Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume20 Chapter3
Welcome to the Tea Party
The electric kettle was whistling and steaming away. "Cup... check. Spoon... check. The black tea... is still in there." It was Saturday. One forty-five in the afternoon to be exact. In the Rose Mansion, Yumi was preparing for the tea party by ticking off the needed accouterments with her finger. What looked to be a reception was coming from downstairs. Yoshino-san was carrying in two big woven handbag-looking things.
"These scones have arrived from the Confectionery Society."
"Whaa." Hot and fresh. The still steaming scones were inspected. Just peeping over the bag was a face. Delicious! Delicious!
"If Mami-san explains them, you'll understand. That said, I have to return..." Yoshino-san thus reported. She hastily scrawled a name on a name tag at the last minute. Mami-san replied, "Roger," which was her way of agreeing.
"But, why scones?" While it was sweet and nice smelling, Yumi had to ask.
"If one's talking about a tea party, the first thing that comes to mind is afternoon tea. If one's talking about afternoon tea, it should be black tea and scones."
"One... two... three..." the count was enumerated by Mami-san. "Given the number of people, we should have plenty," was mumbled.
"Except... Can we really accept this?" Although a provision of scones had arrived, until now she hadn't heard a single thing about them.
"It's okay. It's okay. Because the distinction is: 'support.'"
"Support? It's a problem when we don't discuss these things beforehand."
Yoshino-san crossed her arms in front of her breast and then spoke. "The Confectionery Society said that they had wanted to keep this a secret. If they turn out to be well-prepared we should dig in. It seems they don't have much confidence."
Comparatively they were baked well, but just to be sure Mami-san took one out of a handbag and with her hand broke it into a trisection (although the room was not limited to three occupants). This size could only be called a "taste." Yumi and Yoshino each tossed a corner into their mouths.
"I'sh good!" Munch, munch. It had an elegant and not too sweet taste. It seemed to be suitable for black tea.
"So? Do you still want to complain? Obviously, it's not easy to think of this as a free gift but..." Although Yumi wanted nothing more than a taste, Yoshino-san requested that Mami-san give her an explanation for the scones. Because one piece had already been issued and approved, she probably would be staying now.
"Since it's the Yamayurikai, it won't be bothersome. I promised to only take pictures of the scones to be placed on a staff-recruiting ad for the Lillian Kawaraban."
"A shrewd business person."
"One hand washes the other."
Mami-san acquired the face of a bad magistrate in an historical play taking a bribe. "We won't be setting up the shot until we put a plate of scones out."
Because there were many visitors today, the amount of cups, spoons, etc. housed in the Rose Mansion was insufficient. They subsequently borrowed some from the Home Economics room. For now, they would borrow to supplement what they had since there wasn't time.
"Isn't it okay if we just put out this basket?"
"I guess so." Thus, the woven basket of scones was arranged in the center of the table. Having done this, the room's preparations were complete. After that, all that was left was to invite the guests.
Desks and chairs from the school basement storeroom were borrowed and carried back. Although it was unusually tight--no, to be frank it had become considerably cramped--it seemed like it was probably all right. Immediately, all the members present took their seats and began to partake of one cup of tea each. Although they were drawing close to the appointed hour, if there was any free time, would it be all right if they went to the first floor room? Because the weather was favorable, they asked each other might it also be good to go out into the courtyard?
"Come to think of it, is Tsutako-san downstairs? I want to take a photo of the scones before it's too late," Mami-san inquired. With one hand, Yoshino-san poked the bread.
"Oh yeah, that's right. Tsutako-san, Tsutako-san! That Tsutako-san, who a moment ago couldn't refrain from talking about photographing the tea party; of course, she doesn't hear."
When the scones from the Confectionery Society had arrived, they had garnered all the attention. Although, Yoshino-san was going up to the second floor, Tsutako-san's purpose was to convey the message to the two people who were there. After they went to the second floor, they brought in the scones... is all that had actually happened.
"Why are you hesitating?"
When the plan for the tea party was announced, Tsutako-san and her tripod were dispatched, and two "okay"'s were given. Even this morning, when they attended the exact same class, of the three people present no one witnessed an ounce of hesitation on her part. Then, letting all this time pass, and even going so far as to come to the Rose Mansion, to simply refuse? Tsutako-san must have had some urgent business she was forced to run off to.
"She was saying something like, 'The place where the participants will enter and exit, if I maintain an adequate distance, I'll be able to get a snapshot. After the tea party ends, we'll arrange for the participants to hold a group photo, and then I'll capture a proper photo.'"
"Then, if the conditions are bad or there is some other crisis, there'll be no problem." Meanwhile, she might simply be saying, "I've had a change of heart."
"Tsutako-san was saying, if there's an outsider playing cameraman, the participants will be conscious of being photographed and probably won't be able to relax. See, even with an imperial court's dinner party, on television the dining halls are not depicted. It seems to be the same case here." *
"Yeah. I have a hunch that is a terribly perfect reason for her disappearance." Therefore, she must have been caught up in a strange fetish. But still, Yumi was not easily convinced. Isn't Tsutako-san an obedient spirit?
"Since we'll be standing by in the club house during the tea party, if something happens, please call out. I don't want to have to tell you that, but... is that all right?"
"That might work, and it might not. I can't forcibly bring her back, can I? But that's fine. After all, I did bring the scones. During the tea party if there's a request for it, despite being incompetent, I can become the cameraman." Mami-san took a miniature camera out of her pocket and took pictures of the scones. She took photos from the right side and then from the left, changing the angle again and again. Because she was afraid it might not come out, she kept taking more shots. The shutter was closed with great frequency. The Confectionery Society is the same way - they are not altogether confident in their skills.
"Mami-sama, Umm... we should begin accepting guests soon...." The newspaper club underclassman who had been standing by on the first floor, and was now in the room on the second floor made a face.
"Ah! That's right. The name tags... name tags...." Mami-san had just finished scribbling on a name tag. Having done so, she left only two in the pile. Mami-san then stuck the remainder in a box, which was handed to the newspaper club rookie.
From among the two remaining name tags, Yumi and Yoshino-san wrote their own personal name tags and attached them to their chests. "Second-Year Pine Group Fukuzawa Yumi" "Second-Year Pine Group Shimazu Yoshino" As for those in attendance, an invitee would also stick a name tag to her chest.
The newspaper club rookie confirmed the number of name tags and left the room. Mami-san called her to a halt with, "Wait a second." Her junior club member obediently stopped. Yumi saw this and thought "What now?"
"The extra cups that we've borrowed..."
"We have the cups... and we have the scones, and we have the blank name tags…"
"What's your point?" While she was questioning, Mami-san took a magic marker and furiously wrote a name. She produced two new name tags. "I was thinking Tsutako-san had mentioned the principal reason. Even though we're collecting data for the newspaper article, we're not Yamayurikai staff. If we continue to just wander around in the Rose Mansion, I think it will be a distraction. So..."
"Second-Year Pine Group Yamaguchi Mami?" Yumi took her name tag in her hand and read out the characters' pronunciation.
"That's right. We also have the qualifications to participate."
"US?!" The underclassman took her name tag and held it up so they could see. Obviously, a cheek was pulled out in chagrin. Why was her name written there? The rookie underclassman's name read, "Takachi Hidemi." In so doing, Yumi learned her name for the first time.
In front of the Rose Mansion entryway, there were already guests assembled. In the window of the door, a person's figure was reflected. That form was projected onto the inside floor of the Rose Mansion. The appearance was accepted but Noriko wanted to know who was there.
If one was to check a clock, after another five minutes it would be 2PM. The commencement time had been written on the formal invitations, along with an exact greeting.
"It's almost time." Shimako-san muttered.
"What should we do, I'm a little nervous."
"Noriko, how is it that you are nervous?" She realized such restlessness cannot be easily calmed.
"But, our future comrade might be here."
"That's true. But for us, all we can do is help Yumi-san and Yoshino-san, if only just a little." Creeeak. Creeeak. That kind of sound was heard coming down the stairs. When one turns to face it, until a little while ago the scene above us could have been seen. Hidemi-san had returned.
"You brought the name tags." This was the Confectionery Society's empty box that had had name tags tossed inside. They took them out one by one and placed them on the desk. The students lined up silently, by order of school year. Hidemi-san somehow had seemed to be low-spirited just a little while. Something on the second floor had inconvenienced her? It was at that time that Shimako began to get worried.
Something caught Noriko's eye. "Hi... Hidemi-san. That name tag... you don't mean..." Pointing at Hidemi-san's chest, Noriko cried out. She need not have so deliberately pointed it out. Hidemi-san had stuck the blank square plastic name tag on. Compared to the schedules and name tags that would be distributed to the invited guests, there was hardly even the tiniest difference. On closer inspection of the name tag that had characters crammed together on white cardboard with a black magic marker, "First-year Peach Group, Takachi Hidemi" had been written.
"Yes." Hidemi-san's shoulders sagged. Reluctantly, Mami-sama was also attending the tea party. One could make a case that she had snuck in to collect data for the newspaper club.... But if you thought about it, that wasn't necessarily true.
Recently she had been persuaded.
"Huh? Hidemi-san, isn't it a rule that you can't participate?" Shimako-san mysteriously asked. Hidemi-san was saying she fervently disagreed with the state of affairs by way of her making a face.
"It's not like that." It was not like such a rule actually existed. It was fifteen minutes before the commencement-if the tea party attendants were made to wait, it was natural they would be bewildered.
"That's a problem." Shimako-san voiced her earnest sympathetic concerns. However, after running up to the second floor, Hidemi-san's removal proved to be an impossible appeal. Something like "reluctance" was given as a response. Hidemi-san herself had already consented.
"Perhaps she'll make for an ideal candidate." Noriko also cheered her encouragement. Because of this, for Shimako to consider herself a wonderful Onee-sama, she must bite her tongue.
"An ideal candidate she says..." she muttered and sighed. Hidemi-san stood facing her.
"Because such circumstances have arisen, it won't be possible to be away from the Rose Mansion much during the tea party." When they had planned the party Mami-sama and Hidemi from the newspaper club had both agreed to come and help out, but if Hidemi was attending the tea party, such help will be curtailed, is what Shimako thought.
"It's okay, right? If something happens, Noriko or I can go. If it's something like office work or routine duties, don't worry about it. Please allow us to take your place greeting people." At Shimako-san's words, Hidemi-san offered no resistance. "Okay," was her only initial response.
"Well then, at two o'clock, please begin the reception. I will humbly meet with Yumi-sama or Yoshino-sama, at two."
"To quote Mami-san, 'Your job will be to receive the written invitations and student notebooks. After confirming the person in question, please present their name tag.' So that's it, and thanks again."
With her head lightly hung, she staggered up the stairs. Given such a knack for "infiltration for the purpose of newspaper reporting" it was difficult to judge whether or not she would be successful. Nevertheless, it was worrisome.
At any rate, when two o'clock eventually arrived, Noriko opened the entryway door and invited in the guests. "Sorry it took so long. Please come in!" At Noriko's greeting, the guests responded with, "Good day."
"Although it's lengthy, please come this way and form a single file line for reception." While Shimako-san was guiding traffic in front of the desk, Noriko was counting off "1... 2... 3..." In all, twenty-five people had entered the Rose Mansion. As there were neither late arrivals nor absentees, the door was closed for the moment. Such a thing was quite wonderful.
After school on Wednesday when the audition application process was closed, the final number of applicants was fifteen from the first-year, combined with ten from the second-year. Because at first they'd planned to have no more than twenty from each, all of the written invitations could be delivered. Was the difference in the number of applicants from the first- and second-years probably due to the fact that, since they were only shooting for two Boutons, the first-years felt they were more committed to the outcome? Or did it have to do with how many days remained in your campus life for a first-year versus a second-year? In either case, if one were to divide the first-years and second-years up in a folk dance because they could only dance with an opposing grade, even if the number isn't equal they won't care.
They had noticed when preparing the actual room that because of the number of people scheduled, having it work as something like a buffet line seemed rather good. They were thinking that sort of thing while carrying in the desks. However, when you thought about it, it wasn't much like a lottery. Even though Touko had been able to apply and participate, regrettably, Noriko felt her absence keenly. In the end, Touko had not applied.
"Once a person has finished at reception, please advance in line, and climb the stairs to the second floor." No mistake, it was plainly stated as the foundation of fundamentals. The worn down stairs had been used so the group didn't swarm the entrance. They received written invitations and student notebooks, confirmed their application and handed out name tags. It was a simple operation but, a challenge in avoiding boredom.
They finished receiving the second-years and they'd begun to move to the second floor. As she was helping to organize the first-years, Noriko who'd entered Lillian at the high school level, and since the classes were mostly separate, there were students she didn't know.
"Good day. Welcome to the Rose Mansion."
"Good day, Noriko-san. Thank you for your hard work." Even though she didn't herself know this or that person, the other party certainly knew her. Since becoming Shimako-san's soeur, this sort of thing happened frequently.
"Thank you, it seems like this will be a wonderful meeting." Before, Noriko had thought it bothersome but lately she had been rather enjoying the exchanges. When she spoke, because she was Rosa Gigantea's little sister, she wasn't seen as anything but that. Because Shimako-san was in the Yamayurikai, such is where the relationship had been born. In other words, Shimako-san had connected her through this loving relationship. She thought it was important.
The last girl to come to the reception table had soft shoulder-length hair." First-year, Chrysanthemum group, Naitou Shouko." She was an unremarkable girl... but on closer inspection she thought, "Ah, how cute."
Since Yoshino-sama had said various things, what kind of strong candidate might appear, she thought. As usual she would be cute, and as such refined with a tender facial expression, either way she must be affectionate, was the kind of person she was hoping to find.
For Shouko-san, being in Rose Mansion was a rare treat. She snaked about and investigated the vicinity. Since she was curiously investigating everything, she had ended up being last.
"Here's your name tag."
"Oh, thanks." Shouko-san temporarily stuck it to the chest of her uniform. After hesitating at the desk, Shouko-san asked, "Other than the tea party attendees, who else is here?"
"Come again?" While collecting the written invitations, Noriko twisted her neck around. What was it the girl had asked? "Umm... the Lillian Kawaraban reporting team is here... is what I'm thinking."
Thereupon, the nearby Shimako-san who'd been listening replied. "With the exception of the attendees, only those two who are holding the tea party. Noriko and I are doing this for the two journalists in the Newspaper club, because they are also attending the tea party. I don't think it's anything to dwell on."
"The newspaper club... And..."
"And? If perhaps you mean Rosa Chinensis or Rosa Foetida, they will not be attending today." Noriko anticipated the answer. With the exception of those two, the "And" she was referring to was not hit upon. But, Naitou Shouko-san had indicated an "and" so it might possibly have been someone other than the Roses.
"No, umm..." Shouko-san looked down and hesitated. Afterwards, "I see," was spoken and voluntarily the conversation was ended.
"Shouko-san?" There was probably something else she had failed to say. Thinking that, Shouko-san looked up with a smile and laughed.
"I'm sorry, I've taken up your time. I had better get upstairs, I've made everyone wait." Already the figure of the person with the naturally curly hair disappeared up the stairs. Noriko silently watched the back of the figure take her leave. She tapped on Shimako's shoulder.
"Well, if it was something important, I'm sure she'll state it properly later."
"I think so."
"Yes. Well, let's go up stairs as well." "It's all right" was the thought that was nodded with a smile. Noriko also climbed the stairs to the second floor. The tea party had begun.
"We thank you for coming today.
For this meeting, the Lillian Kawaraban composed the invitations. Though we're the one's that want sisters, we don't have any relation to the people who wrote them for us. 'Let us provide a place to meet' is what we want to do here. Although an hour and a half is indeed a short time, most of us are given plenty of time to make close friends in school. But for those people who do not get the opportunity, we would like to receive you for the chance to deepen their friendships."
...While giving this ridiculous greeting Yoshino thought, "How many invited guests can we expect to keep with such a serious, formal greeting?" more importantly, aren't we too busy to evaluating, to deepen any friendships?
Look, that second-year student is checking out the face and name of that girl whose eyes resemble plates.
Anyway, the guests entered the room in order and took their seats. After drinking one cup of tea, they made self-introductions. When there was free time they were encouraged to move their chairs. At that point, the students were asked if could they take their seats. They're probably thinking this is the key that divides victory from defeat, because everyone moved frantically.
It was 1:16PM.
As the number of first-years was greater, if you thought about it, realistically a second-year student had the advantage and it becomes something like a market. But it isn't that simple: several first-years are obviously only aiming for one second-year. Therefore, even though it was only 1:16PM, they had some time to find a suitable partner, it seemed.
Look, that first-year student. Plainly, she had eyes only for Yumi-san. Because of the sheer number of people greeting each other, she could only be seen for two seconds here, and five second there. It would be thought considerate to approach this person.
"...That is all. This tea party is going to set a good precedent." Even though the guests were restless, Yoshino brought it to a close in a suitable place. No one liked a long speech. Her head bowed to the light applause and Yoshino took her seat. During the greeting, Shimako-san and Noriko-chan concluded the tea preparations, the purpose of which was for Yumi-san and herself to distribute.
"Umm, I can help..." Yumi-san was targeted. A first-year student was beginning to approach and lifted her hand to help.
"I appreciate it truly, but I can manage."
"Please sit down everyone." Because one person dashed out, suddenly "Me too!" "Me too!" was heard and everyone jumped up from their seats. This was only a narrow assembly hall. If they all stood up and converged on the same place, how could they continue? But if you thought about it briefly, it was understandable. Finally people settled into their seats.
For practical purposes, Yoshino carried up the tray. She poured out five cups of black tea. That's serious! When it started it looked like a great migration of Water Buffalo, she watched in awe and her hand almost slipped instinctively.
"Here, please don't get up." Was this an announcement in a bus that was approaching a stop, a tsukkomi might have quipped *? Still, this attempted riot of good intentions was received and their feelings were conveyed. Most first-years started to stand up, only one girl remained seated calmly and their eyes met.
Smooth curly hair. Yoshino noticed and they exchanged smiles.(Hehe...) It was strange but she was flattered and liked it. Because of that, it didn't come across as unsociable. In Yoshino's case, because the idea comes across as somewhat devious, even though there were hands saying, "I'll help," it's still attractive. She wanted to doubt that this was some way of "earning points."
Nevertheless, even though the plan at first had been for an elegant tea party from beginning to end, somehow it had ending up being like a slapstick comedy from the start. According to the schedule, it was not going well.
While the tea brewed, the self-introductions began. Suddenly a "leadoff batter" in the guest's introduction ball game was needed, and because it was an awkward situation, Yumi-san stood up from the organizer's side.
"I'm Fukuzawa Yumi, from the second-year Pine group. I have no favorite subjects in school, or any I'm particularly bad at. I basically get average points. My Onee-sama is Ogasawara Sachiko. Umm... the end."
What... was that? Yoshino stared at her smiling best friend's usual humble self-introduction. Saying you get average points is not the way to sell yourself at all. Moreover, giving your older sister's name... everyone here knows her name.
"I'm Shimazu Yoshino, a second-year in the Pine group. I belong to the Kendo club. Since there might be first-years who aren't aware of it, I had an operation on my heart last year and I was able to shed my image as a weak person. My favorite writer is Ikenami Shoutarou. My hobby is watching sports. My wish is to have a little sister as soon as possible. Since I haven't thought about it until now, by all means, someone who has free time announce your candidacy..." *
With this challenge, she didn't make it a "command" like the character "rei" (command) in Rei-chan's name. Meeting Rei-chan's eyes, ready to refuse any caller at the gate, Yoshino faced it head on.
"I'm Yamaguchi Mami from the second-year Pine group. I serve as editor-in-chief for the Lillian Kawaraban. We thank you for always reading with interest. As you know the newspaper club has helped with this tea party from the planning stage. If this tea party is successful in finding a cute little sister or two, it will only be an extra bonus and we will be lucky. That it was possible to join this circle of friends, gives me strong feelings. Thank you for your consideration."
"I'm Takachi Hidemi, a first-year in the Peach group. Until this project came about, I didn't give much thought to getting an older sister. But now because of the newspaper it seems interesting and I can't help it. If I'm able to meet someone, I would like it to be someone who would help with my newspaper club activities; she would assist with great understanding. Therefore, having an older sister is really quite a boon."
As expected, because she wasn't able to say something like, "I was reluctantly sucked into this...." she chose her words carefully as she introduced herself. But.... Once again, such an introduction did not sell herself at all. Hidemi-san implicitly said, "If you become my older sister, it'll be a problem." It was something like throwing a ball to a base to check to a runner.
They continued on with the general participants' self-introductions. Since they weren't accustomed to being in the Rose Mansion, it was like they were straining, or they wouldn't give themselves the chance to slow down in fear of slipping and saying something crazy. Only in their self-introductions did they feel safe. There was scarcely a promising candidate that had been caught in Yoshino's net.
Around that time, that girl with the light hair stood up.
"Naito Shouko, of the first-year Chrysanthemum group." Ahh.... This girl. Yoshino's body unconsciously leaned forward. "When I attended middle school, I longed for the Yamayurikai. Even if I'm only able to become acquaintances with them, I'm happy."
(During the time she attended middle school, her real elder sister had been betrayed by Torii Eriko-sama of the Yamayurikai. Now she can take her slow revenge, and she's happy.)
Yoshino thought to herself, half in jest. But such thoughts are actually somewhat meaningless. Yoshino could not find a single thing about Naito Shouko she disliked. She was a pleasant girl. Perhaps Naito Katsumi's will had been quashed from the beginning.
"Hey." she touched Yumi-san's arm, who was sitting next to her. She was wearing a different expression - she'd found Naito Shouko.
"I found her..." Yumi-san subdued a laugh and muttered. Yoshino was quite impatient. I found her... she had said. But found what?
Perhaps she means she found a little sister.
"Yumi-sama what kind of little sister do you hope to find? Someone friendly and cute like me? Or like Rosa Chinensis, who's beautiful and prideful?"
This was free time. Free time was the time set aside to stand up from your seat and chat with someone who might be feeling shy. Yet...
"Umm... That's... When I stop to think about it, I guess that's not really what I'm feeling." For a while now, Yumi had found herself stuck in her chair. She was surrounded by three first-year students and was encountering a barrage of questions. She had been cornered, as if in a Shougi-style pincer maneuver. It had become impossible for her to move, like a cornered Shougi piece. Having sat in a chair at the end of the room had been her fatal mistake.
In truth, she had wanted to have a discussion with Naito Shouko-san, but such thoughts had been ground to dust with the intervention of these three. Because they were doing her a courtesy she was happy, despite being blocked from her goal. Thus, she answered their questions one at a time. It was impossible to simply say, "Could you step aside and let me out?"
"When soeur meet for the first time, is there really an impact like a crash of thunder?" The person asking the question was Aiko-chan. When it had come time to prepare the tea, she had been the first to step forward.
"Who can say. I think each person feels differently about it." In Shimako-san's case, the elder sister and younger sister's first meeting place was under the cherry blossoms. They each seemed to have experienced an impressive first meeting. Though in Yoshino-san's case, she had known Rei from the time she was born, so she wouldn't likely to have been very excited when they became sisters.
"Then, how about in Yumi-sama's case? How did you feel when you met Rosa Chinensis?" Chigusa-chan asked with glittering eyes.
"Because I had admired her for a long time, my heart was pounding! But, in Onee-sama's case her feelings about it were indifferent."
"No way!" Nozomi-chan gave a small outburst.
"It's true. But after a while I forgot about that meeting." Because of the feeling behind Yumi's words, all three laughed explosively at the same time.
"What's this? Yumi-san's gotten herself a harem." Yoshino-san happened to be passing by and was heard to tease. "I'm jealous. I wonder if I wouldn't be able to join the group?"
The first-years of course said, "Oh, please do" and opened a path. Yumi however had only been thinking, the more the merrier. The three first-years had probably also felt that way. Chigusa-chan stood up and gave up her chair. Yoshino-san said "it's okay" and slapped Yumi's hands with hers.
"Time to switch."
"Huh?" Confused. Yumi forcibly stood up against her will and settled Yoshino-san into the seat. As they were changing places, she heard whispered in her ear. "Yumi-san, you were thinking you want to talk to that girl, don't you?" That girl... in glancing over her shoulder she saw that it was Naito Shouko.
"Wow." she understood what she meant and was surprised.
"Don't make fun of your best friend. I have a special insight on such things," was what she said. Then finally she said, "it'll work out fine."
"Yeah." Afterwards, she made up her mind with a nod and left the circle. Yumi cocked her head. Why did Yoshino-san say, "it'll work out fine" and how did she know what Yumi was thinking? Yoshino-san is a person capable of telepathy after all, isn't she? However, the tone of voice that had said "it'll work out fine" had been lowered, so maybe she was a little bit worried. Looking back at Yoshino-san, the first-years who had been chasing Yumi, seemed to have calmed down. She joined her hands together in thanks in her mind. Yumi called out to Shouko-chan.
"Good day. Are you having fun?"
"Yes." Mami-san, who had been sitting at Shouko-chan's side, was just departing. Yumi took the seat that had just been vacated.
"Naito Shouko-san. There's been some gossip that you're Naito Katsumi's real little sister, but..." was it true? When she heard this, the girl came back quickly with an acknowledgement.
"It's not that I was hiding that fact. But given that my older sister has graduated... And besides, even if I were to say that, wouldn't it work against me? It probably wouldn't open any doors for me, would it?"
"Because probably my older sister didn't leave the best impression on the persons of the Yamayurikai."
"I'm not sure." Yumi didn't herself have any first-hand knowledge of Katsumi-sama. The omniscient Yoshino-san had been the one to have made something of a squawk.
"Since I've entered high school, I've been asked again and again about the time my older sister was enrolled here. I don't really resemble her. So why does the conversation naturally flow to that question? As a cram-study person, she held this kind of event in derision. She seems to have seen Torii Eriko-sama as a rival." She was put-off by Torii Eriko-sama!
"But you and your sister are close, aren't you?"
"That's not so. Since we were little, we've repelled each other."
"Oh...." She was thinking of a comparison, but did not voice it. * "Then, because you're the opposite of Katsumi-sama, you came to think you want to work with the Yamayurikai?"
"Not quite. Last year… No, this year on Valentine's Day you held the Treasure Hunt Event. At that time..."
"Valentine's Day Treasure Hunt?" Once again, unexpectedly the conversation had turned to that.
"At that time, I was a student in middle school but, it looked like it might be fun so I came to the high school."
"False start." At Yumi's words, Shouko-chan laughed and recognized it was a "false start."
"At that time, I saw Yumi-sama energetically running around."
"OH! Yeah, that." She didn't want to remember too much which would conjure up the image. Rather than the Treasure Hunt, it was more so the chase. Frantically running around with their skirts fluttering, it gave the girls a dreadful appearance.
"It looked awesome, vivid and fun. Yeah, it was good. I had nothing to rely on for what the Yamayurikai were like but the image portrayed in the Lillian Kawaraban. I was aware from the outset that they were real flesh and blood people." Vivid... It wasn't what she was saying; it was how she was saying it. Shouko-chan continued.
"Since I entered high school, I've paid attention to every occasion. I was engulfed by surprise and thrilling emotion at the new student reception. I still can't forget it. At the Sports Festival, even though I should have just been one student, unrelated to the Roses or the Boutons, why was it everyone's eyes were always being drawn to the Yamayurikai staff?"
"..." What would be an acceptable response? However, no matter what was said, it looked as if she was opening the floodgates and spilling her heart out. It didn't seem like Shouko-chan's momentum had abated in the least.
"And then, the culture festival. The play was wonderful, but... The thing I envied the most was in the Photography Club's exhibition hall. The panel had been decorated with everyone glittering and shining in their photos."
"The Photography Club's panel?"
"I sincerely thought I wanted to become a part of that existence. How could I be admitted? I've been thinking about it all this time. Then I learned of the plans for this tea party." Ahh. So that was it. At last, she understood.
"Therefore, either Yoshino-san or I would be an acceptable partner, right?" What is it that Shouko-chan desires? And to grant such a wish, who had it in them to fulfill this serious need? Perhaps, that person already exists. In that brief moment, various feelings ran through Yumi's head.
"I'm sorry. I was being too foolish and honest. I've offended you."
"I'm not. It's just... listening to your story. Shouko-chan is feeling misunderstood."
"Misunderstood?" Shouko-chan cocked her head. "What is being misunderstood? I don't really understand it myself."
"If you can't be in the center of the Yamayurikai, your life can't be vivid. But even if you are able to be in the center, it doesn't necessarily mean you'd be able to be vivid," Yumi said.
"It's not that the only fun things in high school can be found in the student council. Where are you looking? What do you want? There are a lot of glittering people, so if Shouko-chan only wants the glitter found in a photograph, it's not necessarily here. Even if you can't become a Bouton, wouldn't it be all right?"
Shouko-chan had been silent while Yumi was talking and listened. Because she was wise, if she was only able to say this much, she is likely to have understood:
"In other words, I've been rejected, right?"
Yes, Yumi nodded. Putting aside the words, Yumi had only decided not to make Shouko-chan her little sister.
"For me, I want to choose the person who sincerely wants to become my little sister. I want you to find an irreplaceable Onee-sama for yourself."
"In that case, since I was thinking either would be good, trying for Yoshino-sama would be useless." Shouko-chan glanced over and saw Yoshino-san. Yoshino-san was separating from the three first-years near her. She was calling on another first-year.
"Don't worry about it, it's just my soliloquy."
"Your soliloquizing pierced my chest and struck home."
"I'm sorry. Did I offend you? Please balance my impolite appeal and comments."
"I understand." Yumi held out her right hand. Shouko-chan offered her hand in response. "I was able to understand, and it was refreshing." They shook hands. Even as they were shaking, if she were asked, she wouldn't be able to explain it well. However, at that point they were both glad of the meeting of minds. The meaning behind their words could be conveyed to both parties.
"My aim was to become a Bouton but I've been able to modify it." With those words, Shouko-chan departed from Yumi's side. She wasn't sure whether or not she'd be able to find an Onee-sama. Proactively talking to all the second-years and first-years, the tea party had been fun.
Now, if Tsutako-san was here... She who could not be surpassed with her culture festival exhibition panel photos. She would have been able to bequeath a smiling face... Yumi thought it was only a little bit regrettable.
"Shouko-chan, do you have a minute?" When the hour-long tea party was beginning to come to a close, Rosa Chinensis en Bouton called on her. When she finally noticed, there was a strange kind of beckoning from the other side of the door. Shouko hastened to reply "yes" and stepped forward.
"Can you lend me a hand?" was asked with a subdued voice. Although Nijou Noriko-san who happened to be passing by called out, "can I help you with something?" Yumi-sama asked Noriko, "Well, could you get me another cup of black tea?" and then she faced Shouko. "Actually, I need to request an errand. It involves leaving the Rose Mansion..."
"An errand? That's fine. Where am I going?" As Yumi-sama was one of the organizers, she was not likely to be able to leave the Mansion with impunity. Shouko understood this and accepted the request. "If I'm able, I'd like to help."
"You saved me. The where is a clubhouse. After you get to the Photography Club room, there is something I'd like you to bring back."
"The Photography Club?" Upon hearing that phrase, her heart was made to soar.
"You know where the clubhouse is, right?"
"Yes." She nodded with vigor. What should I do? She became flustered. "But, I... am not a club member." Although she eagerly searched for an excuse to refuse with, none were forthcoming.
"It's okay. When you enter the clubhouse building, it's on the second-floor. When you find the Photography Club's club room, knock on the door. There should probably be someone inside. Ask if it is possible for that person to give you something for me. So, pretty easy, right?"
"Y-yeah." She easily agreed to go; she couldn't say it was unpleasant. If she had not wanted to do it, it would have been necessary to give a reason. There was no helping it. Shouko psyched herself up.
It wasn't that it was unpleasant. Only, what if there is someone there... Thinking about it, I might want to run away. Before she entered the Rose Mansion, it had seemed impossible to have a meeting here. Somehow, she had been able to prepare herself just in case.
"I understand. What is that you would like to have brought?"
"A picture frame. Something bought on a school trip. It has a marble pattern, so it should be recognizable." A picture frame at the Photography Club. Such an item being there is hardly surprising, but why would it need to be retrieved at this moment?
"That's right. It'll be all right as long as you bring it by Three-thirty." Yumi-sama checked her wristwatch as she said this.
"Three-thirty? But that's only thirty minutes from now." Shouko was getting more and more uneasy.
"That's true. Do you think you won't be able to find it that soon?" I don't doubt it, but if it takes too much time to find this inconveniently placed location...there's no helping being late I don't think.
"If you run out of time and can't find it, it's all right to come back."
"Well then, I'm off." Her shoulders were pushed in encouragement and Shouko climbed down the stairs. Although various unclear points remained, I'm going to try and go anyway. The stairs seemed to want to say something: a creaking sound was made.
It was dim in the clubhouse-the corridor was not lit. As it was already Saturday after school, it seemed there weren't really any club activities going on. After confirming with the building map that was drawn at the entrance, she climbed to the second floor. The Photography Club room sat next door to the Newspaper Club.
The door was ajar; only one person was inside. She was sitting with her back to the door. That person...it was someone Shouko knew. Just as she knew she'd be.... It was this person's aura she'd felt. Before Shouko had time to knock, the person turned around.
"Oh." She smiled. She was not at all surprised. Her reaction was as natural as if they had promised to meet here today. "It's been a while, first-year, Chrysanthemum Group, Naito Shouko-chan."
Despite the fact that eight months ago she had not introduced herself with her last name, Takeshima Tsutako-sama knew. She also knew Shouko's present class name, or if she didn't know she surely guessed correctly.
"When did you learn about me?"
"Quite a while ago. As soon as you entered in April maybe. During the Treasure Hunt, you were a middle school student. Indeed, I shouldn't have been able to find you."
"I apologize for that meeting. I was embarrassed. It was not possible to meet with Tsutako-sama more naturally."
"No, no. It was the same for me, since I wasn't able to approach you until today. It's mutual." After bowing deeply and silently to each other, Tsutako-sama said "Please" and pulled a chair out for Shouko to sit.
The Photography Club's club room was actually much narrower than she had previously thought. It was probably around a four and a half tatami mat-room. Because there was a desk and shelf and things like that, it felt considerably smaller. Yet it was possible to have club activities in here; she surveyed the room and admired it. In the wall, she spotted a door. When she had entered, it had not been through that door—there was another. Probably that place served as their darkroom. So this was also a front room. The faint odor of chemicals lingered.
"After that, how was it? Were you able to get your photo taken? Is it old hat to you now?" *
"I haven't become accustomed to it that easily."
"So it's ingrained?"
"Yes." While discussing her story, Shouko's interest shifted onto another topic. Until Shouko had come today, what had Tsutako-sama been doing? She must have been doing some kind of work-the top of the desk was not too cluttered. It looked like the Photography Club had been asked for a set of bound prints. They'd been able to make a simple photo album with cardboard and vinyl. Wrapped in construction paper, the package was about the size of a textbook. And then there were the two cameras that could be called her hallmark.
"You were looking for me?" Tsutako-sama had said until just recently she hadn't been able to locate Shouko. She understood that loud and clear. There was no way she could have misunderstood.
"Yes. Since immediately after Valentine's Day. But, I couldn't find you. Then the new school term came and despite looking here and there, I couldn't catch a glimpse of you. I started to feel like I was being picked on by a kitsune." Tsutako-sama laughed. "Speaking of being picked on by a kitsune, it also happened again recently."
"Among those waiting in the courtyard for the Rose Mansion door to open, I saw Shouko-chan."
"Oh..." So Tsutako-sama had been there, and maybe even in point-blank range. She had been near enough to spot me in the crowd. What kind of expression did I have at the time, Shouko thought? And then at the tea party, she must have seen her application. What kinds of things was Tsutako-sama feeling?
"That was why..." Tsutako-sama said.
"Didn't you promise to take a photo of the tea party gathering? But then you didn't show. Was that...because of me?"
"It was only an excuse. At first I thought, wouldn't Shouko-chan be able to enjoy it better if I wasn't there? But then I began to think, guests other than Shouko-chan would be nearby. So that's why...." Tsutako-sama sat resting her chin in her hands. "So how did it go? Was it enjoyable?"
"That's great. Ah, that reminds me, the tea party? Is it over?"
"No. Yumi-sama sent me on an errand...." Shouko finally remembered. Seriously, that person forgot she needed to use something.
"Yumi-san did? What was it?"
"She said she wants me to bring her a picture frame."
"A picture frame?" Obviously the expression on her face said "I can't understand." Tsutako-sama asked her to repeat herself. She probably had no idea what was being asked for.
"Yes. One with a marble pattern. Seems like it might have been something bought in Italy...." While Shouko was trying to remember the particulars of what Yumi-sama had said, she spun around the room searching with her eyes. "But, there isn't, is there. I just realized. She just made it up." That...is embarrassing. No doubt the problem will have been corrected when she returns empty-handed. In her search, she looked inside a cardboard box on the shelf without asking first. From somewhere there came a voice mumbling like chanting the nenbutsu * .
"Why would Yumi-san's private property be in the Photography club room? No there isn't anything. So really, the thing Yumi-san wants, what was she talking about?" That is the question. Tsutako-sama had put it to words.
"Um, excuse me." Shouko gave a rapid an apology. Without thinking, she apologized to the nenbutsu jukebox. It bothered her for a moment after hearing it. "In the first place, did Yumi-san really buy a picture frame from that shop?
"Umm... hey, Shouko-chan..."
"The thing that Yumi-sama said to come find to bring to her. I don't think she said it was a personal effect." Thereupon, Tsutako-sama formed a "wait a minute…... shape with her mouth. Did she say something wrong? When Shouko began to worry, Tsutako-sama looked down at her right-hand perplexed and choked on her words.
"She got me."
"After Yumi-san knew I had left, you were sent over."
"Huh? Someone must have told her where you were, but who?"
"Umm..." Where was the proof of that? Yet, Yumi-sama had known that Tsutako-sama was in the clubhouse. It was Yumi-sama who had sent Shouko. Therefore, she formed a hypothesis that Yumi-sama had wanted Tsutako-sama and Shouko to be able to meet. However, assuming such a hypothesis was correct, why would Yumi-sama scheme towards such a thing? It remained a mystery.
Certainly, Yumi-sama had mentioned the same story of the picture frame just a little while ago. But at the time, Tsutako-sama's name had not been included.
"Come to think of it, when Yumi-san was last here, she had seen this... which is why," Tsutako-sama touched the construction-paper wrapped item. "But that doesn't explain our current situation." However, when she mentioned that, it didn't really explain anything, since she didn't know the contents of the package.
"Ah, sorry. I'm also having trouble wrapping my brain around this." Tsutako-sama said, "here" and held out the parcel to Shouko.
"What is it?"
"You can open it. This is the reason you were sent here."
"This was?" Even though she said she could open it, it was taped fast so she hesitated. She would have to tear it open. What was inside? She couldn't help feeling reluctant.
"After Shouko-chan suddenly appeared again, I hastily wrapped this in case I got the opportunity to give it to you. I only had this to wrap it in." At the same time Tsutako-sama apologized Shouko flung off the wrapping paper.
What else would have been there, except of course for a marble-patterned picture frame? This was what Yumi-sama had wanted to have brought back: it bore those features.
There was already a photograph inside. A sepia-tinted beautiful photograph of two girls, opposite each other. What was discovered in the box was so sweet. Seeing this, why was her chest tightening? If you assume that Tsutako-sama had taken this, she was indeed a wonderful photographer.
"It's a present."
"But, I promised, didn't I?" When she said that, Shouko finally realized what this was. The one girl in the photo was her elder sister Katsumi. And the other...
"It can't be. I, how can I be this pretty? And, Onee-chan, doesn't have such a kind face."
"But, this IS Shouko-chan."
"And there's no mistake, it's your sister, right?"
"Yes." Shouko embraced the picture frame. Though she was near tears, she endured laughing with all her might. Because you generally cry for something like this, Tsutako-sama surely thought she was a strange girl. She didn't want that. With effort she was able to speak because there was a congenial attitude.
"Thank you very much. I will make this photo a family heirloom." With that, she sealed the fate of the photograph she would keep her entire life. But it was okay. Previously she had had a worried expression, but knowing this photo exists, it was all right.
"You're exaggerating." Tsutako-san laughed, but Shouko had been serious. Regarding the photograph, their features really did seem inaccurate somehow. She had seriously carried that kind of worry.
"But what should I do with the picture frame then?"
"Idiot. Honestly, do not take this to Yumi-san. It is for Shouko-chan alone."
"But... that...." This picture frame, doesn't it resemble the one Yumi-sama described? However, she'd been told this wasn't Yumi-sama's property.
"Didn't I tell you it's a present? Getting you this photograph took so long... I had no excuse. If it's okay, please accept both the photograph and the frame."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course. It's a souvenir for Shouko-chan, it's something that I bought."
"I am so happy!" Because it was a fantastic picture frame, she was happy. But what made her far happier was the thought that during the time Tsutako-sama had been traveling around Italy, she had been thinking of Shouko, if even for a moment.
"And, by way of bribery, let us open negotiations immediately."
Tsutako-sama laughed with meaning.
"Actually, there isn't yet a photograph of Shouko-chan. For me, when it comes to the culture festival or an exhibition, or any time there's a Lillian Kawaraban column, though the text has been written, to get a photograph for the column I have to obtain permission to publish it. Which is what I'm asking for." Having said this, the Photographer presented her with a photo album. hen she turned the cover and flipped the pages... There were head and shoulders shots and full-length portraits, as well as candid snapshots. They were all of Shouko.
Shouko walking on a carpet of cherry blossom petals. Shouko briefly under an umbrella. Shouko joking with her classmate, her head wrapped in a sports towel like a turban. Shouko playing water polo. Shouko taking the baton during a relay race in the Sports Festival. Shouko dancing in the folk dance. Shouko touting her class at the Culture Festival. Watching the end of the Tale of Torikaebaya, Shouko absentmindedly wandering around for a moment.
How could this many have been taken without her noticing?
"Please give me permission to publish these," Tsutako-sama said suddenly. Yet even if Shouko did that... Rather than directly answering, her face grew damp and finally she looked down.
"Oh. You won't. Well, you can approve and disapprove individual photos...." Probably because Shouko remained silent for a long time, Tsutako-sama became a little timid? She was offering a concession.
"All them. It's okay. That is my answer," Shouko looked up and said. "Please make additional prints for me. Of all of them."
Tsutako-sama saw them running off Shouko's cheek. She was surprised by Shouko's frankness. But because "I can't handle this," was written on her face. Until just now she didn't think she'd be able to defend herself, but now she was able to give a smile and the album to Shouko.
"If I knew I could get an okay so easily, I would have asked sooner. In that case, it'll be in time for the School Festival."
"That's right." Shouko quickly wiped her eyes and nodded. Not announcing myself until today, my actions were blinding me to my shortcomings. Without asking why, Shouko couldn't have spoken up.
At the School Festival, if these photos could be seen, Yumi-sama's words concerning her feeling "misunderstood" would end. Such a turnabout could take place.
"I took these photos without your knowledge so you wouldn't worry. It made me truly happy. But now you'll probably be alert to being watched."
"Then..." whenever she felt something it would be "Tsutako-sama's camera" aiming at her, probably. It was likely to make her heart throb.
"Now you see." Even for one more day she wanted to continue to have her picture taken in secret. Because Tsutako is a high school girl who goes to the same school, it would be permitted. If it was an outsider and a man, the label "stalker" would immediately be applied.
"Well then." It was about time, so Tsutako-sama stood up. After checking her watch, it was three twenty-five. They had approached the end of the tea party.
"I need to take a picture of everyone as a souvenir."
"Wha..." Shouko made a pose. "It's okay, but..." Tsutako-sama, laughing, grabbed up her camera. As they left the club room, Shouko followed up in entreaty.
"Please try to take a photo of me before I notice you."
"That's impossible. Since it's a group photo, I'll have to say something like "Okay, say CHEESE!" otherwise other people would be angry."
"Whaa. That's the worst kind." It had to be taken candidly--then it was okay even if it was the worst picture.
"Isn't it okay to have an occasional plain photograph?" Tsutako-sama was saying as she locked the door to the club. She probably said this because something irresponsible had been said. "If it's a group photo permission must be got before it can be put out." But Shouko thought that to an extent it had been good idea. Since Tsutako had immediately said, "it's impossible" the idea was rejected.
"You read about the tea party rules didn't you? Only people who do not mind articles about themselves in the newspaper or seeing pictures of themselves should apply." Certainly that had been written but she didn't feel good about it. She had no choice. If it had come to that, then so be it.
"I admire your escapism." Leaving the clubhouse, because she thought they were going to have to dash to make it on time, Tsutako-sama had been forestalled. Why would she have been likely to read it?
"It was an escape when I was processing the photos and put Shouko-chan's portrait in a balloon."
"Whaaat?" Oh no, she was acting childish. Tsutako-sama sighed and said, "I know, I know. Then, of how many ever were taken, I'll chose the best one and give it to you."
"Really. It's a fact. It'll be a secret, okay?"
"A secret!" Shouko laughed and clung to Tsutako-sama's arm. She loved Tsutako-sama's photography. She loved Tsutako-sama.
At the Rose Mansion, even though there wasn't any student council work left, they were able to glitter for the camera. She held these things close to her heart: there was so much of herself in that album. The photos Tsutako-sama took of me, one-by-one, that was the proof.
Eventually, Shouko returned to the Rose Mansion with the picture frame by three-thirty. She had completed Yumi-sama's errand though it had become a moot point. Even so, Yumi-sama did not ask Shouko to offer up the picture frame. Given that Tsutako-sama accompanied her back, she especially let the matter drop. Tsutako-sama met with Yumi-sama and spoke briefly.
"Yumi-san, you've become somewhat meddlesome. I've lost my edge."
"What's this? Regarding what?" while laughing, Yumi replied.
"That's quite enough." At times, Yumi's meddlesomeness may have resulted in a blunder. Though putting the consequences aside, her attitude seemed to be "without some kind of meddling it couldn't have been accomplished." And considering her friend's feelings in retrospect, she appeared to be fairly happy with the results.
When she looked at Tsutako-sama's face, Shouko realized she was too.
- (E: Shougi is a Japanese chess-like game.)
- (Rei: A flighty fox spirit.)
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