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“So come on, it’s just us guys here.” Imai-san was shouting in my ear, trying to make himself heard over the rowdy celebrating that was going on around us. Not everyone looked so happy, the adult players from the ‘pro’ team looking a bit melancholy, but certainly us from the ‘town’ team were partying hard.

“What is it?” I shouted back, taking a swig from the decent cup of sake Higuchi-san had pushed into my hand as the last one was emptied.

“So which one will you be going out with, Shaeula-chan or Mori-chan?” he continued, causing me to nearly spit out the sake I was drinking. As I looked at him incredulously, he continued. “It has to be one of them, right? Before today I was sure you’d get together with Mori-chan in the end, after all, she always used to follow you and your sister around like a little puppy. Still, that Shaeula-chan… got to love foreign girls, am I right?”

“Seriously, yeah man.” Another of our team draped his arm over my shoulder, his face red from the booze, his breath reeking. “My little bro is in your year, he was always moaning you had that little cutie interested in you. I told the little brat to get a life and find his own girl, but you know…”

Ugh, this is hell. Why do I have to be embarrassed like this. I thought I was supposed to be the MVP, show me a little consideration… sighing I downed the rest of my sake, feeling a little buzzed. No sooner had I done so than Higuchi-san was at my side, refilling it from a rather expensive-looking bottle.

“Put a smile on your face, champ.” He laughed at me. “The man of the hour shouldn’t look so glum…”

“I would, if everyone would stop ribbing me about my love life, or lack thereof.” I took another mouthful. Damn, it’s harder to get drunk with my great stats. This sucks…

“Take it as a sign of affection.” Higuchi-san continued, making sure everyone had plenty to drink. “We aren’t big city folk like you, Oshiro-san. We don’t have much to talk about here other than sporting rivalries and who is dating who. Besides…” he paused meaningfully. “… it isn’t like it is unusual to get hitched to a childhood friend here out in the boonies. I met my wife the same way.”

“Me too!” Imai-san declared drunkenly. “Well, she was a junior at school, which is almost the same. She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”

“Yeah man, we know. You tell us that every time you get drunk.” Another man teased him.

“True, but… isn’t it a bit hard, seeing them as anything but a sister?” I asked.

“It’s the age gap right?” Imai-san asked. “I guess being so much older, you naturally end up in the older brother role. But, the gap is… what, five or six years, right?”

I nodded, and he continued. “That may sound a lot, but it is pretty normal. Women mature faster than men, right? My darling tells me that all the time. So a girl of high school age… well she’d have no problem dating a university kid. Happens all the time in the big city. And by the time she’s graduated high school… well the gap won’t mean a thing then…”

Yeah, I get that. Someone of 24 dating an 18 year old doesn’t seem particularly strange, to say nothing of 20 and 26, or 30 and 36… It’s just…

Before I could finish me thought one of the ‘pro’ team came over. He was a few years’ younger than me, and had recently graduated high school. “I couldn’t help but overhear that big mouth shouting.” He gave Imai-san a side-eye, only for Imai-san to make a rude gesture back. As everyone burst out with drunken laughter I waited for him to go on. “My younger sister is the year below your sister and Mori-san. She says it’s common knowledge amongst the girls that Mori-san doesn’t see any other guy than you. The girls all laugh at the boys who think they have a chance with her. And I still remember my parents talking about the dog incident. As a kid, I thought it was something like a hero would do… though of course I wouldn’t have got injured like an idiot…”

“That’s right.” Imai-san agreed. “My darling told me even one little thing can win a girl over, and that was hardly a little thing… your fate is sealed, tough guy. Just accept it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the festival she goes for it… the only problem is Shaeula-chan…”

The conversation continued as the drinks flowed, and I was forced to field many questions about my intentions. It was annoying and embarrassing as all hell, but it did help focus my mind. What would I do if Eri-chan was to confess to me? I really do care for her, but is that the same as wanting to date her? She… is really pretty, and any guy would love to have such a beautiful girlfriend… but getting over the fact I see her as a sister is really tough…

As I wrestled with this, talk turned to my fitness regime, this time most of the ‘pro’ team surrounding me. I managed to persuade them that I had been working out for pretty much a year, rather than the one month of reality, honing my fitness with weights and jogging, while boosting my skills and agility with combat sports.

Higuchi-san kept the drinks flowing, trying to extort out a promise for me to take part next year, while several of the ‘pro’ team insisted I should be transferred to them, and for a while we made merry, hearty arguments and good-natured mockery flying between us. The hour was getting late when the door opened, and in walked a woman I did not recognise, though there was a hint of familiarity about her.

Unusual for a woman to come to Higuchi-san’s bar after the baseball. Any women who want to drink usually use the smaller bars, as the atmosphere here can get a little… intense.

Ignoring Higuchi-san who walked over to ask her if she wanted a drink her gaze roamed around the room until it settled on me. I’m getting a bad feeling here…

My intuition was dead on, as she walked over to me, putting one hand down on the table, adopting a very determined pose. “Oshiro-san, I presume? I am Takeyabashi Junko. We need to talk. Now.”

Ugh. I am not in the mood for this, I have enough to think about right now. Several of the guys, Imai-san included, were drunkenly making fun of me, saying I was a lady-killer, but at a glare from the stern face of Takeyabashi-san, they fell silent.

“You can use the back room. Would you like a drink while you are there?” Higuchi-san asked.

“I’ll take some sake. Decent. He will pay.” She glowered at me. Higuchi-san shrugged, and chuckling under his breath handed me the rest of the sake bottle he was carrying and another cup. With that she followed me into the back, shutting the door to keep out the sounds of revelry from the bar.

Filling up both cups I slid one gently across to her, but she made no indication to drink.

“So, ah, what do I owe the pleasure of…” I began carefully.

“I need you to stop this nonsense of taking my Marika to Tokyo. My senile old fool of a grandfather has lost his mind.” She cut in angrily.

Ouch. God, I’m no good with older women. Still, I can see the resemblance between her and Marika. She is a pretty good looking woman still…. No time for that though. If I am not careful here I’ll be in for a world of trouble.

“Uh, I’m afraid I’m just a mediator the shrine has asked to look after her during the move, since I know this town and the Tokyo shrine well. It really isn’t…”

“Marika is way too young to go to the big city alone, and changing schools will only damage her education. All this for stupid shrine business. If I had known about this, I would have moved away with my family long ago…”

Not planning to let me finish a sentence eh? Taking a sip to calm myself I looked at her. “I can see why you would be concerned, I get it, I really do. I myself was surprised to find out Japanese shrines maintain such close relationships. But I have no doubt Marika-san will be well looked…”

“And why are you on a first name basis with my Marika?” she cut in coldly.

Ugh, again? Smiling, I felt the build-up of aether within me. Drawing on all the charm and presence I possessed, I smiled. “Since I am helping with the move I will be making sure Marika-san has no inconveniences in either her living arrangements or schooling. If she does she can come to me and I’ll get them sorted. I’ll also be more than happy to keep you informed as well. This is a great opportunity for her, I’ve been told. She might even be able to run a prosperous city shrine when she is older…”

Takeyabashi-san looked down, reddening. She took a long drink from her sake cup, before looking up at me again, face still red.

“Well… that… I guess that makes sense. But I still worry she is too young… and being a shrine maiden is hardly a stable job, or even important in the modern world…”

Seriously? Did I go overboard? “It isn’t like she is moving away forever. She’ll be visiting often, and you can even come out to Tokyo to see her, though the shrine she will be staying at is on the outskirts, so I have to admit it isn’t that impressive… besides, I’ve met some of the other shrine maidens she’ll be studying with, and they all seem nice girls.”

“Even so, this all seems very strange to me…”

She isn’t wrong. A month ago I wouldn’t believe this either… I spent the next hour reassuring Takeyabashi-san, finishing off the sake. She was somewhat tipsy by the end, so I ended up having to call her husband to come walk her home. That was an experience I didn’t want to repeat, for sure. After agreeing to talk to her again with her daughter tomorrow when I visited the shrine for the festival, I saw her off.

Cheers and jeers from the drunk patrons chased me back inside, and I spent the rest of a rowdy night getting laughed at unmercifully…. Still, at least the drinks were decent…

 

********

 

Knocking quietly on the door to my sisters’ room I whispered “Shaeula, are you awake?”

The door slid open and Shaeula was there, looking sleepy-eyed and adorable in the yukata she used for her pyjamas. Seeing me her nose wrinkled. “You smell-smell terrible.” She muttered. Closing the door behind her she followed me back to my room. “Just how much did you drink tonight?”

I’m pretty buzzed, even with my tolerance. So too much, I’d say… “Oh, plenty. It was quite the rowdy get-together. So how was your evening? Did you have fun with my sister and the girls?”

“Indeed I did-did. I saw your school, and Aiko showed me where she practices her archery. She has beautiful form indeed-indeed. And then…”

After a while of such pleasant small-talk, which made me relax after the trials of my night at the bar, we entered the Boundary. Shaeula said she was tired, and I was too, so we agreed to only dive in for a few hours, since tomorrow was the big festival. We spent most of our time exploring, hunting down the foes we came across who were not in alliance with Chairoakitara shrine. In addition we found several Etherites, and while it was regretful not collecting their ether, we used them to practice our skills…

In the end it was a reasonably productive few hours, and I had levelled up once more before we called it a night…

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