Hour Empty Child
After accepting their quest at the guild, the party took a day to prepare since the quest will take place a few miles away from Triun. They went back home, prepared their Magic Bags, and once the shining sun rose over the horizon and started the brand new day, the E-Plus party traveled out of the illustrious city through Chui’s cruise with her Ame.
The window was open, so Kudo was feeling the fresh air hitting his face, his azure hair fluttering in the wind. He turned back to the inside of the ame where he saw the other members enjoying the cruise.
“Man, I love this ride. So much better than the taxi…”
Tsuchi sprawled on the comfy seat with both hands behind his head, letting out a relieving sigh.
“Don’t get too comfortable. At this speed, we’ll get there in no time,” Mizuri said as she fiddled around with her items in the magic bag inventory screen.
“Come on, at least let me enjoy this…” Tsuchi grumbled without even looking back as his eyes were closed.
Mizuri wanted to give him a black eye for responding like that, but she can’t blame him for feeling relaxed in an ame like this.
Mizuri sighed, “Sorry about his incompetent behavior, Kuu.”
Mizuri said in a half-sarcastic tone which Kudo replied with a chuckle.
Seeing the trio acting like this, Hinota was glad that the two weeks they spent together training got them slightly closer than before.
■ ■ ■
One week into training, after Kudo and Hinota received their Class Up, the E-Plus set out on the field during their usual training.
Standing outside the Alpha Heart guild hall, the E-Plus was currently waiting.
However, Hinota said to Kudo this morning that she will arrive late as she needed to talk to her sister, and Kuki and Raika didn’t answer Kudo’s call. So, the only ones who were outside on this glorious field were none other than Kudo, Mizuri, and Tsuchi.
After staring at his cell phone to see the screen showing that he was calling Kuki’s cell, he placed it up to his ear to hear his voice, but instead of that, he could only hear the small ringing tone on the other line.
Kudo pursed his lips as he shut off the call, knowing that he won’t pick up for some reason. After putting away the phone into his pocket, he turned on his heel to spot Mizuri and Tsuchi waiting for him to finish his call.
“Kii didn’t pick up?” Mizuri asked.
“No… it’s weird. They usually answer in a hurry after I call them,” Kudo said with a confused tone, rubbing the back of his head.
“You think something happened to them?” Tsuchi said, his arm crossed with his hammer holstered to his back.
“No… they’re way too strong to get troubled by something. I think they’re just going through some business between themselves…”
Kudo surmised as he thought about the same incident that happened when they just started partying. Kuki and Raika have both gotten stronger since then, and there was no debt for them to painfully pay any more, so there cannot be any sort of problem as of yet.
He looked back at the scenery of condensed trees with a concerned look on his face. What was taking them so long? And what’s worse, Kudo peered over his shoulder to see the two members whom he barely talks to without Hinota’s presence being near him.
Seeing the two—Tsuchi kicking the dirt on the ground slightly while Mizuri rubbing her right forearm—looking quite bored, Kudo turned back around and pursed his lips.
(What am I supposed to do…?)
Kudo didn’t know how to talk to them properly yet on his own. If Hinota was here, it would have been easier, but now, for whatever reason, she wasn’t here.
However, as a leader, it was Kudo’s job to set his members straight—even if it’s members he felt he had no standing with them whatsoever.
“Umm…” Kudo kicked himself in his mind for not starting properly. “H-How about we do some light training while we wait for them?”
Kudo offered this activity for them which caught their attention.
“Is that okay?” Mizuri asked, mentioning if it was fine to leave the three members not currently here in the dust.
“It doesn’t look like we can contact them, so in this case, we can continue on without them at least for a bit.”
“Well, I’m all for it,” Tsuchi moved both his hands behind his bandanna-covered head and grinned. “It’ll be a good time-killer!”
“I guess so…” Mizuri moved her finger near her lips, agreeing with Tsuchi’s statement.
Kudo figured that he should keep the ball rolling, at least until Hinota, Kuki, and Raika arrive.
The E-Plus then headed off to the areas around Triun.
Surrounded by thick threes wherever they lay their eyes on, the ground covered in shimmering wet grass below their feet, the air was clear and the sky was bright blue as if to say that it was the perfect time to train.
They were blazing through the forest trail, finding whatever creature they fancy to kill for the sweet experience points and loot. As they traveled, the atmosphere around them became unusually quiet.
The party always had their small share of conversations, often telling amusing anecdotes to pass the time as they find their next pray. Kudo would often join in the conversation, since it felt natural.
But this time, nobody was talking. Kudo was kept silent, and Mizuri and Tsuchi were suddenly silent for the first time in a while. Kudo knew that he had to start the conversation at some point, otherwise he won’t be able to handle this weird voiceless air.
“I-It’s pretty nice weather here.”
He figured that he would talk about the weather, feeling the sun shining down on him through the openings of the tree leaves and feeling the heat that flows.
“Yeah, it’s pretty nice,” Mizuri was the first to respond.
And then nothing. That was it.
Kudo slowly turned into a state of panic in his mind. Was his conversation skill so low that it wasn’t even considered worthy to continue on? His mind began to nag at how pointless it was to talk about the weather when they can clearly see it for themselves.
After about 30 minutes of mind-grueling silence, Kudo offered another tactic.
“I-I’ll go around and see if there are any monsters around!”
“Oh, you sure?” Tsuchi asked.
“Yeah! I’ll tell you when I find something!”
Kudo, as quick as he could, dashed ahead at a fast pace, leaving the two behind on his own.
Seeing the sprinting Kudo running ahead, Tsuchi turned to Mizuri, his bronze-colored hair shifted as he did.
“Why the sudden silence, Mizuri-chii?”
Tsuchi asked, and it looked like Mizuri became surprised by that. After a moment of silence, she knew that she can’t escape from Tsuchi’s questioning, especially when he looked so solemn that it made her unhinge.
“W-Well… it just… Kuu seemed kinda uncomfortable around us,” She let out her issue concerning her leader. “So I thought it was better to stay quiet.”
Mizuri rubbed her right forearm in awkwardness. Thanks to her high intelligence stat, she could tell subtle movements Kudo was showing through his demeanor and the facial expressions he showed. However, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Kudo seemed unnaturally torn when he’s around them.
Tsuchi turned forward to where Kudo ran off, then looking upwards to the clear blue sky through the opening of the leaves.
“I think he was just nervous. Probably for the same reason as you.”
“And how would you know that?” Mizuri felt miffed at how Tsuchi was so adept at reading other people. She often doesn’t understand how Tsuchi can just naturally pick up these kinds of hunches despite that his Wisdom stat isn’t all that high.
“Hehe, Kudo-chii’s a good guy. Hinota-chii says so. I trust her word.”
Mizuri became perturbed at Tsuchi’s simplistic reasoning. She pursed her lips and looked ahead, the wind blowing her blue braided hair as it swayed from the breeze.
“And?” She turned to him again. “Why were you silent?”
“Heh, I wanted to let him relax a little so that he can talk to us whenever he wanted.”
“And why did you kept quiet when he was talking about the weather?”
“Because I wanted him to try harder than that!” Tsuchi answered while boasting his plan.
Mizuri let out a pained sigh, rubbing the ridge between her eyes in response to his superior standards.
Kudo acted as the scout this time around, leading Mizuri and Tsuchi by hiding behind the trees and rocks to erase their presences. Kudo spotted a few feet away a four-legged creature that stood at the top of the grassy hill.
It was a deer like creature, but it had diamond studded antlers. This was the Diamond-Horned Deer, a valuable creature worthy of experience, and of course, its precious loot that comes with it.
Peering from the tree’s base, Kudo nearly awed at the creature as the sun shined down upon its horns which naturally reflected the shine, giving the atmosphere around it a sense of artistic value.
It was a shame to actually kill this creature, but unfortunately, Kudo’s wallet was hungry for loot. He turned back around to face his comrades.
“Alright, there’s a Diamony in sight.”
Kudo shortened its official name for Diamony for easier pronunciation. The others quickly nodded in agreement to that nickname.
“Haven’t face those before~” Tsuchi could almost taste the diamonds available.
“So, what’s the plan, Kuu?”
Mizuri opted for Kudo to make up the plan for them to proceed. This was the first time that he actually told an order to his members without Hinota’s approval.
The two would usually refer to themselves whenever one makes a decision. When Kudo asked, Hinota checks if it’s good enough to try, and whenever Hinota asks, Kudo gives his opinion and decides to go for it.
Without Hinota here, it felt like he had to control these members to do what he says. It felt kind of wrong for him.
“Umm… what do you guys think we should do?”
He figured that he should ask what they think. They were a party—it wouldn’t be fair if Kudo is the only one making decisions, even if he was the leader.
Seeing their confused looks on their faces, Kudo wondered if he said something weird.
“W-Well, we’re not really…” Mizuri could barely say without sounding embarrassed.
“We don’t usually do the orderin’. Hinota-chii often tells us what to do,” Tsuchi admitted, surprising Kudo.
So basically, Tsuchi and Mizuri were admirers for Hinota just like Kuki and Raika were to Kudo. Considering that the two had such chemistry with their leaders, it’s only natural that they would follow them to their limits.
However, this was still Kudo. He isn’t Hinota. He wondered if that made them feel like he’s not worthy of talking to.
He shook his head to discard the thoughts. His usual habit of talking himself down was showing again. He remembered the promise he made to himself before he left his village. The one where he would be social and friendly to other people, and be confident and outgoing whenever he could.
It was easier for Hinota by his side, but he has to learn to do so without her.
The two members saw this strange head movement with tilted heads, but then they saw Kudo’s eyes furrowing, full of will.
“I’ll distract the Diamony with a Plus Bomb, while you guys head over to where I’m leading it to. Tsuchi brings out his puppets to wall the Diamony in and Mizuri can take it down with Aqua Blasts. It’s quick, but it won’t be able to handle many attacks.”
Hearing this sensible plan with no stutter and awkward phrase, the two members took a moment to let this rare Kudo moment sink in.
“Alright, got it!”
“Whoo! Let’s go for it!”
Mizuri and Tsuchi agreed with no hesitation, showing eager expressions on their faces.
Thus begins the plan: Kudo attacked it with the improved version of the Plus Bomb. Then as the Diamony ran away due to the shock, Tsuchi summoned a clay doll to wall it as Kudo planned while Mizuri took it down with multiple Aqua Blasts.
In the end, they got to share incredible loot of diamond studded antlers afterwards.
Coming towards the bountifully lush forest, three other members of E-Plus were walking together after having their own version of training.
“So, do you really think that Kudo will get used to Tsuchi and Mizuri?”
Kuki asked, turning to Hinota who was walking in the middle and a little forward than himself and Raika.
The two were oddly sore from Hinota’s spartan training, killing off weaker monsters as Hinota ordered them not to use the potions to recover themselves, making sure that they can last in battle a little longer.
“Kudo is the type to work really hard even under heavy circumstances. I’m sure that he can at least get close to them.”
“But I feel really bad,” Raika huddled her index fingers together, her hands still sore from notching so many arrows on her bow. “Kudo kept calling us and we kept ignoring it. What if he’s really worried?”
“Don’t worry. As long as I’m here, Kudo won’t get concerned about us. Rather, I wish he would be more concerned about his own situation.”
“Still, isn’t this kinda pushing it? I mean, getting them closer like this?”
Kuki rubbed the back of his head, feeling a little bit of the guilt and the pain after being knocked around by the monsters he was hunting.
“You guys are worrying too much. Just follow my plan and we’ll be as right as rain.”
Hinota spoke with such clarity and confidence that it seemed like she was bursting with ego. Kuki turned to Raika, both showing wry smiles from her haughty nature.
Hinota then spotted a group coming out of the forest, from beyond the tree-covered areas where they came from into her sight on the open field.
She realized that it was Kudo, Tsuchi, and Mizuri. And it looks like they were having a blast.
“That Clay Doll is so awesome, Tsuchi! You can even command multiple of them at once!”
“Hehe, my passive skill, Multiple Formation, instantly makes me order them with lots of precision. It’s super handy!”
Tsuchi said while putting both fists on his hips as a sign of victory from the praise.
“And Mizuri, your skill that heals all of us is so cool!”
“Of course it is. Oracle Recovery showers everyone with water that lets them regenerate their health back. If I level it up a bit more, it’ll be super useful in the future!”
Mizuri gripped her fist tight in the air as if she was seeing the future herself and grasping it with zest.
Seeing the group completely into their conversation, it surprised even Hinota herself as she didn’t expect her plan to make them closer would be so potent. She did, but she expected just a little progress.
“Oh, it’s you guys!”
Kudo noticed Hinota, Kuki, and Raika coming towards them, waving his arm left and right with a big smile on his face like an innocent child’s. Hinota turned back to Kuki and Raika, both sharing looks of shock. Hinota grinned widely.
“Welcome back!” Kudo shouted with zest along with Tsuchi and Mizuri.
■ ■ ■
Seeing that Kudo has been friendly with Tsuchi and Mizuri like he was with Raika and Kuki, Hinota smiled at Kudo as he returned back to his seat, noticing Hinota’s usual glare on him.
“What’s up, Hinota?” Kudo tilted his head to her.
“Hehe, nothing~” Hinota grinned.
Kudo practically showed a question mark on his face as he was left without an answer.
It may be small steps, but that’s all it takes to get out of your shell.