“…Hotaru, got a moment?” said Shino, just as first period ended. Maihime had just left the classroom, so the students were feeling a bit down.
“Ah, Shino,” replied Hotaru. She turned to a group of students who had gathered around her. “Umm… sorry everyone, excuse me for a bit,” she said as she did a slight bow.
They both left the classroom. As they did, some students could be heard saying, “I knew it, so they were together…” in a somewhat disappointing voice, but they paid no attention to it at all. They continued to walk down the hall until they stopped in a place where no one could hear them.
“Sorry, I know you were busy…”
“No, not at all,” said Hotaru, dropping her tone a bit. “Actually, you saved me a bit, I think… So, you wanted to talk about Maihime Tenkawa, right?”
Shino raised his eyebrows as they twitched a bit. For some reason, Hotaru felt a bit weird saying Maihime’s name… She had the same feeling back during the mission briefing as well. It was certainly strange.
“Shino?” said Hotaru after he failed to respond.
“… Ahh, yes, that’s right,” he said, nodding. “I looked into her a bit, but there were a lot of points of interest. First, her incumbency…”
“Incumbency… You mean how long she’s been as the city head, right? How long has that been?”
Hotaru’s eyes widened. “Huh…?”
That just wasn’t possible. A normal term for a city head was one, maybe two years. Three years was already considered quite long.
“Ten years… Let’s say that Maihime Tenkawa was physically about seventeen years old… That means she’s been fighting since she was seven?!??”
Shino nodded and said, “I mean, that’s what it implies…”
The city itself was managed by a supervising officer from the administration bureau and students selected by their test scores. The city head, however, was simply decided by whoever had the best battle results, so most were usually sophomores or juniors. With these two combined, the city government kind of consisted of a head and a bureaucracy.
The actual city itself consisted of students ranging from elementary to high schoolers. In general, only the high schoolers and some of the top middle schoolers participated in the real battles. Anyone below that focused on training so they too could fight one day. Of course, that meant that if the two were to believe the data, Maihime had been on the battlefield since she was seven years old. She also had to outrank all the middle and high schoolers as a seven-year-old in order to become the head.
“W-What kind of <World> did she see??” said Hotaru, trembling. It was an expected reaction. All the students had varying <Worlds>, but for a seven-year-old to become the strongest person in the city… It was a power that even Shino couldn’t possibly imagine.
“Speaking of which, if it’s been ten years, then shouldn’t she be in…”
“Yeah… She’s been at the top of so long now, so I’m sure she could go inland anytime,” replied Shino. “Apparently the Administration Bureau had been requesting her to go as well.”
Students sent to the defense cities were able to transfer inland after graduation. Because of that, the system did feel a little backwards. After all, the younger, less-experienced, students were sent to fight in the front lines, while the older, battle-hardened, students were sent to the peaceful inland. Well, it probably meant that the higher-ups really wanted to be safe with all that protection…
Anyways, when the students graduated, they were assigned to different places depending on their battle results. In addition, the city heads, or actually anyone with outstanding records, were able to graduate early. In fact, most of the previous elite fighters applied for early graduation the moment they hit the top ranks.
Shino continued, “But, while she did have amazing results, she refused their request to go inland and continued to fight in the front lines.”
“W-Why would she do that?”
“Who knows… Maybe she’s gone battle crazy, or perhaps she has a reason for not going inland… Wait, maybe…” Shino paused. “Maybe she has some other reason.”
Hotaru gulped nervously. “Another reason…”
“Just refusing orders from the administration isn’t enough to warrant a death sentence. I can’t help but think that perhaps her reason staying in the front lines has something to do with why the higher-ups want her killed.”
“L-Like what?” Hotaru was visibly even more nervous, as now sweat was dripping down her face.
Shino rubbed his chin a bit, thinking. “… Maybe she has some sort of coup d’état plan going on or something.”
“What the—? Really?” said Hotaru.
“Calm down, it’s only just a guess,” said Shino. “But, if she didn’t have a plan like that, we wouldn’t have gotten the orders to kill her.”
Hotaru’s face stiffened up as she nodded. It seemed she finally realized the gravity of the situation.
“In any case,” continued Shino, “the first thing we need is more information. Maihime Tenkawa… this city… we just need to know more about everything.”
“Agreed… but how are we gonna do that?”
“I’ve got an idea. Let’s talk more about it after class, okay?”
“Oh… Uhh, sure,” said Hotaru, just as the second period bell rang. To the students in this academy, academics were just as important as training. The two didn’t want to give off bad impressions by being late, especially since they were new.
“Let’s go,” said Shino as he headed toward the classroom. Hotaru nodded and followed right behind him.
Classes were finally done for the day, and Shino had gone to visit Hotaru in her room.He didn’t visit her alone… He had on his shoulder a young female student with a school bag covering her head and packing tape wrapped around her arms and legs.
“So that’s that. I’ll leave it up to you, Hotaru.” he said. The girl squirmed around as if to react to what he just said. Her muffled voice could be heard underneath the bag.
Hotaru took one look at that and smiled awkwardly. “Umm, Shino. Who’s that girl?”
“Ah, her? She was walking alone on a nearby street, so I thought perfect! and brought her here.”
“Perfect you say…”
“Don’t worry. I made sure no one saw me do it.”
“That’s not what I meant…” said Hotaru, still baffled at the situation. In any case, there was no way she could leave them like that in front of her door, so she invited them to come in. “But okay… just come in first,” she said.
The little girl squirmed even harder and tried to cry out, but Shino ignored her and entered the room.
All the students that lived in the city did so in the dorms. The dorms themselves were scattered around the city, and the students were allowed to move to any vacant place. Despite being called dorms, they were more like apartments.
Hotaru had just settled, so the only visible things in the room were some basic furniture. Shino placed the still squirming girl onto a chair upon walking in and tied her to it. It was only after that did he remove the bag over her head. He peeled off the tape on her mouth as well.
“Pwaah!” shouted the girl. She looked like she was about to cry. “Why are you guys doing this? What do you want from me?”
Shino ignored her once again and turned towards Hotaru. “Hotaru,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah. But not too far, okay?” said Hotaru, sighing, as she rolled up her sleeves. She revealed an intricately designed metal hand plate on her arm. It was a specialized device that helped Hotaru bring her <World> out into reality so she could use its powers.
The little girl froze up in fear when she saw it. “W-What is that?!? What— ”
“Shino, how long has it been since you’ve captured her?”
“I think it’s been two, three minutes.”
“Ah, then ten minutes should be fine, right?”
“Yeah, there should be no problem with that,” said Shino.
Hotaru slowly touched the girl’s forehead. With her hand like that, Hotaru closed her eyes to concentrate. The girl tried to yell out, but her cries were soon cut off as she lost consciousness. They stayed like this for ten minutes until Hotaru finally let go of her forehead.
“Yeah, this should be fine,” said Hotaru.
“Okay,” said Shino. He took off the tape wrapped around the girl’s arms and legs and released her completely.
The girl soon groggily woke up and opened her eyes. “A-Ah! I feel asleep? Sorry, Shinomiya and Rindou!” she said, being unusually friendly. Her attitude did a complete 180— it was almost as if they had been friends for a really long time.
This was after all, Hotaru’s <World>. The <World> she saw was a world where she could be friends with anyone. It was a power that allowed her to quickly connect with others, but more importantly, it gave her the ability to gather information effectively during infiltration missions.
“It’s all good,” said Shino. “More importantly, I got some things to ask you. It’s about Kanagawa’s number one fighter, Maihime Tenkawa.”
“Tenkawa, you say?” she said with a blank look on her face.
“Yeah,” said Shino, as he followed up with the questions he had in mind.
The girl was confused, but she tried to tell everything she knew to her “friend” Shino. “Tenkawa, huh? She is doing a special mock battle tomorrow, actually.”
“A special mock battle?”
She nodded and said, “Yeah, once a month she holds a mock battle where she fights multiple people. Of course, it’s just like a normal mock battle, so the specialized <World> weapons have their powers limited. Apparently, she said that if you defeat her, she’ll give you the position of city head.”
“Well, of course,” she continued, “no one in this world can match Tenkawa, so… But, if you show off some of your strength in that battle, I think you’ll leave a good impression. She does like strong fighters, you know.”
The girl smiled. It seemed like she had brought out her own personal feelings about Maihime once she started to talk about her so thoroughly,
“… I see,” said Shino. “So how does one participate in this? Also, normally how many people challenge her?”
“You just need one of those application papers that anyone could fill it out. The number varies obviously, but I’d say maybe around thirty people.”
“Ah. Then— ”
“Shino,” interrupted Hotaru. “Ten minutes is almost up.”
“Oh, is it time already?” said Shino. He turned to the girl. “… Well then, you have my thanks… I learned a lot.”
“Oh, no problem at all!” she replied. “Is this all you need?”
Hotaru smiled. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll show you the door,” she said as she gently led her out of the room. Shino followed close behind.
Just as they exited the room, Hotaru waved and said, “Well then, see you next time, okay?”
“Definitely! Bye bye!” she said bowing a bit. She turned around and started to walk away.
But suddenly, Hotaru went up, touched her shoulder, and whispered, “Release.”
The girl stopped immediately and started to shake a bit. Hotaru let go of her shoulder and nonchalantly walked away.
After a few moments of frantically looking around, she finally said, “Huh? W-What was I doing?” She once again had a blank look on her face. “What am I doing here anyway?” she said, bewildered, and started to walked away.
When Hotaru did her release, the girl no longer had any memories of when she was “friends” with Hotaru. Strictly speaking, she couldn’t even remember what she did for the past ten minutes: three minutes of being caught and seven minutes of conversation. This way, there was no way for anyone to find out that the two were secretly gathering information. It was a completely foolproof method.
Shino put his hand on his chin, thinking. “Special mock battles, huh?” he said, looking at the girl walking away. “I guess… I gotta go for it, yeah?”
“Really? You’re actually thinking of participating?” Hotaru said with a slight tint of nervousness.
“Yeah… what’d you think?”
“… I don’t think you should do it. Our mission is to kill her, so there’s no need to get her attention, right? We don’t need to show ourselves. And also, if it’s your <World>…”
“But that’s exactly why. She said there’s around thirty people in battle, right? That’s exactly what I need. If there’s some sort of ‘accident’ in the midst of battle, then there’s no way anyone could find out it was me that did it.”
Hotaru stood quiet for a bit. “Just… please don’t stand out too much.”
He nodded in response.