It was a time where the night had yet to fade.
Beneath the darkness dimly lit only by the moon and the stars was Hayase Takashi.
White vapour rose up amidst the chilly evening air; however, it did not come from his breathing.
Takashi was dressed in attire that allowed him to move freely; he was only wearing a tank-top for a shirt, and the steam came from his body, his shirt doing little to prevent it from seeping through the light material. Sweat trickled from his cheek down to the nape of his neck.
In his hands was a long lance—a spiritual replica of Reienkyo.
He was now in the courtyard of the Hayase household; he was already worn out of breath, leaning his heavy, fatigued body upon Reienkyo.
However, Takashi pressed on with an ear-splitting cry. Breaking through the limits of his own stamina, there was no hesitation or stammering in his movement, nor did his speed falter.
He let out countless stabbing motions and stomped the ground, dancing in mid-air.
There was no sign of an enemy before Takashi; Reienkyo’s cutting motions also merely sliced through the space before him.
“He’s already become much stronger by now…!”
Takashi pictured his opponent in his mind; it was a former friend of his, someone whom had defeated him even when he had wielding Byakko just several months ago—it was none other than Toujou Basara.
He now pictured a Basara that had become several times stronger since they last clashed; however, he knew that Basara himself had grown to be far stronger that Takashi could ever imagine—that was the kind of person Basara was, after all.
“Not yet…Not yet!!”
He would not be able to surpass Basara if he didn’t push himself to his limits.
And so Takashi continued swinging Reienkyo as if he were sharpening himself—however, his gaze no longer held the resentment he had toward Basara when he battled him back then.
A long time passed before daybreak eventually arrived.
Takashi, who had finally stopped moving, steadied his breathing as he basked in the morning sunlight that lightly dyed the mountains of the Village.
His eyes were fixated on a single spot—within his line of sight for some time was a sunken corner of the mountains of the Village, looking as if though it had been scraped off.
The actual space had been bore from that section—and it was the result of the tragedy that occurred during that horrific day.
And Takashi watched on, the memory remaining fresh in his mind, as if it happened only yesterday.
Following a shower, getting dressed and finishing breakfast, Takashi departed from his home.
He was about to take a visit to a certain household.
The house seemed to show no sign of activity, but it wasn’t because no one was awake this early in the morning; it was vacant.
It was the Toujou household—the household where Basara and Jin once lived in.
Takashi now held a vacuum cleaner and a dust cloth in his hands; after unlocking the front door with the duplicate key he held, he began cleaning the neglected household with the vacuum cleaner.
He was already very used to cleaning up this house; the house possessed almost no furniture and was marred by nothing but the dust that one would expect to collect in it after being abandoned for so long, and he spared not even a room when cleaning it. After vacuuming the house, all that was left for him to do was to clean every nook and cranny of it with his dust cloth.
Despite its emptiness and it being a detached residence, it took Takashi almost an hour to finish cleaning the house.
After he finished wiping the house, he lightly tapped his waist.
“I’m still not used to this,” he muttered. Takashi felt no comfort in such work despite having done it many times before, finding his training easier than cleaning up the household.
Takashi surveyed the empty Toujou household that he had just finished cleaning up just a short moment ago, and snorted.
After Basara had left the Village, Yuki had been the one responsible for tidying up the neglected house; she had hid such a habitual deed from everyone in the Village, and she had continued to clean up and tend to the house, perhaps in the hopes that Basara would return to the Village someday.
He had been aware that Yuki had been doing this for quite some time, though he wasn’t sure if he could say the same for anyone else.
“But I’ll stick to it anyway, since you’re not around anymore.” He said, his words directed at no one. Takashi had reluctantly resumed the duty of cleaning the household on a weekly basis after Yuki had left the village, finding himself unfitting of the job.
By the time Takashi left the Toujou household, the scenery outside had changed; the Village had started to come alive as the morning progressed, and Takashi could see familiar faces bustling about in activity.
With his vacuum cleaner and cloth in hand, Takashi began to walk home. Occasionally, he would get the feeling as if though someone was staring daggers at him.
It’s inevitable, he thought.
Many within the Village held an ill view toward Toujou Basara; Basara himself had garnered such a sullied reputation, even if Takashi himself didn’t ask for it.
The tense atmosphere directed at him didn’t come about because Takashi had been cleaning his household, however; it was more so because Takashi had taken one of the sacred treasures of the Village with him, Byakko, and had still been defeated by Basara regardless.
In spite of all that, however, Takashi held his head high amidst the surrounding animosity; Takashi himself had willingly chosen to assume the duty of cleaning the abandoned Toujou household, and he prided himself in the path that he had chosen on his own volition.
“I’ve not chosen the way of the Hero Clan. I’ve simply chosen to walk down my own path, the path of Toujou Basara.”
The words that Basara had said that day went through Takashi’s mind, and he stopped in his tracks.
Takashi walked toward an abandoned building separated from the street—it was a former inn.
The afternoon sunlight lightly pierced through the unmaintained windows, dust flying about within the building’s interior.
Takashi could hear something resembling an animal’s growl blending into the sound of his own footsteps, and he could also detect the fishy stench of a worn-out tatami mat.
Takashi abruptly ceased his footsteps; the culprit of these unpleasant senses was present before him.
The interior of the gloomy room was extremely spacious; the place was likely previously used as a banquet hall.
Stepping on a barely intact tatami mat was a muscular demon; although it was not as large as the giant demon Valga that towered over Takashi in the past, this one still stood more than two heads taller than him, and its muscles seemed to be keenly toned. Its face seemed to resemble that of a wolf’s, and shrouding its body was a coat of sharp fur.
“What’s this…a Hero, huh?” The bestial demon glared at Takashi, spitting out saliva. “Are you going to kill me here? How very like you humans.” Baring his sharp teeth, he let out a hateful voice.
“To hell with the Moderate Faction. The Demon Lord Faction can suck it too. I’ve simply sided with the wrong pack. I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“I’ve simply killed whom I see as enemies. And I was exiled because of that! I was ridiculed…! I was almost KILLED!”
“Revenge…! I WILL have my revenge! All those who chased me away…I’ll SLAUGHTER them all! So stay out of my way. I’m the one who’s right!”
“So you’ve come here to fulfil your duty, huh? You Heroes are all nothing but dedicated to your orders…do you want to die over such a reason?”
The demon picked up something beside it with his right hand; it was a young girl. The girl seemed to be a high school student, and while she had lost consciousness, she appeared to still be breathing. Her school uniform had been viciously torn, though Takashi could see from his current distance that there was no sign of any large wounds on the girl, meaning that the demon had yet to harm her or do anything similar.
The demon clutched the girl’s head as she miserably writhed in his grasp amidst her unconsciousness; Takashi remained fixated at the sight before him, and had yet to move an inch.
“Just like that, you’re all just weak, aren’t you? Do you understand now? I can crush you easier that I could crush a mere piece of fruit!”
The wolf-headed demon jeered at Takashi, and the next moment, it disappeared.
In an instant, the demon suddenly appeared right in front of Takashi again, thrusting his arm toward Takashi’s chest as his thick, sharp claws ripped through Takashi’s clothes. His attacks came consecutively and without mercy, shaking his target.
His blows aimed for Takashi’s temporal region and the slashing motions of his claws drew the Hero’s blood. Takashi staggered backwards and returned his attention to his enemy, and the demon turned its whole body around and delivered a kick that attempted to finish him off; taking the attack upfront, the attack sent Takashi flying toward the wall behind him, the force of the attack producing a crack where he collided.
Soundlessly, Takashi collapsed and rolled upon the floor.
“Will you make your move? Or will you do nothing knowing how strong I am? Well, I guess I should commend you either way. It’s not every day someone actually listens to what I say.” The demon laughed as he held the girl’s head in his hands. “I’m going to rip this girl to shreds and kill her after that. Too bad for you, Mr. Hero.”
“Is that so…” Takashi murmured.
The demon’s arm who held the girl was suddenly sliced off and sent flying; next was the demon’s torso, sliced straight through in a horizontal line, and the head fell off its socket last. It was too late for the demon as its lower half slumped to the floor, and the demon met its demise without so much as a single shriek.
And standing behind where the demon once stood was none other than Takashi; traces of Reienkyo’s slashes suddenly appeared on the floor beside him.
Takashi gently held the girl that demon had held hostage in his arms; Takashi did not escape the skirmish unscathed however, as the demon’s claw had ripped part of his shirt, blood trickling from the exposed wound, though the wound itself was far from fatal.
He had not taken the full brunt of the attack; in other words, he had evaded the attack with his innate speed from hitting him squarely, and he utilized only a single slash to cut through the demon’s skin.
And the moment the demon was distracted from the hostage he held after seemingly thinking it was assured of certain victory, he swiftly cut the demon down.
That was all the battle he had just fought amounted to him.
“—Duty, huh…” Takashi ruminated on the words he just said, sparing not even a final glance toward the demon’s fallen corpse.
His thoughts then returned to that of Basara, his childhood friend who was exiled from the Village, and the unreserved gaze he held; the hatred that had festered within his heart could not compare to the hatred the demon he had defeated possessed.
“The way of the Hero Clan,” He murmured, “That’s the path I’ve chosen…I, Hayase Takashi.”
Waiting for the Village’s first aid arrangements to arrive, Takashi sought for a place for the girl to lie down. Finding a suitable spot that he thought wasn’t that dirty, he gently placed the girl upon it to rest, before he attempted to place his own coat upon the girl with her clothes ripped from the attack.
The girl seemed to have a lot more exposed than he had expected; beneath her torn blouse with its buttons undone, Takashi could see that she wore a simple sports bra underneath, one that would typically by worn by that of a junior high school girl; he could also notice a pair of well-maintained thighs beneath her lacerated skirt.
The girl held a particular appeal despite her miserable state and the fact she had yet to mature into her prime, and Takashi forced his eyes away from her, his face inevitably reddening from the sight.
Allowing himself no direct view of the girl, he carefully gauged her presence and covered the girl with his coat.
Sundown had arrived by the time Takashi had returned to the Village; after getting his wound healed and finishing his report, the sky was already pitch black when Takashi finally reached his home.
And Takashi continued his training in the household garden after a few hours passed, although Takashi had heart and speed, he had been reminded time and time again that the foundation of true strength was to hone his own body; that said, he had not build up not only his own skills, but also the abilities of his own body.
He was now doing push-ups with his hands curled into fists; sweat leaked from his bandaged body and trickled to the ground.
Amidst his exercise, Takashi suddenly sensed the presence of someone opposite the fence. He turned toward said presence and let out a slight look of surprise when he discovered who it was—it was Kumano, one of the elders of the Village.
“Sorry to interrupt. Aren’t you supposed to relax?”
Takashi stopped his push-ups and stood up before lowering his head respectfully, to which Kumano simply waved a hand of dismissal.
“Let us talk for a bit,” Kumano began, retaining his grip on the fence. “The girl you rescued today seems to be alright now. She’s received medical aid and counselling from one of the Village hospitals.”
“I see. It’s good that things turned out for the best.” Takashi’s expression did not change, as he simply let out a faint breath in response.
At the same time, however, there was suspicion in his eyes, though it was not because he doubted the truth of the girl’s welfare.
The Village elder had come to inform him of such news for a reason; Takashi had no real right in itself to know of such a detail after his mission in the first place, and even if he did, they could have simply informed him through a messenger or a phone call. The elder before him did not come out merely to stroll at this hour.
“Toujou Basara will be returning.” Kumano said, noticing Takashi’s scepticism.
“Basara…?” Takashi was unable to hide his surprise.
“Unexpected, isn’t it? They’ll be arriving tomorrow.”
“I see. Even so…”
Why was he speaking of this now?
“Well, it’s fine to keep up your guard.” Kumano said, letting off a kind-hearted smile. “I was wondering if I could entrust the preparation of their meals to you.”
Despite being given the unexpected request, Takashi somehow understood why Kumano had come to meet him; it was necessary to prepare meals for a guest.
It would have been more suitable for the Nonaka family to be responsible for this task given how close they were to the Toujou family; however, Yuki and Kurumi had left the Village to travel together with Basara, and this also presented the risk of an information breach toward the surrounding factions of the Village, and they had no choice but to proceed with caution. Although the elders had supervised the subordinates under their control to make preparations for their arrival, it also meant that it caused them to be more wary of Basara and the others. That said, many among the Village held conflicted feelings when it came to the Toujou family, and to entrust any of them with such a task would only bring about more issues.
Thus, Takashi, who was living on his own, was deemed to be the most suitable person to accommodate them in order to maintain neutrality.
“Is it alright if I leave this to you? I do understand that there’s a lot on—” Kumano asked, surprised by Takashi’s immediate answer.
“I have no reason to refuse. I’m the only one who’s capable of making meals for Basara during his stay in the Village.” Takashi accepted the task, knowing that it couldn’t be helped.
“I see. I’ll leave it to you, then.” Kumano said. Somehow, he could feel the vigour from Takashi from the vibe the latter was giving him.
And so Hayase Takashi put in all his efforts in completing the task he was given.
“Just thinking about being unable to do something like this unsettles me.”
He was now in the Hayase household kitchen; after Kumano left, Takashi immediately got to work and began preparing the best ingredients he had stored in the house until now, ingredients that could be used for the occasion.
It was already very late at night, and it was unlikely that the grocery stores would have an adequate supply of ingredients available.
The vegetables raised in the grandeur of the Village tasted delicious, and various kinds of meat were stored in the refrigerator.
“The best ingredients,” He said, confidently. Looking at the time, it was already past 10 p.m.
He would dedicate today to his duties. While he would usually make preparations for bed around this time, he had decided that he would pull an all-nighter for the day.
He wanted to make cooking that Basara could never refuse to oblige; to that, he would utilize the best of his skills cultivated throughout his time living alone, skills that even his fellow heroes would be proud of.
“Let’s go. This is…me. Hayase Takashi.”
By the time Takashi had finished, the night had started to light up, as Takashi stared at the dazzling sight of the sun’s rays shining through the window.
Before him was the hard-prepared cooking he’d put his heart into neatly packed within a jubako (tiered food box); nimono (Japanese stewed or simmered dish, mostly using vegetables) was the centrepiece of his cuisine, knowing that it would be best to avoid making something that needed to be eaten immediately after it was finished, such as a salad, because Takashi did not know the exact time Basara and the others would arrive.
He’d picked up some Japanese coltsfoots and bamboo shoots around the Village, as well as some zemmai (Asian royal fern), commonly used in nimono as a dish amply seasoned in soy sauce. Along with these was a side of tamagotoji (Japanese style scramble eggs) made with koya tofu (freeze-dried tofu) as well as another nimono made from pumpkin, all of which suitably complemented the overall flavour of the food he’d chosen to make.
Fresh river fish was another staple for the meal, as it was something that could also be enjoyed cold much like the aforementioned dishes. Due to the nature of the food he’d prepared, he’d also added fresh ginger in order to alleviate the fishy smell that came with the simmered food and bring about a pleasant mood.
However, while he doubted that Basara would have any qualms with being provided Japanese food having once grown up in the Village just as he did, he surmised that Naruse Mio might make a fuss about it; quite frankly, he didn’t want to be complacent over the fact that he’d worried about more than just making dinner for his guests.
That said, he’d also prepared Western food in addition to Japanese food; the former cuisine consisted of cabbage rolls out of some tender spring cabbage, curry-flavoured hamburger, as well as his especially made teriyaki chicken, which would taste delicious even if would turn cold.
The appetizing aroma of his home-cooked food wafted in the air, such that it caused even Takashi’s own stomach to rumble.
Of course, he’d also taken the balance of the meal into consideration, and had added broccoli and asparagus for good measure. He’d also considered how the rice he made would turn cold much like the rest of the dishes he prepared, and thus made it into takikomigohan (rice seasoned with ingredients), adding chicken, gobo (great burlock) as well as some root vegetables such as carriots.
Given his current abilities and the way he’d currently set out the jubako, he considered it perfect.
And with this…neither Basara nor Naruse Mio would complain about the food served to them, and they would obtain the optimal nutritional balance from the meal.
Takashi closed his eyes as he let out a smile of satisfaction. It’s not as if Kumano had enquired or suggested that he go that far when preparing their meals; he always had the option of either preparing or ordering bento boxes from the stores or just ask for food from a delivery service.
Takashi had only realized he’d go that far the moment he learned that he would be meeting with Basara again; it was an entirely different story then.