Haruaki was returning to his room after a bath when he heard suspicious noises inside. With his hand reached out, just about to open the door, he froze his posture.
"If I remember right, it should be around here..."
"Hmm... Let's make the most of this chance..."
A team of two thieves, apparently. Their voices sounded very familiar.
(What are these two doing...?)
Haruaki quietly looked into the room through the gap in the sliding door—When arresting thieves, it was best to catch them in the act.
Two figures could be seen inside the room. One was a petite girl whose unique silver hair swayed—Fear—while the other was a black-haired girl who was even more petite—namely, Kuroe. The two of them were tiptoeing around, ransacking his closet's top shelf in search of something. That compartment should not contain anything other than clothing like underwear or socks.
"We can't be found out and it must be used at night..."
"Hey, Ficchi, how about this one?"
"Hmm... Not bad, I'm imagining it... Really big... Will it fit inside...?"
More fragments of mutterings could be heard. Haruaki gulped. Incomprehensible. What were these two girls talking about? What were they planning to steal his underwear for?
(Can't be found out... Must be used at night... Also, can't fit something really big... W-What are these images in my mind...?)
Haruaki gulped again, still unable to comprehend. Or rather, comprehension felt like it would be too dangerous. Perhaps because his chaotic emotions spread to his fingertips, the sliding door shook slightly. In the next instant, Kuroe turned her head back abruptly.
"Y-You two are the suspicious ones!"
He hesitated for an instant. Since he was discovered, it could not be helped, so he entered the room.
"What are you doing? Even if you search my closet, you're not going to find anything interesting..."
"Even if you ask what we're doing... Eh?"
"Umuu. Th-This is all your fault!"
Totally unabashed and unperturbed, the two girls exchanged glances. That was not all. Fear also puffed out her chest with displeasure.
"That's way too mean of you. To think you'd hide the truth from me for so long... Had I known before the fact, I'd have prepared properly! Given the situation now, all I can do is borrow that really big thing of yours!"
"No wait, I'm totally lost here. What are you talking about?"
Haruaki frowned and questioned in return. Fear pouted even more as she waved the spoils of her victory in her hand—namely, Haruaki's sock—and said:
"By this point, why are you still trying to play dumb!? Isn't it obvious? I'm talking about the wonderful upcoming festival—Christmas! Kuroe told me everything already!"
Christmas. Sock. Somehow, Haruaki felt unsettled by a subtly different premonition compared to just now.
Half narrowing his eyes, he groaned and asked:
"What... do you know...?"
"Of course, I know about how interesting and fun Christmas is. Most importantly, I heard that there's a man called Santa Claus who'll give presents to us on this day! He supposedly sneaks presents into people's socks beside their pillows. Although that sounds a bit perverted to me, given the case, of course the sock should be as big as possible. Compared to mine, your socks are definitely bigger... Hey, are you listening?"
Haruaki had stopped listening halfway. Creak creak creak—Haruaki turned his head stiffly and looked at the culprit who had imparted Fear with troublesome information.
Kuroe smiled tenderly and returned his gaze with a meaningful look that seemed to be saying "You understand, right?"
Did she mean this? What every parent in the world agonized about... The challenge of "when should I reveal the truth of Santa Claus to my child?" had finally descended upon him as well. Clearly this was something inconsequential, but why did he feel so troubled by it?
Haruaki switched their location to the living room, sighing as he sipped tea from his cup. Fear buried herself in the kotatsu, humming a song as she rapidly surfed through television channels with the remote control. In the end, the sock was taken directly back to Fear's room. Haruaki could not bear himself to stop her because of the same reason that made him troubled about revealing the truth of Santa Claus.
(Hmm~ Seeing her so enthusiastic, I really don't want to ruin her fun...)
To think you'd create this troublesome situation for me—Haruaki glared resentfully at Kuroe, but of course, she simply drank her tea nonchalantly.
Just at this moment, the glasses-wearing girl with twin braids—Konoha—entered the living room. Haruaki had called her when he was brewing tea, but she had responded: "R-Right now happens to be a bad time, I'll be over shortly!" She was staying cooped up in her room until now.
"Phew... Ah, is there any tea remaining?"
"Oh, of course. When you said it was a bad time, were you doing homework?"
Haruaki asked carelessly but Konoha put up an unnatural smile of courtesy for some reason and replied:
"Eh? A-Ahaha. P-Pretty much?"
"We haven't even had the end of term ceremony and you're already working on the winter break homework? Amazing... Oh, Konoha, there's a bit of yarn sticking to your sleeve."
"W-Why are you suddenly yelling vigorously like that? Why?"
The instant Haruaki pointed to the yarn adhering to her sleeve, whoosh! Konoha moved fast enough to leave afterimages behind. Grabbing the yarn and pinching it tight, she applied sharpness to her hand and shredded it completely, then dunked the remains into the trash can in one swift and flowing motion. Finally returning to formal sitting posture in seiza before the kotatsu, she tilted her head as though saying "Hmm? Did something happen just now?" while presenting Haruaki a lovely smile.
"What's the matter? There's nothing going on with me. Oh dear~ Homework must be completed as early as possible, it's homework after all. This whatever yarn is completely irrelevant. It just happened to be sticking onto me. It's 100% certain that I'm not making something out of yarn, so please disregard it completely. Haruaki-kun, you won't let it weigh on your mind, right? So let's change the subject. Just now, there was a commotion in your room, what happened? I seem to have heard voices talking about socks or something."
"Hmph hmph, Cow Tits. How utterly foolish! Judging from the tone of your voice, you seem to be oblivious to the importance of socks during this time of the year? For the sake of containing really big presents, a really big sock is needed... Oh no, I nearly presented a gesture of humanity to my enemy. Hmph hmph, in any case, all you're going to get is a chunk of meat stuffed into your sock at most...!"
"Y-You mean presents? As impossible as it may sound, you wouldn't happen to believe that Santa Claus is real—"
Crap! Haruaki thought to himself. Evidently, he was not the only one either.
"Kyah, what are you doing, Kuroe-san!? Why did you suddenly... Mmff mmff mmff..."
Yelling strangely, Kuroe pounced and pushed Konoha down. Covering Konoha's mouth with her fingers, she said:
"Kono-san, hold on. Please~ hold on. Uh... I feel so cold. Even the kotatsu is not enough to help me endure the cold, so I hope to use your fantastic body, which I've coveted for so long, to help warm me up! Hug me hug me, hold me hold me."
"...Pwah! Wait... What does that have anything to do with covering my mouth...!? Hey, nngghh, please stop pressing on my face and turning it from side to side!"
"Don't ask, don't ask. Anyway, let's end the topic here. Otherwise, regarding your yarn mystery just now, Konon-sana, that secret you wish to keep safe until at least the day after tomorrow, I may very well let slip my deductions right here..."
"!? Th-That's so underhanded... Ahhh... I-I get it, okay! Like I said already, I get it!"
Konoha panted and finally escaped from Kuroe's sexual harassment attack with much difficulty. Haruaki could not understand the situation but it looked like Konoha was not going to tell Fear about the truth of Santa anymore. With a stiff smile, Konoha concurred extremely without enthusiasm:
"Cough. Yes, after all, it's Christmas. Yes yes, socks are needed. Socks."
"Hmph, so Cow Tits finally realized it? Whatever... When the day arrives, we must decide the victor by seeing who receives the best Christmas present."
"When did it suddenly become a competition...?"
Ignoring Konoha's remark, Fear pressed the remote and changed channels. The screen showed a news program. At this moment, Fear's eyes were suddenly shrouded in a layer of gloom:
"That said... Hey, Haruaki. There's one thing, Should I describe it as worrying... Or rather, it bothers me."
"What is it?"
Fear continued to watch the news without looking at Haruaki. Quietly, she asked:
"For someone non-human like me... Santa Claus... Will he really visit me...?"
The answer was decided already. Haruaki shifted his gaze from Fear's profile to the television screen and answered softly:
"Of course he will, right?"
"Yeah. See, he even visits bears. Of course he'll come."
The news was showing images from a certain zoo. Wearing a Santa hat, a bear was ravenously eating a sumptuous vegetable cake. 'Looks like Tsuyoshi-kun has already received his Christmas present early' was narrated in the background.
"W-Wow... I see now...!"
Perhaps because the bear looked adorable or she found Haruaki's words convincing, Fear's eyes recovered their liveliness as she leaned forward to stare at the television. Then she suddenly discovered everyone's gaze focused on her.
"R-Really... Hmm, you're right, that's only natural! He'll surely come... However, oh right, he might not visit you! Because Santa only appears by the pillow of good boys and girls, right? But you're a shameless brat after all!"
"Haha, who knows. Although I'm actually not shameless, I probably won't get a visit."
That bastard Pops doing something that considerate? Impossible. Although it was not as if Haruaki had never received a present ever, with that guy running off to places unknown, expecting a present would too much of a delusion, right?
(Even if he transferred just a little more money for living expenses, I'd be very happy... Sigh, it's impossible. Say, since I'm currently the master of the house and I feel quite indebted to these girls' care for me... Should I prepare Christmas presents...? How much money do I have left in the emergency stash...?)
Fear was frowning and looking down as though going "Crap!" Perhaps she was bothered by Haruaki saying that he probably was not going to be visited by Santa Claus? Just as Haruaki frantically tried to comfort her: "After all, I'm already used to not receiving any presents, don't worry"—
Judging from Fear's face, she seemed to have thought of something as she suddenly looked up.
"Muu, muuu, I see. Hmm... Don't give up hope! Perhaps Santa might make a delivery mistake or have mercy on you, so you end up receiving a present after all, right? Mufu!"
"What are you going mufu for!? You're not planning some sort of weird idea, right?"
"O-Of course I'm not planning some sort of weird idea. Don't worry about it! So... If that's the case, it really can't be helped. Then the issue left is... money after all...?"
Fear muttered incomprehensibly while she watched the animal show that came up after the news.
"I know right? Perhaps Santa Claus might very well show extra mercy~ It's too early to assert that Haru won't receive any presents. Am I right, Kono-san?"
"Eh...! I-Is that so? I... Umm, I'm not sure either! Really, positive!"
Kuroe was smiling intriguingly while Konoha continued to smile stiffly. Despite their suspicious behavior, Haruaki decided to pay them no mind since he was busy trying to remember how much money he had in his secret stash.
Just at this moment, a bizarre noise was heard in the living room but it was not the background music of the animal show on television. Transcribed exactly, it sounded like this: "Gufuoo...!" "To think my ambition would end here...!" "Damn you, contemptible warriors of the light—!" "Evil-doing humans, you are the culprits responsible for destroying everything!" A series of mysterious lines. What were they?
"Oh, excuse me. That's my phone."
"What on earth is that ringtone!?"
"A collection of Demon Lord final death cries from all times and places. Whenever someone calls, it allows me to relive those thrilling moments of accomplishment when finishing an RPG~ Isn't that great?"
Truly too avant-garde. Haruaki decided to refrain from commenting.
Next, Kuroe took out her cellphone and tilted her head:
"An unrecognized phone number. Who could it be...? Hello~ Uh, Yamada-san...? Oh, the cake shopkeeper, how are you~?"
Kuroe nodded repeatedly as she listened to the speaker on the other side. After a while, she cocked her head again and asked in a very incredulous voice:
"...A part-time job?"
While Fear was staring intently at the television, her ear seemed to twitch once as though some sort of weird idea was going through her mind.
"Oh man~ So exhausting. Jeez... Why would anyone build a house this deep in the mountains?"
A blond young man was dressed in construction overalls. After bumping up and down along the mountainous roads, he unloaded equipment from the truck at the destination while grumbling. Dressed in the same work clothes, his senior colleague scolded him:
"Idiot, what if the client hears you? In this current recession, you've got to be thankful for any work at all. This is a long-awaited and major client whose job will take quite a few weeks to complete."
The young man casually unloaded bricks from the truck and piled them up, meanwhile glancing at the house that served as the site for the current job. The more he looked, the stranger he felt. This was a decrepit western mansion that was completely out of place in the calm and peaceful mountain environment. Due to the excessive sense of dissonance, it even gave off an impression as though the house was added as an afterthought, simply dumped here at this location by coincidence.
The work order was also quite strange. The request was to simply repair the house, which was not exactly the same as "making this derelict house livable." The damage distribution was also completely skewed and irregular. Shattered windows, crumbling brick outer walls, several thick pillars had disappeared from beneath the eaves—On the other hand, the other walls and windows were virtually intact. What kind of lifestyle could cause the house to come to this state? Then—
"Ah, welcome everyone. So sorry to be troubling you today as well!"
"Oh, good morning! We will be working our hardest as usual today. If you have any questions or requests, please feel free to let us know!"
Probably having heard the truck's arrival, the client came out of the house. After an exchange of pleasantries with the elderly man in charge, she lowered her head and bowed timidly before going back into the house. This client was also quite peculiar—a girl in a sailor-style school uniform with fresh plaster casts on both of her hands. If one did not call this strange, what else could describe the situation? Out in the mountainous wilderness, living alone in this weird house. For what unusual circumstances or reasons would anyone stay in this kind of place...
"Hey, stop standing there and spacing out! Get to work now! Move it!"
But one thing was for certain, furthering pondering would be meaningless. The young man had no interest in finding out in the first place. He simply wanted to escape reality. Scolded by his colleague, the blond young man spat by his feet and slowly started his work.
Then after some time had passed, he saw a visitor arrive. Watching the girl enter the house directly without even knocking at the door, he thought: Seriously, strange people do end up attracting other strange people.
"...What fashion sense. Isn't that getup really like a Santa's?"
With her hands immobilized in casts, only her fingertips could move. But this posed no hindrance to Ontenzaki Satsuko's daily life.
After the water boiled, the gas stove's dial instantly turned off. The cupboards opened themselves. A set of newly bought teacup and saucer floated lightly through the air and landed on the table. Even though this was a supernatural scene that would cause any other person to scream, Satsuko remained calm and composed. She simply watched as a teabag was placed into the cup while the kettle floated in midair as it poured boiling water.
Just at this moment, Satsuko cocked her head. Clearly, more water still needed to be poured, but the kettle's movements suddenly froze. Then—from somewhere, an anxious voice whispered into her ear.
"Fourt, what's the matter?"
She asked the voice coming from the air. Hovering in midair, the kettle shook intensely nonstop.
"That blond man... The human outside. Kill him. If you can't do it, I'll take care of him. May I kill him?"
"W-What are you talking about~? It wasn't easy to find those people who are willing to fix up the house... Did anything happen?"
"Not just anything happened! That man...! He spat! Inside me!"
"...Awwww~ That's really inappropriate~ But then, if you kill the workman, the progress of repairs will be even slower~ Satsuko will remind them later but please endure for now..."
Leaking a moan, the kettle shook again. But without notice, its movements suddenly stopped again. In the next instant, the cup and the spoon on the table all floated into the air.
"W-Wah~! I already said no, come on and endure it!"
"Not that! Satsuko—An intruder! Be careful!"
While Fourteen was speaking, the entrance at the living room was rudely pushed open. Entering the door from outside was—
"Buon giorno! It's been a while, Satsuko. Are you discussing about killing someone? Need my help?"
A beautiful girl was dressed almost monochromatically. Her bold words and attitude stood in stark contrast to her appearance as she approached with great strides. Then suddenly with great affection, she embraced Satsuko.
"Oh~ Oh~ You're just as small as before! I heard you were injured... Kaha, since your arms are still attached, that's not too bad after all. Hurry up and get better. Get better."
"Y-Yes. You look like you're living well too..."
In actual fact, she was definitely not someone who would be considered tall. Compared to Satsuko, she was only a couple centimeters taller—But that was how she always acted and Satsuko accepted her hug with a smile.
"Oh right, your «Blaze» rank dropped from seventh to ninth because you were defeated, right? What a shame~ You were clearly so close to becoming one of the «High Singles». But simply from the fact that you didn't drop to the double digits, it's obvious that the Commander still sees potential in you. Don't get too depressed. Try harder!"
"Y-Yes... Although Satsuko doesn't know how far someone weak like her can try hard..."
"Kaha, you're still the same like that. Don't worry~ Don't you have a reliable partner? ...Oh, sorry, I forgot to say hi! How are you doing, Fourteen?"
"...Greetings, «Blaze» No.4, Pentangeli-dono."
A muttering voice responded from the air. Kokoro stopped hugging Satsuko and shrugged in an exaggerated manner.
"Aren't you formal as always? I've wondered since a long time ago, do you happen to find me troublesome? Kaha, how heartbreaking! Can't you greet me in a more friendly manner? If you're unwilling, then I'll have to make a move first."
Saying that, she suddenly opened a curtain within arm's reach. Hugging the window frame, she pressed her cheek and rubbed against the window.
"Eee—Eyah! What... are... you doing in this kind of... naked spot... Nngghh... S-Stop it... This... is so embarrassing...!"
"On the other hand, I don't find it embarrassing. Next, lemme see... What should I do? How about some licking~"
"Eyah... I-I get it, I get it, okay! W-Welcome, Kokoro-senpai...!"
"Wouldn't it have been nice if you said that at the start? Oh, excuse me, Satsuko, could you brew me a cup of tea please? Running all the way here was really exhausting."
"Oh, yes, of course! Please sit, please sit. Have a seat and wait~"
She asked Fourteen to bring out another teacup. Controlling the poltergeists, Fourteen restarted her tea brewing and shortly after, two portions of tea were prepared on the table. Kokoro was sitting boldly on her chair with one knee drawn up. Although her underwear was visible, Satsuko knew that reminding her was useless. So in any case, she pretended not to see and took a seat opposite to Kokoro.
"So... What brings you all the way out here, Kokoro-senpai?"
"Oh dear, there's actually nothing special. I just thought I'd say hi since I happen to be visiting Japan. Also, since you're the predecessor after all, I wanted to ask for your thoughts after the battle. It should be quite interesting."
"Uh... In other words, Kokoro-senpai, you've also arrived to fight Fear-san and her friends?"
Kahaha—Kokoro's shoulders shook from her laughter.
"It's Fear-in-Cube. Yes, I've already obtained authorization to make a move on those guys, even though that's not my only purpose for coming here. In fact, there's an even more interesting fellow compared to them. I received news that the target will be coming to this town... Due to over anticipation, I arrived early. Next, I plan on making various preparations while I'm waiting."
"Oh~ If you say so, it must be a very interesting person, right? What kind of cursed tool does the opponent possess? Or is it a cursed tool with human form~?"
"No, a real, living person. According to the in-house combat analysis team, possessing power comparable to the «High Singles» despite a body of flesh and blood, a master of the strongest level... Just from the sounds of that, I can hardly wait!"
Finishing the tea in the cup, Kokoro then added with a smile as though suddenly inspired:
"—However, master seems to be a slightly misleading choice of words, eh? Kaha!"
If someone were really strong, does that not make them a master? Satsuko was completely baffled.
Unable to understand the meaning of Kokoro's words or why she was laughing, Satsuko could only respond vaguely while gazing blankly with her head inclined in puzzlement.
Translator's Notes and References
- Kotatsu(炬燵): is a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon, or heavy blanket, upon which a table top sits. Underneath is a heat source, often built into the table itself. Kotatsu are used almost exclusively in Japan, although similar devices are used elsewhere.
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