Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume25 Chapter7
In Her Pocket
School life could be viewed as a connected series of events. After Christmas came the winter break, then when the third term started in the new year it was the election for the next student council. As soon as that was over, it was Valentine's Day.
She realized during cleaning time, as she swept the classroom floor, that the gathered dust and particles were a lot more colorful than usual.
At first she hadn't paid it any attention, thinking that it was just a one-time event. However, it was the same the following day, and as the days progressed it somehow kept increasing.
Typically, it was things that were too small to carry to the bin that were left on the floor – mainly dirt brought in from outside and strands of hair. So when she swept the floor, the whitish, blackish and grayish particles would form a small monochrome mound.
But recently, there were reddish, yellowish, greenish, and all sorts of different colored specks of fiber mixing together, not forming any single shade.
What was going on there?
After peering at the dustpan for a little while, she finally understood the meaning behind the colors.
They were fibers from the wool her classmates were knitting with during breaks.
But even so, would knitting alone make these dustballs? Well, it wasn't completely impossible. If there were some students that were frequently undoing and redoing their knitting, and some that were using fluffy mohair yarn. If about a third of her class were knitting things for Valentine's Day, it would probably result in about that amount of dust.
And some of their friends who weren't knitting would borrow some yarn and play cat's cradle, so the first-year camellia class was swimming in wool fibers.
Conversations about chocolate were springing up all over the place. Students getting together to look through recipe books and writing down ingredients for sweets, or poring over the catalogs from famous confectionery shops in their magazines. Everyone was having fun, whether they had an onee-sama or not.
It was their long-awaited high-school Valentine's Day. It was probably more strange not to be enjoying it.
After school on Saturday.
With the cleaning finished, and her hands washed, she went to take her handkerchief out of her pocket and something else came flying out with it and landed on the floor. After picking it up and unfolding it, she saw that it was the special edition of the Lillian Kawaraban that had been distributed that morning. Touko smiled. She'd completely forgotten that she had it in her pocket.
"It's on again – the Treasure Hunt!"
The headline jumped out at her.
But despite the sense of urgency in the announcement, there were hardly any details provided. When she'd first read it, she thought that the newspaper was planning on releasing the information little by little in order to drum up enthusiasm, but apparently they hadn't settled on the final details.
"Mami-sama said they'd publish the rules as soon as they were decided."
Noriko had explained at lunch time, while trying to escape her classmates.
Noriko's life had become a lot more hectic since the student council elections. Of course, some of that was Yamayurikai council work, but her classmates would also gather around her during breaks to ask her about the upcoming events.
As a result, for the last few days, Noriko gave the impression of always rushing from one place to another. There was no end to the people she had to deal with. Just what on earth had happened to the "Unapproachable Noriko-san" from the start of the school year?
Thinking about it, Touko grimaced.
It was the same with her – "Touko-san the innocent meddler" was a thing of the past too.
At some point they'd swapped.
No. It wasn't like they'd switched roles. They'd both gradually changed over time, until they'd finally settled like this.
"Treasure hunt … huh."
Touko returned the paper to her right pocket. Her hand remained there, in her pocket.
She hadn't been able to participate in last year's treasure hunt because she'd been in middle-school. She'd declined her classmates' invitation to race over there as soon as school was over and had pretended to go home, but then curiosity got the better of her and she had walked over to the high-school area. And then –
(What an idiot.)
From inside her pocket came the sound of the newspaper being crushed. It was no longer folded in four, it was now just a paper ball.
(What an idiot.)
She walked quickly down the hallway. Like she was trying to shake off the ghosts of the past. Why did she have to remember that scene?
(What an idiot, what an idiot, what an idiot, what an idiot!)
She ran and ran, but it just kept chasing her.
The image of that girl running through the school, exactly one year ago. Her desperate expression as she ran, pursued by those other girls. But, the way it was framed, she looked like the lead racehorse, pursued by the rest of the field.
That girl was the one that Sachiko-onee-sama had chosen.
Touko thought it was frightening. But she didn't understand what it was she feared. She was just vaguely scared. She couldn't get close to that person.
(It's hopeless … )
The more she tried to shake it off, the more the vision of Yumi-sama remained. Touko gave up and slowed down. Before she knew it, she was back at the first-year camellia classroom.
"Well then, gokigenyou everyone."
A voice called out from within the classroom, then Noriko emerged.
Noriko said cheerfully, spotting her friend.
"You look busy, are you on your way to the Rose Mansion?"
"Nope. There's no meeting today. I'm in a hurry because there's a special on Buddhist statues on TV today and I forgot to set the recorder. Unfortunately, my great-aunt's out today too. Well, I wouldn't really want to rely on her anyway."
It wasn't clear whether she didn't want to bother her great-aunt, or she didn't think she'd be able to work the machine.
"What time's it on?"
"Umm … two, I think."
"Then you'd better hurry."
Looking at her watch, Touko saw it was already well past 1pm. She remembered that Noriko's house was a couple of stops away on the train from M Station. If she didn't have to wait too long for the train she could still make it home in time, but the bus from school was often late so she couldn't be too careless.
"Yeah. Well, gokigenyou."
Noriko turned to go.
Touko called out instinctively.
"Huh? What is it?"
Touko had put the cart before the horse, calling out to her before she'd thought about what she should say. But she'd called her to stop on reflex. Perhaps it had just felt wrong for Noriko to say something completely trivial like that, since usually they had weighty conversations when it was just the two of them.
"It must be tough on you. You have to hide one of the treasures this year, right?"
Sad to say, what came out of her mouth was the same sort of thing that her classmates had said when they crowded around Rosa Gigantea en bouton.
Noriko smiled as she denied this.
"The three second-years are hiding the cards. Ah, right. I think I've got one … "
As she said this, Noriko put her hand in her pocket and fished something out.
"See, it says "next year's Roses," right?"
What she'd retrieved from her pocket was the special edition of the Lillian Kawaraban. Noriko explained as she pointed to the article.
"Last year it was the boutons, so it seems like a lot of people made that mistake. Do you have one of these?"
"Then you can have this. I've already read it, and we should have one on file at the Rose Mansion, so I could read that any time."
Noriko refolded it and pressed it into Touko's left hand, before saying, "Catch you later," and quickly disappearing down the hallway.
After returning to her classroom, Touko wondered why she had just accepted another copy of the Lillian Kawaraban when she already had a copy. On her desk, she placed the copy she'd just received next to the crumpled copy from her pocket.
(This is Noriko, this is Touko.)
She tapped each of them, and then put both of them in her pocket.
There was nothing else she could do.
Because, at that time, she absolutely did not want Noriko to see that crumpled piece of paper.
As she walked along the hall leading to the shoe boxes, Touko spotted someone coming the other way that had also finished their preparations to leave for the day.
It was her normal voice, so this was neither a dream nor a phantom. She walked over to the motionless Touko, smiled and said, "Gokigenyou."
In this way, Fukuzawa Yumi-sama came to a stop in front of Touko, like a miracle.
(What is this?)
Touko smiled bitterly.
She thought she'd finally rid herself of that ghost chasing after her, but now they'd run into each other here. It caught her off guard.
But, thinking back, Noriko had left her with the hint that there was no meeting at the Rose Mansion today. Although, even with that hint, she couldn't have predicted this exact outcome.
Yumi-sama was by herself. Neither her onee-sama, Sachiko-sama, nor her classmate Shimazu Yoshino-sama were with her. She'd just randomly decided to head home on her own.
Touko smiled sweetly. That sort of expression was her specialty.
"Are you heading home now, Touko-chan?"
Touko thought that was a rather idiotic question to ask someone wearing their coat and holding their schoolbag. But, in truth, Touko was the idiotic one.
"Then let's go together."
" … Uh."
They were right next to the shoe lockers and she'd said she was heading home. At this point it was too late to make some excuse about why they'd be leaving at different times, like she had to go to the library, or there was something she had to buy from the school shop.
The first- and second-year lockers were in different locations, so if she made a run for it after changing shoes there was a chance she'd get away.
But what would happen if she did that? It would just be compounding her idiocy.
The image of her frantically sprinting down the path past the library was too ridiculous.
Touko resigned herself to her fate and started walking.
She waited at the entrance doorway until Yumi-sama finally arrived.
"Sorry for keeping you waiting."
Indeed, she'd been kept waiting. For a lot longer than it would typically take to change one's shoes.
Touko looked back in the direction from which Yumi-sama had come. She couldn't see anyone that Yumi-sama could have been talking to.
Walking half a step ahead, Yumi-sama mumbled.
"I wanted a chance to talk to you alone, Touko-chan. But I didn't know how you would feel about that. I've been holding back from visiting the first-year camellia classroom because it might cause problems for you."
Yumi-sama looked back over her shoulder at Touko.
"So, I'm overjoyed that we ran into each other just now."
" – "
At that moment, a thought crossed Touko's mind – Yumi-sama had taken her time just to give Touko a chance to run away.
Touko eyed the path they were walking along. Running as hard as she could, it would take her about this long to cover the distance from the entrance way to the corner of the library.
So this girl would have been fine if Touko had run off. Probably.
(Or maybe she'd have preferred I ran.)
That wasn't right.
The smile she'd had when she said she was overjoyed they met had not been fake.
First of all, if she hadn't wanted to walk home with Touko, she wouldn't have asked when they'd met. There was no need for something so circuitous.
No matter how she much she thought about it, she wouldn't get an answer. Touko gave up and asked a question:
"What did you intend to say to me when we met?"
It was the first time they'd been alone together since last Christmas.
Back then, Touko had been agitated by the sudden offer of the rosary and harshly rejected Yumi-sama.
Touko had resigned herself to hearing a couple of complaints about this now that there was no-one else around.
"What indeed? I don't know. There wasn't anything I explicitly wanted to say, it was just a vague feeling. It's like, there's so many boxes to open, I don't know where to start."
Yumi-sama's answer was as vague as she'd described, containing nothing even slightly relevant.
"Anyway, you know how you call out to your friends, even if you have nothing specific to talk about? It's like, well, since you're here, but then you try and think about why you want them to stay, and you don't know."
She didn't know?
A short time ago, Touko had succumbed to that same emotion when she called out to Noriko.
So did that mean that Yumi-sama was feeling the same way towards Touko that Touko had felt earlier?
They turned the corner past the library.
Yumi-sama opened a box and presented the words inside to Touko.
"My bad for putting you on the spot."
But Touko had no idea what she was being put on the spot about.
What had Yumi-sama done to her that warranted an apology? Shouldn't Touko have been the one saying "My bad." Of course, with Lillian's strict seniority system, she wouldn't say something as informal as "my bad" to a senior.
"I didn't think about it. I offered you my rosary before even thinking about it. There were a lot of things I should have thought about – your feelings, whether it was the right circumstances, all sorts of things – before I asked. But I got carried away by my own emotions. So it's only natural that you were shocked."
So that was what led Yumi-sama to say, "My bad." But, if those were her true feelings, then she couldn't be said to have made any progress at all.
Because, right now, Yumi-sama was driving the conversation without considering Touko at all. If she had thought about it, she would know that Touko would rather not have this conversation.
"So, this has been an apology. Next I'm going to make a proposal – can we return our relationship to how it was prior to Christmas?"
"I hate this awkward relationship we have now. Ah, but don't worry, I'm not going to force my rosary on you. But, like, could we greet each other warmly if we passed in the corridor? Or stop and have a pointless chat in the hallway? Ah, right. Could you come and visit us at the Rose Mansion again – "
"I don't understand what you're thinking."
Touko cut in, unable to stand this optimistic "proposal."
"Why are you so indulgent of an underclassman who rejected you?"
"Indulgent? That's not it."
Seeing those blank eyes looking back at her, Touko momentarily doubted her grasp of the Japanese language. Why was it that conversations would go like this when they shared the same language?
"First of all, why would you even consider making this fool your petit soeur?"
That was what Touko had wanted to ask when she was offered the rosary. But she'd been afraid of the answer, so she'd swallowed the question.
"Can you stop demeaning yourself like that?"
Yumi-sama's expression hardened slightly.
""This fool" is just fine for this fool."
"You said it again."
"It's got nothing to do with you, right? I'm just talking about myself."
"It does have something to do with me. You're the one I chose as my petit soeur. I don't want you to be arbitrarily devaluing yourself."
But that meant she didn't have that value originally. Why couldn't Yumi-sama understand that?
"I interpreted Yumi-sama's offer of her rosary at that time as a fantasy. And I accepted it as such. So all this talk of soeurs should be over. So why do you still care about me?"
Touko glared at Yumi-sama.
"You don't know?"
Yumi-sama stopped walking and looked calmly at Touko as she asked this. As though to say, "You really don't know?"
She didn't know.
She was afraid of knowing.
At this moment, Yumi-sama was looking straight at Touko alone. Like she was drawing her in.
In truth, Touko knew.
For whatever reason, she knew the answer Yumi-sama had prepared.
But Touko just couldn't believe it. That was why she couldn't take the offered hand. She couldn't leap into those outspread arms.
"You know, ever since you turned me down, I've been thinking about it."
Yumi-sama resumed walking. Touko followed along after her.
"Wondering what would happen between me and Touko-chan."
They walked along the path lined with ginkgo trees, just half a step separating them.
"But then I thought I should think about what I wanted to happen between us, rather than wonder about what would happen. Since then, that's what I've been thinking about."
Touko had no obligation to follow her like this. She didn't have to silently listen to her talk. She could just say, "That's enough," and stop walking.
But Touko followed her. She had to confirm her suspicious about where Yumi-sama's speech was going.
"Ultimately, I'll be happy as long as Touko-chan is Touko-chan."
Yumi-sama stopped walking before Touko did. They had arrived at the statue of Maria-sama.
"As long as I'm me."
This phrase didn't exactly make Touko feel happy. But Yumi-sama didn't notice Touko-chan's subtle shift in expression, because she had her head bowed in prayer.
"So while I'd be delighted to be your soeur, it seems like you don't value that, perhaps seeing it as a prison."
Yumi-sama opened her eyes and turned around. Touko had forgotten to pray, repeating a single phrase over and over.
"You said, "As long as I'm me – ""
Her hands were shaking. She knew she shouldn't dig too deeply into this topic. But now that the lid had been opened, she just had to look inside. There was no way she couldn't.
"That's right. So no matter what you do, my feelings won't change. If you don't want to tell me the real reason you ran in the student council election, I won't force it out of you. If that's the conclusion you came to after careful deliberation, then it must have been important to you. Same with why you ran away from home. And other things, like what sort of people your parents are, what kind of childhood you had, what your relationship with them is like now – all those are completely separate to the feelings I have for you, Touko-chan."
As she listened to Yumi spout her pet theory, Touko's temper flared.
Parents, childhood, relationship. How could this person talk so innocently to Touko about these things?
"So that's it?"
Ah, she knew it.
"So that's how it is?"
"As long as I'm me? It has nothing to do with my parents? I knew it had to be something like that."
Still silent, her eyes glistened. She hadn't realized her own mistake yet.
"I don't know how long you've known, but I knew it had to be pity that made you offer me your rosary at that moment. You just wanted to pay a visit to Sara on Christmas Eve. Oh how happy you must have felt when you held out your rosary."
Even so, for a moment she'd wanted to believe, like an idiot.
On that Christmas Eve.
It had been here, right in front of Maria-sama.
"I thought it was strange. There was no way Yumi-sama would want this fool as her petit soeur. But, finally, the mystery is solved."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"If you're not willing to admit it, it's going to make it hard to move forwards."
"Hey, isn't this some sort of misunderstanding?"
Yumi-sama took a step towards Touko.
"Stay away from me!"
Touko screamed with all her might.
"Don't come any closer!"
"I don't want to hear any of your excuses."
Maintaining a distance of about a metre between them, they looked at each other.
Eventually, Yumi-sama started to speak.
"It looks like your blood's boiling, so no matter what I say you won't hear."
With that, Yumi-sama turned her back and walked away from Touko. One metre became two, then when she was about three metres away, she looked back over her shoulder like she'd forgotten something and said:
"Touko-chan. Stay there and count to 100. No moving until you're done."
Then she kept walking.
Without knowing why, Touko followed those directions and counted, "One, two." Even as she wondered why she should follow the orders of someone she was rebelling against, she followed them because of the power of those words.
Her blood was indeed boiling. And her mind was rattled. She couldn't think about things properly. She didn't know what would mess things up, or what was the right thing to do.
In that unsettled state of mind, it was easier to follow someone else's instructions. Even if they came from someone who was tricking her into doing something she found unpleasant. Although, obviously, counting to 100 was a simple and harmless task, so she had no qualms there.
She hadn't been told to close her eyes, but at some point her eyelids had fastened shut. Now, Touko was "it" in a game of hide-and-seek.
Part way through her legs became unsteady, so she crouched down.
"Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight."
The numbers were born and then disappeared. In the beginning, there were all these malevolent thoughts wrapped around her mind as the numbers visited one by one. But now, there was only the numbers there. The numbers flowed in an orderly fashion.
Her boiling blood had cooled considerably.
Touko opened her eyes.
She looked around, but couldn't see Yumi-sama anywhere.
The only one there was Maria-sama.
After counting to 100 on the spot, she felt like she'd calmed down a little bit.
Just a little bit.
While her boiling blood had gradually cooled, the waves of anger, sadness, disillusionment and despair that had accompanied it did not also disappear.
The thing she hated most was pity.
So she couldn't stand the thought of becoming a petit soeur due to pity. How could someone who didn't understand that ever think of being her onee-sama? It was unbelievable.
She'd reached 100 a while ago. But still Touko remained rooted to the spot.
Touko looked towards the school gate, where Yumi-sama would probably have disappeared to. She saw a group of university students walking together.
She could follow along behind them. Then get on a bus, then a train, and arrive home.
But once she arrived home, she'd have to deal with the fact she had nowhere to go. Her only option would be to crawl into bed and cry.
Rejecting that, Touko turned towards the school buildings. The way things were, she wouldn't be able to contain her anger.
Even if it didn't change the situation, there was something she had to say.
(I wonder if she's still here.)
Touko looked at her watch. 1:30.
Her target may have already left a long time ago. In that case, all Touko could do was confirm that and head home. She retraced her footsteps.
Touko walked back alone along the path she had earlier taken with Yumi-sama. She passed some girls that looked like third-years, but none of them were the girl she was looking for.
She made her way to the third-year shoe-box area and had a look inside one of the lockers. Sure enough, there was a pair of outdoors shoes in there. This was proof that her target was still at school.
(Noriko said there wasn't a meeting at the Rose Mansion today.)
Touko headed for the third-year classrooms.
She heard voices coming from inside the third-year pine classroom. It seemed as though there were a few students still there.
Touko flung the door open, not waiting for a response to her knock.
Five girls turned to look at her simultaneously. Her target was one of them.
"Touko-chan … "
The third-years inside were puzzled by this younger girl who had thrown open the door and then stopped moving, like a toy with its batteries removed. One of them came forward and stood in front of her. Ogasawara Sachiko-sama.
"Whatever is the matter?"
"We have to talk."
That was all she said, but Sachiko-sama obviously inferred something and gave a small nod. Then she briefly returned to the group of students, gathered her belongings, said, "I'll leave you here," and exited the classroom.
"Thanks for helping us out."
Sachiko-onee-sama's classmates said their various farewells.
"Is that alright?"
Touko asked, worried that she'd interrupted something. There had been sheets of paper spread across the desks, like they'd been working on something.
"Yeah, it was just the non-entrance-exam cleaning group. We'd already finished and were reading magazines."
As she said this, she shifted her school bag to the side and fastened her coat buttons.
"I don't know what you want to talk about, but this doesn't seem like the right place, wouldn't you agree?"
Touko nodded slightly.
In winter, after most of the students had gone home for the day, the halls echoed more than expected. That said, they weren't about to go back to the third-year pine classroom, and the specialty classrooms were either locked or had people in them.
They walked out into the courtyard.
The air was cold, but with a coat it wasn't too cold to bear. More importantly, their voices wouldn't bounce off the walls or windows or ceilings, so they didn't have to worry about being overheard. The words they spoke here would be picked up by the wind and carried off into the sky.
"Have you been talking to Yumi-sama?"
Touko started by asking this question.
Sachiko-sama asked, sounding confused. But Touko ignored this and continued.
"Didn't you say something about how you weren't going to interfere in Yumi-sama's choice of a petit soeur?"
"Certainly, I may have said something along those lines."
Sachiko-onee-sama smiled as her long hair flowed in the breeze.
"And? What do you think I've been saying to Yumi?"
She asked quietly, as though she had no idea whatsoever.
Touko was struggling for words. Even though it related to herself, she had considerable resistance to saying it out loud.
"Just say it. It's obvious you've come to complain to me about something, but Yumi and I have all sorts of conversations every day. I won't know which one of those has apparently offended you if you don't tell me."
Now that she'd said this there was no other option. Touko firmed her resolve and began to speak.
"About my birth."
For a moment, Sachiko-onee-sama's expression changed. It was the look of someone who had just remembered something.
"There, I knew you'd remember it."
Touko was convinced. Sachiko-onee-sama's failure to respond didn't change that at all.
"So? When did you tell Yumi-sama?"
Was it just before Christmas, or even earlier than that? It probably wouldn't change the current situation, but Touko desperately wanted to know.
When did Yumi-sama start looking at her with pity? That was a very important question to Touko.
But Sachiko-onee-sama made no allusion to that. Instead, she repeated her question.
"What would I even tell Yumi about your birth?"
Acting like that at this point in the game? Annoyed, Touko spat it out.
"Don't play dumb. Obviously that I'm not the Matsudaira's child!"
The moment she heard this, Sachiko-onee-sama's expression froze. Touko knew. This was surprise.
"Touko-chan … you're not the baby that Mrs Matsudaira gave birth to?"
Those black pupils started back at her, unblinking. Touko put herself on guard.
"I'm afraid to say, this is the first I've heard about this."
"There's no way that's true."
She found it hard to believe that Sachiko-onee-sama hadn't heard about it.
Saionji or Ayanokouji or whoever knew about it three years ago. So how could the heiress to the Ogasawara family, who held the most power among their relatives and lived in Tokyo to boot, make it to this age without knowing about it?
But Touko had felt it earlier. Sachiko-onee-sama had been shocked by Touko's words. There was no way that was an act.
"Then why did you look like you'd just remembered something before?"
Wasn't it strange? It was her first time hearing it, but she remembered something.
"I simply remembered Suguru-san asking some leading questions."
"Suguru-onii-sama … ?"
Touko asked, and Sachiko-onee-sama looked up at the sky and laughed.
"I'm sure he was trying to determine whether or not I knew. He asked me if I remembered anything from when you were born."
"And you said?"
"I told him I didn't remember. That's the truth. I couldn't answer any more than that."
Her story was too concrete for an on-the-spot lie. Plus Suguru-onii-sama was given to asking leading questions.
"So then who was it?"
Suguru-onii-sama hadn't been talking to Yumi-sama. That much was obvious from their conversation the other day.
"Honestly, acting so high and mighty."
"My deepest apologies."
Touko humbly apologized. It had been a misunderstanding to think that Sachiko-onee-sama had leaked the details of her birth to Yumi-sama.
"Not to me. To Yumi."
Her muttered words were ice cold.
"I don't know what's happened between you and Yumi, but I'm certain that Yumi knows nothing about your family situation. Even if she somehow found out, that wouldn't change her opinion of you one iota. As her onee-sama, I know that better than anyone."
Touko couldn't respond to that. No, at that moment, she couldn't even think.
She stood frozen to the spot, still unable to find any words. Sachiko-onee-sama looked straight into Touko's eyes for a short while, but then she finally looked away.
Perhaps she couldn't stand to look at Touko any longer. Or maybe she just caught sight of her own reflection in one of the school building windows.
Eventually, the corners of her lips crept upwards and she said:
"Even so, how sad for Yumi, who's only ever been thinking of you."
Unable to bear the weight of those words, Touko fell to her knees on the grass.
Just suppose that it had all been a misunderstanding – what should she do?
How could she take back those words that she'd repeatedly hurled at Yumi-sama?
Sachiko-onee-sama's indoor shoes departed from Touko's side. She could hear the crunching of the dry grass carried on the wind.
Sachiko-onee-sama had entered the school building. This was happening behind her so she couldn't confirm it with her eyes, but she could still tell.
Left all alone, Touko remained crouched in the courtyard.
Sachiko-onee-sama's anger was understandable. Touko had wounded Yumi-sama's pride, and that of her onee-sama.
So, obviously, she wouldn't want to stay with Touko.
But, at that moment, it pained Touko to be alone. She wanted someone, anyone, by her side.
On her own, she had no idea what she should do.
"One, two, three … "
For now, she tried counting. That was the good luck charm that Yumi-sama had taught her, to calm herself.
Maybe once she'd counted to one hundred, she'd have regained some composure.
She didn't know. So she thought she'd give it a try.
Maybe "it" wouldn't find those hiding, when it opened its eyes after counting to one hundred.
(Eventually they'll get tired and no-one will chase after you.)
The words of Suguru-onii-sama intruded upon her counting.
She'd lashed out at anyone and everyone once she started suspecting them, so maybe no-one would ever want to be around her again.
"Thirty-eight … thirty-nine."
At that moment, Touko was completely isolated.
Everyone came into the world alone. So she believed that humans were supposed to live on their own.
Soon after she was born, she was put in the care of her adoptive parents. As a result, she'd made it to here. Humans were surprisingly tough.
But maybe she really was an incredibly weak creature.
Even as she tore apart the bonds tying her to others, one after the other, she found it intolerably lonely.
It was exactly like Suguru-onii-sama had said.
Even as she said she didn't believe it, she really wanted to believe – making light of those that chased her as she ran from one place to another.
So now that she was completely and utterly alone, that was just her paying for her own mistakes.
Nobody would complain if all the friends they'd been playing with had disappeared when they opened their eyes.
Even so, she wouldn't know until she'd finished counting. Until she opened her eyes, she wouldn't know if everyone had really vanished.
As the numbers grew, Touko became scared of counting. When she reached one hundred, she'd have to open her eyes.
When she opened her eyes, she would no doubt find that she was all alone in the school courtyard.
She was scared of counting.
But since she'd started, she had to finish counting to 100.
At that moment, Touko felt something on her shoulder.
A gentle warmth. Touko knew it was a human hand and she instinctively opened her eyes.
The owner of that hand was someone quite unexpected.
"I thought I shouldn't interfere, but I didn't know how long you were going to keep going and it was kind of an accident … So, what happened?"
Smiling innocently at her was Noriko.
Hadn't she gone home a while ago? She'd said there was a Buddhist TV show she wanted to watch, then happily left.
"It kept bugging me after we said goodbye. I got on the bus, but then got off after two stops and came back here. It felt like there was something you were going to say to me."
"What about your show?"
Touko looked at her watch and saw it was 2:05. There was no way Noriko could make it in time now.
"Don't worry about it. It's just TV."
Noriko said crisply.
"Talking to you is much more important."
Touko timidly touched her smiling friend's hand.
"Noriko … "
"Noriko! Noriko! Noriko! Noriko!"
As she repeatedly called her name, Touko grasped Noriko's hand tightly. After confirming it wasn't an illusion, the tears of relief came flooding out.
"Wh-what happened to you?"
Noriko was bewildered.
From her point of view, all she'd done was call out to her friend who was crouched in the courtyard and apparently talking to herself. So she would have had no idea why Touko was crying.
Touko thanked Maria-sama for bringing Noriko back to her.
Astonishingly, Noriko squeezed back on Touko's hand. Touko redoubled her grip.
Indeed, she couldn't let go of that hand.
Noriko was hope.
As long as that hand was there, she could crawl her way back from the depths of despair.
She could still believe.
The cold wind whistled.
It would be okay.
She might still be able to fix things.
Yeah, that was it.
As she accepted the help of her friend and stood up, the soft sound of rustling came from within Touko's right pocket.
- Touko's referencing her performance from the Christmas Eve party, where she played the role of Sara Crewe from A Little Princess.
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