Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume30 Chapter2
Frivolity and Self-Loathing
"Don't tell me you were waiting here for us?"
Yumi asked in disbelief.
"It's just a coincidence."
Yoshino-san answered sourly. When Rei-sama appeared from behind them she greeted Yumi's group of four with "Gokigenyou," but seemed to be forcing herself to be cheerful.
"I wonder if they've been fighting."
Even if Sachiko-sama hadn't whispered this in Yumi's ear, the tension that filled the two metre gap between the Yellow Rose sisters was obvious.
"They haven't changed a bit. No matter how much time passes, they're still acting like children."
That was an incredibly morally superior position for Sachiko-sama to take, considering she had been bickering with Kashiwagi-san not that long ago. But, thankfully, it looked like those comments hadn't carried to Yoshino-san's ears. Still with a sour look on her face, Yoshino-san poked her thumb over her shoulder and said:
"The impromptu gathering's still going on."
When Yumi turned around, Tsutako-san and Shouko-chan were standing right behind her. Shimako-san and Noriko-chan were also visible, a short distance away.
"It seems they caught the same train here."
Yoshino-san said. Although everyone had arrived at the amusement park half an hour after its opening time, Yoshino-san's use of the word 'seems' implied they hadn't arranged this meeting.
"Were the trains running late?"
"I didn't hear anything about that."
So, at the very least, Yoshino-san and Rei-sama's late arrival wasn't because of the trains.
"But there was congestion during the bus ride."
They hadn't made it in time to catch their intended train due to the slow-moving bus and had lost thirty minutes. It all fit together. Still, as Yumi watched the Yellow Rose sisters walking away, she was convinced that something else had happened on their journey here. If the problem was only that they were late because they got stuck in traffic, Yoshino-san would be more animated, saying things like, "They need dedicated bus lanes," or, "There needs to be more buses." In contrast, gentle Rei-sama would never get upset over something as trivial as a traffic jam.
But enough of that. Yumi, Sachiko-sama, Kashiwagi-san and Yuuki each purchased a ticket with their own money.
Having said that, the decision that they should all pay their own way was arrived at only after a massive dispute. Sachiko-sama had announced, unprompted, that she would pay Yumi and Yuuki's share, since this was all so she could have her revenge. However, Yumi's parents were unwilling to stray from their principle that school students should each pay their own share, and the Fukuzawa siblings were unwilling to disobey their parents. In the end, they struck a deal where Kashiwagi-san would drive them, thereby letting the Ogasawara family cover the travel expenses (Kashiwagi-san and Sachiko-sama obviously kept their finances separate, but Yumi's parents knew they were related). Back then, neither Yumi nor anyone else in her family had imagined that Sachiko-sama would be driving.
After buying an all-day pass, they waited by the main entrance for Tsutako-san, Shouko-chan, Shimako-san and Noriko-chan to join them.
Surprisingly, it was only then that the White Rose sisters realized the other members were present. Shimako-san looked at her watch, then quietly said something like, "I wonder if we should go in." They probably hadn't expected to meet their friends here since they had arrived late themselves. Yumi had waved at them from the ticket counter, but apparently they hadn't noticed.
A pall hung over the area, as though they were holding a wake.
There should be more energy to a gathering of ten young men and women at an amusement park on Sunday. But this group seemed to have run out of fizz, like a soda can that had been opened and then left to stand for an hour. They hadn't entered the park yet, and they were all like that. Even though they had been so enthusiastic yesterday evening.
They started by greeting each other with "Gokigenyou," although no-one looked particularly happy.
The Yellow Rose sisters were fighting about something. Noriko-chan was acting reticent with Shimako-san around. Even Tsutako-san and Shouko-chan were strangely awkward. Kashiwagi-san and Sachiko-sama were on-edge because of their bickering over traffic and driving, while the Fukuzawa siblings were exhausted from fretting over their respective seniors.
"… I suppose we should go inside."
Even though Yumi was worried about her friends, they wouldn't solve anything by standing there looking at each other. Since they had all arrived about 30 minutes late, they entered the park together, as though they had planned to do this.
"Since it turned out like this, it's a shame that Touko and Kanako-chan aren't here as well."
The amusement park date was always intended to be an optional outing, and if they happened to run into each other they could have some fun together. When they parted company last night, they hadn't been able to contact Kanako-chan and Touko had said she didn't know whether she would be able to come or not. If the park has just opened, they would have waited a while for Touko and Kanako-chan, but the park had already been open for thirty minutes so, assuming they intended to come, it was possible they were already inside.
"Surprisingly, they may have made it here when the park opened."
"It'd be nice if we met them inside."
Then let the Touko-and-Kanako-hunt begin!
"Ahh – the steam train's running!"
Yoshino-san pointed and shouted just after they'd walked though the main gate.
"You, you, and you. Let's go ride it."
As for who Yoshino-san was proposing should go on the ride with her, it was Yumi, Shimako-san and Tsutako-san. In other words, all of the second-years from Lillian's Girls Academy. By all rights, the first one to see Yoshino-san's smiling face should have been her partner, Rei-sama, but she was being completely ignored. Yumi didn't know what caused their fight, but the insinuation was quite obvious.
Noriko-chan and Shouko-chan were pulled in as well, following Shimako-san and Tsutako-san respectively. And then, just like that, Yoshino-san was in high spirits as she led the group of six.
"Yoshino. Yumi-chan's here with Sachiko."
Rei-sama was hastily chasing them, but Sachiko-sama said to her:
"It's okay. We'll all split up sooner or later, so we may as well have some fun together now."
"Indeed. The steam train looks as though it can hold ten people riding together, so does anyone mind if we join in?"
Kashiwagi-san smiled as he grabbed hold of Yuuki's arm. Yuuki shrugged himself free, saying he wasn't a child, and walked alongside Sachiko-sama and Rei-sama. Maybe older women were his type.
"Oh look, they have bicycles for inside the park."
"Ah. There's a bear riding a bike."
As they all traveled together, the conversation gradually picked up and the pall was lifted. There was no boisterous laughter, but it approached the liveliness of a Buddhist memorial service. Even Sachiko-sama and Kashiwagi-san, by keeping a buffer of other people between them, were able to soften their mood. Since it was such an insignificant quarrel, there were unlikely to be any long-term repercussions.
In that case, perhaps Yoshino-san and Rei-sama didn't want to be left alone just now. The White Rose sisters and the photography club duo didn't really understand what was going on, but since they agreed to ride on the steam train they obviously weren't looking to spend some time alone just yet.
Since the steam train could take over a hundred people at a time, it didn't take long until it was their turn. Now the problem was who would sit where. Normally, the couples that came together would pair up, ie. the White Rose sisters, the Yellow Rose sisters, the photography club duo, the Red Rose sisters and the pair from Hanadera Academy.
Occasionally they'd shuffle things around, but at present they had no way of randomly assigning lots, and no-one would want to do a show of hands for who sat where.
"Yoshino-san, what do you want to do?"
Yumi asked the most problematic person directly. Thereupon.
"It's okay. I'll sit with Rei-chan."
Was Yoshino-san's response. They way she said it made it obvious that she didn't want to be with Rei-chan, but that it was the lesser of two evils. That may be true, since she would be asked to explain if she sat with anyone else. Everyone had noticed that something was up, but Yoshino-san hadn't said a single word about their fight. It must be something she wasn't proud of.
So, they all boarded the steam train and sat down with their usual partner. Yumi was happy to be next to Sachiko-sama, but found herself glancing two seats forward to where Yoshino-san sat, out of concern.
As expected, Yoshino-san was completely ignoring Rei-sama on her left, instead looking only at the scenery through the window on her right.
The kindergarten aged boy sitting in the seat in front of her was constantly exclaiming "Wow!" and "Cool!"
At first he was excited just to be on a steam train, which he'd only seen in picture books before (apparently), then when it started moving he took great joy in the park scenery that coalesced around them, then called out reassuringly after confirming that his parents were sitting beside him.
(Ignorance is bliss.)
As she gazed at the scenery without noticing it, Yoshino let her own deep sigh join the rushing wind. It wasn't that she found the boy annoying or foolish. If anything, it was closer to envy or nostalgia. Yoshino had been that ignorant and determinedly excited when she woke up this morning.
Yesterday, after it was determined that they would be going to the amusement park, Yoshino couldn't stop herself from getting excited. Thoughts of going on the rides with Rei-chan, and what they would have for lunch, thrilled her – so much so that she awoke before her alarm clock went off this morning.
But despite that.
(How did things end up like this?)
Yoshino desperately wanted Maria-sama to tell her how she could turn things around, so that she could grab hold of Rei-chan's arm and innocently say, "Look at that," and "Wow," like the boy sitting in front of her.
Yoshino had arranged to meet with Rei-chan at 8:10am.
Having excitedly woken up over two hours before that, she had a leisurely breakfast, tried on the clothes she had picked out to wear last night, changed into a different pair that she thought might be better, then eventually went back to the first set of clothes. Despite taking such a long time to get dressed, there was still plenty of time left over.
Because she had so much free time, she started thinking unnecessary thoughts, which led to the cracks starting to form and the beginning of her sorrow.
Yoshino thought that her brain had probably melted from excitement. Upon reflection, it was obviously a mean-spirited practical joke, but at the time she was only thinking that it would be a bit of fun. She'd had the high spirits of a child in pre-school.
Yoshino finished all her preparations for going out, then at 8:05am got back into bed and pulled the blanket over her head.
When 8:10 rolled around and Yoshino still hadn't come out of her house, Rei-chan would enter the Shimazu house, and Yoshino's room, as usual.
(Yoshino, what are you doing? Wake up already.)
Just as Rei-chan pulls down the blanket:
Yoshino, already dressed to go out, would poke out her tongue.
(Hehehe. Did I scare you?)
The two would look at each other and laugh. – Well, that was Yoshino's plan, anyway.
Still wearing her jacket and with the blanket pulled over her head, Yoshino started to boil, but she kept enduring it. A little bit of patience is always needed before something fun.
No matter how long she waited, Rei-chan still didn't appear in her room. When she lifted up her blanket to take a look at the clock, thinking that perhaps it hadn't been five minutes just yet, Yoshino saw that it was 8:20am.
"Don't tell me Rei-chan overslept?" Yoshino thought as she got out of bed, but then she heard the sound of someone walking up the stairs, so she hurriedly got back in bed.
The sound of knocking on the door was quickly followed by the door opening.
Now, come to me.
Yoshino was waiting for the blanket to be ripped off her bed. Instead.
"What are you doing, Yoshino?"
The voice she heard was not Rei-chan's.
Naturally, when Yoshino pulled down the blanket the person standing there was the woman that had given birth to her.
"As she was leaving, she said she'd go on ahead since you weren't there on time."
"Hurry up and chase after her. Really, going back to sleep after you'd woken up so early."
Explaining that she hadn't gone back to sleep would be a pain, so Yoshino said, "I'm off," and flew out of the house. As she ran towards the bus stop, Yoshino cursed Rei-chan for making her do this.
Turning the corner, she caught sight of someone up ahead. The long, jeans-clad legs that poked out of the short, off-white trench-coat were moving briskly.
Rei-chan stopped walking when Yoshino called out to her.
"Why'd you go on ahead of me?"
Yoshino complained as she ran.
"Because you weren't there at the time we'd set. I waited five minutes for you."
Rei-chan brazenly fixed Yoshino's bangs when she caught up. Damn it. It seems her hair got messed up while she was hiding under the blanket.
"But you usually come and get me."
If Rei-chan were to say, "I'm sorry,", then Yoshino was prepared to say, "It's my fault too." But that didn't happen.
"Why are you acting so spoiled?"
When Yoshino heard that, it was like a switch was flipped inside her.
What's wrong with that? After all, once Rei-chan had graduated, she wouldn't be able to participate in their morning ritual of waking Yoshino up just in time to make it to school.
But Rei-chan didn't agree. It was probably because she was graduating that she didn't want Yoshino to rely on her anymore.
Perhaps it was due to their different positions. The one heading out on a journey wanted to cut off all ties, while the one left behind wanted to cling to them.
Rei-chan cried out. The bus had sailed past them right at that moment. There was no-one waiting at the bus stop. It didn't look like anyone was getting off either, since the bus kept on going until it disappeared from view.
As she listened to Rei-chan's despondent cry, Yoshino said:
"There's nothing we can do about it now."
"There's hardly any buses on a Sunday."
Rei-chan scratched her head.
"This is your fault, Yoshino."
Sure, she hadn't been out in front of her house at the time they had agreed to, but that just meant Rei-chan should have come and got her. It had been Rei-chan's decision to wait five minutes, then leave without her, so she had no right to blame her. Even now, it was because of a choice she had made. If Rei-chan hadn't stopped when Yoshino called out to her, instead continuing to walk along in silence, she would have caught that bus.
Rei-chan studied the timetable printed on the bus stop, then looked at her watch and sighed theatrically.
For argument's sake, let's say Rei-chan did make it here on time and Yoshino still hadn't come, would she have got on that bus?
That's cold, Rei-chan. Yoshino curled her lower-lip as she looked at Rei-chan's profile. If that's how it was going to be, then damned if she'd open her mouth until she'd received an apology.
The next bus wouldn't be here for about twenty minutes. Rei-chan didn't attempt to talk to her, so Yoshino remained silent as well.
When they finally boarded the bus, it moved at a sluggish pace. The only possible reason was that the roads were packed. Looking out the front window, Yoshino saw all makes of cars, both big and small, filling the road to the train station. Even when the lights turned green, there was no hint of movement.
Rei-chan spoke, for the first time in thirty minutes. Thinking that Rei-chan was about to apologize, Yoshino responded with, "Yes?" and turned towards her. However, the next words out of Rei-chan's mouth were:
"Don't you have something to say to me?"
"Good morning, Rei-chan."
Yoshino forced a smile.
"That's not it."
Rei-chan was waiting for something else, but Yoshino said, "That's all," and shut her out.
It's a shame, but Yoshino wasn't going to be the first one to say, "I'm sorry," today.
As she absentmindedly watched the red light on the car in front of them, Yoshino thought, "At this rate, we're not going to make it to the amusement park by opening time."
They began their time at the amusement park with everyone riding the steam train together. When they disembarked, Noriko thought that it had been a splendid idea from Yoshino-sama.
At the very least, it had been for the White Rose sisters. Squeezed into that single carriage with the rest of the passengers, they felt the vibrations of the train track as they were quickly whisked around the grounds. The gentle caress of the wind coming through the open windows upon Noriko's face had relaxed her. If it had just been the two of them, the situation would have seemed more serious, so much so that she would have been conscious of how she was breathing.
So when Yumi-sama had enthusiastically asked, "Who wants to go to the haunted house?" Noriko raised her hand without hesitation. She loved Shimako-san, and they really needed to have a proper talk soon, but for now she just wanted to spend a bit more time with her friends.
Shimako-san said, "I wonder if we should go too," perhaps because she understood Noriko's feelings. As usual, Noriko's chest tightened when she saw Shimako-san smile.
Shimako-san had said that, "It's not that big a deal," but Noriko couldn't set it aside that easily. But, while still not knowing what she should do, Noriko realized that there had been nothing she could have done all along. All she could do was take the hit, but she was running away to try and avoid that.
What had been her state of mind when she first discovered that Shimako-san was the daughter of a Buddhist priest? No matter how hard Noriko tried to remember, she couldn't. Shimako-san's secret had been announced to the whole school, making it no longer a secret, then they had become soeurs, and the quiet, peaceful days had piled up one on top of the other.
Certainly, there were still many things she didn't know about Shimako-san. But Noriko had never considered that this would be one of them.
Some lively music intruded on Noriko's thoughts. It looked as though a parade had started on Main Street. The group of friends she was walking with had paused to watch as well.
The characters in their brilliant costumes sang, danced and paraded. The spectating children waved at the bears and squealed with delight. Everyone seemed to be having fun.
Still, as the parade became more and more cheerful, Noriko became more and more depressed. Or perhaps her mood hadn't changed from five minutes ago, it just seemed more or less pronounced depending on the excitement level of her surroundings. Like if someone had been walking along a flat road for a long time and suddenly there were mountains towering over them on each side, they'd think they were in a valley. That kind of thing. Probably.
(Was it a heavy burden for you?)
Even now, the words Shimako-san said to her about an hour ago lingered in her mind.
Shimako-san, standing right beside her and smiling as she shook the bear's hand, seemed incredibly mysterious.
Noriko had arranged to meet with Shimako-san at the subway's ticket gate.
They would both be taking the same JR train-line to get there, but they had delayed their meeting because it was too hard to organize a rendezvous on-board a train.
Noriko disembarked from the JR train just after 9:10am. They had arranged to meet at 9:20am, so it was perfect timing. She looked around as she walked to their meeting place, thinking they both may have caught the same train, but when she got there Shimako-san was already waiting for her.
Since Shimako-san lived further away, she had probably left earlier to make sure she arrived on time. She might seem light and fluffy, but she was actually very diligent and earnest.
After exchanging greetings, they walked towards the platform. From time to time they would go on outings to churches, temples and statues of Buddha together, but this was their first time going to an amusement park. Consequently, Noriko was a bit giddy with delight, although she wasn't aware of it.
"We're only changing trains once but it all looks so complicated."
Shimako-san said, as she unfolded a map of the train lines in Tokyo's outskirts.
"It's alright. I know my way around here really well, so leave it to me."
Noriko smiled, saying that, obviously, the reason she knew her way around here wasn't because she was always going to the amusement park. One of her relatives used to live in this area and they would often come and visit, and, as a child, she had often traveled to Tokyo alone to view various statues of Buddha.
"Alright, I'll follow you."
Shimako-san said, quickly putting the map back in her bag. Noriko was gladdened by that small gesture, which said, "I have faith in you."
There weren't as many people on the platform as during rush hour on a weekday, but there were more than Noriko had expected. She thought there was no way that all these people would be going to the amusement park, but predicted that about two-thirds of them would get on the same train as her and Shimako-san. Since people usually faced in the direction that the train they wanted to catch was coming from.
The train arrived not that long after, and the number of people getting on the train was roughly what Noriko had predicted. A lot of people got off the train as well, so it wasn't too crowded. They could stand normally, without brushing up against other people.
They stood opposite the door they had used to board, beside the closed door. They'd have to take care when their door was open not to obstruct the people getting on or off, but while it was closed they could have a leisurely conversation.
"I wonder if everyone's coming."
Shimako-san said softly as she looked out the window.
"It seems like Yoshino-san and Rei-sama will definitely be there."
"I'm not sure about Touko and Kanako-san. I wanted to call them and find out, but since it was supposed to be entirely optional I didn't feel like I should."
Over the telephone it would be easy to mistake a simple question of whether or not they were going for an imposition.
"That's true. And the amusement park costs money too... Noriko, are you okay?"
Shimako-san's sudden inquiry implied that she had only just considered this. She was probably worried because Noriko lived away from her parents.
"I have money set aside for unexpected expenses, plus I still have some left over from my New Year's gift."
She curled her index finger around to meet her thumb, making the OK sign. Her hobby of viewing Buddha statues didn't usually require much money, but there were the occasional massive spikes. Like when there was an exhibition of a Buddha statue that was only shown once every few years, at a place that was too far away for a day-trip, and she had to pay for travel and lodging. Consequently, Noriko was used to budgeting and keeping some spare cash on hand.
"In my case, I thought I'd be able to pay for it myself, but."
Shimako-san smiled ruefully.
It seemed like someone else was footing the bill for Shimako-san's fun today.
"My father gave me a special allowance."
Shimako-san's father was the chief priest of the fairly large Buddhist temple called Shouguuji, and friend of Noriko's boyfriend / partner-in-Buddhist-statue-admiration, Takuya-kun. He was a cheerful and funny guy, whether he was wearing his monk's robes or not.
"Strange, isn't it? If any normal girl were in my place, she'd be delighted."
Somehow or other, Noriko felt like she understood.
Shimako-san's father would feel more at ease with a daughter tainted by the world, rather than one who stubbornly brooded over becoming a nun. And, understanding that, Shimako-san had decided to gratefully accept his money and go out and have some fun.
"I guess you never pester your parents for things you want, Shimako-san."
Looking at her, you wouldn't think she had any worldly desires.
"You do, Noriko?"
"I do. For Christmas, I pestered them for a 10,000 yen photobook of statues of Buddha."
"For Christmas you wanted a photobook of – "
"Statues of Buddha. It's odd, right?"
"Perhaps. A little."
While they were both giggling, the train stopped and the door they were standing next to opened. The two of them stood back and watched as the train seemed to breathe, exhaling old passengers and inhaling new ones. Then the train's mouth closed, and it resumed its rattling journey. At that point, Noriko resumed their conversation.
"I want to talk to you about Touko."
Shimako-san cocked her head. That name had only been mentioned in passing in their earlier conversation. Noriko's classmate, the girl who may or may not be going to the amusement park. Someone who probably considered Noriko her friend.
"I asked Touko to tell me the details about her date with Yumi-sama. This was after the report had been published in the Lillian Kawaraban. I asked her casually, without thinking about it too hard, since they were now safely soeurs."
"I thought the report was just an excerpt, but I was wrong. The places they went were all in there. Then I started wondering, did that mean that anybody could follow the same trail as them and have the same date. I can't explain it all that well, but the things that weren't written in the report – their conversations and emotions – those would probably be completely different."
Noriko asked herself, "What am I trying to say?" Certainly, when she started this conversation there had been something she wanted to say to Shimako-san. But the more she talked, the further it seemed she was getting from that, to the point where she had become trapped in a maze of her own words.
But Shimako-san didn't hurry her, instead listening to Noriko's words with a calm expression. Not dragging her forwards, just waiting nonchalantly by the exit. That kind of feeling.
"When she was a baby, Touko's real parents both died in a car accident. She went to visit the location of that accident with Yumi."
"Hold on a moment."
Shimako-san interrupted her.
"Is this something you should be telling me?"
What Noriko had just blurted out may have been something she was told by Touko in confidence. It was therefore only natural that Shimako-san would want to confirm that it was okay.
"Touko said it was okay if I told you. That she knew it was painful to keep things from your onee-sama."
Actually, Touko had laughed. She said that Rosa Chinensis and Yumi-sama already knew, so there was no need to hide it anymore.
It seemed that, for Touko, the main question had been whether or not Yumi-sama knew about this. Since she had broken through that barrier and was able to speak openly with Yumi-sama, it was of no concern if the rest of her friends knew as well. If anything, she seemed revitalized by it, although that was a poor way of putting it.
Shimako-san nodded slightly, then her expression changed to one of understanding.
"If I had known that during the Christmas party, I could have had a different conversation with her."
Again, an old conversation was mentioned. About three months old, now.
"Back then, she asked if I would succeed my father in the family business."
"Ahh – "
That explains it. This time it was Noriko with the expression of understanding.
Touko had told her that her grandfather owned a hospital near the accident site and that her father had no plans to succeed him. Apparently she was thinking about shouldering the burden of the hospital in her father's place. Shimako-san's family ran a temple, so perhaps Touko asked because she thought it could serve as a reference.
"So, what was your response, Shimako-san?"
"I said I wasn't sure, but thought it would be better if my older brother succeeded my father."
Shimako-san had a much older brother. He was an enigma of a man, who at one point was a Buddhist monk but now occasionally made sweets (apparently).
"But even if I had known about the accident, I still wouldn't have been able to offer any pertinent advice. Everybody is different, so my experience wouldn't necessarily apply."
At that point, Noriko equivocally said, "I guess so," and let the matter drop. People who had lived long lives had all kinds of experiences so could more easily place themselves in the other person's position, whereas someone who was only a little bit older wouldn't be able to offer much advice. Noriko knew that was the prevailing view amongst the general population.
So Noriko returned to their earlier conversation. There was something she wanted to hear Shimako-san's opinion on.
"I was useless. I'd blundered into this heavy conversation in a light, thoughtless manner. I didn't know what I should have said to Touko – "
Noriko was just as useless in this current conversation, although she hadn't yet realized it.
She believed that Shimako would smile and warn her to show more discretion in the future.
Instead, what awaited her was Shimako-san's serious face.
"When Touko-chan told you this, was it a heavy burden for you?"
"Did you regret that you heard it, Noriko?"
Why was Shimako-san throwing these questions at her?
"I'm not sure. Why do you ask?"
Noriko really wasn't sure of her true feelings, but what would Shimako-san's reaction have been if she had said that it was a heavy burden and that she did regret hearing it?
Shimako-san wasn't Touko. So why was she fixated on this?
Suddenly, Noriko's heart started hammering in her chest.
(What was it that Shimako-san had said about the Christmas party?)
She said, "If I had known that during the Christmas party, I could have had a different conversation with her."
("If I had known that" – what was the 'that'?)
That Touko wasn't really her parent's child.
Noriko looked at Shimako-san.
"It looks like I'm the useless one again."
Shimako-san silently turned and looked straight at her.
"To me, it's not that big a deal. So I was going to bring it up as a casual conversation, without thinking that it might be a difficult thing to hear."
Wait, don't just keep the conversation flowing. At least, not until she'd had some time to mentally prepare herself. Just as she was thinking this, Noriko realized she already had some inkling of where this conversation was headed.
"On top of that, I haven't found a way to tactfully broach the subject."
Noriko wanted to avert her gaze. To close her ears. But she couldn't. Shimako-san had already noticed.
"But I see you've already figured it out, Noriko."
Noriko wanted to cry, not knowing what else to do. But that was the one thing she couldn't do. Noriko desperately repeated this to herself like a mantra. Shimako-san still hadn't said anything.
"I'm not the child of my two parents."
Noriko thought that it would have kept gnawing away at her mind if she had managed to evade this conversation. Therefore, Shimako-san's choice was definitely the correct one.
Still, even if she had managed to deduce it, it was still a shock to hear the truth coming directly from Shimako-san's mouth.
She was also shocked at the fact that she was currently shocked.
Noriko was thrown into confusion, questioning why she was shocked.
Regardless of whose child Shimako-san was, Shimako-san was Shimako-san and Noriko's feelings for her shouldn't change.
So then, why was she so upset?
Was it a feeling of pity that Shimako-san didn't know her parents? Was it the shock momentarily overwhelming her sense of compassion?
A family didn't have to be bonded by blood. There were plenty of parents lovingly raising non-blood-related children. Conversely, there were also blood-related families that were miserable.
"We'll discuss this properly. Let's get off the train."
Shimako-san took hold of Noriko's hand.
"This is where we change trains, right?"
When the doors opened, the two of them were caught in the crowd of passengers getting off the train. Noriko looked up and saw the name of the station and, sure enough, this was the place where they had to get off.
Even so, they both remained motionless for a while. After watching the other passengers get sucked into the stairway, they sat down on an empty bench.
"I know you've met my older brother. But, the truth is, … there was another brother, older than Masafumi."
Shimako-san spoke in past tense – 'There was another brother.'
"He was my real father."
The chief priest at Shouguuji was Shimako-san's –
"My grandfather. Although they're now listed as my parents in the family register."
"What happened to your real mother and father?"
"They died. Much like Touko-chan, it happened when I was just a baby."
"When did you find out about it?"
"I've always known about it – my parents explained it to me when I was very young. Perhaps they would have tried to hide it from me if my real parents had been strangers, but since their son was my father, it was bound to come out sooner or later."
Traces of their dead son's life undoubtedly remained in various places around the house. It would be hard to remove them all so that Shimako-san never saw them. It would probably be equally difficult to tell Shimako-san that he was her elder brother. And it would be nigh-impossible to keep that a secret in a place like their temple, with so many people coming and going. As the eldest son of the head priest, he would have been known to everyone in the community.
"So that's why it's not something that I find particularly worth mentioning."
Like pointing at fresh leaves and teaching her that they were the color green. Or like teaching her that a priest was a job, much like a fishmonger or chauffeur. She had been taught that she had dead parents, and living parents. That was how Shimako-san spoke about it.
"Since it was all so natural to me, I never realized that it was such a serious topic. If I had known, I would have told you earlier. I'm sorry, Noriko."
Noriko looked down and shook her head numerous times.
The reason it had never come up in conversation wasn't because Shimako-san was hiding it, but because she wasn't aware that it was special.
Even now, Shimako-san probably didn't think of it that way. Despite that, she had adopted a serious expression and spoke about the matter as though it were of importance. Noriko felt like she was the one who should apologize.
But if she apologized here, Shimako-san would be even more conscious of her feelings. Therefore, she mustn't appear gloomy.
Shimako-san was inquiring if she was alright, so Noriko smiled.
"I'm fine. It just took me by surprise is all."
Noriko rose from the bench, indicating it was about time they left. If they waited around here too long then the next train would arrive and the platform would once more be full of people.
"Okay. Lead the way, please."
"Leave it to me."
Noriko nodded, took hold of Shimako-san's hand and cheerfully headed towards the staircase.
Looking back on it, her cheerfulness has probably been a front to hide her confusion, a false bravado, as she hadn't yet regained her presence of mind.
Even though Noriko knew the area quite well, and even though they got on the right train line, they caught the in-bound train rather than the out-bound train they were supposed to catch.
As a result, when they finally arrived at the amusement park thirty minutes late, Noriko was feeling doubly depressed. No longer able to squeeze out any more bravado, she had become reticent.
The bear from the parade that had been shaking Shimako-san's hand made his way over to Noriko, and patted her on the shoulder.
She couldn't hear what the man inside the bear costume was saying, but he seemed to be encouraging her to "Cheer up."
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