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"I-I apologize for my rudeness the other day!"
Kirin rose and bowed her head in apology.
"Oh, no, there's nothing you need apologize for..."
Ayato waved her apology away.
The parlor of the male dormitory was an eight-tatami room, within which sat a leather sofa, and not much else.
The room lacked any windows. In their place, a screen depicting imitation scenery shone upon the room.
"If anything, I'm the one who ought to be apologizing. I seem to have caused you some trouble..."
"No! Not at all...!"
Lifting her head, she stared at him, trembling.
"So then... Y-You're not mad?"
"Why would I be mad?"
Seeing Ayato's smile, the expression on her face finally lightened.
"It was just that I couldn't ignore what your uncle was doing, is all."
"Nn... About that, I-I'm so sorry..."
"...Didn't I just say you had nothing to be sorry for?"
As Kirin again apologized, Ayato clutched his head in chagrin.
She was a girl, to be sure, but she was still just far too timid.
(Moreover, because she's so strong, the sense of dissonance is even stronger...)
Kirin seemed ready to burst into tears at any given moment, and so Ayato extended his hand to gently caress the top of her head.
His hand had practically moved by itself, but as Ayato saw her redden, he quickly retracted it.
"So, what can I do for you?"
"Don't tell me you came all the way here just to apologize?"
Kirin tilted her head, perplexed.
"Nope, that's all?"
Her answer was as expected.
"Ha... As I thought..."
It seems she was quite observant of etiquette.
No matter how you looked at it, her personality was pretty straightforward.
"Oh, but, that's not allー"
Stopping halfway, she once more bowed her head before Ayato.
"Also... Thank you!"
Her apology was as he expected, but her gratitude was something wholly unforeseen. He stared at her dumbly, and spoke.
"Thank you... for what?"
"Um, Amagiri-senpai, you tried to protect this completely worthless me from my uncle... Although some stuff happened afterward... but it made me really happy!"
Face dyed a deep crimson, she spoke.
Ayato shook his head powerlessly.
"Hmph. In the end, I couldn't do a thing."
...Toudou-san, let's continue this conversation outside. I'll take you home.
As Kirin spoke, Ayato suddenly placed his forefinger in front of his lips. He turned to look at the entrance.
Kirin immediately understood, and holding her breath, turned to the door as well.
Ayato killed his presence, approached the door, and flung it openー
The eavesdroppers, leaning with their ear pressed against a door that was no longer there, collapsed like an avalanche.
Ayato gazed at the leader of the group, staring at him with a startled expression. It was exactly who he'd suspected it to be.
"You sure are hardworking when it comes to collecting new material, Yabuki."
"Hahaha... Y-You could say that."
Although he wore a sheepish, apologetic grin, his actions were entirely expected.
Ayato had presumed as much, but that sentiment didn't extend to Kirin, who sat completely dumbfounded.
"...Toudou-san, let's continue this conversation outside. I'll take you home."
Kirin promptly nodded her assent.
- ψ -
"Ugh, it's still so hot even at this time of day."
The sun was beginning to set, and the sky was dyed a bright red.
Both the streetlights and the signs similarly dyed their surroundings red with their light. It seemed a bit early for streetlights to be on, though.
On this street, utterly bathed in the color of the setting sun, Ayato and Kirin walked alongside one another.
The reddish tint on her face had a somewhat different origin, however.
"Are you alright, Toudou-san?"
"Eh? Ah, y-yes..."
"This shouldn't be the case, but you seem pretty anxious about something?"
In response to his inquiry, she showed a demure smile.
"I-I'm sorry. This is my first time walking together with a male who isn't family."
"My father, heー He can be quite strict."
Strict, was it? Par the course for the Toudou-style main family then.
"Really? I'd heard that Toudou-style training was pretty strict. I guess things are the same inside and out."
"You know that I'm a practitioner?"
"I'm a swordsman too, you know. When it comes to the Toudou-style, which seeks the way of the paper crane, there's no way I wouldn't know."
Kirin's expression brightened at his immediate reply.
"So does that mean that Amagiri-senpai's style is an ancient one?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah; that's right. You sure know a lot."
The Amagiri Bright Dragon-style and the Toudou-style were as different in scale as the sun and the moon; the former infinitesimally smaller than the latter. He wouldn't have guessed that she'd have known.
"When we dueled the other day, I noticed there were times when you'd bend at the waist when taking a stance. That's how I guessed."
The Amagiri Bright Dragon-style was an ancient style with a history lasting five hundred years since its creation by the style's founder. At the time, swords had been employed in real battle, by swordsmen wearing thick and heavy armor. Because their armor greatly restricted movement, the fundamentals of shifting one's posture to alter one's center of gravity were founded upon the simple motion of bending at the waist.
In comparison, the Toudou-style dated back to the last days of the Shogunate, when swordsmen carried themselves upright and forewent heavy armor. When it came to which was superior; well, at the very least when it came to duels in Asterisk - which took place without armor - then the speed advantage that came from the latter was undeniable.
Given its long history, the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style had, of course, adopted similar techniques for its own, but had integrated, rather than assimilated, these into their own style.
This was what Kirin had noticed.
"Amagiri-senpai, whenever you switch from defense to offense, you always take a step first. When you attack from the front, you always raise your sword first. These are the symbols which mark you as a practitioner of an ancient style. Were this a fight with true swords, there exists the possibility of locking swordsー but Amagiri-senpai, you wield Ser-Versta, which cannot be touched. Which reminds me, that Ogre Lux sure is strong! Just from a quick glance, you can feel how much Prana you pour into that sword. If you could keep that upー"
Kirin's eyes glittered as she loosed a torrent of unceasing words. Suddenly stopping herself short, she reddened, and trembling, pulled back a step.
As she recoiled in fear, Ayato could only laugh.
Her actions really were those of a small animal.
He wanted nothing more than to pet her on the head once more.
"Toudou-san, you really love swords, don't you?"
"Y-Yes!" She answered his question unashamedly.
Looking into her eyes, he felt a sense of loneliness lurking there.
"...Because that's the only thing I'm good at."
"Stop saying thingsー"
As Ayato began to speak, Kirin shook her head in interruption.
"No, it's the truth. I'm not smart, I'm a scaredy-cat and prone to failure, even when it comes to my family...But once I take up the sword, even me, even this pathetic me, can do something. So yes, it makes me happy, and yes, I love it."
Her answer had been clear..
Ayato was unable to comment further.
And yet, her will and her actions... something still struck him as being off.
And it wouldn't stop bothering him.
"I have a dream that I'd like to come true; no, that I can't allow to not come true."
"Would you mind sharing that with me?"
"...I want to help my father."
Mumbling as if more for her own sake than his, Kirin responded.
"ーAnd for that reason, you have to obey your uncle?"
He felt his question was pushing things a little, but it really concerned him, and so he cut to the heart of the matter.
As expected, her expression revealed her inner turmoil as she wavered before finally giving the lightest of nods.
"...Uncle is different from me; he's supremely talented. In order to help me achieve my wish, he's provided me with the shortest path to that goal. The position of rank one is terribly heavy, it's not something I could have achieved alone. Uncle... is someone I am extremely grateful for."
"You know he's just using you?"
Of course she knew.
She showed forth not the least bit of surprise, instead revealing a hollow, empty smile.
"He's providing me with the shortest path to my dream, and in the process, benefiting himself. That's only fair."
"...I'm not sure I can see it that way."
Thinking back on the events of the other day, Ayato frowned.
That one-sided violence against someone who refused to defend herselfー just what part of that was "fair"?
"Uncle loathes us of the Starpulse Generation."
There was nothing that could be done about it.
She just had to endure, that's all.
Forcing a smile, her eyes explained her feelings on the matter.
Ayato thought about continuing, but decided to give up.
This was the weight of responsibility that fell upon the loser; he'd already exceeded the limits of interference.
He'd best let things end there.
...For now, anyway.
"Changing the topic a bit, do you mind if I ask you something?" Kirin asked apprehensively.
"Hmm, what's up?"
If she was going to change the topic that openly, then he'd play along.
"Amagiri-senpai, what do you normally do for training?"
That was a strange question.
"Well, let's see. I run in the mornings, and then I practice swinging my sword. After school, I practice partnering with Julis..."
Kirin seemed quite intent.
"And when you run, what do you do? Do you follow a certain path? Also, alsoー"
She sure wanted to know the details.
It looked like she wasn't just changing the topic; she really was curious.
As he answered her in detail, one question after another, she finally showed her satisfaction.
"Thank you. That really helps."
"It's nothing. You sure asked a lot of details, though."
"Yep. There's no wasting an opportunity to learn from the strong."
An utterly guileless smile.
"I haven't really decided what my training regimen should be, and so I'm a little worried... Moreover, I don't have any training partners; I have to do it alone."
"Do you want to join us then? Oh, only if you want to."
His offer had come as a shock. She gaped wide-eyed.
"I-Is that really alright?"
"I have to double-check with Julis first, but I don't see why not."
In his mind, he heard Julis' displeased voice shout at him "Don't just lightly go making any promises!" That said, as long as he confirmed with her beforehand, he didn't think she'd mind.
Kirin's expression had brightened considerably, and she again bowed her head.
"I'm sorry... Even after you've gone to all the trouble of inviting me, but I need to keep my distance from well-known students, especially the others in the Top Twelveー that's what Uncle said."
"Oh, why's that?"
"I have to be careful not to reveal anything unnecessary, he said."
"I understand. Well then, would you like to join me for practice in the morning?"
"My name's nowhere to be found in the Named Charts, so it ought to be fine, right?"
There shouldn't be anything for Kouichirou to complain about there.
"U-Um. So in other words, Amagiri-senpai and I... T- Training alone together?"
"Yep. So don't worry about it."
Kirin nodded shyly.
"Right then. When it comes to the precise time and location, I'll let you know later onー"
But, first things first, they had to trade numbers.
They could figure out the details later; he wasn't sure what time he'd make it to the girls' dorms.
"Thank you for everything you've done today."
"No, no, those should be my words."
"W-Well then, I'll be in your hands tomorrow!"
Kirin bowed at an angle and raced off to the girls' dorms.
After seeing her home, he sighed.
Night had already fallen. A gorgeous full moon hung in the sky, now dyed a deep navy blue.
A slight breeze blew, and the sound of rustling leaves filled the air.
He felt the presence of something hidden.
He wasn't sure where whatever it was was hiding itself, but its presence was surely there. That said, he couldn't sense any ill-intent from it.
He glanced around furtively, so as not to allow the other party to notice his movements, while searching for their location.
The walkway was empty aside from his own person.
That left only the shadow of the surrounding trees, as well asー
Looking up, a small figure swung down from a branch high above.
The shadowy apparition caught ahold of Ayato's back.
"Uwa! ...Eh? S-Saya...?"
Twisting his neck for a better look, he caught sight of the person grabbing ahold of him, who was none other than his classmate and childhood friend.
"Hah... Don't scare me like that... You just about gave me a heart attack."
Sighing in relief, he complained to his childhood friend like always.
"...Just now, who was that?"
Ignoring his complaint, she grabbed a tighter hold on his neckー in other words, throttling him.
Ignoring his complaint, Saya grabbed a tighter hold on his neckー
"Hrkー W-wait a sec, Saya... Th-That really hurts!"
"...Then answer me quickly. Who was that?"
"E-even if I want to answerー"
Realizing the situation, she released her grip on his throat, and dropped down off his back.
"Sorry. I got a little caught up and used too much strength."
"*cough* *cough* Don't worry about it. Anyway, Saya, what're you doing here?"
"I was looking for you. I figured it'd be better to have a high vantage point."
"Looking for me? Whatever for?" Ayato asked, surprised by her answer.
"Tag-team partner. I want to hear your answer."
By tag-team partner, she was likely referring to the Phoenix.
"I'm sorry, but I'm already teamed up with Julis. That's not going to change."
He'd keep his promise.
"...Is that so? I understand."
She openly gave up.
She could be very stubborn, so he'd answered her in earnest. This conversation had played out just like those they'd had years ago.
"Now that that's done with... Just now, who was that?"
Saya immediately returned to the previous topic of discussion.
The look in her eyes seemed a bit restrained.
"That would be Toudou Kirin-san from the junior high division. You probably heard about her on the news?"
"...Ah. The person you dueled yesterday, the #1."
Ayato nodded and Saya frowned.
"In other words, she's just a first year in junior highー"
Saya glanced in the direction Kirin had disappeared in and then at her own body before patting her own chest.
"...Life sure isn't fair."
He had no idea what she was talking about, but he could've sworn he saw horns sprouting from atop her head.
"There are places where you two are certainly alike."
"She's here because she wants to help her father. I tried not to pry too deeply, but you two really feel very similar."
Saya declined to comment. Instead, wearing her typical pokerface, she mumbled to herself.
- ψ -
The next day, in front of the high school building.
Arriving five minutes before the appointed time, Ayato found Kirin already there.
"Good morning, Amagiri-senpai."
"Good morning to you as well, Toudou-san."
Kirin wasn't dressed in her uniform, but in a plain, but cute, set of gym clothes. Around her waist she wore a conspicuous pouch from which her nihontou could be seen.
"Before we begin our run, let's start with some stretches."
Stretches made for a good warm-up.
The flexibility stretches that he was normally unable to do alone, he was now capable of with her assistance.
The only problem was, as Kirin would shake back and forth while stretching, her chest would sway as well. He didn't know where to look. Because she was but thirteen years old, the effect was all the more shocking.
Moreover, the contact they made assisting one another with stretching made things slightly awkward.
If it was Claudia, she'd undoubtedly be smiling mischievously all the while. Kirin, however, was completely innocent, the thought of which made certain thoughts run through his mindー thoughts he struggled to rid himself of.
"Is something wrong?"
"Oh, no, don't worry about it."
Perplexed, Kirin tilted her head, which only made his heart beat faster.
Her gym clothes were far more form-fitting than her uniform.
"Ahem. Anyway, Toudou-san, what route do you normally take when you run?"
"Oh, I leave campus and circle around Asterisk itself."
"You go outside?"
When Ayato talked about running, he was referring to short distance sprints. This was something new.
"Sounds good. Let's give it a try then."
"Alright then. I'll lead."
Thinking back on yesterday, she really had the liveliest of expressions.
Although the negative feelings she showed on her face outnumbered the positive ones, the smile she showed now was very cute.
Again he was struck with the impulse to pat her on the head.
"? Are you sure everything's alright?"
"It's nothing, it's nothing. Please lead."
Even if Ayato now felt quite comfortable in Asterisk, he hadn't really left Seidoukan grounds. Excepting the one time when Julis had taken him around the city, he hadn't left the campus.
Kirin focused herself and showed a serious expression.
"Oh, before that... Amagiri-senpai, do you use weights?"
"Right. These, for example."
Kirin pulled out a racing bib from her waist pouch.
Giving it a lift, Ayato found it quite heavy.
It'd be hard for a normal person even to lift.
"When we run on school grounds, we can run at whatever speed we want. That's not the case if we go outside, though."
"Oh, I see. That would be rather dangerous indeed."
When sprinting, members of the Starpulse Generation could overtake even a car at top speed. If they were to put all they had into it, it wouldn't even be close. It went without saying that if they were crash into someone at such a speed, serious injury would result.
When a member of the Starpulse Generation injured someone who was not, regardless of the severity of the injury, they would be harshly punished. That, of course, also included accidents.
"Wearing these serves two purposes: it slows down our top speed and also assists in training."
"That makes sense."
When he was back home, any time he'd felt like going for an extended run, he'd retreat to an uninhabited mountainside to do so. This way of doing things was rather refreshing.
"I also have one for you, Amagiri-senpai."
"Thanks. I'll be borrowing this then."
Putting it on, it was heavy indeed. How effective.
"Alright then. Let's get started."
As she finished speaking, Kirin took the lead and began to run.