Several hours passed after the battle. December 25. After eleven in the morning.
Haruaki's group showed up at the superintendent's office. The school was still on holiday, so naturally, they were dressed in casual clothing. After the battle, they had gone home for a nap. Despite the lingering fatigue, the drowsiness was reduced substantially. In order to handle the aftermath, Zenon must have stayed up all night without sleeping. Nevertheless, she maintained her usual expression of calmness and served them tea without a single sign of yawning.
Handling the aftermath. To be more accurate, they were not sure how things were handled exactly. There were four corpses remaining as well as the culprit who had created those corpses. The superintendent had made three promises to Haruaki's side. First of all, the victims would be returned their families. Secondly, the culprit would be punished accordingly. Third of all, the media would be barred from the case. As expected, the superintendent really did know people in the media and the police, right? He apparently intended to use these connections to resolve the incident. Concretely, what kind of punishment was Kokoro going to be dealt? In accordance with Japanese laws? Or foreign laws? Or not according to legal systems? How were things going to be explained to the victims' families? Haruaki and his friends did not know any of that. One day, should a chance arise, they would surely find out exactly.
"Hello, thank you for waiting."
While they were drinking tea on the sofa, the superintendent entered the room, wearing a gas mask as usual. He turned his head lightly to confirm the people present in the room. Haruaki, Fear, Konoha, Kuroe and Kirika. Un Izoey was absent. After accomplishing her goal of "handing the letter to the superintendent," she had conversed briefly with the superintendent once he read the contents. Finally, she expressed her thanks towards Haruaki and the others for taking care of her, bowed and proceeded to disappear in the darkness of the night. Presumably, she returned to the Lab Chief's Nation's headquarters having completed her mission.
Naturally, Zenon was also present in the office. Seeing her, the superintendent tilted his head in puzzlement.
"Oh my, where's Ganon-kun?"
"I am truly sorry. She seems to be still sleeping in the infirmary. Should I go wake her up?"
"No... It shouldn't be necessary. I think she'll fall asleep while standing if you force her to get up and come here."
Zenon poured a cup of tea for the superintendent while he sat in his usual spot before his desk. Exhaling in exhaustion, he sipped his tea through a straw as usual.
Fear watched him skeptically:
"If you're wearing the mask to hide the Wound, isn't it fine to take it off now? There's no need to force yourself."
"Yes, that's true but I did mention earlier, right? I've already gotten so used to it that I can't relax when I'm not wearing it... Besides, I didn't intend to take off my mask in front of others in the first place."
"So—" The superintendent put down his teacup and placed both hands on the desk—
Then he bowed his head deeply.
"First of all... I must apologize to you all from the bottom of my heart. I've caused trouble for you. Also—I know this is a willful request too, but if possible, please don't hate Zenon-kun or Ganon-kun. I am the one who issued orders to them. I am solely to blame."
"By this point, we don't want to blame anyone anymore. I just... want to know the truth."
Arms crossed, Fear turned her gaze towards him. Haruaki nodded and everyone else did the same.
"Well said... Then regarding this incident, let's explain from the beginning in sequence. For you guys, it probably started with your discovery of Un Izoey... But for us, it was slightly earlier. Probably the day before Kokoro Pentangeli attacked her. A certain person provided information to us, but because I was actually out of the country, Zenon-kun was the one who picked up the call."
"A certain person?"
"Namely, Yamimagari Pakuaki."
The color of Kirika's face instantly changed dramatically. Haruaki and the rest were also greatly surprised. Not only Un Izoey but also that man were related to this incident?
But the superintendent raised a hand lightly and continued to talk:
"No, although I have no intention of defending him, I must clarify that he has no direct connection to this incident. All he did was provide information to me and create an opportunity, that's all. As for why he would do that—I can hazard a guess, but let's put that aside for now. Anyway, this was what he said: a member of the Draconians will be visiting this town. Furthermore, that person possesses an item that might possibly fulfill my wish."
"Basically... that sword?"
"Yes. By the way, he also supplied some basic info such as when the enemy invokes the power, apparently another person's life is needed as fuel. I have no idea how he obtained details about that sword or how he found out about the secrets of someone like me who hides his face behind this mask all the time—namely, that I am a deserter from the Draconians and what my goal is. Or perhaps this is a lesson not to underestimate the intelligence gathering abilities of an organization whose mission is 'conquering the unknown.' In any case, he simply gave me this information on his own. After learning of this from Zenon-kun, of course I could not ignore it. Hence, I asked the two of them to act on my behalf before my return to Japan."
"Then we discovered where that girl was lurking in this town. Claiming to be members of the Draconians, we made contact with her. Under the pretext of wishing to observe a «High Single»'s battle first hand to further our training, we offered our services should she require any assistance. That was not long after her first battle with Un Izoey—Right then, we found out that her «Sword» was currently in an incomplete state. Almost at the same time, Yachi-sama phoned me, thereby informing me that Un Izoey was currently under Yachi-sama's protection and that the sword's missing component, the cube, was in your possession."
"I contacted you in hopes of handing Un Izoey's letter over to your side. Now that you mention it, I recall mentioning it to you."
Haruaki muttered softly after listening to Zenon's explanation. Konoha frowned as she drank her tea.
"Although I have many things to say... Let's leave it for later. Please continue with your explanation."
"Yeah~ Why does it feel like thing are getting more and more complicated?"
Nodding in acknowledgement of Kuroe's head-tilted puzzlement, the superintendent continued:
"Indeed, things became very complicated. Of course, our goal was simply 'obtaining the sword and the cube while neither opposing nor assisting your group.' Kokoro Pentangeli is quite strong and formidable so I was thinking that it was probably impossible to take her sword by force in a direct confrontation using Zenon-kun and Ganon-kun alone. Hence, in the end I chose to have them pretend to be her comrades and steal the cube back first from you guys, then find an opportunity to seize the restored sword. Actually, even if we left things alone, she would most likely attack you guys to retrieve the cube? But under those circumstances, the sword might end up getting destroyed by you guys—or more accurately, by Konoha-kun."
"So her knowing about the «Counter» is due to this huh..."
"I am truly sorry. Onee-sama and I were the ones who leaked the information. Naturally, I should get Onee-sama to come here and apologize properly to you all as well... In fact, we also did many unfair things to you. On the day we visited Yachi-sama's home to pick up the letter, Onee-sama expressed a wish to explore your home, which was in hope of finding the cube. Attacking Un Izoey in the middle of the night was, of course, for the sake of stealing the cube as well. Further to that—Agreeing to help out with your part-time job was also to use the changing opportunity to facilitate searching for the cube."
"Well... It doesn't matter anymore. If she apologizes to us in a sleepy-eyed, swaying state, it'll just end up making us more angry."
"Once again, I emphasize this. We are truly sorry. Should an opportunity arise in the future, we will definitely compensate you."
"The one who needs to apologize most is still me. Sorry—perhaps I don't even have the right to apologize... Everything was planned with the worst case scenario in mind. Although we mentioned finding an opportunity to steal the sword, even getting a chance was very difficult. Hence, I was thinking the only chance might come up if Kokoro Pentangeli were fully engaged in a fight with you guys—which is why I asked them to carry out the fake hostage plan."
"Hmph. Now that I think about back then, we could have suggested to exchange the cube for Zenon and Ganon on the spot, right? Why deliberately wait a day?"
"That was Kokoro Pentangeli's request. For us, of course we hoped for the exchange to take place as soon as possible, but we could not let her realize that our goal was 'stealing the sword once it became complete'... Hence, when we suggested that with us as hostages, two birds could be killed with one stone by retrieving the cube and making her opponents stronger at the same time, she said 'waiting a day will be even more effective.' We had no choice but to accept. Since her mindset was that she could wait until the enemies were defeated before taking the cube back, from her point of view, the most important thing was delaying the time to maximize the anger and anxiety experienced by Fear-sama and the others."
"Then after that, it's just as you all know already. Zenon-kun and Ganon-kun did not succeed in finding an opportunity to steal the sword. On the other hand, I hastily returned to Japan and hurried over to the scene."
"...If you weren't trying to protect us, you might have seized possession of the sword already."
"As much as we wanted to obtain the sword, we had no intention of ignoring your crisis for the sake of achieving our goal... Perhaps this sounds like making excuses. In any case, it's all over already."
Thud—The sound of a teacup being placed on the tray. Konoha looked up, her eyes incomparably serious.
"I basically understand what happened already. But there's one thing I can't comprehend."
"...I thought so too."
"Although you just said that you were neither going to oppose nor assist us... But what's the problem with assisting us? Couldn't you have told us everything from the beginning?"
"That's right. If you did that, a lot more could have been accomplished... I must say that your approach was truly and absolutely ridiculous in how convoluted it went. Why did you have to deceive me, Fear-kun and Yachi, to carry everything out in secret?"
Kirika also glared harshly at the superintendent with her arms crossed. Excessively sensitive about the name "Pakuaki," she seemed quite displeased starting from the point when that name was mentioned.
The superintendent crossed his hands under his chin and whispered lightly as though talking to himself:
"This is definitely because... of my ego."
Haruaki repeated the word, causing the gas mask to shake lightly as though looking at Fear and the others successively in order. Then the luxury chair made a creak as he stood up.
"In other words, egoism. In that case, I must first help you understand my past, only then can things start... Perhaps you may find it very boring, but I'll be talking about past events."
The superintendent spoke while approaching the wall where countless, mysterious objects were hanging... such as wooden masks or rusted pieces of iron. Haruaki knew that they were simply artifacts whose outer appearance suggested they were cursed. What did the superintendent want to do? As Haruaki watched in puzzlement, the superintendent moved one of the masks to the side and began to search for something on the wall back there—
At the same time as surprise, Haruaki was dumbfounded at the same time. He never expected to see this kind of scene in real life.
Part of the wall opened inward like a door.
"A-A secret room...?"
As though feeling proud in response to Haruaki's question of surprise, the superintendent's shoulders shook as he turned his head back to say:
"Hoho, this is a man's dream, after all. Yes, enter quickly—It'll be fastest to let you see with your own eyes."
In any case, they got up from the sofa and followed after the superintendent.
"It's basically just as Kokoro Pentangeli said. I used to be a part of the Draconians and held some level of power and influence. Zenon-kun and Ganon-kun are the subordinates who know me from those days. By the way, ah yes, similar to the current boss and secretary relationship. Then a certain incident made me decide to cut ties with the Draconians and I escaped—At the time, I sought help from Honatsu-san. Ever since, I have lived with my face hidden as you see now."
"What was that certain incident?"
"I'm just about to explain, Fear-kun."
Behind the secret door was a long and narrow room that was not particularly big. The interior was quite dreary. In stark contrast to the chaotic state of the superintendent's office, only a single table occupied the middle of the secret room. After staring for a few seconds at the white cloth covering the table, the superintendent exhaled. Then as though resolving himself, he lifted that piece of cloth—
"Simply stated, it's because she died."
Haruaki had expected it already.
Arranged on the table were the shattered remains of some kind of tool. This prompted Haruaki to see a hallucination of a broken pot. However, the state of the object before his eyes was far more hopeless than Aiko's, impossible to repair. He could not help but understand that fact. Although the tool's original form was virtually impossible to discern, something resembling a handle could be seen. There was also a glint, suggestive of a blade. Overall, the decorations were heavy on white—Was this some sort of weapon?
"Liz... The cursed lance, the «Treason Piercer». She was my partner and we once vowed to become strong together. Her other nickname was the «Coward's Lance»... Originally a knight's lance, a cavalry lance, but after being cursed, the gained characteristic happened to be completely contradictory. 'The further away the enemy, the greater the amplification of power'... At the same time as being a cavalry lance, she was also a throwing spear. In order to maximize her power, I devoted my entire being to honing my throwing skills."
The superintendent narrated with a nostalgic voice. Haruaki's group simply listened silently. Finally, Fear took a small breath and said:
"She was like us... A lance that could take human form?"
"Yes. Like all of you, she was extremely adorable and also—extremely gentle. Too gentle."
The superintendent reached out with his fingertip and stroked one of the fragments, as though caressing her.
"Her special characteristic was that once thrown, no matter the distance, she would automatically fly back to my side. Hence, I was able to perform long distance throws repeatedly without limit. This was the manner how we always fought opponents... But naturally, she carried a curse as well, basically when 'flying back'—The curse dictates a chance that she'll pierce the owner's body. The longer the duration of ownership, the more the curse strengthens, raising its rate of occurrence and the risk of piercing a fatal location accordingly. Of course, I had already resolved myself to accept an inevitable death by piercing at her hands. I always believed, for the sake of becoming strong, this kind of risk was necessary to shoulder."
"What a foolish curse and an even more foolish resolution."
After Konoha remarked in exasperation, the superintendent breathed as though he were laughing wryly in secret.
"I think said the same thing. However, compared to that, she tended to cry more often. As she continued to fight alongside me, as our hearts became one, as the curse grew stronger... Sometimes she pierced my leg, sometimes she pierced my arm, then after the fact, she was always weeping, crying as she said: sorry, sorry."
"Then finally, she pierced my chest because of the curse. I don't remember much about what happened after that, but according to Zenon-kun and Ganon-kun who were looking after me at the time, I was apparently wandering on the brink of death. Also because of entering that half-dead state, repercussions linger to this day. My current body is virtually unable to move."
"More accurately... At the time, I thought he was a goner. Rather than half-dead, he was on his last breaths. That was what drew our attention—Only because of that, we failed to notice and could not stop her. I regret that very much."
Kuroe looked at Zenon in head-tilted puzzlement but she did not reply. It was as though the job of answering this question was not her responsible.
"Of course, I couldn't stop her either. Gentle Liz... too gentle of her... Because she almost killed me, she made up her mind with determination. She decided that things could not continue any longer... even to the point that she wanted to abandon the Draconian ideology. Hence, she chose death for herself. At the same time, she also did it to allow me to leave the Draconians. For this—"
A few seconds' pause.
"In order to make an attempt on the Commander's life, she challenged him to a duel and was destroyed. She clearly knew that winning was impossible, nevertheless, she still thought that things would become alright if the Commander could be killed. Even if she failed to kill him, I would resign from the Draconians on my own. That was obvious. No matter what, I was not so shameless that I could remain in the organization that killed the woman I love."
Then followed what he had mentioned just now, the superintendent added. He had contacted the man named Yachi Honatsu who seemed to be the all-knowing expert on anything related to cursed tools, withdrawn from the Draconians, with Zenon and Ganon leaving together with him—
"Hence... You've been searching all this time? For a cursed tool with the ability to bring that girl back to life."
Fear's comment prompted Haruaki to think back about the numerous objects in the superintendent's office and how the superintendent, despite his unknown occupation, was always running about all over the world, bringing "things appearing to be cursed tools" back every time as souvenirs... There was a reason behind all that. Rather than a rich man's hobby, it turned out to be such a sad reason.
"Couldn't you have... told us in the beginning?"
"Of course, I had considered on many occasions whether or not to confess my past honestly. Like the sports festival, when I found out about Tateoka Aiko-kun's injury, the cultural festival, sending Kaidou-kun to the study gathering... Oh by the way, I only instructed Kaidou-kun on some combat techniques, so she doesn't know the details of our past. Anyway, there were many times when I was thinking, had I told you guys, I would be able to provide more help to you, but even so, I still couldn't bring it up. This is all because of my weakness and confusion, in other words... Oh, it's the same as well, all because of my ego."
The superintendent sighed as he spoke and covered the table with the white cloth once more.
"Although I think it's very pretentious of me to say this, plus I don't even know if I'm qualified, but... It's precisely because you girls have committed many past sins. Precisely because you will still continue to pursue the long and arduous path of lifting your curses, I only wish for you to focus your gaze on the glorious and bright future. I don't want you to be aware of us who had failed to realize my wish. Also, returning to the previous topic—"
This was probably the answer to the question, why did he hide things from them all this time, staying silent, wanting to take that sword from Kokoro Pentangeli?
"I admit that this is my willfulness. I also don't want you all to know that there was a way to resurrect someone only by sacrificing the lives of others. Neither do I want you to know of the filthiness of an adult like me who wants to realize my wish despite knowing of that fact."
Konoha narrowed her eyes and said:
"In other words, if you succeeded in obtaining that sword—You would use it?"
A brief answer. The superintendent did not turn to face Haruaki's group again. Instead, he focused his gaze on the table that was covered by the white cloth while tapping the table's edge lightly. As though he were by someone's pillow side, as though lulling someone into peaceful sleep—A gentle act. Then his soft, murmuring whispers could be heard.
"But... Apparently it was impossible to begin with. That sword cannot resurrect cursed tools that had already died. Besides, using other people's lives in exchange for someone's revival—That method is definitely wrong. Fear-kun is very correct. If the way to realize a wish is wrong, it should not be carried out... Perhaps it's exactly what she said in the beginning."
"...That girl said the same thing?"
"Well, who knows?"
After his shoulders trembled slightly, the superintendent finally turned to face them again.
"This is all that I've hidden from you, although I don't think you will be able to accept that."
"Rubbish, who can accept this? I have one thing I must say to you—"
Arms crossed, chest puffed out...
Fear looked at the white cloth on the table and spoke:
"Basically, don't look down on others."
The superintendent nodded lightly. Then Fear continued:
"That's right, you're looking down at others too much. I will lift my curse and become like a human. This is already decided. This is how the future will be. That kind of method which sacrifices another's life? I rejected it from the start. Even after knowing about it, I don't want to use it. Also, you call this an adult's filthiness? Don't make me laugh! Before calling yourself filthy, you were already a weird freak from the first time we met already. By this point, even if I know more now, my impression of you remains unchanged! Therefore—"
Still with her arms crossed, Fear strode boldly towards the superintendent.
Looking up, she glared at the gas mask harshly.
Then she delivered a headbutt to his abdomen with a "Slam!"
"Ooph! Y-You just... happened to hit... my chest...!"
"Hey Fear, why did you suddenly use violence!?"
"Hmph!" Fear ignored Haruaki and tossed her silver hair:
"Therefore, I'll forgive you with this. Let me repeat one more time, I remain the same. You too. Even after knowing the past, you're nothing more than a gas mask freak in my eyes. So from now on, I forbid you to hide anything from us. And stop having those weird worries. That's all—Also, as compensation for making trouble for us, I demand more tea and snacks. How's that?"
Although Haruaki was very surprised by Fear's behavior, he felt that what she said was very appropriate.
The superintendent had a past, had a goal, and kept it a secret in consideration of their situation, hence ending up deceiving them. But now that he had confessed everything honestly on his own initiative, there was probably no need to deceive them anymore. No more lies. "The superintendent and his associates with an unknown past" had now become "the superintendent and his associates with a past"—Perhaps it really was that simple.
"It really can't be helped. Then let us have another cup of tea, shake hands and make up from this point onwards."
"Right... Let's hope this is the absolute end to ridiculous secretism."
"Hmm, after seeing Ficchi's move, I think I've come up with a new technique. Using my hair to seal the opponent's movements, then using the force from contracting the hair, I crash my head as a special attack... Lemme name it «Kamikaze Dive Tomomori»!"
Konoha shrugged and spoke with a resigned tone of voice. Kirika sounded exhausted while Kuroe made incomprehensible comments as she pleased just like usual. Everyone nodded independently.
The superintendent held his abdomen where he was struck and exhaled with relief. Then a light chuckle was heard—
"Thank you all... Of course, we will be responsible for preparing more, but today's stock of tea and snacks seems to have been depleted. Looks like I really should wake up Ganon-kun and order her to buy some high-class rice crackers."
Not long after that...
Back at the superintendent's office, Haruaki and friends were sipping tea leisurely. Now that the past of the superintendent and his associates was known, an especially relaxed and peaceful atmosphere hung around the place.
However—never in Haruaki's dreams did he expect this to happen now.
Inside the room, a final earth-shattering commotion appeared unexpectedly.
"Oh... It must be Ganon? She's finally back? I've been waiting for so long!"
Knock knock. Fear stood up instantly with a wide grin on her face after hearing the knocking at the door. That's so impolite of you—Before Haruaki could remind her, she ran over to greet the new arrival at the door. Then—
"Fear, what do you mean by 'gyowah~'? Are the rice crackers really that shocking... Eh, gyowah~!?"
The instant he carelessly looked over in that direction, Haruaki could not help but stand up. It was truly too unexpected. The person there was not Ganon.
"...My comment: would screaming as soon as you see someone's face be a rudeness that is too rude?"
Un Izoey had arrived, wearing this school's uniform. That was the only possible conclusion no matter how you looked. However, a few subtle alterations had been made to the uniform. Not up to standard, her top was exposing her navel in a matter-of-fact manner. The skirt was extremely short, as though trying to emphasize how long and slender her dark-skinned legs were.
Kirika stood up with great alarm on her face, holding down her right arm where the «Tragic Black River» was wrapped around. Nevertheless, the superintendent was unfazed by her tension and spoke to the new arrival:
"Oh, it's you? Have you brought it?"
"My answer: yes."
Bearing the usual lack of expression on her face, Un Izoey walked into the room and handed something resembling a printout to the superintendent at his desk.
"Ah yes. Very well, looks like there are no problems."
"O-Of course there is a huge problem! Why is she here!? And dressed in the uniform as well! I-Impossible..."
Konoha stopped halfway and swallowed hard. The superintendent tilted his head nonchalantly:
"There's nothing impossible about this. She's already wearing the school uniform. It's just as you imagine... Starting from the third school term, she'll be a student here."
"The letter she delivered to me was written by Yamimagari Pakuaki. It read: 'This child needs basic education, so I entrust her to your hands.' Additionally, various information required for enrollment was attached. But because one thing was missing, I sent her back to complete the application."
"Eh? So that... was the letter... she was trying to give you all this time...?"
"Indeed. I didn't finish explaining just now, but I suspect that Yamimagari Pakuaki's goal was nothing more than this all along... Tipping me off about Kokoro Pentangeli in the first place was probably an attempt to do me a favor to some extent. He apparently told her 'you have something you should find out.' That's probably something on the level of making her get acquainted with Fear-kun and the rest of you, becoming closer."
"E-Even if it's something like that, you're not obliged to accept obediently, right!? What on earth are you thinking!?"
Thud! Kirika slammed the table hard. She looked quite incensed.
"It's very normal. As someone involved in the education business, I can't be stingy about offering a place of learning to youngsters. Also, her origins and upbringing are quite unusual. Apart from this school, it's a problem whether any other school is willing to accept her."
"I don't want to hear these superficial excuses from you! Do note that this girl is part of the Lab Chief's Nation...!"
"Indeed. As further explanation, I explain this is related to researcher Ueno Kirika too."
"...You say... this is related to me?"
"I am substitute. Substituting for person who gave up mission and left the Lab Chief's Nation."
Kirika stared with wide-eyed astonishment. Then she frowned and glared viciously at Un Izoey.
"Oh... Speaking of which, Kiririn only came to this place because her original mission was studying in the same school as Kono-san and Haru to observe them. So that's what's meant by substitute?"
"Affirmative. No intention of harming you all. Not going to interfere in any of your behavior. Just observe."
"Yes, so that's apparently the case. So, Ueno-kun, I'd like to ask you, what kind of work have you been doing before your true identity was revealed to Haruaki-kun? Even though you probably have no wish to remember."
"Nothing much... Just observation. Observing how they lived their life each day, whether they were feeling unwell... Just this sort of meaningless and absolutely ridiculous things. No, but even so—!"
At this point, the superintendent raised one hand lightly to restrain Kirika's anger.
"I understand your anxiety and agitation. However... I also have absolutely no intention of lowering my guard towards the Lab Chief's Nation, let alone allying with them. Up to this point, do you find it acceptable?"
"Then I'd like you to consider carefully... Just as I've conveyed to you through Kaidou-kun earlier, I've known about you and your partner from the start, in other words, that people from the Lab Chief's Nation are in this school. So why didn't I do anything about it? That's because I believe that the Lab Chief's Nation is neither friend nor foe."
"It's all because you believe that... They were able to make a mess of the cultural festival. How absolutely ridiculous!"
The superintendent's mask shook lightly. While looking at Un Izoey, he spoke in a tone of voice that sounded like a warning, possibly deliberately, without lowering his wariness. It looked like these words were true.
"Oh, that incident gave me a great headache too. Although in the end it apparently turned out to be a bluff, a bomb scare really is quite unforgivable. Hence, naturally, I will devote my utmost to stop or eliminate any actions that are unfavorable to our side... Conversely, like this time, should a use arise for them, I consider them quite a valuable organization for their utility. After all, as a research agency, their intelligence gathering is top notch. If they don't want to be used, I'm sure Yamimagari Pakuaki will take action in accordance with his own style."
As though staring straight through the superintendent's face, Kirika narrowed her eyes.
"Intelligence gathering... Are you still hoping for information regarding 'Wathes able to resurrect a completely destroyed Wathe'?"
"I don't deny that I am trying to take advantage of that. But ultimately, this is simply insurance for keeping the option open for now. Naturally, I will absolutely refuse if the other side demands any of you in exchange for information. I don't think this is to your disadvantage. I'm not asking you to become close friends or to ally. This is just placing a window beside you that could be used to contact the Lab Chief's Nation. After all, we cannot rule out the possibility that the curses of «Gimestorante's Love» and the «Tragic Black River» may develop changes that we cannot grasp. Furthermore... They could very well provide certain information regarding Fear-kun's mechanisms."
"Muu, I remember that guy saying something about 'knowing things I don't know'... Is this what's known as s-stalking? Truly disgusting. Yeah, but that said, I don't really think I want to ask them for information about me."
"Right. The assumption is that something were to happen in the future... Oh right, I almost forgot. Speaking of mechanisms, Zenon-kun found this in the remains of Kokoro Pentangeli's sword."
Saying that, the superintendent took out from his breast pocket an object that no one found surprising anymore—An Indulgence Disk.
"Muu... The property of mutual attraction is feeling more and more real. Whatever, I'll take it first."
Fear accepted the black card and placed it lightly in her pocket. "Well then—" The superintendent straightened his back and looked towards Kirika.
"A bit of a tangent there. In any case, this is my opinion... What are your thoughts?"
Hoo~ Kirika took a deep breath and cast her gaze aside.
"Yachi, what do you think?"
Fear, Konoha, Kuroe—as well as the superintendent's faction and Un Izoey all turned their gazes towards him. With everyone's gaze focused on him, it felt quite embarrassing. Haruaki had neither the superintendent's authority nor the knowledge to calmly assess risks and benefits. All he could base his opinion on were impressions. Whatever—Haruaki finally spoke up:
"Uh, it feels like... Well, umm... It doesn't seem to be bad... exactly..."
"Even if you ask me why, well..."
Un Izoey's eyes stared at him intently with no emotional fluctuation. Her gaze remained the same as usual, like when she walked out of the washroom in her panties, like when she ate breakfast with her legs wide apart, like when she worked part-time in a Santa costume.
Haruaki recalled these memories without any unpleasant feelings.
In other words, this was the reason.
"...Hmm, although I don't trust the Lab Chief's Nation, but considering this girl as a person alone... It feels like... She's not a bad person. If she were a bad person, she wouldn't have taken on all responsibility alone and challenged the enemy to a duel."
"Hmph. I knew this would happen. Absolutely ridiculous..."
Kirika frowned with displeasure while drinking the tea that was about to cool off. Then she fell silent.
"Eh? Umm, Class Rep, then the... decision is...?"
Her sharp gaze turned towards Haruaki.
"What are you talking about? I'm not the one who makes the decision. Do you think that an ordinary student has the right to question a transfer student's admittance? Since the superintendent has already agreed, there is nothing we can do."
She replied quite simply. "That said, I was originally planned to protest to the very end if you expressed objections... But just as expected. Even if it can't be helped... Sigh, how absolutely ridiculous..." Murmuring emphatically to herself, Kirika gulped down her tea as though in self-abandonment.
"Sure enough, it really turned out this way... Sigh~ To think that what was supposed to be a high school life of fantasy for two is turning more and more chaotic."
"How nice~ Chaos following chaos, I like it very much. This must be a sign from the gods, I must hurry and visit school."
"Hmph, a country girl is a country girl after all, she's never gone to school before, right? A place like school has many fun places, I know that. Since you must come no matter what, hmm, it's not like I absolutely can't share some of this joy with you... After all, with so many students in the school, it's hard for you to scheme around? Let me state for the record. This shameless brat and Kirika both belong to my class. If you value your little life, don't do anything weird."
"Answering with an answer of no such intentions."
Un Izoey seemed to breath a sigh of relief. That faint sense of assurance, was it because she had completed Yamimagari Pakuaki's orders—Or just as Fear described, she was looking forward to attending school? Impossible to tell.
"In that case, very well, you'll be fellow students starting from the third school term. You can greet one another here first."
The superintendent's words prompted Un Izoey to cast a glance across everyone.
Then she bent forward deeply—A bow of respect.
"My greeting: in your care from now on."
Then she straightened up and an extremely faint smile appeared on her expressionless face. On the other hand, stiff smiles naturally appeared on the expressionless faces of Haruaki's group.
...? Un Izoey tilted her head in puzzlement.
Her uniform was worn in a very individualistic style with her navel exposed. In other words, just like the lab coat previously, only a few of the chest buttons were fastened, hence—
The reaction force produced from the deep bow caused the buttons to easily abandon their weight-bearing mission—
They popped open.
"Th-The long absent—Immorality Blocker (Tea Party Variant)!"
"Uwah~! The cubed sugar is stuck in my eyelid—!"
"F-Fufufu, cubed sugar is cube-shaped, right? I might be able to use them, let's try it out!"
"Wait a sec, Fear, stop it, don't say something so horrifying!"
"Muumuuu~ I knew it, she's an enemy of the Alliance! Captain Ficchi, this different colored creature is even more dangerous than Kono-san!"
"...My idea: I have no interest in binding breasts using belt. I ask question about what it is for. If this is welcome ritual, I will endure it."
"Sh-Shut up! How absolutely ridiculous!"
In all sorts of ways, what a disaster laden future lay ahead.
Several hours after that, back in the Yachi residence...
Haruaki was in the kitchen with Konoha, together preparing a more sumptuous feast for dinner than usual. The dishes mainly consisted of food that could be shared between everyone. As thanks for working part-time, they had received a lot of cake, but it was impossible to finish on their own, hence they decided to hold a mini-party. After all, everyone was totally exhausted in mind and body during Christmas Eve last night while the daytime was occupied with listening to the superintendent's depressing past. Despite being one day late, enjoying the Christmas atmosphere for this night would be a good idea. Hence, they invited Sovereignty and Shiraho who had gone "we're free, Christmas Eve is over after all." On the other hand, Kirika made a trip home before coming over.
"Haruaki... Are you here?"
"Hmm? If you want to eat, you'll have to wait a bit. Because the feast we're making today is more time consuming than usual... Oh no, did something go wrong after inserting that..?"
After accepting the Indulgence Disk from the superintendent, they had inserted it into Fear just now. As always, Fear made all sorts of moans and other embarrassing sounds that made Haruaki go red with his heart pounding. Finally, the «Spanish Spiders» were successfully sealed. Although they had already lost count of how many had been inserted, the principles behind the Indulgence Disks were still unknown. Hence, uncomfortable side-effects were very possible.
Haruaki looked at Fear with worry.. For some reason, she looked a bit strange. Blushing slightly, squeezing her legs together and separating them repeatedly, she kept grinding her knees with each other. Did something finally happen? Just as Haruaki wondered—
"N-No. Umm... Nothing much, just like usual. I think it's a good thing. Exactly because a number of mechanisms have been sealed, exactly because of restraints, I am more able to suppress past memories... Uh, that! Anyway, that's not what I want to talk about!"
For some strange reason, Fear suddenly switched to her angry mode and roared at Haruaki. What happened?
"If not... Then what's the matter?"
"That's... I can't tell you—here. Follow me!"
"Even if you ask me to follow you... Hey, stop dragging me, I'm not done with the cooking yet!"
"Mmm mmm, meat, meat~♪ ...Oh no! To think that Haruaki-kun has been kidnapped while I was busy cooking! W-What on earth happened!?"
"Sorry Konoha, I'll be right back. I'm leaving things to you! That pot needs to be slow-cooked on a small flame, make it really mushy!"
Secretly glad that Konoha did not react in time, Fear grabbed Haruaki's wrist and forcefully dragged him to another place. Knowing that resisting her strength was futile, Haruaki decided to let her finish talking sooner so that he could get back to the cooking. Hence, Haruaki moved while being dragged constantly by her—
The destination turned out to be the storeroom of the accessory dwelling in the garden.
Pushing Haruaki inside, Fear swiftly glanced behind her. After making sure no one was following, she pulled down the storeroom's window blinds, producing a dimly lit secret room.
Fear stared at Haruaki with serious eyes. Starting from just now, she had kept one hand behind her back all this time—Was she holding something? Haruaki felt it could very well be some type of murder weapon. An ominous feeling. This was precisely the kind of murderous tension that Fear was exuding.
"...Turn around. Absolutely do not turn towards me."
The imposing intensity of her eyes and vigor was impossible to refuse. Haruaki did as told and stiffly turned his back to Fear. A purge. This was undoubtedly a purge. Too many clues... came to mind. Was it about the fully exposed dark-skinned bosom in the superintendent's office? Or maybe she was still carrying resentment from the Indulgence Disk insertion just. Because the process was inexplicably difficult this time, Haruaki had to keep pushing a great number of times. Had he known, he would have been even more gentle.
Fear's breath came closer. Haruaki gulped hard.
Next, he felt something rustling as wrapped around his neck—
"Uwah~! Y-You're going to strangle me!?"
"W-What are you suddenly getting worked up about!?"
"Sorry, I'll definitely be more gentle next time, please spare my life... Eh?"
The feeling of fluffy fabric did not belong to a rope or a wire.
This was brand-new and warm—A scarf.
"Eh? Fear, this is?"
Haruaki turned around, causing Fear to turn her face away, staring at the concrete floor.
"This is what I bought just now on the way home from school when I asked Kuroe to accompany me. As for the money, I used my wages from the cake shop part-time job... So it's nothing, really. That's right, nothing to be surprised about. This is just a Christmas present. After all, my position is monitoring your shamelessness so I'm like a legal guardian or something, so like a guardian, it's not strange at all for me to give you a Christmas present. But somehow, I don't want Cow Tits to know and I keep getting the feeling that Cow Tits plans on giving you a present despite strange misunderstandings, so I was thinking I had to give mine to you first."
With frightening speed, she finished talking in one breath, Indeed, on the way back from the superintendent's office, they had parted ways to buy cooking ingredients and Fear had gone off somewhere with Kuroe. The cake shopkeeper had been quite generous with their wages. No, that's not what I'm concerned about, but giving a Christmas present "like a guardian" meant that—
"Fear... You already... know about Santa Claus...?"
"You must think I'm an idiot? All I need to do is pull out my deductive powers then finding the truth is easy as pie... It's because while I was buying the scarf, I heard kids nearby talking about 'how old did you believe in Santa Claus until?'"
Rather than deductive powers, it was leaked instead. Say, isn't this gift timing absolutely last-minute!? Various cynical remarks surfaced in Haruaki's mind but he did not voice them. Surely, Fear must have took him seriously when he said that Santa Claus probably was not going to visit him, hence she decided to prepare him a present. That was why she acted so enthusiastic as soon as she heard about the part-time job.
"Umm... Sorry. I wasn't planning on deceiving or playing a trick on you..."
"Hmph, I know. The first to tell me about Santa Claus, Kuroe, already apologized... How should I say this? It seems like you guys lied to make me feel more happy, thinking it'd be better for me. Although I'm quite mad for being tricked and I'd like to say mind your own business... But whatever. It feels similar to the lies the superintendent told us. So given tonight's tasty cooking and the Christmas version of infinite rice crackers, I'll call it even."
Like the existence of Santa Claus—a lie for someone's sake, a secret. Perhaps unnecessary, when should such deception be confessed? Haruaki wondered about this difficult problem he was grappling with earlier. The superintendent and his associates had also been agonizing over the timing too. Despite intending to say it out eventually, they kept delaying. Clearly when the children had already grown resilient enough to bear the truth and could understand the parents' kind and gentle intentions.
Fear glanced sideways at him and awkwardly shrank her shoulders as she asked:
"So... So, how is it?"
"Hmm, it's very warm and comfortable. Thank you, Fear... I'm really happy."
Haruaki smiled spontaneously, never expecting to receive a present from Fear. Her kindness made him very happy. Her growth also made him very happy.
"Hmm... R-Really? Since you're making that kind of shameless face, well... Hmm, thank goodness..."
Seeing his expression, Fear relaxed her shoulders with relief. Her face red, she turned her gaze away as though trying to cover up. For a long while, she remained silent. Haruaki did not say anything either while he savored the sensations of the scarf around his neck.
Finally, Fear slowly began to pace about in the storeroom. Her vacant yet peaceful face was looking at the ceiling, the floor, the walls and the shelves where various objects were arranged.
"Oh... Somehow, I feel like I understand now."
She did not stop walking and there was faint wryness. Calm words came from her lips.
"To be honest, I was really angry about the true appearance of the person resembling Santa Claus. A festival like Christmas... should be a time for confirming the fact that people can naturally make one another smile, people are able to make other people smile, right? Clearly it's so obvious but it's an easily forgotten yet so important fact. That's what I feel."
"Maybe... I guess."
"Then conversely, like parents playing the role of Santa Claus—even for a present I can buy by spending a bit of money, if it's able to make someone smile—That means I can say I'm 'more like human' in another way, maybe... Haha, I was only thinking it'd be nice if that were true."
There was already no need to use an ambiguous word like "maybe." Haruaki nodded and smiled because of her:
"It must be true."
"Yes. To be honest, back when you first arrived, I would never have expected to receive such a happy surprise from you like this. Back then, the surprises I got were stuff like the washing machine almost breaking or laundry hanging on the tops of trees."
"What! S-Stop remembering things from that time or listing them out specifically! To think you'd remember stuff from that long ago, what a grudge holding guy you are! Hurry up and forget them, or else I'll curse you!"
Yes yes—Just as Haruaki smiled wryly, he suddenly remembered something important.
"Oh right, you still have my sock, right?"
"Now that you mention it, I think so. Since Christmas is already over, then—"
"No, you don't have to return it. Although Santa Claus doesn't put presents in socks in this age anymore, it counts as part of the festive atmosphere... That's right, Santa Claus uses them as markers. Then since Santa Claus forgot to come last night because he was too busy, he might very well turn up while you're sleeping tonight—Hmm, that's delaying too long. Most likely, he'll appear while you're taking a bath or having dinner."
Fear blinked repeated as though failing to understand the meaning behind his words—Then as it finally dawned upon her, she smiled radiantly.
"R-Really? He'll come?"
"Probably~ Hmm, Santa Claus is still worrying whether you'll like the present you're about to receive."
"Don't say anything stupid, I'll curse you! Since it's a Christmas present, I'll be very happy no matter what I receive! Thank you, Harua—No, Santa Claus who hasn't appeared yet!"
Fear must be speaking with full sincerity. Despite understanding that, Haruaki could not help but wonder what did she actually want the most? A furry animal? Cute clothes? Or a rice cracker combo pack? Or the right to rule the Yachi home for one day? Konoha would definitely complain, but Haruaki imagined how happy Fear would look, ordering them around to do things. No, not that, Haruaki actually knew. He had already heard her wish a long time ago, numerous times, her greatest wish.
"I know... what you're thinking."
Without him noticing, Fear's expression had already transformed from a wide grin to a gentle smile.
"What an idiot you are. Whether lifting my curse or the matter of Aiko, these are all my wishes indeed. However, even during Christmas right now, what's the point of making those kinds of wishes? It's obvious. In this world, there exist wishes that cannot be granted immediately. Precisely because of that, people have treasure wishes that can be realized, right? Just like the present Santa Claus is going to give me..."
While speaking, Fear swayed her silver hair and slowly started to move, walking around in circles like just now—Then she stopped in front of a rack and knelt down.
"This time... Everyone got manipulated like fools due to being confronted with an excessively desired wish. Right now, I can state clearly that I don't need that sword. Using someone else's life to resurrect another person is absolutely unacceptable."
However—Fear proceeded to whisper. As though cradling a baby, she gently took out the indigo pot from the lowest level of the rack.
"—After the sword was destroyed, the superintendent breathed a sigh of relief once he found out that it cannot be used on dead tools. In fact, I felt relief too. Somewhere in the back of my heart, surely I was still considering the possibility of using the sword. Of course, I know that even if Aiko could be resurrected in that manner, she won't be happy about it."
"On this point... Everyone is the same. Although all of us believe in her survival, we still have the same worries. That's why the same thoughts crossed all our minds."
"The same? Then of course, that means I'm quite weak. I realized the unrest in my heart only after obtaining the cube. Only then I become truly aware, completely unable to ignore it."
At this moment, Fear instantly fell silent. Then as though confessing her sins in a calm tone of voice, she spoke each word slowly:
"...You guys are very strong. Despite your worries, you still continued to believe. Because I'm very weak, I'm still afraid even now. Ever since I was forced to become aware, I've felt afraid all along. So I tried hard to prevent myself from thinking. I even went as far as to avoid thinking about the possibility that Aiko could be dead, trying to turn myself into my past, ignorant self. It seemed like as soon as I lowered my guard, I would have no choice but to recognize the worst case scenario as the truth."
Haruaki recalled what Fear had said when Kokoro was taking Zenon and Ganon away. He had felt very puzzled why Fear spoke as though merely considering the possibility of Aiko's death was unforgivable. Why did she sound like she was warning herself not to think in that manner at all?
Yes, Fear was simply afraid. Afraid of that possibility. Afraid of herself who might admit the truth.
"You... are definitely much stronger than you give yourself credit for. Surely you will continue to believe. That's why you can cradle her like that right now, yes?"
Peering back furtively at Haruaki's face, Fear sounded quite powerless.
"That goes without saying. Furthermore, despite being weak, despite worrying—you've still got us. Everyone is equally weak and worried. But we're not alone. Even if I'm feeling worried, as soon as I see Konoha cleaning Aiko with a cloth... I feel like I must believe. Conversely, it's exactly the same with you, right?"
Haruaki gazed straight into her eyes while speaking confidently and emphatically to her. Hence, Fear exhaled and smiled faintly.
"What an optimistic guy. But... perhaps, you're right."
"Yes, whenever you have worries, just entrust them to me. In turn, I'll entrust mine to you when they appear."
"Fufu... In that case, let's first do some wiping now. Pass that cloth to me from over there. Although my heart is not at ease, I must continue to believe and make Aiko spotlessly clean. Perhaps you have unease as well and watching me like this, you'll continue to believe."
Haruaki took the cloth from the same level of the rack and handed it to Fear. While watching the back of Fear's head as she carefully wiped the indigo pot, he began to sink into deep thought.
They were all harboring the same wish. Despite not knowing if it could come true, despite the unease, they had no choice but to keep praying. This should be allowed. If anyone said it was not allowed, that would be lying.
But actually, in fact, Haruaki had no idea.
What kind of state was Aiko in right now? Was the self-repair ability possessed by cursed tools enough to slowly proceed in an "alive" state? Or had she already been fully destroyed, so they were merely piecing the fragments together forcibly, so everything was already in an "ended" state? Who knows. Rather, that was why they were praying. That was why wishing was allowed, as well as believing—
Just at this moment, Fear's hand suddenly froze while in the middle of wiping the pot.
"...Are you imitating a cat's meow? You don't really sound like one."
No answer. What happened?
Haruaki leaned forward to check out Fear's expression. Mouth half open, she was frozen on the spot, as though she had forgotten what she was doing. The cloth also slid off her palm and fluttered to the floor.
Haruaki tilted his head in greater puzzlement while Fear suddenly turned stiffly towards him with a grave expression.
"Woah, this is scary! What are you doing now, pretending to be a cicada? It's totally bizarre!"
"N-No, of course not! You moron, I'll curse you! Damn shameless brat, I'll curse you! This is critical, really critical! Lend your finger to me! Hurry and lend your finger to me! Lend it to me now! Hurry and put your finger in the crack... Inside the crack! Put it there quickly, quickly, I beg you!"
"W-What's this about?"
Fear did not listen to him at all. As though performing a headlock, she captured Haruaki's head with one arm and pressed it against her chest, meanwhile grabbing his hand firmly and using his little finger like she said—
She brought it towards the crack on the surface of the broken indigo pot.
Haruaki remembered. It should have happened on the day before yesterday, when Kirika and Un Izoey were still staying at their home. Naturally, they were cleaning Aiko in the same manner, and because dust had accumulated in this crack, Haruaki had to use his little finger to wipe it gently. He recalled how Fear had given him a vicious and unreasonable scolding back then, but right now, she was asking him to repeat the same act. What was going on? Did something happen—
Instantly, Haruaki widened his eyes. Fear was still staring at his finger that was pressed against the pot.
The same little finger used last time could no longer fit into the crack.
In other words—What on earth happened? Did his little finger become thicker in a matter of two days? Impossible. Then conversely, the only possibility was that the crack had narrowed slightly—
Fear and Haruaki looked at each other silently, staring wide-eyed in the same manner, breathing quickly in excitement in the same manner.
"F-Fear... T-T-This is..."
"I just had this kind of feeling, really, just this kind of feeling. On first glance I was still thinking, perhaps... It's too hard to notice. But... This... Truly... Definitely—"
No matter how slight.
No matter how insignificant.
Right this moment, they were able to declare loudly and clearly.
This pot was in currently repairing itself gradually.
In other words, Aiko was—
"Wow~! Haruaki, you genius in playing with cracks! Good job!"
"Say whatever you want, I don't care anymore, I don't care! Seriously... It's true, right!?"
The two of them held each other's trembling hand and brought their faces together, almost touching each other's nose, exchanging mutual expressions of shock. Naturally, they each used their remaining hand to hold her. Her who was simply in deep slumber.
How much longer would it take until she reached a full recovery? How much longer still until she regained consciousness to take on human form again? Perhaps months, years, decades, no one could say. Even so—
Even so, surely, one day eventually—
"F-Fufu, ahaha. What's this? One of my wishes was fulfilled just now! Seriously... It's fulfilled, right!? To think that my unease would disappear just as I resolved to suppress that unease... Wonderful. Ahhh, Santa Claus must have visited. Not just the kind but fake Santa Claus but even the magician who drives his flying sleigh, pulled by reindeer in the sky—The true Santa Claus has visited."
Indeed. This gift that Santa Claus had delivered to them was precisely the "realizable wish" at the furthest limit.
An act that brought smiles to other's faces. The day for wishes to be realized. Something placed into the sock by the pillow side.
Hence, this was unmistakably—
"Well done, Santa Claus."
"Hmm... Hmm...? S-Shameless brat, you're leaning too close to me! Take that~!"
Suddenly discovering how close together their faces were, Fear instantly blushed bright red and frantically pushed Haruaki away. However, she immediately recovered her happily grinning face while she stroked the edge of the indigo pot she was holding, then—
"...Hurry and wake up sooner. We're waiting for you."
Whispering in a gentle voice she had never used before, she returned it to the rack.
Then Fear stood up and ran out of the storeroom with a patter of footsteps. Haruaki did not ask where she was going. He knew without needing to ask. Hence, Haruaki also stood up and chased after the lively silver hair that was swaying in happiness.
It needed no mentioning. Without exception, anyone would have done the same. Having had a first experience, a child would report to family and playmates with exuberant excitement, feeling proud and believing firmly without doubt.
Believing that one's wish had arrived.
Received for the first time, a true Christmas present—
To everyone, this would surely be such a precious treasure.
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