Uchida knew very well she wasn't Yoshino's mother, of course. Even if the girl hadn't heard Yoshino's outburst earlier, her age was a dead giveaway.
…or so she hoped, anyway.
That the girl even knew that much, and played along with Yoshino on that point, was very interesting indeed.
She invited the girl in for tea and snacks, over Yoshino's protests. She also tried and failed, for perhaps the hundredth time, to convince the old man to allow something other than Earl Grey to be served.
"Did you really climb up here every single day?" she asked. "That's quite impressive."
"Uh-huh," Uchida said, chewing at one of the cook's specially-made rice snacks. "It's not so bad, if you know how to do it. And you gotta start early, or else the sun makes you all sweaty."
Presumably she had circumvented the gate by the simple expedient of cutting through the forested area no one had ever bothered to wall off.
"Ah, youth," the old man commented, sipping his tea.
Yoshino just sat and glared at all of them, as if they had wronged her somehow. Her child's dress made for quite a contrast with Uchida's practical clothing, both in style and imputed upbringing.
"Why though?" the old man asked, a moment later. "It's not an easy trip to be making on a whim."
"Well, I didn't know before that a rich girl lived up here," Uchida said, "And I wanted to see what it was like. I was curious. You know, it took me three days to get Yoshino to even talk to me!"
"Is that so?" she asked patronizingly, happy just to have her here. Of course she was remembering every word.
"I couldn't just keep ignoring her," Yoshino said. "Not after she kept trying like that. I thought maybe if I talked to her, she'd get bored."
Yoshino displayed a slight pout, revealed another expression she hadn't managed to see before: embarrassment.
But why? she thought. Is she embarrassed to have met someone so soon after deriding so strongly everyone her own age?
Probably, she decided, thinking back to what Yoshino had said earlier. If she had only found one person she could talk to, then she wouldn't have said any of that. She had just been venting frustration, when all she wanted was a friend her age.
Something like that.
Still, this is definitely a good thing. There's reason for optimism.
She tended to believe things should be allowed to take their own course, as much as possible. But in this case she was willing to do whatever it took to keep Uchida coming. Cookies and tea and hospitality were easy. Telling Arisawa to start driving the girl up every day was easy. Finding Yoshino someone else would be hard. Very hard, as she had discovered.
"It's probably too much for you to keep climbing up here like that," she said, addressing Uchida. "We can have the chauffeur drive you up here, if you want. You can call. Give her a phone number, old man."
Without missing a beat, the old man in question deftly pulled a business card out of his suit pocket and handed it over.
"Sure," Uchida responded, pocketing the card and then drinking some of her tea. She wrinkled her nose at the taste.
She hoped the girl wouldn't lose the card.
Yoshino looked up at her with an expression torn between concern and badly-concealed anticipation.
Something like this is new to her, she thought. She isn't sure if she really wants to see her so much.
"Anyway, you can visit me too if you want," Uchida said to Yoshino, ignoring her discomfort. "You don't even have to say—well I guess auntie might want to know if she's having guests."
She watched them, thinking.
"You want to have lunch?" she asked Uchida, as the girl was reciting a phone number to Yoshino for memorization. She would have gotten a pen and paper for them, but Yoshino could be relied on for this kind of thing.
"Sure!" Uchida said. "Just let me call home and say I'm not having lunch."
"Let me get the cordless phone," the old man said, getting up. She didn't interrupt, even though she had her cell phone in her pocket.
"Now show me your room," Uchida said, turning back to Yoshino. "You promised!"
Yoshino dipped her head and glanced around.
"I was mostly kidding," she said, face getting suddenly red. "I mean, I didn't really think I could sneak you in…"
"Well, you don't have to sneak me in now." Uchida said.
"Stop talking, Yuka!" Yoshino said finally, exasperated.
After that bit of initial resistance, things went rather well.
Daily life settled into a bit of a rhythm. Arisawa departed in the morning and returned a brief while later with Uchida in tow. Yoshino greeted her when she arrived, and they were off to entertain themselves as only children could; there was a lot of space on the house and grounds. Late at night, after dinner, Arisawa drove Uchida back down, often with a stack of books she had gamely promised Yoshino she would read.
Frankly, given how much time Uchida spent up on the hill, she wasn't sure how the girl would ever have the time to read them, even if the girl seriously intended to. Uchida, despite being courteous enough to apologize for her intrusion and occasionally bring gifts, was generally shameless about the sheer number of pro bono meals she was consuming.
Yoshino showed Uchida her violin playing—Yoshino practiced less now, but she didn't really mind—and got terribly frustrated trying to get Uchida to develop basic competence in chess. Uchida brought a soccer ball and taught Yoshino the basic rules, making a makeshift goal out of the gazebo until the she and the old man bought them an actual goal. They caught more crickets which demanded more cages. They wanted board games, so she had a whole assortment delivered, and barely cared that one of the boxes contained five copies of Monopoly, instead of whatever was supposed to be in there. They spent so long trying to practice throwing a basketball through a gap in the trees that the old man himself bought them a hoop, without even telling her. She then spent long hours watching the two of them challenge each other into increasingly impossible shots.
Perhaps the pinnacle of her overindulgence came when Yoshino decided the only way to impress onto Yuka her love of stories was to dress up and get Yuka to join her in a careful reenactment, which Uchida was surprisingly actually up for. Of course she bought them whatever costumes and props were necessary, even if she should have just let them use their imaginations, and even if the only sizes available for many of the designs were adult-sizes. And of course, she let herself be talked into doing Dr. Moriarity and every single bit part for every story, while the girls were Holmes and Watson or whoever the main characters were.
She was probably spoiling them rotten, but it seemed so wrong to hold back when money was no object, and when she herself had no other obligations. And the mini-plays were not only adorable, but displayed the kind of creativity she knew many parents would kill to see from their children. She built up an entire album solely from pictures of them in costume.
She had had no idea just how much time she had spent hovering over Yoshino and keeping her entertained until she suddenly stopped needing to do so. She spent long periods sitting around watching them, uncomfortably idle, crushing irrational feelings of loneliness and having to ignore the urge to get them yet another round of snacks and tea.
Several times, she invited Uchida's aunt and uncle, the relatives with whom she was staying, over to dinner. They were nice people, and built up a surprising rapport with the old man, but seemed unsure what to make of their niece's sudden singular focus on the rich girl who lived at top of the hill.
She was puzzled too. She wasn't unhappy, far from it, but for the girl to so suddenly forget all the other kids in the area in favor of difficult hikes up a hill to talk to another girl who wouldn't even acknowledge her—it bespoke an unusual kind of dedication. A dedication that didn't really make sense.
She suspected Uchida was deeper than she seemed.
The overall rhythm changed twice in those early days.
First, after barely a week, Yoshino began wordlessly following Arisawa to the car in the morning and following Arisawa and Uchida back to the car in the evening. No explanation was necessary or given.
The second was at her suggestion. Since Yuka spent so long at the house, why not have her spend the night every once in a while? It wasn't as if they were hard up on space, and it seemed like a reasonable idea.
Uchida proved just as amenable to storytelling as Yoshino had been, to her secret delight, but she was virtually certain they got right back up and continued chatting the moment she closed the door on them. She didn't mind as much as she pretended to, however, and Yoshino's ridiculously oversized bed meant that they didn't even have to make any special preparations—they could just sleep together. Though on several occasions, she overhead Uchida grumble about Yoshino's propensity to kick, hog the sheets, and somehow manage to dominate the entire flat surface of the mattress.
Soon, Uchida began spending every other day over, and a strange side effect emerged: the two of them began to leave on seemingly random treks through the forested wilderness on the back end of the hill, usually without telling anyone, and usually at night. They were also strangely reluctant to let anyone go with them. Repeated warnings about danger and getting lost failed to dissuade them, and she didn't really want to pen them in, so she eventually just gave in and told the otherwise idle Arisawa to follow them from a distance, as discreetly as he could manage. They quickly caught onto his stalking, and began to deliberately try to lose him, successfully enough that they always managed to elude him at least a couple of times each trip, but not successfully enough that he couldn't find them again, at least not usually.
As a system, though, it worked well enough, up until the day Arisawa showed up far too late in the night, sweating heavily despite the cold, saying he had lost track of them and was hoping they had made their way back. They had not, of course, but this had happened before—they remained calm, if a little nervous.
When the clock struck midnight, she could wait no longer, and jumped up to seriously organize everyone into search parties, starting to panic just a little. At that exact moment, the two girls finally turned up, perfectly fine and asking for dinner. Apparently they had just gotten caught up in exploring as far as they could, and walked much farther than they really should have, with the result that it had taken them far too long to get back.
She tore into them, harsher than she had ever been before, unfairly dumping her emotions onto them, and outright banned them leaving the mansion grounds on their own ever again. She actually had Uchida crying by the time she managed to reign herself back in, full of regrets. Yoshino's eyes, looking back at her, burned like lit coals.
For the next few days, she was on horrible terms with them. Yoshino simply ignored her, with a degree of frozen iciness she wouldn't have credited to someone twice her age. They refused to include her in any of their activities, and it hurt her more than she could ever admit.
Part of her wanted to apologize and take it all back. It hurt her heart to do this to them. But she knew she had had a point. It simply wasn't safe, notwithstanding the fact that they had apparently been fine up until now. Sure, there weren't any predators to worry about, but there were plenty of slopes where a girl could fall and get injured, especially in the dark. And if they were forced to spend the night out there…
Yoshino would simply have to learn to accept limits.
It was the old man who finally proposed a solution.
"What is it?" she asked, as he bent over to hand Yoshino a small metal device.
"It's a tracker," he said, a little proudly. "It broadcasts at a specific frequency and is linked to a receiver in my office. With it, and the GPS built into both devices, I can pinpoint her exact location at any time, and we can always find her, if necessary."
I wonder how much it cost, she wondered idly.
Yoshino held the object in both hands, and the two girls looked at it warily.
"With it, we won't have to worry about losing them," he said, "and can even find them in the middle of the night. What do you think?"
He looked at her with a soliciting look. So did the two girls, though their faces were more pleading. None of them even had to formally ask.
"Alright," she said, nodding slightly, conceding. "You can go out again. Put it in your pocket, and don't lose it."
The girls nodded vigorously and ran off, apparently intending to leave that very minute.
"Hey, at least put on some jackets!" she yelled after them.
It wasn't exactly a groundbreaking observation, but it eventually became apparent to her that the two girl's personalities were blending into each other. It was to be expected, of course, given the sheer amount of time they were spending with each other, but it was still quite a sight to see, for instance, the two of them brushing and complimenting each other's hair—Uchida's opinion was that Yoshino should let her hair grow out, but Yoshino frowned at the upkeep this would entail.
There were other aspects to it, of course, and it wasn't just that Uchida starting enjoying the tea. Yoshino's speech became subtly more vernacular and less formal, while Uchida experienced a corresponding uptick in vocabulary. She was surprised when Uchida started to slowly return some of the books she had been lent. Skeptical, she queried the girl about the plot of one of them, and received a comprehensive answer.
She was saddened, however, to see Yoshino's games lose a bit of their inscrutable and mysterious flavor, instead becoming more like the games one would except out of a girl her age. It made her less unique, in a way, and she didn't want the two of them to turn into clones of each other.
One thing she was definitely glad Yoshino didn't pick up was Uchida's clumsiness, or more precisely, her ability to knock things over and trip over her own feet with astonishing frequency. It amazed her that a girl who was so sure-footed climbing the hill, and who seemed to enjoy physical activity, was also so poor at maneuvering herself away from objects and staying on her feet while running. Conversely, however, Uchida showed little sign of gaining Yoshino's reliability in this regard, which was unfortunate.
It was quite a few weeks before Yoshino finally agreed to visit Uchida's temporary home down in the valley. She packed Yoshino way more than she really needed—for instance, Uchida barely brought anything up with her—and waved her goodbye, feeling as if she had just passed some sort of milestone.
When she traveled down to see it for herself, in the middle of Yoshino's second such trip, she found Yoshino participating in some sort of game involving rocks with a group of children. The girl smiled, looking at her.
It all seemed strangely surreal, but that night, the old man broken out the celebratory sake, and she was able to sleep satisfied with a job well done.
With that, summer was almost over.
"Want to come?" Yoshino asked.
"Hmm?" she asked, not sure she had understood it correctly. She was actively engaged in carefully tying a protective hat onto Yoshino's head, notwithstanding the impatient manner with which Uchida was watching them.
"I said: do you want to come with us, mother?" Yoshino asked. "On this hike?"
She blinked back at the girl, standing up. She was surprised; the two of them had always been unaccountably hostile about anyone going with them, though she had never really pressed them on that point.
She glanced at Uchida. The girl didn't look surprised, only impatient, which meant the two of them had discussed this beforehand. Strange, that she should look at Uchida for insights into Yoshino.
"I'd love to," she said, smiling gently. "Just let me go get dressed for it. I'm sorry, Yuka; you'll have to wait a little longer."
She patted the girl's head patronizingly, and headed back to her room. On the way there, she glanced back, and saw Yoshino repeat the gesture mockingly, prompting Uchida to complain loudly. This only caused Yoshino to laugh.
She smiled slightly, and changed into a bit more suitable clothing, as promised.
She was glad of the opportunity to go with them, but her presence seemed to make very little difference. The three of them talked initially, but pretty soon the conversation degenerated back to the two girls talking excitedly in front, while she walked quietly behind them. They navigated the winding trails, over the occasional fallen tree, through encroaching sheaves of grass, tearing up the vegetation on trails nearly entirely consumed by the wilderness. Occasionally, they stopped to remark upon some sort of bird or animal. Other than that, she marveled at their seemingly limitless reserves of topics to talk about.
There was nothing wrong with being the proverbial fifth wheel, she mused, looking through the trees at the almost fading twilight. It was a nice evening, the girls were having fun, and she didn't have to do anything but listen. Life was good.
She stopped, realizing she had lost track of them.
She looked around and yelled Yoshino's name, but there was no avoiding it: she must have failed to follow them at some turn. This was a problem, since she had no idea how to navigate back home. The seeds of panic began to grow inside her.
"Hey!" Yoshino's voice rang out, from her side.
She turned to look, and there they were, off the trail, past a subtly beaten down patch of grass. She hadn't even thought to look there, which was she had missed them.
"What are you girls doing?" she asked, hurrying after them, annoyed at her own lack of familiarity with area. "The last thing you should be doing is going off the trail—"
"Shh!" Yoshino commanded. "Do you hear it?"
She tiled her head to listen and, after much effort, heard what seemed to be water far in the distance, exceedingly faint.
"The sound of water?" she asked.
"Yep," Yoshino said, nodding. "That's where we're going."
Uchida grabbed her sleeve, interrupting her.
"We've been there plenty of times before," she said, looking up at her. "We'll be fine."
She still had her reservations, but she kept her silence, following them along the edge of a hill. Now that she looked carefully, the route they were following, while not well-defined enough to even be called a path, showed definite signs of repeatedly being trod upon. It was the beginnings of a trail.
Yoshino got farther and farther in front of them, while Uchida stayed with her. All three stayed completely silent.
The water got louder and louder, and she realized they must be close.
They arced around one final curve, and it became immediately apparent that they had reached the edge of the hills.
She almost gasped.
She had long ago gotten used to the view from the mansion grounds, but even that angle seemed to be inferior to what was visible from here. What was more, the sun was actively in the process of descending behind the horizon. It was breathtaking.
She regretted not bringing a camera, even though that particular idea hadn't even occurred to her until that very moment.
But Uchida was still walking, and she needed to follow.
Then, all of a sudden, she was there.
A secluded grove of trees, growing tenaciously on a patch of flat land at the very edge of the hill, affording the same view. In the center, a small creek descended in the very smallest of waterfalls, forming a large pool, before continuing onward.
It was, in a word, picturesque, and in the middle was Yoshino, sitting on a rock, shoes off, immersing her feet in the pool of water
She let out a breath, looking around, as Uchida moved to join Yoshino.
I have to admit, they found something here, she thought.
She walked up to join them.
"Even in a place like this," Yoshino commented, "there are fish."
Yoshino was referring to the tiny fish swirling around her feet. As she watched, sitting on another one of the large rocks, the girl crumbled up part of the rice snack she had been carrying and sprinkled it in the water. There was a brief frenzy of shimmering bodies on the surface of the water.
"Arisawa always lost us here," Uchida said matter-of-factly, her feet similarly immersed now. "Going off the trail really threw him off. He never figured it out."
"She was the one who heard the water, the first time," Yoshino added. "She's got quite some ears."
They spoke rapidly, without gaps, almost as if they were lecturing her.
"I see," she said, simply, not having come up with something better to say.
"It was our secret spot," Uchida said. "It's pretty nice, don't you think?"
She nodded. They say in silence for a moment. Something occurred to her.
"Was?" she asked. "What's changed?"
"Well, for one thing, I brought you here," Yoshino said, watching the fish, eyes downcast, stirring the water with a branch. "And we won't be able to come here again, not for a long while. Summer is nearly over."
She knew what that meant. Uchida had already begged her parents into letting her stay another week, as long as she got her summer homework done, but it was impossible to push it any further; the school year was about to resume. Uchida was going back down the very next day, and would leave for home in just four days.
"There's always next year," she said. "I'm sure your parents will let you come here next summer, too."
She addressed this last line to Uchida, who looked strangely unlike her usual energetic self.
"Yes," Yoshino responded, face unreadable in the suddenly quickening darkness.
She looked at the two of them, wondering how she could console them. It was always hard, to separate like this, but perhaps she could arrange some visits, or something like that.
She started to take off her shoes, feeling a little left out.
"I want to go with her," Yoshino said flatly, head down, still watching the fish.
"What?" she asked, surprised by the suddenness of the declaration.
"I want to switch schools," Yoshino said, looking up at her, having gathered the strength to make a more determined expression. "I want to go with her."
"Impossible," she said automatically. "How could you live there? We'd have to buy a house—"
Frankly, the idea had already occurred to her, ever since she realized how painful it would be for Uchida to leave at the end of summer. It just didn't make practical sense. She dreaded having to explain it to Yoshino.
Yoshino shook her head forcefully.
"No, we don't. My…parents already own one in the city. I know. I asked the old man about it."
Her tongue had caught on the reference to her parents, which probably also explained her slip in referring to the old man as "the old man".
If the old man had said so, then it was certainly true, even if he had understandably glossed over who, exactly, owned said house.
Privately, she conceded that it made things much easier.
Why the hell didn't I think to ask?
"Still," she insisted. "We can't just leave. The private school here is one of the best in the area. It's the only thing your parents ever—"
She regretted those words the moment they came out of her mouth.
"Who cares?" Yoshino snapped, jumping up, startling the fish around her ankles into fleeing. "Who the hell cares? If that's true, then that's all the more reason I want to get away from that accursed place! If I go back, all I'm going to get is teachers who think of me as trouble, classmates who won't talk to me, and jerkwad senpai who want to beat me up! I hate it!"
"Given the way you've acted," she growled. "will it be any different if you go—"
Uchida tugged on her sleeve, again, and she stopped.
"Please," Uchida asked, looking her in the eye pleadingly. "Let her move with me. If you do, I promise you things will be different this time. You know she can act different now, and I have friends I can introduce her to. But here, I don't think anyone can forgive her."
She experienced a disorienting moment, looking at Yoshino there in the twilight. Yoshino was standing, and she was seated, but Yoshino was only eye-level with her. It was so easy to forget how young the girl was.
It shouldn't be so hard to remember!
"Answer me this," she asked finally, moving her gaze elsewhere. "Why are you two so devoted to each other?"
The girls looked at each other. She had asked an awkward question, but she had a right to know.
Uchida deferred to the more eloquent Yoshino.
"What do you think?" Yoshino asked rhetorically. "How many my friends my age do you think I have? Of course I want to go."
There was a moment of silence. It wasn't really an answer.
"When I first saw her," Uchida said quietly. "She seemed like such a nice, quiet girl. I couldn't understand why she hated us so much. I couldn't understand why she hated herself. I wanted to know. I wanted her to stop. I wanted her to be happy. That was what it was. "
Yoshino looked at her, eyes wide.
"I want her to be happy," Uchida said.
Yoshino looked like she wanted to say something, but Yuka didn't meet her gaze.
The three of them looked at each other. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Why, after all, was she here?
"Alright," she conceded, finally. "I'll approve it. If the old man agrees, we'll move."
The old man agreed, after she expressed the opinion that if the girl's parents had a problem with it, they could damn well come and tell her that themselves. In addition, she presented him with a carefully worded letter repeating the same idea, with her signature on the bottom. The old man looked at it for only a few seconds before adding his own imprimatur below hers.
To her immense surprise, a response arrived a week later, as she was in the process of directing the installation of the decorations that Yoshino and Uchida had picked out of the catalog—it was suitable for what was essentially a young girl's house, but she had restrained their more questionable impulses, and made sure the décor showed a reasonable degree of taste.
The old man covertly handed her the letter, and she read it in a corner, away from the two girls, who were watching the workmen install the new curtains, pestering them with comments and unwanted advice.
Her parents strongly regretted the change in school, the letter stated, but were willing to defer to their greater experience and undoubtedly greater familiarity with the girl, and would not try to contest the decision. They hoped, however, that the girl would eventually be able to attend a more prestigious middle school and high school, where these things were more important.
Afterwards, she took a deep breath to control her anger, crumpled the letter in her fist, and buried it in her dress pocket, to be destroyed later.
As Uchida had promised, things went better this time. Hardly had she dropped her little transfer student off, when she spotted Uchida started introducing Yoshino to one of her friends, a bratty-looking boy. Yoshino's grades remained near the top of the class, and this time, her homeroom instructor arrived with only glowing praise of her model student behavior, with the only worrying note being that, in front of her classmates, the girl had a consistent tendency to refer to her parents for all the world as if they were right there at home waiting for her.
She and the old man both heaved a metaphorical sigh of relief, and she settled down into a much more relaxed rhythm of life.
The following summer, Uchida and Yoshino took joint trips back to the countryside, with its valleys and hills and ponds full of fish. She and the old man greeted the local servants who had stayed behind, and went back to worrying over the two girls and their mysterious hikes through the hills.
It was on a day late that summer that she and Uchida watched, open-mouthed, as Yoshino devastated the old man in round after round of chess before he, finally tiring of rematches, conceded:
"Obviously I have nothing left to teach you. I'm done for the day."
"That's nonsense," Yoshino responded. "Everything I've learned here has been from you."
"Yes, and you've finally surpassed the master, and I'll be honest—I'm not that much of a master, befogged old man that I am."
They waved goodbye cheerily as the old man left to shower and sleep.
They found him immobile in his bed the next day, an abstract smile carved on his face.
The old man had no living relatives anyone could identify. In his will, he stipulated only three things, all having to do with her. One, that he desired her to be head of the household in his place, and was giving her a promotion—this was not disputed by the other servants. Second, that, as was his right from the will of Yoshino's grandfather, he was bequeathing his rights as trustee onto her. Finally, that he was leaving all his earthly assets—which were not inconsiderable, given that he had been collecting salary for most of his life and barely spent a penny—to her.
It was all well and good, but she would much rather he had simply stayed alive.
The funeral was cozy, limited to only the household servants and whatever professional friends he had acquired in the course of his work. They agreed that it was only appropriate that his ashes would be buried somewhere in the family plot. No one was sure what he would have preferred for a funeral service, so she picked the standard Buddhist ceremony.
She was distracted, so it didn't register on her until after the service that the man in the third row who kept glancing at Yoshino, and who sat stony-faced at the end, was, in fact, an older version of the man in the painting of her parents.
Quite aside from all that, and most importantly, it was only the second time she would ever see Yoshino cry.
It began halfway through the monk's incantations, as stifled sobs that attracted the attention of those around her. She immediately leaned over and tried to comfort her, but it was too late. Despite the fact that the girl was obviously trying to stop, it grew uncontrollable and inconsolable. Not even Uchida, whom Yoshino had asked to attend for support, could dent it. She could see that Uchida's heart was breaking, as was her own.
That was when she decided that, come hell or high water, she would see this through to the end.
Yoshino never called her "mother" again.
She returned to the present with a start, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs of memory.
Yoshino continued to play the violin in front of her, bangs covering one eye. At 14, she was midway through her first major growth spurt, and it still surprised her how much taller she was getting.
As predicted, Yoshino had turned out to be an excellent violin player. Her tune on this occasion demanded retrospection and thought, and that was what she received.
Despite everything, though, she never managed to convince the girl to participate in any competitions. She had never really pushed very hard, honestly. She was fairly sure now why Yoshino didn't want to.
Yoshino poured her heart into her playing, to the degree that it was possible to read almost all her emotions from what she was playing. It was an intense experience for her—and intensely personal. In fact, she was fairly certain none of her friends had any idea she even played an instrument.
All except Uchida, of course, who was standing next to her.
After a final note, Yoshino took a deep breath and dropped her arm, looking down at the tombstone in front of her, and the fresh flowers in front of it.
They made this trip every year.
The girl turned toward her, and towards Uchida.
"I'm done. Let's go."
They nodded, knowing better than to linger, and turned to trot back across the grass.
"You looked like you were thinking about something," Yoshino asked her, as Arisawa once again insisted on opening the door for her, a practice the girl had recently started arguing about him with. Not today, though.
"It was nothing," she said, shaking her head.
Yoshino tilted her head queryingly, but didn't press the issue.
Arisawa started the car as they got in, and soon they were driving down a lightly-trafficked highway.
"So you're going home next week, right?" Yoshino asked, leaning forward in the back seat.
"Ah, yes," she responded, turning to face the girl.
This time she was going for a whole week. Yoshino was older now, and perfectly capable of taking care of herself for that long, so she allowed herself the luxury of seeing her parents for a little longer.
Truth be told, however, she wasn't sure it was such a good decision. The girl's older age brought with it another class of potential worries. Maybe she was just being paranoid, maybe she was just overthinking things…but some of their behavior of late raised her suspicions.
She had told Arisawa to watch the girls more carefully while she was gone, and to, as subtly as possible, make sure that Uchida's parents were actually there when Yoshino visited. He had raised an eyebrow at that, and rather bluntly told her she was imagining things, but she told him to do it anyway. What had been endearing and cute when they were kids was now strange and thought-provoking…
"You're thinking about something again," Yoshino said, looking at her with a demanding look.
"You two behave while I'm away, okay?" she said, dodging the question.
"Of course," Uchida said, not realizing the maneuver she had just pulled.
Yoshino shrugged, and dropped the topic.
"Do you mind if I go with you?" Yoshino asked instead. "To visit your parents?"
She looked at her in surprise.
"Ah, well, if it's okay," Yoshino continued, looking down. "I haven't met your parents, so it'd be nice, but I'd be infringing on your privacy and hospitality, so…"
She read Yoshino's expression, trying to judge what she was thinking. To her right, Arisawa didn't even pretend not to be eavesdropping.
Frankly, it'd be awkward, and she'd be within rights to turn it down, but…
"I guess I don't see why not," she said, smiling. "Just, uh, you know, it's my parents, so don't—"
"I'll behave," Yoshino said.
Uchida looked back and forth between the two of them, obviously trying to decide if she should try to invite herself. She forbore, however.
It would have been perfectly natural, at that point, to hire a long-distance taxi—it didn't seem nice to force Arisawa to drive them the whole distance and then drive back—but Yoshino insisted they simply take the bullet train, like she normally did.
It was a short ride, only an hour or so, and Yoshino spent the whole time with her face pressed against the window, looking out. It was nice to see her behave a little childishly, every once in a while.
Her parents knew about her charge, of course, and they had been warned to expect her coming, but even so, they looked unsure of what to expect. They had set out a variety of snacks and brought out the best of their tea. Things were much different, now, given the large sums of money she was sending home, but they knew it was much less than what Yoshino was used to, and they probably didn't quite believe her when she told them it would be perfectly alright to treat the girl as a normal guest, instead of a powerful employer.
Yoshino behaved politely, unpacked her own bags into the room they would be sharing, and gave no one any particular reason to be unsettled. Even so, the atmosphere was a little strange, and her parents didn't seem to know what to make of the girl insisting on helping with cooking dinner and washing the dishes.
Afterward, Yoshino stared at her father's chess set, scattered haphazardly on the coffee table, a detail which she herself had completely forgotten about, or else she would have hidden it.
"Do you play?" her father asked, noticing the girl looking.
She held her breath, a little nervously. Yoshino hadn't so much as touched the game in the past six years, and she herself hadn't ever dared to mention it.
Yoshino nodded, and sat down.
She still didn't dare relax.
"It helps to have a pastime that involves only sitting, given my condition," the wheel-chaired man said, automatically setting up the pieces. "Let's see how good you are."
"I haven't played in a while," Yoshino said. "I'm probably rusty."
"That's alright," he said.
She let out a breath. There was nothing to worry about, after all.
The game helped loosen things up a little, but the awkwardness still persisted.
Well, we have a whole week, she thought.
If anything, things got too comfortable.
"So you mean to tell us you haven't tried to get a boyfriend at all?" her mother asked from across the table.
She grimaced internally. Among other things, she had been counting on Yoshino's presence to act as a shield against questions like this, but her parents didn't seem to think of her as much of a problem anymore.
She glanced at the girl she was thinking of, who was drinking her tea and quietly observing. Eventually, her parents had settled on treating her as a sort of adoptive granddaughter, even going so far as to perform the cliché ritual of constantly attempting to give her sweets, snacks, and extra food at mealtime. Since Yoshino was old enough now not to just blithely accept, the effect was rather comedic. She had personally even gone so far as to point out that gifts of food might not be the best thing to impart on a teenage girl, even though she had never witnessed Yoshino watching anyone's weight but Uchida's.
"No, Mom," she said, deliberately showing her impatience with this line of questioning. "It's just like I told you last time. I don't have the time for things like that."
"You promised last time you'd look into it," her father pointed out.
That had been one of those little white lies.
"Things came up, okay?" she explained.
"And just because you don't get to go out very much doesn't mean you can't do anything. I mean, you'll be thirty soon. It's getting late." her mother insisted. "Surely, there's someone you work with, like, er, the chauffeur, what was his name…"
"Arisawa," Yoshino unhelpfully supplied.
"Yes, him," her mother continued. "He's not a bad prospect. You've been telling us about him—"
Yoshino raised an eyebrow.
"I also told you he was seven years older than me!" she complained loudly.
"Is he?" her mother asked.
"Hmm, I'd forgotten. Well, still, that's not so bad," her mother demurred.
"Look, I'll get to stuff like this when the time is right," she said, leaning on the table and rubbing her forehead, showing her exasperation. "Not now. Let's talk about something else. Can't you see you're disturbing the girl?"
This last was an outright fabrication, considering that Yoshino, rather than looking bothered, was wearing an intrigued expression which annoyed her greatly.
"Yes, and look how well she turned out!" her mother said, grabbing the girl by the shoulder, which seemed to surprise her. "Think about it! You're good at it. You could have another daughter, or maybe even a son. Wouldn't that be great?"
She was too busy gritting her teeth and fuming at her mother to notice her slip of the tongue, but Yoshino looked up at the woman, and her father leaned over to whisper in her mother's ear.
Her mother's eyes widened in surprise.
"Ah, well, I, uh, mispoke," the woman said, flustered, looking at Yoshino. "I didn't mean anything by it, just sometimes you two are so close—"
"It's alright," Yoshino reassured, amused.
She, for her part, was too busy making a gesture of despair at her parents, pressing her hand into her face.
"So, uh, why don't you tell us about how you're doing in school?" her father asked Yoshino, diplomatically changing the subject and pointing his chopsticks. "I hear you're top of the class."
"I'm not," the girl responded.
"Yes, but you're close enough," she said, accepting the change in topic. "Why don't tell them something about your student council work?"
"I guess," Yoshino conceded.
"So is it true?" Yoshino asked her, later that night, as they tried to sleep.
"Is what true?" she asked, looking over at the girl lying next to her.
Yoshino turned under the covers to face her.
"Are you and Arisawa really—"
"No!" she responded, not even giving the girl a chance to finish the sentence. "And you know very well that we're not! My parents are just daft."
Yoshino looked thoughtful.
"Would you like to? You don't have to hold back, for my sake. I wouldn't—"
She patted Yoshino on the head to quiet her down, and to trigger the annoyed face she secretly thought was cute as a button. It was remarkably similar to the one Uchida tended to make, actually.
"Don't worry about me, okay? That's not your duty. I know what I'm doing."
She turned away.
Half a minute later, Yoshino started snickering loudly.
"Go to sleep!" she ordered.
On the way back, she thought about the future, looking out at the landscape scroll by.
She had yet to tell Yoshino about her exact situation. As far as the girl knew, her parents controlled the family finances and dispensed the money, and for some reason didn't care about her. She would have to know someday, of course, but she didn't want to tell her just yet.
There were other things to think about. The requirement that Yoshino marry to complete her inheritance was absurd, but one they would have to deal with. Besides that, if Yoshino ever did, she would find herself with a whole new set of responsibilities to deal with. She wasn't too sure of the details, but it was her impression that the group of trustees was running a substantial corporate operation, one the girl would have to take responsibility for, even if she intended to be a hands-off owner. And there was no guaranteeing that the "trustees" would welcome the return of a member of a family that they surely considered terribly delinquent. Would Yoshino be able to handle all that? Did she even want it?
With a sigh, Yoshino leaned over onto her shoulder, apparently intending to sleep.
Speaking of marriage…while she didn't share the other servants' excessive focus on class and wealth, she held the view that it simply wouldn't be a good idea for the girl to marry anyone too out of range. There were problems with compatibility, social reputation, not to mention issues with gold-digging. It was more trouble than it was worth, but she had no idea how to say this to the girl.
Quite apart from her paranoid delusions involving Uchida, if Yoshino were to come home one day and introduce a boy from a school, a scenario she was depressingly aware was growing more likely by the year, she would have no idea how to deal with it. And even if she accepted it, there was the question of the girls' parents, who might, for all she knew, suddenly develop an interest. Their letter, all those years ago, had certainly implied they might. It hurt her head just to think about.
The one advantage of cloistered private schooling, she had realized, was that it greatly restricted a child's social circle. None of this would be a worry had she simply kept Yoshino from moving.
But it wouldn't have been worth it. She knew that. She had no regrets.
Still, she had taken the trouble to make vague comments to Yoshino about it, and to encourage her to join her wealthier peers in some of their social get-togethers, which she had taken the time to go and find out about. Though the girl was surely intelligent enough to know what she was getting at, Yoshino adroitly ignored her hints, and she didn't have the heart to really push her on it.
She looked down at the girl on her shoulder, who by now was quite asleep, breathing quietly. She smiled slightly.
All that was too far in the future to think about.
She shifted her position, as gently as she could, and tried to sleep too.