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Chapter 195: Truth is Stranger than Fiction
Despite the dark-haired entity’s shout, Saito Junichi’s finger had already pulled the trigger, causing a bullet infused with ［Soul Power］ to be launched from its chamber. Yet, in a bizarre spectacle, the pellet collapsed in on itself the moment that it made contact with 《Cross’s》 skin, almost as though it had smashed directly against a block of concrete as the now-flattened bullet flew off with a pitiful *dink*.
It was likely that 《Cross’s》 trait, «Reinforcement», had been applied to his skin, protecting it against external attacks. Of course, the application of this ability simply made the entity’s skin sturdy and not impenetrable, though it would be difficult to determine where the damage threshold was for the ［Counterpart］ (especially when considering he had gained a power boost after all of his ［Assimilations］). Yet, it was quite clear to the dark-haired youth that the piercing capabilities of his bullets were not enough to penetrate that thick armour of the obsidian-clad brawler.
Though, in all honesty, Junichi had more pressing problems to deal with.
Seeing her upperclassman in a pinch, the girl with the lavender ponytail instinctively shouted, swiping her hand across her chest as she threw ethereal daggers of ice at the assailant. Needless to say, despite the dark-haired youth being somewhat in the way of her trajectory, Rin skilfully adjusted her throw so that the daggers would arc beautifully around the boy before reaching the target.
However, even this desperate attack by the 〚Assassin〛 was but a futile endeavour. After all, no matter how accurate or meticulous her aim was, the distance between the two identical youths was far shorter than that between her daggers and their target.
Thus, it seemed like it was only inevitable that 《Cross》 would land a strike against his former host, whose red right eye was softly blinking as it calmly kept the ［Counterpart］ in its sight. Inevitable, if not for the fact that Junichi did nothing but simply stand there.
*bang* *bang* *bang*
Several more gunshots pierced the tense atmosphere, all of which were fired from the same black pistol that fired the opening shot in this encounter. Yet, instead of the sights being aimed at the enemy that was encroaching upon his vulnerable chest, the barrel was pointed at the open air beside him, almost as if trying to fill an invisible enemy full of holes. Of course, the true significance of this action could only be appreciated when focusing not on the gun’s target but its user.
Thanks to the recoil of the consecutive blasts, a force was transmitted to Junichi’s right arm, which he then allowed to manipulate his upper body. At the same time, he raised one leg up into the air while stiffening the other, creating a bizarre posture that seemed to take its origin from a ballerina pose or a break-dance move. Strangeness aside, this posture allowed the boy to spin in place at a rapid pace, causing his leg that was half-raised behind him to perform a pirouette before slamming straight into 《Cross’s》 chest.
Or at least, it would have, had the ［Counterpart］ not crossed his arms in front of them.
Clicking his tongue, the dark-haired youth then raised the silver pistol in his left hand while simultaneously readjusting the aim of the black lump of metal in his right. And then, without a moments delay, the man rapidly emptied his magazines of bullets as he kicked off against 《Cross’s》 arms and used the recoil of his shots to gain some distance.
Now, it should be noted that the weight of the ammunition strapped across his person increased Junichi’s inertia, making it much more difficult for his frame to be swayed by the backlash from his gunshots. This was why he had to fire off several more shots more than usual in order to compensate, though it only amounted to so much, as seen by the fact that the dark-haired youth was unable to traverse the distance that he initially wanted to in order to make a clean escape.
However, he didn’t need to worry too much about that. After all, he was not alone.
「Don’t forget about me!!」
Sora shouted as though to assert her presence, her frame bursting across the battlefield with an ［Accel Shift］ as a blue blur inserted itself into the newly created gap between the identical youths. And then, riding on the momentum caused by her instantaneous displacement, the athlete essentially performed a vertical flip, somersaulting in the air before bringing the heel of her raised leg down. An act that many would recognise as Sora launching the most lethal skill in her arsenal: ≪Sledgehammer≫.
Of course, in the face of this sudden approach, 《Cross》 immediately reacted, bracing himself as he intended on receiving the full brunt of the blow with his arms that safeguarded his face. Yet, Rin’s daggers, which were each loaded with a dangerous amount of ［Soul Power］, also loomed ever closer, forcing the ［Counterpart］ to protect himself on two fronts as his arms were split between shielding his head and flank.
As a result, neither of his attempts at defending against the offensive had ended up satisfactory. He who chases two hares catches either, and 《Cross》, who had divided his fortifications in two, perfectly exemplified this saying.
However, the chink in his armour was unexpectedly not uncovered by Sora. Her attack, despite landing head-on against the dark-haired entity’s raised arm, barely placed a dent in the brawler’s defences, as the ［Counterpart］ stood strong despite his frame buckling ever so slightly in the face of the overwhelming amount of momentum it had to disperse.
No. What really exposed 《Cross’s》 vulnerability was none other than the ice daggers that had been thrown by the ponytailed 〚Assassin〛. The projectiles that, upon making contact with the dark-haired entity’s frame, burst into diamond dust before encasing the targeted area in a layer of thick ice.
The frost-biting sensation shook 《Cross’s》 body to its core, dulling his reflexes. Furthermore, the frozen parts of his flesh further hindered his joints and muscles, significantly reducing the movements that he could make. Although it happened a beat later than initially intended, Rin’s attack had successfully restricted the entity’s actions, which caused a certain athlete to beam with joy.
「Oh! Nice one! Hraah!」
Sora grunted, pressing her leg strongly against 《Cross’s》 arm as though using it as a springboard to reverse her momentum. At the same time, she twisted her unbelievably flexible body in mid-air, contorting herself so that her other leg swung around a full 180 degree as she performed a round-house kick that slammed into the entity’s side. The rapid change in her posture threw off the ［Counterpart］, compounding with his body’s inhibited movements to create a result where he could do nought but receive the full blow of Sora’s heavy kick.
Now, it should be said that the athlete’s second kick, although well-placed, was admittedly not as strong as her initial assault, especially considering how a large portion of the momentum she gathered in her first attack had been significantly stunted by the entity’s block. That being said, the impact was significant enough that it caused 《Cross’s》 frame to shoot across the room, blast through the wall, and sail through the air before finally crashing down to the ground somewhere in the distance.
A flabbergasted Rin looked on in silence, rendered speechless with her mouth agape as she continued to stare dumbfoundedly at the aftermath of her upperclassman’s attack. Although Sora was being supported by 《Diamond’s》 trait, «Impenetrable», the damage caused by her kick (which was not at all full-powered) shouldn’t have been on the level where one would think that a typhoon had blown past. As per her namesake of 〚Hurricane〛, she was truly an individual who left nothing but destruction in her wake.
Though, that simply went to show just how much of a monster the cerulean-haired athlete was.
「Come on! Let’s go!」
Sora flashed a grin as she fearlessly leapt out of the hole she created in the wall, prompting the two to follow behind her as she pursued the victim of her roundhouse kick. Of course, being the energetic and over-enthused athlete she was, the blue devil didn’t wait for a response as she disappeared on a gust of wind.
Yet, the moment that Rin was about to follow suit, she noticed something peculiar. Or rather, someone who was acting peculiar. He was the remaining member of the trio that made up their strike squadron, as well as the one who opened up hostilities against the crazed entity.
Yes. It was the dark-haired youth who had remained still, his narrowed eyes downcast as he stood in contemplative silence: Saito Junichi.
Minamoto Rin’s confused voice echoed in the silent surrounds, her brow furrowed in worry as she turned towards her upperclassman who did not move an inch. Yet, the object of her concern did not show any sort of reaction towards her actions, which only seemed to deepen her anxiety.
Of course, Junichi had not ignored the girl on purpose. However, he was in so deep in his thoughts that the girl’s voice hadn’t even registered in his ears, much less within his consciousness.
Now, what was it that had the man bothered so much to the extent that he had fallen into such a meditative state? In all honesty, the boy himself wasn’t really sure himself. No, it may be more accurate to say that he began this intense contemplation in order to pinpoint what exactly it was that had disturbed him.
Obviously, the cause of his concern had something to do with his target that he was currently hunting: the crazed entity that had flipped out and been hurled across the grey skies, 《Cross》. That being said, the ［Counterpart’s］ unstable mental state was not what the man was currently deliberating over.
No. There was something…a sense of incongruity. Something that was out of place—or something that was not as they initially seemed. This sensation constantly gnawed at the dark-haired youth so much that he simply couldn’t ignore it anymore.
And what had brought about this sensation was 《Cross’s》 reflexive defence against his kick.
That’s right. Earlier, when Junichi used his pistol to swerve his body like a pinwheel, he had extended his leg and aimed for the dark-haired entity’s chest. And, while his attack wasn’t as fast as usual due to being hindered by the extra weight he carried, it was fast enough that one couldn’t simply react to it in an instant. Furthermore, the trajectory in which he swung his leg was ambiguous, to the point where those who received it would initially mistake his attack to be aimed at their head.
And yet, despite all of this, 《Cross》 chose to defend his chest instead of his face, which many would consider being the much more vulnerable body part.
Now, if the man was conscious, even if only in part, then Junichi would have suspected that the dark-haired entity had read his intentions and chose to defend his chest. After all, he, himself, had suspected that 《Cross》 would reflexively protect his head, and so chose to aim at the torso which possessed a larger area to attack.
That being said, the entity’s later movements against the two girls showed that he was moving entirely on instinct. The fact that he had not preemptively gotten out of the way when the daggers had been first fired made it painfully obvious that 《Cross》 was not reading the flow of combat, and his choice to defend Rin’s projectiles had been made purely because he was reacting to the intense amount of ［Soul Power］ imbued within them.
So then, if the dark-haired entity was fighting purely from instincts, then why was he successfully able to block Junichi’s kick?
Was it simply because his battle instincts were that good? Judging from how he had ended up being sent flying from Sora’s attack, that was rather unlikely.
Then how about luck? Although not impossible, it was hard to dismiss it as simply that.
Then what else did that leave? The only remaining conclusion was that 《Cross》 thought that protecting his chest was more important than protecting his face.
But that logic was rather flawed. After all, when one is hit in the head, they are liable to receive concussions. Attacks to the torso, however, are less damaging as there’s a larger surface area that can disperse the impact. Surely the dark-haired entity was also aware of this, for he was a combatant himself, and so should prioritise defending his head above all else.
So, with that being said, can such a thing as 《Cross》 deeming his chest to be more vulnerable than his head really be possible? The answer was……yes. Yes, it could be.
Although the reasoning behind why he would think such a thing had yet to be determined, Junichi began to realise that 《Cross’s》 previous behaviour strongly supported this outcome.
When he and the ［Counterpart］ had their first duel, there was a time when Junichi socked him in the face. Yet, when Junichi’s clenched fist approached the entity’s cheek, rather than moving to defend his head, 《Cross》 held his crossed arms in front of his chest. At the time, the dark-haired boy assumed that his other self was too slow to protect his face, but he was now beginning to suspect that the entity had chosen to protect his torso instead.
Though, assuming that this hypothesis was correct, the dark-haired youth began to wonder: what was so special about the dark-haired entity’s chest that made it so worthy of protection?
A vulnerable chest? An important chest? A……chest?
「……no, it couldn’t be.」
A sudden idea dawned upon the dark-haired youth, causing him to reflexively utter his disbelief as his instinct told him that such conjecture was completely and utterly impossible. Yet, despite his disquiet, Junichi gradually became unable to deny the notion that his mind had just conjured as the amount of evidence that supported this conclusion continued to grow.
The way that Cocoa’s ［Counterpart］, 《Ampersand》 AKA 《Amber》, strangely inflected as she called him 《Cross-onii-san》.
The way that 《Cross》 reacted when he was caught reading Shiori’s story, as well as how bothered he was when Junichi threatened to tell the other ［Counterparts］ that he was ‘intently reading through soppy love dramas like some sort of teenage girl’.
The way that 《Cross》 exclaimed that he was ‘not into this sort of freaky shit’ when Roxanne came onto him but didn’t make any sort of complaint when they had transferred the trait, despite the act of two men kissing being arguably more freaky than that of a man and woman in close proximity with each other.
There was no conclusive proof in any one of these scenarios individually. When combined together, however, all of the circumstantial evidence seemed to point towards one conclusion.
Indeed. Since the entity looked identical to Saito Junichi, whose androgynous looks were capable of allowing him to impersonate a female, there was absolutely no reason to suggest that 《Cross》 could not do the same in reverse.
「……no, it has to be.」
That’s right. The entity clad in obsidian—the one who everyone referred to as 《Cross》– was, in fact, a woman.
Indeed. The entity who went by the name of 《Cross》, the very same individual who desired strength so much to the point of recklessly ［Assimilating］ countless ［Counterparts］ despite understanding the risks, was a woman.
The concept was so ludicrous that even Saito Junichi, the youth who had uncovered such a secret, found it difficult to stomach.
Yet, seeing how many anomalies in the obsidian-clad entity’s behaviour started to make sense under such an assumption, it would be even more foolish for the mercenary to simply dismiss the notion off-handedly.
Because she was a woman, 《Cross》 instinctively protected her torso, likely because it was a vulnerable part of her body, but likelier in order to prevent her identity from being exposed by contact with a non-flat chest.
Because she was a woman, 《Amber》, who was aware of her true gender, subtly teased 《Cross》 about the fact that she was pretending to be a man, even going to the extent of addressing her with the irritating name of 《Cross-onii-chan》.
Because she was a woman, 《Cross》regarded Roxanne’s advances towards her as unnatural perversions, which couldn’t be helped as she was not interested in members of the same sex. At the same time, however, she did not consider her less-than-pure interactions with the dark-haired youth as something abnormal, which could be explained if she regarded them as contact between a male and female pairing.
If she was a woman, then all of the pieces would fit into place. Or rather, since the beginning, there was nothing to suggest that 《Cross》 wasn’t a female. It was just that, due to the way the entity conducted themselves, Junichi couldn’t help but assume that they, like himself, was a guy.
After all, when they first met, 《Cross》 was introduced as the dark-haired youth’s other self. It was only natural that Junichi assumed her gender was the same as his. An assumption that should have been overturned the moment he discovered that ［Counterparts］ and their hosts did not necessarily share the same gender, as exemplified by Wen Li Qiu and 《Maple》.
For so long, the dark-haired youth had treated his other self as a boy, unable to see through their true identity until things had devolved to this point. It was truly a blunder on Junichi’s part.
Yet, his self-pity aside, this fact raised one simple question that Junichi–nay, that 〔Gun〕 had to answer.
「But what good does knowing that do me?」
Rin’s surprise at the dark-haired youth’s sudden utterance aside, this was the very question that Junichi had to consider.
He had gone through the trouble of stopping in his tracks in order to ponder over the mysterious discrepancy. And as a result, he had revealed 《Cross’s》 true gender. That being said, did the fact that his target was female change what Junichi needed to do?
The answer was obvious: it did not.
Woman or no, 《Cross》 was still a major threat to his peaceful life. Not only that, but she had attacked Junichi’s little sister and even attempted to take his life as well. There was no way that he could leave such a dangerous individual alone, especially in her unstable state.
At the same time, however, the risks involved in trying to return 《Cross’s》 sanity was so high that the mercenary of blood and iron could not justify endangering the girls he brought with him. Even if the gains of regaining the dark-haired entity as an ally were significant, Junichi had no guarantees of ensuring a best-case scenario, and so had chosen to close his heart off to the forsaken ［Counterpart］.
So then what was different now? It was clear that the dark-haired youth was currently hesitating, but for what reason? Was it simply because he found out 《Cross》 was a female?
No. Gender alone would not deter 〔Gun〕 from eliminating those that needed to be eliminated, even if he did have a somewhat softer spot for the opposite sex.
If he had to put it into a word, then the reason for the boy’s hesitation was simple curiosity. She entered into a contract with Junichi, concealing her gender while recklessly continuing to assimilate ［Counterparts］ left and right. It was clear that something was driving her actions, and that there was something that she wanted to achieve.
Junichi’s interest was piqued by such enigmatic ambitions. Not only was he intrigued by the motivations of the obsidian-clad ［Counterpart］, but his intuition warned him that he would severely regret it if he did not uncover the truth at this point in time.
And his instincts hardly ever failed him.
But still, was he able to justify the risks involved with trying to find out such a truth? The answer was obviously a resounding no.
Hence, the dark-haired youth needed to come to a decision.
Would he forsake the truth and kill 《Cross》? Or would he die trying to grab a hold of both?
And, after much internal debate……he—〔Gun〕 arrived at his answer.
「Rin. I’m going to make a very selfish request of you and Sora. Feel free to hate me for it, but I need you two to help me.」
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