Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 11 Chapter 4
Chapter 4 - Full Moon of Heavenly Rites
On the day of the festival, many students were traveling along the coastal road during daytime, usually deserted except during commutes, which was lined with vendor stalls. They were also dressed differently from usual.
"What a great move on the principal's part, providing yukatas to all students. Everyone looks very different."
Having finished chopping some cabbage at Shinomiya-sensei's stall, Lisa looked out towards the female students in yukatas, coming to buy yakisoba.
"Yes—It doesn't feel like we're at Midgard anymore. It's really like a festival in Japan."
Likewise in charge of the stall with Lisa, I agreed while cutting carrots.
To adhere completely to a festival in Japanese style, Charl had issued a yukata to every student. Furthermore, the students could choose whatever style they preferred.
It was probably borne by Charl's personal tastes, but definitely a lot of work.
But thanks to that, the girls were all very excited. The main event of the festival was the fireworks show at night, but the seaside was already very busy.
"A Japanese festival... I have long wanted to attend one in person."
"I'll take you to one if a chance comes up. However—It'll be pretty tough."
When I smiled wryly, Lisa frowned.
"What do you mean by that? Are you saying I will get lost?"
"No, that's not it. You're too pretty and striking in your yukata, Lisa, so guarding you will be tough."
Turning bright red, Lisa halted in her food preparation.
"P-Pretty... If only you had said this earlier—back when I first showed myself to you in the yukata. Saying it at a time like this would throw me off-balance."
Confronted with Lisa's sharp glare, I apologized frantically.
"S-Sorry about that, but I already praised your yukata look long ago..."
Like the girls, I was also wearing a yukata.
Currently at the stall, Lisa and I were the ones in charge of preparation while four others including Shinomiya-sensei and Shion were cooking and serving customers. Since the shop area was limited, we were on a shift system. The rest of the class was walking around to check out other vendors.
I was wearing a traditional navy-blue yukata for men, but girls all loved to dress up glamorously.
Lisa was wearing a wisteria yukata with floral patterns, a great match for her glittering blonde hair which had been coiled up.
Bowing to customers, Shion was wearing a cute yukata with patterns of blooming pink flowers on a white background. To make up for her slight lack in height, she was standing on a stool.
The adorable Shion was stimulating the girls' maternal instincts. I heard "So cute!" many times.
Although Shinomiya-sensei was frequently distracted by Shion's cuteness, she continued to cook masterfully.
She was dressed in a yukata that was primarily blue with white flowers, exemplifying a mature and conservative style. Beneath her swaying ponytail, her neck flashed in and out of sight, making my heart pound with excitement.
Naturally, I could not voice all of these thoughts but I still expressed my honest opinion to the girls earlier.
However, Lisa did not look satisfied.
"You lumped us all together and said it looked good on us. You call that a compliment?"
"Uh... But it's too unnatural if I praised you one by one—And you girls were about to depart too. If I showed too much interest, it'd turn into sexual harassment, right?"
When I apologized, Lisa shrugged with resignation.
"Although it was an insensitive thing to say, it would still be better than no comment at all. I am glad for the fact that you take an interest in my attire. Well, getting mad or not is a separate matter."
"Why does it feel like I'm being subjected to unreasonable demands... Fine. Starting now, I'll focus on getting you not mad."
While sighing, I nodded with a wry smile.
Seeing my reaction, Lisa's eyebrow twitched slightly.
"—It appears that you have regained a little normalcy."
Surprised, I looked back at Lisa. She was wearing a complicated expression.
"Recently, something has been troubling you, yes? Although I dared not ask about it earlier, has it been resolved?"
Continuing to cut cabbage, Lisa asked me.
Ever since the barbecue, I had been thinking about how to answer Mitsuki's question. However, it looked like Lisa had seen through me.
This was definitely not surprising. That was how Lisa was as a person.
"Resolved... Not yet. But I know how to handle it properly, so you don't need to worry."
I answered vaguely.
I had not been able to reach an answer before the festival. All I had done was nonstop reminiscence.
Digging deeper into the depths of the memories Tia had recovered for me—I carefully went through my memories, starting from my earliest recollections with Mitsuki and dug out every memory since then.
For memories that had faded, I would call my parents to confirm, asking them to try their best to recall and send me photos preserved in albums for me as reference material.
In this manner, I kept thinking about Mitsuki, all the way till today.
But even though I still had not found a clear answer—I should be able to speak naturally when I meet Mitsuki later.
"Is that so? Then I shan't worry. Please do your best."
Lisa smiled and spoke with reassurance. She began to cut cabbage swiftly again.
"Yes, I'll give it my best."
I smiled too and nodded, cutting carrots in sync with her rhythm—
I had agreed with the girls to go check out the festival together when our shift ended.
My promised meeting with Mitsuki was last—before the fireworks. I was going to convey my answer then.
Before that, I wanted to enjoy the festival with everyone and so intended to calm my emotions—However...
"So, the winning team gets to monopolize Yuu."
"Yeah—Agreed. The team that wins the most prizes wins."
In front of the ring tossing game stall, Kili and Ariella were staring at each other.
Both of them looked good in their yukatas, but now was not the time to be praising them.
"Do not fail mine expectations, daughter."
"Good luck, Onee-chan."
The two sides had Vritra and Ren cheering for them respectively.
"Uh... Wouldn't it be better for us to stick together?"
Having walked around with these four so far, I tried to mediate.
In the beginning, the four girls were having fun together relatively peacefully, but Kili and Ariella later got into a conflict—Then it became like this.
Ariella had interfered in Kili's night visit before, which resulted in a subtle sense of competitiveness to develop between them.
"No, Yuu. We're already at the stall, so I won't give up."
"That's right, Mononobe-kun. For our sake so that the three of us can enjoy the festival together in peace, this contest is unavoidable."
In perfect agreement in a certain way, the two of them immediately rejected my suggestion.
Next, they presented cash coupons to the stall keeper.
Along with the yukatas, we had been issued cash coupons that could be used at the vendors during the festival. Normally when buying things from the cafeteria or the snack shop, we could pay by direct debit from our personal accounts through our portable terminals, but this was not available at these stalls.
Furthermore, since Midgard's Ds earned money by transmuting resources from dark matter, many of them were immensely wealthy. Unless there was some restriction imposed on sales, the merchandise could get sold out in a flash.
Since this festival was held to let the entire student body enjoy themselves, one method to prevent things from getting sold out was to institute cash coupons.
"Okay, three rings each."
Saying that, a female member of Midgard staff handed out rings to Kili and Ariella. I had seen her many times before in the command center. Although I did not know her name, I remembered she was the operator.
It looked like all of Midgard's staff really were running this festival.
"Since the type of prize doesn't matter, aiming for small prizes is fine too."
Kili confirmed the size of the rings and said quietly with a serious expression.
The prizes were each secured onto the stand and could be won by landing a ring to encircle the desired prize. Comparatively speaking, it was more likely for the rings to bounce off larger prizes.
"Although I've been to a Japanese festival with Ren before—Compared to the original stalls, these prizes are really grand."
Ariella appraised the prizes while remarking poignantly.
"Mm... So many cute ones too. That bunny... is great."
Standing straight, Ren was looking at a rabbit plushie while her eyes shone.
As pointed out by Ren, most of the prizes were cute and girly things. That selection of prizes was only natural since everyone was a girl except for me.
"Oh, do you want that, Ren? I'd really like to win it, but it's kind of big. It'd be too risky if I'm trying to win the showdown."
Seeing Ariella hesitating, I raised my hand.
"Then I'll go for the plushie."
Saying that, I handed a cash coupon to the staff and received the rings.
"—Thank you, Onii-chan."
Ren's happy gratitude was filling me up with motivation.
"Yes, leave it to me."
To be honest, I was very confident.
For someone like me with honed combat abilities, tossing an object was merely a single faceted skill. Given three chances, I could also make slight adjustments. There was no reason for me to miss.
But while I was checking the ring's weight and shape, Vritra, who was standing on Ren's other side, tugged at my yukata sleeve.
She pointed at a certain product seriously.
"I desire that."
It was a bag containing candies of different colors. It was a relatively challenging target because the ring was barely large enough to fit around it.
"Why don't you try it yourself first?"
"I have decided to use all coupons on food. I do not have any to spare on such games with uncertain prizes."
Despite Vritra's matter-of-fact declaration that only served her own interests, I still went "fine" and sighed. None of the prizes was anything I wanted. Since I had three rings, I might as well help Vritra.
"—Got it. I'll help Ren first."
"Yes. I am counting on thee, my comrade."
Since we were cooperating, Vritra haughtily tapped my arm without worry.
Next, Ariella, Kili and I stood side by side with me in the middle and started to toss rings.
Ariella and Kili won small prizes of low risk.
On further thought, they were very definitely very competitive. Succeeding on the first toss was only natural.
Having no intention of losing to them, I focused my concentration and stared at the rabbit plushie intently.
I adjusted my breathing and tossed the ring like releasing a hand grenade.
Slightly off, the ring's center of gravity was unstable, wobbling while it flew, but this was within my calculations.
Having calculated the loss of distance due to the wobbling, my first toss landed over the rabbit plushie as intended.
Ren cheered out loud in a rare display.
"You are all amazing."
Accepting the prize from the female staff, I handed the rabbit to Ren.
"Here you go, Ren."
"Mm... So happy. I'll... cherish this gift from Onii-chan."
Blushing, Ren hugged the rabbit plushie.
However, Vritra soon urged "next one is mine."
Smiling wryly, I attempted the second toss.
Building on my success against a high-risk target on the first toss, I did not need to be that nervous. Tossed lightly, the ring landed on the bag of candy.
"Hmm, well done."
Vritra praised my efforts haughtily as usual but seeing her relieved expression, I felt that I had nothing to be mad about.
Next to me, Kili and Ariella also succeeded on their second toss.
"You're not bad."
"—You too are better than I thought."
Seing sparks fly between them, I picked up my last ring.
Since I had won Ren and Vritra's prizes, I no longer had any clear target. As a result, winning anything was fine...
After scanning the stand, I noticed a Japanese style brooch in a corner of the merchandise. It was an exquisitely crafted brooch with a red maple design.
—A brooch huh.
It would not suit me but I remembered Tia's happy face from when I had given her a brooch in the past. I tossed the ring over.
Following a trajectory even more ideal than my second toss, the ring landed accurately over the brooch.
Thus, my rings were all used up. Only Kili and Ariella's third toss was left.
After concentrating for a long while, the two girls exhaled strongly and tossed their rings at the same time.
Seeing the two rings' trajectories, I could not help but cry out.
They were apparently aiming for the same target. The rings collided in midair and fell on the ground.
"Why did you get in my way!?"
Kili roared angrily and Ariella replied with raised eyebrows.
"No, you're the one who got in my way, Kili."
After glaring at each other for a while, they handed coupons to the female staff at the same time.
"Another go, okay?"
The second round of the contest began.
"...Looks like it'll take a while."
"I am tired."
Satisfied with their prizes, Ren and Vritra commented wearily.
Indeed, it would be very hard to reach a conclusion between Kili and Ariella. When serious, neither of them was going to make a mistake while attempting interference would only end in mutual failure.
When I saw the fifth round starting, I suggested to Ren and Vritra:
"While they're still competing, why don't we first check out the nearby stalls?"
"Mm, good idea."
"Hmm, that frankfurter stand first, yes?"
The two of them responded immediately.
Then we walked to the vendors opposite to us.
In the end, Kili and Ariella did not manage to settle who was the winner. Since the time for their shift arrived, they had no choice but to give up.
Carrying the mountain of prizes they had won, I was really glad that their shift had started before they could use up all their coupons.
"Th-This is... goldfish scooping...!"
Next to the water tank with little fish swimming about, holding a goldfish scooping tool in her hand—the paper net—she was shaking in excitement.
"Well, more precisely, it's tropical fish scooping."
Standing behind her, I calmly corrected Iris.
The small fish swimming in the tank were not goldfish but tropical fish such as guppies.
Bringing live animals into Midgard from outside was very difficult, so these were probably acquired locally.
"That's fine too! I've always wanted to try it."
With heightened spirits, Iris held her paper net.
Iris had suggested for our class to set up a goldfish scooping stall for the school festival last time. Although her idea had not been used at the time, it looked like it had taken root deeply in her heart.
Walking around together this whole time, Tia, Firill and Jeanne also expressed their interest.
"Looks very fun! Tia will do it too!"
"...How amusing. I will have a go, as a sort of life experience."
"It's not a chance that comes up every day, I'll give it a try. But... What do we do after scooping them up? Eat them?"
Hearing Jeanne's question, Iris looked back and smiled.
"Jeez, Jeanne-chan, you've gotten it all wrong. You take these fish back home to keep as pets. I can't believe you're such a glutton, Jeanne-chan."
"Well, Iris, you made the same mistake before too."
Iris explained proudly, but her face suddenly turned red when I reminded her.
"J-Jeez, Mononobe! Don't reveal that—"
Listening to our conversation, the female staff pointed to the back of the stall.
"For the convenience of customers who succeeded in catching fish, we have prepared fish tanks that can be purchased using coupons. In addition, you may also choose to exchange your fish for other prizes based on quantity."
As expected of a festival operated by Charl, the after-sales was very well-prepared. Those who found keeping fish a hassle would be pleased too.
"Hmm, should I exchange for prizes..."
Seeing Iris hesitating, I sighed.
"Iris, why don't you worry about it after you've caught the fish? It'll probably turn out to be harder than you think, you know?"
"G-Got it. I'll give it a try!"
Iris answered happily and aimed for the tropical fish.
Tia, Firill and Jeanne also arrived at the fish tank, holding paper nets.
"Tia will haul in a large catch!"
All fired up, Tia targeted a swimming guppy with full force.
Although it was a good choice of target, her paper net broke before it touched the guppy when she smashed it into the water.
"Eh—Why did this happen?"
Looking at the broken paper net, Tia cocked her head unhappily.
Seeing Tia's failure, Firill murmured seriously.
"It's just like in books... The paper net breaks easily. Those scenes where the male protagonist tried to show his cool side to a girl—I remember it's important to avoid the water's resistance as much as possible..."
Making use of her knowledge gleamed from stories, Firill slid her paper net sideways into the water and scooped up a guppy.
"Wow, I did it. Perhaps... I might have talent in this area."
Firill cheered. Watching her, Iris and Jeanne started to imitate.
"Yes! I got one too!"
"—It's not that hard once you get the trick."
The two of them caught guppies splendidly and made their second attempt in the same manner.
"If only Tia can be as good as Firill..."
Already out of the game, Tia slumped her shoulders in disappointment.
However, Firill, Iris and Jeanne all had tiny holes appearing in their paper nets when scooping their third fish.
"Oh... It broke."
"Well, it's made of paper after all."
Iris and Firill failed respectively on their fourth and fifth fish.
Jeanne kept going, using the edge of her paper net to catch her ninth fish, but finally lost at the milestone of the tenth fish.
"Captain, this is a pleasure of hunting that can only be realized in a nonflowing fish tank."
Displaying her accomplishment to me, Jeanne said contentedly.
Despite having been told that the fish were not meant to be eaten, Jeanne seemed to have caught her fish with a hunting mindset.
"Would you like to take your fish home? Or exchange them for prizes?"
When the female staff asked us, the girls thought for a while before giving their respective answers.
"Hmm... It's a rare chance, let's buy a fish tank together."
When Iris said that, Firill clapped her hands together.
"Then let's buy a bigger fish tank to keep them together. Putting it in Mitsuki's dorm might be a bit tacky... But it might be nice as decoration for the dining hall. What do you think, Jeanne?"
"Yes, Zwei would like it too."
Jeanne agreed with delight. Imagining Shion's smile, her expression turned gentle.
After buying a fish tank using coupons, the three girls decided to make a trip back to the dorm.
"Mononobe, Tia-chan, we'll be right back. Just wait for a moment!"
Pushing a cart loaded with the fish tank, the three girls left in the dorm's direction.
Left out because she had failed to catch any fish, Tia was pouting with a bit of a sulk.
"How about we go check out other stalls first?"
Patting Tia's head with her little red horns, I suggested. Tia nodded lightly.
Normally, she would instantly show joy when I patted her head, but she was currently quite demoralized.
At that moment, I remembered the Japanese brooch I had won at the ring toss stall, so I took it out of my front pocket.
"Here, Tia, I have a present for you..."
While she was tilting her head in puzzlement, I brought my closed hand in front of Tia's face and opened it.
"I saw this at the ring toss stall. I thought it'd look good on you so I won it."
"Wow! It's so pretty!"
Seeing the red maple brooch, Tia smiled with happy radiance. I was relieved to see her reaction.
"How about putting it on if you like it?"
"Of course! So happy!"
Finally smiling, Tia reached out with her hand but stopped halfway.
I made a questioning gaze and Tia looked up at me awkwardly.
"Umm, can Yuu put it on for Tia?"
"Sure, no problem—"
Nodding, I bent down. At that moment, I realized why Tia was feeling shy.
She was wearing a yukata with thin fabric. The size was just right and the weather was relatively hot, so the yukata was clinging tightly to her body. If I had to pin the brooch on to the chest of the yukata for her, my fingertips would unavoidably touch her.
"Umm... Where do you want to wear it?"
"How about here?"
Just in case, I confirmed, but sure enough, Tia pointed to her right chest.
Frozen in my posture, kneeling in front of Tia, I noticed the surrounding gazes all gathering upon me.
From the perspective of others, me bending over reaching out for Tia's chest must look rather bizarre. As a guy, I was already very conspicuous and this might cause unexpected misunderstandings.
"L-Let's do this somewhere else."
I stood up and holding Tia's hand, I started to look for a place less conspicuous.
"Yuu is holding tia's hand... Yuu so aggressive today, Tia so happy!"
Holding my hand, Tia smiled and spoke in a bouncy voice.
There were female students all over the place along the coastal road, so I took Tia through the stalls to enter the dense jungle.
With leaves blocking the sun, it was relatively dim and quiet. No one would discover us if it was here.
"Okay, I'm going to put it on."
I let go of Tia's hand and stooped down in front of her.
"Y-Yes... Please go ahead."
Blushing, Tia nodded, staring intently at my hand that was holding the brooch.
I nervously reached for the right of Tia's chest, feeling like I was committing a crime.
Hesitation was not going to change this weird atmosphere, so I mustered my determination and touched Tia's yukata.
While the soft sensation of the mild bulge from her chest was transmitting to me through the thin fabric—Tia moaned lightly.
In order to secure the brooch's pin, it was necessary to lift the yukata's fabric, but I had trouble pinching the thin fabric up.
"Y-Yuu... It tickles..."
When my fingertip rubbed against her chest, Tia trembled and moaned passionately. Her reaction was making my heart beat faster and faster.
At this rate, it was almost like I was teasing Tia. Although I was hesitating whether to use more strength since I was touching her chest, letting this drag on would be a bad idea.
"Sorry, I'll get it done straight away."
Ignoring the fact that I was touching her chest, I pinched the fabric hard with my fingertips and lifted the yukata forcefully.
Tia cried out sharply and her delicate body jumped.
It looked like I had touched her somewhere sensitive, but at least I managed to pinch the fabric so I immediately secured the brooch.
Having finished Tia's request, I wiped sweat from my brow.
"Yuu... Thank you."
Blushing, Tia touched the brooch and thanked me.
"Yuu's present... Tia will treasure it. Tia has been treasuring the flower brooch from last time too."
While she was holding the maple brooch tightly, Tia's eyes turned watery.
"Really...? I'm happy to hear that."
I felt happy but also a little embarrassed.
"Umm, Yuu—Does it look good on Tia?"
Tia let go of the brooch and asked for my opinion.
"Yes, very good."
Just as I had expected, the red maple brooch was a good match for Tia's hair and the floral patterns on her yukata.
"Really? Come closer for a look. Is it straight?"
"I really think it's fine—"
Tia gestured for me to come closer so I bent down to inspect the brooch on her chest.
But in that instant, Tia took a step forward and leaned against my face.
While the soft and slightly moist sensation surprised me, Tia stepped back slightly and smiled shyly.
"Unless Tia did this... Tia could not express thanks completely."
Saying that, Tia hugged my arm tightly.
"But Tia is not done expressing, so this will continue! Let's go, Yuu!"
Pulling me by the arm in this manner, Tia walked towards the road packed with stalls.
"It's hard to walk if you cling so tightly."
"Don't worry. If it's hard to walk, we can walk slowly."
Flustered, I pointed out it was hard to walk like this, but Tia had no intention of changing posture.
"—Got it. I'll go along with this."
Since it was Tia's wish. I nodded with a wry smile.
Back to the festival, walking together this intimately, we instantly gathered stares. However, it was pointless to be bothered by them, so we walked around the stalls together like this.
It looked like Tia had completely forgotten about failing to catch a single fish. She was very excited right now.
"Yuu, are you happy?"
Holding a water balloon from a vendor, Tia asked.
"Yeah, I'm happy."
After I replied instantly, Tia looked at the sky where the sun was sinking gradually.
"Tia is happy too, but—Tia worries whether being this happy is allowed."
Tia mumbled when I asked.
Seeing the slight anxiety on her face, I instantly knew what she was thinking about.
"Don't tell me you're worried about the ninth calamity? Vritra said there was no urgency yet, you know?"
"Yes—She said the same to Tia, so Tia did not think about scary possibilities at all. But... is that really okay?"
Seeing the unease surface in Tia's eyes, I nodded firmly.
"Yes, at least for today, you won't need to be punished for enjoying yourself."
I asserted strongly and reached out to pat Tia's head.
Naively pushing things on the back burner would definitely be bad, but there should not be any problem with waiting until the festival ended.
"...Thank goodness. Tia thinks so too."
Tia smiled with relief.
It was probably due to her extreme joy at the moment that made her so concerned about summoning the seeds of calamity.
Even if told there was no urgency, it was true that a crisis was approaching. Perhaps there would be no choice but to confront it soon.
At Vritra's request, I had not spoken to the others about this... However, I decided that the minimum necessary information should be shared with them, after all.
While deciding in my thoughts to have a good discussion with Vritra about this after the festival, I continued to visit the stalls along the road with Tia.
The red sun was gradually sinking into the horizon afar—The first star of the evening was appearing in the eastern sky.
However, the most striking celestial object in the night sky was not a star of Class I luminosity. Instead, it was a celestial body only visible from the ground, the Earth's satellite, no smaller than the sun in appearance—the Moon.
It seemed to be a full moon tonight. The white sphere had become the ruler of the vast night sky, taking over the sun's presence.
Most likely, under the illumination of tonight's moonlight, faint stars would not be visible from the ground.
—A bright well-lit night was coming.
I sat down on the breakwater in front of the dorm, picturing the approaching night.
This was towards edge of the vendor area and there were fewer people walking around.
I heard a voice calling to me from behind.
I looked back to see Mitsuki looking up at me solemnly, dressed in a yukata with her hair done up.
"—Oh, you're late."
I got off the breakwater and checked the time on my portable terminal. It was ten-odd minutes later than our appointed time. This was quite rare for the meticulous Mitsuki.
"My apologies, some of the student council girls visited the stall near the end of the shift... I was unable to leave immediately..."
"Don't worry about it. I've always been the one who's late when meeting up with you in the past, Mitsuki."
Mitsuki smiled wryly at me when I brought up the past.
"Yes—One time in elementary school, I stood at the school gates waiting for you, Nii-san, because I wanted to walk home with you. However, you failed to show up... When I went into school to look for you, to my surprise, you were playing soccer with classmates or some such."
I looked away from Mitsuki who was speaking with slight resentment.
"Well... Refusing an invitation so that I could go home with my little sister... That'd be a bit embarrassing."
"Ah—Indeed there definitely something like that. Do you remember, Nii-san, when you scolded me 'shut up, idiot' and we had a great fight. It clearly would have been fine had you explained the reason properly."
With Mitsuki staring at me in a slightly appalled gaze, I defended my past self's behavior.
"But if I said that, wouldn't it sound like I disliked walking home with you, Mitsuki? Also, the matter itself felt embarrassing to me... I had no choice."
"...Thank you for being considerate for me at the time, Nii-san, but I seriously felt really hurt when you called me an idiot."
Mitsuki looked at me with a sulking expression.
"Well, what can I say... I'm sorry. I was just a stupid kid back then."
When I scratched my head and apologized, Mitsuki smiled mischievously at me.
"Then you are very mature now, Nii-san?"
"...Not at all. I know I was wrong, no need to be mean."
Although I had grown since then, I was still a stupid kid and had no idea how to make myself more mature.
"Fufu—I indulged in a little payback because I was reminded of my days waiting for you. After all, Nii-san, I waited for you at Midgard for three long years."
Mitsuki shrugged lightly then naturally held my hand.
Like holding my hand on the road home from elementary school while I felt embarrassed the whole way, Mitsuki smiled happily at me and said, "Let us get going."
I could not help but feel my chest tighten at the discovery that simply having memories changed my perception of the world.
I realized that during the time when my memories had been sealed by Yggdrasil, all I had seen was Mitsuki's surface.
But now, I was able to discern Mitsuki's thoughts and feelings from subtle changes in expression.
"Do you want to have a chocolate banana?"
Noticing Mitsuki's eyes of anticipation looking at a chocolate banana stall, I asked her.
"—Yes. Actually, I saw this vendor on my way here and have been curious the whole time."
Nodding honestly, Mitsuki pulled my hand and walked towards the stall.
"We ate eat these at a festival in the neighboring town before."
Mitsuki nodded nostalgically when I reminisced.
"Yes... This would be my first time eating one again after that."
"Me too. Which flavor do you want?"
Looking up at the menu, I asked Mitsuki.
"Then like last time, I shall have the strawberry chocolate."
"As for me—I'll take the original."
We handed coupons to the female staff at the stall and took a chocolate banana each.
Mitsuki's was the pink strawberry-flavored one while mine was coated with ordinary brown chocolate.
"Nii-san, shall we head to the seaside? I would like to talk about certain things in a quieter environment."
I nodded with some nervousness. I did not need to be told what she wanted to talk about.
I was to give a reply to the question that Mitsuki had asked previously.
But after walking up the breakwater stairs, we noticed there were many girls on the beach.
"Let us take a stroll for a bit."
We started walking away from the crowds. Illuminated by the setting sun's rays, our shadows were stretch out long.
"...Although a bit different from that time's, it is still delicious."
Chewing small mouthfuls of her chocolate banana, Mitsuki quietly commented.
Due to trying to organize in my mind what I was going to say later, I responded quite sluggishly. However, Mitsuki did not mind and continued.
"We went out many times in the past, Nii-san... But that day of the festival was special to me. Nii-san, I invited you out while thinking of it a date, you know?"
"Yes, although it was life as usual for you, Nii-san, I thought of it as my first date. As a result, I still remember many details from it."
Saying that, Mitsuki halted.
There were no signs of other people around us. Most of the sun had dipped below the horizon. The sound of waves could be heard clearly in the background.
"Like in the past, may I... try a bite of yours, Nii-san?"
Mitsuki motioned towards my chocolate banana, looking up as she spoke.
Flustered by Mitsuki's seemingly flirtatious expression, I presented my chocolate banana to her. However, I noticed that my teeth marks had been left behind on the top end of the chocolate banana I was eating.
"Oh—I bit it just now..."
"I do not mind."
Before I could withdraw the chocolate banana, Mitsuki sank her teeth into one end of the banana.
"Mm... Gulp...... Thank you. Then please have some of mine too, Nii-san."
Swallowing her mouthful of banana in one go, Mitsuki presented her chocolate banana to me.
When I took a bite from the chocolate banana where Mitsuki's teeth marks were imprinted, a strawberry flavor and the sweetness of chocolate expanded in my mouth.
However, a sweet atmosphere surpassing this in sweetness was spreading between me and Mitsuki while we silently continued to eat our respective chocolate bananas, marked by each other's teeth.
"An indirect kiss. Back then—My heart was pounding too, just like now."
After finishing her chocolate banana, Mitsuki admitted shyly.
"...D-Didn't we do this all the time?"
Feeling blood rise to my face, I asked. Eating each other's food was very commonplace for the two of us. That was why I was not conscious of indirect kissing at all back then.
"A kiss during a date is special even if it was an indirect one. Well... That being said, my heart was pounding every single time. That is because I love you, Nii-san, I love you too much—I am hopelessly in love with you, Nii-san."
Never expecting a direct confession before I got to speak my part, my mind went blank, unable to say anything.
Seeing my reaction, Mitsuki smiled and quietly continued.
"What am I to you? Before you answer this question, Nii-san, I hope to convey to you... What kind of person you are to me, Nii-san."
After this opening statement, Mitsuki started speaking with watery eyes.
"Ever since I could remember, Nii-san—No, Y-Yuu-kun... You have been the one dearest to me. Back then, I already considered you my most beloved Yuu-kun. I had decided I would never concede you to anyone, Yuu-kun. I had already taken for granted that we would be together. There was nothing that would make me happier than this, which is why a life without you by my side, Yuu-kun... a future without you by my side, was something I never imagined."
Calling me "Yuu-kun," Mitsuki smiled wryly at me.
"Perhaps in the beginning it was purely possessiveness. However, as I grew up, these feelings turned into true love. Futhermore... This remains true even after my childhood friend Yuu-kun turned into my brother—even now, these feelings continue to swell in my heart the whole time."
Voicing her feelings as though wringing out her words, Mitsuki placed her hand on my chest.
"I love you, Nii-san. To me, you are more important than anyone and anything. Then what about you... Nii-san?"
Expressing her feelings of deepest love, Mitsuki asked me.
"I—My feelings... are probably different from yours, Mitsuki."
Gazing into Mitsuki's eyes, I organized what I was going to say.
"Back then, I really was just a stupid kid. Romance, love... I did not understand these things back then. When we made that promise to marry, I had not thought deeply about my own feelings either."
Listening to me, Mitsuki smiled.
"Yes... I understand. I obtained that promise from you, Nii-san, with full knowledge of that. Although I was still young at the time... I am a girl, after all."
"—Girls are such amazing creatures."
"No, I simply did it unilaterally."
Mitsuki answered my emphatic comment in a tone of self-deprecation.
"Sure enough, Nii-san, what you feel for Iris-san is..."
"Yes, I love Iris. It was that time with her that I understood for the first time what romance was."
"Is that so..."
Mitsuki lowered her face, but I was not finished.
"However, at the time, I didn't know Iris' feelings—And before I figured out my own feelings, Tia came to the school. I jumped in surprise when she suddenly wanted to marry me... But Tia's feelings of admiration and devotion towards me did make me happy. I want to do a good job protecting her."
Mitsuki looked up in surprise.
"This wish to protect is also the same as when I fancied Firill after that. Always making bold moves, Firill frequently surprised me. After pretending to be a couple for the school festival, Lisa and I came to understand each other. I definitely find Ren, who calls me 'Onii-chan,' very cute and I find it impossible to leave Ariella alone when she has been trying so hard on her own all along."
"Excuse me... Nii-san?"
Mitsuki looked at me questioningly and I continued.
"I must bring happiness to Shion. I am very grateful to Jeanne for continuing to help me even after I left the team. As her former captain, I am responsible for looking after her. Although Kili has many issues—Ultimately, I still can't bring myself to hate her."
At that point, I paused and placed my hand on Mitsuki's shoulder.
"Although these feelings are different from what I feel towards Iris... I still love everyone. These feelings—They absolutely do not lose to romantic feelings."
"Ah yes... I fully comprehend your wish to cherish all of us, Nii-san. That is presumably why you selected us... But the answer I seek is—"
With an anxious expression, Mitsuki looked up at my face.
"Yes, I've no intention of changing the subject. Even without choosing, I will decide properly who is dearest to me."
To dispel Mitsuki's unease, I told her firmly.
"In that case—Nii-san, please hurry and tell me. Since Iris-san is the only one you towards whom you harbor romantic feelings, the answer is already evident..."
Mitsuki urged me with an expression of resolve.
However, I shook my head.
What flashed through my mind was my first kiss—My kiss of engagement with Mitsuki that we shared on that observation platform on the mountain.
"No, Iris is not the only one I love. It's just that I failed to realize during childhood—These feelings had already existed in my heart all the way back then."
I pressed my hand tightly against my left chest and declared.
"Now that I understand what love is, I know. You are my first love—Mitsuki."
Mitsuki gasped and widened her eyes.
"No matter how oblivious, I was going to realize it eventually as long as we lived together. However, I was taken away by NIFL... Without noticing my own feelings, I was separated from you for three years, Mitsuki."
It was originally a decision I had made, but three years were very long. This amount of time was enough to muddle my unknown and undefined feelings.
"Due to the deal I made to defeat Leviathan, gaps appeared in my memories with you, Mitsuki... I became unable to recall my feelings for you from the past. So, to be honest—I never noticed this until I thought carefully in order to answer your question."
Enduring the pain in my heart, I conveyed this to Mitsuki.
During my period of memory loss, I fell in love with Iris. At the same time, "my true self" was tormented by the matter of whether I loved Mitsuki. When Tia helped me restore my memories, it was fortunate that the continuity of the personality of Mononobe Yuu remained unbroken—However, due to losing memories, I had definitely lost sight of my own feelings as well.
"B-But Nii-san—Even if that were the case, your love for me was only during childhood, was it not? Currently, the one you love is Iris-san... Hence, the person dearest to you is—"
"Feelings can't possibly vanish so simply."
I converted the pain in my heart to words and interrupted Mitsuki.
"I treasure you very much, Mitsuki. Because you are my childhood friend... Not because you are my little sister. I treasure you because I love you. I will never think of you as unimportant, Mitsuki, and my feelings of love for you will never go away. I think this will never change from now on."
These feelings had taken root in my childhood and were cultivated over a very long period of time. The entirety of my feelings for Mitsuki had turned into a foundation for unconditional "love." Hence, the fact that Mitsuki was dearest to me, as well as the fact that I harbored feelings of love for her—These two were infinitely interchangeable.
"In other words, Nii-san... You still love me, even now? So your first love has not ended—"
"...Th-This—makes me overjoyed. However... Nii-san, you are not planning to say that Iris-san and I are the ones you hold dearest, by any chance?"
Mitsuki showed disbelief and she asked me in a trembling voice.
Feeling the pain carve deeper and deeper in my heart, I smiled gravely at her.
My love for Iris and Mitsuki was all real. I did not want to choose one and abandon the other. My inability to relinquish my love for either of them made it impossible to answer. It was also very difficult for me to rank my love for Iris and Mitsuki against my feelings to cherish Tia and the other girls.
"If you ask me who I love the most... I might tell you that I don't want to compare. However, I will give you a proper answer as to who is dearest to me. I believe that this should be decided by the size of feelings rather than their strength."
My words, carefully chosen, made Mitsuki frown.
The sun had set completely. Clear moonlight was illuminating the surroundings in the place of the rays from sunset.
"For any person, the most important is surely themselves. Even so, we are still able to cherish others, probably because we see them as a part of ourselves. So, the person that occupies the most within oneself—the one who occupies the largest part of me—would be the one I hold dearest."
I explained my definition of "dearest person."
During my time in the special forces team of Sleipnir, I had personally witnessed the atrocities of human nature. Everyone was fighting for themselves. No one would fight for a complete stranger who had no relation to them.
However, for the sake of shared nationality, shared religion, clan members, family, friends—For the sake of people with ties to themselves, many people were willing to fight with their lives on the line.
Still, this should not be called altruism. Because what they were protecting were not others but something akin to part of their own being.
"The one who occupies the largest part of you, Nii-san..."
As Mitsuki repeated my words, her eyes wavered.
"That's right. If you look at it that way—Then only one answer is left."
I nodded at Mitsuki and gazed directly into her eyes.
The human known as Mononobe Yuu was constituted by Mononobe Mitsuki.
Ever since my earliest memories, she had been by my side. We had always played together. At night, I frequently played the word game shiritori with Mitsuki until late at night across our bedroom windows that faced each other.
At the moment of the engagement kiss, I had believed that Mitsuki and I would marry in the future without questioning it. Even without understanding love, from that point onwards, I already treated Mitsuki as someone who would stay by my side for a lifetime—I treated her as a part of myself.
And when Mitsuki became my sister, my undefined vision of the future turned into palpable determination.
Even at the cost of death, I wanted to protect Mitsuki and support her.
Due to this immature resolve, I stepped forward when my hometown was ravaged by Hekatonkheir and made the promise that I would protect the place Mitsuki cherished most, no matter the cost.
As a result, the two of us were separated. Although many things happened over three years, the fact of how I came to be remained unchanged.
I existed for the sake of Mitsuki.
Even after falling in love with another person, even with additional responsibilities to shoulder, this fundamental fact remained unmovable.
"You are the one dearest to me, Mitsuki."
Tears slowly seeped out from Mitsuki's eyes.
During our conversation, the time for the fireworks show had arrived without us noticing. With a thunderous boom, flowers of fire bloomed in the dark sky.
Although I had promised to watch the fireworks with everyone together, it looked like we were going to be a bit late.
"I am ranked first... Is that really alright?"
"Yes, it's been the case from the very beginning. Henceforth—probably until death—This will never change."
Although I could not explain the reason properly, I still asserted with confidence.
"In your heart, Nii-san, I am the one you hold dearest..."
Astounded, Mitsuki whispered. The flames erupting in the sky added all shades of color to the side of Mitsuki's face.
"Dearest... Dearest... Really? ...Why......? ...Eh, I... know the reason..."
I waited for Mitsuki to calm down, but she began to behave strangely.
"...Reason... Reason... Is there, a reason...?"
Next, Mitsuki's eyes lost focus. Her face blank, she began to murmur intermittently.
Although I questioned, Mitsuki continued to speak as though in a dream.
"I know... definitely now—but where... what was it..."
I grabbed her shoulders and called her name loudly. Startled, Mitsuki looked up at me, her whole body trembling.
A tear streamed down from Mitsuki's eye while her body froze.
"Yes—I see now. That day, Vritra... Why would I forget...? —!"
Her expression gone tense, Mitsuki shook off my hands forcefully.
She took a few steps back as though escaping then placed her hand on the back of neck, the location of her dragon mark.
"Mitsuki...? Are you having a fever again?"
Unable to understand the situation, I leaned towards Mitsuki who seemed to be in great pain. However, Mitsuki called out harshly to stop me.
"Please stay back!"
Stopped by Mitsuki's fierce vigor, I asked in my confusion.
"I... To Nii-san, I am actually just someone completely worthless."
With abject despair surfacing on her face, Mitsuki answered me in a whisper.
"What are you talking about? Didn't I tell you? You are the one dearest to me, Mitsuki!"
"These feelings—are false. Because...!?"
Mitsuki asserted firmly then suddenly moaned in pain and collapsed on the beach.
Seeing that her right hand, which had left her neck in order to support herself, turning black in color, I took a deep breath.
About to rush to Mitsuki straight away, I was stopped again.
"Do not touch that girl!"
Standing on the breakwater, Vritra appeared in my view as I looked back in surprise.
Vritra jumped down to the beach from the breakwater directly and approached me with a solemn expression.
"Although Neun's authority remains hitherto unclear, 'tis evident it is insufficient to suppress the ninth dragon completely."
"Vritra? What are you talking about—"
"...Dost thou not know? Nay, it should not be so. Thou art the one who had sealed the ninth calamity into this girl's body—Thou must have encountered this 'darkness' before."
Pointing at the dark substance taking over Mitsuki's right hand, Vritra pointed out sharply.
Darkness... The deep darkness devouring Mitsuki—
A chill ran along my spine.
This was my most painful memory.
Along the way to a camping trip with Mitsuki's family, we were caught in a traffic accident.
I suddenly could not see anything. Neither did I know where I was. Inside darkness, I desperately searched for Mitsuki's whereabouts.
"See—This darkness will devour everything, spreading and expanding. Thou shalt encounter danger if thou wert to touch it recklessly. After all, that girl is probably Neun like thee now."
Just as Vritra pointed out, the darkness spilling out from Mitsuki's right hand was starting to spread to the beach.
Invaded by the darkness, the sand lost its texture, producing an illusion that it had become a bottomless pit.
"I have seen this darkness previously. 'Tis likely shareth the same nature as the seventh calamity that had destroyed the world in the past. Kiskanu called these fragments of Hell—'end matter.'"
I repeated those words hoarsely and Vritra took a deep nod.
"'Tis something diametrically opposed to dark matter which embodies all possibility. That was what Kiskanu said."
"What will happen to Mitsuki at this rate?"
Still unable to fully understand Vritra, I asked the question that concerned me most.
"She will be devoured by the spreading darkness, rendered unrecognizable. In other words, she will disappear."
The instant I heard that, I sprang into action without hesitation.
I ran towards Mitsuki, who had collapsed in pain, and held her in my arms.
Mitsuki's body was giving off heat. The dragon mark on her neck was glowing blue.
With a feeble expression, Mitsuki looked at me.
"Don't worry, I'm here."
I firmly held Mitsuki's hand that had turned back. Although Vritra frantically called me to stop from behind, I absolutely refused to let go.
The darkness began spreading to my hand. However, I continued to hold Mitsuki's hand tightly with reckless abandon.
I did not care even if this darkness would devour me.
After the traffic accident, I had woken up in darkness. I could see neither myself nor Mitsuki. Although I reached out and touched Mitsuki's hand, in my state of extreme exhaustion, I did not know if she was still alive.
As a result, I started to imagine—I imagined Mitsuki as she was normally. Inside the darkness, I recalled my memories as hard as I could, doing all I could to trace out that unforgettable image of Mitsuki with a lively smile.
Then after I did that, a beam of light streamed in and I—
The dragon mark on my left hand suddenly heated up.
As though responding to Mitsuki's dragon mark, blue-white light flooded out from within. This excessively blinding light forced me to close my eyes.
At the same time, I heard Vritra's surprised voice.
Opening my eyes slightly to check the situation, I discovered that the darkness invading my body was starting to be erased by the light.
Mitsuki's face, distorted by pain, was gradually relaxing. As the darkness disappeared, the light from the dragon mark also subsided.
Having lost consciousness, Mitsuki rested against me limply.
Although I did not understand what had happened, I was relieved that a crisis had been averted. However, Vritra called out to me sharply.
"'Tis not over yet! Beware of the sand!"
I instantly looked down. The darkness that had spread to the beach was shrinking into something like a pond.
Seeing bubbles appear on its surface, I held Mitsuki in my arms and hastily jumped back.
The darkness on the beach turned intensely turbulent. It looked like something was crawling out of the pit of darkness—This pure blackness, even darker than the night sky after the sun had set, extended towards the sky where even the fireworks could not illuminate. It split into two and coalesced into humanoid forms.
Standing before me were two shadows with exceedingly clear outlines.
Hence, I was able to see. Despite the black color painted all over, I could still make out hairstyles and clothing.
One of them was a well-built man. The other was a slender woman with very long hair.
Tied with a big ribbon, the woman's long hair draped down to her waist.
The shadow displaying these traits stimulated my memories.
Right... I know. I began to remember.
Adults normally did not dress up this way, but it looked great on that person. Mitsuki used to tie her hair using a small ribbon of the same style—
Then those shadows over there were the two people I knew very well, who used to play with me all the time—
"Auntie Misaki... and Uncle Kazuki... Is it you?"
Those were the names of Mitsuki's parents.
The two I loved, who had lost their lives in that traffic accident—
However, the two shadows did not speak and slowly approached us.
I backed away and lowered Mitsuki to the beach. Then standing in front of Mitsuki, I stared intently at the shadows.
The shadows reached out to Mitsuki, shuffling slowly towards us. Seeing this situation, I realized Mitsuki was their target.
Were the two deceased seeking Mitsuki?
"No... They wouldn't do that."
While shifting my body and mind into a combat state, I corrected my thinking.
I—Mitsuki and I had personally witnessed their bodies. Crying at the funeral, we had bid them farewell.
Hence—This was not them.
Since it was not them, I must not allow Mitsuki to see these fakes.
I held my breath and ran.
At the same time, I generated dark matter, turning it into a weapon for destroying enemies.
Anti-army armament—AT Baal.
What I materialized was a gunblade for close and mid range combat, whose cutting edge was one with the barrel.
Despite being one of the pre-civilization weapons recreated using Yggdrasil's data, its true nature was designed for anti-personnel combat.
Normally, I would not be certain whether it was effective against this unidentified "darkness."
However... Now that the enemy had taken human form, the outcome would be the same regardless of weapon.
I summoned the evil dragon, "Fafnir," that had become a part of me.
By this point, I fully understood the scrapped authority of Code Lost.
It was a power to twist human destiny and guarantee death.
Although I had shared the portion beyond my control with Ariella and the other girls, this power was still greater than what I had before. So long as the opponent had human elements, it did not matter even if their true nature was a monster's.
What I interfered with was causality itself.
Hence, starting from the moment I decided to kill them, the destruction of the shadows was already ascertained.
A silver flash ripped through the darkness.
As I stepped into the darkness and swung down the gunblade, I decapitated one of the shadows.
Next, I turned, aimed the muzzle at the other shadow and pulled the trigger.
Accompanied by the roar of gunfire, the large-caliber bullet punctured a hole in the shadow's head.
Feeling the vibration in the air, I slowly lowered the gunblade.
Next, suffering what would have been fatal wounds for humans, the two shadows collapsed on the beach—turning into dust, they vanished.
I was attacked by the pain of killing the shadows of two people whom I revered as family... But I forcibly suppressed these feelings in my heart.
I exhaled the breath I had been holding and observed my surroundings.
No new shadows appeared. Lying on the beach, Mitsuki was also at peace.
Vritra walked towards me.
Why had she shown up with such timing—Had she noticed something off with Mitsuki earlier? There were a mountain of things I wanted to find out.
However, I asked the most important question first.
"Nay, 'tis the beginning of everything."
I asked, slightly hopefully, but Vritra refuted me assertively.
"According to the late Kiskanu's prophesy—nay, his prediction... There is still time prior to the advent of the ninth dragon. 'Tis why my previously stated lack of urgency was no lie. Nevertheless... Thy transforming this girl into Neun hath accelerated the timer leading to the end times."
Vritra spoke calmly then stared intently at Mitsuki who was lying on the beach.
"It's my fault...?"
"Do not show that countenance. 'Tis too early to assert that thou wert wrong. Rather, this could be a good thing. After all, thou hast proved that Neun's authority is effective against end matter."
Saying that, Vritra turned her gaze back to me before continuing.
"Thou must have encountered early signs of the ninth calamity or a portion of it—Thereafter, thou obtained the authority of Neun. Then thou must have rescued that girl as thou didst just now. However, according to what we have seen, Code Neun is unable to erase the darkness completely—'Tis more akin to sealing or suppressing. Hence, end matter might still remain inside that girl... Or perhaps, it lurketh there intentionally."
Vritra provided her viewpoint seriously then pointed to Mitsuki.
"Be that as it may... This girl's transformation into Neun hath made it difficult to continue this lurking —It hath started to break out of its shell. This is likely the reason for the unusual changes occurring to this girl."
"Break out of its shell... Well, as long as I stay by her side, I can repeat what I just did—"
I instantly thought back to earlier.
"Verily. Thou wouldst do well to accompany the girl—Continue to watch over her. That is thy duty and probably Neun's instinct."
Noticing a word that could not be ignored, I looked up.
"Indeed, thy obsession with that girl standeth as evidence thou knowest Neun's duty. Consequently, thy actions henceforth need only follow thy heart. As an original counterdragon, thy instinct shall choose the right path for thee."
"W-Wait a sec... I am protecting Mitsuki out of instinct? No way—"
I was about to deny on reflex, but recalling how Mitsuki had acted earlier—
With despair on her face, yelling at me that my feeling for her were fake—
"Don't tell me that you said the same to Mitsuki...?"
When I asked in a trembling voice, Vritra avoided eye contact in embarrassment.
"—Apologies. 'Tis my fault. The authority apparently made her forget this memory for a while... However, she has evidently remembered. I am responsible for her mental breakdown on this occasion."
Her earnest apology dampened my fury.
I clenched my fist tightly, digging my nails into my palm, seething with rage that I could not vent anywhere.
'You are the one dearest to me, Mitsuki.'
The answer I had given, how exactly did Mitsuki interpret it... I could not imagine.
Even I was having trouble understanding how I felt inside.
A tiny voice reached my ear.
By the time I noticed, Mitsuki had regained consciousness. Sitting up, she gazed at me looking like she was about to cry.
"Sorry... Sorry, Nii-san—"
—Why was Mitsuki apologizing?
She probably thought that I had been hurt. She must have thought that she had hurt me.
However, the one who had been hurt the most was...
I gnashed my teeth and leaned towards Mitsuki without saying anything, embracing her tightly.
"Let me go... Nii-san. I-I—"
Mitsuki resisted but when I hugged even tighter, she finally began to cry.
She kept apologizing while she cried.
While I was embracing my sister's petite and delicate body, I also wondered whether I was doing this merely out of instinct—
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