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4 (part 2)

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Two hours later brought the time to 9 o'clock at night.
Taking their discussion to the sunroom, there unfolded an unheard-of spectacle in this European-style building.

"You know, honestly? I didn't mean to put Tobimaru up to this."

On the table was a pot blowing warm steam.
As she tapped it with a pair of chopsticks, Aoko just grumbled to herself, not caring if anyone was listening.

Tonight's dinner was Japanese cuisine -- an unusual choice for this household.
Aoko was usually the one in charge of this, which included food served in a pot.
Sitting across from her was Alice, who was also quietly dipping her fork into it.

"Yamashiro just has to go and bring up Shizuki-kun's not being in any of the clubs. Why can't this teacher be useful for once, and get a better look at the things we all have to do for our school?"

She picked up a snowy white piece of egg and dropped it back into the pot to let it cook some more.
The shirataki noodles were done already, so she went for them.

"I mean, the dummy is swamped with all these part-time jobs he's taking on.
So I had to go bother the club heads nice enough to give him a chance, even though they relax for as much as they can up till the start of spring. At least a thanks would be good enough, but did I get that? Nope!
Alice, are you listening?"

The girl just nodded with food in her mouth.
As uninterested as she was in this conversation, Alice did seem to be lending an ear in spite of herself.
That was good enough for Aoko, who chewed on some pounded fish cake.

"As for me, I don't trust it when somebody's thought to be a nice person. I can't believe Tobimaru of all people would say such a thing!
That's not being nice, that's just being simple-minded.
......Besides, he's crazy if he's also not the type to get his buttons pushed in any way."

Aoko thought back to what happened at the student council room.
Soujuurou let the whole thing slide with her without much protest on his behalf.
She swallowed the rest of the pounded fish cake whole, just recalling that nonchalant face of his.

"......Hmph. What's there to understand?"

Soujuurou's comment mingled with what she was told at the end of her childhood.

'----You can understand, Aoko-chan.
But to keep being yourself still can't be easy to do----'

Those words were probably a compliment.
For Aoko, though, it was a cruel assessment.
What made it worse was that the person who told her so, looked like they were pitying her for it.

"----Eh. Not that anything the freak's said has to do with today and now."

She might have been thrown for the biggest loop at that point, but hearing that from someone she was gushing over as a little girl was a shock to her young mind.

Alice had said that out of nowhere to Aoko, whose chopsticks were dangling in the air while she was lost in her own thoughts.
"Sorry, I wasn't listening. By tussling, you mean a fight?"
A petite nod was tossed her way.

"Though you have no actual clue of what's happening based solely on how you feel about it.
What I mean to say, Aoko, is that you want to pick a fight with him."

Alice ate up the last of the pounded fish cake.
Hers was an opinion that hit its mark with severity, so much more than should be feasible.

"Wh......Why would I want that!?
I don't want to have even a second of being with that guy! It's out of the question! I'm absolutely not going for it! How did you get that far when we had nothing else to even talk about?"
"If so, why did you bring that part up?"
"Er......because......I, because I was telling you about what I checked today! Was there anything else that I said?"

Was there more to what she was saying?
Without knowing it, Aoko was digging her grave, and getting into that hole as the soil swallowed the dying soldier that she was. Give her several more hours after this -- when she would be getting into bed, she would then know that this was her situation with Alice.

"Nevermind, it has nothing to do with me.
Just tell me......Aoko, do you really not like this boy?"

Diligent and no-nonsense, Alice quietly ate the oden while asking that question.

She might have retained the same disinterest as before, but she was really enjoying the way Aoko was acting at this moment.
The girl had absolutely no idea what Alice was trying to provoke her into doing.
Giving an answer should be easy, but there was a little too much turmoil inside Aoko to even think properly right now.

"In all honesty......I mean yeah, I do. Haven't I been saying just how much I can't stand the guy?"
"I see. How about specifically?"
"Huuuh? Specifically? Like I have a reason for......"

Aoko caught herself there. At last, the problem became clear as rainwater.

Correct, there was not a sliver of a reason.
It was her gut instinct that made her feel out of sync with the countryboy from one glance.
But, why was that?
As a matter of fact, the top two things she always hated were 1) having feelings based on nothing, and 2) having assumptions based on nothing.

"Uh......wh-what I don't like, I just don't like......I mean, I was sure that, it had reason, enough, somewhere......"

She could barely form words with her mouth.
......She was in trouble. As far as she could tell, Aoko had no reason to want to avoid Soujuurou.

For all the lack of common sense he had in his new surroundings, Soujuurou himself was no trouble for anyone at all.
In fact, she figured that he was being open to the idea of adapting to civilized society.

He was slow to catch on, but "listlessly" was the wrong word she felt like using for how he got himself through the day.
His body language and his general attitude were a beat off from everyone else. Because of how mindful he was of himself, all she could take away from it was that he was thoughtful of other people.
If she had to give a fair rating of Soujuurou Shizuki in terms of circumstances and personality, it was too obvious even for herself.
His was the picture of an unironically "nice person" that everyone except her had been seeing all along. She was just too stubborn in not wanting to see it.

"Has he......seriously never been, a bad person in like, ever......?"

She put the rest of what made him a clumsy idiot aside for now.
Her chopsticks stilled for a moment over the busily floating oden.
For some reason, her temper was gaining more ground.

Aoko's bizarre hate for the countryboy was making her head spin.
'This is bad. I can't let this happen to me!' She could keep on chasing what it meant to be repelled by the likes of Soujuurou Shizuki, but all it was doing was backing her further into a corner.

Alice stared unblinking, as Aoko's dead-end street chase reached its end.
"......I can't believe it."
A tiny sigh.
"Aoko, you are being awfully weird about this."
With that line, Aoko was finished.
She became dizzy towards the strange way she was acting.
As soon as she was done eating, Alice left for the living room. For a while, she sat glued to her chair.
Aoko Aozaki never stayed down after taking a finisher to the face.
Wasting little time in finishing up the dishes, she let Alice have the bath first and left the living room.
It was a rule in this European-style building to have the lights off when the rooms were not in use, so light flooded the living room and the girls' rooms, at least.

The upstairs floor was bathed in darkness.
With only the moonlight to guide her way, Aoko crossed the dark corridor and reached her own room, which was at the furthest end of the upstairs east part of the mansion.

"----So, from what I can tell.
Surprise attacks really do make me sick."

It must have been on her mind out in the corridor, no, way back since she left the living room.
Entering her room, Aoko gave this firm statement about herself.

"I'd have to hide while pulling that off. I'll do better -- I'll tell him why and to his face!"

It was less about being easy on her target. It was even less about sympathy.
For her, it was simple: that was just how things needed to be.

"Right on. Now that my mind's made up----"

Set on her plan, she went into the study next door.

"Let's see, Thursday shelf, winter solstice paper......"

Among the huge score of books kept in this room, she took down the one she was looking for............................................categories
She had a set of introductory books she took with her when she left her parents' house, and they were all filed into six shelves starting at Monday and ending at Saturday.

Aoko generally knew the organization of her book collection in terms of entry, classification, and intended use.
It took no time at all for her to find the source containing the information she wanted.
It was the most that she did as this study's proprietor.

......She might be smug regarding this, but in the end, it was only in this miniscule study that she had any means of control.
The annex's library was a cluttered mess beyond the girls' abilities to handle in any way.
Maybe if the study was too lacking for her to get her job done, then she would have no choice but to let Alice know that she was going there.

"......Let's hope it doesn't come to that, OK?"

Placing the green thickbound book on the desk, she sat down.
It was a cold, rigid, and sturdy piece of furniture.
Aoko was too young to be using it, but she liked the desk for what it was: extremely sophisticated, and grandeur at its finest.
Resting the old book on its surface, she gently turned the pages.

"......I'm still not ready to make a barrier measuring up to Alice's skill with it. I probably shouldn't bet on places where people just don't tend to hang around......"

Such as deep in the mountains.
Such as forests.
Such as, a school building late at night without any students in it.
She could do without having to cast magecraft on the location, but unless her luck held out well, then a completely isolated spot was a better choice.

"Talk about ambiguous......we've got walls of thorns and mists made out of magical cut off an exit, let's say, then more of this, something showy would do, it can be circumstantial or based on how it looks."

Reading the passage out loud to herself, Aoko skipped what might not be as basic for her to do and flipped to the next page.
She rather not say it, but she was looking for a way to dispose of their witness from last night.

Magecraft was not a supreme force.
Simply put, it was a thing of this world, and merely something made manifest, and to some extent, ignored time and costs to materialize
what arose in
A phenomenon that was unrecognized in this universe, could never be made manifest even with the use of magecraft.
At the heart of its existence was the perpetual use of equivalent exchange, which made use of shortcuts.

Practicing with phenomena that could be achieved by humans, all while using the caster's own power----
This was how magecraft was very often carried out.
It was a simple story, but even putting a vast lake inside this European-style building was doable if it were considered.
However, things of an unearthly nature were prohibited, even if it was just at the tip of the pinky finger.
For instance: even if Aoko, all by herself, were to discharge a heat amount equal to the average fighter aircraft's afterburner, with the help of a magecraft formula, the circuit that represented Aoko Aozaki would only be a temporary input variable.
The derived equivalent itself would turn into a numerical value that was aligned with reality.
If, however, the equivalent was not a part of reality, its execution would fail.

The imaginary element that was magical energy, was like a lie that passed through order's screening process within a blink of being set off.
All things that took form in this world and had no place in it---- were illusions treading into unknown territory, thus this universe would refuse them.
"......But also, since the imaginary element is created on anything that's basic, it's ultimately built on lies, pretty much.
Stuff made entirely from magical energy and nothing else, are mostly phantasms that'd go 'poof!' just like that......a very good example of a barrier is, like say, a wall of thorns. It's something that grows out its thorns naturally, but by using magical energy, the magus can enhance its growth into completion, no waiting guaranteed.
So to sum it up, magical energy is like an easy-to-use gasoline, while putting events into motion for----"

"----Aaaand it keeps on going.
Imaginary elements and all that aside, my area of expertise is connecting my Circuits and preparing magical energy, and that's about it for me!"

Laughing at herself, Aoko read the book for a barrier that her current self could make.
While their witness's identity was unknown, going to the same highschool as him gave her any excuse to ask him to meet her somewhere.
The sticky part was after she called him to that spot.

"As things stand, it's the accuracy I'm worried about......he'll run after one missed shot, that's for sure."

If she had to be honest, not having Alice to back her made her feel uneasy about whether or not she could do this by herself.
Still, Aoko was not going to accept help when her target was just an ordinary person, so she was plenty enough to get the job done.
She might not be quite there yet as a magus, but she was still a proud one.

The pages turned in a rhythm of fluttering paper.
As it rustled, Aoko's finger stopped at the page she was on.

"Found it."

A tiny smile.
It was as she remembered it -- a simple magecraft formula for pure destruction.

"......I could make some kind of cage.
This won't be like the usual of hunting them down. This is about trapping my prey."
Bookmarking the page, she stood up to take it back to her room.

She felt someone watching her just then.
In the window blackened by night's darkness, was the reflection of a girl's frigid gaze.
Aoko calmly took the sight of her own face in.

----The plan to undo their witness was underway.

No, this was much easier than having a plan.
This was only a job for her to do.
All she needed was to get her cage set up beforehand, then lead her prey straight into it.
As a matter of fact, it was going to be brute force from which he stood no chance of talking his way out.

"So, I think Alice should be done about now."

As if remembering herself, Aoko suddenly wanted to acknowledge that.

It was nearly twenty minutes since she let Alice take her bath.
The girl took her baths like a crow, quick and hasty, and that did the trick for her.
Being the type who had trouble understanding how the bathing atmosphere worked, Alice would just bathe herself for the sake of personal hygiene.
Even the fun of being at a hot-spring house flew over the girl's head, thinking it was too much effort for nothing, and Aoko really felt bad for how her housemate was wired.

"Oh good, bath is empty......wait, why are the lights in the living room on?"

It was odd that Alice would still be there.
When there was nothing left for them to talk about, she always went straight back to her room.

"Alice, you here?"
Alice nodded to her.
There was no sign of a book she was reading either. It was almost as if she was waiting for Aoko.

"......So, that's how it is. I don't trust me either, honestly."

Aoko scratched her head with a sigh.
It might be her lack of trust, it might be her worrying about it.
Alice Kuonji was being too quiet, and it was a little hard to tell what she was thinking.

"I've decided on how I'm going to do this. Wanna hear it?"
"......That look on your face is telling as it is.
I'm glad you're not floundering over this. ......It's still a bad habit, Aoko."

A small sigh.
It was strange that this girl in black clothes would show disapproval for showy acts.

"Right. Getting the jump on someone? Not my thing, so even if I'll be killing him, I'm doing it fair and square. I'll be upfront and tell him why I'm doing this first.
Then there won't be any worries after that. Any problems?"
"None. That said, your preferences won't matter when it gets to that point.

"I know -- getting it done for sure. My aiming's a bit off. I was going to follow up on where to take him.
I shouldn't try to do this like you would, so I'll have to take him to an actual place that won't let him get away......Alice, any suggestions?"

The girl considered the question, giving it some thought.
Putting a finger to her lips, she gave her answer for a preference.

"How about a mirror? He'd be trapped inside a land of mirrors for all eternity, though."
"......Why do you have to make your suggestions so weird?"
Aoko frowned at her housemate's bad taste.

She was absolutely not going to take a leaf out of her housemate's benchmark for security. She was onto something, but there was no way.

Aoko wanted to learn about a barrier that she could prepare for herself. Since there were no options for a huge one that touched the realm of magic, she also had nothing to get ready.

"Then, you'll have to try somewhere else. ......Still, I rather you don't just think to use this place."
"I know that without you having to tell me.
Oh---- but, you know?
A mirrorhouse isn't a bad idea."
Grinning, Aoko got up from the wall she was leaning on.

"Thanks, Alice! We're all good to go here! All things considered, you really came through for me!"

Aoko took off in bright spirits.
How she managed to get ahold of blueprints, Alice had no clue, but it seemed she had it all carefully planned out.


Her housemate went to the bath, humming to herself.
Was it a year and a half already?
Alice was very familiar with this scenario: everytime Aoko Aozaki would get excited, something incredibly awful always followed.

"Hm? ......Should I leave it all up to Aoko, you say?"

It must have been in their living room this whole time.
The bird, hopped about on the upholstery as it chirped.

"......True. I did say she could do this on her own, so letting her do it by herself is how trust works for two people still----"

She lifted her arm.

The bird alighted on her outstretched fingers.

"......I don't like this myself. But, trusting the request to her and trusting the job to her, are still not ways to follow through."

The voiceless bird agreed, staunchly puffing its chest out.
Her housemate's rather ominous behavior and what she whispered were, of course, nothing that Aoko would know anything about.