Chapter 3 - Times When Even the Fictional is Desired / "Who is her? - Who is she?"
The rarely used Japanese-style room, only brought back into use the day before yesterday, still carried the lingering odor of stale long sealed off tatami. Given a few more days, the room should be instilled with vitality that comes with being inhabited as well as trace amounts of air freshener one could only detect with a deep breath.
In this living space, the size of six tatami mats, the only furniture present was the dresser Haruaki moved from the detached accessory dwelling just yesterday. Other objects included various schoolbag articles, magazines, paperbacks and a spare uniform on a hanger—Indeed, this room was undergoing a transformation from "an empty room" into "someone's bedroom."
And the master of the bedroom was Muramasa Konoha, currently collapsed in bed.
"...Hah... Mmm... Haa..."
Her skin faintly reddened, her breathing irregular, she frowned from time to time. Even though she looked like that, it was not as if she was tormented on the verge of death, but more like suffering from a fever from a flu. It happened only rarely, but having acquired human traits, she did occasionally catch flus and colds. According to Fear's judgment: "...I don't really think illness affects our core. Anyway, just let her sleep it off."
Haruaki took out a towel from a washbowl and wrung it dry to replace the one on Konoha's forehead.
Seeing her brow relax slightly, Haruaki breathed a sigh of relief and took a look at her expression.
Her slightly open red lips released warm breath against his ear. For the very first time, Haruaki noticed how long and slender her lashes were beneath those glasses. Pressed against her neck, somehow her hair seemed especially gorgeous compared to normal. Tiny beads of sweat were currently flowing down her collarbone towards her chest—
"Ack, why am I staring...?! No way no way, this is too rude!"
He went and opened the sliding door to provide some air circulation. One advantage of Japanese style residences was the good ventilation. Yes! —Just as he swelled his chest proudly towards the breeze—
"Oh, are you awake now? Are you okay? You should continue sleeping!"
He returned to her pillow side. Konoha looked up hazily at Haruaki.
"What happened to me... Ah yes, at school... Something was sucked out from me—then, then..."
"You can tell me once you recover your energy. You should rest properly now."
"Outside, the sky is still bright. Does that mean, I left school early...?"
"Yeah. The teachers know about our family situation, so they simply gave permission for me and Fear to leave as well. After all, we can't take you to a hospital—Sorry."
"I was just about to say sorry... For giving you trouble. Eh... Pajamas...?"
As if she finally realized her state of dress, Konoha suddenly stared at Haruaki awkwardly, her cheeks blushing instantly. She must have jumped to a mistaken conclusion.
"No! I asked Fear to help you change!"
"Ah, I see... However, I don't actually mind if it's you, Haruaki-kun... Even if I'm seen by you..."
Was it because of the fever? Nonchalantly, she made a rather problematic statement. In any case, Haruaki decided to pretend he did not hear it.
"Anyway, are you really okay? I've heard that other victims simply became lethargic, but none of them showed flu-like symptoms like you."
"Hmm... Presumably because we were born from 'human thoughts'... Any unusual conditions in mind or vigor will affect our bodies directly? But there's nothing to worry about, for I'm sure I will recover faster as well, conversely."
"I see. Then in any case, you should rest... I will bring porridge for you later tonight. Would you like egg or milk in your porridge? Any other requests?"
"No such item on the menu. Isn't that bad for digestion? Denied! Denied!"
Haruaki feigned anger while Konoha shyly laughed "ehehe."
"Other than food, do you have anything else you want? If you want to sleep in peace, I can leave immediately."
"Anything I want...?"
Konoha gave Haruaki a slanting glance then immediately averted her gaze.
"Well~ I have this feeling... It's just a feeling, okay!? Perhaps I might recover if a certain act was performed... Not simply because I'm in the mood, but I really have this feeling..."
"Oh? Then go ahead and tell me."
She threw him another glance. This time she shyly pulled up the quilt to cover her face.
Childishly, she exposed one eye from beneath the quilt.
"Haruaki-kun's... hand. I want to... hold hands tightly... May I?"
This was even more childish. Haruaki felt even more embarrassed instead—However...
"Yeah... Something so simple... Sure."
Haruaki reached out with his right hand and Konoha held it tightly with both hands extending from the futon. Soft, warm hands. Although they had held hands before in many situations, perhaps due to her pajamas look and mildly watery gaze acting as catalysts to cause a chemical reaction, Haruaki felt his heart rate rise rapidly to incredible levels.
Even so, Konoha continued to awkwardly—
"Hmm—How should I say it? Not exactly like this... But further... Yeah!"
Suddenly pulled by Konoha, Haruaki fell over towards the futon. Entering his view was Konoha lying down with a shy smile. The hand that had been pulled, was now held in Konoha's hands—stuffed into her bosom.
"I-I'm sorry, but this... This way... Makes me feel reassured... Sort of like finding something I had lost...? Don't worry, so... Just for now... Hoo..."
"S-She even fell asleep..."
This was quite a predicament. Of course, Konoha sleeping peacefully was a good thing, but Haruaki himself was in a predicament.
Haruaki's senses were being overwhelmed by the soft and warm sensation completely enveloping his hand. With just the slightest motion, that unfamiliar tactile sensation quivered and bounced. The gentle reassuring feeling evoked was comfortable beyond belief, causing Haruaki to wonder if he was melting and assimilated into one being. Strange sweat was dripping profusely.
(W-What should I do...?)
—Several dozen minutes passed.
Who knew if it was because he was straining his arm in a weird posture, his hand was beginning to cramp. Haruaki was at his limit. Konoha's breathing had become regular, so Haruaki attempted to escape.
His hand gradually sucked into the bosom amidst sweat and body warmth, Haruaki moved cautiously like a bomb squad in action. A couple minutes later, he finally managed to extract his hand from her chest—
Konoha happened to turn in her sleep. Coincidentally, Haruaki's fingertip was caught on the pajamas, causing a button to pop loose. As the curve traced by her complexion entered his view, Haruaki could not help but gulp hard. But by this point he had no choice but to continue with his escape.
His hand was still being held by Konoha. Carefully disengaging her fingers, he managed to release one hand. Then at this moment—
"Why do I feel... so... hot..."
Konoha squirmed and kicked the quilt down beneath her feet. Somehow another button popped loose from her chest. The valley of exposed skin deepened. Due to departure of the quilt, Konoha's lower torso also came into view.
Haruaki frantically covered his mouth as an emergency effort to stop the remark he almost let loose.
Perhaps due to friction with the futon, Konoha's pajama bottom had slid down slightly from her hips. Just by a few centimeters. But mere centimeters were enough to expose the edge of her pelvis as well as a body part that could either be her hip, thigh or butt, an ambiguous domain of skin that would scream for an arbitration committee to delineate clear boundaries. Besides, considering the vast triangular region of contention, this was undoubtedly—
Haruaki screamed inside. The criminal was definitely the one who dressed Konoha. It was most likely the first time for that girl to help someone change? Was it because Haruaki had simply said "Help take off her clothes and put on pajamas" for his request? Instead of emphasizing "Help her put on pajamas AND underwear," is that the reason!? How could this be possible!? Even though she looked a little off, making this kind of mistake was really too clueless...!
"Mmm mmm.. Hmm... Ah mmm... Ah..."
Konoha tossed and turned greatly in her sleep. Yet another button popped loose on her chest. This was on the verge of a critical point. Just a little more movement... No, just one more deep breath and surely the half-exposed bulges lying beneath the precariously buttoned pajama top would be exposed in plain sight...!
The last button was about to pop. It was going to pop with a "Boing!"
For some reason, Haruaki found himself unable to tear his gaze away. His entire body was frozen.
The pajama top's tension gradually lost equilibrium—
Just as expected, it popped open with a "Boing!"—
Konoha returned to the form of a Japanese sword.
Fear watched with lifeless eyes the spacious and completely normal garden. Hugging her knees she sat on the porch, completely motionless like a piece of furniture. However, her mind never stopped thinking.
—Once again, she had failed to do anything.
—Conversely, what could she have done instead?
—She heard it.
There is nothing you cannot do.
Her ears echoed with the voice of the castle lord. Come on, let's go, let's go, let's go, let's go!
Injure. Damage. Violate. Disgrace. Prick. Crush. Pierce. Open. Smash. Rend. Burn. Pull. Skin. Shave. Pluck. Cut. Beat. Perforate. Shoot. Bite. Strike. Bind. Hack. Slash. Grill. Wring. Hollow. Break. Stretch. Press—Wow! You are the source of all fear and disaster!
Hence in this domain, there is nothing you cannot do!
Namely, torture! Torture! Torture!
Namely, execution! Execution! Execution!
Kukuku, hahaha, gahahahahahahahahahahahahaha kyahahahahahahahahahahaha—!!
Fear smashed her fist into the porch. With a resounding "Crash!", the disturbing laughter vanished.
But still it lingered in her mind. This was only natural, for it did indeed happen in the past.
The nightmare taunted her. Look! Did you see that? —Despising her.
As much as she tried to help, nothing was achieved—That was her current self.
Yes, perhaps succeeding at nothing was inevitable. The castle lord's laughter made her realize what she had already known deep down.
"I knew it... I was doomed from the very start...?"
—Because, no matter who.
—Indeed, given her long history of existence, everyone was the same.
—No one was going to cry to an all-purpose torture tool for help and salvation.
"Hmm... I don't know if I should exclaim how fortunate, or how regrettable... No wait! Of course it was fortunate! It's not like I was harboring some sort of indecent desire, so there's nothing regrettable about it...!"
Walking along the porch, Haruaki seemed to be muttering as if justifying himself to someone. He left Konoha to continue sleeping as a sword since he had once heard that when cursed tools were unwell, it was less stressful to return to their original forms. That said, helping a Japanese sword to pull up the covers was quite a new experience.
In any case, Konoha's issue was temporarily handled. The problem was the other person—
Fear was sitting on the edge of the porch, still in school uniform, hugging her shins, chin against her knees, blankly staring at the garden. Had Haruaki left her in school, who knew what sort of ruckus she might cause, which was why he had her retire early as well.
Haruaki sat down beside her. Without shifting her gaze, Fear asked:
"...How is she...?"
"Much better apparently, she'll probably make a full recovery given more sleep."
Having left Fear alone for roughly an hour, Haruaki expected her to ridicule him and say: "You must have been doing something shameless together with Cow Tits!"—but she seemed quite distracted. From Haruaki's perspective, although being interrogated what happened would be a pain, seeing Fear so uncharacteristically gloomy was even more troubling.
"What's the matter, Fear? Do you have a stomach ache? It must be the counterattack of all those rice crackers you devoured mercilessly!"
He deliberately spoke cheerfully and poked Fear's knees through the kneesocks covering them. This resulted in Fear falling over on her side with a crash. However, she still maintained her curled in a ball posture, completely immobile. Clearly her problem was no minor matter.
Now what? —Just as Haruaki worried, he heard a faint murmur from her curled up figure.
"I... am so useless..."
"I gave my promise. Someone even said she looked forward to it. I wanted to do my best—but failed. I could neither catch the doll nor protect my classmates... And even Cow Tits was..."
No matter how poorly they got along, Fear and Konoha approved of each other on a certain level. Nevertheless, out of a matter of pride, Fear refused to display such sentiments outwardly. Always trying to ridicule her—but now that Konoha had fainted, Fear insisted on being responsible.
(...She really looks like she's disheartened.)
Perhaps due to excessive confidence—Haruaki thought. Due to the incident happening immediately after Shiraho cheered her up, her determination to try harder was probably transformed into a sense of helplessness instead. Haruaki recalled Fear's personality—usually so arrogant but always falling into a bottomless valley of depression on her own—at the same time, he was reminded of what it felt like to jump into the sea.
"What have I achieved till now? Is it really hopeless... Am I really hopeless at helping others? I guess that's right, after all, I'm just a tool for harming others. All I can do is gouge, crush and shave off human flesh—a tool for torture and execution, guh...!"
"Oh yeah! What about a simulation of a rice cake's stretching form, how amazing!"
Haruaki examined Fear's expression and began to pull on her cheeks. As her cheeks stretched, Fear's face was also lifted up.
"You, what are you doing!? I'll curse you, dummy—!"
"I forbid you to use the term 'after all.'"
"You only need to continue acting as yourself. A term like 'after all' only serves as an excuse for giving up. Besides, didn't you help an old lady yesterday? Cabbage master!"
Haruaki loosened his grip and withdrew his hands. Rubbing her cheeks, Fear replied:
"But that's totally different, in terms of level..."
"Maybe. There are times when even more troubling challenges surface. You find yourself powerless and tempted to say 'after all.' During times like these—Just rely on others! What's wrong with that?"
Fear stared back into Haruaki's eyes with surprise but immediately diverted her gaze, muttering "But... I want to do it on my own..." She did not understand. This girl still did not understand.
"Like I said~ You should learn how to rely on others more. Of course accomplishing things single-handedly would be ideal, but isn't it meaningless if you end up helping no one because you refuse to compromise your pride? People won't mock you just because you ask for help. Neither will anyone look down on you, say you're worthless, or dismiss you with an 'after all' comment."
However—Fear's insistence was only natural in a certain sense.
After all, tools were created with purpose. They were created to fulfill a purpose. Conversely, a tool that relied on outside assistance to fulfill its intended purpose would be no different from a "failure."
Perhaps Fear instinctively felt terrified of such a pronouncement.
Seriously—it should already be obvious she was no ordinary tool.
"Ah—Really! By the way, I'll let you in on a secret. When you seek others for help, this in itself could also be a good deed because it sometimes makes other people happy."
"—If the person feels happy for being relied on, isn't that a good deed? So—"
Haruaki scratched his head.
"I already said I wanted to help you. I want to be relied on by you. If you show such a gloomy expression, it makes me feel troubled."
"I see... It's... Okay for me to rely on you...?"
"Yes! This is the assistant's revolt, having reached the limit of his tolerance! From now on, I will stand on equal ground with you as a shareholding partner! Prepare yourself!"
Fear's eyes instantly relaxed but then she immediately pouted.
"How arrogant. But... If you really refuse to compromise no matter what, I will promote you from assistant to shareholding partner! So—You will work for me with full effort! Don't slack off!"
Smack! She slapped Haruaki on the back, perhaps to hide her embarrassment.
Sitting properly on the porch, Fear finally straightened her hunchback posture. Arms akimbo, she knelt with her upper torso raised up high, going "hmph!" complacently.
"So, what's next?"
"What's next...? What do you suggest?"
"In any case, I have to do something first."
Just as Haruaki expected her to continue speaking, Fear pulled his cheeks.
"Owwwwww... What are you doing!?"
"Hmph, just a return favor. Also, let me remind you, my hearing is superb."
"Just now, from Cow Tits' room I heard what sounded like moans—What did the shameless brat do with her...?"
"Eh!? Finally it comes!"
"Those sounds, I heard them! The strange sounds she made! Your irregular breathing! Even though I have no idea what you actually did, in any case... Completely shameless!"
"Wait! I understand how you feel but it's just a misunderstanding! Ah! Woohoo! Did you hear that just now? The doorbell, someone arrived! I must welcome the guest, so let me take my leave!"
"What are you going 'woohoo' for!? Hey, stop, you're not allowed to escape...!"
As he arrived at the entrance, the bell rang again. Yeah yeah I'm here—Haruaki opened the door to find...
"Oh it's you, Class Rep."
Kirika stood outside. Probably on her way back from school? She was still in uniform with her school bag.
"Sorry for the sudden intrusion."
"No problem at all. What's up?"
"I heard Konoha collapsed. So, how should I say this, I came to visit—Also there's the fact that you all left school early. In other words, I'm a bit concerned."
Hesitantly, Kirika alternated her glances between Haruaki and her feet. It was quite rare to see her in such a state of indecision.
"Oh okay, she's fine now. It's just like a flu so she should recover soon. She should still be sleeping, so would you like to have a glimpse of her in bed...? Oh, please wait for me a bit."
Since Konoha had returned to sword form, there was no one to see her face. Restoring her to human form was probably a tall order... No, but since Kirika was privy to the truth, it should be okay? Then again, he already promised her to feign ignorance... What should he do? Just as Haruaki agonized over the complicated situation—
"No, it's fine if she's asleep. So long as I know she's okay, I don't have to worry. By the way, there's also the matter of you two—"
"Us two? We're actually fine. Just that we left early to take care of the patient."
"I know. I know, but... Damn it, I'm asking if there's any way I can help out!"
She defiantly added emphasis to her tone.
"Eh? But Konoha's only sleeping so there's no need to take special care of her. I don't think there's anything in particular to trouble you, Class Rep... Umm... To help..."
Why was she angry? Haruaki shrank back.
Kirika became even more displeased and rested her forehead against her hand as if suffering a headache:
"Tsk, why you little... I never expected things to come to this... Yes, your principles are admirable... That's right, but you are really good-natured to a fault—Damn it, Yachi, you're such a frustrating guy!"
"I-I'm listening, Class Rep. Did I say something wrong?"
"Hoo... The problem lies in the fact that 'you said nothing wrong'—Enough, I understand now. In order to get this through your thick skull, I have made my decision."
While she was speaking, Kirika raised her right arm. With a slithering sound from her sleeve, a leather belt extended out. Haruaki knew this was her self-defense equipment. An object she called a Wathe.
In other words, a cursed tool—the «Tragic Black River».
The belt wrapped around Haruaki's neck and pulled him. Although the force was not enough to strangle him, he could not resist. Just as he was about to fall over forwards, Kirika used her other hand to grab the belt on his neck, thereby maintaining Haruaki's forward leaning posture. This was like having someone pulling on a necktie.
Kirika's prim and proper face drew near and Haruaki could even feel her breath. He felt rather unsettled.
"Uh... Class Rep, what is... Going on?"
"You still don't get it?"
"I'm very sorry, but no."
"Seriously... I am deliberately displaying the object 'I hope you pretend you never saw,' at least you should know what that means? Currently, I am neither 'someone belonging to the Lab Chief's Nation' nor 'the class representative who wants you to feign ignorance of her identity,' got that?"
"In that case... who are you?"
"—Isn't it obvious? I am purely myself, Ueno Kirika. The Ueno Kirika who doesn't mind her own business and helped you previously. What absolutely ridiculous word games I'm playing here."
"So... Does that mean..."
Kirika helplessly curled the corner of her lips as if exhausted. She withdrew the belt back into her sleeve.
"Yeah... So you guys are facing some sort of trouble, right? You really suck at concealing the matter. Since I already know something is going on, getting ignored makes me quite mad, okay? Don't forget, feigning ignorance also builds up stress!"
"In other words, you still want to help? But... Are you allowed?"
"Same as last time. As the class representative, I cannot ignore the troubles faced by my fellow classmates. Besides—"
Kirika pouted slightly as she glared at Haruaki.
"If trying to feign ignorance of my secret alters your attitude towards me, we might as well go back to interacting with shared secrets. I've changed my mind. To be honest, the way you were treating me today and yesterday, it's like there's a wall between us. So frustrating."
"Hmm, I'm actually aware of that... I'm sorry. The more I tried to pretend, the more it seems to weigh on my mind."
"Never mind, I understand you're useless in that way. So, as long as we go back to the way it was before—there's no problem, right?"
In contrast to her unforgiving words, Kirika's face seemed to be relaxing as if she had been looking forward to reassuring resolution.
"I see, now I basically get the situation."
Kirika drank from the tea cup like a solemn samurai warrior. This was her second visit to this living room. In the past, Haruaki would have found such a scene unthinkable, but incredibly, he was already accustomed to it.
(Hmm... Speaking of accustomed, this girl is getting even more used to Kirika.)
Fear was munching away on rice crackers as she faced Kirika. Perhaps due to the prior conversation with Haruaki, Fear accepted Kirika's help readily.
"I still have numerous questions about the details, but let's organize our facts starting from the main issues—You guys might be quite clear on things, but I only heard your explanation just now."
"Thank you. It's possible that you might notice things that we missed, Class Rep."
"Chew chew chew... That's right. Without preconceived notions, sometimes a second opinion might be helpful."
"First of all, that Sovereignty Perfection Doll, why did she refuse Yachi's invitation and escape? Secondly, why does she only drain life force within the school? Third question, where is she currently hiding? —Those are the issues."
"Right. And then?"
Kirika sipped a mouthful of tea then stated solemnly:
"I don't know."
"W-What's with that look? I'm just trying to organize the facts of the mystery! Besides, it's not like answers can be obtained so simply!"
As if disappointed with Haruaki and Fear's attitude, Kirika stared back in return, her face subtly blushing.
"I just want to say, perhaps..."
"Well, you have as much information as we do now. Looks like this mystery isn't that easy to solve..."
Haruaki and Fear's attempts to comfort backfired. Kirika frowned with displeasure:
"Now that you two put it that way, it feels like I failed your expectations. That's so maddening. And Fear, our information is still not the same. At this point, why don't you recount what happened in greater detail?"
"Recount what happened in greater detail?"
"The parts you skimmed over just now. When, where, who, what was done, how things occurred, what happened, etc. I want to listen again about the incident from the very beginning. Sometimes small questions can lead to clues to bigger questions—In order to answer the small questions, this is a necessary step."
With the sound of her teacup placed on the table, Kirika closed her eyes and crossed her arms with a stern expression.
"Really... Yes, I am taking things seriously. I will put forth my mind and soul to think of a solution. So even though it's quite troublesome, you two must tell me everything. Having all information is essential. While I was listening to the basic story just now, there were a few places which bothered me."
Then she opened one eye and requested softly: "Yachi, another cup please."
Haruaki smiled wryly and stood up with the cup, whispering in Fear's ear along the way:
"...See, here's a very reliable comrade, and one who never admits defeat."
"Speaking of never admitting defeat, I'm the same. But—it makes me happy to know that someone is getting serious for my sake."
Fear relaxed her expression and reached out for the plate of snacks for tea. Then she did something surprising.
"Please have some, Kirika. Rice crackers are really tasty!"
—Muramasa Konoha had a dream.
Caught in the narrow gap between consciousness and unconsciousness, a hazy state required to recover from abnormality.
Abnormality meant loss, being deprived of a certain something very similar to a soul or life force.
Her hazy consciousness did not understand the meaning implied. But there was no need to understand either.
Because she had already retrieved it.
Chest and hand. Warmth. Him. Troubled expression. Pulsation. A gentle hand.
From deep within her body, something akin to a lamp lit up. Feeling its warmth, there was no need to worry anymore.
Consequently, with only the comforting feeling of a certain person's embrace—
Muramasa Konoha had a dream.
Morning lessons ended with the arrival of the lunch break.
Today's lunchbox was prepared together with Haruaki. Haruaki was responsible for the main dish, the hamburg steak, while Konoha handled the side dishes herself. It had been a while since the last time they cooked together. She was confident she did a good job and he did offer praise after taste testing.
They had brought lunchboxes to school with identical contents. She suddenly realized, what did this normally imply between people? As she took out her lunchbox, Konoha relaxed her expression. Technically, three people were involved in its preparation, but she was going to ignore that fact.
"Konoha-chan, what are your plans for lunch today?"
"A! Uh hmm... Well, today..."
She wanted to have lunch together with him, given this rare occasion with identical lunchboxes. Furthermore, she wanted to check out Fear's condition, planning to suggest after the meal that it was time for everyone to pitch in their full effort to resolve the incident together.
Informing her friend, Konoha left the classroom. She had intended to buy a drink on her way, so she first walked towards the vending machine at the shoe locker area. Just as she descended to the ground floor—
Through the glass window, she spotted Haruaki's back view outside. Having left the school building, he was walking towards the sports ground.
It was too early for him to have finished his lunch. He was not the active type who would wolf down his food to rush to the sports ground. Even though he was quite athletic and others might invite him from time to time, in those circumstances, he would always say: "Wait a bit, let me finish this tea first, okay... Hoo~" That was the type of person he was.
There were no signs of the silver-haired girl by his side. Were they patrolling separately? Or was she still having lunch in the classroom?
(Disregarding the child for now... Where is he planning on going by himself...?)
How worrisome. The doll who drained people of their life force might be roaming the school building right now. Acting alone could be risky. In any case, she had to chase after him—
By the time she had changed into her outdoor shoes, Konoha had lost sight of Haruaki. So she decided to leave the school building through the service entrance. Making her way there, she jogged across the corridor.
Naturally, everywhere was filled with the hustle and bustle of the lunch break. Passing by chatting girls, she almost collided with boys who were running out of the classrooms. There were students playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who would go line up to buy stuff, students calling out to classmates still inside the classrooms, students staring out the windows—
—At this moment, Konoha felt her world overturned.
It was like someone had grabbed her shoulder. It felt like something was being stolen, extracted from her body. Instantly, her consciousness began to fade. As much as she desperately tried to endure, her body failed to respond as if it were a puppet. Even though she was a sword. Her lunchbox, the ceiling, the floor, everything seemed to be spinning around. All she seemed to be hearing was the sound of her own breathing.
Incomprehensible. However, her hazy consciousness forced herself to scrutinize what she found incomprehensible.
Like a broken puppet, she forcefully raised her head.
Her view was dominated by shimmering and commotion. The floor. The lunchbox. What a waste. From a distance, someone called out: "Someone fainted!" It could have been nearby but sounded so far away. After that, how many minutes passed? Someone wearing indoor shoes was standing beside her. She saw legs wearing long pants—the noise of commotion intensified—then even more—
Konoha sat up from the futon. The dim view before her was her own room.
She wiped away her sweat. But in addition to her forehead, her entire body was drenched with sweat. Then she realized she was naked with a fright. It can't be, perhaps...
Konoha frantically searched her recollections. In a corner of her mind, she found lingering memories from when she turned back into a sword. Due to her half-dazed state, the memories were fuzzy, but she had apparently transformed because she felt too hot to sleep. After understanding the situation, she finally breathed a long sigh of relief.
Her high fever and the sense of heaviness in her body were less serious now, but she was still somewhat exhausted. Indeed, these were signs of recovery. Having regained some mobility, she made use of the washbowl and the towel by the futon to wipe her body.
"Ah... That feels nice..."
Having just woken up, she still felt like she was still halfway in dream land. Konoha recalled the touch of Haruaki's hand when he was placing the towel on her forehead. Indeed, that felt very comfortable too. She suddenly wondered, had she requested him, would he be willing to wipe her body like this—
Who knows, but if he really were to agree, he'd definitely display a troubled expression—Surely, he would wipe gently and it would be such a very comfortable feeling—
Ah! —Konoha realized in shock what she was imagining and blushed. She shook her head vigorously to dispel the imagery. After all, on further thought—could it be possible that he disliked girls with an excessively large bust? She sighed involuntarily and continued with her wiping.
The moisture from the towel seemed to seep into her hazy mind through the skin of her entire body.
She recalled her dream. Through the scenes in the dream she corroborated her memories.
Something bothered her but she could not be certain. After all, one's sense of time within dreams was very ambiguous, it would not be surprising if other unimportant memories were mixed in—but for some reason, something felt concerning.
"Speaking of which... Why would Haruaki-kun...?"
As she puzzled with her head inclined, Konoha heard a rumbling noise coming from her stomach.
"Hmm, excuse me."
A glance at the clock revealed that it was almost dinner time. She recalled Haruaki saying he would cook porridge for her. It would be extra work if he had to deliver it expressly, so she decided to go and wait at the living room—She was definitely not trying to hurry him! That was what she argued to herself.
Putting on her pajamas, she exited the room. Walking was not too much of an exertion.
The sound of talking came from the living room. Fear, Haruaki and someone else.
Was it something urgent? Konoha felt puzzled. As the voices grew clearer—
"Then there was what happened today during the lunch break. You were there, Class Rep, so you should already know, right?"
"Only up to the point when you exited the classroom."
"I had already left to patrol, so I have no idea."
"Ah, that's right. Someone had a message delivered to me, asking me to visit the sports ground, so that's why I went out there without finishing my lunch... That someone was Sovereignty. Then I had a conversation with her, separated by a fence."
I see. Just as Konoha was about to accept his statement—
The sense of inconsistency in her memory roared out:
That is completely impossible!
By the time she realized, she had already rushed into the living room.
"I-Is what you say really true, Haruaki-kun? If that's the case, it's really too strange...!"
"Woah! What's with you, Konoha? Are you alright now—"
She interrupted Haruaki and continued. What had happened seemed completely impossible.
"Sovereignty was waiting for you by the sports ground, and Haruaki-kun, you only went out after being summoned—If that really is the case, then how was I attacked inside the school building when I started following only after spotting you outside?"
"I was going to wait until you got up before asking you... But now given what you said, it's really strange. The order is reversed—The doll, who was supposed to be waiting at the sports ground, attacked Konoha while I was still on my way there. And to think I was convinced you had been attacked as soon as lunch started."
"Sorry, I was in a daze until just now, so I couldn't think straight... But having slept, I started recalling the situation back then."
Konoha shrugged apologetically, but Kirika shook her head and said:
"How could we rouse a patient for questioning? This is not your fault. The key point is—At a critical moment, we have obtained an additional significant fact."
"I don't get it. So what is the conclusion?"
Fear pursed her lips. As expected, the academically excellent class representative was the reliable one instead.
"If we think about it, there are three main possibilities... One, she rushed to the scene after draining Konoha's life force. Two, the doll possesses another ability we are unaware of, which is what she used—such as controlling other puppets from a distance to absorb life force. And three—"
Kirika put up three fingers then sighed.
"She has an accomplice with the same ability to absorb life force—These are basically the possibilities."
Haruaki gasped. Then he offered his opinion:
"The first one is kind of a stretch, right...?"
"Agreed. A tool on a doll's level doesn't really seem like it could have any kind of instantaneous transport ability. Besides, if she could do that, she would have used it from the start. That doll isn't even used to a human body yet."
"We're simply listing the possibilities. So based on the facts—I would agree with you two."
"And likewise for the second possibility. Don't forget, it was during the lunch break. It would have been impossible to walk along the classroom hallways without being seen. Whether Sovereignty herself or a remote controlled doll, both would be spotted."
"Indeed. Then that means—"
The conversation paused. Instead, only the sound of four people sipping tea with awkward expressions remained. After a while—
"Process of elimination... For the purpose of theorizing, it's not exactly a smart method."
"But the chances are quite high. We cannot ignore this possibility."
"So, who is it? Konoha, did you catch a glimpse of who did it?"
"No—As soon as someone touched my shoulder from behind, I immediately collapsed. But, well..."
She shrank her head back timidly.
"When I fell down, I think there was a boy standing next to me... I saw pants. But I could be mistaken. The person might have ran over after seeing me collapse. My consciousness was in a mess back then..."
"Hmm... A boy eh... Yachi, do you remember what those two idiots said during lunch?"
"Eh? Uh—what they talked about back then, let's see... The Chloroform Baron and also... Ah, the deceased male student's ghost—?"
"What did Kana say? There was a witness—perhaps it's not a baseless rumor."
"In other words—the doll has an accomplice mixed in the school, a boy who can absorb life force. Then what? How do we find him?"
Haruaki pondered in puzzlement. Konoha asked with trepidation:
"Somehow it seems like my impression has been accepted as fact, is that really okay...?"
"We can't simply dismiss it as a mistake, right? Besides, we don't have any other reliable information..."
"Just as Yachi said. Anyway, we can only take action based on facts and hypotheses—that said, there is still not enough information. Namely, is there anyone we could question..."
"Eh? How so?"
"Although I called the other person who drained life force an 'accomplice' but that in itself raises questions. Simply stated, when and where did Sovereignty find this accomplice? A long time ago back when she was in foreign lands, after she escaped from the antique shop, or some time in between, while she was still at the shop?"
"I see what you mean now. It's hard to imagine a former companion coming all the way to this distant island country. I don't think she could have met someone after escaping either. In that case, it must be during her time at the antique shop... After all, in a place like that, a gathering of her kind would not be surprising."
"Right, so that's why I wondered if there's someone we could question."
Of course, there was the antique shopkeeper's daughter—Shiraho.
As for the other culprit, do you have any idea? Is there another doll? No, it might not even be a doll, has anything strange disappeared from the shop as well? So many questions to confirm with her. Based on the situation, perhaps there was a need to visit Shiraho's shop. Records of what had been bought and sold, some of that should still remain in the shop.
"In other words, our plan for tomorrow involves finding Shiraho first for questioning? Then please accompany us then, Class Rep. So long as we explain you're here to help, there should be no problem."
With that, their plans were set. Just as Haruaki relaxed his shoulders—
An extremely adorable sound was heard.
"It's already this late eh... That's right, eating rice crackers alone isn't quite enough. I'm about to prepare dinner, so please be patient a little while longer, Fear. Oh yeah, Class Rep, why don't you stay for dinner before you head back?"
"If you would allow it, then by all means please let me stay. This would be a great opportunity to steal some of your cooking secrets... But if you don't have enough ingredients, don't force yourself, okay? Spying on the enemy would not be worth it if it ends up incurring Fear's wrath."
"Wait... Wait a minute! Not me, it wasn't me, okay!?"
Slam! Fear got to her feet, smoldering as if she was about to combust.
"Of course, it's not your fault, Fear, just that huge stomach. Don't be so angry. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I already told you it wasn't me, okay!? Believe me. Hey, dummy! I'll curse you!"
"Oh, Konoha, you'll have to be a little patient too! I've already prepared the ingredients for your portion, the nutritious porridge I promised you. Eat it and get well soon!"
For some reason, Konoha was red in the face, her head bowed deeply and trembling.
Just as Haruaki prepared to make his way to the kitchen, he heard something amidst Fear's continued grumbling—
"...There are still some questions in the details. Perhaps I'm over thinking things, but it doesn't make sense. I'll have to ask Shiraho properly..."
Kirika was musing to herself. Because she sounded especially serious, her words left a particularly strong impression on him.
It looked like the next day was going to be quite eventful. But enlisting Kirika's help was as good as obtaining a hundred volunteers. In any case, leaving the thinking to her would be fine. Now, what kind of tasty cooking should he come up with to energize her—
Thinking that, Haruaki put his full effort into the meal. With just a single mouthful, Kirika exclaimed "So far to go before catching up...!" Then she hung her head in despair, only moving her chopsticks in dejection.
With that, a busy day came to an end.
The next day, Shiraho did not come to school.
"Oh—She seems to have skipped school! ...Reason? N-No one would know, right? Because she doesn't seem to have any friends... Anyway, isn't it quite weird for someone who had refused to come to school all this time to show up suddenly? Besides, all she did was sit there staring into empty space without even taking her textbooks out. There must be something going on with her, right? She also maintains her distance from everyone else—"
During the morning break, they had grabbed a student from Shiraho's class and that was what he said.
Haruaki, Kirika and Fear walked along the corridors side by side. Konoha, on the other hand, stayed home with sick leave. I can already walk normally, don't worry—She originally wanted to come to school, but just to be safe, Haruaki made her call in sick and rest at home.
"...Somehow I have a bad feeling about this."
Kirika murmured softly. Haruaki nodded in agreement. After all, school was where Sovereignty was most likely to be found. Also, Shiraho had said, now that her father was gone, she had to pull herself together from now on. It was hard to imagine why she would be absent without notice.
"It's possible she's simply sick with a flu and unable to contact the school."
"But we can't rule out the possibility of something unusual—We just need to check, right? Anyway, let's see if we can give her a call or something."
Fear's suggestion was uncharacteristically modern for her.
Naturally, no one in her class knew how to contact her. Hence they tried the phone book at the public telephone in front of the school office. But it did not even contain a single instance of the rare family name, Sakuramairi. In that case, they had no choice but to attempt calling every antique shop in the neighboring town. In the end, that ended fruitlessly as well.
"Damn it, I should have asked for her phone number last time. At least we know the name of the shop, so we can visit her after school—Oh right, let's ask the superintendent!"
"Didn't that guy go abroad?"
"He's got a cellphone. Even though I don't have the number, I'm sure we can just ask Zenon-san."
Hence, during the break after the next period, they all went to the superintendent's office. But since Kirika's true identity was not known to the superintendent, she stayed outside the room on standby. The instant he knocked, Haruaki wondered if Zenon might be patrolling the school but luckily she happened to be inside.
With her usual cool demeanor, she replied:
"—Most regrettably, it seems like he's not in reception range. I am most sorry I cannot be of help. Speaking of help, I currently have no choice but to handle all this piled up paperwork, so please understand this objective truth, for I am not slacking off from helping out the insufficient security personnel. Of course, once all this paperwork is handled, I will join in to help out with security. After all, there has been an increase of unnecessary work due to the unusual occurrences. If they're not handled properly, indeed normal operations will be affected—"
Translation—The call did not go through. I am very busy, is there any other business?
"...Sorry for disturbing you."
Her own desk should be in the adjoining room but the superintendent's desk was currently piled high with documents. Clearly she was quite busy—disturbing her would be bad. Just as he was walking out of the room with Fear, Haruaki suddenly noticed the strange straw hat hanging on the clothing stand beside the door.
"Oh, that's strange... It doesn't match this room at all! Who could have left it there?"
"I think it belongs to Zenon."
"You really shouldn't make unfounded statements of that sort! How should I put it, that totally doesn't match..."
"I wasn't making an unfounded statement, okay?"
Saying that, they left the superintendent's office. Zenon bowed politely to see them off—But somehow, Haruaki felt like her shoulder was twitching during the process, was it his imagination?
"So, what next? Are we out of options?"
"Uh... No, not yet. Isn't there some kind of class contact network thing? If we say it's for visiting a sick student, the homeroom teacher should tell us, right?"
Haruaki was just about to congratulate himself on a good idea and Kirika, who had been waiting outside, seemed to agree at first, but—
"Hmm... Wait a minute, I remember her being in the Seventh Class... That's a bit problematic..."
Almost instantly, she began to murmur to herself.
"Class Rep, is there a problem?"
"Not exactly a problem, but—I would advise against asking that class' homeroom teacher to allow us to check the contact network. First of all, we have a student who had never showed up to school previously. Then suddenly some people from another class show up, especially people who aren't particularly close to her, asking to visit her. That's totally unnatural. If possible, I think a more discreet method would be better."
"That sounds reasonable, but even if you insist on a more discreet method..."
"'If possible' was what I said. If there's no other way, then we are left with no choice... What do you say?"
For some reason, Kirika lowered her gaze as if feeling guilty. At this time, Fear tilted her head in surprise and spoke up:
"I don't quite get it, but all we need is the address and telephone number, right? If that's the case, what about that thing I filled in the day before yesterday? Wasn't it said that everyone had to fill one in?"
"The thing the superintendent asked me to fill when he took my photo. Something about a medical history for the infirmary. The address and telephone number should be on it, right?"
"Oh yeah, nice idea! Well done, Fear!"
"Hmph, praise me more!"
With her nose in the air, Fear's chest swelled with pride. As always, she really was a girl with the myriad expressions.
"Indeed, Fear-kun's method can be carried out discreetly. Perfect... Anyway, break time is almost over, let's do it during lunch!"
"Why would it be discreet?"
"Oh, the school physician—Ganon-san is the elder sister of Zenon-san. She's someone on the superintendent's side, so we can ask her to keep things secret through Zenon-san. Let's ask her now while we're here!"
Thus they entered the superintendent's office again. The instant the door was opened—
Head bowed, Zenon was staring blankly at the straw hat in her hand. Expressionless as always, but somehow her face seemed slightly lonesome. And the instant she noticed Haruaki and Fear—Whoosh! She swiftly destroyed the evidence by stuffing the straw hat into the trash can over on the side. Her speed was so fast it seemed like afterimages would be left behind.
Did we witness something we were not supposed to see? Haruaki and Fear exchanged glances. With absolute calm—or perhaps feigned composure, Zenon took out a very plain beret and put it on her head before their eyes. Then she narrowed her eyes and stared at Haruaki.
"The paperwork has been handled. I was just about to go out on patrol... Do you need something?"
Somehow, she seemed subtly angry.
Next came the lunch break. There were no student fainting incidents today yet. Fear sat restlessly in her seat, wanting to go out and patrol, but there was something to be done first. After rapidly finishing their lunch, Haruaki and his group went to the infirmary. The one who answered the door was—
"Coming~ ...Please come in~"
A lethargic voice. Leaving Kirika outside once again, Haruaki and Fear entered the room to find waiting for them a person whose lethargic posture matched her voice perfectly. With sleepy eyes, she was playing a jigsaw puzzle. Chewing on a Pocky biscuit stick, she skillfully suppressed a yawn. Dressed in a shabby white coat, glasses perched on the top of her head—this was the usual appearance of the school physician, Houjyou Ganon.
"How should I say this... Totally lacking in drive. Hey, Haruaki, is she really the school physician? Not some student wearing a white coat and skipping class?"
"Very regrettably, she is undoubtedly the school physician. I have never seen her in a motivated state. Whether it's pay day or any other occurrence, she's always like this. Conversely, isn't that actually quite amazing?"
Haruaki secretly whispered to Fear. But Ganon seemd to have overheard.
"No way~ This is actually a high level strategy! The infirmary is a place of healing, a place where relaxation and a sense of reassurance are paramount... I am simply embodying the ideal! In other words, I don't do this by choice—Oh my, feigning laziness is so tiring. Is there a better way?"
Unable to understand what she was talking about, Haruaki watched as Ganon lazily swiveled her chair to face him.
"Yes~ Yachi and Cubrick from Second Class, right? I heard from Zenon already. The health survey forms are on the shelves over there, arranged by class in alphabetical order. Please put it back properly once you're done, okay~"
That was all she said before boredly going back to her jigsaw puzzle. How befitting of sisters, they were so similar in the manner they acted as they wished—Fear stared in amazement as she murmured to herself.
"Whatever. Haruaki, let's hurry and get this over with!"
Haruaki and Fear began to search the shelves indicated by Ganon. Very quickly, they found their target—
In that very instant.
The whole world was turned upside down.
"Huh? Is there somethng really interesting? Why do you keep staring... By the way, I'm not that free, you know? Please leave as soon as you're done~"
Free enough to be playing a puzzle, Ganon interrupted. Haruaki and Fear remained rooted to the spot. Unable to move.
They did manage to find what they were looking for. All the essential information was found.
Fear stared silently at the piece of paper in Haruaki's hand.
Her telephone number.
All were written there.
Since it was handed in together with the enrollment application, therefore even though she had refused to attend school, her personal information was written there without error—Indeed.
Even the nonessential—what they never regarded as essential was also there.
"What is... Going on?"
No one could answer Haruaki's question.
Not Fear. Nor Ganon as she played her puzzle indifferently.
Next to the name field where Sakuramairi Shiraho was written, the attached photo showed—
Beautiful long hair as if artificially crafted. Exquisite facial features like a doll's. Gazing at the camera without smiling at all. The face of the girl Haruaki and the rest had been calling Sovereignty—No one could give an answer.
Translator's Notes and References
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