Chapter 3 - The First Shrine Festival / "A little reckoning day"
"Geta clogs are so fun. Yo! Ho! Ha!"
"Hey Fear, don't run so fast, you'll fall—"
In a leaping manner, the silver-haired girl rushed up the stone steps leading up to the shrine. Following behind, Haruaki called out to stop her. Wearing a hair style different from usual, the lively sounds of the girl's clogs halted as she suddenly looked back and said:
"What are you talking about? You guys are too slow! Ohoh! The scent of something tasty is drifting from above! What is up there? What if it gets sold out!? Move it, hurry and come up!"
Frequently turning her attention to the shrine's confines, Fear impatiently waved her hands and yelled towards them. This motion caused the sleeves of her refreshingly colored yukata to flutter in response.
"It won't get sold out so easily. Could you calm down a bit?"
"But it can't be helped that she's acting like this, right? Isn't it the first time for Ficchi to experience this kind of situation?"
Konoha had an exasperated expression while Kuroe was sleepy-eyed as usual. Like Fear, they were both dressed in yukatas. Furthermore, Konoha had pulled a male yukata out from who knows where, causing Haruaki, who was not used to wearing yukatas, to wear one despite having no initial intention to do so.
"Konoha is right. The stalls aren't going to run off, so we should walk slowly. After all, it's very easy to fall over when wearing geta clogs, so running is even more dangerous."
"What~? That's totally underestimating me! How could I fall over from something of this level? Let's cut the nonsense and hurry—"
Perhaps trying to drag Haruaki's hand and run forward, Fear jumped to the next stone step. Just at that moment—
"Idiot, didn't I just tell you—!?"
Haruaki reflexively tried to catch Fear but he instantly realized his mistake. Similar situations had clearly happened many times before, why had he not learnt his lesson yet?
He successfully got into a position under Fear who was falling from the stone steps. In a certain sense, he had succeeded in catching her. However—
"Guah! W-Why did I end up suffering a kneeing attack on my shoulder?"
"How would I know? It's your fault for being underneath!"
"H-Haruaki-kun, it's dangerous—!"
"Lemme help as well—Heave-ho!"
"K-Kuroe-san, if you want to help support, you should be supporting Haruaki-kun's back! That side is my bottom!"
"Of course I know that."
Konoha was desperately supporting Haruaki's back while he was toppling backwards from Fear's weight while Kuroe was using her tiny hands to push against Konoha. Who knew if Kuroe was really helping in support or engaging in sexual harassment.
"So heavy! Fear, get down, I'm about to be flattened by you!"
"W-What are you talking about? I'll curse you! I'm not heavy, okay! You shameless brat—To punish your lack of delicacy, let me take this opportunity to do this!"
No sooner had she said that, sitting on Haruaki's shoulder, Fear squirmed and altered her body's direction. Straddling Haruaki's head and sitting down, she ended up completely in a piggyback position on his shoulders.
"Fufu~ Now it's okay."
"Hey, that's very dangerous! Get down now!"
"Shut up, Cow Tits. As long as this guy holds up properly, there won't be a problem."
"Yes yes yes, you need to show your ambition as a man, Haru."
"I don't really know what kind of ambition that is... But whatever, it feels like forcing her to get down here would be even more dangerous. No other way, let's continue onwards."
Carrying Fear on his shoulders in this manner, Haruaki slowly made his way up the stone steps.
The aroma entering his nostrils along the way was that of a distinctive sauce. Probably from takoyaki octopus balls or yakisoba fried noodles? Above his head, Fear's little hands were drumming on Haruaki's hair as though in sync with the festival music coming from inside the shrine. Through that rhythm, Haruaki could feel her curiosity and excitement that could not be suppressed.
Haruaki could understand more or less why she was so excited.
Indeed, it had been quite a while since he had visited a shrine festival. It had been quite a while since they went to a festival as an entire family.
(Besides, I actually didn't really want to go in the beginning. So I guess I should thank this girl.)
While moving up the stone steps, Haruaki recalled how the decision was made to visit the festival.
A nostalgic noise and bustle—However, for Fear it was the first experience of this type of noise and bustle—was lying right before their eyes.
One evening after returning from school...
Having finished the preparations for cooking dinner, Haruaki was taking a break in the living room because it was still too early start cooking. Fear returned from the stroll she started as soon as she returned home. With both hands behind her back, she seemed to be hiding something.
"I-I'm home... Fufufu, say, Haruaki..."
Smiling weirdly, she approached slowly. Sitting side by side and sipping tea, Haruaki and Konoha exchanged glances then smiled. Pointing out of the house, Haruaki said:
"—Put it back. Didn't you learn your lesson last time?"
"What? Th-This isn't what you think!"
"A dog? Or a cat? I know, it must be something quite unusual, like a ferret or something, right?"
"Like I said, it's not what you think! Listen to me, or else I'll curse you! What I brought back is this!"
Quite miffed, Fear handed over a flyer. Haruaki and Konoha looked at the piece of paper together.
"Let's see... 'Bountiful Harvest, Autumn Festival announcement'...?"
"Oh, it's the shrine up ahead, right? Speaking of which, it is that time of the year huh... But you wouldn't happen to be thinking... of going?"
Fear nodded up and down vigorously with eyes showing great anticipation.
"Hmm—Right, I guess you haven't taken part in this type of festivities yet~"
"E-Exactly! I've heard that festivals are really fun. Say, Haruaki~, can we go?"
"The date is... Today? No matter what, isn't that too rushed? Besides, we've already finished the preparations for dinner."
"Just eat it for a midnight snack or breakfast tomorrow. Aren't there so many ways to take care of food?"
Fear had a point, but honestly speaking, it was a bit troublesome.
Wondering what Konoha thought, Haruaki turned his head. Since she was always nagging the most about Fear's impetuous willfulness, she was probably uninterested this time as well—Just as Haruaki thought that...
"Festival... Not going... Yukata... A different look for me... Heart racing events...!"
Murmuring nonstop, she suddenly widened her eyes and said:
"Let's go, Haruaki-kun!"
"What an unexpected reaction? I thought you didn't like going to crowded places?"
"Wow~ Cow Tits! I must praise you for making the right choice this time!"
Konoha coughed and cleared her throat. Then she continued:
"I simply believe that participating in this type of activity would be nice once in a while. Let me make myself clear. I have not been biding my time for an opportunity ever since the summer festival. Neither have I missed out because I was unable to speak up when the two of us were alone. Nothing like that at all. Absolutely."
Haruaki could not quite get what she was talking about, but anyway, he understood that she was quite interested in going.
"However... Ah, you girls should know that it'd be unfair to Kuroe if the three of us went without her. But if we wait for her to close up shop, the festival would have ended already—"
"Looking for me?"
"Where did you pop out from?"
Somehow, Kuroe was already sitting at the table. She was even asking for tea on her own, going "Kono-san, me too—"
"What about your shop...?"
"Closing up slightly earlier today for a break. After all, there are no appointments. Also, my pleasure detector sensed strongly that something fun was brewing."
"That's the first time I've heard of that kind of detector..."
While groaning, Haruaki realized that resistance was futile. On the other hand, he was not particularly opposed to the idea except for a mild sense that it was troublesome.
"Got it. In that case, let's all go and check it out."
Instantly, Fear stood up, her face in all smiles. Shaking her fist to make a victorious pose, she said:
"Nwa—! It's finally here, I can finally make my debut at a festival! Ooh, what food will there be? I wonder if there will be sacred rice crackers used as offerings for gods... I can't wait to find out!"
"No, I can tell you for certain that it doesn't exist."
"Having decided that we're going, preparations must be made—Fufu, it's been so long since I last wore a yukata..."
Fear glared with her eyes wide towards Konoha who was about to return to her room.
"I knew it all along, Cow Tits. The clothing known as yukata is the proper attire for festivals. It's too unfair if you're the only one wearing it, so I want one too!"
"Oh~ I do have quite a few, in fact... But they can't possibly fit you. If all you wish is to try them on, I won't stop you."
"What do you mean, they can't possibly fit me!? Haruaki and Kuroe, you wait here. Since it's Cow Tits after all, it's possible she'll deliberately give me a yukata that doesn't fit. Once I'm changed, you two give me your opinion."
As a result, the two girls rushed out of the living room. Next, Haruaki heard loud noises and impacts coming from Konoha's room. Staying in the living room, Haruaki and Kuroe drank tea quietly.
"Speaking of clothes not fitting, I remember something similar happening before..."
"Okay okay, Haru. In any case, let's look forward to Ficchi's fashion show."
Several minutes later, slow footsteps approached the living room. Then the paper door slid open and standing there was—
Fear, expressionless from forcibly suppressing her emotions.
Naturally, she was wearing a yukata, one whose fabric was embroidered with a pretty hydrangea pattern... However, the chest area was very loose, her fingertips were almost completely covered by the sleeves, and the loose hem was dragging on the tatami floor. Taken altogether with the sash that just managed to tie the loose yukata together at the waist—What should one say? Summed up in a single sentence—One probably could not find another dwarf like her in the entire world.
Haruaki and Kuroe shook their heads silently.
Fear rapidly slid the paper door shut and returned to Konoha's room. Then a few minutes later—
With an increasingly grim expression, Fear made her appearance again, this time in a pretty aqua-blue yukata. Apart from that, her state was no different from last time. Haruaki really felt like nicknaming her "Miss Dwarf" as a result.
The paper door slid shut again as a patter of footsteps gradually receded into the distance.
"...Could you find a suitable opportunity to make her a suggestion? Don't you have quite a few yukatas yourself?"
"I planned to lend her one from the start."
"If that's the case, why didn't you say so earlier!?"
Haruaki stared at Kuroe in surprise but all she made was a glazed-eye expression as usual with a subtle smile on her face.
"If I did that, I would've lost a chance to photograph Ficchi's rare appearances."
At this moment, Haruaki could hear two sounds in his speechlessness.
Approaching footsteps that betrayed the owner's depressed spirits yet refusing to give up.
In addition, there were the minute sounds of a digital camera's operation coming from inside Kuroe's hair.
Thinking "finally I can get changed in peace," Konoha was sighing alone in her room.
"There's clearly no need for her to antagonize me so much... Seriously!"
In the end, Fear borrowed a yukata from Kuroe and the two had gone off to Kuroe's room in the accessory dwelling. Coming up next was Konoha's own chance to make a decisive impression.
She took the newest yukata that she originally intended to wear during the summer festival. Naturally, this was her best yukata in a certain sense, hence she did not allow Fear to try it on—Konoha did not mind if this was considered cheating. Besides, she already knew from the very start that given Fear's sizes, none of her yukatas were going to fit.
Konoha happily changed into her yukata and examined her appearance. Yes, absolutely perfect. Taking care in selecting yukatas was definitely worth the effort.
"What should I do...? Should I change my hairstyle~?"
Kuroe would definitely treat Fear like a doll and try all sorts of yukatas on her, which meant that there should be plenty of time. Konoha resolved herself and untied her twin braids.
Speaking of the yukata, one would naturally think of the back of the neck. Ever since ancient times, Japanese men would admire the seductiveness of feminine necks exposed by the yukata, unobscured by hair... Thinking "That goes without saying!", Konoha rearranged and coiled up her hair, combing it to form a bun. Then securing her hair with a conservatively colored hairpin that did not conflict with the yukata's impression of purity, everything was complete.
Standing before the mirror, Konoha spun to check out her overall appearance. This was... not... bad... No, rather, it should be quite excellent, right? Not only was there a sense of freshness but also a greater impression of purity, combined with the sexiness of her exposed neck as well...!
What sort of reaction would he make?
Rather than an exaggerated response of "Wow, it looks great, so cute!" (of course, she would still feel very happy to hear that from him), if he were to "inadvertently let slip" something like "Oh, adorable...", sincerely from the heart, that would be even better.
"Indeed. He'll probably say something like 'that hairstyle looks quite nice too~' ...as well? The use of 'quite' is very important since it conveys that he is serious and sincerely believes so and also says that he pays attention to my usual self but notices my fresh look today. Then if he were to feel something like 'Eh, could this feeling be...?' then really getting that feeling for real...! Ufufufufu!"
Konoha was standing alone in front of the mirror, murmuring to herself, laughing uncontrollably, feeling shy.
After repeating her strange behavior for quite a while, Konoha clenched her fist, went "Very well!" and exited her room.
Arriving before the living room, she took a deep breath. The first impression was of paramount importance and she absolutely could not miss his reaction.
As soon as she heard the sounds of tea sipping stop—
"I-I've changed into my yukata. Umm, how do you find it, Haruaki-kun? If possible, could you give your opinion—"
"I'm done, Haruaki! Look, look! How is it, this will be my official attire for checking out the festival!"
The instant Konoha entered the living room from the corridor, from the opposite direction—the paper door facing the garden's veranda slid open with a whoosh. Haruaki's gaze was suddenly drawn to Fear's appearance. Then—
"Oh, that's very cute..."
His remark sounded like it slipped out unwittingly.
Temples twitching, Konoha turned to look at Fear.
Because it was Kuroe's yukata, the size was quite a good fit on her. Despite the childish impression, this unbelievable combination actually served to complement her lively and adorable traits. Furthermore—
"Ohoh~ That hair style looks quite nice too~"
"Fufu, it looks good, right? Although I don't really like that tightly bound feeling, it's not bad to try it once in a while."
Konoha was furious to the point of gnashing her teeth.
Twin tails... Twin tails! So unfair! In terms of elegance, she had clearly defeated Fear. No wait, Fear must have known that, hence the choice of a hairstyle that highlighted her lively and energetic personality...? Absolutely beyond a doubt, this came from the designs of a renowned strategist!
Standing behind Fear in a yukata was Kuroe who was going purely for the young girl route. If one were to hand her a paper windmill, she would probably look like a child plucked out from antiquity. But currently held in her hand was a traditional, round, paper fan, even though summer had clearly passed already... She was probably going for the mood it created?
"Kono-san is done changing too. Nothing less expected from Kono-san."
"Hmm... Your look is basically the same. Glasses plus giant tits like a dairy cow's—Your two main elements haven't changed, so it won't be a reach to say that your boring getup is completely unchanged. I win!"
Perhaps due to Fear's attitude that commanded his attention, Haruaki finally noticed Konoha's presence. Only then did he finally shift his gaze towards her.
Perhaps noticing that the atmosphere around Konoha was a little off, he was taken aback slightly before saying:
"Oh... Oh~ Konoha's finished changing as well! Your hairstyle also looks—v-very good!"
Haruaki raised his voice, a little redundantly.
"Is that so~? I am VERY happy to hear that. Thank you for your praise."
Konoha found her voice exceptionally cold to the extreme.
Recalling the many things that happened before they left the house, Haruaki finally reached the top of the stone steps.
"Wow! So many people! Are those small tents the shops? They all sell different things? Ki... ya... ko... ta? Why have I never heard this name before? Is it food?"
"You're reading that banner backwards!"
"Ta... ko... ya... ki—I haven't heard of that either!"
"...Seriously? Anyway, Haruaki-kun, your shoulders must be beginning to ache. It's time to let her down."
Hence, Haruaki lowered Fear back down. But the moment she touched the ground, she could very well rush off and disappear, so Haruaki hastily grabbed one of her twintails, a hairstyle limited to this day only.
"Nuwo! Hey, let me go!"
"If I let go, you'll definitely get lost. Listen carefully and promise me one thing. Do not run off on your own recklessly. If you won't promise me, we're going home immediately."
"Yeah yeah. Promise."
Although Haruaki was not reassured by her halfhearted answer, he still let go. At any rate, Fear's curiosity index had apparently gone off the charts already. Hence, she kept looking in all directions, behaving strangely as though expressing "where should I go? This way or that?"
"So, what's takoyaki~? There's a nice aroma coming from that side. What's that thing that looks like a swimming pool? So intriguing... Ah!"
"I just realized something terrible! I... forgot to bring money!"
Fear pleaded with her eyes. Feeling "there's no need to make that kind of look," Haruaki smiled wryly and said:
"Got it, I'll pay for you. But the way you are now, you'll surely end up buying everything from the stalls, so basically, you need my permission before buying anything."
"Hmm—Well, if you think that works better, I'm fine with it... But it's not everyday that I get to have fun at a festival, so I have to experience buying things I like, because that's the essence of visiting a festival."
Konoha sighed. Fear was arguing with great effort, just as predicted. Meanwhile, Kuroe kept waving to Fear.
"In that case, Ficchi, let me, as the reliable elder sister, give you some pocket money. With this, Ficchi, you can buy things you really want but Haru objects."
"What!? Are you serious, Kuroe!?"
"Kuroe-san, please don't spoil her..."
"Relax. Ficchi, I'm not giving you money for free. It comes with a condition."
Fear frowned and wondered "condition?" to which Kuroe nodded solemnly and said.
"...Well then, please lean forward first."
"Just follow my directions and make the pose. Then look up."
"I really don't get what you mean. L-Like this?"
"Then tilt your head slightly."
"Finally, stare straight at me and bite your thumb slightly."
"Mmmuu... What does this have to do with anything? The more I think about it, the more embarrassing this pose seems—!"
Accompanied by a click, a flash came from inside of Kuroe's hair. Even now, she still had a digital camera hidden in her hair?
Perhaps unable to bear it any longer, Fear went red in the face and approached Kuroe.
"Then, y-you photographed it? You photographed it, right, Kuroe? You photographed my embarrassing appearance just now, right!? I won't take this silently! Hey, I demand that you erase that photo from just now—!"
"Here you go, 500yen. With this, you'll be able to buy at least one thing you want, no matter which shop."
"Record-breaking bribery speed!?"
Haruaki was trembling in shock while Konoha sighed dejectedly.
"Thank you, Kuroe... I will spend this money on something that I really want. Okay, Haruaki, preparations are now complete! First, I want to try that takoyaki that's been bothering me from a while ago!"
"Takoyaki huh... It's been quite a while. Since I want to eat it too, I allow you to buy it."
Haruaki originally intended to go with Fear to buy it, but she seemed to be quite enamored with the act of "buying." In any case, since she was within sight, letting her gain some experience was not a bad idea either.
"Buy a box of takoyaki with this money and come back. Don't forget to get the change."
"Okay, you're letting me take on the responsibility of buying things, right? Great, just wait here!"
Hearing her clogs clattering while she ran and yelling at the stall owner "I want a box—!", Haruaki could not help but feel an urge to laugh. The stall owner looked like he had to make some on the spot, so Fear watched the iron pan with great interest, waiting patiently—Suddenly noticing Haruaki's gaze, she proudly made a victory sign with her hand.
Haruaki surveyed the surroundings, thinking "Fear should be alright." All sorts of hustle and bustle, the festival music, the beating of drums, faint sounds of bells from the distance... This space was enveloped by a nostalgic atmosphere. Perhaps there were many people seeking this sense of nostalgia, the surrounding crowd density continued to increase. A moment's carelessness would probably result in getting swept away in the crowd. Just as Haruaki was thinking that—
Feeling a soft and warm sensation against his upper arm, Haruaki discovered that Konoha had collided into him, pushed by the crowd.
"Are you okay?"
"S-Sorry about that. I was pushed and lost my balance."
Konoha smiled shyly. Due to devoting too much energy and attention towards Fear who was liable to acting unpredictably, Haruaki had not noticed until now—Konoha's appearance. Upon further examination, her current look was quite refreshing. A beautiful yukata, her hair secured behind her head, this combined to expose the back of her neck. So pale, so pale, so pale. Haruaki could not help but feel a sense of immorality, seeing a spot that was normally out of view...
"Wah! No, umm, sorry. Perhaps I mentioned it just now, but that hairstyle really suits you quite well..."
"You're saying... it looks quite nice, is that so... Ehehe, I'm satisfied with that."
Konoha smiled as though in absolute bliss. Haruaki was quite taken aback in surprise. At the same time, he was also surprised by something that was closer than expected. As the surge of people continued to push him from behind, it looked like there was no choice but to wait until the crowd subsided a little.
"Sorry, it's a bit difficult to move..."
"D-Do not get swept away by the crowd, endure it."
She was completely right, endure it. Although something soft was pressing against his arm, he must endure it. Absolutely avoid thinking in weird directions. An almost inexplicable sense of presence and texture, indeed, although only the fabric of the yukata separated his arm and that feeling, he must be absolutely direct his attention away from that—
"...Uh—Umm, it would be troubling if there's a misunderstanding, so let me clarify beforehand—No, actually I don't really know myself what might be misunderstood."
"W-What do you mean?"
Behind those glasses, her moist eyes looked up at Haruaki from an extremely short distance.
Then she fluttered her lashes in embarrassment.
"I've been wearing this type of Japanese attire since a long time ago... So perhaps it's hard to change old habits, or maybe I just can't calm my mind unless I'm dressed like this... I'm not trying to make an excuse, but in the past, this would be perfectly commonplace and necessary when dressed in traditional Japanese garb, umm..."
"O-Okay... I get it. I don't quite understand, but I get it. So, it'd be a great help if you could stop talking about that subject."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Konoha smiled in her eyes.
"...I made you feel troubled, right? Sorry..."
"N-Not at all, it's not like it's particularly troubling, how should I put this...? R-Right! It's this crowd's fault. Jeez, why can't they pass faster so that we can move!?"
Haruaki craned his neck meaninglessly to look around but Konoha's gaze did not shift. She still continued to look up at Haruaki from close range. He could see her lips moving faintly, then entering Haruaki's ears was—
"...I don't mind, a little longer... maintaining this state..."
Her whispers were too soft so he could not quite catch the words clearly.
For some reason, Haruaki found himself unable to avert his gaze and ended up looking into Konoha's eyes naturally.
The festival's drumming, the surrounding noise, everything seemed so very distant. It was as though the two of them had entered an isolated world of their own.
Was it due to the crowd pushing? Their faces became even closer while her supple body pressed even tighter together.
Then Haruaki found himself completely immobile.
Under these conditions when escaping or even trying to lift a finger was impossible—
—A freshly fried takoyaki ball was stuffed into his mouth.
"Gwooooh!? H-Hot... Hot... Hot—!"
"How's that, tasty? You shameless brat! I just take my eyes off you for a moment and you start doing this!? I can't forgive you at all! Here, want a second one? Yes? Yes?"
"I surrender! I surrender!"
Haruaki covered his mouth in pain. With a demonic expression, Fear took her toothpick and desperately tried to shove another takoyaki ball into his mouth.
The crowd had subsided substantially. In other words, the legitimacy of Haruaki and Konoha's behavior had passed.
Konoha sighed dejectedly and slumped her shoulders.
(A rare chance with a good mood going there... But then again, I think that was too close for comfort. If things continued under that atmosphere—even I... feel that... something requiring mental resolve might occur, or maybe it wont? No, even so, it should be fine. On further thought, I feel like a direct and forceful development might be more effective in obtaining clean results...!)
However, by this point there was no point in dwelling on what could have been. On the other hand, Konoha felt that she had achieved her main goal of displaying her femininity to Haruaki. In any case, it was not a bad achievement.
"...Excessive impatience would not be good, yes, that's right... Speaking of which."
She looked to the side. While Fear was off buying takoyaki, Kuroe had instantly disappeared. For some reason, she had bought an anachronistic fox mask and was standing on the side, wearing her new equipment. With the mask pulled to one of her head, the look seemed to suit her exceptionally well.
"Basically, I'm just asking out of curiosity... Did you snap a shot?"
Kuroe expressionlessly made a thumbs-up as she answered.
Konoha sighed again, then discreetly—but resolutely—whispered to Kuroe:
"Print some for me immediately after we get back. Ten or so should do."
Next, Haruaki's group's festival turned into chasing after Fear whenever she rushed off after some stall that caught her eye. Naturally, her interests were not limited to snack stalls but also included game stalls.
Walking around, Fear had a lot of fun and so did Haruaki and the rest. Without getting into how she competed with Konoha for the largest stuffed doll at a shooting contest but both of them ended up wasting all their ammunition, right now, Fear almost started a fight with a shopkeeper at a seldom encountered multicolored chicken stall due to yelling "What!? To think it's just spray painted, unforgivable!" Granted it was fun, but a little excessively violent.
Haruaki and Konoha kept bowing their heads in apology to the shopkeeper and finally managed to diffuse the situation. Next, they came to a katanuki diecutting stall.
"Nwah... It broke—! This is too difficult, Mr. Shopkeeper!"
"Hehehe, if it's that easy to win, then this old man woulda gone out of business a long time ago~"
"This needle is so small and hard to hold... The result might be different if I use a tool I'm more used to. Say, Mr. Shopkeeper, can I swap tools?"
"Hmm? That's not fair to the other customers. Please just bear with it."
"Hmm~ You have a point there. That's right, competitions must be fair. Ahaha!"
"Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Seeing the two of them laughing together, Haruaki trembled in terror. Mr Shopkeeper, today sure is your lucky day. Had you given the okay, this girl would have taken out something like a drill.
Meanwhile, things were going smoothly for a certain young girl.
"...«Chaplin» complete. «Ortho-Xylene Molecule» complete. «Byoudou-in Phoenix Hall» complete."
"What? These are all S-class models, to think you effortlessly completed them...! Little girl, who on earth are you?"
"Fufufu, how could you not know who I am? Mister, are you new here?"
"Ah! That long, black hair, sleepy eyes and petite physique... Perhaps you're the legendary «Festival-Wrecking Black Princess»? P-Please have mercy on the little folk like me! I have elderly parents and three young children to support!"
In the end, Kuroe soon let the shopkeeper off, but not before winning every single prize at the stall.
Fear spun around while licking the milk candy Kuroe shared with her and said:
"Y-You're amazing, Kuroe. Is there some trick to it? Tell me!"
"I guess there is a trick... But for you, Ficchi, it might be a bit difficult."
Still sleepy-eyed, Kuroe continued nonchalantly:
"The needle in my hand is just a red herring. In actual fact, I use a hardened hair to secretly carve out the mold—"
"Isn't that cheating!?"
"But that stall just now deliberately dulled the needles to make the mold difficult to carve. I only use this trick against unscrupulous stalls like this one—"
Even so, the shopkeeper was still too pitiful. Hence, Haruaki had Kuroe return the untouched prizes.
Next, they conquered quite a few stalls. Fear bounced the hard-earned water balloon on her palm while walking with happy footsteps along the path which was lined with stalls.
"How's this? I'm amazing, right? Haruaki!"
"Amazing amazing, but if you bounce it too hard, it's gonna break instantly."
"Also, could you look carefully where you're going. Otherwise, you'll collide into someone... Oh!"
Just as Konoha said that, a boy, who looked like a grade schooler, was running head on and happened to bump into Fear. Apart from Fear not paying attention in front, it was also due to the boy looking backwards while he ran.
"Ouch! ...Th-That really hurts—!"
Due to the difference in body weight—or rather, the difference in weight class—naturally, only the boy fell over onto the ground. But he was apparently uninjured. Then shouting with his shrill voice that had yet to undergo puberty, he instantly stood up.
"Ken, are you okay?"
"Haha, you really suck!"
The boy was not alone but accompanied by two other companions of similar age. Judging from the way they dressed and behaved, they seemed quite arrogant—commonly encountered delinquents nowadays.
"Oh~ Sorry about that. Are you okay?"
"It really hurts—Don't you look where you're going? Moron! Watch out or I'm gonna kill you!"
The boy continued to shout at Fear, causing her temple to twitch once. But since he was just a brat, Fear managed to maintain considerable self-control.
"Y-You're going a bit far. I'm not the only one at fault. You should have looked ahead while you're walking then you could have dodged—"
"Shut up, foreigner! Stop mouthing Japanese when you're clearly a foreigner! You flatchest!"
"Flatchest... Fu, fufu, fufufu! How bold of you, oh my~ Truly, such bold insolence!"
"Hey, hold on, Fear, he's just a kid!"
Seeing Fear cackle while taking out the Rubik's cube, Haruaki frantically restrained her from behind.
"Ken, now's not the time to be messing about in this place!"
"He's right, we'd better go. After all, we've got our funding already."
"Tsk... Got it, okay!"
Clicking his tongue in displeasure and throwing a final glare, the boys headed off again into the bustle of the festival. Once they were out of sight, only then did Haruaki release Fear.
"Gwah—! I'm so mad! What the heck was with those kids? What's wrong with this country's education!?"
"How rare, but I do agree with your remark this once. If something similar happens again, some educational instruction is needed indeed."
"Hmm—if Kono-san became a teacher... Ohoh. Surely, she'd be a gentle but occasionally scary, glasses-wearing female teacher with a giant bust! W-What perfect use of talent. I'd be willing to pay any amount to take lessons from you!"
"What strange delusions are you having? But then again~ I do agree that she's quite suited to be a teacher."
"Eh, ehehe? Is that so?"
While chatting, the group began walking again.
"Also, speaking of suitable... Kuroe, that fox mask—"
"Does it look good?"
"Well, it's incredibly fitting for your temperament, but I just never thought they'd still sell it nowadays."
"The mask stall nearby is famed for selling weird masks since a long time ago. That guy even sells masks of a yellow electric mouse as well as a certain black and white mouse that's unique in this world."
"That's pretty bad, judging from your description, he'll eventually get arrested..."
Fear's mood gradually improved while the group chatted like this. Indeed, this was a festival, a rare event. Forgetting unpleasant things and having the most fun would be the right choice.
"Say, Haruaki, it's been bothering me for a while."
"What's that jangling noise? It's coming from that direction."
"That's a bell, hung above the offering box."
Bell? Offering box? Fear tilted her head in puzzlement. Haruaki wondered where he should start explaining from.
"Well... Since we're here already, let's go over for a look."
"Good idea, we should at least throw in some money as an offering."
The group continued further into the shrine's confines. At the end of the rows of stalls, there was a place that resembled a plaza with a tent that seemed to be the festival's administration headquarters. Since reaching the shrine's main hall required going further up some stone steps, the tent was probably set up here in consideration of that. After passing through the main tent, the crowd was divided. As soon as one started up the stone steps, the surrounding crowd density rapidly decreased. Logically speaking, thanking the gods for bountiful harvests was the original purpose of the festival, but modern people were more driven by practicality.
While listening to the sounds of Fear and the girls' clogs, Haruaki casually mounted the steps, making their way towards the front of the main hall where the crowd was much thinned. Behind them, the festival music could be heard coming from below the steps, sounding a little melancholic.
"Oh~ How quiet."
"Every New Year's first shrine visit, this place gets packed with people. But since it's just the autumn festival right now, that's pretty much as much of a crowd it gets. Hey... Hold on, although I'm only asking you now, do you actually know what kind of place a shrine is?"
"What are you talking about? Stop looking down on me. Isn't it just a place to worship gods? Like a Japanese church or something."
Fear looked up at the solemn main hall then slowly advanced. She stopped in front of the offering box. Looking up at the bell above, she tilted her head and said:
"That thing, it's so huge. But why is there a bell in this kind of place?"
"Don't get flustered, Haru. Times like these are for Kono-san the teacher... Please tell me the meaning—"
"I recall that it's for drawing the gods' attention, akin to calling out 'Please look this way—'... Something like that."
"Yes, that's right, that's right. That's what it means. Next, toss in the offering money—donation—and ask the gods to listen to our wishes."
At this moment, Fear looked at Haruaki's face.
"You've never tossed offering money before?"
Answering lightly, Fear sighed softly. She then looked up at the shrine and narrowed her eyes as though looking at something bright. Then she continued in self-mockery:
"Although I don't quite understand things like spirits and gods—Haruaki, do you believe in the existence of gods?"
"I don't really know if gods exist or not, but the way I think about it is like this: if gods really exist, then I hope for their help as much as possible. After all, I don't think tossing in offering money is much of a loss."
"It's like that?"
"—Basically. It's a bit like self-consolation, as well as... a challenge."
At this moment, the offering box rattled. Konoha had tossed in a coin. Then in a slightly unrefined manner, she shook and rang the bell.
"To be frank, I am not a believer. If gods really existed, then I could not have possibly witnessed those scenes over the past few centuries. However, if the gods are willing to listen to our wishes, cursed as we are, I wouldn't mind believing in them a little. In other words, 'allow me to believe in you if you really exist, gods.'"
Then the clanging noise was heard.
"As expected of Kono-san, such an insolent attitude towards the gods—But then again, this nation's choice of gods can be quite half-assed. Even Kono-san's most hated racoon dog was able to become enshrined as a god. In my view, it's like spending lose change to buy a lottery ticket. Winning is worth celebrating, of course, but losing isn't much of a loss. So, please please listen to my wish~"
The two girls did as they pleased and said words that could very well bring about divine retribution, then prayed with their eyes closed and palms held together.
Before the bell's ringing stopped, they had already finished making their wish rapidly.
"What wish... did you two make?"
"That's a secret." "Secret."
Konoha and Kuroe answered simultaneously.
"Anyway, no need to think too much. As part of custom, let me toss in some offering money too... Hey Fear, here you go."
Haruaki took out a coin from his change and prepared to give it to Fear but she shook her head.
"You're not going to toss in an offering? Then forget it."
"I will, but I wanna pay for myself.'
Just as Haruaki was going to say "but you didn't bring any money," Fear took out a 500yen coin from her yukata. This was the pocket money Kuroe had given her.
"Kuroe... Is this okay?"
"This is already your money, Ficchi, how you spend it is your freedom... Rather, I'm the one who wants to ask you, is this okay?"
Kuroe was expressionless as usual but her eyes were half-closed in a gentle display.
"To get what I really want—that's why you gave me this coin, right?"
Fear exhaled and extended her fist that was holding the coin over the offering box.
Like a magician performing a ritual, she slowly opened her hand. The coin no longer belonged to her, but to the gods.
Next, Fear shook the rope unnecessarily hard, ringing the bell.
As though shouting—Over here, look carefully, I'm right here.
Then she arrogantly stared up, towards the shaking bell—
"I have a wish that I desire so much that I'm willing to rely on gods whose existence aren't even certain. I have a wish that comes before other things, which is why I'm using this money. Like Cow Tits, judging from the human behavior I've observed continually over time, it's very difficult for me to believe that gods exist... But if you really are present, don't miss this. If you dare skip over my wish accidentally, I won't forgive you!"
...While clapping her palms together.
She closed her eyes and prayed, then murmured:
"...Say, Haruaki, what about you?"
"O-Oh right, let me pray too."
Like Fear, he held his palms together and closed his eyes. Since he was called over by Fear without warning, he had not decided yet what to pray about. Simply recalling what had happened recently, all he could think of were cliched and ordinary things like "let's hope that Fear's wish could come true," "it'll definitely come true~" or "I hope we'll have another chance to visit another festival like this~"
Lost in these thoughts, Haruaki found his eyes opened and hands separated by the time he regained his senses.
Hence, that must have been his prayer.
"Okay, the festival is still going! The mystery of the bell is already resolved!"
"Rather than mystery, it's more like your own ignorance..."
"Shut up, Cow Tits! In any case, I'm hungry again. Let's go, Haruaki, in fact, I saw something that's been nagging at me for a while. What's that thing called the 'sealed apple on a stick' or something!?"
"I know what you're talking about, but that name is quite original."
"By the time the seal is removed, your tongue will be so tired that you won't have the motivation to eat the apple inside—"
While the group chatted about various things as they were about to leave from the front of the main hall—At this moment, they heard noises behind them.
"Arghhhh... Not again! Those damn kids!"
A man's voice caused them to look back. A man, roughly fifty, was peering into the offering box with a scary expression. He was dressed in a white hakama, Japanese split-toed socks and leather-soled sandals. His identity was obvious from his appearance. Absolutely beyond a doubt.
"—Are you an offering thief? To think you're stealing the hard-earned money I tossed in there! Watch me bring divine retribution upon you!"
"Uwah—You're completely wrong! No matter how you look, he's obviously this shrine's Shinto priest!"
Haruaki grabbed Fear's twintails and just barely managed to prevent her from charging... Somehow, he found that catching her like this was more convenient than usual. What a useful hairstyle.
"Unuu, it hurts when you pull like that, shameless brat!"
"Anyway, put that Rubik's cube away first!"
Naturally, Haruaki and Fear's noisy scuffle attracted the man's attention as well. Resting his hand on top of the offering box, he smiled gently and said:
"A foreigner with such fluent Japanese... Welcome to our little shrine. I hope you'll have a good time."
"I am having a good time. On the other hand, what were you yelling noisily about?"
Fear asked, causing the priest to answer with an awkward expression:
"It's quite embarrassing, but it's basically what you mentioned just now. In other words, someone stealing offering money... Although this is just a small shrine, the offerings for the entirety of today can't possibly be this little. There was definitely a thief."
"What did you say!?"
Fear was greatly surprised. Konoha frowned and asked:
"That's quite disastrous... Are you going to call the police?"
"Oh~ That's not necessary. It's also why I'm in such a dilemma, because I have a rough idea who the suspects are."
Staring into the offering box, the priest sighed and answered.
"You know who the suspects are...?"
"I recall you saying 'those damn kids' just now, right?"
"Yes, three delinquents from the neighborhood. I've discovered them a number of times and scolded them severely... But once things cooled off, they always act up again~"
"Mischief needs to be reined in. As reluctant as one might be to do so, calling the police might be best."
"I do know that letting the police handle it might be more appropriate... But the loss is at most a couple thousand yen. As a priest, asking the police to arrest children who have futures ahead of them, it feels a bit too—But if this keeps happening, perhaps I might be forced to change my mind~ They must learn that even as children, doing bad things will lead to punishment."
Standing there thinking with her arms crossed before her chest, Fear said to the priest who was shaking his head, wondering what to do:
"Say, Mr. Priest, this is just my personal hunch, do the three delinquents you mentioned include a kid called 'Ken'?"
"You know them? That's completely correct."
"I see, so it's them, sure enough... Not really, I don't know them but it's because he crashed into me just now. Even though I was partly at fault, those guys didn't apologize at all. Their attitudes were terrible!"
"Speaking of which, they mentioned something about funding, could that be referring to the offering money?"
"Using stolen money to spend on the festival? That'd really lead to divine retribution, seriously!"
Just as Haruaki muttered, he noticed Fear's shoulder shaking.
Seeing Fear smiling fearlessly, Haruaki could not help but feel an ominous premonition. Just as expected, Fear began to utter shocking words.
"I get it. I understand completely, Mr. Priest. Why don't you let me handle this? I will bring back the stolen offering money and teach those thieves a little lesson. Also, I'm make them promise they'll never steal offering money ever again!"
"Wait, Fear, what on earth are you...?"
"I'm helping people. I must do things 'beneficial to people.' Also—Although my money wasn't stolen, but that's just pure luck. Had the timing been different, perhaps even the money filled with my hopes might have been stolen! So this has made me understand something even more. Stealing money that's infused with people's wishes is completely unacceptable! Those delinquents who have strayed off the proper path must be taken care of!"
Well~ You do have a point indeed... With a reluctant expression in his eyes, Haruaki looked at the priest. The priest responded with the same type of gaze.
"But well... You mentioned teaching them a lesson, but using violence would be a bit..."
"Naturally, how could I possibly use violence against little kids? I will simply persuade them with my sincerity. Like telling them that 'doing this kind of thing will bring about divine retribution' or something like that."
"Oh~ In that case, I'm relieved. But those kids aren't going to listen obediently..."
"Don't worry! We are pros in that area. Just count on us! Okay, since they stole the offering money to go and play, they should still be wandering casually in the surroundings. Let's go!"
"What kind of pro are you? Hey, Fear, wait up!"
Even the sounds of her wooden clogs expressed excitement as Fear rushed forward. Left with no choice, the group could only nod lightly towards the priest before chasing after her. Following Fear's pace, Haruaki descended the stone steps while saying:
"Any objections? Cow Tits, I wanna hear your opinion too."
"Well... Of course this sort of thing cannot be condoned. In this type of situation where educational instruction is required, I am personally qualified to offer my approval... Provided that they are persuaded without using any violence."
"I agree too—But Mr. Priest is right, who knows if they'll listen to lecturing."
"Then the motion is passed with a majority. Haruaki, are you happy now?"
"Sigh... I get it. I surrender to you lot. But honestly, what are you girls planning? Even if you capture them and give them a lecture, it's pointless if you can't prevent them from doing bad things again in the future."
"I have an idea. Didn't I say 'we are pros'? Of course, I didn't mean pros in lecturing—"
Lips curling into a grin, Fear continued:
"We are pros who can make them understand thoroughly that 'doing bad things will lead to getting cursed.'"
—The current location was outside the shrine's confines, behind the path where the stalls were lined up.
The stalls in the distance cast only faint light into this sparse area of mixed forest. This place was completely deserted and was so dark that people would need to stare hard to see one another. Precisely because it was so deserted, adults rarely stepped foot here. In other words, this was considered something of a secret base.
"Damn, there's no octopus in this takoyaki!"
"Haha, serves you right."
"Hey Youhei, gimme half of that."
"No way, go buy it yourself. Don't you have money?"
"I'm trying not to splurge. Saving up for a DS here."
"How long is that gonna take? Like the money just now, we only got a thousand yen each or so."
Inane chatter slowly dissipated into the deserted forest. Apart from their noises, all one could hear were the rustling of vegetation. Rustle rustle rustle rustle. Rustle rustle rustle rustle.
Perhaps due to the eerie rustling of leaves, or maybe due to the chilly evening wind, the boys' conversation paused for a few minutes.
"That priest guy must be in a panic now..."
"What, are you scared? There's no evidence anyway. As long as we didn't get caught red-handed, there's no problem."
"So true. I don't know why but last time when we were caught, he didn't inform our parents or the police either."
Rustle rustle rustle rustle, rustle rustle rustle rustle...
"Maybe that guy intends to give us pocket money to spend, so he's turning a blind eye?"
"Hahaha, then he's really a good guy!"
"Just a measly thousand yen for pocket money? Jeez, can't he find a way to make the shrine more popular—"
—Rustle rustle rustle rustle rustle rustle!
The trio's conversation was interrupted again.
They could sense a strange atmosphere in the surroundings. The leaves were rustling too quickly and too loudly as well. Although the wind was blowing outside, this should not happen. The sound was as though someone was deliberately shaking the—
...Rustle rustle. The sound came from behind.
...Rustle rustle rustle rustle. This time, it came from the side.
...Rustle rustle rustle rustle rustle rustle. Then it came from the front.
Judging from the changing positions and the timing and number of the noises, clearly this was produced by someone's will.
"S-Something isn't right."
"W-Who's there!? Show yourself now!"
One of the boys shouted. Soon after—
Coming from all directions, as though someone was shaking the forest out of anger, the sound surrounded them. Producing a sense of intimidation, it surrounded them completely.
Waiting with bated breath, was it one of them?
Sounds of trembling footsteps on leaves, was it one of them?
But the time they suddenly realized, standing before them without making a sound—was a petite girl in yukata.
Although the boys wondered "a lost girl?", her appearance would be too bizarre for that.
If she were lost, why was she wearing a retro-style fox mask?
The masked girl remained standing in the dim forest. The unusual situation seemed as though taken from a horror movie. Indeed, the scene was bizarre enough for the boys to describe as "eerie as a horror movie." It was also the only description they could barely understand.
But in the next second, the scene suddenly became "weird" beyond comprehension.
The girl slowly raised both arms.
She took a deep breath—
"Justice~ will~ be~ served~!"
Her black hair extended like countless snakes and started to twitch.
"Well done! She grasped all the main points!"
"No, there's no need to say 'Justice will be served,' right... If you listen to it calmly, it actually sounds kind of cute."
Hiding behind some nearby trees to monitor the situation, Haruaki sighed while covering his face with his hand.
"What are you talking about? It's enough as long as they're scared. The impact produced by Kuroe's hair was amazing as expected. Those boys were quaking in their boots, too afraid to move a single step. Oh, they're already caught?"
"Oh man~ Sorry, boys. Those screams are making me totally uncomfortable..."
This was because Haruaki was hearing three people's worth of pitiful screaming in unison. Just as Fear said, they were caught by Kuroe's extended hair and suspended immobile in midair. Kuroe's hair was also able to be controlled in units of "bunches." For example, her hair was responsible for creating the disturbing scene of shaking trees earlier.
"Gwaaah... Waaah! What? What do you want?"
"Release me! Release me! Release me now! Waaaaah!"
"Yee! Ha, ooh! Guh!"
One of the boys had already started sobbing.
"Uh—I am one of the three goddesses worshiped in this land, Her Augustness of the Sleek Black Hair, descending thus in divine manifestation, having bore witness of ye atrocities. Ye ought to know that stealing offering money is a heinous act, deserving a thousand deaths!"
Hiding to observe the situation just like Haruaki, Konoha shook her head in surprise after hearing Kuroe's self-introduction.
"To think she would call herself a goddess... Besides, what kind of manner of speaking is that?"
"Hmm? She mentioned that she used your way of speaking as a reference."
"Wha? W-When did I... Well, I can't say for certain... But it's definitely not that weird!"
While Fear and Konoha conversed, the punishment continued to take place over on the other side.
"Correct. Ye shall receive ye comeuppance—ye shall suffer divine retribution—"
"P-Pull yourself together, Youhei! This is a scam, that's right, it's definitely a scam!"
"Y-You're right, it must be what you say... Right? Right!"
The guy who was about to cry seemed to be almost completely taken in, but the other two were tough customers. Seeing the situation, Fear slowly stood up.
"Kukuku, how stubborn. Well then, I guess it's my turn next."
"Y-You must hold back. Listen to me, you absolutely must hold back."
Fear answered "Got it" and started to put on the mask she had bought from a stall.
Using superhuman powers to teach the boys a lesson through an experience of retribution—But there was one issue with Fear's suggestion. Naturally, the boys could not be allowed to see their faces. Having encountered them once already, Fear's striking silver hair became the greatest challenge. But for some reason, the mask stall turned out unbelievably to sell wrestling masks that covered up the whole head. Wearing that, she really looked like one of those masked heroes from one of those television shows.
"So, I'm off..."
Making a scary breathing noise, wearing a realistic-looking skull mask, Fear went on her way. In terms of invoking horror, it could be considered a success. But rather concerning was the fact that it did not suit the original intent of conveying divine retribution.
"Eeeeeeeek! Ken, a-another one has arrived!"
"D-Don't be afraid! Isn't it that one, the guy called Gasha Skull! So friggin' lame to wear a superhero mask, the one inside must be human!"
After producing laughter that seemed like was coming from some kind of deep space ninja, Fear quietly took out the Rubik's cube. Then as though manifesting out of thin air, she transformed it into a vicious-looking drill.
"Kukuku... I am one of the three goddesses... Her Augustness Too Adorable! Don't get the wrong idea, the reason why I wear this mask is because your eyeballs will be scorched and destroyed by the sight of we gods. That would be too much, even though you deserve to be punished as offering thieves... yeah... Ufufufufu! Calling it an alternative plan might sound strange, but a specially prepared punishment is already ready for you. Look forward to it, offering thieves! Shuko—!"
Next came a series of metallic noises. In order to scare them, Fear had transformed the drill into a massive hatchet that looked like it could even chop a bear in half. This worked along the same principles as Kuroe's hair to produce phenomena that could not be explained by common sense.
"Ahhh... I give... up... I'm s-sorry, please stop this. I'm willing to apologize..."
"Waaaaah... I'm gonna die—I... really will die..."
"It's a scam! This is a scam——!"
Only one of the boys continued to struggle despite being bound by Kuroe's hair, the one called Ken. Although his eyes glimmered with tears, it felt like he was struggling desperately to distract himself from his own fear.
Even when Fear waved the hatchet in front of face, his attitude did not change. Even when a supermassive spiked club sank heavily into the ground, he remained unswayed. Fear shrugged lightly and threw a glance towards Haruaki's group.
"Sigh... It's my turn now? But now that things have developed to this point, I'm really reluctant to do this..."
"J-Just find a way to make them promise never to steal offering money again. I can't help in any way, I'm really sorry...!"
After hearing Haruaki's sincere words, Konoha smiled as though giving up on various things and put on her mask. Because she could not wear any mask that was too cute, neither could she repeat Fear or Kuroe's choices, almost left without any choice, the mask she wore was—
"U-Umm, I am also one of the three goddesses—Her Augustness the Gentle and Beautiful. Uh—Listen carefully, you are forbidden from wrongdoings. So do not commit any crimes ever again..."
Hers was the kind of butterfly mask often seen in masquerade balls in movies.
The boy called Ken seemed to be frozen in time as he looked at the final goddess in astonishment.
Rather than terrifying, Konoha's appearance was—
One might say, quite perverse.
As cold wind blew across the mixed forest, the boy called Ken suddenly made a commotion again. As though brought back to life, he regained his liveliness.
"Hey Youhei and Kouta! Wake up now! The least scary one is here!"
Haruaki went "ahhh~" and clutched his head. No good, the butterfly mask was definitely unsuitable—
However, Ken's next words changed the situation.
...Although it was unclear whether it was a good or bad change.
"Look, guys, that's definitely~ not some kind of god! What, it's just Masked Lady D-Cup!"
Watching from the side, Haruaki suddenly felt a severe chill rush along his spine.
Instantly, everything changed in appearance, devoured whole by a dark aura. Ahhh~ Was this reality or fantasy? A slightly warm breeze shook branches ominously. Perhaps bats or birds, some kind of creature made strange screeches, flapped their wings and flew. Chaotic sounds of wings flapping began to surround the forest in a clamor. Rustling in the grass suggested that even snakes were escaping out of survival instinct, from this place that could be understood as hell?
Next, at the very center of the strangeness, coming from a certain masked girl was—
The sound of a nearby tree crashing down.
Of course, Konoha was not holding anything in her hand. She simply swung a karate chop.
Even from a distance, Haruaki was breaking out in goosebumps, frightened by her demonic aura. The boys could not possibly be unaware. This time, they really dared not speak, simply staring at Konoha.
"Fufu... Happy little children... One suddenly wanteth to play a game with ye..."
Saying that softly, she slowly, slowly approached the boys. The boy named Ken simply shuddered, his teeth chattering. Fear shook her head from side to side silently while Kuroe held her palms together lightly, still keeping the boys tied up. This was far too inauspicious.
"Of course, ye shall not be killed. Though ye shall not be killed—"
At some point, Konoha had started holding a wooden branch in her hand. Lifting it before Ken's eyes, as though showing off to him, she held it between her index and middle fingers, then severed the branch with a snip.
Still keeping her hand in scissors-like pose, she held Ken's earlobe between her fingers—
"I shall not repeat myself again. Thou shalt not steal offering money ever again. Shouldst thou fail to adhere to this promise, thy fate... Thou ought to know, dost thou?"
While listening to the screams of the stubborn boy who was finally conquered, Haruaki closed his eyes.
Sorry. Please forgive us in many ways.
Also, the most important thing.
If Konoha were to become a teacher, there were still many things that needed to be set right first.
As soon as the unharmed boys were released, they ran for their lives while crying. Haruaki only hoped that they did not form some kind of unpleasant mental trauma... Like freezing in fear whenever they saw a butterfly mask again.
Haruaki's group brought back the offering money to return to the priest and reported that the "boys promised they won't steal offering money again." The priest felt very surprised and thanked them with a sigh of relief. He even said "You've really helped me a lot. Would you like some tea?" However, Haruaki's group firmly refused the invitation and went back to the festival.
"Gwah—I'm dead tired..."
"Good job. Although it turned out a little different from what I expected, the result is pretty alright."
"This is what they call 'taking pleasure in helping others.' Eh, Kono-san, what's the matter?"
"...Please don't talk to me. Right now, I'm in the middle of hating myself..."
Walking unsteadily, Konoha was covering her face with one hand while sighing deeply.
"It's about time to go home. We've already visited everything worth visiting."
"What!? The festival is only held for this one day! It's very possible that we might have missed some kind of festival-exclusive tasty food or some stall, so we can't go home yet! Yo!"
Fear suddenly climbed onto Haruaki. Just as he crouched down slightly, unable to withstand the weight, Fear used the opportunity to sit on his shoulders.
"Again? What the heck is with you?"
"A higher position makes it easier to enjoy the scenery. Also, this will allow me to discover stalls that I haven't visited yet. After all, it's not every day that festivals are held, I have to experience it thoroughly! Let's go, Haruaki! Take joy in exploring the unknown!"
"Sigh... I don't have the strength to convince you. Okay, one final round."
Hence, Haruaki allowed Fear to sit on his shoulders while she kept hitting his head, then walked towards the stalls ahead of them. Since the festival's busiest time had passed, the crowd was gradually disappearing. Fear was completely uninterested in iron pan cleaning at the red bean cake stall or the deflation of unsold balloons at the balloon stall. She simply kept scratching and pulling Haruaki's hair as though recalling something on occasion and seemed very quiet.
"Fear, you've already seen everything, right? Fear... Fear?"
Just at that moment, Haruaki suddenly felt a weight against the back of his head. The water balloon originally strung on Fear's fingers also slid down before Haruaki's eyes.
Fear had fallen asleep. Sitting on his shoulders, it was as though she was hugging his head.
Perhaps she had exhausted her energy from over excitement. Haruaki smiled wryly while sighing.
"...Let's head home, Konoha and Kuroe."
The trio walked down the stone steps they had taken on their arrival. The only thing different this time was that Fear had become quiet.
"Her face looks so happy, it's a bit displeasing. I want to try doing the same thing too."
"After all, it's her first time at a festival. It can't be helped—The first time this girl visited school, just the fact that there were so many people made her extremely touched already."
"But it really was quite fun this time. Quite worth the visit."
Walking beside Haruaki, Kuroe remarked.
"In that case, please don't go traveling without giving any notice. Traveling is fine, but at least tell me your intended itinerary."
"Fair enough. But I don't think I'll be traveling for now... Now that there's Ficchi at home, it's becoming less and less boring."
Haruaki felt a soft feeling on his left hand. Kuroe was holding hands with him on her own accord. Haruaki looked down towards her—
"Since festivals only happen once in a while, I'd like to contribute to the mood slightly."
"Contribute to the mood?"
"That's right. With Ficchi sitting on your shoulders, Haru, you look like the master of the house. I was thinking that on the way home, I'd help you nurture more of a mood fitting for the master of the house."
"I don't really get what you mean. Besides, hearing the phrase, 'master of the house,' to me it just sounds like 'how tough, you've got more work ahead of you'..."
Even so, Haruaki did not feel like shaking Kuroe's hand off. No sooner had he walked a few more steps, this time, he also felt a soft sensation on his right hand. As Konoha's eyes drifted with a suspicious gaze, she said:
"Umm—I don't like being left out, so... It's not like I feel like a certain role is missing just because Fear-san and Kuroe-san are playing children while you're playing the father, Haruaki-kun. How should I put this? Uh—It's a feeling, yes, a feeling."
"...? I don't quite understand what you're saying either..."
"S-Simply stated, it's that! Wearing clogs makes it difficult to walk, so it feels a little worrying. All you need to do is understand that meaning!"
Put that way, it was not hard to understand... Although Haruaki felt that Konoha should be quite used to clogs. But then again, walking at night was a completely different matter. It could not be helped.
Hence, with Fear on his shoulders and holding hands with the other two girls, Haruaki made his way home.
The trio did not speak along the way. The steady rhythm of footsteps reminded Haruaki of everything that had happened throughout the entire day, those memories that made him smile naturally.
For example, there was the yukata fashion show before leaving the house, Fear and the girls happily exploring the festival while making a lot of noise, the punishment for the boys that felt slightly overboard... Also, the way Fear looked when praying with her eyes closed in front of the offering box. Haruaki felt that the entire day's deepest impression and the one that he should cherish most was the sight of Fear, cursed as she was, praying and making a wish. Haruaki recalled the various scenes.
And right now, filling his heart was a very warm sense of certainty, the same as what he felt when he saw that scene.
Ahhh~ Fear's wish probably could come true, right? For her, that wish was both simple and resolute enough that she would gamble everything upon it without hesitation. And precisely due to knowing how noble that wish was, she decided to severely punish that group of thieving children who stole offering money that was filled with wishes. Most definitely.
The sentiment of protecting even other people's wishes—So long as she continues to carry that kindness, there was probably nothing to worry about. That was precisely what Fear needed to realize her wish.
"Muunya... Takoyaki, so hot, round all over, so tasty... Mufufu."
Hearing dream talk coming from the pleasant weight against his head, Haruaki moved his shoulders slightly.
Behind him, the festival music, the bustling crowds—All that was part of the festival atmosphere, gradually receding into the distance as Haruaki's group walked away. At this moment, he felt an inexplicable sense of solitude yet at the same time, a kind of peace like when one was about to fall asleep.
Hence, Fear was absolutely correct. Haruaki wished nothing for her but to enjoy a happy and sweet dream along the way home.
Entwined around Fear's fingers on a string, the water balloon quivered and shook as though reluctant to leave the festival.
Translator's Notes and References
- Katanuki(型抜き): an activity common at Japanese festivals where participants use a needle or a toothpick to carve a candy mold out of flour, starch or sugar to make shapes such as stars, animals or cherry blossoms, etc. Skillfully carved molds receive prizes.
- Byoudou-in(平等院): a Buddhist temple located in the city of Uji in Japan. The most famous building in the temple is the Phoenix Hall(鳳凰堂) which is considered a national treasure.
- Racoon dog(狸): known as the tanuki, a Japanese animal similar to badgers and racoons in appearance, known for mischief and shapeshifting in folklore. In this particular instance, Kuroe is using it as a reference to Tokugawa Ieyasu who was deified and worshiped.
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