Sometimes, I Relax. (23.1)
"So, what you're telling me is that I no longer have any control over my life."
There were no signs of duplicity or regret in either Hiryute's or Lyon's faces. The Elf and Amazon's gazes just begged me to say a word against their plan. It was a trap. I knew that I couldn't reverse the decision. However, I couldn't call myself I man if I didn't ask at least one question regarding the piece of paper that would now dominate my life for the foreseeable future.
'Why' is one of the greatest words available in any language. It asks for meaning and explanation within a single breath. Also, perhaps most importantly, not being able to answer the question makes a person feel bad and consider their life choices. Yes, indeed, it is the ultimate armor-piercing question! The simple phrase can destroy the hearts and have individuals question their very existence when used correctly!
"Because, if we left everything up to you then we'd get nowhere and be forced to take drastic measures once more." Alas, like all other powerful attacks, there existed those capable of blocking it or turning it aside. Lyon utilized my own attack as ammunition for her rebuttal, turning her defense into offense, and increasing the damage she could deal against me. Please, Lyon, have mercy. "In short, this schedule is born from your ineptitude, Hachiman-kun. Make sure to adhere to it; otherwise, many complications will arise."
I looked for allies, but Hiryute's sudden grip on my hand and beaming smile told me that I had no aid at all. I was alone, unsupported, and at their mercy.
"Hikigaya-kun, you said that you'd meet us halfway, right?" My own words were twisted and defiled by Hiryute! Oi, you know that's not what I meant! This whole plan is crazy! Meeting you all halfway meant showing up and not lying to you all about my entire life. I mean, most people do that already, but that's a big step for me, y'know!? Cut me some slack, I'm doing my best here! You're asking me to give you a mile when I can barely give an inch! "This is exactly what you said you'd do! We're going to be spending more time together, keeping each other company, and we'll be able to make sure you're happy!"
My mouth opened to contest those disputable facts, but Grande suddenly appeared across the bar and placed a bowl before me. By her stern gaze, I knew that a new enemy had arrived to further seal my fate. She was the coup de grace to my unfolding demise. Her arrival meant that my future was sealed.
"Don't be an idiot, Hikigaya." The simple statement was the final nail in the coffin. The half-dwarf's words reverberated through my brain as I peered upon the piece of paper that declared my life null and void. "When a group of women willingly draft up times and dates for you to spend time with all of them, you'd be the biggest idiot in the world to refuse to take it."
Yes, indeed, in my hands was a schedule of days which I would spend with Hiryute, Lyon, Alf, and Viridis. Much like some sort of doctor or technician, I now had appointments and days where I was set to spend time with certain individuals to do what they willed me to do. While there were still plenty of days to spend in the Dungeon, and perhaps with other people, there was no denying that my time spent idling and lazing about was effectively over.
Because of the item in my hand, I could feel the accumulating hatred of all the NEETs and Otakus gathering just looking at the piece of paper in my hand. All their hatred and vehemence were surely going to form into some sort of super demon god that was going to kill me one day. In the back of my mind, I could already hear the "you can go explode" being chanted by my former brothers. Wait, no, some people in the bar were actually saying that.
I always knew that schedules and quotas would the be the end of me, but this was just damned ridiculous.
"Bwahahaha! You're an idiot!" Crozzo laughed and pointed. How original. Do you seriously think your reaction is at all entertaining? I'll tell you right now that isn't the case. No matter how hard you try to look dignified while laughing, you look like a freak to anyone who doesn't know what you're laughing about! Know the pain of every Otaku who reads comedic LNs in public, you bastard! All your customers looking through the storefront will think you're insane! "Hikigaya Hachiman: Silent Death? More like the Silent Whimper! They're walking all over you, Hikigaya! Gahahaha!"
"If I wanted to be mocked by someone, I'd have laid in bed and done some thinking, Crozzo." There were two ways to approach this issue. Unfortunately, the easier way was to ignore it and convince myself that I didn't care about what was happening at all. That method led to insanity. As appealing as that sounded, I had to do otherwise and take the situation seriously and as it was. I was sure that I was going crazy still, but this time it was because of not knowing what to do instead of knowing what needed to be done. "I'm here for advice. For help. Give me everything you can, because I have no clue how any of this is supposed to go."
"Have you tried not being a doormat?"
"Dammit, Crozzo, this is serious!"
"Have you tried to be literally anyone besides yourself?"
"You know you're going to get into a lot of trouble if you keep saying my name so passionately, Hikigaya."
"…Okay, that was a good one." Yeah, that was a good one. It seems that my constant ribbing of Crozzo has had him learn a few tricks from me. Still, only an idiot would be proud about having their target turn the tables on them. I will remember this Crozzo. My vengeance will be the stuff of legends. However, for now, I needed help more than satisfaction. "But, back on topic, I need your help. You've got half of my problem so please provide half of the solution."
"Do you still seriously think I'm dating Hephaestus-sama and Tsubaki!? Look, I'm going to tell you right now, Hikigaya, I would know if my Kami-sama was interested in me!" Oh jeez, Welf are you really that oblivious!? I've met Hephaestus a grand total of three times, man. The first time was when you'd introduced me to her, the second was spent just talking about and praising you, and the third was when she nearly cast me into the depths of hell for endangering you. I was being delusional and half-crazed while I ignored all the little details, but you don't an excuse. "Don't give me that look, Hikigaya!" The red-haired blacksmith pointed at me as though I was an affront to his vision. Oi, that's not nice, man. "If I'm blind then you're blind, too—"
"I wasn't blind, Crozzo. I was doing my best to ignore all the signs." There was no point in treading the old, worn path. While I would be happy just walking in circles and doing something familiar, I couldn't afford to do so. I've gone from having no relationships to four bent towards romance, four students, one old friend, and a goddess I needed to apologize to. Also, Crozzo was involved in some way since I was now right in front of him. C'mon man, give me the next Social Link Bonus! We both have issues with women, so that has to mean I'm getting some Points towards the next Bonus even if I'm shit at dialogue! "I was monofocused and insane, not blind. I have an actual excuse."
"You know that insulting me isn't going to make me want to help you out, right!?" Ah, Crozzo, if you think that was an insult, you've got another thing coming. I may be terrible at making bridges, but I'm very good at testing them and burning them down. While I promised myself that I'd use my powers for good (lol), I'm willing to make an exception in this case. The moment you share your secret knowledge of managing relationships with two women, you're free game. Don't underestimate the son of two corporate slaves. I was born out of passive aggressiveness. Molded by pettiness. I never said a compliment to anyone till I was in middle school and I failed miserably in doing so. I will teach you the true ways of insults, Crozzo, and you shall regret every moment of it. Wait. Dammit. Focus. "Hikigaya—"
I took a breath and raised a hand to stop Crozzo from speaking.
I was panicking again. Losing myself to my thoughts was too damned easy. What did I come to Crozzo for? Why was I Here? What did trading insults and enjoying myself do for my plan? I was stalling because I didn't know what to do with myself. Again. Dammit. I looked past what I wanted to say and do. What was I avoiding? What didn't I want to do? Soon enough, I found the words that I didn't want to say.
"Crozzo, I don't deserve any of this. They're just wasting their time with me." As always, being honest never felt good. Saying what I needed to say, instead of what I wanted to say, was a challenge that barely gave any rewards. What the hell. I didn't get people who can do this all the time. I'd almost rather be insane and delusional than keep this up forever. I'd almost say it's crazy to even try to always tell the truth. Still, I had to. "It'll only be a matter of time before they realize that I'm now worth whatever all this is." The schedule was a solid reminder of just how much time they'd be wasting with me. They were trying to succeed, but their chances of success were slim. Look at me, I could barely meet them halfway. "They're putting all this time and effort towards me, but they're going to get nothing in the end."
"…Is that because you've decided that they're going to get nothing, Hikigaya? Have you really already made up your mind?" Crozzo spoke after a moment. I couldn't meet his gaze. "You told them that you'd give them a chance. That schedule there is them making the most of that chance." The red-haired blacksmith stood from his chair and bared his hands. "Look, I get it. You don't like people wasting your time, so you don't want to waste their time… but are you giving up on them or are you giving up on yourself?"
I didn't have an answer for that question.
I didn't want to have an answer for that question.
"Yeah, see? You're just being a coward right now, Hikigaya." I've always been fine with being a coward. In battle, pride meant nothing. The one who ran away first or fought with the least honor survived. However, here and now, well… it was obvious that I was just doing what I'd normally do when confronted with a strange situation. Crozzo gave a sigh and scratched his cheek. A hand settled on my shoulder. "Look, just take it one step at a time, alright? You've got more issues than entire Familias put together, Hikigaya." Oi, what are you doing smirking like that? You're supposed to be helping me, Crozzo. "You're not going to miraculously change overnight. You might not even realize you're changing... but I know for a fact that the Hikigaya Hachiman I first met would never have asked me for help.".
In the end, I could accept Crozzo's answer.
At the very least, I wouldn't let myself give up.
Sometimes, I Relax. (23.2)
The Hecate Familia's home was fully repaired from the damages it took during the attack on Orario a few months ago. A few people waved at me as I entered, but most just went about their normal lives. I doubted anyone recognized me since I didn't wear my usual outfit. Yeah, so what if people were more friendly towards me when they didn't know who I was?! I'll have you know people are only friendly and nice when you first meet them. Most people only remove their masks once they don't care who you are. Ergo, since I'm never pleasant to anyone, I should be given a medal for being the most honest person around! You can trust me to always tell you what you need to hear for my sake.
Brain, thanks for trying to calm me down, but you're not really helping. I need to focus here. Deep breaths, Hachiman. Find your center. Totsuk—not that center!
"Ah, Hachiman." Hecate's voice drew my attention quickly. As always, the auburn-haired goddess was seated at the end of the bar. Hey, you know that having drinks readily available isn't exactly smart when you're raising a bunch of teenagers to be superpowered fighting machines, right? The goddess gave me a smile as I approached. She raised a mug at me. "It's been a while. Care for a drink?"
Under normal circumstances, I would've refused.
However, since when was anything about what I was doing normal for me?
"Yeah, sure. I'm going to need it." If Hecate was surprised by my words, she didn't show it. She called for the bartender to provide me a drink. I took a sip of the frothy, amber liquid. The taste wasn't anything special, but I doubted people drank it for the taste. At the very least, it was relatively refreshing. "Blech, I don't know how you can drink this swill." While getting drunk would normally be a terrible decision for me, given my Skill, Hecate had an amulet at her disposal. I trusted her enough to put it on me before I did anything I'd regret. "It tastes horrible."
"The taste grows on you, especially when you have it with good company, Hachiman." Hecate's small smile was ever present. Suddenly, the auburn-haired goddess laughed. She gestured towards me. "Heh, I like your new look, Hachiman. You seem very dignified." I felt for whatever she was pointing at. Augh, foam. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. "Believe it or not, moments like that make the hangovers worth it."
"Can Kami even get hangovers?" Wait, that was a stupid question. Hestia had been drunk plenty of times according to Cranel. All of those times connected directly to days my white-haired student spent time with only one another woman. Yeah, without a doubt, a god can get drunk and experience hangovers. Maybe they can even become alcoholics. I really hoped I wouldn't have to help stage an intervention for Hestia in the near future. That would just be plain sad. I waved away my question. "Eh, forget it." For a second, I hesitated, but pushed forward. Stick to the plan, Hachiman. You may have a spine made of bamboo, but you can still amount to something if you throw yourself at a problem with enough force! No, that wasn't a sex joke! "I'm here to apologize. Not for what happened… but for what I did."
The words felt egocentric and self-important, especially when I just said I wasn't going to apologize for the five deaths I was responsible for— no. I was involved in what happened to them, some of the fault was mine, but not all of it. Linnaeus, Asha, Jinnah, Sylt, and Kanuri died because of a plethora of mistakes. Theirs and mine. Had I been wrong in how I taught them and trained them? Yes. Was it a grave error to have them rely on me? Yes. Was I a major factor in what occurred? Yes. A hundred times yes. I made mistakes. However, they still made their own decisions. They had choices and paths they chose to follow. Each one of them was a person. Much like Laulos, the only way I could've saved them would be if I'd tried to control every aspect of their lives and ripped away whatever choice they had.
As much as I tried to convince myself, I couldn't exactly manage to accept those words. Some part of me was still convinced that all the fault was mine. That they were all still characters who would've lived their lives fully if I hadn't interfered. If everything was going well, if everyone was succeeding, I could tell myself that they were people and that they could help themselves. Yet, if something had gone wrong and mistakes resulted in something terrible, the fault could only be mine. It was crazy and stupid because following that train of thought was practically the same as calling myself the only person whose decision mattered, as declaring that I was some sort of god who everyone relied upon and not just another adventurer in Orario.
I knew that while I could treat everyone like people if they were happy, I was sure that I wouldn't be able to do the same if they weren't.
The only way I could change that was through action. Piece by piece and step by step, I had to act instead of just think. What was that phrase? Do or do not? By some green monkey thing? I don't really know, Americans are just flat out weird sometimes.
There was a sudden flash of pain and I found myself back in reality. Hecate was wincing and holding her wrist.
"I'd thought you were kidding about losing yourself to your thoughts. I hoped that you somehow managed to get a sense of humor while you were gone." Hecate sighs and shakes her head. The goddess braced an arm against the counter and pressed a hand against her cheek. A frown plays across her features. Oi, you're looking way too disappointed, woman. She sighs. "Maybe a touch less serious, too." Hey! What did I just say about being too disappointed!? "Did you already forget what I told you when you came back for the first time?"
"…in my defense, there were giant plant monsters attacking." Yeah, sorry, but most of what I remember that day is almost dying by getting someone out of the way. Was that you? I think it was you. Whatever, that's my story, I'm sticking with it. "Jog my memory, oh merciful Hecate-sama. This Adventurer's feeble mind cannot remember as well as your own."
"I told you when you came back that you're not a burden for me. That you had nothing to apologize for, Hachiman." I didn't believe a single word of that and that was wrong. They'd been part of her Familia. She knew them far longer than I did.
"You didn't cause me any more trouble than a Kami-sama would expect of her Familia. You have nothing to apologize for, Hachiman." Hecate must've seen something she didn't like on my face since she shook her head. The auburn-haired goddess took her mug in both hands and gave a scoff. "What do you want me to say, Hachiman?" She kept her gaze facing the bar. "Do you want me to lecture you? Tell you that you should've done better? That you should've never been involved with them?"
"…" Hecate, like many other gods, saw through people with ease. While I was able to keep control of myself around Hestia, Hephaestus, and Loki, I wasn't able to do the same for Hecate. I'd confided in her. The decision had been made purely so she'd trust me with her Familia members, but in the end I'd told her more than I'd intended to. Now, without a doubt, she could read me as easily as an open book. In fact, she was practically reading my earlier thoughts to me aloud. Yeah, I was right. The words did sound crazy. "…I suppose I did."
"They went out on their own because they wanted to get stronger for you. Each and every one of them wanted to stop seeing you get hurt for their sake. For you, they risked their lives and dreams so you'd stop having to stitch yourself together after every mistake they made." The sudden burst of words from Hecate hit like a physical blow. Each passing phrase rang and echoed in my thoughts. No, a part of me said, none of those words were true. Yes, memories arose and reinforced the dissident voice, it is. "My children loved you, Hachiman. Your selflessness, your drive, and how you refused to stray from your own morality… you gave them hope after years of this city grinding away their soul." There shouldn't have been a smile on her face when she turned to me, but there it was. "How could you expect me to hate you after I saw you give them everything you possibly could?"
"It… it wasn't like that." Taking on blows meant for someone else because I could. Bearing with pain so that the best outcome could be reached. That was wrong. It had been wrong in my last life, even if it was the admirable thing to do. The same was the case here. The root of my failure here and back there was because I wanted to be the hero. The glass in my hand cracked. Spirits spilled onto me. My skin wasn't even scratched. Because I can handle it, because I was better than them, therefore I could seek out the best solution and fix problems without anyone else getting hurt. It was a hideous way to live. Yet, I couldn't wrest myself away from it. My voice was hoarse and I felt nauseous. The bar top was splintering beneath my fingers. I was stronger now. I could handle more. That was all I heard in my head. The best solution was always in reach as long as I was strong enough. "They couldn't have survived without me. I made them dependent on me. I was making them into what I needed them to be." That was the truth. Yes. That was undoubtedly the case. "You're wrong, Hecate—"
"No, I'm not, Hachiman. You're the only one here who blames you. You're delusional. Crazed. Even a tiny bit mad." Hecate's hand pried mine from the countertop. If I were normal, if I wasn't meant to use my strength and power as effectively as possible, I would've been bleeding. I could do it. As long as I didn't give in and hesitate, I could keep those I cared about safe or achieve every objective I had. Why was I here when I could be making sure that more bodies were assaulting the Dungeon? There was an army on Orario's doorstep? Why hadn't I dealt with that yet? I needed to go. Work needed to continue. There's no time to even sleep. "Look at you." I tried to pull away, but she wouldn't let go. "You can forgive so many people for not being good enough, but not yourself? That's not being fair, Hachiman."
Life has never been fair. It never will be. A lowered guard, a moment of foolishness, is all it takes to lose everything. That was why I did everything I had to do. If someone could hurt another person without any consequences, they would. Should there be a benefit to hurting someone in particular, eventually someone will choose to do so. If blame for one's own mistake can be placed onto another, then it will be assigned without hesitation. Reality is cruel, petty, and dangerous.
If I wanted to keep those I cared about safe, I couldn't hesitate to do what I needed to do.
Sometimes, I Relax. (23.3)
I woke up and I felt horrible.
As expected, confronting my problems head on had been a stupid idea.
Just as it had been the last time I did it.
"Whoever made the amulet did an impeccable job, Hachiman." Hecate gave me a nod as I clambered up from the cot. No one else was present within the Hecate Familia's dorms. A whole Familia filled with morning people. Forget traumatic memories, I didn't want to join the Familia just because I'd be expected to wake up early. "You woke up exactly 6 hours after I placed the necklace on you."
"You get what you pay for." I paid a lot, just so you know. Well. The money was technically not mine. I didn't think Fels was going to be complaining, though. "So, what happened?" I shook my head. No. I knew what happened. A whole lot of half-crazed, barely coherent nonsense that was more suited for Super Sentai villains of the week. That wasn't the right question to ask. "Nevermind. Was there any progress?"
"You were able to talk about Linnaeus and everyone this time. You weren't able to last time." I trusted Hecate. No. I trusted everyone who I gave an amulet to. However, unlike everyone else, Hecate was someone I could rely on without feeling ashamed. Cranel, Arde, Erisuis, and Nelly … everyone else had matters to attend to. They were out there getting stronger, polishing their skills, and living their lives. I couldn't ask them to do this for me. Hecate, however, was… was the stranger who I was closest to in Orario. I could rely on her to help me see my issues through. "It's a single step forward, Hachiman, and this time I didn't even need to ask anyone to hold you down for the Amulet."
"…Thanks for doing this, Hecate." I didn't bother trying to sound anything besides grateful. Letting myself fall back onto the bed, I couldn't help but feel like I was attending some sort of therapy. In a way, I suppose I was. What else can you call talking about your issues, no matter how uncomfortable they might be, and trying to fix them? Knowing that Hecate wouldn't talk about what was happening helped a lot, so that was technically patient confidentially at work. As far as mental issues go, I didn't have a direct path to overcoming the ones constantly harassing me. "So, when can we do this again?"
"Must you always ask that question?" Kinda. I want to make it clear that I'm not making you do something you don't want to do. I mean, this sort of thing is pretty creepy! If I was offered to talk to a guy who had mental issues that grew exponentially and who could go berserk, I'd honestly say no. Yeah, isn't that weird? I suppose that I'm just an outlier for thinking things like that. Yep, yep, without a doubt most people would be perfectly happy talking with someone with half-a-dozen mental issues so that they could try to fix them up. "As I said before, Hachiman, that is up to you. I will make time to see you well again."
"If I were you, I'd have kicked a guy like me to the curb yesterday, so I can't help but keep asking." I could name a hundred better things to do than this. Why don't you go have fun? Meet a nice, decent person? Again, this conversation wouldn't be happing if you were the one with issues and I was the guy who you asked for help. Well, maybe I would help out in the first part a few times, but I sure as hell wouldn't give you a bed or be around when you woke up in the morning. I'd do it for the novelty experience of seeing someone go insane right before my eyes a few times, but you'd be lying in the curb or in your own bed alone when you woke up. "Frankly, Hecate, you're the weirdest person I know."
"I believe that by "weird" you mean nice, Hachiman."
"You can go ahead and think that."
"Regardless, after seeing your progression from your previous state, I would be foolish to not continue helping you." You're not being paid to do this, y'know? There's no benefit in this for you. Well, besides this Hikigaya Hachiman's gratefulness. None of his money, or even a promise to help, just his gratitude. I'm going to go ahead and tell you that you're not getting what you deserve for what you're doing, ma'am. Hecate gave me a nod and a smile while rising to give me some time alone. "If you wish to do this again, to surmount your fears and worries, I will be ready to help you, Hachiman."
"…" I've never believed that the best medicine was the bitter one. However, frankly, I knew next to nothing about what I was doing now. Therapy? Recovery? I'm just about 22. Or was it 21? I never expected to deal with things like this. Hell, my own brain was working against me most of the time. Was it possible that I was missing an easier way to solve my problems? Yes, but I didn't even know if they existed. I'm Japanese. We isolate and shun our mentally ill people like proper, civilized cultures! "Hecate, thanks for doing this."
Presently, talking to Hecate was all I had.
"You're welcome, Hachiman."
I didn't have many friends.
That was the way I preferred it.
Relationships are inherently threatening. Being alone means that you have no one capable of hurting you. Well, emotionally hurting you. If you're scrawny and a wimp, I've got bad news for you, buddy. Anyways, some people will probably get the idea that society and relationships are wholly worthless. While I can agree that some parts of society and many relationships are worthless, that isn't an absolute. I'll leave things like that to teenagers with too much time on their hands because they don't know how to groom themselves or talk to other people (I'm sorry, past self.)
Being able to help someone and being able to hurt someone lie in the same path. A person who could help you with work can choose not to help you anymore. Someone you like to spend time with chooses to spend time with someone else. A person you care for doesn't care about you as much as you care about them. Relationships have benefits, but they also have their detriments. Nothing is perfect. There is no such thing as care without cost.
Everyone will hurt and be hurt by another person.
So, the best I could do was be careful about who I kept close.
"Oi, I'm back."
"Sensei!" Cranel skidded to a halt after I heard his rapid footsteps. Oi, brat, you better not be running around like that on the carpets! I swear if I find any tears on those you'll be repairing them yourself! My white-haired student didn't get my unspoken message to slow down. Like some sort of missile designed to be fussy, he reached me and immediately began to look me over. "Where have you been!?"
"I told you that I was going to be busy, brat." Grabbing him and holding him aloft by the head, I moved him away from me like a crane would some rocks. Get it? Crane? His name's Cranel? Shut up, I'm the master of humor! Well, he was dressed in what amounted to pajamas in Orario, so he wasn't nearly as worried as he implied through his actions. So what had he been looking for? Some blackmail material perhaps? I'll have you know that I came from a country of great discretion and gossipmongers. I've been raised all my life to look the same whether coming home or leaving it! "Naturally, being the honest man I am, I was out working and being busy."
"Since when do honest people call themselves honest!?" Ah, I see you've learned well from my teachings Cranel. However, as always, I'm two steps ahead of you. You see, using those words mean you're assuming that I would feel guilty about calling myself honest. That can't be any further from the truth. The day I'll feel bad about saying I'm something I'm not will never come. As the son of corporate slaves, saying that I'll be anything besides a corporate slave myself would elicit guilt if that were the case! "Eh, there's no reaction from Sensei at all!?"
"Of course not, I don't mess around or waste time, unlike a certain student of mine." I looked towards Cranel. Huh, was that a grin on my white-haired student's face? Hmmm, the Loki Familia hasn't returned yet, so he shouldn't be this cocky about beating Rakia. What does he have planned? That look right there is far too smug to imply anything besides assuredness of victory! "So, what have you got planned, brat? What's with that smug look you've got on your face?"
"It's a secret, of course! I can't have you telling Rakia about my plans again!" It's nice to know that you can learn, Cranel. Hmmm, what do you mean I should know that by now? The truth is, my white-haired student, I'm never quite sure if you're listening to me and actually learning. You simply don't strike me as the studious type. "What's with that astonished face you're giving me, Sensei!? You're going to make me angry if you keep looking at me like that!"
It's possible for you to be angry!?
"Stop looking so surprised!"
Much to my surprise, breakfast was ready and waiting at the Hestia Familia's kitchen.
"Eheheh, Yama-chan wanted to repay you for the breakfast you made, Sensei." Looking over the dishes presented, there were two distinguishable groups of foodstuffs. The edible and the inedible. "The rest of us… tried to make some dishes for breakfast too."
"…you're all going to be fixing this kitchen and cleaning this place up." I only had to give my workplace a glance to learn that it was in shambles. I didn't want to know how soot marks appeared on the ceiling. The amount of failure I was looking at could be considered laughable by some. If it wasn't my kitchen, where I cooked to forget my troubles, I would've been laughing myself. All I could do was ignore the mess and take my seat. "Cooks are only exempt from cleaning if they actually make decent food."
"See girls, I told you sticking with unleavened bread and roast was the best idea!" Belka and the other Amazons were already digging in. Their smirks and cheers of congratulations weighed heavily on the shoulders of literally everyone else in the Hestia Familia. Yes, Arde as well. Like every skill, my Pallum student, cooking needs proper preparation and training to undertake. Also, please tell me you didn't make those burnt discs trying to look like pancakes. Tell me they're some sort of omelet or something! "A proper Amazon breakfast can't be messed up as long as you follow tradition!"
"My apologies, Hikigaya-sensei. My attempts at replicating your dishes were… less than successful." Yamato gazed forlornly at Cranel's plate. A half-finished meal sat upon my white-haired student's plate. Half-finished because I could see both overcooked and undercooked food sitting on it. Ganbare, Cranel. Do your duty and tell her it's delicious! "Ummm… if you wouldn't mind, can you teach me to cook in the mornings?"
"…Alright." At the very least, she was willing to learn, I'll give her that much. Don't worry, Yamato-san, I know that warriors aren't expected to know how to cook and clean. Honestly, you should really just train Cranel to do all of this for you, but I suppose this world's traditions will stop you from doing such things. "I won't wake you up or anything. If you're not there, I'm not waiting for you."
"I will be sure to pay attention and heed all of your orders, Hikigaya-sensei!" Oi, stop with the bowing and demure words. Someone might get confused by what you're saying. By someone, I mean the trash who like NTR. Those words are just begging to be misinterpreted, Yamato! Man, I'm glad this is real life! Wait, was that sarcasm!? I'm getting sarcastic to the point where I don't even know I'm being sarcastic! I'm evolving (maybe)! Though she spoke to me, I couldn't help but notice that her eyes were firmly on Cranel's unfinished plate. "I'll be sure not waste your time, Hikigaya-sensei!"
"Sure." You know what? I'm not going to say anything. Cranel can figure everything out himself. I mean, either he did figure everything out, or he'd be confronted by everyone out to get him. Was the student better than the teacher? Hell no. Ganbare, Cranel, you're going to get a taste of your own medicine in the near future! Don't think I've forgotten how you turned my hot springs visit into an intervention, brat! "But, until I say that you can cook, you're not going to, alright?"
More than one person nodded in assent to my words. Given how they looked at certain dishes, I was sure Arde and… uh… whoever the Runarl was intended to learn how to cook in the morning as well. I see. My days of peacefully cooking in the morning were now a thing of the past. I only saw days of burnt or undercooked food going into the trash while I had to cook more to make up the difference. Thankfully, we weren't poor, otherwise this was going to be a pain in the wallet as well.
"Alright, with that settled, let's eat." I paid my respects to the food before me. Though the food was of debatable quality, being nothing more than hunks of unseasoned meat and flat bread, it was still food that I didn't have to work for. Therefore, it was a good kind of food. Probably the best kind of food. Food that needed to be liberally salted and peppered, as well as supplemented by a very vegetable-heavy lunch, but good foods nonetheless. I never thought the day would come when I'd be disappointed with Manga Meat ™, but here I was looking over the greasy hunk of meat with bone protruding in the middle with disappointment. I wanted some miso soup every day. Was that really too much to ask? "Thank you for the food."
Ummm, no, guys…you don't need to say it along with me if you've already started eating.
As expected, my days at the Hestia Familia were never going to be dull.
Sometimes, I Relax. (23.4)
"Hello, Hikigaya-kun." Orimoto didn't raise her head to address me. Oi, I know that making sure everyone under your care survives is important, but you can spare some time for me, right? That was a joke. I really don't mind. Keep doing what you're doing, I'd really rather you keep this city of scum and scoundrels operational. "Are you feeling better? Is your Skill still troubling you?"
"You say that like I'm supposed to have fixed myself already." I took a seat at the table Orimoto was poring over. Man, it must be terrible to have absolute focus instead of being able to think about everything at once. One glance at something and I've got it in my brain and poring over it until I'm asleep. I bet my fellow interdimensional refugee had to actually finish each document and commit them to memory one at a time instead of just passively getting through all of them at once. Still, I suppose not having to deal with mental issues all the time was a good benefit for her. "I'll have you know that I'm making progress, but this sort of thing isn't going to get finished in a week, Ms. Student Council Member."
"I almost forgot that I'd been on one of those, even though my time there helped me out a lot." Orimoto took a breath and carefully closed the map she'd been poring over. Really, I was serious, you should just talk to me while doing your usual work. I don't want to impose on critical planning that has lives on the line. "Relax, Hikigaya-kun, I'm just comparing it to past maps for mistakes before they're sent off to be printed." What?! You have perfect memory that doesn't go away after you sleep!? I take it back, you're overpowered as hell! "I remembered that you were coming. Did Bors make it difficult for you to come?"
"Eyepatch man with big muscles? Doesn't know how to wear slaves? Told me I should just fuck off for forcing you guys to go deeper into the Dungeon?" Orimoto nodded. "Nah, he was the perfect gentleman. He personally escorted me from the Hestia Familia to here by himself while using only a stick." A small smile formed on my fellow's face. Apparently, some of the girl I first met hasn't been completely lost to the woman that was before me now. "I got here without any problems, Orimoto."
"That's good, Hikigaya-kun. That's really good." Orimoto gave me a few nods before rising and walking towards a cabinet. From the dark recesses of the wooden cabinet, the brown and curly haired girl produced some liquor. Yeah, I suppose losing focus would be good for her. "You don't drink, right?" I shook my head. She gave a light laugh and nodded. It wasn't a good laugh. "Good. Don't. Before long, you'll need it to go to sleep, Hikigaya-kun."
"…" In my opinion, drinking was a better method of going to sleep than an amulet designed to knock you out without chance of awakening for 6 hours. Hell, drinking was acceptable to most societies. Well, as long as it was in moderation and didn't destroy a person's entire life. Well, now that that thought's crossed my mind… "Do you need it? Or does it just make it easy for you to sleep?" I took out the amulet I'd brought to give her. Nothing wrong with it being used by two people. "Because if it's the former, I'd rather you use this."
"…Is that the sleeping amulet you developed to knock you out?" I gave a nod. Orimoto bit her lip and looked at the bottle. My former classmate considered her situation. I could see the answer that she didn't want to say aloud. She returned the bottle to the cabinet with a sigh and walked over to the table and shook her head. "Dammit, Hikigaya, you make everything so complicated." She took the amulet and placed it in her pocket. Good. You have no excuses now. "Seriously, I go out of my way to save your life and you poke holes into my eating habits? Isn't that a bit mean, Hikigaya?"
"We've both got to look out for one another, Orimoto."
"I feel like I've looked after you more, Hikigaya."
"That'll change soon."
"I really hope not."
I gave a shake of my head as she chuckled.
My mood soured once my Skill finally managed to completely process the plans she had on the table.
"So you're going towards Floor Fifty. Don't you think that's much?"
"We're on the 30th Floor now Hikigaya. That's four Colosseums, two Rexes, and an area composed of lava and volcanoes between us and the best forward base you and I can ask for." Orimoto's voice gained an edge to it that made me realize that this was a battle I'd already lost. While it was true that Rivira was already gathering supplies for the massive expedition, they also had to do the move because of me. The Guild was now at their doorstep, given that my work pushed what's considered to be the "safe" part of the Dungeon all way here. Rivira wouldn't be able to charge the prices they needed to rebuild every day or maintain their weapons. Forgot it being the half-way point, if Orimoto didn't move her people into Fiftieth Floor, she was going to lose the whole city and hundreds of angry, criminal Adventurers wasn't something anyone wanted to or could deal with. "We need to do this—"
"Yeah, I just figured it out now. No need for the monologue. Good job planning it while the Loki Familia is returning and dealt with the boss monsters already." Orimoto wasn't my student, or someone I wanted to have to teach. I mean, who was I to even question a her plans? She had hundreds of Adventurers that were Level 2 and 3 along with several 4s and 5s because of the Asura, along with the Blacksmiths, Mixers, and Mages needed to really exploit the surrounding areas. If there was anyone capable of setting up Rivira in the possible middle of the Dungeon, it would be Orimoto and her freakishly huge and multi-talented guild. "Right, if you need help, just send someone to ask me. I've got money to spare now that I'm not farming trash mobs any longer."
"… I almost forgot how quick you are to offer help if there's no planning to be done." Orimoto laughed. It sounded a lot better than the last laugh she gave. Oi, are you trying to pick a fight!? Those words are definitely meant to pick a fight! I'll have you know I'm eligible for a managerial position! I'm not just someone who'd follow a plan without question if it's easier to do than actually think! "Don't worry, Hikigaya-kun, I'll be sure to ask for your help when I need it?" When? Not if? Woman, you're making me regret offering you my help. Still, I suppose seeing you relax a little is worth a little trouble. Hey, what's with that smirk on your face? "Hmmm, that is if you've got enough time to help me now that your philandering finally caught up with you? So, how many girls have you running errands now? Two? Three? Oh, ho, four!"
Don't use your Skills for stupid reasons like reading body language, dammit!
"I don't need my Skill to read you, Hikigaya-kun. It just helps! You're not a very difficult person, y'know?"
"Oi, take that back! I'm as difficult as difficult gets, dammit!"
"Sure, sure, Hikigaya-kun, you're free to believe that." Orimoto hid a smile behind a hand. Still, when our laughter stopped, I recognized the look of concern my former classmate had on her face. Yeah, I knew what this conversation was. "Hikigaya, you're really considering staying, aren't you?" There was a question behind those words that I knew she wanted to ask but couldn't. For a moment, I thought that she wouldn't, but Orimoto Kaori proved that she wasn't the same girl I'd met years ago. "Is… is it because of what I did back then?"
If you had more friends and people you relied on back home, would you even consider staying here? That was the question Orimoto asked past the surface. Are you staying here because of me? That was the question that Orimoto really wanted answered. Here she was, the only person I'd tried to be friends with and go out with, the woman who rejected me, and the one who is partially responsible for who I am now. Was I going to stay here, though I promised I'd get to her the end? Was I risking my life for her without reason?
There was only one answer to all those questions.
"I don't know." That was it. That was all I had regarding the subject. Being able to admit it wasn't a weight off of my shoulders, but it wasn't another burden for me to carry. I didn't have an answer. While it wasn't the best solution, it certainly wasn't the worst. As Hiryute, Lyon, Alf, and Viridis showed me through their actions, I knew that changing meant taking action. Crozzo said I should just move forward and not worry. Hardly useful advice, but I was trying. Now I did my best to just get past my issues, live a somewhat normal life, and look over my students instead of just throwing myself into the Dungeon. I was acting now to both stay and leave Orario. I was moving on a path that was going to branch. All the while, I was just trying to get to a better place. "I really don't have an answer for that." I felt the need to bow, to apologize sincerely, so I did. "Gomenasai, Orimoto."
"…" Orimoto didn't reply immediately. I mean, she could've been prepared for a yes or a no, but I doubted she had a response prepared for my indecisiveness. Without a doubt, my answer was less than what she was expecting. Really, I'm sure that she'd be frustrated with my words—"…You haven't changed at all." Orimoto laughed and easily broke my train of thought. "You're as greedy as always, Hikigaya-kun."
"Even if it might be impossible, you always do your best to try and reach the end that makes everyone happy. You've always been selfish." Orimoto's smile was a mix of the two she had earlier. A melancholy smile that was very familiar to me. She turned her gaze towards the map of Rivira she had on the wall and gestured towards it. "You want a fairytale's happy ending. One where everyone is happy. Where the hero doesn't have to give anyone up and everyone goes on to live the rest of their days—"
"And you don't? You don't want to choose? To do what you want? Do you want there to be just one way for all of this to end?" I could see where Orimoto's words were going. The way she looked at the map of Rivira, at the layout of the floors past 50, and I knew what ideas crossed her mind whenever she looked at the people she had available to her and what she could achieve if she just didn't care about them. "Don't be an idiot, Orimoto. We can't afford to think only one way is right."
Orimoto's eyes were level and there wasn't a single trace of emotion on her face… until she finally gave me the same smile she'd given me years ago instead of the strange, alien ones she'd been giving me since she greeted me.
"Hilarious, Hikigaya." Some part of Orimoto was definitely straining to say the words and act the way she wanted to, but she still managed it. Yeah, I suppose with a Skill like yours, someone just needs to point out a few facts instead of assembling an army or resorting to…drastic measures. Augh, I was really thankful I didn't need to do anything stupid like that. "Jeez, you really need to work on how you speak to women. You're going to break a girl's heart one day if you keep being so honest. Couldn't you have held your words back just a little for me?"
Given the fact that you and I need to do the impossible, keep ourselves sane in the process, and do our best to not regret the decisions we make?
"Not a chance."
Interlude: The Lonely Champion (Part 5)
I knew that something was amiss when my fellows began to giggle and look at me. A few of my fellows were about to speak, but at Syr's raised hand they went quiet. My friend gave a giggle and wink at me before walking into the kitchen. Grande raised an eyebrow and the faintest of smirks formed upon her face. I had the sneaking suspicion I knew who had entered and why everyone seemed to be on the cusp of laughter.
"Oi, Lyon, you're paying for dinner."
Hachiman's address was anything but thoughtful or kindly. I doubted that either word would ever apply to him, but I knew better than to begin allowing him to transgress on basic manners freely. The more he was given the more he took. Allowing him to do as he pleased would only result in everything going amiss. I turned to face him, ready to speak, but I found myself incapable of speaking.
I'd seen Hachiman don the clothes he now wore before, the day which he had went off to the Denatus and searched for clues regarding the murders of many adventurers, but now he seemed different. It took me only a moment to realize why I was taken aback by his appearance now. He had bemoaned dressing for society's sake, despite how handsome he appeared well-groomed and dressed, and abhorred the fact he had to wear his clothes for appearances sake. Yet, here he was, his locks tied back, in a finely pressed suit, with his coat tucked over his arm.
My ability to speak was stolen from me in an instant, let alone my ability to remain angry at him. It took all I could just to stay silent and stare, especially as he drew near and loomed over me. My face felt as though it were aflame. Be still, my heart, I'm sure that he is more than capable of hearing you if you do not calm yourself. No! This is not the time to remember Syr's favored novels!
"Huh, so you can blush. Nice to know."
"I am not!" Turning away, I was barely able to parse my words towards him before they leave me. They barely constituted as a response to his words. This was most definitely unfair. I wasn't at all ready for this scenario. The clothes I wore were meant to serve dinners while he was clad in clothes worthy of court. If I were at least given the time to prepare, to know what was coming, I wouldn't be nearly as flustered as I am now. "T-This isn't fair, Hachiman."
Was that a stutter!?
"Was that a stutter?" It. Was. Not. Hachiman noticed. I retreated, but found myself blocked by a wall. I was between the stairwell and the bar. Before me was the wall and behind me was my opponent. I was trapped with Hachiman blocking the way. This was planned. It must have been planned. I couldn't destroy the obstacle before me without incurring Grande's ire or becoming a laughingstock. This was defiantly schemed from the very start by Hachiman! "Oh, and you think taking my first kiss without even asking me out was fair, hmmm?" It was necessary to bring him back! "Oh, sure, maybe the first one could be justified. But how about the next one? Or the one after that? Huh, Lyon?"
Grande's fury and endless shame was starting to look better and better.
I continued to contemplate my escape when Hachiman's hand settled on my shoulder. I expected to be turned to face him, so I readied my hands to push him away, but instead of bringing me closer he suddenly pushed me forward as he turned me. The sudden speed of the movement made me blink and took me by surprise, but not as much as my back hitting the wall with Hachiman's palm slamming right next to it below my ear. My vision was taken entirely with him, my back was against the wall, and his face was just inches away from mine.
"Such a powerful technique! It must be a special technique taught to him by his Kami-sam!" Only Syr's sudden outburst managed drawn me away from the sight before me. My best friend sat across from the bar, alongside the rest of my coworkers, and Grande. All their eyes were upon me. The flames I felt upon my face tripled and turned into an inferno. Hachiman, due to his closeness and height, cast a shadow over me as he trapped me against the wall. I couldn't possibly escape. "Even a high-end adventurer like Ryuu-chan has no response! Hikigaya-sensei, I demand you teach that technique to Bell-kun right away!"
"Lyon, are you listening?" What little hope I'd had of escape due to their interference disappeared as I felt Hachiman's free hand press beneath my chin as he spoke. Be distracted! Their words and current situation require for you to yell at them! His ever-sharp gaze seemed to look straight into my soul. I need time to rest from this encounter, please! His presence due to sheer proximity was unbearably close yet distant. I can't take any more of this, Hachiman! You're too much like this! I had to leave this instant if I wished to have any hope of counterattacking instead of being just swept away! "Tonight, you'll be paying me back for every. Kiss. You've. Stolen." His lips were right beside my ear and his bare nape just inches away from my cheek. "With interest."
He leaned forward and my body acted on its own.
"You don't need to repeat yourself, Hachiman."
"You fainted from a kabedon."
"Is that what that insufferable technique is called? Yes. I did. Now, once more, I ask you to stop repeating yourself."
"Insufferable? Are you sure that's the right word? You seemed to have suffered it pretty well besides the fact that you fainted."
"Say 'faint' one more time and I shall render you unconscious through violence."
Though Hachiman did not say faint again, I was still tempted to carry out my promise given the firmly set smirk that appeared on his features.
"Now don't be like that, Lyon. This is a date." Hachiman was languid as he sat across from me. I did not know how he'd managed a reservation at one of the finest restaurants in Orario, but I had the sneaking suspicion that Syr and her "connections" had some part in it. I supposed I should just be glad I was given something conservative to wear rather than anything risqué by my friend if she could arrange for such things to occur. "You're supposed to treat your date well, y'know? Right now you're at a -100 points."
"Only an uncouth individual such as yourself would administer and take away points for occasions such as this, Hachiman." -100 points? Truly? Was I that unpleasant? Wait, I am being teased. I am sure of it. Besides that particular fact, I was speaking to Hachiman. He has no taste. Any value he gives regarding anything is doubtful at best and wrong at worst. That calmed me somewhat. At the very least, I was sure of my ability to pay for this needlessly extravagant dinner. "Are you not already ashamed of your choice of dining? Of the fact that you're having me pay for our meals?"
"I believe in equality." The stare I rendered upon him gave Hachiman pause. "When it benefits me." An apt correction. He coughed aside. I managed to appropriate some breathing room through my words and actions. I took a moment to compose myself before he went on the assault again. The restaurant was largely deserted, but all others present were also couples being served by silent waiters. Yes, I was very sure of Syr's involvement in this little escapade now. This may have been days in the making. I would not be surprised at all if that were the case. "Besides, dinner is the least of what I'm owed, especially since I don't plan on forcing myself on you."
There it was again, that insufferable casual mentioning of my action that I couldn't reply to! I felt as though I was fighting a battle where I had no answer to a specific attack. Even though we were evenly matched, with him as distracted with me as I was him, I couldn't riposte his verbal lances with that particular weight. Hachiman, as resourceful as ever, was capitalizing on my weakness and making every effort to capitalize on that fact. I was finding myself more and more off-guard, with every inch I'd gained being negated solely because he was willing to tread a line that I wasn't willing to cross—
Oh, that was it wasn't it.
Hachiman believed I wouldn't flirt back.
If circumstances were anywhere near normal, that would be the case. However, as of now, I was clad in clothes meant for a ball, wore makeup for the first time in decades, and was seated just inches away from a man I would never allow to completely take the field… at least without putting up putting up a fight in the process.
I mustered my will, thought back on just about every terrible book Syr owned and the lines she spouted at me, and did my best to ignore the flush on my cheeks.
"I see, that would be indeed a problem, Hachiman as forcing yourself upon me would be impossible." The words were horrific in structure and meaning. The cost involved in saying them were staggering. I was barely capable of saying them, let alone controlling the embarrassment that suffused me or continuing to match Hachiman's gaze. As soon as the words left me, I knew that I'd erred. That was less of a verbal riposte and more a vulgar utterance. When the thought occurred to me to take it back, despite the loss I'd suffer in doing so, I spoke immediately. "T-that was not w-what I meant to say." A damnable stutter took whatever respect I had not already lost. "Ignore my earlier words, Hachi—"
"What if I don't want to ignore them?" For a moment, I'd thought Hachiman had chosen to turn my words to his advantage. Betrayal coursed through me then. Some part of me trusted he wouldn't capitalize on my mistake. However, when I raised my head to say anything in return, or perhaps even storm out, I found myself locked by his gaze. There was no humor in them. Just a calm consideration. Someway, somehow, that realization wiped my mind of any other thought before completely and utterly sending my thoughts astray. "What if I just do what I want to you?" He was serious. There was no humor in his gaze. Some fear and trepidation was present in his eyes, but probably no more than in mine. "What would you do, Ryuu?"
While I formulated a response to his words, in the back of my mind, I realized that this is what Hachiman meant by meeting all of us halfway. His halfway point, as I should've expected from him, was absolute. He'd meet Bell's friendship and respect with his own. The familial affection of Arde would be reciprocated. Comrades and allies would receive his full aid and attention. My… my efforts to take him… he would try to take all of me as well. The same went for every relationship he now had.
As always, Hachiman would pursue his goals without compromise, even if the goal was compromise itself.
"What would you say, Ryuu?"
Knowing that, knowing him, and knowing what was to come, how could I have given any answer besides the one which life my lips?