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Five days had gone by since the Sacred Demon Grand Prix.
Yet again, Hideo had dressed himself in dirt cheap pajamas, a few hundred tickets for the set. He had gotten the hang of browsing the net he had initially had his apprehensions about.
The one he saw in the mirror with a sidelong glance wasn't a man forced into the clothes of a debt collector. He woke up at a time he couldn't tell was morning or midday, but without leaving the covers, he played games and surfed the net without any particular goal. He took in the minimum required food to keep up that lifestyle, having reverted to his true shut-in form.
Sluggishly lounging around.
Without any real objective, playing c.r.a.ppy games made without any real objective.
Sluggishly, sluggishly lounging and lounging.
"You b.l.o.o.d.y chronic stay-at-home-syndrome b.u.m!!"
Wilco appeared from the screen heel-first for once… he mused as that very same heel landed a critical hit right between his eyes, a human vital point.
"… What's. Up?"
"Don't give me that!? What's with that shut-in att.i.tude!? What happened to all your coolness from the Sacred Demon Grand Prix!?"
While she said that, Hideo didn't believe he had strayed anywhere beyond recovery. From the moment he was born, outside of pressure-free education, Hideo had never obtained such leeway.
The president gave him five million tickets on his resignation. Wilco's server sitting in the corner of the room like a minifridge cost just short of eight hundred thousand. He still had more than four million tickets remaining.
The tournament wasn't an issue either. Wins earned in the Sacred Demon Grand Prix were distributed based on placement. It went without saying Hideo who took first place was granted the most, and he had gained ninety-three wins. Putting that together with what they had gotten thus far, that was ninety-seven.
Ryuuta in third place now had fifty-something, giving Hideo a very firm lead. Elize still had a monopoly on top, but if anything happened to make her lose, he would automatically rise to first place.
No, it wasn't just Elize; Ryuuta and Lily, everyone in the top ten just had to lose. Meaning he didn't have to leave these covers again, he could win without doing anything at all.
"What is there. To worry about."
And Hideo quietly returned to his game.
Wilco nonchalantly disappeared into the kitchen near the front door. When she returned… she was holding a kitchen knife.
Hideo rolled to the side just in the nick of time. A santoku knife had impaled the pillow where his head had been.
"Wha… Wil. Co… what are you…"
"You human trash! Nay, you trash in human form! Forget your parents, a human rights attorney wouldn't defend you!!"
p.r.i.c.k! p.r.i.c.k! p.r.i.c.kp.r.i.c.k! ClinkClankClinkClong!
Hideo was casually thrust straight into his most battle-like battle upon coming to this city (albeit a one-sided defensive). Wilco wore an intimidating aura so thick, Hideo could almost see menacing sound effects radiating out from her. Oddly enough, she approached in almost the same way as Elize.
"… Calm. Down…"
Both sides were panting heavily.
"Wilco just caught a glimpse of your truly terrifying side! In the worst sense, you are your own greatest enemy! Shut-in treatment protocol number one, go outside! Number two, meet people! Number three, talk to them! When you were on the verge of recovering, come so far, you're starting to neglect the very first step!"
"No. But still."
He did go out. That's why he came to this city. He met people. He even s.n.a.t.c.hed money from them. He let out his voice in matches and on the job, wasn't he not able to carry out daily conversation?
Then he went through the whole list. He had done what he could. All that was left was to bravely accept reality, obediently abide by the voice in his heart, and get back to what suited him most. In short…
"The true. Way of life…"
"I… I get it… but. What exactly. Do you want me. To do…"
"You're going to put on a show. In the literal sense."
Wilco exposed a face and voice he had never seen before. Feeling the cold kitchen knife on his nape, Hideo stiffly marched like a robot, driven out of his six tatami utopia.
"… What. Now?"
"Nihihi. You're going to put the shut-in treatment protocol to practice."
It had been a while since he heard that nihihi.
"Here's what you're going to do! You're going to sing on stage at the pub!!"
"Wha… you mean…"
You want me to die!?
"Please. Wait. Why must. All roads lead… to death?"
Stabbed by a knife → Death. Harehareyukai-ing in public→ death.
"Wilco is saying those are the exaggerated delusions of a shut-in! It's perfectly normal to down a drink and sing a bit on open mike! And if you can get along with everyone while you're at it, that's two birds with one stone! Master, you want to change deep down, don't you!?"
"… Well that's…"
The computer virus was lecturing him again… But Wilco's argument was perfectly just, and she hit the mark when she said he wanted to change.
"Now off with you."
"…You're not. Coming?"
"You're already twenty now. You don't need to depend on a virus younger than you! The place is called Little Chips, the largest pub in town. Wilco will come check it out in a while. You got that, master?"
"… No. But."
"If, at that time, I find out no one in the bar has heard you sing!"
She was serious. Wilco was seriously angry. All the joints in Hideo's body quivered as he swallowed his breath.
"If… that happens…"
"We'll hold a solo concert in Center Plaza. Hosted by Obliterating Industries!!"
He was beaten down by an impact to overturn the heavens and the earth.
It was no good, if it came to that… whatever he wanted aside, those people would definitely do it! They'd seriously do it out of plain morbid curiosity!!
"Are… you a d… demon…"
"Nihihi. Nihohohohoh. Nihohahahahah."
Wilco laughed. She laughed with a domineering force that would fit perfectly with blond permed hair.
"Alas, master… Wilco's pitiful master? Have you forgotten? Wilco may look like this, but she's super pleasant and heinous. Her nature sides far more heavily with Obliterating Industries."
As if she was mirroring that president's smile, she menacingly spread her lips. Come to think of it, she got along strangely well with him.
"If you get it, then go hit out a song. It's for your own sake!"
The door was closed. He heard it lock from the inside. Left alone in the pa.s.sageway, Hideo watched the sun set on his way.
Hideo concealed his anguish and conflict under a mask of expressionlessness. He walked the night town like he was aimlessly meandering with no lead.
Of course, even he wanted to say goodbye to this part of him if he could. He wanted to change. But if he couldn't do it, it couldn't be helped.
He realized as the cold night wind struck him. In the end, 'couldn't be helped' was an excuse.
His heart threw out the word 'impossible'. The ease at which the notion came up was the mark of a loser… he was sure he already realized it once in his fight with Hannibal.
But no matter how many times he noticed it, that's where it ended. He realized, but that didn't mean he changed.
When he raised his face, he had already arrived at the pub in question.
(Alcohol… why not.)
That sounded nice. He had forgotten every last detail about the night where he drank. Then perhaps if he drank, he'd forget all about these terrible feelings. While he was at it, he might get the courage he needed to sing…
Hideo teetered into the pub.
Some foreign song that seeped into his heart was coming from the stage. This was the sort of person he would call a songstress, a woman just as beautiful as her voice singing out a sorrowful tune.
Was she some famous singer? Partic.i.p.ants, staff members, masks and maids of Obliterating Industries, Elize Industrial's laborers. Each and every one of them lent an ear to the song on stage, not a single soul to notice Hideo's entrance.
Hideo himself felt the song healing his heartbreak as he sat at a corner of the bar.
"… Well this is an honor, having the champ drop by."
A deep, somber voice. The swarthy bartender with a handlebar mustache came over. He filled a small gla.s.s to the brim with a clear, viscous liquid and handed it over.
"… This is?"
"You had me shaking at the Grand Prix. This one's for the champ, my treat."
Hideo nodded at the winking bartender and downed it in one shot.
Strong alcohol that woke him right up.
It hit the spot. The bitter, sharp taste of the alcohol. From his mouth to his stomach, the slow but painful burn was a comforting rebuke to his pathetic, undeserving self.
"As expected of the champ, you drink well for your age. Have another."
The Latino-looking bartender poured a second gla.s.s. For some reason, this one came with lime and salt. Quite a bizarre side dish, but he couldn't think of anything else it would be. He licked the salt, bit the lime and took another mouthful.
(… Not bad.)
Before long, a single customer finally noticed he was there.
"Umm… you're Hideo, right?"
Taking a seat on the neighboring stool a gla.s.s in one hand, was Ratty, the receptionist who looked out for him. Perhaps on the way back from work, she was still in her uniform.
"Did something happen? Why are you dressed like that?"
He was in his pajamas. What's more, when he took a good look at himself, he was barefoot.
"… Well. This and that."
His urge to die rose as he muttered and hung his head.
"By the look of things, is something troubling you? If you're fine with me, I'll hear you out."
He had mt all sorts of people in this city, but the only decent human being seemed to be this Ratty. The rest were all weirdoes, as Wilco called them.
There were some loads in the world that lifted just by talking about them. This person treated him well at the receptions desk and he decided to try talking a bit.
However. There was no way he could honestly blurt out he was actually a shut-in. He arbitrarily mumbled on about some game he had been hooked on lately.
"Hah, I see. LSD, is it… that one takes me back."
Ratty returned quite the unexpected reply. It did seem she gamed as well. She was a surprisingly reserved person, so he did get the feeling it fit her better than sports and outdoor activities.
"It refuses to be tied down by the fundamental concepts of existing games… meaning, it can barely be called a game at all, objectively it's a c.r.a.p game through and through. Mind Walker revived in 32 bit. But if you think of it as a piece of modern art painted exercised through the medium of the Playstation, I think it deserved a far higher evaluation."
Ratty happily spoke on.
"In that case, how you perceive art varies from person to person. I don't think your perception of it can be taken as universally wrong."
"… Is that. So."
Was this the heart of an enthusiast? The harder it was to have others understand… the more it felt like you were sharing a secret, boosting the joy upon finding a fellow fan.
Mingling with people. Was this feeling the first thing he lacked as a shut-in.
"Apart from that, let's see… you should try out Banshee Last Cry 2's Gold Scarab scenario. It was a critical hit with me. I'm usually no good with horror, but I loved the unease that came from those cryptic words within absurdity. As for more recent t.i.tles, I picked up Yume Nikki after seeing it online, and it was pretty fun."
"But I see, so you game too. I feel a little bit of kinship."
Interesting, he pondered. Looked at from the outside, he was a wielder of Demon Eyes, a mysterious top contender, and to top it all off, Obliterating Industries' skilled debt collector who launched a raid on Elize Industrial.
"I'm a demon for what it's worth, but I have a fondness for j.a.panese Subcultures. Hideo, do you know about the Dendrobium…"
Hideo nodded without a seconds delay.
"Of course. I love it."
But right after that, Ratty stared at the gla.s.s in her hands, a sorrowful look on her face.
"With Suzuran, you know, forget Dendrobium, even Physalis and Zephytanthes were no good… the higherups just don't get it."
"It's sad but. That's just how it. Works…"
Hideo tilted the bottle towards Ratty's empty gla.s.s.
"I begged the Doctor to load on a VSBR and Minovsky Drive, you know. And yet, what's Super Electromag Suzuran supposed to mean.."
"Huh? You don't know her? She's the Obliterating Industries'…"
"… Say no more."
She was talking about Lily. Everyone close to her called her Suzuran. Did that mean this ratty was also an employee of that company? No, but she was part of the management team. In which case, did that company have some dirt on her or something…?
Waaah, a cheer rose at the stage. While a pro was singing when he entered, before he knew it, it seemed to have become something of a karaoke compet.i.tion.
As if she had measured out when the noise would cover her tracks, Ratty lowered her voice. The moment no one, bartender included was looking their way.
"On a serious note… have you heard anything about this tournament from Suzuran?"
Not that he… no? On the contrary, this was a good opportunity to draw some information himself.
"Is this about… Alzahan?"
"Ah, I knew it. For someone on your level, I was sure they'd have gotten into contact with you."
Ryuuta, Elize, Lily, and now Ratty. These people with little connection all seemed to mention the name. What exactly was it?
"No. I'm not. Too knowledgeable."
"Is that so… then here's a warning from me."
Hideo silently nodded.
"Just like what happened with President Elize… that organization is a.s.sertively getting into contact with the more powerful partic.i.p.ants in this tournament. Of course, as top contender, you're no exception."
He hadn't met anyone so suspicious. Not once.
"Even if it hasn't happened yet, eventually… I think they'll come into contact in some shape or form. Since you entered Obliterating Industries right after opening ceremony, they just didn't have the chance."
The organization called Alzahan, and that company. They were presumably in opposition to one another. Did Suzuran… get some info from Elize? She seemed pretty happy, perhaps that was why. Ryuuta sounded like he didn't have any leads to their whereabouts. Then perhaps they were that sort of ungraspable elusive organization.
"Suzuran let you free when you might be targeted… because even if Alzahan did get in contact with you, she knew you wouldn't join or fold to them. She rates you quite highly."
That one was pretty shocking from Hideo's point of view. The short of the matter was that he was let swim as bait for a larger fish.
He had gone through such anguish to win the Grand Prix. The hundred million ticket resignation level he had smashed at them so hard they couldn't complain… did they purposely accept it knowing what would happen? His own will and Wilco's will had nothing to do with it?
Hideo tilted his gla.s.s almost like he was going to splash himself with it.
"… I'm sorry. But I thought you were better off knowing… Suzuran and the others, how should I put it… they're pretty self-serving. I just wanted to tell you to take care."
He was thankful. He was frankly grateful for Ratty's consideration. It was just that… in the end, that was all he was. Soaring through the sky not knowing he was being used. It felt so futile.
No matter how hard he tried, that's what it always came down to…
(… That's why.)
That's why it was pointless, no matter how hard a shut-in tried… his thoughts were tilting in a negative direction again.
"Until now, future sight was a tremendous, peerless ability that only the Sacred a.s.sembly's Prophet possessed. Though I'm sure you know that better than anyone…"
Hold on… in the first place, who started that demon eye nonsense?
He finally remembered. Why had he never been able to remember it? On the first day of the tournament, his last opponent. The Vampire Verrocchia said it. From there, the rumors spread in a flash.
"That's why they'll approach you cleverly and cautiously. Please take care. If you notice anything odd… it can be me or Suzuran. Please inform us at once."
Hideo bit on the lime and emptied the liquid in his gla.s.s.
"I was wondering if something happened that made you lower your outings… I was pretty worried. That's what made me talk to you today. But it looks like it was nothing. That's good…"
She was a kind person.
Then at the very least, wouldn't he have to do his best for the people like her?
It was because he concluded it was all about him alone, his mullings always got stuck up on 'couldn't be helped'.
By talking with someone, they would communicate their will, if only in the slightest. The drive to do his best birthed from that was far stronger than what he had decided on his own. That was precisely why going outside, meeting people, and talking to them was so important.
"Oh look at you, champ, you're already empty. What can I do you for next?"
"… Then. One of. The same."
Hyuu, the bartender whistled.
"Good going, Champ. If you're a man, you need one of these."
Far more calmly than with the first one, Hideo gazed at the liquid being poured to him.
Now then, while Wilco was enraged at the start, she now cheerfully dropped by the pub in question. She was sincere about wishing he graduated from being a garbage human. As long as he could change into a proper human being, all was well with the world.
Otherwise, she would have to bring up that plan with Lily and Takase. Those drastic measures were her only option. A person who doesn't think to stand up on his own will be hopeless no matter what they do. In that case, she had no choice but to collapse his heart and soul with inhuman shock therapy one might call the work of the devil.
She'd at least get a laugh from it.
Now could the shut-in escape the coc.o.o.n with his effort!? Or would he pitifully become the livestock, the laughing stock of those evildoers!? The name of the place she entered was Little Chips. There seemed to be some sort of event going on up on stage, and the pub was quite lively.
"D… don't tell me Master!?"
She thought, but that wasn't the case.
An unfamiliar woman sung the last note of her self-accompanied ballad and stepped down from the stage. While the place was lively, the applause for this woman was scattered and scarce.
'A little inshufficiant? We're still taking challenges!'
Wearing the armband of a judge, the landlady in a uniform smiled and twitched her ears by the stage.
'Then onto the next challenger. We bring you the troubadour Pete Brancwm.'
With a harp in one hand, this time a man in an Old English costume began singing a grand epic poem. Ooooh, the shop was astir.
"… My, my, if it isn't Wilco."
"Hey, it's one of the full-body tights."
She ran into one of her old colleagues. Granted, they all wore tights and masks with the same pattern, so she had no idea who was who.
"What's going on here?"
"It's a singing match. Everyone here will decide who did better."
Now that was quite…
"This pub has an amazing singer by the name of Remina. Now and again, those who are confident in themselves come to challenge her, but…"
The full-body tights turned back to the stage. Not a troubadour for nothing, from what she could hear, he exceeded your average opera singer in both volume and ability. But when it came to the actual evaluation… it wasn't as bad as that previous singer, it couldn't be called a thunderous applause.
'How unfortunate, Pete is defeated. Please make sure you submit the paperwork at Center afterward.'
"… Just how good are this songstress's songs…"
"shh. She's up next. Well, just have a listen."
What she eventually heard was a crystal-clear voice like a harp. A single woman in a light-colored robe stood on stage. The store that had been so lively up to a moment ago, as if not to let a single sound slip by… When she had no accompaniment, the silence itself resounded like a deep orchestra. Before long, as if she had provoked them, the guitar singer and troubadour who were supposed to have lost started matching along in improv, entranced. A singing voice that even enchanted a foe.
"Haah… I see…"
In the sea of the net, from synthesized to operetta, Wilco had heard all sorts of music, but a voice on this level escaped her.
"Aah, I feel healed… It seems she's a siren, you know."
"Hah? By Siren… you mean those ones that lure in and sink ships with their songs?"
The full-body tights nodded to her question.
"How about it? If a top contender like you challenges her, I'm sure you'll cause quite a stir."
"Nah man. How is Wilco supposed to win that…"
Fu fu fu fu fu.
"… What even was that, that full-weirdo laugh?"
"No, my apologies. You seemed to take quite the keen interest in our Remina, so I couldn't help myself…"
She scanned for the voice and found a somewhat-stylish businessman. Silky hair and lightly-tinted sungla.s.ses, instead of a cardigan, he had a sweater hanging over his shoulders. That style with the sleeves tied in a knot in front of the chest.
"Ah, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm her producer, [email protected] A pleasure."
"The Idolmaster!?" She would have relentlessly retorted if this was Hideo she was dealing with, but she was meeting this man for the first time, so she contained herself.
"We're kinda starting to get some real weirdos now…"
"You're that notorious top contender, Wilco, aren't you?"
Taoka lifted his gla.s.ses like he was appraising her.
"Your friend brought up an interesting suggestion. So how about it? Want to try challenging our Remina?"
"Erk… say what you want, but there's no way Wilco can win with singing. Putting aside whether you're the real [email protected] or not."
An electronic battle would be her complete victory. But on that same vein, in singing, of course, the girl called Remina would crush her.
While that was going on, her song had ended, a warm and grand applause gushing up like at a cla.s.sical concert. There were many tears shed. As if to say yesterday's enemies were today's friends, Remina shook hands with the guitar player and troubadour, and they all shared praise of one another.
'You heard it here folks, it's Remina's win again. We're still taking challengers. Does anyone want to have a gyo?'
Perhaps a temporary intermission, Remina stepped down from the stage and walked towards them.
Sirens were a legendary existence so Wilco couldn't tell her exact age… but appearance-wise, she looked to be in her early thirties. Graceful and reserved, coupled with her blond hair cut at a uniform length, she was akin to a G.o.ddess of myth.
"Producer. How was I? Was that song…"
"Don't get in over your head!"
Taoka suddenly struck Remina's cheek… or so he made it look. Right at the last moment, he smacked his own left hand. That fake slap gag that was popular back when his clothes were still trendy.
"Do you really think that was enough to take the world!?"
"I-I'm sort, Producer… but I'm, doing my best…"
Smack, smack, right, then left. Swinging straight at Remina's face, Taoka slapped his own hand. With a small scream, Remina collapsed down on the spot.
"I don't want to hear your excuses. Have you forgotten that dream we swore an oath on!? b.o.o.b tou… I mean, best songstress in the world!"
With a dull sound, Wilco's fist entered Taoka's brow.
"Imas is a more heartwarming game."
Still sitting on her side, Remina quietly sobbed.
"He told me the world was waiting for my songs, he smooth talked me with honeyed words and I've been following him ever since…"
Wilco got the feeling it went off the moment she admitted she was sweet-talked.
"But for some reason, he tries to touch my chest whenever he gets a chance…"
Wilco put another two servings of fist into the hard part of Taoka's forehead.
"Then just get away from this creep…"
"Unfortunately, we Sirens… lose all sense of direction the moment we set foot on dry land. I cannot go home even if I wanted to."
"That's quite the convoluted setting…"
"Aah, I want to go home. I miss the blue of the Mediterranean sea…"
"Those blessed days, sinking all the large oil tankers down the Suez Ca.n.a.l…"
"Err, good job, Taoka."
"I'm quite certain I'm doing the world a favor here. Anyhow… if you have any complaints, you'll have to settle it in song."
It would be far easier if he wanted to settle it with dance.
"If Remina loses, I'll have to admit my training methods are wrong and pull back… how does that sound?"
Yet Remina weakly shook her head as she wept.
"Umm, you don't really have to… I'm surprisingly fond of having everyone listen to my songs… and the chest and whatnot always ends at a botched attempt."
"Uuurgh… I see."
So this was the reason compet.i.tors challenged her in song, even knowing of her abilities.
The docile, unfortunate Lemina, and Taoka putting up a strong front with his oh-so-punchable face. Upon observing the contrast, anyone would stick in their mouth. It was human nature to want to free her.
By the time she noticed it, looks of hope. Eyes filled with expectation were gathering from all over the pub.
"Oh, aren't you that famous top contender, Wilco!? Can't you do something with your power!?"
The long-bearded troubadour begged to her. The first woman who played the guitar was also enraged.
"Remina's songs can reach the world without this crooked snake oil salesman! I'm begging you, save her…!"
They urged on and on. It was starting to take quite the troublesome turn.
"… Umm. Then in short, doesn't Remina just have to lose on purpose?"
"I would love to… but the moment I start singing, I become completely absorbed. It is a Siren's instinct…"
Another troublesome setting.
Even if that wasn't the case, having the top contender challenge the unmatched siren songstress was a splendid drawcard. There was no way it wouldn't heat up. The air was already such that she couldn't get away.
Now that it had come to this, should she sample some professional singers from what she could pull…? She had learned plainly from the Sacred Demon Grand Prix that it was surprisingly hard for her to imitate people. What's more, this time it wasn't about manipulating a car, she would have to do it herself. She may be able to mimic the song itself, but would it count if it wasn't her voice?
"Fu fu fu fu fu. Pardon me, pardon me, it looks like it's a little too hard for you. Yes, I won't force you to do anything…"
He sleekly pushed up his sungla.s.ses.
"Your loli voice would never warrant a bo… I mean never be able to hinder our dreams of aiming for the world, after all."
"Y… you're on! If you're going that far…!!"
A quiet voice, from a corner of the bar.
Wilco looked to find a single terribly familiar young man in pajamas. Beside him, a timidly gesturing Ratty. Quite a while since she'd seen her.
"Wait, Hideo…? Are you okay…? Your legs are…"
"I'm fine. My mind is. Very clear."
He teetered. The feet that came down from the stool were uncertain as they had been some time before.
"I caused you. Some trouble, but… I'm fine."
As she thought. She knew it, she knew it, this man was amazing! Wilco knew. These were a warrior's eyes, what she placed her greatest trust in as her partner.
Hideo's two eyes were locked on Taoka the whole time as he approached.
"I… see. That rumored top contender, you definitely do feel different from our past challengers…"
"I heard. Everything. I accept that match."
Those eyes, that voice, the man who had slung around Obliterating Industries and sunken so many hard foes. Perhaps she had said too much at the apartment, but this man could only exhibit his true specialty when dropped into a pinch.
'Nyow this is something! A match between the Hideo-Wilco and TaokRemina pair!'
an undivided cheer rose up.
"Fu fu fu fu fu! You fell for it, Kawamura Hideo. I don't know about anything else… but as long as it's a singing match, you stand no chance of victory!"
"You never know. Until you try."
The two glared at one another.
"Wilco knew you had it in you, Master!!"
"Leave it to me. Wilco. Who do you think I am?"
Hideo flung out his hand to the crowd as if he was brandishing a cape.
"What foolish mortal dare challenge the pajama G.o.d? Hast thou forgotten the cosmic [email protected] that all b.o.o.bs in the world belong in my hand?"
When no windows were open, a large gust of wind pa.s.sed through the store.
G.o.d had made his descent. Once again, gracing the world with his presence.
"Wait, how drunk are you masteeeeeeeer!?"
"… Greetings, Electronic G.o.d. From today forth, I've become the—"
"Yeah, just cry! Fry! Bye! Die!"
Whop! Whop! Whop! Whop!
"Wilco. Are you… actually a tsunde—"
"Seriously just go and qAwSdrftgyFJKlp!?"
In her sheer exasperation, it was like her speech core had burst.
"W-whoah… so Hideo really is… I thought he was acting strange…"
"Ratty, was it you!? Just how smashed did you get him!?"
"Eeeek!? I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't know, I didn't know, by the time I noticed it, he had downed a bottle of Tequila…!"
Usually around forty to fifty percent alcohol, what's more, the normal practice was to take it straight, a manly liquor. It was no exaggeration to say the three catch-up shots that sent his mind off into the distance on the first day were compressed into one single gla.s.s.
"Uwaaah, what are we going to do here!? He already accepted the match! How are we supposed to beat Remina like this!? How are we going to make a miracle happen!?"
"What is a G.o.d if he cannot bring about a single miracle?"
When all shots cleanly hit his brow, it was starting to hurt.
'Ahem, it looks like Hideo's taken quite the shyot to the brain. If you are unable to pyartic.i.p.ate in the match, you lose by default.'
Even the landlady was on board.
"We'll do something about it! We'll do something, so just a little time! At least let us go second! How about it, [email protected]!!?"
Taoka who was taken aback by Hideo's strange poses finally returned to reality. No, that wasn't restricted to him alone.
"Uumm… sure. Of course, I except… my apologies, I mean I accept."
When they see something amazing, humans do find themselves in awe.
"I'd like to get some rest for our Remina here too… We'll have the match in thirty minutes, that sound good?"
"Nice one, Good-Job-Taoka!! You may be an enemy, but you have Wilco's grat.i.tude!!"
"Ah, no, my name's Im…"
Whatever the case, Wilco dragged Hideo off and shoved him into the waiting room.
Even if it wasn't a match, there were piano players and dancer, magicians to take the stage at the pub. This was a backstage dressing room for those performers.
"Come to think of it, this is a scandal for tournament management! Ratty, you use your authority to cancel the match!"
"EeEh!? I can't do that! I was just with him, he's the one who kept downing drinks left and right! I don't even have that sort of authority!"
An unproductive quarrel. And stalemate.
"But. The one. Who told me to sing. Was you, Wilco…"
"I didn't tell you to wage a match on it!"
"G.o.ds and stars are birds of a feather… what G.o.d can't sing a song?"
"Where is all this confidence coming from!? Okamaru isn't lending you power like last time! What, are you going to tell me Okamaru's actually a master singer!? That's he's going to hide behind you and let you lip-sync!? Something so convenient isn't going to happen!!"
Wilco said, turning expectantly to the entrance of the dressing room.
… And of course, Minako did not make an entrance at just the right time.
"… Are we really going to lose over something so stupid… what's more, against [email protected] of all people…"
"What a strange fate… to think I'd come to witness Hideo's final match."
"Eeeh!? I'm sorry, I'm sorry! Please don't bite me!"
"Hah… for now, our only blessing is that master is all ready to sing… we can avoid defaulting."
So the problem was how they were going to win.
Huh? Hideo thought.
"……? What's wrong, master. You're looking pale…"
How to win wasn't supposed to be the problem, right? Huh? Then what exactly had he been seeing as the problem this whole time?
(I… I see…)
"Wait, we'll be very troubled if you collapsed like last time!"
"No. Not. That."
He wasn't feeling ill. His condition was actually pretty favorable.
"I just realized. Something terrible."
"A… and that is?"
"… I'm. Not. A G.o.d."
"It's not that you noticed, you've just sobered up!!"
What's more, his memories weren't gone like last time.
He remembered recalling Verrocchia while talking to Ratty, he remembered accepting the match with Atoka, and what was going to happen… moreover, how he had confessed to being the pajama G.o.d in front of so many onlookers. All of it.
I'm sorry. World.
"… I'll apologize. With my death."
"Don't do ittttttt!!"
As his shoulders trembled in a torrent of cold sweat, she landed a punch.
"T-then… I'll atone by."
"Not that part! Stop trying to die!! Aaaaaaaaah, we really are back to the starting point, what do we do nooooooooooow!?"
he fell into a slump.
"I-it's the worst… we've fallen into the worst possible situation…"
Seeing their exchange, Ratty timidly started up.
"Umm, Hideo, are you still drunk…?"
"Eh? Y-yeah, umm, that's right. When he gets drunk, he reverts to a cryptic slouch of a shut-in and…"
Ratty wasn't a partic.i.p.ant but a staff member, they wouldn't be at a disadvantage even if she found out his ident.i.ty. But if she knew someone she worried so hard about was just a shut-in with no demon eyes or anything…
Hideo restlessly looked at the clock, only fifteen minutes to go before the match began. He saw an illusion of those fifteen minutes being the time he had left on this earth.
He didn't have an addiction yet he couldn't contain his shaking.
"… Hideo, should I get you something warm to drink? It'll calm you down a bit."
Ratty left with a smile. The two were left alone in the room.
"To be perfectly honest, master… you've gone through battlefields far greater than this one. What are you so afraid of…"
But the odds were far worse than any match before it. Between pain and embarra.s.sment…
… That's right. The pain was far worse. He wouldn't have understood when he first arrived in this city, but he knew it now. It hurt to be wounded. It was sad to fight. He had tasted enough of that at the Grand Prix to detest it… he couldn't take it anymore, so he holed himself up again.
But Wilco was right. This time was different. A song. At the very least, this match was separate from pain and from fear. Compared to that march through the rain.
"… Have you thought of anything?"
"But… you're looking more like yourself now."
Wilco gave a bit of a happy smile.
"Wilco just accessed Center and searched it up, but just like the legend of the sirens, Remina's singing voice contains a special sort of mana."
"A siren… huh."
"Luckily, thanks to Good-Job, instead of dangerous tanker-sinking tunes, she's only singing sad songs…"
There were certainly a lot of people who cried at Remina's song. It soothed his heart when he came to the bar.
"Naturally she had skill as a singer, but the audience is influenced by that on top of her magic and always end up voting for her… it's not looking good. Even challengers who hired shills end up losing."
So Taoka's peerless confidence came from that setup. But Remina herself… what did she think of only singing such sad songs? With that in mind, it was hard to imagine she was intentionally making use of those subliminal abilities.
As a pure result of her songs, she was influencing her audience… there was only one point he could take a stab at.
The piece of a fragmented, disjointed puzzled floated in his mind.
"… I'll try. Singing."
"Eh… You can sing? Rather, have you ever sung before!?"
Who did she think he was? Not in this mysterious world, he had properly finished compulsory education in normal society. Music cla.s.s, singing the school anthem, there were plenty of chances to sing.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I thought it would be good for your throat and had him whip up a hot lemon."
Three gla.s.ses raising steam from her tray. Ratty returned.
"Remina is already ready by the stage… have you already decided what you're going to sing?"
"Well, about that…"
Seeing Ratty's face, he recalled his conversation with her. That was enough of a trigger to click another puzzle piece into place.
"It won't guarantee. Victory, but."
He told Wilco. He had somewhat forgotten the name, but he told her where it came from.
… The two of them were terribly surprised.
"Ma… mamamamamaster, you can sing that!?"
"amazing! You're way too amazing, Hideo! I might just fall for you!!"
Hideo took a sip of hot lemon.
The words naturally came back to him.
'I Gotta Believe.'
Why had he forgotten the words he had loved so?
His hesitation was gone.
When she was done singing, Remina took a graceful bow to the audience.
'Thank you very much. It was as wonderful a song as ever.'
Unending applause. Applause. Praise. The dropping tears.
By that point, the flow was completely with Remina. It was a blessing in disguise that they had her go first. If she created this air at the end, anyone would end up choosing Remina's song.
And as Hideo pa.s.sed her by as she stepped down from the stage,
"I'm sorry… I really am unable to hold back…"
"No. Don't worry. About it."
If he was part of the audience, no matter who she was up against, he would have undoubtedly supported her.
"Incidentally. Do Sirens ever sing. Fun songs?"
"? … Yes, of course they do… more so, I'd love to sing one…"
Her eyes went to Taoka, lifting his sungla.s.ses from the crowd.
"But I keep remembering my homeland, and I can never get into it…"
"Then. You might want. To sing along."
With those words, Hideo climbed the steps. Wilco had arrived before him, she touched the Karaoke machine and closed her eyes. From a light dizziness, he could tell she was using her power.
"… All ready! Let's give it a go!"
Unlike Remina, acapella was impossible. He didn't have the volume either, both he and Wilco held a microphone each. What started to play was a light piano rhythm.
Yo yo yo! Check this out!
It's party time!! Party time! In the house…!
His p.r.o.nunciation and intonation made it sound like nonsense barely resembling the English language. But just one point. His rhythm alone was flawless.
His heart had already returned to those days. This was Hideo's song of memories. A song more fun than any other in his life.
The song that played on the last stage of Parappa the Rapper. He was surprised when they got it with just those words… but it was to be expected of an electronic spirit and someone knowledgeable on the subculture.
A supreme masterpiece that relit the fire of the smoldering-out genre of rhythm games. This song was one of the reasons it was regarded so highly.
He started off having Wilco answer his calls. He matched her innate pleasant energy.
Somebody say ho!
Say ho! ho!!
Say ho! ho! ho!
Ho Ho Ho!!
That was enough. Even if he only had a vague recollection of the actual lyrics, what was important was the pace and this exchange with the audience. Even if he didn't have mana, music was already overflowing with a power that enchanted people called 'rhythm'.
The crowd that had simply strained their ears to hear Remina's mesmerizing song naturally matched the tempo and began raising their voices the next time Wilco gestured to them.
All those people who challenged Remina before must have misunderstood the battle. That's why instead of flashy pieces, they all settled for calm songs where it was easiest to see the singer's actual skill.
But this wasn't a talent contest. The verdict was given by an audience filled up with a moderate amount of alcohol. If Remina had her magic influence, he would take them in with the flow she didn't have.
This was after a Siren's heartbreaking tune that constricted their hearts. That was precisely why a cheerful rhythm would let their hearts, their bodies dance as a backlash.
Everybody say ho!
Say ho! ho!!
Ho! ho! ho!
Ho Ho Ho!!
The contestents who just lost and the audience rose to the stage in a drunken dance. As if she had remembered something from such a crazy sight, even Remina herself…
There was no stopping it. As Wilco wished it, the song continued almost endlessly. And Hideo continued to sing.
You gotta do what!?
I gotta receive!
But most important,
I gotta BELIEVE!!
I believe I can do it. He recalled how he got together with his old friends, referencing that old English to j.a.panese dictionary as they translated each word one by one. He carved it into his heart.
The location being a pub was their biggest aid. Before long the match was completely ignored as the drunks raised a heated tournament of their own. Wilco arbitrarily picked out songs with good pace. Those who wanted to sing sung. Those who wanted to dance danced.
The party Hideo ignited continued past the date changed… before he knew it, each and every one of them was partied out or down drunk, and all that remained was the quiet of a festival's end.
'… Umm, come to think of it, who won?'
The landlady had forgotten her job and gotten drunk.
As Hideo reveled in the afterglow, Remina and Taoka came over to him.
"Thank you most kindly. Thanks to you, I feel I've recalled how fun it is to sing."
Taoka followed on.
"I'll admit it… my training methods were wrong."
As far as he could remember, the judge landlady hadn't issued the verdict.
"It's fine… I found a new side of Remina today."
And when Taoka turned to her, she hadn't the slightest melancholic shadow across her face. She was mesmerizing when she sung of sorrows, but he got the feeling her gentle expression drew out her charms even further.
No matter who they were, a laughing face far outweighed one in tears.
"The smile you catch a glimpse of through the veil of sorrows. This gap… is what you call moe."
The men exchanged a firm handshake. Their fervor had Remina break into half a cold sweat.
"Umm, I don't really get it, but…my producer and I just wanted to try taking the world by song. We don't really mind losing."
Taoka lifted his sungla.s.ses and shrugged.
"We're not cut out for the brutish combat that takes place in this city."
"Is that. So. Thank you."
When he looked back, Wilco seemed to have drunk some herself, she was asleep with a red face, drifting around the air as per usual. She would have loved to hear that.
"I've decided to go on tour a while longer before I go home. I want everyone to hear my songs. Well then, Hideo, farewell."
"I'll send you an invite when she has a concert. Until then. Goodbye."
Remina and Taoka both left a smile and left for Center to fill out the defeat paperwork.
"That worked out nicely, Hideo."
Ratty was next to him before he knew it.
He grabbed a floating Wilco by the hand and started on his way back, like pulling a balloon behind him. They were going the same direction part-way, so Ratty tagged along.
"You were so cool back there…! The way you sang it so calmly, that's the gap they call moe! Is the feeling I'm getting."
… Was that getting trendy in this city? It really wasn't intentional, that was just his usual lack of expression.
But it was fun. Truly fun.
"Did you know this would happen if you sang that song? They really are amazing, the demon eyes of future sight…!"
The afterglow faded a bit. Truth be told, Hideo had somewhat thrown this match to the wind. He wasn't as fixated on victory as he had been before.
If this tournament continued, someday he would have to go through the same pain as the Grand Prix… he was scared. So if this was going to be the last match anyway, he wanted to at least have a fun time with it. That was as far as he had thought. And while he was at it, if he could get Remina on board, and let her sing something fun, would it clear up some of this depression within him? He had a faint hope.
He hadn't the slightest motive to be proud of.
"But Hideo, how…"
"Master… how did you memowize zat swong…"
Ratty giggled at Wilco's drowsy sleep talk. It seemed she was going to ask the same.
"… High school, sports festival. The cla.s.s used it. As a cheer."
"Heeeh! Now that's trendy, that is!"
It really was fun. When he was on that stage, he did nothing but remember his youthful days. Whenever the weekends came around they would always gather at someone's house every evening to play video games. There were two music lovers in their group. A PlayStation they got cheap at a second-hand shop, Parappa from dusk till dawn… getting so heated, proposing to use it as a cheer. The cla.s.s was all for it. The festival, of course, a success and…
No matter how he remembered those days. In the end, he wasn't the him from back then. He was surely the same person, what could have happened? What was different now? What must one do to change…?
Where did the days go?
"… Ah, well I'm going in this direction. We'll have to call it a day. It was fun."
Ratty's feet stopped at an intersection.
"That should be. My line."
"Ufufu, but you would've been happier if it was Kirishima with you, right? She's got her eye out for you, you know?"
"Well, keep doing your best in the Sacred Demon Cup. I'm personally rooting for you."
With a wave of her hand, Ratty was off.
"Wilco did er best too… correcting da mike input in reel time…"
He had to change. For the people rooting for him. For his partner. If he could win, surely something would change. Even if he didn't, he needed to move forward. He would stop shutting himself in.
The most important thing is to believe.
Until he had fallen asleep, Hideo replayed those words again, and again. Again, and again.