Ever since she happened upon the crowd of curious students and the persistent reporter from the school paper outside Yumi's classroom, it had become Sei's habit to come and see Yumi. Like clockwork, Sei would appear in between classes to talk with Yumi and she was always there waiting when it was time for lunch or classes were at an end. At first, this created quite a stir within Lillian, especially among the first years who weren't used to seeing a Rose close up and personal, but as the weeks went by and this became routine so did Sei herself. Soon the first year students didn't hesitate before speaking to Sei and with this level of comfort the curiosity and the questions directed at Yumi about Sei decreased to practically nothing.
Which, some would theorize, was part of the reason Sei did it.
They were walking to the Rose Mansion, past the small plot of land the environmental planning committee had set aside for planting flowers. Shimako was there, trowel in hand and a look of contentment on her features. Yumi waved to her, calling out her name with a smile that Shimako returned before going back to her work. Sei studied Shimako with a lingering gaze, something that caused Yumi to question her and Sei to turn her attention to Yumi who looked at her with concern.
"Is something wrong, Rosa Gigantea?" Yumi asked.
"Yumi-chan," said Sei slowly, her attention drifting back to Shimako. "Do you know why Shimako agreed to help us?"
"The Yamayurikai?" said Yumi, her brow furrowing and when Sei nodded she wore the smallest frown. "I don't think it's a secret so I don't mind telling but why do you want to know?"
"A confirmation," said Sei, tapping Yumi on the nose and grinning.
"A confirmation?" Yumi echoed with confusion.
"I'm the type of person who enjoys being validated," revealed Sei, stretching her arms over her head as they continued on their walk and looking to Yumi with a playful gleam in her eyes. "It's an insufferable part of my personality. Though it's nowhere as bad as Rosa Chinensis' compulsion for meddling. I think that's much worse, don't you, Yumi-chan?" Yumi turned bright red at the idea of criticizing one of the Roses and Sei burst into laughter, slinging an arm around Yumi's shoulders and pinching her cheek. "Yumi-chan is so cute when she's being polite! I love that about her."
"Rosa Gigantea," huffed Yumi, glaring at Sei, though there was an affectionate light in her eyes. She nudged Sei then raised an eyebrow as she said, "Don't you want me to confirm what Shimako-san said?"
"Of course I do," said Sei with a charming smile.
"I wondered myself, especially after she considered it for so long," Yumi confessed shyly. "I couldn't help asking Shimako-san about it and she told me speaking with Rosa Foetida made her consider things differently and in the end, she decided to help the Yamayurikai for herself." Yumi wore a face of consternation and she continued, "I'm not sure I understand it myself."
"Youko won't be able to manipulate that one," drawled Sei, a smug look on her features. When Yumi blinked at this, Sei smiled at her and asked, "What about Yumi-chan? Why did she decide to help us?"
"You know why," said Yumi quickly, a blush emerging.
"I do but Yumi-chan won't tell me? I just want to hear the words, then I could die happy," Sei proclaimed, tickling Yumi in the side and rocking the girl against her.
"Rosa Gigantea, you shouldn't say things like that!" Yumi exclaimed heatedly. Averting her eyes and staring at the ground, she muttered, "It isn't right, talking about dying…"
Studying Yumi for several moments, a soft smile formed on Sei's features and she pressed a kiss to the side of Yumi's head. When she turned to look at Sei with wide eyes, Sei murmured, "I'm sorry. It wasn't funny."
"No," said Yumi somberly, though there was something of a pout on her features. "It wasn't. Anyway, you know why I agreed to help you. It's because you asked and I wanted to." Yumi looked up at Sei, her cheeks turning red again, then she quickly averted her eyes and she murmured, "I also like spending time with you."
Silence and then Sei pulled Yumi closer to her in a one armed hug. Sei dipped her head to speak in Yumi's ear in a soft whisper, "Yumi-chan is so much braver than me." When Yumi made a noise of protest, Sei pulled back and wore a serious expression as she cupped Yumi's chin her hand. "I mean that. I couldn't ever say something like that even if it was true." Yumi frowned as she thought about this and Sei said, "It is true though." When Yumi's head jerked up, Sei chuckled at the look on her face. "I like spending time with Yumi-chan too. Why else would I bother her?"
"I heard some second year students talking about you," Yumi confessed and when Sei raised an eyebrow, her cheeks were once again blazing. "It wasn't anything bad! They were just saying you've been a lot happier this year."
"Observant second years, aren't they?" questioned Sei with a grin. "If I'm happier, it must be thanks to Yumi-chan."
"Rosa Gigantea!" exclaimed Yumi, looking irritated. "You shouldn't tease about things like that."
"Who said I was teasing?" replied Sei, arching an eyebrow and looking at Yumi with a sly expression. Studying Yumi's annoyed features, Sei tilted her head before grabbing Yumi's hand in her own. Lacing their fingers together and smiling when Yumi looked at her with wide eyes, Sei said, "I wasn't teasing about that. I think I am happier because of you."
"But," Yumi began with definite confusion on her face. "We've just met and you…"
"And I'm…?" supplied Sei, looking at Yumi with encouragement.
Looking off to one side, Yumi seemed to sigh before the words came tumbling from her mouth. "You're Rosa Gigantea. I don't understand how I could matter that much to you, I'm only a—"
"Yumi-chan isn't only anything to me," interrupted Sei, her tone brooking no argument. "And I don't see how being Rosa Gigantea makes me someone who wouldn't be happy spending time with you." Yumi contemplated this, as if she was debating whether Sei was telling her the truth, and Sei smiled again. "I wasn't always Rosa Gigantea, you know. The Yamayurikai aren't born with these positions. We're voted into them and," Sei grinned and put her face a breath away from Yumi's as she offered a lopsided grin. "I think my election might've been fixed by Rosa Chinensis."
Laughing at this, Yumi couldn't help but smile when Sei squeezed her hand then sent them off in a dash towards the Rose Mansion. All the while thinking about what Sei had said. That she wasn't always Rosa Gigantea, that she was once a normal student like Yumi and when Yumi thought of it that way, it started to seem plausible that Sei really did enjoy her company.
There was a familiar weight against her back and Yumi didn't even turn around or stop making tea as she said, "Did you ever think that you might be heavy, Rosa Gigantea?"
"Yumi-chan is cruel, talking about a lady's weight," said Sei with overdone sadness, placing her chin on the girl's shoulder and watching her finish the tea preparations. When she saw Yumi alone in the council room, Sei couldn't seem to help her response. Usually this was the place where she had to share Yumi with the others and when she saw it was just her and Yumi she felt a little giddy and reacted. Sei pulled away with flourish and plopped down in one of the chairs. "You're here early."
"I came over right as classes ended," said Yumi, placing a steaming cup of masala chai tea in front of Sei.
Taking a sip of the tea, Sei wore a supremely pleased expression and said, "Yumi-chan made my favorite tea. I thought we didn't have anymore left."
"I picked some up on the way to school," Yumi revealed, sitting next to Sei. On hearing this, Sei's eyes became lidded and she studied Yumi with a pensive expression that Yumi found rather disconcerting. "What is it? Did I do something strange?"
"No," said Sei quietly, a soft smile on her face. "It's just that Yumi-chan takes such good care of me." Yumi huffed at this and Sei chuckled, leaning back in her chair and holding her cup of tea in hand. "You seem to be more comfortable coming here now. I still remember how I'd have to lead you in by the hand the first week you came to help us."
"It was different then," said Yumi. "I didn't know any of you."
"Beyond what gossip and the school paper said, right?" supplied Sei with a lopsided grin. Putting her chair back down on all four legs, she rested a gentle hand on top of Yumi's head. "Now that you know all of us, what do you think?"
"About the Yamayurikai?" asked Yumi, her eyes going wide. When Sei nodded, Yumi wore a thoughtful expression then said, "I think you're all very kind and hardworking people but the other students don't know you nearly as well as they think."
"Oh?" asked Sei with a chuckle. "How's that?"
"Well," Yumi seemed extremely reluctant but Sei was there, peering at her with warm and curious eyes, and somehow she knew it would be safe to tell her anything. Nothing bad would ever come from speaking her mind to Rosa Gigantea, Yumi was sure of it. "I guess I'll start with Yoshino-san. Everyone thinks she's the perfect petite soeur, that she's someone who is shy and timid who enjoys very ladylike hobbies but she's nothing at all like that, is she? Rei-sama is and I know everyone in the school would be surprised to know how much she loves cooking and sewing. And then," Yumi trailed off, a light blush seizing her features.
"And then?" Sei prompted, poking Yumi in the side and grinning when Yumi scowled at her.
"Sachiko-sama," said Yumi, the blush still clinging to her cheeks. "She appears to be perfect and I suppose she is in a way but before I came here I never would've imagined she would ever yell at people and throw fits. Not that there's anything wrong with that, she's still so admirable, but—-"
"Admirable, hmm?" said Sei, giving a sly smile and putting her face close to Yumi's. "So that crush on Rosa Chinensis en bouton still hasn't disappeared over time, has it, Yumi-chan?"
"Rosa Gigantea!" Yumi exclaimed, frowning at Sei, an unfortunate blush still on her face.
"Ahh," Sei said in a mournful tone of voice, resting her chin in the palm of her hand and peering at Yumi. "You've destroyed a little piece of my heart, Yumi-chan, admiring Sachiko over me. However will I survive?"
A small smile curved on Yumi's lips and she replied, "I think you'll manage somehow, Rosa Gigantea."
"Oh? How do you know? I might dwell in the sadness," said Sei mischievously. "After all," she murmured, lifting the cup of tea to take a sip and arching an eyebrow at Yumi. "Yumi-chan is among the few whose opinion matters to me."
"You're just teasing me," Yumi accused, frowning again at Sei.
"It doesn't mean it's not the truth," replied Sei with a smile, putting the cup of tea down and curling a lock of Yumi's hair around her finger. "After all, don't I always tease Yumi-chan?"
"Yes, too much," grumped Yumi and Sei chuckled at her expression. Yumi paused, considering Sei for a moment then she asked, "Why don't you ever tease Yoshino-san or Shimako-san?"
"I prefer Yumi-chan's reaction above all others," said Sei, grinning and leaning close to Yumi. "Particularly the cute noises of surprise she makes. It sounds like a baby dinosaur crying out. How could I resist?"
"Rosa Gigantea," said Yumi in a half-whine, a definite pout on her features. "You're being mean, do you know that?"
"I am?" asked Sei, her eyes going wide, looking at Yumi innocently.
Heaving a sigh, Yumi shook her head and muttered, "You are. Just a little bit, but you are, all the same. It isn't fair that I'm the only one treated this way. Especially if I'm supposedly the one you like best."
"But Yumi-chan is!" Sei exclaimed, flinging an arm around Yumi's shoulders and holding her close. "You're my favorite and that's why I tease you the way I do. It doesn't feel comfortable doing it to Yoshino or Shimako but Yumi-chan is special. When I'm with you I feel relaxed, like I can be myself, and it just so happens that my real self enjoys teasing you. Is that wrong?"
"You shouldn't do it so much," said Yumi finally, a light blush on her cheeks that didn't match the obstinate look she was wearing. "But I don't think it's wrong. I mostly feel relaxed around you too, Rosa Gigantea."
"Mostly?" asked Sei curiously, lifting an eyebrow.
"It's hard to feel relaxed when you appear out of nowhere to attack me with hugs," said Yumi, wearing a rueful smile.
"Attack you with hugs?" Sei repeated, forming an exaggerated scowl. "Take that back!"
With those words, Sei pounced on Yumi, tickling her as she struggled and laughed in Sei's arms. All the while crying out that she would never take it back because it was the truth. This was how the others found them when they entered the council room and at the interruption, they settled down, but it was only as Yoshino was serving tea to Rosa Foetida that Sei scooted close to Yumi and said in her ear, "I liked it better when we were alone."
And much to Sei's delight, Yumi turned to her and echoed her sentiments with a blush and in a whisper.
The athletic festival was quickly approaching and while it didn't require as much involvement from the Yamayurikai as the cultural festival did, it did increase their workload. Their efforts were improved by the assistance of the first years and Sei couldn't help the pride and happiness she felt as she watched Yumi work with everyone. Yumi had begun to find her place in their group and it seemed Sei wasn't the only one who noticed since one day Youko took the time to tell her as much.
"Yumi-chan is doing quite well, isn't she?" Youko observed, standing next to Sei as they watched Yumi talking with Rei and Yoshino about the plans they needed to make for the cheering competition.
"I suppose," said Sei slowly. Part of her wanted to share all of the things she had been feeling for Yumi with Youko. How more and more she was compelled to look after and care for Yumi in a way Sei had previously thought herself incapable. In many ways Youko was her closest friend but something in her wanted to keep her feelings private for now. Sei wasn't quite sure why she had that inclination but she didn't have any pressing need to fight against it. Looking for a slight change in subject, Sei's lips quirked up in a smile and she added, "But so is Shimako, don't you think?"
"Yes," replied Youko, a knowing look on her features before she walked over to Shimako and Sachiko. "She is."
Chuckling at this, Sei reminded herself that she wanted nothing to do with Youko's plans involving Shimako, despite the occasional burst of curiosity she had about them. And so, Sei called out to Yumi, grinning at the cute noise of surprise she made when Sei jumped on her and promptly forgot all about it for the time being. Content to focus her attentions on Yumi.
It was because of this focus that as the week went on and the athletic festival got closer, Sei noticed how Yumi looked more and more lethargic until finally, she couldn't take it anymore. She grabbed Yumi by the back of her shirt, pulling her away from their work setting up the displays for the class cheering sections. For the first time, she didn't comment on the cuteness of Yumi's startled cry as she led her over to their designated spot behind the school among the cherry trees. The moment Yumi sat down on the bench, Sei presented Yumi with an energy drink and instructed, "Drink this."
"Rosa Gigantea," Yumi objected, an embarrassed look on her features.
"Don't talk, drink," Sei ordered, twisting off the cap to the drink and pushing it up towards Yumi's lips. When Yumi was done drinking, Sei sat next to her and took in the embarrassment that still hadn't left Yumi's features. "Yumi-chan," she began, hating the sense of self-recrimination she was getting from the younger girl. "Do you know how proud I am of you?" When Yumi blinked at this and looked at Sei with a dumbfounded expression, she grinned and continued, "It's true. You've been a huge help to us in this past month and I know I asked you to assist the Yamayurikai but when I asked that I didn't intend for you to exhaust yourself in the process. That's not good for anyone. You especially."
"I understand," said Yumi, her face falling as she stared at the now empty energy drink she had in hand.
Sighing at Yumi's reaction, Sei cupped her chin and turned her head until they were facing each other. "I'm not scolding you," said Sei plainly, looking at Yumi with obvious affection. "I just care for Yumi-chan and I don't like seeing you this tired and full of stress, not when you don't have to be. No one said you had to do this alone. We're all here," Sei paused to offer a lopsided grin and she slid her hand into Yumi's hair, gently rocking her head from side to side. "So rely on us."
"Rosa Gigantea," said Yumi tearfully. "I'm sorry. Sometimes I just get caught up in things and I only wanted to help you—"
"You did and you are," interrupted Sei in soothing tones, wiping the tears away with the pads of her thumbs. "Yumi-chan is a great help to me and the rest of the Yamayurikai but I don't want you believing I have all these expectations for you." When Yumi looked at her in confusion, Sei chuckled and said, "I just want you to be yourself."
"But you want my help, don't you?" asked Yumi somewhat anxiously.
"Of course, I do," said Sei easily, putting an arm around Yumi's shoulder and pulling her close. "That doesn't mean I want you working yourself to the point of exhaustion. Just do what you can and that will always be enough for me." Sei tilted her head and offered Yumi a bright smile as she pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. "Just like Yumi-chan will always be enough."
Yumi said Rosa Gigantea in something of a sob, burying her face in Sei's shoulder and Sei smiled down at her, letting her cry out all the emotions and exhaustion from the past week that had apparently been building up. Content simply to be in Yumi's presence and feeling privileged Yumi trusted her this much to be so open with her. Although, Yumi had never been the best at hiding her emotions as they were always displayed on her face, but Sei was sure Yumi wouldn't cry like this with the others. And so they stayed like that until Yumi calmed and when she did, they remained for many minutes after, in a comfortable silence, sitting side by side with Yumi resting her head on Sei's shoulder and Sei's arm around Yumi. Happy just to be together.
When day of the athletic festival finally arrived, Yumi's only real worry, if you could call it that, was the bet between herself and Rosa Gigantea over which of their respective teams would place higher. Sei was on the purple team, which was right in the middle of the rankings, while Yumi was on the green team which was battling for last place with the red team. Yumi was certain that no matter how hard she tried the green team had little chance of surpassing the purple team which is why she was arguing with Sei over the amount of food the loser would have to buy the winner.
"A bowl of oden and takoyaki," Sei insisted, holding up two fingers and wearing a wheedling expression.
"All right," agreed Yumi. "But just those two things, Rosa Gigantea."
"I promise," said Sei solemnly, holding her hand over her heart and grinning at the skeptical look Yumi wore. "And what does Yumi-chan want if she wins?"
"Ice cream," said Yumi finally and once she said this, it occurred to her that no matter what happened she would be having a date with Rosa Gigantea. After all, they would have to go out together and it would have to be after school to eat the food that they had chosen since they weren't options that could be purchased at Milk Hall during the school day.
"Ice cream?" Sei repeated with a smile, laughing as she put an arm around Yumi's shoulders. "Yumi-chan must like sweets."
"There's nothing wrong with that!" Yumi defended, her cheeks puffing up. "Don't you like ice cream, Rosa Gigantea?"
"Ice cream, chocolate, cake, cookies," said Sei, ticking off a finger for every dessert she listed. "I even like pie." The call of the physical education teacher interrupted them, amplified by the megaphone he was using, and Sei arched an eyebrow. "Looks like it's time for the first year's ball rolling event. Aren't you in that, Yumi-chan?"
Her eyes going wide, Yumi released a surprised yelp, calling her goodbye to Sei before dashing off to the opposite side of the track where the rest of the green team was. Sei watched her go with a chuckle, resting her hands in her pockets as she joined her classmates. Much to Yumi's surprise, she managed to keep her team firmly in second place for the event, placing them above the purple team and when she saw Sei's exaggerated face of disappointment, she laughed in delight. The day progressed in this fashion, from one event to the next, Yumi and Sei sharing their reactions at their wins and losses, sometimes calling out to each other or visiting one another between the events. It was as the centipede race ended and they took a break for lunch that Yumi found herself nervously considering Sei who casually mentioned buying her lunch from a vending machine.
"Your parents aren't here, Rosa Gigantea?" asked Yumi, trying her level best to calm down.
"It's just my father," Sei revealed, very matter of fact as she scratched her cheek. "My mother died when I was five and he's out of town on business. What about Yumi-chan? Did your parents come?"
"My mother and father," said Yumi with a nod. "They've brought lunch." When Sei made a thoughtful noise at this, Yumi swallowed hard then she asked quickly, "Would you like to eat with us?"
"I would love that," said Sei, the sincere smile on her features instantly settling Yumi's nerves. Taking Yumi's hand in her own, she swung it lightly in between them and said, "Lead the way, Yumi-chan."
"Yes!" Yumi exclaimed, beaming at Sei and winding her way through the crowd with Sei on her heels. They arrived just as her parents were opening a large packed lunch. When they reached them Yumi looked at Sei and she wasn't entirely sure how to introduce her. As an upperclassman? A friend? Rosa Gigantea? Her parents knew about the Yamayurikai and the soeur system, as her mother herself had been a graduate of the school, but still…
Then Sei saved her the confusion by smiling wide as she said, "My name is Satou Sei, a third year student in the Wisteria class and a member of the Yamayurikai. I wanted to tell you what a great help Yumi-chan has been to us in organizing the athletic festival."
"Has she? We're so glad," her mother exclaimed, smiling up at Sei.
"We've noticed she's been coming home later these days," her father added.
"That's my fault," said Sei with a wry grin. "I roped her into helping us out."
"I've invited Rosa Gigantea to eat lunch with us," said Yumi suddenly and when they all turned to her, she blushed dark red.
Her parents exchanged a happy look before turning back to them with wide smiles. "Of course!" they said in unison. Her mother turned to Sei and questioned, "Do you like fried chicken? We have plenty."
"I love it," Sei grinned, moving to sit down and pulling Yumi with her. She reached for a piece of chicken on a plastic toothpick and after eating it, murmured her compliments, delighting Yumi's mother in the process. Taking another piece, Sei turned to Yumi with an impish smile and said, "Say ahhh, Yumi-chan."
Rolling her eyes but going along despite herself, Yumi did as instructed, allowing Sei to feed her a piece of chicken. When she was done eating, she looked to her parents with a long suffering expression. "Teasing me is Rosa Gigantea's new hobby," Yumi confessed and when Sei reacted with exaggerated offense, her parents laughed.
Their lunch was an easy and relaxed affair, more jokes being told at Yumi's expense, and she would've minded if it wasn't for the truly affectionate atmosphere that surrounded them. When it came time for them to return to the athletic festival, her parents had gotten a promise out of Sei to come over to their house one day for dinner. Walking back to the fields where Sei was about to join the ball throwing competition with the rest of the third years, Yumi turned to Sei rather shyly.
"Rosa Gigantea?" Yumi said hesitantly. When Sei looked at her curiously, she ducked her head and said, "I know my parents made you promise but you don't have to come over. Not if you don't want to. I can always make some excuse…"
"Why would I need an excuse?" remarked Sei, dipping her head to put her face very close to Yumi's. "I want to have dinner with Yumi-chan's family but that's only if Yumi-chan wants me there."
"I do!" exclaimed Yumi immediately. "I was afraid you felt obligated because of the way they seemed to demand it."
"I would never agree to do anything I didn't want to," said Sei plainly, forming a wry smile. Yumi chuckled at this, shaking her head ruefully, and Sei laughed, putting an arm around Yumi's shoulders. "You should know that by now, Yumi-chan!"
"I really should," Yumi echoed, looking at Sei with an expression of mixed humor and affection.
A loud whistle sounded and Sei grimaced, pulling away from Yumi and giving a salute as she ran off. Calling to her as she went, "That's my cue! Cheer for me Yumi-chan, since there's no chance of you winning the bet anyway!"
"Rosa Gigantea!" complained Yumi, putting her hands on her hips and laughing at the apologetic prayer Sei that gave her before turning on her heel and running towards the other third year students. Yumi sighed and walked over to her classmates, smiling at Yoshino in greeting. "Yoshino-san."
"Yumi-san," said Yoshino, returning the smile. "Did you have lunch with Rosa Gigantea?"
"And my parents," said Yumi with a nod, fixing her gaze on the third years as the ball throwing competition began. She couldn't help but grin as she watched Sei frantically dash about the field, throwing balls into the high hoop. Laughing as one of the balls fell back and onto Sei's head, Yumi stood on her tip toes, cupping her hands around the side of her mouth, as if to amplify her voice, as she shouted, "Aim higher, Rosa Gigantea! Good luck!" When Sei threw two more balls and they both went in, Yumi laughed, bouncing on her toes and clapping. Pausing only when she felt someone's gaze on her. She turned to Yoshino who looked at her with a soft and knowing smile. Blinking at this, Yumi asked, "Yoshino-san? What is it?"
Yoshino simply kept smiling, shaking her head from side to side, which left Yumi feeling perplexed. Then the whistle blew again and there were Sei calling Yumi's name and she turned to see the older girl, breathing hard and grinning. Yumi yelped as Sei drew her into an embrace, remarking she heard her cheers and laughing at Yumi's sardonic response that Sei had told her to cheer. Sei was soon leading them away and Yumi never did find out the meaning behind Yoshino's mysterious expression.
"Rosa Gigantea," Yumi cried, jogging to keep up with Sei. "Where are we going?"
"To the dance, Yumi-chan, to the dance!" Sei announced with flourish, stopping as they reached the folk dance which was just beginning. Turning to Yumi with a rakish grin, she lifted an eyebrow and offered her arm. "Would Yumi-chan do me the honor of having this dance?" Sei questioned, bowing in a particularly gallant affectation. "I'll lead."
Giggling and taking Sei's offered arm, Yumi replied just as playfully, "I would love to."
"Success!" declared Sei, lifting her free arm into the air and grinning at Yumi's laughter.
There was visible excitement from their classmates as they joined the dance, particularly among the first and second year students at the prospect of dancing with Rosa Gigantea, and there was a mad rush to be the female half of the pair so they could have that honor. Sei didn't seem to notice any of it, concentrating on Yumi as the dance started but Yumi couldn't help but be aware of the eager stares fixed on her from all the people that couldn't wait to be in her position. A sheepish expression on her features, Yumi turned to Sei who looked at her curiously. "Everyone wants to dance with Rosa Gigantea," Yumi remarked.
"Ahh," said Sei wisely. She eyed the other girls in the dance then grinned and ducked her head to murmur in Yumi's ear, "But Rosa Gigantea only wants to dance with Yumi-chan."
When Yumi turned bright red at this, Sei laughed but as the dance went on, she realized how true this was. She would dance with the others when their turn came but she only wanted to do this because it was something to share with Yumi and it struck Sei how often that happened lately. That her thoughts would turn to Yumi, things she wanted to tell her, to show her, and the protectiveness she felt towards the girl. Sei never thought of herself in the role of a caretaker, especially after what happened with Shiori, but it was different with Yumi. It seemed to come to her instinctively. Once again, the words of her onee-sama resounded in her mind. Then do something for the one that will become your petite soeur. It was in that moment that Sei realized why she wanted to do so many things with Yumi, why she wanted to take care of her, and how much it reminded Sei of her own relationship with her onee-sama. She wanted to do for Yumi what her onee-sama had done for her.
She wanted Yumi to be her petite soeur. Perhaps she always had.
The folk dance was still progressing and it was quickly approaching the time for them to switch partners. Not wanting to waste another minute, Sei freed her right hand and pulled her rosary from her pocket. "Yumi-chan," Sei said her name quietly and in this moment she was perhaps the most serious that she had ever been with the girl. Yumi looked up in surprise, her eyes wide, and Sei offered a reassuring smile, trying to calm Yumi while knowing she was just going to rile her up all over again. "Be my petite soeur." As expected, Yumi appeared stupefied and Sei grinned, enjoying her honest reaction. Then she watched as self-doubt formed on Yumi's features and Sei cut it off at the pass as she said, "I want you as my petite soeur. Only you."
"But Rosa Gigantea," Yumi began, the doubt still clinging to her features as they started to move apart in the dance.
"I don't want any excuses," said Sei sternly. "I just want a yes or a no."
Blinking at this and panicking as Sei moved from her, readying to take on a new partner in the folk dance, Yumi thought back to the past month and all the time she had spent with Sei. The fun she had and all the things Sei had taught her and the way she felt so comfortable and cared for while in her presence. Really, wasn't that what she wanted in an onee-sama? And Yumi couldn't imagine having a better onee-sama than Sei and so she smiled and exclaimed, "Yes!"
"Then Yumi-chan," Sei laughed, a bright smile on her features, raising her hand in the air. "Catch!"
Making a startled noise, Yumi moved away from her new dance partner and managed to catch the rosary that Sei had just thrown into the air. Holding it close to her chest, Yumi experienced a great swell of happiness, but she was only able to concentrate on this feeling for just a moment when a gentle congratulations met her ears. Finally looking at her dance partner, Yumi blushed when she saw it was Sachiko who was gazing at her with a soft smile.
"Thank you, Sachiko-sama," said Yumi nervously, clutching Sei's rosary in her hand. She looked down at the rosary, desperately wanting to put it around her neck but knowing she would have to pull away from Sachiko to do so. Though she had spent some time with Sachiko in her work with the Yamayurikai, she still wasn't entirely comfortable with her. Sei's teasing was right, she did have a crush on the beautiful and distant Rosa Chinensis en bouton, and it didn't disappear completely as she got to know her better. It even seemed to get stronger in some ways as she discovered what a kind person Sachiko could be.
"Would you like me to put it on for you?" asked Sachiko and when Yumi blushed, she chuckled. "You shouldn't worry about anyone mistaking it for our own ceremony. I'm fairly certain everyone saw the unconventional method Rosa Gigantea used in giving you her rosary. The school paper might even have a photograph of it."
"Sachiko-sama!" Yumi cried, the blush getting stronger.
"Rosa Gigantea wasn't exaggerating, your feelings do show on your face," said Sachiko thoughtfully. Before Yumi could protest, she took the rosary from Yumi and raised it over her head. Smiling as it settled into place around her neck. "There," she murmured with a look of satisfaction. "Right where it belongs."
"Yes," said Yumi, smiling fondly as she looked at the rosary.
The next day at school was fairly calm until the Lillian Ledger released a late print of its newest edition during lunch. One that featured a photograph of Sei throwing her rosary to a blushing Yumi who caught it with a smile. Before her classmates could get a chance to quiz her about it, Sei appeared in the doorway, a huge grin on her face as she held up the paper.
"Yumi-chan," Sei declared happily. "We're front page news!"
A chorus of squeals and whispers of Rosa Gigantea greeted Sei and Yumi rolled her eyes. It seemed whatever normalcy her fellow first years felt around Sei had disappeared with them becoming soeurs. Walking over to Sei, she had a look of suspicion as she pointed to the large and rather prominent star that featured text inside of it which read: Rosa Gigantea reveals everything about her new petite soeur! A match made in heaven!
"What's this?" asked Yumi.
Wearing an overdramatic pout, Sei replied, "Yumi-chan doesn't think we're a match made in heaven? Now I'm sad."
"Rosa Gigantea—" Yumi huffed only to find herself silenced by Sei placing an index finger over her lips.
"Onee-sama," said Sei slowly, pronouncing each letter with precision, an incredibly pleased smile tugging at her lips. When Yumi turned bright red, from her cheeks to her ears, Sei chuckled and pulled her finger away. "Well?" she drawled out, tilting her head to one side and looking at Yumi expectantly. "Won't Yumi-chan make me happy and say it?" Sei vaguely heard Yumi say the word but it was soft and timid and the last thing she ever wanted Yumi to be around her. Which is why Sei put her hand to her ear and said, "I can't hear you."
"Onee-sama!" the word burst from Yumi's lips as she blushed furiously and scowled at Sei.
"Yes, yes, that's me," said Sei, laughing and hooking her arm in Yumi's, leading her away from the classroom. When they were going downstairs and away from the first year classes, Sei looked at Yumi and murmured, "Yumi-chan shouldn't be angry at me. I was just taking preventative measures." When Yumi blinked at this, Sei smiled and led them outside. "Minako cornered me at the athletic festival right after the folk dance. I struck a deal with her, an exclusive interview with Rosa Gigantea on her new petite soeur but only if she agreed to leave that same petite soeur alone." Sei's eyes twinkled and she seemed to preen as she turned around to face Yumi, smiling wide before sitting at their usual bench by the cherry trees. "Smart, wasn't it?"
Yumi stared at Sei with wide eyes, automatically sitting next to her when Sei patted the bench. She took the paper from Sei and read the article again. When her classmates presented it to her moments before Sei arrived, Yumi had only been able to scan its contents but that was all. Now she was curious to see what Sei had actually said. The article was filled with Sei extolling Yumi's best traits and everything she said echoed with an honest affection for her but what struck Yumi the most was the answer to the question everyone really wanted to know, even Yumi herself. Why did Sei ask Yumi to be her petite soeur? There it was in black and white and it made Yumi's heart clench in her chest and tears well in her eyes. Reading it, she knew she was right to accept Sei's rosary, because Yumi couldn't imagine a kinder onee-sama than her. No one could ever convince her otherwise.
I asked Yumi-chan to be my petite soeur because she is the only one I could ever accept. Until I met her I never thought of being anyone's onee-sama, but with Yumi-chan, I think it was all I ever wanted. If she had refused my rosary I would've kept asking until she said yes. For me there was no one else.
"Don't cry," Sei said this in a soft command, wiping Yumi's tears away and offering her a gentle smile.
"But it's so romantic," said Yumi in a rather adorable sniffle, looking up at Sei with big brown eyes.
"Romantic?" echoed Sei, chuckling and removing the last of the tears from Yumi's face. "And here I thought Sachiko-sama was Yumi-chan's crush. Not her brand new onee-sama. Or am I wrong?"
Ignoring Sei's remark, Yumi looked at her rather solemnly and asked, "Did you mean what you said? That you never thought of being someone's onee-sama until you met me?"
"It was the truth," said Sei simply, leaning back and resting her arm on the back of the bench. Tipping her head back, she gazed up at the sky and murmured, "I didn't think I was suited for things like that. What did I ever have to offer someone? I couldn't take care of myself, much less another person, so what sort of onee-sama would I make?" Sei snorted. "A horrible one." She sighed and watched a small sparrow perch on a nearby rooftop. "Then I met Yumi-chan and somehow I wanted to take care of her. I felt all of the things that my onee-sama had spoken about and soon as I realized that, I offered you my rosary." Sei focused on Yumi and though it wasn't completely obvious, there was a sense of trepidation she was getting from her. Something that made her react in concern as she asked, "What's wrong?" Yumi started to deflect but Sei frowned and touched her cheek. "Tell me."
"My classmates," Yumi said hesitantly. "Some of them are already calling me Rosa Gigantea en bouton."
"Oh?" Sei lifted an eyebrow, a smile playing on her lips. "What's wrong with that? It's the truth, isn't it?"
"I just don't want to disappoint you," said Yumi quietly, nervousness clinging to her as she squeezed her hands together. "When I accepted your rosary I only thought about wanting to be your sister. I never considered how I would be a bouton…" She trailed off as Sei reached for her hands, tenderly pulling them apart and lacing their fingers together. "Onee-sama," Yumi murmured, looking to Sei who beamed on hearing this.
"It's fine," assured Sei with a smile. "When I offered you my rosary I never thought about you being a bouton either. I only thought about how I wanted Yumi-chan as my petite soeur." Seeing the worry and consternation that remained on Yumi's features, despite how she tried to hide it, Sei put an arm around Yumi's shoulders and pulled her close. Grinning at her, Sei lifted an eyebrow and said warmly, "Yumi-chan should relax. Being a bouton isn't hard. If it was, how could I have done it?"
"Onee-sama," Yumi laughed, shaking her head and smiling at Sei. "You shouldn't say things like that."
"Why not?" asked Sei curiously. "It made Yumi-chan laugh, so what's wrong with it?"
"You shouldn't insult yourself," said Yumi strongly, rising to her feet and putting her hands on her hips. "I don't like it." She looked off to one side, her cheeks coloring as she went on, "You're the most wonderful person I know."
Silence and then Sei was at her side, putting an arm over her shoulder, her voice kind and caring in her ear as she murmured, "Yumi-chan is the same for me."
Once again, Yumi found herself alone in the council room after school. She was surprised to find Sei wasn't waiting for her outside her classroom until she recalled her mentioning a meeting with her homeroom teacher about college applications. A small pain seized Yumi at the thought, knowing that she didn't have as much time with her onee-sama as those who had second year grande soeurs but Yumi didn't care. She just wanted to be with Sei and knowing that Rosa Gigantea would've only accepted her as a sister made her indescribably happy. Yumi never thought she would ever be that special to another person, much less a member of the Yamayurikai who was as charming and gregarious as Rosa Gigantea.
She was in the middle of preparing the barley tea when she heard the door open. Yumi halfway expected to feel the familiar weight of Sei on her back but instead she heard a quiet and genteel greeting. Looking over her shoulder, Yumi experienced a swell of panic at the sight of a softly smiling Sachiko. It didn't matter how much time she spent with Rosa Chinensis en bouton because of her work with the Yamayurikai something about Sachiko unsettled her. It wasn't that she didn't like her, that was far from the truth, but instead she felt a kind of perpetual awareness that she couldn't seem to lose while in Sachiko's presence. It made her notice every little thing. Down to Sachiko's smallest facial expression to her own clumsy attempt at manners.
"Sachiko-sama!" Yumi exclaimed, smiling and turning around with the teapot in hand. "Would you like some tea?"
"Thank you, Yumi," said Sachiko, sitting at the table and watching as Yumi brought over a cup. She took a sip and set it carefully down on the plate before smiling at the girl. "Delicious," she murmured with a smile.
"I'm glad," said Yumi happily, turning on her heel, pleased Sachiko enjoyed it.
"Yumi has been a great help to us," Sachiko said and Yumi turned around, her eyes wide on hearing this. Sachiko moved her head slightly to one side, observing Yumi with an understated humor floating in her gaze. She paused to open her satchel and removed a copy of the school paper, setting it on the table. "Rosa Gigantea thinks very highly of you."
Coloring at this, Yumi dropped her head and said, "Onee-sama has always been kind to me."
"Perhaps, but I know she told them the truth," said Sachiko and when Yumi looked up she saw the older girl studying her with a thoughtful expression. "Yumi," Sachiko said her name slowly. "Would you mind if I asked you a question?" Yumi stared at Sachiko dimly for a moment before shaking her head no. Smiling at this, Sachiko's eyes drifted back down to the paper and Yumi watched as she lifted a hand to touch its surface lightly. As if she was tracing the words written there. "Is there any reason you would have refused Rosa Gigantea's rosary?" At this question, Yumi froze and she thought frantically to find a reply to Sachiko's question but nothing came to mind. There were her insecurities at the prospect of being Rosa Gigantea en bouton but to Yumi that had little to do with being Sei's sister. Rosa Gigantea was just a title and it wasn't the title that was important to Yumi but the person who held it and Yumi couldn't imagine not wanting to be Sei's sister. "I'm sorry," Sachiko murmured in a wry and rather sad tone. "I don't know why I asked you that, Yumi. You haven't even been Sei-sama's sister for a day. Of course you wouldn't have thought about such things. Everyone can tell how happy you are together."
She had never seen Sachiko like this. Vulnerable and depressed and it tugged at Yumi's heart, it made something inside her ache, and she desperately wanted to fix it, to stop Sachiko from looking this way. Whenever she was feeling bad she always improved once she talked about her situation with someone. Before, it had always been her friends or her brother, Yuki, but more and more it had become her onee-sama. Although Yumi had respect for the bond between Sachiko and the Rosa Chinensis something in her didn't think Sachiko was the type to confess her feelings to her grande soeur. Unable to help herself, Yumi was drawn forward, sitting next to Sachiko at the table. Considering the nature of Sachiko's question, Yumi made a logical assumption.
"Have you offered someone your rosary?" asked Yumi gently.
Sachiko released a wavering sort of laugh, almost self-deprecating, and she looked at Yumi with melancholy blue eyes. "Is it that obvious?" she replied.
"No," Yumi shook her head and offered a compassionate smile. "I just guessed." Tilting her head to one side, she asked, "Did you want to talk about it? I promise not to tell anyone. Not even onee-sama."
"Not even Rosa Gigantea?" Sachiko repeated, a wry smile forming and a twinkle shining in her eyes. When Yumi blushed, she chuckled and stared at the cup of tea as she murmured, "I don't know what to say. I never thought Shimako would refuse me."
"Shimako-san?" said Yumi, her eyes going wide. Sachiko turned to her and Yumi blushed again and said quickly, "I'm sorry! It's just, I didn't know you were becoming so close. Did she say why she turned you down?"
"I asked her after dancing with you," said Sachiko quietly, seeming lost in the memories. "Something about watching you and Rosa Gigantea… it made me envious, perhaps? I suppose I wanted a moment like that for myself and I have been watching you and Shimako. Seeing how well you fit in with us and she's done so wonderfully here that I just thought…" Trailing off with a sigh, Sachiko looked to Yumi and said, "Shimako said that I didn't know her and if I did, I wouldn't want her for a petite soeur."
Mulling over this and wondering about such rigid and harsh words coming from Shimako, a girl who had such an angelic and peaceful exterior, Yumi looked at Sachiko with a serious gaze. "Sachiko-sama," she said insistently. "How do you really feel about Shimako-san? Is she the only one you can picture as your sister?"
For a moment, Sachiko appeared nonplussed then she said with a rather firm expression, "I know that I detest her reason for refusing my rosary. The way she said it makes me think she thought my asking was merely on a whim."
"Then you should prove that it's not," Yumi responded, beaming at Sachiko, considering the answer to now be all too obvious. Sachiko looked at her in confusion and she explained, "If you really want Shimako-san to be your sister, you should get rid of her reason for refusing your rosary. You should get to know Shimako-san, spend time with her, and find out why she feels that way. Once you do all that, ask her again. I bet she won't turn you down a second time."
"Yumi," said Sachiko in something of a whisper, her face reflecting a distinct amazement.
"I'm sorry, Sachiko-sama," Yumi stammered as it suddenly occurred who she was speaking to and everything she had said. She didn't know what possessed her, speaking to Sachiko like she was one of her classmates or her onee-sama. It was absolutely out of turn and she felt overwhelmed with embarrassment as she quickly rose to her feet. "I've said too much—"
"No," Sachiko protested, reaching up to clasp Yumi's wrist, stopping her retreat. "You haven't." A light blush graced Sachiko's high cheek bones and she dropped her gaze as she said in a whisper, "Thank you for saying that, Yumi."
"It's nothing," said Yumi, shaking her head and feeling herself relax slightly. Though it was hard to relax completely, not with Sachiko's hand moving down to hold her own. It was different than when she did this with her onee-sama. When it was with Sei, the touch was calming, a reassurance, something that steadied Yumi but Sachiko… touching her made Yumi feel anything but calm. All the same, it was nice. Although Yumi was certain it would be much nicer if it didn't feel like her heart was going to beat out of her chest.
"It isn't nothing," said Sachiko in a strident tone, frowning as she looked up at Yumi. "If it wasn't for you, I'm sure I would be feeling far worse about the situation." Yumi colored at this, ducking her head and thanking Sachiko, and it was then that she felt a soft touch to her chin and she realized it was Sachiko's fingers grasping her face in a delicate hold that nevertheless resulted in an electric feeling wherever she touched. "You'll be a magnificent Rose one day."
For this, Yumi had no reply.