Author's note: So I wrote myself into a bit of a corner regarding Yoshino and Uchida. Essentially, I am forced to talk about certain things more or less point-blank. The extremely obvious innuendo stops after the third scene, I swear…

Update: 8/13/2011: So I completely flubbed Yoshino's age. She should be fifteen… It doesn't affect much.

"Are you sure about this?" Uchida asked, looking at the bottle in her hand skeptically. Her hair, down for the night, still wet from the shower, tangled itself behind her back as she half-sat, half-knelt on Yoshino's bed.

"Come on!" Yoshino insisted. "Haven't you ever been curious?"

Uchida's eyes narrowed.

"We just have to not drink too much," Yoshino added. "As long as we're careful, we'll be fine."

Others, in Uchida's position, might have been shocked at such a radical departure from the "goodie two-shoes" demeanor Yoshino projected most of the time, especially at school.

Uchida had, however, known Yoshino far too long to be shocked at something like this.

"How did you even get your hands on any of this?" she asked probingly. "Obviously you can't just go into a store and buy it, and you'd have to sneak it past like twelve servants on the way here."

Yoshino looked into the corner of the room, an affected gesture of duplicity.

"I have my ways," she said mysteriously.

Uchida grunted with annoyance.

"Oh, come off it," she said, leaning forward, expression serious. "Just tell me."

Yoshino turned her head back down, looking right back into those wide, cute eyes of hers.

"Not until you agree to drink some," Yoshino said firmly.

Uchida pursed her lips, like Yoshino knew she would.

"Fine," Uchida said, peeved, giving in. "It wasn't like I wasn't going to. You're always so mean—so adamant about these things!"

But you're so cute when you're mad, Yoshino thought.

She kept that particular thought to herself.

Uchida swiped a cup off the sidetable, far more roughly than was necessary, extracting it from in between another cup and an extra bottle of sake.

Yoshino winced. That was exactly the kind of gesture liable to knock everything off the table, shatter the glass, and cause a scene. Sure, Uchida's clumsiness was one of her charm points, but Yoshino would rather it not come up just now.

Fortunately, Uchida thrust the glass outward without incident, pointedly looking away from her, in a gesture of feigned uncaring.

"Well, hurry up, let's get this over with," Uchida said.

Yoshino pulled the cap off the bottle she was holding—a cap she had opened with a bottle opener just a little while earlier—and poured. She herself had no fear of spilling anything.

"It wasn't really that hard," Yoshino commented, bringing the bottle upright and getting off the bed to walk over to the table.

"The servants always hold a party, this time of year," she continued, pouring herself a cup. "Two actually; Christmas and New Years. Long tradition—I'm surprised you don't already know."

"Stop stalling!" Uchida demanded, glaring at her.

"I'm not stalling," Yoshino said, setting the bottle down. "That's pretty much it. I swiped one when they weren't looking and hid it in my bag. Played the violin a little to distract them. Took two trips. Easy."

"Well, of course, if you do it like that," Uchida said, annoyed by how easy it had been.

Yoshino sat down, picked up her own cup, and made an exaggerated facial expression.

"Cheers, then?" she asked, raising her eyebrows.

Uchida stifled a laugh, successfully turning it into a mere puff of air.

"And my parents think you're the epitome of a good girl," Uchida commented. "If only they knew."

She made sure to add extra sarcastic emphasis to "epitome".

Uchida started the raise the glass, but stopped halfway.

"Speaking of which…" Uchida added, gesturing at the doorway with her eyes.

"There's no risk," Yoshino reassured. "She's started drinking a little at these events, the past couple of years, so she'll be sound asleep. She probably won't even notice if we stay up. Probably."

Uchida narrowed her eyes again.

Yoshino shrugged dismissively.

"So it's a little bit of a risk. Could be worse. Come on."

They struck glasses, and drank, carefully at first.

A short while later, Yoshino opened her eyes, exhaling slightly.

She watched the ceiling for a moment.

This particular dream always gave her mixed feelings. It wasn't that it was a bad dream; it was that just that it inspired certain feelings of guilt, since it was based on past events.

Suffice to say, the New Year's festival the day after had been rather awkward.

Still, though, a bit of hurried cleaning up had prevented any prying maids from seeing anything untoward. Just as importantly, she had managed, with time, to convince an amnesia-plagued Uchida to dismiss the whole incident as surely a misunderstanding. She had never before been so thankful for alcohol's ability to suppress memory. All-in-all, it was as if nothing had ever happened.

Except that she herself remembered everything, and therein lay the rub.

After the initial shock of discovery, she had found herself afflicted by the memories, unable to stop thinking about it, dreaming about it at night, barely able to sleep whenever they shared the same bed. It staggered her, that something like that would be not only something she wanted, but also something she couldn't deny herself.

In the end, she couldn't take it.

She knew it could never have happened if they hadn't wanted it to. That was a key point, a monumental fact, one she tried to draw on for the strength to speak, to confront the lie she had given earlier.

Three months later, in the middle of their marathon study session, she gave it her first and only shot.

She had directed the topic carefully to her desired destination, starting with one of Uchida's favorite topics: puerile gossip about boys. She was quite sure Uchida had no intention of acting on any of their observations of cuteness, nor really thought about the topic in any particularly deep manner. It was just something she probably felt was an expected topic of conversation, something to talk about—and she definitely enjoyed talking. So did Yoshino, for that matter.

Then Yoshino had channeled the conversation, ever so subtly, toward Touma. Surely, she asserted, Uchida had detected a certain strangeness in the girl's behavior…

To her surprise, Uchida caught the hint more or less immediately. Yes, it was obvious, Uchida agreed, but she wondered if either of the two involved had any idea; Uchida didn't think so, and Yoshino was inclined to agree.

They discoursed on this topic a while longer, and then Yoshino followed through with another slight diversion of topic:

"So what do you think about…things like that?" She asked. "You know…with girls? What if Touma really…did something?"

Uchida thought only briefly.

"I wouldn't stop being her friend or anything like that, if that's what you're wondering," Uchida said, then stopped to think a bit more.

"Though," Uchida continued, hesitantly. "I almost think it would be better if she never noticed. If they never noticed. If she did, she'd go right for it—you know how she is. But…it'd be hard. You know what I'm saying. What about you?"

"I think more or less the same way," Yoshino said, which was true. "I just think it's interesting that…"

She stopped there, and Uchida watched her, and she would have given anything to make those eyes stop boring into her soul.

"Well, I mean," she tried again. "What if…"

She looked up, at that innocent, unsuspecting face, watching her curiously, clueless about what she was trying to suggest.

I can't do it, she thought. I can't. Not to her. Not to Yuka.

I can't ruin it.

"No, nothing," she amended hastily. "Just a silly thought. Nothing important."

But though she had dropped the topic, she had been so desperate, and depressed, and despairing, and lonely, that the contradiction between her feelings and actions was unbearable. It hurt so much, being so close…

In her despondence, she had committed the sin, reaching again for the sake.

An accident was one thing. To perform the same feat again, deliberately, hiding the evidence, making absolutely sure Uchida would forget…

She had woken up that morning, again remembering every detail, remembering the pangs of guilt that had accompanied every action she had taken, feeling like the worst kind of scum. She almost confessed then and there, but found in the end that the guilt wasn't quite strong enough for that. Instead, she suffered in silence, Uchida watching her with those amnesiac eyes, wondering why she looked so distressed that morning.

In the end, the guilt lasted six months, and then she had—

No. No more of this. I'll drive myself crazy if I think it over every damn time.

Closing her eyes, she rested her head on the pillow, listening to the quiet, measured breathing next to her.

Seven times in three years. She kept an exact count.

Three years of fearing discovery, constantly fearing that some tic, some overlooked piece of clothing, would give her away. Three years on the rack, cursed by her memory, unwilling to forget, unwilling to stop, unwilling to break Uchida's innocence by telling the truth. Three years, and she still couldn't bring herself to confess the sin, even after others had already led the way. Not Yuka. Not her.

She wished she had never come up with that stupid idea with the alcohol. Then nothing would have ever happened, and they could have lived on, the best of friends, and nothing else. She would never have had to discover what others had surely already noticed, that all their fights, all their banter—it all resonated with something far deeper.

That, in the end, was the only possible justification. The fact was, they both wanted it—and this she had extensive experimental evidence of.

She smiled painfully. Yesterday night had been another close call, but in the end she had managed to refrain, thankfully enough. The last thing she needed was for both of them to be hung-over at her own fifteenth birthday party.

Which was today, and she should already be up.

She opened her eyes again, blinking to clear them of their bleariness. She didn't need the clock to know what time it was.

Yoshino turned her head to look at Uchida's face, blissful with sleep, framed by long hair that extended around her head and neck, and downward, winding and tangling around the curves of her nightgown. Rather recent curves, as she well knew, but still quite substantial.

As she watched, Uchida shifted and muttered something unintelligible, obeying the dictates of her dreams.

She sighed, thinking once more of the future.

Well, whatever.

Yoshino reached over and grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Time to get up, Yuka."

"Good morning, mistress," Nakanawa greeted, passing her in the hallway, carrying in her capable hands what appeared to be, of all things, a heavy box full of lightbulbs.

"Good morn—" Yoshino began automatically, before nearly doing a full double-take.

"Nakanawa," she addressed, a moment later, causing the maid to stop and turn her head slightly.

"Yes, mistress?" the maid asking, looking at her, the slightest of amusement lines showing on the edge of the eye that faced her.

"Who put you up to this?" Yoshino demanded, skipping right to the point.

"Up to what?" Nakanawa asked innocently.

Yoshino made what she thought was a fiercer expression, aware that the pajamas she was wearing took at least some of the fire out of it.

"Right, then," she said imperiously, not trying to argue the faked innocence. "Well, Nakanawa-san, if you happen to see Arisawa, tell him I will get him for this."

"Oh, I'm sure he's shaking in his boots, mistress," the maid responded, humor leaking into her tone at the repeated use of the offending word.

"Then I wonder how he fancies a drive down yonder congested freeway," Yoshino mused openly. "I'm feeling a fancy for cupcakes."

"Already have them, mistress," the maid said, placing the box carefully on the floor and turning to face her. "Special delivery, yesterday. In the kitchen."

Damn, Yoshino thought, watching Nakanawa's amused expression.

"Will there be anything else?" the maid asked, with seemingly unimpeachable courtesy.

"And I suppose the pudding has arrived too," Yoshino said drily.

"Most definitely," the maid responded, bowing slightly.

She paused, though, before adding:

"You should really give the kitchen staff a chance, though. The cook swears up and down he's got the recipe down this time. It must be demoralizing for him, being unable to satisfy all your food needs."

"I will believe that when I taste it," Yoshino said, ignoring her hint as to the chef's feelings. Defeat rankled.

"Carry on then," she added, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture. "I'll get my vengeance some other way."

She started to turn away, but Nakanawa had more to say.

"While I'm here," the maid said, bending over to pick the box back up. "Will Uchida-san be needing anything this fine morning?"

She was being quite courteous, referring to the current time as "morning".

Yoshino shook her head.

"You know how it is," she instructed. "If you have some extra time, make sure to 'check up' on the room, and be 'dismayed' if it turns out she is asleep again when you make your unnecessarily loud way in."

She made quotation mark gestures with one hand, even though it wasn't really necessary.

"Will do, Yo-chan," the maid said, returning briefly to her traditional nickname for Yoshino, the one she tolerated only because the woman had been using it for nearly as long as Yoshino had been alive.

The lightbulbs clattered against each other as she made her way off.

Yoshino suppressed a grimace and continued on her own way.

I think I preferred 'ojou-sama' to that particular nickname, she thought.

She paused to consider that.

No, on second thought, I really don't. And if she's doing it, so are all the others…

She stopped in the middle of the hallway, and then made a decision, turning on her heels almost as precisely as a parade-ground soldier.

You know what? I don't need to see the preparations yet. I can take my shower first. I do not want to deal with this, not this early in the, er, afternoon.

She didn't typically take showers after getting up, but it seemed like a good idea for today, since she might be too busy later to have the time. She could honestly say she had planned that out yesterday night; it was not just an excuse.

She ran into her de-facto mother on the threshold of her doorway, clearly preparing to knock loudly and yell something about what time it was.

"Oh, so you're up," the woman said, looking at her with mild surprise.

Yoshino regarded her. Medium-length hair tied back in a sensible ponytail, eyes firm and bright, with features reasonably attractive, as yet mostly untouched by age. Twenty-nine this year, though Yoshino knew better than to dare mention that to anyone.

Nineteen years old, she must have been, when Yoshino first met her. That was simple math, and Yoshino wondered what could have motivated a girl like that to give up her youth for something like this. Financial considerations, she knew, were part of it.

Whatever the reasons, she was glad she had.

The woman in question peered critically at Yoshino's hair.

"Don't tell me—" she began.

"No, I don't intend to go the day like this," Yoshino said, anticipating the thought. "I'm on my way to wash my hair right now. I mean, I'm still in my nightdress. Obviously I'm not ready yet."

"Okay," the woman said, nodding with satisfaction. "And Yuka-chan, is she—"

"Yes, she's up," Yoshino said. "Or she will be when I'm through with her."

"I'm up already! Geez!"

Uchida stuck her head out through the gap between the two doors, aggravated and bleary, her hair the very definition of frazzled morning hair.

She blanched slightly when the two of them pinned her with identical glares.

"Fine, I'll go change," she said, sheepily withdrawing back behind the door.

Yoshino nodded at her mother and followed Uchida in.

"I swear the two of you are secretly related," Uchida commented as she walked by.

"Mhm," Yoshino said, turning her head to look at Uchida unbuttoning her shirt. "Whatever you say."

She watched for just a moment longer than necessary, then swung open the bathroom door and stepped in.

"I'll be in the shower if you need me," she announced off-hand.

"'kay," Uchida said, just as casually.

She stared up into the showerhead, heedless of the water impinging on her eyes.

After a long internal debate, she held up her hand and stared at it briefly.

Well, let's make it quick, she thought.

When she got out of the shower, a light breakfast of toast, jam, and tea waited for her by the door.

She changed into her outfit for the day, something a little dressy, but nothing formal, then munched on the toast while she waited for Uchida to finish brushing her teeth. Afterwards, she helped Uchida to brush her unruly hair, musing on the virtues of shorter, lower-maintenance hair. She spared Uchida that argument today, however.

Besides, she admitted, longer hair was more fun—some of the time, at least.

As she sat there, watching Uchida drink the last of her tea, she reflected that if it weren't for Uchida, she would never have appreciated any of it. More accurately, she would never have noticed any of it.

Food waiting for her at the door, beds readymade for her every night, a chauffeur at her beck and call, being able to buy whatever trinket caught her fancy—all of it would have been completely invisible, as natural as breathing.

Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely true. When she had been younger, her mother had made a studious effort to inculcate in her all the proletarian virtues: making her own bed, getting up early, washing the occasional set of dishes, cleaning her own room.

As she had long suspected, however, the intention had been strictly to teach her a lesson, not in the serious expectation that she would do any of that in the future. As she had gotten older, and her mother had become satisfied that she had internalized the point, such tasks had fallen by the wayside, one by one. It wasn't as if she were really too lazy to do it, after all.


She eyed her discarded night clothes, hung haphazardly on a towel rack in the bathroom, with unease.

Abandoning Uchida's hair for the moment, she got up, walked over, and collected her pajamas off the rack. She then walked back and tossed them on the small table by the door intended for laundry. Finally, she walked over to crawl back onto her bed.

Having a big room had certain disadvantages.

When she returned, Uchida raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Why not?" Yoshino asked dismissively, shrugging.

For all that some might think of Uchida as childish, she had always maintained a certain baseline when it came to exploiting Yoshino's hospitality. For instance, she wouldn't have sat around eating toast in bed if Yoshino weren't personally there to set the example.

Well, at least not now that she was older.

"What are you thinking about, all quiet like that?" Uchida asked, turning her head slightly, restrained by her own hair, held firmly in Yoshino's grasp.

"I'm just thinking about how lazy I would have become, without you," she responded, more or less truthfully.

Uchida thought about that.

"You're not lazy," Uchida reassured.

"Exactly," she explained.

Again, Uchida couldn't turn her head to face her, but she could sense the curious look she would have received otherwise.

She hadn't formulated it precisely when she said it, of course. It wasn't that Uchida had stopped her from being lazy—that was her mother, probably. It wasn't even that she had taught her that most children lived differently from her; she had always understood that, intellectually.

It was that, without Uchida, she would never have internalized the main point: that she was privileged, and that every time, as a child, she had lamented how different she was from the rest of them, she was making a mockery of them. It was selfish, to have so much, and still expect to be accepted so easily.

Perhaps things would have been easier had she adapted to her first school, full of wealthy brats, ready-made peers for her, but she hadn't, and that, as they say, was history.

With a sharp tug, she finished Uchida's second pigtail.

Uchida exclaimed painfully, then snapped her head around to glare at her.

"Sorry," she said, holding up her hands apologetically, realizing she had used far more force than was necessary.

"Geez," Uchida said, rubbing the back of her head. "It's just tying a knot."

"I was thinking about stuff," Yoshino explained.

Uchida gave her an inquiring look, but Yoshino didn't endeavor to explain herself.

"If we're done here," she said, getting up and gesturing with her thumb. "Let's go."

Uchida nodded.

On the way to the kitchen, she took extra care to stay out of the vision of anyone who might sneak up on her and call her "ojou-sama". Uchida sensed her nervousness, but said nothing. It could be anything, after all.

The customary kitchen staff of one chef and two assistants would, she knew, be augmented for the day by the groundskeeper and one of the maids, whose jobs were not very time-sensitive. They were not particularly good as helpers, but were at least competent enough to chop and wash things, which was good enough.

Nowadays, the chef was generally kind enough to humor Yoshino's newest self-improvement project: learning to cook. Flattered but clearly skeptical of the idea, the man shook his head disapprovingly and rattled off criticisms every time she made anything, hovering over her constantly.

Meanwhile, of course, her friends were pleased as punch at whatever she made. She didn't put much stock in that, however: what else are friends for?

Once, she had endeavored to ask one of the assistants for her opinion.

"It's not bad, really," the female assistant had said. "The old bastard nitpicks everything. He holds everyone to an impossible standard. I wouldn't be too worried."

That had heartened her, but then the assistant had continued:

"Though he's right about some things," she added. "You really aren't any good at judging saltiness. Just stick with the measuring spoons, and don't try to season by taste; that's probably the best idea."

That had stung.

Regardless, however, Yoshino would not be helping today. The chef unconditionally refused to let her do a thing on any special occasion, a category in which he included New Year's, Christmas, Tanabata, any of the days of Golden Week, several holidays she had never even heard of, anyone except Uchida visiting, and, of course, Yoshino's birthday. Pressed for a reason, the overweight man would always sigh and intone in that slight foreign accent of his:

"A truly busy kitchen is not a suitable place for a young girl such as yourself. Perhaps someday."

Personally, she was sure it had more to do with his pride as household chef, or something like that.

This would just be a visit, then, which she knew pleased Uchida, who didn't have very much fun standing around watching her. Uchida herself the cook had banned from helping after that incident with the noodles.

When she opened the door, the female assistant, busy decorating a set of cookies, looked her straight in the face, grimaced, and said sharply:

"Sir, she's here!"

—with just a slight note of panic.

The chef looked up from taste-testing a pot full of cloudy liquid, and made an appalled expression.

"You two!" he bellowed across the room, not at Yoshino and Uchida, but at someone in the unseen corner of the room.

"I told you to hide that thing an hour ago! Why is it not already done?" he barked. "Do it now!"

"But sir," the groundskeeper's voice returned tremulously. "You said the rice rolls had to be cut, and then you said to wash—"

"No excuses!" he overrode with the autocratic authority of a head chef. "Get it out of here now!"

Of course, the man never talked to Yoshino like that. She felt sorry for the poor groundskeeper.

Naturally wanting to see what was going on, Uchida leaned forward to try and look in the corner.

Yoshino, responding instantly, covered Uchida's eyes and dragged her bodily out of the room.

"Don't look," she whispered loudly. "It's rude."

"What—" Uchida began, grabbing at Yoshino's arm with her hand.

"It's the cake," Yoshino said, the door closing behind her. "It has to be. You know how he is about that thing. It has to be a secret from the rest of us, and so forth. We'll just wait."

"Oh, right. That thing," Uchida said, ceasing her struggles to escape. "Of course. Can you let go of my eyes now?"

She did so, and they waited a reasonable amount of time before opening the door again.

"Mistress, what brings you here?" the chef asked, now standing in the doorway, barring passage. As might be expected, the vowels in "ojou-sama" sounded a little strange.

"Ojou-sama?" Uchida repeated incredulously.

Yoshino winced with deliberate conspicuity.

"Not you too?" she asked pleadingly.

The man grinned toothily.

"Ah, we agreed upon it, behind the Boss's back. You see, you're bringing all your little friends here. We're going to make a show of it."

The "boss" referred not to her, but instead to her mother.

Yoshino took a moment to sharply elbow Uchida, who had started quietly guffawing to herself about the concept of Yoshino being called "ojou-sama", before looking up again.

"Anyway, why are you here?" he asked. "I made it clear—"

"We are just here to observe briefly," she interrupted.

"But—" he persevered.

"Just for a few minutes, okay?" she insisted. "We won't touch a thing."

The chef looked at them suspiciously, but moved aside to let them through.

"In that corner," he ordered, pointing. "Where you won't be underfoot."

They shifted into position.

"Why do you want to watch anyway?" Uchida asked, tugging at one of her pigtails.

"Hush," Yoshino said, peering intently at the kitchen staff walking around.

Uchida made a dissatisfied noise, but didn't argue.

Ten minutes later, one of the maids showed up at the door, carrying multiple bags full of foodstuffs. She was the one who shuttled groceries, ran errands, and did whatever required a car, but wasn't at Yoshino's direct request. She logged far more miles than Arisawa ever did.

It seemed as good a time as any. She said something encouraging to all of them, they mumbled various distracted acknowledgements, and the two of them left, exiting via a different door.

She chose not to use the door to the dining room, which she knew would be full of servants.

"I have to show some interest, after all," Yoshino explained, as they strode down the well-carpeted hallway. "I don't want them thinking I'm the kind of person to ask for a bigger party, and then just hang around in my room without caring about the preparations."

"But isn't that what you're supposed to do?" Uchida pointed out. "I mean, what are you doing anyway, walking around performing inspections and making them all nervous? It's not like you're contributing anything."

"I helped plan," Yoshino defended, glancing at her, eyes gliding over one of the paintings on the wall.

"Besides," she added, looking forward again. "I am curious. It's my own birthday party. I want to make sure everything is like I wanted. It'd probably be strange not to micromanage everything—not that I am, mind you."

She paused.

"And it'd be a little awkward if I just stayed away for the whole day, since that's not what I normally do. I thought I'd get them off-guard by showing up in my nightclothes, since I do that sometimes, but I changed my mind. I was trying to be a little different."

It was a convoluted explanation, and she knew it. Uchida looked at her skeptically, but dropped the topic, much to her relief.

"I can't believe you chose those ugly decorations," Uchida pouted, smoothly changing subjects. "The ones I suggested were much better!"

She gestured with her hands to make it clear what she meant.

"Your taste is atrocious," Yoshino responded, point-blank, not even looking where she was pointing. "Despite what you seem to think, I can't have pink little girl stuff forever."

It was by that point an old quarrel for the two of them.

Uchida harrumphed, insulted, and looked around at her surroundings one more time.

The decorations had begun slowly morphing away from their previous forms, to suit Yoshino's treasonous new ideas. The rate of decay had increased, she noted. It depressed Uchida just looking at it.

Then, suddenly, they were in the main room, a butler opening the door in front of her.

Yoshino kept her face blank in the face of a barrage of "ojou-sama"s, elbowed Uchida for good measure, then walked onward, dispensing various platitudes to those she met on the way.

She stopped in front of one of the maids, having spotted her setting up balloons in the wrong room—something worth correcting.

"Balloons in the dining room," she said, once she had her attention.

"Really, mistress?" the maid asked, pursing her lips, despite everything not forgetting the newfound honorific. "But I was instructed—"

"Probably a mistake," Yoshino said, suppressing a twinge of annoyance at her complicity in the conspiracy.

She tilted her head upwards to look at the taller woman.

"If you don't mind—" she began.

She stopped abruptly, spotting her target for the day through the wide window, strolling down one of the numerous paths that crisscrossed the grounds, unaware he had been spotted.

"Actually," she requested, switching gears. "Do you mind getting our jackets first?"

She rapidly sought the nearest door leading out, jammed her feet into the proffered boots, and emerged out onto the snow-covered grounds. Navigating with deliberate speed, she advanced along the carefully-cleared path, up to the gazebo groaning under the weight of snow, then turned right to walk under the two rows of bare-limbed trees. She stalked her prey, tugging Uchida along the whole way, heedless of the puffs of condensation that emanated from her face and the icy wind that bit at her cheeks.

Eventually, Uchida deducing the goal of the expedition and stopped noisily questioning Yoshino, adapting her fast walk to be as stealthy as possible on the stone path.

Thus, the surprise was total.

"And what do you think you're doing, trotting around out here instead of being helpful inside?" Yoshino demanded, when they were within only a few feet.

Arisawa stopped, his back stiffening.

He turned around, slowly.

"Ah, young mistress," he said, voice muffled, his moustache and scarf combining to hide a good part of his expression, bowing formally.

He pulled his scarf aside so he could speak clearly.

"Uchida-san," he said, voice clear, bowing to Uchida in turn.

"I was just taking a short walk to prepare for my drive ahead," he explained. "But if you would prefer I go back inside…"

Yoshino crossed her arms, a maneuver which never failed to remind her that there was a lot more on her chest nowadays—though not as much as she wished. Damn that Uchida.

"Don't be disingenuous," she said. "I am well aware you're avoiding me. What's all this 'mistress' business about? You and I both know you are the only person who would ever think to set up something like this."

Arisawa pulled at his moustache, an expression of slight chagrin making it onto his impressively impassive face.

"I thought it would be useful in making an impression on your friends," he said. "Now that we have a chance to prepare. So that they remember certain things."

"And this spectacle wouldn't?" Yoshino asked incredulously, gesturing with her arm at the giant mansion behind her, almost hitting Uchida square in the face; Uchida dodged, exclaiming.

"Sometimes it is the little things that matter," he commented.

She kept her eyes on him.

"The others agreed with me, after all," he defended. "I could hardly do something like this unilaterally."

"Look, I am aware you do not approve of them," she said, leaning forward, glaring at him. "But was this bit of theater really necessary?"

"Perhaps not," he said, tugging again at his moustache. "But is it really such an important matter? It is only a change of habits for one day, and makes this household a bit less anomalous. Think of the deleterious effects on morale, were you to order a reversal."

"It makes a mockery of my authority," Yoshino said harshly, twisting her lip.

Arisawa blinked at her, genuinely shocked.

"—or that's what I would say," she finished, relaxing her false expression. "If I were 'less anomalous'."

She uncrossed her arms.

"Very well," she conceded, "you win this round. But I will enact my revenge, mark my words."

Arisawa recovered from his discomfit, smiling slightly, moustache shifting.

"Indeed," he said. "I wouldn't expect any less."

Uchida rolled her eyes dramatically.

"Anyway," Yoshino said. "On to other things. You have the route and plan clearly understood?"

Now that the exciting part was over, she felt the chill air stinging her neck and face. She hadn't had time to add the customary earmuffs, scarf, or gloves to her outfit. At her side, Uchida was already shivering slightly.

"Of course," he said. "We have been over this. It is my job."

"Humor me," Yoshino said. "Describe it to me one more time."

Arisawa frowned slightly.

"I do not mean to be forward," he said, "but it is not really necessary for you to involve yourself in all these details so often. It is our profession, after all, to spare you from having to worry about it."

She narrowed her eyes, made a displeased noise, and crossed her arms again.

"Alright, alright," he said, making a concessionary hand gesture.

He cleared his throat.

"At the agreed-upon time of three thirty, I will depart from here on the route I have well-memorized, but stored on the GPS just for safety. Just before I reach each of the locations, I will find a place to stop and phone ahead, to ensure that they are ready. If and when they are, I will drive to the most evident and convenient possible location to receive them. As for the persons involved, I am receiving, in this exact order, the girl with the family problems, the boy with the clothing issues, the non-male paramour of the first girl, and another boy with…with no distinguishing features I know about. Yet. In addition, I am told the parents of Uchida-san here"—a slight bow—"have been asked to attend, but that they will find their own way to the front gate just before five, at which time they will be allowed to park their vehicle in the carport. I believe that covers everything?"

He said all this in one rapid and continuous pronouncement, leaving no openings for comment.

Yoshino made a sour face.

Well, at least he didn't know everything.

"Yes. Yes it does," she said. "But as you well know, a good portion of those details are not of the sort that should be spoken in public."

"But this is hardly public," he pointed out, indicating their isolated location. "And it helps me remember."

"Don't push it," Yoshino warned, glaring. "I'll have you know, this increases the severity of my eventual revenge."

She rubbed her hands against each other.

"In any case," she said, huddling herself slightly. "Now that we are done with this, you may as well go inside and be warm. I believe they need assistance in the dining room."

"Very well," Arisawa said, bowing one final time, and walked past them toward the house.

They turned to watch him.

"You have to admit, though," Uchida said. "Was it really necessary to make him repeat all of that? It's pretty obvious stuff."

"I have to keep him on his toes," Yoshino explained, already moving, eager to get back in the warmth of the heater.

"Until I think of some way to get back at him, anyway," she finished.

A jolting impact struck the back of her head, sending her stumbling forward.

A second later, her mind caught up with the situation. A large, cold and wet mass had struck her on her occipital bone, sending her head forward, and almost causing her to lose her balance entirely. Her hair was soaked in the back, and shards of ice had flown downward onto her neck, immediately melting into freezing water. The only conclusion was…

She processed all this in the time it took her to regain her balance and spin around to look at the apparent source, ears still ringing.

Uchida held her hands behind her back, standing in a casual pose, eyes focused on an arbitrary tree branch to her left—the very picture of feigned innocence, suffering only from the critical flaw that there was no one else within at least fifty meters.

"You bas—" she began.

Uchida abruptly dropped her innocent expression, adopting a manic grin instead. Acting on instinct, Yoshino dodged rightward, turning her dodge into a dive and roll in the snow when she spotted the flash of Uchida's arm rising.

The missile badly missed her, her assailant not expecting such a proactive reaction from her.

In the act of rolling, Yoshino had picked up far more snow on her person than she could have possibly received from the snowball, but it was the principle that counted.

Besides, she had used the momentum to scoop snow off the ground with one painfully cold, ungloved hand. Using long-dormant reflexes, she packed it with a smack into her other hand, recovered into a crouch, and hurled it nearly point-blank back, all in a series of fluid motions.

This struck Uchida square on the side of the head, staggering her.

Yoshino used co-opted fighting skills, reflexes borne of a necessity she rather disliked remembering. It was something she had preserved all the years since then, honed by year after year of snowball fights.

Similarly, Uchida was no slouch either, taking only a moment to clear her head before dodging behind a tree trunk, escaping a second such projectile.

And so it went.

"What are you two, six?" Yoshino's mother-of-sorts asked rhetorically, bandaging Yoshino's scraped right knee. "What if one of you caught a cold? Some party that'd be! You could have at least come back and gotten some proper protection first!"

"We'll be fine," Yoshino insisted, inspecting her damaged palms. "It wasn't that cold. Really."

It was a lie, but one that was necessary. Besides, they should be fine—

Uchida sneezed loudly.

"You see?" her mother pointed out. "Do we really have to go through this routine every year?"

Yoshino glared at Uchida accusingly. Uchida looked back apologetically, sniffling slightly.

Uchida turned out to be fine, though she gave the two of them quite a scare.

Arisawa arrived back fifteen minutes before five, exactly on time. She and Uchida, plus her mother, met the other four at the door to the carport, where they were hastily shedding their varied winter coats and boots, looking a bit nonplussed at the servants appearing to whisk everything away. Arisawa tipped his cap and disappeared into the hallway.

Yoshino took a moment to regard the four of them, seated among bags that looked like gifts.

Makoto, thin and barely taller than Uchida, not as nervous-looking as he used to be, still carried that aura that gave people to urge to call him "baka". Nothing about him today gave away the possibility of an alternate persona, though, as always nowadays, he kept his hair a bit longer than might be normal.

Touma, tall and impressive, finally seemed to have found a limit to bodily growth—for now, anyway—and was struggling to get her left boot off, grimacing. Abandoning a brief flirtation with something longer, her hair was now a shorter mirror of Yoshino's own, the bangs hanging in front of her eyes. From this angle, Yoshino could see the necklace she had taken to wearing a few years back.

Chiaki, crouching, helped to tug at the aforementioned boot. Her hair was as luxurious as always, in her current posture nearly reaching the floor. Her face wore the same half-cynical, half-sleepy expression as always. Exactly as tall as Yoshino, she had somehow missed out on the family genes when it came to chest size, a fact which she never let Touma forget. Secretly, Yoshino was appreciative; she didn't want to be isolated on the low end of the spectrum.

Finally, Shuuichi, indescribably plain, looked a bit awkward and out-of-place, like always—as well he might.

Initial greetings and formalities were warm, but immediately afterward, things settled into a long uncomfortable silence, the four new guests glancing at each other awkwardly. Something seemed to be up.

She opened her mouth to ask—

"Alright, let's just get this disaster over with right now," Touma said decisively, taking charge.

"Disaster?" Uchida asked.

Looking slightly upward, Yoshino saw her mother raising an eyebrow, then realized she herself had made the same gesture. It was probably where she had learned it.

"Show them what presents you got," Touma ordered.

Yoshino frowned.

"It's kind of early," Yoshino began. "I had things scheduled—"

"I got cupcakes from that store by the freeway," Chiaki said, holding up a bag with a box inside, sounding annoyed rather than pleased at her gift, eyes looking off at a distant corner of the room.

"I—I also got cupcakes," Makoto said nervously, eyes downcast, holding up his gift.

I swear he's afraid of me, she thought. But that doesn't make any sense, does it?

Shuuichi, in contrast, looked her more or less in the face. However, he didn't sound any less embarrassed, holding up his bag and saying:

"Yes, well, I, uh…also with the cupcakes."

His expression was classic.

Yoshino's mother converted a laugh into a cough.

Yoshino suppressed her own laugh, then elbowed Uchida in the side without even looking.

"I myself got Earl Grey tea," Touma said, isolating herself from the other three with her body language. "I told them we should have coordinated, but no, Chiaki said, it should be spontaneous—"

Chiaki, in turn, elbowed Touma sharply, causing her to double over slightly.

"No, it's totally fine," Yoshino reassured. "You didn't have to get me anything anyway."

"Yes, it's completely fine," her mother echoed. "After all, one can never have enough, uh, cupcakes."

"True that," Uchida agreed, nodding seriously, not realizing the statement had been intended as a joke.

Yoshino glanced around at the others.

"Well, then! Why don't we go in?" Yoshino said cheerily, ending the topic before it could drag on awkwardly.

In her haste, then, she forgot to shield herself from her imminent embarrassment, realizing her mistake only when they had already reached the main complex of rooms.

"Ojou-sama?" Touma asked, looking at Yoshino curiously, after hearing the term used a couple of times in row.

"Yes, well," Yoshino said, doing her best to suppress any indication of embarrassment on her face, not entirely with success. "It's just a bit of theater for today. Nothing you should take seriously."

It wasn't really an explanation, and she knew it.

"Sort of like, uh, hime-chan, you know?" she added jocularly. "It's—"

She stopped. She had regretted the analogy even before she said it, but her brain had protested far, far too late.

Shit, she swore privately, as she never did out loud.

At her side, Chiaki's eyes narrowed. The others shifted subtly away from the two of them.

"So that's how it is, huh?" Chiaki said, voice low and dangerous. "Every day, at school, it's hime this, hime-chan that, but I thought I could rely on you, of all people, to never call me that. You, of all people."

"I'm disappointed, you hear me?" Chiaki accused loudly, turning to glare at Yoshino, scornfully, right in the face. Chiaki stood on the balls of her feet to gain height, forcing Yoshino back a step.

"Hey, c'mon, let's—let's not get angry about something like this. Surely she didn't mean it," Makoto said nervously, grabbing Chiaki by the shoulder, trying to insert himself in between the two of them. Yoshino was impressed by his courage.

"I'm not angry," Chiaki said, voice carefully calm, retreating from her aggressive posture. "I'm disappointed."

"It was an analogy!" Yoshino defended, deploying a hastily improvised explanation. "I wasn't calling you that! I was sympathizing with you. Think about it! With all these ojou-sama's flying around, I totally understand how you feel. It's not like it was my idea!"

"Oh," Chiaki said, tilting her head, pausing.

"Well that makes sense," Chiaki said, a bit flummoxed. "Sorry for doubting you."

Shaking her head to show no harm done, Yoshino shooed them into the dining room and thus into the main rooms. Uchida fell behind the rest of them, dropping her speed near the long table. Yoshino slowed down to see what the girl wanted.

"Think before you talk," Uchida said to her, sotto voce, face straight, concealing the pleasure Yoshino knew dwelled underneath. It was, of course, a version of her own exasperated, oft-expressed advice to Uchida.

"Shut up," she said.

Uchida's parents arrived shortly afterward, responding to an invitation by her mother, the three of them having developed a natural working relationship with regards to their respective daughters.

They had of course visited before, so they didn't spend as much time as they might have gaping at the furniture in astonishment. Still, they didn't perfectly conceal the fact that they could quite easily feel the wealth oozing from the walls.

The three of them walked into the room, talking excitedly, and settled into one of the corners of main room. Yoshino eyed them warily. From their body language, Yoshino knew exactly what they discussing.

Teenage daughters, of course. What else?

Yoshino excused herself from her friends and walked over, partly to try and overhear something, but mostly just to get them to stop talking. It made her nervous.

"—we were just talking about that the other day," Uchida's father was saying, not noticing her approach. "It really is a good thing they're both girls, otherwise I don't know what—"

"Look at this," Yoshino's mother said, interrupting him loudly, holding up a bottle of wine wrapped in a little bow for Yoshino to inspect. "Bordeaux. We're going to have to ask the cook, but I'm sure it's a good wine."

Yoshino wasn't sure either, but nodded.

"We thought it'd be a good idea to get your, uh, well get her a gift," Uchida's mother said, smiling up from her seated position. "And for you…"

She dug around in her purse for while, before coming up with a small, bound picture book.

Yoshino eyes widened, but she tried to conceal her apprehension. Photographs: her mortal enemy.

"We thought you might like a copy of all the pictures we've taken of you and Uchida over the years," Uchida's mother said, holding it up. "I realized we'd never given you any. We asked Uchida to help us put it on the computer, but you know how it is, asking them to do things for you…"

She glanced at Yoshino's mother, who nodded sympathetically, though Yoshino was sure she had no good reason to do so.

Yoshino knew it wasn't mere flakiness or procrastination on Uchida's part, no matter what her parents might be fooled into thinking.

Before her mother got a chance to reach for it, Yoshino snatched the album up, glancing through it rapidly for anything she wouldn't want seen, even while pretending that that wasn't what she was doing.

It was pretty tame stuff, she decided, all pictures she had seen before. Elementary school graduation, a trip to the beach, a trip to an amusement park, a picture of Uchida holding up her middle school entrance exam results proudly, other hand formed into a thumbs-up right in front of the lens, Yoshino's face accidentally visible in the top right of the frame.

She stopped, a look of consternation crossing her face, rapidly suppressed. She quickly sifted through the rest of the pictures and made a snap decision.

She'd just have to bear it. Some embarrassing stuff, but nothing she could justify hiding—or burning.

"When did you take this picture?" she asked, turning the album around, pointing at one of the worst offenders. The three adults leaned in for a closer look.

"Oh, that," Uchida's mother said, with amusement. "What was that, last year?"

She glanced at her husband for confirmation. He nodded.

"I just thought you two were so cute!" she explained. "So I grabbed the camera and took a quick shot."

She laughed a little, self-satisfied. Yoshino's mother chuckled a little, but seemed…less amused than Yoshino had thought she would be.

Yoshino filed that observation away, for inspection as soon as possible.

Yoshino turned the album back around, looking at the picture. It wasn't that bad, she decided.

Late summertime, just before the end of break. They had slept on Uchida's floor, on mats, for some relief from the heat. This was a picture of the two of them, sleeping in opposite directions, limbs asprawl, each of them with one foot firmly jammed in the other's face, but asleep nonetheless.

She did the mental equivalent of a shrug, reconciling herself to the prospect of her friends seeing this. Perfectly fine; where else could she possibly sleep at Uchida's place? And surely they'd all done embarrassing sleep postures at some point in their lives.

Her mother looked thoughtful, but before she could say anything, Arisawa showed up out of some mysterious corner to whisper something in her mother's ear. The woman nodded.

"I'm sorry," she said, nodding at all of them. "I've got something to do just now. Excuse me."

The woman hurried off.

"Thank you," Yoshino said, addressing Uchida's parents. "I, er, do you mind hanging onto this and showing it to her some more when she gets back?"

She held the album out in her hand. Uchida's father nodded and took it.

Yoshino started to head back to the others, seated around a table in the middle of the room, but then had an idea, stopping in front of them.

Why not do the violin thing now? She thought.

She had decided it might be reasonable to play the violin for them a little. Nothing too long or meaningful. Crowd-pleasers, like she did for the servants occasionally. It didn't have to be a problem, and would also be a welcome distraction from the pictures.

It had taken a week to convince herself to show something like that to her other friends.

She pursed her lips, considering.

No. Not yet. Instead, let's take a break for a bit, think about things a little.

She excused herself again, causing Uchida to raise an eyebrow, and headed off to climb the spiral stairs in the antechamber, deeper into the house.

In her room, she sat on her bed, peering into the middle distance, and considered her observations of the day.

The staff had mellowed over the years regarding her friends, whom they had begun to see more and more frequently. Their original muted objections had been on vague theoretical grounds, involving questions of class, and she wasn't surprised their disapproval had fallen away over time. Today, she hadn't heard so much as an indirect aspersion cast at them.

It was a stupid objection anyway.

I should have started bringing them here a long time ago, she thought.

Arisawa was tougher. The man knew too much, and had other, less theoretical reasons to disapprove. He was also altogether much too wily.

Still, he confined his disapproval of her friends to occasional comments and elaborate subterfuge, which he found strange enjoyment in. She supposed he had earned it, after all these years. He was only trying to give advice, in his own peculiar way. It wasn't a big deal.

For now anyway. His reaction, overall, boded ill in certain aspects.

Her mother, for her part, had never registered even the slightest hint of unhappiness with her choice of friends, even though she knew almost as much as Arisawa did.

Yoshino suspected this meant very little, however. The woman was pretty much inscrutable when it came to things like this. She supposed one did not spend eleven years running a full household and raising a kid like her—especially raising a kid like her—without learning very well how to strategically withhold emotions.

She had no real evidence for her suppositions, though. Indeed, her mother was openly affectionate, playful, fussy, angry—whatever the situation called for.

It was just a feeling she had, then, a feeling that had grown progressively stronger over the past year or so. Her mother was hiding something.

If true, it had to involve Yoshino somehow. She doubted it was about her friends. Her mother didn't seem like the type of person who would hide it if she found Chiaki and Touma distasteful. More likely, she would say it straight to her face, matter-of-fact. Her mother's judgment would insist on that course of action, Yoshino was sure.

Her mother wouldn't hide something unless she thought it was truly better off hidden.

Earlier, on being shown the picture, her mother had slipped, or so Yoshino thought. Her mother's laugh had rang false. She had been thinking of something else, and then forced the chuckle out.

Was it my imagination? She thought. Maybe she was simply distracted.

What could it possibly be, anyway? Was there something she found disturbing about a picture of Yoshino and Uchida kicking each other in the face? After all, there was nothing—

Her train of thought screeched to a halt. She ground her teeth slightly.

Maybe, she thought. Maybe.

It still didn't make sense, not entirely, but it made just enough sense to be possible, even plausible.

There's no use dwelling on it, she thought. It's a premature judgment without more evidence.

But do I have any other explanation?

A few more minutes of fruitless introspection later, she turned gladly to the next topic.

Uchida's parents knew nothing of importance, she was sure. If nothing else, Uchida's father's comment earlier had established that. Unless the waters here ran much deeper than she thought they did.

She lay down on her bed, feeling suddenly tired.

Cycles upon cycles, wheels within wheels…I'm going to drive myself crazy someday if I keep thinking like this. But what else am I supposed to do?

What the hell am I doing moping around like this at my own birthday party? Another part of here pointed out.

She jumped straight off her bed, tossing all of it aside. She was determined to go back to having fun.

I can be decisive when I want to be, she thought.

When she returned to the main room, she found every single one of the guests crowded around a large photo album, a different one, far too large to be the gift from Uchida's parents. Her mother was among them, pointing at various sections of it.

Yoshino knew instantly that she had been out-maneuvered, in her distraction.

Uchida stood up and ran over, spluttering.

"They—they—" she began, pointing in the direction of the group.

"I know," Yoshino said, grabbing Uchida's shoulder reassuringly. "Which one is it? The new one?"

"No!" Uchida said, eyes wide with distress. "It's the one with the costumes! You know, from back when…"

Uchida made several nervous gestures at once, but Yoshino was already walking forward, dreading what was to come.

No hope, she thought, feeling momentarily numb.

"Yuka," Uchida's mother said, looking up. "Why didn't you ever tell us about any of this? You two are so adorable!"

Mortified, Uchida blushed and dodged behind Yoshino, using her as a shield.

Yoshino glanced everywhere around the room, at Uchida looking timidly over her shoulder, at a servant standing at attention next to the doorway—but watching them with obvious interest—at the collection of snack foods on the table. Everywhere, that is, except at the inquisitive, smirking looks of her friends, whose expressions she dearly did not want to see.

"Ah, well, that's, I, uh, it, um—" she stammered, tongue-tied for the first time in a long, long time.

"I had no idea you were so literarily-inclined," Chiaki said, eyes serious, looking slightly betrayed. "Why didn't you ever say anything? We could have talked…"

"These really are cute costumes!" Makoto said, head still down, forgetting himself for just a moment.

"I mean, look at all this," Touma said. "Is this one Romeo and Juliet?"

Yoshino stood, stock-still, feeling the blush crawl its way up her neck and into her cheeks, despite every effort to repress it.

A loud "click!" next to her shocked her out of her stupor. One of the butlers, the one assigned to photography, to her right.

She turned and gave said butler the harshest glare she could manage. He fled precipitously.

She felt rather than saw Touma smirking mockingly at her.

Revenge must taste quite sweet.

Oh, to hell with it, she thought.

She made a gesture of absolute dismay, no longer bothering to hide her distress at all.

"Was this—did you have to show them this? Was it really necessary?" she demanded of her mother.

The woman made an innocent expression, pursing her lips.

"Well, they are adorable pictures," she said. "And I realized I never did manage to show it to Yuka-chan's parents. Oh come on, it's not that bad!"

This last sentence was directed at Yoshino's decision to turn around and clutch the Uchida's arms for strength. Uchida didn't look any less horrified than she was at the whole thing, and, after a moment, clutched right back.

"Alright," Yoshino said, propping herself back up on Uchida's shoulders. "Alright. You've all seen it. I will humor you by telling you about all the plays and books. And then we will never speak of this again."

"As if," Touma muttered under her breath.

"Whatever!" Yoshino said, spinning back around, the mortification still on her face. "Sit down, shut up, and listen!"

Other than that, the party went quite smoothly. They talked and ate snacks, cupcakes and pudding. The cook really had pulled it off this year, and no wonder, as he himself had explained:

"Well, I did a little, er…what's the word…well, snooping around, and found out what they were doing to it. It was vinegar all along!

"Vinegar," she repeated skeptically.

"Balsamic, to be precise," he said. "Don't look at me! I didn't come up with the idea. But you agree it works, yes?"

A bit later on, the cook brought out his masterpiece of a cake, and for the first time in years some members of the audience—namely, the new ones—were sincerely amazed. They sang, and the photographer acquired yet more pictorial evidence of her blushing—evidence that would have to be destroyed later, she resolved.

In some aspects, it was just like every other year. After she blew out the candles, she grabbed the knife and divided the thing into perfectly apportioned pieces. She received a book of haiku from her mother and a pair of clip-on earrings from Arisawa. Perhaps, this year, she might finally get hers pierced. Probably not, though.

In other respects, it was completely different.

They played video games for a while, staring up at the giant television in one of the side rooms, and she helped to peer-pressure Chiaki and Touma into accepting a turn-based system for using the console. By now, they all knew better than to adopt the intuitive victory-based system. Such a system would, of course, degenerate rapidly and irreversibly into Chiaki vs. Touma matches ad perpetuum.

Later, she took them into her room, where, before anyone had a chance to settle down, she immediately packed her violin back into its case and placed it back in her closet. They remarked at this, not even having been aware up until then that she played an instrument, but she shook her head and refused to comment.

Perhaps next year.

Then they left, Arisawa driving them back, Uchida staying behind. Yoshino waved goodbye, standing in the doorway, happy that she had blended the two worlds successfully, just a little.

Then she turned to go back in.

"I don't want to sound greedy or pushy," Yoshino said, a little tentatively, as she and Uchida walked through the hallways to her room. "But I was surprised you didn't get me anything this year."

"Of course I did," Uchida said, at first forcefully, then quietly. "Just…I thought it would be a little bit strange to give it in public like that."

Yoshino fought the urge to raise an eyebrow.

"I see," she said. "Where is it?"

"In your room," Uchida said.

Yoshino fell back a few steps, heart thumping suddenly in her ears, irrational as always.

Unsolicited thoughts pushed themselves foremost in her mind and, try as she might, she couldn't push them aside. She started to feel hot.

What could it possibly be? In her room?

"Well, come on," Uchida said, standing in her doorway, looking back at her. "What are you waiting for?"

She swallowed surreptitiously, then walked forward. It couldn't be. She was being stupid. There must be a simple explanation.

When she crossed the threshold, she felt a hand grab hers, pulling her forward. Her eyes widened—

And were instantly shrouded in darkness, covered by the brim of a hat. She felt Uchida shove something into her hand.

Surprised, she pushed up the hat brim with her left thumb, blinking at the…wooden pipe in her right hand.

"A Sherlock Holmes costume!" Uchida explained excitedly, clasping her hands like…well, like the schoolgirl she was. "To replace your old one. I've got the coat and stuff too, in my bag! You don't know how hard it was to find something like this. I'm sorry the hat is so big; I hope you like it!"

Yoshino started laughing at herself, quietly, shaking the pipe in her hand as if it contained actual tobacco. What other reaction was possible?

Uchida creased her eyebrows.

"Why are you laughing?" she asked, looking annoyed and concerned. "Is it funny? You don't like it?"

"No, no, I like it," Yoshino said hastily, waving her hand with the pipe, smiling uncontrollably. "I'm just surprised, is all. Why did you think you had to do this in private?"

Uchida frowned, in thought, not in displeasure.

"Well, I didn't know how you'd feel about the others seeing it. You're queerly private, about things like this. And then everyone would make you dress up, and take pictures of you…you don't like that."

Yoshino laughed slightly, nodding in acknowledgement. Of course.

Of course.

"Well, then, Watson," she said, putting on her best impression of the great detective, right down to the straightened back, stiff outheld arm, and spoken English. "If you do not mind, may I beg of you my coat?"

"Oh, of course, Holmes," Uchida said, failing to keep a straight face. "Just let me find it in my bag."

"Do you think we should take a picture?" Uchida asked, when she had the coat on. "Just for ourselves, I mean."

"Maybe later," Yoshino said, shaking her head. "I don't feel like it. I'm just trying it on."

"Fair enough," Uchida said, stepping forward to work on the top buttons of Yoshino's coat.

It was just the sort of casual gesture that should have flown right by, unnoticed, but her mind, already primed by her earlier inanity, responded eagerly once more.

The thumping against her eardrums was even louder and more insistent than it had been before.

She could feel Uchida's breath on her neck, the slight contact between their two bodies, could see far too much of where Uchida's shirt had slipped up her waist as she leaned over. It reminded her of all that was possible.

Her fingers twitched inside the sleeves of the overly-large coat. She grew increasingly aware of the sake she had hidden in her spare school bag. It was so close, and with just a little effort, just a tiny breach of morality…

A wooden tapping on Yoshino's door, quiet as it was, saved her.


Her mother's voice.

They turned, Yoshino pushing up the brim of her hat again, Uchida abandoning the buttons.

"Oh, come on," she protested. "It's not even ten."

"No, not that," her mother said, shaking her head. "Do you mind? I want to talk to you."

She addressed her statement pretty clearly to Yoshino, and Yoshino alone.

Yoshino and Uchida glanced at each other.

"Alright, just a moment," Yoshino said, taking off her hat and handing it, with her pipe, to Uchida.

"Only half an hour or so," her mother said, to Uchida, apologetic, as Yoshino shrugged off the coat.

Half an hour? Yoshino thought, with surprise. That's pretty substantial.

Uchida looked disappointed, but shrugged resignedly, crouching down to gain access to her bags.

"What is this all about?" Yoshino asked, as they strode diagonally down the hallway.

Her mother put a finger to her mouth, indicating silence. That only peaked Yoshino's interest more.

They slipped silently into her mother's room, closing the door behind them.

It was neat and orderly, fitting the woman's personality. Likewise, the personal effects carefully placed around the room made it clear whom it belonged to: on the desk, a framed picture of Yoshino as a toddler, carrying a shovel. Another framed picture, of the former head of the staff, the "Old Man", from all those years ago, also on the desk. A little clay pipe Yoshino had made when she was seven. On the wall, a framed certification of Yoshino's violin skills.

She had an office too, of course, befitting the chief servant of the house, but that was for conducting more formal business than talking to her beloved charge.

Her mother walked over to the desk and picked up a large stack of paper, covered with printed text and handwriting, then walked back over to Yoshino.

"I was going to wait a few years to do this," she said, handing it to her for perusal. "But I think it's alright now."

Yoshino took the stack, browsing through it as efficiently as she could. Bank statements, investment fund reports, letters from hedge funds, handwritten sheets containing what appeared to be passwords, addresses, phone numbers…instructions for accessing money.

"Do not under any circumstances lose any of this, ever," her mother said, looking at her seriously.

"What is this?" Yoshino asked.

Her mother smiled at her lack of understanding.

"Information about every single cent that belongs directly to you,"—by implication, not to her parents—"which includes the inheritance left to you by your, er, maternal grandparents and all the surplus money we've received from your parents. All of these are joint under my name and yours. I'm just giving you the ability to access it."

Yoshino looked through the sheets, wide-eyed. She was worth an enormous amount, just on her own, far more than she would have guessed, having never worried about it. And that—that was just a tiny fraction of what her biological parents must have.

She also reflected that they had shown an enormous amount of trust in her de facto mother, and in the now dead Old Man, to allow them some direct and free control over the money. That, in fact, her never-seen grandparents had also shown the same amount of trust. Joint accounts!

Though it was strange; why would they leave money to her directly, instead of to their daughter?

"I'll give it all to you solely when you turn twenty," the woman next to her said. "For now, I just think you're old enough to start knowing a little of this."

The woman's face gave no sign of all that she was still concealing: that the yearly remittance, while technically from her parents, was in fact more or less mandated by an outside authority, and that said parents had no control over the vast family fortune. That she herself had certain rights which made her more or less undismissable. That her maternal grandparents, perhaps moved by a little bit of familial feeling, had very good reasons for giving the money directly to the Old Man's care. That she kept her name on every single account, despite the suspicions it could raise, for a very, very good reason.

She did not trust them. Not at all.

Instead of revealing any of this, she smiled slightly.

"As you may have gathered," she said. "This is for your fifteenth birthday, so you can buy yourself something a little more extravagant. I just hope you're not stupid enough to now go blow all your money on racecars, or something."

Yoshino shook her head, smiling a little at the joke. Of course not.

"Anyway," her mother said. "While we're here, there's also something else, not about this."

Yoshino looked up from the sheaf of documents, to find her mother seated on the bed, signaling for her to come join her.

This was unusual, she decided. Consciously or not, the woman felt a need to get her in a seated position, full of implications of emotional attachment, before she said whatever was coming next. That couldn't bode well.

She sat down regardless. It wouldn't have made sense to refuse.

"What is it?" she asked, finding the documents in her hands somewhat unwieldy. What was she supposed to do with them? Hide them in her desk with her school papers? Hardly secure enough.

"Now that you're a bit older," her mother said, unusually hesitant, placing her arm around Yoshino. "Perhaps…perhaps it's time to drop this habit of sleeping in the same bed as Yuka all the time, hmm? I know you don't like it, but I mean, you're fifteen now. You're a bit old for that."

Yoshino's expression had frozen, and she turned her head only stiffly.

"What does it matter?" she asked, face a mask of unhappiness, heart turbulent. "It's not like anyone can see us."

"Well, it's just a bit of a childish habit," her mother said reasonably, looking her in the eyes. "And I just, er, well I just think it's time you stopped. Think about it. We can easily get Yuka a separate room. I mean, is it that big a deal?"

Her mother spoke with a careful combination of casualness and caution, her expression nearly perfect—but, knowing to look, Yoshino could see the flaws, the extra bit of concern in the eyes, the slight apprehension in her posture.

She imputed the things her mother would not say, the real motivation behind the request.

It wasn't normal, she was really saying. It was risky. Who knows what might happen if the two of you stayed like this? You might go too far someday. That would be a real problem. Best be careful.

It's too late, Yoshino thought.

She also had no reasonable grounds for refusing, she realized, not without revealing too much or starting an argument. More pertinently, she wasn't even sure what her side of the argument would be, just that she wanted to do everything in her power to avoid having it.

"Alright," she said, doing her utmost to conceal her despondence. "I'll consider it."

She knew she was only putting it off, but…what else could she possibly do? She was at a loss. Unable to talk to Uchida, unable to talk to her guardian, unsure what she herself even wanted.

She knew only that she wanted the future, with all its baleful consequences and uncertainties, to stay away somehow.

Her mother nodded and let go of her shoulder.

She walked slowly to the door, then back down the hallway, hearing her own footsteps resound on the wooden floor, the documents in her hand feeling like they weighed a thousand pounds.

"What's wrong?" Uchida asked when she reached her own room again, waiting for her in her pajamas, hair down and at her shoulders. "What's all that paper?"

"No, nothing," Yoshino said. "Nothing at all."

That night was a jumbled mixture of confused dreams, one on top of another, but only one really mattered. That one stuck to her memory, and woke her in the middle of the night.

She walked between the chairs, full of people standing up out of their seats, pouring into the aisles, desperate to leave, but refusing to move too far, every one of them looking for someone else in the crowd.

She knew, without looking around, what this was: her middle school graduation. It was one of those facts that one just knew in dreams, certainty without explanation, just like she had forgotten that this particular event wouldn't actually happen for another two months.

Another anomaly only possible in dreams: she was filled with bliss, for no reason at all. Walking forward, she was simply, undeniably, unbelievably happy. She felt at peace with the world.

Spotting who she was looking for, she turned and trod determinedly forward.

"Mom!" she yelled, waving, still walking, still smiling irrepressibly.

Her mother, who had been preoccupied peering around the room, turned to face her, a smile breaking out on her face. The woman spread her arms out for a hug, but thought better of it, and instead clasped her hands behind her back.

Yoshino held out her diploma, a cheap mass-produced piece of paper which she knew would be carefully stored away regardless.

Her mother took it and read it, sighing.

"When did you get this old, and this tall? I don't remember getting older…"

Yoshino's heart warmed at this cliché.

"You're not old," she said, giving her mother the hug she had refrained from earlier.

While she did, she thought about how long the day had been, how good it would be to get home, eat dinner, fight with her sister, sleep in her bed. How satisfying it would be.

"Where is your sister, anyway?" her mother asked, glancing at her watch, once she had let Yoshino go. "The family's waiting."

"Uchida?" she asked, slightly puzzled, frowning.

"Yes," her mother said. "Who else could I mean?"

Oh, of course. Her twin.

She felt herself furrow her brow.

Her sister? Twin?

That can't be right. How could I possibly dare—

Her eyes widened.

That remembrance, the intrusion of an actual memory into this false world, struck her like lightning.

"Is something wrong?" her mother asked, perturbed.

How could I do that to my own sister? She thought.

"I wouldn't!" she said out loud." I couldn't! How could I? I—"

Her eyes snapped open. It was still dark. Maybe three in the morning, if her internal sense of time could be trusted.

She spent a long time staring at the ceiling, clutching at the vestiges of the dream, listening to the metronome of Uchida's breathing next to her.

She had been so happy, she thought. So happy believing a fantasy like that. So happy believing that she had a family to go home to, instead of this torturous arrangement of parents who were never there, hired servants hovering over her, and a woman who was like an adoptive mother, only not.

Wistfully, she remembered the hug she had given her in the dream. There had been no hesitation, no anomalous subconscious twinge. Simply her mother.

Sometimes, in her weaker moments, she wished she really could get herself adopted, somehow. It would make things so much clearer—but of course that was impossible.

She thought about those sheets of paper hidden in her desk, eyes still seeing the images of her dream, her own personal paradise. All those yen, all those dollars, all those euros…how much did they really mean?

If she ever told Uchida, the girl would probably have an apoplectic fit. For a girl who spent so much time around her, she certainly responded strangely to money.

Yoshino smiled slightly at her own joke, but it failed to dispel the underlying issue.

She was far too old now to go crawling into her mother's bed—no, her chief maidservant's bed—and spend the night huddled at her side. Too old, even though she really wanted to.

So she turned over, and wrapped an arm around Uchida, whom she hoped would overlook, just this once, an improper gesture of intimacy. This would serve well enough as paradise, for one day.

My Yuka, she thought, the world finally starting to slip away…

The next day was still the weekend, a Sunday. That was helpful indeed.

"Good morning!" she greeted cheerily, stepping flamboyantly into the heated restaurant, Uchida in tow. Her piercing voice caused the patrons of the establishment to look at her curiously.

Next to the window, a suited man startled, nearly jumping out of his seat.

Good, he's here, she thought, smiling deviously.

"Par—party of two?" the greeter asked, a tad nervously.

"No, no," she said, again much louder than necessary. "We're just here to visit a friend of mine. He's over there."

She pointed straight at the man who had jumped, and who has now watching her like a deer trapped by a pack of wolves.

"He's not expecting us," she confided in a perfectly audible whisper, leaning forward. "But it'll be alright. We'll be needing menus, by the way."

The two of them walked past a couple of tables, occupied by customers watching them warily.

"Good morning, Arisawa!" Yoshino said, again loud, sitting next to the man, beginning the process of shedding her outdoor attire in the restaurants cozy warmth. She dropped her purse, and off came jacket, scarf, gloves.

"Yeah, good morning!" Uchida echoed, doing likewise, and sitting across from her.

Uchida had been well-briefed on the plan, which, simply put, was to act as obnoxious as possible. That was well within both their capabilities.

"What—what are you doing here?" Arisawa asked in a choked whisper, looking at her warily.

"Young mistress," he appended, a few moments too late.

"Oh, I just thought I'd pop in," Yoshino said, ignoring his hint to lower her voice. "Maybe eat lunch here. Why are you here, anyway?"

"Well, I have to wait somewhere after I drop you off," he whispered. "Though it defeats the purpose if you're here too. How did you—"

"Yeah, isn't it obvious?" Uchida interrupted. "This place is close to my house, so he must be here all the time. Duh."

She directed this at Yoshino, who played along.

"Don't 'Duh!' me!" Yoshino complained.

Uchida stuck her tongue out, making it quite audible. Yoshino returned the favor

"If it is your intention to eat here," he said desperately. "I should leave—"

"No, no," Yoshino refused, loud as the entire rest of the conversation. "We're here to visit you, obviously. I wonder when we're going to get our menus? Waiter!"

Arisawa fiddled with his own open menu, clearly having lost both his appetite and ability to focus on his lunch.

A waitress showed up with their menus.

"And who is this?" the waitress asked, companionably.

Yoshino was momentarily confused by the question, until she realized it was directed at Arisawa.

"Ah, well, these are, I mean, she is—" Arisawa stumbled.

"Oh, it's her!" the waitress said, turning to Yoshino and ignoring Uchida completely.

"Well it's nice to meet you, Yoshino-san," she added, bowing slightly.

Yoshino was still confused.

"And why didn't you tell me she was visiting?" the waitress asked Arisawa, wearing a stern expression, hand on hip.

"Well, I, uh—" Arisawa began.

"You know better than that!" the waitress interrupted.

Then she said one more word, a name, and Yoshino's eyes widened.

His personal name! They're on a personal name basis!

She glanced at Arisawa, to her right, looking quite embarrassed, then back at the waitress who, she realized, was quite pretty. A dark realization settled in on her.

How—how dare he! She thought, an unexpected amount of rage piping its way into her veins.

"Arisawa-san," she growled, giving him one of her coldest glares.

Arisawa visibly blanched.

"Young mistress, th—this woman—" he began.

"I know," Yoshino interrupted, voice cold with anger, surprised at the amount she had invested in this. She had no idea if her mother was even interested, after all.

"She's my sister! My younger sister!" Arisawa said, banging his menu on the table.

He said it nearly full-volume, even louder than Yoshino had been before, causing nearby patrons to openly glare at him.

"Oh," Yoshino said, genuinely embarrassed by her own jumping the gun. "I see."

"I get it!" Arisawa said, in a harsh whisper. "I've learned my lesson. It won't happen again! Let me have my lunch in peace!"

His sister looked very confused.

"Yes, I am his sister," she said, a bit worried. "Is something, uh—"

"No, no, it's fine," Yoshino said, waving her hand and speaking quickly to end the topic. "Sorry about that. Just a bit of confusion. Anyway, I'll just have the eggs and sausage, with some tea."

She pointed at something likely-looking on the menu.

"I'll, uh, have the same thing," Uchida said, a moment later.

"You don't want to look at your menus some more?" the waitress asked, still glancing at Arisawa warily.

"No, we're fine," Yoshino insistly, handing her their menus.

She looked at Arisawa, who indicated things were okay with a hand gesture.

"The usual," he said, handing in his menu as well.

She trod off, glancing backwards occasionally. The orders were simple enough for her to remember without writing down, especially since she had refrained from asking them a thing about customizing their meals.

"Happy?" Arisawa grumbled, looking at Yoshino, once his sister was out of sight.

"As a matter of fact, yes," she said smugly.

She started to say something else, but became conscious of a low buzzing noise.

"Ah, my phone," Arisawa said, reaching into his pocket, his composure already beginning to recover. "I apologize, but do you mind if I…"

Yoshino waved him on, then listened in briefly on his half of the conversation.


"Yes, she's right here."

His eyes shifted towards Yoshino, then snapped away.

Yoshino and Uchida glanced at each other as he listened.

"Why? Did something happen?" he asked into the receiver, looking confused.

"I—I see," he added, a long while later, his face transitioning from thoughtful, to surprised, to worried, to shaken.

"Well, I'll be seeing you," he finished, making a transparent effort to smoothen his expression and act casual.

He hung up and put the phone away. They looked at him curiously.

"What was that about?" Uchida asked, finally, when he didn't say anything. "

"Nothing important," Arisawa said, shrugging, but he didn't even do a half-decent job of faking nonchalance. He wasn't as good an actor as her mother.

"It was her, wasn't it?" Yoshino asked, watching his face carefully.

She didn't need to say who she meant.

"Yes," Arisawa admitted, knowing he couldn't hide it.

He paused for a moment too long.

"But like I said, it's nothing important."

"You are a horrible actor, Arisawa," she commented, rearranging her jacket on the seat. "We are going straight home after lunch to see what this is all about, whether you tell us or not."

She looked at Uchida for confirmation. Uchida nodded.

Arisawa grimaced.

"There is no need to change your plans, though—" he began.

"We have no plans," Yoshino said decisively, then smiled drily, looking at him. "We were only here to embarrass you, as you probably deduced. After that, we only intended to while away the hours at Yuka's."

"Then do that!" Arisawa insisted, with too much emotion. "You should—"

He stopped, looking at Yoshino's narrowed eyes.

"What is this about, Arisawa-san?" she asked, ice in her voice. "I can order you to tell me."

"I don't know!" he protested. "But the Boss recommends—"

"I know what she recommends," Yoshino said, in the same tone as before. "It's obvious enough from your demeanor. It's bad news, and she wants me to have my fun first. I know how she thinks. But that's not going to work, not now that I know something's up."

Arisawa winced, then looked down at the table.

"It was unfortunate you were here to see it," he said. "But I really do not know what is going on. I should not have been so obvious."

"That's okay," Yoshino said, voice suddenly gentle, well aware she was reassuring something more than twice her age. "It is unseemly for her to be deceiving me, in the first place. After all, technically speaking, I'm the 'Boss', not her."

She smiled amiably at her own joke. So did Uchida. Arisawa's mouth only twitched.

"So why did she call you?" Yoshino asked, leaning back into her seat. "She could have just kept quiet and not said anything, but instead, she calls you. That seems rather odd."

"Perceptive as always, young mistress," Arisawa said, sitting up, regaining a little of his typical aplomb.

He looked at her.

"She recommends that you not bring Uchida back today," he said gravely. "That is the reason she called. She wanted me to tell you that, whenever you chose to return."

Yoshino looked back.

"She sounded quite serious," he added, by way of argument.

Yoshino shook her head decisively.

"I know what she's thinking," she said. "But if it really is this serious, whatever it is, I want Yuka with me. Even if she has to stay outside the room while we talk."

He watched her.

"That is an order," she added, a moment later.

"Alright," he conceded, sighing and turning his head back to face front.

"She won't be happy with my performance here today," he said ruefully.

"Well, I won't let her fire you for this, trust me," Yoshino said sardonically.

With impeccable timing, the waitress returned, laying the dishes out in front of them.

She watched the waitress, thoughtful.

She prided herself on her ability to read people and situations. It had not failed her this time; she had made all the right deductions. But what did it mean? The situation was unprecedented, and her deductions told her that, whatever had happened, it must be unprecedented as well.

In the end, she left Uchida outside of the room.

Arisawa shut the door behind her with a dull thud, leaving her standing inside the threshold, breathing in the musty air. She had no doubt that both Arisawa and Uchida would immediately shift into whatever positions were best for eavesdropping through the door—though given the soundproofing of the room, she questioned whether they would actually manage to hear anything.

The office of her chief maidservant was one of the less desirable rooms in the house. While Yoshino's room and the dining room overlooked breathtaking panoramic views, and the servant's rooms all had agreeable views of various parts of the outside grounds, the office had no windows at all, firmly ensconced deep within the building. As such, it was a stuffy room, an atmosphere further reinforced by the dark furniture, the antique calligraphy scrolls hanging on the walls, and, most importantly, the multiple enormous shelves of books, inherited from the Old Man himself. All in all, it should have given the impression of a respectable old library, but instead it had a strange way of making her feel small.

It made no difference; her mother spent hardly any time in the room, and by extension Yoshino spent even less.

She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fragrance of old paper, and stepped forward.

"Why the formality?" she asked, approaching the desk where her mother sat peering at a sheaf of legalistic-looking documents under the soft light of an old-fashioned lamp.

"It seemed appropriate," the woman said, returning a thin smile.

Yoshino sat facing her, glancing at the only personal effect in the entire room, a small framed portrait resting on the dark wooden desk. Yoshino when she was seven, wearing a kimono. Children's Day.

"You're early," her mother said, smiling more genuinely, making an effort to dispel the oppressive atmosphere. "Too early."

"So it seems," Yoshino said.

The woman made a bemused gesture.

"I knew I should have hung up the moment Arisawa said you were there," she said, shaking her head. "There was no reason you had to rush back."

"Well, I couldn't enjoy myself anymore," Yoshino said. "Not with whatever this is hanging over my head like a Damocles sword."

Her mother closed her eyes at the reference. Yoshino could see, for the first time, that she was fighting quite a bit of emotion.

Just as Yoshino was about to speak, the woman sighed, leaning back in her chair, turning it slightly so she could gesture at the books behind her.

"You know," she said, eyes wistful, "when I first came here, I thought the Old Man was just an eccentric old butler who had spent way too long in this line of work."

The woman shifted in her chair.

"Don't get me wrong," she said, glancing at Yoshino. "It's just that most of us expect to get married, have kids—you know, live normally. A lot of the women, especially, expect to quit when they get married. Those who don't expect to retire on schedule, when they get old enough. There are very few who keep at it like he did."

Yoshino, who had her arm extended, about to tell her to get on with it already, leaned back in her chair, changing her mind. It was very rare for her mother to be in a discursive mood, so it probably behooved her to listen.

"Before he died," her mother said, "he explained it to me, all of it. Why he stayed, what he was trying to do. At the time, I only partially understood. I definitely understand now."

She looked at Yoshino out of the corner of her eye, and Yoshino read there that this was no mere mood. She was saying it deliberately, for her benefit.

"I promised him I would stay here, at least until you became an adult," she said. "It seemed like forever to stay, but I promised. I promised because…well I told myself I was a sucker for children, but I'm not sure, now, if that's all it was."

Yoshino blinked rapidly, holding back an expression of surprise. Her mother never talked about things like this. This was the first she had ever heard about it.

Her mother closed her eyes again, and Yoshino felt a strong glimmer of unease.

"Now," the woman continued, making eye contact for the first time. "Now I'm prepared to stay much longer than even that, if you'll have me."

Yoshino wondered what her face looked like then, whether it showed all that she felt and wanted to say.

While she struggled to form words, her mother interrupted her again.

"Do you remember convincing me you needed to move? Way out there, on the hillside?" she asked, changing topics radically.

"Of course I do," Yoshino responded, blinking with surprise.

"And it was your idea, right?"

Yoshino watched the woman's face carefully.

"Yes," she admitted. "Yes it was."

Her mother shook her head ruefully, smiling.

"It was a while before I realized just what had happened," she said. "I always knew you were special, but that—that was definitely something."

"I was right, though," Yoshino pointed out, sidestepping the flattery. "It's not like I tricked you or anything."

"Of course you were," her mother said.

"Just what is going on?" Yoshino asked, placing her hands on the desk, impatient, no longer able to restrain herself.

Her mother surprised her by gathering Yoshino's hands back together, holding them on the table in a gesture of intimacy.

"I want you to understand," she said, eyes intense. "I am not your mother. You know that. But whatever happens, I will be here. Marriage, kids, all of that—I'd give it up, if you needed me. Or I'd leave instead, if that's what you wanted."

Yoshino stared back, staggered.

"What are you—" she began.

Her mother patted her on the head affectionately.

"Allow me to get at last to the point," she said. "I hope you are ready."

Yoshino looked up at her, eyes wide, but the woman's face had already reconfigured itself into what was now an expression of cold fury.

"Your parents called," she said, voice icy, lapsing into what was clearly a prepared explanation. "Your real parents. It's the first time I've ever spoken to them, myself. I thought your mother was you, at first. Your voices are surprisingly similar."

Yoshino felt something inside her crumble. The future had not stayed away, after all.

"She wanted me," her chief maidservant said, no longer disguising the anger in her voice, "And you, to know that they have decided on a perfectly lovely high school for you to attend, starting this March—no more of this comingling with your lessers. They also wanted us to know that, since you have not been visible at any of the relevant social gatherings, they have arranged a set of marriage possibilities for you, and await only your opinion on whom you would prefer, so that they may begin negotiations."—the slightest of pauses— "And they also want to meet, maybe talk about the possibility of living together, something like that. So they say."

She spoke bitingly and sarcastically, but she hesitated at the end of the last sentence, stopping to gauge Yoshino's frozen demeanor. So, as expected, the girl detested even the last prospect.

Not that she had really expected otherwise, but, even so, she felt a certain sense of guilty relief.

Then she finished, still sarcastic:

"They seem to feel that they are being eminently reasonable. Well, I suppose they at least had the decency not to call yesterday."

Yoshino was scarcely able to process any of it, speechless, staring back at her as if staring more fervently would solve all of her problems.

The old-fashioned clock on the shelf ticked, its pendulum swinging, as the two of them peered into each other's eyes.

"If you want to resist," her maidservant began, on a calmer note, "that should be more than possible, if you play your cards right. As a first step, you can speak with them, as they ask for, at the very least to buy a bit of time—"

"Speak to them?" Yoshino exclaimed, incredulous, hands clutching her armrests with unfathomable anger. "Speak to whom? These—these perfect strangers who think they can just waltz in one day and dictate my life? No!"

"You must try—" the woman began.

"I refuse!" Yoshino responded, voice rising, right arm swiping the air. "Why on earth—"

"We would not win a direct confrontation!" the woman insisted, leaning forward. "You have to!"

She held up and waved the sheaf of documents she had been reading earlier.

"Whatever you and I think, however worthless they may have been as parents, they are still your legal guardians—until you are twenty, at least. In some countries, emancipating yourself would be as easy as showing the judge your bank account, but not here! Here, we also have to show negligence, and that is rather difficult since you are not exactly starving in the street."

"So what?" Yoshino demanded, rising out of her chair. "What can they do? Break their way in? If they come here, I'll throw them back out myself—if it doesn't make me too nauseous just looking at them!"

She glared back at her servant, daring her to contradict the idea.

"They could come here with the police and force their way in, for instance," the woman said, voice deliberate and calm. "Believe me, I've thought about this. I'm sure they could spin a convincing story about the malicious servants who have suborned their daughter with their lies. Alternatively, they could try to seize your assets, and starve you out. Like it or not, they have the legal strong hand. The last thing we want to do is trigger something of that sort."

"Joint accounts," Yoshino said, startled, the realization hitting her despite her nearly frenzied state of mind.

"Yes," her chief servant said, her lip curling slightly. "All these years later, my paranoia finally pays off. But it may not be a sufficient defense. A child's assets are her parents' assets, and I hardly have a right to any of it. It'd be years of court battles!"

With a twinge, the woman regretted having procrastinated so long on explaining the will to Yoshino. She could hardly do so now, not with the state the girl was in. But it was critical information.

I didn't think it would be that bad! she thought. I thought I could do it now. I should have known. I should have done so first.

"Then let the lawyers fight!" Yoshino said. "In five years, it will no longer matter!"

"Which does not fix the primary issue!" her servant said, standing up as well. "That they could force their way in here and take you at any moment!"

"And would they actually do that?" Yoshino demanded. "To think that they'd ever do something like that—"

"Do we really want to find out?" the woman retorted. "Everything up to this point suggests that they wouldn't hesitate for a second! They're more than crazy enough!"

Silence prevailed, briefly, as they both chewed over the prospect.

"They could hardly force me to marry, no matter what happened," Yoshino pointed out, for lack of a better argument.

"If you would just talk to them," the woman argued, lowering her voice, trying to drag the conversation back to a place of calm, "and show them your well-justified antipathy to seeing them, you might be able to talk them out of the school-switch, and can almost certainly talk them out of living together. And after that, it would hardly matter if you promised marriage to some random ingrate, since you could just cancel the moment you turn twenty. Just talk to them, and then if they refuse, then we can try something else. But first—"

The whole time, Yoshino just stood there, listening to the voice of reason try to wash over her soothingly, the rational part of her mind nodding along with the logic. But rationality was losing its grip on her, growing feeble just when she needed it most. In its place was a surging anger and hatred, appalled that anyone could even talk about this that calmly.

All it could remember was the five-year-old, mute, abandoned, different, worthless. The little girl, so, so lonely—

"Talk to that bitch!" Yoshino snapped, losing whatever grip she had remaining on her anger. "And that—that—screw them! As if I could convince them! No! I refuse! I'd rather drown myself in acid!"

"Yoshino!" her maid said, grabbing her by the shoulders. "You have to! It's the rational thing to do! You know that! It's the right thing to do, the mature thing to do."

In her distress, she tried to use Yoshino's surname, her well-worn method of exerting maternal authority, but in this case it was a dreadful mistake.

"Mature," Yoshino growled, almost spitting the word back in her face. "All my life, I have been mature, and what have I gotten for it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! It was a waste of my goddamn time!"

She wrenched herself out of the woman's hands, and staggered over her chair. She was beyond caring now what her face looked like.

With a gesture of inchoate fury, she turned, swung her arm, and struck the lamp off the table. Its cord caught and whipped out of the outlet, the stained glass lampshade striking the floor and shattering, followed immediately by the fragmenting of the ceramic base.

She stared at it, almost as appalled as her "mother", who watched her fearfully, petrified that she should show such anger.

"I am sorry about the lamp," she forced out, with all that remained of her self-control. "I—I'll get you a new one."

Then she turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, the walk turning into headlong flight before she was even out the door.

She shoved Uchida aside—Uchida!—and ran on, ignoring Nakanawa, who dodged hastily out of her way, not stopping until she was back on her own bed with her doors—both of them—locked behind her. She vented her anger on her blameless pillows, tears in her eyes.

Wherever they had been her whole life, they should damn well have stayed there.