Chapter 1 - The Creature Allegedly My Father / "His birthday (I)"
Many things must be changing slowly, he thought.
To be honest, Haruaki could only feel lost in response to these changes. All the gradually changing matters had no answer. None of them were things he could understand.
He thought of Kirika. A friend from the same homeroom since the first year of high school, she was the straitlaced class representative, his lunch duel opponent as well as his comrade sharing the secret of curses.
Saying she loved and regarded him as a member of the opposite gender, Kirika had confessed to him.
She was unable to escape her cursed bondage suit. However, this had absolutely no bearing on his feelings towards her. Kirika was Kirika. Intelligent, beautiful, kind, competitive and never admitting defeat.
He could not possibly dislike her. Rather—He probably liked her.
Because simply imagining it made his heart pound uncontrollably.
Suppose he were to take a stroll with her, just the two of them, or going somewhere fun to have a good time, or cooking together, sharing a meal, or touching—her body.
He believed that it would be a most happy thing. Happiness beyond a doubt.
However, his thoughts paused at this point. He could not find the path he ought to advance along.
Hence, what should he do? What should he say? What course of action should he take?
His own feelings were very confused, impossible to unify. This was a first experience. Anxiety was the only emotion he could forcibly feel out.
He had asked her to wait for his answer because of Konoha's incident happening earlier.
In fact, they had discussed things in the kitchen and she had reminded him. Indeed, now that Konoha had returned safe and sound, he must tell her his answer. He must hurry.
Nevertheless... What was the answer?
As though jumping into a newly discovered path, he was thinking of another person who now surfaced in his thoughts.
Namely, Konoha. The cursed Japanese sword he had known since a very long time ago, the family member who was like an older sister, the fellow student in the same grade who had started going to school together with him ever since he entered high school.
She, who had professed her love for him and even kissed him...
Konoha was Konoha. But upon thinking calmly, Haruaki realized she was undoubtedly a woman as well. Having a gentle smiling face, understanding him better than anyone, always standing on his side no matter what, possessing an excellent figure, exuding an aura that made him feel at peace just by being next to her, that was Konoha.
Indeed, Haruaki felt very comfortable around her. Very happy. The feelings he experienced from her was probably not going to change in the future.
However—He also needed to give Konoha an answer, right?
His thoughts entered another dead end again.
So, what should he do? What kind of answer should he give? In order to reach an answer, what should he be thinking about?
Oh sorry, Konoha, are you here to hurry me? Please give me a moment.
She was not angry. Not only that, she was giggling with some kind of deeper meaning.
How odd? Just as Haruaki tilted his head, he noticed that his entire body was surrounded by... How should he describe this? A feeling akin to "Konoha-ness." It was a very attractive feeling belonging to Konoha, very Konoha-like in sensation, even to the point that it was Konoha herself. Or perhaps one could call this "intensely Konoha-ing."
What the heck am I thinking? Something doesn't seem right—Just as Haruaki was thinking that in a corner of his mind, a certain distinctive sensation appeared on his face apart from Konoha-ness. Poke poke, something was poking him in the cheek.
"Ahhh... Haruaki-kun... I knew it..."
This voice. The cheek-poking sensation. His brain suddenly understood that this was all reality.
So basically? Indeed.
In other words, the only one who had not yet returned to reality was himself alone—
Hence, Haruaki opened his eyes to find Konoha's face up close in front of him.
The two of them were close enough to feel each other's breathing. She was even smiling with slight rapture.
Then using her index finger, she kept poking his cheek gently.
Even after discovering that he had opened his eyes, she remained unflustered—
"Ara, Haruaki-kun. Good morning."
Smiling tenderly, she greeted him.
The fact that Konoha's face was so near meant that she had burrowed under his blanket. Haruaki finally figured out that the "Konoha-ness" he had felt in his dreamlike state was actually the umbrella term for the soft and comfortable sensation produced from squeezing tightly with Konoha in this narrow space—
Haruaki frantically jumped up, wrapping the blanket around himself then retreating rapidly. For only an instant, the baseless speculation of "Konoha wouldn't be naked by any chance, right?" flashed across his mind, but fortunately, she was definitely clothed—Then he felt ashamed for his delusion instead. What the heck was he imagining!?
"W-Why are you in my bed...!?"
Completely unabashed, Konoha remained on the bedding that was left behind, tilting her head with her chin resting on her hands.
"Uh~ When I came to rouse you from bed, Haruaki-kun, because your sleeping face was too adorable... I couldn't help it, so I—"
"C-Couldn't help it?"
"Indeed, I couldn't help it. My apologies."
She beamed with a smile. It was the same familiar smiling face but the meaning conveyed was different from before. Her mode of behavior was also definitely different from before. The sense of distance had changed. Compared to all other times, this sense of distance was much more proactive.
Konoha's eyes suddenly flashed at this time then lowered her gaze.
"Umm—If this really displeases you, Haruaki-kun... Sorry. I seriously apologize to you."
Because Konoha's expression was too sad—
"No... It won't... It's okay."
"Really? I'm so glad."
She beamed again. Staring into each other's eyes. That sense of distance with her on the bedding. Haruaki's heart rate was rising.
Just as Haruaki gulped hard—
Spontaneously, Haruaki noticed an unfamiliar figure standing silently at the doorway. Taking a closer look, he realized it was Kotetsu. The reason why Haruaki had failed to recognize him at first glance was because Kotetsu's hair was untied unlike usual and he was also wearing Konoha's old pajamas. Kotetsu must have just gotten up as well.
Haruaki was thinking Kotetsu would say something but he simply stared into the room unerringly. His eyes were subtly narrowed. The roaring pounce of fury never arrived.
However, for some unknown reason...
Haruaki could tell there was another type of reprimanding aura conveyed in Kotetsu's gaze. Indeed, if one had to make an analogy—It was like he was scolding Haruaki: "What a spineless coward!"
"Uh, umm, this is..."
In any case, just as Haruaki was trying to explain the situation, a new figure appeared behind Kotetsu.
This was also another person who was not present in this home until yesterday.
This certain person was wearing what ought to be his own pajamas, but the top was stretched very tightly. A certain person who had the top few buttons unfastened with cleavage exposed. A certain person whose pair of sleepy eyes seemed a bit familiar, but produced an even stronger sense of dissonance.
However, as soon as this person craned forward to peer into the room from over Kotetsu's head, he immediately stared wide-eyed and woke up in a flash.
"Oh my! Haruaki, I can't believe you entered the adult phase while I was gone..."
"Of course not!"
"I had a feeling this would happen, which is why I asked Konoha to live in the accessory dwelling... But you guys changed the rules on your own at some point in time and started living together! Once unbridled, you will only immerse yourselves in lust... Oh dear, what depravity of youth! I feel deeply responsible for this. Sob sob sob..."
Honatsu was rubbing the corners of his eyes, pretending to cry very deliberately.
Haruaki had lost the energy to deal with him a long time ago and could only sigh.
Haruaki found it truly wonderful that they could bring Konoha back and return to the normal life they once had, but he could sense that there were still many things with unclear future paths in the days ahead.
Kirika, Konoha, Kotetsu who had newly joined this family, and this mysterious creature allegedly his father.
Whose issues should he start with? Where should he start? What should he prioritize to contemplate? His mind was in total chaos—
"What what? What about lust? That's a word that can only be called shameless in all respects! Everyone freeze where you are and don't move—!"
A certain patter of noises came from outside the room. In terms of how to survive the situation at hand, this meant that Haruaki was burdened with one more matter he needed to think about.
Nevertheless, Fear's voice was the only thing that was almost identical to before.
For some reason, Haruaki felt grateful for that.
After sitting herself down hard on the cushion in the veranda, Fear angrily crushed rice crackers between her teeth.
"Seriously! That guy is outrageous as always!"
"Hmm. Although things have changed, it also seems like nothing's changed as well. But it does come as a relief to me that another lively scene has returned to this home at last."
Kuroe sat down lightly in formal seiza posture on the cushion beside her, holding a teacup in both hands while sipping tea, commenting with a faint wry smile. Thinking "how carefree!", Fear frowned but ultimately picked up another rice cracker without saying anything.
While listening to the crisp crunching sounds coming from her mouth, Fear suddenly recalled what Kuroe had just said.
Changed, yet nothing had changed as well.
That must be it. Whether Haruaki or Konoha, something must have changed along the way back to this home. Although it looked like nothing had changed as a result, Fear believed that there was still a dramatic change on a mental level, because something that even a bystander like her would consider "only natural for that to result" occurred right before her eyes.
So, for herself who had watched that unfold... Did anything change?
Fear deliberately coughed then glanced to the side. In a mumbling voice, joking in an intentional manner to hide her embarrassment, she said:
"By the way, Kuroe-no-suke, may I have a private word with you?"
"Yes, my lord! What is it?"
Playing along, Kuroe responded appropriately in an instant. Still sitting formally in seiza on the cushion, she rotated herself by ninety degrees, pointing her knees towards Fear as though acting out a historical drama.
Fear suddenly relaxed her expression. Kuroe had apparently noticed the feelings in her heart and was thus someone whom Fear could consult confidentially. Fear felt very fortunate to have someone like that by her side.
"...Honatsu said something about a birthday, right? I'd like to ask about that."
"Yes, it's Haru's birthday, I believe. Do you know exactly which day and month it is?"
"Uh... It happens to be exactly ten days from now."
"Weird, I get the feeling there's something planned already. Something very important as well."
"Oh... Speaking of which, Ficchi, you guys are having exams soon, right? I remember Haru's birthday is on the day after exams are over."
Now that it was mentioned, Fear was certain. Although she was starting to feel bothered by exams now, she decided to put the issue aside for now.
"I see, now I know the date. So, I wanted to know something else..."
Naturally, back when she first arrived, Fear did not know the significance of birthdays. But by this point, Fear had already lived in Japan for quite a long while during which she had seen many classmates celebrate their birthdays. As a result, she knew that birthdays were important events for modern Japanese people with major celebrations.
However, the issue was—
What about for Haruaki?
"Now that I think back carefully, I've never heard that guy mention this. Did he simply forget?"
"Ah~ ...You're right. If anything, Haru doesn't like holding noisy parties when his birthday comes around... I guess?"
Fear was a bit shocked. Weren't birthdays meant to have parties? A chance to celebrate spectacularly and go wild? Something like Christmas.
She leaned forward to inquire from Kuroe the reason in greater detail—
The reason turned out to be very simple.
From what Kuroe had heard, the reason why Haruaki did not enjoy lively celebrations of his birthday stemmed from his childhood when it was the only day that his father was guaranteed to hurry home from his travels. Things were fine up to the end of elementary school, but after entering middle school, Haruaki began to resent the feeling that he was forced to accommodate his father's attempt to fulfill obligations, which was why he wanted to spend his birthdays as ordinarily as possible. At first, it might have been nothing more than a rebellious phase, an attempt to defy his father, but Fear could empathize. She also heard that Kuroe and Konoha would not do anything more than giving him presents on that day.
Fear could not help but feel demoralized.
"Really...? No party, just giving presents?"
Why would she feel this way? Fear found her own feelings quite unbelievable.
Basically—Right. Because she had already decided as a matter of fact that a grand and lively celebration was in order. Because she looked forward to seeing what kind of expression he would make if a party were to be held. A shameless expression just like the one he made last Christmas. If possible, she wanted to make Haruaki show that kind of face. She really wanted to see it. She wanted to stay by his side, experiencing that uplifting feeling—
She began to think deeper. Was she feeling depressed because she had decided on her own to hold out hopes which were now dashed? Currently, she felt a bit weird. Why were her thoughts so impetuous and prone to jumping to conclusions?
(...Am I... impatient?)
Yeah, I guess I'll admit it. Existing inside her heart was definitely an irritable sense of impatience.
The reason? She knew it too.
It was due to Konoha that time. Because she had watched her do something like that at close range—After confessing her love, Konoha had even kissed Haruaki's lips.
What happened then had not only affected Haruaki and Konoha but also brought change to Fear's feelings inside. Hence, simply recalling the scene like now was making her heart pound uncontrollably. It was producing a feeling of "I must do something to compete." Like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, something in her heart was violently urging her—Hurry, hurry, hurry and do something! Make him feel aware of you!
Of course, the first method that occurred to her was to repeat what Konoha had done. However, merely the thought of herself doing that—
Her head felt like it was about to explode. Consequently, she decided to shelve the idea. Originally, she wanted to hold a grand celebration for Haruaki as a sort of prelude to occupy her thoughts in the meantime, but as soon as this idea took off, she was met with a heavy setback.
But this could not be helped. It would be totally not worth it if she did something he disliked and got hated for it. Slumping her shoulders, Fear said:
"Sigh... Perhaps he might even get annoyed if I gave him a present...? Would it be safer to skip the present...?"
"No no no, Ficchi, you're overthinking things! You have to give a present at least!"
"I don't think Haru hates receiving presents either. We give him presents every year too. If you skip on the present, Ficchi, you won't be able to draw attention to your presence! The present is absolutely necessary!"
"Hmm... I guess that's true, if you say so. I need to give a present at least, yeah!"
Having said that, Kuroe exhaled as though greatly relieved. Then the remaining issue was—
"What should I give as a present? This is killing my brain."
"I'm racking my brain, trying to think of what to give this year too~ But there's always the last resort, just tie a ribbon around yourself."
"What's the meaning of that?"
"Hoho... This cannot be explained by the lips of your humble servant. You shall understand eventually one day, my lord."
Kuroe returned to her historical drama tone of voice and snickered malevolently. How mind-boggling.
"Anyway, you must figure out what to give before that day arrives. Hmm, I guess there's always the method of asking him directly what he'd like."
Fear started to eat rice crackers again, spacing out while staring at the garden ahead.
Haruaki's birthday. Exams. All sorts of random things. There was so much to think about.
It looked like these troublesome days were going to persist for the next while.
Several days had passed since Konoha returned home.
Probably thanks to the enhanced healing effects induced by Kuroe's hair, Haruaki's shoulder wound had recovered to the point where he could just about get through life normally. It was still slightly painful, but at least he no longer needed to keep his arm immobilized.
At school, he had explained to Taizou and the others that "I got slightly injured" with his arm tied up, but ever since the sling was taken off, life pretty much went on the same as before. Neither was he prevented from taking notes in class... Still, writing was a tough task but now was not the time to be spacing out instead of copying notes.
Indeed, it was currently exam week. A student's duty was to study. Now that normal life had returned, it was necessary to pour all energy and gather full concentration for the imminent exams. Hence—
The Haruaki household had also invited guests for tonight to hold a group study session. Since Shiraho and others had declined the invitation, only one guest ended up coming. Therefore, in other words, this turned into a "group study session with a private tutor."
"Hey hey, Kirika, what does this mean?"
"Where, where... This part? This is—"
Haruaki looked up and stole a glance at her face.
He caught the side view of Kirika's face while she was explaining key points to Fear. Long eyelashes, well-shaped lips, gentle tone of voice. Feeling embarrassed somehow, Haruaki instantly turned his gaze back to his notes.
But unlike Haruaki, there was one other person present who kept staring intently at Kirika.
Kirika seemed to endure it uncomfortably for quite a while, but probably reaching her limit, she looked up with what appeared to be a troubled and embarrassed expression.
"Umm—How should I address you...? Honatsu... -san? Umm, it's a bit difficult for me to concentrate if you keep staring at me like this..."
"Hmm~ I knew it, children who are good at studying are lovely~ They feel so reliable, it's great~"
Sorry for being so unreliable. Grumbling inside, Haruaki looked to the side of the table at the same time. Sitting there doing nothing was Honatsu, still in that mysterious female form. He was smiling while supporting his chin on a hand, watching them study. To be honest, he was quite an eyesore.
On the other hand, Kirika simply kept repeatedly retracting her neck with a troubled look on her face. Given the mysterious person who was both an unfamiliar woman and allegedly Haruaki's father at the same time... Kirika probably had no idea how to deal with her.
As a side note, Haruaki had already made his decision not to care. Konoha and the other girls also seemed to have reached the same conclusion. After all, no matter how they tried to ask him why he had transformed into a woman, he would always change the subject and refuse to explain. Hence, there was nothing they could do but accept "that's the way he is," almost to the point of ignoring him. Since he refused to explain, that just let him be. Conversely, Haruaki was neither going to ask nor take any action, letting him do whatever he wanted for now.
"How rude, Haruaki-kun's grades aren't bad at all. Isn't that so?"
Studying together, Konoha voiced her support for Haruaki, but—
"Not particularly good either..."
Haruaki did not really feel like prolonging the subject. He did not really want contact with his father. For him right now, over there was just an incarnation of shame, incomprehension and trouble.
Hence, Haruaki made an ambiguously pleasing smile in an attempt to end the conversation. Then he realized the teacup in his hand happened to be empty.
"Hmm, the tea is finished. The teapot is almost emptied, right? Let me go prepare more—"
"Oh, I already asked Kotetsu just now if preparing tea is what's needed."
Before Haruaki could get up, almost simultaneously while Konoha was speaking, the living room's sliding door was opened.
"...The tea is ready."
A gruff voice and slightly vicious eyes. This was apparently his natural look rather than an indication of poor mood. Appearing from behind with a tray carrying the spare teapot, Kotetsu casually set down the tray next to the table before picking up a cup from the tray and nimbly sitting down in formal seiza behind Konoha in a very natural manner.
"Thank you. You may relax and take a break too."
Kotetsu gave a brief response then picked up a cup by his side with a serious look on his face. Sucking through a straw in the cup, he drink with a "slurp~"
As for the red liquid he was drinking—
(Hmm... This really looks like a scene from one of those common vampire manga... But if this is what stabilizes his mental state, whatever goes.)
For the sake of convenience, Kotetsu's current owner was Haruaki. Although Kotetsu was extremely reluctant, under Konoha's forceful commands, he had no choice but to relent, thus resulting in the current state of affairs. Consequently, the legendary curse of "Kotetsu thirsts for blood tonight"—"compelling the wielder to allow Kotetsu's blade to drink fresh blood"—no longer activated.
However, just as "seeing blood" carried special significance to Konoha, Kotetsu's traits, or rather, his habits, also left behind a reliance on the act of "drinking blood." In order to solve this problem, after going through many failed experiments, they finally discovered that principle that "his heart would calm down as long as he drank a red liquid of similar color." Among them the most effective was tomato juice—So the cliched model passed down from long ago really had its merits?
In any case, Kotetsu was currently very well-behaved. This was probably thanks to Konoha who had been living together with him so far? Although he was still an enemy not too long ago, it felt like there was no need to keep him under heavy supervision at all times. At this rate, he very well might become someone akin to Konoha's little brother, settling down in this home.
However, Haruaki still did not know if Kotetsu really wanted to have his curse lifted.
Although it was mostly Konoha who interacted with Kotetsu at the moment, Haruaki believed that eventually, he must ask Kotetsu directly what were his true thoughts.
Anyway, Kotetsu had brought in tea with perfect timing. Without needing Haruaki to do anything, the previous topic of conversation was swept aside. In other words, he did not need to speak to his father. Picking up the teapot to pour another cup of tea, Haruaki started studying again. There were precious few days before the exams and time must not be wasted...
(Oh right, speaking of time...)
Some time had passed since the previous incident, but no more weird people had appeared so far—Haruaki thought.
Back when Satsuko and Fourteen made their departure, they had apparently said something horrifying but it must have been a mistake. Even if they were serious at the time, it was possible that the situation had changed in the meantime, or perhaps simply because her superior was defeated, Satsuko wanted to scare them in revenge and lied as a result.
(Hmm, it's really great that nothing's happening... Anyway, now's the time for studying. Study.)
Honatsu was smiling while watching the study session, Fear was groaning while reading textbooks, Kirika was tending to Fear, Konoha was studying at her own pace while paying attention to Haruaki's progress once in a while, Kotetsu was drinking tomato juice in small sips behind Konoha, whereas Haruaki was slightly distracted—
At this moment, Kuroe came home from work, thus the usual members of the group were all gathered.
"I'm home~ Oh, everyone's studying."
"Oh, welcome back, Kuroe. Did you buy what I wrote in the text message?"
"Tomato juice for Kotecchan and milk? Of course. I'll put them in the fridge first."
After entering the kitchen, Kuroe sat down in the living room and began to sip hot tea from the teacup she had brought out.
"Hmm~ So this is the joy of working... Tea tastes best after a hard day's of work."
"Speaking of which, I've heard that you've been working very seriously of late. Well done, Kuroe-kun."
Kirika suddenly stopped writing and spoke whereas Kuroe puffed out her tiny chest as though going "ehe."
"That's right! It's because I have to recover my black hair as quickly as possible~ Only a bit more and I'll have recovered the original hair color completely."
Kuroe picked up her hair in her fingertips and explained. The lock of hair had used up its life force to heal Haruaki's injury, turning snow-white as a side effect. Immediately after the treatment, the white hair was ten centimeters long but now the length was roughly that of a fingernail's. Kuroe was working seriously as hard as she could—That was probably for replenishing life force from the hair that was cut from her customers.
Haruaki thanked her from the bottom of his heart while at the same time, he noticed Konoha suddenly lowering her gaze, burying herself in her notebook. Without saying a word, she looked like she had decided to accept everything. With slight gloom and helplessness in her eyes, her expression also seemed to be smiling faintly as well.
Indeed, the direct reason why Kuroe needed to use her power beyond her limit and heal Haruaki's wound was because—
The one who had cut open his flesh was—
Haruaki himself did not mind but even having said that, it would not make her feel more at ease.
"Oh right! Actually, I've been developing new moves using spare time when business is slow!"
Kuroe was speaking with unnecessary cheerfulness in her voice, possibly because she noticed Konoha's appearance. Konoha tilted her head and asked:
"New moves...? Haven't you been developing them whenever you have time?"
"Yeah, I've watched scenes when you're developing new moves. They're totally terrifying."
"Hoho! But this time, it's beyond the level of thinking up move names. How should I put it? Such as hair control and life force usage or stuff like that, I've come up with totally new ideas. I was wondering if my powers ended up growing due to overusing them at one point? Like that super famous warrior race whose members get stronger every time they approach the verge of death!"
Konoha tilted her head to the other side, at a loss for words. In any case, Kuroe had apparently succeeded in dispelling her gloomy feelings. Then sipping tea, Kuroe said:
"Hmm, anyway, between working and developing new moves, my days have been very fulfilling lately."
"Oh... Well, as long as you're happy."
"So true, work is very important, you know~? Well done!"
Honatsu stroked Kuroe's head from behind. You, the one who looks he's never working seriously, have the least right to say that—Haruaki could only grumble in his heart.
Then after the studying persisted for a while—
"So... Let's call it a day here. It's getting late."
The group study session was dismissed after Kirika said that. Sighing inside, Haruaki cleared away the paper and stationery used for studying. At this moment, Kirika spoke up while likewise putting textbooks and other belongings away.
"Excuse me... Honatsu-san, I've got something to ask you."
"Ask me? Yes, sure, go ahead."
"Recently, Honatsu-san, why did you observe this home from outside instead of coming in? Since it's your own home, I would think it's fine to return as soon as you could, right?"
Kirika was referring to the time when they were undergoing special training in order to bring Konoha back. They originally thought the mysterious woman appearing in front of the residence's entrance belonged to the Draconians, but it turned out to be a misunderstanding.
"Hmm~ I did consider pressing the doorbell, yes. But anyway, it's because the situation looked very serious."
"That day was... Muu. I went there and Kuroe also... Hmm, it was definitely quite serious, I guess."
"Exactly, I did observe the mood first~ So that's why I told myself, I'd better stay at a hotel for now!"
In contrast to the words in her response, the look on Kirika's face was not quite convinced. Even after packing all the stationery she had been using for studying into her schoolbag, she did not stand up. Sitting there formally in seiza for quite a while, with eyes closed, she seemed to be contemplating. Then when she opened both eyes—
"Although this might be meddling on my part in an absolutely ridiculous way... There's one more thing."
Kirika shifted her gaze away from Honatsu, looking at Haruaki for an instant. Haruaki felt his heart rate rising because he originally thought the topic of conversation had nothing to do with him. Kirika immediately turned her gaze back to Honatsu.
"In other words, Yachi—-kun and you. The way I see it, there was no eye contact between the two of you today, not even once. I believe this is quite abnormal."
"Hmm~ But I was looking at him frequently, because I'd like to record my beloved son's development firmly on the back of my eyes! But Haruaki won't even look at me~ Are you shy?"
Of course. Not. Like hell I'd look. This overly inexplicable Pops. The Pops who refused to explain anything.
Kirika seemed to sigh.
"I can understand how he feels. If I were him, I would've done the same. As much as I hate using that particular word, however—It's very unpleasant when forced to let an unknown persist as an unknown."
"I know a little bit about you. That used to be your former standpoint, right?"
"No, trying to thoroughly unearth unnecessary secrets is completely different from being forced to pretend not to see a mystery that's right in front of your eyes."
Kirika straightened her back forcefully and spoke like a judge delivering a verdict:
"Please tell us. What have you been doing all this time? Why did you end up looking like this? What are your plans for the future? Unless these questions are cleared up, your relationship with Yachi will never become normal. Naturally, the same applies to your relationship with us as well."
Haruaki did not look at Honatsu's face, but did not look away either—He simply kept his attention on Honatsu's person. This was to know how would he answer? What kind of expression would he make? Nevertheless, the nervous tension at the scene did not last long. Bringing his hands together with a clap, Honatsu tilted his head apologetically and said:
"Oh dear~ ...I understand how you all feel but I'm sorry~ Because if I explain now, it'll take double the effort..."
Shock, anger, disappointment, scorn. These emotions rushed into Haruaki's brain accompanied by dizziness. He secretly gnashed his teeth. As expected, this really was the worst father!
However, Honatsu's answer seemed to have raised a new question from Fear.
"What do you mean by taking double the effort?"
"Hmm~ Of course, it's not like I don't want to explain to you all. It's just that it's a lot of work if I need to repeat the same explanation multiple times, so I want to wait until Gab-chan returns before I explain."
"After letting my little gray cells to spin at full speed, I'm guessing that's the superintendent."
"That's right~ That child still seems to be running around the world, right? I've heard that he's away somewhere even now. But I've already contacted him and heard that he's returning to Japan after your exams are over. Since I want to explain everything in person to my good friend, that will be the time when I'll answer everyone's questions together!"
After saying that, he even winked. That extremely fluid, natural and flawless winking motion, like a young wife appearing in an advertisement, actually made others feel very uncomfortable.
"By the way, it's fine if you want to address Haruaki without honorifics like earlier. Just now, you originally wanted to call him Yachi directly, right? I hope you can behave with your true selves like normal~ Because this might very well be related to my son's future, I want to observe this area properly too~"
As though sunk by a great impact, Kirika went red in the face and bowed her head.
Haruaki exchanged glances with Fear and the others, sighing.
In the end, Honatsu still had no intentions of disclosing everything about himself at the moment. But now that a deadline had been set at the end of exams, there was some progress at least. It was all thanks to Kirika.
However, in spite of that...
(...I hope he really does explain everything in detail before the superintendent.)
Of course—inside Haruaki's heart, he had already become thoroughly unable to trust his father's words.
"Thanks a lot, Class Rep."
"See you, Kirika!"
Kirika closed the front door behind her. Maintaining this posture, she recalled that face of his, still bidding goodbye to her only an instant earlier. Slightly apologetic—on a true level, a gaze that was not looking at her. Physically, in terms of angles, he was definitely looking at her, but the focus of his heart was not in focus. He was afraid of focusing on her.
She understood very clearly why. With too much happening all at once, the stress in his heart must be reaching a limit.
Kirika sighed lightly and released the front door's handle, then took a step forward. Taking out her cellphone absentmindedly, she checked the time. What her eyes focused on was not the time of the day displayed but the date.
As the numbers grew bigger and bigger, the circled dates on the calendar in her mind were going to arrive in succession. First were the midterm exams. Continuing to study hard at the current rate, yes, she should be able to attain her usual grades. Then right after that, awaiting her was the important event—
Since birthdays happened once a year, Kirika had experienced Haruaki's birthday last year as well. However, she did not recall doing anything special, because she knew that Haruaki wanted to spend his birthdays in peace. She had also heard about the reason—but was not sure whether it was brought up by himself or by Taizou and Kana during chatting. This, she could not remember exactly.
She traced back her memories that were fuzzy to an unbelievable degree. On that day last year, what had she bought? She seemed to have gave him something boring at school. Of course, it was together with Kana and the others. Then after school, they had taken a group picture at a photo booth to commemorate, followed by buying snacks to eat together. That was all she could recall.
Suddenly, she was captured by a strange feeling. For herself back then, the boy named Yachi Haruaki was definitely just a target for observation. She was still part of the Lab Chief's Nation at the time whereas he was nothing more than a boy whose constitution was immune to curses.
Ah—At which point in time had she fallen in love with him?
She felt like there was no clear trigger. Naturally, very naturally, by the time she realized, her gaze was already chasing after him. She was only observing him because she was ordered to observe him—She had also used the operation itself as an excuse.
This year, she was welcoming his birthday for the first time after realizing her own feelings.
The situation was different, she could not allow things to go as last year. She had already confessed. Although there were still many worrisome aspects regarding the answer, her current priority was choosing a gift in any case. What should she choose? What would serve as a present?
Right—For example, most typically, she had often heard others say that wrapping yourself up as a present was the best way to express your feelings—
She hastily shook her head hard, stuffed the cellphone into her skirt pocket and started walking. There was quite some distance between the front door of the Yachi main residence and the entrance to the premises. She decided to slowly walk the dozen of steps required to cover this path. Right now, that was what she really felt like doing.
One step. She walked on the stepping stone underfoot. Another step.
At this moment, lively noise came from the main house behind her. Did Fear or Kuroe cause a commotion? Was Konoha being angry? Did the newcomer Kotetsu do something wrong? Were Honatsu and Haruaki the father and son pair having an argument—If that were the case, things would actually be more normal.
In any case, it was very lively. The noise behind her back, transmitting into the distance.
Meanwhile, the path ahead was very quiet. As soon as she exited the main entrance, a quiet night road awaited her, leading to the total darkness of her own apartment.
Kirika looked back slightly, narrowing her eyes lightly. The lively Yachi home. The happy Yachi home.
She could not help but indulge in pointless imagination.
Suppose, suppose she could also live there—
(...No, that... would be asking for too much. I...)
Kirika shook her head lightly and faced forward again.
Then leaving behind the lively noise of the Yachi home, she started along her dark path back home.
Inside a room with the lights turned off—
Having spent a number of days to prepare herself, Fear finally decided to do it.
She was squirming awkwardly. Due to closing her eyes, she could not see anything so she only turned her head. She had definitely taken a bath already and even scrubbed especially hard. There were no odors or stains on her body... Probably, definitely. Had she forgotten to do anything else? Would it be better to brush her teeth beforehand as well?
"Okay, so, Fear... May I open you up?"
"Y-You must be more gentle, also, don't keep staring the whole time!"
"I know, it's just the same as always."
The same as always. Indeed, just the same as always. This kind of thing had happened many times by this point. Purely letting Haruaki see her most important part, feeling his breath blowing on her body, shivering from the touch of his fingers, then having him insert that into that extremely tight opening of hers, all the way into the very depths. Nothing more than that.
However—Right now, her heart was beating faster than usual.
She knew why. It was due to her feelings. Because placing herself in Haruaki's hands—let alone fear, she felt tender affection instead. She wished for him to touch her. Like this, touch her more. That being said, she was too embarrassed to voice any of this at all.
"Sorry, does it hurt?"
"No... It doesn't."
Under the illumination of the flashlight in Haruaki's hand, her private spot was exposed and completely laid bare. This could not be helped because visibility was necessary, but it did produce a sense of immorality instead. Fear thought to herself: very shameless indeed. Haruaki definitely enjoyed this kind of thing, because he was staring into the deepest part of her with such serious eyes. This guy was hopeless. Even if one were to search the entire world, there was very likely no woman but herself who was generous and tolerant enough to allow Haruaki to stare at that kind of spot. Hence, she was special to him.
"Okay, so... I'm putting it in."
Haruaki presumably thought it would be a bad idea to insert suddenly. Fear felt his fingers gently caressing her opening. Her consciousness shuddered. Biting her nonexistent lips, she desperately suppressed the lame cry that almost escaped. Idiot, what are you trying to do! I'll curse you! That feels too pleasurable—It makes me feel like there's an electrical current running through my entire body!
"I'm putting it in here."
"That's... Hurry and put it in... Don't move... your fingers back and forth..."
Haruaki replied "understood." Fear took a breath in then held it. She could sense him inhaling as well. Then immediately—
There was a feeling of something inserting into her body. The sensation of a foreign object only lasted an instant before turning into "something that belonged inside as a matter of fact," melding into one with the contours within her body.
Inside her body, the most sensitive spot was getting filled. However—
"It's not... over, right...?"
"Yeah, one more time. I'm going to do it in one go next."
The same feeling arose at a different spot from just now. A sense of insertion occurred at two places simultaneously. A numbing feeling ran through her entire body, intermediate between a tickling and a painful sensation. However, these feelings gained significance as soon as it crossed her mind that they came by his hand. Like evidence, like bonds.
When the rich sense of fulfillment enveloped her, he started to clean up indifferently. She felt a bit offended. Of course it was necessary to cover up her exposed private spot, but there was no need to hurry so much, right?
"Uh... I need to do this here then do that... Is this okay? Although it's the same as usual, let me know if your body feels uncomfortable anywhere, okay? Then I'm off."
"W-Wait, it just so happens that I want to chat with you for a bit. Turn around and wait for me."
After confirming that Haruaki had obeyed her directions despite showing signs of puzzlement, Fear turned back to human form. Although the room was very dark, she must not be careless. Anyway, she fidgeted while putting on the shirt she had removed then reached out to find the panties that ought to be nearby while speaking:
"Then uh... Basically that, I've got something to ask you."
"Sure, what is it?"
"Well, just as you know, I still have many things I don't understand about the human world. So, to be honest, I don't think I understand events like birthdays very well yet."
"Oh... That's not a particularly important day, so it's fine even if you don't do anything."
A ready answer within expectations. Fear felt a little sad but it could not be helped.
"No, I've talked to Kuroe and reached the conclusion that presents must be given at least. So I'll ask you honestly, do you have anything you'd like?"
During breaks between studying for exams, she had been racking her brain on this issue but could not reach an answer. Hence, she decided to go with Kuroe's suggestion of going straight to the point. Although this was not the best method, at least it was better than helplessly delaying until the day itself.
"I clearly said it doesn't matter already..."
Inside the dark room, Fear sensed a forced smile. Having grown accustomed to the darkness, she could faintly see Haruaki's back quivering slightly, sitting in front of her. By the way, she still had not found her panties. Where had they gone?
Fear got on her knees and circled the surroundings, patting the floor with her palms in her continued search.
"That's not acceptable. Don't worry, just go ahead and tell me."
"Really... I'm fine with anything."
That's really giving me a headache—Fear thought. She did not have too much money, with only a little left over from the part-time jobs in the past. What should she buy? Buying something cheaper would be forgivable, given the circumstances. Then how about changing her idea slightly to give something that were not sold in common shops? Something she could prepare. Something she—could give.
Speaking of which—Fear recalled it. Kuroe had said "there's always the last resort, just tie a ribbon around yourself." This had not registered in her mind at the time because she did not understand, but now—after thinking about it while alone with Haruaki in a dark room—Fear suddenly figured out what it meant.
(Too—! Too shameless...!)
Her cheeks instantly heated up. What the heck? Was that really okay? As long as the other side demanded it? Also, where on earth were her panties?
"...By the way, you've been rummaging for a while now. What are you looking for?"
Her hand suddenly slipped on something while she was supporting herself on her arm, sending her body forward, causing her to end up hugging Haruaki who was turning his head back.
"Wah! Umm, sorry!"
Her heart was pounding. She could feel Haruaki's warmth from the body she was hugging in the darkness. Haruaki's hand also ended up on her head by chance. As though stroking her head, he started to move his palm.
"Back to the subject just now. Haven't I repeated this many times? It's great that you're trying hard to do good things like an ordinary person, but you don't need to rush. So, anything's fine as long as it's a gift from you. I'm very happy already from your feelings, so I definitely have no complaints."
"A-Anything's fine? Y-You, I knew it...!"
Just as Fear frantically pushed herself up—
Click! The room's light was switched on.
Haruaki made a strange cry and turned his head. His gaze was directly at the room's opened sliding door, Konoha, who was just pressing the light switch. As though attached to her, Kotetsu was also by her side.
Meanwhile, Haruaki was sitting in the room cross-legged with Fear pressed up against him and her hand on his knee for support. Haruaki's hand was on her head while she was only dressed in a shirt. There was even a pair of panties in her hand. She had slipped just now due to grabbing the pair of panties, but forgot to wear them.
"No wait, this is a misunderstanding! Konoha, this is—!"
Haruaki panicked while Fear also panicked as well.
Unexpectedly, Konoha simply smiled. She did not anger at the indecent scene before her eyes. Neither did she leak out sword energy to destroy the wall or the pillar touching her hands.
"The bathroom is unoccupied, Haruaki-kun. So please take your bath now."
"I... got it..."
"Fear-san, what's with the way you're dressed? You just took a bath, didn't you? If you stay so lightly dressed, be careful or you'll catch a cold."
Although it was a warning, Konoha was still smiling without showing any anger.
Then immediately, Konoha swiftly turned around and left. Kotetsu also narrowed his eyes and swept his gaze around the room before following her matter-of-factly.
Fear blinked and exchanged stares with Haruaki silently.
She believed that the two of them were feeling the same thing.
What to do? The fact that Konoha did not act scary actually made them feel extremely scared.
Frankly speaking, it was difficult to understand.
"Is this really alright? Muramasa-sama, you love that man, don't you?"
Hence, Kotetsu asked candidly upon returning to the room. Though a room, this was not the place allotted to him as his bedroom (which was a room filled with random articles, supposedly used almost as a storeroom), instead, it was the room inhabited by the senior Japanese sword whom he admired.
After repeated contemplation, Kotetsu decided to interact with her for now in the same manner as earlier—in other words, back when they were living together with his former master. This was because the "her" back then was also included in "her" current self. This fact was already indisputable.
Naturally, there were times when he felt that her image did not quite match, while on other occasions, it matched quite well. But he had already accepted things. It was fine even if this was the case. All he needed to do was do some thinking whenever her image did not match. He did not change his manner of addressing her either. She had apparently been quite opposed so far to others addressing her as Muramasa, but in the end, she said: "Whatever, that's who I am after all." Hence she permitted him to call her that—Back at the time, Yachi Haruaki even made a look of surprise, so this was probably some sort of change for her.
In any case, Muramasa Konoha was sitting on her usual seat cushion while grinning slightly wryly as she answered his question:
"Indeed that is true. Is it very odd?"
"Yes. Truth be told, it perplexes me greatly why you have not punished them."
As though showing off her calm composure, she chuckled "ufufu" after speaking, her shoulders shaking in laughter.
"Actually—This is strategy."
"Indeed. If I were my old self, surely I would have punished them just now. I would have pulled them apart by force as well to give them a good lecturing. However, that stage is already over. Right now, I've entered a new stage where I must attack with a different vibe compared to before."
"Yes..." Kotetsu had no choice but to answer ambiguously.
"I've already confessed so there is no need to be impatient. Instead, I believe that now is the time to display calm composure. Boys don't like girls who get angry all the time, right? I must show him how open-minded and generous I am to distinguish myself from my rivals. That's the course of action I believe I ought to be taking right now."
"In other words, in order to leave an impression of forgiving lenience in his heart, you suppressed your anger earlier and deliberately refrained from punishing them?"
"That's precisely the idea. Furthermore, I know that they were just inserting Indulgence Disks back then. It's all that child's fault for being clumsy and unguarded all the time, resulting in accidents like those. I was not suppressing anything at all, ahaha!"
Since she was saying this with a smile, then what she had been doing all this time after sitting down on the cushion—using chopping motions from her right hand to shred a newspaper that she had rolled up with her left hand, slicing it finely in midair—was definitely not a sign of suppression. Working hard without relaxing to maintain a true Japanese sword's sharpness... This must be some kind of slicing exercise far more profound than the likes of him could understand. Probably.
Thinking he must seek her guidance on this matter eventually, Kotetsu decided to watch silently for now and not disturb her. First, he should secretly learn by watching. That was often how mysteries of an art were mastered.
"By the way—Kotetsu, what are your thoughts on birthdays?"
She glanced at him and asked.
"You mean the matter of celebrating birthdays? I have no thoughts at all. Because celebrating birthdays according to the solar year is a Western European custom. Naturally, during the times when I recognized my masters, they counted their age using traditional East Asian age reckoning."
"You have a point~"
"Are you referring to that guy's birthday?"
"Indeed! This is the matter at hand..."
After shredding the newspaper in her left hand completely, she collapsed forward, dropping her upper torso onto the floor with a thud and burying her palms in the remains of the newspaper. She was pushing the pieces randomly about as though enjoying the feeling while murmuring emphatically to the floor.
"Ah—This is the first birthday after I confessed and became a brand new me. I must confer special meaning upon this day. It would be best if I could take this opportunity to hear his answer. However, what will actually happen? Am I being too impatient? What should I give as a present? Hmm~... Hmm~..."
Starting from some point in time, she was pointing her index finger at the floor, stirring the newspaper pieces as though drawing circles on the floor. Presumably slowly getting excited from just her own murmuring, her voice began to carry an odd fervor while the speed of her stirring motion kept increasing. In order to disguise her shyness, the newspaper was repeatedly getting shredded.
"A special... present. But I get the feeling that Haruaki-kun most likely would say that just having me is enough... Having me... is enough...? Giving a present that "has me"? In other words, something like a "do-as-you-please coupon"? Given such a coupon, Haruaki-kun definitely won't forget what will happen next... Kyah! Oh no, isn't that truly progressing too quickly? But, but it might not be too fast, right? After all, I've been enduring for so long, ehehe, ehehehehe..."
This behavior, on the other hand, was clearly not part of a Japanese sword's training. The Japanese sword he idolized was lying on the floor uncouthly, twisting this way and that due to her own imagination.
Kotetsu partially narrowed his eyes as he watched, sighing secretly.
There was apparently something he must do.
Why? Of course, it was for the happiness of her whom he revered. Hence—
(No helping it... As much as I am reluctant.)
Naturally, Kotetsu had no choice apart from carrying out the task.
Today was reaching an end after a full day of diligent studying. This was the normal life that kept repeating over the past few days.
However, one additional event happened before the night was out.
The instant he turned in bed, Haruaki felt that something was not right under the covers. This prompted his consciousness to leave through the exit of the dream world. Instantly, Haruaki recalled what happened a few days earlier—in other words, when Konoha had squeezed herself into his bed. He became wide awake at once. No way! Staring wide-eyed, he flipped over the blanket—
Not the same as last time. The person before his eyes—was not Konoha but Kotetsu.
Usually, Kotetsu slept in Konoha's pajamas but that was not the case this time. Haruaki did not know if Kotetsu had borrowed this from Konoha as well, or found it somewhere else in the house on his own, but Kotetsu was dressed in the kind of flimsy kimono nightwear seen in historical dramas, tied only by a tiny sash at the waist.
Kotetsu was maintaining a posture on all fours right beside Haruaki. Illuminated under the moonlight scattering inside the room, Kotetsu's pale neck and a large part of his chest was exposed from under the sagging neckline of his nightwear.
Kotetsu even leaned himself forward, bringing his face close to Haruaki. Under the moonlight, only now did Haruaki see his face clearly. Kotetsu's expression was clearly very embarrassed but also extremely serious.
"What do... you want...?"
"—You failed to make a move despite the seductive temptations of a woman like Muramasa-sama. Truth be told, I found that attitude of yours quite suspicious. However, if there is any reason for that... Only one answer is possible. In other words, you're one of those, right?"
"One of those!?"
Kotetsu leaned his body closer to Haruaki as though saying "just give up," glaring at him sideways.
"I have already come to know... You have a preference for pederasty, don't you? With that, everything makes sense."
Pederasty, male homosexuality, the Way of the Young—All sorts of knowledge from dictionaries rapidly spun in Haruaki's mind while he entered a state of total confusion. But now was not the time to be confused! How did this happen? He must explain quickly! Haruaki barely managed to rein in his thoughts—
"No no no, hold on! This is a misunderstanding! A very serious misunderstanding!"
"No need to make excuses. Indeed... This too... cannot be helped."
"—Muramasa-sama's happiness is my happiness. Hence, let us make a deal."
Haruaki repeated those words, prompting Kotetsu to pause in hesitation.
"Indeed. In other words, well..."
Then after squirming awkwardly for a while—
Kotetsu loosened the sash at his waist.
The kimono fell open to the sides, exposing even more of that snow-white surface of the skin.
"W-What are you doing!?"
"...Allow me to be the one to take upon your lust."
"Consequently, you must treat Muramasa-sama gently. This is the deal. You may toy with my body as you please but conversely, you must pour your full attention into bringing happiness to her—"
"Honestly, you've totally lost me!"
Kotetsu's front torso was completely exposed. The fallen nightwear was also draped over Haruaki, the sensation of its sheer fabric passing onto him. I must break free no matter what! Just as Haruaki tried to turn around, Kotetsu's arms moved even faster, grabbing Haruaki's wrists and securing them above his head. Then immediately, Kotetsu swiftly straddled Haruaki.
Leaning forward again, Kotetsu drew his face near. His breathing was even faster than before. His eyes were moist.
"...Give up... Do you think you can win... against me in strength...?"
Indeed, Haruaki knew very clearly that he could not win in strength against Kotetsu, but he still had to resist as hard as he could. He struggled in a mad frenzy. Although Kotetsu's grip did not loosen, Haruaki's efforts were not in vain.
"Hawah! T-Too too too too too shameless! Absolutely shameless to the extreme! I'll curse you!"
"Whoosh! A swift arrival! Keeping the camera always charged at 100% is my principle!"
Discovering the commotion, Fear and Kuroe pulled open the room's sliding door at some point in time. Fear kept waving her Rubik's cube around in shock while Kuroe held her digital camera in excitement. In addition—Konoha was present, of course.
In line with her recent mode of behavior, she remained smiling even in the face of this situation. Smiling. However—
Somehow, Haruaki could see an overwhelming "rumbling" aura behind her. How nostalgic.
"Aha. Haha! If. Both. Boys—How truly easy~ it is to... surpass the limits of my tolerance—!"
"Wow, this feels like it's been a long time since—Now's not the time to be saying this!"
"Damn you, shameless brat, stay there, don't move and watch how I'm gonna teach you a good lesson!"
"As expected of Haru, whose vastness in strike zone is public knowledge. I must add a new category to my records folder."
"Haruaki-kun! This leaves me no choice but to lift my punishment ban! Please prepare yourself well!"
"Hold on, why am I the one getting blamed!? It's Kotetsu who—Huh? Where did he go? Oh, the window!"
"I was looking for a place to get a clear view of the moon but I seem to have gotten lost and ended up somewhere unexpected... However as one would think, a moon viewing is best undertaken outdoors in the garden after all. Excuse me!"
With a fluttering of his nightwear's hem, Kotetsu jumped out the window lightly and fled the scene.
"What a super lame escape! Hold on, Fear, Konoha, you must know that he's the culprit responsible for everything, right? So let me explain from the beginning...!"
"Kotetsu must be punished too, but that is for later! As for now...!"
"That's right, Haruaki, you're first!"
Outside the room filled with noise, showing no late night atmosphere at all...
Honatsu was leaning alone against a pillar in the corridor, quietly observing the situation inside the room.
"Hoho... I see now~ I think I'm quickly getting a grasp of what the usual atmosphere is like in this home."
His attitude was not as happy-go-lucky as usual, but staid like a mature adult's, showing a faint and wry smile while he whispered.
Despite all sorts of things happening, the next few days went by.
The midterms were over. To be honest, Haruaki had no confidence in his exam results.
"Ahaha, eh? Did something happen today? The memory of mine, Kana's, is a bit fuzzy. Exams? What is that? Is it some kind of karate yell? Like 'Exams—!' or something like that? Ahaha~"
"This girl is losing it, she's beyond help! By the way, Class Rep, how did you do? What did you write for the answer to the third question? I think I can barely pass as long as I got that question correct!"
While preparing to go home after school, Haruaki's group spent some time exchanging comments with Kana, who was showing an empty look, and Taizou, whose eyes showed urgent fervor. Since Kana and Taizou's club activities were going to resume immediately today, they parted ways here. Just as the group was about to leave the classroom—
"Oh! Shiraho, how did you do?"
"Good grief, how annoying can you get? Just the same as usual, the same as usual. Move aside, I have a date with Sovereignty."
If it's just the same as usual, isn't that quite bad for her? —Haruaki wondered. However, seeing as she attended supplementary lessons as frequently as seasonal traditions, Haruaki decided not to worry about it.
As though following the frowning Shiraho, the whole group made their way to the shoe lockers and encountered a familiar underclassman there. "Oh! Shiraho-san, hope things went well on your exams! Exams ended for the second-years today as well, right? How do you think you did—Pretend I didn't say anything!" Chihaya immediately displayed superb danger evasion before taking out her anger by glaring at Haruaki's group. Like that had anything to do with them.
In any case, the group changed their shoes together with Shiraho and Chihaya who apparently had someone waiting for them outside of school, then they walked out of the school building. Joining the crowd of students leaving school, they made their way to the school gates.
Then waiting for them there was—
"Sovereignty, sorry for making you wait. Your work has ended for today, yes? Let's go—"
"Isuzu, you didn't cause any weird commotions, right? Then let's hurry and return—"
Shiraho and Chihaya each called out to the one waiting for them, but suddenly stopped talking and tilted their heads in puzzlement, presumably due to noticing something off about those two.
Sovereignty and Isuzu were standing shoulder to shoulder near the school gates, peering outside the premises with troubled expressions on their faces. Sovereignty was dressed in a female uniform for going to school (work?) while Isuzu was in her usual shrine maiden outfit.
"Oh hello Shiraho, Haruaki and everyone else. There seems to be something over there—"
Just as Sovereignty noticed their arrival and greeted them—
Haruaki was rendered speechless. Outside the gates, where Sovereignty and Isuzu were staring at, was—
"Oh! Coming, coming! Hey~ Those exams must have been tough~! How did you do? Regardless whether you did well or not, now's the time to be liberated, right? Yay yay~!"
Waving towards him was the father who looked like a woman.
"...What a nightmare..."
Haruaki pressed his palm to his face. Generally speaking, he did not really want his classmates to see his family already, especially now that his father looked like that. If possible, he really wanted to pretend not to see, trying his best to ignore the sight. "Who is that beauty there?" "Must be the mom of someone from that group, right?" "She looks so young, how wonderful~" Haruaki also wanted to do everything he could to escape from this gossiping between the surrounding the students.
With her arms crossed before her chest, Shiraho narrowed her eyes coldly at Haruaki.
"...Is this someone related to you, human? If it really is the friend of a human who engages diligently in shamelessly perverted behavior on a daily basis, that would be truly mortifying."
"Sorry, I can't find any words to refute that. I'd be really grateful if you could ignore this..."
"Oh dear! You finally admitted that you've been engaging diligently in perverted behavior on a daily basis? I recall seeing on television that ordinary citizens have the right to arrest criminals in such situations."
"Hey, stay away from Shiraho-san and me or else we'll get impregnated. Totally disgusting."
"I wasn't agreeing with that part! It's the mortifying bit!"
Haruaki calmed himself and looked forward again. Honatsu was dressed in a cream-colored suit with a light and puffy hairstyle, looking like a young, married and successful career woman, dressed to go out as usual. The only thing different from normal was the light truck she was leaning against. Since the truck was parked right before the school gates, it went without saying that it was causing a lot of trouble. For some reason, the side of the truck was labeled "Yamamoto Liquor Store." Haruaki had a feeling he had seen this name before in the shopping district.
"Hmm?" Fear seemed intrigued by the truck and walked towards Honatsu. Despite his reluctance, Haruaki had no choice but to chase after her. Sovereignty and the others also went with the flow and followed.
"So, what's going on here?"
"Ufufu, I borrowed this~"
"Borrowed...? This is clearly a truck used for a liquor store's business, right? Why?"
Hearing Konoha's question, Honatsu waved his hand and replied:
"About this~ I was walking in the streets, looking for suitable transportation when I happened to see Take-boy from the liquor store sitting in this truck, so I tried whispering in his ear: 'Are you still paying tribute to Miki-chan at the bar? Anyway, forget about that, can I borrow this truck until evening?' For some reason, he agreed to lend it to me very readily~"
Fear narrowed her eyes.
"Hey... Isn't that totally blackmail...?"
"Don't put it like that~ It was just a request, a request. Although he seemed to tremble while answering: 'How do you know that? Who are you? Don't break up my family now, my second child is about to be born!' But it must have been my imagination~"
Haruaki broke out in cold sweat, hoping that the police was not currently going around in search for this vehicle.
"So yeah, now we have transportation, let's go shopping together! Go go—!"
"W-What are you doing? Wait, don't push my butt!"
Taking Fear by the hand, Honatsu shoved her into the front passenger seat, then forcefully pushed Konoha onto the truck's cargo deck.
"Okay, all of you onto the truck! Let's get on! The more the merrier~ Wow~ All of you are pretty girls! Good job, Haruaki, that's my son!"
"S...on...? Then you're this human's—Ah! Wait, I never said I was going! Don't touch me!"
"I don't really get what's going on, but looks like fun! I'm going too—!"
Seeing Shiraho and Konoha pushed onto the cargo deck, Sovereignty automatically jumped up there too. "If Shiraho-san is going..." As a result, Chihaya and Isuzu boarded the truck as well, leaving Kirika and Haruaki as the only ones remaining. Kirika first glanced at Haruaki from the side then sighed and said to Honatsu while looking at the cargo deck that was not meant for passengers:
"Absolutely ridiculous—Doesn't this violate traffic regulations?"
"Don't sweat the details!"
"And this sudden talk about going shopping, why?"
"Because we're all going out together tomorrow, so we need to make all sorts of preparations~"
Haruaki's eyebrow twitched. Looking up, he met gazes with the smiling Honatsu, but not wanting to speak to his father, he fell silent and turned his gaze away. Tomorrow. No way? As much as Haruaki wanted to question his motives, he did not want to speak to Honatsu. Luckily, Kirika voiced Haruaki's thoughts on his behalf.
"That's—because tomorrow is Yachi's birthday?"
Indeed. Haruaki had focused his full attention on exams earlier, avoiding the thought on purpose. Besides, it was meant to be a day that did not matter. The day he disliked. The day when his father would return. The day he returned just for sake of appearances. The day when Haruaki was forced to accommodate his father.
However, Honatsu waved.
"Ah~ Uh, I guess it counts if you put it that way~ But actually, the main reason is not Haruaki's birthday but something else. Still, I can't deny that it did occur to me that it's a rare chance, so we might as well celebrate together as well."
"What do you mean?"
"I've received notice that Gab-chan is finally returning tomorrow from his trip. However, after such a long separation, wouldn't it be very plain and boring to meet a dear friend at home or in the superintendent's office as usual again? So I suggested: 'since it happens to be the holiday after exams, I'd really love to take everyone to a rewarding place~ How about we meet there?' Then he agreed very readily~"
"The superintendent tomorrow..."
Haruaki sensed Kirika's gaze again. Although he did not believe it, this father of his had promised to explain everything in front of the superintendent. Suppose he really was speaking the truth—Perhaps there might be progress after all.
"Going there requires preparations... Which is why we're going shopping? Yachi, what's the plan?"
"I'm already seated here, so let's hurry and set off! Now that I think more carefully, it's my first time riding this type of car, I'm so excited! Also, if possible, I want to try riding in the back on the return trip!"
The silver-haired little lady leaned her upper body out of the front passenger seat's window and kept bouncing around, urging the group to set off.
"Can't be helped... Let's go, Class Rep."
"...I suppose so."
Haruaki climbed up onto the cargo deck on his own. By this point, the gazes of the surrounding students felt extremely stinging.
"Very good, very good! Then everything's okay once we head over to the Dan-no-ura and pick up Kuroe-chan~"
Just as Honatsu was about to get into driver's seat contentedly, Konoha asked with an astonished look:
"So, there is one important question I still haven't asked. Where are we going tomorrow?"
"Mmmfufu, about that~"
Honatsu opened the door on the driver's side and answered while grinning from ear to ear:
"—The beach! I can't believe Gab-chan has a villa there!"
The next day, it was the holiday after exams.
Although midsummer was still some time away, the temperature had already become quite warm, so there were quite a few beachgoers visible on the shore. This included Haruaki's group.
Haruaki sighed deeply under the parasol. Turning his head, he saw a building behind him. This brand new building was the villa belonging to the superintendent.
(Although he told us to play first since he was arriving later... I'm totally not in the mood for fun.)
Their current location was the very tip of the beach. Going further would enter the rocky area, virtually at the very end. It was almost as though this villa had been built here just to claim the last stretch of sand before the very end, hence this little corner could pretty much be considered a private beach. Compared to the central part of the beach, there were clearly much fewer beachgoers here, hence it was possible to rest and be quite relaxed. Conversely, the vendor stalls and vending machines were much farther away, but that was only reasonable.
However, Haruaki was in no carefree mood to forget everything and have fun. There were many things he needed to think about. After exams, a sense of liberation did rise in his heart but he was not excited enough to enjoy a swim in the ocean from the bottom of his heart.
"What should I say~...?"
Particularly today, there was the additional reason of "his own birthday." Perhaps it was childish defiance, but every year, he would deliberately act very passively. If he were alone, he definitely would have refused to come to the beach on his birthday.
Be that as it may, this time, there was also the objective of listening to his father's explanations together with the superintendent. Apart from that—
"Nuoh! Guwah! What is this? Numomomomo! This feeling under my feet is so strange, heeyeah!? Nuhahaha! It tickles! But so comfortable!"
Seeing Fear running back and forth along the shore, Haruaki suddenly relaxed his cheeks. Naturally, frolicking in the sea was a first experience for Fear. Ever since the moment she heard about the destination yesterday, she was already fiercely exuding an aura of "I really wanna go!" There was no way Haruaki could have given her the cold shoulder.
"Another wave is coming~ Then it retreated! Nyufufu, it tickles!"
"Ahaha, I think I'm getting addicted to the feeling of the waves breaking over me. Mmmheehee, so ticklish, hyawah!"
"Nuu, damn you, Sovereignty, you must have deliberately pretended to fall over, but actually, you just wanted to be the first to swim! Don't start gloating yet, I'm not gonna lose to you, watch me dive! I knew it, swimming is the main part of going to the beach, as long as I have this swim ringlug glug glug glug—!"
Having changed into swimwear, Fear and Sovereignty were playing together. Like a certain visit to the pool last time, Sovereignty was dressed in swimwear that worked for either gender. Instead of the school swimsuit given to her by upperclassmen from the swimming club, Fear was wearing a new swimsuit apparently bought the previous day. Haruaki could not help but admit it was very cute... However, where did she get the money from? Did it come from that bastard Pops? If he had money to throw around like that, Haruaki would rather have him increase the home budget.
Haruaki angrily turned his gaze, subconsciously searching for signs of his father, but already knowing he was not going to be found. This was because Honatsu was waiting at the villa because the superintendent's arrival time was unknown.
Killing time under the excuse of watching over their belongings, Haruaki stared out at his surroundings.
Shiraho was sitting under a parasol on the side, gritting her teeth hard as though she wanted to rush over to Sovereignty any moment. However, she was unable to move because Chihaya was currently applying suntan lotion to her back carefully as though tending to a work of art. As soon as Chihaya was done, Shiraho was probably going to charge ahead and snatch Sovereignty away from Fear.
As though serving as Fear's substitute, Kuroe was wearing a common navy-blue school swimsuit, still building sand castles with unnecessarily superb skills as usual. With a distracted look on her face, Kirika was helping out next to her. Like last time, Kirika was wearing a t-shirt and pareo. Although there were very few beachgoers in this area, she was still unable to lower her guard, in case her bondage suit was seen.
Further ahead of them was the smiling Isuzu—it was uncertain whether it was really her, but anyway, there were three identical girls frolicking by the edge of the sea, splashing water at one another. Instead of swimsuits, they were wearing white robes that looked like the ones used in Shinto ritual purification. This was apparently because there was no way to prepare swimsuits for all fifteen of the kagura bells. Although Haruaki felt that it was a bit too unguarded for them to be dressed like that, underneath... Presumably, they were wearing something else beneath. Assuredly.
There was a little interlude happening earlier. In the beginning, all fifteen kagura bells had lined themselves in a row, all dressed in white robes. "Wow~ I haven't been to the beach for so long~" "...(smile)" "...(smile)" Just as they were about to walk to the sea, Haruaki frantically stopped them: "Wait! This looks too much like collective suicide by drowning, it's terrifying!" Since the sight might cause other beachgoers to call the police, the bells seemed to be taking turns to play currently.
"Hah...! Hoo...! Hah...!"
Haruaki heard the sound of panting approaching. Looking back, he saw Kotetsu dressed in a t-shirt and swimming trunks, sprinting across the beach. As a side note, this was not Kotetsu's original attire, but the result after two changes of clothing.
His initial appearance was a plain and old-fashioned "you need to be dressed like this to swim" kind of style, consisting of what could be considered either swimwear or underpants, a fundoshi loincloth that truly brought to life the spirit of "now this is a Japanese man!" Standing with his legs apart on the beach with his upper body naked, Kotetsu was rapidly taken away by the girls, especially Konoha whose vigor suggested a blood feud against the fundoshi.
The second time was an awkward appearance in a white school swimsuit along with "no helping it, speaking of other swimwear at hand, all I have is this one which Muramasa-sama bestowed upon me in the past..." As soon as Kuroe commented "Oh no, a clash with Second Player colors! Danger!", Kotetsu was abducted by the girls again.
In the end, Kotetsu wore this noncontroversial set of swimwear whose pieces were bought from a beach vendor and a nearby supermarket. Perhaps due to Kotetsu's hairstyle or his general demeanor, no matter what he was wearing, he still looked just like a girl.
"Hoo...! Hah...! Hah...!"
With a serious expression, Kotetsu had been running back and forth on the beach. Now, he stopped near the parasol, glancing at Haruaki while using his arm to wipe sweat from his brow. Although he did not say anything, Haruaki tossed a towel and a bottle of water over to him.
"Take it. It's very hot, right? Rather, I can't bear it anymore, so let me ask a question."
"...Is it fun running like this?"
While drinking the water from the bottle, Kotetsu straightened his back sternly and instantly answered:
"Fun enough. Running on the beach is helpful for training the legs and the lower back."
After arriving here—and obtaining suitable swimwear—Kotetsu had spent the whole time dashing silently back and forth along the beach. Single-minded beyond compare. Training for the sake of becoming strong—
Instead of looking at Haruaki, Kotetsu faced the horizon while speaking:
"I still have not forgotten everything. Neither have I changed from head to toe. Can I change? Or should I not change? I am still searching for the answer. Hence—As a sword, born as a sword as I am, I still currently believe that there is nothing wrong with the goal of becoming stronger than everyone else. That is why I do this."
"Is... that so?"
Haruaki exhaled then spoke while staring at the horizon just like Kotetsu:
"I... don't intend to criticize the goal you're working towards. But if your direction is wrong, I will also tell you 'You're wrong!' That's all. If your goal is to become strong, I think that's fine too. Just don't cause trouble for others."
"...Hmph. No matter what you say, it has nothing to do with me. I am simply doing what I wish to do."
Kotetsu replied while wiping his face and head forcefully with the towel. Then he tossed the towel back to Haruaki and threw him a sideways glare.
"I am going for another run. I am not causing trouble to anyone, so you have no objections, right?"
"Of course not, but it's not every day that you get to visit the beach. You could go have some fun without spending the whole time running."
"Truth be told, I really want to return the same words to you. Haven't you been sitting there without moving all this time—"
"So true~ Haruaki-kun, you should go and play more. By the way, Kotetsu, could it be that you're still bothered by what I mentioned yesterday?"
"Oh! M-Muramasa-sama, that's..."
Konoha joined their conversation. She was wearing a new bikini, displaying her voluptuous body. Like a mischievous child, she cocked her head and looked at Haruaki.
"My, this Kotetsu, yesterday when he ran over to my room with such a serious look on his face, I was wondering what he was going to say, but it turned out he asked: 'Umm, I heard that seawater is saltwater, won't we rust...?' Back then, his face was super serious—"
"Like I said, there's no problem as long as you wipe yourself dry thoroughly. Absolutely no rusting, I promise. If you're so scared that all you dare to do is sprint on the beach, that's no fun at all. Go swim for a bit, this is an order."
Smiling, Konoha bent down and spoke as though blowing into Kotetsu's ear:
"Or mayhap... Thou wouldst defy mine order?"
"I shall enter the water immediately."
Trembling, Kotetsu dashed forward almost perpendicularly, screaming "Buddha have mercy!" before plunging headlong into the sea. Konoha giggled while watching this scene.
"Ahaha. Isn't such obedience really nice?"
Inexplicably, Haruaki felt his heart pounding madly. Konoha was in a swimsuit. Her hairstyle had changed and this was a new swimsuit. Clearly that was all yet she felt different from the usual Konoha. Did her skin appear to sparkle this much? Were her thighs this dazzling to look at? Did her bosom seem so warm? Also, back when he touched those lips of hers that looked so soft, in fact, they really were very soft at the time—
"Oh! W-What is it?"
Konoha leaned forward as though emphasizing her cleavage to him, giggling "ehehe~" before pointing her index finger lightly at him.
"You tied it on immediately. Thank you."
"Oh... Yeah. Because I happen to have nothing to hang on it anyway."
Konoha was referring to Haruaki's cellphone among the belongings kept under the parasol. Tied to the cellphone was the decorative charm she had just given to him earlier as a present. It was a cellphone accessory akin to a medal or a pin, in the shape of a miniaturized Japanese sword.
"To be honest, I think this kind of present is just right. If I received a very expensive present, I'd feel a huge mental burden instead. Thank you, Konoha."
"Th-That's right! I knew it! I'm so glad, yes!"
Konoha's dainty face instantly brightened up. For some reason, she even clenched her fist and puffed "mufuu" forcefully. She was so touched that she spun towards another direction and murmured quietly:
"Ufufu. What a great success for the strategy of giving a unobtrusive present that could be brought to the seaside... With this, I should be the first person to hand over a present, which ought to leave a memorable impression... And the item I picked was neither too burdensome nor too simple, plus there's the tiny consideration that he would think of me every time he looked at his cellphone... Perfect!"
Haruaki did not understand but at least he could sense that she was overjoyed.
Was it that happy? All he did was accept her birthday present, that was all.
—Yes... I guess. Because she... she—
He was thinking he must say something to her, he had that obligation. However, he did not know what he should say. Thank her for the present? He had already said that.
This was related to her feelings and his own feelings.
They stared into each other's eyes. Although this was something they had done countless times in the past, there was a new significance lately. No, was he the only one who thought that? What kind of feelings did she carry when looking into his eyes throughout the years?
Konoha presumably sensed something and looked like she was waiting seriously for him to continue.
However, he still had not prepared what he should say. Hold on. Hold on longer. I still haven't—
"Yachi, it's time for someone else to watch the—"
"Hoohee—I'm so tired from having fun, my throat is all thirsty. Hey~ Haruaki, got anything to drink..."
Just at that moment, Kirika and Fear both happened to approach the parasol. The two of them noticed the situation here at the same time and halted their speech and movements unnaturally.
For some unknown reason, Haruaki could sense nervous tension slowly hanging in the surrounding air. Clearly on the surface, the girls' expressions and attitudes were the same as usual. Really, for some unknown reason.
"I want... to drink something, so let me go buy some drinks. The vending machine is that way, right? If you guys wanna drink something, let me buy them for you while I'm at it? ...Nothing? Then I'm going. Oh my~ The beach is really fun~ So unbelievably fun~"
Fear swiftly took out her purse from her own belongings and ran towards the beach vendors while holding the swim ring around her waist. Her smiling face seemed a bit unnatural. Was Haruaki imagining things?
"I wanted to say... It's time for someone else to watch over our things, but come to think of it, I'd like to go to the washroom. So I'll have to count on you for a while longer. Well then, see you later."
"Oh! Kotetsu looks like one of those bald sea goblins with his head out of the water, looking this way! He looks so lonely and very vengeful, so I'd better accompany him for a while. I'm going now!"
Kirika and Konoha also turned around and left as though they had thought of things to do by chance. Kirika walked over to the villa whereas Konoha made her way to the sea.
Finally—It was just like earlier.
Haruaki was left all alone under the parasol.
Isuzu helped out with the sand castle building while smiling cordially.
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation: This air is truly heavy with the springtime of youth~"
"That's so true. This very bittersweet presence, tugging at heartstrings... It's unbearable~"
Kuroe agreed from the bottom of her heart and threw a sideways glance at the parasol's direction—Coincidentally, that was just as Kotetsu was dashing from there, taking a mighty leap into the sea as though committing suicide. Remaining at the scene, Konoha and Haruaki were staring into each other's eyes under an unusual atmosphere. Then immediately, Fear and Kirika both approached the parasol from different directions.
"Hmm~ The taste of youth again."
Now it was getting interesting. But at the same time, Kuroe also felt worried.
"Change" was inevitable but she really did not wish for for things to turn into chaos in the end. "Imbalance"—Thought Kuroe. Hence, she decided to pay attention at all times, to prevent that kind of situation from arising at least.
Of course, she had no intention of interfering with their—or rather, his—conclusions. If he were to ask, she would offer advice but ultimately, she hoped to remain unbiased and must remain so. This was the rule of the observer.
However—Her current feelings were inclined towards cheering for the girl who was a tad behind.
"This current situation feels like 'although she's realized her own feelings... she still doesn't know how to express them'~ After all, that's related to knowledge and experience."
Walking over with a swim ring around her, Fear saw the two under the parasol, then after seeing Kirika, she suddenly froze. She proceeded to suspiciously search through her belongings, swiftly leaving after obtaining her purse—
Kuroe understood that she had fled.
"Also, she has never experienced intimate interactions with others, so she's completely lost in this area too. Even if she could reach a conclusion on her own, once you add other people, it becomes very unclear—It feels like Ficchi is facing challenges in all sorts of ways."
"Although I don't quite understand, I do believe that trials and tribulations are part of so-called youth!"
Looking back at the smiling shrine maiden, Kuroe smiled as well.
For Fear, overcoming those hurdles was very important. Hence, Kuroe was not going to help out.
Nevertheless, Kuroe believed that she should at least say "do your best." Giving Fear a push should be fine. A little push, just like when she was hesitating whether to give a birthday present, for example, at least a light push from the back.
"Hmm. Anyway, I don't think she brought it here, so it'll have to wait until we get back home~..."
Kuroe simply mumbled in her mouth then turned her attention to the parasol's direction again.
Haruaki was left alone there now. With a spaced out look, he was thinking about something.
Even towards Haruaki, Kuroe's policy remained the same. She could not help out directly. Therefore—
(A dilemma is only natural. But sooner or later, you must find your own answer... Do your best, Haru.)
As though praying, Kuroe could only whisper softly like this in her heart.
Kirika walked forward, her heart filled with self-contempt. Naturally, going to the washroom was a lie. It was only because she was unsure whether she could stay there; only because she felt uncomfortable—That was why she left.
Although she had already reached the front of the superintendent's villa, it would be too much of a pain to go in just for the sake of establishing an alibi. She decided to stroll casually in the surroundings to kill time. Then walking with her head slightly lowered, she thought back over what happened just now.
(He's using... a cellphone strap I've never seen before.)
It was most likely the birthday present from Konoha. Very early on, Kirika had noticed Konoha's feelings. It would not be much of a stretch to say that she had known ever since she met Konoha.
She needed Konoha as a formidable rival. In order to complete her earlier confession that was not considered complete yet, she had to have Konoha return first. But in fact, she had rescued Konoha. Not only that, but Konoha had also made an even more progressive declaration in front of them, now that things had reached this point—
While circling around the villa pointlessly, Kirika shook her head lightly.
So what? Konoha was Konoha whereas she was herself. That's the way it is, isn't it, Ueno Kirika? Absolutely ridiculous.
All she had to do was rely on herself and put in an all-out effort. When the time came, she would be able to accept the conclusion no matter what resulted. So long as it was fighting fair and square, fighting, fighting to the last moment, she definitely did not find herself pathetic and be able to move forward even more directly than before. Indeed—In this regard, she was quite similar to Konoha. Both of them believed that only by expressing their feelings to him could they continue to move forward.
"All-out effort huh...?"
Birthday present. On this front, she stood in stark contrast to Konoha who had taken action like fighting a war on horseback, prioritizing speed and surprise tactics. She had not brought the birthday present along to this place. This visit to the beach was meant to return on the same day, hence Kirika intended to return home first before seeing him again that night to hand over the present. Doing so would provide a legitimate reason for her to visit the Yachi home—
"...What a calculating girl I am, absolutely ridiculous."
She murmured in self-deprecation. However, it was different for her unlike Konoha and the others who lived under the same roof as him. Unless she deliberately created opportunities to meet him, it was impossible to oppose the other rivals. Hence, this was just her way of fighting—
Walking while contemplating these matters, Kirika finished one circle around the villa. Since she had claimed to leave for the washroom, she was worried that Haruaki might start imagining disturbing things if she spent too much time. Kirika decided it was time to return to the parasol.
The asphalt texture under her sandals gave way to the sensation of soft sand whose tiny rustling sounded quite pleasant to the ear.
Kirika looked ahead to see that he was still sitting under the parasol, spacing out. Thinking "this time, it's really my turn to watch over the belongings," Kirika approached him from behind—
Then she halted in shock.
Because she heard him. At that moment, Haruaki was muttering to himself.
Undoubtedly, it came straight from the heart—Very cruel words.
After Fear, Konoha and Kirika left, even after a very long time...
Remaining under the parasol, Haruaki still continued to think.
He thought back to what happened just now, the three girls who had behaved a little stiffly.
(...I see, it's not just my own problem...)
Konoha had witnessed the scene when Kirika confessed her feelings to him. Kirika and Fear had witnessed the scene when Konoha expressed her feelings. They were aware of one another's feelings. And he knew as well...
(What should... I do?)
To be honest, he found it a little difficult to get along with everyone.
Why was that? He knew very well. Because he was avoiding Konoha and Kirika. Because he had no idea how he ought to interact with them.
That being said, what was a confession? Haruaki pondered. It meant liking someone. It meant conveying this fact. Naturally, he could understand. Haruaki was also an ordinary boy. Such matters would cross his mind on occasion.
However, just as he tried to continue thinking further—Instantly, he was frozen to the spot.
What did Kirika and Konoha seek from him? He did not know. For example, normally speaking, suppose he were to start going out with one of them. Himself going out with Konoha. Himself going out with Kirika. Trying to picture those scenes—He could not. Too difficult. His entire body felt itchy. He tried to go further and imagine doing ordinary couple activities as a pair—He could not picture it either. Instantly, his brain and heart reached a state of saturation.
Haruaki shook his head, placed his hands on his lower back and straightened his spine. The peaceful scene before him entered into view. Shiraho and Sovereignty were playing beach volleyball with Chihaya and the kagura bells. Soon about to finish her sand castle, Kuroe was assisted by one of the kagura bells. Since she was speaking, that would be Isuzu, right? Fear was chugging a Ramune soft drink, walking while looking for pretty shells and other things. Konoha and Kotetsu were swimming together—
A heartwarming scene that seemed to symbolize their normal life.
Indeed. After Konoha's return, their days were back to normal. However—Precisely because of that, there were memories he must recall. Some things must not be forgotten.
He had already promised Kirika to give her a reply after Konoha returned home.
Right now, due to the chaos and ambiguous atmosphere surrounding his father's return, it was merely akin to soccer stoppage time that had been extended again and again. He must come up with an answer. However, how should he answer—
Thinking, thinking, thinking.
To keep thinking about a certain issue without any answer in sight, honestly speaking, that was quite hard and painful.
Hence—Haruaki could not help but—
Utter words of resignation.
"Sigh... If only the status quo could be maintained forever..."
In that instant.
He heard the sound of sand grinding.
Haruaki looked back in surprise to see—
Staring wide-eyed in shock, Kirika rooted to the spot.
Those were such—
Why had she done something like this?
—Because she wanted to change. Because she believed that the willpower itself of accepting change head on would serve as strength to go forward. However. However—
He frantically stood up. But—
"Stay away! Don't speak!"
Kirika yelled briefly then turned around. She could sense him suddenly stopping his initial intention to rush over.
She felt the world spin around similar to dizziness. He was right. Of course. Nevertheless—
"...I know. I can understand how you feel as well. But, therefore, please. Right now, only right now—Don't say... anything. Don't do anything either. For just one minute..."
Her wishes were conveyed. He stood there behind her, frozen. Very likely—still staring at her back.
Kirika quietly exhaled, trying to convince herself to calm down.
During this one minute she had obtained, she pondered what she ought to do next. What action should she take as the next step? There were countless ways of reacting.
Should she really question him in anger? Or reprimand him in tears? Embrace him with trembling shoulders? Take him into her arms and steal his lips? Or apologize and flee... However, every choice was so absolutely ridiculous.
In the end—She chose to remind.
Still with her back facing him, she said:
"I really... don't intend... to wait forever."
Give her the answer. Give her a reply. Even if it was a declaration of defeat. Give her proof that she had fought.
"I'm not the kind of... shameless girl who... can keep hanging around... while you can keep stringing me along ambiguously..."
Through her back, she could sense his entire body shudder from the shock.
Yes. There was no problem with being unable to convey her feelings of love to him. She did not mind getting rejected either. It would be the natural conclusion, perhaps.
However—If that confession were to be treated as though it had never happened, that would be the most tragic result for her. Because that would mean that her confession—her existence—meant only "this little" to him.
If that really were to come true...
Then just as she had told him just now, she was not that shameless of a girl. Asking her to act as though nothing had happened, to continue sharing the same space as him, that would be impossible for her to comply.
Kirika bit her lip and finally admitted it.
In other words, the worst case scenario.
Namely, her relationship with him—Shall end here.
Haruaki also realized it. Her mildly trembling back was currently pleading without uncertainty.
Heavy words. Yet they were also perfectly natural.
If you won't face me properly, I cannot stay here any longer—
This was definitely the meaning of her words.
She was this serious. Using serious words to voice her serious thoughts and feelings. This was what she had conveyed to him on that day.
Haruaki had thought he understood mentally, but only now did it truly turn into actual feelings, stabbing into his heart.
Ah—Indeed. Escape was not an option. He must face her and think seriously.
Confronting her seriousness, he must also answer seriously. He was not allowed to escape just because it was hard and painful.
"Class Rep... I get it now. Sorry, I can't guarantee that I will be able to answer you right now, but in the near future, I will definitely—"
Just as Haruaki was in the middle of his sentence...
"Nuoh!? What is that? What's going on?"
Fear's yelling was first to be heard, then Haruaki quickly noticed nearby people clamoring. Not just their group playing in the vicinity, but also the other beachgoers on the adjacent stretch of sand.
"Is it some kind of event?"
"No idea. Anyway, it's spectacular!"
People were talking nonstop while looking in the same direction. Naturally, Konoha and the others had stopped swimming and frolicking and were looking towards that side.
Haruaki and Kirika also turned their heads under the same influence.
Then what the two of them saw was—
The second floor of the villa had a balcony with excellent exposure to the wind. Leaning his upper body against the railing, Yachi Honatsu looked out into the distance. Under the sunny weather, he was dressed in swimwear with a parka on top. The breeze felt very comfortable.
The balcony offered an expansive view of the scenery. A very open feeling. The sea and the sky both extended to the far reaches. The two shades of blue remained absolutely distinct but leaned close together along the horizon like a pair of inseparable twins. Once sundown came around, those twins were going to dress up glamorously in wonderful colors, holding a fashion show with just the two of them.
"Hmm~ What a great villa. I'm so jealous... By the way, this villa must be very expensive, right? I've been wondering since a long time ago, did you engage in some sort of villainy to make so much money, Gab-chan?"
"Hahaha! Whether past or present, I have never made any money in a manner that would bring about divine retribution."
Closing one eye as though winking, Honatsu smiled wryly while turning his head to look behind him.
Walking towards him was the man in a gas mask, dressed in a suit as usual despite the sunny weather. Following behind him was his secretary, Houjyou Zenon, transporting his suitcase by rolling it. As a side note, there was one more person in view, currently lazing about, having an afternoon nap indoors, her older sister Houjyou Ganon. In order to welcome Haruaki's group into this villa, she had been waiting for them since early morning.
"My apologies, the flight was delayed."
"There's no helping that. Though I've no idea where you went."
The awaited one who had arrived later than expected—Sekaibashi Gabriel—continued to walk forward and stood beside Honatsu. Like Honatsu, he leaned against the railing and looked outside.
Amidst the girls who looked like they were enjoying themselves, there was only one person looking bored with nothing to do—the son. More accurately, he looked distracted. This too was part of youth. Honatsu smiled wryly.
"I heard today is Haruaki-kun's birthday? Is this why you returned to Japan after such a long absence?"
"Hmm~ I suppose, something like that. After all, it's my only child's birthday~"
Honatsu giggled and said:
"I've also prepared a wonderful present. But even after I told him that, Haruaki made a very wary look, what a lapse from good manners~ However, however, I also told him the proper rules as his parent, that I won't give him the present unless he behaves as an obedient child—"
"Although superficially, it looks like I'm talking very normally to you, I'm sorry, my curiosity and other questions in my mind are killing me. Honatsu-san... What happened to you?"
"Many things. So, where should I start~?"
The dear and longtime friend seemed to sigh before shaking his head in exasperation.
"Given how far we go back, there's no need to force yourself to mimic a woman's tone of voice to match your appearance."
Honatsu relaxed his tense face, then immediately—
"...Sekaibashi-kun, I'm not forcing myself, you know? I just feel that it'd be less troublesome if current developments continued."
Although it was still a woman's voice, these words definitely sounded like the long-absent Yachi Honatsu to Sekaibashi's ears. After a moment of silence, he shrugged with slight relief and said:
"Fine, since you have made your decision, this is fine too. I don't really mind either way."
"Me too—Or should I be using feminine pronouns instead? I feel that either way works if I'm facing you. Well, in any case, I'll just adjust according to circumstances."
"Let it be so."
The two of them turned back to looking out from the balcony, shoulder to shoulder.
As though mixing into the silence, as though waiting for the moment when the wind would blow away those words, Sekaibashi asked briefly. Honatsu also gave a brief answer.
"Is it a curse?"
"Already used to it."
Honatsu smiled wryly and waved at the man in the gas mask beside him.
"I've already promised Haruaki and the others to explain everything together. Also, since it's not a particularly amazing reason, let's wait until everyone has gathered before I explain."
"The way I see it, the benefactor whom I've not seen for a very long time has had a sex change. I really can't imagine there could be no particularly amazing reason..."
"Once you hear it, you'll only think 'what, it's just something like that?' On my end, I'm now starting to worry if it really was necessary to call you, Haruaki and everyone else out here specifically to give a solemn explanation. If I end up getting punched, you have to save me. Especially since he seems to be hating me recently."
"If you've refused to explain so far, it's not like I can't understand. So, allow me to ask one more question just as the advance payment for serving as the bodyguard... Was this matter related to Haruaki-kun?"
"Oh? Why do you ask?"
"Haha! Then I'll answer you—Yes, I suppose it counts for half the reason."
"What about the other half?"
Honatsu moved his body away lightly from the raling and shifted his gaze that was originally directed at the beach. The most striking girl. Looking at the girl with beautiful, glittering, silver hair, he said:
"Naturally... It's for the girl whom I found. I have to take responsibility for her future."
Hearing Honatsu say such a pretentious word, "responsibility," Sekaibashi was probably trying to hold in his laughter.
Seeing him not say a single word for quite a while, Honatsu could not help but conclude that. His silence was getting long enough to make one feel it was too long.
Puzzled, Honatsu turned to look at Sekaibashi beside him. For some reason, he was staring motionlessly at the surface of the sea, stunned with surprise.
Then suddenly, he moved all at once, leaning violently towards the railing, gripping the railing hard enough to be audible. Honatsu followed his gaze to the horizon in the distance where the sky met the sea.
In a certain sense, what had appeared there was something perfectly commonplace.
Something that was perfectly natural to exist on the sea, without anything unusual about it.
However, it was not just any ship. The ship was massive enough that even from land, one could tell how gigantic it was.
Furthermore, there was more than one ship. Although shaped differently and varying in size to some extent, these similar ships were all gigantic—Roughly ten of them. These ships were arranged side by side neatly in a row, silently approaching this shore.
As though trying to calm himself, Sekaibashi was breathing hard under the gas mask.
Then he looked back into the villa, towards Zenon who was staring at the same scene in astonishment. In a voice that could not disguise his trembling, he said to her:
"Zenon-kun, could you please go outside and gather Fear-kun and everyone else immediately—Of course, we are going together. A very important guest seems to have arrived."
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