In terms of conclusion, Sovereignty decided to continue living in Shiraho's home.
Since they were unconvinced that lifting the curse was necessary, Haruaki did not insist. After all, with the Killing Organ gone and no need to drain feelings of love anymore, there was virtually no possibility of harming others—So they were left alone.
After reporting the series of occurrences to Zenon to pass onto the superintendent, several days had passed. As a side note, the monumental task of the Indulgence Disk's insertion was carried out during this time, with Fear and Haruaki blushing while Konoha pouted. Consequently, Fear lost access to the transformation of the «Inquisitional Wheel» mechanism.
During the lunch break on the day the superintendent returned...
Haruaki and his entourage went to the superintendent's office. The group included Haruaki, Fear, Konoha and Shiraho in uniform. Since Kirika's assistance had to be kept secret, she was not present.
"Seriously, how did things come to this?"
Her always beautiful face in a frown, Shiraho grumbled on the sofa. Glared by her for some reason, Haruaki hastily shook his head repeatedly:
"I-It's not my fault! I simply wanted to report to the superintendent!"
"...I get it. I just felt like complaining."
Unexpectedly, Shiraho avoided eye contact so easily. Although she kept a stiff expression as usual and gave off an unapproachable impression—From the fact that she could have an honest dialogue with him, Haruaki felt that her human-hating aura seemed to have weakened towards him slightly.
"Even if I resented you, it would not help matters at all. Ultimately, that man decides everything, right?"
"Because this is my job. As the highest authority in this school, I must settle this incident that resulted in quite a number of students fainting. I've already heard what happened but I will not compromise over this one point—As contrition, you must come to school and attend class seriously. That is my decision."
Swiveling his chair around, the man in the gas mask—the superintendent—spoke cheerfully. Switching the target of her glare to him, Shiraho spoke with her usual foul temper:
"Based on the current situation, you are the human I hate the most in this world, deviant!"
"Oh how it breaks my heart to hear that from my late friend's daughter. Sigh, but being scolded angrily by a beautiful woman is perhaps a rare and happy experience for certain people of peculiar tastes. Should I feel thankful instead?"
"...Just kidding, I'm not into that kind of fetish."
Watching the man in the gas mask speak, Haruaki slumped his shoulders in exasperation.
"Given your unusual appearance, if you say something like that as the superintendent, it's really not funny at all... Seriously, are we done? We've been skipping classes for days in a row, so we don't want to be late for fifth period."
"Hmm, wasting time is no good so let me explain first. Regarding what you are about to witness, let me give two reasons. One, the lack of manpower. When there's only one person present, if any special situation arises, the measures available to take in response are limited. Because of this incident, I received quite a scolding from Zenon-kun. As a result... I have created a new position similar to a secretary's assistant."
"I've heard about this already. Didn't you call us here to witness how the new employee works?"
"Indeed. As for the second reason, well—Zenon-kun's hobby."
The superintendent's words left everyone scratching their heads in puzzlement. The superintendent lowered his voice and explained:
"To be honest... She's really into cute things. She adores them, loves them. But most tragically, her high intelligence has come to realize this—she is fatally unsuited to cute clothing or accessories. On occasion she may suddenly challenge the notion on a willful whim, but please pretend you didn't notice. At first I simply suggested to her to have the new secretary's assistant wear a uniform, but the result was—Indeed, as an act of desperation, she seems intent on making a certain someone dress cute in her stead, in order to project herself onto..."
A sudden voice came from the door connecting to the adjoining room. Jumping in fright, the superintendent turned his gaze over there, only to find Zenon poking her upper body out from behind the door, holding up a written resignation expressionlessly.
"Please enjoy the tea I've prepared before it gets cold. Should you wish to continue the topic of conversation, I shall completely and vigorously respect your freedom and wishes—But please forgive me for I must submit my resignation today—"
"I get it! Jeez, please forget everything irrelevant that was said! Hahaha! Zenon-kun, would you mind serving the tea, please?"
The superintendent responded as if trying to sweep the issue under the rug. Zenon put away the resignation letter and brought the tea into the room.
Following closely behind her was—
"E-Excuse me! I... Uh... Have brought the tea snacks for everyone?"
It was Sovereignty dressed in a maid uniform. Holding a tray with great unfamiliarity, her situation looked quite precarious as she took wobbling steps.
"I-I see now..."
Haruaki groaned. This was what the superintendent meant by settling the incident. As punishment for making students faint, Sovereignty had to provide physical labor from now on and become the subordinate of Zenon who kept complaining about a lack of manpower. Earlier in the morning at the school gates, Haruaki had run into Shiraho and Sovereignty who had been summoned to school. They had informed him of the matter, but Haruaki never imagined she would be working dressed like this.
"I know about this outfit! It's how maidservants dress! But based on my memory, there shouldn't be that many frills, right?"
"...I originally wanted to say, if Sovereignty is unwilling, I was going to make her take it off even if I need to resort to force. But troubling enough, Sovereignty actually seems to be strangely happy about it. Seriously, how did it come to this!?"
Fear and Shiraho offered their comments respectively.
"Uniform... Uniform eh? ...Oh well, I suppose it still counts as work clothes in a sense... Maybe?"
"—Do you have any objections to my subordinate's uniform, Yachi-san?"
"No! Absolutely none!"
Zenon cast an icy-cold gaze, prompting Haruaki to shake his head frantically. Whatever, if the person wearing it had no qualms about it, there was nothing wrong with it.
"Hey Haruaki, what are those ball-like objects on the tray? They look really tasty, no?"
"Hmm...? Those are cream puffs. Wow, these look really high-class."
"Some local souvenirs from the place of origin. I happen to know a great pastry chef."
Haruaki had forgotten about one important matter.
He had forgotten something he should have informed the superintendent.
Indeed, "Sovereignty" "working" "as the secretary's assistant"—every single one of these concepts held troubling elements.
A sudden scream verified these fears.
Sovereignty slipped and her entire body tumbled forwards. Although she managed to stabilize the tray and avoided overturning it, a cream puff slid off the tray. In order to maintain the tray's balance, Sovereignty landed on her face, unable to change her posture in time. As if guided by some strange turn of fate, the fallen cream puff lay waiting exactly at her landing spot, with the pastry acting to cushion the fall for her nose—
Naturally, the cream puff was squashed while the cream inside squirted all over Sovereignty's face.
"Sniff sniff... Disgusting, it's all sticky..."
Sovereignty sat on her side and got up, blushing with embarrassment as viscous cream covered her face. Frantically, she seemed like she intended to wipe the cream away from her face first, but because her hands were still occupied by the tray, naturally her only recourse was—
"I'll just have to lick it off... Ah... Delicious..."
Haruaki rolled his eyes at the scene.
"Superintendent, I forgot to mention to you that this girl—is unimaginably air-headed. If one had to name someone who absolutely cannot be relied on for critical responsibilities, she'd be the number one candidate."
"...Looks like it."
The man in the gas mask shrugged as if he already accepted things as a done deal.
"By this point I can't ask her to quit. Anyway, bridges will be crossed when they come. Zenon-kun's appearance may suggest otherwise, but she's actually quite good at taking care of others."
As Haruaki watched, Zenon calmly walked over to Sovereignty's side and gently took the tray.
"Sovereignty-san, are you okay?"
"Ah yes... Oh, I-I'm sorry! I'm all flustered and in a clumsy panic, so—Oh no! This was meant for the guests but I made it fall and squashed it, and even licked it?"
"These cream puffs already included your portion from the very start, so dropping one or licking it is fine. Just clean it up afterwards. However—there is one thing I cannot overlook."
"W-What is it?"
Helping Sovereignty to her feet, Zenon stared at her with her usual super cool gaze. Sovereignty timidly shrank hunched her shoulders. What sort of reprimand would she receive? What kind of punishment lay in wait?
"Ah, sob sob... Sob sob sob... Umm, sorry..."
"No need to apologize. Don't move."
"Y-Yes... Sob sob sob..."
Zenon's severe glare flashed.
Then with unbelievable speed she reached out with her hand—
"—You forgot to wear a hair band."
Plucking out a frilly hair band from somewhere, Zenon placed in on Sovereignty's head. Stepping back to admire her handiwork, Zenon proceeded to nod expressionlessly as usual.
...In any case, the direct superior seemed rather satisfied with the air-headed maid.
Then the entire group had tea while Fear expressed amazement at the taste of cream puffs. Before they knew it, lunch was almost over and it was time to return to class. Just at this moment—
"By the way, Shiraho-kun, how do you feel about school?"
"—Nothing much, it's very ordinary. I really want to get home soon."
Just as she was about to leave the room, Shiraho halted her steps and turned her cold gaze towards the superintendent.
"Is that so? But that's basically what it's like for students. Anyway, skipping class is not allowed!"
"I got it, okay. This is punishment for causing student's to faint, right?"
"That's only one reason out of many—the main point is because your father wanted to you to return to normal life."
"...As if you'd know anything about that."
Shiraho's gaze could be described as no different from murderous intent. Nevertheless, the man in the gas mask simply shrugged in a relaxed manner.
"Perhaps I don't. Your father and I could not be said to be close friends. Even so—or rather, precisely because of that—I can tell that he cherished you greatly."
"I don't understand what you mean."
"Why would he drag his body here despite his ill health to deliver Sovereignty expressly? Was it really coincidence that he exhausted his strength for this undertaking? He should have known the risks involved. Although his reasons for doing it were unfortunately due to a misunderstanding... You should at least acknowledge that he pushed himself this far for your sake, right?"
"I only find him stupid."
"Really? I simply chat with him occasionally when I visit the shop, but never was there an occasion when he didn't chat to me about you, in his usual gruff tone of voice. Like 'that child has grown taller' or 'she told me to change the lightbulb' or stuff like that... All trivial things that would make me feel like laughing and ridiculing him: 'You even remember that kind of dialogue?'"
Shiraho silently bit her lower lip hard.
"By the way, let me tell you something important, because I think I might be the only one left who knows. That theatrical troupe you participated in before, your father must have gone to watch, right?"
"...Only the first time, that's all. After that, he never attended again. Hardly surprising, for that person never had any interest in me."
"Then you're wrong. After going back home, he angrily scolded his wife—in the words, your mother. 'Why make her do that kind of thing! She doesn't look happy at all! Let her go learn something she really enjoys doing!' Oh my, I heard that everyone would become mesmerized when they saw your acting skills... But then while your were performing with those acting skills, only one person saw your true expression. So, was that person really uninterested in you?"
Shiraho's gaze wavered as she turned her back to the superintendent.
"He is simply awkward in expressing himself. In any case, I hope you take note of this."
"...Like I would know."
Her voice sounded weak, truly very weak.
Without looking back, she simply raised her hand:
"Sovereignty, let's go home together after school. I'll be waiting for you in the classroom."
Then she walked briskly out of the superintendent's office.
Haruaki and the rest, who were left behind, turned and looked at one another, struck with an unbelievable sense of solidarity.
Surely it was plain for anyone to see the reason why she hurried and left.
Just as they left the superintendent's office, accompanied by Sovereignty who left the room to see them off, Sovereignty called Konoha back, saying she had something to tell her.
"Well then, we'll go back first. But don't you be too late."
Watching as Haruaki and Fear disappeared, Konoha turned to face Sovereignty.
"Umm, I'm sorry!"
"Umm, I haven't had the chance to properly apologize to you until now..."
Sovereignty bowed her head and spoke with awkward shyness. Konoha smiled in return:
"Don't let it weigh on your mind. I've already recovered."
She is truly benevolent to the core—Konoha thought to herself. The fainting incident happened because of circumstances that could not be helped, rather than out of malice. Although the act could not be described as commendable, at least there was no need to pursue the matter to seek redress.
"I have another doll friend who also drains life force sometimes. Perhaps one could say that 'life drain' is a doll's basic trait? An ability as natural and as potent as the concept that 'cursed blades are sharper' perhaps? So I'm all used to it already."
"Don't worry. Compared to humans, we are more easily affected by mental aspects. Although I suffered greatly, conversely, I was able to recover my energy just by holding hands... Ah, that's right!"
Konoha puffed out her chest as if joking around.
"Perhaps because this incident has left me with some pleasant memories, if you ever confide your troubles in me, I will always help you! If you are ever compelled to drain feelings of love from others, please take mine! Just treat me to a lunchbox as compensation and it'll be fine."
Perhaps because Konoha's words succeeded in easing her conscience, Sovereignty resumed a cheerful expression.
Then mischievously she examined Konoha's face.
"You've been in love with someone all along?"
Konoha smiled and answered:
"Yes, all along—I will not lose to anyone. Starting from a long time ago."
In the classroom, Shiraho kept staring outside from her seat beside the window.
As always, this space known as a classroom felt unpleasant, regardless whether it was during class or the lunch break. No one came to talk to her because she kept a stiff and displeased expression as she gazed out the window. Hence, even when the bell rang for the end of school, she continued staring out the window with complete indifference.
Sovereignty occupied her thoughts. To be honest, the maid uniform suited her quite well. It was very cute. Although Shiraho worried about the strange man in the gas mask, were he to engage in any sexual harassment, that secretary of his would surely protect Sovereignty competently. In any case, Shiraho was going to trust her for now and see how things would go.
Then she recalled—Her father. What the superintendent told her about him.
(By this point, even if I'm told he was simply awkward...)
Shiraho sighed, or at least, that was what she thought she did. However—
The girl sitting in front of her suddenly made a sound and looked back to gaze at Shiraho.
"...What's the matter?"
"Hmm... Oh, it's nothing much... It's just that the sight of you smiling, Sakuramairi-san, surprised me—"
I thought I was simply sighing? Involuntarily, she touched her face.
"Look, Haruna, I was right! She isn't actually like a doll. Although she's unbelievably pretty, I think she's just nervous! That's why I mustered my courage to talk to you, Sakuramairi-san, to see if I could help with anything! Uh—was what was said this morning really true?"
This girl was asking about the teacher's explanation? After all, a reason was needed as to why 'Sakuramairi Shiraho' attended school for a few days, only to be replaced by a different person. The reason given by the superintendent was relayed to the class by the gloomy homeroom teacher.
"Yes. That person is a friend of mine who loves to play pranks. Starting today, she'll be working at the superintendent's office. Earlier she said she wanted to get to know the school atmosphere and so she decided on her own to pose as me."
"Wow~ That's really naughty of her. So that's what happened. She must have been worrying whether she would be found out, so that's why she seemed especially gloomy sometimes. If only I'd known she was someone so interesting, I would have talked to her more... Same for you, Sakuramairi-san, I should have talked to you sooner. I'm sorry, because you're too pretty, I've been feeling a bit intimidated until now."
"...You can say it straight. There's a wall between us. I'm not good at talking to others."
"Eh, i-is that so?"
The girl who struck up the conversation began to get nervous.
However, her myriad facial expressions and indecisive cheerfulness reminded Shiraho of a certain someone.
Her description of "isn't actually like a doll" roused certain memories in Shiraho, prompting her to recall a certain person who had been watching over her until recently, but she could never see him again.
Incredibly, Shiraho found her shoulders relaxing.
"However, I don't dislike people like you."
That was simply what she thought.
This classroom, and the past—
That classroom in the past, where everyone looked at her as if she were a doll, was perhaps different from this one.
That said—who knew if this was because Shiraho had undergone changes herself.
"Woohoo! If that's the case, then I will gladly claim the throne of being Sakuramairi-san's first friend! So, as your friend, let me ask you the most pressing question... Please answer simply yes or no, do you have a boyfriend?"
In any case, a lover existed, setting aside for now the question of whether the title boyfriend or girlfriend would be more appropriate.
The instant she replied—
All the people eavesdropping on Shiraho's conversation (mainly boys) went into an uproar.
As if acting as a spokesperson for the hearts of all students, the bell rang inside the school building to signal the end of classes for the day.
Packing his belongings to return home, Haruaki found a student approaching Fear. This was the girl who finally came back to school after fainting due to Sovereignty.
After the incident ended, Haruaki and the rest had spread rumors about a cure: "It seems like the victims recovered faster if their crush visited them!" In a certain sense, it felt like a spell from someone somewhere.
Although they would not recover as swiftly as Konoha, refilling feelings of love was still quite effective. At least the rumors proved their worth as victims of the fainting incidents all returned to school successively.
"Hmm? What is it?"
"Umm, I still haven't thanked you... But back when I fainted, you were the one who took me to the infirmary, right? So I must express my gratitude. Thank you very much. Sorry for the trouble."
"Oh... Not at all... It really wasn't much trouble."
"Nothing of that sort! Next time, let me treat you... I'm really looking forward to going to a teahouse together with you! Do you like sweet things, like parfaits for example?"
"I-I don't hate them! Umm, I don't have them very often—Compared to the rice crackers and tea combo, I have no idea which would be tastier. I am interested in finding out, very interested!"
"You like rice crackers and tea? That's quite old-fashioned for tastes... Ah, I get it."
For some reason, she threw a glance at Haruaki who had been eavesdropping on the conversation. He frantically turned his gaze away.
"Oho oho? So it turns out you're both very alike? That makes sense, for your likes to be similar. Hohoho..."
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, just muttering to myself. Anyway, thank you for last time! See you tomorrow!"
The girl smiled teasingly and waved as she exited the classroom. I hope she's not misunderstanding or something—Haruaki slumped his shoulders in dejection.
Fear swept her books and other belongings from the desk into her schoolbag, murmuring softly in a voice that only Haruaki could hear:
"...What happened to that girl was clearly the result of my failure, but she thanked me instead. Does those kinds of thanks help lift my curse? It feels sort of like cheating."
"You did send her to the infirmary and she is thanking you sincerely. What's wrong with that, why don't you accept it? Let me clarify first, what's important is not the words of thanks but the feelings in other people's hearts."
Fear seemed unconvinced. Can't be helped—Haruaki supplemented his point:
"I think you might not understand, so let me tell something. I think you worked really hard this time! Accepting the superintendent's request and then receiving that girl's thanks—Also, even though Shiraho didn't say anything, I'm sure she's grateful to you. Using the measurement scale I just designed, your help to others amounts roughly to 'Helping a hundred old ladies carry their luggage'!"
"...I don't get it."
Fear burst into laughter.
"But compared to helping a hundred old ladies, I think doing something like this once is a lot easier. I am not a tool suited for heavy labor and I don't need to ponder strange things."
"What the heck are you talking about again... If this kind of troublesome incident happens often, what kind of world would it be!? Even if you want to slack off, that's not acceptable. Go and learn how to do house chores properly, don't be lazy!"
"I-It's not like I said I wanted to slack off or be lazy! I'll do the chores, just you watch!"
Grumbling with displeasure, Fear packed and got ready to go home. Haruaki then followed. Suddenly, his gaze was drawn to Kirika who was outside the classroom.
(Why is Class Rep making such a scary expression...?)
Carrying her notebook, Kirika was walking along the corridor in the staff block. Arriving before the mathematics staff room, her target happened to walk out from inside.
"Himura-sensei, I'm sorry to disturb you. There's a few things I don't understand in today's lesson..."
"Oh okay... No problem. Which parts did you not get...?"
The gloomy and introverted teacher asked timidly. After Kirika flipped open the notebook and pointed the questions out to him—
"Hmm—I see... These are rather difficult questions. Let's talk as we walk, shall we?"
Kirika chased after him as he walked nonchalantly into the materials reference room. Entering the room as well, Kirika shut the door behind her. Clearly he wanted to answer her questions in this location.
At this moment—Himura gazed at the notebook with a amusement and heckled:
"I see. 'Were you the one who released the doll?' A sharp question indeed."
"Keep your amazement to yourself and answer the question, Himura."
"Oh my, how scary. Although I really like your eyes, could you turn down the hostility? Researcher Ueno."
Unlike his usual timid attitude, Himura's face was filled with confidence, even to the point of arrogance.
Currently in this place, he was not the mathematics teacher.
Instead, he was someone who researched cursed tools—a member of the organization researching Wathes, Lab Chief Yamimagari Pakuaki's Nation.
Ueno Kirika's partner, Himura Sunao.
"Why are you asking this kind of question?"
Obviously, because there was a need to confirm. Kirika normally avoided him as much as possible, which was why she initially tried to dissuade Haruaki and the rest from asking Shiraho's homeroom teacher for a look at the contact network. Class 7's homeroom happened to be this man. Particularly when Wathes were concerned, approaching him or letting Haruaki's group make contact with him would be unwise decisions.
Nevertheless, she felt compelled to ask him this once—
"It was only due to the convoluted series of events that they failed to notice, but as a third party observer listening to their story, I found this question so obvious that it was absolutely ridiculous. If Sovereignty had escaped the suitcase on her own, then the intact lock on the suitcase would be very strange indeed. After all, she does not possess any special skill for escaping. However, they only discoverd the doll was missing after unlocking the case—With that, the implication was obvious, that someone had unlocked it from outside and then restored the lock to its original state."
"Oh? So what?"
Himura twisted his lips in delight. Is he toying with me?
"Immediately following that, the next point of suspicion that occurred to me was the Indulgence Disk. Sovereignty was deliberately vague back then, but she did mention that she heard about the Indulgence Disk from someone other than the man who inserted it into her body. Then who could have told her? In my opinion... You must have told her when you helped her escape, right?"
"Haha, although you lack evidence, your conclusions are correct, full marks! Because she was puzzled by why her curse sped up in progression, I explained it to her, kind as I am. I even told her as well: 'Places like schools are full of people harboring feelings of love!' —Naturally, this came from the kindness of my heart as well."
"Benevolence? Absolutely ridiculous. I am only speculating, but Sovereignty would rather be destroyed than harm Shiraho. She deliberately refrained from resisting when captured because of suicidal thoughts. Yet you took this opportunity to entice her with a glimpse of remaining hope. Stated more directly, what you did was equivalent to telling her to drain students of their feelings of love!"
"Zero marks for this answer. She is the one who made the final decision. Out of the kindness of my heart, I simply released her from the suitcase, gave her some information and asked her to keep my involvement a secret."
The doll was innocent and trusting. Since it was true that this man rescued her, that was probably why she upheld the promise of secrecy. Or maybe—she was afraid of retribution for breaking the promise. Indeed, it would be a poor move since Sovereignty had someone she wanted to protect.
"Why did you have to do such a thing!?"
"Haha... You ask me why?"
Slam! Kirika was shoved against the wall by her shoulders. She glared at Himura who drew near right before her face. In combination with his expression of complete confidence, his gloomy long hair now served only to highlight his transformation into a gigolo's appearance.
"You should understand very well, partner? Our job as researchers is to 'study' Wathes. I am simply obeying orders. Indeed, from the very moment the Sovereignty Perfection Doll entered Japan, it was already a target for investigation. A prime investigation target like an antique shop can't possibly be missed out, right? I not only watched her but also listened to what she said, which is how I knew about the feelings of love etc."
"You... Installed an eavesdropping device?"
"Of course. Then—when the doll was delivered to the superintendent's office, I was assigned a research theme."
"What research theme?"
"Simply stated... 'How will Fear-in-Cube react to a hostile Wathe?' I originally thought she would choose destructive means—but the end result exceeded my expectations in various ways, allowing me to collect a lot of interesting data."
"Tsk—For that kind of purpose...!"
Sovereignty and Shiraho were backed into a desperate corner?
One misstep and one of them would very like be dead now.
Kirika was just about to lose her temper when Himura's face pressed near.
"That kind of purpose? Painfully obvious, zero marks—As a member of the Lab Chief's nation, it goes without saying, doesn't it? Kirika, Ueno Kirika, the younger sister of His Excellency, our dear lab chief! Not everyone is free to do as they wish like you. That's right, you do realize that you are tolerated to do as you please only because of a certain someone, right? Someone who helps by tampering with your reports in various ways, turning a blind eye to various questionable activities, handling all sorts of mundane details for you? Yeah, that's me!"
"Why would I help you in all these ways? I must have repeated myself so many times, your ear must be rotting off? Kirika, isn't it time you became mine?"
Himura touched Kirika's skirt with his hand. Kirika remained expressionless without putting up any resistance.
"I think it's time for you to give up. Listen carefully, Kirika, you are no ordinary woman. Beneath those clothes, you are wearing a bondage suit like a queen, a cursed prisoner's uniform that cannot be taken off for the remainder of your life. Who else would love you but me? To love a person like you, forever stuck in a black leather outfit?"
Lifting up the skirt, Himura glanced down. Expressionless, Kirika did not resist.
"Do you really think a man would cherish a woman who cannot engage in a fully naked embrace? I dare assert: you will never be able to pursue a romantic relationship like a normal person. Indeed, not even that guy whom you're so obsessed about, not even he can possibly accept your feelings—"
"Shut up immediately and take your hand away. Otherwise, only death awaits you."
A voice that seemed as if it froze the air.
Himura did as told and shut his mouth, raising both arms with a wry smile to indicate surrender.
Tightly wound around his neck was—the ominous black belt—the «Tragic Black River». Used in the same manner as the previous owner, it was constricting the flighty man's breathing.
"Cough... Hey, that's enough... I beg you, cough, huff, I'm really going to die..."
"Cough! Gah, ah, arghhh, cough cough..."
Before a freshly strangled corpse could be created, Himura was finally released.
Collapsed with his hands against the floor, he coughed and wheezed intensely as Kirika looked down at him dispassionately.
"Cough cough... Oww... Hah, went too far, huh... Haha..."
"Ha, never mind, I'm not in a rush anyway. Even in the future, your situation is not going to change. One day you will give up and become mine. I will wait until the day you despair, but before that, I don't mind you owing me favors for now—In fact, please feel free to continue increasing your debt."
Expressionlessly, Kirika picked up the notebook that had fallen by her feet. Turning back, she said:
"Then let me say this first, dismantle all eavesdropping devices in the Sakuramairi residence!"
"Because it invades privacy? How nice of you... Oh well, this bit of thing is trivial. Seeing as their situation has stabilized, there shouldn't be anything new of interest. I'll just have to satisfy the branch office with regular observation reports. But Kirika, you should understand very well, don't you? This is merely hypocrisy."
As Kirika halted her steps, Himura made a sinister smile behind her.
"I don't care about the Sakuramairi home, but in regards to monitoring the important site, namely the Yachi residence, I will not back off no matter what—Unless Lab Chief Yamimagari issues a direct order. From the moment you decided to overlook this arrangement, you entrenched yourself unmistakably as a member of the Lab Chief's Nation, and unavoidably became my accomplice."
Kirika resumed walking again. Opening the door to the research materials room—
"A member of the Lab Chief's Nation? Accomplice? Absolutely ridiculous—If I needed a label, it would only be—"
As if telling it to herself, she spoke in a composed voice:
"The ordinary class rep of Year 1 Class 2, Himura-sensei."
In the corridor, Fear and Haruaki were making their way towards the shoe lockers when they happened to find Sovereignty approaching from the opposite direction. Rushing madly without caring about the gaze of onlookers, she braked hard to a sudden stop only when she noticed Fear and Haruaki.
"Ahhhh. Good afternoon, are you two going home now~? ...Yaaah!"
Clang—A rather painful sounding noise was heard from the trash can. Unable to stop in time, she was now crouching on the ground, holding her shin as she trembled—What a familiar looking scene.
"Perhaps saying this is futile, but I'll still remind you again all the same—You need to act more composed."
After finding out about the details of how Sovereignty and Shiraho had exchanged identities, Fear originally thought her clumsiness stemmed from being unused to a human body—But how should one say this? In actual fact, this merely her true nature?
"R-Right again... I want to correct my flaw of being easily flustered."
Sovereignty rubbed her leg as she stood up. Fear watched her quizzically and said:
"Putting that aside, why are you wearing a school uniform?"
"Oh, because I changed out of the maid outfit in the room next door to the superintendent's office. I'm allowed to wear casual clothes when coming and leaving school, but I think it's more fitting to wear this within school. Besides, wearing this makes Shiraho and me a matching pair."
"You promised to meet up, right? Do you know where the classroom is?"
Sovereignty smiled as if she found the question funny.
"I know it. After all, I did attend lessons for two days."
"Oh yeah, that's right. Looks like I worried too much... Then see you."
Haruaki resumed walking with an understanding expression. However, Fear suddenly thought of something to ask Sovereignty.
"Hey Haruaki, I've got something to talk to her about. Why don't you wait at the shoe lockers?"
"Hmm? What is it about?"
"N-None of your business! There's no reason to tell you. It's between girls only, so show some sensitivity!"
"Why are you getting angry at me? Whatever, I don't get you at all. Then don't take too long or else I'm going to leave you behind."
Seeing Haruaki walking out of sight from the corridor, Fear took a deep breath as if encouraging herself.
"What is it? Ah, I just thought of this, is it really okay to use 'between girls' to describe me? Though indeed, I am in female form right now."
"D-Don't mind little details like that! I have something to ask you."
"Something to ask me?"
Fear behaved shyly and awkwardly until she finally spoke:
"...I've learned a new concept... That's the feeling I get. This is all thanks to you."
"So I have something I want to confirm. Perhaps it's fine even if I don't know but somehow it keeps bothering me, so please give me an answer."
Fear paused again and bowed her head, hesitating for a few seconds.
Then she looked up again—
Displaying a gaze that seemed slightly fearful yet hopeful—
"Currently, you... Are you able to, from me... Drain that?"
"...Yeah. I'm not asking you to actually do it, but I want to know if you are able to drain it."
"In other words, you want to confirm 'Does it exist in your heart?' Is that it?"
Understanding Fear's intention, Sovereignty nodded emphatically and stared at her body. Fear clutched her skirt tightly as she wanted for the answer.
After a while.
"Well... The conclusion is—"
"W-What's the conclusion?"
Sovereignty smiled even more cheerfully and said:
"Maybe, maybe not."
"What? Isn't that meaningless? I really wanted to know the answer!"
"Perhaps I will know if I touch your body, Fear-chan, but I don't want to do that."
"...Meaning that you don't want to tell me?"
"That's not really the same. I am wondering whether I should be the one to tell you. Because it is more valuable if you realize it yourself, only then can you cherish it forever. I suggest you wait until you can be sure."
"Is that so...?"
"As an expert, if I had to say it—Indeed, that is so."
Sovereignty continued half-jokingly:
"So which result do you hope for yourself, Fear-chan? To have or not to have? You wanted to confirm because you're bothered by it but you don't know what it is, right?"
Fear never thought this far ahead. Instantly, she blushed.
"You... Asking me what I hope... Umm—I simply wanted to check! No idea, I don't know! Whether it exists or not doesn't matter, if I don't know then fine! Mmmm... E-End of conversation! You, hurry and forget it ever happened!"
"But you just said it's bothering you. Ahaha, looks like you have a long road ahead of you."
Faced with Fear's vigorous indignation, Sovereignty deliberately smiled with a shrug then started on her way as she waved.
"This might be necessary in the future, so I'll give you some honest advice—Perhaps the lengths of time might be different, but time is not the deciding factor. I will cheer for the two of you, so please try your best openly! That's all for now... See you~"
"...The two of us?"
Fear tilted her head and puzzled over the meaning of Sovereignty's words.
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