Greetings to all!
Good news everyone: I made my deadline yet again! Better news; I went to the beach and am still on vacation! Bad news is that, come Monday, I'll be going back to work and be all rusty...which is terrible. But, at the very least, I was able to put the final touches on this chapter during the course of my vacation. It probably could have been brought out sooner, but I wanted to make sure everything worked out the way I wanted.
So, with all that being said, please enjoy the August update of A Certain World of Darkness!
Kamijou, in the limited amount of experience he had, did have an idea as to what he was getting himself into.
He might not have known Mugino for very long, but from the few encounters they had he could form a basic idea as to how the encounter would go. Saying it wouldn't go well was like saying the sun would come up tomorrow morning; he knew it would not be any different from the past encounters he had with her. It wasn't so much the outcome of the encounter that mattered; rather it was the humiliation, the ridicule, the insults, and everything that came with it which Touma detested most.
If she didn't take every second of her time to ridicule him, he would probably dread the encounters less. That or if her temper could be less bitchy, but the likelihood of either happening was too slim for it to even matter.
So when Kamijou arrived to the restaurant in which he was told to meet her, he had mentally prepared himself for what was to come. As prepared as he was, he was not prepared for the three other bodies that were also present with her as well. Again, he had an idea of what to expect, but that was only limited to what he had to deal with from Mugino alone. He had already deduced that Rikou was with her, so that was something that was a part of that general thought process.
Frenda and Kinuhata, on the other hand, were not a part of that plan.
He still had an idea for one of them, but the other…well, that was still a work in progress.
Unfortunately for him, he wasn't given enough time to really work out anything as he had already caught the attention of Saiai who was seated on the outside of the booth. Which led to her inform Mugino, who in turn turned to stare him down from his position a short distance away from the main door. Her gaze had barely been on him for a second before beaconing him over to their table. He couldn't see it clearly enough from his position, but her eyes were likely challenging him to turn away; a challenge he almost to accepted if it didn't come with its own fair share of consequences.
Instead Touma just allowed his shoulders to slump as he sighed quietly and shuffled along towards the group of girls who, with the exception of one, did not think highly of him.
"You sure as hell took your time getting here." Mugino did not waste a second either in addressing the lad the moment he approached the table. She didn't sound too irritated by his tardiness though, so that in itself could be taken as plus from his standpoint. "I could have ordered a full-course meal in the time it took you to get here."
"I don't see why you didn't, you obviously had time to kill and you are huddled up in a restaurant." Lethargic as ever, but at least this time he had a legitimate excuse as to why his tone was like this opposed to his usual reasons. Not that she would know that of course, but it was still an open secret to everyone present that he didn't want to be here. "Why choose a place like this anyway if you aren't going to eat anything? I'm actually kinda shocked that the owners haven't kicked you out yet."
"I would love to see them try, but we did order drinks; so technically we are contributing to their business."
Someone up there must have been laughing, because Kamijou had to concede to her point. Not about her contributions to the business portion, as he highly doubted a few drinks would suffice for a restaurant. No, the only part her statement he agreed with was how unlikely it would be for the owner of this establishment to succeed in getting the girl's out unless they wanted to leave. They most likely could, but the probable cost of property damage done to the place likely made that idea far less appealing than it would be to just leave her and her group be.
"Isn't that like ordering water and bread at a high class restaurant so you don't get thrown out?"
Knowing that, however, didn't stop him from making a comment on her faulty logic.
"Just shut up and sit the fuck down."
No, this was not his victory, it was just she had more important matters to discuss. Mugino only let the comment slip by because she allowed it to and nothing more.
"Is this lowly pest Kamijou supposed to sit on the floor, or should I go get a chair to sit in?"
He didn't even need to look at her to know that his sarcasm was pissing her off, but it didn't stop him from keeping his gaze anyway and seeing the glare she was sending him. Any other instance he probably wouldn't have been so nonchalant about it; the truth was that he just didn't care enough to be worried. As far as he was concerned this was a suitable, if meager, means of payback for calling him here as if she owned him and fully aware that neither of them saw eye-to-eye.
It might have been the fatigue that spurred on this growth of contempt for her. Or it might have been a growing immunity towards the girl in question as he had with all the other Esper's he encountered. Whatever it was, he had yet to determine if it was a positive or negative for him to act this way, nevertheless he chose to put those thoughts aside for the time being.
Incidentally, Kamijou took notice of something else that probably wouldn't have been clear to him had he not been standing where he was. Kinuhata, if he remembered correctly, was putting up the utmost effort to casually conceal the lower half of her face from the Meltdowner's line of vision. The reason for doing so was likely due to the beginnings of a grin she was trying to suppress, which would undoubtedly increase the girl's ire more than it already was.
He didn't know it then, but within five minutes into his arrival Touma had already scored a few points in Kinuhata's book.
She was, after all, still miffed at having her plans for the day being abruptly shot down by all this.
"Basically, don't sass her you disgusting pig."
Frenda, on the other hand, was not going to stand for it. Most likely because she was still carrying a grudge for what happened yesterday and with what he had been given witness too. Not to mention the fact that he had 'saved her life' when in reality he just showed up at the right place at the right time. So yes, she was being a little biased and there was more than a little bit of resentment to be had here.
But, as it was with Mugino, Touma seemed to not express much concern about those things at the moment.
"That's not what I'm doing; I'm demeaning myself before she can." He said it with such a flat tone that it was hardly something that could be taken seriously; which it wasn't. "It stings less when I do it myself then if she were to do it."
"Oh enough of this bullshit; Kinuhata, move!"
Wordlessly, Kinuhata rose from her seat by the edge of the booth and just as silently gestured the teen towards the booth. He didn't delay long after this and quietly squeezed into the booth; politely ignoring the many eyes current at the table watching him as he did so. Though, it would probably be more accurate to say that he hadn't noticed them rather than to say ignored them. He did notice them after he had sat down, but among them only Frenda and Mugino were in his immediate visual range and both of them were openly glaring at him for entirely different reasons.
Instead of addressing those reasons, Touma instead took resting his chin on his now folded arms on the tabletop once he had established a comfortable distance between the two girl's he was seated next to. It wasn't cramped per-se, there was still enough of a gap between each of person, but that gap was small and left little room for anyone to move without brushing against the other. Based on the last encounter he recalled with this group as a whole along with how this one was playing out, he wasn't looking to give them a reason to lash out at him.
These were Mugino's friends afterall, and if the dirty look Frenda was sending was of any indication then it was clear to him that they were all just waiting for the opportunity to degrade him.
"So, how should this Kamijou serve you today, Ojou-sama?"
There it was again, the lackluster tone mixed with a hint of sarcasm that served to annoy Mugino without end. It was still apparent on her expression that his attitude was not welcome, but instead of voicing it she instead chose to sip on her drink. Irritation was still there, but her face seemed to noticeable become less contorted with anger as she steadily returned back into one that of a more reserved visage. By the time her glass had touched the table, she appeared eerily calm and showed few traces of negative emotion that was usually apparent on her face.
Such a visage was not something Touma was prone to seeing; particularly whenever she was addressing him directly.
That was not a good sign and that was something even Kamijou in his current state had to acknowledge.
"It's funny that you would say that Kamijou." If the previous display of attitude adjustment hadn't perked him up, the utter lack of aggression in her voice certainly did. "Before we get to that though, I want to ask you something."
"Oookay, what is it?"
"Is that what happens to guys who 'use the stranger' or does that only happen to you?"
What followed that question was the sound of Touma's forehead kissing the tabletop. Of all the things he was expecting her to ask, the cause of his injury was not among them; nor was he expecting such an embarrassing question such as that to address it with. Add to it that this would mark the third time someone had brought up his wounds today and one could see why he wanted to do nothing but go home and avoid all further confrontations with anyone remotely associated with him.
"Huh, seems like I was right…the things you learn."
And so it began.
"Wow, that's super disgusting."
And so it continued.
"Basically, you're the worst kind of person, you disgusting masochist."
"How am I the disgusting one here!?" Kamijou exclaimed, forehead still pressed against the table and his arms covering the majority of his face from view. "I admitted nothing, so please stop jumping to unfounded conclusions like this! What happened to me is just a long story that I really don't want to go into detail about; that's all!"
"Yeah, basically, don't get into any details; we don't wanna know about you're disgusting ways."
"I super agree, feel free to not explain it."
"You girl's are horrible!" This time, Touma actually did raise his head up to make this statement, having adjusted his gaze onto Mugino shortly after speaking to address her directly. "And you, you're the reason that this ended up happening to me in the first place!"
Mugino, who had returned to sipping her drink, had the audacity to look mildly confused. She knew what he was referring to, there was no way for her to not know, but for the sake of things she maintained the illusion of ignorance for a couple of seconds before feigning a look realization.
"You walking in on Frenda in the bathroom was your own fault; so don't pin the blame on me Kamijou."
"I'm not talking about that! I'm talking about the door you broke to get into my dorm!"
Now she was just riling him up and sadly enough it was working. With an audience of her peers, comments like these were bound to put him in a position that he most certainly did not want to be put into. Especially when most of the people present knew next to nothing about him aside from what was being fed to them. Who knew what Mugino said about him around these girls when he wasn't around to defend himself?
"Hang on, I'm super curious about this whole walking in on Frenda thing."
Once again, Kamijou's forehead decided to give the tabletop another kiss; this time hard enough to cause the glassware on the table to shake from the impact.
"Basically, that has nothing to do with this!" Retorted the blonde in response to Saiai's inquisition, even going as far as to slam both her hands on the table to further stress how much she didn't want to enter that line of conversation. Another scolding glare was directed at the teen across from her, but was paid no mind since he couldn't actually see it; not that it would have changed much. "And while we're at it, how is what happened to you Mugino's fault anyway?"
For the first time since his arrival, Touma actually gave enough of his attention to Takitsubo to see the genuine concern that was present in those distant brown spheres. The only one among the four girl's whom he got along with had addressed him, so there was no way at all for him to just dismiss her question as casually as he did the others. By all accounts, she was the only person here who wasn't deliberately trying to slander his good name; which was a blessing in its own right.
"Some Skill-Outs broke into my dorm last night; mainly because the locking mechanism had malfunctioned thanks to a certain Ojou-sama over there."
Said Ojou-sama was calmly swirling the ice in her drink with a straw as this conversation took place; her expression showcasing how unapologetic she was about her actions.
"I regret nothing."
"Anyways, this…" Pointedly ignoring Mugino's interjection, Touma carefully adjusted the position of his wounded hand to emphasize his point. "-is just one of the long list of things that happened to me after that. Most of them you probably wouldn't believe if I told you, but overall this is the worst of it."
Touma, after giving the nondescript explanation, was met with only a blank stare that told him nothing about the girl's mental state of being. She showed nothing, she said nothing, but in her mind she sincerely doubted she would consider anything he was talking about to be unlikely. Rikou had seen many things, as did the rest of them, so whatever had transpired would likely not have been classified as 'unbelievable' or any similar classification.
The most likely thing she would find unbelievable was that he had survived it all with only a wounded hand to show for it. But he was refusing to speak of it, so the best she could do was just accept what he was telling her and leave it at that.
"Wasn't there some super big commotion going on last night?"
At least it would have been left at that, had Saiai not chosen to speak up after hearing what he had said.
"Actually…your right, basically it had been broadcasting over the news all day."
"Eh, it's on the news?"
"You mean that crap about an explosion, some defective drones, and the arson that was going on 'til around midnight?"
"That sounds about right; minus that bit about those drones being defective."
Four sets of eyes shifted towards the teen as his flat tone reached each of their ears. Each one was wearing a different expression from the next, but all having the same expression of interest as the next person; though some were more pronounced than others. Under that much exposure, Kamijou suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable given how attentive all four of these women were gazing at him. It didn't help that he was the only male here and was just now starting to realize that little fact at the worst of times.
It was awkward enough that he was the only guy at a table with composed of women, attractive women at that. The awkward meter in his brain skyrocketed to epic proportions now that each and every one of the said females was staring at him so intently. One would think he had said something out of character or extremely insulting with the way they were all looking at him. Even Mugino, who usually held him with contempt, was staring at him with what little surprise she allowed herself to openly show.
"Are you saying you super had something to do with that?"
"I…wouldn't put it like that…" Sheepishly, Touma took to staring at the ceiling above them as he tried his best to shrug off the discomfort he was experiencing. Not like it did him any good, because it persisted despite his efforts. "It would probably be better to say…they were kinda-sorta…chasing me?"
For several long minutes nobody at the table spoke; busy as they were processing his words in their minds like a complex math problem. Their silence did little to settle the feelings of anxiety swelling up in the pit of his stomach. In fact, their silence only intensified the feeling by a wide margin; so much so that he was starting to wish he wasn't trapped in the booth so he could stop being at the center of their attention.
"Basically, I don't see how you could have had any part of what I heard about." Frenda had been the first among them to speak once she had come to the conclusion that one plus two did not equal four and thus refused to believe it. "Who would try to blow up a whole store just to get rid of some common-place trash like you anyway?"
Frenda might have been alone in that thought, but if she was nobody showed any visibly signs of agreeing or disagreeing with her. She wasn't stupid either, it wasn't all based on a biased mindset; she had put into account what she, and at this point the rest of ITEM, knew about him into speculation. His arm was far from commonplace or trash, but the person who had it was and that based on the Urban Legends site nobody knew what she now did.
She could understand if it was someone who knew about that arm of his; that likely would act as enough of a reason to warrant using explosives to kill him. But to go to such an extreme on some unknown teenager like Touma? That was just a pointless waste of explosives and only served to create a bigger hassle than he as a person was worth.
"Yeah, that super does sound like a stupid idea to me."
The same sort of mindset was running through Kinuhata's brain as well, given what she was told about him and the reports the news dared to cover on live television. Drones, arson, and explosives seemed like overkill just to take out one guy who probably never even seen or held a gun before in his life.
Touma? He was flabbergasted at how straightforward these girl's were in brushing it all off. Not that he blamed them, he experienced it and yet he still found it hard to believe it really happened. For that very reason, Kamijou just shut up and let them voice their doubts freely even if was at his own expense.
"Regardless of if it is or isn't true is irrelevant." But the subject of legitimacy was abruptly cut short when Mugino clapped her hands together to regain everyone's attention. Once she had it, her eyes fell back onto Kamijou's dumbfounded face before folding those same hands under her chin. "It does bring me back to the reason in which I called you here to begin with. Personally, I don't care if the latter portion is true or not because that does not concern me. What I am concerned with is the legitimacy of your claim that you're dorm was broken into last night; that much is true, right?"
"Ye-yeah it's true, the break-in did happen." It surprised no one that seeing the crazy-psycho-ojou-sama turning all business-like on a dime like that was off-putting to the teen. Instead of commenting on it, however, Kamijou just decided to roll with it since he was pushing to get this little meeting done with and go home. "Why does it matter to you though?"
"Because it gives more merit to the proposal I intended to offer you."
"Eh, propos- what!?" Now skepticism was starting to settle where his anxiety previously lurked in his gut. The sudden shift in her attitude coupled with this new bit of information presented was painting an image that wasn't shaping out well. It showed too when he finally sat up straight in his seat while his eyes became distinctly more alert than they were moments ago. "What's with this sudden change of demeanor here? Go back to being cranky and snappish; this Kamijou at least knows how to handle that sort of person better than what you've got going on now."
"Humor me Kamijou, if you keep this up then I can promise you won't be seeing this side of me for too much longer." Wisely, the spiky haired teen did the only smart thing to do in this situation and aptly shut his noise-hole. For some reason Touma couldn't explain, he had a feeling that she was smiling behind the folded hands which obscured her lips from his view. "Now then, that proposal I was getting at; going by your own words you said it was Skill-Out who were responsible for the break-in."
"Yeah, it was them."
"Alright then, let's say I believe you. While we're at it, let's also say that explosion did involve you along with everything else that happened last night." She paused for a moment as she used her eyes to gesture towards both Kinuhata and Frenda. "As these two have already said, it sounds like an over the top way of getting rid of someone. Especially if the said someone they were after is just as much of a shit-stain as the rest of them."
"Jeez, thanks for the complement."
Even the deaf could have heard the dry sarcasm dripping off Touma's tongue.
"The truth hurts; we both know you're practically worthless without that right arm of yours."
Props needed to be given to Mugino for the well played counter statement. There was no use denying something he was already aware of since way back when he was still playing on jungle gyms. Hence why he didn't bother trying to follow up with a retort of any kind; denial was pointless when the facts were accurate. Not that it would have mattered if he had a retort since the Level 5 carried on from where she left off as if he hadn't spoken at all.
"You aren't an Esper, you have no power aside from that arm of yours, and yet they still came at you as if you were. That kinda ferocity isn't normal, even for that batch of filthy gutter-trash, and that in itself makes me wonder. Why would they go through so much trouble for some normal shit like you? What would drive them to go to such lengths to ensure that you're sorry carcass would be filled with holes or burnt to cinders? Even you aren't ignorant enough to not have at least question their motives either during or after the incident."
Damn right he wasn't which was why he responded with a hesitant nod of his head as his brain tried to determine precisely where Mugino was going with all this. As deterring as it was to know that the motivations behind all of it were so petty that they were hardly worth mentioning, he at least knew the reason why it happened. That reason still pissed him off though; the woman dubbed Queen might as well have told him that she was doing it for the lolz of it.
Not that it wouldn't have made much of a difference since it was still a pretty shitty motive.
"So, by confirming that, have you thought any further then that or did you just stop there after everything was done and over with?"
"Look Mugino, can we please move this along here? I don't like talking about this anymore than I have to and I still have medication to pick up. So would you please stop beating around the bush and just say whatever you want to say so I can get going?"
Kamijou was a patient person, he knew he had an abundance of it, but Mugino's vague questions were really starting to put a strain on that patience. The unease he felt before was still there, but had dissipated enough to allow his lethargic nature to make a return visit to the stage for an encore. He had still had matters to attend to and Mugino was taking her sweet time in eating up every second of his own for something. What he wanted was to know what that 'something' was, get it over with, and be on his way back doing what he was supposed to be doing.
And for once, Mugino and him seemed to be in agreement; because all she did not get angry with his minor outburst. All she did was nod, nothing more, before leveling him with a gaze he had not yet seen on her expression before.
"Do you really think you are safe now that everything is finished?" That was the ball dropper, the big question which Touma had asked himself many times yet could not provide a suitable answer to respond with. The Queen's threat, regardless of where she was now, had followed him like a stray; the more thought he fed the memory the more persistent it was in staying on the forefront of his mind. "Be honest with me Kamijou, do you believe everything is over and you're safe now that everything has passed?"
She was asking for his honesty, his view, on a matter that was hypothetical at best. He had thought she was just pretending to believe him when he said he was a part of what happened last night. But these weren't just whimsical thoughts anymore; she wasn't pretending to believe him. Had she accepted his claim as the truth or was she still just being hypothetically? To answer that, all Kamijou needed to do was gaze into those eyes of hers.
And the answer he received concerned him dearly.
"I'd…like to think I'm safe, so I guess so."
Based on the smug smile on her lips, he could rightfully assume that she and the rest of the girls heard the hesitation which was laced in his voice.
"Wouldn't we all, but the grim reality here is that you're not." In spite of the severity of her words, the Meltdowner sounded oddly pleased with herself; as if she had heard a joke which she alone understood and found humorous. "And it's not just you who isn't safe anymore, but everyone you're associated with is likely to be at risk. Friends, classmates, everyone you know will likely become a target to them now if it means getting to you."
"How do you figure that?"
This time it hadn't been Shizuri who had retorted to the statement. It had been Kinuhata surprisingly, who had taken that moment to enter the conversation.
"Skill-Out might just be a group of thugs, but they're super resourceful and pretty good at improvising when it counts. It's not just one super big group either, though there are a few of those out there who have more members than others. Most of the time though, it's just a small bunch of them; but that doesn't mean they don't have other gangs who can super work with them to take on certain jobs. If it really comes down to it, they could get maybe three or four other small gangs together for one super big job."
As it turned out, it wasn't just Saiai who decided to interject either; because Frenda also took on the initiative shortly after Kinuhata did and added her own input into the topic.
"Basically, in your case, if the leader of that gang feel's its necessary, they can get another gang that's allied with them and ask for their help in the task. If it's a bunch of commoners like you who you're friends with, it won't take them long to basically pick them off one by one in less than a few days at most. Or they could all just swarm on you alone and take care of you that way; but basically that's just plain overkill even for a scumbag like you."
A frightening thought, one which obviously showed if the lack of color in Kamijou's face was of any indication.
"B-but their leader was arrested by Anti-Skill last night, I watched them do it. Shouldn't that be enough to keep them away since someone else needs to fill in her role while she's in Anti-Skill's custody?"
"Maybe for a little while, but she'll get out eventually and that's when she does she'll obviously take immediate action." Once again, the focus went back onto Mugino, who's expression hadn't changed much since she last spoke. "Besides, if she has a strong enough influence, it hardly matters if she's in the same room or in a jail-cell. For all we know, the bitch could already be sending out a message to her little sheep to carry out a hit on you. Like Kinuhata just said, their ingenuity isn't something to scuff at; which is the only bit of credit I'll give those otherwise worthless cockroaches."
Kamijou understandably felt pressure building up in his chest as he listened to these words while wearing an expression that spoke volumes of his current mental state. This sort of news, this new development regarding the situation he was now in, had put him in a state of panic reminiscent to what he had felt last night. He was screwed; undeniably, utterly, screwed right now and so was everyone else he may know. There was the option to disregard all that was being said here, it did exist, but he had to accept the fact that this sort of situation could end up becoming a reality and soon.
He had neglected to tell Motoharu about the Queen's threat and that was largely because of fatigue and his own negligence. He could blame his exhaustion as much as he wanted, but that woman's threat hadn't been trying to be evasive. It was there when he spoke to Motoharu earlier, not in the back of his mind, yet he said nothing then to so much as warn the fellow youth of this danger. Perhaps he didn't believe there was a reason to worry his friend or he perhaps it just went back to his reluctance to recall the events that took place.
But it seemed the threat from before was still as much–no, even more of a threat now it was then. Unlike that time, there was no immediate solution to this problem which he was stuck dealing with. He couldn't just punch this problem into submission or run away from it. The former would only make things worse and the latter was impossible unless he decided to live under a rock somewhere. With those thoughts bearing down on him, Touma allowed his head dip downwards as one of his hands combed through his hair; having released a shuddering breath during his efforts to desperately calm himself down.
"…I can't even call this misfortune!" Groaned the teen in dismay, his fingers clutching and tugging on his locks while paying little to no mind at all to anyone who may be near enough to see or hear him. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
So caught up in his current plight, he forgot about the reason Mugino called him here, and the proposition she supposedly had for him.
"Easy, join us."
Across the table, Frenda had to turn away out of disdain while Saiai's gaze became more transfixed on the teen. Rikou also chose to avert her gaze out the window, though her reasons went in a far different direction than Frenda's. None of these actions went noticed by the boy who was too busy staring at Shizuri as if she had spoken in a foreign language.
"Not 'eh' it's either yes or no. It's not hard and well within your capacity to do; or am I giving you too much credit?"
The jab at Touma's level of intellect mostly went ignored in favor of addressing the new issue that had been dropped into his lap.
"I get that, what I don't get is what you're talking about when you vaguely say 'join us'. What the hell is there to join, and by 'us' do you mean…well, everyone sitting here?"
"Very good, I was worried you were both gullible and stupid." Chirped the girl with a voice so full artificial sugar that it was amazing her teeth weren't rotting out. "In the conclusion of the Siren incident, I put some thought into the idea of extending you an invitation of sorts into our group. That incident alone made me consider it, given how you handled it, and the answers you gave me about that arm of yours only spurred me on to make this decision. Think of all that as a job interview; while your credentials are piss poor, with time and experience you can be of great use to us."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the reason I initially called you here to begin with; that's what. Given how dire you're circumstances are I think that this might just be in your best interests if you want to avoid unnecessary harm to you or anyone you're close to."
"Was that a threat? That sounded suspiciously like a threat just now! And you keep saying 'join us' without telling me exactly what I'm joining! Stop being vague and give this Kamijou a straight answer please!"
"ITEM." The Level 5 wasn't the one who answered this time, but rather Rikou who had not removed her gaze from the window. "Mugino wants you to join our group, which is called ITEM Kamijou…"
"There, see, was that so hard for you to sa-ah-ha-huh, wait….ITEM?" Doing a double take on what he had just been told, it took him a couple minutes to fully register before his forehead started to crease and puzzlement settled in. "What is that, some kind of school band or something?"
"Do we look like the kind of girls who just sit around drinking tea all day?"
The teen being addressed paused briefly in his response as his eyes swept across the tabletop; taking in every beverage present in his visual range.
"Yeah, actually, you kinda do and that was a horrible reference you just made."
The honesty was strong with this Kamijou; whether or not it was hereditary or just Touma personally was something that remained to be seen. What was clear to see though, was the dissipation of Mugino's composure as she glared hard at him as if she were on the verge of a meltdown. Fortunately, before Shizuri could begin bombarding him with her Meltdowner, someone else took up the mantle and continued where the Level 5 left off.
"ITEM is a group that handles elements of unrest that concern super VIP's in Academy City. Those VIP's act as our clients and they can range from super private business owners to the Board of Directors themselves. In other words, if there's someone in super high society here, they call us to come in and we take care of whatever it is that's making them uneasy."
That was the basic rundown, but nevertheless Kinuhata's straightforward explanation did quench the teen's thirst for insight on the subject regarding what they did. Not everything was fully explained of course, nothing was ever that simple and ITEM was no exception. Even Kamijou was aware of that and the puzzle pieces he had been trying to put together before still didn't match up completely. He had better idea of what the group was, but there were still elements to it that weren't fully clear to him yet.
"So, what happened at last week was–"
"–basically us right in the middle of a job."
That was Frenda stating the obvious to the teen opposite her; the petulant tone in her voice clearly marked the topic as one which should be avoided in future encounters.
"A job that you bull rushed into without any awareness as to what was taking place."
And that was Mugino, who had managed to compose herself enough to speak without dripping too much acid onto the countertop as she talked. He did that a lot, bull rushing into situations, but to avoid provoking her any further he wisely withheld the remark. At the very least he now had a semi-clear understanding why Takitsubo and the others were in that facility back then. It struck him as odd that a group of girls like this bunch would willingly put themselves into such a dangerous situation.
Then again he willingly put himself into harm's way by assisting them in the same situation, so he had no right to judge them on those grounds.
"Alright, so I have a better understanding of 'what' this group is now." After returning his full attention back onto the Level 5, he took to pointing at himself before asking the second most pressing issue to follow. "With that now out of the way, remind me again why are you asking me to join this 'ITEM' group thing or whatever?"
"I didn't 'ask' you to do anything dip-shit, I extended an offer; there's a difference." She would much prefer to just threaten him with death and tell him to do what she said. Likely that method would be faster, but that scenario was out of the question for numerous reasons. "What I'm proposing is more or less a suggestion which can be beneficial to you and your current situation. By joining us, you won't need to concern yourself with any Skill-Out's going after you or anyone else."
"Mind explaining to me how joining some group keeps them away?"
"I'm a Level 5, the highest ranking Esper in the city, and ITEM is a group which gangs know well enough to avoid. If they see you frequently around us, they will connect the dots and think better on the idea of taking any action against you. If they do, they run the risk of being on the receiving end of a response they can't and won't recover from. I can't guarantee that every group in the city will know about your connection to ITEM, but I can promise that the one's after you will. Overall, the threat of Skill-Out will no longer be an issue, ITEM gains an asset, and everyone comes out of this better off."
Shizuri had a fair point there which paved the way for his thoughts to consider this as being a pretty solid idea. Level 5's were infamous individuals who even other Espers were afraid of because of their ridiculous power. Level 0's like him, who typically shied away from the average Esper, were especially sensitive on the idea of being in the same general area as a Level 5; never mind being in the same room as one. With those gangs consisting of normal people, he could only assume that they would have a 'flee-on-sight' order in the event that someone of Mugino's level appeared at the center of the stage.
So yes, one could say that Kamijou was tempted by this idea.
Indeed, this solution would be ideal for resolving his plight; but unfortunately it was too ideal for someone like him who is cursed with misfortune. No deal came without its fair share of strings, this subject had been touched on yesterday, so it was safe to say that Touma knew there was more to this than Mugino was letting on. He knew that, without question he knew there was more to this than what he was being told. An offer this tempting was bound to have strings attached, especially when it's coming from a girl who clearly had it out for him.
"That offer sounds nice, but forgive this Kamijou for being a little un-trusting here." He sure as hell didn't look or sound too apologetic about it, but that was beside the point. "We're like oil and water, we don't mix and we both know it; so you can probably understand why I'm a bit skeptical about this proposal of yours. It all sounds too good, and if there's anything I'm certain about is that if it's too good to be true usually is. And with it coming from you, who tried more than once to blow my head off, I can guess that this isn't an offer you're making out of generosity."
Once again, the honesty was strong with this Kamijou and this time more than one person at the table had to acknowledge him for his boldness, if nothing else. Imagine Breaker presumably played a key role as to why he was able to speak so freely and allow his boldness to be known. The girl's weren't stunned by this, the reactions varied from person-to-person, but they weren't stunned by him voicing his opinion relating to the issue.
If anything, Kamijou had actually impressed a few of them to some extent; which was likely the reason why they didn't speak and thus allowed him to continue.
"At first you wanted a challenge, then you wanted answers; now you want me to join some group I've never even heard of? Sorry, but I'm not dumb, I can see the pattern that's been happening up to this point and I'm not buying it. You want something, that much is clear, and from where I'm sitting the price sounds like it will be more than what I feel it's worth."
"So you're saying you'd rather run the risk of your friends getting hurt or killed by those pieces of shit then join something that can protect you?"
"Ye-no, no that's not what I'm saying!" As much as Kamijou didn't like his options or Mugino, this was still the best alternative he was likely to find on such short notice. "What I'm saying is that I'd rather know what I'm getting myself into than blindly taking the first chance I get to escape my problems."
"Kinuhata already told you the basic rundown of what we do, didn't she? We act as the alternative solution to problems that certain VIP's don't like and can't tackle themselves. With you being a part of ITEM, that means that you'll also be with us on our jobs; it's that simple."
"Problems you say, problems like what happened last weekend? That hardly seems 'simple' or appealing when you're looking at it from my standpoint."
"Name one workplace that doesn't have its undesirable moments not listed in the job description. Some are painless, some aren't, that's how life and our job works; we didn't ask for it to be that hectic but that was how it turned out."
"That's not giving me any comfort here."
"Then remind me who was it that was badgering me to let them help despite the situation?" The relative silence she received was rewarding in itself, the subtle shift in his gaze after conceding to her point was just an added bonus. "It's not much different from what you were doing then; the difference here is that you're getting paid for it. None of us are doing this for free, and neither will you, so depending on the job we get the payout should be pretty rewarding."
Originally, when Saiai gave him the explanation, he mentally compared the group to being something like a band of mercenaries. After hearing a bit more detail, it seemed that comparison was practically spot on. They were all doing this for money, profit, and that was all it was for. No self-righteousness in this group, it was all just for the sake of pure selfish desire for material wants and very little else. Greed was what drove ITEM and its members represented, at least from his standpoint that was how it seemed.
Then again, Touma would be lying if he said he wasn't open to the idea of getting paid. He had to eat just like everyone else did and to do that he needed the funds to acquire food. He already had enough problems on the budget front since the eleventh, and now he was probably looking at more losses in his bank account thanks to what he went through last night. But money was not the major issue at work here, nor was it his primary focus in this mental debate. His thoughts lingered more towards the very real and equally dangerous threat of The Queen and whatever acts of retaliation she may impose.
Who knew when or how she would carry out her threat? He sure as hell didn't and he wasn't for the idea of waiting around to see if it actually happened or not. Fear of the unknown was probably more terrifying than knowing what it is you're facing. Having seen what just her Overseers were capable of possessing and doing, it was safe to say Kamijou felt as if he was trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Touma didn't want anything to do with this ITEM business or the Meltdowner for that matter. There was no denying, however, the threat he faced could raise its head up at any given moment for all he knew. And the solution immediately available was staring dead at him with all these tempting offers that he just couldn't bring himself to ignore.
"Of course, you can still decline the offer if you really don't feel up to it. As dumb as you'd have to be to decline this deal, it's still an option for you to take." The way she said it made the problems he was facing seem so small and easy to resolve it was insulting. "You'll have to live with the consequences of either choice you make. So ask yourself: which set of repercussions are you more willing to live with?"
Kamijou's better judgment was telling him to pass on the offer, find another method to protect everyone, and leave the crazed Level 5's sight forever. Could he live with the outcome? Probably, if he could find an alternate solution then perhaps he could live with it. Yet the selfish and desperate side of him was telling to take it, accept the offer, and resolve his current problems in one fell swoop. He would regret it of course, he knew for a fact he would dread the decision immediately if he did it.
Everything he ever did or gained came with a price, some more steep than others, but what else could he do? For god's sake he was just a high-school student; he wasn't supposed to be dealing with matters of this sort. His greatest concern right now should have been his damn homework, not the future wellbeing of his friends and classmates.
And here sat Kamijou, feeling utterly trapped and his expression foretelling the inner conflict he was being forced to experience.
That face, that visage of confliction, was precisely what Mugino was looking to find. This was the final stretch, the area in which she could not afford to make any mistakes. One poorly placed phrase and all her efforts would go up in smoke in an instant. That couldn't happen, she wouldn't allow it to happen, which was why she was paying close attention to those at the table to make sure none of them would speak out of line and ruin things for her. All the while, carefully selecting the closing statement which would act as the last push required to make this meeting a success.
Her efforts, however, were not necessary; for Kamijou had already reached a decision.
"You're positive doing this will keep everyone safe?"
This time, Mugino was momentarily stunned, the key term being 'momentarily' since it only delayed her response by a second.
"They would be signing their own death warrants if they so much as touch them."
That wasn't assuring enough to provide the teen any form of visible comfort. His shoulders were still slumped and the confliction his face and eyes conveyed acted as proof to how little solace he had in any of this. Perhaps this was a poor decision, or perhaps it was the best he could hope for under these circumstances. What was a good option? Was there any other solution that could give him any assurance that his friends or anyone close to him would be completely safe?
Absolute safety could never be guaranteed, not in this day and age; this much Kamijou knew.
The law couldn't always protect everyone; it couldn't ensure the safety of so many people for a prolonged period of time. They couldn't keep an eye on every single scumbag that crept out of the allies or back streets; someone would get through that web and someone would get hurt. He had seen it happen more times than he liked to admit, many of which were cases he had chosen to intervene. So it was no exaggeration to say he knew that his options were slim and the chances of someone getting hurt because of his actions was within the realms of possibility.
He did not like these options; he did not like the idea of giving Mugino whatever it was she wanted from him. Yet, as much as he disliked it, he had to accept that this problem was his fault and he needed to do something now or risk people needlessly getting into harm way. For the sake of those that mattered to him, he had to take it even if he had already acknowledged it as the bad decision that it was. Regret would come later, he was positive that it would, but he was prepared to accept that regardless.
This was the best he could do…it was all he could do.
Admitting that there was so little he could do wasn't what made this decision such a harsh pill to swallow. Rather it was the sense of helplessness that came with it that really made it so difficult and left him feeling so bitter.
And so, with his head cast down and the gleam in his eyes lost from defeat, he provided Mugino with the answer that she had been waiting to receive.
Unseen by the rest, a certain girl's tired visage became increasingly distant and lifeless. She had no reason to listen to the conversation at hand, not anymore. Kamijou had made his choice, for better or for worse, he had to live with that choice now. Though he had made the choice himself, was given the means to turn down the offer yet didn't, a large portion of her felt responsible. With good reason too, for this would mark the second time she had done something terribly wrong to this ordinary high-school student.
By masking her true feelings on the matter with a façade of indifference, she had missed the moment that Shizuri's visage lit up with triumph. Not that she needed or wanted to see it, doing so would just make the pang of guilt dig down deeper into the pit of her stomach. Yet, despite how detached she tried to make herself, nothing could distract her enough from hearing what Mugino said following Touma's decision.
"Then welcome to ITEM, Kamijou Touma."
Welcome to the bottom!
So, a few people last chapter were not too happy with the lack of MUGINO INTERACTIONS. I understood that, but in withholding it then, I was able to put out a whole chapter's worth of interaction between her and Touma. Not to mention the rest of ITEM, though their dialog did fall short in comparison. But I think I reached a good balance between the five of them, so maybe my concerns are unfounded.
But, beside that, I think everyone who's been reading up this point could have guessed that this outcome would have eventually come. That's right, Touma is now a part of ITEM, and as such you can finally be assured that there will be a slew of interactions between those four girls and Touma. Which means I can get to work on building his relationships with each one.
But, in regards to the next arc. I have planned, that may take a bit of time to get to. Mainly because I want to get some details straight and I'm trying to give it an arc. that doesn't involve me making an OC. I don't mind making them, but I'm sure you guys do, but then again I don't have a confirmed web response is so I'll have to see the results before I decide on that.
As usual, if there are any inquiries, thoughts, or concerns that arise in your mind, feel free to address them to me and I'll do what I can to answer them. Otherwise, I hope you enjoyed my little piece of work.
Goodbye for now.