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What was I doing again?
There’s no need to hesitate. I need to find the Assistant.
I feel like he’d been close until a moment ago, but that was surely nothing but an illusion.
And the time, it’s already-
The watch isn’t on my wrist anymore.
I’ve lost it.
I don’t know how I lost it… Did I break it, or was it stolen? It feels like either may have happened.
Striding over the cobblestone road, I walk alongside a stone wall with my fingers against its rough surface.
The Assistant… What kind of person is he?
There’s still a niggling feeling of unease. Still, I want to bring this flickering perception to its conclusion as soon as possible. It’s an almost physiological desire.
His face is chiseled- wait, no, a baby face.
A calm atmosphere. With a clear intelligence and the atmosphere of a wise man at a young age.
A gentlemanly, elegant, considerate, and reserved demeanor that runs contrary to the usual roughness of his sex.
And Hawaiian shirts suit him quite well-
That clothing choice feels too random.
“A Ten-gallon hat? And a gun belt?”
Several mischievous hints come to mind as I continue thinking about the Assistant. In fact, the images are so intense, the textures and designs so vivid, that there isn’t any chance this is just from a dream.
A Hawaiian shirt?
A Ten-gallon hat?
A gun belt?
I shake my head. The image is so vivid, but it somehow feels like a lie.
First of all, he isn’t really my type…
He wasn’t as bad as I’d made him out to be?
I dig my hands into the wall to keep my body from falling to the ground. If I didn’t, my knees would’ve given out.
An indescribable, burning embarrassment fills my face.
“Ugh, what… is this…?”
I’ll just assume that I’ve been worrying too much about the Assistant and fantasizing about him too much.
Today is a strange day.
The village, the road, the forest, myself, just everything… It’s all as it should be.
Causality is like a stream, and even if you can defy it to a certain extent, you will inexorably be strongly pushed into certain routes by the current. I’m sure of it.
Which is why I’m not surprised that I’ve wandered into the furnace woods while lost in my thoughts.
But as soon as I enter the forest, I receive an incredible shock. Because something terrible has happened.
There are so many.
There are just so, so many people! (Half crying)
I still don’t know how this whole thing works, but it seems “we” can only exist like this within the furnace woods.
That being the case, I can sense it.
This forest is a special place.
I was prepared to run into about five or six girls this time.
Never did I ever think there’d be dozens upon dozens of us, all in one place.
When those dozens of women catch sight of me, they all glance at my wrist, then call out to me all at once with only the corners of their mouths curled up into smiles.
“Oh, good day.” “Welcome.” “How long have you been here?” “It’s gotten lively again.” “What sorts of sweets are you good at? Oh, I wonder if we’re all the same that way.” “When did you start?”
After all the shocking stuff I’ve been through, I’m given this treatment.
This whole affair makes even my stalwart self want to throw it all to the side and go laughing off into the distance.
I believe that, here, every past non-time-period is not a time, but rather a place.
And a terribly irresponsibly, unforgivably lax domain at that.
The things that happen here are supposed to belong to the past, but yet they faintly remain here, only to be overwritten by the future. Due to its dream-like nature, hardly any of this place stays in my memory. No matter what happens, there will be no paradoxes.
The fact that there are a hundred women here who seem to really resemble me is proof enough that everything is fine. Either way, since I can only vaguely sense that they resemble me, there’s no chance of anything going wrong.
Even the number of people here is a mystery.
I wouldn’t know if fifty or even a hundred people are here.
Even if I were to count them, I’d probably just lose track and have to start over.
That is the one governing rule here.
Thankfully, I don’t see any of myself aged over sixty here, so I can at least comfort myself that this aberration will soon be resolved.
……… But it’s still tough.
“Well? What’s all this about?”
The prickling aroma of vanilla extract and cinnamon wafting through the air makes my head spin.
What if this is actually some kind of incense-fuelled ritual being conducted by some evil cult? I’d love to be rescued if that’s the case, but…
“It’s because there were so many of them,” “They gave me lots of ingredients!” “I had plenty of firepower for the stove,” “I wanted to try making something that would take a lot of time,” “I have customers waiting for me,” “I don’t think I’ll ever get another chance like this.”
Every single one of these awfully similar-looking women snaps to attention and starts making excuses. Their similar voices echo all around, making my already splitting head feel like it is being pulverized into a million pieces.
“But that doesn’t excuse you all making pastries during such a crisis, does it?”
The area around the furnace has now transformed into a pâtisserie from hell.
I don’t know who arranged all this, but a mountain of utensils, implements, and ingredients stands in a pile before me. Other than the furnace at the center, there are also ovens, steamers, hotplates, and iceboxes. These woods have been turned into some kind of outdoor kitchen range. And what’s more, there are even display cases for the finished sweets and table sets, both big and small, replete with matching tea sets.
Big and small?
“… What are these miniature tables and teacups for?”
On the corner of each human-sized table is a miniature open-air café setup. It reminds me of a particular caricature of a baby turtle on top of its parent’s shell.
“Ah, well, you see…”
“It’s our table-”
It needs no more explanation.
Countless fairies instantly clamber onto the tabletop.
“Is the shop not done yet?” “Hurry it up…” “I’m getting tired of the wait,” “I can’t stand vanilla essence,” “It’s pretty strong, innit,” “But doesn’t it smell good?”
Seeing such an unbelievable number of fairies rearing to eat sweets like this is quite a sight.
“So this is an opportunity… to play at creating one of the cafés of yore?”
As someone who enjoys making sweets, I naturally yearn to manage a café of my own.
With a shop I designed for myself, tables and chairs of my choice, stylish tablecloths and elegant teacups, and a plethora of beverages all vying for the customers’ attention, the tea would be, of course, a tasteful selection of herbal teas, fruit teas, Chinese, and Japanese ones too… Ahh, how my creativity flows…
Of course, this is just a fruitless dream of mine in this world…
“That sounds fun.”
Even if you’re dealing with fairies, play-running a café is a beautiful way to spend your afternoon.
“… I want to do something, too.”
“Here you go.”
I’m handed a set of utensils, including bowls, a rolling pin, a strainer, measuring spoons, and a spatula.
After the missing Assistant!
… That tension has long since dissipated, so I can smoothly switch gears.
“Wow, Ms. Human, you’ve grown (in number) again!” - What a flatterer.
“Is the future going to be filled with sweets?” - There is no future here, though.
“Is the forecast cloudy with a chance of pie-in-the-face?” - I can’t wait to see that.
“Will it be tasty? Will it be yummy? Will it be delicious?”
“Ahh, yes, yes… I’ll make whatever you want, okay?”
Since there are so many people here, and I’m a late entry, I’ll have to seize my victory with something different, a more unusual menu.
But I can’t allow any leaks; that would be too embarrassing. That wouldn’t be reading the mood.
“Let’s avoid the classics… What should I do?”
I try to sneak a sidelong glance at the others’ work, but these women boast no social skills, so they hide what they’re doing underhandedly as they work.
So this is how it looks as an outsider. I must be careful.
Tight information control should help keep my plans a secret.
“Ah, that should do.”
If you’ve got original and creative ideas and continue doing what suits you, you will naturally accomplish things nobody else can do.
Something only I can do…
I take a look around and spot one, two, three… Hmm, many bananas, precisely what I was looking for.
“No one’s using these… Hey you, fairy over there, I’ve got a question for you.”
I grab the fairy and string it up.
“Ahhhn, to be teased, to be bullied!”
“Don’t like it?”
“… I do?”
Kids often enjoy stuff like this with those dear to them, don’t they?
“I’m not bullying you. I’d just like to interrogate you a little. Do you like being interrogated?”
“I never thought I’d be put through this.”
“I didn’t expect that response…”
What strange creatures…
“It’s about these bananas. Can I use them? Do you like chocolate bananas?”
The fairy’s reaction is remarkable.
“…Ah, back then, if only I had a choco-banana…” the fairy trails off, depressed.
“You just lick the chocolate off first?”
“I’m not asking you how to eat them. Don’t go off on a tangent.”
I give the fairy a shake.
“I’ll make it simple. Bananas, please.”
“It’s okaaay, take ’em-”
“These bananas are normal, aren’t they? Because my weird fairy shenanigans meter is going “Beep-beep-beep” like crazy right now.”
“Boop-boop-boop” recieved. A transmission in response: “It’s safe.”
“The previous version was really yummy, but it had a bug that sent you real far away.”
“A bug, you say?”
“Or maybe there wasn’t.”
“Oh, there definitely was, then… How far away would it send me?”
The fairy slips out of my grasp.
It then proceeds to dive-bomb the table, bounce off, and slip away somewhere.
It would be a waste to leave the bananas untouched. Taking that fairy’s guarantee at face value is dangerous, but let’s accept this offer on its merits.
[A Banana Springroll Recipe]
- peel the bananas, remove the fibers, and mash them in a bowl.
- Mix in some cinnamon, granulated sugar, and crushed walnuts.
- Add in a dash of 𝓛𝓞𝓥𝓔 (★ Points)
- Wrap an appropriate amount in spring roll wrap.
- Fry in oil until crispy.
- And you’re done! (You can eat it hot, or let it cool; it’s delicious either way. Pour some chocolate sauce on it if you’d like)
“You can get a different texture if you just wrap the bananas as-is without mashing them.”
And so, it’s complete.
I think it came out quite well if I say so myself.
“Is that a banana pastry?”
A familiar-looking lady peers over at my workbench.
I cover my hands with my upper body.
“How narrow-minded of you…”
I let out a small groan as my earlier outburst is fired back at me with the same purity of intent.
“You’re acting like ’that one poor kid at school who’s brought a bread sandwich for lunch and is too embarrassed to let her classmates see it, so she eats it while hiding it away,’ you know?”
… Oh, shut up.
Meanwhile, more and more pastries are being baked one after the other, and the wafting aroma only increases in density.
Pancakes spew out of the ovens like hotcakes, and the tables are filled with pancakes and other pastries being decorated, cut up, sorted, and plated.
The faeries have turned into leaky drool faucets.
“C-Can I eat it? Is it okay? Rumors say it’s okay?”
“Eating food mid-recipe is strictly forbidden.”
Such conversations spring up all over the place.
“Uh-huh, that should do it.”
In this veritable sea of tables filled with various pastries, my line of spring rolls, specifically engineered to stand out, is very prominent - NOT.
“… It looks quite plain…”
I suppose cake and spring rolls don’t really go together, huh…
“Well then, let’s eat!”
As soon as someone says that, a cart carrying a dozen teapots trundles in.
“Squeee!” Ah!" Kwee!" Nguu!"
The fairies are so ecstatic that multiple cases of fainting, incontinence 1, and falling off the tables crop up. Talk about a bad start.
“Does everyone have their favorite tea at hand? You do? Then… let’s dig in.”
“Time to eat!”
The tea party has begun.
It is a foregone conclusion that the fairies would go berserk, so the sweets are arranged as a buffet.
The fairies don’t even bat an eye at the tea as they surge towards the assortment of cakes, cookies, pies, puddings, and sorbets.
“Hii!” “Aguu!” “Gyaanh!” “Ahii!”
They are supposed to be happy screams, but they sound more like screams of anguish.
There are a lot of fairies, but the sweets number even more. There’s no way all these sweets can last in storage, so they must be eaten immediately. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about leftovers, given the fairies’ ravenous appetites, however.
The human group is calmly enjoying tea with smaller, measured-out servings.
“Delicious. What was this again?”
“It’s a Japanese confectionery called mitarashi dango2.”
“This is the first time I’ve eaten it… I knew the recipe, though.”
“… You would, wouldn’t you.”
“Green tea shouldn’t be mixed with anything, if I’m not wrong.”
“This is tasty. It’d go well with coffee.”
“Would you like a cinnamon stick?”
“Thank you. I’d love one.”
“This sugar cube has small flowers on it. How cute.”
“Oh, this jam puts a different spin on the flavor…”
“Come to think of it, Grandfather usually drinks with sugar cubes on the side, and-”
Oh me, oh my, I can’t say I’m not at all excited by all this gossip.
But thoughts of the missing Assistant keep intruding, preventing me from joining the conversation. My ennui isn’t clearing up just by mulling over it, either.
On the other hand, the others are strangely composed. I wonder, does the matter of the Assistant not matter to them even in the slightest? Or is it just that they’ve already solved that problem for themselves?
As I silently sip my tea, I resolve to investigate one thing.
“By the way, everyone, I’m looking for someone.”
Everyone suddenly stops talking and looks at me.
And once more, they all look down at my wrist and nod as if acknowledging something only they know about.
“… You’re looking for the Assistant, aren’t you?”
What a shameless thing for you to say.
Well, let’s think it over together.
“Yes, that’s right. As I’m sure you know.”
The women look at each other and titter. Kuh… How frustrating.
“… Do you think we can find him?”
I hold back my irritation and ask the question.
“I’m sure you’ll find him soon.”
“You’re right. There’s no need to wait.”
“If you’ve gone somewhere far away and come back, that means it’s almost time.”
“Go give it one last try!”
“But don’t worry. A fun tea party awaits you once it’s all over.”
“Once it’s over, what you’re feeling down about wouldn’t matter anymore.”
“It’ll all end before you know it.”
“How nice it would be if you managed to find the Assistant.”
I don’t like how they say these things so confrontationally as if they’re teasing me. Maybe I should shut them all up with results.
Ah, I just thought of something.
“Everyone, what kind of person do you think the assistant is?”
The women exchange glances.
Oh, these people aren’t wearing wristwatches~
Is there anyone wearing a watch?
… There they are. One, two… three… There are only a few of them.
Those with wristwatches are sipping their tea in a daze as if they’re old women with no idea what they’re doing here.
Only those who don’t have wristwatches have any amount of vigor left in them.
“Conversely, I’d like to ask you something. What kind of person would you like him to be?”
“Me? No, I wouldn’t know… yet…”
“We wouldn’t be having this quiz right now if you knew, would we. Just talk about what you hope for, what you wish.”
What I hope for.
Resigned, I say, “… I won’t wish for anything extravagant, now that it’s come to this.”
Somebody asks, “How tall is he?”
“It doesn’t matter. But… I’m sure he’s short.”
“How’s his physique?” asks another.
“Delicate, I’d say. I wouldn’t mind a macho man, though.”
“And his personality?”
“I’d like for him to be gentle…” I start but then retract my statement. “I don’t care what sort of person he is, as long as he stays near. As long as he has an identity of his own, and he isn’t forgotten by anybody…”
“What does he wear?”
Something about this question, in particular, sticks in my mind.
“A Hawaiian shirt…?”
No, that isn’t right- I think. There’s a resistance to the idea.
I feel countless eyes on me. They aren’t teasing or mocking me. They’re calmly watching me.
One of the people next to me speaks on my behalf.
“We agree, you know.”
Another voice immediately joins in, this time with a light, bouncy laugh.
“But you can’t lie to your instincts, can you?” “Gentle,” “Calm,” “Obedient,” “Courteous,” “The smell of the sun filtering through the leaves,” “Wavy chestnut hair,” “A weirdly garish shirt,” “Stalwart,” “Reliable,” “And a bit bold, every once in a while?”
The women are all excited.
The only ones who can’t keep up are me and a few of the wristwatch crew.
“… Wh-What do you mean by bold?”
The rest is fine, but I’m extremely curious about this point.
Then, the representative offers me a plate of pastries with a quiet “Here you go.” “Th-thank you,” I reply as I take an appropriately sized piece and put it in my mouth.
After I swallow, I realize I just ate a banana spring roll.
“Your perspective is slightly wider than before.”
Her voice seems to mature more and more as she says this.
The outlines of the girls hidden by the filter of ambiguity suddenly became clearer.
“… Huh? No way…?”
Sitting next to me is an elegant-looking old woman. She is still holding the plate she’d offered me. But wasn’t she supposed to be my age?
The others are all different ages.
One is my age. One’s a little older. The other one over there is a lot older-
Most likely, many of the hundred people gathered here aren’t necessarily here from any “place” close.
I take in the sight of everyone smiling… as I fall.
“So cooking it didn’t do any good…”
I sourly watch the banana peel pass through my field of vision.