Windows of the Soul
I stopped typing and saved my work, before leaning back and stretching out my arms in satisfaction. All done. Well, apart from proofreading and any necessary changes, at least, but this will do for now. And when I checked my watch, I had plenty of time, too. So I closed the window, stepping into the en suite and checking my hair in the mirror. It was fine, but I brushed it anyway. I splashed water over my face, too, and checked my reflection. In spite of all the disturbances this week had brought, I'd been getting enough sleep, somehow. That probably won't last when things start getting serious, but in the meantime, there wasn't that much work to do. So provided you left parties at a decent time, you'd be fine. And that was fine by me. I didn't particularly like parties, and in any case, playing hard to get also worked. Especially when everyone already seems to know you, or know of you, and wants to know you. Any hopes that I might spend my university years in indulgent, comfortable normality were shattered by the fact that, yes, the students of the Kyoto University had seen enough of the news to know about that loud Shinri guy, and his daughter too. I'm not going to go so far as to call it a problem, but it's worth bearing in mind.
I glanced at myself one last time. Hm. Was black the best choice? It was tempting to change into one of my white outfits, after all. But while they were fine for summer, this one made me feel more adult. On the other hand, these clothes do make me stand out even more than I would otherwise. They seem aggressive, somehow. It was a difficult decision, not at all helped by the fact that Hideko wasn't here. Perhaps I'll phone her later and ask, but troubling her at this time of day would be problematic, after all.
I sighed and checked my watch again, but it was still too early for me to justify going right now. So I stepped back into the room itself and sat on my bed, picking up today's newspaper and scanning over the contents again. I flicked to the editorials, reading another banal analysis on the resignation of a prominent government minister. I'd read it already, though, and got bored after the second paragraph. So I folded the newspaper and put it aside, before standing and looking around for any extra mess I needed to clear up beforehand. Only there wasn't really anything, or at least, nothing in sight. That would also come with time. In the meantime I knew that my clothes weren't folded as well as they should be, but I wasn't in the mood to get them all out and fix it one by one. Instead, I sat on my bed, put my hands on my lap, and resisted the urge to look at my watch. I thought about trying to read more of my first course texts, then decided against it. I doubted that I'd take any of it in.
I'm like a child on the night before her birthday, after all. It's a bit undignified and something of a problem for me. But I can't go now, I'd only end up standing around for ages, and there wouldn't be much point in calling her either. So I was stuck.
I ended up falling on the last recourse of the bored, my computer. Checking the news quickly proved that there were really no interesting developments to speak of. More of the same. So I checked on my shares for a bit, just to make sure that the world economy hadn't imploded while I was writing an essay and worrying about my hair. It hadn't, though, and when I checked my watch I still had time to kill. So I decided to indulge myself a little, and brought up my picture folder. We're not a photograph family, sadly, but I was glad I'd managed to get a few taken. I'm not a hugely sentimental person, so I think of them as ways to aid the memory.
Everyone after the party, which had gone altogether according to plan. I feel sorry for Yukino's feet. Mai-chan persuaded Haruka to appear in the photo, though she stayed well away from me. But she was still smiling in her violently happy way, as if all was right with the world, of course, she was Haruka Suzushiro. It was natural, wasn't it? And Yukino, who looked like she thought the same thing, because she could stay next to Haruka-chan. Her loyalty is endearing, to be sure. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure, those calls are hard to make, and change with our life's circumstances. It's not my place to pass judgement on other people's feelings.
The photos from when we were in the park were there, too, all of us playing around very carelessly. And a shot of Akira and Takumi, long after that point, the former looking gloomily at the camera while the latter just smiled cheerfully. The girls hard at work in the kitchen, under the direction of Mai-chan, during which time I managed to get out of work by claiming stomach cramps. Natsuki berated me later, of course, but it's surprisingly cute to watch her play at cook, so I couldn't help myself. Natsuki asleep, with her face resting on one of her textbooks. She still hasn't forgiven me for that, while I simply can't believe she stayed like that throughout the time it took to find the camera. But she looked very cute there, too. Otousama's kenjutsu class at the end of the summer, now swollen by our young students. "Demon" was the most flattering term the regulars found to describe Mikoto-chan, with the respect of mortal terror. Though they spared a thought for their master's daughter, the teenage girl who was said to match his abilities when he was fighting all out, though they didn't know the outcome. I remember it clearly, though, so that's another memory. And another of my favourites, Natsuki and I. This one was different from before, though. Now she faced the camera and smiled sincerely, holding onto me as I held onto him, and even though she was far older now she looked younger than she'd been then. And I'm afraid I was looking equally foolish. This was the happy memory she passed to me before our parting.
Or rather, that was one of them. I still remember what we did later in the evening, still wearing her matching kimono, when she snuck into my room. She said she wanted to give me something to miss. I put my chin on my hands, staring at the photo and dwelling on that particular memory.
"Hm. Nice kimono."
I jumped in my chair, head snapping round to look at the person leaning over my chair. "Xiu?"
"Of course it's me." She pushed her long black hair over her ear, continuing to study my photo with interest.
I sighed. "For the last time, don't sneak up on me like that. You gave me a heart attack."
"It's not as if I snuck up on you," Xiuying replied impassively. "I had assumed that you'd notice the door being opened. You were really concentrating, though."
"Well, putting that aside, shouldn't you at least knock?" I asked, smiling wanly and turning back to the photo.
Xiuying shrugged. "The door was open. I assumed it wasn't a big deal."
"And what makes you try to open closed but unlocked doors?" I mused. "Well, don't answer that. I'm glad you like the kimono, at least."
"You look very different. Do you have it with you?" Xiuying inquired.
I touched my nose. As ever, she dodges the difficult questions. "Yes, though I don't expect to get much use out of it. Only formal occasions, and even then, it's too loud for tea ceremony and the like. But I'm fond of it."
"Ah. So that's how it is." Xiuying folded her arms, looking past me again. "I'm surprised, though. It's very un-Shizuru to be so girlish."
"So you know me that well, now?" I asked dryly. "Besides that, what do you mean, girlish? That's appropriately affectionate behaviour, you know."
"It must be a different tradition," Xiuying said, her verbal shrug. "And the other person?"
"That's Natsuki," I said. "I've mentioned her a little, haven't I?"
"I see. So this is her. She's surprisingly pretty, isn't she?"
I arched an eyebrow. "Why surprising?"
"You advertised her as a stubborn and never-smiling girl. In any case, it's rare to be pretty, so isn't it always surprising?" Xiuying cocked her head slightly. "Though isn't a little undignified, wearing your hair down like that?"
"This was hardly a formal occasion," I said, turning to regard her again. I checked my watch. Still a few more minutes at the earliest. "In any case, did you come in for a reason?"
"I'm all done with that essay, so I'm bored," Xiuying said simply. "Are you done?"
I nodded. "Yes. I'm also finished."
"I thought that would be the case." Xiuying stepped back and sat on my bed. "Are you doing anything today?"
"I am, actually. I'll be heading to the station in a few minutes," I said. "I'm meeting up with Natsuki there."
"Hm. I thought she was a High Schooler?"
"She is, but she said she'd come this week, just to make sure I was settling in," I said, turning my chair sideways and looking at her. I chuckled. "It's a rather silly worry and a very long way to come, but I'm not going to stop her today. It gives me something to do."
"So that's how it is." Xiuying scrutinised me thoughtfully. "She's one of the girls from the hostage situation, isn't she?"
"Ara, you have a good memory. Or was that an educated guess?" I scratched my cheek. "I'm almost sure I didn't tell you."
"A little of both. But she doesn't look like an unlucky person either." Xiuying looked vaguely disappointed.
"You'd be surprised," I said, leaning back in my chair. "Actually, she's a very unlucky person. But she wouldn't like me to say that, because she's never made a big deal about it."
"People who are unlucky don't do that, though. Only insincere people and lucky people talk in a big way," Xiuying said.
I smirked. "Odd logic."
"That's how it is." Xiuying shrugged. "You're the same."
"Am I? Natsuki wouldn't say that, and she'd have good reason…" I said, closing my eyes. "Well, in any case, it's an unnecessarily morbid topic. Shall we talk about something else?"
"Of course. I was being thoughtless." She played with her hair thoughtfully. "What are you going to do today? With Natsuki-chan?"
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "We'll probably eat lunch together somewhere, and then see what we feel like."
"That's a surprisingly casual attitude. Since she came all this way, shouldn't you have something special planned?"
"Well, even if I went that far, I'm not sure she'd like it or go along with it," I said, folding my hands in my lap. "If you think about it that way, isn't staying flexible and considerately going along with her more considerate?"
"I see. It must be a different tradition," Xiuying deadpanned. I'm still not sure whether she's serious or deeply and calmly ironic when she says that. "I'm sure you know her best, of course."
"Possibly I'm just being lazy, of course," I said, smiling. "It's rather difficult for me to tell. But I can ask her and see what she says. In any case, it's about time I got going." I stood and walked over to the hook on the door, retrieving my jacket and putting it on.
"I see. Can I come as far as the station?" she asked, standing and glancing at me. "I'd like to see if she looks unlucky normally."
And that's definitely not a serious comment. But she's still straight-faced. "If you like," I said, after a moment's hesitation. "But Natsuki tends to be shy around strangers, so-"
"I won't trouble you or disturb your day after that. I have other things to do myself."
I nodded and smiled. "Then it's fine. If I can't show her that I have at least one friend, she'd surely worry about me anyway."
"Then that's fine," Xiuying echoed. "I'll fetch my coat."
I watched her go, rather glad I didn't have to finish any sentence about Natsuki being shy. Decorum is important, but even so…
We left the building together, Xiuying outlining the shortcomings she saw in Smith's emphasis on meritocracy as we went. Mercifully, I'm also interested in things like that, so we managed to have a useful discussion. We also met several other students on our way down, all of whom greed us. They all know my name, which is something of a problem. Even the ones who had initially missed my presence were informed soon enough, and sure enough, the steady conditions of my time at Fuka were introduced to an establishment many times the same size overnight. I don't get to rest, sadly.
"Ah, it's Shizuru-san!"
Precisely. I looked up and smiled. "Ah, Fuyuki-san. Good morning. You look well."
"Always am," he replied flippantly. "Though it's be great if Izumi turned up soon. What are you two up to?"
"We're walking to the station," Xiuying said briefly. "Shizuru is meeting with a friend."
Since when did I become Shizuru, anyway? But I've accepted and returned it. Maybe they really do things differently in China.
"Really?" Hiro asked, looking from Fuyuki to us. "Would it be okay if I tagged along?"
"If you're trying to impress Shizuru, there'll be no hope for you," Xiuying said, with her typical coolness.
"Xiu, that's rude," I chided gently. I turned my attention to Hiro and smiled. "Of course you can come. Just as far as the station, though."
"So there you go," Fuyuki said, shoving Hiro towards us. "Knock yourself out."
"Well, if it's okay, I will," Hiro said, giving me a grateful look.
I smiled encouragingly, confident that doing so wouldn't give him the wrong kind of encouragement. "Then let's go."
"You're a very indulgent person," Xiuying complained, following me.
Hiro trailed us a little. "How are you finding the essay, Yao-san? It's tough, isn't it?"
"Not particularly. Though it's very troubling if it has to be on such an outdated theory. I didn't take History for a reason," Xiuying groused.
"Do you think so? But it definitely has historical importance…"
"That's another misconception to begin with," she said. "There have been dozens of economic theories written by different people throughout history. Greeks, Arabs, Chinese. Picking out Smith in particular is just another example of completely inappropriate historical Eurocentrism."
And the conversation continued like that for some time, leaving poor Hiro-kun a little bemused. Either Xiuying has surprising failures of perception or she can deadpan playing hard to get, as well. That's another area where her inscrutability is a little troublesome.
But she talks a little differently around him, too.
I mostly kept silent while we travelled to the station, turning to them when we arrived. "Well, here we are," I said, turning to them. "Thanks for keeping me company. I might have to wait for a while before she arrives, so you two should probably go and do something else. It's best to make the most of your time, right?"
"I want to see Natsuki-chan," Xiuying said stubbornly. "We can go after that, right?"
"I suppose that would be fine," I said, turning away.
"Are you doing anything after this, Yao-san?" Hiro asked, surprisingly clearly.
"Undoubtedly something. I just haven't decided what," Xiuying said calmly. "Maybe reading in the library would be fine."
I closed my eyes, deciding against interceding.
"I was thinking, then, perhaps we could do something together."
"That's a good idea," Xiuying said thoughtfully.
"Good," Hiro said, in the bright tone of someone who hadn't planned this far ahead and was now working out what to say next.
"I haven't had a chance to look around at all. You do know the city, right?"
"Of course," said Hiro, who comes from Tokyo.
I checked my watch. Not yet. It was very tempting to ring her up, but she might laugh at me, especially if she was close. Should I or shouldn't I?
"Then that's fine. I need to learn much more."
Ah. Now a large group of people were coming out, so if I was lucky…
"I'll see what I can do," Hiro said. "But we should probably eat first, right?"
My head snapped round, and Natsuki was there, walking smartly towards me. She waved vigorously with her right hand, before dropping it and glancing curiously at the other two. "Good morning," she said, coming to a stop before me.
"Good morning. I'm glad you could make it. I'm sorry for troubling you so much, too." I smiled at her, feeling glad to see her. Natsuki is best for me, it would seem. "By the way, there two are Xiuying and Hiro, two more economics students."
"Yo," Natsuki said, glancing at them.
"Pleased to meet you," Xiuying said, nodding, while Hiro just nodded and said hi.
Natsuki took a step closer to me, giving them a searching look. "Nice to meet you. It'd be awesome if she had some actual friends this time around."
"That's very embarrassing, you know," I said, feigning hurt.
"But I'm not wrong, am I? You just had subordinates and fans," Natsuki said, glancing lazily at me.
"I am emphatically not a subordinate of anyone," Xiuying said seriously. She brought her hands together and bowed again. "In any case, it's a pleasure to meet you. Have fun."
"Same to you," Natsuki said, watching her go. Hiro waved and walked after her. "Did I offend her or something?"
"Not really. She's always like that, that's all," I said reassuringly. "And she was very interested in you."
"So you've made friends with another strange person," Natsuki said, sighing. "I should have seen that one coming."
"It's not strange at all to be interested in Natsuki, you know," I said. "So that's a little unfair."
"If you say so. And it's not as if I'm normal, either." Natsuki put her hands behind her head, stretching vigorously. "Ugh. That journey is long, though. It's tiring, even this early in the morning. I don't like trains either."
"I'm sorry about this," I said. "Next time, I'll go. But disappearing on my first weekend might leave a bad impression."
"I told you, didn't I?" Natsuki said, glancing at me. "You're the one going to university. I can manage at Fuka, and Mai helps me… whether I like it or not. So this way is best, trains or no trains."
"I think you're overestimating the amount of work we do, at least for now," I said calmly, starting to walk. "Where do you want to eat? I've found a few good restaurants. Or else I could fix you something in our kitchen, but it won't be anything fancy."
"I'm fine with anything," Natsuki said lightly, adjusting the strap of her shoulder bag. "Whatever you think best."
"Then we're at an impasse, because that was my thought as well," I said cheerfully. "I suppose that we should go all out, though, since it's a special occasion."
"That sounds fine by me," Natsuki said. "But nothing too expensive, okay? You're a university student now. It's institutionalised poverty."
"Try as I might to live in such an earnest and sincere way, no one told Otousama, I'm afraid," I said. "Besides, I've been fairly good all week, so I want to treat us both a little."
"Well, if you insist, I can't stop you," Natsuki said. "How's the old man, anyway? Still in touch?"
"He rang me up yesterday evening, for a brief talk," I said. "Mostly about what I was studying, though."
Natsuki snorted. "Of course. He really doesn't change, does he?"
"I'm sure you prefer him that way," I teased. "And of course, Okasama talked to me for longer. I'm hardly homesick, of course, as I'm more than used to this from the start."
"That figures. But it's her style to call, too. You know, though, she called me for a bit yesterday." Natsuki pushed her hair over her shoulder, looking around the street thoughtfully. "Very odd."
I giggled. "Ara. I think you've been adopted, after all."
"Seems that way." Natsuki smiled, looking up. "I guess I'll forgive her for that…"
"She'll be glad for that." I glanced at her, remembering to thank Okasama later, then looked away again. "And Hideko, too. She's working very hard with Saaya."
"It kinda worries me, the way you guys think so long term," Natsuki mused. "Well, she's a good person."
"Certainly," I said, stopping by the lights and waiting. "I'm a very lucky person, in many ways, and that's one of them."
Natsuki smirked. "Don't feel too special. Everyone has people they care about, right?"
I nodded. "I suppose so, yes."
I tried to work out where to go. Somewhere Natsuki would be comfortable in. Preferably without too many other students, and certainly without Xiuying and Hiro. That would be a particularly awkward piece of serendipity.
"In any case, how have you been doing here?" Natsuki asked. "People okay?"
"I'm doing fine, I can assure you." The light turned green, so I started to cross. "Over the past week I've been asked out by six different people, though. It's a little troublesome."
"It sure is tough for me, knowing it's you we're talking about," Natsuki said dryly. "This stuff just happens. In any case, I hope you didn't hurt their feelings too much."
"Ara. Who said anything about turning them down?" Natsuki punched me playfully on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I was gentle. I always am."
"I'm not sure if I should be glad about that or not," Natsuki said seriously.
"Well, I'm a little unlucky too, since Natsuki is so attractive," I said. "I hope you've been doing okay."
"Of course. Guys know not to approach me, for their own good. I've worked hard on that reputation, you know, so rest easy." Natsuki prodded me on the arm. "So you should hurry up and become as unapproachable and aloof as Kaichou Fujino again, for my peace of mind."
I giggled. "I'll bear that in mind. I told them all I was already involved with someone else, though, and I think that has spread a little. So there's no need to worry too much."
"Really? Well, I guess that works too." Natsuki stuck her right hand in the pocket of her jeans, holding the strap of her bag with her left. "Looks like you have friends, too."
I nodded. "Well, I know far too many people. My name has preceded me, and I'm something of a minor celebrity, if I can be so bold. Lots of people asking me about the hostage situation."
Natsuki grunted. "Ugh. I had that too, you know. It kinda pisses me off."
"I know what you mean, but it feels like telling them simply and calmly is more effective than just shouting them down," I said. "Perhaps I'm just naturally indulgent. How does Chinese sound?"
I doubt Xiuying would ever go to such a restaurant. No doubt they'd get it wrong.
"Sounds good. I haven't had that in a while." Natsuki rubbed the back of her head. "When was the last time I had Chinese, actually?"
I smiled. "I can't remember offhand either. So it should be interesting."
"Sounds dangerous," Natsuki quipped, following me down a side street. "In any case, I hope you have some friends who are interested in you-you too."
"That was almost poetic." I blinked briefly, remembering where to go next. "But I get on very well with Xiuying. Eccentric or no, we have similar backgrounds and interests. And I get on well with a few of the others in particular, too."
"Which one is eccentric, I wonder?" Natsuki teased. "And who was the guy?"
"Hiro? I know him less well. He's after Xiuying. I'm not quite sure why, she doesn't encourage him… but she doesn't discourage him, either, after all."
"Teenagers," Natsuki said dismissively. "Well, I guess it gives them something to do."
I smiled, stopping in front of the restaurant and checking the menu for reasonable prices. "Ara. Should you really talk like that?"
"It's a matter of rights, you know," Natsuki said, folding her arms. "Rights. Mai did this to me when she got with Tate, so I'm damned if I'm going to act any less superior."
I giggled, opening the door and stepping in. "Is that so? How are they doing, anyway? The same as ever?"
"The same as ever," Natsuki agreed. "The best and least interesting outcome."
"Then I'll work hard to imitate them." I nodded at the waiter. "Table for two, please."
"Everyone says hi, by the way," Natsuki said. "They've all pretty much settled down. Well, insofar as Mikoto can at all… Mai's having a harder time now Reito's gone, mind."
I followed the waiter to one of the open tables. "And Reito says hi, too. He says he's doing fine, and so is Haruka."
"So Mai says too, they're in touch. Tate sure is confident." Natsuki sat, sliding her bag under the table. "In any case, Tokyo Uni, huh? I'm half-surprised you didn't go there too."
"Home is home, after all," I said cheerfully.
"I can't argue with that. I mean, you could probably have stayed at home to begin with, forget being able to visit whenever you like." Natsuki took a menu from me. "Or would that be too troublesome for the old man?"
"It's the same principle as before, my independence," I said. "This time, with no servants either. But I have no objection to that."
"Though you don't have to worry about money," Natsuki reminded me. "Well, I should be so different, except I'm not."
"Xiuying is the same, it's very troubling," I mused, my eyes sweeping down the menu. "But there are normal people too."
"As if Fuka is much different, with that huge-ass campus," Natsuki pointed out. "It's hardly something to worry about."
"You're right, of course," I admitted. "But I worry, all the same. In any case, I take it you've been doing fine too? Your arm looks better still."
"It's fine now," Natsuki said, raising it and forming a fist by way of demonstration. "I guess that's our bogus magic for you."
"I'm just sad we missed the beach season, all the same," I said. "Though I'm sure we could use them at some point, anyway…"
"Now that's a thought," Natsuki said. "I'll bring mine next time. Could be fun."
"Kyoto isn't famous for its beaches, you know," I said lightly. "Well, we can manage."
"We can manage," Natsuki echoed. She looked down at the menu, grimacing. "And what's with all the complicated food? Are you sure this isn't some crazy formal place?"
"They haven't taken our coats, so it's fine," I pointed out. "In any case, a meal for two is fine, right?"
I wonder what Xiuying and Hiro are having. I hope they have a good atmosphere too, anyway, but I do wonder.
"Hm. I guess so." Natsuki sighed. "You choose. I don't know one thing from the other."
"Well, it's not like I do either…" I said warning, but I decided anyway, before closing my menu. Natsuki did the same. "In any case," I said, glancing at her. "It's a little early, but you have any preliminary thoughts on what to do after lunch? There's still plenty to see in Kyoto even after our days out."
"I don't know," Natsuki said. "I think I'd rather see the university up close." She glanced at me. "And your room, too. I want to see how messy it is."
"You might be in for a disappointment," I said, glancing wryly at her. "I keep my underwear in the drawers."
"Yeah, right. We'll see how long that lasts. It'll be all over the floor soon enough."
"In a few weeks time, or today?" I said as loudly as I dared.
Natsuki flushed slightly, but grinned back. "Which, I wonder…"
"Can I take your order?"
Schooled by Xiuying, I didn't jump. Instead, I looked up and placed my order politely.
"In any case, going back sounds fine," Natsuki said, once I was done. "We can always go out again later, right?"
"That's true enough," I agreed. "Though I'm wondering if my room is something we should anticipate. If you are staying overnight, you'll be there for a while, after all."
"More to look forwards to," Natsuki said. "And that's fine by me, because what I have in mind will take a while."
"Is that so?" I asked innocently. "It isn't more homework, is it?"
"No, it isn't, damnit," Natsuki said, pouting at me. "Have you any idea how hard I worked to do everything on the night it was set, just so we wouldn't be interrupted all weekend?"
"Then I'm sorry for that, but you don't have to force yourself," I said. "I like helping Natsuki with her homework."
"Well, I want to do more interesting things, so there," Natsuki said, folding her arms.
I'm glad she can do that properly again. It's so very Natsuki. I rested my chin on my right hand, cocking my head slightly. "Ara. That feels a little pressurising, actually. Does Natsuki have high expectations of me?"
"Well, it depends how you think about these things," Natsuki said innocently. "At the end of the day, it's pretty straight-forwards stuff. But it's more fun because I'm doing it with you."
"Ara. Then I'll try not to disappoint," I said, a little pleased by her daring. "So what is it you have in mind, exactly?"
"There's a comfortable place for two people in your room, right?"
"I'm sure we can manage," I assured her.
"And how about a DVD player?" Natsuki smirked at my expression, leaning down and picking up her bag "I'm relying on my intuition here, but I don't think you've ever seen Sailor Moon."