Part 35: Chessboard Preparations
BGM: Doorway of Summer
...By chance, the inside of the shop had been decorated with Halloween colors, since it was October. It seemed that Maria had been awfully pleased with that. And since then, she had kept on making a fuss inside the train about wanting to have a Halloween festival, without caring that she was attracting the attention of others.
Halloween is popular in Europe and America, but people aren't familiar with it at all in Japan. The shopping district was colorfully decorated with orange pumpkins, but the costume parades of children demanding sweets and saying 'trick or treat' were nowhere in sight.
"The family conference isn't for playing. We're going to meet Grandfather, so you have to wear western clothes."
While it wasn't completely full inside the train, it was really packed, with almost all of the seats occupied by passengers. Among them, Maria was making a fuss, stomping her feet on the seat while Rosa scowled at her. Since earlier, Rosa had warned her many times to lower her voice, but Maria hadn't obeyed her at all.
...Once Maria gets this way, no matter how much you try to explain the situation or calm her, she doesn't listen. Before, Rosa used to pamper Maria and give in to her at times like this. But, that had probably been a bad thing. When young Maria had complained noisily, her mother had given in, wrongly assuming that Maria had listened to what she had said. Rosa had realized that error with the help of an educational book, and since then, she had turned the part of her heart that wanted to pamper her beloved daughter into a demon. But Rosa managed to get less and less of a mutual understanding with Maria, and started to be discouraged by her own powerlessness little by little...
"I don't have sweets to give you! You just ate breakfast!"
"Trick or Treat! Trick or Treat! Uu-uu-uu-!!"
A stout old woman, who was sitting nearby as Maria stomped her feet, picked a candy out of her handbag and gave it to Maria.
"Uu-! Got a sweet, got a sweet! Look, look, Mama, Mama! Happy Hallowee~n!"
"Hey Maria, you can't just accept sweets from strangers, right?! Return it!!"
"It's alright, ho ho ho. She's a lovely young lady. How old is she?"
Maybe there was no malice in those words from the old woman... But, it seemed that Rosa had taken that in an extremely humiliating way.
"Maria, I'm always telling you to not accept sweets from strangers!!"
"Uu-! Uu-!! Maria got that!! Uu-uu-!! No, Maria's!!"
"Let go of it! Don't I always tell you to listen to what Mama says?!!"
"It's miiine! Miiine! Uu!! Uuu-uuu!!"
"Don't I always tell you not to say uu-uu-!!"
Rosa immediately took the candy from Maria's hand and pushed it back towards the dumbfounded old woman sitting next to them.
"...Please, do not just give sweets to my daughter!"
"...I'm... I'm very sorry."
Breathing heavily, Rosa once again held the candy out to the old woman. After the old woman grew bewildered about what she should say, perhaps she understood that what she had done may have caused trouble to parent and child, and she accepted the candy back, apologizing. Then, Rosa finally took notice of her surroundings...
Her daughter's clothes were all messed up, she was crying and shouting with her nose dripping, and there were many dumbfounded passengers watching them. Except for the sound of the train running, the interior was completely silent.
Fortunately, that pitiful silence didn't last more than a short while. However, it was followed by an even more painful atmosphere as everyone whispered. Maria shouted, cried, kicked and stomped her feet as usual, paying no heed to the people sitting around her. Impulsively, Rosa tried to slap her again, but she noticed the cold eyes of the people in the train, and couldn't do that anymore.
When the train stopped, Rosa forcibly pulled Maria's arm and got off, almost dragging her daughter along.
Rosa took her to the end of the platform and hit her cheek again. At the moment she was hit, Maria stopped crying for an instant, but before long, she shouted and cried even more then before. Rosa, whose emotions had exploded, grabbed the nape of Maria's neck and dragged her, tugging at her hair.
"That's why I'm telling you to shut up!! That uu-uu- of yours! I'm telling you to stop that!! That's the reason you can't make friends in class, right?! Get a hold of yourself!! Why are you always a kindergartner inside your head?!! Why can't you obey what Mama says?!! Why!! Why!!!"
Along with those severe words, Rosa hit Maria's cheek over and over again. The more Maria cried and shouted, the more Rosa hit her. And the more Maria was hit, the more intensely she cried and shouted...
"Mama, it hurts...! Mama, it hurts...! Mama, save me, Mama, save me...! Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"
"Why can't you stop that uu-uu-!! It's because you're like this that you can't make friends!! It's because you are like this that Papa's business trip doesn't end!! It's because you are like this that I...!!"
"Is there something, that you want...?!"
The one who timidly called to her was the station attendant. Rosa glared at him with a look that said 'don't cut into the problems of a mother and a child, stranger'. The station attendant surely hadn't wanted to talk to her. However, Rosa had been yelling on the platform for a much longer time than she had imagined. Her emotional scolding had caused the passengers on the platform to advise the station attendant that it would be a good idea to call out to her.
Rosa yelled at the station attendant not to worry anymore, since they would get on the next train. And then, finally, or maybe we should say, for the second time... she noticed the passengers on the platform staring at her from the distance.
...Rosa sweat slightly and felt the wind torturing her, making her sweat cold.
...I've... done it again..."
As Rosa recovered from the evil heat inside her head, ...she knew she had surrendered her soul to something bad again.
"Mama, Mama! Mama, come back...! Uu-! Uu-uu-uu-uu-!!"
Rosa fell to her knees and hugged Maria, whose face was all soggy with tears and mucus.
"...Maria..., I'm sorry..., I'm sorry..."
Finally, Maria realized that her mother had turned back to being her mother. Then, she clung to her mother's body and cried, burying her face on her mother's chest.
"...Forgive your bad Mama... Forgive your bad Mama... I'm really... sorry...! Please, don't hate your Mama..."
"Uu-... Maria is perfectly fine... Won't hate Mama. Mama was only being possessed by an evil witch again... But, Mama came back, so just fine."
"Yeah... yeah... Mama was just... being possessed by an evil witch again... I'm sorry... I'm really sorry..."
The two of them hugged each other, asking for forgiveness and sending words of forgiveness at each other, for a long time.
After a while, the two of them gradually calmed down and separated their faces from one another. Maria's face, Rosa's face, both were deep red after crying their eyes out.
"...Do you want to have a Halloween festival, Maria?"
"Yeah. I wanted to show the pumpkin marshmallow to George onii-chan and Jessica onee-chan..."
It was a fancy sweet that had a big orange marshmallow in the shape of a jack o'lantern attached to the tip of a stick. Maria had wanted that and had insistently pestered for it. Rosa had said that there was no way she would buy such a sweet right after they'd had breakfast, and had rejected it.
"...Then, Maria. I don't know if they sell it in this town or not, but let's get off and try searching for it, okay?"
"u, ...yeah! Love you so much Mama, love you... Thank you..."
"I love you too, Maria..."
The truth was that they had no time to waste loitering around at a stopover station. If they missed the airplane, they would fall half a day behind schedule. She should have left home with more time to spare, but she had ended up leaving late after choosing Maria's clothes. Because of that, Rosa had been a bit impatient since the morning.
She looked at the clock. They had to get on the next train immediately. But, her daughter firmly joined hands with her to go buy the sweet with her mother, and that hand was warm. To Rosa as she was now, it was more important to regrow her bonds with Maria. To her, Maria was not only a beloved daughter, ...she was everything Rosa had.
Besides, Rosa also couldn't show up with a face swelled from crying. She must fix her make-up.
"Maybe we won't find a marshmallow exactly like that one, but it's alright if there's a similar sweet, right? With that, let's surprise all your cousins together."
"Yeah. If it's a sweet I bought together with Mama, anything is fine."
The two left the turnstiles of the station in this unknown town. Maria walked across the pedestrian crossing together with her mother, chuckling to herself, as though she was walking in an amusement park. Both faces were still deep red, but the two of them, mother and child, smiled at each other without any restraint, looking warm...
"Oh, it's you. It's nothing. It's just that this was a pleasant place to think."
"...I'm finishing all of today's preparations. For now, shall we relax and wait while drinking tea?"
"...Sorry. I'm always pushing all my problems on you."
"...Please. Can't you rely on me more? I am your wife."
"...Naturally, I'm grateful for you always coming to my aid. For that very reason, I am able to devote myself to my work."
"I understand. About your work. And the topic of Father's inheritance, right?"
"That has nothing to do with you. It's nothing more than fishing for rotten meat amongst greedy siblings."
"...It's alright, dear. Everything will work out. Your work never goes badly."
Natsuhi softly cuddled close to Krauss's shoulder.
...Krauss's project was something like a seesaw where a large amount of money swings. A big investment is linked to large collateral, but with a large-sized seesaw, the swaying is greatly slowed, and it's not something which shows immediate results. At times, you make more investments so that the seesaw inclines faster towards the good side. Naturally, you do that because you have confidence that, in a not so distant future, you'd be able to recover all the investments made.
However, the seesaws Krauss chose never turned out as he would have liked them to. His foresight wasn't wrong, but times were slow. They would never catch up with him.
Due to its great popularity, there's always someone playing on it, and even if you wanted to play, you had to wait a long time for your turn. And then, if you found that seesaw vacant on a certain day and were the first one to arrive, you would straddle it and have it all to yourself. However, if nobody got on the opposite side of the seesaw, you couldn't play on it. And no matter how much time passed, nobody would come to the opposite side of the seesaw.
The seesaw is a popular piece of playground equipment so, if you waited, a companion would surely show up. Krauss was aware of that. The weather looked like it was getting worse. So, nobody would come outside to play. But the seesaw is a popular piece of playground equipment so, surely someone will come. If he vacated his place because the weather seemed to be getting worse, certainly someone would snatch his place away, and he would end up only longingly gazing at someone having fun playing on the seasaw from a distance again...
"...If only I had a bit more courage, and the self-confidence to believe in my own foresight... I'd never... have failed."
"...Yes, that's true. Your foresight is never wrong. You are the only one who inherited Father's quick wits. You inherited an innate disposition that none of the other siblings did."
"...Even so, I cannot believe that! I always closed my own projects like a coward. Why can't I believe in myself?! Who would believe in a man who can't believe in himself? Nobody!!"
"...I'm always sitting on the seat where the losers must sit... my father, my mother, and my siblings, all of them sneer at me... How long is it going to take for me to be set free of this complex... How long..."
...Only Natsuhi knew. She knew of Krauss's anguish. As the eldest son of the Ushiromiya family, who had been forced to shoulder a big responsibility from now on, he couldn't open his pained heart to anyone, and was always compared to his father's great enterprises...
"...I'll finish all the preparations, so you can devote yourself to the family conference. I'll handle all of them."
"...Sorry. Will there be any problems... with Father?"
"No. Genji and Doctor Nanjo are on our side. I'll never allow those greedy siblings to meet Father."
BGM: Towering Cloud in Summer
In the kitchen, multicolored ingredients were gathered and the preliminary arrangements were promptly being started. Even though it was still morning, the ingredients for dinner were already in saucepans and steaming. Normally, he had to deal with several assorted matters other than cooking, but on the day of the family conference, he could devote himself entirely to cooking. To Gohda, who was originally a chef, this was surely the greatest gala occasion of the whole year.
"Yes, dinner will be an excellent calf steak...! A wonderful cut of meat is already anxiously waiting for tonight in the refrigerator. Please, be sure to look forward to the meal tonight."
It was rare for Gohda to be in this good of a mood towards his fellow servants. To Gohda, who bragged about being a chef attached to the Ushiromiya family, being qualified to announce the cooking at the family conference was his greatest honor.
"...Understood. I will leave everything to you... Also, is Kumasawa there?"
"Kumasawa-san? I happened to see her earlier, but she is not here. I wonder if she went to make preparations at the guesthouse."
"...So she is loafing around again. No, it is fine. Then, I am counting on you from now on."
"Yes, leave everything to me, Gohda...!"
Genji sighed once again, thinking of Kumasawa, who was probably hiding again even though things were this busy, and the ostentatious Gohda, who only felt like doing anything on a day when he could show off.
"...We received instructions from Milady to make preparations for four people so that the children can stay there, but what shall we do?"
"...I hear this year, Battler-sama is coming for the first time in six years. I guess Milady wants the four cousins to stay up until late in the night. Make the preparations. You do not need to tell Madam."
"I see. Certainly."
"...So tonight, we'll have the late night shift, followed immediately by the morning shift. It looks like these two days will be tiresome."
"Speaking of that, the weather forecast is saying a typhoon will strike right over here... Is that alright?"
"...As long as the typhoon doesn't go too far astray from its course, and depending on the situation, I believe it will affect the boat trip back for everyone in the family. Maybe the family conference's schedule will be prolonged until around Monday or Tuesday. It will probably be a long journey, but I earnestly ask of you all to not make any blunders."
"...Shannon, do not be in a hurry, calm yourself. Kanon, be sure to greet them with courtesy."
"...Y, yes. I'll be careful."
"...I'll be careful."
"Today is a day that an important guest will be coming. See that you do not make any blunders."
"...We understand. Any guest who visits here is important."
"...Shannon, what's wrong? It seems you have been uneasy about something. Do you have some prior engagement at this time?"
"Huh? N, no, it's nothing. My apologies..."
"Nee-san. An important guest will be arriving today. Detach yourself from your private life."
"I don't... I don't know what you mean by private life..."
As Shannon blushed just a bit, she turned her gaze away from the clock. Was it about time for the airplane carrying the family to arrive at Niijima?
BGM: Doorway of Summer
Inside a bathroom stall, George was practicing something over and over, taking out a small velvet box hidden in his pocket like a quick-draw desert gunman.
"That's not it... Shannon likes a man with traction. I, it must have a more powerful feel to it...!"
"Shannon, put this on your ring finger. Th, that's an order, okay...? Aah, if I don't say properly that it's on the left hand, maybe she'll put on the right hand! N-, no, Shannon isn't that ignorant, aaah but, if there's no free will, that'd be a little, I mean, uuuuuu, nnnnuuuuuuu, muuuuuuuaaaaaaaaahhhh...!!"
As he crossed his arms, nodding, someone knocked on the door. George was suddenly brought back to reality.
"Ah, ahahahaha, uncle Rudolf...! It's alright, I'm fine! No need to worry, ahahahahahaha...!"
"Really...? That's good then. But you know, you're straining yourself way too much. Your ass'll burst."
Rudolf washed his hands, laughing cheerfully, and left. George knew that the most embarrassing part hasn't been overheard, and he patted his chest, feeling relieved...
"Kyrie, isn't Rosa here yet?"
"Since it seems the weather is changing, it'll be fine. If the schedule had gone on normally, she would've missed the plane. What would she have done then?"
"...Rosa-san is an adult now. She'd manage it somehow. No matter how old they get, older brothers always treat their younger sisters like children."
"What'd you say? If I'm a child, you're a baby, aren't you? Come on, Battler-chan, up up~!"
"Stop it, that tickles, wahahaha, stooop!"
"You look more like two bratty friends than a father and son... Look, she's here."
"Ohoooooooooh!! If it isn't Rosa-san! Maria, long time no see!!"
"Long time no see-! Uu-!"
"Uu-. It's... good to see you again..."
"There you go! Well said! I'll give you some as a reward! ...huh? Where'd I put 'em..."
"Rosa-san, it's good to see you again. It's good to see you too, Maria-chan."
"We have been out of touch, haven't we Kyrie nee-san, Hideyoshi nii-san. And... my, Battler-kun?! You're so big now...!"
"No wa~y, hah-hah-haah... It's embarrassing having to hear that every time I meet someone today...!"
"Hey, Rosa. You're late. If the airplane was on schedule, you'd barely have made it in time, right...?"
"I'm sorry. The train connection didn't go well. What, are we waiting on the weather again?"
"Don't complain, don't complain. If our only other option is to be shaken for six hours going by boat, it's much better to spend a mere 20 minutes going by airplane. Even if we were made to wait for one hour more, it'd be much faster."
"Is that Maria...? You sure have gotten big... She's at that growing age..."
"You last met her six years ago, right? A lot has changed. Women are animals that are born again in only one day when they have a change of heart."
"Hey, Battler, greet her. The last time you met her was when she was three years old, so this is just like a first meeting."
"She wouldn't remember if she was 3! Hey Maria, long time no see. You sure have gotten big!"
"Maria. This is Battler onii-chan. Uncle Rudolf's son. ...Understand?"
"...Uncle's son is... Uncle's the son..."
She was obviously being cautious. After all, it would be no surprise if she found it frightening for a large guy like Battler to suddenly start speaking frankly to her. Battler noticed that as well, and thought of various ways he might approach her. Then, he noticed the sweet she had in her hand. It was the jack o'lantern sweet that Rosa had bought for her.
"I see, it's October, so that must be for Halloween. Ihihihi, trick or treeeat!"
If you try to snatch a sweet away from a small child, normally, you'd expect them to cry and start a fuss. The adults thought that method wasn't good, but surprisingly, Maria looked pleased, her face splitting into a wide grin.
"Halloween, Halloween!! Look, Mama, Battler also knows about Halloween, look, look!!"
"Hey, call him Battler onii-chan! Sorry, Battler-kun."
"No, no, don't sweat it. Please call me Battler. Because I'll also call you Maria. Look, Maria, it's Halloween! Trick or treeeeat!!"
"Trick or treeeat~!! Kyahahaha, Kyakkya!!"
It seemed that Battler accepting it was enough to confirm their friendship. The adults were amazed at how the children had established communication with each other. To Maria, who had been complaining that she wanted to have a Halloween festival, it must have felt like Battler was a friend, since he knew about trick or treat. Her defensive posture from before was completely gone. Now, she was all merry, as though they been friends for decades.
"That's right, in Japan, Halloween is a minor event. You oftenly see people marching in costume parades on the news from overseas, but I've never seen it in Japan."
"Maria wanted to wear a costume too. Wanted to say 'If you don't give me sweets, I'll play a prank' with all the cousins wearing costumes..."
"I see, I see. Next time, let's do it together! What costume Maria would like to march with?"