She stretched a little, relishing the cold and the sound of wind through the trees. Of course, she'd been real and alive in the library. The artificial light and the way it made her skin seem sallow and the veins in her wrist unearthly blue had been real, as had the words on the screen in front of her and the emotions they'd provoked. She'd been just as alive in there; but somehow, the quality of living there was different.
Perhaps it was not so much the light and still, climate-controlled air inside that made Shimako long so much to be in moving air and beneath trees. She disliked the necessity of email. It felt wrong to her that speech and feelings could be compressed into digitised characters on a screen. Anything worth saying was surely worth writing gracefully, and sent on paper fine enough to raise the tiny hairs at the back of her neck when she drew her finger down the page; the communication between one human and another was too significant and personal to be reduced to cold convenience. Correspondence should be about the ritual, the sight and feel and scent, as much as the words; touching another person's mind or heart deserved to be an act of beauty. But it was already unusual enough, aberrant even, to be writing to Shizuka. It would be unreasonable to insist on handwritten letters instead of email and Shimako was never unreasonable.
Shizuka had no such qualms.
I could never abide the idea of being a nun, although in some ways I'm as devout as you. I'd
like to live among women, but nuns must always confess, for the good of their soul, and I fancy
they would not like the kind of secrets I would be forced to tell. But what of you, little Rosa
Gigantea, little nun? Here's a practice exercise for you: Tell me a secret.
If you wish.
Rosa Gigantea is a fraud.
Shimako turned her face to the sky and closed her eyes, the cold wind caressing her face, soothing away the faint feeling of claustrophobia. Better, that was better. And real.
She didn't start or open her eyes when a hand was laid on hers. There was only one girl at Lillian who would lay such a calm hand on Rosa Gigantea. Even Yumi would bob and flutter and ask permission, words falling sweetly over themselves. Besides, the hand was as familiar to Shimako as her own, its warmth as welcome as a patch of sunlight on skin made sensitive with cold. She let the corners of her mouth lift in a slight smile.
"You're freezing. Do you want my coat?"
"I'm not cold." Not with your friendship to warm me, she wanted to say, but that would be silly and melodramatic and besides, it was unnecessary.
"If you say so." Shimako knew that Noriko's face would have darkened a little, frustrated in her attempt to look after her grande soeur; she also knew that Noriko would never push a point. She smiled more directly and opened her eyes.
"Let's sit a while before we go to the Rose Mansion, Noriko. I've been cooped up in the library with the computers, so I don't want to go inside just yet."
"I'd like to sit with you first, if you would like it."
There was no need to ask each other where to go, only to slide their arms into each other's and make their way towards a bench under the trees. A first year that Shimako didn't recognise was sitting there, looking through a pile of photo stickers. When she heard the crunch of the other girl's feet on fallen leaves, the stranger looked up, her eyes widening with alarm as she saw it was the two girls of the Rosa Gigantea family. She scrambled to her feet, dropping some of her precious pictures in her rush. She managed to gather them up as she simultaneously bowed, clumsy and awkward, her gaze resting on Shimako with a wide-eyed mixture of adulation and fear, and fled.
Shimako repressed a sigh. She was becoming used to this reaction, although she never quite lost the desire to take the younger girls by the hand, smile and reassure them. It wasn't as if the fact that she had so many fans among the first year, and even her own year, was surprising even to herself. She was, after all, the perfect Lillian student; graceful, pretty and a Rose even though she was only in her second year, watching over her own petite soeur and all the younger "sisters" of her school. And yet, it never felt real, and never deserved. Part of her was always waiting for her election to be declared a mistake, and… what then? Shizuka would return, and be Rosa Gigantea in her place? It seemed a silly fear.
Rosa Gigantea is a fraud.
Shimako was not quite hard enough on herself to think that her perfection was indeed a pose. Perhaps before, but now her secret had been discovered and accepted, she had no reason to act a lie. Certainly not with Noriko at her side, with all her quiet, respectful directness as an example of truth. Shimako's soft, courteous speech, her elegance, her gentleness and her femininity were all as much a part of herself as her slender hands, not an attempt to win admiration. She tried to be herself, at all times – but there was that word again, trying, and there was no actual effort involved. Shimako treated life tenderly, and in the main it treated her with reciprocal tenderness.
But still… It was a silly thing to have nag at one, the idea that you were always telling untruths without meaning it, or knowing how to stop. Ridiculous to be forever aware of the pretty picture made standing under the blossoms, an image of femininity and serene grace, when actually her thoughts were chasing each other in clumsy circles to the point at which they paralysed action or even speech.
She turned to Noriko, and the younger girl gave her a rueful look. She was the same age as the girl who had fled, but there was no adulation in her face, just protective affection mixed with only a bearable amount of soft admiration. Shimako felt her tension easing, and she laughed a little. She wanted to put her arms around Noriko and hold her close, and although she didn't, knowing that she could do so as she wished was enough to make her happy.
"At least the bench is free. Come. We should go to the Rose Mansion soon, so let's enjoy this moment while we can."
They sat side by side, in comfortable pleasure at being together. The air was still cold, but it was a tender coldness, making Shimako aware of the sensitivity of her own skin, the heat radiating from Noriko's body resting beside her, the almost imperceptible lifting and dropping of their hair in the moving air.
This moment, this small space of time, is pure, Shimako told herself. The trees, the air, the grace of Lillian's buildings behind them, her awareness of her own body with its pumping blood and shape and nerves, the quiet ease of being with Noriko, these things were flawless and precious. This, too, was a gift from God, the perfect combination of nature and human effort and the commune between two girls. She knew she would remember her gratitude for this moment when she made her prayers that night.
Finally Noriko shifted a little, and Shimako wondered if she was worrying that they would be late for the Roses' meeting. Noriko could hold her own against Sachiko, the flares of their opposing tempers leaving neither of them scathed, but Noriko took her sense of duty towards Shimako seriously, almost as if she was the grande soeur and Shimako her charge. She hated getting the older girl in trouble. But her words were unrelated. "Were you studying for your translation test in the library?" Noriko knew Shimako's schedules as well as her own.
"No. I was answering email." Shimako hesistated and then said, simply, "To Kanina Shizuka." Noriko was looking at her with black, thoughtful eyes, Noriko who was always there, waiting to be leaned on although she was Shimako's younger. Somehow the story came out; Shizuka's awkward questions, the way her own answer had come spilling out. Admitting to her own consciousness of accidental insincerity took almost a physical effort, as if the words wanted to stay in her throat. But Noriko accepted that with a slight incline of her head, and asked a different question.
"Why do you let her trouble you with such questions, anyway? She only cares because she wanted your position with Sei." Noriko dropped her gaze a moment, as if she was afraid she'd pried too far or stepped over an invisible line. Shimako felt the fleeting urge to apologise to her.
"How do you know so much about Shizuka?"
"She's important to you," Noriko said, simply.
"Is she?" Shimako stared at the leaves rustling before her. She thought of dark hair feathering around a sharp, lovely face with knowing eyes, and could remember her own nervous unease, waiting for the axe to fall. When Shizuka had finally wounded her, it had been with the purity of her voice, the poignant sweetness that still managed to slice deep into Shimako's heart until all her own hidden feelings spilled out like life's blood. She relived her date with Shizuka with every email, half fearing and half relishing the tightness of nervous tension in her throat when she saw Rosa Canina's name in her inbox, wishing that that the impertinent, elliptical letters could draw from her the same pain, the same honesty as her voice. Shizuka lived behind her own eyes, behind the words on the screen, and something inside Shimako wanted to reach out, behind her own smooth surface and watching eyes, and let that sadness cut into her.
"Yes, I suppose she is important to me, really. I feel that we are linked, somehow. But I don't know why."
"Don't you?" There was an edge of something in her voice which Shimako didn't have the confidence to place. And there was no readily apparent reason she hadn't mentioned Sei, when Noriko had, and obviously knew the whole story. Hearing Sei's name on her friend's lips felt like being caught accidentally lying.
The sensible thing was for Shimako to say that Sei had been important to them both, and that created a bond. But the memory of bleeding from Shizuka's voice and finding herself on her knees, with Sei's arms coming around her to hold her safe at last, was still sharp. How could she tell her gallant new sister that, and displace her with a memory?
Instead, Shimako lifted one shoulder, gracefully. But then, all her movements were graceful, and there was no point asking herself if the movements were calculated, when they felt so natural. "I asked her to write to me. I have no right to be too critical over her choice of subjects."
"Why did you write to her?" Noriko seemed a little ill at ease, as if the subject was troubling her a little, but her eyes were as intent and trusting as ever, open to anything Shimako said. "Weren't you afraid she meant you harm?
Shimako laughed a little at her directness. "She never meant anyone harm, I believe. As to why I wrote to her…" Her voice trailed off.
She was never quite sure herself why she started writing to Shizuka, except that she had found an email congratulating her, in a tone that was not quite ironic, on her ascension to the role of Rosa Gigantea. What had made her, instead of writing a short acknowledgment, type three screens about her life? Mere capriciousness? A fatal mixture of impulsiveness and contrariness was of course one of the suspected curses of the Rosa Gigantea family; she remembered her own grande soeur quite well enough, and from what she had heard, Sei's own grande soeur acted always on impulse and never as expected. Despite Shimako's soft presence she had her fair share of unwillingness to do the obvious and sensible thing such as, to take an easy and obvious example, ignore a rival who had conveniently left. Of course, if you wished to play that game, so many traits were said to be the curse of the Rosa Gigantea family. Why should it not be one of the others? And in any case, could she ever be as truly difficult to understand as Shizuka herself?
All Shimako knew was that she could talk to Shizuka, at a distance, at least. In the rest of her life, it was more difficult to tell people what she thought and felt than she had ever feared was possible. Even confession, one of the draws of her conversion to Catholicism, failed her; or perhaps it was she who failed. She had thought it would be possible to kneel and open her heart, and have her words of confession pass over her like an indiarubber, removing the grubbiness of her life. Instead she would quietly and gently offer up her small wrongdoings and do her penance as required, and be untouched, and leave feeling, once more, that she had somehow been dishonest. It shouldn't be possible to feel that you could fall short at confession, as if it was some kind of a test, but she left time and time again with the same uneasy feeling that she had done it wrong. And she, of all people, aspired to be a nun. It wasn't really a common impediment to a vocation, this dread of having to confess often enough to make the sense of deficiency inescapable.
It was only to Shizuka, incalculable and not really even friendly, let alone gracious, that she could offer up her secrets. Perhaps, Shimako wondered sometimes, what she really needed was an unsympathetic interlocutor.
She didn't know what that said about her.
"I can talk to her," she said at last. It seemed an inadequate way to sum things up, but it was such a tender thought that Shimako smiled.
"And not to me?" Noriko's voice was still light; Shimako wondered if she imagined the brittleness beneath the respectful, gentle tone.
"I can't talk to anyone as I do to you." The words were unthought and sincere. Nevertheless, as she saw the quiet glow in Noriko's cheeks in response, Shimako felt an inexplicable prickle of shame, as if she'd manipulated the girl by flattery. But she'd meant what she'd said - she hadn't even rehearsed the effect in her head. Liking the result didn't mean that she was manipulative and false.
Rosa Gigantea is a a fraud.
Shimako's face reddened more darkly than Noriko's had, and she lowered her gaze to her own clasped hands, shaking.
"What's wrong?" Noriko's voice was pitched higher than usual, but still sweet. "You can tell me. I'll help you, I promise."
It was all the wrong way around, Shimako was dimly aware. She told herself that she tried to be a good grande soeur to Noriko, even if she'd been manipulated into making their relationship official in Lillian terms instead of something secret and sacred to the two of them. Perhaps there was no way she could be a worse grande soeur than Sei had been to her, even if it was accepted that it was exactly Sei's blithe failures that had made her perfect for a girl full of accidental pretenses. But when Sei had let go of her hand, it had been Noriko who took it, and Shimako knew that she should have been the one to extend her own hand and pull Noriko along with her.
It was a simple job. Sei had taught her well, and she ignored her lessons because she liked the way things were. She was too young, too unreliable, too selfish to be Rosa Gigantea.
"I wonder what it would have been like, if Shizuka hadn't gone to Italy, and if I hadn't run the election out of stupid pride," she said, slowly. "Maybe she'd had been a better grande soeur to me than I am to you."
Noriko looked at her with calm, dark eyes. She lifted her wrist and the rosary wrapped around it seemed to glow softly despite the grey light. "This necklace you gave me – it's just a pretty accessory I wear to please you, and because it makes it easier to be together. It doesn't mean anything to me." Noriko lifted one finger and prodded the cross; it swung wildly for a moment and then began to twirl, revolving in one direction until the beaded chain became twisted too far, then untwisting and revolving in the other, back and forth. "Would it have meant anything to Shizuka?"
Ave Maria, mater Dei… The words hung on the air, pure and sweet as if Shimako had heard them only a moment ago, not in another lifetime. "I think so, yes."
"But she... she wanted Sei?"
Shimako was still shaking, still troubled, but for all her quietness Noriko had never shied away from questions, and she was owed the same in return. "Yes." She let the words hang there for a moment, and then said, "It means something to me, too." She waited to see if Noriko understood, but the younger girl showed no sign, watching the twirling cross. Shimako was not certain herself what she meant: it could be either of two things, and she wished Noriko would choose for her. Her desires were cloudy, and perhaps if she'd been more honest, she would look directly at them, and their cost, but it was too easy to just accept the moment.
"Perhaps Shizuka would have been better for you. I don't care about rosaries, only Buddhas. I don't even pretend to greet Mary when I enter the school. I'd be happier in your shrine than you are. But – "
Noriko bit her lip, and Shimako realized she wasn't the only one shaking. Noriko's question, however, was not quite as she expected. "What makes you want to be a nun? You never told me why it was so important to you that you would ask your family to disown you. I know you have faith, but you can have faith and not take the veil."
"Don't you know?" Shimako laughed a little, but it wasn't funny in the slightest. When she'd told Sei her ambition, her grande soeur had laughed and laughed and laughed, and refused to tell Shimako the joke, then almost ignored Shimako for a week afterwards. She had never explained why, and there had been no real humour in her laughter. "Don't you love this school – isn't that why it's all right for you to be a Rose Maiden? Living here, among other women, working with each other, supporting each other, trying to be good…" Her voice trailed off. "I want to try to be good. I want to try, every day of my life, and be supported in trying."
"You are good." Noriko's voice was unsteady.
"I don't feel it." And it was there, in those words, what she'd felt Shizuka had been trying to draw out of her, the reason she hated to meet the eyes of the first year girls, why she'd almost been incapable of fighting Rosa Canina. "I don't deserve this, any of this. I don't feel good."
"Oh, Shimako!" The hand with the rosary came onto Shimako's shoulder just as the rain started to in heavy splattering droplets. Shimako blinked away water that ran into her eyes. For a moment she thought Noriko was intending to embrace and reassure her, but she'd underestimated her friend.
"When I saw you standing beneath the cherry blossoms, you looked so perfect and beautiful. Like… " Noriko's voice trailed off, and Shimako waited for the inevitable comparison. She knew she looked like a perfect doll, with her lovely hair and perfect skin and daintiness. Posed prettily under the trees like that… Not a pose. I just wanted to give my love to the trees. It was for me, and for the trees, and not for anyone to see, so why do I feel like it was an performance?
"You reminded me of Dha-shih-chih." It was so unanticipated that it took Shimako a moment to place it, and then a longer moment to reconcile it with her image of herself.
"Of course. The flowers…"
"No. Not the flowers," Noriko said quietly.
"Oh." Shimako looked into Noriko's eyes, and felt for the first time that she saw herself reflected there, not as other people saw her, nor yet how she felt herself, but as someone who could exist. Someone who could touch hearts, and be strong and loving, and still be real.
"I will help you to be good. Until you become a nun, and devote your life to learning, I will be by your side, forever. And we'll try to be good, together. If... if you want my help, that is."
"Yes." The rain was wetting Shimako's hair now, but she was glowing with the warmth that Noriko could generate, that no one else, even Sei, could create in her breast, "Together. Oh, Noriko, I…"
"I know." Ignoring her own hair, Noriko pushed a sodden lock from Shimako's face, and Shimako leaned forward and hugged her. For the first time, she could identify the feeling that was more than affection, that made it always feel satisfyingly natural and right to have Noriko close to her; somehow, with Noriko touching her, she felt integrated, real, honest. The glossy hair, her poise and beauty and intelligence, were not assumed; yet they still did not really touch on the truth of the girl who was just holding her friend. The girl here and now, feeling Noriko's heart beat against hers, was her true self, and there was no intervening trick of email needed to bridge the distance. The split between the Shimako she felt she acted, and the Shimako deep inside, melted at a touch.
"I'm always myself with you, Noriko," she said. "You listen." Not just with your ears, she wanted to say, but she hesitated before the cliché. It didn't matter, anyway. She knew Noriko understood. "But – I'm better with you, too. I wish I knew how to say it."
"I'll always hear you, Shimako. I promise."
The rain was heavier now, drenching, and they managed to get to their feet together. "Noriko, I promise you something. Everything is not always about Saito Sei." Elusive, bright-eyed, terrible Sei; she was gone, and Shimako could be grateful for the gift of her loving disinterest, and still let her go. After all, she was not alone.
"Of course not. Shizuka was beautiful too, or so I am told."
Shimako could almost reach out and touch the measured fairness in Noriko's voice. She started to laugh out of pure joy, and her laughter hung, sparkling, in the rain-glittered air between them.
"Noriko is more beautiful. And she hears me when I speak. Come on!"
She seized Noriko's hand and they ran, rain stinging deliciously on their skin in all its delicate coldness. Ahead was the shelter of the Rose Mansion, but the real safety was in the way the hairs prickled with cold whether she wanted it or not, and the way, when she lifted Noriko's hand to her mouth for a moment's snatched kiss, she could taste the rain on her skin.
Real. And it was herself, Shimako, who was feeling it. Hand in hand with Noriko.
Acknowledgements: The title is from Sir Walter Scott's "Hymn to the Virgin", used in German translation for Schubert's "Ellen Dritter Gesang", also known as Schubert's "Ave Maria". Written for Yueni as part of the 2006 Yuletide rare fandoms story exchange.