Chapter 2 - Labor Festival / Where Is the Remedy for Loneliness? / "A collar that matches her well."
He was a tall, slim man with hair as long as a woman's. The exquisite features of his handsome face displayed a natural and cordial smile—Only after hearing his name did Haruaki discover that he completely different from his vague preconceptions. Speaking of which, even though the girl who seemed to be his subordinate was dressed in a white lab coat, this man did not wear the same thing. Instead, what he had on was a black lab coat that resembled a trench coat. His pants were fastened to his legs with leather belts in the style of a rock and roll artist. In other words, in concert with the black lab coat, his attire was going for a musician's look. However, there was one inconsistent aspect in the impression displayed: the small notebook hanging on a string around his neck.
"Aren't you going a bit too far in calling me the absolute worst? Kirika... You break my heart so. To think we used to be so close. See, I still have the records here. Oh yeah, new guys, would you like to have a look as well? Once you see this, you'll understand that I have evidence to prove the veracity of what I said."
Next, the man—Pakuaki—took out a large photo album from a pocket in his black lab coat and started flipping through it. Indeed, it was taken out from his pocket. No matter how one thought about it, a photo album of that size could not possibly fit in a pocket.
In any case, now was not the time for pondering these trivialities. Preparing for combat, Konoha readied her knife hand while Fear grabbed her Rubik's cube, stepping up in front of Kirika as though protecting her. Although the man looked quite friendly, he was actually the leader of an organization that conducted research on cursed tools—The man who made Kirika put on that bondage suit. As shown by Kirika's attitude, he was not a person she wished to engage in peaceful conversation.
The cold and expressionless girl—the one called Un Izoey—drew closer to Pakuaki as though she were reacting to Fear and Konoha's actions. She was most likely in charge of Pakuaki's safety.
"You don't want to have a look? What a shame. I believe that Kirika playing in an inflatable pool would be quite a rare sight."
Shrugging, Pakuaki stuffed the photo album back in his pocket.
"This man is really annoying. I don't like him."
"I should apologize to Ueno-san for my tactlessness, but I agree with that assessment."
"...Class Rep, are you okay?"
Haruaki suddenly found Kirika acting not too well. She was trembling nonstop, clutching her shoulders and shrinking her body. Nevertheless, she resolutely looked up and said:
"This—collar, what is the meaning of this!? Pakuaki!"
"You're asking why? Of course it's punishment. So just keep wearing it for now. For someone like you who's afraid of loneliness, it should be unbearable already, right? It's important that you understand a little that you're actually not as strong as you think you are."
Perhaps a habit or part of his inborn personality, Pakuaki kept chattering away casually.
"You're calling this... punishment...? What did Kirika do wrong!?"
"How odd~? That should be something you should be perfectly aware of, Fear-in-Cube? She has committed two grave mistakes. First of all, Kirika caused my subordinate... her partner to suffer injuries. Poor him, still hospitalized to this date... Although the deadly weapon used was a moving vehicle, the little sister sitting in the front passenger seat is also a deadly weapon. Then the second one is—Oh~ Excuse me, may I take this chance to renourish myself a little?"
Saying that, Pakuaki took out a yellow box from his pocket. Anyone could easily tell it was a packet of CalorieMate from the appearance. Stuffing the biscuit into his mouth and chewing, he continued:
"Yes, this biscuit remains eternally tasty. I simply adore this assorted fruit flavor. Apart from tasting like I'm eating an assortment of fruit, the awesome thing is that it doesn't have any detrimental effects on health. Furthermore, this packet only contains 400 calories. With a total of four biscuits inside, this means that each biscuit only has 100 calories. Don't you find this distribution amazing? Personally, I love easy-to-remember numbers. It's truly perfect."
"You keep prattling on things we didn't ask... Stop screwing around!"
"Oh right, we were talking about the second reason, yeah? Summed up in a single phrase—The Bivorio Family."
Haruaki's group held their breath. This was because, for the past month, they had been involved in various matter related to the organization of that name.
"Kirika, you supposedly said the following to Alice Bivorio Basskreigh, isn't that right? 'Fear-in-Cube is already cooperating with the Lab Chief's Nation, so if you dare make a move on these people, be prepared to make enemies of the entire Lab Chief's Nation'—You said this and used your identity for additional persuasiveness. But what you probably don't know is what happened afterwards as a result?"
Kirika frowned slightly and asked in return with displeasure:
"What actually... happened?"
"...That was clearly something that you engineered and yet you didn't consider the consequences? How troubling, this is truly shameful for a researcher. Please do not underestimate the value of running simulations beforehand—Anyay, I'll keep it simple. Despite your threats, Bivorio still made a move on Fear-in-Cube. They made their move, fully believing your lie that you are backed by the Lab Chief's Nation. Do you understand what that means?"
"What are... you saying? I... don't understand..."
Kirika's eyes of doubt drifted towards Haruaki and company.
"S-Sorry, Class Rep. There was a situation during the sports festival. Because you were busy with many things at the time and also due to the suddenness of it all, we never found the opportunity to inform you."
"Because it was an incident that ended within roughly the span of a day, Kirika, I have no intention of disrespecting you. If you have any complaints, go ahead and tell them to Cow Tits."
"Eh... It's not like that, umm... My apologies. It's just that the situation naturally developed that way. Ultimately, Fear-san ended up safe and sound."
"But Tateoka Aiko died."
Pakuaki spoke in a relaxed tone of voice. The instant Haruaki heard him, a surge of anger exploded in his heart and rushed up to his brain. Fear felt the same way.
"Shut up! That girl—That girl... isn't dead at all! Besides, how would you know!? You... You... Depraved voyeur!"
"Oh dear, looks like the conversation got derailed, let's get back on topic. The result was that the Bivorio Family had already prepared themselves to go to war with us. That was why they planned on using Tateoka Aiko's gu poison to bolster their combat strength all at once. No, let me adjust the order of presentation. Speaking of why they sought great combat strength, the answer is simple—The Family intended to make a preemptive strike to secure victory. As soon as the Matriarch decided to go to war, they attacked us with suicide bombers."
Suicide bombers—This was normally a term only seen on the news, right? Did that really happen? Right here in Japan?
But somewhere in Haruaki's mind, the notion that "perhaps it really did happen" surfaced.
Because Haruaki's group understood very well the extent of that organization's fanaticism. They understood the ugly truth that the members of the Family were originally willing to die simply for the sake of expressing the Bivorio Family's position in a dramatic manner. They understood the ugly truth that the Family intended to murder all the people inside the school simply for the sake of creating gu poison.
"Even powerless members could cause us substantial losses through suicide bombing attacks. As for the Family members who are actually capable of fighting, some would rampage a while before detonating themselves while a fair number of them rampaged too much and were subdued before they could detonate... Hmm?"
An electronic tone was heard from Pakuaki's pocket at this moment. A cellphone ringtone.
"Hey, how could you still find time to pick up a call!? Our conversation isn't over yet!"
"I'll finish immediately, excuse me... Hmm, it's me. What?"
"Yeah, I know." Answering the caller rather casually, Pakuaki ended the call in a matter of ten-odd seconds. As Un Izoey stared at him from the side, he returned her gaze and remarked helplessly:
"This is what they call 'speaking of the devil,' isn't it? The chief of Branch 17 just called to say that the former captive, Oratorie Rabdulmunagh, has gone missing. This report comes a little too late, seriously."
"My feeling: surprise, at their laziness and embarrassment."
"You make a good point, how did that woman escape...? In any case, it's completely irrelevant to our current purpose, so let's forget about it. Well then—Say, Kirika, could you stop trembling and listen carefully to what I'm saying?"
"I-I'm not... trembling, okay?"
She was clearly lying because Kirika was still hugging her shoulders. Although she had not suffered any injuries, her reaction from just a collar on her neck implied a definite problem.
"How stubborn you are. In the end, due to your lie, the Lab Chief's Nation suffered extremely severe losses. This is why I need to punish you. Also due to that reason—I have no choice but to say this. In other words..."
At this moment, his friendly smile vanished.
Resentfully, he spat out his words:
"—Don't get too full of yourself, Kirika."
Kirika's shoulders trembled as though she were a frightened child.
"That's right, you're too full of yourself. I've always tolerated your willfulness in the past, but my patience has finally run out—I came here for a very simple purpose, namely, to take you back."
Despite the shock from hearing those words, Haruaki and his companions continued to wait.
Waiting for Kirika to answer, who desperately tried to squeeze her voice out despite her trembling.
"...I don't... wanna...!"
She expressed clear refusal. The instant they heard her answer, Haruaki's group decided what they had to do.
Haruaki entered a stance, Konoha chopped the air with her hand while Fear clutched the Rubik's cube tightly. Then Kirika mustered all her strength and repeated those words again. Straightening her curled back, she said:
"—I don't wanna! As if anyone would want to return to your place! Absolutely ridiculous!"
"I knew you'd say that. But that's precisely why I did this."
Pakuaki slapped his own neck audibly. Realizing his intent, Kirika reached for her neck in comprehension—towards the collar that wrapped around her neck.
"Why do you wish to stay here, Kirika? Is this school really such a comfortable place? I was thinking, since you regard this place as your support, perhaps I should do something to make that support worthless?"
"What are you talking about? What's the meaning of Kirika's collar, hurry and tell me!"
Fear turned the Rubik's cube into the drill and threatened. However, the only one who moved was Un Izoey who took half a step forward. Remaining relaxed, Pakuaki said:
"Well then, where should I start explaining...? That collar is something I made out of a cursed brooch. Apart from being used as punishment, it also serves an indispensable role in my purpose. Since hints are in order, here's some info on the collar—Number one, the person wearing the collar will experience intense feelings of isolation. Number two, the collar can only be opened with a special key."
Feelings of isolation, in other words... Loneliness? This was most likely the reason why Kirika's attitude had changed from earlier. The fact that it did not threaten her life could probably be considered good news amidst misfortune—
On the other hand, Fear scoffed at Pakuaki's explanation.
"Hmph, it even comes with a key? That's really a lot of effort you put into it. But given that kind of rubbish collar, just the use of my drill or Cow Tit's blade will easily..."
"—Number three, if you try to disassemble or break the collar by force, it will set off a small bomb that's installed inside. The blast should be powerful enough to blow off her head completely? In fact, virtually all of the collar's volume is occupied by explosives."
Kirika swiftly backed away.
"Hurry and leave, Yachi. Don't stay near me...!"
"Hey hey hey, I'm completely confident in its safety. Please believe me, okay? It won't blow up unless you attempt to get it off by force. I'll even bet you on that."
"How absolutely ridiculous and completely meaningless. How about I simply go somewhere far away from people and break it off? After all, it's just blowing my head off, that's really no problem at all."
Even if she does not die, there would still be a huge problem, right?
But Kirika's eyes made it perfectly clear that she was serious. If cornered without any options, she would surely resort to that. No matter who tried to stop her, she would not be dissuaded. That was the kind of resolve her eyes exhibited. Turning his head back and looking at Kirika's firm resolve, Pakuaki kept shaking his black lab coat as though he were very surprised.
"Indeed, I expected you were very likely to do that. Hence, here comes the main theme. I mean the main theme of the game."
Kirika frowned in puzzlement.
"Indeed, it's a game. Does this look familiar?"
Pakuaki took out an object from his black lab coat. This was inconceivable given the object's size, but there was no time to ponder that. The problem was that the object really was familiar.
The plushie was big enough to hug with both arms and designed to look like a long-haired youth in chibi-proportions. Dressed in a black coat, the doll even had something resembling a notebook hanging on his neck on further examination—
"That's... I saw it before! Just now... At Shiraho's place..."
"Isn't this Pakuaki-kun doll super cute? I asked Un Izoey to secretly leave them all around the school. They're all placed in conspicuous places you can find just by paying a little attention. Including this one, there are fifty of them in total. Because this number is easy to remember... So, one of them is the target doll. All you need to do is twist its head off—Hmm, this feels kind of bad even though it's just a doll, but never mind. Anyway, among those dolls, one of them is the target carrying the key to Kirika's collar while containing a bomb like the one installed on the collar."
"You—What did you say?"
"Of course, I have carefully considered the issue of safety. So long as you don't light it up on fire directly, it won't explode whether moved from place to place or thrown around. Two conditions can trigger detonation. One is if Kirika's collar explodes. This design is so that if she attempts to take off the collar, it results in a chain reaction that causes the doll to explode. The second condition is a time limit. I've set the timer to... 5pm today, exactly when the cultural festival ends. When some innocent student comes along, obliged to clean up the place, discovers this abandoned object and thinking to him or herself "How troublesome~", he or she picks up the target doll—"
In a humorous tone of voice, Pakuaki made "kaboom" sound effects and threw the doll behind him.
Haruaki could not help but shudder in terror at the thought of that scene. Instantly, he converted those emotions into wrath—Stop screwing around! However, he did not speak out but simply thought in his mind. Stop screwing around!
On the other hand, the girls faction was more used to expressing their anger. All their faces displayed alarm:
"H-How absolutely ridiculous!"
"You bastard—How dare you do such a thing!?"
"That's no different from using the innocent students as hostages! Stop this right now!"
"I've said it many times, this is just a game. I'm not the devil. I also wish to avoid innocent children losing their lives over this. That's why I won't hinder you from looking for the target doll... Oh right, if you use the school's public announcement or similar means to evacuate the students, that's cheating and against the rules. That would be equivalent to knocking over my specially prepared game board and I'll have to detonate an explosion at a certain location as the penalty."
Pakuaki explained nonchalantly and even winked clumsily at Kirika.
"Actually, there are also safety measures in place. If you want to end this incident peacefully, Kirika, you should know what to do? Just call my cellphone—If you've already erased my cellphone number long ago, going through other researchers is fine too—just contact me before the time limit. If a student is hurt by a detonated bomb, surely you cannot stay at this school anymore? That's what I meant earlier when I said I'll render worthless this comfortable place that serves as your support."
"Absolutely ridiculous... Good heavens, how absolutely ridiculous! If you're going to make me play such a depraved game, why don't you simply take me away using brute force!? Just kill me and take me away while I'm reviving. Isn't that much simpler?"
"Don't be silly, how could I possibly do something like killing my cute little sister?"
Kirika was gritting her teeth in fury, to the point that it was audible. On the other hand, Pakuaki continued in a relaxed tone of voice:
"I hope you can understand how considerate I am. Like this game, for instance—Basically, if you must stay in this school no matter what, there is a way for you not to go back with me, so long as you exhibit resolve in full desperation. Coming from me, this counts as a difficult compromise between my standpoints as your brother and the Lab Chief."
Perhaps unable to tolerate Pakuaki's despicable behavior, Fear suddenly rushed at him in that instant. Charging forward with the drill—However, what stopped Fear turned out unbelievably to be accompanied by a flash of light moving up and a sharp metallic noise at the same time.
The dark-skinned girl had suddenly equipped herself with two accessories.
A pair of handcuffs and a knife.
Those were handcuffs beyond a doubt, securing her dark-skinned hands together in front of her. The knife was definitely an ordinary knife, but instead of being in her hand, she was holding it with her right foot. No one could understand why she was wearing handcuffs but using her foot to wield the knife. More importantly, it was incomprehensible why she had to put on handcuffs.
Holding the knife between the toes of her right foot, she was standing nimbly on one leg. Despite the weirdness of her appearance, it was obvious that she did not do this out of pretense or some peculiar habit—because the way she brandished the knife was even more agile than held in the hand, resulting in the deflection of Fear's drill. As a side note, her left foot was also bare except for something resembling a thread, wrapped around her big toe for some unknown reason.
"W-What... Damn it, you weird girl...!"
"She is quite weird indeed, but clearly an opponent that cannot be underestimated... Her martial arts seem to be specially honed in this area."
Fear lifted up her torture tool again and Konoha tensed all the nerves in her body. Seeing their reaction, Un Izoey narrowed her eyes into a straight line. Slowly spreading her legs, she pushed her skirt slit far apart and gradually raised a dark-skinned thigh, meanwhile maintaining a knee-bent posture—Goodness knows how she acquired such an amazing sense of balance, her body did not wobble even once the entire time.
Feeling interested, Pakuaki watched Fear and Konoha face off against her as his shoulders shook with laughter:
"Well~ There's also one more reason why I'm not taking you back by force, Kirika, and that's because you have a group of reliable friends like these. In my personal opinion, no matter how amazing this child is, it's still difficult for her to overcome the numerical disadvantage... Furthermore, I'm not too used to combat either. Yes yes, you're all meeting for the first time, right? As a matter of principle, greetings are in order."
Making a slightly surprised look, the girl then sighed lightly and shook her gray hair as she spoke:
"My name: Un Izoey. Meaning in my tribe: cloud and knowledge."
"She's African. Please let her strange Japanese bother you... By the way, although I said don't get bothered, you all must be feeling intrigued by something else, right? Those handcuffs are just part of their tribal customs apparently."
"The hands: sacred gifts bestowed by the great sacred spirit, hence forbidden: defiling by the blood of enemies."
"Well well~ In other words, her tribe forbids using their hands to attack their enemies directly. A taboo that entails either suicide or eternal exile from the tribe. Isn't this child interesting?"
"I don't care about interesting or not...! Hurry up, tell us where the bomb and the key are!"
"Hahaha! If I say it out, then what's the point of the game? Well then, Un Izoey, prepare to leave. I'm returning to the Lab Chief's room, so take care of this."
What happened next was also incomprehensible. Just as Pakuaki stared into Un Izoey's chest—at the pocket of her lab coat—He vanished in an instant, leaving the girl standing there alone.
"What on earth is this—Damn it, the conversation's not over! Anyway, asking you is the same, tell me where the bomb and the key are! If you won't, I'll force you even if it means using force!"
Drawing in close, Fear made a thrust with the drill again. Un Izoey instantly lowered her body. Using her cuffed hands to perform a cartwheel on the roof—raising her right leg in the process—she used the knife held between her toes to deftly deflect Fear's drill. Her use of her hands and feet were completely reversed. As soon as she landed, she kicked with her left leg. Although she only swept past Fear's skirt, Un Izoey used the gap in timing to raise her right foot with the knife in a bizarre trajectory, forcing Fear to back off hastily.
Next, it was Konoha's turn to chop with her hand. Getting up, the girl stood on one leg unnaturally, raising the knife-wielding right foot to an outrageous height and blocking the attack gracefully. The dark-skinned leg moved about in unpredictable angles, swiveling, rising, falling.
"Good grief~ What kind of moves are these? They're so difficult to handle...!"
Fear threw the wheel of torture from the side. Un Izoey lowered her stance again and used her hands like feet to jump—Leaping towards the fencing, she grabbed the top part of the fence while upside down, her icy cold gaze directed towards Fear. The girl bent her left leg and straightened her body as though restraining her knife-wielding right leg. Then she leaned back and slowly fell towards the empty space behind her—
"—Excuse me, I take my leave now."
"Hey, hold it right there!"
The girl ignored Fear and disappeared on her own under the school building. Given her amazing martial arts, she probably had a way to land safely, right? The group hurried over to the edge and gazed down between the gaps in the fencing, but there were no signs of anyone below. An empty space behind the school building.
"She ran away? Damn it..."
"I really want to chase her down—But we've got more pressing matters to handle."
"I hate agreeing with Cow Tits, but she's right. Kirika, how are you feeling?"
"Mmm... Hmm? Ah... Hmm, sorry, what did you say?"
Rooted on the spot with a hollow gaze, Kirika was startled and turned to face them.
"Try to pull yourself together. What I mean is, regarding that guy's game, what are your thoughts?"
"...He's probably not bluffing? He's the type of man who loves playing malicious pranks. If he says the key and the bomb are among the fifty dolls, it's probably true."
"Seriously come on..."
"Whether this collar or the bomb in the doll, I don't think they're fake. Annoyingly, that girl's skills are no joke at all. Perhaps it's just as that guy said, the bombs won't explode so easily... Probably."
"But the problem is there's still a time limit! Also, I'm not doubting your opinion, but just in case, right? It's still impossible to be completely at ease. If it really explodes, then truly... truly—The situation would become unsalvageable."
"That's for sure, so we must find the bomb as quickly as possible... I feel bad for that girl back there, but now is not the time to be looking for a mascot costume thief."
"Yeah, it can't be helped. Anyway, meting out divine retribution to a freak must be postponed for now."
Speaking of which, they were originally taking action as a group to resolve the theft incident, but clearly the latest problem had a time limit and even involved a bomb—There was a clear difference in danger level and the priority was obvious.
"It happens to be noon right now so, so there are roughly five hours remaining. We need to find the target doll within these five hours."
As Kirika spoke while looking at her cellphone, everyone nodded in response. As a matter of principle, they also retrieved the doll that Pakuaki had just discarded. And just to avoid missing the obvious, they even searched the roof thoroughly before returning inside the school building.
"Okay, this place seems to be clear. Let's go!"
Just as they were about to follow Fear and continue, Haruaki suddenly felt someone tugging him.
It was Kirika. She had stopped walking with her head slightly bowed and was even tugging Haruaki's uniform lightly.
"Class Rep, what's the matter with you?"
Haruaki's question prompted Kirika to suddenly let go as though she finally realized what she was doing. Frantically, she raised her hand in front of her face and waved it.
"..Ah! N-Nothing, umm, don't get the wrong idea, nothing's the matter with me."
"I really hope it's nothing..."
Haruaki was just about to start walking again but found his shirt hem being tugged again. When he looked back, Kirika frantically released her grip. This time, she was pursing her lips as though in anger, then she quickly walked in front of Haruaki—But just as she passed him from the side, Haruaki saw that her face was all red for some reason.
Haruaki figured as much. Recalling what Pakuaki had said, he sighed.
Sigh, what a whole load of issues.
Only just a little while ago, this had been a very ordinary cultural festival, why did it evolve into this—
Just at this moment, he suddenly recalled what Fear had said just a while earlier. 'The cultural festival... with all sorts of random things and no idea who is doing what, it's hard to describe in a single sentence... After all, it's just chaos followed by chaos, that's what's called a cultural festival!'
"...You were right, Fear."
Haruaki simply muttered his words then sighed long and deep.
In terms of the degree of chaos, there was probably nothing more true to the essence of a cultural festival than the current situation, right? Naturally—Should cultural festival-like situations arise again, it would be best to avoid chaotic circumstances like this with enemies and bombs causing all sorts of trouble.
Haruaki's group called Zenon for help in various areas as they descended from the roof to the fourth floor. But during that short period of time, the problem had clearly worsened.
"Guh... Huff... Ahh... Huff~..."
"H-How are you, Kirika?"
"Does it hurt somewhere...? If that's the case, please don't push yourself too much, Ueno-san!"
"N-No, I'm fine. I'm really... fine... Ahhh, damn it..."
"Uhhh~ Why are you glaring at me, Class Rep...?"
Kirika seemed to be enduring something, her breathing was very frequent and she was curling up her body like a kitten and trembling nonstop. Speaking of her symptoms, it was reminiscent of what had happened before the sports festival. But her feverish-looking gaze looked quite different from last time. Also, her eyes were alternating between unsteady gazes as though she were about to burst into tears and resolved gazes whenever she was suddenly startled by self-awareness of the former. However, the latter was progressively getting rarer. Furthermore, her "ooh... oooh" moaning seemed to be getting more and more frequent.
This corridor on the fourth floor did not seem to have any popular shops, hence there were not a lot of students around. However, it was not deserted either. If Haruaki's group stopped here, it would only attract people's attention.
"Class Rep, I think we should first go somewhere inconspicuous. The way you are right now, it's impossible to search for the dolls. Come, since you're unable to lead the way, why don't you walk with your hand on my shoulder?"
Just as Haruaki approached Kirika, she grabbed him by the collar of his uniform.
"A-Ahhh... Damn it, I can't stand this anymore! Ahhh~ Jeez, why... Why did this happen—C-Come over here!"
"Class Rep, please don't pull... But isn't that place kind of bad? Hey, wait a sec—!"
Haruaki was instantly dragged into somewhere "inconspicuous." Indeed, he had suggested they go somewhere inconspicuous, but this was far too unexpected. He never would have predicted this to happen.
Because this was the girls' washroom.
"Nwah—! What are you doing, shameless brat! Did you finally decide to use your talent for shamelessness? I'll curse you!"
"Please remain sane—! Haruaki-kun, you're not that kind of person!"
"You're both mistaken, this isn't my intention! Class Rep, Class Rep, please don't do this!"
However, Kirika did not listen to him at all. Haruaki was forcibly dragged by her all the way into the place where boys were absolutely forbidden. Fortunately, no one was inside and all the stalls were vacant. Fortunately... No, simply being here was not good at all. Just as Haruaki was overcome with a sense of turmoil—Kirika proceeded to charge at Haruaki, pushing him into one of the stalls.
"Hold on, Kirika! Pull yourself together!"
"P-Please don't lose your sanity, Ueno-san!"
In order to stop Kirika, Fear and Konoha also entered the stall, but this resulted in a worse situation. Then came voices and footsteps of female students. "Ahahah—Really, you don't say? Ah, could you accompany me for a quick trip to the washroom? I wanna reapply my lip gloss." "Sure."
With no other option in sight, Haruaki managed with great difficulty to close the stall's door with his foot. Konoha then reached behind her and turned the lock shut—Indeed, they could only wait inside until the crisis passed.
Even more fortunate was the fact that the girls stopped in front of the mirror and showed no intention of entering the stalls.
Haruaki almost breathed a sigh of relief but he changed his mind. It was not a situation where he could relax yet, because there were four people squeezed in a cramped washroom stall.
"Class Rep, Class Rep, could you stop that...!"
"Mmm... Huff... Ooh..."
Kirika was still grabbing tightly onto Haruaki. She repeatedly took deep breaths mixed with moans, desperately trying to control her body that kept shuddering nonstop. The way she looked, it was almost as though she were a lost child, holding tightly to a parent after a harrowing search.
Looking at the shiny object on her neck, Haruaki recalled Pakuaki's explanation.
The collar caused the wearer to experience intense feelings of isolation.
That was why she became like this, right? That was why she acted unwell from a while ago, right? Furthermore, there was a fragrance coming from Kirika's hair... No, not allowed to think about that! Forbidden!
Haruaki suddenly recovered his sanity and reconfirmed the current situation. Nevertheless, it was enough to break out in cold sweat. Due to being grabbed tightly by Kirika and the presence of the other two girls packed into this narrow stall, their bodies had no choice but to be pressed tightly against one another. Konoha, whose facial muscles kept twitching as she watched Kirika and Haruaki, was providing sensations of softness, warmth and volume. On the other hand, Fear was making an expression as scary as an evil demon's while pulling Haruaki's hair without saying a word. Ouch. She was supporting herself with one foot on the toilet seat. In other words, her thigh was pushing hard against him—
Kirika's body kept pressing tightly against him, Konoha's bosom felt so soft, so very soft, whereas Fear's thigh kept pushing. Everyone was packed together, pressed together, squeezed together, shoved together...
(What on earth is this situation? W-What on earth should I do...?)
What kind of awkward predicament was this, or perhaps even a fatal situation? Clearly there was a whole mountain of issues to handle and they had to start the doll search as quickly as possible... Just at this moment, Haruaki discovered something.
Feeling something against the back of his head, he looked back to find the doll on top the toilet's water tank. For an instant, he could not comprehend when the doll was placed there, combined with the fact that the doll used for the explanation on the roof was firmly in their possession. Consequently, this doll must have been placed here all along—
Hence, under circumstances that were hardly rejoicing, the second doll was found. Without undergoing examination, it was impossible to tell if this was the target doll, but at any rate, this was the first actual discovery of a doll that was placed by the other side. Logically speaking, this should be one of those times for yelling "Great, we've made progress!" to consolidate team morale or perhaps encouragement along the lines of "Everyone, let's continue trying our best along this pace!" However—
Haruaki got the feeling that Fear would probably shove her Rubik's cube against his face while saying "You still haven't understood the situation? If you don't stop this shameless behavior, I'm going to make full use of this!"
—However, the unity of our team spirit was on the verge of collapse. What on earth should I do?
So fucking hot.
Due to the airtight mascot costume—How many times was it already?—Kururi sighed as she walked amidst the lively bustle of the cultural festival. She did not find herself particularly conspicuous and the chaotic surroundings easily accepted her attire.
Students moving about; people walking as they yelled out to sell boxes of yakisoba fried noodles; photographers with "Photography Club, Recording Personnel" armbands; fellow mascots in cat costumes, passing flyers out; a female teacher in a tracksuit, carrying a shovel on her shoulder for some reason; young men in casual clothing, trying relentlessly to chat up girls; and finally—an elementary school girl on her parent's shoulder, happily wandering amongst the cultural festival's stalls, a parent and child pair. Parent and child—
In that instant, Kururi began to imagine the faces of her father and sister. Their faces as they fell down the cliff before her eyes as well as the sound of impact coming from far below.
Then she imagined her mother's face, an upside down face. The face of her mother, singing praises to the end of her life, falling downwards, grabbing onto the middle of the cliff, clicking her tongue at Kururi—And then, the sound that only Kururi found delightful...
Kururi dispelled the nonexistent sound and continued to walk, walking in this high school, a space she had never experienced before.
It was crowded but not to the extent where people would bump shoulders. There were high school girls, chatting up a storm while looking this way and that, as well as humanoid mascots who stumbled perhaps due to poor visibility. Even if they were to make any unexpected moves, they would not be able to touch even a finger of hers. For Kururi who paid greater attention to the distance of a single millimeter than anyone else in this world—The hundreds of millimeters separating them were truly vast.
Naturally, this also applied to the woman walking beside her in a parka. The pair maintained their separation at roughly 740mm. Naturally, this was in perfect accordance with her wishes. Since both sides neither needed nor wanted contact with each other—whether in terms of physical or nonphysical separation.
Indeed, although there was a need to act together, Kururi wanted to stay as far away as possible from this woman, a member of the Family. She did not want to gaze upon that existence. Simply the awareness of this woman's existence beside her was enough to cause an unpleasant feeling surging in Kururi's heart.
Resembling shame, resembling pain, resembling resentment, resembling fear—A chaotic and unpleasant feeling that even Kururi herself could not explain clearly.
Hence, there was no need to talk to her unless necessary. But if she tried to start a conversation, Kururi could not ignore her.
"So far the result is we still haven't found our targets..."
"How could it possibly be that easy? I found him once earlier, but it was only by chance."
"There's really too many people. Such a pain."
Beneath the mask, Kururi smiled. If you're in that much of a rush to find your target, why don't you simply kill these students off, one by one? Once the situation escalated, your target will very likely come running—These half-joking suggestions entered Kururi's mind, but of course, she did not actually voice them out.
Because if she were to do so, the woman would probably do it.
Kururi understood very well.
She knew that the nature of this woman and the Family as an organization.
"How about a change of topic, do you have a Wathe too?"
Kururi answered "No." That kukri knife was no longer in her possession. Feeling that such a simple answer might not be enough, Kururi supplemented it with a nauseatingly disgusting lie.
"That's why I can only act as something like a helper, and cowardly too."
"Don't let that bother you. Or rather, I don't think it would bother the Matriarch. I think I remember some of us don't have Wathes."
"...Yours is that one, right? Called the «Tragedy Method», isn't it?"
Kururi deliberately changed the subject. The woman lightly waved the thing on her shoulder.
"Indeed, indeed. It's my savior."
The Family was more or less a gathering place for people like her. A group of people who were saved by cursed tools and then veered off the right track. Incurably reliant on cursed tools, these people had turned that reliance into the word "love" and branded it deeply in their minds.
Hence, Kururi wondered, were these women actually saved? Did they really not lose something?
She gulped but attempted to ask in a surreptitious manner.
"Say... Have you discovered that you had forgotten something?"
"Hmm? Ah, that's right. I almost forgot."
Kururi jumped in fright but the woman's answer was completely not what she expected.
"Wait for me a moment. I need to do a refill."
The woman walked towards the water faucet in the middle of the corridor and turned it. What she proceeded to do was an act to satisfy her curse. Behind the mask, Kururi frowned as she watched.
Ahhh, how weird.
Wathe, Wathe, Wathe. In principle, apart from Wathes, there was nothing else worth caring about. That was this woman's mode of thinking and the Family's mode of thinking.
If like Kururi, this woman had forgotten something—forced to forget something—then surely she should have recovered her memories already. However, she seemed completely aware of this. In that case, there was only one answer.
This woman was completely insane already.
Made insane by the cursed tool and the Family's mission of love—
Watching this woman was like observing her past self.
And the fact of her former insanity was once again branded upon the depths of her heart.
Kururi understood very well—Hence, that was why she acted this way.
That was why she stayed with this woman whom she disliked. That was why she felt a sense of revulsion she could not dispel no matter how hard she tried to convince herself that "this was necessary for completing her goal."
"Sorry for the wait—Let's go."
Returning from the water faucet, the woman continued forward once more. Kururi pondered again as they walked.
Regarding her past self as well as this woman who presented an image of her past self, Kururi pondered once again.
Getting out of the washroom predicament was admittedly a good thing, but the situation did not improve as much as hoped. Kirika was still holding Haruaki's hand that he kept behind him, which they finally decided to conceal by covering up with a towel. Then to prevent the towel from being seen by bystanders, Fear and Konoha walked while sandwiching Haruaki between them.
"S-Sorry, Yachi. I'm really sorry about this."
"Ah—Well~ This can't be helped! It's not your fault, Class Rep, just blame the collar!"
"Even so, what should I do? This... is really too embarrassing..."
Blushing red completely, Kirika murmured with her head bowed. According to what Haruaki had heard from her explanations, Kirika was still suffering from intense feelings of solitude. The curse made her legs lose strength, caused her to feel a chill that compelled her to hug her own shoulders, and produced an illusion that made her feel as though her body would be torn apart by the pain of loneliness. But for some unknown reason, her symptoms would subside whenever she touched other people, especially Haruaki.
"Very likely, the loneliness has its basis in abandonment. Consequently, it requires touching a member of the opposite sex in a tangible manner, that's probably it... I-It's not because you're particularly special, absolutely not. Hence... Ahhh~ Anyway, I'm very sorry for things to develop into such absolute ridiculousness..."
"Kirika, there's no need to apologize. A cursed tool is to blame, it can't be helped. But it must be tough for you, being forced to stick close to this shameless brat! You must be suffering a lot!"
"Uwah! Ouch ouch! Why are you hitting me!?"
Unable to control her short temper, Fear began to hammer Haruaki using the doll in her hand. Naturally, they had already examined the doll on sight to confirm that it neither held the key nor the bomb.
Meanwhile, from time to time, Konoha furtively glanced at the towel that concealed the sight of Kirika and Haruaki holding hands together.
"Hmm—It can't be helped, that's right, this cannot be helped. There's no need to feel wistful or envious. If I returned to my true nature, we can also touch legitimately all the time. Ahhh~ But holding hands like this is fun in its own way... If only I could wear the collar instead...!"
She kept muttering to herself. Although Haruaki could not quite understand her, luckily she did not seem like she would put her feelings to violent action like Fear.
"A-Anyway, please don't worry about me. After all, this is not life-threatening and the current situation does not give us the leisure to care about this. Yachi, have you contacted Houjyou-san?"
"We contacted her already just now. She said she'll send someone to confirm the situation at the school gates. Also, she's willing to help us. Naturally, checking the school gates includes looking for Pakuaki and Un Izoey... Although I don't really think they'll show up. I also asked her to check if anyone takes the dolls out of school."
Finally tired of beating on Haruaki perhaps, Fear nodded with her silver hair swaying and said:
"But those guys probably won't leave normally through the school gates. At least, it's better than not looking out for them, however."
"Furthermore, we should gather all the dolls we find at the superintendent's office. It's better to keep an accurate count. She also said this should solve the problem of the bomb... Although it would require considerable skill."
"Also, she'll take responsibility for areas where we can't enter, such as the offices of teaching staff or preparation rooms. After all, it's possible that Pakuaki and Un Izoey are unscrupulous enough to place the dolls in locked or inaccessible locations."
When Kirika nodded and said "I see," Fear suddenly rushed forward hastily. The place she ran towards was the entrance to the haunted house. Beneath the desk that acted as the reception, the doll they discovered earlier was still there. Of course, Shiraho was no longer sitting there and under the suspicious gaze of the unfamiliar girl, Fear picked up the doll.
"Great, here's the third one. Okay, I'm gonna open it..."
However, it was empty inside. Four sighs overlapped together at once.
"Damn it, I knew it wouldn't be that easy to find..."
"Yachi, it's fortunate that we already knew this doll's location—But next, we need to find the dolls in unknown places. Shouldn't we split up and find them separately?"
Perhaps an unconscious gesture, Kirika spoke while gripping his hand hard.
"Yeah I know that... But with Ueno-san in this state..."
"We really can't let you act alone. Maybe it's better if Kirika goes with the shameless brat while the rest of us search independently... But without the two of us by your side, even with a towel covering your hands, you'll definitely draw unwanted attention. Umm, if you don't mind other people jumping to the wrong conclusions while you walk and hold hands like this, well, I won't mind at all either!"
Fear was angrily casting her gaze to the side for some unknown reason. Kirika frantically released her hand.
"We're not going to, okay, it will definitely cause problems! So, umm... Let's do it this way!"
Kirika stretched both arms forward against Haruaki's shoulders, resulting in a posture of pushing his back while they walked.
"Th-This should be better, more or less? This also alleviates the strange feelings produced by the collar as a result of contact with Yachi."
"This makes it look like I'm being taken somewhere unwillingly... Doesn't that make people misunderstand and think I've done something bad instead?"
"Th-Those are minor concerns!"
In the manner of a centipede race, Haruaki heard Kirika's voice from behind. However, this was much less embarrassing than holding hands together... Perhaps... Probably. Even so, it was still quite weird.
Fear and Konoha nodded lightly and exchanged glances, then sighed as if they gave up on something.
"Whatever, this can't be helped."
"And the confines of the school must be searched. Looks like splitting up is the only way."
"Very well, then let's decide on who's responsible for which areas and clear them thoroughly, one after another. Otherwise, searching the same places repeatedly would be a waste of time."
Then they swiftly assigned areas to one another and even made a few decisions. Even if the dolls discovered did not include the target doll, they should take the dolls with them. Once there were too many to carry, they would then deliver them to be kept in the superintendent's office. Finally, they decided on time allotment and to gather at the superintendent's office when the time arrived.
Now that all the necessary decisions were decided, what remained was actually taking action.
Looking at one another, expressed "Time for the real show to begin" and sharing their determination to find the target doll no matter what.
Then just as each person was setting off to their assigned area, Konoha and Fear looked back as though they had suddenly thought of something.
"Ah, Ueno-san! How should I put this, uh— ...P-Please take care! If anything should happen, I believe that even if you resorted to violence, it cannot be helped!"
"That's right! The shameless brat is very shameless, so who knows what kind of shameless act he might commit. For example, he might very well say 'Are you feeling lonely? What am I going to do with you...' then proceed to embrace you tightly... Then you shouldn't hesitate in that case and give him a good look at hell!"
"Understood. I'll handle things properly."
"Hey, you three, what kind of person do you take me for... Y-You're all kidding, right?"
Speaking with his eyes half-closed, Haruaki could see Fear and Konoha smiling. Although he could not see Kirika's face, somehow he got the feeling that she was making the same expression.
"Obviously... Just kidding."
"Indeed, because we all believe in your character."
"This is impossible, absolutely ridiculous."
For some reason, none of the three girls' voices sounded like they were laughing.
This shameless brat! Damn the shameless brat...!
Fear did not quite understand why, but she felt completely enraged. Tasked with searching outside the school building for dolls, Fear entered the courtyard, walking in huge strides and cursing in her mind to take out her anger.
There were numerous tents lined up here, giving an impression quite similar to roadside stalls. Just as Kirika pointed out, open flames were apparently allowed here, hence this area was even more filled with appetizing aromas than inside the school building. At this moment, Fear was reminded that she had not eaten lunch yet.
Inquisitively, Fear swallowed her drooling saliva and started to search. No place should be left unchecked. The paths paved with red bricks, the benches made of unvarnished wood, behind the stalls... Of course, the interiors of the stalls needed to be investigated as well. Hearing a familiar voice crying out "Welcome—!", Fear entered a stall that was packed tight with customers. Logically speaking, it should not be that easy to find one, but—
"...Eh, there really is one here!"
Placed on a long table, the doll was being used to prop up an advertising panel on which the words "Crepes specially prepared by the swimming club! A single bite is enough to take you across the Strait of Dover!" were written. One would expect a "Please do not touch" note somewhere... But judging from the situation, it either fell off or was lost.
In any case, Fear had found what she came to look for and she must take it with her.
"Oh? Isn't this Fear-chan? Welcome—!"
Fear looked up to find Kana standing before her. She was dressed in an apron with a bandanna, holding a small wooden ladle in her hand. The familiar voice that Fear had heard just now was probably Kana's.
"Now I remember, you're in the swimming club."
"That's right—Why did you come? For the crepes? I know~ You want to be able to cross the Strait of Dover as well?"
The aroma of the crepe pastry was making Fear's mouth water, but now was not the time for eating. Besides, she had not brought any money either.
"N-No. Actually, I have a request. This doll here, can I have it?"
"Please, there's all sorts of reasons... But I must have it. Please, could you let me have it?"
"This thing huh? Without knowing when it was placed here, I simply used it on the spot to prop up the adverstizing panel. I guess it probably doesn't belong to anyone—But as a matter of courtesy, I should ask my club president."
Saying that, Kana turned around and walked inside the tent, her apron fluttering. Instantly, Fear stared in wide-eyed surprise.
Say, Kana, why are you dressed like that?
"Hmm? Yeah, actually, just find something else to support the panel... Wait a sec, it's that girl? The legendary super awesome silver-haired beauty in your class!? No way no way, let me amend my words. I absolutely cannot let slip this rare and perfect opportunity. As the club president, I order you, Miyama, please tell her this...!"
"Oh, I see I see. I get it now, I concur—!"
Kana instantly turned around towards Fear and deliberately cleared her throat, "cough cough," smiling as she spoke:
"The prez says no."
"W-What? That really makes things difficult, please, I beg you!"
"Ufufu—More precisely, you can't have it for free. Ah, but that doesn't mean we want money from you. What she proposes is that since you're here already, could you help our stall a little bit?"
"H-Help? I'm not really in a position to do that... because I have something urgent to do, there's not much time."
"Then you'll just have to make time somehow, thirty minutes! No, fifteen! Even ten would do! With your help, our stall's business will get even better!"
At this moment, a girl (probably the club president) emerged from the tent. Somehow, Fear found herself being the recipient of a request instead. Why?
However, Fear thought "Oh well, whatever" to herself and simply treated the request as the terms of exchange. Snatching by brute force should be a last resort only if pressed. But if a safer method were available, she should follow it. If it were really ten minutes only, it should not waste too much time—Perhaps it was fine to accept their condition.
"It can't be helped so I'll agree to it. But what do you need me to help? I don't know how to make crepes. Also, there's something that's been bugging me."
Fear half-narrowed her eyes at Kana's attire and asked her:
"—Why are you dressed in a swimsuit with an apron on top?"
At this moment, the club president reached out from beside the grinning Kana, her arms grabbing Fear's shoulders from across a table with an audible smack, an creepy smile on her face—
"That's because this is the swimming club."
"Come! We have taken another step towards the advent of our era, prez! Our crowd pulling powers are greatly increasing! But why would you have that kind of thing prepared?"
"I was going to have Tsukiori wear it, but that girl managed to run away... Fufufu, luckily, it didn't go to waste!"
"Ah—Because Tsukiori-senpai is a loli."
"Hey, you two! Why is my apron different from the rest of you!? The clothing used in combination is also weird!"
"That's a school swimsuit. I originally thought it might be too cliched, but tried and true classics are very important... Yes yes."
"Prez, I don't think this is actually the same as cliched. Rather, the combination with the dainty little apron is the main point. How should I put it? It's very original...!"
Listening to the two's dialogue, Fear was moaning "oooooh" in suffering in front of the tent. Embarrassing, too embarrassing. The apron was even smaller than the ones Kana and the others were wearing, completely unable to conceal the swimsuit that was made of thick, navy-blue fabric and even had a name tag sewn on the front... Somehow, it felt like there was some sort of special meaning to this.
"Hey, don't cover up your body with the panel! Up high, hold it up high! We're trying to promote here!"
"Do your best—Fear-chan—This is all for the sake of the doll—"
Hearing that, Fear looked towards the tent as though she had just woken from a dream. That's right, this was all for obtaining that doll.
As soon as she recalled her objective, the sense of embarrassment slowly weakened, but of course, it could not disappear completely.
Fear calmed her mind at this time, biting her lip hard. As much as she wanted to avoid thinking about it, she now had no choice but to focus her attention upon it, thinking about what might possibly happen. Right, the doll over there... The one not far away from Kana, what if it contained the bomb? What if it exploded? Kana, that club president, all the other members of the swimming club, as well as the customers whose numbers had increased, what would happen to them all?
Instantly, past images from her mind were superimposed with the future scenario she did not want to imagine. The man whose eyeballs fell into his mouth, the woman whose ribs were ripped open like a blooming flower, the girl whose arms and legs were twisted and deformed like a doll's, those scenes of gory flesh.
Could she allow such things to happen?
(How could I possibly allow that—Absolutely not!)
Once again, Fear carved in her mind what she needed to do and what she needed to do first.
How could she possibly lose to that man's game? She must win no matter what.
No matter what, she must win at all costs. Hence—
Raising her trembling arms, Fear lifted the advertising panel over her head, the one that Kana had handed over to her.
"Th-The Swimming club's specially prepared crepes, selling fast... Oh! If you don't come get them, they'll be gone in an instant!"
Fear yelled out with all the strength she could muster.
Okay, I'll do anything. So long as that man's conspiracy is crushed, I'll endure any kind of shame and do anything required. Because, this is the only way to protect Kirika and the other students.
(After all, I just need to bear this for ten minutes, it's nothing...!)
Fear muttered in her heart as though she were praying, but suddenly, she thought of Haruaki, Kirika and Cow Tits. What were those other guys doing? Were they currently undertaking unexpectedly challenging missions like herself?
(I'm already sacrificing myself to this degree, so you guys better search with your life on the line! Otherwise, I won't forgive you!)
The gym was being used by the drama club to present a public theatrical performance. The gym's black-out curtains were currently drawn down and the space was dark. But if she were to attempt to pierce this veil of darkness with her vision, Konoha could trust her non-human body to respond reliably to her.
There were neither a lot nor very few people in the audience. While listening to a performer's loud and clear voice, Konoha intently searched the spaces between and under the rows of seats, even every nook and cranny in the gym, but did not find any signs of the dolls. Then she circled her way to the back of the gym. Perhaps Zenon might come over to check that side later—
(Might as well, since I'm here already. After all, it's not the time to be concerned with my image.)
Making sure no one was noticing, Konoha sliced through the lock to enter the gym's storeroom. She had thought that the interior of a musty storeroom would be an appropriate hiding place, but the search ended up fruitless.
Returning to the gym, she discovered it happened to be time for the interlude. Watching the stage curtain descend slowly, she thought to herself: "I guess I should check that side as well."
Quietly, she opened the door on the side of the stage that said "Only Cast and Crew Permitted" to find the backstage area where props and costumes were kept. She rapidly swept her gaze around to search for dolls inside. There was also a strange box full of props but luckily it was a transparent chest and Konoha could verify visually that there was no doll inside.
Just as she was observing, a boy who should be part of the drama club appeared naturally and spoke to her.
"Hmm? Oh no, we'll be greatly troubled if you come running in here. This place is—"
"U-Umm—I have a friend in your club. I wanted to come here and cheer for her."
This was not a lie for Konoha really did have a good friend in the drama club. Deliberately pleading with an apologetic expression, Konoha succeeded in making the boy nod and go "I guess it can't be helped~" Under his lead, Konoha passed through a communicating passage through the back of the stage to reach another backstage area on the other side. As for searching for dolls like in the previous place—Konoha did not get a chance to do so.
"Eh, Kono-chan? Why are you here?"
"I-I came to cheer for you! The performance was so moving just now that I wanted to give you some direct encouragement!"
"Eh? Hehehe—Saying it that way makes me embarrassed~ Thank you very much!"
Dressed in a theatrical costume, the friend responded shyly. On the other hand, Konoha answered with a courteous smile and a guilty conscience.
"Hmph, you're moved that easily? That's way too cheap... I didn't miss it. You clearly made three mistakes in the performance! Firstly, you entered the stage half a second too slow! Then in the arguing scene with the heroine, the emotional expression of your dialogue—"
This sudden outburst came from a neurotic-looking and glasses-wearing male student. Judging from the color of his indoor shoes, he was an upperclassman. Konoha's friend drew her face near and whispered in Konoha's ear:
"Oh no—Our club president is a perfectionist. Seriously, he's always acting like this. A terrible guy who's completely full of himself."
"Are you listening to me!?"
Full of complaints, the club president began to mutter. The friend feigned attentiveness while she listened to his advice, but was actually ignoring him. She probably did this frequently, right?
Just at that moment, Konoha looked over to the stage. Despite thinking "It couldn't possibly be on stage, could it?", she still tried as a matter of principle—
(I can't believe it's really there! But why?)
On stage, used as a prop in a certain room, a doll was treated as part of the interior decorations and positioned inconspicuously on top of a shelf.
"—Anyway, that's that. Also... hey, how much longer are you going to dally here? I hope you won't get in the way of our performance."
"S-Sorry, I'm leaving immediately. But... Uh—By the way, the decorations on stage are really wonderful! The props are very nice! Perhaps, they're all chosen by you, the club president? I think you have excellent taste!"
The flattery plan commenced. Pushing his shining glasses up with a finger, the club president went "Hmph hmph" nasally.
"Oh... You understand? Indeed that's correct, those props were all carefully chosen by me. Actually, I was unsatisfied until the performance was about to start so it wasn't finished until thirty minutes before the opening. In any case, using these props appropriately is evidence of my extraordinary abilities."
That's why you used that thing? It's probably Pakuaki and his subordinate who deliberately placed the doll near the props, right?
Why didn't you finalize your props earlier, you incompetent fool—Konoha had only this response for him, but she refrained from say it out load.
"R-Really... Amazing... The props on stage are so awesome, I'm sure they'll be very meaningful for future remembrance."
"Hmm? Haha~ I understand what you're getting at. You want to take some of them as memorabilia after the performance? I have heard of fans doing that—But I refuse. This performance is perfect because of them. If perchance we need to perform again in a competition or something, it could very well garner the attention of schools that appreciate my genius! How could this perfection be destroyed? Hence, I refuse to part with any of the props!"
...Flattery plan, failed.
No good, this guy apparently would not back down no matter what. Furthermore, I can't wait for the performance to end. I need to take that doll immediately. Although the notion of rendering everyone here unconscious entered my mind as a vicious solution to take away the doll, I decided against it.
"Therefore, you should give up. Hey, please evict everyone who does not belong in the club. All performers gather! There's only five minutes until we start, but we still need to hold a meeting about the second half! I still have a ton of things to say!"
At this moment, Konoha's friend clapped her hands together in a pleading manner and went "Since our prez said so, I'm really sorry." However, Konoha could not return emptyhanded. Just as she looked towards the stage again, she discovered a slight gap near the top of the curtain. The gap was only several dozen centimeters wide, obviously not enough for a person to pass through—
"...I get it. Sorry for disturbing you so suddenly. Please do your best for the second half of the performance."
"Yes, thank you for your encouragement!"
Hence, Konoha left the backstage area with the club president nagging away in the background. Once she confirmed her surroundings, she instantly climbed to the top of the gym, using a ladder that led to a catwalk. On the far end of this catwalk, the lighting crew were busy chatting and did not notice her.
Konoha climbed directly to the front of the gym, closest to the stage where the curtains were still down. Exhaling—She proceeded to remove her clothes. Let's hope the lights don't suddenly turn on at this time.
The performers were supposed to start a meeting so they should not be paying any spare attention to the stage. Using this opportunity to sneak in, Konoha should be able to borrow the doll without anyone noticing.
(Ahhh~ Seriously, this is definitely not the time to be concerned with appearances, but why does it have to be like this...! But no way around it, I must gather dolls as quickly as possible. The more we gather the faster the target doll will be found—In that case, will Haruaki-kun praise me...? No no no, now is not the time to be thinking about that!)
Konoha shook her head forcefully, once again telling herself that "this cannot be helped." Then she bent down and removed her bra and panties. So chilly and it makes me feel so vulnerable. There are clearly dozens of students down below yet here I am, completely naked—This is totally a nightmare.
(...Hmm? I feel like I've forgotten something important... Whatever, now is not the time for contemplation either. Let's hurry and get what's necessary done and over with!)
Konoha looked up and judged the distance and timing visually. Then she—
(I've gone and sacrificed this much already. If you're not searching thoroughly, I'll definitely not forgive you, Fear-san!)
Konoha stepped over the railing and jumped down towards the stage. Then in midair, she transformed back into a Japanese sword—Right above the students' line of sight, she aimed for the gap in the curtains and successfully landed on stage as planned.
"...Was there a thud just now?" "Was there?"
"Hey, are you people even listening? Listen carefully, you must pay attention to the final scene in particular, the sense of separation between the two characters—"
The voices from backstage frightened Konoha into breaking out in cold sweat. However, it seemed like she was not discovered.
She happened to land below one of the tables used as part of the stage scenery. After turning back into human form, Konoha silently crawled her way to the shelves to take the doll she wanted.
(Phew~ ...If only it were placed backstage, then I wouldn't need to do this. Seriously... But with the doll finally in my hands, it's mission accomplished. Well then...)
At this moment, Konoha suddenly realized something, causing her face to go pale completely.
—H-How do I leave?
How could she have made such a blunder? An utterly contemptible blunder. She had predicted that her underwear would flutter off in front of the curtain if she were to return to her sword form midflight, hence the decision to strip naked beforehand. Up until that point, the plan could still be considered okay—But she had not considered what followed afterwards. There was no one to blame but herself for being too impetuous. Sure enough, her ambition for praise and merit proved fatal on the battlefield—
(However, now is the not time for thinking about such things! W-What should I do? How can I get out of this?)
At this moment, there were signs of human activity on both wings of the backstage. Konoha considered the strategy of simply knocking everybody unconscious, but even if she managed to leave the backstage area, there was still the audience once she returns to the gym side. Despite the dim lighting, was there really a way to climb up the ladder again to retrieve her clothes on the catwalk, right in front of dozens of students? While completely nude? Don't be silly!
"Okay, it's almost time for the curtain to rise. Everyone get to your positions! Listen carefully, keep your nerves taut!"
The club president's voice caused Konoha to feel a further surge of hateful resentment towards him.
(W-Wait a moment...!)
Panic. She could not possibly remain here in any event. Once the curtain rose to produce a nude girl's stage appearance, would that not be tantamount to bestowing the club president with the grand present of a legendary theatrical scene?
Konoha frantically searched her surroundings and found a cardboard box made to look like a safe as part of the set. The front side was modified by the addition of a plastic disc to simulate a dial and could even swing open to the side. This was only choice in sight that could serve as a hiding place... Hence, Konoha took the doll and desperately squeezed into the box.
Only seconds later, Konoha could sense the curtain rising with a squeaking sound of a winch. Too close for comfort. Then she started hearing the audience's applause, followed by sounds of actors not far from the cardboard box.
'Oh my god! How did things come to this!?'
"In other words~ Ooh, how did things end up like this~...?"
Konoha curled up her body inside the box as she agreed with the dialogue from the actors' exaggerated dialogue. Although she had temporarily averted the crisis, what should she do next? Konoha did not know if there would be a chance for the curtain to fall for a scene change, even if only for an instant. In that event, she could seize that chance to leave the stage, and... and... Right, all she needed to do was grab any outfit from backstage! Then she could proceed to retrieve her clothes. The only problem was being seen by people backstage, but that could not be helped. Looks like there was no way out of using tactics of mass unconsciousness...!
Just as she formed a plan in her mind—
'It's all your fault! If it weren't for you committing tax evasion, I wouldn't need to do this. But because I love you, I have no choice! I will take the money in this safe—'
Konoha heard horrifying lines from the play.
After involuntarily twitching fer face once, Konoha tried shifting her position lightly within the cardboard safe—There was a rustling feeling of paper over by her bottom. This was probably a stack of prop money.
Reflexively, Konoha grabbed the plastic object protruding into the safe—the back side of the simulated dial.
"I will take the money in this safe and light it on fire for my... love...?"
Someone outside was trying to open the safe, but could not. This was only natural because Konoha was preventing it.
(I-If this were to open...!)
Let's simply omit the appearance of a nude girl popping out of the safe, etc etc. Although Konoha considered turning back into a Japanese sword, were she to transform right now, the sword would probably pierce the cardboard box instantly due to size issues. In a certain sense, that would be even more bizarre than having a naked girl jump out.
'T-That's right, the flames of love precisely!'
Probably thinking that something was stuck inside, the actor tried even harder to pull on the dial lock. Konoha desperately held on to the dial's back side to prevent the safe's door from opening. As seconds, dozens of seconds and finally minutes ticked away, the audience below the stage began to get noisy with impatience.
Oh no, but if this stalemate continued, how would things end? Were any elements present for salvaging the situation?
Impossible, the situation would only deteriorate. Finally, there was a pop as the dial she was holding was pulled off by the actor. The resulting roar of laughter from audience was probably due to the actor falling over from the force. However, this was no laughing matter for Konoha.
The safe had now turned into an ordinary cardboard box with nothing to rescue it from the fate of being opened. Once the safe's door was opened, everything would be over.
(Ahhh... Ahhh...! I-I'll be seen!)
Fully exposed... Completely naked, her body would be fully exposed, a maiden's supple skin would be fully exposed.
Every inch of her body would be fully exposed to the dozens of students present. That would be utterly embarrassing. Even if she pleaded "Don't look, please don't look," it could not possibly work. People would certainly stare intently, the view burned deeply into their memories forever. Some might even take out their cellphones and snap photos. Good heavens, not only will I never be able to show my face again at this school, but I also won't be able to get married anymore—
In that case, I won't be able to get married anymore.
Suddenly, that sentence echoed in her mind.
Just because of this? Because of something utterly stupid like this?
No. I refuse to accept that. That kind of end result—I absolutely—absolutely—
At this moment, something seemed to break inside her mind and some sort of switch activated.
Just as the cardboard box was about to be opened, Konoha forcefully extended her arms and legs and stood up. Secretly applying a Japanese sword's sharpness to her four limbs, she penetrated the cardboard spectacularly. Naturally, she did not poke her head out, instead using two eye holes she had made beforehand to see outside.
The actor, who was originally focused on handling this battle for the safe's opening, suddenly fell over in fright not too far away. All the other actors reacted similarly. One could hardly blame them for reacting in this manner to the sight of a woman's four limbs emerging from a safe that was supposed to be part of the set—especially given the outstanding level of exposure and voluptuousness displayed.
Members of the audience reacted independently with various comments of "Wahaha, how original!" "Wow—That's so erotic!" "Is this a comedy?" "Theater of the absurd, that's what people call this, right?" Thinking "Say whatever you want, after all, I'm just a weirdo, the cardboard box lady!" to herself, Konoha jumped down from stage, rushed over to the ladder and climbed up to the catwalk as quickly as if she were flying. After retrieving her clothes, she jumped out the nearest window—Although jumping out of a second floor window would cause an even greater commotion, like she cared!
"Ooh... Ah ooh... Fufufu, hahaha, ahahaha..."
With super speed, Konoha fled to somewhere deserted, finally stopping behind the building where the club rooms were located. But for some reason, she started to laugh drily.
"Haruaki-kun, I-I... I did it. I protected... something important...!"
Although she also felt like she had lost something else that was important in the process, Konoha decided not to delve into the matter. In any case, the doll was in her hands.
"I've already sacrificed so much, for sure... This must..."
Konoha swiftly put on her uniform and happily confirmed the doll's contents.
Naturally, it turned out to be empty.
An overflowing urge to kill, rising.
"Those two girls, I wonder if they're searching seriously..."
"I'm sure they should be searching very seriously. But before worrying about them, I think we need to fulfill our own duties first. Okay, Yachi, next is that cleaning equipment closet."
Receiving instructions from Kirika who continued to walk with her hands against his back, Haruaki opened the cleaning equipment closet in the corridor.
"Oh, there's one! Let's see... Drats, nothing inside!"
"That's six already, right? Our hands are almost completely full."
"The superintendent's office is quite close, so let's make a detour there first. If Zenon-san is there, we could even get a summary of our progress. If those two girls happen to make a detour there as well, we could check out their progress too."
Hence, Haruaki began to make his way to the superintendent's office with Kirika pushing his back. He had already grown quite accustomed to this state, but whether he himself was used to it was not the main issue.
"Class Rep, are you okay?"
"Yeah... I'm okay. Because... there's still your back."
Haruaki felt her patting his shoulder lightly a few times. Since Kirika was carrying dolls in one hand, he only felt this on his right shoulder.
Hearing someone say "there's still your back" actually felt rather embarrassing. Haruaki knew that he was not too reliable usually but felt quite happy for the fact that he was being slightly useful for once.
"Really? That's good... Seriously, how could that guy do something like this? Isn't he your older brother, Class Rep, and you're his sister? But..."
"By this point... I've long given up—on seeing him as my brother."
Her voice was ice-cold. Haruaki could feel her slightly tightening her grip on his shoulder. But that gesture did not feel like she was asking him to stop talking.
"You thought differently in the past?"
"In the past, huh..."
"Nothing much, you don't need to tell me if you don't want to."
"Fufu." Kirika laughed wryly.
"You're really a nice guy to a fault. I find it incredible that you've never asked about this until now... But it's true, I should take this opportunity to tell you a bit about my family. However, it dates back to before that guy started calling himself 'Yamimagari Pakuaki.'"
"Ah. Sure enough, that isn't his real name, right?"
"Of course. How could such a crazy name exist in this world. Besides, the family name is different from mine."
Haruaki had originally thought they might be half-siblings or something. However, Kirika seemed to read his mind and added: "That guy definitely was my brother by blood."
"So... My mother passed away from illness not long after my birth, but I still had my father. He was a private researcher employed by some rich tycoon or dilettante. Although I have very little recollection, his research should be in folkloristics or something like that. The tycoon was fascinated with cursed tools—Wathes, in other words—and hence pursued investigations as a rich man's hobby."
"Right~ There do indeed exist a lot of these rich and fearless people."
"Perhaps. Next, let's talk about that guy. My father was apparently highly talented, but that guy surpassed him. Summed up in a single word, he is a genius. That guy graduated from high school with honors and finished university abroad as the top student in his graduating class. Then he became a researcher like my father. After returning to Japan, he began working under the same employer as my father's—That was when he started to act strange."
"He changed completely?"
"No, not really. He was still himself, personality completely unchanged—An overly playful genius, free and unfettered. Speaking of which, he ended up like that precisely because he's a genius. In other words, entering an environment that allowed him to make full use of his natural talent was what caused him to settle into his role as a genius. Let me ask you, Yachi, what do you think are the conditions for someone to maximize his potential as a genius? What do you think is required?"
No idea. Haruaki fell silent. Then he heard Kirika sigh.
"For example, genius talent cannot be maximized if all one faced were an elementary student's arithmetic exercises. A genius requires 'challenges that no one else could solve.' In other words, Wathes. By becoming aware of the unknowns brought about by the existence of cursed tools, that guy awakened something within himself."
"You mean 'discovering the best research subject' or something along those lines?"
"Normally speaking, that should be it. But there's still too many details I'm not clear on, so I'll just talk about what I know. When I was about to enter middle school, my father and that guy stopped coming home. After I waited for a few days, that guy returned. Then after saying something incomprehensible all on his own like 'Don't you feel that this world is full of unknowns?' He proceeded to ask me: 'Our father is dead, do you want to come with me? Or do you want to live alone? What are your plans?' As a young girl, what choice did I have apart from following him? That's how simple it was."
Haruaki originally wanted to ask "How did your father—" but he shut his mouth. Judging from the force from the hand gripping his shoulder, he knew it was not a question that should be asked recklessly. Furthermore, Kirika probably did not know the answer either... Or perhaps, she was not told the answer.
"Then that guy started calling himself 'Yamimagari Pakuaki' and started establishing the organization of the Lab Chief's Nation. Apparently by that time, the organization's foundations were already firmly entrenched... I don't know what methods he used, but he probably took over his employer's power and influence perhaps? Money and connections, the original research staff, Wathes as experimental subjects, there must have been plenty that he could make use of."
Haruaki kept racking his brain for meaningful responses, but all he could manage were exceedingly ordinary comments. He really found himself quite useless, but he knew that was the limit of his abilities.
"I see... It must have been difficult for you, Class Rep. However, it does clear up one mystery for me."
"Just one? Many mysteries should have cleared up instead, right?"
"No, what I mean is a mystery that I couldn't figure out from a very long time ago. It was because your cooking skills are clearly much better than an average girl's. So it turns out because your mother was absent in your life, you probably had to cook for your father and brother from a young age. Perhaps that explains it..."
This resulted in a momentary freeze frame. Then—
Haruaki could hear delightful laughter coming from behind and nonstop patting on his back.
"To think I expected you to say something different, how absolutely ridiculous. That really isn't any major mystery. Besides, to hear praise coming from you whom I've never beaten in our lunch contests—Fufu. How troubling, seriously, absolutely ridiculous..."
This time, the touch of her hand felt lighter, closer to a caress, but Haruaki felt greater pressure applied. Hence, he glanced back, only to find Kirika's hand slightly more withdrawn than previous—in other words, resting against Haruaki's back. Perhaps the sense of loneliness caused by the collar might increase again?
Then Haruaki and Kirika arrived quickly at the superintendent's office. As soon as the door opened, they were immediately met with the sight of a mountain of dolls.
"Wow, there's a whole pile already."
"Welcome back, Yachi-sama. And... Ueno-san."
With paper spread out on the desk, Zenon was engaged in some kind of task. Her eyes seemed slightly suspicious. The was because they had not explained to Zenon the matter of Kirika—namely, the whole backstory of why someone placed dolls containing a bomb in the school. Haruaki's group had simply made up an excuse about enemies attacking the school, similar to Bivorio's visit last time.
"Uh—So naturally, I asked you for help! After all, you're very discreet with secrets, ummm... And a good person as well!"
"...So that's what's going on."
"Is that so? So long as you think that this is appropriate, Yachi-sama, I have no objections. Of course, the more helpers the better—Speaking of helpers, I tried calling Ganon-oneesama for assistance but couldn't reach her, unfortunately. Without any recourse, I personally investigated the vicinity of the infirmary myself... And found her cellphone on the desk. Very likely, she went to check out the cultural festival without taking her phone."
"She's really easy-going huh... So, how's the overall situation?"
"We have currently found twenty-three dolls, but regrettably, none of them are the target. I am currently marking on this map of the school all the searched locations and where dolls have been discovered."
"That's really quite a lot. By the way, I've got six dolls here, so that makes a total of twenty-nine."
Haruaki reported to Zenon the places he had searched and discovered dolls to mark down on the map. It looked like half the school had already been searched.
"Both the number of dolls and the places investigated have passed the halfway mark, but we still haven't found the target... Damn it! Oh by the way, since you have so many dolls here, did Fear or Konoha happen to visit?"
"Yes, they have both visited once each... When I asked them to report the progress of their search, Konoha-sama seemed to react in a manner similar to that doll's state..."
Haruaki looked over to where Zenon pointed. Among the mountain of dolls, there was one in particular that was ragged and tattered for some reason. Indeed, it was almost as if someone had experienced something unbearably vexing and consequently took out their frustrations on the doll.
"Although I have no idea what the cause might be, she seemed rather furious."
"...I can imagine too."
Haruaki agreed ambiguously. What on earth could have happened to Konoha?
"Then what about Fear?"
"As for Fear-sama—Well, she seemed to be gradually getting more and more anxious. It felt as though she was imagining some sort of unpleasant future."
Haruaki frowned with worry but immediately changed his mind to think "It can't be helped." After all, the target was still not found despite having recovered more than half of the dolls. Although he was not going to say "it's time to hurry," neither would it be appropriate to be leisurely going "it'll be found eventually."
"In any case, we must find the target doll as soon as possible... So, Class Rep!"
"Yes, let's continue on our search."
Controlled from behind by Kirika, Haruaki started looking around again. At this moment, he heard Zenon's questioning voice.
"...So, Yachi-sama, are you suffering from some sort of punishment that restricts your freedom of movement?"
"Uh—There are many reason for this! Please don't mind it!"
Next, Haruaki and Kirika left the superintendent's office as though they were fleeing. Only now was Haruaki confronted with the urgency of getting rid of Kirika's collar in addition to the obvious mission of preventing the bomb from exploding. After all, he really hated the strange way he was getting used to this situation of conjoined twins.
Just as he wondered "what does Class Rep think about this?" and was about to turn his head back, however—
"Hey Yachi, please pay attention in front of you. Otherwise, don't blame me for what happens next."
"Oh, yeah. If I keep looking left and right, it feels like someone's going to just roll over me."
"I-I haven't been pushing you forward like mad, have I? If you're about to collide into something, just halt your footsteps. That's not what I mean anyway... Since that guy set up this kind of game, the two of them shouldn't be attacking us directly in theory, but it's best not to be too careless. That's what I was talking about."
Haruaki understood what she meant. Indeed, they should be vigilant.
As low as the chances of being attacked directly may seem, he was currently separated from Fear and Konoha. Although that scenario should not be happening, but what if—What if they encountered an enemy attack under these conditions?
Haruaki understood that it would be a very serious situation.
Next, they made their way to the calligraphy classroom located on the second floor of the school building.
"Hmm—Not a single person here."
Simply seeing the sign that read "Calligraphy Club's Exhibition" was enough to get a strong feeling that there would not be any people. Sure enough, the hunch ended up correct and the room turned out to be deserted. There were only two occupants, namely, Haruaki and Kirika.
The words "Please feel free to look around" were written in large characters on the blackboard. On top of the stationary desks, calligraphy paper was suitably arranged to display spectacularly flowing strokes of ink that were impossible to tell if they were written well or not. Logically speaking, they should have left at least one club member to attend to things... But sadly enough, even the calligraphy club members themselves probably realized that this was not an attractive exhibit. Seeing as this was the case, surely they must have decided to cancel the boring job and simply allow their members to enjoy the cultural festival fully. They made the right choice.
"But judging from the fact that there isn't even a single visitor, you can't really blame the calligraphy club's members for leaving..."
"It's not like it's a bad thing, right? Deserted is better for us, actually. This gives us a chance to investigate."
In order to avoid missing any hiding places, the two of them searched thoroughly but swiftly. However, their search ended fruitlessly without even an empty doll turning up. Still, there was no time to feel depressed and just as the pair was about to set off for the next area—
However, those were definitely not visitors one would hope to find—In other words, they had not arrived for the purpose of admiring the calligraphy.
"Ohoh, I suppose this would be considered perfect convenience."
His mind filled with question marks, Haruaki was completely baffled. He could only react in this manner to the sight before him—two completely incomprehensible figures. Simply stated—
One was a wet woman youkai while the other was someone suited up from head to toe in a skull masked costume.
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