Author's note: While I wait for my Patterns omake to come out of proofreading (*ahem*broad hint*ahem*), I figured this might be the right time to go ahead and toss out the first chapter of this, a set of three short stories. I was just going to spend this time revising previous chapters, but I was struck by inspiration, from a dream of all things, and I know better than to turn down inspiration. Next chapter won't be for a while though, since I'll be going back to revision for a while.
This series stems out of some careful thought about my originally planned alternate-universe story. It's no longer alternate universe. Rather, the first chapter here is New Years 2009 (middle of sixth grade for Touma, Makoto, etc., for those keeping track). Originally, these three chapters were just going to be fluff, to fulfill everyone's shipping tendencies, and they kind of still are, but they now patch over most of the character development that proceeds Advice and Patterns.
First story is Makoto and Touma. Consider that there are three chapters, and I am nothing if not a fan of symmetry.
"I don't know how I got talked into this," Makoto said, hunched over and glancing from side to side. He fidgeted inside the printed pink flower kimono. Admittedly, it wasn't that hard an outfit to wear, and he had done this last year, but the psychology of it still bothered him just as much.
"Stop complaining already," Touma said, shoving him in his lower back, surprising him into jumping and almost tripping over his wooden shoes. It achieved her purpose; he straightened his back instinctively.
Makoto glared at her, then glanced around to see if anyone else had seen him. No one had. The streets were only sparsely populated.
"Do I really have to explain it to you, Mako-chan?" Touma asked rhetorically. "Kana was disappointed she didn't get to see us dress up last year and decided to make up for it this year. And by using various techniques to exploit your weaknesses, she got you to cave."
"Weaknesses…" Makoto repeated out loud, but Touma didn't let him finish the train of thought.
"I'm hardly one to talk, though," she said, flaring out her arms to show off her sleeves. "Somehow I ended up wearing this hakama too. We're a matched pair."
"There's something off about that…" Makoto said.
It was New Year's Day, and Kana had taken great pains to ensure that the two of them were dressed appropriately to go to the festival. "Appropriate" meant something quite particular to Kana, however, as they had discovered the year before. That time, a combination of mysterious headaches and bungled scheduling had resulted in them traveling in two separate groups which completely missed each other.
Personally, Makoto had gained the impression that something had happened with Kana which had contributed to the sisters being late, but he had never asked. He also wasn't too sure how Yoshino and Uchida had ended up going in two separate groups but, once again, he knew better than to ask.
Ironically, Kana was once again not travelling with them. They had relatives over, and promised to arrive later. Kana, in particular, had said something about "moving heaven and earth" to get there.
"It's not as if you haven't done this before a hundred times," Touma commented. "Hunching over just makes you look more suspicious."
"Going out in a skirt to do random stuff and doing this are two completely different things!" he exclaimed, flapping his wide sleeves like a bird. "I mean, I can't possibly look right in this! I have this manly build!"
He clamped his hands over his mouth automatically. He had learned to stop saying that, but he still slipped sometimes.
Touma's laugh suddenly died, turning into a grimace as she spotted two girls, dressed for the occasion, approaching them. The girls were looking at them with a strange look. Had they overheard something?
Makoto's eyes widened.
"Have more confidence, Mako-chan!" Touma said with deliberate carelessness, grabbing him into a shoulder-lock. "You look fine to me! Positively cute!"
It was true, so far as she was concerned. At twelve, he still had the necessary build and voice to pull it off, in the same way no one gave her a second glance in her hakama. Neither of them was sure how much longer that particular state of affairs could last.
Still, she couldn't quite suppress a nervous chuckle, but fortunately her act had been enough for the teenagers to seem to lose interest. Makoto looked up at her, face wearing a strange expression.
She sighed in relief, too early.
"They're really getting started earlier and earlier nowadays, aren't they?" one of them commented, passing them on the sidewalk, not even having the courtesy to get out of immediate earshot.
They both tensed.
"Cheer up," the other said, teasing. "I'm sure you'll get a boyfriend one day."
The girl started laughing as the other girl spluttered. Touma waited for them to walk a little further…
As soon as it was safe to do so, they pushed each other away violently, almost stumbling.
"Why the hell do you always do that?" Makoto asked indignantly, smoothing out his kimono and blushing slightly.
"Oh, come off it," Touma countered, looking pointedly away and crossing her arms. "You know very well it's necessary."
He did. They had discovered that, whenever they mounted expeditions like this, people developed a disturbing tendency to make assumptions about what appeared to be, for example, a boy and girl shopping together. They were still young enough to usually dodge suspicion, but all it took was a little push, a little unusual behavior, and they could convince an entire street full of onlookers, which also had the extremely useful side-effect of blinding passerby to anything unusual they might have noticed about the "girl" or the "boy".
It was an effective tactic, and they had both grown sadly adept at exploiting it for defensive advantage; despite his protests, Makoto used it just as frequently as she did.
Strangely, when they were not role-reversed, no one ever thought anything of the sort.
But why did it feel so weird this time?
Makoto held a sullen silence.
"If you really hate it so much," Touma pointed out, "we could have just turned around, gone back, and you could have changed back. Kana's not exactly following us around to enforce anything. In fact, we could still do that now."
"It's not worth the work," Makoto said. "And it'd make us late. Besides, I've got to show solidarity with you, or something."
"Excuses, excuses," Touma said flippantly, even though she knew she shouldn't be dismissing his overture of friendship.
Makoto snorted, annoyed.
Touma noted to her satisfaction that Makoto had already forgotten his self-consciousness enough to stop hunching.
They finally approached the stone staircase leading up to the open area where festivities were held. Uchida and Yoshino had promised to be waiting at the top, but they were not to be seen.
"Late," Touma said, leaning with a huff on the inside of the torii at the top. "That's unusual."
She was referring to Yoshino, of course, not Uchida.
Makoto sat down on the cobbled ground next to her. The way in which he sat…
"Oy, Mako-chan," she said, looking down and making a gesture with her knees that she hoped indicated to him what the problem was.
"Ah!" Makoto said, immediately switching to a cross-legged seating posture so that sufficiently distant passerby could no longer look straight up his legs. There was such a thing as being too unselfconscious.
Touma chuckled to herself thinking about it.
"Well, I guess you should be glad Uchida talked you out of going commando underneath, like you wanted to last year."
Makoto jumped up immediately, blushing again. He had his arms up in a confrontational stance.
"You know very well I got carried away!" he said, face red with embarrassment. "And what about you, Mister 'I'm going half-topless because that's what the guys do'? You got carried away too!"
Touma waved her hand dismissively.
"You're just mad you didn't get to see anything."
"Like there's anything to see!"
Makoto regretted those words almost as they were coming out of his mouth, but it was too late. He closed his eyes and cringed in preparation for the inevitable punch.
It didn't come.
He blinked his eyes in confusion. Touma just looked at him archly.
"Nicely played," she admitted, standing up, smiling mischievously. "But why are you expecting me to get angry? I'm the one standing here in a hakama, all flat-chested. I prove your point for you. But—"
Here she leaned forward and poked him in the chest.
"If there's anybody I'm immune to criticism from, it's you, Miss Pink Flower Kimono."
He pouted and made an annoyed face, conceding the point.
"Besides," Touma said offhand, looking off into a corner. "We compared this one time and I'm actually the larg—"
"Too much information, Touma!" Makoto interrupted, secretly filing the fact away into a corner of his mind. Of course he couldn't exactly admit that…
Touma looked at him strangely, seemingly confused. She scratched her face, but he had no idea what the gesture indicated.
"Ah, yes," Touma said, finally. "You see, sometimes I forget—"
Makoto clapped her on the back, surprising her into silence.
"Alright, alright," he conceded. "I'll be good. I won't complain. We'll have fun. Can we please talk about something other than cross-dressing?"
Touma cringed, but fortunately by now there were too many people swirling around them for any particular person to notice anything he had said.
Makoto slid down the edge of the arch, back to the floor. Touma opened her mouth to say something—
"Hey!" a voice yelled, interrupting her.
Uchida stormed up the stairs, startling them both, looking extremely angry. Unsure what to do, Touma started an uncertain wave.
Before they even had time to exchange pleasantries, Uchida grabbed Makoto by the collar, picking him slightly off the ground with more strength than Touma thought she had.
"I'm glad you're having fun, Mako-chan," she growled, shaking him. "But if you get this thing"—she gestured at his outfit—"dirty, I will kill you. Think about that. Now stop sitting on the floor."
Makoto jumped up and started patting down the back of his kimono.
"I'm—I'm sorry," he spluttered. "I was just tired and I didn't know it was such a big deal, so I thought—"
"Come on, Uchida," Touma said, having gotten over her shock enough to try and intercede. "We can wash it later. We didn't think—"
She stopped talking when Yoshino's hand appeared on Uchida's shoulder. Uchida turned to look. Yoshino looked at her.
"I'm sorry," Uchida said, only a few moments later. "I'm feeling a little edgy today."
"That's—that's alright," Makoto said, looking suitably cowed by Uchida's outburst.
"I can't believe Mako-chan didn't own any kimonos," Yoshino said cheerfully, stepping forward. "She could have just borrowed one of mine. I have plenty."
"No! You can't!" Uchida warned. "It's ah, uh…"
"Oh?" Yoshino asked after watching Uchida stay tongue-tied for a moment. "Why not?"
"Well, that's because…"Uchida began again, clearly trying to think of something to say.
"We should go already!" Touma interrupted. "We've already been standing out here too long!"
Yoshino glanced at her.
"I guess," she agreed.
"Guys," Makoto began.
"Girls," Touma whispered in his ear as he paused to consider what to say.
"Girls," he said, skipping only a beat. "Uchida. Yoshino. You need to accept that you're not going to succeed. These games are rigged."
For a moment, they thought they wouldn't receive a response.
"I don't care!" Uchida said suddenly. "I'm winning this damn thing!"
"This damn thing" was a run-of-the mill carnival game. Throw some rings, land them on the necks of the bottles in the center of booth. That wasn't the point. The point was the major prize for this particular booth was some sort of stuffed horse. Uchida had spotted it and immediately developed a sudden irrational fixation on winning it.
What's with Uchida today? Touma thought.
"For the amount of money that's been spent here," Touma said, annoyed by Uchida's tone," I could go buy the damn thing. Probably three times over. We came to have fun. Can we go already?"
Uchida leaned illegally over the wooden counter and tossed another ring, careless with frustration. She released a disappointed sigh as it rattled off yet again.
They had spent absurdly long watching Uchida collect a small pile of consolation prizes, before finally Yoshino interceded, literally rolling up her sleeves—only to fail just as spectacularly.
After that, they had all taken their shot at it, but only Yoshino and Uchida had possessed the stamina to keep trying over and over. Yoshino's tosses were more measured, but hardly any more successful.
"We're not leaving," Yoshino said, lip set in a stubborn expression, looking just as manic as Uchida.
Makoto and Touma glanced at each other.
"Well, can the two of us at least go somewhere else then?" Makoto asked. "This is boring!"
He expected a bit of an argument.
"Go ahead," Yoshino said instead, with no pause at all.
They blinked in surprise at the response, watching Yoshino pay the girl manning the stall, who was clearly starting to feel guilty about taking their money.
After a moment, the two of them edged away from the stall.
"What's going on today?" Makoto said, hurt by their abrupt dismissal. "Even Yoshino is acting strange. I've never seen them like this. It makes no sense."
"Who knows?" Touma commented, stretching both her arms above her head, holding a baton she had won earlier from another stall. "Maybe they're just having a rough day or something."
They walked in silence for a while, each of them glancing over the stalls in their immediate vicinity for anything interesting. Finally, Makoto stopped in front of one.
"You want to try it?" Touma asked, looking at the booth skeptically.
"I've always wanted to try one of these shooting games," Makoto explained, paying the old woman at the stall a small part of his substantial new years' money.
"I don't know," he continued. "I guess I just want to feel like I'm firing a gun."
"You don't have to explain," Touma said, waving for him to go ahead. "Have at it. I'll watch."
Nice prizes though… she thought.
Makoto took careful aim with the pellet gun, quietly hoping that he was doing it at least somewhat correctly.
He's not doing it right at all, Touma thought. He really does suck at these.
He fired before she could say anything.
It didn't matter. He hit his target on the first try. It almost seemed like compensation for all those failures earlier.
"Oh, congratulations," Touma said, shifting a little with surprise. "You finally won something!"
Makoto gave her a dirty look.
He received the prize, one of those miniature basketball and hoop sets. He didn't really want it, but it was what they had.
I guess I can hang it on the wall or something, he thought.
He paused for a moment, leaning on the counter, staring forward pensively. The stallkeeper looked at him curiously.
"You can have it," he said suddenly, thrusting it off-hand to Touma, who was standing behind him.
Touma looked at it in confusion, stepping back slightly.
"Didn't you want one?" he asked, turning to look at her with a serious expression. "I heard you talking about it to Chiaki. Go on. Take it. Give me something later."
She stared at it for a moment.
"Oh, uh, right," Touma said, removing it from his grasp. "Thanks."
Makoto smiled ironically, standing up to leave.
"Just promise to make fun of me a little less for a while," he enjoined.
After a few seconds, Touma turned silently to leave, assuming Makoto would follow. For some reason she couldn't pinpoint, that whole exchange had been unusually awkward, and she hadn't been able to think of something to say. It bothered her.
"Hey! You two!" the boothkeeper yelled at them a few seconds later. "Come back!"
They looked back, and curiously watched the old woman exit the stand and shuffle rapidly up to them, back slightly hunched.
"Here you go," the old woman said, smiling amiably, and holding something out in her hands.
Makoto took it, inspecting it. It was a group of three tiny plastic flowers.
"It's a bonus prize for doing it on the first try," the woman explained. "You can put it in your hair or something."
"Ah, yes, that's…right," Makoto agreed warily. "Thank you."
The woman continued to look at him, as if expecting something. He looked back at her, trying to read in her face what she wanted.
"I think she wants you to actually do it," Touma whispered to him, hand at her mouth.
"Ah, right," Makoto said, politely following through and sticking the flowers into his hair. The woman nodded contently.
They turned to leave again.
"You waste our money, giving away stuff like that!" A man yelled from behind them, as they were walking away.
"Maybe this wouldn't happen if you would get up and man the stall yourself!" the woman yelled back. "What happened to the romantic fool I married?"
"He married you!" The man retorted.
Touma and Makoto glanced at each other, and walked away quite a bit faster.
It was nearly lunchtime, so they went back to the booth with the stuffed horse to look for Yoshino and Uchida, but they were nowhere to be found. As the girl there explained:
"I felt sorry for your friends, so I let them trade in their stack of consolation prizes for what they wanted. I think they left to go look for you."
This was the sort of situation where Touma wished she had a cell phone.
They bought lunch off a vendor, a meal that consisted entirely of fried things on sticks, and proceeded to wander the area, and doing all the stereotypical things, ranging from Makoto failing to knock down the stacked bottles with a baseball, and Touma succeeding, to trying on a variety of pointless masks, to goldfish scooping.
When Makoto finally left the booth with a bag filled with water and a single fish, he suggested they go fulfill the alleged purpose of their trip: Donate some coins to the temple, pray a little, and buy a new year's fortune. After all, weren't they supposed to meet the sisters there, in front of the fortune-telling booth? That meant Yoshino and Uchida would probably be there too.
Touma jerked around mid-walk and grabbed Makoto's arm to read his watch. She had forgotten about it entirely.
"Four thirty. Four thirty! We're late," she said. "We're an hour late. Why didn't you remind me earlier?"
Makoto's eyes widened.
"I didn't—I didn't—no, it can't be that late!" he said, shaking his head slightly. "I thought we had plenty of time. We must have lost track of time…"
"Let's go," Touma ordered, quickening her pace into a half-run. Makoto struggled to keep up. If only those fish had been a little more cooperative…
When they got there, the others were nowhere to be found.
Touma collapsed onto the fortune-telling booth in frustration, stopping her run, tossing her prizes into a pile onto the counter.
"Damn it," she said simply.
"Well, surely they wouldn't just ditch us," Makoto said reassuringly, finally managing to catch up, a little out of breath, feeling guilty about having shaken the fish in its bag. "We can just hang around a while, ah, throw in some coins—"
The attendant cleared her throat. They looked up.
"Can I help you?" she asked, looking skeptical of them.
Makoto looked at Touma, who looked despondent, head in her arms.
"Oh, uh, two fortune-telling slips," he said, putting down the fish and reaching into his purse for the necessary money.
"Certainly," the girl said.
Despite her seeming lethargy, Touma reached into the bin and grabbed one, relieving Makoto of the need to try and convince her.
Makoto sighed. He was just glad he didn't have to spend ten minutes cheering Touma up, like he was afraid might have been necessary.
He grabbed one of his own, read it, and scowled at it.
"Well?" Touma asked, after a moment, too dignified to look over his shoulder. "Going to tell me?"
"Overall: Slightly Good luck," he read out loud, in the voice of someone reciting a passage. "This year will be spent mostly in anticipation of the next. Nothing much will happen externally, but introspection will be extremely fruitful. Overall, you will be stuck in a holding pattern. Career: Excellent. You will experience a great unexpected success. Remember who got you there. Work hard. Finances: Poor. You will find yourself unable to resist spending your money, but will not regret what you spend. Health: Good. There will be nothing to concern you, though you will wish to be more energetic at times. Romance: Fair. What you seek will be unavailable, and your lack of understanding will undermine you. Beware yourself above all."
He blinked at it briefly, then looked at Touma.
"Doesn't that last one kind of sound 'Poor' instead of 'Fair'?" he asked.
"Bah," she dismissed, waving her hand. "These things are always vague and useless. Besides, what does romance even mean at our age?"
He continued to stare at her. She stared back.
"Oh, right," she said, suddenly realizing what he was implying. "Mine. I should reciprocate."
She cleared her throat and held her slip up the light.
"Overall: Very good luck. Nearly everything will go well for you, giving you the resources to handle what may be coming. Do not get overconfident, and remember that though it will be mostly smooth flying, there will be significant turbulence near the end. Career: Good. A simple reallocation of priorities will enable you to finally fulfill your potential. Finances: Excellent. At times, it will seem as if money is falling from the sky. Resist the urge to spend, and save it for a rainy day. Health: Excellent. You may very well be the envy of your friends and colleagues. Romance: Fair. The veil will be lifted from your eyes, but the ramifications of this will be anything but simple."
They looked at each other again, and shrugged nearly simultaneously.
"Ah, whatever," Touma said. Let's just go tie them up."
They walked the five feet to the tree covered with tied-up pieces of paper, almost as if trying to replace the leaves that were missing.
"Aw, shit!" Touma said midway through tying hers, suppressing both a louder exclamation and a more pungent vulgarism.
"What is it?" Makoto asked, dropping his arms at looking at her painfully grimaced face.
Touma held her silence and finished tying before stopping to look at her finger.
"It's fine," she said, holding her finger. "Just a papercut."
"Really?" Makoto asked, leaning over to look. "Let me see it."
"It's fine," Touma insisted.
Makoto grabbed her hand and wordlessly inspected her finger, thinking about where he could get a bandage. Touma bore the inspection stoically, looking back at the booth and its attendant, and then at a couple who dodged her look when they realized she was watching. Something about their expressions…that feeling was back again.
And then a sound caught her ear.
"Mako-chan," she said.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Do you hear…laughter?" she asked, her face showing concentration.
Makoto dropped her hand. There was nothing productive he could do for it, anyway.
He tilted his head to listen and wrinkled his forehead for a moment.
"Yes…yes, I do," he replied.
"And does it sound like Kana?" Touma added.
Makoto looked at her, narrowing his eyes.
"Yes. Yes it does."
They picked up their things from the floor and marched to the far end of the fortune-telling booth, drawing a curious look from the attendant.
When they rounded the corner, they found, as they expected, Kana crouched on the ground, doubled up with laughter, trying to stifle it with a hand over her mouth.
"And just what is so funny?" Touma asked, a bit indignantly, crossing her arms, careful to keep her finger from touching anything.
Kana looked up, surprised—and started laughing even harder.
"You—you guys don't understand," Kana managed to choke out, finally, still laughing but running out of breath.
She pointed with a shaky finger at Touma.
"Y—you, and hi—her," she began, in between fits of laughter. "You two. The costumes. The papercut—"
She went back to laughing uncontrollably.
They waited for Kana to finish, a little unsettled.
Finally, Kana struggled to her feet, leaning on the booth, kimono waving around her legs.
"It was totally worth it," she said, wiping her mouth the back of her hand. "It was all worth it."
"I'm glad you're having fun," Touma said, "and I'm sorry we were late, but would you mind explaining to us just what is it about my papercut that is so hilarious?"
Kana looked at their serious expressions, and barely stifled renewed laughter. She took a few deep breaths to stabilize herself.
"You two really don't have a clue, do you?"
They shook their heads.
Touma thought she saw Kana's eyes flash.
"And I'm not going to tell you," she said, making a stubborn expression.
"What? Why not?" Makoto demanded.
"I don't want to ruin it," she responded absently. "And…"
Her eyes focused, not on them, but on a patch of empty air. Touma had seen this look before; it mean the wheels were turning in her head.
"Well, I'll be seeing you," Kana said, turning around abruptly. She started to walk off.
"Hey! Where are you going? You can't just leave!" Touma asked.
"You guys were so late that Chiaki and Haruka went home already," she said, ignoring her. "We've got relatives over. I only stuck around to see you two. If you stand right there, Yoshino and Uchida should be back in ten minutes or so. They went to look for you. Tell them I left."
She waved goodbye with one hand, her back still turned towards them.
"Hey!" Touma repeated, bracing herself to sprint after her, but Makoto held her back, with a hand on her shoulder.
"She'll never tell you now that she's decided," he said, when she looked at him. "Might as well save your energy."
Touma leaned onto the wall with a thump.
"I don't like it," she insisted. "We should try to figure it out."
Makoto scratched the back of his neck.
Maybe it's just me, she thought.
"Why not?" Makoto said. "We can discuss it later. But let's go ring the bell and stuff first. It's getting late. If we do it fast enough, we can get back in time, and we can keep an eye out for the other two."
And that was what they did.
Dinner was once again vendor food, and the four of them found a relatively isolated spot to watch the modest fireworks that been planned in their area. They sat on the grass, surrounded by stuffed animals and other loot from the day. Makoto gave his fish to Yoshino, which was really the only thing he could do with it, since she was the only who had anywhere to put it.
Yoshino and Uchida seemed to have returned to normal. Looking at them, Touma reflected on why they had seemed so off that morning. They hadn't done anything too out of the ordinary but…it was almost as if they had been trying to seem normal.
That's the right way to describe it, she thought. They were trying too hard to act normal, and they hadn't acted normal at all.
Ah well. As long as they're okay now. We don't have to say anything.
She looked up, at the blossoming patterns of color in the sky, and had a bit of an insight.
That must be it, She thought.
She had felt strangely out of sorts the whole day, as if the whole thing were uncomfortable, unsettling, and she had done her best to ignore it.
I must have been acting weird the whole time, she thought. That must have been what set Kana off. That and the, uh, cross-dressing.
Of course, that still didn't explain why the day had been unsettling to start with.
"Something wrong?" Yoshino asked, looking at her out of the corner of her eye, slightly concerned.
"Ah, no, nothing," she said.
It would probably go away. That seemed to have worked for Uchida and Yoshino.
It was nothing major.
Later, on the way home, just before he turned to go into where he lived, Makoto asked if she wanted to discuss about Kana like they had planned.
"No, it's okay," she said. "It's probably not a big deal."
"You sure?" he asked. "I mean, we could talk in my room, after I, uh, get changed. You could even give a distraction to help me, while I climb in the window."
There it was again. The sensation that something was ineffably off. As if something needed to be dealt with, and she shouldn't be going home. She looked at him and felt…as if…she wanted to do something. It was so vague.
"Hello?" he asked, waving his hand uncertainly.
"You okay?" he asked again, trying to read her expression in the light of the streetlamp.
"Oh, uh, yeah, I'm fine," she said, startled out of her train of thought.
Makoto looked at her skeptically.
"I'm fine," she repeated reassuringly. "I need to be getting home."
"Well, I'll be seeing you then," he said, still skeptical, but moving to go.
"See you," she said, waving.
She watched for a moment longer, then turned to go home, where she could sleep, and do her best to forget.