Chapter 4 - Confrontation
The stars were already dotting the dark-blue canopy of the autumn sky above. Aya flew back home, neither too fast, nor too slowly. The wind had picked up as she neared the village, making her torn and soaked clothes amplify the chill she felt. She couldn't even tell why, but she felt as if she knew that she'd be able to find Hatate easily. On any other day she'd have just rushed home, have a warm bath and a restful sleep, but she had long since crossed those two things from her "to do list" for today. Even though she was armed with all the information she needed to win her bet with Hatate, expose the falsehood spread by Kakashi Spirit News, and at the same time, publish another issue of Bunbunmaru after its long hiatus, she wanted to confront Hatate. Rival or not, she had the right to be given a chance to explain herself. Before long Aya spotted the glow of lanterns and torches among the rustling aralia treetops. Guided by these beacons, the tengu reporter soon found herself in her home village.
She ignored her body's discomfort, not even thinking about going home to dry herself up and change her clothes. Her flight course was plotted straight for the Himekaidou residence. After sundown this treetop mansion was even easier to find, as it was bathed in the light of myriad paper lanterns hanging all over its exterior. Even at nighttime, its owner still felt the need to show off.
"You better be home, Hatate…"
Aya landed on the main porch, hesitantly waiting as she was preparing retorts for her confrontation with Hatate. Then she took a deep breath and made three loud knocks on the door. It took a moment before she could hear some faint noises coming from the other side. Someone was coming.
"Who is it?" a female voice asked.
"Reimu Hakurei. I've come to exterminate you." Aya responded sarcastically, not even trying to imitate the miko's voice.
A moment of silence followed before the voice spoke again. "We're not interested."
Aya heaved a sigh of annoyance and re-introduced herself: "It's Shameimaru. I've just come to talk."
Another silent pause, but this time the door creaked open slightly. An unfamiliar face peeked out of the gap, sizing the visitor up with a stern gaze. She saw Aya – drenched from head to toe, dressed in torn-up dirty clothes and with her hair disheveled. It was no surprise that she'd misinterpret the situation.
"We don't give away handouts to the poor and homeless. Goodbye."
The girl was about to shut the door when Aya angrily shoved her geta's heel in the doorframe.
"I'm not a beggar! I'm Hatate's… acquaintance. I need to have a word with her."
The girl, who Aya assumed to be a servant blinked a few times. "Lady hasn't returned yet. Would you like to leave a message for her?"
Aya found her answer surprising and disappointing at the same time. She certainly wasn't planning to leave without Hatate's explanation.
"No, I need to speak with her personally."
"Then you'll either have to wait or try coming tomorrow."
"Tomorrow will already be too late. Can I wait for her inside?"
"Unless Lady Hatate invited you, which I wasn't informed of, I'm afraid I can't let you in."
Understandable, but frustrating nonetheless, the situation demanded a change in Aya's plan.
"Then I'll go find her. Do you know where she went?"
The servant girl shrugged. "All I know is that she's out doing fieldwork."
Aya stood there in silence for a good half a minute, considering her options and rubbing her chin. Despite her reluctance, she decided to act indifferent.
"Hmph… I don't really care. It's her problem… I do have a message for her after all."
"Tell her that I tried to be fair, but she brought it upon herself. She destroyed her career as a journalist. Tell her that if she wanted to write fiction so badly, she chose the wrong medium."
The servant tilted her head to the side, as if looking at something behind Aya's back and said: "I think you can tell her that yourself."
As the surprised reporter turned, she heard the unmistakable camera clicking sound and saw an amused-looking Hatate emerging from the shadows.
"What an unexpected visitor to come knocking on my door." she turned the display of her phone towards Aya to show her the freshly-taken photo. "This should make for an interesting article, wouldn't you agree? Maybe something like 'Shameimaru Aya – From a reporter to a vagrant'."
The same smug grin that Hatate was flashing as she said that was copied by Aya.
"Making up stories to gain publicity… that's so unsurprisingly like you, isn't it? I actually had some respect for your pamphlet when you stuck to being an armchair reporter, but ever since you took it into your head to imitate a more successful journalist, such as myself, the quality, but most importantly, the credibility of your articles has taken a nose dive. Had you observed my work more closely, you'd know that I only write the truth."
"Heh… What a cute reaction. You're accusing me of publishing lies?"
"There's no point in trying to deny it or playing dumb. Honestly… How long did you think your lie would go unexposed?"
Hatate's amused grin gradually mellowed down into a warmer friendly-looking smile. "I don't blame you that you think of me that way… But not all is as it seems."
"Kagiyama Shrine doesn't exist! I just got that confirmed by the goddess herself. How do you explain your article now, huh?"
Aya's raised voice slowly began to attract attention of passerby tengu, and before long, she and Hatate had a decent-sized crowd of spectators.
Aya didn't seem to care, but Hatate found their stares rather uncomfortable.
"I can tell you all about it… Just not here." Hatate threw a few quick glances around herself before she called out to her servant. "Hey, Meguru, don't just stand there! Go make some tea and prepare some clean clothes for our guest!"
"Understood." the girl at the doorstep pushed the door wide-open and disappeared back inside. Hatate wasted no time and flew past the confused-looking Aya and with repeated "come hither" gestures, she ushered her guest in.
"What's the matter? Come on inside."
"…are you serious?" Aya never expected to be invited by her rival, and her face reflected that with a wide-eyed stare and parted lips."
"I won't tell you anything unless you accept my hospitality." Hatate smiled wryly from the doorstep.
"You do realize that I'm the one who has you in a tight spot, right? I should be the one making the bargaining conditions. Although… an opportunity to see your house from inside does sound tempting."
"I'm merely extending a kind gesture. So, Aya… What will it be?"
Aya hesitated for a moment, but her desire to find out Hatate's motive was too strong to resist.
"Wonderful." Hatate muttered half-heartedly as she was already getting bored and tired of holding the door. "Now hurry up inside! All these tengu staring at me are making me anxious."
Aya obliged. She removed her geta and entered the Himekaidou residence. A strange feeling of excitement mixed with suspicion washed over her. Almost like when she entered that cave behind the waterfall.
"You're not being this hospitable just to avoid being exposed in my newspaper, are you? Because that won't work."
"What you decide to do at the end of our interview is entirely up to you." Hatate replied as she closed the door. "Follow me, please."
Only now Aya took the chance to examine and appreciate the house's interior. Just as its exterior suggested, the inside of Himekaidou mansion was no less impressive. Polished wood floor, exquisite carved furniture… Every corner adorned with some work of art. Different in style from the Scarlet Devil Mansion or Eientei, but equally extravagant.
"So… this is what your place looks like from the inside…" Aya followed Hatate through the corridor, her eyes soaking in every square inch along the way.
"I'd give you a tour, but since it's a bit late and since I share this house with my whole family, you'll have to make do with seeing only my living quarters for now."
"That's like… a house within a house?"
"Just a few rooms, really." Hatate clarified when she suddenly stopped and looked more closely at her guest and the trail of wet footprints she left behind. "Oh… you're all wet. You must be freezing. I don't know what you've been doing, but you look like you could use a hot bath."
"I… I just came to ask you about your bogus article. I'll have a bath at home afterwards, thanks."
"Well I can't let you walking around my house leaving puddles behind. Besides, you'll feel much better after a bath."
"Then how about I…"
"No bath, no interview." Hatate cut Aya's protest short with a frown and crossed arms.
It was almost funny that in spite of having the situational upper hand over her rival, it was as if the tables have completely turned on Aya as soon as she set foot in the manor.
"…Which way to the bathroom?" Aya resignedly asked her host.
The warm smile had instantaneously returned to Hatate's lips. "Right this way."
After a couple dozen steps and a few turns, they stopped in front of one particular door. The resident tengu slid it open and walked into the dark room.
"Hold on while I light a few lanterns."
A moment later the room became illuminated in a gentle light and Aya could admire its content… and envy the owner.
"Not only was the bathroom spacious and elegant it was also equipped with the latest pieces of kappan technology, the purpose of which Aya could only guess.
"Kappa-matic 3000? What's that?" she pointed at the strange cylindrical metal object standing in the corner.
"Oh… that's for washing the laundry. Anyway… here's your towel. The only machine you need to concern yourself with is this one. This dial regulates the water temperature. You can use any soap, oil and shampoo you like. Meguru will bring you some clothes to get changed into. When you're done, come to my room. It's the door just across. I'll be waiting."
"Thanks, I guess…" Aya bashfully muttered. "But whose clothes am I going to wear?"
"Why mine, of course." she said it so casually and with a smile too. A perfect contrast to Aya's wide-eyed stare and blush of embarrassment.
"A-are you sure about that?"
"Of course. Or figures are similar, so my clothes should fit you no problem. You may even choose what you'd like."
"You're saying that as if I knew the contents of your wardrobe."
"Don't worry. I'll pick something nice for you. Now enjoy your bath~!"
Before Aya could express any objections or ask any questions, Hatate closed the bathroom door, leaving her in privacy.
Aya kept staring hesitantly at the empty ofuro, which she now had all to herself. She didn't know how to feel about this whole situation. From the moment she took off from Hina's cavern she was mentally preparing herself for any possible scenario that her confrontation with Hatate could entail. This wasn't one of them. She was expecting a heated argument or Hatate's denial; even a good old danmaku fight. Never would she guess that fate had something completely different in store for her. Her heart was beating faster than usual, yet she was experiencing an odd sensation of calmness. Even though a bath was supposed to be a relaxing experience, she couldn't keep her impatient wondering mind at ease. She wanted answers. As soon as possible.
"No sense delaying it, is there?" she muttered to herself as her fingers began to unbutton her blouse. One by one, she removed every piece of her uncomfortably wet and chilling garments and stepped inside the spacious bath that resembled a small swimming pool. With one simple pull of a lever, warm water began to fill the bath from several faucets. Despite the ofuro's size, the water level was rising surprisingly fast. In just a couple of minutes, Aya was sitting waist-deep in the sublime comfort of warm water. She purposefully seated herself directly underneath one of the faucets so that the hot current would massage her neck and upper back.
"Ah~… I needed that." she sighed blissfully with her eyes closed.
Her head suddenly jolted awake after she had nodded off in the comfortable bath after a tiring day.
"Ah, not good… I'm falling asleep here…" she mumbled and quickly pushed the lever to stop the warm water from filling the bath. "Your dirty tactics won't help you, Hatate…. Huh?"
Once the steam has cleared, Aya noticed a neatly folded pile of clothes lying next to the ofuro. She hadn't even noticed who and when brought them into the bathroom, but they were there and her wet and torn clothes were taken away. From the brief glance she took at the clothes, there didn't seem to be anything more than underwear and a purple-white yukata. Curios, Aya slowly crawled her way to the edge of the bath and took a piece of those garments in her hand.
"These are Hatates…? Aya stared at the undergarments in awe and hesitation. Elegant, frilled, and quite revealing would seem like apt words to describe them. "Am I really supposed to wear these?"
Seeing as her own clothes were taken hostage to some unknown location, the black-haired journalist didn't really have much choice. She washed herself properly, heeding Hatate's advice to use any of her luxurious soaps and proceeded to dry herself up.
"Now for the moment of truth." Aya declared as she was about to don the clean underwear.
"Hmm… They actually fit." It would seem that Hatate's assumption about the similarity of their body sizes was not a mistake. She glanced at her half-naked self in the mirror from several different angles before she proceeded to put on the rest of the clothes on. Even the bra didn't feel any way uncomfortable and Aya did take a liking to its design. But now was not the time to get distracted by sexy underwear. She had an interview to do and answers to get.
She put on the rest of the clothes on and finally, the yukata before she opened the bathroom's door.
"She said her room was right opposite the bathroom, didn't she?" Aya thought to herself as she hesitantly slid the mentioned door ajar just to take a peek.
There was a medium-sized room dimly illuminated by lanterns with a round table surrounded by a few chairs, a bunch of wardrobes a mirror and a decent-sized bed. And on that bed, with her back turned at the doorway was a sole feminine silhouette with twintails.
"Hatate?" Aya bashfully spoke up to her.
"Ah, nice and clean are we? Come on in." Hatate's voice invited her and its originator slowly turned her face at the guest. Apparently, Hatate had taken a bath as well in the meantime and changed into a silky-smooth black and purple yukata.
"I just got out of the bath myself."
"How many bathrooms do you have here?" Aya asked curiously.
"One on each floor."
"Wow. Talk about excess…"
"You do realize that three generations of Himekaidou family live here under one roof, right? With that many family members, those three bathrooms are a necessity. Heck, sometimes even insufficient." Hatate explained and beckoned Aya to step up to the table. "Close the door and make yourself at home."
Aya did as she was told and seated herself at the table. Meanwhile, her host finished adjusting her yukata and got off the bed. Only now Aya noticed that Hatate's yukata was rather on the short side, not even reaching down to her knees. A pair of thigh-high socks served to cover her lower body, only leaving a small gap of bare skin visible between them and the yukata's bottom. Aya found herself staring absent-mindedly at her host's robe as she walked up to her dresser and picked up a couple of items.
"Hey, those are mine.!" she recognized the things instantly and was about to demand them back, but that turned out to be unnecessary.
"I've kept them safe for you." Hatate smiled and put them all on the table before sitting on the opposite chair. The three inseparable essentials for Aya – her camera, her fan and her notepad were handed over to her. "As for your clothes, I've asked Meguru to dry them off for you. Although considering their current state, I'm not sure if you'd ever want to wear them again."
"You've read my notes, haven't you?" Aya mistrustfully stared into Hatate's eyes as she grabbed the notepad from her.
"I did not." Hatate pouted at the wrongful accusation. "I would not stoop as low as to read someone else's private notes."
"Why don't I believe you?"
"Because you think I'm jealous of your 'success'." Hatate made air quotation marks at the last word. "But Meguru is a curious girl, and I didn't want her to be poking her nose into your notepad. Besides, I can well imagine what you might have written in the last couple of pages even without looking."
"So you admit to publishing fake news."
Hatate replied with unusual calmness in stark contrast to Aya's tense and stern demeanor. "You've come to interview me, have you not? I'll be generous enough to answer your questions."
"You? Generous? Ha! I'm the one being the generous one here."
Aya was fuming at Hatate's pretentious politeness. She was the one who had the fate of Hatate's career in her hands after all. Why the hell was this snobbish spoiled girl acting so innocent and hospitable? Aya couldn't understand.
"I could go home right now and get you exposed for spreading misinformation."
"But you didn't."
"I didn't. Because I want to know your motive. Not even you would be dumb enough to commit a journalistic suicide like that. Or so I thought…"
"Is that your first question for me then?" Hatate kept playing her game of calm and cool, much to Aya's chagrin.
"Yes, damn it!" Aya barked back and took a deep breath. That seemed to have calmed her nerves a little. "Look. I appreciate your hospitality and all, but when it comes to journalism, I'm not going to give you any quarter, you hear?"
"I expected as much." Hatate shrugged, her soft smile not waning by even a tiny fraction.
"Then answer me. Why would you go as far as make that sort of elaborate hoax?"
Hatate nodded understandingly a few times and stood up from her chair.
"First, I'd like to apologize and at the same time thank you for giving me a chance to explain everything before you published anything."
Aya bit her tongue and decided to let Hatate speak.
"You see, in order for you to understand the reason behind the article about the Kagiyama Shrine, I need to return a couple of months back in time. And to reveal something... very personal…"
Aya opened her notepad without letting her eyes off Hatate and scribbled some notes.
"I've admired your work, Aya-san… I've admired it for a long time. Despite the fact that Bunbunmaru was a small and not all that popular newspaper, I still admired your dedication to your work. Your inquisitive and even slightly intrusive nature. Your principle of always checking rumors with real data and your emphasis on field reporting. Not to mention your talent of photography."
Aya didn't even notice when her lips have parted as she listened to Hatate's testimony. Seldom has she heard someone expressing so much praise for her work and certainly not someone like Hatate.
"I wanted to be a reporter just like you. Always questioning, always curious, intrepid and even a little brazen. A little rude. But I wasn't sure how to go about it… So I'll admit… I have spent some time watching you at work. I have also used my influence and connections to ask certain members of our society to report your actions to me. I know, I know… Not exactly the most honest thing to do, but I did that anyway."
"You… you were stalking me?"
"Yes. And I after some time, I believed I knew enough about your work to be able to reproduce its results on my own without much difficulty. And so I set out on my first day of field-work. And shortly thereafter, we finally met and had a little showdown, as you might remember."
"As if I could forget. But what does that have to do with the bogus article?"
"I'll get to it, trust me." Hatate smiled reassuringly, although now, her smile seemed more bashful and nervous than smug. "Oh dear… I hope you knew what you were thinking, Momiji." She muttered under her breath.
"M-Momiji?!" Aya blinked in abject confusion.
"Ah… I let that one slip."
"What does Momiji have to do with all this?" Aya demanded to know.
"Well… Momiji is one of those I asked to keep an eye on you for me." Hatate admitted. "You might not have known, but she buys every single release of Bunbunmaru with religious devotion."
"Wait… WHAT? I thought she always despised me."
"Oh, Aya-san…" the twintailed tengu girl still kept using an honorific when addressing her rival… and her idol. "You have no idea…"
"So you paid Momiji to keep buying my newspaper?"
"No, no, no. You got it all wrong. Momiji has been buying you newspaper and mine and pretty much everyone else's so she could compare them all and make her own opinion. And she likes the crosswords and Sudoku corners as well. I knew about this quirk of hers long before I even heard about you.. It was thanks to her that I found out that you weren't doing all that well as a journalist. Without anything interesting taking place in Gensokyo, you struggled to publish a new issue of Bunbunmaru, while I still had plenty of historical events to dissect and write about. That's when Momiji and I had a little heart-to-heart conversation… She's a very smart girl. Way too smart for her current position, if you ask me."
"So she gave you this idea?"
"Momiji told me to go see Kagiyama-sama. She sounded so certain and confident about all this… I was reluctant at first but Momiji insisted. She devised a plan. A plan of killing two birds with one stone, or so she claimed. She said it would be a win-win no matter what. But now that I confess to you about it… I don't feel so reassured."
"Just know this. I had never wished you harm."