Chapter 3-1

Chapter 3 – Close-up!

Artwork: MioChin
Proofreader: Orion Dye

I look at the ground. There are some suspicious tracks here, humanoid boots. Some paws also, but as far as my [Track]-skill tells me, the owners of these paws are bipedal. Maybe some sort of canine or feline human? Hard to tell, I have never seen paws like this before. They don’t particularly look like dog, cat, or bear paws.

Counting the boot and paw tracks there should be eleven creatures, wearing light equipment. Either scouts or bandits, I guess.

Or someone, who are trying to ambush us. The squirrels and their possible allies can’t know, what exactly I’m capable of, so it would be reasonable, that they hire some bandits to attack us, despite me being able to find their tracks.

“Is something there, Kenta-kun?” Ara-san, whose hand I’m currently holding, looks at the tracks, but as expected, she doesn’t recognize them. The sharp senses of alfar are useless if the alfr in question doesn’t know, what she’s looking at.

“I think these are the tracks of bandits. Eleven of them.” There shouldn’t be many bandits in these parts, but I can’t think of anything else, that would make sense. “Two of them have strange paws.”

“Maybe hynoars?”

“What’s a hynoar?”

“I don’t know how you would describe them, but they have a very feral nature. And fleas, so I would recommend, to not get too close to them. Especially, since sharing fleas is a sign of friendship for them.”

“Really?” Rine, who until now has observed me like in a trance, is totally buying that. “And I thought, that hynoars acknowledge everyone strong in their pack, while they don’t have real friends.”

“That’s only half-correct. Most people don’t want their fleas.”

Kyou-san and I are exchanging looks, and we had the exact same thought: Considering what Ara-san thinks about humans, she’s no reliable resource of information regarding any of the species.

I signal Kyou-san with my eyes to ask Rine: “Rine-chan, since we’re humans, maybe you should tell us what you know about hynoars ?”

“Hynoars… they used to live in a hunter-gatherer society, but since the lands far from civilization are dangerous, there are only a few left, who uphold that tradition. Many of them are still following that lifestyle to some degree by becoming mercenaries or bandits. Some include themselves with the settlements of other people by becoming hunters.”

“How do they look?”

“They have paws instead of feet, human-like hands, a bushy tail and canine snouts. Their pelts range from black to gray or brown, same as their eyes.”

Some sort of dog-human?

“What about their personality?” Kyou-san, that’s a smart question.

Ara-san is about to say something, so I put my hand over her mouth. “Hrf!”

“I heard they care more about the pack than themselves. And everything is structured in their lives: Everyone exactly knows how they can provide to the pack. Additionally, there are several leaders in each pack. Whenever a new situation arises, there is someone else who takes the leadership. Like a leader for hunting, a leader for diplomacy, a leader in battle, even a leader for retreat. So if you ever meet a hynoar, you have to be careful, especially if you don’t know, what tasks that hynoar exactly has. Never provoke the pack. They also dislike selfishness.”

Well, if it comes to this, we better not let selfish Kyou-san take over the negotiations.

Why are you looking at me like that, Kyou-san? Do you think, that I would suck as a negotiator as well?

Well, you’re probably right. So if we ever meet a hynoar pack, we let Rine handle that, right?

Come on, girl, don’t give me that look, you know, how black your heart is.

Bitch!

“Kenta? Why are you and Kyou exchanging so many looks?” Rine cocks her head. “Can I join in, too?”

“HRF!” Ara-san is still trying to escape from my hand, which is grasping her mouth. I let her go. “Huff… I didn’t know you were into those kinds of games. Poor me, subjected to the perverted will of-OUCH!” Good thing that I now know that pinching her ears will make her stop. “I’m abused! My husband is-OUCHOUCHOUCH!”

Well, for her it’s most likely just a short, sharp pain, like when somebody hits your fingertips. I asked her this morning about her ears.

In fact, with these ears, Ara-san can feel sound-waves even before hearing them, feeling the air currents around her, which makes it hard to surprise her.

There are also receptors for auras and spirit particles. It’s like a sense humans don’t have: Feeling the immediate environment and the life within. Or something like that, she tried to explain it to me, but how do you explain to a blind one, how it is to see?

I may have [Wild Eyes], but compared to what Ara-san does, it’s like some cheap replacement.

Well, it’s not like Ara-san is exactly using those senses like she used to in her own world: The aura and spirit senses are not working properly in this fantasy world.

Ara-san thinks this world’s fundamental differences in comparison with Alfarheim, her home world, are at fault. The magic she learned before is also different from the one, which is used here.

So many questions.

“The tracks are going south, so maybe they just want to ambush a caravan on the trade route.” I use [Farsight] to look around. “But the terrain around here doesn’t change, so when they come, we’ll see them.” Too bad I never found squirrel tracks, but to be honest, I don’t think these critters even leave tracks.

They’re something like alfr-squirrels and therefore have a special bond to plants. I can’t even see Ara-san tracks usually, since the blades of grass she tramps down immediately stand up again. Only today, with the wet ground, she leaves tracks in the muddy earth itself.

If those tracks are really made by bandits, should I expect more than those eleven? Maybe one or two alfar, maybe others, who don’t leave any tracks? “Ara-san, just to be sure: Even alfar become bandits sometimes, right?”

“Of course not.” Her ears are drooping down, maybe the equivalent of a furrowing brow. “They only become self-employed, self-exiled acquisitors forcefully redistributing wealth.”

“So basically, bandits.”

“If you dumb it down.” It’s hard to tell whether Ara-san is currently joking or not.

Well, the tracks are from yesterday, and it rained the whole day. So as long as there is no trick to it, there shouldn’t be more than eleven.

Even though I can’t help but think, that Oro’hekk wouldn’t have left tracks even with the wet ground. Ara-san does so, but she’s not really what you’d expect from a typical alfr. If we weren’t around, she would let herself totally go and become a lazy bum again.

Let’s just assume for the time being, that the owners of the tracks are about to ambush the trade route and not us.

“I made a decision. We will stick with the original route.” The sky is still clouded, it’s hard to tell the direction with the sun, so even if we don’t make any further changes in direction, it’ll be hard enough for us to keep the current course.

Actually, this is a plus: If even we don’t know where exactly we’re going, it’ll be just as hard for anyone else to figure out more than the general direction.

What I’m worried about is, what happens if some ambushers go ahead and wait for us. We’re bound to hit the trade route at some point, and there are some settlements we’ll pass before arriving in Zethtrin. There will be plenty of opportunities to find us.

And when they do, they can send a new wave of monsters when we leave the settlement, so we won’t be able to hide behind walls and murals, or people.

Is breaking the curse worth it?

We could just change directions and go somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be Zethtrin.

We could just forget about this curse and concentrate on the actual tasks, like slaying the demon king. Just farming until we hit the level necessary and do the stuff!

This curse isn’t so bad in itself. It’s dormant as long I’m with-

Nah, I better break that curse. Being with them drives me crazy. Kyou-san is a bitch, and Rine’s annoying me. Ara-san would be OK if we didn’t feel physically attracted to each other by the curse.

But the current state is barely endurable. So breaking the curse still comes first.

 

You gain 1 WP.
Even if you’re from other cultures, or maybe especially because you are, it’s still important to communicate your love to each other with simple gestures.

 

Ah, Ara-san and I have held hands for an hour now.

The moment she lets go of my hand. “My turn!” Rine is eager to fill-in. “I want to link arms first!”

… “Phew…” Thanks for nothing, Kyou-san.

But if I resist, then Rine might do anything to make me do it, be it tears or force. I can’t fight any of it effectively.

Her arm serpents around mine and I can feel how her armor is pushing against me. Same with the soft cushion underneath it, just like always.

“Tehehe.” Rine grins like an idiot and tries to lean her head against my shoulder, but we’re about the same height, so are our shoulders, which makes it difficult to impossible. “Nuh.” She pushes her underlip forwards in displeasure and tries to lean her head on the side of mine, but before that can happen, I push it back. “Kenta?”

“Just linking. Nothing more.”

“But…” She pouts, but I don’t care. The grip around my arm fastens, and she sticks as close to me as possible.

“It’s hard to walk that way.” It really is, since there is almost no leeway for the left arm, which makes my movements more clunky.

Instead of saying something, Rine confers her unwillingness to reason in a single, fiery stare. Plus she puts her other hand on my arm to make a point.

What a pain. “Then at least hold my hand as well.” We should be able to grind both WP at the same time.

“OK!” She doesn’t see through my reasoning and is rather happy to grab my hand with her arm-linking hand. That’s uncomfortable, but if I can cut the time, I’m willing to bear it.

It’s all for the WP.

But seeing Rine’s stupidly happy face makes me reconsider it. I may be willing to cut her some slack because she’s doing what I say most of the time, but we’re in a real situation here and seeing someone smiling like that is just inappropriate.

Not that I told her about the squirrels. Only Ara-san and I know for now.

If we let Rine know, it won’t change anything, and Kyou-san can’t change anything. So there is no reason to tell them, all I need is Ara-san for the planning, and she is willing to keep it a secret.

Everything’s still fine.

 

―○●○―

 

Something is wrong with Ken. Sure, he always looks like everyone irritates him, but something feels more… urgent about it.

I think it started when we left Aroahenn. I was a bit occupied after the scaleetles attacked, but now it’s clear as day. He wanted to raise the WP-income and the way he looked at the tracks, everything is telling me, that he’s expecting something bad to happen and he won’t tell me what.

But maybe he told someone else.

Rine-chan is out of the question since she’s too open, so what’s left is Arako, who just joined me in the rear. Let’s ask her in a soft voice. “Arako, what is Ken hiding?” No need to be subtle about it, I can’t read Arako’s face well and, even though I know most of her ear movements, it’s still hard to implement that knowledge in actual conversation.

Her ears are straightening up, that means she’s alert. “What are you talking about, Momo?”

I look at Ken, whose back has also straightened up. He has good ears due to his [Ranger]-class. I may not be able to read Arako that well, but I can read him like a book, even from behind. That’s how good I learned to know him.

So he actually told Arako.

“Arako, Ken may be an idiot, a low-life, and a scumbag, but he knows if something is wrong. And he’s terrible at hiding it.” I want to know what he knows.

Arako is flicking her ear, but I think her other ear is twitching a bit. “Momo, I’m not sure, if now is the time to talk about it.”

As long as Ken doesn’t figure out that I know he’s listening to us, he will most likely wait until the last moment, before he interrupts us. So I only need to interrogate Arako indirectly. “Is someone following us?”

I observe Ken’s reaction: He slightly tensed up his shoulder. Rine-chan cocks her head, wondering why he just did that.

So I’m right.

“How did you come to this conclusion?” Arako tries to hide it, but even I can see, how bad she is at that. Her social skills are as underdeveloped as Ken’s, her voice is slightly trembling, and she refuses to look me in the eyes. At least she keeps the volume low.

“Whenever Ken’s concerned with anything, it’s due to his paranoia, but sometimes he might be right.”

Ah, he feels irritated and is about to cut into the conversation, but he’s barely holding himself back

I feel the corners of my lips rising. It feels good, that Ken is on edge, when listening to me. “So what are we talking about? Ss’rak? Other heroes? Someone from the Feuerberg-kingdom, trying to recapture Rine? Alfar? He seemed to be concerned about them just now. Demons?” For someone who has been in this world for just four months, it’s already quite a list. “The oni? The squirrels?”

Seriously? Arako just cringed, while Ken is ‘phewing.’ I hit the mark with the panda-like squirrels. Well, if I consider the fight with the oni, it shouldn’t surprise me.

But there are two important questions: Why can’t they let it go? And why do we have a real reason to be concerned over squirrels?

Ahh, this world is just crazy.

“So Arako, what is it?”

“I…” Arako is certainly concerned about what she should tell me. I have to remember, that she is actually trying to be friends with Ken, so she doesn’t want to do anything, that might spoil it. But that doesn’t mean, that I don’t matter to her.

Well, that’s why I let a backdoor open. “If you can’t tell me, Arako, just say so. I can ask him later.”

Arako’s ears relax. I didn’t even know before seeing it, that that is even possible. “Thanks, Momo.”

“You’re welcome.” Ken’s still tensed up. No, he actually tensed up even more, since Rine is pulling his hand closer to her stomach, wanting as much body contact as humanly possible.

What does she see in this guy? He doesn’t even like her. Rine-chan is definitely too good for him. She’s kind, maybe a bit selfish at times, but otherwise selfless. She has talent, style, and is royalty, about everything that puts her far beyond any girl Ken should be able to get.

But for some reason, she believes that she loves him.

What kind of girl would be Ken’s level?

Maybe one of the ugly ones, who don’t have any redeeming quality?

Or maybe a fat one, that is more of the homely type?

Not that he would start dating any of these by himself, it’ll be more, that his parents will ask him to do several marriage interviews, so that they can get rid of him.

Since I can’t imagine Ken becoming something other than a person, who lives off his parents.

Something like the shame of the family… Ken’s an only child, right?

I don’t know. He knows that I have a younger brother, but I don’t even know if he has siblings. I wasn’t that interested before, but maybe I should ask him about his family situation. What is his mother like? How can she even handle a son like that?

Looking at how bad he is at dealing with physical contact, it could be, that he’s not only a single child, but also has only one parent left, most likely his father.

That’s still no reason to become a jerk.

I really have to know what family situation he has, but asking him might be not the best way at this point. While we somewhat grew closer, it’s not like we’re friends.

Maybe I should use the opportunity to ask Arako when he’s not around. She might actually know stuff like that, she and Ken have often talked to each other. Mostly about the hero-system, but I’m sure that there were conversations about other topics as well.

Yes, asking Arako about Ken seems like a good idea.

Seriously Rine-chan, I don’t know if your armor is blocking the feeling, but it looks like you’re trying to get his arm between your breasts. Are you feeling up to him?

Sometimes I’m not sure, how far Rine-chan exactly matured.

She seems to know about sex, but I don’t have the feeling, that she actually has sexual desires. The way she’s sticking to him looks so… indecent.

I can’t see Ken’s face, but his body tells me, that he’s somewhat excited.

Rine-chan is a beautiful girl, even I have to say that, and I could hardly tell the people of this world apart at first, let alone determine how good they look.

Well, I’m still a Japanese beauty, so I don’t need to be ashamed.

But whenever Ken is looking at her, he appears irritated, but also a bit pleased.

When he’s looking at me, he’s usually just annoyed.

Ah, my appearance is suffering by being in this world. I have no cosmetics, so my hair started to become a bit straggly, my lips are dry, as is my skin.

Even though I wasn’t into cosmetics and a flashy appearance back in our world, I lack the basic needs right now, so maybe I should put some more effort into it.

Shampoo. I want shampoo instead of that local hair-soap. I did some experiments when I was learning [Herbalist], but so far I’m not confident in my results.

Now, that I’ve classed-up, I should give it another try. Moisturizer… how do I even make that? Maybe I should ask Ken, for some reason he knows stuff like that.

No. I’d better not.

 

―○●○―

 

“Phew.” We’re currently taking a break. I want to take off my boots because my feet are feeling strange, or to get out of my armor, as I’m sweating like crazy, but it’s only a short break. I drink from a waterskin, Kyou-san and Ara-san are currently away, most likely to take a piss.

Not that it would be hard to see them, if I look around, the area still doesn’t cover well, even though it’s not exactly a plain. It’s just a strange grassland, that has nothing else.

“May I take a sip?” I’m currently sitting on a stool and Rine is on my lap. She asks me while turning halfway to me, making her butt move on my thighs, which is a bit arousing. But I think, that I somehow got used to it, I have already let her sit on my lap once per day for several weeks.

“Sure.” I give her the waterskin and she drinks from it.

 

You gain 1 WP.
An indirect kiss can be as romantic as a normal one, especially if it comes unintended. That only shows how natural it is to share everything.

 

“*Cough, cough*” Rine chokes on the water. I hit her back a few times. “Thanks.” Her eyes are a bit teary. “That was a surprise. I read kiss and then…”

“It’s an indirect kiss.”

“What’s that?” Don’t people of this world know indirect kisses?

Well, it’s a fantasy-world, so why would they have Japanese common sense? “It’s the exchange of saliva indirectly. Like when drinking from the same container, or using the same fork. Something like that.”

“But that’s no kiss.”

“I know.”

Rine is putting her fingers on her lips. Then she looks at my face.

No, to be precise… “I know what you’re thinking, and it won’t happen!”

“But Dear-”

“And don’t ‘dear’ me! Seriously… stop. Stop looking. Stop putting your arm around me, stop-”

 

You gain 1 WP.
Your wife’s favorite place to sit is still your lap.

 

 

Seeing the signal that the lap-session is over, I push Rine away. She lands on her feet and is looking unsatisfied, while caressing her lips.

I feel a bit of a chill. The WP-system put an awful idea in Rine’s head, and I’m the one, who has to pay for it.

There is only one thing I can do, and I did it already several times to no effect: “Rine, we are cursed, right?”

“Yes?”

“So we’re not wed. Because if we’re wed, we would be evil sinners, breaking divine law, and criminals, deserving the death penalty, right?”

“…yes?”

“Basically, there is no romance involved in the relationship between the two of us, right?”

“There is.”

“No, there is not!”

“There is, there is, there is! Kenta, I l-”

“DON’T!” I put my flat hand over her mouth. “Don’t say it.” The moment she says these words out loud, it becomes more complicated.

Rine’s taking my hand and pulls it to her cheek, snuggling at it. Her lips are parting, about to say something, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sighs blissfully.

That’s wrong on so many levels. It hurts, somehow it hurts. “Rine, just-” I pick something up with my ears, it’s Kyou-san and Ara-san, returning to us. I roughly draw my hand back, Rine’s looking at it longingly, but I turn away. “I’ll go take a piss.”

I pass Ara-san and Kyou-san, who are talking about something, but I don’t listen to it.

My thoughts are occupied with Rine.

I don’t like her, she’s stupidly pure and gets me into trouble, like helping people and such. The way she’s looking up to me is just troublesome.

Why is a girl like that thinking, that she’s in love with someone like me?

She told me that I’m her ideal man, but I know that she and I just don’t fit and she should know it as well. What could that girl -or any girl- see in me?

Some words float around in my head. Words that Kyou-san said when we just met Rine. ‘Rine-chan, it’s the other way around: Since you can’t decide who to marry, you want to have some hot romantic fantasies, right?’

That’s right. Rine just selfishly projects her delusions onto me.

I have to keep her around, the curse will strike back otherwise, but that makes her think, that she is in a romantic story.

She is into that book that she lent me. I started reading it, but I’m still at the beginning, which wasn’t very interesting at all.

But actually reading something is a good way to learn letters, that’s why I started reading it in the first place.

Maybe I should spend more time with that book since it could help me understand Rine.

But not now, when we’re chased by these squirrels. I won’t relax and read a book until we get away.

It has to wait.

 

―○●○―

 

Arako knows a bit about Ken’s personal life. He still has both parents, no siblings, and his grandparents are still alive and doting on him, like many grandparents do.

Ken didn’t tell her much, maybe speaking about his family is awkward for him, but he’s ‘getting along’ with his parents, that’s how he phrased it.

Nonetheless, I have a bit of insight on his family matters. I can’t make any conclusions with it, but maybe there lies the key to finding out, why he’s so much against physical contact.

With this knowledge, Arako and I returned to the others.

Ken passes us looking as if he was just bitten and walks towards some bushes. His face looks haunted.

Rine-chan is left behind, totally confused and on the verge of tears. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be ‘heartbroken’.

“Come here.” I draw her into an embrace.

“Thanks.” She mutters softly, putting most of her weight on me. She’s heavy. It’s not only because she’s taller than I am, but also because of her armor and weapons.

Nonetheless, I pat her head, while she’s lifeless in my arms.

I wonder why she’s like that, and I have a few theories, but it’s not the time for that: Now she needs some comfort.

Stupid Ken!

“Everything will be alright,” I whisper to her, and she just absorbs every kind word I say. “I’m here for you.”

She’s still my best friend in this world. She may be dimwitted, but she’s a good girl. Her only mistake was to develop feelings for Ken, even if they’re fake.

However, the pain she feels is real. Whatever happened, she put a lot of feeling into it and was rejected by Ken. And that hurt her.

It even hurts me, when I look at her.

“Is she alright?” Arako is oblivious to the scene. I don’t know if it’s because she’s alfr or because of her personality, maybe a bit of both. “Can I do something?”

“Just embrace her.” Some human warmth might be needed, even though Arako’s not human.

With a bit of hesitation, as if she tries to test the waters, Arako draws nearer to Rine-chan’s back. Then Arako lunges at her, really awkwardly, but well-meaning.

All three of us are now a cuddling bunch. After staying in that position for a while, Rine-chan begins to revive, and we could separate. Arako seems to be confused, but in the end, everything worked out.

For now at least.

Actually, I want to say a lot to Rine-chan, but now is not the best time. I also want to speak with Ken, but I need to get the perfect opportunity, where he can’t escape the conversation.

Making this party work takes a lot of effort.

Even though Ken is technically the leader, he has almost no social skills, and he won’t be able to take care of the interpersonal relationships, so I have to do it.

He might be the one who knows best in battles and he might be able to take care of day-to-day business with the help of Arako, but without me, everything would fall apart at some point.

If things fall apart, who knows what will become of us.

So even if Ken’s the core of the party, I’m the one, who holds everything together. Without me, he is nothing.

This thought makes me smile.

“Kyou?” Rine-chan asks me. “Have you ever kissed?”

My thoughts are blown away, only a memory resurfaced. The taste of sweat, blood and something else on my lips. In the heat of battle and the cheering crowd, the moment when my determination and something else overruled my disgust. The mean looking eyes wide open, an irregular breath coming out of his nostrils, a bit of a voice leaking out.

Instinctively, my fingers wander to my lips, tracing them.

Rine-chan’s ember-like eyes are looking at me, expecting an answer. I could lie, but who knows what Ken already told her. Or more likely, told Arako. “Yes, I did. Why are you asking?”

“Was it Kenta?”

“There were… circumstances.”

“How did you do it?” She asks earnestly, without even a bit of jealousy. She’s just curious.

“Rine-chan, like I said, there were circumstances. We didn’t do it because we wanted to.” To be honest, I was the one who forced it, but at that moment it felt like a chance to increase the odds, even by a bit.

I swear, it was a matter of pragmatism!

“…” Rine-chan is mustering me, her underlip is a bit pushed forward. “Is there a way, I can do that, too?”

No, just no. I don’t want even to imagine Ken and Rine-chan kissing. “I don’t think so. I think, that there will never, ever be an opportunity to do so.”

“Does Kenta hate kissing?”

…I don’t know. He was shocked back then, and a bit disturbed, I think. He also turned back to his opponent right afterward. “I think, he doesn’t like it.”

“I see. So there has to be another way… Ara? How do alfar kiss?”

“We don’t kiss.” So Ara-san’s half-sunken ears were a sign of disgust this time. “It’s unsanitary, obnoxious, and weird.”

“But how do you kiss? Or whatever you do? To show someone, that you love him?”

“You mean, a gesture of closeness? That’s ear-plugging.”

““What’s that?”” Rine and I are both wondering about that.

“You put your ears together. They contain important organs and are very delicate. There is supposed to be some sort of connection going on, when you do so, so it’s deemed to feel otherworldly.” So it’s basically kissing with your ears.

I’m not sure if there will be no infection risk at all if you do that.

“So ear-plugging… I’ll try it!”

I roll my eyes, not even knowing if I should be interested or repelled by that thought.

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