Chapter 2 - She Could Not Sleep Through the Moonlit Night / "The twofold rejection under the moon."
Fear made her way to the second floor of the accessory dwelling and entered Kuroe's room. It was a narrow space meant for a single tenant. According to Haruaki's description, its layout was the same as a rented apartment.
Having visited many times before, Fear was quite familiar with the place. Taking off her slippers lightly, she entered and gently opened the door next to the bathroom, opposite to the dressing table. Inside was the cramped changing area and washroom sink. From behind the plastic door, Fear could hear the sound of the shower and water filling up the tub. Since Satsuko probably would not have known how to do it on her own, Kuroe probably instructed her.
If she did not act quicker, Satsuko could very well finish her bath. Hence, Fear quickly undressed.
(Hmm... Right, lemme try out what Kuroe did to me before.)
A lot had happened when Kuroe returned from her traveling, including a sudden intrusion when Fear was bathing. It felt quite nostalgic now. Although Fear had rushed here, powered by initial enthusiasm alone, she did not know exactly how to interact through mutual nudity. But in order to achieve her goal, Fear decided to use Kuroe's method despite not being fully convinced that their close relationship stemmed from that naked encounter in the bath (after all, quite a lot had happened after that). At any rate, since Fear did not dislike the feeling, she could at least offer Satsuko the chance to experience the same sensation.
Hence, her intrusion was quite sudden, of course.
"...Freeze! The Ladylike Bosoms Alliance's surprise inspection officer has arrived together with the steam—!"
Fear pulled open the plastic door and entered the bathroom.
She met gazes with Satsuko who was currently in the middle of her bath.
Satsuko widened her eyes in great surprise and froze her movements, even holding her breath. In other words, time stopped in this instant.
But that only lasted a few short seconds. As soon as she took her next breath, time resumed flowing in the bathroom—
Fear obtained a reaction opposite to her intended goal of better relations.
"Ah... Hee... Iyaaaaah!"
Recognizing Fear, Satsuko screamed loudly and turned away. Not only that, she even grabbed the towel that was originally hanging on the wall and clutched it tightly, covering her lower abdomen as she sat down with a splash, her back towards Fear—
The unexpected result caused Fear to pause, only staring at Satsuko.
She saw faint traces on Satsuko's back—numerous... scars.
"Y-You, those are...?"
All sorts of old scars of varying sizes. However, the majority of them were only visible if one looked closely. But at such short range, they entered into view even if one did not look intentionally. The scars were distributed over Satsuko's trembling shoulders and fully covered Fear's view of her back. Only her arms and legs were free of obvious scars, which was why none of her scarring could be seen while she was clothed.
Then after some time, while facing the wall, her shoulders trembling, Satsuko spoke in a tiny voice that trembled her entire body:
"S-Sorry... Satsuko, Satsuko..."
"Why are you apologizing? Calm down first before speaking."
Satsuko's voice stopped. Fear stood in the same spot, waiting for Satsuko to finish. Indeed, waiting for her to calm down was the most important thing first. A minute or two passed with them not making a sound apart from their breathing—Satsuko then spoke softly again as though remembering something.
"...It doesn't... hurt, because these are old scars. If you were frightened, then umm... Really sorr—"
"I can tell by sight. I was frightened a bit, but that's all... Right, so where did those scars come from?"
Facing the wall, Satsuko started wrapping her body in the towel that was originally in her hand. Apart from her shoulders and the base of her neck, the scars were all covered up. Perhaps finally calming down, Satsuko exhaled "Phew." Then with a voice that had recovered its calm more or less, she started speaking while still facing the wall:
"Satsuko, umm... In the past, it happened a long time ago... Satsuko was once... bullied."
"...Yes. When Satsuko was in elementary and middle school. After all, Satsuko is just like what you can see... Not only without a single virtue but also useless and cowardly. Probably because of these reasons, it's natural for someone like Satsuko to get bullied. Hence no one helped Satsuko... The bullying was tragic. Even going as far as... all sorts of unspeakable acts Satsuko does not want to say."
"...I see, then you don't need to tell me."
Fear felt extremely angry for some reason, as though her rising wrath would explode. Unforgivable, she could not forgive certain people who were not present.
Although Fear had told Satsuko she was not obliged to talk about it, her narration did not stop. In a soft voice as though wanting to scrape off the remaining scabs from her body, Satsuko continued:
"Even children know how to use all sorts of clever tricks~ They rarely harmed the obviously exposed arms and legs, only targeting places that were not obvious. Then, in fact, the most serious scar is on Satsuko's abdomen. It is Satsuko's largest scar, the most disgusting scar, the most painful scar also—So, this is the one and only scar that Satsuko does not wish for anyone to see at all... Umm, Satsuko is really sorry for screaming just now..."
Only now did Fear realize why Satsuko had refused vehemently when Sovereignty proposed to scrub Satsuko's back as an apology earlier. For someone who gave off such a timid impression, the surprising fact that she was able to resist Sovereignty's shameless insistence apparently stemmed from this reason.
"...I should be the one apologizing. I barged in without knowing you had that kind of reason for refusing company in the bath. Sorry."
"Eh... Oh no, you don't need to apologize~ It's Satsuko, it's all Satsuko's fault—"
After so long, she finally turned around and displayed those downward slanting eyes and timid smile that Fear had already gotten used to. Her hair was already let down from her twin buns style and displayed a mildly wavy texture after getting soaked. She resembled a puppy that had been drenched in the rain.
Hence, Fear began to ponder, pondering how she should proceed. End things with just an apology? No. What should she do next? Instead of her, if Kuroe were here, or if Konoha were here, or if Haruaki were here—What would they do?
The answer came immediately.
"Okay, I get it. I'll keep everything I heard just now a secret... Don't worry, I'm quite tight-lipped when in comes to secrets. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, have you washed your hair?"
Surely, that was what they would have done. If Haruaki or any of the others were here instead, surely, that was what they would have done.
These words seemed to have gone beyond Satsuko's expectations, causing her to blink frantically. Since she did not answer, Fear urged her one more time:
"I'm asking you, have you washed your hair?"
"Eh... Eh? Not yet, umm, Satsuko was just about to wash it."
"Really? Then that's perfect. Why don't you sit here?"
There was a stool in the corner of the narrow bathroom which Fear dragged over with her foot. Then she pulled Satsuko's hand forcefully and invited her to sit on it. Perhaps still at a loss what to do, she simply allowed Fear to sit her down with her back towards Fear.
Thinking "speaking of which, I've had my hair washed by others before but this is my first time washing someone else's hair," Fear pressed down on the dispenser and began to rub the shampoo gently between her hands to produce lathering.
"U-Umm, what are you doing..."
"Can't you tell? I'm gonna wash your hair for you. Please just sit there and don't move."
"Y-You don't have to do that—!"
"Don't be shy. Or rather, I'm all prepared already, so you have no right to refuse. Fufufu, I will do it gently and you'll feel very~ comfortable..."
By this time, Fear's hands were covered with suds and everything was ready. But just as Fear was about to touch Satsuko's hair, Satsuko suddenly turned her head back.
"Umm... I-Is it really okay...?"
"What, you're not willing? I've already told you that you have no right to refuse, so no matter how unwilling you are, I don't intend to stop."
"N-No, it's not because Satsuko is unwilling... But Satsuko is worried whether Fear-san might dislike doing this kind of thing... Umm, after all, since Satsuko is this kind of person, you might find Satsuko very disgusting—"
This nonsense again? Fear frowned, grabbed Satsuko's head and forcibly made her face forwards. Then Fear first massaged the top of Satsuko's head—
"I don't find you disgusting because I've gotten used to seeing human scars a long time ago."
"Right, you can continue wrapping the bath towel around you if you want. Although I don't really mind them, you don't want others to see them, right? If you want to wrap yourself, I'm not going to take it off... Even if it gets wet, I guess Kuroe wouldn't get mad. Let's search under the sink later. There should be spare towels for drying our bodies. It's just a shame that I didn't get a chance to help you wash your body. But let's leave that for next time. Today, I wanna try to wash someone else's hair successfully."
Satsuko did not answer, perhaps because she gave up.
Fear filled Satsuko's hair with suds as she recalled how Kuroe moved her fingers when she washed Fear's hair before. This feeling was completely unlike washing her own hair. For some reason, she felt increasingly happy as she went about with the task. So that was what Kuroe was feeling at the time? Conversely, that also meant that Satsuko should be experiencing what Fear herself had felt back then...
"Oh... This is the... first time... for Satsuko to do this..."
Hearing Satsuko's tone of voice that sounded like she were having a sweet dream, Fear felt relieved and smiled wryly at the same time.
Proudly, she moved her fingers rhythmically even more. Although her technique was not as good as Kuroe's, she did wash her own hair every day so it should not be that bad, right?
"How is it, does it feel nice?"
"Yeah, very nice... Right, Satsuko never knew that having someone wash her hair would feel this nice~ Because no one ever washed Satsuko's hair before... Satsuko, even when she goes on school trips, is always alone... So she never experienced... this kind of feeling..."
School trips. Fear recalled Haruaki or someone else mentioning them. If her memory served her correctly, it was a special event organized by the school, a trip where all students from every homeroom in a year group would participate. They were very fun—supposed to be very fun—events. However—
"You're... always alone?"
"Yeah... But it's fine. After all, Satsuko is already used to it."
Fear closed her eyes for an instant.
"...How could anyone get used to it? I was like that in the past, so I know. Being alone is suffering."
Fear recalled that dark space, abandoned and neglected in the underground chamber as well as the endless loneliness and silence. If it were really possible to get used to it, then she would not have suffered so much or felt so lonely. Neither would she desire company so much.
Satsuko did not answer for some reason, perhaps because Fear's view bothered her.
"...I'm rinsing now."
Fear turned the shower head while she used her hand to comb through Satsuko's hair, rinsing it clean of suds. Naturally, the bath towel wrapped around Satsuko's body became soaked but it did not matter. If anything, the sight of the soaked towel clinging tightly to her body was rather concerning, on the other hand. Somehow it felt super shameless... If Haruaki were to see it, surely there would be nothing worse than that.
"Phew~ Thank you very much... Although Satsuko doesn't understand why a bath would turn out like this, Satsuko really enjoyed it... Umm, umm, Satsuko's body is already clean..."
"Yeah, all that's left is a soak in the tub. I feel the same way. This is a rare chance, so let me help with that as well."
Next, Fear abruptly wrapped her arms around Satsuko from behind while she was still sitting on the stool, picking her up by supporting her thighs. Fear went ahead because she knew that Satsuko would definitely stutter in her reply if she tried to seek consent.
"H-Hyah—! U-Umm, what exactly are you trying to do? By the way, are Satsuko's legs making an M-shaped posture in the air—?"
"Hey, don't move unless you want to fall."
Holding Satsuko in her arms, Fear stepped into the tub and sat down into the water whose level was just right. Although this bathtub was a size smaller than the one in the main residence, it was still possible to squeeze two people inside for a soak provided they were pressed intimately together like this. Fear could feel Satsuko's body firmly on top of her, but that could not be helped.
"Wawa... Th-This won't do! Not only is it too cramped, the bath towel shouldn't get soaked in the water..."
"But aren't we both submerged in the tub already? Besides, the towel was all wet already, soaking it in the water won't make any difference."
"Oh no~ That's not quite the same... After all, this is manners. If manners are not followed, surely Satsuko will get scolded..."
What nonsense are you saying? Fear wondered to herself.
"Hmph, if you don't like following manners, then it's fine even if you don't follow them. You don't need to care if Haruaki, Kuroe or Cow Tits say anything. I'll take their scolding for you."
The bathwater splashed about. Within the narrow tub, Fear could feel the soft sensation of Satsuko's skin. From her position, all she could see was the back of Satsuko's dripping wet head. After a while, she heard a tiny voice coming from there.
"Why... are you willing to do so much for Satsuko...?"
"You don't need to overthink things. I just want us to get along better."
"Oh... Satsuko... is so happy. Who knew there would be people who are willing to do this for someone like Satsuko—Furthermore, even willing to listen to the wishes of someone like Satsuko, going as far as offering assistance... It really feels like a dream."
Someone like Satsuko.
Hearing her repeat that phrase over and over again, Fear thought to herself.
Satsuko had always been alone so it was only natural that no one offered her a helping hand. Hence, she was already used to that kind of state and decided on her own that her existence was lowly.
How lonely that must be.
"...I will help you, so please rest assured."
Indeed. Fear wanted to tell her that not having anyone to assist her was not the natural state of things.
No matter what kind of enemy appeared, Fear was absolutely going to protect her.
Fear updated her plans while exhaling "Phew~" as she enjoyed the water's temperature which was just right. At the same time, she also remembered what she still needed to do.
"Yes, by the way, I originally came here to conduct a surprise inspection. Let's start now."
"Eh? N-No way, the chest of someone like Satsuko is not worth checking, right?"
At this moment, the inspection officer invoked her plenary authority and ignored Satsuko's opinion. Reaching out from under Satsuko's armpits, Fear vigorously groped her chest through the wet bath towel.
Fear had lost by a slim margin.
Wanting to go to the washroom, Haruaki had left the living room and heard the sound of the door sliding open at the entryway. Fear and Satsuko had returned from Kuroe's room. Naturally, having just taken a bath, both of them were in a state of moist hair and reddened skin. Satsuko was wearing a set of pajamas provided by Konoha. Of course, it ended up quite loose on her and not too easy to walk in. In terms of size, Fear's would be a better fit for her but Fear did not have any spare clothes for Satsuko to wear as pajamas.
As soon as she saw Haruaki's face, Fear glared angrily and said:
"Hmm... What are you doing here!? Your goal is Shiraho and Sovereignty's bathroom, right? In other words, you're trying to peek! You want to peek, right!?"
"I'm going to the toilet! Jeez... What kind of person do you girls take me for? Whether Konoha or Class Rep, as soon as I said I'm going to the toilet, they all want to follow. Don't I even have the right to go to the toilet in peace?"
Haruaki half narrowed his eyes as he spoke. Standing beside Fear with her hair wrapped in a towel, Satsuko giggled. What was going on...? Say, had her expression livened up subtly? Or perhaps, her comfort level increased? Maybe Fear's plan worked out very smoothly.
Haruaki tried to communicate "Good job!" to Fear with his eyes, but she rudely replied: "W-What's with your creepy smile, it's disgusting..." and even backed away.
At this moment, it occurred to Haruaki that Fear getting closer to Satsuko was a good thing. But despite being a good thing, there was still a lingering problem. In that case, Haruaki decided to discuss it briefly here with Fear first.
"By the way, Fear, I need to talk to you about something."
"Oh okay, then Satsuko, you should return to the living room first."
"Yeah, sorry about that... Be careful you don't catch a cold immediately after taking a bath. If you need anything else, please feel free to ask Konoha or the others."
"Oh, thank you. Then Satsuko will go on ahead first~"
Satsuko bowed and made her way to the living room. As soon as she was out of sight, Fear crossed her arms before her chest and asked aggressively:
"Okay... What do you want to talk about? No way, you want me to assist you in peeking on Shiraho and Sovereignty...? Hmm, you must be thinking about that. But if you offer a reward of something like ten rice crackers, of course I won't be able to refuse no matter how much I try to insist... You're too devious! Well, if it's twenty rice crackers, I might consider it!"
"Seriously, could you stop letting your delusions run wild in that direction!? I'm talking about the issue with the teacher!"
Hearing Haruaki's answer, Fear pouted slightly and turned her head to one side.
"I have nothing to say about that woman. Ever since the study gathering began, the only thing I realized so far is this... She's really avoiding me deliberately after all. But the problem is that I've completely no idea why, so I don't even know how to solve it. Neither do I have any particular intent to resolve the situation."
She was right. Fear could not possibly figure out why she was being avoided no matter how hard she racked her brains. Haruaki sighed softly and said:
"During the shopping trip for the drinks, I tried asking her a bit but didn't get any details. But let me emphasize beforehand, even if I tell you now, you won't be able to resolve the situation."
"...I don't quite get it but I'll willing to hear you out. Go ahead."
"How should I put this...? Didn't the teacher mention that she was involved in a cursed tool incident before? Also... Her younger sister apparently died as a result."
Fear's eyes revealed unease and even flashed the color of despair for an instant. Soon after, she swayed her silver hair and slowly leaned back against the corridor wall, bowing her head as she murmured:
"R-Really? In that case, that makes sense... For her to have that kind of reaction... That she would dislike... Resenting me, it's only to be expected..."
Her voice was almost impossible to hear unless one listened carefully.
Haruaki could imagine what was going through her mind right now. She must be thinking that belonging in the same category of existence as the object that had taken the teacher's younger sister's life, it was only natural to be resented.
Thinking "how troubling," Haruaki scratched his face and said:
"But the teacher didn't say anything about disliking or resenting you."
"All she said was that she had 'no idea how to face' your kind."
Nothing good would come out of jumping to conclusions that the teacher disliked or resented her. Perhaps realizing this, Fear went "phew" and relaxed her expression, but her eyes were still filled with loneliness.
"...'No idea how to face' huh? I guess it's the same for me."
"It's the same for me before. We probably got along so awkwardly because I had no idea how to face the teacher either. Although I didn't hate her—but facing a teacher whose thoughts were unknown, I was at a loss at what attitude to take. It's still the same now. Once I return to the living room, I'll definitely experience the most awkward feeling ever, because there are even more unanswered questions now. Facing a human who suffered from misfortune caused by my kind, what should I do? What sort of expression should I make towards someone like that..."
Haruaki did not know the answer either. However, the most important issue at hand was—
Haruaki reached out gently and caressed Fear's silver hair as usual.
"At least now I know that you both have no idea how to face each other. Then let me ask you a question... One that I often ask. What are your plans? You probably want to improve your relations with the teacher, right?"
Haruaki lightly patted Fear on the head as she pouted. In the end, she sighed in exasperation and said:
"Well... Fine, I'm not going to delude myself into thinking we could become as good as friends... But at least, I hope she could treat me like all the other students... That'd be nice."
"Is that it?"
It was quite fitting of Fear's style, a roundabout manner of wording things. But at least, Haruaki knew that it came straight from her heart.
"In that case, I must help you lots... What should I do..."
Haruaki bowed his head to see Fear saying awkwardly:
"W-What should I do...? J-Just curious what you think."
"Well... That's very simple."
Haruaki looked towards the living room entrance as he recalled how Satsuko looked when she went inside and said:
"Actually, it's the same with everything else. The principle is to avoid forcing things but try to approach her should any opportunity come up and try to shrink the distance between you two, isn't that enough? Something like what you did with that Satsuko girl, didn't it end quite successfully?"
"...Hmm, that's true... Yeah. But the particulars of what actually happened, that's a secret."
"You mean girl talk? You don't have to tell me... Anyway, don't overthink the matter. I'll support you in various ways too. In any case, try your best and good luck."
Haruaki began to tap Fear's head rhythmically again, causing her to frown and go "muuuu" with displeasure. As much as incurring her anger was not his intention, but seeing the worries disappear from her eyes as a result, it was worth it.
Fear violently pushed Haruaki's hand away from her head as though protesting "Don't go tapping my head so casually!"
"A-About the issue of how she treats me, I simply think that's not a bad idea. So I was just asking out of curiosity, umm, you don't need to worry at all! Rather than worrying about me and the teacher, shouldn't you prioritize protecting Satsuko or preparing for the exams? Don't waste your thoughts on strange matters—Besides, aren't you going to the toilet? Hurry up and go! I'll watch and make sure you enter!"
"No, you don't need to watch me enter!"
Fear desperately pushed Haruaki from behind in her embarrassment. Haruaki did need to go to the toilet after all, so he walked in that direction along the corridor. Just at this moment, voices could be heard from over there.
"Hmm? It's coming from the bathroom..."
"Maybe the changing area's door wasn't shut properly?"
"Really? Then it must be shut tight—No, hold on. You wait here for me. Don't move if you still wanna live!"
"I want to live, so I'll be waiting here."
Haruaki raised both arms to surrender completely. Staying on high alert, Fear kept looking back at him as she slowly approached the changing area. The voices became even clearer. Apparently, not only the changing area's door but the bathroom's glass door was also not shut tight either. Considering Sovereignty, this was not out of character for her. Then there were the voices coming from inside...
"Okay, Shiraho, open up a little more... I'm putting it in...!"
"Mmm, I'm ready... Mmm..."
Apart from their talking, there was also the familiar noise of water flowing in the bathroom.
Haruaki instantly froze completely. What on earth were those two doing...?
Bath room, guaranteed full nudity, lovers together, Sovereignty's ability to transform to male. While these facts kept swirling in Haruaki's mind, the sounds from the bathroom did not stop.
"Mmm... Huff... Umm, hold on, Sovereignty..."
"Need a break?"
"Yeah, a break would be nice... You keep putting it in so forcefully, it's a little uncomfortable."
"Ah, I'm so sorry. Because it's my first time doing it in this kind of place, I feel so excited."
"Seriously, you leave me no choice. But then again, this is quite new to me too... Okay, that's enough of a break. Sovereignty, carry on, I'm ready..."
"Got it... Let's not get the bathwater dirty, so be careful."
"Fufu, don't worry. Letting any of it drip out would be too wasteful. Give it all... to me..."
Haruaki gulped hard. Crap, this was totally not good.
"Uumu, what are those two doing inside the bathroom...? Anyway, the door inside needs to be closed too."
"Ah~ Hold on, Fear!"
Haruaki reached out and tried to stop Fear but of course, he could not catch her. Right before his eyes, she quickly barged into the changing area. Just as her silver hair disappeared from sight—
"Kyah! D-Don't peek!"
"I came to remind you that your voices can be heard outside, so shut the door properly! By the way, what are you two doing?"
That was all Haruaki could hear. Perhaps they lowered their voices? Or his mind suffered an information overload? He could not catch the remainder of the conversation very well.
Soon after, Fear returned. Slamming the changing area's door shut behind her, she crossed her arms before her chest in a completely "impressed" manner and nodded "Mm-hm" to herself.
"Hmm~ That looked quite fun..."
"W-What—? Y-You saw it? Did you really see it?"
"Of course. What's with your unease? I'm gonna try it out next time too."
"N-No way no way! I forbid it!"
"What~ Why not!? I won't carelessly drip any of it. Enjoying a nice drink of ice-cold juice while taking a bath, don't agree that it's one of the pleasures of life? I wanna try it too!"
As the pair looked at each other, Haruaki finally calmed his mind...
"Uh~ Fear, could you please describe the scene you witness in the bathroom again?"
"Sovereignty had brought her specially prepared juice. Without requiring Shiraho to do anything, Sovereignty was feeding her by delivering the drink to her mouth. She said that this sort of princess-level treatment was necessary to express how sorry she was... Hey, Haruaki! Why are you suddenly clutching your head!?"
"Nothing... Sorry, I was wrong just now. I'm too much of an idiot..."
Fear cocked her head like an innocent little animal and wondered in amazement:
"? I don't really get what you're saying but you've always been an idiot. There's no need to hate yourself for that, right?"
Back in living room, although they had already discussed about Kaidou, Fear could not possibly take proactive measures suddenly as a result. She probably still lacked courage although she was sneaking peeks at Kaidou with greater frequency. Of course, Kaidou still had not changed her hell guardian mode. Despite his disappointment, impatience would not help—In any case, Haruaki had no choice but to open his textbook and study.
By this time, Shiraho and Sovereignty had already finished their bath. Since her clothes were not caught up in the spill, Sovereignty continued to wear her maid outfit. To wash up the teacups she had used during the bath, Sovereignty had gone to the kitchen with Kuroe.
On the other hand, Shiraho was wearing clothes borrowed from Konoha. Unlike Satsuko, she was dressed in casual clothing instead of pajamas.
"...What are you staring at? Watch out or I'll murder you, human."
"N-Nothing, I was just wondering why you changed your hairstyle after a bath..."
"Because wet hair is very annoying, just as annoying as having a human stare at me with perverted eyes."
Shiraho went "hmph" and swinging her long hair, rarely seen tied up, she returned to the table side. Perhaps trying to make the most of her studying time, she had a very serious expression. Her cheeks were faintly red from the bath she had just took. Haruaki already knew that her complexion was very pale to begin with, so this was quite a refreshing look for her. Furthermore, the clothes Konoha lent her did not fit too well after all, with excess fabric hanging loosely near the neckline. Whenever she leaned forward towards her notebook, the situation was especially precarious—
Suddenly, Haruaki surveyed his surroundings to find three pairs of half-narrowed eyes, filled with murderous intent.
"Hmm... O-Okay, time to study, study..."
Haruaki buried himself in his notes as though to avoid those stares and moved his mechanical pencil. The study gathering went hush again, leaving only the quiet sound of Kirika instructing Shiraho.
However, this quiet duration only lasted a few minutes when Fear suddenly collapsed on her notebook directly. Having taken a bath as well, her concentration had apparently reached its limit after all.
"Hmm... So much suffering, this is too much suffering. Oh how I wish the exams could start right now so that I can be free of this suffering. Then once exams are over, I can play to my heart's content..."
"That's everyone's wish too, so you should study hard right now."
Answering Fear in this manner, Haruaki glanced over at Kaidou who seemed as though she was going to remind them not to chatter idly. But perhaps one could say just as expected? She was simply staring from her spot, staying completely still. Hence, Fear did not stop talking.
"Oh by the way, we still haven't used those tickets we received from the sports festival. I almost forgot them... What place are those tickets for, anyway?"
"Stop chatting idly. Anyway, I did hear from a friend... It seems to be a swimming pool facility located at the Hitsutou Grand Hotel. It's supposed to be quite a fun and high-class place."
"What, a swimming pool! That sounds really nice, I must go there and have fun!"
"But you can't swim at all, right?"
"That's why I must go! After all, I'm so bright and clever, I'll surely master swimming with practice! It's decided, we're going there to unwind once exams are over!"
"If you really think it's okay, I have no objections. After all, those tickets seem to have an expiry date, so it'd be a shame if we just let them expire... But unless Satsuko's problem is resolved, I don't think we can go, right?"
Konoha's reminder prompted Satsuko to speak up timidly:
"Oh no~ So sorry, someone like Satsuko had to cause so much trouble for everyone..."
"Don't worry about it, once the enemy appears, we'll put an end to things. Our visit to the pool can count as a celebration for resolving the incident as well. Why don't you come with us as well? ...Oh no, of course, only if you want to. Oh right, it's not convenient for Kirika either. Or maybe we should find some other place..."
Fear seemed to be cutting herself off because she thought of something, meanwhile sneaking glances at Satsuko and Kirika from time to time. Haruaki also understood what Fear meant about Kirika, having fun at a pool was probably not too convenient for her. However, Kirika looked up and pondered for a while before giving a surprising answer.
"...A trip to the pool huh? Well, I don't mind either. There should be a solution, probably."
Satsuko also thought for a long while as though considering something, but in the end, she smiled timidly and nodded:
"Umm... If you don't mind going with someone like Satsuko, Satsuko would like to go very much...!"
"Hmm, it's okay?"
"It's okay, no problem. Satsuko wants to go to a pool like that very much. Satsuko's parents have friends working at a travel agency or something like that, so tickets can probably be obtained too..."
"Really? That's great. But what's inside your pouch there? Why is it bulging so much?"
Satsuko suddenly showed a very happy expression and said "Oh, this—" Then she picked up her pouch by the table and began rummaging through it. Although it seemed like everyone was going off track, having reached the limits of their concentration, Kaidou remained motionless as though she were sleeping with her eyes open. Trying to object, Shiraho clicked her tongue disapprovingly but Fear and Satsuko did not seem to hear.
"Satsuko loves all occult goods and is especially attracted to things that people don't have—like this foldable quadruple-power dowsing rod, this set of tarot cards from the Heisei era, or this portable Ouija board..."
"I-I don't really understand these things, but it's quite astounding."
Piled on the table were all sorts of strange objects. Fear looked at them suspiciously but one particular object caused her to frown. With especially vicious claws, covered with signs of having been patched up, a pair of hollow eyes that could only be described by the word "evil"... A stuffed doll that resembled a teddy bear (apparently).
"Hmm, aren't you carrying a doll? Perhaps the enemy is looking for this...?"
"Eh? Oh, but this 'Markgraf Kriemar' isn't the doll they're looking for. Satsuko only obtained it recently from a claw vending machine because its intriguing appearance pulled at Satsuko's heartstrings. Besides, its head is firmly attached to its body anyway—"
Satsuko explained as she turned the doll's head. The twisted face looked even more terrifying. If one were to imagine the noises this bear made, it would definitely sound something like "Gukyo gukyo... Kehihihi!"
Next, Fear asked Satsuko to tell her fortune using the strange tarot cards.
"Uh... The reversed position is 'Telephone Fraud'... This represents 'Familial Love,' 'Truthful Word' and 'Visible Things.' Then speaking of where this card appeared... Ah, it's the upright position of the 'Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcast'!"
"W-What? Is that good or bad?"
Haruaki sighed, stopped the movements of his hand and looked up at the living room clock. It was quite late already. As though things were wrapping up, Konoha was stretching, causing her bosom to quiver as a result.
"This is pretty much it. For the remainder, as long as you don't get confused by the deliberately tricky questions, you should be fine."
"Okay... I understand, I should be... fine... I guess..."
Kirika also seemed to be pretty much done with her teaching. Shiraho exhaled "phew" deeply and began to close up her textbooks.
"Yachi, everyone's depleted their concentration. Today's study gathering should end here."
"You're right... If we fail to get up tomorrow morning, all our efforts would end up meaningless. Do you agree? After all, well~ we've basically done everything we're supposed to do."
"...By the way, Shiraho-kun, what are your plans now?"
"We're going home, of course. If we hurry, we can still catch the last train. Even a cab ride is fine. In any case, I do not wish for Sovereignty to stay in this house overnight... I cannot imagine what the foolish human might do."
Stop talking like I'm some kind of beast. But for some reason, Fear and Konoha nodded vigorously in agreement as though they were saying "You're completely right!" This caused Satsuko, who was intending to stay for the night, to retreat delicately and ask:
"I-Is it really that dangerous...? Then Satsuko may have made the decision too recklessly...!"
"Don't believe their nonsense! Rather, I should ask you girls to stop saying these scary things!"
At this moment, Kirika coughed and cleared her throat.
"However... It is only natural for Satsuko-kun to feel uncomfortable staying over at the home of someone she only met the first time and of the opposite gender as well. Speaking of which, nothing wrong happening so far might only be a matter of luck but that doesn't preclude something happening for the first time tonight... Although it's absolutely ridiculous, in order to ease those doubts, let me take action immediately."
"What, even you, Class Rep...!"
Just as Haruaki expressed his objections, Kirika ignored him and cast her gaze towards the side, her arms still folded before her chest. As though agitated over something or nervous, her index finger was drumming away lightly against her arm.
"W-What I mean is... This is only an analogy. Should there be someone else in the same position as Satsuko-kun, if someone who normally doesn't stay overnight were to accompany her as well... That might be a good solution perhaps. In that case, that should be able to slightly ease Satsuko-kun's discomfort at staying at a stranger's home for the night. Furthermore, by sleeping in the same room, that someone could act as a deterrent against nocturnal assaults. S-So... Let me clarify beforehand, because I am the class representative, for the sake of preventing a classmate from committing crimes, I have no objections against taking on this duty, in other words—"
"I concur with Ueno's idea."
At this moment, an unexpected person spoke up—Kaidou who had been listening silently to everyone's conversation.
"Although I am aware of the extenuating circumstances here, as the teacher, I cannot ignore the fact that a girl from another school is staying over at a male student's home. In order to prevent any crimes from occurring, I shall sleep in the same room with her."
As Kirika was dumbfounded, Kaidou watched her with eyes of disbelief. Then she asked simply:
"Is there any problem? In my view, a teacher is more suited to this duty than a student."
"...Nothing. Kaidou-sensei, you're completely... right..."
For some reason, Kirika slumped her shoulders in disappointment and sighed bitterly. Haruaki could not understand why, but she seemed to be giving off airs of "missing out on a rare opportunity." Why was that?
In any case—
"Then I shall stay here and impose on your hospitality. No need to prepare meals or a change of clothing for me. Do not trouble yourself with formalities."
Faced with Kaidou's serious words, Haruaki and the rest could only exchange looks with one another silently.
They originally thought they could free themselves of the tension brought by the teacher once the study gathering was over—
But clearly this notion turned out to be too naive.
Even in a dream, the scar on her face still hurt.
The name of her younger sister surfaced. The image of her smile surfaced. The image of the flower hairpin surfaced, a memento from their deceased mother, one that the sister often wore. Also surfacing were her downward slanting eyes like a puppy's, her timid smile, as well as the way she apologized over every little thing.
That was perhaps partially responsible for her current dream. The pain of a similar wound, stirring up old memories.
Nevertheless, the rest of the responsibility definitely lay in the student's inquiries. The pain from an old scar, stirring up old memories.
Stirring up old memories she did not wish to recall.
Fragmentary scenes flashed across the depths of her eyes. The damaged satchel. Once upon a time, the pair of sisters had stopped bathing together. A chik-chik sound. Timidness. A slightly dirty boxcutter. A chik-chik sound. A morning as usual. Just as she looked back and said "I'm off on my way now" yet there was this chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik chik-chik...
Lingering pain. The flashing blade. The searing pain as it slashed across her cheek.
A lingering scar. Under madness' control, in the next instant, the younger sister had recovered the light of sanity and reason in her eyes, miraculously yet like a curse. Understanding in despair that she had harmed her elder sister, her heart was filled with fatal regret.
Then what lingered was mourning.
As she looked down at her younger sister's dark red body resulting from a jump off the building, she felt in her heart—
The pain of the wound on her cheek. Painful, wounded, mourning.
The pain chastised her for being weak. Chastised her extremely weak self for the errors she had committed.
Had she been strong enough, could she have saved her younger sister?
Strong enough to protect anything, to be aware of everything—
That was why she wished she were strong.
She knew it was already too late, but if it could serve as compensation, if it could serve as her atonement for the younger sister who had lost her life, manipulated by the little understood phenomenon of curses.
She must become stronger.
Hence, she had to become even stronger, much stronger, ever stronger.
(I must... become stronger...)
Indeed, stronger, stronger. She had to become stronger, stronger, stronger and even stronger, so that she was capable of protecting a certain person this time.
Haruaki woke up to an urge to go to the washroom, probably because he drank more juice and tea than usual during the study gathering. Due to having less time to sleep than usual, he had wanted to sleep all the way till morning without interruption... But having woken up already, it could not be helped. Half asleep, Haruaki walked to the washroom and finished his business, in a half-asleep manner of course. Just as he shut the washroom door behind him, he suddenly heard a faint but strange noise.
The noise of something rigid... Some kind of "knock."
Haruaki could not help but feel bothered. Hence, instead of returning to his room directly, he circled over towards the veranda next to the living room. That was where he thought the noise had come from.
Tiptoeing, he advanced towards the veranda. In terms of seasons, it was already winter which meant that the glass door to the veranda, usually kept open, was of course shut during nighttime. The moonlight streamed in through the garden and the glass door to the veranda, illuminating Haruaki's feet extremely faintly. Using that natural lighting, with some difficulty, Haruaki arrived before the guest room where he had brought Kaidou and Satsuko earlier—
Kaidou was right there. Like a guardian protecting this room, she was sitting in front of the paper sliding door with her eyes closed. Her body was leaning slightly against one leg whose knee was drawn up while her other leg was in a cross-legged posture. Naturally, resting on top of that leg was the shovel she was holding one handed. Very likely, the knocking sound earlier was caused by the shovel striking the floorboards for some reason.
(W-Why is she sleeping here...? And dressed like that...!)
Kaidou was not wearing her usual tracksuit. On top, she was wearing a short-sleeved gym t-shirt while on the bottom—nothing except underwear. Illuminated under the faint moonlight, her long and slender legs remained white and pristine in color. Her long, sleek, black hair provided a certain fantastical contrast against the whiteness of her raised knee.
Should he leave while pretending he saw nothing? Or as a matter of principle, remind her to "Be careful you don't catch a cold"?
Just as he was caught in a dilemma, Haruaki suddenly saw Kaidou's eyes open forcefully.
"—A nocturnal assault? Vile fiend!"
Haruaki instantly found himself grabbed by the collar with the back of his head shoved against the glass door. Naturally, a shiny, glimmering shovel was also pressed against his neck. Although this was like a replay of the scene during their return from the convenience store, there were some differences. For example, the teacher was wearing nothing but a t-shirt, or the fact that her bare thighs kept approaching, or the murderous intent occupying her eyes was completely different, or the saliva on the corner of her mouth, etc. Haruaki decided there were plenty of things he should pretend he did not see.
"N-No! I wanted to find out because I heard a strange noise! I swear, I'm not someone who wants to die that badly...!"
Her eyes still a bit sleepy, Kaidou scrutinized Haruaki from head to foot. Only after repeating that motion a great number of times did the shovel finally leave Haruaki's neck.
"...I see. You are wearing clothes. That apparently rules out a nocturnal assault."
'Is that what you base your judgment on!?' As much as Haruaki wanted to retort back viciously, he decided not to escalate the matter. While trying hard to keep Kaidou's appearance (especially her lower half) out of his view, Haruaki said:
"By the way, why are you outside the room..."
"I am on night watch. But if someone remains awake inside the room, it would hinder the other person from sleeping. Even if she is already fast asleep, any noise might wake her up. In that case, I should stay outside."
"Night watch...? But you were asleep just now, right...?"
"No, I was simply resting my eyes."
Kaidou-sensei was giving a childish excuse. No good, Haruaki really felt compelled to point out the situation of her drool. But even if he pointed it out, she would probably just say "...That is sweat" and wipe it clean.
"It is not that I distrust you, but having made the decision to protect her, I shall therefore protect her. For the sake of fulfilling that responsibility, even staying all night outside the room would be nothing."
Kaidou was serious. Undoubtedly.
In actual fact, Haruaki already knew. Even though she had dozed off just now, she must have stayed awake until that point, right? Relying on her serious resolve, she had poured her entire heart and soul into staying vigilant against uncertain nocturnal assaults or other threats.
All this for a girl whom she only met today and was not even a student from her school.
No matter how serious her personality, this was not reasonable, right? Was it really worthwhile for her seriousness to go this far? Indeed, perhaps—
"Is there some kind of reason... here?"
"...What are you trying to say?"
"I'm referring to how seriously you declared your intent to protect Satsuko, Kaidou-sensei."
The mood changed. Beneath the faint moonlight, Kaidou shifted her gaze away.
Haruaki could feel that her gaze carried the same emotion as when she was staring at Satsuko during their first encounter.
Reminiscence. She was reminiscing about past events, reminiscing about things that existed no longer.
But ultimately, he had no proof. This was merely a gut feeling. Haruaki also did not know if he should probe the issue any further. Nevertheless, since the teacher only responded with sighs and silence, he had no choice but to inquire.
"...May I ask if this has anything to do with your younger sister, Kaidou-sensei?"
Kaidou answered. That is, if one could consider words spoken towards the moon as an answer.
"Why do you ask? Does this simply stem from curiosity?"
"No, I'm just..."
Just what? Haruaki was only certain that it was not curiosity. Perhaps he wanted to find out why she was avoiding Fear and others of her kind? Perhaps he wanted to know the reason behind her saying she had 'no idea how to face them'? Perhaps he wanted to know what could be done to address that issue? Perhaps he hoped she could improve her relations with everyone else? These reason were all true, but somehow, Haruaki felt that there was more to it.
"I just feel that... You seem to be forcing yourself to do something, Kaidou-sensei, and you look very agitated. As a result, I wonder if I could help in some way... That's all."
"Help me... Is that so?"
A faint smile could be seen on Kaidou's face.
Except that it was unclear who or what she was smiling at.
Then she proceeded to—
"Then allow me to ask you instead, Yachi Haruaki. What can you do? Even if you know that my younger sister was a timid seven-year-old who always carried a helpless smile on her face, considerate enough to save up her pocket money to buy a shovel for her elder sister's birthday, a victim of bullying but did not dare send any distress signals to the aforementioned elder sister who was weak, only using a cursed boxcutter, which remains full of mysteries to this date, obtained through unknown means for unknown reasons, to harm herself madly, finally despairing over the fact that she harmed her elder sister, thus proceeding to end her own life... After knowing about the story of Kaidou Satsu, how do you expect to help me?"
Her voice remained smooth and very calm throughout the entire time, but her words carried a sense of heaviness that delivered a severe blow to the listener—as well as a curse so vague that it was unclear whom it targeted, except that it undoubtedly existed.
When Haruaki regained his senses, he found Kaidou staring straight through him without smiling at all.
Her cold gaze was simply bone-chilling.
"I know what you are thinking and why you wish to probe deeply and understand my past. But you cannot help me at all. Just as I have said earlier about having 'no idea how to face them,' even I myself have no idea how to face them at all. Matters whose reasons are unknown are impossible to resolve, right? Whether for me or for you."
Haruaki felt a severe dryness in his throat but still answered reflexively.
"...Since you don't know the reason and you have no idea how to face them... Then couldn't you just decide make the first move and approach them. Isn't that a solution too? Isn't it possible for you to discover that the situation turns out unexpectedly to be different from what you originally thought?"
"However, it is also possible that I will become further at a loss on how to handle the situation."
Without a single moment's pause, Kaidou argued in a completely emotionless tone of voice.
Then she sighed lightly.
"Besides... I have never prioritized the resolution of that problem. For me, there is only one important matter. Everything else is insignificant in comparison."
"...What do you mean by important matter?"
Just as Haruaki asked, Kaidou's hair slid forwards and backwards. She was nodding. Perhaps trying to secure her hair or some other meaning, she reached lightly towards her hairpin—
"The matter of becoming strong. Because I do not wish to ever fail again at protecting something important because I am too weak."
That seemed to be what she had already decided. It was also one of the answers she had given in the beginning of this conversation.
Seeing shades of her younger sister in Satsuko, Kaidou sincerely wished to protect her as a result.
To Kaidou, there was probably an experimental element to this. Ever since she lost her younger sister, she must have been trying to make herself stronger. And in actual fact, she had been strengthening herself all this time. This experiment aimed to verify her condition and prove the correctness of the direction she had chosen.
"Hence—although it is not very fair for you, I absolutely cannot accept your wish. Because I do not consider it capable of serving as a force to make myself stronger. I have no wish to do or say anything... No, I have one more thing to say. Although as a teacher whom students look up towards, I should not be saying this. However, it is currently neither school time nor working hours after all. If I may be allowed to express myself personally as Kaidou Imi, then there is one more thing I wish to say."
"What may that be...?"
Haruaki gulped and asked.
She answered very swiftly. Without avoiding eye contact with Haruaki, her merciless eyes did not display any warmth—
She uttered only a single sentence.
"—Do not get in my way for such inane matters, that is all."
Very clear rejection.
According to her value system, neither establishing better relations with Fear and the others nor trying hard to achieve that goal were among her options. In other words, she had no use for such behavior.
She had cut herself off completely.
With nothing left for the two of them to discuss, they could only stare at each other. Time seemed as though it had stopped, but it could not be allowed to freeze indefinitely. Very soon, the moonlight quivered slightly. The chilly air flowed lightly and—
"Need to pee..."
Pulling the paper sliding door open, Satsuko exited the room, causing the tense atmosphere to disappear completely. Haruaki almost felt like collapsing on the spot like a leaking balloon.
Satsuko stumbled slowly around, her eyes 80% closed. Perhaps due to the poor fit in size, her pajama pants had slid all the way down to her hips. It looked rather precarious.
"S-Satsuko, it's dangerous if you don't watch carefully where you're going... Uwah!"
The warning proved futile as she fell towards him. Seeing her about to hit the floor, Haruaki reflexively caught her in his arms and supported her body. But perhaps because her legs lost strength, Satsuko ended up collapsing into a sitting position on the corridor. Maybe the impact woke her up completely and Satsuko blinked repeatedly—
Then her entire face went red. Intimate distance. The arms wrapped around her body. Her pajama pants that had slid down. These various facts were combined in her just awakened mind to produce the following conclusion—
"S-So after all... This feels like you're demanding payment...? If you don't mind Satsuko's skinny, weak, flat-chested body and ordinary face—It can't be helped. After all, Satsuko is a weakling so it's only natural for her body and mind to be exploited... When casually visiting the 'Super Robot Fortune Telling' website before going to bed, Satsuko already had a feeling this would happen. The keywords for Satsuko's destiny today are 'Pilder On!' Oh, this slogan seems to be suggesting a fusion of bodies no matter how you look at it...!"
"It doesn't! Anyway, you're mistaken! Look carefully, this is the corridor!"
"...You really came for a nocturnal assault after all!?"
"Kaidou-sensei, you saw this girl fall over on her own, didn't you? Why are you suddenly suggesting that possibility!?"
Just as Haruaki countered with his question, the slamming sound of a paper door being slid open could be heard from somewhere in the house. Indeed, since it was currently late at night, none of the other occupants in the house could have missed the current noisy racket.
Konoha was the first to make her appearance. Her eyes flashed behind her glasses, glaring as sharply as knives. She was swiftly approaching from the veranda. A few seconds later, Fear also rushed out of her room next door and slowly approached as though advancing side by side with Konoha.
The only word surfacing in Haruaki's mind was this word. He must find an excuse... No, perhaps he should flee first. Who could help him? —Just as Haruaki turned his head, looking for assistance, he caught Kuroe jumping down from the accessory dwelling's window in the edge of his view. Only then Haruaki realize he was mistaken.
Konoha glared viciously at Haruaki then proceeded to walk past him. Fear also stomped on Haruaki in a most natural manner and walked past him as well. Next, the two girls fully opened the veranda's glass door together. Indeed, Fear and the girls had not rushed out for the sake of teaching Haruaki a lesson—
"The enemy is here, though I've no idea how he found this place."
"Maybe he followed you guys on the way home? Waiting until everyone had gone to sleep before making a move, what pains he must have taken."
Fear and Konoha murmured softly, in direct contrast to the sharpness in their glares. Hearing their exchange, Kaidou also went "Hmm...!" and made a groaning sound from her throat. Then she suddenly turned around.
Appearing before their eyes was an intruder.
Seeing the figure standing on the top of the boundary wall, Satsuko murmured to herself.
"Oh, it's the ghost."
Naturally, the intruder was no ghost but a tangible threat.
Under her very large cape, her upper torso's attire was difficult to describe—but she was wearing some kind of cloth. The obviously female bulges were sloppily wrapped in fabric. Perhaps it really might be the sarashi, a long strip of cloth worn by samurai and women under their kimonos historically. However, the fabric was not wrapped tightly and securely like instances in school delinquent manga and the excess portions were even fluttering in the wind. Despite using quite a few strips of cloth, her upper body was wrapped no lower than the navel. As for her lower body, she was wearing a pair of super-short shorts that flashed in and out of view along with long boots which stretched all the way up to her thighs. In Haruaki's view, she would be better off wearing long pants in the first place.
Ignoring her attire, the most concerning part of her appearance must be her face. After seeing her, it was obvious why Satsuko would call her a "ghost." Beneath her messily cut hair, there was a rectangular sheet of cloth covering her face from her forehead to her mouth. The way she looked, she should not be able to see in front of herself.
"Haruaki-kun, you guys stay inside. Kuroe-san, I'll leave you to guard this place."
"Understood. Kono-san, Ficchi, be careful."
Kuroe walked towards the outer edge near the veranda while Fear and Konoha descended to the garden. The two girls closed in on the figure who was standing on the wall.
"You're the one who kept pursuing Satsuko relentlessly, right!? I order you to come down!"
The cape, the clothing and the veil on her face fluttered as she descended. Judging from the mouth revealed under the moving veil, at least she was not a monster missing a face.
Although the enemy was unarmed, Fear and Konoha did not let down their guard. They readied their battle stances and proceeded to demand answers:
"You're from the Knights Dominion, right? Name yourself!"
"...Indeed, I am a knight from the Frontline Gathering Knights Dominion. My name is Fourteen Coonsberry."
The intruder's muttering answer sounded rather androgynous. Without witnessing her bulging bosom or her smooth and tender thighs, one might easily be confused by her gender especially given her use of ore to refer to herself.
The enemy who called herself Fourteen turned her head slightly. Judging by her motion, she seemed to looking towards Haruaki's group at the veranda—So even with that piece of cloth over her face, she really could see properly?
"...Hand over the «Crying and Screaming Headless Doll»!"
Because Haruaki was shielding her behind his back, Satsuko poked her head out and said:
"S-Satsuko has already told you many times, although Satsuko knows that you won't believe someone like Satsuko, Satsuko really doesn't know anything about that kind of doll! If Satsuko knew, the doll will be given to you. Umm, right, please tell Satsuko! What kind of thing is it? If Satsuko has any ideas, she will instantly answer—"
"...Simply stated, give it to me. If you continue to hide it, I will force you to talk by any means necessary."
Fourteen stepped forward as though interrupting Satsuko. Naturally, Fear and Konoha stood in her way.
"Hmph, looks like you can't be reasoned with. If you are willing to believe her, then we'll allow you leave unharmed!"
"Aren't the Knights impossible to reason with by default? That said, I don't recall ever talking properly with that group of sadistic freaks."
"Fear-in-Cube and Muramasa, my orders do not include destroying you. If you two refrain from interfering in this matter, I will let you off."
Fear closed her eyes for a moment as though recalling something. It was as though she was recalling something to brand upon her heart once more. Then she opened her eyes and smiled fearlessly at the same time:
"No way, because Satsuko asked us to protect her. So I will tell you now—If you agree to leave without a fuss, we'll let you off, Knights Dominion!"
"...Simply stated, your reasoning is incomprehensible."
She stroked her veil with her fingertips as though combing a ponytail, perhaps in exasperation. However, Fourteen did not stop moving and slowly closed in on Fear and Konoha. Just as Haruaki gulped and said: "Do you best, girls", Satsuko pulled the back of his pajamas forcefully and said:
"I-Is it really okay? That ghost really is a ghost. Although Satsuko was busy fleeing and didn't remember clearly, she was able to make all sorts of strange things appear—!"
"O-Oh, is that so? Right. But don't you worry. How should I put this? ...Yes, I remember saying this earlier. These girls are psychics who are even more amazing than me! Also, they're gonna perform moves that might be just as strange... But these are all secret techniques of psychic powers that cannot be disclosed to the public. We'll really appreciate it if you can keep keep what you see a secret."
Speaking of which, Haruaki still had not explained Fear and the others' true identities to Satsuko in detail. Perhaps there was going to be a chance to tell her eventually, but for now, Haruaki decided to convince her by depicting the battle as "psychics versus the ghost-like monster." At this moment, Kuroe shifted her blank gaze slightly—
"Yes yes, I'm actually a psychic too. For example, I am using the power of my guardian spirit, Her Augustness of the Sleek Black Hair, to provide a perfect defense here, so don't worry. But to avoid angering the great guardian spirit, please keep things a secret."
"A-Although Satsuko isn't sure what kind of guardian spirit that is, the name sounds very amazing...! Satsuko understands. Even if someone threatened to rip her mouth open, Satsuko won't tell anyone!"
"Thank you. Anyway, no matter what, these girls are quite strong. You don't need to worry."
But to be honest, Haruaki was not completely at ease. Even with two against one, the enemy might not be defeated so easily... If the other side turned out to be as fanatical and insane as Peavey.
Just as Haruaki turned his gaze back to Fear and Konoha, he suddenly noticed that Kaidou was watching him from the side. But instantly, her gaze drifted over towards the garden again.
What did her gaze mean? After a bit of thought, Haruaki understood.
There was definitely no particular meaning. She simply reacted to a specific word and looked over reflexively.
Indeed—namely, the word "strong."
Kaidou did not glance at Haruaki again, instead pursing her lips as she gazed at the enemy in the garden. Although she did not say a word, the shovel handle, gripped in her hand, was making a knocking sound.
Perhaps those were the words she wished to express.
Fourteen muttered emphatically in front of Konoha and raised her arm lightly at the same time. Instantly, blue-white light shone around her right arm for but an instant like the lingering brightness from a flash of lightning. Just as the momentary brightness disappeared, a long club appeared in Fourteen's hand as though conjured by magic.
No, rather than a club, it would be better described as a block of wood, a rectangular piece of timber just large enough to grip in one hand. But judging from the ragged surfaces on its two ends, one could tell how sloppily chosen and decrepit a weapon it was.
(Hmm, where did she obtain this kind of thing...?)
As the block of wood attacked, Konoha reflexively imbued her hand with a blade's sharpness and countered with a karate chop. Accompanied by a deep and heavy sound, both sides bounced back from the impact. Slightly surprised, Konoha readjusted her combat ready stance. From what she felt through her hand's sensation, the wood was not impervious. However, it was highly unusual for the wood to match her knife hand equally for a moment. Clearly it was no ordinary block of wood.
While Konoha contemplated these issues, Fourteen continued to press on the attack despite the unwieldy-looking cape. Her swordsmanship was not bad... That said, Konoha felt that describing Fourteen's timber attacks in this manner was defiling the way of the sword.
Konoha turned herself and evaded as she chopped with her hand to block the timber attacking from the right. Despite its nimble attack speed, heavy destructive power could be felt from the timber's force of impact. Very likely, it was able to shatter even rock or concrete.
Fourteen continued to press forward, raising her weapon up high and swinging it down. However, Konoha already anticipated this move and crossed her arms overhead to block the attack. Just as Konoha thought "maybe I can sever it with a scissors-like motion" and poured strength into her arms—
"What a sucky battle. I wanted to praise you in particular. Frankly, that trashy weapon really suits an enemy whose job is to be defeated. It's a great match for you! Hence—Mechanism No.11 tearing type, jagged form: «The Teeth», Curse Calling!"
Fear caused the Rubik's cube to reassemble itself into a thick and massive saw blade. Numerous vicious teeth combined with the mass of steel allowed objects to be sawn apart without needing a saw's usual back and forth motion. Charging in from the side, Fear took a light leap, aimed the saw at Fourteen's block of wood that Konoha had blocked, and swung down vertically.
In that instant, Konoha felt the hammering impact transmitted to her arms—Then her arms suddenly felt lightened.
"Yes, Cow Tits, thank you for serving as a plain old pedestal. It suits your personal style very well."
"Oh come on~ Seriously, you're just sitting back and taking advantage of the situation...! Clearly I could have broken her weapon by myself."
Konoha's view was currently fixed on Fourteen who had silently distanced herself. The block of wood in her hand was virtually wrecked with almost half of it severed.
"So, the one who calls herself Fourteen, are you giving up now?"
"I cannot help but state simply, how is that even possible..."
Puffing her chest out in derision, Fear frowned. Konoha also glared sharply at Fourteen.
Fourteen threw the severed piece of wood aside. Next, blue-white light gathered around her arm again as though recreating the earlier scene—An instant later, she was once again holding another block of wood identical to the previous one.
"Tsk, is she conjuring some magic trick? Another one appeared."
"All I can tell is that it is no ordinary timber. Otherwise, I would have turned it into firewood the instant I touched it."
"Is it cursed wood? Honestly, that name sounds pretty stupid. Also, the way it keeps appearing is quite difficult to accept."
Thinking "whatever," Fear transformed her saw into a long and massive axe.
"Anyway—Since breaking the weapon doesn't end the battle, I'll just have to take care of the person. Cover me!"
"You should be the one covering me instead!"
Saying that, Fear and Konoha both charged at once.
Rushing in front, Fear swung the back of the blade down hard. Naturally, the enemy dodged and the axe tip embedded itself into the ground. Having predicted that Fourteen would evade, Konoha had already circled behind her. Pretending to dodge the thrusting block of wood, Konoha caught the timber barehanded. Using this opportunity to regroup, Fear laughed maliciously behind her enemy.
Maintaining a kneeling posture, she took the axe that was embedded in the ground to slice diagonally towards Fourteen's body. But then a blunt noise was heard. Faster than the steel Fear had drawn out from the ground, a certain solid object had stood in the path of its rampage.
"Two blocks at once?"
Fourteen had extended her left hand behind her, wielding another one of those wooden blocks. Turning her wrist to lower the wooden block's tip, she had blocked Fear's axe.
"Ununu... I'm going to smash that thing very quickly...!"
Fear applied force through both hands, trying to cut through the block of wood directly. But in the next instant, the wood blocking the axe tilted easily. Perhaps surprised by the empty sensation, Fear frowned in puzzlement and looked up.
The lack of resistance was only natural, because the block of wood was merely embedded in the floor. A fourth block of wood had appeared in Fourteen's left hand. Swinging towards Fear, it struck her viciously in the shoulder. An unusual noise of flesh and bone was heard.
Fourteen followed up on her successful attack. Fear hastily rolled on the ground in an attempt to evade the strike aimed at her head.
The block of wood ended up being deflected with clang. This was neither achieved by a torture tool nor a karate chop.
It was a shovel.
"Kaidou-sensei!? What are you doing!?"
Blocking another attack barehanded, Konoha stepped back and looked towards the veranda. She could also see Haruaki and Satsuko over there, nervously yelling "S-Sensei!? Hurry and come back!" So she had run over here on her own?
"I shall help."
Glaring at Fourteen with extremely serious eyes, Kaidou answered curtly.
Despite rubbing her shoulder with a frown, Fear did not seem to be severely injured. Standing up slowly, she muttered to herself:
"...I don't think that's necessary..."
"U-Umm—We are very happy for your kind offer, Kaidou-sensei, but for an ordinary person, this is still... too dangerous."
"Nevertheless, I shall still participate. Indeed, I must do this..."
Her words seemed to be directed towards herself. Konoha did not understand but she knew that Kaidou could not be dissuaded. Indeed, her words seemed to be carving into her own heart the significance of "if I am unable to do this at this time, there is no meaning in living any further"—
"...You must do this?"
"Of course. This is neither about the shame of a teacher watching students fighting while standing back, nor about lamenting an adult watching children fight while doing nothing—This is purely for my own reasons. I have no obligation to seek your consent."
Konoha sighed as she thought to herself, "I never expected us to be called children by a twenty-something-year-old human." Time was up. Originally observing the newest participant who had joined the battle, Fourteen began to advance, holding a block of wood in each hand. She was dual-wielding?
"Damn it... Cow Tits, let's just take care of her quickly! Let's go!"
"That goes without saying... Oh, seriously, it can't be helped! Kaidou-sensei, please don't overreach!"
"I will handle things as appropriate. So—Action!"
The trio lunged at Fourteen. As Konoha brandished her knife hand, Fear's torture tool growled while one could hear the impacts between the shovel and the timber. Although the strange choice of weapon did not seem to be some kind of cursed tool, the shovel was resilient to an unnatural degree. Was it specially made to order using sturdy materials? Or was it a commercially available product whose strength was enhanced through additional processing? Either way, this kind of shovel was unheard of.
In Konoha's view, Kaidou's movements did not belong to an amateur. Although not to the level displayed by Un Izoey at the cultural festival, Kaidou's combat strength was astounding for an ordinary person. Putting aside the question of where she had learned such skills, she must have actually accumulated a lot experience in this sort of battle.
On the other hand, Fourteen did not seem particularly concerned about the increase in opponents to three. Without saying a word, she simply fought to eliminate the hindrances in her way. Engaging the knife hand and the torture tool, her timber broke many times, but every time, she would instantly conjure a new block of wood, attacking as her cape swayed as though in a dance.
Timing and distances were impossible to estimate. Whenever her weapon broke, Fourteen would conjure another one. Sometimes she would rush directly using a severed and shortened piece of wood. Other times, Fourteen would suddenly let go of her weapon in the midst of battle and conjure another piece of wood, then turning around to aim at other opponents that were approaching her from behind. Perhaps because she was aware of the three-against-one disadvantage, she kept shifting her position as though deliberately taking advantage of her weapons breaking to fight in an ever-changing and unpredictable manner.
"Damn it... You're not that easy to take down! How many pieces of wood are you carrying really!?"
Appearing repeatedly were excessively short cycles of destruction and creation.
The view was dominated by numerous wooden remains. Saw dust and fragmented pieces of wood were scattered all over the ground. Distributed all over the garden, their number had reached the point where one could get tripped if one did not pay attention.
Just when Konoha noticed this situation, Kaidou almost fell over because she stepped on some wooden remains and lost balance.
Konoha forcefully squeezed in front of Kaidou and pushed Fourteen back by threatening a collision. Using this opportunity, Kaidou pulled back slightly from Fourteen and steadied her posture. Konoha glared viciously at the enemy and scolded:
"Filling up the garden with all this rubbish... Who do you think is going to clean up this mess?"
"Even as your enemy, I am very sorry about that. After all, I hate noisy and messy environments to begin with—In fact, I really want to sweep this place clean."
"What audacious words. In that case, go and take out a broom to replace the trash you created!"
"...Taking that out is no problem at all."
With a blue-white flash, what appeared next in Fourteen's hand was not a block of wood.
But a broom instead.
"S-She dares to mock me!"
"I get the same feeling—However, this makes me understand one thing. Since she is able to take out other objects, it means that those wooden blocks are not cursed tools or anything like that. Perhaps it might be related to the kaleidoscope tool you entered last time during the cultural festival. For example, a space like a storeroom where objects can be taken out endlessly."
"I get it now... The way I see it, it's most likely candidates are the the veil on her face followed by the cape. Those two things really are too weird."
Fourteen stroked the cloth over her face with her fingertips as she spoke:
"...Since you've seen through it, it can't be helped. Stated simply, the cloak is the right answer. Its name is... The «Warehouse Cloak»."
"Hmph, how direct. In any case, the name doesn't matter at all. On the other hand, why do you keep pulling out these weird objects? Go ahead and grab a sword or an axe. Fight seriously, okay!?"
"...Those kinds of weapons don't fit my personality. Any item taken out from here will increase in sturdiness. Hence, the type of weapon does not matter as long as it satisfies the conditions of easy to use and easy to replenish."
"I see~ So that's why you're so bold as to use blocks or wood or a broom to fight? That's really surprising. Say, Cow Tits—«Breaking Wheel of Francia»!"
Halfway through her sentence, Fear deviously threw the wheel. Fourteen immediately raised her left hand and blocked the wheel. Naturally, she did not block barehanded. Upon closer examination, there were fragments scattered all over—the remains of the brick Fourteen was holding in her hand.
Fourteen adjusted the veil on her face as she muttered in exasperation:
"...What a mess again..."
"Nununu, how much further are you going to toy with us!?"
"Timber, brooms and bricks... All these are goods you can buy at home improvement stores. We can't allow her to produce more trash. We must hurry and take care of her!"
Fear and Konoha closed in on their enemy at the same time. Silently adjusting her breathing, Kaidou raised her shovel.
At this moment, Fourteen conjured another wooden block in her empty hand and murmured:
"...If one were to state simply, that is impossible. Even if I finish the battle without breaking another weapon—In the end, trash will only increase—Your trash-like remains."
Haruaki gritted his teeth as he gazed at the scene. Originally, he was thinking they could handle her but the enemy turned out to be quite troublesome. Although he did not think Fear and Konoha would lose, neither did he think that they could end things immediately.
"Even if I go out and wield Konoha... Damn it, that won't be able to change anything, right?"
"Even without using Kono-san's special technique, the opponent's endless weapons will still continue to break."
"Kuroe, you can go help them, right? Oh yeah, I'm willing to issue another of those 'willing to do anything certificates' to you."
"Hmm—I do want to go out and help. After all, there's this itching impulse."
Haruaki asked, prompting Kuroe's drowsy-looking eyes to turn towards him for a moment before turning back towards Fourteen.
"I don't know how to describe it... But somehow, I get the feeling that the enemy seems to be taking action while considering something. If she has some sort of special move or battle plan and attacks Sacchi or Haru the instant I leave this spot, it'd be troubling. On the other hand, once this stalemate turns unfavorable for Kono-san and Ficchi, I will have to go out and help them."
Haruaki did not quite understand but since Kuroe explained it like that, perhaps she really felt something. He could accept it if the enemy only attempted to attack him, but since the target was Satsuko, Haruaki could not allow her to be in danger.
"But even the teacher is trying so hard and taking part in the battle, yet I can't help one little bit... Eh, Satsuko, what's the matter?"
Originally hiding behind Haruaki's back, Satsuko stepped forward lightly. However, her hand was still gripping Haruaki's pajamas tightly with unease. Standing beside Haruaki, she gazed at the garden as she spoke:
"Probably... There's a way you can help."
"Everyone is trying their hardest... All for someone like Satsuko, right? Satsuko feels very sorry and wonders what she'd do if anyone were to get hurt because of her... So Satsuko wants to help. Perhaps it'll be a waste of effort and more than likely, there won't be any effect. But Satsuko still thinks that it's better than... doing nothing..."
"Uh—What are you... planning?"
Haruaki asked. Hunching her shoulders as usual, Satsuko looked up fearfully at him with an extremely unsettled expression like a young puppy. Then she said something that Haruaki could not quite understand:
"Umm... Could you lend Satsuko something like a pair of scissors?"
Questions kept surfacing.
Fear glanced at Kaidou sideways. Carrying the shovel, facing forward with great tenacity, her shoulders were heaving up and down intensely. After all, Fear herself was feeling quite exhausted, let alone an ordinary human. In a way, it was only natural for her stamina to be depleted.
(She probably won't listen even if I told her to "retreat"... Especially coming from me.)
Fear thought to herself in self-mockery.
Since Kaidou had refused to listen to Konoha, it was obviously even more impossible for her to heed Fear who was even less acquainted with her. Oh right, if she wanted to keep her distance, if she had no idea how to face Fear, she could have stayed away and not involved herself in this non-human battle.
"Mechanism No.19 gouging type, spiral form: «Human-Perforator»—Curse Calling!"
Without the mental resolve to rid the enemy of an arm or a leg, this battle would only drag on endlessly. Just as this thought crossed Fear's mind, prompting her to bring out the drill with its stench of death, she saw Kaidou's shoulder suddenly tremble.
This was not the first time for her to make that look. Fear had witnessed it many times during the battle earlier already. It happened whenever the screams of turning gears accompanied the manifestation of vicious tools of torture, whenever the cursed Japanese sword sliced through timber outright, also whenever Fourteen continued to summon wooden blocks well into the double-digits.
Indeed, the gradual slowing down of Kaidou's movements was probably not simply due to depletion of stamina. Perhaps she was also getting mentally exhausted. An ordinary person would begin to curse and yell. Cursing and yelling at the disgusting ugliness that was impossible to ignore. This was only natural.
Fear pondered to this point, then an extremely casual feeling surfaced in her mind and she said:
"Say, teacher, could you please stand down?"
In the middle of fighting Fourteen, Konoha threw a sideways glance at her. Fear was not looking at Kaidou. Hence, Kaidou simply responded with her voice:
"...Regretfully, I refuse."
"I don't care about your answer. How should I put this? More bluntly—"
Fear declared "Enough" to herself.
It no longer mattered if she caused Kaidou to further dislike her.
If hatred towards her was going to cause this teacher to get hurt...
Then "the curse known as Fear" would be endangering humans again.
"—Because you are quite a hindrance."
Kaidou did not speak, a sense of anger rising. Fear quietly waited for her reply.
Fear had already resigned herself to accept whatever response Kaidou might say.
If Kaidou insisted on staying in the battlefield, Fear would make her leave even if it meant knocking her unconscious.
Very soon, Fear heard Kaidou take a deep breath. Like a tautly drawn bowstring, she required slow preparation as though for some sort of explosive action.
Then the instant after Kaidou released her breath sharply as though firing an arrow...
What Fear heard was—
Fear did not hear the scolding she expected.
Instead, Satsuko had descended from the veranda and was frantically yelling incomprehensibly.
Haruaki accompanied Satsuko into the garden, his limbs tense in anticipation of any unexpected situation. Following beside Satsuko, Kuroe was also rustling her hair on high alert.
At this moment, Fear and Konoha stopped moving. Fourteen also stood still and asked as she fluttered her veil lightly:
"...What do you mean by surrendering?"
"Umm... S-Satsuko means giving up! So she's giving the doll to you!"
Looking past Fear and the others, Satsuko and Fourteen's gazes met. Satsuko took half a step forward and lifted up the object in her hand—a headless doll.
Its body was covered in patches and possessed terrifying claws. This was the strange teddy bear that Satsuko was carrying in her pouch. Naturally, this was not the cursed doll but Satsuko had simply cut off the head using scissors just now.
Haruaki gulped and wondered: "Is this really gonna work?"
Satsuko had proposed this plan based on the dialogue before the battle began.
When Satsuko had asked Fourteen to tell her what the doll looked like, the enemy did not answer. Satsuko had said that she would answer immediately if she had any idea, so at the very least, Fourteen could have described the doll's visual characteristics. For Fourteen, there was nothing to lose in answering that question.
In that case, this meant that instead of refusing to answer, she most likely could not answer. Regarding the doll's appearance, she was not sure herself—That was what Satsuko concluded.
Of course, there was no concrete proof for this. It was just a hunch. Nevertheless—
(Even if we misjudged and the other side sees through our plan, it'd only end up angering her at most. There's nothing to lose... right?)
Feeling that cutting off the head alone was not safe enough, other parts were handled suitably to make the doll look as tattered and filthy as possible. But how much would these cheap efforts help?
"U-Umm... Actually, this is Satsuko's grandma's past possession, so Satsuko didn't want to give it to you and hid it! Since you want this doll so desperately, even going as far as to injure other people, Satsuko will give up on keeping it! If you want the doll, here you go. So, could you please leave...?"
Fourteen's initial response was silence. To Haruaki and his group, the time seemed to stretch on forever. Finally, she—
"...Toss it over."
Satsuko tossed the doll. Although the doll flew over Fear and the others' heads, Fourteen did not catch it directly, perhaps out of wariness. Gazing at the doll that had fallen on the ground for a while, she finally used the end of her broom to pick up the doll.
Was she going to angrily yell "Don't take me for a fool"?
Or would she laugh in mockery and say "You should have given it up earlier to spare yourself the trouble"?
But one could not discern emotion from the face behind the veil. Haruaki felt his heart pounding nonstop as he watched Fourteen's reaction with a mindset akin to praying.
Next, the enemy took the doll and the broom in her hand, inserting them between her cape and the cloth wrapping her body. The two items vanished at the same time. Haruaki was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when he frantically tensed his nerves again. If their intentions were seen through because he looked too relaxed, the plan would be ruined. Hence, Haruaki decided he must appear to be filled with regret and resentment for losing the deceased grandma's memento they were trying to protect.
Fourteen nodded and turned around silently. Her cape and veil fluttering, she leaped. Traversing over the wall in the garden, she swiftly disappeared. Everyone remained standing in the same spot for a while, but Fourteen did not show any signs of returning.
"Oh man~ ...Th-That was so scary..."
"Y-You did very well. It's okay now."
Haruaki comforted Satsuko who had collapsed and sat on the ground. However, Konoha continued to stare in the direction Fourteen had disappeared as she released her combat stance and said:
"I believe we can't assert that things are completely over... Or am I worrying too much?"
"She could have destroyed the doll on the spot but took it away instead. If she plans to take it back to her superiors for confirmation, it would be bad... Even if no one knows what the doll looks like, others of our kind might be able to determine that it is not a cursed tool. This depends on whether she took it away to destroy at her leisure or to bring back for confirmation."
"Uh... Right, that's possible too."
Just as Haruaki groaned, Fear's silver hair swayed lightly as she returned her torture tool to a toy.
"We won't have an answer no matter how hard we rack our brains, right? Anyway, although we can't relax completely, let's consider this plan a success for now. We'll continue to protect Satsuko for a while. If no further attacks appear, then that means the enemy was deceived. If they find out that we tricked them, they should be attacking angrily again immediately."
"That's quite a reckless theory... But just as you say, it's true that we can't confirm the truth by racking our brains. That's all we can do for now."
"But how should I put this? Settling the matter in this manner makes me feel so helpless. It feels very uncomfortable... But it would be troublesome if the fight dragged on. Who came up with this idea?"
"I-It was Satsuko. Sorry, to think that Satsuko would come up with this crude, lame and weak plan...!"
"Yeah, that woman really is inexplicable. Satsuko said she really couldn't watch you girls getting hurt on her account."
Haruaki added as an explanation. Fear instantly displayed surprise then smiled happily and said:
"R-Really... Well, that kind of insignificant enemy... Gimme another minute or two and I would've given her a sound beating all over! But anyway, I really must thank you!"
Seeing Fear's expression, Satsuko breathed a sigh of relief and smiled:
"Even so, Fear-san, you're so amazing... Was that drill your psychic power? In other words, materializing your overflowing energy into the shape of a drill? It's really cool!"
"Oh, I never thought you'd be that interested in this kind of unknown territory, you... like drills?"
"Yes! Drills symbolize power and strength! Satsuko's two most favorite things are unique occult goods and drills... Satsuko thinks it'd be wonderful if she could collect drill-type occult goods, so she has been searching for that type of thing. Your drill is really excellent but so far, Satsuko only has one drill."
"I'm quite amazed to hear that you have one at all. What do you use it for...?"
"Uh~ Satsuko pares things down with the drill and uses the shape and mass of the shavings for divination. But very unfortunately, Satsuko did not bring it today, so a live performance cannot be done—Anyway, drills are really cool!"
"Wow, if you're gonna chat about drills, I must take part as well. I agree with you, they are very cool indeed—Looks like I should start exploring drill moves."
"What are you two talking about? Speaking of the coolest weapon, that title belongs to the Japanese sword of course. Possessing both power and beauty, the Japanese sword's form is perfect and refined. One could call sword making an art that is guaranteed by tradition—"
Just as the girls all spoke at once...
The sound of sand grinding was suddenly heard as Haruaki and the rest saw Kaidou fall down to her knees.
"Kaidou-sensei!? Are you okay!?"
In actual fact, she had been standing unsteadily for a while now, probably at the limits of her fatigue. Not even able to hold her shovel securely, she was desperately using her hands and knees to support her body from collapsing. Her shoulders heaved strenuously up and down while her breathing was very quick.
Her fists were clenched tightly as though she were suppressing anger. But in the depths of her heart, Kaidou's emotions were probably not that simple. Her eyes, staring straight at the ground, devoid of expression, reflecting a vortex of complicated thoughts. There was no lack of shock and desperate denial of a certain fact, but she was suffering because she could not deny it completely. Her heart remained filled with anger as well as sorrow that almost brought her to tears.
Haruaki's group wanted to rush over to Kaidou's side, but a hand reached out to stop them at this moment.
It was Fear's hand. Next, she nodded and said "Leave it to me" and—
She walked towards Kaidou alone.
At this moment, Fear recalled what Haruaki had said earlier. It would be enough to try approaching her if any opportunity arose and reduce their distance. Fear actually agreed with Haruaki's idea. If she did not approach the other party, there would not be any progress. After all, certain things could not be understood without approaching the other person.
It was the same with Satsuko. Fear was only able to gain a deeper understanding precisely because she had approached Satsuko with initiative. This made Fear believe that she could grow closer with anyone. Perhaps because they had become closer, Satsuko had desperately tried to assist from the sidelines to save everyone.
Hence—Fear told herself to gather her courage and try approaching Kaidou.
In all senses of the word, whether in physical distance or otherwise.
Without saying a word, Fear advanced. Perhaps hearing her footsteps, Kaidou looked up.
Although Fear had called her a hindrance just now...
Was it not too late to make up for it?
Fear did not regret saying those words but she hoped that the teacher could understand that she had not meant any ill will.
Fear stopped walking and looked down at Kaidou's expressionless face. She was also looking up at Fear.
Then Fear slowly extended her hand.
"...Are you able to stand, teacher?"
Their eyes met. Kaidou's eyes, filled with complicated thoughts, displayed slight unease.
She did not speak.
A short while later, she raised her hand as though accepting the outstretched hand.
Originally curled into a fist, her fingers opened as though to shake hands.
There was a "smack."
The crisp sound echoed throughout the moonlit night.
Slapped away, Fear's hand only experienced lingering pain instead of a hand's gentle warmth.
Back to her room, Kaidou not only could not sleep but also had no intention of sleeping at all.
Kaidou intended to repeat what she did earlier. Go to bed first and return to the corridor once the young girl fell asleep. Lying in the futon, she waited for the girl beside her to fall asleep, then suddenly—
"...Thank you... very much."
The voice was extremely weak, sounding almost like a wheeze and out of breath.
"I... did not do anything."
No, that was not correct. Hence, Kaidou clenched her fist and said:
"I was unable to accomplish anything."
"Nothing of that sort... You helped Satsuko, right?"
These words made Kaidou feel terrible. Even if she were sincere, it still made Kaidou feel terrible.
Perhaps because it was night.
Or maybe because this girl who was sleeping in the same room had greatly shaken Kaidou's willpower.
By the time she noticed, Kaidou already found herself talking in despair.
"I originally thought I had become somewhat stronger, having undergone training... But the end result was turning in this shameful performance. Furthermore—"
Kaidou recalled the pain running through her hand as well as the situation that had caused that girl the same pain at the time.
Perhaps she was taking out her anger and frustration on Fear? Or was it for some other reason? Even Kaidou herself did not know. Her hand had simply acted out on its own.
Kaidou could not say these words back then. Neither did she have the time to do so. Because the girl had instantly turned around without saying a word, swaying her long silver hair as she ran back to her room.
"Oh no... Please don't be like that~ Umm, Satsuko hopes that you all... could get along well together. Or perhaps, you hate... Fear-san...?"
"...I simply have no idea how to face her."
Kaidou repeated the same words she had spoken hours earlier. Including that sentence as well as everything she had told Yachi Haruaki, everything was true. Although she did not know why, she simply had no idea how to face the girl. But to Kaidou, that was not important. She disregarded and ignored all unimportant reasons, simply wishing to focus on making herself stronger—Nevertheless...
"Honestly speaking, it was truly shameful. I completely failed to become stronger. I am still the same as back then, cowardly to the point... of being unable to protect anything..."
At this moment, Satsuko grabbed Kaidou's hand forcefully. Kaidou widened her eyes in surprise. The girl had reached out from the futon beside her. Inside this dark room, Kaidou could even see her calm smile.
"You want to... become strong, is that it? If that's the case, you're the same... as Satsuko."
For some reason, Kaidou did not feel the urge to shake off Satsuko's hand.
"You too... are the same?"
"Yes. Satsuko really is quite cowardly and useless, unable to do anything well... Even if just a little bit, Satsuko hopes to become stronger, but it hasn't worked. For Satsuko, it's very difficult."
"...It really is."
Very difficult. How on earth should one become stronger? How far does one have to go before one was considered stronger?
If she were to become stronger, would she be able to accomplish things she had failed in the past? Would she be able to hold her head high, puff out her chest and accept this young girl's "thanks"? Would she, as a teacher, be able to openly accept the silver-haired student and others of her kind whom she was avoiding for reasons unknown even to herself?
No idea. She had no idea at all, but she was certain of one thing. She must do something.
Suddenly, she realized Satsuko had stopped talking. Instead, there was the clear sound of...
The regular breathing of deep sleep could be heard from the futon next to Kaidou. Immediately, Kaidou felt a slight sense of regret, hoping to chat a little longer but at the same time, she was also relieved that she had not further exposed her own weakness.
She originally intended to return to the corridor to guard against a nocturnal assault, but—
That would require letting go of the hand she was holding.
She would feel bad if she woke up Satsuko.
Then it occurred to her that even if someone attacked during the night in these circumstances, she should still be able to handle it immediately.
Looking up at the patterns in the wood on the ceiling, the view from the futon greatly resembled that of the old apartment she used to live in.
Also, the breathing rhythm of the person in deep sleep beside her was the same as what she used to hear.
Despite the feelings of nostalgia, Kaidou knew very well that this was merely ugly and lowly self-deceit.
Hence, she kept staring at the ceiling that looked hazy for some reason.
"...Oh... Is that so?"
Despite clearly knowing it was self-deceit, she was too weak to let go of this hand.
Feeling ashamed of herself, Kaidou smiled.
Translator's Notes and References
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