Haruaki could not help but think to himself, this atmosphere really felt like the aftermath of a festival. That being said, it would also be a bit too disrespectful.
"Pay attention, everyone~ Hurry and clean up, clean up. If you don't divide up the work, the cleaning up won't finish~"
This carefree voice was also part of the reason. Pakuaki was currently issuing orders to his subordinates from the Lab Chief's Nation. His att.i.tude was so upbeat that it felt like he would be blowing "poot-poot-poot" nonstop if he had one of those whistles for issuing commands. Dressed in lab coats, the researchers were mainly using a special tool resembling a rope or a ribbon to tie up the knights collapsed all over the place. Although "Dominionization" had activated at one point, Haruaki's group had apparently made it in time to cancel it before the spear took effect to wake up the unconscious knights. In light of the Dominion Lord receiving the blessing effect perfectly as the owner, the timing was definitely a close shave. They had made it in time quite miraculously.
The ma.s.sively built researcher (called Takasugi, right?) was transporting the tied-up knights somewhere while getting whipped (quite happily, for some reason) by his female boss who was laughing darkly. Did they bring in ambulances as well? Or perhaps, having established a lab in a kaleidoscope before, it would not come as a surprise if they had similar tools.
Presumably due to the owner's death, the «Wittelsbach Knights» were collapsed on the ground, having stopped moving. Naturally, these sets of armor were also moved away by the Lab Chief's Nation, likely claiming them to be used as research subjects. It felt like they were reaping benefits as a third party in the conflict, or committing a robbery during a fire, but right now, Haruaki had no energy to complain.
While Haruaki was sitting limply, he had the spear's remains in front of him. The remains of a shaft that had been sliced into dozens of fragments, as well as the remnants of the spear tip which had been pulled out of the ground before getting shredded. Naturally, they did not neglect the second spear on the Dominion Lord's wheelchair and had destroyed it together as well.
Of course, this was only achieved by using Konoha and Kotetsu's powers. After destroying «Dieu le veut», what one could call the root cause responsible for everything, Haruaki could not help but feel overwhelmed with emotion, simply staring at it intently for quite a long time. By the time he came back to his senses, he noticed that Kotetsu and Konoha had already returned to human form and the following conversation also took place:
"It's finally over..." "Yes, but do not get the wrong idea. This was a special exception, I have yet to acknowledge you as the master—" "Hold it, Kotetsu! Before saying something of that sort while standing there with your legs apart, put on some clothing first—! I-Immorality Blocker (Girly boy variant)!" "K-Konoha, the same goes for you! Both of you, get dressed now!" For some reason, Haruaki found this very nostalgic.
Recalling that, Haruaki smiled while checking out his surroundings.
Finally dressed, Konoha and Kotetsu were talking to Aiko who was going "hweh~" while hunching her neck. They were probably making self-introductions.
With a blank expression, Kirika was sitting on the ground just like Haruaki. For some reason, she kept her gaze directed at her legs.
Then—as though noticing that things had come to a conclusion, or simply out of coincidence, people who had been originally scattered throughout the school were now gradually showing up at the sports ground.
With his arms dangling powerlessly, the superintendent was limping around. There was also the rare sight of his gas mask removed. Beside him was Zenon who was carrying Ganon on her back. "Tsk~ It's already over~? So boring~" Originally stepping on a «Wittelsbach Knight», Kokoro quietly moaned "Oh no!" as soon as she saw the superintendent and his subordinates. Perhaps she had disobeyed some kind of order.
Then from between the other school buildings, Pendragon walked over with Riko and Granaury in company. He was swiveling his arm as though doing warm-up exercises, but grinned cheerfully after noticing their gaze—naturally, it was directed at Kuroe. Kuroe simply shrugged with a helpless smile on her face. Haruaki had no idea what she was actually thinking inside.
Finally appearing was a noisy group of people who had been on the roof until earlier—Sovereignty, Kana and Taizou were waving vigorously. Shiraho and Chihaya looked like they wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Isuzu was all smiles. The usual bunch.
Fear squinted, focusing her gaze on everyone gathered in the sports ground.
With a very calm expression on her face, she looked like she was trying to brand certain things deeply onto her retinas—Such was the incredible level of her intensity.
The square-shaped sky was visible, framed by the school building. Also, that was all they could see.
"The Commander is definitely the Commander..."
So weak so weak so weak so weak so weak. The truth was engraved on the bottom of her heart.
Honestly speaking, Satsuko thought to herself: "As expected." She even... felt relieved.
All she did was acquire a weapon. Someone weak like her could not possibly get strong with just that.
To her, strength was happiness. Not becoming strong meant not obtaining happiness.
If all it took was a weapon to obtain happiness... Then what meaning would that make for her entire life prior to this?
Hence, perhaps this was best.
Lying on the ground, Satsuko stroked her belly absent-mindedly. Her belly, all covered with wounds. There were new wounds from the fight as well as old wounds from long before the decisive battle—from childhood.
Both stood as evidence of her weakness. Her crime of being too weak. Matter-of-fact wounds.
Happiness was so distant, too far away out of arm's reach.
Hence, of course. She, who was unhappy, she, who had never tasted happiness—Of course she was weak.
"Satsuko is truly... too weak..."
Supposed to be collapsed by her side, Fourteen did not answer.
Did she fall asleep? —Satsuko wondered.
Speaking of which, so sleepy—She thought.
As soon as she closed her eyes, she would never see anything again.
Whether her own weakness.
Or the happiness of strength.
"Hi, are you doing okay?"
"Do I look like I'm doing okay?"
Limping, the superintendent answered while using his right hand to hold his left arm that could not raise itself. His entire body was hurting so much as though it were about to shatter, but he remained standing on both legs and was able to talk. Considering the fact that he survived, perhaps he had come out ahead after all, a.s.suming he was going to live after fighting the creature closest to being the strongest.
Zenon was also limping like him. On her back was Ganon who occasionally whimpered in pain, still unconscious, for whom it was unclear whether she was suffering from fractures or internal damage. The superintendent really wanted to get her to a hospital as soon as possible.
"So, what's up?"
"You're still asking me what's up? Don't play dumb."
Pendragon scratched the inside of his ear with his little finger while remarking in displeasure. The superintendent did not feel afraid. Because he knew why Pendragon was unhappy. Also because he knew clearly that all they could do was die helplessly if Pendragon had any ill intent.
He turned his gaze to glance at the woman beside Pendragon. Eyes long and narrow. Voluptuous figure. Of course, she was clothed now.
They looked at each other silently for a while.
"Tsk!" Pendragon clicked his tongue and scratched his head.
"Listen here... I'm going to become the strongest, even more than now, to become a dragon. I've already found my target too. Since I'm good-looking and have boundless love, I'll find a solution as long as I keep working hard and not give up. Rather, I should say I'll definitely succeed. Yeah, I won't give up, after all."
The superintendent knew vaguely what he was talking about. He also understood vaguely what had happened today. Because he knew Pendragon's personality intimately as well as the personality of the girl Pendragon was pursuing.
"...Isn't it far too shameless to call yourself good-looking?"
"I know right!? So shameless! Also the thing about boundless love! That's so lame, are you an idiot? Idiot idiot—!"
Pendragon raised his hand to stop Riko who was almost about to bite his ear.
"You're too noisy. Anyway, that's my top priority now. On a different note, I defeated Squishy-ko just now. Although she was strong, as expected of myself, it was a one-sided victory without any close calls. However, my one-sided victory did make me think, since I will end up becoming the strongest, if I'm already the strongest during the time before that, wouldn't other people lose the motivation to challenge me?"
Totally incomprehensible. The superintendent c.o.c.ked his head.
"Oh~ And so... I suppose you can think of it as letting everyone see that I'm not flawless, or perhaps to declare that I'm perfectly fine with losing one of my fangs even this late in the game..."
Pendragon suddenly widened his eyes mid-sentence as though he found speaking too much of a ha.s.sle.
"Ultimately, what I want to say is this: We never settled our score. Gabriel, this is a duel between men! Let's do it!"
"Huh? Hold on, you've totally lost me here!"
"Shut up! Riko, don't you interfere. A situation like this requires one to fight barehanded with manly fort.i.tude!"
"So stupid, I don't wanna interfere in the first place."
Just as Riko's pouting lips went "boo~" and replied, anyone could tell that Pendragon was not serious. Hence, no one stopped him. Neither did anyone help the superintendent.
Pendragon strode over next to him. As though flicking away a buzzing fly—
He punched the superintendent in the face. Of course, he already held back, using only maybe one ten-thousandth of his original punching strength. Let alone tiles, it would probably break a rice cracker at most. But the superintendent was in a state akin to a broken man, hence this punch was still a substantial blow, causing him to stagger.
Seeing that, Pendragon frowned as though he had something to say but ultimately did not express his thoughts. Swinging both fists to taunt like a boxer, Pendragon then brought his own face up close.
"Come on, your turn. Strike back. I will gladly take it. Because I am the strongest man, the Commander of the Draconians. A feeble punch coming from you, who looks like you're about to keel over any moment, won't hurt me at all. Be my guest."
Yeah, d.a.m.n right you are—The superintendent thought.
Seeing Pendragon's stupid look while bringing his face near again and again, despite not understanding what he wanted, the superintendent knew that this farce was not going to end unless he indulged him. Hence, he halfheartedly punched Pendragon's cheek after a sigh. Fearing his own shoulder might dislocate if he punched with too much force, the superintendent made something like a light jab. However—
Pendragon groaned in an exaggerated manner and flew backwards, even rolling back and forth on the ground. Finally, he stood up while panting and shuddering ostentatiously. Scowling with narrowed eyes, Riko remained clinging onto his arm. It looked extremely fake.
"Huff, huff... G-Good game. I... lost..."
"...Umm, what kind of show are you putting on exactly...?"
The superintendent spoke and imitated Riko by narrowing his eyes, but Pendragon ignored him and shook his head as though he were out of options.
"Can't be helped, I've been defeated as the Commander. n.o.body can complain. Here, take it...!"
"Yes. How regrettable/joyous that it makes my uterus hurt. Truly cannot be helped, then I shall be taken away."
Granaury quietly walked over to the superintendent's side and turned to face the same direction as he was. As a result, the superintendent figured everything out.
As though saying mission accomplished, Pendragon swiveled his neck with a "good grief" and patted his clothing. When the superintendent glared resentfully at him—
"Frankly speaking, that was just a act. That man suffered zero damage. I believe chances of victory would be very low even if we attacked him. 'Master'... Although killing that lecher, enemy of women, awful man and s.e.xual hara.s.ser would be quite a worthwhile act from the personal/global perspective. Should you issue the command, even if chances of victory are extremely low, I will still fight to my very last breath."
The superintendent slumped his shoulders.
"Of course I know it was just an act. I don't want to attack him either."
"Apologies. Because you kept staring at him."
"I just feel exasperated. Are matters of face that important?"
"Haha~ Quite important. I am the leader of an organization, after all."
The superintendent sighed again and glanced sideways at her. She was standing shoulder to shoulder with him.
"Say, you should understand, right?"
"Yes. Please allow me to ask in return, you should understand, right? I love/hate you deeply, while at the same time—"
She turned towards him.
"I love/hate Liz deeply too."
Of course, she knew his objective. She knew the wish, desire and dream that he wanted to achieve using the rest of his life.
Even so, she—
"I am the contradictory spear. Similar to Liz, yet different from Liz. Precisely because I am such an existence, I should be able to stay with you, right?"
She slightly opened her eyes that were almost always closed, erasing his objection with a look.
Zenon could be heard sighing.
"Superintendent, it is your defeat. I would advise you to abandon futile resistance."
"...Are you okay with it?"
"Workload would become much lighter than before with the addition of an a.s.sistant secretary. I am looking forward to it."
"Uh, umm, this answer is definitely very much in your style, but how should I put this? I meant more in terms of your feelings..."
"—I never expected any reward. Furthermore..."
Zenon turned her head slightly and gazed at him.
"From past to present, you have always gazed at a certain person while that someone by your side gazed at you the whole time. I have already gotten used to gazing at you together from the same spot."
On her face was a truly rare sight of—
A smile so refreshing that it was almost cheating.
"Hence... Even if one more person was added now, it matters not to me."
These words really backed him into a corner, leaving him with no choice but to accept everything.
Watching with mixed feelings the sight of his old friend walking away, about to go somewhere, the superintendent suddenly recalled something that had absolutely no relation to current developments so far, but it was something he always wanted to ask.
"By the way, Max, why didn't you target the Knights Dominion's spear? Something like that should be able to grant you the 'longevity' you seek, right? It's not like you didn't know of its existence."
"Oh? The condition in exchange for longevity is being unable to leave your own territory, right? That kind of inconvenient longevity, no thank you... A dragon must have freedom. To be constrained into using a wheelchair, that's way too lame, so I had no interest from the beginning."
Freedom. This word did suit him quite well. Stronger than anyone, freer than anyone.
In that case—the perfect match for him would be the girl who wanted freedom more than anyone else, after all. The superintendent could not help but think that.
"So... I guess it's time to greet my beloved woman."
"Hold on, I've got another question. All because you wanted to save face, other people will think I defeated you to acquire Granaury, won't they? In that case... Won't there be even more Draconians coming after me from now on...?"
"Possibly. Good luck."
After hearing that excessively free and easy answer, the superintendent regretted from the bottom of his heart: I should have punched him harder just now.
Kirika was sitting on the ground, staring blankly at her legs. No injuries. Even if she had any, they would heal soon enough. There might be muscle pain and fatigue that did not count as injuries. No, just from looking, she had no idea what state the muscles and tendons within her body were in. It was also possible that her legs had actually suffered a serious injury, but simply did not feel any pain. Perhaps currently, the injury was simply healing slowly without her knowledge. Hence, it would not be surprising for anything to be happening.
At the final moment, just as the Dominion Lord was aiming at «Gimestorante's Love», when she was really about to die. Just before the Dominion Lord swung Dainsleif to chop apart the bondage suit, the moment when she fell on the ground and dodged the attack.
She thought back to it. The more she thought over it, the more confused she became.
Was that really coincidence?
Vaguely—from the very bottom of her heart, vaguely—she had the impression that someone had pushed her. It seemed as though someone invisible had pushed her.
(No... It was coincidence. Seriously, absolutely ridiculous...)
An illusion caused by overthinking things. There were many reasons why her legs could trip. There were also many reasons why here legs could not move. Falling was inevitable too. The tense atmosphere of battle had made her adrenalin level spike up. Extremely intense emotions. Hence, it was only natural that her memories would get muddled, only natural for strange misconceptions to crop up.
Even if it was just an illusion, even if it was just a misconception, even if it was just coincidence.
It was also true that she had this feeling.
She exhaled "hoo."
He also existed in her heart.
As for why those thoughts had occurred to her, even causing her to make an a.s.sociation with him—
I will admit this much at least, she thought.
The one who was no longer around and could not be seen anywhere. The one whom she used to admire as her senior at some point in the past.
Just as she reminisced about him, sighing once again...
"What an exhausted face. What are you thinking about?"
"...The fact that an annoying person is talking to me when I'm so exhausted."
"Looks like you have the energy to retort at least, even against an annoying person. Then I'm relieved."
Pakuaki swept his gaze across his subordinates in their work while he walked over to her.
Kirika frowned. She was definitely exhausted, unable to muster enthusiasm for anything, unwilling to talk to this kind of man. However, there was something she had to clear up.
"Why did you save us?"
"Weren't you the one who asked me? This is the method."
She asked him? Asked him what? She definitely remembered herself talking to Pakuaki about something during her hazy consciousness, but she could not recall the dialogue. As soon as she tried to remember, for some reason, it felt very embarra.s.sing.
Pakuaki chuckled and said:
"Because I'm your older brother, I'll do everything I can to make my younger sister's wish come true."
Quit joking around—She thought. Hence, Kirika drew her own conclusions.
"Cut the c.r.a.p and shut up. In other words... Your side cannot sit back and do nothing while this town was 'Dominionizing.' Also, you intended to claim the Wathes held by the Knights Dominion in one fell swoop if things worked out."
"These are all secondary. How stubborn of you, refusing to admit the elder brother's pure wishes. But in the end, I suppose you'll accept the reason if I give my usual answer, right? To decipher the unknown."
Indeed, she could only accept this simple answer that approached the truth. Kirika went "hmph" and said:
"Absolutely ridiculous, what kind of delightful curse caught your eye this time? In any case, I have no interest in the things you want to know. Don't talk to me again—"
"Oh no no, it's not about curses this time. The complete opposite."
Like a mischievous child, Pakuaki smiled innocently and said:
"More than one could imagine, this world is filled with an uncountable number of interesting unknowns. Countless. Infinite. Even if I were to spend the whole remainder of my life, how many unknowns could be converted into knowns...? Oh my, such exciting prospects, wouldn't you agree?"
Then—Fear turned to Haruaki and said:
"Hey Haruaki, I've got something to tell you."
"What is it?"
"Take the Indulgence Disk found inside Dainsleif and put it into me."
"Eh? Right now?"
"...Yeah, right now."
Fear nodded seriously.
"Can't we put it in when we get home? Things are such a mess right now, you're probably still exhausted, right?"
"No, I'm worried my determination will waver if I wait until later. It's best to do it as soon as possible."
"Uh sure, if you say so, I don't really mind..."
For Fear, putting in the final Indulgence Disk meant losing her remaining combat power. Hence, Haruaki did not disagree with the logic that her determination would waver if she waited until later. At the same time, this was also Fear's final step to reach the goal of "sealing away the possibility of hurting others." It was not surprising that Fear was anxious to get it done quickly.
Although it was not surprising, Haruaki still felt that something was not right.
Before there was enough time for him to figure out why, Fear had already gotten up rapidly. Looking around, she said:
"It's too embarra.s.sing to do it outside, so let's borrow the tent over there."
Seeing her start walking, Haruaki got up too and followed her.
Along the way, for a brief instant, Fear halted her steps and looked to the side.
The scene on the sports ground was the same as just now.
There was Konoha, Kirika, Kuroe, Kotetsu, Sovereignty and others, as well as the superintendent's faction—It was like the aftermath of a festival.
Haruaki finally realized the reason.
The side view of Fear's face gazing at that scene was why he felt something was not right.
They were now inside the small tent. Probably used by lower-ranked knights to rest, the tent was not particularly large or luxurious, just a s.p.a.ce isolated from the outside world by tent fabric.
Fear rummaged through her chest pocket to fish out the Indulgence Disk they had just picked up from Dainsleif's remains. After gazing at the Indulgence Disk in her hand for quite a long time—
"With this... I won't hurt anyone ever again. Go, put it in."
She handed it over to Haruaki. After receiving it, he saw Fear prepare to unfasten her b.u.t.tons and undress. He saw the expression on her face.
By the time she realized, Haruaki was already holding her wrist, stopping her.
"You... Are you hiding something from me?"
Fear's eyes flashed. Haruaki became certain as a result.
"Tell me. It's something very important... Right?"
She looked down. Silence descended upon the tent.
Insistently and patiently, Haruaki waited for her to speak.
Soon after, silently...
She shook her head of silver hair lightly.
"...Must I say it?"
There was only one answer.
She suddenly relaxed her tense cheeks and looked back up with a philosophical smile.
In a calm voice, she started to explain:
"Like I mentioned earlier—I was forged from cursed steel, a device operating with the power of curses as an energy source. The Dominion Lord also crafted the Indulgence Disks as limiters to seal away individual mechanisms. In order to control the thirty-two mechanisms, thirty-two Indulgence Disks were made. Because they are limiters, once inserted into my body, only the Dominion Lord knows how to release and take them out."
Only the Dominion Lord who had met his end.
Haruaki could not help but feel this was a very ominous fact. Following this ominous feeling, his heart gave up on beating its regular rhythm earlier. He experienced a chill throughout his entire body yet hot sweat was seeping out in contrast.
He was unable to stop her from continuing—
"To me, the curse arising from this steel is the heartbeat allowing me to move. The Indulgence Disks were created for the sake of eliminating curses—In other words, they are devices existing to thoroughly halt my operations as an object."
Haruaki's mouth gaped while he stared speechlessly, emitting a weird sound.
Fear maintained her smile.
"What would happen with the stopping of a curse that is equivalent to a heartbeat? Naturally, it also means that my heart will stop. It means I'll turn back into just a block of steel for which moving is physically impossible—"
"No, hold on, wait wait wait! I totally don't get what you're saying, I can't understand at all!"
"Haha, Haruaki, you're panicking way too much here. Then I'll make it simple... Once this final Indulgence Disk is inserted, it will stop all the functions of the object that is me. I won't move again, and of course, I won't be able to take human form again."
His mind blanked out greatly.
After quite a while, only then did Fear's words slide into his mind.
"A-Are you an idiot!? No way, this kind of thing must not be inserted! How meaningless, it's too dangerous!"
With feelings of reckless abandon, Haruaki glanced at the Indulgence Disk in his hand. However, Fear reacted differently.
"No, Haruaki, this is meaningful. I must do it."
This time, Fear grabbed his hand with her little hand.
"Because my curse cannot be lifted unless this is done."
"Pakuaki also mentioned this and I have a feeling it's the truth. After all, this is my own body. When face to face with the Dominion Lord, I remembered too..."
Her voice was calm and emotionless, as though simply recounting the truth.
"My curse is very special. Born from a loathsome creation process that used cursed steel as raw materials, it could be said that I am the curse itself. This curse, which stands as the root source, is unlike the acquired curses of others that simply stick on the surface. I can be considered the crystallization of curses as a type of power. A curse so concentrated that it could be used as a power source, a curse buried deep inside, a curse lurking at the very bottom..."
As though trying to help him calm down, Fear gripped harder with her fingers.
"So, for this kind of curse that's like a crystal, the calm and peaceful Yachi home's purifying power that comes from the terrain probably isn't gonna work on me. The method of doing things beneficial to others, this convoluted way of slowly gathering positive thoughts and emotions probably isn't gonna work on me either. Because the difference is too big. The curse exists in this block of steel that is me, buried deep in the very bottom of the box."
"F-Fear, what are you talking about? Of course it can be lifted. Everyone will... Look, in fact, take Kuroe for example, she lifted hers..."
The silver hair swayed left and right lightly.
"I said it already, right? The curse plaguing me, forged from cursed steel in the first place, is different from the acquired curses of others... Right, Pakuaki also said that the a.n.a.logy for what everyone is doing is like using wind from a fan to blow away gold leaf that's gilded to their surface, like wiping with a cloth. But I am a composite ent.i.ty where the gold particles were already melted into the body, so no matter what, the gold is impossible to extract..."
No, no, no, absolutely wrong. Because a rejectable name was brought up, Haruaki hastily clung onto this point. Pakuaki, that guy was to blame for everything. All lies, a.s.suredly. He had deceived Fear. Definitely. Otherwise—
"However, the Indulgence Disks are devices tuned from the beginning to be able to suppress my curse. That's why they are the only things that can take instant effect. Indulgence Disks were developed for the sake of suppressing the special curse that serves as my power source, so they can also produce a secondary effect of suppressing other, ordinary curses."
"H-Hold on. Please, could you wait first..."
"I can't wait any longer. I started out cursed by what can be called the crystallization of curses. Because I was also used as a torture tool, I am cursed in the ordinary way too. If the ordinary curse on the surface is lifted without eliminating the curse in the body's core, my madness probably won't go away. My darkness stems from the curse inside me. So, I must lift two kinds of curses—in other words, the curse at the very root inside me, as well as the curse I gained from being cursed as a torture tool."
"I'm asking you to wait..."
His entire body could not stop trembling. His mind could not operate either.
Fear pulled his hand over to her. As he watched, she looked up at him with pleading eyes.
Pleading: Please understand.
Pleading: Please listen to me.
"Haruaki, ultimately, I've only got two choices."
"The first choice is to not put in the Indulgence Disk, to carry on as before at the Yachi home to receive positive thoughts, to receive the land's purifying power, to do things beneficial to people to lift the curse, like what Cow t.i.ts and Kuroe have been doing. After a few years or decades, this would probably lift my acquired curse. Perhaps it can lift the curse arising from people cursing me as a torture tool. But even so, the curse forming the root of my being is still not going to change. It will still continue to nurture insanity and darkness."
Taking a breath, Fear continued:
"The second choice is to put in the Indulgence Disk. With that, the curse at my core will be neutralized, insanity and darkness will disappear, and I definitely won't hurt anyone again. If I remain in your home in this sort of state, in a few years or decades, my acquired curse will probably go away as well—"
He interrupted her. He had to interrupt her.
Haruaki clenched his fist—
"But with that... You won't... be able to move, ever again! All functions will cease, turning into something like an ordinary object! I won't be able to see your current appearance ever again!"
Fear suddenly relaxed the tense corners of her eyes and replied:
"...No way! What is this? How can this be acceptable? I can't do it... I absolutely can't do something like that!"
He yelled in a stiff voice.
He imagined Fear, still and motionless. He imagined Fear never speaking again.
He did not want to acknowledge that kind of future at all.
"But Haruaki, I've been thinking... I have to atone."
Fear's slender fingers switched targets for what she was holding. From his right hand to his left hand.
She switched to holding his left hand that had fingers missing.
"Fear! Don't make me keep repeating myself, how I feel about this is...!"
"It's about me, not what you think... Unforgivable. I cannot forgive myself."
After murmuring that, Fear laughed.
"No... This reason is too pessimistic, although it's not a lie."
Fear gazed into his eyes.
Then she explained the true reason.
"I want to be at your side forever. As long as I'm with you, I'm satisfied. Lifting my curse, to be able to hold my head up high and say I absolutely won't hurt you again, with a clear conscience—Forever at your side. That's the sincere wish from the bottom of my heart, which I want to come true more than anything, even if it means giving up everything else."
He could not help but notice.
That there was not the slightest pretense in Fear's words.
Because to this date, he had always been watching her, always believing in her.
He could not possibly make a mistake in seeing the direction of her feelings.
He must not make a mistake either.
"But in that case...! Unable to speak again, unable to move again, unable to eat rice crackers again! Is that really okay? It's absolutely not okay!"
"But it's nothing more than being unable to speak, unable to hug you, unable to eat rice crackers, trivial things of this level—That cannot const.i.tute reason enough to stop me, right?"
Fear caressed the stump of his lost fingers, sliding slowly, then lifted his hand up.
She moved towards his chest, his shoulder, his neck then his face.
Right in front of his eyes was Fear's radiant smile.
"Only the joy of lifting my curse, to be with you forever at your side—Now that's truly the greatest happiness. Even surpa.s.sing that of touching furry animals, surpa.s.sing that of eating rice crackers. I'd rather be with you, even if it means not eating rice crackers for the rest of my life."
His entire view was occupied by Fear. His entire mind was occupied by Fear.
He was clearly hearing words of such happiness.
Why did his chest feel so painful, as though it was about to burst?
"Putting in the Indulgence Disk is like a promise. It guarantees that I can definitely stay with you forever. Unbreakable, absolutely indestructible. When I think about it this way, perhaps... Umm, it's like putting on a wedding ring. Hoho."
Fear's shoulders shook lightly in embarra.s.sment.
"To achieve this, I'm willing to do anything, to endure anything, to give up anything... Even giving up all the various joys waiting for me in the life ahead. My decision is firm. But, if you... if you think this isn't enough—"
She leaned a step closer to him. The warmth of her breath. The color of her eyes. The fragrance of her hair.
"...Then right now, give me a lifetime's worth."
He could not help but understand, that everything—
In her heart, she had already reached the answer.
All he could do was give her a push.
"Ahhh, ooh, ah...!"
Haruaki's throat convulsed, making pathetic cries while he spread his arms to embrace Fear. Putting in all his strength, he embraced her for a lifetime's worth.
"Fufu, d.a.m.n you, shameless brat, you're so like a child. Can't be be helped, here's a lifetime's worth as well..."
Fear wrapped her small arms around his back and hugged him tightly in return.
A soft sensation appeared on his lips.
A lifetime was simply not enough. Including the next life after reincarnation and the subsequent third life, he wanted all of Fear in advance right now. He wanted Fear to fill up every portion of his entire being. Her warmth, softness, taste, voice, breath and the feeling of her hair.
He did not want to separate. He did not want to lose her. He did not want to forget her.
His tears and pathetic sobbing were such a nuisance. Clearly he wanted more, even more, much much more of Fear to fill himself, but she stuck her tongue out, licked his tears and said with a smile: "So salty." A new image of Fear was added to his heart. But that was not enough, nowhere near enough—
"We can't stay... hugging together forever."
No such thing. He wanted this to continue forever. Haruaki exerted more force through his arms but Fear withdrew as though her body were as light as a dream. Only a few strands of silver hair became entangled on his fingertips as though reluctant to part ways.
His vision went blurry due to tears. Fear gazed straight at him.
"...Put it in. This is the signal that I, cursed as I am, will no longer be cursed."
Her eyes were br.i.m.m.i.n.g with tears too.
However, her face was smiling.
As though conveying the message that it was truly the happiest thing in the world to be able to say this—
"...Personally, by your hand, lift my curse. Haruaki..."
Then, for a long time, a very long time...
All sound vanished from that s.p.a.ce.
Konoha and the others lifted the curtain, only to gasp and freeze.
No one said anything.
Inside the quiet tent...
Only Haruaki's faint sobbing resounded.
Held in his arms while he was kneeling on the ground, rubbing his tear-stained cheek against was—
A steel cube that could not be more familiar.
As though it would stay like that forever, as though it had always been like that from the start...
The cube neither spoke nor moved.
Hence, incredibly now, it did not look like a box used for torture and execution.
It simply looked like—
Receiving his tears silently and somewhat proudly—
An ordinary steel cube.
A Ma.n.u.script Recorded in One Corner on a Certain Piece of Paper
—The investigation of unknowns under the subject of curses is admittedly important, but now that research in this field has gotten on the right track more or less, there is a need to closely scrutinize new unknowns. Depending on the situation, on top of researching the concept of curses, this might turn into a crucial element that cannot be ignored.
As of the present, the 'Yachi House' is the only organization involved. Their goal is the lifting of curses. What is worth noting here is the concept they employ in that house—
Matters regarding what they call "positive thoughts."
Since they insist that kind of power can lift curses and indeed, curses do exist, it is quite likely that it does exist in practice. Hence, it is necessary to scrutinize more closely, to conduct research for turning unknowns into knowns.
So, since they refer to "negative thoughts" as curses, then what should "positive thoughts" be called? Anti-curses—plus power—positive energy—If one were to contemplate antonyms as a poet, it would be blessings—or perhaps, overly cliched it may be, how about █—? Uh, though it is only a single word, as a researcher, it would be rather embarra.s.sing to commit this single word to paper. I'm erasing it.
In any case, based on the special property of "erasing acc.u.mulated curses," one could hypothesize that this concept is of like nature as curses but with a diametrically opposite polarity. Judging from experimental perspectives so far, the time required for this concept to exert tangible effects is probably far longer than for curses (further verification required but efforts are still ongoing).
If this concept is of like nature as curses, negative thoughts...
Then it would come as no surprise if positive thoughts were to slowly, slowly imbue their properties into a tool's functions. Suppose a cataclysmic and abrupt overload of positive thoughts occurred, just like the abrupt overloading of curses, it might be possible to cause a feedback effect with the base body's data—namely, the phenomenon known as "humanization."
However, this probably requires even more delicate conditions than for curses. Conversely, so long as those conditions are met, it could very well turn into reality.
Take for example, purifying land whose nature is the amplification of positive thoughts. The presence of positive thoughts in extraordinary quant.i.ties. With indisputable authenticity. Provide all this continuously over a period of time almost longer than one's mind could grasp. Plus the invisible hand of G.o.d—currently within the realm of the unknown, if the final step known to people as chance or miracle were to be accomplished as well...
What used to be a cursed tool in the past, then turned into an ordinary tool after lifting its curse...
Might possibly be granted human characteristics once again, chances are not zero—
She opened her eyelids. It had been a long time since her eyes captured the data of "vision." This caused her a feeling similar to dizziness.
Gradually, she grew accustomed—Slowly sitting up, turning her head, blinking her eyes.
What was this green floor in front of her called? She recalled it was something like ta... ta-ta-mi... Right, tatami.
No discomfort. Rather, she felt a slight feeling of nostalgia envelop the depths of her chest. She recalled this was known as "smell." Stimulation experienced through the sense of olfaction. The smell of tatami resembled fresh gra.s.s, it was calming.
She inhaled deeply.
The smell of tatami connected forgotten memories together with recalled memories. She slowly allowed this smell to permeate her entire body.
Hence, her mind also naturally began to connect other things together. Originally forgotten language and concepts were awakening bit by bit.
This place—a j.a.panese-style room whose floor was laid with tatami. She was currently in one corner, a spot elevated one level above the floor... Ahhh, she was beginning to recall what it was called. An alcove. She was currently sitting on the alcove.
This room was very familiar. However, the stains on the ceiling, the marks on the pillars, the wood grain of the alcove, something about everything felt slightly weird to her as well.
The reason—Change. Change indicative of the pa.s.sage of time.
Such as new marks, never seen before, the fading of colors, or the replacement of the paper in the sliding door, turning it pure white and brand new. While she was in a state devoid of all feeling, how much time had pa.s.sed exactly—?
Her hand accidentally touched something. Looking down, she saw a small cloth resembling a handkerchief, caught on her fingertips. This stimulated an area of nostalgia in her mind. They had apparently used a similar cloth to wipe the unconscious indigo pot in the past.
Like back then—someone was probably wiping her body every day too, she thought to herself.
She lifted her hand and looked at it. Snow-white skin. Her own hand.
Something extremely warm was filling that hand, her entire body, even the inside of her chest.
It was completely unlike the curse that used to fill her interior, which had felt like cold and heavy mud. This seemed to be something opposite to a curse.
Probably due to this reason, she understood through feeling rather than logic. Since curses existed, there ought to be a warm power complementary to it. Like curses, that warm power was probably capable of unbelievable phenomena—
At the room's edge, bright light was shining in diagonally from the gap in the sliding door. It seemed to be daytime right now.
Hence, she could hear fragments of lively voices in the background.
"Hey, my tomato juice has run out..."
"...Oh no, I'm going to be late for work... Absolutely ridiculous..."
"...Hweh... Phone call, it's Kuroe..."
"Coming, coming. On a trip around the world... You should at least report back to us immediately... Where are you now...? Peru? Well, good to know that you're fine... Besides, you have a reliable bodyguard at your side, so worrying would be a waste of energy—"
Familiar voices. Ordinary, incomprehensible snippets of conversations that flew over her head but she did not mind.
"What kind of souvenir from Peru? Oh... Let me ask everyone."
"Huh? Uh, don't ask me that kind of question. It's not like I know what local specialties they have. Just tell her to decide herself, whatever's fine... Hmm, no need to put me on the phone. International calls are expensive, right? And I'm happy as long as I know she's doing well. Then I'm off to do the daily routine."
In response to that final voice she heard...
Her heart suddenly began to beat rapidly. A certain emotion overflowed in her chest all at once. It felt like something was popping out explosively.
The thud of footsteps were approaching this room.
That familiar rhythm, she could not possibly be mistaken. Who was coming here? Without needing to think, her body already understood. Her feelings understood. It was him.
Noticing now that she was completely nude, she frantically looked around and picked up the handkerchief from just now. No good, too small, and only one piece. But under the cloth were other things.
Like offerings—there was a small pile of rice crackers presented on a dish for serving refreshments.
Just as she hastily grabbed rice crackers in a panic, the sliding door opened with a clack—
The person appearing there froze in shock, staring dumbstruck at her with his mouth gaping open.
To block his view, she crossed her arms in front of her body.
While shielding her chest with two rice crackers, she yelled loudly:
"Y-You, d.a.m.n you, shameless brat! N-No looking, stay away! If you come any closer, I'll—"
The catchphrase, which was supposed to follow immediately, was stuck in her throat for merely an instant.
It was a lie that she could not possibly follow through.
She experienced for the very first time.
How unbelievably happy it was to be able to lie.
A much missed voice.
An extremely happy, first lie.
As though needing lubricant to squeeze those words out of her throat, tears naturally fell while she smiled.
"I'll curse you!"