the same dog. She looked like she really wanted to pet the dog as well, but she was having difficulty bringing it up because of her sense of pride in front of Fear.
Although this was clearly a heartwarming scene that should naturally bring a smile to one's face—
What Haruaki heard from beside him was irritated tongue clicking.
With trepidation, he glanced to the side—Her attitude had remained unchanged since a while ago. Arms crossed, a scowl on her face, she kept tapping her fingertips against her elbow.
"By the way, Kuroe-san sure is taking her time at the washroom."
"Yeah, she should be back soon—Woah!"
Fear and the others were taken aback with surprise when Kuroe happened to return at this time. Despite clearly wearing normal clothes before going to the washroom, for some reason, she had returned in what appeared to be a loose-fitting dog mascot costume.
"Wow~! Kuroe-chan, what's that? It's so cute—!"
"It seems to be pajamas~ I found a shop selling this kind of stuff when I was coming back from the washroom. Unable to resist the impulse, I bought it."
"If it's pajamas, can't you just wear it at home? There's no need to put it on immediately, right?"
"No no~ I have to put it on ASAP to publicize my cuteness! This is my mission as a mascot!"
"I've no idea what place's mascot you are, muu, but these pajamas are really quite nice. Apart from the MeltyCat merchandise, there's so much I wanna buy... What a dilemma!"
But, it's really so cute~ Sovereignty patted Kuroe on the head, dressed in the mascot costume pajamas. On the side, Shiraho's breathing quickened as the speed of her fingers tapping on her elbow gradually accelerated.
Thinking it would be a bad idea to stay silent, Haruaki gulped and spoke up:
"B-By the way, what a coincidence. Fancy coming to the same place on the same day to have fun—"
"We are not here for fun, human."
A terrifying voice. Shiraho simply turned her eyes sideways to look at him. That gaze resembled that of emotionless insects, almost enough to freeze people on the spot. Someone with a bad heart might probably get a heart attack immediately—
"We... Are... Here... On a date. Do you understand...?"
Haruaki could feel goosebumps rising on his back nonstop. She had deliberately fragmented her sentence, delivering her words slowly with a great sense of pressure, as though the grim reaper was riding upon her words, scythe in hand, hovering in approach.
"I-I get it...! Umm... How should I say this? This is really unfortunate, I feel very sorry for you two as well..."
"Oh really... You get it? Then I hope you can answer me, human. Because I haven't had a chance to go on a date with Sovereignty lately, I was thinking we must go on a date on this day, beginning preparations from a very long time ago, making plans, resolving to spend time alone together, just the two of us. Indeed. JUST. THE. TWO. OF. US, spending a most happy day together, having as much fun as possible, allowing the body to replenish the kind of happiness element that resembles narcotics yet surpasses narcotics, in other words, the Sovereignty element, to an overflowing degree. Given my plans, what do you think is the proper method for me to deal with insensitive, cruel, irrelevant, meaningless and aimless interlopers getting in my way?"
One step, another step. Like a ghost, Shiraho exuded a cold aura that was antithetical to the concept of life, finally approaching Haruaki. With a sneer that resembled a smile but was definitely no smile, she approached him.
"Okay, hurry up and tell me, human. What level of punishment can you accept? By the way, my lower limit is somewhere in the area of abandoning corpses or destroying corpses."
"So you've taken murder for granted as a matter of fact!? No wait, calm down, I said that this was just an unfortunate coincidence, we have absolutely no intention of getting in your way—"
"Regardless of intention, the fact is you have already succeeded in obstructing us! Seriously, as expected of a low-level human who only possesses intellect on the level of maggots...! I really hope you can die immediately and reincarnate into maggots matching your intellect, then gathering upon your own corpse to help me eliminate the evidence of abandoning the corpse. In this sense, it would be quite a perverse form of masturbation, rather fitting of your style. Does it feel good? Does it feel good? Then by the logic that I am making you feel good, I definitely won't be accused of committing a crime, then I shall murder and destroy the abandoned corpse without worry, and after that—"
While slowly approaching Haruaki and exuding murderous intent from her entire being, Shiraho was saying things that were definitely bad enough to require calling the police. At this moment, Sovereignty hugged her shoulder from the side. Rather than stepping forward to rescue Haruaki, Sovereignty was simply talking to Shiraho while using the opportunity for intimate contact as usual.
"Kuroe-chan is back now, so let's continue to the next location?"
Shiraho's transformation was excessively fast and overly natural. Making a tender smile of happiness towards her lover, she murmured softly with gentleness and loving affection, almost enough to melt someone.
"Fair enough, let's be on our way. However—"
Haruaki could not help but interrupt. While Sovereignty turned to look at him, Shiraho hissed and glared viciously at him, giving off an aura like that of underworld deities. Uh, hold on, I'm speaking up because I'm trying to help!
"Haruaki-kun, what's up?"
"Uh... You're on a date with Shiraho today, right? It's just coincidence that we're here, so it's not good if we get in your way... So how about we move separately?"
"Yes, Sovereignty, let's do that! This is the suggestion the foolish human came up with by racking his brains of maggot intellect. He'll end up being so pathetic if you don't accept the suggestion!"
"Eh~ It's a rare chance so wouldn't it be nice to walk around together?"
However, Fear failed to read the mood and objected. Caught in the middle, Sovereignty hunched her neck slightly and said:
"Ah, yeah. Uh... What should we do? I'm actually fine either way..."
"If either way is fine, then let us follow our original plan. We'll tour the place on our own, just the two of us. Then next up is... This place, the aviary."
"The aviary? We're planning on going there next too. Since our destinations are the same, we can go together."
"—That was the original plan, but let us change our route, Sovereignty. In fact, I don't like birds very much. If I were to see an owl turning its head a 180 degrees, I might be tempted to forcibly twist it another revolution or two. So for the sake of the owls' lives, we shall skip the aviary."
"B-But I really like owls! Not only are they fluffy but cute as well... Say, Shiraho, you don't have to hate Fear-chan and the others so much."
Shiraho sighed deeply.
"It's not that I hate them but I do find them obstructive and don't want to encounter them. That's all."
"Since today's supposed to be a date with you, Shiraho, I was basically planning to go around the place with you alone... But changing our route just to avoid running into them, that's going a bit far... Just keep things the same as usual. If we run into them, then just say hi or chat for a bit, there's actually nothing wrong with that—"
"No. In any case, I don't want to. Okay, Sovereignty, let's go!"
"Wahhh, Shiraho, don't drag me—! Uh, so that's what's happening, I'm sorry! If we run into each other later, let's say hi again~!"
In this manner, Shiraho dragged Sovereignty and they disappeared into the distance. Seeing that, Fear cocked her head, utterly baffled and said: "Umuu... I really don't get why Shiraho is in such a bad mood... Did we do anything wrong?"
Of course, rooted to the spot, Haruaki and the others could only exchange glances, shrugging helplessly.
Then they resumed what they were doing before encountering Shiraho and Sovereignty, resuming a leisurely tour of the park—As much as Haruaki wanted to say that, however...
"Ohoh, they're bunnies! Bunnies! White ones! Red ones! Fluffy ones!"
"Eh!? Where, where's the red bunny? Is it like a Char-custom!?"
"No, I mean the eyes. Oh it's you, Sovereignty? We meet again—"
"Okay, let's go, next location. Also, Sovereignty, no touching bunnies today, apparently!"
As soon as the group reached the bunny square where Shiraho and Sovereignty were already present, Shiraho strode forward, pushing Sovereignty's back. Of course, at the same time, she was glaring at full power towards Haruaki's group like laser beams as though saying "Don't follow us, or else I'll kill you all!"
After spending lots of time appreciating the rabbits, Haruaki's group moved onto the next location. However, they ran into Shiraho and Sovereignty again. Despite deliberately walking in the opposite direction, they ended up meeting again for some reason. The same thing happened the third time, then the fourth. Every time, Shiraho would click her tongue hard, forcibly interrupting Sovereignty's conversation with Fear and the others, and either pushing the back or pulling the arm of her lover, she would continue their journey of escaping, just the two of them.
"Is their luck that bad or what...? We really have no intention of stopping them from having time alone together."
"Hmm... They should simply give up and just tour the place with us. Sheesh, that damn Shiraho, I can't believe she's keeping Sovereignty all to herself... Oh, another encounter."
Noticing something, Fear stopped walking. Within the park were a number of athletic grounds for dogs to run around. Next to one of these grounds was an area resembling a resting zone, with rows of benches and a few mobile vendors. Sovereignty was there. But unlike all the times earlier, Shiraho could not be seen anywhere nearby.
Haruaki suddenly felt a sense of dissonance. Of course, Shiraho's absence was one of the reasons, but Sovereignty's attitude also seemed a little different from before.
His eyes, staring blank towards the dogs running on the athletic grounds—
Seemed slightly lonely, slightly sad and slightly in pain.
Such were the complicated emotions residing within those eyes.
"Hoo~" Shiraho sighed greatly. What a great failure. Today was originally supposed to be a perfect date instead.
"Excuse me... Dear customer, what would you like to order?"
Hearing the question, Shiraho looked up. Oh right. They had decided to take a break after walking for so long. Sovereignty was saving seats while she went to buy milkshakes at a stall.
Shiraho's mind could not think properly. More precisely, her thoughts were focused on one matter. Staring at the menu blankly, Shiraho pointed at the "Super Popular Limited Offering" section and ordered two milkshakes randomly.
Due to the singleminded focus of her thoughts, then while waiting for the milkshakes to be made, Shiraho was still thinking of one thing, of course. Namely, her most beloved, most beloved, most beloved lover.
(Am I going a bit too far...?)
In a rare moment—she possessed this level of self-awareness, atleast—Shiraho was beginning to reflect.
A long-awaited date. No matter what, she wanted to spend a full day of happiness together, just the two of them.
Hence, after saying goodbye at one point, she had tried everything she could to stay away from that group of perverted maggots. Neither did she allow them to approach. She had made her mind and committed herself utterly. As soon as they spoke, she interrupted. As soon as gazes met, she blocked them. Then she led Sovereignty away from them.
But after thinking calmly—
(From that child's perspective... It only feels like someone is stopping him from talking to his friends. Perhaps, maybe—It's making him unhappy?)
But this absolutely did not imply that her own worth was lower than those girls. Shiraho was confident that she was the unmatched and irreplaceable lover in Sovereignty's eyes. This absolute position was absolutely unshakable. Furthermore, on a completely separate level, although resembling the difference between that between a lover and pets, those people were apparently quite important to Sovereignty as well.
Thinking back now, starting at some point, it seemed like Sovereignty had shown signs of exasperation and displeasure. No, ultimately, it just seemed so, that was all. It was Shiraho's imagination. But... What if it were not—?
(Slightly... Just slightly accepting the company of those people should be fine, I guess...)
However—If that really came to pass, Shiraho tried imagining the result.
For example, just when she was about to whisper sweet nothings coming straight from her heart, inane jokes would be heard in surroundings; just when she was embracing Sovereignty, conferring a lover's warmth, someone would pounce at Sovereignty like a puppy or kitten; just when they were gazing into each other's eyes, conveying noble oaths in their gaze, someone would suddenly pop up between them to ask "Hmm? What are you two doing?"—
"Eeek! I-I didn't take this long on purpose...!"
"N-Nothing, sorry for making you wait—! I'll give you extra for free, so please don't complain to customer service!"
Why was the staff so afraid? All she had done was narrow her eyes viciously, drumming her fingers on the stall's counter, gnashing her teeth while murmuring unforgivable, nothing more.
In any case, since she was getting extra for free, Shiraho gladly accepted it. After paying and picking up the fully loaded cups, Shiraho turned around and walked over to where Sovereignty was waiting.
Not a far distance. Only after a couple steps and she could already see the back of Sovereignty's head while he was sitting on a bench.
However—Beside him on the same bench, there was a silver-colored head. The perverted man and the rest of the group were also sitting on the bench beside them.
Biting her lip, Shiraho once again confirmed that her thinking was correct. Offering any slight pity to the enemy and it would bring about her own death. These people were rotten tangerines, Sivash spores, xenomorph eggs. In order to achieve a perfect date for just the two of them, she had no choice but to eliminate them from the root, without mercy, without hesitation, without discretion—
Making her mind up again, huffing and puffing, she approached the bench from behind with heavy footsteps.
Just at this moment—she heard Sovereignty's quiet voice.
She overheard accidentally.
"Somehow... It feels too constraining. Constraints, after all... are very painful..."
Shiraho stopped in surprise. Huh? What did he say just now?
Sovereignty had not noticed Shiraho's presence. Sitting on the bench, facing ahead, he then spoke words that made Shiraho's heart stop.
"...I guess there's no choice but to start over."
Sitting beside her, the silver head first glanced at the side of Sovereignty's face before asking:
"B-But, what will the owner say...?"
"I don't care! Yeah, it's the owner's fault after all!"
Sovereignty's tone grew forceful—
Declaring with such clarity.
(Ahhh, no way, impossible! No, no no! It's wrong!)
Shiraho felt as though her blood was evaporating from her brain, as though the skin of her back had been peeled all at once, as though her heart had stopped, turning into an ice-cold and heavy lump sitting in her chest cavity.
Ahhhh—This was terror.
Currently, all Shiraho could feel was terror.
Her throat kept panting. How to inhale oxygen? How to exhale carbon dioxide? How to speak? She had forgotten everything completely.
However, in an effort to prevent loss, she forced her frozen legs to move. Towards the bench, she ran and ran. But of course, even her legs had forgotten how to run as well—
She tripped right before she reached the bench. Sovereignty looked back. The two milkshakes in her hand flew into midair. "Watch out—!" Sovereignty instantly pushed Fear away from her side. As Shiraho watched, everything seemed to happen in slow motion as the two milkshakes turned upside, perfectly tracing out a contemptible curve, spilling on top of Sovereignty's head—
Speechless. His face was dyed a milky white. No wait, it was an accident, but Shiraho could not speak. Not because the air in her lungs were forced out after falling over. Neither was it because she could not think of what to say. The things she wanted to say were uncountably many.
However—Sovereignty did not say a word.
Looking down at Shiraho, there were faint glimmers of tears in the corners of his eyes.
This time, Shiraho's heart really did stop beating.
In the next second, Sovereignty suddenly turned around and broke into a run. "Woah, Sovey-chan—?" Kuroe chased after him but Shiraho could not find any strength in her legs to stand up.
Carved into her mind were Sovereignty's tears, gaze, silence and words.
He found her love too heavy a burden? He felt that they could not continue any further?
Lacking even the strength to support her upper torso with an arm, Shiraho smacked her forehead against the ground.
Someone ran to her with noisy footsteps, but she had neither the strength nor the energy to sit up.
She really wanted to die. Just kill her. She really wanted to die. Death would be better than anything.
His attitude. An attitude never seen before.
Definitely—He must hate her now.
Shiraho was sitting on the bench, rendered a pile of pure white ash, staring blankly at the sky. It almost looked as though her body would gradually scatter in the blowing wind. Laughing idiotically in bizarre despair, the sight was painful to watch.
"Yeah, it's true that spilling the milkshakes on Sovereignty was a big mistake... But there's no need to be so shocked, right...? Sovereignty didn't lose her temper either."
Haruaki spoke in trepidation but Shiraho's eyes did not move, as though she were currently communing with fairies in the air.
Just as Haruaki sighed, his cellphone rang in his pocket to indicate receipt of a text message.
Konoha looked at Haruaki.
"Who is it?"
"Let's see... Oh, it's Kuroe. She said: 'I've caught up! Currently with Sovey-chan in search for a place to get changed. Don't worry. Just wait there for us!' That's it."
He could see Shiraho's hand tremble once.
"Y-You see, there's nothing there about Sovereignty being angry..."
"...He ran away on his own. And he's planning to get changed together with that young girl, not with me. You see, he doesn't need me. Sure enough, I... Ahhh..."
As soon as she finished murmuring emphatically, Shiraho clutched her head in worry and leaned back. Haruaki had no idea why she was taking this so hard... Could it be that apart from the spilt milkshakes, something else happened to cause a dispute between them? That said, Haruaki's group still had no idea at all.
"What a weird girl, making mountains out of mole hills~ Okay, since Sovereignty is with Kuroe, she should be back immediately with her clothes changed. During this time... Hmm, I'll first do what I'm supposed to do."
After glancing at Shiraho, Fear walked over to a dog visible in the athletic square before them. A Japanese Akita was standing together with an elderly owner. After saying something to the owner, Fear knelt down in front of the dog, making a rustling while trying to do something. But in the next instant, the Akita began to run across the square as fast as it could. "Hey, slow down—!" Fear chased closely after it.
"How peaceful over there..."
Fear was behaving the same as usual so there was no need to worry especially. Shiraho also had no attention to spare on something so trivial, still in a state akin to a pile of ash.
"Hey, it'll be okay. You don't need to worry so much."
"Listen to him. Also, consider this, if Sovereignty-san really were angry, so long as you apologize to him sincerely, you'll definitely be able to make up."
Shiraho suddenly stood up from the bench, murmuring in an empty voice while staring to walk unsteadily.
"Indeed... I must... make up. Absolutely. By any means necessary—"
"Hold on, they're currently finding a place to get changed and will be back when they're done."
"It must not wait... Like anyone could wait any further."
Shiraho sped up instead of stopping her footsteps, entering a jog then imperceptibly shifting into a full sprint.
"Sheesh, seriously! Uh... I'll go bring her back! Kuroe and Sovereignty should be back soon, so you should stay here with Fear!"
Fear was still chasing the Akita dog all over the place, so Haruaki could not leave her alone in this place. After asking Konoha to stay, Haruaki chased after Shiraho.
Her long black hair fluttering, Shiraho continued to dash madly without aim. Just as Haruaki was about to run out of breath, she gradually reduced her speed... Then finally stopped.
"But, even if I find him and apologize... Is this enough for reconciliation...?"
Standing frozen in place, Shiraho whispered with forlornness.
"Huff... Huff... Don't worry. I'll help speak on your behalf too. Rather, I'll do everything I can if you need any help, so you should calm down first."
Haruaki made this suggestion after catching up to her, but Shiraho did not answer. He knew that what he said was very irresponsible, irrelevant and baseless, but he really believed that there was no need to be so pessimistic and negative about things.
However, just at this moment—
"Method of apology... Sincerity... To express sincerity... What might make that child happy...?"
Shiraho's murmurs suddenly stopped as her gaze settled on a certain spot.
Before their eyes was the heart of this Woof Meow Friendship Park, a stage that looked like some sort of event was about to start. The stage's surroundings was totally busy. Park staff was decorating the stage magnificently and setting up equipment.
Haruaki recalled the poster he had seen next to the counter when entering the park. Today's event.
A huge poster was put up on a board near the stage, showing more detailed information about the event. The spot Shiraho was staring at was precisely that poster.
Monthly Tradition: Woof Meow Friendship Park's Couples Battle. First prize is—
"The super large MeltyCat plush doll that's not for sale...?"
"It's what Sovereignty... was staring intently at..."
Looking only at the photos of the prizes, this seemed to be the case indeed. The plush doll that Fear and Sovereignty had been staring at in the gift shop.
A terrifying "fufu, fufufu" laugh was heard. Of course, the source was—
"Fu... Fu... I understand now. I know what I have to do. I guess I must make some sacrifices. Couples only? Well then, this cannot be helped either. For the sake of getting back my precious one for sure, looks like I must fall to the depths of depravity this once. Very well. The way I am now, even if I must hold hands with an ugly and rotting corpse, stuck together, sitting on a Ferris wheel, I will show you...!"
"U-Umm, Shiraho, no way..."
A foreboding sense. However, Shiraho's face displayed not the slightest hesitation as she looked at him.
"—You just said you would do everything you can to help, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I said that but—!"
Shiraho grabbed Haruaki's hand. No, this was not an action that could be conveyed simply by the word "grabbed." His bones were almost crushed, his skin twisted, his flesh squeezed, this was a certain cruel action completely filled with offensive aggression.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of others, this was merely holding hands between a loving couple.
Pulling Haruaki's hand forcefully in this manner, Shiraho approached the stage, walking to the staff at the tent labeled "Registration." Smiling tenderly with the flawless perfection of her beautiful face, she said:
"Just as you can see—We are a couple. Please allow us to participate."
Konoha was watching the scene. Back at the bench area, Fear was also watching the same scene.
Inside various parts of the park were screens for live broadcasts. One of the screens was set up next to the benches. After turning on the power, staff informed park visitors through the screens to announce the start of the event and other information such as the MeltyCat prize—Furthermore, the camera also captured a portion of the situation at the venue.
"...Did you see that?"
"Yeah, I saw it."
Konoha and Fear exchanged glances sideways. They could not be mistaken.
"Why would Haruaki-kun and Shiraho-san...? Didn't they go to chase after Sovereignty-san? Speaking of which, he clearly said he was going to bring Shiraho-san back here."
"Yeah, the prize must be the main point. Their target must be that prize! How can I let them steal a march on me!?"
Konoha did not care about the prize at all, but the problem was that this event was limited to couples only. As soon as the thought of Haruaki and Shiraho entering together crossed her mind, her heart felt uncomfortable. Still, it was not like she could not understand why the two of them were entering the event... Assuredly, Shiraho must be intending to use the plush doll as a gift to reconcile with Sovereignty. But just like Haruaki, Konoha did not believe that Shiraho was "being hated by Sovereignty." There must be some sort of misunderstanding.
On an emotional level, Konoha wanted to stop them although rationally, there was no reason to do so.
Hmm~ Just as she pouted her lips in a dilemma, Konoha noticed a couple sitting on the next bench. She could not help but overhear their conversation.
"Oh, it's the Couples Battle."
"Is this event famous?"
"I was checking out this place on the internet beforehand and the website said it's a monthly event here. Also—there's supposed to be an urban legend."
The boyfriend cleared his throat and said:
"L-listen here... That event seems to bring good luck, allowing the winning couple to stay together forever! It's quite well-known on the net. Look, aren't there all those wedding photos on the event poster at the park entrance? I've heard that those were all couples who got first place in the past. So, umm—I-If you're up to it, we could try entering as well—"
"Oh crap! My part-time job's today! Sorry, I have to go now."
"Eh!? Hold up—!"
Konoha turned her head stiffly like a robot, meeting gazes with Fear who had likewise heard an uncertain rumor.
"That kind of legend... I-It's just coincidence. Happening purely by chance, it's just baseless superstition."
"But if it's true, then what...?"
The two girls narrowed their eyes more and more as they broke out in cold sweat.
"It's none of my business no matter who the shameless brat ends up with. But even though it's none of my business—"
"I-I was thinking, this might not be so good for Sovereignty-san, right? No, it's absolutely bad! There is no way to be certain, seeing as it is ultimately delusional and superstitious, nevertheless, things that could be prevented must be prevented! Therefore!"
"Yeah... No, oh right, I still have my mission of obtaining that MeltyCat plushie. Although I feel sorry for Shiraho and Sovereignty, I can't let them have it so easily. In other words!"
The two girls gulped and exchanged glances filled with determination.
Simultaneously, they declared:
" "Absolutely... They must be stopped...!" "
"Well then, that's about it for the registrations—"
"Hold on, waaaaaiiiiit!"
Haruaki and Shiraho were lined up on stage as instructed, waiting for the event to start. Hearing the familiar voice, they both turned to look in surprise.
At the very last second, rushing to the registration counter at full speed—for some unknown reason, they turned out unbelievably to be Fear and Konoha.
"We are entering too!"
"Ah... Uh, I'm really sorry but this event is restricted to couples only..."
Fear and Konoha exchanged vicious gazes then hesitating for merely an instant, so briefly that one would not have noticed without paying close attention—
The two girls reached out at the same time, hugging each other by the shoulder, forming a tight embrace.
Next, Konoha's face turned so red that it was almost about to spew fire—
On the other hand, Fear spoke with a completely monotonous voice, no different from mechanical speech, totally emotionlessly—
"W-We are a lesbian couple, any objections!?"
"I-Indeed! We truly l-love each other, that's right!"
The two girls had yelled out words that caused not only the staff at the counter but the entire audience as well to go speechless.
The "Woof Meow Friendship Park's Couples Battle" event was divided into two stages. The winner was decided based on the total score from the two stages. The first stage was the "Whiteboard Q&A" where couples had to answer the host's questions individually, scoring whenever their answers matched.
Haruaki and Shiraho were on standby next to the stage because it was almost their turn. Haruaki was naturally quite worried about the imminent whiteboard question and answer challenge, but to be honest, something else was worrying him even more. Of course, it was the lesbian couple who were glaring viciously in his direction with beast-like eyes while they were sitting on foldable chairs in the contestants' standby area in the back.
"W-Why did those two enter as well...?"
"Who knows? The silver-haired one looks like she wants the plush doll badly, so their target is probably the prize."
"Yeah... I can understand if it's Fear on her own but would Konoha accompany her for this reason...?"
In the standby area, there were other couples waiting for their turn on stage, but no one sat down in the foldable chairs in Konoha and Fear's immediate vicinity. All the other people were glancing at them frequently with eyes filled with curiosity and doubt as though watching exotic animals.
Shiraho scoffed and said:
"No matter what, for the sake of reconciliation with Sovereignty, I absolutely need that thing. I won't let them steal it away...! Before worrying about them, you should think carefully about the upcoming challenge, human! It's almost our turn to enter stage!"
"Easy for you to say, but to be honest, I have no confidence at all."
"Of course I know that. The abilities you possess are only limited to insect-level intellect and criminal rationality. Even so, one must make do with the cards that are dealt. So long as you dedicate your full effort, perhaps there may be results. No, rather, you should put in so much effort that your life is put on the line. If you actually die on the spot while putting your life on the line, lasting until the very instant of snatching first place, there would be no better timing than that!"
"Hey, how much effort are you asking me to put in!?"
"So you fail to understand unless I spell it out for you? So-called insect-level intellect, conversely speaking, is essentially the ability to keep running forward even after decapitation. As for criminal rationality, that's the ability to mercilessly kill, violate and defile anyone who gets in the way. In other words... There exist missions in this world that can only be accomplished by low-level humans who have no futures."
Haruaki narrowed his eyes to protest silently but it did not work at all against the current Shiraho. Soon after, it was finally their turn for the whiteboard Q&A.
"Oh dear, I-I guess there's no choice but to go through with it...? Anyway, I'm starting to feel nervous. Oh right, shouldn't we come up with some kind of strategy?"
"Yes. I have been listening to the questions for a while now and they all seem to asking for answers that only couples would know."
"Then that's bad, right? Because we're not a couple at all."
"Stop stating the universally obvious. I will think of a way... So what remains for you to do is simply the aforementioned, human. Muster all the dedication at your disposal, put forth all the willpower you can apply with desperate madness, and rack your brain at full speed. If we lose any part of our rightful score because of inane blunders, I will slaughter you."
At this moment, the staff waved to the two of them, hence Haruaki and Shiraho went up the stage using the stairs on the side. There were quite a lot of park visitors watching the event—but the vast majority seemed to be casting their gazes towards Shiraho with her otherworldly beauty. On the other hand, gazes directed towards Haruaki all seemed to be saying: "Why such an ordinary guy?" Haruaki not only felt nervous but also as though he were sitting on a pincushion.
Following directions, Haruaki and Shiraho sat down before a pair of desks that were placed side by side. Each desk was equipped with a whiteboard and marker combination. A movable partition between the desks could be manipulated to prevent the two contestants from seeing each other.
"Okay, it's time for the next couple to enter stage! Please encourage them with applause~!"
"Another pretty lady! Oh my~ This boyfriend here, you must be one lucky guy! What kind of trap did you lay down to capture her?"
"Hey, stop treating other people like exotic animals! I'm sorry~ This guy is always getting carried away and saying nonsense!"
The pair of hosts consisted of a man and a woman, staff dressed in the Woof Meow Friendship Park sweater. The man speaking in Kansai dialect played the fool's role, while the woman was in charge of retorts and punchlines... That seemed to be the setting.
After Haruaki responded with a stiff smile of courtesy, the hostess swiftly went through the rules, presumably realizing that the topic of conversation could not be continued. For the next part, questions were going to be asked about the two of them as a couple, scoring whenever their answers matched. In other words, this was a contest that tested how well they understood each other—
"Excuse me, may I say something?"
"Yes, the pretty girlfriend here—! Please go ahead!"
"We only started dating recently... More precisely, we are having our first date here today. If you would be so kind as to go slightly easy on us, it'd be lovely. But... I suppose... That's not possible, is it?"
Smiling naturally, Shiraho raised her hand, speaking with a demure aura. What perfect acting skills—Oh right, Shiraho used to be a promising actress lauded as a prodigy.
Most likely, her acting worked—
"Oh my~ ...It can't be helped! There's no helping it if such a pretty lady asks me for a favor! Well then, I promise you with my personal jurisdiction! I'm sorry, that's the way men are!"
The host lowered his head and bowed, resulting in wry laughter all around. Amidst the awkward laughs, there was booing that probably came from other contestants who had taken stage already. Fortunately, the booing was not really that malicious.
"This counts as thanks to the two of you for choosing our park as the venue for your first date! A little bit of favorable treatment! Then more specifically... Uh, we'll give some hints!"
"That's right~ I've no idea if the hints might be useful or not, but anyway, let's hope the two of you will have lots of fun before you leave! Will that be okay?"
"Yes, thank you very much. If possible, please offer hints that are easy to understand, ehehe."
Oh my god, to think that Shiraho is giggling ehehe! Haruaki stared in wide-eyed shock as though he had seen something astonishing. In the next instant, while maintaining her demure smile, Shiraho used the space under the desk to deliver a corkscrew blow to the flank of Haruaki's abdomen, unnoticed by everyone else.
"Oh my, this boyfriend just suddenly straightened his back with a weird grunt. Are you making a show of your determination? Or are you getting too excited from seeing your girlfriend's smile!? Well then, there comes the first question!"
The staff moved the partition between the desks, blocking Haruaki's view of Shiraho and vice versa. Then immediately, a "ding♪" was played, the kind of sound effect often heard on game shows.
"First question! 'What is the boyfriend's favorite food?' Okay, please answer~!"
Haruaki reflexively picked up his marker—Then stopped. To be asked this question suddenly, what a quandary. To be honest, he was the kind of person who always felt happy and went "How delicious~" no matter what he was eating. There was no particular food or ingredient that he would eat or cook especially frequently. But something must be written. Write something random? No, it must be something that Shiraho could guess. What would be relatively easier for Shiraho to guess?
"Okay, neither side has written anything yet~ If one person writes down an answer first, we'll be able to give a hint!"
Given no choice, Haruaki wrote down two words: "rice crackers." Shiraho might not know what he liked but surely she must know that Fear's favorite food at least. Given that they were living under the same roof, it would be natural to eat rice crackers together often—If only she could think that—
Haruaki held up his whiteboard and the hosts responded one after the other.
"Oh, the boyfriend has answered! Truly stylish! As for the hint, it's something with a very crunchy texture!"
"And it's basically brown in color!"
"Oh, wouldn't this be hinting too much... But then again, it's just the first question after all! Then I guess I should offer an extra hint as a special favor—This thing can fly! Woosh!"
"Yes, a bit of a stupid hint has appeared. But speaking of flying... It does fly indeed. Just as a matter of appearances! Oh, the girlfriend is beginning to write now! I knew it, the given hints are too easy!?"
Signaled by "time's up," the writing sounds from the other side of the partition also stopped.
"Then let's remove the partition for confirmation~! Okay okay, are these two's hearts linked as one!? Although they only started going out, as long as there's love, all obstacles can be overcome! Then let's reveal the answer here! So anyway, please read out your answers! Here we go, the reveal~..."
While the partition was being moved away, Haruaki turned his whiteboard lightly towards Shiraho then read out his answer. Likewise, Shiraho turned her whiteboard towards him. For an instant, Haruaki saw a slightly troubled frown on her face. Then—
Speechlessness. Hush. Dead air.
After lasting a full duration of many seconds—
"Puha... W-What a shame, a wrong guess—!"
"Uhahaha! Is this girlfriend an airhead? Or is she acting the fool on purpose for comedy?"
The stage was instantly dominated by bursts of laughter. Shiraho went red in the face for a rare moment. Haruaki whispered in her ear:
"Come on... How could it possibly be cicadas!?"
"S-Shut up, human! The favorite food of a perverted organism like you, is crunchy, brown and can fly... What else is there apart from cicadas!?"
"The hostess already said clearly that flying is a stupid hint for the sake of appearances!"
"Q-Quiet, or I'll kill you. You should have written something more easy to understand! And that's clearly the silver hair's favorite food!"
"It's the answer I decided after much thinking to make it easier for you to associate...!"
"Uh~ The two of them seem to be whispering lovingly to each other. So, this girlfriend here, how are you feeling? Could it be that you're nervous?"
The host handed the microphone over. Shiraho instantly faked a smile and answered:
"Y-Yes, a little."
"I knew it, cicadas couldn't possibly have been right."
"Indeed, cicada season is clearly summer. I guess I got a little confused about the season."
"So it's an issue of season!?"
The audience went into an uproar as numerous stares were directed towards Haruaki, seemingly saying: "Could it be that this guy really eats insects...?" No no no, I beg you, everyone, please don't mistake this for the truth.
Stop saying things that'll cause misunderstandings—Haruaki cast a gaze of protest towards Shiraho beside him but she continued to wear a natural smile on her face. It was anyone's guess whether she was joking on purpose, scrambling for responses in desperation or simply trying to insult him.
"O-Okay, then get ready for the second question! We'll reflect a bit and give fewer hints. Let's go!"
"—'What's an activity that the boyfriend does daily?' Okay, please answer!"
This was even easier to guess than the previous question. Surely, Shiraho must know as well.
Holding the marker, Haruaki quickly wrote down "cooking" on the whiteboard. This could be described as his one and only hobby.
"This time, the boyfriend wrote the answer without hesitation at all! Lemme see, the hint is that it's done by hand!"
"Yes, it's something that all men do every day! Ohoh, I see now. This boyfriend here, despite your honest-looking face, who would have thought... Truly, people cannot be judged by appearances..."
"On the other hand, I think that's exactly the kind of impression he gives off~! Oh, time's up—!"
Just as before, the partition started moving on command. Please, get this question right at least! Haruaki prayed while turning his whiteboard towards Shiraho. Then he noticed that Shiraho was sneering in confidence unlike the last time. Finally, they were going to score a point—
It was just like last time. No, longer than last time.
Time stopped for quite a while before the audience went into a clamor again.
Shiraho was frowning as though going "How odd, why did I get it wrong again?" Haruaki approached her ear again.
"Hey! Why did you write this kind of answer with full confidence!? I can't believe you were chuckling with a sneer!"
"I did not reach the level of full confidence. Because until the last moment, I was still hesitating whether it should be 'peeking on people bathing' instead... After all, these are things that boys might do every day, possibly coming in handy, yes? How depraved and shameless."
"No normal person will write down this kind of answer without hesitation, okay...!?"
"I actually hold you in rather high regard. In terms of the ability to undertake shameless and perverted actions that no ordinary human could fully comprehend. That is why I was thinking, perhaps you might intend to confess your sexual crimes openly right here, thereby deriving a twisted pleasure from the public's eyes of scorn... Indeed, this is what I mentioned earlier, the fact of criminal rationality. Have you forgotten?"
"Gah! To think you could display that whiteboard under such serious conditions, that means you really believe that I'm that kind of person... I'm really a bit shocked to confirm this once again. One day, I must clear up your misunderstanding...!"
"Stop talking rubbish, the next question is up! At least get one right, human! I totally cannot see any effort on your part to cooperate with me. Show more cooperation!"
Haruaki could not help but sigh. On the contrary, he thought he was trying his best to cooperate already.
"Uh... I'm starting to discover that this is a couple that has many outrageous things worth pointing out... A-Anyway, there's not much time left so let's get on with the third question!"
"Yeah! I agree that we shouldn't pry too deep either!"
"Third question! Yes! This is quite a cruel question—'What's one thing about the boyfriend that's annoying?'"
"Ohoh! The girlfriend has suddenly started to write the answer rapidly without any hints! Then realizing that, the boyfriend has started to write as well—!"
Haruaki did not want to write. Honestly, he did not want to write the answer down at all. However, he had no choice.
Frowning while enduring the pain in his heart, Haruaki wrote those words down on the whiteboard.
"Okay, time for the reveal! Both sides' answers are—"
"Being a pervert!"
Shiraho, stop, don't announce it so loudly. Don't hold the whiteboard up with that kind of "Score!" expression. It's wrong, I simply abandoned my pride for the sake of scoring, but in actual fact, absolutely—
"Uwah~! I can't believe they got this one right!"
"I-I can't believe how this kind of answer matched... What an astonishing couple! Looks like these two are tied together by bonds that far surpass the realm of our common sense—!"
Facing the boyfriend who allegedly liked to eat cicadas, stole underwear on a daily basis and forced perverted behavior upon his girlfriend—
Naturally, the audience whispered intently among themselves while casting extremely cold gazes of derision.
"Fu... Fu... Ha... Kufu, kufufufu!"
"Hey Cow Tits, calm yourself down. Seeing you so worked up, it's very scary to be honest. Don't laugh with bloodshot eyes, okay?"
"Fu... That's right, it's acting, a performance, fictional. Treated as a couple, it's all fake... I have to hurry and calm down, anyway, calm down first...!"
Since it was almost their turn, Konoha and Fear were together on standby next to the stage. After entering the stage, Haruaki and Shiraho had returned to the standby area with the foldable chairs. For the sake of mental health, Konoha avoided looking at them.
"Okay, I've calmed down. I've calmed down now."
"That block of concrete that your hand is resting on... By the time I noticed, it's already all broken and covered with slashes... I'll pretend I didn't see that."
"That is your imagination. Focus your attention on the upcoming task at hand. No matter what, in order to prevent those two from winning, we must score points here. After watching the contest so far, you know the rules now, right?"
"My favorite food is the rice cracker, yours is meat. That kind of question, right? Hmph, as much as I hate to admit it, we do live under the same roof after all, so I do know you to some extent."
The staff summoned them at this time, so the two girls walked onto stage. Although it felt uncomfortable to be stared at like exotic animals, there was no choice but to endure. Fear and Konoha sat down at the combined desks.
"So, next up is the special lesbian couple—and one of them is a pretty foreigner!"
"Woah! It's another astonishing couple! Anyway, let's first interview—"
"Skip the interview. Hurry up and start."
"Indeed. Please begin."
The two girls spoke with solemn eyes. Probably intimidated by their forcefulness, the host and hostess shuddered and retreated. No matter what, these two girls' only goal right now was to stop Haruaki's team from winning.
"Oh~ ...Okay, let's start immediately!"
"I agree! Uh, but just for framing the questions, we still need to clear this up first. May I ask which one of you is the boyfriend and who is the girlfriend—"
Konoha and Fear glared viciously at the host simultaneously. Clearly they had already expressed their wish to begin quickly.
"Eeek? Umm~ I get it! Then let's differentiate the two of you with the nicknames, Miss Braids and Miss Silver-Hair! Okay, first question!"
The host cried out in despair as the "ding♪" sound effect was heard.
"The girlfriend... Correction, 'What is one of Miss Braids' good points?' Please start answering!"
Konoha picked up her marker and started to think. Questions with defined answers like favorite food would be fine but this sort of subjective question was very difficult to answer. The important thing was not what she believed but what the other person thought. Provided she followed this line of thinking, her mind was able to become very calm with a high level of concentration. Then all that was left was for her to do what she needed to do.
Just like what Haruaki had shown earlier—Abandoning her pride, abandoning her sense of shame, simply advancing towards the target. Currently, that was what she must do.
"Okay, let's go—Please reveal the answers!"
This was the perfect answer she was supposed to write! Konoha raised her whiteboard up high and yelled. At the same time, Fear could be heard reading out her answer in an extremely pained voice with a bitter expression on her face—
"Even when run over by a car, the ability to survive using her own cushioning objects!"
"Gah! ...The fact that she's so kind and beautiful...!"
Instantly, Konoha slammed her whiteboard on the desk.
"Hold on a second—! Why are you reading the mood properly only at a time like this!?"
"Gwahhhhhhh! You took the words out of my mouth, damn Cow Tits! I was thinking since it's you, surely you'd praise yourself shamelessly like this, why must... I say... such disgusting things against my conscience... Were I a puppet, my nose would have grown so long for sure! So embarrassing I wanna die!"
"I'm the one who's embarrassed! Now it makes me look like an eccentric who goes around flaunting the fact that her bosom acts as a cushion!"
"Yeah, but that's absolutely the truth."
"If that were the case, then just write it!"
Just at this moment, the two girls noticed how the surrounding audience was in shock. "C-Cough." Konoha and Fear forced a few coughs then turned away from glaring at each other to sit up straight again.
"Wow~ This is really difficult~"
"Ahaha, but it's very fun~"
The two girls were clearly lying through their teeth, trying to use smiles to keep the atmosphere under control. Then they psychically transmitted their thoughts to the host and hostess: Don't say anything, hurry up and ask the next question!
"U-Uh, okay, let's ask the next question..."
The first question just now had progressed in the worst way imaginable. Not only did they fail to score any points, but both of them suffered psychological trauma as well. The same mistake must not happen again. Konoha already understood that Fear also wanted seriously to win the contest. Hence, Fear was going to abandon her pride again like just now to match answers. In other words?
"Second question, something that we asked other contestants previously! Sorry, boyfriend... Correction, 'Miss Silver-Hair's flaw'! Please show some mercy!"
Konoha decided that, in other words, all she needed to do this time was write down the honest answer from her heart. Then their answers were going to match!
Hence, Konoha raised her whiteboard with full vigor.
"Never a quiet moment, totally like a childish brat!"
"So peerlessly beautiful that it's tragic!"
Without thinking, the two girls suddenly stood up with a clatter and glared viciously at each other.
"Now for a change of location and a change of mood—The second half of the Couples Battle—The 'Woof Meow Lovey-Dovey Triathlon' officially begins!"
"Although it's called a triathlon, it's actually not that harsh a physical trial~ First of all, each couple will ride a pony together along these straight lanes to reach the other side! Then there's a task over there! Then each couple will make their way back in a three-legged race! That's how simple the remainder of the contest is!"
"Uh~ As for the scores from the first half... To be honest, it's almost a draw! So any team could take first prize as long as they win the triathlon!"
Haruaki and the others were taken to a place resembling a long and narrow field. Using metal fencing and ropes, the venue was divided into two rectangular spaces, one for the outbound leg and one for the return. Since it was a lawn, minor falls should not lead to injury. On the opposite end of the field relative to Haruaki and the contestants, in other words, at the turning point, there were a number of cuboid boxes resembling mobile toilets. What were they used for?
Probably thinking the same question, another contestant raised a hand to ask:
"Excuse me~ What's the task on the other side...?"
"I know how you feel, but it's a secret! As soon as your reach the opposite side, staff will explain to everyone! If we use the same task for this monthly event, contestants will come up with countermeasures beforehand."
"That's right. We won't announce the task on the other side until the last minute, so please bear with us! This is test of decision-making ability at a critical moment and the strength of the bonds between couples!"
In that case, worrying about it now was pointless—Haruaki nodded secretly to himself. Hence, he began to ponder something else he needed to consider.
"Say, it might be a bit late to be asking, but why did you two come along...?"
"N-No particular reason at all! It's not like I'm so childish as to believe in an urban legend! It's just that the risk is too great if it really were true, so this can't be helped, yes! In any case, there are many complicated circumstances, which is why we absolutely must not let you win, Haruaki-kun!"
"M-My reason is very simple! I just want to win first prize and bring the giant MeltyCat home, to give it good protection! I'll use it as a blanket, so fluffy and soft!"
Nearby next to Haruaki, Konoha and Fear explained themselves frantically. However, both of them were showing very serious eyes. Even if Haruaki asked them to withdraw for the Shiraho and Sovereignty's sakes, they would probably refuse.
Shiraho narrowed her eyes at the two of them.
"Oh dear, is that so...? Although I've no idea what this is about, sure enough, you two are enemies as well. Then I won't be holding back. For the sake of my future with Sovereignty, I definitely cannot concede that plush doll to you...!"
A blue-white battle aura seemed to be billowing from her back. One could describe it as a flame of extreme cold, releasing a presence both merciless and passionate.
"I-I won't lose either. Staying together forever, I absolutely forbid that kind of thing...!"
"I don't plan on backing down either! Don't expect me to show mercy—Ah! Hey Cow Tits, something is coming! Something with big round eyes and a short, chubby and furry body!"
"Okay~ So, the ponies for everyone to ride has entered the field. Also, please pay attention, everyone. Because these are relatively large ponies, it's possible to sit two people on them, but just in case for safety, each pony will have a member of staff in charge of holding the reins~"
During the explanation, each of the staff led a pony over to the contestants. The staff in charge of Haruaki and Shiraho's pony was a young woman.
With the staff's assistance, Shiraho mounted the pony's back then said with a scowl:
"In other words, even though it's a race... The speed ultimately depends on the pony's mood, doesn't it?"
"Ahaha~ Yeah, that's how it goes! Come, the boyfriend should sit at the back."
"Eh? O-Oh right, they said it's for two people to ride together. Then I guess I have to mount..."
Being unused to riding horses, Haruaki took quite some effort before he finally sat down on the pony. The back of Shiraho's head was right in front of his face. How should one put this...? There was a very lovely fragrance.
"How terrible, I feel like I'm getting violated through smell somehow. This is not rape by vision but rape by smell."
"I-It's your imagination, okay!?"
"Yes, although you are a new-type pervert who can convert into pleasure anything from a girl's body, be it saliva, bodily fluids, hair, scent particles or whatever, you probably aren't such a piece of trash that you would prioritize your pleasure right before this sort of important race, are you? You can prove this so long as you shove your fingers into your nostrils immediately, up to the third finger joint."
"Clearly the fingers will penetrate into somewhere fatal!"
After this exchange, Haruaki felt intense gazes. They were coming from Konoha and Fear who were likewise sitting on a pony. The two of them had their eyes half-narrowed. Fear was mounted in front with Konoha behind her.
Haruaki frantically distanced himself from Shiraho's hair (but riding the same horse, there was a limit after all), emphasizing the fact that he was not doing anything wrong. There were really too many things requiring his attention.
Under the staff's urging, the ponies carrying the contestants formed in a row at the starting line. Then—
"Looks like everyone is ready. Okay, 'Woof Meow Lovey-Dovey Triathlon,' start!"
Perhaps to avoid startling the ponies, there was no music or starting gunfire. The ponies trotted quite slowly. While the staff pulled the reins, the ponies moved forward while their hooves played a song evocative of countryside poetry.
But there was one pony—a pony that started next to Haruaki's team—which for some reason, started accelerating violently and galloping like a real racehorse.
At the starting line, a member of staff was left behind—the person originally supposed to be leading that pony—and was staring in puzzlement at the reins that had been cut by some sort of sharp blade.
Back when the cry of "start!" was heard, Konoha had leaned forward on the pony. Naturally, Fear was pushed down by her.
"Gwah!? Damn Cow Tits, what are you doing!? Why are you suddenly getting in my way!? Although it's always in the way already, right now, my back is feeling a bulging sensation even worse than normal, it's disgusting! Don't rest your weight on me! Back off now!"
"Please endure for a little while. I have words for this child."
She was a sword. A sword that had experienced countless battlefields. Hence, it was only natural that she knew how to control a certain type of military equipment, basic and powerful, used countless times on battlefields—The creature called the horse.
Although it had been a long time since she last used this technique, it should be fine if all that was needed was for the pony to run straight forward.
Konoha stroked the pony's mane lightly with her palm, then leaning further forward, she brought her lips to the pony's ear. At the same time, she reached out, touching the reins with her fingertips then whispered:
"Listen... Little horse, if thou hast no wish of becoming horsemeat—Thou ought to understand, yes? Thou wouldst best obey mine orders, 'twould be the happier path..."
Driven by animal instinct and terror towards absolute strength, the pony seemed to shudder its back once. Instantly, Konoha used a sword's power to sever the reins held by the staff. Obtaining freedom, the pony was now her servant.
Obeying orders, the pony sped up all at once.
"Woah! I-I never expected it to be this fast. Say, Cow Tits, it's not right to threaten the pony like this, right!?"
"This is for the sake of the greater good! For victory I will resort to any means necessary!"
It was a bit underhanded but there was no helping it. A simple coincidence where the reins broke and the pony suddenly started to dash for unknown reasons—resulting in developments that happened to favor their team, that was all!
Konoha glanced back slightly to confirm the lead they had secured from the pony's gallop. All the other ponies were still trudging slowly, led by their reins. It looked like there was no further need to speed up—Just as she breathed out in relief, Konoha saw a certain scene.
"Uwah, it's not very stable... on the pony's back..."
"Kyah! Ouch, my bottom—Hey, where do you think you're touching, human!? I'll slaughter you!"
Suddenly losing balance violently, Haruaki fell forward, resembling Konoha's action just now, his body pressed down on the person in front of him. This was probably because he started off trying to keep his distance while on the pony, making it even harder to balance.
"S-Sorry! H-Hold on, uwah!"
"W-Wawawa, not only are you blowing on my neck but you're also touching my underarm!?"
"Uwah, don't struggle randomly, we'll fall... We really will fall!"
"Uh... Excuse me, the two of you, would you like to stop the pony first?"
Leading the reins, the staff suggested but Shiraho shook her head as she suddenly realized.
"No—The opposite. Please accelerate! And use the fastest possible speed! As for this rotten human, I shall deal with him this way!"
Shiraho wrapped her arm around Haruaki's neck, clamping him under her arm. But because she was using too much force, Haruaki found himself under her bosom rather than under her arm.
"Shut up! You are simply baggage and a troublesome cadaver, indeed...! Better than falling down and wasting time. I will allow an exception this once. Hurry and hold onto my waist, cadaver!"
Shiraho was holding Haruaki's head under her arm in resignation. Meanwhile, Haruaki was wrapping his arms around Shiraho's slender waist in utter terror. It was anyone's guess what his head and hands were touching, or what kind of sensations, thoughts or scents he was experiencing while the pony's motion shook him up and down. Unable to bear the audience's gaze as they watched this heartwarming scene, Konoha—
"...Horse, head over to the six o'clock direction."
"Wha...!? Cow Tits, what are you doing...!? Why are we turning back a 180 degrees!?"
What am I doing? Truly a stupid question. Of course it is for enacting the Immorality Blocker (Equestrian Variant).
As a result, the two of them went back near the starting line and Konoha directed the pony's nose in a new direction, namely, to ride side by side with Haruaki and Shiraho's pony.
From under Shiraho's arm, Haruaki stared in puzzlement at Konoha and Fear. Konoha responded with an unusually radiant smile—
"Wah~ I'm losing balance~"
"Despite your words, your hand is still reaching over, it's clearly very suspicious!"
Due to the instability of Haruaki and Shiraho's posture to begin with, all that was necessary was a light push to change their center of gravity. As a result, Haruaki's head instantly escaped from under Shiraho's arm and he fell from the pony's back. Seeing as the partner had fallen off, there was no choice but to stop the pony. While the staff was helping Haruaki up, Shiraho glared sharply at the two girls.
"I can't believe you're using such unscrupulous means...!"
"This is merely an unfortunate accident."
"...I basically agree. After all, it's like Cow Tits' limiter has been taken off today, I find complaining to her a bit scary, yeah."
Back to the starting line, the staff assigned to Konoha and Fear also ran over and swiftly repaired the reins. Severing it again would be going too far. Haruaki and Shiraho also mounted their pony again, riding normally this time, allowing the pony to advance. Konoha and Fear also relied on the reins as their pony began to race along sluggishly.
Although their speed had slowed and the lead gained in the initial dash was wasted, Konoha's mood still remained pleasant.
Because in her view, there was nothing more important than making sacrifices to prevent his indecent behavior.
Haruaki and Shiraho finally reached the turning point and quickly jumped off the pony. Although Konoha's inexplicable attack had thrown him off the pony, Haruaki was almost unharmed because the ground was grass.
Including Fear and Konoha, the contestants all reached the turning point at virtually the same time. Led by the staff waiting for them there, Haruaki and Shiraho arrived at the row of vertical cuboid boxes. The rules apparently required each couple to use one box.
"Okay, please enter together, the two of you!"
The staff pulled open the box's curtain. It's realy like a fitting room—Just as Haruaki was thinking that...
"Taking place next is the 'Couples Clothes-Changing Speed Challenge' here! Girlfriends, please change into the outfit contained in the basket inside then start the three-legged race! Boyfriends will be assisting. Okay, please do your best!"
"What!? Hold on—!"
Forcefully shoving Haruaki and Shiraho into the fitting room, the staff then closed the curtain.
Haruaki and Shiraho stared at each other in silence.
"Gah! Please don't perform an eye-poking attack without warning! Can't you just ask me to cover up my eyes!?"
"In that case, hurry up and cover up your eyes! Are they covered? Covered already? If you dare peek, I will slaughter you. After gouging out your eyeballs and throwing them in the sewer, even if someone transplants your eyes and inherits your memories, all they will see is a paradise of feces and urine, that's how I shall kill you!"
Haruaki covered his eyes with a handkerchief then faced a corner. He could hear Shiraho sighing deeply behind him—Then...
The sound of friction from clothing.
Of course, the space inside the box was not wide at all. It really was as big as a fitting room. After covering his sense of sight, Haruaki seemed to find his hearing becoming more acute.
At this moment, there was a push against his bottom.
"Kyah! S-Shrink yourself further into the corner, human!"
"Uh, I can't shrink myself any further..."
His brain began to imagine without his consent. What had touched his bottom just now? Was it because she was taking off her skirt, their bottoms had touched together like in one of those pushing contests—No wait, not allowed to imagine!
"Hmm... This really was washed clean for sure, right... Hmm!"
Then after rustling noises persisted for a while, Shiraho suddenly groaned.
"Utterly terrible. This is a design that is impossible for one person to wear on their own... Someone needs to help pull the zipper."
"S-So I have to help pull the zipper, right?"
He hesitated for an instant. But right now, they were racing against time. Shiraho clicked her tongue.
"In that case, you're the only one who can help—That's the only choice! However, listen carefully. You must act exactly according to my instructions! If you dare do anything redundant, I will slaughter you, human!"
"Well then, first turn around slowly... That's right. Then reach forward slowly with your righ hand."
A soft sensation.
"I-I said reach forward slowly! What are you thinking, human!?"
His hand was slapped mercilessly by Shiraho. Where exactly had he touched just now...? It was probably better not to think about it. Next, he felt something weighing down on his arm, resembling part of a plush doll in texture.
"Argh, I hate this, time is of the essence right now. I will match your height, so relax your arm... Stop over here. Then bend your arm slightly and wait. I will turn around."
"What's the current situation? I don't quite get it."
"I am currently wearing something resembling a mascot costume, but in terms of design, I can't reach the zipper on my back and pull it up. So you have to pull the zipper now. That's all."
"You've put it on already, so pulling the zipper is the only thing left? In that case, it'll be easier if I take off the handkerchief—"
"W-What are you talking about, human!? Since the zipper is still down, ignoring the front side for now, the back is obviously half naked. My underwear is visible. You want to see it? Of course you want to see it! What a pervert!"
"Okay, I get it. Then let's continue like this."
"As much as I'd like to guide your hand to touch the zipper directly, my hand cannot reach. Listen carefully, I think the height basically matches now, so you only need to do this slowly, I repeat, slowly! Extend your hand forward."
Hence, Haruaki lightly straightened his bent elbow. Soon, his fingertips touched soft fabric.
"...Damn you! I must endure for now! You're slightly off, go a bit to the bottom left...!"
Haruaki had nothing to guide him except his sense of touch. Bit by bit, he moved his fingertips down. But every time he moved—
"Mmm! ...Gah, ah... T-Too far, idiot... Mmm!"
Shiraho's suppressed breaths were making it very hard for him to concentrate.
Haruaki thought calmly. Right now, he was trying to pull up the zipper on Shiraho's back and using his hand to search for the zipper's starting point. Where was the starting point? Along the spine, it should be somewhere near the lower back. Then the area extremely near that place, combined with the fact that he was searching with his hand, meant that in terms of human anatomy, the only bodypart in that vicinity was probably the bottom—
(C-Could it be that I'm actually doing something very outrageous right now?)
Just as Haruaki frantically tried to move his fingers away first, his fingertip touched a different sensation. Something small and hard. A zipper. Feeling saved, he was just about to pull it up all at once when—
"Hold on! My hair will get caught in the zipper, so let me push the hair aside first... Okay, pull it up slowly..."
Zip— ...This sound alone was enough to make Haruaki think that he was doing something immoral. Why was that? Clearly he was pulling a zipper up, not opening a zipper.
"O-Okay, it's done...! You don't have to cover your eyes anymore."
Having obtained permission, Haruaki slowly took off the handkerchief.
Standing before his eyes was Shiraho in a white and fluffy mascot costume. Probably an animal, but he could not tell what kind exactly—Just as he was thinking that, Shiraho took out a long-eared animal's head from the basket. Allowing her hair to dangle behind her from the opening directly, she put on the animal's head.
The face was exposed in front. A rabbit mascot costume.
Seeing her dressed in this manner, Haruaki felt quite refreshed to be honest. Consequently, he could not help but stare intently.
"...What now? Hurry and go."
"Uh, I was just thinking, it looks surprisingly good on you."
Blushing with red cheeks, the rabbit rewarded him with a fluffy punch, but of course, it did not hurt very much.
In the final three-legged race, Haruaki and Shiraho had to run back to the starting line. Although the contestants were surging out almost simultaneously, a few couples could be seen running already. Speeding up was imperative.
The staff used a string to tie Haruaki's foot with Shiraho's mascot costume-clad foot. "Hurry, do it faster!" Shiraho had already given up on maintaining her image, only grumbling and picking on the staff nonstop. Just at this time, something silver entered Haruaki's view.
It happened that Fear and Konoha had finished the clothes-changing challenge and arrived to start the race at the same time. Playing the girlfriend's part, Konoha was dressed in a striped tiger mascot costume, quite a refreshing sight as well.
Likewise waiting for the park staff to tie her foot, Fear was gnashing her teeth while glaring at Haruaki.
"Tsk! ...If it weren't for Cow Tits' udders, we'd be running already by now! Jeez, that useless volume only gets stuck in the mascot costume and is only good for preventing a quick change of clothes!"
"I-I can't help it either! If only the organizers prepared a looser fitting size from the start..."
Upon closer examination, Haruaki did not know if it was psychological or not, but it felt like the chest portion of Konoha's striped mascot costume was stretched especially tight. In order to stuff the volume there into the costume, the two girls must have gone through a tough battle beyond Haruaki's imagination.
"Oh dear... A tiger. In terms of the twelve animals from the Chinese zodiac, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the tiger is a relic of the past. Hope should be entrusted to a rabbit like me this year. Don't force yourself to run. Why don't you turn brown just like a New Year's greeting card from last year, forgotten in a cupboard and covered by a layer of dust?"
Shiraho, Konoha and Fear's belligerent gazes clashed in midair. This late in the game, was there any method to make them reach an understanding? Was there any method to resolve things peacefully—?
It was impossible.
"Let's go, human! First start with the tied foot! Ready—!"
"Don't drag me down, Cow Tits!"
"This is very uncreative as a retort, but I have to say this—You took the words right out of my mouth!"
"Ready, go!" Just as the staff lifted their hands, Haruaki and Shiraho started running together. Starting with the right foot that was tied, one, two, one, two. Then gradually speeding up, they began to run with long strides. Shiraho was probably not too athletic. Haruaki was originally a little worried, but probably fueled by her love for Sovereignty, she was currently running quite well.
The two of them passed a pair of contestants, one of them wearing a dog mascot costume. Haruaki and Shiraho's speed was not bad. At this rate—Just as Haruaki was thinking that...
"Ahaha! Easy peasy! Although there's a problem, namely that dark creature, which should be named the evil pudding, bouncing and pressing on my head, making me feel so disgusted. But as long as I have this kind of athletic reflexes, a three-legged race is easy as pie!"
"I hope you don't get the wrong idea, but I am the one who is accommodating you! Don't talk as though you are the only one putting in effort!"
"Shut up, evil pudding! I'm the one who's suffering here! I'm currently closing my heart away with strong willpower, but if I lower my guard for a second, the ladylike boobs energy with the attribute of light, slumbering inside me, might suddenly rumble in action, compelling me to defeat the enemy! Like! This!"
"Hold on, I can't believe you're jumping to perform a headbutt while running a three-legged race, that's truly... dexterous... Mmm! Listen, Fear-san, please run seriously!"
Haruaki could see Fear and Konoha arguing noisily while passing his team. Then the two girls proceeded to pass a cat mascot couple, followed by a frog mascot couple—As expected of superhuman physical capabilities, their speed was leaving everyone behind. Also for some unknown reason, the two of them were quite cooperative at the moment, making their way towards the same goal together. Haruaki had to concede that they were currently the greatest foes in the way of victory.
Since everyone's score was basically the same, the winner of the triathlon was going to become the champion directly. Losing was absolutely unacceptable.
(Calm down a bit...!)
Haruaki realized that this was the only countermeasure.
In terms of power, he and Shiraho could not possibly prevail over Fear and Konoha. But considering openings that could be exploited, this three-legged race was not simply a contest of speed. Although Fear and Konoha were cooperating miraculously for once, they could not possibly maintain this indefinitely given their long-held incompatibility. A rupture was definitely going to appear again along the way. All Haruaki's team could do was endure and endure some more, not letting the momentary opportunity slip past—
That was what Haruaki understood.
His partner, the partner who simply sought victory greedily for the sake of love, she did not understand.
"This is terrible! Don't think that you two will get your way... We're speeding up!"
"Hold on, Shiraho, don't push yourself too far! Don't panic, because it's us who will fall into a crisis if we panic—!"
However, Haruaki's advice did not work. Shiraho sped up all at once. Haruaki desperately tried to keep up but there were limits after all—
The two of them tripped and became entangled. The feeling of grass underfoot disappeared—Then they hit the ground.
They hit the ground heavily.
Haruaki felt an impact on his shoulder. Then the fragrance of fresh grass entered his nostrils.
Shiraho frantically sat up, staring wide-eyed in shock, looking ahead.
Looking at Fear and Konoha's backs, gradually getting farther and farther away.
Looking at the backs of the enemies who must be defeated in order for her to reconcile with Sovereignty.
What Haruaki heard was a scream of utter grief, as though Shiraho had witnessed the end of the world.
Struggling, she extended her arm forward, refusing to give up.
Seeking what was absolutely beyond reach and could not possibly be reached, she desperately extended her arm.
"No. I—don't want this... Sovereignty...!"
Within Haruaki's field of vision, all movements slowed down. It was as though time was being stretched. The world became static, shrouded in despair and regret.
But in the next instant, this unusual feeling was immediately forgotten.
Because, for some unknown reason—
Unbelievably, Haruaki found his body sliding forward at high speed even though he was still lying on the ground.
Once Fear and Konoha passed the cow mascot couple, there would be no one else in front. Then all that was left was to rush past the finish line, thus accomplishing the mission of preventing Haruaki and Shiraho from winning first place—Just at this moment...
"What's the matter?"
"I almost forgot, but if we win first place like this, and that legend turns out to be true—Then aren't we bound together forever?"
"...Oh dear! Come to think of it...!"
Due to excessive panic, the two girls' pace was disrupted a bit. Not enough for them to fall over, but their speed did go down.
In that instant, the surrounding audience could be heard entering an uproar.
What had happened? Hence, Fear looked back and saw.
A figure, dressed as a rabbit mascot, had caught up and passed her and Konoha all at once after they slowed down.
Shiraho was feeling quite perplexed.
"Hold on, this... What is going on...?"
Swiftly getting up, in the manner of a martial artist dodging a follow up attack, she then started to dash powerfully like a sprinter.
However, none of this was done intentionally by her own body.
It was her body that moved on its own. No, more accurately—
It was the rabbit mascot costume, wrapped around her body, which was moving on its own.
In other words—
Shiraho turned her head. In the corner of her eye, she could see amidst the audience.
"Shiraho~! Do you best, you're almost at the finish line—!"
Hands cupped around her mouth, cheering for Shiraho was the lover whom she loved more than anyone in the world. Probably to replace the clothing that was soiled by the milkshakes, he was wearing a cat mascot costume, the same as Kuroe's.
Why? Why are you cheering for me? Didn't you hate me?
But Shiraho instantly cast these insignificant questions far away. Her lover was currently cheering for her. This was the only thing that mattered in the whole wide world. The sunlight's warmth was at a perfect level. The Earth was rotating around the Sun without anomaly, the universe was cooling down but not destroyed, all this must be thanks to him.
Hence, Shirao abandoned all doubts, simply running, running, running nonstop.
The lover was not only cheering for her but also using the «Sovereignty-Perfection-Doll»'s power—helping her by controlling the human plush doll. As long as she moved in concert with the plush instead of resisting it, the costume was equivalent to a second body, a second set of limbs that supported her.
It was almost like she was running while merged with her lover.
"We... can't possibly lose...!"
At a distance of only several meters before the finish line, she caught up to and passed the silver-haired and bespectacled duo.
Then before everyone else—
Shiraho broke through the ribbon at the finish line.
The cheering was deafening. The host announced the result noisily.
Dazed for several seconds, Shiraho finally felt a sense of reality returning. Victory. Victory!
But unpleasantly, there was a groan coming from near her feet, sounding like a squashed toad, instantly destroying any lingering euphoria her triumph awarded her.
"Guah... Y-You finally realized? For the last half, you've been dragging me the whole time while running..."
Stuck to her foot was something resembling a tattered rag, looking up at her with eyes full of resentment. Thanks to Sovereignty's power, she had been able to forget this being completely and sprint forward nonstop.
Consequently, Shiraho spoke honestly straight from her heart without any pretense, looking at the tattered rag with eyes one would show when viewing a tattered rag.
"Oh my, you're actually here?"
"It's ended... Everything's over..."
In any case, crossing the finishing line as second place, Konoha and Fear both hung their heads dejectedly. At this moment, the member of staff who had served as the hostess for the whiteboard Q&A happened to pass in front of them.
"A-Are you two okay? Did you get hurt? Should I call for the paramedics?"
"No, it's alright... Ufufu. Everything is futile by this point... To think we even pretended to be lesbian lovers for the sake of entering the contest..."
"Pretended? Oh, that explains why I didn't think you looked like a couple. But dear customer, why did you do that?"
"For... the legend. Those two who won first place this time... Ahaha, they're actually not going out at all... Yes, indeed, totally not at all!"
"Ah~ ...I think I understand what's going on now."
The staff nodded with sudden comprehension. Then after looking around suspiciously, she swiftly brought her face by Konoha's ear and said:
"Uh... Dear customer, since you seem to be someone who can keep secrets and because I sympathize with you as a fellow woman, I'll tell you this. But you must keep this to yourself. Actually, the legend about the Couples Battle was made up by our CEO to bring in customers. It was spread out only recently. It's actually completely baseless rumor without any effects at all. So please don't get so depressd—"
Konoha looked up suddenly.
"B-But, there's that! I heard that it became a legend on the internet and there are those wedding photos too!"
"Internet legends are just legends after all. It could very well be written secretly by the greedy CEO himself to lure in customers. Although the wedding photos on the event poster are real, those winning couples already intended to marry in the first place, so this event wasn't the cause... Wah! D-Dear customer, are you really sure you're not into girls!?"
Spontaneously, Konoha hugged the staff in a mad fit of joy.
Time was approaching dusk.
After a simple ceremony similar to a prize presentation, the audienc and the other contestants left on their own.
Haruaki rotated his neck lightly as cool down while watching the scene. Fear, Konoha and the returned Kuroe were also watching the same scene.
Shiraho had changed back to her original clothing and was swaying awkwardly and unsteadily in unease. Hugged against her chest was the first prize conferred by the organizers, the super giant MeltyCat plush doll. She was hugging the doll like a child, looking up from time to time but timidly casting her gaze back to her feet. This repeated cyclically.
Shiraho's lover was standing in front of her. Sovereignty had changed out of his dirtied clothing into a set of cat pajamas (Kuroe probably told him where to buy it when accompanying him) and was pouting slightly, looking at Shiraho with displeasure.
Despite obtaining the tool for reconciliation, this did not mean that the issue could be instantly resolved with just the tool. After spending a great deal of time, Shiraho finally mustered the courage to speak.
"Th-Thank you... for helping me. Then, umm... why..."
"Hey Shiraho, I am currently a bit angry. Do you know why?"
Sovereignty interrupted Shiraho and said something that was obvious to any observer.
"That's..." Shiraho's gaze wandered, lost. Her attitude was full of hesitation as though saying she had thought of many possibilities and that she felt she was responsible, but did not know where to start. Given her usual intimidating arrogance, it was hard to imagine she had this kind of side to her.
Hence, Sovereignty sighed deeply in exasperation. Then puffing out his chest, he said face to face:
"Let me say this—no matter how good my temper is, Shiraho, I'll still get mad if you join a couples only event together with Haruaki-kun! Because Shiraho, your lover is me! Starting from before, continuing into the future, always!"
Shiraho looked up in disbelief.
"Y-You're not mad? You're willing... to forgive me?"
"Like I said, I am mad~! Jeez, why didn't you join the contest with me...? But I know I'm a little at fault for taking too long to change. If you waited for me, you'd probably have missed entering the event. But even so..."
"N-No, it's not like that! Before entering the event—Weren't you sitting on a bench, saying that my constraints are too burdensome, that I'm too constraining...?"
Sovereignty tilted his head in puzzlement.
"Huh? Did I say something back then? I wasn't mad back then, right... Oh, I remember now. It's because there was a doggy running around in the park and its collar looked like it was put on too tight and very painful. So I was discussing with Fear-chan what we should do. Are you talking about that?"
"!? Y-You also said something about starting over..."
"Yeah. That's why I said things had to start over again by taking the collar off and putting it on properly, right?"
"You said it was the owner's fault, and that you don't care anymore—"
"Yeah, that's right. Since it's his own doggy, he has to take care of it more thoughtfully! I think after that discussion, Fear probably made suggestions to the owner on my behalf... I wonder if they managed to put the collar back on properly."
"No wait, not just these things—Right! The milkshakes! When I spilled the milkshakes on you, clearly you ran off with a displeased look without saying anything...!"
"Oh~ That? Shiraho, you must have ordered randomly without thinking! I know I definitely said that any flavor was fine, but not to that extent... The 'Kitty's Favorite: Horse Mackerel Flavor' is quite a B-class milkshake exclusive to this Woof Meow Friendship Park! I could still accept the 'Doggy's Favorite: Beef Jerky Flavor' or the 'Bunny's Favorite: Carrot Flavor' but that one is really too terrible. After it sprayed into my mouth accidentally, the fishy smell was really bad. I was thinking it'd be dangerous if I opened my mouth so I had to find a place to wash the milkshake off as quickly as possible—Wah!"
Shiraho suddenly hugged Sovereignty's chest tightly.
Her hair was quivering while she seemed to whisper something. Hearing that, Sovereignty suddenly relaxed his expression and gently caressed Shiraho's hair.
The rest of the group was standing slightly further away, watching the two of them. Konoha shrugged lightly.
"I guess this has finally reached a conclusion. It feels like I've been jerked around today by a ton of things... But no matter what, thank goodness there's no being bound together forever!"
"Although it's a shame I couldn't get that giant MeltyCat plushie, in the end, I can go see it any time whenever I go to Shiraho's house to play. It's true that I lost, so I'll let them have it without a fuss. However, I still want more MeltyCat merchandise—Before we head back, don't forget to visit the gift shop along the way!"
"Argh, my body hurts so much all over and even my mind seems to have suffered quite a lot of trauma... Ugh, I get the feeling that I'm the victim suffering the most harm this time. I hope the rumor of perverted cicada-eating guy doesn't start spreading in town..."
"Speaking of harm, I've incurred a huge loss too. Although I won't resent Sovey-chan for this, but to think there was such an amusing event as the Couples Battle, I can't believe I missed out on more than half of it. There must have been many rare and priceless scenes for everyone!"
The members of Haruaki's group each grumbled on their own while watching the scene with a faint smile of wryness on their face.
Watching the scene of lovers.
Progressively sinking west, the setting sun gave off an orange glow, enshrouding the two of them.
This sort of scene must be part of Shiraho and Sovereignty's everyday life together, Haruaki thought.
Arguing, getting stuck, anxious, worried, angry for trivial things.
But in the end, in a most natural manner, matter-of-factly, they always return to the closest position to each other.
How resilient, how unstable, how unbelievable, how inexplicable.
So this was probably what was known as love.
Hence, perhaps Fear was currently watching them with eyes of longing.
Hence, perhaps Konoha was currently watching them with eyes of admiration.
For these girls who were not human, for these girls who wanted to become human, this was a milestone in their eyes.
Haruaki would be very happy if they could carve this brightness into their hearts, if they could treat this as mental nourishment for the long road ahead of them. Initially, they had only come here for the purpose of spending the holiday, which was why they indulged Fear's impromptu whim, but right now, Haruaki believed from the bottom of his heart that it was really a wonderful decision. Although many painful memories were made, it seemed like he could easily toss them aside into the back of his mind.
Burying her face into Sovereignty's flat chest as a boy, Shiraho straightened her back awkwardly and embraced her lover again. This time, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, allowing their faces to stay at the same height.
Shiraho was still holding the giant plush doll in her arms.
Hence, from the viewpoint of Haruaki's group, the two's faces happened to be blocked out of sight by the plush doll exactly.
"Hmm, although it's a shame I missed so many rare scenes, but—Never mind. I think this is more than enough to make up for my regrets. A great shutter chance~ Here I go."
The instant of memory was framed by the sounds from the shutter of Kuroe's camera.
Behind the plush doll right now, what the two faces were doing, drawn near to each other—
Even without seeing, surely everyone knew.
Translator's Notes and References
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