It was questionable whether Harold had made it through the crisis or not, but at least he had managed to finish the discussion in the living room without revealing the things he wanted to keep hidden . He could tell from looking at Colette that she likely would not speak about the secret they shared, so as long as he kept his eyes on Liner, no troublesome situation would arise .
On top of that, he had induced the original story’s hero party to go solve the miasma problem, so perhaps it was fine to say that this event had actually gone well .
He was still wrecking his brains about which direction to take with his plans in the future, but at least things would go favorably well until “that scene” .
What “that scene” referred to was, in short, the event where Harold would antagonize Liner and the others .
In that event, the group had entered the enormous flying fortress made by Justus and were very close to catching up to him, but someone suddenly appeared in their way, and it was no other than Harold Stokes . He had been deluded by Justus’ flattery and strengthened by the astral potion, so beating him was one of the greatest challenges that the hero’s party faced on their journey . Then, once they defeated Harold, they failed to catch Justus, and the scene moved to their final fight, but Harold was troubled about how to deal with that battle, as well .
As for whether there was a way to avoid this by finding someone fit to be Harold’s substitute in his fight against Liner and the others, the answer was no . There was only a number of months left, in that short of a time frame, there was no way to find someone capable enough to take care of the hero’s party in the last stage of the story .
Even if he still got through that event without using a substitute, then what would happen? Harold could not tell at all .
All he actually had to do was to defeat Justus before he would get to run away and then everyone would live happily ever after, but it was hard to believe that that man did not have some means to defend himself . He most certainly had some countermeasures prepared for that .
Or rather, in the last fight, Justus had made use of the energy at the start to fight, so it would be troublesome if he was cornered and ended up releasing his power in a different setting from the original story . Clashing directly against him would probably just raise the possibility of losing .
Moreover, aside from Harold not wanting to change the overall progress of the events, his chances of success would rise for sure if he fought in the actual final scene which he was already familiar with and prepared for . Therefore, at this point, he wanted to do his very best to not alter the flow of the story .
(As I thought, I suppose I’m gonna have to do it…)
Harold had considered the method of becoming a member of the hero’s party so as to manage the actions of Liner and the others, however, he couldn’t help but conclude that it would be too difficult to control them . Plus, his dangerous relationship with Erica would not have a good influence, and even if he resolved the misunderstandings he had with her, the ill feelings she had towards him would probably not disappear all that simply .
In the first place, Harold did not even know whether Justus’ actions would be the same as they were in the original story or not, but he was afraid that it would be meaningless to think about that too much . Because if Justus’ actions really were to change, then all hope would be lost .
As Harold indulged in those speculations, his thoughts were forcefully interrupted .
【”I’ve never seen a bath this huge!”】
【”It seems to be called an onsen, an outdoor, hot spring bath . Their culture is quite unfamiliar to me but this is splendid . ”】
It was no exaggeration to say that what Harold valued the most in the Sumeragi residence was their outdoor bath . After he had separated from the others, he went to take a break in a room and then decided to refresh himself in the outdoor bath since he had been unable to do that for a long time, but the general atmosphere vanished when three people’s voices suddenly barged in .
The trio that appeared was composed of Liner, Hugo, and Francis . They also noticed Harold, who had entered the bath before them .
【”Oh, Harold . ”】(Francis)
【”You came here, too?”】(Liner)
Two of them very naturally dived into the bath from both sides of Harold, splashing the very hot water and coming into direct contact with it .
The two then jumped up while screaming “It’s hot!”, and in response to their loud complaint, Harold glared at them as if asking “What the hell are you doing?” .
【”Don’t soak your filthy bodies inside, you idiots . You can come once you’ve fully washed yourselves . ”】
【”Sorry about that!”】
As they were pressured into doing so, Liner and Francis escaped towards the washing place . Washing one’s body before entering the bath was not really established as good mannerism, but Harold, who had turned into the outdoor baths’ magistrate, was quite particular about that .
Passing by the two others who were going away, Hugo, who had washed the dirt and sweat on him, entered the hot spring bath .
【”… Say, hmm, Harold, was it?”】
Hugo and Harold had been lined up while soaking in the bath, and after a brief period of silence, Hugo had started talking .
【”What do you want?”】
【”Well, recently, I met someone who was quite similar to you . I didn’t see his face but he had the same voice and tone as you . ”】
It seemed like Hugo somehow was already having suspicions . Well, that was only natural .
Harold had kept both his face and name hidden from him, but besides that, he had taken no other measures to hide his identity . That was because both of their encounters had come at an unexpected timing .
【”…And, what about that?”】
【”Well, I don’t have any problem with it, and I’m not thinking of telling anyone either . It’s just that, there were two other people accompanying that man as his partners . For some reason, I’ve been wondering whether they’re all right . Well, that’s probably all nonsense though . ”】
【”I don’t know anything about whatever you’re talking about, nor about those two people… But I’ll just say that you don’t need to worry about that . ”】
【”Oh, is that so? Then, it’s all good . ”】
Although the thought process behind his choice was not clear, Hugo seemed like he was not going to tell others about the matter in the Haibar ruins . He seemed to be concerned about Lilium and Ventus, whose inability to communicate had slipped from Harold’s mouth before .
Hugo might have become aware of who they were in the earlier discussion when two people of the stellar tribe, who were taken for human experiments, were mentioned . Perhaps he had connected what Harold had said about them not being safe with the fact that they could not communicate .
【”Then, now that my head’s all cleared, let’s go peep at the women’s bath!”】
The serious atmosphere radically changed as Hugo abruptly said these words while standing up, but he then fell down when his back was mercilessly kicked by Harold . A big column of hot water rose up as Hugo fell forward and sank in the bath .
Starting from there, the onsen became very noisy . Liner and Hugo were splashing water at each other, and they captured Francis to then push him into the hot spring . As he shouted “Hot! Way too hot!”, his appearance looked quite appropriate for a young man his age .
It felt like they were making friends with each other way too fast, but considering the future ahead, that was a good thing . However, since they were being unbearably noisy, Harold stealthily escaped while the three of them were getting into high spirits because of their first time in an onsen .
I’ll go change to a yukata and hurry back to my room . As Harold thought that, he left towards the corridor, and there, he suddenly encountered Lifa .
When she saw Harold, there was a look of shock on her face .
【”Hey, what the hell are the guys doing? They’re being so noisy, I don’t even feel like taking a bath anymore . ”】
Apparently, the three men were so noisy as they played around that they could be heard all the way to the women’s bath . However, even though Lifa told him about that, there was not much Harold could do to help .
【”What a coincidence . I had the same problem . ”】
Or rather, the place had been exceedingly noisy to him since the noises of the splashing water and of the quarreling voices had arisen in his direct presence, as he had witnessed the playful scene with his own eyes .
【”…Oh, I see what’s going on . ”】
Lifa immediately understood Harold’s situation and breathed a sigh .
She had been about to go to her room before so she continued walking down the corridor by Harold’s side . While on the way, she spoke up in a displeasured manner, having seemingly recalled something .
【”Oh right, Harold, by the way, you should tell me about those kinds of things from the get go next time . ”】
【”What are you talking about?”】
【”You showed me that machine on the way to the Sumeragi territory and all you said was “Look for a way to deactivate this”, I didn’t think it was such an important matter . ”】
【”No matter how I went about it, it wouldn’t have changed anything from what you had to do . So it’s irrelevant . ”】
【”Like hell it is!”】
Although Lifa was getting angry, at Harold, he actually had his reasons for what he did .
First of all, as a prerequisite for what the team was going to do next, Lifa had to deactivate that device; otherwise, it would have been all over . In the original story, the group had entered the mountain in the name of investigating the cause of the miasma outbreak, by the end of the search, they finally found the device and Lifa deactivated it .
It was not possible to assess whether that was really easy for Lifa, or whether that scene was just portrayed like in the story only because it was convenient for the game . Therefore, Harold had Lifa analyze the device beforehand, at a time when her thoughts were not yet occupied with extra factors . Such as looking for Liner and the others, and searching for solutions to the miasma problem . That especially applied to the latter, for it would have put some great stress on her .
Harold was not sure if it was because of what he did, but it seemed like, as a result, Lifa’s response turned out to be splendid . She had given a powerful, confident answer, ascertaining that she could disable the device without a problem .
【”Seriously, you’re so self-centered . ”】
【”Sure, like you’re one to talk . ”】
After all, Lifa was the one who had forcefully accompanied Harold with no regards to what he had to say about that .
【”… . And yet, even though you’re so selfish, you still worry about her . ”】
Lifa suddenly muttered that .
【”What are you on about?”】
【”I’m talking about Erica . You insisted that she’s not your fiancee, but her elder brother seems to think otherwise . ”】
【”He’s just making that claim of his own accord . ”】
【”But how does Erica dissatisfy you? She’s beautiful, she’s graceful, and just earlier, she was considerably cordial towards Colette and me even though we’re not nobles . And her personality is good, too, right?”】
Harold could not find anything to answer back on the spot . It wasn’t like he disliked Erica, he was just keeping her away because he was too afraid to cause any death flags to come to him .
Save for that, he had no dissatisfaction or complaints regarding Erica as a member of the opposite sex . She was at a level where one would have to wonder: Was there really a straight man in the world who could complain about a girl of her caliber? Also, of course, she was the most popular character among the players, as well .
As he thought about such things, Harold stayed silent .
【”I guess this has nothing to do with me and I’m just poking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but what I mean is that your attitude towards Erica doesn’t seem like yourself . ”】
【”It doesn’t seem like myself, you say?”】
【”That’s right . You only say cynical and harsh things, but you’re also kind of intolerant of the people who still get close to you with no regards to your attitude . I think I’m a pretty good example since you went as far as kidnapping me to tell me to go home, but still, in the end, here I am . ”】
【”That’s because you’re darn persistent . ”】
【”That just might be the case, but then, why are you actively trying to keep Erica away? She’s not trying to get closer to you . ”】
It was impossible for Harold to answer . Because in order to explain that, he would have to explain that this world resembled a game he used to play, or that he knew the future, which would make him seem insane .
【”You say that her elder brother is the only one who still keeps talking about her being your fiancee, and that you both don’t care about each other . However, if that was the truth, then I think you wouldn’t need to keep “only” Erica away from yourself like that . ”】
Nobody up to now, not even Harold himself, had perceived this incongruity that could not really be called an inconsistency . Yet Lifa had accurately seen through it .
Perhaps her keen perception and her ability to think things through like that was what made her a genius .
【”In a certain sense, you’re quite impartial . You say harsh things to everyone, no matter whom, and you have no interest in who gets driven away by that . That was how you behaved with the Laboratory’s people . ”】
Lifa kept talking to Harold who was still unable to say anything back .
【”But since you only feel indifference towards them, you’re actually pushing Erica away even further away than them . Because with Erica, you’re not harsh like you usually are with others . You’re cold towards her . As if there was something you were afraid of . ”】
That was mostly correct . Harold was afraid of raising death flags because of Erica . Perhaps that feeling had infected his behavior and Lifa had perceived that as him being cold .
【”Me, Afraid? What, are you Stupid?”】
【”…Well, I’m kind of just throwing accusations right now . My bad, forget about it . ”】
“See you later”, after saying that, without looking at Harold’s face, Lifa disappeared behind a corner in the direction of her room .
She had told Harold to forget, but for some reason, the words she had left him with were like wedged into his chest, and he was not going to be able to forget them easily .