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"Alright, there we go." Claudia helped Ayato apply antibiotics and ointment and placed a bandage over his wound before letting his right arm go. "Are you sure you don't want to visit the infirmary? That kind of injury is something you should have them take a look at." "Thank you very much, this is more than enough." Ayato tried to clench his right fist; the pain was already mostly gone. After what had just happened, Claudia's concern was natural. "Even if you say that..." The two of them were once more in the student council room. When Ayato had taken ahold of Ser-Versta, he'd suffer some minor injuries. In order to ensure he received some degree of treatment, Claudia had forced him to follow her back to the room. The two were currently sitting on the guest sofa. Claudia, for some unknown reason, was practically glued to his body as she offered treatment. Ayato raised what he felt was the pertinent question. "Is it really alright for me to use it?" After the disturbance had been safely resolved, Ser-Versta had been registered for Ayato's use. Since the entirety of the registration process took two or three days, however, he didn't have it with him. "With a compatibility rating of 97%, who's going to complain? Is it that you're not happy with Ser-Versta?" "Not at all. To be able to succeed the sword once used by my sister, I am more than pleased. It's just that..." "You're worried about what McPhail-kun might think?" Ayato thought back on the expression of supreme vexation on Lester's face as he'd left. "Well, he clearly was the one who selected it first, but now it's being given to me." "That can't be helped. While friendship and cooperation are hardly discouraged, remember that this city's true nature is one of compet.i.tion. In order to maintain one's dignity and reputation, there are times when you simply have to accept things as they are." "I sure hope he sees it that way." Whether it was their first meeting or this one, Ayato's impression of Lester had not been a good one. "Did something happen between the two of you?" "To be honest, not just me. This involves Julis as well..." Ayato explained the events of two days prior, when he'd become the third party in Julis and Lester's dispute. "Haha. Lester's obsession with Julis is rather well-known." "If he can forget any ill will toward me, then that'd be great. It's just that, with what happened to Julis yesterday, I'd like to avoid adding to her burden." "...You think that the perpetrator of the attacks might be McPhail-kun?" In response to Claudia's question, Ayato laughed. "I never said that. It's true that Julis' attacker from yesterday was also large in stature, but to a.s.sume it was Lester from just that would be too much." "But doesn't he have motive? After losing to Julis, and having her reject his requests for a duel, he definitely resents her greatly. That's something anyone can tell you." "And that's exactly why I think it's not him. Lester bears a vicious grudge against Julis, and yet she always comes out the victor. He wants to demonstrate his superiority over her, something he can't accomplish if he hides and ambushes her; such a thing would be meaningless. Aside from that, I also don't feel like that way of doing things matches his style. I'd say he much prefers a straight-up duel with a crowd of onlookers watching." "Then why would this create a problem for Julis?" "Whoever the attacker is, they're targeting the c.h.i.n.ks in her armor. That, of course, is only natural; Julis is profoundly strong. Were they to go after her directly, the probability of success would drop immensely. On the other hand, even if it is Julis we're talking about, once she begins a match, she has no choice but to focus all her attention on her immediate opponent." "Perfect timing for a sneak attack." "It wasn't until her duel with me or her match with Saya that she was ambushed. If provoked enough, there's the possibility she might battle Lester once more, opening herself up to attack." "I see. What amazing insight." Claudia nodded in admiration. If it wasn't his imagination, her actions were those of a teacher, praising a student for doing well. In other words, everything he'd said was within Claudia's realm of expectation. The entire time, Claudia had maintained a perfect posture while facing Ayato. "Ayato, given your good judgment, I have a favor I'd like to ask of you. Could you spare some time later this evening?" "Huh? Oh, uh, sure. Is now not a good time?" "What I have to discuss with you is private. I'll notify you of the exact time and place later on." If it was just a matter of privacy, their current location ought to be just fine- Ayato's thoughts were cleanly seen through by Claudia. "The walls have ears. A place like this, where intrigue is made manifest, cannot be considered a secure location."
Later that night, just before curfew, Ayato's cellphone sounded. Unwilling to allow Eishirou to overhear their conversation, he quietly snuck out. Thankfully, the high school buildings were all unlocked. 『"I'm sorry for calling so late. After we separated, I had another meeting to attend to."』 A s.p.a.ce screen appeared, through which a voice came through. "It's fine with me, although are you sure it's not too late?" Even if the doors weren't locked, it was still past the time they were allowed to leave their dorms. 『"You're right, which is why the location's a bit troublesome. I'm going to need you to come over here in person."』 "And where would that be?" 『"My room."』 "...When you say room, you mean your room in the dorms?" 『"That's right. My room is on the south-eastern side of the building, on the top floor. I'll leave my window open, so come on up,"』 Claudia said candidly. "Last time I visited, I mucked things up rather badly." Moreover, at least the last time he could claim ignorance. This time he would be in knowing violation of school policy. 『"Not to worry, I'm different from Julis. I'm not going to fight you."』 "...That's not what I was referring to." There was no two ways about it; the student council president inciting others to violate school guidelines wasn't a good thing. 『"Alright then. I'll be waiting."』 "W-wait! Claudia!?" The other party had already ended the call. Furthermore, she'd rejected all his objections. Ayato held his head in his hands. He hadn't imagined things would go down this path. Admittedly, though, he'd been given a glimpse into Claudia's mindset, as well as seen the evidence of her trust in him. Left without any other alternative, Ayato made his way over to the female dorms. "If I get seen by Julis this time, there won't be anything left of me to find." At first glance, the girls dorms were none too secure. This was only the case, however, because the school's choice of a security system couldn't be taken lightly. For members of the Starpulse Generation, traditional security systems weren't something all that difficult to bypa.s.s. That said, were they to be too strict, they would interfere with the quality of daily life. Instead, Seidoukan Academy opted for a different route. After considering these points, it was decided that within the girls dormitory an alert system would be placed. Any girl within the dormitory could trigger the alarm, immediately notifying the nearby guard station. This alert trigger could also be installed on the Mana Dite of each girl's Lux. For example, a girl might report that she'd "returned to find her room a wreck", from this inferring that "some unknown party had forcibly entered." After receiving an incident report, the security guards required only an average of two minutes before arriving and dispensing harsh and unrelenting discipline. Thinking of this, Ayato whispered a silent thanks in his heart for the silver-lining of the incident earlier, namely that Julis had not called for security. Speaking of which, although Julis's alert system was definitely active at the time, she'd had the confidence to resolve matters on her own without outside a.s.sistance. "Looks like I'm here. I've already been here once before, so I at least feel more familiar with the setting, but...doesn't doing this make me just a common pervert?" Arriving at the dorm, he scaled an unnoticed wall like a gecko, taking care not to make a sound, before at last reaching the top floor and the designated room. He lightly tapped on the window, but it was unnecessary. True to her word, Claudia's window was unlocked. This exposed the flaw in the alert system - if a girl wanted to let a boy in, it was trivial to do so. Though Ayato had his own thoughts on the morality of what he was doing, it seemed highly unlikely the security guards would look kindly upon his actions. "Claudia? I'm coming in." Ayato gave advance warning, but no response was forthcoming. Since hovering at the window's edge was rather difficult, he took the prerogative in entering despite not having received an answer. The room was far more s.p.a.cious than his own room, and elegantly furnished. Even if this was technically a "dormitory room", it felt infinitely more like a room in a high-cla.s.s hotel. The various decorations and odds and ends littered about the room were similarly high-cla.s.s, giving one an appreciation for their owner's sense of aesthetics. Said owner was nowhere to be seen, though. "Don't tell me she's not here..." On the side was a door to another room, likely the bedroom. As he considered entering, the door suddenly opened wide. "Oh my, welcome. I apologize, I just finished showering." "..." From the newly appearing Claudia, wisps of steam gently rose. Moreover, she was currently only wearing a bathrobe. This bathrobe was made of an appropriately light material, and her chest visibly swayed with each movement. Furthermore, since the hem of the bathrobe was rather her short, her thighs were clearly visible. Her skin was flush with a soft warmth, radiating a needless sensuality. "I'm going to change. Please feel free to look around as you please." Claudia's hair was still slightly damp, and in the light, seemed to glitter bewitchingly. As she carelessly pa.s.sed by Ayato, his body stiffened. "...How the h.e.l.l am I supposed to stay calm like this!?" Ayato wanted to scream that aloud, it wasn't like he'd be able to avoid the situation with just that. Furthermore, such cries would only make the situation worse. "Thanks for waiting. Please, have a seat." "...Got it." The two of them maintained their silence as they entered the bedroom. Ayato had had some sense of foreboding, but even he could never have expected that Claudia's "changing" had only resulted in the addition of a coat over her bathrobe. She took a seat on her bed. "I don't really know how to put this, but you really should put on more clothes..." "This is what I always wear in my room." He felt it unbearably rude were he to simply continue to look at her, attired as she was. Not that he believed she'd change anything just by his asking. Sighing, he took a seat on the sofa. Claudia took the opportunity to prepare a wine gla.s.s into which she poured a ruby-colored liquid. "There's plenty for you as well. Would you like some?" "I'd prefer not to swallow mysterious substances if at all possible." "Haha. Very wise of you." It was better to stay away from that kind of thing. "But still, this is quite the room. Is that one of the privileges of being a student council president?" "No. Rather than the student council president, this is a privilege of being a Page One. All of the Top Twelve have a room like this, and what's more, living expenses are rather preferential as well." "I see, so Claudia is also a Page One." Claudia gave a lonely smile. "I'm hurt. Should I take that to mean that Ayato hasn't the slightest interest in my affairs?" "I-I'm sorry." "Forget it. This position of student council president can be pretty troublesome at times; it's rare that I can speak freely." "Then why did you accept the appointment?" "Because I like troublesome things." Claudia revealed a deep and profound smile, and gracefully crossed her legs. The captivating sight unknowingly entranced Ayato for a moment, but he nonetheless maintained a calm disposition as he spoke. "In other words...the favor you wanted to ask concerns these 'troublesome things'?" "I guess the sooner we discuss things, the better. Please take a look." Claudia fiddled with her phone, opening a s.p.a.ce screen in the air. On the screen appeared the visages of several students. "These are students who have registered for the upcoming Phoenix. Although they aren't members of the Top Twelve, they fall among the upper ranks of the Named Charts. They're students in whom we had placed the utmost expectations." "...Past tense?" "Indeed. They lost in battles which left them in the hospital." She sighed, and closed the window. "The reasons are varied; for example, accidents, or injuries sustained during a loss, etc. Here in Asterisk, this kind of thing is pretty commonplace. Nonetheless, our investigations have revealed a certain oddity common to this incidents." "The interference of a third party, correct? Just like my fight with Julis." "Exactly. Yesterday's attack was the first time they've showed themselves so openly; generally their preferred MO was a sniping like during your duel with Julis. Given the uniformity of MO, the probability we're dealing with a single perpetrator is extremely high." Ayato thought for a moment. "Any evidence?" "None. Furthermore, all of the affected parties have rejected any and all a.s.sistance." "Why's that?" "Well...the students at this school are, how do I put this? Simply put, they're rather peculiar members of the Starpulse Generation. They trust in their own abilities to a fault. They're all waiting until they're fully healed to hunt down the attacker on their own, and pay him back." "No mistake, that is pretty troublesome." "A fuller explanation would require looking at things from another point of view, but for the most part, that's pretty much it." The difficulty was that among those students with a certain level of ability, there were definitely those who held positions among the disciplinary committee, but the attacker had clearly and intentionally selected those students with lone wolf personalities. "There's something else I need to mention. The disciplinary committee has already investigated both McPhail-kun and Landy Hooke-kun as possible perpetrators of yesterday's incident. They have no alibis." "You still don't think it was them, though." "No, I don't. Nor do you." Claudia smiled joyfully. "There's something strange about what you just said. Why isn't Cyrus a suspect? The three of them are attached at the hip after all." "Cyrus Norman-kun has a perfect alibi. He was at home the entire time, hard at work; his roommate can attest to it." "Is that so...Well, without a clear next step, there's nothing we can do but 'let the other side make the first move'." "It's as you say. Fortunately, there is one thing we can be sure of. The ident.i.ty of the next target is already known to us." "...Julis." "Right. This attacker takes advantage of the situation to take down his target, without needing to reveal himself. If he was a member of the Top Twelve, there'd be no need for all this. In other words, the perpetrator would have a difficult time in a direct confrontation, but somehow still needs to take down skilled students. From this, we can infer––" Ayato filled in the pieces. "They're acting under the direction of another school. Am I right?" "Another school?" "Moreover, they should be a student of ours. Since all the incidents have taken place on school grounds, it would have been far too noticeable and far too dangerous otherwise." "But then..." The relationship between the six competing schools of Asterisk - Seidoukan Academy, St. Garrardsworth Academy, Allekant Academy, the World Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute, Le Wolfe Black Inst.i.tute, and Queen Veil Girls Academy - could hardly be called good. Since they were constantly competing with one another, such an outcome was only natural. That said, it wasn't to the point where they'd commit such blatantly illicit infractions against one another. "We definitely can't discount the possibility. The provisions of the Stella Carta notwithstanding, history has shown that given the opportunity, no school would hesitate to take any actions they deemed necessary, no matter how deplorable." Ayato's brow furrowed. If he understood her correctly, "whatever they deemed necessary" seemed to refer to even attacking one's fellow students. "We can eliminate both St. Garrardsworth and Queen Veil off the bat. Given their reputation, they have too much to lose to do something like this, and too little to gain. This sort of sneak attack is definitely typical of Le Wolfe, but they're currently focused on the Lindwurm; I doubt they'd expend the necessary effort for this. That leaves only Allekant and the World Dragon Seventh Inst.i.tute. ...Hmm, I'll look into this a little more." "It's fine either way?" "Yeah, we just need to be careful not to overstep our bounds in roping them in." Having spoken this far, Claudia turned to look directly at Ayato. "Truth be told, this Seidoukan Academy is an organization directly managed by the Integrated Enterprise Foundation. Without explicit approval, the scope of our actions is rather limited indeed. The disciplinary committee is granted more autonomy, but should they act, there is the possibility of the other party noticing. The Integrated Enterprise Foundation keeps a pretty close eye on things." Claudia shrugged. "It's not enough to simply identify the school in the shadows behind our attacker; such a thing is meaningless. We need evidence of their collusions. Anything else is our loss, and believe me, the Integrated Enterprise Foundation is not forgiving of failure." "In other words, until we have that evidence, we can't move on the attacker." "Looking at it another way, until then, the probability of another attack is high. That brings me to the favor I wanted to ask. Ayato, could you stay by Julis' side and protect her?" "Wha––?" Ayato stared dumbly at Claudia in surprise at the unexpected request. "Julis will be undoubtedly be attacked again. If she's alone when that happens, it's possible she won't be able to handle things this time. That's why I'd like to ensure she has the strength she needs by her side, in other words, you. Originally, however, this wasn't something I should entrust to a student..." "Is there a reason it has to be me?" "As you well know, that girl deliberately keeps her distance from others. Fortunately, though, you seem to be an exception." "As far as that goes, it was only to the point of showing me around school, you know?" Moreover, she always seemed to be mad at him. "Hah...You really are thick, aren't you?" Claudia laughed as she teased him. Though Ayato maintained a sober expression. "I know what you want to say, but...I really don't think I'm up to the task." "Oh, and why's that?" "My strength isn't enough for her to be able to rely on." "How modest." "I'm calling it as I see it." It was indeed the case, after all. Claudia stared Ayato down before finally sighing. "As I said before, just do your best. If you feel things are getting out of hand, feel free to run." "..." "If nothing else, by standing with her, you at least give the appearance of additional combat strength, right?" "...If you put it like that, then I understand. I'll accept but, let me warn you, don't expect too much. You just focus on identifying the attacker so we can pull the curtain on this show already." "Alright, I'll do my best." Ayato finally allowed himself to say. Relieved, Claudia smiled. "On another note, why is it that you worry about Julis so?" "As the student council president, isn't it only natural to worry about one's students?" "And the real reason?" "..." Claudia didn't speak at first. Finally, bowing her head, she answered softly. "I'm like any other student. I came here to realize my dreams. I'm simply acting in accordance with that wish." "Wish..." Claudia's words tormented Ayato. Both Claudia and Julis were fighting for the same reason. "Oh, that reminds me. I can't just ask a favor from you without giving you some kind of reward." "Hmm? Oh, I don't need anything like that." Ayato waved her offer away, but Claudia still rose up and approached him. "C-Claudia?" "Fufufu." With a bewitching smile on her face, Claudia circled around to Ayato's back. Though he tried to stand up in a hurry, she leaned in, and pushed him back down. "Uwaah!" "Seeing as this is a pretty rare opportunity, if you want me, it's OK, you know?" "WHA-?!" A sugary-sweet whisper entered his ear. Warm breath tickled his throat as he was pushed back into the sofa. As Claudia mounted Ayato, her bathrobe slowly slid back, revealing her shoulders and cleavage. In that dimly-lit room, a pair of damp eyes stared at Ayato. Ayato worried that if things continued, he was doomed. Moreover, the other party was a half-naked girl, currently pushing him down. Careless movements could prove fatal. "Don't worry." "?" Claudia took ahold of his hands, and placed them atop her chest. "Mm..." "!" That this world held something so impossibly soft! The slightly moist skin adhered to the palms of his hands, and though there was just the barest contact between them, the feeling was indescribable. If things continued down this path- Ayato worried that if things continued, he was doomed. "H, hold iiit-!" Calling himself back from the pit which hung before him, Ayato dove past Claudia and to the door in an instant. "S-sorry! Let's leave it at this for tonight!" Though he hadn't the slightest clue what he was doing, he knew he had to escape from that situation. If things had continued... He also wasn't sure what Claudia's intentions were. Had she been serious, or was it all a joke? He'd best steer clear until he was sure. He thought of what his sister had said once before. "How unfortunate. It's not like I didn't expect this, but I guess things just aren't that simple..." As Ayato fled the scene, he heard Claudia's voice, but he couldn't decipher the meaning of her words.
"Seriously..." Sticking near the fence as he escaped the girls dorms, Ayato sighed. As that sensation yet lingered in his mind, Ayato shook his head vigorously. "Nonono, I can't keep thinking about that!" Conversing with G.o.d knows whom, he slapped himself with force. When it comes to Claudia's "compensation", forget it. Either way, it wasn't like he was about to ignore Julis' plight. "She is, after all, the girl with the same look in her eyes as Onee-chan." He now realized that that look revealed the ferocity of her determination. That being the case... "-Hey!" "!?" Hearing a voice call out from above, he froze. Looking up, he saw Julis looking down from her window above. "What are you doing down there?" "...Um, well, this is..." There was no way in h.e.l.l he was going to tell her he'd just snuck into the girls dorms. "Sorry, what was that? I couldn't quite hear." Saying that, Julis leapt down. She wore casual clothing, nothing formal. Her actions, in jumping down, were none too princess-like either. "K!" "...Is it going to be like this every time we talk?" "Don't be stupid. Chasing you like last time was the first and last time for me. It's just more convenient this way." As Julis finished speaking, she finally realized what she held in her hands. Noticing it'd drawn Ayato's attention, she frantically stuffed it into her pocket. "A letter?" "Yeah, you could say that." She didn't sound like she wanted to talk about it, but she nonetheless appeared quite joyful. It was undoubtedly a letter from someone precious to her. In this age of digital communication, a handwritten letter was a rare sight indeed. Judging from this, it was likely its contents were meant to be private. "So? What're you doing here, at this time?" "-Taking a walk?" "A walk?" "It's one of my hobbies, you know." That was no lie. "Whatever, forget it. Hey, do you have some time this Sunday?" "Sunday? I should." Since he'd just recently transferred, he had no plans. "Alright then. Why don't I show you around then, like I promised earlier?" "That'd be great." She seemed to have been referring to when she'd asked him to leave his day off open. "Um, also...I-I'm just checking here, but...I'm the only you've asked to come with, correct?" "Huh? Of course?" "B, Because if someone unexpected turns up, t-that'd throw things off..." Julis spoke rather haltingly, but he nonetheless understood what she was asking. "If you're talking about Saya, there's no need to worry." "...Why's that?" "Don't you remember that Kyouko told her she had to make up lessons?" At Ayato's words, Julis clapped her hands together. "Ah, you're right! Yeah, that's right! Right then, I'll be taking my leave first. I'll let you know when and where later." Mumbling to herself, Julis waved as she walked back inside, this time, through the front door. "The day after tomorrow, is it? I doubt they'd attack outside of school premises, but it's best to be safe." Sighing, Ayato also made his way back to the dorms. Since he'd left his room empty at night, there was no way that curiosity-driven roommate of his would just let things go. To change his mood, Ayato turned to watch the night sky, whose clouds covered up the starlit sky. References and Translation Notes Jump up↑ MO = Motis Operandi which is Latin for a person's reason for to perform an act. One's Motivation.