Chapter 3 - Wondrous Touch / "Who are you?"
What is your name? Yachi Haruaki.
Your father's name? Yachi Honatsu. Bastard Pops.
Best dish? Eh? I feel like I can cook anything!
Studying at which school? Taishyuu Private High School.
Who are your best friends? There's Taizou, Kana, etc. Oh, and also Class Rep.
Then what are our names?
"...Who are you?"
"WHY IS THIS HAPPENING—"
Haruaki found himself grabbed by the collar and shaken back and forth. Although I have no idea what is going on I am sorry so please forgive me—Haruaki uttered in confusion. How infuriating.
"H-Haruaki-kun, you... Have you forgotten... Even me?"
"You've forgotten the time when I first arrived at this home? Admiring the night sky together for the first time, have you forgotten it? Back when you called me Kono-nee? Only half a year ago, I made you promise not to call me that anymore when we started high school together, is that forgotten too?"
Konoha slumped her shoulders dejectedly, so depressed that she even planted her face into the tatami floor. Like a marionette whose control strings were severed, she lay collapsed motionlessly on the floor with her bottom raised in the air.
"Looks like he's neither lying nor playing a joke. But if that's really the case, I'll have to strangle him to death."
"I-I'm not lying! I don't really get it, but it seems like there are strange blanks in my mind... Only those particular parts... I can't really recall them."
"Haru, do you remember this home?"
"This home? Now that you ask, this place is my home. The only things good about it is it's old and spacious. Anything else...? I feel like there should be, uh..."
"Looks like... Only his memories related to cursed tools have been completely forgotten. The reason is not clear, however."
"Who knows. But one thing I do know is who caused this to him."
Hearing these mutterings, Konoha twitched her shoulder as her face remained on the tatami. But at this moment—
"Eh? Cursed tools... What are those?"
Fear and Kuroe turned to look at each other. Since Kuroe suggested that an explanation of cursed tools might provide the impetus to recover his memories, they went ahead and told him.
Haruaki initially smiled politely and went: "How could something like cursed tools possibly exist~?" Hence, Kuroe extended her hair and tickled his cheek, saying: "Do you still not believe?" Funnily enough—although it actually was not funny—Haruaki stared wide-eyed, full of shock.
"Hey Cow Tits, tell him that you're more than just a woman with a large bust."
Still lying sprawled on the tatami, Konoha reached for a scrapped pile of old magazines and sliced it apart as though her hand were a paper shredder. "So—" Fear took out the Rubik's cube and transformed it into the drill to show Haruaki who was still sitting in his futon.
"Me, I'm this kind of thing. What, you recall it now? Also, if you're going to admit that you're joking, this is your final chance!"
"Uwah! No, I'm not joking at all! Umm, sorry..."
"Hmm, but upon seeing something like this, a truly ordinary person should be more surprised, agitated or fearful instead. Since you didn't react that way—That means somewhere in the depths of your heart, you still regard cursed tools as basic knowledge perhaps."
"Speaking of which, why do I clearly find it suspicious, but... I'm not really afraid, it's as if I used to know about it in the past."
"You already knew in the first place! Jeez, you shameless brat..."
Then there were some further explanations and the girls also took the opportunity to tell him that this home was a facility for lifting curses from artifacts. "I see... Hmm~ It does feel like something I know... Yet not know..." Haruaki only gave these sorts of ambiguous responses.
"Hmm, I think I get the basic idea... Simply stated, I've currently forgotten things I should already know, right? Why would this happen?"
"An enemy did it."
Haruaki seemed surprised by this dangerous word. Fear crossed her arms and continued:
"However, there's nothing for you to worry about. We will help you find a way."
"Yeah, Haru, you only need to act as usual. After all, you still remember the things at school, so there shouldn't be anything inconvenient... At least, I don't think you should be lying down like a patient."
"That's true... Although it's uncomfortable to know I've lost my memory... Apart from that, I'm completely normal. Oh yeah, can I confirm something?"
"What is it?"
Haruaki scratched his head and said:
"Uh... In order to lift your curses, you girls came to this home and are living together with me, right? Since I want things to go back to the way they were as much as possible, I'd like to ask—How did I get along with you all? What were our relationships like?"
Konoha, who had been like a corpse, suddenly revived all at once with astounding vigor. She abruptly got up and said:
"I... For me—You treat me... more gentle than anyone! Or should I say, our hearts and minds are as one? The kind of feeling that as long as you're with me, nothing else matters—To be honest, perhaps we really have quite an extraordinary relationship after all! N-No, not perhaps but surely!"
"Wait a sec, she's lying! You're... You're... that... Yes! You worship me! A willing relationship between the ruler and the ruled. You're the servant in a master-servant relationship—You always prepare a feast of rice crackers for me every single day!"
"Hello darling, I am lover number one, Ningyouhara Kuroe."
"I'm totally confused here!"
Amidst the commotion, Fear thought to herself.
I want things to go back to the way they were. That was what Haruaki said just now. For whom?
The answer was obvious. It was for the girls.
In order to reduce as much as possible their suffering due to the change from before.
Even having lost important memories, Haruaki was not thinking of himself but being considerate for them.
Ahhh, how stupid he remains!
What an excessively nice guy I really feel like cursing.
Leaving behind Haruaki who said he wanted to change, the girls exited the room. Standing in the corridor, the three of them sighed.
Then unlike the mood inside the room, an atmosphere of icy-cold solemnity began to stir.
"How can we cure him?"
"If it's the effect of some sort of power, then logically speaking, defeating the perpetrator should do it, right?"
"Hmph, that man said something about the past and memory loss. It's perfectly clear who the perpetrator is."
"—I shall go out to the streets immediately. In any case, he must be located first."
"Cow Tits, I'm coming too."
"Not necessary. You're still quite unfamiliar with the layout of the streets, aren't you? You should stay here with Kuroe to protect Haruaki-kun. We cannot be sure if the enemy has given up on Haruaki-kun or not."
"Kono-san, don't overdo it—"
"I won't. I am not so arrogant as to think I can win on my own—But it's possible I might run into a situation where I am forced to fight, such as if I were cornered without any avenue of retreat. Nevertheless, even if that sort of situation should arise—"
Smiling in a bone-chilling manner, Konoha continued:
"Only that man's head, now that is something I shall definitely cut off. Even if it means mutual destruction."
"Hmph, very well. Although I really want to say: 'please do so'—then again, that would mean I won't have a chance to take out my anger on that man, doesn't it? I forbid you to steal a march on me."
The killing intent in the air eased up subtly.
"Like I said, I'm not forcing myself because I want to. In any case, if I run into danger I will consider escaping. Well then, I'm relying on you two here."
Just as Konoha prepared to leave, she suddenly asked:
"By the way, I haven't seen Aiko-san since just now... What happened to her?"
No one present could answer this question.
Abyss could feel Alice's weight as he pushed the wheelchair, strolling through the quiet residential neighborhood. Weighing her wishes against the risk of being discovered by their enemies, his priorities were clear for all to see.
"So it failed..."
"Yes, the process suffered interference halfway through. Even I am not too sure myself, from the feeling in my hand, the extent he actually confessed."
"Oh~ ...I'm sorry, Matriarch and Patriarch, if only I could have delayed those people longer..."
Turning his gaze back at Kururi who was following some distance behind the wheelchair, Abyss curled the corners of his lips in a smile:
"How long you can delay depends on the other side's wit. This cannot be calculated in the first place. Please don't let it weigh on your mind. You did very well."
"Uh... Yes, thanks..."
Scratching her slightly blushing cheeks, Kururi quickened her pace a little to catch up.
"Umm, may I ask a question? What was the purpose of doing all that?"
"Speaking of which, we still have not explained to Kururi-san in detail."
"Right. If we take that boy home after stealing most of his memories, he won't be escaping. Should Fear-in-Cube and the others try to retrieve him, the memories won't return unless they can defeat me. And I do not believe that I will lose to them."
"Naturally. Plus I will help too."
"How reliable of you. Simply stated, if Fear-in-Cube wants the boy to return to the way he was, her only choice is to negotiate with us—'Join the Family in exchange for the boy's recovery.' Once she joins us, everything else is easy. This is the best way to save unnecessary labor."
"Since the last plan failed, it can't be helped. We just have to come up with the next plan."
Watching the red leaves of autumn along the path as if mesmerized, Alice commented casually.
"We can't rely on strength?"
"Not that we can't, but it's not certain enough—Don't get the wrong idea, I'm not doubting your strength. I forgot to mention, these people have support from the organization called 'Lab Chief Yamimagari Pakuaki's Nation'."
"If we enter a direct confrontation, they might pour in all their resources to eliminate us. In terms of results, trying to kidnap Fear-in-Cube by brute force could turn into a war against them with considerable probability."
"Our original plan was to have Fear-sama join us willingly. Had it gone as planned, it would have neutralized the Lab Chief's Nation's supportive relationship. But as expected, things did not go that smoothly."
"Somehow it feels so complicated..."
Feeling Kururi sigh in exhaustion, Abyss smiled wryly.
Pondering their next move, he continued to push the wheelchair forward as energetic and noisy children brushed past them. These children were screaming in excitement, laughing very happily.
What a rare sight—Abyss thought to himself. Who could have imagined children who were not screaming in sadness, moaning in pain, trembling in fear, or weeping in despair?
But this was only natural—Abyss instantly corrected his thinking. This was a different country in a different age, currently enjoying an era of peace.
Primitive memories surfaced in his mind. Originally just an ordinary cross—His memories from his time as a symbol for an evil cult that treated children as live sacrifices. He was the accessory installed in a church on the frontier, situated at the bottom of a hellish valley, surrounded by cliffs. There was once a time when the church existed as the lair of devil worshipers who wore the guise of clergy. Believing the devil to be the true God, these people made offerings of children as sacrifices. Violating children before the cross, peeling off their skin, gouging out their eyes, disemboweling their entrails, roasting them alive with fire and eating them.
Those children... Indeed, it all started from those thoughts of despair and now here he was—
As Alice watched the children pass by with a smile, she suddenly turned and looked up, speaking with eyes full of tender love:
"Did you recall the children's screams, Abyss?"
"Nothing escapes you, Alice. Praise the Lord."
Abyss relaxed his gaze and shrugged. This exchange prompted Kururi to speak, somewhat in a fluster:
"You want to hear children scream? Just give the order and I'll go catch a few kids. Your instructions, please."
This new child's offer, full of the Family's love, caused Abyss to smile wryly.
"No, it would be nostalgic and amusing to hear them again, but I won't make such demands—Besides, my curse does not involve that."
"Eh? Then what is it?"
"Oh dear, I haven't mentioned it? My curse, naturally—It fulfills the wishes of humans."
Strictly speaking, that was not it, but in terms of results, they were the same.
Abyss had fulfilled the wishes of innumerable humans. Each and every successive ruler of that church had had his wishes fulfilled. The church had served an uncountable number of purposes. Cult headquarters, narcotics plantation, terrorist hideout, illegal brothel, serial killer playground, as well as a human trading market specializing in girls—
"Hmm~ Human happiness is synonymous with the misfortune of others. Hence, my curse has further strengthened."
"That is for making you more and more of a foundation to transcend the real God. You should not regard those misfortunes as truly unfortunate. Naturally, I don't regard them as such either. The were necessary suffering in order to allow me to encounter you."
Yes—He replied. The final curse allowing him to take human form had come from the beloved woman he was now pushing in the wheelchair.
"Me too... I believe you are the god who has surpassed the real Lord, Patriarch. That's because I would have no place to go if you didn't invite me. Even if I left the juvenile penitentiary, I belong nowhere. You saved me, Patriarch."
Indeed, Abyss had also fulfilled Kururi's wish and saved her. Including what her words did not imply.
"But in your case, what saved you the most was your trusty Wathe."
"Yeah, I'd have died long ago without it. Dead as a doornail."
"You should continue to lavish your love upon it. Then that child will become even more transcendent, just like Abyss here."
Yes—Kururi nodded. Casting a gentle gaze on her, Alice said: "By the way, the river just now was so beautiful. I'd really like to see it again." For the culprit to return to the crime scene—That would be far too cliched, so the other side probably won't expect it? Thinking that, Abyss smiled and turned the wheelchair towards the river embankment from earlier.
Glancing at the clear water, he thought... They should not spend too much time pondering their next move. If the information from the confession was trustworthy, the Knights Dominion—the man nicknamed the One-Man Force: «Isolate»—was going to intervene at some point. Action must be taken swiftly.
Did they have to rely on strength after all... But that could end up causing tumultuous changes in the Family's situation. To put it bit more bluntly, their current combat potential was slightly lacking. Not to the point that they would lose, but victory would be no easy walk in the park. If possible, Abyss hoped as much as possible to avoid exposing Alice to danger before she fully recovered.
What should he do... Just as he stroked his beard in thought—
A figure appeared over the embankment, causing Alice to murmur "Ara ara" while Kururi entered a battle stance with a vicious expression. However, Abyss reacted different for he could see from a single glance who the figure was.
Praise the Lord. What he had worried for want of was perhaps offering itself on its own initiative.
Abyss was the tool for human salvation. Naturally, even human-like tools were not exempt from his generosity.
It was the girl who wore a coat with numerous pockets, standing in a manner Abyss could not have imagined from their first encounter. But she instantly pursed her lips as though she had made her decision.
Then she buried her face into her upright collar, but beneath her bangs, her gaze was definitely filled with willpower. The girl said:
"...I have a request for you."
To forget everything, how nice that would be.
If only she were no longer herself, how nice that would be—
Her mind was filled with such tumult. The home back there was such a wonderful place.
However—She could not clear her mind. Her past actions, the crimes she had committed, the fearful gaze of the puppy she was holding, the cries of the baby in her arms...
By the time she realized, she had already rushed out of that lovely home. After seeing the way he acted after waking up and the girls' troubled reactions, she discovered something. There was still a way. Knowing that, she could not suppress the motions of her body.
Running, running, running aimlessly.
But her legs began to slow down gradually.
Finally, her steps began to stumble and she switched to walking.
Amidst the unchanging scenery of the streets, her mind gradually cooled down.
—Even though she clearly had no idea where she was.
—Even though she did not even know if the method would work.
—To him and those girls who had treated her so gently, perhaps this would constitute betrayal.
—Stupid, stupid, stupid.
There was a hollow sense of despair as though she had forced herself to wake up from the dream she had always treasured. Continuing to walk with her shoulders slouching in dejection, she suddenly found herself at the river embankment from earlier. This was her third time here. The first time, she had met them. The second time, there were delicious sandwiches. But this time—there was only loneliness.
Sitting down on the embankment, she stared blankly out at the river.
Seconds then minutes passed. Listening inattentively to the sounds of the water, she listened as words of harsh reality surfaced in her mind once more.
—There's no way, it's useless.
—Give up, you're wrong. How could you possibly escape from such suffering? Crimes cannot be forgotten. Immutable things cannot be changed. Go back, go back and apologize to everyone, then—
Leaning her forehead against her drawn-up knees, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was her ritual to forget the path she was heading towards. She spent dozens of minutes breathing in and breathing out. After a cycle of this process finally ended, she had no choice but to open her eyes. She had no choice but to look up.
Then, in order to go back to that home, just as she was slowly getting up—
She heard the sound of a wheelchair.
Perhaps a curse or a blessing in disguise, or simply pure an insignificant coincidence?
Aiko thought to herself. Feeling the existence of the hand of fate stirring in her hollow heart, she wondered.
Ahhh, if the existence known as God truly existed...
Then He must surely be an existence no less deserving than tools like us—
To be cursed. Absolutely.
"...I have a request for you."
Listening to her own voice tremble so intensely, she continued to reveal the contents of her wish.
Very simple yet very difficult. That was the single wish.
"Oh? Why would you ask me?"
The bearded man asked in amusement. "Please explain." The woman in the wheelchair added.
They did not reject her. It's possible, it's definitely possible. Her wish can be fulfilled—
By her own initiative—
Confessed her sins.
"Mm-hmm, I see."
"Patriarch, are you really going to accept her? She's an enemy, you know!"
"Kururi, we were never attacked by this girl, yes? Besides, offering Wathes equal love is the Family's ideology. Since she has come to us in search of help, there is no reason to refuse... Rather, we should rejoice instead. If we discriminate her just because she spent a little while in the enemy camp, wouldn't that be a great pity?"
"That's... true, I guess..."
"Ara ara, indeed you are right, Abyss. However—"
"I understand. We are also currently in a difficult situation, so your wish cannot be granted for free."
He was eyeing her in an appraising kind of way. Just as Aiko trembled from his gaze, the woman in the wheelchair cocked her head and spoke to Aiko gently:
"There's no need to be nervous. We only ask you to do what is within your ability. First of all, please join our Family—Just as Abyss mentioned, we are currently in need of help. What are you capable of doing? No, before that, may I have your name please?"
"...What about your true name?"
Aiko gasped, but she could no longer remain silent by this point. Lightly clasping her palms together, she answered—
Her name. The tool created for the purpose of cursing someone—Her name.
"The Indigo Vessel. Also—the Indigo Venom Technique."
On the way back from getting tea from the kitchen, Haruaki heard voices from the living room. Casually, he peered through the doorway to check out the situation inside. Since he intended to return to his room after a quick look, it naturally took on the style of a sneak peek.
In the living room, two people were sitting opposite each other at the dining table. Fear was casually turning the Rubik's cube as she spoke:
"Then... What now, Kuroe? Simply waiting leaves us with too much time doing nothing."
"Hmm yes. Although defeating that man is definitely decided, sitting around is not really working out. We should do our best and try to help Haru recover his memories, right?"
Kuroe nodded as she gazed blankly.
"Do you have any ideas?"
"Well... If we follow the usual methods in manga or movies, the cliched way is to give him a bit of a shock."
"Yes, such as—"
Remaining expressionless, Kuroe lifted her fist up to her face and said nonchalantly:
"...Ohoh, that's easy to understand."
Fear nodded seriously.
(Don't accept that idea so easily!?)
As much as Haruaki wanted to scold them, it would be embarrassing if he popped out now. While praying that the idea would not be put into practice, he continued watching.
"But the current situation is special, so I don't know if punching alone will have an effect."
"So that means a harder punch is needed huh...? If that's what you're saying, let's do it this way—"
Fear also raised something to the side of her face like Kuroe had done earlier.
However, what she raised was a viciously spiked metal club.
Things had gotten even worse.
Haruaki desperately covered his mouth, trying to suppress his exploding urge to protest. Who knew where she had taken that thing out from; was it something similar to the drill he saw earlier?
"...Excellent idea. But somehow, I get the feeling that it's more likely to make Haru's memory loss even worse."
"Umuu, actually, I think so too."
Fear turned the metal club back into a Rubik's cube. Haruaki held his hand to his chest and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hmm, punching him was just a joke, okay. Anyway... Rather than doing things that may or may not work, why not think about the root cause of Haru's condition instead? In other words, I guess we must wait for Kono-san."
Hearing Kuroe's words, Fear sighed and leaned back onto the tatami floor, raising her Rubik's cube towards the ceiling. Then she began to randomly swivel the colors around.
Relieved that shocking violence was not going to be used to jog his memory, Haruaki prepared to return to his room. At this moment, he heard the last voices from the living room behind him.
"Ahhh, this is so difficult... All I'm capable of is punching him."
"Me too. Don't be disheartened, Ficchi~"
"I'm not disheartened. But it's just... I feel... so vexed."
The voices were mixed with the clicking sound of the Rubik's cube.
They sounded very lonely.
Walking along the corridor, Haruaki suddenly paused for a moment, but instantly continued again.
Walking towards his room—as though he were fleeing.
After a while, voices started up in the living room again.
"...Is he gone?"
"How dare he stand there and eavesdrop so sneakily... Couldn't he have come in?"
"He probably found it awkward? That's what I think."
Hmph—Fear snorted and the Rubik's cube began to play its music again.
Click click. Click click. Click click—
The colors did not match up. Because she was just swiveling it randomly, the colors did not match up.
Even so, the scattered colors could not possibly disappear.
Undoubtedly, they remained on this little toy.
Except that they were off from their proper positions.
Quietly, Fear waited for the day they would match up—
I'm the worst. The absolute worst—Haruaki thought to himself.
He was sitting at this desk, spinning his mechanical pencil. Staring him in the face was the tea he had brought from the kitchen as well as the math handout he had made zero progress on.
He found it ludicrous. So ludicrous that he was overflowing with self-contempt. It really was the worst.
Dry and boring theorems. Formulae. Geometric analysis. The very fact that he needed do his homework.
These were all unimportant yet he clearly remembered them all.
Why could he not remember what seemed to be the most important matters—
Apparently it was not his own fault. They said there was a villain. Even so, the one who had lost his memory was himself. He was still the one who could not remember.
As much as he wanted to improve the situation, he had no idea where to start. Because of that, he had followed that unimportant sense of crisis in his heart and faced the desk. Better than staring into space and doing nothing was what he thought originally, but how could anything result? He had intended to drink some tea to relax then work on his homework—visiting the kitchen for a change in mood—but it ended up counterproductive.
Because he accidentally heard their lonely voices.
Once again, he sighed and bowed his head, resting his forehead against the desk.
"Damn it... Hurry up and remember, idiot..."
A sense of helplessness and guilt. The mixture of these two emotions naturally turned into self-directed rage. Hurry up and remember, hurry up and remember, hurry up and remember!
The girls' words surfaced in his mind. If getting punched could really recover his memories, that would be nice too.
Instead of suffering punches, he knocked his forehead against the desk. "Bang! Bang!" Many times, many times.
Ouch. But this would be a cheap price to pay if it really could restore his memories. He kept repeating the act but to no avail.
How could it possibly return his memories?
He lifted his sharply aching forehead. Damn it—Cursing the desk again, Haruaki shook his head. Ahhh, no good, this was useless as expected. Calm down.
He deliberately took a deep breath and stretched. Leaning himself back on the chair, he arched his spine backwards and stared at the ceiling—
He found an expressionless young girl, sitting upside down on the ceiling.
"Haru, even if you abuse yourself, it won't help."
Maintaining her blank gaze, she spoke nonchalantly. Then with the writhing motion of the hair she had spread out to adhere to the ceiling, she landed with a spin in the air.
"Your forehead is all red now."
"Man, what a shameful scene to be witnessed... D-Don't mind it."
"Was it really because of what we said just now? I'm sorry, it really was just a joke."
"Eh... I was discovered?"
"Yes, that's why Ficchi asked me to check on you."
"I see... No, but this actually has nothing to do with what you said. It's simply... Umm... A ritual for cheering oneself..."
A slight sense of mirth appeared on Kuroe's cheeks. She moved closer to Haruaki.
"I'll heal you. This is the power I possess."
"Eh? No, it's okay, it's not so serious that you need to use your power. It doesn't hurt anymore anyway... Uwah!"
As Kuroe approached, she wrapped her hair around Haruaki's face. Rather than extending her hair, she simply used it at its normal length, wrapping loosely.
But then nothing happened. Nothing particularly special happened.
The petite girl wrapped her arm around the back of his head and simply embraced tightly.
Covered by the hair, Haruaki could not see. His face could sense the touch of a flat chest while the top of his head felt a downward gaze. If one were to describe it instinctively, it was a very gentle gaze.
"W-W-What's going on...?"
"Didn't I say I was going to heal you? But I didn't mean your physical injury. I am a doll and dolls heal people's hearts by embracing and being embraced... But to be honest, that's not really my forte."
Haruaki felt his own hair waving beneath her breath. Next, her voice sounded very gentle.
For some reason, being hugged in this manner felt very soothing. Hence, Haruaki did not try to struggle free and simply allowed Kuroe to embrace him as she pleased.
"Don't be impatient. Haru is Haru, the Haru that I know, Ficchi knows and Kono-san knows. This fact will never change."
"But I... don't recognize any of you. I am such a bastard for having forgotten you all..."
"Even so, the fact doesn't change. I am relieved. Seeing you sip tea in leisure or argue noisily with Ficchi, I think to myself... Ahhh, Haru is Haru. So... Don't force yourself. Just act naturally as usual. Don't blame yourself all the time. Don't be harsh on yourself just because you're trying to recover Haru's style, because Haru, you've already got it."
"You don't have to apologize, you know?"
Kuroe smiled wryly and Haruaki did the same. Finding himself being embraced and comforted by such a child and feeling relieved as a result, Haruaki concluded that he really had far to go. Definitely, he had to pull himself together.
The weight of Kuroe's face against his head was slowly shifting. As the hair slid along her chin, her downward moving face stopped in front of Haruaki's forehead.
Through the layer of hair wrapped around him, came a light touch—The sensation of lips. It felt like a light kiss or a blessing.
A kiss consisting only of pure affection.
Even so, those were still a girl's lips. Despite her child-like figure, those were still a girl's lips. She spoke and gazed gently like an elder sister... A girl's lips.
Ooh—Haruaki stopped breathing and moving for an instant. The hair released him with rustle. Regaining his sight, Haruaki looked forward to Kuroe walking towards the door to leave.
"Hmm~ Well, that's that. Good luck with your homework~"
Looking back slightly, she waved as she gazed blankly and slid open the paper door to exit. However, Haruaki did not miss the sight. Very faintly on her cheeks appeared a spot of red one would easily miss without close examination. Surely or maybe, this was exceptionally rare.
"...If you feel embarrassed about it, don't do it in the first place, okay..."
Muttering to himself in the room that had returned to silence, Haruaki smiled and faced the desk again. Although he was not in the mood to do homework, there was plenty to think about, more productive things than meaninglessly bashing his forehead against the desk.
He was not going to force things. However, precisely because the girls seriously cared about him—He wanted to recover his memories as quickly as possible. Although he would not force himself to do something he could not, he would desperately do everything and anything within his ability. Only that.
Letting his senses become keen.
Searching for that sense of familiarity.
Upon finding any head-scratching hints, he would focus all of his attention on it.
He will retrieve the fragments of himself that had gone to who knows where.
Having made his decision, Haruaki's mood calmed down. There was no need to be anxious. Simply grasp anything that must not be missed. In any case, the most important thing is to wait for something like that to arrive—
"...In the end, I still have to do my homework, right? Sigh..."
Slumping his shoulders dejectedly, Haruaki picked up his mechanical pencil again.
After that, with the tip of the pencil now feeling slightly lighter than before, Haruaki began to write Xs and numbers.
Every pedestrian who met her gaze was taken aback in fright.
Not good, not good—Seeing their reaction, Konoha poked herself in the corners of her mouth to relax her expression. That said, she was not sure if her face really became less tense, but to be honest, she did not really care.
She looked up at the clock that was built in front of the train station. It was already dusk. As if reflecting her mood from the fruitless search, the sky was dark and gloomy. This was not only partially due to the setting sun, but also because of the dark clouds filling the sky overhead. It made the sunshine from noon earlier seem like a dream. Will the sports festival tomorrow be okay?
Konoha had hoped for the sports festival to arrive without incident.
During the picnic, Haruaki-kun was clearly still his usual self.
Biting her lower lip, Konoha made a turn and stepped into the commercial district again. How many times has she done this already? Forgotten.
As this sentence occupied her mind and shook her heart, she bared her fangs.
Forgotten. Haruaki-kun has forgotten.
Forgotten about the past, forgotten all those accumulated memories, forgotten all the times spent together.
For Konoha, those were very important things. What about for him? She wanted to believe it was important, she wanted to believe. Oh no, but he has forgotten. He does not remember. Even that time, or that moment, or that particular time, that occasion, that event—All forgotten!
Why? Who is the culprit? The one who caused this to him.
—Isn't the answer obvious? It was that man. That man!
Halting in her footsteps, she stroked the rim of her glasses. She did not need to look to know how other people were reacting. Given her current gaze, it would not be strange even if someone called the police.
While telling herself to be calm, she first went into a back alley between shops. This was the dark side of the world where the road was so narrow that even riding a bike would pose a challenge. The colorful bar signs also made the road even more difficult to pass through. Weeds growing through cracks in the concrete were as feeble as quarantined and terminally ill patients. The drifting smells of alcohol and yakitori grilled chicken evoked an atmosphere of traditional Japanese ballads. If a female high school student were walking through this kind of place in the middle of the night, it would be virtually the same as asking to be accosted by ruffians. But currently it was only dusk. If any unfortunate soul tried to annoy this apparently lovely high school student with her excellent figure—Thank you very much, I'll gladly pummel you to relieve my stress.
Just as Konoha adjusted her breathing, she heard a strange and unpleasant noise—Someone was vomiting loudly. An impatient drunk? Konoha cast her glance to the sound and her mood instantly brightened. Despite seeing vomit and smelling it, she felt wonderful.
It was Kururi.
By the time she noticed, Konoha's body had already acted.
Startled, Kururi looked up, drawing out the knife as she held the cross pendant in her mouth—Too late. Her movements were so unrefined that the speed she had displayed earlier during noon seemed unreal. Konoha effortlessly caught both her arms and successfully pinned her against the wall like a rapist.
"How fortunate, then let me pick up the pace and cut to the main query—That man... Abyss, where is he?"
"A-As if anyone would tell you, incompetent fool..."
"The incompetent one is you, to be caught so easily."
This retort must have struck a nerve, for Kururi's face distorted slightly. Serves you right—Thinking that, Konoha brought her face close and gazed into her eyes at close range, almost enough to make contact with her glasses.
How troubling, this dark impulse surging from the depths of my heart that cannot be suppressed.
"Yes, I am very troubled. To be honest, the one I seek is not you but Abyss."
"Then you've got the wrong person. Go find him yourself."
How amusing. Brushing her own nose past Kururi's nose, Konoha drew even closer to her face. As if breathing against her ear, Konoha spoke directly to Kururi's ear:
"Ara, in that case, in other words—"
Gently, very gently, she whispered.
While licking that soft ear.
"Little lass—Is this what you mean? If you are merely a useless prisoner, then even if I were to take out my anger on you, no one will be complaining, yes?"
"Ara ara, how unfortunate~ I originally planned to satisfy myself just by killing that man—But as luck would have it, I ran into you. It's perfectly fine if you embarrass yourself with incontinence, perfectly fine! Indeed, it's perfectly fine. However, please remember to squeal like a pig at least, so that I am satisfied, yes?"
Slowly, very slowly, she looked up and once again savored the sight of the pitiful girl and her pitiful gaze.
Then with a chuckle:
"—You're acting too scared!"
Konoha headbutted her in the forehead with all her strength. Kururi dropped her knife and collapsed to the ground. Did she receive a concussion?
"Oh dear! Did I just use a manner of attack unbecoming of a maiden? No good, no good."
Chastising herself for several seconds, Konoha dragged Kururi's body and loaded the girl onto her back. Then making an expression as though "taking care of a drunken friend is such a pain~", Konoha made her way home.
Even so—She thought to herself. Even so, why was this girl in that kind of place, engaged in an act that only useless salarymen would do after work...?
A cursed pot. A vessel for gu poison. The Indigo Venom Technique.
The girl had described herself in these ways. In order to witness her power, the group had made their way to the warehouse by the sea. "Luckily, I still remember this location." The Matriarch murmured, but Kururi did not quite understand.
"Preparations are apparently in order." Saying that, the Patriarch left for somewhere. In less than two hours, he brought back things that did not quite match him.
Dogs. A Norwich Terrier, an American Cocker Spaniel and a Schipperke.
"I only found these despite my haste. Not a bad catch, I suppose?"
"Uh... What will they be used for?"
The following was heard from the girl who used the situation to introduce the explanation:
So-called gu poison involved sealing several animals or bugs into a vessel and having them cannibalize one another—Then the sole survivor, which became something like a familiar, could be used as a catalyst for curses. An ancient spell technique. Like hammering nails into straw effigies, it was a method for cursing people.
Whether such methods could actually curse people, there was no consensus. But back in times before the maturation of science and medicine, there was no way for a person to refute claims even if one were to tell them that the cause of their illness or suffering was "the curse I placed on you." If the caster believed it, the cursed victim believed it, and all the surrounding people believed it, then a curse became truth. Consequently, a true "curse" would arise from everyone involved in the curse that was impossible to prove—those who suffered, those who died, those who were left behind—thereby causing the vessel to become truly cursed. By devouring creatures, making it their home, gu poison could indeed be prepared from the vessel for harming people.
"Human imagination truly astounds me. For a real curse to be born from a nonexistent curse. In any case, she said that she can still employ that original method to produce gu poison if she were to revert to her original form as a pot. However, due to the curse, she can apparently create the venom even in human form as well, and in greater amounts with more materiality in her powers, to create existences that are literally familiars."
"How is it done?"
The Patriarch's answer was simple and easily understood.
—Having her kill living creatures under particular circumstances.
"All the creatures killed by her are apparently transformed into gu poison under her control. Currently, she seems to be able to maintain several of them, but for our purposes, the more the better. As a demonstration, we are asking her to go through the process of creating more venom."
Hence, Kururi understood how the dogs in his arms were going to be used.
—A sharp pain.
Something was hurting, in the very depths of Kururi's heart, the pit of hell in her subconscious that she could not find even if she wanted to.
Unable to confirm that feeling, Kururi's awareness was brought back to reality by the Patriarch's next words.
"Very well, let us begin. Would you like to watch as well?"
A sharp pain—Something else was stinging again, but Kururi deliberately drove the thought away.
Whatever, anything was fine. As long as she could be together with him, behind him. Whether meters or centimeters, as long as she could stay somewhere close to him.
Entering the sealed warehouse together with him, she entered the warehouse that was akin to a sealed vessel.
By the time Kururi regained her senses, she was outside the warehouse. The stench of blood lingered in the depths of her nostrils. Her body felt as stiff as frozen ice. She felt compelled to vomit. Why? A sharp pain. Stinging pain. Nikaidou Yutaka. Who was that? Although she had an older sister, she had no brothers. And the older sister had jumped off a cliff, together with their father and mother. Was it her uncle's name? Maybe. As much as she did not want to remember, somehow the name barged itself into her mind.
"Even though you have murdered before, you cannot bear the death of animals?"
"Ah... No, this..."
"It does happen, you know? Perhaps precisely because they are fragile creatures, they evoke pity in others."
Seeing the Patriarch standing behind her, smiling wryly, Kururi felt ashamed and embarrassed. Forcing her vomit and saliva back into her stomach, she straightened her back.
"I'm fine. Sorry about that."
"Very well. In any case, the entire process truly compels me to praise the Lord."
"In other words, the girl's ability is accepted?"
"In terms of combat potential, truly top class. Now my calculations can proceed."
"So, next is handling Fear-in-Cube...?"
He shook his head:
"Didn't I tell you already? Relying on strength is not a simple matter. What I mean by 'calculations' is what happens afterwards. The conclusion is—Alice has made her decision to start a war with the Lab Chief's Nation."
War. A term that was furthest removed from Japan.
"Hence, we must first establish a solid foundation. Scattered across the world, the various Family members will be ordered to act—And our plan for tomorrow... This is it."
He took out a piece of paper from his suit pocket. Kururi casually received it. Printed on this worthless-looking paper, there was some text and a map.
"We picked it up just now. Alice was very interested and it apparently coincides with 'conditions' demanded by Aiko. In preparation for the coming moment, we decided to stock up in venom here, all at once. Haha, Alice's sudden whims always astound me."
What on earth—could that mean—?
Just as Kururi stared blankly at the contents of the flyer, he placed his hand on her shoulder. A warm hand. This simple act was enough to make her whole body gradually feel hot and she became unable to think.
"Kururi, in the near future, the Family's situation will probably undergo dramatic upheaval. I will not change and neither will Alice—But very likely, there will be changes in the members of the Family. Amidst all this, I hope you will become the one who shoulders the responsibility for the next generation of Family members. I have great expectations for you."
Such elating words. With just this sentence, nothing else mattered—Kururi thought to herself again. However—
She saw the figure of Tateoka Aiko in the warehouse at this moment.
Aiko's face was extremely blank. She stood there, her entire body listless.
And her hands were smeared with fresh blood.
"...I did it. Did it. No choice but to do it. Because otherwise, they won't help me. Hence, hence, hence, hence, hence, hence, hence, hence..."
She kept trembling and feebly spoke in monotone like a broken musical instrument. She must really be broken. Broken by her own wish.
"Ohoh. In any case, you should take a break until tomorrow."
Hearing his words, Aiko slowly looked up from her incessant and blank murmuring.
"Tomorrow... I have to... do it too?"
"I'll be greatly troubled otherwise. It's nothing much, everything will end in an instant."
"Once... Everything... ends, will you really... really..."
Displaying an extremely gentle smile, he approached Aiko. His hand left Kururi's shoulder.
"Yes, once everything ends, I will fulfill your wish. Undoubtedly, I will fulfill your wish."
Caressed her head with tender affection, as though she were his own child.
He was stroking the head of the girl whose trembling blood-smeared hands had just extinguished several lives.
—A sharp pain.
The vomiting impulse had returned. It even felt several times stronger. So disgusting so disgusting so disgusting—
Kururi broke into a run. Her singleminded wish was not to let him witness her embarrassing moment.
With no idea what path she had taken, she ran into a back alley where there were few people. Finally, she reached her limit and could run no longer.
Vomit. While experiencing a stinging pain somewhere, she vomited. Blood. Yutaka. An unrecognized name.
Just at this moment, she felt someone's presence. Startled, she looked up to see—
Before her eyes was a glasses-wearing embodiment of murderous intent, silently approaching.
Inside a room in the Yachi residence—a normally unused room, everyone was gathered. The sun had already set. A long-unused fluorescent tube illuminated the empty confines of the tatmami-floored room in a subdued manner.
"You have to do this here, then... Like this, like this... Like this!"
"Uuumu... Kuroe, where did learn this type of skill? I've seen people who do this for a living, but your rope tying skills are in no way inferior to theirs."
Kuroe was tying the captured girl to the pillar in a complicated manner. As Fear spoke to her, Kuroe did not stop swinging the electrical cord she was using as a rope.
"This is supposed to be part of a maiden's upbringing. Since ancient times, in order to become virtuous wives and good mothers, young maidens must learn five essential skills before they get married. Namely, cooking, laundry, cleaning, tailoring, as well as—ropes!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about with the last item!"
"Excuse me... I think this is the crime known as kidnapping or illegal confinement, right?"
Haruaki watched the scene as he sighed with his palm against his brow.
"Don't mind that. This girl doesn't live in that kind of world."
"Uh, well... This is for retrieving your memory, Haruaki-kun, I actually have no wish of doing this. If you could please just turn a blind eye, it'll be a great help..."
Cow Tits spoke as she rubbed two fingers against each other awkwardly. How dare she try to act cute.
"What do you mean, 'I actually have no wish of doing this'? When you brought this girl home, didn't you look like a hunter who had captured a great mountain boar? I was really afraid you were going to salivate and take a bite. That made me so worried."
"What kind of wild child of nature do you take me for!?"
While they conversed, Kururi lightly moaned "ooh..." and woke up.
Instantly, she noticed her surroundings and tried to make a move—But because she was tied to the pillar, she obviously could not do anything. The electrical cord had her tied to the pillar with her hands behind her and immobilized her entire body through a complicated series of knots. Although her legs could be considered free, she should not be able to stand up. After twisting, struggling, and kicking her legs out for a while, Kururi finally stopped and only glared viciously towards the group.
"Settled down now?"
"Fucking incompetent assholes..."
"It's great that you're so energetic. Thank you very much for accepting the violent Cow Tits' invitation. Please fully enjoy your stay."
"What violent... No, hmm, denying it isn't really appropriate for the current mood. I-In any case... Cough! I will be safekeeping this for now, so don't even think of escaping."
Konoha cleared her throat and raised the cross-shaped pendant—Kururi's concealed knife—up high and waved it. Kururi clicked her tongue in chagrin.
"—Very well, all I want to ask about is one thing. Where is Abyss?"
"Do you really think I'll answer?"
"Do you really think you have a choice?"
Fear gulped and steeled her resolve. Taking her Rubik's cube out of her pocket, she transformed it into the giant hatchet. Pressing the blade against Kururi's face, she twisted her lips and said:
"Haha—This is me. These circumstances are very much in my style. Okay, time for me to do my job, right?"
"I'm going to use this to pare off flesh from your body, one slice at a time. I'll start with the tips of your toes, then your fingertips, shortening them one after another, centimeter by centimeter. I guess it'll start getting tiresome roughly when I reach your elbows? Then I'll shave off your ears through a few dozen cuts. Because ears are small, it'll be over in an instant? Once I'm tired of playing the paring game, I'll put you on the rack and simply stretch you taller. Ahhh yes, it'd be nice to use yesterday's «Judas Cradle» that I didn't get to abuse you with. That one's amazing! Have you seen a person die from having their crotch torn open? You haven't, right? Rejoice, for you can personally—"
Fear was slightly surprised by the hand on her shoulder. Haruaki's.
Despite the fear and anxiety filling his gaze, there was a certain brightness in the depths of his eyes that Fear found extremely nostalgic.
He shook his head and spoke as though he were searching for the right words:
"No... How should I put this? I don't quite understand, but that kind of thing is absolutely not allowed... I get the feeling that I can't let you act like that, so stop it. Although I don't understand the details, perhaps this is just for my sake, anyway, please stop."
Ahhh—Fear's heart could feel the obvious truth. This guy was Haruaki after all. Even having forgotten that she was a cube, having forgotten that cubic true form—He was Haruaki without a doubt.
"...Psyched! I was just kidding."
Turning her gaze away, she transformed the axe back into the Rubik's cube. Haruaki breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, Fear was merely making threats without intent to carry them out, honestly—at least for now.
Seeing the situation, Kururi arrogantly sneered, perhaps serious or merely bluffing:
"Huh... What, you're not going through with it? How boring."
"This is getting troublesome. We must find Abyss no matter what. How should we get it out of her?"
Indeed that was true—Fear frowned. No one present had the power of mind reading. How could they get her to cough it up—Oh no, if after all this contemplation, ultimately she still had to resort to exhibiting her powers to coax out the answer to that man's location, to retrieve Haruaki's memories—How should she make her final decision—
"...Since she won't tell us, then I guess it's fine even if we don't interrogate her?"
At that moment, Konoha's quiet words took everyone by surprise, including Kururi.
"Cow Tits, what's with you!? Are you saying it's okay for Haruaki to stay like this!?"
"That is not what I said. What I mean is this: we don't have to ask to find out, right? When I was searching this person, I discovered something interesting."
With a rustle, Konoha uncrumpled a piece of paper. Fear was able to recognize it. Having not lost any memories about anything unrelated to cursed tools, Haruaki was also able to recognize it.
"The sports festival's flyer...? What about it?"
"Why would this person carry something like that? Never mind, I'll ask directly."
Konoha instantly slammed the piece of paper onto the table and approached Kururi as though she were about to bite and sever her neck. Looking like she was recalling some sort of unpleasant memory, Kururi's eyes wavered for an instant—
"Tomorrow, Abyss and Alice will attend the sports festival, yes?"
Kururi did not answer but simply bit her lip and averted eye contact. But for Konoha, this was already enough. Slowly, Konoha drew away and said:
"...Looks like there's no mistake. They will be there."
"W-Why would... you know...?"
"Ha, I became even more certain after seeing your reaction. I truly thank you very much. The ingredients consist of the existence of this flyer, the possibility that those people have not given up on kidnapping Fear-san, plus intuition. The method of cooking is simple questioning, intimidation and insight—That's all. The correct answer is thus ready to serve."
Fitting methods for the scheming and underhanded Cow Tits—Thinking that, Fear looked down at Kururi.
"What's their goal?"
"You really aren't going to tell even a little? But just getting the opportunity to meet that man is already massive progress for us."
"What will you do?"
"Ambush and attack—Simple as that? Although there are indeed risks, we have no other choice."
Indeed. Compared to anything else, planning how to defeat Abyss was the first priority.
"It'd be dangerous if Abyss made another move on Haruaki. Should we leave him at home?"
"I think that would be even more risky, since all would be lost if someone attacks our home behind our back... Since we're not sure what he'll be doing, I think it's best that we all stay together."
"Fair enough... In order to engage him in combat without causing trouble to the students, perhaps we'll need assistance from the superintendent's office. Let me give them a call later. Haruaki-kun, is this okay?"
Asked by Konoha—
"I don't quite get it... But since we're all going to the sports festival, that's good too, right? I don't really want to call in absent either, and besides..."
Haruaki cocked his head, surveyed everyone's face in sequence, then said with uncertainty:
"Well, I get have this feeling... Like someone seems to be super looking forward to the sports festival? Sorry but I can't remember who it was. It seems like someone was working very hard in desperation to do something, and then... Am I over thinking things?"
These words made Fear quite happy.
Nevertheless, they also made her very lonely at the same time.
"R-Regardless of excessive worrying or not... Looks like we've decided to all attend the sports festival?"
"Also, may I ask one more thing? What are we going to do with this person? Tomorrow."
Haruaki's finger was pointed to Kururi, obviously. Ahhh—everyone looked at one another.
"It's not like we can let her go free, right? At least not until Haruaki recovers his memory."
"I agree too. Uh... Ah, how about Kuroe stay behind to keep watch over her?"
"Eh, didn't we just decide that, no matter what happens, it's better for us to stay in the same place? Also, I want to pay them back for last time... Besides, I'm still tasked with the all important mission of cheering for Ficchi, to visually lick Ficchi's nubile young body that will be clad in gym clothes, all dripping with sweat from her exertion."
"Stop using such weird descriptions!"
"In any case, the other side should not be aware that we have kidnapped this girl. My wonderful technique of «Bondage Skill No.7: The Great Turtle-Shelled King Dies a Second Death» absolutely cannot be released by one person's power alone. So, it should be fine to leave her here. After all, she's not going to die even if neglected for one day... Oh right, this reminds me, some preparations are in order. Haru, come help me."
Having apparently thought of something, Kuroe left the room with Haruaki. Left behind, Fear and Konoha exchanged glances, intrigued. At this moment, Fear recalled something that she should ask Kururi.
"Hey, do you know a girl who wears a coat with pockets all over? I don't suppose the Family has done anything to her?"
"Oh—Aiko-san hasn't come home yet?"
As soon as Konoha spoke, Kururi's shoulders began to shake. She was laughing.
"...Hahaha, come home? How incompetent. She couldn't possibly come home."
"You know something? Answer me!"
Kururi's face was filled with overt derision as though she had finally snatched an opportunity to strike back.
"Since it doesn't matter, let me tell you this—That girl has joined the Family. She came to find us on her own intiative and is currently together with the Patriarch."
"Y-You, stop trying to trick us!"
"If I wanted to trick you, I'd make up a more plausible lie. She really is very cooperative and she's currently enthusiastically making preparations to kill you all."
Delighted by their surprised expressions, Kururi continued to talk about Aiko—Her true form, a cursed vessel for gu poison meant for cursing others, as well as the process for creating gu poison.
"What did... you say...?"
"Why would she assist the Family? Also, what is the necessary condition for creating gu poison?"
"Oh my, I've said too much. If you wanna know, untie this."
Untie this? Yeah right. Releasing the captive in exchange for that information was not a worthwhile transaction. Kururi clicked her tongue as though she had realized they were not going to loosen her bonds.
"...Hey Cow Tits, I'm not too sure, but I have an ominous premonition."
"What a coincidence, me too. Many things are easily imagined... But Aiko-san..."
Fear recalled. Aiko's timid motions, the way she pulled up her collar to hide herself, going "Hweh~" as if very troubled, going "Pwah~" when happy, praising Fear's dancing, saying she wanted to watch the sports festival, eating sandwiches together. Although it was only for a day, she was most assuredly—family.
Be that as it may—Fear gritted her teeth. Indeed, be that as it may—be that as it may—
"...If she shows up as an enemy, I'll have no choice but to fight."
Konoha declared softly without hesitation. Fear glanced at her profile nonchalantly. What did Cow Tits actually think? How deep did her resolve run? And herself, how far was she willing to go—
At this moment, the footfall of Kuroe and Haruaki's return was heard. Fear looked back at the sound of the sliding door being pushed open. Haruaki was standing there with Kuroe, holding a tray. The tray carried steaming—
"Yeah. These beautiful triangles were kneaded by Haru's hands using fresh, hot, white rice together with seaweed seasoning carrying a wonderful ocean flavor. Then, taking these appetizing things..."
Kuroe took a rice ball from the tray. Holding it before Kururi's eyes, she then plopped herself down and took a seat on the floor.
"Munch munch munch much."
"...What the fuck are you trying to pull? Shitty little brat."
Nonchalantly accepting Kururi's gaze, Kuruoe deliberately chewed the rice ball even slower. Having bitten off almost half of the triangular rice ball, she brought it in front of Kururi's face as if showing her intentionally:
"Wow~ It's super tasty. The salt is seasoned perfectly. Simply looking at it is enough to make people drool."
"...Hey Kuroe, what are you doing?"
Expressionless as usual, Kuroe turned her blank gaze towards Fear:
"Hohoho, I've always wanted to try this, a situation where I can savor my absolute superiority in front of a captive... I just can't get enough of this!"
How malicious. That said, it was not as though Fear could not understand how she felt.
"That kind of incompetent crap, I won't eat it even if you begged me! Go and die!"
Her face all red, Kururi began to struggle violently. "Hmm... Kidnapping, imprisonment and abuse now...?" Haruaki sighed and pressed his palm to his forehead. Konoha also sighed, but finally—
"What is it, Kono-san?"
Konoha glared sharply for an instant. Then she said:
"...If you threw the rice ball that was about to enter your mouth onto the ground and say: 'Eat it from the floor like a dog!'... Wouldn't that be better?"
"Oh~ There's that method too."
"What the heck are you going 'oh' for!? At least let her eat normally, okay!"
"Just kidding, okay?"
"Yeah yeah, just kidding. How could we possibly mistreat Haru's rice balls? That'd be way too wasteful. It was just a joke just now anyway. These were originally prepared for her to eat normally... So that's the actual plan. Come, say ah."
"I'm going to fucking murder you! Like I said, I'm not eating that crap! If you really want me to eat it, then loosen my bonds first!"
"That's no fun at all... Correction, too dangerous. Rejected. So, say ah."
"You just went and said it's no fun at all!? What fucking joke is that!?"
Could it be... Kuroe's anger towards the Family was building up as well? Like the way everyone else was angrily shouting at this girl, perhaps Kuroe was expressing her wrath by vexing the enemy in this manner. Fear wondered to herself.
Of course, it was also highly probable that Kuroe was simply enjoying herself as usual.
Two rooms had been booked at the hotel. Aiko was taken to one of them.
"You can sleep here."
It was a rather spacious and luxurious room. Aiko casually swiveled her neck to survey the room's interior. Suddenly, she found a small set of luggage in a corner.
"Oh, this was originally the room meant for Kururi. Since she's always jumping around so nimbly, I asked Alice to keep the key for her to avoid losing it. How fortunate."
These words prompted Aiko to recall. She turned her neck slightly.
"Umm... Are we really not going to look for her...?"
"We would have if there were time. But now, we must rest in preparation for tomorrow... Since we're not certain if anything happened to her, she might suddenly return on her own. Even if she encountered an enemy, as long as she's not dead, she should be able to find a way on her own. Even if caught and cornered, she won't bear us any resentment, because we are family."
So... It was really okay? Aiko stared blankly as this question consumed her mind. Not just the matter of not searching for Kururi, but also what she had done to another human.
"No resentment... huh... If she takes ownership of me, that person... will be cursed..."
"You mean Alice? That goes without saying. She has also offered her love to you equally."
Saying that, Abyss leaned against the wall and touched the tip of his hat.
"Let me take this opportunity to ask you: do you hate humans?"
"...I don't know."
"Then, how do you feel about humans?"
"...I don't know."
"Hmm... You don't know how you should feel... Is that what it's like? Then I shall tell you."
Feeling greatly interested, Aiko turned herself around completely and faced Abyss who was towards the entrance.
"Just pity them."
"Humans are weak and powerless. They are truly pitiful existences. Hence, as transcenders, we must show them tender affection. By our doing so, humans will gladly accept this love and believe that all they need to do is offer the same love to us in return—It's truly sad that Alice and the members of the Bivorio Family are the only ones who have realized that this is the one true path."
Aiko did not quite understand, but thought this might be a good opportunity to ask:
"You and that person... What kind of relationship do you have...?"
"My curse is fulfilling human wishes. She suffered due to the wish of one of my former owners and her thoughts caused me to become even more transcendent. After that... Although it sounds silly, I happened to crush my former owner to death during the instant when I became mobile and turned my body. Indeed, by 'becoming mobile,' I am referring to the time when I first became qualified to take human form. In that sense, I should be younger than you, right? It does feel a little strange to be teaching you things as though I were your senior. Does it bother you?"
Age was meaningless to their kind. Aiko shook her head. Abyss smiled:
"Then truly, praise the Lord. In any case, at that time, she realized that I was like God, even fairer than God, a transcender who lives only to grant human wishes. Hence, rather than hating me, she has loved me deeply ever since. Having received familial love, shouldn't I respond with familial love in turn? Hence, I also loved her since. Although she was very cute as a child, she has now grown up to become as beautiful as the Holy Virgin—Oh dear, I've fallen into boasting of my love affair and gone on a tangent."
Stroking his beard, he continued:
"In other words, it's a very simple matter if anything. I am loved by humans. Pitiful and weak humans offer the entirety of their being to love me, most admirably. Hence, I pity and love her tenderly. For the sake of her wishes, I will use force at all costs. That's all."
"She loves you too, so I hope you can offer your power to her in the same way. That will make her happy. And if she's happy, I'm happy too. Then—"
"...That means if I make her happy, I'm loving you indirectly, like family. So you will reward me with love—in other words—you'll fulfill my wish..."
"Indeed. Now you understand our relationship?"
Abyss nodded with satisfaction. Aiko nodded back in turn. Understood. She understood.
For this, for fulfilling her wish. That was why she was here.
And had betrayed them.
"Well, you should get some rest today. Sweet dreams."
Waving his hand ostentatiously, Abyss left the room. Aiko stood in the room alone, staring blankly, ruminating over his words. Sweet dreams.
—I've decided not to sleep tonight. She thought to herself.
Once tomorrow arrived, everything in her dreams and more would be materialized.
How could she possibly not have nightmares?
Unable to sleep, her empty stomach complaining, Fear quietly got out of bed and went to the kitchen. Along the way, she sneaked a peek into the room where Kururi was tied up, but only found rhythmic snoring. To be able to sleep in that kind of posture, clearly she must be quite a happy-go-lucky person.
Then Fear walked into the kitchen.
She discovered a figure standing there, holding a sharp and bladed instrument.
"Wha... It's H-Haruaki? Don't scare me."
"Hmm? Oh yeah, sorry, of course this would frighten you. Only natural."
Yeah, on further thought, this really was quite strange—Thinking that to himself, Haruaki returned the kitchen knife to the rack on the counter. The girl's silver hair was glistening dreamily beneath the moonlight streaming in from the small window. Ahhh—It felt like he had seen this before—Yet it seemed unfamiliar at the same time—This mysterious silver color in the darkness. So confusing and ambiguous, even Haruaki was feeling anxious too.
The girl's eyes were extremely serious.
"...What are you doing?"
"No, I'm not planning on doing anything strange. I couldn't sleep, so..."
Searching for the right words. This unease, anxiety and loneliness in his heart, how should he express them? He had come here because of such feelings. Somehow, he felt there was something in this kitchen.
"Wasn't I making dinner earlier? During then, there was a very nostalgic feeling. Right, I must have been doing this sort of thing every day—I thought to myself. I did not need to hesitate over portion sizes and could instantly figure out how to season things to suit everyone's tastes with applause. And eating together with everyone... It felt reassuring."
"So. Many things happened, umm—What I want to say is this, if there's any hint that could remind me of the past, I won't let go of it. Since I can't sleep, wasting time in the futon seemed wasteful, so thinking that, I came here wondering if I'd remember something with the kitchen knife in my hand perhaps..."
"A-And the result?"
Fear stood very straight and asked. Her sincere eyes were overflowing with guilt.
Her shoulders slumped. It was obvious she felt disheartened. But as if trying to cover it up, she puffed her chest unnaturally and took a step forward. What clumsy acting skills.
The long and flowing silver hair descended as she crouched down. The girl was noisily ransacking the kitchen cupboard in search of something.
Haruaki could not help but ask.
He shouldn't ask—A warning alarm rang out clearly somewhere in his mind.
"What are you looking for? Want me to help you?"
The reaction was very dramatic. The girl stopped searching the cupboard and looked back forcefully, her face filled with surprise—It was an expression of deep grief that was heartbreaking to watch.
Her voice sounded exceptionally feeble, fearful of the answer. Precisely because she already knew the answer, the fear in her heart was eating away at her delicate body.
"You even forgot my favorite food? The thing I eat every day, the first thing I ate the day I arrived, the thing you gave me to appease me, you forgot it? You really... forgot...?"
It was as a though a single sentence had dispelled the magic. Up until this point, she had been nonchalantly treating him as "Yachi Haruaki who had forgotten his memories with them." Consciously, she must have outfitted herself with some kind of filtering mechanism, turning a certain part of her mind sluggish, weakening a certain awareness, numbing a certain sense of recognition. And now, the magic was dispelled in this kitchen.
She was forced to confront what had been lost, bared in full view.
There was a crashing sound. Retreating unsteadily, Fear had smashed into the fridge. Her head bowed down, her silver hair was obscuring her expression.
"Everything—Everything—The time when I ran over to school on my own, when that woman with the strong arms came, when I planned on sleeping at the bottom of the sea, when you carried me home on your back, when I started school officially, when we met Sovereignty and Shiraho, when Kuroe came home, when helping at the beauty parlor's opening—You forgot everything?"
Ahhh, something seems to be surfacing now but disappeared. What should have been experienced and all sorts of unknowns. Don't disappear, I beg you, don't disappear. If you stay, this girl won't have to cry out like this. Haruaki clenched his fist tightly. Compared to not being able to recall his memories or everything else, the grieving sounds of this girl before him was the most unbearable.
"What about more recent events? Watching me as I practiced dancing? Eating roasted sweet potatoes together, the puppy going incontinent in Aiko's arms, the argument caused when you asked her to take off her clothes? R-Right, remember—"
Saying that, she opened the fridge behind her and took out a can of juice to show Haruaki. Judging from the excessively fancy colors, it was definitely a niche flavored drink.
"You bought this. You bought it for me! The instant just before Abyss erased your memories... Merely just an instant, at the picnic...!"
"...Sorry, I... can't remember."
Perhaps his own voice was shaking. Shaking even harder than she was.
Hearing his answer, she suddenly stopped moving. There was a sound coming from her throat similar to a gasp. Violently, she ripped away the ring to open the canned juice and started drinking it all at once. Finally, she dangled the emptied can weakly from her hand.
"It tastes terrible... So terrible! Absolutely terrible! Ahhh jeez—!"
She collided her head into Haruaki's chest. The silver hair swayed at extremely close range. Then without moving away, without letting their body warmth separate, her voice said with loneliness:
"...It tastes so terrible I'm about to burst into tears..."
"I won't forgive you! How dare you buy something like this... Idiot! You're an idiot..."
Next came an attack on his abdomen. Thud thud thud—very feeble yet very painful punches landed on his flank a great many times. At the same time, her forehead struck his chest repeatedly in a similar manner. This soft sensation of her long hair. It's something he was supposed to find familiar.
Otherwise, he would not be experiencing this feeling of grief.
"I am... an idiot?"
"Yes! Not only an idiot, you are also a shameless brat..."
Showing even more suffering on her face than Haruaki, she told Haruaki about the Haruaki he did not know.
Such as suddenly looking at her nude body, his arm getting stabbed, jumping into the sea, toying with her embarrassing spot, staring at an air-headed girl's body, getting kidnapped, etc etc—
"...Am I really that much of a pervert?"
"You're the shameless brat."
More attacks from the forehead and the fist.
"Also, why does it seem like I keep running into hardship? Like getting kidnapped."
"...Yeah. I think you've always been causing us trouble."
The rhythm of her attacks was disrupted for an instant, but then the "thud" of her fist came again.
What followed immediately was an extremely heart-wrenching whisper, sounding as though it were forced out whilst enduring great pain.
"Perhaps—to you, your current state is better. You're a nice guy to a fault and you always meddle too far in others' affairs. Forget about cursed tools, forget about helping us lift our curses, forget all the abnormalities in life—Just live your peaceful life as a guy who loves to cook. Perhaps that might be for the best."
I don't want that.
For some reason, this answer surfaced in Haruaki's mind reflexively.
But before he could say it—
Thud—This time the punch on his flank really hurt quite a bit.
"But, I—I don't want that! I want you to be my friend forever! Beside me, taking care of me, praising my hard work when I am trying hard—That's how I hope for things to be..."
"Sorry, this is my willfulness. Sorry for being so willful, sorry..."
Her attacks had stopped before he could notice. Clutching Haruaki's clothes, her hand stopped as though she did not wish to separate from him, as though she would not let him leave. But she was using a very subdued forced—If he wished, he could instantly pull himself away from her hand.
But he did not wish for that.
That was not his wish.
He did not wish to remain in his current state—Wasn't that what I was also thinking just now? Idiot! Hurry up and tell her!
"Haha... I've been doing all the apologizing until now."
Shining with silver and transparent luster, she lifted her head. Haruaki smiled wryly as he gazed down at her face.
"I know, okay. I don't know much but I know this... I have never thought to myself that my current amnesia would be for the best. I want to recover my memories, recover all the times I've spent with you girls—Maybe putting it a bit embarrassingly, I want our memories."
Then Haruaki reached out and caressed her head.
So soft and warm, what wondrous touch.
He did not want to remain in amnesia, definitely because—Indeed.
Having experienced this sense of touch before, forgetting a single instance would be a waste.
Just an insignificant reason like this would be sufficient. No mistake about it.
Feeling the touch of Haruaki's hand on her head, Fear recalled the question she had just asked herself.
—How deep did her resolve run?
The answer was decided. Now that things had reached this point, she clearly steeled her resolve.
—Her resolve was infinite and bottomless.
Yes, my fellow kin, my brethren born from curses. This sin must definitely be grave. Equivalent to a lifetime of murder, or even worse crimes, steeped in sin, deserving to be cursed.
To be honest, she had been hesitant so far. Having committed such crimes, was it really okay? She felt troubled. However, she now had a reason. Because she knew, this was not simply willfulness. Even having lost his memories, but precisely because he was definitely still himself, she believed in his words.
This reason was already sufficient.
Because she no longer doubted, for the sake of being together with him, she mustered unlimited resolve.
The sin of killing her own kind, perhaps that might be unforgivable. But even so, she would still gladly accept this culpability.
Tomorrow, she was going to find «Narrow Narrow Abyss»—
As well as Tateoka Aiko who was going to stand in their way as an enemy—
And destroy them.
Translator's Notes and References
- Indigo Venom(藍蠱): gu(蠱) is a venom-based poison associated with minority cultures from southern China. Traditionally, gu poison is prepared by sealing several venomous creatures (centipedes, snakes, scorpions, etc) into a vessel where they devour one another, supposedly concentrating the toxins into the sole survivor. "Indigo" relates to Aiko's name where the first character Ai(藍) means "indigo."
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