How To Make A Friend VII
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A long and direct eye-contact was maintained between Onii and Tsuko. Even without words, the two could understand each other's thoughts. After all, their wavelength and ideology in approaching this battle had been similar.

His earlier statement resounded deeply inside her mind.

"Trust in me. As your teammate, I will never let my comrade falter."

A spark of courage flared within the Shui Princess, almost as if the tiny ember inside had burst into a fiery blaze of will. Tsuko had never felt this intense feeling before.

If this was outside the safety measures of the Group Simulation Battle, Onii's life could have been in danger. A danger that could result in death. Yet, the swordsman entrusted himself to her leadership, under the assumption that she would find a plan and prevail.

He believed in her.

Onii's action touched her heart — reminding the Shui Princess of her purpose at Temple Academy.

As the swordsman returned gaze towards the Troll, he prepared his blade and advanced. The willingness to be the first to confront this gigantic monstrosity reminded Tsuko of her personal bodyguard. More specifically, when Logyn would lead his squadron into battle, knowing they were at a disadvantage and might not live another day.

"Is he insane?! There's no way he can defeat that Troll all by himself."

"W-Wah-! What do we now?!"

"Calm down, Aqua-! Now's not the time to panic..."

"How do we tell Doctor Lirin to stop this?! Onii might die...!"

The Shui Princess held up her hand and nodded reassuringly at her teammates. 

"Let's trust in him and see what he does first. I might have a plan."

Her statement was like a refreshing tide, washing away their overwhelming worries for the time being.

In front of a monster that stood towering like a building, Onii stopped at a respectable distance. He drew his blade in a defensive position and gazed upward. Surely, one would break down mentally if they had to fight such an enormous creature alone. 

Compared to the massive trunk the Troll wielded, his「Katana」had a shorter reach. In fact, Onii's sword looked quite small. Even if the attack was somehow blocked, he would still feel an overwhelming impact from the slam.

The Troll raised the massive log above its head and roared at its challenger. Tsuko felt her body vibrated in fear.

There's no way.

Not even Logyn can withstand this attack without sustaining damage.

You need to dodge it.

The monster brought his weight down, along with its overwhelming force. Tsuko wanted to shut her eyes but at the same time, decided to try her best to watch because it would betray his trust.

During the critical moment, Onii moved.

He dashed forward and cleaved his blade upward.

Both attacked at the exact time. But Onii's movements were faster. Much faster. It was best described as a lighting gale compared to a slam of power.

The silvery「Katana」left behind a brilliant afterimage in its wake, creating a strange rippling sound through the air.

The slice was filled with such raw power — so much that it raised goosebumps on Tsuko's skin. Even watching from a far distance, she could not help but felt that Death stood nearby.

"Wow."

"Impossible..."

"..."

The Troll's muscular appendage tumbled onto the ground, spurting out a massive gallon of blood. Onii dashed away to the clear as he swiped downward, instantly removing any bloodstains that dirtied his blade.

Every move from the swordsman indicated it was thoughtful, precise and out of past experiences.

"ROARRRRRRRRR-!"

It howled in absolute agony as the fallen limb disintegrated into red particles.

Tsuko felt her stomach twist and turn in sickness. Her heart lurched at the sight of the red waterfall. Overwhelming blood gushed out of its elbow and dyed parts of the golden meadow an uncanny gore-red. She barely noticed from the corner of her eyes that Aqua collapsed onto her knees, placing her hand over her mouth.

The Shui Princess's breathing became faster and faster. She felt nonstop chills that made her entire body and leg muscles weak.

I can't let Aqua or Jan see me like this.

A Princess is a leader.

If the leader loses morale, so will her people.

Tsuko glanced to her side—

—The village girl sat on the ground and trembled.

"Aqua...?! Are you okay?!"

As Tsuko leaned in closer to show her concern, Aqua turned her head away and...

"Ugeeeehhhh!"

"Aqua!?"

It was the sound of vomiting. White, translucent fluid splattered onto the grass pasture as a sour stench drifted in the air.

"S-Sorrwie..." Aqua glanced back teary-eyed.

Tsuko could empathize as she was also on the brink of joining her. Perhaps it was her noble reputation but the thought of vomiting for the entire class to see meant disgrace. An utter humiliation to the prestigious Shui Dynasty and her eminence as a Princess. Hence, her physiological fortitude remained strong at the first sight of carnage, marking a new chapter in her university life.

The Shui Princess took multiple deep breaths to regain composure. Averting gaze from the bloody scene, she still felt her body slightly shuddering. 

It looks like I am at my limit.

Ah. Why am I so weak?

Where did the courageous feeling go...?

How is Onii not bothered by all this bloodshed...?

What sort of monsters did he have to fight at the Dojo?

What can I do to be that strong?

Gently patting Aqua's back, Tsuko glanced up and was surprised to find Jan still standing. His body did not seem fazed by the grisly sight. In fact, he stepped forward and announced:

"I will join you, Onii! We shall defeat it together! Ahahahahaha!"

"Wait, Jan!"

He was already running towards the battlefield. Similar to the childish excitement he exhibited earlier, the bald student was fueled with adrenaline.

His recklessness could get him killed.

Everything is falling apart.

"I-I'm sorry for dragging us down... I couldn't help it when I saw the blood..."

This village girl resembled a frightened kitten.

"You don't need to be sorry. It's the first time that we saw carnage like this."

"I-If I wasn't this afraid... then you could have helped them out too." Aqua whimpered as tears trickled down the corner of her eyes. "N-Now you are stuck here with me. I-I'm sorry for being so weak... It's all my fault."

Tsuko's tongue was tied.

No matter how terrified she was on the inside, she had to maintain the facade of a confident leader. She needed to be the sliver of hope that her teammates rely on, even if she must die doing so. That was what the Shui Kingdom valued in a commander. Thus, Tsuko hugged Aqua tightly to her chest and patted her head.

"It will be okay. I promise I'll think of something to defeat that Troll."

The two maidens huddled on the grass pasture, watching the scene ahead unfold. Their bodies gradually regained some strength.

I can still do something to help them.

Think Tsuko think.

"Ne~ what should we do?" Aqua whispered softly. "Is there anything we can do to help?"

"Are you feeling better now?"

"Yeah. There's nothing left in my stomach anymore haha."

"Let me think of something."

Tsuko recalled various strategies and tactics that Logyn used when taking down a raid boss. If she could apply it to this scenario, then it was possible they could do something about the Troll.

An idea emerged as she saw the「Jetpack」lying on the side.

Tsuko could feel her heart reignite with a similar feeling of determination. This must be the act of courage that Logyn described. To confront something, even if it terrifies you.

"I have a plan. But it's going to be dangerous. Aqua, are you up for it?"

♦ ♦ ♦

Although Onii was completely confident in defeating the Troll, he needed to make it seem believable, especially in the eyes of others. After all, he was being examined by two professionals.

Doctor Lirin was connecting the dots in her own mysterious ways. There was a possibility he could make the front page on the AI Student Forum again. The pesky roommate Doragon might challenge Mirai to another duel if he reignites her bloodthirst. One wrong move could confirm his combat skills being beyond the upper echelon of Temple Academy. Perhaps even rivaling the famous S-ranks if he was too careless. 

Then there was the renowned Headmaster, a brilliant yet enigmatic being that only operated behind the scenes.

With a myriad of factors to account for, Onii felt a constant mental pressure in this unexpected event. He was not sure whether defeating it or running away was the right move.

But I will not make the same mistake this time.

Little sister, I promise you.

I will learn more about myself and become better for us.

For our siblingship.

For Onii, this was more than a simulation battle. Rather, it was a personal test to maintain an alternative identity. Becoming an undercovered student for the sake of the mission. But the truth was, it was mostly for Amae — for her to live out the school life she never had.

Seeing his little sister happy was his happiness.

Under Mari's suggestion, he had limited most of his abilities and Martial Arts through Magic Blocker and rituals. But a huge mistake was the obnoxious duel with Mich. He had regretfully underestimated how noob academic students were at fighting.

From now on, it was time to let his swordsmanship speak for itself. 

To portray only the pride he mastered from years of the Dojo's training.

Onii's enemy was not a real person but a summoned entity. Using this opportunity, he practiced using a pistol against easy targets that were artificial Goblins while satisfying the results of appearing believable. He even found the reloading process fun, wanting to master Modern Weapons by the Second Year.

If I can practice more, then a pistol might compensate for my melee range.

But now the problem is this Troll.

The likelihood of losing the fight was close to null.

But to do so while protecting his teammates and maintaining the facade of a noob?

That was much more challenging.

His teammates possessed nearly no live combat experiences. With the combined technological advancement of magic and science, many students often lived a life of safety and protected from harm. Thus, the unpredictability in their behaviors made the situation much more complicated. 

So far, the Shui Princess was the only one he could rely on since she had some militaristic insight. She was a strategist. But beyond her role, she was not a veteran. He could tell by the tonality of her voice when she asserted command.

"I will join you, Onii! We shall defeat it together! Ahahahahaha!"

Jan howled behind him as Onii let out a deep sigh, feeling unconvinced about his aid.

Back in the Guild, many seasoned adventurers hunted monsters using basic movements such as the strategy of baiting and attacking. This was fundamental in combat, to utilize the group's strength while cover for each other's weaknesses. Fighting together required everyone to be familiar with each other's strengths.

But this.

This was something else.

It was a mess. 

If Onii could choose, he would much rather have the other two during this crucial moment. That was because Tsuko possessed profound insights and the legendary「Celestial Eyes」and Aqua was the type of person to listen.

On the other hand, Jan did not seem to be the type to follow orders. Based on past experiences,  adventurers that acted similarly to the bald student tend to have an ego problem or the inability to work with strangers. At worst, it was both.

Jan walked up beside him and flexed his shoulders, wearing a wide grin across his face. Onii tacitly understood the emotion beneath as he witnessed many starting adventurers experiencing a similar reaction, especially during a perilous quest with higher ranking guilds.

This was commonly known as the "battle-high".

It acted as a double-edged sword. While adrenaline aided the fight-or-flight response by transitioning the body into a heightened state of alertness, people could become carried away from the intensity. 

Because during an adrenaline rush, anything was possible. Or at least, felt possible.

Onii felt concerned as this was linked to reckless behaviors. In the face of a Veteran-tier monster, being too optimistic was dangerous. Even if may be a simulation.

"Where's Tsuko and Aqua?"

"They're back at the village. I am not sure what they were doing so I came to fight."

Onii furrowed his brows at that unexpected response. Being aware of your teammates and constant updating was common sense. 

No. It was wrong for him to assume since many students at Temple Academy never fought in a real battle.

Wanting to give Jan the benefit of the doubt, Onii stated something simple:

"Stay behind me. Concentrate all your spells at the wound while I go in for another attack."

"Hold up, I thought of a new strategy," Jan prepared a「Smoky Grenade」in his hand and tossed it up and down. "I think this will work well against the Troll."

"That's not a good idea."

"Just let me do my thing and you do yours. We got this, bro."

"Listen to me and we will finish it off together."

"Bro, we should take advantage of the items that Temple Academy offered. These gadgets are actually really good."

Frustration brewed inside Onii's heart. A noob teammate was one problem but a noob teammate who refuses to listen was absolutely annoying. In fact, this was a personal pet peeve that irked him so much that Duality refused to collaborate with many guilds.

"Using the smoke will not—"

—The canister was tossed between him and the Troll. Instantly, gray smoke enveloped the area, obscuring Onii's vision off the enemy.

Idiot.

"See, we are now hidden in the smokes. An excellent strategy I learned while fighting a Goblin earlier."

"Bad move," Onii shook his head and shifted into a defensive stance.

"No need to be so pessimistic. We all know you're a beast at fighting but come on, save some credit for us. Remember about teamwork?"

"A Troll has the ability to sense through the smoke with its smell." A brief pause before Onii continued, "In other words, we only blinded ourselves."

"Tell me you are joking."

Onii barely blocked off an attack from the left side, which rung loudly to the ears and knocked him back a few feet. If it were not for years of practice and a developed veteran instinct, he would have taken a significant hit.

Jan realized his error and frantically scanned around.

"O-Okay, so what should we do now?"

"We will have to retreat." Onii continued to step backward cautiously, "But the Troll might regenerate its arm in the meantime."

"Wait what?! Does that mean we have to start over?!"

"RAWRRRRRRRRR-!"

The taunt interrupted their conversation. Feeling a sudden blast of air on the right side, Onii felt the Troll preparing to launch himself towards the bald student. With its enormous size, it would be similar to being slammed by a gigantic boulder. Possibly, shatter his entire skeleton into bits and pieces.

Doctor Lirin, I hope you are watching this carefully.

Or he might suffer a life-threatening injury.

I will not do anything this time.

Certainly, not for a fool.

Onii recalled his lesson learned at Temple Academy. While not helping goes against the ethics and values of being an adventurer, it had to be done. If he had to sacrifice for the sake of Amae, then he would gladly do so. The espionage mission and sibling relationship were of top priority.

Still, it was somewhat difficult to watch when he could actually do something.

Jan glanced around hopelessly and waved his ignited palms around.

Instead of a Troll, a black-haired girl flew through the smokes and picked his body up from the shoulders.

"A-Aqua?!"

The village girl was flying. She was soaring through the smokes with a pristine-grey modern gadget on her back, pumping out two cones of flames. Her hair was tied back into a long ponytail and drifted along.

"W-what are you doing, Aqua?"

"S-stop moving around so much, Jan! Pwease!" She squeaked, barely holding on by the hems of his outfit. His big weight obviously made it hard for the little girl to maneuver properly.

"Let me down! We're going to fall!"

"Nono, trust me! Tsuko told me this will work!"

The two continued to fly aimlessly. Irritated by the shenanigan, the Troll howled and tried to slap them away. But Aqua barely dodged it as she lowered her altitude in time.

Before escaping, Aqua turned around and shouted with all her might:

"Regroup by the forest! Tsuko said to let the village fall if you need to run away! She'll cover your escape path."

And she was out of the smokes, into safety.

"Thank you, Aqua." Onii grinned as his voice trailed into a serious whisper. "Now I can finally go all out."

Tsuko developed a plan — to fail the mission objective. However, there was much risk in that. There was no telling whether or not the Troll will attack them after destroying the artificial village. Plus, the act of abandoning their quest objective was similar to purposely marking all the wrong answers on an exam.

That would be a cowardly move.

Onii thought back to his observations about Group A. The four students fell, which would definitely lead to severe injuries. But everything stopped in motion. This meant the environment could be instantly manipulated by the Overseer, which was the equivalent of safe supervision.

Now thinking logically, by Temple Academy's standard for first-year Regular students, professors would never permit dangerous activities. The worst-case scenario would be a few bruises and bone fractures for the sake of learning experience. But death should be almost impossible.

It was the What-If that held Onii and the others back.

Although it was a battle against simulated monsters, the fundamental human instinct of survival paired with the desire to learn resulted in this outcome.

Onii scanned his surroundings once more and prudently determined his next move.

Smoke had already enveloped the area, reducing his vision down to melee range. There was no one nearby since the others had retreated. 

At this moment, there were two options — fight or flee.

Letting out a light chuckle, his mind settled with his final decision.

It would be bad to allow any more of this precious time to drag on. The shroud had become an advantage, covering any specific details from the audience. In other words, Onii had to finish this before the smoke dissipates. If he remembered correctly, the smoke lingers for about a minute.

He needed only twenty seconds.

"Then, I shall end this."

With a thundering cry that sounded like a mixture of despair and anger, the Troll charged forward again.

Onii predicted its movement pattern, vaulting to the side and sliced horizontally.

"ROAR!"

Injured from another deep wound, it raised his mighty log and swung in a sweeping arc. This was an angry attempt to decimate the agile Onii.

It's over.

Onii leaped up into the air, recognizing his enemy was growing berserk. That was exactly what he wanted.

For the Troll to lose all chains of reasoning and fight rampantly, it was GG. The only problem he had to worry about was more unpredictability, perhaps from Doctor Lirin again.

Onii dropped downward from gravity, carving his blade deep into the Troll's back.

"ROARRRRRR!"

The monster was desperately scanning around while Onii dashed from limbs to shoulders. He grinned as excitement burst inside.

This familiar feeling.

This nostalgia.

How I have missed this.

The Troll wiggled his body like a hound, trying its hardest to get rid of a pesky flea. 

Somersaulted away, Onii swung his blade while the two danced in synchrony, It was as if both blade and user had become a whole, announcing the intention to finish its miserable life. 

"It's over."

After charging and slicing at the heels of the monster repeatedly, the Troll fell to its knees. It could no longer move its feet.

Roars of agony.

Onii leaped away and waved his hand forward out of habit.

"Amae, finish it with B2!"

Instead of a surging flame cage that would engulf the monster into a black crisp, nothing happened.

There was no follow-up.

A tinge of sorrow plagued his heart.

He let out a sigh.

"Onii," he heard Tsuko's voice magnified by magic. "Leap away from the Troll! Now!"

Trusting the Shui Princess's order, he instantly vaulted to the left. That was indeed the right decision because a barrage of spells was fired upon the Troll, creating a cascade of colorful explosions.

"Rawrrrrr! x("

As the Troll let out a final cry, the sound of heavyweight collapsing was heard across the meadow. It rumbled the earth one last time before disappearing back into red motes of light, confirming its death. 

It was over.

Onii sheathed his companion beside the waistline as he thought back to what he said earlier about Amae. Why had he said that? Another uneasy sigh escaped his mouth. 

The battle was finally over yet the conflict within his heart lingers.

♦ ♦ ♦

As Onii watched his teammates wipe their sweats and catch their breaths, he was grateful for having years of combat experience. The strong sunlight did not fatigue him. The Troll did not stir fear inside his heart. The battle aftermath rewarded him with a sense of nostalgia. In fact, he felt right at home, back in the good old days where he would embark on numerous grand adventures with Amae.

Except he felt much more alone today.

After all, his other half was missing.

Onii silently strolled back towards Group B as he saw them high-fived each other. He could hear praises and various discussions about the Troll. It reminded him of how adventurers go from strangers to companions after the success of an arduous quest.

"I never thought we would beat a Veteran-tier monster. Great work everyone."

"I'm so sorrwie that I threw up earlier. I-I didn't know what happened."

Threw up?

Onii furrowed his brows as he heard Aqua's words. He did not inquire further as the village girl appeared physically healthy now.

"You made up for it by saving me!"

"Wah!~ That was such a wild ride with Jan. I can't believe I did that!"

"Great work, Aqua. It takes talent to learn the「Jetpack」that fast."

"Hehe, thank youuuu~ That's only cause I had a great teacher."

 As Onii walked closer, the three students hurried over and circled him with beaming smiles. He was surprised to see how candid his teammates became. It felt weird.

"Onii!" Aqua placed her palms together and bowed towards him, as if praying to a God. "You were absolutely amazing! Wow-! Your swordsmanship... Ah! I can fangirl over it for days!"

"What Aqua said! And uh..." Jan scratched his bald head sheepishly. "My bad earlier, bro. You know about the smoke situation. I let things went over my head."

Onii held his hand and nodded, indicating that he forgave him.

"Great work Onii," Tsuko stepped forward as a beautiful smile bloomed on her elegant face. Her braided golden-hair sparkled under the brilliant sunshine. "It's all thanks to you that we were able to finish the mission objective."

Her smile slightly reminded him of Amae.

"Just like how I trusted in you, thank you for trusting in me as well."

"No," Onii turned his head away after hearing Tsuko's praise. He glanced at the meadow. "This is the result of everyone's work. I cannot take all the credit."

"Says the one who managed to slice the Troll's arm in one cut."

A brief silence before Tsuko tilted her head and giggled.

"You sure are amazing."

"Yeah, now that you talked about it. That's actually insane!"

"Wahhh! That was so gross though."

As the three continued their conversation, Onii gradually felt his mind overwhelmed with congratulations. He did not how to act or say. In the past, Amae was the one to establish good relationships after every quest. Onii usually stayed quiet and kept his little sister company.

The thought of his precious sibling grew stronger in his mind. The girl who was his sworn partner-in-crime since the creation of Duality. The Yin to his Yang. The mage to his frontline. 

Through countless hours of arduous training and test trials that led to broken bones and mental breakdowns, the two had learned to rely on each other.

Somehow, today's victory felt different.

It was unfulfilling despite everyone's happiness.

Is it wrong for me to feel this way?

If only Onii was placed in the same class as Amae, they could have continued their school adventures together side by side.

Why am I missing her right now?

Was it because of today's battle? Bringing back past memories of our times together?

Or has the separation started to hit me right now?

As inexplicable emotions filled his heart, Onii wondered how the black-haired maiden was doing in A1-class. He heard the Potentials fought real monsters in contrast to simulation, making it slightly more dangerous. But those were the least of his concerns. Knowing her outgoing and charismatic personality, Amae should have no trouble winning and making friends.

Friends.

Onii paused for a brief moment and examined the three. They had already moved on to the topic of gadgets in which Aqua was pouting and saying no more「Jetpack」. Jan was raving about his knowledge. He noticed Tsuko glancing at him a few times before returning to the discussion with a polite smile.

Why is it so hard for me to make a conversation?

Do I need friends?

What happened to my thoughts of being solo?

Could it be... that I want to enjoy a school life as well?

No. 

A little sister's all I need.

How do I apologize when she doesn't want to see me?

I want to make it up to her.

If only I can see her again.

I...

I miss you, little sister.

The environment slowly transitioned back into its original setting of a black-and-white arena, with Doctor Lirin and the class of F4 standing in the distance. On most of the student's faces were a mixture of shock and reverence. The Platinum-tier adventurer was in the middle, jumping in happiness.

As for Doctor Lirin, it was a mysterious smile that raised concern for Onii, leading him to wonder if slaying the Troll was actually the right move.

『 Amae (11/18/19): The first time my chapter hits 4K words! (   ❛ ֊ ❛„) I am wondering if this is too hecking long. Thoughts?  』

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As always, thanks for reading, dear reader! ❣ 

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