Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume22 Chapter3
Of Strange Things
The mass had ended about an hour ago.
The roses went back to their homeroom classrooms, grabbed their things, and started walking toward the Rose Mansion. Shimako-san and Rei-sama had already arrived at the Rose Mansion's second floor, now converted into a party room.
"What?! Shimako-san is baking a cake?!"
Yoshino-san exclaimed, as she walked through the door that Yumi was holding open.
"What happened to you?!"
Yoshino-san asked Shimako-san.
"I just thought, well, I'd try it out you know..."
"Just ... try it out?"
"And then, maybe Rei-sama can teach me a thing or two."
Yoshino-san whispered coldly, and then swept herself up into her surroundings, and began setting the cups.
Yumi helped too. She was making sure that there was enough black tea to make for toasting, and picking out the correct tea leaves, and such.
Shimako had said she'd like to just "try it out", but Yumi knew it had to be more than that. That was why Yoshino-san hmmphed, and then disappeared into her work.
After all, next year, none of them would be able to eat Rei-sama's well known "Bûche de Noël prepared with supermarket ingredients". Shimako-san obviously wanted to be able to keep the recipe going in the Rose family. Yumi couldn't believe how much the forthcoming days hinted at those two dreaded characters: "graduation". 
Table, check. Drinks, check. Cups, check. The cake was progressing according to plan. Then everything seemed fine.
"How should we decorate the place this year?"
Yumi and Yoshino-san looked at each other.
Last year, the former Rosa Chinensis, Mizuno Youko-sama, had decorated the place in a torrent of cheap decorations. Should they do that again this year? Rei-sama replied "Even if you don't add any decorations, it's fine" and turned to look at Yumi and Yoshino-san. Suddenly quick footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs.
"I'm sorry I'm late... *huff*"
Noriko-chan suddenly appeared in the room, who was struggling to catch her breath.
"I got a little busy, and..."
As Noriko-chan explained why she had gotten late, she came up to Yumi and hung her head low.
"I'm very sorry about this morning..."
"No it's fine. I'm sorry too."
Yumi too hung her head low.
Yumi was happy that Noriko-chan had decided to talk with her. The way things had ended between them had just left a bitter taste in Yumi's mouth. Yumi thought she would try to change things, but Yumi didn't know what to do with that passionate part Noriko-chan. Yumi had begun brooding about how to deal with it.
"You came alone?"
"Kanako-san and Touko are on their way. We met up with Rosa Chinensis on the way, and she told only me to go on ahead."
The real bother was Touko-chan and her tepid attitude. She had been acting bleak while coming here, and had probably troubled Noriko-chan and Kanako-chan.
Noriko-chan slipped outside for a second, and brought in a box that obviously seemed like it had been brought specifically for the party. It was a fifty centimeter thick ball box.
"Rosa Chinensis had told me that there was some package to pick up from the first to the second floor. Is this it?"
The box had written on it in thick writing "Christmas Party materials".
How the handwriting brought her back. There was no mistaking it, it was the work of Mizuno Youko-sama.
Yumi didn't have to open the box to know what was inside. They were last year's shelf embellishments and Christmas Party decorations, which had been lying dormant for a year, and they had come back to them.
"O, Oh! This is!"
"Wow, it's still there is it?"
Rei-sama and Shimako-san, who were on their one hour break, hurriedly came to look inside. They took but one look at the box, and began wondrously calling out.
If Sachiko-sama went out of the way to bring it to Noriko-chan to hand off to the Rosas, then they had no choice but to use it.
Yumi opened the cover of the ball box, and began passing out a cardboard crown, and a chain with hoop-like links.
But to think that it had been treasured for a year. Now that she thought about it, when had the box been dug up?
Sachiko-sama was one to be feared. And of course, the one who had collected these things all together, Youko-sama.
"What an amazing perception..."
Noriko-chan joined them in putting up the decorations. Rei-sama and Shimako-san went back to their cake making. And Yumi-san.
"Kanako-chan and the rest will be coming soon right? Then, I'll be right back."
Yoshino quickly exited the Rose Mansion. She was probably going to greet Arima Nana-san.
Yumi suddenly became busy in the business of people and greetings. But somewhere a bit far from Yumi, someone sighed.
Rei-sama clasped her hands together underneath the table and once more sighed loudly.
Where Yoshino thought she would go to greet Nana, she instead met Sachiko-sama.
Sachiko-sama was bringing along Touko-chan and Kanako-chan.
Yoshino was the first to welcome the visitors. Great great, the two of them had finally arrived. Now the conditions for introducing Nana were set.
"Gokigenyou, Rosa Foetida en Bouton."
Kanako-chan greeted her perkily, while Touko-chan greeted her mildly. Somehow, she had managed to bring a "I was dragged along" attitude in with her. She held hands with Kanako-chan and Noriko-chan, and was simply talking with the two. No, they weren't holding hands -- at least Kanako-chan's grip wasn't. It was to prevent Touko-chan from running away.
"Where are you headed Yoshino-chan?"
"Just to grab someone."
Yoshino wasn't willing to reveal just who she was yet, and Sachiko-sama didn't ask.
"I see. Thanks for the hard work then. Is everyone there already?" 
"My Onee-san is there, and Shimako-san, and Yumi-san, oh and Noriko-chan too. Ahh, but they've all been in a group for a while now I guess." 
Sachiko-sama nodded, then spoke as if she suddenly had thought of something.
"Well, if you see Tsutako-san, could you say something to her for me? Tell her that if she doesn't pick up the pace a bit, the party will start without her."
Said Yoshino, as she began walking again. Though Yoshino didn't really think she'd meet Tsutako-san anywhere.
Right now, Tsutako-san had probably dragged someone in front of the Maria-sama statue, and had begun taking a flurry of pictures.
The Closing Ceremony, after all, came right before a long vacation, and so many girls would be found about the school falling into the bonds of sisterhood. Especially around this time of the year, with Christmas and the end of the year coming up, it is as if all the girls' bottled feelings would come gushing out.
She knew, because she had seen several such instances since she had come to school.
For that matter, why had Sachiko-sama known that Yoshino wasn't really looking for Tsutako-san?
Yoshino walked inside the middle school building, and found it deserted.
Yoshino-san opened the classroom door, and found Nana sitting there, by herself.
"I'm sorry. Had you been waiting a very long time?"
Nana, who had inserted herself into a library book, had brought along a coat and even a handbag, not because she had been ready to get up and go at any time, but because a single step into the classroom made Yoshino realize how cold it was.
The heater had shut off, so it obviously had been a while. The hallways too had been cold, but because Yoshino had been walking quickly, she hadn't noticed. But sitting in a large room, alone, in a chair, obviously made the room feel cold.
"Have you been here since the end of homeroom?"
"No. I went to the mass to kill some time."
"Yoshino-sama did notice me."
"Ah, ..... um okay."
Even if Yoshino had recognized her, she wouldn't have said anything, and so one couldn't really call Yoshino disinterested. Rei-chan had been sitting right next to her, and so if Yoshino had called out to Nana, then everything would have come to a head right then and there, and Yoshino's big plan of introducing Nana to Rei-chan at the Christmas Party would have been a failure. Plus, Rei-chan had seen Nana at the 'Hotel in the Middle of the Forest'.
"No, you were right, you hadn't seen me. The middle school girls wanted to keep a distance from the high school Onee-samas, and chose to sit quietly behind them."
Yoshino had never been to a mass in middle school. Before she had undergone the heart surgery, Yoshino would have never even dreamed of choosing to stay in a cold place for long periods of time. Of course, she hadn't been able to go to very hot places either. But this past of Yoshino's seemed to her like some time long ago, in a faraway place.
"Shall we go?"
"Nana picked up her bag, and opened her coat."
"Ah, I'm nervous."
It was Yoshino who said it, not Nana.
"Why are you nervous, Yoshino-sama?"
I'm the one who should be in this situation, Nana seemed to say as she inclined her head. These words that Yoshino had just uttered in haste refused to go away.
"Um. Well, uh, you know. I have to take you there with me. I was thinking about how I should introduce you, and that sort of thing."
"Is that sort of stuff really that hard?"
It was an innocent, neutral question, uttered blandly. A question of pure poison, thought Yoshino. The only kind of answer she could give in this situation is one that had no substance to it.
"No, it isn't, but...."
Yoshino smiled uselessly.
No matter what happened, at least Yoshino had finally found the way she would introduce Nana to Rei-chan.
It would be a competition. She'd tell them to compete. Following the tradition of Rei-chan's kendo, Rei-chan's opponent will be this middle school student.
"It's not something I'm really worrying about. Just a what-should-I-do kind of thing."
But the rest of the people awaiting their return to the Rose Mansion wasn't Rei-chan. Plus there was no-one else there who even had an inkling of experience with kendo. Those people would judge for themselves what kind of person they thought Nana to be.
For example, if Yoshino-chan promised to Nana that Nana would be her prospective soeur, then the situation would resolve nicely. It was the easiest way to introduce her to everyone else.
Nana was the middle school girl that Yoshino liked the most. The problem was, Yoshino really couldn't find any other words to describe their relationship.
The reason she was nervous was because she didn't know how the others would react.
The reason she was nervous was because she didn't know why Nana was coming.
"Hm? You're nervous about a what-should-I-do thing ...?"
But a feeling so close to Yoshino's heart was something Nana had no way of knowing.
"Well, I'm just asking but, why wouldn't you be feeling nervous?"
It would obviously be weird for Yoshino to be nervous in this situation, but that was because she knew this about herself. And anyway, Yoshino wanted to find out the reason.
"The Rose Mansion is a place where all Middle School students want to come close to. It's where the high school student council meets, is it not? It's naturally a place where you have to keep your guard up."
It seemed as if she was talking about the distinction between Home and Away matches.
"It doesn't really seem that way though."
"But it is, so that's why I wouldn't be nervous."
"I see. So it's just an argument for argument's sake."
Nana said without any pressure. Yoshino both envied and hated Nana for this. Because Nana had no intention to be nervous, she had no other goal but to attend the Rose Mansion's party.
That was why when Yoshino had called Nana up over vacation and asked her hesitantly whether she wanted to come to the party, she immediately accepted. At the time, Yoshino had thought nothing of it.
For Nana, the party at the Rose Mansion would be nothing but another one of her many parties.
Yoshino said once again.
She said it more to encourage herself, than to tell Nana something.
Ike Ike, Go Go. 
And so the starting pistol went off. And later, it would feel as if she had seen the finish line ahead and had begun running too quickly.
"At least, let me take some group pictures."
Sachiko-sama had brought the two first-years inside. One side of the party felt very tense, while everyone on the other side was so well mannered that there seemed to be a coldness bordering on rudeness present. Those who milled about in the middle were spending time picking which side they wanted to go to, and as soon as a gap set in within the crowd, the Photography Club's ace walked in.
"Gokigenyou, everyone. I'm sorry I'm late. Thank you for inviting me again this year. Am I the last one? No, I can't see Yoshino-san..."
As if reacting to the sound of a needle dropping, Rei's face scrunched in tension. Right then, the very person in question, Yoshino-san walked in with her guest.
"I'm sorry for leaving everyone waiting ... huh?"
Perhaps it was because the room felt different than what she expected it to look like; Yoshino faltered. The room did not match a single aspect of what she had imagined it to be while coming here.
"Ah, ... um?"
When Yoshino realized that she had missed the time for introductions, her mind blanked, and she stood up in desperation.
Until Yoshino-san smoothed everything over with the others and Nana-san, Nana-san could not do anything of her own.
That said, even Yumi's mind was drawing blanks as Yumi tried to think what she could do to get the stale air of the situation to circulate once more.
Perhaps Yumi should instead spend her time trying to properly greet Kanako-chan and Touko-chan, who seemed to work like an on-off switch.
But then Yumi would be abandoning her friend's middle school girl, Nana, who would be meeting with the Yamayurikai for the first time.
Everyone's attention seemed to be focused on Nana huh? That was weird.
Now that everyone was here, shouldn't they start the group welcomes? But if they were planning to do welcomes, then why hadn't they been done already? If they started the welcomes now, it would seem very sketchy.
While everyone had been chewing over their own thoughts, they watched as a new person entered the room. It was the wrong time to come in, and it had left Yoshino seemingly down.
That was when Tsutako-san said.
"Well then. At least, should we get the group pictures out of the way?"
Well then? Why now? Yumi looked up at Tsutako-san's face.
"Come on, some people here have to leave early, don't they? Plus I was thinking that this sort of tense picture would be good, especially in a group picture. Also, is there anyone who isn't here yet?" 
Two, four, six, eight, in total ten people. No-one was late. Yumi shook her head, and Tstutako-san clapped her hands together and exclaimed "Perfect".
"Could everyone please form there into two lines? The three Roses and Kanako-chan, please line up behind Yumi-sama. Those names I didn't call please line up in front of her."
Tsutako-san dispatched the instructions crisply.
"Uh, could the people in the back line please crouch a little? Great, that's perfect."
Everyone had formed their two lines perfectly. At least, with everyone moving around, perhaps the social emptiness that had opened up would fill up.
The room had been filled with the question "Who is she?" when Nana walked it, but now with all of the filling in empty spaces, and the standing up straight, the room's atmosphere became conducive to conversation once more.
Touko-chan was not anymore throwing sour looks everywhere.
Kanako-chan seemed to see this change in Touko-chan and fell more at ease, relaxing the tight smile she had on, and secretly letting out a sigh of relief.
Yumi spoke softly without turning to Kanako-chan, and instead looking toward the camera.
Thank you for coming despite having previous obligations.
Thank you for pulling Touko-chan here with you.
"Ah. Is it because I did something a little out of the ordinary for me?"
Kanako-chan turned herself slightly, and whispered absent-mindedly.
"Yeah. It doesn't seem like something in your character."
But isn't that a happy feeling? Yumi groped her hand around behind her, not being able to see because of the shadow being cast by the line behind her, and gripped Kanako-chan's hand.
"I'll be taking the pictures now! Everyone, please watch my hand! Ah, it's time to glitter! Alright, great. Then, click!"
Tsutako-san clicked the shutter twice and said "Thanks for all the hard work" and once more clicked the shutter. It seemed like these tense moments did indeed make good pictures.
Yumi and Kanako-chan took their hands apart and laughed. Kanako-chan's smile was completely different than the one she had on before, natural but completely majestic.
The structure of people that had sprung up for the picture began to dismantle itself spontaneously. Sachiko-sama said.
"I was thinking we should draw straws now, but what does everyone else want to do?"
And while Sachiko-sama was hearing for input from everyone in the room, the question had really been directed to Yoshino-san.
"Draw straws..." 
Yoshino-san looked at Nana-san. Nana-san knew no-one in this entire gathering except Yoshino-san. Perhaps Nana would be better off staying next to Yoshino-san, so Sachiko-sama had asked Yoshino about it.
"I don't mind."
Nana-san unexpectedly chirped. She held on hard for a middle school student.
Even Sachiko-sama thought the same thing, but simply stared at the girl, nodded her headed satisfactorily, and said "great".
"Then, after everyone's seats are decided, we'll start the introductions."
Yumi began placing ten trump cards on the table in succession, one by one. The number of chairs available in this room, after all, was only ten. It was the Ace of Clubs down to the Ten of Clubs.
In the circular area above, Yoshino-san began placing the Hearts from Ace down to Ten within a box. She then placed a handkerchief over the box.
"Please pick one card per person from this box."
Each person would part the handkerchief, pick up a card, and if her card had the same numerical value as one already on the table, then she would become the owner of that seat.
"Each outcome is equally likely to be drawn. Please line up from that end over there."
Rei-sama told Nana-san. Yumi wondered if Rei was simply watching out for the guest. If the line was in order of age, then Nana-san would be last. And if the line were to be made from this end, then Nana-san really would be last.
It may have been the lucky draw, but obviously being able to pick your own card felt much more like Kujihiki rather than taking a card by default because it was the last remaining. It was the active, preferred over the passive. That fine distinction was very important. Even though it often made no difference in gatherings such as these.
Yumi stuck cleanly Rei-sama.
"What's wrong Yuuumi-chan?"
Rei turned behind her, and said. Maybe that was it.
"I thank you for your consideration, but I'm will not be last."
Yoshino-san, who was bringing over the box now, held up her finger.
"There's no way now for you to take my spot before me."
Yumi nodded deeply in understanding.
Yoshino too had perhaps just understood this, because she made an elevated face. But just as Rei-sama had said earlier, everyone was equally likely to get a seat. Just because Yoshino was picking her card right behind Nana-san had no guarantee that she would be sitting next to her. But Yoshino was probably trying as feverishly as possible to reign in fate.
Yumi drew her card, Rei-sama drew her card, and the last to draw a card was Yoshino-san. Everyone looked at their own card, and the card of their neighbors, and even though they were numerically close together did not mean they sat close to each other in seating order.
As soon everyone had finished looking through the cards, Yumi went back to the table area.
"So then, let's try to hand out table positions. This seat --"
The table itself was circular, so Yumi could have started handing out table positions from anywhere on the table. She started from a narrower portion of the table, what had been dubbed the "birth seat". It was the four of Clubs.
"Who holds the Four of Hearts?"
Yoshino-san raised her hand. She had the irony of being the last to pick and yet being the first to be seated. As Yoshino's seat was being picked, Yoshino was musing to herself about which seat would be nice to sit in, but now she stopped.
"Next. Who has the three?"
Yumi walked counterclockwise.
Touko-chan answered as Yoshino-san was rotating left and right. From that instant, Yoshino-san's right neighbor had been decided. Her left neighbor would be decided by the last cardholder.
As she drew the next card, Yumi looked at it "It's Five, huh?". Five was the card that Yumi had drawn. She had no preference about the choice, but selfishly Yumi thought about how Touko-chan had come to her house a few days ago, and for some reason the two hadn't met up since then.
"---- The Seven of Clubs."
It seemed that no-one was getting what they had expected.
The seat that everyone thought would belong to Five instead went to Seven, which was the card that Shimako had drawn.
Next to Shimako-san was Kanako-chan who had drawn a Six, but next to her Sachiko-sama who had drawn a Two sat. And then the next birth seat Eight.
Nana-san sat down.
(Even though she's a Seven  she got the seat Eight huh?)
As Yumi continued to smile while chewing over her thoughts, Yoshino-san who sat far away seemed to fall prostrate to the table in her shock.
It wasn't when she was handed the last card, but when she had realized that she wasn't sitting next to Nana-san. And that place was the complete opposite, the farthest possible seat away from Nana's.
Ironically, the seat next to Nana-san's was a Five, Yumi's seat.
(If there was any way to change the seating order, then I would.)
But, if you let people choose their seats, then there's no point in playing Kujihiki. Then they could have simply announced in the beginning "Please sit next to xx-san".
And now with all that was going on, Yumi had to get back to work. On the other side of Yumi was Rei-sama who had drawn a Nine, and next to her was Noriko-chan who had drawn a Ten. And finally, on the left side of Yoshino-san was Tsutako-san.
(It didn't happen, did it?)
Kujihiki was just that sort of an equalizer. Yumi was referring to Tsutako-san's Ace when she knew that it didn't happen.
Then again, if Tsutako-san had drawn another card, she would have had to ask herself "How could the Photography Club ace draw x?".
When everyone had found their seats, after a toast of black tea, the party began.
"A simple introduction and a few words about what's going on with you. Those of you for whom something eventful happened before or after the exam holiday, please feel free to talk about it now. Of course, if you don't want to talk about it, then you don't have to. Now let's begin."
While Sachiko-sama was glancing around wondering whom to start with, Tsutako-san boisterously raised her hand.
"If you want someone, please pick me."
"Ah, Tsutako-san, you sure are acting forward."
"My real motive is to get my turn out of the way as soon as possible so I can take pictures at my leisure. Um, do I have to stay seated until all the introductions are done?"
Tsutako-san had prepared her camera for the event long before. When she saw Tsutako-san's shutter finger carefully move around the button, even Yumi understood.
"Yes. Please remain seated during the introductions."
An immediate, cold rejection. Sachiko-sama was strict.
Even still, Tsutako-san had let her name go around first, and so had to begin the introduction.
"I am second-year Pine Class Takeshima Tsutako. A member of the Photography Club. Um, I had come to the Rose Mansion's Christmas Party last year, so now this makes it my second year of attendance. I offer my humble apologies to Rosa Chinensis, but after my introduction is finished, I will assume the role of cameraman. Ladies, you will hear the clack-clack of the shutter, but please do not let the sound bother you. Without receiving express permission from the subjects within the photograph, I will not release a single photo, so please do not worry. Ah, nothing interesting really happened before or after the exam holiday. That is all."
"Have you found a petite soeur, or any such gossip?"
Sachiko-sama asked. It felt as if Sachiko-sama was acting as their representative. Because the Roses and their petite soeurs had grown very interested in just what was happening between Naitou Shouko-chan and Tsutako-san.
Tsutako-san cleanly cut the air with her words and sat down. Why not?! Somber sighs were emanating from the room.
Going clockwise, the next was Noriko-chan. Noriko-chan stood.
"I am Rosa Gigantea en Bouton, Nijou Noriko. I'm a fan of admiring Buddhist statues. I had wanted to go on a small Buddhist statue viewing trip after exams ended, but I kept putting it off and it never happened. It made me realize that nothing in life really happens according to plan."
It was said that Noriko couldn't go on her fun little Buddhist statue viewing trip. Why the trip kept getting delayed Yumi did not know, but she wondered whether Noriko-chan had plans to go again. Winter vacation was after tomorrow."
After Noriko-chan went Rei-sama.
"I'm Rosa Foetida, Hasekura Rei. Hm, what should I say. I'm part of Kendo Club. But it seems like I've had too many things to do this year. If you open my box, from time to time I'll move my face, or my mouth, or my swords. Oh, right. Recently I've found a weird, younger boyfriend. That's all."
Yumi slipped the word out, and looked toward Yoshino-san. Shimako-san, Noriko-chan, Kanako-chan, and Tsutako-san too. Maybe, other than Rei-sama herself, everyone's gaze had at that moment fixed upon Yoshino-san. The always anxious Yoshino-san.
It seemed as if Yoshino-san had surely known about this, for she made no notable reaction. She only nodded toward the conversation and said something to the effect of "It's not my affair."
"How old is he?"
Sachiko-sama asked, and Rei-sama answered. But perhaps the hand Rei-sama outstretched while answering the question was more telling than the answer itself.
"He's ten I think."
Which meant that Rei-sama had lightheartedly revealed her boyfriend, but for those who hadn't realized that the entire thing had been a joke, it had been such a shock that they promptly fell silent. So that was the potential lover's big moment, huh?
Suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed to one of incredulity. And then, into a "no wait" moment.
No, wait. He may be ten years old now, but give it ten years, and he'll be twenty. By then, Rei-sama would be twenty-eight ... it really wasn't a complete-no situation, was it?
But the attitude of the person herself in question was one of complete denial, one which spoke "Never a kid from elementary school" and brushed it off casually. So then it really was a complete-no.
But even still.
It was obvious that Sachiko-sama had already heard this news from Rei-sama. She felt a different sort of jealousy for their relationship. The bond they had was one different from the conventional bond of sisterhood, but Yumi could remember what strong feelings were contained in this bond.
As Rei-sama sad down, Yumi pushed herself into an upright pose, pushed one hand into the other, and suddenly stood up.
"Um, I'm second-year Pine Class's Fukuzawa Yumi. Rosa Chinensis en Bouton. Uhhh..."
Now what to do. Nothing else would come out.
Yumi was the kind of person who found it harder to introduce herself to her good friends than to a crowd of people. So just what should she say now. Suddenly, Rei-sama, from her right-side, whispered a hint.
"What you did over the break."
"Ah, what I did over the break ... ummm... during break I .... I.... "
Yumi's eyes fluttered about as she tried to remember, and they fell on Touko-chan. But Touko-chan's running-away wasn't the type of thing that should be discussed at these sort of meetings.
"Did you go to the amusement park?"
Shimako-san asked from across the table.
"Ah, I did, yes I did go to the amusement park. And then, when we were coming back, I went to my Onee-sama's house, and was given a Mille-feuille cake as a gift. It was handmade by Onee-sama's mother. It was delicious."
Yumi felt a bit embarrassed to summarize her summer vacation by calling it "delicious", but everyone's look had this warm "If you found it delicious, then good for you" feel to it. Yumi ended her introduction with a "That's all."
Oh right, the next introduction was part of the main event, the premiere of Arima Nana-san.
Nana-san understood that she was up next, and immediately stood up.
"I'm Lillian Middle School Third Year, Arima Nana. Thank you for inviting me here."
Everyone's reaction to the word "Lillian Middle School" was less profound than Yumi had expected it to be, probably because everyone had seen that Nana-san wore a different school uniform.
"If you're asking yourself why a middle school student like me should be here, well incredibly enough I had recently become that Shimadzu Yoshino-sama over there's friend, and I got my invitation from her. When I heard her talking about the party, I implored her to let me come along." 
The fact that she was introducing herself here was in and of itself something "incredibly enough".
And while Yumi did not know what "incredibly enough" moment had brought Rei-sama close to a boyfriend younger than her, she did know the "incredibly enough" moment that had led to Yoshino-san and Nana-san meeting.
Yoshino-san had boasted to former Rosa Foetida Torii Eriko-sama that she would introduce her soeur, and tried, but could not find one. As Yoshino-san was running away from Eriko-sama, she happened to meet a girl, and passed the girl off to Eriko-sama as her soeur. That was the story behind Nana-san.
But Nana couldn't say that out loud, and instead had said "incredibly enough". "Incredibly enough" was simply a phrase of convenience.
While Yumi was thinking about such things, Nana-san pinched her introduction closed.
"I'm young, and I don't really understand much about high school, so I understand that my presence here may be rude. If so, I offer my humblest apologies, and request your humble guidance."
The middle school student was more than capable of introducing herself. And while everyone chewed the introduction over, the card hit the floor, she sat down.
Next was Sachiko-sama's introduction.
"I am Rosa Chinensis, Ogasawara Sachiko. Right, the person whom Yumi had spoken to you all earlier about, who had accompanied her to the amusement park, was none other than myself, of course. A small accident also occurred that day, but everything else was a lot of fun. We made a plan to go again, and this time, how about all of you come with us?"
Before Sachiko-sama could even finish the question, Tsutako-san answered happily. Sometimes, Tsutako-san was a very transparent person. Tsutako-san's role wasn't to enjoy something with you, but to capture the pictures of you enjoying everything around you.
"Great. But for you Tsutako-san, all film is forbidden."
"You can't have fun by only snapping pictures."
Sachiko-sama laughed. Just once, they should all forbid her from bringing a camera. But then, Yumi knew that Tsutako-san would research on how to bring in hidden cameras.
Next was Kanako-chan.
"I'm First Year Tsubaki-class's Hosokawa Kanako. During the last school festival, I had participated in the Yamayurikai's play, and have very fond memories of it. Right after that I joined the basketball club, and now I seemed to be followed by balls day and night. I've recently been feeling that I've once again grown taller, but I'm too scared to actually measure myself."
People wondered whether this was a comment that people should laugh at. But Kanako-chan herself was smiling, so Yumi held nothing back as she laughed heartily. So, Kanako-chan grew again, huh? But she was too afraid to measure herself? But wouldn't that be something to be celebrated as a player on the basketball team?
"I'm Rosa Gigantea, Toudou Shimako. Recently, incredibly enough, I've found an interest in baking."
Yumi at first thought that Shimako-san's use of "incredibly enough" had been subconscious, but then she wondered just what was "incredibly enough" to build an interest in baking. While she thought about it, Touko-chan stood up.
"First Year, Camellia Class, Matsudaira Touko. I'm part of the Drama Club."
While Touko-chan began to sit, Kanako-chan asked. Rather than punctuating her with a question, Kanako-chan's tone of voice seemed to have been a form of advice. And then, Touko-chan.
" 'No Mr. Priest, I'm fine.' "
Suddenly Touko-chan had changed her facial expression and intonation.
At first Yumi didn't know just what had happened, but finally she realized that Touko-chan was acting out a scene from a play.
Touko-chan had cast her eyes down, and seemed to have somehow shrunk her person, as she was relaying her line.
It was winter, and Touko-chan was cold. She seemed to be holding a shopping cart between her hands.
(Please, buy as much as you want. If I could have had a child as lovely as you are with me this night, this is what I would say)
Those words suddenly sprang up in Yumi's heart. And suddenly, behind Touko-chan appeared the streets of Europe.
Yumi understood. It was "The Little Princess".
" 'Well, on Christmas Eve, things must be donated to the poor children? Thank you very much. You are a very great man, Mr. Priest. ' "
Touko-chan pushed a smile onto her face, pushed her hand out, and seemed to take something. Perhaps it was some coins. The scene was so vivid, one could almost see the satisfied nod on the Priest's face.
Touko-chan watched happily as the priest inside the carriage rode off.
" ' I couldn't do anything about it. My clothes are always so dirty, and I'm always so hungry. I was mistaken as some needy child ...' "
You'd reflexively laugh, then suddenly swallow. What a stunning performance. Ah, what a sad Sara. 
"Is this enough, Kanako-chan?"
Touko-chan seemed to have shut off the TV, and had brought everyone out of the ship's crew, and back to a Japanese high school.
"I don't have anything interesting to talk about anyway, so this will be the end of my introduction. I hope I didn't bore too many people."
She sat down without a smile on her face, and hung her head down dejectedly. When the audience came back to their senses, they began clapping.
Touko-chan really was a fantastic actress. In just perhaps two minutes, she had entranced the entire room.
"If you set the standard so high Touko-chan, then the people coming after you will have a hard time."
Yoshino-san brooded, and then stood.
"I am Shimadzu Yoshino. The 'Shima' in my name uses the character for island, found in the word 'Japanese Islands'. The 'dzu' in my name comes from the character in the word 'Tientsin', that place famous for water chestnuts. The 'Yoshi' uses the character in the word 'Freedom', and the 'No' uses the Kanji in 'General Nogi's name. Not the 'Yoshino' from 'Somei Yoshino' ." 
Just why was Yoshino-san explaining the Kanji in her name, Yumi wondered, as she listened to Yoshino-san ramble. But then, Yumi suddenly understood. Yoshino-san was speaking for only one person.
Yoshino-san's gaze stuck only on the farthest person from her in the room -- Nana-san. And just as Yoshino-san had wanted to happen, something in her explanation made Nana-san break out into actual laughter.
Yoshino thought the same thing last year, but even this year, when she saw Rei-chan and Shimako-san's joint effort, the Bûche de Noël, she could not help but find it tasty-looking.
Yoshino couldn't leave her seat while eating, so she had nothing to do but talk to the people around her. She did nothing but spear her cake constantly. The more she speared, the faster her cake would finished, was the logic. If someone saw through her plan, it would be bad.
It was obvious that Yoshino-san wanted to go over and meet Nana-san.
But really, Yoshino-san herself was the only person aware of what she was doing. Everyone else was caught up in peaceful conversation. To her right, Touko-chan seemed to be deeply involved in a serious conversation with Shimako-san, and didn't seem to want to be disturbed.
Yoshino slid her gaze around the room, until she happened upon Kanako-chan turning toward Sachiko-sama and telling her something. It didn't seem as if they were talking about very serious things, but sadly their seats were far away from hers, and Yoshino was not close enough to understand what they were saying.
Yoshino let it go and turned to her right. There was Tsutako-san, who had quickly finished her cake, and had jumped into preparing her camera. She seemed very happy. Did Tsutako-san know that she was humming?
Next to her, Noriko-chan, Rei-chan, Yumi-san, and even Nana seemed to be caught up in some group conversation.
Yoshino wasn't happy. How could Nana be alright without her, or something like that.
For that matter, what were they all so excited about?
Now that she thought about it, maybe she should pre-empt Tsutako-san and stick her head into the conversation. It was a bit of a shock for them.
Soon, Yumi-san turned toward her and said "Yoshino-san...."
It wasn't Yumi calling Yoshino over, but rather something in the flow of the conversation, like "Do you know Yoshino-san?" or "You should listen to Yoshino-san too". Basically, Yumi was creating a pretense for Yoshino to join in.
So if Yoshino-san wanted to enter the conversation, this was her only chance.
But what happened next made Yoshino twist around, and let go of the outstretched hand that her friend had given her. Yoshino felt it would have been better had she not tried to enter the conversation in the first place.
A large voice had boomed through the room "Who wants seconds for tea?" or something like that.
In an instant, everyone's conversation died down, and echoes of "I will!" or "Please let me have some" bounced into the air. Hand shot up.
After which, Yoshino expected the happy conversations to start again, but then Nana said "I'll help you", turned toward the sink, and left Yoshino behind. Noriko-chan too had stood up, but when she saw Nana take the job, she sat back down again.
"This party is so much fun."
Yoshino-said, and recognized it as an expression of bitterness. But Nana who seemed not to notice the bitterness, laughed and said "Yeah, a lot of fun".
"Great huh. Is it really a good idea to help out when you're having so much fun?"
Her bitterness dripped and oozed out. It refused to stop. It seemed to Yoshino as if she were playing the role of saboteur.
"But, I wanted to talk, and so I thought this would be a good chance to."
Nana carelessly said, as she took Yoshino's cup in her hands.
"Because, Yoshino-sama had been sitting so far away from me, right?"
"You wanted to... talk with me?"
When she heard Nana say what she really wanted, Yoshino's thorns felt caught up in a spider web.
Just what was this exhilarating feeling?
Nana wanted to talk? Yoshino-san had been sitting so far away? That means, Nana had been focusing her attention on Yoshino the whole time.
But suddenly Yoshino stopped. No no, she could not let herself get intoxicated by Nana's words.
"Mmhmm. I wanted to talk to Yoshino-sama."
Nana herself didn't realize, but she was incredibly good at building up someone's happiness, and then letting it all crash down.
"When do you want to talk to Hasekura Rei-sama about what we were talking about before?"
--- Oh no.
She really had to talk about it, didn't she?
Yoshino violently put some tea leaves into the teapot.
Without anyone noticing, Kanako-chan had quietly disappeared.
Some time after everyone had finished their cake, the seats all got mixed up, and in the middle of recreation time no-one knew where the other person exactly was. There was no bathroom in the Rose Mansion unless someone decided to go back to the school. So when one or two people had gone to the bathroom, and it had long been time for them to come back, they were nowhere to be found, and no-one said a thing.
After all, Yumi had only noticed her by sheer coincidence.
She lost early on in a big tournament, and had nothing much to do, so she went to get her cup thinking she would wash it and drink some more, when she found that there was one cup that hadn't been put to wash. The cup from seat 6 was there, the person who had sat down first, Kanako-chan.
For that matter, where had Kanako-chan gone? Yumi looked around her, but still could not see Kanako-chan.
The large pile of everyone's belongings that was in the corner seemed oddly enough a little less pronounced. No, the carefully arranged pile of coats and handbags seem to have been purposefully tampered with. That's why it now looked like a landslide.
Perhaps Sachiko-sama had noticed that Yumi was seeking out Kanako-chan, when she came close to Yumi and whispered into her ear "She went home".
"She had things to do at home. She said she was making her mom wait for her. She told me that she had not wanted to disrupt the happy atmosphere of the party, so she just slunk away. Kanako-chan had let me know about all of this from the very beginning. Just when she slipped away even I don't know."
Sachiko-sama quickly rearranged the collapsed pile of belongings. To obscure the fact that Kanako-chan's things were not here anymore, she made it into a small mountain.
"Disrupting the atmosphere ... ? No, maybe it was because Touko-chan would have ... "
Yumi turned away from Sachiko-sama. Touko-chan was carefully removing a Jenga piece, and was concentrating so hard that she hardly darted an eyelid toward them.
"If Kanako-chan had let everyone know that she was going home, then Touko-chan would have wanted to go along with her. Because Kanako-chan forced Touko-chan to come to the party."
Kanako-chan wanted Touko-chan to stay at the party.
When Touko-chan had first been invited to the party, she said that she had had other plans, but perhaps Kanako-chan knew that Touko-chan was just lying to get herself out of the party. So Kanako-chan didn't want Touko-chan to have to leave the party ... or at least, that's what could have happened.
For that matter, why hadn't Touko-chan been happy in the first place?
Now Touko-chan was laughing. The Jenga tower had collapsed, but she was still laughing.
How long had it been since Touko-chan had stopped scowling?
Actually, when Touko-chan had been introducing herself, Yumi didn't really think that Touko-chan had been very happy. While she had been playing the sailor, she had been smiling, but as soon as the part ended, she put a sour look on her face and said "Is this enough?"
So then had it been while they were eating the cake?
The only thing she could remember of Touko-chan then was that she had been talking with Shimako-san. It had been a very long conversation, that only they were participating in. That was when her mood had changed from one of gravity to levity.
Just what had they been talking about?
"Don't make such strained faces. It's a party, right?"
Sachiko-sama lightly patted Yumi's shoulder, and returned to the game.
"So, let's have a final round between Noriko-chan and Yoshino-chan then."
Everyone was excited, because prizes were going to be handed out based on the conclusion of the tournament, and so Yoshino-san and Noriko-chan began their battle.
As soon as the Jenga had fallen apart, a haphazard Twister game had been laid out on the spot. The officiator of the game had four dining hall meal tickets, and was going to hand them out as prizes.
Last school year around March, when the Yamayurikai had been cleaning up the first floor, they had found some things in the shelf of a rarely used desk. Just which sempai had owned it at one time nobody knew, but they had kept it because they felt it may be useful.
Yoshino-san and Noriko-chan grappled heartily, knowing that prizes lay on the line.
Things really were heating up, Yumi thought, when she spotted something a slight distance away from the Twister mat.
A Jenga piece had fallen from the collapsed tower, and had managed to find itself here. The small wooden piece could easily become lost if someone accidentally kicked it.
Yumi bent down to pick up the piece, and a slipper crossed her view. She looked up and found Shimako-san.
"Going to the bathroom?"
Right in front of Shimako-san was the exit, otherwise known as the Biscuit Door, so Yumi had asked.
Shimako-san too had lost quite early on.
"Wait. I'll come too."
Yumi put the piece on top of the table, brought over her bag. There was no way that Yumi was going to forget who the present was for. But until she actually delivered it to Sachiko-sama, Yumi had promised herself that she would not let go of the bag.
Shimako-san was waiting on the stairs, and smiled as Yumi darted out of the room. Even though there was no hurry, she was still running.
"... What happened hmm..."
Yumi normally went to the bathroom by herself. Plus, she didn't really *have* to go right now.
She was just using the situation. Because Shimako-san was the one going to the bathroom.
That's right. Yumi just wanted to talk with Shimako-san.
"I'm sorry, what is it now?"
But Yumi couldn't think of juts what to say.
Creak creak. Creak creak. The old wooden stairs let out a sharp creak. Creak creak. Creak creak. While she was looking for what to ask, she reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Are you wondering about Touko-chan?"
Yumi seemed surprised, so Shimako-san said.
"Oh, I'm wrong? Sorry."
Because Yumi had pulled ahead, Shimako-san closed the door behind her. While she was doing that, Yumi suddenly realized what Shimako-san had said.
"No, no. You're right."
Shimako-san's hunch had hit the mark.
From the moment she had heard the word "Touko-chan", she had no hesitation in recognizing what she wanted to talk about.
Yumi looked up from the garden to the sky, and found it a pale gray. Was it simply a cloudy sky, or was night quickly falling?
As the two turned toward the school, Yumi asked.
"Earlier, Shimako-san and Touko-chan had exchanged words over some very serious glances, right? I was just wondering what you guys might have been talking about."
"Wow, did we really look that serious?"
Shimako-san laughed. If Shimako-herself didn't feel that the conversation was very serious, then had it really been? But they really didn't look as if they were enjoying flowers bloom while making light conversation.
"If I'm interfering in something, or it's some secret between the two of you, you don't have to tell me, but ..."
Yumi didn't want anyone think as if she were making them confess. But Shimako-san clearly shook her head.
"Touko-chan simply asked me some questions about myself, and I gave my own personal answers. There was nothing there that could have violated Touko-chan's privacy. So I don't think there'll be any problem if we talk about it."
"But, what about Shimako-san's privacy?"
Shimako-san laughed at Yumi's question.
"It's okay. There's nothing there that I'd really want to hide from you, Yumi-san."
Shimako-san said, as she entered the school, and sought the walls.
"Touko-chan had asked whether I was in the family business."
"What we do, you know, the temple."
Shimako-san was the daughter of a priest. Judging by what Noriko-chan said, theirs was a very large, and old temple.
"Well, do you Shimako-san?"
"I answered, I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"Yup. And that's the real truth."
Shimako-san really didn't know. It was Shimako-san's real answer, and she wasn't running away from anything, but that was the simple truth of the matter. Rather than needlessly trying to come up with an answer and presenting some false, fleeting truth, Shimako-san was being honest.
"After that, Touko-chan began piling on questions. If I didn't take over the temple, then what would happen to it, and such."
"Well ... what would happen?"
Yumi really knew nothing about temple matters. Buddhist temples involved patron families, and other difficult things. If Shimako-san didn't accept the temple, then would a temple which had been passed on for years generation-by-generation have to be given to someone else? Those were the sort of questions that came up in such a decision.
"Hmmm. What should I do."
"Are you okay being like that?"
At first Yumi had thought Shimako-san's answer was a truthful one, but now it began feeling like the product of an unsure mind. Shimako-san had made a very conflicted face when Yumi had asked her what would happen. Was everything going alright with Shimako-san?
"It's something I eventually have to reach a firm decision on, but right now, I haven't come up with an answer."
Ah, she felt that she would eventually have to answer the question.
"At least, if I decide to take over the temple, then it isn't really feasible for me to do other things, is it? I'll also have to marry into a family that follows the same Buddhist sect that we do. From an objective perspective, it's a very hard choice to make."
"And if the wife of the temple's head monk were to be a Catholic..."
"Right, that's there too. Just because my parents have been easy with me, they've allowed me to stay a Catholic while being the daughter of a Buddhist monk. If the wife of a monk were to believe in something different than he, it would be a bit weird, wouldn't it?"
Everyone is free to practice their own religion. But despite this fundamental freedom, that sort of a relationship was a tense one. Anywhere from a little to a lot."
"It would have been so much easier had my brother inherited. He hated the burden so much that he ran away."
"Huh?! Shimako-san has a brother?!"
Yumi's eyes bulged, and Shimako-san laughed.
"I didn't tell you either, Yumi-chan? When I told Noriko about it yesterday, she was also surprised."
"... I didn't know. I thought you were an only child all along."
"He's not at home most of the time, so I don't really talk about him. But he's there, and he's the only one. Touko-chan seemed a bit deflated when I told her. I wasn't an only child, so she couldn't ask me for advice."
Advice, huh. For that matter, just what would make Touko-chan try to find someone and place herself in their shoes?
"Did something happen to Touko-chan at home?"
"Maybe. But I didn't ask her."
Because Shimako-san didn't fall into the sample set of only children, she was crossed off the advice-giver list.
"I see. Then I obviously can't ask about what's going on."
Yumi had a younger brother, and her dad's custom home business wasn't so big that it involved big shots.
If Touko-chan were instead sitting next to Rei-chan, she would undoubtedly have asked Rei-sama whether she would continue the dojo or not. Then again, it was obvious that Rei-sama was going to, so maybe Touko-chan wouldn't ask Rei-chan that.
Yoshino-sama was also an only child, but her parents didn't do anything that needed to be passed down.
Sachiko-sama is a relative of Touko-chan, and so she is too close to fall into the appropriate sample set to ask questions. But even if she were to cross Sachiko-sama off the list at first glance, Touko-chan could easily pull another Ogasawara family member in her place -- Kashiwagi-san.
"She might not be able to ask you for advice, but maybe she would just talk to you about it? Especially since you're Yumi-san."
"What should I do..."
Did Yumi really want to talk to Touko-chan about it though? Also, was there a simple way to only talk about it and not offer advice?
"You shouldn't rush such things, Yumi-san."
Yumi nodded to Shimako-san's statement, and walked out.
The corridor extended in wan darkness, without sunlight or artificial light.
As she was walking, Yumi felt as if something in the darkness breathed deeply.
After the two finished their bathroom session and returned, Yumi and Shimako-san found the Rose Mansion in uproar.
They opened the second floor's biscuit-like door, when.
"How could I be the only one who didn't know something that important about Rei-chan?!"
Yoshino-san's wailing voice carried onto the stairs.
- "Graduation" in Japanese is "Sotsu Gyou", composed of two Kanji
- Again, the ritual "Gokurou-sama" is used.
- It still remains a bit amazing to me how Konno Oyuki-sama consistently keeps Yoshino and Yumi as good friends, and Sachiko and Rei as good friends, but Yumi never becomes good friends with Rei, and Yoshino talks rarely with Sachiko.
- "Ike Ike" means "Go Go" in Japanese. The rest of the sentence is in English.
- Moments like this make Tsutako my favorite character. Squee.
- The Japanese phrase "Otsukaresama deshita".
- A Japanese word called Kujihiki.
- Nana is Japanese for the number seven.
- Nana laced the end of that last sentence with so many honorifics, it can get your tongue tied.
- "Little Princess" is a story about a rich girl, Sara Crewe, going to a boarding school, who is propped up by the headmistress as a star pupil because of her family's money. The money comes from her dad, a captain aboard a ship. Some months into the school year, the girl finds out that her father died of some brain fever, and lost all of his investment money to a friend. She becomes destitute, and the headmistress uses the opportunity to turn her into her servant. The book explains the changes of fortune that the girl undergoes, and how she copes with it.
- When the Japanese give formal introductions, and want to express to others what Kanji is found in their name, they relate the Kanji in their names to other common words and names. 'Shima' is the common Japanese reading for the character 'island'. The place 'Tientsin' is a place in China; the name rendered in Japanese is "Tenshin", and the second character in this name has a Chinese reading as 'Tsu', when Okurigana is applied it becomes the infrequently used sound 'Dzu'. The second character in the word 'Jiyuu', meaning freedom, is the 'Yoshi' in Yoshino's name. An interesting note: the 'no' in Yoshino's name is the same as the outdated Kanji used for the possessive particle 'no' in Japanese. Somehow, I doubt the average Japanese person would understand any of the references Yoshino just gave. For reference, the Japanese reading of a Kanji is also known as its Kun-Yomi, and the Chinese reading of a Kanji is also known as its On-Yomi. It's out of the scope of this blurb for me to go into any more detail about these mundane matters.
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