Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 8 Chapter 1
Chapter 1 - Deep Forest Vacation
Breaths leaked out regularly from between the sleeper's soft, pink lips.
The small but beautifully shaped bosom heaved up and down in sync with her breathing.
Her pale skin felt a little cold to the touch of one's fingertip.
However—Pulsation of the heart and warmth definitely resided in the depths of her body.
Staring at my adopted sister—Mononobe Mitsuki—who continued to remain unconscious, I called her name softly.
Nevertheless, there was no answer.
According to Vritra, whose poison had rendered her unconscious, she would not wake until several days later.
Although reassured that her life was not in danger, I could not help but have lingering worries.
"Are you okay, Mononobe? I'll watch over Mitsuki-chan, so why don't you rest for a bit?"
Just then, the silver-haired girl—Iris Freyja—asked worriedly.
I looked around to see my other classmates staring at me.
The current location was an infirmary inside a NIFL base. After the battle against Vritra ended, we were taking a break inside this spacious room where many beds were lined up.
The doctors and nurses meant to be stationed here were absent, thus forcing us to tend to our own wounds.
Fortunately, with no major injuries, nothing more than scratches, there was no problem at all, but somehow, the atmosphere was rather unsettling.
The lack of visible people was not evidence of absence. I could sense their presence outside the door.
From the first moment when we arrived at this base, we could already sense that NIFL soldiers were not very friendly towards Ds.
Despite providing a place for us to rest, it felt more like quarantine or house arrest.
"I'm fine. On the other hand, Iris, don't you look sleepy?"
I felt concerned about Iris' heavy eyelids.
It was presently midnight, time for fatigue and drowsiness to attack in unison.
"Ahaha, I'm definitely sleepy. But somehow, this isn't the right mood for sleeping..."
Smiling wryly, Iris looked around the room.
In the form of a young girl, Vritra was smiling confidently despite being bound by wooden vines. Everyone else was bearing a grim expression.
This was only natural. After Kili, the dragon marks of Iris, Ariella, Ren and Mitsuki had started to change color too.
'A second-generation hybrid dragon is capable of mating with all Ds, causing all their dragon marks to change in color. No exceptions—every last one of them.'
After the battle, this was what Vritra had told us.
If what she said was true, both Tia and Firill, who had not faced Kraken Zwei in battle, and even Lisa, who was not currently present, would all eventually become marked as mates.
Everyone as long as they were categorized as Ds, and possibly myself included even as a man—
Moreover, Vritra had proceeded to deliver even more shocking words.
'The third generation, born from a second-generation hybrid dragon and a D who has become its mate, will be even closer to humans. The third generation thus engendered will even be able to mate with ordinary humans who do not possess the ability to generate dark matter.'
'In this manner, the human species shall evolve, evolving into the resilient lifeforms known as dragons—'
Her story was difficult to swallow, but impossible to refute seeing as it was true that multiple Ds had been marked as mates.
Why did Vritra want to turn humans into dragons?
Vritra had refused to answer the question, remaining silent ever since.
"Hmm.... It feels itchy somehow."
Bothered by her dragon mark that was changing in color, Ariella tried to roll up her uniform from the back.
This was to check her dragon mark that seemed to be located on her abdomen.
"─Wait, Ariella Lu. Do not expose your skin carelessly."
Shinomiya-sensei, who was operating a small terminal at the wall, called out sharply to stop her.
"There are eyes and ears all around. Do not forget that we are currently in a very precarious position."
Shinomiya-sensei was hinting for us avoid incurring NIFL's suspicions regarding the color change of dragon marks.
Among NIFL's courses of action regarding Ds with dragon marks that had changed color was the option of elimination. I was reminded of what had happened with Iris last time.
Therefore, the fact that all Ds could potentially become marked must not fall into NIFL's knowledge so easily.
"But... Since we were outside when we checked earlier, it might've become an open secret already."
Firill turned her gaze to the door and murmured worriedly.
"Even if that were true, there is no need to provide them with additional information. So long as we deny the fact, NIFL cannot take a forceful position. Midgard's top priority is securing the lives and human rights of Ds. Even if information has to be shared, it must take place after your safety is ensured."
Shinomiya-sensei announced with a resolute attitude.
Gaining awareness that they were backed by Midgard, the girls showed relieved expressions surfacing on their faces.
"But how much longer are we staying here? Tia wants to see Lisa sooner. Tia wants to go back to Yuu's house!"
Sitting on the edge of a bed, Tia complained in boredom.
"Mm... I don't like it here either."
Ren agreed idly with Tia.
"No matter what you say, this is a NIFL base and leaving requires their permission. If we leave on our own, that will give them a pretext to take action and who knows what they will do."
"They refuse to grant us permission to leave?"
I asked with a frown.
"Yes, all they've done is insist that we wait patiently. By this point─"
While Shinomiya-sensei was talking, my portable terminal's ringtone sounded.
An unknown caller.
After getting Shinomiya-sensei's permission, I took the call, only to hear a familiar voice vibrating against my eardrum.
I answered in surprise.
Finding out that her father was on the phone, Ren turned her gaze towards me.
'Yes, is it okay to speak right now? There are things I wish to convey to you as soon as possible.'
Miyazawa Kenya's voice did not show his usual confidence.
For some reason, I gathered an impression of anxiety.
"I suppose it's okay but... What on earth─"
'You know a Major Loki Jotunheim, yes? Namely, your former superior officer.'
Hearing that unexpected name, I gasped.
Somehow, Miyazawa Kenya and him...
'I encountered him and we exchanged a few words. Mononobe-kun─He knows everything.'
An intense chill ran down my spine.
Everything─Although Miyazawa Kenya did not state outright, he likely meant the matter of dragon marks changing color.
'Major Loki is apparently preparing to take forceful measures. You would be advised to be careful. Also, he had a message for you.'
In response to my question, he inhaled and said:
'You are the one making the choice.'
His voice felt so cold that I felt as though Major Loki was whispering in my ear.
Rather than the content, it was the voice that made my body stiffen more.
"And what are... the choices?"
'I'm totally at a loss even if you ask me that question. In any case, I have passed the message along. Oh, although I am in no position to say this... I entrust Ren in your hands.'
Without waiting for my response, he hung up on his own.
As I took the portable terminal from my ear, I was greeted with questioning gazes from everyone.
"A call from Director Miyazawa... NIFL─Major Loki is making a move."
After I summarized the call concisely, Shinomiya-sensei sighed heavily.
"Time does not afford us the luxury of taking things slowly. No other way─there may be future repercussions but I will ask her to invoke her power."
Saying that, Shinomiya-sensei took out her portable terminal.
Something akin to fear could be glimpsed momentarily from her expression─
"—Hmm, I see. Got it."
This was the fortified island of Midgard in the sea far south of Japan.
Located at the top floor of the academy's clock tower in the center of the island was her—Charlotte B. Lord's—office.
A petite figure not too different from a teenager's, a young face, matched with long blonde hair and blue eyes, she looked like a fairy living in the clock tower.
However, she was Midgard's chief administrator as well as the academy's principal.
Reclining securely against the large executive chair, she exuded solemnity as befitted a leader.
"Leave it to me, Haruka. I am humanity's sovereign crowned with the name of 'Gray.' Let me rescue you and the students from your predicament by invoking the authority I inherited from my father."
Ending her call with Shinomiya Haruka, the girl put down the receiver and turned her gaze to the woman standing by on the side.
The tall woman, dressed in a maid uniform, was showing a somewhat grave expression.
"Mica—I know what you wish to say but this is an emergency. My lovely maidens are facing a crisis. If I don't use my power now, when else!?"
Seeing Charlotte insiste fervently, the secretary—Mica Stuart—emitted a deep sigh.
"Charlotte-sama, regardless, I must correct you first. They are not yours. Moreover, I believe there is a huge problem regarding the use of authority."
"Charlotte-sama, NIFL is in the process of eliminating your influence completely. There are no 'contractors' within the organization who can be controlled using your authority. During the Leviathan battle, we were unable to stop the invasion mounted by NIFL's forces."
Mica explained in a calm tone of voice, but Charlotte grinned fearlessly.
"I know that, but think carefully about it. That situation was different from now. If direct interference is out of the question, we'll just have to mount an offense from the top and the surroundings."
"The top and the surroundings—namely, Asgard and influential figures in Japan?"
Mica asked after thinking briefly.
"Indeed, list out the people who have made deals with us."
"As you wish."
Glancing at MIca as she took out a portable terminal and started operating it, Charlotte then looked up at the ceiling.
"—That being said, indirect methods have their limits. Things would be fine if Kraken Zwei kept still and stayed sealed at the bottom of the hole... But we'll have to dispose of her if she starts to move. However, the marked Ds cannot be sent to the frontline under those circumstances..."
Although they had failed to defeat Kraken Zwei, at least they managed to dig out a giant hole using Catastrophe, then plug its opening using mithril, thereby sealing Kraken Zwei inside.
But in the event that Kraken Zwei broke out of the opening, all Ds would turn into uncertain factors that could become dragons.
"No... To assert that all Ds will end up this way would be jumping to conclusions. Perhaps my friend might be the exception—"
Recalling the image of the only young man she acknowledged as her friend, Charlotte murmured.
If the report were true, his dragon mark was supposed to change color sooner or later, but she was pondering the possibility he might be the sole exception.
Charlotte did not think this just because he was a man.
Due to Kraken Zwei appearing as a girl, one might reason that being male, he would be even more suitable as a mate instead.
But ever since she came to know of his existence... Charlotte had always harbored doubts.
Ds were beings supposed to be all females... Yet he was the sole man among them.
Was he truly a D?
A dragon's power—an ability that Charlotte's father had called an authority—was inheritable.
Just as Mitsuki had obtained the power to create the Kraken's antimatter and Charlotte had inherited her father's title and ability, so-called authorities were abilities that did not rely on congenital aptitude.
Then having acquired Leviathan and Hraesvelgr's powers, had Mononobe Yuu received the power to generate dark matter under certain serendipitous circumstances?
It was merely speculation.
However, the answer might be coming to light very soon.
If he did not end up marked by a dragon, it could prove that he was not a D by birth.
"But by this point, it doesn't really matter what he is."
Charlotte smiled wryly and reached for the chessboard on her office desk.
"From my standpoint, I'm happy enough as long as we can have fun together again. Hence—Don't you die on me."
Using her fingertip, Charlotte flicked a knight piece towards her faraway friend.
"—How unexpected. I can't believe they let us go so easily, even going as far as to provide a vehicle for transportation..."
On a bumpy ride in a military transport, I commented to Shinomiya-sensei.
Once the confinement order was lifted, we took the unconscious Mitsuki and left the NIFL base. Roughly half an hour had elapsed since. Driving along a mountain road that lacked street lighting, the vehicle was surrounded by darkness with only the headlights and the stars in the sky as light sources.
"Because the principal negotiated on our behalf, NIFL cannot overtly interfere with us for now."
Shinomiya-sensei answered while keeping her eyes on the road.
"Where are we going next? Back to Nanato City?"
I was sitting in the front passenger seat. To avoid waking up Iris and the others, who were sleeping in the back seats, I continued the conversation quietly. Right now, it was past 2am.
The poisoned Mitsuki was not the only person sleeping. Iris, Tia, Firill, Ariella and Ren, all five of them were currently fast asleep.
The only ones awake were myself and Shinomiya-sensei—as well as Vritra who was sitting on my lap.
"No, returning to that town would be very dangerous while it is uncertain how the situation will develop next. Your parents and innocent people might get caught up in danger."
"Don't worry. By pulling strings, the principal has secured a location that's suitable as a stronghold for us, which is where we're currently heading. Lisa Highwalker and the others are expected to meet us there."
Shinomiya-sensei controlled the steering wheel carefully, driving along the winding and treacherous mountain road while telling me about future plans.
Sitting on my lap, Vritra called out in displeasure.
"Do not give me 'what.' This treatment offendeth me greatly."
A vine was entangling her entire body to restrict her freedom. Vritra squirmed forcibly and glared at me. According to Tia, this vine was very similar to Yggdrasil's clone that had caused a huge commotion at Midgard's school festival.
Even if Vritra generated dark matter, the vine would automatically steal it, transmuting more vine to tie her up. Hence, Vritra was unable to perform transmutation even while Tia slept.
Tia's ability to control this kind of power was an indication that her synchronization with Yggdrasil was proceeding smoothly.
Tia needed Yggdrasil's knowledge in order to enter a discussion with Vritra. Although Vritra had given up on that discussion... For the sake of understanding Vritra's objective, Tia still spent time to synchronize cautiously.
Once Tia obtained Yggdrasil's knowledge, we should be able to understand many things.
After all, Vritra was keeping silent, refusing to reveal her true goal. I was just thinking that she finally opened her mouth again, but it ended up being irrelevant complaints.
"Thy lap is too hard and uncomfortable. There is still space in the back. Allow me to sit in the back."
Vritra pouted while demanding improved treatment. Since she had taken the form of a young girl, her facial expression looked quite cute—But I could not agree to her demand.
"No. Who knows what you'll do even if we've prevented you from performing transmutation. I can't put you together with everyone who's sleeping."
"...Art thou saying that one must maintain this posture the whole time?"
"Yes. In my case, I can detect killing intent even when I'm asleep. I'll know if you try anything, so don't get any funny ideas."
I yawned while I warned her. I had no intention of staying awake the whole time to monitor her.
"Hmm... Thou adamantly refusest to modify the arrangement at hand? Ah—Hath this body of mine incited lust in thee?"
"What!? C-Cough, c-cough, what nonsense are you suddenly spouting—"
Confronted with an unexpected accusation, I coughed and questioned.
"'Tis a law of nature for males to be aroused by females. Art thou intending to enjoy a female body whilst I am immobilized..."
Vritra looked up at me with an icy cold gaze.
"No way in hell I'd do that! I sat you on my lap because of spatial constraints—Wait, don't you start looking at me so coldly too, Shinomiya-sensei!"
Seeing slight revulsion in Shinomiya-sensei's expression, I protested.
"Oh no, my apologies. Although I do understand the situation... There is an air of criminality when you have a little girl tied up, sitting on your lap."
Precisely because of Shinomiya-sensei's calm attitude, her observation stabbed deeply into my heart.
"Hmph, do as thou please if molesting my body is thine intention. 'Tis a temporary body after all. Although 'twould be unpleasant... Having lost in battle, I must accept the way things are."
Looking like she had resigned herself, Vritra leaned her back against me. A whiff of fragrance from her black hair revived memories from my dance with Kili at the Principality of Erlia.
—This is the same scent.
"Hmm, this maketh for better seating. My posterior hurteth no longer."
Due to her moving around on top of me, I found it a little difficult to calm my thoughts, but I took care not to let it show on my face. At the same time, I said to her:
"...Just sit in relaxing posture. Don't worry, I won't lay my hands on you. After we meet up with Kili and the rest, I'll ask her to take over supervising you, so please bear with it for now."
If I had to keep watch over Vritra twenty-four hours a day, not just Shinomiya-sensei but even Iris and the rest of the girls were probably going to start viewing me with strange gazes.
"Oh? In other words, thou art not so deprived of females that thou needst to make a move on me? Indeed, 'tis true. Thou art surrounded by so many females, 'tis only natural."
Vritra glanced at the back seats and shrugged.
"Mononobe Yuu... Is that true? What unmentionable things have you done to them—"
Immediately, Shinomiya-sensei questioned me in a low voice.
"I-I haven't done anything! Vritra, please stop talking."
"Hmm... From my standpoint, I have no wish to displease thee either. This human body also needeth rest, hence I shall heed thy counsel, to shut up and sleep."
Consequently, Vritra closed her eyes and entered a state of slumber.
Although she had already displeased me greatly, I did not have the energy to protest.
After I sighed in resignation, Shinomiya-sensei apologized to me.
"My apologies. As a former D, I am not too familiar with men, so I accidentally believed what Vritra said."
Shinomiya-sensei scratched her cheek in embarrassment.
"Oh no, don't worry about that—"
I frantically shook my head to tell her I did not mind.
Indeed, it was understandable that she would lack a lot of knowledge if she had been living in Midgard where there were no other men.
Although her dauntless attitude and rank as colonel contributed to her image as a mature woman... She was still quite young, most likely twenty or so.
When talking to her normally like this, the impression I got was that of an older sister with a narrow age gap.
Because not too long ago, she used to be a student at Midgard just like me.
"—Shinomiya-sensei, you used to be the Dragon Subjugation Squad's captain, right? I heard Mitsuki mention that everyone idolized you."
Shinomiya-sensei smiled wryly at my question.
"Praised as outstanding talent and getting carried away—I did go through such a phase indeed. However, my abilities were nothing special, because I couldn't even save a single person, my younger sister."
Shinomiya-sensei's words made me realize—
Like Mitsuki, she was shouldering a heavy cross due to Shinomiya Miyako's death.
During the Kraken battle two years ago, Shinomiya-sensei's younger sister, Miyako, had turned into a dragon and was killed by Mitsuki's own hand. And the one who had issued the order to attack was Shinomiya Haruka, the Dragon Subjugation Squad captain at the time.
"Regret over that incident was what made me stay in Midgard even after losing my powers. The principal offered me a chance for atonement. That being said, even to this day, I still haven't been able to save anyone by my own power."
Shinomiya-sensei spoke in a tone of self-deprecation but I disagreed with her.
"No way, I'm sure there are people whose lives were saved thanks to your unerring judgment."
"I'm very happy that you can say that, but the one who has been turning every crisis around is you. I am sincerely grateful to you that there has been no more victims like Miyako."
Shinomiya-sensei took one hand off the steering wheel and patted me lightly on the head. Smaller than imagined, it was a woman's hand, soft and warm.
Regarding the arrival of Kraken Zwei—what could be considered her sister's daughter—She must feel equally shocked as Mitsuki. But even so, she did not forget her position as the commander.
Just like two years ago, she did not forsake her duties as captain of the Dragon Subjugation Squad—
"...Thank you very much."
Rewarded by a woman like her, that was all I could say in response.
"You should rest too. Vritra has long fallen asleep."
I took a closer look to see Vritra sleeping soundly against me. Her sleeping face was so innocent that it made me feel like a fool for being so wary of her.
However, I still could not free myself of nervous feelings even after closing my eyes.
The sense of despair when I saw Mitsuki collapse to the ground—
That was something I did not want to experience ever again.
"Hmm... That was a good sleep. The air is so fresh."
Iris got off the car, stretched and breathed in the morning air comfortably.
"—Is this the stronghold?"
I looked up at the two-story residence that looked white and hazy in the morning mist and asked Shinomiya-sensei.
After traveling several hours by car, we had arrived at a villa deep in the mountains.
"...Looks like a rich person's vacation home."
Ren rubbed her eyes and said.
The others were looking around with drowsiness still visible on their faces. Although this was clearly far out in the woods, the trees and garden were trimmed and very well kept.
I was carrying the unconscious Mitsuki on my back. As for Vritra, who was bound by a vine, she was showing an expression of displeasure because Tia was holding the other end of the vine.
"Indeed. This is a vacation home belonging to someone in a position of power. The entire mountain is part of the premises. Surveillance cameras and other security systems are very well-equipped. We will instantly know if anyone intrudes into the premises."
After listening to Shinomiya-sensei's explanation, Ariella commented in amazement.
"That's amazing. Rather than a vacation home, it feels more like a safehouse."
"Yes, this place is also designed for hiding important people. Since the communications equipment is top-notch, we won't be isolated on the intelligence front. Medical facilities are apparently available too."
Shinomiya-sensei spoke while advancing towards the villa and we followed.
"Look, Mononobe-kun, over there is a tennis court."
"Yuu, there's a pretty garden!"
Firill and Tia pulled my arms and pointed at what they had discovered.
"...What kind of bigshot does this vacation home actually belong to?"
This was not a place that could be managed by someone who just had a bit of money.
There was also the fact that NIFL had let us go so easily... The principal must have persuaded someone quite high up. That person's level was likely near the top of the country.
Charlotte calling herself humanity's sovereign might not be an exaggeration.
"I was told that a caretaker normally lives here, but to prevent him from getting roped into our problems, he was asked to evacuate. There is plenty of food here and the facilities can be used freely."
Shinomiya-sensei looked back over her shoulder and explained to us.
"Okay, Mononobe, play tennis with me."
"Sure, if I can get some rest first... Iris, you're so energetic."
Seeing that Iris was the only person in high spirits, I could not help but smile wryly.
"Yeah. Maybe it's because I had a good sleep, my body is in excellent condition. If it's now, I feel like I won't lose to anyone!"
Iris made a movement as though swinging a tennis racket.
"—Iris Freyja, please save the fun and games for after the strategy meeting. They should have arrived before us..."
Just as Shinomiya-sensei finished, the villa's door opened from within.
"You guys are so slow. We've had enough of waiting."
"We have waited a long time, everyone."
Kili Surtr Muspelheim and Lisa Highwalker appeared.
I had no idea where this villa was located but perhaps it was relatively close to Nanato City. That or Kili and Lisa might have flown over here.
Then someone else appeared behind them—A blond young man.
"John! You woke up!"
Seeing John Hortensia, who used to be in the same team as me in NIFL, safe and sound, I called to him loudly.
Kili had rescued him after he was captured by Kraken Zwei and brought him to us. I was very worried because he was originally in a coma, but he had evidently regained consciousness.
"Yes, sorry for worrying you. I'm glad you are safe and sound too, Captain."
John answered in relief but for some reason, his expression quickly became shrouded in gloom.
"Umm, Captain, about the Kraken's child, there's something I need to tell—"
John was just about to speak under a somber atmosphere when a cute sound was heard.
I looked around, only to see Tia holding her stomach, blushing.
"Tia is hungry..."
"—Let us share information over breakfast, shall we? I happen to be preparing breakfast, so it will be done soon."
Lisa smiled with an expression of "no helping it" and waved to everyone.
"I'll come help you after I move Mitsuki to her room."
I loaded the unconscious Mitsuki onto my back while I spoke. After staring worriedly at Mitsuki in her deep sleep, Lisa renewed her morale and smiled.
"Very well—I look forward to your help, fufu... Cooking together with you brings back memories of the school festival."
The mountain villa was designed with an open layout. The living room opened up to the second floor with the sun's rays streaming in from a skylight.
The kitchen was spacious with fresh ingredients in the fridge. Cooking here was not a problem at all.
"My apologies for leaving breakfast's preparation to you because cooking has never been my specialty..."
Shinomiya-sensei revealed her lack of culinary expertise and apologized to those of us who were preparing the meal.
"You've been driving for the whole journey here, Shinomiya-sensei, so leave the rest to us now. Please have a rest."
Tia chimed in energetically after my reply:
"We will make a yummy breakfast! Please wait and look forward to it!"
Due to practicing during the school festival, breakfast was quickly readied through our collective efforts.
Since cooking rice would take time, we prepared simple offerings such as salad, ham, eggs and toast.
"I never thought I'd get to eat the Captain's own cooking..."
John seemed inexplicably touched. Even his eyes were getting moist.
Everyone was at the dining table apart from Mitsuki.
"Then let us begin."
We started breakfast at Lisa's urging.
"...Great, this is pretty good."
Firill chewed her ham and eggs contentedly.
"Yes, it is very delicious. I didn't have the time to visit your Japanese teahouse during the festival despite being your teacher, so I'm glad to taste your cooking now."
Everyone looked at one another happily after hearing Shinomiya-sensei say that.
However, eating in harmony was not the only thing for us to do.
While having breakfast, we first told Lisa's group about what we had experienced and learned.
The battle at the NIFL base, Mitsuki neutralized, dragon marks changing in color—as well as what Vritra had revealed.
Kili smiled wryly after listening to these topics.
"A second-generation dragon will treat all Ds as potential partners. By the third generation, the entire human race will become targets... I never expected a scheme to such an extent, color me impressed, Mother, but—"
Kili praised Vritra while looking at the young girl sitting next to her, then laughed.
"—Bound by a vine right now, how unseemly you look."
"Hmph.. Mine objective is accomplished so long as the antimatter user sleepeth. I care not for the current circumstances."
Vritra made a displeased look and turned her face away. On the other hand, Kili happily brought a piece of jammed toast to Vritra's lips.
"But you can't eat in this state, can you? Just now, Yuu has passed me the job of monitoring you, Mother, so I shall look after you from now on."
"Unneeded, I shall not eat that—"
"Here you go, say ah—"
Ignoring Vritra's refusal, Kili brought the toast closer.
"S-Stop! Do not shove it over! Jam is getting on my face!"
—Kili clearly enjoyed the situation.
I smiled wryly, took my eyes off the squabbling mother and daughter then looked in John's direction.
"Okay, let's listen to John's intel next. You wanted to tell us something about Kraken Zwei, right?"
John was originally about to bring a piece of tomato to his mouth. He stopped and started to explain.
What he told us.. was truly shocking.
"—So this means that Kraken Zwei left the lab to chase after you, John?"
Unable to believe immediately, I asked John.
I could not reconcile the young girl who had attacked us with mithril hair and antimatter with the image of her hugging John while crying.
"Yes, no mistake about it. That child yearns for me, almost like... a child yearning for her parents."
However, John remained insistent. Immediately, Ariella crossed her arms before her chest and said:
"So this is probably what they call filial imprinting. Because you are the first person that Kraken Zwei saw after her birth, so it thinks you're its parent..."
"However... John was captured by Kraken Zwei, right? If she thinks you're her parent, why..."
Firill raised a question.
In the middle of playing around with Vritra, Kili sighed deeply at this point.
"That's another hidden story. Seriously... What I did was a complete waste of effort. Very well, hurry and tell them what happened next."
At Kili's urging, John continued:
"The Kraken's child was very obedient. Oh, even though we couldn't understand each other in the beginning, throughout the dialogue process, she gradually started to comprehend what I was saying... She's really smart!"
John looked especially happy while he spoke.
"Stop acting like an idiot parent showing off her child and get to the point."
However, Kili complained about John going on a tangent.
"I-I don't need you to tell me that. Anyway, the Kraken's child settled down after I told her not to cause a commotion. But because of that, Sleipnir found an opening..."
"Sleipnir, you say?"
I could not help but gasp to hear the name of the team that I used to belong to and had served as captain.
"Yes. Sleipnir launched a sudden attack while we were camping in the mountain. Reacting late because she was obeying me, the Kraken's child was open... I sacrificed myself to block the attack for her."
John touched his chest after saying that.
"I definitely suffered a mortal wound at the time. In my fading consciousness, I saw the child in anger—I was already on a bed when I woke up. Kili should know better what happened during that time."
With the subject passed to her, Kili shrugged.
"Let me be clear first, I am only speculating. I think the Kraken's child probably used dark matter to perform biogenic transmutation, thus healing John from the verge of death."
"What...? You're saying that Kraken Zwei can even use biogenic transmutation?"
I asked in surprise.
Since the transmutation of a living creature's physiological structure was too complicated, beyond the processing capacity of the human brain, it was not a realm that ordinary Ds could reach.
Kili and Tia were probably the only ones capable at the moment. Tia might have used Yggdrasil's power since the vine restraining Vritra was undoubtedly biological matter.
"Because I can't think of any other possibility. The Kraken's child must have been moving while protecting the unconscious John. But because I snatched him away by force, she chased desperately..."
Listening to this point, Shinomiya-sensei frowned.
"In other words... Kraken Zwei's objective was not you, who is now seen as a mate, but him, who she treats as a parent?"
"This I don't know. Since she marked me, that means she probably wants me too. Through the dragon mark, I can sense feelings of that type vaguely."
Kili answered while pressing down on her right hand's dragon mark that had turned purple.
"...Reproductive desire is a living creature's basic instinct. 'Tis highly probable that she hath forgotten the likes of familial affection long ago."
After chewing the toast that had been stuffed in her mouth and swallowing it, Vritra smiled smugly and spoke.
"Indeed, considering that our dragon marks are changing in color... She must be prioritizing mates."
Ariella pressed her hand on her abdomen and agreed with Vritra. Instantly, a heavy and silent atmosphere shrouded everyone.
"Wait! It's too early to decide that. Just let me meet that child and confirm with her. Before that, I hope you won't jump to conclusions first. That child is no dragon... She's human."
John stood up with a screech of his chair, insisting in a strong tone of voice.
"—Personally I feel the same. I hope that child... I hope Miyako's daughter is human. However, we cannot release her so simply given how difficult it was to imprison her. Let us add this proposal to one of our countermeasure options when we take action in the future."
Clenching both fists, Shinomiya-sensei announced this approach.
As Shinomiya Miyako's older sister, she wanted to agree with John, but as the commander, she could not act according to private emotions.
"...That is good enough for now, thank you."
Perhaps sensing Shinomiya-sensei's resolve, John lowered his head and bowed, taking his seat again.
"Then Shinomiya-sensei, we will be staying here for the time being while observing the situation, will we?"
Lisa asked a question as though summarizing the conclusion.
"Yes, we will observe for the next few days. If there are no changes, we should be able to return to Midgard. Suppose Kraken Zwei leaves the hole, we will have to find a way to resolve the situation. Otherwise, there will be no future for Ds."
After declaring that, Shinomiya-sensei turned her gaze to me.
"Mononobe Yuu, contact your family first. No matter how the situation unfolds, we probably won't have the luxury of going back. Although you cannot reveal the whole story, you still need to give them a proper explanation and don't let your family worry."
Seeing me nod, Shinomiya-sensei resumed her meal.
Showing consideration for other people's family, her face looked so gentle from the side.
'—Then pass this message to Mitsuki. Tell her to take care.'
"Yes, Mom, I got it."
Ending the call on my portable terminal, I leaned my back against the balcony railing.
From the room I was using on the second floor of the mountain villa, I could overlook the fenced tennis courts. I could also spot another building in the distance. Probably a guest house.
On the court, Iris and Lisa had changed into tennis uniforms available in the mountain villa and were playing tennis.
The others were still tired from the long drive and looked like they were going to rest until noon. Keeping the unusually energetic Iris company was Lisa, who had not taken part in the battle yesterday.
"Lisa-chan, here comes the ball!"
With a large stroke, Iris served a powerful fast ball.
"Not bad at all, Iris-san!"
However, when Iris struck the ball to the other side, Lisa caught up and returned it with splendid form.
—Iris really seemed to be in top shape.
Midgard's courses included ordinary PE class in addition to the training of practical skills. PE classes mostly involved sports in indoor facilities such as tennis, volleyball or basketball.
Not particularly athletic, Iris was always on the losing side, but today, she was playing a spectacular match.
However, after watching them rally for quite a while, I felt my gaze involuntarily drawn to the pale thighs exposed under the miniskirts rather than what was happening in the match. With every strenuous motion, it felt like their underwear could almost be seen.
—She can't have forgotten them today, right?
Since Iris had forgotten to wear underwear in the past, I could not tear my gaze from her despite the worries in my heart.
"Ah... What am I doing?"
I suddenly regained my senses and pressed my palm to my forehead. Now was not the time for such thoughts.
Although there was the Kraken Zwei and Vritra incidents on one hand, I had forgotten something important.
Who I loved the most—I still had not reached a conclusion.
I already thought that "my current self" would disappear once I recovered my memories and returned to "my past self," but reality was not that simple. With two types of memories mixed together, past and present, even I myself had trouble telling which ones were real.
What flashed through my mind was Mitsuki's face, stuck in deep slumber.
But just as I was getting ready for a change of pace, a gust of wind blew Lisa's skirt up. What entered my view was pure white fabric—
Lisa frantically pushed her skirt down and her gaze met mine. During this opening, Iris served an ace then turned her head back to look up at me on the balcony.
"Mononobe! Did you see that just now?"
I thought she was asking about Lisa's underwear, so I answered in a panic.
"Eh, you didn't see it? But I served such a spectacular ace just now..."
"Oh, you mean that? Yeah, I definitely saw that too."
Realizing my mistake, I corrected myself, only to see Iris smile happily.
"Wow, I'm so glad!"
Seeing her expression, my heart skipped a beat, but Lisa glared at me with her face red.
"Mononobe Yuu, by saying you 'definitely saw that too,' what else did you see exactly?"
Just as I hesitated how to answer, Iris waved to me.
"Come over here too, Mononobe! Let's play together!"
"I will have you explain yourself clearly. Please come down at once!"
Lisa demanded my presence too, so I sighed and gave up on resisting.
"Got it... Wait for me."
After answering Iris and Lisa, I opened the balcony's French windows and returned to the room.
"C-Captain! Will you be inclined to go play tennis!?"
Sitting on the bed, John seemed extra nervous as he asked me. Far too reserved, his choice of words was also a bit strange.
"Yeah... By the way, why are you so on edge?"
"U-Umm... Because I never expected to share a room with you, Captain..."
I could not help but smile wryly after finding out he was concerned about the room assignments.
"We're the only guys so getting assigned to the same room is only natural, right? There aren't enough rooms to give everyone a single. Although there seems to be another building—considering the emergency situation, it's best that we don't spread ourselves out."
"Y-Yes, that is true..."
"Is there a problem? Haven't we camped together many times during NIFL's operations before?"
I could not figure out why John felt nervous.
"Yes... But this our first time sharing a room, just the two of us—"
Seeing John blush and bow his head in shyness, I sighed deeply.
"We're both guys so you don't have to be that bothered. Besides, we're equals now. Since we're no longer under NIFL, you don't need to use polite speech with me."
"N-No way, because to me, you are someone to be respected, Captain, so I am fine with maintaining the current relationship."
John shook his head and refused.
"You're serious as always... But that's your good point too, John. Still, being tense all the time is not good for your health. How about some tennis for a change of pace?"
"Yeah, let's have a match, John. You'll accept if you're a man, right?"
I deliberately provoked him and John immediately tensed his expression.
"—Yes sir! Of course I will accept, because I am a man!"
Putting extra emphasis on the word "man," he nodded and accepted the challenge.
"Then let's go."
John saluted and answered, then we headed over to the tennis courts where Iris and Lisa were waiting.
After sweating from tennis and having lunch, we then relaxed in the living room—Time passed as though we were out on some kind of staff retreat.
Those of us who were initially unsettled by their dragon marks changing color now seemed a bit calmer.
Firill and Ren were by the window, amply lit by sunlight, engrossed in reading and playing on the computer respectively. Still full of energy, Iris had gone out, saying she was taking a stroll nearby.
Having driven since last night, Shinomiya-sensei was resting in her room.
The others were gathered on the sofa in front of the television, watching a news program. No—on closer examination, Tia was fast asleep, using Lisa's lap as a pillow, probably sleepy after a meal.
'—"Black" Vritra was sighted in the sky above Nanato City yesterday. Furthermore, there have been reports of a flying creature, alleged to be a dragon—'
The news was reporting about Vritra. Kraken Zwei did not get a single mention from any news program, so information control seemed rather tight.
"Oh, look, look. Mother, you're on television. If everyone knew that the gigantic dragon looks this adorable now, they will surely be in for a surprise."
Kili pointed at the black dragon shown on the TV screen and joked with Vritra.
Perhaps annoyed with Kili's persistent toying with her, Vritra turned her face away without saying a word.
"Fufu, you're even pouting too. Mother is very cute when she's like that as well. Don't you agree, Yuu?"
Kili leaned herself against me, who was sitting next to her, and sought my agreement. Her soft bosom was touching my arm, forcing me to lose composure.
"Kili! Get away from the Captain!"
"You are too close together!"
Before I could complain, John and Lisa were already chastising Kili. However, Kili smiled at John and Lisa to taunt them instead of separating from me.
"What? Are you two jealous of me?"
"N-No! It's because the Captain feels troubled that I—"
"Indeed, even if you force him, he will feel nothing more than irritation."
Red in the face, John and Lisa denied resolutely.
Just as both sides were glaring at each other and the atmosphere was growing tense—A patter of hasty footsteps was heard from the entrance.
"Hey! I found a beautiful river nearby! There's a waterfall even though it's a small river and there's so many fish swimming in the water! Do you wanna have a look, everyone?"
Iris was back from her walk outside. Still inexplicably energetic, she invited us to go with a face of excitement.
Glad to free myself from the crossfire, I seized the opportunity to rise from the sofa.
"Great, let's go. Lead the way, Iris."
"Yuu... My goodness."
Kili glared at me unhappily.
"—Since there's fish, rod fishing should be possible. I'm coming too."
Watching television silently this whole time, Ariella stood up, apparently interested.
"I will pass since I'm tired from tennis. Also, I'm currently serving as Tia-san's pillow."
Stroking the sleeping Tia's hair, Lisa declined the invitation.
"I'm not going either. It feels like it'll be a pain to go into the mountains while acting as Mother's nanny."
Kili shrugged and replied. Vritra grumbled "Do not treat me as an infant."
At the window, Firill and Ren waved to see us off.
"What about you, John?"
"Oh—I shall keep you company too!"
John rose up frantically.
"Mononobe, come this way!"
Iris pulled my arm and led the way.
We exited the mountain villa and walked along a path to the forest. Even inside the forest, the path remained well-paved and was very easy to walk.
"We're almost there, Mononobe!"
Just as Iris said, we soon heard the sound of flowing water.
Getting out of the forest, our view broadened as we came to the riverside.
"This is... Rather than a river, it's more like a small stream."
I looked at the flowing water and commented. Upstream, there was a small waterfall roughly ten meters in height.
"The water is really clear and transparent. There's so many fish swimming. Fishing here should be fun."
Ariella cheered as she peered at the water surface.
"Given this level of transparency and shallowness of the water, spearfishing will be faster. Or catching with bare hands."
Having experienced outdoor survival during many missions, John made this suggestion but Ariella shrugged in exasperation.
"You don't get it at all. Can't be helped, I'll teach you the pleasures of rod fishing."
"H-Hey!? I want to go with the Captain—"
Ariella grabbed John's arm firmly and brought her lips to his ear.
"Also, I have things to ask you."
After saying that, Ariella whispered something to him. John's face instantly turned pale.
"W-Why do you..."
"Don't you remember? I fought you back in the Principality of Erlia. After all, many things can be learned just by physical contact."
Ariella giggled and explained. John slumped his shoulders dejectedly.
"Guh... Do as you wish."
"Great, so let's start the lesson with how to make a simple fishing rod. We'll go pick up suitable branches! Mononobe-kun, lend him to me for a bit, okay?"
Hence, Ariella took John and entered the nearby bushes, leaving Iris and me behind, staring at each other.
"What's with them?"
"I don't know either..."
We cocked our heads in puzzlement. Just as the conversation died down, I heard random noises in the forest.
The rustling in the trees, birds calling, the water in the stream, the waterfall—the only one beside me was Iris.
"U-Umm, let's go to the waterfall for a look!"
Iris urged me in a slightly obviously stiff tone of voice. Perhaps she was also conscious of the fact that the two of us were alone.
I nodded nervously in response.
Thus, with unnatural footsteps, we headed to the waterfall.
Although the volume of water falling down was low, the view was still impressive up close. Small bubbles of water flew up, shrouding the waterfall's vicinity in a layer of light mist.
"Wow, the water's so cold!"
Iris reached for the waterfall but quickly retracted her hands. Then this time, she peered into the stream and cheered.
"Look, look, there's a crab! It's smaller than the ones on beaches!"
"—That's a river crab. Even though it's small, it's still essentially edible. But you risk getting infected by parasites if you don't cook it with fire."
Iris immediately looked very interested when I told her about outdoor survival knowledge I had learned from NIFL.
"Really? I wonder if it tastes good?"
Glimmering brightly with excitement in her eyes, Iris reached for the river crab in the water.
Almost getting her finger pinched by a crab's pincer, Iris hastily withdrew her finger, but fell over from the momentum.
"Are you okay?"
Smiling wryly, I extended my hand to her.
Iris reached out shyly but stopped before our fingers were about to touch.
"...Nothing, I'm fine. I can stand up on my own!"
Iris smiled cheerfully and got up by her own effort. She used her handkerchief to wipe off sand stuck to her skirt and took a step away from me.
"Mononobe—I've come to understand. I can't keep relying on your kindness."
Staring at Iris' face, I could not understand what she was talking about.
Calm determination surfaced on her face.
"Back when Mitsuki-chan collapsed from Vritra-chan's attack, Mononobe... Your face looked really scary. That expression was like the end of the world had arrived. I don't want to let you make that kind of look again, Mononobe."
Iris hugged herself and spoke in a trembling voice.
"So from now on... I will try my best not to rely on you, Mononobe. This is to let you focus your heart on Mitsuki only at critical moments."
After saying that, she turned around as though trying to hide her face.
Despite acting lively and cheerfully, had she been thinking about this the whole time? —When that thought crossed my mind, I could not help but bite my lip.
'Please worry more about Iris-san than me, Nii-san. Because Iris-san is the one you love, Nii-san.'
What Mitsuki had said to me in the NIFL base flashed across my mind.
Both of them wanted me to stop considering and worrying about them, but that sort of thing... How could I possibly do that?
"I think you've probably gotten the wrong idea, Iris. I haven't lost anything as a result of retrieving my memories."
Iris looked back and I continued.
"I think I was wrong in the beginning too. I thought that my current self would vanish once I recalled my past self, but reality isn't like that. Even after my memories recovered, I'm still me."
Then touching my left chest, I told her:
"My feelings for you have not changed, Iris, they are still here."
Iris blushed intensely and pressed her hands forcefully on her chest.
"Don't say that... ever again, Mononobe."
Iris stared at me with a tearful smile.
Seeing tears flow out from the corners of her eyes, I could not help but gasp.
"Back then, had Mitsuki-chan really died, Mononobe, you probably would have broken down. For you to be yourself, Mononobe, you need Mitsuki-chan. Most certainly, the one I love... is the Mononobe who treasures Mitsuki-chan more than anyone!"
After saying these words with a clumsy smile, Iris started going back along the path she had taken to come here.
Catching the hand I had failed to grasp just now, I stopped Iris.
"Let me go, Mononobe. Am I wrong on any point?"
Confronted with her question, I could not find an answer. Had Mitsuki lost her life then and there, I would not have been able to stop. I would have allowed "Fafnir" to control my body and kill Vritra. Then with that, I might not have returned.
Seeing my reaction, Iris smiled wryly.
"If I died, Mononobe, you'd mourn me... But you probably won't break down. I think that's the gap between Mitsuki-chan and me that can never be filled."
Iris wanted to shake my hand off, but I hung on tightly in defiance.
Why? Because it was not like that.
Because that was the one sentence that was wrong.
"I can't imagine what'll happen after you die, Iris. But if anyone tried to take you away or kill you, Iris, I will risk everything to stop it, even at the cost of my life. This is the one assertion I can be certain."
Iris gasped, her body frozen on the spot.
Our eyes met but Iris was the first to look away.
"Don't say anymore, Mononobe. If you talk like this, I... Urgh—"
Iris' voice trembled, but just as she tried to say something, she suddenly showed a look of pain.
I thought I was gripping too hard so I released her hand, only to see Iris hold the side of her abdomen. That location was Iris' dragon mark.
"Don't tell me—"
I cried out in surprise. Then Ariella and John emerged from the bushes slightly farther away. Both of them were holding long branches for making fishing rods but the atmosphere did not feel as though they were going to start fishing. Ariella's reaction was the same as Iris'—frowning, she had her hand on her lower abdomen, which was exactly the location of her dragon mark.
"...Perhaps Kraken Zwei is starting to move."
When Ariella suggested that with a look of suffering, John clenched her fists as though enduring something.
While Iris was pressing on her dragon mark, I placed my hand on her shoulder and told her quietly.
"What I just said was not a lie."
Iris looked up at me with unease in her eyes.
I knew very well that Iris was not worrying about her own safety. Surely, she was worrying about the matter of me and Mitsuki.
Despite understanding that, I still had no intention of going back on what I had just said.
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