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Chapter 160: The Second Explanation
「You want to know……more about me?」
Junichi parroted back, somewhat at a loss. Obviously taken aback by his little sister’s undisguised desire to learn about him, the youth could only return a dumbfounded expression as his mind ground to a halt.
「Yes. Would that……be ok?」
The little sister asked, her eyes still clear despite the hesitation creeping back into her heart. Even though she felt guilty about forcing the matter in this way, Mana’s conviction was firm, as she truly wished to find out more about her older brother.
After all, despite knowing him for a few years, there was very little that she actually knew about him.
Seeing the youth sink into a contemplative silence, Mana faltered slightly as she called out to him. Of course, the real reason why the jet-black beauty was so perturbed, to the point where her cheeks even blushed faintly, was because Junichi continued to stare directly into her eyes.
But then again, who could blame her? It was almost as though his unblinking pupils were penetrating her, exposing every inch of her heart and the convictions that it held. Anyone would be shaken if they were to be on the receiving end of such an enigmatic gaze.
—well, either that or she was simply flustered by the fact that his face was so close that their noses were practically touching.
「*sigh* Such a troublesome little sister.」
Having seemingly finished his whatever thoughts he was contemplating in his mind, Junichi spat out a mouthful of air, habitually scratching his scalp as he turned back to his sister. Contrary to the youth, however, Mana simply tensed up instead, flinching back as though anticipating the worst.
Though, luckily for her, that never came to pass.
「Alright, alright. Guess it can’t be helped.」
Junichi shrugged, smiled wryly at his sister’s trembling body. Although he maintained his same aloof persona, his demeanour had visibly softened as he lightly ruffled Mana’s hair.
「C’mon. You want to know about me, right? Where do you wanna start?」
Despite initially being confused by the sudden hand on her head, Mana soon realised that it was her brother’s way of reassuring her that she had no reason to fear. And so, in response to the youth’s suggestion, Mana placed her hands on top of Junichi’s, not allowing him to remove it as she allowed herself to bask in his warmth.
And, as she continued to immerse herself in the nostalgic sensation, the following words spilt forth quietly from her mouth.
「So, Aniki. How did you become so strong?」
「Back to Aniki, huh?」
「You got a problem with that?」
「N-No. Not at all.」
After a period of sibling bonding, the little sister regained herself, pulling herself together as she sprung her first question.
Of course, out of all the questions she had, this was probably the biggest. After all, the youth’s strength was a complete mystery not just to her, but to many others as well. It’s likely that even the mercenary sisters were kept in the dark about how he gained such battle prowess.
Junichi echoed, a somewhat subtle expression creeping on his face. It was quite rare to see a mixture of repressed angst and a hint of self-loathing clouding the youth’s features.
Though, since it was soon replaced with a wry smile, Mana doubted her eyes as she half-believed that the youth’s momentary faltering was but an illusion.
「I’m not really that strong, though.」
「No, no, no. How can you say that after beating everyone from the upper tier of the student council?!」
Mana promptly interjected, unable to hold herself back as she immediately contradicted her brother. But then again, who could blame her? Anyone who witnessed his display during the final round would also find such a claim be utterly preposterous.
「Hm? Oh…you’re talking about that strength, huh. That’s just being good at combat.」
Deliberating briefly after having his statement so fiercely denied, Junichi seemed to have resolved some sort of misunderstanding, correcting himself as he offhandedly dismissed his prowess with a simple summary.
And, while Mana couldn’t help but feel slightly frustrated with her brother’s attitude for some reason, a sigh leaked from her lips as she decided to let go of her angst for the time being.
「Still……where did you learn how to do all that?」
「Well…you know how I was overseas until 5 years ago? I learned it there.」
「You went to the US, right? They must have some really skilled instructors at the dojos there.」
In the face of Junichi’s answer, the little sister found herself becoming curious about the trainers that he must have had in the western world.
After all, the moves that he pulled off during the faction war were by far and away more complex than the manoeuvres that she’d been taught at the dojo. Furthermore, combining gunplay with taijutsu techniques was so unorthodox that it truly made Mana curious as to who taught her brother how to fight.
—however, it would seem that the little sister had drawn her conclusions a little prematurely.
「Dojos? What are you talking about?」
「Eh? You didn’t learn from dojos?」
「Besides the one I showed you the other day, I haven’t been to any dojos.」
Junichi responded bluntly, his face distorting a little as the face of said dojo’s owner flashed in his mind. Then again, anyone who could keep a straight face in front of the anomaly that was Hashimoto Sango were either monsters or those of the same ilk.
「But if you didn’t learn how to fight like that from dojos, then where……」
Unaware of the youth’s inner thoughts, however, Mana grew even more confused, the origin of the youth’s skills eluding her as she voiced her doubts towards her dark-haired brother.
The response she got, however, was something completely out of her expectations.
「? I was in the military, you know?」
「What, is it that surprising?」
「Of course it is!! I didn’t know you were in the army, Aniki!!?」
「Ah, well, now you know.」
Contrasting Mana’s emphatic bewilderment, Junichi remained composed, his aloof tone bordering closely upon deadpan.
Contrary to belief, the youth’s half-hearted response did not reflect his view of his experience in the military. At the same time, however, he did not feel that it was a story that was necessary to share with others.
After all, while full of joys and laughter, the story he kept inside him also held its fair shares of drama and sorrow.
「……wait a second, Aniki. If you were in the military back when you were overseas……and you didn’t come back until just 5 years ago……」
As her intuition picked up on something strange about Junichi’s statement, Mana began to murmur, her mutterings reflecting her train of thought as she slowly, yet surely noticed the glaring implication behind the youth’s confession.
「-doesn’t that mean you became a soldier at only 12 years old!?!?!」
The young girl shrieked, completely dumbfounded by the conclusion that she had reached. But then again, could one really blame her? After all, who could ever believe something as ridiculous as a child being enlisted in the military?
Nevertheless, in the face of Mana’s dramatic reaction, Junichi remained calm, maintaining his own pace as he offhandedly corrected his sister’s misunderstanding.
「Nope. I joined them before that. I think I enlisted when I was 8 or something.」
「Wait, wait, wait, wait!? How do you even enlist at that age!?!」
「Beats me. I was recruited, so I don’t really know the particulars.」
「J-Just how did you—-no, nevermind. Let’s move on.」
Fearing that she was losing touch with reality, an even more stupefied Mana found herself becoming more confused with each answer that her brother gave. Yet, noticing that she would continue to pursue each questionable answer until no end at this rate, the little sister ultimately decided to swallow her discomfort, lest she lose sight of her original objective.
In doing so, however, she failed to realise that the very act of neglecting to critique said answers meant that she had already lost her grip on reality.
「So you had military training? But I’ve never seen any soldiers fight like that, before.」
「Well, my commander was a bit peculiar……or rather, the whole squad was.」
「I see……so that’s how you became so strong?」
「Well, that and a few skirmishes on the battlefield. Man……those were the days……」
Junichi spoke, his eyes seemingly gazing into the distance as he was overcome by nostalgia. From what she could see, Mana felt that the youth was reminiscing fondly about his comrade in arms.
Yet, for some reason, there was something…more to it. She couldn’t quite pick out what it was, but an additional, indescribable emotion was mixed into his features, causing the girl to become all the more curious.
And so, she dared to probe further.
「I see……you must really cherish them. Have you been keeping in touch?」
「Touch, huh? Well………I guess you could say that.」
The youth answered vaguely, returning a wry smile as he averted his gaze. Although subtle, Mana could tell from the complexity in his eyes that there was something deeper. Something that he wasn’t telling her.
That said, this complexity vanished in an instant as Junichi shrugged, skimming over his little sister’s misgivings before summarising with the following.
「Anyway, that’s pretty much it. I fought and fought with my life on the line. If I didn’t get strong, then I probably wouldn’t be here right now.」
Caught off guard by her brother’s statement, Mana was taken aback. Flinching backwards, the girl felt her eyes open wide as the latter half of the youth’s statement bounced around in her head.
In the army, Junichi fought with his life on the line. He risked his life in every skirmish. As he said, it was through this experience that he had become strong.
However, he was only able to build his combat prowess because he continued to survive. Had he made one wrong step on the battlefield, then………
「N-No! I don’t–!!」
Mana reflexively shrieked, her face paling as she desperately clutched her trembling body. Faced with the spectre of the dark-haired youth, bloody and limp in a trench littered with corpses, caused her blood to run cold.
The possibility of her brother dying was so shocking to her that her entire being subconsciously rejected it. At the mere thought of his permanent departure, her body lost all of its strength as her heartbeat accelerated profusely in panic.
「Mana. I know it’s hard to face, but that’s the truth.」
Although he noticed his little sister’s volatile state, the youth did not choose to backpedal on his statement but rather reinforced it even further. In doing so, Mana’s face became even paler as the horror threatened to suffocate her.
Perhaps……the reason why he never talked about this was that he predicted this would happen—or so Mana would surmise later on. For the meantime, however, she was overcome with an intense and unrelenting fear.
And yet, instead of trying to snap her out of her panic–
–Junichi simply drew close and hugged her.
Allowing his warmth to seep into her frozen pores, the boy gently took the maiden into his arms, softly enveloping her in his presence. Feeling his little sister trembling in his embrace, Junichi simply brought her closer, reassuring her of one thing.
Even though he could’ve died on the battlefield—even though he might have not been able to make it home, there was one indisputable fact that was transmitted to Mana through her brother’s gesture.
And that was—
‘But I’m here now. That’s all that matters.’
After waiting for a while, Mana’s shivering subsided. Although he wasn’t entirely sure as to whether or not he was the cause, Junichi was aware that his little sister’s terror had reduced to an extent that she could control herself.
As for the little sister, even she herself wasn’t sure what to say. After ceaselessly bawling in her brother’s arms like a little child, she couldn’t help but feel incredibly embarrassed, awkwardly hanging her head as she was rendered unable to look Junichi straight in the eye.
「You alright now?」
「Y-Yes……sorry, Aniki. I’m ok, now.」
Nervously responding to her brother, Mana gripped her shoulders as she reflected on what just happened.
Although she couldn’t pinpoint what it was just yet, she felt as though something had changed inside of her during this moment of bonding. Perhaps, it was not because of her shameful display, but this weird emotion she was feeling that caused her to feel so uncomfortable.
That being said, even if she wanted to decipher what this inner transformation was, that wasn’t going to happen now.
「Well, because of my time in the military, I got acquainted with Maxwell. And from there, I ended up getting a job at his bar, which is how I met Cocoa and the others.」
「I see……so that’s how you all met.」
Mana replied as Junichi used this chance to quickly cover some of the other misgivings that the little sister might have had. Choosing to disclose how he met the mercenary siblings, whilst conveniently omitting the crucial information that might cause problems.
Of course, in her current state of mind, there was no way that Mana would be able to pick up on her brother’s subtle subterfuge.
「Well, I think that’s about it. Any other questions?」
「Um……I’m not sure.」
「……well, how about you think about it and we can talk some more another day?」
「Y-Yeah. That sounds good.」
Seeing that his sister was still somewhat befuddled, Junichi offered a compromise that would assuage Mana, who he assumed probably had plenty more questions for him. That said, he wouldn’t actually complain if she simply forgot to attend to this in the future.
After all, there was only so much Junichi could gloss over events before he would be forced to divulge the details.
And at that point, he would have to make a decision.
Whether or not he would tell a blissful fantasy to appease her curiosity, or to tell her the harsh truths of his painful past which continue to torment him to this day.
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