"Mmm~ So good~♪ Yes, yes, miso soup with spinach added, now that's our family recipe~... Haruaki, your cooking skills have improved again~"
The mysterious woman calling herself Haruaki's father continued to eat dinner while smiling cheerfully while everyone else could only narrow their eyes, staring at her in a daze.
Half of the food laid out on the dining table was Haruaki's own cooking while the other half was takeout delivery. As for the food that could be called cooked by Haruaki, almost all of it consisted of leftovers, miso soup included. Since Haruaki had gotten injured during the chaotic battle to retrieve Konoha, he was naturally disallowed from holding the kitchen knife—Besides, the current situation, having dinner first while putting many issues on hold for now, arose only because Haruaki's shoulder wound started hurting again just as he was about to interrogate the mysterious woman.
Haruaki thought back to earlier, when Kuroe was preparing hair with upgraded healing powers, Konoha was trying to remove Haruaki's clothing and the whole situation was a frantic mess—
"You got injured? Oh dear~ Come."
Unbelievably, the mysterious woman took out the first aid kit from the living room cupboard without needing to search at all, as though she had known where it was kept from the beginning.
Then once treatment was finished, Fear voiced her hunger and oddly enough, the mysterious woman also went with the flow and sat down at the table—all the way till now.
"Wow! This stew's taste brings back so many memories~ It's impossible to eat this kind of stew when abroad. I'm almost developing symptoms of soy sauce deficiency... Munch munch munch. Mmm~ Lovely—!"
Age indeterminate from outward appearance, she could be pegged as a university student or slightly older as a young married woman. Clad in a cream-colored tight skirt with a suit, her well-proportioned body featured a voluptuous bust and slender lower body. In addition, her long hair was soft and elegant. With a myriad of ever changing expressions, the features of her face seemed quite familiar in and of themselves—Really? Besides, most people wouldn't deliberately recall the details of their relative's face, right? Alike or not alike? Haruaki was equally uncertain.
Ultimately, everything was very contradictory. Naturally, his father was a man; this person was female no matter how you looked. Pops kept a stubbly beard; this person's chin was clean and smooth. His father was of average height and build; this person had a sexy figure. Male voice; female voice.
Inconsistent. Polar opposites. Impossible. Absolutely impossible. However. However—
Haruaki's right arm was suspended in a sling to avoid moving his injured shoulder. Using his left hand to place his teacup onto the table, he groaned while covering his face with his palm.
"H-Haruaki, what's wrong!? Pull yourself together!"
"Yachi! Does your wound still hurt?"
"H-Haruaki-kun! Kuroe-san, I'm sorry to ask this of you since you're so exhausted already but please heal him again—"
Feeling the girls sitting at the same dining table all getting up to their feet in a clamor, Haruaki suddenly looked up. He could not bear this anymore.
Then—He pointed his index finger across the table.
"The habit of saving favorite food for last! Eating cherry tomatoes whole along with the green calyx! Holding chopsticks in a slightly peculiar manner! Many other things as well!"
Then he suddenly lost strength, going limp and hunchback, covering his face with one hand.
"As much as I don't want to admit it, there's no mistake... It's Pops. This guy is my father..."
Muttering in despair, he shook his head while trembling. There was nothing else he could do.
"No way~ You still won't believe me? Isn't that what I said from the start?"
The mysterious woman responded, completely unperturbed. Kirika frequently glanced at her(?) and said:
"As much as I don't want to believe it, Class Rep... It looks like it's true..."
Although the vast majority (mainly gender and physique) of traits were contradictory, other subtle movements and temperament definitely felt quite familiar. Throughout Haruaki's lifetime so far, this was his closest and most intimate relative, the one who had lived with Haruaki matter-of-factly—but at the same time, also spent an almost equal amount of time living away from home matter-of-factly.
With a troubled face, Kirika shifted her gaze as though looking for help. Her lips in a frown, Konoha spoke:
"Hmm... I can understand Ueno-san's feelings, but regrettably, I too can sort of sense, vaguely vaguely~, that this person's mind belongs to Honatsu-san's..."
"Hmm... When I first met Honatsu at the secret vault in that abandoned castle, he didn't look like this, of course. But how should I put this? I think he definitely has the same smell."
"Yeah~ I don't think this is an impostor..."
As though trying to oppose the mysterious visitor, Fear took away all the food on the dishes while offering her thoughts. Presumably due to exhaustion, Kuroe was speaking in more of a daze than usual. As a side note, a lock of Kuroe's hair had turned snow-white because of overusing her hair's healing power, making Haruaki feel quite bad about it.
They had already combined a spare table, but in addition, sitting at the dining table, which was still quite cramped, was at the kimono-clad girl with hair styled in curls—correction, kimono-clad boy—Kotetsu. Apart from looking up every now and then, he was eating the stew without caring for the situation at all. "Traditional Japanese cuisine... It's been so long..." Since that was what he had muttered quietly when he first saw the dining table, perhaps he was enjoying the stew in total immersion.
In any case, Kirika kept quiet, apparently giving up on saying further on the matter after seeing everyone's responses. Nevertheless, she did not forget to leave her usual catchphrase at the dining table.
Indeed, absolutely ridiculous. Although there were undeniable aspects to the situation, they did not make things any easier to accept.
Haruaki stared at "her" from across the dining table—I guess it's okay for me to admit by this point—staring at the woman who was allegedly his father, Yachi Honatsu. It must be asked. This decisive question that had been held back until now.
"So... Why have you turned into looking like a woman, Pops...?"
"She" looked up with very serious eyes. Continuing to chew habitually, "she" then swallowed with a gulp. Then after picking up the teacup for a sip to moisten "her" throat, "she" returned the teacup to the table. Maintaining an upright sitting posture, "she" took on the son's gaze squarely and quietly closed "her" eyes to meditate as though thinking about what to say.
Then when "her" eyes opened again—
Tilting her head slightly, she smiled demurely—and answered:
"Hmm~ ...An image change?"
"How can there be this kind of image change!?"
Haruaki retorted reflexively in full force while pondering.
That impression conveyed from "her" face when tilting "her" head completely unabashedly...
Harauki knew that feeling very well.
An air of aloof self-satisfaction. Occasional childishness. A sense of unfathomability. A feeling as though this person would float away lightly the moment you took your eyes off them briefly, unfettered as dandelion flowers.
Yes. Indeed. As one would expect. The existence before his eyes was truly—
Helplessly understanding this fact on a deeply personal level, it probably served as some sort of trigger.
Suddenly, Haruaki felt his back struck by an indescribable sense of fatigue. Utterly drained, he was robbed of all vitality and words. Feeling a hollow feeling unwilling to do anything, Haruaki was enveloped in a sense of resignation, a kind of "whatever, I don't care anymore" feeling.
Slowly straightening his knees, he stood up from his seat cushion.
"I'm full. Sorry about the clearing up... Can I trouble you girls...? I just feel so tired for some reason. I'd like to go back to my room to sleep as soon as possible."
"Of course that's fine..."
Konoha looked at him in worry as he walked past her, about to leave the living room. Fear's puzzled face, Kuroe's dazed face, Kirika's solemn face, Kotetsu's indifferent face—
The only face he did not look at belonged to a certain person allegedly his father.
"Konoha's finally back... I just want to say that I must hurry and recuperate from my injuries and return to ordinary life. Ordinary life is the best, after all. Oh right, midterms are coming up, so I must study hard next. You girls better start studying sooner too~"
Feeling Konoha and the girls worrying about him, Haruaki forced out a wry smile for appearance's sake and made that speech.
Then he left the living room.
Haruaki had departed from the living room with unsteady footsteps. His final words also sounded like an attempt to escape reality. Despite feigning nonchalance, he was actually reeling back from a heavy blow—That was what Konoha thought.
Konoha put down her teacup. Although it was not meant to be a synchronizing signal, in that instant, all movement stopped on the dining table. Fear, Kirika, Kuroe and even Kotetsu all looked in the same direction.
Konoha narrowed her eyes and stared at Honatsu—As difficult as it was to believe, it really was him, ostensibly. Basically, he was the benefactor who had brought her to this home, but given the current developments, she really wanted to forget her debt to him completely. Leaving home for such a long period of time, returning in the form of a woman—Konoha could not muster any respect for the hot potato in creating this ludicrous situation.
No matter what, given the current circumstances, he might be willing to disclose to them matters he found difficult to broach in front of his son. Konoha went straight to the chase:
"So, why do you look like this now? If you don't mind, could you tell us in more detail?"
"Like I said, this is an image change, you know~"
Honatsu picked up the teapot on his own and refilled his cup, tilting his head while waving his soft, light hair. He was apparently determined to play the fool to the very end on this matter.
Many countermeasures surfaced in Konoha's mind, such as asking the same question again, choking him by the throat while threatening him, etc, but having experienced so much today, she was mentally and physically taxed to the extreme. What must not be forgotten. What she did not wish to forget. The crimes she had committed. The future she ought to advance towards. The sensation of his lips. Konoha really wanted to put all other troublesome matters aside so that she could savor these thoughts thoroughly in bed under the covers. Those were her true feelings currently.
Furthermore, if this person was truly the Honatsu she knew, he definitely was not going to talk so easily. Despite acting senselessly sometimes and impossible track down, Yachi Honatsu was also someone in command of stubborn willpower, never changing his mind easily once he made decisions. In this regard—He was just like his son.
In any case, Konoha sighed to express her displeasure then said:
"Well then... Allow me to alter my question slightly. What brings you home this time so suddenly despite having been away for so long without any communications at all?"
"Oh dear, it's not allowed? This is my home after all."
"Speaking of which, what the heck have you been doing after sending me here?"
Fear noisily ripped open the bag of after-dinner rice crackers and glared viciously at Honatsu.
"Hmm~ ...This is also a secret... I guess?"
"Honatsuan has so many secrets~"
"Kiririn, just so you know, that's Papa Honatsu."
Seeing the subject about to drift into a tangent, Konoha coughed deliberately.
"So, the reason why you came back with such timing... Only coincidence, wasn't it?"
"Oh no, it wasn't coincidence."
Honatsu candidly gave a surprising answer. Konoha threw him an inquiring glance and he shrugged.
"I was thinking all of you girls would be discussing this already... Looks like none of you are in the mood right now. The way I see it, there's only one reason for me to return now, right?"
Leaning his elbows against the table, with a cute motion, he rested his chin on his slender fingers that were clasped together.
Smiling tenderly, he continued.
"Because—I must celebrate my son's birthday with him at least, right?"
The report given over the phone was extremely interesting.
As a result, the man grinned slightly and repeated the previous words that had been said to him.
"Is that so? Nirushaaki lost?"
He closed his eyes. This action was very suited to light reminiscence. Possessing the mask with three abilities, the shirt that could neutralize attacks as well as Nagasone Kotetsu—He recalled her figure whom he had engaged in battle many times in the past.
Pondering with eyes closed also produced a side effect. A familiar sense of rocking enveloping his entire body seemed to increase slightly in intensity. This was a comfortable rhythm ruling over the entire premises, one that normally escaped notice.
Sitting on the chair, he allowed his body to sway according to that rhythm in mesmerization—
"Hey~ What are you thinking about?"
A voice reached his ear. Smiling, he opened one eye and said:
"Hmm? Do I really need to spell it out...? Of course I'm thinking about a rare specimen of a great woman~"
"What!? Again!? You philanderer! Aren't you satisfied when you have us already—!?"
The voice by his ear suddenly rose in pitch while his head was shaken violently this way and that.
"What's the point in getting jealous of someone who's dead?"
"That's besides the point here! It concerns the matter of a woman's heart!"
Turning his head, he found her pouting face before his eyes. He gazed at her intently.
He kept staring at her intently until she finally went red in the face and turned her gaze away.
"W-Whatever, it's not like I'm unreasonable. Since you're already reflection, it's not like I can't forgive you as long as you show evidence of your remorse. In other words, umm... Uh... Smooch~"
After squirming awkwardly for a while, she closed her eyes and puckered her lips, drawing her face close to his.
However, before he could react to her, a hand suddenly reached out from the side and caught the top half of her dainty face firmly.
"Hmm? How odd? I can't advance further. Are you shy? Is that the kind of game you'd like to play? The kind where two people's bonds are strengthened after overcoming obstacles? Great~ Mmm! Muu! Ugee~..."
"So tirelessly lively as usual, how delightful/annoying... Back to the subject, may I ask what are your plans?"
The hand's owner was speaking in her cold tone of voice and idiosyncratic speech pattern as usual.
The girl who still tried to bring her lips against him despite the iron clawed attack on her face. The woman who was expressionlessly executing the iron clawed attack.
Taking a glance at both of them, he looked up at the ceiling for no particular reason.
"Hmm, there's no need to hurry over... Still, there's something else that needs to be done."
"No need for a change in course. Since the summoning orders have been issued, let's continue slowly while waiting for everyone to gather."
"I find that to be quite agreeable/troublesome. Affirmative, Master."
She nodded slightly to express comprehension.
Reaching out with two fingers towards the face belonging to the girl who was still fighting the iron claw valiantly, he pinched her lips together, tugging and twisting them like a toy as he pleased.
"Mmm? Mmmmmmmmm!? What skill is this? So awesome!"
Hearing her speak with all sorts of misconceptions, he suddenly relaxed his expression.
Only then did he realize that he was unexpectedly looking forward to future developments.
This could possibly be why he wanted to go slowly. As though savoring the taste further, this was simply the anticipation for a certain upcoming event right now.
Narrowing his eyes, he muttered to himself.
"Indeed—Perhaps I met even get to meet a nostalgic fellow."
"You're speaking normally while kissing at the same time! Ah, this isn't kissing at all! I was thinking something seemed weird, then this hand blocking me is also... Mmmguh!"
Seeing the girl finally realizing the situation and starting to scream and yell, he kissed her on the lips this time for real, calming her as though to apologize for everything earlier.
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