My Daily Life as an Adventurer is More Grindy than I Anticipated, Chapter 4 | Unfortunately, Hikigaya Hachiman Can't Help. (Part 1)

"This is where you two live?" I watched Arde look around the interior of the Abandoned Church and even with her back turned to me, I could tell that there was a bead of sweat going down her forehead. Oi, if you're gonna try and imply that you think that we live in a dump then you might as well come out and say it. The cautiousness in your voice pretty much says it for you, y'know? "It's, uh… uh…."

Rolling my eyes, I let out a sigh as I closed the wooden doors behind me. Can't even come up with a bullshit, fake compliment to make up for your awkwardness, huh? You're not very good at being a house guest, are you, Arde? "We live down in the basement, not up here."

"Oh, well, that's good!" The chienthrope let out an awkward chuckle as she scratched at the back of her head. You do know that you're wearing a hood, right? "I was starting to get really worried there."

This time it was Cranel who let out a chuckle and of course, it was just as awkward. Hm? You're not even going to try and make it seem better than it really is? Wow, Hestia-sama really is going to kill me. It seems that I've corrupted her pure, little bunny rabbit beyond repair.

"You getting second thoughts on accepting our help already, Arde?" Not wanting to be reminded of my familia's lack of wealth any more, I pulled the conversation back to what brought us here in the first place.

"No, that wasn't my intention at all!" The small supporter turned towards me, bowed her head, and shook her head frantically. "I just…" She raised her head - just enough for me to see that her eyes were raised up and off to the side. "I just…."

"It's okay, Lili-chan!" Unsurprisingly, Cranel moved in to relieve the cute girl's worries the moment they appeared. "Hachiman says stuff like that to me and Hestia-sama all of the time!" Said cute girl shot up straight the moment she heard that. Oi, what's with that look for? "I just think that's his way of teasing people."

"'T-Teasing', huh…?" For some reason that I couldn't really place (not really), I felt that as though Arde didn't buy that explanation at all as she glanced over towards me. Smartly, she kept whatever follow up comment that I knew was brewing in the back of her mind to herself.

Tiring of the current subject, I cleared my throat into my fist and made another attempt to steer the conversation back to its original topic. "If the two of you are done, I think it's about time we get down to business."

"R-Right!" "R-Right…." Were the responses I received from my familia and the supporter respectively.

Crossing my arms over my chest, I suddenly felt the urge to sit down, specifically at the end of a long table. Oh, a cup of tea would be nice too now that I think about it.

"So, first things first, I want you to explain what's actually keeping you from leaving your familia." The question had been at the back of my mind ever since the other day, when Arde first explained her situation to me. I had only really kept it to myself because I still wasn't sure if I wanted to help her or not, but since that was no longer holding me back, I figured that there'd be no problem starting the consultation off with it. "I don't ask this to offend you, but since you're a supporter, wouldn't you have an easier time leaving than an adventurer would?"

"H-Hachiman—!" Coming as the surprise of the century (not really), Cranel moved to call me out on the bluntness of my question the moment it left my mouth, but Arde stopped him long before he could finish doing so.

"—No, it's okay, Bell-sama." If the chienthrope was offended by my question, she showed no sign of it. Instead, she frowned, glanced down at the floor, and shook her head. She was sad, but definitely not insulted by it. "I can understand why Hachiman-sama would assume something like that."

In all respects, Cranel was probably right to have tried to call me out like how he did. My question was as insensitive as insensitive got, but that was entirely by design. It may be a bitter pill for Arde to swallow but it was the truth, and if she couldn't even accept that much then I was going to end things right then and there.

"Truth be told, there was a time where I thought that too." Fortunately, it seemed like the chienthrope was already well aware of it. "I tried to run away once before, but seeing as we're here now, you can probably guess as to how that went…."

Frowning, I nodded and from the corner of my eye, I could see Cranel clenching his fists.

"I assume that they didn't bother telling you as to why they forced you back?" This time, it was Arde who nodded. "Any ideas?"

Of course, I had my own theories. Seeing as all of Cranel and I's research pointed towards most of the members being valis-starved, wine addicts, it probably had something to do with that.

After all, any money was better than no money and even if she couldn't pull in as much as an adventurer, just letting her run away would cut that source of income off entirely. As scummy of a mindset as it was, it fully corroborated with the picture I had of them in my head, making it the most likely of explanations. That being said, in a world like this one, I couldn't afford to just assume the most likely scenario, so might as well try and get her to fill in whatever gaps I didn't know were missing.

Who knows? Arde might be the owner of some super secret, super strong skill that her familia wants to take advantage of. Sure, it was unlikely given the fact that she had been forced into the supporter role in the first place, but I'd rather leave no stone unturned.

The chienthrope stared at me silently for a moment, mouth slightly agape, prompting me to open my own. Clearly, there was something on the tip of her tongue that needed to be coaxed out— "There is something, but I'm not really sure if it's the reason or not."

Hm? Just like that? Well, that was easier than I expected it to be.

Of course, the answer she gave wasn't much of an answer at all. Really, the only thing it did was confirm that she was hiding something important from us, but I'm sure that fact wasn't lost to the little chienthrope. She might've reached out to us for help, but that was still a long way from actual trust.

Glancing over at Cranel, I could tell that similar thoughts were running roughshod in his head as well. Not only was my familia frowning, but he had that soft look to his eyes. The one that only showed up when he was worried about someone. That made me sigh as I turned to face Arde.

While the fact that she was actively hiding something from us was worrying, I suppose I should be grateful that she mentioned it at all. A warning was a lot better than what a lot of people would give in her place, after all. Besides, given my estimates as to how long it might take to resolve her problem, the road in front of us was definitely long enough to accomodate.

"Alright, if that's the case," I turned my head back towards Arde as I spoke, "then I think it's best to assume that the reason your familia dragged you back was because they didn't want you leaving without providing compensation."

Arde nodded immediately after I said, but it seemed like there was still someone in the room who needed help digesting the implication.

"'Compensation'?" Unsurprisingly, there was confusion in Cranel's voice when he asked that. "You mean that they only brought you back because they wanted you to pay them?"

"At least, I think that's the reason why." The supporter nodded her head again as she said that. "Truth be told, I've been saving up valis ever since then just for that reason."

"Is that so?" Oh, so you're comfortable with telling us that much then? "Is that the reason why you were stealing from adventurers?"

For the third time, Arde nodded, although she did so much more tentatively than she did before. Well, at least you seem somewhat remorseful for what you did—

"Don't get me wrong, though." Crossing her arms over her chest with extra 'oomph', the chienthrope suddenly seemed to spring to life. "I don't regret what I did at all!"

…Wow, couldn't even let me finish my thought before proving me wrong, huh?

"Ah, uh, Lili-chan…" From the corner of my eye, I could see Cranel reach a tentative hand out towards our client. "You do know that you stole from us too, right?"

Oho~? Is Bell Cranel of all people showing backbone in front of a cute girl? What a twist! Bravo, bravo, o'familia of mine! There may be hope for you yet!

Said supporter startled a bit at the response, a slight pink hue appearing on her cheeks. Surprised you too, huh? "O-Of course, I do! But clearly, you and Hachiman-sama are far different from most adventurers!" Arde raised a fist to her mouth and cleared her throat into it. "I mean, what other adventurers would want to try and help the person who tried to steal from them?"

"I don't know, but I'm sure that they'd have to be pretty dumb…." Despite her question clearly being rhetorical, I answered and made sure to do so in the bluntest way possible, which made the girl pause and turn towards me. What? Did you think that I'd go through this entire process and not remind you of how much of a risk we're taking every step of the way? Pft, you wish. You better feel bad about dragging the both of us into this! Feel bad because I feel bad!

"Hey, you said that you wanted to help Lili-chan as much as I did!"

Turning my head towards my familia, I raised an eyebrow and asked, "Um, you do know that I was talking about just you, right?"

"Wait, you weren't?"

I let out a sigh, shook my head, and turned back towards our new client. I suppose I only have myself to blame for that. "Anyways, so your plan is to try and save up enough valis to buy your own freedom, right?"

"Yeah…." She frowned, her head falling as she spoke. "Although, I'm not completely sure if it's going to work or even how much valis would be enough. I was really just hoping to get so much that, even if they said some ridiculously high number, I'd be able to match it."

That made me frown. Well, that certainly complicates things.

Stop.

In theory, Arde's plan wasn't a bad one at all. She was stuck in a situation that she had no desire staying in and the people who had the power over her seemed to value valis more than anything else, so why not try and buy your way out? However, the problem didn't lie in if the plan made sense logically or not - the problem was that nothing about it was certain.

For example, say if Arde were to actually acquire enough valis to buy her freedom back. Had an actual price been agreed to beforehand? No? Then, how did you even know if it was enough to begin with?

"Well, Arde's just a supporter!" The short-sighted part of me exclaims in haste. "So, if she can just come up with a number that even they thought was impossible, they'd have to let her go, right?"

Wrong.

An agreement of this fashion was nothing more than an appeal to two people's sense of morality. It didn't matter if it was verbal or there was a contract holding those involved to their word because if one side held more power over the other, the only thing keeping them from turning their back on that deal was their own sense of honor.

Now, pretty much all the information I had about Soma and his familia came from either secondhand sources or outright speculation, but from what I could tell, they didn't seem like the type to care about morality. Hell, I was pretty sure that if Arde actually went to her higher-ups and tried to buy her freedom back, they'd just take her money and throw an even higher price in her face because what could she actually do to stop them?

Go to the Guild? Would they even want to stick their necks out to help a single supporter? Maybe? Cranel and I definitely had an ally in Tulle, but in the end, she was just a career advisor. How much could she actually do for us within the confines of her position? Not nearly enough to try and rely on solely. Still, considering the many advantages that the Soma Familia had over us, it couldn't hurt to at least run a few questions by the half-elf some time in the next few days. Right now, though, it was probably best to rule them out.

So, if the Guild couldn't help, what could we actually do to even the odds in Arde's favor? The Hestia Familia had only started operating at official capacity a little under a couple months ago, meaning that we had virtually zero allies and zero value to our name. Sure, our namesake probably had a few kami friends here in Orario who might be willing to lend a hand, but with the politics involved, how much could they realistically do for us? Any help at all could be seen as a transgression against the Soma Familia and their allies, which meant that they'd be putting their familias at risk for two newbie adventurers and a supporter. I couldn't see many taking that risk - the only caveat being complete idiots like me and Cranel.

On the note of taking risks, if word of us helping Arde got out to the Soma Familia, there was a very good chance that we'd be wiped off the map in less than a week. So, clearly, the power discrepancy didn't exist between just Arde and the rest of her familia. There was no way that we were going to solve via any direct methods, at least not with how things are right now.

So, what indirect methods could we employ?

Having her run away came to mind almost immediately. Of course, the fact that she had tried to do so before and failed wasn't lost to me, but what about leaving Orario entirely? If that proved to be the only choice, would she consider that route? Naturally, I wasn't all too familiar with the world outside of Orario, but I'm sure that with all she's been able to save up, she'd be able to carve out a decent life outside of the city's walls. That, however, would be for naught if there was actually more to that secret she was alluding to earlier.

If whatever it was made her worth the effort in her familia's eyes, they might be willing to go out and hunt her down. That wasn't even taking into account the possibility of them finding out we helped her leave after the fact, which gave them more than enough moral high ground to justify attacking us. Even if it took them a long time to figure it out, we'd need to be much stronger than them for them to not be a major problem.

Tch, I knew that this was going to be far from easy, but this is getting ridiculous….

Go.

I shook my head and let out a sigh. Well, might as well see if Arde has any ideas. "And if your plan doesn't work? What if they took your valis, laughed in your face, and told you to go get more? What was your plan going to be then?"

"I…" Shadows covered the supporter's eyes as her head fell even further. "I don't know. There's no way that I'd be able to stand up to any of them on my own, so buying my way out was the only way I could think of."

"So, basically, you're just going to give up?" Arde shook as I spoke. "That you're just going to accept your lot in life and become nothing more than their puppet to make valis—?"

"—No, of course I wouldn't!" There wasn't a moment of hesitation in her as her head shot up to face me. In her eyes, in her glare, in her fury, there was a special sort of loathing in her eyes that told me that she was speaking to more than just me. "Even if it doesn't work the first time or the second time or the third - even if it never ends up working and I die trying, I hate living like this!"

Feeling guilty, I smirked. You're passionate, Arde, I'll give you that. Although, that doesn't really get us any closer to a solution—

"You don't have to stand up to them all alone!" Eh, Cranel? What are you yelling about all of a sudden— Oh, wait, you would be the type of guy to get fired up by such a show of genuine emotion, wouldn't you? "I know that things may seem impossible right now, but Hachiman and I are going to make sure you make it through this." My familia suddenly turned to me, his eyes bearing the amount of determination and fire I'd deem necessary to say something so incredibly ridiculous. "Right, Hachiman?"

I rolled my eyes at the question. "Do you seriously think I'd let things progress up to this point if I was ready to give up at the first sign of trouble?"

"See, Hachiman agrees! We'll get you out of this, I promise!"

Oi, that wasn't supposed to be taken as me backing up your bullshit, short-sighted main protagonist take! "Getting excited and saying stuff like that is all well and good, Cranel, but that's not going to do any good if we don't have a way to actually solve her problem first."

"I mean, the only reason we think Lili-chan's plan isn't going to work is because we don't know if her familia will let her go once she gets them the money, right?" I nodded. "Well, what if we just find a way to make them let her go?"

"With what leverage? In terms of strength, it's not we're not any better than Arde when it comes to an actual familia, y'know?"

"Y-Yeah, that's true…." By how he was staring at the ground, I could tell that the ablino had put his brain onto its highest possible setting, which, after a few moments of silence, eventually led to his head shooting up and turning towards Arde suddenly. "Lili-chan, do you know the level of your strongest familia member?"

"Our strongest member?" The supporter like an owl at the question. "I guess that would have to be our captain. I don't really know all of the specifics, but last I've heard, he was a level 2."

"A level 2? That's not too bad, right, Hachiman?" I couldn't help but frown when I saw the look in Cranel's face as he turned to face me. There were too many emotions there for me to place a specific one, but I could tell that he was ramping himself up to say something really I wasn't going to agree with. "I mean, he may still be stronger than us, but he's still right there! If we can get strong enough to be a threat—"

"—Just how long do you think it'll take to even get that far?" Knowing Cranel, I probably shouldn't have been surprised to hear something like that come out of his mouth, but I still couldn't help but feel a little bit exasperated hearing it. To that end, I had to nip it in the bud as quickly as possible. "We might be doing better than the average adventurers, but it'd still probably take us months to get anywhere close."

"Still, that just means you think it's possible, right? If we try really hard, there's a chance we can keep up!"

"Yeah, fine, say that we do things your way." Technically, what Cranel was suggesting was something that could be done. "What if the members of Soma Familia learn about what we're doing before we're ready? Even if we end up getting strong enough to take on their strongest member, I'm still sure that they'd be able to wipe out our entire familia with numbers alone. I understand that you want to help Arde, but is that really something you want to risk?"

"Ah, that's true…." Ah, there we go, Cranel. You're finally starting to see logic. No matter what idealistic protagonist ideals you might have flying around in that brain of yours, there's no way that we're going to be able to do this through effort and force of will. We have to do things in a smart way, otherwise— "Still, if we can't even do that much… then how are we going to help her?"

"We both came into this knowing that helping her would put us in a lot of danger, didn't we?" Cranel continued on and as if by instinct, my mouth had opened at some point to respond, but instead, I closed it and let him speak. "I know that you're just trying to come up with the best plan possible, but if all we do is talk about how much stronger they are than us, we're never going to get anywhere either."

An all too familiar bitterness appeared in my mouth as I digested Cranel's words. Stop.

It's not that I couldn't see the sense in what he was suggesting or that I even thought he was in the wrong at all; honestly, there was a part of me that just outright agreed with his sentiment.

If the only thing keeping us from acting was the power difference between the Soma Familia and us being too high, then it only made sense to try and close that gap, right? At the very least, wasn't it better than standing around doing nothing, letting the problem fester and eventually turn into an even worse problem?

Of course, it was! Something was always better than nothing, but the fact of the matter is that Cranel's plan was hardly anything at all. It was the equivalent of three people having a fundamental disagreement with each other and one of them suggesting all they needed to do was talk to one another.

Talk about what? The problem? More often than not, all parties are already aware of it - be it consciously or subconsciously. Solutions? What if the problem is so complex that any attempt to come up with a solution leads nowhere? Doing something may be better than nothing, but if it's done with no actual end or goal, then you might as well be doing nothing and I'd rather not do something like that again—

Oh. So, that's it, huh?

Go.

"Fine." I turned away from Cranel as that word left my mouth. "But if we're doing this, we're doing it my way."

"Wait, what do you mean by 'your way', Hachiman?"

Compromise was a fickle thing.

It's one of those concepts that people always flung around and touted, but rarely ever put into action.

That's because true compromise is difficult.

To compromise is to admit that you were wrong in some facet and, no matter how high one might think themselves above such a petty emotional barrier, there's always going to be times where doing so is difficult. Not because someone is actively trying to do so, but because strong emotional responses often trumped logical thinking. Source: me.

In this case, it was familiarity. Embarrassingly enough, I had gotten so wrapped up in the familiar atmosphere, in helping someone, that I ended up fearing that I would fall back onto old trappings. Thankfully, I managed to catch it and stop myself before I committed myself to it fully, but the fact that it got dredged up at all….

Just why did I agree to helping Arde in the first place?

Then again, considering that part of my compromise was turning the chinethrope into an adventurer, the answer to that question was actually pretty obvious.

Goddammit, I blame Yukinoshita for this.

In the world of literature (and really any piece of media attempting to tell a story), the art of proper character development was a difficult one to try and explain. That's because, unlike all the other parts of a good story (such as laying out plot structure or developing an interesting setting), there was no real science to any of it.

Sure, someone might be able to explain everything that goes into what makes a character interesting and all of the ways that an author can make the audience attach themselves to them from sheer circumstance, but that much can only get you so far. If the entirety of your character is an ounce of decent personality and a dash of relatability, then congrats! You have all that you need to make a good shell of a person!

Now, this same sentiment could be applied to many riajuu that I know in real life, but the idea rang even more true when it came down to the written word. Interesting characters are a mandatory part of any good story. Technically speaking, a piece of content can still be well-received and enjoyed if it has a ton of flaws, but only if the characters in the story are ones that the audience gives a damn about. The same, however, couldn't be said vice versa.

Human beings, and this very much includes myself, are ironically simple creatures. Be it in real life or on a page/screen, if we see someone we like, then we'll naturally gravitate towards them. However, all this phenomena is an initial attraction and that can only go so far. If the attractive person's gravity draws us in close enough to get a good view of them as a whole and that person turns out to be nothing special, or even detestable, then one might end up feeling cheated and lied to and thus move on as quickly as them came.

In the context of actual people, the act is pretty ironic, but in the context of fictional ones, that just showed the need to artificially inject substance into that initial shell. Hence, the need for proper character development. Why? Because there's nothing more interesting to someone than a fake person that seems like a real person and the one most common experience, the one thing that all people have to do at some point, is change.

It doesn't matter if it's big or small, positive or negative, active or passive; as time passes by and the world around us changes, we change with it. So, since people tend to gravitate towards media with some grounding in reality, it made sense that people liked seeing characters change over time too. In fact, for a not insignificant number of people, it was probably the most important part of the media they consumed.

Why? Because proper character development provided the depth a shell never could - it could sometimes even make up for an awful first impression - but if that's the case, how does one properly develop a character? Well, going back to how I started this monologue, that was actually quite hard to explain.

People in real life don't tend to follow a particular set of rules when they change, most of the time they're simply at the whims of life's randomness, and that gives creators a lot of freedom when it comes to developing their characters. Really, it all depends on what they value when it comes to this subject, but there is one thing that all people agree on when it comes to this sorta thing: to change takes time, especially when it comes to people.

Sure, someone could have an epiphany that leads to great change, but even that would most likely take time to fully rear its head. That's why I was initially hesitant to try to turn Arde into an adventurer.

From all that she's told me, it was clear that Arde's history of social subjugation stretched long before she started her career as a supporter. Someone in my position might see that history as something to rally behind, despite such an existence inherent awfulness. After all, didn't long-term oppression like that breed resentment? And if a strong resentment already existed, then wouldn't it just take one good push to get the ball moving in the right direction?

Sure, but just like a lot of things, reality was much more complicated than that.

As I stated earlier, people don't tend to follow any particular set of rules when it comes to changing. Two people might experience the same event but go down completely separate paths. So, while a person might be subjected to oppression and want to fight back against it, there are others who rather put their head down and do their best to ignore it and live the best lives they can within the confines presented to them.

Arde wasn't either one of those extremes, but despite her desires of freedom, it was clear that she had begun to lean more towards the latter than the prior than she'd be willing to let on. Of course, experience taught me what such treatment could lead to if exposed to it for long enough.

No matter how much you loathe your position in the world and how much you want to reject the very idea, you'll start to wonder if there's truth to it. At this point, the affected could choose to either accept it or continue rejecting it; either way, the idea had already wormed itself into the person's heart and become a large part of their personal identity.

Basically, what I'm trying to say with all this, it was going to take a lot of time and effort to rip that worm out of her.

Go.

I let out a sigh at the pack of goblins spawning in front of me and turned towards my Chienthrope charge, who had been behind me ever since we entered The Dungeon.

"You've got some sort of weapon on you, right?" Arde nodded before she pulled out a decently sized knife from her cloak, which prompted me to nod back. "Alright, so what are you waiting for?" I raised my arm towards the monsters and started her training. "Go kill them all."

Of course, that effort wasn't going to be mine.

To make a long story short, although it's one that's only been playing out for a week now, Arde is terrible at fighting. Not that I had any reason to expect otherwise, but considering that she's been going down into The Dungeon with other adventurers for years, I figured that she'd at least do better than Cranel and I when we initially started.

It's not that the assumption was wrong per se. She clearly picked up a few things but….

"Agh!" The Chienthrope let out a bark of pain as the goblin she was fighting knocked her onto her back.

...her implementation was still far from where it needed to be.

"Oi, Arde!" Crossbow already trained on the goblin, I made my intentions known to the downed girl. "I'm giving you until the count of—!"

"—I can handle it!" As the person overseeing Arde's development as an adventurer (and the one who came up with this idea in the first place), I naturally appreciated hearing the intensity in her voice and seeing her do everything in her power to stand back up on her feet, but unfortunately, emotions and intention alone didn't kill monsters. The girl hadn't even managed to sit back up fully and the goblin was already standing over her.

I let out a sigh and pulled the trigger.

"Argh!" As the goblin turned to dust, the Chienthrope laid her head back onto the ground and groaned. "I said I had it!"

Rolling my eyes, I lowered my crossbow and emerged from my hiding spot, which was just the corridor leading into the clearing she was fighting in. Unfortunately, the first few levels of The Dungeon weren't the best when it came to its variety of unique landforms and thus, actual sniping perches were few and far between.

"You can say a lot of things when you're lying on the ground like that." A sense of deja vu hit me as I made my way over to my supine party member. I really didn't know if that's a good thing or a bad— Wait, a minute, of course this is a bad thing! This is awful! How do I keep getting in positions like these? "Next time, don't put yourself in a position where I have to step in to begin with." Now standing over the girl, I bent down and extended my hand out to her. "So, since you're that fired up about it, are you good to keep going?"

The girl glared at my hand for a moment before rolling onto her stomach and attempting to push herself up onto her feet. Well, I guess that answers that.

Knowing myself well enough to do so, I turned away from the struggling girl and focused my attention on the corridor that would take us further down into The Dungeon. Deja vu hit me again as I stared at the opening in the stone. The suddenness of the emotion made me narrow my eyes.

While Arde and I were still only as far into The Dungeon as her skill would allow, about halfway into the second floor, I knew better than to outright dismiss the emotion. There was something about the room that was familiar to me, although what was completely—

"How… How was that, Hikigaya-san…?"

"Well, we're alive…. Although, what was with all those goblins…? Aren't you a little too good at being the bait, Cranel…?"

"Hahaha…."

—Huh? Have Cranel and I been here at some point?

There was decent merit to that answer. We only started leading monsters into ambushes right around when we first reached this floor and it did have all the basic characteristics I'd look for when choosing ambush locations. The decently large, circular room provided enough room to move freely; the two corridors leading in and out kept escape routes for mobs to a minimum; and there were just enough sheer corners for me to stay hidden. I could definitely see the logic if it turned out to be the truth.

All that being said, the specific room or the path Arde and I had taken to get here weren't ringing any bells. Granted, it would've been at least a few weeks to a month ago since a room this early into The Dungeon was relevant, so it was entirely possible that I had just forgotten about it completely.

I frowned at the thought. 'A few weeks to a month ago', huh?

Glancing back at Arde, I found that the girl had managed to get back up to her feet, but her brown eyes were still glued to the ground. Hands on her knees, breathing heavy, and her face twisted into a grimace; it was clear that there was no way we were going to get any further in today. Not that I really had any intention of letting her do so anyways.

"Answer the question, Arde." I made sure to keep my tone flat as I spoke to her. "Do you want to keep going or not?"

"Was me not taking your hand really not enough of an answer for you?" I couldn't help but notice the edge to her voice as she spoke - an edge that was almost immediately dulled by the fact that she had to pause every few words to breathe. I commend you on your attempt to talk back to me, Arde, but you'd be much better served saving that sass for when you don't look like you're about to pass out. "I can keep going."

"Alright." That being said, despite my reservations with the idea, I wasn't here to coddle the girl or be her teacher or any of that. The fact is that it's been a week since her career as an adventurer started. If she seriously feels as though she could keep going when all signs pointed to otherwise, then it was my obligation to make her face the consequences for such a blunder herself. "Catch your breath and we'll try to move further in."

In most professional settings, a characteristic like stubbornness was sure to be frowned upon heavily, but as an adventurer, it was pretty much a necessity if you wanted to get anywhere. Some might describe the required trait to be more akin to determination, but those people would be severely overestimating the lengths that determination actually covered. For example, determination might get a failing student to raise their grades to at least passing, but it wouldn't get them to run through a hail of bullets.

In reality, no reason could ever justify putting your life in jeopardy so consistently, that's why an adventurer needed to be stubborn, but even then, too much of a good thing was a problem in itself. It was fine to be stubborn and prideful when it came to certain things in The Dungeon, but we all had our limits and finding out what they are was a lesson all adventurers had to learn eventually. The most I could do was make sure this one didn't have any fatal consequences.

With that line of thought concluded, my body began to move on its own, subconsciously beginning to perform the other half of my duties as a supervisor (although, I did it plenty back when it was just me and Cranel): picking up any monster crystals up off the ground.

Sto— Wait, what in the world am I doing?! I should be using this opportunity to kill time, not do things faster for literally everyone else than me!

"Hey, Hachiman-sama?" I blinked at the sudden calling of my name. Turning towards my caller, I found that she was still doubled over and her gaze was still fixed on the ground, but she at least managed to get a hold of her breathing. "Did you and Cranel-sama ever have this much trouble?"

"Hm?" Well, if I'm remembering correctly, Arde managed to kill four goblins on her own and I know for sure that crystal from the one I killed is at my feet. "What do you mean?"

"When you two first became adventurers, I mean." Yep, there's that one. Now, where are all the others? Ah, all the way over there, huh? "Did you two ever have this much killing monsters?"

"At first? Yeah, we had a lot of trouble when we first started out. I think it took us a week or two to get used to things." Making my way over to the crystal that had caught my eye a moment earlier, I answered Arde plainly and truthfully. "Only the naturally gifted start doing something and find immediate success, and it's not like either of us were brimming with latent potential."

Granted, given my ability to slow/stop my perception of time at command, I probably wasn't in the best position to say that, but that didn't change how awful my first few days doing this were. My skill might've helped me keep up with the speed of battle mentally and the falna on my back might've boosted the natural development of my strength and speed, but all the rest of my physical capabilities remained those of a career high school slacker. The amount of times I ended up falling on my ass because I tripped over my own feet while dodging attacks or swinging at an enemy with way too much force probably rivaled the amount of times Zaimokuza has written something shitty (a lot).

Basically, my first few days as an adventurer sucked. 0/10, would never try again. Haha, sucks to be you, Arde.

"Wait, when did you and Cranel-sama start adventuring, again?"

"Almost two months ago." I leaned down to pick up the second of five crystals. "Why?"

"Wait, you two started two months ago and are already almost on the seventh floor?!"

"Mhm." I hummed back in affirmation and looked around for more crystals. Wait, how'd that one get all the way over there? "What about it?"

"No latent potential, my ass! Don't you understand how fast of a pace that is?!" Shocked yelling? Seriously, Arde? Is that really necessary? "I've worked with adventurers who've been doing this for a year and—

"—haven't gotten that far yet. Don't worry, I'm painfully aware of how fast Cranel and I have been improving." After all, not only did I have Hestia-sama reminding me of how quickly my stats are improving every time I have them updated, but Tulle always gave me and Cranel the same spiel whenever we asked her to clear us to go down a floor. "By the way, since you suddenly have the energy to be yelling like that, does that mean you're good to get moving?"

"Oh, y-yeah!" Turning my head to confirm the Chiennthrope's words, I found that she no longer had her hands on her knees and was standing straight up. "Um, just how far were you planning on going today, Hachiman-sama?"

I shrugged at the question. "However far you feel like going. Remember, I'm not here to make decisions for you."

"R-Right…."

I sighed as I went back to picking up monster crystals. Yeah, this was definitely going to take a while.


Interlude 9 | Unfortunately Lefiya Viridis is Relied Upon.

"Ah, um…." My eyes couldn't help but find the ground when my escort turned her head to face me. Although I couldn't see them, I was sure that her eyes held plenty of disdain for me. "I'm sorry again for taking up your time, Ais-sama."

"It's no bother to me, Lefiya." My bodyguard's words lacked all emotion as it always did, but the guilt I harbored in my stomach persisted. How could it not? Surely, she had a litany of ways to better spend her free time than accompanying me on business that she held no stake in. Even if she chose not to verbalize it now, I'm sure that it had crossed her mind at some point. "I volunteered, after all."

I opened my mouth to further verbalize my shame but stopped myself, instead choosing to deepen the frown on my lips. In the end, with the exception of Bete-kun, there was no chance any of my familia would openly state what I was already aware of. They simply were all too kind for such brutal honesty.

For the first time in my time as her student, I found myself cursing Alf-sama. If my status as a hindrance to all those around me had not been clear enough before, my teacher had mandated an escort accompany me to my meeting with Hikigaya-san - an adventurer who was yet to even take his second step towards divinity! With the increasing danger that has hovered around my familia over these past few days, I was not foolhardy or stubborn enough to be blind to my ruler's good intentions, but to have done so openly in front of Ais-sama….

"Lefiya…." The sound of my name caused me to snap my head upwards. When I did so, I found that Ais-sama had stopped, which forced me to do the same.

"Y-Yes, Ais-sama?" I cursed my inability to speak clearly but anxiety had already sunk its claws into my heart. As she was standing in front of me, I couldn't see her face and thus, couldn't even begin to gauge what had given the newly-minted level six adventurer pause. Her eyes faced forwards, but all I could see was the crowds of people walking the same street as us. "Is something the matter?"

That uneasiness only grew when my familia met my response with silence. The last time I had seen my familia act in such a fashion was a few days ago in Rivira, right before we were attacked by that warrior who murdered Dorlia-san. She certainly seemed a lot less stressed then she did then, but that observation didn't do much to dispel my worry—

"How much further to the bookstore?"

…Oh.

It was suffice to say that my most recent visit to Copia Libri hadn't ended as I anticipated. Frankly, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, although that still didn't seem like an accurate enough descriptor.

What was meant to be a relaxing outing for myself very quickly morphed into a full-scale conflict with not just a Charging Wall, a rare monster notorious amongst adventurers for decimating the unprepared, but also the surprise emergence of the Violas on the surface. The former was more than an adequate enough challenge; the latter pushed not just me but a number of my familia, all of which far stronger than myself, to our limits as well.

That day most certainly wasn't a good day for The Loki Familia.

However, it would be remiss of me to imply that no good resulted from that chaos.

"It's him?" Although I found the questioning nature to Ais-sama's voice a bit perplexing, I couldn't deny my familia's assertion. It certainly was Hachiman Hikigaya— Wait, no, that response was far too perfect!

"U-Um, Ais-sama…." My bodyguard turned her head towards me and blinked much like an owl - a gesture that I had long ago come to understand as her universal sign to continue speaking. "W-Why did you just ask me that just now?"

"Hm?" Relief washed over me when I watched my familia blink at me, remain silent for a moment, and cock her head to the side. Fortunately, it seemed that my thoughts managed to stay where they belonged. "I was wondering if he was the person you were supposed to meet with today."

However, once both my panic and relief subsided, I found myself questioning Ais-sama's response once more. Did Alf-oujo-sama fail to explain who I was meeting with? No, to be so negligent is completely out of my liege's nature! Then, how could it have been possible for Ais-sama to not know we were meeting with Hikigaya-san today?

"A-Ais-sama…" Gulping down my apprehension, I did my best to verbalize my confusion without implying insult to either member of my familia. "…did Alf-sama mention to you who I was meeting with today at any point?"

"She did." Huh? If that's the case, how was it possible for you to have not known we were meeting with him today—? "She said you were meeting with someone named Hachiman Hikigaya and acted as though I had known him, but since he had never told me his actual name I had no way of knowing that it was actually him."

"O-Oh…." I wasn't sure if her explanation quelled my confusion at all or only served to add more on to it, but nonetheless, I decided it best to move on and focus on other things. Or rather, return it to the very reason for our current outing, the raven-haired boy who had curled himself up right beside the entrance of Copia Libri.

When I had crossed paths with Hachiman Hikigaya last, he had come to Twilight Manor and requested I teach him magic - a request that he could not be swayed from despite my protests. Two weeks had yet passed since and the adventurer I had met then was far different from the one sitting in front of me now.

Although he did retain the all-black ensemble that he had worn during our most recent encounter, several layers had been added onto it since then. The most prominent being the violet garment that he seemed to be using as a form of surcoat, the pink scarf he had wrapped loosely around his neck, and the sheathed sword leaning on his shoulder.

I felt myself frown at the sight. To have undergone such great change in such little time, even though it was just in appearance alone….

"Then what's actually keeping you from helping me?" My body stiffened as the boy's words from that day replayed in my mind. "Is there an actual reason or is it just because you don't think you can do it? If it's the latter, then trust me, I wouldn't have wasted my time coming here if I thought that you didn't have anything to offer me."

No, now is not the time to be thinking such thoughts, Lefiya! Hikigaya-san put his trust in you to be an adequate teacher! You cannot allow yourself to betray that trust by allowing such thoughts to hinder your ability. Think of the shame you'd feel if you were to. If you cannot be confident in yourself, be confident in the you that Hikigaya-san is so senselessly confident in!

Collecting all the determination I could muster, I used it to push myself into approaching the sitting boy. However, I was forced into stopping when a detail I hadn't noticed earlier caught my eye.

The boy was asleep!

Somehow, as I was gathering up the willpower necessary to approach him, I failed to see the fact that the only force keeping his head upright was the wall behind him. Moreso, I missed how his eyes had never once opened since my arrival! Ah, how could I have been so grossly and utterly complacent! Thank goodness I noticed! Otherwise, I would have walked right up to him and awoken him rudely.

Wait, if he had managed to fall asleep waiting for our arrival, did that not reflect poorly on us and our punctuality? I had told him to come here at close to sundown in my letter and although the sky was now beginning to stain orange, maybe I should've specified—

"Is something the matter, Lefiya?"

The sudden question nearly caused me to let out a scream, but somehow, I managed to keep it from escaping fully. Instead, all that was let out was a short, high-pitched squeak. Ah, that's almost nearly as bad!

Almost as if in response to my mental cry of frustration, Hikigaya-san's brows furrowed and his eyelids pressed together with force for a moment before opening slowly. The act revealed the tiny, grey dots that were his eyes. However, and I could only attribute this to how he had shed himself of sleep just a moment prior, they lacked their usual sharpness. Even then, they only stayed dull and forward facing for an instant - for an instant later, they snapped in my direction.

I couldn't help but take a step backwards. To be able to rouse himself from drowsiness so easily…. Has he truly only been an adventurer for a month's time?

"You're awake." As she was standing right next to me before I stepped backwards, I could now see a portion of Ais-sama's face simply by glancing to my left. Of course, the sword princess remained unfazed.

Hikigaya-san responded by leveling a glare at my familia, although it lacked much of its initial intensity. Experience told me to expect words laced with venom and contempt, as I knew even the most even of keeled people did not enjoy being woken so suddenly, but in the end, the boy offered no such insults. He failed to mock at all in all actuality.

Instead, the level one adventurer chose to continue glaring at the freshly-minted level 6 and despite how weapons were yet to be produced, I felt as though I were watching the two do battle with their eyes alone. Brilliant gold clashed against lifeless grey as the two did silent battle with one another. As always, I could only stand to the wayside and watch as it played out, but I was engrossed all the same.

Hold a moment, didn't a boy and girl staring at each other like this have an alternative meaning…?

Suddenly, the girl broke their stalemate by tilting her head in a quizzical fashion. The boy responded with a snort and my attention was immediately grabbed by the smirk that had appeared on his face. I recognized it immediately as being similar to the one that I bore witness to when I agreed to teach him magic, but with a somewhat off-putting sharp quality that hadn't been present before.

"And you're here." Using his sheathed weapon like a cane, the boy used it to pull himself up to his feet. My jaw threatened to dislocate itself when he found it appropriate to yawn into his hand before turning and addressing Ais-sama. "What? You get bored of being the scariest thing in the Dungeon, Wallenstein?"

Although they hadn't been directed towards me, I felt myself be taken aback by his words all the same. Ais Wallenstein, the Sword Princess, one of the strongest adventurers in all of Orario, and the boy spoke to her so closely. Moreso, he did so with such ease! Just who in the world did I agree to teach magic to?!

"'Scariest thing in the Dungeon'?" Ais-sama tilted her head as she repeated his insult back to him with what seemed to be genuine confusion. "My apologies but can I ask you what do you mean by that? Am I truly that frightening?"

In response to such a genuine lack of understanding, Hikigaya-san blinked and stared at my familia for a moment's time before breathing in deeply and letting out a sigh.

"Don't worry about it, Wallenstein." The boy turned his head to face me, doing so in such sudden fashion that I couldn't help but be startled slightly. "Seriously though, what is she doing here, Viridis? I figured that teacher of yours would be too paranoid to let you come here without a bodyguard, but isn't sending the Sword Princess a little extreme?"

"U-Um…." Both Ais-sama and Hikigaya-san were now looking my way and in response to suddenly becoming the conversation's focus, I found myself being betrayed by my voice. No, steel yourself, Lefiya! You cannot allow yourself to falter to something so mundane! Not when you're in the company of these two! How will either come to rely on you if that much is enough to shake you?

Closing my eyes, I breathed in deep to gather up all of my resolve, closed my eyes, and bowed. "My apologies for how this all may seem to you, Hikigaya-san. I might believe that you mean me no harm, but Alf-sama isn't one to give her trust out to those outside our familia so willingly. That and due to many recent events to befall our familia, she's been ever more vigilant of possible dangers, so she insisted that I not come here without protection. As to why Ais-sama is here, she just so happened to overhear and volunteered herself."

Upon reopening my eyes, I found the boy staring at me with a brow raised and crossed arms. He seemed skeptical of my explanation to say the very least. Ah, but I answered all of the questions he could possibly have truthfully! What could he possibly be so skeptical about— "You know, instead of saying all that, you could've just told me that your teacher doesn't like me."

Shock and insult forced me into recoiling backwards. The notion itself was preposterous! To imply that someone of Alf-sama's station, the princess of my people, would go through such lengths out of spite was utter insanity! And narcissistic as well!

"T-That wasn't my intent at all, Hikigaya-san!" Despite the righteousness that burned like a fire within me, I found myself stumbling as I mounted my defense. "I don't know what events transpired between the two of you during your first meeting, but I assure you that Alf-sama would never stoop to such petty sleights."

The boy simply let out a hum in response, which only served to stoke the fires within me further. I found myself beginning to lift my foot in an attempt to stamp it, but killed the motion before it ever truly began. Such a response would surrender the point to him and for the sake of my people's future ruler, I couldn't allow— "Alright, whatever you say."

Huh? "H-Huh?"

"Hm?" The boy's eyes widened and within them, I saw genuine confusion in response to my confusion. "Something wrong, Viridis?"

I didn't know what I expected the human boy to say, for I didn't know him well enough to try and predict any of his actions, but outright submission left me completely and utterly baffled. While I spoke with sincerity, did he merely speak in jest? Did I misread his intent so utterly? How utterly shameful!

The feeling of shame became so powerful within me that words began to spill from my mouth before I could fully comprehend their weight.

"M-My apologies, Hikigaya-san." Shame ran rampant within me despite my apology, the cause of which being my own presumptuousness. I found myself bowing my head once again in an attempt to alleviate it, but found no such relief. Fortunately, when I raised myself to face him once more, the persisting confusion on his face told me that I could make my next words an attempt to move on from the topic entirely. "I simply didn't anticipate you conceding your point so readily, that is all."

"Eh?" The boy raised his brow at my response before his eyes suddenly widened, as if he just now realized something, and turned his head to his left - his expression marred with a frown. "Oh, I guess you would have that kind of impression of me, huh?"

It was now my turn to be fraught with confusion. 'Impression'? Did my explanation only serve to make him believe that my opinion of him was unfavorable?!

Before my confidence could spiral any further downwards, the back-and-forth between Hikigaya-san and I was put to a fortunate end by Ais-sama, who failed to match the flow of the conversation as she always did and once again, I was forced to become subject to a strange dynamic that upset me as much as it perplexed me.

"Excuse me, Hikigaya, would it be alright if I asked you a question?"

Due to how she lacked the grace and frills expected of a lady, an outsider might try and equate her social prowess as something akin to how one approached battle. It was a fair assertion to make on a general basis, as battle tended to draw the most authentic parts of a person out to the surface. However, when such a claim was made about Ais-sama, it only told me that the person making it had never truly seen her in battle.

"Cranel's doing fine, Wallenstien."

"…You knew that I was going to ask about him?"

When Ais-sama was consumed in the throes of battle, she was the very picture of a hero! She faced every obstacle head on and without much forethought. To most adventurers, such actions would be a death sentence, but it seemed mere child's play to her. No matter how dire the scenario, she'd remain unfazed and search for ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Every occasion might not have rewarded her efforts, but despite those failures, she never withered and maintained the same mindset - a feat that was almost as awe-inspiring to me as any impossible victory she's achieved.

"I mean, last I checked, we've only ever talked twice and he was the only reason why you ever bothered to talk to me both times." The boy shrugged as he explained. "So, call it me taking a wild guess."

And then, there was the Ais-sama who existed only within conversation.

"Ah, that makes sense then."

To the outside observer, the similarities between the two parts of her personality seemed evident.

"Still, what even happened between the two of you anyways?"

"Hm?" Both sides were direct and to the point, never wasting a moment or movement in pursuit of her goal. "He hasn't told you?"

"Wait, that's actually surprising to you?" Sometimes doing so at the detriment of her own person. "I thought that I've made this perfectly clear by now, Wallenstein. Just because we're in the same familia, doesn't mean that we know everything about each other. All I know is that one afternoon, he happened across a grimoire that taught him magic and he ended up sneaking out to the Dungeon that same night to test it out like an idiot. The next morning, he came back home red in the face and mumbling something about you under his breath. Our kami-sama tried to get him to elaborate, but he wouldn't budge."

"Oh." And even if she happens to stumble along the way, the girl the Gods dubbed as the Sword Princess pushed forward like she always did. "My apologies then."

"…You do know that you don't have to apologize so seriously, right? It's really not that big of a deal."

"It's fine." Pushing aside every obstacle in her path with ease. "I felt the need to apologize to you anyways."

"Why?"

"I don't know?" Remaining forever the mystery to those who watched her. "I just felt the need to."

"…Look, if you're apologizing for what I think you are, it's seriously fine." However… "It's not like I really care, so you really don't have anything to apologize for." …outside of battle, there were moments where she's proven herself truly fallible. "Besides, I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."

"What do you mean?"

Moments where all calm slipped from her person and she stopped being the Sword Princess, the savior of countless battles, the person who I looked up to and aspired to be like the most - moments where she was simply Ais Wallenstein.

"I mean, I called you the 'scariest thing in the Dungeon' for a reason, y'know?" A girl who was only a year older than myself and was capable of all the emotions I was. "Don't ever tell Cranel I told you this, but whatever happened between you two, it really freaked him out. The only other time I've seen him that bad was when you exploded that minotaur all over him—"

Before Hikigaya-san could finish, he and the ill-meaning smirk that now scarred his features were interrupted by Ais-sama sending a soft punch into his arm that, at the lack of speed or power that it was thrown with, was clearly never meant to harm him in any way. However—

"—Ow! Why in the world would you do that? That really hurt! Did you forget that you're a level six, woman?!"

Cheeks puffed out and tinged with a slight red, Ais-sama let out a huff and turned away from the boy who had somehow managed to burrow so deeply under her skin with his comments that he managed to strike a nerve.

In turn, said boy grumbled curses under her breath and did the same, rubbing the spot on his arm in which she had assaulted as he did so.

I couldn't help but frown at the sight.

"Oi, Viridis, you sure that we're allowed to be doing this here?" Hearing Hikigaya-san call out to me, I turned to face the boy who requested I teach him magic. His body faced me, but from how his head alternated from side to side, it was clear that his attention lay solely with our current surroundings. "I figured that Loki's reach was long and all, but I didn't expect it to extend out to atop the walls."

Paired with a nod, I allowed a hum to be my initial answer. "Before I contacted you a few days ago, I had initially desired to teach you within Twilight Manor, but upon consulting Alf-sama about the viability of the idea, she informed me that you'd find such a location disagreeable. So, I went on to draft an entire list of possible places to conduct our lessons and presented it to Alf-sama, and she found here to be the most suitable."

"…That didn't really answer my question, though?" Hm? "Although, I probably should've specified from the start, so I guess that's my bad."

Finding that my eyes had traveled towards the floor at some point, I returned them to my conversation partner and found that he had changed positions while I was unaware.

No longer standing in front of me, he found it fit to use one of the many parapets around us as a temporary roost, leaning his backside onto one of the numerous open spaces that existed between the merlons.

Arms crossed over his chest, the raven-haired boy turned his eyes away from me. "I was actually wondering if we needed some sort of clearance to be up here. I know that these walls haven't been operational for a while now, but I always figured that there'd be more regulation as to their use than none at all."

"O-Oh, I suppose that's a fair concern to have…." I nodded as I conceded the point to him. Such knowledge was commonfare for the citizens of Orario, but my mind had let slip that Hikigaya-san's features, and how they differed from much of the other humans here in Orario, had always pointed towards the possibility that he was a migrant to this land as well. "Forgive me for prying, Hikigaya-san, but would it be accurate of me to assume that you aren't a native of Orario?"

The boy turned back to me and gave a nod in reply. "Yeah, why do you ask?"

"A-Ah, no reason! I was simply curious as to if that was the reason for your ignorance on the matter." I wanted to kick myself for stumbling over my words in such a fashion, but the personal nature of the question and the skepticism in his voice practically forced me into the misstep!

"Mhm." In place of a verbal answer, Hikigaya-san simply hummed and nodded. "I only got here a couple months ago, so sorry if this is supposed to be common knowledge or something."

"T-There's no need for apologies." I nodded as I spoke, now fully understanding where his concern stemmed from. "I was a newcomer to Orario too once, so I understand better than most." Raising a hand up to my mouth, I cleared my fist into it in an attempt to rid myself of the awkwardness that had built up inside me. It failed to do so, but I continued on with explaining nonetheless. "To my knowledge, there are no such restrictions on the walls. As long as we leave them without doing damage to them, I believe we should face no issues from the Guild for being here."

"You believe?" Hikigaya-san's question was marred by an off-putting skepticism that had a frown threatening my lips; although, in the end, I couldn't begrudge such a sentiment.

"Lefiya is speaking the truth." In the face of my timidity, Ais-sama found no difficulty speaking with confidence. "I've trained here in the past and have faced no issues."

"Hmph, you sure that wasn't because of any other reason?" I found my eyes widening at the boy's brazen choice of response and found myself feeling ridiculous for it. Despite my very recent exposure to such familiarity, it seemed that the idea of someone speaking so closely to Ais-sama had yet to register within my mind fully. "Not only are you the Sword Princess, you're a member of one of the most powerful familia in all Orario. I doubt the Guild would be willing to make the same concessions for a nobody like me."

Ais-sama blinked at the retort and glanced up towards the sky, as if to signal that she was indeed thinking on Hikigaya-san's words deeply, before eventually setting her golden eyes back onto him and nodding. "You just said that you've only lived here in Orario for a couple of months, right? Does that mean you only became an adventurer two months ago as well?"

It was now Hikigaya-san's turn to blink bewilderedly by what was being asked of him. A silent moment passed before he nodded his head in reply.

"And you held your own against a Charging Wall?"

Ais-sama's question caused me to inhale sharply and the muscles in my back to stiffen up dramatically. Such a sharp-witted observation! I should've expected no less of a person of the sword princess's caliber, but I found myself being astonished nonetheless—

—Wait, no, there were other things to be astonished about! Hikigaya-san!

Not only did you choose to do battle with a Charging Wall with equipment that made an insult of the descriptor 'subpar', you chose to do so with less than two months of battle experience?! Such blatant idiocy, such reckless carelessness, such brazen foolhardiness!

"…I mean, if your definition of 'holding my own' is distracting the thing and getting my chest caved in as a result, then I guess you'd have a point." My eyes widened at his choice of response. "Look, Viridis was the one who killed it and should get the credit for it - all I did was pester it long enough for her to do so."

"But you still played a part in killing it, didn't you?" Of course, Ais-sama pushed forward with her praise. "That is more than most can say."

"Alright, whatever, think you want." A sigh escaped the boy as he shook his head. "I don't know why I ever thought I could get you of all people to think sensibly about something." Ais-sama frowned at that blatant insult, but before she could respond, Hikigaya-san's attention suddenly turned in my direction. "Oi Viridis, you mind if we get started on this lesson? Unlike the two of you, I don't have all afternoon to spend up here."

Once again, having fallen into and become fully immersed into the inescapable tide that was a conversation between Ais-sama and Hikigaya-san, I found myself being caught off-guard when I suddenly found myself neck-deep in its clutches and dragged into open water.

So much so, that my response escaped me as an unfortunate stammer, "O-Oh, of course!" If that weren't enough, I found myself bowing my head before I could fully realize my own actions. "My apologies, Hikigaya-san, I had never even considered the fact that you might have other matters to attend after this."

I cursed myself for the submissive nature of my answer. Did he not bring you here to be a teacher, Lefiya? Alf-sama would never allow me to treat my studies as something to get over and done with! You must be more assertive if this is going to work!

"Hm?" Despite the intensity of my own internal ramblings, I found myself unable to put my thoughts to action and in response to my silence, the source of all my frustrations let out a sigh. "Don't worry too much about it, we'll be fine as long as we finish up before the Guild closes."

Unfortunately, due to the nature of my plight, his concessions didn't lift my spirits at all.

When Hikigaya-san first requested that I be his magic teacher, I'm ashamed to admit that all I felt in that moment was indecision.

Outside all of the implications that such an agreement between two adventurers not of the same Familia entailed, there shouldn't have been any doubt in my mind that I could accomplish such a task. Not only did I hail from a land in possession of the chief-most knowledge of the subject, but even amongst an entire population of the naturally gifted, I was blessed with even more than that. Yet, despite all of the details that would deem me tailor-made for such a role, such a distinction still felt ill-fitting to say the least.

Simply put, I made the same mistake that I always had.

However, despite my initial protests, Hikigaya-san persisted and forced me to face my indecision. Confoundingly enough, he even allowed me the option of declining, but only if I did so with conviction and under that kind of pressure, I found a decision becoming clearer and clearer to me. Now, it was my obligation to do right by it.

The first step of doing so involved gathering all of the information I had about learning magic. Elves were born with a natural propensity for magic that was bolstered by a God's blessing, but not wholly dependent on it. Humans weren't as fortunate in that regard. If they didn't possess a blessing from the divine, it would be an impossible task.

Hikigaya-san did at least have that much, but that still didn't guarantee that he'd have the ability to develop magic. Some humans simply proved to be incompatible with the medium, even if they were adventurers, but that would only make itself known after a long period of time.

So, without that knowledge, that only left us to continue on with the possibility of failure hovering over our heads.

"So, what you're saying is that the only way to learn magic is to improve my magic stat and hope I end up learning a spell after a while?" Hikigaya-san raised a brow as he summarized all that I just told him. It made me feel as though I should lower my head in shame. "And there's even a chance that I won't be able to learn magic at all?"

"Y-Yes." I nodded my head. Fortunately, he didn't seem to be taking the information all too negatively. "Although, I do know of ways to quicken the process along. You said that a familia of yours was able to learn a spell through the use of a grimoire, correct?"

"Mhm." Nodding his head, a smirk found its way on to his lips. "What about it?"

"May I know how your familia happened to come upon it?" Oh, wait, didn't those words imply a sleight? "N-Not to imply that it'd be impossible for your familia to have obtained such an item through legitimate means, I just—"

The raven-haired boy simply shrugged. "It's fine, Viridis. I'm perfectly aware of how poor my familia is."

"N-N-No! That wasn't my intention at all—"

A chuckle caused me to stop in my tracks and a feeling of betrayal to run through me. Was I simply being teased?! "Cranel wasn't the one who found it, a friend of his found it and lent it to him thinking that it was just a normal book. Apparently, someone had left it at their workplace one day and no one ever came back to get it."

"Someone just left an item as valuable as a grimoire lying around?" I couldn't help but respond to the implication with some measure of outrage. In most instances, a grimoire could run for hundreds of millions of valis! How could one be so completely and utterly irresponsible! "My apologies, Hikigaya-san, but doesn't such a scenario seem unlikely to you?"

In response to my query, the boy once again shrugged. "Sure, the thought crossed my mind, but all of the other employees basically told me the same thing when I asked them about it, so I just figured that it'd be better to not dig too deep into things."

"But what of the original owner?" Knowing the true value of a grimoire all too well and just how coveted they are, I felt practically honor-bound to inform Hikigaya-san of the trouble his familia might've gotten themselves into. "Surely someone with the ability to procure such an item wouldn't just let such a sleight loss go so easily."

"Mhm." The boy hummed back in response to my question and although he had done so in his usual subdued manner, I sensed a slight edge to it. Although, I couldn't quite place where it was pointed. "Seeing as I have no idea how to figure out who the former owner is, that's just gonna have to be a bridge to be crossed when it comes unfortunately."

Ah, that attitude did make a great deal of sense. To my knowledge, the only way that one might be able to determine the original owner of a grimoire was to bring it to Leona, or any other equally as knowledgeable proprietor of magic goods, and see if any news of its dealing crossed their ears at all.

However, even a mage of Leona's caliber would need the actual contents of the grimoire to make any clear and definitive claims of ownership, and since a grimoire erased all its contents entirely after use, the idea of finding its owner at this point was practically nil.

"Well, if that's how you'd prefer to handle the situation then I will trust your judgement, but please don't hesitate in asking for my assistance on the subject if you need it."

"I will help too if needed." Ais-sama chimed in a fashion that nearly made me jump. Ah, how inattentive of me! My familia had spent such a long time sitting in silence that I had forgotten all about her presence somehow!

"Mhm." A smile crossed my lips at the sound of that. "Now, I'm sure you had a reason to bring up grimoires, right, Viridis?"

"Oh, yes, of course!" Get a hold of yourself, Lefiya! To be so easily sucked into a tangent like that is unlike a proper teacher! Stay focused on the task at hand! "Did your familia ever make mention of the process in which he received his magic?"

"'The process'? Well, he basically described it to be a lot like falling asleep and having a dream, but those dreams were being guided along by the words in the book - something about 'actualizing what the word "magic"' meant to him or whatever - and when he woke up, he just had the ability to use a spell."

Hearing an adequate enough description of using a grimoire, I nodded my head and began reciting the information I had soaked up in preparation for this meeting. "That is correct. Grimoire are books enchanted with a very powerful magic - powerful enough to manipulate the very blessings in which our Gods bestow upon us, even if the reader isn't naturally able to develop magic. Are you following so far, Hikigaya-san?"

The boy nodded his head and gave an affirmatory hum in response.

"The process in which a grimoire achieves this task isn't too dissimilar from how one develops magic naturally. In most instances, magic is gained over a long period of time, but the nature of which depends on one's own natural aptitude with the medium and the desires of the person at the time." I took a breath before continuing. "A grimoire accomplishes this same task in far less time, asking a question of the reader to draw them into a state of contemplation. It then forces them into a state of unconsciousness, where the reader will dream and give an image to their thoughts and with the power imbued into the grimoire, those thoughts will manifest themselves into something tangible and controllable when they next awake."

"…I assume that you're explaining all of this because a grimoire is off the table?"

He parsed the meaning for my explanation so quickly! "Y-Yes, due to the ease in which a grimoire accomplishes its task, procuring one is remarkably difficult. So, while using one would be the quickest and easiest route to teach you magic, it would've also cost me hundreds of millions of valis - an amount I could afford but would take me a fair bit of time to do so. To the point where you might develop the ability yourself regardless of my efforts in the meantime."

I could feel my ears perk when I heard the boy let out a quiet grumble. I couldn't parse the words fully but he seemed to be quite discontented. Ah, did I upset him or am I being teased once again?!

"Alright, so what exactly are we here to do then?"

His question caused me to take in a deep, long breath.

Knowing that I couldn't guarantee the success of my solution, his question unknowingly unveiled the pool of panic and trepidation that had been welling up deep within me for the past few days.

That unease forced me into opening my mouth to give my answer, but fortunately, I was able to stop myself. Knowing that any answer I could give him would be warped heavily by my panic, I would only exacerbate the issue.

Instead, I took a deep breath and allowed myself a moment to calm down. Have heart, Lefiya! You may not know the true usefulness of your idea, but if you allow Hikigaya-san to lose faith in it from the start then all of your days of preparation will truly be for naught!

"You see, I understood that a grimoire would be too costly of an investment for me to give to you from the start and so, I've conducted my own research and I believe that I've found a way." The boy met my answer with silence and I took that as the sign to progress forward. "Here in Orario, my people are renowned for our natural affinity to learning magic and while we do indeed tend to develop magic at a rate and pace far superior to other races, it isn't an ability that is gifted to us at birth. Without a falna, the only way an elf would be able to conjure magic is through the learning of select chants and rituals, and even in those instances, such teachings aren't handed out to all. They are reserved for those who are truly willing to commit the time and labor necessary for the task. And at that point, despite the still grand significance it has for my people, magic can be seen as something akin to reading and writing - a skill."

Having finished the most technical part of my explanation, I allowed myself a moment to take a deep breath before continuing, "Just as with all skills, however, time and determination doesn't mean that they will be proficient with magic in the end. Natural aptitude still applies and controls the extent of which one can command it."

"And if an elf really wants to learn how to use magic, despite their lack of aptitude?"

"Ah, that's exactly what I was leading to!" Hearing his understanding of where I desired to take the conversation, I found my words laced with a little more excitement. "From my own experience, there are a rare few elves who find themselves completely unable to use this magic in some capacity, but in those cases, my teachers would make mention of a certain technique that a select few know how to use. Although, truthfully, I'm unsure of its use to you, as you are a human."

I gauged the boy for any sort of reaction to my doubts, but instead, he simply remained stoic and stared at me before shrugging. "I mean, there's no chance that this will end up killing me, right?"

'K-Kill you'?! How in the world did you get the implication that something like that was even possible? Does he believe me someone who would fail to mention the dangers of—

Ah, I see that's what just occurred there.

Doing my best to remain calm in response to the blatant prodding, I nodded, to which he smiled to himself and asked, "Alright, if there's a chance this will work and it won't cost me hundreds of millions of valis, then I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try. What do you need me to do?"

Hearing that, I couldn't help but release the breath that had been trapped in my chest, although I knew deep down that proposing the idea would be by far the least strenuous portion of this entire process in a literal sense.

Alright, that was a good job, Lefiya! You've managed to get through the initial explanation without any massive faltering. Now, all you must do is explain the rest of it. That should be fairly easy, right?

Ah, now that I ponder them, those parts of the ritual might prove to be troublesome. Hikigaya-san looks to be of the Far Eastern human colonies and they are said to have a lot of similarities to elves when it comes to their opinion on physical intimacy. It would be very proactive of me to warn him before we begin!

"Hikigaya-san, before we begin, may I know your tolerance level for physical intimacy? It will be crucial for the steps to come."

"…Eh?"

When I first began my studies into the field of magic, the first lesson taught to me was that magic extended far beyond just the reciting of words and verses alone. It necessitated that the user have supreme concentration and belief as well, for it involved the channeling of one's mind throughout their entire body.

If one took a lackadaisical approach during the process or if their words were poisoned by timidity, one could easily slip and trigger an Ignis Fatuus and do irreparable damage to themselves and the people around them. However, it was far more likely to find that when your words lacked true conviction, that nothing would come of them at all.

"A-Are you sure that you're comfortable with doing this, Hikigaya-san? Say the word and we can simply refrain from—"

That's why I always found my proficiency with magic to be truly baffling.

"—It's fine." Although those words left his mouth, the boy sitting in front of me had yet to meet my gaze since I explained the ritual to him. Even more so, and practically even more baffling, it seemed that his voice now shared some of my earlier timidity! "If this is the only way you've seen the ritual done, it only makes sense to try and recreate it as faithfully as possible, right?"

"That is correct, yes, but…." As I trailed off, a part of me couldn't help but be taken off-guard by the sudden shift in the boy's attitude. Was this truly the same person who stared down a Charging Wall and stormed into Twilight Manor demanding that I teach him magic with nary a falter? To think that the simple proposition of hand-holding would do this to him! "You are truly sure of your decision?"

"Yeah, I am." Despite his affirmation, he still chose to face away from me as he pulled his hands free from his gloves. "Now, c'mon," he extended his hands out towards me as he spoke, "let's get this over with already."

I nodded and breathed in deeply, preparing myself for what was to come.

Extending my own hands outwards, I aimed to wrap them around Hikigaya-san's larger fingers, but was forced into hesitation upon making initial contact as I felt them twitch away from me ever so slightly.

Worry shot through me at that and forced a glance at my student, who was now looking my way. Although, that only lasted as soon as we crossed eyes.

Once again turning his head away from me, the boy grumbled out an apology. "Sorry, force of habit."

I opened my mouth to confirm that he was truly willing to perform the ritual, but was forced into silence when the boy's hands suddenly lunged forward and captured my own in their grasp. "Let's just hurry and get this over with, alright?"

…A-Ah, wait, what are you doing, Lefiya?! Have you not prepared yourself for just this moment? You cannot allow yourself to be overwhelmed by just a mere touch, even if it wasn't of your own fruition! Forget your own embarrassment and begin the ritual, if not for your sake but for Hikigaya-san's!

"…Um, Viridis—?"

"—I'm alright." Nodding my head, I turned away from our clasped hands and faced the boy. "My deepest apologies for that lapse of concentration, Hikigaya-san. Shall we move on with the ritual?"

Hikigaya-san blinked at the question before a small smile suddenly crossed his lips and he nodded his head as well.

Breathing in deeply, I did my best to center myself and gave the first set of instructions. "The ritual involves a chant. When I begin, you will feel a sensation well up inside you. Simply do your best to concentrate on it and once I complete chanting, I will ask you a question. Please follow my lead from there. Understood?"

"Hmph, understood."

The Rite of the Voiceless.

Concentrating all of the magic within me into my hands, I began chanting, "Hear me, all wayward spirits."

For all those who called upon the rite, it was seen as their final opportunity to make a connection with the spirits that defined our people.

"Hear me for I am the instrument of one you cannot."

All of the research I had conducted prior to today told me that it was the farthest thing from a fool-proof solution, but for the truly desperate, I'm sure it seemed as though it were a drink of water in a vast desert.

"I beg of you for they cannot - I beg of you for they seek respite within your infinite graces."

Even if it were simply a mirage, some hope was better than none at all.

"Wrap your arms around them for they seek comfort." And hope was a strong enough force to push even the proudest of an already proud people to open themselves up to another. "Raise them up with your strength for they seek footing."

That's where the Rite obtained its power, but also was its biggest shortcoming.

"Glorious wills, do unto this unfortunate soul what others are blessed with." Not only did the elf performing the ritual need to be open to allowing another to share in the entirety of their very being, it required the same of the other. Be it consciously or subconsciously, if both participants failed to reach a consensus, the Rite would fail and the desperate one would lose the last hope they had left. "And give them a voice to reach you."

Fortunately, we faced no such dire straits in our current dilemma, but regardless, failure still didn't feel like an option to me.

A part of me couldn't help but find that a little amusing, although it was admittedly humor rife with irony.

In good conscience, I couldn't fully speak on Hikigaya-san's resolve towards learning magic with any certainty, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this all meant a lot more to myself than it did to him.

"Hark, all you wayward wills! Through me, give them a voice!"

The world around me went completely dark as I spoke the last verse of the chant.

Admitting this brought me a great deal of shame, but as I had only ever seen The Rite of the Voiceless be conducted once before as an outside observer, I wasn't entirely sure of what the ritual itself would entail once it successfully started. Largely due to the fact that the one instance I did bear witness to it - it ended in abject failure.

Truthfully, if not for Hikigaya-san's favor and the help of Riveria-sama in regards to some of the research, the fact that I had one day stumbled into it being conducted as a child would've slipped my mind entirely. It wasn't very helpful at all outside supplying me the verses I needed for the chant, but it was indeed something to build upon.

To that end, I was grateful to my teacher for her assistance on the matter.

According to Riveria-sama, once the step involving the chanting concluded, the two conducting the ritual would see the world around them fade as their minds formed a connection to one another and when this occurred, the next step was for the participant already proficient with magic to ask the other a question - very much in the same vein as a grimoire.

True to my teacher's word, the world did indeed disappear the moment I finished the chant, although it happened much more suddenly than I was led to anticipate. It was almost as if I were treading through a pitch black cavern and my lantern was suddenly snuffed out. Not just visually as well, but all other sensations were snuffed out too.

The natural bustle of Orario below us no longer tickled my ears and no longer could I feel the warmth of Hikigaya-san's hands wrapped around my own. In fact, he too was gone from in front of me and instead, was sitting off a ways in the distance, hands no longer outstretched towards me and now resting in his lap.

Ah, this must be when I ask Hikigaya-san a question! Alright, what should I ask him…?

"Hikigaya-san, can you hear me?" Out of habit, I found myself calling out to the void for the boy. "If you are indeed able to heed my words, please answer me this question: if you could give it a physical shape, what form would magic take in your mind?"

"What form does magic take in my mind?"

Suddenly, despite the stillness of his mouth, Hikigaya-san's voice echoed throughout the empty expanse around us, reverberating off its non-existent walls like it were made of pure stone. I couldn't help but flinch at the sensation.

Regardless of my momentary discomfort, I found a growing excitement bleed into the beating of my heart. Silence rang true as I awaited his response with baited breath.

That was when the void began to shift.

Impossibly, the nothingness behind the boy began to churn - to stir and twist like it was some form of viscous liquid. In an almost oxymoronic manner, it didn't do so wildly, instead taking the shape of a silhouette of a sitting figure that looked faint on darkness around us.

Gradually, as the void turned and squirmed, it gained more and more substance before what it was attempting to depict eventually became recognizable.

It was Hikigaya-san, sitting slouched over at what seemed to be a desk. Memories of my days as a student came to mind instantly, but notably, it had far thinner proportions and shiny metal legs.

Just as worthy of my attention, however, was the fact that he was no longer wearing the same garb, instead being replaced with clothing that resembled a suit but with a white trim on the jacket.

My attention remained fixated on the newly created Hikigaya-san as he stared down at the surface of the desk with a scrutinizing gaze. There was some sort of grey stick in his right hand and from where I was sitting, I could only assume that it was some sort of writing apparatus and he was looking down at a piece of paper. Perhaps doing an assignment?

Just as I began to wonder what was going to occur next, the boy began moving his right hand.

"'What form does magic take in your mind?'" As his hand moved, his voice began to echo through the space around us once more. "I don't know."

"Before coming to Orario, it was safe to say that magic meant nothing to me." I found myself being taken aback by the intensity of the assertion. Nothing? Truly nothing? How could one even come to possess such a thought process? "Not to imply that had always been the case."

As he continued, another shape began to take form besides the Hikigaya-san sitting at the desk. This time, however, it was visibly much smaller in stature.

"Just like pretty much every kid, there was a time where I became enraptured with the concept."

The figure was of a young raven-haired boy wearing some sort of long, white fabric tied around his neck. As it was able to conceal the entirety of his small body under it, it was evident that the boy was using it as some sort of makeshift cloak.

The child himself resembled Hikigaya-san greatly, but notably had far different eyes, despite them being the same shade of grey. The boy I was acquainted with had eyes that were as dull as stone and seemed to scrutinize all that they crossed paths with, but there was no such qualities to this child's eyes. Instead, it was replaced with all that one would expect of a child of that age: life, vigor, and softness.

"My mind would run wild with made-up spells and incantations, and I would commit them all to memory…" The child's mouth began to move as an arm shot out under the cloak, revealing what he had deemed worthy of hiding underneath his cloak: a wooden spoon. "…just so I could cast them at my bedroom mirror later on."

With an exaggerated flourish, the boy pointed the spoon out in front of him before it then suddenly recoiled upwards, almost as if a powerful explosion had erupted from the utensil's tip.

I smiled at the boy's display of exuberance.

"When we're young, magic encompasses this idea of there being more than the current reality. Not just the idea of being able to say a few select words and suddenly having the ability to send lightning erupting from my fingertips, but all of the other fantastical ideas that make the world seem more appealing." Smiling widely, the young boy put his free hand up to his face with his fingers splayed out, mouthed something behind it, and then turned fully around with a flourish of his cape before suddenly disappearing. "However, just like most kids, I grew up. Eventually realizing that the only times where I'd see magic was inside stories and fairytales, and none of those things were making my reality feel any more appealing."

I found my frown deepening upon hearing Hikigaya-san's reasoning for his indecision. To deny the existence of something wholly because you lacked exposure to it! At the very least, it seemed consistent with his usual brazen behavior!

It's not that I couldn't sympathize with his feelings. All children must face some sort of disillusionment as they age, but this seemed more like bitterness than it did revelation.

"Of course, that didn't mean that I swore off consuming content involving magic in their totality. Boredom continued to persist after all, so I really didn't have much of a choice."

As it did earlier, as he spoke, another form of Hikigaya-san appeared near his writing visage. This time doing so on the side opposite that his child form did.

This version of the boy seemed to be one of early adolescence, lacking the mass that his current form did but still retaining some of the life and energy in his eyes that his younger form possessed.

The adolescent Hikigaya-san sat reclined on the abyssal ground, a book in hand and a disgruntled expression on his face as his eyes scanned its pages.

"Magic to me became nothing more than something I'd ever only interact with in the realms of fiction. That, however, exposed to me another side of the concept that I had really never considered - how other people used magic in their stories." Despite the continued dismissive tone in which the boy was addressing magic, I found my ears perking and a prick of excitement stinging my heart at the mention. "How could a one hundred year-old old man possibly defeat a seasoned warrior who had muscles bigger than his head? With magic! How can an author spice up their blander than bland setting? With magic! How can someone explain a set of events when they go against all basic logic? I'm sure that I don't need to beat this dead horse of a gag for you to understand what I'm getting at."

If I was physically able, I'm sure I would've found a way to further deepen the frown on my lips.

"In short, magic has almost always been seen as an easy way for people to overcome their shortcomings and that's what it's been to me ever for the longest time."

Once he had concluded that thought, the adolescent Hikigaya-san disappeared much in the way his childhood self did.

"Of course, coming to Orario forced a change in that mindset."

Upon hearing Hikigaya-san say that, I began to feel my growing frustration wane ever so slightly.

Not only did the statement hint towards a more sensible outlook going forward, it also provided much needed context to his stance that made it much more sensible.

Hikigaya-san was a human, after all. They didn't possess the same natural attunement to the spirits that came naturally to those of my people. Such a stance made sense if he had spent his entire life up until this point in a place where magic was non-existent.

"All of a sudden, magic existed outside of the confines of a narrative and revealed its true strength to me in a rather abrasive and in my face fashion." All of a sudden a chill ran down the length of my spine and before I could fully register what was occurring, I was nearly knocked over by a gust of wind that chilled me to the bone. "A wind so icy and cold that it froze all that it crossed its path…" The shock having forced my eyes closed, the moment I reopened them I found that my vision remained nearly almost as impaired. However, instead of a pitch black, what blinded me was a raging flurry bright white in color. The only thing visible being a faint silhouette sitting at a desk, sitting off in the distance. "…A force so powerful and destructive but commanded with such ease that it forced every thought from my mind."

Quickly, it became clear to me that I was currently sitting within a blizzard.

"However, even as awe filled at the sight and left me speechless, something did creep into my mind towards the end. A memory that I couldn't fully attach to what I was currently witnessing, but felt familiar all the same, all stemming from the conversation I had with its wielder just before she unleashed it."

Just as quickly, what had created it became apparent to me as well.

"In the end, even though magic now existed outside just the stories and it felt as though my opinion on it should've changed, I found that it hadn't changed at all." I strained and squinted my eyes to see Hikigaya-san, not even using my hand to block the snow from entering my eyes kept them from desiring to seal themselves shut once more. "'So, what form does magic take in my mind?'"

For the first time, the silhouette at the desk looked away from what he was writing on and cast his gaze directly out in front of him. Curiosity forced me into following it.

"It's a shortcut to help people overcome their shortcomings."

In the distance, another silhouette stood. One that was clearly too short, too frail, and too feminine to belong to Hikigaya-san.

"Which I assume means that, if I want to learn how to use magic, I'm going to have to state what my biggest short-coming is."

I did my best to register more information about the silhouette, but before I could do so, I felt a force hit my front with so much force that it knocked me onto my back and forced my eyes shut once more. However, my eyes were able to catch a singular detail about the figure before they were forced closed.

"In that vein, I'm pretty confident that I have everyone else in the world beat when it comes to being self-aware."

Whoever they were, they had long hair.

"Although, I don't know if that's a good or bad thing right now."


Bonus Interlude #9.5 (Bonus) | This Time, Ais Wallenstein is Pulled Away From.

Ah, is something moving?

Glancing down towards the stray cat in my lap, I found that he was indeed beginning to stir. Despite the fact that his unkempt hair kept most of his face covered, I could still see his brow twitch through the cracks in it. Knowing what that most likely pointed to, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, he was far easier to deal with as he slept.

To confirm my suspicions, I turned towards Lefiya. The moment I did so, she turned in her sleep and nearly caused her head to slip off of the makeshift pillow I had made for her out of her bag.

Out of instinct, my hand reached out to try and catch my familia's shoulder to keep her from falling off entirely, but it seemed that her sudden turn was enough to shake the elf from her sleep completely as she jolted awake the instant after.

I watched Lefiya's eyes as they darted from side to side. There was an element of panic and anxiousness in them as she did. Maybe she had a bad dream?

"Are you okay, Lefiya?"

The question sent a visible shock down my familia's spine. Ah, that probably wasn't the best course of action.

Lefiya's head and body snapped to face me. "A-Ah, it's just you, Ais-sama! I must admit you gave me quite a scare right there."

"My apologies." Having not intended to give the elf a scare, I bowed my head in apology as I spoke. "That wasn't my intention at all."

"I-It's fine! Truly, it's fine!" For whatever reason, despite her clear attempts to relieve me of my guilt, it seemed that the elf only became more nervous. Did I manage to make the problem worse somehow? "I was simply taken off-guard is all."

I decided to remain silent and gave a simple nod in response. As my question earlier had caused her to only panic more, it seemed best to give my familia a moment or two to regain her bearings fully.

Oh, right, if Lefiya is awake now, then that should mean that he's awake too.

Turning towards the resting cat in my lap, I found that he was no longer resting at all. Instead, he was looking right up at me with an expression I had never seen him possess before.

Technically speaking, it didn't seem at all different from how he usually looked at me, but there was a clear difference in it that reminded me of his familia, the rabbit who I had put in a very similar situation and had bolted at first sight somewhat.

First off, even though his face showed no clear and visible reactions, I noticed that there was a tension to his expression that wasn't normally present. It was almost as if he was doing his best to keep from making one at all.

The second similarity was in his cheeks. Even though the Sun had begun to set and I was beginning to lose visibility, there was still enough light for me to tell that his face had grown a tinge pinker than usual.

However, for all the similarities they held, there was one difference between the cat and his rabbit-like familia when it came to their respective time in this position. When we locked, the prior didn't immediately bolt a moment after.

Ah, wait, is there something different here?

There was a slit in the middle of the small grey dots that seemed to only glare at me - a difference that compelled me to reach a hand down towards his head and utter the words, "Good cat."

Of course, the stray jumped from my lap before I could make contact.

Ah….

He didn't run away at the very least.

Chapter End.


A/N: Hey, well, it's certainly been a minute! Sorry for such a huge gap between updates. I had to take a few weeks hiatus during the writing of this chapter because my typing on a keyboard strained my hands and wrists to the point that I developed tendinitis. The fact that my part-time job also means that I work with my hands a ton, I feel as though that didn't help much either. I have since switched over to writing on my phone, which is much less stressful on my joints and ligaments, so I don't think any more breaks are coming any time soon.

Other than that, I just have to explain the 'part 1' up in the title and that's because this chapter is one half of a bigger whole. I have another 10k+ words to write to finish it and I just didn't want to leave y'all in the dark for another few months to weeks, while all the readers on SB get to read them as I finish. Didn't seem fair, so here's the first half.

On that note, go check out the SpaceBattles thread (we're not allowed to post links on this site, so just look up the title of this story once you're there) if you wanna get quicker updates. Seriously, I'll probably post stuff at least once-twice a month.

And on that note, to anyone who reads this story on AO3, sorry if this chapter doesn't come up there anytime soon. I have forgotten my password for my account. I shall figure that out eventually.

See y'all next chapter.