Chapter 2 - The Visitor Who Disappears Somewhere / "Mama said, the culprit is me"
Haruaki had some idea that people treated Kuroe as a mascot, but he never expected how far it went.
The next morning was Sunday. With partial trepidation, Haruaki and his group watched the scene unfolding in front of the beauty parlor, the "Dan-no-ura."
"The flower wreaths are here! The flower wreaths!"
"These lunchboxes are made from my shop's food! Please eat these at midday!"
"Kuroe-chan, you can never have too many towels, right? Take these!"
That was the basic situation. People from the shopping street appeared one after another, either to congratulate Kuroe or to offer gifts to her. In a certain sense, she really was the most outstanding person in the shopping street.
"Uumu, how amazing... She's really treated like a princess!"
"Your description is a bit exaggerated, but I guess that does capture the feeling."
At this time, a man rushed over from the electric goods store opposite. It was an excessively skinny, glasses-wearing, middle-aged man.
"I heard that Kuroe returned? Oh no, I'm late!"
"Hello, Nakajima-san, it's been a while."
"Ooh~ As the chairman of the central shopping street's Kuroe-chan fan club, this is such an embarrassment... A-Anyway, please accept some batteries from me! Here, sizes AA, C, D—eh, and even some lithium batteries for good measure!"
"...I don't need them, but thanks anyway. Won't you get scolded by your wife?"
"As long as she doesn't find out! Ah, that reminds me, I must reposition the camera in my store to face yours, Kuroe-chan!"
Thus, Nakajima-san inexplicably went and turned the anti-theft security camera in front of the electric goods store around to face Kuroe's beauty parlor instead of his own store. This way I'll be able to record Kuroe-chan's lovely face every day! Just as he thumped his chest and declared it, Mrs. Nakajima emerged from the store with a courteous smile and dragged her husband back.
"...What a weird bunch. Haruaki, do you know them?"
"Only as names with faces. Although I sometimes come to this street to shop, it always feels like I'm dealing with relatives, making me want to stay away respectfully... See, it's the same with Konoha."
Over on that side, a middle-aged lady in an apron—the bookstore's owner—was chatting with Konoha.
"Kono-chan, you haven't been coming lately. What's the matter?"
"Sorry, I've just been busy recently... I'll come trouble you again once I have more free time."
Konoha also seemed to know a lot of people here as a result of her part-time job. In response to Haruaki's explanation, Fear expressionlessly went "Oh~" as a cursory response.
In this manner, the gathering of crowds came to an end while the opening time approached. Haruaki and his group decided to enter the beauty parlor for a meeting.
Objectively speaking, the interior was definitely not very large. The place was furnished with a cash register, a sofa for customers to sit while waiting, and two chairs facing large mirrors. The back of the shop had a small storeroom and stairs; these stairs led up to a room that served as Kuroe's second living space. Having already lifted her curse, Kuroe did not need to confine herself to the Yachi residence and spent roughly half her time living here every month.
"Let me explain our plan. I will focus on serving customers inside the shop, so Haru and you girls should distribute flyers and bring in customers outside... Once the customers start to pile up, I'll rely on Haru to man the cash register and take care of customers. That's basically how it'll go."
"I don't mind."
"Hmm. So all I need to do is hand out flyers like yesterday?"
"For today, other than distributing flyers, please also pull interested customers directly into the shop."
"...Although she said pull directly, that doesn't mean you should use physical force to drag them."
"Know the distinction."
"W-What! I know that at least, okay!"
"The beginning is the most important. In fact, were I a bit more greedy, I'd like to arrange more manpower and equipment—right, such as cute mascot costumes or the like. But there wasn't enough time and it's too late by this point."
Just as their discussion reached this point, a series of honking noises could be heard. A strangely round moped had stopped before the shop and the driver was wearing a cute, pink helmet—the impeccable cool beauty and superintendent's secretary, Houjyou Zenon. Sitting in the moped's rear carrier was a displeased girl with extremely prim and proper facial features, aloofly challenging traffic safety laws with her lack of helmet.
"Zenon-san aside, why would Shiraho...?"
As soon as they recalled the point of commonality linking these two, they found a girl dressed as a maid, rushing madly while carrying a huge crate, arriving slightly later than the moped. There were simply too many things wrong with this scene that one would not know where to start.
"Okay, we're here... Ah, uwaaaah!"
The maid—Sovereignty—found herself losing control, unable to brake her momentum, almost dropping the box she carried onto the floor. Her skirt fluttered as she frantically waved her arms and legs, finally regaining her balance with much difficulty. Then the trio entered the beauty parlor together.
"What's up, Zenon-san?"
"The superintendent suddenly called me, asking me to work overtime on a weekend. But my task seems to be a simple delivery—Please accept this congratulatory gift from the superintendent."
Zenon handed over a large bouquet of flowers. How did the superintendent find out about today's event? Haruaki wondered in puzzlement, only to realize Kuroe must have contacted him to inform him she was reopening the shop. After all, this shop was established with the superintendent's help in the first place, so it was possible that she asked him for assistance again.
"I simply followed along. Seriously, that man is always doing irritating things."
"Good afternoon~ Uh—He asked me to bring this... Saying 'no celebration is complete without this.'"
Shiraho grumbled gruffly while Sovereignty handed the heavy crate over to Haruaki. It was filled with bottles of alcoholic drinks... The superintendent could not be unaware that virtually everyone present were minors, right? At this moment, Sovereignty noticed Kuroe for the first time:
"Uh... Hello, nice to meet you, I am Sovereignty, the superintendent's secretary's assistant-in-training. You are...?"
"Nice to meet you too, I am called Ningyouhara Kuroe...?"
For some reason, the self-introductions halted halfway through. Then the pair gazed solemnly into each other's face, nodding at times, imitating each other's movements, touching the other person's fingertips like movies of old, finally—
'...Let's become great friends!'
They embraced tightly. Perhaps because they were both dolls or they sensed something from each other?
Zenon ignored all this with a serious expression:
"There is one more thing for you. He said it was 'something for attracting customers.'"
"Oh thanks. Are there any mascot costumes? We were just talking about them. Let's see...?"
Accepting the bag from Zenon, Haruaki opened it for a look.
Inside was a high-slit Chinese dress.
"What the heck is that guy thinking...?"
"Even though I don't really get it, I know this something that can be classified as shameless."
"Really... Wearing this would require substantial courage..."
As if she had been waiting patiently for this particular response from Konoha, Zenon took out another bag from somewhere.
"I almost forgot. Since the superintendent has offered his full support, it would be unbecoming for me to do nothing as the secretary. Hence, I have privately prepared some support supplies. This was originally a backup uniform for my subordinate, but I think it should come in handy on certain occasions. If you are completely uninterested, it is fine to ignore this."
They opened the bag for a look.
Inside was a maid uniform.
"Ah, this might be great! In fact, I found it quite adorable since a while ago..."
"...! Then please wear it, I'll help."
The instant Konoha murmured softly, Zenon's eyes flashed and she said: "Is there a place to change inside? Let's borrow it." Then she began to drag Konoha.
"Eh? Eh? Umm, I still haven't decided whether to wear it or not... Besides, I can wear it on my own!"
Zenon continued to drag Konoha along without stopping. Who knew if she failed to hear Konoha's protests or she simply did not wish to hear?
Ten minutes later—A flawless glasses-wearing maid appeared in the beauty parlor.
"Umm... Would this look quite weird?"
"N-No! Not weird at all! Umm—It suits you quite well, I think it's great!"
Konoha asked in embarrassment while Haruaki answered, a little intimidated. How unexpected. Konoha normally did not wear frilly clothing; the pure white apron also had a different design compared to the one she usually wore in the kitchen, thus enhancing the feeling of innocence; the combination of twin braids, glasses and hair band was quite refreshing; furthermore—very subtly, perhaps because the size did not fit, the bulge of her bosom seemed even more conspicuous than usual...
"Is that so... Very well. Ehehe."
Konoha replied shyly, seeming a bit happy. Zenon nodded with satisfaction as she examined her from behind. Throughout the process, Shiraho remained indifferent while Sovereignty casually smiled, saying "Now we're dressed identically!" As for the two remaining girls—at some point in time, Fear and Kuroe had gone off to crouch in a corner of the beauty parlor, hugging their knees as they glared viciously at the impromptu maid while muttering:
"Honestly, Kono-san's assets are too cheating."
"Rather than cheating, let's call it abnormal. Think about it, don't those giant pumpkins or human-sized turnips you see on television belong to the same category? They're simply shocking abnormalities—or let's put it this way, although they would amaze people with their novelty, stirring up a sensation for one time, ultimately people will grow tired and forget them. Absolutely."
"People like us are called normal. We are definitely not 'lacking.' Instead, we possess modesty and elegance... Indeed, this is the mark of a lady. Simply stated, our bosoms could be described as ladylike."
"Wanna form a Ladylike Bosoms Alliance? The only one flatter than me—correction, the only other ladylike bosom belongs to you. Together we will condemn Cow Tit's udders!"
Giving off an inexplicable sense of frustration, the two girls looked at each other expressionlessly and shook hands weakly.
At this moment, the shop's glass door opened softly with the entrance of a lady who was as tall as a model. Her only jewelry was a silver cross hanging over her chest which matched her casual look of shirt and jeans quite well. Judging from her dyed, rainbow-colored hair, perhaps she really could be a real model.
"Excuse me... Is the shop open? Or am I too early?"
Naturally, Kuroe responded immediately. Glancing at the wall clock, she replied:
"Although you're a bit early, it's fine... Welcome. Did you happen to bring a flyer?"
"No, I didn't. I was simply looking for a place on the street for a haircut because I suddenly felt like it. Is there a problem with not having a flyer?"
"No—because you're the first customer after our grand reopening, I'll give you special treatment even if you don't have one. The flyer is actually a discount coupon, but I'll offer you the same deal just for you."
"Oh really? I'm so lucky! I was simply thinking that a grand reopening was a good omen, so I came in for a look... Yes, looks like I made the right choice. Because I only came to this town due to work, I'm not too clear on which shops are better."
"Thank you. The 'Dan-no-ura' prides itself on being the number one beauty parlor in service quality and technique on occasion. Please come this way..."
While leading the customer with strange sales talk, Kuroe threw Haruaki a glance. Hurry up and pull in more customers—That's what she meant, right?
So that was the basic situation. Without any special mighty roaring, nor any cheering of raised fists—
The "Dan-no-ura" beauty parlor reopened feebly without a bang.
—Perhaps a result of the flyers handed out the previous day, customers arrived successively after the first one. For a dash at the starting line, these numbers were not bad at all.
During this time, Haruaki and company walked in the neighborhood to pass flyers to passersby. Of course, Konoha was still wearing the maid outfit while Sovereignty also ran over enthusiastically to support her, saying "Let me help a bit!" Who knew if it was due to the novelty of maids or the outfit's design emphasizing a certain part of Konoha's body, quite a lot of people accepted the flyers... In response to this supposedly good news, someone was quite displeased.
"Muu... What is the meaning of this!? Accepting flyers from Cow Tits but not from me! Damn it, her flyers are going much faster than mine..."
"Pleased to meet you—Hey Fear, what's with the sour look? It's not like it matters."
"Of course it matters! This is a competition to see who is better, me or her!"
Roaring back at Haruaki, Fear rushed into the crowd with reckless abandon. However, her irrepressible rage, unnatural smile and excessive forcefulness only ended up counterproductive. "Uwah, a foreigner! A super scary one!" Elementary schoolers cried and fled for their lives. But immediately afterwards, they readily accepted Konoha's flyers that were delivered with a gentle smile and a message of "Please come and have a look when you have the opportunity." Not only that, but as though something had awakened in their hearts, the students watched the maid disappear with mesmerized eyes. Witnessing this scene, Fear trembled in fury.
"Damn it...! Unforgivable, unforgivable... In that case...!"
After wallowing in displeasure for a while, Fear suddenly shoved her flyers towards Haruaki and ran away.
"Hey Fear, what's the matter?"
"I'm going to Kuroe's shop! I'll be right back!"
They were currently located a few dozen meters outside of the shopping street. Well, she shouldn't get lost at this distance... Haruaki thought to himself, and just as Fear promised, it only took her five minutes to return.
...Wearing the Chinese dress.
"Ooh... This dress exposes my legs completely... Whatever, since things have come to this, I don't care anymore!"
Although Konoha's maid outfit was quite refreshing, Fear in the Chinese dress was also quite a striking sight. Who knew what the superintendent was thinking, the slits on the two sides were outrageously high, to the point that Fear's hips flashed in and out of view. Naturally, Fear's thighs were on full display as if loudly publicizing their snowy whiteness. The front part of the dress was quite long and almost reached the ground because of Fear's short stature. But incredibly, this looked even more vulnerable than an ordinary skirt despite the dress clearly having more area of fabric...
"I'm not going to care, but—Hey, stop staring! I-I'll curse you!"
"Oh? If you don't want to be watched, why are you wearing it?"
Blushing intensely, Fear used both hands to press down on the fabric over her lower body. However, this ended up being counterproductive, only serving to expose more of her thighs from the slits on the side.
Fear remained struggling awkwardly in embarrassment for a while, but finally puffed out her chest and pouted as if she accepted things. Glaring at Haruaki, she asked:
"So... How is it? Haruaki!"
"H-How is what?"
"Basically... Compared to Cow Tits, who is cuter... No wait, how should I put this, basically... Am I inferior—in terms of power to make people accept flyers, how am I right now?"
"I don't quite get what kind of power you mean by that, but... You're not inferior, okay? As long as you work hard, the flyers will be distributed... Yeah."
"So we're equals, huh? Whatever—Then all that's left is a battle of vigor! I won't lose!"
"Uwah, wait a minute! Fear, smile! Don't forget to smile more naturally!"
"Yeah I know already!"
With the dress' slits offering glimpses of her thighs, Fear carried the flyers as she rushed off to search for people—Only now did Haruaki notice Shiraho who had been standing there with a displeased expression. She was supposed to be at the beauty parlor, so when did she come here?
"You only noticed now? Clearly your eyes see nothing but Chinese dresses, depraved human."
"Y-You're wrong! Anyway, did Fear cause some kind of trouble...?"
Shiraho's beautiful visage turned into a sneer:
"What is this trouble you speak of? Indeed, if asking a human, who isn't really a friend, for assistance in changing counts as trouble, perhaps so? But insolent fellows of that sort could not possibly exist in this world, so this does not count as trouble. Indeed, being suddenly photographed by a child-like hairstylist on my first encounter doesn't really count as trouble. Surely it must be a local custom passed down the generations in some land, one that I should thank from the bottom of my heart, isn't that so?"
"Your words are mercilessly scathing as usual... Anyway, I'll apologize to you on their behalf. I am truly sorry. Say, what was that about being photographed?"
"They were saying something about putting up a poster at the entrance that would give the viewer a feeling of 'I'll become this beautiful at this shop!' Naturally, the instant I heard them, I requested for them to delete the file."
"It would be 100% dishonest advertising! Anyway, let me apologize for this as well... And then? Why did you come running here?"
"Do you really believe that I am helping to rope in customers? Exceedingly foolish human."
Shiraho scoffed at the idea. At this moment, Sovereignty, who had been passing out flyers, leaned over and said: "Oh, it's Shiraho~ This job is so fun! I feel so happy when passersby accept the flyers!" Shiraho nodded and answered: "That's wonderful." Then without any explanation, she grabbed Sovereignty's arm, tossed her flyers over to Haruaki and started walking, dragging Sovereignty with her.
"Enough already, right? Let's go."
"Eh? But I still want to help more? Why..."
"Never mind all that! The secretary has already left and the task the man assigned is already done... Today's itinerary never included all this in the first place!"
"Uh—Where are you two off to? Going home already?"
Haruaki asked as he watched the maid's back recede while she was being dragged. Shiraho silently turned her head back sharply, displaying a dangerous gaze as if she would murder anyone who reached out towards them:
"A date. Get in my way and I'll slaughter you, human."
Haruaki could only answer that way. Sovereignty cheerfully waved and said: "Please send my regards to Kuroe-chan~" while Shiraho dragged her off.
Fear, who had been running about, happened to pass by them: "Ohoh, you're leaving? Thanks for your help, it feels great, see you next time!" Narrowing her eyes in response to the astounding exposure of Fear's running thighs, Shiraho grumbled briefly:
"...Have you no fear? Whatever, none of my business."
What did she mean? Haruaki tilted his head in puzzlement as he watched Shiraho leave without looking back, dragging Sovereignty with her.
Feeling rather concerned, Haruaki turned to check Fear's appearance again. She still looked the same, her snow-white legs flashing as she ran all over the place. For some reason, the sight made him sweat nervously. It must be the fault of those slits, high enough to expose the hips— Hmm, isn't there something strange somewhere? Only now did Haruaki notice, what was actually beneath—Because no matter how much he pondered over it, judging from the height of the slits—Then, could it be... No way—
Recalling the way Fear pressed down on the fabric, Haruaki pondered Shiraho's question of "Have you no fear?"
Then a possibility surfaced in his mind but Haruaki smiled with a twitching face and immediately abandoned the notion. Impossible, totally impossible. It could not be true no matter what. Shiraho must have taught Fear some kind of secret technique which boys could never imagine. Surely that must be the case.
Under these conditions, Haruaki stopped pondering about the mysterious slits and resumed passing out flyers again. But from this point onwards, he became extremely concerned with Fear's movements.
Noon came and went imperceptibly and it was the appointed time for the group to gather provisionally. Fear laughed eerily as she went "Fufufu, I gave out so many!" Konoha examined her and murmured: "What slender legs... No, the legs of little children are supposed to be slender." Together with these two girls, Haruaki returned to the "Dan-no-ura."
They were confronted with an astounding sight as soon as they reached the shop's entrance. A photo of Shiraho, the indisputable super beauty, had been magnified and pasted on the door. Written on the poster were the words: "I frequently patronize the Dan-no-ura. You too, can become beautiful here!"—Haruaki felt that it relied mostly on selling appearances. Given what Shiraho had said, this picture was most likely taken in secret after she asked them to delete the first one, and then magnified at a photo finishing shop.
Feeling speechless towards Kuroe's business spirit, Haruaki entered the beauty parlor to find the sofa full of customers lined up in waiting. It looked like Shiraho's photo was quite effective in drawing customers.
"Welcome back, let's eat upstairs. After the meal, Haru, could you please help man the cash register?"
Busy with the scissors, Kuroe threw a glance at Haruaki and the girls. In order not to disturb her work, Haruaki and company acknowledged her words through action by making their way towards the room on the second floor.
But at this moment—something happened.
In a certain sense, what happened was only natural. As a shop opened for business, it was only natural for customers to enter the door. Simple as that. However—
"Ara ara, what booming business... I would title this 'A Rebirth Full of Blessing.' Yes~ So all I need to do is register my name here?"
Indeed, the customer was the suspicious stalker woman.
"...What kind of haircut would you like?"
"Just trim it suitably. Whether length or style, I leave everything completely in your hands."
"Since you've kept your hair this long already, cutting it short would be a shame. How about trimming it to waist length?"
"Let's do that."
Alice smiled back affectionately through the mirror. Kuroe sighed and began to take her scissors to task, producing the faint and pleasant sounds from the severing of hair by metal.
"Jeez, how did it come to this...?"
"We can't help it. Kuroe said it was fine."
Despite answering the displeased Fear in this manner, Haruaki harbored doubts himself. Like the way she suddenly tied up Fear in bondage, Kuroe had a belligerent side to her and Haruaki had not expected her to cut the enemy's hair so obediently.
(Hmm... Perhaps in front of other customers, we can't really drive her away just like that.)
Haruaki and the rest kept the door leading to the back of the shop ajar and peeked through the gap to observe Kuroe and Alice's situation. She held true to her words of "Today I am simply a customer" that she had declared when Haruaki and the girls readied themselves for battle in response to her arrival. Instead of the nun's habit, she was wearing casual clothing today. Neither was she carrying the large musical instrument case. While waiting in line, she simply flipped through fashion magazines curiously to pass time, suddenly looking up to smile at Fear and others from time to time.
"Is she planning something?"
"Doesn't look like it... Perhaps because we are monitoring things here, she might not do anything."
Fear and Konoha whispered among themselves. Meanwhile, Kuroe and Alice's conversation could be heard faintly.
"It's been so long since I've let someone cut my hair. It feels so delightful."
"...Really? But your hair is so pretty, cutting it feels delightful to me too."
As the two chatted away casually, Kuroe worked nonstop while Alice's smile remained constant. This continued for dozens of minutes. Then for the first time, Alice stopped smiling.
"I can't believe it, she fell asleep!"
"Or should I point out her total lack of danger awareness? ...I really don't get this person."
"The fact that she hasn't really done anything special so we are not motivated to take this opportunity to strike back... If she actually reasoned in this manner, she'd be quite a character. But if she didn't consider anything at all, then she's nothing more than a fool."
In truth, Haruaki and his companions were quite irritated. Alice's stated goals were to "Please come with me no matter what, should you refuse, I would have to resort to force." These were undoubtedly the words of an "enemy." However—currently nodding off to sleep while her hair was being cut, she really did not give off any hostile impression. All one could see was a gentle, calm and composed lady who smiled appropriately. Nothing more than that.
All sorts of questions occupied Haruaki's mind. Was she really an enemy? Targeting Kuroe earlier and now intending to abduct Fear instead, was there some sort of underlying reason? And if so, what kind of reason was it? Ultimately, what sort of organization was the Bivorio Family? "An organization greatly resembling the Yachi family"—Was Alice's explanation really true? —Haruaki could not understand any of this.
"...Hmm. Ara ara—Did I fall asleep? My apologies, it was too comfortable."
"As a matter of procedure, please check your hairstyle."
Kuroe held a mirror behind Alice, allowing her to check the back view. After a simple glance at her hair which had been shortened by a few dozen centimeters, Alice happily nodded affirmatively:
"Wow, the hair ends look much prettier than before! As expected of Kuroe-sama."
"Thanks for the praise—Haru, would you please prepare her bill. Hmm... Next customer please."
"O-Oh okay, got it."
There were many customers in line after Alice. Giving Kuroe a sideways glance as she busied herself serving the next customer, Haruaki walked over to the cash register. Fear and Konoha also followed him nonchalantly.
"Keep the change. Think of this as a celebratory gift for the opening."
"...No, you're just a customer. We can't accept that from customers. Here, this is your change."
"Really? Then see you next time—especially Fear-sama."
Don't come again—Fear almost shouted out, but suppressed herself seeing as there were other customers on the sofa. Smiling tenderly as she watched Fear pout, Alice nodded lightly and left the shop.
She could not be allowed to escape just like that. Their hands were tied while inside the shop, but there were still a mountain of questions to ask. Haruaki, Fear and Konoha rushed out the door together—
"W-Wait up! Let's talk!"
"Ara ara, what would you like to talk about? Have you finally decided to come over to us?"
"Hmph—Of course not! I just want to learn about your goals in greater detail. Not something ludicrous like 'having tea together' but your real goals!"
As Alice looked back over her shoulder, her monocle flashed brightly. Her eyes looked as though she were gazing at a troublesome and willful child.
"I don't consider my words ludicrous... My utmost apologies. I fear that now is not the right time, so if you want details, please wait until—"
"Time? I am asking you right now what you mean! Even if it means resorting to force—"
"Hey, hold your horses, Fear! Could you pay a little attention to the bystanders!?"
Haruaki's reminder caused Fear to gnash her teeth as she halted her hand that was reaching into the pocket of her Chinese dress.
"...There's no need to be impatient. You'll know eventually. That is why I am here."
"Since we'll know eventually, telling us now is the same, isn't it?"
Beneath Konoha's severe glare, Alice shook her head gently:
"Not exactly. There exists something known as timing—Oh, but I suddenly remembered something. It would be troublesome should you get the wrong idea, so allow me to state this first for the record."
Then looking at Haruaki, Konoha and Fear in turn, she declared unambiguously:
"The culprit is me."
A totally incomprehensible line.
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"This too, is something you'll understand eventually... Well then, I shall take my leave here today. Please convey thanks to Kuroe-sama on my behalf."
Saying that on her own, she left. Haruaki wanted to chase after her, but a new customer happened to arrive, asking "Excuse, how long would it take if I queued right now?" Distracted for a few seconds to handle the customer's question, Haruaki discovered Alice had disappeared from sight by the time he turned his attention back to her. Although Fear and Konoha went searching, they returned quickly, unable to find clues.
The culprit is me—What did this sentence mean? What was going to happen next? Or perhaps, had some kind of incident occurred already? A major incident that would require the existence of a "culprit"—
For quite a while, Haruaki silently gazed into the distance where Alice had disappeared.
In the depths of his heart, he felt a vague and ambiguous but undeniable and inexplicable eeriness.
(Since I was getting a haircut there anyway, I should have asked to cut it shorter...)
I'll just have to go again in the next few days—She thought to herself. After all, she would definitely enjoy it.
Despite only cutting off a few dozen centimeters, her hair felt much lighter than before. Feeling refreshed, Alice strolled as she allowed her shortened hair to flutter in the wind. Her visit to the shop was originally intended as a small surprise, but she had not expected a long overdue haircut to feel so pleasurable.
(Yes, it really has been quite a while since my last haircut...)
She recalled the memories from that "home" when friends had helped her cut her hair. It was so very long ago. That girl who existed no longer, what was her name? E... Yes, Elena. A girl with beautiful blonde hair who was adopted together with Alice from the agency. Of course Alice remembered her, because she was family too.
They had often played together. Having learnt how to draw using fragments of charcoal, Alice would often find Elena behind her, peeking at what she was drawing. Then she would ask... How should this picture be titled, Alice?
Thinking back now, were her drawings so ugly that they could not be recognized without a title? This would hardly be surprising, seeing as they were the drawings of a child. Also, there were no colors except for the black of charcoal. Photography had become very convenient in recent times, with cameras offering far more functionality than paintbrushes. However, it still felt nice to pick up a paintbrush now and then.
"Ah yes... It would be great to ask her to be my model. Drinking hot milk as I invite her to sit on a chair in the garden..."
Her thoughts wandering aimlessly, Alice was murmuring to herself. She could not help but smile wryly as soon as she realized what she was doing.
These thoughts were premature. Next, there were clearly many tasks which needed to be done first.
Indeed, the preliminary work for preparations were complete. Next she must take to task the direct preparations for inviting the girl.
Alice continued to walk with light footsteps. She discovered a roadside cafe with a nice atmosphere. Did cafes in this country offer hot milk? What a worrying question.
But first, there was work. She shall visit a cafe after her task was done!
The task was very simple but required precise execution and did not allow for carelessness.
(Very well, time to start what I need to do!)
In order to settle down, she warned herself. Walking without pause, she made her way towards the warehouse serving as her secret base. The tools must be prepared first. She continued to tell herself:
Very well, let suffering be granted! Very well, let drama be pursued! Very well, let understanding be whispered!
Very well—let me become the culprit!
After eight in the evening, when the "Dan-no-ura" closed for the day, a simple celebration party was held with the shopkeepers in the shopping street. A few long tables were moved into the shop where food and drinks had been prepared in the style of a buffet party.
"Allow me to express my gratitude, everyone. It's all thanks to your efforts that so many customers came today. I'll try my best from now on, so please treat me well. So... Cheers!"
Spearheaded by Kuroe, the scene instantly became lively and bustling. With the superintendent's gift of alcoholic drinks opened generously, the adult-oriented smell of alcohol filled the narrow confines of the shop.
Drinking juice from a paper cup, Fear leaned her back against the wall, already changed out of the Chinese dress. She was thinking about the matter of Alice—The culprit is me. What did she intend by saying that?
Incomprehensible. However—In a certain sense, it did not matter at all. If anything happened to threaten her companions, she would put a stop to it; if it turned out to be harmless, she would simply ignore it. Besides, no matter what threats the enemy made, Fear had no intention of going along with that woman. Alice's efforts were meaningless from the very start.
Fear's home was here. She would live here in order to lift her curse. This was already decided.
Indeed... To lift her curse.
Fear looked up. Konoha, who had mentioned on their first encounter that her curse was almost lifted, was currently harassing Haruaki with tears glistening in her eyes.
"Hey, what are you thinking, what are you thinking right now, Haruaki-kun? Do you wonder if that woman makes my character redundant!? Or perhaps you are thinking, wouldn't life be wonderful to be embraced by someone like that, a gentle big sister type who speaks using polite language!?"
"Wait... What are you talking about? Hmm, I guess her manner of speaking does resemble yours a bit, but that woman is someone to be wary of, why would anyone want to be embraced by her..."
"Liar! While we were monitoring her, that was what your eyes were saying, Haruaki-kun! Oooooh~ Am I no good? Clearly I am always close by your side, caring for you, hoping to embrace you tightly... How heartbreaking. Too heartbreaking! And come on, this place is too hot! You're not going to be satisfied unless I strip, is that it!?"
Go, sistah, go go go! An irresponsible clamor started up in the surroundings.
"Wah—! Woah, I was about to ask why you're acting weird... But isn't that souchuu highball in your cup!? Did you mistakenly drink that by accident or on purpose!?"
"Ooh... Another refill please... Is there any plum brandy here~ I love that stuff."
"No! A-Absolutely no plum brandy for you! I already know you enter a special drunken madness whenever you drink that!"
"Eh—That's not true... Well then, top or bottom, which would you find more exciting to strip?"
"Don't strip at all!"
What a commotion. Meanwhile, Kuroe, whose curse was already lifted, was—
"Kawasaki-san, the lunchboxes were very tasty, thank you."
"R-Really? I'm so glad to hear that from you, Kuroe-chan! Would you say that my shop's food was the most valuable contribution this time? I-If that's the case, please rub my head as a reward...!"
"You're the greatest. You're the greatest."
"Ah... So soothing... You look even younger than my kid at home, how unbelievable..."
"Oi! That's totally unfair, Kawasaki bastard! Say, Kuroe-chan, do remember that food is gone once it's eaten. But beautiful flowers not only soothe customers' souls but also keep their gazes captured, so my flower shop's contributions should be the most...!"
"Hey, Kuroe-chan said just now that my shop's eggplant with miso beancurd is very delicious! So after a day's work, the one responsible for the most soothing is me instead!"
Surrounded by the biggest crowd, Kuroe seemed to be slightly relaxing her always expressionless face, apparently delighted. Everyone was chatting happily while smiling in bliss.
It looked like a joyous occasion. So this was a social circle of "humans." Here, Kuroe "who was originally a doll" had naturally become a part of them, getting along in harmony. This made Fear feel... exceptionally—
(If I lift my curse and become even more human than now... Will I be able to smile like that? To be able to live among crowds naturally like that?)
Fear admitted she was quite impressed.
At the same time, she was also quite jealous.
(Jealousy? How inane.)
But before her eyes was a wonderful sight that she desired very very much. However, it was something she could not obtain the way she was currently. And whether or not she could achieve it in the future, she had no idea—Well then, the sight of something enjoyed by someone else and this tightening feeling in her chest, perhaps calling it jealousy was right after all.
"...Fear? What's with you, why are you staring off blankly over here?"
Haruaki approached at this time. Fear turned back to find Konoha dozing off, hugging a table.
"Umm... Nothing much."
"How strange, I was expecting you to rush over for authentic rice crackers from the Japanese snacks shop? And there's so many things I don't think you've ever eaten before. They'll be gone if you don't hurry, you know?"
"You're... right. Go over and just pick out some rice crackers and the like for me."
"Go get them yourself, don't be so lazy... Oh I see, you..."
Haruaki made a face as if he realized something, then sighed and scratched his head.
"I see what's going on now... Okay, see as that's the case! Shoo shoo, if you want food, then get it yourself!"
"Mwah, don't push, okay!?"
Pushed from behind, Fear found herself coming into close proximity with Kuroe's adult crowd that she had difficulty joining in. Then one of the shopkeepers, reeking of alcohol, turned his red and drunken face towards Fear:
"Oh yeah! By the way, let's not forget this child's hardworking efforts! You showed us something really nice!"
"That's totally right! Come over here! Whaddya wanna eat? I recommend this sashimi from my shop!"
"Try these pickled vegetables as well! My store's vegetables are always very fresh!"
"That Chinese dress of yours, would you like to have it washed at my shop? Also... Maybe you could work part-time at my place next time? After all, the bookstore stole Kono-chan from me. The special perk of working at my place is that you get to wear all sorts of cute outfits I've collected—"
"You'll end up in all sorts of photos if you go to that guy's shop, so I'd advise against it! My place sells only croquettes, so why not come to mine? In fact, I'll even take you in as my child!"
Shouting one after another, the crowd started speaking to Fear with intimidating enthusiasm. Fear anxiously turned to look at Haruaki, only to discover that he had turned his gaze away as if the situation did not concern him.
"Umm... Uh, what should I say..."
"Yes, Ficchi, I am also much indebted to your efforts, thank you."
Kuroe brought forth a bottle of juice and refilled Fear's empty cup with what she had been drinking.
"I'm sure everyone loves Ficchi already, so there's no need to think too much. Just be happy."
Kuroe discreetly whispered in Fear's ear, prompting her to look back at Kuroe. Incredibly, the color of profundity could be seen from her blank eyes. Indeed—come on over—Kuroe seemed to be silently inviting her.
The pain was not gone. Painful emotions had not disappeared. Yet only at this moment—
Fear felt that even given her current self, she at least had the right to step one foot into this crowd.
Slowly, Fear poured the contents of her paper cup into her mouth.
Despite clearly being the same juice, somehow it tasted much sweeter than before.
That night, while Fear was in the bath, the glass door was slid open again, accompanied by someone's strange declaration of "Hello, I am the steam thief!" Obviously, the new arrival was blank-faced Kuroe.
"...You're here again."
Fear sighed and shrank herself into a corner of the bathtub. Kuroe inclined her head and said:
"Eh? You're not going to protest?"
"You're still entering even if I protest, right? I already learned my lesson yesterday."
Hearing Fear's answer, Kuroe relaxed her face slightly.
"Yes, but today is different. I just want to scrub your back as thanks—Come on out! I will be very gentle, dear customer."
Fear was grabbed by the arm and forcibly pulled out of the tub. By the time she realized, she had already spun several times and was seated on the plastic stool. She did not know why, but she arched her back without feeling any intention to resist. She could feel Kuroe's outstretched hands touching her back—the sensation of tiny palms. Her back was lathered with soap suds while her skin was gently scrubbed.
"How is it?"
"Mmm... Hmm, not bad."
To be honest, it was quite comfortable. Fear even started feeling sleepy at some point and blinked. Had the person behind her noticed?
"...Are you tired today?"
"It's okay, after all, it was my first time... But it was a very good experience. Speaking of tired, you must have worked a lot harder than me, right? Because it's a service industry—you have to face human strangers..."
"It's nothing once you get used to it."
"Used to it... huh..."
Arching her back, Fear sighed. Who knew if it was because of the palms she felt on her back, the steam pervading the bathroom, or the sleepiness—Fear found her lips speaking on their own.
"You're so amazing..."
"Hmm? Did you say something?"
Fear tried to cover it up. After finishing with the back scrubbing, Kuroe proceeded to do Fear's hair, generously offering her professional hair washing technique, saying it was a return favor for yesterday.
"Fufu... Silver-colored and silky smooth, how pretty. Although I like my own hair a lot, it still makes me somewhat jealous."
Jealousy. That was what Fear actually wanted to say.
Indeed, what she tried to cover up, was her admiration for Kuroe as well as the jealousy she felt during the celebration party.
But now, as her sleepiness intensified during the process of hair washing, what Fear felt was neither admiration nor jealousy, but a subtly different emotion. Through Kuroe's hands which gently caressed her hair, the two emotions were combined, diluted and blended into a new emotion. That was what Fear felt.
What was it? A sense of embarrassment and itching in her heart, this feeling directed towards Kuroe—what on earth was it?
Fear did not know the words to describe this feeling. Without resisting her heavy eyelids, she comfortably succumbed to the beckoning of sleep.
Then she fell asleep, casting all thoughts from her mind. This included the doubts she felt and the sensations of the finger gently caressing her hair.
Also including something warmer than admiration, more genuine than jealousy—
One might even name it "aspiration"—An answer.
The next morning, Haruaki yawned and stretched as he sat on the edge of the veranda, drinking hot tea. In terms of the clock, this was much earlier than his usual wake up time. The reason for his early rise was the scene unfolding before his eyes in the garden.
"Come on, one, two, three, four!"
"Nnu... Ku... Hah...!"
"Okay, stop! Whenever I call out 'four,' you should have returned to your starting position! Why are you the only one standing more and more forward!?"
"Sh-Shut up, I know already!"
"Then let's go again. Come on, one, two, three, four!"
"Hoh... Hoh... Hoh... Ohoh! How's that now? I did it! In your face, Cow Tits!"
"What are you showing off to me for? I don't understand at all... Besides, you failed. It's pointless if your arms don't move at the same time!"
"D-Damn it...! Argh! One more time!"
Watching the two practice, Haruaki sipped tea like an old man.
The current situation stemmed from Fear requesting Konoha to help her with an early morning dance practice. It went without saying, due to the hindrance of Fear's pride, it was not so much a "request" as a result of a convoluted series of happenings... In the end, exasperated by Fear's slow progress, Konoha had no choice but to sigh and agree, thus resulting in the present circumstances. That said, Haruaki had no idea at all why he was roped into this as well.
A series of clanging noises caused Haruaki to look up. Kuroe was descending the staircase on the side of the accessory dwelling. Her usual blank gaze currently displayed genuine sleepiness instead. Walking past the two girls as she carried a surprised expression, Kuroe commented:
"...What a truly strange dance. It looks like it could very well be a ritual for summoning an elder god."
"I'm practicing for a creative dance, okay! Right, why don't you come and try reading this thing out!? Cow Tits here keeps leveraging her instructor position to subject me to verbal abuse... Using this opportunity to make the most of her underhanded ways, enjoying unbounded thrills from this!"
"W-What do you mean by enjoying unbounded thrills!? Let me tell you this, it would not be practicing if I don't point out what you're doing wrong, that is why I am saying you are—"
"Oh~ I get it, Kono-san is sometimes like that, a girl who enjoys boundless thrills."
"What is this agreement from an unexpected source!?"
"Hmph... See, there's nothing worse than a deviant lacking in self awareness. In any case, I shall not submit to the tyranny of Cow Tits no matter what."
"Wow, Ficchi is so amazing. Then I'm heading to breakfast... Do your best."
Encouraged by a few easy words of support, Fear responded with a thumbs-up; Kuroe raised her thumb in return. Observing their dialogue, Haruaki realized with an "Oh?"—Why did Fear and Kuroe's relationship seem to have subtly improved? Although he had no idea why, it was a good change after all.
"...Good morning, Haru."
"Yeah, breakfast is in the kitchen. It's just bacon, egg and bread, however."
Kuroe entered the house through the veranda. Taking the plate prepared for her from the kitchen to the living room, she switched on the television while holding a piece of toast in her mouth.
"...Now for the next news story. During the early hours of last night, the strange corpse of a young woman was discovered in the streets of Hitsutou City. No further details are available at this stage, but police investigations are currently underway, treating it as a homicide—"
The voice from the television reported unsettling news that took place in this city, prompting Haruaki to feel concerned. He turned to take a glance at the television, but the screen had already moved on to the next story.
(A homicide case huh...)
An ominous feeling filled his heart again. Naturally—it was what he had felt when he heard the word "culprit." But he tried to convince himself—I'm worrying too much. This was simply an ordinary case unrelated to those people.
"Phew... Well then, please perform the next dance move... Jump up, then do this with your arms."
In the garden, Konoha was still instructing Fear. Konoha was by nature quite a caring person. But on the other hand, Fear refused to follow Konoha's motions, simply watching with her eyes narrowed. What on earth was she staring at? Following her line of sight—
Konoha was jumping up and down. A certain mass was also wobbling inside her t-shirt, undulating like waves, appearing to struggle violently, leaping, quivering, quaking, bouncing as if showing off its size and suppleness...
"Very well, something with that kind of feeling. How about you try it as well, Fear-san..."
"Kyah! W-Why are you suddenly angry—?"
"Sh-Shut up! I'll curse you! Those things of yours are such an affront to the eyes, take this! Deflate!"
"Nnn, kyah...! Hey, why are you being so violent... I-I'm going to get mad now!"
Uwah... Haruaki watched the scene with a lukewarm gaze but Kuroe suddenly got up from watching television.
After giving the news a final glance, she took out the piece of bread from her mouth, returned it to the plate and walked out.
"What's the matter?"
Putting on the sandals she had taken off on the veranda, Kuroe narrowed her incomparably serious eyes and replied to Haruaki:
"The Ladylike Bosoms Alliance will not ignore a comrade in need. I will assist her."
Then approaching the squabbling pair, Kuroe imitated Fear and cried out: "Deflate!" Opening and closing her fingers like claws, she pounced on Konoha's bosom.
Then the day began. At school, classes drew to a close as usual, but that only applied to ordinary students. From Haruaki's perspective, some matters were making him concerned.
First there was Kirika. Naturally, she was pretending that things were normal, but her unwell state was easily visible. Her face looked a little red and she would even space out to the point of forgetting instructions in class. Perhaps she had a flu.
More concerning was the second matter—Indeed, it happened the second lessons ended. It was after the bell rang to signal the end of the school day.
"Oh, another weird case? I smell a mystery here."
"Hmm? Taizou, what are you reading?"
Haruaki's inattentive question elicited an answer from Taizou who was surfing the net on his cellphone. He was reading a report on a news website. This was the beginning of the matter that made Haruaki concerned—or rather, a matter that drew nothing but alarm.
"Didn't the morning news on television report the discovery of a corpse from a strange death? Supposedly, the victim was folded into the shape of a cube. Good heavens, is there some meaning behind it?"
The culprit is me.
Afterwards, Haruaki summoned Fear and Konoha to gather on the roof where there were no others and told them what he had heard from Taizou. Konoha's face instantly turned grim.
"I see... With this kind of timing... Perhaps the two could be related."
"No, let's not be too hasty. I just thought I should tell you two about the news, but there's nothing so far to indicate that woman's participation in the crime. It could be coincidence, right?"
"But if the case really turns out to be related to me..."
Fear gnashed her teeth and stared at the rooftop's concrete floor. Her gaze trembled as though she was enduring something. At the same time, she shouted forcefully as if in so much pain she was about to vomit blood—
"It means someone died because of me, someone unrelated, whose face I don't even know!"
"Hey wait a minute, Fear, don't go jumping to conclusions so easily! Besides, there's no reason for that woman to do this kind of thing..."
"Reason? Isn't it obvious! She must be trying to convey this kind of message—'If you don't accept my invitation, I will kill completely unrelated people!'"
"...This is terrorism."
Haruaki was speechless. Konoha's glare seemed to be sharp as knives. Fear hyperventilated as if she had asthma, her fists clenched so tightly they were about to creak.
Haruaki shared their sentiments. To think she would go so far... Why choose to go about things this way? If the case really turned out as speculated, then it was completely unforgivable and the culprit could not be allowed to roam unpunished.
However—there was no tangible evidence yet. Was that woman with the gentle smile really capable of something like this? To this point, Haruaki's mind still could not accept this completely. Nevertheless—
"No matter what... We can't ignore it."
"Of course. Let's go find that woman!"
Fear remained silent, tightly clenching her fists. But her downwards gazing head bobbed up and down in response.
A conclusion was reached. Although there were no clues yet, it was better than doing nothing.
Just as the group prepared to leave, the door to the roof suddenly opened with a metallic screech.
"...So you're here."
"Oh hi, Class Rep."
Kirika had appeared. Her face still looked unwell and her voice lacked vigor. Seeing her hand still on the door handle, Haruaki suspected she was having trouble standing.
"I was trying to find you. You are my assistant, so if you run around randomly... I'll be very troubled."
Haruaki had forgotten due to the sudden developments, but he was also supposed to be preparing for the sports festival as well today. What a dilemma—Haruaki thought—Then he noticed another troublesome situation. Three people were not quite enough manpower for finding someone who was wandering the streets. What should he do? It seemed like it would be a good idea to attempt asking her for assistance. If she declined on grounds of having no obligations to help out, then so be it.
"U-Ummm... Class Rep, I'm having a bit of trouble right now... Today, umm... May I be excused from the sport festivals' preparations today?"
"What did you say?"
"Also, umm... I know it's unreasonable for me to ask for this kind of thing, but if possible... Really, only if it's possible, I'd like to make a request of you, Class Rep. There's this woman out on the streets I must find no matter what..."
Kirika held out her hand to interrupt Haruaki. Showing her palm towards Haruaki, she painfully turned her gaze away. After taking several breaths, as if recalling a certain incident engraved in the depths of her heart, she spoke with an unsteady gaze:
"I'm sorry... I can't help you with anything this time. My apologies."
"Eh? Ah... Oh ok, you really don't have to apologize, Class Rep. After all, it's just my unreasonable request. Yeah, your work must have been quite busy lately, right?"
"That's not the issue... No, you're right. Indeed so."
Kirika's expression grew increasingly gloomy as she murmured without looking up. Haruaki could vaguely hear her breathing becoming louder.
"Say... Are you really okay? You've been looking like this all day—Right, I'm so stupid! How could I even think of asking you to go out, Class Rep!? Have you caught a flu? If it's really acting up, you'd better go to the infirmary..."
"No, it's nothing. I'm fine."
Kirika stood up straight. Only then did she finally gaze into Haruaki's eyes directly.
"Anyway, do you intend to be excused from today's preparations? Seeing as we cannot afford to waste a single day at this point, this is quite irresponsible of you as the executive committee's assistant—But I shall turn a blind eye this once. Same for Fear and Konoha, let me inform Kana on your behalf."
"Yeah, that's right. I am really sorry."
Before Haruaki finished saying these words, Kirika had already turned around to leave the roof.
—As if fleeing from something.
Kirika halted in middle of the staircase. Although she clearly had to get away, not knowing when Haruaki's group was coming down, her legs would not move. Not only that, her body was also swaying unsteadily, having lost its sense of balance. She leaned her back against the wall.
She clenched her fist tight. Ahhh... Ahhh, how painful. Suppressing "that activity" was so painful. Damn it. If she wanted to, she could do it immediately, so long as nobody saw. Yes, regardless whether it was a washroom or a—
Just as she realized what she was considering, Kirika regained her senses and slapped herself hard on the cheek. At this moment—
"Hmph, looks like you've kept up your end of the promise. Excellent."
Lower down the staircase was a man she did not wish to see. He must have eavesdropped on the rooftop conversation.
"Anyway, let's put that issue aside for now. I don't suppose you're actually trying to endure that?"
"...Shut up and disappear!"
Himura approached Kirika up the stairs instead. Propping his hand against the wall, he lustfully swept his gaze towards Kirika's neck with an amused expression—
"I see now. So you think you won't have to listen to my orders as long as you endure this. Haha, all for the sake of that guy? How strong you are... But surely all for naught in the end."
"Holding it in is not good for your body. If it's just a little bit, I could help you here right now, you know?"
Kirika shoved Himura away with a thud and forced her legs to dash desperately down the stairs. She could feel the man laughing and shrugging wryly behind her but of course she did not look back.
Biting her lower lip hard, Kirika continued to run.
Truly unacceptable. Unforgivable.
Surely all for naught—But somewhere in the back of her mind, she agreed with what he had said.
The first task was to converge with Kuroe at the "Dan-no-ura." After all, Alice was likely to make another visit and it was necessary to inform Kuroe of the latest news. Supposing the promotion was ineffective and business was slow at the shop, they could even ask Kuroe to join in the search—These were Haruaki and his group's original plans.
In the end, they did not meet Kuroe, and the reason was—
"Hey~ lady, how are you doing?"
"Wanna have some fun together with us? We're quite free right now. I know a very nice place!"
"Ara ara, how troubling... Should I title this scene 'The Central District of Lust'?"
Before Haruaki and company could reach Kuroe, they easily discovered Alice.
The location was a cafe terrace on the way from school to the shopping street. Alice was being surrounded by a few young men. Although she was in casual clothing, the massive musical instrument case could be found beside her this time.
"Hey, isn't she acting too defenseless, drinking tea at a place like this..."
"W-What should we do?"
While they discussed, Alice had already spotted them. Ara ara—she first stared with her eyes wide open followed by a smile. Then she spoke to the men around her:
"My apologies but something urgent has come up. Please excuse me."
"No way? Hey, hey, let's go and do something fun, okay?"
"This is troubling... I know, how about this, let me give you each a present that will allow you to have fun, okay?"
"A present? No, we don't want that, you're much better... Eh?"
Alice casually took out from her shoulder bag something that could indeed be considered a present. Neither a doll, a cake, nor a bouquet of flowers, it was something much more versatile that anyone would readily accept—
Plain old cash.
Smiling generously, she grabbed a stack of ten thousand yen bills and shoved them to the men. At a glance, each person held at least ten bills in their hands.
"Hey hey, is this really okay? We never said we wanted money, eh?"
"Eh? What I feel like... You seem to have more? Let me count them!"
Alice picked up the musical instrument case and successfully freed herself from the men. But instead of approaching Haruaki's group, she stopped and stood at speaking distance.
"I have a question. Could you answer truthfully?"
Fear spoke up and glared at Alice.
"Are you the one who is making things in 'my shape.'"
"I've already told you. The culprit is me."
She replied instantly without any hesitation. Haruaki and his companions were not even given time to think.
Smiling like a saint, Alice became a true "enemy" starting from this moment.
Haruaki clenched his fist tightly. Fear and Konoha simultaneously released a bone-chilling aura of rage. Rather, one might better call it murderous intent.
Yet Alice responded to all this with a smile.
"Ara ara, how terrifying."
"Stop screwing around! Why? The only one you want is me, right? Stop involving unrelated people!"
Fear snarled angrily, looking as if she was about to charge ahead. Alice went "Hmm—" and inclined her head.
"This isn't the right timing for the answer... Besides, it would be difficult to explain at this point, wouldn't it? After all, it's merely one death so far."
"What! You're going to kill more—!"
"Stop it! If you want to take me away then come at me, no one else!"
"Perhaps I might resort to that eventually. What's required for that purpose has already been delivered... But there's no need for impatience currently, so I will go with the first plan for now. Let me first finish what needs to be done."
"In other words, killing other people first...!"
"Please think back more carefully. Indeed, 'thinking' is necessary suffering—That said, from the way you look, it must be quite a challenge for you people. Well then, I shall offer you a hint."
Indeed—Alice simply nodded her head.
"The first person died yesterday. Everyone who dies subsequently will share something in common. Once you figure it out, the problem should be solved."
"What are you talking about?"
"Fufu—Please do your best. Well then, I shall excuse myself for today."
Saying that, Alice turned around and ran.
"H-Hold it right there!"
The trio hastily gave chase but Alice instantly disappeared around a corner nearby. But of course they could not give up so easily. Surveying the surroundings from an intersection ahead—
"Found her! Over there!"
"Ara ara, feel free to pursue me, but do realize it will only end in wasted effort, okay?"
Alice had stopped and was crouching down on the road ahead. Adjusting her monocle with one hand, she also loaded the musical instrument case onto her back, the one she had been carrying in her hand.
"Wasted effort? How would I know if I don't try!?"
Fear led the way and chased after Alice who had started walking again. Leaving the shopping street, they entered the nearby residential area. Passing through the public housing estate, they gradually entered an increasingly desolate area near the mountains.
"Are you okay? Haruaki-kun!"
"I-I'm okay! Don't mind me, make sure you don't lose her!"
Haruaki tried his best to appease his lungs that were suffering from the sudden marathon and gave chase again. Alice gave a quick glance behind and suddenly changed directions, starting to run up a challenging slope. Their surroundings were already giving off an air of the countryside, with lifeless red and green leaves occupying most of the view. With no signs of tall buildings anywhere, there were only scattered houses and farmland. Haruaki already knew that the northern part of Hitsutou City was quite deserted, but being confronted so directly, it was difficult to associate this sight with the train station as part of the same city.
"She's going to escape into the mountains if this continues! Cow Tits, do you sense any humans around?"
"Uh... I guess... There aren't any!"
"Then in that case! Mechanism No.8 crushing type, circular form: «Breaking Wheel of Francia», Curse Calling!"
Using her entire body strength, Fear launched the torture wheel transformed from the Rubik's cube. Pulling the chain of cubes behind it, the torture wheel smashed through tree branches along the side of the road as it flew towards Alice's back—
Alice simply leaped to the side to evade the attack, using her remaining momentum to roll to an empty spot by the roadside. This seemed to be a long abandoned farmhouse, an ancient Japanese style home built beside barren farmland. The abandoned house was tilting precariously. Its decrepit earthen walls were covered by creeping vines artistically. Alice rushed into the house.
"Gotcha! We're not gonna let you escape!"
Naturally, Fear and the rest followed in pursuit—Just as they were about to step into the wide open entrance—
"Please wait a minute. I would advise you all against entering this place, yes? It is very dangerous."
Standing on rotten tatami mats, the speaker herself was smiling alone in the center of the abandoned house where dust pervaded the air.
"Hmph, you totally suck if you think you can escape with such words. Just surrender without a fuss. We won't take your life."
"...I have already given fair warning, yes?"
Sighing, Alice opened the musical instrument case and pulled out the contrabass by its neck. Fear and Konoha leaped forward simultaneously, one of them wielding the torture wheel while the other readied her hand in a karate chop—
Using the contrabass like a racquet, Alice effortlessly swept away the flying torture wheel. Immediately with the sound of wood breaking, the musical instrument cracked open.
"What a strange tactile sensation... But that's way too fragile!"
"By the way, the game ends in two minutes."
"I don't understand what you're saying!"
Konoha chopped with her hand. Alice turned her body and swung the contrabass upwards at the same time. Konoha's knife hand easily sliced through the instrument where she made contact. Looking at the severed cross section of the instrument, Konoha frowned:
"...! This is—?"
"Cow Tits, stand back! Let's destroy that first!"
Fear retrieved the torture wheel with a tug on the chain of cubes. With a series of metallic noises sounding like a spell, the block of iron instantly took on a new and violent form.
"Mechanism No.5 impaling type, upright form: «A Skewer Loved by Vlad Tepes»—Curse Calling!"
The execution stake flew like an arrow. Faced with this attack, Alice swung the almost destroyed contrabass high above her shoulder—And simply smashed it against the ground.
The sound of breakage.
These were the death cries of an elegantly curved contrabass. At the same time—
"I don't recall if I've mentioned it before? This appearance of a contrabass is merely incidental. After all, carrying something like this openly on the streets could easily cause misunderstandings with the police."
The accompanying noise also heralded the birth of the massive murder weapon Alice was carrying.
This murder weapon had a long shaft and resembled a hybrid between a spear and a hammer. On the tip of the massive block of metal, slightly rusting and filthy, there was an acute and heavy blade, resembling a butcher's cleaver. Inside the dim interior of this abandoned house, the weapon looked rather like a twisted and slender cross. Covered with dust, a cross from a destroyed church.
"Tsk... I was going to ask why it was so fragile and it turns out to be camouflage."
"Irrelevant. In that case, I shall simply destroy the contents inside... Hmm!"
Konoha groaned as a result of the bright red color dripping from Alice's hand. Did she accidentally get scratched by fragments or something during the contrabass' destruction? Konoha narrowed her eyes and began to murmur: "Red paint... That's simply red paint..." But who knew how long she could endure.
"Ara ara, there seems to be too much naughtiness here... Anyway, there's only a minute left. This is hurting quite a bit and I'm growing tired of this."
"What are you talking about just now? Are you counting how long it will take until you're caught!?"
Lifting the strange weapon, Alice seemed to be pondering something while her hand bled, looking up at the cobweb-covered ceiling. Then she instantly recovered her usual smile, and for some reason, looked with her monocled left eye at Haruaki who was standing behind Fear. Haruaki sensed something strange from Alice's expression but the vague feeling was easily blown away by her next declaration.
"Let me say this, it is now time for this game to end. Although there's a minute left, stalling for time is proving quite a chore. My utmost apologies, please allow me to hereby end this game—You girls will be fine, right? But I wouldn't be so sure about him in the back."
Alice raised the hammer up high and swung clearly at nobody.
Instead, it was the main pillar supporting this crumbling abandoned house.
"Wha...! Fool, you don't care about what happens to you too... Damn it!"
"Haruaki-kun! Hurry and escape this place!"
Fear and Konoha forgot the enemy for this instant and turned to look at Haruaki who was the last person to enter the house. Haruaki frantically tried to leave but there was not enough time!
"'Let's smash this over and over again!' Reenactment: «How to Process Mince-Meat»!"
Accompanied by a series of noises, the massive hammer pounded the main pillar of the damaged house. Instantly, it felt like something exploded. This full powered attack sounded as if dozens of people made booming noises simultaneously—the main pillar was smashed apart almost like it exploded. Immediately, Haruaki found himself surrounded by a rumbling from all directions, as ominous as thunder.
Three steps. That was all Haruaki managed to move.
The abandoned house's entrance seemed as if it were hundreds of meters away. Fear and Konoha sounded distant as if their voices were traveling through water. Cold sweat flowed down his back. Fragments of timber kept falling down from overhead. An especially poignant crunching noise followed. As Haruaki sought the exit, he looked back as if refusing to give up.
Within his field of view—
He saw Alice's figure vanish with a "whoosh!"—
Without allowing anyone to escape, the abandoned house collapsed completely.
Translator's Notes and References
- Souchuu highball: often abbreviated to chuuhai(チューハイ), a Japanese alcoholic drink traditionally mixed from shouchuu liquor and carbonated water, flavored with lemon.
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