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[X] Help Keine out with the searchin’.
“I’ll look too,” ya say.
—and Keine snapback unturns, like she was on a rubber band pulled tight that someone just let go, lookin’ ya straight on like she’s heard the words outta your maw, yeah, but they weren’t supposta happen.
Which—maybe ya can’t blame her, almost. You weren’t plannin’ on sayin’ those words, either. They just sorta did that.
Whatever the case, Keine only takes a sec before she recovers, her ‘spression goin’ hard in places. “I’m not certain that’s wise,” she says. “It’s much too dangerous for an ordinary Outsider to wander on their own, even here.”
And if she’d been listenin’, she’d know ya just got the don’t-wander spiel from Rinnosuke. There was sleeve-holdin’ and everything. Ya don’t mention that, though. “I wasn’t plannin’ on wanderin’ on my own,” ya say, instead. “I figured I’d stick close to you. Four eyes’re better than two, right?”
Keine visibly mulls that over, but if she’s comin’ up with any reasonable sorta objections, she at least doesn’t mention ‘em. “Rinnosuke,” she says instead, “are you okay with this?”
Rinnosuke pauses just a bit too long. “Yes,” he says. “Why shouldn’t it be? With you looking after her, she should be safe.”
“Right,” says Keine.
“Right,” says Rinnosuke. And before the two of ‘em can go past déjà vu and into straight up time loop, he turns off, starin’ straight forwards instead of in Keine’s direction. Which, incidentally, puts his sightline right through Meat Dude, who’s been standin’ here all this time—natch; it’s his stand—and right now’s tryin’ his very best to develop invisibility.
Like, it’s not workin’, obvs. But it’s a respectful attempt.
You, you’ve gotta contend with another coupla measures of Keine gazin’ into the back of Rinnosuke’s skull before she pulls up, too. “Stay close to me,” she says your way, signifyin’ the gettin’-to at of the most important ish at hand, i.e. the findin’ of a floaty friend.
Ya thumbs-up with vigor, ‘cause seriously, you’ve got it already. But hey, she’s gotta make sure, ya guess. You can respect that, too. “So what’s the plan?” ya ask.
“I don’t think there should be any changes—we should visit the food stalls, and ask if anyone’s seen Rumia.”
“Groovy.” And before the two of you can get outta sight—easy, in a crowd—you do some turnin’ back of your own, hangin’ a goodbye wave for Rinnosuke. “Catch ya later, Mac!”
Rinnosuke doesn’t “catch ya later” back. Maybe he doesn’t even hear ya, over the festival sound. He just stands there, at the meat, like he’s deep in thought over what he’s gonna order and not anything else. The last ya see of ‘im before Keine leads you away is his back—tall, stiff, clothed up in that familiar-by-now half-wrinkled robe.
It’s the only back that’s there, at the customer side at the stand. And with the light from the stand rayin’ past ‘im, it looks dark by comparison.
Dark, and sorta lonely.
Keine’s plan is logical, and methodical, and also, if you’re gonna be honest, totally limp. Like, it makes sense! Visit all the places Rumia woulda liked to go to and see if Rumia’s maybe actually been anythere! Ya couldn’t do it better if this festival was on the Outside.
It’s just that that’s all there is to it, basically. Keine leads ya to a food stand (‘cause ya don’t know where they are), Keine talks to the food stand dudes (‘cause ya don’t know who they are), Keine thanks the food stand dudes for their time and leads ya to the next food stand on the route. Rinse and repeat, and then keep on rinsin’ forever ‘cause the back of the shampoo bottle never said “stop.” Sure, ya get some stares pretendin’ not to be stares, from passersby and food stand dudes both, but it’s never anything more than the fleetingest of curious glimpses. Keine’s clearly some sorta authority here, from the way everyone reacts to the dude with a friendly kinda deference—maybe they figure that if you’re walkin’ so obediently at her shoulder you’re prolly no problem. Or if ya are a problem, you’re not an important one.
Which, y’know, it’s fine. You’re not a problem, and it’s not like ya wanna be. But still.
In any case, it isn’t long (okay, not long long) till you and Keine wind your ways over to where the stands end and the crowds start thinnin’—without havin’ caught report of either Rumiahair or Rumiahide. Or ya guess Rumiaskin, unless it is Rumiahide, actually, in which case Rumia’s in alotta trouble—so ya hope not. Keine’s lookin’ kinda troubled herself, though ya think prolly Rumia’s well-bein’ isn’t so much of a factor there. “We’ll have to search the other end of the shrine grounds as well,” she says.
“Cool,” ya say, in her footsteps, followin’ as she pulls a turnaround. And then ya don’t say anything else, ‘cause it’s back to lookin’ for Rumia again. Only even limper, ‘cause where before your walkin’ got at least broken up by Keine tuggin’ you aside so she could check in with vendor number so-and-so, now she’s already done the askin’.
In other words, it’s just you and her, walkin’ silently. And not, like, the companionable kinda silence either. Just silence.
You’d think the fact that the festival’s so loud’d help, right? Right? Like, it’d compensate or something? It doesn’t, though. Go fig.
“How is Rinnosuke?”
And then suddenly that not-companionable-particularly silence’s broken. “What?” ya say, lookin’ Keinewards.
Keine’s mug is ‘spressionless. “How is Rinnosuke?” she says, again. “He’s still hosting you, isn’t he? I thought you might be able to tell me, considering the amount of time you’ve spent with him.”
Her gaze is steady as she says that—by which ya mean it’s fixed steadily forwards, pointed towards nothing in particular ‘cept for the direction she’s walkin’ in. Which is a weird way to act with your eyes while you’ve got someone you’re actually literally talkin’ to, ya think, but...
The way she holds herself. With her chin a mite too high and her neck a mite too stiff.
It makes ya wanna put a little bit more thought into your answer before ya loose it.
Not that it helps. Uh, maybe ya better come up with something else? “Like—Rinnosuke is Rinnosuke, right?” ya quicksay, keepin’ gropin’ for the right words, ‘cause these aren’t those, for sure. At least Keine’s lookin’ atcha proper, now. “I mean—he’s sorta vaguely morose, I guess? And sometimes something sets ‘im off into a real downer of a mood?” And sometimes it’s something ya say or do that does that, specifically, but ya don’t wanna zoom in that far. “So, like, I dunno. He seems basically together, but if this is a real downturn from how he was before I fell in, I wouldn’t really know.”
Keine looks ya in a tick longer, then looks away, breathin’ out what looks like all the air out her bod. “No, you wouldn’t,” she agrees.
She sounds tired.
“So is that how it is?” ya ask.
“Is that what happened? Did something a serious bummer happen Rinnosuke’s way? Or something?”
It takes a little for Keine to get what you’re askin’, but then she shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Rinnosuke—this is how he’s always been.”
So it’s a basic check-up. Yeah, that’s fair. Rinnosuke seems like the sorta dude who you’d ask “How’s kicks?” and whether you’d get a truthful answer back’d be a crapshoot. Not that any lyin’ ya got’d be malicious, but a white lie’s still lyin’, right?
The meds, the ones he rushed to fetch when you were heftin’ a wicked fever. All the rice he’s been scoopin’ your way.
Rinnosuke was maybe never gonna complain ‘bout all that stuff, not unless ya asked.
(Or maybe he woulda complained, eventually. But whatever breakin’ point he’s got re: Christie-Christoferson-carin’, ya never reached it, and ya still haven’t. Which is kinda…)
“No,” says Keine, all of a sudden. “I’m wrong.”
And that yanks ya outta your thoughts, real neat. “Huh? So something did happen?” ya ask.
“That isn’t what I mean,” says Keine. “It’s only that—” Another stop. And then: “He was smiling.”
Ya try to parse those words in a way that deserves the next-to-dramatic tone Keine dropped ‘em with. It doesn’t work. “Yeah?” ya offer, finally.
“Yeah,” ya say, “when he was talkin’ ‘bout potatoes. What’s the big deal? He does that.”
Keine says that like she isn’t really there, in a way ya don’t like and that makes ya look to your side at ‘er, sharp. She’s facin’ off again, ‘cept this time even more so, so ya can’t even see her eyes.
Ya really wanna see her eyes.
“Uh, yeah, he does,” ya say. “I mean, not a lot—which, y’know, bummer—but it’s not like he’s dour twenty-four-seven. Like, you’d know that, if ya ever saw ‘im put on his records.”
And it’s like—yeah; didntcha tell Keine ‘bout the poltergeist? Only: Yeah, but ya didn’t tell ‘er ‘bout the record player aspect of it, so fair ‘nuff. “Rinnosuke found this record player, and we got it workin’ again,” ya ‘splain. “Anyways, there’s a buncha tunes he had lyin’ ‘round the pad to go with it, and he likes all the terrible ones. No accountin’ for taste, I guess.”
“I see,” says Keine. “Rinnosuke hasn’t told me anything about this at all. When was this?”
“Man, I dunno. A month ago, maybe? Something like that.”
Keine doesn’t have any follow-ups to that. Her lookin’-away-from-you seems to solidify.
Something inkles in your mind. A feelin’ like maybe ya said the wrong thing, or at least something that Keine woulda been better off not hearin’.
So, of course, ya prod what’s causin’ it. “He wasn’t keepin’ it a secret from you or anything, prolly,” ya say. “I mean, it’s not something ya go outta your way to mention, right? Like if I ate a really awesome burger or beat my personal record paddle-ballin’. I don’t think I’d tell anyone, not unless I got asked ‘bout it specific.”
You can see Keine’s jaws tensin’ (ya don’t hafta see her eyes for that—totally different part of the skull). When she speaks, it’s in a real low voice, something ya almost wanna lean forwards, the better to hear.
Ya don’t hafta, though. Ya hear it well enough. “I understand,” is what Keine says, “but I would never have asked.”
“Oh, huh,” says you.
And ya don’t really know what else to say to what she’s said, so the whole convo at that point just dies an ungodly, ignoble death. Bummer. The two of you walk in silence (surrounded as ya are by the loud of the festival), backtrackin’ your steps, passin’ by again all the stalls you and Keine already passed by. You see one or two stallkeeps glancin’ up to catch ya as ya go by—or maybe (prolly) it’s Keine they’re lookin’ at. Or maybe they’re just liftin’ their heads respective for one reason or another and it’s got nothing to do with either of you. There’s a lotta stuff to raise heads for here, after all.
“I’d like to ask you not to talk to Rinnosuke about the Outside any longer.”
And there’s something that makes your own head jerk up. “What?”
Now Keine shows her eyes again. “I’d like to ask you not to talk to Rinnosuke about the Outside any longer,” she says again—enunciates, even. Just to make sure ya don’t mishear. Or think ya did, which was the ish, just now.
Also, what times two.
“Ya mean—don’t answer any of his questions?” ya say leerily. “‘Cause he asks questions.”
“No. Please listen to me, very carefully. I’d like to ask you not to talk to Rinnosuke about the Outside any longer.”
And then she pauses there, like—didja get that?
Yeah, ya got that.
“You wanna ask me not to talk to Rinnosuke ‘bout the Outside anymore,” ya say, just to confirm.
Keine nods. “That is what I’d like to ask from you.”
Her eyes are clear, and piercin’, and don’t blink often enough for ya to feel comfy ‘bout it. Now you’re the dude that wants to stop meetin’ ‘em. Or at least if you could find something to say in response to a dude’s confession—that’d be good, too. Like, beaucoup, even.
And then, all of a sudden, Keine’s drilly gaze stops bein’ drilly and starts bein’ confused. And mildly gobsmacked. It drifts off your face, redirectin’ itself somewhere over your shoulder, and ya turn to follow it.
It’s the stand—the one you and Rinnosuke and Keine were at originally. Jeez, comin’ back took a lot shorter than the other way ‘round, didn’t it? Prolly helped there’s nobody Keine had to yak with the second time through. More importantly, there’s Rinnosuke.
More more importantly, there’s Rumia, hoverin’ in midair next to Rinnosuke, leanin’ towards the meats like she’s magnetized. She’s chattin’—her and Rinnosuke, with Rinnosuke—but ya can’t hear what’s goin’ on from where you’re standin’.
Not that it isn’t moot in a sec, ‘cause the moment Keine realizes ‘zactly what she’s lookin’ at, she rushes over to surreptitiously barrel herself in between the two of ‘em (leavin’ you to hoof it behind, incidentally). “Rinnosuke,” she says, something like a mite too loud to be normal. “You found her.”
Rinnosuke freezes halfway through gettin’ another thing of stick-food past his lips, his eyes flickerin’ between Rumia and this dude who just nearly put out his sternum, i.e. Keine. “It isn’t so much that I found her as it is she found me,” he says.
“There was food and I was hungry,” Rumia agrees, haulin’ a meat-stick of her own. Or two, actually—one skewer for each hand, each of ‘em chock fulla delicious or a variant thereof. And there’s no tellin’ it’s Rumia’s first coupla skewers, either.
Rumia’s prolly havin’ a good time, is what you’re sayin’.
“It’s good you waited here, then,” Keine says to Rinnosuke, and only to Rinnosuke. “Rumia might have come and gone without any of us ever seeing her.”
Rinnosuke glances over Keine’s head at Rumia again. “That might be true, yes,” he says.
His voice is distracted, almost more like steam slippin’ off from between the pipes than any kinda intended verbage, and ya wonder, suddenly, what it was that Rinnosuke and Rumia were talkin’ ‘bout, before Keine bustled into their hedgerow.
And speakin’ of the dude—
Keine tries to eke out a bit of comfiness in the basically-no-space she’s jumped. She fails with manic cheeriness. “Well, now that you’re all together, would you like me to show you around? I don’t think I’ll be needed right at this moment, so I should be able to show you some of the more interesting stalls that have been set up.”
“That wouldn’t be my decision,” Rinnosuke says. “Christie was the one who wanted to come—so you should ask her.” He nods your way to direct.
Keine follows the pointin’ of his mug till she’s lookin’ at you herself, her host’s smile greasepaint. “What about you? Is there something that you wanted to see here?” she asks.
“I kinda saw it already, dude,” ya say. “See?”
Ya punctuate with a easy gesture, a flick of the wrist at the stand you’re at. It’s not that quick, of course. Keine catches it, and follows it—and then totally doesn’t at all see what it is you’re seein’, lookin’ back at you with her smile pleasant and also totally uncomprehendin’. “You have?” she says.
“Yeah, we had the whole discussion ‘bout etymology and everything.”
The incomprehension tapers off. “You’re talking about the yakitori?”
“Hey, don’t knock the negima! That stuff was pretty cool. Right, Rumia?”
“I didn’t have negima,” says Rumia. “I had skin.”
“Fair ‘nuff. How was that?”
“I liked the part that was crispy.” Rumia pauses. “I also liked the part that wasn’t crispy.”
“That’s the sauce,” Rinnosuke says. He’s got another stick, replacin’ the one he had dropped when ya left ‘im. Or maybe replacin’ a replacement. Ya don’t know how much he’s had, either.
“Christie—Christoferson.” Keine fumbles with your name like she’s not sure where to cut it before just goin’ with the extra-formal whole hog just in case. “Other than this stand, isn’t there anything else you wanted to see while you were here?”
“Yeah, I guess it’d be kinda funny weird if we hiked all the way here just for the yakitori.” Ya put yourself into the whole group, on Rinnosuke’s other side, and give the matter a good musin’.
But not too much musin’.
“Ya know any stands that do cotton candy?” ya ask.
Keine looks stares at you. When she blinks, she does it like a dude who hasn’t had enough sleep and wants to savor it. “‘Cotton...candy,’” she echoes.
Yeah, that was a reach. And so’s this. “Corn dogs?”
“I haven’t heard of a ‘corn dog’ before, either—is that—” And the part that makes ya feel bad is that Keine is actually honestly concentratin’, rackin’ her brainmeats proper and everything. “I’m sorry—my English isn’t very good. Though, I might be able to find someone who speaks the language, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“Naw, don’t worry ‘bout it. Prolly if the name doesn’t ring a bell ya don’t have it at all.” What else, what else? “Funnel cakes?”
Rinnosuke makes a skewer-complimented gesture. “I recognized ‘cake,’” he says.
Rumia perks. “Is there cake?”
“That’s what I’m tryin’ to fig, dude,” ya say. Then, back to Keine: “What about churros? No, wait, wait—what about caramel corn? That stuff’s crackerjack!”
Keine does another measured blink. Her eyebrows reach towards each other like a coupla tragic star-crossed lovers. “All these things you’re naming,” she says, slowly. “You’re talking about more food.”
It doesn’t sound like a question, but ya answer it anyways. “Yeah—sorry, I guess I kinda wasn’t clear ‘bout that? Totally my bad, dude.”
“Isn’t there anything that you wanted to see here, especially, though?”
“Yeah? I mean, all that stuff I just said—”
“Other than food.”
This might deserve more musin’, after all. Ya turn to Rinnosuke. “Hey, Mac, is there anywhere you wanna see?”
“Not particularly,” Rinnosuke says.
Ya look back at Keine. And, with the forthrightest air of whaddya-gonna-do, ya shrug.