It was dusk on a certain Saturday, two days before the imminent sports festival.
On the way home from shopping, Haruaki felt an inexplicable sense of loneliness. The chilly autumn breeze was showing off excessive power while the sunset sky displayed an incredible color, causing even Haruaki, who was born in this town, to be mysteriously overcome with homesickness. This scenery was enough to give anyone an "anywhere but not here" kind of feeling.
What did the silver-haired girl, Fear, walking beside him think? He wondered to himself.
Somehow there was a sense of sorrow in her expression as she narrowed her eyes slightly. It was undoubtedly the result of the chilly wind, her freezing hands and the warmth in contact with her hands. Although Haruaki was struck by a sense of nostalgia, perhaps it was different for her. Encountering these experiences for the first time, she did not feel nostalgic.
"So hair growing from the nose is called nose hair, right?"
"What are you asking all of a sudden? I'm appalled at your ability to ruin the mood!"
"I don't care about your whatever mood. Listen to me, hair growing under the armpits is called armpit hair, hair growing on the shins are called leg hair, so in that case—"
Mmmmm—Frowning, she stared at the object she was holding and raised it in front of her face.
"Hair growing on a sweet potato is called sweet potato hair, right? Is it?"
"...Who the heck knows."
What a useless man—Fear sneered as she remarked, but her fascinated gaze remained locked on the roasted sweet potato. In a stroke of misfortune for Haruaki, a cart selling roasted sweet potato had happened to pass by. "Hey hey Haruaki, what's that? I wanna eat it, I wanna eat it, I wanna eat it!" With Fear tugging his sleeve and pleading desperately, Haruaki had no choice but to buy one for her. Feeling an inexplicable sense of nostalgia when he was paying, Haruaki could not help but buy another sweet potato for himself.
"Then what? How do I eat this?"
"What do you mean, how do you eat this? ...Just open your mouth and take a bite directly."
"Along with the skin? And there's sweet potato hair growing on it?"
"Hmm~ This depends on personal preference. Some people like to peel the skin before they eat. I like the skin, so I eat it whole... Look, like this. Mmm... Wow, hot, this is hot."
Watching Haruaki, Fear went "Oh" and after resting her gaze on her own sweet potato for a few seconds, she finally took a large bite as though she had finally made her decision.
"Hey, don't take such a big bite all at once..."
Chew chew chew chew... Chewing the sweet potato in her mouth, Fear suddenly stopped. As she gazed at the teeth marks on the bit open sweet potato, Haruaki asked:
"H-Hey, what's the matter? Did you scald your mouth? That's why I asked you to eat slower—"
The instant he asked her in return, Fear's eyes shone as she yelled:
"Very very tasty—! This sweet potato hair is delicious—!"
"No, the main body isn't the sweet potato hair."
As failing to hear Haruaki's retort, Fear began to attack the sweet potato with the vigor of a newly liberated prisoner.
"And so sweet! It's simply roasted, but why is it so—Ahmmhrmm gobble gobble. Nuuuuu... Amazing, sweet potato hair! You are way too good, great sweet potato hair! Nose hair can't compare to you at all, you are the hair of all hair! It's decided!"
"What the heck kind of contest is that? Nose hair would be extremely troubled to find itself compared by you like that!"
This retort was ignored as well. Fear was really indulging herself in her first experience of this food. If one were to hand a rice cracker to her right now, who knew which one would she choose... But her most likely course of action would probably be to greedily eat both, one in each hand.
"Hey you, eat slower, no one is going to snatch it from you."
"Gobble gobble gobble gobble... Ah! Oh... no... Ah~ ah~ ah~!"
The warning against her ravenous manner of eating came slightly too late. Frantically trying to switch the hot sweet potato to her other hand, Fear's hand slipped and the sweet potato instantly regained its freedom, rolling down the slope of the river embankment.
"Sigh~ I told you so."
Reaching out in vain towards the rolling sweet potato, Fear slumped her shoulders in dejection. Although it was her own fault, Haruaki could not ignore her pitiful appearance. Sighing, he shoved the remaining half of his sweet potato over to Fear.
"Here you go. I can't finish it, so help me."
Just as her hands were reaching out unsteadily, Fear suddenly displayed an alarmed expression as if she suddenly realized something. Narrowing her eyes halfway, she stared at Haruaki and said:
"...You're not trying to take advantage of this opportunity to curry my favor, so as to make a shameless request afterwards, are you?"
"How could that be possible!?"
"Hoo... Hmph... Got it. I guess it can't be helped, I'll help you take care of this. Food should not be wasted. This is absolutely not your charity out of pity that I am accepting. Is it really okay? I'm really gonna eat it?"
"I already said you could eat it, no problem!"
Only then did Fear recover her smile. Watching her happily taking large bites out of the sweet potato, Haruaki shrugged helplessly. At this moment—
A dog could be heard barking at the bottom of the embankment. Looking down, they found a dog that was being walked, using its long snout to sniff the sweet potato Fear had dropped. Its owner was a man roughly in his forties, a neighbor they knew by sight. He was Saitou-san, the university professor who lived diagonally across the street from the Yachi residence.
"Oh! It's that neighbor, what's-his-name, and that dog whose name I've forgotten! Haruaki, let's go pet him!"
"Eh? We have to hurry home to make dinner... If we go back too late, I'd feel bad for Konoha."
"Isn't it obvious that the dog is higher priority than Cow Tits no matter how you look at it!? Here I go—!"
With Fear charging down the embankment on her own, Haruaki had no choice but to follow. Smiling cordially, Saitou-san looked up and greeted them.
"Hi, how are you? Haruaki-kun and Fear-chan... That's your name, right?"
"Yeah! May I pet him? May I? I'm gonna? I'm petting him—!"
She took action on her own, regardless of consent. Swallowing the remainder of the sweet potato in one go to free up her hands, she then began to pet the little dog to her heart's content.
"Hey Fear, at least say hi first! Sorry, Saitou-san..."
"Haha, don't worry about it. Octavianus looks very happy too."
Haruaki remembered. Indeed, that was the dog's strange name. As much as Haruaki wanted to praise him: how befitting of a professor of European history, the sight of the corgi panting with its tongue out gave him pause, for it was way too cute to match the original name of the first Roman Emperor.
"Are you taking a stroll? Sorry for disturbing you."
"Don't worry, we happen to have some time to kill."
Saitou-san answered with a friendly smile. Haruaki inclined his head in puzzlement.
"We're going to the animal hospital for a health checkup, but there's still some time until the appointment. I was thinking of walking there leisurely, so we're just strolling around."
"Oh I see, a health checkup... It must be difficult for you."
"Yeah, troublesome as it is, a pet's owner cannot neglect it. Because I'll be busy with an upcoming academic conference, I wanted to get the checkup done first while I have time now."
What a model example of a dog lover. Haruaki really wanted to teach a certain girl a lesson—touching randomly all over is not how you show your love to an animal, okay?
"Mha~ So bouncy and soft... It reminds me of Guillotine~"
"Uh... That's the name of the dog we were taking care of for someone a while back. Yeah, the name's weird."
"That guy was so cute too~ Wonder how he's doing now... Oh little guy, you want to eat this sweet potato? May he eat it?"
"I'm kind of scared of letting him eat stuff from the ground. Lately there has even been cases of poisoning."
"Oh, that's the one that Fear had only eaten a few bites before she dropped it."
"Really? Then it's fine."
"Very well, the owner gives permission... Mmfff, you're eating it, eating it. Does it taste good? The sweet potato hair."
"I told you already, the hair is not the main part..."
Fear then cradled Octavianus in her arms and brought the sweet potato directly near his mouth and fed him. Getting her palm licked felt rather ticklish and her laughter caused her long silver hair to sway.
(I guess I'll just let her have her fun for now... Since Saitou-san has an appointment at the hospital, they probably won't be hanging around too long.)
Hence Haruaki casually looked out towards the distant embankment to occupy himself. Only then did he notice a girl kneeling by the river, staring blankly as she soaked her hands in the water. Doesn't that feel cold? ...But she looked quite comfortable—Thinking he should mind his own business, Haruaki took a deep breath of the riverside air. He could hear the overgrown silver grass swaying lightly while a slight scent of withered grass entered his nostrils. Although the scenery lacked the vigorous vitality of spring, a quiet autumn atmosphere pervaded the surroundings. Had it been noon time when the temperature was higher, bringing a packed lunch here for a picnic might actually be quite fun.
Daydreaming like this for a while, Haruaki felt gradually sleepy despite the chilly wind. It was probably about time—Haruaki half suppressed a yawn and said:
"Huwaa... Fear, it's almost time to go home~"
"It's still early, right? Is it? Is it?"
"Hmm~ There's still some time until our appointment, so it's fine for me."
"See, the pet owner already said it's fine, so let me continue playing with this little guy!"
Fear hugged the corgi tightly, looking as though she was saying "I must have my way until I'm satisfied!"
Just as Haruaki was scratching his head in a conundrum, Fear suddenly inclined her head in puzzlement. Her gaze was directed somewhere behind Haruaki. Turning around, he saw a figure standing some distance away—The girl who had been by the river until now.
Her age was roughly around Haruaki's and she was wearing a coat with many pockets. The coat seemed slightly too large and fitted her loosely. Every one of her pockets was filled and bulging. For some reason, she was wearing long boots. Her eyes were obscured by her bangs but the lower half of her face clearly displayed feminine voluptuity.
Under Haruaki and Fear's gaze, she moaned like a small animal then frantically—but sluggishly—turned her head, as if trying to say "I completely wasn't looking in your direction." But because she kept turning her head to peek, the attempt was completely meaningless.
What was catching her attention? Clearly it was not Haruaki and apparently not Saitou-san. Fear—not really, it seemed. Then the only target remaining was—
"Hmm? This guy huh?"
Fear lifted up Octavianus lightly and the girl made a "...Hweh~" sound that was hard to describe. She frantically straightened her coat collar and ducked her neck down. Was she trying to hide, embarrassed, or troubled? From the way it looked, it was probably all three.
"Hmmmm... Looks like you want to hug this little guy too? I get it, I get it. Because I am a girl who can read the mood. Saitou, is it okay?"
After obtaining permission from the owner, Fear approached the girl. For some reason, she was humming and puffing her chest out proudly:
"It makes me ashamed to monopolize this wonderful creature all by myself. Since you understand this cuteness here, you are a comrade... Let's love him together! Come!"
She presented the dog right in front of the girl. Although the girl hesitated awkwardly, in the end, she still reached out with her hands slowly. Apparently, she was looking in the direction of Haruaki's group because she really wanted to pet the dog.
Handing over to the girl Octavianus whose four legs were tensed unnaturally, Fear nodded affirmatively. Despite shouting how much she wanted to play with the dog, this was quite a mature gesture—Haruaki marvelled at this pleasant surprise. As for the girl cradling the dog—
Making this kind of strange sound, she relaxed her tense cheeks and gazed at the little dog in her arms. Her expression was obscured by her bangs but Haruaki could feel it—Her face was filled with happiness.
Her reaction naturally brought a smile to everyone's face as they watched.
To be overjoyed so simply, a momentary visit of extreme gentleness.
Then Octavianus' bladder went spectacularly incontinent.
"Uwah—!? A crisis seems to have happened!"
"H-Handkerchief, did I bring a handkerchief? W-Wait a sec!"
"Oh no! I-I'm so sorry!"
Watching the frantic reactions of Haruaki and the others, only then did the girl finally notice the unexpected ground-zero attack she had suffered. Her delayed reaction consisted of the strange sound of "...Hweh~"
"Hey, what's with you! You don't normally do this, Octavianus, do you!?"
Saitou scolded the pet that had made a blunder, but the dog did not seem like it was listening. Struggling free of the girl's arms, it simply cowered and hid behind Saitou-san's legs.
After understanding the situation, the girl bowed her head while exuding an intensely gloomy atmosphere. Of course, anyone's spirits would be dampened by something like this happening to them, but her level could be said to have veered into darkness or depression. Haruaki originally worried if her favorite clothes might be ruined, but seeing her unconcerned with the wet coat itself, there seemed to be some other reason perhaps.
"Ohoh, found it! Use this... A-Are you okay?"
Haruaki spoke as he held out his handkerchief. Only then did the girl look down casually at herself as if it did not concern her. Staring blankly for a few seconds—
"...Doesn't matter, it's just wet."
Drenched to this degree, most people would not say "Doesn't matter," right?
Having said that, she continued to stand there in a daze. Thinking "what a strange girl" to himself, Haruaki sort of forced her to grip the handkerchief in her hand.
"Use this to wipe it a bit... Oh, but before that, it'd be better to take it off first. Although perhaps it's already too late..."
After thinking for a while, she shook her head. Eh~ Is that really okay? Under Haruaki's gaze, the girl sluggishly wiped her coat with the handkerchief, even though taking it off would clearly be much better.
"I am really sorry! Of course, I'll pay you back for the cleaning fee! Oh no~ That's not enough, however? Your clothes underneath must have gotten dirty as well... Right, I'll lend you my bathroom for a shower!"
"But Saitou-san, don't you have an appointment at the animal hospital?"
"Right. But it's all my dog's fault... Can't help it, I guess I'll have to cancel the appointment."
Saitou-san was just about to take out his cellphone when Haruaki said to him:
"Oh, don't worry, I'll lend her the bathroom at my place. You'll be busy from now on, right? Besides, getting a makeup appointment immediately might not be that easy, so it's better to go while you still can."
"But I feel very bad about causing you trouble, Haruaki-kun. Clearly it wasn't your fault at all..."
"Oh~ I wouldn't say it's totally not my fault... This person here forcing the girl to hold the dog is the real reason..."
"I-It's my fault? I thought it would be nice and she seemed happy too!"
Although Octavianus was the main culprit, a portion of the responsibility stemmed from Fear, so Haruaki could not allow himself to just say "Okay, bye!" and leave. Haruaki strenuously pushed Fear's head away and said:
"Yeah it's like that, so don't worry! In fact, why don't I wash her clothes as well, just leave it all to me!"
No... But... However... Saitou-san hesitated but the appointment was approaching. In the end, he could only accept Haruaki's suggestion. "If there's any problem, contact me!" He wrote down his telephone number on a piece of paper and stuffed into the girl's hand. Bowing his head apologetically, he departed.
"Hmph, what an excessively nice guy—Although I knew that a long time ago. What's wrong with trying to make things easy for yourself...?"
"Hey Fear, what are you muttering to yourself about? Let's go home now!"
"Sh-Shut up, it's nothing! Okay, you too, hurry and come!"
"Were you listening? ...Apparently not. You can't go home like this, right? You can borrow my home's bathroom and washing machine, so just come with us first. It's really close."
"No need, it doesn't matter."
What kind of person says something like that with this kind of appearance?
"Of course it matters! 'How could you let a girl go home alone in such a state? I'm going to give you a good lecture!' Back home, there's an person who would nag angrily like that."
"Even if you take her home, she'll probably still get angry."
"Hmm, it's possible... But anyway, pretend you're helping me, I hope you can come with us. Oh yeah, unless it happens that your home is super close to here?"
She shook her head.
"Or perhaps, you have a friend nearby to lend you a bathroom?"
Another shake of the head.
"Then you can only come to my house. Let's go!"
"Don't worry, we're not going to capture you and eat you. Instead, we'll offer you dinner? Although I'm not the one preparing the meal, it's this excessively nice guy here."
Haruaki and Fear turned around halfway to wait for the girl's reply. After a moment, the girl finally gave in and bowed with her head down.
"...I am in your care."
Then she began to walk slowly. Thinking what a severely shy girl she was, Haruaki suddenly realized he had forgotten something important.
"I'm Yachi Haruaki and she's Fear. What's your name?"
This was merely a very normal introduction.
An exceedingly ordinary ritual during encounters.
But for some reason, the girl answered quietly with a voice carrying the intense gloom from earlier:
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