The day after meeting Elu in the garden, Harold woke up in the gloom of dawn before sunrise .
He got ready quickly and went outside, silently leaving the premises of the still sleeping research center . In his hands were the two swords he used in his fight against the hydras .
Having taken an adequate distance from the research center, Harold was swinging his two swords left and right, as if he was facing invisible enemies .
On top of that, he also made use of his hand-to-hand combat techniques, throwing some punches and kicks between the sword slashes .
This was the self-discipline he had applied to himself almost every day for the last eight years . His strength, speed, and accuracy had reached a whole new level from where he had started . The wild yet elegant sword dance he displayed would overwhelm any witnesses .
The short version was that Harold was practicing the game’s combos . For him, it was like a hobby that happened to bring some profit .
However, as the proverb says【”Perseverance is the key to success”】And even considering the high specs of Harold’s body, there was no denying that this was the result of his own efforts . Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to kill the two hydras so effortlessly .
Harold continued his training for two hours straight without a break, as if there was no limit to his endurance . Although he was drenched in sweat when he finished, his body was still terrifying as it had plenty of energy to spare .
After a cold bath to wash away the accumulated sweat, Harold walked through the research center as if he owned the place while staff members started showing up here and there . Of course, he had turned on his Switch .
So the hostile gazes piercing him were no trouble and he arrived at his destination without a hitch .
That destination was the dining hall, and it had rather open feel to it . A portion of its walls were made of glass, and the morning sunlight streamed in, making the room brilliant with reflections .
This dining hall could be used day and night, and even from early in the morning for the sake of the staff members who stayed up all night .
Harold had become a regular customer here, ever since he gave his body to the research center . Though the staff of the dining hall hated Harold as much as the other personnel did, they had already given up on interacting with him so it didn’t matter .
Harold properly made his order, and with the breakfast he received, he settled down at his usual position, a table for two, by a window . By the way, Harold didn’t stand out much at the current time since there weren’t many people, but even at lunchtime, the seats around him were always empty . In addition, his back was riddled by malicious gossip and the intermittent impudent gazes that were fired at him .
Like this, Harold’s lonely ways kept on steadily growing worse .
As Harold took his meal while coming up with such a sad self-analysis, a noisy group of people entered the hall . Lifa and Elu were among them . There were about ten people in the group, and, excluding Lifa and perhaps Elu, they were all men .
By the standards of the research center, the men surrounding the two were on the young side . However, even the youngest among them was in his mid-twenties, which was still a decade older than Lifa . Come to think of it, just how old is Elu? While Harold was considering that, Lifa and the others sat down wherever they could near the center of the dining hall, along a long table where twenty other people were already sitting .
Perhaps it was a “let’s get to know each other” kind of gathering . He could feel the ulterior motives that came from the men, but the man to woman ratio was about 9 to 1 so there was no helping it . Lifa looked very young, but by this world’s standards, people wouldn’t point their fingers at someone having a relationship or marrying her .
From Harold’s point of view, she looked like a middle school student, and she sometimes behaved like she was in grade school, so all these adult males surrounding her reeked of depravity .
Incidentally, Harold was curious how the surrounding men would react if Elu’s still-uncertain-gender happened to be male .
As Harold thought of that, his eyes suddenly met Elu’s . Elu smiled for just an instant and merely gave Harold a nod .
Though their relationship wasn’t close enough for them to understand each other through eye contact, Harold figured this probably meant something along the lines of【”Don’t worry, I’m watching over her . ”】The day before, Harold had told Elu to avoid leaving Lifa by herself as much as possible, for he didn’t like her getting in contact with Justus .
Perhaps Elu’s action was intended to soothe Harold’s worries .
Elu was a very reliable person so Harold trusted him . Therefore, Harold moved his chin as if telling Elu【”I know already, just get back to it . ”】Perhaps Harold’s meaning had gotten through, as Elu joined the chat between the people sitting with him .
That must have been the occasion for Elu to gather some information .
Thus, Harold returned his focus to his meal, and silently ate the same food from the same standard menu he usually ordered .
It didn’t take him long to empty his plate . When he stood up to leave the dining hall, his surroundings became noisy for some reason . Moreover, the focus of that noise was Harold himself .
While he certainly was as hated as he could possibly be, he had no clue what would cause a reaction like this . The moment Harold’s feet stopped to find out what was happening, a voice came from behind him .
【”Harold, you’re leaving? Where are you going?”】
The one standing there was Elu . Next to Elu stood Lifa, who had been dragged along by her hand . Her face showed a little awkwardness .
Looking at the seats where the two were supposed to be, the men from the earlier gathering turned their line of sight towards Harold in hatred . Even Harold couldn’t help but wince a little from that resentment .
They probably were thinking that two beauties had just been snatched away from them by a detestable man . Their hostility was different than usual so Harold decided not to look at them .
【”Where I’m going is none of your business . ”】
【”It is . Didn’t you say you’d give me some of your time yesterday?”】
【”I said we’d meet midday . ”】
It was still around 7:30 in the morning now .
Few people would describe this time as midday . But perhaps Elu was among those few .
【”I heard that you were basically constantly free . So I thought we could do this a bit earlier . ”】
【”Even then, you should have confirmed that first . ”】
【”Oh, sorry . Then, do you have anything to do right now?”】
He had nothing to do . In fact, he had so much spare time he could leave and go on a trip right away if Elu had asked him .
Had it been up to him, Harold would have suggested they go as far as the hot springs of the Sumeragi house . His Japanese mindset was always seeking a bath .
【”If it’s fine, then please . I think it would be good if we could have more time for the first date between the three of us . ”】
Lifa yelled hysterically . Because of that, those shocking words even reached the staff members who were looking closely at Harold and the others .
Instantly, a wave of killing intent came from the numerous staff bachelors . Harold got the impression they might rush him, shouting【”Chiri to tomoni messeyo!”】Though he probably wouldn’t lose one-on-one in a close quarters battle, if he were outnumbered by enemies following the Way of the Shura, he would most likely be annihilated . It’s not like he could deal with having his heartbeat stopped .
( Evil Ryu, who follows the way of the Shura, shouts “I’ll stop your heartbeat!” at the end of his fights . )
(…Wait, no! This isn’t Street fighter!)
Harold somehow managed to straighten his confused and jumbled thoughts . This confusion only served to show how daunting Elu’s words had been .
Though this uproar depended on Lifa getting surprised, Elu wasn’t the kind of person who would accidentally attract attention in a place like this, so he probably had some kind of motive to purposely drop a bomb like a fake three person date .
However, the only one in this place aware of that was Harold .
For all the others, what they saw was a man, unanimously hated by everyone, the lowest of the low, trash lesser than a human being, who wanted to take two beautiful girls out on the town and keep them close . There was even a chance that some guy would show up, driven by righteous indignation, to “rescue Elu and Lifa from Harold’s vicious ways!”
To avoid being involved in these kinds of troublesome matters, Harold made a strategic withdrawal .
【”So, Harold . Wait for us at the main entrance! As for the specific time of our meeting, it’s―”】
Elu ostentatiously announced these words to Harold’s retreating back . Due to that merciless final blow, Harold was convinced that Elu was making trouble on purpose . If Elu was going to act like this, then Harold would have preferred to be notified about that in their earlier conversation, rather than them talking about moving the time of their outing up .
This situation had become even more troublesome for Harold .
Although the morning’s various events had robbed Harold of his energy, he arrived promptly at the time specified by Elu . His arms folded and leaning back against the gatepost of the research center’s main entrance, Harold waited with a sullen expression .
【”Hey there, sorry to keep you waiting . ”】
One of the people he had been waiting for, Elu, appeared without a hint of shame . Facing Elu’s fresh smile, Harold didn’t feel like complaining, but instead would prefer Elu explain the motive behind his earlier behavior .
The dining hall’s matter seemed to have already spread across the whole research center, and now he was getting looks of resentment from every direction . He didn’t feel any real danger to himself, but it was extremely annoying .
However, what Harold was the most worried about was Lifa’s suspicious behavior .
She looked depressed, didn’t meet his eyes, and her voice was shaking, showing her nervousness .
From all these elements, Harold reached one answer .
(Don’t tell me she’s still feeling down from being tricked by Justus)
Certainly, he had told her not to give Justus any opportunities to exploit . She was sorry for not being able to abide by that, while simultaneously being afraid of a scolding from Harold .
Though he was told about this beforehand by Elu, Harold didn’t think Lifa was that dispirited . She had made herself small, like a kid who was being scolded .
As Harold stepped forward, Lifa jumped back in surprise .
Without minding that, Harold put his left hand on Lifa’s head . And then, after securing his grip, he applied some strength, once again inflicting an iron claw on her .
【”It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!”】
After watching Lifa struggle for about three seconds, Harold loosened his hand .
Now free, Lifa glared at Harold, as expected .
【”Just what are you doing?!”】
【”Waking you up . ”】
Without elaborating, Harold passed out of the research center’s gates .
Lifa followed behind him while raising her voice in protest . Unaffected by that, Harold’s ears picked up the words that Elu was telling to himself as he smiled wryly .
【”Did he do this so they could get even? …Perhaps . ”】
Harold was a little surprised that Elu understood his actions that accurately, though he didn’t necessarily need him to do so .
The reason for his action was his belief that, judging from Lifa’s character, words alone wouldn’t be enough to get through to her, and even if words were an option, he didn’t know what kind of insults would pop out of his mouth if he thoughtlessly tried to comfort her and cheer her up .
From an outside perspective, it would be very hard to notice Harold’s concern . Usually, it was almost impossible for him to communicate properly .
Lifa seemed to be dissatisfied on the way to the town’s center, but when the group arrived at Main Street, the royal capital’s pride, Lifa’s mood immediately improved . “Wow!” She shouted in joy as she merrily walked to and fro down the street . She fit the image of a country bumpkin perfectly . It was as if whatever had made her feel down had been completely forgotten .
While Elu warmly watched Lifa’s retreating figure, Harold addressed him in a low voice, so that only he could hear him .
【”Now tell me, what’s the meaning behind this farce?”】
【”I thought that, if we are under suspicion anyway, we might as well take the initiative and make ourselves stand out . ”】
That was apparently the conclusion Elu had reached, but Harold couldn’t figure out his aim .
Sure, doing these kinds of things in public not only focused the research center’s attention on Harold, but on Elu and Lifa as well . Perhaps doing this would make it harder for Justus to make any moves on the two?
That’s all that Harold could come up with . His game knowledge wasn’t of much use for this kind of thing .
【”More importantly, Harold . Did you prepare the item I requested yesterday, to prove that I’m one of your people?”】
Elu suddenly changed the subject . Meanwhile, Lifa was scrutinizing the display of a store that sold fancy goods . Seems like she has quite the girly tastes, thought Harold rudely .
【”If you hold onto this, you’ll be recognized as a comrade . ”】
As he said so, Harold took out a key made of silver, with a crest engraved on it― Frieri’s logo . It was a fine piece he obtained through roundabout means, not by asking an artisan of the royal capital, but a worker in some town he dropped by during a mission .
While he was at it, Harold had also written a letter with his own handwriting, containing information that only he would know, in which he stated that Elu would be taking command of the organization .
【”Is this a key to the hideout’s door?”】
【”It just looks like a key for show . ”】
It was only made to smoothly confirm whether someone belonged to Frieri or not, so it didn’t have any purpose as a key .
But since it was shaped like a key, if an outsider found it, he would probably look for a door he could use it on . That’s why Harold had the idea of giving it this shape, to mislead people . But frankly speaking, he had some afterthoughts .
Incidentally, the current members of Frieri had been given bracelets and copper coins with the same logo . It was a craftsmanship that demanded some skill so it ate up a non-negligible amount of money, but Harold was satisfied overall . He believed it was important to invest in some nice-looking equipment for the organization’s first steps .
Though Elu looked with curious eyes at the unusable key he was given, he seemed convinced for the time being .
【”Mhm . By the way, where is the the base located?”】
Harold silently handed Elu a sheet of paper . Naturally, the place written down on the paper wasn’t in the royal capital, which was basically under Justus’ feet . Having said that, it would be difficult to travel there quickly if it was too far from the royal capital, and it would stand out if people started gathering in a small town .
A town that was far enough from the royal capital that Justus’ influence couldn’t reach it, and yet was relatively well populated and developed . That’s where Frieri’s stronghold was located .
【”You better not lose it . ”】
【”Roger . Then, let’s stop talking about work for a moment and enjoy our sightseeing . ”】
【”I don’t need to go looking around here…”】
Harold had been living here for more than five years, so there were almost no places that he didn’t know .
He instinctively let out a sigh . When he thought about how this whole troublesome situation came to be just for the sake of this one discussion, Harold felt a headache .
But that did not affect Elu’s smile .
【”Don’t say that . I know there is nothing fresh for you and I to see in this town, but for Lifa it’s… . Oh!”】
Elu staggered as a man, coming from the opposite direction, lightly jostled his shoulder . It didn’t seem like Elu was about to fall down, but Harold still immediately grabbed him by his thin shoulders and supported him .
Elu’s body was quite delicate . Though his exact age had never been officially established in the game’s lore, judging from his appearance, he was around 16 or 15 . Was it really possible for a man of that age to be this thin?
Though Harold had never stopped to consider this up until now, he suddenly had these thoughts . In a way, Elu was the most mysterious character of the game’s story .
【”Thank you . You’re unexpectedly kind . ”】
【”Stop with the blabbering, moron . ”】
Embarrassed from being called kind for the first time in a very long while, Harold suddenly let go of Elu . Having noticed the gesture, Elu was chuckling at him .
In his awkwardness, Harold pretended to be oblivious and went to secure Lifa, who was bustling around the street and was about to become a lost child .