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Gakusen Toshi Asterisk Vol 2 Chapter 7

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Chapter 7 - Resolve and Resolution

On this morning, Kouichirou was not a happy camper.

Kirin's whereabouts were unknown. As her emergency contact, he promptly made his way to Seidoukan with the utmost haste.

Once there, learning that Kirin was safe and sound, he relaxed. However, as he thought of how much time had been wasted over this incident, his relief gave way to anger.

The 7th Instructional Assessment Office's - Galaxy's - headquarters were located in Otsu, the capital city of Japan's Shiga prefecture. Kouichirou, however, had set up a branch office in Asterisk as a forward operating base of sorts. It went without saying that the activity made more convenient by doing so was his management of Kirin.

"Honestly, stop giving me cause for concern."

Kouichirou was the same as always, and having called Kirin to the shadow of the school building, was berating her once again.

"...I'm sorry, Uncle."

Kirin bowed her head obediently.

"Forget it. More importantly, your next opponentー"

"Before that Uncle, might I ask a question?"

"...What?"

"Just now, were you 'concerned' for Toudou Kirin, the person, or were you 'concerned' about Toudou Kirin, the tool?"

The question took him by surprise, and the blood drained from his face. Quickly recovering, his lips twisted in a cruel grin and he looked down at her with contempt.

"That's not something you need to know. There's no reason to ask such a stupid question as that. After all, you already know. What I need is only your strength."

"Is that so..."

Kirin head dipped lonesomely.

Kouichirou could not afford to lose Kirin. That, however, extended only as far as the extent to which her skills made her an irreplaceable tool. There was nothing more to it than that. His feelings for her were anything but love; they might have been relatives, but they were estranged relatives.

Kirin's father, Seijirou, had cast aside his own elder brother to lay claim to the inheritance of their Toudou-style. For this sin, Kouichirou had never forgiven him. What had originally been his had been robbed from him by a mere happenstance of birth; this was something he would never forgive.

From when he was very young, he'd thrown himself into the Toudou-style. He'd spared no expense in practicing the arts of the sword, and had at last attained a level of swordsmanship worthy of succeeding the Toudou-style main family's legacy. Unfortunately, the vast number of the Toudou-style's students were members of the Starpulse Generation, and only one who exhibited an identical strength was truly capable of guiding them. This was something he well understood.

And yet, the existence known as the Starpulse Generation was something he refused to accept.

They were not, after all, human.

They were monsters.

If it were not for them, why else would that which had been rightfully his been stolen away by another?

And so he'd cut off all relations with his family, and instead begun work here in Asterisk.

Watching the demons destroy one another as they reveled in greed and avarice was thoroughly satisfying. The ironic thing was, Kouichirou possessed a singular talent at gauging and assessing the abilities of the Starpulse Generation.

Milking his talent for all it was worth, he had smoothly climbed the ranks.

At that time, he'd run into Kirin, who could only be described as the greatest tool imaginable. On this one thing and this one thing only, Kouichirou was grateful to his brother.

The Integrated Entertainment Enterprise's Galaxy was a group that only cared about those who produced the very greatest results. By exploiting Kirin for all she was worth, attaining the position of the cadre of the very most elite wasn't something unimaginable.

For that reason, he'd quickly devised a plan, which until now, had proceeded most smoothly. For the time being, in order to spread her reputation, he'd ensured that the students she fought were all well-known. Eventually, however, the numbers would shrink, and her fame would only grow as a result.

His true aim was the Lindvolus, two years from now. With Kirin's abilities, the possibility of loss did not exist. When, two years hence, she laid claim to victory at the Lindvolus, standing undefeated, both their reputations would soar to untold heights.

Although that would require a strategy capable of overthrowing the Venomous Witch, they still had two years time in which to come up with a plan. That would be enough. Kirin just needed to obtain an Ogre Lux. For the moment, however, the burden of her reputation as the "rank one who neither wields an Ogre Lux nor is an ability user" was assuredly heavy indeed.

As Kouichirou contemplated in silence, his expression darkened.

"That reminds me, when you were ambushed... wasn't that Amagiri Ayato guy with you? The one who uses Ser-Versta?"

As he thought of that brat, his mood soured, and he clicked his tongue.

"I don't know the full details, but it seems that not long ago he was involved in an incident with Allekant. It goes without saying that this and that are connected somehow. From now on, stay away from him. Getting dragged into things that aren't any of our concern will only result in unnecessary complications."

Given the scope of his authority, Kouichirou wasn't made aware of the details of what had occurred, but he nonetheless knew of the pact that Allekant and Seidoukan had formed. That punk likely had something to do with it.

"ーOn that point, I will decline."

Kirin flatly rejected his command.

"...What?"

Kouichirou was sure he'd imagined it.

Until now, Kirin had given almost no hint of resistance whatsoever. But now, she stared him directly in the eyes with a determined look in her own.

"Fine. Let's hear the reason."

Holding back his wrath, he glared at her.

"Amagiri-senpai has already taught me something invaluable. What's more, there are many other things I would learn from him."

"Learn?"

Kouichirou snorted with impatience.

"How asinine. All you need to do is heed my command. Don't even try thinking about anything else."

"...No, Iー"

Kouichirou didn't bother to let her finish, cutting her off mid-sentence with a stinging slap across her cheek.

There was no need to hold back. Kirin hadn't so much as budged an inch, and she returned his stare, unflinching.

As he looked into those eyes, which burned with a fierce will and fiercer determination, it was he who was intimidated.

Quickly regaining his original demeanor, he snorted once more.

"Hmph...! Interesting, you dare to defy me? Tell me then, what's your plan? Without me guiding your every step, just how do you plan to win?"

"Yes, it's as you say."

"HAHA, HAHAHAHA! And here I was, wondering what you were going to say. Something like this, of course it's beyond your ability. Listen closely, it's only because of my efforts that you're ranked first. I certainly acknowledge that you are strong, but don't you dare underestimate this city. I don't care what it is you do; you will never see your dream come true. The only thing you will do is waste your time."

As Kouichirou continued to speak, he recovered his inward calm.

Indeed. This foolish coward he called niece would never be able to accomplish a thing without him at her side.

Even if she'd finally decided to grow a backbone, she was still nothing more than a petulant child.

All it would take is a slight intimidation of threat, and she'd fold like a house of cards.

"Isn't your goal to save your father, to save Seijirou, in the shortest time possible? Then just obediently heed my command. If you do as I say, then in just three years, no, two and a half years, you will obtain the victory you desire in the Festa. Is that something you can achieve alone?"

"...Not at all. I think such a thing is impossible."

Kirin lowered her head.

Satisfied, Kouichirou nodded.

"Exactly. You know it just as well as I do. Now thenー"

"That said, I don't think Uncle's way's going to work either."

As Kirin raised her head to meet his gaze, he glared straight on back.

"What was that?"

"There's something I should say. The one who can't afford to underestimate this city isn't just me, Uncle. Someone who isn't capable of stepping forward is also someone who is incapable of obtaining victory; that's the kind of place Asterisk is. You're rightー I certainly do know."

"Girl, don't speak of things of which you know not...!"

Kouichirou's voice trembled in rage.

"I have been watching the students here long before you were even born! You have only been here but a few short months..."

"ーWhich is long enough to understand that much."

Those words made something in Kouichirou snap.

Without thinking, he raised his fist and brought it down.

ーHowever.

"Sorry, Uncle."

Kirin had blocked his punch.

"I'm very grateful for all you've done for me. Know that those are my sincere feelings. Nevertheless, I've already decided to do things my own way from now on. If I don't...then there will inevitably come a day when I know regret."

As she finished speaking, she released Kouichirou's arm and promptly left.

Kouichirou stared dumbly at her back as she walked off. Recovering his wits, he shouted.

"W-WAIT! What do you think you're going to do now?!"

"That's a good question... For now, I think I'm going to duel someone."

Kirin stopped, and turning back, smiled calmly.

"A duel?"

"That's right. I've already chosen my own opponent, except this time, I'm doing it for me."

- ψ -


The following week, Seidoukan's multi-purpose stadium.

This large arena was packed with spectators.

Just like in the training room utilized by Julis and Ayato, the stadium was carefully covered with protective screens.

These protective shields, capable of warding off Lux-based attacks, had enormous energy requirements and similarly large generators. On the entirety of Seidoukan grounds, only this and three other locations had similar facilities.

In this arena, normally reserved for the official ranking tournament, two individuals occupied the center.

"For accepting my request, I sincerely thank youー Amagiri-senpai."

One of the two, Kirin, bowed her head politely.

Her expression was bright and free.

"Not at all...Although, I have to askー why did you want to start a duel yourself? And what's more, with me?"

The other was Ayato, wearing an awkward smile.

"In order to truly move forward, I felt this was something that had to be done."

"Move forward...?"

"...Yes."

At her reply, he sighed and shrugged helplessly.

"I understand. Let me make something clear first, though; if we fight, I won't be holding back... or rather, I can't afford to hold back."

"...That was my hope."

The faintest of smiles graced her face as she drew Senbakiri from its scabbard.

Ayato pulled back and activated his Lux.

The scene before her startled her, and Kirin asked, "You're not going to use your Ogre Lux?"

"If I use Ser-Versta, there's no way I can match your speed."

The sword-type Lux Ayato was wielding was, at most, half the size of Ser-Versta.

"Anyway, if I lose by just stupidly repeating what I did last time, there's no way Julis is going to let me go. Tactics are necessary here."

"Tactics, you say... I look forward to it."

Kirin waved Senbakiri.

The light, reflecting off her blade, shined brightly.

"Alright then, let's get started. To be honest, I'd prefer not to fight somewhere like this, but we can't just keep people waiting, now can we?"

"Haha, that's true."

Julis, on the other hand, occupying a special spot, had been seated shoulder to shoulder with a certain someone.

"There was no need to go to all this effort..."

Julis' face revealed her displeasure as she glared at Claudia.

"Such a highly anticipated event as this? How could we possibly do any less? After all, this is Toudou-san, our school's top rank, and Ayato, who's on the same level as she is. A rematch like this one, there's no way anyone'd want to miss out."

"Well... that much is true."

Julis looked at Ayato with concern.

Ayato would not have accepted unless he had a chance of victory, but there were simply so many things that gave her cause for concern.

There was the possibility that the limit on his unsealed powers would be revealed; whether or not he won, that would prove an obstacle forevermore...

"...Are you truly so worried, Riessfeld?"

The person who opened her mouth to speak to the worrying Julis was none other than Saya, seated behind her.

"That's a matter of course, Sasamiya. His opponent's the rank one, you know? There's no way I wouldn't worry."

"It'll be fine, don't worry."

She didn't know how Saya could trust Ayato so deeply, and speak in a voice so filled with certainty.

Julis wanted nothing more than to share Saya's trust in her partner, Ayato, but the time they'd known each other was still relatively short. The thought made her slightly unhappy, and she sulked.

"If last time was any indication, Toudou Kirin's swordsmanship is nothing to scoff at. Did you see it?"

"Yes, I did."

It hadn't taken long for videos of Ayato and Kirin's duel to spread across the Web.

There was no way anyone who cared in the least about the standings would have ignored the incident.

"Toudou is certainly strong. When it comes to swordsmanship, there's no doubt that she's superior to Ayato," Saya answered expressionlessly.

"That's whyー"

"But it doesn't matter. Ayato's well accustomed to fighting those who are stronger than he is."

"...And who would that be?"

Julis spun to face Saya.

"Haru-neeー Ayato's older sister."

Saya's answer was short and to the point.

"Hmm... That guy's sister, is she really that strong?"

Saya nodded in response to Julis' murmured words.

"Well, I'm sure that punk's got something up his sleeve. Let's just see how things play out."

Suddenly interrupting was the person seated next to Claudia, Lester.

"What's that supposed to mean? Do you know what's going on, Lester?"

"A little. He asked for my help with a Lux. I lent him one."

"A Lux...? If that's all he needed, why didn't he just request one from the equipment division?"

"It'd take some time before his request could be fulfilled. The fastest way is still to simply borrow another's."

"He~h, McPhail sure is reliable."

Just as Julis was about to reply, another voice cut in, this time from Eishirou, seated in the row before her.

Just as he'd done last time, he'd monopolized the prime spot for recording.

"Don't tell me he asked something of you, too, Yabuki?"

"You could say that... Oh, it's starting."

At Eishirou's comment, all eyes turned forward.

Ayato, occupying center-stage, explosively released his Prana as the crowd erupted into cheers.

- ψ -


"Then, allow me the first move!"

The first to attack was Kirin.

Clearing the distance between them in a single leap, she swung downward with lightning speed.

Ayato countered with an upward swing before leaping backwards.

Though it had been an incredibly precise attack, Ayato had gained the upper-hand. Even if their weapons clashed directly, they wouldn't break from such force.

Kirin leapt into the air, her sword tracing out an arc as it reversed and came in for a downward slice. The sheer speed of her continuous motion wasn't something that could be looked down upon. As Ayato brought his blade horizontal in a block, Senbakiri's tip suddenly targeted his wrist. Ayato pulled back his arm, though Kirin exploited the opening to suddenly advance and swing mightily.

Her relentless combo pushed Ayato back and had him entirely on the defensive.

Ayato wasn't losing out to her in speed, even when it came to the speed of his strikes.

It was just that her attacks were all flawlessly linked, leaving him without an opportunity to counterattack.

He couldn't afford to get caught up in his opponent's pace. Her gaze, distance, even her breathingー everything about her whispered the temptation that "this is the move you should make". Rejecting that notion, he focused on what was the optimal path for him to takeー

"Ku!"

Even if he understood that in his mind, making it happen was another thing altogether.

Forcibly disrupting his own pace would bring about a truly dangerous situation.

(But that's what needs to happen...!)

"!"

In the face of Kirin's godlike speed, Ayato exposed his body.

He immediately felt a searing, burning sensation in his side, but he ignored it, his sword targeting Kirin's chest.

However, she nimbly turned aside, easily avoiding his attack.

Again astonished by her amazing reflexes, he jumped far back to open some distance.

"Haa..."

The wound on his side was quite light.

That said, even if he was reinforcing his body with Prana, victory would perhaps come with quite a price.

Kirin, on the other hand, gazed at Ayato with heartfelt admiration.

"...You really are amazing, Amagiri-senpai. It's as if I were trying to cut a steel wall."

"Well, the quantity of my Prana is one of the few things I do take pride in."

But it wasn't something that would last indefinitely. No matter how vast one's Prana stores were, none of that mattered as long as one was incapable of landing a blow on one's opponent. An opponent with an abundance of experience was even more difficult to deal with; constant reinforcement of one's entire body would quickly exhaust one's resources.

"Moreover, that is the first time anyone's ever managed to escape 'Conjoined Cranes'."[1]

"So that's what that was. Even I've heard of the 'Conjoined Cranes'; it's quite an honor to experience it firsthand."

The Toudou-style sought after the ideal of the paper crane.

Just as the crane would nimbly flap its wings, the Toudou-style, when properly executed, would unleash a chain of succeeding attacks on its opponent. The embodiment of this ideal was the Toudou-style technique "Conjoined Cranes".

Neither the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style or the Toudou-style forbade contests between different schools, and Ayato himself had personally witnessed the other students vying in such contests on multiple occasions. The Toudou-style boasted many students, but this was the first time Asterisk had witnessed such exquisite swordsmanship.

To this date, Ayato had never before seen anyone who had attained such a degree of mastery over the Toudou-style.

ーBut now she stood before his very eyes.

"'Returning to Nest', 'Blooming Tachibana', 'Wing-to-Wing', 'Wave of the Blue Sea'... the Toudou-style has 49 variants of chained skills. When linked and taken in aggregate, together they are 'Conjoined Cranes'."

Kirin took up a stance, dropping her center of gravity.

"'Conjoined Cranes' is unendingー next time, you won't escape!"

Emitting a whirling aura, she attacked.

Kirin knew of Ayato's time limit. She needed only drag out the match, and victory would be assured.

But it seemed she had no intention of doing so.

(Honestly, she's such a good girl...)

Even though she was younger than he was, not only was her swordsmanship not inferior to his, it was actually superior... just how many hours had she devoted to the sword? What thoughts had run through her mind as she had swung her sword time and time again?

Once more he felt the utmost admiration for the girl before him. Drawing his sword out horizontally, he focused his mind.

Certainly, Kirin's ーToudou-style'sー ideology was most impressive.

Their style, which had optimized itself for one-on-one dueling, definitely held the advantage over the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style, which had evolved as a life-and-death necessity on the battlefield.

ーNevertheless.

"Then, allow me to show forth the full might of the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style."

His words finished, with his next breath, his Prana exploded.

- ψ -


Kirin held her sword in a slant, and rushing Ayato, slashed across horizontally.

Ayato blocked, his sword vertical, but Kirin twisted her wrists and slashed down from on high.

Kirin had already entered into "Conjoined Cranes".

An unending sequence of attacks that never ceased until the opponent had been cut.

Since the "Conjoined Cranes" required nonstop motion, it expended an enormous amount of energy. However, Kirin, having practiced day after day, night after night, could sustain it for some time. Until now, the only person to have ever evaded her "Conjoined Cranes" technique had been Ayato alone.

(This time for sure...!)

Last time she'd aimed at his side, but this time her target was his school badge. As long as she did that, his Prana reinforcement would avail him nothing.

It was, of course, extremely difficult to target something like that. However, one aspect of "Conjoined Cranes" was its ability to wear away at the opponent's concentration. Sooner or later, Ayato would show an opening.

And soー

Kirin swung her sword, which crashed loudly against Ayato's.

In the next moment, his sword flashed with light as it flew away.

"Wha...!?"

Immediately following, she was hit by a storm of wind. Covering her face, she leapt backward to clear some distance.

The force with which the explosion hit couldn't be understated.

A moment prior, Kirin had sensed his Prana focusing upon his swordー

(His Meteor Arts failed...?)

In order for Meteor Arts to succeed, in addition to adjustments made to the Lux itself, adjustments to one's Prana output were necessary as well.

Pouring too much Prana into the Mana Dite would result in an overload resulting in an explosion.

She was certain Ayato would never make such an amateur mistake.

(Don't tell me that was just to interrupt "Conjoined Cranes"...?)

It was a tactic that had definitely achieved its purpose, but wasn't it too self-destructive by far?

Having lost his weapon, he no longer had any means of escaping her attacks.

Determining the current situation in a moment's time, she once more brought up Senbakiri in a stance.

ーHowever.

"Amagiri Bright Dragon-style, spear technique - !"

"!"

Penetrating through the gusts created by the explosion, three piercing thrusts came toward Kirin.

"A three-way attack...! No, before that, a spear?!"

Kirin cut herself off and focused her eyes forward.

There stood Ayato, a spear-type Lux gripped in both hands, mist gusting around him.

"Shocked, aren't you? Well, it's a borrowed item, so it's a little too big for me."

Ayato gave a light laugh as he spoke, attacking like lightning.

Kirin quickly recovered and began to deal with his attacks.

Just as Ayato had said, this was a large weapon that was even bigger than he was. The spear's haft extended over two meters, its shining spearhead was larger than his head.

With practiced ease, Ayato pinned down his opponent from a fixed distance.

"...I see. However, even a clever trick is still nothing more than a trick!"

Even given what had just happened, Kirin was still quite calm. Having assessed the situation in a flash, she seized an opening to rebound the haft of the spear.

Although Ayato was certainly skillful with the spear, his proficiency with the weapon was nowhere near his skill with the sword.

Slipping in beneath the spear's range, she rushed into close quarters, denying the advantage of the longer-reaching spear.

She once again slashed at her target, Ayato's school badge, but she was left utterly shocked.

ーA clever trick has to be clever to count, after all

Ayato had tossed away his spear, and from the sheath on his back, had drawn out a third Lux.

Activating it in a second, it revealed itself as a dagger-type Lux.

"Don't tell me...!"

"ーA clever trick has to be clever to count, after all."

Holding the dagger in his left hand, he blocked her attack, and, extending the same motion, whirled in a circle.

"Amagiri Bright Dragon-style, kodachi technique - !"

"Gu!"

Half-instinctively, she swung her blade to meet his, clashing them against one another. Sparks flew from Ayato's dagger as the shock ran through her wrist.

When it came to a contest of sheer strength, she was at a disadvantage.

Kirin quickly came to a decision, deciding to gamble it all on one last thing.

She stopped resisting his blow, instead welcoming his attack. His blade, aimed at her school badge, was thrown awry by the sudden lack of resistance. Kirin barely dodged by turning her body, and she slashed Senbakiri downward once more.

This time, she'd left him no opportunity from which to reveal yet another weapon.

Just as Kirin was sure of her victoryー Ayato extended his hand and grabbed her collar.

"Amagiri Bright Dragon-style, grappling techniqueー"

"Eh...?"

Kirin experienced a feeling of weightlessness before coming to the realization that the world had flipped upside-down.

"- !"

"!"

In the next instant, she was left winded as the blow simultaneously struck her back and chest, forcing the air from her lungs.

Her face was wracked with pain as she was left unable to breathe, as she finally came to the realization that she'd been thrown.

With tear-filled eyes, she confirmed that the school badge on her chest had been struck dead on by Ayato's technique.

(At the very moment I impacted the ground, his elbow...)

Such a brutal and merciless attack was truly the hallmark of an ancient battle style.

"Are you alright, Toudou-san?"

Ayato watched her in concern as Kirin forced a smile.

A certain indescribable joy welled up within her.

"...I was played. Both the spear and the dagger were just bait, weren't they?"

From the very beginning, his goal had been the throw. For that very reason, he'd allowed her to charge in close.

(The one who got sucked into the opponent's pace was me, wasn't it...)

Kirin understood quite clearly.

The school badge on her chest made a breaking sound.

"...It's my loss."

As Kirin acknowledged her loss, the school badge spoke in a mechanical voice, "Match ended! Winner: Amagiri Ayato!"

A brief moment of silence passed before thunderous applause and cheers shook the building.

- ψ -


"I never expected you'd actually win. To be honest, I'm rather surprised."

The rest area of the stadium.

Facing Ayato, seated on the sofa, Julis handed him a drink.

"Haha, I'm pretty surprised myself."

Ayato gave a wry smile as he poured the beverage down his throat.

He had once more been left paralyzed by the aftereffects of breaking the seal, and every inch of his body screamed with pain.

Although during the match, time had felt like it'd stretched, but in reality, it hadn't even lasted five minutes.

After the match, the students of the newspaper club had crowded into the rest area like ants. It'd taken a while before he'd finally had a chance to take a break. They were even now waiting outside, but none of them had personally borne witness to the reapplication of his seal, so there wasn't a problem there.

...Then again, he'd already released his seal in broad daylight on several occasions now; there were undoubtedly students who'd noticed something was strange. It seemed he wouldn't be able to keep this a secret for too much longer.

"In any case, this makes you the new #1... You've really done well."

Julis openly praised him, giving voice to her heartfelt admiration.

"Thank you. Hopefully this fixes things."

"...Fixes things? What're you talking about?"

"The last time I fought, it caused a problem for you, right? At that time, you mentioned that if I was also a Page One, it'd make things easier at the Phoenix."

Julis' eyes opened wide.

"Don't tell me... that's why you accepted the duel?"

"Well, that's not the only reason."

At his words, Julis revealed a gentle smile and patted him on the head.

"Honestly, what am I supposed to do with you..."

Her expression made Ayato's heart thump.

At times, Julis would show forth the kindest, gentlest expressions.

"ー*Ahem*."

Deliberately coughing to interrupt the two was Saya.

"Congratulations, Ayato. That was an amazing effort, worthy of my Ayato."

As Saya spoke, she reached an arm to seize ahold of Ayato's wrist.

"Thanks, Saya."

ーIn the room right now were Ayato, Julis, and Saya, these three.

Claudia had received a call en route, and after leaving her seat, had never returned.

Lester had said "we're not friends" and promptly departed. Eishirou, too, had raced off after the match was over, to prepare his segment for the newspaper club. (Before leaving, however, he, of course, had first made an appointment with Ayato for a special one-on-one interview.)

He'd borrowed a Lux from each of them, and so he had given them his thanks.

"A-Anyway, I wasn't aware you had techniques which didn't require a sword. Why didn't you tell me?"

In order to separate Saya and Ayato, Julis had plunged her way in between them.

"Uh, it's not so much that I was hiding it, but rather that I'm not really accustomed to it. I didn't think it was really necessary to bring it up."

"...Only after attaining a certain level of swordsmanship within the Amagiri Bright Dragon-style, do other types of training begin. I know because I'm always watching Ayato."

Pulling Julis away from Ayato, Saya answered.

"Oh, that's right. Yeah, ever since we were young, Saya would watch my sister and I practiー Um...can I ask what it is the two of you are doing?"

Saya and Julis were wrestling with one another, utterly confusing Ayato. Suddenly, he heard a racket being raised outside.

"Ayato, is it alright if I enter?"

The voice that came after knocking politely was one most familiar to him.

"Claudia? Of course, come in."

"Fufu, my apologies for interrupting."

Claudia opened the door and stepped in.

As well as someone else.

"Eh? Toudou-san?"

"U-Um, pardon for interrupting."

Standing next to Claudia was Kirin, an uncertain expression on her face.

"On the way over, I noticed she'd been caught by the newspaper club, so I brought her with me."

"Th-Thank you so much!"

Kirin bowed and expressed her thanks to Claudia.

"It's nothing, it's nothing. You probably had something you wanted to say; that's why you came all this way, right?"

"Ah... yes. That's right."

At Claudia's prompting, Kirin turned to Ayato.

"How can I help you, Toudou-san?"

Julis and Saya similarly turned to Kirin, curiosity plain on their faces.

As all eyes turned on her, Kirin shrunk timidly. Drawing in a deep breath, however, she shouted aloud.

"U-Um, Amagiri-senpai, can I join in on your training too?"

"Huh?"

Everyone was struck dumb at the unexpected question.

"W-Well, last time you offered, I had to turn you down, but this time..."

Kirin's face burned scarlet as she trembled.

"Ayato, what's this? I haven't heard anything about that."

Julis' glare pierced through Ayato as he frantically explained.

"N-No, um, it's just that, if Toudou-san were to join us, wouldn't that increase the variety of our training?"

"That does make senー"

"No problem at all. Welcome."

Saya extended her hands in welcome as Julis roared.

"Why are you the one answering?! Or rather, you've been coming every day since then, but I don't remember ever giving you permission!"

"Riessfeld, you sure get caught up in the little things. The world changes; get used to it."

"If anything's changing, it's because you're destroying it, you fool!"

The two began to argue once more as Ayato shrugged.

"This kind of thing happens all the time; you okay with that?"

"A-Absolutely!"

"I understand. Thenー"

Ayato extended his hand to the emphatically nodding Kirin as more noise came from outside.

"Kirin! You're here, aren't you? Come out, Kirin! Open this door!"

Realizing the door was locked, a violent roar shook the room.

"Oh my, if it isn't Toudou-dono."

Standing in front of the door, Claudia held her palm to her cheek with a frown on her face.

Her expression seemingly inquired of the other members of the room as to the best course of action.

Ayato couldn't decide such a thing by himself.

He turned to Kirin, who bit her lips before summoning up her courage and nodding.

"Right then... Claudia?"

"Got it."

Claudia opened the door, and Kouichirou came charging through the doorway with a face like an angry bull.

"Kirin, just how stupid can you get?! Not only did you initiate a duel without my permission, you even lost! My plan's all wasted!"

He'd only just opened his mouth, but the air already thundered with his rage.

"In any case, now you understand! You need me! Now, come! Do what I say!"

He grabbed ahold of her wrist, but she shook him off.

"...I'm sorry, Uncle."

She spoke but this one sentence before meeting his gaze.

Her eyes revealed the careful consideration she'd undertaken, but in his furious state, Kouichirou had long since lost the ability to take note of such things.

"Shut up! SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP! All you need to do is listen to me!"

Utterly enraged, he raised an arm.

But as his arm prepared to come swinging down, he suddenly stiffened.

Ayato had appeared between the two of them, glaring fiercely at Kouichirou.

"ーThis is unsightly. Please control yourself."

"W-What did you say, you brat..."

In the face of Ayato's calm demeanor, his roar faded into a whisper.

The look in Ayato's eyes was like a drawn blade. The murderous feeling conveyed by those eyes made his blood run cold.

Kouichirou felt a deep and instinctual fear run through him. His face turned ashen and he began to shake.

"She's already decided to step forward of her own accord. There's no room left here for you."

"Amagiri-senpai..."

From out of the corner of Kirin's mouth, Ayato's name leaked.

"I see. You're even more contemptible than the rumors say."

"...This is disgusting."

Julis stood behind Ayato with her arms folded, looking down upon Kouichirou with distaste.

Saya activated her Lux.

"Y-You bastards... I-I'm not a member of the Starpulse Generation, you know? If you dare to so much as harm a hair on my headー"

Kouichirou was unable to hide his fear, and his voice trembled as he spoke. Finally, a light bulb going off in his head, he turned to Kirin.

"Th-That's right! Listen up, Kirin! I was the one who covered up your father's crimes! If you don't return to my side, I'll reveal everything! In that way, both you and the Toudou-style will..."

"ーHmm? I seem to have heard something most interesting."

Speaking over Kouichirou's voice was someone who had remained silent until just nowー Claudia.

"What?! E-Enfield..."

Taking notice of Claudia for the first time, his eyes opened wide.

"I have no intention of criticizing the relationship between you and Toudou-san. However, when it comes to 'Toudou Kirin's reputation'ー that's not something that belongs only to you."

Claudia revealed an elegant smile, but her eyes were ice cold.

"That belongs to Seidoukan Academyー to the Integrated Enterprise Foundation. If you plan to destroy it...I'm afraid I won't be able to turn a blind eye to such actions."

"Uh, ugh..."

Kouichirou's erratic breathing was his only answer.

"I think my father would likely agree with me, but what do you think?"

"Th-That's..."

"Originally your plan was predicated on the premise of an undefeated Toudou-san claiming victory at the Festa. That plan is already destroyed... If I were you, I'd let her go, for my own safety."

Unable to rebut her suggestion, his shoulders drooped.

Quietly, and lifelessly, he proceeded to make his way out of the room.

"U-Uncle!"

Kirin shouted at his back.

Kouichirou stopped, but didn't turn.

"Uncle, I am very grateful for all you've done. That's not a lie. For everything until now... thank you very much!"

This was Kirin's way of life, and the way she treated everyone. Once more, bowing with respect, she expressed her thanks.

"..."

Kouichirou didn't respond, nor did he turn back, he simply continued on his way and exited.

"Uncle..."

As Kirin showed a sorrowful expression, Ayato took her hand.

At that warm, gentle touch, she turned to Ayato with an expression half-laughing, half-tearful.

"I'll be in your care from now on, Toudou-san."

"...Yes. Thank you so much."

Wiping away her tears, she nodded lightly.

"Honestly... There's no helping it."

"And that's that."

"Hehe... How wonderful."

The tense air in the room vanished.

Kirin looked around, and spoke to Ayato in a trembling voice.

"U-Um... Amagiri-senpai?"

"Yes? What's up?"

"W-Well, there's still one last thing... or rather, I have a couple requests to make. Would you hear me out?" Kirin, blushing to her ears, whispered quietly.

"Requests?"

"Y-Yeah. I-If you wouldn't mind, could I call you by your name?"

A whisper so quiet as to be almost imperceptible.

"Is that it? Of course you can. What's the other thing?"

"W-Well, um, Ayato-senpai..."

"Yes?"

Kirin's head, still bowed, shyly looked up. Resolving herself, she finally spoke.

"...W-Would... Would you also call me by my name?"

Now that was a little surprising.

He had no reason to refuse though.

Ayato laughed and nodded.

"No problem at allー Kirin-chan."

References Jump up↑ Renzuru

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