“I’m so sorry. You went out of your way to save my son, yet this is all I could prepare…”
In the black of the night, in the kitchen that was seemingly void of people, was the proprietress bowing her head in apology.
It was well past supper time, and Shinichi and Tomoe have yet to eat.
So the proprietress had prepared a meal for them when they returned. Of course, that was also partly because just waiting was too painful.
Unfortunately, it was too difficult to keep enough food for two people when the students of the academy ate much more than the average person.
Moreover, this trip came on short notice, and while the inn did have the capacity to accommodate the school, in doing so they have exhausted their reserves.
There was still food for tomorrow, but they understandably couldn’t touch that.
That’s why the only thing that could be seen on the kitchen table was a common household-sized rice cooker, a mountain of rice balls, and hot soup.
“N-Not at all, we decided to do this on our own volition anyway…”
Tomoe told her not to worry about it, but that only made her more apologetic.
This was a first-class Japanese inn with history, so it would be a lie to say that she wasn’t expecting the food to be good, but surely no matter how good the food was, it couldn’t compare to the life of a child.
She also found it outrageous how someone could threaten a mother with the life of her child.
Of course, her concern was initially for Shinichi, only later turning into righteous indignation.
That’s why she didn’t blame the proprietress, and if anything, thought even better of her for preparing food for them this late into the night.
The boy next to her was really engrossed with the rice balls.
The aura about him suggested that he was just barely keeping himself from jumping into that pile.
He looked at those rice balls with a feverish gaze that no one would ever expect from him.
At the apex of those triangular rice balls could be seen a portion of the ingredients that filled them.
Next to the rice balls were a bowl of soup from which steam rose; an appetizing aroma wafted from it.
Tomoe was grateful for the proprietress’ attentive care, but at this rate, the boy beside her won’t last.
“Shinichi looks like he really wants to eat, so would it be alright if we started?” Tomoe asked.
“*Gulp!” Shinichi said.
“Y-Yes, please, go ahead,” the proprietress said.
The two of them sat down and said grace.
Though they had prepared themselves to skip supper, there was no denying that they were starving.
An ecstatic look surfaced on them as soon as they held a rice ball up.
“Oh, no! I don’t think I can get enough of the taste of this rice spreading in my mouth! Oh! The taste of the Okaka  is so gentle! Oh, so this one is Tenmusu ! Ah, the ingredients match so well with the rice,” Shinichi said.
“I like how subtle the saltiness is. Ah, as expected of an inn, the umeboshi  are so good! Moreover, these are so fluffy and easy to eat too! They’re just rice balls, but they’re so good!” Tomoe said.
“T-Thank you very much.”
Though the proprietress was taken aback by their excessive praise, she thanked them nonetheless.
From her perspective, it was unacceptable that she used a household rice cooker for the guests when they didn’t even use that for the employees. Moreover, she just used whatever ingredient she could find left in the kitchen.
Regardless, there was no denying that Tomoe and Shinichi were pleased by the rice balls, so she heaved a breath of relief.
“Come on, Kouta! You eat too! Aren’t you hungry?”
So if there was a problem, then it would be the awkward situation of the child and the mother.
Shinichi, Tomoe, and Kouta had entered through the back door to avoid causing a commotion, but unfortunately, they just had to happen into the proprietress.
A lot of things happened, so it might have been too much for the two to meet before they were ready.
As a result, they froze up and an awkward air filled the room.
The mother felt guilty for not having had the time to talk to him, which was indirectly responsible for this mess, and for following the culprit’s words, while the child felt guilty for troubling his mother with his selfishness, as well as the fact that he caused her pain by getting caught by the men.
Unsure what to say, both mother and child silently faced each other amidst this awkward air.
Tomoe found it a pity when the rice balls tasted so good, but she had no good idea other than to groan.
“What are you doing? Look, your mom’s rice balls tastes so good,” Shinichi said.
It was Shinichi who broke that atmosphere, almost as though he was completely clueless about the awkwardness between them.
He offered Kouta salted rice balls without ingredients since he wasn’t sure what he liked.
Kouta didn’t say anything and just quietly ate it single-mindedly.
“It tastes good, right?”
When Kouta smiled, the proprietress too smiled.
When Shinichi saw that, he spoke to Kouta gently.
“Kouta, you can do it, right?”
“Huh? Ah, yeah!”
Kouta was a little anxious, but he shook it off with a big nod.
“Alright,” Shinichi said as he patted Kouta on the head and turned to the proprietress.
“How about eating with him?”
“Please don’t mind us. Go ahead and enjoy the food with your son,” Tomoe said.
Before anyone knew it, Tomoe had divided the mountain of rice balls and placed some on a small plate for the proprietress.
The proprietress accepted the plate and bowed her head again.
“…Thank you so much for your continued generosity.”
Shinichi nodded back and wryly smiled as he saw mother and child off.
Though the proprietress and her son didn’t move to another room, this was a big traditional inn, so the kitchen was also big.
Just moving from one end to another would make it hard enough for another person to hear what they were talking about, so she placed her small plate on top of a small table and sat facing her son.
The two talked about something, and like that gradually made time for themselves as mother and child.
Of course, Shinichi and Tomoe could have eavesdropped if they wanted to, but they were not the kind of people to do something so tactless during such an intimate conversation.
Shinichi watched over them a bit longer than Tomoe, but before long, he averted his gaze.
“…I guess this is also counts as me compensating for what I can’t have…”
As Shinichi muttered that, he wryly smiled and went back to his seat.
When Tomoe saw that, she said with dismay.
“You’re unusually good at influencing people, huh. Though I guess it’s just like you, the way you make it so that the other party has nowhere to run.”
In Kouta’s case, he appealed to his pride as a man by bringing up his promise.
In the proprietress’ case, he used the fact that it was a situation her benefactor prepared for her.
But of course, there was also the trust that even with just that they wouldn’t run away.
Besides, it was a situation they both wanted in the first place.
That’s why Tomoe smiled at him warmly despite the dismay in her voice.
Shinichi felt a tinge of embarrassment because of that though and scratched his cheeks.
“Beat it… I know I can’t do anything other than annoy people.”
“…Don’t pout… You’ve helped people because of that. Here, your reward rice balls. Have as many as you like! Hehe, this part of you is so childish,” Tomoe chuckled as she handed him the rice balls.
‘It’s not like you made these,’ was written all over Shinichi’s face, but he still happily accepted her offer and meticulously tasted them.
For some reason, the expression that surfaced on him was gentle. Perhaps it was because of the happiness he felt from the rice balls, or perhaps because the atmosphere emanating from a corner of the kitchen was warm.
“It’s good, really good,” Shinichi said with satisfaction.
“Yes, very… She’s not my mother, but it’s a mother’s taste, isn’t it?” Tomoe nodded.
 Okaka – a simple mixture of shaved bonito flakes tossed with soy sauce.
 Tenmusu onigiri – tempura shrimp rice ball
 Umeboshi – Japanese plums. Really sour and salty.