The Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata remembered.
As she dreamily dozed off, she pulled out the kind memories stored in the tidy drawers of her mind.
There was white snow outside.
But even if they were trapped at home by the bad weather, young Shinobu was not even remotely displeased.
“It’s cold, it’s cold. I can’t let go of your hand just yet, Nee-chan.”
“That’s odd. You feel warmer to me, Shinobu.”
“Sigh. Setsubun really was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
“But why did so many Oni show up? They were really packed in.”
“Well, while the rest of the country is telling the Oni to leave, we were only welcoming the fortune. They probably thought this was a nice shelter.”
They continued their discussion while watching the heavy blizzard out the window, but then Shinobu’s mother walked up with a barely-hidden smile.
“Heh heh heh. But the festivities have only just begun. Shiiinobuuu, are you familiar with February’s main event: Valentine’s!?”
“Hm? I’ve heard of that… Nagisa was getting really impatient about it.”
Shinobu tilted his little head and groaned in thought.
“Oh, right! That’s the day when Nee-chan gives me chocolate!!”
“Eh? But I’m not very good at cooki-…”
“Nee-chan gives me chocolate!!”
He repeated himself to cut her off.
He also looked up at her with sparkling eyes.
“I get snacks without having to do any chores! What a great day. How presumptuous.”
“I wonder what kind of chocolate Nee-chan will give me. White chocolate? Strawberry chocolate?”
That Zashiki Warashi, who could not even make her rice balls triangular, grew flustered for once, but young Shinobu finally noticed.
The light of hope faded from his eyes and a disappointed look took its place.
“Are you…too busy?”
“Th-that isn’t it…”
“You don’t have to do it. Don’t worry about me. Besides, making chocolate has to be some kind of advanced magic. You don’t have to force yourself. Normal is best.”
Shinobu waved goodbye and started to leave.
He had said some admirable things, but he was clearly crestfallen and the heavy aura was evident even from a distance.
Soon, the Zashiki Warashi was in the kitchen mixing the sweet-smelling contents of a bowl.
Shinobu’s mother, who was making some Western-style sweets, laughed in her apron.
“You may not have planned for this and you might complain, but you still take a stab at making the chocolate. That’s the best thing about you.”
“This isn’t some moving story. When he takes it that far, it might as well be a form of violence. I clearly just gave into Shinobu’s threat!!”
“If you don’t like it, then why not just buy some chocolate for him? They sell French and Belgian chocolate online.”
“Try doing that and I guarantee you his shoulders will droop as he gives you a disappointed smile!!”
“Oh, be careful while melting that. Go too far and the oil will separate and solidify on its own. Children can be cruel, especially when it comes to flavor. It’s like some kind of spinal reflex. If they don’t like even the smallest thing, they won’t hesitate to call it yucky!”
“And without thinking about where people’s talents lie!”
“They think adults are perfect at that age. And if you’re planning to go the homemade route, you need to do it right to make a nice memory out of this.”
It was an unbelievably warm morning for December.
I rubbed my eyes inside the futon and finally realized why. There was someone else under the covers with me. I smelled a sweet scent like old incense, felt a soft sensation, and sensed the gentle warmth of body heat.
Before, I might have yelled at her and kicked her out, but things had changed.
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. It’s getting pretty late in the morning. You need to get up too.”
I stuck my hand under the blanket and shook her shoulder, but she did not respond. However, she wasn’t actually asleep. She looked limp at first, but there was some slight muscular resistance.
She was feigning sleep, but what had she taken issue with?
“Zashiki Warashi! Hey, you Good-for-Nothing! …What, do you not like what I’m calling you?”
I tried calling out to her a few times and pinched her stomach.
I decided to change tactics and quietly whispered to her.
“Nee-chan, wake up already.”
She fidgeted a little, but that didn’t seem to be it either. I pinched her more gently than before.
Hmm, but what’s left? …I guess only that.
It embarrassed me since I still wasn’t used to it, but the lump under the blanket was excitedly waiting for it. I cleared my throat and turned the dial in my mind up to max.
Special Attack☆Lovey Dovey Mode: On!!
“C’mon, Yukari. Wake up. I want to see your face when I say good morning.”
Only then did a sullen look pop out from below the blanket. That good-for-nothing and sexy Zashiki Warashi wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged me.
She rubbed her cheek against my chest while I thought back on the recent “change”.
We were a couple now.
Everyone must have been busy because the Zashiki Warashi and I were the only ones at home.
We ate breakfast together with a mosquito net covering the kitchen table. Breakfast was a fried egg and a salad, so it had likely been made by my mom who loved Western food. I poured milk into two cups and stuck two pieces of bread in the toaster. I didn’t feel like just waiting around for a few minutes, so I moved to the neighboring living room and switched on the TV.
“Nothing good on the news today either.”
“Is there even anything cheerful going on these days?”
Meanwhile, the toast finished. The Zashiki Warashi and I left the TV on as we returned to the kitchen and pulled out the hot toast. I put butter on mine and placed the fried egg on top, while the Zashiki Warashi spread a chocolate paste on hers. Then we both began eating.
“Aren’t you going to make yourself sick eating that much chocolate first thing in the morning?”
“I think I was dreaming about chocolate. I don’t remember the details, though.”
We continued our breakfast with the news playing in the background.
“Zashiki Warashi, make sure you eat your celery.”
“Then feed it to me.”
“No one’s watching. Right?”
I didn’t really like it, but even as a couple, the Zashiki Warashi hadn’t lost her habit of taking the superior position. Whenever something worked against her, she would reverse our positions, even if it had to be by force. To me, it looked like a self-destruction strategy.
And thus, I ended up placing the thinly sliced celery on top of the Indoor Youkai’s charming tongue.
Once we finished eating, I captured the lazy Zashiki Warashi and made her help me clean up. After that, we lined up side by side to brush our teeth and wash our faces. I felt a stinging in my eyelid, so I may have still had some detergent on my fingers.
“C’mon, Shinobu. Don’t rub your eye like that.”
“Your Onee-chan will dry it off with a handkerchief.”
“You don’t get to call yourself that when I have to swallow my embarrassment and call you Yukari!!”
Meanwhile, we moved from the washroom to the living room. I stepped on something along the way and realized it was the morning paper. I glanced down and read the headline.
It was even dryer than the TV news and didn’t catch the interest of a high school boy like me. It wasn’t good material for conversation either.
We didn’t have anything to do now that breakfast was over, so we lazed around. I was wearing a hoodie with the front open, a shirt, and some rough pants, so I’d gotten lazy with my clothing. It was only when we were alone together, but she let me rest my head in her lap pretty often.
“Shinobu, should I clean out your ears while I’m at it?’
“You did that yesterday, didn’t you?”
“I want to do it as many times as I can.”
I had no real reason to say no, so I let her. I was repeatedly attacked by the temptation to go back to sleep, so I continued speaking with the Zashiki Warashi while dozing off.
“Come to think of it, Nee-chan. I’d like to take a bath with you.”
“Hey, wait! What was that scraping!? It didn’t hurt, but that scares me even more!!”
“Th-that was your own fault. Where did that come from all of a sudden?”
“Well, Love Master Jinnai Shinobu feels like he’s done just about everything, but he still hasn’t taken a bath with his girlfriend.”
“Shinobu’s first… N-no! You can’t trick me!! Besides, we took baths together all the time when you were little!!”
“With. His. Girlfriend.”
The hermit crab of her heart seemed to have withdrawn.
I would need to be a little cleverer, but that could wait until next time.
“Didn’t you want to ask me something?” I asked.
“I can’t seem to beat the event battle in this zombie FPS. Medic! Mediiiiic!!”
“Why are you always alone even with online games? Is it because you never leave the house?”
“I-it’s called being a proud solo player. I’ll tear your heart to shreds if you keep that up.”
“What kind of idiot plays a major event battle on their own? Do you want to get killed?”
“That’s why I’m asking for some help from a plain and inconspicuous medic. Will you do it or not?”
She already had tears in her eyes. In most online games, the healer was an important role that was in high demand. The high firepower characters were really only any use in the offline campaigns.
“Fine I guess. When does the next event battle begin?”
“Eleven in the morning.”
“Oh, yeah. Didn’t some PTA get angry because late night event battles turned kids into sleep-deprived zombies? But anyone logging in at this time has to be outside the norm as well.”
“Okay, Shinobu. All done. …Hoo.”
“Gyawah!! Don’t blow in my ear! It makes me shudder!!”
“Time for the other one. Roll over and let me see it, Shinobu.”
I ended up lazing around even more.
No Youkai-related incidents or Packages turned up, but they were fulfilling days.
I had everything I wanted.
It felt silly to ask for anything more.
Nekomata: “Oh? Are you sure you’re fine with that?”
The promised time arrived.
If we really wanted to take on the event battle in the best possible environment, we would have been holed up in our respective rooms in front of our computers, but it felt stupid to speak over headsets inside the same house. It would slow things down a little, but I was lying in the Zashiki Warashi’s room and logged into the game console using my ID.
The Zashiki Warashi was using a full-spec tower desktop she had put together herself for gaming. You could get decent benchmarks out of a laptop bought for a few tens of thousands of yen off of a late-night shopping show, so not many people did that these days.
“Y’know…if you’ve got this expensive computer in your room, why are you always swiping my laptop and smartphone?”
“When I just want to surf the web in the living room or on the porch, something mobile is a lot nicer.”
With a glance back at the Zashiki Warashi messing with her 3D goggles, I clicked the icon for the zombie FPS already installed on the machine. An update file screen appeared, so I waited for it to finish. Meanwhile, a banner ad appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“I always have to wonder if anyone’s really stupid enough to click on those things.”
“But without ads, the service wouldn’t be free.”
“So it’s a necessary evil.”
“I think there was a way of paying for an ad free version. How much was the monthly fee again?”
“It’s a necessary evil!!”
The Zashiki Warashi moved her flat screen monitor from the tea table to the floor. With the gamepad in one hand, I enjoyed the online game while shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
The zombie FPS was essentially a game where the human player shot all the zombie CPUs. However, the player could become a zombie under the right conditions and you could throw raw meat onto the field to lure a bunch of zombies into the enemy camp.
“No matter how much money they spend on the polygon models, they just aren’t scary after you’ve seen the real deal. It makes you want to complain how unrealistic these zombies are.”
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi-san! Hey, you worthless Nee-chan that came to rescue us, automatically turned into a zombie even though she wasn’t bitten, and ended up causing all sorts of trouble!! Gau gau gau!”
“W-we settled that already, didn’t we!? We had that day-long purification ceremony where I was punished by adding ‘nyan’ to everything I said and called you ‘master’!!”
My cute girlfriend blushed and grew quite flustered.
Of course, I wouldn’t joke about it if it had really traumatized her.
By the way, the latest trend in the zombie FPS was to ignore the zombie hunt and begin firefights between the humans while those walking landmines wandered around. Oh, and there was a popular video of someone ignoring all the rules and doing everything they could to protect a little girl zombie.
“This is one hell of an event. I mean, a thirty meter Titan zombie? The original Titans were monstrous enough. This is supposed to be a modern warfare game, but we’ve traveled back to the age of Greek mythology.”
“Online and social games like to fall back on legends when they run out of ideas.”
“This has done a lot of collaborations with other franchises lately, hasn’t it?”
We were firing like crazy on the screen.
Shooting the giant didn’t actually do any damage. That only exhausted it. Once it ran low on stamina, it would gasp for breath and veins would bulge out all over its body. Those were what you had to attack. In other words, the trick was to efficiently attack during that limited opportunity.
“Ahh, ahh! Why!? I run out of ammo at the worst possible time, the veins go back in, and his stamina recovers! C’mon, Shinobu! Ammo! Ammo!!”
“You don’t have to yell. I’ll give you the ammo I picked up here and there either way. And do you really need those 3D goggles!? If you’re just after a decent score, the flat screen has got to be more efficient. You’ve been shaking your head around and it’s getting in the way!!”
“It isn’t a game if you aren’t enjoying it!!”
“Try to make that sound profound all you want, but you’re the one that came crying to me because you couldn’t beat this event. Besides, why are you using bullets like they expect you to? Do you love the management staff or something?”
She looked confused and rested her head on my shoulder.
Don’t try to seduce me into telling you, you evil woman! Of course that’s gonna make my heart pound!!
“There’s a chainsaw and circular saw for breaking locks, right? Those do a ton of accumulated damage every second. I think it’s even more than the Gatling gun. Get close to that slow Titan’s leg with that and I bet it’ll be gasping for breath and showing its veins in about ten seconds. The normal soldiers with guns would headshot you before you got close, but this thing’s wielding a giant club and it should be easy to distract since it makes a counterattack when you face it and fire on it.”
“But a medic is pretty good with any support weapon that isn’t a gun. They might lose to a specialized combat engineer when it comes to a crowbar or duct tape, but I think they have an A rank with the circular saw.”
“Shinobu!! Kyah! I love you!!”
And thus began the nightmarish scene of the fighting medic standing on the front line wielding a circular saw against a giant. The Zashiki Warashi, as the proper soldier, fell back and focused her rifle fire on the veins as they bulged out.
This was only a game, but it felt like we were defeating a tank with a bamboo spear.
But wasn’t this supposed to be a realistic military game supervised by a former Green Beret sergeant?
“Oh, ohh, ohhhhh!! I’ve never seen this screen before!! That odious Titan is collapsing!!”
“Celebrate if you want, but don’t get crushed by the falling body. Knowing this development staff, they’ll definitely count that as a hit and say you died even after making it this far.”
“And the special reward is a Santa costume and ten million stars! Kyahaa!!”
“Hey!! Aren’t you gonna share some of that!?”
I shouted back at her as the safe and reassuring results screen finally appeared.
Of course, I wasn’t leaving completely empty-handed since the rejoicing Zashiki Warashi was hugging me and rubbing her cheek up against me! I had joked about the advantages you got by being beautiful, but I felt like this was providing numerical proof of that.
Yuki Onna: “Don’t you think this is awful?”
Succubus: “What is?”
Yuki Onna: “That Jinnai Shinobu and that slovenly Youkai ended up dating all of a sudden. She made full use of the unfair advantage she has from knowing him since before he was born and then it was a zombie outbreak that clinched it!? Does that mean I would be in her place if I had been there instead!?”
Aoandon: “Hmm. With you, I think there wouldn’t have been any trouble and you would have easily slaughtered all the zombies to get him home. That wouldn’t have been all that memorable.”
Yuki Onna: “Ggffh! Curse my high specs…”
Aburatori: “Well, she did apparently go to save him on her own, turned into a zombie on her own, and had him save her on her own. …If that was all a plot to get him to fall in love, I don’t think I could ever trust another woman.”
Succubus: “I think the real difference is the Zashiki Warashi’s sexy body versus your flat body.”
Yuki Onna: “M-my white clothes are a symbol of virginity, so once I lose that, my body and attributes will change. In other words, once Jinnai Shinobu violates my virgin snow, I will become a plump adult Youkai!”
Aoandon: “Yes, but that first step is hopeless. You’ve locked the keys inside the car of your life.”
Yuki Onna: “Ghh!?”
Nekomata: “So are you just going to give up? Are you going to let that pair of giant breasts have him?”
Yuki Onna: “I never said that. There is no law forbidding polygamy for Youkai. I just have to exemplify a type of charm she lacks. That means I have a chance to receive some of his love on the side. Welcome, Jinnai Shinobu. You will now veer off the proper newlywed course and onto the inescapable course of love and hate!!”
Marguerite: “Are you really okay with that? I guess most anything looks happy if you set the hurdles of life low enough.”
Aoandon: “Mwa ha ha!! But if Jinnai Shinobu gets married, then I automatically come with him as something like a daughter!! Heh heh heh. A high school boy with a daughter.”
Yuki Onna: “Shut up, daughter. I am not at all interested in what they call an oyakodon! We can set up a rotation if you want, but don’t you dare climb into the same futon!!”
Nekomata: “You’re fine with a rotation?”
Furutsubaki (Small): “Sigh. Marriage is the standard way for a Youkai to repay a debt, but we’re never going to reach an agreement when everyone else is so stupid and keeps lowering the bar…”
My shoulders gave a small jump when I overhead that conversation as I rolled up the HD cable connecting the game console to the TV.
I honestly blurted out the thought in my head.
“What kind of epoch-making idea is that!? Polygamy is okay…? Then, then! Can I have the Zashiki Warashi as my Youkai wife and Madoka or Nagisa as my human wi- owww!!!???”
“I was- I was just kidding!! Don’t give me that sulking look! Did the double-punch of unfaithfulness and calling you ‘Zashiki Warashi’ put you in this bad moo- gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!?”
You know how you want to tease your girlfriend when she gets jealous? Well, I certainly didn’t expect to get a strange wrestling move as a counterattack!
A-agh! My diaphragm! I can’t breathe!!”
“Y-Yuka…cough…Yukari-hyan!! Pant, pant! Please just hear me out!!”
“What is it? A death poem? Then go ahead.”
“Just so you know, straddling me like that in your kimono probably isn’t a good idea!! I can kind of see everything! You don’t wear panties, remember!?”
“Eh heh. For such a sexy body, it’s amazing how perfectly hairless you are down- gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!?”
I was beaten up just a little bit.
After working up a sweat, the Zashiki Warashi swept her hair back with the composure of the victor.
“Honestly, you have no idea how to treat a lady, Shinobu.”
She then folded a cushion in two and used it as a pillow. She was lying on her side and she beckoned me over with a seductive fingertip.
“Come on over here. Your Onee-chan will teach you.”
I know she has a self-destructive habit of trying to act superior when she’s feeling cornered, but…
“I don’t want to hear that from a centuries-old virgin. I mean, who was it that started crying last night as soon as I turned out the lights and leaned over you?”
“And just so you know, that crying started when I’d only grabbed your shoulder and pushed you back onto the futon!! I hadn’t even taken off your clothes!! Hell, I hadn’t even given you a goodnight kiss!! What about that was worth crying over!?”
“I-I was scared… I’m not used to seeing that animalistic look in your eyes.”
She hesitantly looked away while sweating nervously, but this was an important issue for me. For a teenage boy, it was a life-or-death issue! It was more important than the entire planet!!
“And why have you been keeping everything off limits even though we’re a couple now!? You’ve got that sexy body and I can’t even kiss you!? Is this some kind of torture!? Am I that guy in Greek mythology or whatever who’s submerged up to the neck but can’t drink a single drop!?”
She cleared her throat to try to calm herself down.
I could tell she was trying to regain control and argue her way out of this, but I wasn’t going to give in that easily! You couldn’t underestimate Jinnai Shinobu, the boy with surprisingly decent grades who was known as the Intellectual Yakuza, was elected class rep, and had been forced to handle Madoka!!
“Besides, isn’t it unnatural for humans and Youkai to do that kind of thing? I mean, we might look similar, but we’re completely different lifeforms.”
“But Hafuri is half-human and half-Zashiki Warashi.”
“Kh! Even the best system is fragile when there’s a counterexample!!”
“And if old stories are fine, there’s one about a Yuki Onna doing it with a double-digit number of mountain men, absorbing a lifetime’s worth of energy, and giving birth to ten children with her beloved human husband.”
“Just how energetic is that marriage-obsessed Youkai!?”
“So let’s do it!! If you don’t think we can have a kid, then we just have to keep doing it until you do!! Majina left the future to me and was erased by the alteration to history, so I’ve decided to carry out his final wish (Sparkle). So let’s do it!!”
I seriously moved in toward my girlfriend who was striking a seductive pose. We’d already established that, nine times out of ten, love was the result of the mood or the atmosphere, right? She could be selfish, but she could also give in surprisingly easily. We’d even started dating when I pretty much said “Eh? Weren’t we already a couple?”, so this would work! I could do this! I could!!
But once I leaned over her and grabbed her slender shoulders, her leg shot up. She kept the leg bent and placed the sole of her foot against my solar plexus.
She then used the momentum of a roll to throw me with her leg. I flipped 180 degrees in midair and landed on the tatami mats like a swinging door.
I had just enough time to recognize it as a type of tomoe-nage before I crashed to the floor.
“Gbhah!? Cough, cough! Ah…ahh!!”
“Sorry, Shinobu. I know you tried to make it hard to say no by acting cool and mentioning that final wish, but I just can’t. Now continue doing your impression of a seal.”
“You…you do understand you’re supposed to be my girlfriend, right?”
“Shinobu, there’s more to being a couple than physical contact.”
“But there’s something wrong when there’s none of that!!”
“What!? You can still stand up after that!?”
“It would seem you can’t contain your surprise, but don’t underestimate youth. That’s the thing about puberty! If a girl in a miniskirt tells you she’ll take off her panties in front of you, you’ll gain the passion needed to stop a giant meteor!!”
“Shinobu, I think you have a twisted idea of youth.”
Our late-night “wrestling” was transforming into a real martial arts match, but I was up against a Youkai here. When I raised a bizarre war cry and charged at her, she grabbed me and swung me around with a single arm before launching me horizontally.
“I-I’m not done yet! You haven’t broken my arms or legs! I can still stand!!”
“You can still go zombie mode without a Kasha? Then I suppose I should give you your last rites.”
She shook her head in annoyance and reached into her ample cleavage.
She pulled out (my) smartphone, displayed an image, and held the screen out toward me.
“Shinobu, look at this crayon drawing. Special Attack☆We’re All Friends!!”
“Gyaaaaah!! Wh-what!? Where did you find that drawing!? And why did you take a photo to save it for all eternity!?”
“Sigh. Why did you draw the leaves green and the sun red? It is cute, though.”
“Please stop… Don’t distract me with heartwarming memories now! Ahh, the Jinnai Shinobu gauge inside me…is shrinking… Nooooo!!”
I hung my head from the physical and mental attacks.
W-we may have started dating, but does she still have complete control of me? Are you okay with that, Jinnai Shinobu!?
“U-uuuh. I guess physical attacks are useless. A high school boy is no match for her.”
“Heh. What did you think you could do against a Zashiki Warashi who can freely manipulate even the world’s destiny?”
“No fair!! You’re bringing up the still-unexplained Ver. 39 power for this!? That’s Hyakki Yakou’s secret weapon. Don’t even think about using it against an amateur high school boy!!”
“I-it was self-defense. It doesn’t count.”
This was clearly an impossible no-win scenario, but passion was boiling in my gut with nowhere to escape. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I started hitting the tatami mats while curled up on the floor.
“No fair!! No fair!! I’m dating what might as well be the epitome of beauty, so why can’t I have any kind of fun with her!? Wahhhhhhhhhh!!”
The Zashiki Warashi grew confused at my unexpected reaction.
“Sh-Shinobu? C’mon, it isn’t worth crying over, is it?”
“It is!! Even boys are allowed to cry sometimes!!”
“You’ve been through a war between Hyakki Yakou and the Aoandon and you survived that hellish zombie outbreak, so what in the world is going on inside you now?”
“The perfection created by the bizarre triple seven of beautiful, sexy, and virgin is within reach, but I can’t do anything with her!!”
The Zashiki Warashi grew even more flustered.
Her mature-looking face blushed like a child’s.
“A-ahem. Shinobu, try not to shout personal information concerning virginity so loudly. …But I see you do admit that I am beautiful.”
“I wouldn’t date you otherwise!!”
“I’m a little irked by how quickly you said that, but I’m also a little ashamed that it makes me happy…”
“If you have even the slightest pity for this pathetic boy with tears and snot covering his face, then open your body to me, Yukari-san!!”
“(Angry)☆ You know, Shinobu? Do you really think anyone would be stupid enough to give up their virginity out of pity?”
“Then at least use your hand! And while you’re at it, use your long hair too!!”
“Shinobu, I don’t quite follow. Use my hand for what?”
“Eh? Well you take this like this, and…”
“…!? Don’t pull that from your pants with that puzzled look on your face!!”
I decided to calm down for the time being.
I was inside the Zashiki Warashi’s room, napping in her futon. I was lazily wearing the same clothes whether I was asleep or awake, so I may have quit the courtship dance now that I had a girlfriend.
The sexy Youkai climbed under the covers with me as if it were completely normal.
Sleeping in the same bed mode: on☆
“Hey, Zashiki Warashi. Where exactly is your line between yes and no?”
“Th-this is a Youkai trait of mine. So this is fine! At the very least, it’s a tradition that I’ve followed for over three hundred years!!”
“Ehh!? Then what was that earlier!? You’re touching me! You’ve got all sorts of body parts touching me now! If this level of contact is okay, then let’s go a little further!! Can I touch you? Those things are just gonna go to waste, so can’t I touch them!?”
“Shinobu. Squirm any more than this and I intend to drive my knee right into your balls.”
Her cold voice sounded serious, so my balls shriveled up a little.
You’re kidding, right? The passion is leaving me!? You have got to be kidding! M-my adolescence is willing to give in to oppression!? C’mon, Jinnai Shinobu! Don’t let this get to you!!
Meanwhile, the Zashiki Warashi was acting like a cat curled up on the porch.
This was the most relaxing position for her, but that was why she didn’t want my unnecessary ideas getting in the way.
“Ahh, this reminds me of old times…”
“You make that sound like there’s a problem with who I am now.”
“Reflect on your actions before saying that. Yes, you were so pure back then. What happened to the Shinobu that climbed into his ‘Nee-chan’s’ futon because he was afraid the lightning would steal his belly button?”
“D-don’t be silly! I had no choice but to do that because that ‘Nee-chan’ was so afraid! I was being heroic!!”
“I knew you’d never come over unless I set it up that way. You were clearly about to cry but trying to act tough, so I put together that plan. And call me Yukari.”
Talking about the past only caused my passion to wither away even more. Was she intentionally creating a mood that prevented a certain part of me from making a major comeback!?
The napping Zashiki Warashi pulled out (my) smartphone from between those breasts she was tormenting me with and she began swiping her index finger across the screen.
“Checking through the online news from bed is such bliss.”
“It’s easy to forget you’re an Edo-period Youkai when you say things like that.”
If I complained now, she would crush my balls, so I called it quits for the time being. I was waiting for my next opportunity, though!! With no outlet for certain feelings, I lay face down with the Zashiki Warashi as we pressed our cheeks together and looked down at the smartphone screen.
“Not much interesting news.”
“At times like this, you just have to visit a cat picture site.”
We amused ourselves looking at a cat stretched out on its back in front of a stove or a cat sticking its head inside a cat food box. Our Nekomata could be even more thoughtful than a human like me, so she didn’t show off this defenseless side much. She was technically a deadly Youkai, so I was afraid of what would happen if she got high on catnip.
…The Nekomata, huh?
I casually pondered that Youkai’s name.
At the same time, a Youkai slipped in through the slightly opened sliding screen.
The Nekomata walked over to the intimate couple (with one of them boiling over on the inside) and gave us a scornful look.
Then she spoke.
“So how long are you going to keep up this farce?”
I slowly narrowed my eyes while lying next to the Zashiki Warashi.
“What is it, Shinobu?”
The Zashiki Warashi only looked confused.
No, I was pretty sure she really did understand.
I thought back over the news I had seen here and there during the day: the TV, the newspaper, the banner ad, and the online news. I thought back over all of those articles I had seen.
“Due to the global panic caused by the chaos surrounding the world’s government bonds, the American dollar, the European euro, the Chinese yuan, and other currencies are continuing to crash. The rise in value of the relatively stable Japanese yen continues to accelerate, so rates for the yen are shooting up.”
When had this started?
Oh, right. It had already begun by the time I somehow managed to end the zombie outbreak in neighboring Bozen City, returned to the thatch-roof house with the Zashiki Warashi, and started dating her.
There were two types of Zashiki Warashi.
The type that preferred wearing a white kimono brought fortune and the type that preferred wearing a red kimono brought ruin.
And my “Nee-chan” – that is, Yukari – had the insane power known as the Ver. 39. That overwhelming power to bring ruin was too much for even the Ver. 40 to restrain with her ability to manipulate the destiny of the entire world.
The dollar and the euro were crashing, but it was far worse than that.
How had this happened and what was happening? Apparently not even Madoka understood it. All I can explain are the actual phenomena.
It all began with something known as government bonds.
I don’t actually know that much about it, but government bonds are apparently something like a special bank account. People place their money inside it by buying government bonds and the gathered money is used to keep the government operational. The money people deposit there gains interest at a set rate. From what I can tell, you get more interest than in a normal bank, but you can’t take the money out as easily. The government asks you to buy the bonds and uses the interest as an incentive. Basically, when the government takes on debt like that, it’s called a government bond.
But the value of these government bonds is apparently determined by some extremely complex calculations. A stable country with lots of assets and resilience provides little interest for their bonds and a country that could undergo an economic collapse at any time and really wants to gather money will provide huge interest for their bonds. Of course, if they actually go under, you lose both the interest and the money you gave them, so I don’t think many people want to buy bonds from that kind of country.
Ultimately, countries prefer to have valuable bonds with low interest but high stability. People feel comfortable buying up their bonds, so the government can easily grow quite rich.
The value of government bonds is not just a problem for that one country. It also influences friction with the neighboring countries. The calculations are difficult for amateurs, so there are specialized rating agencies that provide a simple rating for people, such as AAA or Default.
The problem is that the major credit rating agencies (e.g. Globe & Ingot or Gold Web) tend to be in America.
Ever since those credit rating agencies were established, America has never fallen below the AAA rating at the very top. Even after the fall of the Big 4 and the IT bubble bursting, they never dropped down even once. After all, if the value of their own country dropped, the credit rating agencies themselves would lose money.
And recently, a few countries that America found inconvenient had their ratings drop. I have no idea how much of this is only rumors and it might all have been mere coincidence, but everyone who saw it had the same thought:
Can we really trust American credit rating agencies like Globe & Ingot and Gold Web?
Shouldn’t we make our own, more trustworthy investigative agency?
That much was natural enough.
But the problem came when several new credit rating agencies popped up around the world and began releasing completely contradictory ratings.
Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, the Middle East, Oceania, etc.
This did not cleanly break the world up into economic blocs. It wasn’t that organized. Everything was mixed up like a marble pattern.
The value of 100 yen was only meaningful if everyone agreed that was 100 yen.
If what Person A thought was 100 yen was just 10 yen to Person B and 1000 yen to Person C, they could not settle things at the register. An argument would break out over something as simple as buying a rice ball.
That was the current situation.
The American credit rating agencies like Globe & Ingot insisted that America had a AAA rating, the European Triple Roses said the same about the European nations, and the Chinese Pengjia Gongsi…did they even use the alphabet? Regardless, they wanted to give China the highest rating. Meanwhile, they liked to give enemy countries or countries they disliked the lowest rating of Default.
Simply put, the value of every country’s bonds was thrown into a black box. One list said it was AAA, but another said it was Default. With several if not dozens of contradictory lists, no one knew what was accurate. If layer after layer of colored cellophane was placed over the scenery, no one could say what color it had been originally. It was like carefully going through all the data and then having even more paperwork thrown at you, until it was all diluted by the sea of data.
To us, government bonds were something like a bank account that earned a different sort of interest, but they were really another name for national debt. When their value could not be determined, it directly affected the trust in the yen or dollars that country used.
The world economy was going to grind to a halt.
Or should I say the central driving force had already stopped and it was only coasting on momentum now?
“Will the government begin printing new money? Could there be a one million yen note?”
But there were apparently some exceptions.
The world’s bonds and currencies had died because of the contradictory reports from the different credit rating agencies. With some saying “The dollar is the best!” and some saying “The dollar is trash!!”, no one knew who to trust or how to deal in that currency.
But there was another possibility.
There were countries that had not been the target of any of the credit rating agencies and thus every agency gave similar ratings for them.
Those countries had been mocked as no real threat, but that lack of caution meant they were not highly rated by anyone yet not considered in default either.
So despite all the colored cellophane covering the map, there were air pockets were not even a single layer of cellophane had fallen.
There was no chaos there.
But in all things, the value of scarcity was important.
Humans liked to put a price tag on everything. Even safety and stability could be a special weapon if there was little enough of it.
Costa Rica, Iceland, the Solomon Islands, etc. Those countries had been left behind by the prideful center of the international economy, but that was exactly what had allowed them to remain as the few untouched regions. Those untouched countries had constructed their own network and dealt safely in bonds. They had kept their data in motion. Why? Because it was magic. Despite the global panic, the value of their bonds remained unchanged and they made secret dealings within a field that outsiders could not touch. That ended up looking so very desirable to the people who could only watch.
It was just like an online auction or an affiliate advertising program.
They worked everyone up as much as they could and tormented them as much as they could.
They intentionally placed strict purchase limitations on their bonds so foreigners from outside their network could not touch them. That created a restricted holy ground which allowed the value to skyrocket. It was just like a smiling young lady in a prestigious girl’s school.
And after the value of their “invisible product” had risen and risen and risen as far as it would go, what would happen if they finally sold it “outside”?
It was the simplest form of alchemy in the world. It was a magic trick.
The seller enjoyed a return of one hundred or even one thousand times their initial investment and, once they calmed down, the buyer was disappointed with the surprisingly “normal” bonds they held. Their own country’s currency was treated like trash and they had sold off their jewels and cruisers and whatever else to obtain this last thread of hope, but they could only grieve when they discovered it was not worth what they had paid.
Only those who had begun the process profited.
It was as simple as attaching a false report of authenticity to a UFO video and then selling it.
And once they had a taste, they could not stop.
People could make all the accusations they wanted on online message boards and rating sites, but no individual opinion could stop the magic at this point. Even if someone did post the truth, no one believed it. It was just like the yen and the dollar which were relatively stable despite actually being buried in debt. That was just how much people trusted the prestigious girls school that was the closed network.
Intellectual Village vegetables may have been the same thing.
The brand was more important than the actual product. It was enough to stamp out any complaints or dissatisfaction.
Thus, people around the world continued seeking that network. They wanted to use it more than they wanted to destroy or equalize it. They wanted to join the seller side of that magic trick to infinitely raise the price of bonds. Government bonds were national debt, so there were purchase limitations and fail safes. Simply put, if foreigners monopolized the bonds, they could influence national policy, so bonds were made so the country’s own citizens had priority in buying them. That meant only the countries in the network should have been able to make free use of that magic trick. But everyone still wanted to find a loophole that allowed them to be one of the sellers.
Now, a question: what country did the world’s seven billion people think they had the best shot at slipping inside of?
The answer was Japan.
That strange country had a fair amount of money and made decent contributions to society, yet it had still been underestimated.
In other words, people wanted inside that network which could infinitely raise the value of government bonds like a pure prestigious girls school, and Japan looked like the back entrance with the weakest security. That carefree country was obsessed with the ultra high-quality brand-name Intellectual Village vegetables, but they did not track what happened to the fruit seeds they exported. The rest of the world was annoyed that, with textbook English and some knowledge of the internet, the average middle school girl could carry around a brand-name bag and shop around for a summer home, but they still wanted to take advantage of that carefree national character. It could be borrowing someone’s identity, a false marriage, or anything else. They wanted to use that lax country’s lax system to gain Japanese citizenship and slip inside the much more strictly managed network. They wanted to make as much money as they could before their trick was discovered and then they would run off with their newfound riches. It apparently isn’t actually that simple in reality, though.
The blessings of that network and getting inside it were simply that important.
It was an issue of dreams, just like all the young people who move to the big city despite knowing the risks.
It was a bond rush.
It was an insider dream.
People like Madoka may have actually calmly taken a step back from all that. She had said something about growing sick of the ridiculous commotion and searching out liquid commodities that did not fluctuate as much as gold or platinum.
Whatever the case, things had gotten crazy.
I’d heard that satellite photos of the earth showed the city lights noticeably spreading only at those various air pockets.
Everyone who took part in the alchemy had gone crazy, from elementary school kids to the presidents of investment companies. In the city, people apparently waved stacks of cash around to hail a taxi and it wasn’t uncommon for people to burn their money for light. Health-oriented convenience stores were spreading around the world while exclusively selling Intellectual Village vegetables. And yet that meant the prices were at thirty thousand yen for a bunch of grapes.
That was why I wasn’t seeing anything of my parents or my grandparents who had supposedly retired. The Jinnai Brewery had primarily been served at classy restaurants in Gion or Askasaka, given as gifts at international summits, or provided as an offering at the Ise Shrine, but we’d been thrown into complete chaos with orders coming in from convenience stores, online stores, and discount stores.
The consumption had risen to abnormal levels.
In this age, everyone could buy Japan’s finest sake as easily as a can of beer or a carton of juice.
“Our surefire money management technique is to take advantage of the rising yen by buying up the American dollar!!”
But the network had been built on the sacrifice of something else.
What was with the multiple credit rating agencies? Why were the lists of ratings so contradictory? I didn’t know as much about money and economics as Madoka, but was that really possible? I mean, you could probably give a bit of an edge to your own country and its allies, but would you really rate it the opposite of the truth? Could you? And I’m not asking if you could punch the numbers into a mysterious calculator and get that answer. I’m asking if a list of nonsense numbers could really mess the world up like this.
A hole had opened somewhere in the giant bucket that was the world and that had created this unnatural situation. We were in one of the air pockets and thus benefitting from it, but not even we understood it. We knew what was happening, but we did not know what the root cause was.
How was this any different from riding a plane that was leaking fuel?
Who could rest easy just because it was still airborne for the time being?
We didn’t even know if the plane had been sent from our side of the ocean or the other side of the ocean. I felt that Japan and the rest of the air pockets that created the network were being manipulated, but what would the other people think when they saw all those celebrating people while their own bank accounts were rendered worthless and the company they had served for many long years broke off contact with them?
Gigantic conglomerates were dropping like flies and the international online shopping companies that had ruled the world’s goods distribution were on life support. What had become of the Big 4 goes without saying. Major corporations with a proud history of traditions dating back over a century were bought up on a whim by startups run by middle or high schoolers. Even the defense industry was no exception despite its support by government and civilians alike. The people left standing in front of the ATM in stunned disbelief were seeing blizzards of money on TV.
They had no idea how it worked, but they continued gaining more and more money with their “magic trick” and irresponsibly carried around so much money their wallets were going to burst. The world was slowly headed toward disaster.
Her arrival brought fortune and her departure brought ruin.
That Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata lay happily next to me as my girlfriend.
But she still held the power of the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi.
“Will the IMF really respond to a conspiracy theory? After the unnatural rise of the yen during the ratings chaos, the Western nations are worried that Japanese investors were involved in the crash of the American dollar and the European euro. Are the joint military exercises in the Pacific and the South China Sea really a naval blockade meant to intimidate Japan?”
That was what had happened.
Japan had long since been sealed off by sea and by air.
There was more than one way to take advantage of the network.
As I already explained, they could gain citizenship in a country with more lax management and profit from within the network.
But there was another way.
Governments could force conspiracy theories onto the network as a means of redirecting their own citizen’s anger toward them.
Japan was only 38% self-sufficient in food. Even if we began consuming all of the Intellectual Village vegetables domestically instead of using them to obtain foreign currency, that figure would only rise by at most 10%. Japan’s population had risen to 150 million and various countries were applying intimidating pressure to starve out that increased population and fix this abnormal situation.
Japan had not been behind the rise of so many credit rating agencies, but we were the world’s villain, we were the air pocket, we were the network.
Just the month before, hadn’t we been looked down on as a country that could not stand on the world’s center stage no matter how much money we had? And they thought we had put together this grand conspiracy?
The reckless creation of credit rating agencies once the other countries could not trust the American ones like Globe & Ingot or Gold Web had been something all of them began on their own.
The various air pockets that had arisen had only been a result of that.
And Japan had just been one of those.
We had been the convenient member of the network that everyone had looked down on as too lax.
We were like the color white at the center of a sheet displaying the three primary colors.
We were the unnatural hole of light in the middle.
When people heard some experts claiming this should not have happened based on how it had all started, they had begun to think there was more to this and that had led to the threats and intimidation.
This made them feel better.
If it had happened naturally, there was no way to fix it. It would be their own fault and they could not calm everyone’s anger. That was why they had wanted a villain. They had wanted the dream of revealing an invisible system and returning everything to normal.
But there was nothing they could do.
Japan was only one part of the network and the network as a whole had had nothing to do with the initial cause. They may have taken advantage of the situation partway through, but it was the entire population of seven billion that had hit the economy’s stop button.
The value of the bonds had risen on its own and someone tempted by all that money had come up with the magic trick. That had led to the entire network growing rich and Japan had just so happened to be one of those nations.
In truth, the winners didn’t care what it was that had caused the simultaneous rise of so many credit rating agencies which had thrown the world economy into chaos.
They were not going to stop just because someone told them to.
For one thing, they did not know what they should stop doing or even what was happening.
Or at least, that was the case for 149,999,999 of them.
As her boyfriend, I was the sole exception.
No one knew which country would lose it and attack first. It was entirely possible a ballistic missile would fly in and blow away the capital. But no one knew how to solve the problem. Erasing the Japanese Archipelago from the map would not erase the problem. Nevertheless, they continued treating us like the source of all their problems and only placed more pressure on us.
And the daily partying only escalated as if everyone was trying their best to not face that strange fear head on.
There wasn’t much else they could do, but that champagne tower of partying only brought even gloomier looks to the eyes of the other countries.
Definite ruin would eventually arrive from somewhere.
But whoever pulled the trigger, the black box created by the credit rating agency chaos would remain. After all, Youkai were immune to physical damage. She would not die even if nuclear missiles poured down like rain. In fact, the contaminated land would only make it harder to find her, so an age of unending starvation and thirst would begin and seven billion people’s lives would come to an end.
This was what Majina, former leader of Hyakki Yakou, had most feared.
The Zashiki Warashi was out of control, the economy was in tatters, and the world would shrivel up and die.
The Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata with her Ver. 39 power was enough of a monster to cause trouble on this level while just sitting there.
I swear to you that she had no intent to destroy mankind.
In fact, she wasn’t even aware she was actively harming people.
That was exactly why there was no persuading her to stop despite being the original “unnatural cause”. Since she didn’t even know she was doing it, she could not consciously switch it off. Even if I explained it to her, she would probably tilt her head in confusion.
If some secret government organization or Hyakki Yakou realized what was going on, they might send in a large attack unit.
But not even that would work.
Majina had calculated it all out and realized that wouldn’t work. That was why he had started his plan to turn the 150 million people of Japan into zombies, use the boosted power of the citizens to restrain the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi, and finish her off with Mei’s stable Ver. 40 power.
There was no other way of restraining the Zashiki Warashi by force.
No matter what anyone tried to use – even a ton of NBC weapons – physical attacks were meaningless. Even if they tried to use the occult, some almost amusing coincidences would occur and devilish miracles would coincide to neutralize it all.
That was the Ver. 39.
That ruler of destiny was more unstable than Majina’s completed Ver. 40, but that gave her the instantaneous maximum power needed to win.
She was a messenger of ruin that would reign supreme and remain unharmed even in a battle against seven billion people.
But Majina had said something else.
I had driven him back even though he was protected by the Ver. 40, so he had told me to watch as the world came to an end. And he had suggested I might have a power different from his.
I was the closest person to the world’s ruin.
I was her boyfriend.
Did that mean I alone had some power that might stop the Bloodstained Zashiki Warashi?
I looked down at the smartphone screen again.
I did not even need to check a news site. Every blog and banner ad was talking about the same thing. Every link led to word of the coming ruin.
“What is it, Shinobu?”
Her voice sounded like a tolerant older sister and like an ignorant little girl.
I placed an arm around her head and gently stroked the back of her head while I whispered into her ear.
“I will protect you. No matter what happens, I will always be on your side.”
I made that obvious announcement as I read the text on the smartphone.
It said the following:
“Is the world’s worst plan about to begin?
“All five standing member-nations have voted to censure the network made up of Japan and the six other air pockets. Experts say the result of this vote is extremely likely to influence all member-nations. If the vote in a regular session has the same result, it is possible the corresponding nations will be forcibly ejected from the UN in a truly unprecedented case.
“A forcible ejection from the UN means the erasure of all promises made in any war treaty exchanged using the UN.
“As the UN itself was meant to monitor and apply pressure to Japan, Germany, and Italy as the losers of World War Two, military commentators say this possible ejection will be especially meaningful and dangerous to Japan.
“If all war treaties based on the UN are abandoned, there is even a fear that those countries can be attacked without a declaration of war, strategic weapons such as nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons can be used against them with reckless abandon, their POWs can be tortured or slaughtered, and their public and private property can be seized via military intervention. Simply put, there is a possibility that all war crimes will become allowable.
“It depends on which country you ask, but some say they have already entered the coordinates for six of Japan’s major cities. If those foreign safety measures are removed, there is even a possibility of ballistic missiles immediately firing from the nuclear submarines blockading the ocean.
“The military is a massive source of employment and the weapons and ammunition they use can create a large amount of consumption. Some countries might be searching for a war not to defeat an enemy but to kick-start their own economy. Looking at it that way brings on a whole new kind of fear.”
I hadn’t even needed the impatient Nekomata to tell me anything.
Global ruin was already at seven billion people’s throats, so this was no time to be averting my gaze.
This time between lovers had been something like creating fleeting memories as a farewell ritual.
I held the Zashiki Warashi’s head close as I brought my finger to the screen and operated the smartphone.
I closed the browser filled with strange news, started up a photo album app, and focused on a picture I had seen not long before.
It was a drawing from when I was young.
It was drawn in crayon on construction paper.
The sun was red and the leaves were green. The perspective and colors were a complete mess.
There were humanoid figures drawn there. The one with red clothes and black hair was probably the Zashiki Warashi. Other figures looked more like animals. I had thought this was just a product of my imagination, but it really had happened. Some of them were scribbled out with black crayon and some I had no clue what they had originally been.
They formed a circle with smiles on their faces and some messy writing was positioned above their heads: We’re All Friends.
I only had to say that once.
My recharging period was complete and naptime was over.
I recalled what I had to do.
Let’s get the final battle started.
There were a few things that the Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata found truly surprising from the bottom of her heart.
For example, an event from the past. When Shinobu had been only as tall as her waist, he had once come home with bruises not just on his face, hands, or feet, but across his entire body.
“I won’t apologize,” he had said while clenching his teeth and squeezing the shoulder straps of his black backpack. “I won’t apologize to Miyano!!”
He had seemed to have gotten into a fight with a classmate. The standard course was for his father to come out, drop his fist on the boy’s head, show him pictures from the deep sea fish encyclopedia, and throw him in the dark shed, but this time Shinobu had refused to give in.
When his father had raised his fist, he had bitten the man’s arm. No matter how much the man had swung him around, the light of anger had not left Shinobu’s eyes. Shinobu’s mother had realized the normal methods were not going to work this time, so she had patiently gotten the whole story out of him and he had finally explained.
“I can’t forgive Miyano for what he said.”
“What was that?”
“That Nee-chan isn’t really part of my family since she’s a Youkai! That’s what he said!! I can’t forgive him even if he was joking!!”
The Zashiki Warashi and Shinobu’s mother had exchanged bitter looks.
It had been well known within Noukotsu Village that a beautiful Zashiki Warashi lived in the Jinnai house. And with the exception of Shinobu and his childhood friend Nagisa, she had refused to show herself in front of the brats that made a fuss about seeing her out of pure curiosity.
The rest had been the standard fare.
Shinobu had seen nothing wrong with talking about how she would take baths with him and sleep in his futon, so the other boy must have been jealous. It was a variant on how young boys would sometimes tease the girl they liked.
“I won’t forgive anyone who insults Nee-chan! I’ll protect her!!”
They understood the situation now, but they could not ignore the fact that he had raised a hand against his classmate. His grandfather had ultimately grabbed him by the collar and chucked him into the shed out front. The boy normally flailed around and made a fuss, but this time he had only puffed out his cheeks and accepted his punishment without speaking a word.
After locking the shed, his father had smiled bitterly at the boy’s behavior.
He had waved his hand around a little and looked down at the bite mark on his arm.
“That snot-nosed brat has got some fight in him now.”
“Of course he does. He’s your son and my grandson.”
Halfway through the night, as young Shinobu had leaned against the dusty shed’s wall with nothing to do, he had heard something moving. He had looked over and seen his overall small grandmother’s face poke out.
“Oh, gramma! …Hm? How did you get in here?”
“I’ve learned a lot of secrets in my long life. But more importantly, you must be hungry. I made you some rice balls.”
“Sigh. Living a long life must be convenient. Nee-chan got in here sometime too!”
His grandmother had looked down and seen the sleeping Zashiki Warashi in a red yukata curled up like a cat at the boy’s feet. He had stroked a hand through her long black hair.
“She was playing with me earlier, but she must have gotten tired.”
“Is that so? Then try not to wake her, Shinobu.”
His grandmother had smiled as she objectively analyzed the situation.
It had looked like the Youkai had snuck inside to comfort Shinobu, but it had probably been the exact opposite. Shinobu had gotten into a fight over her, so she had been worried that she had become a burden to him. She had likely come to ask him about it, realized there was nothing to worry about, and then relaxed in relief.
Simply put, she had the thought processes of a young girl despite having lived for centuries.
“Shinobu, you like salmon rice balls, don’t you? There are plenty of them, so eat up.”
“Huh? But should I really be eating rice balls when I’m being punished?”
“That male reasoning doesn’t matter. I think it would be much more shameful if you didn’t feel any anger when someone made fun of someone who lives with you.”
“But make no mistake. Your anger may have been right, but that doesn’t make up for hitting your friend. I used to be known as Wild Kaguya of the Inland Sea, but that was because I got that part wrong. Everyone feels pain if you hit them and that’s true for human and Youkai alike. It doesn’t matter if the wound is large or small. That doesn’t relieve the pain and fear they feel.”
Young Shinobu had given a troubled look with the triangular rice ball in both hands.
After some silence, he had lifted the rice ball to his mouth and spoken.
“I’ll go apologize to Miyano tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. You do that.”
His grandmother had rubbed his head and he had bitten into the rice ball with a huge smile on his face.
Then he had spoken to her again.
“But I wasn’t wrong. Nee-chan really is part of our family!”
“I’m sorry, Shinobu, but I’d sworn I wouldn’t lie to you. I just don’t like the idea of ‘kind lies’.”
It may have been the apologetic tone to her voice that had stabbed so sharply into his young heart. Rather than a glistening knife forcefully stabbing into him, it may have felt more like a plastic straw pressed against the center of his chest until it pierced through.
His face had visibly clouded over, but his grandmother had continued with a smile.
“Shinobu? Do you think the two of us are family?”
“What are you talking about? Of course we are!”
“I see. Thank you. But the thing is, I wasn’t part of the Jinnai family when I was born. Do you remember your aunt’s house in Setouchi? That’s where you had so much fun after seeing the ocean for the first time. The truth is, that was where I was born.”
“Ha ha ha. In other words, even if you aren’t family to begin with, there’s a way to become family.”
“What’s that? How do you do it?”
She had rubbed his head and answered his innocent question.
“It’s simple. If you and the Zashiki Warashi get married, no one can say you aren’t family.”
After eating so many rice balls, Shinobu had been overcome by sleepiness too. His well-prepared grandmother had held out a bottle of water and his tooth brush, so he had brushed his teeth, wrapped his arms around the Zashiki Warashi who had gone to sleep ahead of time in accordance with her “usual habit”, and drifted off to sleep.
Finally, after Shinobu had set sail for the world of dreams and his grandmother had left the shed, the Zashiki Warashi in the red yukata had lifted her eyelids just a little. She had gently wrapped her arms around young Shinobu and breathed a quiet sigh as she thought back on the previous conversation.
Finally, she had spoken a few words.
“Honestly. You didn’t need to tell him that.”