Thanks to everyone who has stuck with the story this far. I appreciate the constructive comments.

Disclaimer: The game this is based on belongs to Yuki Kaori and Konami.

Nearing Towards You: Chapter 9

After Naoji's birthday passed Erika spent most of her free time in the library. She hoped to see him on Sunday, but was not terribly surprised when he did not appear. Since he had spent Saturday out with the other Candidates she assumed he used that day to catch up on his homework.

When classes were dismissed on Monday afternoon she returned to her usual table in the library. Though she stayed as late as possible before she would miss supper, Naoji did not appear. The same pattern occured the next two days, but Erika's persistence paid off on Thursday.

Just as she planned to gather up her books and head back to the dorm for the evening Erika caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She had looked away again before her brain registered just who stood a short distance away. Her heart clenched painfully before it began to race, and she moved her gaze to him once more. Naoji returned her look with a hint of a smile from his place between two bookshelves. A quick glance around told Erika no one was near enough to overhear a quiet conversation, so she got to her feet and went over to him.

"Good evening," he greeted with a slight bow to his head.

Erika could not help the smile that came at those words. "Good evening, Naoji. Did you enjoy the rest of the weekend?"

A little chagrin took over his calm expression. "I am afraid I did not have as much time to study as I would have liked. I lost track of how many times I was called out of my room on Sunday to greet other students who came to offer belated wishes for my birthday."

Doing her best to hide her uneasiness at the thought that those visitors were likely all other girls, Erika nodded sympathetically. "I hope that didn't affect your schoolwork too much."

"Fortunately, it does not seem to have had an adverse effect," Naoji answered, his eyes serene once again, "though it has delayed my ability to find you so that I may offer my thanks."

Erika remembered her own desire to clear up any misunderstanding her actions had caused. "I hoped to see you so I could explain. That book-"

"Is wonderful," Naoji interrupted gently as his smile returned.

A blush heated Erika's face. "It's a rather old book, and the cover was a bit battered, but when I looked through it the pages were legible. I hope you enjoy reading it."

"I can honestly say it was the most thoughtful present I received," Naoji responded earnestly. The glow in his dark eyes warmed Erika and once again made her heart pick up speed.

"You're welcome." Another thought occurred to her, and Erika's fingers fidgeted anxiously. "I apologize that I was not upfront with you when I gave it to you. Since I was with Marin, and she had a present for you, and she is a friend of mine, I thought... well, I thought she might not like it if one of her friends gave you a gift as well."

Naoji looked at her silently for a few moments before he nodded. "I see. I was puzzled at first when I could not remember either seeing that book before or loaning one to you."

The same weak smile Erika always wore when it came to Marin's interest in Naoji reappeared on her face. "Thank you for going along with it. I don't think Marin suspects anything."

His eyebrows rose a fraction, but Naoji did not ask whatever thought had entered his mind. The faint smile returned a second later. "I must be heading back to the dorm now," he said apologetically, "but I am glad we had the chance to talk."

A bright smile replaced the former one. "Me too," she replied, then continued a little shyly, "and maybe I'll see you again sometime soon?"

"I hope so," Naoji answered, then bowed his head slightly again. "Goodnight, Erika."

"Goodnight," she repeated softly. He turned and walked away, and only after he disappeared down a walkway between the shelves did Erika remember how late it had gotten. She rushed to collect her books and notes.

The entire way back to the dorm Erika pondered their conversation, particularly the last part. She tried not to get too carried away as she remembered how he said he hoped he would see her soon. The whole time she sat in the almost empty cafeteria and ate supper alone, and afterward when she went upstairs to her room these thoughts circled in her head. Once seated at her desk she finally forced herself to pay attention and get her homework finished, but her dreams still whispered from the back of her mind.

The next Saturday Erika found herself, along with Wilhelmine and August, corralled into Marin's room just after lunch. The redhead looked both ways down the hall before she shut her door and locked it.

Erika joined the blonde at the foot of the bed, while August remained standing nearby. "What's this about, Marin?" Wilhelmine asked, a puzzled look on her face and her hands folded neatly in her lap.

"I had to make sure no one would overhear," the shorter girl explained in an excited whisper as she neared the rest of them. "We can't let just anybody hear how to make this potion, because the biggest day of the year is just around the corner."

A glance up at August told Erika that the quiet girl was just as interested in the idea of a love potion now as she had been at the start of the school year. Erika found herself a bit curious as to how a supposedly magic liquid could help her chances at romance, but secretly agreed with August's skepticism.

Wilhelmine spoke up before either of the others. "That's right, you were going to let us in on that secret once your occult club learned how to make it." She leaned forward a little and smiled at Marin. "Did you finally find out all the steps?"

The redhead nodded proudly, her pigtails swaying. "It only takes a little while to make, but I needed to talk to you all as soon we were told the secret ingredient at last night's meeting." She paused and gazed at each of them in turn to make sure she had their undivided attention.

"Is it something that's really hard to get?" Erika asked, since it seemed to her that Marin wanted someone to prompt her to continue.

Marin gave them a knowing look. "That depends on who you want to use the potion on, because..." A grin spread across her face. "The most important ingredient is an item that belongs to the other person!"

Silence fell in the room. Erika's heart sank a little. She had not really thought to trust in a love potion, but with the news that she had to obtain something of Naoji's she knew she could not make it in the first place. Instead of dwelling on her own misfortune she looked to the other two girls. August had crossed her arms, and her lips were pursed as if she had eaten something very sour. On Erika's other side Wilhelmine smiled brightly and nodded.

"That's a perfect way to ensure that only the most dedicated girl can make it," the blonde agreed. "Especially with some of the less, ah, openly friendly boys."

Erika recalled how Wilhelmine had been among the crowd that surrounded Ludwig at Christmas. No one would ever accuse Ludwig of being friendly, she thought as she stifled a snicker.

"Don't you think this whole idea is a little..." August trailed off at the hurt look she got from Marin. "What I mean to say is, it seems unfair to the object of your interest to steal his things in order to try to make him like you. Don't you think there are better ways to get his attention?"

Marin considered her words. "I think... I think the potion won't work if he doesn't like you at all. You have to put in some effort yourself. According to our leader, a love potion enhances feelings that are already there." She smiled cheerfully up at the brunette. "So I don't think it's mean or anything, you're just increasing your chance with him."

A soft chuckle accompanied August shaking her head. "Your determination would probably be better placed toward your studies, but I won't try to talk you out of it." Marin moved to hug her, but August raised a finger to stop her. "However, I don't believe I will be concocting a potion of my own."

"Aw, but why?" Marin pouted and sighed. "It'll be more fun if we all do it together!"

August smiled wryly. "It would be rather difficult to get an item that does not exist," she replied, and the wide-eyed stare she got from Marin in return almost made Erika giggle.

"...doesn't exist?"

Wilhelmine came to her rescue. "I think what August is trying to say is that there isn't a particular boy that catches her fancy, is that right?" The blonde gave August a smile over Marin's head.

"Correct," the taller girl answered. "And if I did I can assure you that I would use more traditional methods to attract his attention."

Erika saw a frown pull at the corner of Marin's lips and rushed to change the subject. "Marin, did you have someone in mind that you want to try the potion on?"

The redhead giggled and held a finger over her lips. "That's a secret! You'll find out when it works!" She tilted her head to one side thoughtfully. "Though, now that you ask, who are you going to try it on, Eri?"

A blush colored Erika's cheeks and she regretted bringing up the topic. "Oh, I... I don't really think there's anyone that I..."

Marin put her hands on her hips and put on her best stern face. "You can't back out too! Eri, I worked so hard to get the recipe for all of us, you just have to try it with me!" The wheedling sound that her voice tapered into tugged at Erika's heart.

"All right, Marin, I'll make a potion." Thinking quickly, Erika added her own condition. "But I want to keep mine a secret too, okay?"

Wilhelmine joined in. "As do I. That way it can be a surprise when we all have a boyfriend after Valentine's Day." She winked.

"Just one?" Marin asked, her eyebrows raised. "That's no fun, Minna!"

The blonde shrugged a shoulder demurely. "One is all you really need, after all."

August tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "Is that really the time? I must head out or I'll be late for my turn with the horses."

"Ah, yes, you joined the equestrian club this week, didn't you?" Wilhelmine asked, eyes twinkling.

If she noticed the teasing tone of voice then August did not comment on it. "It was lovely to spend time with you all. We really must plan a day each week to get together." The brunette nodded at them as she opened the door. "Good afternoon." A soft click later and she had disappeared into the hall with the door shut again after her.

Marin crossed her arms and sat down on the bed next to Wilhelmine. "I guess I really didn't expect August to be interested, but she could've at least faked it."

"Oh Marin, you know she doesn't believe in pretending," the blonde said gently as she put an arm around the smaller girl's shoulders. "But Erika and I will be with you, so everything will be just fine."

Erika leaned around them so she could see the redhead and smiled. "Yes, we will. So cheer up, okay?"

The cute grin returned as Marin nodded and sent her curls bobbing again. "Okay!"

Days passed quickly after Marin's explanation about the love potion. Erika barely saw Naoji, much less had the opportunity to pick up something he dropped. Though she knew it might be the only way to procure one of his belongings she had already told herself she would not outright steal anything from him.

The week that led up to Valentines Day brought raised tension among the girls at Rosenstalz. Erika found it difficult to focus on her schoolwork, but forced herself to pay attention during her lectures. Rather than put too much hope in a potion that lacked its key ingredient she logically told herself that her initial plan to improve her grades and enter into the literature club had a better chance of long-term success.

Three days before the fateful event Erika left her first class arm in arm with a beaming Marin. The redhead had just managed to talk her good-looking neighbor into letting her borrow his fountain pen for the rest of that day's lessons.

"I'll give him the one I keep in my desk tomorrow," Marin told her happily, "and he'll never know it's been switched! That's another potion for me!"

Erika forced a smile. "That's so lucky of you, Marin."

Silence fell between them as they walked. Out of the corner of her eye Erika could see Marin look up at her. "You know, Eri, you..."

"Hmm?" The speculative expression on the redhead's face caused a twinge of apprehension in Erika.

Marin nibbled on her lower lip, presumably considering her next words. Before Erika could ask her to go ahead and say whatever was on her mind she ran into something. A rather tall, thin something that uttered a sound of surprise when they collided. Erika clutched her books to keep from dropping them, but stumbled backward and took Marin with her since their arms were still linked.

"Ow..." Marin whimpered after she landed on her rear. All her books and notes had scattered in the fall.

"Forgive me," a male voice said as a familiar sky blue uniform approached them. "I'm afraid we didn't notice you until it was too late. Are you hurt?"

Erika looked up to see Orpherus leaning down above her. Embarrassed, she stammered, "Ah, no, I'm fine..." She looked over at her friend. "Marin, are you all right?"

The redhead had no eyes for Erika, however, and gazed up at Orpherus. "I don't know if I can stand on my own," she answered mournfully.

Orpherus held out a white-gloved hand to her. "Allow me to help you."

Faster than Erika would have thought possible Marin had disentangled their arms and placed her hand on the blond's. He gracefully helped her to her feet as Erika watched with a look of mild shock on her face.

"And may I help you as well, my lady?"

Erika snapped back to attention as she realized Eduard now stood before her with his hand held out in a similar fashion. Over his shoulder she could see Naoji peering down at her with concern. Now completely mortified, she could only murmur a soft thanks and allow Eduard to pull her up.

"It's nice to see you again, Erika, but you didn't need to throw yourself into our path just to say hi," Eduard bantered with a wink as she took a step back and grasped her books in both arms.

Some of her embarrassment withdrew at the light comment, and she composed herself enough to apologize. "I'm sorry, I wasn't watching where I was going at all."

"As long as the both of you are all right then no harm is done," Orpherus assured her as he finished helping Marin gather her school supplies.

Erika smiled at him gratefully. "Yes, I think both of us are fine. Thank you."

"Thank you, Orpherus," Marin chirped as she stepped next to Erika.

The blond shook his head slightly. "You're both quite welcome. We must continue on to our classroom, and I'm sure you have another lesson as well?"

While Erika nodded she thought she heard Marin mutter next to her, "unfortunately".

"Take care on your way," Orpherus told them with a nod. His gaze moved between them but lingered on Erika. "And, it was a pleasure to see you again." He started to walk past them. Eduard followed while giving them a wave and a smile.

"You're quite sure you're all right?"

Erika realized Naoji had not moved and startled at his quiet words. When she faced him she saw him look from one of them to the other. "Ah... yes," she managed to answer awkwardly.

"Right as rain," Marin chimed in, beaming.

Naoji nodded slowly. "Very well, then. I must catch up to the others. Do take care." He lowered his head in a slight bow then hurried on toward Orpherus and Eduard.

After he moved away Erika breathed a quiet sigh. "That was so embarrassing," she whispered, eyes shut tight as if that could wipe away the last few minutes.

"But lucky," Marin added with a grin. "Not only did we just talk with three of the Strahl Candidates, but..." She held out her hand. An ordinary pencil lay upon her fingers.

Erika's heart stopped for a moment then started again violently. "Who... whose pencil is that?"

A shrug had not been the answer she expected. "It doesn't matter, since it belonged to one of them," Marin said with a giggle as she tucked the pencil carefully away between her books. "I wonder..."

Dread filled Erika as she too wondered which of the Strahl Candidates had dropped the writing utensil. She hoped fervently that it had been either Orpherus or Eduard.

Erika woke early on Friday. The sun had only just risen when she finished getting ready for the day and met Wilhelmine outside Marin's door. The redhead, usually the last of their group to get out of bed, was wide awake and ushered them inside quietly.

The potion, it turned out, consisted of several rather ordinary items mixed together in a glass. Marin had at least a dozen on top her desk. Erika and Wilhelmine exchanged a look before they each took one, combined the ingredients under Marin's watchful eye, and took them back to their own rooms. The special items were to lay across the top of the cup, Marin told them solemnly, and would cause the potion to affect only the object's original owner.

After Erika placed her potion in the middle of her desk she looked at it and shook her head. She had not been able to obtain anything of Naoji's since she first heard about the secret ingredient. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she headed to class as usual.

Everywhere she went on campus girls whispered and giggled to one another as they cast furtive glances at the boys. Lessons passed much more quickly than usual, which Erika attributed to her growing nerves about how to deliver her present to Naoji. The envelope felt like it would burn a hole in her pocket.

Once her giddiness about Naoji's birthday had worn off, Erika had realized she had no idea what to give him for Valentine's Day. Other girls in the dorm planned homemade chocolates and other goodies, but Erika knew the kitchen was not her forte. Instead, she sat down at her desk one night and wrote page after page of all the things she wanted to say to him. Most of them were immediately crumpled and discarded as inappropriate coming from someone he hardly knew. In the end all she had left was a page of prose about how she much she enjoyed listening to his flute as she stood at her window. She missed it, since it had long since turned too cold for anyone to consider playing instruments outside.

Erika had copied the words neatly onto a subtly pretty piece of stationary and enclosed a small sprig of dried, pressed heather with it before tying it shut with a white ribbon. The entire day she took care not to let anything bump into her and smash the envelope.

Though she went to her usual place in the library after the last class of the day, Erika doubted she would see Naoji there. From what she had seen of the more popular boys being surrounded by girls throughout the day, she imagined that the Strahl Candidates barely had a moment to themselves. She sighed, rested her elbow on the table, and propped up her chin in her palm. At least the library was quiet.

"I thought I'd find you here!" The loud whisper reached Erika as quick footsteps approached. She looked up in surprise to see Wilhelmine hurrying toward her.


The blonde shook her head. "No time to waste! I found where they're hiding, but you've got to hurry or you'll miss your chance!" Wilhelmine grabbed hold of Erika's arm and pulled her to her feet.

Erika complied and picked up her bag, but still asked, "What? Who's hiding?"

"The Strahl, silly," Wilhelmine said with a smile. "I thought the greenhouse was closed because so many flowers were taken out to decorate the school, but they're all sitting in there away from the rest of the students."

Belatedly, Erika's brain put the unspoken parts of what the other girl said together. "But, how did you..?"

Pride shone in her eyes, but Wilhelmine put a finger to her lips. "I promised I wouldn't say, so please don't ask."

It was a fair enough deal, Erika supposed, as they hurried across the campus. When the greenhouse came into sight, and the crowds of students milling about grew decidedly more sparse, the two of them slowed to a normal pace. Erika wondered how she would be able to give her gift to Naoji if the boys had all closed themselves up inside the glass room.

"Just keep walking past it and don't act like you know they're in there," Wilhelmine whispered, her eyes focused straight ahead.

A repetitive knock sounded against the glass just after they had passed by the door. Surprised, Erika stopped and turned around. She saw Eduard on the other side of the glass and raised a hand to wave to him, but then he opened the door and beckoned. "Hurry, both of you, before anyone else sees!"

Erika blinked and looked over at Wilhelmine, who nodded. They slipped inside the greenhouse and Eduard closed the door. Warmth and the heady smell of roses surrounded Erika, and she closed her eyes for a moment to breathe it in.

"Hello again, Erika, Wilhelmine," a soft voice called. Erika opened her eyes to see Camus approach. "Welcome back." He smiled, but something about it seemed strained.

Wilhelmine returned the greeting. Erika answered, "Hello, Camus. Are you feeling all right?"

"You hit the nail on the head," Eduard told her as he walked past and joined Orpherus at the far end of the greenhouse. Concerned, Erika studied Camus' expression closely.

The pale boy shook his head a little. "Days like this with all the crowds... I'm afraid I'm not used to them, so they come as a bit of a shock."

Erika nodded understandingly. "It's overwhelming for me out there, too. Would it be better if we went on our way? I imagine you boys would prefer to be out of the company of girls today." Beside her she heard Wilhelmine utter a soft 'no', but Erika would trade a little time in the presence of the Strahl Candidates if it would put Camus' mind at ease.

"Oh no, please stay," Camus requested earnestly. "I was about to make tea, if you would like some too?"

A smile came automatically in the face of such a question. "Of course," Erika replied, just as Wilhelmine said, "That sounds lovely."

Camus laughed a little, and Erika noticed that he seemed much less pale than he had just moments before. "Just a minute, let me go prepare it." He hurried off and left the two girls alone.

"I've got to go try and strike up a conversation," Wilhelmine told her quietly with a smile, "but I bet if you stay here on your own someonewill be along to chat."

Erika wanted to protest the insinuation the blonde made, but she had already wandered around to the other side of a large rose bush. Feeling a little awkward, Erika turned her attention to the nearest flowers, another type of rose with petals so white they practically glittered, and admired them while she pulled her thoughts together.

"They are beautiful." The mostly-unexpected voice made Erika start. Naoji stepped forward so that only an arm's length stretched between the two of them.

Forcing her eyes back on the roses, Erika nodded. "Yes, they are."

They both lapsed into silence, though murmurs from the others in the greenhouse could be heard where they stood. Erika thought of many things she could say, but none seemed a good way to offer him a gift.

"I think Camus bred this type of rose himself. He calls them a tribute to winter."

Erika had almost forgotten about the flowers. "That's a perfect name for them," she agreed quietly. After taking a deep breath, she continued on before someone interrupted, "I know you've likely been bombarded with gifts today, but would you mind one more?" Her fingers clasped the handle of her bag tightly in front of her as she waited for his answer.

"That would depend," Naoji answered slowly, thoughtfully.

Looking aside at him, Erika asked apprehensively, "What does it depend on?"

The hint of a smile that she adored returned. "Is the gift in question from you?"

Unable to speak around the lump in her throat, Erika nodded.

"Then I would be happy to accept it."

The dim lights of the greenhouse seemed to dance in his eyes. Erika reached into her pocket and withdrew the envelope she had written his name on so carefully and held it out to him. "This is for you."

"Thank you," he answered as he took it. "Would you mind if I waited to open it until I was back in my room?"

When she considered the question Erika knew she did not want him to open it there. "No, not at all. That... might be better, actually." Though embarrassed, she smiled, then turned back toward the roses and reached out to brush her fingers against their petals. She sensed Naoji about to say something, but just then Camus called to them that the tea was ready.

"Shall we go?" Naoji asked her, an arm outstretched to indicate that she lead the way.

Erika smiled brightly. "Of course."

Calendar notes:
January 23rd, 1936 (Thursday) apology scene
January 25th, 1936 (Saturday) potion preparation
February 11th, 1936 (Tuesday) hallway run-in
February 14th, 1936 (Friday) Valentine's Day