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    [Rui’s POV]

    I, Rui, had been listening to Ayaka’s story about everything that happened since she arrived in this world, without interrupting much.

    “――And then, about seven and a half months after coming here, I asked Airi and Lisa to go to Midoria.”

    “Ahh, I heard about what happened next from Airi and the others. It must have been tough.”

    “It’s okay. I got to meet Rui, after all.”

    Ayaka smiled beautifully, having grown strong despite suddenly being brought to an unfamiliar world. Still, those guys, Kato and Sudo, mentioned in her story… I don’t really want to deal with them, but if they mess with Ayaka and the others, they’ll need to be dealt with.

    “The topic changes a bit, but there’s some important information I was recently made aware of.”

    “What is it?”

    Ayaka spoke with a serious demeanor.

    “Apparently, in five months, this country plans to invade the Midgar Kingdom. The empire’s ultimate goal is the domination of Earth by the human race.”

    “Tch, this country really is no good.”

    “The main force will be the Ninth Knight Order Leonia, composed mainly of people from Earth.”

    “Is that so…”

    “No one in particular I want to save, and as things stand, I can’t think of anything to do.”

    “With that, our story comes to an end.”

    Destroying fairies and doing whatever they want, huh? The Steania Empire is out of control. Lost in thought, I noticed Ayaka making eye contact with Yashima. They nodded at each other, then both turned their gazes toward me. I sensed an unusual resolve in them.

    “Hey, Rui? There’s something important I want to talk about, so please listen carefully.”

    “Hmm? Okay, I understand.”

    “It was right after I started first grade in elementary school. In the park, I was being bullied by the local kids. I was so scared and crying. But then, a boy I’d never seen before came to my rescue.”

    Ayaka’s story stirred a deep memory inside me.

    “He found me by chance. But the bullies were older and bigger… The boy who came to save me, my hero, ended up getting beaten up.”

    “So, so, that’s embarrassing for him.”

    “No, it’s not. Thanks to that boy, I wasn’t bullied after that. I wanted to thank him, but he ran away crying before I could even ask his name. I always hoped I’d meet him again someday.”

    “Heh, really…”

    I could only muster a wry smile, but Ayaka continued without minding.

    “For days, I searched the neighborhood but couldn’t find him. But unexpectedly, wishes do come true. One day, he came to learn karate at my father’s dojo.”

    “Huh, so what are you trying to say?”

    “Hehe, I’m so happy you remember too, Rui. I’ve loved that boy ever since then. Yes, that boy, my hero, is you, Rui.”

    Hmm, I do remember it now that she mentions it, but I had forgotten. Honestly, sorry about that!

    “That was… the incident that got me into karate, and more importantly, it’s when I met you. But, man, getting beaten up was just too embarrassing.”

    That was really embarrassing. I can feel my face heating up.

    “I, Tendou Ayaka, love Kashiwagi Rui. My feelings didn’t change even after you died on Earth. As long as that soul is you, no matter what form or shape you take, I vow to love you forever.”

    I was breathless at Ayaka’s earnest confession.

    “Please, let me have a place in your life from now on. I know you already have two lovers. And, even though I’m confessing, there are still ties to the empire. But somehow, I and Kaede will work together to break free from it. If we can escape… I want to be with you.”

    After saying all that, Ayaka lowered her head, her face flushed red to her ears.

    Ayaka, who had been with me since we were kids. How should I respond to her feelings?

    As she lifted her head and our eyes met, I opened my mouth to speak.

    “Ayaka’s feelings are—”

    “Sorry, wait a moment.”

    Suddenly, Yashima interrupted, raising her hand to stop me from speaking.

    “Sorry for interrupting. I also have something I want to say to you. Please, let me go first?”

    “Ah, okay. I understand.”

    “Aya’s confession was so wonderful, mine might seem ordinary in comparison. But I won’t lose in feelings, I’m determined!”

    Yashima’s eyes, filled with resolve as she struck a guts pose, and her gentle, smiling face captivated me.

    “You might not know this, Rui-kun, but ever since I was little, I’ve been watching you compete in karate tournaments. Eventually, I found myself naturally following you with my eyes, and before I knew it, I had fallen in love with you.”

    “Is that so? I was so focused during matches that I didn’t notice.”

    “Hehe, I especially loved how you looked when you were concentrating.”

    Being praised so casually makes me incredibly embarrassed. My face is heating up again.

    “I was waiting for a chance to confess to you after entering high school. But I never mustered up the courage, always hesitating. Because of that, I nearly missed a crucial opportunity. Well, it’s more accurate to say that opportunity was lost forever on Earth… with your death.”

    My heart was racing non-stop. I struggled to keep my eyes on Yashima as I awaited her next words.

    “But then… I learned that you had reincarnated, and we were able to meet again. Now, I don’t want to hesitate anymore. I want to properly convey my feelings to you. I, Yashima Kaede, have always loved you, Rui-kun. No matter what future awaits, the flame in my heart for you will never be extinguished. This is my love for you.”

    Yashima brought her hands to her chest, blinked once, and moved her soft-looking lips.

    “You are my first love. I had already discussed this with Aya, but even if you already have lovers, we want to get along with them. Meeting Eleanor and Maria, they seem really nice, and I’m confident we can become close.”

    Yashima’s gentle gaze then shifted towards Eleanor and Maria. I was struck by her grace.

    “Aya and I are best friends now. We want to be just like that with the two women by your side, as girls who love the same person. I want to walk through life with you.”

    With that, Yashima stopped speaking. I never imagined being confessed to by Ayaka and Yashima in such a place, but their firm determination and deep affection were overwhelmingly clear.

    I needed to give this serious thought.

    After a moment of reflection with my eyes closed, I realized there were things I could and couldn’t accept.

    The bustle of the other customers in the store seemed far away, as our table was engulfed in silence.

    With the girls’ gazes focused on me, I slowly began to speak.

    “I’m genuinely happy about both of your feelings. Ayaka, you’ve always been a kind and cute girl that I’ve known since childhood. Honestly, I’ve had a fondness for you for a long time. But if you ask whether my feelings for you are as deep as yours for me, the truth is, they’re not… Still, I’ve certainly thought of you as more than just a friend.”

    I directed my gaze firmly at Ayaka as I spoke to her.

    “You had your weak moments, but now it seems you’re overcoming them. You’ve become stronger at your core.”

    Then, turning my attention to Yashima.

    “Yashima-san, you talked to me when I was being bullied. Just that alone showed me you’re kind and a good person. You said you watched me at karate tournaments. It was mutual; I noticed you sometimes too. A cute girl who was surprisingly strong. Anyway, what’s crucial now is whether I accept the confessions you both have given me…”

    I paused for a moment, and in the silence, I heard someone swallow nervously.

    “If I were to give a straightforward answer, I cannot accept them as they are.”

    In an instant, Ayaka and Yashima-san’s faces turned to despair. Realizing this was a critical moment, I hurriedly continued.

    “Sorry for stopping at an odd place. But listen to me until the end, okay? I said ‘as it is,’ right? Ayaka, you’re still as hasty as ever. Yashima-san, try to calm down, okay?”

    “Y-yeah… I’ll calm down.”

    Ayaka and Yashima wiped their tears and took deep breaths.

    “I understand your consideration about not wanting to burden me with the empire’s issues, and your feelings for me have been painfully clear. I think both Ayaka and Yashima-san are really kind.”

    “That’s because we really don’t want to be a nuisance.”

    “I get it.”

    “See, that’s where you’re kind. Ah, and out of the blue, but can I call Yashima-san ‘Kaede’ from now on?”

    “Eh!? Of course, I’m happy… but…”

    Considering what I was about to say, keeping it formal as “Yashima-san” seemed too distant.

    “I realized I don’t want to give Ayaka or Kaede to anyone else… even though I already have two lovers. Well, Eleanor and Maria are already on board with this. So, to cut to the chase, let’s say Ayaka and Kaede are my lovers, okay?”

    “Eh!? If Rui wants me as a lover, I will become one! Let me dedicate everything to you!!”

    “Really!? I will! Let me! This isn’t a dream, right!?”

    Ayaka burst into tears of joy, while Kaede struck a victory pose. We’ve attracted some attention from the people around us.

    “Look, if you’re my lovers, then naturally you should be with me. Don’t worry about the Steania Empire. If they mess with us, I’ll drive them away. Of course, I’ll remove the oath bracelets. Accepting Ayaka and Kaede’s feelings, I’ll take on all your problems. As your lover, you can rely on me, and let me show off a bit.”

    Ayaka and Kaede, trying to hold back their tears, spoke with their heads down.

    “Uhh… Rui, thank you… You’re so cool and reliable… My heart can’t take this much love…”

    “Me too… Thank you, Rui-kun… I’m really in love… To think I’d become the lover of my dream person, and he tells me to rely on him… My heart is racing…”

    Man, my heart is racing too, but I won’t say it. It’s too embarrassing.

    I bet we’re all acting suspiciously, especially Ayaka, Kaede, and me.

    Looking over at Eleanor and Maria for a change of pace, they were beaming at me with admiring smiles.

    “I’m glad! Now we can all be together with our master as his lovers!”

    “Yeah, yeah! I welcome it too! Rui’s important people are important to us as well!”

    I really owe Eleanor and Maria a lot. They are too good for me.

    After some lively conversation, Ayaka’s expression turned serious, and she started, “Can I say something?”

    “Now that we’ve met Rui, I want to free Airi and Lisa from slavery.”

    The warm atmosphere instantly tensed up. Turning to Airi and Lisa, their faces showed a mix of surprise and confusion, an indescribable expression.

    “Don’t you two want to be freed from slavery? Your expressions seem uncertain.”

    Despite Ayaka’s question, they kept their heads down. After a prolonged silence, Airi was the one to break it.

    “I don’t wish to be freed. I prefer to remain as a slave.”

    “I also want to stay as I am now.”

    Lisa soon concurred with Airi’s sentiment. I was unable to hide my surprise at their words; I never imagined they would prefer to remain slaves. Lisa, at least, was an A-ranked adventurer before and should have been far from a life of slavery. And Airi, even though she served as a maid, was always treated like family by Dan and Sara. Why would they not want to be freed? Everyone else seemed just as shocked by their response.

    “Why is that? It’s unusual for someone to want to remain a slave.”

    It made sense for Ayaka to press them for an answer. We needed to understand their true intentions.

    “That day… I hurt Rui deeply. I let go of the hand of someone important to me. When I reunited with Rui, I realized I had allowed my important feelings for him to fade.”

    Airi’s response was marked by a strong determination in her eyes, a look of irrevocable resolve I had never seen before when she lived in Dallas.

    “There were two reasons I decided to become an adventurer. One was to be able to proudly say I was independent when I met Rui again. The second was to gain the strength to live alongside Rui, who I knew would have become stronger. Even though I had decided this for Rui… I…”

    Her voice trembled as she struggled to hold back tears.

    “I grew a little stronger and got carried away… forgetting the most important feelings I should never have neglected. I know that by letting go of your hand, I’ve been written off.”

    I couldn’t just forget what happened then, but I had already accepted their apologies. Did Airi and Lisa want to go back to how things were before? To be like old times?

    “Still! I still want to be by your side! I want to take care of you, Rui…”

    Airi’s voice rose suddenly, but it faded to a whisper towards the end. As soon as she finished speaking, she bowed her head. After a few seconds of silence, I was unsure whether to speak. But it was Airi who broke the silence again.

    “I want to remain a slave to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again, to not allow myself any leniency.”

    Fear, sadness, anxiety, and regret were clearly visible in Airi’s eyes. As a slave, she wouldn’t be abandoned, and she wouldn’t oppose my decisions as she had before. I hadn’t known that her initial reason for becoming an adventurer was to live with me… It’s clear that she cares deeply for me and her determination is immense. Surely, being freed and living with Lisa would be far easier…

    I was lost in my thoughts when Lisa’s voice reached my ears.

    “I also want to be with Rui, and I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. That’s why I think it’s better for me to remain a slave. I’ve known about you for a long time, and I didn’t want to make up a plausible excuse like I’m doing this because Sara and Dan asked me to… No, I, Lisa, want to be by Rui’ side by my own will! No matter what happens in the future, I want to protect your smile. That smile of yours that I clouded that time… I want to support Rui in any way I can so that he can live happily.”

    Since our reunion in the city of Midoria, both Airi and Lisa always had a shadow on their expressions.

    Now, it seems like they have cleared their minds, as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

    Even if the current proposal is not accepted, they seem to have reached a state of resignation. Their resolve is palpable.

    Until meeting Ayaka and Kaede, who are currently Airi and Lisa’s masters, I refrained from giving a final answer and accepted their apologies ambiguously about our future relationship.

    I understand that they sincerely regret their actions and want to remain slaves as a form of self-imposed restraint to gain trust.

    Above all, they are desperate to regain my trust. I should give an answer now.

    After pondering for a while and seeing Ayaka, who also looked at me, I understood from her gaze that it was okay for me to decide about them, so I nodded and began to speak.

    “I was deeply hurt at that time. To be honest, I was quite depressed. If it weren’t for Eleanor’s healing, I’m not sure how quickly I would have recovered. That’s how important both of you were to me. And I understand the reasons and feelings behind your wanting to remain slaves. But I think―”

    I paused, then looked directly at both Airi and Lisa.

    “I understand that you want to tie yourselves down and not cause trouble by remaining slaves. But isn’t that in a way, just taking the easy way out?”

    After acknowledging their determination, I continued.

    “Think about it. Continuing to be slaves means that it shows we can’t have a relationship without that status. I don’t want, nor do I need, such a relationship. Both of you are determined to be trusted by me, right?”

    Airi and Lisa nodded solemnly, while Eleanor, Maria, Ayaka, and Kaede silently watched us.

    “I might sound a bit presumptuous saying this, but I’ll say it anyway. Once lost, trust can never truly be regained. Trust is something you build, not something you retrieve. Well, that’s just my way of thinking.”

    Everyone listened intently to my words.

    “If you want to rebuild a relationship of trust, it can’t be done while you remain slaves. If it’s not based on your own free will, then trust can’t be fostered. Our relationship, Airi and Lisa, should start from zero, not from a negative point.”

    I genuinely trust Eleanor and Maria, and the same goes for Ayaka. I haven’t had much interaction with Kaede yet, but from the vibes she gives off, she seems trustworthy. Airi and Lisa listened intently to me, their expressions serious.

    “This might sound like an afterthought, but… I do feel indebted to Airi and Lisa in some way. In a sense, it’s thanks to them that I was able to reunite with Ayaka and Kaede.”

    How people’s choices connect to the future is utterly unpredictable.

    “That’s all I wanted to say. Now it’s up to you two to decide. Of course, there’s also the option of being freed and leaving us. If that’s your choice, I promise to give you enough equipment and money as a parting gift. If after hearing me out, you still want to stay by my side, then so be it. But if I feel betrayed again, I won’t hesitate to cut ties. If you’re prepared for that, then I have nothing more to say.”

    “I agree with what Rui-sama has said. From now on, I will act with constant determination to be of use to Rui-sama. I used to be Dan-sama and Sara-sama’s maid, but now I want to serve as Rui-sama’s maid and continue as an adventurer to become strong enough not to be a burden on his journey.”

    Following Airi, Lisa also spoke up.

    “I, too, will act with unbreakable resolve like Airi. As an adventurer, I want to further improve my skills to be of some use to Rui.”

    Airi and Lisa bowed their heads while sitting. I had thought they might not have an immediate answer, but their resolute attitude suggested they had only one choice from the beginning.

    “Alright, I understand. Then I have nothing more to admonish you about. I’m counting on you, Airi, Lisa.”

    With their matter resolved, I turned to Ayaka, who nodded as if to say she understood.

    “Then I’ll free them from slavery.”

    “Do you know how to do it, Ayaka?”

    “Yes, that’s fine. I had looked it up, thinking there might be a chance to free them. The master set in the system just needs to channel magical power into the slavery collar with the intent to release, right?”

    “That’s correct. As expected of Ayaka.”

    Pleased by my compliment, Ayaka puffed out her chest with a somewhat disheveled expression. Seeing Ayaka’s protruding chest, Kaede puffed out her cheeks slightly… maybe she’s self-conscious about her bust? Noticing my gaze, Kaede awkwardly turned away. I mentally cheered for Kaede, thinking it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s big or small.

    But no, now’s not the time to be thinking about such silly things. What matters is what to do next.

    “First off, we’ll start with Ayaka and Kaede’s oath bracelets. It’s not ideal to do this in a public place, but it seems more troublesome to go outside. Let’s just get it done here.”

    Everyone nodded, so I moved next to Ayaka, who was sitting opposite me. I rolled up her sleeve to expose the bracelet and used the 【Release】 spell. This magic, a combination of my created 【Light Magic】, 【Dark Magic】, 【Water Magic】, and 【Space-Time Magic】, is designed to release various things. Without sound or light, Ayaka’s bracelet came off effortlessly.

    Feeling relieved, I then used 【Release】 on Kaede. Both Ayaka and Kaede expressed their joy in subdued voices, careful not to draw attention. If I hadn’t met them, even if they had escaped the Steania Empire, the oath bracelets might have brought misfortune upon them. I’m glad that won’t be their future.

    For the five minutes it took for them to calm down, I stroked their heads, causing both to close their eyes contentedly.

    “Now, it’s time to free Airi and Lisa.”

    Ayaka, who apparently was their registered master, sat between Airi and Lisa and touched their collars to release them.

    “I’ll keep the oath bracelets and slavery collars,” I said.

    “Okay.”

    “Understood.”

    I received the slavery collars from Ayaka and the oath bracelets from Kaede, storing them in my 【Item Box】.

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