CHAPTER ONE

Kaeru

The Shibuya station train platform was full of girls and women as far as my eye could see, clustered in circles and lines like nesting birds. Bundled in coats, capes, and haori, they were surrounded by kissing mothers, adoring grandmothers, and much-spoiled little brothers hiding in the puffs of their skirts. I had seen this scene play out at the start of my school year for the past four years, and it hadn't changed but for the children's heights and the adult's weariness. Peaceful, almost.

My own mother hadn't come to see me off. She didn't have time to, between helping Grandmother with the merchant business and taking care of her sister's children. How could I begrudge her that? I was a big girl now, considered old at fifteen, and it was a miracle I was being sent off to school at all. I wondered why I wasn't being kept home to help out, and then decided I'd rather not peruse that line of thought. My own family had varying and conflicting ideas about what was to be done with my education, ideas that I would have preferred to stuff into a lacquer box and hurl into the Sea of Japan.

So rebellious, a voice in my head said, nastily. When did you get so rebellious?

I ignored the voice, for I had just heard my favourite sound; someone across the train platform squealed "E-eehh?!" quite loudly, and I knew precisely who. I whirled around, hat almost unseated from my head, and squinted into the crowd.

There she was, the elusive girl; Hinamori Amu, trying to look as poised as ever, had dropped her suitcase. Various handkerchiefs had skidded out onto the ground, and Yuiki Yaya was leaping around, desperately trying to catch them all. Barely concealing a smirk, I picked my way through the people, clutching my own carpetbag in my hands.

"Aaaa! How clumsy you are, Hinamori-san!" I trilled in a monotone, putting on my best high falsetto and speaking directly into her ear. "How unladylike— dropping your suitcase? Do you expect to drop your husband's tobacco when you are married? Will you even catch a man with those clumsy arms of yours, you bourgeois girl?"

Amu jumped and yelped again, spluttering and grabbing for her suitcase handle. I was imitating our headmistress, Fujisaki-sensei, a woman with a sweet, gentle voice and a penchant for stabbing insults right where they hurt. We were fond of calling her The Dragon behind her back, much to everyone's (un) amusement. Yaya, standing behind Amu, burst out into laughter, and ran to hug me.

"Hi, Yaya," I whispered, returning the hug with one arm, but the shrill whistle of the steam engine drowned out my faint voice. Together, the three of us boarded the train with our luggage, clasping our hats to our heads, chattering all at once.

The school trains were beautiful; even I had to grudgingly admit. State of the art models from Germany, plated in gleaming mahogany; they still filled me with an embarrassing childish wonder after four years. Their compartments were already packed with the murmur of girl's voices and the clatter of Oxford soles on wood flooring. I tugged on Yaya's sleeve. "Let's find a compartment," I murmured, insistently, both hers and Amu's arms in a grip.

Amu, being the tallest, led the way through the clusters of girls. Many called out in greeting as she pushed through. Amu was popular; no matter how much she denied it, people were drawn towards her. Despite an aloof exterior covering up a shy and awkward core of adolescent female angst, she had a sort of charisma. Far from an ideal beauty, she nevertheless had a nice sort of face. She pulled men and women alike.

I lacked her gift of attracting female companionship, being what a sensei called "a woman with a glacial temperament" and what Yamabuki Sāya called a "a frigid bitch". I could only be grateful Amu didn't care about my "glacial temperament". I had transferred halfway through third form an aloof, introverted merchant's daughter with little regard for anyone. The following year, I exited a confident, almost-functioning human being — or so I'd like to think. Thus, I jealously guarded Amu like a woman guards a string of pearls, fancying her mine in a horrible sort of way.

She had never really been mine, though.

Pushing that thought away, I tuned back in to the conversation just as we were pushing into a compartment. Yaya was wildly recounting a possibly-made-up story, and, as Amu loaded up our bags on the luggage racks, she paused. I felt a chill of foreboding as she peered over my shoulder, confirmed when Amu smiled gently. "Oh! There's Nadeshiko-chan! I need to..." She broke off, staring at me. I could feel that my face had gone from a faint smile to downright stony.

Nadeshiko-chan! Wonderful Nadeshiko-chan. Perfect Nadeshiko-chan. Lovely Nadeshiko-chan, daughter of the Dragon, reigning autocrat of Seiyo Girl's Academy. Amu must have read my expression, because she looked almost hurt. "You know?" Amu wrinkled her nose, making her look like a chipmunk that had choked on an apple core. "When did you start hating Nadeshiko-chan? She's so nice!"

I tried to keep my face impassive, stuffing my hands in my coat pockets. "Nice? Yes, of course." Nadeshiko was nice, and tigers were friendly, highly sociable creatures that would soon be running for office. "That's fine, Amu. Go on and give your petty salutations."

She stayed where she was, biting her lip; I could tell she didn't appreciate my sass, but I was far too stubborn to rescind it. Yaya laughed, oblivious to the tension. "Rima, you're just jealous, because Nade staked her claim on Amu-chi firs- OW!"

Yaya cried out, hopping back like an offended sparrow; I had stomped on her foot, hard. Yaya had a horrible habit of stating hard truths and then laughing them off. At times, I liked it, but not now. I didn't want to hear that I was jealous of someone I had no chance of measuring up to. It wasn't that Nadeshiko's family was petty nobility, nor that she was a blooming carnation of Japanese wifely ideals; it was simply that– that –

Amu pressed a hand to her mouth, eyes wide. "You're jealous, Rima?"

Of her social ability, of her ability to get what she wanted, her knack for gathering girls around her in female understanding. Revolting. I was by no standards a tomboy, but next to her, I felt like one; short for my age, knees grubby, I had a vulgar sense of humour unbefitting of my station and a fondness for wisecracking that made my teachers despair for my future. Nadeshiko's idea of comedy was stupidly clever little bits of hiragana wordplay. She was stupid. Stupidhead. I loathed her female ability, right down to the perfect ruler-straight part on the top of her head and tousled aubergine-black fringe.

"I don't see much to be jealous of," I lied. Tossing one of my unruly braids over my shoulder, I edged into the train compartment and pretended Amu's gawky noodle frog face did not exist. My eyes watched so closely for the telltale sakura hairpins and silky ponytail of the Dragon's Daughter that I backed right into the window, smacking my head. Rubbing it ruefully, I heard a peal of laughter: my blood froze.

"Rima-sama is as poised as ever," Nadeshiko's light, gentle voice carried easily through the compartment over Amu's shoulder. Her silhouette was but a phantom outside the blurred glass of the train compartment wall. Like a monster, she came into view; her ponytail was as irritatingly bouncy as ever, legs long and face bright. Like a dumb moon. I wanted to pull that silky ponytail out with every fibre of my being.

"Nadeshiko!" Amu turned around, eyes shining; Nadeshiko's eyes visibly softened in her presence. Her soft spot was Amu; I felt an odd, dull ache in my chest at the thought of it. Watching her eyes was like inviting something dark and insidious into my nature that I did not want there. With extreme difficulty, I pulled my eyes away, just as Fujisaki turned her attention to me, with a tinkling laugh.

"Is your head quite alright, Rima-chan? That was quite a smacking noise! Almost like a gourd against glass– what a strong skull you have. It is truly admirable."

I didn't quite know what to say to this, but I knew exactly what she was implying; an unspoken melon-head and thick-skulled rang in the air. As always, I knew little of what to say in the presence of Nadeshiko, who waited for my clumsy moments like a vulture waits for a carcass to ravage. Amu's laugh was the only thing that spurred me to speak, a sulky little voice.

"What a blessing that we aren't all eggheads like you, then, Fujisaki-san."

I heard someone make the tiniest of exhale-laughs through their nose across from me, but I was oblivious. Nadeshiko's smile only widened, and she pulled on Amu's arm. Angry with myself, I pointedly engaged myself in conversation with Yaya. I heard Amu's delighted voice, and fading footsteps. She had left with Nadeshiko, to chat, presumably. Best friends are best friends, after all.

A sneak attack. That's always how she got me, watching my vigilant eye until I got distracted and then diving in for the kill like a hyena. Sun Tzu would glow with pride at the likes of Nadeshiko; her insults were crafted with such care and subtlety that only I could understand their true intent! It was to the point where I wondered if I was losing my mind. Yes, surely I was reading too much into it. Could the Rima-sama is as poised as ever be nothing more than a light tease? I wasn't familiar with the way most girls made jokes... perhaps I was simply thinking the worst of her? Or perhaps that's what she wanted me to think. Exhausted, I sunk further into the train seat with a soft whining noise. I felt Yaya's hand pat my back softly, and then, a slow drawl across from me:

"You should shape up, with an attitude like that. Girls like her will eat you alive."

I looked up, just as the train began to move with a sickening lurch and deafening noise. Sprawled across from me, one slim leg crossed over the other, was the girl that had spoke. I knew who she was, of course. Hoshina Utau, a year older than I, was nonetheless well-known for her background. Her mother hailed from a family of well-known Tokyo financiers; Hoshina Souko had recently remarried to the head of a large electric company. This was evidently a sore topic for Hoshina, for when asked about it the prior semester, she had verbally lashed several girls to tears. (It was very impressive.)

Hoshina and Amu seemed to be friends that mutually respected each other, of course, but me? I met her eyes interestedly, and decided against any slights on her mother's integrity. "Hello, Hoshina-san," I said, flatly, as clouds of smoke drifted outside from the engine. Yaya added a frantic, shy little finger wiggle and an eager, "hello!"

"No need to hello me," she replied, point blank, and nodded at the door outside. Truly not giving any damns. "I don't know Fujisaki-san very well, but I've seen enough. You're threatening her. Either stop poking the dragon between the eyes, or shape up and grow a spine."

It was hard not to be offended with the harsh way she spoke; I couldn't help but lean back a bit, with a distasteful look. "Who said I was poking her between the eyes?"

"Well," she looked up, looking mildly surprised. "I suppose I did. Although it's probably your mere existence that is poking her between the eyes, if you know what I mean..."

"Ah, I understand," I said, sarcastically. "I'll simply stop existing."

"Rima-tan..." began Yaya, in her Rima-please-be-nice-to-my-idols voice, and I fell silent. Utau shook her head, staring thoughtfully out the window. "I'm just illuminating it for you," she said huffily, ponytails moving with every bump and jostle of the train. "She's trying to get a rise out of you, and I recommend you don't give her one." She stared even harder out the window, indicating the conversation was over, and the train car fell silent.

Amu returned some time later, pleasantly Nadeshikoless. With an inquiring look at Hoshina, and an even more inquiring look at me, she took a cautious seat. I gave her nothing but a cold nod, but defrosted quickly under the pleading stares of Amu and Yaya. We whiled away the train ride by chewing on the lunches our mothers had packed and playing shiritori ad nauseum. It was a Nadeshiko sort of game, the exact clever wordplay nonsense I wished to be rid of. By the time Yaya had repetitively lost with -n words and I had resorted to making up fake English, the train was well out of Tokyo prefecture and I was heartily out of the game. Copying Hoshina, I took to staring out the window. The scenery of Hyōgo whizzed by quicker than I could glimpse, nothing more than dazzling gold snatches of wheat and the unending cold azure of the sky.


When we got off the train, it was a frenzy of luggage and shrieks; Manami had misplaced something, Amu was short a handkerchief, and the teachers looked like they were about to cry amid the rather poetic black-and-white sea of upset Japanese schoolgirls currently flooding them at all sides. They looked like drowning men. I could not find any room in my heart to feel pity for any of them, especially Sanjou-sensei, who had notoriously whacked me with a bamboo pole and written home last year after I set off various firecrackers behind the outhouses. Yes... let them suffer. Amu, Yaya and I jostled our way off the train platform and down the road towards the school.

Seiyo was outright rural; the roads were not paved like they were in Tokyo. Rather, the path was dirt, and it was not long until our socks and shoes were dusty from the clouds being kicked up. Many of us were sticky and tired, and had come much farther than the Tokyo station; Yamamoto had come from as far as Nagoya, schools for girls were so thin on the ground. When we reached the cluster of buildings that housed our precious classrooms, I couldn't help but think it was all a great deal of walking for nothing. Seiyo was indistinguishable from the houses in the town except in size and vague Western influence; it was not an imposing structure in the least. I could speak from experience, having scaled the one-story building myself to sit on the slippery tiles and bake in the sun silently in years past.

The school was not organized; there was no great hall congregation, just perturbed first-years clustering in circles and the rest of us going on our way and teachers shepherding us along. There weren't many of us; perhaps ninety girls at most, split into three classes, more or less. The numbers seemed bigger this year. By the time we were hustled into the dormitory buildings, I was quite sure that the first-year class was equal to our co-existing students– a curious thing.

I gripped Yaya's sleeve, indicating that we should go find our room. Yaya had been my roommate since I was eleven, and that was the way it had always been; I was about to dive for a likely-looking door when I felt a taloned hand on my shoulder.

"Ma-shi-ro!"

My surname was delivered with such an apoplectic shriek that it would have been hard not to turn around; as it was, I clearly looked a bit shell-shocked, as I heard a smattering of laughter.

"You've been," my emotionally volatile etiquette teacher almost spat, steering me by the shoulder away from the door like a keel in a storm, "Reassigned rooms due to overcrowding. You are now in the first room in the east hall. Kindly relocATE yourself, please!"

"The east hall?!" I couldn't help but exclaim, feeling deeply and personally affronted. Why was I the unlucky one picked for this inconvenience? It seemed so laughable, I hardly dared to believe it. "But the sun will be in my eyes in the morning."

My etiquette teacher inhaled so sharply that I was surprised she didn't snort a few children up her nostrils. What a blatant display of rudeness.

"I'm SORRY, Mashiro, for a moment I forgot that the world revolved around you."

I stared into her slightly-bulging eyes, about to say "That's quite alright! It happens," but I prudently decided against it. Without a word, I immediately scuttled away like a frightened beetle. I knew better than to cross Kichigai-sensei at the start of the year. My instinct was proven right, yet again, as I heard her voice in the distance. "Hinamori! Can you tell me precisely when I said it was ever becoming on a woman to stare off into space like a vacant slack-jawed boor?"

As I turned the corner swiftly, ever off-task, I wondered if the teachers weren't all a little too hard on Amu. Many of us were high-born, or at least possessing foreign diplomat fathers; Amu was surprisingly ordinary. She was downright homogeneous working-class Japanese. No wonder she was so nervous all the time; she must wonder why she was educated in a place which she clearly did not belong. I wondered, too, but I daren't ask. After all, I was well-off myself but not entirely without my dirty reasons; perhaps it was the same for her. Having firmly made up my mind about this, I turned the corner once more, slowing to a tentative walk.

First room in the east hall... I must have stepped foot here at least once or twice, but my mind had little recollection of it. The wooden walls felt all too alien to me, despite being within the same building. The west hall had been ablaze with light, bright gold and vivid rose; in contrast, the cold east wing was muted blues and cool shadows, facing away from the sun. A lady from the court novels would have whispered something breathless and clever, like "so this is how Chang'e feels, alone on the moon! How pitifully lonely!" but I'm sorry to say that my only thought was several unprintable words and a sudden chill. It was cold. Fucking cold.

Wasting no time with my unwieldy travel bag, I fumbled with the confusing doorknob. I loathed these doorknobs, and wondered why they existed. They were an oddity, even for the age. In more traditional girl's schools, the dormitory building was a simple room lined with tatami mats. This bolstered sisterhood between girls; futons would be laid out in a grid, girls confined to the huge room to sleep, relying on each other's exuded body heat. Not unlike a flock of penguins. Presumably.

Rather than this, Seiyo had surprised me with a Western-style dormitory building, separated two-by-two: cold, small cell-like rooms with small, cell-like boxy doors. With fiddly-diddly brass adornments, such as... twisty doorknobs. I had always wondered why they insisted us on such foreign customs. More than once, the idea had crossed my mind that they did not want sisterhood at all; they wanted segregation. But that was paranoia and nonsense. What did they have to gain?

My roommate seemed to be absent. I threw my bag onto one of the low-built beds in an unladylike fashion, and swished to the window to peer outside. Not entirely night-time yet; the sloping hills and tiny trees stood out sharply against the deep and rapidly-darkening blue. It made me think of dinner, and I was about to go find Amu and Yaya, when—

"Mashiro," a voice rang, with sudden déjà-vu. I turned around, expecting my psychotic etiquette teacher to have returned with more things to screech about– only to find myself staring into the narrowed sepia-brown eyes of Fujisaki Nadeshiko herself instead. Arms crossed, feet boyishly apart, she did not look pleased. Numb shock gave away to indignation. What was she doing in here— and looking so snappy, at that?

I tried to take a step back, forgetting that I was against a wall, and promptly smacked the back of my head on the window, again. Struggling to remain stoic in the face of a bitch in uniform, I tenderly touched the back of my head and tried to pretend it was a cute bump rather than an unholy glass-whack.

Uncharacteristically, she disregarded this lapse in my feminine graces, choosing to almost glare at me instead. How strangely she was acting. She had on her full-fledged Mildly Concerned Upperclassmen Voice. "What are you doing in here? This room is off-limits to other students. You should be staying in the west hall, if my suspicions are correct. Kindly–"

She was so unseated that it was almost enjoyable. "I was 'relocated'," I replied. "This is my dormitory. If you've got a problem, you may take it up with Kichigai-sensei."

"If you have a problem." She tossed her ponytail.

I stared at her, completely dumbfounded. It took a moment for me to realize that rather than a proper reply, she had just corrected my grammar. About to give her a rather polite suggestion as to where she could stick her grammar corrections instead, I never had the chance. She turned on her boot heel and swished out of the room, like an exciting butterfly moving on to better things. Good. I was alone.

Even so, Nadeshiko's behaviour occupied me. I had never expected her to be disinclined to insult me in private; more worrying was the implication that she only made a spectacle of my embarrassment when other people were watching. Why was that? It was downright insulting in and of itself that she regarded me as a punching bag in front of Amu, but gave me human rights in private. What a bitch! Wait! This was her plan! She wanted me to think this! Fine– she wanted politeness? I could be polite. I would be utterly kind to her. So there.

I fumed with my inconsolable kindness on the bed. When I heard the door open again, not too long after, I looked up; there stood Nadeshiko, looking much more poised. She smiled at me, very unkindly. "You're still here, Rima-chan?"

Don't call me that. Bitch.

I nodded.

"Very well. It seems that you were telling the truth." Why would I lie to you? Bitch. "Sensei has, indeed, confirmed that you have changed rooms, due to overcrowding this year. They're clearing out the west hall for the first-years. So, I suppose–"

She tried to smile, but her crocodilian heart proved this feat extremely difficult. Or maybe I was simply reading into an innocent smile, but that was impossible– Nadeshiko wasn't innocent.

"– I suppose that makes us roommates."

What.

What was she, stupid? She couldn't be my roommate. I'd die. Also, she would eat my skin clean off in the middle of the night. I could not divulge these affirmations to her face, so instead I replied, quite wittily, "No, it doesn't."

How devastatingly beautiful that smile was. Like she was already imagining what my skin would taste like. My skin, when she ate it clean off that night!

"Now, now, there's no need to look so utterly horrified, Rima-chan," she patted my shoulder in a maternal sort of way, since the horror I was feeling was evidently showing on my face. "I feel just the same as you. This will be a temporary arrangement, until I can arrange otherwise. Three days, at most."

Wait– of course. I had forgotten that Nadeshiko was the daughter of the headmistress, that she wielded real power. I was a fool. Of course she'd fix this in a jiffy, and I had been an idiot to think anything else.

In that moment, something strange happened; outside adversity united the two of us for the first time in our lives. It was over something as petty as being sorted into the same room, but it was enough to make me to feel like we were on the same side. It was also enough to make me rethink my eagerness to get out of this roommate arrangement. When I started thinking about it, how would Nadeshiko fix this– really? She'd likely switch me back into Yaya's room. But then she had also confirmed that the dormitories were overcrowded. With the dormitory building in such a crowded state, Nadeshiko could not get away with being a single boarder; she would likely have to take a new roommate, and that would likely be... Amu.

No.

"No?" Nadeshiko's perfectly arched eyebrows furrowed. "No?"

I put a hand delicately over my mouth, with the horrible realization that I had spoken out loud. This was getting far, far too dōseiai for my tastes. How would I convince Nadeshiko to keep rooming with me? It was certainly not a palatable thought, but it was a thousand times more palatable than the idea of her and Amu cozying it up together and then proceeding to elope into the sunset to have several children. I decided that it would be best to play to Nadeshiko's insufferable competitiveness rather than anything else.

"Well, I mean, you can do whatever you wish," I said very slowly, turning away from her and opening the wardrobe door in a rather dreamlike state. "It's just a little ironic that you're afraid of me. I wouldn't have expected such cowardice out of you. Nadeshiko-chan."

There was a very pleasing silence, during which I coolly began hanging up my clothes in what I imagined to be a very calm and collected way. I could see Nadeshiko's face reflected in the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door, but it was illegible; if anything, she looked downright thoughtful.

"I never claimed to be brave," she replied, in the same thoughtful voice. I had a growing suspicion this was a challenge to one of her wordy banter games, so I mentally checked out halfway through her sentence and continued to navel-gaze instead.

Was I truly doing the right thing? Would my all-encompassing affection for Amu outshine the distaste I had for Nadeshiko? So far, her rationality impressed me; for all the cruelty in public, she was very rational to my face. I remembered Nadeshiko's warm eyes on the train, and Amu's happy voice, and my heart made the decision for me before my head could intervene. This was a good idea. I was doing a Good Thing. I turned around, secure in my do-gooder convictions, only to find Nadeshiko frowning at me.

"... Are you listening, Rima-chan?"

"No," I replied, shutting the wardrobe door.

"I said, very well," she smoothed down the front of her skirt, giving me a rather resigned look. "If you have your heart set on it so terribly, I don't see why not."

I was so surprised that my simple tactics had succeeded. Was Nadeshiko that easy to manipulate, or was I playing into her hands? Wait. This is what she wanted me to think. NO.

"However, I have a few restrictions." She tossed her head, smiling; oh, no. Oh no, no, no, no. Nothing good could make Nadeshiko smile like that. I had made a losing gamble.

"As you know, I'm a rather prestigious student; I keep a rather strict schedule, and I'd rather you didn't muss it up, Rima-chan. Lights are out at nine-thirty, I need twenty minutes in the bathroom in the morning, and as for when I'm studying... well, absolute silence, really."

No, no, no. Bollocks. Absolute silence? Besides, who takes twenty minutes in the bathroom in the morning? I didn't even want to think about why that would even be necessary! Did her body clock run like a German train?!

For Amu. I must do this to save Amu from being forced to room with Nadeshiko, and being stolen forever by the best-friend-thieving dog. I set my jaw, meeting Nadeshiko's eyes. "That's fine, Nadeshiko-san." I bobbed my best Incredibly Sarcastic Curtsy.

She seemed close to asking "is it really?", but she didn't say anything. I had reason to think she was trying to deter me from rooming with her on purpose, despite her outward agreement. Why would that be? She was an odd girl. Perhaps I could get some dirt on her. With this grudgingly optimistic thought in mind, I murmured something about dinner, and left the room.

I told the story much differently to Amu and Yaya. Being laconic by nature, with little time for anything beyond an anecdote, I glossed over many of the finer points. In fact, there were no finer points to speak of. I told the entire story like this:

"Ol' Psycho stuck me in a room with Fujisaki-san. Her face when she found out was hilarious."

By the end of the first sentence, both their mouths were open incredulously, like they were auditioning for the National Frog Choir. I attempted to replicate the face Nadeshiko first made when she walked into the room, but there was no laughter from either of them. Frustrated, I switched to imitating their open-mouthed Frog Choir faces instead. Still nothing.

"What is it?" I demanded, flopping back into my seat. We were sitting at the end of the long bench where school meals were served, the table only half-full with students. Presumably, the other half of them were still unpacking. I was picking at the pickled plum in my rice bowl distractedly, and Yaya was eyeing it hungrily; I picked it up with my chopsticks and waved it in front of her face, before eating it in one swift motion. This seemed to jerk Yaya out of her reverie. With a look at Amu, she said, quite gossipy, "Well, everyone knows that Nade-chan's always been a single boarder."

"What?" I questioned back, in a hushed voice. "Why?"

"I've heard it's because she's got a conjoined twin attached to her side, all shrunken-up, you know, so nobody is allowed to see her change–"

Yaya's yarn spurred Amu out of inertia; she seemed to decide that if anyone was to be gossiping about her precious Nade-Nade, it should be her. "Th-that can't be it, Yaya!" Defensively. "She's the headmistress's daughter, isn't she? That means she probably gets a nicer single room, that's all."

I made an X with my arms. "Nix on that. The room's the same as the all the other ones."

Well... except for the attached full washroom. Amu and Yaya must have seen the hesitation on my face, so I added, slowly. "Well, except we have our own bathroom."

"A washroom with a bath? That's so lucky, Rima-tan! No wonder you wanted to keep it!" Yaya looked so impressed by my cunning that I latched onto the ready-made excuse. Nobody need know that I was actually rooming with Nadeshiko to protect Amu, obviously. "Well, of course," Smugly, I nodded. "I'd put up with two Nadeshikos to have my own bathroom."

"That'll be so nice," said Yaya, enviously, and Amu nodded in hesitant agreement. I felt like she wasn't entirely won over, so, in a hurry to change the subject, I turned back to Yaya. "You think that's why she's got her own bathroom? So that nobody has to see her shrunken twin when she bathes?"

"Stop talking about that!" Amu yelped.

I forgot about Nadeshiko's imposed nine-thirty curfew, until I caught sight of Yamamoto's watch, ticking precariously south. I had stayed with Yaya and Amu until it was dark, chatting with the droves of girls who had come to say hello; they had spoken with bright faces about the places they had gone over the spring break. One had a father stationed in Northern China; another had travelled as far as France, a country so far that it might as well have been on the moon. I had never stepped foot outside Japan– my family, tied as they were to the cotton industry, could not very well up and go on vacation– but it was the first time I had ever thought of my country as small. It was a little island, really.

It was in this way that I had lost track of time, leaving the school building in quite a hurry. The cold, dark embrace of the East Hall was as unpleasant as ever. Despite being bundled up in my winter uniform, the chill had a way of seeping through the cloth. I was grateful to get safely into my new bedroom, shutting the door behind me with some careful fumbling.

It was pitch black, with a single cool blue window wavering in my line of vision. I was worried this meant that Nadeshiko was already in bed, waiting for me with her evil Lizard Eyes, but then I spotted the faint golden line on the floor.

Just in the bathroom, then. Good. I could get into my nightgown, crawl under the covers, and pretend I had been there the entire time, like a Good Roommate. I turned up one of the oil lamps enough to see, and casually began pulling my uniform shirt over my head. I kept one eye focused on the bright light under the door. We may have both been women with nothing to hide, but I was certainly not ready to give her more ammunition for insults; knowing Nadeshiko, she would have found a way to make me feel bad about my naked body, something about pudgy stomachs or weird-coloured pigmentation. I wouldn't put it past her.

My worries were in vain. I changed without incident and in the dead silence of semi-darkness. In fact, there was almost too much silence. There was not a sound from the other side of that door; no footsteps, no changing shadows. What, precisely, was she doing in there?

Inexplicably, Yaya's voice rose to the front of my mind: "... because she's got a conjoined twin attached to her side–"

I stifled a snort. That was most certainly not it. I was not the type to worry or be paranoid, but maybe there had been an accident. Had she had fainted in there? It was not unheard of for people to get overheated and faint in hot water, to my knowledge. I didn't like Nadeshiko, but I didn't loathe her so much as to want her dead. With a weary sigh, I walked over to the door, tentatively knocking on it. "Nadeshiko-san?" I called through the door, in barely above a whisper; and then, louder. "Fujisaki!"

Silence. But I could hear the faintest sound; like the beating of wings. Breathing.

She was still breathing. Clearly, she was passed-out on the floor.

My time had come. Finally, I would be able to defeat this stupid doorknob. Patience thoroughly worn thin, I twisted it roughly. As the doorknob turned, I felt resistance, as if someone was gripping it from the other side– but that was impossible. Why...

I pushed against it with my shoulder, feeling myself terribly brawny, and stuck my foot in the doorframe. Forcing my body through, I immediately knew I had made a terrible mistake.

Nadeshiko was not lying unconscious on the floor. She was, however, flattened against the wall behind the door in terror, uniform skirt clutched to her chest, hair down and spilling over her shoulder. Even dishevelled, she looked devastatingly beautiful; I wondered why the thought inexplicably crossed my mind, except for that perhaps I found some kind of beauty in vulnerability.

Vulnerable she certainly was; she appeared halfway through getting dressed. Even as I pulled my eyes away by reflex, I couldn't help but see that she was built more athletically than me, with shoulders that stuck out and a defined breastbone. It was not becoming on any lady to ogle up another, and certainly not in this situation; yet, maddeningly, I couldn't help but stare at the outline of her chest with a strange sort of fascination I hadn't felt before, down to her stomach and below her navel where black hairs trailed down to below- their- the t-

My curiosity well and sated, I shrieked no louder than a field mouse, stumbling back for the third time that day and banging my head on the mirror behind me. Much too late, I clapped a hand over my eyes, out of some belated respect for my own female dignity. No matter how hard I shut my eyes, I had a horrible feeling that I had already seen enough.

When I wanted dirt on Nadeshiko, I had imagined something harmless—funny, even. Not this. Never this.

Fujisaki Nadeshiko, ladylike darling of the school, was undeniably a boy.