Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume6 Chapter3
 Part 1.
"Onee-sama, is this really okay?"
Yumi asked, tugging on the sleeve of Sachiko-sama's coat as they lined up inside the store.
"Is what 'really okay'?"
"Your seventeen year run of protecting yourself will be broken today."
"How grandiose. Please don't complain about each and every item that's in the plan."
When Yumi agreed to this, she had no idea that it was going to be Sachiko-sama's first time.
"It'll be fine. If you teach me how to behave, I'll be fine. If I get confused, I'll just follow what you do."
What kind of conversation was this, Yumi asked herself as they chatted. 'How to behave', 'follow what you do', she said. To do something as simple and easy as buy a hamburger.
The two of them were currently in a fast food store.
The amazing thing was that today was Sachiko-sama's first time in a fast food store.
She was a natural-born princess, and if you left it at that it was understandable, but as a high-school student living in Tokyo it was quite the rare existence.
Her inexperience with fast food may have been due to her family's policy, or fastidiousness. In that case she should phone home and get permission before attempting this challenge. Yumi, who did not understand the lifestyles of the rich, was reading far too much into this – Sachiko-sama had eaten hamburgers cooked by her family's chef, so it wasn't an absolute rule.
"What is it?"
If the 'way of a lady' still exists in this age, Sachiko-sama shouldn't stray from the path. However, if she brought this up, she knew that Sachiko-sama would look displeased, so she didn't dare say anything.
While this was going on, the line of people waiting to place their orders was steadily advancing. Before they knew it, Sachiko-sama was next in line.
"You've got it, yeah? Two hamburgers, two oolong teas and a medium serve of fries."
Yumi handed over the envelope containing their funds, which Sachiko-sama received with some irritation.
"I got it the first time you said it. And even if they recommend something, we don't add anything to the order, right?"
"That's right. Unplanned expenses would affect our future plans."
Their usual roles had been reversed. It was uncomfortable, but also a little bit fun.
Sachiko-sama didn't hesitate over the chicken nuggets or the apple pie, placing the order impeccably. Similarly for paying the money. However, she blundered right at the very end. She didn't take the offered tray from the shop employee, instead turning and walking off towards the seats.
Hurriedly grabbing the tray, she caught up to Sachiko-sama. While chasing her, Yumi was burning with shame. Following Sachiko-sama was a difficult job, she knew all too well.
"Huh? The staff don't bring it for you?"
When Sachiko-sama asked again with a serious look on her face, Yumi realized she wasn't joking.
"In this system the customers take the food they've ordered to their tables themselves, and then eat it."
It was like she was with some foreigner who had never been to Japan before. No, these days there aren't really any countries that don't have fast food restaurants, so …. an alien, perhaps?
"But you didn't tell me that."
Sachiko-sama said quietly, as they were sitting down at a booth.
Even on learning that her onee-sama was an 'alien', Yumi's common sense didn't desert her.
"But you would have learned that from watching the person in front of you, right?"
"You were going on about this and that behind me, Yumi, so I didn't have a chance to observe."
"In the end, it's always my fault, right?"
"You beg to differ?"
Sachiko-sama, the contrarian who hates to lose, smiled coolly after pinning her own blunder on her petit soeur. Her smiling face looked so happy that Yumi was prepared to let it slide.
Sachiko-sama did not fit well with failure. Yumi was much happier to see her proud, smiling face than to see her embarrassed and hanging her head in shame.
"The food's getting cold. Let's eat."
Yet, despite saying this, Sachiko-sama didn't pick up her hamburger. She had unwrapped the hamburger and was doing well, but then started looking for something on the tray.
She lifted up her hamburger, the fries, the oolong teas, and then finally flipped over the tray's place mat.
Yumi watched Sachiko-sama for a while, wondering if she should say anything. But she was hungry, so she took a bite of her hamburger first.
Sachiko-sama looked up as she answered and then, in the next instant, looked at Yumi with a curious expression that seemed to indicate she had found what she was looking for – or, more accurately, she looked from Yumi's mouth to Yumi's hands, where she held the half unwrapped hamburger.
"… No way."
The two of them spoke at the same time.
Again, their responses both came in unison.
But Yumi knew that the revelation that accompanied the 'no way' was very different for the two of them.
"Onee-sama. You don't use a knife and fork with fast-food hamburgers."
"… I suppose not."
Sachiko-sama smiled bitterly, then let out a grandiose sigh of resignation.
"My mistake. It seems I should have learned from the sandwiches."
"So, then, at your house …"
Instinctively Yumi leaned forward, absorbed in the question. When Sachiko-sama saw this, she immediately put on her 'displeased' look and spoke.
"I'm sorry, but at my house we eat sandwiches with knives and forks too."
Sachiko-sama said that when she was in kindergarten, her classmates would laugh at her when she ate sandwiches with a knife and fork at lunchtime. Ever since then, whenever she ate sandwiches away from home she would always be mindful of eating them using her hands. She persevered with this, even though it was something that didn't come naturally to her.
"It seems that, unfortunately, my house is a bit different from normal."
Sachiko-sama seemed to turn serious. Perhaps reluctantly, she picked up the hamburger with her hands and took a bite.
"Kindergarten is when you start to become self-aware, right? Being teased, and trying to improve your way of life to avoid that."
"Improve your way of life?"
"Changing what you have for lunch, not getting driven to school, watching the same cartoons on television as the rest of your classmates, that sort of thing.... But, thinking about it now, it was impossible for a child in kindergarten to do all that. As proof of that, I would end up in bed with a fever as a result of overdoing it."
After hearing such an incredible story, the only response Yumi could offer up was 'Ohh.'.
"Because of that, I don't really have any good memories of back then."
While talking, Sachiko-sama removed the pickles from her hamburger and placed them on top of a paper napkin. As usual, she was vehement about her tastes.
Nevertheless, Sachiko-sama has had to struggle ever since kindergarten. Incredible. Unbelievably incredible.
As for me, what did I think about when I was in kindergarten? – Yumi struggled valiantly to cast her mind back.
I was normal, living a care-free and pleasant life, I suppose. Playing games, painting and singing were all fun. Thinking about it now, it was a blessed time. The only invisible things she struggled against were from her own imagination. A peaceful life.
"I wonder what's got into me. It's strange, to be talking about the past like this."
Sachiko-sama picked out a single fry and ate it elegantly. Directly, with her fingers. She wasn't searching for a fork any longer.
"That's not true at all. I want to hear more of your past, onee-sama."
"… Ahh, not just about your past though."
Sachiko-sama smiled at Yumi's frantic follow-up.
"Well then, shall we talk about now. And then about the near future."
Yumi felt a little bit nervous hearing Sachiko-sama's words, though she didn't know why.
 Part 2.
"Umm, is this really okay?"
"What's the matter, Yumi? For some time now, you've been saying things to dampen the mood."
When Sachiko-sama had said she wanted to talk about the near future, Yumi hadn't expected they would talk about where to go next on the date. But there was a store Sachiko-sama wanted to visit so she asked Yumi to take her, and here they were.
"Again, this is the first time in your life you've been to a jeans store.... right? Onee-sama."
Call her obstinate, but she confirmed this once more.
Although it was Sachiko-sama's choice, she wondered if it was really okay to introduce the daughter of the Ogasawara family to such an uncouth store.
Despite the cold, the store's entry was wide open and country music could be heard coming from inside.
The product range was spilling out onto the footpath. The red letters of "Sale" and "Bargain" were burned into the retinas.
"That's right. The first time in my life."
The comparison may not really be appropriate, but Sachiko-sama was like a greyhound waiting at the gate for the race to start, such was her impatience to go inside.
Yumi was desperately trying to stop this, and asked.
"So, you're actually planning on buying something, and not just window shopping?"
"Of course? Didn't you say that personal purchases were allowed?"
"Well, I did say that, but..."
Buying a dictionary was different to buying a pair of jeans, she thought. But explaining just how it was different was a bit difficult. In Sachiko-sama's case, it was definitely different. Completely different.
"Won't your father and mother be cross at you?"
"Oh, they'll be okay. My grandfather will probably cry, though."
"Then it's not okay, right?"
If there was anything that would make a grandfather cry, it would be wearing jeans. But would something like this really bring Sachiko-sama's grandfather to tears? – I guess it's just a figure of speech.
"But it'll be okay if I don't wear them in front of him. Besides, letting grandfathers have a say in their grandchild's wardrobe would be troublesome."
"If it doesn't happen now, it may not happen. For a while now I've wanted to try on a set of jeans."
A set of jeans, was what she said she wanted to try on. Just like Sachiko-sama to get the words wrong. Yumi thought she must be equating them to trousers, which would be a huge mistake.
Oh well. She had heard that jeans were originally work clothes for laborers, so they should have no relevance to the daughter of a wealthy family.
While Yumi was pondering if it was okay to stain such a lady with this association, Sachiko-sama had quickly entered the store.
"Yumi, stop mumbling to yourself and come and show me around."
Yumi prepared herself for the worst. After the victory over the fast food shop, the jeans shop should be a piece of cake, right? But if Sachiko-sama started talking about a games arcade, she would firmly refuse. That was outside of her territory.
"It's called a jeans store, but I see they also sell things like sweaters and cardigans."
Sachiko-sama remarked somewhat excitedly as she slowly progressed into the store.
(This really is the first time in her life)
Although these days you have so-called specialty stores, it's rare to find a store that sells only one product. The fast food stores called "Burger –" and "– Chicken" also sell fries and drinks. CD stores have cassette tapes and video tapes, butchers have sauces. – Although this is getting a bit off track.
"It's nice that they don't interfere when you're shopping."
As Sachiko-sama was walking, she looked on approvingly as a customer freely searched the store for a particular product. Speaking of which, when they had been window shopping in the fashion building earlier, there were a lot of stores where the shop assistants would be pushing the products on them, telling them about the materials it was made from or urging them to try it on, so this probably seemed fresh by comparison. The clerks at the jean store weren't really following the customers around. Other than the one at the register, they were either diligently lining up the products on the display or helping fold up cuffs.
"How do you find the jeans you want out of all of these?"
Faced with so many different types, Sachiko-sama faltered. There was certainly no lack of quantity, the entire interior of the store was filled with shelves of jeans. While there were some colored jeans sprinkled amongst them, the majority were of similar color and fabric.
"… I'm losing confidence."
The clerks kept folding the clothes, more or less oblivious. But it was at times like this that you were grateful for the existence of a clerk that would call out to you.
Anxiously, Sachiko-sama surveyed her surroundings.
The inside of the store was lively. The light country music and the heavy sounds of the sewing machine, a young man and his family enjoying their Sunday afternoon shopping.
(This is bad)
Yumi had noticed that Sachiko-sama was coming down. She was relieved that Sachiko-sama's first visit to the fast food shop had taken place more or less without incident, but if her first time shopping in a jeans store didn't also go smoothly it would probably have huge repercussions for the rest of her life. Trauma, I think they call it. That would be a problem.
"Hang in there, onee-sama. I'm right here with you."
Yumi took both of Sachiko-sama's hands in her own and encouraged her. Your petit soeur is here to help you out in any way, she was saying.
"There are a lot here, but we can restrict it to only those that are your exact size. For a start, we only have to look at the ladies shelves."
Pulling her by the hand, Yumi led Sachiko-sama over to the corner with a drawing of a girl.
"This is the ladies section?"
"Yes. Now we've halved the number of items."
Hearing this, Sachiko-sama looked a bit relieved. Good. Earlier she was looking like someone who was suffering from motion sickness.
"Then you just have to choose the color and style you like, and buy the one in your size."
Sachiko-sama could probably afford to buy vintage jeans worth several hundreds of thousands of yen, but we'll ignore that. For now, it was important that she didn't get confused, if possible.
"The style I like...?"
"Umm. Like ones with flared legs, or tight ones, or straight ones. I'm simplifying it, but that kind of thing."
Additionally there were various other things, like the rise of the jeans, but she omitted them all. If you tell all these things to a beginner, their head would explode.
"The ones you're wearing now. That's the shape I want."
Yumi took off her coat to better display them, then asked Sachiko-sama.
Stonewashed, straight jeans. A totally uninteresting, completely standard pair of jeans.
"Right. When I saw you in that outfit, I wanted a pair of jeans."
Unthinkingly she cried out. Because her beloved Sachiko-sama wanted to copy her. An astonishing bolt from the blue.
"Your voice is so loud."
But the store was so noisy that nobody paid any attention.
"You're much more stylish than me, so a pair of slim jeans would suit you better."
She was grumbling, but it wasn't ill-natured. Yumi had Sachiko-sama whisper her waist measurement into her ear, then went to the shelves with the straight jeans and returned with two pairs.
"The legs are a little bit long."
Sachiko-sama said, holding them up against herself.
"Try them on, then you can get them cut to size. Or people fold them and wear them like that."
"What do you do, Yumi?"
"Of course, I get mine cut to fit."
"Then I'll do that too."
Sachiko-sama entered into one of the row of changing rooms in a good mood.
"When you've got them on, let me know."
Yumi stood in front of the curtain. Planning to act as a guard, just in case. There were a lot of male customers, and the change rooms were self-service so there were no staff around. It would be a disaster if someone were to mistakenly walk in on her onee-sama as she was changing.
At the sound of rustling clothes, her heart beat a bit faster.
She's taking off her coat now. That's the scarf coming off. The way she was imagining it was like a perverted old man. You could probably blame that on Rosa Gigantea.
(For onee-sama, the legs will probably only be 'a little bit' long.)
In her case, the legs were always quite long. Or, rather, way too long. Whenever she got them cut to size, there was enough material to make a tissue case and a purse.
Their height was quite different, so she thought that their legs would also be different lengths. Her quick impression was that Sachiko-sama would have enough left to make a pencil case if you combined both legs.
It was quite unfair that Sachiko-sama's bust should be bigger than hers, but the waist smaller. What the heck were you doing there, God. – She was thinking these grievances when suddenly a voice called out from behind the curtain.
"Yumi? Are you there?"
"Can you help me."
She was wondering what Sachiko-sama wanted her help with when she said 'Excuse me,' opened the curtain a fraction and poked her head inside.
The words came out reflexively.
Sachiko-sama looked at Yumi a tad awkwardly. As though she wanted to be angry at Yumi for saying 'whoa', but was unable to given the current circumstances.
"What should I do?"
Somehow Sachiko-sama had managed to put on the moderately long jeans without turning up the cuffs. But it still looked somewhat fashionable on her. The jeans were folded at her heel, and her toes could just be seen peeking out. It's a bit rude, but it was suggestive of a drain spout.
"Excuse me for a bit"
Formalities dealt with once more, this time Yumi slid her whole body inside. Of course, she took her shoes off before doing so.
"Forgive my inadequate explanation, onee-sama. You have to fold these."
As she said this, Yumi squatted down by Sachiko-sama's feet.
"Onee-sama, can you please stay standing and lift up your heel?"
"Ahh... like this?"
Yumi hurriedly steadied Sachiko-sama as she swayed violently.
"Onee-sama, please put your hands on my shoulders, then lift your heels one at a time, okay?"
"… I see. I got it."
Soon, she felt a weight on both her shoulders. Despite the circumstances, she felt strangely happy. Right now, I'm supporting onee-sama's body, was how her thoughts went. And also, onee-sama trusts me enough to lean her weight against me.
"Okay, we'll start with the right foot."
Following Yumi's instructions, Sachiko-sama quietly raised her right heel. After hurriedly folding up the right cuff, she did the same thing for the left. When Sachiko-sama could put both feet on the ground, her balance would return and she wouldn't have to brace herself.
She supposed she had become accustomed to seeing her stockinged legs below her skirt, but Sachiko-sama's feet with only stockings covering them looked like an adult woman's. Looking at such pretty feet, she could somewhat understand the feelings of foot fetishists.
"How's the length?"
She asked, making minute adjustments. Just like she was one of the store clerks.
"Please put your shoes on and have a look in the full-length mirror outside the change rooms. To see how they balance, that sort of thing."
"… But, Yumi. Is it okay in pumps?"
"Ahh, I see. Onee-sama, what shoes were you planning on wearing with your jeans?"
"I'd like to wear shoes like yours, Yumi."
Even though she said this, they weren't fine goods you would normally lust after. They were plain, ordinary sneakers.
"…. And your shoe size is?"
"The same as yours, Yumi. 23."
And like that, she was partially coerced into lending Sachiko-sama her plain, ordinary (and a little bit dirty) sneakers. Although their shoe size was the same, Yumi in her socks couldn't fit into Sachiko-sama's high heel pumps. Because she couldn't see the mirror from inside the change room, she was temporarily stuck with the tricky task of trying to walk with just her toes in the pumps.
"Here, Yumi, hold on to me."
Sachiko-sama held out her hand to Yumi.
Their roles were now reversed. The mirror mercilessly reflected Yumi's timid, awkward posture next to Sachiko-sama's slender, cool, jeans-wearing figure.
"These are fine."
Sachiko-sama made a snap decision, without trying the other pair on. They were simple, but they fit her extremely well. It was almost as if they had been made for her.
"Okay, I'll put a clip here to hold the position then you can take them off."
Yumi attached two of the large clips to the right leg of the jeans to prevent the fold from moving.
"Ahh, so this is what they meant by 'clips holding it'."
In the changing room there were instructions saying "Jeans taken up free of charge. Bring them to the register with clips holding it."
"That's right. If you take it to the store employee they'll take them up for you."
Sachiko-sama entered the changing room and closed the curtain. As she was doing up the laces of her sneakers, Yumi was secretly relieved.
Somehow they'd been able to clear this hurdle too.
Afterwards, it would finally be time for tea. She would have a cake set at a cafe she had wanted to go to for a long time. That was the plan.
Sachiko-sama's familiar voice called from the other side of the curtain.
"Before we go to the cafe, there's another place that I'd like to visit. Is that okay?"
She had a bad feeling about this. But she couldn't say no. Since they'd made it this far, she would accompany Sachiko-sama anywhere.
"That's okay..... So, where to?"
There was a chance it wouldn't match her premonition, so she asked just in case.
But, unfortunately, she had hit the nail on the head.
"Do they sell sneakers at regular shoe shops?"
She hadn't yet paid for her jeans but already Sachiko-sama's mind had warped to another location.
 Part 3.
"… Damn it."
Tsutako muttered as she stood in front of the cinema.
It was a debacle.
It was rare that she would make such a careless mistake. What a blunder.
"The next session doesn't start immediately after the previous session ends."
"So it appears. I humbly apologize."
"It's okay. You've exceeded my expectations with what you've done."
Minako-sama patted Tsutako on the shoulder as she consoled her.
Perhaps due to warming herself with canned green tea and filling her stomach, Minako-sama was feeling generous.
"You took some photos of Rei-san and Chisato-san before they went into the movie theater, right? That should be enough."
They had been having a leisurely lunch inside the train station building. So they just made it to the front of the cinema at the time she had memorized. But that time was for the beginning of the next session, so there weren't any patrons exiting from the cinema.
The shock was worse than the time she took an out-of-focus photograph of Rosa Canina. Because this time there was no chance of recovery.
"At any rate, locating Shimako-san should be our top priority. If you really did see her in the food court, then it stands to reason that they would have eaten at a bench, like us."
"Hmm. Stands to reason, I guess."
Even as she responded in the affirmative, the image of Toudou Shimako and Kanina Shizuka eating side-dishes together on a bench didn't really take hold in her imagination. Eating on a bench required you to put the food on your lap, which would lead to them hunching over to eat. But that image didn't fit those two at all. But, on the other hand, why not? That was exactly what Minako-sama and herself had done, shamefully hunching over to eat the sautéed thistle root. Throw-away wooden chopsticks would accompany that perfectly.
"And at the same time as we're doing that, we can also look for Sachiko-san's group."
"Huh, why do you think that...!"
She hadn't said anything herself. She supposed that Yumi-san and Sachiko-sama were currently enjoying their first date somewhere around here.
She had a sinking feeling. If the conversation looked like turning towards her, she would have to take care to redirect it. Otherwise all her effort so far would be in vain.
Minako-sama was done with the movie theater already, and turned and walked off towards the station. Consequently, Tsutako chased after her. There was no way they were going to use this ambush plan again, right? At least spare her from that.
"That's right. Together with Miss Shimazu Yoshino."
Minako-sama made this bizarre statement as they walked along beside each other.
"Huh? Together, you say?"
"Together, I said. With Sachiko-san's group. Hmm, I wonder if together is actually correct? When I met her, she had strayed by herself and was looking lonely."
"Sachiko-sama and Yumi-san … and Yoshino-san?"
"Right. Oh, wait, did I say Yumi-san's name?"
"Huh? Ahh, yeah, you said it just before, Minako-sama."
Danger, danger. She had to take care, otherwise she would leak the gossip about Yumi-san.
"Really? I wonder. Anyway, it's not important. What do you think about that grouping?"
I want to hear more about this, she thought. How did Yoshino-san get mixed in with Yumi-san's first date? When they had met at the ticket gate, she hadn't heard a peep about Yoshino-san.
"Yumi-san and the others don't have anything to do with the treasure hunt prize, so we should keep that quiet..."
"You're being naive, Tsutako-san. A reporter must never turn away from a story. Everything you gather becomes material. If we can pin down Sachiko-san's group that becomes insurance in case we can't find Shimako-san."
Even if they did find Shimako-san's group, the collected material would probably all be used in a story. That was how Minako-sama worked.
"Eye-witness account of the Rosa Chinensis en bouton sisters day off!" sprung to mind.
Good grief, she shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't a newspaper reporter but she was a photographer. If good material rolled her way, she wouldn't hesitate to pick it up. No, she understood quite well.
A bus was stopped at the bus-stop in front of the station.
Tsutako idly thought 'If I got on this, it would take me to school,' as she was reading the destination display. Right now, a young woman was being sucked into the entrance.
Again, she got the feeling that it was a face that she knew. Unfortunately, it wasn't either Shimako-san or Shizuka-sama.
(But, just now it was... No, it couldn't be)
She had her commuter pass on her so she could get on the bus to confirm it, if she was so inclined. But if she did that and the bus left with her on board, she'd have to get off at the next stop and walk back.
"Tsutako-san? We're going."
Minako-sama called out to her as she was lagging behind and, on that note, she forget about her plan. If it wasn't Shimako-san or Shizuka-sama and just someone she knew, there was no reason to chase after them.
"So which way are we going?"
When she caught up and asked her question, Minako-sama's eyes sparkled.
"We'll start by going over all the benches in the station building with a fine-tooth comb. How's that grab you?"
"… I'll accompany you."
She was hanging on to this boat for the ride. Now that they were inside the station building, if she lost sight of Minako-sama she would become just another young woman shopping in the crowd. This way, she might be able to act as a chaperone.
Later, when she thought about it, she realized that this had also been a careless miss. If she had boarded that bus, she probably would have been able to meet Shimako-san.
 Part 4.
What am I doing? – Yoshino sighed as she watched the cars flow past underfoot.
When she left Minako-sama she went to a café to avoid running into anyone else she knew.
After going to the trouble and expense of getting the bus to K station, it would be a waste to return home having bought only a single paperback novel.
So she had decided she should make the most of her time here on her cherished day off.
Unlike those who were having a cheap date with only 3000 yen for the two of them, she would enjoy a luxurious experience.
The temperature was low and the wind was blowing, but the weather wasn't bad. The sun had come out.
Sitting in the café, next to a window and with the sun shining on her, she had read her recently purchased paperback and sipped her Royal Milk tea. Soon enough she started to get hungry, so she ordered the most expensive of the three set lunches from the store, which was 1500 yen. This was something that Rei-chan and the others definitely wouldn't be able to do today. If they both ordered this, once you added sales tax, they would be over 3000 yen.
But by 2 o'clock she had regrettably finished her novel. At which time Yoshino left the café. It was usually a good store but today, for some reason, the flavor seemed watered down. Maybe they had changed the head chef.
If she were to wander aimlessly around here there was a chance that she would again run into someone she knew. She hadn't liked the idea of being seen while she was on her own today. So she didn't want to go somewhere like a bookstore, or a CD shop, where people would come and go. On the other hand, she didn't feel like going back to a café, or watching a movie either.
So, what should she do?
Yoshino went to a local zoo that was a few minutes' walk from the station. But as she watched the elephants alone, and watched the deer alone, and watched the rabbits alone she gradually became more and more depressed until finally she didn't feel like watching the monkeys alone and left to avoid overstaying her welcome. There were also carnival rides in the park, but going on one of those alone is just hollow. – Plus, on Sunday, there were an annoyingly large number of families about.
Should she return to the station, or should she take the main street south from the station and browse the small shops in that area? Yoshino was absentmindedly pondering this as she stood on the pedestrian bridge.
She wasn't aware of the rate at which time was passing.
Time continued to flow along around her, with the second hand of her analogue watch ticking along and the cars driving beneath her.
What was she doing in a place like this?
For whatever reason, she was out of sorts wherever she went.
She had wanted a paperback, but she didn't have to get it at K station.
She had been hungry, but she hadn't needed a 1500 yen lunch.
She liked zoos, but she really hadn't liked being there alone.
(Who have I chatted with since I left home?)
A little bit with Minako-sama. And when she ordered and paid the bill at the café, and when she bought a ticket to enter the zoo.
And after that, not a single word.
If Rei-chan were here now, her mood would be completely different. Yoshino felt a bit sad.
To live a bit more luxuriously, to stretch her legs a bit more than usual... she had done these things, but they had done nothing to fill the hole left by Rei-chan's absence.
If she was with Rei-chan, she would have been fine not going to K station. For lunch, she wouldn't have complained if they had toast and black tea at home. Even if it was just the two of them sitting at the table, not really talking to each other but doing their own thing, it would still have been an incredibly fulfilling way of passing the time.
(I'm an idiot)
Even if Rei-chan wasn't there, it would still be a decent way to pass the time. If she had done that, at the very least she wouldn't have this growing sense of futility.
(I'm going home)
The harvest she was bringing back from K Station was a single paperback, and she was fine with that. She took her hand off the bridge's railing and stood a little bit straighter. Just then, her eye was unintentionally drawn to a couple that were walking along the sidewalk of the main street.
They were quite a distance away, so at first she thought she was mistaken.
She strained her eyes to see if it was actually Rei-chan. The couple, that at first glance looked like a man and woman, turned to walk down the street that ran underneath the footbridge. Because they were offset vertically, they wouldn't actually cross paths, but as they drew closer their figures grew larger and she was left in no doubt.
(… Watch out)
Yoshino squatted down. It wasn't due to shock, or dizziness. If she could see them, it meant that she was completely visible too. By squatting down, she could still keep an eye on everything by looking through the gap in the railing.
(Wh.. What's going on!)
Suddenly, the very girly Tanuma Chisato clung to Rei-chan's arm like a spoiled brat. Furthermore, Rei-chan didn't shake her off. Not only that, but she smiled as though she was enjoying it.
(Get your hands off her!)
That's being way too familiar. There are limits to how impudent you can be.
(You're only someone who won a ticket for a half-day date in a treasure hunt!)
They probably wouldn't be able to hear her from this range, but it would be bad if they did. So she opened and closed her mouth, but didn't voice her abuse.
Really, Chisato-san wasn't in the wrong.
Yoshino understood this well enough, but even still, she couldn't let go of what had just happened. For now she was down and, literally, could not get back up.
Her spirit's decline had invited her body's decline.
(And Rei-chan too. What was she doing smiling so gently)
Yoshino kept heckling them like that in her mind. She kept this up for as long as she could see their shrinking figures continuing on their way towards the train station.
Her heckling turned to grumbling, and then nonsense unrelated to the original cause, and it was only when she had run out of insults that she finally started to feel better. She would have felt even better if she were to shout out loud, but she didn't want to go to that extent.
She stood up and started walking.
It wasn't like her to be disheartened.
Who strikes first wins. Better to attack than defend. Always go, go, go.
That's who she was.
After all, she was 'Rei-chan's Yoshino.'
 Part 5.
"It's a shame you don't have a microwave oven."
Shizuka-sama remarked, putting down her fork.
"The quiche is okay, but the stewed tongue and mushroom dish is supposed to be piping hot."
"There isn't one in the Rose Mansion."
At Shimako's words, Shizuka-sama flopped down over the table, dejected.
"You should have said so, Shimako-san. If I had known, I wouldn't have bought these."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize."
They were alone in the Rose Mansion.
It was quiet.
Not just in the Rose Mansion. It was as though the high school had been closed down, and all the buildings were holding their breath, watching these unexpected visitors.
"Is this your first time coming to school on a Sunday?"
"It's my second time. The first time, I came to pick up some sheet music I had forgotten."
"Oh, so that's why you said that to the security guard?"
"Right. I knew how to get inside without arousing suspicion."
Lillian's Girls Academy was an all girls school, so it was protected by a tall wall and sturdy gates. Not only that, but there were numerous security guards constantly patrolling the grounds and one stationed in a guardhouse by each of the gates to prevent outsiders from trespassing. Because of this, the students could go about their studies feeling safe and secure.
But, things were a bit different on the weekend. All the gates were closed, except for the side entrance near the main gate. And there was only a single security guard, sitting in the guardhouse by the gate.
In short, even though they had made it here, spending time at school on Sunday was not exactly a dream come true. Of course, when clubs or committees met the standard procedures had to be followed.
"You say 'I came to pick up something I left behind,' and then show your school handbook. When he has confirmed your photo in the book, he'll let you in even though you're not in school uniform."
Just like Shizuka-sama had said, the security guard cheerfully ushered them in. And so the two of them were here now, in the Rose Mansion.
"But, by and large, it's still a tasty lunch, don't you agree?"
As proof of that, they ate all of the food they had brought except for the cake. The cooled stewed tongue was no exception.
"I now understand why you chose rice balls as the main dish, Shimako-san."
"But I didn't think about it that deeply."
It was simply that she preferred Japanese food. When Shizuka-sama said to her, 'I have to make a phone call, so can you get a main dish?' she immediately thought of rice balls. Or, rather, she couldn't think of anything other than that.
"A victory for the subconscious then. Things like pilaf and pasta are much better when they're hot."
"… Oh, I see. When you said main dish, you would have been happy with pilaf or pasta."
"No, I wouldn't have been happy. I was happy with rice balls."
Shizuka-sama laughed as she held her stomach, and Shimako unexpectedly found herself laughing along with her.
The cake still remained, but the two of them were both full so they postponed eating it.
"We're still okay for time, right?"
Shizuka-sama inquired, looking at her wrist watch.
Shimako agreed as she stood up, and refilled both their cups with tea. The steam rising from the tea cups and the sunlight streaming through the window were both warm. There was no need for heating just yet.
"But I never would have thought of coming to school on a day off."
Shimako said, as she returned to her chair that was facing Shizuka-sama.
"Yeah. I mean, is it really interesting to go to school when there's no-one there?"
Hearing this, Shizuka-sama looked into the distance with a complicated expression that seemed both troubled and amused.
"Interesting, you say? … Well, when you look at something from a different angle, it looks fresh. The usual school buildings, the usual hallways, classrooms – the atmosphere when the usual classmates, teachers and other students are not here... Or I might be seeing things. Perhaps I'm the one that has disappeared. Everyone else is carrying on their normal school life in some other place, no?"
"I'm the one that has disappeared"
She sympathized with that feeling just a fraction. It wasn't the sensation she got from being at school with no-one around, but she had often thought about what it would be like if she hadn't come to this school, or if she were to vanish from here.
Previously she would think about it dispassionately, but lately she hadn't thought about it much at all.
Shizuka-sama would be leaving Lillian's soon. So perhaps the image was more real to her.
"You see the school simply as a container, Shimako-san."
Being prompted, Shizuka-sama added 'It's not a bad thing,' then continued.
"The school is a container for people, I mean. Currently, you're interested in the people so the container doesn't matter to you."
"You don't seem uninterested in people, Shizuka-sama."
"Right. And recent events too."
As she sipped her tea, Shizuka-sama smiled broadly.
"For instance, I'm deeply interested in Yumi-san."
Shimako smiled broadly too. For some reason, whenever she thinks of that classmate it brings a smile to her face.
"In her interview with the 'Lillian Kawaraban', Sachiko-san said their first meeting was an unexpected chance, and similar things. But to me, it feels like their meeting was bound to happen. For Yumi-san, if Sachiko-san were to leave then it would be the same as bidding farewell to her school life itself. For Sachiko-san, how enriching her school life is would be completely different depending on whether Yumi-san was by her side or not."
Whether consciously or subconsciously, Sachiko-sama fully appreciated Yumi-san's charm, and chose her to be her petit soeur. It was tempting to think of it as fate. But there were other such unimaginable meetings that occurred – Shimako thought. Like her and Rosa Gigantea.
"And also Shimako-san."
"I'm also interested in you."
Shizuka-sama said, unexpectedly.
I'm also interested in you.
It was like a surprise attack that left her spellbound. It took a while for the meaning to slowly reach her.
"Because I'm Rosa Gigantea's petit soeur?"
Shimako gave voice to the reason that came to mind. She could think of no other reason why Shizuka-sama would be interested in her.
"… Or, rather, what's inside of you. The part that's not your role or facade."
"What's inside me –"
"The impetus was the last day they accepted nominations for candidacy in the school council elections."
The last day they accepted nominations for candidacy in the school council elections, those events of about a month ago.
"What was it that I did?"
At Shimako's question, Shizuka-sama smiled wryly and said, "Oh, you've forgotten?"
"That you wouldn't accept me. That you wouldn't call anyone other than Rosa Gigantea your onee-sama. Those things."
"Back then, that was your true intention, straight from your heart, right? That was a part of you that wasn't in the image of Toudou Shimako I had in my head, so I was frankly astonished. Because of that. Before you said this, I didn't see you as anything other than Rosa Gigantea's petit soeur. But suddenly I wanted to know about the person that is Toudou Shimako."
Shizuka-sama clasped her hands together on the table, and looked straight at Shimako-san. Shizuka-sama's gaze was unique. Like a polished gem. It was cold enough to drop your body temperature. But it was beautiful in its purity.
"And so? How much have you learned?"
Shimako allowed the silence to continue for a short time, before she asked. It wasn't her intention, but it did sound a bit sarcastic.
"I'm not a detective or a private investigator, so I don't want to know about your family."
"Is that so?"
"I only want to look into you. To gaze upon you. I'll overlook everyone except you."
It felt like Shizuka-sama had already seen right through her.
Even though she hadn't told her anything.
Even though she hadn't laid bare her heart.
"Because of that, I was able to find your hidden card."
Shizuka-sama said, smiling tenderly.
"So I thought this would be a perfect opportunity, to be able to spend some time relaxing with you."
Again, Shizuka-sama looked at her watch. She was talking about relaxing, but perhaps she had something planned after this.
"Ahh, sorry. Contrary to the plan, I think I have to hurry things along."
"Contrary to the plan?"
"Exactly. Shimako-san, let's clear this up quickly, shall we?"
As she said this, Shizuka-sama stood up.
Shimako wasn't really sure what Shizuka-sama had meant by her last remark. The containers from the delicatessen were disposable, and cleaning the cups they had been drinking from was no big deal.
Then Shizuka-sama said 'Here,' took a manila envelope from her handbag and placed the contents on the table. The sound of paper rustling could be heard.
"This – "
Shimako picked it up to have a look. It was loose leaf paper that had been bound together and, apart from the cover page, was filled with tightly-packed writing.
"My meddling classmates prepared itineraries for our date."
"And this was the final candidate."
On the cover were the words 'School Version.' Meeting place, what to buy, bus timetable – all of these and more were recorded in minute detail.
"Just like they've written, we came to school on a Sunday. If we followed what's in there, it would be easy for me to hand in my report, right?"
"But, the report..."
The meeting location, the things they bought, they were all different. The bus timetable they had copied was also irrelevant, and what they had done while at school was somewhat different.
"Right. That's why I said, contrary to the plan."
"So you'll make amendments?"
"I'd like to keep it to this. What do you think?"
"If you think you'll be able to face your classmates after doing that."
Shimako also stood up, and took the cups and cutlery over to the sink. While she was doing this, Shizuka-sama stuffed the report back in her purse and left the room with it, calling to Shimako to hurry up. Because she was wearing her coat, Shimako didn't take the time to do the washing up.
Down the creaking staircase and out of the Rose Mansion. The sun was growing large in the west.
"First off, the committee notice board."
When they entered into the school buildings from the courtyard, Shizuka-sama called out 'let's go' and took off at a run.
"I said we're in a hurry, didn't I? You'll be left behind."
She laughed as she ran off. The distance between them grew larger.
Reluctantly, Shimako too started to run. Ordinarily, this was something she would never do. "Don't run in the hallways" had been a standard rule since preschool.
There was no-one in the school.
There was no-one in the hallway.
The only person was the one running ahead of her.
The sound of their feet echoed around the building.
Like a chorus, like a canon. Up the stairs, along the corridor.
"You're out of shape, Shimako-san."
In front of the committee meeting board, on the wall in front of the lecture hall, Shizuka-sama laughed at Shimako's ragged breathing when she finally arrived.
"We have different lung capacity, no?"
She thought that singers would have training to improve their nose and lungs. In contrast, the environmental care committee did neither speaking practice nor physical training.
"According to the report, we 'chat about that place in both of our memories.' But, looking at the board, I don't feel any strong emotions."
"Is that so?"
The board had this week's news from the environmental care committee posted on it. For the treasure hunt, the white card had been affixed above this.
Back then she was deeply moved that somebody, anybody, had found her card.
The white card was her heart. She had to hide it. But she desperately wanted it to be found. She wanted to be understood.
So she was overjoyed. That it had been found and brought forward. That was what she had longed for.
"Where to next?"
"The music room. But I wonder..."
"Anyway, let's go find out."
This time Shizuka-sama didn't run. The two of them walked side-by-side through the school building.
Shimako searched for something to say.
But she couldn't find anything appropriate to say, so she continued to walk in silence.
Shizuka-sama too was silent.
It wasn't an uncomfortable silence. As Shimako was starting to feel that the silence was natural and preferable, they arrived at the music room.
"Ahh, just as I thought."
Shizuka-sama muttered, as the handle of the soundproofed door made a clattering sound.
"Yeah. Oh well, I thought it might be... It's a pity. I was supposed to sing while you played the piano."
See here, Shizuka-sama said while pointing to the spot in the report. Apparently, they had decided that she could play the piano without bothering to ask her. She had never played the piano at school, so it was strange how they were able to know that she could.
"Shimako-san, can you play the piano?"
"Huh...? Yeah. I'm not very good though."
So it seems like Shizuka-sama hadn't been the one to start that rumor. But that didn't really matter either way.
"How about Ave Maria?"
"It's okay, I'm not asking you to make the sounds of a piano with your mouth."
Shizuka-sama smiled as she said this, and Shimako too had a wry smile as she agreed.
"If it's the Gounod version."
"The one that Sachiko-san played at the entrance ceremony held by the Yamayurikai... You like that?"
She liked most versions of Ave Maria. Songs that praised the Virgin Mary were all beautiful and tender.
"At any rate, I'll put on a show for you."
Shizuka-sama took her by the hand and proceeded down the hallway. In the hallway there was a spot that opened up onto a courtyard, like a balcony. As you might expect, the view from the third floor was impressive.
"I'll add my gratitude for today into it – "
Coming from Shizuka-sama's lips, she heard Gounod's Ave Maria.
Resounding in the courtyard, her voice was exceedingly beautiful.
Maria-sama's essence was definitely in there.
Shimako didn't notice the tears falling onto her cheeks.
 Part 6.
Shizuka-sama said farewell, and started to leave.
Having just finished singing Ave Maria, she wasn't going to go back to the Rose Mansion. She had things to do, she said.
"Ahh, what about the cake?"
Shimako called out to Shizuka-sama, thinking it would bring her back.
"My gift to you."
Looking back quickly, Shizuka-sama smiled.
"Or maybe your reward for cleaning up."
If Shizuka-sama continued on her way home, Shimako would have to return the room in the Rose Mansion to its original condition by herself. It was like some kind of punishment game, except the task wasn't taxing and the compensation was cheesecake.
"If there's too much, you could share it with someone."
Even if she took it home, she doubted whether her parents would eat it. So she was left wondering if she should refrigerate it, or eat it all herself. So, for Shimako, it was like a punishment game after all. If it had been Yumi-san or Yoshino-san, it would have been decided quite simply and there would be no problem.
"I don't know about you, but I had fun today. I wanted to tease you a bit, Shimako-san."
"I acted unconcerned, but I held a bit of a grudge from when you rejected me."
Shimako had been asked to be Shizuka-sama's petit soeur after Rosa Gigantea graduated. That was probably the rejection she was speaking of.
"So I snapped at you and showed off – but I wasn't good enough to pull off a perfect villain."
"… I like you, Shizuka-sama."
Words that take you by surprise are often close to the truth. Until now, she hadn't really considered whether or not she liked Shizuka-sama, but it was probably the case.
She liked Shizuka-sama.
As a human, she was likable.
"Thank-you. Me too."
Shizuka-sama blessed Shimako with a smile that contained no hint of sarcasm, then walked up to her and took her hand.
Her warm hand. It felt comfortable, as though they had known each other for a long time.
It was strange, but that time when Shizuka-sama had visited the Rose Mansion she had adapted to the atmosphere as though she had always been there.
"It's ironic. If Rosa Gigantea didn't exist, we may have become soeurs... although we both care deeply for Rosa Gigantea."
"But Rosa Gigantea does exist."
"Right, so we're both happy."
Shizuka-sama let go of the hand she was holding.
"Right, before I forget. I'm the type to hold a grudge, so there might still be some payback to come."
"Indeed. You should prepare yourself."
Shizuka-sama turned and disappeared down the hallway. Shimako waited five minutes thinking she might come back, but that wasn't the case. It seems like the payback she spoke of wouldn't be happening today.
With her spirit uplifted and her body wearied, Shimako descended the staircase and headed towards the Rosa Mansion.
For some reason, her steps felt leaden. She had certainly been strung out and spun around by Shizuka-sama, but she didn't mind that. When they had been together, she had a spring in her step and things had been simple. Time had ceased to have any meaning as she was assaulted by various emotions.
Now, walking down the empty hallway, she remembered the words of Shizuka-sama.
Perhaps I'm the one that has disappeared.
She had a premonition of what it might be like if she had to leave here prior to graduation, like Shizuka-sama. Leaving behind your good friends, abandoning your studies mid-way through them and seemingly running away. The image of this overlapped with her present self walking alone through the school buildings perfectly.
It's better not to want something, if you're only going to lose it in the end.
It's better to be carefree, so as to be able to leave here at any time.
But, contrary to that sentiment, she had accepted Rosa Gigantea as her onee-sama and become good friends with Yumi-san and Yoshino-san.
After all, no man is an island. If some kind person offers you a hand, it's not weakness to take hold of it.
In her heart, Shimako cursed Shizuka-sama. Why did she desert her? Here, now, being alone was the hardest thing to endure on their date. Tidying up the Rose Mansion, running at full speed through the school, delving into the darkness within her heart, all of these were trivial compared to the loneliness of being left by herself in this place.
Shimako was afraid of the school.
Without the students, the school was definitely just a container.
She was afraid of losing the people she loved.
She was afraid of being alone.
Shimako started to run. She had to get out of here quickly.
She was going to go back to the Rose Mansion, get her belongings and go home. She could come to school early tomorrow and do the cleaning then. At any rate, she didn't want to spend a second longer than necessary before escaping this solitude.
From the school building to the courtyard, then from the courtyard she tumbled into the Rose Mansion. But still her feeling of loneliness hadn't disappeared. The Rose Mansion was the same as the school buildings. Or perhaps worse, since she was more attached to this place.
The staircase swayed wildly as she ascended. It was the first time she had climbed it so violently.
If she were to stop, it felt like the loneliness would catch up with her and she wouldn't be able to move again. She understood that she was only chasing after herself, but that did nothing to calm her.
Shimako opened that extremely familiar door.
"Ah, welcome back."
A voice she hadn't expected called out.
The shock was too great, and Shimako couldn't believe what she saw in front of her.
What was going on?
The room was warm, and there was someone elegantly sipping tea at the table.
"I saw your bag was here, so I thought you'd come back and decided to wait. Where did you go? … Wait, why are you looking at me like that?"
For a dream or an illusion, it was quite real. If that person was here, they would probably be eating the whole cheesecake with a fork.
And that's what was happening.
"Bingo! But why would you need to confirm it? You can see that just by looking at me, right? Or did you think it was a raccoon or fox in disguise?"
She wouldn't have minded if it was a lie or an illusion.
But this was the genuine Rosa Gigantea.
"Ahh – "
Shimako's body gave way, and she collapsed on the floor.
"Wh, What's wrong!?"
Startled, Rosa Gigantea hurried over to help but she had lost the will to stand up.
"Onee-sama... I was"
She clung to her and cried.
She couldn't hold back the words any longer and they came spilling out, in a loud voice as she called out frantically.
Although still confused, Rosa Gigantea held her in her arms without saying a word. Now, what she needed most was to be held in those arms. Why are you here? Why are you crying? They didn't need words to ask each other these questions.
The room was warmed by Rosa Gigantea's presence in it.
She had left her loneliness on the other side of the door.
And Shimako finally found peace of mind in Rosa Gigantea's arms.
 Part 7.
Yumi realized the person she had seen in the bookshop this morning was Yoshino-san when the exact same thing happened and she saw her reflection out of the corner of her eye.
The place was a street that was a short distance from the station. Despite the distance, there were quite a few people coming and going due to the stylish stores that dotted the area.
She hadn't really wanted to meet anyone she knew, but something about Yoshino-san made her call out to her.
When Yoshino-san turned around, Yumi was relieved to see that she looked more cheery than she had originally thought. Even allowing for the light of the setting sun, it had looked as though Yoshino-san's face had a shadow over it.
"Yumi-san... ahh, you're on your date. Ah, Sachiko-sama, gokigenyou."
"I'm glad to see you're having fun, Yumi-san."
Yoshino-san looked at the shopping bags that Sachiko-sama and Yumi were holding and smiled. Even so, she was probably thinking of Rei-sama, because she didn't seem to be completely full of pep.
"Yoshino-san, are you by yourself? Were you buying something?"
Belatedly, Yumi realized her faux pas only after saying it. Why is it that she always says too much? She just has to say things that shouldn't be said.
"Yeah. Well, I've finished my shopping but – "
It turned into an awkward pause.
"Yoshino-chan, if you've finished what you were doing, would you like to have tea with us? I think that's what Yumi was trying to say."
Nice save Sachiko-sama. In her mind, Yumi clasped her hands together in gratitude. Thanks to her, the cracks that were appearing in Yoshino-san's facade had been halted.
"Uh, right. I thought we would go to that café. You know, the one Miss Kawagoe mentioned in her interview with the 'Lillian Kawaraban.'"
That mention had probably led to a small boom of high school students visiting the store and ordering the cake set.
K station was relatively close to school, and it was quite good. What made it more tempting was that from the outside it didn't look like a café at all. The exterior looked like an old, wooden Western-style house, but when you open the door you enter into a café. There were no billboards advertising it, so everyone at school referred to it as 'that café'
She wasn't allowed to visit cafés on the way home from school just yet, so Yumi hadn't been. When she decided that the date should be around K station, she thought she couldn't pass up the chance to go to that café.
"But, I'd just intrude, right?"
Yoshino-san glanced at the two of them and smiled. She was probably being considerate because she knew it was their first date.
"That's not true at all. The more, the merrier. Right, Yumi?"
Even as she gave a nod of approval, Yumi was conflicted. She wanted to help out a friend in need, but she was also somewhat suspicious that Sachiko-sama really would enjoy it more with three people rather than just the two of them.
Yoshino-san said, "In that case," and agreed, so it was decided that the three of them would go together to that café. Along the way, Yumi gave a summary of how they had spent the day so far. Window shopping, lunch at a fast food restaurant, buying a pair of jeans from the jeans shop, buying a pair of sneakers from the shoe shop, buying a dictionary from the book shop, buying some sheet music from the music shop – . Come to think of it, the only one doing any shopping was Sachiko-sama.
She didn't ask how Yoshino-san had spent her day. For some reason, she thought Yoshino-san probably didn't want to talk about it.
"Oh, right, Yumi. How much do we have left in the envelope right now?"
Yumi was left confused when Sachiko-sama suddenly asked her about the balance of their funds that she was taking care of.
"Umm, we haven't spent anything since lunch, so there should be enough left."
The café at the end was the main event, so she had made sure there would be enough left for cake sets for the two of them.
"Then, Yoshino-chan. I'm sorry, but can you please add half of the amount that's remaining into the envelope."
Yumi had absolutely no idea what she was planning on doing. But Yoshino-san got the better of the startled Yumi and agreed.
"I thank you for your consideration, and I'll accept your offer."
Yoshino-san took the money from her own purse and put it into the envelope that Yumi was holding.
"Yumi-san, there's no way you thought Sachiko-sama was being greedy, right?"
"No, no way."
But she felt unworthy of being Sachiko-sama's petit soeur because she did actually think that, just a little.
Yoshino-san whispered to her.
"Paying separately would be lonely, right? Alternatively, if you shouted me I would feel even more like a third wheel. Since I'm joining up with your date, it's my responsibility to pay my share, right?"
So Sachiko-sama was being kind to her, she said. Yumi only realized this when Yoshino-san told her.
Just like her.
And like that, Yumi was back to being happy.
Yumi rushed over and clung to Sachiko-sama's arm. She didn't know why, but it was something she suddenly wanted to do.
"What is it?"
"I'm incredibly happy that I was able to spend today with you, onee-sama."
It didn't matter that Yoshino-san was beside them, or that somebody might see them. As long as Sachiko-sama was by her side, where she could see her, where she could hear her voice and where she could touch her with her hand like so. That was enough. That was all she could ask for.
"You're heavy, you know."
Despite saying this, Sachiko-sama didn't try to disentangle herself. Softly, Yoshino-san cheered them on with a 'Go go.'
 Part 8.
'Is it really here?' Yumi wondered as she timidly opened the door and found out that 'it' was definitely 'here.'
A middle-aged lady wearing an apron over her kimono greeted Yumi's party of three.
"Is it okay if you're seated with other customers at the large table? Apart from that, the only available seats are at the counter."
The lady looked over her shoulder. The unoccupied seats at the counter weren't all in a row.
"The shared table will be fine."
Seeing that the vast majority of the patrons were young women, Sachiko-sama chose the shared table. It probably wasn't always the case, but it seemed the café was quite busy on a Sunday.
They were led to a large oval table where two women were already seated.
They acknowledged the existing customers and sat down. – Simultaneously, the two over there and the three over here cried out in surprise.
"Sachiko-sama, Yumi-san, and Yoshino-san too! … Ahh, such bad luck"
Looking regretful, Tsutako-san posed her hands as though holding a camera and pressing the shutter button over and over again. Accompanying her was Minako-sama from the newspaper club.
"Yoshino-san, I'm glad to see you were able to meet up."
Minako-sama's words were rather cryptic.
Yoshino-san was cryptic in her reply also.
"Three cake sets."
Not knowing what was going on, Yumi spoke to the woman that had come around to take their order. There were three types of cake to choose from, so the three of them would each have something different. An authentic cheesecake for Yoshino-san, a chestnut tart for Sachiko-sama and a chocolate chiffon cake for Yumi. They came with a type of tea that was selected to match the cake. Alternatively, you could choose what type of tea you wanted and have a cake that matched that.
"By the way, Tsutako-san, what happened to your camera today?"
Sachiko-sama asked, appearing curious. Not just Sachiko-sama, Yumi and probably Yoshino-san too were interested in hearing about that. – That for today of all days, Tsutako-san was without a camera.
When they met this morning, she had a camera. She had it then, but not now. That's why she said 'such bad luck.' Sachiko-sama and Yoshino-san had appeared and she had no camera to take a picture with.
"'Scoop! What happened to Takeshima Tsutako?'"
Yoshino-san said, poking fun at Minako-sama who was sitting right in front of her.
"It's not that big a deal. Sorry to disappoint you."
"What do you mean?"
"When we came in, I was asked by the staff not to take photos inside the café."
So her camera was simply in her bag. Because Tsutako-san wanted to be ready to take a photo at any time, she usually carried her camera where it was easily spotted.
"Ahh, and the only photo I've wanted to take since entering the café and putting away my camera was a shot of the three of you."
Sachiko-sama smiled as she sipped her black tea. Certainly, the click of a shutter and the strobe of a flash going off would be completely out of place in this café that was a slightly remodeled western style house. Tsutako-san should take some time to relax with both hands free every once in a while, although that was probably impossible. Looking closely, her right hand seemed to move on it's own, trying to find the shutter.
Even still, that evening's impromptu tea party was fun.
Minako-sama didn't take a single note to use for a newspaper story, Tsutako-san didn't take her camera out a single time and Yoshino-san didn't utter a single 'Rei-chan.'
Without their school uniform on, everything seemed fresh and the tea and cakes were delicious. Surprisingly, the conversation flowed too.
It was an indulgent time, that they wouldn't have been able to savor if they were at school.
It's times like these that make you glad to have girlfriends.
Yumi thought they had only been there for about an hour, but when she looked at the clock she saw that they had already spent over two hours in the café. Consequently, she went home in a bit of a rush and completely forgot to buy the sun-dried cod that her mother had asked for.
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