Unlimited Fafnir:Volume 9 Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Niflheim's Circle of Hell
The special forces team directly under Major Loki Jotunheim's command—Sleipnir.
This team, envisioned for combat against Ds, was where children with special talents had been gathered.
Named after an eight-legged flying horse, the initial team consisted of eight members.
One of them was Kunato Ktinos, currently looking at his teammates assembled in the battleship Naglfar's operations room.
Everyone looked terrible in demeanor with hollow gazes but exuded killing intent from their entire body, filling the whole operations room with an unusual sense of tension.
Things were not like this initially. When the team was first formed, the mood was quite lively because they were all children.
The hot-blooded duo of Otr Axe, wielder of outstanding monstrous strength, and Regin Club, the martial arts expert, would spend their days quarreling. The talkative Robin Dark would prattle all day long, a true annoyance. The straitlaced Sigurd Gram, very strict on rules, was very noisy in a different way. Lancelot Ignite, who always did things his own way, would fan flames and pour fuel on various fires depending on the situation. The highly disciplined Nataku Yue would take every opportunity to train no matter what the situation, upholding a policy of uninvolvement.
The one who always served as their arbitrator and settled things was the Japanese who had been promoted as their captain—Mononobe Yuu.
Major Loki had said the following to those eight.
The eight of you are one beast—Sleipnir.
However, when Major Loki changed his plans after conferring the codename of "Fafnir" upon Mononobe Yuu, he added a ninth member to Sleipnir.
This was the sniper with rare eyes, John Hortensia.
The reason was most likely because Mononobe Yuu's abilities were too outstanding. He could already turn into a terrifying monster all by himself. Hence, Major Loki decided there was a need to fill in the vacant spot.
But right now, there were only seven members present. Sleipnir was incomplete.
Starting with Mononobe Yuu's departure, vibes in the team had changed a bit. This process accelerated with John's desertion.
After being admitted to a medical facility following their failure to take down Kraken Zwei, the reunited teammates acted almost like strangers to one another.
Precisely because he was the smartest and most intellectual in the team, Kunato sensed this, just barely. Sleipnir's members were currently in an abnormal state.
Individual names were meaningless. The team members were all showing the same hollow expressions. Surely, Kunato himself must be putting on the same face as them.
He felt his mind almost covered by white mist. Vague killing intent had invaded the majority of his consciousness.
While they were in such a state, Major Loki leisurely walked in front of them.
"Hello—Everyone. It seems that completion is going superbly."
Loki remarked with satisfaction.
Kunato and the others reflexively saluted in upright and motionless postures. Although the word "completion" seemed to convey something unusual, Kunato could not continue thinking about it.
"The mission I am assigning to you all next is very difficult. However, the last part in Sleipnir's completion will be achieved on the job."
Loki kept his eyes narrowed and smiled happily.
"If 'she' possesses the anticipated scrapped genes, as a collective whole, you will be able to become a monster on the same level as 'Fafnir.' Unlike the Hreidmar series where singular entities are taken to their limit, this power reaches the realm of authorities."
Declaring solemnly, Loki looked back and forth across the members of Sleipnir then settled his gaze upon Kunato.
Confronted with Loki's icy gaze, Kunato felt his breathing stop for an instant.
"Although close, you are still not there yet. Swallow this."
Saying that, Loki placed a red capsule on Kunato's hand.
Kunato had some impression of it. This was one of the medications that had been prescribed to him when he was hospitalized for his injuries.
Instinct told him it was dangerous. However, disobeying Loki was forbidden. Despite trembling, Kunato's body moved on its own.
The instant he swallowed the red capsule, the white mist shrouding his thoughts became even thicker. The hesitation filling his heart disappeared without trace.
"Very well, move out. There is only one person you need to kill—Charlotte Blood Lord."
The instant the murder target was defined, sluggish brains dramatically turned calm and clear all of a sudden.
Their brains were entirely enlisted to find methods to kill her and perform calculations from there.
All members replied in the affirmative. Sleipnir's operation began.
For the sake of the missing piece to become a completed beast of slaughter—
Mitsuki's personal dormitory stood some distance away from the girls dormitories where Midgard's ordinary students lived.
This dormitory, inhabited by one two residents until recently, was now the place where more than ten girls lived.
Forbidden from going outside, they gathered in Mononobe Mitsuki's room in the leisurely afternoon hours as usual.
Even when under house arrest, the industrious Mitsuki was handling student council president matters at her desk with Lisa helping her. Firill was sitting on a cushion in front of the bookshelves, engrossed in reading Mitsuki's collection. Iris, Tia and Shion were taking a nap on Mitsuki's bed, sleepy after eating their fill at lunch. Jeanne was sleeping next to Shion while Kili and Vritra sat on the sofa, watching a TV program through a satellite broadcast channel.
Among them, only Ren, operating her laptop while leaning against the wall, noticed Ariella leaving the room quietly.
Putting her computer on the floor, Ren chased after her.
"...Onee-chan, where are you going?"
Exiting the room to follow Ariella, Ren asked quietly.
Ren always called her "Ariella" in front of others, but used "Onee-chan" when the two of them were alone. Having lived together as family before coming to Midgard, they were as close as real sisters despite having no blood relation.
Precisely because of that, Ren noticed something was off about Ariella.
"—I'm just going for some exercise. I'll be jogging in the ground floor corridor for a bit."
Turning around, Ariella smiled cheerfully as usual and answered.
Despite nodding, Ren actually noticed the portable terminal Ariella was carrying when leaving the room.
To prevent Ren from seeing her right hand, Ariella was standing with her left side towards Ren. That hand was probably holding the terminal.
Judging from this situation, she must have left the room to call someone.
Her answer just now was definitely a lie.
"Ren, you'll get fat if you don't exercise a bit, you know?"
Ariella waved her hand lightly and left.
Her facial expression when lying reminded Ren of the first time when they met.
Despite her cheerful behavior, a certain part of Ariella was shrouded in darkness.
Back then, Ariella had taken up a wary attitude towards Ren because she feared herself for becoming a D, smiling in resignation after showing a deeply hurt look.
Not wanting to see her acting that way, Ren had opened her heart to Ariella.
However, Ren did not know what Ariella was currently thinking. She pressed both hands on her greatly agitated chest.
"What was Charl planning in saying those words...?"
Sitting on the bed in the room where I was under house arrest, I voiced the doubt occupying my heart.
After obstructing my conversation with Major Loki, Charlotte had left the room. Mica-san did not come to take her place to monitor me. Calls could not be made, so I was unable to speak to Ariella and Tia.
Without any motivation to train hard, I laid on the bed, turning this way and that, ruminating what Major Loki had said.
A world without dragons, losing stability... The grave sins committed by Charlotte... It was still a mystery which parts were real.
In the end, I did not get to ask about Hreidmar or Fafnir. All that happened was an increase of things I did not know.
—Regarding matters related to Charl, I guess my only choice is to ask her directly.
I had not been able to say anything just now, but this would be the only method to clear up my doubts.
In that case, the only thing I could do now was wait for Charlotte to return.
Lying down made me feel sleepy and I closed my eyes. Since there was nothing to do, a brief afternoon nap would be good.
Thinking that, I handed my consciousness over to sleepiness.
However—at that moment, I should have pondered more carefully.
The significance of Major Loki's timing in calling me then.
This was an essential consideration.
He was the kind of person who had to achieve his goals regardless of what I did—
I woke up to some kind of loud noise.
I rubbed my eyes while getting up, There was a powerful siren sounding in the surroundings.
Instantly realizing that something unusual had happened, I drove away my drowsiness.
No one was in the room. The world outside the window was dyed orange—It was already dusk and I had slept longer than expected.
In any case, I approached the window to confirm the situation.
As soon as I looked outside, an obvious emergency entered my view.
—Midgardsormr... had activated.
Normally submerged in the sea, the concentric defense system had floated up, forming physical barriers to surround Midgard on all sides.
The last time I saw such a scene was when Leviathan attacked. However, there were no more dragons that would assault Midgard.
While I was standing there, unsure why this had happened, I heard the door open in the room.
I turned around to look at the entrance, only to see Mica-san looking at me with a stiff expression.
"Mononobe-san, this is an emergency, please come with me."
Mica-san spoke with urgency.
"Mica-san, what on earth happened?"
"We will talk while we walk. We are out of time. Hurry and follow me."
I left the room at her urging. There was no sign of the principal in her office.
Mica-san swiftly brought me to the elevator and pressed the button. Entering the elevator that arrived immediately, she finally started to explain the situation.
"—NIFL has invaded Midgard's territorial waters without permission and surrounded this island. We did not find out until just earlier because Midgardsormr had been neutralized."
"Midgardsormr was neutralized? Is it possible to do that from outside?"
It was truly hard to imagine that Midgardsormr's highly secure electronic systems could get hacked so easily, so I asked Mica-san.
"—Of course it is impossible from outside. But if there is someone collaborating from inside, it is very likely they did something while on the observation visit last time."
Speaking of which, Major Loki said he did something during the school festival.
"But I saw the defensive barriers floating up..."
"We finally managed to regain control of the system so the final defensive line was deployed in the nick of time. In any case, NIFL has been prevented from landing for now, but they will force an inspection, claiming authorization from Asgard."
The elevator descended while we spoke. Instead of stopping at the ground floor, it continued underground.
"Force an inspection?"
"Yes—Midgard is suspected of traitorous behavior against mankind, apparently. Due to official orders, we cannot use Midgardsormr to intercept and repel them either."
Mica-san spoke in a conundrum.
"Traitorous behavior against mankind... Is that referring to us taking Kraken Zwei—no, Shion—back to Midgard?"
"NIFL has not made clear to us their particular suspicions, but she will probably be one of the targets for inspection. Harboring Kili the known terrorist and making contact with Vritra... It is currently unknown how much NIFL knows but there are a number of reasons they could potentially use."
"—In that case, we can't refuse their inspection."
I pursed my lips and whispered. Mica-san nodded.
"Indeed, Charlotte-sama is currently negotiating to forestall them, but it will merely be a question of time before the inspection takes place. When that time comes... It will not do to leave you, Mitsuki-san and the others where NIFL will discover you."
Mica-san looked me in the eye and told me solemnly. At this moment, we happened to reach the lowest level and the elevator stopped. The doors opened.
This floor was where all sorts of infrastructure were concentrated. The exposed piping was particularly conspicuous.
"This way please."
Mica-san led the way for me again as I got out of the elevator.
"In other words, we will hide starting now... Is that it?"
Walking through a maze of corridors one could easily get lost in, I asked Mica-san while she advanced.
"Indeed. Before the United Nations and Asgard make a move to rescind the order, the few of you must hide."
Answering while moving along, Mica-san suddenly stopped in front of a wall covered with piping and placed her hand on it.
What appeared before my eyes was a sturdy metal door. Mica-san rotated the massive handle to open the thick door and hurried me.
"We will take the stairs down from here. Please watch your step because it is very dark."
I definitely could see stairs with help from light entering the dark corridor.
Mica-san closed the door after entering, surrounding me in almost complete darkness. However, a light on the ceiling instantly lit up.
Even so, the light was very dim. I could barely make out a winding staircase.
Taking care not to make a misstep, I started along the path with Mica-san.
"Rescind the order... Is that really possible"
When I asked Mica-san, my voice echoed loudly. Glancing at me, she nodded deeply.
"Yes—with Charlotte-sama present, it is guaranteed. However, NIFL has taken measures on their side, so it will take time. If you and the others were to be caught during this period, thus publicly exposing dragon marks whose color had changed and the matter of contact with Vritra, it would be very difficult to salvage the situation."
"So Mitsuki and the girls are up ahead?"
"They are taking a different route, led by Haruka."
Speaking of which, this staircase was continuing onwards to the depths. However, I pointed out something still bothering me.
"Is it really okay for me to meet them? I was isolated all this time clearly because contact was forbidden..."
"This is a question of risk."
I frowned and asked. Mica-san nodded affirmatively.
"Yes... Due to the lack of information, the risk inherent in the changes caused by contact with you cannot be underestimated. But if by any chance NIFL were to capture someone whose dragon mark had changed color, execution would be very likely. Considering these risks, the decision will be left for the girls to make on their own judgment."
"Mitsuki and the others—They'll make their own choice?"
Shocked by the unexpected explanation, I confirmed with Mica-san.
"This is the best solution—Let them decide their own lives. That was what Charlotte-sama said."
How one lived was more important than what one was—Charlotte had said this in the past.
Hence, she had given Mitsuki and the girls the right to choose their way of living. However, what way of living had Charlotte herself chosen?
The facial expression, which Charlotte had shown while calling herself possibly the worst dragon for humans, flashed in my mind.
"Considering safety concerns, we have to hurry and make contact to cure the colored dragon marks, but—"
What if Mitsuki were to choose contact but regret the decision later on? I felt very hesitant. This was not just their problem. As the one who had changed them, I had to consider my own responsibility.
"Haruka has already informed them of the risks accompanying transformation. They will surely feel just as lost as you are, Mononobe-san. Consequently, I hope you will discuss properly among yourselves to reach a conclusion."
Mica-san's words prompted a sudden realization in me. Here I was, agonizing over things on my own again.
"That's right. I'll try that."
I answered. Mica-san smiled faintly and nodded at me.
The conversation stopped there, leaving only the echoing sound of footsteps bouncing off the walls. The stairs were several times longer than expected. By the time we finally reached the bottom, I already had no idea how many steps there were.
Mica-san opened a door just as sturdy as the one at the entrance. White steam leaked out from the gap.
Passing through the entrance, I found a rocky cavern before my eyes. The humidity was quite high and I felt like I was about to be cooked.
"What on earth is this place..."
Looking back and forth across this cavern which had poor visibility due to the steam, I asked in doubt.
"You are able to use water from a hot spring to take baths in Charlotte-sama's room, right?"
"Oh yeah. I heard that it was drawn from underground—"
"Here is the source."
Mica-san replied. Then we turned a corner and soon reached a vast open space.
"This is an underground... lake?"
The giant subterranean space was filled with milky-white water. The water was seething with bubbles while white team rose from the surface. The water temperature seemed quite high.
"Charlotte-sama calls this place an underground hot spring. It was discovered by chance while Midgard was expanding its underground facilities. She has monopolized it ever since."
Mica-san walked along the shore of the underground lake and gestured with her hand.
"A cottage was built here while installing pumps to extract the water."
Over there was a white house embedded in the cavern's roof and wall. Although it matched the school and the clock tower's contemporary design, it looked very conspicuous in this cavern.
"It's almost like a secret base..."
With my feelings split between impressed and shocked, I looked out to the building by the lake.
"This is quite a good hiding place. This cottage is not recorded on any of Midgard's maps, cannot be reached by elevator, and for a shelter, it is quite difficult to discover. Combined with the fact that this place is equipped with minimum-level facilities for living, there is no better hideout."
Indeed, this place must be reached by going down hidden staircases. Its existence was not exposed either. To keep the hot spring all to herself, Charlotte must have been very thorough in maintaining the secret.
After listening to Mica-san, I looked at the surroundings of the building then noticed the sound of footsteps apart from our own.
—Amidst the white steam, several figures appeared.
It was Shinomiya-sensei's voice. Having entered a stance on reflex, I relaxed my guard.
"Indeed, it is me, Haruka. Mononobe-san is with me too."
After Mica-san answered. I heard "Nii-san!?" and "Mononobe!"
Just as I was told earlier, Shinomiya-sensei and the girls had arrived via a different route.
We stopped in front of the cottage, meeting up at visual range.
Behind Shinomiya-sensei were all the girls living in Mitsuki's dorm.
"Wah, Mononobe. It's been a day since I last saw you!"
Iris waved happily.
With her hands clasped together before her chest, Mitsuki seemed quite happy to see me after so long. She looked like she wanted to approach me but stopped.
Most likely, she had already heard the risks in touching me.
Lisa, Firill and Ren looked at me without disguising their doubts.
Ariella, whom I had not had a chance to contact yesterday, was standing behind everyone else so I could not read her face.
Tia poked her head out from behind Lisa's back and looked at me uneasily. Sure enough, she was not as energetic as in the past. I heard that she had started acting strangely since returning to Midgard, so it was definitely could not be entirely due to the risks in becoming my mate.
"Captain, you've had it rough."
Jeanne lowered her voice and bowed her head. She was carrying the sleeping Shion on her back.
Having brought everyone here Shinomiya-sensei noticed my gaze and smiled wryly.
"Shion is having her afternoon nap. She's the one who carried Shion."
"She's impossible to wake up once she sleeps."
Adding to Shinomiya-sensei's explanation, Kili stepped forward.
Unlike everyone else, she did not show any hesitation on her face. Instead, she was smiling in a carefree manner.
"We finally get to meet—Yuu. I've been looking forward to this moment all along."
She exposed her right hand whose dragon mark was glowing and approached me without hesitation.
My dragon mark heated up and glowed blue.
Mitsuki called out anxiously and grabbed Kili's arm to stop her.
"What are you doing? I don't give a damn about the risks of transformation I just heard about. Originally, I might lose my powers upon adulthood, so I'd say this suits be perfectly fine."
Kili stared at her reproachfully, but Mitsuki did not back down. Instead, she argued back in a forceful tone of voice.
"Be that as it may, this is not a matter that concerns you alone. Since Nii-san will shoulder a heavy responsibility as a result, I believe that both sides need to have a proper discussion before making contact."
"...What a pain."
Kili frowned and whispered.
"Hey, you two—"
Feeling a dangerous mood brewing in the air, I intended to stop them.
"Mitsuki-chan, Kili-chan, don't fight."
But before I could do that, Iris already intervened.
Then Kili took her gaze off Mitsuki as though casting away her malice. Sighing deeply, she said:
"Oh well... It might boring to finish things here straight away. After all, it's a special act for Yuu and I to become mates—Almost like a marriage ceremony."
"A-A marriage ceremony!?"
Mitsuki suddenly screamed, her entire face turning bright red.
Troubled over the risks of transformation, Lisa and the other girls also started to have doubts in a different area.
"Using such a description... It does cause you to become conscious in strange ways."
"Although that's what I intended from the start—It somehow feels so embarrassing when said out loud."
Lisa and the blushing Firill remarked.
Ren also lowered her head shyly.
However, Iris cried out in extreme panic.
"H-Hold on! Then I'm already married with Mononobe!? A-Although it makes me very happy... I still want a proper marriage ceremony!"
"Calm down, Iris. Marriage is only an analogy. Right now, we are erasing the color on our dragon marks to eliminate the risks in the event of capture."
Silent the whole time until now, Ariella came up and consoled Iris.
Ren had been quite concerned about Ariella in yesterday's phone call, but Ariella looked the same as usual. I was more worried about Tia's silence given that she should be the first to react to the topic of marriage.
"Oh... O-Okay! Ahaha... I've gotten the wrong idea. M-Mononobe—pretend you heard nothing!"
Scratching her head shyly, Iris pleaded to me.
Intimidated by Iris' forcefulness, I nodded. Then I heard a sigh of exasperation.
"Verily... Ye are too leisurely."
Shrugging helplessly while taking a step forward was Vritra in a black one-piece dress. Her arms were not restrained but a green vine was wrapped around her neck.
It was a terminal of Yggdrasil for preventing the generation of dark matter. Vritra had regained freedom of movement compared to before, but the fact that she could not use her powers remained unchanged.
"Have ye really understood the situation? Indeed—Yggdrasil's core?"
Saying that, Vritra looked at Tia, who had been silent the whole time.
Tia's little shoulders shook while she alternated her gaze between me and Vritra. But in the end, she looked down without saying anything.
The girls and I were quite troubled by the way Tia was acting. Silence fell upon the cavern that felt like a steam cooker.
"—Well then, you all need to discuss properly then decided whether to come into contact with Mononobe Yuu or not. For now, please enter the house first. You'll get all sweaty if you keep standing here."
Seeing us stopped, Shinomiya-sensei urged us as though to break the silence.
"Yes, let us go inside to explain how to use the facilities and our course of action from here on."
Mica-san agreed with Shinomiya-sensei and walked towards the cottage.
I followed Mica-san and glanced sideways at the silent Tia.
She had said she wanted to be my wife in the beginning when her dragon mark changed color, but now, she was in such low spirits.
Since I was supposed to talk to the girls next, I must take the opportunity to ask properly why Tia was acting so strangely.
Deciding that in my mind, I entered the door that Mica-san opened.
Equipped with insulation and air conditioning, the building was more comfortable than imagined.
The living room behind entryway had extravagant sound and home theater equipment with a large sofa in the middle. There were two doors inside, probably both bedrooms.
There was an air like it was a space Charlotte used to relax.
Although it looked quite spacious from outside, it still felt quite cramped after so many people came in.
Not permitted to touch Mitsuki and the others yet, I stayed on the edge of wall on the far side of the room.
Two groups were naturally formed in the room with Iris, who had already touched me and Jeanne, with Kraken Zwei on her back, on my side.
"—Perfect. Rooms are scarce so Mitsuki-san, your group will stay in the left room while Mononobe-san's group will use the room on the right. I will deliver more bedding and food later to make up for deficiencies."
Standing in between the two groups, Mica-san gave such directions to us.
"I-I can sleep in the same room as Mononobe!?"
Iris was very surprised. Going "w-with the Captain..." in a conundrum, Jeanne was very flustered.
"This is necessary to avoid inadvertent contact. However, numbers are distributed rather unevenly. Those who chose to touch Mononobe-san may switch rooms next."
"I know you all should know this, but please know your boundaries as students and do not cross them."
The faltering Iris went "Yes" and huddled herself with a stare from Shinomiya-sensei.
Smiling with slight wryness, Mica-san continued.
"Also, this place has a toilet but no bathroom. If you wish to take a bath, please use the hot spring outside."
"Umm... Mica-san, the hot spring outside looks too hot to enter."
I recalled the seething hot spring I had seen along the way and asked Mica-san.
"Don't worry. There is a flow of cold groundwater near this cottage, mixing with the hot spring water to produce an appropriate temperature. But indeed, there are parts with higher temperatures so please do not venture too far away."
Charlotte must have built her cottage at this spot so that she could take baths immediately.
—But still, a hot spring huh?
I could not help but recall what had happened at the volcanic island we visited during the Basilisk campaign.
There was a hot spring on the island too, but Firill had brought all the girls in while I was enjoying a dip, putting me in quite a perilous situation.
I looked at Firill only to meet her gaze by chance. Putting her finger against the corner of her lip suggestively, she smiled. It looked like she was remembering the volcanic island incident too. Most likely, she was hinting to keep what had happened a secret.
"—Thus concludes what you need to know about living here. Going forward, you will remain here on standby until NIFL's inspection ends. They will have to withdraw within a week at most."
Mica-san told us that, seeming quite confident in Charlotte's clout. Then Shinomiya-sensei spoke next.
"Mica and I will be in charge of replenishing living supplies. Also, portable terminals cannot be reached here. Do not move recklessly even if you are curious about the situation outside."
"But what should we do in case of unforeseen circumstances? There is a possibility that you might not come, Shinomiya-sensei."
Raising her hand to ask a question, Lisa showed a worried expression. While entrusting things to Charlotte, it was only natural to worry about unexpected developments.
"In that event, I leave it to all of you to exercise your own judgment. But even if you must verify the situation above ground, please send someone who bears relatively less risk. It is very dangerous for those with colored dragon marks, Shion and Jeanne to be exposed before NIFL."
Sweeping her gaze back and forth over us, Shinomiya-sensei warned solemnly.
"Yes, we will be careful."
Lisa and the rest of us nodded. Shinomiya-sensei turned her gaze to Mica-san.
"Very well. Mica, then let us return to the surface."
"Yes, Charlotte-sama will have her hands full if left to her own devices. We shall depart now, everyone."
Mica-san nodded and bowed her head at us.
The two adults left, leaving us looking at one another.
"What do we do, Mitsuki?"
Firill asked for instructions from Student Council President Mitsuki.
"Yes... We need to first check out the rooms where we will be staying—No, before that, let us decide the sequence we will follow to have our individual discussions with Nii-san."
Mitsuki pondered while she spoke, then proposed what they were going to do next.
"Sure, but how will we decide?"
Agreeing with Mitsuki, Lisa asked her how.
Making a fist to indicate 'rock,' Mitsuki answered with a serious face.
"—This room looks like it was used for storage."
I, Iris, Jeanne and Shion on her back entered the room on the right assigned to us and checked the interior.
In the living room, Mitsuki and the rest of the girls were playing rock-paper-scissors to determine their order but it was probably going to take a while due to their numbers. Seizing this chance, we checked our room first.
"There are so many boxes of alcoholic beverages and food to go with them."
Seeing the haphazard piles of boxes, Iris remarked.
Realzing how Charlotte spent her time here, I smiled wryly.
"There are also empty audio equipment boxes and video software."
"Captain, there is some mysterious and antiquidated furniture over here."
Jeanne pointed at a dressing table, wardrobe and bookshelves surrounded by cardboard boxes. They looked like expensive items dating back to a bygone era no matter what.
"This probably belongs to the principal too?"
Iris looked at the dressing table with interest. Clean and tidy, it looked like it was properly maintained. The mirror reflected Iris' face clearly.
"Probably. Anyway, let's prepare where we're going to sleep but don't move the furniture."
Since this was pretty much Charlotte's secret base, this furniture might be quite important. Although I wanted know why they were kept this deep underground, had they been kept in her private bedroom in the clock tower, this furniture would have been totally wrecked during when Hekatonkheir destroyed the clock tower last time.
"Yes, got it! Then let's move the boxes to the side of the wall."
Iris began to move the randomly placed boxes to the wall, one by one.
"Then I'll do this side. Oh Jeanne, you don't have to help."
I pointed at Jeanne who was carrying Shion on her back. She bowed her head apologetically.
To avoid in our way, she moved towards the door.
Iris and I moved the boxes swiftly, opening up a space in the center of the room.
"—This should be enough for four people to sleep."
We got the job done rapidly because many of the boxes were empty.
"Mononobe! Come over here!"
Iris called to me. What happened? I looked back to see Iris staring at a dressing table drawer.
"Hey, it's not right to open without permission."
I warned her and walked over. Iris shook her head frantically.
"I-I didn't do it on purpose! My clothing got caught so I opened it by accident. Then I saw this inside—"
I followed Iris' gaze to see the drawer glittering with dazzling light from gemstones and jewelry.
"T-This is amazing."
I held my breath in surprise.
"Captain, what's the matter?"
Seeing how we were reacting, Jeanne came over in interest and looked at the drawer.
"—These look like jewelry for formal dresses. The gems are all real... The precious metals also show exquisite craftsmanship. Undoubtedly, they must be very expensive."
In possession of excellent eyes, Jeanne was very confident in appraisals. Impressed with the goods, she asserted.
If Charlotte owned this stuff, it was possible that she used to dress herself up glamorously in front of this dressing table. I had only seen her in a lab coat. Wearing a dress, she probably would look as adorable as a real fairy.
Then I noticed something inside a photo frame in the drawer. I opened the drawer slightly more, exposing the black and white photograph in the frame.
"Wow, so cute! This must be the principal in the past! And this one's probably her father!"
Looking at the photo, Iris showed excitement in her voice.
On the photo was a young Charlotte sitting in a chair with a prim countenance with a man in his prime standing on the side. Just as Iris described, it looked a commemorative photo of father and daughter.
However, I was more concerned about the man's face in the photo than Charlotte in her younger days.
Jeanne stared at the photo in shock too.
If Jeanne thought so in addition to me, then there must be no mistake.
The man in the photo looked older and displayed a different expression and vibe, but his face was extremely similar to Major Loki's.
"Mononobe? Jeanne-chan? What's wrong?"
Iris asked in puzzlement.
"Nothing... He just looks so similar to someone we know, so it's a bit surprising."
Pointing at the man in the photo, I replied in a stiff voice.
"Eh, probably a coincidence. But that's quite surprising. That person must be the principal's relative, I guess?"
Iris cheerfully brought up her ideas but Jeanne and I simply exchanged looks.
"Jeanne, what's your view?"
"...I do not know. However—I personally feel disinclined to treat this as coincidence."
Jeanne shook her head with a troubled look.
Indeed, it was impossible to reach a conclusion through this photo alone. I could only make a direct inquirty with the parties in question—Charlotte and Major Loki.
Having spent a week together with Charlotte, I now regretted not asking her more about herself. Back when she brought up her abilities as the "Gray" Vampire, she did not reveal that her father was the previous dragon until I asked. She probably did not want others to broach the subject of her family and upbringing.
While Jeanne and I remained silent and Iris was inclining her head in puzzlement, knocking came at the door.
"Oh, I'll get it."
Stopping me who was moving on reflex, Iris walked to the door. She was probably thinking of the fact that I should not touch the other girls carelessly.
Iris turned the handle with a creak and opened the door. Standing at the doorway was a slightly apprehensive Mitsuki.
"According to the results of rock-paper-scissors, the sequence of individual discussions with Nii-san has been decided. I am first."
"I see! You're so good at rock-paper-scissors, Mitsuki-chan!"
Iris' non sequitur of a reaction caused Mitsuki to smile wryly.
"No, the sequence was not based on the ranking of winners. Instead, the winners got to select their spot in the sequence and I simply ended up first. Many of them wished for a later spot because they wanted more time to think."
Hearing this, I felt a bit worried so I asked Mitsuki.
"Is that okay, Mitsuki? You just heard the risks in transformation, right? Don't force yourself if you still haven't organized your thoughts—"
"Please do not worry. I have prepared myself properly since a very long time ago. If possible, I would like to talk to you immediately, Nii-san. Is that alright with you?"
However, Mitsuki interrupted me and smiled with conviction. Seeing her expression, I realized that I was the probably the one who needed resolve.
"...Sure. But where should we talk? Here or in your room, Mitsuki?"
There were limited places where we could be alone. It was not possible to have a private conversation in the living room. On the other hand, the outside of the cottage was like a steam cooker and not really a place to have an unhurried conversation.
Nevertheless, Mitsuki suggested an option I had ruled out.
"Well then, let us go outside."
Seeing me look lost, Mitsuki seemed to read my mind. She nodded and said:
"Standing around normally to talk would not work, of course, but it will be fine if we remove our clothing."
"By removing our clothing, you mean..."
Realizing what Mitsuki wanted to say, I felt my heart pounding nonstop.
Mitsuki blushed with scarlet cheeks and looked suggestively at Iris.
"...Nii-san, did you not take a bath together with Iris-san? Then is there any reason why you cannot do the same with me?"
Mitsuki lowered her voice and whispered to me with a sulking expression.
It looked like Iris had told Mitsuki about taking a bath with me in the principal's room. Just as I was feeling anxious that she was surely angry, Mitsuki did not pursue the matter any further. Instead. she stared at me, blushing intensely.
"Nii-san... Please bathe together, with me."
A wish requested by my younger sister in a shy and feeble voice—Unable to refuse, I nodded.
Ultimately lacking the courage to undress in our rooms and burst out into the living room while wrapped in a towel, Mitsuki and I exited the cottage in our uniforms first.
Then undressing behind a different rock respectively, we put on a bath towel and met up. Since we could not touch yet, we stayed at a distance beyond arm's reach.
"I-It is more embarrassing than I thought. Hurry and enter the water."
Applying pressure to her bath towel, Mitsuki dipped her foot into the steaming natural hot spring. Due to the cloudiness of the hot spring water, her body was almost invisible after she waded in up to her shoulders.
Relaxing slightly, Mitsuki extended her hand and waved to hurry me.
"Please come quickly, Nii-san. If we do not enter the water at the same time, I will be the first to faint from staying in the bath too long."
Feeling a slightly different kind of embarrassment as bathing with Iris, I entered the hot spring too.
The water was shallower than I thought and hotter than the bath water in Charlotte's room. There was a slippery feeling that you can only find in water at the source.
"It feels like this hot spring water is very good for the skin."
Mitsuki raised her arm, stroking with her finger the pale skin that almost seemed to meld with the hot spring water.
"Yeah, it's different from last time's—"
Accidentally bringing up the hot spring at the volcanic island, I frantically stopped myself.
"Oh, no... mm, we went to a hot spring when we went traveling as a family in our childhood, right? I just remembered from that time."
Left without a choice, I lied to Mitsuki. She nodded with comprehension.
"—Speaking of which, that did happen. Back then, I could not travel by car, I was so obstinate and spoiled... In the end, we had to get there by switching between many trains. I caused so much trouble for your family, Nii-san."
Mitsuki reminisced in a whisper.
Although I was looking for an excuse, I did remember about the hot spring trip. I could not recall it earlier, but after Tia released Yggdrasil's curse, my memories would now surface naturally in my mind.
"But even so, it was still quite fun, right? I was very excited to ride all kinds of trains. The lunchboxes at the train stations were quite tasty. Well, I suppose Mom and Dad were quite exhausted."
I smiled wryly and recounted my memories.
Mitsuki's refusal to ride cars had started after losing her family to the traffic accident. It was fine during elementary school but when we were going to the hot spring, she could not even take a bus.
"Yes. To be honest, I was very happy too. To have another family outing like that again—"
Agreeing with me, Mitsuki made a helpless look mid-sentence.
She had realized that this wish could not come true if she were to be barred from leaving Midgard for the rest of her life.
I said with worry but she shook her head to indicate she was fine.
"Three years ago... when I outed myself as a D so that I could meet you, I had already resolved myself to abandon the life I have led till then."
Looking straight at me, Mitsuki said decisively. She did not seem like she was lying. However, there was one fact here that could not be overlooked.
"—Mitsuki, you've still kept your house beside my home."
Slightly startled, Mitsuki nodded.
During our return to Nanato City, I had seen Mitsuki's old home that was now partially used for storage. Back when we were only childhood friends, Mitsuki's room was facing mine, allowing us to talk just by opening our windows.
"You haven't sold the house. Isn't that because you have some kind of dream? You won't be able to make that dream come true unless you return to Nanato City, right?"
Mitsuki had mentioned a dream when tidying up the rooms with Lisa and the others. Hence, our discussion could not continue until this point was clarified.
"...That is... a secret... I cannot reveal."
Mitsuki looked very shy, even dipping her mouth into the hot spring.
"But I might be taking that dream away. I need to know my responsibility accordingly."
I spoke forcefully. Soaked in the hot spring, Mitsuki blew bubbles then lifted her head with determination.
"—Nii-san, you must not laugh, okay?"
Mitsuki felt quite embarrassed about it? She confirmed with a blushing face.
"Okay, I promise not to laugh."
"Then I shall tell you... I-In the future, if I were to get married to you, Nii-san... I wish to live there. U-Umm, if our family increased in size, it would be like housing for two generations... U-Umm... S-Sorry!"
Blushing red to her ears while she spoke, Mitsuki could bear it no longer and submerged the bottom half of her face into the hot spring.
"No, umm... You don't need to apologize..."
My face also heated up due to hearing Mitsuki's unexpected words.
Blowing bubbles with her face in the water, Mitsuki seemed to be murmuring something with her eyes lowered. She was probably still apologizing.
While we continued to gaze at each other, this itchy silence persisted for a while. However, with her noise in the water, Mitsuki's breath ran out. With a blushing face, she emerged from the hot spring.
"Umm... I am aware that bringing up the topic of marriage under these circumstances would force you to feel responsible on a different level, Nii-san. That is why must apologize after all."
"No—I'm the one who has to apologize. I've clearly remembered our childhood promise... but I've kept delaying my answer."
To my childhood self, Mitsuki had been more important than anyone and we made a marriage promise. But due to my deal with Yggdrasil, I had forgotten the promise and fallen in love with Iris.
Having recovered my memories now, both feelings occupied my heart, clashing with each other.
Until recently, Mitsuki and Iris had been yielding to each other, but that was also why I could not reach a decision.
Due to this sense of guilt, I looked away from Mitsuki. Maintaining her distance, Mitsuki moved and met my gaze once again.
"Nii-san, please do not show such a pained expression on your face. This topic... let us shelve it for now. Just as Shinomiya-sensei and Mica-san said, whether we make contact with you or not is merely a matter of weighing risks, Nii-san."
Smiling wryly, Mitsuki brought us back to the main topic.
"And to me, this is a matter of responsibility... Right?"
Mitsuki noded then continued in a firm tone of voice.
"The fact that you changed us, Nii-san, isn't that tormenting you? I would rather not make contact with you if it would force you to shoulder many burdens, Nii-san. To me, the greatest risk is whether you feel tormented by this."
Compared to losing the dream she had just mentioned, Mitsuki was more concerned for my feelings.
These intense thoughts and feelings made my chest feel tight. I clenched my fist.
Now our positions were reversed. I was clearly the one who had put Mitsuki and the others in danger. It would be absurd if she had to worry about me instead. Right now, I was a failure whether as her childhood friend or older brother. And to Mitsuki, I was the fiance she was engaged to.
How could a man in such a position be unreliable?
"In that case, there's nothing for you to worry about."
Looking into Mitsuki's eyes, I declared firmly.
"If you or anyone else face problems arising from touching me, then I will be the one to handle them. This is my responsibility. But it's not something I do unwillingly. This is how I feel."
This was not acting tough. Instead, this feeling came from the bottom of my heart.
"But that would be too much of a burden for you, Nii-san—"
"You're wrong. I don't find this a burden. Rather, it would be burden if you felt troubled but I could do nothing about it."
I spoke over Mitsuki and conveyed to her the fact that we were thinking alike.
"In that case, there is already... nothing to agonize over."
Smiling wryly, Mitsuki used her finger to wipe the corners of her eyes. I did not know whether it was condensation or sweat. Perhaps they were tears from Mitsuki's eyes.
"I want to become the same kind of being as you, Nii-san, to walk along the same path. The dream I just mentioned would have no meaning at all without you, Nii-san. So please—Change me."
Mitsuki spoke with eyes of determination.
I replied. Pushing through the hot water, I approached Mitsuki.
"Oh—Wait, please hold on!"
But when I reached out, Mitsuki suddenly stopped me.
"Umm... This is an extremely special act for us... like a ritual. Hence, rather than a simple touch, umm..."
Fidgeting, Mitsuki turned her back to me and pushed aside the hair behind her. On her pale and exposed neck, the blue dragon mark was glowing.
"Could you use your lips for contact?"
Mitsuki spoke her wish quietly. She seemed quite embarrassed and her pale skin went red in an instant. My heart also started to pound and my mind blanked out.
"Use my lips... So a kiss, you mean?"
Wavering, I asked the obvious.
"Y-Yes—Uh, oh, n-no! Not mouth to mouth, I mean the dragon mark! It would be very romantic if you could turn me into my new self with a kiss... It would become a precious memory..."
Frantically, Mitsuki explained, pointing to the dragon mark on her neck.
"S-So that's what you mean..."
I felt slightly relieved, but immediately froze when I imagined myself kissing the back of Mitsuki's neck.
In a certain way, this was even more embarrassing than an ordinary kiss. However, Mitsuki kept her hair lifted, waiting for me.
Having made such a strong declaration earlier, I could not falter here and cause Mitsuki to worry.
"—I got it."
Answering in a forceful tone as though to convince myself, I approached Mitsuki's back.
While closing in, I could smell the sweet fragrance coming from Mitsuki's skin, a refreshing scent. Decorated with beads of sweat, Mitsuki's skin had turned pink from nervousness and the heat.
The blue dragon mark gave off greater brilliance. As though in response, the dragon mark on my left hand glowed faintly.
"Okay, here I go."
Gulping, I mustered my determination. Hesitation would only make both sides feel more embarrassed. Do it in one go.
"...Yes, I am counting on you, Nii-san."
Mitsuki steadied herself and waited for my kiss.
Bringing my face against the back of Mitsuki's neck, I touched the blue dragon mark with my lips.
Mitsuki's body suddenly shuddered and a small moan escaped from her lips. In that instant, blue light was released from the dragon mark, enveloping her entire body.
Hugging herself tightly, Mitsuki moaned.
"Are you okay, Mitsuki!?"
Speaking of which, I had not witnessed the instant of Iris and Shion's transformations. This was my first time seeing the change after contact with my own eyes.
Mixed in the blue light were black particles, most likely Mitsuki's dark matter. Charlotte had said before that chances were very high that a D's own dark matter was what the dragonification process used. Then right now, Mitsuki's body was being remodeled using dark matter.
"D-Do not worry... It, does, not, hurt."
Despite the look of hardship on her face, that was how Mitsuki replied. The blue light slowly dimmed while at the same time, Mitsuki's expression also gradually grew gentle.
Then the light vanished completely. Exhausted, Mitsuki collapsed.
Seeing Mitsuki about to sink into the hot spring, I hastily caught her in my arms. Her body temperature felt quite elevated, but I could not see any external changes.
Mitsuki opened her eyes slightly and held my hand.
"Are you really okay? You looked like it was really painful—"
"I am fine. It did not hurt. How should I describe it...? Umm, rather, it was too pleasurable... To avoid making strange noises, I had to endure desperately."
Mitsuki avoided eye contact shyly while she talked about the transformation just now.
"T-That's good to hear... I guess?"
Unsure how to react, I concurred ambiguously.
"P-Please stop asking me! However... With this, I can finally touch you, Nii-san."
Despite still avoiding eye contact, Mitsuki gripped even more tightly to prevent my hand from leaving her.
I gripped Mitsuki's hand firmly in turn, but noticing that we were clad in nothing but bath towels, I did not know where to look.
"Mitsuki, it's time... we got out, right?"
I suggested since this would be embarrassing for Mitsuki too if this continued. However, Mitsuki shook her head lightly.
"I would like us to stay like this for a while."
"...You'll faint, you know?"
"If that were to happen, please carry me back to the room, Nii-san. After all, I will be sleeping in the same room as you, Iris-san and the others."
Mitsuki spoke in a slightly coddled voice, resting her head against my chest. The body warmth and softness of her skin were making my heart race but I also felt a nostalgic sense of reassurance. I sighed.
"Just a little longer in the bath, okay?"
Despite noticing that I also wanted to stay like this longer, in order to maintain my pride as the older brother, I answered in an exasperated tone of voice.
"...So what did you two do outside?"
As soon as Mitsuki and I returned to the cottage and stepped into the living room, Firill immediately stared at us.
Almost fainting from staying too long in the bath, Mitsuki was holding onto my arm to support herself.
Her face was bright red with slightly irregular breathing. One could not explain this as simply from being outside. From the instant we were seen intimately pressed together, Mitsuki's decision was obvious. Surely, what Firill wanted to hear about was what kind of discussion we had.
I looked at the everyone without answering. Inside the living room were three of the girls, Firill, Lisa and Ren. The rest of them were in their respective rooms.
Mitsuki was still hazy, rubbing her cheek against my shoulder in full affectionate mode.
Seeing Mitsuki acting in this manner, Lisa stood up forcefully from the sofa and glared at me.
"D-Don't tell me that going with the flow from the momentum of becoming mates—Y-You two crossed that line!?"
Operating her terminal in a corner of the room, Ren looked up and tilted her head in puzzlement.
"N-No! It was very hot outside so all we did was have a chat while taking a dip in the hot spring!"
Judging that misunderstandings would arise if this continued, I revealed the truth. But as one would expect, the girls' gazes did not calm down.
"Ehh... Naked socializing."
Firill pouted and murmured unhappily.
"Don't use such a weird description!"
"But it is the truth."
I demanded a correction, but Lisa's icy tone silenced my objections.
Plunged into a hopeless situation, I found a helping hand extended to me from an unexpected place.
"—Lisa and Firill have no right to criticize others."
Speaking quietly was Ren, operating her portable terminal.
"You two... took a bath together with Onii-chan at his home before."
Saying that, Ren showed us the screen of her terminal.
Taken from a distance, it was a bit blurry, but the picture depicted the scene of Tia, Firill, Lisa and me together in a bath at my parent's house in Nanato City, with Mitsuki scolding us.
"What... When did you take that—No, th-there were actually complicated reasons—"
Lisa's face reached boiling point all at once. Stammering, her voice grew quieter and quieter.
"No way, I can't believe you took a photo back then..."
Firill murmured in shock but she immediately ran over to Ren's side with a grin.
"Hey hey, Ren, could you let me have a better look? Oh... Too bad, everyone covered up the important parts."
Firill looked like she was hoping for something, but slumped her shoulders in disappointment.
"...If anything weird was captured, I wouldn't keep it."
Slightly going red, Ren answered stiffly.
"I wanted to use it as reference material... But it's still very interesting. Can you send it to my terminal?"
Ren nodded and started to transmit data to Firill. During this time, Lisa finally recovered and scolded Firill and Ren with her face red.
"Please do not spread this kind of photo! By the way, Firill-san, you are next to have your discussion with Mononobe Yuu. Have you made your decision?"
Lisa asked, prompting Firill to ponder with her arms crossed.
"Hmm... If we're gong to talk, I'd like to have a lovey-dovey discussion in the hot spring too."
Hearing this, Mitsuki slowly looked up from leaning against me.
"I... was not... acting lovey-dovey with Nii-san."
"Mitsuki-san... It is completely unconvincing when you speak from such a posture."
Lisa sighed in exasperation.
Deciding that things were moving towards a bad situation at this rate, I hastily interjected.
"Hold on, Firill. I won't be able to take two baths in row. I'm already about to faint."
"Eh... Mononobe-kun, you have to do your best."
Firill pouted disapprovingly. Then Ren spoke up.
"Me too... I want to soak in the hot spring with Onii-chan."
I scratched my head, wondering what to do.
"In that case, we'll just have to control the times and take turns to bathe in sequence, right? For two people to have an unhurried discussion, the hot spring outside is indeed the best choice."
Unable to watch any longer, Lisa suggested. True, my body should be able to endure it in that case. But before that, I was thinking that having discussions during a hot spring bath was in itself—
"S-So, Mononobe-kun, we will enjoy the hot spring together tomorrow morning."
With a commanding demeanor, Firill decided a date for us on her own.
"I'm fine with the daytime tomorrow."
Hearing Ren's matter-of-fact voice, I slumped my shoulders in resignation.
"Fine... Let's talk while in the bath."
After I answered, everyone's gaze gathered on Lisa.
"A-As for me, I don't need..."
Lisa stammered with her face red.
"Fufu, Lisa, are you fine with not enjoying the hot spring together with Mononobe-kun?"
A little malevolently, Firill smiled and asked Lisa.
"Umm... A-According to the current sequence, my turn will take place tomorrow night. Then Tia-san and the others will have to wait a long time. Th-Therefore..."
Lisa paused and pondered in a dilemma. But soon, she seemed to find a flash of inspiration and looked up.
"Oh right—we will simply have a foot bath!"
"Oh, a foot bath?"
I was quite puzzled by this completely unexpected suggestion.
"This type of bath exists in Japan too, I read about it in a magazine once. This would also reduce the strain on Mononobe Yuu. As for the matter of sequence, may I skip ahead and insert my discussion with him between Firill-san and Ren-san's baths?"
With an expression confident that this was an excellent proposal, Lisa confirmed with Firill and Ren.
"I don't mind... But Lisa, you're so impatient."
Firill and Ren looked impressed about something while accepting the proposal.
"I-I am certainly not impatient. I am simply being considerate for his health! Mononobe Yuu—Do you accept too?"
Finally, Lisa looked at me.
By this point, there was no room for objects. I nodded at my wit's end.
Thus, my discussions with Firill and the others were left for the next day. Underground, we welcomed the arrival of night.
It was quite helpful to gain some time to settle and organize my feelings. I felt relieved—It never occurred to me at that moment that there existed a certain character who would disregard prior agreements.
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