LEVEL 1: A Whisper, an Aria, a Prayer, an Awakening
Before they met up with Mary at eight that morning—that is, before falling asleep the previous night—Haruhiro and the others racked their brains over what they would do, what they would say to her . But no one could think of anything . Then, when they reached Damroww’s Old Town, they had to focus on work, and they didn’t have the luxury to worry about anything else .
This crucial time for all of them seemed to fly by, and it wasn’t until they returned to Altana in the evening that Haruhiro finally mustered up the resolve to approach Mary .
“Mary, there’s something I want to talk to you about,” Haruhiro said frankly, as they exited the store where they sold their day’s loot .
“I see,” Mary replied, bringing her arms around herself defensively . “Get on with it then . ”
Because everyone had been preoccupied last night with what turns their relationship with Mary might take, none of them could act like their normal selves around her today . They had heard Mary’s story from Hayashi, and Mary couldn’t have known that; but she couldn’t have missed the change in everyone’s behavior either, and she must have guessed something was up .
She probably thought that they were preparing to kick her out of the party . She was probably playing out the scenario in her mind now, Haruhiro saying, “Sorry Mary, but can I ask you to leave our party?”
And not wanting to make a fuss, she would immediately reply, “Fine”, and take her leave of them .
She was steeling herself for the announcement, or so it seemed to Haruhiro . It had probably happened like that numerous times before, with many other parties . It was just too depressing, the way it always ended like that for her .
“Mary…” Haruhiro said, saying her name as a friend’s, as one of them .
He met her eyes and held them, as if to say, It’s not what you think . Mary’s eyebrows narrowed slightly . Haruhiro wasn’t alone in this intent gaze; Mogzo, Yume, Shihoru, and Ranta had their eyes locked on her too . She noticed their stares and stiffened, uneasy . No, it’s not what you think… Haruhiro repeated inwardly again .
“Mary,” Haruhiro said, out loud this time . “We had a Priest in our party before . His name was Manato, and he died… or maybe a better way to put it is, we got him killed . You could say that he was almost a perfectionist, and we depended on him way too much . When we got hurt during fights, he would heal us even if it was just a scratch .
“Manato was our leader,” said Haruhiro, “a healer we trusted, and he and Mogzo would always fight in the front, so he was a tank too . It was like he was three people in one . He was really an amazing person, but at the time, we didn’t realize it . He was just an ordinary guy to us . I don’t think any of it was easy on Manato, but he never showed it, and none of us ever tried to imagine how hard it really was for him . Even now, I don’t think I can imagine… but he’s dead . He’s not here anymore . ”
Mary surely must have seen the similarities between herself and Manato . She might have even figured out that Haruhiro was telling her all this because they knew the story of her past .
Haruhiro had been debating it for some time . Having heard Hayashi’s story, he had a pretty good idea of what happened to Mary, and he could kind of understand why she was the way she was . But should he tell Mary that he knew?
Something told him it wasn’t as clear-cut as that, though .
“A” happened, therefore “B” . Haruhiro knew that human beings were neither simple nor straightforward creatures, and he didn’t pretend to be able to see into Mary’s heart . No one was going to be so flippant as to claim they knew everything there was to know about her . So, the only thing he could tell her about was himself .
“To be honest, with Manato gone, I thought that it was over,” began Haruhiro . “I thought that it was impossible to keep doing this without him . But even if he was dead, we were still alive . We had to live on, and we couldn’t live on by sitting around . We stayed on as Crimson Moon trainees, if only to feed ourselves .
“Then we invited you the join the party . A party has to have a Priest, that was why . No other reason . Now, me, Ranta, Yume, and Shihoru, we were the good-for-nothing dregs from the start . Mogzo was different . He was recruited by Raghill, but got thrown out after they took all his money . Manato’s the one who brought us together, as ragtag as we might’ve been, and we became teammates, and friends too .
“That was all there was to it in the beginning . But since then, we’ve become a team for real . Sometimes things don’t go so great, sometimes we get angry, sometimes we fight, but in the end, we still consider each other friends . The circumstances that brought us together don’t matter . What matters is that here and now, everyone is my precious friend and companion . That includes you, Mary . ”
Mary didn’t say a word . She stared long and hard at Haruhiro, motionless, except to blink now and then .
“Me too . ” Shihoru quietly raised her hand . “I consider you a friend, too . ”
“Agreed,” Yume smiled broadly . “Mary’s super adorable!”
“O-of course I agree . ” Mogzo still had his barbute helm on . “Of course I consider you a friend . It’s reassuring for me to have you with us . ”
Ranta harrumphed . “I’m… I’m… you know . I make a big fuss when I’m hurt . It’s something I need to work on… maybe . But, uhhh… yeah, I guess . Aren’t we friends?”
“Hell is gonna freeze over tomorrow,” Haruhiro said, looking up at the cloudless sky . “Ranta, admitting he’s not perfect . Hell, heaven, and earth are all gonna freeze over . ”
“Hey! I admit all the time that I’ve got things I can improve on! My self-improvement talents are off the charts! You’ve known mehow long and you still don’t know that?!”
“If you say so, then, sure . ”
“Oy! Haruhiro! Don’t just leave it at that! You make me sad!”
“I think it’s a good idea to set a goal for ourselves sooner rather than later,” Haruhiro continued . “Even if it’s a temporary goal…”
He stole a glance at Mary . She looked unaffected so far, still staring intently at him . He hoped that she wasn’t intending to rebuff them and their offers of friendship . It would be a good enough start for her not to .
“…Everything’s become muddled recently,” Haruhiro said . “I don’t even think we’re working like crazy to save up enough to buy our Crimson Moon contracts anymore . We’re just going from day to day with no real purpose . Let’s stop that and at least figure out the direction we want to go next . ”
“Our goal’s to become BILLIONAIRES! Then WORLD DOMINATION!!!”
Haruhiro thoroughly ignored Ranta and proposed his thoughts to everyone . Everyone except the irritatingly loud Ranta and the deathly silent Mary agreed .
“I don’t care about anything other than money and power,” Ranta declared . “And being popular with girls too, I guess . But girls come with money and power so…” He paused . “I guess your idea for a goal is okay for something to do before the start of the beginning of the first step towards world domination… I guess…” he said grudgingly .
Yume heaved a heavy sigh . “Ranta’s talk is longer than long-winded and more monotonous than a monologue . ”
There they go again, Haruhiro thought, and turned to Mary . “Mary, what do you think?”
Mary, avoiding his gaze, seemed to give the slightest of small nods . He took it as a sign of her agreement .
“Would you like to eat dinner with us tonight?” he asked .
“No thanks . ” Then she added, in the quietest of voices, “…not yet, anyway . ”
“Alright . ”
What did you expect? Haruhiro told himself . It’s not like everything will magically fix themselves instantly, just with that . But of course he was impatient . No one knew when their time together would come to an end . They had burned up some of that precious time already, just to take this first step forward . And who knew if their end was already near, having pursued them all this while?
But one step was still a step . For Haruhiro and the others, incompetents beyond incompetent, one small step at a time was their only way forward .
And if his ears hadn’t deceived him, just before Mary turned away to leave, she had whispered, “See you tomorrow . ”
Indeed . Ad interim, tomorrow comes .