LEVEL2: Everything is Precious, Nothing is Replaceable
They returned to Altana before sunset and sold the day’s loot at a shop near the marketplace. The talismans, collected from five lesser kobolds and seven low-ranked kobold workers, amounted to just a little over seven silvers.
“This is kinda sad,” Yume sighed, expression subdued as she gazed at the seven silvers and the handful of copper coins.
“It’s not sad,” Ranta said, frowning deeply. “It’s fricking pathetic! Seriously, what the hell?!”
“I guess I was expecting a little more too,” Mogzo said, forcing a “haha”.
“Yeah…” Shihoru hung her head low. “This is less than what we make fighting goblins…”
“Uh…” Haruhiro wanted to say something to cheer everyone up, but he couldn’t think of anything positive.
“All we fought were normal kobolds.” Mary immediately made up for Haruhiro’s lack of words with her cool and calm voice. “We’ll be able to make more money once we start fighting elders.”
Haruhiro, more than a little flustered, nodded vigorously. “Y-yeah, that’s right. And it’s not like the fighting was tough. In the beginning things were a little awkward, but later on we were taking down the kobolds easily and no one really got injured, I think. Fighting low level kobolds means we don’t get much from them, right?”
“You better be sure,” Ranta scoffed. “If tomorrow isn’t any better, be prepared to own up to it, Haruhiro!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haruhiro demanded.
“It means that if you really mean what you say, you’ll give me your share of the cut if things don’t turn out how you think.”
“Why should I do something like that?”
“What? It was your idea to go to the Siren Mines, wasn’t it?”
“But you agreed with it, right?”
“It wasn’t my idea. All I did was give my approval. The retard that came up with the idea is the most responsible. It’s been like that for a gazillion years!”
“Whatever you say,” Haruhiro said, giving up.
“Damn straight, it’s whatever I say!” Ranta declared.
That much was absolutely true. Haruhiro’s inability to argue back to Ranta left him despondent, even though there wasn’t any reason to feel that way. Maybe he was just tired—but if so, it was undoubtedly Ranta’s fault.
Even while everyone ate dinner together at a stall (which, though cheap, had a good reputation), Ranta spewed stupid words every time he opened his mouth. It was only at times like this—namely, when Haruhiro was in no mood to talk—that Ranta would just provoke him nonstop. Ranta was just that type of person. Fine then. If he was going to be like that, Haruhiro would just ignore him completely.
“Hey, Haruhiro,” Ranta started.
“Heeey,” said Ranta, drawing out the word, “Haruhiro.”
“Hey, hey, hey. Haruhiro.”
Still holding onto a half-eaten chicken skewer, Ranta began an odd dance around him. “Hey hey hey! Oy oy oy! Heyyy heyyy, oyyy oyyy! Heeeey! Oyyyyyy! Hey hey hey! Oy oy oy!”
Shit. Ranta was kicking up his legs and swinging his hips around madly, but why was it that his upper body stayed in place? It was incredibly gross, but strangely comical at the same time. Haruhiro turned away. He figured everyone one else was trying to avoid looking in Ranta’s direction too, but then… laughter.
It sounded restrained but Haruhiro could definitely hear a soft chuckling. Not just from one person but from several. Suddenly, Yume burst into laughter.
“Whahoo!” Ranta’s glee was apparent. “Hoi hoi hoi!”
Unable to contain herself any longer, Shihoru began laughing too. Ranta began to careen around in earnest. “Hoi hoi hoi! Ho ho ho hoi! Hoi hoi hoi!”
Mogzo was the next to give in, and only Haruhiro and Mary remained. Haruhiro looked her way and saw that, although her gaze was on the floor, her shoulders were trembling. Ranta drew close to her and danced even crazier than before, unleashing the full power of his Hoi Hoi Dance on her in an all out offensive.
Mary! No! But she seemed at the limits of self-control. Her face was basically flat against the stall’s counter now—a posture that told Haruhiro she was holding out on willpower alone.
“Hoi hoi hoiiiii! Hoi hoi! Hoi hoi hoiiiii! Hoi hoi hoi! Hoi hoi! Hoi hoi hoiiiii! Hoi hoi hoi! Hoi hoi!Hoi hoi hoiiiii!”
Mary struggled to stifle her laughter.
Hang in there, Mary! Don’t give in; resist! Resist it! How did it come to this? Why did Haruhiro even make this his fight in the first place?
Suddenly, his urge to laugh faded, and then disappeared entirely. Haruhiro swiftly maneuvered himself behind Ranta and jammed his heel into the back of Ranta’s knee. Ranta, cut off mid hoi, spun on Haruhiro as he returned to his spot at the counter.
“What the hell are you doing, retard!” Ranta exclaimed. “I almost had her!”
“Quit spitting at me, it’s gross,” Haruhiro replied calmly.
Ranta responded by purposely spluttering on him.
“Hey! Stop it!”
“You stop it, idiot!” He continued spitting.
Ranta’s spit attacks were indiscriminate and turned the scene into an utter disaster as everybody else, and their food, became victims as well. The mood went from amused to angry, Ranta inappropriately delighting in it all. Because of that, everyone was in a foul mood as they returned to the lodge.
“Aaaaaalllright!” Ranta declared after they had reached their room. “The girls have the baths first, so it’s all-you-can-peep today!”
How could Ranta think about that at a time like this? Haruhiro could only marvel at his lack of sensitivity. Not wanting to spend any more energy on him, Haruhiro turned over in his bunk so that his back was turned to the overly-excited Ranta.
“Haruhiro, what’s your problem? You coming or what?” Ranta asked. “It’s useless over-thinking what would happen if we’re caught again, so don’t think about it, idiot! Hey, Mogzo! You coming?”
“N-no thanks,” Mogzo replied after a moment’s hesitation.
“What?!” Ranta raged. “C’mon! I can’t use you as a footstool if you don’t come!”
“I’m… not a footstool,” Mogzo replied.
“So become one! You’d be a great footstool!”
“I don’t want to become one…”
“What you want has nothing to do with it! Just do as I say! Trust me! I won’t get you into trouble, okay?!”
“I-I’m staying here.”
For Mogzo, it was a pretty stern refusal. Ranta backed down, if only slightly.
“Fine! I’ll take on this great responsibility myself then. Don’t come crying to me if you regret it later, ’cause I won’t give you any sympathy! Got it?!”
“Okay,” Mogzo said.
“Really?! Is it really okay?! Really really REALLY?!” Ranta persisted.
“I said it’s okay,” Mogzo insisted.
“It’s not okay! Mogzo! If you won’t be my footstool then my entire strategy will fail—no, it’ll be useless! So COME! I don’t care what you say, I’m taking you with me!” Ranta made to drag Mogzo along, but couldn’t move him an inch. “You’re too heavy! C’mon why won’t you budge! Damn it, how much do you weigh, ya fatty?!”
“Yeah, I guess I am pretty fat…” Mogzo admitted.
“You’re not fat,” Haruhiro interjected without thinking. “You’re not fat, Mogzo,” he repeated. “It’s not like your belly’s sticking out or anything. You’ve just got a lot of muscle.”
“Ah, I get it.” Ranta slammed a hand on Haruhiro’s bunk. “Finally decided you wanted in? What am I gonna do with you, huh? Whatever, let’s go. C’mon, hurry and get up!”
How Ranta was able to interpret Haruhiro’s defense of Mogzo like that, Haruhiro hadn’t the slightest idea. Wasn’t there anyone who could dispose of Ranta for him, sooner rather than later? And Haruhiro wasn’t joking about that.
After they had finished their turn bathing, the boys returned to the room. Haruhiro put out the lights, made his way over to his bunk and in the pitch darkness, stayed awake to think.
The essence of it came down to this: should they keep Ranta in the party or kick him out?
As far as Haruhiro was concerned, he admitted there were times he never wanted to see Ranta’s face again. It would be an enormous relief if Ranta just went away and never came back. But it wasn’t just Haruhiro. He wasn’t sure about Mogzo and Mary, but Ranta was always spitting vitriol at Yume and Shihoru. They weren’t the type to speak ill of people to others, but even so it was clear that they hated him. Ranta was just that insufferable.
Haruhiro couldn’t make a decision based on emotions alone, though. He had to consider practical factors too; in other words, Ranta’s fighting ability. If they kicked Ranta from the party, how would it affect their team during a fight?
Is thinking about these things what it means to be a leader? he wondered.
Currently, Ranta functioned as their second tank, behind Mogzo. He was reasonably well armored, equipped with chainmail under leather and a bucket helm. But the Dread Knight fighting style wasn’t based on close combat. It was an idiosyncratic mid-range style where fighters darted in and out of striking range, doing everything they could to avoid short, blade-locking distances. Rather than involving straightforward attacks, their techniques made their fights into cat-and-mouse games.
Strictly speaking, Dread Knights were actually supposed to be attackers, not tanks. And considering Ranta’s personality, perhaps a Dread Knight’s style suited him better than the Warrior class.
Asking Yume to tank in her light armor was impossible, and Haruhiro wasn’t suited for it either. Mary and Shihoru were out of the question as Priest and Mage, respectively. That left only Ranta. If they kicked Ranta out, they would lose their second tank and not having anyone to replace him hurt their fighting ability.
Their fighting ability would be diminished if they kicked Ranta without having anybody to take his place as their second tank.
If so, then it was simply a matter of finding someone to replace him. Unlike healers, fighters were plentiful. Haruhiro had a feeling they wouldn’t have a hard time finding a replacement. If they asked the well-connected Kikkawa, he could probably help find someone who would fit in. After all, that was how they recruited Mary. Granted, working with her had been rough in the beginning, but they were slowly getting better at understanding each other.
The overbearingly extroverted Kikkawa made good friends with everyone and he might have been a better judge of personality than most gave him credit for. Haruhiro wanted to think that there were was a slew of available Warriors who were better than Ranta. Perhaps. Maybe. It was definitely an option worth considering.
Mogzo was snoring loudly, already fast asleep. Ranta was usually the first to do so, but no matter how much Haruhiro strained his ears, he couldn’t hear the peculiar way of breathing that characterized Ranta’s slumber.
“Ranta,” Haruhiro called tentatively, to which Ranta replied, “Yeah?”
“Um…” Haruhiro hesitated.
“What do you want?” Ranta asked impatiently.
“I want to talk to you about something.”
“Not here. I don’t want to wake Mogzo. How about going outside?”
As they exited the lodge, Haruhiro wondered why he was doing something like this. Did he have something he wanted to talk to Ranta about? He sure didn’t want to speak with the guy but for some reason felt a sort of obligation.
Whatever the decision was, one thing was certain: it would be horrible to plot and contrive behind Ranta’s back now, only to tell him later, without warning, that his job was done and that the party no longer needed him. Haruhiro didn’t feel like Ranta deserved something like that, no matter how badly he thought of him. Or maybe Haruhiro just didn’t want himself to be a backstabbing coward.
No, forget maybe. Of course he didn’t want to become one. That was just too… But why? Why did he have to plot and scheme and, all joking aside, bloody his hands just to get rid of Ranta?
Haruhiro crouched against the side of the building, leaning back against the wall. Ranta followed suit.
“Um… what do you think? About our party,” asked Haruhiro.
“It’s a party,” Ranta replied evenly. “All there is to it.”
“What do you mean by that? That it’s ‘all there is to it’?”
“Look, do you have a problem with me? I think you know I’ve always done my part.”
“Can you say I haven’t? I dealt with one kobold myself today, didn’t I? That’s proof right there.”
“If everyone had surrounded it we would have finished it in a fraction of the time it took you alone,” Haruhiro pointed out.
“Can you pull that off all the time?” Ranta countered. “Hell no. If I can keep one enemy completely occupied in a fight you can do your… what’s it called? Flexibility to a certain extent? Battle tactics? Whatever, some fancy shit.”
So despite Ranta being Ranta, he did put thought into things when they were fighting. But that didn’t change anything.
Haruhiro pressed a palm into his face. “How am I supposed to know what you’re thinking in the middle of a fight if you don’t tell me?”
“You’re telling me you want me to explain every intention behind every action then ask for your opinion before I do it?”
“I never said anything like that. But there’s stuff that doesn’t get conveyed if you don’t say it, so that’s why I’m talking to you now. You’re already easy to misunderstand and this just makes it worse.”
“You don’t really think it’s some kinda misunderstanding, do you?” Ranta picked up a nearby pebble then tossed it away. “You guys just judge and make assumptions about what I’m thinking based on your impressions of me.”
“Even if that were true, we formed our impressions of you based on what you do and what you say.”
“So you’re saying it’s my fault.”
“If not you then who? Mine? Yume’s? Shihoru’s? Mogzo’s? Mary’s?” Haruhiro felt his temper rising. Need to stay calm. Need to keep a cool head. He didn’t want to turn this into a fight. He sighed and said, “We work as a team. There needs to be a certain level of… cooperation between everyone.”
“So what? Are you saying I’m uncooperative?” Ranta challenged.
“Are you saying you are cooperative?”
“Well, you’re uncooperative.”
“Look Haruhiro, everyone has things they’re good and bad at. So I have my faults, but what about you guys? Everyone except me’s perfect? I’m a goddamn sinner and you guys are saints, huh.”
“…I never said that.”
“So. Name my faults. You think I’m selfish?”
“Yes. And annoying.”
“And a foul mouth too. And you’re pretty quick to blame everyone else.”
“What!? How is every single thing my fault? Collective responsibility, dumbass! Collective responsibility. That’s why it’s called a ‘team’.”
“That’s something a six-year old would say. It’s not even a logical argument.”
“What’s NOT logical about it? It’s brilliantly logical. Insanely logical,” Ranta argued.
“I’m not going off on another tangent with you.”
“Fine. What about you then, Mr. I’m-Perfect-All-the-Time Haruhiro? Why don’t I shut up then and we talk about your faults.”
“Me?” Haruhiro’s mouth clamped shut. Faults. Shortcomings. What were his? It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any; he had so many it was like all his good points were buried under a mountain of them. But,” Why do I have to list them for you?”
“Oh. I get it now. It’s bitch bitch bitch about Ranta all the time and when it comes to you, you ain’t got shit to say. I soooo get it.”
“Get what? What are you talking about?”
“You know damn well what I’m talking about! It’s easy for you guys to blame all OUR problems on me, so you do it all the time. And what? Does that make you feel better? More like a real team? Is that your idea of building solidarity?”
“You’re saying it’s NOT true? Fucking liar.”
“…It’s not like we get together to conspire behind your back and blame you for everything,” Haruhiro said.
“Why? Why would you? No one needs to say shit ’cause everyone’s already in on it. You guys already decided that I’m your scapegoat.”
“You’re beyond paranoid.”
“Is that what you really think?” Ranta’s tone dripped with sarcasm. “Fine. Whatever. Thanks to me, you guys can just keep ignoring your own faults. But let me ask you: Have I ever, EVER, said a single damn thing about everyone treating me like a scapegoat? I’m only saying it now because you brought it up first, Haruhiro. If you didn’t drag me out here, I wasn’t gonna whine about it. I don’t give a shit about baby games like getting along with the other kids in the class. If you want to hate me, hate me all you want, I’ll play the bad guy or whatever. Sure. It’s fine. But we’re a ‘team’ and I’ll do my part. Because that’s what you call ‘teamwork’.”
Haruhiro opened his mouth to reply, but couldn’t find any words. He brought Ranta out here with the intention of asking him to leave their party. His reasoning had convinced him it was in the team’s best interests. Honestly, he wasn’t confident in his ability to kick Ranta out straight away but he at least wanted to lay down the terms. Give Ranta a chance to improve his behavior and let him know they could no longer be part of the same team if he didn’t.
That had been the plan, anyway.
Maybe his reasoning was too one-sided. Were he and the others really using Ranta as a scapegoat? He had a hard time believing it. Ranta also shared responsibility in why everyone always faulted him. He could only blame himself for everyone emphasizing his shortcomings.
—We’re not in the wrong here. Ranta’s the one who’s completely, totally, utterly wrong.
If that was true, then it was better to get rid of Ranta now rather than later after all. Personally, it would be like a weight off Haruhiro’s shoulders. He could explain it to everyone afterwards and they would understand, right? The problem was he couldn’t say with unwavering certainty that he wouldn’t regret it later.
And if there were any regrets to be had, they would impact Haruhiro hardest of all. He was the one who weighed the factors, he was the one who made the judgment call, and he would be the one to kick Ranta out. In the end, the burden of responsibility was heaviest on himself.
Why? Why am I the one who has to deal with everything?
“I’m going back to sleep,” Ranta declared, getting to his feet and returning to their room.
Haruhiro remained where he was, unmoving. His insides felt heavy and his stomach hurt.
I don’t want to do this anymore, he thought to himself. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Enough’s enough. I’m not suited to be a leader. I can’t do it. I can’t take the responsibility. Manato… help me…
He knew full well Manato was gone, but he couldn’t help it. There was no one else he could ask.
“Is leadership really this lonely…?”
It just wasn’t in him to be a leader. It was like trying to fill a container riddled with holes.