Chapter 1 - Flight in Progress, Will He Crash? / "Santa Claus is coming to town"
December 22, a few hours after the end of term ceremony...
Due to Christmas Eve coming in two days, the shopping street was uniformly Christmas in mood. Countless discount banners stood upright on the street with shiny and extravagant decorations all around. Naturally, the cake shop before Haruaki's eyes was no exception. In front of the shop, a small tent and long table were set up with a state of battle preparedness unique to the Christmas season. Nothing was lacking: decorations for drawing people's attention, miniature Christmas trees, Jingle Bells playing from a CD deck, the main attraction: a small mountain of cake, as well as—
"Nuooh, my legs are feeling colder than expected! Isn't this skirt a bit too short?"
"I'm more concerned about my exposed shoulders... Isn't this... a bit too... erotic...?"
"What, shoulders? Shoulders are completely unimportant. Shouldn't you pay more attention to that pair of cow udders instead? Isn't the top part of the breasts about to pop out? Wow, to think you can nonchalantly display to the public that mass of strange, ugly, repulsive and flabby flesh, how completely unbelievable! This is so excessively shameless that I'm inspired with newfound respect for you... If I were you, I'd surely feel so ashamed that I'd instantly bite through my tongue to commit suicide. You're absolutely amazing."
"I-I'm not nonchalant at all! I wouldn't wear this if I had a choice, but this is the only outfit, there's nothing I can do!"
—As well as salesladies dressed in Santa outfits.
Obviously, they were Fear and Konoha. They were wearing red hats tipped with fluffy white balls, red clothes, and red boots. Just as Konoha complained, only hers was a one-piece Santa dress with exposed shoulders. As for Fear, she was wearing thigh-high boots. Despite certain points of dissimilarity, these were undoubtedly Santa outfits.
Haruaki really wished they would stop arguing out in the public like it were business as usual... Wearing the cake shop's apron, Haruaki could not help but roll his eyes at them. At this point, the two girls' gazes suddenly turned towards him. Without saying a word, they seemed to be trying to ask him something through their eyes. Haruaki instantly shuddered while thinking up an answer:
"Uh... Umm... I-It's very fitting. Suits you both..."
"H-Hmph hmph, that goes without saying. Although I only learned of his existence recently, more than anyone else, I understand and respect the altruistic man known as Santa Claus. How could someone like me not suit this outfit!?"
"Ehehe... I-Is that so? Although it's quite embarrassing, so be it... Hmm, since this is a part-time job after all, persistent grumbling isn't going to help. I will do my best!"
Apparently, Haruaki picked the right answer. Just as he breathed a sigh of relief, a third Santa girl jumped out of the cake shop.
"Haru, what about me~?"
"O-Oh, it suits you too... Wait a sec, I thought you were just showing up briefly to instruct us? Don't you have your own shop to attend to?"
"Of course. Next, I'm going to return to the 'Dan-no-ura' dressed like this. This is what's called the Christmas version of the beautiful hairstylist. Since the laundry shopkeeper was kind enough to prepare three outfits, I must do my best."
With Kuroe looking like a contestant in an elementary school's talent show (with even a mustache stuck on) yet calling herself the beautiful hairstylist, Haruaki could not help but think: what the heck is this? But he was already used to her ways and gave up on retorting snidely.
"Whatever. So, Fear, do you understand what's your job?"
"Hmph, don't look down on others. I just have to pull in customers and make them buy cakes, that's all. This is no different from what I did during the cultural festival. Too easy!"
"Easy huh... That still doesn't reassure me completely. Anyway, I'll be in charge of the cashier, so you should just focus on greeting customers. I'll need to enter the shop occasionally to replenish the cakes or help out in the kitchen, so Konoha, please handle the cashier for me during those times."
"Please leave it to me. I think it's safest if Fear-san stays focused on greeting customers cordially."
"What~! Why are you treating me as though I'm some sort of decoration!? I'll curse you!"
"Right~ Let me teach you a trick, Ficchi. I think you should first memorize all the types of cakes being sold and their prices. On occasion, there should be customers who'll ask you 'which type tastes better' or something like that."
"Yeah. Nothing less expected of Kuroe, nice advice... Yeah, that's the stuff written on this flag, right?"
Fear picked up the flag from the long table and began to study it from top to bottom. After a while, she went "Okay, memorized." Nodding to herself, she proceeded to plant the flag into Konoha's chest in a most natural manner.
"Kyah—! What are you doing so suddenly!?"
"Muu, sorry. Because that valley's purpose is too unclear, I mistakenly thought it was a base for holding up a flag."
Really too worrying. As Haruaki sighed, Kuroe watched their interactions gleefully and waved lightly:
"Well then, it's about time I get back to the shop. Good luck~"
Hearing this, Fear and Konoha stopped glaring at each other.
"Oh, good luck to you too! Also... You need to be careful on your end, beware of that 'Santa Hunter'!"
"Fufu. By 'be careful,' you mean absolutely do not let him escape if I happen to run into him, right?"
"Of course! Since this concerns the shopping street's destiny, that criminal must be caught as soon as possible!"
"Understood~ Then I'm off~"
Kuroe waved again and headed back to her own shop. Only after she disappeared from view did Konoha finally open the cash register and begin to verify the coins used for giving change. On the other hand, Fear was murmuring meaninglessly as she adjusted the cakes' arrangement. "Is this better placed here? No, how about this side?" Surely, Fear was simply occupying herself in opposition to Konoha.
Haruaki sighed again, looking up towards the overcast sky overhead.
Indeed, the Christmas battle between shops could be considered connected to the shopping street's destiny perhaps. Judging from the magnificent decorations all over the place, even surpassing last year's, one could feel how serious everyone was. That said... (I understand that everyone's serious, but to think they would need to rely on these girls... The situation must be quite dire. The problem lies in the recession and—the Santa Hunter?)
The first time Haruaki heard this term was through the phone call Kuroe received the night before. The caller was the shopping street's cake shopkeeper who was askng if Kuroe could find part-timers to help sell Christmas cakes. The only reason why he had to ask her a mere two days before Christmas was because all the original part-timers suddenly decided not to come. This was due to rumors circulating on the streets that started a few days ago—The 'Santa Hunter' incident.
In other words, part-timers dressed in Santa costumes were being attacked and stripped of their clothing. To this date, the incident had occurred multiple times already. Since all the victims were attacked from behind, there were no clues at all and the police could only increase patrols at this stage. On the other hand, rumors began spreading among several schools, such as "the culprit must be a pervert" or "perhaps something worse might happen to the next victim." This led to difficulties in hiring enough part-timers, or the part-timers not showing up at the last moment—Caught in a bind due to these troubles, the cake shopkeeper had to turn to Kuroe for assistance. The main reason for seeking their help was due to Konoha having thrown a thief out of the bookstore where she worked part-time. This heroic exploit (in other words, a reputation as an amazing girl who could not be judged by appearance) had long since spread far and wide in the shopping street, but for some reason, Fear jumped at the opportunity and offered herself aggressively, saying "I'll do it too, please let me do it, I need to do beneficial things for people"—Thus resulting in the current situation.
(I already asked her many times, "this is your first time working part-time officially, is it really okay?" ...But it's true that the more helpers the better, and given how striking she looks, I'm sure she'll manage to attract quite a few customers.)
Haruaki turned his gaze away from the gray sky that seemed to reflect his internal thoughts. It was about time to get started with the work.
"No matter what... Since things have come to this, there's no choice but to get with the program. Fear, you must treat Konoha as your role model. Please don't be rude to customers."
"M-Muu... But having to treat this Cow Tits as my role model really pisses me off..."
"Is this really the time to be saying that? Very well, please watch carefully."
Konoha took a deep breath and puffed out her chest of her revealing Santa outfit. This act alone was enough to bring in the attentions of pedestrians (mostly males) walking past along the street. Then she revealed her flawless business smile.
"Welcome~ Since it's Christmas, would you like to buy some delicious cake for the festive season?"
The effects were outstanding. Immediately, a man approached. "These will stay fresh until Christmas Eve, right? Which one should I pick..." Then he started to choose cakes. Haruaki elbowed Fear was was frowning as she stared at the scene.
"Okay, time for your debut. You should know already, the trick is to smile and promote with a loud voice."
"I-I know. You just watch..."
Fear took a deep breath and straightened herself beyond necessary. Then she moved the corner of her lips stiffly, presenting a rigid smile and said:
"W-Welcome. C-Christmas...! Tasty...!"
"...U-Uh cough. Not really. It's very usual. Th-This is the way, right?"
"What's usual about that? You clearly said it's no different from the cultural festival, too easy, but the end result is this?"
"S-Shut up, I'll curse you! Because last time, the customers entered the shop automatically on their own, but this time I need to pull customers in. That's... a bit different from what I expected."
"It's not like I can't understand... But there's that as well, remember you were passing out flyers when Kuroe just returned? Just remember the feeling. There's no need to be nervous."
"Muu... I-I know. I'll try."
Haruaki reminded himself not to keep focusing on Fear. Accepting the payment from the man just now who had finished choosing his cake, Haruaki operated the cash register. Perhaps Konoha's solicitation was working its effects, customers began to arrive in twos and threes to buy cake.
Fear seemed to be gradually getting used to pulling in customers but was still stiffly going "W-Wel... come... How about a cake... Yes?" However, since her appearance was quite attractive after all, it was not as though her contributions to the sales figure were zero.
"Uh~ Cake... very tasty... Hmm? Ohoh! Haruaki, a customer!"
"Hey Fear, you need to say 'Hello dear customer'!"
"Fufufu, don't worry about it. She's a foreigner, right? Her Japanese is really good."
Occasional exchanges of this sort appeared as a rather hectic period passed. However, the adorable Santa girls' serious appearances were attracting people apart from customers.
"Hey hey, say, you look great in that Santa outfit. Which school are you from? What time do you get off from work today?"
"Eh? Uh, excuse me, regarding such matters, I..."
A young man was hitting on Konoha. Completely failing to notice the twitching on her face, he was frequently glancing at her exposed shoulders and low neckline... Haruaki could not help but feel displeased. Even if he left them alone, Konoha would probably throw the guy out with a smile? But he should give a warning at least? Just as Haruaki pondered, a silver-haired Santa girl swaggered over and approached the man from behind.
"Oh, of course you can come as well. I'll call a friend over. After you get off from work, let's have tea the four of us together?"
"How suspicious. Are you... that one...?"
Oh no, why hasn't the man noticed Fear's dangerous gaze? Is it because he's one of those Japanese idiots born after the war and lacking in danger awareness?
"Whatever, you don't need to wait until I get off work. Follow me. Yes, that alley over there looks nice..."
"Uwah, you're so aggressive... I'm fine with it, but you don't need to drag me."
Fear used brute force to drag the sleeve of the man who was laughing stupidly. Her other hand was holding the Rubik's cube. Haruaki wanted to chase after them but as luck would have it, a group of housewives were currently choosing cakes, thus preventing Haruaki and Konoha from leaving their posts.
During this busy period, a pitiful wail sounding like a scream was heard from the alley. Fear pouted with dissatisfaction and stomped her way back.
"Muu... Unfortunately, I think I got the wrong person. Looks like the Santa Hunter won't be that easy to find."
"Getting the wrong person is acceptable in this case. Only right now can I say to you "Good job"... And there I was just now, looking for a plastic bucket nearby that this person could be stuffed into without problems."
Konoha nodded seriously in succession. Clearly her displeasure was on a greater level than when she threw the guy out last time. Truly terrifying.
(Hmm, sorry, Mr. Skirt Chaser. You've got nothing to blame but your rotten luck in a time like this...!)
After a long while, the cake shopkeeper and his wife came out of the shop. The shopkeeper with the small mustache said: "How's the situation?" After checking the revenue, he exchanged glances with his wife and smiled.
"Clearly the day after tomorrow should be the main event, but this is really quite a good pace... Asking Kuroe-chan for help really was the right decision. Thank you all! You must be tired from standing all this time, right? Please leave things to us for now and take a break for half an hour. We've also prepared some cake for you so don't be shy and eat as much as you want."
Hence, Haruaki and his group decided to accept their kind offer and went inside for a break. After entering the cake shop's backyard, they found a table where a teapot and three portions of strawberry shortcake were prepared.
"Wow~ That looks really tasty."
"Nununu, this is—My very first time eating this cake! There's even a whole strawberry on top, that's truly extravagant! I was sure that this is food for royalty!"
"Eh, really? Even if it's this classic strawberry shortcake... I'm pretty sure Kuroe has bought cake to bring home quite a few times, right? You've never tried it before?"
"Never. On the other hand, I've tried the chocolate covered cake and that swirly one with the chestnut flavor."
"Really? Maybe because it's too classic, it got overlooked instead. Anyway, this is the most basic style of cake in Japan. Given instructions of 'Draw a picture of a cake!', everyone will surely draw this one."
"T-To think it runs that deep.... It must be very tasty!"
Gulp. Fear swallowed hard. Konoha had already poured out the tea that had been prepared for the three of them and was sitting on her chair to enjoy the brief break. After standing all this time, Haruaki's back and legs were burdened with fatigue. Popping the cake into his mouth, he felt the sweet sensation gradually seep throughout his exhausted body and mind.
So, what kind of reaction would she have? Haruaki turned his gaze to watch Fear chewing a large mouthful of cake with a serious expression. Then she suddenly stared wide-eyed.
"Th-This is... The cream is sweet and the bottom part is soft and spongy, how should I describe this... So delicious! Although it loses to rice crackers just by a little bit, muu, but this... is really great...!"
"That's really wonderful. You can tell the shopkeeper your impression afterwards, I'm sure he'll be very happy... You should try the strawberries too. There are even people who insist that the they're the true stars of the strawberry shortcake. Reportedly, in households with siblings, fights would even break out between family members."
"What!? Let me try the strawberries... Wow! Strawberries are already sweet to begin with, but with cream on top, that sweetness even goes a notch higher...! The one who invented this cake must be a genius, right?"
To the rest of them, this was strawberry shortcake that could be found anywhere, but in Fear's eyes, this was her first taste of food belonging to dreams. There probably existed many more things that could elicit the same reaction from her. Whenever Fear delivered them to her mouth, surely she would be greatly surprised with a myriad of facial expressions.
Haruaki smiled wryly as he sipped the hot tea while Konoha smiled helplessly as she ate her cake.
Just at this moment, Fear's eyes flashed brightly.
"If it's this tasty, I can understand. Fights breaking out in the family. In other words, if the powerless were to be robbed of their strawberries by the powerful, they can't complain..."
"Munch munch munch... Eh?"
"An opening! Gimme~!"
As Konoha watched in palpitation, Fear leapt like a wild beast, brandishing her fork. This happened just as Konoha was using her own fork to deliver a strawberry to her mouth. Naturally, an intense battle of forks ensued.
"S-Seriously... Such an utter lack of manners! Stop this immediately, Fear-san!"
"No way! Because strawberries are the stars of the strawberry shortcake! If you need to hate someone, hate Haruaki for telling me this fact!"
"I wasn't being serious, okay!?"
There was no opportunity to persuade them to stop. The intense struggle ended up causing the strawberry to slide off Konoha's fork. But since Fear's fork failed to intercept it in midair, the strawberry finally fell straight down.
Down into Konoha's cleavage.
Nevertheless, the strawberry-attacking beast did not stop. Perhaps thinking that the act of swallowing that strawberry as quickly as possible would be proof of her victory, Fear abandoned her fork.
Then she buried her face there directly.
"Muu... Where, where is that cream-covered strawberry of yours!? Over here!? Over here!?"
"Hieh!? Hey, s-stop it... If you want it that much, I'll give it to you, ahhh... Stop it, just wait... Don't... lick that kind... of place..."
"Uh~ Cough, since I've finished my cake, it's about time for me to head out..."
Feeling like he was sitting on a pincushion, Haruaki left the backyard as though he were fleeing the scene.
Muttering "how troubling~" to himself, Haruaki went outside the shop and stretched his back. Overhead, the sky was still displaying a swathe of gray that seemed to embody the unease in his heart.
Indeed, he was still worrying about Fear in her part-time job. However, this was a kind of social education after all. Although there was some confusion more or less, which was understandable, Haruaki hoped that Fear could work hard and finish things to the very end peacefully without issue... It would be best if a chaotic scene, like the strawberry battle just now, did not occur again.
There were still several hours until the end of work today.
If it doesn't rain, that'd be best—Haruaki thought.
She was very confused. Nothing could be understood.
Was she really that weak? Why did her body not listen to to her?
While jumping from one building to another, she simultaneously swung her blade at the closely approaching figure. She kept repeating this action. Each and every time, a solid metallic impact was heard.
Drip. The sound of metal was interspersed with that of water droplets falling from the sky. Even so, she could not afford to halt her movements now. The instant she stopped, she would be captured. That was all she knew.
The instant she was about to jump towards the next building, she was attacked. Just barely managing to dodge it, she was pushed off balance, however. The falling sensation aroused instincts like a caged beast's, causing her to counterattack automatically but she was unable to touch the enemy's body, that of the hunter. A certain twisted noise was heard after the opponent's weapon was withdrawn from the clash. The enemy made a tongue-clicking sound and prepared to kick her just as she was about to fall, approaching before her eyes—
I might have died already—She thought. In the next instant, she felt the impact. Being able to feel the impact implied that she was still alive. Probably. Really?
Her head felt heavy. Her body felt heavy. Her view was dim. Perhaps due to the increasingly heavy rain. Or maybe caused by some other reason. No idea.
She slowly pushed her fallen body up. Within her hazy view, a small cube was rolling. Subconsciously, she reached out and grabbed it. What was it?
She felt some shaking. With some difficulty, she realized she was on top of the cargo space of a truck that was waiting for the traffic signal to change. Beneath her was a vinyl sheet covering some sort of soft material. She also realized that the shaking just now came from the enemy who had landed on the same truck in pursuit.
Seeing the object in her hand, the enemy grinned and spoke.
This cube is capable of "letting someone—"
In other words, it was the cube for realizing mankind's greatest wish.
Wish. Wish. Wish. What was her own wish? She wondered.
Defeating this enemy? No.
Her wish—what she needed to do—There was only one thing.
Hence, she went into action. To escape.
She attacked the enemy who stood on this cargo space of the same truck—After making this feint, she jumped sideways.
A floating sensation. Next, she found her body surrounded by flowing water that was even colder than the rain.
The hunter heard the noise of water.
The sound did not come from the cold, nonstop rain but from the river beside the road. Due to the inky blackness of the night, she had not noticed the river's existence until this point. Although she hastily jumped off the truck as well, no signs of her prey remained in the river, probably washed away by the current or fled into a sewer.
She scratched her head gruffly, clicking her tongue again at the same time.
"Tsk... Was that her full power already? If that's the case, I am so very disappointed. What should I do...?"
Kokoro Pentangeli murmured impatiently.
A drizzle started around dusk. By the time it was time to get off work, the rain had already developed into a total downpour.
"Uwah, this is really cold... Had I known, I would've brought the retractable umbrella as well. Here, hold this."
Pulling his coat collar up, Haruaki handed the umbrella from his school bag to Fear. Unlike Fear who was essentially empty-handed, Konoha had definitely brought her own umbrella. However, back when they were changing before heading home, Konoha was murmuring inexplicably with a stunned expression: "Oh no! If only I had forgotten to bring one... Then the two of us... could share one umbrella...!"
The trio took shelter under the cake shop's eaves and waited for a while. Having told them "given this rare chance, let's go home together" earlier, Kuroe appeared with splashing footsteps.
"Thanks for waiting~"
"Yeah, you've been working hard too... Oh, where's your Santa suit?"
"I left it in the 'Dan-no-ura' because I'll be borrowing it until Christmas Eve. Speaking of which, today is really cold."
"I know right!? Did you realize it too? That Santa outfit... Despite the furry trimmings, it's quite weak in guarding against the cold! The real Santa definitely has a tough time. Someone really gotta help me think of a solution. If he catches a cold and becomes unable to deliver presents, I absolutely can't accept that!"
Kuroe giggled. With this as the signal, they started on the journey home. The streets at night were quite deserted. The raindrops were icy cold and their backs trembled from the winter air of the night. Even the water currents of the gray river, which was visible from the side of the road, seemed even more turbulent and rapid than usual. But even faced with such a scene on their way home, the group definitely felt more than cold and loneliness while they walked.
So many different things happened today, although it was hard work, I finished my job perfectly—Fear announced proudly as though she were recounting heroic exploits. In response, Kuroe concurred happily despite her usual sleepy-looking demeanor. On the other hand, Konoha made corrections in exasperation, causing Fear to pout and object. It was an inexplicably comforting scene and could not be more ordinary.
"Then... Muo, it's really cold...! That thing you have there looks quite warm."
"Oh drats. To think I'd be the only one with an item providing protection against the cold, that would be a taint to my honor as Ficchi's lover. Come over here, Ficchi... Like this, here. Swirl swirl."
Kuroe untied her long scarf and wrapped quite a few revolutions around Fear's neck. Then she wrapped the remaining portion around her own neck again. The shared scarf look commonly used by couples.
"Wow, so warm! The scarf is such a great invention... Hmph hmph, are you jealous? Haruaki and Cow Tits!?"
Connected to Kuroe via the scarf, Fear suddenly turned her head. Dragged with a "Wah~", Kuroe was also forced to turn her head as well. Haruaki really wished they could be more careful and not strangle themselves.
"Yes yes yes, it does look quite warm, how wonderful. I should wear a scarf tomorrow... Haruaki-kun, why don't you wear a scarf as well? Well, umm... If what Kuroe-san is currently doing can be repeated, of course I have no reason to object, instead I'd welcome it, we must try it out..."
The latter half of Konoha's speech turned into awkward murmurings that Haruaki could not quite catch, but he did agree wholeheartedly that getting a scarf would be nice.
"Actually I was thinking of wearing one today, but who knows if I dropped it somewhere last year or it was put away some place strange, I haven't been able to find it."
"Oh dear, is that so... How terrible~ So a scarf was a right choice huh..."
"Hmm, what did you say?"
"N-Nothing, nothing at all!"
Konoha shook her head frantically. For some reason, Fear was also staring over in Haruaki's direction, but then she turned away in a panic as soon as they made eye contact.
Just at this moment—
Having turned her gaze elsewhere, Fear suddenly stopped walking. "Choke~" Completely unaware that Kuroe's neck was being strangled again, she simply stared at one direction—The night sky with its flying raindrops.
"What's the matter, Fear?"
"Just now... I-I saw it, I saw it! Really for sure~"
"You saw what?"
Fear waved her umbrella forcefully and raised her voice with an even more excited expression:
"Santa Claus! I saw something red fly past just now! Over there! On top of the building!"
Haruaki and Konoha exchanged exasperated looks. Only Kuroe took the opportunity to pour fuel onto the fire as usual:
"Wow~ Something red flying across the sky, that's definitely Santa Claus~ However, I'm a bit bothered by the fact that he's two days early... Oh right, time difference, it's probably because of the time difference. Ficchi!"
"The time difference!? I get it now!"
Don't agree and don't let her agree! As much as Haruaki wanted to call out the nonsense, things did not go as wished. That was because Fear ignored getting wet and sprinted off to a mad dash. "He went that way!" Linked to her, Kuroe had no choice but to be dragged along. That said, Haruaki was pretty sure that Kuroe would follow along on her own even if they were not tied together.
Left without a choice, Haruaki and Konoha followed. Should they tell her the truth now that Santa Claus did not actually exist? Or should they let Fear's enthusiasm continue? Or should they prepare some other explanation? Haruaki agonized over his dilemma.
Fear stopped in front of an inconspicuous space located behind a mixed-tenant building. Having lost Santa Claus' trail, she murmured softly: "Is there anywhere nearby to hide...? Right here—!?"
Next, she rushed somewhere and discovered a dead end alley that was completely desolate and not used for anything.
What an amazing miracle, Haruaki thought to himself. This place was quite impossible to find. If Fear had not recognized something as Santa Claus, if she had not chased after the target, if she had not happened to run to this place, indeed, the search would not have bore fruit.
But their search did bear fruit.
Rather than a crashed Santa Claus—
For Haruaki's group, this was a very familiar person whom they could not forget.
Over there was a dark-skinned person. The girl named Un Izoey was lying there with her eyes shut.
The red liquid flowing out from her body was silently mixing with the cold rain.
"Ahhh, jeez, there's blood all over... Ugh. Anyway, I've repeated myself so many times already but I still need to say this! Haruaki-kun, you're a nice guy to a fault!"
"Umm... Hmm, eh, of course I know that this girl is that annoying guy's companion. Even I find this quite strange... But for now, let's first..."
"Hmph, it's all because of those guys—the Lab Chief's Nation—that I suffered so much pain. But no matter what, it never occurred to me to deliver a killing blow to someone in this state."
Carrying Un Izoey in his arms, Haruaki hurried home with his friends while avoiding people's sight. Although he considered calling for an ambulance, this dark-skinned girl might not necessarily have a passport. As much as possible, he wanted to avoid getting involved with the authorities.
"First of all, we need towels and bandages, right? I've brought them."
"Oh, nice work, Fear. So, Kuroe, how is she...?"
"Hmm~ The bleeding is quite severe but the wound itself doesn't seem too deep... Anyway, I'll wrap it up with my hair first. This will instantly cure it."
"Really, that's great... Can I say that? But, in that case, why is she still unconscious?"
"...She has a fever. Wearing so little and completely drenched, catching a cold is normal. Anyway, I'll wipe her body first and get her changed... Cough, Haruaki-kun?"
Spearheaded by Konoha who had her palm pressed against Un Izoey's forehead, the female faction's gazes all shot towards Haruaki at the same time. After a bit of thought, Haruaki finally understood the reason.
"Oh, r-right, I'll go wait outside!"
Haruaki hastily rushed out of the guest room, closing the sliding door behind him as he exhaled.
At least her life was not in danger but the situation was still full of mysteries. Why was she in that kind of place? Why was she hurt? Didn't they promise not to approach Fear again?
"Fear-san, could you grab one end of the white coat? I'm going to take it off... Go."
"Nuu! Although she's originally an enemy already, this makes her even more of an enemy now! An member of the faction opposing the Ladylike Bosoms Alliance! Damn you, wobbling nonstop over there as though showing off... Is there anyway to deflate them?"
"Hey, stop poking the sleeping patient! What are you thinking about? If you've got the leisure to do that, hurry up and help wipe her body with the towel!"
"Damn Cow Tits, nothing less expected from the leader of the opposing faction. To go so far as asking me to wipe this body, you must be planning to dishearten me and gloat secretly... Hmph, I'll curse you. And inject a curse directly into here as well. Deflate~ Shrink~"
"Mode: «Satisfied Yorimori». Then let me help change her lower garments. Ohoh, what's this? Underwear that smells of a thong... Doesn't this bring up certain memories, Kono-san?"
"...I recall nothing. Indeed, nothing at all."
"Is that memory completely insignificant to you, Kono-san? I'm so heartbroken~ ...Glare~"
"Hey Kuroe-san, please stop taking advantage of the chaos to peek!"
The voices coming from the room were making Haruaki's face red. Precisely because there were no images, his imagination was running especially wild, what a quandary. During this time, he heard someone thumping a futon.
"Uh... Anyway, let her lie down first. Haruaki-kun."
"O-Okay. Then I'm coming in."
Haruaki cleared his mind and entered the guest room once more. Just as Konoha instructed, Un Izoey was currently lying in the guest futon that was originally kept in the cupboard.
"Huff... Mmm... Huff... Ah..."
Un Izoey's cheeks were reddened cheeks and her breathing was slightly quickened. From the opening in the futon, her shoulders could be seen shaking slightly. She seemed to be in great pain but there was no obvious solution to alleviate her discomfort.
Sloppily placed beside the futon were her original clothes but apart from that, the rest of her possessions were currently kept on Konoha's lap. Perhaps noticing Haruaki's gaze, Konoha explained to him:
"Even with her in this state, we can't let her have access to the knife and elastic bow. I will be keeping these."
"Yeah, that's true... It can't be helped."
"Her possessions also include this letter, as well as... This strange cube."
"What is it?"
"Who knows. At this point, all I can do is call it a cube."
It was roughly palm-sized and made of metal with rust spots all over. Only one face of the cube was hollowed out with an opening. If anything, one could describe it as a cube-shaped measuring cup. "Lemme have a look, Cow Tits." Fear took the strange cube and inclined her head:
"Muu... No idea. But somehow, it seems to bring out a sense of closeness in the depths of my heart, but not exactly."
"Even if she's carrying it because tribal rules dictate that 'This must be used for drinking water,' I wouldn't be surprised. Anyway, why don't you hold onto it as a fellow cube... I'll go prepare pajamas and other clothing. We can't have her lying naked there indefinitely."
"Right. We also need to give her medicine. Let me look for some."
"Then I'll take care of her together with Kuroe... Or is it surveillance...? After all, better safe than sorry."
"A very correct attitude. Then we'll be off."
Parting with Konoha to perform their tasks independently, Haruaki headed to the living room and searched the shelves where medical supplies were kept while he pondered.
Indeed, better safe than sorry, probably. Recalling the incident instigated by the Lab Chief's Nation—Yamimagari Pakuaki—singlehandedly at the cultural festival, Haruaki could not help but think that. Since that organization was involved, perhaps things were secretly going on without their knowledge.
Hence—It was probably best to inform her, thought Haruaki spontaneously and took out his cellphone from his pocket.
"Ah, hello? Sorry to disturb you this late. Because things have gotten a bit troublesome, I thought I should give you a report at least. Uh, actually..."
Haruaki recounted briefly what had happened. He ended up getting a very brief response from her as well. She simply answered in an urgent tone of voice:
"Wait ten minutes for me! We'll talk then. I'm hanging up now!"
"Eh? No, I just wanted to ask... Umm... Hello?"
Then just as she promised, ten minutes later—Haruaki was at the entrance, welcoming her arrival to the Yachi residence.
Goodness knows how hard she ran. She was completely out of breath.
Dropping a large bag from her shoulder by her feet, she said:
"Those people, that... Who knows what kind of conspiracy is afoot, also... Possibly... Attracting your attention with Un Izoey then doing something to me... So, since you're letting her stay in this house and taking care of her, well then, for the sake of personal safety, I think this is the only thing I can do. Yes, of course I am aware that I came too suddenly and it's a little inappropriate. But in spite of that, if you could accept a shameless request I am proposing—"
Ueno Kirika said something that made the situation even more chaotic:
"—Please allow me to stay over tonight. What do you think, Yachi?"
Completely contrary to the meaning of the word "request"...
Seeing her bag that seemed to be packed to the brim with belongings for a stayover—No matter how he thought about it, Haruaki was certain he had no power to refuse.
Inside the guest room where Un Izoey was sleeping soundly, Fear crossed her arms and pondered.
"I see, so this girl is staying here as a red herring while they take advantage of the opening to make a move on Kirika huh... That sounds very plausible. But the problem is that this really doesn't look like acting."
"No acting required as long as Un Izoey herself remains in the dark. All that's needed is the final outcome evolves to this... If it's that man, he could very well do this."
Sitting formally in seiza, Kirika spoke with a serious demeanor. That's true too—Fear's dainty face frowned and she nodded.
"In other words, he won't shy away from deceiving comrades when formulating plans huh... An astute observation as expected of Kirika. Very well, in that case, I welcome you of course! That said, I'd still welcome you very much in any other situation!"
"Yes yes, if it's Kiririn, feel free to stay at our home~ Or rather, I was actually quite shocked to learn that this is your first time staying overnight."
Kirika forced a smile in response to the unbelievable nickname. At this moment, Konoha drew near Haruaki's ear and whispered:
"Uh... Are you really going to allow Ueno-san to spend the night here?"
"Aren't Class Rep's worries reasonable? After all, she's undoubtedly the one who knows best about the other side's ways of doing things... Hmm, Konoha, you wouldn't happen to have any objections, would you?"
Konoha hesitated and began to twiddle with her braids with a complicated expression on her face while sighing. "Ooh, has the formidable rival finally gone on the offensive...? No, perhaps there's no deeper meaning to this, it's possible that her actions are prompted by the current situation without ulterior motives... Hmm, it's better for psychological health if I don't overthink things, right? Then it's decided. I'll try my best..." After murmuring that, she proceeded to say: "Cough cough, of course there's no problem. On further thought, having girls stay overnight in this home has already become commonplace. Even if I object, it's useless. Earlier, even Kaidou-sensei and that girl from the enemy side spent a night here at our home. I just need to keep my eyes wide open and pay very close attention to prevent indecent incidents from happening."
"I have to state just for the record. I've never done any of that intentionally..."
At this moment, Kirika turned towards Konoha with a serious expression and kept her head bowed apologetically.
"I've caused trouble for Konoha-kun as well. It also goes without saying, I cannot forgive this boy here if he does anything indecent or absolutely ridiculous. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Very well, leave this responsibility to me. Since school is over and the holidays have started, I think it's fine even if I punish him a little more severely... So I shall teach him a lesson without any mercy at all!"
Konoha's forceful declaration made Haruaki even more ill at ease. He really hoped she would not do that.
"By the way... Why did this person faint in that kind of place?"
"Hmm. That man already said he won't make a move on me again... Is he going back on his word? Or is it unrelated to me? I have no idea at all."
"Currently, it looks like she's simply unconscious due to catching a cold? In that case, we'll just have to question her when she wakes up. Since she's actually moved here already, we can't help it. But to be honest, I really have no wish to get involved with that organization again. Although I can get in touch with them, reluctant as I am to do so, I don't want to do it at all unless there's a special reason."
"Of course. Forcing you to do anything unwilling never crossed my mind at all. She's already taken her medicine and Kuroe has treated her wounds, so she should be recovering soon. But I remember how despite being human, this girl's martial arts were exceptionally powerful. Who on earth could have injured her?"
"The only possibility coming into mind is that it's related to our kind? By borrowing the powers of a cursed tool, the opponent won effortlessly—although I doubt if the incident is actually that simple. Regardless, let's not lower our guard just because we've confiscated her weapons. If she goes on a rampage the moment she wakes up, it will be a pain."
Konoha made very valid points. Anyway, they decided to keep a close watch over her for the night with someone staying in the room at all times to care for and monitor her.
As the night grew late, conversation dwindled and a sense of drowsiness naturally invaded. Just as Haruaki shook his head to dispel the urge to sleep—
"Oh Haruaki-kun, you guys should get some rest. Ueno-san, please use the other guest room to sleep."
"No, don't mind me. I'd feel guilty if I were the only one sleeping while the rest of you stayed on watch."
"That's right, Konoha-kun, you don't need to mind me either."
"Please, I'm the one hoping that you two won't mind. Or rather... Yes, it's true that someone is needed here to monitor her, but having five of us all staring at her is too much of a waste of time. We need a division of labor that leverages our respective strengths. Our kind can easily go without sleep for a day or two, but what about humans?"
"Only in this instant does Cow Tits speak true words. Yes, we should take turns to rest and nap suitably."
Granted... Haruaki and Kirika looked at each other. With everyone else clearly awake, the idea of just the two of them going off to sleep really weighed on their consciences.
"Oh, how about this? I'll bring blankets over and sleep here directly. The two of us will take shifts as well."
"Yes. Although it's a matter of feeling, if you girls could let us take shifts, we would be very grateful."
After Haruaki made the suggestion, Kirika supported his idea. Konoha shrugged lightly.
"I can't convince you, can I... Then let's do that. However, you two must rest first for now."
Obeying respectfully, Haruaki and Kirika left the guest room together. Let me take a bath before going to bed—Just as Haruaki was carrying fresh clothing to the changing area, he happened to run into Kirika who was brushing her teeth.
"...Oh, Y-Yachi, you're going to take a bath? Sorry, I'll be done right away."
"N-No, you don't need to rush—By the way, you don't need to take a bath, Class Rep?"
"That's right, I took one at home before coming. Or more accurately, you called me right when I had just finished my shower."
What a refreshing look. Kirika had let down her hair. Was this how she looked whenever she went to bed? Purely regarding the detail of her hair, Haruaki had seen it many times before already, but currently, she was also wearing adorable pajamas. Now that was a look he had never seen before.
"W-What are you doing, staring at me with so much interest, how absolutely ridiculous...!"
Brush brush brush! Kirika swiftly finished brushing her teeth with reckless abandon and prepared to leave the washroom, blushing mildly. That reminded Haruaki, staring at a girl in her pajamas was quite impolite. Warning himself, Haruaki watched Kirika leave and said:
"Goodnight, Class Rep."
Kirika paused in her steps for a mere moment. Then she turned her face slightly over and said:
Then she left the changing area in earnest. This really was quite a new experience. Exchanging goodnights with Kirika. Sleeping under the same roof. Welcoming the same morning in one room. Somehow, Haruaki felt his heart racing a little.
"No no no, it's not like she's on my mind... Though it really does feel quite new. I'd better finish my bath quickly and get back."
Muttering to himself as he scratched his head, Haruaki swiftly undressed.
Sitting in the guest room, wrapped in a blanket, Haruaki closed his eyes. Quite some time passed. Suddenly, Haruaki woke up from shallow sleep. Half awake, he opened his eyes slightly, only to find a round, silver mass leaping into view inside the room. He also heard faint breathing noises—
"...It's true that we're good at enduring sleep deprivation, but that doesn't mean we don't feel the desire to sleep... However, given some determination, we're not supposed to fall asleep like her in the middle of things. I must be looking at an exception while I speak."
"Can't be helped, Ficchi was tired from working as a part-timer today. Are you okay, Kono-san?"
"A little sleepy, but I'm fine."
"If you feel like sleeping, why don't you take a quick shower? I'll handle the surveillance here. Don't worry."
"Hmm~ ...I guess I'll take you up on that offer. I'll be right back as soon as possible."
Sliding the door open, Konoha left the room. Next, there was complete silence for a while until Kuroe heard the sliding sound of blankets that did not come from herself.
"Oh my, did we wake you up? It's only been an hour. You can continue sleeping."
"Hmm, mmm... Really, then... No, before that, let me go to the toilet... Yawn..."
"Sure, go ahead. You're not walking very steadily. Will you be okay?"
"No prob... lem..."
Immediately after Kirika's sleepy response, the room's sliding door could be heard opening and shutting again. Since only an hour had passed, Haruaki decided it was okay for him to continue sleeping as well. Still half asleep when he made that decision, Haruaki covered himself with the soft blanket again.
(Come to think of it, Class Rep's voice sounded so sleepy... I guess even for Class Rep, she still gives off that impression when waking up. It feels so... refreshing... Zzz...)
He slipped into the dream world again. But this did not persist for long.
Suddenly, a loud blanket tugging noise was heard, causing Haruaki to wake to a start.
The instant he opened his eyes, all sense of sleep vanished without trace.
Because Kirika's face was right before his eyes.
Kirika had burrowed beneath the same blanket as him. Inside the dim room, his eyes, already accustomed to the darkness, were burning the image of Kirika's extremely near face deeply into his retinas. They were so close together that their noses were almost about to touch. Her regular breathing was tickling his skin. His fingertips could also feel the sensation of her long, sleek, soft hair. A girl's fragrance was trapped inside the blanket with nowhere to go except Haruaki's nasal cavity. As his eyes became even more used to the dark, Haruaki next saw her collarbone, glistening with sweat, just barely in view under the collar of her pajamas.
While giving off inexplicably seductive moans, Kirika used her fingers to undo the top button of her pajamas. Probably an unconscious act due to feeling hot. On that exposed chest was a certain imposing presence, clad in black leather. Haruaki shifted his gaze away from the valley but found his eyes drawn to her lips this time. Looking very soft, a girl's lips. Excessively close lips. As she tossed and turned slightly, her knee struck Haruaki through her pajamas. Haruaki's entire body and mind could feel her right in front of him. Crap, no matter what, this was a crisis...!
"Phew, I'm back~"
The one who screamed out was not Haruaki.
"Kuroe-san? Why are you approaching Haruaki-kun's blanket with a camera in your hand?"
"Uh~ Well... I invoke my right to remain silent."
"—I won't repeat myself again, Kuroe-san."
Her voice was cold to the extreme. Perhaps feeling her life was endangered, Kuroe swiftly gave up her right to remain silent.
"Because Kiririn entered the wrong blanket in her sleepy state, I was thinking what a rare opportunity and wanted to hurry and take a photo to commemorate. I'm really sorry. I originally intended to wake her up immediately to let her know. Serious."
"Wha—! Speaking of which, that bulge under the blanket is actually...!"
Flip! The blanket was lifted. Oh no. Haruaki frantically closed his eyes but it was too late. This action ended up activating a certain switch inside Konoha instead.
Very gently, so gently that it made one's hair stand on end, laughter entered his ears.
"Ufufufu... I saw you close your eyes, Haruaki-kun... Are you pretending to be asleep? In other words, you clearly discovered the situation but deliberately chose not to leave the blanket right away? That way, you could stay in the same blanket, leaning close together, secretly smelling her scent and enjoying yourself to your heart's content, is that it...?"
"N-No, I also just... just found out, so my mind is in chaos."
By this point, covering up was useless. Hence, Haruaki opened his eyes in trepidation and tried to explain himself, but Konoha simply cut him off without explanation.
"Do you still remember, Haruaki-kun? What I said earlier."
"W-What did you say...?"
Konoha smiled cordially.
Faced with that perfectly gentle smile, why did he feel so horrified that his consciousness was beginning to drift afar?
"—Today's punishment can be a little more severe, isn't that right?"
The next morning, Haruaki woke up in the guest room.
"Ah! ...What's going on? Somehow I feel like I had an extremely horrifying dream... No, it's probably an illusion, r-right...?"
Having just awakened, he was unable to judge his memories. While wiping sweat off his brow, Haruaki surveyed the room in his hazy state. Everyone staying at the Yachi residence were all gathered inside this guest room.
Fear was still snoring away, curled into a ball. Kuroe was rubbing her head while muttering "ooh, Kono-san's knuckle grinding against my temples is giving me a splitting headache... As expected, I couldn't come out of this unscathed?" Kirika was only just getting up as well. "I was only planning on a nap, but ended up sleeping all the way till morning huh... Clearly I wouldn't have minded if they woke me. But how odd, this position doesn't seem quite the same as where I went to bed last night...?" Watching with her half-opened eyes, she inclined her head in puzzlement. As for Konoha—
"Good morning, Haruaki-kun."
She was sitting formally in seiza posture while smiling. Clearly it was just an ordinary smile but somehow, Haruaki found himself breaking out in cold sweat.
"What's the matter? Why does your face look like you had a nightmare? Judging from your dream, undoubtedly it must have been one that taught you an important lesson? Since you are a good boy, Haruaki-kun, surely you'll remember your lesson well from now on~"
Fufufu—Konoha nodded. Haruaki hastily nodded.
Just at this moment—
The smile faded from Konoha's face. She still won't forgive me? I knew it, I guess I'll have to prostrate myself and apologize again? But Haruaki's panic only lasted an instant. Following Konoha's gaze, he immediately realized he was not responsible for her faded smile.
Indeed, inside this room—There was another person.
"My doubt: unable to understand the current situation. However—"
The gray-haired girl lifted her upper torso and gazed at Haruaki's group. Her unkempt hair had grown much longer since the last time they saw her. Her dark-skinned collarbone was visible from the collar of her pajamas. Her eyes were completely devoid of emotion.
"Even so, I think I should still greet everybody with the greeting meant for waking up. In other words, good morning."
Speaking in a flat tone of voice, she greeted with a bow of her head while sitting up in the futon.
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