The town was usually quiet at night. It was a time of rest for everyone. Today would have been no different if not for the buzz that was centered around the sole shrine. Hitomi and her mother were preparing to go while her father took care of things around the house. They had both tried their best to get him to come along. Their attempts were met with an unchanging no. They both understood why but it was worth trying either way. Compared to Hitomi’s curse, Seto’s was stronger, allowing him to hear the thoughts for almost twice the distance that Hitomi could. Even if Hitomi could handle something, Seto would have a tough time dealing with it if the area was large enough. But the two of them didn’t let it slow them down. “You look great. Can you move normally?”
“Not really, but I shouldn’t trip.”
“Perfect, then it’s just right.” Her mother had dressed her up in a colorful yukata just for the festival. Every year it was a different style. Every year she had a matching yukata for herself. Hitomi could only imagine how much she spent each year getting them, but since her father didn’t seem to mind it wasn’t worth asking. “I look ten years younger myself.”
“You already look ten years younger normally.”
“Why thank you.” Hitomi played along with her mother, even though they both knew what the other was doing. “Do you want me to do anything with your hair?”
“It’s fine how it is. It’s not really long enough to do anything fancy.”
“If you say so. Short hair sure is easy to keep sleek. You look so cute~”
“Your sentences aren’t coherent.”
“I’m excited. You don’t get to do things like this in other countries. Nothing wrong with enjoying myself.”
“As long as you look out for me. This won’t be easy.”
“I won’t leave your side. I rarely get to spend time with my little girl.”
“It’s fine, as long as you spend your time here with me. Or dad. Although you have been back a lot lately.”
“Work has been interesting to say the least. Right now they keep deploying me only for me to come back in a few days. Whatever, I’m getting paid and I’m home more often.” She shrugged it off, but her confusion was well deserved. Hitomi was also interested in why things were so strange lately. Yet without meeting her directors there is nothing she could do but think about it. “Hey now, that face isn’t suitable for a girl celebrating a festival. Smile.” She held her fingers across her own mouth. Hitomi did the same thing and laughed at how ridiculous it was. “That’s more like it. Seto, do you remember where I left my umbrella?”
“I placed it near the door.”
“You’re the best.” Mrs. Kagami stood up, straightening her yukata as she held her hand up for Hitomi to get up as well. “It’s time to have a little fun.”
“As much as I can, with that many people crammed into one space.”
“Then we will have to have even more fun to ignore that!” With her daughter in one hand and her paper umbrella in the other the two set out to the shrine. The spectacle grew from a slight buzz from far away to a full blown festival as soon as the guard dogs were in sight. “Seems like even the spirits are in high spirits today. Ha!”
“No one heard that. And it wasn’t funny either.”
“Come now, there is plenty that awaits us!” Her mother ignored her as she dragged Hitomi to the first of many stalls set up along the path. The once old fashion shrine took on a whole new look as it buzzed with life. It wasn’t just the main path with stalls, but every corner leading up to the shrine itself had a stall three meters in any direction. The festival had been on for a few hours at this point so many of the locals have left to allow the place to become less dense until the main event. Many of the people around them were foreigners that had heard about the english hosts. As the two of them ate food Mrs. Kagami talked with many of them in whatever language they found comfortable. “So many tourists this year. This is really becoming a big event.”
“What language was that?”
“Russian. How does that taste?”
“It’s sour. But it isn’t bad.” They were just buying things without even checking what they were. Since her mother was making sure she didn’t fill herself up before the known good stuff, Hitomi took the chance to try everything she could. “I don’t think I can eat the rest.”
“That’s fine. Everything here is so cheap. Speaking of which, how much do you plan to eat?”
“As much as I can. I feel like it's cheating to play the games after doing it each year. Other than the games all that’s left is the food.”
“I guess so huh? Well luckily there are more food stalls here than before. I can’t wait till we get to the dumplings.”
“I think those were on the other side last year. Hm?” Hitomi looked around her. She had thought she had heard her name in the sea of voices assaulting her. However due to the white noise she couldn’t locate where it came from or if it was her name at all.
“Oh it is you!”
“Oh it’s just Ken.” Hitomi caught sight of the boy coming their way. He was by himself but there was no way anyone would let him come here alone. “Good evening.”
“Good evening. Ah, sorry. I’m Ken Hayasi. And you are?”
“I’m Mrs. Kagami. Pleasure to meet you. Are you in the same class as Hitomi?”
“Um, yeah. Wait, your mother?” Hitomi nodded her head. Everyone who sees Mrs.Kagami for the first time says the same thing ever since she was old enough to talk. It didn’t help that her mother’s personality was so childish.
“Are you here with anyone Ken? If not you are free to browse with us.”
“I’m with my brother. Actually the reason I came over here is to tell Hitomi something.” Even though Hitomi already knew the question and it’s answer, she let him ask anyway. “It feels just like that haunted house here. Is this place haunted?”
“Don’t worry, it’s just the noise here. Nothing is haunting this place, or Rose would have taken care of it.
“That makes sense. Alright, sorry I bothered you. I’ll be getting back to my brother now. Umm… you look good. Ahaha bye!” Embarrassed, the boy returned from where he came. Hitomi sighed as she looked up at her mother who had the most evil smile she had ever seen before.
“I would make a comment, but I believe you already know what I’m thinking.”
“I wish I didn’t. He’s just an acquaintance.”
“If you say so dear. Now let’s-” Her eyes were drawn to a simple stall in the center row of the festival. Her eyes began to burn with a passion as she tapped Hitomi on the head.
“You can play whatever you want, knowing you, you’ll win.”
“Of course I will. Allow me to show you how clever your mother is.” The game she had her sights on was a test of strength. There were two men with large builds challenging anyone and everyone. From the looks of it, couples seemed to be the target. It was basically a way to show off, and her mother had the same reason herself. “Excuse me, I’d like to try myself.”
“Ah, if it isn’t Mrs. Kagami! You really think you can take on us?”
“Haha, I won’t know if I don’t try. I have to show my daughter how strong I am.” The two men had no idea she was lying and bought into the sweetness she was feigning.
“Well, it’s three hundred yen per attempt. If you win, you get three thousand yen.” Her mother almost let out how disappointed she was in the reward. Without hesitation she took out the three coins. “Alright, let’s see how you handle this!” Hitomi was amazed just how easily the man fell into her palms. Her mother purposely lowered her strength the first round and showed her disappointment. The second round she went all out. She wasn’t by any means stronger than he was, but she was skilled. She quickly gained the advantage and brought him down before he could realize how much she was holding back before.
“Yay!” Her mother’s cheer was loud enough to silence the festival for a second.
“I guess you don’t get to deal with criminals if you don’t know how to play a little dirty. They train you over in the US?”
“Sure did. I can’t believe you thought I was that weak. Well, I won fair and square.”
“I wouldn’t say fair and square, but you did win, so here you go. Unless you want to go double or nothing.”
“No thanks, I don’t think my trick will work again. Thanks for letting me show off to my daughter.”
“Hahaha! Don’t get too cocky. Next year we will bring an even better test of strength.”
“If I’m home, I’ll make sure to beat you.” She waved goodbye and led Hitomi to the next stall.
“I’m surprised you get along so well with everyone.”
“Just acting properly is enough for most people to not be hostile. It helps that I’m easy on the eyes.”
“I don't know why I said anything.”
“Wait is that you Hitomi?”
“Hello Natsu.” She had heard her coming from the point her mom had cheered. Of course the misunderstanding that she was the one to yell was due to how similar she sounded to her mother. “Also no, that wasn’t me.”
“It was... her? I’m sorry, I don’t know you?”
“That’s because we just met. I’m Mrs. Kagami, the pleasure is mine.”
“And what is a troublemaker like you doing talking to our daughter?” Two stern looking people walked up to the three of them. The father placed his hand over Natsu’s shoulder and brought her towards him.
“Ah, if isn’t isn’t… ummm…” Hitomi gave her the last name that she was struggling to recall herself. “Mr. and Mrs. Mori. While I would argue against being a troublemaker I can assure you that I’m not going to talk much with your daughter. This is my daughter, Hitomi. Number one in every subject in every grade of school. Track first seed.” Hitomi could see the anger in their eyes as her mother bragged. She usually didn’t brag like this, but given how stern they seemed she felt it was the best way to mess with them. Hitomi, however, didn’t want her mom to get into a fist fight in the middle of a festival. At least, not while Natsu was around to see it.
“Natsu, want to go to a few stalls? My mom just won three thousand yen that she would love to let us use.” Hitomi knew her mother would catch on quickly even without telling her, and she handed the three bills she just earned over to her.
“Oh no we aren’t-”
“Come on, let’s share a drink, on me. You shouldn’t be so uptight during a festival. Some, ahem, adult beverages should help with that.”
“We aren’t here to-” But they were already caught in her trap. Her mother was easily stronger than either of them both physically and in terms of charisma. Natsu just watched in complete shock.
“Don’t worry, my mom might seem strange but she won’t do anything bad. You should be able to enjoy this festival without someone breathing down your neck.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Natsu took out the hair clip that was holding her hair up. “That’s much better. How long do you think we have before my parents get back?” The complete shift in Natsu’s expression helped justify her mother's action but she still didn’t feel totally right about how she did it. Since it was a little too late to fix that, she put her effort into making sure the time didn’t go to waste.
“The festival is almost over, but that means that a lot of the food stalls give out more food to try to get rid of their inventory. The best stalls are the meat buns and the popcorn stall.”
“Oh, let’s have popcorn. My parents won’t let me have that since it’s apparently bad for you.” Hitomi knew exactly what she meant but that didn’t stop her from pitying her.
“We’ll get both, don’t worry.” Hitomi led Natsu over to the popcorn stall first as she requested. HItomi told her that she could get whatever size she wanted, but never expected her to get the largest one. “That is excessive. Why do they even sell that?”
“How was I supposed to know they had sizes this big?! There is no way I could eat this all. It is really good though maybe I could.”
“Save some room for some meat buns. This line is still a little long so you might be tempted to eat it all.”
“You saying that while grabbing some yourself isn’t helpful.”
“I’ve been eating in small amounts all night, don’t worry I’ll be fine.”
“It’s true, she could probably eat this entire festival if she’s careful. Also hi I’m back.” Peachy as can be, Mrs. Kagami returned. “Before you ask, your parents are doing fine. They can’t hold their liquor for the life of them.”
“I don’t doubt that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them drink anything.”
“Well, they are taking care of each other so I don’t think they’ll be bothering you.”
“You just didn’t want to miss the meat buns.” Hitomi called out her mother immediately.
“Guilty as charged. Plus someone has to watch over you kids. Now those meat buns~” As the line shortened even Hitomi began to get a little of her mother’s excitement. She had done her best to hide this fact but slowly eating food had left her hungry for something more substantial. Using the rest of the yen that she had left she bought four meat buns. Two for her mom, one for Natsu and herself.
“Ah, this is the good stuff.” The three had moved away from the main part of the festival and took a seat on some benches that were open. Natsu had finished not only the meat bun but all the popcorn as well. “Oh my stomach is not happy with that but I don’t care.”
“Glad you are enjoying yourself. I would say to go play some games but things are coming to an end. I’m sure we’d just be bothering them.” Mrs. Kagami looked out into the sea of stalls. Hitomi did the same and observed exactly what she said.
“They must be getting ready at the shrine proper. Should we head there before it gets crowded?”
“We should. Natsu, right? You are free to go get your parents. Or not they will probably try to get you anyway.”
“Let’s say I did and not.” Natsu stood up, immediately getting light headed from the food she managed to eat within the last twenty minutes. “Not that I don’t love my parents. I’d just rather… not deal with them right now.”
“No need to tell me your life story. Sometimes you need a break from things. Right Hitomi?”
“If you mean your pranks, then yes.”
“There you go. Come now children, we shall not be late.” Mrs. Kagami stood up and helped Hitomi do the same. Hitomi felt very similar to Natsu thanks to how liberal she was when eating the popcorn. However it seemed her mother knew this and led her by hand to the shrine. She was a bit embarrassed by her perceived weakness but Natsu was too focused on getting to the destination with them to notice. “Quite the crowd this year. Are you doing ok?” Mrs. Kagami gazed over the crowd while it was still small enough for her to do so. Given how much time before the event the odds of it being much larger than the last year was high. As a result she showed concern for her daughter.
“I’ll be fine. Rose will be here. You as well.”
“Strong as ever. Hmmm, this might be a problem. Are you two going to be able to see the stage?” She quickly changed subjects before Natsu had a chance to question it.
“The stage is elevated, we should be fine.”
“There is a stage?” Natsu, who was busy trying to see how high she could get, couldn’t see the stage past the people in front of them.
“You’ll see once they get on it. They are English so they are tall compared to us. On top of the stage you should be able to see them. Probably.”
“You think I’d let anyone miss them? Don’t worry, I’ll make sure things end up favorable for you guys.” HItomi and her mom looked to the side to see Gratia standing next to them. Since Natsu didn’t respond at all they figured she was just showing herself as a spirit. “Natsu Mori eh? What a cute kid. This is her first time here. Makes sense, she has no perception at all huh?” Gratia was waving her hand across her face, but she had no idea. Since her mother couldn’t talk without seeming weird, she left it to Hitomi to speak.
‘Shouldn’t you be helping your family?’
“Naw, they worked hard for this. Helping them would only diminish that effort. The view here is nice, I’ll think I’ll watch from here. Can you do me a favor?”
‘Do I have to? I don’t even know if she has anything on her.’
“Well that’s how things work here. You know how it is. Things are getting quite packed here aren’t they? The donations from today are gonna be sweet.”
‘Things are going to start soon. I’ll worry about it later.’
“Deal.” Just as quickly as she seemed to arrive, she disappeared into the crowd. Hitomi wanted to complain that just moments ago Gratia had said that she was going to watch from here but dealing with her drained any energy she could have used to do so.
“You two have been quiet. Did I miss something?”
“Ah… something like that. Look, it’s starting!” Mrs. Kagami switched the attention onto the stage. Rose had already taken her spot on stage with her sword on her waist and a Suzu in her hand. She showed no sign of anxiety. In fact, her confidence was enough to draw the attention of everyone even if they were distracted beforehand. With her open hand, Rose signalled that she was starting. Each step she took was well planned and executed as professionally as one would expect from a shrine maiden. Hitomi knew everything about this dance. It had no meaning, it had no religious history. It’s only purpose was to entertain through drawing them into a trance. The sound of the bells drew their attention through sound, and the dance through sight. It was almost magical in how such simple movements could satisfy the primal parts of their brain. As if from thin air, Morgan took the stage with her daughter and began performing with her. Compared to Rose’s rigid and precise movements, Morgan had very graceful and fluid motions. It was the exact opposite of their personalities, but it more showed their experience than any attempt of contrast. Just as quickly as it seemed to begin, the two finished. Yet this feeling was an illusion. In reality they had been performing for well over twenty minutes. At the end the two branished their swords. They were both elaborate, although very clearly different in both details and size. The crowd cheered for them, which even compared to the usual torrent of thoughts was obnoxiously loud. Once again, the two of them prove that they have integrated into their town as if they were Japanese. With the positive feedback taken, the two bowed and returned back into the shrine. The lights began to dim, signalling that it was now time to go back home.
“Wow. It was beautiful. I can’t even imagine how long it took to do that.” Natsu was starstruck. This was the first time Natsu got to see just how special Rose was.
“A few hours every day, for a year.” Knowing that Hitomi couldn’t speak easily in this large of a crowd, her mother answered her. “What Rose lacks in talent she makes up for with hard work. Given enough time she can really show just how far that work can go. As long as it isn’t something that involves endurance that is.”
“Even you can do amazing things with enough effort.” Hitomi squeezed out these words after seeing the inspiration in her mind.
“Ah, you just repeated yourself.” Hitomi wanted to hit her mother’s head for how she was acting. But Natsu seemed to take this well and laughed it off.
“Sorry, I guess I dont’ have much faith in myself. I should probably go find my parents huh?”
“Ah, wait.” Hitomi stopped her from leaving as she still had to fulfill her agreement with Gratia. She tried to speak more but the voices she was hearing kept causing the words to get jumbled up.
“We should give a donation before we leave. This is a shrine festival after all.” Mrs. Kagami placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder and took over while people were leaving. “Here. I doubt you have any cash on you.” She handed over a thousand yen bill to Natsu as if it was nothing. “We know the family that owns it after all. A little gift ain’t bad.”
“I think I learned this. Something about clapping and bowing right?”
“Bow twice, clap twice, then bow once more and offer your prayer. Place the bill in the donation box and pull the bell. Although I don’t think you need to ring the bell tonight. I have a feeling the god is watching.”
“Seems easy enough. I’ll be right back.” Natsu ran off to the head of the shrine. With the crowd thinning away, Hitomi’s heart began to slow down. Her mind was no longer a sea of voices.
“Thanks for doing that.”
“Hm? Oh don’t mention it. Don’t push yourself too hard. Remember that you can rely on, well now that I think about it really only three people, but those three people are reliable.” She gave her a thumbs up, although she knew that of the three she was the least reliable. “Well this has been fun, but if we don’t get back before Natsu finds her parents I’m never going to hear the end of it.”
“It’s your own fault.”
“Sometimes you have to be rash when time is a luxury. Look I’m a detective not a performance artist.” Hitomi laughed at the childish excuse. Mrs. Kagami herself laughed along with her daughter once she realized the joke landed. “Here she comes. Say your goodbyes.”
“I really don’t need you to tell me that.” Hitomi put some distance between herself and her mom so that they could talk without her eavesdropping. “Feeling lucky?”
“Not really, but I guess I don’t really know what it means to feel lucky.” Natsu smiled sheepishly. “I’m not sure about any of these things but this goes to Rose’s family right?”
“Mhm. Sorry to take time away from being with your parents.”
“It’s fine, they weren’t really into the festival spirit. I should go make sure they are ok. See you in school.”
“See you in school.” The two waved to each other before Natsu left to find her parents among those still left. Hitomi took a deep breath as the voices bombarding her finally died down enough to hear herself once again. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“Strong as an ox. I’m proud of you. As a reward, let’s go home and get some quiet sleep.” Mrs. Kagami rubbed the top of her daughter's head as she spoke. “Want anything before we leave? More dumplings?”
“No thanks. A quiet place sounds far nicer.”
“Got it. Hold on tight, we gotta beat the rush out of here.” Hitomi wanted to protest but by the time the sentence could leave her mouth her mother was already dragging her along to the exit. It was chaotic, but Hitomi couldn’t help but enjoy it. Adrenaline was a far more enjoyable experience than stress.