Tangle Skein - Chapter 1: First Impressions of Chiyako

Inspired by Yoshizumi Wataru's Marmalade Boy

Prologue

"Attention all passengers, this will be the final announcement of the night. The ship is now out of Japanese waters, and it will two more days until we reach Hawaii. Dinner services will be closing now, but drinks and light snacks will be served in the Holbright room until 3 am. Dancing in the main ballroom will commence shortly. Also, the pool will be opened until midnight. We want your first night aboard the Pacific Soyakaze to be a memorable one, please do not hesitate to ask our crew for anything. Once again, thank you for choosing Holiday Transport and, in particular, the Soyakaze, for your vacation cruise."

The announcement was spoken by a gentle but authoritative male voice. It was repeated in Japanese, this time by a higher pitched, female voice, which took considerably longer due to numerous Sumimasens and like apologies. This was followed by the Cantonese and finally the Korean versions. At the end, there was the eight bar refrain from the TV adds and then a click as the PA system was turned off.

Norris Greenwood, Head of Guest Relations, smiled, appreciating the blessed silence. It did not last long. The door to his office swung open violently, and a petite, but forceful woman strode through. She turned to face him, a scowl across her face, and then fell backwards.

"Do not, I repeat, do not ask me how the dinner went." Sally Mckinion spoke the words in a dramatic voice as she sank deeply into the couch. She rolled over, smashing her face into the velvet cushions.

Norris, her boss and most elevated of human resources for miles around now that the ship had exited the port, counted silently.

One, two, three, four. . . Oh my, he thought, if I make it to ten then I'll fear food poisoning. Luckily he only had to wait till seven.

"Well, it's better that you hear it from me. You are interested, are you not?"

Norris made a silent shrugging gesture. It didn't work to give her too much encouragement.

"As you know, the Kumodochis canceled, the Fumeshitas are on their honeymoon so it's not surprising they ordered in, the Domeus were obviously seasick and the Togowaris were either quietly drunk or ogling the waitresses. So you can imagine the pleasantness of the evening. It was like I was talking to myself the entiretime. I don't know. I just don't. The cruisegoers always complain that they never get to meet anyone, so we throw these shindigs and what happens?"

There was a pause and Norris was almost tempted to reply. He was saved by Sally's own answer.

"You bloody sit around, pretend you're the cheerful fairy, have to listen to yourself being the cheerful fairy, and maybe, if you're ever so lucky, one of them will ask you to pass the butter. Is my Japanese that bad? Oh Norris, what am I doing wrong?" this last ended in a wail and Norris commenced the comforting routine.

"Come now, Sally, your Japanese is quite good. I'm sure it was just the customers. Were they all bad? Weren't there some other couples?"

"Oh yes, the Koishikawas and the Matsuuras. Lovely couples, didn't do anything but stare at each other the entire time and try not to look embarrassed. Odd really, I thought those four would hit it off. I even brought up the fact that they both had children the same age. But no good, it only settled the ice more firmly. I suppose they're from different social classes or something. They'd probably never associate in a hundred years."

Chapter 1: First Impressions of Chiyako

It was a cold, blustery day, more akin to winter than spring. Returning to boarding house, Chiyako was glad to slip out of her fashionable but now wet sandals and into her extra fuzzy slippers. She had been walking about campus, familiarizing herself with the locations of her classes. More importantly, she had timed the distance and now knew that it took precisely 17 minutes to walk from her room to her first class. Assuming half an hour to wash and get dressed, that would mean she'd have to wake up before 8:45. Way too early, she thought. Why were advertising majors required to take an accounting class anyway? She smiled ruefully. Maybe she could find someone to take notes so she need not attend the lectures.

Opening her door, she found a unfamiliar pile of luggage on one side of the room. Well, it's about time her roommate moved in. I've been here almost a week and she waits until the day before classes begin.

Chiyako Namuki bent over to examined the unpacked possessions. She stared carefully at their color, make, design, sizes, and scruff marks before accepting that there wasn't much to learn about a person from their luggage, at least from the outside. The nametag read "Yamashita Rumi," but Chiyako already knew that from the landlady. Neat, clean Kanji, maybe this Rumi would be a practical sort of girl, humorless and hardworking. An individual that studied all the time and went to bed early. Maybe Chiyako could learn a bit of patience; she'd meet this Rumi soon enough.

Still, Chiyako couldn't help but wonder. This was the person she'd be spending the next six months with, at least. What would they be to each other? Nearest and dearest of friends? That would be novel, she hadn't had a best friend since grade school. Where was this Rumi? She should be here so they could make introductions.

"What is she doing anyway?!" Chiyako moaned at the ceiling.

"Um. . ." replied a terribly small voice.

Chiyako spun about. Had her curiosity been less, she might have taken the time to be embarrassed. Standing just beyond the room's entrance was a petite young woman about Chiyako's size. Not that I'll be borrowing any outfits if the rest of her wardrobe is like that, observed Chiyako. The girl was dressed in a dumpy sweater skirt combo, far too pastel for her skin tone. Chiyako's critical eyes also noted the severity of the stranger's hairstyle, straight and pulled back into a ponytail, her lack of makeup, and horrors, her thick hornrimmed glasses. On the positive side, she need not worry about having her boyfriends stolen away. Realizing she was staring, Chiyako made introductions.

"Hi," Chiyako bowed slightly, "You must be Yamashita Rumi, I'm Namuki Chiyako."

Rumi smiled softly, almost apologetically, "Pleased to meet you, Namuki-san."

"Oh, call me Chiyako."

"Chiyako," Rumi repeated, and her fixed smile became a shade less reserved.

Chiyako had a dozen questions prepared for this moment, and found herself unable to remember a single one. She smiled dumbly at Rumi, whose blank smile probably indicated the same problem. Chiyako glanced about, willing the dorm room itself to present a suitable topic for conversation.

Seizing on the first thing that sprung to mind, she asked "You don't mind me taking this side of the room, do you? Because it wouldn't be hard to change. . ." her voice trailed off as she recalled the three hours she and her mother had spent arranging things "just so" earlier that week. Silently, she cursed her impulsiveness. If she only considered consequences of actions, she wouldn't have to devote so much of her time to damage control.

"Oh no," Rumi said quickly, "this arrangement is going to work out just great. This way, you get the sun in the morning and I get to sleep in." She grinned.

Chiyako smiled back. There was a mischievious streak to this girl that Chiyako wholeheartedly approved of. And her smile was nice. It lit up her otherwise plain features. Really, she wasn't half-bad looking. A different outfit, maybe shorter hair, get rid of the hideous glasses. . . Chiyako gave Rumi a mental makeover and was quite pleased with the results. Imagining Rumi's future appearance relaxed Chiyako and from there conversation flowed easily, satisfying Chiyako's curiosity.

Rumi was from a small country town in the Shizuoka Prefecture and this was only her third time in Tokyo. She was majoring in chemistry, although she insisted that she really wasn't all that smart. But where she really scored points was in her display of overt and unabashed awe of Chiyako.

"So you're here all by yourself?" Rumi asked, "I just couldn't do that."

Chiyako was confused, "What do you mean? You're a lot farther from home than I am."

"Well, I suppose. But Jin, that's my boyfriend, he's going to school here too."

"High school sweetheart?" Chiyako asked somewhat cynically and silently thanked the gods that her old flame was attending another university so they could break it off cleanly. As far as she was concerned, college was for fun dating, you were married long enough as it was.

"Yes. Or no," Rumi scrunched up her face slightly, "we've been dating since middle school."

Chiyako felt her jaw drop involuntarily, "No kidding."

Rumi replied with a shy smile as if apologizing.

"Well. . .". Dating someone from before they reached puberty. She thought back to the boys she'd dated in middle school, and barely stifled a groan. Chiyako searched for something to add. "You guys must be serious. We should work out a system so I don't walk in on you unexpectedly. Is he going to spend the night much?"

Rumi's smile dropped and she went beet red. "We never, I mean, I wouldn't, I mean. . ." her voice trailed off and suddenly a look of horror covered her embarrassment. "You aren't going to be bringing men over for the. . ."

Chiyako's mind was swimming. How to get out of from this one gracefully? "No, no. I'm not dating anyone now. I want to have fun, but not — I've never-"

"Oh, not that there's anything wrong with it-"

"No, but it would have to be someone really special-"

"Of course, of course. If it was someone really special-"

"And I haven't met that person yet-"

"So there's nothing to worry about." Rumi concluded.

They both visibly relaxed, having talked themselves down from a possible conflict area. Well, I'll be careful not to go there again, Chiyako promised herself.

"Anyway, we can go on double dates. You, Jin, me and whoever I'm interested in that week."

Rumi's smile grew large again. Unguarded was the way Chiyako would describe it. This could work out. It could really work out.

*******

Must. Not. Fall. Asleep. Desperately Jin repeated his mantra while the student to his right snored on, oblivious. Emerging World Markets 107 was boring, the teacher was a prattling fool, the room was stuffy, it was after lunch, and dear gods, it was only the first day of the semester. Jin had tried counting the ummms the lecturer used and gave up when he hit 41 in the first five minutes. He'd tried pinching his arm until his skin turned red. It was no use, time for desperate measures.

The only choice was to completely drown out the old geezer and do something to wake up his mind. He scanned the room for a good distraction and it was then that his eyes fell upon the long light hair of the girl seated kitty corner from him.

He had seen her earlier, in his accounting class. She had made quite an entrance, arriving fifteen minutes late. The hall had been packed, and rather than sit in the isle, she had politely worked her way past several students to get at an inner seat. The professor had looked rather put off, but just grimaced and said nothing.

Jin could understand. The woman was stunning. Not just good looking, but stunning. It was something in her attitude, something that Jin had not seen in a woman his age ever before, unless you counted TV idols. Jin guessed that she could sweet-talk any man here, including himself.

Still, there was something more to the woman than just looks and style. There was a purposefulness in her manners. It radiated from her with every move, every gesture. If this were a movie, she would be the starring role, and this classroom and all students would be simply the background, establishing her superiority to the audience through sheer contrast.

The woman turned slightly and their eyes locked, holding for a fraction of a second before Jin turned away. He could feel the color rise in his cheeks. Well that was real smooth, he admonished himself, now she'll think you're some sort of pervert.

Afterwards, he tried to keep his focus on the professor, but there was something nagging his subconscious. It was than ten minutes before he gave into the temptation. As discretely as possible, he turned his head, and instantly regretted it. The woman was unabashedly staring at him. Catching his eyes, she gave him a slow smile, winked, and turned her attention to the front of the room. What's that supposed to mean? He found himself still looking at her, and self-consciously looked away.

The rest of the class went by quickly. Whatever the professor was now droning was lost in Jin's distracted musings about the woman's actions. What did it all mean? Was she laughing at him, or had he inadvertently sent her some signal, and if so, what did that signal mean? Should he apologize or simply sneak out? He was leaning towards the latter course of action, but just then the bell rang, and she turned around to face him. There was no way to avoid her.

She smiled coyly. "You were looking at me" she accused him.

"Guilty," said Jin sheepishly.

"I could get angry," she continued, "But I'll let it pass, if you take me out for coffee."

Jin managed to say "Ahhh," as his brain ran out on him. Was this a date offer? She was sure forward. His hand unconsciously began rubbing the back of his neck.

"What?" she pursed her lip and raised her eyebrows and Jin understood precisely why the accounting professor had not reamed her out.

"I, ahhh, I have a girlfriend." There, that wasn't so painful.

"Oh, that doesn't bother me."

For the past few days Jin had entertained the idea that he looked as cosmopolitan as any other student. With this conversation he felt like he had just stepped out of a rice field. The looks the woman was giving him indicated she was just as aware of his discomfort. He suspected she was enjoying it.

"It's only a coffee. Don't worry, I'm not out for a relationship, I just like spending time with cute guys." She said it flippantly, as if the explanation negated any objections.

"I rather doubt my girlfriend would see it that way."

"I won't tell." Her coy smile was back. She was determined and there remained no subtle way of backing out. He had one option open to him, short of having coffee with her.

Jin actively glanced at his watch and exclaimed, "Oh my, look at the time. I gotta run. Bye." and with that he put his long legs to use, sprinting up the stairs, out the room, down the hall and thought the doors. Once outside, he took off quickly in an direction free of people and not stopping until he was several blocks from the building. Only then did he turn around. Jin relaxed, relieved not to see her. He was safe, at least until his next class. Well, he'd have to think of something before then.

*******

"Tell me about your day," commanded Rumi. "Anything of interest happen?"

Jin looked up from behind his cup. His eyes were sparkling, but because his mouth was obscure, Rumi couldn't read his expression. It didn't matter, she was just glad to be with him.

Jin had been in the city for nearly a week while she had just gotten in yesterday. He had met her at the train station and helped he get her baggage to her room, but it had been hurried, and they hadn't had time to really talk. Dinner had been at a hip but noisy pub and it was only now, sitting in a coffeehouse, that they could really carry on a conversation.

"Oh it was alright," replied Jin. "They're all introductory classes, not too interesting. And your day?"

"Similar," Rumi fibbed.

Actually she could say a lot, but she didn't want to monopolize the conversation. There was a pause, filled nicely by the waiter bringing their desserts.

"So what's your roommate like?" Jin asked.

"Oh. . ." Rumi thought a moment. "Her name is Namuki Chiyako and she's exceedingly pretty. Her hair is something else; light and long, really fine. She's from the city, a sophisticated type."

"Sophisticated?"

"Well, into boys, parties, the like."

"Sophisticated?" Jin asked again, this time more dubiously.

"That came out wrong. It's more the way she acts. She's not the least nervous or worried, even though she's just as new to the city as we are."

Jin frowned, "Are you nervous, Rumi? I thought you wanted to go away for college."

"I do, I do. But isn't it scary? All these students and professors, and all of them so smart. It's just different from the country. Anyway," not wanting to worry Jin, Rumi went onto change the subject, "she has this air of knowing just what she wants."

"Sounds like she might be hard to live with."

"Oh no!" Rumi paused, "alright," she admitted, "maybe. I got the impression that she thought dating the same guy since middle school was pretty boring."

Jin gave a mock sigh and drawled, "Yep, them's just our country folk ways. Boring."

Rumi giggled and leaned over to Jin in a confiding manner "But, Jin, she's sooo cool! I wish I was like her."

Jin laughed, "Are you going to dump a country bumpkin like me?"

"Maybe." Rumi kept her face straight for all of ten seconds. Then she completely broke down. Regaining her composure she said seriously, "If I broke up with you Jin, I would have no one to talk to, or to steal dessert from!" she added judiciously while snatching the last of Jin's cookie.

They continued their banter as Jin paid for the meal - another perk according to Rumi. From the restaurant it was a quick walk to Rumi's boarding house. There was a short debate about whether Jin could come up or not. The landlady would disapprove, but it wasn't very late. It would surprise Chiyako, but she was sooo coool, it would be okay. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby Rumi ran up and checked with Chiyako first and then brought Jin up.

*******

Chiyako waited, full of curiosity. What would a boyfriend of five years be like? Gosh, wasn't that longer than most people were married?

Rumi knocked gently on the door to alert Chiyako of their presence. Chiyako turned, smiled woodenly and her first thought was, help. And then, this couldn't be any more comical if it was planned by a writer.

Standing in the doorway, looking just as uncomfortable as she felt, stood the guy she had hit on earlier that day. The one who said he had a girlfriend. The girlfriend who was obviously Rumi. Help.

I wonder. . . she thought absently, if they broke up, what would be the minimum required waiting time before making a move on him wouldn't be considered tacky. Mentally Chiyako slapped herself once for the thought, and then again for not being ashamed of having entertained it. She couldn't help it, he was just as good looking as he'd been in class.

Priorities, Chiyako, priorities. How much more crass can a person get than stealing her roommate's boyfriend? But then, why couldn't Rumi's sweetheart at least have glasses or something?

To hide her discomfort, Chiyako threw her frustrated energy into small talk. It was a trick practiced since childhood, and she could tell that Rumi was completely taken in by it. If anything, it was Jin's agitation that stood out. Rumi commented more than once on his lack of attention.

It's really a bummer he's taken. Jin was taller, more muscular, and far better looking than she had given Rumi credit for. Even his awkwardness, magnified no doubt by his discomfort, added to his cuteness.

Analytically, or as analytically as she could, Chiyako looked at the couple. Much as she'd like to dismiss it, they looked good together. They were like some matched secondary characters in TV series, the ones who were to be supportive of, but not distracting from, the more dramatic leads.

Chiyako found she liked that analogy. Koishikawa-san wasn't the most suave guy she'd ever met, she'd seen that when she talked to him in class. Not a problem for Rumi, but Chiyako had always imagined herself paired with a more sophisticated guy.

Slowly, she began to relax. She wasn't madly in love or anything. It was just a passing infatuation, a crush, if that much. If Koishikawa could keep his mouth closed, there would be no harm done at all. She'd have to catch him after classes tomorrow to make sure.

"Hey Jin," Rumi was saying, "Chiyako's convinced me to join the tennis circle." She held up a flyer, "would you be interested?"

"Hmmm," he looked even more uncomfortable, but as he paged through, Chiyako could see he was interested, "This doesn't seem too physically intense. Optional practices and lots of other activities, skiing even. I'll. . ." He glanced at Chiyako and she tried to look casual. "I'll think about it."

"There's a meeting on Friday. Let's go and see if we like it." proposed Rumi.

Rumi gave him the puppy dog eyes treatment and Koishikawa melted. Then, making like he suddenly realized how late it had become — how often does he use that trick?- he begged off and Rumi escorted him out. Chiyako worried briefly that he might blurt something out about their other encounter, but Rumi returned almost immediately and seemed not the least bit ruffled. If he was my boyfriend, I would have taken more time saying goodbye. It irked her slightly to find the two of them as chaste as Rumi had implied.

No wonder she got so flustered by my comments. Well, it was an honest mistake. She had probably come out as quite the floozy. But how was she to know? Chiyako had been acquainted with several long term couples that had, well at least implied they had had, that type of relationship. It was an unfamiliar area for her. She had had been a plethora of boyfriends over the years, but she had always set some very strictly observed limits for all of them.

"Koishikawa-san seems real, um, nice." She said to Rumi after they turned out the lights later that night.

"Yes he is." Rumi agreed. She sounded sleepy, but Chiyako was curious, and it was barely twelve.

"How did you guys meet?"

"Oh, we lived next to each other."

"Your whole life?"

"Yep. Jin was my best friend growing up."

"Wow." Chiyako's amazement was genuine. "That's like straight out of a movie. Was it true love from the beginning?"

Rumi didn't reply for a moment. "I guess so. I can't think of being with anyone else."

"So how come you aren't engaged yet? Don't your parents approve?"

"Oh no, everyone's okay with us getting married. They were all kind of assuming we would even before we started dating. We've decided to wait until after we graduate." There was silence and Chiyako was about to ask something else when Rumi continued with her chain of thought. "We've never really discussed it. With Jin and me, it's as if we know each other's minds. There's no hurry. We have all the time in the world."

Chiyako was going to challenge her on that point, but thought better of it. Rumi seemed so sure. What would it be like to love someone that strongly, she wondered, and fretted. Something was troubling Chiyako and she was pretty sure she knew what it was. Put simply, she was jealous. Not of Koishikawa, but of Rumi's relationship to him. Chiyako hadn't admitted it until now, but the university life was lonely.

Having a boyfriend would make it easier. Chiyako always valued her independence and she didn't like these feeling of longing. They were only temporary. Soon she'd know lots of people, enough to fill all her hours. When that happened, she'd look back at these emotions and laugh at herself. Still, Rumi's boyfriend was quite the looker.

"Well, I really like Koishikawa-san." She said with all honesty, and added, "You have my approval." That was more of a vow to herself. Hands off, girl.

Rumi didn't reply. In the darkness, Chiyako could hear her rhythmic breathing. Asleep already?

Copyright Kim Smuga-Otto 1999