Chapter 1 - Already Present Before One Could Notice / "A pebble, a pebble and more pebbles"
Caution was of paramount importance.
As careful as a ninja searching for presences on the ceiling, as bold as a thief who had to finish the job within a matter of minutes—That was what Haruaki's mission demanded.
"Recently, it seems like I keep running into these inconvenient coincidences... Let's hope I can get through today peacefully...!"
He pressed his ear against the bathroom door to check out the situation inside. Despite the instant sense of guilt surfacing akin to that of a voyeur's, this was a necessary precaution. It was not like he could just enter the changing area suddenly. Even suicidal behavior had limits.
The continuous noise of water from the shower head could be heard from the other side. Although it was a slightly imposed invitation, but the girl—Aiko—did indeed enter the bath area. In that case, Haruaki was definitely able to avoid the "accidental intrusion in the process of changing" cliche... The next challenge was speed. Haruaki definitely had to avoid what happened with Fear and Kuroe last time, "running into them just as they exited the bath."
Surveying the surroundings, Haruaki did not spot anyone else in the corridor. Fear could be heard watching television in the den. Kuroe was most likely still at the shop. Meanwhile, Konoha was making dinner in the kitchen... If possible, Haruaki really wanted to swap duties with her, but Konoha was currently working on her original meat dish recipe so it could not be helped. Haruaki's pride prevented himself from meddling in other people's cooking and ruining the balance of flavor.
Hence, there was no one else who could undertake this dangerous mission. That article of clothing must be washed as soon as possible because every second counted, otherwise the stain might never be cleaned off...!
Taking a deep breath, Haruaki invaded the changing area at once. He swiveled his neck swiftly to confirm the situation. Then removed clothing was lying in the laundry basket.
(I clearly asked her to throw it into the washing machine... Whatever!)
Ignoring the sight of the small piece of white fabric and pushing other stuff to the side, Haruaki targeted the most soiled article—the coat. Fishing out the coat from the bottom—
The coat dangled with great weight. What on earth made it so heavy? Upon careful examination, Haruaki found the reason, the objects stuffed into the innumerable pockets—pebbles.
They were ordinary pebbles no matter how you looked at them. Nothing special about their shape, nor were the colors particularly pretty... Yet another mystery was added to this strange girl's repertoire. However, these pebbles could not be allowed into the washing machine, so Haruaki took them all out and threw the lightened coat into the machine. As for the coat, it was luckily one of those rare types with a label saying "machine washable," but one still had to be extra careful when washing large articles of clothing. After cautiously measuring out the laundry detergent and pouring it in, Haruaki then deftly switched laundry modes and pressed the on button. With a trusty rumbling noise, the modern product of convenience started up.
"What should I do with these things? Although I've no idea what is going on, let's just leave them here!"
Haruaki piled up the pebbles in the sink and swiftly withdrew from the changing area. Mission accomplished.
"Wow, I succeeded... Peacefully without incident!"
What was up with the current home situation where his own bathroom had become a danger zone? As this thought suddenly flashed across his mind, Haruaki decided to dismiss it for now. Now, let me savor the value of a miraculous survival...!
Haruaki casually made a victory gesture just as he exited to the corridor. Just at that moment, a faint "...Hweh~" sound was heard from the other side of the changing area's closed door behind him. Apparently, he had missed Aiko leaving the bathing area by the slimmest of margins. That was close. However, Haruaki had already escaped from the danger zone, so the possibility of Fear or Konoha's cold stares was eliminated—
Clack—! The room to the changing area was opened.
Aiko rushed out half-naked, with only a blouse over her upper torso. Under the hems of the white blouse, the snow-white complexion of her legs was exposed in full vulnerability. Hitherto unseen because they were hidden beneath the long coat, her legs were long and slender, well-proportioned like a model's. A further problem was Konoha's pair of panties that had been prepared for her along with the blouse, which was now flashing in and out of view between her legs—
"W-What's the matter? Is there any problem? Could you put on your clothes first, because this is a huge problem for me!"
"...There's a problem."
Aiko frantically tugged Haruaki's clothes. Her strength was unexpectedly strong, thus causing Haruaki to be dragged into the changing area. Back in a difficult predicament, Haruaki's gaze began to wander in avoidance of her half-dressed state.
"Hey, what on earth is going on? Like I said, put on your clothes first!"
"D-Didn't we prepare them for you already? Uh—my cousin's clothes are all clean and washed, really!"
"No, I mean the ones I wore when I came."
"Oh, the coat is currently in the wash. See? Isn't the washing machine spinning right there?"
What, so it was about that... As Haruaki was thinking of answering, Aiko did something he never expected. Frantically, she went over to the washing machine and opened the lid, reaching in without regard for the spinning motion to drag out the dripping wet coat.
"Hey, are you an idiot? That's very dangerous! Oh, you actually want to wear it? How much do you like this coat, really?"
"...I want to wear it."
"You'll catch a cold if you wear it like this! Listen to me, take it off now, quickly!"
"No, I won't take it off... Hweh?"
As Haruaki began a tug-of-war with Aiko over the coat, she suddenly stopped and inclined her head.
"...Where's the things inside?"
"The things inside? Oh, you mean those pebbles? I took them out because they can't go in the wash."
Aiko relaxed her grip and Haruaki seized the opportunity to pull the coat to his hands. Really, what the heck? Thinking that to himself, he tossed the coat into the washing machine and turned his gaze back to Aiko—
She was crying.
Still hidden behind her wet bangs, her expression was out of view but she was definitely crying. Because tears could be seen flowing down from under her bangs.
"Woah! What's the matter, what happened? Y-You really hate having this coat washed? But since it's soiled, you can't wear it unless it's cleaned—"
"...That's not right."
"...What's not right?"
She did not answer but quietly sobbing could be heard from her nose and throat. How troubling.
"Ah~ Umm, I don't quite get it, but what do you want me to do? Listen carefully, this cannot remain dirty so I must wash it. Apart from that, I'll do anything for you."
Despite her apparent age, Aiko's personality was surprisingly like a child's, or perhaps a small animal? What a strange girl—Only now did such an assessment surface in Haruaki's mind. As soon as he spoke, Aiko gripped Haruaki's hand lightly.
"Lend me for a bit."
Incomprehensible. What did she want to do? Thinking that, Haruaki watched as Aiko lifted his hand—
And stuffed it into the breast pocket of the blouse she was wearing.
The blouse was worn directly over bare skin. Haruaki could feel the beating of her heart through the single layer of fabric. Of course, being the breast pocket, beneath it was a bulge, beautifully shaped despite being inferior to Konoha in size... No wait, now was not the time to be thinking about such things! The cramped feeling in the pocket was turning into an illusion of intimate contact with her skin, progressively tightening—
In spite of Haruaki whose mind was in turmoil, Aiko made a sound as if greatly satisfied. The atmosphere felt as if they were submerged in a hot spring up to their shoulders, filled with a comforting sense of relief. At this moment, Aiko's warm breath woke Haruaki to a start, prompting him to muster his entire willpower to withdraw his hand from her pocket.
"I-I don't get what's going on, but that should be enough, right? Is it?"
"...Yeah, I'm pretty much satisfied."
"R-Really? That's great. Then this time, please put on your clothes properly and come to the living room."
After saying that, Haruaki was just about to exit the changing area when he heard a voice from behind.
"They're in the sink over there... Are they very important?"
"No, I use them for filling my pockets, that's all."
This young lady made a strange comment again.
"Fine...... Do whatever you want as long as you don't break the pockets. What is the point of doing that anyway..."
Haruaki's final sentence was more like muttering to himself than asking for an answer. But just as he was about to close the door, Aiko replied quietly.
"...Because, emptiness fills me with uneasiness."
Already back in the living room were Fear, Konoha in her apron, as well as Kuroe who had returned home at some point. The trio was bent over the dining table, gathered together to watch something. Haruaki could catch a vague glimpse of what appeared to be... Kuroe's cellphone...?
"Listen to me, take it off now, quickly!"
"No, I won't take it off..."
...This dialogue sounded strangely familiar. What was going on?
Hearing his own voice, Haruaki felt a strange sense of dissonance—He escaped reality.
"Oh dear~ It really gave me quite a fright. I never expected I'd come across this rare recording moment as soon as I came home. This good fortune must be a sign of the abundant good deeds I perform every day? By the way, this part has sound only, but we'll soon reach the part when I successfully opened the door in secret to catch what was happening inside. Don't worry!"
"Sh-Shameless! Let me say this again, utterly shameless!"
"Kono-san, the plate has been sliced into two. Be careful or you'll split the table in half. Hmm, the sound isn't very clear for this part... But we're almost getting there... Oh! Hurry and watch this, today's shocking scene!"
Aiko was making a sound of satisfaction. In other words, the image on the screen was—
"Wait a minute, this is wrong, it's not like that!"
Fear and Konoha turned their heads in such a way in sounded as if their necks were creaking. Konoha smiled and waved to Haruaki while Fear took out her Rubik's cube and started turning it noisily as if showing off,
Only Kuroe raised her hand nonchalantly, going "Hi, I'm home." Since she was present during the recording, she clearly understood exactly what had occurred. Nevertheless, she did not show any intention to explain for the other two girls... She was definitely waiting for a good show.
This home really needs some anti-harassment legislation drafted—Wishing sincerely to himself, Haruaki sighed deeply as he imagined the effort it would take to explain everything next.
In front of the Hitsutou City's train station, inside a room of a certain hotel—
There was a father and a mother. Their "numerous children" were not present.
A man sat with a woman on the bed side as he combed her long hair. Gently, very gently, he combed.
"How is your body's condition?"
The voice was filled with thoughtful consideration. The mother answered happily:
"Not bad, but it seems like I shouldn't strain myself."
"Then that is most wonderful—Praise the Lord... One would surely say? In any case, there is no need for you to strain yourself. I'm here this time and furthermore, we even have a new 'daughter.'"
"Nikaidou Kururi-san—That's her name, yes? In your view, how is she?"
"If one were to compare her to the existing members of the Family—She is not as powerful as Oratorie Rabdulmunagh or Hinai Elsie. Neither is she as cunning as Marion Entwistle. Basically, she is ordinary."
"Ara ara, you are saying she is an 'ordinary murderer'?"
"However, her movements are very keen and swift. Perhaps naturally gifted, she was able to move immediately after being liberated from that 'incident'... At the very least, she won't be a burden."
"Since you put in all that effort to welcome her, it would be troublesome if she still turned out to be a burden—Anyway, I still have not heard you explain in detail. When you were bringing her out of the juvenile penitentiary, did anything happen?"
Without stopping his combing motions, the man shrugged lightly:
"The task itself, of persuading her, finished quickly. But there was some trouble when retrieving her beloved Wathe from the police's evidence vault. That's why I was late to pick you up at the rendezvous point last time—I ran into someone from the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion."
"Ara, showing up to destroy my beloved Wathes again, what a bunch of villains."
The woman raised her pitch half-jokingly. The man half-closed one eye as he watched her. Putting down the comb on the mattress, he stroked her head as though he were comforting a child.
"It can't be helped. Once the case went public, it would inevitably come to their attention. That said, the other side had not expected my arrival, hence the one they sent was an auxiliary of little threat—But herein lies the problem. I had the auxiliary make a 'confession,' and found out that another person has also arrived in this town. The man known as the One-Man Force: «Isolate», a first-class exterminating knight in the vanguard."
"Why did he come?"
"Naturally, to find a way to deal with the Fear-in-Cube. Taking care of the Wathe from Kururi's incident was apparently just an afterthought."
The hand originally stroking her head slid naturally down to the woman's cheek. Facing the happily smiling woman, the man smiled back in the same way and said:
"Is it really okay not to bring Oratorie or Hinai along?"
"They have their own tasks... Tasks that must be done now. Tasks which they might be asked to do in the future. That, too, is very important. On the other hand, Kururi-san seems to be trying hard, besides..."
The woman inclined her head slightly and kissed the fingertip sliding along her face. Her lips sang like a little bird.
"I have you. This alone is enough to reassure me completely."
"Praise the Lord, I shall commit these blissful words of yours to memory. But let me confirm first, must we invite Fear-in-Cube to our Family by any means necessary? As the current situation stands, you are not at peak condition and there is potential interference from the Knights Dominion. I don't think we should stretch ourselves. Why are you so obsessed with Fear-in-Cube?"
"...To be honest, I have no idea why. However, I knew on first sight that I must love her like family no matter what. Yes—simply stated, this is my willfulness on whim. Is that unacceptable...?"
Adjusting her monocle, the woman looked up at the man, with her disconcerted but trusting eyes. The man's beard shook slightly:
"How could it be unacceptable? If it is your wish, I have no reason to refuse. I think it goes without saying, I exist for human salvation."
"I understand, my beloved cross... Thank you."
The sound of lips was heard again. This time, instead of a finger, they were directed towards the most suitable target.
"Very well, how should we proceed exactly?"
The woman looked up at the ceiling as though she recalled something. Then like an adorable maiden, she rested her index finger against her lips where residual warmth still lingered and said:
"In the last incident—Watching those girls try so hard, I wondered if I should change my mind a little? Although I had stated I was uninterested, perhaps I was wrong. Yes... Since it is something that they treasure so much, we should respect that seeing as we love them. Previously, we may have over neglected him."
"Oh? Then in other words..."
The mother smiled. Alice Bivorio Basskreigh smiled.
Here in this place, no one was aware that she was missing a certain crucial element decisively as a person—at least, no "human being" knew—There were none present whatsoever.
"Yes. First of all... Why don't you guide that young man to make a confession?"
As though she were imitating someone, Kuroe remarked in a somewhat hollow tone:
"Uwah~ A burning hell of meat."
The dining table was laden with Konoha's elaborate cooking. It seemed to be centered around sukiyaki hot pot, supplemented with many of her original dishes—it was literally "sukiyaki," which meant "cooking only what you like."
Spreading out from the middle of the pot was a brown and undulating terrain, namely, a passionate continent of meat. The little hills shook from the bubbling simmering as white steam rose like miasma, surging forth from underground through crevices in the land. What exactly lay underneath? Perhaps there was nothing at all, or a swamp of scorching broth, or a hidden second layer, another world of meat like the first—
Haruaki's desperate insistence of the bathroom incident as a misunderstanding seemed to be taking effect. Finally back in good spirits, Konoha thumped her chest and declared:
"You could try dipping it in raw egg sauce~ But since I already added some spicy flavoring, I think the meat is fine as is. Come, Haruaki-kun, please enjoy!"
"Oh... Okay, thanks for the food."
Receiving the plate she handed over, Haruaki gulped hard. If possible, he wanted to calm himself down first, starting with the salad he had prepared, but there was no choice now... Steeling his mind, he used his chopsticks to pick up a corner of the meat mountain and slowly delivered it to his mouth. His reaction was—
"Good... It's delicious!"
"Really? I'm so glad! Ufufu!"
"Chomp chomp chomp. Hmph, just as always, you prepare food that faithfully recreates your figure. Stuffy, a sore sight and ugly, furthermore—Feels greasy and blub blub in texture."
"W-What's with your onomatopoeia and descriptions? If you have any objections, don't eat it!"
Konoha glared murderously in retort. Fear simply snorted and reached towards the pot with her chopsticks again. This was always how their conversations went, so there was nothing for Haruaki to be concerned about. Kuroe gazed blankly and remarked "A protein cataclysm!" or something like that as she kept delivering pieces of meat into her mouth, one after another.
Haruaki glanced at Aiko who was sitting opposite to Fear at the dining table. Since her laundry could not finish that quickly, he invited her to have dinner together while she was here. However, she simply held her chopsticks as she stared timidly at Fear and the girls. Was she frozen by shyness?
"Come on, you eat some too! It's very tasty."
As Haruaki forced some meat onto Aiko's plate, she looked at his face and slowly brought the meat to her mouth. Then like a small animal, she nibbled from the edge and chewed in her mouth.
"Wow, thank you very much~ Ehehe, I feel so happy for my cooking to be praised by someone I am meeting for the first time! Don't be shy, please eat as much as you want!"
Yes—Nodding slightly, Aiko began to reach towards the pot on her own initiative. Sitting around a dining table with strangers, anyone would be nervous in this kind of situation, right? But dispelling this sort of tension was precisely the effect of a situation like the dining table.
"What do you mean, eat as much as you want? That's a totally irresponsible statement! Clearly if you eat meat, you'll end up with meat all over your body!"
Hearing Fear's outburst, Kuroe was shaken slightly and reacted:
"Ah! Ficchi~ You speak true words... Isn't this our salvation...!?"
Despite Kuroe's dramatic tone of voice and expression, Fear was oblivious and shook her head seriously—Meanwhile, Aiko inclined her head in puzzlement as she extracted udon noodles from the depths of the land of meat. Staring and troubled by the long and extending noodle, she went "...Hmm~" as she raised her chopsticks sky high. Apparently, the double hell of "meat under meat" did not come true.
"Don't be hasty, Kuroe, meat does not necessarily grow where you want it to. This lab rat of a failed experiment lies before your eyes... Ah yes, this is the fate of fools who were devoured by greed. To us, bathroom scales might be nothing to be alarmed about, but in her eyes, it must be quite the device of demons, right?"
"A double-edged sword, huh..."
"You two—! If you don't behave yourselves, I really won't let you eat anymore!"
Amidst the usual commotion, Aiko slowly and leisurely remarked "...It's lengthening" as she continued pulling the udon noodle with a posture akin to a judo shoulder throw.
"By the way, there's something that's bothering me."
Fear's new conversation began just as she was biting into her second after-dinner rice cracker. Crunch crunch crunch... Roughly a third of the way into her rice cracker, she chewed as she spoke:
"Doesn't this girl smell kind of funny?"
"What are you saying all of a sudden? Isn't that a rude thing to say to a girl—And she just took a shower, she shouldn't smell bad anymore, right?"
"That's right. Sorry, please don't mind her."
"No. It's not what the dog did... Rather, I should say it's her own smell... Drats, I can't express it clearly. Hey, you come over and let me have a sniff."
Before Aiko could answer in her puzzlement, Fear approached her on all fours, bringing her face close to Aiko's neck and began sniffing. This was apparently not enough and she even placed her hand on Aiko's shoulder as if about to climb over her, sniffing repeatedly around her throat. Blushing to her ears, Aiko bent forwards and waved her hands frantically.
"Muu, it's really bothering me, but I can't understand it. Hey, Kuroe, you come over for a look as well."
"I don't understand either, but it sounds like fun, so I'll comply~ Sniff... Hmm~hmm~"
Kuroe approached Aiko from the side and with eyes closed, brought her face against Aiko's ear. Aiko blushed even more intensely.
"Hey, what are you two doing?"
"Wait a sec, this girl really is a bit weird. Cow Tits, you come and help too!"
"W-Why do I have to as well? Isn't Aiko-san really troubled!? Stop it right now—"
Fear looked up for a glance and simply addressed Konoha again. As if feeling something from that, Konoha narrowed her eyes and stood up after a while. Coming over to Aiko who was being continuously harassed by Fear and Kuroe, Konoha dropped to her knees—
"Uh... My apologies, Aiko-san. This will only take a short while... Sniff... Hmm? Hmm mmm mmm?"
"See? It's weird, right?"
"Apart from weird, there is a very fragrant smell. Sniff~"
"That's the smell of soap, Kuroe. Please focus on the strange smell."
"Why? Although I know it's strange, there's a subtle feeling causing agitation in the depths of my heart—"
Struggling under the weight of the three girls, Aiko had somehow collapsed onto the tatami floor. Her cheeks burning bright red, her breathing irregular. For some reason, the trio was sniffing her scent as if mesmerized, their noses pointed arbitrarily at different places. Fear's face showed suspicion, Konoha was frowning while Kuroe seemed quite delighted. Perhaps tickled by the breath against her skin, AIko groaned "Nnnngg...!" Then the skirt she borrowed from Konoha was flipped slightly to reveal her long and beautiful legs—
"L-Like I said~ What is with you girls!? Even Konoha is acting like this! Break it up! In any case, break it up now!"
Red in the face, Haruaki pulled Fear and the others away. Regaining her freedom, Aiko curled herself into a ball as if greatly ashamed and righted her skirt hem—For some reason, Haruaki felt an intense sense of guilt in his heart.
"Umuu~ I don't really get how it works, but it's really that, right?"
"Yeah, I think so too."
"It's possible to tell by scent, that does happen... In that case, we should just ask directly, okay?"
Fear and the girls huddled together in whispers and slowly turned their gaze towards Aiko. Acting as their representative, Fear approached and asked Aiko who was curling up even more in fright.
To Haruaki, this was completely unexpected—But somehow, it was a question he could understand on some level.
"You... Are you one of our kind? Although it's purely based on instinct, that's what your smell tells me."
There was a moment of silence before answering, but the bangs concealing Aiko's eyes quivered—She nodded.
Konoha asked slightly nervously. Timidly, Aiko lowered her head even more and said:
"I... think... I'm not supposed to stink, right..."
Due to Aiko's strange behavior so far, Haruaki already had a nagging suspicion. This was something that only Haruaki would develop, due to his daily contact with the girls. Sure enough—Accepting Aiko's identity with such a comment in his mind, the after-dinner moment of tea suddenly turned into a interview regarding Aiko's origins.
Konoha had initially stared at Aiko nervously because of the many recent incidents—But all of a sudden, she dispelled her vigilant gaze. Aiko's arrival was accidental and was indirectly caused by Fear forcing her to hold Octavianus. At the same time, Haruaki was the direct cause due to dragging her home as an imposed apology. Besides, more than enough time had passed for her to make a move had she intended to. It was quite difficult to imagine any hostility coming from this girl who acted like a small animal.
Using her hair to refill Aiko's teacup for no reason at all, Kuroe watched in amusement to see her taken aback in surprise. Haruaki rewarded Kuroe with a light karate chop to the head and said:
"Uh... How should I say this? To be honest, this only surprises me to the level of 'Oh~ I see"... In any case, these girls are all the same as you, so please understand that first of all."
She nodded—A motion expressing understanding. Fear interjected at this point:
"So Aiko, 'what' are you?"
Aiko's shoulders shuddered and she spoke:
"...I don't want to say."
WIthout looking at the frowning Fear, Konoha tilted her head backwards and drank from her teacup.
"Fear-san, would you be so bold as to tell others what you are yourself?"
"Hmm—This... How should I explain? I was just curious on a whim. If you don't want to tell me, it's fine."
Fear lowered her gaze guiltily. Feeling Aiko becoming depressed all at once, Haruaki hastily changed the subject:
"But anyway, to be invited to my house by coincidence... To think something like that would happen... In that case, what were you doing there?"
"...Nothing at all."
"Nothing at... Were you taking a walk?"
"Yes—Because there is no place for me to go. I'm always wandering around casually, like traveling."
"Yay, a fellow traveler! Traveling is the greatest!"
Kuroe nodded with her blank gaze. Fear again picked up the rice cracker she was about to eat:
"No place to go, so that means you don't have a particular owner?"
"Yes. Because it will cause people trouble, it's better this way."
Fear stopped moving for an instant and turned her face unhappily for some reason. Resting her head against the dining table, she stuffed her face with rice crackers and chewed anxiously. "Oh... That must have been quite tough to suffer through, to think you were able to endure..." Haruaki heard her murmuring to herself.
These girls possessed the dual natures of humans and tools simultaneously. Hence, these two natures would interact and affect each other.
In the same way a human could recover naturally from minor injuries, damage incurred in their tool forms could also self-repair naturally to a certain extent—Conversely, even after taking human form, they would still feel tool-like desires such as "wanting to be used by someone." This was the unavoidable karma known as "ownership desire."
Furthermore, suppressing this desire was apparently quite a painful experience. Enduring hunger, enduring sleeplessness, even enduring lack of air... In any case, it would be like suppressing the three major human desires! Haruaki recalled Konoha telling him in the past. When exactly, he could not remember.
(In that case—It must be really as Fear described, Aiko must be in great suffering, right? And for her to insist on doing so—)
Only one reason came to mind.
Fear remained pouting, her fingertips drumming on the dining table; Konoha sighed for some reason; Kuroe stared blankly as always.
"Ahhh... I can already guess how this will develop. I've already given up, sigh..."
"Hmph, being an excessively nice guy is an incurable disease. But I don't think he even wants to have it treated."
"There will be even more embarrassing moments to be caught from now on. Perhaps it's time for me to invest in a new digital camera."
"Hey, what are you girls talking about?"
"Nothing much. Of course it's nothing."
Pouting slightly with her eyes closed, Konoha bowed and gestured with her open palms towards Aiko like a server welcoming a customer.
"I'm not going to stop you, Haruaki-kun, so do as you wish. You must have something to tell Aiko-san, right?"
"H-How did you know? No, hmm... Since she has nowhere to go, there's no problem with staying in my home... That's basically the idea. How's that?"
He could catch Fear and Konoha sighing simultaneously. Aiko looked up in surprise, staring intently towards Haruaki's group—Although her hair covered her eyes, that was probably what she was doing.
"Yeah, I guess you're probably quite troubled to hear this so suddenly, right? Uh... Where should I start explaining...?"
"So Aiko, maybe you might find it unbelievable, but this shameless brat is actually immune to curses. Also, all we need to lift our curses are positive thoughts from humans. Furthermore, this home happens to be—Simply stated, it is precisely the place for lifting curses."
"Yes, we are all here for that purpose... However, mine is already almost lifted, while Kuroe-san is—"
"My curse is already lifted. To me, this place is like my parental home."
Unexpectedly, Fear and the girls helped to explain. It was quite helpful of them to be willing to provide assistance, but what was with their sulking attitude just now... Haruaki really could not understand.
"Yeah, that's how it is here. How about it?"
Aiko looked down again. As seconds turned into minutes, a moment of silence was created.
Haruaki found it a little unbelievable. Although he understood how it was impossible for her to trust immediately—But normally, cursed tools should be quite eager to lift their curses. Disregarding special cases like Sovereignty, Aiko already said she had no owner, so there should not be anything to deliberate over, right?
However—Haruaki thought to himself. She should realize these were not lies. Sitting around the same dining table, sharing the same food, she should have already understood how Fear and the girls lived in this home. Therefore, surely she would—
Then after the time it took for Haruaki to take ten breaths...
Aiko nodded extremely slowly.
Haruaki felt relaxed as if he had breathed a sigh of relief.
"Great, it's decided. Rather than wandering around aimlessly, this is definitely better... Hmm~ Although even if you had an owner, I'd still try offering you an invitation. Let's get along together from now on, Aiko."
"Since the master of the house said so, I have no objections. But are you okay on the money side of things?"
"You never care about that normally, why would you suddenly say that only now... Hmm, it should be okay. In actual fact, Pops started transferring a little more money this month. That stupid Pops, did it finally occur to him to consider the situation here?"
"Muu, then it's decided, that! Didn't you mention about giving me an allowance? How about it?"
"I never said anything like that! Don't fabricate memories!"
Fear argued noisily; Konoha sighed in exasperation; Kuroe stirred things up from the said in amusement.
This was a scene unfolding as usual in this home. Amongst it all, Haruaki noticed.
Joining this family as its newest member, Aiko had not smiled all this time.
Extremely shy and a little timid as she was, perhaps this could not be helped. One day, she will surely smile—He thought to himself. Haruaki hoped to see her smile.
But currently she still could not smile.
As though she was still wondering whether she allowed herself to do so—
She did not smile.
Empty space was sealed up. With that, the space became herself.
This was the meaning of her existence. She existed for this purpose. For this purpose, she had no choice but to exist—That was what guided her existence.
Even with no expectations—even with no expectations—Only this conferred meaning unto her existence.
Noises appeared within the sealed space.
Existences of flesh made noises from their throats. Their numbers were uncertain. More then ten, less than a hundred. But the number of times these many many many many noises were made on their own, this quantity could be clearly expressed with one word—Countless.
Low snarls transmitted malice. Trembling expressed fear. Breathing conveyed confusion. Rhythmic motions told of excitement. Basically, noises, noises, noises—the noises of wild beasts being kept.
Fulfill the meaning of your existence—Given these orders, she had approached them.
Lightly, she reached her hand towards a furry body to create a new sound.
A slight fraction of the countless noises disappeared, replaced by a one-time sound. Within the sealed space, the sound of life extinguishing echoed incredibly, but immediately, it was diluted by the countless other noises that grew louder.
The narrow space was filled with the sounds of the crazed as they attempted to flee. The density was akin to that of the tangible walls. She continued in compliance with orders, advancing forwards as she sliced apart the wall of hostility and pleading, repeating again and again.
The sounds of crimes were heard repeatedly.
Puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz, puchz—even without expectation, still—, puchz.
But this was not the end.
On the floorboards, which had been dyed by a certain red-black substance, lay the remains of furred creatures of various colors.
Oh of course, she had no choice but to do it. It was the meaning of her existence.
The absolute and only—
Purpose of an object like her.
Hence, even if she harbored no expectations—even without any expectations—
She woke at this time.
It was the dark interior of a Japanese-style room. Confirming her location, Aiko found herself sitting up from her futon and reaching out ambiguously in the air with her hand. Did she enter this posture after waking up, or was it already like this during her sleep? She had no idea.
Exhaling lightly, she slowly withdrew her outstretched arm. Gently, she caressed her borrowed clothes—the pebbles stuffed in her breast pocket. Although another set of clothes had been prepared for her as pajamas, she did not wear them because they lacked pockets.
She hated that feeling of emptiness inside.
However, were it not empty—and then filled with what it was meant to contain—she would not like it either.
Confronted with her contradictory feelings, she sighed again. Her hand remaining in contact with the solid sensation, she slowly lay back into the futon.
Eyes closed, she pondered questions.
Was it acceptable? Was this allowed? Was it really fine for her to stay here—
After all, she had sinned. All this time, she had been sinning.
Although she had arrived at this home by mere coincidence, she found it to be a very great place. It would be truly wonderful she could continue living here and lift her curse.
However, even so—She was—
The warmth of the futon felt very comfortable. But she thought to herself, was indulging in this comfort really acceptable?
Was it okay? Was it really okay? She asked herself repeatedly.
While sinking into deep and profound sleep, she made a wish.
Oh, how nice it would be if only she could forget everything.
If she were no longer herself, how nice that would be.
If that wish were not possible, at least—
Even if I fall asleep, please don't let me dream the continuation of that dream—
However, dreams were harsh and merciless. Even this modest wish could not be fulfilled.
As if waiting for her to return to slumber, the previous scene continued to play.
A closed world. Red floorboards. Only one creature remained. She was just about to fulfill her purpose.
In this space where the other noises had vanished, all that remained were the cries of that helpless little animal.
Whimper, whimper, whimper...
Night passed and Sunday arrived.
The sports festival was going to be held the next day—Monday. Final preparations for the festival were already completed on Saturday afternoon. Hence, Sunday was supposed to be an important day of rest to save up energy for the following day—At least, that was the original plan.
But for some reason, the kitchen counter had become an intense battlefield.
Squeak, squeak, squeak.
Watching the two girls working from behind, Haruaki sighed. Taking a dish, Fear washed it with lightning speed. Then with a mighty roar, she shoved the dish forcefully into the kitchenware rack, turned around and smiled fearlessly.
"How's that! Did you see it, Haruaki!?"
"Yeah I saw it! Disqualified!"
"Too sloppy! Look here, see the detergent still remaining on the back... Didn't I mention just now? Speed is good and all, but being careful and thorough is more important!"
Uwuwu... As Fear gnashed her teeth reluctantly, Aiko also finished her dishes. "...Done." Although her initial motions were unfamiliar, dish washing was essentially a simple task anyone could do with patience and care. The dishes Aiko washed were sparkling clean and their sight caused Fear's sulking face to worsen.
After breakfast, Haruaki had invited Aiko to practice washing dishes as a chance to improve her intimacy and familiarity with the home. Haruaki's careless praise of "Wow, amazing, that's the way to go!" had apparently set fire to Fear's competitive spirit. Without any intention to compete, Aiko simply did things at her own pace. Thus, the one-sided dish washing war began.
"Damn it, next event! Give me something to do, Haruaki! Today, I'm filled with the mood to practice housework!"
"Now that's an amazing mood. Aiko, would you like to continue?"
"...Yes, I'm quite free after all."
"Nuuu~ So you're saying the dish washing race bored you to tears just now...? Damn it...!"
Knock! Haruaki's karate chop landed lightly on the silver-colored head.
"Hey, don't make strange interpretations. If you won't get along with her, I won't let you help!"
"I-I am getting along with her well! However, my body is brimming with this concentrated mass of desire for self-improvement..."
"Yes yes~ Then next, I'll teach you two how to clean the house. No need to use the vacuum cleaner. Grab a cleaning cloth and wait for me at the veranda!"
"Nothing I could want more! Hoho, let me show her my dignity as her senior...!"
Fear rushed out of the kitchen. Aiko tilted her head incredulously but also followed after her.
(I see... For Fear, this is her first time to have junior... So she wants to show off her cool side... Is that the rough idea? But...)
Haruaki could not imagine any scene when Fear had looked cool.
After the cleaning, Haruaki announced a break for the girls as his face twitched. "Go take a break! There are no chores for you to do so impatiently!" There were more or less still other things to be done, but the situation was getting out of hand. Fear returned to her room and was changing into something easier to move in.
"Jeez... That shameless brat, he's biased, that was definitely biased of him!"
Recalling the light karate chop on her head just now, Fear made a sour look. Because the stain on the pillar could not be wiped off no matter how hard she tried, Fear had planned on using «A Hatchet of Lingchi» to shave off the surface to make the pillar all pretty again. What on earth was wrong with that...?
Then Fear recalled how Aiko was sluggishly wiping the veranda's floorboards with her cloth—thereby prompting her memory of Haruaki's stupid face as he praised Aiko: "Wow, you're very mindful, it's great!" Fear's fury erupted further. Sitting down hard on the tatami, she gruffly shoved her legs into her shorts. Damn that Haruaki, he wouldn't even give me the chance to restore my honor! Had he given me the same task of wiping the floor, I would have shown him the speed difference between a horse and tortoise, thereby defeating that girl...!
Muttering as she finished changing, Fear left her room. Dragging the boombox from a corner of the living room to the veranda, she then entered the garden.
The sports festival was officially going to be held tomorrow. Fear felt that she needed a final confirmation for her creative dance.
Barely managing to recall how to operate the device, she started playing the music. She began dancing with vigor as if it were the real event. Perhaps owing to the repeated practice, all those moves she had found difficult in the beginning could now be performed successfully for the most part.
After finishing one song—
"Hmph hmph... Good, that went well. Then all I need to do is wait for tomorrow!"
Satisfied, Fear wiped the sweat off her brow, only to hear faint clapping. Looking up, she found Aiko sitting on the veranda. Did she come over to watch because she heard the music?
"...So amazing. You dance really well."
Although Aiko's expression was obscured as usual, the feeling of being praised was not bad. Fear originally had Aiko pegged as a reticent and unreadable girl, but now decided that Aiko had a forthright side to her.
"Want to see me repeat it again?"
Aiko nodded quickly multiple times.
"Hoho, very well. I was just thinking of practicing a bit more. Play the music!"
"...I don't know how."
"Press that button with the triangle on it."
"Oh I see. So knowledgeable of you."
"H-Hoho! Oh my~ I'm not that amazing!"
"By the way, what is this one with two triangles...?"
What was it?
"Two 'plays'... Double play, yes! For one press of the button to replay music from the past, such technology is already quite frightening already. Once it's doubled, even more astounding functions will be unleashed—Anyway, the double triangles will result in calamity! So don't touch it recklessly, umm... It's very dangerous, don't press it."
"...So scary. Here we go, triangle button."
The song began to play and Fear restarted her dance. Perhaps due to the presence of an audience, a shy yet happy feeling surged in Fear's heart, making her feel an incredible sense of excitement.
As her movements and the music came to an end, the sound of applause was heard again. At this time, Fear noticed that a tray with barley tea had suddenly appeared next to Aiko. But clearly Aiko should have been sitting there all along.
"...Uh... It was Haruaki who brought it."
"Muu, that's pretty smart of him. Then I'll forgive him for the unfair ruling in the competition earlier."
Sitting down in the veranda with Aiko whose head was tilted in puzzlement, Fear began drinking the ice-cold barley tea with her. The simple taste seeped and spread throughout Fear's body that was hot from the exercise. Aiko also went "...Pwah~" in satisfaction.
Pwah, after a brief break, just as Fear was refilling her cup, Aiko asked softly:
"...Dancing... Is that your hobby?"
"Muu? No, not really. The sports festival is tomorrow and I need to perform it then."
Sports festival? Aiko inclined her head in puzzlement.
"I heard that it's one of the festivals held by the school. This is my first experience as well... It appears to have many competitions such as running, jumping, dodgeball, and bread eating contests."
"...Sounds very fun."
"You should be able to go to school eventually. Do you like sports?"
"Doing it myself, not that much... But I like watching others play sports."
"Really? Hmm, Kuroe should be coming tomorrow anyway to cheer for us, you're coming too, right?"
"Yes, I want to go."
"Yes! Then the sight of my heroic figure shall be branded firmly upon your eyes... I promise you, I'll perform a great dance to celebrate your arrival!"
"...Thank you. Are you participating in other events?"
"Of course. Although Cow Tits and Haruaki nagged me about joining too many... Since number one is pretty much guaranteed if we go serious—"
Suddenly recalling something, Fear stopped midway. Seeing Aiko tilting her head in puzzlement, Fear thought to herself: It's probably best if I got this out of the way first.
"Umm... I'm sorry about yesterday."
"For suddenly asking about your true form. On further thought, I didn't tell Haruaki in the beginning either. I understand. It's not something happy to talk about."
"Me too? I also... Haha, the fact is, I really don't want to talk about my true form either. I'm a tool whose purpose naturally causes others to curse me. When the time comes for you to tell me yours, I'll tell you mine, how's that?"
"Telling you... is fine. Because—"
Aiko had bowed her head at some point in time. As she shook her head slightly, one could see the sides of her face shrouded by the bottomless gloom she displayed on occasion—
"Because, I'm something similar to what you described as yourself, Fear."
What was it exactly? What was Aiko's true form? Just as Fear hesitated whether she should ask—
She heard the doorbell. Then two familiar voices could be heard coming from the entryway, although Fear could not tell what they were saying exactly.
"Kirika, and Kana as well...? I didn't know they were gonna visit."
Saying that, Fear jumped off the veranda and used her foot to fish out the communal sandals kept beneath the veranda.
"They're nice people. Let's go say hi!"
"...You're not going to ask about my true form?"
"Rather than discuss something that makes you unhappy, it'll be more fun to eat rice crackers with noisy friends."
"...Perhaps so... You may be right."
Putting on the sandals, Aiko also descended from the veranda. Along the way, circling around the house towards the entryway—
"But, surely I'm... Compared to Fear, I deserve even more to be cursed..."
Fear could vaguely hear murmurs of this sort coming from behind her.
There could not possibly exist anything that deserved to be cursed more than a torture tool whose only purpose was to torment and execute people. Although that was what Fear thought, this was the deplorable truth that Fear had no wish of divulging on her own accord. Hence, she pretended not to hear Aiko's murmurs.
Haruaki was working on his mathematics homework when he heard the doorbell. This laborious affair came from the mathematics substitute teacher who seemed to subscribe to the philosophy of "Sports festival? That has nothing to do with me!" Despite his gloomy demeanor, the previous mathematics teacher—the hospitalized Himura-sensei—always handed out homework while repeating "Sorry, this is homework, I'm really sorry..." (the class named these attacks "ghost pain"). Consequently, the class had held high hopes for the substitute teacher. Alas, the new teacher attacked with even more homework than before. Partially due to having betrayed their hopes and dreams, the new teacher's popularity fell rock bottom.
In any case, Haruaki's concentration in the work on his desk was easily interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell.
"Man, to think I was just about to start..."
Kuroe was working at the shop while Fear and Aiko were at the garden. As for Konoha, she had mentioned she was going to her room to make adjustments to her dancing outfit. Unable to picture anyone answering the door first, Haruaki had no choice but to put down his homework and leave the room.
"Coming coming~ Opening up straight away!"
As soon as he reached the entryway, he heard an anxious voice outside.
"H-Hey Kana, do I really have to say it?"
"This is the deal. I'll definitely help you find a good part-time job, so all you need to do is say this one sentence! No matter what, please just say this one sentence! Nishishi!"
"Ara, it's Ueno-san?" Konoha had also reached the entryway at this time. "Kana also seems to be here." Saying that, Haruaki opened the front door—
Haruaki's wide-eyed stares were drawn to what was cradled in Kirika's arms—
Dressed casually, Kirika was reluctant to make eye contact with him. It felt like her gaze was wandering along the ground. Blushing intensely to her ears, Kirika said awkwardly:
"...You... You must take responsibility, Yachi."
Arriving unnoticed outside, Fear began to grumble gravely: "Shameless, shameless, completely and utterly shameless...!" Konoha screamed "Eeee~~!" loudly while her hands naturally went for Haruaki's throat; Kirika's head remained bowed, her body shaking nonstop; Aiko simply watched everything in head-tilted puzzlement.
Only Kana was laughing her ass off in delight.
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