Of course she was there.
Whether fate or just coincidence, it seemed only natural that on that night, she would trouble herself to glance back behind her, when it would have been so much easier to follow the normal course of things, and keep chatting with Uchida.
She did look back, though, and because she did, she spotted Touma, in that ridiculous outfit of hers, following Fujioka out a sidedoor, disappearing into the night.
It could have easily been nothing; in fact, probabilistically speaking, it almost certainly was nothing. Fujioka and Touma were close, of course, and spoke about many things, not just soccer. Lately, they had been having more furtive meetings than ever, a fact she had tactfully ignored.
Her guess? It was about Kana.
That time, however, she had set down her end of the small table she and Uchida were carrying. When Uchida looked at her curiously, she apologized, advised Uchida and to get someone else to help put the table away, and dashed off after them.
Chiaki stared up at the ceiling above her, briefly losing the thread of reminiscence, half-heartedly going through the motions of taking a shower. It was a real luxury, the way they each had their own room and shower here, and quite a contrast to the way she normally had to fight Kana for possession of their only shower.
She had enjoyed it the previous couple of days, but at the moment it felt rather hollow.
She sighed, and leaned down to turn off the water, indirectly urging herself to move faster.
How did I know? She thought.
Ordinarily, she would never notice the kind of subtle signs that would warn of something wrong. Moreover, she knew she was the kind of person who would never notice.
Then how did she know?
She thought back to the previous day, when they had been out hiking.
"Don't dodge the point! Why is this so important to you anyway?" she had asked, grilling Touma about the very topic.
But Touma hadn't answered, not really, and Chiaki had let the topic drop. She regretted that now.
That wasn't it, though. She never would have asked had she not already intuited, somehow, that the end was finally approaching.
She pulled off her plastic shower cap and tossed it aside. She had planned to wash her hair today, but not now, not after this.
Chiaki watched her reflection in the mirror, looked back at those wide pupils, framed in a narrow, still-childish face, dripping water, itself framed by long, luxurious, and mostly-dry hair. More than anything, she thought, she looked tired.
She wondered, nowadays, if she was pretty. She wished there was someone to ask.
Earlier that night, she had followed Touma out the door, into the darkness of the night, stalking them from a distance. It was tiring work, circling through a grove of trees when Fujioka and Touma walked past a field of grass, dodging her way through the darkness at the edge of flower garden when they passed through that, and finding a position behind a column when they finally stopped near the fish ponds.
She had never violated their privacy before, and had started to regret her decision, but forgotten it all instantly when she heard Fujioka say the fatal words:
"...you're not really a boy, are you?"
Chiaki had listened in rising horror as the fool babbled on incessantly, twisting the knife with each word, driving it deeper and deeper…
What the hell was the baka-yaro thinking?
She shook her head, dripping more water onto the counter. She couldn't blame Fujioka. How was he supposed to know how important it was to Touma, the kind of emotional whirlwind he was reaping? He couldn't possibly have had any idea.
Even I barely had any idea.
Just an idea, just a bare inkling, but it had been enough to send her out there, despite all good sense.
"Shut up!" Touma had screamed, so loud the rafters above Chiaki seemed to shake, so loud it had driven a dagger into her heart as well. So loud that she was compelled to risk stepping out to take a look at the two of them, Touma's tragic features etched by the moonlight.
She had intervened. What else could she do? She had swooped in and dragged her out of the situation, injecting emotional support and shielding her from the worst of the fallout.
It wouldn't last, she knew. A real resolution was needed.
Chiaki finished drying herself, wrapped herself in the towel, and stepped out into her nice, private bedroom. She sat down on the luxurious bed, next to her prepared pajamas, hesitating before the next step.
She had to intervene. She had possessed no other choice.
"Aren't you the one who put me up to this?" Touma had asked, the day before.
Touma was right. It was ultimately her fault.
Chiaki thought back to the day they first met.
It was Uchida and Yoshino who had introduced Touma to her, showing her the boyish, aggressive girl one class over with the same surname, in a pitched argument with one of the actual boys in the class. A loner, Yoshino had commented on the way there, but they had thought she might be Chiaki's cousin.
Even before she had seen her, before circumstances caused an unexpected meeting, she had placed the plan in motion. A boy with the same surname! It was a perfect match for the missing slot in the family she was constructing. One she could pretend was her little brother, one who would hopefully be less troublesome than Makoto.
After all, I can't trust him with something like that, she thought. At least not too closely.
Feeling a bit disturbed by the train of thought, Chiaki moved on.
There was an obvious problem with the idea, of course: Touma had turned out not to be male. But the moment Chiaki had seen her, any doubts she may have had vanished, swept away in a tide of certainty.
To this day, she had no idea what had triggered such a feeling. Everything had clicked, somehow. Touma was perfect for the role, she could tell by inspection, both in looks and behavior. All obstacles seemed to pale in comparison. Female? No matter! Only an advantage! By introducing her as a brother into her little game, she could waive aside all possible concerns. There would be no need to worry.
Worry about what? She mused briefly.
Well, anyway, it had seemed only logical that Touma would accede to the arrangement. Chiaki was certainly well-practiced in bullying people into doing things, and, under Touma's bellicose surface, the girl had proven surprisingly pliable, even if she had angered Chiaki by breaking disguise in front of her sisters.
Only later did she begin to suspect why this was the case.
The plan had not proven so bloodless after all. Touma had become her closest, most intimate friend. They played together, ate together, and, indeed, Touma had proven a better companion than any actual brother would likely have been. So much so that Chiaki dared do things she wouldn't have even considered with anyone else.
There's no harm in a little play-acting, right?
Touma would stay with her, she knew that. Or she was pretty sure, anyway.
She grabbed her head. She was feeling a little dizzy, probably from the humidity of the shower.
Back on-topic, she thought.
Touma was someone she cared about, and someone she had realized was forever skirting the edge of a cliff, destined to fall into the abyss. Chiaki could pull her back temporarily, but she knew the only real solution was to wait at the bottom, and catch her when she fell.
And I put her there, she thought. It's my fault.
She imagined Touma, over in the next room, waiting for her return.
On that thought, she stood up and dressed, rapidly and efficiently, taking a moment to read the clock.
2:12 AM. Certainly late enough.
No more procrastination.
It was far too late for decent people to be up, but Chiaki scanned the hallways just in case. There were murmurs of activity, probably reflecting the late hour at which they had sleep, but fortunately, no one was still wandering the halls. Importantly, Haruka seemed to be asleep.
She was disturbed by the fact that Kana's door was wide open and the room unoccupied, but she could hear talking coming from Riko's room, and had to assume that's where she was. What else could she do, after all? She couldn't just go back.
In what was nearly one motion, she closed her door and opened the next
Touma started, sitting up jerkily from her reclining position, even though she certainly must have been expecting her.
She had told Touma to expect her, after all. There was no way she could be expected to simply to take a shower and sleep, and had Touma not asked for some time alone, she would probably have continued her strategy of staying more or less attached to Touma's side.
She closed the door behind her.
As she walked forward, Touma's eyes tracked her every step of the way, glimmering in the darkness.
Chiaki took a deep breath to steel herself. She hated situations like this. They made her feel vulnerable.
But she would do what she must.
"Go ahead and lie back down, if you're tired," she said. "I don't blame you, and it shouldn't matter too much."
Touma, at that moment, looked almost scared of her.
"No, I'm—I'm fine," Touma said.
Wordlessly, she sat down next to Touma, her weight disturbing the balance of the bed. Touma's sleep clothes lay on the bed next to her—Touma hadn't changed or showered, despite her previous intimation that she would.
"Well, then," Chiaki said, turning to look at her prodigal brother, watching the way Touma's features were etched by the chiaroscuro of the room. "Can you tell me now why it's so important? I asked you before, but you wouldn't tell me. Have you figured it out?"
She drove straight to the main point—or one of the main points, at least. She took pains not to soften her normal harsh tone too much. She felt that normalcy might be soothing, on a subconscious level.
It was worth a shot, anyway.
Touma finally made eye contact, and Chiaki had a brief flashback to those same eyes, just a few hours ago, red from crying. It had taken a lot of work to make her presentable again, but fortunately, Haruka always carried every necessity with her; she was sure her sister wouldn't notice that her bottle of eye drops had diminished somewhat.
"I—well, I—," Touma began abortively, wringing her hands nervously.
"I don't know," Touma said, looking away from Chiaki, eyes focusing on something across the room. "I don't know, that's the funny thing, you know?"
"And?" Chiaki pressed.
"I sort of knew it would be a big deal," Touma said. "That's why I kept putting off telling him for so long. But I never thought I'd explode like that. I guess…"
Touma looked down at her hands.
"I guess it was more important than I thought."
Chiaki watched her for a moment, watched the girl struggle to rationalize her own motivations.
"Why, Touma? Why?" she asked when she thought Touma had finally reached a conclusion, her face relaxing.
Touma didn't answer, however.
Chiaki closed her eyes, took a breath, and stood up, walking over to window, whose drawn curtains let through only a sliver of moonlight, enough to grant the room the shades of dark and light that were so prominent in her few of vision.
She had to say something, even if she couldn't look the other girl in the face while doing it.
"I'm sorry for all this," she began. "If I hadn't told you to pretend—"
"No, it's fine," Touma interrupted quietly, seeming to have anticipated her answer. "How could you have known it would become such a big deal?"
She paused, and Chiaki waited for her to continue. Better Touma bring it up herself, then for Chiaki to say it first. That was…easier.
"Especially since I didn't have to hide it from him in the first place," Touma said, finally. "I was just too embarrassed, and then I was the one who insisted on keeping it up. I—"
"I don't mean that," Chiaki interrupted, more forcefully, knowing now that she had to.
She twisted her freshly washed hair around her finger, watching the way the moonlight shimmered on it, appreciating the slight distraction it provided.
"I mean, giving you a taste for this kind of thing in the first place," she said, biting the bullet. "That's what it is, isn't? You enjoy it. Being a boy."
She stopped, and Touma suck in a breath. But Touma said nothing, gave no audible indication of great surprise. That was all the confirmation Chiaki needed.
"I thought you might," Chiaki said. "That's my apology: for being selfish, doing this to you. I didn't realize, at first, what I was doing, but later…it was too late to stop. How stupid, to do something like this for entertainment."
She never described herself as stupid, and she hoped the word would make an impact.
"Though I must say…" she said, bending her head downward, allowing her hair to block some of the light.
"I must say," she repeated, stately the facts as succinctly as possible. "You did an excellent job. I had fun—"
Another sucked-in breath, but Chiaki didn't notice
"— I meant what I said earlier. You can continue, if you want, but I'd also understand if you wanted to quit, after all that."
"If I hadn't started it," she finished, "you might never have discovered something like this. And that might have worked out better."
She looked up again, wondering if she should do the cliché thing and pull aside the curtain so she could look at the moon. She forbore.
Well, that's it, she thought. I've given my little speech. She doesn't seem to hate me, but she might, eventually.
She surprised herself with the amount of the pain she felt on that last thought. No, it hadn't been bloodless at all.
"No," Touma said, voice a bit firmer than before.
Chiaki turned, surprised.
"No," Touma repeated, shaking her head. "This started before all that."
Chiaki tilted her head, the question implicit in her eyes.
"I've always known I was different," Touma said. "But I never thought it meant something like this. The boys never let me join their games, and I didn't think I wanted to."
Touma stopped there, again dropping her eyes.
Should I ask? Chiaki thought.
"But all this," Touma began again, not giving her a chance to. "All this stuff with Fujioka. It was the first time I really got to experience it, I guess. He didn't think I was weird for any of the things I did, unlike everyone else I've met. We could talk about soccer, video games, girls…"
Her voice trailed off.
"By which you mean Kana, of course," she said. "And a little bit of me. Can you believe he really thought there was something going on with us?"
She made sure to dose her last sentence with extra incredulity, for comedic effect.
Indeed, the very spectacle of Chiaki-hime making a joke should be enough to get a laugh out of her, Chiaki thought. I don't ever do it—I can't believe I just called myself that!
She stopped, waiting for a response.
It came too late.
"Yeah, that was pretty funny," Touma said, unable even to give a slight appearance of sincerity.
Chiaki frowned at her failed attempt at humor and tried to read Touma's features, obscured by the lack of light. What was wrong?
"Sorry," she said awkwardly. "I was just…trying to lighten the mood."
"No, it's okay," Touma said, seeming at least to mean it, without giving any hint as to what was going on.
Chiaki dug in her mind for something to say. All she came up with was some fact about photons and retinas.
Is this it, then? Have I lost her?
Touma put her head in her hands, a gesture of despair.
"It was fun, like you said," she said, voice miserable. "Pretending all that time, that is. Pretending to be your brother and stuff. But I have no choice now, do I? Not anymore. I'll be surprised if he even talks to me again after something like this. I should just stay away from him from now on."
Chiaki watched her for a long moment, weighing her options. Touma was still talking to her, didn't seem to blame her at all. Perhaps there was nothing to worry about.
At least, not yet.
"I'd be surprised if he didn't at least keep in touch," she said, finally, focusing on what seemed to be Touma's real concern. "He's kind-hearted. You know that. Even if he really has problems with what you did, he wouldn't just…stop talking to you. He knows better than that."
"But he won't treat me the same anymore," Touma said, face still hidden. "How can he look at me the same way?"
Chiaki thought about that.
"That might be out of the question," she said, deciding that a lie, even a well-intentioned one, wasn't called for. "But who knows? Maybe he'll surprise you. You should have more faith in him."
"You think?" Touma asked, looking up again.
Her eyes were so full of hope that it stunned Chiaki.
This feeling…was it—was it jealousy?
Stop it! Chiaki thought to herself. What's wrong with you?
"Perhaps," she responded, a bit more hesitantly than she had intended.
She sat back down and grabbed Touma's far shoulder in a gesture of support.
"But you have to ready, just in case he doesn't," she said. "You should go talk to him, in the morning. Apologize, and see what his response is. But, uh, try not to seem this emotional. That's probably a good idea."
Touma nodded silently.
"Besides," Chiaki added. "Nothing about this says we have to change how we behave towards each other. Like I said, you can keep acting like a boy. I won't mind."
Touma turned slowly towards her, eyes disturbingly intense, their luminescence setting them apart from the rest of her face.
"Really?" she asked.
"Well, yes," Chiaki said, surprised by the depth of her reaction. "I mean it's not like we were doing this for Fujioka's sake or anything like that."
Touma turned away and nodded to herself.
"Yeah, that's right," she said. "That's right. And I can finally stop wearing these god-awful shirts."
Touma smiled stupidly.
"Yeah," Chiaki said, smiling slightly at Touma's awkward attempt at humor.
She wondered if Touma was really as uncomfortable as she seemed, or if she was just seeing things.
Of course she's uncomfortable! She thought. Think of the situation!
She thought of something.
"If you want," she said, advancing the idea as naturally as she could. "I can stay here for the night."
Instead of relaxing, Touma seemed to tense up.
"There's no need to be embarrassed," Chiaki added hastily. "It happens to all of us—we're still young enough. I mean, just the other day, I slept with Haruka, since Kana—"
"I don't see why not," Touma said, sounding uncertain.
Chiaki couldn't understand why Touma was so reluctant. Was she really that mortified about needing comfort? But she didn't really seem embarrassed…
"Yeah, I can't think of any reason why not," Touma repeated, a moment later.
"Well," Chiaki said, getting up again, suddenly uncomfortable herself, "get changed. It's really late. We should sleep."
Touma nodded slowly, grabbing her pajamas off the bed.
She hesitated, though, for a just a moment, before pulling off her shirt.
Somehow understanding the meaning behind the hesitation, Chiaki turned sharply, facing the curtained window.
She felt her cheek with her hand.
Hot with embarrassment, and presumably red.
Why? She thought. It's not as if she really is a boy. We've done this plenty of times!
Instead of turning around though, though, she walked up and held the curtain aside with her hand, looking outside at the moon and stars, finally following through on her earlier idea. The light poured in.
I'm working so hard at this, she thought. I really do care about her.
Of course I do! She thought. She's my friend! Probably my best friend. There's nothing wrong with wanting to keep my friends happy and with me!
To the point of orchestrating a two-week cram session? To the point of continuing such an elaborate game of pretend?
It's for Touma too! She insisted. So what if it might put off Fujioka? If she enjoys it, then why not?
She dropped the train of thought, dropping the curtain as well, putting the room back in greater darkness.
Why hadn't either of them turned on a light?
Well, it was too late to bother.
"I'm done," Touma said.
She turned back. It was time to sleep.
She eventually stopped trying to hug Touma or anything like that, even if it made both of them warmer. Touma didn't seem to like it, which was fair enough, she supposed. They hadn't exactly done this before, and Touma was probably used to being alone. She certainly kicked Chiaki enough times during the night to make it quite clear that she wasn't used to anyone else being there; Chiaki probably reciprocated in kind.
More than that, Chiaki realized she was forcing it, just a little. The easy physicality they had before—it wasn't so easy anymore.
When did this start happening? She wondered, lying awake.
For a couple of months now, she realized.
Well, that's stupid, she thought. There's absolutely no reason for it.
She resolved to reverse the trend.
Still, it wasn't worth trying again. It seemed…uncomfortable, almost like she didn't know what to do with her hands once they were there, and she was far too tired to fight it tonight.
As she had expected, Fujioka forgave Touma more or less immediately—or more accurately, was never that angry to start with. It was only natural; he spent his free time putting up with Kana's antics, after all. Once he had overcome the initial, he had probably taken it all as a matter of course.
She did her best to make good on her previous resolution, and Touma proved quite amenable to the change in policy, much to her relief. Perhaps she, too, had decided on something similar.
She didn't blame her after all.
Despite this, however, she initially decided to refrain from any more experimental attempts to discover whatever it is Haruka and Kana were keeping from her. Not after having been discovered kissing by Fujioka.
However, just a day after that trip to Yoshino's…
Chiaki looked up from her book—a history of the Napoleonic wars—at the sound of the front door slamming.
Kana was due home, but there was no reason for her to be so violent with the door.
Chiaki sighed, wondering what it was this time. Had Keiko aggravated her in some particularly irksome way? Across the table, she could see Haruka running through a similar train of thought.
"I can't believe him!" Kana muttered loudly, walking into the room and throwing her bag to the corner of the wall. "What—what could have possessed him to do something like that? What kind of demon? And to think he wouldn't do it the other day!"
Kana held arms to her head, switching instantly from anger to confusion, twisting her body back and forth.
"It's really happening," she said. "It's really happening. Why wasn't I ready? I set it up. Why wasn't I ready?"
The last time Chiaki had seen her anything like this, Chiaki thought, was when, out of nowhere, Kana had exploded at her for rather routinely calling her an idiot.
That had been scary.
Kana snapped her head left, then right, eyes wide, looking at both of them in turn as if she had only just noticed they were there.
The two of them looked back at her as if she had grown a second head right in front of them.
"What—what happened at school?" Haruka ventured shakily.
Kana's eyes darted around wildly. Despite all the crazy things that had happened in the past, Chiaki had never seen her quite this disheveled.
Finally, suddenly, Kana stopped, seeming to pull herself together.
"I'm going to get a glass of milk," she announced, gesturing at the kitchen with her thumb, then followed through on her words.
Haruka and Chiaki looked at each other, eyebrows raised, each hoping the other had some sort of insight into what was going on. No such luck.
Kana returned a few minutes later, aggressively wiping away a milk moustache with her sleeve.
She sat down with a thud, settling herself under the kotatsu. They watched her with naked curiosity.
Kana swallowed visibly.
"I…" she began.
Suddenly, she looked down, blushing more deeply than Chiaki had ever seen.
"Kana?" Chiaki asked, with more worry than she normally ever showed.
"It happened this morning," Kana said, sounding miserable, biting her sentences off sharply. "I don't know why I haven't gotten over it yet. I don't know. I decided I would tell you two immediately, but now…I can't do it. I thought I would act angry, but I couldn't keep it up. I…"
Haruka and Chiaki glanced at each other, once again.
"Alright, listen up!" Kana said, looking up suddenly, eyes defiant, face still red. "Fujioka and I have decided that we are going to be a couple, okay? You can stop looking at me like that! It's not that big a deal!"
In fact, they had been looking at Kana with only concern and confusion, but it seemed that from Kana's perspective, their stares had seemed overly inquisitive.
She and Haruka kept staring, though, momentarily dumbfounded.
A long while later, Haruka's face broke into an unusually goofy smile.
"Well, finally!" she said in a teasing tone, clapping mockingly at the performance. "I was wondering when you two would stop messing around. I mean, it's a bit early, but he's a good kid, and I've never really disapproved."
Kana said nothing, palms resting on the table, still blushing, seemingly out of energy, for once completely lost in a social situation.
"So have you told your friends?" Haruka asked, leaning forward.
"Shut up," Kana said weakly.
Wait a second, Chiaki thought.
Something happens at school, between the two of them, and it changes everything? This is it! This is what they've been hiding from me!
"Just what exactly happened?" she asked, turning and glaring at Kana as if she could use her eyes to drill the answer out of Kana.
"Nothing," Kana said, an obvious lie.
"Nevermind that," Haruka said, waving Chiaki's question aside with a hand.
Haruka eyes glanced at Chiaki, then immediately back to Kana. It was a look Chiaki recognized. It meant censorship was now in full effect.
"What happened, Kana? I demand to know!" Chiaki insisted, driving her fist in to the table with a loud thump.
Haruka cleared her throat, turning suddenly serious.
"Now that you two are nice and official," Haruka said, addressing Kana and ignoring Chiaki. "I'd—uh—"
Haruka stopped, losing her serious demeanor. Now Haruka was looking embarrassed.
"I'd like to remind you to—"
Another quick glance at Chiaki.
"—be careful, okay?" Haruka finished, making nervous hand gestures. "You know, things happen—"
"I got it!" Kana said, looking even more mortified than before, if that were possible. "I can take care of myself."
Chiaki looked back and forth between the two of them, realizing they were exchanging signals, in some sort of code she couldn't crack.
"Do you have to talk about this now?" Kana asked.
"What are you two talking about?" she asked again, without any real hope of an answer—she might as well as been beseeching an empty table, for all the attention they paid to her.
"Well, ah, I'm not any good at this," Haruka said, looking done and blushing slightly. "Maybe someday later, okay?"
"Yeah, maybe," Kana said, somehow managing to sound skeptical despite the embarrassment in her voice.
"Listen to me!" Chiaki demanded.
"Well, I'll go make some tea!" Haruka said, jumping up to do just that.
"And I should change out of my uniform," Kana added, pushing herself away from the table.
"You two—" Chiaki began, but the two of them had already evacuated the room.
What was particularly aggravating was that it had seemed like a golden chance to figure it all out, and instead the truth had remained maddeningly out of reach, sealed away as always by her sisters.
Eventually, the frustration at her previous lack of edification, and the curiosity, became too much. She took every precaution this time, locking the door whenever it looked like she might have a chance, and waited for her opportunity.
Two weeks later she asked Touma for another try at imitating what she had seen on TV. Once again, they came up empty-handed.
She kept at it, though. Partly because it seemed to make Touma more pensive and clingy than usual, which she liked, and partly because it was fun. Or so it seemed. It was hard to qualify, but that, she felt sure, was an important clue.
Despite all her caution, however, one more incident occurred…
It began innocuously enough.
"Why not?" Touma demanded, grabbing her by the shoulder.
"You know I hate being reminded how bad I am at athletics!" Chiaki said, shrugging her hand off roughly. "Watching you play soccer is definitely not something I would enjoy."
"Why are you so hung-up on this?" Touma asked. "It is in no way a reflection on you. You can't be good at everything!"
"Look," Chiaki responded, trying to sound reasonable. "I just don't want to be there all alone, watching—"
"Then bring more people!" Touma said, raising her hand in a gesture of exasperation. "Bring Uchida and Yoshino, I don't care! Why is this such a big deal?"
"I don't know!" Chiaki shot back, mimicking her word usage. "Why is this such a big deal? I mean, what's the big deal if I really don't see you play your cruddy soccer game?"
Chiaki bit her tongue, almost literally, but it was too late.
"Fine," Touma said, icily.
She turned away from Chiaki, not angry enough to actually leave, but clearly intending to spend the rest of her stay staring out the glass doors leading to their balcony.
Chiaki thought about it.
"Come on, Touma," she wheedled, draping herself onto Touma's back. "You know I didn't mean it. I just get angry easily."
Touma ignored her, looking away hastily, but Chiaki had gleaned just enough of her expression to know that she had judged correctly. Touma wasn't really that angry—she just wanted to put up a show of anger.
"Angry?" she asked patronizingly. "Furious?"
Touma stayed silent.
Chiaki had an idea.
Her face formed itself into a sinister expression. Had she been able to view herself in a mirror, she would have been able to see in her mischievous smile a striking similarity to Kana, a familial resemblance that was normally kept well-hidden.
She got off of Touma's back—then slid her hands under Touma's arms.
Touma lurched forward, sensing the danger—too late.
A long time ago, they had both discovered that they were very, very ticklish.
Within seconds she had Touma on the floor, incapacitated with laughter. She tried to roll over to escape, but Chiaki kept with it.
I have the advantage¸ she thought. She—
With a burst of strength, remarkable for someone who should have been disabled, Touma surged forward, grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her sideways.
Chiaki managed to grab Touma's left shoulder, using the weight of her own fall to turn her and keep her within arm's reach. But the counter-attack had begun. They were on an equal footing now.
"That's—that's unfair!" she managed to force out between bouts of laughter. "T—taking advantage of—"
She switched her left arm to defense, managing to catch Touma's forearm with her hand, holding on tightly. With her other hand, she attacked Touma's more exposed waist.
"St—still not ready to surrender?" Touma gasped out. "Then—"
Touma brought her left arm down, parried Chiaki's arm briefly away—and reached straight up the right side of her shirt, dragging part of the shirt up with her arm.
It was wholly unexpected, and wholly effective. She erupted with fresh bales of laughter.
She grabbed for Fujioka—the bear—and remembered, too late, that she no longer carried it around, now that she no longer needed it.
I—I'm losing, she thought desperately, her thoughts barely maintaining cohesion.
With her right arm, neglected and free after being batted away, she did what seemed to her the only remaining option.
She grabbed Touma's collar and pulled hard.
Touma, surprised by the maneuver, tried to brace herself, but collapsed forward anyway, her hand driving Chiaki's shirt up even higher.
Their lips landed right on each other.
This time, with the benefit of spontaneity, the flavor was entirely different. She looked up into Touma's shocked eyes, wondered briefly how Touma was interpreting this, then seemed to start losing the flow of her thoughts…
Fujioka's startled voice.
Touma jumped into a standing position with astounding alacrity, propelling herself with her arms. Chiaki sat bolt upright.
"Not again!" she agonized out loud.
This time, of course, she had neglected to lock the door, since, everything being unplanned, she hadn't anticipated any reason to do so.
Fujioka was blushing even deeper than he had the first time.
"Touma—" he began.
He stopped abruptly, and swallowed hard.
Abruptly, his expression morphed into one of surprising placidity.
"You guys sure get into quite the fights," he said, in the resigned manner typical of those thinking "There they go again!"
She let out a relieved breath.
Of course! Fujioka knows Touma's a girl now! No awkward conversation this time.
Fujioka sighed, rubbing the back of his head, while Touma found a convenient corner of the room to stare at.
"I clearly haven't learned my lesson about walking in here unannounced," he said.
"No, no, it's fine," Chiaki insisted, getting up and pulling him over to the kotatsu in her traditional fashion.
He really did make for a rather nice chair.
Later that night, Chiaki spotted Fujioka staring at Haruka from a distance, clearly thinking hard about something.
She intuited the reason, even if she didn't exactly understand.
"What are you planning?" she asked, sidling up to his side with deliberate suddenness.
He looked at her, surprised.
"What do you—" he began.
She reached up and grabbed his shoulder.
"Please don't say anything," she said, voice hard but quiet, to avoid raising anyone's attention. "It was an accident."
Fujioka eyed her carefully, showing a surprising amount of firmness.
"Was it really?" he asked skeptically.
"Even if it wasn't," she argued, realizing he probably couldn't be convinced of that, "What does it matter? You know now that Touma is a girl. It couldn't be more than a game anyway."
That much she did understand, or thought she did.
Fujioka looked at her a little longer.
"Alright," he said. "Alright."
He returned to the main room, thinking that it was really unforgiveable that Haruka had yet to give Chiaki the "strange things" talk, and that he really, seriously, for certain this time, needed to tell Haruka to get to it.
He would do it tomorrow.
For her part, Chiaki stood in the hallway a little longer, before walking over to help Haruka with the dishes.
"This is kind of an awkward question," she began the next day, tentatively.
"What is it?" Touma asked, looking at her curiously, carefully cropped hair giving her demeanor the illusion of boyishness.
"I've always sort of wondered," she said. "Am I attractive? You know, is my face good looking?"
Touma snorted derisively.
"Isn't it a bit early to be wondering about something like that?" she asked dismissively, peering at Chiaki's face nonetheless.
But then she looked away, perhaps sensing that the question was meant seriously.
"Yeah," she said. "I don't know why you wouldn't think so."
"I see," Chiaki answered blandly.
It was only a short while later that Haruka did indeed give her "the talk", after she demanded the answers out of her.
It could have gone more ideally, since Haruka was, as it turned out, very drunk. That had its advantages though, as Kana pointed out later—even she had had no idea just how much knowledge Haruka had compiled on the subject, by sheer virtue of being older, and without the facilitating influence of alcohol, they may never have found out. It was probably also because Haruka was drunk that she did not deflect their questions, as she was wont to do.
For Chiaki and Touma, it was as enlightening as it was supposed to be. Finally, all their questions answered! Though it was rather…less elegant than Chiaki had been expecting. There was no need anymore, however, for experimentation.
And so they stopped.
Chiaki could not deny, however, a certain urge to try it again. Was it some form of strange nostalgia?
A while later, however, Touma requested that the three of them help her buy a new set of shirts. It was fun, spending a whole day at the local shopping center, since Chiaki enjoyed such trips— even if Touma didn't really seem to.
Beforehand, Haruka had made lavish comments regarding how glad she was that Touma was growing up and setting aside her boyish manner of dress—only to be sorely disappointed when Touma insisted on buying more or less the same styles as before, just in different sizes.
Chiaki avoided being fooled. She knew that the reason Touma wanted new clothing was purely practical—Touma had spent the past two years buying nothing but oversized shirts capable of disguising her gender from Fujioka. Consequently, her closet was filled with clothes that were either way too big, or old, and therefore way too small. She made do with T-shirts from her soccer team and things like that, but that had begun to get ridiculous.
Plus, the T-shirts were starting to get visibly tight about the chest.
Still, Chiaki felt it rather irksome to have suggestion after suggestion of hers rejected by Touma. I mean, why ask them to help her shop if she was just going to ignore what they said? And was the pink shirt really that bad? Chiaki had really liked it…
Though she supposed anything beat shopping with those brothers of hers.
A week later, they made the same trip again, at Haruka's insistence. This time, Kana stayed home, and Natsuki came instead.
Not that he was any help, taking full advantage of the first excuse to flee the area. She supposed she couldn't blame him. Indeed, it would have been strange if he wanted to stay, considering that it was Haruka's intention to drag Touma through the paces of buying her first set of bras.
Chiaki was there because it seemed like she should be, though she didn't appreciate Haruka's repeated hints that her own turn was coming soon enough.
I get it already! she had thought.
She wasn't very much help either, honestly. She had been so disturbed by the criterion she had started out using—picture Touma wearing it, then decide if it was good—that she had elected to stop trying to choose anything at all.
All in all, it had been rather…strange.
Still, she grew gradually more relaxed as the days passed. Their relationship was improving, she thought, and that was good.
And as quickly as that, February arrived.
How do I always get suckered into these making these damn chocolates? Chiaki thought glumly, leaning on her bed, waiting for the objects in question to cool in the refrigerator.
However it was that Kana kept maneuvering her into doing this, this was the fourth-year running she had done this, and it was practically a tradition at this point.
How annoying, she thought.
She turning a mandarin orange over and over in her hand, regarding its smooth skin.
Still, it wasn't all bad, she mused. Haruka always appreciated her gifts. And Mako-chan. Mako-chan definitely deserved something this year.
Touma, however, was a new recipient. She wasn't generally in the habit of handing out chocolates to friends, but Touma was going to be an exception this year. She was a good friend and…
Chiaki thought about what had happened the past year, remembered the time they had spent at Yoshino's villa.
…a "boy", right? Touma would probably appreciate the gesture. One more brick in the wall, one more of the ties that bind.
Chiaki wrinkled her nose at the thought. Was it always necessary to think of things that way?
But she had made four sets, and was still debating with herself whether her initial intention for the fourth was really a good idea.
The door to her room opened, but she didn't bother looking at her doorway. She knew who it was, after all. No one was visiting, Haruka was out…
"So who are they for this year, Chiaki?" Kana asked.
Chiaki started tossing the orange into the air in a game of catch with herself. It was an expression of just how much she cared for Kana's presence.
"Wouldn't you like to know, miss 'I buy my chocolates at the supermarket.'?" she asked, feeling in the mood to tweak Kana.
"Hey, I spent good money on those things!" Kana responded automatically.
That was followed by moment of silence, punctuated by the "thump!" of the orange landing once more in Chiaki's hand. She didn't bother looking to see what Kana's face looked like.
She sensed, rather than saw, Kana approach her.
"Aww…" Kana said mockingly, deciding on her tack for the conversation. "Hime-chan is too upset to tell me who she has her eyes on this Valentines Day. It's okay, I won't tell—"
Chiaki sat bolt upright, leveling a finger at Kana.
"You—!" she began.
She was interrupting by the orange landing squarely on the crown of her head, bouncing only slightly before rolling off.
Kana caught it adroitly in her right hand, sitting down next to her.
"I told you to never call me that," Chiaki said with annoyance, having lost the force of her tirade in her orange-induced cringe.
"So you have," Kana said, industriously starting to peel the orange, making a show of ignoring her.
Chiaki frowned. She would never get any peace unless she gave in.
"Haruka, Touma, and Mako-chan," Chiaki said impatiently, attempting to push Kana off the bed. "Happy? Now get out."
"Really?" Kana said, arching an eyebrow. "How boring. So are you going to eat the fourth one?"
Of course she looked, Chiaki thought. But she knows better than to steal any. Not after the poison chocolate two years ago.
She smiled slightly at the thought.
"Well, are you?" Kana asked again, narrowing her eyes, probably having read Chiaki's mind.
"You certainly can't eat it," Chiaki said. "If that's what you're wondering. Now if we're done, why don't you go back to watching TV? Isn't one of your shows on?"
"I see how it is," Kana said, still not getting up. "No kindness towards your sister, huh?
She popped a slice of orange into her mouth, then offered Chiaki half. Chiaki took it, ignoring Kana's implied comparison, worried by the generosity. Ordinarily, Kana would have no compunction about eating the whole thing, even if she had stolen it from Chiaki. She watched Kana eat the rest of her half whole.
"Then who is it for?" Kana asked, once she was finished chewing.
Chiaki looked at her.
"You know what I'm talking about," Kana said.
"Nobody," Chiaki snapped.
Kana smiled insidiously.
"Nobody, huh?" she said. "Well, I can understand that. I myself have given plenty of chocolate to 'Nobody'. But might I make a suggestion?"
"No you may not," Chiaki said.
"Makoto," Kana said, ignoring her as a matter of course. "He's been looking pretty lonely nowadays. I suggest he needs a bit of cheering up. He really enjoyed your gift last year, by all accounts. He still has it, you know."
Of course he does, Kana thought, as an aside. He knows very well it was dropped on the floor.
Chiaki snorted dismissively.
"Him? That baka-yaro?"
"Remember what I said last year," Kana said, waving her hand. "It doesn't matter who you give it to, as long as you give it to someone."
"Uh-huh," Chiaki responded skeptically, crossing her arms, having learned over the past year that it was anything but that innocuous.
"Besides," Kana added. "Isn't it cruel of you? Making him do all that to be in the same school as you, and then ignoring him for all these months? Well, almost ignoring. You can tell him it's a delayed thank you."
Chiaki considered it.
"Hmm," Chiaki said, wondering why Kana was pushing so hard for this. "If I listened to you, there won't be any extra chocolate for you. You sure you're okay with that?"
Kana's eyes widened suddenly.
Wait, she really didn't think of that? Chiaki thought.
"Wait, let's not be so hasty," Kana said, with ironic urgency. "We already had a party for them last year. There's no need to thank him again."
"Nope," Chiaki rejected suddenly, getting up and tossing her half of the orange into Kana's lap, making her decision then and there. "It's too late now. You had your chance."
"Wait!" Kana said, "Chiaki—"
But Chiaki was already walking out the door, wiping her hands against each other in a metaphorical gesture.
A moment later, Kana smiled triumphantly.
Good old reverse psychology, Kana thought.
She mused a moment longer.
Though I'm going to have to see if I can pry one of the chocolates off of "Mako-chan" later. It isn't fair that he gets two! Ah, who am I kidding—I'll never get it out of him.
It's always fun messing with Kana, Chiaki thought, walking down the hallway. But that's an interesting excuse she provided. Thank you chocolates, or…apology chocolates? Yes, that'll work well.
And he has been rather quieter and less of an idiot lately. Should probably reward that.
She dwelled on it a bit more, just in case she was missing something.
It's settled then, she thought, opening the refrigerator to look at her four chocolates, mentally relating who they are for and why.
Haruka, for sacrificing so much for me.
Mako-chan, for being a reliable senpai.
Makoto, for listening to me a bit more nowadays.
Touma, for being such a good "boy". For being such a good brother.
Her lip twitched slightly at "brother".
Well, it was only a game anyway.
Just a game.
Author's Note: I'll admit I've had a bit of trouble in the past writing things from Chiaki's perspective, which if why I haven't done it much. But I think I like this formulation: simultaneously paranoid and naïve, but trying her best to be deliberative and methodical…and most importantly, not the most reliable of narrators, even (perhaps especially when) talking directly to herself.
Touma and Chiaki form the most physical of the three groupings, primarily due to Makoto's influence in the other ones. Whether he is more pure-hearted than the others, or just a bit less mature, he gives everything he's involved in a different flavor. And while there is a bit of tension with Touma and Makoto, Makoto and Chiaki have been hamstrung too long by the Mako-chan dichotomy for anything like that to emerge, at least not initially.
I have a lot to think about in terms of revising Patterns…
Speaking of which, I was supposed to revise chapter three first, but didn't remember until I had this half-written. Ah, well.
Besides continued revision, next up will be the conclusion to the Yoshino and Uchida omake for Patterns. The reason for this is because I have more or less accidentally thought through the entire plot, and so I might as well put it down while it's fresh. It's…more epic than I originally expected it to be.