After who knows how much time had gone by, Haruaki looked up with a start.
Above him was simply the night sky. Without him noticing, the sun had already set. Although a few dark clouds lingered, the falling rain had subsided to a drizzle. The wind, strong enough to make their ears ring, had stopped. In other words—
Haruaki surveyed his surroundings. Everyone was sitting where they collapsed in exhaustion. Fear had stabbed her execution stake into the ground along with the tarp, holding onto it to withstand the strong wind apparently. Completely drained, she rested her chin against the tip of the stake and murmured softly:
"Good grief. Looks like the worst of the storm has passed. I never imagined I'd use my mechanisms like this."
"Me too... It feels like I was most active in cutting down trees... Sigh. How I regret not being able to use your saw."
"What are you talking about? You were most active holding down the tarp. The weight of all that voluminous and useless meat carries stability that no one can hope to match—"
"Are you talking about that again!?"
Fear and Konoha started arguing noisily as usual. What excess energy... As a side note, Haruaki really wished that Konoha could first take care of her neckline that had been ripped wide open for the flash grenade plan.
"Phew~ I've gained a valuable experience, basically along the lines of flying."
"That's just you, Kuroe-kun..."
"O-Oh dear, Shiraho, everything is over, safe and sound. We should rejoice! Don't sulk... Ohhh, there's dirt all over your face, Shiraho. Let me wipe your face a bit, okay?"
"Hoo... The same goes for your face too, Sovereignty. Let me wipe yours in return. Seriously, we must take a bath immediately after getting home, Sovereignty."
"Yes, of course! I'll help you scrub your back! Let's have a good soak together to warm ourselves!"
Kuroe and the others also seemed quite tired but there were no injuries apparently. Shiraho and Sovereignty had started flirting as though trying to escape reality, but Haruaki decided to ignore them. After all, if he carelessly approached or tried to converse, he could end up getting punched instantly.
The priest, who had arrived in the middle, sat directly on the ground, unconcerned about this white outfit, gazing peacefully at his daughter. The daughter was also looking back at him, but soon after, she averted her gaze and stood up. Finally, she seemed to say something to him. Judging from the priest's wry smile, it was probably not something rude or malicious, but more than likely, something twisted in her usual style.
Suddenly noticing, Fear and Konoha stopped arguing to observe the father and daughter situation.
Haruaki did not know how the father and daughter saw each other. Impossible to describe in words exactly. Naturally, Fear could not do so either and the same probably applied to even Chihaya and her father as well.
But Haruaki could not help but think that perhaps they did reach Fear successfully. For someone who was not human, not born from parents and had mentioned that she could not understand parent-child relationships through personal experience, perhaps Fear now comprehended a little more than before.
Because the scene before their eyes was surely that of an ordinary parent-child relationship.
Under the gazes of Haruaki's group, Chihaya slowly started to walk. Standing in front of Isuzu who was sitting on the ground, Chihaya looked down silently towards her. The other kagura bells remained in the surroundings, but perhaps due to spending so much time together, Chihaya was apparently able to pick out Isuzu.
"Successfully... protected~ ...Chihaya-sama."
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Isuzu really... is a failure of a kagura bell~... It's great that Chihaya-sama's wish was fulfilled but it was definitely not through our power."
"Chihaya-sama... What should we do now? It seems that we are no longer capable of achieving our duties of transmitting wishes to the gods. Henceforth, what kind of existence should we live as~..."
Isuzu whispered. Chihaya sighed in exasperation and glared at her sideways:
"Jeez, you're really a hopeless idiot. You don't even know the answer to something like this? Nothing changed... You are yourself, my servant and slave. I know very well that you, my servant, are very stupid so I won't burden you with excessive expectations. So, all you need to do is stay by my side."
Chihaya then turned her face away as though embarrassed and continued with her arms crossed:
"That's right, I won't expect too much from you. What you're capable of is simply letting me stretch and play with your silly face, allowing me to relieve my stress. That's all. Also, all I do at home is go on the internet. No one visits me to play, so you'll be a substitute friend... No, you'll be my conversation partner! That's right, just being my conversation partner is enough! Like a flunkie! Despite talking about fulfilling my wish, you still ended up unable to help me! Don't be too full of yourself, you idiot!"
"Yes—However, until Mom returns, there are definitely many things that need to be protected properly. I will borrow your strength when the time comes. However... You don't have to strain yourself to help me using the power of your curse. Although I've repeated this many times already, it's because you're an idiot."
"But... For us to be like this, may we still continue to stay by your side, Chihaya-sama~? So long as you retain ownership of Isuzu, well... Chihaya-sama's curse won't..."
She was right. While playing with the Rubik's cube with one hand, Fear approached the two of them.
"This fact cannot be forgotten... Let me state for the record. Curses can be lifted. Also, that shameless brat over there has a constitution that's immune to curses. That's why we're living in the shameless brat's home and doing things to help mankind. But the situation is a bit different for Sovereignty over there. It's a little like probation, I guess."
"Oh... I see~"
"You lot should think it over carefully. Because of your curse, Shameless Shrine Maiden Number One here lost half her voice, resulting in this hoarseness. Also, the curse forces her to dance. I've already seen what happens if she doesn't dance. It looks really painful. Perhaps right now, it's okay with dancing a couple times a day, but who knows if the curse might strengthen in the future. When the time comes, she might have to dance ten times a day, or twenty—Finally, she might very well have to dance forever nonstop."
"Yes~ ...Isuzu is also very clear on the risks~ Ahhh, protecting Chihaya-sama's safety is imperative... Then of course, it's best that Isuzu stays with you girls—"
At this moment, Chihaya interrupted with great forcefulness:
"What the heck are you talking about! I already said you're my servant. It's way too early for you to start worrying about your master! Besides, dancing is nothing and I don't mind my voice at all! It's a lot better than those high-pitched and noisy voices in class at least! Anyway, I won't allow it. I absolutely refuse!"
"Muu... Hey, Haruaki, what should we do?"
Fear turned to him with a troubled look. Haruaki also wanted to make the same look but he also considered the fact that Isuzu and Chihaya definitely wanted to stay together. On the other hand, the dangers of the curse were very real, so he hoped that Isuzu could lift her curse. However, it looked like Chihaya had already resolved herself to endure the curse. In addition, the curse did not seem to be the type to pose a threat immediately—Hmm...
"To be frank... I honestly hope you could move to our home, but I'm not asking you to separate from Chihaya forever."
"Hey, great pervert, don't pretend like you can careless call my name directly!"
Finding it too much of a pain to respond, Haruaki ignored her instead. By this point, calling her Chihaya-san would be too weird as well.
"So, curses really are quite scary. Even if you can endure it now, no one knows what might happen in the future."
"Yes. On this point, what Fear-kun mentioned just now could very well come true. Perhaps you may find it absolutely ridiculous, but it's all true."
Chihaya looked down and clenched her fist. Then spoke as though squeezing her voice out:
"You're all right. But—I want Isuzu to stay here. Because... Umm... Although she's an idiot, a flunkie is still a flunkie. I still have many tasks for her, like being my conversation partner, protecting this place, and also—welcoming Mom home together... etc."
Saying that, Chihaya shook her shoulders, as though saying "to think that would slip out." Still looking down, she continued with a voice that sounded like she was enduring pain, yet mixed with her easily seen-through denials:
"No, it's not like I wanted to let Mom see that I have friends—That's right, it's because when Mom comes home, I'll need manpower for a large-scale clean up. There are still many other things I want to use her as a flunkie for, so..."
Chihaya really seemed to want to live together with Isuzu. Despite the horror of curses, she still refused to back down. What should they do~? Just as Haruaki tilted his head in agonized contemplation, a fully malicious tongue clicking was heard, completely unsuited to the current mood.
"Let me say this... That's enough, human. You've discussed for too long. I would like nothing more than getting home immediately for a bath, nothing more than hurrying to forget this absolute worst memory of a New Year's Day. So, no matter what, hurry up and make a decision. If you can't decide, I'll do it for you—Keep the status quo. There."
"Keep the status quo... Meaning that we really leave them alone like this?"
"Indeed, their matter is none of my business. Naturally, it's none of your business either, human. Since she wants to stay together with that cursed tool, in her view, that curse is nothing to her, right? In this regard—She's the same as me."
"Yes, perhaps that's the case~ Ehehe."
Hugged tightly by Sovereignty, Shiraho continued quietly. Sovereignty's original curse "compelled her to kill the one she embraced tightly." But after the killing mechanism was completely destroyed, it essentially became nothing more than a curse to "simply embrace the owner." Despite the possibility for curses to change in nature, they still lived together, fully understanding the risks. In consideration of such possibilities, Haruaki's group continued to watch over them—
"Hmm, perhaps it's the same. In other words, just like my kindred suggested—Let's settle this with probation. How's that for a decision?"
"Seriously, human, how indecisive can you get!? Out of the goodness of my heart, I've already offered you a solution. All you need to do is stop thinking and accept it! If you're still worried... Ah yes, then set a deadline! Such as until her mother is discharged from the hospital!"
It was impossible to tell if Shiraho offered her suggestion for Chihaya and Isuzu's sake or because she simply wanted to get home earlier. Nevertheless—even at this moment, Haruaki could not bring himself to force Chihaya and Isuzu apart. This was because Chihaya was currently bowing her head as though pleading sincerely while Isuzu was gazing at Chihaya and him with imploring eyes.
"Phew... I guess maybe that's the only... way to go..."
Haruaki scratched his head.
"I understand. Anyway, let's just keep the the status quo and have probation for now. But I have a condition. In any case, contact us immediately once your mother is discharged from the hospital. We will come over to check out the situation, then... Hmm, let's discuss the matter then. Before that, we might also visit you when we're free."
"It feels like we're just delaying the problem... But anyway, it doesn't look like the type of curse that'll become life threatening as soon as it gets stronger. It can't be helped, I guess."
"Yes, even if a situation arose, so long as we rush over immediately, there shouldn't be a problem. Anyway, it's decided, right?"
Konoha and the others expressed their opinion in turn while Haruaki continued to look at Chihaya. With serious eyes, she looked up and said:
"...That's the only condition?"
"No, there's one more. No matter how much you want to protect this vegetable garden, you can't force the curse to become stronger or steal other people's voices for power. So, don't work as a curse expert anymore."
"...Really? That's fine. After all, I don't do it because I wanna."
"Chihaya-sama... Speaking of which~"
"Hmph, it looks like you're still my servant for now. Okay, pull yourself together now! Stand up!"
"Huhyaa~ Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Chihaya-sama... It really hurts..."
"Hurting you is the point!"
Chihaya pinched Isuzu's cheek and forced her to her feet.
"Haha... Looks like we've gained another daughter. When my wife gets back, she's surely in for a great surprise..."
Without Haruaki noticing, the priest had started standing beside him with a friendly smile. Bowing deeply to express his gratitude, the priest said:
"Sorry for causing so much trouble to everyone. Whether because of this vegetable garden or my daughter."
"D-Don't mention it. This is just a casual favor, you don't need to bow and thank us! Besides... Regarding Isuzu's matter, we seem to have made the decision without consulting you, sorry about that..."
"Don't worry about it. Although curses still don't feel very real to me, if Chihaya has already steeled her determination, I shouldn't butt in by this point. Besides... That house really is too empty for two people to live in. Also, Chihaya seems quite happy."
"I'm not quite sure if she's happy or not... But anyway, if anything goes wrong, please contact us immediately. Uh... Let me give my cellphone number to your daughter first."
Saying that, Haruaki held his cellphone and walked over to Chihaya. Chihaya spoke with displeasure: "I'm really worried about whether you'd prank call me." Nevertheless, she still exchanged telephone numbers more readily than expected. After the exchange, Haruaki noticed that she was frequently glancing to one side.
"U-Umm... Uh... About just now..."
"What's the matter? Oh, you're referring to my suggestion just now? I simply want to return home faster. Even if you thank me, I'll still feel troubled."
Chihaya's gaze was directed towards Shiraho who was answering nonchalantly while locked in embrace with Sovereignty. Faced with Shiraho's indifferent tone of voice, Chihaya seemed to be too scared to talk. Seeing that, Shiraho finally relaxed her expression slightly.
"...Hmm, to be honest, I am slightly concerned about you two who share the same situation as us. However, unlike these humans, I have no intention of checking up on you two, so perhaps we might not meet again. So just in case, let me remind you... Although these children are not the same as humans and living with them will bring you a different kind of happiness, it could be very tough. So please try your best."
Chihaya stammered inexplicably to answer and bowed her head. It was unclear if Chihaya was acting this way due to Shiraho's smile despite being of the same gender, feeling ashamed in the face of Shiraho's otherworldly beauty, or if she felt embarrassed simply to watch Shiraho and Sovereignty's intimate displays of affection.
The rain had almost stopped. Isuzu turned her comrades back into bells and kept them inside her body. As though mustering her vigor, Chihaya straightened her back and looked again over the field they had successfully protected. Although it was not free from damage, at least it was not destroyed. With a bit of work afterwards, it should recover immediately.
A little proudly, as though looking at something dazzling, Chihaya narrowed her eyes.
"Well... It looks like there's no problem, Isuzu, so it's about time for us to go back. For the rest of today, I just wanna hurry to take a bath and go to bed."
"Yes~ Then everyone, please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, sorry for all the trouble~ Isuzu shall never forget to repay everyone's kind assistance in the future—"
Displaying a gentle smile as usual, Isuzu bowed in gratitude towards Haruaki's group many times. Walking past her, Chihaya pinched her face in an extremely smooth and practiced manner:
"Stop bowing again and again! I already said we're leaving, so hurry and get going. You're really an idiot of a flunkie! Okay, hurry and go!"
"Oww... Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, it really hurts..."
"Hurting you is the point!"
Hence, Chihaya and Isuzu made their way home. Seeing this, the priest also bowed deeply and followed after his daughters, separated by a small distance.
At this moment, just as Haruaki's group was watching the trio leave, they suddenly heard talking. Chihaya halted in her steps.
"I forgot to ask you guys... Of course, there's compensation, right?"
"That's right. Although I've decided to accept the conditions you proposed, there's nothing in it for us. So, you guys have to think of something. In other words—"
The delinquent shrine maiden's shoulder quivered once. She was probably sighing. Then without looking back, she said:
"For protecting this garden, since you said I'm not allowed to use the power of curses—That means I must use other powers. Next time a typhoon comes, I will call you guys. No complaints allowed, you must come!"
Saying that all on her own, Chihaya continued walking.
Haruaki and his friends looked at one another. After shrugging, they all laughed silently.
Obviously, without any thinking required, there was only one possible answer to shout in return at Chihaya's back.
A few days passed after New Year's Day. Morning on a certain Monday. While lamenting the short length of the winter break, Haruaki yawned as he opened the entryway at home. Because it was a public holiday, Kuroe, who still considered herself on winter break, was leaving the house together with them, saying" "I'll start working tomorrow. While there's still time, let me clean up the shop and go over my inventory~"
While listening inattentively to Fear and Konoha's noisy disputes, Haruaki locked up the main door to his house. He yawned again. After all, it was just the opening ceremony today, so he planned on taking an afternoon nap after returning home. Just as he thought to himself, he suddenly noticed something as he started walking.
In front of his home entrance was an unexpected figure.
"...Oh~ dear, that's why I didn't want to come. The great pervert's gonna violate me visually again."
"Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, that's because you look too adorable in your school uniform, Chihaya-sama~"
"So what you mean is that I can't avoid getting violated by people's eyes? As a servant, that's quite bold of you. Since I'm very impressed with you, look forward to screaming in pain."
"Oww, it hurts, Chihaya-sama~"
Before their eyes was Chihaya in uniform, accompanied by Isuzu. A bicycle was parked next to Chihaya, who was constantly playing with her cellphone as always. She probably rode it here, right? Since no bike could be seen for Isuzu, did she actually follow by running after Chihaya? It did not matter within the shrine's confines, but it was quite unbelievable for Isuzu to be running around in a shrine maiden outfit that did not fit her surroundings.
"Nuoh, it's Shameless Shrine Maidens Number One and Two! W-What's up? Is there a problem!?"
"...No problem. Just the same as usual."
"Th-That sounds about right. After that, only the priest called us once to express his thanks and chatted for a bit without anything special to say."
"No problem would be best of course... So, why are you two here?"
Hearing Konoha's question, Chihaya suddenly used one hand to close the phone she was playing with and scratched her head. She also pushed up her glasses purposelessly. Then stammering, she hesitated over what to say. As a side note, during all this time, her other hand was occupied with pinching Isuzu's cheek.
After a while of awkward hesitation, Chihaya turned her gaze to the bike's basket, nodding as though saying "Oh right."
"...That guy told me to bring this. He said something about having received your care. Clearly I said it wasn't necessary."
"What are you talking about?"
"This thing! Here!"
Chihaya grabbed the plastic bag that was kept in the bike basket and handed it to Haruaki in a throwing manner. Haruaki peered inside to see several kinds of vegetables. Cabbage, turnip—as well as Chinese cabbage.
"...While rebuilding the garden, I took the opportunity to pick all the vegetables that were undamaged and ready for harvesting. To be honest, this kind of return gift is totally retarded. The act of thanking itself is even more retarded."
"No, this will really help us out a lot. Thank you."
Although some of the vegetables were not completely ripe, it would definitely help ease the family budget. Haruaki immediately began to ponder what dishes he could make with them. At this moment—
"Also—No matter what, coming all this way just to deliver vegetables would be totally stupid. So... I consider this trash recycling, so I'm just dumping on you something I don't want. That's right, this isn't my return gift to you at all. After all, this thing is just taking up space at home since I dunno how to use it, and I just happened to remember it."
"Chihaya-sama, your behavior is too inexplicable and suspicious!"
"Shut up! Anyway, this is the thing, here! I'm giving it to you along with the vegetables. If you guys don't need it, dispose of it yourself!"
Saying that, Chihaya took out from her pocket and threw something onto Haruaki's palm—a very familiar object.
A card carved with patterns resembling some kind of emblem.
An Indulgence Disk.
"What!? Why would you have this!?"
"Eh, you know what it is? ...Oh~ Then that means it wasn't a scam. Not long before meeting you guys, I bought it from an underground website. The shop advertised it as a rare item, top-class for 'reducing curses.' I was thinking maybe I could make use of it... But it's completely useless without any idea how it's used. I even thought there would be an instruction sheet attached. What a waste of money. I pretty much spent everything I earned as a curse expert on this thing!"
Chihaya pouted angrily as she spoke. That was completely understandable, Haruaki thought. The only ways he had seen this type of card being used was either shoved directly into the body by force or connected to the original object through some sort of weird device. Without any knowledge at all, it was impossible to make effective use of. Although there was only one apparently, to think it would be sold on the internet, how astonishing.
"Ohoh~ The world of the internet is truly boundless. I'm quite surprised myself... As expected of someone who appears to live in a junk shop out of a Sci-Fi flick~"
"What are you talking about...? Anyway, you guys mentioned something about lifting curses, right? That's why I was thinking, rather than let it rot at home as trash, I should toss it to you guys instead."
"Is that so? Hmm, not only is it not trash, but it's also something that we need very much. Then I'll accept it gratefully. Haruaki, don't lose it."
"Of course I'm not going to lose it."
Haruaki carefully placed the Indulgence Disk into his schoolbag. He decided to insert the card into Fear when they return home after school.
As though saying "that's it," Chihaya walked over to her parked bike. Haruaki narrowed his eyes at her figure. Due to the sudden appearance of an Indulgence Disk, he could not help but put the issue aside, but now it was really bothering him. He must confirm this. Haruaki felt compelled to go back to what he felt when he first saw her uniform and went "What!?"
"Hey... Excuse me, you..."
"What, you still have more to say? Then be quick. Since I ride my bike to school, I was forced to make a detour to this place, but it's actually quite far from my route to school. If you don't hurry, I'll be late."
"Uh, I can already tell that you bike to school..."
"Then what is it? Oh, this girl? Don't worry, it's always like this. I just explain that she's a silly shrine maiden who jogs in her outfit to work out. I've already mentioned this before. Because she can't leave me too far, once we get to school, I order her to hide somewhere appropriate until school is over—"
"No no no, that's not what I'm talking about."
Haruaki narrowed his eyes further but could not shake his conviction no matter how many times he tried. There was no doubt at all. How could this be? He had been mistaken all along. Neither had he noticed.
But this definitely required confirmation. Keeping himself calm, breathing deeply a few times, Haruaki resolved himself and stared straight at Chihaya—
"Are you... a middle schooler?"
"Wha? Isn't it obvious? Or you mean you still don't know? Are you a moron?"
Given Chihaya's harsh manner of speaking, arrogant attitude and physical maturity that was no different from the level of Haruaki's group, he did not notice until now. However, no mistake about it—right in front of Haruaki, Chihaya was currently wearing a sailor-style uniform. The school crest at her collar belonged to a public middle school that they occasionally passed by in front of the train station.
After Haruaki groaned, Chihaya curled her lips in a malevolent grin:
"That's right. What a shock if you only discovered now. After all, you've been getting aroused from a middle schooler's thighs and armpits, going as far as to hug me tightly. Ohoh, scary scary. The great pervert is actually a criminal."
Despite clearly knowing Haruaki's seniority in age, she still did not stop calling him by that insulting title? How unlikeable.
"Hmm? A middle school is where students study before going to high school... So basically, it's that? You're going to become our underclassman, right? Ohoh, I'll have a junior for the first time!"
"Yeah, in any case, you'll automatically gain many underclassmen after three months or so. Say—Chihaya, what year are you in right now?"
"Oh~ That's a year's difference."
At this moment, Chihaya began to examine Haruaki and the others' uniforms as though she suddenly noticed something. Then lowering her voice, she asked:
"—Umm, I have something to ask you guys too. That's the uniform of Taishyuu High, right? Then the person who came with you guys, the one who looks like a model... Does she go to the same school?"
"You mean Shiraho? Yeah, although she's not in our homerooms, she does go to the same school. The other person, the very cheerful and bubbly one, is called Sovereignty. Although she's not a student, she works at the superintendent's office—"
"You don't need to introduce the other girl. Really? The same school? Hmm... Then I'll see her... again...?"
"Fufufu~ Please allow me to say in fear and trepidation, Chihaya-sama has already become that lady's devoted fan~ Chihaya-sama not only feels grateful for her kind words on our behalf, but along the way home, she even murmured: 'How do I become that beautiful? Does she use any kind of special beauty treatment?' It'd be wonderful if we could speak to her again~"
"Y-Y-You, what are you talking about!? Of course not, absolutely not! D-Don't say something stupid like this, they'll get the wrong idea! Okay, Isuzu, it's time to go! I'm gonna ride my bike at top speed, so prepare yourself!"
"Oh dear, Chihaya-sama, if you pull so hard, the skin of Isuzu's arm may become loose and flabby!"
"Then hurry up and become loose and flabby!"
Blushing to her ears, Chihaya pinched Isuzu's arm hard with her fingers and quickly mounted her bike. The exchange just now seemed to have revealed information that could not be ignored.
"H-Hey, could it be that you're—"
While stepping hard on the pedal, Chihaya looked back and smiled malevolently:
"Basically, that's my first choice for high school. Although I won't know the result until April—depending on the situation then, perhaps we will meet again even if we don't want to. Please let us get along when the time comes, senior."
After speaking in a tone of voice that seemed to ridicule Haruaki, Chihaya pedalled on her bike. On the other hand, Isuzu bowed her head lightly towards them as a polite farewell then followed after Chihaya with her swaying shrine maiden outfit. A rather paradoxical manner of running at high speed yet with high-class elegance.
Haruaki was a little stunned as he watched the two of them depart. At the same time, he wondered to himself.
To have encountered that kind of commotion on the first day of the new year, although there was a certain sense of foreboding—It looked like there was going to be many troublesome events lying ahead this year.
Nevertheless, this was definitely not completely negative. Despite all the troubles, there will be plenty of joy. Like always, this year was going to to pass by with each day lively as ever—Two sides to the same coin, regarding his premonition.
(No... It's usually like this anyway, I guess.)
Haruaki smiled wryly in his heart while correcting his thoughts.
Suppose an underclassman was added to this group, one that was troublesome yet surprisingly considerate of family—
Their future days would surely end up being even more exciting than last year's.
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