Hour Empty Child
Once the situation died down, the tense atmosphere returning to a more mundane feel, Kudo saw Hinota putting back her katana to her sheath which marks the end of the battle.
“Alright, let’s go and dismantle the parts,” Kudo said to Hinota which she nodded, then turned back to his comrades. “Hey, guys! Come over here and help!”
He waved at them enthusiastically. The other party members figured that this would happen, however…
They all took a look at each other, an awkward tension filling the air between them.
“Ahh…” Kuki mumbled.
“W-Well…” Raika stuttered.
“T-The thing is…” Tsuchi fumbled.
“Mmh…” Mizuri groaned.
“Mmh? What’s wrong, guys?”
Kudo finally notices the strange air between the party members, each one rubbing their arms and squirming their shoulders while trying to look away from each other.
“I think I can guess what mostly happened,” Hinota stepped in, folding her arms as she glared at the four with her slanted eyes. It gave the two StormPlus members who weren’t used to them a shock.
“Let’s see… Kudo, you were called by your party members to aid them in their fight against my party members, is that correct?” Hinota first asked the question to her long-time friend.
“Ah, yeah… I heard that they suddenly got into a fight.”
“Right,” Hinota nodded before turning her sight to her party members. “And I also got a call about the exact same thing. Now, the question is, who started the fight?”
Hinota glared at the four, now even giving her own party members a fright from her sharpened scowl—though that’s just her face—as she dug for the true reason.
Feeling the intense guilt rising in her heart, Mizuri pathetically raised her hand.
“I-I-It was me… I’m sorry, Hino…”
“…I figured as much,” Hinota gave a slight sigh, her right eye closed as she pretty much deduced that it was her.
“Y-Yeah… Mizuri kinda got angry,” Tsuchi said with a sympathetic smile, scratching his bandanna-covered head.
“I bet this has something to do with her trigger, is that correct?” Hinota asked the next question, this time to Mizuri which she nodded with remorse.
“Trigger?” Kudo asked while tilting his head.
“Mizuri can get a little… angsty sometimes,” Hinota hesitated to say, avoiding the main issue. “So this bout is mostly my fault.”
Hinota turned to the StormPlus members, “I’m sorry for the rude behavior of my party members. See, it’s not just Mizuri’s trigger—we’ve been having bad luck of not facing any monsters for the past hour. It can be pretty frustrating, to say the least…”
Hinota spoke with a slight irritation in her tone. Kuki and Raika noticed instantly and, along with her scowl, made it even more obvious that they were angered from the start.
“However, this does not excuse their behavior, especially Mizuri’s. They should know better than to start a fight with other adventurers because of trifle matters.”
Hinota then shot a deathly glare at her party members, which made Mizuri and Tsuchi cower down instantly.
“W-Well, nobody got hurt from this,” Kudo tried to break the tension. “So how about we just let bygones be bygones and work together from now on? Kuki, Raika, is that okay with you guys?”
Kudo knew that the ones inflicted by this the most were his party members, so even if he knew that it was Hinota’s party, what matters most is how the victims feel.
“Y-Yeah… it’s okay,” Kuki looked away, scratching his cheek while still not able to give a straight look at the two.
“I-I got some fault in it too,” Raika admitted. “So I got no complaints.”
“Alright,” Kudo clapped his hands together in a prayer sign. “Then, how about, as part of a truce, we go and dismantle the parts before they vanish? These Heli parts can catch a good sum in the market.”
Sharing his ever-gleaming smile, the four party members slowly nodded in acceptance, however, Hinota had an idea…
“Hold on,” Hinota raised her hand, catching everyone’s attention. “If we’re collecting parts, then how about this? Tsuchi, you’re with Mr. Kuki, and Mizuri, you’re with Miss Raika. Kudo and I will stay behind and pick up the rest here.”
Her sudden suggestion left everyone with a blank expression.
“E-Eh?! Hino, what are you—?!”
“Mizuri, do you really have anything to say about this?”
Before Mizuri could reject, Hinota quickly shot her down with her no-answer-needed question along with her glare, getting her to clam up.
“B-But, Hinota-chii, is that really…?” Tsuchi had to make sure, after all, he made it worse by fighting for no reason.
“Of course,” Hinota quickly admitted. “How else are we going to work together if we still have bad blood between us? This is an order from your leader, though, unless Kudo states otherwise…”
Being the leader, she can order her party members, but she looked back at Kudo for his permission for his own party members. Of course, Kudo wouldn’t say no to her.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Kudo looked back at Raika and Kuki. “Guys, let’s do Hinota’s idea. She’s usually spot on over these kinds of things.”
Kudo made a grin as Kuki and Raika felt as though they were defeated by his words, their heads slumped down knowing that they have to follow their word.
As such, Kuki went on the east side with Tsuchi, and Raika went to the west with Mizuri. Kudo and Hinota, as planned, stayed behind…
On their side, Raika felt the air becoming hard to breath as she was taking apart a Heli’s body to find the Corrupted jewel while Mizuri, the one she insulted and scratched up in their battle just a few moments ago, was behind her doing the same thing.
Ever since they came here, they have been utterly silent. Not one word escaped from their mouths which has only made the air around them even worse to bear.
For Raika, she wasn’t good at dealing with other people. Men especially, and girls, in her own way, were scary to face. Kuki has been the only person she was used to being, and Kudo has quickly become someone that she relies on, so she has not once had a single female friend.
It was mostly because in the past, she would often get bullied by the girls living with her in the same town by pulling her furry ears and speaking behind her back about her demeanor. It has become increasingly challenging for Raika to trust another person, let alone a girl, after that time.
For a girl like Mizuri, who is so abrasive and brazen, it was the worst matchup for a timid and cowardly girl like Raika.
“I-If I stay quiet, then maybe…” Raika shivered as she resorted to her usual tactics of guarding herself against an ‘enemy’, that is to say, a person that she does not want to talk to.
However, what she heard next made her drop everything.
An unexpected apology. Raika looked back in surprise as Mizuri continued to look at the monster she was dismantling.
“I…” Mizuri hesitated, her finger shaking while her face blossomed into a shade of red. “I get… angry when I see girls show off so much femininity.”
“Femininity…?” Raika didn’t understand the meaning of the answer, getting Mizuri scrunching her head against her shoulders as her cheeks dyed further in red.
“L-Like I said!” Raika could see her ears brimming with red. “I got angry because… I got jealous of how girly you are!”
She admitted with gusto as she finally pulls out the jewel from the corpse, letting the corpse dissipate into dust as her hands shook and her face becoming a brighter red.
Raika could not believe her own ears. Another girl was actually jealous of Raika? All her life, she has never heard those words come out of another girl. Usually Raika would be the one being envious of other girls.
“Y-You were jealous?” She uttered again as if she couldn’t believe it the first time.
“Yeah!” Mizuri shouted. “You’re so girly, it’s like you’re the epitome of a damsel in distress! I’m jealous because I could never do that! I… I just get frustrated because I could never be as girly as you.”
Following Mizuri’s tangent, her tone dampened after making that realization. Raika was left in awe as she listens closely to her next words.
“But, I see now that you’re not just a girly weakling,” Mizuri admitted, raising her head as she recalls the fight with her. “You’re… pretty strong. Like, scary strong. It’s almost unfair, how girly and strong you are…”
After admitting, Raika’s emotions surged from her heart as she urged herself to finish dismantling, mercilessly pulling out the jewel and left the dissipating corpse behind as she closed up to Mizuri, surprising her as she turned around.
“T-That’s not true!” Raika refuted. “Rather, I’m jealous of how strong-will you are!”
“E-Eh?” Mizuri let out an utter of surprise.
“I’m jealous that you can say just about anything and not fear anything! I’m always such a coward when it comes to facing other people, but this was the first time you saw me, and you said everything that was on your mind. That’s something that I always wanted, and I’m really jealous of that!”
She retaliated. She didn’t want Mizuri to be the only one sharing a secret. If she spoke a secret about herself, then Raika should do the same.
“Also,” Raika continued. “Why would you say that you’re not girly? You’re plenty girly as it is!”
“W-What?!” Suddenly hearing Raika’s honest answer, Mizuri’s cheeks returned to a dazzling red. “T-That’s not true! J-Just look at how burly my arms are! A-And I have no girly figure… plus, you called me a musclehead!”
Mizuri could still feel the sting of being called that which sent her into a furious rage before—because it was something that she feared that she would be called.
“I only called you that because you called me a bitch! I just picked that up randomly!” Raika rebutted, but Mizuri pursed her lips in disapproval.
“But it was true anyways!”
“And what’s wrong with having muscles! You look so slim and fit! Unlike me…”
Raika showed her own example by facing upright, bringing her hands near her belly. She lifted up the armor and shirt, revealing her supple skin and navel. She then pinched the belly and pulled it a little.
“Just look at me. I got so much flab, and I look so gross with it…”
“T-That’s just being plumpy! That’s better! At least you got some fat. Unlike me where I have no boobs at all…”
Mizuri looked down at her sad looking chest, being able to see directly down to her feet without any issue.
“I hardly got boobs either! And that’s not all!” Surprising Mizuri, Raika stopped pinching and drew closer to her. “You smell really nice, and your hair looks so good! Mine’s just so crazy and unkempt, and my ears just keep having these stupid zig-zag shapes!”
Raika showed another example—this time she pulled her furry ears, specifically at the part where the fur stood up in a zig-zag shape. She pulled it hard, withstanding the pain as her frustration welled up to the point of her not caring.
“T-That’s not true! It’s just sweat, and it’s gross!”
“I’m not lying, it’s the truth!”
Before they knew it, the two locked down on each other’s eyes as they continued this back-and-forth banter of their physical appearances.
Finally realizing the topic this two just shared, the two shared a puff of air before suddenly having a fit of laughter that ensued from the two of them.
“T-This… this is my first time having a girl’s talk.”
Raika showed a faint red on her cheeks. Squirming her shoulders, she admitted with a slight smile on her lips.
“I never had a girl’s talk before Hino came in. I’m… not really used to this yet.”
Mizuri shared the same color as her, picking a lock of her bang and twirled it around to pass her anxiousness and awkwardness.
“Umm… I’m sorry that I called you a bitch,” Mizuri hesitated, looking directly at Raika as she will not allow herself to look away when apologizing. “It was wrong of me to judge you like that. I hope you can forgive me.”
“I-It’s fine,” Raika raised her hands to show relief. “Anyways, I’m glad that we’re not fighting anymore. Since Kudo and Hinota finally managed to get back together, it’ll be great if we could… u-umm…”
Just as she was about to say ‘friends’, she clammed up as she realized the weight of that word. Mizuri picked up on that though, finally understanding her character.
“Yeah,” Mizuri intercepted and answered. “Let’s be friends.”
Mizuri, being the instigator, took responsibility and moved her right hand forward. Seeing this notion, Raika also did the same, firmly grasping her somehow soft hand with her own.
“My name’s Mizuri Seaser,” She introduced herself.
“M-My name’s Raika Eledad,” She answered back.
“Raika, eh? If it’s okay with you, do you mind… me calling you Rai? I heard your friend say it, but I personally like to shorten my friend’s names. Is that okay…?”
Even though it was as natural for her as breathing, her hesitating heart still made her ask. After all, they were just enemies who were facing each other in a dangerous match.
However, hearing Mizuri calling her a new nickname for herself, somewhere in her heart, it screamed in joy after receiving a nickname from someone else—a girl specifically. A bright smile formed as she replied:
“Sure!” Raika answered which left Mizuri to smile. “I don’t mind at all! I love it!”
Hearing her enthusiastic answer, Mizuri grinned as the two shared an empathetic giggle. Seeing that a new friendship has bloomed between the two, they worked together in earnest for their drop items.
On the boy’s side, Kuki and Tsuchi continued their silent bout, the air becoming stiff as they dismantled the corpses.
Kuki split the arm apart of a bisected Heli as he wondered what to say. Tsuchi is Kudo’s friend’s party member—he had to say something as Kudo would want him to be friends.
However, their earlier fight to the death—if you could call it that—made it difficult for him to find the words.
Fortunately, Tsuchi found them pretty quick.
Kuki turned, letting out a sharp sound. He saw Tsuchi looking back with a bright expression and a silly grin. It looked like it was Tsuchi who first broke the ice.
“You know, I’m pretty impressed at how you fought,” Tsuchi commented, an air of bubbliness could be felt from his person. He had no intention of souring the mood from their bout.
“R-Really?” Kuki was so absorbed in his atmosphere that he responded with a dazed question.
“Yeah!” Tsuchi, sitting cross-legged with a corpse by his side, slapped his knee. “You almost got me! My schtick is all about defense, but you cut them through like butter! Man, if we were fighting for real, I would have been SCREWED!”
Emphasizing on the last word, he elongated to show how much trouble he was actually in. His words of praise were sudden, but they were definitely welcomed by Kuki.
“S-Seriously?” He answered, eventually scratching his cheek. “W-Well, to be honest, I was running out of bullets. So if you had survived longer, there was nothing I could do.”
He had to be humble, because it was the truth. Kuki remembered that the barrels of his guns were running empty, and the lack of bullets in his containers on his belts made his heart pace faster than normal. It was definitely a life-or-death situation for a gunner.
“Hahaha!” Tsuchi laughed heartily. “Is that so? Well, damn! I would’ve won!”
Hearing him laugh and slapping his knee, Kuki made a resemblance to him acting like an old man who’s gone drunk. He would go along well with the guild members in Alpha Heart.
He also noticed that Tsuchi is trying hard to gloss over their earlier animosity. He was impressed at how easily he dealt with that awkwardness between them so smoothly.
“Well, you can guess right now that we’re gonna be working together from now on,” Tsuchi half-revealed his intentions. “Our leaders are going to stick together like lovebirds from now on, so let’s have a good time together!”
“Heh, yeah,” Kuki smirked. “You’re definitely right about that.”
It was already obvious to the boys that their leaders have no intention of separating anytime soon. So they have accepted their fate of working together.
Seeing that the two were recuperating well from the silent atmosphere, Kuki decided to take it a step further.
“My name’s Kuki,” Kuki introduced himself. “Kuki Windrow. I hope we can work together well, umm…”
“Tsuchi!” Tsuchi intercepted with a wide grin. “Just Tsuchi’s fine! No need to add ‘Mr.’ or anything like that!”
Soon enough, his muscled arm moved over to Kuki’s side, and like a clothesline, it fell over Kudo’s shoulders as he huddled with Kuki which surprised him. He doesn’t usually get so close to other people, but the way he’s doing it, he couldn’t help but form a smirk on his face.
“Hey, you mind if I call you Kuki-chii? My family always say ‘chii’ at the end of the names of the people we know. It’s sort of like our habit.”
“Sure,” Kuki nodded. “I don’t mind.”
“Alright!” Tsuchi once again hollered out. “You’re cooler than I thought, Kuki-chii!”
Tsuchi bellowed as he continued to grapple onto Kuki’s neck while giving off an elated smile. Kuki now cannot see him as anything other than a friendly guy who gets along with just about everyone.
Back at the main site, which they called it now, Kudo and Hinota collected two broken beams of wood and used them as seats to wait for the others to come back. They were already done dismantling the monsters, so they had some spare time with each other while waiting for the others to arrive.
“This should help you finish the quest now, right?” Kudo asked as he looked at Hinota who was looking at her inventory screen.
“Yeah,” Hinota said, calling off the screen. “Thanks to your luck, we can finish our quest now of collecting the Heli’s body parts. Our client is a pretty enthusiastic researcher, so he’s paying quite a lot for some evidence in Heli parts.”
“Nice…” Kudo has always been a big fan of being paid highly for his work, so he was glad for Hinota. But then, the earlier bout with his party members caught his mind. “ Man, I never expected my own party members to fight other people… it really took me by surprise.”
Kudo would have never expected at all that Kuki, and especially Raika, would agree to have a scuffle with other adventurers. He looked up to the sky, a look of disbelief and a small smile showed on his face.
“Tell me about it,” Hinota reacted. “Mizuri can be quite rambunctious, but she means well. Tsuchi, on the other hand, probably did it to help her out. He just kinda goes with the flow around her.”
Hearing Hinota, sitting beside him with her supple right leg over the other, talking about her comrades sparked an interest in Kudo. Though it was still a high level for him to willingly talk to new people like that, as long as they were with Hinota, he knew that they were good people.
It was then that a moment of silence filled the air, but there was no sense of awkwardness between the two. Rather, the air around them began to feel warmer, as if they were finally within the reach of their safe space.
They knew that, because they were together, they now felt the same warmth that has carried with them ever since the start of their adventure.
However, as it was such a long time that passed, there were so many things that they could talk about—so many things that they needed to say to each other as soon as they met up, but the silence overtook them instead.
But then, one of them broke the silence.
“..Kudo,” Hinota became the first to speak. “You really changed your look.”
Hinota made her comment as she gave a glance with her sharp slanted eyes at Kudo without feeling ashamed. She believed that, as his best friend, she has the right to gawk at him just as he has for her.
“Y-You think so?”
“You look bigger than before,” Hinota continued. “And taller. Did you bulk up more?”
Her peaking curiosity could be felt by Kudo which left him in an awkward position. Brushing his hair, he tried to answer.
“I-I did notice, but I didn’t let that affect me much…”
He doesn’t usually answer to personal questions that involved his body’s changes. Usually, it would be with his mother which made it even more awkward.
Being the observant woman she is, Hinota smiled at his antics. “Do you think I changed?”
This time, she answered with a coy tone, her head tilted as a teasing smile rose from her soft lips. Kudo’s cheeks burned red after seeing her go back to her teasing notions, yet seeing her in that state made him more embarrassed, yet…oddly excited.
“Umm… well,” He struggled to give a straight answer. “Other than the armor change to medium armor,” Kudo eyed on her armor, consequentially taking a look at her figure which made his heart throbbed. “…It’s not like you changed much. But I could tell that you’ve gotten a lot faster.”
Finally speaking out what he thought, Hinota answered with a surprised giggle.
“Hehe, figures that you would notice. You really do know me,” Hinota returned to her usual excited smile, the kind Kudo sees in battle. “That’s right—I focused this time on getting much faster than before. You’re the only one who could figure this out, Kudo.”
Looking back at the blushing Kudo, in her heart, not only a sense of happiness swelled, but she felt a stinging pang hit her heart. A distant look took over her expression. A smile warmed up on her face.
“It’s really been… a long time.”
Her tone became lower, directing her heavy glare at him. Kudo noticed instantly that there was something nagging at Hinota, and was about to finally speak it.
“…How’ve you been?”
Her question was more heavier than it sounded. It wasn’t just to see how he was now, or how he was in the 3 months that passed.
It was how he was holding up ever since ‘that day’.
Kudo could tell that Hinota hesitated on asking this. Seeing him being in an adventure and even having a party, she didn’t want to get him back into thinking about that tragic day.
But she asked anyway—because she wants to know how he’s doing. She wants to know how Kudo has been dealing with the pain.
“…I’m doing great,” He answered, a small smile on his face. “Well… I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lonely.”
He told something which he didn’t even get to explain to himself. Because he knows that he can tell everything to Hinota without any hesitation.
“But,” Kudo answered. “I made some friends. And I had a lot of help from a lot of nice people. I was able… to move forward, just a little bit.”
Kudo looked ahead as he answered, seeing the vast terrain of broken wooden houses and the stench of monster corpses filling the air. A distant look was shown on his face as he recalled the 3 months he spent in Roprase, and eventually, the day when he was taken away from that place.
The place where he lost it all.
Staying in his mind, not knowing what’s even going on outside, he suddenly felt a powerful warmth on his hand. It was warmth that he thought he could never feel anymore.
He looked to his side, noticing that his hand on his knee was being clutched by Hinota’s hand.
“Kudo… this time, I’m staying with you,” Hinota said, a solemn expression on her face. “I’m never going to leave your side ever again.”
Upon swearing this, Kudo saw Hinota’s slanted eyes looking up at him, furrowing her brows into an intensifying glare. He could see the burning flames blazing within her purple irises—her words were genuine that came deep from her heart.
“…Yeah,” Kudo smiled. “I know. Thanks… for coming back.”
Seeing him smile, a relieved expression took place afterward on her face.
“Haha,” Hinota chuckled. “I’m glad that you’re okay with it. I figured that you would… hate me for what I did to you.”
“What are you talking about?” Kudo tilted his head. He had no idea what she meant at all.
“Y-You know, when I left you behind in Peranim. It was an incredibly terrible thing I did to you.”
“But you didn’t have a choice!” Kudo rebutted. “You were saving me in your own way! There’s no way that I would get mad about that.”
Kudo knew the reasoning for their departure well enough, and none of it was Hinota’s fault. She was the one who wanted to stay behind most of all.
“I know, but…” Hinota looked away, a somber expression taking place.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kudo assured. “I know more than anybody how kind you are. You’re never the kind to leave someone behind.”
“Kudo…” She looked back, a warm curl of her lips took place.
“And… I would never hate you. You’re…”
Just as he was about to say it, he froze up. He didn’t know why. He knows the words, yet he couldn’t speak it.
As if something possessed him for a moment to not say the words. Because he was left agape, Hinota noticed and before they knew it, they were caught staring at each other.
Their wooden seats were close so that they can be near each other, but they just realized that it was perhaps too close. Their faces were left inches away from each other as they were suddenly caught by this strange phenomenon that left them silent. The two noticed this themselves, and now their cheeks went red from noticing it. Yet, they still continued to stare at each other. Hinota became… increasingly curious.
The sweet scent wafted from her person. It was indescribable, but Kudo knew this scent better than anyone. Her breath tickled his lips, and somehow, he could see a different fire burning deep in her eyes.
The sudden interest peaking from her question, as if she was waiting for him to answer it, made Kudo lose grasp of his sanity. His heart raced and his mouth ran dry.
The two’s eyes seem to be getting closer and…
Their hearts jumped out of their chests. In a speed of sound, they turned to the side with their hands on their laps, their minds nearly exploding from what exactly they were going to do.
They saw in the distance Kuki and Tsuchi walking back together, waving their arms with big smirks on their faces while on the other side was Raika and Mizuri immersed in their own conversation.
“So you’re using a shampoo that gets rid of your split ends? That’s incredible!” Raika commented, looking pleasantly surprised.
“Yeah, if you want, I can tell you where to buy it, Rai,” Mizuri offered.
“That would be great! I would love to get rid of these annoying split ends!”
The girls shared an ecstatic smile which, to the ones seeing this, left them with agape, especially the boys.
“H-Hey, didn’t these two were fighting out to the death a couple of minutes ago?” Tsuchi pointed out at the two girls, his face twitching while showing a wry smile.
“Y-Yeah… girls can change really quickly.”
Kuki agreed as this was the first time Raika has gotten into a fight and even made a friend in the process. As they got back together, they finally noticed their leaders, who were strangely in an awkward position when they came back.
“Hey, what’s up with you two?”
Tsuchi asked a simple question, but it made the two leaders flinched as if they were rabbits caught on sight. This act alone was noticed by the four, and each of them stared at them profoundly.
“We were just talking,” Hinota, after a moment of clearing her throat, answered with no hesitation.
But this only made their staring stronger in response.
“Did you guys got the items?” Kudo asked to get away from this topic as soon as possible.
“ “Yeah!” ” The girls answered.
“ “We got ‘em!” ” The boys shouted.
“Good then, Kudo, let’s do the honors.”
Standing up from her seat, she watched Kudo do the same and, standing side by side, the four looked in anticipation over their famous words.
The two shared one more look together before they nodded and turned to them.