The next day after the sports festival, Tuesday, was a day off in lieu of the holiday on Monday.
Fear was taking a midday nap after lunch when she suddenly woke up in the living room, only to discover Kuroe sitting formally on the veranda in seiza, making a rustling noise while doing who knows what. Giving "Haru's meals are very tasty~" as her only reason, she had specifically closed the shop for a lunch break and came running home. Although this sort of thing happened often and there was nothing to be surprised about—
"Huwah~ Hey Kuroe, isn't it about time for you to return to the shop?"
Glancing at the clock and making a great yawn, Fear crawled to the veranda.
"...Three... Four... Five... Ufufu, what an unexpected windfall. What should I buy? I still have a backlog on the home console, so I guess I'll use this cash to enhance the lineup for my handheld gaming device..."
An eerie grin had subtly appeared on Kuroe's expressionless face as she counted the pieces of paper in her hand. Fear had some recollection of these. Peering over Kuroe's shoulder at what she was holding, Fear asked:
"Hmm~ Is that... money?"
Kuroe swiftly hid the cash behind her back. Suspicious. Too suspicious.
"...What money is that? That's quite a lot there."
"What is it, I wonder?"
Kuroe's gaze escaped. This was getting even more suspicious.
"Muu... I saw it on television once, this isn't that thing, right? What do they call it, black money? That's unacceptable, Kuroe, this is no good! As comrades in the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance, of course I won't raise the alarm. But I'm not perfect, you know, so it's very possible my tongue might slip or I might become an informant. Just to be on the safe side, I believe it's best that you cough up some of that money for my convenience!"
"No, it's nothing at all, Ficchi~"
By this point, Kuroe was still acting stubborn.
Hmmuu, really... Fear feigned understanding and returned Kuroe's strangely cordial smile with a radiant smile—Then suddenly, she pounded.
"Since it's nothing, lemme have a look! Gimme gimme!"
"Hiya. B-Be more gentle...!"
"I'll be gentle if you'll come clean, so hurry and gimme... Hmm, where did you hide it? Where? Here? Or... There?"
"W-Wah, that's only my underwear inside, okay~"
Although Kuroe was trying to muddle through by saying unbelievable things as usual, it was useless. Fear had her firmly pinned down beneath her weight. Fear was searching under Kuroe's clothes, finally causing Kuroe to sigh—
"Okay fine, in that case..."
"Muu, have you given up resisting?"
"...I have no choice but to show my hidden hand. Heya~"
Kuroe's hair moved, took out something from her pocket and threw it into the garden.
That object was small and round.
Shaped like a disc with an irregular surface.
Carrying the taste of soy sauce—
Fear made a sliding tackle towards the garden and caught the rice cracker with both hands.
That's truly terrible! What a waste if it actually fell on the ground. Don't complain even if you suffer retribution from the rice cracker god. But anyway, it's no big deal now that the rescue operation was a success. Let me dig in now!
Crunch crunch munch munch munch.
Mmmmmm, so tasty. The extra hint of spiciness was truly—
Back to her senses, Fear looked back to find Kuroe had vanished from the veranda.
I fell for it! This schemer, how dare she resort to such horrifying means!? To be able to escape through such underhanded methods, surely you won't be able to find more than ten people in the whole wide world...!
By this point, it was probably futile to run after her? Just as Fear was getting up, she sat back down in the garden.
"Muu... What money was that? Hiding it so desperately and running away, there must be some unspeakable story behind it."
Fear cocked her head as she continued to chew the rice cracker in her mouth.
Kuroe's money remained a mystery but never mind, she thought.
After all, the blackmail payment she wanted to demand was already in her mouth.
At this moment, Haruaki was currently in Konoha's room. He had been summoned by her request of "I've got something to say." After sitting formally in seiza opposite each other and staring for a few seconds, Konoha seemed to finally resolve herself, coughing once and clearing her throat.
"Haruaki-kun... Haruaki-kun, you erred yesterday, didn't you?"
"W-What are you referring to?"
"We asked Kuroe-san to protect you, Haruaki-kun, because we had no idea what risks there were... But not only did you ignore our concerns, leaving yourself alone and unguarded, but in the end, you even ran over to the combat zone by yourself."
"Umm... Well~ Because I was very worried... B-But why does it matter? After all, I remained safe and sound. Besides, you two were saved through Kuroe's assistance, right?"
Konoha glared sharply.
"That's neither here nor there. Whether safe and sound or saving us, those are just results in hindsight. Should I call this a lack of danger awareness? This is an attitude problem! That's why I believe you should receive punishment, Haruaki-kun!"
"Yes—I've heard that when you asked Kuroe to come over to us, Haruaki-kun, you said something like 'I'll do anything you want,' didn't you? Because Kuroe-san seems to be a bit busy, I shall exercise this right in her stead, also partially to include your punishment, Haruaki-kun. I have indeed paid—Cough! No, umm, discussed with Kuroe-san and obtained her consent."
Hence, Konoha took out a piece of paper from her shirt pocket. On it was what appeared to be Kuroe's handwriting—«Certificate of the Right to Have Haru Undertake Any Kind of Request». When the heck did something like that exist?
"I-I don't recall ever issuing this kind of certificate?"
"This is only for the purpose of clearly displaying the right so that you cannot just laugh it off and muddle through."
Konoha's tone of voice was extremely serious.
Terrible, there was this ominous feeling of not knowing what she would ask. Konoha was serious. If this continued, who knew how she would use this certificate, which could hold control over life and death, to make what kind of demand—
"Ooh! My head hurts! T-To be honest, I don't quite remember what happened during the sports festival actually... Perhaps I can't really be certain if I made that kind of promise or not...!"
Holding his temples, Haruaki deliberately shook his body unsteadily, but all he received for his efforts was Konoha's cold stares. No way out after all, huh? Looks like it's hopeless.
Sigh~ Konoha sighed and slumped her shoulders dejectedly.
"Are you that unwilling...? Although it's punishment, it's not like I'll ask you to do anything excessive, okay..."
She lowered her gaze and started writing awkwardly on the tatami with her finger. Watching her like that, Haruaki felt a strange sense of guilt for some reason.
Indeed, perhaps there was no need to lie clumsily so as to run away. Besides, he did promise something similar to Kuroe. Although he could not accept the matter of transferring the right, oh well, considering this was Konoha, she should not be making any excessively strange demand, right? Indeed, looking at it from a different angle, perhaps it was a much better situation compared to Kuroe whose demand would be a complete unknown.
"How troubling... I get it, okay. I accept it. I, Yachi Haruaki, recognize your right to use that certificate."
As he raised his arms in surrender, Konoha suddenly looked up, her eyes glimmering brightly.
"Since you possess that kind of certificate, I have no choice, right? So, what should I do next?"
Hearing him ask, Konoha stood up elatedly as though she were about to burst into song. Walking about in her room she seemed to be preparing for something.
"Ufufu, this is still a secret for now... I'd be troubled if you ran away because you were shy. Ah, is my hair and my body fine? Should I go take a bath first..."
...Did I imagine what I heard? It sounded as though Konoha was nonchalantly murmuring outrageous words to herself.
"How should I say it, this is embarrassing..."
"Ehehe... This makes me happy, but I'm a little embarrassed too. I never imagined you would do this kind of thing for me, Haruaki-kun."
"Then don't ask me to do it! Damn it, I'm going to go slightly faster now!"
"A-Ah! That hurts. Please... Be more gentle... Because it's quite sensitive there..."
"S-Sorry, I haven't gotten used to it yet. Then I'll go slightly slower."
"Yes... No need to rush, it's okay..."
Gulp—Listening in on this conversation, a certain person swallowed hard. The tightly clenched fist was sweating.
"Oh! Oh... A-Almost there... Ah, phew~"
"Eh? It's finished? I guess it really can't be helped... Then let's switch, you lie down and I'll service you this time!"
Eh eh? —This was Haruaki's voice. Somehow, it felt like there was a brief dispute.
"You can't win against my in a contest of strength. Come, let me have a look... Good heavens, it's gotten to this stage already. Ufufu, you've accumulated quite a lot, right...?"
"D-Don't say that, okay."
"Aha, sorry. Well then, here I... go..."
"O-Ohhh... Th-That feels so nice."
"I know right? Just relax and leave everything to me. I will... be very gentle..."
What the heck was this 'I'll be very gentle'!?
What needed to be done was decided.
Fear transformed the Rubik's cube and pushed open the sliding door hard.
"Ahhh! I was just practicing with my axe, but stumbled accidentally...! What an embarrassment!"
Saying that, Fear raised the massive hatchet up high and rushed into the room. Over there, she saw two people intimately stuck together as expected—Indeed, intimately stuck together—
Konoha was sitting straight with an ear pick in her hand while Haruaki was lying down with his head on her lap.
"What do you mean, eh? W-What are you doing!?"
"Uwah~! P-Poke, p-poking... The ear pick is clearly poking somewhere it shouldn't~!"
Despite seeing Haruaki in pain, Fear still continued to swing the axe down. Naturally, she held back in mercy already, hence Konoha effortlessly caught the blade with her bare hands.
"What are you going 'muu' for? A rare moment of healing, why do you have to come and disturb us?"
"I-I wasn't disturbing! I was just... Umm... Practicing my axe but overdid it! This is an accident, an accident!"
"If you can aim that accurately at your target, what kind of accident is this!? Why don't you just apologize honestly? This is truly displeasing!"
"What are you talking about!? Say, you're the one that's displeasing! It's all because the two of you were hiding in a room, sneakily doing who knows what, that's why I mistook it for something shameless... N-No wait, shamelessness is shamelessness no matter what! What is with that posture!"
"Letting someone rest their head on your thigh during an ear cleaning session is the traditional and proper posture! Do you have any objections!?"
As usual, Cow Tits was opposing me while maintaining her posture of catching the blade with her bare hands. This Cow Tits was truly maddening. She must be thinking the same thing? I definitely can't lose to her..
Hence, Fear pushed harder. Beneath the blade, she saw Haruaki sneaking out to escape but she ignored it. Making Cow Tits acknowledge her defeat was the most important thing right now—
As for giving the shameless brat a taste of divine retribution, that could be done any time at all.
"Phew... Somehow it feels as though their positions have been reversed from before..."
Escaping Konoha's room, Haruaki sighed. Seriously, after all the time they have spent together, those two girls still could not get along properly... Or should that be attributed to their being close? Thinking over such matters, Haruaki decided to seek sanctuary in a quiet place first.
Taking a cleaning cloth and a feather duster with him, Haruaki entered the secondary residence in the garden. His destination was neither Kuroe's bedroom on the second floor nor Konoha's former room, but the storeroom that took up the entire ground floor. After all, there were things to be done so he might as well clean the storeroom along the way. Taking out his key, he rolled up the metal shutter and entered the secondary residence's ground floor which only had a floor of bare concrete. The icy cold air blew against his skin.
Inside were all sorts of objects waiting for their curses to be lifted. Dolls lined up on shelves, masks hanging on hooks in the wall, pieces of armor lying randomly on the floor... These were all collected by Haruaki's father or sent here without consent by people who had heard of the rumors. Almost all of them lacked special powers and most of them were only lightly cursed. Among them, there were even articles that were kept here simply because they were not needed in the Yachi residence.
Deciding to save the most important task for the last, Haruaki started to clean the storeroom's items using the feather duster. Particles of scattered dust glittered under the sunlight streaming in through the entrance. From time to time, Haruaki found the trapdoor to the basement obstructing his footsteps, but slowly, he circled and inspected the entire storeroom. Anyway, let's leave it at that.
Taking the cloth to replace the feather duster, he went over to the lowest level of a sturdy rack that seemed like it would remain fine in an earthquake and cautiously took out a certain item kept there.
An indigo-colored pot.
It was broken. Although the largest fragments had been carefully glued back, there were still a number of holes that he could not do anything about. Those parts were wrapped in cloth—"Just keep it wrapped for now. I have no idea if it will help, but at least it's better than nothing." Hence, the pot was wrapped in bandages containing Kuroe's hair.
The sensation of ceramic felt cold to the touch.
Impossible to compare with body temperature, an object's intrinsic temperature.
Haruaki squinted his eyes and sat down on the storeroom floor, holding the cloth he had brought and carefully wiping the pot. Touching an unnatural depression in the bottom of the interior, the sensation reminded him of the device that was buried in this spot.
They had discovered the device back when they were pulling the knife out of the pot. The knife's tip was embedded into the device, an object that resembled a remote control at first glance. Recalling after the fact, this device felt even more complicated than the one that was installed on Peavey's Dance Time. Like that other device, this one also contained an Indulgence Disk—Although Haruaki was hesitant at first, but seeing as the device itself was already destroyed completely, he finally inserted the Indulgence Disk into Fear, resulting in the «Judas Cradle»'s sealing. Furthermore, if Aiko reawakened, her owner would be Haruaki and reducing the curse's effects was no longer a concern.
...If Aiko reawakened.
Biting his lower lip, Haruaki wiped harder.
In the end, they did not manage to catch Bivorio who had thrown the knife. Even though she was clearly injured and was tied up by Kuroe's hair, she still managed to disappear from the school building somehow. After that, they had immediately called Zenon and asked her to search around, but in vain. The only possibilities they could think of were the following: Kuroe's hair, which was used to bind her, had lost their stiffness earlier than expected (Kuroe herself could not deny this possibility), or maybe Kururi, who was similarly missing, could have done something, or something completely unimaginable had happened.
In the end, the only certainty was that the Family's symbol, Abyss, was completely destroyed. The Family's power and influence was undoubtedly diminished, but ignoring that for now, there were still many things to be concerned about.
"Who knows what will happen—Whatever, it's not like we can do anything proactive on our side, so it's useless to worry."
As if convincing himself, Haruaki muttered. At this moment, he realized he was using too much force to wipe the pot. Smiling wryly, he applied less strength and gently, gently, he caressed her skin once more.
"But by the way... That dance was quite astounding, right? In all sorts of ways."
Haruaki was speaking to the pot that could not answer. But anyway, she was listening, so this was fine. This was not talking to oneself.
It was truly astounding. Because Fear and Konoha's clothes were splattered with mud, they had rinsed themselves using tap water as an emergency measure. The mud was no longer conspicuous, but instead—The wet clothing, drenched by the rain, became even more wet, in other words—
In all sorts of ways, they were toeing the line.
In that precarious state, the instant Fear and Konoha made their appearance on stage, all the male students cheered almost as though they were screaming.
"Seriously, Fear seems to have created a new legend. Or rather, it's Konoha's legend? Class Rep was also groaning with a solemn expression, saying the dance might be cancelled next year—Even if they don't cancel it, the costumes will probably be regulated."
Although it was impossible to tell if it was owing to the legend the girls started, the end result was that the white team's dance had obtained a decisive high score, thereby bringing overall victory to the white team. One could say that the white team's victory was thanks to those two.
Blowing air towards the pot, Haruaki reminisced. He recalled the dance as well as Fear and Konoha's expressions. Still holding the broken pot, he had hid in a dark corner of the school building. In other words, he was watching the dance from a slightly further location—But thinking to himself, he concluded that he probably could not forget those two girls' expressions for the rest of his life.
At this moment, more noise from the two girls' dispute could be heard. Haruaki shrugged and his hand that was wiping the pot also shook.
"Seriously... This home is really getting noisy, huh? How troubling."
Indeed, it was really troubling. However—
He did not dislike it.
It was not a bad thing.
"However... It's fine for this home to be like this. Ahhh jeez, it's really wonderful to be able to remember everything. So that's why I'm able to say this. This noise and bustle is this home's normal state. That's the way things have become."
Raising the pot lightly, he caressed the pot's mouth with his fingertips.
As if whispering in her ear, he spoke to the interior of the pot:
"—It's fine for this home to be like this. When Kuroe is around, it gets even noisier. But if there were one more person, it'd be even better. So, we welcome your return at any time."
These words were sucked into the pot.
Neither "Hweh~" nor "Pwah~"—There was no response.
Just as Haruaki was about to cry, a patter of footsteps approached the storeroom. Hastily, he wiped his face with the cloth and turned his head.
"Hmm~ What's the matter? Have you two stopped arguing?"
"W-We weren't arguing. I guess you can call it a simulated battle or a clash in ideologies... Something like that—Ah..."
Running over, Fear stopped. Slowly, she entered the storeroom and knelt down beside Haruaki.
"You're wiping her clean?"
A brief moment of silence.
Fear watched his hand with a gentle gaze as Haruaki wiped the pot's curves, finally murmuring:
"Those places on Aiko's body that bulge out, I guess it's obvious where on the human body they correspond to, right? To think you'd stroke those parts so obsessively... You shameless brat."
"D-Don't go saying such weird things!"
Giggle—Fear chuckled. Slowly, she stood up and said to the pot:
"Aiko, if you don't like being touched, you gotta speak up to protest! Otherwise, this shameless brat will keep touching your bulging parts. So—So hurry and wake up!"
But of course, there was no answer.
Fear's gaze wavered in loneliness.
Haruaki finished wiping and gently returned the pot to the rack. Giving a final pat on the pot's mouth with his palm, he stood up. Then he also did the same to Fear. Pat pat.
"Muu... Don't treat me like a child. I'll curse you!"
"Yes~ yes, then do you have any business? You came to get me for something, right?"
"Oh yeah. Shamelessness aside, how should I put this... Ear cleaning feels quite comfortable, right? It's not fair that only Cow Tits gets to enjoy a moment of healing. I'm tired too, so you should help me do the same thing."
"What do you mean, I should... What's with that twisted logic of yours?"
"Shut up, I'll help clean your ears in return, okay."
"Let me express 'thanks, but no thanks' with my whole mind and soul. I have yet to mentally prepare myself for the possibility of getting my brain gouged out. Besides, I only helped her do it because of that 'comply with any request no matter what' certificate—"
"You mean this?"
"Wait... How come you have one too? So you girls only conspire together on things like this?"
"Of course not, I snatched this."
"Ooh... Damn it, I knew I should have torn it up at the first opportunity...!"
While conversing, Haruaki and Fear exited the door. As they pulled down the metal shutter, the pair naturally cast a glance into the storeroom and said in unison—
"Well then... See you later, Aiko."
Not a farewell.
But a quiet promise to meet again.
—After the metal shutter descended, peace and quiet returned to the storeroom.
A space without any person.
A domain containing tools that could not speak.
A dead world filled with silence and chilly air.
Only once, there came a sound—
—The sound of something that had shook.
Then a long silence began in the storeroom again.
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