Shirou was waiting with a smile on his face, believing that Carol would immediately say yes to his offer.
But strangely enough, no reply came back. Shirou’s expression gradually turned to bewilderment, and eventually, desperation.
“…Uhhh, it would be great if you can give me an answer…”
Even after Shirou spoke, Carol still did not give a response. Her shocked expression showed how confused she was.
“…Is there anything you don’t like about my offer? Or do you think it’s too risky? Either way, I can’t do anything unless you say something, you know?”
Even so, Carol still did not respond.
“…Hello, are you there?”
Carol’s silent anxiety slowly infected Shirou as well. As both of them sat there, anxiously, the mood slowly grew tenser and stiffer with time.
Carol went silent because she realized that Akira was an old-world connector. She always had her suspicion, but this time, it had more or less been confirmed.
When Shirou said that he wanted to talk with a fellow old-world connector, he was referring to Akira, not her. Carol was too shocked to notice, but now that she had calmed down, it all made sense.
Carol finally realized why Akira’s reaction was so minute. Even after she told him of her past, to Akira, who was already an old-world connector, it just meant meeting someone like him; another old-world connector.
Carol understood why an old-world connector would not want anyone else to know of their identity. Thus, she started to worry. She questioned if Akira would have told her of this, willingly. That worry started to fester in her mind and she asked herself.
[Wait, don’t tell me that this is a test?]
Akira did leave Carol alone in the camping vehicle and went out alone. Although he said that he would be using camouflage, he did not activate it when he was still inside the camping vehicle. If he was being cautious, he would have done so while he was still inside.
[Was that only an excuse so that I won’t follow him out? Or am I just overthinking?]
Akira then casually allowed Shirou in. It was obvious that they already had a discussion without her. At the very least, they must have already agreed on the reward for that job offer beforehand.
[For Akira, 50 billion Aurum is a huge amount of money. Even so, he told me not to worry about it. Was it so that I don’t use it as an excuse to refuse the offer? In the first place, did Shirou really offer 50 billion Aurum? Or is this a fake setting that they had agreed on beforehand?]
If it was indeed a fake setting, then Shirou might be lying about Akira.
[If I ask ‘how to find an old-world connector’, right next to him, will he think of me as an enemy? He is hiding it after all. Is that what he’s trying to confirm? That I know? Is that why Shirou is including that kind of information as payment?]
Carol understood that there was no end to her questions. Neither could she come up with sound arguments that could disprove her guesses. Thus, it mostly depended on what she believed in. She did not want Akira to turn hostile. She did not want to lose someone to whom she had opened up. But unfortunately, she did not know which choice would turn him hostile – to accept or to refuse.
Carol was pushed into a corner, not really sure what she should do.
Shirou tensed up, similarly, unsure of what he should do next.
When Akira told Shirou of his conditions, the latter was confused. He expected everything could be done through negotiating. However, Akira’s conditions were a wedge in his plans. Though he did not show it, he felt extremely disgruntled.
In order to accomplish his goal, Shirou needed extra firepower. At the moment, his only option was Akira. If Akira refuses, the situation might take a turn for the worse. They might capture him and gift him to Sakashita. In order to prevent that, he was willing to pay 50 billion Aurum. Failure was not an option for him.
[Why is she hesitating? Is there any reason for her to refuse? Wait. In the first place, it is impossible to hire someone with a 50 billion Aurum bounty on their head… Is she conspiring together with him? Is she working to provide Akira with support? No, she was really caught by surprise. There’s no way that’s true… But wait, is she a different person? Like a body double…?]
As Shirou was gradually losing his cool, which also meant losing his rationality. This caused him to imagine all kinds of absurd possibilities. In the end, his skills laid in collecting information, not negotiation. Thus, Shirou found himself at an impasse.
While Shirou and Carol sat there, diving deeper into their own anxieties, the mood grew tense. Akira suddenly interjected.
“Say, Shirou. About that information regarding old-world connectors. Although it’s payment for Carol, is it okay for me to listen in too? As an old-world connector, I’m also interested.”
Shirou frowned and looked at Akira. He thought that Akira should already know everything since he worked as an agent from Tsukisada Construction.
“…Sure, but you’re interested too? You don’t know all the details?”
“I don’t know how the other companies treat old-world connectors.”
“Although there might be differences, I think they’re more or less the same. Ah, I don’t mind telling you, but Carol-san’s approval comes first.”
Akira and Shirou looked at Carol.
Carol’s eyes widened and she smiled.
“Sure, we’ll accept. So, Akira, let’s hear about it, together.”
Shirou sighed in relief and mumbled.
“…Good grief, what took you so long…”
He then raised his voice a bit to change the mood.
“Alright then. We have a deal… If you want me to explain everything to you now, can you at least give me something to drink? My throat is all dried up.”
“Sure. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Akira said and quickly left to bring drinks. Carol stood up and said that she would help too. However, since Akira refused her offer, he left the living room alone.
With Shirou and Carol left alone in the living room. With the tense mood getting dispelled just a moment ago, they sighed in relief. They reflected and concluded that they were just overthinking things earlier.
Carol’s worries were erased after Akira declared he was an old-world connector and Shirou’s worries were erased after seeing Carol’s reaction. After they had confirmed that there was actually nothing to worry about, they wryly smiled.
As Akira was preparing drinks from the refrigerator, he gave a curt glance at Alpha.
“Alpha, do I need to be that suspicious of them?”
Alpha replied with a solemn expression.
“You have to be extra careful. Although you admitted to being an old-world connector, we can’t afford to let them know about me. Judging from their reaction, I’m sure Carol won’t investigate you any further and Shirou would stick with his misunderstanding as well. We had to do that to make sure that our secret is safe.”
Akira thought that it was overkill. But considering Alpha’s situation, he thought that it was acceptable and did not pursue the subject any further.
The next day, Carol woke up. Still lacking sleep, she yawned a few times as she had breakfast. Seeing that, Shirou, who was also there, also eating breakfast, smiled and comforted.
“You don’t have to be that depressed, you know? It’s not like all you’ve done up until now is unless. Even if your worries proved to not be true, there’s nothing wrong with preparing for the worst. Even if it is unlikely, you know?”
Even if Carol knew that Shirou was not teasing her, it still annoyed her. She glared at him but he simply continued his meal, unfazed by it.
“Although this is pretty good, it is still a bit disappointing to me. As I thought. I have gotten too used to living in luxury. It might be weird for me to say this since I ran away from them, but if you want them to capture you, I can help you with that, you know? Though, that would only be after I finish my business.”
Carol heaved another deep sigh.
The information from Shirou about how companies treated old-world connectors could not be any further from what Carol had expected. One of them being how large corporations no longer used force to capture old-world connectors.
It was true that they did that in the past. That was just how valuable the old-world connectors were. But as knowledge grew and technology advanced, that worth slowly diminished.
In the past, using the old-world line was extremely expensive. People only used them for connection lines between cities. But now, although it was still not that cheap, anyone could access the old-world domain using top-class, still highly expensive, information-gathering devices. With the advent of information-gathering devices coupled with augmented reality, they were able to access the augmented reality system of old-world ruins.
Once the option to use expensive equipment opened up, large corporations preferred to use them over old-world connectors. After all, the connection qualities differed from one old-world connector to another. Devices which helped to connect people to the old-world domain had made enough progress to turn those who were considered to be ordinary into mid-level old-world connectors.
With the advancement of these technologies and the funds that the large corporations funnelled into it, they had stopped hunting mid-level old-world connectors. After all, the expense did not justify the benefit; not anymore.
Of course, this option was only open to large corporations. Some middle-sized corporations still sought old-world connectors and still resorted to force to capture them.
But given that they were only small to medium-sized corporations, they were not that threatening. Even if they were able to somehow capture a Rank 50 old-world connector Hunter using force, it might still not be worth it. After all, that Hunter might turn out to just be a mid-level old-world connector. As such, rather than capturing with force, they preferred to cajole them with benefits. Therefore, Carol’s worries were mostly unnecessary.
Naturally, Carol did not just believe everything Shirou said. Considering the commotion caused when Hunters found a device that could connect to the old-world domain back in Higaraka residence ruin. There was also that colossal battle that took place in Mihazono ruin, caused by Sakashita Heavy Industry’s attempt to capture Shirou. It was rather obvious that corporations were still willing to use force.
However, Shirou casually refuted her points.
The commotion regarding that connection device originated from the Lion Steel company. It was the huge sum of money they put up for it that caused the commotion. If the device only helped to connect to the old-world domain, the commotion would not have been that big.
Meanwhile, in regards to the matter in Mihazono ruin, it was mainly caused by Yanagisawa. He held great influence in Kugamayama city. He used all the resources that he had to retrieve him, a highly skilled staff member from Sakashita Heavy Industry. It was incomparable to a medium-sized company’s hunt for old-world connectors.
As such, those two incidents could not serve as counter-arguments.
Shirou explained with such confidence that even Carol nodded and got convinced by it.
They did not let this information get out of the inner wall because keeping this illusion up was more profitable for the large corporations. When small to medium-sized companies attempted to use force to capture old-world connectors, large corporations could swoop in and capture them instead. In the guise of capturing for the sake of their protection, these old-world connectors would feel thankful towards their captors. With such rumors floating around, they would be more likely to accept being taken under the wing of these large corporations.
That was why such rumors were kept rampant, and why Carol was mistaken.
It was only a matter of time before small and medium-sized companies got an affordable means to connect to the old-world domain. By that time, the worth of old-world connectors would plummet. When even normal people could connect to the old-world domain, the only benefit of being an old-world connector would be that they did not need any support device to connect. At the moment, they were in the middle of that transition. Shirou explained, ending the topic.
As Carol recalled their conversation yesterday, it was obvious that she got a bit depressed. Of course, in the end, it was nothing more than Shirou’s words. There was a chance that lies, misinterpretations, and exaggerations were mixed into it.
But even so, Carol could not help but believe Shirou’s words. Thus, she occasionally let out depressed sighs.
That was when Akira suddenly interjected.
“Carol, do you want to stop your bodyguard request? Considering what we’ve heard yesterday, I feel that coming with me would put you in more danger. So, feel free to put a stop to it any time you want, okay?”
Carol frowned. She understood his true intentions and was even happy that Akira worried for her. But at the same time, she also felt a bit offended.
“No. I want you to keep working as my bodyguard until we find a good time to call it quits. Just like we’ve agreed on beforehand.”
“Are you sure? Well, it’s nothing but beneficial for me though.”
Akira frowned and looked at Carol. She then smiled back, as if she had already completely placed this matter behind her.
“Of course. As an apology for making you do a job without telling you anything, and as gratitude for accepting it, I will at least do this much.”
“…I see. Thanks.”
Akira smiled back. Seeing them act in such a manner, Shirou once again got suspicious. And questioned if Akira and Carol were actually conspiring together. Meanwhile, Alpha looked over that exchange with caution.
Although Akira and Carol were basically working for Shirou right now, they had nothing to do at the moment. To be more precise, Shirou was the one who stated they had nothing to do and Carol believed him.
But in reality, it was simply because Shirou had still not satisfied all the conditions that Akira had placed. Therefore, he could not tell them to start working on his goal just yet. Akira had asked Shirou for one thing as advance payment.
Akira made it a requirement for Shirou to explain his goal and the ruin that he wanted them to go to. Naturally, Shirou adamantly refused to do so. However, from Akira’s point of view, a ruin exploration request without any details was just too dangerous.
Shirou’s strong refusal seemed to prove Akira’s point and made the former seem suspicious. In the first place, there was no guarantee that the information Shirou had about the ruin was accurate. That was why he ultimately refused the job. Akira then pointed out an alternative. Which was to get him to be indebted to Shirou. Indebted to the point he could not refuse Shirou’s request.
Akira only gave an alternative so as to open up space for discussion. However, even after knowing of his intention, Shirou quickly accepted his conditions. Shirou was afraid that with the slightest information shared, Akira might realize what he was trying to do.
Therefore, with that deal in place, Shirou stayed in the camping vehicle instead of returning back to his hideout. He was looking for an opportunity to get Akira indebted to him. After all, it was easier to find that opportunity if the target was nearby.
As to not allow Carol to eavesdrop on their conversation, Shirou asked Akria through telepathy.
“Akira, can’t I just pay you more money instead? 10 billion Aurum, no, make it 15 billion! I’m willing to pay you that much in advance, you know?”
“In that case, you can go do some investigations as an agent from Tsukisada. I will help you out. You do need to add something to your achievement list, right? You won’t get any if you don’t do any work, you know? This is a great opportunity for you. I’m willing to help you right now.”
“With my 50 billion Aurum bounty and monster designation, I can’t return back to Kugamayama city. Like hell I can do any investigation in this situation. Or more like, you should work with Sakashita to get rid of my bounty and monster designation. I will think of that as huge debt, you know?”
“Sure sure, except, since I’m currently on the run from Sakashita, I’m also not in a situation where I can do that right now.”
Shirou let out a sigh in secret.
[Ahhh… I thought that any old-world connector agents around this area would jump at the smallest opportunity to get extra achievements…]
The 5 largest corporations had more old-world connectors than they needed. Each old-world connector had differences in relation to their skills and capabilities. A genius old-world connector like Shirou would be assigned to a special facility, received special training to hone their skill, and get assigned a powerful bodyguard like Hammerz. However, common old-world connectors did not receive such privileges. If their connection to the old-world domain did not reach a certain threshold, they would be assigned to do clerical jobs.
Those whose connections were even worse than that, could not even do any job related to the old-world domain. Thus, some of them got assigned to do jobs outside the inner wall, while some were sent as agents to various places or companies.
Even if they could not do any task related to the old-world domain, if they could still communicate through the old-world domain, they could work in remote areas without any communication equipment. Furthermore, there was no need to worry about communication failures or hijacking etc. For reconnaissance, where connection failure could be fatal, they were highly valuable manpower.
Shirou thought that Akira belonged to that category. He thought that Akira was ordered by his superior to disguise himself as a Hunter. Fortunately, Akira had a knack for being a Hunter. He also presumed that Akira had lived inside the inner wall before and wished to return.
There were agents from Sakashita Heavy Industry who were in the same situation as Akira. They were familiar with the lifestyle inside the inner wall and had a strong desire to return. These types of agents could only do so once they piled enough achievements. Shirou knew many agents who acted in such a manner. That was why he was so certain Akira could not afford to kill him.
But, strangely enough, Akira’s reaction was rather mild. Shirou was even unconsciously trying to justify Akira’s unexpected reaction.
[No, is he actually excited for the opportunity but just cannot trust me? Tsukisada could win some favours from Sakashita if he just handed me over to Sakashita. That should be a huge achievement for him. Or is he just holding back? If that is the case, this is a rather dangerous situation for me. I only have one month to do this…]
Although he did not have any other choice, Shirou felt Akira’s conditions only served to make him waste what precious time he had left. Thus, his face turned grim.
Suddenly, another notification reached Akira through his Hunter code. Just like last time, it was a code to connect through an encrypted line. However, he was visibly flustered when he checked the sender. He took a deep breath to calm himself down. He checked with Shirou and Carol if it was fine for him to go out for a bit. Once he gained their approval, he left the camping vehicle. Carol and Shirou both wondered what was going on with Akira.
Outside the camping vehicle, Akira stared at his information terminal. He then made his resolve and opened the connection.
“…Elena over here.”
Akira and Elena only stated their names, and the conversation came to halt.
Elena already knew that he had turned into a bounty target. Akira noticed this from the fact that she had contacted him through an encrypted line. He endured the silence longer than he had imagined. He was quick to realize how much he cared about her perception of him. However, at the same time, he also realized that there were people who did not care about the labels imposed on him. This made his lips curve into a wry smile.
As he was wondering why Elena called him and what should he say, the silence continued. It was Elena who broke the silence.
“Well, as much as I want to ask ‘how are you’ and ‘what are you up to lately’, I know that you’re not in the situation for small talk. So, I’ll leave that for some other time. So then? I actually have something I need to discuss, but before that, there are a few things that I need to tell you.”
“Alright, what is it?”
“We are your allies, or at least, we want to stay as your ally. Will you believe me if I say so?”
Akira did not reply. The reason was simply because if he said yes, he might rope Elena and Sara into his problems, and he was afraid of that.
As Elena interpreted that silence as a no, her tone turned forlorn as she continued.
“…At the very least, we are not your enemy. We don’t want to be your enemy. Will that work? If not, then it’ll be pointless for me to continue. In that case, you can end the call…”
Hearing her voice leave traces of insecurity, Akira finally opened his mouth.
“Yes, that will be fine.”
Akira evaded having to make a clear statement. Whether he was fine with them being allies or not being enemies. He did not mean to make it vague. He simply could not make up his mind.
“Thank you. So then, actually, there are people who hired us in order to speak with you. Although I do want to talk to you about smaller and simpler topics, I will pass the call.”
“It’s Hikaru, long time no see.”
Hikaru was trying to act friendly to sour Akira’s mood. Although the plan was by no means wrong, it was obvious that Akira was displeased with hearing her talk.
“You can go ahead and tell me your excuse for roping Elena-san and Sara-san into this.”
Hikaru immediately tensed up. However, she had already prepared an answer to this question beforehand.
“It is to convince you that we are your allies. We told them everything before they accepted my request to escort me. I’m sure you don’t know what is going on inside the city. I believe you see all city officers as hostile. So, unless I do this much, I’m sure you’ll just end the call before I can say anything. I am sorry if you find it unpleasant.”
Akira understood her reasoning, but that was not enough to completely overturn his soured mood.
“Wouldn’t it be fine if you just ask for Kibayashi? If it’s from him, I will at least listen to what you have to say, you know?”
“Kibayashi is working as a staff member of the Hunter Office at the moment. So, it would be improper for a city officer to ask him to do something. I’m sure that you can understand that too, right? If not, I don’t mind explaining it to you.”
“No, that is fine.”
Kibayashi did advise Akira to blow the city open. Therefore, Akira concluded that for Hikaru, who was an officer from the City Management, it would be a bad move to contact such a person. As he was reminded of Kibayashi, he started to compare them. He believed that, at the very least, this conversation would not be as absurd as the conversation he had with Kibayashi. That thought alone helped him to calm down.
“Alright, so, what is it?”
“If it’s possible, I want to solve the current situation peacefully. Would it be alright if we meet up somewhere and talk face to face?”
“Peacefully, huh? If you really want to do so, go and annul my monster designation first before calling me.”
“That’s exactly why I want to talk with you. If they can see that you’re willing to sit down and converse peacefully with us even in this situation, it would be easier for Inabe-san to convince City Management that this is a matter solely between you and Lion Steel; the city has nothing to do with it. As I said, we are your allies. That’s why, we’re also working hard over here to help you, you know?”
Since Akira was told that it was in order to remove his monster designation, it was not like he could refuse. Furthermore, it was suggested by someone claiming to be his ally. However, if they met up, there was a good chance that Sara and Elena would be there too. That was why Akira was hesitating.
“…Fine then, let’s meet up.”
“Thank you. So then, how are we going to meet… Ah, I’ll pass the call for a bit.”
“Hello, it’s Sara. Long time no see, Akira.”
“Ah, yes, long time no see.”
Sara was obviously trying to act like usual. So, Akira was trying his best to do the same. But in the end, he still sounded stiff. Sara noticed it but just ignored it.
“Although it might sound weird, are you doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m doing okay.”
“Do you have somewhere to sleep? Are you sleeping in an abandoned building somewhere?”
“No, I’m living in a camping vehicle.”
“Oh? I don’t remember you have one, is it an abandoned camping vehicle?”
“Well, about that, it’s a long story…”
Sara was casually chatting with Akira about how he was doing. Judging from his tone of voice, it did not seem like his mental state had been gravely affected, which she had been worried about. Although she did not know all the details, she was relieved to hear Akira was still able to live in a relatively good condition considering his situation. It was to the point that he could maintain his calm.
Being a bounty target on top of getting a monster designation. No normal person would be able to stay sane having to stay vigilant of Hunters and monsters out in the wasteland for an extended period of time. But judging from his reply, Akira seemed to have adapted well to his situation. He did not sound panicked or desperate. Although he sounded stiff and nervous, even a little guilty, it was proof that he at least had the leeway to afford to be so.
“But still, it must be rough. Well, it seems like Hikaru is working hard so that you can return back to the city. So, I hope it goes well. If you need any help from us, feel free to ask. Don’t hold back. We are also Hunters. Depending on the reward, we would at least consider it.”
“Thank you for the offer. But unfortunately, I just bought new equipment, so I don’t have much money left to offer.”
“Oh my, that’s just too bad.”
Sara jokingly said so and Akira replied with another joke. At the very least, he understood that Sara wanted him to ask them for help when he needed them.
After that, the call returned back to Hikaru. They quickly decided on the time and the place before closing the call.
Akira heaved a deep sigh. Seeing that, Alpha smiled and spoke to him, as if to console him.
“It’s not your fault. Being designated as a bounty target is not your fault. Although, your decision did play a part in it. Regardless of whether you would do the same thing or not in the future, just give up and accept it.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t think they were lying to you. Elena and Sara were being honest when they said that they want to stay as your allies.”
“…I see, thanks.”
As expected, Akira could not simply change how he perceived his situation at the drop of a hat. Even so, he still smiled and thanked Alpha.
“You are welcome.”
Alpha smiled back at him.
After they closed the call, Sara seemed forlorn as she said.
“…It seems like we’re no longer senior Hunters that he can rely on anymore… It’s rather disheartening…”
They thought that they could still do something to help Akira out. They wanted him to rely on them. That was why she stated ‘If you need any help from us, feel free to ask. Don’t hold back’.
But today, that was no longer the case. Akira no longer relied on them. He was even worried about causing them trouble. The realization hit Sara pretty hard.
In contrast, Hikaru, who did not notice Sara’s feelings, was excited. After all, her first contact with Akira regarding this matter went well.
“Elena-san, Sara-san. I know that this won’t be easy, but as I said before, if things go well, we should be able to help him. So, I’ll be counting on you again.”
Hikaru politely bowed. Sara was surprised by this. Elena, who had been together with Sara for such a long time, noticed her feelings and tried to cheer her up with a smile.
“Of course. We’re planning on helping him from here on out. Right, Sara?”
Sara seemed to have been taken aback, but she quickly bloomed a smile.
“…Yeah, you’re right, let’s do our best for the next step!”
It reminded Sara that they were not trying to help him so that he would rely on them. She brightened up and smiled happily at her best friend, Elena.