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[x] Prod Kokoro a bit about what she does.
Even as nice as all this was, even leaning back with my eyes closed didn't feel fully relaxing. Normally, I walked in with nothing on my mind but gearing up for the day ahead. Additional worries had decided to tag along this time. Besides having to hear her out on more problems, on top of owing her for paying entry to the bath, Kokoro herself was a walking headache. I had told her so much about my time at academy, but I knew almost nothing about her.
More than that, the thought of those men -- a shudder ran through me remembering them specifically -- being at least somewhat familiar with Kokoro wouldn't leave me. How on earth would a girl like her know people like that? Something about it just felt... off.
I opened my eyes and sat up. Kokoro had given up on staring me down and instead was making mini-jets of water with her hands.
"So, er..." I started to say. Now that the words had almost left my mouth, I realised I had no idea how to approach this conversation. "Say, Kokoro, I forget if you've told me this before, but, erm, what exactly is it that you do again?"
"I'm talking to you right now, I guess," Kokoro said, leaning her head onto her knees.
"I mean, what do you normally do when you're not talking to me?"
She sat up, shaking her head as her hair fell across her face. For keeping her hair so long, she didn't seem to know how to deal with it.
"Hold on a second. Come here," I said and pulled Kokoro over by the shoulder. I bunched up her hair and began working out the tangles. "You ought to take better care if you're going to leave it this long."
She grumbled. "I don't want a short fluff head like y-- ow! Watch it."
"Hold still," I said, trying to get a particularly bad snag. The knot came undone with a little nail-work, making Kokoro flinch and whine. Despite her grouching, I went on. "Anyway, go on. What brings you to a place like this?"
Kokoro went still. It took a closer look to convince me that she hadn't stopped breathing. "Uhhh... well..." She tried to run her fingers through her hair, her hand jerking back as soon as she remembered I was holding onto it. "I like putting on noh performances. It's kinda, well, part of me."
"That doesn't tell me much about why you're here, though." With the kinks worked out, I started on gathering her hair into a loose ponytail. My hand slipped and part of her hair fanned back out.
"There's lots of people here. And they all like fun things. What's more fun than singing and dancing?" A note of agitation was creeping into her voice.
"Those men who were waving are fun-seekers of a sort, I'm sure."
Once again, she fell silent. I took the opportunity to try my hand at making a ponytail again. "They're not bad people," she muttered after some thought, not sounding utterly convinced herself but not wanting to admit anything either.
"Sorry," I said with a little laugh, "maybe I just worry about silly things. You just... well, seem like trouble won't leave you alone. Especially when you have to come asking me for help. Can't help wondering."
Kokoro grumbled but nodded. Both of us stayed quiet for a bit while I kept working on her hair. It had been so long since I'd had so much hair to play with like this. Mine had only touched my shoulders at its longest, so it wasn't like I could ever do much with it, and I tended to keep it short nowadays. My little sister's, on the other hand, had grown almost to the middle of her back last I'd seen. During those brief visits while I was still at academy, I would brush and braid her hair while we talked. It was my way of doting on her even when we never got to see each other much.
I let out a small sigh through my nose. Thinking on it, the last time I'd even seen my sister was just before my induction. Her school years were wrapping up at the time, so she stayed busy. Then I moved to the far peak, and didn't get so much as a visit from my parents. Just before I got called to the outpost, I received a letter from them. It was still sitting somewhere in my kitchen back on the mountain, unopened. I could only guess they said something about my sister entering the academy too.
Kokoro was looking up at me, a hint of concern on her face. My ears were flopped over all the way like they'd given up on standing.
I waved a hand. "Ah! It's nothing. Just... thinking about... some things."
I hurriedly finished rolling Kokoro's hair into a makeshift bun. If anything, it was at least more manageable in the bath. Even she seemed happier without all that hair in the way.
"By the way, don't mind all the things I said," I added, going back to leaning over the edge. "I don't mind helping however I can." I smiled. "Especially if you treat me to lunch."
"Which reminds me!" Kokoro stood up in the water, almost pressing her chest in my face. There was a weird glimmer in her eye. "So I'm working on this entirely new play myself, right? In between performances, I write down stuff I thought of. It's been a work in progress for a while, you know."
I scooted away. "Um, okay?"
"Anyway, I've got ths idea in my head," she continued, seemingly not hearing me at all. "It's a tale of a young man defendng his village from a hideous beast, an incarnation of pure greed and desire!"
"And what does that--"
Kokoro held up her hand. "I'm getting to it!" She cleared her throat and went on. "Okay, so, the beast not only smashes things and kidnaps people, but also eats up everything it sees. This gives the hero an idea. When it comes to the final act, where he rescues everybody from the beast's lair, he uses its own greed against it by baiting it with a giant stewpot..."
Seeing where she was going with this already, I stood up and started to get out of the bath. "Nope!"
"What do you mean 'Nope!'" she shouted, tugging on my towel.
"This is all about the kimchi stew, isn't it? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm neither an actress nor a food disposal for hire."
I climbed out and made my way back to the dressing area. My skin was starting to feel wrinkly anyway. Kokoro came hustling in behind me just as I was towelling off. "What if I told you you'd get a ten-gal-- wah!" She slid on the wet stone floor, tumbling into the dressing area and only just avoiding landing spread-eagle.
"Don't run," I said.
As we got dressed, Kokoro continued to pester me with her unfinished play idea. The gist was that watching the 'ravenous beast' devour loads of food right there would be the draw for the crowd. A massive pot of kimchi stew would be prepared for the beast to inhale. The role of this horrible creature was, of course, inspired by and meant to be played by me. It was almost insulting enough to make me take back what I said about helping her.
"And that's what you needed my help with?" I asked as soon as she was through. We were walking back down the street by then, headed off toward the main gates. I was sorely tempted to try losing her in one of the alleyways nearby.
Kokoro puffed out her cheek. "No."
"Well, good, because I'm not helping you with that."
"Fugh!" she groaned, throwing her hands in the air.
Continuing on, a number of smells floated through the street that woke my stomach from its bath-induced slumber. The biggest perk to living in the western quarter of this outpost was that I was a lot closer to breakfast heading to work. Out a little ways from the main gates, in the outline of a large building that had yet to see any construction going on three years, a number of food stalls had set up shop. They had originally been located further out, but the mass of construction workers camped around drew them in. The building itself never got built, but increasing numbers of people lingering around the west end kept the area alive. Or so Hinawa had told me.
All I knew was that these stands and their contribution to the street food culture of the outpost were a boon to me in the mornings. When I was in a hurry, there was one particular stand that I tended to look for. Its proprietor was an older kappa gentleman, a strange rarity around here. He kept to himself, like most kappa, which made him hard to find at times. Some mornings, he might simply have not shown up. It was always a disappointment if he did.
Luckily, his stand was parked right up front when we approached the open square. Spotting it lightened my spirits to the point that I forgot about Kokoro's nonsense immediately.
"You've got to try this," I told Kokoro, who was lagging a step or two behind.
Noting the tall racks of steamers and signs declaring that the stand sold steamed buns, Kokoro threw me a puzzled look. "For breakfast?"
"You'll see. Now, come on."
"Good morning!" I called over the noise. The proprietor croaked out a greeting without looking up from chopping a cabbage. The mingling smells of meat, red bean paste, and other things stoked my hunger. I licked my lips at all of the steamers on display. However, there was one in particular that I had my eye on.
I pointed to a single steamer set towards the front. "I'll take the whole thing, please."
The grizzled old kappa set his cleaver down and yanked the steamer off, tossed it up where I could reach, and whipped out an abacus, tallying up the cost and standing it up next to the steamer with his hand out. I was about to reach for the food when I remembered my missing wallet and nudged Kokoro.
"You still haven't told me what I'm buying," she groused.
"It doesn't smell like kimchi, does it? Just trust me. I'll listen to whatever else you have to say after we eat."
Still looking unconvinced, Kokoro drew out enough to cover the buns from her shirt. The kappa nodded after receiving his payment and waved us away. I grabbed the steamer, pulling Kokoro over to one of the nearby makeshift tables. She watched closely as I pulled the lid off, fanning off the plume of steam that rose up.
I handed one of the piping-hot parcels to her. She squinted at it, turning it over in her hand. "They just look like regular steamed buns to me."
Kokoro dug her finger into the bun like she was about to tear it open. "Wait, wait, wait! Not like that," I warned. "The filling will spill out everywhere."
She huffed at me like a child being told not to touch a paper door. Blowing on the bun, she took a delicate bite out of the side. At first, she didn't seem to get what she was supposed to be tasting. However, after a bit of chewing, her eyes opened in surprise. "Miso soup?"
"I know, right!"
"How? I mean... in a bun?" Kokoro stared at the bun in her hand incredulously.
"I don't know exactly how he does it, but that old guy is the only one I know of. He doesn't make many in a day, but I always--"
There was a jarring crash followed by several indistinct screams and shouts. Some of the vendors were getting up from their stands to rush over to the source of the commotion. Just as quickly, though, a couple ran back under a hail of something being thrown at them. One of the unidentified missiles strayed wildly, flying close to me and Kokoro, thudding against a sign for one of the stands. I got up to inspect it. Splattered over the announcements was a wad of mochi.
[ ] Rush in and try to apprehend whoever's causing trouble. A bit of damage is easy to shrug off when more damage can be averted.
[ ] Approach calmly and be ready to take on the instigator. Things might get uglier, but it's better to avoid busting up anybody's stand if I can help it.