Chapter 1 - The Home-Returner Who Is Strange Somewhere / "Welcome home, the troubled little girl"
In any case, it would be best to talk things out once everyone had calmed down—Deciding that, Haruaki prepared dinner.
"Okay... Before we start the meal, something needs to be done first."
Haruaki glanced at the dishes arranged on the dining table and spoke. Fear continued to hug her knees, glaring at Kuroe, whining "ooh~ooh~" with displeasure. On the other hand, Kuroe, whose physique was even more petite than Fear's, was sitting on a cushion, accepting Fear's gaze nonchalantly with a blank stare on her child-like face. Concealed in her long sleeves, her arms were crossed before her chest. This imperturbable presence of mind was inexplicably reminiscent of Chinese royalty... Except for the fact that she was using her hair to surreptitiously operate a hand-held gaming device under the table.
Hearing Haruaki speak, Kuroe sat up properly—In other words, she shut off the gaming device. Then she suddenly extended three fingers each from both hands and bowed her head towards Fear while speaking softly:
"My name is Ningyouhara Kuroe. This unworthy little little lady shall humbly place herself in your continued care."
"Why are you using a bride's marriage greeting?"
"And with one mention of 'little' too many."
Haruaki and Konoha ridiculed simultaneously. "Really?" Kuroe looked up and cocked her head doubtfully. With a face full of displeasure, Fear said:
"Kuroe huh... Hmph, I seem to recall hearing that name before somewhere. So you're the one who lives in the room adjacent to Cow Tits'? Hearing your name, I originally thought you had to be a picture or something like that."
"Exactly as my family name suggests, I am a Japanese doll. By the way, the reason why I chose the kanji 'e' as part of my name is because I wanted to give others an impression as pretty as a picture."
"Please don't shamelessly reveal this kind of thing yourself!"
Haruaki reflexively ridiculed a second time. As always, Kuroe's behavior was completely impossible to read.
"Seriously... Whatever, in any case, that's the kind of impression she gives others. One of those 'Japanese dolls whose hair lengthens' that you often hear about. Come on, Fear, could you introduce yourself at least?"
"Hmph. Fear—Fear Cubrick. There."
Kuroe turned her face towards Haruaki, expressionless.
"Say, Haru, am I being disliked?"
"How could you possibly think you weren't being disliked—!?"
Before Haruaki could answer, Fear's burning flames of wrath erupted.
"Think carefully about what you did to me! Not only did you suddenly entangle me like that, you even targeted this and that kind of spot with shameless tickling attacks...! B-Besides, you even let Haruaki witness... Witness me looking like that! I demand lots of apologies and compensation!"
"Truly sorry about that. But when I come home and the first thing I see is an unknown girl, breathing irregularly as she brandished a strange murder weapon while roaming the house, under such conditions—I had no choice but to capture her before doing anything else."
"A strange murder weapon?"
Haruaki threw Fear a glance, who turned her face away with a guilty conscience:
"Umm... It's a long story. That eight-legged demon with the name that starts with 'S'—Come on, that's completely unimportant! In any case, the current issue is, this girl humiliated me!"
"Hmm. Since you are this angry about it, let's do it this way."
Using both her hands and feet, Kuroe stood up from her cushion. Walking over to Fear's side, she then laid herself flat on the floor directly. Fear jumped in fright at her sudden behavior.
"W-What are you doing?"
"This is my offer of apology. As compensation, I allow you to do with my body as you wish."
Thus Kuroe closed her eyes. Due to the directness of her attitude, Fear could not help but halt in puzzlement. After some time passed, Kuroe opened an eye while remaining lying on the floor—
"...Would you prefer if I took my clothes off?"
"Don't take them off! Damn it, what's with this girl...!"
"Fear, it's very tiring if you get caught up in her pace, you know~ The correct way to get along with Kuroe is to deal with her casually. After all, her actions are done on whim as well."
Haruaki's helpful words prompted Fear to return to the dining table, pouting.
"Ahhh~ Whatever! I'm hungry, Haruaki, time for dinner! Serve me the rice, okay!"
"Acquittal? Why thank you. I'm hungry too."
Returned to her seating cushion as if rewinding her motions, Kuroe held out her empty bowl as if imitating Fear. Haruaki and Konoha went to task filling the two girls' rice bowls respectively. As the rice cooker's steam condensed into a layer of mist on Konoha's glasses, she murmured with a tired expression:
"It seems like things have become lively all of a sudden..."
"Yeah... I guess this is the kind of feeling parents get once they have their second child huh~"
"Ch-Child. Parents. Right, for children to exist, there must be parents in the first place, so in other words... The two people apart from the children... Are like... Husband and wife? U-Ufu... Ufufufufufu...!"
Konoha giggled to herself strangely, her blushing face looking up in the air. Without wiping the steam from her glasses, she kept moving the rice ladle in her hand, unaware that the rice bowl in her hand was becoming a Tower of Babel.
...Oh well. Haruaki had no idea why, but Konoha did act in this manner from time to time.
All sorts of trouble would increase with Kuroe's return. And most of them—essentially all of them would fall upon himself to clean up... Haruaki thought to himself in resignation.
"Haru's cooking is great as always."
"Thanks for the praise."
"The shameless brat has a redeeming quality at least. But apart from this, he's basically quite shameless."
"And just like always, Kono-san's cooking is instantly recognizable with a single glance. This cabbage roll is stuffed with so much meat it seems like it'd pop out as soon as I apply pressure with my chopsticks."
"A-As long as it's tasty, it's fine, right?"
"But it is quite tasty, yes."
"Kuroe, there's no need to talk to her that much. Because Cow Tits is Cow Tits, so all she can make is Cow Tits cuisine. Eating all that useless meat every day, she ends up growing heavier day after day, so heavy that one cannot bear the sight of her. Then realizing her weight has broken the bed boards, she secretly replaces them in the middle of the night. Now that's Cow Tits."
"Why do you have to lie like that?"
"Kuroe, don't you start believing her!"
In any case, it was quite a racket. Noise flew incessantly across the dining table... Despite the most terrible first encounter, Fear seemed to have grown accustomed to Kuroe more or less. Except—judging from the way she furtively threw side glances at Kuroe, she must have many questions? Indeed, Fear should have noticed it. Haruaki could not recall if he had mentioned it to her or not, but based on the fact that Kuroe traveled alone—one should naturally be able to deduce the conclusion.
After the meal, conversation at the dining table suddenly came to a halt. Indeed, Fear must have been waiting for this opportunity to speak up.
"Say, Kuroe, umm... You've been traveling alone all this time?"
"Yes, I like it this way, to wander unknown lands. What about it?"
"No, how should I put this... Won't you feel uncomfortable... So if you don't need to stay in this home, that means..."
Watching Fear stutter, Kuroe seemed to realize something. Gently, she closed her blank-looking eyes halfway.
"Oh... There's no problem. My curse is completely lifted."
"S-So it really turns out to be true! You're different from Cow Tits' 'almost lifted' state—Is that right!?"
In contrast to Fear who had jumped up from her seat, Kuroe sipped her tea as she answered quietly:
"Yes. Cutting the owner's hair bit by bit whenever night arrives, using hair as a medium to drain life force, or using that life force to lengthen my own hair—finally killing the owner by absorbing their life force completely, none of that will happen anymore. For convenience's sake, Haru remains my owner but even if some other human takes his place, I shouldn't feel the same impulses again."
"Is that so... Really... Curses can be lifted..."
"Didn't I tell you before already? You don't believe me?"
"I-It's not like that! Just that... Finally it feels more real..."
Fear answered awkwardly. Then she suddenly looked up as if she had thought of something.
"But... Your powers still remain, right?"
"Yes, it's very convenient."
As if to prove her point, Kuroe's hair wrapped itself around and picked up the teapot to refill her teacup. This was very rude behavior, Haruaki had already warned her many times... But he decided not to nag so much today.
"From what I've heard, your kind will retain your original forms, only with the curse gone away, that's all—I remember I mentioned this before. Say, Kuroe, I've already given up trying to stop you from going off to wander, but at least keep in touch once in a while during your travels! I do worry sometimes!"
"Speaking of which, didn't this journey last a bit too long?"
Konoha asked with her head tilted. Really?—Kuroe tilted her head in turn as if none of this concerned her.
"Yeah. Especially after Fear arrived, many crazy incidents have happened. It would've been a lot easier if you were here to help. That's what I thought to myself quite a few times."
"Many incidents? What incidents?"
The expressionless girl answered directly with questions of her own. Haruaki threw a glance at Fear and scratched his cheek.
"Yeah, basically... Many incidents. They're over anyway, so there's no point to elaborate on them. Just be more careful from now on."
"Understood. By the way, I have a question—Haru, are you hurt?"
Kuroe looked at Haruaki's left hand as she spoke. She was particularly observant in strange areas of this sort.
"Yeah, roughly two weeks ago... But it's mostly healed."
Kuroe narrowed her eyes and murmured: "...'Many incidents,' so that's what you meant." She probably realized that these were real threats that created real injuries.
"...Then let's mend it a bit. Although it's just a small injury, having no injuries would be better. Give me your hand."
"It's actually nothing. But if you really must help me, then thank you."
Haruaki withdrew his left arm from his sleeve, exposing his entire shoulder. Konoha blushed and turned her face away, but kept sneaking glances over. What's going on? I don't think I have any strange chest hair, right...?
"H-Hey Haruaki, don't expose something so shameless! What are you doing?"
Fear was also blushing. But rather than explaining, it would be faster to simply let her watch.
Kuroe approached Haruaki, plucked several strands of her own hair and untied the bandages on Haruaki's left arm, using her hair to wrap up his arm instead. Then—
"Mode: «Satisfied Yorimori»!"
Haruaki felt something in his wound. A slight pain. But it only lasted for a instant and then it was replaced by an ambiguous feeling of warmth. The wound felt as though it were being covered by something like warm jelly.
"Woah... The hair gave off light for an instant just now!"
"This is the reverse flow of life force, thereby resulting in improved self-recovery... As a side note, results are better if you take this opportunity to warm up the wound. Just press something like a hand warmer onto it and it should heal up after ten-odd minutes."
"Is it because the excess heat will be converted into healing? I don't really get how it works."
"We don't have any hand warmers in this house, but even if we did, I'm not doing something so friggin' hot in this weather... Given its current state, I guess it'll heal up after a night's rest? Thanks anyway, Kuroe."
Haruaki had Konoha help him wrap the bandages again, over the the hair. Had he received this treatment immediately after the injury, it would have been quite a big help, but pointing this out now would not help anything.
"By the way, Kuroe, I was wondering just now, what's with the strange incantation?"
Fear's modest question prompted Kuroe to nod her head in rapid succession as if going "Great question." Although her expressionless face remained blank as usual, she seemed subtly delighted.
"It's very cool, right? Performing these moves quietly seems so uncool, so I thought up some names myself."
Fear's face seemed to be overcome with mixed emotions. Haruaki silently applauded her. Wow, that's really adult of you! How great you are, Fear! Because I gave my honest opinion once, I was subjected to merciless punishment by suspension upside down!
"Anyway, coming home means that your itch to wander has been satisfied for now? That said, Pops' vagabond ways are even worse than yours... Anyway, have a good rest now!"
Haruaki piled up the empty dishes as he spoke. Ah—Kuroe cried out softly.
"—I forgot to mention why I came back."
"Hmm? Why you came back?"
"Yes. Two reasons—which do you want to hear first? The interesting one or the boring one?"
Piling up plates and utensils just like Haruaki, Konoha asked:
"If we follow what happens in movies, we should theoretically listen to the interesting one first, right?"
"Indeed. Okay, Kuroe, I don't really get it, but please start with the more interesting reason!"
"—Ah, sorry, I refuse. I must force the choice to start with the boring reason."
"Then why did you ask us to choose just now? This makes no sense at all!"
"No, it's not like that."
Kuroe flapped her long sleeves.
"Because the relatively boring reason is: 'Someone seems to be after me.'"
Moving her sleeve, Kuroe pointed at the garden. Only then did Haruaki realize that since a while ago, Kuroe's blank gaze had been directed towards the "something" she now pointed out with her sleeve—
"It's simpler to start with this reason, because the person is right here."
"Ara ara, I didn't expect to be discovered before I could say hello... How should such a scene be titled, I wonder? Ufufu."
A voice was heard from the darkness of the night. It was a familiar voice, no recollection necessary.
The self-styled stalker woman from earlier was standing on the boundary wall. Long-haired, wearing a monocle, with watches on both arms. Unlike during the daytime, she was now dressed in a nun's habit whose color seemed to meld into the darkness. On her back, she was carrying a large musical instrument case almost the same height as her. Who knew if it were a contrabass or something, but in any case, it was clearly not an object for playing wonderful music.
By the time Haruaki and company got up and reached the veranda, the woman had already descended to the garden.
"Good evening, Kuroe-sama. I would like you to understand that this is an invitation as usual."
"That I know. But it was a different person last time, did you switch?"
"Yes, please call me Alice. It is a pleasure to meet you."
Just like earlier during the day, she made a deep bow.
"Hey Kuroe, what is going on? Who is this person? What does she mean by invitation?"
"To be honest, I have no idea. But during my travels, I kept getting harassed by similarly dressed people... I guess it's some sort of uniform? Hence, this is my first time meeting this particular person."
"Uniform? In other words, rather than individuals, they are part of an organization?"
Fear glared sharply at the woman in the garden. But as if completely oblivious to the pressure, the woman—Alice—continued to smile gently, as if bathed in holy light coming from behind.
"The Bivorio Family... That is what others call us. Within our circles, the mere mention of the 'Family' is enough for most people to understand."
"I think we've heard the name before? That person from the Knights Dominion mentioned it last time."
Glaring severely just like Fear, Konoha recounted.
"Yes, that's the name. These people kept harassing me, trying to persuade me to go with them. I sent them away and escaped as appropriate, but after a while, they would appear again... This kept repeating. Nothing is more annoying than this. Furthermore, they're polite to an eerie level."
"...Better than being impolite, right?"
Watching the face of the woman who was smiling politely in fact, Haruaki could not help but mutter. However, Kuroe continued speaking with her customarily blank gaze:
"Not necessarily. They were always polite—inviting me politely, stalking me politely, and even kidnapping me politely from time to time."
"We actually have no wish of doing anything violent. But if dialogue fails to make any progress, it can't be helped. After all, using physical methods of invitation is a type of persuasion... To be honest, my current goal here is essentially that."
The woman admitted candidly while maintaining her smile. Then smiling at Haruaki's group who had entered a stance, she put down the musical instrument case she was carrying on her back.
"Wait a minute, I don't get any of this! What is your goal? And what is the Family?"
"Well, simply stated—"
Alice inclined her head adorably as she undid the clasps of the case.
"—The Family... Is similar to what you people do."
"What... Are you talking about?"
"Yes, my wish is simply to invite Kuroe-sama to my home, that's all. To have meals together, to have tea together, to chat together, nothing more. See, isn't that what you were doing just now?"
Alice was clearly full of crap. Going "Very well—" she stretched her body.
Haruaki gulped. What was she going to take out of her massive case? A sword? An axe? A spear? Since she was planning to abduct Kuroe, it could not possibly be anything harmless.
Under everyone's gaze, what Alice took out from the contrabass case was—
"Dummy, don't be off your guard, Haruaki! Despite its appearances, who knows what abilities that thing might have!?"
"Indeed, appearances are irrelevant, it simply takes this form on occasion—Very well, salvation never comes without hardship, right? Let's hope that this invitation will turn out to be necessary hardship."
Uttering incomprehensible words, Alice grabbed the neck of the musical instrument and stepped forward, dragging the gourd-shaped instrument with her. At this moment—
"Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator», Curse Calling!"
A flash of silver leaped out. It was Fear jumping off the veranda to face off against Alice, already holding in her hand the drill transformed from the Rubik's cube.
"Hmph. Although I have no idea what's going on, Kuroe is my friend who shares the same dining table. I can't stand back silently and watch her get taken away... It can't be helped, I'm entering the fray!"
"Ara. Ara ara?"
An expression of surprise surfaced on the woman's brightly smiling face for the first time. Then she began to murmur to herself:
"Ara, speaking of which, I did receive reports on this... How truly surprising, this is too fortunate. Then how should I proceed now... Mmmhmm..."
"What are you mumbling about? Do you want to fight or not? Get on with it! I'm already prepared!"
Idiot, you don't really need to instigate a fight like that, right? —Thinking that to himself, Haruaki nonchalantly leaned over towards Konoha's side. Judging from the situation, he might very well have to wield the Japanese sword again.
However—Alice's next sentence completely exceeded the expectations of everyone present. Lightly nodding "Yes♪" to herself, she said:
"I understand now, so I shall give up on inviting Kuroe-san."
"That's too quick for a change of mind!"
"I already said a long time ago, I'd be grateful if you people would just give up. Has the message finally gotten through?"
"Don't believe her. She probably means just this once, right?"
Faced with the various opinions of Haruaki's group, Alice shook her head elegantly.
"No, I truly intend to stop inviting Kuroe-san. Whether by force or by dialogue."
"Yes. But conversely... Please allow me to say this. Fear-in-Cube-sama, may we invite you to our Family?"
Fear's shoulders shook greatly while Haruaki gasped.
Thinking back, the person from the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion they encountered previously had said—"Fear's awakening is a matter that concerns all organizations involved with cursed tools." Then it was not strange for this Family person to know about Fear. However—
"Why would you suddenly switch targets to her only now...?"
"Because we only received rumors that she 'seemed to have been found by someone and sent somewhere.' Until I saw her with my own eyes, I never realized she is the famous one—It's quite embarrassing to admit, but the Family is rather lacking in intelligence gathering ability."
As if expressing "How troubling," Alice sighed while resting her face against her hand. The total lack of tension in her attitude caused Fear to feel agitated instead. Frowning, Fear took a step forward.
"Hmph, you're switching to me now because Kuroe won't go? What a shameless attitude... But very regrettably, I have no interest in chatting over tea with a stalker like you, so go find someone else!"
"Don't say it like that. Could you please come with me?"
The only response she got was the faint metallic noises from the drill that was raised up high.
Sighing lightly, Konoha also walked down from the veranda and readied her hand in a karate chop. Indeed, even someone else other than Fear could not stand to watch without interfering.
"...So this is the situation. I have no idea what your true goals are, but these girls don't have the leisure to listen obediently to your proposals. It's best if you give up sooner and leave."
As Haruaki finished, Alice laughed softly as she remained smiling at the group. Lowering her head slightly, she narrowed her eyes and gently stroked the monocle on her right eye using her finger.
"True... The current situation seems highly unfavorable to me. After all, I've introduced myself so let me return for today."
Putting the contrabass in her hand back into its case, she huffed and returned the heavy-looking case to her back. Then she took another deep bow.
"Seeing as my opponent is the greatly renowned Fear-in-Cube-sama, simple suffering would seem to be somewhat insufficient. I will come up with more ways to invite you—but before that, please allow me to take my leave for now."
Before Haruaki and company could say anything, Alice had already taken off, her long hair and nun's habit swaying as she ran. Ignoring the unwieldy instrument case on her back, she sprinted and leaped over the wall with only assistance from her hand. After turning a final glance back, indeed she still kept her saint-like smile—she disappeared behind the wall.
"Listen to me carefully, don't come back ever again! Hey, are you listening!?"
Hearing Fear roar angrily at the other side of the wall, Haruaki sighed.
The whole incident was completely incomprehensible from the very start. Since the lady's goal was to take Fear and Kuroe away by force, she should be categorized as an "enemy," right... But her complete lack of hostility and ever smiling demeanor did not feel like an enemy's at all. What an inexplicably exhausting opponent.
"Seriously, what the heck is this...?"
Hearing Haruaki grumble, Kuroe bowed her head slightly.
"—Sorry, I've brought trouble to you all."
"Never mind, there wasn't any harm done in particular anyway, don't worry."
"Hmph, it looks like I'm actually quite well-known in these circles. Even if you hadn't led those people here, perhaps we'd still run into them sooner or later... Besides, judging from the way she fled, she most likely lacks confidence in fighting."
"True. I was able to use my meager powers to repel and escape from all the people who came to persuade me so far. Sending only a single person each time, perhaps their numbers are limited."
"Then there's probably no need to pay them special attention. If they come again, just drive them off again."
Kuroe eyed Fear and Konoha in turn, slightly closing those blank eyes of hers that were difficult to read as she spoke:
"...Thank you, Kono-san and Ficchi."
"Wait a minute, are you referring to me with that weird name? Why does it sound so stupid? I demand a revised version!"
"Gladly. What kind of impression would you like instead?"
"Mu? Well... I want something that sounds noble and elegant, conveying the impression of a proper and beautiful lady..."
"H-How could you possibly demand something like that!? Your brazen shamelessness is truly shocking!"
Haruaki smiled wryly as he was about to return to the living room—Along the way, he suddenly remembered.
"By the way, Kuroe, what's the other reason for coming home that you mentioned just now? The more interesting one."
Kuroe clapped her hands in a cliched manner.
"I returned simply because I ran out of money, that's all. So I plan on reopening the shop the day after tomorrow. I will be relying on everyone's help here—or rather, please help me!"
Expressionlessly, Kuroe glanced at Haruaki's twitching expression.
Maintaining her poker face, she inclined her head cutely and said:
"...Quite a bit of unexpected joy, right?"
The warm water from the shower flowed down along and beneath the leather. This familiar sensation that had persisted over a good number of years already. Very likely, it was going to continue to the end of her life—This was Ueno Kirika's way of bathing herself.
She slipped her soap-covered hands between her skin and the leather. Detaching herself slightly from the leather like this was not enough to trigger the curse—
"To what extent could it be pulled off?" She had never confirmed the limits. After all, it would be a life-risking experiment.
As if performing machinery maintenance or some kind of meaningless ritual, her hands began to move.
Indeed, to be honest, taking a shower was completely meaningless. «Gimestorante's Love», which covered her body, was equipped with self-cleaning functions and was capable of maintaining the skin's cleanliness at a certain level. Nevertheless, she still bathed daily—psychological satisfaction without tangible benefit, or perhaps it was simply meaningless resistance against certain matters. Kirika was self-aware of this.
As Kirika left the bathroom after her shower, a faint smell of wet leather entered her nostrils. A sense of displeasure towards this had already become her daily habit. That said, the smell would dissipate swiftly as a result of the self-cleaning effect.
Putting on a shirt over the bondage suit, Kirika sat down on her chair and coldly looked down at the notebook computer on the desk. She had gone to the bathroom and showered for a change of mood, so the document file remained open on the screen. Its title—"Report Number 41."
Sighing, Kirika began to play a symphony of typing sounds. This too, was performed like a ritual, beneficial to no one, an extremely dangerous balancing act of mutual deception. No problems, no noteworthy changes—Glancing over the file filled with notes of "nothing," she replied through email. Then she sighed again.
"Sigh... Absolutely ridiculous, how absolutely ridiculous..."
Her long hair hanging half-wet and scattered, she powerlessly dragged herself to bed like a corpse, lying down and staring blankly at the ceiling.
"It always feels... So exhausting..."
Her shoulders felt so heavy. Perhaps part of it was due to psychological factors—Kirika wondered in introspection. Her days had become quite hectic recently. Since class representatives were required to take part in the executive committees of the school's sports and cultural festivals, she had to take care of a mountain of work every day in preparation for the upcoming sports festival taking place several weeks later. After finishing that pile of work and crawling home exhausted, she had other unpleasant "work" waiting for her like today.
She could feel her body enveloped by fatigue and the lingering heat from the shower. The sensations of the familiar bed brought her a sense of sleepiness. Precipitating amidst this mixture of vague consciousness, questions escaped her lips in her haziness:
"Why... do I... have to do this? ...For what... reason..."
The serious class representative. A member of the Lab Chief's Nation. Her personal wish was for the latter title to be discarded like rubbish. But fact was fact, personal wishes were meaningless. Consequently, she possessed both identities but was neither at the same time. She simply went with the flow, playing the required role on demand, acting without purpose. What she wanted to do, what she hoped to become in the future, none of these prospects were certain—
She raised her arm to display white skin and black leather. Machinery maintenance. Indeed, she considered herself akin to machinery, simply a turning gear. Never moving forward, merely a part of the machinery, spinning in one place. A tool that does not move on its own, immortal machinery...
A youth's face surfaced in her mind at this time. The face of the excessively nice guy, the fellow classmate who did not mind whether she was a tool or a human, always smiling stupidly at her.
Phew... Kirika had barely relaxed her cheeks—as if waiting intentionally for this particular moment, the cellphone on her desk began to ring. Could it be... She hastily got up and grabbed the phone. How could this be? It would feel rather miraculous for him to call the instant she thought of him, but this sort of thing was—
"Hi, my beloved princess, how are you doing?"
Kirika hung up immediately without answering. This absolutely worst timing was annoying her. Soon after, the phone rang again.
"Hanging up so suddenly is really terrible, isn't it, Kirika? Zero marks for manners."
"...What business do you have, Himura?"
"Isn't it obvious? Of course I want to hear the voice of my beloved woman—"
"I am going to hang up."
"Oh no, I'm just kidding. I have received certain communications... Wait, you're going to hang up if I keep beating around the bush, aren't you? Let me stop with the jokes. This is neither a notice, a report, a discussion nor a request, but simply this—An order. Listen carefully."
"You're saying it's an order?"
In terms of position, Himura and Kirika were equal partners. Naturally, this superficial equality stemmed from her identity as the lab chief's younger sister. In actual fact, Himura's seniority as a researcher was undeniably beyond hers—Nevertheless, their relationship did not allow for either party to issue orders to each other on their own. For Himura to say this expressly, it implied special significance.
"The content is simple. Listen well, absolutely do not get involved with the Bivorio Family."
Kirika frowned and murmured. She had heard of the name before... In other words, her knowledge of them was limited to their name only. This was the consequence of her attempt to live her life as far removed from that world as much as possible.
"The reason does not concern you."
"I have never come across that organization. Asking me not to get involved with them implies... An incident where I could encounter them is about to happen, right? Rather, in other words, the Family intends to do something to those people—"
"You may speculate as you wish. But let me repeat myself, do not get involved with them."
Gulping, Kirika reexamined her own rules for herself. What was her first priority? The answer came immediately. Hence, her answer for Himura was already determined.
"...I am not obliged to listen to you, right?"
"I knew you were going to say this. But just this once, the princess is not allowed to be willful. Although it's a bit of a waste, I will use a precious trump card in my hand."
Cackling laughter could be heard from the receiver, as if someone were breathing hot air against her ear. Kirika felt instinctively disgusted. Although she really felt like throwing the phone against the wall, she restrained herself.
"...What trump card?"
"Blackmail material. To be honest, I really don't want to do this, but you leave me no choice! Simply stated—Princess, if you don't want your prince to know about that, then act obediently!"
Kirika was struck by sudden dizziness. That... That... He discovered it? It was not entirely impossible, but how did he...
"Naturally, it won't happen as long as you listen to my orders. Your secret... That ugly, disgusting, terrifying secret will be safe from the simple youth—"
Feeling cold sweat break out from all over body, Kirika roared angrily. She really wished she could kill this man.
"So this is the situation. Provided you continue to lead your life as normal, nothing will happen and the secret will remain a secret forever. Well then, please do your best preparing for the sports festival. As a teacher, I will cheer for you, Ueno-kun."
As soon as the call ended, Kirika finally had a chance to put her feelings into action—naturally, it was the chance to throw the cellphone at the wall with all her might.
Completely incensed, she glared viciously at the resilient cellphone which was rolling on the floor unharmed. The meaning of her pounding heart beat gradually shifted. From the distinct fear of her secret being exposed to—
"...What utter nonsense...!"
Clenching her fists tight, Kirika felt something other than fear swirling in her heart. Rage, shame and regret. Damn it! Only that particular matter cannot be revealed to that person, absolutely! She was helpless. But... Damn it...!
Amidst a vortex of emotions, a droplet of rebellious intent surfaced in her heart. This was a rebellion directed towards her useless self who had no choice but to yield to threats.
If only... Indeed, speaking of what she could accomplish by herself, there was—
Bleeding from clenching her fingernails too tightly in her fists, just as the contemptible curse healed her wounds—
Kirika's heart was consumed by nothing but single-minded determination.
The next morning—Before the gates of Taishyuu Private High School, a silver-haired girl approached a male student.
Fear glared severely as she looked up to the student, her lips twisted in a malevolent manner.
"Do you want to have a cut...?"
"We will provide the necessary sharp instruments, so don't you worry. So, would you like one...?"
Intimidated by her strange forcefulness, the student could not help but step back. However, Fear continued to pressure him with her gaze sweeping over his body as if licking him.
"You really look like you want to be cut. Cleanly and decisively, snip snip... It will feel liberating, I guarantee it will be quite~ pleasurable..."
"You don't have to scream. It's not scary at all, so there's nothing to be afraid of! And you definitely won't bleed... Hey, how about it? That heavy and obstructing thing on your neck, let us help you sever it cleanly into two, eliminating it at the root—"
At this moment, Haruaki extended his knuckles from behind Fear and clamped her head, grinding her temples from the side.
"Muhaff! Idiot, what are you doing? I'll curse you!"
"Wah—— S-Save me——"
Taking advantage of the opening, the student—with his shoulder-length hair—dashed into the school building like a fleeing rabbit.
"Oh no! My prey! Stop getting in my way, Haruaki!"
"Could you stop saying such misleading things!?"
"What! How was it misleading exactly!? I was simply persuading him, asking if he wanted to get a hair cut at the beauty parlor—"
"The problem is you don't sound anything like that! Your dialogue just now belongs undoubtedly to a tribal headhunter!"
Nothing of that sort—Fear pouted. In any case, Haruaki divided his pile of promotional flyers and gave half to her, instructing her to simply pass them out with a smile. Grumbling to herself, Fear began to distribute flyers to the students.
Meanwhile, Haruaki could hear Konoha's voice from behind.
"Please, everyone, the beauty parlor in the shopping street, the 'Dan-no-ura,' will be reopening tomorrow. You can obtain a discount with this flyer~ Come, thank you very much~!"
Smiling radiantly, Konoha was passing out flyers all around. As befitted someone who occasionally worked part-time at a bookstore in the shopping street, she was quite used to the task.
...Haruaki had gone to the convenience store early in the morning to photocopy the flyers and arrived at school earlier than usual to pass them out. Naturally, this all stemmed from Kuroe's nonchalant orders: "Tomorrow will be preparations. Then the shop opens the day after. So all of you, please help promote the event at school tomorrow!"
Originally, Haruaki was thinking there was no obligation to help her out so much, to the extent of distributing flyers. Or to put it bluntly, he felt it was a hassle... But then he suddenly realized something.
Rising food and living expenses since Fear's arrival + Kuroe's return home + No increase in Pops' allowance payments = Life in abject poverty. This equation was going to dictate their future.
Hence, Haruaki decided that Kuroe should at least cover her own cost of living given her independence. Since she mentioned that she had depleted her savings during her travels, this implied that any deficits incurred by Kuroe's shop from now on would directly impact the Yachi household budget...!
Consequently, as much as Haruaki and company lamented the world's unfairness, they still worked diligently to advertise Kuroe's business through guerrilla tactics.
"Hey Fear, how are things on your end?"
"I can't understand this. Why is the acceptance rate higher when I simply pass out the flyers silently...?"
Fear grumbled with a face of displeasure. Naturally, the answer lay in the balance of appearance and words... But Haruaki decided to withhold this from her for now.
"But a beauty parlor huh... I never expected Kuroe to have her own business..."
"It's already been a couple years... Pops and the superintendent helped out apparently, but I don't know the details. Anyway, she calls herself a hairstyling expert and her skills seem quite excellent."
"She manages the business alone? Given her appearance, do any customers show up?"
"Brace yourself and don't be too surprised. For the sake of convenience, Kuroe claims to be twenty-years-old to the public. An extremely child-faced, slow-maturing but exceptionally skilled hairstylist... Before setting out on her journey, she was already quite highly commended!"
"Commended... In other words, she was helping people, right?"
Fear looked into the distance.
"Yes. Perhaps because of her special skills, she was able to lift her curse so quickly without trouble?"
"Special skills... Really?"
Watching Fear fall silent, Haruaki understood what she was thinking. Smiling wryly, he smacked the back of her head with a stack of flyers.
"Hmm? Hey, what are you doing?"
"...You only need to do things at your own pace. Look, there's still so many flyers remaining, hurry and finish distributing them! So long as you avoid saying strange things, you will be a significant contributor!"
"I don't quite get what you mean by 'saying strange things'... Mu, damn it, what's with that shameless expression on your face!? Hmph, I don't need your reminders to get it done!"
Fear instantly rushed into a crowd of students but suddenly raised her hand and said:
Walking through the school gates was Haruaki's class representative—Ueno Kirika. Her skirt was unfashionably long as usual while her upper uniform was ironed straight and proper. She looked up with an inexplicably blank expression:
"Hmm...? Oh, it's you, Fear-kun... And Yachi... And Konoha-kun over there? What are you all doing?"
"This. You came at the right time, take this!"
Kirika glanced at the flyer she received from Fear.
"Beauty parlor opening... I see."
"Yeah, business begins tomorrow apparently."
"...I'll check it out if I feel like it. Well then, I'm going first."
Folding the flyer neatly, Kirika made her way towards the school building. Watching her from behind, Haruaki and Fear both inclined their heads in puzzlement:
"Somehow it feels like Class Rep isn't very energetic?"
"Yeah. Maybe she's not getting enough sleep?"
Because she had become very busy lately... Just as the two worried, a commotion began in their surroundings.
"H-Haruaki-kun, Haruaki-kun! We're in big trouble!"
"Oh Konoha, what trouble...? Ugh!"
Konoha was running towards him, carrying the few flyers remaining in her hand. Behind her was—
"What is this I hear about people engaging in unauthorized soliciting? Show yourselves!"
It was the physical education teacher (female) whom no one dared to oppose, famous for her Spartan teaching style. Always equipped with a shovel on her shoulder, this served as a strange identifying characteristic in the same vein as the superintendent's gas mask.
"Oh no! Fear, Konoha, time to retreat!"
"Uwah, what is it, what is it? Stop dragging me!"
A complete no-brainer, but from the moment the trio included Fear who attracted crowds like a panda at a zoo, the perpetrators were already glaringly obvious. Despite escaping the scene successfully, they were called out as soon as they reached their classrooms—the trio ended up receiving a harsh lecturing.
"Jeez... It's not like we were doing anything bad in the first place!"
Several hours later at break time, Fear was pouting with her arms crossed before her chest, clearly indignant.
"No, getting lectured was to be expected. I originally thought we could get away with it for one day but I was too naive."
"How could you brush the matter aside by concluding 'too naive'!? We still have flyers left! If we don't do something about this, the beauty parlor's plan for booming business will suffer a setback!"
Fear was unexpectedly motivated. Very likely, this was not unrelated to Kuroe's proposal of "If many customers come, I'll share some of the profit as thanks for your help!"
"Hey Haruaki, are there any other solutions?"
"You're asking me for other solutions... Well, there's no point if customers only come once tomorrow simply because of the flyer discount. We must do more long term promotion."
Muttering, Haruaki looked up and suddenly rested his gaze on the notice board hanging next to the blackboard. "X Days Remaining Until the Sports Festival"—the students' handmade calendar.
"Sports festival huh... Wait a minute, in that case...?"
Suddenly inspired, Haruaki stood up and walked over to Kirika's seat in the back. Fear also followed with a surprised expression.
"Class Rep, excuse me..."
Like a serious class representative, Kirika's gaze was cast down at the textbook for the next lesson. However, her face looked blank and her eyes did not seem to be following the sentences on the page.
"Say, Class Rep."
She must really be tired huh... Thinking that to himself, Haruaki called out to her again. Finally, she responded this time:
"Hmm... Yachi? What is the matter?"
"I just remembered, wasn't it mentioned during the last class meeting? The sports festival pamphlet still has space for advertising, so if any shop or business wants to be sponsors, we should invite them..."
Attendees would be flipping through the pamphlet many times in order to check the programme and other things. By placing an ad there, there should be a great publicity effect.
"Indeed it was mentioned before. But it's over already, the deadline was last week."
Hmm... Haruaki frowned. Seeing him like that, perhaps Kirika took pity on him—
"However, I remember hearing at the executive committee that the pamphlet's layout needs to be revised due to leftover space. Perhaps there might be a chance for leniency. But this means I'll need to beg the seniors."
Then crossing her arms before her chest, she added with a pained expression:
"Besides, this is an advertising space meant for fundraising and formally requires ten thousand yen to buy. If you're trying to beg for leniency after the deadline, you'd need to pay the executive committee at the same time as the request—Do you have the money?"
"I don't really get it, but me neither."
It went without saying, the latter speaker was Fear.
Paying by installments was probably not an option... Just as Haruaki thought to himself, Kirika suddenly widened one eye and said:
"...By the way, I happen to have enough in my purse to scrape out ten thousand yen."
"No, having you help beg on my behalf makes me guilty enough already, how could I go as far as to borrow the money from you as well... That's totally unacceptable. All I can do is rely on you without doing anything..."
Haruaki suddenly thought of an idea:
"Oh, how about this, let me do something in return? Otherwise, I can't live with myself... For example, I could help you with your work until the sports festival..."
His proposal prompted Kirika to raise an eyebrow. Looking up at the classroom ceiling, she said:
"Come to think of it, I remember we were allowed an executive committee assistant. I originally wanted to decline, saying it probably won't be necessary..."
"But Class Rep, you seem so busy lately, you must be very tired? After all, given my unreasonable request, if I could help you in return, I'd gladly do so."
"I... am not very tired..."
For some unknown reason, Kirika's words became unnaturally vague as she lowered her gaze to the table. Then as if to change the subject—
"So what is your plan? If you want to make the request, it should be done immediately. Otherwise, it will be too late once the pamphlet is done."
There was virtually no room to make a decision. On one hand, there was the beauty parlor's plans for booming business. On the other hand, Haruaki was beginning to get strange thoughts, wondering if Kirika might suddenly collapse in the middle of the current conversation.
"Hmm... Let's do it. I am relying on you. Deal?"
"Very well. I'll pay the sponsorship fee upfront first."
"Thanks. I will try to pay you back as soon as possible."
"Uh—could someone explain to me in simple terms what's going on?"
In response to Fear tilting her head in puzzlement—
"I am going to help Class Rep with her work. In return, Class Rep will help with the beauty parlor's advertising... I'll probably become quite busy after school? Most likely, I won't be able to watch you carefully from now on, so don't you go around doing anything weird, okay?"
Haruaki was part of the arch building team while Fear belonged to the dance team. Their activities after school were already different but because the workshop site and the practice grounds were quite close, Haruaki was still able to check if she was doing anything strange. But since he was going to be working with Kirika for the executive committee, he would be hard pressed to keep a close eye on Fear from this point onwards.
Hearing Haruaki's comments, Fear looked at Haruaki and Kirika's faces in turn, then began to pout unhappily for some reason.
"E-Even if you're not present, I won't feel troubled at all! It's true! You go ahead and help Kirika as much as possible! Rather, I should say, d-don't you go around doing anything weird yourself, shameless brat! Hmph!"
Fear strode back to her seat. Her behavior was totally incomprehensible.
In any case, Haruaki was going to become much busier. Preparations for the sports festival, helping Kirika, the beauty parlor's plan for booming business, and the incident last night that suddenly occurred to him—The Bivorio Family. Their goal was apparently to take Fear away but from Fear and Konoha's perspectives, they posed little threat as enemies and did not seem like a concern. Nevertheless, the matter of "being targeted" still caused unease that could not be erased from his heart.
(Sigh... Ever since Kuroe returned home, things needed to be done have increased all at once. Say, I wonder if Kuroe is actually doing her own part seriously?)
The "Dan-no-ura" beauty parlor was Ningyouhara Kuroe's castle. Located in a corner of the shopping street, the shop space was comparable to that of a small convenience store. The store sign, written in beautifully flowing cursive calligraphy, was also quite striking.
Standing before the metal shutters in front of the shop, Kuroe was staring up at the sign with her usual blank gaze. There were so many things to do. Cleaning, replenishing consumables, checking the equipment and facilities... All sorts of random chores. And most of these random chores required monumental effort.
"Ohoh—K-Kuroe-chan! You're back?"
"Yes, Yaomichi-san. I'm back."
The owner of the neighboring fruit shop came to greet her, followed immediately by the neighboring fishmonger—
"What!? Kuroe-chan came back! R-Really! Welcome back!"
"I have returned, Uomasa-san... I intend to reopen for business tomorrow. I'll be in your care."
Hurray—the strongly built fishmonger cheered and exchanged glances with the fruit shopkeeper. They made a fist at the same time.
"Hey hey, Yaomichi, this is not the time to be doing business leisurely!"
"Well said! Our shopping street's idol, Kuroe-chan, is reopening her shop...! How could we not help out? Very well, follow me, let's get that guy from the flower shop to help!"
The two men were about to rush off... But Kuroe called them back.
"W-What is it?"
Kuroe slowly blinked her blank-looking eyes and expressionlessly inclined her head slightly.
"! You're very welcome!"
For some reason, the two men shook hands and disappeared into the other end of the shopping street.
Watching them leave, Kuroe blinked. Next—It looked like there was no need to worry about preparing flowers or other chores. Thinking that at the same time, Kuroe lifted the metal shutters and walked into the shop.
After school, the sports ground was full of hustle and bustle.
In each class, students were divided into a "dance creation team" and an "arch building team." Consequently, their activities after school were also divided according to their teams. As a side note, each year level had eight classes which were paired up into red/white/blue/yellow teams. In the actual sports festival, each year level would present the results of their dancing and arch building according to their teams.
"Class Rep~ We're running out of plywood boards~ Roughly three more are needed."
"I see, I'll get them—Yachi, let's go."
Since they belonged to the arch team, Kirika and Haruaki worked on that side for the most part. Or rather, because the dance team had Kana's supervision, there was no need to interfere.
After completing formalities behind the school building where materials were piled into mountains, they brought the plywood boards (obviously carried by Haruaki) back to the corner of the sports ground.
In contrast to the arch team members who wielded hammers and saws while working in their tracksuits, there was a group of students nearby lightly dressed in gym clothes for the most part. It was the dance team. Slightly concerned, Haruaki took a glance—
"Mu... Oh. I-Is this right?"
"Your motion just now... Looks like there's progress... I guess?"
"...Hmm. From 'two arms moving together,' progressing to 'one arm not moving at all'...?"
Under the scrutiny of her classmates, Fear was still performing strange motions resembling Tai Chi. To go so far as calling it progress, the kindness of these classmates could probably be considered a virtue, perhaps? Haruaki thought to himself.
That girl is clearly quite athletic... Thinking the same thing as usual to himself, Haruaki carelessly asked without consideration:
"You're quite athletic too, Class Rep, why didn't you join the dance team?"
Walking in front, Kirika's shoulder shuddered but she maintained her pace and answered without looking back:
"...You really think I could join? In the official performance, I'll need to wear a dancing outfit."
Too careless. Kirika had reasons why she could not dress lightly even during summer. Cursing himself for his thoughtlessness, Haruaki ran up to walk with her side by side and said:
"I-I'm truly sorry, I forgot... In any case, I am really sorry!"
Kirika looked up and threw Haruaki a glance. "You forgot huh..." She seemed to relax the tension in her face slightly.
"This isn't important. Stop daydreaming and deliver these plywood boards to them quickly!"
And as soon as he ran back to them—
"They seem short on manpower over there, go help them with hammering the nails... Hey, there's no point if you don't bring hammers! Go get me two more of them!"
"Why am I suddenly getting this Sparta feeling? And you seem subtly happy..."
"Nothing of that sort. Move it!"
Mixed into the small group of people building the arch, Kirika and Haruaki began to swing their hammers. In the corner of his eye, Haruaki caught Kana ordering the dance team to take a break: "Okay, everyone recharge your energy separately—!" Haruaki tried to convey with his gaze to Fear that "the two of us are being worked to death here, let's all do our best!" But for some reason, Fear stuck out her tongue and made a face as she watched Haruaki and Kirika crouching side by side. We're clearly suffering over here, I really don't get what she's thinking.
Konoha's class was next door to Haruaki's and assigned the same color team. She was also in the dance team. Dressed in gym clothes like Fear, although she did not stick out her tongue, Konoha was pouting subtly. Turning her face away, she left with her friends.
"...Should I be sorry for doing this to those two..."
"Hmm? Class Rep, did you say something?"
In response to Haruaki's question about what she was murmuring about, Kirika gave a subtle smile that seemed intermediate between courtesy and shyness. Was she talking to herself?
Then continuing to hammer for a while, Kirika spoke up softly, her face still facing forwards.
"I should have said this earlier... But thank you for helping me."
"This is mutual, right? Besides, Class Rep, you've been looking really tired lately... Moreover, you look over exhausted right now. You should order others around on occasion and relax, or else you'll collapse from exhaustion."
"Over exhausted... Really... Perhaps a little. In fact, I sometimes do wonder why I'm doing this."
How rare it was to hear Kirika grumbling. Haruaki looked in amazement at her prim and proper face.
Discovering his gaze, Kirika glanced sideways at Haruaki and sighed with a chuckle:
"But very unbelievably, I feel quite relaxed today. Yes—very happy indeed. So don't you worry. We should work hard to prepare a wonderful sports festival."
Despite her saying that, Haruaki still felt that Kirika's exhaustion was written on her face. But since he did not have an instant remedy for its effects, he could only chat meaninglessly as therapy.
"Of course you feel relaxed, it's because of my healing powers! You can look forward to healing mascots modeled on me as prizes for crane games in the near future!"
Her reply was the same as usual.
She seemed slightly happier than usual. But also—
Suffering slightly more than usual as well.
Sunlight was streaming vertically, falling straight into the ocean.
Inside a warehouse by the seashore, a woman was watching the outside scenery through a crack in a slightly open door. Her field of vision was framed rectangularly almost like a painting. A canvas depicting the ocean and the setting sun. This country's sun felt warmer than the one back home. But seen from this narrow field of view, the sight was virtually no different from her homeland.
"I title this... 'Home, Seen in Foreign Lands.'"
Alice smiled and murmured softly. Carrying luggage on her back, she tilted the cup in her hand slightly. The sweet aroma of milk and honey entered her nostrils. In days past, this would have been a luxurious treat for her... And even now, she still enjoyed it greatly. But if one were to call her childish, she would feel a little hurt on occasion.
Indeed, this was a kind of luxury in the past. She reminisced.
At her first homeland—the welfare agency whose name she had forgotten, this was not something she could have drunk. As for her second homeland—the current one was a nameless church. Sandwiched on both sides by tall cliffs, the church seemed as if it were located at a valley in hell. Rather, one should call it a private orphanage. This was where she first learned of this drink. The occasional cup of warm milk offered pleasure beyond any food.
Hence, whenever she drank this, "home" naturally surfaced in her mind.
Ah yes... Home sweet home. Her beloved decrepit church. It was in that home that she had obtained everything. The priest had adopted her from the welfare agency, taking her and a number of companions to that place. Only there did she obtain a name for the first time and stopped being just a number. Alice. She learned to work there and had many encounters. There were many unhappy memories, and naturally, wonderful ones as well. Between the cliffs, facing the ocean, she learned the beauty of the setting sun. Furthermore—She obtained family.
Gulp... The sweet, warm milk slid down her throat.
"...If only we could watch the scenery together, drinking sweet milk, it would be such a wonderful thing."
If only she could understand—Alice thought to herself. Really, that was all she wanted. Rather than inviting the girl simply through force then convincing her afterwards, Alice hoped she could understand first before coming here.
But having exhausted her words, Alice did not think the girl could understand. Hence—she began preparations. A little time and a little effort were necessary. With this, the girl would be able to understand.
Indeed, there was no need for impatience. Tonight shall be spent getting ready leisurely...
Pondering over these matters, Alice continued to savor her homeland's taste as she looked out to her homeland's scenery.
After returning home from school, several hours had passed.
Finished with dinner, Fear rushed headlong into the bathroom. Leaning her back against the bathtub, she looked upwards and sighed:
"Ooh... Damn it, today didn't go well either..."
She recalled the scene after school. Despite trying very hard, the situation remained the same. She alone was conspicuously behind the others by far—or rather, after assessing calmly, she realized she was the only one whose motions did not resemble dancing. Kana and the others had comforted her, saying "There's still a lot of time!" But at the same time, they also said: "When the time comes, we might have to let Fear-chan perform an original dance alone." That would be truly vexing if it really turned out like that.
Why could she not dance well? Was she still unaccustomed to human form? She had already spent significant time moving about in this form. In that case, was it really because she was not human originally and just a tool—
"That's not right. Cow Tits can also dance. This is purely just a difference in amount of practicing! I just need to try harder!"
Splash—She got up from the bathtub and made a cheering pose by herself.
"Speaking of cheering—Kuroe's shop will be opening tomorrow. I have no idea how I could help, but she'll need to do her best as well..."
The sliding door opened.
"You just need to help welcome the customers, that's all."
"Muah! W-What? I'm taking a bath right now!"
The subject of discussion suddenly slid open the glass door to enter the bathroom. Naturally, she was completely nude with only her long, flowing hair to cover her body. Faced with Fear's reprimand, Kuroe simply answered with her usual poker face:
"I have spent all of today preparing, so tired... I want to take a bath earlier. Besides, baring ourselves completely is the best way to strengthen relations with someone you just met. Indeed, this is perfect timing."
"This is so cramped!"
"It feels more cramped if you struggle randomly."
She was right. Fear had no choice but to shrink herself into a ball as much as possible, submerging her shoulders in the warm water again. But after jumping in, Kuroe kept her legs extended straight as she leaned against the side of the bathtub. Although Fear did not get kicked, she could feel Kuroe's bare skin making contact with her thighs and shins from time to time.
"My legs are sore, so excuse me while I stick them out..."
"I'm very tired too!"
"Ah~ I knew a good soak would do wonders, now I feel like sleeping..."
"Are you listening to me?"
"You're really sleeping!"
Kuroe's snoring persisted. She really seemed exhausted. Feeling it would be a shame to wake her up, Fear could do nothing but pout and watch her sleeping face.
This continued for a while when suddenly a question surfaced in Fear's mind—Or rather, she was struck with an inquisitive sense of curiosity.
This girl's curse was lifted. For tools like them, this would be the most dramatic change. It would not be surprising for there to be special changes in appearance or form... Although Haruaki had said "there was no difference except with the curse lifted," he could not have examined Kuroe's body to confirm it, right? Despite finding no difference in Kuroe's appearance at a glance, Fear wondered if Kuroe's lifting of her curse would result in a decisive difference somewhere on her body?
"Fumu... Looks like it's worth checking out..."
Making waves in the tub's hot water, Fear crouched down partially, bringing her face quietly towards the snoring Kuroe, scrutinizing her entire body obsessively. She really seemed no different... Cheeks as smooth as a newly shelled hard-boiled egg, shoulders with water drops sliding down, a bust whose size gave Fear a sense of camaraderie, a belly heaving up and down lightly in the hot water. The skin covering her entire body was smooth and white as snow.
Nothing unusual in appearance.
Next, Fear decided to try her sense of touch.
First she poked Kuroe's cheeks. Very elastic.
Kuroe exhaled. She was still asleep. Then Fear patted her shoulders lightly. Perhaps because they were not very fleshy, Fear's palm felt a smooth sensation but with a subtle bony feeling. Then she reached into the water and turned her investigation to Kuroe's chest, belly and navel areas.
Sweeping her hand back and forth over those elastic and supple thighs underwater... Fear could not find anything unsual after all. Just as she was thinking if she should give up—No, wait. She realized only at this moment.
"Right, I guess I must check out this girl's 'most important part'..."
Just as she was about to extend her hand towards that place—Fear noticed a gaze.
The girl, whose body was being toyed around, was inclining her head with surprise in her blank gaze. Fear pondered for a moment. After some thought, she concluded she had done nothing wrong and so—she should ask Kuroe honestly.
"Let me touch you."
Several seconds passed.
With some splashing, Kuroe slowly shrank into the bath water until the water reached the edge of her mouth—
Shyly yet with a sense of anticipation, she looked up and gave her answer.
Haruaki's cellphone was missing. After searching his room for a while, he suddenly remembered he had forgotten it in the laundry basket.
In order to prevent an accidental incident, he knocked cautiously before entering the changing area. He already knew Fear was taking a bath, but the discovery of Kuroe's clothes in the basket left Haruaki's head tilting in puzzlement.
(They're bathing together...?)
After returning home with a completely exhausted expression, Kuroe had disappeared all of a sudden. Haruaki originally thought she must have returned to rest in her own room in the accessory dwelling...
Whatever, strengthening their relations was a good thing. Kuroe was always dead set on doing as she pleased, so Fear most likely could not refuse? Figuring out the situation, Haruaki retrieved his cellphone from his clothes in the laundry basket. "Done—" Just as he was about to exit the changing area—He overheard.
"Hmm... This feels nice..."
"Hey, don't move randomly! This is my first time doing this!"
"Don't worry, your technique is good... You can... Go a bit harder."
"Like this? Oof! Oof!"
"Yes, it feels great. Right, that's the feeling, keep going...?"
Haruaki held his breath. What the heck? What on earth are they doing?
His sense of reason was whispering in his ear, get out of this place as quickly as possible. However, his body refused to listen.
"Umuu... On my end, the feeling of playing with this... Feels quite nice too..."
"Oh that place? You need to use a more scratching motion..."
"Yes, that's right. Ah yeah, this feels much better than doing it myself... Fufu, Ficchi's fingers are so gentle. It's wonderful."
"I-I wasn't being gentle on purpose... Hey, are we done yet? My fingers are getting tired."
"Hmm... Then let's finish it in one fell swoop, do it!"
Completely immobilized, Haruaki then heard—
It sounded like someone pouring a basin of hot water over their head at once.
Struck by a sense of dissonance, Haruaki stood there in confusion as the glass door slid open immediately.
"Uumu... Your hair doesn't seem unusual after all, apart from its ability to move."
"Even if your curse is lifted, there won't be any change to your appearance. Thank you for washing my hair."
"Hmph, I only did it for confirmation, I had no choice... Hmm?"
The two girls' bodies were dripping with water. Standing in front was Kuroe, her undeveloped body delicately obscuring Fear. On the other hand, Kuroe made no effort to conceal herself and simply stood there blankly. Only her long hair barely covered the critical parts of her body, avoiding Haruaki's direct gaze.
After the passage of several seconds, a duration that could neither be described as long nor short—Fear instantly blushed to her ears and wrath consumed her eyes.
"W-What... What are you doing? Sh-sh-shameless brat! I'll curse you!"
"...You wanted to watch? Just give the word and I'll join you in the bath, Haru."
"O-Of course not! How should I explain this... It's not like that at all! I didn't do anything!"
"What is with the noise? What on earth are you shouting... about..."
Konoha entered at this moment, adding to the chaos. Why do I remember similar happening before... Haruaki thought to himself in despair.
In front of Konoha whose expression was frozen, Fear pointed at Haruaki with such vigor that seemed as if it would poke a hole in his forehead and said:
"Shouting? Just see with your own eyes, this shameless brat was peeking while we took a bath—"
Then Kuroe turned her blank gaze towards Haruaki's hand and added:
"Not only was he peeking but also using his cellphone camera, committing a criminal act driven by the impulses of puberty..."
"N-No! I didn't peek and as for the cellphone... I only came in to take it! That's why...!"
"To take photos. I knew it..."
"Why are you girls failing to understand even though I am clearly speaking in Japanese? This is too unbelievable! It's all a misunderstanding, I've done nothing against my conscience!"
"..." "..." "..."
Why am I only getting cold stares in response?
"...I didn't... Come on... Hmm, let's put this aside for now. Y-Yes, let's head over to the living room and discuss what we're doing tomorrow over some tea! At the very least, we need to assign roles for helping out at the beauty parlor tomorrow, right? Do you all agree!?"
Haruaki forced a smile and was about to leave the changing area when Konoha grabbed him by the arm.
Then solemnly, she declared:
"Before we discuss tomorrow—Let's hold a family meeting first."
...Family meetings don't need such a murderous aura, right?
Translator's Notes and References
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