From Forest of Thorns (Ibara no Mori), the third Maria-sama ga Miteru novel, by Konno Oyuki. Please email me if you have any corrections or criticism.

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White Petals

        ---If I have to go through this much pain, I will never let myself be close to anyone again.
        In the winter of my sixteenth year, I experienced an agonizing parting.

Spring Bud


        I first met Shiori on a certain day in spring. It was on a morning when I'd accidentally come to school much too early.
        I didn't have any particular business there at that time. In a nutshell, I was there early simply because I got up at the wrong time. I did all my morning preparations an hour too early and went to the nearby train station without noticing my mistake. When I got on the train, I finally realized what had happened, because I saw that the crowd on the train was different from usual.
        I'm the sort of person who hates clocks and isn't always checking the time. When it comes to listening to my alarm clock, I really think I'd rather be late, so I doubt I'll ever repeat this mistake.
        I took a bus from M station. When I got off in front of the school, the morning light was a bit painful on my sleep-deprived eyes.
        Shielding my eyes, I drank in the sight of the sky as I walked through the tall gate. Looking up through the thick row of ginkgo trees, the blue sky sketched a gentle blue path, like the Milky Way.
        The Milky Way, huh......?
        It had an embarrassingly romantic ring to it. I wonder what my classmates' reactions would have been if I had said it in front of them?
        "How surprising. Even the rebel Satou Sei-san has that sort of sweet side."
        But there was no way I'd deliberately do something to make them happy.
        My hair was hanging loose, reaching down to my back. Combing my fingers up through it, I muttered, "How stupid."
        What is?
        The closest things to an answer were "everything" and "myself."
        Like the students at this school, who smiled innocently as though they were completely pleased with the world.
        Like my parents, who had yet to notice the problems in their child-rearing efforts.
        Like the school, which wouldn't label me a delinquent as long as I continued to get good grades.
        Like myself, who continued to live an ordinary life despite being sick of everything. All of them.
        I was probably the most problematic, for not being able to recognize the desirability of the majority of things in the world.
        This world, which had existed long before I was born, must have been correct, by majority rule. Those scant few who could not conform were responsible for their own inability to conform.
        Because I understood that, I was being obedient for the time being. At the in-between age of sixteen, there were times when I was bothersomely frank and refused to play the part of a "pure maiden."
        Why should I have had to smile with everyone else?
        Why should I have had to listen to things I had no interest in, just to go along with everyone else?
        So I had no choice but to remain silent.
        It couldn't be helped. This was a pasture for angels.
        So to me, the Maria-sama statue at the fork in the path was no different from a Niou statue.
        She had an unconcerned expression on her face, but I was sure that she lay in wait here, judging the students who entered the school as either "good" or "bad."
        I made a pistol with my right hand, and pointed it at the white Maria-sama statue. The Virgin Mary stood in a copse of trees that was like a miniature garden, her hands pressed together, offering up prayers to heaven for Lillian Academy around the clock.
        "Bam!" I said, inside my mind, and ran off laughing.
        How pleasant.
        It was exhilarating, running through the trees which had just sprouted new leaves. I'd been thinking that it was something I'd wanted to try when nobody was around.
        I didn't really care whether or not someone saw me, but it would have been a pain to be asked about it.
        Because I didn't believe in Maria-sama, I wasn't afraid of being cursed. Jesus of Nazareth and his mother, Mary, had both passed away long ago. After almost 2000 years, even a ghost would get tired.
        And if Mary was close to God, she should have been obligated to save a bad little lamb like me. Now, come down here and save my lost soul, quickly!
        I ran, crying that over and over in my mind.
        It was the height of spring.
        I had just begun my second year of high school.
        I wasn't dissatisfied with anything. There just wasn't a single drop of moisture within me. I carried a vast, dry wasteland within me, and I was at a loss.
        I didn't know what to do.
        I didn't even know what I wanted to do.
        I was leaning against the wall of the church, breathing hard. I wonder how I ended up here? Maybe I subconsciously chose to go the opposite way from the school buildings.
        It was perfect. I entered the church, planning to rest there for an hour.
        I walked down a dark, quiet corridor and opened the massively-decorated door. The first thing that jumped out at me was the wooden statue of Jesus Christ on the cross, located in the center of the room. Looking to the left, I saw a full-color Virgin Mary. On the right, there was vivid stained glass. There was a central path cut down the floor, with rows of pews on either side.
        I figured the nuns had already finished their morning prayers, because not a soul was there.
        I chose a pew in the second row from the back and lay down on my back. There were pictures of angels on the ceiling. It was the first time I'd taken my time and looked at it.
        I wasn't a Christian, but I thought the church was beautiful. I didn't dislike Buddhist temples either, so maybe I had a penchant for those sorts of religious buildings.
        I held my shoulders and closed my eyes. Somehow, being like this put me at ease. It felt like I was curled up inside the protection of a strong shell.
        Nobody touch me. Forget about me.
        My body was sleepy, but my brain was strangely alert. I didn't mind. I continued to lie there, in that same position, with my eyes closed.
        I wonder how long I stayed like that. Before long, my sense of time passing faded, and I could no longer tell whether I was awake or asleep. Just then, there was a faint noise.
        Like a resting herbivore's, my body reacted immediately. I sprang to my feet like a spring-loaded doll. It didn't occur to me until after I'd already acted that I didn't care if anyone found me.
        In response to the noise I'd made, the person who must have made that first noise was probably startled. She turned her head, as though she was surprised. ---She was in the first pew in the center.
        It seems we had both been in there, unaware that the other was there too.
        Seeing her as she rose from the floor where she had likely been kneeling to pray, I gasped.
        With the light from the stained glass windows shining over her right shoulder, she was so white, so divine.
        "Good day."
        She walked up to me, smiling. She wore a Lillian High School uniform, and had straight hair that reached her waist. Looking at her up close, her skin wasn't white as had I first thought.
        "......Are you a new student?"
        I may have been looking at her appraisingly.
        "That's right. Starting this year, I'm attending Lillian."
        The clear, assertive quality of her voice sounded nice to my ears.
        "---I thought so."
        I didn't remember the face of every student at the school, but I didn't think I would have forgotten her if our paths had crossed before.
        "What's your name?"
        "It's Kubo Shiori."
        Kubo, Shiori.
        I engraved that name within the depths of my heart. There was nothing remarkable about the name, but because it belonged to her, it had a particular tidiness to it that was odd.
        I was never very interested in others, and yet for some reason I suddenly wanted terribly to know more about this girl one year my junior, Kubo Shiori. And I hit her over the head with those feelings. Not satisfied with just knowing her name, I rudely asked her about things such as what class she was in, where she went to junior high, and where she was living.
        She seemed perplexed at first. But maybe because she realized that I was questioning her merely out of interest and wasn't aggressive, she politely answered them, one by one.
        Shiori graduated from a junior high school in Nagasaki, and entered Lillian on someone's recommendation. The reason she didn't speak with much of an accent was that she was born in Tokyo. When she was in third grade, her parents died in a traffic accident and her uncle in Nagasaki took charge of her. She returned to her place of birth when she finished her compulsory education. She had no relatives in Tokyo, so was currently staying in the college dorm and commuting here from there.
        Shiori told me about her harsh life of the past fifteen years, without hiding anything. I was deeply moved. She didn't even get angry at me, a rude upperclassman whom she had just met; rather, she accepted me into her heart. I was warmed by the greatness of that heart.
        It seemed to me that this mature girl already had enough moisture within her to touch my hands, which were plagued with hangnails, and not be injured.
        "Will that be enough for now?" Shiori murmured, looking at her watch after a short silence.
        "I should be going now."
        I nodded, my feelings a complex mix, wanting to stay with her as we were but recognizing the awkwardness of the current situation. Immediately afterwards, I felt a terrible pain, though I didn't know why.
        "I'm sorry, I held you up, didn't I?"
        "It's all right. I'm used to it."
        Maybe because new students coming from other schools were so rare they were often barraged with questions, Shiori smiled faintly without a trace of sarcasm or anything similar.
        "Oh, that's right. My name is---"
        "I know. Rosa Gigantea en bouton, Satou Sei-sama."
        "You were introduced at the welcome party for the new students." After giving that answer, Shiori politely bowed her head to me and then left the church alone.
        Without Shiori, the church seemed to lose its radiance, somehow.


        It seemed I was more of a celebrity than I thought.
        Shiori found out who I was at the welcoming ceremony for the new students run by the Yamayurikai, apparently. I had gone to help out with the ceremony on the orders of my Onee-sama, Rosa Gigantea. But I remembered being bored and not being able to escape, and so resigning myself to staying, spending my time facing away from everyone.
        If I'd behaved better, I wonder if I would have been able to pick Shiori out of the crowd.
        I was confident the answer to that question was "yes."
        No matter the size of the crowd she was in, Shiori should have stood out as different from the others around her, as giving off some sort of unique quality that nobody else did.
        "Kubo Shiori?" Mizuno Youko raised her head, as though she were surprised.
        "Wh- what?"
        "......No, it's just it's the first time that I've heard you mention someone, so I thought it was unusual."
        I'd gone to the Rose Mansion after school that day, for the first time in a while, and that was what happened. Youko, an honor student who liked taking care of people, finished ordering some papers I didn't recognize and then continued, "So?"
        "Nothing much. I'm just telling you that I met a first-year by that name this morning. When I asked, I found out that she's in the same class as your petite soeur, so I thought you might have heard something about her."
        "She's in Sachiko's class......?"
        It seemed she hadn't heard of her.
        Because she'd left such a strong impression on me, I thought I'd be able to get information on her from other people, but I was wrong.
        "It's fine if you haven't heard of her."
        When I said goodbye and got ready to leave, Youko grabbed my arm firmly.
        "It's been so long since you've come here. Stay a little longer. I've been wanting to tell you for a long time, you're not giving enough consideration to your position as a bouton."
        Youko was giving more than enough consideration to her position as a bouton, so wasn't it all right for me to be lacking in it? About half of me was taken over by that thought.
        "It's not like I wanted to be one."
        "But when you became Rosa Gigantea's soeur, you were agreeing to become one, weren't you!?"
        "But at that time, Onee-sama wasn't Rosa Gigantea yet."
        "You're quibbling over details again. When I think about next year, my head starts to hurt." Youko drew in a breath, trying to cool her head.
        That's right. She couldn't count on the other boutons at all.
        Rosa Foetida en bouton, Eriko, did what needed to be done but always had a bored expression on her face. And I'd skip out on things, a smile on my face, no problem with it at all. The next year, when the three of us advanced from being boutons together, the Yamayurikai might have collapsed without any fanfare or fuss.
        I wouldn't have had a problem with that. Because thinking about the next year gave me a headache, too.
        "Anyway, stay here a little longer. At least until one more person comes."
        Youko refused to let go of my arm.
        "You don't have to keep me from running away. It's not your responsibility."
        "But I don't want to have been unable to keep you here while we were here alone together."
        I sat down. It wasn't for Youko or anything, I just got tired of standing. But Youko thanked me anyway, and began to look over her papers again.
        About five minutes later, the creaking sound of someone climbing the stairs reached the second-floor room we were in.
        "Ohh, this is a rare sight."
        My Onee-sama, Rosa Gigantea, appeared, accompanied by Youko's petite soeur, Ogasawara Sachiko.
        They made an unusual pair, too. When I walked over to the door to greet them, Onee-sama pushed Sachiko in front of her, smiling happily as though she'd just gotten a new doll.
        "I ran into her in the hallway, so we came here together. Sachiko-chan is pretty like a Japanese doll, so I can't help wanting to care for her."
        As Onee-sama said, Sachiko was beautiful by anyone's standards. I knew her, this girl one year behind me, even before entering high school. Well, I said I knew her, but it was really one-sided--I'd noticed her, but we weren't acquaintances or anything.
        In her case, because of her appearance and her status as the daughter of a wealthy family, you could say that she was famous at Lillian. When Youko made Sachiko her soeur, I wondered why she'd decided she wanted to take care of such a bothersome girl. Of course, if Youko hadn't taken her on, there's no way there would have been another upperclassman courageous enough to take Sachiko as her soeur.
        "I'm so sorry my face looks Western, Onee-sama."
        "Oh, are you sulking? Silly, I like your face as it is. After all, I chose you as my petite soeur because of it."
        "I'm grateful." As I said those words, inside I was feeling satisfied. I liked to hear Onee-sama tell me, "I chose you for your face." I thought that because you couldn't see inside a person, having one's outside appearance praised was very convincing.
        "Be seated."
        Sachiko had quickly seated herself next to Youko, so I sat down next to Onee-sama, in a seat that had been left open as though it were natural for it to be so. I couldn't stand the conspiratorial, happy atmosphere, but I didn't dislike the Rose Mansion in general. Maybe because she knew that, Onee-sama didn't ask me to attend meetings or tea parties. After all, in my case, I'd go if I wanted to and wouldn't go if I didn't. It seemed she knew it was useless to tell me to go.
        That's right. From the beginning, Onee-sama was good at dealing with me.
        When I first entered high school, I received soeur offers from a lot of people, but none of them were right for me. I just wanted to be left alone, but every day people irresponsibly clamored to know why I couldn't choose an Onee-sama. At around the time I started to think dealing with it was more trouble than it was worth, my Onee-sama, Rosa Gigantea en bouton, appeared.
        She said she liked my face. She told me to stay by her side because she wanted to continue to look at it. From that one utterance, I decided to become her petite soeur.
        With my outer appearance on display, I felt a bit lighter.
        So in order to save face for my Onee-sama, I occasionally came and showed my face at the Rose Mansion like this. The meetings were boring, of course, but all I had to do was sit there and pretend to listen.
        I sang "Maria-sama's Heart" inside my head, with Youko, Sachiko, and Onee-sama's speech and light laughter as background music. As to why it ended up being that particular song, it was just that it was the first one that came to mind. As long as it was a song I knew, I wouldn't have cared if it was enka [note: a genre of Japanese popular music; it's been compared to American country music] or some other thing.
        I was bad at making small talk with girls my age, so I spent my breaks reading paperbacks. I was properly self-conscious about the fact that I didn't belong in my class.
        Rosa Chinensis, Rosa Foetida, and other such people came, and the meeting began. I cut off "Maria-sama's Heart" at a good point, and began to think instead of the girl I'd met in the church.
        Kubo Shiori.
        As Youko pointed out, you could say that it was extremely rare for me to show interest in someone.


        I became so active and outgoing, I surprised myself.
        At first, I thought of getting to school early the next day and lying in wait for Shiori at the school gate. Shiori took a bus to school from M station, so I was sure she'd be passing through the main gate. I chose the school gate over the station or the bus stop because I decided that it would be a more efficient place to look for people from, because the students at Lillian passed through there going one way.
        If I do say so myself, I think it was childish. I waited there, my heart pounding, thinking that if circumstances permitted, having met under the guise of coincidence, we could walk to our building together. It never even crossed my mind at that time that Shiori might have been coming to school together with a friend, or might have turned me down.
        However, the situation certainly didn't have such an unhappy result. This was because no matter how long I waited, Shiori never passed through the gate, never passed before my eyes.
        The black wave of uniforms had already ceased. I forgot to even run to my building, just stared dazedly as the doorkeeper shut a section of the gate.
        I hadn't even begun to think about things such as lateness or skipping class; foremost in my mind was my loss of self-confidence. Did the girl I'd met yesterday exist in the real world? Youko said she hadn't heard the name Kubo Shiori before, and nobody else had been present during our meeting in the church, so I had no way at all of certifying that she was really Kubo Shiori of First Year Peach Group. But strangely enough, I felt like it suited her to be something that didn't exist in this world.

        At lunchtime, I went to go take a look at the First Year Peach Group class. I thought they'd be used to seeing second-years around, but this class just stared at me from a distance, interested in the upperclassman who had come to visit their classroom, and there was nobody I could ask to be an agent for me.
        "Is something the matter, Sei-sama?"
        Having likely left the classroom just then, Sachiko appeared behind me and greeted me.
        "Kubo Shiori-san is in this class, right?"
        I needed to confirm that, first of all.
        "Yes, that's correct."
        Sachiko tipped her head to the side a bit, showing her curiosity as to why I was asking.
        "Is she out today?"
        Although I'd gotten a confirmation of her existence, I hadn't been able to pick her out in my glance through the classroom.
        "Is she late?"
        "She was in the classroom for the morning prayer. After that---"
        Sachiko anticipated my next question and answered it.
        "As for her present location, I believe she may be in the church."
        "The church......"
        "She is a devout Christian. Because of that, it appears that she arrives early in the morning to pray."
        That cleared it up.
        Shiori had already arrived at the school before I got there, and had been offering prayers to God while I had been lying in wait for her.
        Though I vividly remembered our meeting the day before, I'd never stopped to consider why Shiori had been in the church, or what time it had been. Even though there was no way Shiori would have gone there to sleep, as I had.
        When I heard that Shiori was a devout Christian, I nodded, thinking, Ah. I see. The "white thing" that I'd seen in Shiori had likely been her pious heart.
        "If you are going to visit her, shall I accompany you, Rosa Gigantea en bouton?"
        "That's not necessary."
        "You will be proceeding to the church now, will you not?"
        I turned my back on Sachiko, without having given her enough of a thank-you. It wasn't that Sachiko had done something wrong. She was just perceptive, though not in a malicious way. I understood that, and yet I grew uncomfortable, having my interest in Shiori perceived by Sachiko, an underclassman.
        I started to return to my own classroom, but changed my mind on the way there and headed off in a different direction. It was a childish concept to not go to the church simply because Sachiko had told me to, and more than anything, I couldn't quite bring myself to return to my noisy classroom.
        For the time being, I wanted to leave the school building and get some fresh air. I habitually left the building through the emergency exit, which was marked No Exit. The new leaves grew more luxuriously verdant each day, and their glistening beauty gave me such a pleasant feeling that they made classes seem ridiculous.
        I wished I'd brought a novel or something with me. I wonder how pleasant it would have been to have been able to skip class and spend that time lying about amidst the greenery.
        Whether it was conscious on my part or not, my steps took me away from the school building and proceeded towards the east. I might have been able to see Shiori. But it might have been better if I didn't. Rather, I didn't know what I should say to her if we were to meet.
        I think that the most honest description of my feelings at that time was that I wanted to gaze at Shiori from a distance. Without her being aware of my existence, I wanted to gaze at Shiori indefinitely---.
        I looked up at the sky and gently closed my eyes, and felt as though I was melting into the greenery. I became the treetops, the new leaves, the wind that blew through them. I wanted to disappear like that. I had been wishing that the existence known as Satou Sei would secretly be erased from this world for I can't remember how long.
        When I opened my eyes, Shiori was standing there, as if by some miracle. She was walking slowly about ten meters in front of me, and came to a halt one meter before me.
        "Good day, Rosa Gigantea en bouton."
        She was there, as though it were completely natural for her to be so. I couldn't help thinking that unlike me, she was loved and accepted by this world. I think it was probably because of that that I was captivated by Shiori.
        "I came to see you."
        I wanted Shiori to rescue me. I wanted her to purify my soul, which would not conform to this world, and return me to normalcy.
        "I wanted to see you. Are my feelings a nuisance to you?"
        I repeated it once more. With an expression on my face that I only ever showed to my mother, I appealed to Shiori's heart. Without realizing it, I had flung off the armor covering my heart, which I usually kept up in order to protect myself. I no longer had the means to retreat if I was rejected. I felt that within Shiori, I had found a part of myself that wanted to expose myself completely.
        "How could they be a nuisance?"
        With a gaze that was gentle like a calm lake, Shiori answered.
        "I had been thinking that I wanted to see you as well."
        Acting in such accordance with my feelings that I surprised myself, I shed a single tear. I was thankful, from the bottom of my heart, to the god that had granted me Shiori.

The Greenhouse in Summer


        After our first meeting on that spring day, Shiori and I grew closer, slowly but perceptibly.
        We were in different years in school, but we did our best to find time to be alone together at least once a day. Sometimes I'd accompany her to the church in the morning, or we'd eat lunch together outside. Because neither of us were in any clubs, we were able to stroll around the campus together after school too.
        I wanted to treasure the time we spent alone together; it was for that reason that I never even considered taking her to the Rose Mansion and introducing her to my Onee-sama and the other members of the Yamayurikai.
        I distanced myself more and more from the Rose Mansion; I was utterly absorbed in Shiori.
        "Shouldn't you put a bit more distance between you?"
        It was a day in early summer.
        Classes were over, and Youko had come all the way to my class to give me that warning.
        "What are you talking about?"
        Because I was planning to meet up with Shiori that afternoon, I was a little annoyed by the delay.
        "Don't you know? I'm talking about Kubo Shiori. What is she to you?"
        "What do you mean, what?"
        I couldn't believe she'd come all the way there just to ask me such an asinine question. There are limits to how much you can meddle in other people's lives! As I stuffed my thin English-Japanese dictionary in my bag, a bitter smile settled on my features, quite intentionally.
        "This is no laughing matter!"
        "Yeah, I'm sorry. It's just that I think you must never get any chance to relax-- you have your hands full taking care of your petite soeur. ......Is that rumor that you made Sachiko quit all her lessons true?"
        "This is hardly the time for us to discuss my soeur and I, is it? The issue here is your Kubo Shiori problem."
        I knew all too well what it was Youko was trying to say.
        I was able to recognize for myself that my relationship with Shiori was unique. Our relationship wasn't like Youko and Sachiko's, nor was it like my relationship with Onee-sama.
        It's difficult to explain, but I think it's probably that from the time we were born, our two hands were each destined only to join with each others'. The result of that was that we completely shut the rest of the world out.
        We were different from the rest of the world; when they held hands with someone, they only held one of their hands and so were able to use their free hand to reach out and grab other things. Youko's "put distance between you" was likely in reference to that-- that I should let go of at least one of Shiori's hands.
        It's true that it may be dangerous to focus solely on one person to the exclusion of everything else, but I was helpless to change that. The deep bond between me and Shiori was difficult to break, and if we'd tried to modify it, we would have ceased to be ourselves.
        "If you want to make her your petite soeur, that would be fine. I'm not trying to force you to separate from her. But you know you can't go on the way you are now, don't you? Give her your rosary officially and introduce her to everyone."
        "I'll think about it."
        I picked up my bag and pushed my chair in. I didn't want the discussion to go on one minute longer.
        "I'll think about it...... so can I go?"
        "......All right. Be sure you do."
        Youko let me go surprisingly easily. She's pretty smart, so she was probably thinking that lecturing me too much would just have the opposite effect.
        I scurried down the nearly student-free hallway, heading to meet Shiori.
        I'd said that I'd think about what Youko had said, but the truth was that I had no intention of making Shiori my petite soeur. The two of us were equals; always had been and always would be. It would've been completely ridiculous to give her my rosary then just so that everyone would accept her. I gave a mental sneer towards the people who undertook the soeur ceremony, people who felt they needed a symbol to represent their relationship with someone.
        "What is it?" Shiori said, just as our eyes met.
        I took hold of Shiori's shoulder and began to walk with her. I wanted to go to a place free of people. I didn't care how dirty the place was; as long as it was a place where the eyes of others couldn't reach, it would surely have been the purest place in the world to me.
        I didn't want to sully Shiori. I didn't want to expose our relationship to the filthy eyes of others. Our getting close didn't cause any trouble for anyone. It may not have been much, but Shiori's influence had led me to take my classes more seriously, and I stopped being late and ditching. We should have been praised, not criticized.
        All we wanted was to be together.
        I embraced Shiori behind one of the school buildings.
        "Did someone say something to you?" Shiori murmured, laying her head on my shoulder.
        "There might not be anyone out there who supports our relationship."
        "You should not state it in that manner."
        Though Shiori was probably being criticized even more than I was, she never, ever spoke ill of others. I hadn't been participating in the Yamayurikai much in recent days, but I was still Rosa Gigantea en bouton, with the shadow of the Yamayurikai looming behind me. If anyone were to complain about our relationship directly it would be mainly to Shiori, who was both a new student at Lillian and the younger person in the relationship. She never spoke of it, but it may have been that Shiori was having a rough time because of me.
        "You must not allow yourself to become negligent."
        As we became more isolated at school, our feelings for each other only grew that much stronger.


        Summer vacation arrived.
        I went to the school what seemed like every day to spend time with Shiori.
        Because the dorms were closed for most of August, she was staying in a convent located on the Lillian campus. Even though it was a long break, Shiori stayed in Tokyo instead of returning to her uncle's place in Nagasaki. I didn't know the circumstances involved-- in fact, I made a point of not asking-- but apparently the headmistress of Lillian, who was an acquaintance of Shiori's uncle (who was also her guardian), was acting as a foster parent to her while she was in Tokyo.
        On days when the library was open, I'd shut myself up in the reading room sometime in midmorning, and spend the day working furiously through my homework. The time she came varied depending on the day, but Shiori would come by shortly after I arrived, having finished helping the nuns, and she'd set about doing her homework too.
        We were both very serious about our work. It wasn't that we thought people's opinion of us would change if we studied hard; it was that we knew that if one of us started doing poorly in school, the other would be blamed for it. We studied side-by-side, and once we'd finished the homework we needed to do, we passed the time reading interesting books.

        One day, we went to an old greenhouse.
        Shiori had swimming lessons that morning, and so I came by the school around the time she finished. As I was passing through the gate, a group of girls with wet hair passed by me. It seemed the pool was closed earlier than I'd thought it was going to be.
        Wanting to see Shiori as soon as possible, I picked up my pace. It wasn't just that my legs started moving faster; they were kicking the ground, lightly.
        As I took the right path of the fork in front of the Maria-sama statue, large droplets of warm water fell on my forehead and shoulder. ---It was raining.
        I passed by the library, the auditorium coming into my field of vision, and kept running; before long, I spotted Shiori.
        The rainfall was gradually growing heavier; it was hardly a romantic stroll in the rain. The weather had suddenly cleared up as I was leaving the house, so naturally I hadn't brought a folding umbrella with me. We searched for a place to take shelter from the rain. It was still midday, but this rain was more like an evening shower.
        Shiori and I dove into an old greenhouse.
        There were panes of glass missing, and bits of the floor missing too, but it kept the rain out splendidly. And it seems the perfectly warmed air felt pleasant to Shiori, who had just come from swimming lessons. Releasing her upper arms, which she'd been gripping, she smiled and said, "It's warm."
        "Sensei [note: teacher] ended the lesson early, saying a shower might be on the way. But it seems the rain came a bit sooner than Sensei expected it to."
        Removing some flowerpots from a rack, we sat down there, side-by-side.
        "Sensei said that getting wet in the pool can't be helped, but that it would be tragic if our school uniforms got wet. I wonder if everyone made it to their buses without getting wet?"
        Shiori pulled a sports towel out of her bag and began to gently wipe away the droplets of water from my hair. The distinctive smell of the pool, infusing the towel, quickly made its way to my nose, then disappeared as quickly as it had come.
        "I'm fine, so how about you dry your own hair?"
        I think I spoke so curtly because I didn't want her to know what I was feeling. Just from having Shiori dry my hair, my heart begin to throb so furiously that I completely lost control of myself, which frankly threw me for a loop.
        Just as I'd told her to, Shiori arranged her hair over one shoulder and applied the towel to it. Watching as she slowly removed the moisture as though she was pinching it up with the towel, I knew neither what I should have done nor what I wanted to do; I simply existed.
        Shiori was unaware of my feelings; hearing her let out a small yawn, I discovered that she had fallen asleep.
        She must have been tired.
        Without waking her, I snuggled up close to her.
        Fierce rain passes quickly.
        Shut up in the old greenhouse because of the rain, I drank in Shiori's presence, undisturbed by anyone. In that moment alone, everything Shiori was belonged to me.
        Why was it that the two of us had to be born in separate bodies?
        Why couldn't we merge together into one being?
        To the accompaniment of Shiori's sighs, I casually took a long strand of wet hair from each of us and pulled them into one bundle. But the two strands of hair, different in both color and quality, were heavy enough that they separated and fell back into place when I released them. Out of boredom, I tried twisting them together like a rope, but the end result was much the same.
        Though I didn't know why, I became obstinate then, and decided to braid them together. I used two strands of Shiori's hair and one strand of mine. Finally, our hair stayed together, one entity.
        "What are you doing?" Shiori asked, eyes still cloudy with sleep.
        "Oh, nothing. You can sleep a little longer, I'll wake you up when it stops raining."
        Just joining our hair together wasn't enough for me; I threaded my fingers into hers too.
        "That tickles," Shiori laughed, her body twisting, but she didn't shake off my hand.
        Rain, don't stop.
        I closed my eyes too.
        Rain, don't stop.
        The darkness cut us off from all we could see. The only things I was certain of were the beating of Shiori's heart, the heat of her body, and the sound of her breathing.
        I wanted to stay that way forever.
        I half-believed that time would stop, the way things were then.

Lovesick in Autumn


        As time passed, Shiori's existence grew and grew inside me.
        It was September, and traces of summer lingered.
        I couldn't seem to adapt to my typical daily life, which hadn't changed at all from before the break. The school, which had granted me such radiant days during the summer, became suffocating. Because we were in different years, the amount of time we were able to spend together was limited even though we were at the same school. If only I'd had free time... I wanted to see Shiori. Even during class, Shiori was all I could think of.
        Though I don't know when it was that my feelings shifted, instead of wishing I could merge with nature I had begun wishing that I could merge with Shiori and disappear.
        What was that feeling?
        What would the result of seeking out another person be?
        I saw no difference between what I felt and the sort of love that happens between a man and a woman.
        I loved Shiori's soul. I should have placed more importance on her body, which I saw as a mere "accessory," the vessel that contained her soul.
        But somewhere along the way, I lost all sense of reason.
        I wanted to be by Shiori's side.
        I didn't want to let go of her.
        I wanted to become one with her.
        What in the world was that feeling?
        I sought out novels about love and read them from cover to cover. I thought maybe there would be one that would explain what I was feeling and offer a solution for it. But the only result of that endeavor was the creation of a person who hated novels.
        No matter how much a work was praised as a masterpiece, it couldn't act as a textbook for the events happening in my life.
        I even tried reading novels about same-sex love, but the answer I was seeking wasn't written anywhere there either.
        Next, I started reading books about living things and about reproduction.
        The result of that was my wondering if something in my nervous system was broken. I couldn't understand why, if love between men and women sprang from the genetic impetus to create descendents, the two of us, who were of the same sex and so unable to combine our genetic material and create offspring, were attracted to each other. I just couldn't understand why we were attracted to each other.
        Even my "monthly visitor" became a source of mental anguish for me. It wasn't that I wanted to stop being a woman, it was that I was seriously bothered by the issue of why the different sexes existed.
        I was honestly jealous of earthworms because they were all hermaphrodites.


        By the time the school fair was approaching, I still hadn't found an answer to my problem. I was, however, going to the Rose Mansion again, after that long period of avoidance.
        Even if the two of us wished we could spend time together, Shiori was cooped up in her classroom until late in the day what seemed like every day, working on her class's exhibition for the school fair. Even if I'd skipped out on my duties to my own class, I wouldn't have been able to force Shiori to do the same. Well, that said, I had no intention of joining in my class's activity now that it had been running more smoothly without me for a while anyway. Instead, I idled away the hours, waiting for Shiori. It was then that Youko half-dragged me to the Rose Mansion with her.
        "If you have some free time, then come help out."
        My Onee-sama welcomed me back with nary a word of criticism for my habitual failure to carry out my obligations. They must have had a truckload of things they wanted to say to me, and yet the other Yamayurikai members, every last one, treated me naturally, as though we'd been seeing each other there every day.
        I was grateful to them, but I also felt like they were going too far, and so I couldn't just gracefully accept their behavior. And yet, I went to the Rose Mansion nearly every day after school, under the pretext of killing time.
        The meetings concerning preparations for the school fair weren't as boring as I'd expected.
        I was having fun learning the unvarnished truth about the new first-years: the prim, aloof Ogasawara Sachiko turned out to have a great dislike for men, and Eriko's petite soeur, Hasekura Rei, actually had a feminine interior that was completely at odds with her outward appearance.
        And then out of the blue, I realized it.
        It couldn't be permissible for me, Rosa Gigantea en bouton, to be halfway through my second year of school already without having officially taken petite soeur. If someone had tried to force me into it, I could have fought them, but no pressure had been put on me at all yet. If I were pressed, I'd say that the extent of it was Youko looking at me as though there was something she wanted to say. The most likely scenario was that Onee-sama was shielding me from it, but I didn't know what to do for her in return.
        I tried to draw her out by suggesting that she cut ties with me and take a new petite soeur. It was unlikely that I would be making Shiori my soeur anytime in the future, and I couldn't take someone else to act as my soeur for appearances' sake either.
        Onee-sama rejected my proposal with a smile.
        "I'm not really the sort of pitiful grandmother whose greatest desire in life is to see her grandchild's face. I don't care who's going to succeed you as Rosa Gigantea. So don't break your promise to me, please. Stay by my side until I graduate."
        Stroking my hair, Onee-sama told me that even if I didn't have a petite soeur by the time I became a third-year, she could care less about that, so she wasn't going to force me into taking one. She told me to walk a path I wouldn't regret.
        In the Rose Mansion, abandoned but for the two of us, Onee-sama's words seeped into my chest. I was reminded anew of Onee-sama's belief that I was a person worthy of taking on the mantle of Rosa Gigantea. But I felt like even once I became a third-year, I wouldn't be able to comfort others with kind words the way Onee-sama did.

        The school fair ended without incident, with the Yamayurikai-organized sign language performance getting a very favorable reception.
        I drifted away from the Rose Mansion once again, and Youko ambushed me in the corridor one day after school.
        "Don't look at me like that. It's like you think I'm a pest."
        But wasn't that true? Maybe what I was thinking showed on my face, because Youko smiled bitterly and murmured, "It seems you dislike me quite a bit. ......Well, it can't be helped, I suppose. I'm not skilled at this. I can't interact with you as well as Rosa Gigantea does."
        "What part of you is unskilled at anything?"
        Youko liked taking care of people, and was well-mannered, an honor student, and rather beautiful to boot. The thought that she, the archetype of a "nice young lady," could be unskilled at interacting with other people was enough to make me laugh.
        "Spend time with me once in a while."
        Without waiting for an answer, Youko started walking. I still had time before I had to meet up with Shiori; I reluctantly followed.
        "Do you remember what I said to you before?"
        After checking to be sure it wasn't too crowded, Youko invited me out into the courtyard.
        "Time for another sermon?"
        Though it was what I'd been expecting, I didn't have the patience for it. I didn't like being complained to about Shiori, and somehow it was even worse hearing it from Youko.
        "I told you to put some distance between you."
        "Is that so?"
        "I still think you should do that. Actually, I'm even more strongly in favor of that than I was before. You need to calm down a little and rethink how close the two of you should be."
        Even the scenery in the courtyard was looking bleak now. The rainbow of color that had saturated the flowerbeds from spring through summer had been as ephemeral as a dream, and all that remained now were the asters' modest blooms.
        "You don't know the first thing about us."
        I turned the conversation around on her, trying to make a minor feint.
        "Then what exactly do you know about Shiori?"
        Her counterattack perplexed me.
        "What do you mean, 'what'......?"
        I knew about her pure heart, the clear voice that often reached my ears, and her mysterious face. ---What more did I need to know about her?
        "I know this might not really be any of my business, but please listen to me. I don't think you should get too close to her."
        "You're right, it isn't any of your business. And why are you going out of your way to say these things in the first place?"
        "Because I don't want to see you get hurt."
        The words Youko threw at me were unexpected. I didn't understand where she'd gotten that idea.
        Why in the world would I be hurt?
        "It's like you're pouring everything you are into Shiori right now. Have the two of you even talked about what you're going to do after this? I'm sure Shiori is a strong person, so she'll be fine. But Sei, have you thought about how much you'll be hurt when she leaves?"
        "What we're going to do after this? Shiori's going to leave?"
        Youko hurled unexpected revelations at me one after the other, as though she had a jack-in-the-box inside her body. I was astonished.
        It was true that Shiori and I had never talked about the future.
        But I'd assumed that at least while we were at school, our relationship would remain the same. Even after graduation, I'd still be able to see Shiori every day if I went to Lillian University. If Shiori decided to go to a different college, I'd take the exam for that college too, and transfer there.
        I thought that maybe I would start to find some answers to my questions about our relationship as time passed and the two of us grew into adults. My plan was to put off thinking about the necessary issues about for about five years.
        "So she really hasn't told you anything?" Youko's critical gaze was slowly shifting into one of compassion. It made me uncomfortable. I would rather have had people gossiping maliciously about us behind our backs than been pitied.
        "What are you talking about?"
        "It's been arranged that Shiori will enter a convent when she graduates from high school. Why didn't you know that?"
        I couldn't easily understand what Youko was telling me.
        "She's going to become a nun."
        Then a thought occurred to me that drained the blood from my face.
        "You're lying."
        "Why would I be lying? I'm telling you this, even knowing that I'll lose your friendship."
        I'd never heard this information before, ever. It was true that Shiori was a devout Christian, but not all devout Christians ended up becoming nuns.
        But on the other hand, I felt like there was no other occupation that would suit her quite so well. ---A member of the clergy. The first time we met, I too was seeking salvation in her.
        "......I have to ask Shiori about this."
        Youko, gently placing her hand on my shoulder, asked, "Are you all right?"
        Mentally, I wasn't all right at all, but I managed to nod, somehow.
        Right then, I needed to go find Shiori as quickly as possible; Every second mattered.

        I don't remember all the places I ran through, but when I came back to myself I was standing at the entrance to the church, at the appointed meeting time.
        Shiori wasn't there. At times like these I usually found her inside, praying.
        That spurred on my irritation. Though I usually loved Shiori's piety, at the moment I couldn't help thinking of it as an enemy, an entity trying to snatch away a person I held dear.
        Entering the church, I called out to her, my voice harsh. Shiori was in the same pew she'd been in at our first meeting, and after a few seconds, she turned her head to look back at me.
        I'd been approaching with large steps; she must have read something in my features, because she rose and came to meet me halfway, asking, "What's wrong?"
        "I heard you're going to become a nun after you graduate."
        Taking hold of both her shoulders, I pressed her for a reply.
        I wanted her to deny it. Even if it were a lie, I wanted Shiori to tell me that it wasn't true; wanted her to explain it to me, maybe even say nasty things about the people who'd spread the rumor.
        But reality is not so kind.
        "It's true," she told me, looking me straight in the eye. "It's something that had already been decided before I came to this school."
        "Why did you keep it from me all this time!?"
        "It wasn't that I was keeping it from you deliberately. There was just never the right opportunity. And besides, telling you wouldn't have changed anything."
        "It wouldn't have changed anything!? Wh-"
        I couldn't think of the words to continue the sentence. No, the truth was that she'd never felt I had the right to say anything about it. Shiori hadn't told me because I wasn't involved, because I wasn't in the know; there could be no other reason. Having realized that, I also saw how utterly ridiculous I was.
        "I loved you, but you felt differently, didn't you?"
        "That's not-"
        "You thought of our relationship lightly, as something that would only last until graduation, huh?"
        Not knowing the truth, I'd been seriously worrying about our future together. What a fool I'd been.
        "I love you, Sei. You might not believe me, but this is the first time I've felt so strongly for someone."
        "Then why?"
        Why was she planning to go somewhere I wouldn't be able to reach her? If she really loved me, then she should have stayed by my side forever.
        "I love you, Sei." Shiori spoke the words once more. "But...... I'm sorry. I'm causing you pain."
        Shiori cried quiet tears in my stead. I didn't really think of myself as a fragile person, but apparently Shiori thought of me as a person who was easily hurt, just as Youko did.
        "Is it really absolutely necessary that you become a nun!?"
        I clung to her resolutely.
        "If you love me, then say you'll give up on it. Don't leave me."
        I was behaving terribly. But no matter how awful I had to be to keep it from happening, I couldn't let go of Shiori.
        "So you're choosing God over me? There are other girls out there who'll end up becoming nuns, but you're all I have, Shiori! Are you going to abandon me!?"
        "It's my dream to become a nun. When my parents died, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life."
        I couldn't just be happy for her for having found her path in life-- it wasn't like a study abroad, where I knew she'd be back someday; she would be entering that convent with the determination in her heart to dedicate her life to serving God. Once Shiori belonged to God, she'd be forever out of my reach.
        "Don't blame me like this."
        Casting her eyes downward, Shiori fled from my gaze.
        "Say you'll give up on it."
        I walked around Shiori to stand in front of her.
        "It's already been decided."
        "Then why won't you look me in the eye? Isn't it because you're still wavering!?"
        "That's not-"
        Shiori stepped back, bracing herself a bit. In that moment, I hated her, and so I stepped forward and grabbed hold of her.
        I told her I loved her, and brought my lips close to hers.
        The moment our lips brushed ever-so-faintly, I felt a sharp sting against my cheek. Shiori had been resisting me, and she'd slapped me, apparently.
        "Maria-sama is watching......!"
        Directly behind Shiori, a statue of the Virgin Mary was looking down on us, a benevolent smile on her face.
        "That's your answer......?"
        Shiori said nothing, just stared straight back at me, breathing hard.
        "I understand."
        With a nod, I turned my back on Shiori.
        Suddenly, I understood everything. I'd lost to Maria-sama.
        To Maria-sama, who I'd ridiculed as a 2,000-year-old ghost.
        I, a living being, had lost to a mere statue, a man-made creation.
        It was so funny, I couldn't even cry about it.
        I slowly made my way towards the exit of the church, wishing in my heart that Shiori would call out and stop me.
        But she never called out to me.
        And I didn't look back either.

The Flower Blooms Even Into Winter; And...


        After that day, I was never in the mood to do anything.
        My obsession with keeping my grades up for Shiori's sake went away, and so naturally, my attitude towards class deteriorated and my quiz scores dropped into unacceptable ranges.
        I was called into the faculty room countless times and asked to explain myself. I held a deep-seated disgust for my homeroom teacher's attitude concerning problem students-- I'd always had an attitude problem and never cooperated with my classmates, but it was only when I started slacking off on work that he started giving me counseling.
        I wonder how badly I could've surprised him if I'd said that my listlessness was caused by a broken heart courtesy of Kubo Shiori, First Year Pine Group. While he lectured me, I passed the time fantasizing about that scenario. After all, my ears would rot off if someone flat-out told me that I'd always been a capable kid.
        Of course, fantasy and reality were different things. I never once spoke Shiori's name before my homeroom teacher. My decline in scholarship was solely the result of my own misbehavior; no one else was to blame.
        Though I wasn't able to see Shiori anymore, I couldn't manage to forget her. Youko, who had put so much pressure on me to put distance between us, must have been satisfied when she heard we'd fought and broken up, but my feelings for Shiori grew in inverse proportion to the distance between us, and I yearned for her terribly.

        The second term's end-of-semester exams came and went, and were followed by a week-long break from school. Partway through the break, I received a summons from the school.
        I wasn't too psyched about going all the way to school on a day off, but when my mother heard the summons, she turned pale, shoved me into the car, and dragged me there against my will.
        I was expecting the usual lecture on how my test results were unacceptable, and yet something was off about the situation. Come to think of it, the fact that they were having me come in on a day off, with my mother accompanying me, probably meant that the situation was really serious.
        My mother and I were directed to the guidance office, a stately room located next door to the faculty room. The sight that greeted us when we entered was enough to make me break out in goosebumps: awaiting us there were my homeroom teacher (a middle-aged man), the homeroom teacher of First Year Pine Group (a young woman), and two nuns. One of the nuns was the guidance counselor, the other the headmistress.
        Seeing Shiori's homeroom teacher there, I felt I understood the situation a bit. It was unlikely we'd only be discussing my grades that day. Though I didn't know who they'd heard about us from, it was plain to see that they were planning to raise issues over our relationship.
        When my mother and I arrived, the door to the guidance office was shut and locked from the inside. So Shiori hadn't been called to this time, then. Or maybe she had already been summoned to a similar meeting earlier, or would be later. But there was no way I could ask about her. Rather than just letting the words flow by as usual, I was driven to pay close attention to the direction of the conversation.
        After rushing through the formalities, my homeroom teacher pulled out my end-of-semester test results and attendance record, and, acting as though they were reference materials, showed them to my mother, informing her that there was a grave problem.
        My mother, who had never doubted that I was an honor student, let out a shriek-like sound and, in a state of agitation, appealed to the teacher, asking if there had been some sort of mistake.
        "Of course, Missus. Satou has always been an exemplary student."
        Having sufficiently threatened my mother, my teacher then did a one-eighty and began to praise me. That I would be one of the leaders of the student council the following year, that many of my friends were top students, that sort of thing. At the end, he didn't neglect to bring up Shiori as the major cause of my decline.
        I could only imagine that he was trying to forestall any complaints about his own lack of leadership skills. He made Shiori into the enemy, making her out to be some sort of witch or something. Well, looking at things from his point of view, I suppose Shiori was the only cause he knew of for my degradation.
        "Is this true, Sei-chan?" my mother cried hysterically.
        "It's not Shiori's fault."
        I spoke not to my mother or my homeroom teacher, but to the headmistress. She was the only one there who was at all likely to understand-- she knew Shiori well.
        "Why do you have to connect Shiori to the drop in my grades? Even if there was a problem with our relationship, I would bear the sole responsibility for it. Shiori's done nothing wrong."
        "Kubo Shiori said the same thing. That you were not to blame, that she was."
        Apparently the headmistress already knew everything. Even knowing everything, she'd summoned me and my mother here.
        Though it was late in coming, I felt regret then for my thoughtlessness. Even though Shiori and I had quarreled and broken up, I should have continued to take my studies seriously. If only I'd kept my grades up, my homeroom teacher probably wouldn't have blown the whole thing out of proportion. And if my teacher hadn't kicked up a fuss, the headmistress would never have heard anything about it. Even if she was able to overlook this sort of thing when other students did it, that wouldn't be possible in Shiori's case-- as long as Shiori was in Tokyo and the headmistress was acting as her foster mother, the headmistress couldn't pretend this was outside her jurisdiction.
        My cheeks wet with tears, I pleaded Shiori's case, but my homeroom teacher just took advantage of that, his confidence only growing.
        Completely defeated by him, maybe because of his seniority or the force of his appeal, Shiori's homeroom teacher didn't say anything in reply, just cast her eyes down in silence. I was annoyed with her, wondering why she wasn't trying a little harder to protect a student that was under her charge.
        I was finally released, with a strict warning. There was no way they could have punished me simply for a drop in grades, but because of the major difference between my mid-semester test results and end-of-semester test results, I suppose they wanted to have me pinned. I was in danger of setting a record low in test scores, of just barely squeaking by in virtually every subject that semester.
        "School life does not consist solely of studies. However, is it not lonely to become so absorbed in one thing that one ceases to be aware of one's surroundings?" The headmistress threw one last parting shot at me.
        And I knew. Though my mother and the other teachers hadn't noticed my real feelings for Shiori, the headmistress had.
        I didn't know what the next day held, much less what the future had in store for me.


        A little while after I got home, I called Shiori's dorm.
        When we first got in, my mother was really worked up and wouldn't let me go. But after reciting a litany of complaints about Shiori that got so long it started to sound like a monologue, she finally seemed satisfied, and sent me to my room. I was too tired to protest.
        Shiori wasn't in the dorm. They said she'd turned in a temporary absence form about two days ago and hadn't come back yet.
        After that, I called the convent that was located on the Lillian campus. But they told me Shiori hadn't come there. I had no idea where else Shiori could have gone-- I was completely at a loss. I didn't even have any contact info for her uncle in Nagasaki.
        I wanted to hear her voice for even just a moment, wanted to know she was well. I would have even been satisfied if she'd allowed me to apologize for making her suffer on my behalf and then coldly hung up on me.
        I called the dorm every day to see if Shiori had come back yet or even just contacted them. But by the day of the closing ceremony, I hadn't even been able to find out where she was, much less been able to contact her.

        I'd known my grades had dropped from what they'd been at the first semester, but the drop hadn't been as significant as I'd expected-- it must have been the midterms' influence. My grades were high enough that they wouldn't send my mother into fits of hysteria.
        Though it didn't interest me in the slightest, I went to the Christmas Eve mass. On the day of the closing ceremony for the second semester, Lillian called in a priest from another area and held mass. Attendance was optional, so I wasn't obligated to attend, but I headed out to the chapel anyway, hoping to catch a glimpse of Shiori. If she was at the school, she would be at the mass, no question about it.
        I was so timid and discreet in my actions that I even surprised myself. My fear of causing problems for Shiori with every move I made had shackled my wild spirit.
        Just as I'd thought, Shiori was at the mass. She was seated towards the front, a peaceful expression on her features.
        I watched her from a bit of a distance. Seeing her figure, hale and whole, I was moved. Shiori was more god-like to me than God Himself.

        Youko came all the way to my classroom to invite me to the Christmas Party that was being held at the Rose Mansion.
        "Rei-chan baked some yummy cookies. That alone should make it worth coming."
        I told her I'd come if I felt like it, and left the building.
        "We'll be waiting for you!" Youko's voice relentlessly pursued me as I left.
        I headed for the church, still wearing my indoor shoes. We hadn't promised to meet up or anything, but I had the feeling I'd see her if I went there.
        Shiori was waiting for me, leaning against the outside of the church.
        "Sorry to keep you waiting."
        Shiori raised her head at my greeting, then flew into my arms with a surprising degree of spontaneity.
        Trying to curb the feelings that surged through me-- a mix of surprise, happiness, and confusion-- I brought Shiori back behind the church, where few people passed.
        We exchanged a kiss, one initiated by neither person in particular. It was as though we were trying to convey to each other feelings too complex to be put into words.
        "You were all I could think of while we were apart. Even when I was praying, I couldn't get you out of my head. I don't know why I ended up being like this. ......I'm so pathetic."
        Shiori soon calmed down a bit, and began to speak haltingly. She told me that she'd spent the post-exam break in the headmistress's room in the convent, and that she'd discussed her future with her uncle when he came to visit her in Tokyo.
        "The headmistress has sensed the truth about our relationship, and she's very worried about us. She spoke with me frantically, trying to be sure that I wouldn't stray from my path. I could really sympathize with what she was saying, and so I came to believe that I shouldn't be with you anymore. I even promised her I wouldn't see you again. But I couldn't keep my promise."
        The instant we'd met, the dam had broken. We were being swept away by a surge of water that was impossible to fight, with no trace of an eventual destination in sight. It was all we could do just to keep hold of each other's hands.
        "What will become of us?"
        "I don't know."
        The only certainty now was that if things continued on as they were, there was no question we would eventually be torn apart. Suddenly feeling helpless, we clung to each other fiercely. We wanted to feel the heat of each other's bodies, the beating of each other's hearts; wanted the relief of knowing that we weren't alone in the world.
        "Shiori. Let's run away together."
        That idea might have already been in my heart for a long time-- that the two of us would cast away our ordinary lives someday and choose only each other.
        "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll get on fine. We'll go to a new place, live without anyone bothering us."
        "That's right."
        I asked Shiori if she didn't want to do it. If she didn't feel like going with me.
        "Of course I want to. I can go anywhere, as long as I'm with you. But this is-"
        I put my index finger to her lips, stopping her.
        "We can do it."
        You never know whether you can do something until you give it a try. I didn't want to decide before we'd even begun that it was something we couldn't do.
        "Pack only the essentials. Let's do this right away."
        I wanted to run away with Shiori right away. I was worried that her resolve would waver if we waited, and I knew that running away from home was something you did impulsively.
        Well, that said, there were a couple problems with running away right then-- we'd stand out too much in our school uniforms, and no matter where we were going, we'd need money to cover our travel and our immediate living expenses. So I at least needed to stop at home and pick up my ATM card.
        We decided to leave the school separately so as not to attract attention. We'd both pack our luggage and then meet up at the station that evening.
        "See you."
        I parted with Shiori behind the church.
        "See you later."
        Shiori gave a small wave, seeing me off as I left to return to the school building.
        See you later.
        I'll never forget that smile she gave me.
        At the time, I never doubted that I'd be seeing that same smile again in a few short hours.


        I got to the meeting place 40 minutes early.
        We had agreed to meet at the 3-4 platform of M Station at 5 pm. To make it easier to spot each other, we decided to meet at the very end of the platform on the side corresponding to the direction we'd be traveling.
        Shiori wasn't there yet.
        Turning around and walking back a bit, I took a seat on a bench and opened up the schedule I'd bought in the station's bookstore. There was only one stairway leading down to this platform, so I was sure that Shiori, who was taking a bus to the station, would pass by the bench.
        I hated watches, but I had a wristwatch on that day, and I waited impatiently for the meeting time to arrive.
        But the wait wasn't killing me, actually; on the contrary, I was enjoying it.
        When she came, we'd have to discuss where we were going to go. I circled M Station in red ink on my schedule, looked for a train we could go a good distance on without having to change trains, and considered the possibility of going all the way to Shinjuku Station or Tokyo Station. While I was doing that, the time flew by.
        I closed my schedule and stowed it away in my gripsack. It would have been a pain if my mom had been suspicious, so I limited my luggage to about what I'd take if I was going out shopping. As long as I had a change of underwear and my bank book, I could buy anything else I needed.
        I'd told my mother I was going to a Christmas Party with the other members of the Yamayurikai and left. Hearing that I was going to be with Youko and my Onee-sama, both of whom were quite well-liked by adults, my mother had let me go without a fuss.
        Try not to be home too late, and have a good time. I felt just a tad bit guilty then for what I was doing to her.
        An orange train came to a stop at the platform, and discharged a flow of passengers as though releasing a deep breath. Then, sucking more in, it took off for the west. The scene repeated itself over and over every few minutes, never tiring.
        Every so often, I spotted a salaryman getting off, cradling a large box in his arms. Come to think of it, it was Christmas Eve. Decorative lights had been hung on the trees surrounding the bus terminal at the southern entrance of the station, and the street, usually so plain, looked glorious, as though it had dolled itself up with makeup.
        They knew the trains would be full, so why didn't they just wait and pick up a cake at the station closest to them? Amazed, I took a look at my watch.
        Christmas cake, huh?
        I really hated the jumble of decorations put on Christmas cakes, the mix of fir trees and mountain huts and angels and the like. I hated the chocolate plates with "Merry Christmas" messages written on them too. It was for that reason that my father ordered a cake I'd like several weeks in advance, then picked it up and brought it home with him on Christmas Eve, careful to avoid damaging it.
        But we'd stopped having Christmas parties at home recently. My father had gotten really busy when he started a new company three years back, and I'd grown up too much to get excited over something like cake anymore.
        At 5:40, Shiori had yet to appear, even though we'd decided on a 10-minute margin for the meeting time. No matter how you looked at it, she was really late.
        Maybe her bus was running late because of the Christmas Eve traffic. Or maybe she'd mixed up the meeting place.
        Just to be sure, I walked up and down the full length of the platform, looking for her. As I was walking I looked over at the 1-2 platform and the 5-6 platform, but I didn't see anyone who looked like her.
        The thought that she'd been caught by the headmistress and kept from leaving the campus occurred to me and, suddenly alarmed, I went over to the pay phone by the kiosk and picked up the receiver. I'd called the convent so many times during the break that I knew it by heart.
        Thinking they'd be on guard for a call from me, I gave them Sachiko's name, since she was Shiori's classmate, and asked them to put me through to Shiori. But they told me Shiori had left the convent at 4 pm that day, giving them a proper salutation on her way out.
        Not putting the receiver down, I phoned the dorm next. If she'd left at 4, she should have arrived here a long time ago; but maybe she'd returned to the dorm to pick up something she absolutely couldn't leave without.
        But Shiori wasn't there either. I couldn't believe my ears when they told me that she hadn't just stepped out, that she'd left the dorm permanently.
        I couldn't imagine she would have gone through the formal procedures if she was leaving to go away with me.
        So why?
        She'd left the dorm and the convent; where was she planning to go?
        And where was she right then?
        My watch continued to cruelly carve out increments of time, finally reaching 7 pm.

        Shiori wouldn't be coming. I did believe that.
        But what kept me from leaving the platform was my inability to discard the scant hope that any minute now, Shiori might be coming down those stairs.
        Though I knew she probably wouldn't be coming, I didn't know the reason why.
        Did she have a change of heart? Had an unavoidable accident befallen her? My mind was racing so much that my power of thought was on the verge of short-circuiting.
        Everything suddenly seemed tiresome. I wanted to disappear with the setting sun; I didn't want a tomorrow anymore. I remained seated on the bench, unable to go anywhere.
        A drunk called out to me once, as did a station attendant, and I was able to keep it together, but when a pair of women who looked like
OLs came up to me and asked, "Do you feel ill?" I was on the verge of tears.
        "I'm all right. I'm waiting for a friend."
        Biting back the tears, I hung my head. I wished the two women would just leave already. I was abundantly aware of the fact that if I were to let my tears spill over, I wouldn't be able to stop them.
        "It isn't a penalty game?"
        Looking like they might have had a bit to drink, the two women cheerfully proceeded to the ticket gate and then up the stairs. Suddenly cold, I wrapped my arms around myself. I crossed my legs and hunched my neck down, trying to minimize the area of my body that was exposed to the wind, but the cold didn't lessen. Even the thick coat, which I'd asked for last year as a joint Christmas-birthday present, wasn't able to warm me up. The only thing I really needed right then was the warmth of Shiori's hands.
        I closed my eyes tightly. I wanted to see Shiori, even if it was only in a dream.

        Feeling a touch on my shoulder, I awoke.
        I'd dozed off, and lost all sense of time for a moment.
        Starting to drop my gaze to look down at my watch, I changed my mind and looked back over my shoulder instead. The hand that had shaken me awake still lingered on my shoulder.
        "It's past 11. Don't you think it's impossible now to get out of Tokyo before the day is out?"
        Standing there, an amazed-looking smile on her face, was my dear Onee-sama.
        "I came to meet you in place of Shiori-san."
        "Where's Shiori!?"
        I surveyed the area. Having heard her name, I was possessed by the illusion that Shiori had to be somewhere in the vicinity.
        "Shiori-san isn't here. It seems she won't be going with you."
        "You're lying! Isn't someone just trying to hide her!? Where is she? I'll go save her now."
        In my confusion, I doubled my efforts to spot Shiori on the platform.
        "No one is hiding her. She chose this path herself."
        Onee-sama extracted a bit of paper from her pocket and handed it to me. I fumbled to open the folded paper with frozen fingers, Shiori's methodical handwriting appearing as I unfolded it.
        The very first line was enough to send me plunging into a pit of despair.
        I'm sorry. It looks like I won't be able to go with you after all.
        There was the clear proof that Shiori had chosen to part with me of her own will. The letter had been written on pages that had been torn out of a notebook. It was several pages long, and packed with Shiori's sentiments. I skimmed the whole thing briefly, but I couldn't understand much of what she was trying to say. The one thing I did understand was that she had dumped me. So that was it.
        "Shiori-san said she came to this station once. She said she looked at you sitting on the platform from a ways off and realized that she couldn't go with you."
        "If she was here...... then why didn't she tell me directly that she wasn't going?"
        If she'd told me personally, maybe I would have understood. She could have conveyed her sincerity much better in person than with a few scraps of paper.
        "I would imagine it was because her resolve would have wavered if she'd met up with you."
        "Isn't it obvious? She may seem mature, but she's still a first-year high school student. She's at an age where it's only natural she'd be unsure. Even you could agree on that."
        Taking my hand, Onee-sama said, "Let's go home."
        Held in Onee-sama's arms, I went up the stairs and through the ticket gate.
        "Is Shiori going somewhere?"
        "Yes. A faraway place. She discussed it with the headmistress during the break, and they arranged for her to transfer to another school. She left to go there."
        "From this station," she added, looking back over her shoulder at the place in question.
        What had I been doing at the time she left? Not having any idea that things would end this way, I might have been picturing our future together.
        "Because of me, she......"
        I thought I was holding my tears back, but a single one slipped by and made its way down my cheek.
        "She agreed to this outcome."
        Onee-sama accepted the flood of emotion, a mix of anxiety, desolation, loneliness, anger, and the like, that burst out of me all at once. Unable to stop the flood of tears, I continued to cry against her chest.
        "But if she hadn't met me-" Shiori might have lived out three happy years at Lillian.
        "That's right. But it's good that you met her. You live and learn. You just have to come to a point in the future when you can be glad that you met her."
        "That will never happen."
        "You'll be all right. It's not like you've died, after all. Wounds heal with time."
        But not being able to be with Shiori anymore was the same as dying, for me.
        We came out of the southern exit of the station. The lights sparkled brightly through my tears, like stardust.
        "You have me, don't you?"
        "You don't really think I only love you for your looks, do you?"
        What she said surprised me so much that my tears stopped for a moment.
        "......You don't?"
        "How rude. That was just a means of making sure I didn't become a burden to you. I'm good at dealing with you. You know that, don't you?"
        "But you're going to graduate."
        "I'm not the only one who cares about you. Look."
        Youko was standing in the place where she pointed. She was standing in front of a 24-hour family restaurant, blowing on her hands to warm them up. Noticing us, she raised her head.
        "It seems that Youko-chan, that silly girl, worried about you so much that she ended up acting stupidly because of it. I told her to wait inside the restaurant."
        Onee-sama gave a dry laugh.
        Youko rushed up to us at a half-run and, seemingly unable to speak, contented herself with glaring at me.
        "Sorry I worried you."
        I was able to speak honestly to her. Looking at Youko's face, it was painfully obvious how worried she'd been about me.
        "You sure did!"
        Looking a bit relieved, Youko pulled a small bag out of her pocket and tossed something from inside it into my mouth.
        "These are cookies Rei-chan made."
        These were apparently the infamous cookies, the ones she'd said would make going to the party worthwhile.
        They weren't fresh out of the oven, but they were a bit warm, maybe because they'd been in her pocket. My mouth tasted of tears, but the cookies dissolved sweetly bit by bit; they tasted so good that I started to cry again.
        "Let's go."
        Putting a hand on Youko's shoulder too, Onee-sama started walking.
        "My house. I called your mother a little while ago to tell her you'd be spending the night. Let's the three of us have our own little party."
        "Don't complain. You have to follow your Onee-sama's orders. Our fun winter vacation starts tomorrow, so let's stay up late and party hardy. Quietly."
        I thought to myself that I'd never be able to match my Onee-sama, ever.
        I didn't think I'd be able to sleep in my own chilled bed if I went home.
        The wound caused by my loss of Shiori was deep, but... Someone was trying to understand me, was being there for me. It was a great comfort.
        As we walked side-by-side beneath the trees that lined the road, Onee-sama's wristwatch alarm suddenly went off.
        "Happy Birthday!" Onee-sama and Youko cried in unison, coming to a stop.
        I realized that it was the 25th of December, and that I had just grown a year older.


        I cut my hair.
        It wasn't that I thought I could sever my feelings for Shiori so easily; it was that it was hard for me to look at my own long hair because it reminded me of Shiori's.
        I really hacked it off. The feeling of air against my neck was odd at first, but I got used to it in time. Maybe my heart would be able to adjust to the chill of Shiori's departure someday, as my body had.
        When the new term started, Onee-sama dragged me around so much that I didn't have time to fall into depression, giving me this and that to work on for the Yamayurikai. I'd skipped out on bouton duties all up through the second semester of my second year, and paying for that mistake kept me crazy busy-- I had to learn everything I needed to know to succeed Onee-sama all at once. But I did feel that even with someone like me as Rosa Gigantea, as long as Youko was there as Rosa Chinensis, the Yamayurikai would be all right.
        I eventually had to admit that Youko was superior to me in every way.
        I didn't hear about this until after the fact, but it was Youko who, having spotted Shiori leaving M Station, had pursued her all the way to Tokyo Station and made her write me that letter. I think what she did was appropriate-- if Shiori had vanished without even that letter as proof, I wouldn't have believed Onee-sama and Youko when they said she was gone. After watching Shiori leave by
shinkansen, Youko had returned to M Station and gotten in touch with Onee-sama.
        I didn't ask where Shiori was going. I felt that it was enough to know that she was living peacefully somewhere.

        Towards the end of February, I finally reached the point where I was able to reread Shiori's letter calmly and rationally.
        And I began to feel, little by little, that I could understand what she had been trying to say.
        This part, for example:
        At that time, I really thought the two of us could live together. But as I was standing in the station, looking at your profile as you sat on the platform, I realized how difficult it would really be. If the two of us left on a journey together, what would be waiting for us at our destination? I don't want your having known me to cause you any more pain than it already has.
        The first time I'd read that passage, I'd cursed Shiori, thinking that nothing could possibly have hurt me more than her leaving had. But that wasn't true.
        Even if we'd taken each other's hands then and run off together, we'd have been helpless-- what could we have done, realistically? Just as Shiori had said, it would most definitely not have been a cheerful future that awaited us.
        In retrospect, there had been a premonition of death hanging over our destination that day. If we had left together, I likely would have chosen to die with Shiori soon after. She must have sensed that, somehow.
        I decided to get on with the business of living, and to try to put Onee-sama's words into practice: that wounds heal someday, and that the future buries the past.

        We became third-year students.
        "Listen. You're the sort of person who's easily sucked into things, so if you find something that's important to you, make sure to take a step back from it."
        That was Onee-sama's final piece of advice. She would be going off to an outside college starting in April, so I wouldn't be able to depend on her to help me through my problems anymore.
        "I've done nothing but depend on you. I haven't been able to do anything at all for you in return......"
        I was amazed that she'd looked after me so long, terrible petite soeur that I was. And I was truly grateful to her.
        "That's fine. As your Onee-sama, it's my job to look after you. If you want to return the favor, please pass it on to someone else. ---That's right, to your future petite soeur, maybe."
        "A petite soeur? After all this time?"
        I scoffed at the idea. It was highly unlikely I'd be taking a petite soeur so late on in.
        Onee-sama smiled brilliantly, her smile like a cherry blossom in full bloom-- though it was a little early for them to be blooming yet.
        Unable to wait the month or so until the dreamlike scenery would appear, I looked up at the cherry tree.

        The branches would remain bare and bereft for a good while longer, but in the gaps between them, patches of blue shone through-- jagged cutouts of a sky that I knew stretched to infinity.