Miyuki was somewhat surprised to see the ugly look that Erika wore when everyone showed up for the arranged lunch meeting in the cafeteria.
"Erika, is yesterday's incident still weighing on your mind?"
Until the moment they separated at the bus station, Erika was extremely irritated that the suspected special agent from USNA intelligence got the last laugh during the final moments. Even though she didn't verbalize her displeasure, her attitude was apparent from a glance.
This was already an incredibly frank admission on her part considering her usual antics where she used a mischievous smile to hide her true feelings. It was simply unheard of for her to brood on this until the second day.
At Miyuki's question, Erika's answer was half confirming and half dissenting.
"It's not simply because we could only watch as he got away."
The words, watch as he got away, seemed to denote her frustration, but apparently that wasn't the full story.
"That guy's words were really worrisome...... Don't let down your guard even on campus, doesn't that mean that some of the students......"
Mikihiko and Honoka didn't participate in the incident back in April so they weren't able to follow, but Tatsuya and Miyuki immediately grasped what was on Erika's mind.
At the time, Sayaka had been an unwitting pawn for foreign agents posing as terrorists.
Even now, Sayaka was unable to put that behind her.
"If we're putting on an encore for that unpleasant business, please count me out......"
Tatsuya was both in the know and understood those feelings, so he made a comment that ran counter to his personality in an effort to take care of Erika's mood.
"Still, it's not like we can arrest them if they haven't even done anything yet."
"That may be true......"
Her sulky tone hinted that she hadn't fully accepted this, but at least he successfully defused her intent to do some snooping around on her own, Tatsuya thought.
Speaking of which, though Erika wasn't a "goody two shoes" by any stretch, when something pertaining to one of her close friends arose, she would "change the subject" even when there wasn't a direct connection.
"Yet, isn't it to our disadvantage to always be reacting? That's not a problem if it's a head-on assault, but theft would be......"
"Not like we can always worry about something like that......"
Tatsuya smiled and shook his head at Leo and Mikihiko's concerns.
"Since we don't carry that data in a terminal on us, there's no danger of physical theft. Originally, it would be strange to worry about theft or burglary on campus, no? Well, discreet photographs aren't out of the question, but that issue wouldn't be restricted to this competition only. To steal data from on campus, it would be more convenient to go after the documents hidden behind lower safeguards, but we're not that silly. Is it possible that we have been misinformed by a suspicious individual?"
"Is that so...... But we still need to guard against the other person directly spying on you yesterday, so be careful."
Even though Mikihiko's words were largely bucking against Tatsuya's explanation, he looked like he was satisfied with that answer.
Still, in Tatsuya's eyes, Erika and Leo both gave him the impression that they remained silent because they wanted to say something more, but were unable to come up with any arguments of their own.
◊ ◊ ◊
Compared to the 52 representatives selected for the Nine Schools Competition, the Thesis Competition only had three. —The difference in scale was so great that the event almost seemed pointless. Even so, the Thesis Competition was seen as an important event that rivaled the Nine Schools Competition itself.
One of the reasons was that this event was actually another stage for the nine magic high schools to determine a victor. Especially for schools that obtained undesirable results in the Nine Schools Competition, the desire to erase their old shame became a powerful motivator.
Another reason was that many students were able to participate beyond the selected three representatives.
The greatest difference between the debate and research competitions for non-magic high schools and the "National High School Students Magic Thesis Competition" was that a live demonstration was incorporated into the presentation.
In addition to the thesis presentation, a fully functional magic device was required to display the actual manifestation of the magic. Even though the presentation only required a model, this was no simple child's toy that could be stuck together with glue and papers. The device needed to run reliably, or at least mimic reality — this was the Thesis Competition for magic high schools.
For this, the design of the magic device and the support systems involved, the controlling software, outer frame, required conditions and target production, testing personnel and supporting testers, individuals in charge of safety...... Near the actual deadline for the competition, the Technical Club and Arts Club would naturally join in. Even clubs that work on purely theoretical ideas and students with outstanding grades would be mobilized for the success of the official competition.
The total number of participants for the report preparation exceeded that of the Nine Schools Competition.
Since the official competition was set for the Sunday two weeks from now, not only was the campus filled with sounds of machinery and magic activating, "Self Design" and "Self Study" sprouted up to squeeze more time in. The open area in the quad was swiftly filled to capacity by prototypes, calculation devices, and other machinery. Even consolation squads formed by female volunteers loaded with drinks and snacks entered the fray. In order to support these consolation squads, the Robotics Research Club chipped in the Humanoid Home Helpers as well.
"Ah, there they are."
The person Erika was looking for stood amid the ruckus. "Hey—, Tatsuya-kun—"
Next to Erika, who was shouting while waving her arms back and forth, Leo turned his body in another direction. Mikihiko chose to simply move two meters behind Erika to a safe distance. The two of them were probably pretending not to know her.
"Erika-chan, please don't bother everyone......."
Mizuki wasn't as brazen as Leo, so she still tugged at her friend's sleeve despite knowing this would do nothing. —As expected, there was no effect.
Seeing Erika waltz over, Tatsuya stopped his hands and smiled wryly as if to say "what can I do", but there were of course people who were visibly displeased by the interruption to the experiment.
You, should probably take a look at your surroundings."
As one of the guards on station, Kirihara was one of the unhappy ones.
"Eh~, Sayaka is observing too?"
However, Erika's response, or more like her conversation target, was directed to Sayaka, who was standing next to Kirihara.
"What do I even say......"
Kirihara spoke weakly while Sayaka had a wry smile of her own. Given that he didn't fly into a rage, Kirihara must have matured somewhat.
"You don't look like you're just here to observe, Erika. What's up?"
Still, seeing that the other upperclassmen besides Kirihara were about to burst out, Tatsuya quickly seized the initiative.
"Mizuki got called in to help, so I tagged along."
Erika was always someone who did things her way, but that does not imply she was slow in any way. Noticing the warning, she didn't waste any time with her response.
So that's why, Tatsuya thought as he shifted his gaze to Mizuki, who was frantically apologizing to her senpais from the Arts Club.
"Erika, over here."
Using this opportunity, as strange as it sounds, Miyuki reached out and pulled Erika into the crowd of observers.
Sayaka also left Kirihara's side and sidled along Erika, while the interrupted activation of the magic device was restarted on Isori's signal.
"What experiment are they doing? It looks like a giant light bulb."
A transparent globe with a 120 mm diameter was supported on a stand with four legs, which did give the impression of being a giant light bulb. Of course, in this age, "light bulbs" had long since been retired from household use, so Mizuki tilted her head in confusion at Erika's opinion.
"That is the Low Temperature Ionic Generator we're using for the presentation."
Miyuki obviously knew what a "light bulb" was, but she didn't pay attention to Erika's joke and directly answered her question.
"Low temperature? Weren't we going for thermonuclear fusion?"
Mikihiko, who had also adopted Leo's approach of pretending not to know one another, heard an unexpected term that forced him to abandon this pretense. (Speaking of which, Mikihiko still used formal speech when addressing Miyuki.)
Erika also seemed to remember her physics lessons and a question mark mushroomed over her head after a beat.
"Thermonuclear fusion is a type of reaction, so high temperature is required for the entire process."
My apologies, Yoshida-kun. I am unfamiliar with the details as well, please consult Onii-sama for a more in depth explanation."
Seeing Mikihiko's blank look, Miyuki added on that last sentence, prompting Mikihiko to say "please don't bother" and furiously shake his head back and forth, sending his hair flying.
With a diminutive look at Mikihiko, Erika and Sayaka whispered quietly to one another. They frantically shut their traps when Miyuki leveled a smile in their direction (which didn't reach her eyes).
From the start, Leo's eyes blazed with curiosity as he silently stared at the experimental device.
In the midst of the unconscious silence, Isori sent Suzune a signal.
Suzune started supplying psions to the large, control board-shaped CAD that Tatsuya was operating.
The CAD functioned at a much higher strength and speed than the normal smaller CADs that were carried around and multiple complex Magic Sequences were being activated.
Under high pressure, hydrogen broke down into ions and the separated ions struck against the glass to emit light. Although this was only the simple effect of electricity caused by high pressure, they had already achieved electron separation without providing energy. In addition, in order to allow the electrons to break away from atomic attraction and move towards the outer perimeter, a highly complex spell had to be constantly sustained to change the Eidos.
"......So it really is a light bulb?"
Erika's rude comment that slipped from her lips was fortunately covered by the cheers of "Excellent!", "First phase successful!" and other related celebratory words. The others were the same, with Miyuki smiling quietly as if success was the only possible result, while Leo had two fists tightly clenched before his chest, Mikihiko gripped his arms and nodded, and Sayaka clapped as she jumped with joy.
The glass container continued to give off light for 10 seconds. By the time the light faded, the excitement also wore off.
That was because they only finished with the largest piece and many more components still needed to be put together. The helpers that congregated for the experiment dispersed back to their stations, but Erika noticed Sayaka was staring in a certain corner.
"Saya, what's up?"
She didn't reply and murmured to herself. "Hey, what's going on!?"
In order to catch up to Sayaka, who suddenly burst into a run, both Erika and Kirihara also started sprinting.
Leo was only a half a step behind them.
Wide-eyed with shock, Miyuki could only watch them leave until she noticed the female student with twin ponytails that Sayaka was chasing.
◊ ◊ ◊
"Hold it right there!"
Hearing someone call out for her to stop from behind, or maybe because she realized she couldn't outrun the pursuit, the female student opted to come to a halt on the grass in the courtyard.
"What is it?"
Turning around, the question in response was a little stiff. In a sense, her tone gave off a fearless impression.
"You are, a Year 1 student, correct?"
There were no distinctions for grade level on First High's uniforms.
Sayaka's question was based off the other student's face and physical form.
"Indeed. Mibu Sayaka from Year 2 Class E. I am also a Course 2 student like yourself."
The only difference was the lack of the school emblem, the distinction between Course 1 and 2 students.
"......Year 1 Class G, Hirakawa Chiaki."
Upon being asked by an upperclassman to identify herself, the female student unwillingly gave her name.
She could hear more footsteps coming to a stop behind her. Erika and the others caught up.
And heard that earlier self-introduction.
Immediately, she heard Kirihara murmur "Hirakawa?"
Sayaka was not familiar with that surname, but Kirihara had heard of it.
Still, the reason why Sayaka couldn't let this Year 1 student go wasn't because of her name, so she didn't mind even if she had never heard of this name before.
Sayaka didn't have the leisure to worry about things like that.
"Hirakawa-san, the device you're carrying......
That's a wireless password decoder, isn't it?"
Hearing Sayaka's accusation, Hirakawa Chiaki turned pale and hurriedly hid the terminal in her hand behind her back.
"I know even if you don't admit it. That's because I've used the same model before."
Chiaki's eyes widened in astonishment at Sayaka's words.
Password decoders were malware devices used to steal passwords and, unlike the literal meaning, were also machines used to automatically break into verification systems and steal information. There were no legal uses for that item. In other words, used the same model before implied......
"......That's right. I was also the cat's paw for spies."
A miserable expression spread across Sayaka's face, but even then she continued to press onward as she stared at Chiaki.
"That's why I must warn you. Stop now. The longer you're with them, the more painful it will become."
"......No matter how much I suffer, that's none of senpai's business."
Chiaki turned her face to one side and replied in a cold tone. An obvious rejection.
However, Sayaka did not shrink back at Chiaki's cold reception. "There's no way I can just watch and do nothing!"
Sayaka's tone hardened and her eyes turned fiery as she suddenly roared at Chiaki.
"Even though it's been half a year, I still can't stop myself from shaking at times. I don't even realize that I've bit my lip open, or pierced my palm with my nails."
Sayaka was actually shaking as she said this.
"Even though I don't know who you're mixed in with, this I know for sure. They will never take your needs into consideration. They will only use you, then promptly abandon you."
Sayaka's voice was filled with sincerity. She was not being hypocritical, these were her true feelings laid bare.
Nevertheless, the hatred that dwelt in Chiaki's heart ran much deeper than Sayaka imagined.
"Of course I know that!"
That self-destructive voice and hate-filled eyes made Sayaka stop cold.
"It's obvious that the mafia and terrorists don't give a darn about the people they're using. Senpai linked up with these people even without fully understanding that? My apologies for my rudeness, but senpai is so very childish."
Those bitter words clearly conveyed to Sayaka that this Year 1 student was completely different than she was.
Sayaka had a goal she was aiming for, but was taken advantage of when she wasn't sure what path to take.
It was true that she was hopelessly naive. Sayaka never planned to deny that point.
Still, Sayaka didn't believe that this Year 1 student was any more mature than she was.
Even if she could achieve her heart's desire after joining up with criminals, what would she do afterwards? What then? Would she return to high school as if nothing had happened, or actually continue acting as a member of a criminal organization? Sayaka knew that this Year 1 student never even took her future into consideration.
Right now, she was only stubbornly refusing to listen to anyone else's words.
"Even if you continue on this self-destructive path you will obtain absolutely nothing. Nothing will remain behind!?"
However, Sayaka wasn't going to back down. There were some things that needed to be stopped, by force if necessary. This was something she learned first hand.
"Senpai wouldn't understand. I'm not teaming up with those guys because I want to get something."
Regardless, the answer she received was almost naturally a powerful rejection.
She's refusing to be persuaded, Sayaka faintly realized. That's because she too was once like that.
Persuasion can be saved for later. If they let her escape now, this child will never be able to return to "this side" again. With this in mind, a slightly forceful approach couldn't be avoided. —Sayaka made her decision.
Kirihara immediately grasped Sayaka's intention.
Unfortunately, neither of them were carrying heat, but they weren't particularly worried.
This Year 1 student had no experience in martial arts or close combat. Both of them possessed the ability to tell this at a glance.
If they both attacked at the same time, the takedown should be fairly simple.
Objectively speaking, Sayaka and Kirihara's judgement would be correct. —Under the condition that their opponent was unarmed.
The instant Sayaka and Kirihara advanced together, Chiaki hurtled a small container.
Erika was the first one to notice.
Both of them flung their arms up on reflex.
A furious flash passed through the gaps in the arms to scour the eyes through the eyelids.
If anyone could still keep their vision through the blazing light, they would notice that Chiaki's eyelids were painted black.
She used light screen paint disguised as mascara and eyeliner to blunt the effects of the flash bang.
Chiaki pointed her right arm at Sayaka. A spring-loaded dart came flying from her sleeve.
Erika successfully blocked the flash and managed to deflect the fusiform dart with a tree branch she grabbed somewhere.
A light purple smoke emitted from the broken dart.
The second after Erika threw the tree branch, she quickly flung away Sayaka and used her shirt sleeve to cover her mouth. Kirihara, who hadn't entirely recovered from the flash bang's effects, directly breathed in the spreading smoke that was rapidly turning transparent. He swayed briefly, then collapsed to the floor in a boneless heap.
Erika didn't verbalize this as she mentally clucked her tongue. Their opponents were better prepared than they thought.
Since they were forbidden from carrying CADs on campus, personal speed buffing wasn't going to be very efficient.
Despite their numerical advantage, the difference between weapons and no weapons was insurmountable. Under the situation where the enemy weapons remained unknown, they couldn't strike recklessly—
—However, there was a man present who didn't subscribe to that theory. Crouched in the grass (the result of Erika warning to get down), Leo suddenly rushed at Chiaki.
Faced with that sort of pressure, Chiaki couldn't suppress a scream. She frantically pointed her right arm at Leo.
Maybe the darts were a repeating model, or maybe there were other weapons prepared.
There was no way to tell at this stage.
Suddenly, Leo's figure disappeared from Chiaki's vision.
Chiaki stood there transfixed for a moment before her waist was subjected to a powerful impact, causing her to helplessly fall backwards and culminating in her losing consciousness when the back of her head hit the ground.
"......Did I overdo it?"
Leo had used both arms to tackle Chiaki to the ground, then rose slightly and turned his head to ask.
......Speaking of which, hurry up and get up this instant. You look like you're going to rape her."
! Don't even joke about that!"
"Yes, yes, I know."
Erika's gaze was dead serious as she watched Leo look up at her in shock.
That gaze was the same as a professional gambler gauging the merits of a thoroughbred at the derby.
◊ ◊ ◊
Hearing that an incident broke out, Kanon (as the Public Moral Committee Chief) hurried to the infirmary and sighed when she found an unconscious Year 1 student in bed and a pair of Year 2 students seeking treatment.
"You guys went too far......"
Hearing Sayaka's explanations of the proceedings, Kanon sighed once more.
It wasn't Kirihara and Sayaka's intention to be told "going too far" by Kanon, who was prone to doing so herself, but since the person in question was unconscious due to a blow to the back of the head, they weren't in any position to refute that.
"So what did she do? Based on your earlier words, the only thing she was doing was holding an illegal electronic device, so I don't think she broke any laws or school rules."
This was also an indefensible point.
On one hand, there was the earnest Sayaka and on the other hand, there was Kirihara who couldn't come up with a defense.
Still, there was someone present who wasn't so easily cowed by these strong words.
"Isn't holding an illegal hacking tool enough grounds for an arrest?"
Faced with Erika's provocative words, Kanon watched her with piercing eyes.
"......I'm saying that going overboard is the issue here. Crime and punishment need to be carefully balanced."
"That's nothing~, not like we caught her because she needed to be punished. I just wanted to protect a peer that's being used by filthy adults."
"So you protected your peer by knocking her out. She was struck in the head."
"There's nothing we can do if she pulls out a concealed weapon and resists. I'm not naive enough to help other people even at the cost of personal injury."
Kanon and Erika glared furiously at one another.
Seeing this explosive situation unfold, Sayaka started to panic slightly. However, since the doctor on duty who should have interposed chose not to, she couldn't just jump in.
"Anyways, Chief Chiyoda, we'll leave everything to you."
The one who interjected was Leo, who was leaning against the wall.
"Hey, what's with you all of a sudden?"
Erika, who was being tugged away by the collar, directed her ire towards Leo.
Still, she wasn't glaring at him this time.
For an instant, Leo wore an irked expression, then swiftly turned around.
"Everything afterwards is a job for the Public Moral Committee members. I don't care how you guys take care of it, I can only try to prevent any problems from spilling over to Tatsuya, Mizuki, and Mikihiko."
"Just wait a second!"
Erika shouted as she chased after the departing Leo as she too left from the infirmary.
After the sounds of the noisy Year 1 students (which included a particularly irksome Year 1 student) faded, Kanon finally calmed down.
She once again studied the face of the Year 1 student lying on the bed. Even though the face poked something in Kanon's memory, she was still unconscious and unable to verify any of her suspicions. Just like that, Kanon turned to the doctor.
"Sensei, what is this child's status?"
Hearing Kanon's question, Dr. Yasuyado Satomi smiled gently.
"Don't worry. There are no abnormalities in the brain or skull. She'll wake up in time."
Yasuyado was a doctor with unique abilities who could see the abnormalities within the body through physical radiation. She could make a more accurate diagnosis than high tech equipment at normal hospitals by simply looking at the subject.
If she said there was no problem, then it was safe to relax.
"Sorry for bothering you, but could you please let me know when this child regains consciousness."
"Of course? Ah, but don't complain if this child runs away, OK? I have no combat ability whatsoever."
Seeing Yasuyado's half joking answer, Kanon smiled and nodded. "Sensei surely wouldn't allow an injured student to just run around."
And so, Kanon led Sayaka and Kirihara, who had already finished treatment, and departed from the infirmary.
◊ ◊ ◊
Kanon was both the Chief of the Public Moral Committee and Isori's guard at the same time.
Since the Thesis Competition adopted a format where one principal was guarded by several bodyguards, Isori's guards also included another Year 2 male student besides Kanon, but Kanon showed no signs of allowing anyone else in.
Hence her goal was to return to the courtyard where the experiment was ongoing while she waited for the Year 1 student, whose testimony they required, to wake up.
There, she found the same irksome Year 1 student — in other words, Erika — embroiled in another incident. A dark faced young man was reminding Erika to pay attention, whereas Erika was heedlessly whistling with a carefree attitude.
Despite the oncoming headache, she couldn't pretend to not see this either, so Kanon called a nearby Committee member to verify what happened.
"So, Shiba-kun, what the heck happened here?"
While Tatsuya was one of Kanon's subordinates in the Public Moral Committee, currently he served as one of the team representatives in charge of the experiment.
Whether she was a bodyguard or not, Kanon shouldn't have suddenly asked a question of Tatsuya, who was busily typing away at the keyboard, but Kanon didn't realize that right now.
As expected, Miyuki arched a fine eyebrow from her position behind
Tatsuya, but Tatsuya didn't display a troubled expression and merely halted the scrolling frames and turned his head around.
"Erika and Leo loitering around seems to have incurred Sekimoto- senpai's displeasure."
After hearing this and verifying the situation once more, she found that indeed more disapproving gazes were sent towards Sekimoto rather than Erika.
Completely fed up, Kanon approached the bickering duo. "......Sekimoto-senpai, what's the matter?"
Public Moral Committee members didn't have a term of office, so they kept their positions unless they personally resigned. Using the changing of the guard in the Student Council as a reason, both Mari and Tatsumi had handed in their resignations while Sekimoto remained with the committee.
Currently, he was the only Year 3 student in the Public Moral Committee.
"Chiyoda...... No, it's nothing in particular. They're neither Public
Moral Committee members nor helpers sent by clubs and simply loitering around, so I want them to make sure not to obstruct the bodyguards."
Even though this wasn't her personality, Kanon really wanted to hug her head and heave a long sigh. Why was this senpai rocking the surface like this, those were her unadulterated feelings.
"......In preparation for next year or even the year after, there is no reason to prevent Year 1 students from learning from this experience. If they are causing problems for the guards, we as the guards will make sure to take note of that. Sekimoto-senpai, since you haven't been selected as one of the substitute guards this year, please leave this area to us."
At Kanon's words, Sekimoto's eyes sharpened, but Kanon never gave him a chance to respond and turned over to Erika.
"Can you two leave now? From another perspective, your earlier actions could be constituted as violence from four people against one person."
Seeing Kanon trying to use the earlier incident to keep this one under wraps at an early stage, Erika smirked coldly.
Realizing that she was scrambling for a reason, Kanon felt the blood rush to her head at Erika's smile.
Still, the situation would only worsen if she cut loose right now.
Before Kanon, who was clenching her teeth, Erika frankly turned around.
"I guess it's about time to go. Tatsuya-kun, Miyuki, see you tomorrow."
"......I should go too. See ya, Tatsuya."
Seeing both Year 1 students obediently depart, Kanon let out a sigh of relief.
At this time, her terminal vibrated to let her know a new message had arrived.
After examining the contents, she completely ignored what Sekimoto was about to say and doubled back to the infirmary.
"Ah, Kanon, wait up."
Isori, who was currently collecting the data results into an information terminal, frantically chased after her. Although this was plainly abandoning his duties for the experiment, no one present could fault him for that.
Sekimoto peered with interest at the terminal monitor that Isori abandoned. Yet, a hand reached over from the side and pressed the power switch for the monitor.
"And here I thought Sekimoto-kun had little interest in practical research."
Facing Sekimoto's angry expression, Suzune replied with a cold poker face.
"......I always believed that it was important to emphasize the basic theories such as Cardinal Codes and spell improvement, which is not to say I'm not interested in practical skills."
"I never intended to slight the basic theories. I feel that in order to reduce the risk accompanying practical use, careful validation of the basic theories is far more important than theoretical research."
"Validation and research is fundamentally different. Research is creation itself. Validation will not push the envelope."
"Research that has no meaning to humanity has no value. Only theories that are of practical use can be called theories."
"Even if they appear to be pointless, researching basic theories will undoubtedly lead to incredible results."
"There is no point in rejecting the small advancements of today to look at the fruits of tomorrow. The future is built on the foundation forged by incremental, practical advances."
Seeing the two of them that were outwardly calm, but actually extremely stubborn as they continued to bicker, Tatsuya suddenly remembered something from the other side of the screen.
He seemed to recall a rumor that Sekimoto didn't place fourth in the school's internal assessment for the Thesis Competition, but second place right behind Suzune. At the time, he felt that Suzune plainly rejected him out of a sense of enmity.
Back then, he was confounded as to why Suzune resolutely refused to allow Sekimoto to join the Thesis Competition, but seeing the two of them going at it like this solved that mystery. In Tatsuya's eyes, Sekimoto seemed to be the more combative one, as if Sekimoto himself believed that he should be the representative for the Thesis Competition.
Being overly proud frequently caused one to lose their senses. Currently, it looked like they couldn't suavely persuade Sekimoto. At the current rate, they would never finish in time. Next time, he might even take direct action. Still, that didn't guarantee that this action would be peaceful or even legal.
— Hopefully, nothing troublesome would ensue —
Although Tatsuya had a strong premonition that such a wish would never happen, he still earnestly desired that such a thing would never come to pass.
◊ ◊ ◊
After leaving the school gates, Leo silently followed behind Erika. Even so, he didn't intend to walk home with her.
There was only one route from the school to the bus station.
It was only he had no pressing business that forced him to move ahead of her.
Leo believed that Erika was the same way.
It was pure coincidence that they were walking in the same direction at the same pace.
Hence he came to a surprised stop when she called out his name. Erika also halted her footsteps.
"Do you have some time today?"
For a moment, Leo was unable to comprehend the meaning behind those words as he stood there in blank surprise.
At this, Erika suddenly whirled around.
Owing to her physical action, her skirt was raised slightly, but Leo's eyes were glued to Erika's own.
There was no trace of innocence. There was no trace of mischievousness.
That was a steely gaze that would have cut him in two whenever she pleased.
"Do you have time or not?"
Erika asked once more in a cursory manner. Finally, Leo removed his shackles.
"......I have nothing important."
"Then spare some time for me."
Turning around once again, Erika slowly plodded forward.
On the other hand, Leo adopted the same pace and silently followed behind.
They looked to be the same as before.
But now, the meaning was entirely different.
◊ ◊ ◊
The moment Kanon entered the infirmary, Doctor Yasuyado sent her an amiable greeting. However, when she saw Chiaki tied down to the bed, that "amiable" impression fled from Kanon's brain.
I thought 'you had no combat ability'?"
This wasn't the first time she unconsciously asked a question regarding something she simply didn't understand.
"Oh, you. This is 'nursing', not 'combat', OK?"
Kanon was not the only one who silently exchanged a gaze with someone else, nor was she the only one to resist a retort.
"Then...... I would like to ask that child a few questions, so can you please let her go and allow her to sit down?"
As if expressing she knew when to change the topic, Yasuyado smiled pleasantly and released Chiaki. —What would have happened if the conversation kept going, Kanon thought with a chill.
In order to dispel that notion, Kanon gently shook her head and redirected her gaze to Chiaki.
"You OK from two days ago?"
Hearing Kanon ask, Chiaki's eyes widened in shock and she hurriedly tried to hide this by ducking her head. She had only just realized that Kanon was the one chasing her two days ago in front of the station.
"Regardless of whether it was the day before or today, you were really pushing it. Any mistake would have led to a serious injury."
Kanon's words were kind and gentle rather than scolding.
"Still, I can't just stand by and watch things advance to the next level. Precisely because nothing has happened yet, I had to stop you now."
This was the farthest Kanon could step back. As the Chief of the Public Moral Committee, it was because of this position that she felt that there was a special duty towards reclaiming underclassmen. If not for that, based on her personality, she would have long since forgotten this.
"According to what you said to Mibu earlier, your words were that you didn't want to receive anything. So why did you want to steal the research data?"
Even though she was personally searching for the most appropriate words, her opponent was not moved by this.
"......My goal wasn't to steal the research data. I just wanted to change the activation systems for the magic device used for the demonstration so that it wouldn't function. I borrowed the password decoder for this purpose."
"So you wanted our school's demonstration to fail?"
Kanon barely managed to suppress her emotions, but beneath her concerned expression, the flames of fury were building. She dared to choose Isori's performance stage — Kanon's primary motivation — to tamper with. She looked to be especially patient today.
"No! I never wanted it to be just a simple failure! ......Even though I don't want to admit it, that guy could probably repair this kind of damage. That man has that kind of ability. But if he noticed that the device was inoperable just before the match began, surely he would panic. All I wanted was for him to stew over this for a few nights. I just wanted to see his troubled expression!"
"Doesn't that constitute as harassment? ......Fortunately nothing happened, otherwise you might face expulsion."
"That doesn't matter! As long as I can totally surprise that guy! Because I refuse to allow that guy to have things go his way......!"
Chiaki screamed as she started sobbing on the bed. Kanon helplessly glanced towards Isori.
Isori nodded at Kanon from his position near the bed where he was listening to the conversation and sat on the stool near the bedside.
You are Hirakawa Koharu-senpai's younger sister, right?"
Her head bowed in tears, Chiaki's shoulders shook from an altogether different reason.
As a member of the Technician Team for the Nine Schools Competition, Isori once met Koharu when serving on the same team.
"You believe it's Shiba-kun's fault that your older sister turned out that way?"
Isori had been present during the incident and knew the real reason why Koharu withdrew from school, so he immediately knew who Chiaki was referring to with "that guy", "that man".
"......What other reason could there be......."
Hearing Isori's question, Chiaki spoke in a low voice like a curse.
"That guy didn't protect Kobayakawa-senpai from her accident. Precisely because that man sat there and watched Kobayakawa-senpai fall, my sister had to bear the responsibility......!"
Isori wanted to put a hand on Chiaki's shoulder, but Chiaki violently shook him off.
Looking at his rejected hand, Isori replied with a bitter voice.
"If that incident was Shiba-kun's responsibility, then I share the blame as well. I did not detect that trap, so including me, the entire team would be to blame and not just Shiba-kun alone."
Isori did not say this to defend Tatsuya. During the Mirage Bat event for the Nine Schools Competition, Year 3 student Kobayakawa suffered an accident and still hadn't recovered her ability to use magic. On this point, Isori felt especially guilty for being one of the Technicians present at the time.
"Don't be ridiculous......"
However, Chiaki kept her head bowed as she ridiculed Isori. Kanon sprang to her feet, but Isori raised a hand to stop her.
"Even my sister didn't know, so it's not Isori-senpai's fault that he didn't know. But that guy has the ability to detect this. 'That man' said so. But that guy wouldn't lift a finger to help if it does not pertain to himself or his sister!"
This time, Kanon turned a confused expression towards Isori, who mirrored the expression. The two of them were completely unable to comprehend Chiaki's words and attitude. Based on her words, Chiaki was almost praising Tatsuya's ability, almost to the point of adoration or obsession. The two of them were so befuddled that the two of them didn't even notice the words "that guy" in her words.
"Even though he can do anything he chooses to do nothing......
That must be it, he must be laughing at the fallacy of others."
Seeing Kanon's eyes that hesitated to speak up, Isori wordlessly shook his head in reply. Isori more or less got Chiaki's meaning. When betrayed by someone whom one had complete faith in, human beings would develop a deeper hatred towards them than to their enemies. Especially like this sort of blind faith.
"In reality, he must be able to freely wield magic, but intentionally tanked his scores to be a Course 2 student, so he could trample the pride of Course 1 and 2 students and ridicule them. That must be it! That guy is just like that!"
"Yes, yes, that's enough."
Kanon and Isori were both struck speechless by these hateful and delusional accusations when a completely carefree voice covered Chiaki's speech.
"I said that's enough. Chiyoda, let's continue tomorrow."
"She'll spend the night at the university hospital. I'll explain to the parents, so you two can go home. There's not much time left today, right?"
Kanon wanted to say something in regards to Yasuyoda's suggestion, but Isori stopped her in time. Instead, the two of them left the infirmary.
◊ ◊ ◊
In the twin seat bus compartment, Leo sat next to Erika.
The feeling of sitting in such a cramped situation next to a female peer, even someone like Leo who favored food over female company and action over stillness, wasn't entirely immune to this.
Even knowing the other person was Erika, he still felt a little uncomfortable.
No, he was uncomfortable precisely because this was Erika.
Objectively speaking, Erika was also a rare beauty. Maybe it was her natural figure or the result of martial training, but her rough sitting posture with one elbow braced on the window sill had a beauty all of its own.
Additionally, he could smell the faint, sweet smell unique to young maidens that came wafting over.
She was sitting right there looking outwards, but he couldn't just ignore her, so Leo found his gaze periodically drifting back to Erika.
Leo was starting to regret climbing on board without asking for the destination.
Fortunately, this awkward silence didn't last for much longer. "......Don't you think it's too simple?"
"What do you mean?"
Leo privately sighed in relief when he was able to respond normally to this sudden question.
"Yesterday, we received intel from an unidentified foreigner claiming we were infiltrated by spies. Today, we found a student holding spying equipment. A student engaged in blatant, clumsy antics that just screamed 'come and find me'."
I think we spent a lot of time and effort."
"Idiot. We spent that catching her. Normally speaking, she was simply too reckless walking around with that kind of hacking tool in broad daylight."
"She is an amateur after all."
In regards to the words Leo spoke without thinking through, Erika vaguely nodded her head but didn't look entirely convinced.
"So what is it."
Leo finally noticed that Erika's strangely obsessive attitude wasn't something that could simply be treated as a joke.
"It's not over yet......
That child is only the sacrificial pawn."
"So she was a decoy to put us off our guard while the real culprit is someone else?"
This time, silence was assent.
"......Then, you wanted me to come along so I could hunt down the real culprit like a detective?"
After throwing out these shocking words, Erika finally returned to her usual self, which was why Leo relaxed rather than becoming angry. If they were to continue as they were in this cramped compartment, Leo would undoubtedly suffer a mental breakdown.
"I never had that kind of expectation for your cognitive ability."
"What did you say?"
Regardless, he wasn't going to just endure those rude words. "Neither of us are think tanks. Leave that kind of stuff to Tatsuya."
But she was even referring to herself as the "knucklehead", so there was no rejoinder for that.
"Compared to things we're not suited for, there are other missions that we're more suitable for."
They both thought of it with a "Ping!" as both of them appeared to have the same logic pattern. —No matter how much they wanted to deny it.
—Since their opponents have already taken aim at the Thesis Competition, there's no need to chase after them. When the competition is about to take place, their opponents will naturally reveal themselves.
"Rather than playing defense, this is more like counterattacking." —We just have to wait for an opportunity.
"Terrifying woman...... You're using Tatsuya as bait."
—So long as nothing major happens. "Tatsuya can't be killed even if they tried."
—No matter what they try, Tatsuya won't go down that easily. "Hah, that's true."
—We just have to focus on catching the spies.
Leo and Erika reached an accord through the unspoken words between the lines.
Evil laughter emitted from the cramped compartment.
If Tatsuya heard this he would undoubtedly cut off all relations with them, but fortunately (?) the man of the hour wasn't present.
Still, the laughter quickly faded. "However, there's still something missing."
In an instant, Erika's expression grew solemn as she spoke. "Something missing?"
Noticing the serious nature of the topic, Leo honestly parroted back.
"Leo, you're first class material for infantry. If equipped with a short spear or blade in combat, you may surpass even Hattori-senpai and Kirihara-senpai."
Rather than being pleased by such high praise, Leo was more shocked or even flabbergasted.
"You possess superior innate quality, so you would probably triumph in close quarters combat within sight range."
Yet, there was only a few seconds paused for consideration.
"......Then? Since you said innate qualities, then you must be talking about ability now."
At Leo's piercing answer, Erika nodded without betraying a hint of surprise.
"I said there's something missing, right? You lack the ability to take out your opponent in one blow."
"An ability to take out my opponent?"
"Attacks that can knock out an opponent in one attack, also known as finishing blows. A technique that will definitely defeat an opponent and which your enemy fears above all others. A technique that gives you a decisive advantage even if you don't use it. Currently, you don't have one."
"Of course. I have a secret sword technique that does not rely on specific tools and can be used to take out an opponent so long as I still have my hands."
"You don't have a technique that can definitely kill your opponent, right? The 'Mini-Communicator' Tatsuya made could be turned into a lethal weapon after a few modifications, but even then that's not a finishing blow."
The vehicle turned into a slow lane, which meant they were approaching their destination.
"......That's true. I don't have the ability to kill my opponent outright."
During the incident in April, Leo was only providing support in the back and didn't actually clash with Blanche's members. He didn't have Kirihara and Erika's experiences in violently rending flesh and bone.
"Do you have the will to learn such a technique?" Erika's firm gaze seemed to see right through Leo.
"Do you have the resolution to stain your hands with human blood? This time, our enemy will be just like that. If we don't have to do anything, then all is well and good. Regardless of whether it's the teachers or our senpais, even Tatsuya would be on hand to take care of this. If you don't plan on being a bystander and want to partake in the danger, then you need to be ready to kill our enemy."
"What a ridiculous question."
Leo didn't even attempt to avoid Erika's gaze and gave a simple, concise answer.
The vehicle decelerated and slid to a stop at the bus station. Erika opened the doors and stepped onto the platform. Next came Leo, only to be greeted by the scent of the tides.
Kanagawa is very close to the sea, Leo thought before he could verify the station name.
Before him, Erika came to halt and turned around. "Then, allow me to teach you."
Behind her, the sun's rays passed over Erika's shoulders.
"Secret Technique - Usuba Kagerou...... I guarantee that this will fit you perfectly." Erika declared.
◊ ◊ ◊
The sun had already set on the road home leading to the bus station that was illuminated by streetlights.
Today, instead of Leo and Erika, it was Kanon and Isori who walked with them.
"......So that's the motive."
After hearing the details from the hesitant Kanon, Tatsuya nodded in comprehension.
"What is that! That's completely trampling over your good intentions!"
"Strictly speaking, she was projecting her rage onto you?"
Next to the enraged Honoka was Shizuku, who was tilting her head in confusion. For the two of them, Chiaki's words were utterly nonsensical.
"She couldn't live with herself if she didn't do that......"
"She must dearly love her sister......
Even though I cannot condone what Hirakawa-san did, I can somewhat understand her feelings."
On the other hand, Mikihiko and Mizuki responded with almost compassionate words.
Tatsuya observed the interesting dichotomy between the opinions from the Course 1 and 2 students, but naturally he couldn't let anyone know he found this fascinating.
"Even if that's the case, there shouldn't be a problem if we just let her be, right?"
Tatsuya's words weren't directed at this particular incident, but what to do afterwards.
Hearing Tatsuya's opinion, Kanon and Isori both nodded. "Even though you were the target?"
Kanon's question was intermixed with concern and amazement. For some reason, Tatsuya looked apologetic as he shook his head.
"Correct...... Everyone was pulled into this because I was the target.
Still, this won't constitute a problem since my safeguards can't be broken by the password decoder's brute force methods."
"No, I'm not talking about the operational safety of the device since I also asked the Technical Research Club to look it over, so I'm not worried on that account...... But once they know they can't break through, they'll take more desperate options. Since Hirakawa-senpai is the root cause, if she can persuade her sister then I think that would be for the best......"
With his brows knit — most people would be struck speechless at this (charming?) expression that mushroomed needless worries — Isori provided the most effective countermeasure, but Tatsuya still shook his head.
"Let's end Hirakawa-senpai's involvement right here. Even though they are siblings, she has no direct connection or responsibility for what occurred."
Strictly speaking, the older Hirakawa wasn't entirely unrelated to the reason why her sister went off the deep end.
That's why Isori was so moved by Tatsuya's words to "let the issue drop".
"Eh~, so you are a gentle person."
This wasn't a joke on Kanon's part. She was sincerely astonished.
Seeing the slightly miffed Miyuki duck off where the upperclassmen couldn't see her without a word, Tatsuya shook his head for the third time.
"I just feel that this could become even more troublesome. Also, our recent lurkers are not restricted to only the younger sister of the Hirakawa siblings."
Although they didn't detect any suspicious individuals, Isori and Mikihiko both felt a slight energy fluctuation — an unexpected psion wave.
"......Shouldn't you take bodyguards after all?"
He wasn't shaking because of the dilation in the air but because Isori's face let slip his faltering, which gave proof to the fact that Tatsuya's hint wasn't directed to the obtuse Kanon, as he asked back.
"There's no use. Without someone with Saegusa-senpai's sensory abilities, it will be very difficult to catch the one shadowing us."
Tatsuya shook his head for the fourth time to subtly hint that there was no one they could call on for assistance.
◊ ◊ ◊
In a certain Japanese restaurant located in the Shinagawa District that was neither in the city outskirts nor a high class restaurant in Yokohama, a certain man in his forties and a youth in his mid-twenties met up with another young man in his early twenties.
"My apologies, have you been waiting long?"
The young man seemed to have just arrived. Based on his earlier words, he appeared to be quite embarrassed. Even so, there was no sign he was kowtowing to his guests and was more like a dignified heir of a well-to-do family exchanging polite greetings.
"Ah, no, we've just arrived as well."
The older man replied back. Regardless of whether his words were appropriate, his attitude was arrogant in the extreme. Even if this wasn't entirely coarse, this would still qualify as incredibly rude, but the man in question would have taken any accusations of boorishness or impetuosity in stride. Just like that, the last and highly capable young man in his mid twenties also sat down without a word.
"Let's keep this short, Mr. Zhou."
The older man spoke to the younger man. "Is that young lady reliable?"
"I can perfectly understand Master Chen's concerns." Zhou smoothly defused the man's forceful question.
"However, that girl is entirely ignorant of us, so there's no danger of any leaks."
At Zhou's unexpectedly confident answer, Chen watched him with judicious eyes.
"In that case, then that collaborator did quite well."
"That's the age when they are ruled by passion. They are in a sensitive phase where they wish to display their own value, so in order to make themselves more conspicuous, they rather tell others than be told and wish others to understand them rather than the other way around."
And that was why they taught her this and that, but Zhou didn't mention this as he smiled thinly with a hint of self loathing in his expression. However, his voice never gave a hint of this.
"Since Mr. Zhou said so, then there shouldn't be any problems. Still, I'm still concerned that something should happen on the off chance."
"I understand. I will personally examine the situation soon."
Zhou respectfully bowed, an attitude that pleased Chen very much. Following that, Chen pressed the ringtone button to make his order.
Zhou had long since noticed the sharp gaze from the young man to his side, Lu Gonghu, but the only thing that appeared on his face was a slight smile while his countenance never slipped for a moment.